Saturday, December 24, 2011
-- Marcus Tullius Cicero; Roman statesman/philosopher
Every change-agent and visionary is a reader.
Why? Because ideas are immortal. Whether it was the French National Assembly, which wrote the Rights of Man and the Citizen; the Continental Congress, which wrote the Declaration of Independence, or the Occupy Wall Street general-assembly which wrote the list of Occupation demands, those ideas did not spring full-grown - they were taken from other writers.
It’s impossible to understand what’s going on in America without a solid background in what’s happened, and why. It's equally necessary to have this background to understand fully the nature of the problem and what's really at stake here.
I've created this list assuming that the reader is going to have a real grasp of world, as well as American history, and that they don't ascribe to the recent witch-hunting and book-burning approach of the ultraRight with their attempts to rewrite history in Texas and elsewhere.
Having a solid understanding of current events is necessary for a fundamental reason: Understanding the causes helps us connect the dots. Connecting the dots gives us a good idea about changing things and bringing about a better future.
To that end, I’ve created this list of fifteen books I consider indispensable to the education of people who want to involve themselves either with an Occupy group or another organization which is active in bringing about legitimate, permanent change.
It isn’t intended as a definitive – I’m sure you’ll all have books you consider ‘required reading’. Feel free to suggest them.
This one makes the list because of the danger David Barton represents. He (along with people like Gary DeMar and Gary North) is one of the main proponents of a ‘Christian nation’ philosophy. In this book, Barton attempts to discredit the commonly-held interpretation of the First Amendment which holds that religion and government are separate, and that the U.S. was founded and should remain without a ‘state religion’.
In his book, Barton either quotes out –of-context or entirely misquotes several early Americans, including many of the founding personages of the American government. I don’t list this book because of its scholarship – which is sloppy and faulty in the extreme – I list it here because of its influence on those who would radically alter the U.S. government along religious and extreme ultraRightist lines, and because those same people have co-opted one of America's main political parties (the Republicans).
Hedges is one of my favorite living writers. He’s one of a handful who’ve connected the dots between the sellout of our bulwark institutions (education, religion, arts, media) to a ruling class of moneyed elitists. In this book, Hedges describes that process – and the consequence, which is the end of the liberal traditions which actually made up most of America’s founding principles.
In this, Hedges posits that the real threat to American liberalism isn’t the Tea Party, or Obama’s failure to promote genuine Progressive ideals – but the sellout of American liberals themselves.
The second of three Hedges books I’m recommending here, this is a deep piece, dealing with the wholesale abandonment of the core ideals of education and literacy in favor of utilitarianism (education not for the betterment of the person, but in order to get a job/be ‘productive’/feed the ‘machine’). Hedges uses several examples, from the adult ‘entertainment’ industry – which commoditizes the very nature of women – to Abu Gharaib, which he describes as the end-result of a national moral bankruptcy.
The American Empire, he posits, is based on illusion – illusions which are created by a corporatized media and fed to us through everything from film/TV to advertising, and which have created a nation of mental slaves.
This last recommendation from Hedges’ pen peels back the layers of slick packaging and ‘family values’ tripe to expose the ‘Christian nation’ movement for what it is – a Fascist hate-movement, driven more by a drive for power and control than for the welfare of all Americans; in fact, it’s roots are very similar to the Fascist movements in Germany and Italy prior to WWII (which also had their foundations in religion).
A deep hatred for a liberal, progressive, ‘open’ society, coupled with an uberNationalism and a dismissive ideology have combined to create a movement with a laser-like focus and one goal: The transformation of America to a ‘Christian nation’, where their brand of religion is the only one allowed; where the law of the land is measured first by its adherence to ‘Biblical principle’.
Hedges doesn’t draw direct conclusions – that’s not his style; it’s also not good analysis. He makes the case that the Christian right has Fascist roots; that their efforts are against the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution and are therefore anti-American, and that theirs is a significant component in a greater danger – the commission of evil, in the name of a better world. Read this as a warning and a cautionary tale writ-large.
Pierce begins this tale with a trip he took to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where he saw a large fiberglass Triceratops in the lobby – wearing a saddle. Listening to the narrator of one of the ‘presentations’ say, “We’re taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!”, Pierce decided to write this piece on the triumph of idiocy in America.
In it, he describes America’s addiction to ‘cranks’ – which are, in the main, likeable creatures in the vein of those who promoted the existence of Atlantis in the 1880’s, but which are different than the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, who, in his words, “spew bilious nonsense at 50,000 watts from 1,000 radio stations nationwide.”
Beneath the humor is a serious message – having abandoned our standards of education, plus the liberal traditions of reason and critical thinking, we’ve turned the country over to people who believe that the earth is 6,000 years old; that Obama is ‘coming for their guns’, and that human beings actually rode dinosaurs.
Understand – I like Thom Hartmann.
He lives here in Portland. I’ve heard him speak, at one of my favorite bookstores here. He’s not a great speaker; he’s a bookish fellow who sticks to his research. In this, you’re going to find ‘Unequal Protection’ one of the most thoroughly-documented stories of corruption you’ve read.
The premise is pretty simple – corporate attorneys have used the Fourteenth Amendment to convince the Supreme Court that corporations are people. Further, they’ve been doing it almost since it was ratified, with the Citizens United ruling being just the most-recent (and most egregious) misuse of the Constitution in this regard.
As an attorney-friend of mine is fond of saying, “Government power has never not been used.” Read this one to understand what we’re all up against. The good news? We can fight back – and should. (Note: This is only one of Hartmann’s books on the American sociopolitical system. All of them are good reads).
This is one of my top-five books of the past twenty years; Michelle Goldberg was one of the first journalists to ‘connect the dots’ of the American Fundamentalist movement and call it out for the danger that it is.
Today, it’s impossible to be a Republican without being a radical, Fundamentalist Christian. Because of their ties to the Republicans, they are by nature well-funded (the moneyed-elites in Washington and on Wall Street give generously to Fundamentalist organizations). Any candidate who is vetted for anything higher than state office has to be examined under their lens and found ‘worthy’. In this book, Goldberg explains in plain language (no need to have studied American religious history in any depth here) the ‘parallel universe’ occupied by the Fundies; why they created their own ‘America’ in the first place, and why they feel bound and committed to foist it off on the rest of us.
It’s that last step which has everyone from Goldberg to myself more than a little worried – because these people have influenced domestic and foreign policy itself, co-opted an entire political party, and created a political scenario where there is real potential for outright Fascism. Read this, and understand why the notion of ‘Christian nationalism’ is such a threat to us all.
Blumenthal’s seminal work on the co-option of the Republican Party by the Religious Right belongs on every shelf in America – and while this book has been universally excoriated by the Fundamentalists and other religious Fascists in America, it was received by the rest of us on its publishing as the final ‘connect the dots’ moment regarding the deep ties between Fundies and Republicans.
I’ve said it before – it’s impossible to be a Republican now and not be a Fundie. This book goes into the ‘why’. (Note: This book is less about the politics of the thing than about deviant psychology. If you’re a bit squeamish reading about religious ‘leaders’ who have their roots in child abuse, prostitution and other such behavior, you might want to pass. If, on the other hand, you want to really learn what makes these people tick and how they’ve come this close to running America, then read on.)
Matt Taibbi, one of my favorites among the new generation of political writers, exposes in ‘Griftopia’ the behavior of Wall Street – written for the layman, Taibbi expertly uses plain-English to describe the techniques used by the Wall Street crowd to demolish our economy; he awards “Biggest Asshole in the Universe” to Alan Greenspan, who dismantled what little regulations remained over the financial sector and set the stage for the 2008 meltdown.
You’ll laugh; you’ll cry – and you’ll finally understand after reading this one.
The Party’s Over and The End of Growth – Richard Heinberg
In “The Party’s Over”, Heinberg lays out, with some pretty incisive statistics, the reasons why we are not only past the point of peak oil production, but discusses some of the inevitable changes which must occur. You’re not going to find this read pleasant – and you might find yourself disagreeing with him on several points, mainly because they go to the heart of many of America’s treasured institutions – the suburb; the car; the yearly vacation; fresh fruit in January – the list goes on. Whether he’s right, or whether we have a little time left (the USGS says we won’t hit ‘peak oil’ until 2020), the time to make those changes, starting with our own lives, is now.
In “The End of Growth”, Heinberg details something he glossed-over in the first book – the fact that Americans use over five times their share in energy resources; the Chinese are catching up with us rapidly, and the overall value of our vaunted ‘American lifestyle’ is rapidly becoming unsustainable.
With seven billion people on the planet, we are clearly headed for an energy crisis of global scale and proportion. The ‘Occupy’ movements have called attention to this – what remains is to see if we’re going to be any more successful than Jimmy Carter in 1978 (his stance on energy cost him the election in 1980), or if we’ll finally wake up.
This book is indispensable for one reason – it’s a chronicle of the collusion between the corporate world, the universities, and government. From Chicago School economics, which succeeded in destroying the economies of Chile, Argentina and the newly-liberated Soviet Union long before they destroyed ours, to the agent provocateurs which America has used time and again to destroy entire governments – there’s a common thread: Governments (and ours is one of the most-egregious practitioners of this tactic) can pass draconian laws and edicts during unsettled times far easier than they could when things are ‘normal’.
In this, Klein steps us all back and points out the things we’ve done in the name of ‘emergency’ – and the tacit support given to our Wall Street elites to loot the treasuries not just of our own country, but those of others as well, for no other real reason than economic imperialism and the enrichment of a few. We see through this well-researched piece that America is not, and hasn’t been, a ‘democracy’ in any sense of the word for decades – we’re a plutonomy, run by and for a very few who’ve wasted no time in using every leverage to rape the world.
To understand America, you have to understand how it came to be – and if you’re still stuck believing the tripe you learned in grade-school (Columbus came and ‘liberated’ the natives; the Pilgrims made ‘friends’ with the natives in New England and lived in peace and harmony; etc.), then you’re in for an eye-opener here.
In this piece, Fischer deconstructs the four major migrations from England – the Puritans, the Cavaliers, the Quakers, and the Scots-Irish. Each brought a distinctive culture to America, along with the seeds of future conflict (by example, the descendants of the Puritans and Cavaliers were the cultural-combatants in the American Civil War).
This is a long book – but it reads well, and is quite probably the best explanation of America’s roots that you’ll find in print. If you really want to understand the country, you have to understand the beginnings of its culture – and why ‘borderer philosophy’ has influenced the far Right in America from the beginning to the Tea Party today.
I’ll warn you – this is a scary book.
In spite of our Enlightenment/Jeffersonian roots, America has always had a history of eliminationism. Settlers were dismissive of the basic humanity of Native Americans; ‘sundown’ towns prevented persons of color from living there; the Klan was pervasive until comparatively recently (and still has a presence in some parts of the deep South) – on balance, we shouldn’t be surprised at the hatespeech of the far Right, which tends to come out of the woodwork during a real or manufactured emergency.
We now have a ‘war on terror’ – something the Right has used to demonize its traditional opponents (which really boil down to anyone who doesn’t look or think like they do). Neiwert explains in very plain language in this book that the first step in a long slide toward Fascism is the demonization, objectivizing and eventual elimination of their opponents.
The process is simple – first, the Right engages in eliminationist rhetoric and full-on hate-speech to create ‘non persons’ of a group or class; next; they demonize the group, after which it’s very easy to deny them basic civil rights – or imprison them outright.
The conclusion is simple – traditional American conservative movements, including the Republican Party itself, have been co-opted through a skillful use of media by an ultraRight, eliminationist and proto-Fascist subgroup which view elements of American society (gays, Muslims, liberals and others) as ‘un-American’, and which deserve to be eliminated entirely.
Don’t blame me if you don’t sleep terribly well after reading this – but then again, you shouldn’t.
The award-winning economist sets a few things straight here – first, the postwar boom wasn’t the result of a free-market economy and the vindication of Conservative ideology, it was the result of the policies of the Roosevelt Administration, severe regulation of the financial markets, and the efforts of the Eisenhower administration to create a genuine progressive tax system which put the burden of running society on those who’d benefited from it the most.
Things started going south when the neoconservatives, championed by Reagan, began dismantling the programs which made our prosperity possible.
Krugman also makes it clear that wealthy people (the ‘job creators’, as the current group of Teabaggers call them) don’t create jobs – customers create jobs, and customers don’t exist if they have no money to spend.
America is a wealthy country, Krugman concludes – the wealth is in the wrong places, and will never be used to create more wealth unless it winds up in the hands of customers who can create demand.
Read this one to understand where we are economically, how we got here – and how we can get back.
As I mentioned above, this list is far from definitive – you may have other suggestions; my intent here is to create a framework for the discussion of reading material which will educate and motivate those of you who want to create genuine change. Again; please feel free to suggest your own.
Thanks again for reading!