Gessen is a Suetonius for our time, documenting the death of the old America while holding out slim hope for its restoration.

SURVIVING AUTOCRACY

The National Book Award winner delivers a handbook for an age in which egomania is morphing into autocracy at warp speed.

New Yorker contributor Gessen, an immigrant from what was then the Soviet Union, understands totalitarian systems, especially the ways in which, under totalitarian rule, language is degraded into meaninglessness. Today, writes the author, we are “using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe.” Against that, Gessen suggests, we now have an administration for which words hold no reality, advancing the idea that “alternative facts” are fine but professing dismay when one calls them lies. The step-by-step degradation of democratic institutions that follows is a modern-day rejoinder to the fact that more than half a dozen years separated the Reichstag fire from World War II. That’s a big buffer of time in which to admit all manner of corruption, and all manner of corruption is what we’ve been seeing: Gessen reminds us about Mick Mulvaney’s accepting handsome gifts from the payday-loan industry he was supposed to regulate and Ben Carson’s attempt to stock his office with a $31,000 dining-room set. Yet corruption’s not the right word, writes the author, since Trump and company are quite open and even boastful about what used to be a matter of shame and duplicity. The real tragedy, it seems, is that they have been so successful in creating what the author calls a “new, smaller American society,” one that willfully excludes the Other. Many writers have chronicled the Trump administration’s missteps and crimes, but few as concisely as Gessen, and her book belongs on the shelf alongside Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny and Amy Siskind’s The List as a record of how far we have fallen.

Gessen is a Suetonius for our time, documenting the death of the old America while holding out slim hope for its restoration.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-18893-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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