Friday, July 21, 2006


By Thomas Riggins

IMPERIAL GRUNTS: THE AMERICAN MILITARY ON THE GROUND by Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 2005, 421pp., reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in "The New York Times" for September 23, 2005.

The reviewer likes this book even though he is bothered by Kaplan's "romanticized and blinkered view of combat." Kaplan thinks people without military experience are not having "the American experience," which is "exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once."

With reference to the bloody doings in Afghanistan, Kaplan says the Special Operations troops he met "were having the time of their lives." It seems that Sherman's dictum "War is all hell" does not apply to them.

For those of us who are concerned with politics, it is not reassuring to find out that our professional Special Forces units have no interest in "political implications" or any "larger strategic thinking." They only care about "the mission." In reference to the Green Berets he met in Columbia, he says "they lived for the particular technical task at hand...." That sounds a little too Wehrmacht-ish for me.

Special Forces attitudes are further revealed by the almost universal greeting they give in places like the Philippines, Columbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan-- which is "Welcome to Injun Country." They compare themselves to the Indian fighters of the nineteenth century-- seeing the people they are killing as "Injuns." This book is probably worth reading just to find out what kind of Frankenstein's Monster the American military has become. By the way, if you have not had "the American experience" consider yourself lucky.

THE SHAME OF THE NATION: THE RESTORATION OF APARTHEID SCHOOLING IN AMERICA by Jonathan Kozol, Crown Publishers, 2005, 404pp., reviewed by Nathan Glazer in "The New York Times Book Review," Sunday, September 25, 2005.

This is a book every teacher and parent concerned with the education of children should get their hands on and read!

Kozol is dealing here with what the reviewer calls a "persistent" problem in American education -- i.e., "the conditions under which we educate the children of the poor and minorities." To be blunt-- we don't educate them. Forty years after the Civil Rights Movement our schools are being re-segregated. "Black and Hispanic students, [Kozol] writes, are concentrated in schools where they make up almost the entire student body."

This re-segregation is taking place regardless of which party controls the White House. This tells me there is no will on the national, let alone the state and local level, to end racism in this country outside of the Left. Kozol quotes Gary Orfield of Harvard: "American public schools are now 12 years into the process of continuous re-segregation.... During the 1990’s the proportion of black students in majority white schools has decreased... to a level lower than any year since 1968." That is real progress!

Glazer notes that Kozol doesn't address the reasons for this trend. Nor does he, according to the reviewer, ask if "desegregation would have the positive educational effects he hopes for." It seems that Glazer is suggesting that the call for school integration may not be a well-thought-out position.

Kozol is also against the mania for standardized testing--which sacrifices history, social sciences, art, music, geography, etc., to concentrate on reading and math alone. More balance is needed. Glazer seems to have more faith in
these tests than Kozol.

Glazer downplays racism as a factor in this re-segregation movement. What stands in the way of educational betterment of the poor and minorities, he says, are values "which are not simply shields for racism"-- such as "the value of the neighborhood school [why are neighborhoods not integrated?]; the value of local control of education [we can be rid of Darwin and minorities in one fell swoop]; the value of freedom from state imposition when it affects matters so personal as the future of one's children [unless the Army wants to recruit middle-schoolers]." This is bunk!

Glazer concludes his veiled attack on the book by saying the importance of the factors just listed "add up to nothing less than a commitment to individual freedom." Bull Connor would agree if he were still with us. In reality, without a good education and a decent income there is no such thing as individual freedom. The freedom of the poor and minorities has been repressed and stolen by the authorities responsible for public education in this country. True civil and human rights can never be achieved under capitalism. The sooner we build a socialist society the better.

BAIT AND SWITCH: THE (FUTILE) PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM by Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan, 2005, 237pp., reviewed by Michael Kazin in "The Nation" for October 3, 2005.

In this book Ehrenreich does for white-collar workers what she did for blue-collar workers in her earlier book "Nickel and Dimed" (2001). She shows the futility of trying to get ahead in today's corporate America for most people. In her new book she wanted to find out how difficult it would be for laid off white-collar workers to get another good paying job. She went undercover with a fake resume and tried to find a job in public relations. Like many of the people she writes about, she failed to find employment after, as Kazin says, "struggling for almost a year on the job market."

She writes about all the scammers and leeches that prey on middle-class workers trying to get back to good positions. They, the white collars, will do anything to prevent, as Marx says, being pushed down into the proletariat (their ultimate destination like it or not). She writes about so-called job coaches who charge you for their services (whether you land a job or not). Kazin uses the term "inferno of psychobabble" to describe these "networkers" and "coaches."

There are also sessions given by con artists posing as motivational speakers, whose seminars will help you get employed again. Kazin says that the “organizers secure a steady income for themselves by gulling the unlucky...."

Kazin makes some missteps, I think, when he criticizes Ehrenreich for lack of empathy with the white collars. He says she wrote with "affection" and "respect" for the blue- collar people she met in "Nickel and Dimed." On the other hand she "despises the kind of corporate shill she was pretending to be." He says "her loathing tends to rub off on the men and women who desired similar positions for themselves, who equated a secure one with the good life." And why not? The blue collars are struggling under maximum exploitation just to survive, and the white collars want to live the good life on their backs. The white collars would think nothing of sending off pink slips to hundreds of blue collars, but cry the blues if they happen to get one.

"Ehrenreich also slights," Kazin complains, "the ingenuity required in many PR jobs: in a market society, the selling of images can be as exciting and creative, if not as socially useful, as investigative reporting." What an incredibly shallow observation! Let us henceforth praise all the ingenuity it takes for corporations to lie to us believably: "Toxic sludge is good for you." The problem is that the market economy is the problem!

When Ehrenreich writes that "job coaches" teach that "only the 'relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic and obedient' will find secure positions," Kazin rejoins, "But is aggressive individualism so irrational a belief for those who want to make it in big business?" Have we come to this--that "aggressive individualism" is the term used to describe the "relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic and obedient?" Obedient individualists are my favorites, especially a whole room full of them with identical thoughts.

The review goes even more downhill from here. Ehrenreich supports demands for extended unemployment benefits and universal health insurance, and thinks white collars should support these demands. What we need here is union organization, it appears. Kazin sees "the benefits of spouting the company line" until "there's a broad revival of the American left" and the "goals for which professionals are hired" are changed.

While this review may not be so hot, it still appears that Ehrenreich's book is and that progressives will profit from reading it.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political
Affairs and can be reached at

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