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Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History

4/5. What it sounds like. Yeah yeah, I'm a nerd, don't I get enough of this stuff already, blah blah blah.

But let me explain something about John Dickerson, journalist, pundit, historian. He's an extremely successful history nerd who has the air of someone from a different era, and his sense of humor is – I mean, he's a walking dad joke. But here's what I actually like about him.

He quotes women.

Not just about women's suffrage or "women's issues." Not occasionally. But all the time. In every context. Talking about politics. Rendering their political opinions. Being involved in power. He quotes women senators from seventy years ago and women convention floor bosses. He just . . . quotes women. Like they're a part of history. I had no idea how extraordinary this was until I read it, and was astonished.

I could get all psychological here and theorize that it's because of Dickerson's mother, who is a legend in her own right, and who had an extraordinary impact on him. He wrote a book about her, in fact, so clearly he is used to the idea of women being movers in history. But the truth is, I don't care why he does it, I'm just glad he does.
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Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in AmericaCollision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America by Dan Balz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I will be sitting out the midterms this year, so I wanted a hit of wonkiness to tide me over, and here it is. You already know if you'll like this sort of thing, so I'll confine myself to saying that this is well-organized and interesting from a trade of elections perspective, but far less gossipy than the casual reader seems to want. I liked it.

Some observations: this book offers an excellent overview of what the Obama for America internet operation was doing and how it worked – I was particularly interested in getting a few more details on the Facebook utilization and how the tools worked to suggest that, e.g., rather than sharing this campaign video with your entire feed, why not send it to Facebook friends X and Y, undecided voters in Florida that you seem to know well. For me, the most interesting aspect of that part of the campaign is the strides made in deciding who not to contact. I'm a swing-state resident and a political donor (though not to presidential campaigns because that is a total waste of my money) and I was contacted by OFA multiple times in 2008. In 2012, I was not contacted at all because, presumably, the OFA algorithm determined correctly that I was a sure thing and did not require the use of resources. Works for me. The only annoying thing about that is I suspect it will only increase the romance of the "independent" voter in the popular consciousness. Note: these people do not actually exist. You can almost always tell what a supposedly "independent" voter is going to do, except in a very small slice of the population. It just so happens that small slice is increasingly valuable these days. But you get a full third of Americans claiming to be independent voters because it sounds sexy and independent-minded, when actually it's a giant self-deception. But a lot of these people actually like being courted by campaigns, which is utterly baffling to me, and with more and more campaign resources being precisely targeted to them, I guess they're welcome to enjoy the fruits of the massive money machine they continually bitch about.

Also, I am increasingly suspicious of the Romney campaign's post election "couldn't be done" narrative. I mean, don't get me wrong, I thought with 95% confidence Obama was going to win by the spring, and so did anyone else who knew what they were looking at, and that was without the series of lucky breaks he got in the summer and fall. But no race is unwinnable, and this idea that the Romney campaign was irretrievably outclassed from day one, particularly on the electronic and ground operations, seems self-serving. "Oh woe is us, they built better software than we did, if only we'd known we would have given up in June." Yeah, whatever, dudes. You lost. Suck it up and figure out where you lost it (early and organizationally) and stop acting like you bore no responsibility whatsoever.




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The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamThe March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A collection of pieces exploring terrible policy, and specifically policy counter to the actors's interests. Appealing in concept, but lacking that put together incisiveness of Tuchman at her best. She can talk about the ruinous behavior of the Renaissance Popes and Britain's blinkered inability to correctly handle the American colonies with her usual detail and erudition, but this book lacks cohesion, or a real message other than institutional idiocy: weird, eh?



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A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of GenocideA Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Grinding, grueling, exhausting account of a series of genocides and the United States's response – or generally lack thereof.

Other people have criticized this book at length for failing to address the ways the United States was actively complicit in genocidal violence through support of its perpetrators. The criticism is accurate, though I think it's a product of the focus of this book very specifically on passive complicity.

I had read excerpts of this over the years, and I'm glad I finally sat down and went through all of it, cover-to-cover. But this is a first generation book, and now I want the fifth generation, or the seventh generation, if you know what I mean. Because Power spends a lot of time documenting American disinterest in mass death, and some time talking about the reasons, but the reasons are very . . . cerebral. This economic interest, that political exigency, a few general comments about racism.

This book made me think a lot about pain, and being the observer of it. I mean, most of us catch glimpses of indescribable anguish out of the corners of our eyes all the time, but we've developed defensive emotional blinders. But once in a while, someone looks at the newspaper headline that ten thousand other people read and forgot, and that one person is seared. Irrevocably changed just by knowing that five thousand people halfway around the world were "disappeared." I've known some people like that, and worked with them. One of them was the first person to make me read excerpts of this book.

I want the book about those people. And the contextual, psychological, physiological, etc. differences between them and the rest of us. And the book that takes a deeper, more honest look at the psychology of passive complicity, not just its economic logic. Because Power wrote mostly about when and where and who, and left me pretty messed up over why.




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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


An extended discussion of the factors that influence the development of human societies by way of answering the question of why certain societies – Europe – have socially and technologically dominated. And specifically by way of explaining Europe's dominance as an accident of environment – species availability, geography, that sort of thing – rather than anything inherent to its peoples or, just as often, anything inherently inferior about the native populations of the rest of the globe.

Hmm. An ambitious project, and I'm glad I read it, but.

But this is one of those books where I'm reading, I'm interested, we're good. And then I start getting a feeling, just a niggle, like there's something I'm not seeing. And then it slowly dawns on me and I go, ". . . wait . . . wait, no. Really?"

What I wasn't seeing here were proper citations. I assumed at first this was an artifact of the audiobook, since they maddeningly cut non-substantive footnotes. (I usually get an e-text to check later, if I am curious. Which I'm me, so I generally am.) But when I checked here, nope, almost nothing.

But that wasn't the real problem. The real problem was that when I paid close attention to what he said textually about his sources . . . holy shitballs, guys. Are you fucking kidding me? This dude wrote a book discussing clashes between more advanced societies and less advanced societies, drawing largely from primary sources embedded in the victorious society, and it never occurred to him that this was a problem. Wow.

And separately, I am totally into these projects that promote social justice agendas orthogonally, like arguing against racism by talking about the impact of continental geography on technological development. But I'm always happier when it's clear the author can engage with the meat of the issue if he wants to. And Diamond is, um, still in racism 101. Like, he's against it, everybody! Racism bad! But let's all pause to romanticize indigenous tribal people and talk about how the simplicity of their lives makes them happier than white people. Ug.

So short version: a really interesting project, but Diamond lost a huge amount of credibility with me from start to finish.




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The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme CourtThe Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Sadly not the trashy gossip fest I was in the mood for. I wanted either another hundred pages discussing the court's role in the political system and propounding a new theory of case analysis, or I wanted some juicy judicial sexploits. Sadly, I got neither. The "revelations" in this book are nothing new if you pay a little attention to the court – Scalia and Ginsburg were besties, Thomas has a bizarre and alarming worldview, etc.

Still, the lay reader would probably enjoy this as a portrait of personalities, and for the capsule histories of momentous cases from the Reagan years to about 2006. (Though this book did lead me to discover that I can still recite footnote 4 of carolene Products from memory, which, honestly, I'd be happier not knowing that about myself).

Anyway, this didn't change my opinions of anyone. You don't catch me agreeing with Scalia very often, but I am in complete sympathy with his opinion of Kennedy. I remember when I was putting together my constitutional law notes – I had this beautiful 70 page outline with case holdings and capsule dissents, and at the end of every statement of a Kennedy holding I wrote, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean. My feelings on O'connor are complicated, and I suspect Toobin would say the same, so those sections worked well for me. And of course my opinions on Roberts and Alito were formed realtime – I actually worked on a team that vetted the short list of nominees that leaked that summer for a civil rights organization, which sounds roughly a billionty times sexier than it actually was.

So this was well researched and diverting, but ultimately inconsequential for me.




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Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a LifetimeGame Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Unapologetically gossipy play-by-play of the 2008 primaries and general. Written so engagingly that it made me anxious at a few points, even though, hi, it’s not like I don’t know the spoilers. But this is entirely a trees book and not at all a forest book, despite the title and marketing. This is all day-by-day campaign strategy and not at all chronicle of the monetary/demographic/electronic/organizational revolutions that arguably occurred and are still occurring. Surprising, because when you talk to Halperin face-to-face, he’s all forest and no trees, in a really good way.*

But whatever, maybe it was too soon, maybe everyone was still living in it too much to see out of it when they conducted their interviews. And their access really is unparalleled. And if what you want is a heaping scoop of relatively reliable personality dissection with campaign strategy as a side dish, you honestly can’t do better than this. It’s just, you know, more about how the Clintons sabotage/make/unmake/worship each other, and less about the seachange that 2008 actually was.

*Though Halperin did insist in my hearing once that Romney is honestly a great guy one-on-one, not at all awkward or uncomfortable or bizarre the way he is on camera. Oookay. It’d probably take an entire new book to convince me of that.



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Euclid's Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to HyperspaceEuclid's Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace by Leonard Mlodinow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


History of math more than actualfacts math, with a minimally annoying authorial voice as these things go. Except for the teeny weeny culture/race centrism problem – I’m neither a historian nor a mathematician, but even I know it’s pretty freaking suspect when your history doesn’t include the advancements of, um, the Arab world, the South/Central American empires, or, you know, Asia, except for that one paragraph that one time. I mean, write a history of European geometry, by all means, I did like it, but let’s maybe call it that next time so as to look less like clueless Eurocentric twits, yeah?

Anyway. Last third of the book swung into modern physics, and convinced me yet again that in the absence of advanced math, it really does sound like these guys are just making shit up. I mean, vibrating strings? Oh rilly. Shame I stopped at calculus, because no matter how many metaphors you throw at me, I still have a hard time taking this stuff seriously without the fundamental grocking I don’t have the tools for.




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In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They ProtectIn the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect by Ronald Kessler

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


An interesting and important book written by the absolute wrong person. There's all this great history of the Secret Service, assassinations thwarted and succeeded, criminal investigations, a scathing indictment of service management and how it treats its people.

…And then the other half of the book is gossip about protectees. Because, yes, okay, he acknowledges the Secret Service has a code of silence so that protectees will trust them, which is important for maintaining safety. But telling the truth about public figures is more important! By 'telling the truth,' we mean 'selling books by marketting them as personal tell-alls.' It might have been more explicable if there was actually anything new or interesting here, but there isn't. LBJ was disgusting, Nixon was weird, Clinton was always late -- these are not revelations, they're Wikipedia footnotes.

Also, the political bias was appalling. Like how the Bush twins, all their public underage drinking and fake id's and bar fights, that's just kids who need to grow up a bit. But Carter's nine-year-old kid, her acting out was a character flaw. Uh-huh. That was the subtlest of it.

And don't get me fucking started on what he says about the race discrimination in employment lawsuit brought against the Secret Service and how the Service overreacted to it by "reverse discriminating" and promoting undeserving minority agents, but the Service doesn't have a race problem, obviously, you can tell because it's 17% African-American which is higher than the proportion in the population in general and that's definitely evidence. That thing where a black agent was given a noose as a "joke" by a white instructor is just an -- uh -- hey, look over there! In conclusion, reverse discriminating against white people is bad.

And really don't get me started comparing what he says there to what he says about women agents. Apparently there isn't a representational problem there because the Secret service is slightly more than 10% female. Oh, well then! I assume we're not supposed to notice the blatant double-talk here since the sections are over 100 pages apart. Shocker, my memory is longer than that.

Someone else needs to write this book and make it not suck.




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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New YorkThe Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Feh. In the afterward, the author thanks a whole bunch of people for helping her with the technical aspects of the chemistry. And I was like "ahaha what technical aspects? What chemistry?" This book is like the Youtube video of chemistry: the "technical" sections would read something like, "he ground the tissue into a paste, then boiled it in a simple solution. And then he added nitric acid and the whole thing flared green!"

That isn't chemistry, that's a Mr. Rogers voice over. And this is not science writing. It's history with a sprinkle of description using science words on top, with no exploration of how or why.

The book could have been somewhat redeemed with interesting historical content, given that's what it was really doing. And there is a lot of stuff here about the founding of the first true American forensics lab, and the institution of a lot of modern law enforcement procedures against a corrupt political background. Oh, and a whole bunch of stuff about the homebrewed poisons of the prohibition era, when a glass of moonshine actually could kill you. But it was disorganized and shallow, with the usual journalist focus on the sensationalist details of cases without any real analysis or depth.

And the fake "science writing" was astonishingly irritating.

Didn't I just swear off nonfiction by reporters? Well, I'm doing it again, and this time I'll actually check first so it sticks.




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Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern SexualitySex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


My girlfriend and I had one of those gradual comings-together where you're going along fine, life is good, and then you look up one day and . . . wait . . . hang on . . . you're dating that person you thought you were just sleeping with. (For the record, some of us *cough* figured this out much sooner than others of us.) When it happens like that, it's hard to figure out what "counts," if you care about that sort of thing -- anniversaries, firsts, all those markers of 'real relationshipness.' Luckily, neither of us cares what counts. Just, sometime over the past five years, we got to The Thing -- The Real Thing -- and that's cool.

Except the part where it isn't cool is that there are a lot of other people who care about what counts. They care a lot. To a lot of people, we can't have The Real Thing, and not because we're both women. No, see, it doesn't matter how much our lives have glommed over the past five years, or how we collectively meet her cancer diagnosis and me conceiving a child to carry as my sister's surrogate. None of that counts because we occasionally sleep with other people, together and separately. Because if you do that, well, that's not a relationship at all.

Which has never made sense to me on a logical level, or an instinctive one. Monogamy might be nice for some people (some of my best friends are monogamists, dontcha know), though more often it looks to me like it makes everyone ashamed and unhappy. But for me . . . no. I mean, I've been in monogamous relationships for years at a time, once before I knew what I wanted, and once after I had started to suspect but couldn't experiment to find out, because if your partner is not down with it like mine wasn't, then obviously you respect that. And I just . . . it's not that I was unhappy. Or not just that I was unhappy. I did not feel like myself. I felt like the person I was being in the relationship was untrue on some fundamental level of existential being. That sort of thing wears you down from the inside over time. And I strongly suspect it's a bit like being a closeted gay person trapped in a heterosexual relationship.

Anyway. So this book (woo! I got there!). This book is all about how our cultural investment in monogamy doesn't make sense. Or at least how the narratives we're told about it are bullshit. You know this story: men don't want to be in relationships, but they need fidelity from women to be sure the children are really theirs (because otherwise why spend any resources raising them?), and so women trap men into relationships with their sneaky hidden ovulation, but what they're really doing is trading access to their vaginas for resource stability. It's the pigs and prostitutes model. The one that gets used to defend patriarchy, gender inequality, you name it, because it's biology, don't you know.

This book is about how it's crap, and how it doesn't make sense given what we know about pre-historic sexuality, about multiple partner procreation now and in the past, and our evolution. It's also a pretty snotty bitchslap to evolutionary psychology which, well, yes.

I totally dug it, because it made sense out of a lot of stuff that has never made sense to me. (And the last quarter in particular has some great stuff about different arousal patterns that just -- yes, thank you.) I just really really wish it was less pop and more science, because honestly the thing this book convinced me of the most is that the vast majority of anthropological work has all the scientific rigor of a wet noodle. And I wish this book supplied more of that rigor, since it demonstrated very clearly that the material is there. Also that it was a bit more careful not to continuously fall into the same stereotyped patterns of thinking about gendered behavior that it is chiding its readers for, but, you know, lack of rigor.




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Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital AgeAppetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A quite nice discussion of the imploding record industry (as opposed to the music industry). Full of color and bombastic personality, as appropriate. Unfortunately, I’m the sort of person whose opinion on a book can be irrevocably ruined by details. To wit, a note about how, when initially launched, iTunes took 22 cents out of every 99 cent song purchase for itself, leaving 67 cents to be divided among the various rights holders.



. . . uh . . .



I hope everyone from the author to the copyeditor has a hard time looking themselves in the mirror, is what I’m saying.



The book did introduce me to the fascinating and elusive – no really,, someone is babysitting that Wikipedia page and doing a fine job of it -- Clive Calder. I would have read about him all damn day, to hell with the rest of those clowns.





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Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on DisabilityWhy I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability by Paul K. Longmore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Three and a half years ago, before I started law school, I applied to receive services from my state’s vocational rehabilitation agency. VR will sometimes pay the adaptive technology expenses of students with disabilities so it can be financially feasible to pursue higher education. At a very conservative estimate, the access tech I use for school purposes costs upwards of $10,000, and that’s not counting the potential expense of services (such as a live reader in the library if I can’t get electronic access to something in time) which can run from $10 to $40/hour, depending on the complexity and specialty required.



I’d been through the VR rodeo before in a different state for undergrad, so I was kind of prepared. My first meeting with my case manager went something like this:



Oh, wow, you have a doggie – that must be so nice for you to have a friend! Let’s just fill out these forms – tell me every gory detail of your medical history going back twenty-three years. Yes, of course including all test results, experimental surgeries, and anything else not remotely relevant to your educational prospects. Now, do you have a parole officer, because they’ll have to discuss my case. No? Well! Are you sure you want to go back to school? You have a job, after all, why do you want to leave it? [Desire for betterment and career planning not being things that disabled people do, apparently:]. And law school, do you know how hard that’s going to be? Have you really thought about this? Lots of people drop out, you know – lots of people just like you. [The secret code, I assume you guys can crack it:]. Are you sure you don’t have a parole officer?



And then we got into my school of choice, a top-tier, nationally recognized institution I was already accepted to. Why was I going there? Why wasn’t I going to the small local school that had regained (regained, not earned!) its accreditation so recently, it wasn’t even ranked? Did I know that if I went there, VR might consider paying the tiny tuition? How did I know nationally-recognized school was a better school -- I’d just moved here!



I politely suggested that they pay tiny local school’s tuition rates to my school, which was a drop-in-the-bucket, but something, but what I really needed was technology support, so could we talk about that?



It was at that point that there was a stamp put on my file. I don’t know if it was metaphorical or actual, but either way it said something like “noncompliant.” Or maybe “difficult.” Or quite possibly, “uppity.” I never saw a penny of tuition assistance, which I was fully expecting, but neither did I get one scrap of access tech support. And I didn't throw the screaming fit that might or might not have changed that, because I was kind of busy at the time kicking ass and taking names in law school, and racking up debt like no one's business.



This book is about that. That scenario specifically, which is incredibly common (something much like it happened to the author, actually), and the context of institutionalized patronization and controlling ablism built in to our systems, particularly governmental aid programs. Longmore, a historian, first makes the case for why disability historiography is important, then demonstrates how it’s done with a focus on disability efforts to reform government programs starting in the Great Depression. There’s a really disturbing detour in the middle of the book into healthcare policy and euthanasia of people with disabilities, and then we turn back to government aid.



The titular essay, “Why I burned My Book” is this amazing example of combining personal narrative and political advocacy. Longmore burned his book, his very first, outside a government building in 1998. He’d worked on it for ten years, but the government program that paid for the ventilator that kept him alive was going to remove its support as soon as he published – which he had to do, being an academic – because the royalties would count as income. He could either work, or he could stay alive.



This is a powerful introductory book. It’s a collection of essays and speeches written over time, but it’s surprisingly cohesive. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting an accessible background in the social model of disability and a few of the bigger issues that still concern the movement today. This isn’t a book about pervasive interpersonal bias, it’s a book about how that bias gets incorporated into institutional structures from the ground up, and how changing it is almost impossible.





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Near a Thousand Tables : A History of FoodNear a Thousand Tables : A History of Food by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Positives: rambly accounts of food history, ecology, cultural and political significance, etc. Lots of great anecdotes – mozzarella from water buffalos! The chocolate bar invented partially as a temperance object to keep people from drinking! (Which sent me lunging for the internet to find out how long it took someone to invent chocolate liqueur. My faith in humanity is sustained by learning that alcoholic chocolate beverages actually predate the chocolate bar by nearly two centuries. Priorities, people).



Negatives: Cheerful use of the phrase “cultural miscegenation,” coupled with an occasionally . . . weird tone when discussing imperial and colonial relationships significant to food history.



Cultural miscegenation? Seriously?





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A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Don’t let the breadth of the title mislead you: this isn’t a history of the fourteenth century, it’s a history of France from about 1340 to 1400 through the career of a noble man, with occasional jaunts to England and the Italian city states. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – aside from one or two things, noted below – just for clarity.

My favorite parts of this book were the slice-of-life sections: what French peasants ate, what people talked about at court dinners, the lifestyle of British royalty. Tuchman clearly waded through a truly astonishing amount of primary sources, but she also retained consciousness of the gaping holes in the history related to class and literacy and plain old record destruction. But there’s only so much she could do about that, and I admit I did get a little tired of the endless backing and forthing with the politics of war and kingship and more war. It’s what she had to work with, but it wasn’t what I primarily came for.

Not her fault. What is her fault is the dose of explicit and implicit anti-Muslim sentiment we get connected to the crusades. Explicit in some of her turns of phrase, in her allegiance to the western view of defeats as tragic and victories as righteous. And implicit in her claim to be writing a history of the fourteenth century which believes that Muslims are only important to history when they’re killing Christians and getting killed by them.

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The Madisonian Constitution (The Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought) The Madisonian Constitution by George Thomas


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Fneh. The nicest word I can come up with for this book is “opaque.” It’s actually a pretty interesting argument about Constitutional interpretation, but I won’t bother dissecting it here because seriously, when the author said it was the book version of his graduate thesis I went, “ohhhhhhh,” and not in a good way. It’s also one of those books by nonlawyers trying to supersede legal interpretations of something (the Constitution, here) by using the tools of another discipline, which is fine and dandy until you fail to deal with the legal interpretations on their own lexical terms, so you just look like you don’t understand them. Which I think Thomas actually does, for the most part, so. Fneh.

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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I picked this up largely on the strength of a hilarious Daily Show interview with the author. After reading, I think it was more a case of Jon Stewart’s awesomeness overwhelming all other considerations. Tragic.

Look, I could talk about how stilted the construction of this bio-history is, and I could talk about the frankly odd pacing and even odder notes. But my real problem with this book is a lot more subtle. Take a quote like this one: “. . . but Jackson, like many husbands before and since, may have loved his wife rather more than he listened to her.” Ninety nine percent innocuous, right? With just a smidge of a hint of an undertone, but hey the context all makes sense, so all right. Except when you add up a whole book of innocuous sentences like that, those little hints all accumulate into more of an . . . odor.

Jackson was an asshole of extraordinary proportions, and this book spent enough time rolling around with him to pick up some whiff of it. In that accidental way that’s just sloppy rather than authentic. History is by definition a project of perspective, but there are histories I trust, and this wasn’t one of them. Oddly, it was the extended passages condemning Jackson for the brutalities of Indian removal that did it. Pointing out the most obviously awful things the man did in a book with a clear pro-Jackson bias doesn’t add nuance or depth, it just makes both the condemnation and the extensive praise look shallow. We hear so much about Jackson as the founder of the Democratic party – of the concept of the President as an instrument of the people (his opponents thought it was inappropriate for him to ever address the press, incidentally, because he should only speak to Congress, and Congress should speak to the people). But never does it occur to this book that Jackson’s democratic principles were actually connected in a complicated way to his paternalism (he called himself the father of the nation, ug ug ug), and this book wouldn’t know a critique of paternalism if it patted it on the head and sent it off to bed.

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Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society) Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment by Michael Vorenberg


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An excellent history of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I’ve read a lot of dull legal history lately, and this sparkles in comparison without losing an ounce of rigor. Lots of intricate political maneuverings and broad, sweeping social changes laid out with lucid grace. Particularly interesting to me for the discussion of the psychology of Constitutional amendment – depending on who you ask, the Thirteenth was the first amendment to radically revise the (proslavery) original text, or it was just an extension of the intrinsically antislavery document. I think it was the first, myself. This matters because Constitutional scholarship at the time pretty much was originalism – that’s what it would be, when your parents knew the guys who wrote the thing, right? This book is about all the cataclysms and upheavals and reverses that could make the stars and the congressmen align to get the amendment through, with hundreds of thousands dead and pamphlets about the evils of miscegenation on every street corner. As a portrait of a tumultuous time, and as an aid to the largely underground academic movement of Thirteenth Amendment revival scholarship, this book is a great success.

It’s an accidental success in exploring what an extraordinarily white history the Amendment has. And not just in the obvious – all the senators and representatives were white, (almost) all of the voters who elected ratifying bodies were white, the drafters were white. But I think the one major lapse in this book is the way it doesn’t seem really conscious of how the debate it describes is all about white people – about their guilt or their complicity or their racism or their fear. It’s not a blatant failure of the book, because this was, I think, what the debate was like. But the book should know that more consciously.

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Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861 Slavery and the Supreme Court, 1825-1861 by Earl M. Maltz


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Straight legal history, with a few side trips into SCOTUS Justice Biography and political history. Dry as dust, and kind of frustrating for the way it gestures casually at the thing I’m actually interested in without following through: the psychology of a legal regime wrestling with slavery and trying to keep the Union together. This book just rattles off some conclusory statements about what each Justice believed of the rightness and legality of slavery, then says something almost glib about recourse to neutral principles for decision-making, without ever really engaging with all the snarled tensions there. And you can’t tell me there aren’t historical documents.

To be fair, other people have tackled that project, and this book was – I think – deliberately meant as a purely legal historical project. I just happened not to find it useful or interesting.

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Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide: The Role of Politics in Judging Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide: The Role of Politics in Judging by Brian Z. Tamanaha


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Not for the nonlawyers, because if you haven't gotten at least a three year law school dose of legal history with the traditional story about the realists and their politics of law taking over from the stodgy old formalists, it won't mean a damned thing.

If you have been to law school, the first half of this book is a fantastic revisionist counterfactual, calling into question everything we're taught about Holmes and Cardozo and Pound and that entire lot. Tamanaha leans on the primary sources to explain how the idea of formalism was actually invented by radical realists, and that in fact judges as far back as the 1850's candidly discuss the role of politics and indeterminacy in judging. That part is fascinating and illuminating. I was less thrilled with the second half, which discusses at length how the quantitative study of judging has imported this false intellectual dichotomy to its detriment, and its biased studies are misinterpreted in the service of disproving formalism, which doesn't really exist, anyway. Fine, but the use of the tools of historical analysis to try to take down social science methodology was just wrong. You don't get to complain about bias inherited from a historical narrative, and then suggest the answer is to supply a second narrative. That entirely misses the point, which is that social science methodology needs to be critiqued with statistics and actual analysis. Sigh.

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