Reading list for Informed Citizen 101

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on politics. Yes, some of that reading is about the candidates in the upcoming election (my local elections — my presidential vote was decided long ago). But what interests me most is material on the whole underlying structure of American politics, the underpinnings of our democracy.

These are things I (presumably) studied in high school history and government classes. I was so bored out of my mind, though, that I didn’t retain any of it. The material was sooo dry, and ancient, and I didn’t see how it applied to me, so I didn’t pay attention past the point of passing the tests. I didn’t realize that things like civil rights, freedoms of speech and press, right to due process, checks and balances, etc., were relevant even today. Not only that, but they’re not sure things. These freedoms can be taken away from us, but only if we allow them to be. And by being complacent, uninvolved, and ignorant, we’re basically saying, “Here! Take these freedoms, I’m not using them!”

In the early days of our country’s history, everyone was involved in political discourse. Farmers debated issues, shopkeepers wrote and distributed essays, because they realized that if we give our leaders power and then leave them alone, unobserved, that power will corrupt. These days most people just vote a straight-party ticket (if they even vote) and go about their daily business without really knowing where the candidates stand on issues that will affect our lives far into the future. Overall, we are an ignorant poplulace.

But we don’t have to remain ignorant. In this spirit, I’ve been compiling a mental list of required/strongly suggested reading for anyone who wants to understand where our freedoms come from, and what could happen to them. I’m not a political expert, and I haven’t read or even heard of every book on the topic. These are my suggestions of books I’ve read recently, books I need to read again, and books I plan to read as soon as I get can them from the library. I’ve taken the synopses/reviews straight from the retail websites (just follow the link).  Please leave your own suggestions in the comments!

Read these books

  • Selected Federalist Papers : Brilliant essays comprising a masterful exposition and defense of the proposed federal system of government and of the Constitution’s carefully architected system of checks and balances. This volume contains 35 of the most famous pieces — concerning impeachment, dangers from foreign arms and influence, the need for a power of taxation, freedom of the press and much more.
  • The Declaration of Independence (and others): Thirteen compelling and influential documents: Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, James Madison’s The Federalist, George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, The Monroe Doctrine, Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, The Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address, and more.
  • The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot: This latest offering from best-selling author Wolf, The Beauty Myth, is a harbinger of an age that may finally see the patriarchal realm of political discourse usurped. Here is Wolf’s compellingly and cogently argued political argument for civil rights, not women’s rights. She contributes this call to action to a canon that from Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes and Locke and forward, with a few exceptions (e.g., Hannah Arendt), has been largely populated by men. Wolf’s work is actually closer to the agitated, passionate polemics of Emma Goldman than the ponderous, philosophical musings of Arendt. Readers will appreciate her energy and urgency as she warns we are living through a dangerous “fascist shift” brought about by the Bush administration. Her chapters outline the “Ten Steps to Fascism” citing historical corollaries (as well as the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm), with headings like “Invoke an External and Internal Threat,” “Establish Secret Prisons,” and “Target Key Individuals.” In other words, fascism can exist without dictatorship. Her book’s publication through a small press in Vermont that is committed to “the politics and practice of sustainable living” rather than through a large trade house is itself a political act. Highly recommended for all collections. -Theresa Kintz, Wilkes Univ., Wilkes-Barre, PA
  • Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries: As the practice of democracy becomes a lost art, Americans are increasingly desperate for a restored nation. Many have a general sense that the “system” is in disorder — if not on the road to functional collapse. But though it is easy to identify our political problems, the solutions are not always as clear. In Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, bestselling author Naomi Wolf illustrates the breathtaking changes that can take place when ordinary citizens engage in the democratic system the way the founders intended and tells how to use that system, right now, to change your life, your community, and ultimately, the nation.
  • Animal Farm: Anti-utopian satire by George Orwell, published in 1945. One of Orwell’s finest works, it is a political fable based on the events of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and the betrayal of the cause by Joseph Stalin. The book concerns a group of barnyard animals who overthrow and chase off their exploitative human masters and set up an egalitarian society of their own. Eventually the animals’ intelligent and power-loving leaders, the pigs, subvert the revolution and form a dictatorship even more oppressive and heartless than that of their former human masters. — The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
  • 1984: Thought Police. Big Brother. Orwellian. These words have entered our vocabulary because of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984. The story of one man’s nightmare odyssey as he pursues a forbidden love affair through a world ruled by warring states and a power structure that controls not only information but also individual thought and memory, 1984 is a prophetic, haunting tale. More relevant than ever before, 1984 exposes the worst crimes imaginable-the destruction of truth, freedom, and individuality.
  • A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present :Consistently lauded for its lively, readable prose, this revised and updated edition of A People’s History of the United States turns traditional textbook history on its head. Howard Zinn infuses the often-submerged voices of blacks, women, American Indians, war resisters, and poor laborers of all nationalities into this thorough narrative that spans American history from Christopher Columbus’s arrival to an afterword on the Clinton presidency. If your last experience of American history was brought to you by junior high school textbooks–or even if you’re a specialist–get ready for the other side of stories you may not even have heard. With its vivid descriptions of rarely noted events, A People’s History of the United States is required reading for anyone who wants to take a fresh look at the rich, rocky history of America.

I’ll be adding more as I come across them.