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Heady In The Sand

August 4, 2018

August is supposed to be the month you manage a vacation escape from the real or surreal world, including Trumpmania. But for those who can’t let go, here are my picks for relevant reading this summer, with a focus on democracy, Russia — and Shakespeare. Because readers often ask me what to read about Vladimir Putin’s Russia and/or election meddling, here’s a Russia list. ■ “Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia,” by Peter Pomerantsev. This 2014 book (out in paperback) by a Russian-born British journalist brilliantly portrays the dystopian Putin era, with a cast of oligarchs, Mafioso and lost souls. Pomerantsev takes a job in the Russian TV industry and describes from the inside how state-controlled media mix fact and fiction to manipulate Russian minds. Funny, frightening, and too close for comfort. ■ “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice,” by Bill Browder. This American-born financier fought rampant government corruption under Putin. In revenge, Kremlin cronies arrested his Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in prison. Browder crusaded for a U.S. law, the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned those responsible. Putin has been trying to get the Magnitsky sanctions lifted. This thriller describes Browder’s fight for justice for Magnitsky and describes how Putin’s kleptocracy works. ■ “Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News,” by Clint Watts. A former FBI cybersecurity specialist, Watts lays out in gripping detail how Putin’s Russia manipulated U.S. social media, and how others can do likewise. It is a primer on the present and future of information warfare, the lack of effective pushback under Trump, and what needs to be done. ■ “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. This book is a useful backgrounder for those who want to keep straight the cast of characters and history of the Mueller investigation. I still remain dubious that Russian meddling decided the 2016 election. But Putin clearly favored Trump and masterfully exploited America’s internal weaknesses, and these investigative reporters lay out all the details. ■ Turning to the home front, the deep dilemma of our times is dissected in “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump” by Michiko Kakutani, the former chief book critic of the New York Times. At a time when objective reality seems a quaint concept, when social media blare bizarre conspiracy theories that many Americans take as gospel, and when a U.S. president damns real facts as “fake” while promoting fake news and falsehoods, we are in big trouble. The death of truth does indeed threaten democracy. As Kakutani puts it: “Without commonly agreed-upon facts there can be no rational debate over policies.” Her book offers no miracle cure but does offer a fascinating and erudite look at how and why “truth” has become an endangered idea. Of the several other current books on threats to democracy, I found “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the most intriguing. Its main focus is on the importance of democratic norms that form the basis of our system — and are eroding. Finally, if real politics sicken you, you can turn to “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics” by Stephen Greenblatt, who examines the bard’s historical plays and the psyches of bad or mad rulers such as Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, and Coriolanus. With unmentioned reference to now, this Harvard University Shakespeare scholar describes how cynicism, opportunism, and demagoguery in Shakespeare’s England fueled populist anger and led to the rise of tyrants. The comparisons may be a bit forced — one can use Shakespeare to illustrate almost any aspect of human nature — but the quotes are fun and the psychological insights are all too relevant. TRUDY RUBINis a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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