Sunday, January 30, 2005

Book Review - A Popular Trend: Negative Political Books

By Stewart Kiff

Today, more than ever, we live in a world of passionate discourse. Newspapers, talk radio and especially cable television are awash in opinions dressed as argument and often accessorized with massaged facts and sly putdowns. More often than not it is the sensational that captures headlines and moves public sentiment. Political writers who limit their comments to the sensible, the logical and the well-researched seem continually sidelined by those who revel in the dramatic and emotional. This month, in acknowledgement of this sad reality, we journey to the realm of negative excess; reviewing three books so extreme that they define themselves by what they are against.

Unfortunately, this field of negative political books has become awfully crowded. Indeed, it seems like a whole publishing industry developed to simply produce anti-George W. Bush books, let alone the multiplicity of books whose themes are uni-dimensionally anti-American, anti-Mulroney, anti-French (as in the country), and now anti-Martin. In its bristling hostility and unflappable negativity, this publishing trend exposes the chasm between left and right which divides modern politics and in many ways has come to define it.

Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man
David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke

First up, we have the bitter and personal: Michael Moore is a Big, Fat, Stupid, White Man. I would have loved to completely dismiss this work as just so much ideological hyperventilating. But, once you get past the cheap invective and casual sneering, you will find that authors Hardy and Clarke, while clearly detesting Moore, also have a factual basis for their criticism.

The writers have done readers a service by taking a step by step approach to detailing the omissions and misrepresentations in Moore’s documentaries that have become the target for his growing legions of critics. Unfortunately for Michael Moore fans it would appear that there is a fair bit of substance to these charges of inaccuracy and manipulation of facts and footage, and the volume of perceived deceit may lead one to question his motives.

This book however is a bit dated. It was completed before the release of Moore’s hit film, Fahrenheit 9/11. It is just too sour and too sloppy to merit a recommendation here.

Not Recommended.

The Anti-Chomsky Reader
Edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz

The Anti-Chomsky Reader, targeting writer and intellectual Noam Chomsky, is an altogether different story. While I have appreciated the art and competence of Moore’s books and films, I must confess I never “got” Chomsky. When I have tried to read him, I found his prose nearly impenetrable. His writing is elliptical and wordy, and filled with a casual sarcasm. Even when I go over paragraphs a couple times to try and confirm the meaning, I still don’t get him.

But for many devout lefties, notably those in the anti-globalization movement and the pro-Palestine movements, Chomsky was long ago beatified as their patron saint. The famous Canadian documentary, Manufacturing Consent, helped accelerate this process. If anything, his fame and influence have increased in recent years to the point where he is considered an intellectual superstar.

He has attained this lofty status, in part, because of his significant and real contributions in the field of Linguistics as a Professor at MIT. But it is his political writings that accord him the real gravitas. Such is the power of his notoriety that in some circles it is sufficient to have claimed to read Chomsky to have some of his status pass off on you.

The Anti-Chomsky Reader aims to take down this man’s entire life’s work, through a systematic attack that refutes one-by-one the assumptions and facts on which he has built his arguments. Largely, the authors succeed. The documentation in this book is excellent. Its assertions are verifiable and clearly written. The book does suffer slightly from Editor David Horowitz’s thuggish approach to debate, which tends to push nuanced facts to absolutes and denigrates opponents.

What cannot be ignored in this book are the many substantial critiques of Chomsky, and his questionable methods of research to back up his assertions. Even more problematic are the detailed links this book provides between Chomsky and holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and a web of anti-Semitic publishing houses.

More debateable, but nonetheless problematic, is Chomsky’s support in the late seventies of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, at the exact same time the regime was engaged in a terrible genocide. The book asserts and documents actions and statements by Chomsky that show him so ideologically close-minded, that he went out of his way to dismiss and downplay reports of the genocide as they emerged from Cambodia.

Chomsky, for all his celebrity among intellectuals, remains a bit of a fringe interest among the general public. For them the thrust of the book will seem obscure, which is why it can only be lightly recommended for general readers. But for political junkies with an interest in Chomsky, this is a must read.


Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
Al Franken, Dutton Books

In one of the great political books of the past two years, Saturday Night Live alumnus, comedian, and leftie activist/broadcaster Al Franken sets out to prove just how dishonest many leading right-wing commentators are. Fortunately for the reader the book is written in an entertaining and thoroughly engaging fashion as it states its case that, yes, they are a bunch of liars.

Following on his formula from 1999’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot, Franken takes aim at popular right-wing commentators, in particular, loudmouths like Ann Coulter and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. What sets this book apart from others of its ilk, other than its playful tone, is the rigorous research upon which the author bases his critiques. Franken neither condescends to his readers nor takes himself too seriously.

Certainly, Ann Coulter’s reputation does not hold up well under Franken’s documentation of her apparent mendacity. Yet the book has an underlying respect for some of those the author disagrees with, and that gives it an endearing quality beyond its humour.

Which is why it’s a bestseller. If you have not picked this up to see what how entertainment and quality political criticism can mix, then you are missing a treat.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

This is me Posted by Hello

Book Review - The Book of Tells

The Book of Tells: How to Read People’s Minds By Their Actions by Peter Collett, Harper Collins, 310 p.

Few skills are more fundamental to lobbying than able to “tell” what the person you are lobbying is really thinking. Though deceit is rarely blatant, misdirection, bluffs, bluster, half-truths, and omissions are the staple of many a political exchange. The word “tell” comes from the use of the word in the gambling milieu where it is used to describe the unconscious physical signs or actions that people display indicating their state of mind. Using the methods described in the book, you should be able to decipher some of these “tells” – giving you a better understanding of how people communicate with you.

This book is extensively researched, though the casual reader may find it too detailed and encyclopaedic. It is the intellectual descendant of Desmond Morris’ breakthrough work in this field: “The Naked Ape”. It is a welcome and useful update to that now dated work.

Canadian readers will instantly connect with this book as Collett, a Canadian, draws heavily on references to Canadian political leaders such as Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney. While the author’s constant use of Canadian political examples make the work instantly familiar, his dismissive attitude towards politics and politicians grows irritating. It appears the author has little direct experience directly with politicians and politics, field and he is drawing many political examples from television news rather than direct experience.


Book Review - Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story of Hell on Earth by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson, Miramax Books, 308p.

This book brings together the lives of three young United Nations workers, a New Zealander and two Americans as they criss-cross the globe during the 1990’s from international hell hole to hell hole. It is a virtual tour of the failed states civil war and genocide from the past decade.

More of a diary than an analysis, the book jumps from the perspective to perspective of the three authors as they tell their respective stories in the first person. This works, sort of, until the various authors all experience near-death episodes that seem to be in part caused by either the incompetence or avarice of their host countries or their UN co-workers. From that point onward, a creeping and depressing cynicism and nilism infects this work and leaves you feeling both dirty and unrewarded for your continuing to delve deeper into this morass.

While well written, and with some great first person accounts, there is little in this book to recommend it as a whole. In particular I find it bizarre that the authors have all continued past the writing of this work to maintain their association with the UN and peace keeping efforts, because this book and its contents are a clear indictment of both.

Moreover, the confessional nature of the work (yes they really do have a section on the merits of “emergency sex”) while titillating does not leave the reader with any faith in the bone fides of the authors and their commitment or understanding of the what is necessary at a personal or a geopolitical level to achieve world peace. All in all, reading this is similar to your compulsion to watch a car accident as you drive past it – you can’t take your eyes off it at the time- but it leaves you feeling dirty and not the better for the experience.


Book Review - The Rebel Sell

The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, HarperCollins, 336p.

This is easily one of the most exciting books of the year and is certain to become a touchstone in future discussions about consumer culture. Heath and Potter bring a sharp intellectual clarity and a rare audacity in this tome – making it a poignant one volume attack on the current popular “counter-culture” ethos.

An easy read, filled with popular culture references, this paradigm-shifting analysis leaves no sacred cow ungored. So if you love your anti-globalization activism, organic food, fair trade coffee, extreme sports and authentic hand made goods from third world paysans, consider yourself forewarned.

Their central thesis is that if you feel like a rebel with out a cause, it is probably because you don’t really have one. Or worse, you have been duped into believing you are rebelling, when in fact, you are just engaging in traditional consumerism and status seeking. Developing on the arguments laid out by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool, they argue that the counter culture has not only been co-opted by corporate North America, but that Corporate North America and the counter-culture movement is basically the same beast.

In trying to “jam” the culture of consumerism, they argue that jammers are in effect counterproductive. The jammers are in effect just creating different looking version of the very consumerism they so stridently oppose.

Heath and Potter argue that in the 40 odd years since the wide-spread adoption of the counter-culture in the 1960’s, this rebel ethos has in effect just served to sustain vigorous consumer driven capitalism. The unsettling (for some) political implications of this political paradigm shift are best summed up in this excerpt:

“Counterculture has almost completely replaced socialism as the basis of radical political thought. So if counterculture is a myth, then it is one that has misled an enormous number of people, with untold political consequences.”

Even more interesting for the PAAC member is that the authors are Canadian. Many of the reference points used in the book are Canadian as well – right down to their gratuitous slagging of our very own feminist wunderkind Naomi Klein for her ostentatious pursuit of the “authentic” loft experience in downtown Toronto.

With so much criticism in the book it seems the authors feel compelled to fill the gap with positive propositions for change. This is where the book makes some weak arguments in favour of initiatives like a tax on advertising, pollution credits and for incrementalism as a political philosophy. While they may excel as culture critics, as political analysts they are – well – like well meaning university professors. These few awkward notes do little to diminsh the overall strength and clarity of the work.


Book Review - The Most Dangerous Branch

The Most Dangerous Branch – How the Supreme Court of Canada Had Undermined Our Law and Our Democracy by Robert Ivan Martin, 2003, McGill-Queen’s University Press.


With the Prime Minister’s recent appointment of two new activist judges to the Supreme Court of Canada this book is both timely and relevant. In Canada, we have seen considerable criticism of recent court decisions, notably around same-sex marriage, as well as notable right-wing anguish over the recent appointments. This book argues that the Supreme Court is overstepping its bounds, and is, in fact, re-writing the law of the land to suit itself while usurping Parliamentary authority.

What this book aspires to be a meticulous, reasoned critique of the current Supreme Court and the decisions it has made. On this level and so many others this book is a complete and miserable failure.
The author seems incapable of any dispassionate analysis of the court’s decisions. When not indulging in gratuitous and obscure name-dropping he is continually inserting himself into arguments as the unwitting victim of a left-wing conspiracy-like “orthodoxy”. His personal attacks on his tormentors lack credibility or substance and only serve to exacerbate the overall unreadability of a work that resembles a barely cogent draft of a graduate thesis. Whatever its motive this book seems to have been written without any consideration for the reader.

In fact, I do have one good thing to say about this book: For those of you who are not writing books because you do not believe anyone will publish you I encourage you pick up a copy and examine it. If this drivel can get published, especially by a reputable publisher like McGill-Queen’s, certainly your book has a good shot.

Book Review - The Future of Freedom

The Future of Freedom – Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria, 2003, W.W. Norton & Company.


In this book esteemed journalist and foreign policy adviser Fareed Zakaria has tackled head on the fundamental problem of the occasionally ungenerous and irrational nature of liberal democracies.

While this dilemma is as old as democracy itself, it is one that is highly pertinent given the current push in Canada to tackle the “democratic deficit”, and the considerable effort being given to reforming our electoral system.

The Indian-born, American educated Zakaria hits his stride when his book turns to a very compelling attack on the currently popular idea, recently fashionable in Canada, of direct democracy.

Using the State of California as a prime example of the failure of direct democracy – he argues that Californians, through implementing direct democracy and related referenda, have created a government that barely works. Instead, Zakaria argues for more traditional “representative” (as opposed to direct) democracy. He argues that the solution to much of society’s current governmental malaise is that we should create even more institutions like the American Federal Reserve Bank that are structured to act in the long term and are insulated from short term pressures.

Of special note to lobbyists, he launches a blistering attack on the profession in his chapter: “Too Much of a Good Thing” – but not for the usual reasons. His argument against lobbyists is that we do too much of a good job for our clients and consequently have substantially contributed to the paralysis and shortsightedness of modern government.

Among his many thought provoking arguments elaborated in the book is his belief that democracies where the per capita GDP is less than $6000 are not stable and that for poorer countries liberal authoritarianism may be a better choice of government than all-out democracy.

Zakaria has produced an eminently readable book on a thought provoking and prescient issue. His ability to present a very contentious and timely polemic in a simple manner while providing empirical backing for his argument should be applauded.