I refer to it jokingly as “THE QUESTION.” It used to bother me, but now it just amuses me. Usually, it is phrased like this, “Ray, how did you get this way?” My standard playful response is, “Are you referring to what great physical shape I am in considering my age?” This catches them off guard, but then they continue. “No, I mean how did you get all of these … odd … and … radical … ideas?” If I am feeling mischievous, I might reply, “Well, my parents were professors at Berkeley in the ‘Marxism for the Masses’ department.”
Actually, my parents were not to blame, although my Mom would certainly applaud my determination to look at life as openly as possible. So perhaps she was an accessory to the crime. College was not the guilty party either. I did have a few inspirational professors, but mostly Higher Education could just as accurately be called Higher Indoctrination. No, the guilty party was - and is - BOOKS!
But not just any books. I’m talking about provocative books that seem to shout from the pages, “I bet you were not aware of this?!” Books that shake your brain like a washing machine on the “agitate” setting, until the neurons are rearranged. Books that reveal the beauty and majesty of life, but that also expose the ugliness and injustice.
In terms of cost, books differ significantly from the rest of mass media such as television, movies, radio, the internet, newspapers and magazines. Only entities with really deep pockets have access to the major media. But book publishing continues to be more and more available to voices with only modest financial means. And with the recent print-on-demand technology, turning a vision into a book is now within the reach of almost any author.
Someone with an unconventional but intriguing manuscript has at least an outside chance of finding a publisher willing to take a $5,000 gamble on a book. But the author of a controversial screenplay has a much tougher time finding studio executives willing to take a chance on a $50 million film. The result of this arrangement is that someone seeking information on the way the world really works is far more likely to find it in books than on TV from the nightly news.
So, when the “summer reading” book lists start to appear every June, I pay attention to them. My perennial hope is that perhaps this season will be different. My dream is that the suggested titles will include some hard-hitting books that will have The Malignant Overlords sweating in their Brioni suits. But, unfortunately, as I have sorted through the recent lists they are just more of the same.
Most of the summer reading lists are dominated by what many people call “Oprah books.” They typically include about a half a dozen safe categories such as self-help books, first love remembrances, health and diet guides, tales of dysfunctional family struggles, novels on topics that leave the reader wondering why bother, New Age spirituality and perhaps a memoir of a dangerous liaison. They are mostly well-written and readable, but they are not controversial or dangerous. They will never call into question the way you view the world.
Even though an occasional Oprah book might advertize itself as “edgy,” it will rarely cross certain boundaries. In particular, it will not examine whether the United States, with its violent imperial policy and its vapid consumer culture, is a force for good in the world. And it will never challenge the Winfrey myth that everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try hard enough. This is a particularly harmful deception, because it imposes guilt upon millions of hard working people who do not succeed despite their colossal efforts.
What these types of non-incendiary books do is reinforce complacency in a subtle and powerful way. The readers congratulate themselves on the fact that they are not getting their information from the television, but are instead reading. But these books do not challenge the prevailing paradigm - in fact, they just strengthen the status quo.
So, as an antidote for the usual tame and non-threatening summer book suggestions, allow me to recommend a half a dozen titles with some intellectual and emotional swagger. These have been important navigational waypoints on my own personal voyage towards a deeper understanding of how the world truly works. I cherish these authors, and hope that they will provide guidance for you even though they might lead you through troubled waters.
A People’s History of the United States This great book by Howard Zinn is the perfect medicine to counteract “AES - American Exceptionalism Syndrome.” It should be mandatory reading in every high school in America. Go ahead and teach U.S. history with a standard text, but make sure that this is also taught to broaden the students’ perspectives. Then they can decide which is more accurate - based on the evidence. Otherwise, George Carlin’s insistence that “our rulers do not want people capable of critical thinking, they want obedient workers” is indeed true.
What is even more impressive about Zinn’s work is that he did not just spout theories from the ivy-covered protection of Academia, he walked the walk. Literally, for decades he was in the protests and on the picket lines during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War crusades.
Ishmael This modern masterpiece by Daniel Quinn, which is now taught widely in classrooms and has been translated into 30 languages, takes the readers’ cherished views of Big C Civilization and turns them upside down. It examines the incredible efficiency with which our Mother Culture does not permit us to even question whether Industrial-Techno Civilization is the only “right way” for humans to live. And it illuminates how harmoniously our pre-Agriculture ancestors lived with their fellow humans, the animals and the Web of Life.
Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein brilliantly exposes the utter ruthlessness of The Malignant Overlords when they utilize the most horrific human tragedies as an opportunity to expand their personal power, wealth and control. And she convincingly makes the connection between this pathological conduct and the techniques of psychological and physical torture. She also demonstrates that Democracy is merely a disguise to cloak the toxic viciousness of Predatory Capitalism.
Rogue State I think of William Blum, who is the author of this very important work, as a Citizen Scholar. He is neither a tenured professor nor a coddled think tank intellectual. He is simply a compassionate human trying to help make the world a better place. This book certainly strives to do that as it reveals the almost unspeakable evils that the U.S. military/corporate power elites have spewed around the world. The evidence that he provides to support this position is encyclopedic and almost terrifying, but his skill as a writer makes this book very readable.
When Corporations Rule the World David Korten’s most significant book documents a relatively new danger that has been loosed upon the world. Now that corporations, which are already greed-crazed amoral institutions, have become TRANS-national, they are even more ruthless. With no allegiance to a home country, there is nothing to moderate their insatiable lust for profits. This is not just an abstract economic issue. It results in misery for millions of workers and their families. Korten presents this brilliantly in this book.
The Vegetarian Myth This wonderful book by Lierre Keith is a powerful critique of misguided nutrition, Big Agriculture, and the obliteration of America’s shimmering prairies for the sake of mono-crop farmlands. As a 20 year vegan, who struggled incessantly with health issues, it is written from an insider’s perspective. Although she embraces the vegetarian ideals of justice, compassion and sustainability, she argues persuasively that their approach is counter-productive. This book is a valuable addition to the human conversation about our place in the world.
Allow me to circle back to the original question that inspired this meditation: “Ray, how did you get this way?” I suspect that anyone who reads a few of these books might soon have a very different perspective on my unconventional beliefs. In fact, their world-views might be so altered that they rephrase the question like this: “Ray, why aren’t you much more radical?”