I’ve always loved train travel. Once in Turkey, many years ago, I insisted on taking a cross-country train even though everyone (including the man who sold us the tickets) recommended the modern, air-conditioned bus instead. I soon found out why: The extremely un-air-conditioned train moved so slowly that at one point we were overtaken by a donkey ambling next to the tracks. Nevertheless, I would probably make the same decision again.
So when two of my days this week were dominated by train journeys, I was secretly pleased. Though the trains ran faster than that locomotive did years ago in Turkey, the many stops meant that there was ample time to read.
Gema Kloppe-Santamaría’s work has helped shape my thinking for years, not to mention my reporting on Mexico, the Philippines and the ways that social media can channel social distress into violence around the world. But I initially missed her 2020 book, “In the Vortex of Violence: Lynching, Extralegal Justice, and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico” — an oversight I have happily been remedying this week.
Kloppe-Santamaría, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Loyola University Chicago, analyzes a series of lynchings in Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s, drawing parallels with cases from as recently as 2015. A pattern of seemingly spontaneous mob violence, she argues, was a tool that communities used to prevent social change, including efforts by the Mexican state to gain more power over them.
“Lynchings reflected people’s attempts to safeguard the political, economic and religious status quo of their communities,” she wrote. “As such, despite lacking the strong racial connotations of lynching in the United States, mob violence in Mexico, as in the United States, was a tool of social control.”
It would be wrong, she argued, to consider lynchings a feature of “premodern” societies. Rather, her evidence suggests that they were a part of modernization as communities exposed to rapid change sought extrajudicial means to preserve existing hierarchies.
Speaking of shifting hierarchies, the annual British Social Attitudes survey, a four-decade study of Britons’ beliefs and preferences, published its latest results this week. Since the survey began in 1983, respondents’ views on families, sex and relationships have become significantly more liberal in nearly all areas, including same-sex relationships, extramarital sex and abortion. (Attitudes toward transgender people, however, have become notably more conservative in recent years.)
The public has also shifted toward the left on economic issues, which Sam Freedman, an analyst at a London think tank, discussed in a recent Substack newsletter. “The biggest factor,” he wrote, “is simply that there has been a real and visible increase in poverty. The percentage who think poverty has risen in the last decade has risen from 32 percent to 78 percent since 2006. For the first time over half of respondents reported living in poverty themselves at times during their life.”
If you were as sad as I was that The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog — in which leading political science researchers wrote about their work for a mass audience — shut down last year, I have some good news. The team behind it has started Good Authority, an independent website that will follow the same model. The editors have already published some smart stuff, including this piece about the role foreign policy is likely to play in the 2024 election and an extremely relevant analysis of hostage diplomacy.
Finally, on a lighter note, I read “The Last Devil to Die,” the latest installment of the popular Thursday Murder Club series, by Richard Osman. He seems to have his writing formula down pat, and the cozy-mystery factor is turned up to 11 with a Christmastime setting. So if you were a fan of the previous books, you’ll probably love this one, and if you weren’t, it’ll set your teeth on edge.
I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s a fun and well-constructed story, but the way that brand references stand in for character development gives it a certain sponcon flavor. I love a cozy mystery, but I’d rather it not read as if it were financed through product placement.
Reader responses: Books that you recommend
Helen Burgess, a reader in Massachusetts, recommends “Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China’s Forbidden City,” by Adam Brookes:
This is an amazingly interesting book about the cataloging of the million-plus items in the emperor’s palace that had never been seen by ordinary people. As Japan moved ever closer to Peking (Beijing), these priceless items were listed, crated and moved hundreds of miles by train, truck and hand power to protect them from destruction over the course of more than 16 years. I know very little about China’s history, and it opened my eyes to a great deal of interesting information.
Tom Jeter, a reader in Richmond, Va., recommends “The Artisans: A Vanishing Chinese Village,” by Shen Fuyu (translated by Jeremy Tiang):
This is a memoir of a small Chinese village that has been overrun by factories. Chapter by chapter, the author tells the story of this place in its time through the jobs people had.
What are you reading?
Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell me about what you’re reading. Please keep the submissions coming!
This week, I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) that are about mafias and organized crime. As always, I welcome fiction as well as nonfiction, but I’m particularly interested in good works of history and political science.
If you’d like to participate, please fill out this form. I may publish your response in a future newsletter.