I’m not a Christian, so I didn’t think of doing this earlier and saying ‘go and get these for Christmas for your pinko friends’. But the end of the year is as good a time as any. So, I thought I’d recommend some books.
I just read it, so this one’s first: Bleeding Afghanistan, by James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar. I think leftists should understand the wars we should be opposing now. This book is five years old, but is very, very good. It looks at the history of Afghanistan; it rightly situates Hamid Karzai as the Western puppet he is, talks about the Islamist warlords we’ve supported, the Islamist theocracy we’ve created and the role of Zalmay Khalilzad. There have been developments since then and greater documentation. But in a pretty brief book, it’s very well reported, hits all the right notes and sets out the contours for understanding our occupation of Afghanistan. I do not necessarily agree with all of its recommendations – it is rather equivocal about ending the occupation. Specifically, the authors say public opinion in Afghanistan at the time was supportive of the occupation continuing. They therefore recommend ending the occupation when the country is safer and warlords are disarmed (or something like that). I think the former condition is the kind of condition Cheney would support – so that they could justify occupation for the next 20 years. The other recommendations are more reasonable. Considering recommendations only take up a few pages, I would not want my reservations on this score to detract from what I consider an excellent and important book, which is the one book above all I would think should be read by activists against this war. People should not just talk about bombing of civilians in Afghanistan – they need to understand more, and this book sets it out clearly and carefully.
Ok, I’ll try to be briefer. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, is one of the best and most important books I’ve ever read. It is excellent for understanding race and class dynamics in the criminal justice system in America and also indirectly useful for thinking about Australia. This book sets out how the criminal justice system is used to target African-Americans, how it does so in what appears at a glance to be a racially neutral way, and the disastrous results from this systemic racism. It is an utterly brilliant book, beautifully written and argued.
Which brings me to the next particularly excellent book I’ve read recently. Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood. I have long wanted to read the one book to set out the history of Haiti. I read Randall Robinson’s book, which was disappointing. This book, however, is brilliant. It begins with an unduly modest introduction, which doesn’t prepare you for how meticulously documented the book is. It leaves no stone unturned. The author appears to have read everything, interviewed everyone, visited every corner of Haiti, and distilled it all into a very well written book on the unspeakable horrors that have been visited on the country since 1791. It also happens that the story of the torture of Haiti is so unspeakably cruel and indecent that words fail. This is a book of immense power, and the story that unfolds is deeply distressing. It is also worth noting that Hallward writes within a radical framework, properly situating Haiti as an imperialist case study.
Other recent books which were very good, and very much worth reading are Nir Rosen’s Aftermath and Gilbert Achcar’s Arabs and the Holocaust. David Hirst’s history of Israel-Lebanon relations, Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, is also of a very high standard, especially for a journalist. Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian wrote a great little book on the Iraq war – Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians – based on interviews with US soldiers who served. It sets out their rules of engagement, so that readers can understand how Iraqis experiences the American occupation in terms of interactions with soldiers.
I’ve also recently read some very good leftist memoirs which may be of interest. For anyone who hasn’t yet read it, I would highly recommend Howard Zinn’s You can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. It is pretty much the most inspiring book I’ve ever read. One of the great things about his People’s History of the United States is how empowering it is – when you read about his activism, and his indomitable spirit, you see why. David Dellinger’s memoirs, From Yale to Jail, have even more amazing and incredible stories. However, it would read much better if it were about 100 pages. One blurb is by Chomsky, who says he’s in awe of Dellinger. That’s how amazing he was. And as long as I’m recommending older books, bell hooks’ Feminist Theory was fucking outstanding; you should go read it if you haven’t already.
Anyway, 2012 approaches, and I have lots of books on my shelf I’m looking forward to reading. In particular What Kind of Liberation?, Glenn Greenwald’s With Justice and Liberty for Some (he’s drifted leftward, I think, and become an excellent journalist) and Taibbi’s Griftopia. I’ve some more Ehrenreich and hooks to read, as well as the memoirs of Rigoberta Menchu and Malalai Joya (I suspect some readers will disapprove of my lateness on the former. In my defence, I study law, and have somehow become a part-time amateur pundit at what I feel may be a rather young age). Marable’s Malcolm X book is coming, as is Hochschild’s book on dissenters in World War 1. Next year, I look forward to Finkelstein and Rabbani’s upcoming book on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Oh, and also on my shelf is Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex, by various American intellectuals sceptical about laws against what we might here call racial vilification. Americans (or at least some of them) take freedom of speech very seriously indeed, and after a long hard year of defending the expression of some rather odious speech, I think it will be nice for me to have a reminder of why it’s important, and some new arguments that didn’t really come up here in Australia. Happy 2011!