Traditions are important, even when, like this one, they’re only a year oldespecially when you run a website that manages to publish wonderful writers without paying them a red cent. So here we are a week-plus into December and if you’re anything like me, all those thoughts you had last December 26th about picking up your presents early for all those deserving someones led to exactly nada. Not a single purchase. The drawers are empty. The closet is filled with old clothes. Behind that chair where you always hide your gifts is an empty plastic bag. And right now, you’re experiencing that lovely seasonal feeling of watching the Yule train barrel down the tracks you’re tied to at a phenomenal speed.
Fortunately, I’m here to lend a hand. Below I’m offering you the whole ball of wax: an unparalleled technology to give your loved ones, tested in the fires for over half a millennium and, as a system of research, information retrieval, or pure pleasure, yet to be superseded.
No, sorry, I’m not talking about the new Xbox, Tivo, or iPod. I said five centuries, not five seconds. But I assure you, follow my suggestions and you and your closest will be the best prepared group in your neighborhood, no matter what the next four years have in store.
Here’s the theory and it’s simple: One hand washes the other, and every hand is happy. You need presents. I need to thank writers, almost all of whom have written books, many of which — think of this as an incestuous universe — I edited and a number of which I’ve published through The American Empire Project (the series I run with my friend Steve Fraser at Metropolitan Books). Oh yes, that’s in my other life, the one that got eaten alive by Tomdispatch, the one you know next to nothing about (unless you clicked that little highlighted “bio” next to my name and to the right of the main screen at Tomdispatch).
Now, throw this in: What could be better this dismal Xmas, at the start of four more years of imperial overstretch, fundamentalist creep, and apocalyptic poker than getting a handle on this desperate world of ours. And then, of course — to let you in on my deepest thoughts — if all 12,000 of you Tomdispatch subscribers (you’ve more than doubled since last Xmas!) and the untold numbers of site bookmarkers and passees-on and passionate Internet political readers who check out Tomdispatch at other sites like Mother Jones on-line, Commondreams, ZNET, Alternet, Antiwar.com, LewRockwell.com, Cursor.org, Progressivetrail.org and so many other sites simply buy one book, one eensy-weensy book — Or hey, why shouldn’t I be greedy? Let’s say six books! — I can chalk up at least $37.28 in simple royalties as “pay” to each of my writers.
All I’m asking you to do is take out your wallet or reach into that bag or purse. Think of this as a scene from Peter Pan and Peter’s on stage begging you to clap for Tinkerbell, if you believe and you do believe, don’t you?
Of course, to be completely venal, if you each were to buy twelve books and at least eleven of them were multiples of the two I’ve written, I would be walking through rivers of gold. (In suggesting this, by the way, I’m following the famed advice of Hippocrates’ first cousin, “Author sell thyself.”) For instance, I could recommend The End of Victory Culture, a book that tells the story of how, from the moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, an American culture of triumphalism — and the “war story” that went with it — began to disintegrate. Call it an idiosyncratic history that takes you via GI Joe dolls and horror comics, John Wayne and Star Wars from 1945 through the Cold War (as well as the hot one in Vietnam) to Gulf War I, and that prepares you to create your own post-Cold War account of how our chickenhawk moment came about. (Historian John Dower wrote of it: “An extraordinarily original work that places postwar American history in an entirely new perspective.”)
Or, if you wanted to escape into the other part of my life, I could recommend my novel, The Last Days of Publishing — of which novelist Herb Gold wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “A satisfyingly virulent, comical, absurd, deeply grieving true portrait of how things work today in the sleek factories of conglomerate book producers. . . A skillful novel of manners–of very bad manners.” It’s an action-packed tale of how giant entertainment corporations swallowed far smaller publishing houses and how one editor lives through that banquet of cannibals. In true publishing fashion — you’ve all heard of the publishing lunch, I’m sure — it could be subtitled “Six Meals in Search of an Author.”
And it’s a world I certainly know something about. After all, for fifteen years, I was a book editor in a small, progressive sub-basement of mainstream publishing — and I remain so part-time, despite Tomdispatch, which represents nothing short of my modest odyssey into computer Oz. My Tomdispatch “career,” now over three years old, began a couple of months after 9/11 when, having drained the contents of a little bottle labeled “drink me” that I found one morning in front of my door, I decided I couldn’t sit on my hands another second — and sent an e-message off to perhaps 12 friends and relatives.
I’m now 60 years old and I often feel like, with that act, I slithered through some rabbit hole into a world where everyone is at least half my age and ten — or is it one hundred — times as technologically adept as I am. (Of course, what’s 100 times 0? I wasn’t much at math either.) The odd thing is that before I entered this Internet world of passionate readers I was losing my faith in the book, which was, perversely enough, why I started writing a novel, a book, about publishing. And now that I no longer have the time to write a book, I once again believe.
So let me turn to those Xmas book suggestions, while you thank your lucky stars that I won’t be ready until this time next year to launch the first of my Tom-Marts, hawking Tomdispatch T-shirts (mighty cute) and a full line of Tomdispatch coffee mugs, berets, footstools, and heating pads as well as a Tom-Rex line of dinosaur toys. But I outrun myself.
Vietnam on My Mind
I’ll start my list with two ringers — books by writers who didn’t do a Tomgram this year. Like many Americans of a certain age I still have Vietnam on the brain. The other day, Donald Rumsfeld, ever the optimist, suggested that, though he wouldn’t want to set any deadlines, we just might make it out of Iraq in another 4 years (and that was if all went well); former Centcom Commander Anthony Zinni suggested that 5 years would be the minimum to “stabilize” the country; other military experts are rounding the figure off at a decade or more. That means, in translation, at least 4-10 more years of Vietnam comparisons. My suggestion, this Xmas, is to get yourself several steps ahead of the quagmire curve. Pick up a copy of Chris Appy’s Patriots, The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, an oral history of the war that includes just about every witness imaginable, American and Vietnamese, on every side of every question and that, I think, is the single most riveting book on the subject in years.
Or, if you’d like some fiction, why not try Beverley Gologorsky’s The Things We Do to Make It Home, a tiny novel about the wives and children of Vietnam Vets (and the vets themselves, of course). It’s not exactly the book to fill you with Yule cheer, but it’s a moving reminder — painfully appropriate for our moment of back-door drafts and “stop-loss” tour-of-duty extensions — that when soldiers leave wars, wars don’t necessarily leave them. Our Iraqi adventure will, like the Vietnam one, inhabit American (and Iraqi) nightmares for years to come.
Or you could turn to an author who actually wrote for Tomdispatch this year: Consider The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Alfred McCoy’s classic Vietnam era volume (fully updated) on the way the CIA, the drug business, tribal politics, and air power were secretly melded into a lethal combination in Laos in the Vietnam era, a combo that’s been with us ever since. (Think Afghanistan 2001 and beyond.)
Post-election Blues and the Politics of Hope
Thomas Frank doesn’t need my help; his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (a selection from which appeared at Tomdispatch) returned to the best-seller lists right after the election — as well it should have. On November 3, I wrote a mood piece I entitled The Election Hangover of a Lifetime. (“Sometimes, on the nights when everything imaginable goes wrong, it’s worth reminding yourself that we’re just one species — the whole lot of us — on a tiny planet at the edge of a not so grandiose galaxy, one of only god knows how many.”) A staggering 400-500 passionate e-mails arrived almost immediately from those suffering similar “hangovers.”
These were followed, after the piece had been posted at right-wing websites, by a small flood of e-letters from Bush supporters. They were a bizarre experience — I wondered for a while if Frank had actually written them himself just to prove his point. They were angry, abusive (sometimes straightforwardly threatening), filled with resentment, every one from a “proud American” or the equivalent, most telling me that I personally had shoved Bill Clinton down their throats and they would now dance gleefully on my East of the Hudson, liberal, bed-wetting butt, or perhaps that I should “go back to France” (Russia having unfortunately been rendered unusable). Just as Frank writes of the conservative landscape of paranoia that he surveys, if you closed your eyes and just listened to those resentment-filled voices, you would have thought that George Bush had been crushed in the election.
Facing the next four years, we better get our brains around Bush’s world and Frank’s book is a good place to start. Another place is at the Commondreams website which, just the other day, posted a remarkable speech by Bill Moyers that focuses on who these people in Washington actually are and what to make of them. “One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime,” he said, “is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.”
Moyer’s speech hardly qualifies as enjoyable reading, though anything he does is certainly filled with brio, but he does end his grim tale on the following note, “[T]he will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism.” Editing Studs Terkel’s most recent oral history, Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, its pages filled with the inspiring voices of activists from the 1930s to late last night, I learned something simple that fits with Moyers’ ending. In good times, you don’t have to do a lot to hope, but in bad times, if you want to hope, you have to act. You need to look grim reality in the face and take that first small step, whatever it might be for you. (And if you want to give someone a little encouragement from our American past on their journey, you might slip Howard Zinn’s latest, his Voices of a People’s History of the United States, under the tree. After all, with four hundred years of such voices, you’re talking about powerful stuff.)
Hope is the crucial thing, and the text I happen to love that offers us hope in the context of a history that might seem less than hopeful is Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. It’s tiny enough to be a stocking stuffer and large-hearted enough to fill a few other holes in the landscape. It can be read by young and old alike. It’s the only way you’ll ever find out why history is like a crab rather than a game of chess. It will make strange connections in your brain and light up your holidays. (And if all goes well, a Solnit piece will be my final offering before I sign off for a week or so around Xmas and open my own presents. She’ll be writing a post-election update, a kind of hope-at-midnight essay — or that’s my hope, anyway.)
And while we’re on the subject of hope and history, let me recommend the most hopeful book of the season. Preorder Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, not due in the stores until January. This monumental history of the British anti-slavery movement by the author of King Leopold’s Ghost is guaranteed to sweep you away. In recounting a more than half-century-long effort to end slavery in the British empire, it also offers the deepest kind of hope — for it reminds us that all those mindsets and ways of being that we absolutely know are so basic to our world as to be immutable, may be no less mutable than slavery once proved. And think of all the fun you can have creating that special card heralding the book’s future arrival for that special someone.
Or, keeping hope on the agenda, why not try Chip Ward’s Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land, and meet some charismatic (human) carnivores who are imagining ways to restore our American wildlands and so reconnect us to our world.
For the Politically Young (at Heart)
El Fisgon (“the peeper”), Mexican political cartoonist extraordinaire (not to speak of children’s book writer, author of tomes on the history of caricature, and who knows what else), offered Tomdispatch the single best headline of the electoral season, “George Bush, The Worst Mexican President Ever.” In the piece that followed he claimed that our President had stolen all the classic attributes of a Mexican cacique or political strongman and, as is typical in our cross-border relationship, hadn’t even paid a cent in royalties!
In passing, he also commented that Mexico’s former ruling party, the PRI, was “a mark of shame for all Mexicans,” but a paradise on Earth for political cartoonists. This was his version of the post-election “Bush Bounce” that people like Thomas Frank and me are experiencing. Yes, our society may be strip-mined and the rest of the world blown to smithereens, the waters may cover our coasts and our energy sources melt down, but for bloggers and political cartoonists, the next four years are going to be paradise. As thanks for his insight, I especially recommend that all of you over, say, forty think about stuffing the stockings of every political stripling youth you know with How to Succeed at Globalization: A Primer for Roadside Vendors, El Fisgon’s wonderful cartoon history of capitalism, a rollicking anti-globalization romp through the economic wreckage of the ages. Then do yourself a favor, while we’re on the subject of cartoons, and consider picking up a copy of Art Spiegelman’s unsettling, wondrous strange In the Shadow of No Towers, a sixteen page comic — but what pages! — straight from a mind still burning in the abyss of 9/11. I suggest you give it to yourself, though, since wrapping it, at its size, would be an investment.
The Empire Strikes Back (and Forward and Sideways)
Creating empires and crushing peoples is, if I remember rightly, the second oldest profession. How appropriate then that, as we head into the Bush Imperial Era (take two), all the books suggested below are prophetic texts. (Then again, watching the Bush administration with your eyes open, how could you not be prophetic?)
This week, the Boston Globe‘s James Carroll began his latest column (Afraid to Look in the Moral Abyss) with this question, “Why don’t we Americans look directly at the war? We avert our gaze, knowing that the situation in Iraq grows more desperate by the day.” How apt, given that Carroll, a home-grown, passionate, and always inspired moralist, has consistently refused to avert his eyes post 9/11. That’s why his book, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War, which takes you from the moments after 9/11 to the first “anniversary” of the invasion of Iraq, remains so thoroughly on target. After all, what began as a telling presidential “slip” — the use of the word “crusade” — has in a mere few years turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy, as our fundamentalists and theirs partner up and dance to the sound of explosions.
That, in fact, is the subject of Robert Jay Lifton’s Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World, a brief, elegant exploration of the ways in which linked apocalyptic mind-sets, Islamist and American, have clamped themselves on our poor planet.
Chalmers Johnson, who before 9/11 wrote a now famously prophetic book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, followed it up with The Sorrows of Empire, an instant classic on American militarism and the structure of our global military bases (now pushed ever deeper into the Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil-lands of our planet) that give our imperial selfhood its special shape. You can even preorder the paperback due in early January; but hardcover or paperback, don’t reach New Year’s without it.
Or, for that matter, Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which presents with particular clarity American imperial priorities in a world in which extinction is no longer something reserved for dodos and passenger pigeons. Chomsky is sui generis and his worldview is laid out here in a particularly striking fashion. (Check out, for instance, the remarkable section from his book, on terrorizing Cuba that ran at Tomdispatch.)
Then there’s the geopolitics of energy. If you’re curious about that, you’d better buy Mike Klare’s new Blood and Oil, The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum, because it’s not a subject generally taken up in our media. (If Iraq sat not on a treasure trove of oil, but on the world’s second largest supply of video games, believe me there would have been a bevy of front-page pieces exploring the effects of the Iraq situation on our children’s lives.) For Iraq itself, a perfect place to start is Dilip Hiro’s Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After.
Meet the Schell Brothers
Tomdispatch already has a husband-and-wife tag-team — Adam and Arlie Hochschild. (Though Arlie Hochschild last wrote for the site in 2003, her piece on George Bush’s potential reelection strategy, Let Them Eat War, was prescient enough to seem fresh even now.) Still, every website, like any old vaudeville show, needs a good brother act — and I have the best: Introducing the remarkable ***SCHELL BROTHERS*** THOSE DARING (NOT-SO) YOUNG MEN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE
Can I recommend Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People too many times? The answer is simply no, no, and no. In it, he lays out our war system as it developed over these last several hundred years, explains the rise of people’s war in a way that — though written before the invasion of Iraq — makes full sense of our disaster there, and lays out a near-secret path of nonviolence that, even ignored, has grown ever wider. Someday — as with Hochschild’s anti-slavery movement we will have no choice but to set off down that very path. By the way, once you’re hooked on Schell, try his Nation magazine “Letters from Ground Zero,” recently collected in A Hole in the World, A Story of War, Protest, and the New American Order.
Or if you want a moment of escape, check out brother Orville, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, who has written most recently at Tomdispatch on why our press has failed us, and who, in his Virtual Tibet, Searching for Shangri-la from the Himalayas to Hollywood, will facilitate your climb into the distant Himalayas of the American imagination where fantastic Tibets and even more bizarre Americans exist in profusion.
One of a Kind (Twice)
If you can’t categorize them, just buy them — that’s the rule I propose when it comes to two polymorphous polymaths, Mike Davis and Ariel Dorfman, neither like anyone else on Earth, both, it seems, capable of writing about next to anything East of Eden or West of Apocalypse. (Those are, I think, boulevards in Los Angeles.) For my taste, I would suggest starting with Davis’ Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Fear, a favorite of mine, in part because of its chapter (especially resonant these days) on the endless literary destructions of New York and Los Angeles, those twin Sodom and Gomorrahs of America. But since I’ve already read it, I’m actually asking for his Dead Cities and Other Tales for Xmas. (Oh, and in his spare time, he’s written the first two novels, The Land of the Lost Mammoths and Pirates, Bats, and Dragons in a prospective series of young adult “science adventures.” Being a young adult at heart and — to confess thoroughly — having a “thing” for Mammoths, I actually read book number one and got a big kick out of that secret valley in Greenland and its lost race of dwarf mammoths, as I suspect your kids might.)
As for Ariel Dorfman, he last wrote movingly for Tomdispatch on the struggle for America’s political soul (as seen through the two 9/11s — the Chilean one and ours). I don’t believe he’s ever seen a form he wasn’t willing to try — cultural criticism, political essays, novels, poetry, plays, movie scripts. You name it, he’s done it dazzlingly. You might try picking up his latest collection of essays, Other Septembers, Many Americas : Selected Provocations, 1980-2004. It’s a good portal into another universe — his. But proceed with caution, having entered that door, you’re unlikely to return unchanged.
On Axes of Evil and Crises to Come
Now here’s an opportunity! Be the first kid (or grown-up) on your block to chime in on the next war! While others focus on Iraq or Iran, you can get your North Korean facts in order by checking out Gavan McCormack’s Target Korea. It’s small enough to slip into your pocket, yet large enough to contain both the North’s Dear Leader and our own!
[Final note of caution: Spend a lot on these books, but save a little for that JDAM missile or Bradley Fighting Vehicle you’ve been yearning for or that little bit of “hillbilly armor” your truck has needed for so long. Next from Tomdispatch, already in the deadly grip of one-year-old traditions, and back for its second year by popular acclaim, Nick Turse’s Giving the Gift of War: Make it a Merry Military-Corporate Christmas.]
Read regular dispatches by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch.com