RivkaT (rivkat) wrote,
RivkaT
rivkat

Nonfiction

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an EmpireFascinating popular retelling of U.S. history as the history of a nation that was never just “united states” and was always—since the end of the Revolution—a nation with territories, which meant a nation with subjects as well as citizens. I enjoyed the writing: Phrases like “the cursed accordion of Poland, expanding and contracting,” show his wit (and sometimes got a bit precious, but I mostly enjoyed them).

Yes, we know that the U.S. was territorially expansionist, but (most) contiguous territories were treated very differently than noncontiguous territories, further revealing the centrality of race to U.S. history—until Hawai’i and Alaska were admitted, whites had successfully blocked statehood for any territory that might put nonwhites in power in the near term. (I would’ve appreciated a bit about the mainland territory in which I was born, whose majority-nonwhite residents still lack voting rights in Congress despite living around it.) Immerwahr’s argument has two main chunks, as I read it. The first is just educating mainlanders about how very much territory, and how very many people, the U.S. controlled and in many cases still controls without any intention of admitting to the polity, including in the Phillippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The “logo map” of the mainland (with Alaska and Hawai’i squished in along the side) that dominates mainstream thinking leads the public to misunderstand what “the United States” and its history really are. (As my husband points out, a significant number of Americans apparently don’t know that New Mexico is a state, any more than they care that DC can’t control its own destiny—being on the mainland isn’t enough to protect everyone from a racialized failure to know, though New Mexico at least has two senators.)

The second part of the book, which seems more scattershot but comes together in the end, is to explain why American imperialism didn’t usually come in the form of running colonies—what he refers to as globalization rather than colonization. Immerwahr adds considerations of technical changes as well as ideology (though he is also clear that the desire not to admit nonwhites to citizenship and the embarrassment of keeping them subjects and subjected played big roles). Specifically, technological innovations meant that owning tropical colonies became less important as a guarantor of important resources lacking on the U.S. mainland, such as rubber; standardization meant that the U.S. didn’t need to legally mandate production to its needs because the market would take care of that; likewise with the dominance of English and the U.S. entertainment industry. Technological change also united with resistance to imperialism to lead the U.S. to take a “pointillist” approach to territory: as long as it has hundreds of bases around the world, which it does, and as long as it can fly or sail to them, which it can, it doesn’t need more from the country around those bases. Indeed the U.S. often finds it convenient to put its bases in out-of-the-way places that are harder to notice and protest, though people (including Osama bin Laden) do anyway.

Alexandria Robbins, Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming MenRobbins tracks two young men closely—one a freshman pledge, another a sophomore who becomes the president of his chapter at a different fraternity—to argue that (historically white) fraternities can provide vital support to teenage boys struggling to become men far from home. But that support can push them to become better or worse men, and much as she seems sympathetic to “Jake,” it’s clear that his increased tolerance for hazing and alcohol abuse and his increased willingness to treat women as objects are problems. “Oliver,” meanwhile, grows as a leader and a person as he learns to handle conflicts among his brothers and to control the alcohol-filled parties that are also a part of his fraternity’s life (even as they are much safer for women than some other frat parties). Alcohol and searching for a model of manhood are the two big themes here; performative masculinity leads some frats, like Jake’s, to prioritize appearance and status, which is manifested by drinking and fucking the most attractive sorority girls. Others, Robbins argues, resist those pressures (and usually have lower status on campus) and prioritize service and supporting other brothers. Either way, young men are looking for connection and for opportunities to have close relationships with other men. Robbins suggests that we try to encourage them to do that Oliver’s way.
 
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American SouthThis would make a fantastic article, especially as contrasted to narratives excusing white women from their implication in the slave economy. Jones-Rogers decisively shows, from a variety of sources including the accounts of formerly enslaved people, that white women were regularly treated by other whites as owners of human property; demanded the deference owed to them as owners both from enslaved people and from other whites; inflicted violence on enslaved people, including physical and family separation; and did every other thing that male enslavers did (other than directly sexually abuse enslaved people, though some white women owned brothels and otherwise facilitated the rape of enslaved women, including by encouraging it in order to produce more human capital). When one is challenging a dominant narrative, it can make sense to over-prove the thesis, but since I was perfectly ready to believe it all, it seemed over-long as a book; a lot of the examples were horribly similar.
 
Alex Kotlowitz, An American SummerOne summer in Chicago, tracking the effects of violence both random and targeted on its victims—who include lots of people who weren’t physically injured but suffer from what they saw and felt every day. A lot of the violence is not police-related, and all of it is terrible, but the most outrageous parts involved the police because the state is supposed to protect citizens from violence, not inflict it. One man was shot for running from the cops; they framed him with a gun that was inoperable and still had a full complement of bullets, and the cops received commendations even as the city settled a lawsuit with the victim’s family. It’s not, Kotlowitz says, that people hate snitches as such, but providing evidence can be personally dangerous and isn’t all that likely to help (maybe 10% of shooters are arrested, and less than half of murders are solved—and the city considers cases solved when they’re convinced who did it, regardless of whether there’s an arrest), so many people don’t take the risk and many also take retribution into their own hands.
 
Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971Detailed account of the Attica riot, coming at a time of great social upheaval, which ended in deadly violence against inmates and the prison worker hostages they were holding (a number of whom were killed during the indiscriminate retaking). Rockefeller declined to send in the National Guard out of fear of another Kent State, but then made sure that higher-ups were insulated from the decisionmaking. The result was that a bunch of state police and prison guards went in, after hiding their identification and deliberately obscuring who had which guns, and then even after the riot was quelled continued to physically torture and torment the surviving inmates.
 
Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832Mostly an account of the ways in which whites feared enslaved Africans/African Americans while insisting that there was nothing to fear because of their inherent inferiority. The British, both during the Revolution and the War of 1912, used the promise of freedom to secure aid from local enslaved people and escapees, while white Americans found in this practice additional grounds for complaint against the British. Taylor emphasizes the ways in which equality for whites harmed enslaved people—abolishing primogeniture spread slaveholding to more whites, broadening the political base supporting slavery, while also making it more likely that enslaved families would be torn apart upon the death of a wealthy owner.
 
Michael Pembroke, Korea: Where the American Century BeganPembroke argues that the infuriating arrogance and mistakes of American foreign policy, executed primarily as military policy because of American beliefs in unilateralism, were on display in Korea even before they were in Vietnam. Pembroke’s anti-Americanism certainly has its reasons, though it leads him to suggest that North Korea isn’t all that bad, which doesn’t actually follow. It’s hard to say that letting Russia (and Kim as its client) dominate the entire peninsula would clearly have been the right choice, but Pembroke compellingly makes the case that American missteps ensured a hard-line, brutal right-wing regime in South Korea; might have made partition permanent; and certainly led to incredible waste and death by ignoring the likelihood of Chinese intervention once war began. The chapter on the American use of napalm to bring indiscriminate destruction is particularly hard to read, but conventional bombing and destruction of dams, resulting in civilian famine, also played horrible roles.
 
Andrew Ventimiglia, Copyrighting God: Ownership of the Sacred in American ReligionCase studies of the use of copyright by new religious denominations in order to control the dissemination of sacred texts. This was particularly important in the 20th century as texts replaced specific places for the creation of religious community. Copyright offered the possibility of control, but having to turn to law also threatened religious authority, in part because in order to claim copyrightability there had to be some claim of human authorship. Only Scientology saw no problem with that, because of its purely instrumental (as opposed to truth-based) approach to litigation. Other new religions turned to law not because it was an unambiguously good option but because they lacked long-term structures that could solve disputes within the church. The chapter on Mary Baker Eddy’s strategic use of copyright to control an otherwise uncontrollable Christian Science movement was particularly interesting.
 
Martin Skladany, Big Copyright Versus the People: How Major Content Providers Are Destroying Creativity and How to Stop ThemVery frustrating book. Argues that people are spending too much time as couch potatoes because big media are so addictive that we aren’t doing anything else, as if years of reception theory didn’t exist. (Late in the book, he acknowledges that creative fandom exists but suggests that it should be made socially productive by encouraging charity competitions among groups of fans, BtVS against Star Trek fans for who can donate the most/volunteer the most time; he doesn’t seem to think that actually making fanworks should be part of this process, because he wants us to stop overconsuming entertainment and get out of our basements and meet people in the physical world.) Overconsumption can surely be a problem, but he argues that getting rid of most copyright protection would remove the incentive to create addictive media, as if there weren’t all sorts of other motivations and as if cheap algorithmic generation of content wasn’t already being exploited on YouTube. (Chris Sprigman and Kai Raustiala have a paper on how they’re doing it in porn too, where copyright didn’t do much to protect the legacy industry. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3226566) As long as there’s some money to be made (or even a political payoff), the incentive to create addictive content will exist; copyright isn’t the key problem here. And he even acknowledges that when he suggests that social media could also kill Hollywood, but not in a good way because we’d all be talking nonsense among ourselves rather than making something real. He wants us to be creative, but not on Twitter. Which also ignores the Sturgeon’s Law point about creativity: 90 percent of everything is crap! You don’t get the good stuff without the crap! Relatedly, Skladany argues that we’re too used to high-quality content to be just as attracted to old/not well-funded stuff, so without copyright incentivizing new Infinity Wars movies we just won’t watch as much—but he lacks empirical support for this, and it’s probably worth noting that the production costs behind even Fortnite or most other popular games are much lower than those for blockbuster movies.

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Tags: au: immerwahr, au: jones-rogers, au: kotlowitz, au: pembroke, au: robbins, au: skladany, au: taylor, au: ventimiglia, nonfiction, reviews
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