These are the times that try men’s and women’s souls. With inauguration day just weeks away, if you must curl up in a ball in front of a fireplace or elsewhere, why not do it with a book or two that we hope can put the upcoming Trump years in perspective and context? We asked some of our website contributors and past Moyers & Company guests to give us their ideas as to some appropriate material that might help us through the coming months of uncertainty… and incredulity.
Please add your own recommendations in the comments section.
Can mere books provide a proper azimuth when all of our navigational aids have seemingly failed, leaving the country adrift? In our present circumstance, I am hard-pressed to think of any that can do so. Our culture is badly fractured, our elites manage to combine arrogance and ignorance and old convictions — like belief in a common good — seem dated and obsolete. Faith in democracy has ebbed. In the eyes of some, “the people” have come to stand for anger, ignorance and bigotry.
The imperative of the present moment is to challenge that judgment, to restore a sense of tolerance and a spirit of generosity. I wish I could point to the novel, poem or historical text that might do that, but my imagination is inadequate to the task. Perhaps a preliminary answer can be found in music rather than in literature — for example, in the great compositions of Aaron Copland during his populist period. Sit in a quiet room and listen to “Our Town” (1940), “Lincoln Portrait” (1942), or above all, “Appalachian Spring” (1944). Then reflect on what America is meant to be and how far we have strayed from the path.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.
Though the ideological impasse we find ourselves in leaves me skeptical that those who would benefit most from reading these books would actually open them or open themselves to them, I would recommend George Schuyler’s Black No More and Solmaz Sharif’s Look.
The former is a satirical novel in which the ability for African-Americans to medically become “white” exposes the political and financial elites’ use of race as a means of pitting citizens against each other and against their own political and economic interests. Though published in 1931, the novel illuminates how the current manipulation of working-class “white” citizens’ sense of identity and security is in fact no aberration but rather an extension of an unfortunate cycle of progress and regression that America has been caught in for the last 150 years.
The latter is, as I characterized the book to Sharif herself, an almost cubist collection of poems that refuses to privilege one perspective as she speaks of and speaks back to her experiences as both subject of America’s “war on terror” and one who has lost family to warring in the Middle East.
Sharif has written that “the political is not topical or thematic, it is tactical and formal,” and that sentiment is abundantly clear in this collection that uses erasure (redaction) to bring scrutiny to the censoring motives of the state and reappropriates language from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. As Americans potentially spend the next four (or eight) years countering a leader who has thus far conducted himself as a domestic demagogue, it is important that we also remain aware of the face we turn toward the world — and the drones we launch into it. The threat of the coming presidency does not negate the fact America was already in the business of “winning” at the expense, if not demise, of other global populations long before Nov. 8, 2016.
Kyle Dargan is a professor of writing and literature at American University. The 32-year-old poet is the author of three award–winning collections of poetry: Logorrhea Dementia, Bouquet of Hungers and The Listening.
I believe that Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López is a particularly appropriate book for the political reality we find ourselves in today. Following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump throughout this election used racially charged words to stoke the anxieties and resentment of white working-class voters who are worried about jobs, the economy and the changing face of our country. And while Trump is certainly not the first politician to employ this tactic, he could be the most detrimental to race healing in our country.
While on the campaign trail, Trump used phrases like “illegal aliens,” “law and order” and “inner city” to signal to white voters that immigrants and people of color are the cause of our country’s problems. Trump used this scheme to undermine our democracy and manipulate voters into supporting policies that favor the wealthy while avoiding any substantive conversation about the real issues facing our country.
Ian’s book serves as a perfect reminder that this tactic has long been in the conservative playbook, that we have been here before and that we must continue to work hard every day to overcome this hate and divisiveness that hurts all Americans.
Tamara Draut is vice president of policy and research at Demos Action and author of Sleeping Giant: How America’s New Working Class Will Transform America.
For reasons I fear are obvious, books from and about America’s original Gilded Age seem newly compelling. We know, looking backward, that the half-century after the Civil War prefigured nearly every social and economic problem of the current moment. That is: corrupt and mistrusted government; the sudden accumulation of new fortunes based on new technologies; the simultaneous disruption of traditional jobs, industries, communities and whole ways of life; dramatically increased pressure on the environment (including, in the US case, the eradication of the once-ubiquitous Passenger pigeon and near-elimination of the bison); rapid ethnic change driven by migration within the country and around the world; new opportunities for some individuals coupled with newly constructed racial and ethnic barriers; inequalities and injustices on a scale that previous technologies had not allowed.
We also know, looking backward, that the original Gilded Age eventually gave way to reforms of the Populist and Progressive Era, and countervailing movements involving organized labor; women’s suffrage; muckrakers and civic reform; nascent environmentalists; African-American migration, organization and cultural renaissance; governmental proponents of social insurance programs; and others. Because we know that these things happened, it’s easy to forget that not a single one of them happened automatically, or without a serious fight. The reason to go back and read about them is to prepare for the long sequence of comparable fights ahead.
What sorts of books am I talking about? Novels like Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser or The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, about the dislocation of that era. Novelized exposes like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or straightout exposes like The History of the Standard Oil Company by Ida Tarbell. Similarly, Justin Kaplan’s Lincoln Steffens, a Biography. Historical studies of the rise of the Jim Crow South and the cleavage of the Populist movement on the basis of race, following C. Vann Woodward’s old studies on both those themes (The Strange Career of Jim Crow and Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel). Great biographies of the people struggling for reform in that era, like Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero, about William Jennings Bryan. Analyses of how people a century ago coped with dislocation, from Robert Wiebe’s classic The Search for Order to the even more classic The Education of Henry Adams, plus Steve Fraser’s recent The Age of Acquiescence.
Since this is all an exercise in learning what we can from looking backward, naturally the list includes Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward itself, a popular and influential time-travel book from 1888 imagining how the United States of 2000 might look if its social and economic problems were addressed rather than left to fester.
I am peripherally aware of this era, and these books, and many of the themes. My resolution in the age of Trump is to use them as the starting point for more serious re-education on how and whether the struggles of a century ago inform the struggles ahead.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter’s chief speechwriter.
I still swear by Albert Camus, especially The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague. In argument and in fiction, Camus is always reminding us that the long arc is a winding way and not a straight arrow. However bleak the outlook, we are responsible for our actions, and no one is exempt. We may choose servility, we may choose resistance, and we must do so in darkness, without guarantees. When we find our fellow spirits, we need to disabuse ourselves of illusions that there is any shortcut out of the swamp. The swamp was a long time in the making and it will be a long time finding our way out. What matters is that we always, every day, ask ourselves what we may do today that we will be proud of tomorrow.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics.
Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt. For me, the introduction of Lawrence Goodwyn’s seminal history of the populist movement of the 800s is one of the most helpful breakdowns of the components of large-scale social movements, and the sequencing of those components. It’s a chapter I come back to because it helps me think about the features of democratic movements.
Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States. Bree Carlson, one of my mentors on all things race, recommended this book to me years ago, and I’m better for it. In a moment in which there is all kinds of confusion about race and class on the left, and potential over-correction around who we organize and the analysis we project, this book is a must-read.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. A lot of people have read this book, and a lot of people have not. Now’s a good time to change that. The analysis within The New Jim Crow and the story of Michelle Alexander’s own path to getting there is exactly the kind of reading we should be digging into now.
George Goehl, a long-time community organizer, is the co-executive director of People’s Action and has been described as one of the “intellectual gurus” behind the Occupy movement.
Artists who live under authoritarian regimes are burdened by an awful threat and a terrible opportunity. The threat is silence — a sentence executed by censorship, self-censorship, the stupefaction of audiences, imprisonment, torture, exile and death.
The opportunity — the obligation, really — is storytelling: depicting the price that tyranny exacts on bodies, souls and societies. Sometimes those stories are fictional, scripted, allegorical, dystopian; sometimes they’re histories, documentaries, biographies and autobiographies.
The most searing nonfictional depiction of tyranny I know is Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir of Stalin’s persecution of her husband, Osip Mandelstam, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. The book is also a love story, a thriller, wicked satire, a field guide to Russian literature, a survival manual and a tragedy. It may turn out that our Years of Living Trumpishly will bear zero resemblance to Stalin’s communism or Putin’s kleptocracy. If that’s the case, among the reasons may be the fearlessness of artists, and the public’s appreciation of the debt that political freedom owes to artistic freedom. I don’t know a better book for tuning our antennae to that appreciation than Hope Against Hope.
Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
My suggestion focuses on the possibility that our institutions are fragile and will be under attack and we have to learn from Weimar to protect ourselves from authoritarianism.
Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Friedrich is very readable and includes the cultural and scientific life Hitler destroyed. The book is a good summary of the post-Treaty of Versailles era and the conditions that led to the rise of fascism, the seeming inability of the moderates to counteract fascism and the methodical destruction of democratic norms. It’s a great intro to that part of history while not being overly long — a plus for most readers.
Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.