Book Reviews: March / April 2007

| March / April 2007

Skin Deep: TYPECASTING: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality

African American soldiers before World War I "showed an average mental age of ten" based on an "intelligence" test requiring knowledge of card games, Becky Sharpe, ensilage, advertising jingles, and the most prominent industry of Gloucester. And the New York Sun once required job applicants to undergo personality assessments based on the shapes of their noggins, a practice Oliver Wendell Holmes called "an attempt to estimate the money in the safe by the knobs on the outside."

Typecasting isn't just a history of such stereotyping. The 555-page tome also is a disturbing collective biography of people who measured heads with calipers to determine the best and brightest, exhibited dark-skinned men in zoos with apes, cut open the skulls of criminals, organized state fair competitions awarding the "fittest families," and carried out compulsory sterilization. People, in other words, bent on preventing "the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society."

In capable prose, media historians Elizabeth and Stuart Ewen describe the way minstrel shows, films, thesaurus-making, criminal anthropology, and the Adam and Eve story developed or prolonged "the notion that society was divided between those whose fertility should be encouraged and those whose hereditary lineage called for curtailment." * The authors make it clear that the "eugenic" policies of Nazi Germany were inspired by practices started in the United States. Less explicitly, but no less significantly, they describe the historical roots of contemporary social control and practices such as racial and ethnic profiling, mug shots, fingerprinting, identity cards, and databases.
-Chris Dodge


by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon)

Travel writer turned novelist Jonathan Raban has crafted a disarming portrait of American society set in the not-too-distant future, an eerie tableau laced with ruminations on the "War on Terror," and our consequent transformation into a surveillance-hungry society. Everyone is watching everybody else: A journalist investigates the reclusive author of a best-selling memoir; daughters monitor mothers; and tenants spy on landlords (who are spying on them). No one is spared and no one is innocent. As Raban articulates this vision of post-9/11 society, where information is an imperative (and is constantly confused with knowledge), he implicates even his readers, offering a guilty and fascinating peek into the private motivations of all-too-real characters as they carry out their acts of surveillance.
-Julie Hanus


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is best known as the scriptwriter of the controversial film that rocked the Netherlands and led to the slaying of director Theo van Gogh. Less known, however, is her conviction that Islam perpetuates ignorance and inequality. The Muslim world needs an Enlightenment, she argues, and, indeed, she has a matchbook in hand. With poignant honesty, this autobiography traces Hirsi Ali's lifelong struggle with her faith; describes the war, poverty, and fundamentalism that plagues Africa; and peers into the hidden, often dismal, lives of Muslim women. Hirsi Ali challenges the reader's opinions about Islam and warns of the dangers of moral relativism. Whether you agree with her or not, Hirsi Ali is asking the hard questions that no one else dares to ask, and for that, this is an immensely important book.
-Elizabeth Oliver

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