September 2008

Stephen Laniel


What You Should Know About Politics... But Don't: A Nonpartisan Guide to the Issues by Jessamyn Conrad

I honestly couldn't decide, while reading this book, whether or not I hated it. Which isn't necessarily a check against it; I suspect Conrad knew that she'd elicit this opinion from most of her readers.

There are two big reasons:

1.  It's a standard-size book that purports to cover most every important issue in American political life. Every issue will necessarily receive less coverage than it deserves.

2.  When Conrad says "Politics," what she really means is "the beliefs that most Americans hold." She wants to introduce you to all the beliefs, mistaken or otherwise, that you'll encounter around the water cooler. She tries to dispense with the facially bad arguments, but people on any side of any issue will wish that she tried harder.

Is the problem that I'm just too opinionated? Do I selfishly wish that Conrad would support my side more than the other guy's? That's the crux of my uncertainty over this book. At some level I think I am the problem. Another problem, though, is Conrad is not an expert on health care, or foreign policy, or economics, or the environment, or any of the other issues that she covers in What You Should Know. She is "pursuing her doctorate in art history at Columbia University." She knows how to read newspapers with a critical eye, and I have to tip my hat to her on that; critical reading is something too few people can do.

Why, then, should we read Conrad rather than any other intelligent person who digests newspapers? For that matter, why shouldn't Conrad have published a book of newspaper clippings, which intelligent readers could then dig into? So far as I can tell, the answer lies in the author blurb on the jacket cover, right above the bit about her art-history work: Conrad is "the daughter of the senior Democratic senator from North Dakota and the niece of the Republican U.S. Secretary of Agriculture." Being from the West, she's supposed to be libertarian and maverick. Being so intimately connected to U.S. politics, she's supposed to give us a behind-the-scenes view of who's sleeping with whom, who's bought whom out, and so forth. The book doesn't deliver on that promise, so it's not even worth addressing.

What we're left with, then, is a précis of American newspapers, written by a smart person. Since her goal is to help us all understand our fellow-Americans' political beliefs, Conrad is loath to write off most anyone -- though she seems to have no problem judging one belief or another as kooky. For instance: "A few far-left liberals are opposed to rendition in every instance; most believe there are times when it is acceptable to breach the laws of a given nation in order to apprehend a criminal, especially if it has a shaky rule of law or is run by an unfriendly dictator."

This is what drives me up a wall about Conrad's book. Like the newspapers that form her sources, Conrad accepts the common framing of issues, and thinks it's perfectly okay to label one side -- typically the left -- lunatic. So 20 pages later, she writes:

I'm going to use scientific terms like "embryo" and "fetus" when referring to early stages in human development. Be aware, however, that some opponents of legal abortion find these terms offensive. They call a fetus an unborn child and say they support the rights of the unborn.

Did you see her call them "a few far-right conservatives?” I did not. She maintains an indifferent posture, which masks an implicitly conservative ideology.

Throughout this book, Conrad needs to keep asking more questions. If someone believes that the U.S. has a right to capture people from unfriendly regimes, we are implicitly granting that right to foreign governments. This is the same argument used against torture: if we do it, we encourage them to do it. Conrad can label rendition's opponents extremists because she lives in the most powerful nation on earth: if we can snatch people up from Namibia, who cares if the Namibians try to do the same to us? Conrad doesn't put it this way because newspapers don't put it this way.

What You Should Know About Politics is filled with this kind of pretend objectivity, and a refusal to ask more fundamental questions about the U.S. political process or the role of the media in controlling that process. If you're not already familiar with the issues that Americans discuss, then I'd recommend this book warily. If you already understand something of the world around you, then What You Should Know About Politics is just a recipe for continued frustration.

What You Should Know About Politics... But Don't: A Nonpartisan Guide to the Issues by Jessamyn Conrad
Arcade Publishing
ISBN: 1559708832
336 Pages

Steve Laniel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he can hate America like all Cantabrigians do. He also writes book reviews at