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Reading List – American Politics

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I wrote this post on Dec 23, 2004 and posted it both on Science And Politics and DailyKos. Then, on April 03, 2005, I reposted it on my blog again. Many good books have been published since then, but the list would not have changed too much if I have made it today, e.g., I would have replaced E.J.Graff’s book on the history of marriage with much better book on the same topic by Stephanie Coontz, and I probably would have replaced the last two on the list with new books by John Dean and Geoffrey Nunberg on the strength of reviews and what some smart bloggers said, as I have not read them yet (yup, they are on my amazon wishlist….), or perhaps with the Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. Continue under the fold….

Sure, I have read my share of anti-Bush books this year, you know the Bushwacked and the like. And they are cool and fun and informative and even catharctic. Still, they are superficial – they are focused on here and now, on details of policy and politi cs of the moment, the kind of stuff that cerebral liberals, like me, love to read about. I was craving for more, for books that will explain to me how and why was a Bush presidency even possible at this day and age and in this particular country. I wanted ‘big picture” analysis. So, here is my Top 10 List of books I found most useful in understanding America today. Please add your own lists and comments.

1) First and foremost, the most insightful book this year is Moral Politics by George Lakoff. No, not Don’t Think of an Elephant“. Watching the reactions of people around the blogosphere to “Elephant” I have to conclude that it is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp Lakoff’s ideas without having read “Moral Politics” first. If “Moral Politics” is the Bible, “Elephant” is your local church pamphlet, if “Moral Politics” is Das Kapitaal, “Elephant” is “The Communist Manifesto” – I see that kind of equivalent relationship between the two books. So, go back to the source. Once you read it, and while still digesting it, do the RUI: Reading Under Influence, by which I mean speed-reading through the rest of my Top 10 list while keeping in mind at all times the Lakoff’s structure.

Other books make so much more sense if seen though the prizm of “Moral Politics”. (I have written a book review here, then many more additions to it, e.g., this, this and this). Of course, once you have read “Moral Politics” it is safe to read “Elephant”, too, if you are so inclined. And Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?” may make more sense with RUI, although on its own it is more fun than useful – you need Lakoff to see where Frank goes wrong.

2) This should be #1a, not #2 – the most overlooked book of the season: Wimp Factor by Stephen Ducat. A psychologist explains the machismo of Bush and his supporters with tons of supporting research, and manages to explain everything, from Iraq to assault on environment by reference to “femiphobia” – the fear of being perceived as feminine. As the book progresses, it becomes more and more fun to read, as he allows himself to use some wonderfully vicious puns and turns of phrase. Reading this with Lakoff in mind is a real mind-opener. You will understand Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, Reagan, Bush Sr, and Bush Jr., Right-wing hatred of Bill and Hillary, as well as unbeliavable parallels between Teddy Roosevelt and GW Bush in the way they built their public macho personas out of cardboard. This is much, much better than “Bush on the couch”. I wrote more about it here and several subsequent posts.

3) Superpatriotism by Michael Parenti. Michael Parenti does not mince words. It is a very insighful, well-documented, immensely logical, yet angry book. I loved it. It is a cheap small paperback – you’ll read it in an hour or two and your view of US foreign policy (as well as everything else, including football) will be forever changed, so it is worth a few bucks. I’d like to read some of his older stuff, too. Check him out at his website. The whole book is one long flowing energetic argument, removing layers one by one from a Naked King of our Imperialistic ruling class. It reads even better if you keep doing the RUI, keeping your Lakoff and Ducat in mind. The last chapter is a 180 degree reversal in tone, though. While the rest of the book discribes “superpatriots”, the last chapter describes what real patriot believes and does. In the very end, y’all fellow Edwardsians will be very happy to see a longish quote from the “Two Americas” speech. Also, it may be worth your while to read some of his older books, too, e.g., ‘The Terrorism Trap: September 11 and Beyond’.

4) What is marriage for?” by E.J.Graff (see reviews here and here). This book is an essential weapon for debating gay marriage. Traditional marriage? Yeah – the tradition started in 1920. Biblical marriage? Yeah – since the 17th century. While “Moral Politics” is static (explaining the current moment), Graff’s book provides a dynamic aspect to it – a history of the battle between Left and Right (and it is all about sex/gender relations anyway, see Ducat’s book above), thus its worth is beyond and above just the gay marriage debate: it provides the temporal context for Lakoff/Ducat ideas. You’ll end the book with an optimistic outlook – despite the electoral results and media frenzy, this aspect of the culture war has already been won. And you’ll understand why.

5) The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy by Marjorie Kelly (here is more about it and a short excerpt) is a huge eye-opener. You will never think of economics the same way. First, you will scream!!!! But then, you will see (if you were still doing RUI) how this book can be really helpful in reframing the progressive’s economic message if someone just had the balls to do it right.

6) Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds by Howard Gardner. Again, doing the RUI is the best idea. Although he is maddeningly unbiased, Gardner uses his ‘multiple intelligences’ theory to explain what works and what does not in selling your ideas or yourself to other people. Although he does not mention any Dem primary candidates (the book came out just as the primaries were starting to warm up), it is easy to follow his arguments and see what were the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, why were Kerry, Edwards, or Dean attractive to some audiences and not to others, and what they could have done differently in order to sell themselves better.

7) The Great Limbaugh Con: And Other Right-Wing Assaults on Common Sense by Charles M. Kelly. This one looks old, doesn’t it – 1993. – so why is it on my list, then? Because this is the first book to explicitely tackle the Right’s use of language. He was starting to “grok” framing years before this became popular through Lakoff. You will be reminded, or surprised if you did not know, how early in Clinton’s first term the Bill/Hillary bashing has started. Most of the frames we encounter now were already in place in 1993. Rush was spewing the same constructs. Luntz was busily at work. But most importantly, Kelly goes into a lot of detail about specific words and phrases and how they are interepreted by liberals and conservatives. His chapter on the meaning of the word “work” is worth the price of the book all by itself.

8) Darwin’s Cathedrals: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson. You may have heard about the “God Gene” idea floating around. Well, that is pretty much scientific BS. If you want to understand the origin, evolution and function of religion, as well as, by extension, origin, evolution and function of other human organizations like nation, tribe, state, political party, sports fan club, etc., you better get it from one of the most sophisticated thinkers of today. If you like it, read also “Unto Others”, a book about the evolution of human altruism he co-wrote with Elliott Sober.

9) Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care by James McWorther. While reviled by some in the African-American comunity for his Bill Cosby-like statements, still, this guy is brilliant. If you want to know when the decline into pre-Enlightement started in the USA, and how it paved the way for Republican “framing” (you have to do your own RUI for this) McWorther will persuade you it all started in 1965. Up to you to believe him or not, but his erudition is admirable.

10) Aaaargh, Number Ten already and I just got warmed up! Edit: In the original, I had Lewontin’s “It Ain’t Neccessarily So” as my #10, but since I intend to do the list of science books, too, I have now decided to replace it with an other. I chose Joe Trippi’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“. Although I was never a Deaniac, I admire Trippi’s insights and the last couple of chapters are especially good. No need for RUI, either. Just read and enjoy and think. I wrote about this before, e.g., here, here and here.

Of course, one should read everything by Neil Postman, too. For more ideas, go here.