Social Justice Book Reviews: Denis O’Hearn’s Nothing but an Unfinished Song and Nancy Altman’s The Battle for Social Security

Nothing But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, The Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited A Generation
By Denis O’Hearn.
Published by Nation Books, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group. 2006. 385 pages. $28.00.

If you remember nothing else, remember this. No crime a man commits on his behalf of his freedom can be as great as the crimes committed by those who deny his freedom.” (p. 191)

Denis O’Hearn’s recent book focuses on the life and death of hunger striker Bobby Sands. O’Hearn details the courage and dignity of Sands as he matured into a man willing to die for his freedom.

This biography travels from Bobby Sands' formative years as a soccer player in a neighborhood rife with conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities to his radical involvement in the IRA, subsequent imprisonment, and maturation into a political activist, poet, intellectual, and martyr--and all of these later roles occurring while in jail, refusing to be broken down by horrendous conditions.

If one is looking for a book explaining the historical context behind the conflict in Northern Ireland, one will not find it here. But, one will experience a riveting account of one man’s bravery and strength in the face of a heartless environment. O’Hearn does a fantastic job of detailing the life of Sands with supplemental evidence from interviews and Sands’ own poems and activist writing.

All things must come to pass as one

So hope shall never die.

There is no height or bloody might

That a freeman can’t defy.

There is no source or foreign force

Can break one man who knows,

That his free-will no thing can kill

And from that freedom grows.” (p.140)

O’Hearn has written quite a moving account of the incredible will of Bobby Sands, standing as a testament to the strength of the human soul under extreme duress.

In light of the recently surfaced reports from Guantanamo Bay that up to 200 prisoners are conducting a hunger strike with around twenty prisoners being force-fed through tubes just to keep them alive without the assistance of anesthesia or muscle relaxants, O’Hearn’s book could not have come at a more apt time. If nothing else, these reports give us an even more compelling reason to read about Bobby Sands, his legacy, and our call to action.

For more on the hunger strikes:


The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble By Nancy J. Altman. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005. 317 pages. $24.95 USA.

Nancy J. Altman’s recent book cataloguing the history of Social Security from the late nineteenth century up through present-day policy suggestions is an extensive and thoroughly-researched approach tackling the daunting political and social implications of the Social Security program. As the current Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pension Rights Center and a former advisor to Social Security issues and assistant to Alan Greenspan, it is clear that Ms. Altman is well versed on the complicated topic. Her book expresses her political views as well and does not shy away from voicing criticisms of the current Bush Administration’s and previous administrations’ policy suggestions for Social Security.

That being said, Ms. Altman’s book runs the risk of social security detail overload. Rather than recounting historical facts concisely and with editorial prudence, what follows are 317 pages of the politics and political personalities surrounding decisions regarding social policy. This over-detailed account of Social Security’s formation, controversy, and present-day conditions will bore any reader who is not an avid political scientist or historian. The casual reader looking to learn more about the debate behind Social Security will find the answers in this book, but only after sifting through pages and pages of fully detailed accounts of which senator from where said what about the program and why he said what he did and what the repercussions were because of what he said and which party and specific representative got angry about the statement and why said senator’s suggestion was vetoed or enacted and on what day this occurred and whether it was sunny out that day and what he ate for breakfast before beginning his filibuster, ad infinitum.

On the bright side, the reader’s confidence in Ms. Altman’s authority on Social Security is paramount for exactly the same reason it bores him. The reader trusts her opinion because it is so detailed and steeped in historical context. After reading, readers now realize that Social Security has been an oft-debated topic along party lines since its inception.

As far as making a current judgment about policy-makers’ opinions on Social Security in the twenty-first century, one should best flip to the second to last chapter (Chapter 16) where President Bush’s proposal is counter-posed to Altman’s advocacy for the Ball/Altman Proposal. This is the most efficient chapter precisely because it is succinct and omits a good portion of that political party fluff surrounding every decision made in Washington.

So to be succinct in my own conclusion, this book is an informative must-read for those interested in sifting through a highly-detailed account of the historical and political factors at play in Social Security program over the past century and a half. But, the reader looking for a brief overview of Social Security and the current partisan debate had best read chapters one, two, and sixteen, or rather, look elsewhere.

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