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Ask Auntie Pinko

March 9, 2006
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I like political debate, and I love reading political books and watching shows on the same topic. However we don't have nearly as much of it in Australia as you guys do in the U.S. I follow U.S. politics quite closely, like a lot of people from around the world, and this site is one of my favorites. I have read books by Jon Stewart and Al Franken and really enjoyed both of them, but as a result of geographic distance from the U.S., I really don't know which authors I should be looking out for! I know to steer clear of nutters like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, but beyond that I'm really in the dark.

Could you perhaps let me know who the best liberal authors (or podcast casters) are so that I can try and track them down?

Warren
Canberra, Australia


Dear Warren,

Good on you! I wish more Americans would take the initiative to read and examine the political life of Australia (and other countries, of course!). We tend to be pretty self-absorbed, unfortunately. It's easily interpreted as arrogance, and there is doubtless plenty of that here, but I think it's mostly laziness.

Now, Auntie can't help you with podcasts, since I've been limited by dialup modem speeds and have never really broached the resources of podcast culture. I suggest you post that question in Democratic Underground's "General Discussion: Politics" forum, and you'll probably get more references than you can manage! But at least it will give you a starting place.

As far as books, though, you've come to the right place, sort of. I'm an avid reader and my bookshelves are stuffed full of books that relate to politics in one fashion or another. I'd like to make it clear up front, especially to the fans of any author I omit to mention, that I can't possibly offer a comprehensive list, and I'm positive that I'll leave at least half-a-dozen really great writers/books unmentioned and regret it later. But I'm not as young as I used to be, and my mental "hard disk" data retrieval system isn't as fast or thorough as I'd like it to be.

First, I should clarify a bit about my reading habits so you have some context for my recommendations. My "political" reading falls into three rough (and overlapping) categories: Commentary, advocacy, and analysis/history/biography. Here's how I think of each category:

Commentary ranges from pure partisan diatribes through humor to semi- (and sometimes pseudo-) scholarly or journalistic explication of current and recent past political events, trends, and sometimes individuals. The bias of the author is usually pretty clear, and I tend to judge this kind of book or article on how entertainingly and well it is written, how honest the author is about her/his bias, and how well s/he has done the homework that lends substance and context to the author's views.

In this category, anything by Molly Ivins wins hands-down, since I think she's outstanding on all of those criteria. I've also enjoyed books by Mark Crispin Miller, Bill Moyers, Joe Conason, Jim Hightower, and others. A quick search of a major online book retailer's database will give you titles, and following the "other recommended" links will lead you to similar books and authors, too.

Special mention must also go to two U.S. Senators who have published enormously thoughtful and moving commentaries: Senator Paul Wellstone's The Conscience of a Liberal, and Senator Robert Byrd's Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. Both are well worth reading and will give you insight into some of the U.S. Senate's most profound moral leadership in the late 20th Century.

Advocacy is a related genre of books that presents the author's views, experiences, scholarship, and/or recommendations on contemporary issues (rather than people, leaders, government entities, etc.) in the political sphere. Again, the authors are generally willing to acknowledge their own viewpoints and/or biases, and the books often focus on how those views were changed or enhanced through their exploration of the issues. Some of the outstanding authors here include Jonathan Kozol, Barbara Ehrenreich, Lisbeth Schorr, and William Julius Wilson.

Analysis/history/biography includes books that relate to current geopolitical issues through the context of historical developments, the biographies (and autobiographies) of pivotal individuals, or the detailed analysis of a specific event. Authors of these works do not always feel it necessary to state particular biases, although some do. But a good writer generally makes his or her perspective clear through how they analyze and comment. You can also tell a lot by looking at bibliographies and lists of citations. Sometimes authors of these books attempt to present as many perspectives as possible and establish a "balanced" viewpoint, sometimes they are writing clearly from the basis of their own ideological stand.

In this area you can look at Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, Madeline Albright's recent autobiography, Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda by Thomas Powers, and almost anything by David Halberstam. Very special mention must go to Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, a book that does more to expose the dark side of American policymaking than just about anything I've ever read. Although it was published in the wake of Vietnam, it's disappointingly clear that little has changed at the highest levels of American policymaking since it was published.

At the moment, I'm reading and enjoying Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, a book that occupies the middle ground between all three of these categories, and American Fascism: The Rise of the Christian Right by Chris Hedges, a commentary laced with plenty of historical and philosophical analysis by an excellent writer.

I hope this gives you something to go on, Warren, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

View Auntie's Archive


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