On the Current Affairs podcast, we frequently bring on authors to have deep, lively, fascinating conversations about their books. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with some of the most thoughtful and well-read people in in the world on topics of critical importance to the present and future of humanity. Here, I’d like to introduce you to some of the books they’ve written. Every one of these books educated me in some way, and together they form an extraordinary little library of some of the best contemporary political and social analysis. If you are looking for something to read that will challenge your thinking or give you fresh insight, pick up one of these writers’ works! Then, of course, subscribe to the Current Affairs podcast on Patreon and listen to the interview with them about their work. These books cover racism, climate change, healthcare, law, the military-industrial complex, and so much more.
The Age of Jihad
Patrick Cockburn has been a Middle East correspondent for The Independent for over 30 years and has become known for his combination of a deep knowledge of the region and a healthy skepticism toward the propaganda of governments. His books The Age of Jihad and War In The Age of Trump collect his extraordinary on-the-ground dispatches from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria in the decades since 9/11 and provide a rich understanding of the devastating wars of the last years, filled with the perspectives of the ordinary people trying to survive these conflicts. In our conversation, we discussed what Cockburn has learned during his decades as a foreign correspondent about how to sift through competing narratives and arrive at something approximating the truth.
The Anatomy of Racial Inequality
Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University, has had a distinguished career—he was the youngest-ever tenured Black economics professor at Harvard and is known for coining the term “social capital.” Prof. Loury is generally associated with political conservatism, but his books The Anatomy of Racial Inequality and Race, Incarceration, and American Values actually offer a rebuke to conservative “color blindness” rhetoric and sketch precise explanations for why contemporary racial inequality can only be understood in the context of historical racism. In our conversation, we explored some of the apparent contradictions between Prof. Loury’s written work on systemic racial inequality and his public statements heavily emphasizing the role of “culture.”
Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, From Sustainable To Suicidal
Mark Bittman spent many years as a food columnist for the New York Times and is the author of some of the best-selling cookbooks in the world. (I used his How To Cook Everything Vegetarian to prepare a meal in one of our Current Affairs cooking videos.) But Mark hasn’t just thought about making food. He’s also deeply knowledgable about the politics of food, the economic system that determines what stocks grocery store shelves and fills our bellies. In his book Animal, Vegetable, Junk, Mark explains why so much of what we’re fed is so bad for us—and what the alternative looks like.
Yanis Varoufakis is the former Finance Minister of Greece, professor of economics at the University of Athens, co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement, and member of the Greek Parliament. The Guardian describes him as”a motorcycling, leather jacketed former academic and self-styled rebel who took pleasure in winding up the besuited political class.” He calls himself an “erratic Marxist,” and has written economics textbooks, a memoir, and popular explainers of economic ideas. Another Now is a novel of ideas, more like one of Plato’s dialogues than an airport potboiler. Varoufakis draws on the tradition of leftist utopian fiction seen in 19th century works like William Morris’ News From Nowhere and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. He shows us what our existing 21st century world might look like if the economy operated very differently and capitalism was done away with. He imagines a different timeline in which Occupy Wall Street had won and Wall Street itself had been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over The World
Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing religious faith in the world—by one estimate it obtains around 35,000 new converts per day globally. It now has over 600,000,000 adherents. Elle Hardy is a journalist who has contributed previously to Current Affairs and has traveled the world to speak with Pentecostals from South Korea to London to Nigeria to South Africa. Beyond Belief documents the rise of this faith and what it means for the rest of us. In our conversation, we discuss what Pentecostalism is, why it’s attracting so many people, and the political changes that are likely to result from its continuing growth. Elle shows that many of the working poor around the world are attracted to Pentecostalism because it offers both meaning and material gains—but it also pushes a reactionary social agenda that attacks LGBT people and is linked to the rise of far-right “populists” like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Duterte.
Bigger Than Bernie
Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht are organizers and Jacobin writers who have thought seriously about the practical challenges facing the left in the wake of the impressive but ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders. In this book, they trace the resurgence of the contemporary radical left, assess where we are, and plot out a course for how leftism can continue to flourish.
Capitalism vs. Freedom
Rob Larson is a professor of economics at Tacoma Community College and the in-house economist here at Current Affairs, where his duties include everything from explaining inflation and the IMF to reviewing libertarian children’s books. Prof. Larson’s book Capitalism vs. Freedom is a useful primer on why arguments that capitalism makes us “free” are specious. His book Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley is a look at tech titans like Google, Apple, and Microsoft, showing how their fortunes were made and why we can’t trust them with power over our lives.
Adolph Reed is one of the left’s most insightful and provocative public intellectuals. He demolishes sacred cows and challenges thoughtless cliches, cutting through bullshit with wit and deep learning. His classic book Class Notes collects some of his most bracing essays of the 90s, including the satisfying “Liberals, I Do Despise,” and can still be read with pleasure today. His 2022 book The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives is a moving semi-autobiographical account of changes in the South from Reed’s childhood in 1950s New Orleans to today.
The Congo Trials in the International Criminal Court
Can international law succeed? That’s the question at the heart of my conversation with Brandeis professor Richard Gaskins, whose book is about the first-ever trials to be held in the International Criminal Court. The ICC in the Hague is the place where war criminals are supposed to be tried and punished. It embodies a vision of global justice in which war crimes are universally forbidden, intended to carry forward humanitarian principles. But so far, the court has only completed a handful of trials, and it has been heavily criticized for focusing on crimes committed in Africa while ignoring Western atrocities. Yet the court has only existed since 2002, and many hold hope that it can someday be an institution that ensures victims of atrocities around the world receive justice. Prof. Gaskins discussed what the court has managed to accomplish so far, what its limitations are, and how close it is to achieving its mission of being a place where war criminals from around the world are held to account.
Consequences of Capitalism
Noam Chomsky is the world’s most cited living intellectual and one of the most powerful critics of United States foreign policy, the mass media, and the capitalist economy. At the time I interviewed him in 2018, Chomsky and Prof. Marv Waterstone were delivering the series of lectures that would form the basis for their book Consequences of Capitalism. The book exposes how what passes for “common sense” about the economic and political system is in fact highly irrational.
The Cult of We
Maureen Farrell is a business reporter for the New York Times. In The Cult of We she and co-author Eliot Brown look at the fascinating story of WeWork, a company that (for a brief moment) looked like it might take over the world. WeWork’s charismatic and sociopathic founder, Adam Neumann, got some of the (supposedly) savviest investors in the world to buy into a strange quasi-religious vision for the future of office space, before it all came tumbling down. In our conversation, Maureen and I discuss what WeWork can tell us about the role of hype and bullshit in the 21st century capitalist economy.
The Deficit Myth
Stephanie Kelton is an economist who served as an adviser to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. She is a leading figure in what is known as “modern monetary theory,” a heterodox school of economists who critique traditional thinking about the undesirability of government deficits. (For a deeper exploration of their ideas, listen to the Rabbithole Investigations Podcast series on it.) In our conversation we discussed why the United States is richer than austerity-promoters would have us believe.
Democracy Without Journalism?
Victor Pickard is a professor of Media Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. His book Democracy Without Journalism? is about the problem of misinformation: people not knowing what’s going on in the world, or thinking they know what’s going on but actually believing in propaganda or bullshit (see, e.g., Joe Rogan). There has been a lot of chatter about the problem of “fake news” and how it can be stopped, with many proposing that social media companies need to do more regulation of the internet and “content moderation.” Victor thinks that this conversation misses something crucial: the need for well-funded public interest journalism. He believes that we cannot escape the “misinformation society” without changing the way that journalism is produced, since (regulated or not) the private market is incapable of fulfilling the public need for truthful information about topics that matter. In a democracy, where the citizens themselves are in charge of making important decisions, it’s vital that we find a way to fund the production and dissemination of quality journalism.
Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation
Liza Featherstone is a journalist and columnist for the Nation and Jacobin. Her book Divining Desire is a history of focus groups. From the 60s “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue to the Hillary Clinton campaign, focus groups have create the illusion that the public is making its own decisions and being heard. Liza’s fascinating book traces how focus groups emerged and how they function as a substitute for true democracy.
Molly Crabapple is one of the most talented and prolific artists of our time, producing beautiful, fun, moving illustrations that both critique our times and offer a humanistic and colorful vision for the good life tomorrow. (She illustrated the cover of Current Affairs Issue 25.) Molly has always seemed to me to be something of a throwback, like a master transplanted from the 19th century to our own, and in our conversation we discussed what’s wrong with the arts today and what her own work tries to do. Drawing Blood is Molly’s memoir.
The Feminist War on Crime
Aya Gruber teaches criminal law at the University of Colorado Law School. Her book The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration makes the case that many feminists have been too quick to push for more severe criminal punishments for crimes against women, and have as a result ended up legitimizing or even contributing to the expansion of mass incarceration. Prof. Gruber makes a strong argument against “carceral feminism,” claiming that it sees “putting offenders in prison” as the solution to harms women face, but that this remedy at best only imperfectly guarantees justice, and at worst reproduces cruel racist state violence.
Freedom From The Market
Mike Konczal is a director at the Roosevelt Institute, columnist at The Nation and contributing editor at Dissent. In his book Freedom from the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself from the Grip of the Invisible Hand, Mike dives into American history to show how, “from the earliest days of the republic, Americans have defined freedom as what we keep free from the control of the market.” It’s an inspiring story of successful attempts by popular movements to restrain the worst features of capitalism and provides many useful models for our time.
Give Them An Argument: Logic For The Left
Ben Burgis is a philosophy professor who specializes in examining and exposing faulty arguments, many on the right but sometimes those on the left too. Ben’s book Give Them an Argument (like his YouTube show, also called Give Them an Argument) is a great primer on how leftists can think more clearly and rigorously and make sure their arguments hold up under scrutiny. Ben is also the author of Canceling Comedians While The World Burns and Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, What He Got Right, and Why He Still Matters, discussed in a separate interview.
- Listen to the Current Affairs interview with Ben Burgis about Give Them an Argument
- Buy Give Them an Argument
- Read the Current Affairs review of Give Them An Argument
- Listen to the Current Affairs interview with Ben Burgis about Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, What He Got Right, and Why He Still Matters
- Buy Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, What He Got Right, and Why He Still Matters
Health Justice Now
Timothy Faust‘s Health Justice Now was called “the best concise explanation of why the United States needs single-payer health care — and needs to widen the definition of health care itself” by the Washington Post. It’s a refreshingly clear and accessible explanation of the incredibly complicated American health care system. In a 2019 conversation with Current Affairs editors, Faust discussed. the ins and outs of single payer—what it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s necessary for a healthy and just society.
Hedged Out: Inequality and Insecurity on Wall Street
Megan Tobias Neely is a sociologist whose book Hedged Out takes a deep look inside the world of hedge funds, those small boutique investment banks that play with a sizable chunk of the world’s wealth. Neely’s book draws on her observations from time working in a hedge fund as well as from dozens of interviews with professionals in the industry. In our conversation, we discussed how hedge fund managers justify their value to society and why there are reasons to doubt them.
The Hidden History of Monopolies
Thom Hartmann is the #1 progressive talk radio show host in the country. His Hidden History series of books fills the gaps in American history textbooks, showing the dark side of American healthcare, law, policing, and more. In our conversation, we discussed his book on monopolies as it relates to his own profession: talk radio. We discussed why the right has been so dominant in talk radio, and how leftists can effectively counter them. We talked about why Rush Limbaugh was so successful and how giant radio corporations limit the reach of progressive voices (including the billionaire station owner who once told Thom “I won’t put anyone on the air who wants to raise my taxes”).
David Sirota is one of the best investigative reporters of our time. His independent publication The Daily Poster does the kind of muckraking journalism that mainstream outlets have been conspicuously failing to do. On a shoestring budget they produce critical reporting on corporate crime and political corruption. David’s book Hostile Takeover was published in 2006 but I still refer to it frequently, since it’s an incredibly useful handbook demolishing right-wing free-market talking points. David is also an Academy Award nominee, having co-written the story for Netflix’s climate change allegory Don’t Look Up.
How Are You Going To Pay For That?
Ryan Cooper is the managing editor of The American Prospect and co-host of the Left Anchor podcast. His book exposes the faulty economic assumptions that are used to convince Americans that they can’t afford generous social democratic programs. Ryan shows how to argue with libertarians and neoliberals who believe that the private sector drives the economy and that government is necessarily wasteful, inefficient, and parasitic. Ryan exposes the fallacious ideas underlying the prioritization of private property rights over the common good, and provides a blueprint for sensible policies on climate, labor, health care, and welfare. He shows that when it comes to funding collective social needs, we can absolutely “pay for that.” Ryan’s book is insightful and thorough and demolishes many of the bad ideas that prevent us from solving urgent problems.
We live in an age where economic success can depend a lot more on hype and branding than offering actual useful things that help people. Occasionally, we see extreme examples of fakers and frauds, like Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos and Billy McFarland of the Fyre Festival. But those are the few that have seen their lies exposed and their careers come crashing down. There are others, like Tesla’s Elon Musk, WeWork’s Adam Neumann, and America’s Donald Trump, who have reaped riches beyond comprehension by bullshitting and betraying people. Journalist and attorney Gabrielle Bluestone exposes the ways that con artists take advantage of people’s desire for status and fulfillment, in particular the pernicious and fictitious content produced by social media “influencers.”
For decades, Thomas Frank has been one of the most engaging and funny writers on the progressive left. As a founder and editor editor of The Baffler, he showed that leftist writing didn’t need to be dull or didactic. His book Listen, Liberal is a satisfying “J’Accuse” against the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, and a sincere plea for a return to New Deal politics.
Johann Hari writes beautiful books that take a topic we might think we know about (drugs, depression, or social media) and—through both a wealth of scientific studies and stories from Hari’s travels across the world—show the holes in received wisdom. His book Chasing the Scream showed the flawed assumptions behind the War on Drugs, and Lost Connections shows the limits approaches to depression that emphasize problems inside the individual’s brain (rather than in the social environment). His latest, Stolen Focus, shows how tech companies have engineered platforms and apps that destroy our ability to focus on the things that make life meaningful.
Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors
Edward Niedermeyer is an investigative journalist and auto industry expert whose book Ludicrous is the definitive critical account of the rise of Elon Musk and Tesla. In our conversation, we discussed how Tesla has been built into a powerhouse in the automotive industry, and Edward argues that it has required a lot of deception. I asked why Tesla has been so successful—is it mostly branding and hype or are there real innovations underneath it all?
Money and Class in America
Lewis Lapham is one of the great observers of the American class system. Kurt Vonnegut said of Lewis Lapham that he was “without doubt our greatest satirist—elegant, honorable, learned and fair.” His book Money and Class in America is a classic study of the lives, cultures, and aspirations of the ruling class (also explored in his delightfully quirky documentary The American Ruling Class). In our conversation, we discussed how the insatiable thirst for wealth and status pervades American life.
Medicare For All: A Citizen’s Guide
Abdul El-Sayed is a doctor and CNN contributor who previously served as the director of Detroit’s municipal health department. I first heard of Abdul during his inspiring run for governor of Michigan, which I was so fascinated by that I went to Michigan to cover for New York magazine. Abdul has written for Current Affairs before about Medicare For All, and in this book he and co-author Micah Johnson explain the basics of the proposal and respond to all of the major arguments against M4A. It’s a very useful and encouraging guide to what different American healthcare system could be like.
No Such Thing As A Free Gift
Bill Gates has long cultivated a reputation as the Good Billionaire, giving away vast sums of money toward global health and education initiatives through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For many years, the Gates Foundation was rarely criticized at all in the mainstream press, its work considered unambiguously good. The shine has come off Gates a bit recently, thanks to the negative publicity surrounding both his divorce and his staunch defense of corporate intellectual property rights over vaccines during the pandemic. Linsey McGoey was one of the earliest major critics of the Gates Foundation’s work, and her 2015 book No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy is a stinging criticism of “philanthrocapitalism.” McGoey’s book goes through the history of business tycoons trying to save the world through charity, beginning with Andrew Carnegie in the 19th century. McGoey explains clearly why charitable giving, though it may look like an unambiguous positive, has a number of major downsides.
Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America
Carol Joffe is one of the foremost experts on reproductive rights in the United States. A professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, she has been studying and writing about the battle over abortion rights for decades and received lifetime achievement awards from the Abortion Care Network and the Society of Family Planning. Her book Obstacle Course, co-authored with David S. Cohen, discusses the various ways that the anti-abortion movement has already succeeded in creating obstacles to having abortions. Our conversation focuses on the state of abortion access in the contemporary U.S. and the possible futures for the right to choice.
On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal
Naomi Klein is a legendary activist whose books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine have become classics. In On Fire she shows what we need to do if we want to tackle the climate crisis. Here she discusses some of the positive trends in environmental activism, and critiques the “climate quietism” of Jonathan Franzen.
Out of the Wreckage
George Monbiot has been working on issues of climate and environmental justice for three decades. A columnist for The Guardian and public communicator on climate change, George has experienced deep frustration in trying to convey the urgency of the crisis to a media and and political establishment that refuse to confront reality or accept the need for drastic changes to the status quo. In our conversation, we discussed why it’s so difficult for climate scientists and activists to get their message across, and what we need to face up to when it comes to the climate crisis. George’s work is not hopeless or apocalyptic, and is built around solutions and the determination to work for a better world. But to reach that world, we need to first look up, and start talking and behaving differently, demanding a political response that is proportionate to the magnitude of the problem. We can deal with this crisis but it requires willpower and focus.
People’s Republic of Walmart
One argument often made against socialists is that “central planning” does not work as well as market exchanges. The Soviet Union, it is argued, was inefficient in part because it did not operate according to free market principles. Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski offer a fascinating refutation of this argument, by showing that in fact, the features that supposedly make “centrally planned” economies dysfunctional already exist within companies like Amazon and Walmart. In other words, the American economy is already largely planned by bureaucrats, we just need to make the planning democratic. This book will challenge your preconceived notions of what makes a “capitalist” versus “socialist” institution.
The Pivotal Generation
Oxford University philosophy professor Henry Shue writes about the moral obligations conferred on people by the historical circumstances they find themselves in. The actions of living people have huge consequences for those born to subsequent generations. What responsibilities do we have to those who come after us? His book argues that we have a strong moral obligation to address climate change, and draws out what the implications of that obligation are. The Pivotal Generation is a useful demonstration of how philosophy can be used to illuminate practical and urgent questions.
The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said of journalist Ross Barkan that he is “one of the sharpest state policy minds I know.” Barkan’s The Prince is an important document of the lies and manipulation of one of our era’s shadiest state leaders. It offers an important case study in how centrists govern and the kind of politics we need to overthrow. In our conversation, Ross takes us through how an un-charismatic and unpleasant bully made his inspiring journey from humble beginnings as the son of the governor of New York to become the governor of New York. Barkan hows us how Cuomo managed to keep a blue state from actually passing progressive legislation and how his Machiavellian ruthlessness kept him in power for so long.
Race For Profit
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Prof. Taylor’s book Race For Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership demolishes the idea that the free market in housing is racially neutral, by showing the ways that the structure of the market has deprived Black families of the equal chance to own their homes. The book was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
The Rage of Innocence
Kristin Henning directs the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center. She has worked as a public defender for juveniles in Washington, D.C. Her book “explains how discriminatory and aggressive policing has socialized a generation of Black teenagers to fear, resent, and resist the police.” In our conversation, we talked about why over-policing destroys the ability of many Black children to have normal childhoods and why it’s so essential to respond to the transgressions of kids with empathy and compassion rather than brutality. It’s not that difficult: it just means treating all young people, regardless of race, with the kind of mercy and generous due process that some (e.g. Kyle Rittenhouse) are already given.
The Reactionary Mind
Corey Robin studies the American right wing, and his book The Reactionary Mind tries to explain the common ideological underpinnings of conservative thought across generations. In every generation, he shows, there are movements that try to change the existing social hierarchy, and reactionaries arise to defend it. Robin’s book has been credited with anticipating the rise of Donald Trump by showing how right-wing backlash in the United States works.
Red State Revolt
Eric Blanc is a sociologist and labor scholar whose book Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strikes and Working-Class Politics is about the remarkable 2018-2019 educators’ strikes that began in red states. It shows how successful labor struggles can be waged even in the seemingly unlikeliest of places and is a useful case study of one of the most important fights of our time. In the time since these strikes, however, educators have struggled. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that fights over school funding were sidelined, as teachers had to fight just to keep their classrooms free of coronavirus, and try to keep up teaching in an impossible situation. But now it may be the case that we will once again start seeing the kind of labor activism among educators that we saw in 2018-19.
Say It Loud!
Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School and one of the most interesting and heterodox thinkers and writers on race and law in the U.S. In the 1990s he was known as a public critic of “critical race theory,” but his essay collection Say It Loud!: On Race, History, Law, and Culture contains a long and deeply personal tribute to one of CRT’s founding scholars, Derrick Bell. In our conversation, I talked to Prof. Kennedy about why, even though he has his criticisms of CRT, he thinks its scholars have enriched our discourse on race and are nothing like the right-wing caricature.
Jillian C. York is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Her book Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism is about the difficult question of who should decide what we see on the internet. In our conversation, we discuss how tech giants side with authoritarian governments over the dissidents repressed by those governments, and how U.S. foreign policy is enforced by private corporations. Social media companies’ decisions about censorship and speech are now in many ways more important than the Supreme Court and the First Amendment.
The Socialist Manifesto
Bhaskar Sunkara founded Jacobin magazine, without which there would be no Current Affairs. Bhaskar’s work helped revitalize left media, and Jacobin‘s combination of informed radical analysis and gorgeous graphic design was genuinely revolutionary among political periodicals. It was a joy to get to speak to him about left media in the 21st century. Bhaskar’s The Socialist Manifesto is a useful introduction to the principles of the radical left and a compelling case for socialist ideas.
The Spoils of War
Andrew Cockburn is a veteran journalist who serves as the Washington Editor of Harper’s magazine. The Spoils of War: Power, Profit, and the American War Machine collects his reporting on the military-industrial complex and the way the public coffers are looted by profiteers. In our conversation, we discussed why Andrew thinks the ever-bloating military has become an out-of-control “virus,” and why profit, rather than war, is what the military is built for. Andrew also explains why progressives should not just focus on critiquing “militarism” and disastrous wars but on scaling back the giant institution that channels so many of our social resources into manufacturing “weapons that don’t work for threats that don’t exist.”
Strange Rites: New Religions For A Godless World
Tara Isabella Burton is a novelist and religious scholar whose book Strange Rites discusses changing religious practices in the United States. Traditional organized religion has been on the decline for years, as more and more young people are identifying as nonreligious. But are we really? Tara’s book looks at the way that new communities and spiritual practices, from SoulCycle to astrology to online political communities, have arisen in the place of churches.
Strangers In Their Own Land
Arlie Russell Hochschild is a legendary sociologist credited with defining the concept of “emotional labor.” In Strangers in Their Own Land she documents her experience leaving her Berkeley bubble and getting to know Tea Party activists in Louisiana. The book, a finalist for the National Book Award, is essential reading for those who want to understand the anger that fuels grassroots right-wing activism.
Tangled Up In Blue
Rosa Brooks is a professor of law at Georgetown University. Tangled Up in Blue, named one of the best books of 2021 by the Washington Post, chronicles Prof. Brooks’ experiences as a reserve police officer with the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. As an academic raised in a socialist household (her mother is a former Current Affairs podcast guest), Prof. Brooks wanted to get a better understanding of how police saw themselves and the sources of dysfunction in the system. In our conversation, we discussed how police officers are trained to fear the populations they police, the limits of police training, how police officers are often called on to perform “social work” responsibilities that they are ill-equipped to handle, and why arresting and jailing people becomes an all-purpose tool.
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
Prof. Harvey J. Kaye argues that the social democratic left should draw more on the richness of the American radical tradition and take greater pride in the history of those who have struggled to achieve the promise of democratic equality. In this interview, we talk about why Kaye rejects the idea of leftist history as pure “debunking” of nationalist myths and sees it as important to create our own inspiring story about the path trodden by our ancestors. In our conversation, we talked about why Thomas Paine—without whom the American Revolution would probably not have happened, and who alienated the other Founding Fathers and made himself despised—is the one member of the Founding generation radicals can be proud of and should celebrate.
Wall Street: How It Works and For Whom
Doug Henwood, host of the Behind the News radio program, is one of the most well-informed leftist commentators on economics. His book Wall Street is a classic explainer of how finance works, going carefully through every part of the system and providing lucid (and even fun) breakdowns of the basics of Wall Street. It’s a must-have handbook. (Don’t take my word for it. Even though Henwood writes from a Marxist perspective, the Harvard Business Review called this the Wall Street book everyone should read.) Doug has been a guest on Current Affairs twice, once to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the world economy and once to give his thoughts on Modern Monetary theory (which he does not care for).
- Listen to the Current Affairs interview with Doug Henwood about COVID-19 and the economy
- Listen to the Current Affairs interview with Doug Henwood about Modern Monetary Theory
- Read Wall Street for FREE on Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer website
- Listen to Doug Henwood’s extraordinary archive of radio interviews from Behind the News
War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the author of many bestselling nonfiction books. He began his career as a war correspondent, and was a reporter for the New York Times for fifteen years, reporting from over 50 countries. He has written books on religion, culture, poverty, and war. In our conversation, we discussed both Hedges’ time reporting on war and his experiences as an educator in prisons. There are connections here: both the battlefield and the prisons are places of terrible human deprivation and suffering—suffering that is imposed by violent institutions based on stories about why it is justified and necessary. Hedges has dedicated his journalistic career to going to the places that most people prefer not to go, seeing the things we prefer not to see, and forcing us to confront them.
The Web of Meaning
Jeremy Lent is one of the most interesting writers I know of. George Monbiot (a fellow CA podcast guest, see above) calls him “one of the greatest thinkers of our age.” Jeremy’s The Web of Meaning shows how the individualistic philosophical underpinnings of capitalism destroy our ability to find meaning and our appreciation of the wonders of nature. He shows us the environmental horrors that are unleashed by free market thinking, but then begins to construct an alternative worldview that can help us live harmoniously and sustainably in the universe. He integrates both the insights of the hard sciences and wisdom from traditional religious and cultural practices around the world, showing how even slime molds have something to teach us.
Julia Serano is a PhD biologist and trans activist who specializes in debunking the erroneous and bigoted arguments made to demonize or stigmatize the trans community. In our conversation, Julia and I go through some of the bad anti-trans talking points put forward by people like Ben Shapiro and Abigail Shrier.
White Space, Black Hood
Sheryll Cashin is a Georgetown law professor who has been called “one of the most important civil rights scholars of our time.” Her book “exposes the ways in which American policy decisions, from the early twentieth century to the present, have constructed a ‘residential caste system’ resulting in the entrapment of Black people in high-poverty neighborhoods while ‘overinvesting in affluent white space.’” In our conversation, we talked about how racial segregation was created and why it persists. We dive deep into the mechanisms by which inequality reproduces itself from generation to generation.
The Work of Living
Maximillian Alvarez is the host of the Working People podcast and the editor in chief of The Real News Network. His 2018 essay “Can The Working Class Speak?” is one of my favorite pieces that Current Affairs has ever published. For years, Max has been the Studs Terkel of our time, conducting deep, fascinating interviews with working people about their lives. His book The Work of Living collects a number of these stories to present a panoramic portrait of working life in the time of COVID-19. (Note that the interview with Max was conducted in 2019, before the book’s release, so it isn’t directly discussed.)
Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion In Silicon Valley
Carolyn Chen is a sociologist at UC-Berkeley whose book Work Pray Code is a study of white collar workers whose devotion to their companies is so extreme that it takes on the form of religious worship. Prof. Chen shows how some companies have turned their employees into “true believers”—and eroded their interest in family, the wider community community, and democratic institutions. Karl Marx thought a central characteristic of capitalism was that people were alienated from their work. Prof. Chen profiles workers who claim not to be alienated at all: they see their work as a manifestation of their truest self.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer for Jacobin. His book Yesterday’s Man is a comprehensive excavation of Joe Biden’s horrible political record from his earliest days in D.C. It is a vital primer on Biden’s background and the history of American politics in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.