An amiable tour of the socioscientific evidence that accounts for our political miscalculations.

POLITICAL ANIMALS

HOW OUR STONE-AGE BRAIN GETS IN THE WAY OF SMART POLITICS

An explanation of how our brains are simply not built for politics in the modern world.

Why would a series of shark attacks along the New Jersey coast cause locals to abandon President Woodrow Wilson’s re-election bid? Why, in the immediate wake of 9/11, did support for President George W. Bush soar? Why do fans of winning football teams feel better about incumbents? Why did it take voters so long to realize Nixon was lying about Watergate and Clinton was lying about philandering? Shenkman (History/George Mason Univ.; Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter, 2008, etc.) answers these and many other questions by focusing on the disconnect between our brains and our instincts and emotions, powerful antennae that worked well for our hunter-gatherer ancestors gathered in tribes of about 150. These instincts fail us in the modern world, where scale, pace, and context have enlarged and quickened beyond anything our Pleistocene-era circuitry can handle. Drawing on a variety of disciplines—neuroscience, evolutionary and social psychology, anthropology, among others—Shenkman addresses our alarming indifference to politics, our chronic misreading of our leaders, our ambivalent relationship to the truth, and our frequent failure to empathize in situations that clearly warrant concern. Readers will appreciate his personable, chatty tone and will delight in the broad allusions and the wide variety of historical incidents he cites to help make his point. He examines why certain members of the Donner Party survived, why the Pentagon persisted with the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam despite evidence of its futility, and why we value group membership over the truth. His call for us to recognize and account for our biases and to invoke a higher order of thinking sounds more wishful than likely, but he makes a convincing case about our hard-wired infirmities and how they work to undermine our democracy.

An amiable tour of the socioscientific evidence that accounts for our political miscalculations.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-465-03300-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2015

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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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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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