The Naked Constitution, by Adam Freedman

November 10, 2013 at 11:36 (Book Reviews, Philosophy, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , )

TheNakedConstitution

4/10

4/10

“What the Founders said and why it still matters” is the proclamation emblazoned on the front of this ponderous new diatribe. Would that this boast were true! It can be difficult for non-Americans to understand (viscerally if not intellectually) why the United States stands so fiercely and so doggedly to its historical codifications, and a passionately-written explanation of why this might be the case is an interesting and compelling prospect.

Alas! For Adam Freedman does not address his book to the earnest seeker, but rather to the confirmed disciple. Like a new convert turning to a book of theology only to be driven thence by sludgy discussions on the Greek translation of parousia, readers of The Naked Constitution will be confronted almost immediately by a schoolyard bicker about whether conservatives or liberals are true “originalists”. There is not really an honest attempt to explain how the determination of “original intent” is uncovered, nor even to explain why original intent is even important.

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, anti gun zealouts insist that their narrow reading of the Second Amendment is the true ‘originalist’ reading.”

-The Naked Constitution

In examining the general mindset of men over two centuries dead, it might be expected that the politics of the olden days would take precedence, but instead this book is firmly entrenched in scouring through court decisions and bills passed in the last two decades–particularly under Clinton and under Obama. And that is the real meat and bones of this tract. It is a fiercely partisan denunciation of liberalism in the early twenty-first century, and little else. It makes some very good points and some poorer ones; it descends to pettiness as often as it makes honest and thought-provoking points. But it emphatically does not answer the thorny issue so proudly displayed on its cover. If anything, it proves only that the United States Constitution is irrelevant as a basis for government, as it can be (and is) dissected and patched back together by liberals and conservatives alike, to serve their own particular interests. In one or two shameless slip-ups, Freedman does exactly this, mentioning in passing that such-and-such constitutional idea cannot really apply in today’s world, and ought to rather mean so-and-so.

Besides this, there are the same old tired political talking points that obsess modern commentators so: the anachronistic gun-worship, the quibbling and complaining about nineteenth-century federalism, bickering about the division between church and state, and where the lines are drawn, and how thickly, and by whom. There is a great deal to value in this book, but it is either irritatingly dishonest, or else an abysmal failure in its central point and intention. Ultimately, that makes it just another run-of-the-mill polemic, and while interesting on its own merits, it has nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other books of the same shade.

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Peter the Great, by Jacob Abbott

September 15, 2013 at 19:39 (Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics) (, , )

6/10

There are few reasons to elevate this book above any other historical biography. In fact, it might be expected that a book about so colourful a character as Peter ought to make thrilling reading from start to finish. There are, therefore, two things that must be granted to Abbott before commencing. The first is the admission that in spite of such a colourful subject, he seldom succumbed to the temptation to indulge in creative writing, or really any sort of sensationalism whatsoever. Rather than seeking to either panegyrise or demonise Peter with a magniloquent pen, he does his level best to judge him as a seventeenth century monarch, and to give the dull but important scenes from his life at least equal footing with the rambunctious but trivial.

“The sending of a grand embassage like this from one royal or imperial potentate to another was a very common occurrence in those times. The pomp and parade with which they were accompanied were intended equally for the purpose of illustrating the magnificence of the government that sent them, and of offering a splendid token of respect to the one to which they were sent.”

-Peter the Great (Abbott)

Abbott’s second success lies in his crucial effort to offer his suggestions on the significance of Peter’s reign and life, both on Russia and on European history. He strikes a patient and pleasant balance between investigating the long-term effects of Peter’s reign, without overstepping his bounds as a reporter and analyst of a particular era.

With these bright spots acknowledged, it must be said that this book is neither groundbreaking nor controversial. It is a bread-and-butter history text, and while useful or even necessary for a student of Russian history, has little unique to recommend it, either in its facts or in its style. Again: it should be impressed upon the prospective reader that these two points in favour of Abbott’s history are issues that many, many other historians trip upon, and trip upon badly. Peter the Great is extremely useful, and it is even quite interesting. It isn’t thrilling, and if the author cannot really be faulted for this then he cannot either be lionised for a rather prosaic work. It is in many ways like reading a school textbook. Some very memorable hours can be whiled away in reading school textbooks, but when in school, even poetry textbooks are never poetic.

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Angler, by Barton Gellman

February 23, 2013 at 14:13 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics) (, , , , )

8/10

8/10

Angler

Gellman does not really have much reason to coddle the subject of this biography. The notorious secrecy that he describes as innate to the Cheney Vice-Presidency extended past 2008, and it is clear from an examination of Gellman’s sources and his postscript that on matters of substance, Cheney’s office was generally cold and hostile towards him in the construction of an attempted intimate portrait of the Bush government. He puts a faintly transparent mask over his perplexity at Cheney’s intransigence, which leaks through readily when describing events that he considers to be indicative of Cheney’s worst moments. But it is important to note that it is perplexity, and not outrage or dismay. Gellman might be a rather emotive author prone to strong reactions, but he keeps carefully balanced on a plinth of professionalism, and takes great care not to tread on the narrative with heavy feet of approval or disapproval.

George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Karl Rove, and many of the other big-noise names from Bush’s presidency receive only marginal recognition in this carefully-focused book; obviously Bush himself is the most important peripheral figure, but surprisingly he is only studied when Gellman seeks to explain his oft-misunderstood relationship with his Vice President. In the hands of a poorer author, such a myopic focus might be detrimental, but Gellman is absolutely terrific at crafting context without stepping outside of a very tight circle. There is much that is missed, but few readers will complain for missing it.

“All hell was breaking loose at Justice. Phone calls and BlackBerry messages pinged around the senior staff. Lawyers streamed back to the building from the suburbs, converging on the fourth-floor conference room.
-Angler

Barton Gellman has little or no patience with stupid questions, and when he is obliged to bring up accusations or issues without basis in fact, he does so brusquely and with marked brevity. He is unafraid of admitting a dearth of information with a particular subject, and purposely leaves some questions dangling for future authors to pick up, rather than neatly trimming them off. He clearly recognises that an unanswered question is sometimes of equal value to an answer, and his attention to detail and zeal for a comprehensive account are both commendable.

This book could never be described as a panegyric, but neither is it a bleak demonisation or even harsh criticism. When Gellman has (frequent) cause to be critical, it is not always because Cheney has done something “bad” that he ought to be punished for. Often it is because Cheney has done something that the author neither condemns nor lauds, but which led to certain consequences that are spelled out as far as is possible, and then analysed. Such an approach might be considered dry, but either to Gellman’s credit or because of the rich subject matter, even the most noncommittal verdicts read very fluidly. This will hardly be the last word on Dick Cheney, for better or for worse, but it is a valuable insight that succeeds on all of the goals that it sets out to achieve.

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American Patriots, by Rick Santorum

January 5, 2013 at 11:04 (Book Reviews, Historical, Politics) (, , , )

AmericanPatriots

3/10

3/10

The striking thing about this book (one of only two that Santorum has written) is its pithy and generally amoral tone. Santorum himself has some decidedly outspoken views, and is a divisive figure in American politics, but one would hardly know it from reading American Patriots. He is loath to make strong statements, instead cataloguing a series of second-rate personalities from a war distant enough to be non-controversial with a milquetoast, ingratiating sort of voice. He takes great care to include chapters on ethnic minorities, different religions and denominations, and women; and on working-class men, merchants, and aristocrats–no matter how mundane their so-called achievements. Each chapter and each section is meticulously and clinically laid out to produce a disinfected and harshly scrubbed book that ought to appeal to any conscientious American voter. Santorum might not be seeking office right now, but he is plainly still a politician, and his ghostwriter (or writing persona) is much more of a sanitised middle-American than his more forceful image from the 2012 election.

“Having represented the state of Pennsylvania and the Cradle of Liberty–Philadelphia–as a United States senator for twelve years, I wanted to share what I was blessed to be exposed to there: the rich history of the American Revolution”

-American Patriots

It is with this general blandness in mind that the precise nature of the heroes Santorum chooses to venerate falls into sharp contrast. His scattering of “forgotten patriots” is a seething nest of pirates, liars, perjurers, murderers, blackguards, slavers, and traitors. The pages are soaked with blood, and provide a grizzly litany of prisoners-of-war shot and hanged in cold blood, men worked to death in the fields of masters who are held up as shining examples of benevolent slaveowners, knives flashed in the dark, and all sorts of other unsavoury actions. Beside these stories, preachers and statesmen are unironically compared, and the question has to be asked: does America have no more worthwhile heroes, or does Rick Santorum display a stark and confusing hypocrisy in his application of his Christian faith to history?

“Benjamin thought they should simply shoot them all. Not Nancy. Shooting was too good for these redcoats; she wanted them to hang. So they strung up the five remaining soldiers on a nearby tree.”

-American Patriots

This two-faced nature of Santorum’s compilation contributes significantly towards a lack of purpose in this book. There is neither a strong moral message, nor indeed a central exposition: only a seemingly-random series of various historical footnotes, stretched nearly to breaking point to scarcely fill out a hundred pages. Admittedly in spite of the bowdlerised and offensively inoffensive editorialising, the writing is smooth and constructed with care and skill, but the simplest answer to the problems in this book is that it is not really intended to be read. It is a very pretty book, with an excellent cover design and some fancy printing in the pages, but this is a book made to be gifted and displayed upon one’s bookshelf to announce a political worldview, and perhaps to be idly glanced at to pass time. To say that it is an empty book written by an empty writer would perhaps be calumnious; but it might at least be close to the mark.

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The Difficult Relationship, by Richard Aldous

December 8, 2012 at 11:42 (Book Reviews, English History, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century) (, , , , )

4/10

4/10

TheDifficultRelationshipThose readers who are not thoroughly tired of two-hundred page history books marketing themselves with sensationalist claims of the untold shocking story that will redefine the world – probably ought to be. At first glance, this book looks like more of the same. It’s not entirely true. But the title is subtle enough to provide a few misconceptions. A marriage (to borrow a metaphor often pasted onto the Reagan-Thatcher relationship) can be “difficult” because the couple are constantly at each other’s throats, or it can be “difficult” because they loyally and patiently endure difficult times, without ever turning on each other. Aldous does a rather good job playing with the two definitions, and seems to go back and forth between which one he prefers.

Predictably, he spends most of his time dwelling on the hardest parts of the relationship, but outside of the first few pages where he makes his initial case that Thatcher and Reagan were hardly wearing rose-tinted glasses he provides a very level and unambitious catalogue of the political crises that affected both leaders. Is this book weighted to emphasise the negative and entirely eclipse the positive? Of course it is. But not in a dishonest way. Any myopia is entirely appropriate to his context, and Aldous never claims to be giving a comprehensive view of events. He is simply doing what he promised, in laying out the difficulties faced by both parties; whether the difficulties were caused by differences in policy, differences in temperament, mutual misunderstandings, allies and enemies, or deliberate antagonism.

“For the first time it seemed in hours, Thatcher stopped talking. Even with her thick skin, impervious as she was to criticism or embarrassment, the prime minister understood that she had gone too far. Around the table, nobody moved as Reagan maintained eye contact.”

-The Difficult Relationship

Where this book falls slightly short is its failure to offer much in the way of complex explanations for what Aldous observes. Thatcher was angry with Reagan for his vacillating on the Falklands issue, for instance. That was due solely to Reagan’s concern for nurturing Argentina as an anti-communist bastion in the western hemisphere. So far, so good. But Aldous is content to accept this at face value. He rarely speculates, and while to his credit he does explain the agendas of certain figures like Shultz, this is done in a general axiomatic way, without any attempt to look deeper at the politics of 1980s America. Likewise, Thatcher is portrayed largely as mistress of her own destiny. Domestic troubles are occasionally noted when they impacted her transatlantic friendship, but for all intents and purposes both leaders are set in a vacuum that contains only each other, at their most intractable.

As noted above, this is the history that Aldous sets out to tell, and so he should not be judged harshly on what he omits. However, he slashes and ignores enough of real significance that it does begin to weigh against him in the end: and also, against his brash title. There is nothing groundbreaking or sensational in this book, and although he does highlight certain difficulties, they are rocky reefs in an otherwise navigable ocean. Of limited use to an historian, and even less use to those looking for an entry level guide to Anglo-American politics in the 1980s, this book is more of a general case study that might complement other books, but is just as likely to find itself repeating more thorough sources.

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The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

October 13, 2012 at 10:29 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

8/10

As a rule, polemics are nasty, complicated things. They exist to provide brief shoutable slogans, and to gather dust in libraries. They are not supposed to throb with such vibrant energy and impassioned rhetoric as Fanon’s last will and testament. They are not supposed to inspire strong feelings in readers decades removed from their context. Frantz Fanon makes himself a difficult man to like, trumpeting loudly in bifurcated absolutes, and frequently presenting conclusions before arguments (if he deigns to argue at all).

“The very same people who had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was that of force, now decide to express themselves with force.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

His book is at its dullest when he describes the problems facing revolutionary groups transitioning into legitimacy, and the correct organisation of a progressive order. Here he becomes another coffee-room radical, prattling about bourgeouise and propaganda, the party, the meetings, the rallies, reactionaries, the doctrine. He is at his most convincing when presenting carefully chosen examples of colonial outrages, always slotted meticulously into his broader worldview, and always ready to support his fiery ultimatums.

“We are all in the process of dirtying our hands in the quagmire of our soil and the terrifying void of our minds. Any bystander is a coward or a traitor.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

As political science this is an imperfect work, but as an intelligent and furious response to the western world in the twentieth century, it is powerful and starkly relevant. Richard Philcox’s translation appears to do Fanon credit; the book’s fluency and inviting tone make it remarkably easy to read through even the most convoluted politispeak, and seize upon the pith of Fanon’s complaint easily. Quick to digest and quick to make an impression, there really is no excuse for avoiding this book.

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What to do with Japan, by Wilfrid Fleisher

August 20, 2012 at 17:38 (Asian History, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

What to do, indeed, with a book bearing such a deliciously arrogant and condescending title? There is something brash and daring about it: the refusal to wonder if anything might be done, but the decision what shall be done. As a piece of history in itself, What to do with Japan is a fascinating prospect, written as an opinion piece by a journalist from the New York Herald Tribune some time in 1945. But it is shocking just how prescient Fleisher’s insights into the allied nations’ looming post-war ordeal actually are. It is remarkable how sage and levelheaded he remains, with no emotional outbursts and few racially-motivated generalisations on the “yellow race”. Even when he does make cultural judgements, they are as much reflections on the Western mindset as they are descriptions of a foreigner. “We know them to be fanatical and vindictive…” he begins, setting the stage for a book in which what America (and the rest of the world) ‘knows’ ought perhaps to be re-evaluated.

“If we expect to be welcomed back in Asia with open arms as liberators, we may experience some rude shocks unless we are prepared to return with a new philosophy…we assume, perhaps too readily, that the conquered peoples are yearning to rid themselves of their Japanese masters and to welcome the return of the occidental Powers.”

-What to do with Japan

Starkly prophetic are his insights into the difficulty of managing a post-colonial world, and of occupying a foreign country in the modern era. From predicting grave trouble between Russia and China in the decades ahead, to warning that any American occupation of Japan must have a clear exit strategy and a roadmap towards responsible self-government, there are entire paragraphs that would not look out of place if they were transposed sixty years into the future.

There are moments where Fleisher makes inaccurate predictions, but these are none the less interesting for their errancy.  He utterly fails to predict the Cold War, and it is deeply interesting and even a little humbling to hear him use the words ‘united nations’ as an adjective and a noun more than as an organisation, several times evoking the sincere belief that the nations of the world would have general consensus throughout the rest of the century, only pausing to solve occasional disputes.

An interesting and manageably brief little book, that stands out from its competition by virtue of the tact, humility and conciliatory nature with which it is written. It is truly rare to find so much good sense packed into such an unassuming form.

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The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Dinesh D’Souza

August 11, 2012 at 08:47 (Book Reviews, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

1/10

This schoolboy compendium of allegation and insinuation is the literary equivalent of a microwaved pizza. Bolt it down while it’s hot stuff, and almost forget about the metaphorical diarrhoea that inevitably follows. It is short enough and simple enough that even the simplest reader can quickly digest its pith, but is as nutritional as any tabloid rag. Dinesh D’Souza writes from the vapid standpoint that because he himself is not white, he can hurl the most despicable  and vile epithets and innuendos at his chosen target without repurcussion. In obsessively remaking Obama as a primitive African revolutionary stuck in the post-colonial cold war era, he transforms him into a wretched kind of golliwog, a nasty and unbelievable scarecrow of a man–reminding his readers several times that, as an Indian, he somehow has the right to dredge up whatever idiotic caricatures he pleases.

His central and resounding accusation against Obama, dressed up repeatedly in new language to fill out the hundred or so pages of his bitesize polemic, is that Barack Obama is against colonialism. The implication is often given that colonialism has no dirty laundry to air, no sins to purge, and no shame to recall. Of course any serious historian would readily admit that the colonisers of history left boons as well as smallpox, and legacies as well as corpses, but when D’Souza flippantly suggests without any trace of irony that the greatest sin of the Belgians in the Congo was their neglect of the education system, he assumes the mantle of a David Irving, and loses any credibility as an historian that he might have clung to.

“There is currently no alternative to American leadership in the world, and deep down even American liberals know this.”

-The Roots of Obama’s Rage

As a commentator, he is graceless and crass, with all of the baggage of the worst American neoconservative jingoism and none of the redeeming optimism. As a writer he is clumsy and often badly informed (hilariously noting at one point, for instance, that the Norwegian government dispenses Nobel prizes, or misunderstanding Hobbes’ eponymous Leviathan to refer to a massive government rather than an extension of the social contract). As a critical thinker he has a long way to go, and his arguments are based almost entirely upon his own baldly-stated “suppositions” or “beliefs”, and as much on his own circumstantial and highly suspect “explanations” and interpretations as on any actual facts. His seething hatred for the President is scarcely hidden behind a rather wilted fig leaf of protestations to the contrary, and his contempt for anybody who disagrees with him is plain in his casual and dismissive tone. He is absurdly preoccupied with meaningless minutiae, such as his fixation on Obama’s removal of Churchill’s bust from the White House, reading volumes into trifling happenstances. Sadly, this book has nothing whatsoever to recommend it, even for those looking for a book critical of Barack Obama. It is an ugly relic of the past, and a venomous agitation that stoops to the lowest of levels to make its erratic and misplaced attacks.

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From October to Brest-Litovsk, by Leon Trotsky

May 27, 2012 at 22:18 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

4/10

Trotsky’s apologetic regarding one of the least popular pieces of Bolshevik policy is at times ludicrous, at times deeply compelling, at times simpering, but almost always rather dull. For all the man’s attested energy and rhetorical gymnastic ability, he wrote this pamphlet as an intellectual exercise aimed at his allies and enemies in the byzantine tangle of the fledgling Bolshevik government, not for the workers whose rights he constantly trumpets.

“…appealing to all the workers, soldiers and peasants. In this appeal we declared that under no circumstances would we permit our army to shed its blood under the club of the foreign bourgeouise.”

-From October to Brest-Litovsk

Consequently, the argument is convoluted and lumbering. A common ideological base is taken for granted, and as Trotsky attempts to defend an indefensible treaty, it is possible to see him tip-toeing through his precepts and conclusions, almost as if feeling his way as he goes, wary of stepping upon the wrong tail.

His recapitulation of the October Revolution is the most ponderous section of this treatise, and the hardest to wrestle through. Either in an attempt to honour his allies, or else tar his enemies with whatever brush they might use on him, he is positively promiscuous in his scattering of names through his account. Fascinating as an insight into the miasma of Bolshevik politics perhaps, but not thrilling reading. The account picks up considerably towards the end, and there are some genuinely fascinating windows into the three-way diplomatic tug-of-war between the Central Powers, the Triple-Entente, and the Russians; as well as the various puppets of each.

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The Tea Party Goes to Washington, by Rand Paul

February 8, 2012 at 20:02 (Book Reviews, Mediocre Books, Philosophy, Politics) (, , , )

5/10

To glance the crudely-sketched comic on this book’s cover and take in the name emblazoned above its title, readers might fear the worst. How much political theory can really be compacted into a two-hundred page book? Which chapter might detail a raving warning about Liberals murthering us in our beds with the guns they’ve plucked from our patriotic hands?

But it is a welcoming surprise to find that Senator Rand Paul does not quite fit his caricature. He is full of the whimsy and self-important gas that most politicians of this age are, and his book is equal parts a clarion call to casual libertarians, and waffling autobiography. For the first fifty pages or so, Paul speaks softly and waxes conciliatory. He goes so far to acknowledge that some of the points he makes have another side to them, and that some of the issues he is most passionate about have good counter-points to them.

“…saying that libertarianism isn’t conservatism is like saying communism isn’t socialism or progressivism isn’t liberalism–yet, it’s amusing the degree to which some people still seem to think the two philosophies are incompatible or exclusive.”

-The Tea Party Goes to Washington

Speaking in a literary sense, it is difficult to take any writer seriously who refuses to recognise his own faults, or who makes pretend that his opponents are fiends in human guise. It is hard to stomach the blustering tirades of writers whose fanaticism pours out colourblind manifestos rather than carefully constructed arguments. Rand Paul is guilty of neither of these sins; not here, anyway. For this reason his book remains palatable, and will not be too difficult to read through to the end, for Republicans, for Democrats, or for the rest of us.

It does grow difficult, however, when his passion and fervour take him in dangerous directions. Where he stoops to childish parroting of stock phrases and hackneyed slogans, long bereft of any real meaning and designed for emotional impact only. To a rational reader, his constant invocation of the ghost of Reagan, the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, liberty, small government, freedom, the spectre of communism–all these are swiftly denuded of any actual meaning, and become as useless as old socialist dogma about the working class, the bloodstained flag, the bourgeouise, the reactionaries–and all that claptrap. Seldom does he stop to explain what he even means with some of his key phrases.

“My father also made the point that Obamacare, or the very concept of having a ‘right’ to healthcare, undermines not only the free market but some of the most basic precepts of American life and liberty.”

-The Tea Party Goes to Washington

Does he believe in the liberty to speak one’s mind, the liberty to wreak vengeance upon one’s enemy, the liberty to starve in the street, the liberty to own tanks, or the liberty to give children halucinogens? He never really explains. His definitions are fuzzy around the edges, and limited to one or two hard cases that are nonetheless themselves without context.  For instance, he loudly trumpets his cause against domestic espionage and wiretapping, presenting it as an obvious case where the Fourth Amendment is being violated. He may very well have a point there; but he makes a very poor show of demonstrating his point, contenting himself instead with leaving the point as self evident. This hurts him when he comes to more complex issues. He is simply not willing to venture beyond his catchphrase politics.

So what of this book? It makes a pretence of being some kind of systematic treatment of the Tea Party’s beliefs, but it is long on rhetorical posturing and short on substance. Rand Paul makes a fairly convincing case here that he is not a bad person, but that does not necessarily make him a good politician, or a good writer.

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