Exodus: A Review

Exodus

I knew that I liked what Melville House Publishing was doing. They publish David Graeber’s awesome books like The Utopia of Rules and manfully decided to publish (dropping everything else) the Senate Report on Torture. So when Melville House was having a sale, I took a chance on this book.

I was not disappointed. Even though this is the third book in a trilogy (comprising Spurious and Dogma), it stands alone quite well. Iyer is probably my best and favourite author discovery I’ve ever made. I keep smiling little smiles to myself and patting myself on the back. This is distinctly British humour; it’s as dry as dry can be. One needs a massive background in “continental philosophy” as well as a finely tuned ear for irony to appreciate this book. It’s absolutely brilliant.

It’s hardly worth describing the plot. It’s essentially two English philosophy professors who are facing unemployment traveling the UK giving lectures on philosophy and the death of philosophy departments across England. It’s not really about that though. Basically it takes the form of short exchanges between the two professors; or rather the written notes almost of their exchanges. It’s hard to describe, but the wit reminds my of Robert Byron’s books, like The Road to Oxiana.

This is the only book that I have read that reminds me of my actual thoughts and experiences and fears during my own postgraduate study.

This book is self-deprecating, but also spot on; it carries a real message. It’s incredibly erudite.

Amazingly awesome, but only for the right kind person. Probably need a degree in philosophy of some kind to appreciate this.

Rasputin: The Last Word. A Review

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It’s the twilight world of Tsarist Russia on the eve of WWI and the Russian Revolution. It’s a society that oddly mixes the very old and the very new. A land where everyone seems caught up in their own fairy tale.

Russian history, especially when it comes to Nicholas and Alexandra, and the whole WWI/Russian Revolution era is absolutely loaded with high quality history books, I’m thinking primarily Robert K Massie here, but there are so many others as well. I have no idea why the quality of Russian history is so high (compare to Chinese history for example). My only guess is in that particular time and place, a variety of factors compels a certain fascination and lends itself to high narrative. It is also possible that after a million academic books on the Russian Revolution came out, everyone became exhausted with academic books on the Russian Revolution and decided to switch over to a more narrative-based history experience. However, there are many periods in history that easily lend themselves to great narrative histories, and so that brings us back to where we started. Yeah, really, no idea.

Grigory Rasputin was born in far Siberia; a peasant, yet he came to captivate the Russian royal family, who saw Rasputin as a essentially an individual sent by god to save the Romanovs. The reason for this is that Alexi – the tsarevich or heir to the throne – had haemophilia, and apparently, Rasputin was the only person who could calm and restore the boy to health. Nicholas and Alexandra where simply, religious to the point of being desperately mystical and rather mediocre people. It is their personalities and their great secret weakness (the tsarevich’s illness) which allowed Rasputin to become this oddly powerful figure in the late Romanov world.

What makes Edvard Radzinsky’s book on Rasputin stand out from all the others is a large amount of new historical evidence and testimony. Thus, this book is more than a simple and dramatic retelling of the “Rasputin story/myth”, it is a valid contribution to historical knowledge. Here’s what happened: after the 1917 February Revolution brought Kerensky’s Provisional Government to power, that government launched a huge investigation in Rasputin and his influence over Nicholas and Alexandra. Testimony was collected from a huge number of people, but most importantly, many voices that have been completely lost: those of Rasputin’s friends and confidants. This huge report, lost from Russian official archives, only surfaced at an auction after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is that a far more nuanced, detailed, and balanced picture of Rasputin has emerged.

That being said, the Rasputin that emerges does, for the most part confirm our mental picture of him. That of a fraud; a cult-leader preying upon weak and anxious people by using a mixture of genuinely religious talk and mysticism, psychological manipulation and possibly a parlour trick or two. Rasputin was clearly an extremely emotionally intelligent person was an absolute master at reading people and manipulating them. I don’t think he was a hypnotist; I think he was unafraid of being dramatic and theatrical and was able to read people and tell them exactly what they wanted to hear.

Something else: Rasputin emerges as one of the most intelligent individuals that you meet in this period. The vast majority of people, ranging from simple peasants, to bishops to government ministers to the Tsar himself come across as massively mediocre. Rasputin is one of maybe three figures in the book where you sit back and think to yourself “okay, that shows some brains”. Rasputin also emerges as a sex deviant, but perhaps as much from his mystical religious past in the still somewhat pagan Siberia. Rasputin at a certain point was actually a valid religious figure. It didn’t last long, but to give the man his due, at one point he was not complete fraud.

Radzinsky is a great writer; his tone is one of investigatory journalism rather than history proper. It’s like having the story told to you by a knowledgable friend over espresso at the local cafe. This book is light and reads pretty fast. It’s very enjoyable. But here’s my criticism: Radzinsky never goes deep. He tells you everything you need to know to follow the story. But this is a minimum. He will tell you enough about Russian religious history to “get the gist of it” before moving on. We are introduced to the Khyst cult/heresy (which Rasputin was undoubtably a member at some point in time), but at no point are the factors that would produce such a heresy investigated. The weakness of the Romanov dynasty and the turbulent history of Russia is ignored. The Russian Revolution is, for the most part, depicted as the result of Rasputin’s shadowy role at the heart of the empire. The damage done by say, losing badly in WWI, is not treated as a factor.

Also, Radzinsky is not afraid to insinuate, and then hide behind the reasoning of “we shall never know for sure”. He is great and quoting you a passage from testimony and then explaining why that witness is lying (and this is great stuff), but he does manage to mention that Rasputin might have had bisexual proclivities, even though there is very little evidence of this. This is merely an example, but it does show how Radzinsky is a bit eager to gossip about these things.

This a very good book. It’s informative and theatrical.

The Book of Wine: A Review

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The New York Times Book of Wine: More than 30 Years of Vintage Writing has been my bedtime reading for the past month or so. It’s an immensely civilised project: one drifts off to sleep in a setting that can only remind you of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Piece after piece relates journeys to chateaus, vineyards, estates accompanied by only the finest wines and foods. It’s a very rarefied air at many points.

But this book never gets to snobby. Some pieces are quite enlightening, others quite humorous. The tone is one of “good sense”; not too pretentious, but not too pedestrian. One feels classy and sophisticated without being an unbearable snob.

This is a collection of newspaper articles, so each piece is quite short; this makes it nice and light. Eric Asimov and Frank Prial are the main voices of this book. They do a good job. Good amounts of information conveyed through human interest stories.

One thing though. This book made me feel poor. I realised that without dropping everything and committing myself to the wine industry, I will probably never have the resources to really try the vast majority of the wines mentioned in this book. Just a sad fact.

I love wine, and this book increased my knowledge and appreciation of wine. And helped me settle into a peaceful, civilised sleep at night. Enjoyable and light.

The Assassins’ Gate: A Review

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First, let me make clear right away that this is not “Michael Moore does Iraq”.

George Packer has written here a post mortem (in 2005!) on our Iraqi quagmire; this is a book that everybody should read. It’s the bare minimum of reading one must do if you want to be taken seriously when discussing the Iraq War.

Packer is a journalist; he believes in democracy and he believes that Saddam should have been removed. He has little patience for those who suggest that Iraq would have been better off if we had simply let Saddam alone. He claims that he narrowly supported the invasion during the run-up in 2001/2/3. He rejects comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam.

It’s as close to an unbiased book on Iraq as you are going to get.

This only increases its importance and relevance. Packer opens with a fascinating discussion on the intellectual history of neoconservativism, the mindset/view of foreign policy that got us into this mess. Neoconservatism is an “activist” US foreign policy, which one can associate as in the tradition of Wilsonian democracy. The common theme is the whole Manifest Destiny/City on a Hill idea mixed with unparalleled military might. The difference is the intellectual history which makes it profoundly different then Wilson’s rather naive attempts at democracy and world peace.

The hallmarks of Neoconservativism, as one would expect from a product of the Cold War, are a fanatical faith in the power of the US military and the righteousness of the US. It sees the world in two camps: the US as a beacon of democracy and free enterprise, and the Forces of Darkness (everyone else). Here is the history. WWII drives a huge number of Jewish intellectuals to the United States. For many of them, the lesson is the complete moral failure of appeasement, and the beneficent power of the US. The most well known of these is Leo Strauss, who famously claimed to find hidden, esoteric truths in the writings of the ancient Greeks.

It’s the students of these intellectuals that would go on to be our neocons today. The shaping experience is Vietnam: their reaction amounts to “we didn’t try hard enough”. It’s an angry young man’s angry and confused response to the ’60’s and ’70s informed by an elitist, Struassian worldview. The disasters of the Iranian Revolution and the Carter Administration they blame on our “weakness” in Vietnam. This war leaves a deeply traumatic scar on the American psyche; the top US brass say to themselves “never again will we become embroiled in anti-insurgency “national building”, many Americans perceive the limits of US power, as well as the haunting spectre-ish realisation that we may not always be the good guy.

It’s the Gulf War that both re-legitimizes American power and international beneficence. It sets the stage for the 2003 invasion. The Gulf War does much to wash away the stain of Vietnam. The American government, especially the elite, conservative neocons – most specifically here Paul Wolfowitz – get Iraq on the brain. Wolfowitz, Jewish in heritage, with links to the Israeli Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu (militaristic, conservative) sees Iraq as the ideal test bed for the neocon vision of the world.

This is the idea: remove Saddam from power (probably by some sort of commando action, rather than invasion) and replace him with either the old Iraq royal family or institute a democracy. The idea here is that Iraq becomes a beacon of Arab modernity and democracy; the implicit idea is to draw pressure away from Israel, part of the logic being that democracies do not go to war against each other.

It’s a fantasy. It’s the idea that “Scratch an Iraqi, and you will find an American”.

Skip ahead to September 12th, 2001. Bush was pretty explicitly a “domestic” president who had little interest in international affairs and rejected the foreign interventions of the Clinton Administration. He casts about for a way to view the Middle East; a paradigm. It’s the paradigm of his high officials: neoconservativism. Packer proves that within days of 9/11, the Bush Administration was pretty much set on invading Iraq.

The stark truth is the that we invaded Iraq because of an idea: the legacy of WWII, Vietnam and the Gulf War mixed with American domestic politics.

Packer does a remarkable job sharing the human interest side of the war. The personalities of Iraq expats and exiles dreaming of a glorious return; Bush era government officials wrapped up in office politics, US soldiers genuinely motivated to bring democracy; and a kaleidoscope of Iraqis struggling to make sense of what was happening to them.

The truth is that you can’t scratch an Iraqi to find an American underneath. The Baathist totalitarian regime had destroyed all of Iraq’s civil society; the Iraqis as individuals where unprepared psychologically for freedom. They didn’t know the script that the Bush Administration expected them to follow; thus the Bush Administration’s own ideology blinded them to the problems of invading Iraq.

The quagmire gets worse, in large part due to the Bush Administration’s refusal to face facts and take real action (as that would damage the American political scene’s support for the war). Packer brilliantly compares the wartime President Johnson, staying up to the early morning waiting for the casualty reports to come in from Vietnam – a man broken by an unwinable war that he had to preside over and President Bush’s invincible ignorance of the growing disaster that was the invasion of Iraq.

This book is a great mix of personal stories, critical reflection and history. The individuals we meet are treated with respect, but no one is fawned over either. It’s fair and tough in manner that deserves imitation. It almost makes me believe in journalism again.

I got quite worked up at several points during the reading – a manner of righteous outrage – and I am not ashamed to admit it. Perhaps the most astounding aspect is that nobody seemed to have learned a lesson or grown wiser. The Bush Administration officials simply blame each other; Iraqis blame the Americans, Americans blame the Iraqis or islamic extremism. Democrats, Republicans, even Packer himself seem unable to come to any manful conclusions. There is a lot of talk about “fevered minds” that borrows language that is akin to youthful misadventures about every aspect of the war which I found to be incredibly depressing.

 It is not until his afterword, written in 2006 that Packer really unloads on Bush and the inner cabal of Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Powell. By that time, you feel it is richly deserved.

Everyone should read this book.

Absalom! Absalom!: I connect with the Deep South

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This is the first Faulkner book that I have read; which is strange because I’ve been to several of the places where he lived. So when visiting Oxford Mississippi over the 4th of July weekend with my wife, I thought that it was high time.

I had always read the back of Faulkner, telling myself I should read this American Great, but found the back to be simply depressing; and I already knew that the South was depressing, so I felt like I hardly needed to read a book that confirmed all that.

Now that I live in the South, and each morning I read in my screened-in porch while crickets and cicadas buzz away and sing their song of racial repression, I connected with Faulkner. In a different setting, say Seattle or the shores of the Mediterranean, I probably would not have finished Faulkner. But here in the South…it’s different somehow. The heat and humidity helps understand the reality of Southern Gothic.

The plot of the book, which you can quickly glean from the back cover, is namely that a man sets out to create for himself the plantation lifestyle and create Southern dynasty. It destroys him and his family through fate, myth, and human fallibility. It’s an epic novel of the South played out in the medium of one family over the course of generations.

It’s all here: bigamy, incest, racial oppression, the Civil War, plantations, the caste system, the heat, the groves of magnolias bathed in Spanish moss, wisteria, the Pride, revenge…

Faulkner’s caliber as a writer is nearly unmatched. It is beautiful writing: the work of a true master. To say he experiments with the “steam of consciousness” style doesn’t capture it. Faulkner’s writing is primarily mythological, and like all epic poetry and mythology, it should be recited out loud. I definitely plan on listening to my next Faulkner (Probably The Sound and the Fury), rather than reading it. His turns of phrase, his descriptions and his ability to view one action through multiple lenses and tell it in multiple ways is surprisingly unique.

Fun fact: Guinness’s Book of World Records thinks that the longest sentence in literature is to be found in Absalom, Absalom! at 1,288 words.

The last bit of interest here is Faulkner’s complicated relationship with the South. It’s clearly a brand of “love/hate”. I find it interesting that Faulkner is the author par excellence of the South, and yet this novel ends with the scion of a great plantation family, a character that could be said to represent the best of the South repeating to himself that he does not hate the South.

In the big picture, this novel is about the American Dream and it is about understanding the South as mythology and reality.

Highly recommended; best read on a porch with a cigar. Cicadas are necessary.

The Gun Owning Biker

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My favourite thing about conservatives – I mean the American social conservative, not the Wall Street/military industrial complex brand of conservative – is the absence of any real understanding of what they are threatened by. Between howls of confused anger, and fervent confessions of chauvinistic faith, this guy plows through a conservative laundry list that is so predictable as to be downright boring. I’ve placed the juicy bits below, and at the bottom of my response, I’ve pasted his entire post. Enjoy.
I Am the Democratic, Republican Liberal-Progressive’s Worst Nightmare.
I am a White, Conservative, Tax-Paying, American Veteran, Gun Owning
Biker. That’s me!
As a liberal-progressive, I see you as a foolish old git. Somewhere between disgust and sad bemusement, that’s my opinion of you. My worst nightmare: Sisyphean situations. It’s your lack of any ability towards cognitive dissonance that scares me.
I am a Master Mason. I work hard and long hours with my hands to earn
a living. 
The US is the second hardest working country in the world. I work too; the overwhelming majority of people work and are incredibly busy. You work, I work, we all work. You gain no moral standpoint by working with your hands.
I believe the money I make belongs to me and not some liberal
governmental functionary, Democratic or Republican, that wants to share it with others who don’t
work!
Wow! Are you an Independent? A Tea Partyer? A libertarian? I bet you vote Republican either way. Anyway, Republican or Democrat, they’re spending it on the military waaaay more then “sharing it with others who don’t work”. Again, most people work. Take a civics lesson: social spending actually does stuff. It’s important, and probably has more effect on our lives than, say a 4 trillion dollar invasion of Iraq. Don’t pretend to be a fiscal conservative when the Republican and conservative record of government spending is – if anything -worse than the Democrats. You’re never going to have a night-watchman’s state with how much we spend on the military. It’s that simple.

I think owning a gun doesn’t make you a killer; it makes you a smart
American.

Well, the statistics and just sort of reality don’t agree with you here. American deaths by shooting are way above anybody other country in the world. A lot of us Americans are unconvinced that guns make you safer, in fact, it’s making us less safe. Any other conclusion is a vigilante’s fantasy. The logic of “If only one those people in that church in South Carolina had had a gun that terrible thing wouldn’t have happened” I can only understand as a relic of watching too many action movies; I don’t think a gun battle would have saved any lives at all. The Wild West was never real. It’s time you grew up and realise this.

My heroes are Malcolm Forbes, Bill Gates, John Wayne, Babe Ruth,
Roy Rogers, and Willie G. Davidson, who makes the awesome Harley
Davidson Motorcycles.

That’s a sad collection of heroes you got there. Two mega rich people who would describe you as white trash, two Hollywood actors that famously represent a black and white conception of morality, a baseball player and a man who made motorcycles. At least you didn’t say anything about Putin. My heroes: Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill, Hunter S. Thompson, Edward Snowden, Robert Byron, and Hannah Arendt.

I think being a minority does not make you noble or victimized, and
does not entitle you to anything. Get over it!

Noble and victimised? This is how you are painting yourself in this very Facebook post. You’re ignoring the gaping racial wound this country has because people like you can’t bring yourself too acknowledge it’s very real and devastating existence.

I believe that if you are selling me a Big Mac or any other item, you
should do it in English. I believe there should be no other language option.

Why do you want a Big Mac at all? You must understand that this country has always had many different languages. Why are you so threatened? Most countries have lived with immigrants and different languages for centuries without being so threatened.

I believe everyone has a right to pray to his or her God when and
where they want to.

I agree. But it makes me nervous why you would feel the need to voice this. Surely, you are not trying to play the victim here are you? Because this country bends very far to not offend christians. If there was some conspiracy out there to attack christianity, then the easiest way would be to make church pay taxes.

I don’t hate the rich. I don’t pity the poor.

Maybe you should? Jesus did, I suspect. The statistics – the reality – paint a picture of widening financial inequality in this country. Multinational corporations and a handful of wealthy individuals hold most of America’s wealth. Perhaps you should buy from small, local businesses, support an amendment stripping corporations of legal protections equal to human individuals, and support a genuinely progressive tax system based not on income, but on net wealth. Please note how I am not interested in increasing social spending.
I know wrestling is fake and I don’t waste my time watching or arguing
about it.

Yep. Wait, people watch wrestling?

This is AMERICA …We like it the way it is and more so the way
it was …so stop trying to change it to look like Russia or China , or some other socialist country!
If you were born here and don’t like it… you are free to move to any
Socialist country that will have you. I believe it is time to really clean house,
starting with the White House, the seat of our biggest problems.

Oh dear. This is a tired old outburst, isn’t it? You mock only yourself, sir. First of all, you are ignorant of the way America is, AND you are ignorant of the way America was. It’s adorable how you think that China and Russia are socialist countries. Because they aren’t. And haven’t been for some time now. Seriously: there is no excuse for this level of cluelessness. In the interest of forestalling argument, I realise that technically China is still ruled by a communist party. Fine. But this means only a little bit as the country is run on capitalist lines; any collusion between the Chinese government and it’s businesses is no more then the amount of collusion between our government and our big businesses.

So I want to make America better place in terms of more equality, education, more democratic and more friendly to the environment, therefore I am un-American and also a socialist. It’s one thing to be skeptical of progressives, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to be downright regressive.

I want to know which church is it, exactly, where the Reverend
Jesse Jackson preaches, where he gets his money, and why he
is always part of the problem and not the solution?

Can I get an AMEN on that one?

Amen. I want to know why you think JJ is the problem. Why have you focused on him? Can you explain how your mindset isn’t the problem? Can you explain how you are a part of the solution? Do you even know what the problem is? Can you acknowledge that the fact that you have focused your anger on JJ is part of a political tact designed to distract you from the real problem?

I also think the cops have the right to pull you over if you’re
breaking the law, regardless of what color you are, but not
just because you happen to ride a bike.

Your sense of law, justice, morality seems to be very confused here. Breaking the law – a man made idea – is pretty blurry. That’s your first problem. The second problem is the “pulling over” part. I’m not calling you a racist…but let’s just say that most, or the worst crime doesn’t happen in cars. So I’m suspicious of why you would focus on that. It seems like you are saying that you don’t mind when minorities are harassed by the police, but when they harass you, that’s when it’s a problem.

And I’m proud that ‘God’ is written on my money..

Yeah, it’s a product of the 1950’s and the efforts of the government to convince American’s to support massive military budgets to “fight” the Soviets. The Founding Father’s concept of America was very different then what you grew up with. Our’s is supposed to be a great citizen’s republic based on classical Athens and Rome, rather than the Evangelical State you are indirectly implying that the US is (BUT NEVER WAS). It’s hard not to conclude that you want to return to America as exclusively a white, christian man’s world (even then, this was never really true either).

I think if you are too stupid to know how a ballot works, I
don’t want you deciding who should be running the most
powerful nation in the world for the next four years.

Your attempt at excusing Voter ID Laws I presume? I think you should be excluded too, but I’m not going to support Voter ID laws because of your ignorance. It’s a blatant attempt at voter suppression, for the simple reason is that we have little to no voter fraud in this country. I would support election day has a national holiday. Would you?

I dislike those people standing in the intersections trying to sell
me stuff or trying to guilt me into making ‘donations’ to their cause….
Get a job and do your part to support yourself and your family!

You dislike people trying to sell you stuff? You live in AMERICA, and if you don’t like it you can get out….

Seriously, you seem to be confusing many different things. Again, most people have jobs. Those who don’t, tend to have very good, legitimate, reasons. Also, charity has a very long history, especially in this country. I definitely understand your exhaustion with advertisements and commercials literally everywhere, but hey, this is what unbridled capitalism is.

I believe that it doesn’t take a village to raise a child, it takes two parents….

I think it takes both. And planned parenthood.
I believe ‘illegal’ is illegal no matter what the lawyers think! I believe the American flag should be the only one allowed in AMERICA ! If this makes me a BAD American, then yes, I’m a BAD American. If you are a BAD American too, please forward this to everyone you know…

We want our country back! My Country….. I hope this offends all illegal aliens.

Yes, but America isn’t yours. It never was. The people in the slums are just as “America” as you are.

You don’t understand the why of immigration. And until you do, you will continue to sound simply racist. Think about it. What is the engine that’s driving immigration? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the vast liberal agenda. It’s corporate greed that demands cheap labor to maximise profit. The major American immigration over the last century – that of African-Americans to major northern cities was driven by corporations looking for cheap industrial labor. Same thing here.

You think the American flag is the only flag that should be flown in America? What a fetish you got there! Of all the problems…this is your bugbear huh? It’s called freedom of speech, which means, quite simply that people have a right to express there opinions and heritage. We’re destroying our planetary ecology for the sake of profit and here you are obsessing over Mexicans and the Flag? You want to offend all the illegal aliens? They’re scared and desperate. We’re talking about people that are just trying to get by: they don’t have the luxury to be offended.

My great, great, great, great grandfather watched and bled as his
friends died in the Revolution & the War of 1812. My great, great, great grandfather watched as his friends died in
the Mexican American War. My great, great grandfather watched as his friends & brothers
died in the Civil War. My great grandfather watched as his friends died in the
Spanish-American War. My grandfather watched as his friends died in WW I. My father watched as his friends died in WW II.
I watched as my friends died in Vietnam , Panama & Desert Storm. My son watched & bled as his friends died in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of them died for the Mexican Flag. Everyone died for the American flag.

This is an impressive list of wars. Ever stop to wonder if they where necessary? Do you genuinely think there sacrifice was necessary? Your utter lack of questioning and your reference to the American flag only seems to indicate that you do not understand these wars, most of which were simple militaristic adventures, driven by political calculation, not “clear and present danger”. Again, the bugbear of immigration without understanding the engine behind the immigration. You cannot expect to be taken seriously here.

Texas high school students raised a Mexican flag on a school flag pole,
other students took it down. Guess who was expelled…the students
who took it down. California high school students were sent home on Cinco de Mayo,
because they wore T-shirts with the American flag printed on them.

Comical. This is country of three hundred twenty five million people, and your concerned with high schoolers and the raising and lowering of flags? Grow up dude. Theses examples, even if true, mean nothing. There’s no conspiracy here, just a lack of a sense of humour it seems, all around. Hell, Cinco de Mayo does celebrate the victory of Mexican forces over a foreign, European occupier (the French). How is this something that we cannot appreciate?

If you don’t want to forward this for fear of offending someone,
then YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM ! We’ve gone so far the other way . . . bent over backwards not to
offend anyone. Only AMERICANS seems to care when American Citizens are being
offended ! WAKE UP America ! ! !

You’ve mentioned offending several times. I guess this is reference to political correctness. Really not interested in political correctness. What I am interested in is that people living in a society together have some common decency and maybe just a little bit of empathy. I’m not even asking for active sympathy here. Also, consider how far the rest of us go to not offend YOUI am constantly waking on eggshells so as to avoid provoking your myriad insecurities. Nothing is worse than an old blowhard indulging his sense of self-importance and hypocritical self-righteousness by repeating hyperbole that he has heard on Fox News.

The Two Sides of Capitalism

In the past few days, I have seen two articles which directly talk about capitalism itself. They perfectly capture the respective strengths and weaknesses of each side of the argument. It’s enlightening to exams the logic here.

The first article is “The Sunny Side of Greed” by Frank Bruni in the July 1st edition of the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/01/opinion/frank-bruni-the-good-among-the-greed.html?_r=0

The other is from The Guardian, “Fracketeering: how capitalism is power-hosing the last drops of of value out of all of us” by Ian Martin for the June 30th edition. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/jun/30/fracketeering-capitalism-power-hosing-estate-agents-cakeage

Bruni makes a fairly standard pro-capitalism, pro-Big Business argument, updated with recent events. “Some say the world is run by corporations…fine with me”, runs Bruni’s basic sentiment.

The reasoning goes like this: money is money, and profit is profit; businesses therefore often take the lead on social issues. He cites the fact that corporations where crucial to defeating “religious freedom” laws – you know the kind – in places like Indiana recently. Or, he points out that South Carolina’s governor can confidently take down the Confederate flag because the big employers in that state support the removal of the confederate flag.

Bruni compares these companies and their executives favourably to politicians and the political process. He acknowledges the role that corporations play in environmental destruction, and exploitation of workers in some cases, but concludes that “Sometimes the bottom line matches the common good, and they’re the agents of what’s practical, wise and even right”.

Ian Martin’s article is of the flavour reference at the start of Bruni’s: “…the dire prophecies of science-fiction writers and the fevered warnings of left-wing activists, big corporations will soon rule the earth – or already do.”

The core of Martin’s article revolves around the extreme, absurd lengths that capitalism – encapsulated by the absence, apocalyptic act of fracking – has destroyed our planet, society, and ultimately ourselves as human individuals, all in search of ever-greater profits. It’s the exact opposite view of Bruni’s, both in content, conception and execution. Martin’s point is that capitalism must monetise everything – literally everything – to keep going. Everything has become about profit. He speaks of London real estate agents who now charge people “…for agreeing to sell them something. Arbitrarily monetising something that customers are obliged to do anyway.”

Ironically, Martin again refers to science fiction: “We are already living in a capitalist sci-fi horror story, where masters of the universe are trading stuff that doesn’t even exist yet. Future grain harvests in Canada, milk yields in Wisconsin, next year’s batch of Japanese whisky. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has a wide variety of “weather derivatives” available for trade if you’re interested including “temperature ranges, snowfall amounts and frost”. If fracketeers can think it, they can monetise it. There are no moral boundaries. The only limit to fracketeering is imagination.”

Behind these two arguments are two very different world views, as well as two very different ways of thinking about economics. Bruni very much sees economics in the classic sense, that is, about how Adam Smith would have understood economics. You know – where the Invisible Hand guides people to improve themselves and their communities. That’s basically what his article is about: the Invisible Hand and how it’s just great.

For Martin, who has a much more social and personal understanding of capitalism, the Blade Runner/ Total Recall-esque reality of capitalism is – and has been here – for a while. I can easily understand how the fanciful description of the capitalist, dystopian future would come across as “fevered” to the Brunis of the world. Martin has a less grounded argument. He has few, if any facts to point too. But he is making observations that you can’t really deny; it’s closer to common sense then anything else. By this, I mean that Martin is talking about our daily lives and how we do things; how capitalism has invaded this to the point of absurdity. Capitalism may be a success in terms of GDP, but it is a failure in everything else. Increasingly, profit is sought in ever-more invasive operations. Take Facebook and the big oil companies; the meagre pay of those trapped in the service industry.

Bruni ignores the massive, cataclysmic changes that Big Business has had in our societies. He ignores the complexity of the system which is fundamentally exploitative. The ongoing failures of trickle-down/neoliberal/laissez-faire economics are lost on Bruni. He fails to notice how Big Business already runs our lives and our politics. Most of all, he fails to face up and realize that taking down a flag  or supporting gay marriage is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the massive destruction of the environment, the displacement of peoples and individuals. Social change is nice, but it’s not real change. Real change would be a 100% tax on gasoline and the oil companies, instead of effectively subsidising them and the price of gas with the tax payer’s money.

Given Jeb Bush’s statement on how Americans need to work more (we are the second hardest working people in the world behind the Japanese), and the scientific consensus on Climate Change, it seems to me that Bruni’s argument fundamentally flawed to the point of delusion. For me, it’s the word “wise”. How can systematic, relentless, institutionalized greed be wise? Adam Smith never anticipated the world like it is now.

How can it be anything else other then fundamentally insane, anti-social and downright apocalyptic?

Seven Years in Tibet

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I have not seen the movie: I like to think my review is therefore untainted by any Hollywood impressions I may have had.

Heinrich Harrer was a German mountaineer and skier in the late 30’s, who happened to be on a Himalayan climbing expedition when WWII broke out. He was duly intervened by the British in India. Escape, at the intersection of easily viable and desirable, took him a year or so to get right, but escape he does, to Tibet.

Tibet is the Forbidden Country, Lhasa, the capital, is the Forbidden City. Tibet, isolated in the mountains was mysterious; a blank on the map. Harrer naturally combined his desire to escape British internment with his climbing and exploring impulses and makes for Tibet.

He does not give up until he reaches Lhasa, in a journey that takes a year or so. Harrer, you must understand very much has a European adventurer’s soul. He is practical and tough; energetic and decisive. This means: be amazed at his feats of linguistics and physical adventures, but also know that his understanding of politics and religion, art and architecture is limited.

Seven Years in Tibet very much stands in line with other exploration and travel literature from earlier in the 20th century. It captures a medieval, religious world abutting the modern. Thus, we witness Harrer attempting to explain atom bombs to the Dalai Lama, a child at that point.

I’m not saying it’s Indiana Jones, but it’s Indiana Jones. Except real.

I enjoyed this quick read. The descriptions are great. Harrer’s experiences are literally priceless. They have value because the world he finds in Lhasa is gone.

Harrer’s experiences make the book. Unlike Robert Byron’s amazing books, especially The Road to Oxiana, and honourable mention to The Station, Harrer is poor in understanding. Read Seven Years in Tibet as viewing a lost world, a world before capitalism and rush and notifications from your smart phone.

Seven Years in Tibet is an escape from today.

Europe Central

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Europe Central by William Vollmann is one of the best novels that I have read in a long while. For those of you out there who too varying extents might be tired of WWII themed movies, books and computer games, I assure you that this is a cut above.

Far from D-Day worship, or simplistic, voyeuristic recounts of totalitarian terror (It does have plenty of this though), this book ranks up with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Vollmann is able to echo surreal aspects and uncanny parallels of Pynchon with Grossman’s epic, sweeping narrative of personalities, and moral choice, culminating in fate with a capital F.

In short, it’s epic, weird, and brilliant. It’s history masquerading as a novel. It’s also a love story.

The book is composed primarily of short stories, some of which take place over many instalments, some take place in large, nay, endless chapters, but best of all they overlap and reference each other quite seamlessly. Thus a character which has been the subject of a pervious chapter will appear momentarily in the chapter of a very different character experiencing a very different story. Again, this is well done.

Vollmann has collected a fascinating array of characters, most of whom where real people. The main characters in this sense are Soviet composer Dimitry Shoshtakovitch, German SS man Kurt Gerstein, the Field Marshall von Paulus, and the traitor-general Vlasov. There are many other characters, much like any good Russian novel.

You are introduced to the character’s inner world of thoughts, emotions and their circumstances which build slowly towards a moral choice. This choice and the character’s fate is intertwined; Vollmann is fascinated by both in equal measure, yet feels no need to come to an ultimate conclusion; i.e., “there is/is no fate”. Each character, regardless of ultimate moral evaluation is presented kindly; even as we are witness their failings, self-destruction, or at least, idiosyncrasies, we cannot help but have sympathy for them and the terrible situation they have to navigate (or not).

Not unlike Pynchon, Vollmann adopts many different “voices”. This is the weakest part of the book, because Vollmann has trouble keeping them strait it seems. In the opening chapters and ending chapters, it ranges from annoying to confusing (in the vast middle part of the book, it’s fine and is not a problem). Thus the character speaking will switch or change and then change back with literally nothing to connote the change in voice. Occasionally, I thought it was cool and interesting, most of the time it was confusing and annoying, only one in five instances of this would I say it was well done.

This book is worth reading for the history, which seems fairly well researched, as well as the artistic, mythological treatment of WII that Vollmann wades into here. He isn’t afraid to explore the link between Germanic mythology, Wagner, Nazisim, and Hitler’s personal psychology. He does an “artistic” version of history that I think goes down quite well.

It’s also worth reading for the interplay of moral choice and the idea of Fate.

Lastly, one of the most significant characters is one that never gets a short story of (her) own. She fascinates and is mentioned in nearly every chapter and every character. This is the love story that borders on the mythical; she is real, but not real in many ways. She represents much more than she even seems to know or want. Again, this is well done.

An epic read.