A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Economics, Europe, History, Latin America, Latin America/Caribbean, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Playing with Fire by Lawrence O’Donnell

It always takes me forever to write about outstanding books, probably because I feel my modest reviews can’t do these books justice. So, instead of just sitting down and trying to crank out an honest review I wind up procrastinating. In the end I usually wind up doing a rush job that leaves me feeling I’ve come up short. Well, with that in mind here’s another rush job!

When I spotted a copy of Lawrence O’Donnell’s 2017 book Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics in the “New Books” section at the public library eagerly I swiped it, not just because I’ve read time and time again just how a pivotal year in history 1968 was, but I vaguely remembered Playing with Fire had been favorably reviewed, although honestly I was unable to remember any details. Once I started reading it I found Playing with Fire impossible to put down, easily making it one of the best books I’ve read all year.

To risk being cliché, 1968 was a year like no other. To risk invoking another cliché, Tip O’Neill’s famous quote “all politics is local” felt meaningless as the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War dominated the political landscape. Only four years after his landslide electoral victory over Goldwater, President Johnson, the incumbent, stumbled out of the gate by barely beating his in-party rival Eugene McCarthy 50 to 42 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Supported by an army of young anti-war young activists (among them not only Hilary Clinton but an earnest press secretary by the name of  Seymour Hersh) McCarthy’s campaign turned the kick-off primary into a referendum on Vietnam. Johnson and his team, so overconfident they didn’t even place his name on the ballot until the last-minute were shocked by his unexpectedly poor showing. Before anyone knew it, Johnson would tell the nation he would not run for reelection, thus turning the race of the presidency on its head.

It’s hard to imagine in this day and age but in 1968 roughly only half the states held primaries. Instead, in reality nominees were chosen at party conventions by political bosses and power brokers. The primaries, while relatively important, mostly served to gauge voter popularity and political momentum. Robert F. Kennedy, emboldened by Johnson’s stumble could jump in during the middle of the presidential race and still be considered a viable candidate, just needing to win over the party bosses at the convention. After RFK’s  assassination the night he won the California primary the Democratic Party’s old guard ultimately selected Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a candidate who hadn’t participated in a single primary.

In 1968 O’Donnell argues this election would change forever how America chooses it presidents. Tired of the fears an unaccountable “smoke-filled room” picked party nominees and not America’s rank and file after 1968 all states would go on to hold deciding primaries and caucuses. (Adding to America’s collective disgust was the shock of seeing televised images of rioting in the streets of Chicago as the city hosted the Democratic Convention.) Long before he ran Fox News, a 26-year-old Roger Ailes would help transform Richard Nixon into a media savvy candidate and law-and order champion of Middle America. Lastly, a Republican Party outsider by the name of Ronald Reagan made a brief run for the presidency using the campaign slogan “Mark America Great Again.”

Playing with Fire is an outstanding book and easily makes my year-end Best Nonfiction List. Please consider it highly recommended.

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About Time I Read It: Delhi by Sam Miller

For the last several years I’d seen Sam Miller’s 2010 book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity had been available to borrow through my public library, but despite my curiosity I never followed through. Strange, one would think considering my interest in books about India, both fiction and nonfiction I would have read Delhi by now. Then one day my curiosity finally got the better of me and I downloaded a copy through Overdrive.

Miller, a British expat living in Delhi and married to an Indian woman came up with a cool idea. Intrigued by the city around him, he decided the best way to explore it was to do so in the style of a 19th century French flâneur, that is leisurely and on foot. Over the course of a year Miller traversed Delhi in a spiral counterclockwise pattern, exploring the teeming city’s inhabitants, alleyways, attractions and small shops. During Miller’s year of meandering he was treated up close and personal to a diverse and vivid universe (he calls the megacity “India’s dreamtown—and its purgatory”), long ignored by guide books and government-promoted travel literature.

Delhi is a pretty good book. I admire Miller for putting so much effort in exploring the city and choosing to do so on foot, which based on my experience is the best way meaningfully explore any city. I would encourage all aspiring travel writers to follow Miller’s example whenever they find themselves in a large city far from home.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, History, Indian Subcontinent

About Time I Read It: The Long Road Home by Ben Shephard

Keith Lowe, author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, when asked by the website Five Books about his five favorite books on the aftermath of World War II included Ben Shephard’s The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War on his list. So, with a recommendation like that, no wonder I enjoyed The Long Road Home so much it’s winding up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List. Once again, like so many others I discovered this great book through my public library.

Published in 2011, The Long Road Home, much like Savage Continent is a detailed look at Europe in the aftermath of World War II, but with a particular focus. Specifically, it’s the story of the millions of displaced persons who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war. Stranded in war-ravaged Germany with meager resources and staring at an uncertain or even grim future, never before had the world been confronted with such an insurmountable problem.

At war’s end Germany was home to countless camps and temporary settlements full of people from across Europe. Some were former slave laborers or prisoners of war and couldn’t wait to go home. Some were originally from Soviet Ukraine or the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and had no desire to live once again under direct Soviet Rule. (Complicating matters, some had collaborated with the occupying Germans and knew returning to their former homeland would be a death sentence.) Some were Poles from Eastern Poland, which now belonged to the USSR and weren’t welcome anymore in their old towns and villages. There were Croatians from Yugoslavia who had backed the Germans during the war and knew the victorious Communists would kill them upon their return. Jews who had survived the Holocaust were in the camps as well, afraid to return to their countries of origin lest they live under Soviet rule or deal or worse, deal with their anti-Semitic neighbors. Lastly, ethnic Germans were streaming into the country after being forcibly ejected from Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was complex, polyglot mess on a grand scale.

Even though the camps weren’t entirely emptied until the 1950s there were no mass repatriations, save for the ex POWs and slave laborers. Most, if not all the Jews left for the US or Palestine, which by 1948 became Israel. At first, the Western Allies were hesitant to accept displaced persons from the Soviet Union, since doing so would anger the Communists. But as time passed and relations between East and West deteriorated, post-war labor shortages in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the US created a strong demand for potential workers and their families from places like Ukraine and the Baltic states. (Canada, with its sizable Ukrainian community was a prime destination for those from that part of the USSR. Thanks to their pre-war relatively high standard of living a number of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were educated professionals and many of them and their families wound up in Great Britain.) Eventually, Germany was able to absorb the expelled ethnic Germans.

Like I said at the beginning The Long Road Home is an outstanding book. It’s also the perfect follow-up read to Savage Continent. I have no problem recommending it.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping by Aharon Appelfeld

Some of you might remember from an earlier post that appeared last September in which I spotlighted a half-dozen books borrowed from my public library. On of those books happened to be Aharon Appelfeld’s 2017 novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. In that post, I claimed I’d never read anything by Appelfeld. Later, after I remembered I’d read one of Appelfeld’s earlier novels specifically his Badenheim 1939. But alas, as much as I wanted to read it The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, I had return it a few weeks later ignored and unread. But after reading awhile back in the New York Times Appelfeld passed away I once again borrowed a copy from my public library. Unlike last time, this time I managed to read it.

The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping is an odd kind of novel. World War II has come to an end and Erwin, a young Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe has been brought to a displaced  persons camp in Naples. He remembers little of his journey across Europe since he’s been asleep the whole time, carried along by his fellow survivors. Eventually, he makes his way to British-ruled Palestine where after statehood he’s absorbed into the Israeli army. During a military operation he’s gravely wounded in his legs which earns him a long recovery period and a series of medical procedures designed to get him walking once again. While convalescing Erwin begins flexing his young literary muscles by deepening his understanding of Hebrew, his new language in hopes of becoming the writer his father always dreamed to be.

If I place Badenheim 1939 side by side with Appelfeld’s final novel The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping they form a pair of bookends encapsulating modern Judaism. Badenheim 1939 depicts the beginnings of the Holocaust, which would lead to the destruction of much of European Jewish Civilization. In The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping Jewish civilization is painfully reborn, not in Europe but in Israel. If that’s the case then perhaps it’s only appropriate The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping was Appelfeld’s last novel.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Soviet Spotlight: The Man with the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy

If you think Russia’s habit of poisoning its enemies is anything new, guess again. Decades before Russian agents used nerve gas, polonium and dioxin to eliminate troublesome individuals one of their agents used a poison spewing gun to murder not one but two political enemies who’d found refuge abroad. If this is news to you don’t be too hard on yourself. Until I read Serhii Plokhy’s 2016 book The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story I had no idea either.

I discovered Plokhy’s book just like I’ve discovered so many other intriguing backlist books of late. Just like Ken Silverstein’s Turkmeniscam, Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed and Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese I just found it on the shelf at my local public library and simply had to have it. I’m glad I borrowed it because it’s pretty darn good.

In 1950 in Soviet Ukraine, Bogdan Stashinsk, a young student was arrested on a train for traveling without a ticket. Soviet authorities, knowing his family was in the anti-Soviet Ukrainian underground worked to “turn him” and enlist him in their struggle to break the resistance. The young man complied and after showing surprising promise was given additional training and sent abroad. Eventually, he was stationed in the West and ordered to assassinate a pair of Ukrainian nationalists who’d become thorns in the side of the USSR. The murders, and the resulting criminal trial that followed captured headlines and even inspired Ian Flemming to include a similar incident in his novel The Man with the Golden Gun.

I’ve decided to apply The Man with the Poison Gun towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge since much of this book takes place in or deals with Soviet Ukraine. Also, the author Plokhy is Ukrainian. Once again, I find myself indebted to my local public library for bringing a surprisingly good book to my attention. The Man with the Poison Gun could wind up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List, or at the very least an honorable mention.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

About Time I Read It: The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

When I spied Stuart Rojstaczer 2014 novel The Mathematician’s Shiva first the title caught my eye. After that, it was its cool cover art. In the end however, it was it the premise that sold me. It’s horrible enough Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch has to deal with the recent death of his mother Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin. But when word gets out she’s possibly solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem (imagine the Nobel Prize for mathematics) mathematicians from around the world descend upon the late Rachela’s home, hoping against hope she left notes proving she solved it as opposed to taking its secrets to the grave. So much for a quiet, dignified, private Shiva with family in frigid Madison, Wisconsin.

The Mathematician’s Shiva is another of 2018’s pleasant surprises. It’s funny in a dark, train wreck kind of way. Just because a family might be highly educated and accomplished, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s happy. If Tolstoy taught us taught anything, it’s that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And the Karnokovitchs are no exception.

I gotta hand it to Rojstaczer, he’s written a heck of a debut novel. No wonder it won a half-dozen or so awards including National Jewish Book Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction. There’s a strong likelihood you’ll see it included in my year-end Best Fiction List in a couple of weeks.

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Filed under Fiction, Judaica