Friday, 26 September 2008

Retrospective Review: "Rise to Globalism", by Stephen E. Ambrose & Douglas G. Brinkley (Penguin)

Ten Years On, Still One Of The Best...

Every so often, a book is released that manages to stay relevant and peerless on its given subject. When it comes to histories of American Foreign Policy, Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley's Rise To Globalism (first published in 1971, and updated eight times) is one of those books.

Beginning in 1938, as Roosevelt was confronted with growing strife and uncertainty in Europe, and spanning the entirety of US foreign policy up to the end of Clinton's first term, Ambrose and Brinkley have created a superb description of how the United States got to where it is. Of specific quality and interest:
  • Insight into Roosevelt's battle to get America involved in the United Nations
  • Truman's implementation of the containment policy and NSC-68
  • Treatment of the Vietnam War and the policies that went into starting it as well as dragging it on far longer than it ever should have lasted
  • Nixon's foreign policy successes and domestic failure (Watergate)
  • Reagan's administration, full of bluster to begin with, calm and considered towards the end
  • The End of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its impact on the USA
  • The first Bush presidency: the interventionism (Gulf War) and caution (Yugoslavia), the uncertainty of America's new foreign policy direction
No issue or event is left out, and Ambrose draws from a number of ideologies to avoid too much bias - but, as with any political title, there is a certain amount of bias that is unavoidable (such as his disdain for Reagan, which creeps out in chapter 15 - "Reagan & The Evil Empire"), but even then he does not shirk from his duties as a historian to provide a well-rounded account of events. While not all presidents/decades receive the same amount of attention comparative to their times in office, there is still at least a chapter on those presidents usually forgotten by other historians and analysist (e.g. Carter).

Written in an accessible, fluid style, and devoid of overly-academic terms or passages, Rise to Globalism contains plenty of analysis as well as in-depth description of events and issues, and the characters involved in them. Whenever I need clarification of an issue or more details of an event for my PhD thesis, I turn to Ambrose and Brinkley.

If I had to recommend one book about this period in America's history, it would be this one.

Essential reading.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

"The American Dream", by Harmon Leon (Nation Books)

An amusing, poignant look at the less-than-ordinary pursuits of happiness

Harmon Leon, an award-winning author and journalist, is a very funny man. In American Dream, he has taken a magnifying glass to the various different ways that people in the US pursue their idea of what constitutes "the American Dream". America is perhaps the epitome of the individual-centric nation. Despite that, politicians for generations have talked about what the American Dream might be, usually coming up with a rather conservative, standard ideal of owning your own home, a car or two, a secure and well-paid job and being able to care for your family (and eat whatever you like). All well and good for the majority of Americans, but what about those others who have a different idea in mind? How would one go about defining the American Dream? "In order to better understand the ellusive definition behind these words, I'll infiltrate the lives of vastly different people," Leon writes. And so, he infiltrates the subcultures of...
  • Illegal Immigrants: dreaming of being able to earn a decent wage in the Land Of The Free, mainly because there's no work in the broken economies of their home countries, they put up with back-breaking conditions to earn just over $8/hour. Leon decides that he's going to see what it's acatually like, to start in America as an illegal, so he goes to an "Illegal Immigrant Park/Resort" to experience the crossing, without actually doing it. It's a rather bizarre experience, and one he describes in vivid detail. A more serious chapter, Leon gives a good account of what life really is like for illegals in America, balancing the humour nicely.
  • "Carnies": travelling carnival workers who all seem to think Leon's an undercover cop, all of whom seem to be complete freaks who have done jail-time. ("No matter how hard I try freaking out the carnies, they always end up freaking me out more.")
  • Bible-thumping Christians: a common enough subject for anyone studying the American experience/experiment. While Leon deals with them very well, I can't help but feel that Matt Taibbi and Nicholas Guyatt do a better, funny-and-terrifying-at-the-same-time job of trying to explain the ever-increasing number of evangelical Christians in America.
  • Celebrity Impersonators: "The American Dream is in thrall to the ideal of 'celebrity'... In this cult-of-celebrity obsessed world, simply looking and acting like a famous celebrity is an American Dream." Following an intro by an Ozzy Osbourne impersonator, Leon infiltrates the world of celebrity, attending a convention for impersonators in Las Vegas (where else?) populated by plenty of Cher, Shania Twain, Elvis and Willie Nelson impersonators. Leon tries to pass for a blonde Austin Powers impersonator, with some pretty funny results.
  • Leon also looks at life as a pot-farmer, a gun-toting military-nut, a swinger (a very funny chapter), and a Hollywood hopeful (reality TV, too).
Sprinkled with serious observations and facts, Leon manages to get across the real nature of all these people; describing the difficulties faced by illegals, for example, but also painting honest portraits of his subjects that both entertain and enlighten. If I had but one criticism it would be that his editor needed to weild some scissors a little more enthusiastically, and perhaps reign him in a little more, as he's not as skilled at maintaining the funny as some other authors. (The chapter about Carnies was too long and repetitive, for example.) Nevertheless, The American Dream is filled with laugh-out-loud moments and satirical fun at the expense of Leon's subjects.

If you're down with American humour, you'll like this a lot. Underlying the whole book is a large dose of silliness - Leon will make fun of anyone and anything - the book has brilliant, wry one-liners throughout. And because Leon doesn't focus solely on the usual subcultures (i.e. Christians), The American Dream will surely have something for anyone interested in reading a little more about the less-"standard" people in America.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

"The Great Derangement", by Matt Taibbi (Spiegel & Grau)

"A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire"

Matt Taibbi has been hailed as many great things, including "one of the most astute, entertaining and audacious political reporters of his generation" and "the heir to Hunter S Thompson's gonzo spirit". They're all true. Without a doubt, he is one of the best political reporters in America at the moment: far more insightful and observant, not to mention much less gullible than the "proper" Washington correspondents for major newspapers and news weeklies.

In The Great Derangement, in his trademark mix of serious and biting comedy, Taibbi has turned his eye to three things that dominate American life today: the war in Iraq, politics in Washington, religion and what he refers to as "the bonkerisation of the population". It is a vicious critique of the entrenched interests and norms of Washington, and a lament of how nothing ever changes. After the Republicans lost the majorities in the House and Senate in 2006, Taibbi reports, "it would be a period where the Democrats would prove absolutely that it is possible in America to govern entirely on the appearance of principal - while changing absolutely nothing," and for the press to not even notice, accepting and regurgitating the lines fed to them by the Democratic National Committee and newly promoted Congreemen and Senators.

The first half of the book, written before 2006, shows the Republicans at their worst (the Rules Committee) and lays all their faults out for our disgusted appraisal. Following 2006, however, Taibbi finds himself displaying the Democrats' faults for us, how they succumbed to the same temptations as the "corrupt" Republicans before them. The only person to have so far ever made the US government budget process interesting and engaging, you get the sense that Taibbi is disappointed beyond belief with the Democrats and their pandering to interest groups and bending over for President Bush. He targets for the comically inept 9/11 Truth Movement, who decide to picket his office.

Infiltrating one of the largest churches in the US (Reverend John Hagee's), Taibbi moves to Texas to attend Bible study, weekend retreats, and demon mass-exorcising events. Taibbi describes all of these experiences. It is a surreal world where Americans appear to have lost the thread of reality; where pastors are all-knowing, never-to-be-contradicted seers; he shows compassion when discussing his fellow seekers, some of whom are simply looking for answers to help them cope. Perhaps the funniest scene in the book is his first group-session at the weekend retreat, when he fabricates a difficult-childhood backstory for his undercover persona (I won't spoil it, but it involves big clown shoes). Of the Christian right, he writes:
  • "sometimes I can't help being angry about how dumb and mean our culture has become, how fast that meanness and dumbness is expandingm and how determined some Jesus-culture merchants are that people like me should not escape it."
In Iraq, Taibbi embeds with a couple of regiments, reporting the absurdity of the situation over there, the wasteful spending and futility of the soldiers' mission.

His seering wit is never allowed to take away from the seriousness of the issues he touches upon. When he feels it's important for us to recognise that elections have basically become just "a forum for organising the hatreds of the population", or when he wants us to truly grasp how improbably powerful megachurch patriarchs have become, he allows his sense of humour to take a brief back-seat. The Great Derangement is so much more than just a written attack on politics, as Taibbi explains how actions of a few can affect and distort the lives of the many.

With his keen eye for the absurd, unsurpassed ability at turning a phrase, and skill at portraying the contradictions in American society, Taibbi truly is one of the greatest observers of the American experiment of this generation. The Great Derangement proves that his skills as a reporter and writer are just growing with each new article and book, bringing more insight, humour and understanding to the farce that is American government.

Hilarious, frightening, illuminating, and gripping. Simply superb.

Further Reading: Matt Taibbi, "Smells Like Dead Elephants" & "Spanking the Donkey"; Nicholas Guyatt, "Have A Nice Doomsday"; Harmon Leon, "American Dream"; Thomas Franks "What's the Matter with America" & "The Wrecking Crew".

Monday, 15 September 2008

"America & The World", by Zbigniew Brzezinski & Brent Scowcroft (Basic Books)

Two of America's leading foreign policy specialists discuss the issues that face the United States today and the future

In a similar style to one of Brzezinski's most frequently quoted articles ("The Clash of Titans" with John J. Mearsheimer, Foreign Policy 2005), America And The World is our chance to sit in on a spontaneous, unscripted discussion between the two authors and David Ignatius, who acted as moderator, as they discuss some of the most significant foreign policy challenges facing America today. Brzezinski and Scowcroft, both former National Security Advisors, have a history of working together – in both articles and letters that offer suggestions to administrations if they believe a policy shift is required.

Following the welcoming introduction by Ignatius (which does a brilliant job of dissipating any fears that this might be a stuffy, plodding book), the discussion sets out to give us a “sense of the problem of the world today”, before it moves on to offer solutions for the various
realities confronting the United States, which some will no doubt be familiar with: the war in Iraq; a bellicose and near-nuclear Iran; a resurgent Russia; globalisation and its inherent problems; and growing competition with China and East Asia. As Ignatius says, “Both men believe the United States is in some difficulty abroad because it hasn’t yet adapted to these new realities.”

It is rare to find these topics discussed so openly outside of a lecture or debate. The authors don’t always agree (Brzezinski is a Democrat, Scowcroft is a Republican), but they do manage to find a certain amount of common ground, drawing on their own experiences in government and since to provide advice and anecdotes when warranted. Theoretically, they’re both foreign policy realists, believing that the national interest should form the basis of America’s foreign policy.

An unusual format for such a long work, it works surprisingly well and offers something new in a field that has a tendency to become rather formulaic. That the book describes their differing opinions also makes this book valuable, as it doesn’t just present one ideological argument, rather offering both sides, leaving it to the reader to decide which he/she prefers.

Insightful, learned and well argued, both Brzezinski and Scowcroft present some compelling arguments and suggestions for America's conduct in the near future. The conversational style also allows for some different perspectives on their already published works (either in articles or books) that should also be welcome to people who are looking for more explanation of their opinions, and how they stand up to direct questioning.

Recommended reading.

Extra Mini-Review: “Second Chance”, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

Another excellent book on American foreign policy, this time the author presents the foreign policies of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Brzezinski compares the methods, approach and accomplishments of the three presidents, explaining how they each stepped up to the challenges presented to them upon reaching the White House.

Covering some of the same issues as the above book, Brzezinski discusses the way the international climate is changing – as a result of globalization, the rise of fundamentalism, and a “global political awakening” – and offers some suggestions for tackling these challenges successfully.

Concise, well presented and extremely readable, this is a perfect companion book to American And The World, but also a worthy addition to anyone’s library if they are interested in a more liberal-leaning perspective of international relations, US foreign policy, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Friday, 12 September 2008

"Only In America", by Matt Frei (4th Estate)

A look at life in the United States from one of the BBC's best foreign correspondents.

The beginning of this book was a little strange. I wasn't sure what it was supposed to be - the first handful of chapters seemed a little flippant and in a strange tone, like Frei was still trying to decide what he wanted the book to accomplish. It wasn't clear if he wanted it to be in the same category as Al Franken's The Truth With Jokes, or more cerebral and intellectual political fare.

Thankfully, as the book progresses, Frei seems to find his voice, and decides on his own middle ground, offering a mixture of wit and insight that paints an engrossing picture of America over the past ten years. Only In America is an intelligent critique and appraisal of life in the capital of the USA. With chapters covering his daughters' various schools and the differences between the American and British school systems; the place of think-tanks in American politics (a particularly illuminating chapter); immigration; the Christmas party at the White House (and the author's conveyor-belt meeting with the President) ; his frustrations with the White House press conference experience; and commentary on the Democratic Party's primary battles, to name but a few.

For some interesting inside-the-beltway insight, written in the tight, restrained prose of a talented journalist. With a light touch and a gentle humour, Frei has clearly developed a fondness for his adopted country, and as a result Only In America is an enjoyable read which will entertain anyone interested in Washington and the United States during the Bush years and in the wake of 9/11.

A recommended read.

Also try: Matt Taibbi's The Great Derangement, Nicholas Guyatt's Have A Nice Doomsday, Thomas Frank The Wrecking Crew, Justin Webb's Have A Nice Day (reviews of all of these are upcoming)

Saturday, 6 September 2008

"What They Teach You At Harvard Business School", by Philip Delves Broughton (Penguin/Viking)

A witty, intelligent and very readable account of one man's experiences at Harvard Business School

In his first book, Broughton has written an amusing, insightful account of his time studying at Harvard Business School (HBS). Chronicling his battles with a whole new way of teaching (500 case studies in just two years), and the whole new language of business and “management-ese”, it is a heart-warming memoir of his struggle to balance his life, his family and his hopes of the future.

Broughton covers every aspect of his life at HBS, including a very interesting chapter on how he came to apply in the first place. - afterall, what could make a successful journalist dive into the shark-infested world of MBAs? (The continued decline of British newspapers and his disillusionment with journalism as a whole are two reasons.)

An intimate glimpse into the inner workings of the most prestigious business school in the United States (if not the planet), Broughton sprinkles his chapters with nostalgic descriptions of Harvard University, cynical explanations of some of the tasks he and his classmates were put through, and amusing anecdotes and case studies he came across. One example is the case of a medieval baron who gave two vassals the same resources and land and wanted to know which was the better farmer: "Why any medieval baron given the choice between rape and plunder and bookkeeping might choose the latter beat me."

The first half of the book illustrates how he came to suppress his cynicism towards the institution, and how he was initially put off by the arrogance of the place, the assurance that “Simply by being accepted by HBS, we had entered an ├╝berclass.” Over time, he comes to accept and appreciate what HBS has to offer, even if he retains a good amount of British cynicism and sarcastic wit.

He spends a good deal of the book discussing the diverse backgrounds from which HBS students are drawn from; from the ex-military veterans, accountants, doctors and even a microbiologist. Broughton’s writing is most engaging when he writes about his relationships (both positive and negative) with his classmates and interactions with them – being part of a class of almost 900 type-A personalities clearly wasn’t a picnic.

Understandably, there’s a fair amount of financial and business material discussed, but as the successful, talented journalist Broughton was trained to be, he explains it all in an accessible way (simply but not simplistically). Useful tidbits of finance and business are presented throughout the book, and were as interesting as the human-interest content that forms the bulk of the rest of the book. If, like me, the world of business and finance are completely impenetrable and mind-boggling, then you have nothing to fear from What They Teach You At Harvard Business School – in fact, you’re likely to come away with a much better grasp of the topics Broughton comments on.

As his time at HBS progresses, and he finds that his initial apprehension about being so far behind everyone else is unfounded, he clearly shows his appreciation for the methods used at HBS – such as the support networks provided by the different student “sections” (their version of tutor groups, I suppose, only on a much larger scale). As a thirty-year-old student he’s not as taken with the typical student lifestyle of partying and “booze luges”, but it’s very clear from his writing that he looks back at this time with fondness, if also with a healthy dose of British skepticism and cynicism.

His fluid style and subject matter reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons – while Wolfes is a work of fiction, Broughton has managed to make his account as readable and engaging as any work of fiction. (Indeed, I was up until 3am reading it, which doesn’t happen with much fiction these days.)

An engaging, amusing and illuminating look into American business culture and academics, anyone interested in learning more about why America is the way it is will certainly enjoy this book and learn a great deal. I would encourage anyone to try it, though, as Broughton’s light and deft touch make for one of the most enjoyable reads of the year.

A must read.