Friday, 16 December 2011

Pure Genius from The ONION

The Onion News Network – Always On, Slighty Off…

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Book Signing: President Clinton, “Back To Work” in New York

Just wanted to share this photo – this is one of the best book acquisitions of the year, certainly. I’m a big fan of President Clinton – reading his books, and also about his time in office. His was the first presidency that registered with me: I was only nine years old when he was elected in 1992. When I was in Los Angeles, I volunteered for his Global Initiative anniversary concert at the Hollywood Bowl (perhaps the best night of the trip out West), and today I was able to properly meet the former President – albeit, as part of a considerable queue of people in New York who lined up to buy a signed edition of his new book, Back To Work.


It’s unfortunate he didn’t have time to personalise any of the signatures, but this is still pretty awesome for me – someone who is fascinated by the presidency and the men who have held that office. Not only that, I wrote quite a bit about his presidency and foreign policy in my recently-completed thesis. In fact, as part of my conclusion, I suggest that a couple of the criticisms (from Richard Haass) of his foreign policy may, in fact, be the best way for America to approach its relations with the rest of the world: “case-by-case-ism” and “a la carte” foreign policy – it’s tied into my arguments for a more pluralistic approach to international relations.

This was well worth the two-hour wait in a line that wrapped around two sides of the block. I’ll read and review the book as soon as I get a chance, so watch this space.

Monday, 7 November 2011

In the Oeuvre of Stephen Colbert…?

Sorry, yet another clip from the Rachel Maddow Show, but this one was fascinating. Rachel has been thinking about Herman Cain’s candidacy, and has come to the conclusion that it is a piece of performance art. She comes up with a compelling and amusing case, indeed, and lays it out in full:

Now, where there’s a problem with this, is that his campaign is funded by the Koch Brothers, staffed by AFP staffers (Koch Bros-created/financed institution), and many other links betwixt the two. I just have difficulty believing that the Koch brother, who have been extremely activist when it comes to financing campaigns that will give them whatever they want voices agendas in line with their own, would spend so much time and money on a joke. What would be their motivation? It points to the absurdity of American politics brilliantly, so I don’t see why or how the Koch Brothers or any of Cain’s other backers would benefit from this exercise.

I do, however, think it would be fantastic if this were some kind of Republican attempt to emulate Stephen Colbert’s character-driven comedy. Frightening, but perhaps a little bit genius?

Saturday, 5 November 2011

It’s not just Big Book Fantasy…

… that suffers epic waits between volumes.

I came across this snippet in the latest issue of TIME magazine, and it made me chuckle enough that I thought I’d share it here (and on my other book blog). So, if you thought George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan were taking their time, take a gander:


Friday, 4 November 2011

Romney “as consistent as a human being can be”? Seriously…?

Another startling example of Romney’s inability to grasp the nature of modern technology and its ability to drag up evidence of your flip-floppery. Does he really believe this stuff, or is he just so disconnected from reality, living in a bubble of yes-men and sycophants? Or, perhaps worse, does he have memory problems?

It’s a long clip, but the first half is about Romney, the rest is about Perry and Cain (every time I type that, I almost at a “Mc-” at the beginning). Romney’s continued disconnection from reality is troubling, seeing as he is going to be the Republican nominee (probably), and his naked ambition and willingness to sell-out on every issue to court the supposed-important, utterly nutty party base… well, I don’t think anyone should want someone who exhibits no courage of any convictions that are perceived as politically unsafe.

America does not need a president who only has the courage of his ambitions.

*    *    *    *    *

Update: Here’s another clip about Romney’s flip-flopping and anything but consistency on important conservative/political issues – this time from Lawrence O’Donnell’s Last Word, from last night’s show (Thursday 3rd):

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

“You can’t wait for your freshman microeconomics textbook to come true…”

Another great one from Rachel Maddow’s October 31st show: It’s a long clip, but the first half was very good. So was the second half, but it changed the topic slightly.

This is really weird…

Watching this clip on the Rachel Maddow Show, I can’t help wondering what the hell is wrong with Rick Perry during this speech:

As Rachel says, “it is hard to talk about Perry’s campaign” after watching this. It made me think of Matthew McConaughey acting like a stoned politician. Very bizarre.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Maddow on Romney’s Foreign Policy team

Just thought this was a very good clip, so I shall leave it to Rachel Maddow to enlighten you…

Weekly Standard… What?

I wanted to share a pull-quote from the latest issue of The Weekly Standard, because it has left me utterly confused, and maybe someone can explain it to me. The quote is from Matt Labash’s cover story of this issue, about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Before I get to the quote, however, this is the cover image presenting an oh-so-balanced characterisation of the Occupy Wall Street movement:


(Thousands of people there, but of course this is the true face of the Occupy Wall Street movement, not the eloquent guy they didn’t let on Fox... See below for that.)

Right, to get to the point. Here’s the pull-quote that has made me wonder if my education has missed something rather fundamental:


The Canadians are responsible for “most trouble in the world”, eh? Seriously? Canadians?!

Labash seems to think that the power of a Canadian anticonsumerist magazine, Adbusters, is so great that it can spur such protests across the United States. He then goes on to say that the movement, apparently started by Adbusters (this is the first time I’ve ever heard of this magazine), “for the most part organically mushroomed”, which to everyone else would suggest that it had strong resonance with the people taking part in the protests.

However, this is not the worst part of the article. The worst part of this feature is that Labash admits to doing something that would lead me to fail any of my undergraduate students for doing: citing Wikipedia. On the second page of the article (page 24 of the magazine), he says that he drew on Wikipedia sources. For anyone writing for The Weekly Standard or any major newsweekly, this is disappointing and frankly unacceptable.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

I wonder why this didn’t air on FOX…

Not the best video ever, but the guy makes some good points. MSNBC was a little too gleeful (bit too over the top), but the protester had something worth saying and listening to. Pity Fox didn’t air it, might have generated some proper debate.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Amusing American Prospect Cover

Just thought I’d share the lefty American Prospect magazine’s amusing October cover:


It’s the little “oops” that grabbed my attention. I used to subscribe to the American Prospect when I was writing my PhD (chapter on the media, it was handy and they offered a PDF edition which was doubly useful). This issue might actually be interesting, so I’ll try to pick it up – if I ever find a decent newsstand – and if the article’s any good, I’ll scribble down a few thoughts and throw them up on here.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

“In My Time” by Dick Cheney (Simon & Schuster)

Cheney-InMyTimeAn interesting look at the life and career of one of America’s most polarising politicians and powerful Vice Presidents

Dick Cheney’s memoir has received a huge amount of attention in the US media. The majority of the attention has been in addressing the chapters about the post-9/11 George W. Bush administration. How, then, can anyone offer something new in a review, that doesn’t just go over what has already been analysed and picked apart by intellectuals, news personalities and also those mentioned in the memoir’s pages? Well, there’s a lot more to the book than just the post-9/11 age, so this review will focus a little more on what else is in the book.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Dick Cheney’s Upcoming Memoir

Here’s the segment from MSNBC’s Last Word:

I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy of the book at some point. Expect a review soon-ish.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Henry Kissinger’s “On China” (Allen Lane) – Some Thoughts…

Kissinger-OnChinaAn American Statesman’s Love Letter to China(’s Leadership)

For more than twenty years after the Communist Revolution in 1949, China and most of the western world had no diplomats in each others’ capitals and no direct way to communicate. Then, in July 1971, Henry Kissinger arrived secretly in Beijing on a mission which quickly led to the reopening of relations between China and the West and changed the course of post-war history.

For the past forty years, Kissinger has maintained close relations with successive generations of Chinese leaders, and has probably been more intimately connected with China at the highest level than any other western figure. This book distils his unique experience and long study of the ‘Middle Kingdom’, examining China’s history from the classical era to the present day, and explaining why it has taken the extraordinary course that it has.

The book concentrates on the decades since 1949, presenting portraits of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders, and reproducing verbatim Kissinger’s conversations with each of them. But Kissinger’s eye rarely leaves the long continuum of Chinese history: he describes the essence of China’s approach to diplomacy, strategy and negotiation, and the ways in which Communist-era statesmen have drawn on methods honed over millennia. At the end of the book, Kissinger reflects on these attitudes for our own era of economic interdependence and an uncertain future.

I had difficulty with Kissinger’s latest ode to China. There is perhaps no better author or statesman to turn to on the subject of the Middle Kingdom. And yet, with On China, we get a book that is ultimately quite disappointing. Yes, Kissinger writes extremely well, and the broad sweep of China’s history is detailed and interesting. Indeed, there may be no more accessible or engaging recent book on Chinese history and its contact with the United States. (I still think that Warren I. Cohen’s America’s Response to China remains the best volume available for US-China history.) However, there are nevertheless a couple of very important problems with the book that cannot go unmentioned. This, therefore, is not strictly speaking a review, but rather a reaction, if you will, to some of what I’ve read in and taken away from reading the book.

Friday, 5 August 2011

“Third World America” by Arianna Huffington (Collins)

Huffington-ThirdWorldAmericaHow our politicians are abandoning the ordinary citizen

Arianna Huffington, Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post, unflinchingly tracks the gradual demise of the American nation as an industrial, political and economic leader.

Arianna argues that the American Dream of a secure, comfortable standard of living has become out-dated and is under threat, and that the US is in danger of becoming a Third World nation. In the vein of her bestseller Pigs at the Trough, Third World America details who and what is killing the American Dream. With over 120,000 Americans filing for bankruptcy every month, Huffington suggests what needs to be done to stop the free fall.

The state of America’s Middle Class is fast in decline, and in Third World America, Huffington eloquently and passionately argues that the situation is getting worse, as more and more people drop out of it with little-to-no chance of making their way back. Despite a couple of weaknesses, Third World America is a well-written book; one with plenty of interesting and thought-provoking content, presented in an engaging and quick-paced manner.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

“Winners & Losers of Debt Deal”

The Last Word and the debt ceiling deal. The montage of Obama at the beginning about his preference for a “balanced” approach? What the hell happened?

It’s a bit of a long segment, but the main bit is the montage at the start.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Where are the Democrats? (Or, “WTF?”)

[This piece has been Updated Twice]

So it looks like debt ceiling deal will be $3 trillion in spending cuts, but no new taxes or revenues. Not even the loop holes for stuff government shouldn’t be subsidising are going to be closed, it seems. What?! I thought President Obama was a Democrat! And what are the Senate Democrats doing? Why are they caving totally to Tea Party/Republican demands? Why are they presenting a deal that matches the Republican position of no new taxes or we kill the country? After Obama and Boehner negotiated a balanced deal, and they were mostly on the same page, only to be skewered by the idiots, and lots of back-and-forth B.S. from both sides, we’re actually at a point where the Republicans will be getting more than they originally asked for? And for what? Acting like petulant kindergarteners? Seriously?!

Or, in a more measured manner, as Michael Tomasky put it: “it appears Obama is meeting the Republicans – on their terms.”

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Al Franken's Floor Speech on Debt Ceiling

He seems to be getting into the swing of making longer Senate speeches (I think it was Matt Taibbi who wrote about the experience of listening to Senate Floor Speeches being one of the most soul destroying and boring things ever...). Unlike many of his colleagues, however, Franken shows in his speeches the same attention to detail and intelligence that he included in his books (especially in The Truth: With Jokes).*

He makes some very good, backed-up-by-evidence-and-statistics points about the deficit, Republican tax cut fetishism, the GOP professed desire to cut the deficit to save America's children (but at the same time, cutting most of the programs that benefit children), and many of the other issues that have swirled around the debt ceiling debate. A very good speech.

* I still hold that Franken is so much better at politics and commentary than he is at "satire", which often falls rather flat.

A Cheeky Ad on The Nation

Saw this just now, and thought it was delightfully cheeky:


Now, if only The Nation was lucky enough to have a larger readership... (They are quite left, it's true, but they also have some excellent long articles and media criticism. Their best articles have been about Special Interests and the Media in politics. Always good, for as long as I've been reading it.)

Saturday, 23 July 2011

A Great Cartoon from The Weekly Standard…

… which I think is quite apt, in some instances:


One of the things I like about The Weekly Standard is the cartoonist or illustrator they get to work on their articles. He/She has a very cool, distinctive style, and I don’t think he’s ever done a graphic I didn’t like. Unfortunately, I can’t find any mention in the magazine of his/her name. Anybody know?

As for the article it’s connected to I have mixed thoughts about, but Fred Barnes, who wrote it, brings up some good points.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Debt-Ceiling Increases by Administration

Just interesting and speaks volumes, really, about much of the debate that currently is swirling in Washington, D.C.:


So it’s the Democratic presidents who have had to raise it the least often during their administrations. But now it’s become a problem for the Republicans, whose presidents have raised it quite merrily over the past 30 years? Right.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Sunday, 26 June 2011

National Review Praises Canada in Most Surprising Way


Reading the latest issue of National Review, I was surprised to find an article that actually praised Canada’s governmental system. I wonder if Hell has frozen over, or if air-traffic controllers will be writing reports of flying pigs anytime soon…?

Sunday, 19 June 2011

“Millard Fillmore” by Paul Finkelman (Times)

Finkelman-MillardFillmoreUnlucky 13

The oddly-named president whose short-sightedness and stubbornness fractured the nation and sowed the seeds of civil war.

In the summer of 1850, America was at a terrible crossroads. Congress was in an uproar over slavery, and it was not clear if a compromise could be found. In the midst of the debate, President Zachary Taylor suddenly took ill and died. The presidency, and the crisis, now fell to the little-known vice president from upstate New York.

In this biography, legal scholar and historian Paul Finkelman reveals how Millard Fillmore’s response to the crisis he inherited set the country on a dangerous path that led to the Civil War. Fillmore stubbornly catered to the South, alienating his fellow Northerners and creating a fatal rift in the Whig Party, which would soon disappear from American politics — as would Fillmore himself, after failing to regain the White House under the banner of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” Party.

Though Fillmore did have an eye toward the future, dispatching Commodore Matthew Perry on the famous voyage that opened Japan to the West, on the central issues of the age his myopic vision led to the destruction of his presidency, his party, and ultimately, the Union itself.

In this short biography of the largely forgotten thirteenth president of the United States, historian Finkelman provides a superb history of the time, but after finishing, Fillmore himself remains somewhat elusive and incidental.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Post-Submission, Not What You Want to Read…

Since submitting my PhD thesis to the university, I’ve been catching up on the reading I’ve missed while finishing and making the final edits and so on. Via an article by Dan Drezner, I came across a mass-review in The Nation of twelve recently-published books about higher education, written by William Deresiewicz, a former professor at Yale (the review also appeared in the print-version of The Nation May 23rd 2011, pp.27-34).

On the very first page of the review, I came across the following:

“At Yale, we were overjoyed if half our graduating [PhD] students found positions. That’s right—half. Imagine running a medical school on that basis… that’s the kind of unemployment rate you’d expect to find among inner-city high school dropouts. And this was before the financial collapse.” (p.27)

Monday, 25 April 2011

“Andrew Johnson” by Annette Gordon-Reed (Times/Henry Holt)

Gordon-Reed-AndrewJohnsonThe Unwanted 17th President

A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian recounts the tale of the unwanted president who ran afoul of Congress over Reconstruction and was nearly removed from office.

Andrew Johnson never expected to be president. But just six weeks after becoming Abraham Lincoln's vice president, the events at Ford's Theatre thrust him into the nation's highest office.

Johnson faced a nearly impossible task—to succeed America's greatest chief executive, to bind the nation's wounds after the Civil War, and to work with a Congress controlled by the so-called Radical Republicans. Annette Gordon-Reed, one of America's leading historians of slavery, shows how ill-suited Johnson was for this daunting task. His vision of reconciliation abandoned the millions of former slaves (for whom he felt undisguised contempt) and antagonized congressional leaders, who tried to limit his powers and eventually impeached him.

The climax of Johnson's presidency was his trial in the Senate and his acquittal by a single vote, which Gordon-Reed recounts with drama and palpable tension. Despite his victory, Johnson's term in office was a crucial missed opportunity; he failed the country at a pivotal moment, leaving America with problems that we are still trying to solve.

Andrew Johnson inherited the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, at a most difficult time in United States history. That they were so different from each other, with such different mindsets and skills, proved a disappointment for those who had supported Lincoln’s vision, and a tragedy for those Lincoln had sought to serve most. In this slim volume, Annette Gordon-Reed gives a quick-paced account of the life of America’s 17th President.

Monday, 7 March 2011

January’s US-China Summit

The US print media and US-China relations, during President Hu’s State Visit


With Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington, the relationship between America and China has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. This flurry of coverage provides an ideal opportunity to examine this relationship, and also to explore the concerns and conflicts in the media’s continued impression of China. It would appear that the American media have yet to move beyond the events of Tiananmen. This is partly the result of Congressional long-memories (making China a surprising anomaly in Congressional discourse), but also because many of the same issues resonate throughout US-China relations: China’s approach to human rights remains inimical to America’s professed values, economic relations are increasing every year, trade disputes remain, and security concerns – whether Taiwan-related or concerning the implications of China’s military build-up – are growing.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

“Zero-Sum Future” by Gideon Rachman (Simon & Schuster)


American Power in the an Age of Anxiety

From the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times comes a stark warning about a gathering global political crisis. Successive presidents have welcomed globalization and the rise of China. But with American unemployment stubbornly high and U.S. power facing new challenges, the stage is set for growing rivalry between America and China. The European Union is also ripping itself apart. The win-win logic of globalization is giving way to a zero-sum logic of political and economic struggle.

The new world we now live in, an age of anxiety, is a less prosperous, less stable world, with old ideas overthrown and new ideologies and powers on the rise. Rachman shows how zero-sum logic is thwarting efforts to deal with global problems from Afghanistan to unemployment, climate change to nuclear proliferation. This timely and important book details why international politics is now more dangerous and volatile—and suggests what can be done to break away from the crippling logic of a zero-sum world.

In Zero-Sum Future Gideon Rachman provides a timely and very well-written volume on the state of the world today, and the dangers inherent in the rise of increased zero-sum thinking in global politics. The book offers good summaries of all the major issues and the major political and economic developments in key regions of the world. Despite the blurb, one of the books strengths is also that it does not solely focus on the US and China, but provides a broad picture of international development and history.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

“Theories of International Politics & Zombies” by Daniel W. Drezner (Princeton)

Drezner-TheoriesOfIR&ZombiesThe Best Book ever written about International Politics?

What would happen to international politics if the dead rose from the grave and started to eat the living? Daniel Drezner’s ground-breaking book answers the question that other international relations scholars have been too scared to ask. Addressing timely issues with analytical bite, Drezner looks at how well-known IR theories might be applied to a war with zombies. Exploring the plots of popular zombie films, songs, and books, Drezner predicts realistic scenarios for the political stage in the face of a zombie threat and considers how valid – or how rotten – such scenarios might be.

Drezner boldly lurches into the breach and “stress tests” the ways that different approaches to world politics would explain policy responses to the living dead. He examines the most prominent international relations theories – including realism, liberalism, constructivism, neoconservatism, and bureaucratic politics – and decomposes their predictions. He digs into prominent zombie films and novels, such as Night of the Living Dead and World War Z, to see where essential theories hold up and where they would stumble and fall. Drezner argues that by thinking about outside-of-the-box threats we get a cognitive grip on what former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to as the “unknown unknowns” in international security.

Correcting the zombie gap in international relations thinking and addressing the genuine but publicly unacknowledged fear of the dead rising from the grave, Theories of International Politics and Zombies presents political tactics and strategies accessible enough for any zombie to digest. [Back Copy]

In August 2009, Professor Drezner, who blogs for Foreign Policy magazine, wrote a short piece about how international relations theories might apply in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Not only did Drezner do it very well, and in a manner that should make anyone familiar with IR theory chuckle, but it also opened up the possibility that those who automatically shudder at the word ‘theory’ could actually understand and enjoy what Drezner was writing about, and gain an understanding of IR theory in the process. It was the perfect vehicle to bring a greater understanding of the theories that inform international interactions to a wider audience: it was fun, intelligent and quirky, and therefore likely to stick in one’s mind. [As someone who has taught Intro to IR Theory, I can tell you that this is very important.]

Friday, 25 February 2011

“O: A Presidential Novel” by Anonymous (Simon & Schuster)

[Due to the political nature of the novel, and presumed equal interest for readers of this site, I have cross-posted this review from Civilian-Reader.]


A satirical portrait of the people trying to win the presidency in 2012

Among them are: Cal Regan, a rising political star who takes over the president's 2012 re-election campaign after O’s veteran campaign chief is forced to resign because of an affair with a teenage prostitute; Maddy Cohan, a dazzling young journalist whose sharp reports for an upstart website are a frequent source of conversation among the political elite, and whose relationship with one of her sources could complicate her career; Walter LaFontaine, one of O’s earliest Chicago supporters, who despite being left behind when O went to Washington, yearns for a larger role in his hero’s re-election campaign; Tom “Terrific” Morrison, a one-term governor with a military background, who is emerging as the likely nominee and a formidable opponent. Privately derisive of O, Morrison seeks to run a classic change campaign similar to O’s historic march to victory in 2008; Allen Knowles, a wealthy Silicon Valley campaign donor who gives Cal Regan secret information which could be damaging to Morrison’s campaign.

Meanwhile, O is chafing under the demands of the presidency. His senior aides are running him too hard and, to his irritation, have advised him not to play golf on the weekends. To win re-election, he realizes he may have to adopt political methods he had once denounced.

President Obama is fast becoming the most written-about (modern-day) president. Following on in a new sub-genre, we get O: A Presidential Novel (henceforth, O:APN) – an anonymously-penned fictionalisation of Obama’s campaign for re-election in the upcoming 2012 presidential election. Filled with insider detail, and satirical jabs at Washington culture and many familiar faces from the Obama White House (all given different names, of course), O:APN is a novel of mixed strengths and weaknesses.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

“U.S.-China Relations”, by Robert G. Sutter (Rowman & Littlefield)

Sutter-USChinaRelationsPerilous Past, Pragmatic Present

This comprehensive and lucid assessment of the key historical and contemporary determinants of Sino-American relations explains the conflicted engagement between the two governments. Offering a welcome richness of discussion and analysis, distinguished analyst Robert G. Sutter explores the twists and turns of the relationship over the past two hundred years. The mixed historical record convincingly shows that strong differences and mutual suspicions persist, only partly overridden by a mutual pragmatism that shifts with circumstances. As the only book on the subject that combines a unified assessment of the historical evolution, contemporary status and likely prospects of U.S.-Chinese relations, this balanced and pragmatic study will be an essential resource for all concerned with the globe’s most crucial bilateral partnership. [Back Cover matter]

In this volume, long-time China scholar offers a mixed study of US-China relations. The book is broad, but sadly lacking in detail. For a scholar so well-versed in US-China relations, this was disappointing. The book is not, however, without its uses.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

“Kabuki Democracy”, by Eric Alterman (Nation Books)

Alterman-KabukiDemocracyThe System vs. Barack Obama

In Kabuki Democracy, bestselling author and columnist Eric Alterman asks why President Barack Obama has been unable to deliver on the promise of his 2008 campaign. He argues that while Obama’s compromises have disappointed many of his supporters, his failure is primarily due to a political system that stymies democracy when voters choose progressive change.

Blending political analysis and a clear agenda for change, the book cuts through the clichés of conservative propaganda and lazy Mainstream Media analysis to demonstrate that genuine transformation will come to America only when enough people care enough to challenge the system.

Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation analyses and critiques the American political system of today, explaining clearly and convincingly how any progressive – especially a progressive president – is working with an immediate disadvantage in a system that has been corrupted and twisted to suit corporations and the mad scramble for television and radio ratings. The book’s themes will be familiar to the politically conversant (especially liberals, who will likely benefit most from this slim volume), but Alterman manages to breathe some freshness into the subject, and writes in the accessible and fluid style of a gifted journalist.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

A Recent Stephen Colbert Golden Moment


New Blog Name!

As some of you might have noticed, I’ve changed the name of the blog. As I hope to include more commentary and articles, to complement the book reviews, it made sense to make the title more appropriate.

For the time being, the URL will remain the same, but I might change it to reflect the new title next week.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Real Republicans?


Party characterisation and how they see themselves

While reading James Bennet’s editorial in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, I was reminded of one of my favourite (if that’s the right word) bugbears about the Republican Party in the US. Here’s the quote that made me think of it:

“The party of Roosevelt believes government can and should be a force for good. The party of Reagan thinks that, apart from national defence, government mostly gets in the way.”

Bennet is referring here to the Democrat Party as the party of Franklin Roosevelt. However, in truth, the party that “believes government can and should be a force for good” is actually the party of both Presidents Roosevelt – both FDR and TR believed in the power, possibility and necessity of the federal government. Teddy Roosevelt was very confident about the role that government can and should play, particularly with regards to corporate and economic regulation, and fashioning a world-class social safety-net. Many (perhaps most?) Republicans of today would likely accuse him of being a socialist if he were alive and working – certainly he bears zero resemblance to the clutch of Tea Party candidates of 2010.

I mention this because many Republicans will frequently point to TR or Lincoln as great Republicans of the past to blunt certain criticisms of GOP policy platforms. The Real Republican Majority, for example, has this banner at the top of the organisation’s website:


[I should point out that I am not passing judgement on the RRM’s policy proposals, as some of them are actually quite sensible, but on the clear disregard for historical accuracy.]

That Reagan was directly opposed to most of the policies that TR espoused, championed, and fought tooth-and-nail for, but is still offered as an example of what Republicans should be, is extremely frustrating. Fair enough, both Lincoln and TR were Republicans, but as almost everyone knows, the Republican and Democratic parties of today bear very little resemblance to that of just 50 years ago, let alone that of 100 and 150 years ago. Democrats are just as prone to this amnesia, of course. But to present TR and Reagan as archetypes of what a Republican should aspire to be is oxymoronic. You can’t be a Reagan Republican but follow Teddy’s example – they are, on most important political issues, completely divergent (regulation, environment, social security). Perhaps the only issue they would agree on is national defence (TR effectively invented the modern US Navy, and certainly expanded its size by a considerable degree).

In case you think I’m being unfair, allow me to reproduce a couple of quotes from Aida Donald’s Lion in the White House (Basic Books), which was not only one of my favourite books read in 2010, it’s probably the best short bio of TR available. First of all, on the subject of corporate regulation, which he fought against his entire career, from his time in New York all the way to the White House:

“[TR] sought laws to break monopolies and to oversee accounting reviews to get corporations to pay their taxes. Not incidentally, he thought he made corporations more moral by making them pay their fair share. Roosevelt also knew corporations would now have less money with which to corrupt politics.”

“He had demanded accountability from corporations when he was governor of New York, when they overvalued stock, watered stock, and fooled investors with corrupt practices, and he would take his battle against what he called ‘bad’ trusts to the larger playing field.”

In terms of society, Roosevelt would have been appalled by the pro-corporate position of the modern GOP – the recent Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations the same rights as people likely made him turn in his grave and rampage through heaven to give Reagan an earful. Also, one of the prototypical Republicans (thank you Alyssa for the phrase) was even pro-union, and it is shocking that some in the current Republican Party are using someone likely favoured by even Canadian liberals was pro-Union! See here:

“Within the broad sphere of society and social relations, Roosevelt preferred order, regularity, and balance. This meant curbing the meretricious, laissez-faire tendencies by business that had injured the laboring population. The way to help labor was to empower it to organize and even strike, although Roosevelt would never condone mob violence either by labor or capital. Labor was expected to negotiate wages and conditions.”

Anyway, that’s just my short contribution to the discussion/topic.

I’m sure I’ll have more to write as I work my way through this issue – The Atlantic is easily the best political periodical available from the US, and it appears as though this is an issue where every single article is of interest. I will likely write some comments and a response to Chrystia Freedland’s cover story on the “The Rise of the New Global Elite” and Andrew Bacevich’s article “The Tyranny of the Defence Inc.” in the very near future on this blog.

Friday, 14 January 2011

“War Stories”, by Matthew Baum & Tim J Groeling (Princeton)

BaumGroeling-WarStoriesThe causes and consequences of public views of war

How does the American public formulate its opinions about U.S. foreign policy and military engagement abroad? War Stories argues that the media systematically distort the information the public vitally needs to determine whether to support such initiatives, for reasons having more to do with journalists’ professional interests than the merits of the policies, and that this has significant consequences for national security. Matthew Baum and Tim Groeling develop a “strategic bias” theory that explains the foreign-policy communication process as a three-way interaction among the press, political elites, and the public, each of which has distinct interests, biases, and incentives.

Do media representations affect public support for the president and faithfully reflect events in times of diplomatic crisis and war? How do new media--especially Internet news and more partisan outlets--shape public opinion, and how will they alter future conflicts? In answering such questions, Baum and Groeling take an in-depth look at media coverage, elite rhetoric, and public opinion during the Iraq war and other U.S. conflicts abroad. They trace how traditional and new media select stories, how elites frame and sometimes even distort events, and how these dynamics shape public opinion over the course of a conflict.

Most of us learn virtually everything we know about foreign policy from media reporting of elite opinions. In War Stories, Baum and Groeling reveal precisely what this means for the future of American foreign policy.

A lot of scholarship has been produced on the ways in which public opinion and the media influence policy, and how governments can and do influence the media (particularly a recent slew of books dealing with the George W Bush administration). But very little has been written about how institutional biases of the media and journalists can affect what news is reported and how this news is reported. In War Stories, Harvard professor Matthew Baum and UCLA professor Tim Groeling take a look at the role of the media in American foreign policy – reporting, information dissemination and also the portrayal of both policies and elite rhetoric. In some ways, this book can be considered a follow-up to Baum’s Soft News Goes to War.

In War Stories, the authors propose a number of hypotheses, and lay out an exhaustive amount of data and research to prove them. The book intends to identify conditions for public support of foreign policy initiatives; when these initiatives prevail; and also to propose implications for the future of American foreign policy.

“The mass media are the key intermediaries between citizens and their leaders, particularly with respect to policies and events being implemented far from American shores.”

American citizens learn “virtually everything they know about foreign policy” from the media and news they consume themselves, or that consumed by those around them. Therefore, discerning any bias in what type of stories are considered newsworthy, not to mention how they are reported, is very important in understanding how public opinion can be shaped and even distorted by a media with a separate set of goals:

“the information on which the public depends in determining whether or not to support a foreign policy initiative may be systematically distorted for reasons having nothing to do with the professional incentives of journalists than with the merits of the policy.”

The authors argue that “news coverage typically does not faithfully reflect the mix of elite rhetoric in Washington,” so public support of a foreign policy initiative is frequently based on “an inaccurate representation of what elites are actually saying about the policies.” A lot of this misrepresentation comes down to the proliferation of New Media outlets and sources.

Journalists are not just reporters of the news, they are also interpreters of events and politics. “Their interpretations regarding the newsworthiness of different pieces of information in turn color the representation of politics to which citizens are ultimately exposed.” This is, basically, the root of differing levels of bias in American news reporting – particularly evident when comparing TV News of Fox and MSNBC, or The Nation and The Weekly Standard in print. The ghettoisation of news into ideological camps has the potential to undermine the purpose of a free press, as “Perceived partisan alignment among news providers challenges the media’s role as neutral arbiter.”

Tying this new research in with Baum’s previous book, Soft News Goes to War, the authors point to the proliferation in news outlets, and the corresponding alteration in corporate or organisational agendas, as the key determinant of how news and foreign policy is now reported.

“The qualities that journalists prefer in news stories result in a strong tendency to overrepresent negative, critical coverage of the president, particularly when it originates within his own party... this overrepresentation stems not from any partisan preferences of the news media but rather from pervasive institutional and professional incentives that shape journalists’ standards of newsworthiness.”

In addition,

“As the media landscape in which America’s partisan battles are fought continues to evolve, this war of words threatens to become ever more divorced from the strategic interests of the country as a whole. Increasing numbers of news outlets – print, broadcast, cable, radio, and internet – are responding to the changing information landscape by seeking loyal niche audiences. Some do so for economic reasons, other for ideological reasons.”

In other words: ‘sensation sells’. Measured debate is side-lined to criticism – the more damning the better, and the source of criticism is just as important. This has a second, potentially more damaging impact on future policy-making. As citizens perceive the media as increasingly partisan, and they self-filter out the news that doesn’t adhere to their own ideological biases, it will become increasingly difficult for any president to reach across the media-aisle to generate support for a given policy. This is particularly problematic, because receiving opposition support for policies is a sure way to make considerable and effective advances in foreign policy. The authors characterise this dilemma as a president’s increased ability to “preach to the choir”, but concurrent difficulty in “converting the flock”.

The New Media “increasingly allow citizens to self-select into ideologically friendly environments while discounting information they encounter in environments perceived as ideologically hostile” – effectively, a media-related ghetto-isation is allowing for more targeted, less objective and therefore more shallow news dissemination. Naturally, this has a huge impact on perceptions of foreign policies. The “common civic space” that was, in the past, offered by news is being “eroded” by the proliferation of bias news outlets and the ability to filter out that which does not conform to your ideological proclivities.

The authors provide a lot of data and research findings to make their case. Many contemporary examples, from the Bush administration and also from the 2008 presidential campaign, locate their research in the real world, giving weight to their hypotheses and conclusions. The approach to the topic is logical and calm, although the writing style is very dry – this is a book for other academics, and I don’t think it’s written in a manner that would allow for much cross-over appeal. That being said, it’s an invaluable addition to the body of literature available on the changing nature of the media, its impact on politics and, in particular, the impact journalists and New Media can have on the conduct and presentation of American foreign policy.

Some of the conclusions in War Stories may seem common-sense when you read them, but ‘common-sense’ does not always equate to correct. It is for this reason that Baum and Groeling’s conclusions can be valuable for those studying the impact of the media on public perceptions of foreign policy.

If you’re studying American foreign policy, or American media, this is an essential book that will only provide detailed arguments and information backed up by a wealth of evidence. I have no doubt that researchers will also find inspiration for further studies from some of these sections - for example, I thought the section on Historical Context could have been considerably expanded and was rather disappointed it was so short (not to mention its location so late in the book).

The subject of media influence remains something of either the academic world or the journalists’ world, each with intrinsic biases and styles. I am still waiting for the book that approaches the subject in an intelligent-yet-accessible way, one that looks at the issue from both contemporary and historical perspectives, locates it within the foreign policy literature (more than in passing, as War Stories does), and focuses as much on readability as scholastic merit.

That being said, the authors achieve what they set out to do, in that this book “highlight[s] the gap between what elites typically say about foreign policy and what the media say those elites are saying.”

Also try: Matthew Baum, Soft News Goes to War (2005); Joseph R. Hayden, A Dubya in the Headlights (2010)

Monday, 3 January 2011

New Year’s Pledge for 2011

It’s always dangerous when I start devising plans and strategies for my site – they invariably go right out of the window at the first sign of an unexpected release. But, I’m starting to think this is a problem. When I started writing Civilian-Reader, my aim was to just scribble some thoughts down about books I’ve read and enjoyed or loved, on the off-chance that someone might read my review and decide to check this or that book out for themselves.

As has become clear, however, I’m starting to scribble considerably more than just a few notes and thoughts. My rate of reviewing has dropped quite dramatically, as I spend more time on each book and also as I’ve been ill and slowly recovering for some time, and because I’m focussing on finishing up my PhD.

Anyway, the point of this post was to let you know my proposed Pledge for 2011! I’ve posted another pledge on my fiction site, and that made me think of how I could approach this blog in 2011 and going forward. For fiction (which is much, much easier and quicker to read and review), I was planning to review an ‘old’ novel for every four new or upcoming releases I read and reviewed. This sounded pretty reasonable to me – so I’ve decided to do something similar for non-fiction. For every couple of new releases, I’ll take a look at something ‘older’ – be it a biography (let’s be honest, it’ll be presidential) or history.

This should, in theory, leave me with time to review older stuff that has either…

… been gathering dust on my shelves for a while – for example, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals;

… is something I stumble across in either a bookstore, charity shop, or was recommended by someone else – for example, Bill Clinton’s My Life;

… is something I want to re-read – in this category will most likely be books by Matt Taibbi and others like that.

For this site, I also pledge to return to a higher read-and-review rate. I’ve been letting my non-fiction reading slide since my health took a dive, which means I have a bit of a backlog of books that publishers have kindly sent me, and it’s time I took a stab at whittling down the ‘to-read’ shelf.

That’s the plan, anyway. But, of course, everybody knows about the best laid plans…