|terrymichael.net | thoughts from a libertarian Democrat|
Terry Michael's Reading List
[Last Revised: January 10, 2009]
First, let me offer some advice I received from my former boss, the late Sen. Paul Simon: read the best thing that came out this month, but then make your next book one that is at least ten or twenty years old, or perhaps two or three centuries old -- writing that has withstood the test of time.
I have arranged the list in these categories, in no special order:
The thumbnail reviews are all mine, so I am the guilty party if I have mis-characterized the work of these writers.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. The late Neil Postman's 1984 book deserves the description "classic." I have read it five times and learn something new each time. It explains how different communications technologies have varying truth-telling potential. He touts the rational, educative nature of 19th Century print discourse, contrasted with the often incoherent entertainment focused discourse of 20th Century TV. (Appreciating that difference assumes you are operating with the intellectual software of The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.)
The Responsive Chord. Tony Schwartz, who produced the famous “Daisy Spot” for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign, teaches the most important lesson of political communication in this little book: you can only reach people where they are capable of believing, by striking a responsive chord that resonates with what they’re pre-conditioned to accept.
Our Master’s Voices: The Language and Body-Language of Politics. British author Max Atkinson, in a wonderful little book, explores the elements of successful speech-making, including the several sure-fire ways to trap applause, or clapping (as in “claptrap”): (1) lists of three (e.g., I came, I saw, I conquered); (2) contrasting pairs (e.g., Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you....”); and (3) “us against them.” This book comes highly recommended by America’s foremost political communication coach, Michael Sheehan.
Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a speech PhD, contrasts 19th Century political communication, with its typographic, essay style of argument brought to the speaker’s platform, with 20th Century TV discourse, which relies on an anecdotal style (think Ronald Reagan) and sound bites to move, if not educate, a crowd. A very good book, but one could only wish Prof. Jamieson would stick to this, her area of expertise, instead of adding her public scold voice to those who want to control both paid and unpaid political speech they don’t like, as she has done in other writings.
The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement. Newsweek and Washington Post economics writer Robert Samuelson offers this great treatment of political economics in the past half-century, how we came to expectation of entitlements for the middle class. I highly recommend Samuelson’s columns as well as this tremendous book. A non-economist who makes the dismal science accessible to readers, he lets facts lead him to conclusions, rather than starting with an ideological perspective and finding facts to fit it. And Samuelson has performed another service to intelligent public discourse with his new book (published in November 2008) The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence. The book is a political economics history lesson that should help inform public policy at the beginning of the Obama Administration.
The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture (Why the Culture Wars Made Us More Libertarian.) Brink Lindsey's 2007 book is a different take on Samuelson's theme. While Samuelson tells his story with more numbers, Lindsey focuses on the cultural changes that took place after World War II, creating the modern American middle class--an evolution that burdened The Middle Class with spiritual angst, a poltically motive force that replaced some of the economic struggle for food, clothing and shelter of earlier eras.
The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!, by Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, and Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. These books are great examples of how thinking about the “dismal science,” economics, doesn’t have to be held captive to the dogma of “some defunct economist” – as Keynes wrote many decades ago in reference to otherwise intelligent men who become slaves to received wisdom of which they aren’t even aware. It’s great advice to journalists who should remember to let facts lead them to conclusions rather than trying, consciously or unconsciously, to find quotes and sources that fit a pre-conceived narrative hatched in the news room.
The Lexus and The Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization and The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Tom Friedman offers two great constructs in “Lexus”, in which he discusses how consumers have benefitted from the democratization of information, technology and finance, and how many of the new threats to peace come not from super-powered nations, like the old Soviet Union, but rather from super-empowered individuals, like Osama bin Laden, with a fortune to fund terrorist tactics in support of fanatical ideas. If only Friedman had listened to himself, perhaps he wouldn’t have had to engage in the years of revisionism that have filled his columns since he first endorsed the Iraq War. But at least he got the idea right. In “Flat”, he offers a sanguine, but I think very persuasive, case for the benefits of globalization.
Three Billion New Capitalists. Clyde Prestowitz offers a less sanguine view, at least for Americans, of globalization, suggesting that the U.S. needs to be more cautious with its free trade policies when some of the economic policies of our new competitors may be allowing them to take advantage of us. But his is a very measured critique, nothing like the outrageous demagoguery of Lou Dobbs and his ilk, with their nativist bigotry against immigrants and their pandering to middle class angst.
The Almanac of American Politics. Michael Barone’s biennial (since 1972) handbook of American political biography, demography and geography will help you learn not only the players on Capitol Hill, but the political cultures of each state and congressional district.
The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America. Political historian James MacGregor Burns, in this classic from the 1960's, distinguishes between congressional and presidential “parties” (thus, two Democratic parties and two Republican parties equal four.) The book contains the very useful construct Burns created: “transformational” (think Lincoln and FDR) vs. “transactional” (think Hoover and Clinton) leadership.
Presidential Campaigns and Leadership
Truman, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. These books on two presidents, by David McCullough, and the first treasury secretary and designer of America’s financial system, by Ron Chernow, are simply awesome biographies. As well as portraying two amazing Founders, the Adams and Hamilton books educate readers about our colonial, Revolutionary War, Constitutional Convention, and early Republic history. McCullough's "Truman" will teach you about presidential leadership, through the personal and public life of one of our last presidents to embody all the qualities of a great national leader.
Road Show: In America, Anyone Can Become President, It's One of the Risks We Take (1988). Show Time: The American Political Circus and the Race for the White House (1996). Divided We Stand: How Al Gore Beat George Bush and Lost the Presidency (2000). Journalist Roger Simon has chronicled many of our recent presidential campaigns. With his always entertaining writing style and solid understanding of America politics, he follows in the footsteps of Theodore H. White and columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, who wrote narratives of most of the presidential campaigns from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Doris Kearns Goodwin contributes to understanding an important quality of presidential leadership – a willingness to surround yourself not with sycophants or underlings less smart than you, but with men and women who are able to challenge your own thinking. It takes a leader with a strong sense of self to have the courage to compete with a team of rivals rather than just reinforce his own perspectives. [January 10, 2009 note: Here's hoping President Obama didn't learn too much from the book. I'm not sure Biden, Clinton and Richardson fill the historical shoes of Seward, Chase, Stanton and Bates. Two of the three Obama choices would qualify, in my humble opinion, for a Team of Bozos (you get to guess which two.)]
War on Drugs on Us
The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World's Most Troubled Drug Culture. Richard DeGrandpare, with a doctorate in psychopharmacology and author of “Ritalin Nation,” explores the history of the use of psychoactives and how certain substances have been demonized and others officially sanctioned with the imprimatur of the medical establishment, when they often have the same effects on humans. Among many things covered in the book is his review of N.E. Zinberg’s important construct of “drug, set and setting” – the chemical impact of a drug on the body and brain, the concurrent mindset of a user, and the setting in which a psychoactive is used, all of which contribute to a drug’s effect on an individual. Though the book isn’t an anti-drug war polemic, it provides lots of useful information for those of us who want to end the government’s “Reefer Madness.”
Drug War Addiction. County Sheriff Bill McMasters of Colorado takes on the madness of the War on Drugs and its efforts to jail Americans for what they choose to put into their bodies. A former believer in use of the coercive power of the state to control use and sale of substances not on the officially approved list (alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs), McMasters writes about the social and individual harm he was helping to inflict on adults.
Advertising, Marketing, Branding
Tipping Point. Malcolm Gladwell first came to best-seller fame, before he wrote “Blink”, with this treatment of how behaviors, diseases and other phenomena can suddenly move from a few individuals to the masses after reaching a tipping point through avenues like “buzz marketing” (very useful stuff for promoters of products and political ideas.)
Intelligence, Ethics, Futurist Technology
Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human. Journalist Joel Garreau reviews the awesome implications for public policy of the genetic, robotic, information and nano-technologies in this excellent book that makes those technical subjects accessible to lay readers.
Blink. Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller describes “blink thinking,” which I think can be analogized to the “macros” we create on our computers and which run at lightening speed when we invoke these stored commands. We blink-think when a small set of data causes our brains to come to reasonably good conclusions without lots of higher level processing. Especially useful, I think, to those of us interested in political communication is Gladwell’s description of research into “face language,” our ability to almost read someone’s mind by studying facial expressions.
On Intelligence. Jeff Hawkins, who developed the Palm Pilot, explores his theory of human intelligence, suggesting that our minds, while computing, aren’t doing so like the machine processors we have invented. Rather, our brains, as they develop from birth, are “modeling” the world with invariant patterns we can quickly retrieve so we can predict what’s coming next (which I think supports Malcolm Gladwell’s “blink thinking” premise.) My simplistic description here surely does an injustice to Hawkins, but the book is fascinating and makes the ultimately complicated subject – our brains – accessible to those with limited knowledge of neuro-science.
The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Both of these books by journalist-turned-public-intellectual Robert Wright deal with evolution and ethics, with arguments that support those of us who are non-theists and understand that ethical behavior doesn’t require a guiding-hand law-giver. Our own evolution directs us social animals toward pursuing human-friendly “win-win” strategies instead of “you win, I lose” zero sum games. (You “glass half empty” types may not feel my sanguinity toward that positive direction of evolution after you read this – but you’re wrong! LOL)
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran tells the story of surreal life in the walled-off zone that protected America's Iraqi occupation force, military and civilian, that followed the wrong war in the wrong place at the right time (when our real enemy was hiding in caves in Afghanistan, not spider holes in Iraq.) We broke it--and we had no idea how to fix it.
The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy. Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid provides insight into the emergence of the European Union as a rival to the U.S. and describes the rise of a European identity, especially among young Europeans.
Health, Medicine and Politics
One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance. Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel join forces to question America’s obsession with therapy that medicalizes dysfunctional behaviors and convinces us we have less free will than we do in deciding our actions. This excellent book also looks at such phenomena as “grief counselors,” who rush to the sites of random acts of violence and natural catastrophes to turn every witness to a tragedy, no matter how remotely involved, into emotional basket cases in need of grief relief.
Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS and What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong. Journalist Celia Farber and HIV/AIDS reappraisal activist Christine Maggiore (founder of the organization, “Alive and Well”) challenge conventional wisdom and the HIV/AIDS industrial complex in their books. Even if you accept the official government and medical establishment dogma that a mysterious retrovirus is the unquestionable cause of the equally mysterious immune-compromising disease-by-definition called “AIDS”, these books will make you think twice. [January 10, 2009 note: I am honored to have had Christine as a friend. She died--NOT of the amorphous "AIDS"--on December 27, 2008. She was quite possibly the most courageous person I have ever known, fearlessly willing to challenge the junk-science received wisdom of The HIV=AIDS Cult.]
Inventing the AIDS Virus, by one of the world's foremost cell biologists, Dr.Peter Duesberg of UC-Berkeley, and The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, by former Virginia Tech Univ. liberal arts college dean Dr. Henry H. Bauer, make the scientific and epidemiological cases against the single pathogen theory that has become what some of us believe is the mis-guided religion that mis-informs what has become a world-wide HIV/AIDS Industry. We have taken a complex, multi-factorial disease and substance abuse problem and politicized it, leading to the current racism reflected in our taking a heterosexual epidemic of AIDS that never occurred in the West and off-shoring it to Africa, where old diseases like malaria and old problems like immune-compromising malnutrition have been re-purposed as HIV/AIDS.
Civil Rights, Liberal Racialism, Immigration Reform
The Content of Our Character and A Dream Deferred. If you are under the influence of those who believe in the spoils system of racial and other identity group entitlements, known euphemistically as “affirmative action,” Shelby Steele’s “Content” will change your mind, with his brilliant evisceration of the dogma and received wisdom of this left-liberal religion and its harmful effects on its intended beneficiaries. His second book, “Dream Deferred,” explains how affirmative action is a belief system that allows white liberals to feel good about themselves and offers civil rights “leaders” like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton a pretense for brokering the black vote. In “Dream,” Steele recounts the shunning with which he and other black critics of group entitlements are met in an effort to silence them within the black community.
Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream. Former Newsday columnist Jim Sleeper challenges conventional wisdom on racial and identity politics, helping inform those of us who believe it's important to halt liberal as well as conservative race consciousness in America. In this book, Sleeper anticipated (by several years) the trouble into which liberal racism would get The New York Times in the Jason Blair incident (in which editors let their liberal race consciousness and allegiance to the spoils system of “affirmative action” blind them to the ethical lapses of a young reporter.)
The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again. Only Michael Barone, with his encyclopedic knowledge of American political demography, could have written this book. Awesomely good, it challenges the conventional wisdom that predicts we are going to become a multicultural minority majority America, of warring tribes. No, we're going to do what we did in the 19th Century, and experience healthy assimilitative immigration, if we can avoid both multi-culti tribal consciousness and ugly nativism. The book contrasts and compares Asian, Hispanic and African American immigrants (blacks “immigrated” into the larger culture in the mid-20th Century), with Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants of the 19th Century, all of whom quickly assimilated, despite nativist concerns to the contrary.
The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office. Journalist Alan Ehrenhalt gets inside the minds of baby boom era politicians to see what makes them run – and the picture isn’t all that pretty. I think this book supports my view that politicians of my generation, while less dollar dishonest than their counterparts of the 19th Century, are also less intellectually honest, getting into politics for the new gold of fame on the evening news. Ego corrupts with government by press release. The book also notes the difference between Democrats who begin their permanent campaigns for office right after college, and Republicans who get a little rich first and then seek office to protect themselves from government (though both parties in recent years seems to be spawning more and more full-time politicians and fewer citizen legislators.)
Campaign Finance “Reform” and Political Speech
Ideology: Left, Right, Libertarian
The Right Nation : Conservative Power in America. Journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (of The Economist) explain conservatives in America – a nice primer on the various brands of conservatism (which I would describe as Main street/Wall Street fiscal conservatives; free market and free mind libertarians; the neo-conservative authoritarians who gave us the Iraq War and the right-wing big government of the George W. Bush era; and the social/cultural, big daddy government religious right.)
Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival. Journalists Dan Balz and Ron Brownstein do a fine job of explaining the 1994 Gingrich revolution and give insight into evolving conservative ideology of the late 20th Century.
Journalistic Ethics and Practice