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…