I’m not sure this post needs a prologue.
How you view this list will depend on where you’re coming from. It might be challenging. It might be too familiar; you’ve experienced some of it yourself. It might light a fire under you, or it might help you (finally!) figure out how to get involved.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz – It might be a good idea to see how the U.S. has failed to live up to its own ideals in the past. This is one lens for that examination. If you view the raison d’etre of our country as something more than conquest of territory, (like maybe, being a beacon of freedom, justice & democracy in a troubled world) you’d have to admit that we’ve biffed it at least as often as we’ve gotten it right.
They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement from Wesley Lowery is a thorough exploration of the most recent, most visible civil rights crises, specifically surrounding police violence towards people of color. A journalist for Washington Post, Lowery covered some of these stories himself. With an after-the-dust clears look at the facts, he can also circle around to suss out the effects on folks’ lives.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – We’ve already talked about this one on our “Systemic Injustice” list back in July, but it’s indispensable. In case you weren’t aware, a good bit of our criminal justice system is actually a reincarnation of pre-civil rights era racism (slavery, really). The system is deliberately bent against people of color. Don’t believe it? Read this book and then we’ll talk. If you want the short version, check out the documentary The 13th, which you can find on Netflix.
Requiem for the American Dream Chomsky, et al eds – Chomsky asserts that the income gap has placed the actual circles of power so far above the heads of the average American that calling us a democracy is no longer accurate. This one is a collection of more recent interviews, and there is a related documentary (on Netflix). Of course, he’s a lefty, but he pulls no punches with those in power, whether right or left. If you’re on the right, give him a shot, you might be surprised. If you’re on the left, let Noam relieve you of the notion that the DNP is the second coming. Whatever side of the political spectrum you are on, you will be fighting mad by the end. Note: This book is out in March. There might not be any new ideas here, for folks already very familiar with Chomsky, but it does come out of recent interviews, so it’s pretty up-to-date.
This is an Uprising! How Non-violent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century by Mark & Paul Engler – From Arab Spring to Occupy Wall St, massive protests & popular movements have made a comeback. How do they start? How do they work? Is there some kinda plan? Go behind the mystique for a better appreciation of the efforts and techniques required for nonviolent, social change.
We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl(c), the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement from Andi Zeisler is like being grabbed by the lapels and shook, “Hey! What are you doing?!” The idea is that a once formidable political force has become a sort of product or style, thereby losing its purpose and effectiveness. With wisdom and humor, this book wants to get you back on track and moving.
Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything from Becky Bond and Zack Exley – These two rabble-rousers were the brains behind some innovative work on Bernie Sanders’ surprising push for the Democratic nomination. This is wholly practical: how to organize, how to use media, how to manage people, etc.. Your core people need to read this. Kirkus Reviews calls this an answer to Saul Alinsky’s classic Rules for Radicals – lofty company for political organizing.
When We Fight, We Win! Twenty-First-Century Social Movements and the Activists That are Transforming Our World from Greg Jobin-Leeds & AgitArte offers a few major social movements/issues (LGBT, immigration, environment, etc) and details each, with photos, charts, interviews and analysis. It’s sort of a “Let’s put what we’ve got on the table and see what we can learn from each other” – but as a book.
The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer almost did not make this list. The reason is that this list is bent towards getting personally, physically involved, and, on the surface, Singer’s book is about charitable giving. Why I relented is because what he calls “effective altruism”, though it is about giving, it has as an essential component the idea of arranging your life to support the work. In other words, you’re not just giving a surplus or some cute amount – but actually living modestly in order to have more to give. Yes. Like C.S. Lewis said: [paraphrasing] if your giving does not cramp your lifestyle, then you are not giving enough. If you are taking a particular job and living in a way that maximizes your care for others, you are on the right side. Frankly, without this level of commitment (a willingness to curtail your own privilege) the rebellion will fail.
Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash – When certain political circles imply threats to free speech (by threatening journalists, for example) and when folks conflate fact & opinion and call it “free speech”, it’s time to get concrete about what it is and how to defend it. Ash uses his experiences around the world, including in truly oppressive countries, to make his points. The threats are coming fast and furious; free speech is a sine qua non.
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? from Michael J Sandel – Let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about when we’re out there clamoring for justice. This is a deep philosophical examination of the idea of justice using many of the critical issues we are facing: from same-sex marriage to market economies. Rational arguments don’t always work, but I’d rather have mine squared away then not.
Also see Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, talking about our move from a market economy to a market society. This is maybe the root of our evil.
The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States – “Unalienable rights” and “a more perfect Union” – man, it doesn’t get much better than that. These are the documents all Americans must agree on and be held accountable to — not a particular party, religion or economic system.
March: Book One (also, books Two and Three) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell – Need a superhero comic for inspiration? How about a real-life superhero? Here it is. John Lewis, the for-real civil rights hero turned congressman in his own actually-happened graphic novel adventure. No mutant powers or super-soldier serums, just a brave young dude from a farm who would fight for justice in the face of senseless hatred – and he’s still doing it today. Seriously, I’m sick of heroes with guns. Most of the evil things we face can’t just be shot.
The empire is effective because it is full-time. It can be full-time because it makes its living off of its controlling work, whether lobbyists or senators or CEOs or human traffickers. Those who rebel against that power are not pulling down a salary for their work (at least not in most cases). The work is done in their spare time and on their own dime. On one hand, this is a disadvantage, but maybe it’s as it should be. Maybe there’s an American tendency to commodify that’s at least partly responsible for this mess. Maybe we need to relearn how to do things because they are fundamentally good and right.
For those of us who live in privilege, we don’t appreciate what we have because we’ve never lost it. Our complacency is a failure of imagination, at best. We should listen to the oppressed and let their experiences keen our sense of responsibility.
It’s good to be woke, but it’s not enough. Get with others, and get involved.