This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
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SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
A more accurate title for this book would be"The Rise and Fall of the Western Win-Win Theory of Globalization." It's not really until two-thirds of the way through the book that zero-sum theory of the title is broached. Which suggests that marketing considerations trumped editorial ones in positioning the book (the notion that American-led globalization has not exactly turned out as planned is not exactly a news flash, after all), or a lack of editorial supervision in telescoping the book into tighter, sharper parameters. Or both.
Not that this is a plodding read. Journalist Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, produces informed and readable prose. Almost too readable: the approximately 10-page, 24 chapters that comprise the book read a bit like extended"leaders," those finely crafted editorials one finds at the front of the Economist, Rachman's former employer. The effect is to make Zero-Sum Future feel like a collection of magazine articles. Perfect for a transcontinental flight, perhaps. But not a fully satisfying book.
Zero-Sum Future is transcontinental in other ways too. Like Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw's The Commanding Heights (2002), this is a view of the world at 30,000 feet. Rachman peppers his analysis with first-hand observations gleaned at Davos conferences and meetings with senior economic and political figures, which lends his analysis an air of authority. But his wisdom is thoroughly conventional.
Rachman's three-part story is clear enough. Once upon a time in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led their nations in shaking off their Keynsian torpor and spread the Good News of the Market beyond their borders (he calls this"the age of transformation"). By the 1990s, their success became common sense among not only the elites of the West, but apparently those of the East, too (this was"the age of optimism"). But in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan and the market crash of 2008, what once seemed like the stubborn refusal of Communist China to align its authoritarian politics with liberal economics now seems like the prescient patience of the incipient hegemon. In this new"age of anxiety," Chinese logic is being applied in other places such as Russia and Venezuela. And the U.S. inability to keep its financial house in order will make it increasingly difficult to manage its military affairs as well. From this vantage point, the period bounded by the fall of the Berlin Wall (or, he posits, the first Iraq War) until 2008 seems like a golden age. Or maybe just Indian Summer.
Rachman doesn't have much more of a clue than the rest of us about what Americans or Europeans can do now. He notes that the U.S., China and other global powers have shared interests in controlling nuclear proliferation, and he notes China's growing willingness to participate in the United Nations bodes well for its future legitimacy. He wishes, like the rest of us, that the United States would address its severe and growing budgetary problems. But it's hard to escape the conclusion in finishing this book that there's not much we can do to stop the tides of history. On the other hand, you also finish it thinking that elite opinion is a little like the New England weather. If you don't like it, just wait. It will change.
Andrew Bacevich’s provocative Washington Rules challenges the nonpartisan consensus which has dominated American foreign policy from the Cold War through the global war on terror and numerous military interventions. Bacevich argues that every American President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama has subscribed to four basic assumptions: the world must be organized or shaped in order to prevent chaos; only the United States possesses the power to enforce world order; the international order must be defined by American values which have universal validity; and despite opposition in some quarters, most of the world accepts and welcomes this role for the United States. According to Bacevich, these fundamental principles of American foreign policy are implemented through what he terms “the sacred trinity of U.S. military practice;” international stability requires that the United States maintain a global military presence, this force must be prepared for global power projections, and potential threats must be addressed by military intervention. Thus, the United States is posed to project its interest in the world through military power and interventions, creating a condition of perpetual war. Echoing the refrain of President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the undue influence of the military-industrial complex, Bacevich concludes that by the early 1960s, “semiwarriors—those who derived their power and influence by perpetuating an atmosphere of national security crisis—had gained de facto control of the United States government” (33).
This well articulated critique of American foreign policy is not provided by a 1960s radical now serving as a tenured professor. Rather, Bacevich, currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is a graduate of West Point and reached the rank of Colonel before retiring from the military. Bacevich subscribed to the Washington rules by which American foreign policy is conducted until the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, when as a military officer stationed in Europe he was able to observe first hand the extent to which Washington policymakers had oversold the Soviet threat.
Bacevich makes his powerful critique of American foreign and military policy in a clear, analytical fashion free from emotional appeal. The author makes his case with an astute chronological examination of American global ambitions from the late 1940s to the present, although he tends to ignore the extent to which aspirations for empire and the employment of military force have always powered American expansionism. This raises the question of how abrupt the changes in American policy were during the post World War II period, but certainly the scope of these imperial ambitions and rise of military spending were unprecedented.
Bacevich argues that the foundation of the Washington rules was provided in the post World War II period with Allen Dulles at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and General Cutis LeMay at the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Convinced of the righteousness of the American cause, the CIA under Dulles engaged in covert operations in nations such as Iran, Guatemala, and Cuba; sponsoring activities that today we might label state-sanctioned terrorism. On the other hand, LeMay was an advocate for massive nuclear retaliation which would destroy any society willing to attack the United States. Despite his reservations regarding the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower did little to reign in the powers of the CIA and SAC, their Congressional supporters, and military contractors who benefited from the Cold War.
This reliance upon covert operations and the nuclear option tended to undermine the role of the Army, but this would change with the Presidency of John Kennedy and war in Vietnam. Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration insisted that direction of the national security state be placed more directly in the hands of the President. But as Bacevich demonstrates, Kennedy was a Cold Warrior whose continued harassment of the Cuban state helped provoke the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there was no debate as to how the Cuban Revolution constituted a threat to American interests. Kennedy also increased the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, employing General Maxwell Taylor’s strategy of flexible response which would allow the President to apply force in limited wars and avoid nuclear confrontation. Bacevich concluded that in overthrowing Ngo Dinh Diem, Kennedy expanded the military commitment to South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson followed the Kennedy course in Vietnam, increasing the number of ground forces and instituting a bombing campaign that would persuade North Vietnam to abandon its design on the South. As flexible response failed to achieve its ends in Vietnam, the Johnson administration stubbornly clung to its policy, afraid that admitting a mistake would undermine America’s global presence and power projection.
Concentrating upon the critique of the Washington rules offered by Marine General David M. Shoup and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair William J. Fulbright, Bacevich argues that the disaster in Vietnam allowed briefly for the questioning of the post World War II foreign policy consensus. Both Shoup and Fulbright challenged the ability as well as desirability of America attempting to pose its will upon the world. Despite the arguments of Shoup and Fulbright, most policymakers insisted upon viewing Vietnam as an anomaly. While miscalculations were made in Vietnam, the fundamental principles of the Washington rules remained intact under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—while the emergence of a volunteer army made it easier for the United States to avoid domestic dissent when deploying military force.
Bacevich concludes that military strategies have evolved since the First Persian Gulf War; ranging from the Revolution in Military Affairs, emphasizing primacy in cyberspace, to the Donald Rumsfeld focus upon rapid deployment in which U.S. forces dictate the tempo of events. While the Rumsfeld strategy produced initial success, the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan discredited rapid deployment. Accordingly, the Washington rules have now endorsed the counterinsurgency policies of General David Petraeus, which Bacevich argues further perpetuates permanent war. And this is the strategy which President Obama has endorsed in Afghanistan.
To break the cycle of permanent wars, Bacevich maintains that Americans should concentrate upon “cultivating our own garden” as recent history indicates that the United States is unable to impose its will on the world by force. Instead, the nation should return to the concept of “a city upon a hill” and seek to influence the world through moral example. Bacevich proposes a new set of rules for the American military that would include as its primary mission not combating evil or remaking the world, but defending the United States and its vital interests. In pursuit of this mission, Bacevich argues that American soldiers should not be employed globally, and force should only be used as a last resort and only in self-defense. Bacevich’s vision directly challenges the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and the myth of American innocence.
But in the final analysis, altering the conventional wisdom of the Washington rules will require that the American people assume the duties of citizenship; including asking questions of power and forming a citizen army in which all share in the responsibility of defending the nation. The idea of returning to a draft or instituting a system of compulsory national service is, to say the least, controversial, but is difficult to argue with Bacevich’s conclusion that to restore American democracy and the nation’s reputation in the world, an educated and engaged citizenry is essential. As an initial project for this more informed citizenry, I would suggest reading Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules.
Tad Daley's Apocalypse Never is a spirited, ringing call for nuclear weapons abolition -- including why it is imperative and how it can be achieved.
According to Daley -- a former member of the International Policy Department of the Rand Corporation, as well as a former speechwriter and policywriter for members of Congress -- he did not "intend to create an academic work for scholars, nuclear experts, and policy wonks." Instead, he sought to "write a book for ordinary folks," people who would come away ready and willing to bring an end to the danger of nuclear annihilation. Through colorful writing and a convincing argument, Daley accomplishes this task quite nicely.
If nuclear weapons are not abolished in the near future, Daley contends, nuclear catastrophes are likely to erupt in any (or all) of the following ways.
Nuclear terrorism, he argues, provides the likeliest of the forthcoming disasters. Although unscrupulous U.S. politicians have inflated the dangers of terrorism to further their own political careers, there is nevertheless a genuine danger of terrorist attack. And there remains little doubt that terrorists have attempted (and continue to attempt) to obtain nuclear weapons and weapons grade material to implement such an assault. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, if a single nuclear weapon of the Hiroshima type were exploded in Los Angeles, more than 117,000 people would perish instantly and another 111,000 would die sooner or later from radiation exposure. Moreover, that is a small nuclear weapon by today's standards. The U.S. government has a nuclear warhead with nearly a hundred times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. As long as nuclear weapons and weapons grade material exist in national arsenals, terrorists and other madmen will have the opportunity to obtain them through theft, black market operations, or bribery.
In addition, as Daley reminds us, there is a great danger of "accidental atomic apocalypse." Humans, after all, are prone to errors. As former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once remarked: "Mistakes are made in every other human endeavor. Why should nuclear weapons be exempt?" With thousands of weapons set for "launch on warning," the stage is set for a catastrophe of immense proportions. During the Cold War, numerous accidental nuclear wars were narrowly averted. Even in the aftermath of the Cold War, there have been some very narrow escapes. Daley reports that, in 1995, Russian technicians at the Olengrosk early warning radar site spotted what seemed to be a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, apparently fired from a U.S. submarine, headed directly for their country. Russia's president, Boris Yeltsin, "spent eight frantic minutes deliberating on whether or not" to launch a retaliatory attack before the incoming weapon arrived. Fortunately, Russian radar officers determined that the rocket was carrying not a nuclear warhead but a Norwegian weather satellite. But they did this with only three minutes to spare. Other kinds of nuclear accidents occur all the time. In February 2009, the British submarine HMS Vanguard and the French submarine Le Triomphant, each armed with nuclear missiles, smashed into each other in the Atlantic, causing heavy damage. Of course, the damage to the world would have been inconceivably greater if the missiles had exploded or had been launched.
Also, there is the problem of "nuclear crisis mismanagement." The Cuban missile crisis is the best known example of nations slipping and sliding toward a nuclear war they did not want. But there have been others. In 1983, for example, a NATO military training exercise, Able Archer, was misinterpreted by Soviet leaders as preparation for a U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In response, Soviet nuclear weapons were readied for action. The situation might well have spiraled totally out of control had it not been for a Western spy in the KGB, who reported on the very alarming Soviet developments, thus leading the U.S. government to ratchet down its military maneuvers. Daley asks: "Can we really expect, if we retain nuclear weapons for another twenty or thirty or fifty years, that not a single nuclear crisis will ever descend into nuclear war?"
Finally, there is the prospect of "intentional use" of nuclear weapons. The United States, of course, employed them intentionally back in 1945. And Daley notes that "someday the leadership of another nuclear state may make a similar decision, concluding, not from fear and panic but after a sober, calm, detached cost-benefit analysis that they ought to start a nuclear war." As Daley points out, the administration of George W. Bush gave serious consideration to using U.S. nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats. There is no reason to assume that the same will not be done by governments of other nations, including the dozens of additional countries that are expected to build nuclear weapons -- at least if there is no agreement to ban them in the coming decades.
Daley remarks: "Abolitionist advocates are often called naive and idealistic, but what then should we call the notion that humanity can keep nuclear weapons around for another half century or so, yet manage to dodge all four of these nuclear bullets every time the trigger is cocked?"
One of the strongest objections to developing an international treaty for a nuclear-free world is that a nation might break out of this binding agreement by hiding nuclear weapons or secretly building them and, then, conquer the world. Confronting this "breakout" issue, Daley points out that U.S. conventional military strength, plus the military strength of other nations, is so great that "any leaders choosing to roll the breakout dice would be inviting both national and personal suicide." Furthermore, a government that "cheated" would "come under enormous political, economic, and moral pressure from the rest of the world." Indeed, "any state in a post-abolition world that tried to bully its way to some geostrategic objective with a nuclear club" would become "the planet's greatest pariah." Also, Daley reminds us that the coercive value of nuclear weapons is highly over-rated. After all, "each of the original five nuclear weapon states has lost a war to a non-nuclear weapon state. . . . Their nuclear monopoly in relation to the other party did not enable them to achieve their objectives."
If, as Daley contends, there are more advantages than disadvantages to a nuclear weapons-free world, how can it be established? He maintains that the best way to accomplish this is by transforming the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) into a nuclear abolition agreement. Article 8 of the NPT provides for a conference of state parties to the NPT that can then alter the treaty. In case the nuclear powers are reluctant to call such a conference into session, Daley suggests that civil society and non-nuclear nations join together to insist that nuclear nations "move the issue to the top of their agendas." Even if the nuclear nations continued to object to such a conference, it could be convened, under the provisions of Article 8, if one-third or more of the parties to the NPT requested it.
Concluding this informative, insightful, and powerful book, Daley argues that "abolishing nuclear weapons . . . is probably the single most important task the human race can pursue right now to ensure our long-range survival."
Most people, if pressed on this point, would probably agree with him. And, as my recent book, Confronting the Bomb, indicates, over the decades the public has played a key role in staving off nuclear war since 1945. But, curiously, many people now seem sunk in a strange torpor, unable to challenge the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons that menace their future and that of generations to come. Hopefully, Apocalypse Never will help jolt them awake.
SOURCE: HNN ()
The already-battered image of the “student-athlete” took more hits in 2010. The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush, returned his trophy when it came out that he had been on the take at the University of Southern California. This year’s Heisman winner, Auburn’s Cam Newton, is already under a cloud after stories surfaced that his father had solicited money from at least one school in return for his son’s services. In addition to these high-profile cases, there were the usual eligibility scandals, felony charges, over-the-line recruiting tactics, and the like. It was enough to make one wax nostalgic for the good old days, when athletes were students first and intercollegiate athletics were untainted by commercialism and professionalism.
Of course, as historian Ronald Smith of Penn State is quick to point out, those good old days never existed. The very first intercollegiate competition, an 1852 boat race on Lake Winnipesaukee between Harvard and Yale, was essentially a promotional scheme concocted by the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad. By the end of the 19th century, as football was becoming the dominant collegiate sport, concern about who was actually playing the games and why led to an outcry against “tramp athletes,” who moved from school to school and played for pay.
Some players moved quickly: Fielding Yost, later a storied coach at the University of Michigan, transferred in 1896 from West Virginia University to Lafayette College just in time for Lafayette’s big game against the powerhouse University of Pennsylvania. After helping the Leopards go onward to victory, he promptly transferred back to WVU and finished up his law degree.
Some players were notable for longevity. Walter Camp, founding father of Yale football, played for his alma mater for seven years. Graham Foster played six years at Fairmount College and three more at Yale. And such lengthy tenure, Smith reports, was not unusual. Undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, and ringers: you never knew who might turn up on the field.
Smith’s first book, “Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics” (1990) covered the first half-century of these shenanigans, which culminated in the organization in 1905 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). His new book revisits some of the same material, then moves through an additional century of higher education’s attempts to control the monster it had created. The book’s final chapters deal with ongoing efforts to deal with conundrums such as freshman eligibility, graduation rates, and the monopolistic juggernaut that is college football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
The story does not have an encouraging trajectory. Woodrow Wilson, as president of Princeton, lamented that “the sideshow [of extracurriculars] has swallowed up the circus.” A century later, former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt was less metaphorical as he pointed out that the sideshow had gotten bigger: “As long as higher education continues to allow the networks, the media, the sporting apparel companies, and the American public—not to mention celebrity coaches and ambitious athletic directors—to promote and pressure college sports to become an entertainment industry, there will be little progress toward true reform within the athletics programs.”
Smith tells the sad tale of the endless, repetitive cycle of scandal and “reform” clearly, conscientiously and graphically: “Some of the same questions arose whether raised by the faculties of Harvard and Princeton in the 1880s, the Brown Conference at the turn of the century, the Carnegie Foundation’s Report in 1929, the American Council on Education’s Report in 1952, the Hanford Report in 1974, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in 1991, or at the National Symposium on Athletic Reform of the early twenty-first century.”
A familiar, rhythmic pattern repeats itself over and over: educators see abuses, form committees, issue reports, and the abuses go on, either the same as before or in mutated form, while the reports gather dust on the shelves. But Smith’s eye for the vivid quotation and the telling statistic rescues his narrative, even if it doesn’t make it a cheerful one. In one memorable early paragraph, for instance, he quotes half a dozen optimists (mainly college presidents) who, over the decades, expressed confidence that all would be well if only college and university presidents took command. The rest of the book shows why this didn’t--and won’t--happen.
“In almost all cases,” Smith says, “reform efforts over the first century and a half of intercollegiate sports were brought about for one of four reasons: (1) to create competitive equity, the ‘level playing field’; (2) to bring about financial solvency; (3) to consider banning or restricting brutal or unsavory practices; or (4) to achieve academic integrity.” Although schools and conferences have had at least some success with the first three, the fourth has been an unmitigated failure.
The NCAA, a “debating society” for its first half-century, got some real leverage over member institutions only when it started making money (and then lots and lots of it) from its men’s basketball tournament. But although its rulebook is thick, its enforcement staff is small, and trying to keep the “student” in “student-athlete” has been pretty much a futile endeavor.
The point of no return may have been reached in the early 1970s, when the money was really starting to roll in. Freshman eligibility and allowing schools to issue renewable, one-year (rather than four-year) athletic scholarships essentially turned players into employees who could be dismissed at will. Declining standards in the nation’s schools (particularly inner-city ones), combined with the growing demand for college education, meant that more and more entering freshmen, including athletes, weren’t prepared for higher education. Even the ideals of the civil rights movement were manipulated to take advantage of “student-athletes,” as coaches cloaked their exploitation of players in the rhetoric of wanting to “give everyone a chance to get a college education.”
In the old days, when conferences and the NCAA made rules requiring that players be students, coaches and institutions fudged the definition of “student.” That evasive game has continued for 100 years. Now, when the NCAA says that schools must report the Academic Progress Rate (APR) for their athletes, Smith points out that “the unintended consequence was for institutions to provide curricula designed to meet the needs of the APR.” Thanks to such academic safe havens, in Division I-A (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision) “more than four out of five schools had one team with at least 25 percent of its juniors and seniors entered in the same major….At the University of Southern California, 58 percent of its football team members were in sociology, while 48 percent of Boise State University football players were in communications. At Texas-El Paso, 100 percent of its men’s basketball team majored in interdisciplinary studies.”
Smith argues convincingly that college presidents, more often cheerleaders than reformers, and hamstrung by the demands of alumni, boosters, fans, and the media, will never be able to bring about substantial change. Almost wistfully, he looks to the faculty (historically the group most critical of big-time athletics), backed by enlightened governing boards, as the most likely internal agents of change. That, however, seems unlikely, too. Individual institutions will not be able to turn the tide.
According to Smith, changes might also come at the hand of the federal government, which has driven some of the most significant on-campus developments of the past 45 years through enforcement of the Civil Rights laws and Title IX. The BCS may not be able to dodge charges of anti-trust violations forever, and clarification of the tax code could make it harder for athletic departments’ obviously non-academic activities to be considered part of a non-profit operation. Whether legal action on these and similar matters would lead to real educational reform for “student-athletes,” however, is uncertain, to say the least.
Aside from the media, Smith doesn’t send much time on the external forces that influence change within the university as a whole. The “corporatization” of the university is proceeding apace, arguably affecting the chemistry and political science departments just as much as the athletic program. Professors seeking tenure need to get grants which bring money into the institution. Students see themselves as consumers entitled to satisfaction. Administrators want to keep everybody, especially students and alumni, happy. Let the games begin.
Current trends in big-time athletics may not be reversible, and they may not even be deflectable. One last, recent example might illustrate how the commercial imperative warps not only behavior but also attitudes and ethics. At the end of this past football season, five Ohio State football players, including its most visible star, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were found to have violated NCAA rules by selling personal memorabilia for profit and receiving special discounts from—what else, in this day and age?--a tattoo parlor. Although they were suspended for five games, starting next fall, they were allowed to play in the January 4 Allstate Sugar Bowl (note the corporate sponsorship), whose executives were counting on attracting a sellout crowd. Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said that the five should be allowed to play to “preserve the integrity of this year’s game.” To paraphrase that noted sportswriter Ralph Waldo Emerson, the word “integrity” in the mouth of Mr. Hoolahan sounds like the word “love” in the mouth of a courtesan. But he got what he wanted.
Ronald Smith’s prose is not Emersonian (far too many misplaced modifiers, for one thing), but it gets the job done. Reforming big-time college athletics, as he demonstrates, has been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, a Sisyphean task.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
[Jim Barrett is Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Illinois]
The American empire may be in decline, but it is creating a lot of problems here and around the world as it recedes. Fran Shor, Professor of History at Wayne State University, accomplishes several objectives in this brief study of the problem. He analyzes the bases of contemporary American imperialism, places its decline in a broad historical perspective, and, perhaps most usefully, documents the popular opposition to this declining empire in its various forms over the past thirty years or so. Shor writes as both an historian and as a participant in many of those movements of opposition. Mixing postcolonial theory and cultural criticism with participant observation, he illuminates some corners of this story that seldom see the light of day.
Shor’s overview of contemporary American imperialism as a system, particularly its racialized and gendered dimensions, is useful in itself. A historical chapter traces the persistent notion of an American Century down to present day policy-making. Having taken one century already, we seem anxious to have another. Succeeding chapters analyze the ideological, military, economic, and cultural bases of the contemporary system.
But the book’s greatest strength is Shor’s critical narratives of a series of social movements, including several of which he was a part—Witness for Peace during the proxy wars in Central America, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Nuclear Freeze movement of the eighties, Habitat for Humanity, and more recently, the struggles of the World Social Forum and its local offshoots against the World Trade Organization’s plans for us. Thus, the book is in large part a view from within the anti-imperialist movement. It turns out that globalization has produced a wide range of such movements based on what the author calls “counter-hegemonic discourses”, even as it has yoked the world’s workers and citizens to an increasingly powerful, transnational neo-liberal world order.
The chapter on imperial culture, which includes a clever interpretation of popular culture as a metaphor for contemporary policy, sometimes stretches its metaphors a bit thin. It is possible, as Shor argues, that the popularity of “The Sopranos” television series is explained by the fact that it mimics the masculinist characteristics of the contemporary security state, but other explanations spring to mind. One is the studied complexity of the lead characters’ personalities and their relationships with one another which seem to suggest that gangsters are not that different from the rest of us. One problem with cultural studies is that the cultural products it chooses to dissect, whatever they may be, might mean what the interpreter suggests, or maybe not. Who knows?
Shor is on firmer ground when he argues that one explanation for the apparent distraction of the citizenry from the disastrous consequences of our imperial adventures lies in the fact that we find ourselves surrounded by ideological and cultural “enclosures” that prevent us from stepping back to see what is actually happening. One example might be our racialized conceptions of colonial peoples, another, a technological culture that insulates the individual in a cocoon of noise and ether space. With all the new communications technology, it seems more and more difficult to communicate meaningfully with those in our lives—let alone with the human objects of these policies who struggle on a world away from us.
A final chapter raises a question too often ignored in debates about what is being done in our names and why: “Is Another World Possible?” Can oppositional culture and the efforts of local activists create global change? Shor considers the question at the level of both the social imagination and practical organizing. In the first case he considers Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Father Gustavo Gutierrez’s self-consciously utopian Liberation Theology text, The Power of the Poor (1984).
In the case of organizing for a new future, he tells the story of the World Social Forum and solidarity groups in support of the Zappatistas and the international campaign against sweatshops. Of the two texts, Gutierrez’s was by far the more important, reflecting the perspective of peasants in “Christian base communities” throughout Central America and other parts of the southern hemisphere. In terms of the social movements, “thinking (and talking) globally” has often turned out to be easier than “acting locally.” More often than even this book might suggest, effective organizing remains the province of local activists and groups—the community offshoots of international ventures like the World Social Forum, or campus campaigns against the production of licensed university apparel under sweatshop conditions. The communications technology of such organizing certainly has changed with the spread of Internet services, but too often a blog discussion is confused with direct action efforts to change policy. There are many reasons why the peace movement has remained relatively weak despite two wars and the threat of a third, but one reason has certainly been that too many local activists remain glued to their laptops.
Shor concedes that Dying Empire is polemical and indeed at times it reads more like a political manifesto than a study of American policy. On the other hand, there is a lot to argue with in contemporary policy. It often appears to be going nowhere and, at the same time, dragging the rest of the world down with it. In helping us to overcome what one critic has termed “knowledgeable ignorance” of our contemporary world and our place in it, as a society and system, but also as individuals with responsibilities to one another and to other people around the world, Dying Empire helps us to better understand where we stand and how we might begin to move forward.
Wilentz credits the leftist politics of the Popular Front and the folk music of the 1930s and 1940s, along with the Beat movement of the 1950s, with creating Dylan’s world view. Dylan’s reverence for Woody Guthrie is well documented, and Wilentz eschews traveling this familiar road. Instead, Wilentz focuses upon the music of Aaron Copland to demonstrate the influence of Popular Front culture upon the folk music revival of the early 1960s which featured the music of Bob Dylan. Although there is little direct evidence of Copland influencing the young Dylan, Wilentz argues that the classical composer incorporated folk and cowboy themes into such compositions as Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid, suggesting the type of cultural and musical appropriation which characterizes Dylan’s approach to song writing.
Dylan was also a product of the 1950s Beat generation and poet Allen Ginsberg with whom the musician enjoyed a personal relationship. Wilentz argues that the Beat experimentation with language and a Bohemian lifestyle appealed to Dylan and encouraged his break with the orthodoxy of leftist politics. Thus, Wilentz concludes that Dylan “found his way out of the limitations of the folk revival, having reawakened to Beat literary practice and sensibilities and absorbed them into his electrical music” (83).
Wilentz is, accordingly, not a Dylan admirer who bemoans the musician’s abandonment of politics and topical songs in the mid 1960s as he shifted from acoustic guitar to amplified rock and roll. In fact, Wilentz devotes little attention to the artist’s early folk days; focusing instead upon the recording of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album in 1965 and 1966. In describing this epic double album, Wilentz writes, “The songs are rich meditations on desire, frailty, promise, boredom, hurt, envy, connections, missed connections, paranoia, and transcendent beauty—in short, the lures and snares of love, stock themes of rock and pop music, but written with a powerful literary imagination and played out in a pop netherworld” (106). Wilentz concludes that by the mid 1960s Dylan had no desire to be the voice of a generation. Instead of being a political theorist or activist, it was the songs with their words and images that mattered. The increasingly enigmatic Dylan followed the commercial and artistic success of Blonde on Blonde by retreating into domestic life in Woodstock, New York while recovering from a serious motorcycle accident.
Wilentz next picks up the story of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue which toured America in 1975 and 1976. While the Revue featured “The Ballad of the Hurricane,” a topical song protesting the wrongful conviction of boxing champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for murder, Wilentz is more drawn to the Revue’s celebration of American traditions found in traveling circuses and carnivals to which Dylan was attracted as a boy. Wilentz also describes the influence on Dylan and the Revue of such diverse sources as the artist Norman Raeben, whom Dylan credits with helping him to see and do consciously what he unconsciously felt, and the 1945 French film Children of Paradise, which inspired Dylan’s poorly received feature film of the tour, Renaldo and Clara.
While the Revue’s themes of ambiguity and the American carnival past were too obscure for most observers, Wilentz insists that in the 1980s Dylan found more traditional musical inspiration in the songs of Blind Willie McTell, a Southern blues musician of the 1930s and 1940s. This influence, however, did not reach fruition until the 1990s as Dylan was somewhat distracted by personal crisis and his Christian phase which culminated in the albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). Wilentz notes that Dylan’s gospel tours showed some similarities with the Rolling Thunder Revue; except the traveling medicine show/carnival was replaced by a tent show revival with Dylan as the hellfire and brimstone preacher. While this didactic phase of Dylan’s Christian conversion proved to be short lived, Wilentz argues that religious imagery and a belief in redemption remained essential elements of Dylan’s music.
After a germinating period in the 1980s, the blues and religious influences of artists such as Blind Willie McTell culminated in what Wilentz and other critics perceive as some of Dylan’s best work beginning in 1992 with the album, Good as I Been to You. The commercial and critical success of this album was followed by such acclaimed recordings as World Gone Wrong (1993), Time Out of Mind (1997), and Love and Theft (2001). Wilentz devotes considerable space to tracing the origins of the traditional songs which Dylan refashioned in the 1990s, such as “Frankie and Albert,” “Delia,” and “The Lone Pilgrim.” Thus, Wilentz views Dylan’s more recent work as reflecting the minstrel tradition of “copying other people’s mannerisms and melodies and lyrics and utterly transforming them and making them his own, a form of larceny that is as American as apple pie, and cherry, pumpkin, and plum pie, too” (266). Nevertheless, this tradition, which some term the folk process, has subjected Dylan to allegations of plagiarism. Wilentz defends Dylan, maintaining that with his diverse reading interests, including American history, and musical knowledge, the artist draws upon history and culture to conjure new meanings and interpretations. Wilentz’s interpretation is similar to that of noted music critic Greil Marcus in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings, 1968-2010 (New York: Public Affairs, 2010). Accordingly, Wilentz seems to suggest that Dylan’s genius reflects his attachment to the historical evolution of American music.
And Dylan continues to perform this role as we move into the twenty-first century. Wilentz applauds the insights provided by Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Volume I (2004), writing, “The entire book is informative as well as grateful, but I find the first two chapters and the last the most compelling, portraying a young artist, who, he now writes, felt destiny looking straight at him and nobody else, but who also entered a universe of archaic yet living American archetypes from which, he says, all his songs then sprang” (297). Wilentz even has some positive things to say about Dylan’s disappointing 2003 theatrical film, Masked and Anonymous, suggesting that the picture serves as a “pop sensibility in an American tradition of high allegory” rather than as a vanity project for Dylan. Dylan’s historical talents, however, Wilentz argues, are best employed in his satellite radio program, Theme Time Radio Hour, where the musician draws upon American musical traditions and influences as diverse as gospel, blues, ballads, country, Broadway, pop, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra to trace themes ranging from baseball to love. Wilentz also praises Dylan’s most recent albums, Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2008), although he observes that the latter, with its emphasis upon dance rather than lyrics, may disappoint some university English departments.
While Bob Dylan in America may not be the historical work some readers expect from Wilentz, the historian demonstrates an impressive depth of knowledge regarding American music and Dylan—in fact, those uninitiated in the life and music of Dylan might find the book somewhat confusing. While not everyone may share Wilentz’s enthusiasm for Dylan, the historian makes a strong case for taking Dylan seriously; suggesting that the singer’s historical investigation into traditional music provides important insights into the American experience.