Review: Woodward and Bernstein’s All The Presidents Men

All the President’s Men
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

I’m as surprised as you are that I never read this book before. Sure, I’ve seen the movie, and know the story, but reading this play by play of how Woodward and Bernstein uncovered the levels of deceit and criminality in the Nixon White House is fascinating, and sobering.

Especially in days like these.

Much of it is eerily prescient. The initial impression that the crimes were by underlings or those only tangentially related to the campaign, followed by more and more revelations of how high up it went, and all the while with the White House disparaging the press and claiming, essentially, “fake news” every time Woodward and Bernstein dropped another bombshell.

Sound familiar?

There’s more here as well, the deep concerns the Washington Post had about not going farther than the facts substantiated. The times they got it wrong, and the way those errors hurt innocent people. The courage of Katherine Graham to stick with the story, and the cowardice of many in Nixon’s white house who tried to silence whistle blowers and lied to the public. It’s a fascinating read, told in a staccato reportage style I love. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to read it.


Amazon: Tops in Racist Fiction (?)

Do you remember a few months back when Amazon pulled a Kindle book called The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct? If not, refresh your memory here.

That was not the only time Amazon played content cop with the titles it sells: it’s also yanked incest and rape fiction, although the diligent fan of both can still find plenty of titles for sale.

This isn’t really a problem. Amazon is a private company, and can decide to sell what it wants, whether via traditional hard copies, the Kindle store, or its CreateSpace print-on-demand service. But when you start deciding that some books aren’t fit for public consumption, you open yourself to questions about why some books get the axe and others don’t.

In an interesting post on its Hatewatch blog, the Southern Poverty Law Center  asks why (inarguably objectionable) titles like the pedophilia guide get yanked, but novels like White Apocalypse, self-published through CreateSpace, are still sold on Amazon. Haven’t heard of White Apocalypse? Here’s the SPLC’s description:

White Apocalypse is centered on the “Solutrean Hypothesis,” a theory that has almost zero support among anthropologists but bravely insists that whites from Europe managed to cross the North Atlantic to North America 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, thus becoming the real “Native Americans.” … The book’s hero is a white man on a mission to give the hypothesis a fair hearing – but in order to do so, he must vanquish his “evil, anti-western” opponents at the Atlanta-based “Center for Diversity and Multiculturalism” —  an organization that bears a striking resemblance to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. It even includes characters clearly based on Mark Potok, the director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, and Heidi Beirich, its director of research. The book contains a graphic description of the Potok character’s assassination at the hands of the hero.

Sounds like quite the page-turner! There are, of course, dozens and dozens of noxious racist titles for sale on Amazon, from old standbys like The Turner Diaries and Mein Kampf to lesser known books like the demented race war fantasy novels of prolific author Harold Covington. So why are pedophiles barred from peddling their screeds, but not the night garden of anti-Semites, esoteric Hitlerists, and would-be ethnic cleansers highlighted by the SPLC post?

This is no call for Amazon to pull those books from sale. I don’t really care what the literary-minded neofascist is using to stock his bunker this spring, and I don’t think books do more damage than other forms of media. But the SPLC raises an interesting point that should give pause to other companies that aim to draw a line in the dirt: if you’re willing to start down that road, be prepared to explain why you decide to halt.

(V. Charm)

Before Bob Avakian was a punchline

Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, by Max Elbaum. Verso: London, 2006.

Today, when the U.S. left consists of little more than Barbara Ehrenreich, a couple of blogs, and an anarchist burrito stand or two, it’s hard to imagine a time when the left was so vast and powerful that it could accommodate a vital and influential revolutionary fringe. Nowadays, this description applies to the right, with its Birchers and seasteaders aiming their doctrines toward the power centers of the Republican Party and its various para-organizations. But in the 1970s, it was the left that dominated American politics from Congress to the street corner.

A mostly forgotten chapter of this history is the New Communist Movement, veterans of 1960s radical politics who were inspired by national liberation movements in the Third World, antiracism struggles in the U.S. and, above all, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China. While the stories of “moderate radicals” like the early SNCC and SDS movements have been well chronicled, and the accounts of the Weatherman tendency have proliferated all out of proportion with that group’s actual importance, the New Communist Movement is overlooked, even though at its height in the early 1970s it had thousands of adherents and could claim influence in protest politics and some trade unions.

The New Communists – organized into groups like the October League and the Revolutionary Union – were firmly convinced that the West was on the brink of large-scale revolution, and that Marxism-Leninism was the only philosophy capable of providing guidance for people looking to shape the future. It’s to Elbaum’s credit that he establishes this as a plausible belief in the context of the times rather than the ludicrous fantasy it seems today. The upheavals conveniently labeled “the Sixties” didn’t end on Dec. 31, 1969, and in the early years of the subsequent decade there were larger protests than ever over the invasion of Cambodia and the massacre at Kent State. In 1970, there were more strikes involving more workers than in any other year since 1946, and mutinies in the military were so common that in the month of May that year, an average of 500 GIs deserted. Henry Kissinger himself said “The very fabric of government was falling apart.” And, of course, the president of the United States himself resigned from office in disgrace in 1974.

In that context, the idea that Leninism showed the way forward was, if not self-evident, at least arguable. And while the New Communists were always a minority within a minority, their energy and idealism helped them win broader influence within the left. But a movement so yoked to the lunatic example of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was always in danger of shaking to pieces, which is what happened as the decade wore on.

Elbaum is a sympathetic observer, and attributes a great deal of the movement’s stagnation and failure to systemic changes in the U.S. economy and political system during the 1970s. The postwar economic boom finally ended in 1973, followed by the large-scale deindustrialization that gutted the labor movement. The oil shock and bitter recession of 1974-1975 sapped worker militancy, while fights over school busing in the North destroyed cross-cultural agreement between blacks and whites over the best way to attack racism. Finally, the right spent the decade organizing, making an early comeback with Jimmy Carter in 1976 before the full-blown Reaganist tidal wave four years later.

All of this is true, and yet it’s hard to escape the impression that the New Communist Movement was doomed from the beginning because of its internal flaws. Most of all, the movement was yoked to Mao’s China, which damaged it in two ways: first, by inculcating a Cultural Revolution-style obsession with ideological purity, and second, by forcing the constituents to constantly revise political positions based on whatever Beijing decided was expedient. The most significant example of the latter problem was the revolution in the Portuguese colony of Angola, which eventually helped topple the fascist government in Portugal itself. Most of the worldwide left, including the Soviet Union, were on the side of the MPLA rebels. But China, to counter its Soviet rival, joined with the United States, apartheid South Africa, and Portugal in first opposing the liberation movement and then supporting the fascist UNITA group. The New Communist Movement bitterly split, and never really recovered.

The examples of how ideological purism damaged the movement are still with us in the form of one of the last remnants of New Communism: the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by Revolutionary Union principle Bob Avakian, who has turned it into a tiny, quasi-religious sect that venerates him as a Maoist prophet. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read RCP literature or engage an RCP cadre in conversation can attest to the deadening intellectual effects of embracing the correct line above all.

This is a good book, but a dry one. The personalities who shaped the movement must have been rich and dynamic, but Elbaum spends very little time with them. He is more interested in ideas than people, which sometimes turns the book into a rehashing of decades-old quarrels over historical events that now seem to have less relevance to political life than the average game of Dungeons & Dragons. But as the only general-interest history of a significant part of American political history, it’s a major accomplishment.

(V. Charm)

Adolf Hitler, magic yoga spaceman

Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, New York University Press (2002).

Few things are more tedious in political discussion than accusations that some politician or party is analogous to the German National Socialist Workers Party, more commonly known as the Nazis. Intended as the ultimate discrediting putdown, it almost always does less damage to the accused than to the accuser, whose use of the term reveals both a lack of imagination and a total lack of perspective. The Republicans are not Nazis, the Democrats are not Nazis, Rupert Murdoch is not a Nazi and neither is George Soros. Case closed.

But what about people who actually claim the label for themselves? Ever since the Third Reich’s total military defeat and subsequent identification as the most evil regime in human history, anyone publicly self-identifying as a Nazi has been seen as detestable and most likely insane. As Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke reveals in this fascinating, eye-popping study, “insane” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Goodrick-Clarke’s book explores the night garden of fascist yogis, fancy dress SS officers, Wotan-loving armed robbers, and Satanist science fiction fans who came to identify with Hitler and modified his beliefs to suit new circumstances in ways that would have been baffling to many vintage 1930s fascists.

Take James Madole, crash-helmeted fuhrer of the National Renaissance Party and “the father of post-war occult fascism.” Haranguing crowds in New York City throughout the 1960s and 1970s flanked by his dimestore stormtroopers, Madole was no common bigot: an avid sci-fi aficionado, he blended Theosophy, Hinduism, and Satanism in his ideology, creating a funhouse jumble of swastika armbands, Baphomet-adorned altars, and praise for India’s caste system.

Or take David Myatt, a Briton brought up in East Africa and Indonesia, who was attracted as a teenager to the anti-immigrant British Movement, but who quickly veered off the path of straightforward racist politics to found the Order of Nine Angles, a Nazi Satanic cult constantly in conflict with other Satanists for openly endorsing the practice of human sacrifice.

Some of the names in the book, like Colin Jordan and William Butler, will be familiar to anyone who’s followed far-right racist politics in the Western world, but Goodrick-Clarke digs much deeper, finding not only sideshow freaks like Madole and Myatt, but philosophers like Julius Evola, Savitri Devi, and Miguel Serrano, whose theories continue to exert a strong influence on the far right around the world.

Publicity Nazis like George Lincoln Rockwell may have been little more than clowns, but Evola, Devi, and Serrano were something different: genuine intellectuals and original thinkers, their contribution to post-1945 Hitlerism is likely to be more baleful for the world than that of a drunken skinhead throwing a rock at a synagogue. The skinhead goes to jail and is despised by everyone, but the ideas of the philosophers can burrow into mainstream political parties in places like Italy, and into the thought of nominally apolitical artists and writers attracted to the exotic discussions of Hindu theology and the Nietzschean rejection of contemporary social mores.

“Black Sun” is an important book that performs a valuable service by collecting information not readily available elsewhere, even today, nine years after it was published (Wikipedia, the first stop for any round of Internet spelunking session, contains stubs for many of the people mentioned in the book, and lacks entries on many others). Every chapter, from Nazi Paganism to Nazi UFO cults, could have made its own book, which is the only complaint I have: what “Black Sun” gains in breadth, it loses in depth. I found myself wanting more than a few mentions of the Weathermen-inspired National Socialist Liberation Front, the Nazi-Satanist Order of the Black Ram, or the Nazi-Muslim Greenshirts, who met at a Polish-Lithuanian mosque (!) in Brooklyn in the 1960s.

That aside, this is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the bizarre appeal of National Socialism since 1945, and for anyone tempted to think it died in the bunker with Hitler.


Review: Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas

What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
Thomas Frank

This is one of the most read (or at least most discussed) political commentary texts of 2000s. It seems like everyone I know is familiar with the thesis – that Kansas is an example of what is strange (and Frank thinks, wrong) about American electoral politics – people will vote against their economic interests if they think such voting is in line with their moral concerns. So, though the Republican Party shits all over working class people, they will continue to vote for them because the party stands for pro-life and other conservative social causes that resonate in the Heartland. Frank’s proposal to the Democratic Party seems to be to run an economic populism platform, and downplay the social issues that don’t resonate outside of the coasts.

Frank is at least partially right in his thesis. People do not always vote their economic interests (Frank has joked in the past that this book could just as easily have been called What’s the Matter with Connecticut). But to reduce people’s “interests’ to their economic interests is simplistic, and not enough time is spent on how economic issues are framed with great success by the Republicans.

There are some throw away parts of this one as well, Frank does a mini-profile of a fringe religious figure Pope Michael, which is just stupid, and there isn’t much in the way of hard sociological data to back up a lot of Frank’s assertions. Still, the book was worth reading.

As a random aside, I was fascinated by how a number of the pro-life activists in this book equate themselves with the radical struggle against slavery (Think John Brown and Bloody Kansas). Many of my lefty friends idolize John Brown, and it is interesting to see the same hero worship from the other side.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Sifry’s Spoiling for a Fight

Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America
Micah Sifry

This is, I am pretty sure, the only thing close to a complete history of third parties in U.S. electoral politics. I picked it up because of a paper I was writing on fusion voting and the Working Families Party, but it was so interesting, I ended up reading the whole thing.

The Green and Reform Parties and especially Nader’s 2000 run (which I think will go down as the waterloo of third parties for at least a generation) take up a lot of this book. But there is still a lot of room for other, smaller, groups* and plenty of smart thinking on what the domination of electoral politics by two parties means for the way elections play out.** If you’re a political junkie like me, it’s a good read.

*Though you will see more left than right. The Labor Party and WFP figure relatively prominently, The Libertarian party, not so much.

** Lack of political cohesion in presidential candidates political positions, people voting for the guy they like the most because they relate to none of them politically, plus the standard arguments that these fools represent no one.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Barnett’s Pentagon’s New Map

The Pentagon’s New Map
Thomas P.M. Barnett

I was dialing around cable at my parent’s house years ago and ran across the most incredible power point presentation being given by a dude from the Naval War College on CSPAN about how the U.S. should think about security threats in the future. Basically his point was that those alienated from global capitalism are those we need to be most worried about and that places like Central Africa will soon join Afghanistan as geographical locations from which threats will arise. That presentation became this book and it is seriously worth reading. Barnett makes his living predicting bad shit for the U.S. government (and now, I believe, also for big corporations) and he is very good at what he does. Obviously sites of threats to the U.S. are also sites for new modes of positive resistance (those these things are not interchangeable) and also sights for economic development, so this book struck really close to a lot of my interests.

Barnett also has a number of other predictions which may be hogwash, but may also lead to something really interesting. For instance, he toys with the idea that NAFTA will lead to a more EU style unification and the that the EU will soon be much more of a cohesive state. Interesting ideas and an interesting book. It’s a couple of years old now, but still worth picking up.

Recommended for the enthusiast.