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BOOK REVIEWS | spring 2007


Reviewed in this issue:

Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians
By Laura Flanders

Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy
By Zillah Eisenstein

Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women
By T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting

Nineteen Minutes
By Jodi Picoult

A Handbook to Luck
By Cristina García


LISTEN UP!


Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians
By Laura Flanders
The Penguin Press

Laura Flanders: Blue GritWho are we now? What happened to America’s celebrated values— liberty, democracy, justice? Why is our constitution under siege? What do we stand for? Whom do we praise? Why are our leading politicians silent and supine as “aliens” are rounded up, disappeared, and denied habeas corpus and court trials?

After two stolen elections, we find ourselves in a disaster zone, where issues of party, race and gender have become swamps of confusion. It was, after all, Louisiana’s white-woman governor who bellowed, “Shoot to kill,” as she confronted Katrina victims “looting” diapers, infant formula, food and water. (One wonders, did Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco ever apologize?) Then there was the black-man mayor, who simply could not think of a way to be helpful. Our spineless Democratic leaders have been shaped by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which instructs them to sound like Republicans in order to “win” elections. Beyond our borders, we confront Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other centers of criminal detention. Who tortures? Who supports torture? Whose America is this? Perhaps FDR said it best in 1940: “We will have a liberal democracy, or we will return to the Dark Ages.”

In Blue Grit, radio journalist Laura Flanders gives us a road map for our journey out of the darkness. Brilliantly researched with the help of media activist Eileen Clancy, it is indeed “a book of good news for grim times.” Flanders has searched our country for success stories in the people’s movement against madness, brutality, war —and they are everywhere! Oregon Action got behind Portland’s winning mayoral candidate, “pro-gay, pro-poor” former police chief Tom Potter. In Arizona, gays and lesbians worked in concert to stop a referendum that would ban gay marriage. In South Dakota, a splendid coalition of women’s rights advocates and Native American activists for health defeated an evangelical effort to criminalize abortion. In Utah and Montana, there have been similar stirring victories.

While the Christian-Evangelical crusade remains a statebystate challenge, an entirely new movement is under way, one that unites new and grand alliances. America’s Heartland has found its heart; it is bigger and more expansive than ever before. Local activism is everywhere on the rise for labor rights, women’s rights, human rights, marriage equality.

Flanders tells us about the politicians elected because they opposed DLC propaganda and those neocon fundamentalists who would “starve the beast,” meaning the public sector. The future is not about more war, more torture, more Scripture, fewer rights, less social spending. Rather, with the liberal upsurgence that Flanders documents, we can expect a future that is about national health care, affordable housing, job security, public education, real opportunity, urgent environmental action, a return to the Enlightenment—including science education and separation of church and state.

Democrats! Listen up! Fundamentalists won’t vote for you, even if you sound like them. Of course they will if you act like them, but then you are them! In a world gone berserk, Flanders writes, “a rumble of real change is rising.” With this book as our guide, we can restore the promise of American life.

BLANCHE WIESEN COOK is a distinguished professor of history and professor of women’s studies at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes I and II (Viking Adult, 1992 and 1999); III, forthcoming.

 


Depravity Disguised

Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy
By Zillah Eisenstein
Zed Books

Sexual DecoysAs women gain more seats in public office, why is the world not a safer place for women (or, for that matter, for children and men), Zillah Eisenstein asks in Sexual Decoys. She suggests this is because some of these women, as well as some people of color, are sexual and racial decoys: They mask the damage caused by sexism, racism and avaricious forms of capitalism while also contributing to it. Pointing to the (in)famous examples of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, she describes how the appointment of women and people of color to positions of power neither reflects a just social order nor results in one. Instead, as decoys, these individuals participate in the reinforcement or aggravation of the unequal and violent treatment of women and people of color.

Gender decoys, for instance, were central to the scandalous abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The different roles performed by women—ranging from Lynndie England, an inmate-processing clerk, to Janis Karpinski, the brigadier general in charge of the prison—raise complicated questions about culpability and accountability. Karpinski was one of the few senior officers punished for the abuses. And, as Eisenstein points out, England and some of the other low-ranking women who perpetrated the abuses were pawns who supported “disgusting practices that they should have refused to perform.” As decoys, these women covered up the “misogyny of building empire, while also actually building it.”

If Abu Ghraib brought to public awareness the sexualized racism abroad, other political and ethical disasters uncovered the convergence of racism and sexism at home. As much as it was a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina was a “political disaster defined by racism, sexism and class privilege.” The war on Iraq and the war on the poor in New Orleans were connected in many concrete ways. For example, over $71 million was cut from the Army Corp of Engineers for flood protection while billions were spent on the war. And, as in the war in Iraq, private firms like Halliburton have profited from receiving an early contract for the “rebuilding” of New Orleans.

Eisenstein describes the role of sexual and racial decoys across a range of troubling social developments: the rollback of civil rights, the feminization of poverty, the spike in the incarceration of people of color. She raises provocative questions about how we might measure the gains of feminism(s): Rather than congratulate ourselves on how many women now occupy positions of power, we might ask whether they have contributed to improving the world in which we live. When women decoys participate in the perpetuation of conditions of violence and inequality, she remarks, “this is not a win for feminism.” Smart and witty, sobering yet uplifting, this book is essential reading for all of us committed to social justice.

PURNIMA MANKEKAR is an associate professor in women’s and Asian American studies at UCLA.

 


The Lust Generation

Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women
By T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting
New York University Press

Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women Readers unfamiliar with the graphic sexuality that permeates commercial hip-hop should get ready for a shocking read. Through provocatively titled chapters such as “Sex, Power, and Punanny” and “Strip Tails: Booty Clappin’, P-poppin’, Shake Dancing,” Sharpley-Whiting provides a sobering analysis of women’s participation in the hypersexualized black-American, urban-youth culture known as hip-hop.

Commercial hip-hop, argues the author, relies on a “pimp-playa- bitch-ho” nexus that depicts young black men and women as selfish, sexualized, materialistic hustlers. These images encourage youth who listen to rap music, watch hip-hop music videos and chase the latest hip-hop fashions to think of themselves in these terms.

The most pernicious effect may be on black girls. In hip-hop’s “masculine” version of black femininity, selling sex is central to a perverse sort of self-definition, and male-female relations pivot not on gender warfare but on sex as sport. Black women are expected to hustle men, give command performances as hos, “play” men for money, favors and pimp power, and live by the adage “it’s my body and I’ll do what I want with it.” In the fantasy world of hip-hop’s quasi- pornographic music videos, sex is simultaneously a way for black women to garner power and a way for men to devalue them.

Black American feminists have consistently pointed out how these sexual stereotypes foster troublesome gender relations among blacks and mask inequalities of race, class and gender. Sharpley-Whiting makes scant mention of black feminism, describing hip-hop’s misogyny without explaining it. Her book illustrates the tendency of some young black feminists to claim hip-hop culture as the authentically black creation of their generation while rejecting a Western feminism that they see as irrelevant because it is too white. Surprisingly, they ignore the history of black American feminism, which has long challenged the social inequalities that underpin hip-hop’s success.

This book delivers a riveting portrayal of hip-hop, from the thumping rap music that serves as a soundtrack for America’s strip clubs to the predatory groupies who relentlessly pursue rap stars. But it misses a good opportunity to show young black women that criticizing hip-hop stereotypes can be an important part of black feminist analysis as well as a contribution to the broader struggle for social justice. Those who read this book with this challenge in mind should be well positioned to dispute hip-hop’s troubling gender politics.

PATRICIA HILL COLLINS is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and author of From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism (Temple University Press, 2006).

 


Empathy Denied

Nineteen Minutes
By Jodi Picoult
Atria Books

Nineteen Minutes In the opening sequence of Nineteen Minutes, a detective rushes into a high school in the midst of a Columbine-style shooting, directing terrified students toward the exits. The last scared, shaking 17-year-old he rescues turns out to be the killer— a killer indistinguishable from his victims. This is the moment when any chance for a simple good guy/bad guy crime narrative evaporates. Instead, the way opens for Jodi Picoult, a writer of psychological and ethical dramas, to probe how the explosions of violence we call “asocial” and “abnormal” can stem from the “normal” socialization of boys.

We meet the shooter, Peter, as a child. He is a sweet, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly kind of boy, a lightning rod for bullying. Teachers and parents tell him that he needs to stick up for himself, underscoring the problematic lessons he is already learning from his tormentors: Proper masculinity entails violence; kindness is a weakness to be punished. Meanwhile, his father introduces Peter to guns. With the shooting, Peter feels he has finally, appropriately, managed to defend himself. His first question for his lawyer is, “How many did I get?”

The ingredients here—a cutthroat social hierarchy, unjust authority figures, the torturing of effeminate boys—should be familiar to anyone who attended middle school. As too should be the casual cruelties inflicted by the swaggering male athletes at the top of the social heap—woe be-tide the boy (or girl) who shows weakness in their presence. With the accumulation of so many banal, every-day violences, blame becomes diffuse. Which of many perpetrators can be held responsible? And what about the adults who failed to intervene?

“Maybe it was our own damn fault that men turned out the way they did,” muses one character, a mother. “Maybe empathy, like any unused muscle, simply atrophied.”

If empathy is an inoculation against violence, then Picoult’s own compassion for her characters goes beyond good storytelling to political statement; she models the deep sympathy that might have averted the tragedy. She takes us inside prickly adolescents whose every action screams “Keep out!” and inside the adults afraid to brave their children’s barriers. She even takes us inside the bullies, revealing that they too are constantly nervous about their own place in the hierarchy. After all, when masculinity is a zero-sum game—when asserting it means undermining someone else’s—everyone’s status is uncertain.

There is only one place where Picoult’s own empathy fails. We never see the killing spree from Peter’s perspective. We never learn why he shot a teacher who had been kind to him or why he stopped midspree to eat a bowl of Rice Krispies. Perhaps the radical failure of empathy at these moments is two-way. Once we lose boys, Picoult seems to imply, they go somewhere that we cannot follow.

JESSICA STITES is Assistant Editor at Ms. Magazine

 


Romp and Circumstance

A Handbook to Luck
By Cristina García
Alfred A. Knopf

A Handbook to LuckWe call the world small as we navigate our technology-rich, travel-dense lives. A ping in the email inbox signals an old friend who has found you on the Internet; a stranger in the airplane seat next to you lived next door to your sister at college. Our lives don’t just touch each other’s, the sensation of a brushed shoulder in a train station staying with us later. Our lives influence each other’s, pressing us toward situations that some might see as good luck or bad luck, but what Leila in García’s novel would insist is simply the fate written indelibly on our foreheads at birth.

Styled in juxtaposed narratives of three children initially living thousands of miles apart, A Handbook to Luck follows them through 20 years as they mine the circumstances presented to them, attempt to cross the emotional and physical borders before them, and ultimately choose paths that bring them to intersect and detach in heartrending and soaring ways.

The book opens in 1968, when Enrique is 9. His greatest fear is forgetting the mother who died in front of his eyes as she assisted his magician father Fernando with a stage trick. Grief-stricken, father and son flee Cuba for the United States where his father’s flamboyant magic act might earn him fame and fortune. If Fernando is razzle-dazzle, Enrique is studied. He masters poker at 13, scores an 800 on the math portion of the SAT, and lands admission to MIT and the chance to start over without his father’s shadow casting a long and heavy darkness over him. But despite Enrique’s talents, his desires, his plans, he can’t escape the allure of the casinos and the duty he feels to ease his father’s misfortunes.

Two years later, across the globe in Tehran, Leila Rezvani, a preteen, watches her brother take his last breaths, sharing with him a secret that will not fade away. Her mother forces Leila into a life she never wanted: rhinoplasty, boarding school and, ultimately, a marriage bound by appearances rather than love. The condolence prize is a college education in California. And so, as she ages and fulfills her mother’s expectations, there is something else that won’t fade away—the nights she spent with Enrique and the fragile love she shaped with him before reading the writing on her forehead.

Meanwhile, Marta Claros roams the streets of San Salvador in the late ’60s as a 9-year-old vendor and provides for her brother, who lives in a tree and bears the scars of what he witnesses in the darkness of night as San Salvador falls victim to guardias without conscience. A daring escape from an abusive husband takes her to the United States where a new life, a new Marta, awaits her. In a country where the American Dream is the teaser, she starts over, embracing parts of herself that could only be born absent of familial expectation and obligation. Slowly, almost surprising herself, she becomes self-sufficient, a workplace advocate and a woman invested in saving herself. When she meets Enrique and is given the opportunity to fill a void in her life, luck, fate or maybe the angels grant her the ultimate gift before almost taking it away again.

A Handbook to Luck shines with vulnerable characters, poetic language and poignant epiphanies that allow each character to transcend the oppression and exile that have been placed around their necks like a tight noose, if only for a moment. The question that lingers after the journeys of our three protagonists is how we find solace and freedom in our own lives when luck— good or bad—spins what we imagined into what we cannot fathom or what we did not dare to dream.

ROSIE MOLINARY is the author of Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image and Growing Up Latina (Seal Press, 2007).