Book Reviews & Recommendations
Recent Reads on Politics & Social Issues
It should come as no surprise that writers are also big readers.
As a political and social issue writer, many of the books I read are in the same vein. I read not only to expand my own knowledge and understanding, but also to better inform my writing.
These are some of my recent reads, all of which I highly recommend.
Conversations with People Who Hate Me: 12 Things I Learned from Talking to Internet Strangers
— Dylan Marron (March 29, 2022)
When I first saw this book, I knew I had to read it.
As a political writer and social justice activist, I’ve received my share of hate — both from people I know and from strangers online.
Dylan Marron is a host and producer of several successful video series and podcasts, including one entitled Sitting in Bathrooms with Trans People, which he created following North Carolina’s passage of a controversial bathroom bill that required transgender individuals to use the public bathroom that aligned with their biological sex. “Hateful legislation depended on fear, and fear grew from the unknown,” he said. “I wanted to reverse that.”
As a progressive activist, Dylan predictably receives a lot of hate from people online. As his presence and influence grew, so did the negative feedback. He started taking screenshots of these comments, messages, and tweets and collecting them in a “desktop bin…aptly labeled HATE FOLDER.”
Some of them, like digs at his masculinity (or self-professed lack thereof) and sexuality, he decided to regard with amusement in an effort to shield himself from the hurt they inspired.
Others, like someone who told him he was “a disgrace to humanity” hit a little harder.
Regardless of the content, though, Dylan couldn’t quite take his friends’ and family members’ advice to “just log off.” Instead, he started looking the senders up on Facebook.
I was one click away from the senders’ personal information, photos, and posts. Did they know that? Were they aware that when they called me a libtard I could also see the name of the high school where they taught English? That when they told me how I should die that I was just three pages away from finding out their aunt’s favorite band?
Sending hate on social media, especially Facebook, was like sending a hate letter via snail mail and paper-clipping every photo ever taken of you, your employer’s address, and a partial family tree. And it was this information that I used to construct a full three-dimensional backstory for each of my HATE FOLDER occupants.
By “imaging the most loving backstories [he] could,” Dylan says he was able to “convince myself that they were human beings with feelings, which made me less scared.”
One day at work, Dylan read through a message from a kid named Josh that inspired an idea.
“Youre a moron. Youre the reason this country is dividing itself. All your videos are meerly opinion, and an awful opinion i must say. Just stop. Plus, being gay is a sin.” [sic]
After scrolling through Josh’s Facebook profile and finding a variety of anti-Hillary Clinton and anti-gay Bible memes, he came to posts that offered a broader view of his nemesis. One was about the movie Finding Dory, which Josh called a “tearjerker” that he “LOVED!” In his next posts, he talked about his loneliness.
The realization that the people sending him hate mail might be experiencing hurt of their own and that the hollowness that comes from demonizing them as one-dimensional caricatures led Dylan to wonder about his effectiveness as an activist through personifying a snarky social commentator.
All this time I’d been operating under the illusion that I was having a dialogue with everyone, when, in fact, I was just monologuing at some.
Perhaps activism through explainer video isn’t really activism at all if that video only reaches people who already agree with me. It’s humbling to realize I’m not nearly as influential as I think I am.
If I indeed wanted to involve more people in the conversation — people who didn’t yet see the problem with any of the issues I frequently discussed, like say, policing, or transphobia, or microaggressions — was I succeeding, or was I simply enjoying the reverberations of virality in my own little echo chamber, thinking that I was slaying Goliath when I was simply cosplaying battle reenactments with my fellow self-identified Davids?
Inspired by his epiphany, Dylan embarked on creating a new podcast where he would conduct phone conversations with the people who had landed themselves in his HATE FOLDER.
Through those conversations, Dylan came to learn a lot about the conversations that divide us as well as the underlying humanity that ultimately unites us. Some led to progress, while others were more disappointing. Either way, he achieved what he sat out to do, which was to provide a more accurate and well-rounded portrayal of the greater online debates that happen every day.
I imagine my guests as trees, and their respective ideologies as the forests to which they belong. From a distance we can only see the forest, and up close we can only see the tree. Social media makes that distance especially large. The digital public square only allows us to see the bigger picture, largely due to the sheer volume of trees we pass by every day; because of this, we miss the complexity of each individual tree. Intimate, one-on-one conversation is the antidote to social media because it allows us to see the bark up close. The intricate root systems, the interwoven canopies of leaves. Of course, then the opposite can happen: We can get caught up in the hyperspecificity of each tree and miss out on the larger patterns of the forest.
I’m now realizing that my biggest job in this project is to not lose sight of either. To hold both at the same time. To remember that the person I’m speaking to is not the harmful ideology they subscribe to, just as a tree is not the entire forest. It is part of it, yes, but not all of it.
My real problem isn’t with Josh or Chris or E or Adam. My real problem is with the woods of homophobia, the forest of conservatism. I really, really liked the trees I was talking to. But I really, really didn’t like the forest. Of course you can’t have a conversation with a problematic interpretation of a religion. I couldn’t call up homophobia, nor could I sit down with conservatism. Instead, I was left only with the tree. The representative. The person.
This book was a great exploration of the conversations surrounding our country’s cultural and political divisions and the social media wars that happen because of them.
Personally speaking, these things are a challenge. I feel as if I cannot in good conscience allow hate and ignorance to continue unfettered, and often that gets me into heated exchanges — some of them with family and acquaintances, others with complete strangers.
This is a screenshot from my own “HATE FOLDER”, which I received after making a comment on a public post about racism last May. The irony is I didn’t even exchange words with this person prior to them sending me this message. Warning: the offensive language has not been censored.
After reporting the sender, I responded by saying, “WTF is wrong with you? I bet your family is so proud.” To my knowledge, Facebook never responded to my report or restricted his account. As a matter of fact when I just searched for him, his profile was still active. That’s where I found this gem (also uncensored):
Apart from his colorful social and political commentary, though, his profile was locked down — no location, workplace, or any other personal information was publicly visible. However, you never know when these people are going to become a bigger problem, so I decided to do some digging and had found his address and the name and location of his business, all from other information on his profile.
Ultimately I think the larger implications of these kinds of issues is somewhat more complex than “hateful people are people too”, but it’s a start.
When you have people raiding a D.C. pizza parlor in an effort to save children locked in the basement from a pedophile sex ring headed by Hillary Clinton (spoiler alert: there was no basement) or storming the U.S. Capitol because they believe, against a plethora of evidence to the contrary, that a legally- and legitimately-conducted election was “stolen”, it should be clear that some of these messages and posts should be taken seriously.
The problem, of course, is that when these conspiracies have become so mainstream and such a large percentage of the population believes them, it’s very difficult for government agencies to determine who represents an actual threat and who is merely misinformed. For the general public, it’s even harder.
Apart from these more extreme examples and cases where direct violent threats are being made, though, I think there is something to be said for Dylan’s strategy of humanizing the opposition — if not for the sake of swaying their opinions, then for your own humanity and peace of mind.
I was provided an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Bring Back the Poll Tax!: The GOP War on Voting Rights
— Earl Ofari Hutchinson (August 2021)
With the ever-expanding attacks on voting rights that have come out of red state legislatures following the 2020 election, Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s book is a timely and compelling read.
Hutchinson, who has a PhD in sociology as well as a B.S. in psychology and an M.A. in humanities, began his career by publishing a newsletter while hosting a radio show on social and political issues. He went on to write for several well-known newspapers and magazines including the Huffington Post before publishing several books on the issues surrounding race in America.
In his latest book, he explores the history of voting rights and oppression in the U.S. and shows how the past is still informing the present with legislative plays on election laws from the GOP.
While congressional Republicans have propagated the narrative of election security based on an immediate risk of election fraud, Hutchinson makes it clear that this is only a cover for their real ploy, which is to control who is allowed to vote to sway elections in their favor.
Time and time again, voter fraud commissions appointed by GOP Secretaries of State and Department of Justice officials have found virtually no evidence of widespread election fraud. Hutchinson points out that these investigations have culminated in “14 vote fraud cases in 22 states out of 84 million votes cast,” or a 0.00000017% fraud rate.
In regards to federal election fraud cases, the Department of Justice found that just 0.00000013% of the ballots cast in the 2002 and 2004 elections were fraudulent.
Hutchinson also points to countless reports from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice that “put the incident rate of actual larcenous vote fraud at between 0.0003% and 0.0025%.” One study, he says, “found a total of 30 impersonation vote fraud cases in 14 years from 2000 to 2014” — out of more than one billion ballots cast.
“The GOP’s bogus war on voter fraud then . . . was not about ensuring clean and fair elections, nabbing vote fraud lawbreakers, or upholding constitutional precepts. It’s always been about winning elections on the cheap. It can only do that by tipping the vote number balance toward having more likely GOP voters and fewer likely Democratic voters. It’s hardly a coincidence that the majority of those targeted for voter purges are Black and Hispanic.”
“GOP officials,” Hutchinson says, “have not scrapped the old tried and true methods of voter suppression. They include district gerrymandering, tightening felon bans, skimping on the number of polling places and machines in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods, stationing police at the polls, and challenging citizenship papers where they can get away with it.”
Hutchinson goes on to explain how the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder led to a surge in discriminatory state election laws across the South in states that were previously subject to federal preclearance before making changes to their voting laws, as well as how this could very well be the first step in the GOP’s war on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which will be up for renewal again in 2032.
Bring Back the Poll Tax offers a plethora of information on voting rights and the legislation that both affirms and violates this essential part of our democracy. Earl Ofari Hutchinson did a great job of providing factual evidence that backs up his view that the GOP is less concerned with maintaining our constitutional rights than it is with its own power.
I was provided an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
— Isabel Wilkerson (August 2020)
Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling debut book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration earned her a Pulitzer Prize and a position as a leading voice in narrative nonfiction. Her New York Times #1 bestselling Caste was named Book of the Year by Time Magazine and topped Book of the Year lists for The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and countless others.
Her books, supremely-written and captivating, provide a window into the United States’ real history with race that shows us precisely how and why we arrived at our current point of contention.
As someone who thought I had a fairly decent grasp on the subject, Wilkerson’s comprehensive account of discrimination against people of color in our country was eye-opening and humbling. There were so many passages that I had to stop to re-read, then sit with, in order to fully absorb the unfathomable cruelty and inequality that has characterized America’s treatment of Black people, both on the individual level and systemically.
For example, Wilkerson points out that the Third Reich in Germany — a group whose racial hierarchy she compares to the caste system of discrimination in this country — patterned their distinctions between racial and ethnic groups on U.S. anti-miscegenation laws. These made interracial marriage illegal and established the determination that anyone with “one drop” of Negro blood was enough to classify someone as black and were part of our legal system until they were ruled to be unconstitutional in 1967 with Loving v. Virginia.
The shocking part for me was that the Nazis deemed the U.S.’s laws to be “too harsh”.
Caste is an essential read, especially given the recent discussions on Critical Race Theory. For activists and allies, it provides a plethora of material that both informs and propels, and for anyone who is questioning the necessity or validity of providing an accurate view of history in the education setting, it might just convince you.