Annotated Bibliography for ‘The American Effect’ Exhibit Catalog Part IV-VI

Sean was a consultant to the curator on the exhibit ‘The American Effect’ at the Whitney Museum that opened in 2003 — click here to read about his work on that exhibit — and also wrote the annotated bibliography, of which Parts IV-VI are below.

 << Click here to begin with Part I – III



IV.     The World’s Perspective on America
For many in the world, it can seem America is everywhere: on television, at the movies, in soda bottles, buying tourist souvenirs, running multinationals, manning development aid stations, posted to military bases, and hovering in some shadowy and undefined way behind all the local tragedies.  Ironically, America’s ubiquity makes it a difficult subject to contain in a book; it more often appears in newspaper and magazine articles (see section VI below) where the praise or criticism can be pegged to a discrete action.  The selection of books available in English must also contend with the skewing factor of language and audience: there is a substantial readership in the US and Europe for a liberal critique of America, so many books addressing that audience are written in English or get translated; there is little such market for an anti-liberal critique and generally the people who make that argument (including, but not exclusively, Islamic fundamentalists) are not addressing themselves to an American or European audience, so few such texts appear in English.  The spectrum of debate accessible to most Americans is therefore truncated.

Arenas, Reinaldo.  Before Night Falls. Translated by Dolores M. Koch. New York: Penguin, 1994.
The memoirs of a Cuban homosexual growing up under Castro who makes sexual liberation a form of political rebellion.  America appears as the unreachable sanctuary just across the water, a constant lure but a place that a Cuban in love with Cuba tries to resist.  After a harrowing imprisonment, Arenas escapes and lives free but unhappy in exile.

Baudrillard, Jean. America. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso Books, 1989.
A postmodern Frenchman’s travels through the US in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, this book finds a country of light, illusion and simulacra.  The result may bear scant resemblance to the nuts-and-bolts land seen by its citizens, but makes for an interesting excursion into French cultural theory.

Fallaci, Oriana. The Rage and the Pride. New York: Rizzoli, 2002.
Italy’s most renowned journalist and the author of the spectacularly combative Interview with History, Fallaci wrote this book in response to September 11th.  She is not bashful, launching a vitriolic attack against Islam and an only slightly gentler one against criticism of America among European intellectuals.  It is not her best work but it is an impassioned defense of America not often heard from a European.

Hitchens, Christopher. The Trial of Henry Kissinger. London: Verso Books, 2001.
A polemic from the British Leftist turned Vanity Fair writer, but a compelling one.  Framed as a legal case for war crimes against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, it reads as a chilling indictment of American foreign policy in the 1970s.  Vietnam is the most famous, but only the beginning: assassinations in Chile and Cyprus, sanctioning the Indonesian invasion and subsequent massacre in East Timor, bombing Cambodia and Laos, and on and on.  Does not do much to support the assertion that America should be seen as a beacon of freedom.

Kapuscinski, Ryszard. Shah of Shahs. Translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand. New York: Vintage, 1992.
During the Cold War, this veteran Polish correspondent was able to go places and see things in a way many Western correspondents were not.  His book The Emperor, about Haile Selassie’s court in Ethiopia, is a classic, but Shah of Shahs involves America more directly, given that the US returned the Shah of Iran to power and then propped him up until Khomeini and the revolution swept him away.  The book is more impressionistic than scholarly, and reading it one wonders how the American government believed the Shah’s rule served anyone’s interest save his own.

Qutb, Sayyid. Social Justice in Islam. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, CA: Islamic Publications International, 2000.
The leading theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Qutb was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966 but his work has since served as the inspiration for jihadi movements throughout the Islamic world.  Qutb is a classic instance of the insular nature of American political debate: for better or worse, there are few writers who have had a greater impact on the world but he remains almost unknown in the US. This book, written in 1949, is his most famous and criticizes the corruption and inequality of contemporary Islamic societies, as well as the crusading ambitions of the West, and makes the case for an Islamic renaissance through a return to the purity of early Islam.

Veloso, Caetano. Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil. Translated by Barbara Einzig and Isabel De Sena. New York: Knopf, 2002.
The autobiography of the legendary Brazilian singer, songwriter, and activist who spearheaded the musically- and politically-transgressive Tropicalia movement in the 1960s with his friend and fellow musician João Gilberto.  Tropicalia coincided with the counterculture in the US, but drew heavily on earlier American musical inspirations such as Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker.  The result was the same: a music-driven youth movement that ran head-long into establishment politics, which in Brazil’s case meant a government run by a military junta.  A story of Brazil, it reveals the way American culture could be seen as a liberating force in the world even as its politics were seen as a force of oppression.

“What We Think of America”.  Granta #77, Spring 2002.
This September 11th-inspired issue of the long-running British literary magazine brings together reflections on America from writers around the world, along with a few extended essays.  Captures the conflicted mix of longing, admiration, awe, sorrow, fear, and dismay that many feel for the US.

V. The World Tells Its Own Story
The novel, a Western literary form, has become the primary vehicle for the world to tell its own story, and almost every country has at least one world-renowned literary figure: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt), Amos Oz (Israel), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Nadine Gordimer (South Africa), Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia), Gunter Grass (Germany), and José  Saramago (Portugal), to name a few.  In non-fiction, as below, memoirs predominate.

Lee, Kuan Yew. From Third World to First : The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Independent Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew is one of the most fascinating political figures of our time: brash, stubborn, fiercely intelligent, and, depending on the view, either a miracle worker or long-time autocrat.  His complex personality and the path of Singapore’s remarkable modern history are both revealed in his memoirs.  Lee has been one of the most outspoken critics of America’s proselytizing on human rights and is an advocate of an ‘Asian Way’ that views economic liberalization as more appropriate to local cultural values than political liberalization.

Naipaul, V.S. Among the Believers.  New York: Random House, 1982.
The Nobel Prize-winning Sir Vidia tells his own story and then some during this account of his travels in 1979 through the converted Islamic lands of Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Iran.  As an Indian growing up ‘displaced’ in Trinidad, he is much concerned with the roots of identity and his observations are so prescient that the book has not aged at all.

Malan, Rian. My Traitor’s Heart. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
First published in 1991 before the transition to black rule in South Africa, this is the memoir of an Afrikaner journalist descended from a pro-apartheid family trying to come to terms with the moral reality of his country’s political situation.  Malan resists the easy answers in a system so gruesome that all are complicit.

Sebald, W.G. On the Natural History of Destruction. New York: Random House, 2003.
The German author’s examination of the lasting effects on the national psyche of the WWII leveling of German cities by Allied bombing.  Sebald’s contention in this collection of essays is that the scale of the devastation was not recognized by the world and even German writers in the post-war period generally looked away, managing to avoid engaging with the ruins around them.

Shehadeh, Raja. Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine. Vermont: Steerforth Press, 2002.
This lyrical and humane memoir of a Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist who long worked for a two-state solution is a familiar tale of dispossession, deferred justice, and powerlessness in the face of occupation, but for most Americans it will not be a familiar tale in this context.

Taylor, Peter. Loyalists. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
An unusual addition to the many books on Northern Ireland written by this BBC correspondent, in that it looks at the loyalists who side with the UK.  Irish Americans have been among the biggest supporters of the Irish Republican Army, so the loyalist side is rarely heard from in the US.

VI. Journalism as the First Draft of History
During the last decade, much of the American media concluded that the big story was happening at home: technology, the stock market, the Monica Lewinsky scandal; the world, by comparison, seemed a distant, slow-moving place full of irresolvable conflicts in which America would become briefly engaged before moving on.  As a result, international coverage declined and its character changed.  In an effort to engage a public increasingly disinterested in foreign news, editors recast much of their international coverage to reflect domestic political concerns: treatment of minority Christian or Jewish communities, women’s rights, race, democracy, economic liberalization, etc.  These are important issues, but they represent fundamentally American priorities.  Fortunately,  the Internet has revolutionized the flow of information, a change nowhere more evident than the ability to access the world’s newspapers and magazines from one’s desk.  Most such publications are still written for a local audience and therefore reflect a local perspective on global issues while providing a greater level of detail for local issues.  In English, unless otherwise indicated.

United States
The New York Times (US –
The ‘paper of record’ in the US, its coverage of the world is robust by the degraded standards of American journalism, but increasingly reflects domestic political priorities.  The Magazine occasionally runs insightful longer pieces.
The New York Review of Books (US –
A rare forum for extended intellectual debate among writers and policymakers.  International coverage is predominantly about Europe and the Middle East.
The New Yorker (US –
Employs a stable of foreign correspondents – including Jon Lee Anderson (Latin America/Afghanistan), Philip Gourevitch (Africa), Alma Guillermoprieto (Latin America), Isabel Hilton (South Asia), and Seymour Hersh (American policy) – that is the best in the country, offering them a rare forum for in-depth analysis.  The coverage of the Middle East, particularly by Jeffrey Goldberg, is not up to the same standard.
Transition (US –
Founded in Uganda in 1961 as the primary continent-wide forum for debate about decolonization, Transition is now published out of Harvard and is a unique specimen among American journals: sassy, engaging, eye-opening essays about culture by writers from around the world, with a particular emphasis on Africa.  An essential read – hard to find, so subscribe.
The Wall St. Journal (US –
Largely dedicated to financial news and with a famously conservative editorial page, the Journal has limited but often exceptional coverage of international affairs.  On-line access by subscription only.

The BBC World News (UK –
The legendary BBC service runs an excellent on-line news site that covers the world in depth.  They also maintain one of the most extensive world news archives still accessible without charge.
The Economist (UK –
The best single source of world news in the English language.  Clean, witty, sophisticated and accessible prose, and the only publication that manages to be both global and local on a range of subjects far broader than its title would suggest, extending from politics and business to science and culture.
The Guardian (UK –
When Europeans argue there is no true Left in American politics, the editorial views of The Guardian are what they believe is missing.  A valuable read, if often excessive.
Libération (France –
The organ of the French Left and generally skeptical of American intentions in the world.  The best of the French newspapers.  In French.
Le Monde (France –
A center-right newspaper, exuding appropriate gravitas.  An abbreviated version is available in English.

Middle East and Africa
The Cairo Times (Egypt-
The best English-language news magazine in the Arab world and a bastion of independent journalism.  Selections from each issue are available on-line.
The Daily Mail & Guardian (South Africa –
The first newspaper in Africa to have an on-line edition, with extensive coverage of southern Africa and beyond.
Ha’aretz (Israel –
The most important Left-leaning newspaper in Israel and an invaluable source for news on the region.
Al Jazeera (Qatar –
Although demonized by the Bush administration for airing tapes of Osama bin Laden, this satellite channel is actually the news source that most embodies the professed ‘American’ value of free expression in a region dominated by submissive state-owned media, taking a critical, outspoken view of almost every leader and hot-button social issue in the Middle East. In Arabic, with plans for an English-language service.
Jerusalem Post (Israel –
One of the leading newspapers of the Israeli Right, its views on Palestine and the occupation are broadly similar to those in most American newspapers.

The Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong –
A weekly magazine primarily focused on business in Asia, it offers extensive region-wide coverage.
The Nation (Thailand –
One of the leading newspapers in the only country in southeast Asia with a tradition of independent journalism.  Except for coverage of the Thai royal family, everything is fair game.
New Straits Times (Malaysia – )
The official paper of a government long dedicated to taking an independent line on globalization and America’s presence in the world.
The Times of India (India –
The grand old dame of Indian newspapers.  No longer the most compelling, but still important.

Latin America
Reforma (Mexico –
The leading Mexico city newspaper from the group that pioneered independent journalism in Mexico.  In Spanish.
Buenos Aires Herald (Argentina –
Founded in 1876 and one of the few substantial English-language newspapers in South America, offers coverage of Argentina and the world.

<< Begin with Part I – III