Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Coup d'État

Books to help 'em fight the power

By Damon Smith

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  Until the 1820s the holidays were associated with various kinds of subversive activity, ranging from general dissolute behavior to acts of public vandalism. Roving gangs of beggars routinely took over the streets. It was a time for the lower classes to show their resentment of the bourgeoisie; Yuletide revelry consisted primarily of disorderliness. Even Santa Claus, early in his career, was a stern-faced imp who carried a truncheon to discipline the crowds. You may not be able to transform your friends and family into an unruly mob for a truly "traditional" holiday celebration, but you can give them books that will get them thinking about civil disobedience -- or at least inspire them to reconsider some of their political beliefs.

There may be no better tome to put at the top of your holiday shopping list than the 20th-anniversary edition of Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States, 1492 to the Present (HarperCollins). In this magisterial overview of US history, drawn primarily from firsthand accounts, Zinn turns established history on its head. He highlights resistance movements by blacks, women, Indians, immigrants, and labor unions -- struggles that have defined American democracy as powerfully as have any of our most celebrated leaders. Eminently readable and perfect for high-school or college students, Zinn's book opens with Columbus bludgeoning the Arawaks into submission, courses through rarely seen (for good reason) episodes in our nation's past, and winds up with a delightfully corrosive assessment of the Clinton presidency.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome may not be a political radical, but her latest investigative reporting brings to light a pretty nasty episode in the annals of government deception. The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Affairs in the Cold War (Dial Press) tells the harrowing story of how atomic scientists, in their quest to learn more about the effects of radiation on the human body, conducted grisly experiments on unsuspecting "patients" in the years following the Second World War. These pseudo-scientific tests included feeding radioactive oatmeal to residents of a state boys' school and secretly injecting terminal patients with high levels of plutonium. Hmmm, maybe those visions of dancing sugarplums are generated by government implants . . . 

Someone at your holiday gathering is bound to end up trundling around a copy of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, so why not match heft with heft, and right with left, and spring for a book of real substance? Marguerite Young's Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs (Knopf) is less a traditional biography than an Expressionist painting, a sprawling, genre-crossing book that depicts the climate of late-19th-century industrial culture in bursts of inspired prose. Young, who died in 1995 and devoted the last 25 years of her life to this unfinished masterpiece, brings idiosyncratic brilliance to her examination of how the social and economic realities of the age fertilized the radical politics of utopian dreamers like Debs, who founded the Socialist Party of America.

Drawing from a wealth of previously unavailable sources, China historian Jonathan Spence finally weighs in with his own slim but erudite biography of the 20th century's most enigmatic and influential world leader, Mao Zedong (Viking). A modest upbringing in the Hunan province certainly didn't prepare young Mao for his role as the Chairman, but Spence tries hard to weave the Communist leader's early political liberalism, the delusions of grandeur that characterized his reign, and new information about his personal relationships into one coherent personality. Not an easy task. Part of the Penguin Lives series, this engaging little book of Mao's public sins and private passions is the perfect stocking stuffer for anyone considering a run for public office.

No less fascinating are the newly published hoosegow writings of Alexander Berkman, the labor activist who in 1892 retaliated against the massacre of the Homestead strikers by trying to assassinate cold-hearted industrialist Henry Clay Frick in his Pittsburgh offices. His Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (New York Review of Books) is fast earning admirers for its perceptive and articulate scrutiny of prison society. Berkman delves into all aspects of culture behind bars, where inmates are subjected not only to arbitrary punishment from guards, but also to the brutality of their peers. Ultimately, however, his story is that of his own transformation in the belly of the beast.

Speaking of the penal system, no wanna-be radical should be without Christian Parenti's Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso), a thundering indictment of "militarized policing" and the horrors of today's prisons. In addition to laying bare some of the most absurd realities of penitentiary life -- measured carefully alongside actual crime statistics -- Parenti examines the political history of anti-crime legislation, the growth of fortified "theme-park cities," and the meteoric rise in prison construction, one of the most lucrative businesses in America.

Nothing is surer to brighten holiday spirits than a lively discussion of party politics. A good way to start a riot of dinner-table conversation is to give someone the latest incendiary volume by Christopher Hitchens, No One Left To Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (Verso). Everyone's fond of deploring Clinton's moral shortcomings in the Lewinsky affair, but the blunt and bilious Vanity Fair reporter, flourishing his characteristic wit, brings a wider and more damning array of charges against the president. Clinton as corporate toady, political opportunist, race baiter, foreign-policy schmuck -- you better warn the recipient of this book not to choke on its venom. An excellent companion piece to Hitchens's diatribe is Nick Cohen's blistering appraisal of Tony Blair's administration, Cruel Britannia: Reports on the Sinister and the Preposterous (Verso). Undermining virtually every image New Labour has created to woo the public since wresting control from Margaret Thatcher, Cohen combines investigative reporting with searing criticism to rail against the conservative policymaking of Blair's minions. The razor-tongued Observer reporter is Parliament Irritant Number One in Britain, and he's never invited to dinner on Downing Street.

Coming down to the end of your list? Don't forget to bestow Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (Dial Press) on someone you'd like to call comrade. Brownmiller's soon-to-be-classic look at the growing pains of the women's movement in the late '60s is a sterling contribution to the literature of civil rights. Devoting her attention to the infighting as well as the consciousness raising, Brownmiller explains how she was converted and why she was attracted to more-radical aspects of the movement. She brings to life a time when public discussion of issues such as rape, economic discrimination, sexual harassment, abortion, and domestic violence was a big nuisance -- and a threat -- to the establishment.

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