Ryan’s excellent introduction makes Tocqueville’s observations and anxieties vitally relevant for 21st-century readers.

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ON TOCQUEVILLE

DEMOCRACY AND AMERICA

Tocqueville’s prescient analysis of American democracy, concisely and cogently explained.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), accompanied by a traveling companion, came to America charged by the French government to study the country’s penal system. During their tour, besides visiting prisons, they observed the social life and culture of the young nation. Five years later, Tocqueville published Democracy in America, two volumes that were acclaimed in his own time and remain relevant today. Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; On Politics, 2012, etc.) offers a clear, incisive introduction to Tocqueville, followed by selections from Democracy in America. Tocqueville came with an overriding question that concerned his own countrymen: How did democracy thrive? “A stable political order that was both democratic and liberal required distinctive social, moral, and economic attachments,” Tocqueville believed; “their analysis was an urgent task.” The French Revolution, after all, had resulted in “mob rule, the Terror, and mass murder, and thence to a conservative republic.” What made America different? Influenced by Rousseau, Montesquieu and Francois Guizot, Tocqueville identified individualism as a key factor in democratic success. To him, individualism meant “a strong sense of ourselves as moral beings with duties to perform and rights to protect.” Furthermore, he believed that America offered its citizens—except for Native Americans and blacks—the opportunity for equality. “Equality of condition,” according to him, “was not equality of income, education, or anything in particular; it consisted in the absence of social obstacles to whatever ambitions an American entertained.” Although he argued that America was not at risk of relapsing into tyranny or anarchy, he worried about the possible “tyranny of the majority” and of an insidious consequence of individualism: “a retreat from engagement” with the outside world.

Ryan’s excellent introduction makes Tocqueville’s observations and anxieties vitally relevant for 21st-century readers.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-87140-704-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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