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The Presidency of Barack Obama

obama

The Presidency of Barack Obama –
A First Historical Assessment
Edited by Julian E. Zelizer
Princeton University Press – £20.00

Obstructionism tended to hurt liberals more than the right.

     Julian E. Zelizer
     (‘Tea Partied – President Obama’s Encounters with the
     Conservative-Industrial Complex’)

America’s system of mass incarceration provides BLM (Black Lives Matter) activists with their most compelling evidence of contemporary racism in all of it’s tragically panoramic glory. The fact that this system continued to thrive under a two-term African American president is one of the great ironies of our time.

     Paniel E. Joseph
     (‘Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives – Race, Democracy, and Criminal           Justice in the Age of Ferguson’)

There might admittedly be something to be said for Joan Walsh’s comment: ”This book captures the paradox of Barack Obama’s presidency better than any so far: Conventional wisdom aside, Obama was a better policy maker than a politician.”

Equally, there might also be something to be said for she who penned What’s The Matter With White People? having surely missed one fundamental point: it was the very acute acumen within the sphere of Barack Obama’s policy making, that enabled the former President to become President to begin with. Not to mention having set, as well as left the presidential bar so morally high, that it will no doubt take a number of high-reaching, soul-searching, ethically astute induced politicians to come anywhere near as close.

And what with the current American President being so utterly and morally bankrupt, he doesn’t even warrant comparing, let alone mentioning – other than to perhaps mention that it’s surely only a matter of time before Donald Trump will be reprimanded and globally invited to attend the International Court of Human Rights and Justice at The Hague in The Netherlands.

Moreover, what accounts for these seventeen chapters being so invitingly readable – the second of the above opening quotes from chapter nine being a good example – is the degree to which the reader is so readily drawn into the clarity and the persuasion of The Presidency of Barack Obama – A First Historical Assessment.

Indeed, to refer to these knowingly engaging, 279 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Timeline, Notes, List of Contributors and Index) as thought provoking, might be construed as substantiating the obvious. As such, a continuation of the aforementioned quote from Paniel E. Joseph’s chapter nine (‘Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives – Race, Democracy, and Criminal Justice in the Age of Ferguson’), does go some way in honestly reflecting this book’s rather inflammatory anchor: ”Black Lives Matter activists, although no less inspired than the president, interpret the movement as exemplifying the destructive power of state-sanctioned violence, racial oppression, and economic injustice. The movement’s most radical edges were surveilled, harassed, imprisoned, even killed at the hands of white vigilantes working in concert with local, state, and federal authorities, with the FBI being the most well known offenders but far from the only ones. The continued persistence of racial segregation in neighbourhoods and public schools, high rates of black unemployment, and continued assaults on voting rights by no less than the Supreme Court of the United States underscores the rank hypocrisy of a nation that annually celebrates a King holiday and Black History Month.”

Likewise, the following from Julian E. Zelizer’s altogether brazen Introduction: ”Few Republicans were willing to buck the party line. When the president repeatedly reached out to Republicans to support him on pressing legislation such as the economic stimulus package and financial regulation, both of which seemed to command strong popular support in the middle of a severe economic meltdown that had depleted the nation’s wealth and left millions unemployed, most Republicans refused to go along with any deal. And even though much of his response to the financial crisis built on the policies of President Bush, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP, which Eric Rauchway calls the ”Bush-Obama financial rescue program”), many Republicans acted as if Obama were virtually a socialist.”

The Presidency of Barack Obama is a most stimulating and refreshing read. As The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb has so succinctly put it: ”The essays in this volume are among the most nuanced, thorough, and incisive perspectives we’ve yet seen regarding the complex, contradictory, and besieged tenure of the first black president.”

Besieged being the most unfortunate, yet operative word.

David Marx

 

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The Plural of Us

plural

The Plural of Us –
Poetry and Community in Auden and Others
By Bonnie Costello
Princeton University Press – £37.95

When will we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love.

          ‘The Future of Us’

Poetry’s ‘we” can be highly nuanced and variable […]
marking overlapping and concentric circles.

          ‘Speaking Of Us’

In the final chapter of this highly focused book (‘The Future of Us’), Bonnie Costello endeavours to once more enter, and finally come to terms with the great chasm of an elongated, and at times self-induced ambiguity; by highlighting the non-definable space that surely lies betwixt the most pronounced personal of ‘I,’ and the most assumptive universal of ‘we.’

In so doing, she reinvests a certain assertion that the reader might readily agree with what is at best, a poetically endorsed thesis, wherein analysis takes centre stage almost throughout these 225 pages ( excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Biography and Index). For example, when she writes: ”Whatever the scale of relations, being is always already being ”with” – ”we are pressed, pressed on each other” – and one effort of the poetry is to discover meaningful unity within this condition of proximity, for ”we have chosen the meaning /of being numerous;” are we to readily agree?

What does the authoress essentially mean when she writes of ”meaningful unity”?
As for the ”condition of proximity,”this surely differs in relation to each and every varying circumstance?

I have to confess to initially being drawn to The Plural of Us – Poetry and Community in Auden and Others, largely due to the Auden in the title. For along with Eliot and both Dylans’, Auden is for me, the quintessential poet of the twentieth century.

As such, I was inquisitive to embrace the rather scientific formality of the subject matter ([…] some poetry seeks to harness the rhetorical power of the first-person plural to posit and promote community, often where there is social fragmentation. It can also alert us, intentionally or not, to the pronoun’s dangers and exclusions […]), within the context, or at least within the realm of the Auden trajectory.

Rather like Costello herself: ”He is perhaps the preeminent modern poet for thinking about groups and group organization, intuitively and in the abstract, but he is he rarely fixed to a particular theory or ideology for long. He is the poet of ”private faces in public places,” and of ”private stuff”and ”public spirit,” interested in the tensions and continuities between our intimate lives and our historical relations. He loves theories and doctrines, sometimes to the detriment of his verse, and passes through them like the pages of a calender, but the questions remain the same, and give coherence to the process. He is a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with, in part because he is always thinking, always changing position and genre.”

One could readily assert that it was said change that enabled Auden to remain at the vanguard of true poetic thinking.
Even to this day.
All the more so I’d have thought, simply because he did wrestle with (and love) theories and doctrines. Even if he did pass ”through them like the pages of a calender.”

That Bonnie Costello substantiates the fact that Auden was ”a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with,” accounts for much this book’s adherent allegiance to that of deciphering what its title suggests.

As not once does Costello remotely deviate or straddle off course.

There again, she appears to understand Auden all too well: ”As a ventriloquizing poet, always playing us back to ourselves so that we may hear what we mean, he is highly sensitive to the many postures and tonalities that can arise in the use of the first-person plural.”

In and of itself therefore, many could readily assert that this book is something of a first within its field; or, as Jahan Ramazani, the author of Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres, has since written: ”Bonnie Costello’s exquisite book brilliantly explores how Auden and other poets use the first-person plural to conjure collectivities into being even as they also unsettle them. Her rigorous and commanding reflections on the pronoun ‘we,’ her luminous close readings, her deep knowledge of lyric poetry, and her nuanced yet cogent arguments make this book a model of literary criticism.”

As the title The Plural of Us might suggest, this book circumnavigates the plurality of humanistic value in such a way that sheds new light on an oft, far too forgotten subject.

David Marx

Radioactive Starlings

Hardy

Radioactive Starlings
By Myronn Hardy
Princeton University Press – £14.95

Like most art, poetry is obviously subjective to personal taste, provision and persuasion.

As such, to all literary intent and home’n’dry poetic purposes, Radioactive Starlings is, to my mind at least, fundamentally governed by one sensational poem: ‘But I Must Forget;’ while much of the remainder suffer from being far too esoteric (therefore, frustratingly closed) for their own good.

In the words of Khaled Mattawa (author of Tocqueville: Poems), Myronn Hardy ”is a citizen of worlds, including the North Africa where he lives and the America where he was born.”

Hmm, that the twain don’t particularly meet or see eye to eye – Lord knows the deplorable Donald Trump has intrinsically put paid to that – really ought not hold any influential sway amid the reading of these fifty-seven poems. But it somehow does; especially within the sphere of that which is neither North Africa nor America. Admittedly, this may be partially due to me not being especially well versed in the daily happenings and goings on in North Africa.

The US meanwhile, is clearly a different matter altogether – for all the wrong reasons might I add. So when Hardy ends his poem ‘The Inescapable Escape’ with the lines:

Know that kind
of defeat that horrific clarity.
The women begin to sing.

he was either inadvertently psychic, or so acutely up-to-date so far as the direction of where Washington politics were/are heading (especially given the many, many thousands of women who marched in protest of Trump’s wholly unethical administration – if such it can be called – last the weekend), that ”horrific clarity” equates with something of a perverse, yet current-day, malignant mantra.

And when such thinking is invariably placed alongside the aforementioned ‘But I Must Forget,’ there’s a whole lot of unforeseen depth to contend with. Indeed, right from the the very outset:

I must travel to a paradise of ashes,
walk among its hidden trees.- Adonis

Although it’s within the actual body of the text itself, where the many variegated particles of political poetry reins home:

[…]They ascend to smoking
towers but still gaze the piles
of themselves the cinders of civilization.
To be civil means to be at peace.
But peace is processed through its opposite.

The mere fact that Hardy claims peace itself, can genuinely be processed; may lend a glimmer of hope to that of a mighty dangerous, contentious world. That he then goes on to assert that ”peace” can only be processed ”through its opposite,” substantiates said potential for hope; but surely, only by way dialogue and dare I say it, intelligence?

Neither of which the odious Donald Trump for one (leader of the Free World!) is capable of understanding.

Let alone embracing:

rather like said poem’s penultimate line:
like them dead in churches?

David Marx

 

A Different Kind Of Animal

animal

A Different Kind Of Animal –
How Culture Transformed Our Species
By Robert Boyd
Princeton University Press – £22. 95

”Robert Boyd marshals an astonishing range of scholarship, colourful vignettes, and anecdotes to argue that humans make use of insights and adaptations that we do not understand. We learn very often not by figuring out how things work but imitating others who have locally useful ”know-how.” Boyd describes the conditions under which selection favours ”a psychology that causes most people to adopt beliefs just because others hold those beliefs” (Introduction).

How exceedingly, woefully true.

”People do indeed adopt beliefs just because others hold those beliefs.”
There are countless examples scattered throughout the history of unfortunate folly; surely the most volatile of late being the fact that so much of (ignorant and myopic) North America has opted to have a cold, callous, cowardly, businessman as its leader – just because others were somehow indoctrinated to believe his vile, yet overtly simplistic, gung-ho rhetoric.

Talking of which, this book’s Introduction further goes on to clarify: ”Not all of the consequences are positive: maladaptive ideas and false beliefs can also spread via blind imitation.” To be sure, hasn’t ”blind imitation” nigh always been at the helm of the western world’s (cultural) downfall?

A Different Kind Of Animal – How Culture Transformed Our Species does much to explain why this is unsurprisingly so.

If nothing else, it’s seven chapters are more than demonstrative in deciphering that while society – to varying degrees – can be smart, ”we are not nearly smart enough to have solved the vast array of problems that confronted our species as it spread across the globe.”

All the more reason that we as a society, ought to tread a whole lot more carefully when it comes to choosing those we feel have our best interests at heart. Two very current, prime reasons being: America’s Donald Trump (for whatever reason), doesn’t believe in climate change, while the UK’s Theresa May (for whatever reason) doesn’t believe in a fair society.

And more than anything else, said two examples go a long, long way, in substantiating that we are indeed: ”not nearly smart enough.”

These 196 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, References and Index) are a fine reflection of human adaptation as seen through some sort of prism of acute vulnerability. As the author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich, has since both asked and stated: ”What makes us unique? Are we really just smart chimpanzees? Why is our species both so cooperative and yet so violent? Addressing these questions, Robert Boyd adroitly combines detailed analysis of diverse societies, crystal-clear experimental studies, and rich descriptions of hunter-gatherer life with the precision that only mathematics can provide […]. Boyd boldly leads us on a scientific journey to discover who we are and where we came from.”

In and of itself, we would be more than wise to take supreme note of the latter – before it’s too late.

David Marx

Jabotinsky’s Children

jab

Jabotinsky’s Children –
Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism
By Daniel Kupfert Heller
Princeton University Press – £27.95

On a winter evening in 1932, Adolf Gourevitch, a young man from Kiev studying at the Sorbonne, joined Vladimir Jabotinsky and his son, Eri, at a cafe in Paris. As he sat down at the table, Jabotinsky announced that he would devote the evening to composing a new anthem for Betar. Jabotinsky had good reason to create a new hymn for his youth movement. By this point, Betar had more than forty thousand members worldwide and was quickly emerging as one of the most popular Jewish movements in Poland, where some thirty thousand Jews had joined its ranks. ‘The youth movement was also becoming one of the most controversial in the country – its’ rivals accusations that the group’s members were ”Jewish fascists’ who aspired to the same values as antisemites on the European Right only intensified with Betar’s growth. Writing an anthem provided Jabotinsky with an opportunity to offer a clear declaration of his movement’s goals and to finally put these claims to rest. He even promised Gourevitch that the poem would follow a mathematical logic. Jabotisnky wrote the following lines to open his first verse: ”Betar / from a pit of decay and dust / in blood and sweat / a new race will emerge / proud, noble and cruel.”

                                             (‘Obedient Children/Reckless Rebels’)

Reading the above quote from this book’s third chapter, does not only initiate one into thinking what took place in Poland a mere seven years later, but also what took place in the country’s capital Warszawa just last Saturday (November 11th). A day which marked the official celebration of the country’s ninety-ninth year of independence, which saw the best part of 60,000 right-wing protesters – from all over Poland – calling for ”an Islamic Holocaust.”

An ”Islamic Holocaust” no less, from countrymen, who know a thing or two about the meaning of genocide, and who, in their utmost heat of hearts, really ought to know better. The fact that the alternative American Right leader, Richard Spence, cancelled his plans to attend the march because he was deemed too extreme (by the Polish government), might go some way in substantiating a tad of Polish common sense. Although maybe not.

All things told, Jabotinsky’s Children – Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism, underlines the extent to which acute indoctrination is NEVER a good thing.

In and of itself, it has never qualified itself as a constructive mode of pristine behaviour, the absolute flip-side of which is surely evidenced in Poland’s more than brutal, heartbreakingly turbulent past. That Jabotinsky suggested that ”a new race will emerge,” one that was ”proud, noble and cruel,” isn’t that far removed from some of last Saturday’s chants of ”clean blood” and white Europe.”

So in a round-a-bout sort of way, this book really does shine something of an illuminating light on the spectre of ever increasing right-wing fundamentalism throughout Europe and the U.S. The latter especially, where Donald Trump openly promotes separatism and everything that is crass in human nature (a list far too long to mention here).

That Poland served as an inspiration and an incubator for the development of right-wing Zionist ideas, is herein brought to (unfortunate) bear, in all its myopic eventual mayhem. With reference to the inter-war years, the author Daniel Kupfert Heller writes: ”Poland […] was plagued by political corruption, factionalism, legislative gridlock, and violence. Tensions often ran high between Catholic Poles and the country’s minorities. The deep divisions pitting peasants against urban dwellers, socialists against conservatives, and liberals against radical nationalists only multiplied the staggering number of political parties clamouring for power” (Introduction – ‘Jews and the Right’).

Sound familiar?
One need look no further than current day Venezuela.
Or what took place in Zimbabwe yesterday.
Hell’s teeth, one need look no further than Downing Street.

These 254 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) most definitely shoot from the hip. In so doing, they place particular perspective on the origins of right-wing Zionist beliefs – along with their continuing allure in today’s Israel. As such, Jabotinsky’s Children will undoubtedly trigger much debate, which, to varying degrees, can only be a good thing.

David Marx

 

Polarized

pol

Polarized –
Making Sense Of A Divided America
By James E. Campbell
Princeton University Press – £22.95

You can compromise between good, better, and best, and you can compromise between bad and worse and terrible. But you can’t compromise between good and evil.

                    Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) – ‘One-Sided Party Polarization’

And so say all of us; well, most of us anyway.
At the moment however, there’s surely far more disparity within the realm of American politics, than, erm, well, perhaps anytime in it’s history.
At least within living memory, put it that way – which is where this stark and rather bold book ought to stand loud’n’roud within the current, quasi-blasphemous institution that both tellingly and rather laughingly, refers to the American Constitution, as if it were its own.

As if it were a standing joke – which clearly, Donald Trump, and his vile inner-circle are; although countless gullible innocents the (predominantly western) world over, will continue to believe the United States to be a nation of political moderates.

It absolutely isn’t.

The US is so utterly divided, it’s nigh impossible to distinguish between good, better and best, bad and worse; let alone good and evil. Although within the context of mainstream American ideology, it isn’t long before James E. Campbell writes: ”As rough as our political debates can be, and they can get quite vicious, happily we are not on the precipice of another civil war.”

Oh really?
Seems to me the US is most definitely on the precipice of something.
It might not be out and out civil war, but there’s absolutely no question that one of the most powerful countries one earth, is almost on the verge of self-imploding.
If not falling apart.
If not, along with (the former Great) Britain, very fast becoming the laughing stock of the world. A conundrum, which, in the big scheme of things – primarily that of Trump’s colossal ego – isn’t a particularly good thing.

The nine chapters of Polarized – Making Sense Of A Divided America pretty much contends as much throughout.

Hence my earlier description of these 246 pages (excluding Acknowledgments, Appendix, Notes, References and Index) being somewhat stark and outwardly bold: ”Some contend that party polarization has grown particularly severe in recent years as political leaders and activists sought ideological purity within their parties, particularly within the Republican Party. The ultra-polarization of American politics, as the claim goes, has been largely a one-sided or asymmetric affair. Republicans became a far-right ideological party while Democrats remained a fairly moderate and pragmatic centre-left party. This claim of one-sided party polarization was made most strongly by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their provocatively titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Mann boldly claimed that ”Republicans have become a radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition” (‘One-Sided Party Polarization – Republicans Gone Wild’).

You can say that again (and again).
One need only refer to the Trump’s out and out, inflammatory dismissal of The Paris Agreement, to wholeheartedly agree, if not endeavour to come to terms with the above.
And a whole lot more.

Polarized – Making Sense Of A Divided America goes some way in deciphering the current shambles that is American politics; but I’m sure even Campbell must be somewhat surprised at the dire depths to which American politics has unfortunately sunk.

David Marx

Agrarian Crossings

crossings

Agrarian Crossings –
Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside
By Tore C. Olsson
Princeton University Press – £27.95

At first glance, Tom Watson and Emiliano Zapata appear to have inhabited impossibly distant worlds. The former was a white country lawyer from rural Georgia, born in 1856; the latter a mesitzo horse trainer and small landowner, twenty-three years Watson’s junior, from central Mexico. The political vocabulary and cultural milieu of one would undoubtedly have been foreign to the other. Yet unpredictably, in the heady decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, both young men would champion daring revolts of country people against the entrenched powers that dispossessed and impoverished them.

               (‘Parallel Agrarian Societies – The US South and Mexico, 1870s-1920s’)

Fast forward to the 1930s and the 1940s, rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged further unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice along with agricultural productivity. This book regales that story. Of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange future plans, models and strategies with their counterparts across the border.

Could you imagine such co-operation between the US and Mexico happening today?
Amid Donald Trump’s overtly tremulous White House?
Wherein a revolving door policy of abhorrent, right-wing fundamentalism has taken hold?

Methinks very much not, which just goes to show the degree to which dialogue betwixt the two countries has almost broken down. And if it hasn’t already broken down in its entirety, it is definitely no longer taken (remotely) seriously as a form of statesman-like-currency.

Might this constitute where Agrarian Crossings – Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside fundamentally takes hold?
If not makes its mark?

In shining a quintessential, organic light upon a truly hideous, current political stalemate of a situation, Tore C. Olsson herein brings farming history right up to date. As Chris Boyer, of the University of Illinois in Chicago makes clear: ”Agrarian Crossings is a path-breaking history of the American and Mexican reformers who reinvented farming in the shadow of World War II. This impressive and scrupulously researched book is required reading for historians of agriculture, technocratic interchange, and the invention of development in the Americas, as well as for anyone interested in the surprisingly entangled origins of the green revolution.”

That, it most definitely is, and a whole lot more besides. The focus on the US-Mexican border in particular: ”Borders matter. Borders regulate the flow of people, the movement of commodities and capital. And the exchange of ideas. Borders separate citizens from aliens, the familiar from the foreign, and those belonging from those unwanted. And perhaps no border in recent history is more iconic in its power of partition than the line bisecting the United States and Mexico.”

Suffice to say, one could contend this argument with the mere word, Israel, but perhaps this is another, highly contentious issue altogether.

Moreover: ”In the century and a half since it was mapped onto the desert and water, the US-Mexico border has become a powerful visual representation of the strikingly unequal relationship between the two nations it anchors.”

Too right, one can without any shadow of a doubt, say that again.
The rampant inequality between these two great nations is as inexorably striking; as is the fact that it is surely only a matter of time before he who promotes the preposterous idea of a wall between them, is impeached.

Impeached beyond redemption might I add!

Here’s hoping this most rich and transnational of books will only accelerate its coming to fruition.

David Marx