It's a disappointing year when Justin Bieber has a Christmas album called Under The Mistletoe and Lady Gaga has not yet done hers. What's a music loving family to do? The best I can suggest is Tony Bennett's, The Classic Christmas Album. Bennett deserves a shout-out for showing up at 80 plus. He has recorded a duet with Lady Gaga ("The Lady Is A Tramp") on Duets II, and also sung with Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole and the late Amy Winehouse. Tony Bennett is the Bill Clinton of pop singers -- and he gives us all a little cheer for the holiday season.
It's disappointing that President Clinton has a bestselling book on the economy but hasn't called for a national teach-in and day of discussion on economic inequality. Lady Gaga, a young woman of talent, energy and social conscience, sang at Clinton's 65th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. I was hoping that the two of them might go on a national "Reclaim Our Economy" tour. Of course, I was also hoping that members of Occupy would follow a strategy of taking the message to the community as the second phase of the movement. Perhaps, it will happen in 2012. The origins of Occupy are interesting if odd (See "Pre-Occupied" in the The New Yorker last month), and its trajectory is unclear.
It would be really disappointing if the energy and message of Occupy disappeared over the holiday season, and had little impact on the presidential race. There is no one to "gift" in the Occupy movement with advice or readings, since it has no leadership structure. At least it seems that Occupy has influenced President Obama. In a speech this week in Republican Kansas, President Obama echoed the Occupy message that inequality "is the defining issue of our time." Occupy has given us all a gift by affecting the terms of public debate, as well as popular culture. The vivid imagery of the phrase, "We are the 99%", and the idea that there is an over-rewarded 1% are part of the lexicon now.
It's hard to know what to give the President for Christmas except advice to keep up the populist rhetoric of of his Kansas speech and add substance to it. As I and other economists have suggested, the President might promise to appoint a national commission on economic inequality. He could also support a transaction tax on global financial trading -- and certainly in a second term, he could appoint a more progressive economic team.
At the White House this holiday season, he could host a showing of the new bio film The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame), who plays activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in her twenty year struggle for democracy in Myanmar -- a testament to the human spirit -- and a lesson to Occupy that social change is hard, doesn't happen over night, and requires strategy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staff watched the movie on her plane en route to Myanmar last week to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.
My friend Sidney Blumenthal would be happy to give the President an autographed copy of his master work The Clinton Wars to remind him of the nature of his opponents and that the Republican Party of Newt Gingrich will never be his willing partner. The book is also a case study of how Gingrich, latest hope of the Republican right, behaved the last time he held public office.
One book I'd include in Obama's stocking is the compelling nonfiction narrative, In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, the story of FDR's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany. It's a stranger than fiction tale of a university professor operating as America's top diplomat in Berlin, and his efforts to see clearly what is happening, inform the White House and wake up the public at home about the nature of the Nazi threat. If President Obama reads the book, it might inspire him in his second term to make a few out-of-the box diplomatic appointments instead of rewarding big campaign donors with embassies, and to take bold initiatives to justify his Nobel Peace Prize. A good start would be making Samantha Power his national security adviser. At a recent speech at the University of California at Santa Barbara before an audience of Global Studies majors, MA students and faculty, I asked the crowd to name Obama's current NSC adviser. Not one person could do it.
A profile in the Home section of the Financial Times (Dec. 3-4), featured my brother-in-law, former Clinton diplomat, Strobe Talbott relaxing with his dogs, bear rug, books and classical guitar. The article focused on the "kitchen diplomacy' which Strobe and my late sister Brooke practiced around their kitchen table, bringing visiting diplomats and activists home for a casual meal and off-the-record talk which frequently led to on the record action. My strength is probably "book diplomacy" (some would say it's "dessert diplomacy"; I did serve Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream at high level dinners in my official residence in Helsinki). I always brought books on US politics, economics and history as gifts to diplomatic dinners in Finland -- as well as See's candy. Living in Los Angeles as a professor, not as an entertainment mogul, I don't host movie screenings; instead, we organize parties for our friends when they publish new works. I always give too many books to my children and grand children at Xmas. One year, tears ran down my son Anthony's cheeks as he opened package after package and found books not toys. (I'm more balanced as a grandfather -- there are always toys.)
In addition to Erik Larson's book on the US ambassador in Hitler's Germany, I have a few non-fiction books to recommend:
Grand Pursuit -- The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar, a former New York Times business reporter (her previous book A Beautiful Mind was made into an excellent film) is an elegant narrative of the lives and ideas of great political economists who grappled with the idea that economics is not a dismal science and can contribute to improving the welfare of the vast majority -- the 99%. Every Occupy activist should take time out over the holidays to read it. The book is filled with insightful reporting. Who knew that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as his answer to Thomas Malthus' gloomy outlook on the economy or that Winston Churchill was an admirer of Keynes as well as a Keynesian in his policies.
The Deaths of Others -- The Fate of Civilians In America's Wars, by John Tirman, Director of MIT's Center for International Studies, has been neglected by reviewers, perhaps intentionally although I hope it's only inadvertence. In a time of US drone attacks and hunter-killer teams, it's important to think about collateral damage in overseas wars. After all, the first Ground Zero was not in lower Manhattan, but in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Tirman thoughtfully explores why we are often indifferent if not oblivious to the civilian casualties of those with whom we do battle. It is a book which provides historical context to today's debates about the use of military power and its consequences.
The Quest -- Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin, author and energy consultant, is a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning epic, The Prize, which told the story of the rise of oil in the last century. The current story is not as easy to tell, but Yergin does an admirable job providing accessible narratives on all aspects of energy and the global economy. It is both a primer and a handy reference for your home library, as well as a source of good stories. Like Nasar's descriptions of engaged economists, Yergin provides tales of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs as well as political leaders which illuminate the difficult challenges facing us in a world where the rest of humanity wants to live like Americans or Western Europeans.
The Hollywood Sign, by Leo Braudy, is a profile of an icon of my hometown LA which spells out Hollywood in the hills above Sunset Boulevard. It is also the story of Hollywood the industry and how it came to influence world culture. Braudy, a professor at USC, is one of the leading cultural historians in the country. His earlier work, The Frenzy of Renown on the making of celebrities in history, is a classic. I assigned his book to my class in Global Los Angeles at Occidental, and invited Braudy to speak to the students. He tells a fascinating story of how a sign originally designed to promote a real estate development has become a symbol of a city and emblematic of global culture. Along the way, you learn how we have Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and rocker Alice Cooper, among others, to thank for saving the sign for posterity.
Rock The Casbah -- Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, by Robin Wright. If you can read only one book on the Arab spring and changes in Muslim countries, then this is the book. Wright is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, now a fellow at Washington think tanks, and one of the more interesting writers and thinkers on the Middle East. Her book explores youth-inspired change in Islamic countries, and the role that popular culture -- including social media and hip-hop -- coupled with aspirations for human rights, entrepreneurship, and freedom of expression is playing in pushing social and political change. If Islamic-based parties come to power as a result of the Arab Spring -- as seems likely -- they will still have to respond to the hopes and desires of the young and to their new cultural awareness.
For relaxation from politics and economics and to get a perspective on other countries, I usually reach for a mystery or thriller with a foreign setting. An exception to the rule this year is my favorite fiction choice: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran. This is the start of a new and highly original series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The heroine, private detective Claire DeWitt is as innovative and singular a character as Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium series. Don't miss her. I am also a fan of Vermont-based writer Archer Mayor and his Joe Gunther series set in Brattleboro and the northeast. His latest is Tag Man.
This year marked the end of the Kurt Wallander series by Swedish author Henning Mankell with the publication of The Troubled Man. I don't think any author compares to Mankell in depicting the moral and social complexities of the post-Cold War era. If you haven't read any of Mankell, then you are in for an intellectual treat not unlike eating the finest salted chocolate caramels from Fran's of Seattle (official chocolate of the Obama White House). In addition, the novels have been made into exceptionally fine TV films in Sweden and are now available in US format from MHz networks' online shop. MHz, a Virginia based station, which specializes in airing foreign mysteries, sells other favorites of ours including the Italian series Detective Montalbano and Inspector Coliandro, the Varg Veum series set in Bergen, Norway, and the German-made Donna Leon detective novels set in Venice. You don't need to have an all-region DVD player to watch them although I recommend buying one to watch mysteries from Australia, Great Britain, and Scandinavia without waiting for them to appear on PBS.
I've also had fun reading Slash and Burn, the latest in the Dr. Siri series by Colin Cotterill set in Laos, involving a search for the remains of CIA operatives. In another book this year -- Killed At The Whim Of A Hat -- Cotterill has begun a new series set in rural Thailand featuring a young woman reporter turned sleuth. His books have an ironic sense of humor and an accurate sense of place.
I haven't thought much of most feature films this year with the exception of The Lady, the bio pic already mentioned. In our house, we've mainly been watching British TV series like Case Histories, Luther, and Downton Abbey. Our favorite of the bunch is The Hour, a stunning BBC production starring Dominic West set in the Cold War '50s and focused on the first news magazine show on the air in Great Britain. In preparation for a new course which I will co-teach next term at Occidental on Sports, Diplomacy and Globalization, I have been previewing documentaries about sports and politics to show students. Fire In Babylon tells the little known story of the extraordinary and improbable rise of the West Indian cricket team to world class status. It is a journey overlaid with racism and colonialism and told with Reggae musical accompaniment. Equally moving and informative is One Day in September, directed by Kevin Macdonald (winner of the Academy Award for best documentary), the story of the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. McDonald unearths never before seen footage and startling new interviews to offer a nuanced narrative of a horrific event played out on the international sporting stage.
Looking to 2012, there are signs that we can keep hope alive and disappointment at bay -- or at least have a few good things to hear or to read. Coming in January is a compilation of Bob Dylan songs performed by a host of great singers to benefit Amnesty International with liner notes by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz (and produced by my talented daughter Julie Yannatta). Also just after the New Year comes The Age of Austerity, written by Tom Edsall, one of the smartest political writers in the country. Formerly at the Washington Post and now a professor of journalism at Columbia, Edsall is writing a weekly column on politics for the New York Times which is fast becoming the gold standard of political analysis. Order his book in advance and use it as a guide to the attitudes, issues and interests which will affect the elections in 2012. Later in the year, there will be a new biography of Barack Obama -- a seminal one -- by Washington Post author David Maraniss whose book, First In His Class, is still the best book on the political rise of Bill Clinton, and a new cyber thriller by Daniel Suarez. His first novel Daemon is slated to become a major film.
Keep hope alive in your home and your heart. Don't let Republicans ruin your day. Beyond the reach of Fox news, progressive forces are actually winning. After all, Barbie has become a feminist (in Barbie and the Three Musketeers the girls save the Prince!), so a grandparent can safely give Barbie themed gifts. There are solar powered robotic toys for grandsons, and there is now a Toyota Prius Station Wagon with room for dogs (we just bought one and love it). Books still matter. In the film The Lady, you will notice Aung San Suu Kyi reading Louis Fischer's classic, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, for inspiration and tactics. Ideas still count, not punditry.
Bill Gates is championing the Robin Hood Tax -- a transaction on financial trades -- to provide funds for economic development in poor nations, and the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has endorsed the idea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just spoken out forcefully in favor of global gay rights as essential human rights -- and Angelina Jolie has directed her first picture, In the Land of Milk and Honey, about war atrocities in Bosnia. Go girls!
No doubt Occupy will surprise us with actions small and large in 2012 -- and perhaps we will have a national day of discussion and community teach-ins on economic inequality after all. It won't be boring.
Holiday Greetings and Happy New Year!
PS/Late Breaking Gift Suggestion
Our neighbor, legendary showman Fred Weintraub, is publishing his memoirs in January, and advance copies are now available from: www.fredweintraub.com . For years, Fred would regale us with stories of his days running The Bitter End night club in NYC where he launched the careers of Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Neil Diamond, and many others. He provided entertainers for the White House, and discussed Joan Baez' sex life with LBJ. After his club days, Fred went on to produce over 40 films including the classic, "Enter The Dragon," which introduced the legendary Bruce Lee to the world. I kept saying to him, "Write your memoirs, dude"--and he finally did. You can read about Fred's astounding and amusing life in "Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me". Order before January 1, it's 30% off. The perfect gift for the Baby Boomer in your life.