Revolutions of 1848: A Social History

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Many books on 1848 tend to be heavily analytical. They focus on the connecting factors and underlying causes of the Revolutions, and thus tend to lose the narrative. Priscilla Robertson, however, fortunately takes the opposite approach. She focuses on a few of the major upheavals during 1848, and retells each of them as a single contained story.

Of course, it would be impossible to cover every single 1848 Revolution in one book. (“No one has ever numbered the revolutions which broke out in Europe in 1848” Robertson writes in the introduction. “…[But] there must have been over 50”.) Robertson therefore narrows her focus to France, Germany, the Austrian Empire (including a subsection on Hungary), Italy, and a short afterward on Britain and Ireland.

Even within these major countries, there were several different cities that experienced different revolutions. Therefore, in the section on Italy, for example, Robertson breaks it up by devoting separate chapters to Milan, to Rome, and to Venice.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Robertson is an excellent story teller, and she’s able to not only make the history come alive, but also to create a lot of suspense in the narrative. On the whole, it makes for enthralling reading.

The disadvantage, however is that every 75 pages or so you get pulled out of one story and have to work at getting yourself immersed into another. If you’re reading the whole thing straight through, it’s a bit jolting to go through the trouble of acquainting yourself with all the circumstances and actors in one revolution, only to find yourself yanked out and transported across the map into another set of circumstances and characters. The stories of the rise and fall of each different revolutionary government can start to feel repetitive after a while.

However, with a little bit of self-discipline, if you stick with the book I did find that I would gradually get immersed into each separate story. And because Robertson works so hard to recreate the feeling of those days, I had the pleasure of feeling like I was transported to several exotic cities in 19th century Europe. The reader of this book gets to spend time in revolutionary Paris, the student government in Vienna, Milan, Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, Dresden, various cities in Hungary, et cetera. (For someone like me who has never been to Europe, it was a great way to visit all of these cities vicariously).

There were a lot of emotions in the 1848 Revolutions, and Robertson does a good job of guiding us through them all. At the outbreak of the revolutions, we can feel the romanticism at each the dream of a utopian republic. “All schools of romantic thought had their day in 1848,” Robertson writes (p. 367).

Once the new governments begin to crumble, this early optimistic feeling all too quickly leads to despair, which Robertson also captures. Of the various people she quotes, perhaps the Russian socialist Herzen describes it most eloquently. “Half of our hopes, half of our beliefs were slain, ideas of skepticism and despair haunted the brain and took route in it. One could never have supposed that, after passing through so many trials, after being schooled by contemporary skepticism, we had so much left in our souls to be destroyed” (p. 96).

As often happens in history, the old order reasserted itself with astonishing brutality, and Robertson records several civilian massacres when the revolution fell.

1848 stands at the crossroads of history in more than one-way, and Robertson explores many of these. For one thing, 1848 represented the split between republicans and socialists. Under the old system, capitalists and workers alike felt themselves constrained by feudalism, causing the industrial class to often be at the forefront of the revolution. “1848 was the last time that business could seem radical” Robertson writes of the Vienna Revolution (p. 206).

Before 1848, most European republicans dreamed of a utopian fusion of the classes under a liberal republican government. “Only after the liberals won power did they discover that they were afraid of the workers; when the workers found this out, they turned to Marxian gospel” (p. 6).

1848 also saw the emergence of nationalism as a popular force. The desire for the various German and Italian states to unite as one country, as well as the desire for the independence among the various ethnic groups in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. As Robertson points out, the failure to resolve these matters in 1848 has been the cause of much of the bloodshed in the 20th century in the former Austria-Hungarian lands.

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Because the action in this book spans across a whole continent, it takes in its scope most of the prominent names of the time: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Bakunin, George Sand, Marx and Engels, Jacob Grimm, Metternich, Richard Wagner, Herzen, and Proudhon all figure prominently in this book (to list some of the bigger names). But there are many, many more names to keep track of. In each country we visit, we are introduced to the figures of the old regime, the moderates, the republicans, and the radicals. It’s a bit daunting keeping track of everyone, and it required a lot of going back to the index for me. Fortunately, the index in this book is excellent. So, if you don’t mind having to flip back and forth occasionally, it’s not a huge problem.

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A lot of popular history books recently are often advertised as having parallels to our current situation, or are recommended for leaders in Washington. But if I was controlling the reading list of Washington, I’d make sure to add this book. It shows the difficulties of creating republics in countries that are not used to democratic traditions, and how fragile those new republican governments can be.

(Of course, it has yet to be seen whether the United States is serious about creating democratic institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or simply establishing client states. But assuming the neo-cons are serious about building new republican governments, I think this book can help illuminate the mine-field they’re getting into.)

Interestingly enough though, this is not a recent book. It was first published in 1952. I’m not sure if any new scholarship on the subject makes it outdated now, but when I last in a major bookstore I saw it was still up on the shelves.

Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, (Princeton University Press, 1971).

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The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here

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The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here takes us on a dark journey through the intriguing history of pornography in the United States. Chronologically, the text details the birth of pornography beginning with the good ole “innocent” days of the 1950s to the current state of what is termed “violent porn”.

Looking back at soldiers returning home after World War II, Sarracino and Scott explain the era’s mantra of purity as being anything but. A culture saturated in post-war patriotism and the strongly divided gender roles of heroic men and June Cleaver women, paints a stereotypical backdrop of how most people picture this era. Though many of these stereotypes prove to be overwhelmingly true, this book debunks every myth of this time period as being just good old fashioned innocence.

Starting with the explosive trend of comic books amongst all ages and groups of people, their pictures and stories transition from super hero themed to young blonde women bound to a stake with breasts large and protruding, being saved from torturous Nazi villains (to reinforce patriotism and emphasize who were our enemies at the time) sets the stage for the desensitization of violence toward more (again at that time) scantily-clad women. Comic books paved the way for the mass production of MAMs (Mens Adventure Magazines) which included far more graphic and violent themes of torture. They also were a portal of sorts for the advertisement of sex manuals, lingerie, and hardcore porn.

MAMs can be thanked for their ability to enter the homes of Americans and begin raising what Sarracino and Scott call the “shock bar” by creating each issue more and more extreme. This extremeness is what the authors consider to be more closely related to porn in the present, rather than such tame porn (by comparison) as Playboy and pinup girl photos like those of Betty Page.

The importance of examining the history of pornography might help answer the big question the book asks: when did our society begin to accept violent porn, entailing largely violence toward women, and all of its many haunting facets (which are generously spared in this review, however not in the book itself)? While many clues lie in the history of pornography, pinpointing when we accepted pornography is far less chilling than pondering whether or not we will stop accepting it.

The authors do an amazing job of analyzing violence and sexualizing ingrained in our culture through media. Hot and current Internet sites such as MySpace and Facebook may well contribute to part of our desensitization and underline the peculiarity of how we view people and ourselves. In vain and comodifying ways, we have become addicted to looking at other people on the Internet. We are, in fact, obsessed with looking at screens that display other peoples’ lives, or updates of our own. In the same manner, many Americans are addicted to viewing pornography for its quickly paced “outdoing” of itself – in other words, raising the shock bar.

Sarracino and Scott, grippingly explain this obsession of seeing other people as being obsessed with taking pleasure in other peoples’ misfortunes. The text references Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears. We sexualize these two women whether they want to be or not, because of their identity as women. We extract any humanness from them and view them only for their sex. We take this further and we ridicule them for their body size, delight in their breakdowns, and get off on their mistakes. Though this is a mainstream example, it precisely parallels the flavor of pornography.

While the text intertwines stories, commercials, and highlights the lives of very influential people such as Madonna and Snoop Dogg, the authors also include astonishing statistics of how this process of sexualization influences young girls and women and the horrific ramifications of growing up in a “porned” culture will have on them for the rest of their lives. While the book argues that women will mainly suffer from these ramifications, it also emphasizes how other groups of people are affected. Devoting a large portion of the book to the Abu Grahib prisoner torture, the authors conclude that many of the acts and torture methods implemented were extracted directly from violent pornography.

The treatment of women and other people, for example Abu Grahib prisoners, mainstreams what porn has been doing all along. The beginning of the book discusses the notion of not noticing something when it becomes part of our everyday lives. This disturbing revelation is what is argued needs to be eradicated completely before it is embedded so far in us, that we do not even see it anymore.

A criticism one could make of the book is that when Sarracino and Scott discuss the mildness of amateur porn and porn made for women, they term this as being more erotica than actual porn. While this may be the case, the notion that people demonstrating sexual acts on camera or in photos still sexualizes them. And while the storyline of this form of erotica may be more enticing with emphasis placed on the realness of the partners (i.e. natural body shape, couples that are actually in a relationship with each other in real life), the fact remains true: these people are sexualized and are only viewed for their sexuality, no other reason. However, in looking at the broad scope of pornography, this small discrepancy is in fact not a target to attack. The authors themselves emphasize to the readers the gargantuan realm of pornography and make clear what we should prioritize for the removal of in our society: violent porn.

Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott, The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here, (Beacon Press, 2008).

Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama

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We are a month into the new administration of Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States. And while there has been a great deal of celebratory comments on this fact, we can ill afford to be comfortable about the realities surrounding racism in this country. Tim Wise, a long-time anti-racist activist, has just finished a very timely book that warns against becoming comfortable with racism while we are distracted by Obama’s election.

Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama continues the excellent work around the issue of White Privilege that Wise has pounded home in his books, articles, and public talks across the country. This relatively short book was written just after the November 2008 elections and consists of two essays.

In the first essay, Wise raises the issue of whether or not the election of a Black man as the President of the United States demonstrates that racism is no longer a deeply entrenched problem in this country. Wise emphatically responds to that question with a loud “no.” In fact, Wise thinks that the election of Obama could actually allow racism to morph into a more subtle form, what he calls “Racism 2.0.”

“Racism 2.0” could be manifested in the dominant culture celebrating individual Black achievement, but continuing to ignore or demonize the majority of Blacks and other minorities in the U.S.. Since Obama is articulate, presents himself “well,” and has not as of yet discussed the contemporary problem of racism, people might want to use him as a standard for all other Blacks. Therefore, anyone who makes racism a central part of their critique of America might be more easily dismissed, since the most powerful Black man in America doesn’t appear to have any major problems with it.

Wise supports this notion of “Racism 2.0” by presenting lots of data and examples of how Blacks and other minorities are still being systematically discriminated against in the areas of housing, health care, education and income. With a Black man occupying the White House will we be less inclined to say that racism is still alive and well in America? Maybe those minorities who make less and don’t go to college do so because of their own inability to make gains in society. These are the potential rationalizations that White society might make now that we are in the age of Obama.

The second essay is entitled “The Audacity of Truth: A Call for White Responsibility.” In this section of the book Wise makes a clarion call to those of us in the White community to take on the responsibility of addressing White privilege and racism, to listen to what people of color have to say, and to be willing to honesty investigate this country’s history as it relates to what White people have done to people of color.

Wise uses the example of what happened to Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Wright, when he chose to challenge and instruct us on this brutal history of White Supremacy. The author believes that we can only achieve racial justice if we honestly come to terms with the past.

Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama closes with a challenge to the White community to also discover and learn from the rich tradition of Whites who made racial justice their cause. From those who fought for abolition to those who participated in the Civil Rights movement, we need to see that White people are also a part of a legacy that has struggle for equality and against racism.

Tim Wise, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, (City Lights, 2009).

Global Warming for Dummies

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Honestly, I was quite surprised by this book. When I first saw it, I wasn’t really expecting that much. Perhaps it was due to my own impressions, but I just always associate the “For Dummies” series with books on how to use computers–not comprehensive introductions to scientific and political issues.

That said, Global Warming For Dummies is a solid introduction to global warming. The book looks at the science behind global warming, the causes, and potential solutions. Unlike much of what is seen in the media, there is no attempt to “balance” the discussion on global warming and the book gives no space to the arguments of so-called “skeptics” who doubt the reality of global warming, instead offering only a list of ten common arguments cited by skeptics and explanations why those arguments are wrong.

One of the major strengths of the book is that presents the science on global warming in an easy to understand format, even for those without strong science backgrounds. The science in the book is based on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (http://www.ipcc.ch/), which is a synthesis of all current science on global warming. It is on this basis that the book rejects the arguments of global warming skeptics, as the IPCC has stated that there is a 95% certainty that humans are causing global warming. The book looks at causes of global warming, explains greenhouses gasses, looks at sources of emissions, and examines other related topics. This is all presented in a clear and concise manner, with ample illustrations to help reinforce and explain the key points.

Along with the discussion of the science and an explanation of the problem of global warming, the book spends a fair amount of time looking at the potential solutions. It discusses global attempts to address the problem–for example the Kyoto Protocol–as well as efforts made by individual countries or groups of countries (i.e. the European Union). It also talks about efforts undertaken by mayors and governors. Global Warming for Dummies looks at political solutions–such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs–as well as technological solutions that can be used to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Throughout these discussions, the book is critical where it needs to be and emphasizes the need–as argued by the IPCC–for substantial cuts to emissions.

In addition to the focus on large-scale emissions, the book includes a wealth of information on individual actions that can be taken to lessen global warming. Much of this focuses on the usual–reducing the amount we drive, conserving energy, and other common ideas–but there is also the occasional surprise, such as encouraging people to consume less meat (a major contributor to deforestation and methane emissions). It includes this without over-emphasizing individual ways of addressing global warming, which is a common trap that many environmental books fall into.

Overall, this is one of the more readable introductions to the topic of global warming. Global Warming for Dummies succeeds in making complex science easy to understand, inspires people to take further action, and provides a number of annotated lists of additional resources.

Elizabeth May and Zoe Caron, Global Warming For Dummies, (For Dummies, 2008).

Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause has Gone Bad

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In Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, Christine MacDonald–a journalist and former media relations employee at Conservation International–presents an unsettling critique of the United States’ largest conservation organizations. MacDonald did a two-year stint at Conservation International–her so called “dream job”–yet quickly became disillusioned by what she experienced. She uses her own first-hand experience as well as additional research to present a lengthy critique of Conservation International, The Nature Conservatory, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Excessive Salaries and Globe Trotting Lifestyles

The first half of Green, Inc. looks at how the big conservation groups function. MacDonald argues that they have come to represent corporations more than their activist past, with CEOs making high six figure salaries and while flying around the globe for meetings. She points out that while many see environmentalists as leaning to the left, the conservation movement started as a hobby for the rich. This has continued in many ways, with wealthy donors supporting the work of conservations who in turn dedicate their efforts to preserving “scenic” areas rather than doing the kind of grassroots environmental work that people picture when they think of environmentalists.

Nowadays, many conservationist leaders are well at home hobnobbing with wealthy donors and courting corporate executives to fund projects. MacDonald provides many examples of corporate executives sitting on the boards of conservation groups and conservationist leaders–often called CEOs–working to “woo” big donors. Moreover, she argues that these donors don’t simply want to support the work of the groups; they want something in exchange for their money. For example, a corporation might want to appear “green” while their actions indicate the opposite reality. She also explores how many of these organizations place an incredible emphasis on fundraising and often place their fundraising goals ahead of their activism.

Disturbing Relationships with Corporations

In the second half of the book, MacDonald argues that big corporations have largely been unwilling to address global warming and environmental catastrophe and that big environmental groups have been all to willing to work with many of these companies. At the center of this discussion is the idea of “greenwashing.” She says that companies often establish relationships with conservation groups to give the perception that they are concerned about the environment while they continue to pollute. She looks at the relationship between conservation groups and oil companies, mining companies, and Wal-Mart. She also delves into a discussion of “green building” and the limits of those efforts. Finally, MacDonald looks at how big conservation groups have acted as imperialists in the global south and how they have often functioned as accessories to projects that displace native peoples. Overall, she outlines a pretty upsetting picture of conservation groups’ complicity with all sorts of reprehensible actions.

Short on Solutions

Unfortunately, MacDonald offers few solutions to many of the problems that she outlines throughout her book. In the epilogue, she discusses how in some countries nonprofit leaders are volunteers, discusses the possibility of capping executive salaries at $100,000 per year, and even implementing term limits on nonprofit leadership. She also suggests that there be limits on the number of corporate executives on boards and also increased guidelines and disclosure of funding sources. This would all great–but it’s unfortunately quite unlikely and she makes no reference to specific steps that could make this a reality.

The other half of the epilogue discusses “our individual roles” in environmental problems, and advocates withholding membership fees to big conservation groups and instead asking retailers critical questions about where their products come from. While this is good practice, I’d say that it is more likely that a group of people–perhaps organized through a conservation group that has reformed its ways–would have more success. She further argues that corporations need to take serious steps and stop greenwashing, but she ignores the fact that they have a considerably larger role in ecological destruction than do individuals. I wasn’t convinced that asking questions as individuals and changing individual behavior could be as effective as coordinated actions aimed at those most responsible for environmental destruction.

A Worthy–Albeit Flawed–Read

Even though its conclusions were a bit frustrating–both in terms of the ineffectiveness of the big conservation groups and the lack of concrete solutions–Green, Inc. was an interesting and eye-opening book. It’s a good reminder that progressive activists can get complacent, distracted, and move away from the work they should be doing.

Christine MacDonald, Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, (The Lyons Press, 2008).

How to Watch TV News

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How to Watch TV News is a revised edition of a classic book originally published in 1992. Neil Postman, a well-regarded media theorist, and Steve Powers, a longtime broadcast journalist, wrote the first edition to convince people that anyone relying exclusively on TV news was getting a “vastly distorted picture of the world.” Now Powers has updated the book to provide a wealth of new details, including a discussion of “new media” and the role of television in the current media market.

An Inside Look at the News

How to Watch TV News brings readers behind the scenes of news broadcasts and news stations, exploring how television news is produced and what the underlying motivations are. Central to this discussion is the fact that television news is immensely profitable for networks and local TV stations. The authors compare the price of news programming to producing original television programs, showing that it is considerably cheaper to produce news programs. Moreover, the authors look at the demographics of who watches the news, arguing that the news audience is a highly sought after demographic for advertisers. The book also explores the relationship between commercials and the news, arguing that news is in many ways simply a platform for delivering an audience to advertisers.

Beyond the discussion of news, the authors present a comprehensive picture of how news programs are made. They go through the common jobs in news rooms, looking at reporters, anchors, camera people, assignment editors, and news directors (who get a whole chapter) and explain the process of how something becomes news. The authors also place considerable emphasis on the “show” aspect by discussing the importance of visuals and language in television news. They also look at the content of news programs, showing that they tend to include a lot of feel good stories and weather reports rather than detailed reporting.

What is to be Done?

Postman and Powers argue that we must all critically engage the media and that we not simply be passive consumers of media, which is what the television stations want. To that end, they suggest eight things that we must keep in mind when watching TV news:

  1. In encountering a news show, you must come with a firm idea of what is important.
  2. In preparing to watch a TV news show, keep in mind that it is called a “show.”
  3. Never underestimate the power of commercials.
  4. Learn something about the economic and political interests of those who run TV stations
  5. Pay special attention to the language of newscasts.
  6. Reduce by at least one third the amount of TV news you watch.
  7. Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have.
  8. Do whatever you can to get schools interested in teaching children how to watch a TV news show.

The book also argues that while the emergence of new news sources and technologies is rapidly changing television news, we will need to remain just as vigilant in evaluating those sources.

An Essential Read

How to Watch TV News is an absolutely essential read for anyone that either relies on or has ever relied on television news to make sense of the world. It’s simultaneously eye-opening and outraging, and it is packed with valuable insights into how a news room works and how commercial media decides what is “news.” Moreover, the authors ask larger questions about what that means for our society.

Neil Postman and Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News, (Penguin Books, 2008).

Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants

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It has been a few years since Rep. Sensenbrenner proposed draconian legislation known as HR 4437. His proposed legislation, which would have made being undocumented in the US a felony, was a major catalyst for mobilizing a new wave of immigrant justice activists in 2005-2006.

However, immigration rights and reform was a non-issue during the 2008 presidential election. Candidates steered clear of taking a position on what many saw as a “controversial” issue. Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, is an excellent book that reminds us of the importance of immigration as a justice issue.

Veteran writer and photo journalist David Bacon has spent years observing and writing about the harsh realities that face people who are part of the migrant stream coming from Central America and Mexico into the United States. Bacon combines the best of analysis with how US immigration policy impacts individuals and their families.

Illegal People is not so much a methodical look at how globalization creates migrants, rather it is a collection of essays and stories about people who have come from countries like Guatemala and Mexico after economic hardship as a result of trade policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA.

Bacon weaves throughout the book examples from US history of migrants who have been victims of racist immigration policy to those who have organized against this repression. The author draws the links between how the US treated Chinese immigrants in the later part of the 19th century to how US policy treats Mexicans today. The book also provides excellent examples of how migrants have organized themselves in response to immigration policy. Bacon provides a window into the campaigns by Chicano and Filipino activists in the 1960 that led to the creation of the United Farm Workers and the organizing behind the current immigrant rights movement.

Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants is not only a great resource for understanding what drives much of the immigration to the US, it provides a framework for responding to the racist and xenophobic movements that want to build a wall along the US-Mexican border.

David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, (Beacon Press, 2008).

Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration

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By their very nature, prisons are something that is kept out of sight. The community doesn’t want to notice them and those housed within prisons have been temporarily (although in many cases the effects of incarceration remain long after release) removed from society. This out-of-sight nature makes it difficult to find out information about conditions in prisons. Beyond government statistics and agencies, it can be difficult to find out what happens inside prison walls.

This lack of transparency has accelerated in recent years as the number of privately run prisons–often with even more limited forms of disclosure–has risen. Private prisons have appeared in response to mass incarceration in the United States, with over two million people in prison. Private companies have realized that there is a fortune to be made in housing prisoners.

However, it isn’t just through the construction of private prisons that companies are making money from mass incarceration. Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration looks at the other ways in which corporations are profiting from the prison boom. The book is the third in a series that look at unprecedented increase of mass incarceration since the 1980s. The others include Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor and The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the US Prison Industry.

Prison Profiteers features eighteen essays divided into three sections–“The Political Economy of Prisons,” “The Private Prison Industry,” and “Making Out Like Bandits.” The essays expose a host of problems with the prison system ranging from inadequate prison care to misuse of public funds. All of the examples share the same motivation: profit. The essays on the prison healthcare system were particularly striking, with distributing examinations of horrific healthcare given to inmates by companies such as Correctional Medical Services. In some cases, this grossly negligent care has resulted in unnecessary deaths. The book spends a significant amount of time on the increasing number of private prisons, looking at problems and the companies behind them. In one particularly interesting chapter, Samantha Shapiro reports on the increase of evangelical Christian programs in prisons. These programs–of which Prison Fellowship Ministries is the largest–are sold to prisons as a way of minimizing violence and improving prisoner behavior. While they have had some success, the author raises important questions about the ethics of these programs. The book looks at lesser known ways in which private companies profit from mass incarceration as well, including prisoner transport, prison phone service, and jail fees.

Prison Profiteers also looks at the relationship between the growth in the private prison industry and the growth in prisoners, finding that the correlation doesn’t always work as one might expect. Logic would seem to indicate that private prison companies have grown as the number of prisoners grow, however, in some cases it appears that the privatized prison services companies–many of which often have close relationships with governments–are in some ways fostering an increase in the number of prisoners.

Overall, Prison Profiteers sheds light on an issue that many likely have not considered, while offering a larger critique of the prison system as a whole.

Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, Eds., Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration, (The New Press, 2008).

Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair

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Recent US media coverage of the Israeli bombing and occupation of Gaza is a clear indication of how the media is biased in favor of Israel. This biased coverage has tremendous impact on public perception about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Quite often the public sentiment towards the conflict is either pro-Israeli or promotes the idea that the conflict is centuries old and will never be resolved. This attitude places the Israelis and Palestinians on equal footing in the conflict and portrays the US as an outside party trying to broker the peace between the two groups.

Jonathan Cook has written a new book that helps to dispel the idea that the conflict in the Middle East is between two feuding peoples. Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair is an important text that seeks to reframe the discussion on Israel/Palestine by looking not only at the historical record, but recent events.

Cook is the only Western journalist that is based in city of Nazareth, the capital of the Palestinian minority in Israel. The author has his own blog with current articles (http://www.jkcook.net/) and his writings have appeared in newspapers worldwide. This is Cook’s third book on Israel and comes at an important time in the public debate about Israel’s motives for the recent bombing and occupation of Gaza.

Disappearing Palestine is divided into two sections, with the first section devoted to a review of the historical record of Israel’s acquisition of Palestinian land. Cook chronicles the evolution of Zionism as it relates to the creation of Israel and provides plenty of documentation to reflect the fundamental idea that Israel has always been about the business of “dispossessing Palestinians of their land.” Israel became a state in 1948 and from then on has been committed to expanding its territory at the expense of Palestinians. Even the United Nations was supportive of Israel’s claim of 55% of Palestinian land, but by 1949 Israel had already controlled roughly 78% of Palestine according to Cook.

For Israel, it was not enough to simply displace Palestinians from their land, the land had to be “reclaimed.” Israel made it a practice of changing the names of Palestinian towns, which included the changing of maps. Quite often Palestinian lands were taken for “nationalization projects” such as roads, settlements or military bases and outposts. This certainly the motive for the 1967 war, which saw Israel occupy the West Bank and the Gaza.

Ever since 1967, the international community, minus the US, has been calling for Israel to return to the pre-1967 territories. However, Israel would have nothing to do with giving back land and eventually was able to get support for their occupation with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. This agreement in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was generally viewed as creating two autonomous states. The reality, however, as Cook documents was just another brilliant move by the Israelis to acquire more land and further marginalize the Palestinian people. Cook, and others, refer to the post-1993 land occupations as a form of apartheid, where Israel controls the roads, the water and has left Palestinians in isolated communities with no freedom to move about. This ongoing policy of land occupation is reflected in the Israeli blockade of Gaza that began in 2006 and is what motivates the current Israeli incursions into that area.

The rest of the book is a collection of essays that the author has written in recent years that deal with topics ranging from the use of anti-Semitism, life under occupation, reporting from Israel, and an interesting critique of Israeli writers who have been critical of Israel’s policies. Disappearing Palestine is essential reading for anyone seeking to place the current conflict within a well documented historical context.

Jonathan Cook, Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair, (Zed Books, 2008).

Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba

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On January 1, the Cuban revolution celebrated the fifty year anniversary of its toppling of the Batista regime. The US media coverage of that anniversary was limited and when coverage did appear it either presented the revolution as repressive or centered around the personalities of Fidel or Raul Castro.

This kind of US media coverage has been consistent for decades and was reflected in a six-month study that the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy conducted in 2007 on Latin America. This type of media representation of Cuba has contributed greatly to the lack of understanding amongst those living in the US about the reality of life in that Caribbean nation for the past fifty years.

Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba is an important new book that can serve as a counter to the biased US media coverage. Author and journalist, Reese Erlich, provides readers with an excellent overview of US policy towards Cuba since 1959. Erlich has traveled to Cuba numerous times since his initial visit in 1968, when he went as a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). These visits not only helped the author to develop relationships with Cubans over the past 40 years, it provided him with some insight into the evolution of the revolutionary experiment in Cuba.

Not an Apologist for the Cuban Government

Another important aspect of Dateline Havana is that the author does not act as an apologist for the Cuban government. While Erlich’s investigation of US policy towards Cuba does acknowledge how Washington has punished and marginalized the revolutionary government, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out the many shortcomings. Erlich shares the stories of many Cubans who feel that the Cuban government has not lived up to the stated goals of the revolution, such as providing adequate food, work opportunities, and the right to dissent. Erlich even devotes chapters to the discussion of racism in Cuba, whether or not Cuban women are better off since the revolution, and how the government treats the gay community.

The author’s critique of Cuba is balanced by his ability to present us with information on US policy that will not overwhelm readers. Erlich looks at the harsh realities of US attempts to overthrow the Cuban government, the use of biological warfare, assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, a propaganda war through radio and TV Marti, and the decades long embargo that has attempted to strangle the tiny Caribbean island.

One of the most revealing chapters deals with the issue of artistic expression in Cuba with a focus on the international acclaim of the late 1990’s musical phenomenon known as the Buena Vista Social Club. Erlich interviews several musicians who participated in that project, most of whom have been supporters of the Cuban government. However, the interviews also reveal that many of those same musicians were frustrated with how film maker Wim Wenders depicted Cuba in his highly acclaimed film about the Buena Vista Social Club.

A Good Book for Understanding US-Cuba Relations

Dateline Havana concludes with a look into the future of US/Cuban relations in a post-Castro era. The author raises many questions about the resiliency of the five-decades long revolution and whether or not the US will ever be willing to have open relations with the island nation as long as it maintains a commitment to what was started in 1959. Reese Erlich’s book is an important contribution for anyone who cares about understanding US policy and its future with Cuba.

Reese Erlich, Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba, (Polipoint Press, 2008).