Rich get richer, poor get poorer, and the ethical brakes to accumulation and the floodgates to generosity are all gummed up:...



British and South African journalist Cohen tours America and pulls Alexis de Tocqueville inside out, or perhaps simply pulls the wool from his eyes, in this sad song to the country’s economic disparities and ethical malaise.

Tracing the route that Tocqueville took 160 years earlier, with a kicker thrown in to Silicon Valley, Cohen is curious to see whether the defining elements in the national character discerned by the Frenchman—equal opportunity in the pursuit of wealth and a pronounced religious strain—still operate. Did the gentleness and compassion pertaining to equality still exist? Did it ever? Cohen’s answer: No. Back in the 1830s, any “equality of conditions,” in Tocqueville’s words, didn’t apply to blacks and Native Americans, whom Tocqueville had removed from the equation. Also, citing historian George Wilson Pierson, Cohen writes that Tocqueville was roaming the land “when a great humanitarian movement was just gathering way . . . the conscience of America was awake.” The author, on the other hand, discovers a nasty tear in the social fabric, a seismic shift in wealth that has undercut any empathy evidenced when there is a relative equality of material conditions, resulting in a jaundiced eye toward need, a widening income gap, and a level of poverty to steal your breath: In Flint, the poverty rate for children under 6 is 57%, whereas nationwide “an astounding 40 percent are living in poverty or near poverty.” Cohen does find that among churchgoers there is an equal split between progressives and conservatives, though certainly no consensus on how to reach out to the needy; and tellingly, one of the few areas of economic parity is on the gambling-house floor, where race and class matter not on the terrain of the “(un)even playing field.”

Rich get richer, poor get poorer, and the ethical brakes to accumulation and the floodgates to generosity are all gummed up: Tocqueville wore blinders, Cohen suggests, and the aspirants to the American Dream are fewer with each passing day.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-312-26154-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2001

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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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A unique, inspiring story by a member of the Greatest Generation.


A firsthand account of how the Navajo language was used to help defeat the Japanese in World War II.

At the age of 17, Nez (an English name assigned to him in kindergarten) volunteered for the Marines just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Growing up in a traditional Navajo community, he became fluent in English, his second language, in government-run boarding schools. The author writes that he wanted to serve his country and explore “the possibilities and opportunities offered out there in the larger world.” Because he was bilingual, he was one of the original 29 “code talkers” selected to develop a secret, unbreakable code based on the Navajo language, which was to be used for battlefield military communications on the Pacific front. Because the Navajo language is tonal and unwritten, it is extremely difficult for a non-native speaker to learn. The code created an alphabet based on English words such as ant for “A,” which were then translated into its Navajo equivalent. On the battlefield, Navajo code talkers would use voice transmissions over the radio, spoken in Navajo to convey secret information. Nez writes movingly about the hard-fought battles waged by the Marines to recapture Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and others, in which he and his fellow code talkers played a crucial role. He situates his wartime experiences in the context of his life before the war, growing up on a sheep farm, and after when he worked for the VA and raised a family in New Mexico. Although he had hoped to make his family proud of his wartime role, until 1968 the code was classified and he was sworn to silence. He sums up his life “as better than he could ever have expected,” and looks back with pride on the part he played in “a new, triumphant oral and written [Navajo] tradition,” his culture's contribution to victory.

A unique, inspiring story by a member of the Greatest Generation.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-425-24423-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dutton Caliber

Review Posted Online: July 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2011

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