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CULTURE AS WEAPON

THE ART OF INFLUENCE IN EVERYDAY LIFE

A precisely written critique of cultural manipulation in our daily lives.

How persuasive cultural mechanisms are encoded in broader social structures, from high art to war-planning.

Thompson (Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century, 2015, etc.) confidently casts a wide net in his discussion, seeing hidden hands of artifice and marketing that have long manipulated the citizenry. “I want to explain the ways in which those in power have to use culture to maintain and expand their influence,” he writes, “and the role that we all play in that process.” The author supports this ominous claim with a historical timeline and various categories of real-world occurrences, first focusing on the early “persuaders” of advertising and public relations and then looking at diverse examples, from lifestyle corporations like Apple and IKEA to the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency theorists. Thompson first argues that the 1980s “culture wars” over art and funding provide a lens for understanding cultural manipulation within politics: “A number of forces were learning to utilize the power of culture to push forward their own agendas.” He then looks further back to 1914, arguing that the Ludlow massacre of striking miners led John D. Rockefeller to develop innovations in public opinion–shaping that became widespread during World War I. During the 1920s, wartime propaganda morphed into the modern advertising and polling industries, embodied by George Gallup, who founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935. As Thompson notes regarding Gallup’s prescience, “if he could predict elections, what else could he do?” Yet simultaneously, artistic collectives and radical groups were recognizing the power of the same techniques, and the author explores topics from Dada and Andy Warhol to Saul Alinsky and the Black Lives Matter movement. Thompson characterizes our own time as deeply fearful, tying the racist politics of Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy” to current controversies around mass imprisonment and police overreach. The author moves effortlessly between subtopics and tautly addresses particular oppressive social mechanisms, yet his focus on the pervasiveness of persuasion feels unsurprising.

A precisely written critique of cultural manipulation in our daily lives.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61219-573-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Melville House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 8, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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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 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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