A lucid, well-researched look at a slippery topic.




Engrossing assessment of the profitable mainstreaming of conspiracymongering in civic and political life.

In her debut book, Merlan, a reporter at Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk, captures this unsettling narrative succinctly and concretely. As she writes, once “the United States narrowly elected a conspiracy enthusiast as its president,” there followed the codification of a long-gestating seamy underbelly of shared belief in ominous, far-fetched plots. The election of Donald Trump allowed a network of conspiracy profiteers, ranging from InfoWars’ Alex Jones to white supremacist Richard Spencer, to accrue wealth and credibility; their acolytes “loved Trump, even the left-leaning among them who might have once preferred Bernie Sanders.” Yet, she notes, “conspiracy theorizing has been part of the American system of governance and culture and thought since its beginnings.” These dual lenses of current events and longitudinal narrative allow for clear structure. In each chapter, Merlan focuses on a conspiracy subtopic—e.g. UFO theories, false-flag proponents, anti-vaxxers, the sovereign citizen movement—chronicling her conversations with prominent adherents and the academics, activists, or investigators who document and fitfully counter them. She is cleareyed about the harm done by figures like Jones and his ilk, who have inspired harassment of Sandy Hook victims and the family of DNC staffer Seth Rich, whose family discovered that “social sites give enterprising self-investigators access to the subjects of their conspiracies as never before.” Similarly, while attending a “white nationalist cookout” shortly before the 2017 Charlottesville events, the author concluded that the much-discussed “alt-right” relies on familiar, shopworn conspiracy theories regarding immigrants and Jews: “Hate groups all over the world are fueled by terrified, wild conjectures about the people they hate.” However, Merlan has sympathy for conspiracy theorists influenced by actual abuses of power, noting that “the history of UFOs is a perfect illustration of the way in which genuine government secrecy feeds citizen paranoia.” The author ably navigates this troubling landscape, with thought and some humor, though she seems more engaged by recent figures and controversies.

A lucid, well-researched look at a slippery topic.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-15905-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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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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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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