The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream
By Gary Younge
Haymarket, 180 pp., $19.95
Best known today for a line that didn’t appear in its final written draft, the speech the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered 50 years ago this week at the March on Washington has joined Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as among the nation’s iconic texts. A black British journalist now living in Chicago, Gary Younge devotes this slim but powerful book to exploring the speech from a variety of perspectives.
The march itself, brainchild of labor leader A. Philip Randolph and creation of the “eccentric, hyperactive, and efficient” Bayard Rustin (officially sidelined due to his inconvenient politics and personal life), was even better attended than its organizers had hoped and much more peaceful than critics had warned. Yet it was King’s speech that America remembers.
Drawing on the canon of civil rights historians as well as new interviews with leaders like John Lewis, Younge explores the movement’s conflicting ideas about how to solve the problem of inequality, most urgently whether nonviolence was ultimately the best tool against the segregationist brutality that had already killed Medgar Evers and would soon take away four little girls in Birmingham, Ala. Much of this narrative is familiar but Younge is adept at both distilling the facts and asking blunt questions. He’s at his best when he analyzes how the speech came to stand for all of King’s work, as part of the posthumous process by which the leader “went from ignominy to icon.” Unpopular among many for his campaigns for poor people and against the Vietnam War, after his death King’s radicalism was reborn as moderation, Younge argues, and his most famous speech “would eventually be celebrated by those who actively opposed his efforts while he lived.”
The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory
By Jesse Walker
Harper, 434 pp., illustrated, $25.99
What does the plight of alleged witches hanged in Salem have in common with the generic townspeople transformed by extraterrestrial pods in the 1950s sci-fi thriller “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”? According to author Jesse Walker, both stories demonstrate an enduring American tendency toward one of our “primal conspiracy myths,” which he dubs the enemy within — “the suspicion that anyone you encounter, even your own spouse or parent or child, might secretly be something else.” It’s a terrifying idea, and as Walker’s immensely entertaining new book points out, the fact that it’s nearly never true doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Paranoia’s dangerous offspring include impulsive murders, persecution of the innocent, and bad public policy.
A staff writer at the libertarian magazine Reason, Walker reaches, at times uncomfortably, to score iconoclastic political points (he implies repeatedly that the FBI has investigated right-wing and left-wing groups similarly, an opinion not shared by most historians). He’s better suited to probing those strange beliefs that disrupt our typical political and social binaries — the way 9/11 truthers hail from both far right and far left, for instance. And a section in which Walker describes “the ironic style of American conspiracism, a sensibility that treats alleged cabals not as intrigues to be exposed or as lies to be debunked but as a mutant mythos to be mined for metaphors, laughs, and social insights” is a perfect mirror reflecting where and who we are (and how we got this way).
The Smartest Kids in the World
By Amanda Ripley
Simon & Schuster, 306 pp., illustrated, $28
Half a century after the Sputnik crisis, America is once again alarmed at the performance of our schoolchildren when compared with their international peers. Journalist Amanda Ripley followed three American high school students as they studied abroad — in two countries that consistently top the rankings (Finland and Korea), and one nation that has dramatically improved its outcomes despite entrenched poverty (Poland) — to see whether they had any lessons for us.
What she found, especially in Finland and Korea, sounds simple: They seem to care more than we do (though with often distressing effects in Korea, where a culture of private tutoring has exploded into a massive industry). Respect for educational rigor, Ripley writes, “meant everyone took school more seriously, especially kids.” Public high schools in these countries emphasize academics, not athletics; they stress hard work and results, not giftedness or talent or self-esteem. In Finland especially, the teaching profession is well paid, prestigious, and difficult to enter. One key difference: In all the highest-achieving countries, Ripley writes, “spending on education was tied to need,” with the poorest areas getting the most resources — the opposite of how American public education is funded.
Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life
By Melody Moezzi
Avery, 288 pp., $26
Mental illness is serious business — “bipolar disorder is a legitimate and lethal illness that has nearly killed me on several occasions,” author Melody Moezzi writes. Yet the dominant tone in Moezzi’s memoir of battling the disease, including manic episodes that took her over that “fine line between eccentric exuberance and madness,” is an infectious, freewheeling humor. The whipsmart but whimsical daughter of Iranian immigrant doctors, Moezzi details a series of maladies that befell her even before mania set in: First among them was the cultural dislocation of “enduring the seventh grade as the staggeringly skinny, flat-chested brown girl in Ohio, with a budding unibrow and a faint mustache.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book jumps about both chronologically and thematically — in addition to chronicling her suicide attempt, the author also muses on her relationship with Iran, her legal education, her growing activism as a Muslim-American — but Moezzi’s fierce honesty and comic self-deprecation bind it together winningly.