Category Archives: Book Review

Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]

Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.

One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.

Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).

I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories. 

It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.

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Excellent Daughters, Katherine Zoepf [Review]

I’ve written before about my interest in the gendered resource curse–the notion endorsed by eminent scholar Michael Ross and (in a different version) by my co-author Yu-Ming Liou and me that “petroleum perpetuates patriarchy”. In our theory, oil rents have promoted the Saudi government’s (and other conservative oil-rich governments’) ability to promote policies that affirm gender segregation. This process has reached its apex in Saudi Arabia, with massive oil rents, a longstanding clerico-monarchical alliance, and a conservative social tradition.

As part of our article in International Studies Quarterly exploring this thesis, we found that we needed to turn to journalists to help us flesh out some of the “soft tissue” that was being lost in the regressions and data points we were spending much of our time with. (We also consulted scholarly works, especially Madawi al-Rasheed’s A Most Masculine State.) One of the journalists who seemed to consistently produce interesting material was Katherine Zoepf, whose examination of the politics of lingerie shop employments–a skirmish in a broader three-way argument among male traditionalists, female reformers, and Westernizers about the degree to which women should be kept secluded–proved invaluable to helping us trace out the dynamics of this system.

Zoepf has now published a very good book about her experiences as a journalist interacting with women throughout the Arab world, from Syria and Lebanon to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Much of her book reads like a combination of journalism and informal social science, but the details she has unearthed are fascinating and will be of interest to anyone who cares about ordinary lived experiences, the politics of women’s status, and the ways that “modernity” can manifest. Zoepf maps how women create their own spaces as both members of the liberaliyeen and as sisters within secretive, conservative religious networks to the manner in which male expectations circumscribe their freedoms and the state violates their hard-won freedoms–and, sometimes, their very bodies.

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Crude Nation, Raul Gallegos [Review]

Cover for Raul Gallegos, Crude Nation

One of the punchiest descriptions of the “resource curse” comes from Venezuelan oil minister and OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, who called oil “the devil’s excrement”. Yet the saying obscures more than it reveals. Perez Alfonzo’s pessimism about oil dated to an era before contemporary scholarship admits of an oil curse (the most recent resource-curse literature argues that the curse began in 1980 or so, and Perez Alfonzo’s bon mot dates to 1975). It is also the money from oil, not the properties of petroleum itself, that is said to be the cause of the curse, whether through the knock-on effects on productive sectors’ competitiveness through the Dutch Disease of currency appreciation or the conversion of productive competition into indolent rent-seeking through the corruption of political institutions by the replacement of taxation.

The biggest problem for Perez Alfonsz’s wit, however, is the simple fact that for much of the twentieth century, it was hard to say that Venezuela had been particularly cursed by oil revenues.

The statistics suggest that oil simply made Venezuela richer than it would have otherwise been (assuming that its neighbors supply a good idea of its counterfactual, non-oil-based economic outcomes). Similarly, Venezuela’s Polity score (a measure of democracy) show that the country was ranked most democratic by outside experts during periods of high oil income, and only began a slide away from a Polity score as high as France’s when oil prices entered a prolonged depression in the 1990s.

Since the leftist government of Hugo Chavez (and, since his death, Nicolas Maduro) came into power in 1999, however, all of this has changed dramatically. Today, Venezuela does indeed seem to have been cursed by oil wealth in some fashion, as Raul Gallegos documents in Crude Nation, a fine, readable survey of contemporary Venezuelan life, based on his work as a reporter in the country.

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Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes [Review]

Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes; an odd bit of fanfic based on the Stephenie Meyer original

One emerging theme of my post-election reading has been the importance of deep stories — the sorts of core beliefs, narratives, and faiths that people take for granted. One “deep story” on the Clintonista side was the notion of American progress, an almost cinematic tale of redemption and progress in which Hillary’s narrative would have coincided with a putative feminist triumph. At roughly 8:15 p.m. Eastern time on Election Night, progressives found themselves embracing a darker deep story of the farther left: America as an irredeemable bastion of the forces of reaction, in which every victory for progress is temporary and every activist effort ultimately futile because of the enduring power of—well, it’s hard to say of who, exactly, but “ur-Fascism” will serve as a label for now.

In Twilight of the ElitesChris Hayes supplies what I think is a more accurate, or at least more resonant story: the Betrayal of the Elites. Hayes argues that American institutions, refashioned after the Second World War to accelerate the assimilation of “ethnics”, women, and other minorities, have become a self-perpetuating ring of credentials and connections that betrays their original meritocratic rationale. As US elites have come to believe that they have received all the signs of the meritocratic elect–they went to Harvard; they went to the best grad schools or hedge funds; and their kids do the same–they are ever more affirmed in their belief that they are only enjoying their just desserts. If others have less than they do, well–they shake their heads sadly–perhaps those less fortunate are only receiving what they deserve.

Hayes’s deep story reads like the precise inverse of Hochschild’s deep story, in which rural folks see America as a queue in which Others are getting ahead by stealing their places. For the Elect, how long you’ve served, how loyal you are, how good a parent or a spouse or a neighbor you are–these are irrelevant compared to how good you are, as measured by smarts, earning, or prestige. A member of the Elect would have little sympathy for Hochschild’s line-waiters and their markedly inefficient view of distribution; don’t those at the back of the line understand that they need to retool to compete in the new line economy?

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White Rage, Carol Anderson [Review]

White Rage by Carol Anderson

White Rage by Carol Anderson

Like many people, my reaction to the 2016 election centered around shock and awe — “awe”, that is, in the sense of being present at some force that overwhelmed my senses. Over the past month, I have worked hard to divide my response into answering three questions:

  1. Why did Hillary Clinton lose?
  2. Why did Donald Trump enjoy so much support?
  3. What will a Trump presidency mean for international order and U.S. foreign policy?

The answer to #3 is my day job, and I don’t have much to say–yet–in this space. The answer to #1 is complicated, and the war over campaign strategy and tactics is being waged through leaks, analyses, and Twitter pot-shots. But #2 turns out to be something that many thinkers were well-positioned to deal with.

Carol Anderson’s White Rage is, with Arlie Hochshild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Kathy Cramer’s Politics of Resentment, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash (my mixed review is here) , one of the books I’ve read to answer #2. And note that #2 and #1 are really different questions: even had Trump “only” received 200 electoral votes and 45 percent of the popular vote share, that would still, I think, pose a puzzle.

Anderson’s book, written before Trump’s election, nevertheless provides a “deep story” to explain why Trump could be appealing for many. “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement,” she writes:

It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up. A formidable array of policy assaults and legal contortions has consistently punished black resilience, black resolve. And all the while, white rage manages to maintain not only the upper hand but also, apparently, the moral high ground. It’s Giuliani chastising black people to fix the problems in their own neighborhoods instead of always scapegoating the police. It’s the endless narratives about a culture of black poverty that devalues education, hard work, family, and ambition.

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Nancy Isenberg, White Trash [Review]

Nancy Isenberg's White Trash.

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

Attention Conservation Notice: An ambitious but sprawling book that, amazingly, silences the people it claims to describe while also doing good work in de-mystifying colonial-era myths.

Class and race intersect in many ways. Until November 8, the most common contemporary invocations of such intersectionality came from the Left to justify and explain the grievances of members of their coalition. Sometime around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day’s night, though, the discourse changed radically, and it was suddenly the intersection of Whiteness and Working-Classness that obsessed observers–including myself.

Like many people, I turned to three books implicitly or explicitly on this subject: Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

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Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]

 

Robin Hanson, The Age of Em

Robin Hanson, The Age of Em

Attention Conservation Notice: Robin Hanson has written a provocative book illuminating the contributions social science can make to understanding the future, even if the details are (amply) debatable.


What will the future look like? Social scientists pay a great deal less attention to this question than they should. There are departments of History, but no departments of Future–nor even a great number of academics whose primary research program explores the future.

There are good reasons for this. All of our evidence about how humans and human societies behave exists in the past (yes, literally all of it). The future, by contrast, may not even occur. Theorizing about the future, then, appears from one direction to look like nothing so much as a modern version of medieval Scholasticism–or, as the demotic version goes, like playing tennis without a net.

But the optimal level of effort to be invested in thinking seriously about the future is not zero, or close to zero. Indeed, it’s interesting that businesses and governments are more likely, not less, to invest resources in trying to estimate at least the parameters within which the near future will take place — for instance, as reflected in the US intelligence community’s Global Trends reports or Bill Gates’s now-forgotten The Road Ahead. More to the point, even though all of our evidence comes from the past, none of us will live there–and (almost) all of us will live in the future.

Robin Hanson’s Age of Em represents a significant intervention in debates about what kind of futures to envision, how to envision those futures, and why we should do so in the first place. Hanson’s future concerns a post-human society within the next 100 to 1,000 years in which whole-brain-scanned humans exist as emulations (or “ems”) within a joint virtual-physical world. Within this civilization, the limits of physics trump the limits of biological life, and ems are able to work and live in a population that expands at rates closer to insects or bacteria than to homo sapiens. As a consequence, the GDP of em-world increases rapidly—doubling every month or so—even as the population heads towards the trillions and wage rates plummet toward subsistence (which, Hanson notes, is the historical regularity within human societies over time and for most life-forms generally).

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