A useful exhumation of an almost forgotten piece of American history and a timely meditation on the conflict between free...

SELLING THE GREAT WAR

THE MAKING OF AMERICAN PROPAGANDA

The little-known story of George Creel and the Committee on Public Information, “America’s first and only ministry of propaganda.”

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the slogan, “He kept us out of war!” Within months after his reelection he sought congressional authority for a war to make the “world…safe for democracy.” To marshal his determinedly isolationist countrymen, Wilson turned to Creel, whose background in political journalism and progressive politics ideally suited him for the job of promoting the president’s lofty war aims. Although he invokes influential ad- and public-relations men Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, historian Axelrod (Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions and Why They Went Wrong, 2008, etc.) demonstrates that Creel accomplished something far more sophisticated than simply “selling” the Great War. Thanks to the Espionage and Sedition Acts and a “friendly understanding” with newspaper editors, Creel had a monopoly on war information. Aided by his recruitment of leading figures in all walks of American life, his careful selection of helpful facts and his saturation of the public through press, pictures, movies, public meetings and rallies, Creel sought to transform the public mind and make it receptive to Wilson’s message. With especially fine passages about the Four-Minute Men, community members recruited to address movie audiences while projectionists switched reels, and the Division of Pictorial Publicity, whose members included Charles Dana Gibson, George Bellows and N.C. Wyeth, Axelrod shows Creel’s propaganda machine in action. He marvels at Creel’s efficiency and credits him with honorable, if occasionally disingenuous intentions. He also observes that what Wilson and Creel saw as a morally neutral program, necessitated by war, could easily have become—as Hitler and Goebbels, who carefully studied the Creel’s techniques, later proved—a monster.

A useful exhumation of an almost forgotten piece of American history and a timely meditation on the conflict between free speech and security.

Pub Date: March 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-230-60503-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2008

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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