An endlessly rewarding book full of takeaways, including the thought that the best societies protect everyone’s rights.

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THE NARROW CORRIDOR

STATES, SOCIETIES, AND THE FATE OF LIBERTY

A wide-ranging survey of the conditions of liberty required to steer the world away from the Hobbesian war of each against all.

Why do nations fail? So Acemoglu and Robinson, economists at MIT and the University of Chicago respectively, asked in their 2012 collaboration, Why Nations Fail. Their answer is complex, but it falls largely on the absence or failure of democratic institutions. In this continuation of their previous book, they examine how liberty works: It is not “natural,” not widespread, “is rare in history and is rare today,” and is a fairly recent phenomenon that balances the competing demands of state and society while being reinforced by that balance. For instance, the Athenian constitutional reforms of Cleisthenes “were helpful for strengthening the political power of Athenian citizens while also battling the cage of norms”—that cage of norms being the informal body of customs supplanted by state institutions. Those norms in turn “constrained what the state could do and how far state building could go,” providing their own set of checks. Though somewhat fluid in its definition, liberty, as Acemoglu and Robinson show, is expressed differently under various “leviathans,” to extend the Hobbesian critique. The American Leviathan, for example, does not contend properly with inequality and racial oppression, two enemies of liberty, while the “Paper Leviathan” is a bureaucratic machine favoring the privileged class, serving as both a political and economic brake on development and yielding “fear, violence, and dominance for most of its citizens.” So it is with China, a “Despotic Leviathan” that commands the economy and coerces political conformity. The authors trace a link between democratic states and what they call “Shackled Leviathans,” the beast in restraints being the best of all possible scenarios. Though the argument is a little jargon-y, it is, as with the authors’ previous books, provocative and intuitively correct.

An endlessly rewarding book full of takeaways, including the thought that the best societies protect everyone’s rights.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2438-4

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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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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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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