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SUMMER BOOKS: Read 'em and weep



Spurred perhaps by the unexpectedly lucrative oeuvre of Michael Moore and the realization that they were missing half the gravy train by only serving the neocon side of the cultural divide, publishers are now gambling big on a more humane, leftward view. The result: a quasi-cottage industry operating beneath the dumbed-down radar of a mainstream media turned willing steno pool for a dissent-adverse administration.

Whatever the neocon platform, there's now a book cogently arguing against it: media concentration (Joe Conason's Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth), corporate malfeasance (Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century) and far-right gay hate (Richard Goldstein's Homocons: The Rise of the Gay Right). And that's not including works by nü-populist writers like Molly Ivins and Al Franken, or books countering the Bush regime's Iraq foul-up, anti-abortion policies, Constitution shredding, voter-list purges and the overall neocon attempt to mangle America into the one-party, anti-democratic evangelical monoculture it never was. Although the aforementioned are all fine entries in the New Left canon, they're just the beginning; a whole crop of books both mainstream and not-so-much-so are recently released and in the works, just in time for the election.

In The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, radio producer David Barsamian engages author/activist Arundhati Roy in a deceptively casual series of interviews. The jacket copy promises Roy will answer the "Why do they `the world` hate us?" question. Scarily enough, she does.

Raised middle-class in a small Indian village, Roy wittily relates her experience as a pissed-off subject-by-default of neocolonial America. She recalls the 1984 Bhopal disaster – 3,000 dead and more than half a million people seriously injured as a result of a gas spill from Union Carbide's facility in central India. Twenty thousand deaths since have been linked to the disaster. The victims were primarily Muslim.

She tells of hundreds of Indian farmers, who, under WTO trade rules, work their land dry and go into debt to U.S. agro-companies. They "invest more and more in pesticides and fertilizers ... . They end up killing themselves by drinking the pesticide." That U.S. politicos deny that such acts – among others – will eventually coalesce into enough animosity to encourage locals to get all terrorist about things both astonishes and enrages her.

Roy excels at the pithy. Cheering Saddam's fall is akin to "deifying Jack the Ripper for disemboweling the Boston Strangler." Bush, she likens to a maddened king who "can't hear the murmuring in the servants' quarters." Or, most succinctly, "Globalization means standardization. The very rich and the very poor must want the same things, but only the very rich can have them."

In Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists, self-consciously edgy cartoonist Ted Rall subsumes his remarkable ego to present 21 new comics artists working the alternative weekly beat. Along with expected stars – Aaron McGruder ("Boondocks"), Shannon Wheeler ("Too Much Coffee Man") and Alison Bechdel ("Dykes to Watch Out For") – Rall presents a plum Whitman's sampler of more obscure altie artists limning life in sour times. Greg Peters proves that being local (New Orleans in his case) doesn't mean your work will be exclusive. His montage "Suspect Device" utilizes photos, Old West Wanted posters, and even cartooning to evoke a good ol' boy corruption gone national in no-regulation Bush land. Most surreal is Brian Sendelbach's "Smell of Steve, Inc." and its infantilized, Keith Haring-like characters. ("Nick Nolte-Flavored Soap" is especially memorable.) But the award for "Most Pissed Off" goes to Portland, Ore.'s Kevin Moore ("In Contempt Comics"): A representative Moore panel shows Condi Rice miming respect for the democratic process. A subscript comments, "With a straight face! Wot moxie!"

For those who prefer their graphic politics in more RAW form, Empire (Nicholas Blechman, editor) sets itself an impossibly ambitious task – to use works of high/low art fusion to define an omnivorous, nearly sentient U.S. greed machine. Pretty heady stuff, but the dozens of artists who contributed to the diverse variations of outstanding industrial-style design in Empire makes it both an eye-opening collection of visual polemics as well as a conscience-stricken hipster's coffee table adornment.


For that special centrist someone who'd freak if faced with Roy's unvarnished truth-telling or the Rall crew's freakiness, Robert B. Reich's Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America is that perfect pre-election gift. Despite its sometimes stodgy prose – Reich too often sounds like the Brandeis economics professor he is – Reason works as a sort of self-help book meant to restore a sense of purpose to strayed liberals. Reich's Lake Wobegon-esque digressions about his hardscrabble-to-middle-class family history mess up his discursive flow, but he eventually gets on message.

Tracing the neo-con counterrevolution via their ongoing obsession with the cultural "phantom limb" of long-dead '60s ideology, Reich delineates just how things went so magnificently to shit while Boomer Democrats dabbled in Reagan Republicanism. He neatly contrasts facts vs. GOP political mythmaking; an appendix offers statistical support to his point that most Americans are anything but Bush-league conservatives. But nothing makes the rationalist case quite as well as the right quotes he cites, damning them with their own words (which, of course, the right absolutely hates).

Arguing the case for a Texas law against sodomy, radical conservative Justice Antonin Scalia predicts a moral apocalypse where "...incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity" will flourish. Deranged neocon scribbler Ann Coulter characteristically froths that liberals hate "Christians, guns, the profit motive ... they hate all religions except Islam (post 9/11)." Right radio attack dog Michael Savage helpfully asserts that "America's being overrun by psych-lib Commu-Nazi organizations like the ACLU." After bits like that, Reich's conclusion that GOP hate speech "closes off reasoned debate, chills dissent, and cuts off people from one another" seems almost redundant.


Amy Goodman's The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them, opens with a massacre in a cemetery. In terse prose that reads like hardboiled fiction, Goodman (host of Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now!") tells of being in Dili, East Timor, in 1991 with journalist Allan Nairn. The two were at a memorial for a young man killed by Indonesian soldiers (who had been in the country as part of an occupying force in place for nearly 15 years). Two hundred thousand of East Timor's population of 700,000 were already dead. By the end of the day at Santa Cruz cemetery, the Indonesian army had claimed 271 more civilian lives using, once again, U.S.-supplied armaments. Goodman and Nairn survived because of the soldiers' fear of bad PR from killing American nationals, but most of all, from the fear that the journalists would broadcast their atrocities to the world.

This grisly bit of total-immersion journalism underlines Goodman's belief in the possibilities, power and continuing dereliction of responsibility by American news media, now an entertainment division of companies owned and operated by a clutch of corporate transnationals in thrall to their elite majority stockholders. Chapter titles like "Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria's Oil Dictatorship", "Lies of Our Times" and "Psyops Come Home" display her odd combination of Sam Fuller-like progressive tabloid style and terse prose. "Were you ever called and asked your views?" she asks the reader regarding the Cheney-Bush buildup to war (profiteering) and Middle East dominion. "... Because if someone called and asked, 'Do you believe the killing of innocent civilians should be avenged by the killing of innocent civilians?' I'm sure that 98 percent of Americans would say no. ... But people cannot take action if they don't have accurate information."

Her most damning remark about corporate media is also the most hopeful. "Imagine if the U.S. media showed uncensored, hellish images of war – even for one week. What impact would that have? I think we would be able to abolish war."

Need more fuel for your left-wing fire? Here are ten more progressive tomes that should get your blood boiling. (Alphabetized by author.)

The Halliburton Agenda: The Politics of Oil and Money,
by Dan Briody (John Wiley & Sons)

Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate,
by Robert Bryce (PublicAffairs)

The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Have Dismantled the Bill of Rights,
by Elaine Cassel (Lawrence Hill Books)

Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Freedom ... and What You Can Do About It,
by Jamie Court (Jeremy P. Tarcher)

You're Not Stupid! Get the Truth: A Brief on the Bush Presidency,
by William John Cox (Progressive Press)

Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent,
edited by Anthony P. Dunbar (New South Books)

Enemies by Design: Inventing the War on Terrorism,
by Greg Felton (Banned Books)

Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years,
by Ted Rall (NBM Publishing)

50 Reasons Not to Vote for Bush,
by Robert Sterling, et al. (Feral House)

Take the Rich off Welfare (Expanded Edition),
by Mark Zepezauer (South End Press)

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