American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century 
Gary Gerstle 
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

 

In American Crucible, Gary Gerstle traces the history of American nationalism through the seminal political events and popular culture of the twentieth century, from the Progressive and civil rights movements to the movies of Frank Capra and Francis Ford Coppola. Gerstle distinguishes "civic nationalism"—which emphasized America's aspirations toward liberty, social equality, and cultural pluralism—from "racial nationalism"—which tried to limit the American dream to Anglo-Saxons, or whites generally. Though ideological competitors, these two ideas were often expressed simultaneously, in the self-contradictions of writers, artists, and political platforms. (Theodore Roosevelt, for example, found manly virtues of strength and honor in the ethnic stew of frontier culture; but he circumscribed that civic-nationalist promise by excluding black Americans, whom he considered inferior, from his ideal America.) Civic nationalism, notes Gerstle, declined in the 1970s, after civil rights setbacks and the Vietnam War shook Americans' faith that the United States held a special place in the world. Today, its assimilationism troubles multiculturalists and liberals, who tend to be suspicious of "American" culture or challenge the very term. But it has a champion in Gerstle, who shows how the idea played its part in twentieth-century reform movements and is missed in the anti-government politics of the twenty-first.

—Jefferson Decker

 

Parity of the Sexes 
Sylviane Agacinski 
Columbia University Press, $18.50 (paper)

 

The English translation of Sylviane Agacinski's Politique des sexes arrives aprés coup, almost two years after the concept of parité (parity) was written into the French constitution. As of this spring, French political parties are required to fill 50 percent of candidacies in any electoral race with women. Though not among the activists who first demanded parité, Agacinski—a philosopher by training, and the wife of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin—has been one of its most influential proponents. Agacinski argues that there is only one universal human difference: sexual duality, or the fact (natural, yet given meaning by culture) of being either a man or a woman. Democratic politics should reflect that irreducible human diversity. Such an argument gives short shrift to alliances based on ideas or affinities that might take precedence over or complicate gender identity. It also slides ineluctably into heterocentrism. Though Agacinski endorses the 1999 Pacte civile de solidarité (PACS) that gave co-habiting gay couples many of the same rights as married ones, she rejects gay parenting on the grounds that a family should reflect a child's "double origin." In this regard, Agacinski's "politics of sexual difference" looks a lot like business as usual.

—Laura Christian

 

The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism 
Daniel C. Thomas 
Princeton University Press, $18.95 (paper)

 

The ambition of The Helsinki Effect is to demonstrate to jaded students of Cold War-era realpolitik that human rights norms actually effect meaningful change in state behavior, and to explain how the softest law can undermine the hardest of regimes. According to Thomas, a liberal theory of international law presents human rights as a universalist, external restraint on state conduct. Such a theory might explain Brezhnev's acceptance of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act as a strategic exchange of human rights language for the promise of non-intervention; but it cannot explain Gorbachev's self-annihilating embrace of human rights values a decade later. Instead, a constructivist theory, which sees norms as an ambulatory reflection of state self-image, provides the key to this political change. In this account, human rights law becomes meaningful in international relations when it is traced to an internalized socialization of states, not to an imposed ideology. The more engaged East became with West, the more time the Soviets spent with their Helsinki partners, the more they wanted to see those Western images when they looked in the mirror. Change came not from commitment but from imitation. Human rights law can be meaningful, in other words, even if its own set of values—its meaning in itself and for those whose faith it commands—is all but irrelevant.

—Ed Morgan

 

The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, The Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy 
Daniel Lazare 
Verso, $23 (paper)

 

At a time when Americans are singing "God Bless America" and waving Old Glory with fervor, Daniel Lazare sounds particularly jarring. In his latest book, Lazare calls for "desanctifying" the Constitution, "jettisoning the past," and "tapping into international currents of socialism and democracy that are expressly opposed to American principles and methodologies"—ideas that would have been unconventional two months ago and might be derided as unpatriotic now. But by his own count and in his own fervent way, Lazare is a champion of democracy. Clearly motivated by the confusions and uncertainties of Bush v. Gore, he wants to ask the hard questions: How can the U.S. think itself a democratic nation when experience shows that democratic majorities do not always, or even often, prevail? Do we believe ourselves to be something we're not? And if our most cherished beliefs are not fact, can we make them so? Lazare argues that yes, America is not the democracy that many imagine, but yes, it can be reshaped to become that democracy. To get there, though, Americans will have to rethink everything, from the system of checks and balances to state-based representation in the Senate to the powers of the Supreme Court. Like his proposals, Lazare's prose is provocative and breezy, with what he lacks in subtlety made up for by the broad sweep of his historical gaze. The Velvet Coup moves through 500 years in not half as many pages, and Lazare attempts to reexamine it all. While some of his assumptions and aspirations are questionable, his questions are not. As Thomas Jefferson, himself a target in Lazare's critique, said, "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing."

—Susan McWilliams