A spirited critique of what Russell Jacoby has called the “culture of endless talk,” of a piece with Jackson Lears’ Fables...

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DIVINING DESIRE

FOCUS GROUPS AND THE CULTURE OF CONSULTATION

In war and its commercial counterpart, we have long lived inside a “culture of consultation.” So writes Nation contributing editor Featherstone (Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart, 2004, etc.) in this intriguing look at the rise of the focus group.

Focus groups, writes the author, afford “ordinary people” a chance to weigh in on all kinds of things, whether to gauge whether the president is doing a good job or a mix is easy enough to turn into a cake. Around the focus group evolved a parallel culture of social science–based “motivational research” firms, working the angles in an increasingly consumerist society, using advanced technology of the sort that we now see when the responses of focus groups are measured live on TV. Focus groups bent on persuading citizens to enter World War II revealed that the way to sell it was not to depict the Nazis as “horrible monsters,” which frightened citizens into wanting nothing to do with the war effort; instead, writes Featherstone, “American propaganda would emphasize our superior values: democracy and rationality.” After the war, psychologists and other social scientists used abstract methods to “acclimate patients to consumer capitalism,” shaping advertising to reflect the desire of consumers to buy endlessly. Along the way, Featherstone disassembles some misconceptions—the Edsel car, for instance, was not a failure because it relied too much on focus groups but perhaps because it made too little use of them (focus-group members, for example, expressed dislike for the very name, saying that it sounded too much like “weasel”). Nefarious use of the focus group continues, even though supposedly displaced by the internet, especially in political matters, about which the author observes, “when a focus group feels more like democracy than the real thing, we need to ask how well the real thing is functioning.”

A spirited critique of what Russell Jacoby has called the “culture of endless talk,” of a piece with Jackson Lears’ Fables of Abundance (1995) and Rachel Maines’ Hedonizing Technologies (2009).

Pub Date: Feb. 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-944869-48-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: OR Books

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

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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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