Boulder, CO, United States
This book has all the ingredients needed to make it a classic in American history. It is sweeping, covering the whole of United States history, the foreign policy of just about every President, and every major and minor American intervention abroad.
It is deep, delving into the doctrines, strategies, and personal tendencies that animated American foreign policy. It is not just some rehash of the working out of policy between the President and Secretary of State; rather, the book presents the complex and often baffling interactions amongst a wide array of characters both foreign and domestic. In this sense, it gives the inside scoop.
This is also an extraordinarily well-researched book. Herring appears to have mastered the material, twisting and turning it around, speculating on events from every available angle. In this sense, From Colony to Superpower feels like the last word. It is authoritative, transcending and including the views of other historians and foreign policy analysts.
Most important to me, it didn't just cover the same old tired conflicts: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and Iraq. While it was long enough to go into great depth on these conflicts, it also penetrated into the causes and consequences of the Spanish-American War, early twentieth century interventions in Central America, our overturning of the democratically elected governments of Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973, and the impact of Vietnam on Cambodia. But better still, these seldom mentioned, but nevertheless momentous, events were contextualized within the wider contexts of the Cold War, American geo-strategic interests, and the personal goals and values of various Presidential administrations.
Starting in the early twentieth-century, Herring begins to systematically evaluate the foreign policy successes and failures of each American President. He is a deep and serious enough thinker that you should come away unsure of where he sits on the political spectrum.
This is a very academic book, in the best sense. It is serious, deep, earnest, objective, comprehensive, and lacking in narrative. This makes it a poor book to take to the gym. It requires some concentration. But it also makes this a vastly more rewarding and quite simply a better book than most. Why waste our lives listening to books when we can be breathing deep and loving the world around us if not to learn and better understand the world? Too much history is mere entertainment, playing to our prejudices and, in the process, skewing our understanding of world-historical events
Since any comprehensive view of American foreign policy must necessarily include numerous interventions Americans would rather forget, a book like this can be used as ammunition from critics of American foreign policy. It can also be used as a set of cautionary tails. Further, it can be used to better understand the American Presidency. And surprising to me, having studied numerous other nation-states in great depth, since the United States is such a global power, the book can be used to help you better understand every other country where we have intervened (and this is probably more than you think).
Listening to this book will make you a better citizen insofar as it will allow you to better evaluate any potential future interventions in which we may engage. If we are to avoid making stupid mistakes abroad, we need citizens who know what is going on in the world. And if getting to know your country means getting to love it more, reading a book like this will make you a better American. Certainly, the world would love Americans more if we knew some more of this history.
I hope you get as much from this book as I did. :-)
The thesis of American Nations is that America can best be understood as a series of eleven regional cultures. American history can thus be best understood as the outcomes of interactions amongst these several cultures. There is, of course, nothing new in viewing American culture as a series of encounters between North and South. And political analysts regularly take note of regional differences in voting patterns.
But Woodard goes deeper, exploring the history that shaped not just North and South and West. Woodard includes the French culture of Louisiana and Quebec and the culture of El Norte, which spans not just large swathes of the Southwest United States but also much of northern Mexico. He also divides the South into the Deep South, the Tidewater of Virginia, and Appalachia. He notes differences between Yankee New Englanders and the diverse Dutch culture of New York (this is only confusing because of the name of a baseball team). He differentiates the Left Coast from the more libertarian western rockies region. The nuances strengthen the thesis, because they make regional explanations work better.
Woodard delves deeply into the original groups of settlers that laid down the patterns of these regional cultures. He then demonstrates how these cultures attracted other like-minded cultures. For instance, the non-violent Quakers of Pennsylvania attracted German farmers, who then pushed into the Midwest. This shared culture, in turn, attracted the highly cooperative Scandinavians. Over time, they moderated between the Yankees of New England and the Deep South.
Woodard traces the patterns of migrations that took say the Scotch-Irish from upstate New York south along the Appalachians. He traces patterns of voting behavior, patterns of regional alignment, and the sources of power in American politics. All of this holds extraordinary explanatory value. And it makes for a very interesting and entertaining listen.
However, it is not altogether clear what Woodard thinks holds these cultures together over time. To believe his thesis, we would need to negate environmental, economic, and political explanations of behavior. Somehow, we would have to account for how in moving from agricultural to industrial to post-industrial society, these cultural difference have somehow held. Altogether, these concerns suggest the thesis is overstated, that understanding these regional sub-cultures is merely one important strand in understanding what makes America work.
But as we become an increasingly diverse culture, it is heartening to look back upon our shared history not as some ever shifting monolith, but rather as a series of conflicts and compromises amongst quite different sub-cultures. For recognizing how our institutions have already accommodated so much difference, of not just immigrants but of the most deeply American patriots, suggests that we have more resources for integrating diversity than we might believe.
The book made me look at our nation differently. It laid down a paradigm through which I viewed the next couple of dozen American history books I read after it. It is hard to ask more of a history book. Certainly it holds more explanatory power than much longer books like Paul Johnson's "History of the American People." If you choose to read American Nations and you like it, check out, "Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement," by David Hackett Fischer. It is at one and the same time more specific and more academic and also a great listen. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
I and Thou is a classic as it deserves to be. Like many classics, it is an unusual book. It is about connecting directly with the God in each being we encounter. It is about how we might share in deep and genuine connections with our fellow humans and how we might find God within the world of human relations.
At its best, the book succeeds in laying out a new paradigm of spirituality, one that is neither focused on some externalized God, nor the God within, nor the God of unity. For Buber, God can best be sought in each if our relations, in the way we relate from moment to moment.
It is a beautiful book, imbued with Buber's own unique language. The only problem is that Buber's language is not always easy to understand. Part of the reason for this may lie in the translation; philosophical works in German are notoriously difficult to comprehend. There is also a long tradition of philosophical obscurantism amongst German philosophers of which Buber is sadly a part. But it is a language and phrasing that marches to its own inner rhythms, and it is as unique as its message. Altogether, it is a beautiful book to which one might do yoga or tai-chi or take a walk in the woods.
Martin Buber is an early-to-mid twentieth century German-Jewish philosopher. He wrote like Heidegger at his best before Heidegger. And he was one of a small handful of Jewish immigrants to Israel, before it was Israel, who advocated for a one-state for Jews and Palestinians to share. This was before the one-state solution was being advocated as an alternative to the two-state solution, which came after the solution was ethnic cleansing. Whereas Heidegger was a Nazi, Buber was a genuine humanitarian, and it shows in his work. Buber was far ahead of his time; hence, it should not surprise us that he wrote such a timeless classic.
The reader stays out of the way, not interfering with the text, so that it might speak for itself. Altogether, the result is a beautiful experience that can be returned to repeatedly.
Woodsin uses the question of how black people should be educated to cut to the core of some of the most important debates regarding African-American culture and identity. Some like Booker T. Washington believed black people should focus on learning technical trades. Others wanted black people to learn of classical culture as a means of attaining access to white culture. This debate involved questions of dignity: how might education be used to teach someone the inherent dignity of humanity. And to what extent might the sense of dignity be better acquired through the ability to support oneself through an independent trade.
There are economic questions implicit within this debate to be sure. Learning technical trades might have provided black people with a route into the lower middle class in 1900, but Washington appears to have neglected the fact that just at the time he was advocating learning technical trades those trades were being mechanized. Meanwhile, a classical education may have been used to teach black people to think for themselves. It may have made them better preachers and teachers, the most common work roles amongst educated blacks at the time of writing. However, Woodsin points out the many ways such an education was being used merely to mimic educated white people and how it was failing to be used to help black people better understand themselves and the world in which they were enmeshed. Woodsin focuses much attention on the lack of initiative amongst blacks and the sources of failure of black run businesses. A major source of their failure was, in his opinion, their unrealistic expectations and lack of connection between mind and reality. Whereas they should have been asking themselves how they might increase the sales of a corner stand so as to open up several more, they were studying and trying to imitate the experiences of multi-national businesses. He saw the education black people were receiving at that time as doing almost nothing to prepare them for the sorts of small scale business endeavors in which they were most likely to engage.
Ever-present are the questions of dignity and self-esteem. How is learning perverted in the quest to possess the status of being educated? How might education best teach us to learn? How might education bring the wealth that brings status? And what sort of status truly inspires a high self-regard? Woodsin emphasizes the importance of role models and knowing African and African-American history (he was the founder of African-American history month). He also appears to possess a strong intuitive sense of how education can be made useful. He comes at these questions and numerous others with a rare combination of social critic and exporter to success. This is the best of the American self-help tradition, though it is far deeper than the best of self-help literature.
While the book was written in the early thirties, it is still highly relevant. It is semi-philosophical, semi-sociological. The tone is emphatic and searching. And it should be treated as one moment in the debate amongst W.E.B. Dubois (Souls of Black Folk) and Booker T. Washington (Up From Slavery). Though Woodsin may have been the comparative under-achiever (really an extreme over-achiever in his own right, being probably the best educated black American in his day), this struck me as the deepest of the three books. But why limit yourself to one; they are all very short, the three together being no longer than your average non-fiction audiobook. Having listened to each, you will come away with a deeper understanding, empathy, and respect for the Africa-American experience of achievement and some of the timeless challenges black leaders must continually confront. And best of all, you will be challenged to think, and you will be less willing to settle for easy answers.
I read this book because it was a classic; I came away convinced it is a masterpiece.
This is the best and worst of conservative history. Conservative histories tend to focus on elites, the "great men" as movers of history. In this case, it means we get lengthy biographies of American Presidents and other outstanding historical characters. These biographies are often fascinating, and they make for an interesting listen. And there is much to be learned about the nature of daily life and the whole of society through the select biographies of great individuals. Further, we can learn much about foreign and domestic policy by reading about the character development of the people shaping those policies.
The problem is that these biographies, as with the biographies in all conservative histories, are by definition select. We only hear about the common man and woman through the early life experiences of a common man or woman who became great. I say man or woman, but these biographies are almost always those of men, white men, and usually white men with money and power. We hear almost nothing of Native American, Civil Rights, or immigrant union leaders; little of the people of the American frontier; little of the life of slaves and black people; little of Mexican-Americans or the culture they built before we took their land; little of the environment; little of the urban poor. This means that Johnson provides a highly distorted view of American history. It fails to attune us to the feelings and motives of the real people that matter most. We do not see American history from all points of view, and thus this history, while seeking to be comprehensive, is deceptively biased. And even as Johnson brings to bare great powers of analysis, his history is in the end shallow.
The tendency in reading or listening to this sort of history is that we ignore not only the common people but the deeper socio-economic forces that move history. We miss the meaning of say the Great Migration or the upturn in crime in the mid-1960s. We miss the deeper motives behind the social movements of the left and right alike, the populists in the late nineteenth century, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the mass unionization of the twentieth century. What's worse, insofar as reading history deepens our empathy for the people about which we learn, history like this trains us to empathize with elites. Others tend to look like irrational bit players. Worse still is the danger that, having read such histories repeatedly, we will come to care more for elites.
Johnson's emphasis on the biographies of great men cannot be teased apart from his political conservatism. And this conservatism is on full display when we arrive at the twentieth century. To the extent that reviewers of this work, on Audible and Amazon alike, know their history well, they will be disturbed by Johnson's biases at earlier and earlier dates. This is political history in the worst sense of a political hit job. He goes after Woodrow Wilson, Hoover, FDR, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton. He lauds Harding, Coolidge, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. If you know your history well, you will note that Hoover was actually quite liberal in many ways and Truman quite conservative. Liberal and progressive Presidents get bad reviews; conservatives get good reviews. If you don't think your own views will be biased through those of Johnson, I believe you overestimate the powers of your conscious mind. The problem is not that Johnson points out the many ways in which FDR lied and deceived in order to get his way; the problem is that this is Johnson's main focus on FDR. If you are biased against lying and deceiving Presidents and biased in favor of those who are smart, who care for the common people, and exhibit the qualities of institutional genius, you will most likely come away nevertheless frustrated by FDR. This is biased history at its worst.
This political bias makes Johnson's coverage of the twentieth century annoying. Of course, a conservative seeking ammunition may find all of this useful. But we should go to history not for ammunition that might support our current views but rather to learn new information and perspectives and thereby transform those views. In this regard, Johnson fails. But he is such a good writer and insightful in the domains he does cover that I give him three stars.
For a vastly more insightful and authoritative account of foreign policy making elites (Presidents, Secretaries of State, Congressional Leaders, etc), check out George C. Herring's "From Colony to Superpower." If you want bias in the opposite direction, with an emphasis on feeling for the marginalized, check out Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States." Many on Amazon think the two make a complimentary pair.
Personally (or perhaps I should say impersonally), I tend to give more credit to the impersonal forces of geography, resources, economics, institutional development, and political policy in moving history. If you do as well, read this work with caution.
The World Political Hot Spots Series is a mixed bag. On the one hand, few audiobooks cover many of these forgotten states in depth. On the other hand, they are very generic, lacking in the kind of authorial investment that makes deep books interesting.
What I wanted from this book was insight into the nature of the state, society, and economy of Chile and Argentina. What I got was a straight history. But it was too much territory to cover in too short a time. This meant that much of the history came at the price of understanding. Rather than explaining why some very important event happened - say the U.S. orchestrated coup that overthrew the democratically elected Allende in Chile, or else the rise of the post-WWII fascist-populist, Juan Peron, in Argentina - I instead got more facts. It is interesting history and we should know it - important transformations are afoot in Latin America. But if it is a history that is lacking in narrative and analysis, it is a history that will be too easy to forget - unless it is reinforced by more study from some other source. Since learning history usually requires a person to go over the same material repeatedly, this is not such a bad thing. And a little history is better than none. But this just felt too cursory and shallow to bring about understanding.
If you are interested in better understanding Latin America in general, consider Michael Reid's masterful "Forgotten Continent," which historically contextualizes the history of every state south of the U.S. and analyses the current political and economic changes in all of the big states. Or else try Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's brief but unbelievably insightful, "The Americas." This treats the history of the whole Western Hemisphere as being moved by common forces. Either book will serve as an excellent compliment to this incomplete source.
So far as the reading goes, you must be tolerant. Older audiobooks just don't have the quoting thing down. This one brings to each separate quote, of which there are numerous, a different, exaggerated, and ultimately silly accent. The Koran says, "seek knowledge as far as China," which was a distant place indeed to Muhammad. We should be willing to go at least as far as the guy with the comical voice.
The rebel flag on the cover of this book made me at first worry it might be some sort of pro-South panegyric. So I looked up Francis Butler Simkins, and while the information I could find on him is scant, it appears he was part of a mid-twentieth century movement of southern intellectuals seeking to tell the truth about the South. In 1955, when this book was written, this may put him in the same camp as the Civil Rights movement.
Today, the book is striking for how much attention is paid to the experiences of white people at the expense of Native Americans and blacks. This is not to say the experiences of slaves, and later freed men and women, are ignored. They are just not placed center-stage as is common today. For people like myself seeking to understand the roots of American racism, as they arose from the culture of slavery, this is not altogether bad. Simkins has helped me to understand the deep forces in southern society that drove the system of slavery and later Jim Crow.
The History of the South is a comprehensive and serious history. It is academic in the sense that it looks at historical events from every available viewpoint and, having gathered the relevant information, seeks to draw from it new insights. In this sense, it is highly successful. For those seeking a more narrative history, I would encourage you to give this a chance, for through it you may come away with vastly greater insights than from say a biography of Robert E. Lee or a slave narrative like that of Frederick Douglass.
I imagine two sorts of people who may read a book like this: those who love the South and those who hate it. The beauty of this book, like the best of so many history books, is that it will help you to understand why people did what they did. Through such a history you can become a far better critic of the South as well as a better member of southern society.
In the first volume, Simkins covers the Spanish explorations of the South, the first colonies, the establishment of the Tidewater culture of Virginia, the origins of the Deep South in South Carolina, and the culture of Charlestown, the largest city in the Deep South. He also covers the various cultures associated with rice, cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations as well as the the poor white non-slave holding backcountry. He covers politics, economics, society, and the arts, and I find his understanding of how economics influences society and politics to be outstanding.
The second volume covers the build up to the Civil War, the socio-economic impact of the war, Reconstruction, the early construction of Jim Crow, and the roots of the New South in late nineteenth century industrialization. If you are not already deeply familiar with this history, you will learn a lot. Both of these volumes are chock full of information and perspectives that are rarely given attention.
So far as the reading goes, I class Charlton Griffin with other actors, who have weird pretentious accents that bother me. Apparently, other people think his readings of other books are incredible - go figure. The audiobook is also a little odd in that all of the quotes are done with reverb. At first it was laugh out loud funny. Then I got used to this bizarre evolutionary line of audiobook production that thankfully has passed from the scene. Whatever the case, Richard Nixon could have read this book in a kennel and it would have still been worth the listen.
Imagine a man with very tight butt cheeks, a long nose, and a pinched chest, trying to imitate British royalty, looking down his nose with disdain. This is Frederick Davidson in a very cramped nutshell.
Few can bear his voice, and yet he is repeatedly hired to destroy some of the most serious works of literature. Why? Perhaps it is a lack of care. Perhaps listeners want to pretend they are uptight British royalty.
But if you actually want to listen to the books, keep your distance. If you are an author, stipulate in your contract that you refuse to have your book desecrated by this man. If you are a publisher, please sleep on it. And if you have ties to the mafia...
If somebody would only blacklist him or give him voice lessons or demand more sincerity and less pretense. You can't fault a man for having a bad voice or being a bad reader, but for deliberately sounding like a disdainful imperial ass: the criminal code has only begun to grapple with this novel phenomenon.
This book has numerous things going for it:
1. Carter is a remarkable writer, having published everything from poetry to novels to memoirs and serious non-fiction.
2. He has been a major player in bringing peace to the Middle East, perhaps the most effective ever. This means he knows the other notables personally. He knows the issues backwards and forwards. And he knows who has and who hasn't kept to their agreements. All of this has shaped his views and points of emphasis.
3. His main interest in bringing about peace was the well being of real people, not any particular side (thought he almost thoroughly ignored the Palestinians in the 70's). This means his biases tend to be against those subverting peace.
4. He is a good reader, bringing feeling and passion and a sense of reality to the audio version.
5. He presents numerous viewpoints on the oppression of Palestinians and what it means to the conflict in the Middle East. These range from Syrian to Jordanian to Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian viewpoints. The book is all in all a melange of viewpoints of the plight of Palestinians.
6. His firsthand accounts of life in the West Bank are vivid and illustrative. You will come away with a feel and understanding for a very confusing place.
The book has been severely criticized for bias in favor of Palestinians. The attacks border on character assassination and constitute mainly a criticism of the title. Israelis don't like being compared to an apartheid state. Having studied numerous books on the issue, I consider Carter's to be both fair and comprehensive.
The West Bank is currently broken up into numerous tiny enclaves. Communication between them is severely impeded by Israeli checkpoints. This has profoundly disrupted the economy and day to day lives.
Meanwhile Palestinians only have access to about half the land on the West Bank. And the settlement building only continues. Carter highlights what this means to ordinary people and the prospect of peace.
Listeners should know Dershowitz is controversial. He is a prominent lawyer, engaged in a vicious debate with critics of Israel, like Noam Chomsky. According to his account, each side accuses the other of sloppy citations, lies, and hate. And he does not spare the reader this muck in the second half of the book.
This book is divided in two. The first is a rational and detailed argument for why a two state solution is possible. His arguments are strong. He presents the stumbling blocks to peace in detail and offers solutions.
The only problem is he denies what so many critics of Israel claim: the peace proposals that Palestinians keep turning down involve breaking up the West Bank into numerous mutually inaccessible peaces of land. Further, while he constantly emphasizes how the opponents of Israel are dangerous and irresponsible, he spends proportionately little time criticizing Israel. This in spite of the fact the fact that Israel occupies Palestinian and Syrian territory, is colonizing it, and kills numerous Palestinians for every Israeli killed.
Nevertheless, Dershowitz is serious about a two-state solution and his point of view deserves to be heard, particularly by those already exposed to Palestinian suffering. I give the first half four stars.
The second half is a bit more trashy. It is highly a detailed attack on leftist academics who challenge Israeli injustices. The argument and tone appear petty and childish, And he presents an unrecognizable picture of the only one I have read: Chomsky. Still, he has a point. Most leftist critics of Israel lack vision and are too focused on injustices to get down to making peace.
Dershowitz argues that the works of leftist Israel critics are used by Palestinian extremists to justify their violence. I have always wondered what they think of folks like Chomsky. But Dershowitz cites nothing but an argument here. Better to listen to Jimmy Carter's "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid."
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