ON DEMOCRACY

An edifying if uninspiring primer on the theory and practice of democracy. During the last half of the 20th century democracy has emerged triumphant as a political system, its rivals having disappeared or been relegated to a few dark corners of the globe. Yet what is democracy? Yale political scientist Dahl (A Preface to Economic Democracy, 1985, etc.) addresses this question in a slim volume written not for experts but for the general reader. After a brief history of the development of democracy, the author offers a theoretical analysis and defense of democracy and then a study of the actual institutions, social conditions, and political attitudes that seem necessary for democracy to thrive. In theory, democracy necessitates participation, equality in voting, citizen understanding of issues and control over the political agenda. In practice, those systems based on elected representation, fair and frequent elections, freedom of expression, associational autonomy, and inclusive citizenship offer the best hope of realizing the democratic ideal. Dahl moves from the ideal to the real in incremental steps, carefully defining each of his terms and linking them to previous terms. His discussion of the positive and negative roles the free market plays in sustaining democracy is particularly cogent. What emerges is a clear, understandable overview of democracy. It’s all very dry, however. Dahl’s focus on logic and clarity of terms captures the form of democracy but not the content of it as a dramatic and exciting ongoing struggle. Democracy here is more a set of definitions than a process. Also, Dahl’s focus on the Western experience, from ancient Greece and Rome to today, excludes much. Missing, for instance, is any historical account of the democratic practices of some native peoples of North America. He strongly implies British rule in India set the stage for democracy there but doesn—t search for any indigenous roots. A more inclusive approach might have served the author’s purposes better.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-300-07627-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1998

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

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

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. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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