THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY

If Vidal (The Smithsonian Institution, 1998, etc.) isn’t the last wild man remaining in the American literary left, then it’s hard to say who is. At any rate, this little volume will certainly add to the novelist’s reputation in that role. In fact, the book looks like something that Vidal dashed off on his coffee break. Consisting of the text of a three-part British TV series, with a brief afterword added, it’s an extremely condensed thumbnail history of the institution of the presidency, from its almost accidental beginnings in the aftermath of the Revolution to the office’s present-day decay into what Vidal gleefully dismisses as a glorified broadcasting job. “Currently, the American empire is governed not from the Oval Office, but from the White House TV studio,” he opines, a statement that recent events have done nothing to gainsay. Vidal regards the evolution of the presidency as a peculiar product of domestic paralysis—enforced by the powers of the rich and corporate—combined with a free hand in the realm of foreign affairs. As a result, activist presidents have tended to be those who concocted expansionist policies, usually to the sorrow of countries that were beneficiaries of a rather brutal form of American largesse. Scattered throughout here are small surprises, such as Vidal’s sympathy for Lyndon Johnson as a president genuinely concerned with a progressive domestic agenda, and his almost throwaway characterization of Polk as “intelligent, low-key.” Most of the time, though, the author giddily, flippantly slags off every occupant of the White House, from Washington to Bush—although he seems to maintain a certain odd affection for Clinton—in terms that run from the genuinely witty to the outright sophomoric. As a satirical novelist, Vidal is the nearest thing to Mark Twain. But as an essayist, he often leaves a lot to be desired. This is one of those times.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1998

ISBN: 1-878825-15-1

Page Count: 96

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998

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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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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

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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