Monday, 23 February 2009

“Our Lincoln”, Edited by Eric Foner (W.W. Norton)


A collection of eleven essays that take a new look at the 16th US President

In 1876, Frederick Douglass observed at the dedication of Freedmans Monument, that “No man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.” What Our Lincoln seeks (in a way) to do is prove Douglass wrong, to coincide with Lincoln’s bicentennial.

The collection of essays is expansive in its breadth of subject. Some more typical themes are given attention – Lincoln’s religious views (Andrew Delbanco and Richard Carwardine write particularly good articles on this subject), and more study on Lincoln’s perspectives on slavery, race and citizenship (James Oakes, Eric Foner, and Manisha Sinha). Some of these essays are focused on less-popular fields of study, however, and this is where Our Lincoln is particularly interesting. James M. McPherson, one of America’s most accomplished and renowned Civil War scholars has written a very good (if a tad dry) essay about Lincoln as commander-in-chief – a surprisingly neglected field of study. Sean Wilentz, another of America’s premiere historians discusses (in the best essay) Lincoln’s evolving political positions in the context of party politics (paying attention to his Whig partisanship and ideology even after the party was defunct). Other areas given attention are Lincoln’s family life (Catherine Clinton), his place in politics and memory (a particularly good essay by David W. Blight), and also his literary style (included in Andrew Delbanco’s essay). The authors place Lincoln in his time and also in the broader American political and historical context.

The book will offer plenty for any student of Lincoln, the Civil War or American history as a whole. Comprised of intelligently argued positions, well-crafted and composed essays, Our Lincoln is a valuable addition to the study of America’s 16th, favourite president.

Further Reading: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2009); James M. McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander In Chief (2008); Harold Holzer’s Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln & the Great Secession Winter (April 2009); Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: the Biography of a Writer (2008); Sean Wilentz’s The Best American History Essays on Lincoln (2008) & The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2007)

Friday, 20 February 2009

“The Legacy of George W. Bush’s Foreign Policy”, by Ilan Peleg (Westview Press)

Peleg-LegacyOfGWBFPA comprehensive look at the 43rd President’s Foreign Policy

Ilan Peleg has written an accessible thesis on George W. Bush’s foreign policy and what it means for the future of American standing in the world, including his prescriptions of how the US should move forward.

Broken into easily-digestible chapters, the book attempts to explain US foreign policy between 2001 and 2008 in terms of global changes and challenges, ideological formulae, the personal characteristics of George W. Bush, and the decision-making process adopted by the president and his advisors. Each of these factors receives a chapter, and is well discussed. There is an undoubtedly liberal slant to Peleg’s arguments, but predominately the author’s preference for ideologically-neutral foreign policy Realism is welcome and sensible (in my opinion), and outlined and argued in a calm and measured manner.

Peleg argues that Bush’s approach to foreign policy was “a dramatic shift from the traditional principles of American foreign and security policy, particularly the strong American tendency toward pragmatism,” the result of an administration looking at the world through “an attitudinal prism somewhat detached from the reality of the international system.” He sets his argument out by first locating Bush administration in the context of other post-Cold War presidents (whose foreign policies Peleg seems to have approved of), and then providing a short look at the evolution of Neoconservatism – the ideology he believes influenced Bush’s foreign policy more than any other. These are common themes to include in any book about the Bush administration, and they are well summarised here.

It is the second half of the book, however, that is most useful and interesting. The chapter on Bush’s character in particular, as it attempts to ascertain the impact of Bush the individual on foreign policy. The author acknowledges that the influence of any one man on policy is limited, but in the case of 2001-2008, “the impact of the president’s personality seems to have been substantial.” This is the result of the situation Bush found himself in; during times of crisis the president often takes a central role in policy formulation. In this instance, Bush brought with him an “extreme Manichean, absolutist mindset, a tendency to view the world as a monumental, moralistic battlefield between good and evil.” In this chapter we also have one of Peleg’s more inflammatory statements: “Bush’s personality, along with several world events and the Neocon ideology, made an endless war unavoidable.” While I am personally unconvinced that this is the case, the author does an admirable job of arguing his position.

Peleg argues that the influence of the Neoconservatives and assertive nationalists on George W. Bush is likely the result of “conviction, weakness, or inexperience, or possibly a combination of all three.” In the decision-making chapter, Peleg analyses the influence of those Bush surrounded himself with, most particularly the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney (I’d recommend Barton Gellman’s Angler for more on Cheney’s role in the Bush administration). He also briefly discusses the importance of think tanks, the media, the political elite, and other governmental branches (State, Defence, Congress, etc.). It makes for a comprehensive, yet compact chapter.

In the book’s final chapter, Peleg outlines his suggestions for how best to put the US back on track. With an increasing number of issues on Obama’s agenda – from a rising China and reassertive Russia, Afghanistan, energy, environment, Iran and North Korea, “only a multilateral and global approach to these unprecedented challenges of the twenty-first century can succeed.”

While I agree with about 90% of what he writes and argues, I would say that he does not give enough attention to the ideological shift in Bush’s second term, and particularly the final two years of his administration, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (a foreign policy Realist) was able to exert greater control on diplomatic endeavours, and when Dick Cheney’s influence waned. The author touches on this early on in the book, but doesn’t give enough credit to Rice for steering certain policies back onto a more sure-footing. It is strange especially because it adheres to one of Peleg’s main arguments of how the US should pursue its foreign policy in the future – namely, in a more Realistic manner. The Neoconservatives are therefore given perhaps a little too much credit for their influence.

Ilan Peleg writes in a very accessible style, always ready to explain certain terminologies and bits of jargon, in an attempt to make the book useful for academics, but also interesting for laymen. The book pulls together the major approaches to the Bush Foreign Policy, outlining the various aspects of the field of study. In this respect, the book is an excellent addition to the ever-growing body of work discussing Bush-43’s foreign policy, and could work very well as an introductory text.

Further Reading:

On Bush’s FP: Ivo Daalder & James Lindsay’s America Unbound (2005); Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power (2008); Fred Kaplan’s Daydream Believers (2008); Bob Woodward’s Bush At War (2003), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006), The War Within (2008); Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (2007); Ikenberry, Knock, Slaughter & Smith’s The Crisis of American Foreign Policy (2009); Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right (2008)

On Future US FP: Melvyn Leffler & Jeffrey Legro’s To Lead The World (2008); David E. Sanger’s The Inheritance (2009); Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World (2008); Timothy Lynch & Robert Singh’s After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy (2008 – an alternate perspective)

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

“Abraham Lincoln”, by George S. McGovern (Times Books)


An excellent, short biography of America’s 16th president

With the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, it is not surprising to find a large number of new volumes on the 16th president coming out. While many question the necessity of more books on Lincoln (there are more published works on Lincoln than any other person in history – edging well over 16,000, if the Economist is to be believed), McGovern has written a short, highly readable account of Lincoln’s life.

Lincoln is a personal favourite of mine, and not only because of his great deeds as president. His wit and intelligence is evident in almost everything he ever wrote. McGovern has written a perfect introduction to Lincoln, that should appeal to casual readers and scholars alike. McGovern details Lincoln’s life, how he was “a self-made man who rose above the circumstances of his birth”, and receiving only one year of formal education nonetheless “rose improbably and unevenly, becoming a clerk, surveyor, businessman, lawyer, family man, statesman, and national political figure”.

Balanced and fair, the book does not pass over Lincoln faults – the suspension of habeus corpus during the civil war, for example, McGovern appears to take particular issue with; likewise the closing of certain newspapers that were critical of Lincoln. The author also details Lincoln’s contradictory character – funny, personable, yet oft-crippled by depression (what he and friends called his “melancholy”). This offers the reader a well-rounded, balanced, but also surprisingly complete biography (given its mere 155 pages) of America’s favourite president. It also encourages others to follow his example – knowledge-seeking, self-taught, tenacious (if in a rather quiet manner), yet still civil and honest. There is little wonder that Lincoln has achieved the mythic status he has.

Like all volumes in Times Books’ American President Series, this is a superb, short-volume biography, which bridges the divide between scholarship and popular history, while offering a positive picture of the president in question. Beautifully written, engaging and entertaining, I’d recommend this as a starting point for anyone interested in learning more about Abraham Lincoln.

An excellent read.

Also try: Thomas Kenneally’s Lincoln (2003 – another short, amusing biography); Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2009 – this is much longer, and some people might find its level of detail suffocating); Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Towards None (1994); David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (1996)

Saturday, 14 February 2009

“The Conscience of a Liberal”, by Paul Krugman (Penguin)


An unapologetically liberal manifesto for how to approach the ailing US economy, and reclaim politics from the Right

In Conscience of a Liberal, Nobel-Prize-winning economist/journalist Paul Krugman proposes that the United States is ready for, and in desperate need of a “new New Deal”. After an introduction that comments on the changing political and economic situation between the two editions of this book, Krugman turns his attention to writing a progressive prescription for fixing much of what is wrong with the United States (in the author’s eyes at least, but also a growing percentage of Americans).

Moving through a historical progression of the US economy, Krugman explains how wealth and equality have changed through the ages, from the Long Gilded Age (1870s-1930s) to the rise of movement conservatism since the 1980s. As an economist, Krugman has an affinity with statistics and data, which he uses extensively to back up his arguments, though not so much as to bore the reader. As a journalist, he is able to convey complex arguments in simplified terms – a boon for many readers, including myself.

The bulk of the book is comprised of Krugman’s chronological analysis of the shifting themes and issues of America’s political economy. The Conscience of a Liberal is written with a keen eye for social and political commentary and analysis, with a particular (though not overwhelming) focus on the importance of race and how “racial antagonism has had a pervasive and malign effect on American politics, largely to conservative advantage”. Krugman is particularly good when describing the evolution of the American economy and politics, how “FDR’s mission in office was to show that government activism works”, only for the right-ward shift in politics to bring this view to an end. Conservative political addictions to tax cuts for the rich, and opposition to social programs and labour unions have all resulted, Krugman argues, in growing inequality. Though, while it is clear that the author believes (maybe a little too fervently) the majority of blame should be laid at the feet of those on the right, the role of technology is unquestionable, and Krugman describes and explains both the positive and negative effects of modernization, and how they have exacerbated the changing economic and political norms.

Rather than a stuffy history of America’s economy, Krugman writes with a discerning eye, excellent analysis, and yet also a lighter touch, sprinkling the occasional, amusing observation about (especially, but not solely) movement conservatism, and its obsession with other people’s sex-lives, or the hypocrisies inherent in certain conservative political platforms, and the strange acceptance of supply-side economics (promoted by Irving Kristol in The Public Interest, all but saying he did so solely for political reasons to help the right win elections). As an economist, it is refreshing that Krugman suggests that the invisible hand of the market is not infallible, and that, from time to time, there is good reason (even a need) for government to intervene in the markets.

Lacking the stridence of an ideologue, Krugman acknowledges the limitations of his data and arguments (how often does that happen?), though defends them well, without falling back on typical or tired liberal tropes or sound-bites. His extensive use of data also makes it difficult to argue with many of his statements and suggestions (though many still do).

The Conscience of a Liberal is an excellent, accessibly-written, liberal case for revitalising US public institutions. Krugman should be applauded for writing an overtly liberal case, where many have become afraid to do so. Recommended reading.

Also try: Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew (2008), John W. Dean’s “Broken Government” (2008), Robert Kuttner’s “The Squandering of America” (2008)

Sunday, 8 February 2009

“Liberal Fascism”, by Jonah Goldberg (Penguin)

Goldberg-LiberalFascismA conservative look at the underbelly of American Liberalism

In Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg has set out to respond to the liberal knee-jerk reaction of accusing American conservatives of being “fascists”. Instead, he argues, it is the political left that is the more fascist. This is an unorthodox claim, but Goldberg proceeds to lay out a well-constructed, calm and composed argument that this is, in fact, the case. Working his way through American history, from Wilson and FDR, Kennedy and Johnson, Hillary Clinton (a bĂȘte noire of conservatives, and Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads”), as well as “Liberal Fascist Economics”, and environmentalism, Goldberg paints an interesting, “alternative history” of the American liberal left.

Goldberg’s argument is that fascism is a “secular religion”, which reaches into every part of life and society. The author begins by introducing the book, with a brief outline of how he’s going to construct his argument, the author provides a quick literature-review of works already published about fascism, as well as explaining what fascism actually is: in short, governmental control over nearly everything, and not the racist, homophobic militarism of Hitler. Later in the book, Goldberg explains that liberal fascism has a visceral need to impose order on society. Two short chapters about Mussolini and Hitler, the world’s two most famous fascists, provide detailed explanation of how each of these two men’s political ideology was formed, and also how they were different in important ways. Written in a largely dispassionate way, these chapters are especially good.

“American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying.” So says Goldberg in the introduction, before he proceeds to disprove this statement – especially in the chapter about Woodrow Wilson. In this chapter, the author describes the various “patriotic” organisations and policies brought into reality during Wilson’s presidency; including the Espionage Act (June 1917), the Sedition Act (May 1918) and the American Protective League (APL), which were really civilian spies. The practice of using civilian spy-networks was not reserved for Wilson’s presidency, as according to Goldberg FDR would try to use the American League in much the same way, not to mention Japanese internment in 1942. Goldberg also comments on the admiration some progressives actually felt towards Hitler and Mussolini (written in the 1920s and 1930s, rather than contemporarily) and their ability to control or guide their respective societies.

One of Goldberg’s more interesting comments: “perhaps the greatest irony is that according to most of the criteria we use to locate people and policies on the ideological spectrum in the American context – social bases, demographics, economic policies, social welfare provisions – Adolf Hitler was indisputably to Wilson’s left.”

It is when Goldberg discusses modern liberalism that things become a little wonky. His passions are certainly more energised when writing about Hillary Clinton, “Organic Fascism”, and Hollywood (he has some strange ideas about certain movies, including The Matrix, Gladiator and American Beauty). One weakness of Liberal Fascism is that Goldberg’s phraseology and observations can easily be attributed to certain conservative factions, which the author (of course) doesn’t do. For example, Goldberg says that American liberals see “no realm of human life that is beyond political significance”. How is this any different from the conservative right? He continues, “Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who now better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend ‘nontraditional’ beliefs.” With very few changes (“priestly experts” to “priests”, for example), this could be thrown back at the extreme right, or the conservative equivalent of the Progressive left.

It would be difficult to argue that this book is ‘wrong’ (there are no lies, only the occasional omission and frequent hyperbole). There’s plenty in Liberal Fascism that will make even the most dyed-in-the-wool liberal pause for thought (especially the history chapters), and it’s difficult to fault Goldberg’s “fascist” accusations when you consider things like New York’s trans-fat ban, the war on smoking around the Western world, the banning of LEGO in a Seattle day-care centre, and other such socially-charged laws, not to mention the more scary and wider-reaching policies described above. When analysing contemporary liberalism, however, Goldberg occasionally comes across as reaching. He also suffers from tarring all liberals with the same brush – to be fair, though, liberals do that with conservatives. At least conservatives are not left out of his analysis, as the Afterword deals with Conservative Fascism as the author sees it, with the GOP adapting to the American political environment.

Overall, this is a good book: well-written, always interesting, measured with only fleeting instances of hyperbole, occasionally amusing, and frequently illuminating (particularly of the roots of Nazism and Mussolini’s fascism). The different take on liberal icons and holy grails is refreshing. Goldberg doesn’t attempt to make this an academic exercise, rather a long-form journalistic appraisal of liberalism and its preconceptions, not to mention its contradictions. The blurb on the back describes it as “angry”, but to me it came across mostly calm and is the better for it. Even though it’s unlikely to change anyone’s ideological bias, every conservative and liberal should read Liberal Fascism, as something to energise and stimulate new debate, and also to hopefully inject just a little more understanding of the roots of American liberalism.

Also try: David Frum, “Comeback” (2008); Ross Douthat, “Grand New Party” (2008); Ron Paul, “The Revolution” (2008); Newt Gingrich, “Real Change” (2008); Paul Khan, “Putting Liberalism in its Place” (2008)

Read if you disagree with: Paul Krugman, “Conscience of a Liberal” (2008/9); Thomas Frank, “The Wrecking Crew” (2008)