Books I've Read in 2018

Last year I decided to keep a record of the books I’d read cover-to-cover. It was a good exercise, in that it helped force me to prioritize reading books, to read books to the end, and to collect my thoughts about what I had read. At the same time, blogging about them has been fun. It led some of the authors to contact me, which was nice. One risk, though, is that readers of my jottings on these books might take what I’ve written as definitive. Please don’t read what I write about these books as anything more than initial, cursory, incomplete, and reactive. These are not book reviews! They’re just quick reflections. And if I don't say much or I say a lot, don't take it as a signal of the book's quality.

 

Posted August 25, 2018

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, by Sarah Haley
This book left me speechless. It is searing in affect and effect. It is also a landmark of scholarship, representing the highest potential of black feminist scholarship. The book is continually innovative, drawing deep theoretical and empirical analyses from the most fragmentary and elusive sources. In a way, this story could have been told no other way, but also the seeming impossibility of its telling indicates what is at stake in the methodological and analytic innovations Haley deploys. It is not always or often easy reading. It’s profoundly unsettling, including to the sensibility historians cultivate as readers of history. That is what makes it so impressive, powerful, and courageous. All scholars of incarceration of course should read it, but perhaps all graduate students in history should read it too. 
 
The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens, by Bernard Harcourt
I liked this book, and I will have a review of it coming hopefully in 2019 (sorry, academic journals are slow!).
 
The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, by Jefferson Morley
James Angleton has been considered the most important figure in US intelligence in the post-1945 period, until the Church Committee and other efforts to rein in the CIA ended his career and changed the contours of the Agency. This book has an odd feel, insofar as it starts from that presupposition—Angleton was the hidden puppeteer, controlling a marionette as vast as the world—only to demonstrate that Angleton was not nearly as impactful as he believed himself to be (and spent more than a decade in retirement convincing journalists and scholars he was). He spent most of his career chasing phantoms. That is the point of espionage, particularly counterintelligence: trying to find the spies who are spying on spies. Within this house of mirrors, however, it seems clear that Angleton, like so many Cold Warriors, had difficulty discerning reality from fantasy. They confused their own limited manipulation of politics on a global scale on behalf of the United States for a massive, thorough-going manipulation of multiple facets of US social and political life, as well as that of other countries, on the part of the Soviets, who in reality did not have the means to do so. 
    The book is also an entry into Kennedy assassination conspiracy literature. Like all the work in this area done by serious and scrupulous writers, the ultimate conclusion is, yes, some shady stuff occurred in and around Dallas, New Orleans, and Miami, mostly involving anti-Castro activities and organized crime, but there remains no clear evidence that can support the claim that any of it directly led to the assassination, or that Oswald was an instrument of a broader conspiracy to kill the president. What Morley shows is that Oswald could be considered an instrument of Angleton’s, for purposes that remain obscure but have mostly to do with Angleton’s obsession with KGB penetration of US intelligence agencies. At the very least, Angleton knew who Oswald was and was apprised of his situation for a few years before 11/22/63. But Angleton could not control Oswald, even if he had wanted to. In the end, yes, there was a conspiracy, with Angleton at the center: it was the containment of communism on a global scale. This book grasps this fact, without exactly making it clear why it matters because it remains a bit too fascinated with Angleton himself, rather than the Cold War in the Global South, which should be the main story of the second half of the 20th century. The parts on Cuba and Israel were the only deviations from the thrust of the book’s traditional framing of the Cold War as being a Northern Atlantic affair.
    Material in this book that I appreciated puts Angleton at the center of several key strands of domestic state repression: Cointelpro, Chaos, and the Huston Plan. I would love to read a book as well informed about Angleton and his spycraft as this one is but with the predominant focus placed on domestic FBI and CIA operations. What is in this book is tantalizing but not as in-depth as I wanted. 
    I went into this book with one tiny hope, which was to find out whether Byron Engle, director of the Office of Public Safety, the central figure in my book, actually did work for Angleton in the 1950s. I’ve seen mention of this point but no archival evidence. Engle’s work in the 1950s for the CIA is difficult to characterize, and I wondered if there would be anything in the book suggesting that Angleton’s shop had anything to do with what became the counterinsurgency police assistance program. I came away from the book thinking that the answer is, as I already suspected, a qualified no. This question is mostly a curiosity that has no great bearing on the larger story I tell, nor would confirmation that Engle worked for Angleton change much. It would be somewhat surprising, given that Engle does not seem to have had much of a counterintelligence role in the overt parts of his career. But, on the other hand, fears of communist penetration of police and intelligence forces of other countries were strong. To that extent, public safety advisors did play a small counterintelligence role. Whether that required Angleton's awareness of what their work entailed is difficult and probably pointless to trace.
    Overall, the book is very well-written. The pacing and organization of confusing and obscure, almost occult, material is impressive. But if you are in the market for just one book on the CIA to read this year, The Ghost is probably not the one.
 
 

Posted April 16, 2018

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, by Julian Zelizer
This book is an excellent synthetic look at the political relationship between LBJ and Congress. The book is impressive for its economy, covering an eventful and complex history in a concise and clear way. Zelizer is determined to illustrate how much Congress matters, and how much the White House’s relationship to Congress matters. In the 1960s, this was true. Today, I’m not really convinced the same can be said. I would recommend this book to anyone who is writing on the Johnson administration as a way to make sure you have the overall picture right. It would also be very useful for classes on the 1960s.
    I have two criticisms of the book. 1) Although it is about Congress, to which historians and political scientists don’t pay enough attention, it also underemphasizes, I think, the importance of social movements on one side and business on the other. Zelizer certainly doesn’t ignore these actors. And it’s true that the corporate lobbying of today didn’t exist in the 1960s. But as much as he is concerned to demonstrate that the broader ecosystem of politics matters, he also is talking about a period when it both mattered more, because of the vibrant movements, and less because of the particular characteristics of LBJ. Today, the president is basically superfluous, as are most actual congresspeople, because the bills all get written by high-paid lawyers working for powerful corporations. If you want a deep dive into LBJ’s relationship with the civil rights movement in the years after the Voting Rights Act, check David C. Carter’s The Music Has Gone Out of the Movement
    2) You will not be surprised to hear me say that Zelizer pays too little attention to law and order politics, even arguing at one point that basically before 1966 it was not even on the GOP’s radar, or it was pushed off it by Goldwater’s defeat. I’m not convinced. And, more importantly, Zelizer dramatically ignores anti-crime legislation. He’s extremely careful about the ins and outs of well-liked Great Society legislation, but he spends only a paragraph on the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. In that paragraph, he makes it seem like it came out of nowhere. In fact, that actual bill had been debated for over a year, with multiple revisions offered along the way. And Zelizer completely ignores the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which paved the way. It was concomitant with many of the more well-loved Great Society legislation he heralds, also passed by the 98th Congress, the book’s true (collective) hero. I believe that the historical literature on the War on Crime and the emergence of the carceral state pays too little attention to Congress; this book tries to remedy the deficit of scholarly attention on Congress—and succeeds generally—but it falls short on this count. 

Carceral Capitalism, by Jackie Wang
I’ve been fortunate to get to know Jackie Wang over the past few years. Her writing brings a do-it-yourself punk sensibility to grave political issues. You want a book about the carceral state and financialization? Just write it! I also appreciate that she is unwilling to be restrained or constrained by what in earlier times might have been disciplinary and sectarian divides. You want to read a critique of the carceral state that brings together marxian value theory, Afro-pessimism, a primer on collateralized debt obligations, Rosa Luxemburg on primitive accumulation, memoir, and poetry? Just write it! This book conveys the urgency of the present, as well as the volatility of the contemporary political moment, in its restless search for explanations. The old ones clearly will not work, and new ones cannot rely on old codifications—even as they must not toss out previously hard-won knowledge. This is a book that can and will be informative for social movements, even as it also draws on the type of deep learning a PhD student must undertake while preparing for comprehensive exams or writing a dissertation prospectus (tasks I know Wang had to deal with while also composing and finalizing this book).
    One thread I appreciated in the book is the analysis of how risk assessment in finance, and now in realms far beyond what we used to think of as the delimited realm of finance, structures the “continuum” of “expropriation and exploitation.” Wang pushes us, drawing on the recent debates between Michael Dawson and Nancy Fraser, to think anew about how there is no non-racial or race-neutral backdrop of risk assessment and financial practice that has now been corrupted by racist thinking and racialized exclusions. This critique is necessary for understanding penal practice because it is becoming increasingly algorithmically dependent on risk calculations. Wang writes that when critics of the financial chicanery leading to the 2008 crisis lament that highly qualified Black borrowers received higher risk scores than their white counterparts (and thus experienced greater financialized expropriation), the moral economy of debt becomes reinscribed, splitting the individualized borrower from the racialized pool. This criticism then naturalizes the sorting process that creates the high-risk pool out of which some may escape, highlighting what I would consider the inseparability of race and risk, or the fundamental unthinkability of race outside risk. Today, with financialization a primary mode of accumulation that conditions every aspect of our social and economic lives, we find less an entry into a post-racial society of economistic fantasy than a society in which race no longer has much salience outside risk assessment. Or, put another way, there is no social life unaffected by risk assessment and no risk assessment unaffected by histories of racialization. The financialization of daily life, as Randy Martin called it, is also the insinuation of risk assessment into every interaction with institutions, from corporations to cops. To follow Wang’s line of critique, what this means is that it will not be enough to, as some have demanded, remove racial proxies from algorithms. Rather, it will mean demolishing risk assessment itself, because race is not simply a variable in an equation but is the grammar of the equation.
    Also, one more point: the interlude “Ripples in Time" in the middle of the book, when Wang discusses in a highly personal narrative her brother’s re-sentencing hearing, is one of the most devastating and intense things I’ve read lately. On its own it could win any number of writing awards.

The Doomsday Machine, by Daniel Ellsberg
This book is part memoir, part cri de coeur, about the insanity of nuclear weapons. Before becoming famous as the leaker of the Pentagon Papers (after helping produce them), Ellsberg specialized in analysis of nuclear weapons for RAND. Although an outside specialist, he learned some of the deepest secrets of the system in the 1950s. And it horrified him. Much of what he reveals in this book is now relatively common knowledge among people who study nuclear weapons, but I am not one of those people. I found it all a bit horrifying, and that is his purpose. Basically, he skewers many commonly held notions about the security and protections against their accidental or intentional use (and argues that they have been “used” consistently in the same way that a gun put to a person’s head but not fired has been “used”). 
    Some of the details revealed in the book are worth studying, including what the actual weapons capabilities are and how they work. His emphasis on people like Curtis LeMay is important. I couldn’t help but feel like LeMay is someone whose words we should be teaching in intro-level undergraduate US history courses, rather than, say, Kennan’s (though they’re both nuts in different ways). Among the details are the actual way that the “doomsday machine” would work: in the USSR, it meant that nuclear missiles once launched would send signals to other nuclear missiles to launch, independent from human control. Another detail was that US bombers would create “corridors” to ensure that they could reach Moscow, for instance, which meant dropping nuclear bombs along the way on radar installations and other key infrastructure, even far outside the Soviet Union. The book suggests that all nuclear-armed countries are complicit in the depravity of creating a system that could destroy all life on the planet, but it also demonstrates that the depravity has been led, deepened, and extended by the United States first and foremost.
    Overall, the book is lively and clear, if a bit repetitive and overly long (mainly I think because Ellsberg is trying to avoid being too technical). It’s a bit of a harangue at points, with good reason. I do wonder if anyone who doesn’t already think Ellsberg is a nut, or a traitor, would read this book. And if they did, what would their reaction be? Perhaps what it might do is sensitize young people who grew up after the Cold War to the continuing danger of nuclear weapons. Oddly, I came away from it thinking that Trump represents less of an increased threat than I may have thought, simply because the threat of total destruction has long been extreme. As Ellsberg shows, the command of the POTUS is not really necessary to cause a nuclear holocaust, despite thick layers of mythology to the contrary. A "rogue" officer could probably have started a nuclear war long ago. A rogue POTUS is, well, just a POTUS.
    I spend most of my time thinking about counterinsurgency, but the 1960s fad for counterinsurgency doesn’t really make much sense outside the context of nuclear stalemate and the possibility of life’s destruction. So this book was a good reminder for me not to bend the stick too far toward a focus only on “small wars.” Pairs well with: Discharge and Chaos UK.  

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, by Max Boot
Speaking of counterinsurgency, I hope to publish a review of this book soon. If it doesn't work out, I'll put it on this site. I have much to say, but I'll save it for now.

A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration from the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union 1962-1974, by Aaron J. Leonard & Conor A. Gallagher  
There is a popular meme circulating of a young boy playing a trumpet right next to the head of a young girl who is covering her ears and trying to escape. For the past week as I’ve read A Threat of the First Magnitude, I’ve been the boy and coming out of the trumpet have been factoids from the book. Everyone around me has been the girl. #sorrynotsorry
    This book is about FBI informants and the New Left/new communist movement. It is fascinating. It should be required reading for anyone even vaguely interested in the history of the radical US Left in the 1960s/1970s. The historiography on the New Left has inadequately addressed how pernicious and consequential informants were for the trajectory of movements. Everyone condemns Cointelpro, but we still, in my view, don’t really know the full mechanics of Cointelpro or the extent of what it achieved (let alone what local red squads did and how the FBI and other agencies interacted with them). The book makes the case that without reckoning with the deep damage informants have done to movements, the Left will continue to suffer such damage in the future. I’m convinced.
    Based on extensive research using newly FOIA-ed documents, this book shows conclusively in my view that the FBI hastened and encouraged the destruction of SDS and the persistent factionalism within the new communist movement, particularly around race questions. The authors clearly support some aims of the movement, particularly the Revolutionary Union (RU), while also offering a sober assessment of concrete political limitations, organizational challenges, and delusions of grandeur that marked the period. What becomes clear is that whatever RU may have achieved was consistently tempered or thwarted by FBI infiltration. (This history was covered to some degree in Leonard and Gallagher’s previous book Heavy Radicals, and that book might be a better choice for a more general overview, whereas this one focuses more directly on informants and has newly available documentary proof to support its claims.)
    Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that a Maoist “group”—really a secretive publisher of inflammatory pamphlets—that formed in 1962 was an FBI creation. This was a highly sophisticated effort. Named the Ad Hoc Committee for A Scientific Socialist Line at first, then Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party, this group fostered rivalries in the immediate wake of the Sino-Soviet split, both advocating support for a pro-China line and labeling the Soviet Union revisionist. (Maybe someday I’ll spin out my theory that the concept of revisionism itself caught on thanks to the CIA.) It can be hard to imagine today that 60s Marxists would have believed the US and the USSR were collaborating to enhance imperialism, and Maoism was the answer. But that was the line the Ad Hoc Committee promoted. Now, it would be an error to suggest that Maoism would not have gained adherents in the United States without the work of the Ad Hoc Committee. But the intensity with which dogmatic recriminations flew around the Left precisely on questions of purity/revisionism/etc. only helped to dismantle the Left. And we now know that the FBI fostered such divisiveness.
    In particular, the part of the book that just blew me away was learning that at a crucial juncture when elusive inter-racial unity among new communist groups seemed within reach, the FBI intervened to insist that white leftists should be in white groups, Black leftists in Black groups, and so on. That was already to a large degree the case, but it might have been overcome in this moment, according to the authors, if the FBI hadn’t prodded events in the direction of continued segregation. (To see how the Ad Hoc Committee did this nefarious work, check this document, discussed in greater depth in the book.) Today, many parts of the Left remain mired in the same sort of issues that challenged the new communist movement. There are no easy answers, but to think that the FBI blocked a pathway out of them, and we are still suffering today from that blockage, is truly alarming. 
    All in all, the book is concise and clear, but it will not be an effortless read if you don’t have some background knowledge. It wouldn’t hurt to read the interview in Viewpoint with Aaron Leonard first. But I’d say anyone interested in the Left and in policing, which is probably nearly everyone reading my blog, should sit down with this short book. As a great resource, it includes reprints of a good number of key declassified documents that the authors have uncovered. The book raised many questions for me and demands deeper research into how various groups were affected by informants. 

 


Posted January 16, 2018

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor 
This was a great book to begin 2018 with. Of course the Combahee River Collective’s statement is something I already knew well and had taught, but now there is no question that any time I teach it again I will assign this entire text. The interviews with the participants, particularly with Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, are fascinating and insightful. When this document, the original Combahee statement, is discussed today, its historical context is at risk of being lost. This book could remedy that. It is a key contribution to the intellectual history not only of Black feminism but also of the radical Left more broadly in the United States during the 1970s. The context does really matter. I won’t spoil it for you, but the brief discussion of Fred Hampton by Frazier stopped me in my tracks. More generally, what this book contributes is an understanding of the possibility of “identity politics” as a collective and plural project, not a singular and individual one as it has too often been reframed. Further, the comparison between the politics and experiences of the original collective members and Alicia Garza, also interviewed here, is particularly notable, and it could serve as the basis for some new historical analyses. Taylor has done really important work here, and like everything she publishes, it's super-smart and politically astute.

Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire & the Globalization of the New South, by Andrew Zimmerman
This book has been heralded as a sterling example of what transnational history can do, and after finally reading it I can only agree emphatically. Zimmerman has done incredible, deeply researched work here in terms of recasting the New South, German empire, US social science, and race in transnational and imperial terms. As a few other scholars have shown, race is made through comparison and analogy across borders, and Zimmerman demonstrates that the adequate, methodologically reflexive way to grasp this process is to undertake relational transnational analysis and avoid traditional comparisons based on fixed units.
    I found the discussion of Du Bois, Weber, and the Chicago School in the final chapter to be utterly essential and illuminating. It should be widely read alongside Aldon Morris’s rethinking of Du Bois and sociology or Robert Vitalis’s discussion of race and IR. I should also mention that Zimmerman’s marxism comes through in subtle but crucial and inspiring ways in this text, and the centrality of a gender analysis throughout, though understated, was welcome.
    Finally, Zimmerman got me rethinking one problem with higher education today in the United States, among many: the increasingly common notion that elite students can be afforded the luxury of grappling with big ideas and wrestling with complex social problems or cultural products while students at lower-tier schools must necessarily get vocational and practical educations that will enable them to get a job and a paycheck, which liberal arts degrees will not. This is a profound error that is part of the system of elite reproduction and growing inequalities, but it also has a long history, as this book shows, going back in some ways to debates about race and labor in which Du Bois and Washington participated over a century ago. Here the neoliberalization of education may not be a good explanation.
    I could quote a thousand passages from this book, but a few insights that I feel I must highlight: 

  1. Zimmerman shows that the “Negro question” in the New South in the late 1800s was a question of how to maximize free labor and hence productivity. Race was inherently unstable. And the political and economic system was technologically advancing rapidly, also inherently unstable. Thus, posing a “question,” rather than defining the “Negro” as such in terms of industriousness or laziness, was a way to grapple with contradictions (39). 
  2. This gem on the politics of uplift among Black people in the late 1800s: “Aspects of the least radical phase of Du Bois’s political life overlapped with the most radical phase in Washington’s” (59).
  3. Du Bois’s rejection of a biological conception of race and adoption of a sociological conception coincided with his interaction with German social scientists (some of whom were avowed racists, though not anti-Black per se) and their attempts to solve problems of colonial rule and labor policy, which is why Du Bois’s formulation of the color line as the key sociopolitical problem of the age had an inherently transnational dimension. A sociological conception of race necessarily required an engagement with empire (108-109).
  4. Reminiscent of what Hitler’s American Model by Whitman shows, Zimmerman points out that the one-drop rule, as applied in German colonial territories in Africa, came from the United States, not from Germany or Africa, and so did some novel racist terminology (184).
  5. One of my favorite insights in this book is about Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic”: Zimmerman points out that European Protestants’ “inner compulsion” to labor indicated an obvious if unstated corollary: non-European peoples required external compulsion to force them to work hard (212, 217). This original argument gave me the feeling of being slapped upside the head—it’s so damn obvious once it’s been said, how could I not have already thought it?
  6. “The entanglements of social science with the global South make problematic comparative histories of race and free labor because these so often rely on concepts that both emerged from, and helped to create, the capitalist world system they seek to describe” (236). Boom. Mic drop.

 

© 2018 Stuart Schrader