Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Wong Hoy Cheong Solo Exhibition: Review

by Carmen Nge

Used tear gas canisters from demonstration dispersals by the FRU on 20 September 1998—retrieved from the road leading to our former Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir’s residence. Red and white melted down candle wax from a peaceful vigil calling for the repeal of the ISA on the eve of Deepavali 1998. Dried flowers collected from another vigil on 26 November 1998 that called for the release of Tian Chua, who had been arrested.

Seldom have an artist’s “found objects” carried this much political weight. Unadorned, they are exhibited like museum artefacts from a moment in history—a cauldron of political ferment bubbling over but which is now, with the release of Anwar Ibrahim, temporarily subdued.

They are positioned next to his Vitrine of Contemporary Events (1999), an illuminated showcase of judges’ wigs, police batons and a section of our Federal Constitution made from cow dung. And hanging above are what I call the artist’s “reverse psychology” Artis Pro Activ postcards: Kill Freedom. Don’t Get Involved they read in bright yellow letters.

Works such as these are partly why Wong Hoy Cheong has been out of the art establishment exhibition loop (though not out of establishment purview) for the past few years. But art audiences sometimes forget that Hoy Cheong’s work has always been intimate with the State, whether within their spaces—i.e. Lalang (1994) and Of Migrant and Rubber Trees (1996) at the National Art Gallery’s Creative Centre—or engaging with their ruling processes—e.g. political posters for Parti Rakyat Malaysia during the 1999 elections.

But times have changed. Hoy Cheong’s recent work, a film commissioned for the Liverpool Biennale this year, seems rather removed from the Malaysian political scene. It is about Roy Rogers—America’s iconic Christian cowboy—and his horse, Trigger, and their short stay at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel. With horse as surrogate filmmaker (6 cameras were mounted on an actual horse which was led through the hotel during the shoot), Hoy Cheong has begun to push the boundaries of directorial control to new limits and has begun a journey of intellectual engagement beyond our usual stereotypes of the artist.

In many ways, Wong Hoy Cheong’s solo show at the National Art Gallery today, has taken on a veneer of nostalgia—it seals in and captures a time in our nation’s history (and undoubtedly, the artist’s own creative history as well) that has passed. Two months after Anwar’s release, judges wigs fashioned from cow dung are emptied of political charge. Artefacts from Reformasi are precisely that: products of human agency NOT provocations for change. They are end-points of a struggle that is archived, not alive.

If Hoy Cheong’s exhibition had kept to its original opening date—September 2003—his response to the sacking and arrest of Anwar and the judicial misconduct that followed would have taken on an entirely different tone. Anwar would still be in jail; it would the 5th anniversary of his arrest; Mahathir would still be in power. Hoy Cheong’s Vitrine would no longer simply be artwork; they would transcend their art establishment-art historical context and become tools of political provocation.

So, today, a little more than one year later, Hoy Cheong’s 1999 works are exhibited as part of his artist’s oeuvre; they are contextualised (like most artwork in this country) within the chronology of an artist’s creative output rather than in relation to the socio-political-historical contexts that birth them.

But art establishment politics aside, it is impossible to visit Hoy Cheong’s solo show without feeling a measure of awe at the artist’s meticulous, painstaking labour—both at the level of research+intellectual as well as artistic labour.

When Pang, the editor of asked me to review this show, I was hesitant because, as I told Pang, I am a friend of the artist, I have known him for about thirteen years, and we are currently curating together—wouldn’t it be just too nepotistic for words? The question of bias was unquestionable. Yet, at the same time, I was aware that few art critics/writers live in that rarefied world of objectivity; if they did, they would only be deluding themselves for even my teenage students can tell me that art is subjective and art reviews particularly so.

With that caveat, perhaps readers might be inclined to dismiss my awe as undisguised adulation. But in an era that has produced artists who are short on ideas and even weaker in their execution of them, Hoy Cheong’s hard work is plainly evident.

Few artists spend months on end researching their materials before working with them—whether it be lalang, edible fruits, poisonous plants or paper. Few artists learn the process of book binding from a traditional bookbinder before binding his own books the old-fashioned way (i.e. stitched-bound). He even had his assistants (heartening to know that the artist does not horde knowledge unto himself) learn the craft from a bookbinder to have a feel for the entire book-making process.

For his mock reference books (1999), Hoy Cheong made his own paper by hand—he pulped copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Mahathir’s Malay Dilemma (for The Definitive ABC of Government) and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Naipaul’s Among the Believers (for The Definitive ABC of Ethnography) into thick sheets of handmade paper, onto which he printed text and images that he and his assistants compiled from various colonial and post-colonial archival sources.

I still remember the first time he showed me the fruits of his pulping labour—freshly dried handmade paper, still untainted by ink, with bits of Hitler’s and Mahathir’s texts showing on the page. The last time I saw Hoy Cheong that excited was when he was wrestling with lalang in the undergrowth behind his Kuala Kubu wooden shack-cum-studio backyard. The unruly, uncontrollable, defiant weed was in the process of being groomed to steal the limelight from the docile, domesticated cow grass on the National Art Gallery front lawn.

I have read random comments in a different section of the Kakiseni website that basically claims anyone can use lalang to make artwork: what’s the big deal? Plant the dastardly weed (it doesn’t take too much effort at all), let it grow rampantly, then torch it and call it performance art.

What’s missing from Hoy Cheong’s current solo exhibition at NAG is precisely the meticulously researched accompaniments to the Lalang show—the many carefully drawn and inked images of species of lalang; botanical information about the plant, how it flourishes, how it can be killed and how it refuses to die. The resilience of the weed directly references the resiliency of the opposition during 1987’s Operasi Lalang, who continues to persist despite State suppression and control. But this reference is muted without the botanical information on display.

Thus, the artist’s not-so-indirect allusion to a watershed political event becomes relegated to the margins of “I can do it too” artwork. Perhaps erstwhile critics of the art scene can say the same for Hoy Cheong’s plant-based works: Non-Indigenous Skins (1998), Indigenous Skins (1999-2000), Poison (2000) and diPULAUkan/(Exile Islands) (1998).

But I am willing to bet very few artists will contemplate making life-size busts, partial face casts, and miniature islands from thinly-sliced slivers of fruits, transparent plant membranes and poisonous plants.

The deep respect that I have for Hoy Cheong comes from my observations of his scrupulous attention to the materials he works with and his ability to reframe seemingly benign products from nature, i.e. to locate them firmly within their botanical contexts but at the same time, re-position them within the cultural, political and socio-economic matrix of colonial and post-colonial history.

How is it that chilli, which actually comes from South America, introduced to South East Asia by the Spaniards and the Portuguese, is so often seen as an indigenous vegetable because it is integral to our idea of what constitutes Malay food? How much of our identity is actually transplanted, extracted, grafted from other indigenous cultures, contexts, communities?

Hoy Cheong’s Of Migrants and Rubber Trees is, in many ways, a precursor to the Skins series. It draws fascinating parallels between the migration and movement of people and that of plants. In this exhibition, the scope, depth and socio-economic commentary of the Migrants series is undercut by the absence of the museum-style diorama of the immigrant experience from the original show, which was culled from texts and samples related to the history of rubber made and collected from 1994-1996. Hoy Cheong tells me that much of the documentary and archival installation material from the first show is no longer available (since it was a site specific work). As a result, the work loses its ability to expose the historical causes and consequences of migration, and how it recycles racial stereotypes of a racist colonial paradigm towards post-independence political and socio-economic ends.

Nonetheless, the large-scale charcoal drawings of early Chinese migrants and the headshots of new migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Indonesia, are undeniably impressive. The miniature exhibition catalogue tells us that these drawings “play on the idea of black and white photographs—both nostalgic family portraits and identification paper mug shots.” But they are better than photographs; they are a pastiche assemblage of people, cultural objects, colonial artefacts constructed into a most complex and visually rich mise-en-scene.

Elaborate compositions and excruciatingly fine details are the hallmarks of the black and white maps of London-meets-Penang in Hoy Cheong’s Map of Buckingham Street & Its Vicinity and Map of Downing Street and Its Vicinity (2004), which are the main part of an ongoing project called Mind The Gap. His maps’ fidelity to the style of 15th-17th century cartography is frankly, mind-blowing. Hoy Cheong told me that he almost lost his eyesight due to the kind of eyestrain he subjected himself to for the map drawings.

The maps are the most current work in the exhibit (not including the ongoing Tapestry of Justice, which collects thumbprints from people who support abolishing the Internal Security Act of our country—to continue indefinitely until the law’s demise) and they reveal the ways in which colony and Empire are always enmeshed, intertwined, intimate. These imaginary maps are deceptively real because they derive their authenticity from a cartographic tradition that is properly colonial, i.e. well-organized, systematic and categorizable.

In a strange way, Wong Hoy Cheong can be said to be a post-colonial artist who is “properly colonial”: the systematic way in which he researches his materials and excavates their history, the way his installations are organized along the lines of archive and museum conventions, the manner in which we have come to categorize him as Malaysia’s eminent political artist.

However, “properly colonial” subjects like Hoy Cheong, who have lived and worked within the confines of our neo-colonial state and who understand its inherent contradictions, will never be properly colonized. Instead, he inhabits establishment spaces, parodies the meta-textual and linguistic structures of the past and present ruling powers, and raises the intellectual and creative stakes of what it means to be a Malaysian artist today.
This review was published on Dec. 1, 2004 at

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Book Review: Bush Books

by Carmen Nge

“George Bush is a liar. He has lied large and small. He has lied directly and by omission.” So begins David Corn’s plainly written and boldly critical book: The Lies of George Bush. The statement that Bush is a liar is, perhaps, almost as equally well-known (and frequently used) as the assertion that Bush is stupid. But for a so-called stupid man, an overwhelming number of books have been written about him this past year. CNN has called it the “literary arms race” and bookstores scramble to bring in the latest, fattest and most incendiary tracts on the American President.

From books about his lying ways (Joe Conanson's Big Lies; Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them; Paul Waldman’s FRAUD: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You) to those about his religious background (Paul Kengor’s God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life; David Aikman’s A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush; Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of George W. Bush), bookstores from New York to Kuala Lumpur have trouble keeping up.

Attention grabbing titles, such as The Bush-Haters Handbook: A Guide to the Most Appalling Presidency of the Past 100 Years and House of Bush:House of Saud : The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties, lure readers into a world where well-respected psychoanalysts, students and editors-in-chief (notably Vanity Fair’s editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter and his book, What We’ve Lost) can equally claim the right to be published. Poet Calvin Trillin has even committed the Bush presidency to verse in his slim volume, Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme.

But the slew of books on Bush are not all scathing indictments about his ineptitude, dishonesty and ignorance. There are those, like THANK YOU, PRESIDENT BUSH: Reflections on the War on Terror, Defense of the Family and Revival of the Economy, that state a clear case for why the President should be given another chance at leading the United States for another four more years. Other Bush-positive books (Ronald Kessler’s A Matter of Character: Inside The White House Of George W. Bush; John Podhoretz’s Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane; Christopher Andersen’s George and Laura: Portrait of an American Marriage) focus on predictable topics such as Bush’s solid character, his strong family values and his unflailing ability to weather any political or catastrophic storm.

This publishing flood can be read two ways: book publishing is indeed a viable capitalist enterprise and democracy in America is alive and well. If the strength of a nation’s democracy is reflected in its citizens’ ability to express themselves freely and to be given the avenue and space to be heard on a nationwide scale, there is no denying that American democracy continues to thrive.

The four books reviewed here by no means represent the diversity of publications on the American president, but in this writer’s view, they are cogent examples of how capably and courageously writers use their constitutional right to free expression in America.

The Lies of George Bush

David Corn’s book is a well-structured, almost mechanically composed record of George W. Bush’s litany of lies. Laid out in fourteen topic-driven chapters, ranging from September 11 to domestic tax policies, Corn segments each chapters with a direct quote from Bush himself and then systematically goes about proving exactly how each statement is a lie. If Bush is the consummate liar then Corn is the hard-hitting, no-holds barred teller of plain truth.
Corn, a long-time Washington editor of The Nation, is extremely thorough in his research and meticulously discredits Bush using a combination of hard facts already in the public domain and the President’s own words. He carefully traces the beginnings of Bush’s deception–right from his 2000 presidential campaign, throughout the elections and into the chaotic present, post-9/11 and Iraq. Particularly in litigious America, an author who fearlessly claims that the President is a liar can afford no gaps in research or lapses in argument.

For a writer who has published a highly praised novel, Deep Background, and written a short story, "My Murder", that was nominated for the 1997 Edgar Allan Poe Award, David Corn delivers The Lies of George Bush in a straight and narrow, fairly dry and matter of fact style. It is written in this way to possibly deflect criticisms from pro-Bush advocates, who often lambast a book for its spin value and lack of concrete proof. Ultimately, readers thirsty for hard facts will not be disappointed.

The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America

And if Corn’s book does not deliver enough facts and figures to demolish George W.’s credibility, then The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America, is an excruciatingly comprehensive and overwhelmingly detailed analysis of every aspect of Bush’s administration, covering both domestic as well as foreign policy concerns and issues. The title is well-deserved: Eric Alterman and Mark Green’s 419-page book easily aspires to be the definitive book on the policies of the current President.

The two writers—Alterman, a media columnist, weblogger and a fellow at the Center for American Progress; and Green, a writer, lecturer and former elected Public Advocate of NYC—expand on areas not covered by Corn, specifically domestic concerns of the day: civil liberties and the Patriot Act, the mismanagement of health care coverage, issues of race, education, poverty and labour, crime, and the judiciary. Alterman and Green, both liberal progressives, devote their attention to Bush policies in these major areas in an attempt to construct a “detailed map of the entire political and policy landscape.” Theirs is a commendable task, especially noteworthy considering how the authors’ intention is to arm the American public with as much facts about the current administration as possible before they vote in the upcoming elections.

While the emphasis on domestic policy may not interest the Malaysian reader as much as the American one, The Book on Bush is a valuable asset in understanding exactly why another term for Bush will devastate the American people. As much the non-American world may loathe the imperialistic designs and arrogant actions of the United States, there is no denying that the current administration is also wreaking havoc and wilfully oppressing a large majority of its own citizens.

The Right Man

But contrast both Corn and Alterman & Green’s efforts with the well-written, highly engaging, personalized and anecdotal yet seemingly intelligently impartial book by David Frum, and you will begin to see how even the non-partisan American voting public can be ever so subtly (and without even their own knowledge) swayed to the right.

The Right Man is former Bush speechwriter David Frum’s adroit and well-crafted attempt at finessing support for the President, based on the simple fact that this president will surprise you as he did Frum. The famously “misunderestimated” Bush, according to the author, is precisely that: underestimated and misunderstood. After hearing Bush speak publicly and in person for the first time, Frum is awed by his observation that Bush’s speech “was not only very good, it was very smart—and not smart in the disturbing way that the campaign [had] been smart, but smart in an interesting way, even a promising way.”

Careful to construct himself as having no connection to Bush’s campaign or family, Frum very early on in his book confesses that he preferred Bush to John McCain but by no means was he a diehard supporter of the President. In fact, Frum cleverly begins his first chapter, “Into the Mess,” with details and examples from the popular media of Bush’s stupidity and ignorance, his incompetence as president, and the dearth of ideas exemplified by Republicans in general.

But as his term as speechwriter lengthens at the White House, Frum’s admiration for Bush grows. Some of this undisguised regard comes from Frum’s apparent dislike for the former president, Bill Clinton. He paints a picture of Bush as the immaculate anti-thesis to Clinton: unlike Bill, George is always on time, impeccably attired in a suit and tie at all times in the Oval Office, has a wife who eschews any prominent role in public policy making, and is the paragon of moral and religious virtue, opening every cabinet meeting with a prayer. Bush is authoritative and directive, taking charge of meetings and making his presence felt in any room he is in. In short, George W. Bush takes the role of being the president of the most powerful nation in the world very, very seriously.

Bush is always referred to as “the president” by his staffers and he expects them to treat his position with the respect it was due. Frum contrasts this with Clinton, whose staffers liked to call him “POTUS”—what the author calls the “pompous acronym for ‘president of the United States’.” Respect for Bush extends to the White House staffers’ personal behaviour as well; during his time there, Frum recalls that only one person smoked, hardly anyone had one drink too many and not a single person cursed. In fact, the culture of non-cursing is so ingrained, Frum had a tough time saying “Damn” without raising a few eyebrows.

The allure of The Right Man has to do with Frum’s anecdotal accounts of his stint at the White House and, most notably, his ability to furnish the reader with the kind of intimate detail only an insider would be privy to. There is also no denying that Frum writes with flair and adopts a conversational style that appears almost effortless—we are led to believe that Frum has written his book off the cuff, on the fly, without any manipulation of his experiences. His witty, smooth-flowing, highly readable prose translates to seamless, un-constructed truth. So, when Frum paints a picture of the President as being essentially a man of principle, it is not too difficult to believe him.

But let’s not forget that this is David Frum, author of Dead Right, a book The New York Times hails as “the smartest book written from the inside about the American conservative movement.” A Canadian now living in Washington D.C., Frum, like Bush, is a Yale alumni and has written countless articles and opinion pieces for the likes of The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and The Weekly Standard, among other conservative publications. From his book, there is no doubt that Frum is a staunch Bush supporter; his genius is that he misguides the reader into thinking that he can be an impartial and objective White House insider as well.

American Dynasty

But, as Kevin Phillips so wilfully attests, a conservative does not a Bush supporter make. In his extremely well-researched and highly provocative book, American Dynasty, Phillips—a former Republican strategist who used to work for Richard Nixon—furnishes his readers with one of the most damning portraits of an American presidential family ever written.

With historical precision and an uncanny ability to connect seemingly disparate threads—aristocratic lineage, investment banking, Nazism, evangelical Christianity, crony capitalism, the military industry and the oil crisis—Phillips reveals the extent to which the origins and destiny of the Bush dynasty are inextricably tied to American politics and government. He does not only discuss Bush 41 and 43, but their ancestors as well: the great grandfathers of the current President—Samuel Prescott Bush and George Herbert Walker. In short, four generations of the Bushes gets Phillips’ critical treatment.

Liberal and conservative critics alike have lauded American Dynasty for bringing to the fore the kinds of issues that deserve national attention and demand intellectual engagement. Chief among these issues is the problematic relationship between politics and economics. Phillips argues that both the Bush and Walker clans are part of an American economic elite who have, time and again, relied on and exploited political power for personal gain.

He pays particular attention to the Bush and Walker generations’ involvement with finance, specifically the “investment side of the petroleum business,” and indicates that the Bushes are “the first presidential clan to have ties—off and on over a full quarter century—to the bin Ladens” and who, furthermore, have a history of “embroiling involvement—business, financial, political and military—in the Middle East.” In a three-chapter section entitled “Religion, Oil, Armaments, and War”, Phillips, utilizing copious amounts of research and harnessing astute historical, political and economic analyses, delivers a devastating critique of both Bush presidencies’ war efforts in the Middle East.

Phillips also highlights a little known fact: the crucial role played by the Middle East and oil in both world wars. He argues that the Germans and their allies have been pursuing oil interests in Iraq as far back as 1898, and both world wars further intensified the world’s reliance on petroleum. The military and petroleum industries are, thus, intimately interconnected and interdependent. The situation is indeed ironic: nations go to war over oil and in the process, find themselves needing more oil to fuel the war effort. As Phillips quotes the former French premier, Georges Clemenceau: “Oil is as necessary as blood.”

It is impossible to do justice to the wealth and depth of Phillips’ analyses of the Bush dynasty in a book review. The section of his book on “Crony Capitalism, Covert Operations, and Compassionate Conservatism” is easily one of the most engaging discussions about the Bush-Cheney and Enron-Halliburton affair. It is indeed remarkable to read about the financial wheelings and dealings in the hallowed halls of First World presidential politics. As we suspected, corruption, crony capitalism and corporate-political greed do not only exist in our own ‘Third World’ backyards. What is missing from our national consciousness is, however, a lack of full disclosure about the players and stakes involved, and open, public discourse about the consequences of such realpolitiking.

Kevin Phillips’ book is a revelation because it strikes at the heart of power itself; it fully and unashamedly explores how political power consolidates itself on the foundations of corporate capitalism. But Phillips’ courage and audacity are nothing new; he has, in the past, authored similar, controversial books such as The Politics of Rich and Poor and Wealth and Democracy—both of which were on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Educated at the University of Edinburgh and Harvard Law School, Phillips’ intellectual pedigree is matched by his staggering writing output. He has published eleven books, all of them touching on American politics, economics and important public issues of the day. Rising above petty partisan politics, Phillips has been characterized by Time magazine in glowing terms: “in the shoot-from-the-hip world of Washington prognostication, Kevin Phillips stands out like Nostradamus.”

As Americans gear themselves up for the November elections, there is no denying the impact that such books on Bush have generated. The erosion of American civil liberties may be gaining momentum, but courageous and indignant writers, commentators, and analysts continue to barrel their way through the smokescreen of Bush-speak. At the heart of this publishing fury is a deep and abiding tradition of dissent, coupled with an unwavering commitment to a core American value: the freedom of speech. The famous saying, “I may not like what you have to say but I fully defend your right to say it” has become ingrained in the American consciousness, due to years of legal precedents and public debates.

In our own neck of the woods, such values are easily dismissed as being too individualistic, too self-absorbed. To be free to speak, one also has to be held accountable for one’s statements; what is good for a few may not be good for all—these are common refrains.

What the Bush-book publishing race exemplifies is, however, not speech in its abstract but political speech; the American public is more informed about decisions that affect their lives as citizens because they are beneficiaries of the exercise of unrestrained and uninhibited political speech, beyond the boardrooms and political podiums of power. As taxpayers, they have earned their right to know and to tell others what is really going on behind the closed doors of the Oval Office and the halls of public policy. And this is a right that writers such as Corn, Alterman, Green, Frum and Phillips haven chosen to exercise.

While there is no telling the outcome of the American presidential elections, what is certain is that the American public has become more conscious, more politicised and more mobilized as a result of the wealth of information made available to them. The question is no longer ‘what don’t we know’ but ‘what do we do with what we know?’
This review was published in the November 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Book Review : John Kerry

by Carmen Nge

If the books on Bush have been largely weighty tomes, then John Kerry’s A Call to Service: My vision for a better America, is a highly accessible, compact and modest volume advancing his beliefs and policy goals. Unlike George W., who has had many books written about him but none self-authored, John Kerry proves that there is intellectual meat to the aristocratic aura.

It is perhaps apt that Kerry should preface his book with reference to Vietnam, a war for which he is most known (and outspoken) for his views against it. But as always, he is able to use his personal experiences, to use the lessons from Vietnam, to serve as a building block for his policy interests and to use them to describe exactly how they have shaped him and his values. Written with surprising candor and occasional glimpses of good humor, Kerry carefully constructs personal anecdotes to support his vision and argument for his ideas.

Each chapter opens with Kerry’s call for change in a particular sector of American society—education, health-care, economy, etc. He begins by outlining exactly why the sector has been failing, listing the problems and challenges each sector faces. This is then followed by a relevant story or anecdote, in italics, that fleshes out the issue in more specific depth and becomes a reflection point for Kerry. The bulk of each chapter (sometimes punctuated with more anecdotal accounts) is then devoted to a meticulously outlined series of action plans to solve the problems discussed.

While his ideas about American foreign policy are alarmingly general, capitulating to a kind of liberal progressive politics about freedom, democracy and free trade (most glaring example: expanding tariff-free trade policies to the Middle East on condition that they drop their economic boycott of Israel) that veers dangerously close to neo-imperialist designs, his ideas on the domestic front are clear-cut, plainly articulated and shows a tangible vision for change.

Using statistics and facts to back up his criticisms of the current administration’s failure on the domestic front—this too was his strategy during the recent presidential debates—Kerry’s action plan is carefully designed as a direct and immediate response to the existing problems plaguing the nation: “sluggish economy, rising crime, the largest budget deficits in history.” His proposals: increase the minimum wage; cultivate energy independence from foreign and environmentally damaging energy sources; cut corporate welfare; reverse tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; spend more on public schools, etc.

The cornerstone of Kerry’s vision rests on a simple philosophy: “I believe what America needs is a president determined to restore our sense of common national purpose,” he writes—very much in the vein of John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” However, this is not blatant, unthinking patriotism on the defensive—pretty much Bush’s rhetoric of the past 3 years—but a kind of revived nationalistic fervor, a call for change that taps into existing American patriotic sentiments and simultaneously invests them with a goal with which to channel that patriotic energy. In short, John Kerry knows that the American people can be asked to do more than just “shop”.

Kerry declares early on in his book: “You don’t have any business running for the presidency if you don’t know and can’t explain exactly how you would do a better job.” In A Call to Service, John Kerry does not only keep to his word but he does so without mystification and bombast. It is this writer’s hope that the true test of his sincerity will soon commence.
This review was published as a companion piece to Bush Books, in the November 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge