The Populist Moment book review

The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in AmericaThe Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I must confess. I skipped to the end. Lawrence Goodwyn’s history of America’s Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century is an important contribution to our knowledge of social movements and American political theory. However, Goodwyn’s storytelling fails to live up to contemporary standards of political history from favorites like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert A. Caro, or the fast-paced accounts of recent history from Michael Lewis. That’s why after two chapters I skipped to the last one.

Goodwyn’s concluding essay “The Irony of Populism” is why this book is so important. This is where he lays out his argument for why the movement ultimately failed and why there hasn’t been a similar substantive and popular democratic reform movement since. So, what is the irony of populism? Well, in Goodwyn’s telling, it boils down to the nature of radical political change. It effectively needs an army—like the red armies of communism—which represent the vanguard of a countervailing power to the entrenched interests of existing governmental systems. These armies and the new political parties behind them necessarily need some sort of centralized committee. Thus it’s hard to construct the alternative power structure through nonhierarchical democratic means.

When you are organizing at the size of America, even in the late 1800s, this is an unwieldy project to manage through flat hierarchies and maintain communication channels across its breadth. It’s also at its core a cultural change project. And those cultures evolve and coalesce at different speeds across the movement. What made the populist movement work in the first place was a tenuous coalition of farmers from many different states who had a common background as “plain people” and a common need for self-determination in the face of economic elites building a rentier system on tenant farmers. Such a tenuous coalition is rife for capture by special interests or charismatic leaders that ultimately undermine the democratic goals of fighting the hierarchical, corporatist system of liberal capitalism and what would become “progressive” government in the early twentieth century.

Ultimately, and ironically, the populists lost because they lost. They poured the structures built for mutual aid, which first gave the plain people a sense of self-respect and dignity in the face of economic and political oppression, into the People’s Party and this third party lost in the election of 1896 even after various contortions and capture by other parties and special interests. This happened because the Republicans backing McKinley had the full weight of corporate America backing them financially but also because (ironically again) the populists didn’t have enough people. Their vision was an alliance between the farmers and the emerging class of laborers in industrial America. But labor wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be ready until the successful sit-ins of the 1930s and by then the defeated farmers were too impoverished economically, politically, and culturally to reignite an effort for radical democratic reform.

The winning movement became progressivism in the United States. Political participation waned as politics became more professionalized and hierarchies became deeper and more unequal in both industry and government. The American dream—a fable of rags to riches—was cemented by government and corporate propaganda and sold to children in public schools. The populists who had seen through this fiction in their own struggles lost the shared platform and ability to influence millions through their homespun civic education which had originally organized these poor farmers into powerful cooperatives.

Goodwyn argues that the socialists who succeeded the populists in making a case for radical democratic reform never understood the importance of developing a positive, genuinely American, cultural vision. And the success of the corporatist state on the back of liberal capitalist policies crowded out ideas of radical democracy and equality from legitimate political debate. And this is where we are at now. Where the latest populist movement again chose to side with a corporatist, charismatic leader. Goodwyn was right that the election of 1896 set the stage for everything to follow in American politics. And that’s why it’s worth reading his analysis of what happened.

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The Subversives book review

Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book will change how you see the federal government, specifically the FBI, and will change how you see Ronald Reagan. Even if you are familiar with the war waged by the FBI against civil rights activists and peaceniks during the 1960s and understand what COINTELPRO was meant to accomplish, this comprehensive narrative—detailing the abuses of power, hypocrisy, and assault on dissenting speech—is illuminating.

To quote the book’s preface, author Seth Rosenfeld “draws on court records, contemporaneous news accounts, oral histories, scholarly works, and hundreds of interviews with activists, university administrators, politicians, present and former FBI agents, and various other officials and observers,” as well as confidential FBI files released after three decades of FOIA requests. “There are no anonymous sources and no fictionalized accounts.” The result is a terrifying look into J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against dissent in the United States. His illegal and unethical misuse of “intelligence” and FBI resources wielded in the name of fighting Communism. America was so scared of the Red Menace that it provided a perfect excuse to accumulate power in the federal criminal justice and intelligence services.

Much of what went on attacking college students and other citizens for demonstrating free speech and protesting the War in Vietnam was done without official approval or oversight and often was explicitly political in helping more conservative, pro-Hoover politicians and officials gain or maintain power. Lives were ruined and in some cases lost in this battle between the FBI and student radicals.

Reagan’s role in all of this was highly-publicized at the time in terms of his own crusade against Communism. But Rosenfeld reveals how closely Reagan coordinated, aiding and abetting the illegal FBI maneuvers, from before he was Governor of California and throughout his political career. Like other conservative politicians of the era, he was a bit naive to Hoover’s true power, but was always happy when abuse of power served his interests. Reagan callously took advantage of UC Berkeley’s student protests for political success and had little time for facts that disagreed with his view of the matter. Reagan and Hoover’s end goals were mutually beneficial and they jumped at the opportunity to use each other’s power.

The Subversives is a cautionary tale. It reads like the dystopian novels that are rocketing up best seller lists this spring following Trump’s election. However, this is Nonfiction. This really happened. This was the U.S. government and figures like Reagan, who are broadly beloved or at least respected, that eviscerated the fundamental rights of thousands of Americans and enjoyed unchecked power, often supported by their own popularity.

We have seen the resurgence of some of these abuses following 9/11. Terrorism, not Communism, has been the excuse. With low trust in the institutions meant to check each other’s power, the responsibility falls disproportionately on citizens, like the book’s persistent author Seth Rosenfeld, to monitor our institutions and hold our government and politicians accountable.

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Deep Work book review

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Deep Work, Cal Newport synthesizes a set of tested hacks for helping people accomplish tasks requiring significant amounts of focused intellectual energy, which he calls “deep work.” The first part of the book lays out the argument for why we would want to pursue deep work and enhance our ability to do it. Newport constructs a compelling narrative using biography, autobiography, philosophy, and psychology to make his case. The backdrop to his argument is the economic imperative that knowledge workers need to distinguish themselves from the growing automation of white collar work.

The second part of the book categorizes his hacks for deep work into four “rules”: Work Deeply, Embrace Boredom, Quit Social Media, and Drain the Shallows. Work Deeply helps the reader consider how they want to bring deep work into their lives and schedules. Embrace Boredom suggests ways to think about the intensity of work as well as the intensity of non-work or leisure time and how these both need to be taken seriously. Quit Social Media is about limiting the distractions the internet poses to deep work. And Drain the Shallows addresses ways to prioritize your work so that your day to day emphasis remains on deep rather than “shallow work,” like email, meetings, and logistics.

As someone who studies social media, I must point out how the section on quitting social media comes across as a little old-fashioned and curmudgeonly, to which Newport has no problem admitting. His point that these are new and insidious distractions from work are well taken. The journalists and authors he idolizes are those that are particularly down on things like Twitter. Because social media has changed the nature of many types of work, it’s hard to say how escapable they are. The suggestions the book has for deciding whether or not they are important to you may help some people but may not offer the answers knowledge workers deeply tied to social media through their work need. Once again though, the point is well taken.

Altogether, I found the book a compelling program for developing the capacity to do work that you find meaningful, that brings you professional success, and that ensures that you have work/life balance. In fact, it does a nice job of arguing that work/life balance is critical to accomplishing meaningful work. The examples of deep work are heavily biased on writing, which makes sense given the autobiographical aspects are from an academic and author. Newport does touch 0n the broader idea of deep work as craftsmanship, whether it’s sword-forging or farming. Coding—the author is a computer scientist—is used as an example several times but it’s never examined to the same depth as writing. The fact that the book is strongly tied to a particular form of knowledge work that produces new ideas in written form may mean readers from industries with other emphases get less out of the book (although, writing up new ideas is a standard transferrable skill across disciplines).

As someone who is currently writing their PhD general exams in a computer science-related department at MIT, I found the book super accessible. Cal Newport starting developing his routines and rules whilst doing a PhD in CS at MIT, and his current life as a professor has a lot of overlap with my own. However, the book is meant for a general audience, and he uses interviews with people from a handful of non-academic industries to make that point. Because of the similarity of my background to the author’s, it’s hard for me to know how well he succeeds at making an argument and rule set for deep work that’s generally representative. For others like me at least, I strongly recommend Deep Work as an easy to read and well organized set of strategies. I’m eager to apply them to my own life.

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We Make the Road by Walking book review

We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social ChangeWe Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change by Myles Horton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is the most useful book on education I have read and one of the top five most useful books on social change. The dialog between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire is so rich and grounded, exemplifying their styles of progressive/popular education. Freire is definitely the more academic of the two and he so lets himself speak in more abstract, theoretical terms while Horton always stays close to core anecdotes or experiences.

I had previously read Horton’s autobiography The Long Haul, so I knew what to expect. But this book breaks his story into thematic chunks, punctuated by shared reflection with Freire which really animates the insights of his work. You really get to the heart of these giants of adult education, literacy, and social change, and why they see themselves first and foremost as educators in the progressive/experiential mold and how that is central to their social and political agendas.

This book is deeply inspiring to me as I try to sort through what the future of civic education might look like, and how to think about what it means to be doing change work in order to bring about a more inclusive and better society.

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The Fires book review

The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of CitiesThe Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe Flood writes a solid history of the twentieth century city planning through the lens of The War Years fires that burned out large swathes of the poorest parts of New York City. It’s well-researched and hangs together nicely. He cribs a good bit from Robert Caro’s massive biography of planner Robert Moses, and some of his points get repetitive—disrupting the otherwise nicely narrativized of history and analysis that Flood puts to paper.

Students of cities and planning and of power politics will find this an interesting read touching on the complexity of decision-making and the way that politics and management are bound to the times and trends in which they occur. And of course, the indictment of RAND’s systems analysis is an important reminder that we can’t play god even when we are good with all the numbers. The Fires is as a political biography of the men of New York City that did this work and why they did it. As such it offers a companion of different style and scale to James C. Scott’s masterful Seeing Like a State, which makes a similar point about reductionist system analytical planning but over a longer historical and geographical arc.

It’s a quick, fun read. New Yorkers especially should pick up to learn how their city evolved into what it is today and the long development of the city’s racial and economic politic (which were unfortunately replicated around the country).

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