Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review - Contesting Patriotism


Contesting Patriotism: Culture, Power, and Strategy in the Peace Movement,
By Lynne Woehrle, Patrick Coy & Gregory Maney
Publisher: Rowman & Littlfield, Inc. 
Hardcover 2008 / Paperpack 2009

This is basically a college class text.  The book explains research done on the communication styles and techniques used by Peace Movement Organizations (PMO’s).  The events focused on are instances of US acts of aggression or incidents that were excuses for such aggression: the Gulf War, daily bombing of Iraq in 1988, Kosovo, 9/11 and the current Iraq War.  There are numerous examples of PMO’s strategies in dealing with the government’s actions.

The book starts off by going through definitions and explanations of the usage of four kinds of oppositional knowledge (against mainstream propaganda):

  1. Create Oppositional Knowledge – the authors acknowledge that putting general oppositional knowledge into the public discussion is not overly effective, but that it does chip away at the dominant culture.
  2. Critical-Interpretive Oppositional Knowledge – explains alternate meanings rather than outright contradict dominant discourse.
  3. Radical-Envisioning Oppositional Knowledge – ways to describe the characteristics of and how to achieve a radical democratic future.
  4. Transformative-Oppositional Culture – shows how grassroots democracy / public action can change society.

The next section of the book explains the two ways of using these kinds of Oppositional Knowledge; to challenge hegemony or to harness hegemony.  They authors discuss the pros and cons of trying to do both and argue that the PMO’s use of both have been situational. 

The next three chapters exhibit PMO’s use of Oppositional Knowledge in the context of:

  • Using & defending against emotions.
  • Religion
  • Race, class & gender

It is the last part of the book that I found to be the most disappointing.  I was hoping for the authors to tie all of this up and give ideas on what SHOULD be done.  The title of this section even alludes to the present and future.  But the authors’ suggestions were few. 

I’m not saying that this book is a waste of time, just the opposite.  But it is really necessary for the following groups of people:
  1. Any students in the classes that the authors use the book in.
  2. Leaders and want-to-be leaders in PMO’s.
  3. Leaders and want-to-be leaders in ANY progressive organization and any level.  There are some concepts and definitions that would help any leader in a progressive organization. 

But there are some weaknesses that bugged me while reading this book.  Well, maybe “weakness” isn’t the right word.  There were things I really wanted the authors to address, but didn’t.

*I know this is the publisher’s fault, but the title of the book is misleading.  Yes, I can make the connection, but the phrase “Contesting Patriotism” isn’t an accurate reflection of the focus of the book.  I actually asked to review the book based on the title and an interview I heard with Patrick Coy.

*I didn’t see the connection between the research and the analysis presented.  I may have missed it and if I did then it should have been expanded.  There seems to be an assumption that this relatively large number of PMO’s made conscious decisions to situationally change rhetorical tactics.  They don’t claim this to be done in conjunction with one another, but there’s no discussion on how this many of PMO’s reacted in a way that is explained by the authors’ definitions of Oppositional Knowledge and strategies against hegemony.

*This may not be the purpose of the work, but there is little that addresses the effectiveness of the techniques used by the PMO’s.  There is a little mention of the difficulty people with alternative viewpoints have in talking to the mainstream, but more analysis on the effectiveness of what these PMO’s did would make a more interesting and useful read to me.

*Connected to this, due to the complicity of the mainstream media and other corporate entities, the book needs to look more into the effect of these on what PMO’s did and their effectiveness.

What should happen next?

Either the authors or someone else should take the explanations in the first part of the book with examples from the second part of the book with the research in appendacies and create an easy-to-use primer on organizing for the peace movement and/or any progressive issue.  There are some works that address this, but not while using this research.  In fact, that should be the main purpose of the research of Woehrle, Coy & Maney.   
-Dave

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