Review of I Swear, by Katie Porter

I Swear

Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan

by Katie Porter

Crown, 2023. 284 pages.
Review written August 8, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

Okay, reading Katie Porter’s book made me a Katie Porter fan, similar to the way reading Elizabeth Warren’s book years ago made me an Elizabeth Warren fan. What both women have in common? They have both studied bankruptcy and fully understand that financial trouble does not imply moral failing.

One of her early stories is of studying mortgage law — and learning that banks were breaking laws, to the detriment of consumers, when they foreclosed, time and time again.

As a mortgage holder, you do what the banks tell you. You assume they’re following the law. Well, Katie Porter checked. And they weren’t. She began to get attention on that as a professor.

While I had started to change minds and get people in power to see that mortgage companies made mistakes and misbehaved, I did not want to be right. I wanted things to be right. Banks used the law to try to collect every penny; we should expect them to follow every rule.

And she decided to run for office to try to make things right.

This book has plenty about running for office and the challenges of being a single mom in Congress and commuting to the other side of the country. (She and her kids tried living in Virginia, but it didn’t work out.) It tells about her background growing up on a farm and the difficult end of her marriage. But my favorite part was where she describes her work in Congress.

As I see it, the real work of Congress is civic education. Democracy only functions if voters know what’s going on in their government and elected representatives know what’s going on in their communities. As a congressmember, that means teaching and learning, respectively.

The American people set the nation’s agenda every two years with House elections, and every four years with presidential elections. They cannot decide if they support a government policy without first knowing what the government is doing (or not doing). Representatives should be teachers, with constituents as our students.

At the same time, we should also be students, learning from our constituents. Without knowing the challenges and ideas of the people we represent, congressmembers can only substitute their own views for voters’ views. While that may happen, it is not how representative democracy is supposed to work. Getting the facts, doing the research, and gaining experience are moments of learning that help me make the best votes for my community.

Teaching and learning are the exact work I did as a law professor, before I ran for Congress. I loved that, and so not surprisingly, I love Congress work.

And yes, using a white board is a fundamental approach to teaching. Visual aids always help!

This concern for people — trying to make government better for actual people — can’t be faked. May Katie Porter continue to serve in this way for many years to come.

Oh and Hooray! When I checked her Twitter account (@katieporteroc), I see that she’s running for Senate in 2024. And she’s got a tagline on her profile: “I did not go to Washington to learn how to play by the rules. I went to Washington to rewrite them.” This book goes into the reasons why she cares about people and wants to make lives better by making government better.

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Review of Cultish, by Amanda Montell


The Language of Fanaticism

by Amanda Montell

Harper Wave, 2021. 310 pages.
Review written August 8, 2023, from my own copy, signed by the author.
Starred Review

Last September, I was asked to speak at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University on a panel about book banning. After my panel, I went to hear Amanda Montell and another author speak about cults. The talk was fascinating, and I purchased both books and got them signed. I didn’t mean to take so lomg to read it, but I had lots of library books checked out, too, and have been reading for award committees, and, well, I finally finished reading it. This is not a reflection on the book — I’d often intend to read just one chapter and instead read two or three. This is just a reflection on how I read nonfiction and don’t give enough priority to books I own. The book was amazing, and got me thinking about so many things.

Amanda Montell has a background in linguistics, and she takes a look at cults from this angle — looking at the language cults use to bring in followers, which she calls “Cultish.”

Before I go any further, let me talk about what constitutes a cult. I thought I knew all about them, because I studied them for a semester at my Christian high school. We defined them as any group that doesn’t acknowledge that Jesus is God. Hmmm. Maybe that definition isn’t adequate? Especially in view of what I learned watching the “Shiny Happy People” documentary series (I blogged about my reactions to that series with “Shiny Happy Childhood” posts.), realizing that Bill Gothard’s “Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts” that I attended many times as a child ended up having more and more cult-like characteristics.

Amanda Montell’s intro tells stories of two people each heavily involved in a different kind of group. She asks, “What do Alyssa’s and Tasha’s stories have in common?”

The answer: They were both under cultish influence. If you’re skeptical of applying the same charged “cult” label to both 3HO and CrossFit, good. You should be. For now, let’s agree on this: Even though one of our protagonists ended up broke, friendless, and riddled with PTSD, and the other got herself a strained hamstring, a codependent friend with benefits, and a few too many pairs of overpriced leggings, what Tasha Samar and Alyssa Clarke irrefutably share is that one day, they woke up on different sides of Los Angeles and realized they were in so deep, they weren’t even speaking recognizable English anymore. Though the stakes and consequences of their respective affiliations differed considerably, the methods used to assert such power — to create community and solidarity, to establish an “us” and a “them,” to align collective values, to justify questionable behavior, to instill ideology and inspire fear — were uncannily, cultishly similar. And the most compelling techniques had little to do with drugs, sex, shaved heads, remote communes, drapey kaftans, or “Kool-Aid” . . . instead, they had everything to do with language.

You might think that a book on cultish language would have a definition of cults. The author indeed went looking for one, but it turned out that different people think of different things when they use the term. Academics don’t like to use the word because of the pejorative context. I like what the author ended up with — a sense that there’s a continuum of cultish behavior. All humans crave belonging, being part of a community. On the benign end of the cultish spectrum is simple community, being part of a close-knit group. And it’s not tremendously difficult to leave (though of course there are always emotions involved).

On the opposite end of the spectrum are groups like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate where people can’t leave even if they want to and follow the cult leader to their deaths. But most groups are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

I can’t stress enough how fascinating this book is. Amanda Montell covers religious cults, yes, but also multilevel marketing companies, fitness movements, political groups (yes, QAnon is mentioned), and so much more. It went so far beyond “groups who don’t agree with us about Jesus” and is just amazing to see how much these disparate groups have in common — particularly in their use of language.

One of the early chapters lays out the language tactics. Making people feel special and understood, often with love-bombing and inspirational buzzwords is how they begin. Conditioning follows, working over time, and the end result is coercion, convincing people to “act in ways that are completely in conflict with their former reality, ethics, and sense of self.”

She breaks down some of the techniques:

The first key element of cultish language? Creating an us-versus-them dichotomy…. The goal is to make your people feel like they have all the answers, while the rest of the world is not just foolish, but inferior. when you convince someone that they’re above everyone else, it helps you both distance them from outsiders and also abuse them, because you can paint anything from physical assault to unpaid labor to verbal attacks as “special treatment” reserved only for them.

This is part of why cults have their own jargon in the first place: elusive acronyms, insider-y mantras, even simple labels like “fiber-lab.” It all inspires a sense of intrigue, so potential recruits will want to know more; then, once they’re in, it creates camaraderie, such that they start to look down on people who aren’t privy to this exclusive code. The language can also highlight any potential troublemakers, who resist the new terms — a hint that they might not be fully on board with the ideology and should be watched.

Another technique came up over and over again:

There’s a companion tool to loaded language that can be found in every cultish leader’s repertoire: It’s called the thought-terminating cliché. Coined in 1961 by the psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, this term refers to catchphrases aimed at halting an argument from moving forward by discouraging critical thought. Ever since I learned of the concept, I now hear it everywhere — in political debates, in the hashtag wisdom that clogs my Instagram feed. Cultish leaders often call on thought-terminating clichés, also known as sematic stop signs, to hastily dismiss dissent or rationalize flawed reasoning…. While loaded language is a cue to intensify emotions, semantic stop signs are a cue to discontinue thought. To put it most simply, when used in conjunction, a follower’s body screams “Do whatever the leader says,” while their brain whispers “Don’t think about what might happen next” — and that’s a deadly coercive combination.

But as when I learned to identify verbal abuse by reading Patricial Evans’ writing, identifying cultish language is more for yourself than it is for warning others:

Thought-terminating clichés are by no means exclusive to “cults.” Ironically, calling someone “brainwashed” can even serve as a semantic stop sign. You can’t engage in a dialogue with someone who says, “That person is brainwashed” or “You’re in a cult.” It’s just not effective. I know this because every time I witness it happen on social media, the argument comes to a standstill. Once these phrases are invoked, they choke the conversation, leaving no hope of figuring out what’s behind the drastic rift in belief.

So, this all gives you an idea of what you’ll find in this book. Along with this conversation about things cultish groups have in common, there are many, many case studies, examples from everywhere on the spectrum from innocent to harmful. Some extra time is given to Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, but there are plenty of more everyday examples. She even talks about how social media is designed to “generate ideological sects, to pack people’s feeds with suggested content that only exaggerates what they already believe.”

After looking at so many types and degrees of cultish behavior and language, the author reminds us that we are made for community. We won’t avoid cult-like spaces altogether, nor do we want to.

Above all else, it’s important to maintain a vigilant twinkle in your eye — that tingle in your brain that tells you there’s some degree of metaphor and make-believe here, and that your identity comes not from one swami or single-minded ideology but from the vast amalgam of influences, experiences, and language that make up who you are. As long as you hang on to that, I think it’s possible to engage with certain cultish groups, knowing that at the end of the day, when you come home or close the app, strip off the group’s linguistic uniform, and start speaking like yourself again, you’re not all in.

So, yes, this is a valuable book. It gives perspective on how people get pulled into cultish groups and ways to check where the groups you’re part of (and we are all part of groups) fall on the health spectrum. But it can also give us compassion for those who find themselves in a difficult place. it’s not stupidity that gets them there, it’s design.

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X + Y, by Eugenia Cheng

X + Y

A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender

by Eugenia Cheng

Basic Books, 2020. 272 pages.
Review written May 9, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

I love this book so very much! And I’m so glad I finally got it read — had meant to ever since it came out. I’m going on vacation this week and decided to finish it before I left — and Wow! — it’s full of transformative concepts.

Now, if you’re not a math-lover like me, please don’t be put off by the fact that this book is written by a mathematician. She works with Category Theory, a branch of mathematics that doesn’t necessarily deal with numbers, but about relationships and how things interact with other things.

In this book, she uses category theory to take on gender. And wow! What a lovely job she does.

Now, she starts with something I related to completely — the lack of women in higher mathematics. I started a PhD program in math at UCLA immediately after college. I was one of only 5 women out of 120 new math graduate students that year. Three of the other women were in master’s programs, not doctoral — and I ended up dropping out a year and a quarter later with my Master’s. So I am very aware that there’s a gender disparity in mathematics.

The first part of the book looks at difficulties with even talking about gender disparities. She looks at problematic arguments about nature or nurture.

And then she takes us to another dimension. She takes the gendered dimension out of the discussion and defines some new terms.

We need new, ungendered language in order to separate character traits from gender and have less divisive conversations in which people don’t have to get defensive about “not all men” or “not all women” being a certain way. Because indeed men are not the same, and neither are women. Not all men are aggressive, competitive, risk-taking, and unempathetic. And even those who do behave in those ways might only do so because of social pressure and the idea, perpetuated by social norms, that this is how to be successful in society. When certain behavior is rewarded by society many people will strive to behave in those ways even if at some deeper level it makes them unhappy.

The ungendered language she comes up with are the terms “ingressive” and “congressive.” Ingressive behavior focuses on the individual, and congressive behavior focuses on the group. Here are her definitions:

ingressive: focusing on oneself over society and community, imposing on people more than taking others into account, emphasizing independence and individualism, more competitive and adversarial than collaborative, tending toward selective or single-track thought processes

congressive: focusing on society and community over self, taking others into account more than imposing on them, emphasizing interdependence and interconnectedness, more collaborative and cooperative than competitive, tending toward circumspect thought processes.

This is not a clean dichotomy even though some aspects sound like exact opposites of each other. It’s not a classification of people into two camps. It’s a way to evaluate behavior in a flexible and dynamic way to reflect the fact that people are flexible and dynamic day by day and also over the course of their lives, not fixed and rigid.

She goes on to talk about spaces that are more ingressive and spaces that are more congressive. Interesting to me, she left her position at a university and began a career teaching math at an art school. Yes, she found many more women at the art school, but she can go beyond gender and talk about how it’s much more set up as an ingressive space. And she’s happier working in that space.

She describes examples of other people, both women and men, who gave up more ingressive careers (after achieving success) for more congressive roles.

And she talks about how math education is set up to reward ingressive behavior, with lots of testing and competition. This was interesting to me, because at first I thought, oh, I must be mostly ingressive because I love competition, and really enjoyed math competitions when I was a student.

But then I think about my happy switch from teaching college math to becoming a librarian. I’ve said many times, “In the library, I still get to help people learn, but now I’m on their side! As an instructor, I had to test them, and I felt like their adversary. Now I get to show kids the fun side of math.” So I have to stand as another example of someone who turned out to be much, much happier in a more ingressive career path.

I was also fascinated by her ideas to make education – yes, even mathematics education — more congressive. She suspects that could attract more people to the field who might be turned off by the current more ingressive way it tends to be taught. I loved when she started elaborating on that idea:

Congressive math is what I have been teaching to art students for several years. I think it’s also what is introduced to children at the very beginning of school, when it’s all about play and exploration with blocks and toys and other things they can touch and feel. It comes back around to being like this at a research level, but by that time I think we’ve already put off far too many congressive people with the phase in between.

I think math should be congressive all the way through. We really don’t need to train people to be human calculators anymore, now that we have actual calculators with us more or less all the time (for example, on our phones). So math could be more congressive by being about exploration and processes. It could be more about ways of thinking than about knowledge.

I would like to see a non-cumulative curriculum so that each stage doesn’t depend on the previous stage. The traditional model is more like a series of hurdles that get higher and higher and are specially designed to weed people out at each level. Not only is this ingressive, it’s also counterproductive, as we are not weeding out the right people.

But I shouldn’t go on so much about math, because that was a side point. The really beautiful thing about this book was how it took gendered language out of discussions about our society. I suspect you could also use these ideas in discussions about race.

I believe that the new dimension of ingressive and congressive traits can help us overcome bias that can’t be addressed on the dimension of gender alone. I think this is how we can deal with implicit bias in the system that comes from our association of character with gender, and how we can deal with indirect bias that comes from favoring ingressive behavior. But I think it will also have an effect on explicit bias, as it is a way for everyone to escape one-dimensional gendered thinking in their heads and think more clearly about what contributions to society we want to see. With every individual who escapes that thinking, the hold of both implicit and explicit gender bias will be lessened.

And the book finishes up with a vision of what things could be like in a society that encourages congressive behavior — and offers tips on ways to be more congressive in your personal life and perhaps in your personal environment (such as her math classrooms in art school). There’s even a helpful appendix at the back that demonstrates how you can respond to personal attacks with congressive statements instead of ingressively attacking back.

Now I’ll admit, I was predisposed to love this book having been a woman working in the field of mathematics, even if it was at a lower level than Dr. Cheng. But I’m also delighted with and impressed by her ideas. May we work together, in our lives and in our communities, to make the world a more congressive place. I highly recommend this book, and would love to discuss it with others who have read it.

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Review of Washed Ashore, by Kelly Crull

Washed Ashore

Making Art from Ocean Plastic

by Kelly Crull

Millbrook Press, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written October 8, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is the kind I can’t resist showing to my coworkers on the spot. The art is stunning. The subject is convicting. And the overall presentation is mind-blowing.

Yes, I knew that there’s lots of plastic trash in the ocean. But this book makes you feel the magnitude.

This book documents the work of Angela Haseltine Pozzi and her organization called Washed Ashore. They make animal sculptures out of trash found in the ocean.

Washed Ashore shows large photographs of fourteen of these sculptures. They give facts about the ocean animals portrayed and how they’re affected by plastic trash. They also list tips for reducing plastic trash in the ocean. And across the bottom of each spread, there are objects for you to find in the sculptures.

It’s finding those objects that makes you look closely and get your mind blown with all the junk. It also helps you realize just how big these sculptures are. Some of the objects to look for include a cigarette lighter, sunglasses, an inhaler, a steering wheel, toothbrushes, multiple toys, shoe parts, and even the front of a stereo.

And the art itself is stunning. Looking closely and realizing what it’s made of makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

Take a look at this book. I don’t believe that you can fail to be moved.

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Review of If You’re a Kid Like Gavin, by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff, illustrations by J Yang

If You’re a Kid Like Gavin

The True Story of a Young Trans Activist

by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff
illustrations by J Yang

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2022. 36 pages.
Review written October 25, 2022, from a library book.
Starred Review

This colorful and informative picture book tells the story of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who went to court to be able to use the boys’ restroom at his high school.

The book is framed in a way kids can understand, talking about choices you can make and choices you can’t make.

Here’s how they explain that Gavin is transgender:

And if you’re a kid like Gavin Grimm,
you don’t choose if you’re a boy or a girl.

But if you’re transgender like Gavin Grimm,
you might choose to talk about it.

To tell your family, “I know you thought I was a girl,
but I’m really a boy on the inside.”

To say, “I can’t keep the name you gave me. We have to pick a new one.”

To be honest about who you are.

But then Gavin faced another choice: What to do about the bathrooms at school. He went to school as a boy, and no one bothered him. But they had him use a restroom in the nurse’s office. After a while, he started using the boys’ bathroom.

The principal said it was okay, and that should have been the end.

But the book portrays that there were some who didn’t like it, starting with a teacher, who told people that he was really a girl. That started everyone talking about him. Other kids bullied and laughed at him. And they made him a topic of a school board meeting. Gavin then had another choice.

Gavin chose to speak up for himself. He went to the meeting at his school and told them where he belonged. He tried to make them see that he was just a kid, not a problem to be solved.

It didn’t work.

But he still had a choice. He could have used the girls’ bathroom, which didn’t feel right. Or he could have used the bathroom his school put into a closet, one that no other kid was forced to use.

And he could have chosen to stay quiet.

The spread with his choice has a wonderful sky at sunset behind Gavin — with the colors of the transgender flag.

But when you’re a kid like Gavin Grimm, you know the only choice you have is to fight back.

To stand up for yourself.
And your right to use the bathroom as yourself.
And your right to be in school as yourself.

Then it talks about how Gavin worked with the ACLU to continue to fight his own case and to try to help other transgender kids, too.

I wish that this book were only of historical interest! It helps kids understand why transgender kids want to be who they know themselves to be. And it encourages kids to make the choice to stand for what’s right. Even while acknowledging they shouldn’t have to.

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Review of In Search of Safety, by Susan Kuklin

In Search of Safety

Voices of Refugees

written and photographed by Susan Kuklin

Candlewick Press, 2020. 246 pages.
Review written July 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Like the author’s book Beyond Magenta, which featured the stories of transgender teens, this book takes an in-depth look at individual refugees stories, with photographs. This paragraph at the front of the book explains it well:

Refugees are people who are forced to leave their country because they are being persecuted. From 1980 to 2018, the number of refugees resettled in the United States each year was between 50,000 and 100,000 people. In 2019, that number dropped to 30,000 people, and in 2020 it dropped again to 18,000. Many of them are from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, the Middle East, and Africa. Some have resettled in the Midwest because housing there is reasonably priced and jobs are relatively plentiful. The five refugees featured in In Search of Safety are from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi. One refugee had been a translator for the U. S. military. Another recently escaped the horrors of captivity by fundamentalist militants. And three spent years in refugee camps, growing up in countries other than their homeland. They all survived wars. They all were carefully screened by several security organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States State Department, and the United States Department of Homeland Security. They have all been resettled in the state of Nebraska, where they have been warmly welcomed. This book tells their stories

Some of the stories here are indeed horrific. But hearing detailed stories puts a face on a desperate situation and helps the reader understand that refugees are by no means just looking for a hand-out.

The five stories are told with multiple chapters each, with many photographs, and in the refugees own words. The group that sponsored them to come to Nebraska, Lutheran Family Services, is also featured, and we see what good work they do.

These stories will tear at your heart, but also make you rejoice that people in need were welcomed to a new home.

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Review of Gender: A Graphic Guide, by Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele


A Graphic Guide

by Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele

Icon Books, 2019. 176 pages.
Review written July 31, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book explores, in graphic format, more aspects of gender than I even realized existed.

Here’s some text from a page at the start titled “Multiple Meanings”:

Gender is both in the world around us and within us in our own experience. Gender is socially constructed: our culture develops and passes on strong messages about what it means to be each gender – and related roles and behaviours – through media, laws, education, and so on. At the same time we all have a lived experience of our gender which impacts how we experience our body, our feelings, our relationships, and pretty much everything in life. The way gender is socially constructed in the time and place that we live is part of what shapes our lived experience, but it’s not the whole story, and different people relate to gender in different ways.

This means gender is both deeply political and personal, which can make it complex – and emotionally charged – to talk about.

The chapters cover the history of gender, the science and philosophy of gender, masculinities, femininities, non-binary genders, transgender & cisgender, the future of gender, and sums up thinking about gender. It’s wonderfully comprehensive, bringing up different aspects even of the stereotypes, topics like intersectionality and colonialism, and quoting a wide range of sociologists and thinkers.

Gender is such a part of our lives, we may not even realize all these aspects exist. This is a wonderful way to give more consideration to something that’s a fundamental part of your life.

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Review of Call and Response, by Veronica Chambers

Call and Response

The Story of Black Lives Matter

by Veronica Chambers

Versify (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 152 pages.
Review written October 22, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

When I checked out this book, I wasn’t sure I’d actually read it. But once I got started, I couldn’t stop. It’s got informative, detailed, and current information about the Black Lives Matter movement, including the widespread protests of Summer 2020. A project with The New York Times, the book is packed with photographs that keep the reader engaged.

I learned so much when reading this book, not only about the Black Lives Matter movement, but also about the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. The author placed current events in the context of an ongoing struggle.

I also learned about what goes into an effective protest. There was a short section about the roles of marshal, bike patrol, frontline, street medics, supplier, and legal observer. This is a book about history – recent history plus background – but it is also a book about ways that individuals can work for justice and change.

With all the pictures, this book took me longer to read than I expected. But the pages are large (the better to hold large photos), and a whole lot of information is presented in creative ways.

Whether you’re critical or supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, this book will help you understand what they are trying to accomplish and how they rose to the moment.

The final chapter is titled “Never Too Young to Lead,” and features young leaders of various movements, including the Civil Rights movement in the sixties and the Black Lives Matter movement today, but also young people like Greta Thunberg against climate change and the Parkland survivors against gun violence – leaving kids with inspiration to find ways to step out and get involved.

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Review of On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder, illustrated by Nora Krug

On Tyranny

Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Graphic Edition

by Timothy Snyder
illustrated by Nora Krug

Ten Speed Press, 2021. Original edition published in 2017. 128 pages.
Review written January 6, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I think copying out the Prologue will explain well what this book is trying to do:

History does not repeat, but it does instruct. As the Founding Fathers debated our Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew. Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire. As they knew, Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants. In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called TYRANNY. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.

Much of the succeeding political debate in the United States has concerned the problem of tyranny within American society: over slaves and women, for example.

It is thus a primary American tradition to consider history when our political order seems imperiled. If we worry today that the American experiment is threatened by tyranny, we can follow the example of the Founding Fathers and contemplate the history of other democracies and republics. The good news is that we can draw upon more recent and relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome. The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall. Since the American colonies declared their independence from a British monarchy that the Founders deemed “tyrannical,” European history has seen three major democratic moments: after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989. Many of the democracies founded at these junctures failed, in circumstances that in some important respects resemble our own.

He continues to talk about the rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism in the twentieth century.

We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. In fact, the precedent set by the Founders demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it. Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.

This book presents twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

The first lesson is “Do not obey in advance.” The first example is that several countries taken over by Hitler started persecuting Jews before they were ordered to.

Some other notable lessons are: “Remember professional ethics.” (Doctors should not be willing to experiment on prisoners, for example.) “Be wary of paramilitaries.” “Be reflective if you must be armed.” “Be kind to our language.” “Believe in truth.” “Learn from peers in other countries.” “Listen for dangerous words.”

The lesson “Be a patriot.” contrasts patriotism with nationalism. “A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best.”

A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where their country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which they judge their nation, always wishing it well – and wishing that it would do better.

The Epilogue contrasts the politics of inevitability, eternity, and history.

The politics of inevitability is “the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.” Communism had a similar politics of inevitability, though theirs was that history was moving toward an inevitable socialist utopia.

The politics of eternity are “concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.”

Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation. National populists are eternity politicians.

I was a little surprised that his first examples of that were politicians advocating for Brexit in the United Kingdom and the National Rally in France. But yes, he does include “Make America great again.”

He says it’s easy to go from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity.

The only thing that stands between them is history itself. History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something.

The illustrator put many photographs from tyrannies in the twentieth century in these pages, along with disturbing images that will help the words strike home. The book was clearly updated in 2021, since it includes many statements from the Trump presidency and the events of January 6, 2021.

The result is a powerful book of history with warnings for today.

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Review of The Wedding Portrait, by Innosanto Nagara

The Wedding Portrait

The Story of a Photograph and Why Sometimes We Break the Rules

by Innosanto Nagara

Triangle Square, 2017. 36 pages.
Review written August 5, 2020, from a library book

The Wedding Portrait is a picture book about activism for kids. It’s all framed by the author’s wedding portrait, which was clipped from a newspaper and features armed guards beyond the happy couple.

The author explains things in a way a child can understand:

We usually follow the rules. But sometimes, when you see something wrong – more wrong than breaking the rules, and by breaking the rules you could stop it – you may decide that you should break the rules.

Then he talks about various people in history who have broken rules to stand up for what’s right. He covers Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks fighting segregation; Indian people making salt in defiance of the British empire; the U’wa people in Colombia standing up against oil drilling on their land; a boycott by farm workers of tomatoes; and other forms of Civil Disobedience.

Eventually, he comes to himself and his wife, who met at a protest and decided to get married at a protest against nuclear weapons.

The author defines terms along the way and provides a wide variety of examples. It’s all framed with that wedding portrait, and there’s an epilogue following up by talking about different ways of taking action.

In current times, children may have a lot of questions about protests, and this book beautifully explains why people sometimes think it’s right to break the rules.

I do like the inclusion of this paragraph in the middle of the book:

Now. I’ll bet all this is giving you some ideas, isn’t it? Do you think some of the things that you do when you’re not following the rules should be considered civil disobedience? Do you think hiding under the bed to avoid taking a bath is a kind of sit-in? Is refusing to eat your dinner a kind of boycott?

Maybe. (Maybe not.)

As you can see, this book gives you lots to talk about.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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