Biting cultural and political analysis from the award-winning journalist.
Coates (Between the World and Me, 2015, etc.), a MacArthur Fellow and winner of the National Book Award and Kirkus Prize, reflects on race, Barack Obama’s presidency and its jarring aftermath, and his own evolution as a writer in eight stunningly incisive essays, most of which were published in the Atlantic, where he is national correspondent. He contextualizes each piece with candid personal revelations, making the volume a melding of memoir and critique. The opening essay focuses on Bill Cosby’s famous effort to shake black men “out of the torpor that has left so many of them…undereducated, over-incarcerated, and underrepresented in the ranks of active fathers.” Cosby’s black conservatism, writes the author, reflected “a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred.” Obama’s ascent, though, felt like “the wind shifting,” and it coincided with Coates’ visibility as a writer. After writing a profile of Michelle Obama (“American Girl”), he started a blog that came to the Atlantic’s attention and soon joined the magazine. After “Fear of a Black President” won a National Magazine Award in 2012, Coates was sought out as a public intellectual for his insights about race. His conclusions are disquieting, his writing passionate, his tenor often angry: “white supremacy,” he argues, “was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.” He considers “The Case for Reparations” to be “the best piece in this volume to my mind,” but surely “My President is Black,” his assessment of Obama (“he walked on ice and never fell”) and crude, boorish Trump, is a close contender. Coates considers bigotry to be the deciding factor in Trump’s appeal. “It is almost as if the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted Trump personally,” and he unleashed violent resentment among his supporters. Although Coates subtitles the book “An American Tragedy,” he allows a ray of hope for “a resistance intolerant of self-exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil.”
Emotionally charged, deftly crafted, and urgently relevant essays.
A vivid, character-driven reconstruction of the period leading up to the overthrow of the Romanovs and the birth of modern Russia.
One-time TV host Zygar (All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, 2016) opens with a mild protest: he is a journalist and not a historian and so writes by the journalist’s playbook, “as if the characters were alive and I had been able to interview them.” Nonetheless, the author commands a powerful depth of historical knowledge and a novelist’s knack for sorting through the details to determine what is important and what’s ancillary. His book is long on meaningful storytelling in the service of finding out what went wrong in Russia’s brief moment of liberalism, an era that snapped shut a century ago. He adds that his characters, who range from rebels to royals, intellectuals to clerics, had no idea how their deeds would play out in history or how small events would turn into big ones. In some senses, the October Revolution began more than two years earlier, with anti-German riots that embraced the Empress Alexandra, “an ethnic German by birth.” The riots did not please Alexandra, still less the demands of the crowd that her confessor, Rasputin, be hanged, and still less the popularity of the general who restored order. In a narrative reminiscent of the best of Eduardo Galeano, Zygar raises all sorts of what-if questions in the reader’s mind: what if Alexander Kerensky had prevailed over Lenin? What if the old intelligentsia, civil service, and minor nobility had been able to integrate into Soviet society instead of being massacred by Stalin? What if the czarist state had been able to read the tea leaves better and accommodated the demands of the people for better food, better jobs, better government? The possibilities are endless—and endlessly fascinating.
An excellent complement to recent work by other Russian journalists who have turned to history, and to brilliant purpose.
“If this chapter reads like a nightmare, it is because that’s exactly what the criminal system is for an African American man”—a searing look at the interactions of law enforcement and black men by a former prosecutor.
When it comes to the law, it seems, black men inhabit a different country than white men. Granted, as Butler (Law/Georgetown Univ.; Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, 2009) writes, acknowledging “ugly facts,” black men commit disproportionately more violent crimes, especially homicide, than Latino or white men, but they are also disproportionately likely to be victims of just those crimes. In any event, whites are far likelier to be victimized by other whites than by anyone else, even as black men, and especially young ones, are subject to what Butler calls the Chokehold: an entire system of justice that presumes their guilt and that is entirely geared to the suppression of an entire category of citizens. This system often works insidiously. As Butler writes, for instance, the Supreme Court has ruled that people with intellectual disabilities are not subject to the death penalty, because they may not be aware that they are committing crimes. However, prosecutors circumvent this by adding points to the IQ scores of minority criminals, playing on the nostrum that IQ measures traditionally discriminate against minority members and thereby raising the score of black men “enough for them to be executed.” The author writes from experience, having been charged with a crime that he did not commit and that he was able to refute only by knowledge of the system. In a depressing inventory, he offers pointers for reducing black men’s chances of being caught up in it, ranging from not wearing a hoodie (“when I put on a hoodie everybody turns into a neighborhood watch person”) to avoiding red flags: “three or more black men in a car at any time,” “black men raising their voices,” and the like.
Smart, filled rightfully with righteous indignation, and demanding broad discussion and the widest audience.
A brilliant if somber look at modern Russia, a failed democracy, by prizewinning journalist Gessen (The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, 2015, etc.).
First there were the serfs, and then “Homo Sovieticus,” the gloomily obedient men, women, and children who waited in bread lines and slaved in mines and factories. Are they the avatars of the good old days? With Vladimir Putin’s rise and increasingly absolutist rule, there may be something to the old saw that the Russian soul craves authoritarianism. Yet, as Gessen, who has written extensively on Putin, writes, that may flat out not be so. As she notes in this urgent chronicle, examining the Russian character through sociological instruments was frowned on, even banned, until the late 1960s, when Yuri Levada, who turns up at several points in this long narrative, began to look at how ordinary Russians thought about their society. For one thing, later surveys showed that although some wanted “rockers,” “hippies,” and “pederasts” (read: homosexuals) to be “liquidated,” a far larger number advocated tolerance, especially younger Russians. Those younger Russians are the focus of the author’s character-driven approach, a kind of nonfiction novel that compares favorably to the work of Svetlana Alexievich. One of Gessen’s cases in point, a still-youngish woman named Masha, has learned to work every angle thanks to a resourceful mother who, among other things, figured out ways to “teach Soviet Jews to beat the anti-Semitic machine.” By all rights, Masha, entrepreneurial and smart, ought to be in the forefront of Russian development, but having run afoul of Putin’s regime, she is effectively a nonperson, “a de facto political prisoner.” So it is with Zhanna, whose father, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down on a Moscow bridge in 2015, “with the Kremlin as the backdrop for the murder.” All Gessen’s players harbor the low-level dread on which totalitarian regimes thrive—and all, a refrain has it, believe that their country is dead.
A superb, alarming portrait of a government that exercises outsize influence in the modern world, at great human cost.
Journalist Bruder (Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man, 2007) expands her remarkable cover story for Harper’s into a book about low-income Americans eking out a living while driving from locale to locale for seasonal employment.
From the beginning of her immersion into a mostly invisible subculture, the author makes it clear that the nomads—many of them senior citizens—refuse to think of themselves as “homeless.” Rather, they refer to themselves as “houseless,” as in no longer burdened by mortgage payments, repairs, and other drawbacks, and they discuss “wheel estate” instead of real estate. Most of them did not lose their houses willingly, having fallen victim to mortgage fraud, job loss, health care debt, divorce, alcoholism, or some combination of those and additional factors. As a result, they sleep in their cars or trucks or cheaply purchased campers and try to make the best of the situation. At a distance, the nomads might be mistaken for RV owners traveling the country for pleasure, but that is not the case. Bruder traveled with some of the houseless for years while researching and writing her book. She builds the narrative around one especially accommodating nomad, senior citizen Linda May, who is fully fleshed on the page thanks to the author’s deep reporting. May and her fellow travelers tend to find physically demanding, low-wage jobs at Amazon.com warehouses that aggressively seek seasonal workers or at campgrounds, sugar beet harvest sites, and the like. The often desperate nomads build communities wherever they land, offering tips for overcoming common troubles, sharing food, repairing vehicles, counseling each other through bouts of depression, and establishing a grapevine about potential employers. Though very little about Bruder’s excellent journalistic account offers hope for the future, an ersatz hope radiates from within Nomadland: that hard work and persistence will lead to more stable situations.
A heartfelt plea to change the dialogue on Latin American children fleeing violence in their homelands to seek refuge in America.
A Mexican-born novelist, Luiselli (The Story of My Teeth, 2015, etc.) began the inquiry that informs her book-length essay as a Mexican-born writer, living in America, awaiting her green card. Her sense of mission intensified when she began working as a translator for those seeking pro bono legal assistance in their attempts to avoid deportation. She found that their stories could not match neatly with the 40 questions on the immigration questionnaire. Some of the children lacked fluency in Spanish as well as English, and some of their memories were vague or evasive. Yet the dangers they had encountered were real, as was the threat of returning to their countries of origin. Luiselli effectively humanizes the plights of those who have been demonized or who have been reduced to faceless numbers, the ones caught in the web of gang violence fueled by drug wars and the American arms trade. She writes with matter-of-fact horror in response to question No. 7, “did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?,” that “eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.” Yet the victims are often criminalized in the American debates over immigration: “In the media and much of the official political discourse, the word ‘illegal’ prevails over ‘undocumented’ and the term ‘immigrant’ over ‘refugee.’ ” The author also explains how the immigrant crisis predated the triumph of Trump and how policies of the Obama and Bush administrations were heartless in treating such refugees as some other country’s problem. Though Luiselli may not convince those adamantly opposed to loosening regulations, she hopes that those who have been willfully blind to the injustices will recognize how they “haunt and shame us…being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable.”
Tracing the hydra-headed reach of al-Qaida and how its leadership morphed into the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and elsewhere.
Former FBI agent Soufan (The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, 2011) composes a concise, accessible, enormously readable account of the trajectory of al-Qaida, especially through the actions of its murderous main protagonists. To tell the story of this splintering terrorist operation, Soufan—as others have had to do before him—first steps backward to delineate the state of the Islamic world in which these jihadis could take root: scant education for most Muslims, based on dogma and ritual and little critical thinking; oppression of women; unemployment and blunted economic opportunity; and insularity and ignorance about the outside world. In such conditions, radicalism was attractive, and Osama bin Laden, having “crystallized his legend by helping the mujahideen [sic] win a famous victory against Russian special forces in the mountain passes of Jaji near the Pakistani border,” stepped in after the Russian withdrawal and urged the Arab recruits to fight “the imperialists.” He believed it was necessary to concentrate the movement’s ire on defeating the Americans first, the far enemy—hence the spectacular success, by al-Qaida’s accounting, of 9/11. Bin Laden’s nemesis in building up the Iraqi jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by the Americans in 2006, would take up the struggle against the apostate Shia especially, to great controversy within the organization: “waging jihad with my brothers to establish for Islam a homeland and for the Koran a state.” After bin Laden’s death in 2011 and the rise of the Arab Spring, the main organization splintered, in Somalia, Yemen, Algeria, and elsewhere, with Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri becoming ringmaster. As the al-Qaida franchises proliferated, the goal—the establishment of an Islamic state, made possible more quickly than imagined by the Syrian civil war—was shared and spread, and, as the author notes, the organization “once again has the means and the opportunity to attack.”
In a dizzying scenario of violence, Soufan provides clarity and balance.
The provocateur-scholar returns to the pulpit to deliver a hard-hitting sermon on the racial divide, directed specifically to a white congregation.
Though Dyson (Sociology/Georgetown Univ.; The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, 2016, etc.) may be best known for his writings on race and culture, he is also an ordained minister, and it is this role and voice he assumes in his latest manifesto. The book is structured as a religious service, and its cadences practically demand to be heard rather than read. Here is what he calls “a plea, a cry, a sermon, from my heart to yours,” because “what I need to say can only be said as a sermon,” one in which he preaches that “we must return to the moral and spiritual foundations of our country and grapple with the consequences of our original sin.” Not that the faith Dyson espouses is specifically or narrowly Christian or directed solely to those of that religion. In his recasting, the original sin might be seen as white privilege and black subjugation, addressed throughout as a white problem that white people must take significant steps to confront—first, by accepting that “white history disguised as American history is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as white superiority and white purity. Those are all myths. They’re intellectual rubbish, cultural garbage.” The author demands that readers overcome their defensiveness and claims to innocence and recognize how much they’ve benefitted from that myth and how much black Americans have suffered from it—and continue to do so. Dyson personalizes the debates surrounding Black Lives Matter and the institutional subjugation of black citizens by police. He also proposes a form of reparations that is individual rather than institutional, that conscientious white people might set up “an I.R.A., an Individual Reparations Account” and commit themselves to the service of black children, black prisoners, black protestors, and black communities.
The readership Dyson addresses may not fully be convinced, but it can hardly remain unmoved by his fiery prose.
Another superb work by renowned but long-absent political journalist FitzGerald (Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth, 2002, etc.), this one centering on the roiling conflict among American brands of Christianity.
The author opens with a brief revisitation of a moment when progressive evangelicalism seemed ascendant: the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, which soon gave way to a reborn kind of hidebound Christianity in the form of the anti-humanist Christian right, “declaring holy war against ‘secular humanism’ and vowing to mobilize evangelicals to arrest the moral decay of the country.” Thus ever it has been, from the burned-over revivalism of the 19th century to the latest religio-revanchisms from Colorado Springs or Lynchburg. By FitzGerald’s account, this revival of the right truly has been a revival, for after the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, “most informed people thought fundamentalism dead.” However, through rightists such as Billy Graham, fundamentalism was reborn as a political force. FitzGerald traces the culture wars that have since riven the country to the divisions between liberal and right-wing visions of Christianity as well as larger elements of society. In the 1960s, she notes, “most conservative Christians were horrified by the counterculture, but a number of young evangelical ministers, most of them Pentacostals, saw the potential in it for conversions.” Granted that many of the converted became conservative themselves and that the Christian right is, in the author’s view, mostly a reaction against the social revolution of that era, what has happened since is truly fascinating: the right wing of evangelical American Christianity has made a devil’s bargain with politicians such as the sitting president, who claimed the Bible as his favorite book but “did not seem to remember even a verse of it.” In making that bargain, it also may be making a last stand, since millennials are abandoning religion in droves, and those who do go to church are “on the whole more sympathetic with progressive positions than with those of the right.”
Overflowing with historical anecdote and contemporary reportage and essential to interpreting the current political and cultural landscape.
Rolling Stone contributing editor Taibbi (Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus, 2017, etc.) goes behind the scenes of an infamous police killing of an unarmed black man to explore a tragic national phenomenon.
When Eric Garner died on July 17, 2014, on a street in the New York City borough of Staten Island, much of the available information suggested police officers fatally choked him because he was resisting arrest for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes. The coverage also demonized Garner as a physically huge, threatening black man with an extensive criminal history. In the first 100 pages of this searing exposé, the author paints a portrait of Garner as a mostly well-liked street hustler trying to provide for his wife and children, a former talented athlete who eventually weighed more than 350 pounds due to lack of adequate self-care and proper health care. After deeply exploring Garner’s life from a variety of perspectives, Taibbi offers detailed reporting about the out-of-control Staten Island police officers present at the death scene, especially Daniel Pantaleo, an officer prone to excessive force who had already faced at least two civil rights lawsuits. In the second half of the book, the author explores the futile efforts of the Garner family to achieve posthumous justice and also to remove Pantaleo from the NYPD. Taibbi clearly shows how numerous police personnel, as well as the Staten Island district attorney and judge, frustrated the search for truth in every way they could. What emerges from the author’s superb reporting and vivid writing is a tragically revealing look at a broken criminal justice system geared to serve white citizens while often overlooking or ignoring the rights of others. “Garner’s death,” writes Taibbi, “and the great distances that were traveled to protect his killer, now stand as testaments to America’s pathological desire to avoid equal treatment under the law for its black population.”
Sure to be a fixture on any reading list or curriculum regarding the woeful state of the American criminal justice system.
A sharp analysis of how African-Americans, due to “profound levels of pain, fear, and anger” over crime and violence in their neighborhoods, have helped shape U.S. policies leading to mass incarceration.
In this candid, readable account, Forman, a former Washington, D.C., public defender and current professor at Yale Law School, shows how our nation has gotten to the point where so many citizens—primarily blacks—are imprisoned. Surveying the recent history of race, crime, and punishment, the author, son of civil rights pioneer James Forman, argues that mass incarceration has developed incrementally as a result of national campaigns and federal actions as well as of “mundane” local decisions made around the nation. With a focus on majority-black D.C., where he represented criminal defendants and co-founded a charter school for school dropouts, Forman traces the rise of drug addiction and criminality, the resulting widespread fear in black neighborhoods, and the demands in the 1980s for “tougher criminal penalties” that set “a national precedent for punitive sentencing.” Most people punished under policies to combat drugs and guns, he writes, have been “low-income, poorly educated black men.” Especially insightful are Forman’s discussions of the rise of black policing in the 1960s (“a surprising number of black officers simply didn’t like other black people—at least not the poor blacks they tended to police”), the “hostile, unforgiving mindset” that prompted “warrior policing” during the 1980s crack epidemic, and the practice of “pretext policing,” in which routine traffic stops are used to seek evidence of criminal activity, especially in ghetto areas. Writing with authority and compassion, the author tells many vivid stories of the human toll taken by harsh criminal justice policies. He also asks provocative questions—e.g., what if the D.C. drug epidemic had been treated as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem?
Certain to stir debate, this book offers an important new perspective on the ongoing proliferation of America’s “punishment binge.”
A blast across the bow of the entire health care industry, which “attends more or less single-mindedly to its own profits.”
Rosenthal, a senior writer for the New York Times who has a Harvard Medical School degree and served as a physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, asserts that the American medical system is sick, having lost its focus on health. In the introduction, her list of “Economic Rules of the Dysfunctional Medical Market” includes such gems as “1. More treatment is always better. Default to the most expensive option,” and “10. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.” She begins by demonstrating how for-profit insurance changed the way hospitals operate and doctors practice medicine and how it has revolutionized the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Throughout, the author blends extensive research with human interest. A personal horror story, with names and dates, opens each chapter: an individual dies or nearly dies, someone is overtreated, or someone receives a staggering bill for a simple test or procedure. In forthright language—Rosenthal uses blunt terms like “crapshoot” and “mess”—individual chapters focus in turn on hospitals, physicians, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, testing, and assorted medical business such as billing, coding, and collection agencies. One or more of the 10 “Economic Rules” sums up each presentation, driving home the author’s message of a deeply flawed medical-industrial system. Rosenthal then offers advice to patients on how to make the system more responsive and affordable. Beyond that, she details what changes society could and should demand through updates of regulations and laws. Five appendices provide further guidance, including a glossary of terms used in medical billing, sources of information on the internet about doctors, hospitals, procedures, and drugs, and templates for concise and effective protest letters.
A scathing denouncement, stronger in portraying the system’s problems than in offering pragmatic solutions.
A law professor diagnoses the ills of American policing and prescribes a healthy dose of sunlight.
"Policing in the United States—from the overzealous beat cop all the way to the NSA—is out of control," writes Friedman (Law/New York Univ. School of Law; The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution, 2009, etc.), and the fault lies not with the police but with us. Unlike most other governmental functions, policing largely proceeds without democratically endorsed rules provided in advance; legislatures and courts have shown neither the inclination nor the capacity to provide this guidance. Police have therefore been left to define their own, possibly unwritten, policies, which have often been kept secret. Too often, the result is a trampling of individual rights that would never have been publicly approved and a waste of resources on ineffective procedures. Among other proposals, Friedman advocates that courts impose more rigorous demands for warrants supported by probable cause for searches and surveillance and refuse to support policing techniques or uses of new technologies that have not been explicitly authorized by local or state authority. The author presents an incisive analysis of the pitfalls that have frustrated previous attempts to regulate policing and shows how attempts by the courts to do the job have resulted instead in an erosion of constitutional protections and individuals' rights to privacy. He also considers the special problems of oversight presented by the recent transition of policing from reactive pursuit of wrongdoers to regulatory mass surveillance intended to deter crime. Friedman's lively writing and clarity of expression enable him to make the thicket of applicable Fourth Amendment law readily understandable for general readers, helpfully illuminated by the personal stories behind the case law.
At once creative and conservative, Friedman offers a timely blueprint for recovering democratic control of local and national law enforcement.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Powers (Mark Twain: A Life, 2005, etc.) presents two searing sagas: an indictment of mental health care in the United States and the story of his two schizophrenic sons.
Having previously published notable books in the realms of biography, media criticism, small-town ethnography, investigative journalism, and memoir, the author once again demonstrates his versatility. The unforgettable title of his latest book derives from a callous comment made by a politician in 2010. As Powers demonstrates through in-depth reporting and his own personal experience, even when those in positions of authority sincerely believe in the importance of helping those who are mentally ill, meaningful care tends to receive short shrift at budget time. The author never wanted to write a book about mental health because of the nightmares that would arise discussing highly personal matters. However, he decided that the urgency for improved mental health policy and funding in this country compelled him to forge ahead with a manuscript. By the time of his decision, nearly a decade had passed since his younger son, Kevin, had hanged himself in the basement of the family home a week prior to his 21st birthday. Then, as Powers and his wife continued in the grief and healing process, their only remaining child, Dean, began to show signs of schizophrenia. A psychotic break on a Christmas morning melted away the author’s resolve to refrain from writing this book—and readers are the beneficiaries. Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.”
This hybrid narrative, enhanced by the author’s considerable skills as a literary stylist, succeeds on every level.