FDL Book Salon Welcomes China Miéville, Kraken

Welcome China Mieville, and Host Henry Farrell.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Kraken

Henry Farrell, Host:

China Miéville is perhaps the most interesting and influential writer to emerge in science fiction, fantasy and horror (genres that he brings together under the title ‘weird fiction’) over the last fifteen years. His breakout book, Perdido Street Station blended fantasy, horror and science fictional elements, in its depiction of a corrupt and fantastical city, part London and part Buenos Aires, under threat from escaped ‘slakemoths.’ Its sequels, The Scar and Iron Council revisited this city and the world surrounding it. His recent book The City and the City, which brings together noir detective fiction and a very particular kind of fantasy, won the World Fantasy Award. The New York Times ran a good profile of Miéville a few weeks ago.

His newest book, Kraken isn’t as literarily ambitious as The City and the City was. What it is is hugely enjoyable. In some ways, it’s a return to the early New Crobuzon books, where the sheer exuberance of Miéville’s imagination, and delight in creating new monsters rubbed up against the general grimness of his imagined politics – but this time with most of the grimness leached out. There is politics there – but it is for the most part in the background. This is a book that reads as though it was enormous fun to write. It certainly is enormous fun to read. To cite just one among many scenes, the moment where two of the most thoroughly unpleasant villains that I’ve ever seen in the genre) emerge for the first time is dazzling – but to reveal exactly how they emerged would be to spoil the surprise.

This is a more general problem for people (like me) who want to talk about the book to people who haven’t read it. Miéville pulls surprise after surprise out of the book, like a conjurer pulling coloured scarves, then ping pong balls, then bunny rabbits, and finally a couple of surprised and rather indignant elephants out of his sleeve. Telling you about the elephants in advance would ruin the trick. I can say that among many other things, the book discusses a kidnapped squid, a curator in search of same, unusual (and ultimately quite unpleasant) forms of origami, the labor relations between magically animated helpers and their creators, talking Captain Kirk figurines, visceral prophecies, and the historical importance of Charles Darwin. As well as many, many cults. To find out more, you’ll have to read it.

Some questions and topics for China to get the ball rolling: (more…)

FDL Book Salon Welcomes China Miéville, Kraken

Welcome China Miéville, and Host Henry Farrell.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Kraken

Henry Farrell, Host:

China Miéville is perhaps the most interesting and influential writer to emerge in science fiction, fantasy and horror (genres that he brings together under the title ‘weird fiction’) over the last fifteen years. His breakout book, Perdido Street Station blended fantasy, horror and science fictional elements, in its depiction of a corrupt and fantastical city, part London and part Buenos Aires, under threat from escaped ‘slakemoths.’ Its sequels, The Scar and Iron Council revisited this city and the world surrounding it. His recent book The City and the City, which brings together noir detective fiction and a very particular kind of fantasy, won the World Fantasy Award. The New York Times ran a good profile of Miéville a few weeks ago. (more…)

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Michael Berube, The Left At War

MIchael Berube - The Left At War[Welcome Michael Bérubé, and Host Henry Farrell.] [ As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War tells the story of some arguments around the Iraq war that only partly intersected with the fights that were raging in the blogosphere at the same time. The book is less interested in arguments between warbloggers and progressives, or between the center and the left of the Democratic party, than in the battles among left intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Michael Walzer and, indeed, Michael Bérubé himself. Bérubé’s thesis is straightforward. Much of the opposition to the war, from writers like Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn sucked. And it sucked because these people adhered to a simplistic narrative in which the US was always evil, and intervention abroad was always imperialism under a thin facade of respect for human rights. What Bérubé calls the “Manichean Left” actually made it more difficult to mobilize against the Iraq war, because it provided pro-war writers with an excuse to brand all opponents on the war as crazy.

Bérubé traces back many of the arguments among left intellectuals to disagreements over the US role in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Many leftists, including Bérubé himself, supported the US intervention against Serbia, believing that it was justified as helping prevent genocide. Others – including Chomsky and Cockburn – disagreed. Some of those who disagreed did so by defending Serbian president Milosevic, who was indicted at the Hague for war crimes including the murder of over eight thousand Bosniaks at Srebenica (Milosevic died during the trial). Others disagreed volubly, pointing to the mountain of evidence of serious war crimes. These disputes became bitter and angry. (more…)

FDL Book Salon Welcomes, Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics

Jonathan Weiler - Author & Polariz in AM Politics[Welcome Marc J. Hetherinton, Jonathan Weiler, and Host Henry Farrell – bev]

Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics

Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s new book re-examines the recent course of American politics. They tell us about how authoritarian politics – especially on the right – have helped give rise to increasing polarization between Republicans and Democrats. This is an important contribution to debate among political scientists about polarization, but deserves a much wider readership. If they are right – and the differences between authoritarians and non-authoritarians are the key factor driving polarized politics – then many of the received wisdoms of the punditocracy are flat out wrong. Right wing columnists like Michael Gerson and Clive Crook, who deplore the increasing extremism of American politics and especially of the left, are missing out on the ways in which right wing politics are increasingly based around authoritarianism and intolerance.

First though, it is necessary to be clear about language. Authoritarianism, as political scientists define it, is different from the every day sense of the word. For Americanist political scientists, authoritarianism does not necessarily denote hostility to democracy. Instead, it refers to a syndrome of attitudes which emphasize traditional authority, depicts politics in black and white terms as a struggle between good and evil, and involves hostility towards groups (gays, immigrants) who are seen as disrupting the social order. Hetherington and Weiler argue that it is best measured by looking at how people think about family and child rearing. Those who emphasize discipline and obedience are likely to be authoritarians. Those who instead want to encourage their kids to be curious and self-reliant are likely to be non-authoritarian. (more…)

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Steven M. Teles: The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement

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 [Welcome Steven M. Teles, Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, and Fellow at the New America Foundation, and Host, Henry Farrell, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science/Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University – bevw]

The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law

Steve Teles’ book provides a great, readable analysis of how pro-market conservatives organized themselves against a legal profession and legal academy that they perceived as biased against them, and succeeded in changing it. It is reminiscent of other books on the rise of the right, such as Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, but concentrates on a much more specialized group of actors. Rightwing non-profit law firms have succeeded, at least in part, in bringing cases that raised attention for key regulatory issues. Rightwing funders provided the means that allowed legal academics to pioneer ‘law and economics,’ an approach to legal analysis that has become ever more important in influencing academic analyses, legal decisions and governmental regulatory priorities. Finally, the Federalist Society has allowed conservative lawyers to identify each other and to network (as seen, for example, in the controversies over Justice Department hiring practices under George W. Bush).

This is incredibly important stuff. America is a society of lawyers. Legal academics shape the ways in which judges think and in which bureaucrats administer programs. Judges for their part play an active political role, making decisions that define the contours of politics, often telling elected politicians what they can and cannot do. And lawyers often become politicians. Hence, the law is a key arena of political battle. A generation ago, conservatives were badly out-gunned in this arena. They were badly outnumbered and intellectually underpowered. Now, they are in a position of considerable importance. Republican appointees are a majority on several key appelate courts. Conservative ideas about the limits of politics and the vital importance of markets have reshaped the law’s intellectual basis. And the US Supreme Court has shifted sharply to the right. (more…)

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Cory Doctorow: Little Brother

littebrother-cory-doctorow.jpgCory Doctorow has a multitude of talents.  He’s a co-editor of BoingBoing, the fifth most popular blog on the Internet according to Technorati, where he purveys a mixture of technology news, links to strange and wonderful things, and left wing politics.  He’s been a front line fighter in the wars over intellectual property; he used to be the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Director of European Affairs. And, most importantly for today’s discussion, he’s a well known science fiction novelist.

Cory has written four novels and multitudes of short stories.  Today, we’ll be talking about his most recent book, Little Brother.  The book is available in yer nearest good bookstore (really – it’s a New York Times bestseller so you shouldn’t have difficulty in finding it, although you may have to look in the young adults section).  Cory also puts his money where his mouth is on intellectual property issues, so if you want to download an electronic copy, it’s available for free here under a Creative Commons license.

Little Brother is narrated by Marcus, a seventeen year old hacker living in a near-future San Francisco, where the war on terrorism is still going strong, Republicans have won a third term with the help of a Karl Rove clone, and the government has really started to take advantage of new technologies to snoop on citizens.  When terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel, Marcus and his friends are taken into custody by Homeland Security, because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One of them disappears into the system and doesn’t come out.  Marcus starts thinking about ways to fight back against the surveillance state, using his and his friends’ expertise in technology to set up surreptitious communications networks using hacked Xboxes, figure out ways to confuse tracking systems, and organize public events.  Eventually, they win a sort-of victory against the powers that be, but the novel makes it clear that this is only one battle in an ongoing struggle.

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FDL Book Salon: Jon Chait and “The Big Con”

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(Please welcome author Jon Chait in the comments — jh)

Jonathan Chait’s book has the title "The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics." But it’s about more than that. Indeed, some of the best parts of the book have nothing to do with economics. Chait gives us a thoroughgoing indictment of how our political system has become fundamentally corrupted, and how journalists have helped this along.

Before I start to talk about the book in detail, I want to clear the air on one important point. Chait has, in the past, been blisteringly rude about the netroots (some of whom have also been blisteringly rude about him). While the netroots are not a major topic of this book, he takes a couple of swipes against them here too. However, it would be a serious mistake for netroots readers to ignore this book, or think that it has nothing to teach them. Not only will they miss out on one of the best, if not the best recent journalistic accounts of what has gone wrong with America’s political system, but they’ll never discover that Chait reserves his real scorn for other journalists who have played into the Republican agenda. In addition, Chait by turning up today has shown that he’s willing to engage in argument with the netroots on their own territory. I’m not aware of any other serious critic of the netroots who has been willing to do this, and I ask that people – if they want to disagree with Chait – show him the respect that he’s shown them by coming here.

So why is the book valuable? The opening chapter provides a good introduction to the crazier notions of supply side economics. It talks about the Laffer curve – the famous diagram that is supposed to show that cutting taxes will raise government revenue – and how crazies from Jude Wanninski on have tried to use this curve to argue that economic policy should be all tax cuts, all the time. The "supply side economics" of Ronald Reagan’s nuttier advisors is still alive and well, in part because many true believers still subscribe to it, in part because more cynical Republicans such as Irving Kristol think that it’s a useful justification for tax-cuts, even though they know that it’s complete bullshit.

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FDL Book Salon: “The Great Risk Shift”

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(Today's guest poster is Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber.  He and author Jacob Hacker join us to chat today. This is quite an important work and I urge everyone to read Henry's post and spend some time with the two of them in the comments, it is no doubt a book we're going to be referring to again and again here — JH)

Jacob Hacker has written a very important book. One of the biggest problems that progressives face in American politics is that the game is rigged against them. Over the last thirty years, right wing think tanks and pundits have succeeded in changing the center of gravity of American politics. Ideas such as gutting social protection used to belong to the Birchers and other flat earthers at the fringes of debate. They’re now received wisdom among the chattering classes. Jacob Hacker wants to reverse this. He’s a political scientist; much of his previous work has shown how the right has worked under the radar to undermine basic social protections. This book, however, isn’t a standard piece of political science commentary. It’s an attempt to change politics by reshaping the collective wisdom closer to what progressives want.

This is a highly ambitious project. Hacker wants to push back some of the ideological gains that the right wing has made over the last thirty years. A diffuse coalition of conservatives, libertarians and business interests has sought to get rid of broadly based social security and medical benefits and to push for ever lower taxes. They haven’t done everything that they set out to do, but they’ve succeeded in changing the language that policy makers use to think about these issues. The result has been that politicians have been unwilling to protect people from the new risks caused by globalization and market pressures. Indeed, instead of protecting ordinary people, government has helped pile more risks on their heads.

Some examples. Medical costs are growing ever higher, and the health insurance industry is a mess. The result is that people, especially those with no insurance or limited coverage, face ever more financial risks. According to a recent study a quarter of families affected by cancer had to spend all their savings to pay for treatment; one in ten had skimp on food, heat or housing to bear the burden, and 13% went into major debt. As Hacker documents, instead of proper health insurance reform, we’re being given individual Health Savings Accounts, which transfer the risks and hard tradeoffs to individuals. Employment is becoming ever more unstable in a globalized world, but government doesn’t seem very interested in protecting vulnerable workers. Ordinary families who are faced with these pressures can’t easily seek refuge in bankruptcy any more thanks to recent legislation which drastically weakens bankruptcy protections. Finally, traditional defined benefits pension plans have been replaced over time by defined contribution plans, in which individuals bear the risk of stock market slumps. Now, conservatives and libertarians want to get rid of Social Security and replace it with so called ‘personalized’ accounts, regardless of the massive transition costs that this would involve.

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FDL Book Salon — Before the Storm, Pt. 2

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(Today’s guest poster is Henry Farrell from Crooked Timber.  Rick Perlstein will also be joining us in the comments.  You can read last week’s Pt. 1 of the discussion here.) 

"Before the Storm” is an important work of American history. It captures what it was like to be an angry right-winger in the 1960s, and has been praised by rightwingers like William Kristol and William F. Buckley for telling it as it was. But if it was just a piece of political history, it wouldn’t have been as influential as it’s been. It’s also an argument about politics, and a gameplan for pissed-off Democrats who feel (as Goldwater’s conservatives felt) that they’re badly served by a complaisant party hierarchy. In Kos’s words:

The parallels to today are startling, a sort of Dean bizarro world stuck on opposite day — a Republican Party that was trying to be "Democrat-lite" and an establishment hostile to "outsider" forces. With Goldwater railing against his party’s establishment and the special interests that controlled it. Throw in innovative use of tactics and technology (Goldwater pioneered the use of direct mail) and a crushing defeat, and you’ve got the Dean phenomenon.

This is right, but it’s only part of Perlstein’s story. Before the Storm does have a lot to say about movement politics. It’s not Goldwater who’s the main protagonist in Perlstein’s account; it’s the conservative activists who used his candidacy to rebuild American politics from the grassroots. But Perlstein also is interested in ideas – as the subtitle says, the book is about the “Unmaking of the American Consensus.” Perlstein wants to know how the smug liberal consensus underlying the Affluent Society of 1960s America was shattered, and replaced by a new, conservative-friendly, set of received wisdoms. “Before the Storm” only begins to describe how this happened, but suggests that it surely had its origins with Goldwater’s supporters. In short, Perlstein tells us that you have to understand both movement politics and ideas if you want to understand why the conservatives won.

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FDL Book Salon — Before the Storm, Pt. 2

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(Today’s guest poster is Henry Farrell from Crooked Timber.  Rick Perlstein will also be joining us in the comments.  You can read last week’s Pt. 1 of the discussion here.) 

"Before the Storm” is an important work of American history. It captures what it was like to be an angry right-winger in the 1960s, and has been praised by rightwingers like William Kristol and William F. Buckley for telling it as it was. But if it was just a piece of political history, it wouldn’t have been as influential as it’s been. It’s also an argument about politics, and a gameplan for pissed-off Democrats who feel (as Goldwater’s conservatives felt) that they’re badly served by a complaisant party hierarchy. In Kos’s words:

The parallels to today are startling, a sort of Dean bizarro world stuck on opposite day — a Republican Party that was trying to be "Democrat-lite" and an establishment hostile to "outsider" forces. With Goldwater railing against his party’s establishment and the special interests that controlled it. Throw in innovative use of tactics and technology (Goldwater pioneered the use of direct mail) and a crushing defeat, and you’ve got the Dean phenomenon.

This is right, but it’s only part of Perlstein’s story. Before the Storm does have a lot to say about movement politics. It’s not Goldwater who’s the main protagonist in Perlstein’s account; it’s the conservative activists who used his candidacy to rebuild American politics from the grassroots. But Perlstein also is interested in ideas – as the subtitle says, the book is about the “Unmaking of the American Consensus.” Perlstein wants to know how the smug liberal consensus underlying the Affluent Society of 1960s America was shattered, and replaced by a new, conservative-friendly, set of received wisdoms. “Before the Storm” only begins to describe how this happened, but suggests that it surely had its origins with Goldwater’s supporters. In short, Perlstein tells us that you have to understand both movement politics and ideas if you want to understand why the conservatives won.

(more…)