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Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann (71)



Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism
by Ha-Joon Chang
Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

The fundamental myth of the Milton/Thomas Friedman neoliberal cons is that in a "flat world" everybody is not only able to compete with everybody else freely, but should be required to. It sounds nice. America trades with - and competes with trade with and for - the European Union. France against Germany. England against Australia.

But wait a minute. In such a "free" trade competition, who will win when the match-up is Canada versus the Solomon Islands? Germany versus Bulgaria? Zimbabwe versus Italy?

There are two glaringly obvious flaws in the so-called "free trade" theories expounded by neoliberal philosophers like Friedrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman, and promoted relentlessly in the popular press by (very wealthy) hucksters like Thomas Friedman.

First, "infant" economies - countries that are only beginning to get on their feet - cannot "compete" with "mature" economies. They really only have two choices - lose to their more mature competitors and stand on the hungry and cold outside of the world of trade (as we see with much of Africa), or be colonized and exploited by the dominant corporate forces within the mature economies (as we see with Shell Oil and Nigeria, or historically with the "banana republics" of Central and South America and Asia and, literally, the banana corporations).

Second, the way "infant" economies become "mature" economies is not via free trade. It never has been and never will be. Whether it be the mature economies of Britain (which began to seriously grow in the early 1600s), America (late 1700s), Japan (1800s), or Brazil (1900s), in every single case, worldwide, without exception, the economic strength and maturity of a nation came about as a result not of governments "standing aside" or "getting out of the way" but instead of direct government participation in and protection of the "infant" industries and economy.

The modern history of protectionist trade policies goes back to ancient Rome, stretches through the reigns of a series of King Henry's in the UK, through Alexander Hamilton's tenure as Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, through the trade policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and JFK, and continues today with China, Korea, the Middle East, and the rapidly-growing Brazilian economy.

The way economies go from being underdeveloped, anemic, and uncompetitive to becoming developed, strong, and aggressively competitive is simple and straightforward: government steps in.

Government first determines which industries are worth growing and which are not. Having a strong machine-tool industry in the United States both creates good jobs and is in our strategic interest - machine tools are necessary for virtually every other form of heavy manufacturing (and even light/sophisticated/electronics fabrication), and being dependent on Italy or China or Japan for them is crazy. On the other hand, do we really need to spend the resources of We The People to encourage and grow a sandalwood-carving industry (actually a substantial industry in Thailand) when we neither grow sandalwood nor have a long and historic tradition of carving it into both artistic and utilitarian forms?

Once "strategic" and "important" industries are identified, government both encourages and protects their domestic growth in a variety of ways. These include subsidies, legal protections (like patent laws), import tariffs to protect against foreign competition, strong industry regulation to ensure quality, and development of infrastructure to ease manufacture, distribution, sales, and use of the product.

As Ha-Joon Chang points out in his brilliant book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism," in 1933 a clothing manufacturing company decided to branch out into the manufacture of automobiles. They had everything going against them - their nation had no really serious domestic auto industry, the company had no experience with the product, and other nations (particularly the US and Great Britain) were already making world-class vehicles that had captured most of the world's markets.

But the company caught the imagination of its country's leadership, and a ministry of trade decided to help it along. Government subsidies helped the company develop their first car. Decades of high import tariffs protected it from foreign competition as it grew into a serious contender. Domestic content laws both made sure the company used parts made within the country, and also guaranteed that domestic competitors would have to, thus building a strong base of domestic companies supportive of an auto industry, from tires to plastic components to precision machine tools and electronics.

In 1939 the country even kicked out both GM and Ford from sales within the country, and the nation's single wholly-owned bank bailed out the struggling textile manufacturer as it moved relentlessly forward in the development of an automobile.

That company, originally known as The Toyoda Automatic Loom Company, is today known as Toyota, and manufactures the infamous Lexus that Tom Friedman mistakenly thought was successful because the world is "flat" and trade is "free." In fact, the success of the Lexus (and the Prius and every other Toyota) is entirely traceable to massive government intervention in the markets by Japan over a fifty-year period that continues to this very day.

To illustrate how infant industries must be nurtured by government until they're ready to compete in global marketplaces, Chang points to the example of his own son, Jin-Gyu. At the age of six, the young boy is legally able to work and produce an income in many countries of the world. He's an "asset" that could be "producing income" right now. But Chang, being a good parent, intends to deny his son the short-term "opportunity" to learn a skill like street-sweeping or picking pockets or shining shoes (typical "trades" for six year olds in many countries) so he may grow up instead to become an engineer or physician - or fully reach whatever other potential his temperament, abilities, and inclination dictate.

Somehow this is lost on Thomas Friedman and the whole "free trade" bunch. As Chang writes, "[E]ven from a purely materialistic viewpoint, I would be wiser to invest in my son's education than gloat over the money I save by not sending him to school. After all, if I were right [in sending him out to work at age six], Oliver Twist would have been better off pick-pocketing for Fagin, rather than being rescued by the misguided Good Samaritan Mr. Brownlow, who deprived the boy of his chance to remain competitive in the labor market.

"Yet this absurd line of argument is in essence how free-trade economists justify rapid, large-scale trade liberalization in developing countries. They claim that developing country producers need to be exposed to as much competition as possible right now, so that they have the incentive to raise their productivity in order to survive. Protection, by contrast, only creates complacency and sloth. The earlier the exposure, the argument goes, the better it is for economic development."

But history proves the free-traders wrong. Every time, without exception, a developing nation is forced (usually by the IMF, WTO, and/or World Bank) to unilaterally throw open all their doors to "free trade," the result is a disaster. Local industries, still in their developmental stages, are either wiped out or bought out and shut down by foreign behemoths. Wages collapse. The "Middle Class" becomes the working poor. And in the process the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals in the world become larger, stronger, and more wealthy. It's "Monopoly" (the game) on steroids.

Even worse, opening a country up to "free trade" weakens its democratic institutions. Because the role of government is diminished - and in a democratic republic "government" is another word for "the will of the people" - the voice of citizens in the nation's present and future economy is gagged, replaced by the bullhorn of transnational corporations and think-tanks funded by grants from mind-bogglingly wealthy families. One-man-one-vote is replaced with one-dollar-one-vote. Governments are corrupted, often beyond immediate recovery, and democracy is replaced by a form of oligarchy that is most rightly described as a corporate plutocratic kleptocracy.

When this corporate oligarchy reaches out to take over and merge itself with the powers and institutions of government, it becomes the very definition of Mussolini's "fascism": the merger of corporate and state interests. As China has proven, capitalism can do very well, thank you, in the absence of democracy. (You'd think we would have figured that out after having watch Germany in the 1930s.) And as so many of the Northern European countries show so clearly, capitalism can flourish and generate great wealth and a high standard of living within the constraints of intense regulation by a democratic republic answerable entirely to its citizens.

Consider the United States of America.

In the earliest days of our nation, George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, with some writing and editing help from Tench Coxe, outlined what came to be the foundation of American industrial policy. At its core was the protection of what Hamilton referred to as "infant" industries.

Although the invention of the term "infant industry" is usually credited to Friedrich List (in 1841 to support the idea of protecting new industries in Germany by government actions), the man who originated the phrase (and most aggressively promoted the idea in the USA) was Alexander Hamilton. In his "Report on the Subject of Manufactures," written together (but not credited to) Hamilton's friend and sometimes-assistant Tench Coxe, Hamilton wrote:

Bounties [subsidies] are sometimes not only the best, but the only proper expedient, for uniting the encouragement of a new object of agriculture, with that of a new object of manufacture. It is the interest of the farmer to have the production of the raw material promoted, by counteracting the interference of the foreign material of the same kind. It is the interest of the manufacturer to have the material abundant and cheap ... By either destroying the requisite supply, or raising the price of the article, beyond what can be afforded to be given for it, by the conductor of an infant manufacture, it is abandoned or fails; …

It cannot escape notice, that a duty upon the importation of an article can no otherwise aid the domestic production of it, than giving the latter greater advantages in the home market.

Hamilton's point was that there are two things needed for an "infant industry" to turn into a genuine manufacturing power. The first was cheap raw materials, the second protection from foreign competition.

To provide the cheap raw materials - for example, cotton or wool, if we were talking about the manufacture of clothing - Hamilton suggested both short-term subsidies for the production of the raw material, and tariffs (import taxes) on cotton or wool brought in from overseas. This would both provide a sure and inexpensive supply of raw material, and ensure that the raw materials were - and would continue to be over the long term - produced here at home.

To protect the nascent clothing industry (in this example), Hamilton also strongly advocated short-term supports to the budding industries (for example, government support or gifts of land for the production of factories) and tariffs on foreign-made clothing. This would make domestic products cheaper for the consumer and foreign ones more expensive, thus encouraging Americans to buy American-made clothing, thus building up a strong domestic fabric and clothing industry (remember the mills that John Edwards' dad worked in?).

As Hamilton noted (this is only referenced in the book - I'm filling in Hamilton's actual words here):

    It is a primary object of the policy of nations, to be able to supply themselves with subsistence from their own soils; and manufacturing nations, as far as circumstances permit, endeavor to procure, from the same source, the raw materials necessary for their own fabrics.

As to how to accomplish that, Hamilton and Coxe had a straightforward plan, which was adopted by the Founders of this nation:

    I. Protecting duties.

    Protective duties, or duties on those foreign articles which are the rivals of the domestic ones, intended to be encouraged. [B]y enhancing the charges on foreign articles, they enable the national manufacturers to undersell all their foreign competitors.

    II. Prohibitions of rival articles or duties equivalent to prohibitions.

    Considering a monopoly of the domestic market to its own manufacturers as the reigning policy of manufacturing nations, a similar policy on the part of the United States in every proper instance, is dictated, it might almost be said, by the principles of distributive justice; certainly by the duty of endeavoring to secure to their own citizens a reciprocity of advantages.

    III. Prohibitions of the exportation of the materials of manufactures.

    The desire of securing a cheap and plentiful supply for the national workmen, and, where the article is either peculiar to the country, or of peculiar quality there, the jealousy of enabling foreign workmen to rival those of the nation, with its own materials, are the leading motives to this species of regulation. …

    IV. Pecuniary bounties [industry direct financial subsidies].

    This has been found one of the most efficacious means of encouraging manufactures, and it is in some views, the best. Though it has not yet been practiced upon by the government of the United States (unless the allowances on the exportation of dried and pickled fish and salted meat could be considered as a bounty) and though it is less favored by public opinion than some other modes. Its advantages, are these -- It is a species of encouragement more positive and direct than any other, and for that very reason, has a more immediate tendency to stimulate and uphold new enterprises, increasing the chances of profit, and diminishing the risks of loss, in the first attempts.

    V. Premiums [incentives for production, innovation, or quality].

    These are of a nature allied to bounties, though distinguishable from them, in some important features. Bounties are applicable to the whole quantity of an article produced, or manufactured, or exported, and involve a correspondent expense.

    Premiums serve to reward some particular excellence or superiority, some extraordinary exertion or skill, and are dispensed only in a small number of cases. But their effect is to stimulate general effort. Contrived so as to be both honorary and lucrative, they address themselves to different passions; touching the chords as well of emulation as of interest. They are accordingly a very economical mean of exciting the enterprise of a whole community.

    VI. The exemption of the materials of manufactures [raw materials] from duty [import tariffs].

    The policy of that exemption as a general rule, particularly in reference to new establishments, is obvious. It can hardly ever be advisable to add the obstructions of fiscal burdens to the difficulties which naturally embarrass a new manufacture; … exemptions of this kind in the United States, is to be derived from the practice, as far as their necessities have permitted, of those nations whom we are to meet as competitors in our own and in foreign markets.

    VIII. The encouragement of new inventions and discoveries [patents and copyrights].

    The encouragement of new inventions and discoveries at home, and of the introduction into the United States of such as may have been made in other countries; particularly those, which relate to machinery.

    This is among the most useful and unexceptionable of the aids, which can be given to manufactures. The usual means of that encouragement are pecuniary rewards, and, for a time, exclusive privileges. The first must be employed, according to the occasion, and the utility of the invention, or discovery: For the last, so far as respects "authors and inventors'' provision has been made by law.

    IX. Judicious regulations for the inspection of manufactured commodities [regulation and inspection].

    This is not among the least important of the means, by which the prosperity of manufactures may be promoted. It is indeed in many cases one of the most essential. Contributing to prevent frauds upon consumers at home and exporters to foreign countries--to improvement quality and preserve the character of the national manufactures, it cannot fail to aid the expeditious and advantageous sale of them, and to serve as a guard against successful competition from other quarters.

    The reputation of the flour and lumber of some states, and of the potash of others has been established by an attention to this point. And the like good name might be procured for those articles, wheresoever produced, by a judicious and uniform system of inspection; throughout the ports of the United States. A like system might also be extended with advantage to other commodities.

    X. The facilitating of pecuniary remittances from place to place [a stable currency and banking system].

    The facilitating of pecuniary remittances from place to place is a point of considerable moment to trade in general, and to manufactures in particular; by rendering more easy the purchase of raw materials and provisions and the payment for manufactured supplies. …

    XI. The facilitating of the transportation of commodities [transportation infrastructure].

    Improvements favoring this object intimately concern all the domestic interests of a community; but they may without impropriety be mentioned as having an important relation to manufactures. There is perhaps scarcely any thing, which has been better calculated to assist the manufactures of Great Britain, than the ameliorations of the public roads of that kingdom, and the great progress which has been of late made in opening canals. Of the former, the United States stand much in need; and for the latter they present uncommon facilities. …

This understanding of the role of government in helping "infant industries" grow to become mature industries capable of international competition was well-known by Americans for most of the history of our country. After Hamilton published his "report" during the George Washington administration, Congress, at Hamilton's and Coxe's urging, raised tariffs on imported finished manufactured products from 5 percent to 12.5 percent. Three presidents and two decades later, Congress doubled them in response to the War of 1812, when the British and Canadians made their way all the way to Washington, DC and set fire to the White House just a few days after President James Madison left to command troops (the only sitting president to do so in our history). The War of 1812 exposed the weakness of our industrial base's ability to shift to wartime footing, leading directly to the increase of import tariffs from 12.5% to 25%.

As these tariffs made foreign-manufactured goods more expensive and increased demand for domestic-manufactured items, American industry began to take off. Not being idiots, Congress saw this cause-and-effect and raised tariffs two more times, in 1816 and 1820, to 25% and 40% respectively. It set the stage for one of the greatest industrializations in world history - from the 1830s straight up to and through World War II - and also produced the world's first truly large-scale middle class.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln raised tariffs to a full 50%, where they stayed - the world's highest, as Chang notes - until 1913 when Teddy Roosevelt's defection from the Republican Party led to a three-way split and Republican defeat and the anti-tariff Democrats (of that day) dropped them to 25%. After World War I and the 1921 Republican victory, tariffs were again raised back up, hitting 37% in 1925, and then raised slightly higher still a year into the Republican Great Depression when Herbert Hoover and the Republicans in Congress pushed through Smoot-Hawley, raising tariffs back to the more-or-less average rate during the industrialization of America, 48%.

FDR ran, in part, in the election of 1932, on slightly lowering the Smoot-Hawley tariffs back down to the 37%-45% range. As Chang notes in Bad Samaritans:

[T]he stupidity of the Smoot-Hawley tariff has become a key fable in free trade mythology. … but this view is misleading. The Smoot-Hawley tariff may have provoked an international tariff war, thanks to bad timing, especially given the new status of the US as the world's largest creditor nation after the First World War. But it was simply not the radical departure from the country's traditional trade policy stance that free trade economists claim it to have been. Following the bill, the average industrial tariff rate rose to 48%. The rise from 37% (1925) to 48% (1930) is not exactly small but it is hardly a seismic shift. Moreover, the 48% obtained after the bill comfortably falls within the range of the rates that had prevailed in the country ever since the Civil War, albeit in the upper region thereof.

And tariffs are only one part of the equation. As Chang notes, "Between the 1950s and the mid-1990s, US federal government funding accounted for 50-70% of the country's total R&D funding …" Lacking such assistance, Chang notes, "the US would not have been able to maintain its technological lead over the rest of the world in key industries like computers, semiconductors, life sciences, the internet and aerospace.

Country by country, region by region, era by era, Chang shows how countries that rose to become industrial or trade superpowers did so only by totally repudiating the Milton Friedman/Tom Friedman "free trade" and "small government" mythos, and instead following Alexander Hamilton's tried-and-true formula. Hamilton, after all, hadn't invented it - he simply observed what the British had been doing since the year 1601 when Queen Elizabeth chartered the British East India Company, and she had simply been observing what the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch had been doing for a hundred years before that. And all of them had the example of the Roman and Greek empires, which rose and maintained their economic power by similar Hamiltonian policies.

America held such policies, too, until the 1980s when Ronald Reagan became president and his economic advisers began advancing the radical Libertarian views of Milton Friedman, and the (Ayn Rand) Objectivist views of Alan Greenspan (who had been inducted into Rand's cult in her New York apartment in the 1960s). Reagan began his overt push during the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT) talks in 1986, suggesting what was needed was a radical worldwide leveling of tariffs and reduction of government participation in everything from R&D funding to support for higher education (Reagan had ended the nearly-free tuition rates at the University of California while Governor of that state). As the Uruguay Round was about to get underway, Reagan's speech writers had him suggest "new and more liberal agreements with our trading partners - agreement under which they would fully open their markets and treat American products as they would treat their own."

George H.W. Bush, initially decrying Reagan's economic world view as "Voodoo Economics," embraced it, as did Bill Clinton, who really kicked the door of tariffs and "protectionism" down by signing the United States up for both the full GATT, the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

For the first time in its history, our country's industries stood essentially naked and defenseless against those of other fully developed nations, most of which were still holding in place tariffs, R&D supports, and intense support of the commons infrastructure including free higher education and free health care.

The result was just what Alexander Hamilton feared - the rapid unraveling of the American middle class as the nation bled its industrial base into the gutter of cheap labor countries. While today both China and India have import tariffs that average between 20% and 30% on manufactured goods (to protect their domestic industries and markets), we've dropped our average tariffs from a 1973 average of 12% to today's average of around 2 percent.

If you want to understand how - and why - America has become so rapidly and radically deindustrialized, read Bad Samaritans. And buy an extra copy to send to Tom Friedman. He needs it.

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and host of "The Thom Hartmann Program" syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com. You can find information on how to listen to his program (online if you don't have a radio station that carries it) and read more about his great books.



The Trial
by Franz Kafka

Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

"There can be no doubt --" said K., quite softly, for he was elated by the breathless attention of the meeting; in that stillness a subdued hum was audible which was more exciting than the wildest applause -- "there can be no doubt that behind all the actions of this court of justice, that is to say in my case, behind my arrest and today's interrogation, there is a great organization at work. An organization which not only employs corrupt warders, oafish Inspectors, and Examining Magistrates of whom the best that can be said is that they recognize their own limitations, but also has at its disposal a judicial hierarchy of high, indeed of the highest rank, with an indispensable and numerous retinue of servants, clerks, police, and other assistants, perhaps even hangmen, I do not shrink from that word. And the significance of this great organization, gentlemen? It consists in this, that innocent persons are accused of guilt, and senseless proceedings are put in motion against them ..."

Franz Kafka is one of the most complex writers of the past two centuries. Chronically disabled by health problems that may have arisen from his partnership in an asbestos company (or simply may have been TB and a weak constitution), he died just a month before his 41st birthday, leaving behind a large collection of unpublished and often-fragmentary works. Most of his fame as an author came after his death, when, against his wishes, his friend Max Brod -- to whom he'd entrusted his manuscripts before his death -- cleaned up a few, reassembled others, and published several, including "The Trial."

But as iconic and mysterious as Kafka was as a man (his biography over on Wikipedia is really worth the read), his novel The Trial could (and should -- I'm doing it here) be put forward as an icon of the modern American Republican Party mentality of the all-powerful Security State trampling not just the rights but the psyches of its citizens.

The Trial opens with this first sentence: "Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested."

It goes downhill from there.

Throughout the novel, Josef K. (we never learn his last name) is treated to the vagaries of a kangaroo court system that would make Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey proud. He never learns the charges against him, his lawyer is a preening incompetent who has built a mini-industry defending similarly "slandered" innocent (or maybe not so innocent -- we don't ever learn what's legal and what's illegal) men, and the reaction of the other characters in the novel ranges from mild shock to resignation to an irony that's half-comedic and half-tragic.

In the end, men he doesn't know confront him with one of the greatest of human horrors for reasons he doesn't understand and with a timing he doesn't suspect: "Was there still help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? Of course there were. Logic is no doubt unshakable, but it can't withstand a person who wants to live. Where was the judge he'd never seen? Where was the high court he'd never reached?"

Kafkaesque is a word that has become deeply rooted both in the English language and the psyche of the "free world." Having The Trial in your personal library is essential for the appearance of cultural literacy ("appearance" being a notion that fits perfectly with much of the middle of the book); but to read it is to understand how an obscure (at his death) author's last name has given birth to a powerful and enduring adjective known around the world.

The Trial is such a powerful and rich book that Orson Welles made a movie of the same name from it in 1962. He called it the best movie he ever made, and chose Anthony Perkins for the starring role, following on Perkins' success two years earlier in "Psycho."

The book is a dense and, at times, difficult -- but ultimately rewarding -- read. Written originally in German, Kafka was fond of using a style that can only work in that language of creating long sentences that ended with the powerful punch of the sentence's primary verb. This presented a considerable challenge to the series of translators who have presented Kafka to English-speaking audiences, and Breon Mitchell does a brilliant job of handling the story. His preface to the book and his explanation of his translation process is particularly enlightening, and in my humble opinion this is one of the best translations of The Trial extant. (You may want to read the preface after reading the novel, though, as it gives away the details of the ending that I've obscured in this review.)

As Mitchell notes about the German word Prozeß, the original title of the book:

The German word "Prozeß," as has often been noted, refers not only to an actual trial, but also to the proceedings surrounding it, a process that, in this imaginary world, includes preliminary investigations, numerous hearings, and a wide range of legal and extra-legal maneuvering. 'The Trial' is a reasonable translation [of the title] of the German, combining as it does the literal and figurative associations surrounding Josef K.'s yearlong struggle. Yet the shadowy and seemingly infinite hierarchy of mysterious courts depicted in The Trial does not correspond to any legal system so far as we know, then or now.

That preface was written in 1998.

As the construction of the Death Chamber at Guantanamo Bay is now nearly finished, to carry out sentences that will be rendered in secret against men who are unaware of the specific charges against them, unable to participate in the court's proceedings, whose lawyers may not see the "evidence" against them (which may be obtained by hearsay or torture), and cannot be appealed before their execution, there is no more important time than now to read The Trial -- and share it with every high school or college student you can find.

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of "The Thom Hartmann Program" syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com. You can find information on how to listen to his program (online if you don't have a radio station that carries it) and read more about his great books.



Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward SideBy Clive Stafford Smith
Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

If you were to ask the average American where the people currently being held in the US-run Guantanamo Bay concentration camps came from, most would tell you that they were Al Qaeda "fighters" who had been "captured on the battlefield." This myth has been repeated over and over again during the past six years -- and it's just that, a myth.

Fact is, 95 percent were not even taken into custody by US troops, but instead were turned over to US troops by people being paid the equivalent of about a quarter-million dollars "bounty." Right after our invasion of Afghanistan, US planes flew over impoverished regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan dropping leaflets offering US$ 5000 -- more than 7 years average salary in those regions -- to anybody turning in a "terrorist." People saw opportunities to settle old scores, turning in neighbors they'd been feuding with, literally kidnapping strangers just to get the bounty, and using the US to dispose of troublesome members of rival tribes, clans, or sects.

As a result, 92 percent of the people held at Guantanamo are not even accused of being fighters for Al Qaeda.

Clive Stafford Smith is a British-born US citizen and attorney who has defended roughly 50 of the Guantanamo detainees over the past few years. His book -- brilliantly written in first-person narrative and an evocative, almost novel-like style -- lays bare the horrors of the most prominent of a worldwide chain of US-run torture centers and concentration camps.

The main reason most of them have not been released, it appears to this reader of Smith's book, is because to do so would expose crimes of torture, illegal detention, and human rights violations so severe that they could lead to international criminal prosecutions of senior Bush (and, possibly, Blair) administration officials.

Twice the US Supreme Court -- stacked with so many Bush family toadies that they even stopped the vote count in the 2000 election in Florida because to count every vote in the state could lead to "irreparable harm" to plaintiff "Bush" -- has ruled that these concentration camps are illegal. Twice the Bush administration has had its handmaidens in the then-Republican-controlled Congress pass laws seemingly making them legal (the most recent being the horrific Military Commissions Act).

But the heart of Smith's book is more of a journey through the Alice In Wonderland world of twisted logic, broken laws, and kangaroo courts that front for and interpenetrate the US system of concentration camps. This book offers the best glimpse I've ever seen, tells the most horrifying story, fully gets you into the horrors perpetrated by the disturbed, frightened little men of the Bush administration.

As Smith points out in the book, ultimately this isn't just about Guantanamo. "Guantanamo is a diversionary tactic," he writes in the preface, "the lightning rod not only for criticism but also for global attention. The world has largely ignored the other secret prisons where many more prisoners are being held in even greater isolation. These other detention centers are flourishing. The U.S. takes prisoners daily in the 'War on Terror' -- in Afghanistan, in Iraq and the Middle East, in the Horn of Africa, and beyond -- and something must be done with them. There is, therefore, not the slightest chance that the administration will abandon its broader secret prison program even when it trumpets the closure of Guantanamo."

The stories that Smith tells in this book are horrifying and infuriating, and ultimately compelling. Brilliantly written and nearly impossible to put down, Eight O'clock Ferry lays out with clarity both the tragedy of our behaviors as well as their banality.

At this holiday season, people of most of the world's great religions are celebrating champions of peace, justice, and the enduring reality of the most noble aspects of human nature. Holding up to the cleansing light of day the terrible and tragic behaviors of our nation, done in our name, will hopefully help us all disinfect ourselves of the psychopathic illness inflicted on us by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, and their handmaidens in this criminal administration.

That is a holiday gift worth giving ...

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of "The Thom Hartmann Program" syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com.  You can find information on how to listen to his program (online if you don't have a radio station that carries it) and read more about his great books.



A Magnificent Catastrophe
by Edward J. Larson
Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

One of the most startling things we learn from history is how little we've learned -- and how often that failure to learn causes history to repeat itself. The election of 2008 may well -- depending on who is the Democratic nominee -- end up being a startling replay of the election of 1800. In that election, Thomas Jefferson, who along with James Madison founded what is today's modern Democratic Party (known then as the Republican Party), challenged sitting president and ardent conservative Federalist (what today would be called "Republican") John Adams.

In the first chapter, Larson provides the lay of the political landscape, startlingly similar to that of today's debates between conservatives and liberals:

The differences dividing Adams and Jefferson reflected a deepening ideological rift that divided mainstream Americans into factions. ... Adams and those calling themselves Federalists saw a strong central government led by a powerful president as vital for a prosperous, secure nation. Extremists in this camp, like Alexander Hamilton, who favored transferring virtually all power to the national government and consolidating it in a strong executive and aristocratic Senate, became known as the ultra or High Federalists. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton had unabashedly depicted the monarchical British government as "the best in the world" and famously proposed life tenure for the United States President and senators.

Jefferson and his emerging Republican [today called Democratic] faction viewed such thinking as inimical to freedom. A devotee of enlightenment science, which emphasized reason and natural law over revelation and authoritarian regimes, Jefferson trusted popular rule and distrusted elite institutions. Indeed, like French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jefferson instinctively revered man in nature. "Those who labor in the earth," such as farmers and frontiersmen, possess "substantial and genuine virtue," he wrote in his 1787 book, Notes on the State of Virginia. "The will of the majority, the natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of men," Jefferson affirmed three years later. He instinctively favored the people over any institution.

In contrast, Adams and the Federalists tended to distrust the common people and instead to place their faith in the empowerment of what they saw as a natural aristocracy, though one that should be restrained by civil institutions such as those provided by a written constitution with checks and balances. "The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God, and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true," Hamilton reportedly told the Constitutional Convention regarding a popularly elected legislature. "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first [or upper house] a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second [or lower house]."

Although more moderate in his Federalism than Hamilton, but still unlike the [Democratic] Republican Jefferson, Adams thought that every nation needed a single, strong leader who could rise above and control self-interested factions of all classes and types. Neither an aristocratic Senate nor a democratic House of Representatives would safeguard individual rights, he believed. Indeed, Adams once complained to Jefferson about "the avarice, the unbounded ambition, [and] the unfeeling cruelty of a majority of those (in all nations) who are allowed an aristocratic influence; and ... the stupidity with which the more numerous multitude not only become their dupes but even love to be taken in by their tricks." Only a disinterested chief executive -- the fabled philosopher-king of old -- would protect liberty and justice for all. Adams thus combined a Calvinist view of humanity's innate sinfulness with an Old Testament faith that a Moses-like leader could guide even such a fallen people through the wilderness into the promised land of freedom.

Due to these beliefs, Adams supported a strong American presidency.

And, as president, Adams had acted much like the kings of old. Through the "XYZ Affair," in which he alleged that foreign agents were attempting to solicit bribes to swing French foreign policy, Adams whipped up a nationwide fear of a foreign power. He used this and the threat of other terrors -- including the assertion of cells of foreign agents within our own nation -- to push through Congress by a single vote the Alien & Sedition Acts, which he then used to imprison dozens of his political "enemies" -- particularly the editors and publishers of newspapers who were friendly to Jefferson's party and hostile to Adams's. He even threw into prison a member of the House of Representatives, Vermont's independent-minded Matthew Lyon (the first occupant of the House seat now-Senator Bernie Sanders would occupy for nearly two decades in the recent past), who then ran for re-election from an unheated jail cell in Vergennes, Vermont and won re-election.

Jefferson, who was Adams's estranged Vice President (the president and vice-president were the top-two vote getters in the Electoral College, and did not run together on a ticket like today), was so horrified by the Alien & Sedition Acts that he left town the day Adams signed them. When he won the election of 1800, he allowed them to expire (the day before he was inaugurated) and then issued formal apologies and, in some cases, reparations, to the journalists he freed.

But all of that is background and side-story to the front-and-center focus of this brilliant book, which is the election of 1800. Using the election -- with a thousand fascinating details (I've dog-eared and highlighted at least 100 of the 300+ pages in this book!) -- Larson brings alive the issues of that day, which are startlingly consistent with the issues of this day. From the role of religion in government (and vice versa) to the power of the presidency to issues of privacy and free speech to fears of terrorism and foreign wars, the election of 1800 was such an overlay with today that one is inclined to believe that at least a few of the characters in this book have fully and perhaps even consciously reincarnated to play out their identical roles in today's election. From the stalwart New York liberal George Clinton to the conservative marionette John Adams (and his team), you won't be able to stop turning the pages of this incredible tale.

Larson, who won the Pulitzer prize for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, writes like James Michener. Yet this is not fiction, and it deserves to bring Larson a second Pulitzer. This is one of the most readable, vital, fascinating, and rip-roaring books of the past decade, and -- while he makes not a single reference to modern politics and is scrupulously non-partisan -- brings alive today's politics in a way that is rich in historical context.

In the battle for the presidency in the election of 1800, Larson writes:

"[Jefferson's Democratic] Republicans pounded the Federalists' record of high taxes, rising national debt, a standing army and excessive navy, hostilities with France, and repressive domestic policies. They condemned the Sedition Act as unconstitutional and warned of monarchies afoot.
"The measures of the present [Adams] administration were conceived in wisdom and executed with firmness, uprightness, and ability ... to ensure justice from abroad and tranquility at home," replied Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, a Maryland native who participated in local debates on behalf of his cousin, a Federalist candidate for elector. Appealing to moderates, Chase's cousin, the candidate, praised Adams as "a tried, firm, dedicated patriot [who will] resist the influence of party and will pursue that line of conduct which will best support the rights and liberties of the people." Times are good, various Federalists declared. "You may be certain never to be more happy than you have been under Mr. Adams's administration," one partisan declared.
Not so, a Republican statement countered. "If ever an occasion justified public addresses and individual exertions to rouse the people to a sense of duty, the present is undoubtedly such an occasion," it claimed. "You will plainly see and feel that your present rulers have exercised unauthorized powers and undue influence over you."

There were even members of Adams's Federalist Party who were trying to suppress the vote in Jefferson-leaning [Democratic] Republican areas. This, Larson notes, "nicely reinforced the image of Federalists as monarchists. 'The right of election is the very essence of our constitution,' one [Democratic] Republican candidate declared. 'Yet ... there are men among us who, to answer party purposes, are mediating a plan to deprive us of it.'" Shades of Florida and Ohio ...

A Magnificent Catastrophe provides one of the finest insights ever written into the history of the founding -- and sometimes faltering -- first steps of our modern democratic republic. Absorbing its story is an essential step toward a deeper and broader understanding of America and the issues being raised in the election of 2008. And it's a damn good read!

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of "The Thom Hartmann Program" syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com.



A Brief History of Neoliberalism
by David Harvey
Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

Here's the bad news - most Americans don't know what "neoliberalism" is.

But the good news is that David Harvey has written the most brilliant, concise, and clear history of neoliberalism I've ever found. It should be required reading in every civics class in high-school and college in America, and everybody who votes or considers themselves informed about politics and economics (and the intersection of the two) should have a dog-eared copy next to their bed or favorite chair for regular re-reading.

Harvey begins with the imposition of neoliberalism - a radical economic/political theory that everything will work out optimally if only the power of democratic governments are reduced to virtually nothing and the power of economic elites (known as "the free market") hold most power in society - in Iraq and Chile. Iraq was going to be the Great Example for the neoliberals - they were so convinced of their theory that they didn't have a Plan B for any time after the invasion - and it utterly failed. Which is why you only read about the Iraq experiment in neoliberalism in books written by the few people, like Harvey and Naomi Klein, who have noticed it.

In Chile it was forced on the people, through the dictatorship of Pinochet. In The United States it came into being through subterfuge, through an alliance of big business and inherited wealth funding think tanks and media to change the minds and thinking of Americans to accept the notions of the "free market" and the idea that "big government" is a bad thing. It's being peddled in Europe with considerable success (it started in '79 with Thatcher two years before Reagan put it into place here in the US), with France the most recent country to fall with the election of Sarkozy.

While full of facts and figures and details (at least a third of the pages in my copy of this book are dog-eared and marked up), Harvey's "Brief History of Neoliberalism" is marvelously readable. In some ways it almost reads like a thriller - what will these people do next? And over and over again we see not only how they screw things up, but how they work those screw-ups to their own advantage. Neoliberalism, after all, is all about the economic and power elites taking more and more of the resources, income, and small-d democratic power away from the masses. David Harvey has produced a classic book.

It's an absolute must-read. It'll totally change the way you understand the news (particularly the news you'll find in The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times), and your opinion of the behaviors of your elected officials.

Get at least two copies - it's an inexpensive paperback and you'll want one to read, and one to give away ...

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of The Thom Hartmann Program syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com.



The Tin Roof Blowdown
by James Lee Burke
Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

James Lee Burke is, in my humble opinion, the best living writer in America. He's the Hemingway of our generation. One of my most valued possessions is a first edition of Purple Cane Road, one of his Dave Robicheaux novels. My son-in-law's father walked down the street to his friend Burke's house and asked him to autograph it to me as a Christmas gift.

Burke has also written the first truly big American novel that revolves around Hurricane Katrina. His tortured and introspective character, police officer Dave Robicheaux, goes into the Big Easy after the hurricane to help the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Dante couldn't have done better in describing the scene.

For those who do not like to brood upon the possibility of simian ancestry in the human gene pool or who genuinely believe that societal virtue grows from a collective impulse in the human breast, the events of the next few days would offer their sensibilities poor comfort. Helen had been worried she would have to give up command of her department to either NOPD or state or federal authorities. That was the least of our problems. There was no higher command than ourselves. The command structure and communication system of NOPD had been destroyed by the storm. Four hundred to five hundred officers, roughly one third of the department, had bagged ass for higher ground. The command center NOPD had set up in a building off Canal Street had flooded. Much to their credit, the duty officers didn't give up their positions and wandered in chest-deep water outside their building for two days. They had no food and no drinking water, and many were forced to relieve themselves in their clothes, their handheld radios held aloft to keep them dry.

From a boat or any other elevated position, as far as the eye could see, New Orleans looked like a Caribbean city that had collapsed beneath the waves. The sun was merciless in the sky, the humidity like lines of ants crawling inside your clothes. The linear structure of a neighborhood could be recognized only by the green smudge of yard trees that cut the waterline and row upon row of rooftops dotted with people who perched on sloped shingles that scalded their hands.

The smell was like none I ever experienced. The water was chocolate-brown, the surface glistening with a blue-green sheen of oil and industrial chemicals. Raw feces and used toilet paper issued from broken sewer lines. The gray, throat-gagging odor of decomposition permeated not only the air but everything we touched. The bodies of dead animals, including deer, rolled in the wake of our rescue boats. And so did those of human beings, sometimes just a shoulder or an arm or the back of a head, suddenly surfacing, then sinking under the froth.

They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquimines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying by overhead. They died in hospitals and nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest.

If by chance you hear a tape of the 911 cell phone calls from those attics, walk away from it as quickly as possible, unless you are willing to live with voices that will come aborning in your sleep for the rest of your life.

But while the novel takes place in large part in the desolation of the city and the hurricanes, it's ultimately - as Burke's novels always are - the story of people. In this case, a junkie priest, Father Jude LeBlanc; Bertrand Melancon, a lifelong criminal who hopes eternally for redemption; and Otis Baylor, a man swept up in it all like flotsam. And, of course, Dave Robicheaux is tortured by his own demons, particularly toward the end of the book when, some considerable time having passed since the disaster, he revisits the city.

Early Tuesday I collected Clete Purcel at his motor court and headed for New Orleans. When we drove down I-10 into Orleans Parish, the city was little changed, the ecological and structural wreckage so great and pervasive that it was hard to believe all of this destruction could come to pass in a twenty-four-hour period. I had been on the water when Audrey hit the Louisiana coast in 1957 and in the eye of Hilda in 1964 when the water tower in Delcambre toppled onto City Hall and killed all the Civil Defense volunteers inside. But the damage in New Orleans was of a kind we associate with apocalyptical images from the Bible, or at least it was for me.

Perhaps I carried too many memories of the way the city used to be. Maybe I should not have returned. Maybe I expected to see the streets clean, the power back on, the crews of carpenters repairing ruined homes. But the sense of loss I felt while driving down St. Charles was worse than I had experienced right after the storm. New Orleans had been a song, not a city. Like San Francisco, it didn't belong to a state; it belonged to a people.

When Clete and I [had] walked the beat on Canal, music was everywhere. Sam Butera and Louis Prima played in the Quarter. Old black men knocked out "The Tin Roof Blues" in Preservation Hall. Brass-band funerals on Magazine shook the glass in storefront windows. When the sun rose on Jackson Square, the mist hung like cotton candy in the oak trees behind the St. Louis Cathedral. The dawn smelled of ponded water, lichen-stained stone, flowers that bloomed only at night, coffee and freshly baked beignets in the Cafe du Monde. Every day was a party, and everyone was invited and the admission was free.

The grandest ride in America was the St. Charles streetcar. You could catch the old green-painted, lumbering iron car under the colonnade in front of the Pearl and for pocket change travel on the neutral ground down arguably the most beautiful street in the Western world. The canopy of live oaks over the natural ground created a green-gold tunnel as far as the eye could see. On the corners, black men sold ice cream and sno'balls from carts with parasols on them, and in winter the pink and maroon neon on the Katz and Besthoff drugstores glowed like electrified smoke inside the fog ...

Every writer, every artist who visited New Orleans fell in love with it. The city might have been the Great Whore of Babylon, but few ever forgot or regretted her embrace.

What was its future?

I looked through my windshield and saw fallen trees everywhere, power and phone lines hanging from utility poles, dead traffic lights, gutted downtown buildings so badly damaged the owners had not bothered to cover the blown-out windows with plywood. The job ahead was Herculean and it was compounded by a level of corporate theft and governmental incompetence and cynicism that probably has no equal outside the Third World.

In addition to being one of the most stark and powerful of Burke's novels, and certainly one of the finest descriptions of the Katrina disaster, Burke resists the impulse that so often overwhelms lesser writers to slip into polemic.

The novel will leave you furious and sad and - because of its characters - hopeful and inspired, but the politics of the situation get only the lightest (and, thus, the most powerful) touch.

Early on, without mentioning that George W. Bush was out west eating cake with John McCain, and Michael Chertoff was largely ignoring New Orleans, safe in his belief that the free market would solve all problems, Burke drops a light but powerfully truthful note into the dialogue about how past presidents have dealt with hurricane disasters.

At 10:00 A.M. Helen Soileau came into my office. "How'd you make out yesterday?" she said.

"I wrote up everything I found and faxed it to the FBI in Baton Rouge. There's a copy in your box. I also talked to an NOPD guy on the phone. I don't think this one has legs on it."

"You don't think Otis Baylor shot these guys?"

"His neighbor seemed willing to finger him, but I had the sense the neighbor had some frontal-lobe damage himself. I think bodies are going to be showing up under the rubble and mud for months. Who's going to be losing sleep over a couple of looters who caught a high-powered round while they were destroying people's homes?"

"All right, let's move on. The Rec Center at City Park is full of evacuees. We need to get some of them to Houston if we can. Iberia General and Dauterive Hospital are busting at the seams. It's worse in Lafayette. I tell you, Streak, I've seen some shit in my life, but nothing like this."

"I couldn't argue with her. In fact, I didn't even want to comment.

"What did you think of Lyndon Johnson?" she asked.

"Before or after I got to Vietnam?"

"When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in '65, Johnson flew into town and went into a shelter full of people who had been evacuated from Algiers. It was dark inside and people were scared and didn't now what was going to happen to them. He shined a flashlight in his face and said, 'My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I'm your goddamn president and I'm here to tell you my office and the people of the United States are behind you.' Not bad, huh?"

But I wasn't listening. There was a detail about the Otis Baylor investigation I hadn't mentioned to Helen ...

"The Tin Roof Blowdown" is a masterpiece. It's entertaining, compelling, forceful, and delicate. And once you've read it, you'll be hooked - there are another 15 Robicheaux novels by Burke, and numerous other masterpieces of fiction, all equal in power and brilliance, and subtle yet touching in politics and the human condition.

Prepare for one of the greatest reads of your life.

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of The Thom Hartmann Program syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com.



The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook is one of the most brilliant and important books to come along in many years. Synthesizing stories from people in real life with a strong and healthy dose of history (particularly the history of the 60s through today, both politically and economically), Brook's book paints a stark picture of the death of the American middle class as a direct result of the Reagan Revolution, and implicitly suggests that the clear and simple solution is to revert to the economic policies of the New Deal. This book is probably the most powerful and compelling attack on Reaganomics and the "conservative revolution" that I've read in a decade.

Brook opens the book with stories of people torn between the desire to do good (in the world) and the need to do well (financially). Several conservative reviewers have trashed the book on this basis, suggesting one shouldn't empathize with people who are experiencing existential angst over making $150,000 a year in a corporate law firm instead of working for Public Citizen, but apparently none of those reviewers bothered to read beyond the first two pages. With devastating precision, Brook shows how the basic necessaries of health care, housing, and providing for a safe retirement require a startlingly high income (particularly for people who live in our big cities).

As Brook points out, "Starting in the 1980s, the media began to note that more and more of the best and the brightest were going to work for corporate America." He adds, "Their analysis focused on the proverbial carrot, never considering the stick." He lays out how the middle class has been wiped out in America, quoting, for example, a Brookings Institution report from 2006 that found "the proportion of middle-class central-city neighborhoods was cut in half between 1970 and 2000; the number of rich and poor neighborhoods grew. Most metropolitan neighborhoods were middle class in 1970; only 41 percent were by 2000." In LA it's down to 28 percent of households, and New York is the worst in the country. And it wasn't this way at all before Reagan.

Brook documents how William F. Buckley Jr. and other conservatives back in the 1960s and 1970s put into place an infrastructure to completely deconstruct the New Deal. Their reason was based on the flawed belief that "equality" and "freedom" are at opposite ends of an economic spectrum. Brook shows how even liberals have bought into this since Reagan -- the conservative meme has been almost totally absorbed by even the Democratic Party, and certainly by the Republicans, the media, and academe.

In reality, as FDR pointed out in his acceptance speech in 1936 for his second term, "A necessitous man is not a free man." This was a radical -- and true -- notion when FDR said it, and it's an almost unspeakable truth today, so forgotten is the core idea.

Reality is not reflected in conservative notions of freedom -- mostly economic freedom (to buy your own health insurance, plan for your own retirement, and pay for your own education, in particular). Nor is reality served in saying that people who have greater economic equality (because of progressive taxation with top tax rates as high as 91 percent, national health care, and free public education reaching all the way to the PhD level -- all common in many European countries) are not "free."

In fact, Brook asserts (as did FDR), the engine that produces "freedom" is "equality." The highest point of economic equality in the history of the United States was the two-decade period of the 1960s and 1970s, and it was also the time of greatest personal freedom by dozens of indices. As economic equality crashes, the result of tax cuts and "small government," freedom is increasingly constrained for all but CEOs and those with inherited wealth. Everybody else has been turned into a serf.

While social mobility -- probably the best indicator of "freedom" -- has steadily increased over the past 50 years in most of Europe and particularly in the Scandinavian countries, social mobility has crashed in the US since Reaganomics. We're now the lowest -- the most rigidly socially stratified and "unfree" -- of all developed nations in the world, and this is happening at the same time that the rise of economic inequality in the US has hit a high not seen in this nation since the 1920s, just before the Republican Great Depression.

I read this book from cover to cover in a comfortable round-trip train ride from Portland to Seattle and back -- couldn't put it down, in fact -- and probably 5 percent of the pages in my copy are now dog-eared and marked up (the sign of a book that's really valuable to me!).

The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America is a book you can't miss out on. If you read nothing else this year, choose this book.

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of The Thom Hartmann Program syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com.



I'm a pretty jaded guy. Back in October of 2001, I wrote -- first anonymously under the pseudonym "Rusticus" and then over my own name -- the first widely-circulated article comparing the Republican response to 9/11 with the Nazi response to the burning of the Reichstag (Parliament) building in Germany in 1933 (it was titled "When Democracy Failed"). It was widely distributed and I was attacked for being an alarmist, although few say so these days.

I thought I'd seen it all. I was part of SDS in the late 1960s, was spied upon, and our group infiltrated by the Michigan State Police and the FBI. I've been followed, photographed, wiretapped, and tear-gassed.
Yet that was nearly forty years ago, and even though today I report on the daily Republican outrages 3 hours a day 5 days a week on the most listened-to progressive talk radio show in America, I have to admit -- this book shocked me.

Walking around the Take Back America Conference last week -- where I was both speaking and doing my show from Radio Row- - Matthew Rothschild walked up to me, introduced himself, and handed me a fresh-off-the-presses copy of his new book, You Have No Rights. We get an average of 6 to 8 books a day in the mail (our mail is about a cubic foot a day, in part because of all the books), and people are always handing me books at public events, but I remembered Matthew from all the great articles he's written and his work as editor of the Progressive, and so was both glad to meet him and curious about what he'd written.

I started reading it on the plane back to Oregon from Washington, DC, and couldn't put it down.

If we don't begin to expose the horrors in this book in a real, meaningful, national, and highly visible way, democracy is in even worse trouble that I thought. And, as I said, I thought I knew how bad it really was.

It's worse.

As the publisher, The New Press, notes in their summary of the book:

"I'm very liberal and sometimes my friends say I'm giving them some kind of paranoid, nutty stuff, and I agree, but then the FBI show up." -- Marc Schultz, reported to the FBI for reading an article called "Weapons of Mass Stupidity: Fox News hits a new lowest common denominator" while he stood in line at a coffee shop.

In West Virginia, Renee Jensen put up a yard sign saying "Mr. Bush: You're Fired." She's questioned by the Secret Service.

In Alabama, Lynne Gobbell put a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker on her car. She's fired from her job.

In Vermont, Tom Treece had his high school students write essays and make posters either defending or criticizing the Iraq War. After midnight, the police entered his classroom and took photos of the student artwork.

Near Albany, New York, Stephen Downs went to a mall with his son Roger, and the two of them bought shirts in a T-shirt shop. Downs put his shirt on, went to eat in the food court -- and was arrested. The T-shirt's message? "Peace on Earth."

Most of these stories don't have the crackling immediacy of the Kent State shootings or the MSU campus shutdown or Watts burning, but in some ways they're even more sinister, because they reflect a fundamental change in the assumptions held by average people of what America is.

We're no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave; we're the land of the fearful and the home of Big Brother. We're no longer the shining beacon of democracy that inspired nascent democracies for over 200 years; we're now the example repressive dictatorships use to justify espionage against and torture of their own citizens. We're no longer a land of laws governed by We, The People, protected from our government by our Constitution; we're now a land of "leaders" who claim they owe "no accountability" to Congress or the people who elect them.

Very quickly, under the radar but in a deep and real way, we're moving from being a liberal democracy to a conservative theocratic corporatist/fascist state.

Because these stories lack the violence of the 1960s, they are all the more shocking. The subtlety of this transformation is so very Orwellian, so very much like that imagined by Huxley, that warned of by William Shirer and Milton Mayer.

In a previous book review, I suggested a Rex Stout novel about the private detective Nero Wolfe, written in the 1950s, in large part because it showed how back then a citizen could say through a locked door to the police, "Go away if you don't have a warrant." Today TV shows glorify militarized police squads kicking in doors, and citizens are arrested for filming police activity.

The America of 2007 is not the America I was born into in 1951, and with startling rapidity it's not even the America it was in the last year of the Clinton/Gore presidency just six short years ago. It highlights the banality of evil.

Which is why it's so important for us all to read Matthew Rothschild's book ... and so vital that we pass it along to those who haven't yet pulled back the curtain and seen what's going on in the shadows not covered by our infotainment industry. Buy a copy of this book to read yourself, by all means, but buy a second to pass along. It's that good.


Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of The Thom Hartmann Program syndicated nationally by Air America Radio. His website is ThomHartmann.com.



The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook
by Joseph Sugarman, reviewed by Thom Hartmann

Want to use the written word -- from a blog to email to articles to op-eds to pretty much any written format you can imagine -- to change the world? Joe Sugarman will teach you how.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I owe much of the quality of the life I currently have to Joe Sugarman.

Back in the mid-1970s, he was one of America's most famous advertising copywriters and I was a twenty-something partner in a small Michigan advertising agency. I attended a workshop that Joe taught, and it quite literally changed my life. Joe gave me my first real keys to the kingdom of communication, and I've made a living using them ever since.

While the passage of 30-some years since that time has dimmed my memory of when and where I was listening to Joe, I remember well many of his lessons. One of the first was to understand that good advertising copy is one of the most elegant forms of communication. It's designed to produce a change in a person's thinking and, most importantly, an immediate change in their behavior.

The same is true of the most effective political writing, whether it be that of Karl Marx, Barry Goldwater, or conservative strategist Richard Viguerie (who was also a student of Joe's).

I remember Joe telling us that the most common mistake of writers of all stripes (particularly advertising copywriters) is thinking that they're writing to an audience. He said that when writing copy, one should imagine a person you know, who you like, and who would be interested in the topic (product) of your writing. And then write it as a letter, even if you have to insert a personal preamble that you later delete.

I've used (and advocated) his technique for years, writing everything from advertising copy for some of America's largest corporations, to strategic communications, to hundreds of published articles and 19 books currently in print.

You can find the essence of Joe's advice about writing in a personal way in Chapter 15 of his book The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook. But that's just the beginning. And even though Joe's book is entirely about marketing and advertising copy, the lessons are important -- crucial -- for political activists.

Political persuasion is simply a variation on commercial persuasion (assuming that historically the latter preceded the former). The tools that make you a good marketer are the tools that work in politics as well.

In that context, The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook is one of the most valuable tools political activists will ever encounter.

In doing research and show-prep for my daily talk radio show, I encounter lousy political communication at least a half-dozen to a dozen times a day. Activists who don't know how to condense what they're saying into an easily-understood form. Activists who bury the lede. Activists who try to "sell" the details of policies rather than their benefits.

If you want to know how to be an effective communicator in print -- from writing letters to members of Congress to writing posters for the upcoming march to writing your blog -- Joe Sugarman is the man to teach you. Just mentally transform his "sales and marketing" examples into political examples -- it's surprisingly easy -- and you'll be brilliant.

As odd and offbeat as it may seem, Joe Sugarman's AdWeek Copywriting Handbook should be in the library of every political activist (and already is in those of many conservatives, starting with Viguerie). Learn what they know -- buy it now!



"Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck
Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

Arguably, there's nothing whatever political about "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck. It chronicles the lives of some of the residents of Monterey, California in the early 20th century, before the great ecological disaster (mostly over-fishing - it's still debated) of the mid-1940s that wiped out the sardine harvest and threw the boom town into bust. There's Doc, the central focus of the novel, based on a close friend of Steinbeck's, Edward F. Ricketts, one of America's most famous marine biologists. And Mack, who's always trying to do good and never quite making it. And an entire cast of characters that reflect the aura of America in the 1930s.

On the other hand, one could argue that the book is entirely political - today - because it shows us a slice of America before the Great Corporate Homogenizers got ahold of us.

Before we walled ourselves into our highly-mortgaged houses to stare for hours, alone, at our TVs, eating the mental gruel of multinational corporations who profit from wars.

Before our highest ideal - our "American Dream" - was to build up a small business so we could sell it off to Disney, as did the woman Bush congratulated in his State of the Union speech, but when the real American Dream was grounded in community, safety, friendship, and a healthy acceptance of eccentricity.

In 1968, I hitchhiked from Michigan to San Francisco, lived there for half a year, and then hitchhiked back. Every city was different. Restaurants were locally owned. Hotels and motels had eccentric names. Every main street was different. It was fascinating, an exploration in a very literal sense, discovering hundreds of communities that were all uniquely different from each other.

But after Reagan's "revolution" and he stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act for all practical purposes, mega-corporations moved in. For much of the 1990s, I made a living in part as a consultant to a variety of organizations, leading me all around the USA (and the world). I logged over 7 million miles just on Delta Airlines. And the quirky, unique, personality-rich cities of America had been replaced by chain stores, chain restaurants, chain hotels, and franchises. Today if you were to parachute randomly into any town or city in America, it may take you days to find a commercial landmark that would uniquely identify the place.

In this regard - highly political in that it shows us how different the pre-Reagan America was from the post-Reagan America, Cannery Row is a political book.

I didn't go looking for "Cannery Row." As I sat with my father this past summer, helplessly watching him choke and gag on his own blood as he died from asbestos-caused mesothelioma (thanks in part to one of Dick Cheney's companies) while my brothers and I tried to comfort him, I saw the book beside his bed. He was an inveterate reader - there are about 20,000 books in his basement - and he'd often read and re-read his favorites over and over again. After his funeral, I picked the often-read book up and took it with me to read on the plane ride home from Michigan to Oregon.

What I found in "Cannery Row" was a time, and an America that my parents had often spoken to me about. My mother's stories about squeezing the last of the toothpaste from the tube in a door jamb when she went to Michigan State University, because she was putting herself through college by propping planes on weekends and being a lifeguard in the summer, and there was barely the money for toothpaste or toilet paper, much less cosmetics. My dad's stories of going down to one of Al Capone's speakeasies as a kid on the south side of Chicago to get a pail of bootleg beer to bring to his dad and uncles as they sat on the stoop in the row houses.

It was a time of challenge and a time of opportunity. It was America before Reagan.

In one of my dad's last emails to me, he talked about that era:

"Thank you for the wonderful dedication in SCREWED. I wanted to tell you in person but I get so emotional that I can't talk. But it made me think of what I did in life other than try to lead a good life and do no harm to others. I'm happy with my life although it was selfish because I did the things I did with no sacrifice on my part.

"Then I thought of your mother. She was the one that gave up all her early ambitions and dreams for me and her family. She wanted to be a writer - worked her way thru college to complete her dreams. I still have many of her early writings (if she hasn't tossed them) which were very good. She worked at an airport for money and flying lessons, she took care of a family for room and board, plus all summer with a bunch of girls to earn tuition money. After she graduated she turned down a great job working for the oil companies in Saudi Arabia just so she would not leave her Mother alone. She managed a book store in Grand Rapids where I met her. (When I saw her I told the friend with me that I was going to marry her.)

"After we were married she started to write again. But then little Thomas came on the scene...

"I guess I'm done Thom. I love Jean with all my heart and soul. I have hoped that you could and would write about her as you have about me. I think she deserves it much more. She is the true hero of our family!!!"

They were the last words of his I ever heard - and that in an email - as he couldn't speak by the time I got to Michigan.

I realize that telling you a story about my hitchhiking across America, or about my dad, isn't telling you the story of Cannery Row, but in a way it's very much the story of Cannery Row. The stories are meta to the novel. My dad was a huge fan of Steinbeck, presumably because he knew so well the America of which Steinbeck wrote.

Beyond that, telling you the story line itself of Cannery Row would be a disservice. It's a novel, and one shouldn't have even an inkling where a novel is going when one starts to read it. It was only after I finished the book that I began to research its history, and found a rich treasure trove of information on the web about the history of the real cannery row, the real Monterey of the 1930s, and the read Ed Ricketts. I hope you will, too.

But first indulge yourself in a bit of old-fashioned escapism - step back to the time of the Republican Great Depression and meet a wonderful cast of characters, in a story that will leave you smiling, wistful, and newly-informed.

And, maybe, hopefully, we'll all live to see that true spirit of America - its people, so brilliantly drawn by Steinbeck in "Cannery Row" - again emerge as Americans awaken from our dream-fog of consumerism and hellish wars, and rediscover the sense of self and community and purpose and the egalitarian values of community on which this nation was founded.


Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling author and the host of The Thom Hartmann Program syndicated nationally by Air America Radio.

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