In To Be an American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation (New York: New York University Press, 1997), Bill Ong Hing, a visiting professor at Berkeley, tackles the debates over immigration and American identity with a compelling mix of factual analysis and personal narrative. Drawing on his years as an immigration lawyer and on the experiences of his Chinese-American family, Hing acknowledges the need for a shared, core set of “American” values, while arguing for a pluralism that recognizes and affirms cultural and racial diversity.
In The Coming White Minority: California’s Eruptions and the Nation’s Future (New York: Times Books, 1996), Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Dale Maharidge examines “America’s multicultural tomorrow,” through the stories of four California citizens: a white businessman, a black sheriff, an Asian-American student, and a Latino state representative. The book, parts of which first appeared in Mother Jones, shows that we all want the same things: good jobs, good schools, and safe neighborhoods. But Maharidge never coerces the voices he records into a forced articulation of “American” identity.
In Unfinished People: Eastern European Jews Encounter America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), Ruth Gay tells the story of her immigrant parents as they settled into the Jewish enclaves of New York City in the 1920s. Exploring how her parents’ generation struggled to preserve Old World traditions while adapting to American ways, Gay grounds her family’s experience in the details of everyday life — music, clothes, food. She writes that good matzo balls are a metaphor for the human spirit: not too heavy and full of rich flavor. They’re also an apt metaphor for her book.
Spoken-word musician Jayne Cortez addresses cultural appropriation on her latest CD, Taking the Blues Back Home (Verve, 1996). Declaring “I’m taking the blues back home before somebody sings/’Ain’t nobody’s business if I steal your blues,'” Cortez reconnects the blues with its black roots. This combination of words and music, protest and reverie, shows how preservation of a cultural past doesn’t have to compromise a progressive future.
Last October, Greenpeace activists took a field trip to Iowa to protest the harvesting of Monsanto Roundup Ready Soybeans. Borrowing a plot device from TV’s “The X-Files,” they painted a 300-foot “X” in bright pink, nontoxic, milk-based spraypaint across a Monsanto soybean field to call attention to the potential health and environmental impact of the soybeans. For more information on the group’s “Not Ready for Roundup” campaign, see its Web site.
Monsanto’s Web site trumpets the chemical giant’s contributions to sustainable development and a clean environment. Links to other Monsanto sites, however, provide a glimpse of the company’s more synthetic side. Shop for AstroTurf (available in forest green and “beautiful black”) and Vydyne Nylon — or take a visit to NutraSweet City.
In Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), biologist Michael J. Reiss and philosopher Roger Straughan delve into the complex moral and ethical considerations of the genetic mutation of microorganisms, plants, and animals — including humans. Although Reiss and Straughan remain characteristically objective, they do go so far as to recommend labeling for genetically altered foods.
Reacting to the Republican revolution, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. bucked conventional wisdom with They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) . Dionne argued that the momentum of American politics was not actually toward the right, but toward a new progressive era. Now, as Democrats enjoy a minor resurgence, they should take another look at Dionne’s prescription for a reform-minded political movement — as well as at his analysis of why Democratic mistakes led to the 1994 Republican sweep.
Philadelphia activist Ed Schwartz holds out the Internet as the one great hope for returning political power to the grassroots level. In NetActivism: How Citizens Use the Internet (Sebastopol, Calif.: Songline Studios, 1996), Schwartz bolsters his vision with practical tips on searching the Web, sending e-mail zaps, and securing Net access for low-income communities. While Schwartz’s advice is right-on, sometimes his facts aren’t — both mentions of MoJo’s Web site, for example, get the address wrong. Oops.
According to The Party’s Not Over: A New Vision for the Democrats (New York: Basic Books, 1996), the party can safely be divided into two camps: faux Democrats and Faux Democrats. The latter includes author Jeff Faux, president of the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute, and others who seek to restore the Democratic Party’s allegiance to working-class Americans. The former, of course, are DLC types, who instead have embraced big business — see the DLC’s Web site. Faux asserts that, despite its political expediency, the New Democrats’ centrist strategy will eventually fail. In its place, he outlines a broad plan that would reconnect Democrats with their traditional base, while refocusing the party’s economic program to better address the changing global market.
Gould junkies should check out Voyager’s First Person: Stephen Jay Gould on Evolution (New York: Voyager, 1994). The CD-ROM is loaded with information, including a QuickTime video of a Gould lecture, the entire text of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and related documents from such figures as Thomas Hardy and John Milton.
Why was Darwin inspired to develop the theory of evolution when his peers, confronted with the same evidence, were not? In Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), MIT scholar Frank J. Sulloway advances birth order as the most reliable predictor of why some people become revolutionaries. Applying Darwin’s theory of natural selection to family dynamics, he argues that firstborns tend to be more conservative, while later-borns like Darwin are more likely to embrace revolution. Sulloway scrutinized the biographical information of more than 6,500 historical figures, and the resulting statistical evidence is staggering. Across 20 countries and five centuries, birth order proves a reliable indicator for everyone from Stalin to Susan B. Anthony.