Given that my thesis advisor occasionally reads hoverbike, I will start out by saying emphatically that the only things I will be reading over the holidays will be scholarly books and articles about grassroots Democratic Party activism. That shouldn’t stop the rest of you, however, from indulging in some somewhat political entertainment while you celebrate the turning of the year, the birth of your savior, the survival of your people or the pride of your African roots. Below are is a list of books and records I strongly recommend. Let me know if you enjoy any of the items below, as I will be busy untangling the mess of political identity formation and movement intentionality.
1. The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
As we all try to figure out Barack, the will-he-won’t-he man of the hour, I am reminded of the moment in Primary Colors where the protagonist struggles to figure out whether the Bill Clinton stand-in is the “real thing” or is willing to give up the store. On the one hand, Obama seems to be trying to find a political space in between two parties which are closer ideologically than they have perhaps ever been. On the other hand, he takes the left to task in some crucial ways: the reactive nature of our foreign policy thinking, the laziness of our cultural prejudices, the acceptance that there is, indeed, such a thing as “red” and “blue” America. In his second book, Obama continues to entice, but also puzzle. My reaction is always to bristle when I hear anyone attack the easy target of “partisanship”, but Obama’s attack is not exactly the same as, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. For the most part, Obama seems to be calling on progressives to think about the possibility of a broad majority, one that will only be achieved by speaking to people where they are actually at, and not where we would wish them to be. I like that. A lot. Read the book, let me know what you think.
2. A Distrubance of Fate by Mitchell J. Freedman
This book was recommended to me by a commenter on hoverbike. Set in an imaginary America in which Robert Kennedy not only survived his assassination but went on to win the Presidency. In this alternate reality, the coalition between liberalism, civil rights and the new left is held together and expanded, though not without trial and difficulty. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a new edition put out in the wake of Emilio Estevez’ film Bobby. It’s fun to read imaginary conversations between Richard Daley and Kennedy, and to be caught up in the suspense of all sides trying to avoid a bloodbath in Chicago. The book is dedicated to Michael Harrington, who figures into the book as well. It’s a fitting dedication, as the narrative of the book is essentially the realignment he spent the second half of his life advocating and critiquing.
3. In Defence of Politics by (Sir) Bernard Crick
This is an important little book. It is, perhaps, the single most influential book for me politically, and I’m sure I’m going to do it a disservice in this small blurb. Crick delivers a blistering defense of the realm of the political, taking on all those who would seek to “transcend” the difficult business of achieving social ends through ideology, democracy, nationalism, technology or tradition. This may sound esoteric, and his writing style may be a bit terse for some. However, think about the tendencies on both the right and the left which get in the way of effective and humane political action. Many of them are attacks on “politics”. We should let the market handle the distribution of wealth and power. We should let the Bible dictate our social policy. We can engineer and invent our way out of environmental problems. We should use elections to “get our ideas out there”, regardless of who wins. We should replace parties with independent, “common sense” elected officials or endless Athenian meetings. For anyone who is interested in rooting progressive political goals in a philosophy of political action, this is a must read.
4. Jennifer Government by Max Berry
Anti-corporate Sci-Fi at its best. In a milieu polluted by much self-righteous libertarianism, Max Berry has created a fun, geek-worthy novel in which government is the good guy. Pick it up and read it in one or two sittings. Cast the film in your head: should Angelina Jolie or Salma Hayek play the eponymous government agent, ruthlessly investigating the murders of schoolchildren as part of a plot to boost sales of Nike shoes. Berry has an interesting website, and while I don’t agree with all of his politics, he’s a fun guy who’s had enough of the branded dystopia of late capitalism.
5. The Aggrolites: The Aggrolites
Wow. This is one of those bands that makes me simultaneously wish I was still making music and ashamed that I ever tried to make music. I was lucky enough to see them a few weeks ago playing with the Skatalites. With all their punk swagger and rock poses, you would think that they were the latest garage indie thang…but no. The Los Angeles five-piece puts out amazing, tight, aggressive skinhead reggae with a heavy ribbon of funk and soul. While not a “political band” per se, they drop some consciousness and clearly understand the roots of their sound: an approach I appreciate more and more. If you only buy one post-Jamaican record this year, this has got to be it.
6. The Slackers: Peculiar
If you buy two, pick up the new Slackers album. The most consistently talented Jamaican-influenced American band has scored again. The last time I saw this band was on September 14th, 2001, just a couple of days after the attacks of 9-11. I was living in Oslo, Norway, and feeling especially homesick and terrified. I had just moved to Europe from New York, where many of the band members were drinking buddies of mine. Seeing old friends, hearing the comforting sounds of great ska, soul, jazz and reggae, and the hopeful onstage banter was like a healing salve. “Now why the hell would anybody want to go flying planes into people? That’s some fucked up shit.” I remember those words. Couldn’t have been said better.
At any rate, the new album takes quite a political turn. Several songs hit the Bush Administration from a Bronx-Reggae working-class perspective. Anthemic, simple, danceable, articulate.
7. Fischerspooner: Odyssey
Fischer-Spooner is one of the best of the new crop of synthesizer fetishist bands that all the kids are into nowadays. In fact, I found out about them through my 17 year old cousin, which is a sure sign that I am o.l.d. In any case, the music is complex and catchy, and the song “we need a war” is written with the simplistic punk irony that made bands like the Dead Kennedys so vital to survival in the 1980’s. Here’s a taste:
If they mess with us
If we think they might mess with us
If we say they might mess with us
If we think we need a war, we need war