Holiday Reading

Those who think that we have nothing good to say about the Bush family are mistaken. Every November, Austin literateurs gather at the State Capitol to commemorate the only good thing that came of George W. Bush’s gubernatorial administration: the Texas Book Festival, which was sponsored by Laura Bush, a former librarian.

In a session on “The American Empire,” Amy Chua, author of Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall, noted that the great “hyperpowers,” such as Persia, Rome, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Dutch Republic in the 17th century and the United States were all strikingly tolerant and pluralistic (for their times) during their rise, but she noted that too much tolerance can sow the seeds of decline.

The US faces billions of people who want to be like America but don’t want to live under America’s thumb, she noted.

Steve LeVine, author of The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea, took a contrarian view of where America stands in the world. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Clinton administration decided to challenge Russia’s influence in the oil-rich Trans-Caucusus (the southern half of the former Soviet Union), due to control of natural gas and oil pipelines that pass through Russia.

The US decided to build an independent oil pipeline, against the advice of the European Union and oil companies, LeVine said. Last year, it was put in operation and LeVine considers it “the signal American foreign policy triumph of the last 10 years.”

“Russia learned the lession of that victory,” he said. “It’s attempting to march across Europe, not with an army, but with petro-power, by building pipelines into Europe.” Meanwhile, he noted, “The United States, having made a whole empire built on the projection of economic power, is now fighting an old war in the Middle East.” He suggested that the US get out of Iraq and back into the pipeline war to balance out Russian influence in Europe.

Steven Saylor, whose series of Roman historical fiction includes Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome, noted that Rome was a republic for 500 years, ruled by a Senate, until a civil war resulted in an autocracy that ruled for 1,000 years. “I do believe we live in what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia,” Saylor said, predicting, “we’ll keep the empire but get rid of representative democracy.”

Another session remembered Molly Ivins, who died last January, and marked the publication of her final work, Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights.

Lou Dubose, Ivins’ collaborator on previous bestsellers Shrub and Bushwhacked, did much of the legwork for Bill of Wrongs as she fought cancer and he completed it after her death, but it was a longtime project that grew from her years of speaking out on behalf of civil liberties. In her travels she met ordinary people going to extraordinary measures to safeguard our most precious liberties and she intended the book to be a celebration of those heroes. But the Bush years changed the project’s focus as Ivins became concerned about threats to our freedoms – such as the “Patriot Act” and weakening of habeas corpus. Each chapter examines a different way the administration ignores the Bill of Rights, from the case of Murat Kurnaz, an innocent German Muslim of Turkish descent held as an enemy combatant by the US military for five years and subjected to waterboarding and electroshock, to a Texas couple who were arrested for wearing anti-Bush t-shirts at a Fouth of July rally at the West Virginia state capitol where Bush was scheduled to speak. The couple eventually won $80,000 from the federal government. Dubose said Molly would have been pleased that Brandon Mayfield, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who was ordered jailed in a closed hearing based upon a faulty reading of evidence in a Spanish train bombing, later sued and in October got a Portland judge to strike down two odious provisions of the “Patriot Act.”

We get more books than we can give a full review, but here are some volumes to consider, either as holiday gifts or to fill your down-time between yuletide events:

In Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media [Metropolitan Books], Eric Klinenberg, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, describes the consolidation of unprecedented power by media conglomerates such as Clear Channel, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Co. after the federal government stopped promoting diversity and competition and corporate takeover of local news and what it means for all Americans. He recounts the rise of Clear Channel, which ballooned from 40 radio stations to more than 1,200 in a decade after deregulation by the FCC, but whose use of canned programming and virtual DJs left towns such as Minot, N.D., without local broadcasters who might have warned the community when a train derailment on Jan. 18, 2002, sent a cloud of poisonous gas drifting toward the town, resulting in one death and more than 1,000 injuries. Klinenberg also explores the rising generation of media activists and citizen journalists who are demanding and creating local voices and relevant content.

In State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence [McGraw-Hill], Phil Dine, who covered labor for two decades for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, details the systematic dismantling of US labor unions and the impact it has had on our economy, politics, health and way of life. He also offers accounts of recent grassroots victories, such as the women of Delta Pride, a major player in the catfish industry, who went up against generations of racial and economic prejudice; and the politically active Firefighters for John Kerry, who helped the Massachusetts senator score a major political victor in the 2004 Iowa caucuses; and how the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO helped to bring down the Iron Curtain.

In Calling All Radicals: How Grassroots Organizeres Can Help Save Our Democracy [Nation Books], Gabriel Thompson argues that we can reclaim our democracy the old-fashioned way, through grassroots organizing. Beyond campaign sound bites that drive media-dominated elections, democracy is about focusing on the development of leders, taking collective action and building power among groups that are usually ignored and abused. Thompson, former organizing director at Pratt Area Community Council in Brooklyn, depicts organizers as “scouts” who recruit formerly inactive, sometimes cynical people to play their part in our democracy.

For readers who like pictures, Alan Pogue began taking photos in 1967 as a chaplain’s assistant and combat medic during the Vietnam War “to record what shocked me as well as what was beautiful.” When he returned to Texas he continued taking pictures of farm workers, immigrants, prisoners and celebrities in the tradition of socially committed photographers such as Russell Lee (his mentor, a University of Texas photography professor, who made Pogue promise never to forsake black-and-white still photography). Pogue found a forum with the Texas Observer in 1971. At the Observer [where TPP editor worked with him] he expanded his range from Texas to Latin America, the Caribbean and the Mideast. Four decades later, the University of Texas Press has collected 100 of his most unforgettable images into Witness for Justice: The Documentary Photographs of Alan Pogue. See more of Pogue’s work at the Texas Center for Documentary Photography (

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2007

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