US History

This book is about a moral panic resulting in the deployment of huge police and bureaucratic resources to ruin the lives of some unlucky individuals who were, or seemed to be, Communist Party members or sympathisers. None of Deery’s cases seems to have been doing anything that posed an actual threat to the US government or population; that, at least, is how it looks in retrospect. But at the time the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI judged otherwise and saw them as dangerous anti-democratic conspirators pledged to undermine, if not overthrow, the state. (Does any of this sound familiar?)

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In the heyday of Manhattan hotels, the Chelsea Hotel had its own special niche. The Pierre exuded wealth and exclusivity, the Plaza a sort of bourgeois glamour as the place where the bridge and tunnel crowd would throw caution to the wind and rent a corner suite for big occasions, and the Algonquin, with its round table and Hamlet the cat, radiated intellectual chic. The Chelsea had a sleazy, dangerous style, a place where almost anything went, where famous edgy artists got up to no good. It is no surprise that when, on a hot summer night in 1953, Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac decided that they owed it to literary history to have it off, they chose the Chelsea for the momentous coupling. Even in late 1970s Manhattan, among a certain group to have sex at the Chelsea was considered almost a rite of passage.

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It is ten years since the invasion of Iraq by the United States and the few countries willing to join it. Happening to be in Washington in February, and recalling worldwide protests in 2003, I was struck by what seems to be American amnesia about the war and its consequences. At least in Australia groups are exploring ways to prevent such catastrophic expeditions in the future. Even as Afghanistan follows Iraq towards a similar conclusion, the US government’s war mentality is kept alive by contestation with China, eyeballing of North Korea, countdown over Iran, nervousness about Syria, demands for more military spending, and war hunger in sections of the media. Americans’ nerves are further strained by domestic threats like cyber-infiltration, extreme weather, and mass killings, against which conventional defences seem powerless. Past wars don’t end all wars.

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Tariq Ali, proclaims the Guardian, ‘has been a leading figure of the international left since the 60s’. If his latest book is the best the left can muster, I fear that its chances of influencing political debate are minimal – and, even worse, undesirable.

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