Sunday, 11 November 2012

Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America (Nancy L Cohen)

--The blurb--
"The 2012 election was supposed to be about the economy, but over the last few months it turned into a debate about sex and women’s rights. In Delirium, Cohen takes us on a [...] journey through the confounding and mysterious episodes of [...] recent politics to explain how we and why we got to this place. Along the way she explores such topics as why Bill Clinton was impeached over a private sexual affair; how George W. Bush won the presidency by stealth; why Hillary lost to Obama; why John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate; and what the 2012 presidential contest tells us about America today. She exposes the surprising role of right-wing women in undermining women’s rights, as well as explains how liberal men were complicit in letting it happen. Cohen uncovers the hidden history of an orchestrated, well-financed, ideologically powered shadow movement to turn back the clock on matters of gender equality and sexual freedom and how it has played a leading role in fueling America’s political wars. Delirium tells the story of this shadow movement and how we can restore common sense and sanity in our nation’s politics."

--The review-- 
As previously mentioned on this blog, Tudor history and American history are given arguably disproportionate importance in Britain's history curriculum, meaning that 18-year-olds often leave school with knowledge of little else in spite of having studied history until the moment of their leaving. However, this emphasis does not mean that everything about American history is covered - and it is clear from Nancy L Cohen's latest book, Delirium, that even those who think they know plenty about American history have only scratched the surface.

Delirium is the title, and madness in various guises is certainly what readers get an alarming insight into throughout this history of the sexual counterrevolution in American politics. In describing how different views on sex and gender in the United States have affected the nation, Cohen is both wide-ranging and detailed, covering topics such as birth control, marriage, and homosexuals in the military. Equally, she keeps the text engaging and readable, condensing what has clearly been long and complex research into accessible chapters without dumbing down. 

The fact that Delirium was written in the midst of the recently-terminated 2012 presidential campaign may mean that this version of the text ages quickly. However, with President Barack Obama having won a second term for the Democrats just days ago, this also leaves the door wide open for future editions and revisions. Full of interesting and little-known facts, Delirium is also concise and well-explained, with plenty of fascinating and largely relevant diversions (although occasionally goes so complicatedly off-topic that the original aim seems distant). 

Some necessary background is given, but at the same time, Cohen does assume that her audience is American and fails to define some key terms from the outset, which would make a glossary handy. However, the author makes up for this with her meticulous research and citations elsewhere in the text, and continually proves herself to be intelligently tolerant and aware of difficulties. Cohen contextualises the issues at hand in a highly distilled manner and gives the reader plenty of food for thought thanks to various jaw-dropping moments and the notion that religion has so much to do with this as to almost be worth a book in itself.

Delirium was an ambitious project, and Cohen has every right to be proud of her achievement. She has spanned a vast time period with dignity, clarity, and concision, and the reader can be left in no doubt of her expert standing. Her other books are certainly worth seeking out, and Delirium itself definitely merits rereads.  

other works by Nancy L Cohen
The Reconstruction of American Liberalism 1865-1914 (2002) 
The 1990s: A Social History of the United States (2009)

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