The Common Good

In the Stacks

Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written. 

Here are my picks in this week’s books of interest:

The Cause
By Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, Reviewed by Jeff Shesol

Eric Alterman’s history of liberalism from the New Deal to the present concentrates on the men and women who have defined it.

The story Alterman tells is in large part a familiar one, but worth restating given the strenuous — and to a distressing degree successful — campaign by conservatives to rewrite the entire history of liberalism, and indeed of America itself in the years before the Reagan “revolution,” as one long love affair with central planning and welfare dependency. Alterman works hard to correct the record. By concentrating on the men and women who have defined liberalism in the modern era, “The Cause” lends a human dimension to the dramatic expansion of the federal government, and of the public’s expectations of government …

Power and Constraint: The Accountable Presidency after 9/11
By Jack Goldsmith

Democracy’s Blameless Leaders: From Dresden to Abu Ghraib, How Leaders Evade Accountability for Abuse, Atrocity, and Killing
By Neil James Mitchell

Reviews by Anthony Dworkin

According to Goldsmith, it is misleading to portray Bush’s “war on terror” as an illustration of unbridled presidential power. Although the Bush administration set out to expand the scope of executive action in the field of national security, it was ultimately forced back by a framework of checks and balances built into the American political system. The restrictions imposed on Bush and his officials were frustrating, but the policies that emerged enjoyed a degree of legitimacy and collective endorsement that made it hard for the new administration to abandon them. Goldsmith details the various forces that kicked in to challenge the Bush administration’s counterterrorism program, from the courts and Congress, to a persistent and skeptical press and creative human rights organizations, to lawyers and watchdogs throughout the executive branch.

The question of how democracies balance security concerns and human rights is at the center of “Democracy’s Blameless Leaders,” by the British academic Neil James Mitchell. Mitchell’s concern is with democratic responses to atrocities in which the state is implicated. He examines a series of violent incidents from 20th-century history, from the Amritsar massacre in India through the fire-bombing of Dresden and the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and uses them to argue that political leaders and military officers in the United States, Britain and Israel have repeatedly been able to escape accountability for their actions.

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners.

IMAGE: mbtphotos/shutterstock

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