Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: I may not have been the right audience for this book dedicated to arguing that abolitionism wasn’t a white movement, but rather constantly influenced and guided by African-American voices, and otherwise more open to appeals to women’s rights and worker’s rights than it has sometimes been portrayed.  (I'm not the right audience because I'm not embedded in that literature.) Sinha makes the case that self-emancipation—escape from slavery—produced some of the most influential voices on behalf of enslaved people. I also did learn this wonderful line from Frederick Douglass: “What O’Connell said of the history of Ireland may with greater truth be said of the negro’s. It may be ‘traced like a wounded man through a crowd, by the blood.’” (I hear Douglass is doing great things recently.)

 Sarah Kendzior, The View from Flyover Country: Collection of Kendzior’s short pieces, often on poverty, the disappearance of jobs, and the associated disappearance of compassion in America, as the wealthy retreat so that they never have to encounter the poor, and everyone participates in a tournament for the few remaining high-paying jobs. Several pieces use unpaid internships to highlight these changes—since only wealthy people can afford them, she says, they recast privilege as perserverance, and send the message that work isn’t labor worth paying for but rather charity bestowed by the powerful. Quoting David Graeber, she suggests that one reason right-wing populists hate liberal elites is that the liberals “grabbed all the jobs where you get paid to do something that isn’t just for the money—the pursuit of art, or truth, or charity. All they can do if they want to do something bigger than themselves and still get paid is join the army.” She also writes about the indignities of would-be academics forced into permanent adjuncting, as best; it’s a kind of cult, where if you work outside of academia even to keep body and soul together you’re considered not serious enough. She also writes about the value of open access to scholarship—her own work on authoritarian regimes, because it was publicly available, helped people avoid deportation to a country where they’d have been jailed or killed.

She has some very nice turns of phrase. “It could always be worse, they say. They don’t like to say that it could always be better, because that would require redress.” “The social contract does not apply to contract workers ….” “For the average married mother of small children, it is often cheaper to stay home—even if she would prefer to be in the workforce. It is hard to ‘lean in’ when you are priced out.” On high college costs: “College is a purchased loyalty oath to an imagined employer. College shows you are serious enough about your life to risk ruining it early on. College is a promise the economy does not keep.” “The worst thing about the Iraq war was not that people got away with lying. It was that they did not—and it did not matter.” “If you are being ‘humanized,’ you are already losing. To be ‘humanized’ implies that your humanity is never assumed, but something you have to prove.”

Jill Filipovic, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness: How the intersection between misogyny and America’s anti-pleasure culture makes everything worse. Nothing shocking if you’ve been reading in the feminist blogosphere, but a good overview of everything from work to motherhood to sex to food. Prioritizing one’s own happiness is, for women, a huge and radical act, and one that is likely to draw condemnation from all sides. (See, e.g., internalized misogyny in fandom that combines with ageism.) This isn’t limited to sex, but Filipovic argues that sex is a big part of it. “Lesbians orgasm 75 percent of the time, which is almost as often as men who have sex with women orgasm, suggesting the problem is less the female body than either male sexual aptitude or male sexual effort.” If sex was just good, not shameful and threatening, “the entire experience of womanhood—the definition of womanhood—would be unrecognizable.” But for women, being “good” has too long meant saying no—to sex, to food, to pleasure. Sacrifice and fear—avoiding parties, worrying about attacks in parking lots, wearing high heels, spending hours on makeup—are too central to “womanhood” in America.

And then there’s motherhood: borrowing from Adrienne Rich, Filipovic reminds us that “mothering” is an ongoing action, and “fathering” is an emission, and that’s a big problem. Work as a source of positive identity is a goal: daughters of mothers who work for money are higher-achieving than daughters of mothers who don’t work outside the home, and their sons do more work at home, including childcare. Contrariwise, men whose wives stay at home are more likely to discriminate against female coworkers—Mike Pence to the contrary. Yet high-achieving men are much more likely to assume that their wives won’t work, whereas high-achieving women think that they’ll both work (and are attracted to men with similar ambitions to their own, setting them up for a big clash). Most such men ended up satisfied, while many of their female peers found themselves driven out of the workforce if they married and had children. The problems of poor working women are different and shameful for us as a nation, but also gendered and raced. Poor women lack respect, time, and child care along with money and good work, and these things reinforce each other and are used to blame women for their own situations.

David Satter, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Vladimir Putin is one bad, corrupt dude. Satter’s basic argument is that instead of transitioning from Communism to democracy, Russia went almost straight to authoritarianism, with no tradition of regard for the value of people in themselves. Thus, the security services are routinely willing to set up or even fake “terrorist” incidents in order to build support for repressive and expansionist policies, from the election that initially put Putin in power to the justification for invading Ukraine. Not reassuring.

Sean Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die: Detailed account of a FUBAR battle in Afghanistan, heavy on military lingo and on explaining from the Americans’-eye view what went wrong in the chain of command, leading to the preventable deaths of several soldiers despite the training, in-the-moment competence, and equipment available to those soldiers. Another lesson in: don’t ever think you know what a military operation will be like. Or, as one aphorism Naylor quotes says, no matter how good your plan is, remember that the enemy gets to vote on it too.

Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: The decisions that hollowed out the American economy were, Stein suggests, largely made in the 1970s and 1980s, when Cold War alliance-building led American politicians to ignore violations of free trade rules by countries the US wanted on its side. Thus, Japan and France and several other nations could freely dump their goods in the US in support of developing their own national industries, and the US allowed it.

Robert Service, The End of the Cold War 1985-1991: Very flattering depiction of Reagan as holding a hard line on the Soviets while always being willing to negotiate if the Soviets made the right concessions on human rights and accepting Star Wars. Meanwhile, Gorbachev, understanding the USSR’s increasingly desperate economic circumstances, was forced to the negotiating table so he could stop spending so much on defense. However, if you read carefully, Reagan kind of went with the last person he talked with—so when George Schultz was the last person, he was more willing to negotiate, and when Cap Weinberger was the last person, he was a hawk.

Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich: OK, in one sense this is kind of reassuring, in that one of Evans’ central arguments is that Weimar democracy was never strong—it never had large parties fully committed to the democratic experiment; it never had a truly independent civil service or court system that was fully committed; it began haunted by the “betrayals” of WWI and with a whole lot of former soldiers committed to German militarism who thought that violence solved things. On the other, there are way too many other parallels to the current US for any comfort. Evans emphasizes the Nazis’ ability to create a movement sweeping the German people into the future, without concrete solutions to Germany’s actual problems but a promise of future greatness. Also, the Nazis’ use of violence created perceptions of public disorder that they then capitalized on, successfully blaming Communists for stormtroopers’ violence. There were already deep-seated vulnerabilities on which the Nazis were able to capitalize. Hitler came to power in significant part because of mistakes made by other people and parties; the Germans didn’t elect him Reich Chancellor—what Evans calls “political suicide rather than political murder.”

And yet. Here are some parallels to make you nervous: “Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic. Many of them, too, particularly in rural areas, small towns, small workshops, culturally conservative families, may have been registering their alienation from the cultural and political modernity for which the Republic stood …. The vagueness of the Nazi programme, its symbolic mixture of old and new, its eclectic, often inconsistent character, to a large extent allowed people to read into it what they wanted to and edit out anything they might have found disturbing.” Also, a timely quote from one of Hitler’s opponents: “Referring to Hitler’s constantly reiterated assurances that he intended to come to power legally, Brüning said: ‘If one declares that, having come to power by legal means, one will then break the bounds of the law, that is not legality.’”

Goebbels, soon after coming to power, told newspapermen attending his first official press conference, “You are to know not only what is happening, but also the government’s view of it and how you can convey that to the people most effectively.” Goebbels also mocked “The stupidity of democracy. It will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.” The Nazis opposed academic freedom because, as Heidegger told academics, “this freedom was not genuine, because it is only negative.” It didn’t have anything to do with the mission of following the leader. When the Chairman of the Board of I.G. Farben, the Nobel-winning chemist Carl Bosch, met Hitler in 1933, he complained about the damage that dismissal of Jewish professors did to German science, Hitler told him that “Germany could go on for another hundred years without any physics or chemistry at all” and kicked him out.
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