An insightful and squirm-inducing account of how the good guys won and then lost.

PUBLIC CITIZENS

THE ATTACK ON BIG GOVERNMENT AND THE REMAKING OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM

A focused study of 1960s and ’70s American politics and the effects of the public interest liberalism that emerged.

Most histories of this period explain that the liberal heirs of the New Deal overwhelmingly supported government programs. This may be the popular view of events, but history professor Sabin, who directs the Yale Environmental Humanities Program, tells a different and disturbing story. Many readers only recall the vivid civil rights and anti-war campaigns of the era, but the author emphasizes equally influential—and liberal—movements that attacked government itself. He reminds us that Rachel Carson’s bombshell, Silent Spring (1962), blamed the massive damage caused by insecticides on dimwitted bureaucrats who were supposed to be “looking after things.” In the same vein, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) attacked government planners who bulldozed vibrant neighborhoods in favor of immense, sterile landscapes. Sabin directs much of his attention to Ralph Nader, whose 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, criticized government traffic safety agencies, entirely subservient to an auto industry that denied responsibility for injuries and deaths from accidents and proclaimed that driver education was the key to saving lives. Nader devoted the rest of his life to denouncing the government, becoming a major figure in the rise of public interest law. The Clean Air Act (1970) and Clean Water Act (1972) would have been weaker if Nader’s activists had not passed over Republicans and polluters and attacked liberal Democrats for their modest commitment. Stung, they denounced Nader but passed laws with more teeth. Despite approving these liberal movements, Sabin comes to the grim conclusion that “Nader and his fellow activists helped destroy a political economic system that served the working class” and “helped fuel a corrosive antigovernment legacy.” That may be a tough pill to swallow for progressive activists today, but the author’s cogent history is timely and likely to be enduring.

An insightful and squirm-inducing account of how the good guys won and then lost.

Pub Date: Aug. 10, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-393-63404-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 2, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021

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A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

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A PROMISED LAND

In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House.

In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume.

A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6316-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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