Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or try to ignore ‘em, politics are a fact of life—and not just in election cycles. In fact, elections may be one of the least significant events in our political lives since they rarely bring about radical change. Besides, there are always people who are too young, too marginalized, or too cynical to vote on the issues that affect them. But they can always take their grievances to the streets, an arena in which the fate of many a nation has been determined.
The world is a tinderbox. America is in economic recession, and China is struggling to reconcile rampant capitalism with rigid state planning and control. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain—the Arab Spring countries—teeter on the slippery debris of unfinished revolutions. Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy are mired in debt and squeezing their understandably resistant citizens to balance the books. Syria is careening toward civil war or worse. Afghanistan and Pakistan are open wounds. Obviously, politics—the process of living and functioning together—matter greatly.
Six new books have a lot to say about what’s gone wrong and right with governments and social movements and how politics wisely practiced may yet make things better.
From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, edited by Anya Schiffrin and Eamon Kircher-Allen (The New Press, 978-1-59558-827-2, $16.95), is a collection of eye-witness accounts from those who participated in the Arab Spring and Eurozone resistance actions, as well as the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London uprisings. There’s even a report on attempts by students in Chile to counter that country’s move toward privatized (and prohibitively expensive) higher education. Particularly instructive contributions are Haythem El Mekki’s “Internet Activism, Tunisian Style,” which shows the flexibility of technology in getting news out, even in a heavily censored and “underwired” country; and Lisa Epstein’s “The Accidental Activist,” a journal of how a determined individual succeeded in exposing criminality in America’s home foreclosure business.
Nearly two dozen case studies in political organizing, most of them from Canada, are presented in Organize! Building From the Local for Global Justice, edited by Aziz Choudry, Jill Hanley, and Eric Shragge (PM Press, 978-1-60486-433-5, $24.95). The techniques cited range from simply paying more attention to the voices of the victims of injustice to using art and music to unite people behind a common cause. The two primary themes that emerge from these examples are that movements can be—and often are—co-opted by the very forces they were established to oppose, and that local movements alone are insufficient to hold back the depredations of such global forces as colonialism and capitalism. The implicit conclusion here is that global enemies require a global network of resistance.
In Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance (Vanderbilt University Press, 978-0-8265-1855-2, $34.95), George Michael, an associate professor of nuclear counterproliferation and deterrence at the Air War College, draws together copious examples of how individual acts of terrorism constitute a distinctly new stage of warfare—and thus need to be studied and guarded against. Whether it’s the libertarian, Christian antiabortion, or Islamic terrorism of the Right, or the antiglobalism or eco-terrorism of the Left, Michael argues that each constitutes a growing danger that nations must learn to deal with. To that end, he cites sources of terrorist inspiration and examines the rationales behind those who advocate individual resistance. This new face of war, he points out, is aided by the communicating and organizing power of the Internet, the availability of more portable lethal weaponry, and the proliferation of “soft” targets.
Declaring that he’s a political centrist, Michael Austin nonetheless comes down hard on those who invoke America’s founders as omnipotent deities in That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers From America’s Right Wing (Prometheus Books, 978-1-61614-670-2). His chief complaint is that right-wingers pluck quotations out of context or fabricate them to endorse their own political views. He labels this practice “proof-text patriotism.” Does a sentence George Washington wrote in the heat of the moment represent his complete and more-seasoned thoughts on the subject? Did a view Jefferson held when he was the governor of Virginia remain the same when he was president of the United States? Not only were the founding fathers never unanimous in their political views, Austin notes, they were also inclined to change views as circumstances altered—which Tea Partiers would regard as heresy. To those who wonder why we should care about what the founding fathers thought—since they’re long dead and we’re not—Austin replies that they had political ideas that could still prove useful to us. It does seem strange, though, that those who despise government regulation should so cherish the Constitution, which is the very embodiment of government regulation.
On its most enjoyable level, James Gannon’s The Reckless Presidency of George W. Bush (Aeon Academic, 978-1-936672-28-8, $24.95) is a grand exercise in I Told You So to Bush partisans: I told you there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I told you the war wouldn’t pay for itself. I told you that a massive tax cut wouldn’t help the economy. But beyond that, it’s a cautionary tale about how a congenial personality, coached by devious advisors and aided by a first-rate public relations staff, can make truly hideous ideas—including unprovoked war, torture of prisoners, denial of due process, destruction of the environment, and the dismantling of Social Security—seem palatable.
David H. Ikard and Martell Lee Treadwell take the title of their book—Nation of Cowards: Black Activism in Barack Obama’s Post-Racial America (Indiana University Press, 978-0-253-00898-5)—from Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2009 speech in which he branded America as “essentially a nation of cowards” for failing to acknowledge and confront the issues of racism. On this point, the authors agree. They wholly reject the notion that America’s election of its first black president means the country has reached a “post-racial” plateau. Indeed, they return to President Obama again and again to illustrate how he has let down his race by allowing Americans to believe they’ve paid their debt to the descendants of people their ancestors once enslaved and from whose labors they still profit. “Obama’s conspicuous inattention to the [Congressional Black Caucus] and Black America at large,” the authors conclude, “underscores the problem of this ‘mission-accomplished’ mindset—a problem, we are sad to say, that Black America in particular has yet to fully register.” They advise Black Americans to push harder against Obama for relief rather than give him a pass for being one of their own. Post-racial? Puh-leaze!