Pennsylvania Observer

A blog for progressive people in Pennsylvania. Greens, Democrats and others who want to comment on current news items in the Keystone State.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Top Political Books of 2004

Top Political Books of 2004. In our humble opinion, there were five great political books that everyone should have read last year. But it’s not too late. Unlike many of the pop political books, these are just as relevant as we begin the new year.

Cornel West’s Democracy Matters (Penguin Books) is the most profound book on democracy in the post 9/11 period. West takes on the American empire as antithetical to its lofty, but never reached ideals. Like West’s seminal Race Matters, Democracy Matters makes frequent use of history to make its points, and it makes them better than any American academic writing today. West weaves in American literature, especially Toni Morrison and Herman Melville, to try to turn down the professorial tone of his writing, and he mostly succeeds. He also tries to employ music, though less successfully.

West seems to be an academic who wants to be a poet. Arundhati Roy, on the other hand, is a poet who aspires to be an academic. Roy is perhaps the most inspirational writer in the growing global democracy movement. Her essays flow lyrically, even when being acerbic. Her most recent essay is Public Power in the Age of Empire (Seven Stories Press), a brief 54 page critique of empire, and also of those who claim to oppose it. It is a call to action—real action. “Colorful demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone are not powerful enough to stop wars,” write Roy. “Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircraft, when people boycott the economic outposts of empire that are strung across the globe.”

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is one of those volumes on our bookshelves that we proudly display to make sure people know our politics. We need to take it off the shelf every once in a while to remind us of the struggle for democracy and human rights that has gone on for centuries in this country. Zinn, working with Anthony Arnove, has produced an essential companion to A People’s History. Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Seven Stories Press) is a compilation of scores of important documents, speeches and essays from some of the most important voices that are typically omitted from our history books. Zinn, in the introduction, says “I wanted labor history, which has been the battleground, decade after decade, century after century, of an ongoing fight for human dignity, to come to the fore. And I wanted my readers to experience how at key moments in history some of the bravest and most effective political acts were the sounds of the human voice itself… To omit or minimize these voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations. I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women—once they organize and protest and create movements—have a voice no government can suppress.”

Had the Democrats read Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books) instead of listening to its DLC-dominated leadership, we might not be preparing to mourn the re-ascendance of Bush II. Franks’ insightful look at his home state’s idiosyncrasies is essential for anyone wanting to do any kind of political, labor or community organizing in the so-called Red States. Frank asks why so many poor and middle class white people in the red States vote against their economic self-interests even as their communities are destroyed and their personal economic situation deteriorates. He exposes the right’s successful scheme to distract people from economic issues with so-called “values.” He shows how the right manipulates voters with threats that never seem to go away, even when their people are in power. It’s a great analysis, with lots of amusing anecdotes, but its one weakness is overwhelming. It never explains how to counter the rights strategy.

The last book on our list is full of intrigue, stories of adventure, violent battles for survival and dominance, steamy sex. Well, the sex is between lobsters, but it’s still intriguing. Trevor Carson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean (Harper Collins) is not technically a political book, but it does have political implications. It touches on animal rights, the environment, the role of science in public policy, balancing the needs of workers with the protection of the environment. And it does it all in a way that makes you want to read it all in one sitting. The most intriguing, quirky, fun book of the year.

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