Fight of the Century, by Michael Chabon et al*****

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union, a large cross section of the finest writers alive have written essays, each about one landmark case. Chabon and his co-editor, Ayelet Waldman, contributed their advance to the organization, and all of the contributing authors did so free of charge. As for this reviewer, I’d have been interested in an ACLU publication, even if I hadn’t heard of the writers involved; and I’d have been interested in anything written by Chabon, even if the story or topic wasn’t in my lane. As it is, I count myself beyond lucky to have scored a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It’s for sale now.

This is the sort of book that invites skipping around, either according to subject, or according to the authors you love best. Because of this, I recommend buying it in paper rather than digitally, because flipping around out of order in digital format is a pain in the butt. Also, this is the sort of classical reference material that you’d want on your shelf. In fact, I want a physical copy for myself.

I haven’t read all of the entries, but I’ve read enough of them to recommend it to you. The cases discussed are meaty and interesting, and they aren’t the standard fodder that shows up in every undergraduate course on Constitutional law. Each entry is succinct, and the writers refrain from self-promotion. The entries I appreciate most so far are by Jesmyn Ward, who discusses the use of anti-loitering laws to transform free Black boys and men into slave laborers; Timothy Egan, who details a 1962 decision regarding the right to receive Communist literature in the U.S. mail; and Louse Erdrich, who discusses digital snooping and surveillance used against the Dakota Pipeline protesters in 2016. I know there are many more I want to read, but I am posting this now so that you can get a copy while it’s in the stores.

Here’s your chance. You can get an outstanding addition to your home library while contributing to a worthwhile organization whose work is more crucial now than ever. Highly recommended.

Chasing Ghosts: the Policing of Terrorism, by John Mueller and Mark Stewart***

chasingghostsI suspect just about everyone in the USA, or who frequently has to travel to the USA, is heartily sick of the extreme security measures that raise our taxes through the roof and cause so many delays, inconveniences, and even the confiscation of ordinary products that cost us a fair amount of money, on those occasions that we foolishly forget not to take them with us on the plane. The racial profiling makes it even worse. And so I requested this DRC from Net Galley and Oxford University Press with the expectation that I would agree with it wholeheartedly and immediately form the virtual simpatico with its writers that readers form with their favorite authors. Alas, not so much.

It’s not a terrible book, but it’s also not a great one. The writing style comes across as strangely antagonistic, odd given that I was ready to agree with them when I began the book. They make a lot of good points, particularly in comparing the expenditures of the Federal government to the amount that was spent on the Cold War and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950’s. But whenever I read scholarly nonfiction, I am inclined to check out the end notes early on, and I was struck by the large number of times Mueller and Stewart quoted themselves (or sometimes one or the other of themselves separately). Their other sources were more likely to be newspapers and magazines rather than primary documents, which were used sparingly.

My sense is that if you’re going to challenge the status quo, you have to roll up your sleeves and do it right. In this case, a worthy thesis, at least to some extent, is less credible than it might have been with more diligent research and more legitimate scholarship.

My gut was inclined to rate this book two stars rather than three, but then I realized that my gut was responding to the ISIS mass killings in France. For the writers, it’s just pure dumb bad luck that the real terrorists created such tremendous outrage and heartfelt sympathy throughout the Western world, and in doing so underscored the reason such stringent security measures are in place, just as their book was nearing publication.

The most compelling argument against the Patriot Act and all of its associated agencies and agents is that when someone is willing to die in order to commit a mass killing, nobody and nothing can really stop them. The security measures being utilized are effective against people that want to enter an establishment or a vehicle and kill as many people in it as possible, then walk away and live to kill more people another day. This wasn’t the primary argument Mueller and Stewart rolled out. Their main argument, that the Bill of Rights is being trampled by the very government that was invented to uphold the Constitution, is a good one and I think would have been easier to get behind had events not unfolded as they did, and of course, had the source material been more impressive; yet the safety of all of us will always preclude individual liberties. So in a sense, ISIS gives the conservative, locked-down wing of the ruling class a red-carpet invitation to clamp down on civil liberty; but that would not have made a book that would sell, and perhaps that is why the authors didn’t make this their focus.

If this is an area of interest to you, you can get a copy November 30. I wouldn’t pay hard cover price for it unless you have tremendous interest and very deep pockets, though.