The Best Human Rights Books of 2016
For The Best Human Rights Books of 2015 and 2014, see here.
In terms of both quantity and quality, 2016 was an excellent year for books related to human rights, democracy and political freedom. There are altogether 65 books on this list. Lest that number sound too inclusive, I should note about three dozen books I considered got left out.
Those 65 books are set in 27 different places around the world including Afghanistan (2), Albania, Bangladesh, Burma, China (6), Egypt (2), England, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Libya, Mali, Palestine (3), Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka (2), Syria (3), Taiwan, Tibet (4), the US (19), Xinjiang, and former Yugoslavia, as well as the regions of the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and East Africa, plus seven books with a global focus.
The books embrace a wide range of rights issues including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and war crimes tribunals, occupation, housing rights, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing, democracy and dictatorship, democratic transition, strategic nonviolence and resistance, protest and freedom of assembly and association, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, minority rights, discrimination, racism, prisoners’ rights, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, propaganda, censorship and the right to information, international criminal courts, human rights defenders, historical accountability for rights abuses, internally displaced persons and refugees, migrant rights, rights abuses associated with counter-terrorism, slavery and human trafficking, indigenous people’s rights, reproductive rights, self-determination, freedom of religion, environmental and land rights, gun violence, corruption, the right to education, and legal rights activism. Perhaps the only conspicuous absence is workers’ rights (not much on freedom of religion either).
As that indicates, this list understands “human rights” in a broad sense: those contained in the two principle covenants, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in the human rights treaties that emanate out from them and issues related to their abuse, protection and defense, and to the nonviolent struggle for their fulfillment. In addition, books related to democracy are included on the list, since it is the form of government which in itself embodies the best fulfillment of rights and also that which in practice best guarantees their protection.
To make the list, the book had to be published between December 1, 2015 and December 1, 2016, but as you’ll see, I make one exception, and there is also a list of great books from 2015 which would have made last year’s list except for the fact I didn’t get around to reading them until 2016. The books are grouped below according to the following headings: 1) The best human rights books of 2016 (27 books), 2) Great books I didn’t get around to reading (32 books), and 3) Great books I missed in 2015 (7 books).
Thanks to all the beautiful writers (and a couple of photographers) who further the cause.
The best human rights books of 2016
East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”, Philippe Sands (Knopf, May 24, 2016)
Sands’ book reads like a labor of love, about both his family and his vocation as international human rights lawyer. It is a tribute to two remarkable people, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, whom Sands characterizes as representing two different approaches to international humanitarian law, Lemkin pushing for genocide, Lauterpacht for crimes against humanity. It also reads like a detective novel, as Sands discovers that the various threads of his family’s past, Lauterpacht and Lemkin all entwine in the city of Lvov, currently in Ukraine but with a very complex and troubled history. These threads all come together in the Nuremberg trials. It works brilliantly as a meditation on the foundations of international humanitarian and human rights law, on the legacy of legal responses to the Holocaust, and as an examination of ways in which the experience of the Holocaust echoes down the decades of a particular family victimized by it, his own. It recently won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction (formerly Samuel Johnson prize).
The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, Ben Ehrenreich (Penguin Press, June 14, 2016)
This book documents the lives of Palestinian activists under illegal Israeli occupation in the West Bank after, as it puts it, “nearly half a century of evictions, demolitions, confiscations, mass arrests, targeted killings, and the steady methodical disenfranchisement, dispossession, and humiliation of an entire people” not to mention the illegal settling on that land of 350,000 Israelis with the assistance and protection of the Israeli state. It does so with great compassion for the oppressed, examining how they struggle to come to terms with and fight against their oppression as well as great insight into how the oppression manifests itself in the details of their daily lives. The injustice is enough to make you scream: How does one put up living with it day to day with virtually no prospect of any substantial change at least in the near future if at all? And that last element is essential to the book: hopelessness, the feeling that the situation is at its nadir, lack of prospect for relief or improvement. It was easily the most depressing read of the year for me, not because I didn’t know about the oppression it describes but because it describes the brutality, violence and sense of powerlessness so vividly, focusing on three locations, Nabi Saleh, Hebron and Umm al-Kheir. Superbly written, it goes along well with two other books about Palestine from 2015, Ghada Karmi’s Return: A Palestinian Memoir and Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance by Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby. (See below for both.)
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, Hisham Matar (Random House, July 5, 2016)
Matar returns to Libya twenty-two years after his father was kidnapped and disappeared by the Gaddafi regime. He tries to discover what happened to his father. He encounters a society that is both his own and, after so many years in exile, foreign. The return took place at a moment of relative optimism in Libya that has since passed. It is about the horrible costs inflicted upon a society by decades of brutal dictatorship and hope for a better future. It is also a meditation on how the political events of his homeland have shaped the author’s life and worldview. The beautifully crafted prose has a feel of the eternal about it — a story, sadly, for the ages. It was shortlisted for Baillie Gifford Prize.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, May 24, 2016)
Published in Russian in 2013 and translated into other languages since, this book just appeared in English this year. It confirms that the awarding of the 2015 Nobel in Literature to Alexievich was justified. I imagine it was probably this book which decided things in her favor during the Nobel committee’s deliberations— it does have the feel to it of one of those great books that come along once in a career pinnacle, when all of a writer’s skills combine perfectly. Indeed, while I found her other oral histories on Chernobyl survivors, Soviet veterans of the Afghanistan occupation, and women’s experience of World War II all excellent, there is something about this book which is consummate. The oral history genre lends itself especially well to the topic here, which is the society-wide experience of the end of the Soviet epoch in Russia and the ensuing transitional period. The clamor of voices give a sense of the mixture of nostalgia and revulsion with which the Soviet era is regarded, of Russians struggling with their identity as a people, and of the the mixture of great hope and insecurity in the period that followed. Given that the transition to democracy was not made, a tragic shadow is cast over this book.
Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul, Clara Bingham (Random House, May 31, 2016)
Like Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, this is an oral history. Indeed, it’s interesting to compare the two to see the uses to which the genre is put, and in both cases, what one finds is that it lends itself exceedingly well to capturing the Zeitgeist of a society at a particular moment in history, in this case, the US in the year from August 1969 to August 1970. Its premise that this was a potentially revolutionary moment has been disputed by some, but there was certainly something in the air at the time. It represented both the pinnacle and end of an era, both what progressive activism was capable of and its errors, including the dystopian turn towards violence of the Weather Underground, and limitations. Given that this was already 46 years ago, it’s fascinating to hear people who were active then reflecting, often critically, on their actions so many years later. Their reflections bring that tense, fraught period to life. Much of the promise of that progressive era went unfulfilled. It was followed by a conservative backlash, from Nixon to Reagan, and a general political shift to the right in the US which arguably reaches its mad culmination in Trump. At the same time, in terms of improvements in women’s and minority rights and imprinting on the American psyche a culture of opposition and alternative visions for the country, its impact has been enormous and long-lasting. It portrays the US as the confusingly mixed and contradictory place it still is. To anyone interested in bringing about progressive change, many useful lessons can be learned from the reflections of the protagonists.
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon, August 23, 2016)
This is a landmark and testament to prodigious research, essentially bringing together in one place for the first time the full story of the Attica Prison Uprising and its decades-long legacy in the face of equally tenacious attempts by the State of New York to cover it up. The telling of the story reveals many of the contradictions faced by the US today: it’s not an exaggeration to say the wrong lessons learned from Attica by US authorities essentially lead to the human rights disaster of the mass incarceration of recent decades. It is also an interesting study of protest, to set side by side with many other case studies of large-scale protest movements. For example, like many others, the Attica uprising, like many others, was essentially unplanned and spontaneous, sparked by an unexpected occurrence, but it was also an accident waiting to happen insofar as it occurred against the backdrop of great frustration at unaddressed concerns. Strikingly, though, only about a third of the book is dedicated to the uprising itself, the lead-up to it, and its conclusion. Much of the rest of it dwells on the myriad ways in which government officials up and down the hierarchy attempted to cover up their massacre of prisoners and hostages, with 39 fatalities and over one-hundred serious injuries, all but four due to massive state violence against people without firearms. The book portrays outrageous institutional racism and paranoia about “revolutionaries” from top to bottom, the governor, the president, the vice-president, corrections officers and state troopers as well as a shocking disregard for both human life and truth. The book is also part of a plethora of great books about mass incarceration, solitary confinement, racism and other human rights problems associated with US prisons to have come out in the past two years. (See below for others.) It was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, Anjan Sundaram (Doubleday, January 12, 2016)
A quietly loud shout from the darkness, this book is about a journalism teacher, Sundaram, teaching a class in Rwanda, a country with severe restrictions on freedom of expression. While focusing on the plight of journalists in Rwanda, this is one of best books I’ve read about what it feels like to live in a dictatorship, in this case, that of Paul Kagame. Living in the largest dictatorship in the world myself, I recognize what Sundaram described in Rwanda, and in reading Bad News, thought of just how similar dictatorships are, despite their many differences. It is deftly written and incisively sensitive to details of psychology and atmosphere, especially as regards the wide-ranging effects of the combination of repression, state violence, censorship and propaganda. Three short passages to illustrate: (1) Referring to a case of a friend turning informant and betraying another friend: “In a dictatorship one gained one’s freedom not by defending the liberty of others but by working to diminish it; for each person you turned in you earned more space. Even if such freedom could not last, even if you could lose by betrayal what had been gained by betrayal, it was a kind of freedom: a negative freedom. People’s innate desire to be free thus provided essential sustenance to repression, dictatorship.” (2) A journalist about to flee to the country to escape the regime, which is hunting him down: “Why do they walk in the dark? You would think we would use these wonderful new [well-lit] roads we have been given — isn’t this development, progress? But no. Ah, look at this road! Anyone can see this for himself! And you begin to understand our country. We the poor, we are like the insects, scared of the lights. We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time. So you now see that the truth in our country is hidden, and you need to look not for what is there, but for what they hide. You cannot pay attention to what they show you, but need to listen to those who are kept quiet. You need to look differently in a dictatorship, you need to think about how to listen to people who live in fear.” (3) What’s worse, the dictatorship of Rwanda receives the full, enthusiastic support of Western democratic governments which lavish aid on it. This is illustrated in a stunning scene at a reception given by the European Union ambassador to celebrate a donation of $300 million to the regime to spend as it wishes. Sundaram confronts the ambassador, asking, “Aren’t you worried about giving money to a dictator?” The ambassador is affronted and responds with uncharacteristic directness: “I have no problem with giving money to a dictator.” I’ve encountered similar attitudes on the part of E.U. diplomats in China, though never expressed quite so brazenly.
The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt, Julian Borger (Other Press, January 19, 2016)
This is a book about a human rights success story: The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia eventually accounted for all 161 suspects on its wanted list. That means they were all apprehended and prosecuted or died before that occurred. An amazing accomplishment. Borger’s tale is about how they were all brought to book. Actually, there isn’t much focus on the tribunal itself, but far more on the geopolitics and logistics of the hunt for the suspects. In this sense, it reads much more like a detective novel or action thriller than an idealistic treatise on human rights. Indeed, considering the hurdles faced, many of which were put there by the very entities responsible for apprehending the suspects, the ICTY’s record is all the more impressive. Given the troubles currently faced by the ICC and the fact that neither the US, Russia or China has signed on to it, it’s hard to know exactly what legacy the ICTY will have for international justice, but it’s a sign that when all the political stars align, some semblance of it can be realized.
Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran, Shirin Ebadi (Random House, March 8, 2016)
Ebadi’s second memoir comes at a moment when the struggle of Iranians for freedom and rights is perhaps a bit overlooked by the wider world, due to all the more “urgent” issues (Syria, etc). It is an excellent reminder that Iran is up there with China as one of the worst rights abusers in the world among major countries. It follows on her previous memoir, Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country (which came out in 2007 and is also definitely worth a read). This one basically covers the time after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and especially after Ahmadinejad’s ascent to power in 2005. The premise is that, in theory, the international recognition brought by the Nobel afforded Ebadi some protection, and the story’s basic message is, if the Iranian government is emboldened to do this to a Nobel Peace Prize winner (a bit like China locking up Liu Xiaobo), just think what’s it’s doing to the thousands of others whom the rest of the world does not know so well. The cataloguing of persecution Ebadi faced is best summed up by The Random House blurb: “For years the Islamic Republic tried to intimidate Ebadi, but after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power in 2005, the censorship and persecution intensified. The government wiretapped Ebadi’s phones, bugged her law firm, sent spies to follow her, harassed her colleagues, detained her daughter, and arrested her sister on trumped-up charges. It shut down her lectures, fired up mobs to attack her home, seized her offices, and nailed a death threat to her front door. Despite finding herself living under circumstances reminiscent of a spy novel, nothing could keep Ebadi from speaking out and standing up for human dignity. But it was not until she received a phone call from her distraught husband — and he made a shocking confession that would all but destroy her family — that she realized what the intelligence apparatus was capable of to silence its critics. The Iranian government would end up taking everything from Shirin Ebadi — her marriage, friends, and colleagues, her home, her legal career, even her Nobel Prize.” Now, as a result of the relentless persecution, she is living in exile, and that is the saddest comment of all, considering she was one of those who for many years was dedicated to remaining in her country even while many others fled. The writing is very lively, brisk, readable and compelling.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Random House, October 11, 2016)
Epic in scope, this novel tells the story of three generations who have suffered under Communist dictatorship in China. It’s told from the point of view of a young Canadian woman who hasn’t been persecuted directly herself but is the daughter of a victim who escaped and sought refuge in China. The story is essentially that of the daughter finding out about her father, her father’s best friend and lover, and their fates. It stretches back to the early years of the revolution, through the Cultural Revolution and up through the Tiananmen massacre. It is a great novel about the psychological effects of living under dictatorship and persecution and how it affects every single part of one’s thinking, indeed, every single part of a person. It is also a beautiful story about the deep love of music, in this case, Western classical music. I suggest soundtracking the reading the of the novel according to the musical works mentioned in it. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Green Island: A Novel, Shawna Yang Ryan (Knopf, February 23, 2016)
This book is the Taiwanese counterpart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It tracks a family over decades and shows the long-term effects, not least psychological, of oppression and dictatorship. One event echoes down the decades, the infamous “February 28 incident”, the date referring to the days in 1947 when eventually tens of thousands of executions of Taiwanese by the Guomindang started. The story is told by the daughter of a father who speaks out and is taken away to near-certain execution but miraculously escapes that fate and instead survives years of secret detention, not least of all by making tragic compromises, before returning miraculously to his family, whose lesson learned from the ordeal is to stay as far away from politics as possible. Instead, the daughter ends up marrying an activist and promising academic living in exile in the US and they take in an escaped dissident. The conflicts between the married couple over whether to be involved in the freedom struggle result in both keeping secrets from the other. All comes to a head when they decide to return to Taiwan for the first time in years, supposedly to visit their families.
Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, Yasmine El Rashidi (Tim Duggan Books, June 28, 2016)
“Understated” is a word that comes to mind to describe this novel, and “beautifully written” a phrase. It is the story of a girl/young woman’s coming of age and development of political consciousness over three decades, set against the backdrop of the Mubarak dictatorship, beginning with his rise to power in 1984 and going through the revolution that toppled him in 2011, only for a new military dictatorship to emerge. The different periods correspond to three men in her life: her father, who disappears mysteriously, her uncle and her cousin Dido, an impassioned activist eventually imprisoned in the post-Mubarak era. The novel captures subtly the the despair and sense of powerlessness that pervades everything under dictatorship, feelings that take almost concrete form in the look and sound of the surrounding world. Simply the fact that it is seen through the eyes of a woman of the current generation, a woman who has survived, and is aware, and knows, even if she isn’t always certain of what she should do with her knowledge and awareness, gives some hope for the future at this bleak moment.
The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam (Flatiron Books, September 6, 2016)
In reading this novel, I was reminded of Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. Both trace in minute detail the physicality of the oppressed life, get inside the moment by moment living of it. The story is of Dinesh, a Tamil living in a camp for displaced people under bombardment by the Sri Lankan army near the end of the civil war. Out of the blue, he receives an unusual marriage proposal and must decide how to respond. But apart from the particulars of the bombings, the maimed and dead victims, and the general misery of the camp, the wider history of the conflict hardly enters into the story, which is all about Dinesh, a “nobody” like the millions of other nobodies in such camps, living in a state of stupefaction caused by his extreme experience. Physiological acts from defecation to breathing are described in detail. In a recent interview, the author, Arudpragasam, said, “In everything I write, I think of the elements of the external world — people, places, histories, situations, events — as a kind of anchor that allows me to get close to the elements of inner life that most interest me…. The two main characters were highly traumatized, estranged from their own minds as a result of what they’d been through, so they didn’t really have access to their thoughts and feelings. As someone engaged in trying to understand, from a very different context, what being in such a situation is like, this posed a challenge: How can you try to glean the inner life of a person cut off from their inner life? So the novel begins where it does, with an old man suggesting that Dinesh marry his daughter. This proposal forces Dinesh to come to terms with all that has happened to him, to try to become intimate again with his thoughts and feelings. The novel takes place during a small window of consciousness within a much larger period of alienation from oneself.”
The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, Rohini Mohan (Verso, October 20, 2015)
If you’re looking for a book that will provide a better understanding of the wider issues of the Sri Lankan civil war and its impact on the country’s Tamils, this is the one. I’m cheating here since The Seasons of Trouble actually came out in 2015, but I didn’t have a chance to read it until early 2016. It would have easily made the Best of 2015. Written in the vein of journalistic reportage, it tells the stories of two characters deeply affected by the war and their families. One is a former woman soldier who is trying to save her family at the end of the war as the Sri Lankan army closes in. The other is a young man with no direct experience of the war and no role in it who is wrongly and unjustly swept up by the Sri Lankan state security apparatus as a terror suspect. Their stories, compelling and well told, are an excellent introduction to the human costs of the war for Tamils, who not only endured immense suffering in the north of Sri Lanka, where the brunt of the “hot” war occurred, but elsewhere, where they were essentially suspected of involvement or sympathy with the Tigers and treated accordingly. In its great detail and vivid description, it reads like a novel and is hard to praise highly enough.
The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota (Knopf, March 29, 2016)
Published in the UK (and shortlisted for the Booker) in 2015, this book makes the list because it was published in the US in 2016 and I didn’t read it until this year. It is one of the best novels about migration, tracking three young men who move from India to England to work illegally. One of them, a Dalit, faced atrocious caste persecution at home. All of them face myriad abuses in England. One of them has come to England via an arranged (fake) marriage to a deeply religious Sikh Englishwoman, who ends up playing a vital role in the plot and becomes a main protagonist in her own right. The story is extremely well plotted and paced, the prose is elegant and precise — in the blurb lingo of bookselling, it’s what’s called “masterful storytelling” in the good old-fashioned sense of the term. The lives of the characters over the course of the one year of the title are depicted with great and moving empathy. Runaways are different from refugees, also from emigrants. The question is what exactly are they runaways from? And what are they running to?
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, Andrés Reséndez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 12, 2016)
The title refers to the enslavement of natives of the Americas on a scale rivaling that of African slavery in the Americas, from the moment of Europeans’ first arrival in the “new world” through the nineteenth century. Unlike African slavery, from that very beginning, there were various laws prohibiting their enslavement, so a large number of ruses had to be found to work around the laws. Epic in scope, the book is a triumph of documentation, bringing together stories which individually have been known for some time. In its comprehensiveness, it reads almost like a legal case. Scholarship on the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas just keeps getting better: This book can be profitably read in conjunction with An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (see below for both). Finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction.
The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and Its Unquiet Legacy, Salil Tripathi (Yale University Press, April 26, 2016)
If you’re looking for a book to explain the background of the complexities of the recent International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh prosecuting war crimes during the 1971 genocide committed by the Pakistani army and its Bangladeshi allies during the Bangladesh Liberation War, this book is a great place to start. In fact, its great value is that it traces a line from that war up to the present, showing how acts committed back then have continued to resonate in Bangladeshi political life down through the decades. It’s not too much to say they’ve to a large extent shaped Bangladesh as an independent country which is still struggling to come to terms with the rifts and divisions, not to mention the suffering they’ve caused. This is yet another book on the list of books addressing what emerges as a key theme this year, the historical, psychological and psychosocial repercussions of human rights abuses left unaddressed.
China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy, Kay Ann Johnson (University of Chicago Press, March 21, 2016)
The product of years of research, especially into Chinese parents’ reasons for relinquishing their daughters during the brutal campaigns to enforce the one-child policy during the nineties and early noughts, this book documents not only extensive human rights abuses caused by the policy but also the human tragedies caused by it and the heartbreaking dilemmas faced by many parents. What becomes apparent is the significant disregard of both the rights and welfare of children in the Partystate’s campaign to enforce its birth-planning policies at all costs. In a sense, the focus on what happened to out-of-plan daughters may seem a bit narrow, but the depth of the analysis and the stories of the affected parents and children bring home the great injustice done by a system where the prerogatives of the regime are paramount and the rights of individuals run a distant second if they’re taken into account at all. For a wider survey of the one-child policy, see Mei Fong’s One Child(below) and for an excellent review of both, see Nicholas D. Kristof’s “China’s Worst Policy Mistake”?
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976, Frank Dikötter (Bloomsbury Press, May 3, 2016)
I have to say I don’t think The Cultural Revolution is as good or as ground-breaking as the two previous books in Dikötter’s trilogy, The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s Great Famine, but it is a significant book in its own right, and as a trio, the three are a magnificent indictment of the massive human rights tragedy the rule of the Communist Party has been in China. Among other things, this book and the others show that, rather than aberrations, the rights abuses they document are at the core and foundation of Chinese history under Communist rule, and, as such, as relevant to today as ever.
Trapped / 侷住, photos by Benny Lam, text by Angela Lui,Gordon Chick, Sze Lai-shan (Society for Community Organization, October 2016)
The only photo book on the list this year, Trapped is related to an exhibition of the same name held in Hong Kong by SOCO to highlight the plight of the some 200,000 people, including 40,000 children, in HK who live in far-too-small sub-standard, sub-divided units that go by different names depending on their type, including the evocative cage homes and coffin homes. These homes range in size from 15 square feet (for the typical coffin home) to 100 square feet. For people unfamiliar with HK, a developed a prosperous society, the smallness of these spaces may seem almost unbelievable, but HK also happens to be the most unequaled developed society in the world. HK is a crowded, densely populated city in which a 700-square-foot apartment for a family of four is considered relatively spacious. For the last six years, HK has also held the dubious distinction of having the least affordable housing in the world. Approximately 50 percent of the population lives in government-subsidized low-income flats because it cannot afford housing at market rates. The living conditions of the 200,000 people in sub-divided units are just one facet of the income inequality and unaffordable housing of the city. The unelected HK government has done virtually nothing to address their plight, which is not new but has existed for years.
Photographer Benny Lam’s background is in fashion, and his eye for color, form and composition are apparent in these technically stunning photographs. Indeed, many of the photos have an almost counter-intuitive beauty to them, considering the misery they depict. His photographic eye also lead him to devise strategies for capturing the claustrophobia of the homes, for example by positioning the camera on the ceiling, looking down directly on the dwelling and by having the inhabitant of the coffin home position a camera on his chest to position the viewer in the same place as the inhabitant and give the same view.
The Tibetan Nonviolent Struggle: A Strategic and Historical Analysis, Tenzin Dorjee (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, January 8, 2016)
From the excellent ICNC Monograph Series, this book succinctly traces the history of the Tibetan nonviolent freedom struggle from the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 up to the present, examining it through the lens of strategic nonviolent theory. In this respect, it is one of the handiest books around on the subject. Few freedom struggles have endured so long or remained so resolutely nonviolent. It strangely sidesteps the question of the significance of the 150-some self-immolations of the last seven years. Setting the current moment, the Third Uprising, in historical context, it is actually optimistic, as it says Tibetans are employing a range of new tactics, having shifted “from purely agitating tactics of protest to more constructive, decentralized and widespread acts of noncooperation and parallel institution building.” It examines recent forms of cultural resistance and assertion of collective identity such as wearing traditional clothes, eating Tibetan food, listening to independent radio, using Tibetan language at home, opening informal schools of Tibetan language and culture, buying only from Tibetan-owned shops; in sum, generally greater self-reliance and self-confidence. It concludes with a list of excellent recommendations to foreign actors and the Tibetan leadership.
Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations Against Chinese Rule, Tsering Woeser (Verso, January 16, 2016)
Written by renowned Tibetan writer and activist, Tsering Woeser, this short book about the phenomenon of the 150-some Tibetan self-immolation protests in the last seven years was published first in Chinese in Taiwan, then in French translation in 2013. (I actually read the French edition.) While there have been human rights reports and other research and documentation of the self-immolations, this book is a sensitive insider’s view, written by someone with intimate knowledge of the culture and history behind the protests. It lists five main types of Chinese repression against which the self-immolations are a reaction which it regards as a radicalized form of nonviolent protest and, after analyzing them, concludes there are eight common aspects of the self-immolations. Especially since reporting on the self-immolations and most everything taking place in Tibetan areas is extremely difficult if not impossible, this framing of the issue is most timely and valuable.
Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West, Ben Hillman and Gray Tuttle, Editors (Columbia University Press, April 5, 2016)
I knew the broad outlines of the issues discussed; this presents the details and shows how things actually work on the ground. As a scholarly work by Tibet and Xinjiang specialists, it does so without a specific ideological or polemical ax to grind, though it’s safe to say it regards the plight of Tibetans and Uighurs under Chinese rule with sympathy. What these academics have in common is that they’re still allowed to go to the places they research and in order to keep access, they must work with some circumspection. Even with this in mind, it still amounts to a damning portrait of Chinese rule. I found especially fascinating the chapters on discussions of human rights in Tibet, the efflorescence of Tibetan culture and the education system as well as the introduction and the chapter, “Unrest in Tibet and the Limits of Regional Autonomy”, both by Ben Hillman, a co-editor.
Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959, Jianglin Li (Harvard University Press, October 10, 2016)
This book was originally published in Chinese in 2010 in Taiwan. It is the first in both Chinese and English based on material in Chinese on the Tibetan Uprising of 1959, and, as such, is probably the most extensive account of that key incident in modern Tibetan history, leading to the Dalai Lama going into exile, direct imposition of Chinese rule, and decades of suffering, destruction and atrocity for Tibetans.
This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, Mark and Paul Engler (Nation Books, February 9, 2016)
As the sub-title suggests, this is a pretty upbeat portrayal of “nonviolent revolt”, though many of its primary examples, such as the US civil rights movement, took place decades ago, and the recent one it gives most attention to, Otpor’s role in toppling Milosevic, took place over a decade ago. Still, the value of the book lies in its conceptualization of various issues facing nonviolent protest, which helped me to clarify my thoughts about HK (by the way, though the photo on the cover is from the HK Umbrella Movement, there’s nothing about it in the book itself). It distinguishes between the organizational development model advocated by Saul Alinsky and the movement-driven model for progressive change promoted by Frances Fox Piven, then examines Otpor as a hybrid of the two. It looks at the phenomenon of “the whirlwind”, how a movement can just seem to take off, and explores why some do and some don’t. And there’s a chapter on “the dividers”, movements and movement leaders that polarize in their actions and rhetoric, which asks the question of under what circumstances their style and tactics may to the benefit or detriment of the cause. Overall, though, I’m skeptical that it successfully makes the case that “nonviolent revolt” is “shaping” the twenty-first century.
The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, Micah White (Knopf Canada, March 15, 2016)
The value of this book lies in its forward thinking, criticism of the way protest is done, and message that new ways need to be found. As such, it challenges much recent literature, both scholarly and popular, on nonviolent struggle, which has tended to be upbeat in tone. It takes as its starting point an evaluation almost the polar opposite of This is an Uprising, namely that the results of recent movements have shown the limitations of current modes and methods of protest. I tend to concur with that view. Mindful of the “failures” of the massive global protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Arab Spring, the Green Movement of Iran, the Occupy movement, and the HK Umbrella Movement, it is perhaps time for a bit of stock-taking. White was part of the Adbusters team that helped to trigger the Occupy movement, and much of his analysis is based on the lessons he learned from what he calls its “constructive failure”. In particular, he is cognizant of the limited effectiveness of large street protests. Again, I think he has a point, though what he proposes as the way forward — generally, a series of broad principles and guidelines — is overwhelming, and while he’s right to point out the limitations of large street protests, he doesn’t spend much time surveying the myriad other approaches which are being taken by many movements and organizations. That is the focus of the book below.
When We Fight, We Win: Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That Are Transforming Our World, Greg Jobin Leeds and AgitArte (The New Press, January 5, 2016)
This book is the flipside of The End of Protest, just as upbeat as its title suggests. It was made through a collaborative process with many of the activists and artists profiled in it and traces the many victories of progressive campaigns between 2000 and 2015 and convincingly demonstrates the significant accomplishments of activists on a variety of issues ranging from same-sex marriage to #BlackLivesMatter, the DREAM Act and immigration rights, the People’s Climate March, climate change and environmentalism, End the New Jim Crow and mass incarceration, and Occupy Wall Street, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and economic empowerment, as well as the “fight for the soul of public education” in an environment where there is much philanthropic funding and political power being poured into essentially bad ideas like the charter school movement, school vouchers, and “standards” and testing. As that list attests, the book is strictly focused on the US scene but a lot of the ideas, tactics and techniques it depicts and advocates are very relevant to other contexts as well. It also shows that while movements mostly dependent on mass street demonstrations to achieve success have had mixed results in the last decade and more, other types of movements have achieved enormous success the sort that is hard to imagine beforehand (equal marriage right being perhaps the most dramatic case in point). But this begs the question of why these achievements coupled with demographic changes in the US haven’t lead to signficant progressive power in the formal political system. Much will depend on how the progressives and others in the US respond to a Trump presidency. The book is beautifully illustrated with inspiring activist art, show how it is just as integral to a successful movement as anything else.
Great books I didn’t get around to reading
While I didn’t have time to finish reading the following books, I read samples of them all, enough to be able to recommend them with confidence.
Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al-Shami (Pluto Press, February 15, 2016)
Perhaps the best single book currently out there on the situation in Syria. I was most attracted to it because of its reminder of the original (and originally nonviolent) revolutionaries in Syria. (It’s dedicated to the great Razan Zeitouneh, disappeared along with her husband and colleagues in 2013 — reason enough to buy it.) The book provides much background on the situation in Syria, and in this sense, reads much like a primer. That’s certainly part of its value, but I would have appreciated more focus on the original revolutionaries, of whom the authors possess a great deal of knowledge. Whatever comes after the current catastrophe, is there any hope for Syria? Yes, if people like them ever find an influential place in the political landscape.
Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe, Fred C. Abrahams (NYU Press, March 1, 2016)
This is the publication date of the paperback edition. The hardcover was published in 2015, but I missed it. This is one of the best books I’ve come across about democratic transition, and it looks at the fascinating case of Albania, which on the one hand might strike many as a rather minor case, but on the other, the challenges it has faced and the ways its people have attempted to address them are very instructive and relevant to other places facing the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Abrahams has great knowledge of the country, stretching back over decades, and the book tells the full story of the fall of the Stalinist regime, the democracy movement, the refugees images of whom spilling over the sides of ships caught the media’s attention in the early nineties, the crazy pyramid-loan schemes on which much of the country’s economy was based in the nineties, the war in Kosovo, and the vagaries of formal politics in the transition period. What emerges is the impression that democratic transition is shambolic almost by definition, but if the poorest country in Europe can manage it, to one degree or another, there’s still hope, a message worth stressing in a period when, if anything, democratic transition has gone backwards in many countries around the world.
Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, Timothy Garton Ash (Yale University Press, May 24, 2016)
I’ve put off reading this until now because it seemed to be focused primarily on the rich and relatively free world. My own experience in the world’s biggest dictatorship and also its most powerful censor, as well as the testimony of other books on this list, indicates that the main challenge facing free speech is the old one: how to get dictatorships to stop censoring and punishing it. Until that is addressed, some of the other challenges looked at here, such as trying to create an online environment conducive to rational discourse, while important, can appear somewhat secondary in importance. The book is structured in two parts and the second part, in turn, is structured around the ten principles of free speech Garton Ash proposes. The project’s associated website is also structured according to those principles which strike me as eminently wise and worth pursuing. Perhaps the biggest value of Garton Ash’s project is to stress the values underpinning the ten principles are inter-related and that in order to truly foster and promote freedom of expression, they must be cultivated and protected. In other words, it’s insufficient to simply say, “Anyone can say whatever they want,” and leave it at that. A truly thriving culture of freedom of expression requires deliberate commitment and work.
Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps through Insein, Ma Thida (Silkworm Books, July 2016)
Ma Thida is one of those unsung heroes, a doctor, writer, president of PEN Myanmar, and one of Burma’s old-timer freedom fighters with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. This book is about the six years she spent in the infamous Insein Prison in the 1990s for “distributing unlawful literature” and other “crimes”. I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on this book, which was published in Southeast Asia and is scheduled to come out in the US in February next year.
The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State, Fang Lizhi (Henry Holt, February 9, 2016)
Fang Lizhi wrote this memoir during his 13 months in the US Embassy in Beijing where he sought refuge after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. The title of the book refers to the fact that he was regarded by the Communist Party as a “black hand” who’d incited the student demonstrators. Fang died in exile in the US in 2012, and Perry Link has now translated the memoir. Fang was a superstar physicist in China when, in the mid-eighties, he began to talk to his students about the universal rights of all human beings. Although he knew this was a slippery slope to trouble with the authorities, he persisted. His memoir is a testament to conscience and a reflection of his experience under Communist dictatorship from the 1950s through to 1989, a climactic and tragic year in modern Chinese history.
The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Ji Xianlin (New York Review Books, January 26, 2016)
2016 was the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the ten-year-long Cultural Revolution, and this book was published to mark the occasion. In the 1960s, Ji was a professor at Beijing University. He was forced to build a “cowshed” to imprison himself and other intellectuals. This memoir was published in China in 1998 and excited great interest in a period when Chinese were just beginning to speak more openly in public about the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution (that period has now receded and the space for open discussion has shrunk).
One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, Mei Fong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 5, 2016)
My bad I didn’t get around to reading this in its entirety. When it was announced in late 2015 that China would end the one-child policy at the start of 2016, this book, already in the works, was rushed into print for an early January publication date. Its the most comprehensive account of the policy’s history and impact, and a great go-to book if you want to get the lowdown fast. It points out that after all these years, the policy and its effects are still poorly misunderstood, not least of all because of Chinese government dis- and misinformation about it. It wasn’t nearly as successful as made out to be, and apart from being massively abusive of the basic human rights of women, mothers, families and children, it will in the long run prove counter-productive to China’s interests and economy. Hopefully, this book will help to lead to the one-child policy being one day exhibit A in a case against rule by diktat. Mei Fong’s tried but failed to get it published in China, unsurprisingly, and not even found a publisher in HK or Taiwan willing to touch it, so now she’s resorted to making a pdf of the book in Chinese available online.
The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria, Marwa al-Sabouni (Thames & Hudson, May 17, 2016)
As the title suggests, the book is written by a young Syrian architect from Homs. It details how the architecture of Syrian cities shaped the sectarian divisions which are an important cause of the civil war. The book focuses on the human impact of the war’s destruction of large swathes of many cities and also looks forward to an opportunity after the war has passed to reconstruct those cities in such a way as to promote community and solidarity. Quietly meditative in tone against the noise and roar of war.
The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria, Janine di Giovanni (Liveright, May 3, 2016)
By veteran war report Di Giovanni, the greatest value of the book lies in the fact that it tells the story of the Syrian civil war from the perspectives of the many ordinary people affected by it. Indeed, it succeeds best as a portrait of the effects of war and oppression on a society. The dispatches come from 2012.
Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story, Ensaf Haidar and Andrea Claudia Hoffmann (Other Press, May 17, 2016)
Raif Badawi’s been sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes essentially for writing critically on a blog about senior religious figures and government institutions in Saudi Arabia. The exact nature of the charges against him is complex and difficult to keep track of. He still has a potential “apostasy” conviction hanging over his head, which carries the death penalty. Last year, 1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, a collection of his blog posts was published and that’s where to go if you want to read what got him in trouble with Saudi authorities. This book is his wife, Ensaf Haidar’s story about their relationship, Raif’s work, the legal cases against him, and his imprisonment. She and their three children are now living in exile in Montreal.
The Egyptians: A Radical Story, Jack Shenker (Allen Lane, February 23, 2016)
Jack Shenker was The Guardian’s great Egypt correspondent during the revolution. This is his book about it. It was published in the UK this year, should be out in the US next, and I haven’t gotten a hold of it yet. Its sub-title refers to the premise that much reporting on the revolution was quite decontextualized and this book seeks to address that. Asserting that the revolution was part of “an ongoing popular struggle against a certain model of state authority and economic exclusion that is replicated in different forms around the world”, it profiles the many Egyptians involved in that struggle.
A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, Robert F. Worth (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, April 26, 2016)
Stretching from Egypt to Yemen, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, this book examines the legacy of the Arab Spring by profiling people in those countries whose lives are related to issues at the heart of the revolutions. Probably the main impression arising from it is just how deep the oppression goes in these societies, and against that backdrop, it’s no surprise the Arab Spring managed only in Tunisia to take root and sprout into a blooming democracy.
The last two years have seen upwards of a dozen excellent books about the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the US and related rights issues of solitary confinement and racism, following in the footsteps of Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking The New Jim Crow, which came out in 2012. Blood in the Water is profiled above. Here are four from 2016. Adam Hochschild wrote an excellent review of two of the following books (as well as others) back in May.
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, Elizabeth Hinton (Harvard University Press, May 2, 2016)
While many think of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” as the origin of mass incarceration, Hinton looks further back to Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Crime” in the 1960s, an initiative parallel to his much-heralded “War on Poverty” and arguably the one with the longer legacy. It is most insightful in its portrayal of the objectification of African-American urban communities as problems (whether poverty or crime) to be solved, which lead to a lack of inclusion of those citizens in approaches to solving them, a problem which continues to this day.
Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, Marie Gottschalk (Princeton University Press, February 16, 2016)
Caught focuses on the politics behind what it calls “the carceral state”, why it’s so hard to reform a system that few support, the relationship between race and penal reform, and how the carceral state “metastasizes” into other parts of society. The book portrays the influence of mass incarceration as wide-ranging, as it “sunders families and communities and reworks conceptions of democracy, rights, and citizenship.”
Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, Sarah Shourd, Editors (The New Press, February 2, 2016)
An account by former and current prisoners of their experience of solitary confinement. The excellent NGO, Solitary Watch, is the group behind the book. This review of it just came out in New York Review of Books.
Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, Shaka Senghor (Convergent Books, March 8, 2016)
A memoir by a former prisoner who spent seven years of his nineteen-year sentence in solitary confinement. While few of the people in prison are angels (Senghor was convicted of murder at the age of 19), in the case of many, their incarceration is the beginning of nightmares altogether unjust no matter what they might have done before. Senghor’s story portrays a recipe- bad childhood including abuse, drugs, stupid violent act that leads to years in prison- all too common. The solution has to be more than “lock ’em up” and stuff ’em in solitary. There is so little investment in education and rehabilitation in the punitive US prison system, much of which is profitably run by huge private corporations.
Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives, Gary Younge (Nation Books, October 4, 2016)
Long-time US correspondent for The Guardian, Gary Younge is one of the most incisive commentators around on US political life. This book takes one random day, November 23, 2013, and profiles the lives and deaths of ten young people between the ages of nine and nineteen who died as a result of being shot by guns in order to drive home the impact of gun violence and the lack of gun control on a wide swathe of children, their families and their communities across the country.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy, Spiegel & Grau, January 27, 2015
Following on from the book above, this also looks at criminal violence in America, this time focusing on the black-on-black murders committed “ghettoside” in urban communities across the country. These murders go unsolved to a much larger extent than murders committed outside of the ghetto, and as such, say a lot about other issues such as institutional racism in law enforcement. The book focuses on one murder of a young black man in Los Angeles and a relentless detective who tries to solve the crime.
Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, David Cole (Basic Books, March 29, 2016)
Upbeat in tone, this book makes the case that rights cases bearing on constitutional law have a higher rate of success in the US judicial system if there are civil society campaigns on the issues involved. The issues addressed are marriage equality, the right to bear arms, and human rights in the war on terror. The book may not have gotten the attention it deserved, partly because one of the issue covered, the right to bear arms, hardly fits the progressive agenda. But Cole’s point is that the campaign to reconceptualize the second amendment of the US Constitution was as transformational as the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. In other words, it’s another sign that effective campaigning in civil society coupled with savvy action in the courts can bring about startling success.
Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, Gillian Thomas (St. Martin’s Press, March 8, 2016)
As the blurb puts it, “Best known as a monumental achievement of the civil rights movement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act also revolutionized the lives of America’s working women. Title VII of the law made it illegal to discriminate ‘because of sex.’ But that simple phrase didn’t mean much until ordinary women began using the law to get justice on the job — and some took their fights all the way to the Supreme Court.” This book tells the stories of their lives, their cases, and their impact on the struggle for gender equality in the US workplace.
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, Benjamin Madley (Yale University Press, May 1, 2016)
The number of great books about Native American history and the myriad injustices done to them keeps growing (see, in these two years alone, The Other Slavery, above, and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, below), and this is another book that fills in a relatively blank in US history, the fate of California Indians having received much less attention than those of the plains, Rockies and Southwest. As the blurb puts it, “Between 1846 and 1873, California’s Indian population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000. Benjamin Madley is the first historian to uncover the full extent of the slaughter, the involvement of state and federal officials, the taxpayer dollars that supported the violence, indigenous resistance, who did the killing, and why the killings ended. This deeply researched book is a comprehensive and chilling history of an American genocide.” Even where US government treatment of Indians conforms to the twentieth-century legal definition of genocide (that is to say, it was intentional destruction of a group of people), as in this case, it has hardly gotten the attention it deserves.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond (Crown, March 1, 2016)
This is another of those “decaying America” stories that probably should have gotten more attention from the mainstream media before Trump’s victory. Then again, most of the evictees profiled in this book probably didn’t vote for Trump; I’d guess they didn’t vote at all. The extent to which the US economy has been gutted in recent decades, creating a deeply unequal society of have-nots, middle-class people living in chronic economic insecurity and a tiny fraction of the populace benefitting enormously simply hasn’t been reflected sufficiently in the mainstream media nor, obviously, addressed by the political establishment, and Obama himself should take some responsibility for this, following in long line of centrist Democrats. Actually, when this book was first published, it did receive a fair share of attention, largely because its author is a Harvard sociologist and MacArthur “genius” fellow. While much attention to housing in the US in these last years focused on the rotten mortgages at the heart of the financial crisis, this is one of the first books to show what a crisis there is in rental evictions, most seriously affecting the poorest in poor neighborhoods; here, Milwaukee is the city profiled as the example of the wider problem. Along with Trapped (see above), this is the best book on housing rights this year.
A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, Ken Corbett (Henry Holt, March 1, 2016)
This is the flipside of a book that came out last year, Becoming Nicole. Both have to do with gender identity amongst teenagers, but whereas Becoming Nicole has a happy ending of acceptance by family and community, A Murder Over a Girl is the tragic story of a murder of one middle-school student by another. Corbett is a psychologist who avails himself of his academic work on gender and sexuality to tell the story.
The Berrigan Letters: Personal Correspondence between Daniel and Philip Berrigan, edited by Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin (Orbid Books, May 11, 2016)
A love story between two highly conscientious, principled activist brothers, this selection of letters concentrates on planning and reflection on their activism as well as on the significant time the two spent in prison for their acts of civil disobedience. Their sort of conscientious pacifist activism is sometimes disparaged these days by some as insufficiently strategic (and characterized in opposition to the strategic approach to nonviolence inspired by Gene Sharp), but they were often effective insofar as their actions were partly responsible for the eventual end of military conscription in the US and a heightened awareness of the danger of nuclear weapons. Their example of a principled political life is worth studying for any activist.
Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy, Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, Christopher Walker, Editors (Johns Hopkins University Press, February 8, 2016)
Too bad it took Trump’s victory to make this a really hot topic. Hopefully, it will begin to get the attention it deserves, and from what I’m seeing in the media, it may yet. This article just appeared which shows how astoundingly few young people in established democracies seem to regard democracy as essential. Living in a non-democracy, I really just don’t get it. Academics have already been tracking this for some time, as have democracy and freedom indices such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s and Freedom House’s. Last year saw Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback?, which, like this, was an anthology, as well as another anthology edited by Diamond and Plattner, Democracy in Decline? This one includes articles by some superstars of the discipline, not only the co-editor Larry Diamond but also Anne Appelbaum, Andrew Nathan and Peter Pomerantsev. Its blurb describes it best: “Over the past decade, illiberal powers have become emboldened and gained influence within the global arena. Leading authoritarian countries―including China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela―have developed new tools and strategies to contain the spread of democracy and challenge the liberal international political order. Meanwhile, the advanced democracies have retreated, failing to respond to the threat posed by the authoritarians.”
Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, Bernie Sanders (Thomas Dunne Books, November 15, 2016)
There are quite a few books here about promoting progressive change outside of the formal political system, but I am also interested in the extent to which it is viable in the contemporary political reality to realize progressive objectives (which also happen to be those most closely aligned with human rights standards) within the system. Bernie Sanders is about as close as one can get to a litmus test. And he came close. But then, of course, the closest a progressive candidate has come to the presidency in my lifetime warped into the worst nightmare, the most reactionary, human right-hostile, demagogic and potentially authoritarian president-elect the country has probably ever seen. When the strongman model appears to have appeal in a great many polities, including some with established democracies, to even pose such a question about the chances of progressive politics in the formal political system may seem deluded, but Bernie did come close (46 percent of pledged delegates in the Democratic Party primaries), and considering the percentage of young people who supported him, there could be a future there (and that’s in the sub-title of his book). Politicians generally don’t produce good books since so much of what they say is tied up in calculations about its effect on potential supporters, voters, donors, and even posterity (think of former politicians’ memoirs, another sub-genre I find difficult to stomach), but Bernie talks (and writes) straight, and this is a refreshingly good book by a politician. The first 180 pages of the book are autobiographical, focusing on Bernie’s background — you see just how grassroots his whole political career’s been — but also on his presidential campaign. The last 250 pages are his agenda. In a sense, if you’ve followed him, there isn’t that much that’s new here, but it’s inspiring nonetheless. If the country’s democracy survives Trump intact, and the country’s youth remain progressive, perhaps one day still there’ll be a progressive resident of the White House.
How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley (Princeton University Press, November 29, 2016, paperback edition)
Stanley himself puts it best: “My goal in this book is to explain how sincere, well-meaning people, under the grips of flawed ideology, can unknowingly produce and consume propaganda.” The hardcover was published in May 2015. For a look at how he applies the ideas he presents in the book to current events, check out this great piece, which appeared four days before Trump’s victory, in which Stanley asserts that the media have misunderstood Trump as simply a liar when in fact his objective is much grander, the projection of “authoritarian reality”. Stanley questions the extent to which the media, resting as it does on assumptions about the strength of liberal democracy, is prepared to contend with this force propelled by quite different values. In short, Trump proves how important Stanley’s book is, and his project is related to Garton Ash’s (see above) insofar as the understanding of propaganda is crucial to successful promotion of a true culture of freedom of expression, whereas Trump, who says whatever he wants, might appear to avail himself of that culture but is really an enemy of it.
In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan, Caren Zucker (Crown, January 19, 2016)
This is essentially a history of autism, from its first identification to the revolution in its understanding and treatment that has been taking place in the last few years. The reason it’s on this list of human rights books is that key to that revolution is the fight of parents for their children’s civil rights, “a beautifully rendered history of ordinary people determined to secure a place in the world for those with autism — by liberating children from dank institutions, campaigning for their right to go to school, challenging expert opinion on what it means to have autism, and persuading society to accept those who are different.” Besides parents, doctors, lawyers and autistic people themselves are the heroes here. While the book argues for an understanding of autism as difference rather than disability, I would still argue that the concept of “neurodiversity” belongs to the cause of fully realizing the rights of disabled people. This book follows on another excellent book from last year, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, Joshua Hammer (Simon & Schuster, April 19, 2016)
Not a big fan of the title (and I suspect those librarians might take exception to the characterization as well) but the book addresses an important topic. In September this year, the ICC convicted a defendant of the war crime of destruction of cultural heritage. Being the first conviction on such a charge, it was a landmark. The defendant had destroyed mausoleums and mosques in Timbuktu, including some 4,000 written texts. Actually, the ICC’s definition of the crime strangely excludes “moveable objects” such as books, so technically, he wasn’t convicted of destroying them. This book was published before the landmark decision, but it is the background to it: the immense cultural heritage of Timbuktu was under threat by Islamists who saw it as anti-Islamic, and through the heroic efforts of the librarians of the title, most was saved. Given how much cultural heritage (what comes immediately to my mind is the thousands of religious sites in Tibet destroyed by the Chinese, the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the ISIS destruction in Syria and Iraq) is intentionally destroyed around the world, any efforts that draws attention to the issue and seek to hold the perpetrators accountable is appreciated. Unfortunately, the convict in the ICC case was fairly low-level; no leaders have yet been brought to book.
The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing, Rod Nordland (Ecco, January 26, 2016)
This is the story of Zakia and Ali, two young people, one Sunni, the other Shia, one Tajik, the other Hazara, who fall in love and elope, “defying their families, sectarian differences, cultural conventions, and Afghan civil and Islamic law,” as the blurb puts it. They are at risk of honor killing by Zakia’s family, and Nordland eventually drops “journalistic objectivity” and gets involved to help them elude their potential killers. After the book was published in January, news emerged in May that Zakia and Ali had arrived in New York on a 90-day visa in the hope of applying for asylum. Since then, no news, though the fact that they’ve been helped by the excellent NGO, Women for Afghan Women, is somewhat reassuring.
Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear, Paula Bronstein (University of Texas Press, August 5, 2016)
Besides Trapped (see above), this is the only photography book on list. The stunning images were taken by Bronstein over the course of about a decade in Afghanistan, starting from 2001. To me, the most striking images in the book, the ones that resonate most and have that little extra about them that makes them unique from any other, are of women and children. In addition to that, the most directly human rights related photos are in the section called “The Casualties” which is about what you’d guess it would be about and, for that reason, pretty hard to look at. Overall, what Bronstein captures that makes this book most valuable is the humanity, dignity and suffering of the people.
Books from 2015 I missed
The following books all would have made my Best of 2015 list if I had gotten around to reading them before the end of last year.
The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power, Alex de Waal (Polity, October 12, 2016)
This isn’t a book about democracy per se; it’s a book about political systems of tribe and patronage and shows why it’s so difficult for democracy to take hold. For any democracy idealist like myself, it’s a must-read as it challenges many assumptions. Alex de Waal was a friend of the now-deceased Meles Zenawi, a very intelligent, thoughtful person but also the dictator of Ethiopia, and he dedicates the book to him. I don’t share his admiration of Meles, but de Waal is simply one of the most knowledgeable and insightful writers on East Africa and this is a book of great explanatory power.
The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, Dale Russakoff (Mariner Books, August 2, 2015)
Absolutely riveting account of the politics of urban education. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg turns philanthropist and bestows upon the “failing” system of Newark, New Jersey hundreds of millions of dollars in largesse. Republican governor Chris Christie and Democratic Newark mayor Cory Booker, both high-flying ambitious politicians, team up to take credit. People with very particular educational agendas are employed to carry out “reforms”. No one really bothers to ask the people of Newark what they think (though they pretend to ask). An excellent book about the equal right to education and how so many urban schoolchildren in the US miss out on it, also about the exclusion of parents and students from democratic participation in decisions about their education and their future. Great reporting and wonderfully seamless storytelling, weaving together the lives of many in the Newark community and school system, make for a page turner. This is one of the most engrossing, thought-provoking books I’ve read in the last twelve months. How does such a wealthy, democratic country manages to treat so many of its own children so unfairly? This book gives great insight on that question.
Return: A Palestinian Memoir, Ghada Karmi (Verso, May 19, 2015)
Karmi was born in Jerusalem. When she was young, her family was forced out of their home and ended up in England, where she grew up. Throughout her life, she has been an activist for the Palestinian cause. In this book, she goes back to Palestine to work for the Palestinian Authority, a very unhappy experience in itself, but it gives her the opportunity to explore many issues related to her past and the plight of the Palestinian people. Beautifully written and engrossing.
Popular Protest in Palestine: The Uncertain Future of Unarmed Resistance, Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby (Pluto Press, July 20, 2015)
This excellent academic study complements well 2016’s more dramatic, The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich (see above), providing a historic overview of nonviolent resistance in Palestine before focusing on the contemporary nonviolent resistance movement which is considers “the most significant form of struggle against the ongoing occupation”. That’s a somewhat discouraging given how weak it is at the moment and the “uncertain future” of the book’s sub-title seems to best characterize its prospects. Indeed, the simple fact that by its very existence, the resistance manages to “keep hope alive” until the next opportunity for substantial change is its greatest value, but then again, while it’s keeping hope alive, Israel is rapidly changing “facts on the ground” with virtually no opposition from the international powers that be. I hope my reading of the situation is inaccurately pessimistic, but I fear not.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press, August 11, 2015)
A combination of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, this is one of the most wide-ranging books on the topic and, as the title suggests, told from the point of view of the indigenous people themselves. There were once 15 million native people; now there are 3 million. How did that happen? Through a “centuries-long genocidal program of the US settler-colonial regimen”. The book also focuses on native peoples’ active resistance to eviction from their land and destruction of their culture and people.
Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, James Kilgore, The New Press, August 11, 2015
As its sub-title suggests, this book reads like a primer, and an excellent introduction it is to what the rest of the sub-title without exaggeration characterizes as “the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time”. This is one of those one-stop-shop type books for someone without the time to delve deeply into the issue but who wishes to learn about it nonetheless. It complements the other five books on mass incarceration mentioned above. It describes the “tough on crime” politics behind how mass incarceration came about, its different facets such as the “war on drugs”, the “war on immigrants” and the school-to-prison pipeline, and what it calls “prison profiteers” and the huge amount of money to be made by maintaining the system of mass incarceration.
Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World, Srdja Popovic and Matthew Miller (Spiegel & Grau, February 3, 2015
This can be categorized in the sub-genre of books about the efficacy of popular protest. (Read it together with other books listed here like This is an Uprising, The End of Protest, When We Fight, We Win, The Tibetan Nonviolent Struggle, and Popular Protest in Palestine.) Srdja Popovic was a leader of Otpor, the group that helped to topple Milosevic in Serbia and he went on to found the Gene Sharp-inspired Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies to disseminate learnings from popular uprisings Serbia and elsewhere. This is like the book form of CANVAS for a popular audience. As the title suggests, there is an emphasis on creativity and humor.