We asked editors and contributors for suggestions about what left foreign policy enthusiasts should be reading, playing, and wearing in 2019. Here are our best picks for holiday gifts for budding Kates Kizer, Ros Khanna, and Patricks Iber in your life.
Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2004). One of my great hobbyhorses in life is that everyone who cares about international relations should read Judith Butler’s collection of post-9/11 essays Precarious Life. The essays aren’t ostensibly about foreign relations, and they certainly aren’t about “policy,” but Precarious Life is full of moments of searing lucidity about what the international system is actually for. In the book’s second essay, “Violence, Mourning, and Politics,” Butler writes:
Feminism surely could provide all kinds of responses to the following questions: How does a collective deal, finally, with its vulnerability to violence? At what price, and at whose expense, does it gain a purchase on security…?….Can we provide a knowledgeable explanation of events that is not confused with a moral exoneration of violence?
Replace “feminism” with “left foreign policy” and you could hardly imagine a clearer mission statement for Fellow Travelers Blog. We are all confronting the question of how to understand, explain, and mitigate violence–broadly defined–without violence seeping into our own values.
Of course, left foreign policy has to include an intersectional feminism, not supplant it. As Butler herself notes, no one has more experience “negotiating a sudden and unprecedented vulnerability” than women, queer people, and people of color who build lives in the face of patriarchy and white supremacy. Our discourse on policies to manage vulnerability is impoverished if their voices are not centered. My new year’s resolution for FTB is that we do a better job of modeling the future of left foreign policy thought by featuring more work from women, queer people, and people of color on the blog in 2019.
Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 2008). Weighing in at a hefty 896 pages, Nixonland has the page count of a doorstopper fantasy novel, perhaps one chronicling the rise of a lowly stablehand who, in time and with perseverance, becomes ruler of the land. That isn’t actually too far off the mark for a synopsis of Nixonland, which chronicles the rise of a leader from humble origins. So why recommend it for foreign policy-inclined aspirants and apprentices? Woven throughout this story is a searing narrative of the amorality of the imperial presidency, in which blood-crazed ghouls like Henry Kissinger made their mark in the devastation of numerous countries. Come for the juicy details of Nixon’s eccentric life–vanity plates that read “NXN,” extensive meddling in the 1972 Democratic primaries, the famed Checkers speech–stay for the counter-narrative of Americans who put their lives on the line to resist the Vietnam War. Names even a casual follower of politics will recognize: Pat Buchanan, Henry Kissinger, Roger Ailes (to name just a few) make their appearance in a rogue’s gallery of feckless and morally deficient scoundrels who aided in the madness of the Nixon administration. They are balanced with the brave individuals who opposed them: Mike Gravel, Daniel Ellsberg, George McGovern, and countless people who tried valiantly to avert the course of destruction. The prevailing emotion when reading Nixonland: the creeping certainty that history does not repeat itself—it rhymes.
Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country (Viking, 2018). Tolstoy once said there are two types of stories: “a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” In A Terrible Country, both of these types are employed: a disaffected, alienated, personally-uncertain academic, Andrei Kaplan, moves to the country of his childhood to care for his elderly grandmother in Moscow. While there, the recession wreaks its havoc across the global economy, and in the aftermath, Andrei takes up with a group of leftists in the city. The struggle between Andrei and his brother Dima, a businessman cast in the mold of the 1990s, over shifting ideas and conceptions of Russia plays out amid a sea of other conflicts: communism and capitalism, fairness and injustice, familial duty and responsibility. Gessen takes a common story and renders it painfully, heartrendingly unique.
One of those military surplus store backpacks. Face it, you’re never going to use the triple-insulated, taped-seam, two-way-zippered bear mace pouch on that Patagonia backpack and you’re absolutely never going to use a $1,500 Arc’tyrex avalanche escape backpack. Fear not; FTB has the ideal backpack for the untechnical traveler: one of those $30 military surplus store backpacks. You know the ones: a million pockets, a few too many buckle straps, suspiciously flimsy daisy chain. I’ve had one of these since 2011 and it is just the fucking best. I’m one of those lunatics who refuses to ever check a bag, so this is always by my side at airports and on road trips. It’s got little external pockets to hold phone chargers and granola bars. It has a laptop sleeve I don’t really trust. There’s zero padding on the back and shoulders, giving me the impression that hauling it around counts as exercise. It doesn’t have a frame and the airline employees who decide who needs to check their carry-on because the fun-size regional Bombardier plane doesn’t have overhead bins are trained to overlook backpacks—I’ve escaped the courtesy check many times while some poor schmuck with a rigid bag of far lower capacity than mine has to chuck his belongings onto a cart, almost certainly to never be seen again. It faithfully accompanies me to the coffee shop while my fat cat friends wait by the baggage claim (the upside, I suppose, is that they get to bring a second pair of shoes). It’s also a conversation starter: sometimes the many straps get caught on x-ray conveyor belt, causing security guards to scream at me in a language I don’t understand. It’s been to Chernobyl and back no worse for wear. It has none of that high-contrast lining to help you find things quickly—it’s a chic black-on-black. The lining, in fact, is rapidly disintegrating, leaving it almost translucent in spots. Really, this gift guide entry is a eulogy—a new backpack is in my immediate future, but this one has served me well and it’ll serve you well, too. But speaking of service, I must insist that you not buy the one in digicamo unless you’re an advanced valor thief desperate to board after first class but before us plebeians.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, this is an excellent game by a genius who will do anything to get attention. If the gamer on your list is familiar with the Metal Gear Solid franchise and hasn’t played this latest true installment (Konami’s cash-grab Metal Gear Survive from earlier this year deserves no mention), you can remedy the situation immediately. If they’re not a fan, you can delight in watching them try to piece together this surreal, insane military stealth game. Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima (fired from Konami for spending this game’s budget on music licenses, or something) is famous for his bizarre plotting and philosophical exegeses integrated into satisfying gameplay—this installation has both in spades. Assume the role of legendary soldier Solid Snake and wreak havoc throughout Afghanistan and Zaire. Confront villains that include a sinister cowboy dressed in black, a squad of zombified assassins, and a guy who is perpetually on fire. A massive open world lets the player tackle missions any way you please, be that a silent, nonlethal infiltration or a full on assault by an attack helicopter that blasts an 80s pop song of your choice. More importantly, for our purposes, this is a game that genuinely considers late Cold War proxy battles, private militaries, the cultural ramifications of language, and the destabilizing effects of nuclear proliferation. It asks you to consider the morality that many other games skip lightly over and rewards you with a military dog who can accompany you on missions. The story is nearly incoherent but the game provides such engaging gameplay and strong atmosphere that you’ll never notice.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb from The Criterion Collection. You know this movie. Stanley Kubrick set out to make a Cold War thriller and found that the only acceptable avenue was pitch-black comedy. Peter Sellers plays three roles, including the president and his (not-exactly-ex) ex-Nazi science advisor. The production design office created such an accurate mockup of a B-52 that the Air Force had questions for them. What’s new here is the Criterion Collection’s always-stellar Blu-Ray transfer and bonus features, including a pile of interviews and documentaries, plus excellent packaging riffing on Pablo Ferro’s (Stop Making Sense, Bullitt, Men in Black) famous hand-lettered titles. This handsome copy of the classic film will help convert the nuclear strategist on your list into a cinephile, or—god help us—vice versa.
A. Grande Strategy [Ed: The ‘A’ stands for ‘Ariana’]
Hearts of Iron IV and a free download of Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg. Paradox Interactive has achieved a (justly deserved) infamy for helping cultivate the genocidal fantasies of numerous alt-right trolls, but it’s 2016 game Hearts of Iron IV is undeniably fun if you are able to get past the steep learning curve – and a great gift for shut-in history nerds like myself.
The real recommendation here, though, is for the Hearts of Iron IV mod Kaiserreich. Kaiserreich, a user-generated alternate history scenario, imagines a world where the Central Powers won World War One. The history is far-fetched in some cases, and built out in order to create interesting game scenarios (the United States devolves into a four-way civil war after Hoover´s second term – of note to Chapo Trap House listeners, the Dry Boys are the name of a regiment raised in New York). But the mod´s value comes from the sheer audacity of its imagination and exploration of a post-World War One world. In the game world, Russian democracy survived under Kerensky, while leftism flowered in France, northern Italy, and Britain following the Allies defeat in World War One. Meanwhile, German´s attempt to maintain comity in Mitteleuropa and its postwar empire are shattered by calls for reform, revolution, and in darker cases, revanchism.
The intricate in-game universe inspires players to ask – is this a better world? Is there anything we could take from this game to our vision of what is possible in the real world? In the game, the world still goes all to hell and the Second World War breaks out after all, but the game also envisions left-wing governance divorced from the shameful authoritarianism of the 20th century – from what we can tell of the world, France and Britain (under Syndicalism!) are far more democratic than the nightmare of Purge-era Soviet Union.
The game´s value comes from forcing players to think historically about what might happen. You explore myriad different paths, and see where history might swerve left or right in a universe similar to our own. Counterfactuals are tough to engage with as an academic, but when driving toward a moral policy for a better future, there may be no better way to think.
Flag of Austria-Hungary. Folks, did you know that Austria-Hungary was woke, actually?
Austria-Hungary gets a lot of shit. It lacked the verve and might of its Central Powers ally Germany, and while not as poor as Russia, did not have its sheer size and capability to throw millions of men into battle. But what Austria-Hungary lacked in military power and economic dominance it made up for in the creation of a de-ethnicized polity smack dab in the middle of the great tumult of nationalism in 19th century Europe. Franz Josef, initially a hated autocrat who smothered the final embers of the 1848 Revolutions, represented the benign authoritarianism that allowed the (literal) flowering of social democracy and socialism in fin-de-siecle Vienna. And heck, Franz Ferdinand’s plan to de-centralize the empire and create a confederal “United States of Austria” could have provided a vehicle to escape the ethnic tension and bloodshed that marked much of 20th century Central and Eastern Europe. Even Austro-Marxists reportedly said that, of Austria-Hungary, “if it did not exist we would have to make one up.”
This is a long-winded way of saying that this flag fucks. So buy it. The Habsburgs are the official royal family of FTB.
Nelson A. Denis’s War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony (Nation, 2016 edition). I really don’t have much to say about this comprehensive, meticulously-researched history of the American occupation of Puerto Rico that isn’t already on the book’s back flap. It rules. It usually takes me about three months to get through any work of nonfiction that’s longer than 300 pages because I have the attention span of a goldfish, but I tore through this in about a week and a half. Worth purchasing for the pages of photos alone. Buy for: your #Resistance relative who’s right on the verge of full-blown radicalization.
Our book reviewers
Erin Baines’ Buried in the Heart: Women, Complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Most writing about armed conflict swallows agency. The choices made by armed individuals become the actions of organizations and states, the civilians living in the area of conflict become abstract victims simply acted upon by others. “Buried in the Heart” is a necessary antidote to this infantilizing, reductionist framing.
“Baines presents her subjects’ stories of violence, abduction, and life in a rebel group exactly as they do: as a fact of life, something that one necessarily participated in, and as merely one component of social belonging and power among so many,” writes Gretchen Baldwin. “The voyeurism and essentializing that is so often applied to stories of women in armed movements is absent from this work.”
Baines writes to an academic audience, and as such the accessibility of the book is held back by an overburdening of conceptual ties, but the work is vital and recommended all the same.
Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite State of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA (W. W. Norton, 2017). The United States is experiencing an Imperial Moment, in a way perhaps unseen for a century. Not just the durable and unending wars abroad, but also the effects of imperial structures within the United States, in the territories held and governed by Congress but relegated for over a century to second-class status. It is this imperial tension that makes Mack’s work, a travelogue by a travel writer, so relevant. It is impossible to visit the territories, even as a casual tourist, without reckoning with how the imperial nature of the United States shapes the lives of millions of American citizens daily.
“The Not-Quite States of America” is not, by design, a political project. Yet its subject matter, the parts of the nation defined by a peculiar relationship to the rest of the country, means it cannot avoid wrestling with the project of empire,” writes Kelsey D. Atherton. “And that’s a question worth wrestling with, as the United States bitterly plunges into fresh battles over the personhood of immigrants, over the use of force abroad and at home, and over just what voices get to count, and what voices get curtailed, in the domestic political process.”
By its nature, the book is a lighter read than the other recommendations on this list, though that perhaps makes the politics more jarring, as the deprivation of empire seeps through depictions of idyllic settings, all reinforced by the distance between the book’s pre-Hurricane Maria publication and our present post-Maria reality.
Daniel Bessner’s Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018). What are we, in year 17 of the forever war, to make of the National Security Intellectual? We observe them in the wild, expounding on Twitter about the appeal of Macron or micro aerial vehicles, but where did they come from? Bessner explains their genesis through the story of Hans Speier, giving us a rich look at the professional stewards of democracy, who sought from the start to detach foreign policy from democratic whims.
“In the 1930s, a suspension of democratic norms could be just that—a suspension. But after 1949, the prospect of nuclear war changed everything, ushering in an era of crisis, effectively permanently justified,” writes Jasmine Chorley. “One of the great contributions of Democracy in Exile is how Bessner demonstrates both the grand and quotidian life of one of the most important ideological formulations of US foreign policy, the expertise-requiring crisis as a “conceptual resource” that political leaders and their advisors reach for again and again.”
To understand the present crisis, and the way the elites in charge of the security state maneuver through it, it is perhaps valuable to examine the forces that shaped the first generation of National Security Intellectuals, and how they turned the permanent emergency of nuclear peril into a machine that required perpetual stewardship from elites only. Understanding the history is a good first step toward dismantling the whole misbegotten edifice.
Perhaps you have someone more entrepreneurial on your holiday gift list. They’ve noticed that we are in a boom period for foreign policy grifting, and they’re looking to set up their own snake oil shop to cash in on the wave. What can you buy a man (and the grifters are overwhelmingly men) who believes in nothing? We have some suggestions for items that no threat-inflating, civility-fetishizing, political correctness-decrying hack should be without this holiday season.
Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017). The key to a good grift is finding something you don’t actually care about and then selling your fake enthusiasm about it to people who care profoundly. By this measure, Tom Nichols is one of the most accomplished grifters of our time. Nichols’ bestseller positively boils over with enthusiasm for the idea that modern America has lost its foundational respect for experts and the empirical knowledge they produce to a crippling Wikipedia addiction. Nichols, despite his professed preference for empirics, provides exactly zero evidence for this supposed sea change. Facts may be important, but that’s no excuse for them getting in the way of a good polemic.
Nichols’ grift works because knowledge does matter, and when people perceive its role in public life waning–correctly or not–they want someone to blame. Nichols is happy to provide a scapegoat for experts’ supposedly declining status: non-experts! Policy experts could do so much good in the world, he argues, if only the pesky public would adopt the exact same opinions that experts hold. Failure to do so is a reflection of the public’s “laziness” or “illiteracy.” A reasonable person might look at all this and say that a public servant who so despises the public that he is moved to write a whole book blaming them for all national ills should just retire from public service. Nichols, however, boldly charts a path for aspiring cantankerous uncles everywhere: never leave, just hang on and grift.
The Helsinki Challenge Coin. Challenge coins, the equivalent of Magic: The Gathering cards for your average NoVa lanyard-wearer, have long been a staple of a good grift. Trump, the quintessential snake oil salesman, offers a plethora of varieties in his online store. For the low, low price of $100, you or your least favorite Trump uncle can own a commemorative challenge coin of the Helsinki Summit. The coin features red, white, and blue enamel around a poorly etched depiction of a smiling Trump and Putin. Unfortunately, the original coin, which featured garbled Russian commemorating the “ddiplomatic” event in “Helsinknn” appears to have been taken off the market as swiftly as a typo-ridden tweet from the President is deleted.
Any interchangeable Never-Trump Republican book. I’m not linking the books because you know what I’m referring to, and frankly they’re bad. Never-Trump Republicans make up about 0.005% of the party but they’ve inflicted their ideas on everyone through countless memoirs and polemics. As soon as Trump was elected, you could see the dollar signs positively blooming in these men’s eyes as they spied an opportunity to profit off of the liberal compulsion to hear the other side. These books are notable for their high-minded discourses on truth, patriotism, and the American way, though usually the complicity of the authors in helping us to our current state is comfortably elided. Like a kid kicking an anthill who then complains about ants swarming his legs, these books plaintively ask, “how did we get here?” One only needs to google their names to find lurid stories about their previous incarnations working as ratfucking operatives, professional liars in Congressional testimony, and wallet inspectors for the far-right. Recommendation: acquire used, and gift to a relative you don’t particularly care for.
DNC wrapping paper. After you finish your holiday shopping, you’re going to need something to wrap your gifts up in. May I suggest this baby blue roll of wrapping paper currently being sold in the “holiday” section of the DNC’s online store? It’s covered in donkeys, which I guess is seasonal if you squint hard enough. The real selling point here is that this wrapping paper costs 12 American dollars per roll (shipping not included), 85% of which will go to, I don’t know, redecorating Chuck Schumer’s office again or something. It’d be hard to find a product more perfectly representative of the current Democratic Party — it’s unnecessarily costly, bad for the environment, and ultimately will just end up in the garbage.