Category Archives: Social Science

American Nations

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard (Penguin Books, 2011).

Since I’m very interested in regional cultures of the U.S., this book has been on my list to read for a long time and I finally bought a copy. It was absolutely fascinating. Woodard explains so much about American history by dividing North America into 11 “ethnocultural nations” instead of the usual 50 states. He explains the origins of these regional cultures and how (amazingly) they have persisted since the 18th century. The eleven nations are the Left Coast, the Far West, First Nation (in Canada only), El Norte (partly in Mexico), the Deep South, New France, Tidewater, New Netherland (New York City), the Midlands (Philadelphia area, the Midwest and Ontario), and Yankeedom (New England, upstate NY and Minnesota/Wisconsin). Woodard makes a very strong argument for American history being almost entirely explained by the influence of and shifting alliances between these nations. I would love to hear how he explains Trump; perhaps he can be persuaded to write a second edition.


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Filed under Nonfiction, Politics, Social Science

A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States 1492 – Present by Howard Zinn (HarperCollins, 1999)

This is the twentieth edition of a book originally published in 1979, updated with coverage of the 1980’s and 1990’s. It is often mentioned by left-wing activists, so when I saw it on the library bookshelf I took the opportunity to read it. Zinn (a retired professor of American history) provides a very comprehensive history of the United States from the point of view of the people. Absorbing its 655 pages meant taking the heavy book with me as I spent time in various waiting rooms over more than a month. When she saw it, the cashier at the Toyota dealer exclaimed that she had listened to the book on CD and thought it was great. Zinn really does start with 1492, explaining how much was left out of the story of Columbus we learn in elementary school. In this book we learn about history as experienced by Indians, servants, laborers, soldiers, slaves, women, Blacks, and immigrants. Although Zinn doesn’t hesitate to offer his own analysis, all of his facts are backed up with copious evidence from books, articles, and primary sources. In some ways it is an alternate history, because it brings to light events that were never reported in the mainstream media, such as instances of labor strikes during time periods when labor issues were not in the headlines. It is clear as you read this history that both our major parties have always been on the side of the 1% (Zinn may be the source of the 1% meme, in fact) and not the people. This is a very educational book and a great resource.

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Rethinking the American Union

Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-first Century edited by Donald Livingston (Pelican Publishing Company, 2012).

This collection of essays is all about what some might consider an unthinkable topic: the secession of states from the union as an option for the 21st century. The first few essays are written by conservative Southern lawyers and historians but there are also several contributions from progressive thinkers about secession movements in Vermont and California. There have actually been three national conventions on the topic of secession in the past ten years. Apparently (according to several of the authors) secession is one of the few ideas that brings people on opposite ends of the political spectrum together. A related idea discussed by several authors is that the United States is too large to be a democratically governed republic, and division into smaller entities is the only solution. Although their writing was repetitive and filled with unexplained legalese, I learned a lot from the right-wing writers about the history of the Constitution and how the South viewed the Civil War. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about President Lincoln, let alone the Supreme Court, but these author were not afraid to do so. I still don’t understand why he didn’t just let the Southern states go, but Lincoln was the President who made us “one nation indivisible’ and not just a union of sovereign states. We’ve been brought up to think this is a good thing, but the essay writers in this collection make a pretty convincing case that we’d be better off seceding.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Social Science

Imagine a socialist USA

Imagine living in a Socialist USA – edited by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith (Harper Collins Publishers, 2014).

This book was recommended by a friend but I didn’t realize until I checked it out that is a collection of essays by a variety of people. There is some basic coherence to the vision, since all the authors believe in socialism, but their specific ideas differ. The book begins, of course, with an explanation of “What’s Wrong with Capitalism,” but quickly moves on to what the USA would actually look like under socialism. There is some effort to analyze what went wrong with socialism under the Soviets and the Chinese, such as their devolution into a totalitarian political structure and their concept of nationalizing industries and running them from the top down. In a socialist USA, democracy in the political arena would be extended to the economic arena, so workers would run enterprises.

Each essay describes how a different aspect of U.S. society would be different (and generally better) under socialism – economics and finance, law and justice, education, health care, the media, the arts, science and technology, immigration, racism and gender issues. One significant area never mentioned in the book was religion, which was suppressed under all 20th century communist regimes. In the last section of the book writers offer various scenarios for the transition between capitalism and socialism, using the Occupy movement as a jumping off point for the inevitable revolution. Although I think it would have been stronger if written in one voice, this book will start some interesting conversations among left-leaning Americans.

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Filed under Politics, Social Science

The Help

The Help by Katherine Stockett (The Berkeley Publishing Book, 2009)

I saw the very memorable movie made from this book in the theater when it came out several years ago. If you missed the movie, you should definitely read the book; I picked it up at a library book sale because I thought it was worth owning. It’s almost a meta-novel: a novel about a group of African-American housemaids writing a book about their experiences working for Southern white women in the early 1960’s. It’s hard for me to understand why young white women in their early twenties who could afford to hire maids to do their housework for them didn’t want to take care of their own children.  Instead they expected the maids (who often had children of their own who someone else watched while they worked) to babysit on top of doing housework. Many maids developed an emotional bond with the white children, only to be rejected and despised when the children grew up to be their employers. Some of the stories of callousness toward the lives of black people on the part of the whites are truly appalling, and undoubtedly had counterparts in real life. Certainly the rules about segregated bathrooms, schools, businesses, and every other part of everyday life that existed for decades in the American South are all too true. The Help is one of those classic pieces of literature that vividly documents the culture of a time and place, for students of later generations to study.

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Filed under Historical fiction, Social Science

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins (Blackstone Audio, 2005)

The title of this book makes it sound like it’s going to be a hilarious romp, with lots of wild and crazy adventures and snarky humor. In fact, Perkins could not be more serious (both about confessing and about being a hit man), yet this is not a dry economics tome, either. It is a memoir of Perkins’ real life as an economic consultant in the many developing countries where American companies operate. It reveals a successful strategy for creating a global capitalist empire so insidious that most of the people who helped make it happen didn’t know they were doing it. Perkins did know, up front; his guilt for what he did eventually made him write this book. The job of an EHM is to convince poor countries to borrow huge amounts of money from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, then give the money to American engineering firms to exploit their natural resources and create modern infrastructure. Just make sure that the countries can never pay the money back, so the “corporatocracy” (a collusion of government, big corporations, and big banks) can continue to control them.
As with all capitalist schemes, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (often by being forced off their land by big oil or big agriculture), and the environment is destroyed in the process. If the country elects democratic leaders with left-wing ideas (like helping the poor or nationalizing oil companies), the “jackals” are sent in to assassinate the leaders in nasty “accidents” and put right-wing dictators in place. If the jackals don’t succeed, the American armed forces invade and remove the leader who doesn’t want to do the big corporations’ bidding and allow the country to be exploited. This is the true story of the “third” world since World War II, and especially since 1970, which has been hidden from us by the corporate-controlled media – the story of what really happened in places like Indonesia, Panama, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ecuador. You may not believe me now, but when you have read this book, you will.

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Filed under Engineering, Environment, Social Science

Lean in

Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

This book about women and leadership, by Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, has gotten a lot of media attention. It is the assigned reading for my discussion group about women in STEM fields. If I didn’t know that the author was a Facebook executive who got her start in business through her association with Lawrence Summers, I would say that this is an excellent book with a lot of good advice. Unfortunately I am very uncomfortable with Facebook’s cavalier attitude towards privacy (“get over it” is a direct quote from Mark Zuckerberg) and with Lawrence Summers’ public attitude toward professional women, so anything Sandberg says is suspect.

But Sandberg does seem to have done her research and offers some excellent tips for women who want to become business leaders. “Lean in” is a poor and easily misunderstood slogan, but the concept behind it is fairly sound. Basically she says that women often sabotage their own chances of getting ahead in business, though she doesn’t discount the very real discrimination that exists. For some women this is by being underconfident and reluctant to promote oneself; others are so concerned about barriers to success (such as conflicts between work and family demands) that they turn down the upward mobility opportunities offered to them. This is an important addition to the public conversation about women and work, regardless of whose name is attached to it.

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Filed under Social Science