Losing Faith in Democracy

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Democracy In Retreat:The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, by Joshua Kurlantzick

This is more of a treatise than a piece of literary nonfiction, and as with most such pieces of writing, the overlong title virtually tells the story. The author has done an admirable job of collecting data and anecdotes to support his thesis here, which is one of high hopes dashed.

The U.S., he writes, has been the primary nation actively trying to export democracy, and perhaps too zealous in doing so. His concern isn’t our misadventures in Vietnam, South America and more recently, Iraq. Instead, it’s our more peaceful efforts to create democracies around the world. However, there has been altogether too much emphasis on the various electoral processes in doing so, and too little emphasis on policies, including the educational, to support permanent democratic reform. As a result, many democracies of the twentieth century have failed, returning those countries to oligarchies, dictatorships, or other, more repressive forms of representative government.

The poor, of course, have borne the primary disappointments here, but in many countries, it’s the middle classes that have become disenchanted with the democratic process. In all too many cases, upsetting the status quo has shrunken and disturbed the middle classes, which were both part of the ladder of societal ascendance and a buffer between poor and rich, between the disenfranchised and the powerful. Much of the frustration, in the author’s opinion, has been that more repressive societies, such as China, seem to achieve economic success while many democratic countries founder economically due to the decision-making inefficiencies of most democratic states.

To this reader, the author spends too much time citing one case history after another and too little trying to map our way out of this quagmire. Still he does a service in tacitly insisting that perhaps democracy is a product of social evolution – little more than a mere accident in the establishment of the U.S.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

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The Revolutionary Rabble

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1776, By David McCullough

Given the tone of the U.S. in modern times, it’s hard to imagine McCullough’s work on this book being well received. Imagine an indecisive George Washington. A Nathan Hale’s ineptness as a spy leading to his capture and hanging – and his famous quote taken from a play of the time- Cicero. An army replete with drunks, miscreants of all sorts who, due to their own slovenliness, had Washington’s army’s strength reduced by disease at times by a third.

In the end, however, McCullough’s view of Washington was that of a brave man, but a man with no battle experience, a man who learned generalship through the sternest self-discipline. The army fought well at times, due largely to desperation and some daring moves by Washington and his planners. 1776 is seen by most self-styled patriots these days as a bright and shining year of freedom and declared independence. It was, however, a year of gloom, of despair, of one defeat after another by overwhelming British and Hessian forces.

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But I remain a bit confused by McCullough’s intent in this writing, i.e., there are many questions left unanswered. Why were the Americans seeking independence while its sister colony Canada wasn’t? Why was Britain so unwilling to loosen its hold on the American colony? McCullough is an astute enough writer to realize readers want personalities, the unknown facts (dirt) of history, and that’s what he gives here. But his historian instincts of giving underlying detail and trying to (unsuccessfully) dramatize such detail doesn’t work well for this reader.

While I can say I was eminently informed, I didn’t often enjoy the read.

15 of 20 stars

 

Steinbeck Meets Cormac McCarthy

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Red Sky in Morning, by Paul Lynch

I picked this book up unrecommended at a book store, and I’m glad I did. The book’s dust jacket, naturally, touts Lynch as a new writer to be reckoned with, and this novel makes that claim real. This is Lynch’s first novel – a second due out soon – and he shatters all the common preconceptions about first novels, i.e., it’s not autobiographical, it shows a fully fleshed voice, and it owns an energy and passion often missing in first novels. But to the story:

It’s 1832, and Coll Coyle, an Irish sharecropper, is thrown off the land his family has worked for several generations. Coll argues with the landowner, and the owner ends up dead. Coll chooses to run for it and is tracked across Ireland, then to Philadelphia, where he and homicidal predator John Faller meet their separate fates.

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Not unlike Steinbeck, Lynch builds his story around historical events and places, and he does so without having it seem like a history lesson. His prose is consistent and ornate, and in the style of Cormac McCarthy, although Lynch’s voice is uniquely his. His style is breathtaking, particularly for another writer to read, but it occasionally distances this reader from the story and characters. The section in which Coyle crosses the Atlantic on a small sailing vessel with other travelers is compelling in its own right, but its effect is something of a stall to the story’s movement.

Still, Lynch is talented, and he has a strong vision that runs deep. Its broader sense is in depicting both the humanity and depravity of people of all ilks, with neither trait based in status or wealth.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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A Man A Woman in Early America

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Revolutionary, by Alex Myers

This is an unusual book by an unusual author. Let me tell you this first: Myers is a transgender woman-to-man person, and this fact colors this first, well-crafted novel by Myers. For reasons that are rather obvious, Myers’ novel concerns the life of Deborah Samson.

This is a fictionalized account of real person Samson who, unhappy with her life in rural Massachusetts, chose to enlist in the Continental Army and fight both Loyalists and British soldiers. She took on the name Robert Shurtliff and all but escaped being exposed as a woman until her release from army duty. Clearly this book has an autobiographical component, and as Myers unwraps his story of Deborah, one is confronted with the dilemma of a woman in eighteenth century America who wants something more than the traditional female role of servitude. Too, readers will experience the plight of one such as the author, who seems a man in a woman’s body. In this sense, both Deborah and this fictional account of her life as a soldier are revolutionary.

The story is well researched and her characters are vivid and real. The dialogue at times seems stiff as Myers tries to give the characters’ language an eighteenth century feel, but the story is well executed and Deborah/Robert’s life stands tall among those of lesser character.

My rating 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.