Tuesday, June 28, 2005

# Posted 9:17 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT LIBERALS' FAVORITE BOOKS SAY ABOUT THE DEMS' REPUTATION AS SOFT ON SECURITY: The American Prospect recently asked more than twenty prominent liberals to name the most important liberal book written in the last fifteen years. The fact that only three of those twenty-plus commentators mentioned a book about foreign policy or national security tells you a lot about why the American public feels safer with Bush in the White House even though they disapprove of his policies.

Moreover, it's not just the fact that so few of the books are about foreign policy, but also the way in which the books approach the subject that convey the mismatch between liberal foreign policy and the concerns of the American majoirty.

For example, Harvard professor and terrorism expert Jessica Stern recommends Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry by Peter W. Singer. Stern writes that
Singer examines corporate mercenaries who kill for pro?t -- sometimes bene?ting the world through peacekeeping missions, and sometimes bene?ting only themselves.
Lots of folks I respect have praised Singer's work. But is corporate influence on national security really a defining issue for American liberalism? And if it were, would the American public see the Democratic Party as having its priorities straight?

In defense of Stern, it is worth noting that the Prospect demanded very rapid responses from those whom it polled about the most important books of the last fifteen years. Yet if the Prospect had directed its question my way, it would've taken me all of fifteen seconds to come up with my answer: "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power.

Ms. Power is one of Prof. Stern's colleagues at Harvard, so presumably the latter is aware of the former's work, which won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2003. Power's book provides both a history of the genocidal wars against the Kurds, Bosnian Muslims, and Rwandan Tutsi as well as powerful argument that the United States cannot be true to its own principles unless it is committed to stopping such massacres.

Along these lines, Benjamin Barber does recommend Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom as the most important book of the era. Barber describes it as "A persuasive case for democracy in an unjust, globalizing world." Sen's work doesn't exactly have all that much to say about US national security, but at least Barber is on the right track.

And so what about all the books not about foreign policy? The first thing I noticed was how many of them are about race, civil rights, and/or the 1960s. Walter Mondale recommends Judgment Days, which is about the relationship between LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr. The list also includes books about civil rights organizers in Mississippi, the life of W.E.B. DuBois, the legislative work of LBJ, and assorted others.

Naturally, liberals should celebrate the great triumphs of the past. But none of these subjects has much potential to serve as the foundation of a strong progressive, liberal, Democratic movement for the 21st century.

When it comes to the future, the Prospect's contributors seems to think that the right has all the momentum. Thus, the list includes books such as America's Right Turn and Under God: Religion and American Politics.

On a similar note, Al Franken recommends E.J. Dionne's WhyAmerican Hate Politics, which Franken credits with paving the way for Clinton's victory in 1992 by teaching the Democrats how to be tough on crime and welfare politics. In other words, the book taught Democrats how to sound like Republicans.

The question is, where is the book that can teach the Democrats to do that effectively today? Perhaps more importantly, why does it seem that Democrats can only win by sounding like Republicans? What does that say about the disjunction between American values and the Democratic agenda?
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