A wise saying warns us not to “Make the best the enemy of the good.” Over the last few years, I’ve kept accumulating books to review. But somehow the reviews rarely get written. To get my queue in order, I’ve decided to create a series of posts of “One-Paragraph Book Reviews.” I hope none of the authors take offense at my brevity, because many of these books are top-notch.
The New Russians by Hedrick Smith. I’ve been a huge fan of Smith’s The Russians for 30 years, but never got around to reading his follow-up until last summer. What an incredible piece of not just journalism, but social science. Ever wonder how the Soviet economy “worked” as it crumbled? How the Evil Empire fell to pieces in a few short years? Smith’s early chapter on how Gorbachev became Gorbachev is a bit fawning, but by the end we see the last Soviet dictator as a thankfully foolish and weak tyrant. If you read this book, you will be painfully aware that the Russian population has incredibly high moral and intellectual variance. The median Russian is indeed a casual, brutal nationalist, but a good 10% of Russians were thoroughly Westernized by in the late 80s. The tragedy is that former Communist Party members weren’t banned from politics for life when the USSR collapsed.
Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell. An engrossing survey of all the movements around the world that turned history’s greatest mass murderer into their Living God. Besides covering Maoist totalitarian savagery in China, Lovell explores everything from the Maoisms that almost seized major countries (like Indonesia’s PKK and Peru’s Shining Path) to the laughable, sick Maoist cults of the West. Sadly marred by the moral blindness of an author who puts tens of millions murdered on one side of a scale, anecdotes about brave feminist Maoist Nepalese guerillas on the other, and shrugs, “What a complicated legacy.”
Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl. I love their immigration reform proposal, but only because it’s open borders through the back door. The other big ideas are just genius solutions in search of all-but-imaginary problems. Take quadratic voting: Does anyone really think that bad policies exist because voters who abstain aren’t allowed to save their votes for later elections?! My slogan: If your new voting rule doesn’t deregulate housing, I’m not interested.
In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. Moskos has a semi-Swiftian thesis: Prisons are so bad, it would be better if we punished convicts with flogging instead of incarceration. I say “semi-Swifitian” because he makes his case so eloquently that you struggle to believe that he’s not serious. The two main flaws: First, Moskos barely mentions one of the strongest arguments for flogging over incarceration: Criminals are impulsive and macho, so front-loaded, humiliating punishments are extra-good ways to deter them. Second flaw: Moskos tries so hard to convince readers that flogging isn’t too harsh that he barely tries to convince readers that flogging is harsh enough. Yet that’s probably the greater concern, at least according to this poll:
Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America by David Bernstein. Probably Bernstein’s single best book, Classified tells the legal history of not only the groups that got preferential treatment, but all the might-have-beens like Italians and Poles. It really isn’t that hard to imagine an alternate scenario where “Hispanic” identity never got off the ground. Indeed, since my sons mastered Spanish, I’ve become hyper-aware of how hard it is to physically distinguish most Hispanics from darker-skinned whites. This is truly a case of “believing is seeing”: “The government told me they’re a distinct group” therefore “Oh, they look so different.” Bernstein is coy about actually abolishing racial American classifications, but it’s hard to read the book without despising our corrupt Orwellian racist system.
This has been an installment of One-Paragraph Book Reviews. Like if you want more!
This is, possibly, the best format of book reviewing. Thanks.
I appreciate this method of reviews. Are you planning on polling regarding which micro-reviews people would like longer reviews on?