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This is superb history - dispassionate though not without judgment, informative with a clear narrative and capable both of changing prejudices and ass...more This is superb history - dispassionate though not without judgment, informative with a clear narrative and capable both of changing prejudices and assumptions and suggesting analogies with today.
Fehrenbach wrote this book forty years ago as a sympathetic historian of Texas and Mexico who was filling in the natural sovereign gap in the history of the South West - the 'savage' Comancheria.
Because it was written so long ago, it was also written before 'political correctness' obliged us to accept an entirely false view of the benignity of savagery because of our fear of what Hobbes claimed.
In fact, Fehrenbach (who does have a bias towards 'civilisation' that might be unwarranted) treats the southern plains Amerindians with more respect and less sentimentality than East Coast liberals.
He takes them for what they were and not what deeply idiotic Quaker Indian agents would like them to have been - the book presents a standing argument for keeping religion and ideology out of empire.
There are two overwhelming truths about the dreadful experience of the Comanche: the official state machines of Texas and the USA were never in control of the situation; and the Indians were vicious.
The first point is one of demography and not actually of superiority. Indeed, the white settlers were held back, even pushed back by Comanche determination, for many decades.
Driving the white population forward was the simple fact that they were breeding like rabbits and surviving, sending waves of dour Baptists and then desperate migrants eastwards.
Ironically, the West is now besieged by the opposite - excitable pentecostalists and islamists and desperate migrants moving northwards with the same sort of sentimentalist evading the consequences.
The native Amerindians were numbered in tens of thousands, not millions, and were defeated ultimately first by disease and second by a market-driven, not calculated, destruction of the bison herds.
The United States in particular, but also the Republic of Texas, were not sophisticated hierarchical empires with the ability to enforce assimilation or treaties but polities trying to keep a lid on things.
The British in Canada preserved Indian culture by enforcing deals against settlers but the sheer scale of European migration and the weakness of the state meant that this was not possible in the US.
Hence the much written about tragedy of long and violent border wars and brutal and intermittent guerrilla actions leading to the utterly self-destructive tactics of the tribes and their final destruction.
Fehrenbach plausibly argues, using the Navajo example and alluding to Canada, that the best strategy for the Indians would have been a decisive military defeat and enforceable treaty-making.
It is at this point that he may be too kind to the populist federal republics that emerged in Texas and which made up the rather nasty Jacksonian democracy that drove agrarian indians ever westward.
The plains indians were not fools but simply ignorant and Jacksonian democracy as a political model had lies and faithlessness built into it - Texas was a mere extension of Christian Southern arrogance.
The point was that the Indians could never possibly resist the surge from the East because it was many and they were few but their culture and experience failed them in organising adequately to deal with this.
A diferent sort of Indian culture might have followed the classic barbarian model of creating a single Comanche proto-state that could create its own settler patterns but this was not to be.
Had it had the intellectual and organisational resources to do this, it would have followed the Slav pattern, created a sovereign war chief ('king'), adopted Protestant Christianity and become the Comanche Republic as a state within the Union or independent.
This could either have happened naturally (which no plains indian seemed able to achieve) or as a result of a defeat in effective collaboration with a sympathetic federal enemy (as in Canada).
This latter is not as absurd as it sounds since the military were professional not racist and there was a strong body of Eastern opinion sympathetic, overly so, to the Amerindians.
Unfortunately, the classic problem of American democracy - populist hysteria and inter-agency conflict constantly evaded a decisive handling of the problem.
When the military were finally permitted a free hand, the war of attrition between millions of whites and thousands of Comanche was a brutal walk over that destroyed a culture that had no room to adapt.
The Comanche, by their blunders and brutality, also sped up the end for their northern plains counterparts but that is another story.
So far, my account of the book sounds rather one-sided but that is because I have missed out the essential truth of the conflict - that the Comanches and other southern plains tribes really were savage.
The small-minded Baptists and racists were no less unappealing to modern tastes and many whites were thugs of the first order but the plains indian culture was inherently violent.
What we are dealing with here are not the romantic noble figures with waving feather headdresses who speak of great spirits and environmental responsibility but torturing half-beasts.
These were stone age people engaged in permanent internecine warfare of consummate brutality, engaging in the vilest form of torture and destruction for a form of 'honour'.
Horses and then iron simply upgraded the methodology of terror to include the plains and competition with other tribes. This moved on to brutal raids against vulnerable Mexican villagers for loot.
Given the culture, its misogynistic kin-orientated brutalities would naturally be applied to the very different tejanos even if they were initially restrained with the americanos.
Be in no doubt, the horrors perpetrated by the Amerindians on their own kind and the settlers - systematic rape, mutilation, kidnapping, enslavement, murder and wanton destruction - were 'normal'.
Any excuse that they were responding to the invasion of their territory does not hold water. They were raiding because it was profitable and that is what their young men did to get 'honour'.
Fehrenbach's book is good not only in clarifying this but in giving important context for each stage of the Comanche's evolution so that we learn a lot about the history of the whole American South West.
As he points out, what was 'normal' to Amerindians became normalised as barbarities amongst the besieged 'tejanos' although the Texans and Americans certainly did not rape, mutilate and torture as a 'norm'.
These were two incommensurate borderlands cultures and, as we know from European history, borderlands are the liminal areas where any cultural restraints will collapse under pressure.
Fehrenbach points out the differential in 'organisation' (not intelligence or technology) and the effects of demography and market capitalism as decisive in the final American victory.
But, as we note above, this victory took an inordinately long time a-coming and only emerged when the American Civil War had permitted the federal state the ability to organise itself for modernity.
The story is a tragedy. There are many capable people in it and some heroes - the disastrous rule of the Quaker Indian agents must not be included here. Most people here are muddling through on tram-lines.
Perhaps that is the lesson for today - populist democracies can never seem to get a grip on what needs to be done and there is, as a result, far more suffering than is necessary.
For all their brutalities and short lives, the plains indians deserve the respect that Fehrenbach and the best of the soldiery gave to them.
They deserved an early defeat in battle with honour and a treaty imposed by a superior force that enforced its provisions with the same sense of honour and professionalism as was found in Canada.
(Although we should be careful of claiming too much British Imperial decency. Once those missionaries got their teeth into the tribes, the decency started to disappear pretty quickly)
Instead, the Comanche faced a weak state whose lies and incompetencies derived from sentimentalism and religion. These did far more harm to them than any number of honest military defeats could have done.
The soft sentimental liberal and faith-based mind simply cannot understand this - that progress comes from direct brutal struggle between strong forces succeeded by magnanimity and the rule of law.
The final form of the American Federal State, before it degenerated again into ideology and religiosity, got this perfectly right in 1945 after another existential struggle.
It is probable that the USA will never be great again until it learns the lessons of the Indian wars - use power effectively, decisively and sparingly and be generous to the defeated.
The treatment of the Amerindians after their defeat, despite their brutal 'norms', is a lasting stain on American democracy, indeed on the normative claims of the West in general.
I recommend this highly readable book to anyone who wants to understand our own species better, what differential power really means and why sentiment and faith are appalling guides to policy.
Notes are private!
Jul 15, 2014
Nov 15, 1998
A useful book on sexuality and the Buddhist phenomenon as seen through the eyes of a French academic happy to use the insights of Foucault and Bataill...more A useful book on sexuality and the Buddhist phenomenon as seen through the eyes of a French academic happy to use the insights of Foucault and Bataille.
He refuses to reify a way of seeing that goes back over two millennia and covers huge areas of Asian space but this means that his analysis is suggestive rather than conclusive. This has the virtue of honesty.
Similarly, Faure does not shy away from his own deep knowledge of Japanese literary and religious culture and his obvious interest in leading us towards his next planned book on women in Buddhism.
This means something of an over-emphasis on Japan and a tendency to a sub-feminist discourse but these are minor critisms of a book that should be essential reading for any sentimentalist about Buddhism.
The section on the paedophiliac rape culture of Japanese medieval Buddhism indicates a deviant and exploitative use by an essentially sex-negative culture not so different from Judaeo-Christianity.
Indeed, the overwhelming impression of Buddhism is of yet another essentialist displacement of natural sexual urges into rules, neurosis and petty cruelties - fairly typical of all resource-poor cultures.
Faure is kind to modern women's appropriation of Buddhism but one has to ask what the point of such detournements can possibly be when you could more happily ditch the old and start again.
These great religions seem to be little more than frameworks for inventing ways of managing power relations and sex is the greatest of all power plays. Managing sex becomes central to religion.
The suffering of the vulnerable - not only women but young men and children as well as the marginalised - imposed by the men of the text, generally linked to aristocratic authority, has been tragic.
Still, given the structures of power built around lack of resources, the weak take what they can from the given system. At least, the subversion of religion by (say) consensual homosexuals is heartening.
The play between Power and the subjects of power becomes - in this Foucauldian analysis - a game making use of the weapons to hand and inherited religious forms are simply what is to hand.
To anyone interested in Buddhist culture evolving over time and in the ideology and underlying meaning of religion (not the texts but the real use of religion as power), this book will be highly stimulating.
But a critique of religion which sees it for what it is without getting nasty about something that fulfils a desperate need, for all its absurdities and often unintended cruelties, is still needed.
It would be customary here to talk about the other side of religion - the high aesthetics, the comfort, the complex and subtle meanings, the welfare provision (which was very real) in very poor societies.
But we have to ask why, especially in the sexual arena, contemporary, highly educated and intelligent people still cling to forms inherited from the Iron Age ... but they do. And that is that!(less)
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Jul 09, 2014
Jan 01, 2014
Apr 21, 2014
I know the author, we have done business and I have a signed copy so I am knocking off one star to show that I am still as independent as ever - as re...more
I know the author, we have done business and I have a signed copy so I am knocking off one star to show that I am still as independent as ever - as regular readers of my reviews and Jerome know full well.
There are two probable sets of reader for this book - investment professionals and the intelligent general reader. It has undoubted value for both.
However, despite having helped introduce the famous Black-Scholes model into London as a PR professional, understanding it not a whit then or now, I cannot really comment on its value to the former.
PR professionals do not really have to understand anything in depth, they simply have to be able to translate sufficiently from one language to another and that's all I had to do.
This leaves me as the 'intelligent general reader'. If you are, like me, not a professional in the investment industry, I think you can safely leap over pages 179 to 202 and speed read a few others.
But the rest is very worthwhile to the generalist and refreshing to the extent that I hope Jerome takes the first half of the book and produces a more accessible analysis for the general public.
Perhaps he slightly overplays his thing about emerging markets (but that is his thing) but not because he is wrong about the fundamentals - in fact, he is totally persuasive about these. More of that later.
Our political elite needs a wake-up call about the state of the developed world, its debt overhang, its incompetently administered welfare system and its own lamentable failure in the run-up to 2008.
If anyone should be reading this, it is the 'official' Left (though I despair of it). The author is very good on the idiocies of market theory while retaining, quite rightly, the market as brute reality.
An intelligent Leftist could plunder this book for arguments for intelligent regulation and intervention while using it to read the riot act on economic reality to his own party workers.
He is educative on current thinking in economics - not only the new fashion for behavioural finance but the issues surrounding complexity in decision-making and strategy and the need for flexibility.
His analysis thus acts as a neat counterpoint to the final chapters of Lawrence Freedman's book on 'Strategy' which we reviewed some weeks ago - the same anti-hubristic thrust is to be found in both.
I sense a new paradigm in the making not only in these two books but across a wider front, one about which the political, bureaucratic and managerial classes are in total denial.
What we have to remember is that 2008 shook the confidence of the general population in a very fundamental way.
If 2008 created doubts about economic management, political revolt against the elite may be linked with many smaller effects - the inability of the West to act in Syria, Ukraine and now Iraq, for example.
While I remain wholly convinced by his contention that power is shifting to the emerging world at the expense of the developed world, human irrationalities have yet to play themselves out here.
The fundamentals say what Jerome Booth says - I urge you to read at least the first half of the book to understand those fundamentals - but what happens next is fraught with risk for pensioners.
The rise of new religions designed specifically for the poor, Western dabbling in raising aspirations that cannot easily be met, the greed of the new middle classes ... these all create new asymmetries.
A world in which political movements enslave school girls and, thousands of miles away, crucify (literally) dissidents is one in which middle class bourgeois rationality no longer applies.
Much of this coming storm was well expressed in a near-forgotten writer - Frantz Fanon - whose terrible vision was obviated by the way Western power misappropriated the message of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
This bourgeois liberalism rode the tide of constantly increasing wealth and, with luck, large parts of the emerging world will continue that trajectory ... but large parts won't.
Why do the Chinese crack down on religious cults? Because they understand the millenarial impulse, the desperation of the 'Ghost Dance' - 20 million died in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).
Marxist analysis has many faults but it is fine training in the conditions within which the market, the core of the social condition of man, operates as far as 'really existing humans' are concerned.
It is the flailing around of the Western dinosaurs as they face their own senility that may provoke a more destructive chaos - the famous asymmetric warfare conditions which the West is failing to master.
For this reason, I can agree with Jerome's brilliant analysis and masterful dissection of the rigid and mechanistic thinking of the investment profession yet be less sanguine about the future.
We have to think of our times as something very peculiar - an undeclared third world war undertaken not between states but between states and peoples and peoples and peoples.
The first world war may be characterised as a struggle between old and new empires (in the outcome, given the collapse of Russia) and the second as one of old and new ideological ways of seeing humanity.
But both were still primarily expressed through state machines that could mobilise the resources of masses without serious dissent.
But no one now seriously believes that the British could be mobilised to die for the black earth of the Ukraine as they once died for little Belgium or poor Poland.
Jerome alludes to this 'mentality' himself in his interesting critique of the constraints on Western economic policy of having relatively wealthy people expecting welfare services by right.
We have a definitive breach - which De Jouvenel might wryly have noted - in the Western deal perfected by Bismarck: you be prepared to die for me and I will give you security while you live.
The modern Western State (represented by the Crown in the UK and the Republic elsewhere) inherited the feudal obligations of the war band - war service for protection.
But a line has been crossed - the modern state is now a service provider for clients where payment is in taxes and there is no way any one within it is going to die for it. This rather defeats the purpose.
The relevance to this is that the West now represents a pool of expectant global minorities whose assets are attractive to Fanon's damned of the earth - both as migrants and as insurgents.
Meanwhile, Western leaders, instead of working with rival states and employing a blunt realism, insist on tweaking their noses - so that Russian jets appear over Baghdad to shame American weakness.
It is this instability and asymmetry - great power division (the split in the ruling order) and huge economic discontent and poverty that provide two of Lenin's famous three pre-conditions of revolution.
All that is lacking - in the theory - is a cadre and this cadre sure isn't to be found amongst the wimps of Occupy. If there is a cadre, it is likely to be found amongst enraged irrational traditionalists.
It is this element of asymmetric volatility that makes the thesis of a natural and smooth shift from West to the emerging world seem less probable and more volatile, confused and violent.
An instinct for expropriation in order to defend the security of the West and the costs of containing asymmetry within the emerging world (as in Mexico's War on Drugs) have to be taken into account.
The entire global regulatory infrastructure may, in this respect, be a paper tiger, its determination to provide order lacking legions, with no central authority and deemed oppressive to specific communities.
The author implies this in his section on the problem of the dollar which is doomed as sole repository of international trade finance and yet he seems not to be able to see any alternative as feasible.
The touted one, which he does not specifically address, is the rise of the Renminbi as the alternative that the Euro clearly cannot be, yet this is the option - an alternative currency - that solves nothing.
The total system has, in fact, been remarkably effective in learning from crises over many decades and 2008 should be no different but it is - in two respects.
First, even now, six years on, the system has not solved some of the fundamental problems that lead to the crisis. One gets the sense of an institutional Micawberism buying time for a 'deus ex machina'.
Second, all other crises were either minimal in their political effects or diffuse and so attenuated or highly localised. 2008 is much closer to 1929 in creating a political shock to the system everywhere.
The current crisis may not look as bad as in 1929 because of various skilled interventions but, because fundamentals have not been dealt with, the Western part of the system is as vulnerable to shock as ever.
But it is the loss of confidence in the elite - much more slow-burning than 1929 but perhaps more dangerous for that - that is undermining legitimacy, creating suspicion and weakening 'auctoritas'.
It is in this context that I suggest the world is a lot more unstable even than Jerome Booth thinks and that the capitalist system, while in itself resilient, has no safe havens against risk.
Be all that as it may, the book is recommended as a learning experience that will change perceptions and may make many Western voters distinctly uncomfortable at their own future.
Professionally, I deal with emerging world political issues and I already detect the changes that Jerome Booth writes about taking place.
Before 2008, major players were politically directed towards Washington. Today, they are much more focused on relations between and within emerging countries. Some have lost patience with 'ideo-regulation'.
Similarly, friends suggest that HNWIs are turning to 'cash' but not to be in cash by any means, rather to evaluate risk and move in precisely the direction that Jerome suggests - towards the emerging world.
Something is up and it is very big. My instinct (which usually proves right) is that the period from today until 2017 is very significant because it will decide the political shape of the West for decades.
The political shape sets the tone for the economic shape - whether political elites will get a grip on the situation, educate their own voters and take effective measures to restore order.
By 2018, we should know what the European Union is, whether NATO is going to be a problem or not in terms of peace, the nature of the post-2008 US 'regime' and whether we are in an absurd 'Chill War'.
Until then, personally, I would be hedging bets on everything and then some ... but wherever we end up, Jerome Booth is right: the future lies with the emerging world in terms of wealth creation.
And this is where I get the potential value of the book to the professional investor - in the bits I don't understand, he lays out how to go about the challenge. That understanding is why he is rich and I am not ...
Related Reviews -
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... [Freedman on Strategy]
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... [De Jouvenel on Power]
Notes are private!
Jun 30, 2014
Dec 02, 2011
Jan 02, 2012
This is a useful corrective to the rather hysterical media image of the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte as little more than a religion of death for narco...more This is a useful corrective to the rather hysterical media image of the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte as little more than a religion of death for narco-criminals.
Instead, Professor Chesnut re-positions it as an understandable, almost pragmatic, response to poverty, uncertainty and the complexities of gender relations under near-lawless conditions.
The interest of narco-gangsters in the cult is real enough but it does not belong exclusively to them nor do narco-gangsters worship only the 'Bony Lady'. Attempts at linkage are misdirection by forces of order.
Chesnut has studied the emergence of pentecostalism and other forms of charismatic religions in the emerging world and sees many similarities of condition.
Modernisation is more than disruptive. It is terrifying in its uncertainty as young populations scrabble to make a living within 'bourgeois' legal cultures built on little more than force.
The Catholic Church is not speaking to these people because it is not delivering the goods in terms of life improvement or security in this world. The new religions are nothing if not pragmatic.
We, in the West, should be very nervous of these developments because their appeal is, in fact, unanswerable. We have nothing for them. They want welfare and a secure job and not an ideology of 'rights'.
Western liberals are evasive on this question. They have developed a malign theory that somehow welfare and justice will come out of democratic chaos.
The reason for this is not hard to find - a 'socialist' solution is now unacceptable in Western society and the alternative of order to permit the growth to provide rights unacceptable.
Instead, a gulag of injustice is slowly being built up on both sides of the Mexican border while young men have to be part of the delivery of psychic salves to the wealthier north simply to survive.
This is a world of dangerous slums, vulnerable women, prisons and the dangerous business of crossing borders where deportation, incarceration and death are regular challenges. NGOs just get in the way.
'Santa Muerte' is the religious response. It strikes this reader that, though we educated northerners may affect to despise its magical thinking, it serves a purpose because we have abandoned these people.
Their revenge will come as the pragmatics of all these new religions get a foot-hold in the West (as they are clearly doing) and enforce an equally ruthless and pragmatic politics within our democracies.
Chesnut thus provides an invaluable interim guide to what is a moving cultural feast. In theory, the cult could disappear as quickly as it came but this now looks unlikely.
'Respectable people' might be inclined to give it more of a wide berth as bad publicity increases under Catholic pressure but this may merely strengthen its appeal amongst the masses.
It appears to be a deviant form of Catholicism with folk and santeria characteristics. There is no hierarchy or organisation. Whether it will shift from cult to organised religion is another matter.
Chesnut's approach, which justifiably makes use of personal and family testimonies to help fill out the lack of research by others, is to use the coloured candles of the cult to throw light on its functions.
To cut a long story short, he dismisses the Mexican nationalist narrative about its origins and sees it as something that the folk have constructed out of European ideas of death and love.
However, the death has been 'detourned' by the local believers into something the very opposite of Europe's 'Grim Reaper' and what was an innocent love cult as recently as the 1970s is very different now.
In essence, the Bony Lady gives you what you want if you believe enough in her, undertake the right rituals (which are Catholic derivatives) and keep the promises you made when you needed her.
Given the placebo effect, the role of coincidence and the power of the unconscious to make things happen if indirectly willed (the A O Spare view of things), practical successes are going to be evidenced.
She is displacing God in a way quite easy to do within the Catholic tradition which has often permitted intermediation to flourish in a way not acceptable to Protestants.
Magical protection and (in effect) cursing, relationship management, economic security and healthcare all come within Her territory - to which Chesnut adds the peculiar demands of the drugs war on justice.
The rise of Santa Muerte has emerged not coincidentally with the civil war conditions created by the war on drugs and with the effects, always worst on the poor, of the global economic downturn.
The cult is not a bad thing in the world despite what Catholic Bishops think but a solution to the problems of people affected by the current crisis in late capitalism and an insane progressivist drugs war.
If you take away hope of economic progress and create conditions for random gang and state terror, people will turn to something they can cling to - this obscurantist cult does no bad service in this respect.
Similar Reviews - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Notes are private!
Jun 21, 2014
Jan 01, 2012
Dec 10, 2012
The author is a Hong Kong pathologist who educated himself out of the slums of Hong Kong and tells fifteen stories, in fictional form, of cases he has...more
The author is a Hong Kong pathologist who educated himself out of the slums of Hong Kong and tells fifteen stories, in fictional form, of cases he has dealt with, cause celebres and people he has known.
The stories are short and to the point - to the point where his writing can be a little too pedestrian though the book comes alive half way through when he deals with the worst, most brutal of crimes.
His clinical approach to writing strikes me to be as detached as the psychology required to pursue his profession. He knows what is right and wrong and shows empathy but within a distanced carapace.
The reportage is the opposite of 'gonzo' journalism, the facts are stated and we are invited to react. It will be hard to maintain the same detachment when presented with some of these tales.
You will need a very strong stomach for at least two of the stories involving a brutal low level triad murder and the actions of a serial killer but the sexuality section shows Chi-Sun at his best.
The treatment of women in the lower ranks of Chinese society in the last century (and no doubt things have not improved for the poor) is laid out in terms that will cause pain to any decent person.
But he is nothing if not even-handed. For each case that involves the brutalisation or exploitation of women, there is one of callous manipulation of men by cynical or neurotic and disturbed women.
The fifteen stories tell us that our species is neither good nor bad but that individuals can be foolishly trusting or mindlessly cruel and that these can be two sides of the same coin.
Indeed, some of the stories taken together seem to confirm an old observation that the normal relationship is psychologically sado-masochistic and this is not peculiar to Chinese society.
This is not the whole story because there is another theme - relationships conducted under conditions of poverty. It is the poverty of many of these people that forces their hand.
The book ends with a story that tends to prove the point - a struggle by a strong Hong Kong European with means and intelligence to undertake a sex change and be accepted.
Chi-Shun shows the humanity that he hides under clinical detachment. 'Cynthia' is clearly difficult but determined and a pioneer. She is also complex. Chi-Shun's account is liberal and sex-positive.
She can be what she wants to be because she has resources - just as the English family could be kind to their amah (who later died in the street with a million dolars in her belt) because of their security,
Chi-Shun slightly lets the family in that second story off the hook because it seems they did little to find out how this meek uneducated woman actually lived while she lived with them for many years.
This poor woman, a victim of a traditionalist culture and poor education, was simply exploited in a more kindly and decent way by the English - though that is progress of sorts. Things progress slowly ...
There is a lot of valuable suggestive material here not made explicit - about the power of the street gangs, about the workings of the sex trade, about authorities keeping a lid on things.
One suspects that Hong Kong is already very different - the death of the first European beggar in the making shows something of how the mighty were falling - but much will have remained the same.
This last story 'Leaving Chungking Mansions' might easily be abstracted for school study as an allegory of globalisation, crime and the loss of security for the previous masters of the world.
Although not masterfully written, it is clearly written and easily read and might be useful for anyone who has simplistic ideas about how to solve the world's problems. It is a book about our 'crooked timber'.
Notes are private!
Jun 14, 2014
Dec 01, 2007
Shall we start with a warning for those of a tender mental disposition? This has substantial sections of pretty hard core pornography, much of it of a...more
Shall we start with a warning for those of a tender mental disposition? This has substantial sections of pretty hard core pornography, much of it of a very Sadean quality. So that's that!
The crime that starts the tale is of exceptional nastiness and will have any male squirming in their chairs ... and the tantric covertings of alien creatures leave nothing to the imagination.
But it is also a rather curious quasi-satire, mostly well written, on the American imagination. Put the sex to one side (hard though that is to do) and it might be seen as an unusual literary experiment in pulp.
The book is divided into two broadly equal halves - two novellae - which mirror each other in multiple ways. As so often with Farmer, the cultural references come as thick and fast as his hero's 'jism'.
The second half is weaker with some of Farmer's failings too obvious - dull autistic accounts of sets of events that do not need such detail - but it does continue the ironic theme and should be persevered with.
What he is doing is pulling the pulp world of his literary peers into line as a science fiction story (though this is not clear until the second half) with a myth of sexual energy as space travel.
The first half plays with motifs from Chandleresque private eye literature (the 'private dick'), Lovecraftian horror and the cult of the monster as envisaged by Universal Studios.
In fact, Farmer has worked hard to make his universe, where vampires, werewolves, ghosts and warring aliens are real, as plausible as could be possible and does surprisingly well.
The second half weaves in a science fiction fantasy of the Golden Age ... as if Gersback and Campbell were no longer sexually neutered nerds but had allowed sexual transgression into their repertoire.
There is also a mirrored apocalyptic strand that speaks indirectly to the sociological SF of the period in which the book was written (1968) - polluted fog rules part one and floods and mud slides part 2.
Do we take this book of sexual violence and perversion seriously? Half so. It was written for cash for a porn publisher but Farmer was too intense not to try to give the work some high camp meaning.
Theodore Sturgeon rightly produced a quizzical short introduction and urges it not be dismissed for what it appears to be and perhaps he is right.
The work stands as an unusual contribution to SF (and to pornography) but it does raise an interesting issue - the ability of science fiction and the horror genre to avoid sexuality at every turn.
This is, of course, derivative of both the era (from the 1930s to 1950s) and of the audience, mostly young adolescents, but it is also a response to the Californian and maturing SF audience of the day.
Farmer is about 50 when he writes this - observing the new sexual freedom as someone probably too late to benefit from it yet open-minded enough to deal with it.
He had broken the taboo on sex in sex fiction in his mid-30s with the 'The Lovers' and influenced Heinlein. He was part of a maturing of the literary form that we now take for granted.
Farmer picks up on the sexual theme and then adds an interesting twist by linking sex and violence to the 'energetics' of the physics of space opera and horror, not entirely successfully but suggestively.
I suspect most readers would find this book too much to take - I can detach myself from literary horrors because I have a strong sense of the difference between reality and text but others may not.
It is a curiosity that stays in the library but the theme possibly still awaits someone who can pull the transgressionary powers identified here into a narrative that is more scientific.
All the 'greats' of science fiction and horror tend to evade overt sexuality because their transgressional and imaginative leaps are sexual evasions in any case. Their frisson lies in this quality.
Farmer tries to make sex explicit and opens a door in the middle of the Californian sexual revolution, offers suggestive thoughts and horrors but he fails to 'clinch the deal'.
The book is, in the end, yet another evasion, too arch, too high camp, too obvious.
Notes are private!
Jun 07, 2014
Jan 01, 1979
Jun 01, 1979
Authored in 1979, this remains a fascinating account of the negotiations that took place in Switzerland between the OSS and Karl Wolff, a senior SS Of...more
Authored in 1979, this remains a fascinating account of the negotiations that took place in Switzerland between the OSS and Karl Wolff, a senior SS Officer, aimed at the capitulation of German forces in Italy in 1945.
At one level, this is just a well researched piece of micro-history which, in itself, as the authors agree, made little difference to the outcome of the war. In that respect, it reads like a period thriller.
At another level, however, it provides insights into the conduct of that mega-struggle and suggests that, though only a symptom of something, that something was the disease we would later call the Cold War.
We should start by praising this book for the clarity of its writing and its exceptionally helpful explanation of the conditions under which the negotiations took place.
Like so many books that give us the actual history rather than the subsequent myth (and there are many such myths!), you may be surprised by the interpretation.
For example, whatever the grand strategy of the three major players on the Allied side, the actual conduct of the war was largely driven by 'military necessity' rather than politics.
Many of the problems that started to appear in April and May 1945 arose precisely because all seemed to be agreed that military victory was the war aim and political issues could wait.
The story tends to confirm that there was not quite the necessity for the Cold War that we have been led to believe. It looks 'inevitable'. It was not. It was as much manufactured as not by special interests.
Any strategy of military necessity with direct lines of command to war leaders (applicable until May 1945) cuts out diplomats, political interests and political warfare operatives.
The negotiations of 'Operation Sunrise' tended to bypass (on both sides) this line of command and opened up an opportunity for a certain type of German thinking to 'infect' the West, like a virus.
Bear in mind that the European Right at this time was divided between those who could see the collapse coming and those who would fight on from stupidity (or loyalty which amounts to the same thing) or despair.
'Operation Sunrise' was not the only point where Soviet distrust of the West seemed reasonable but it was wholly unhelpful in reducing the space for the sort of discussion that was had at Yalta.
Smith and Agarossi persuasively argue that Allen Dulles in Switzerland developed a 'blind spot'. To him, these talks were the last opportunity for political warfare operations to make a difference.
In opening up a sensible opportunity for capitulation by Germany, he mishandled and misinterpreted what was happening (where many career soldiers did not) with perhaps grim consequences.
First, he allowed a war criminal, a leading SS Officer, to become a co-conspirator in the salvaging of two sets of careers. And, in doing so, he persuaded himself and others of Wolff's argument.
Second, in undertaking a project which muddied the water on 'unconditional surrender', Dulles helped to initiate the distrust that allowed the 'German virus' to mutate into a Western one.
What should disgust us about Wolff, as we should perhaps be disgusted by Gehlen and Operation Paperclip, is that this was the man who was Himmler's liaison at Hitler's HQ.
Whatever his post war claims (he got 15 years in the end), he knew who was being transported to Treblinka and certainly had innocent Italian blood on his hands. The Soviets would rightly have just shot him.
But this highly intelligent and undoubtedly physically brave SS officer on first name terms with Himmler and Kaltenbrunner managed to 'sell' himself, like Gehlen and Von Braun, as an asset.
Most of the allies had no illusions about him but the conduct of Dulles looks increasingly naive as the story is told and the seeds of the malign vision we have today of the 'West' were planted.
It is not that the Soviets were not a problem nor that they were not going to fill what vacuums of power they could but this was a State that had been nearly overturned by the West once.
Not only that but millions of its people had been brutalised and murdered and it was its massed ranks that had driven national socialism - murderous in intent not just as means - to the wall.
Wolff and those like him were engaged in a late project to split the allies and incorporate German national socialism into the Western model. He and others half succeeded.
They succeeded primarily (once the officials of the State Department, the politicians and the OSS, later the CIA, had recovered their power over the Truman administration) in creating a shared view of communism.
Think of these two reactions to events by two leading Nazis in the last days. First, Hitler stating to Wolff that the allies would split and he did not care which side he then dealt with.
Hitler was living in fantasy land but it helps us to understand the importance of 'unconditional surrender'. Wolff was horrified (as most Germans would have been) because 'Jewish' communism was the enemy.
Now look at this quotation from Himmler (not in this book):
We have made serious mistakes. If I could have a fresh start, I would do many things differently now. But it is too late. We wanted greatness and security for Germany, and we are leaving behind us a pile of ruins, a fallen world."
Er, yes, well. This was on April 21st, 1945, and we see that as one world of Hitlerist fanaticism was dying, another one of 'starting again' was already opening up.
What was going on in Bern in the April 1945 was the seduction of intellectual amateurs, Wall Street lawyers and political fixers, by this second vision relying on a shared terror of 'communism'.
Dulles was not a fool and sometimes the authors are, I believe, too hard on him - this was a real time crisis - but, isolated in Switzerland, he undoubtedly came to fall for Wolff's implicit pitch.
This becomes the more significant when we realise that the political amateurism of the OSS becomes the dangerously powerful thuggery and malignity of the CIA.
The circle of American players in Italy in these last days become the basis not only of a hard-line Cold War but sponsors of the single major reason the US has lost its positive image - its security apparat.
Regardless of the villainy of the Soviets and the fact that unresolved political issues would have caused problems after the capitulation by the very nature of things, things could have been handled differently.
From the perspective of the time, before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union would have been an essential resource for the defeat of Japan and Stalin played more than fair in this respect.
The period from May to August 1945 might have been used more effectively to settle post war conditions and develop collaborative relations between the three dominant empires.
However, amongst the factors that helped unravel this possibility, we must include the OSS' adventuring and the effect of anti-communist German arguments about the threat of communism.
Instead of calculating responses to communism and a fundamentally defensive Stalin, political paranoia emerged, rushing into negative responses and developing a peacetime alliance with the real villains.
The atrocities were forgotten, the death camps were forgotten, the invasions were forgotten and the Soviet Union cast as an expansionist villain when its prime purpose was reconstruction.
The shift of power from war leaders and military men, with practical ends, to a curious clique of lawyers, cronies, politicians and military theorists transformed the situation.
Although we should not exaggerate the significance of 'Operation Sunrise', it marks one of a number of points where we can trace the transfer of power to a new cold war elite, paranoid and closed.
Perhaps the high point of the lunacy, which encompassed nuclear weaponry and the Rand Corporation, would be James Jesus Angleton. All the powers fell into the same trap. Gehlen ran rings round the US.
But, despite the reforms after the Church Committee, what we have now is not the rational Great Power diplomacy and hard power of the period before 1945 but the mentally unbalanced world of 'security'.
The blunders of the West in recent years can be traced to the mentality that emerged in Bern, the loss of focus on hard power and the elaboration of ever more oozalum-like political narratives.
Yes, of course, eventually, this mentality may have resulted in its prime aim - the destruction of the Soviet Union - but this presupposes that this was the right aim all along.
This is where we may part as reader and reviewer. The Soviet Union was either equivalent to national socialism, and Dulles implicitly and Wolff explicitly were right all along, or it was not.
My doubt lies in the fashion for equivalence between the two ideologies - one imperialistically seeking to expand on a radical racial premise and the other seeking development against intervention.
The crimes and oppressions of the latter are not in doubt (and unanswerable in most cases) but the British Empire was not exactly unsoiled by horrors nor industrialisation anywhere in the world.
This is no defence of Sovietism but we should doubt whether a mentality that could contemplate mutual nuclear extinction, acceptance of the security state and collaboration with Nazis is tolerable.
We should think on this when being seduced into our various positions in relation to the Ukraine or China.
Notes are private!
Jun 01, 2014
Aug 04, 2005
Aug 04, 2005
Professor Bayly and Dr. Harper have produced a superb history of an important corner of the Second World War. It provides important insights into the...more
Professor Bayly and Dr. Harper have produced a superb history of an important corner of the Second World War. It provides important insights into the South East Asian present.
War changes everything. We see first a decadent British Empire run, in Burma and what would later be called Malaysia, by self-satisfied prigs whose failures would be all-to-evident in an early crushing defeat.
Then, we have the new nationalisms of the region (though only these two countries and more tangentially, India, are covered) ready to fight imperialism alongside and against the new ideology of communism.
The war was transitional at so many levels. It showed how surprisingly easy it was to drive out the undoubtedly racist British through the sheer will power and brutal energy of the Japanese lust for power.
But it also showed that the same machinery of empire may have been ruled by fools at the margins but it was also equally ruled by brutally pragmatic men of great energy and resource at the centre.
Though stretched to the limit and on the point of being overtaken by American wealth and superior management, Mountbatten's British-led SEAC halted the Japanese advance and drove it back beyond Rangoon.
The truth is that the Atomic Bomb against civilians in Japan probably did stop the deaths of hundreds of thousands (or more) if brutalised Westerners really did have to crush brutal Easterners in the field.
This front was as deeply monstrous as the European Eastern Front. The behaviours similar - only the deliberate machinery of the extermination camp was missing.
There are so many levels to this story that it is quite an achievement for the two authors to hold it together as a single narrative - even if this falters a little in one area.
The authors are at pains to tell us all they can about resistance movements and 'forgotten armies' - radical anti-imperialists who fought with Japan much as Vlasov fought with Hitler.
Some flipped sides at just the right time. Others (the Communists, the Chinese and most of the hill peoples) backed the British on the basis that my enemies' enemy is my friend.
The problem is that these forces were, like Vlasov's, historically important for the future but much less so in that particular present and the sections on some of these can read like abridged monographs.
Yet some of the detail is absolutely necessary for a full understanding of what will be the second half of the story - imperial European recapture and then negotiated loss of its Eastern hegemony.
Indeed, Bayly and Harper have produced that very sequel ('Forgotten Wars') so these detailed longueurs must be accepted as a necessary prologue to the meat of the next act in the drama.
But the truth is that the Indian National Army, the Burma Defence Army and the much lauded behind-the-lines guerrillas and special operations may have been disruptive but were not central to the imperial struggle.
In fact, these units are about as important as the resistance in much of Europe - making life difficult for the invader or causing additional pain to SEAC but not decisive.
These units were aspects of the political - the real story was of Japan reproducing the methods and atrocities of their German allies but doomed to lose bloodily once it had blundered over Pearl Harbour.
Much as we have seen in Edgerton's work, the ultimate triumph of the West was not going to be in doubt but these chancers in Tokyo might still have come out of it well if they had caused an Indian revolt.
It is India that matters. The book is not about India but India looms over the story nevertheless and its story has to be told to make sense of what goes on between Chittagong and Singapore.
The British military were so unnerved by the speedy fall of their South East Asian Empire and troubled by dissent in the Raj that they considered shifting the base of the fight to Australia.
The question is not answered - how on earth did the British hold on to a whole sub-continent for so long? And the answer is that its hold was no more certain than this consideration suggests.
The same question arises in relation to Western domination of every non-Western polity - China springs to mind but so does Burma itself and the Malay States. And the answer is uncomfortable.
It really comes down to the old saying that 'in the land of the blind, the one eyed man was king'. These second and third rate products of minor public schools were just a bit cleverer than their charges.
The British ruled because they ruled over more politically primitive peoples so the political, social and military education of Indians, Burmans and Malays in war was sufficient death knell for empire.
The book, like all intelligent histories of the Second World War, is riddled with atrocity - with an added element of the most appalling racism, sexual exploitation and arrogance on both imperial sides.
The tension between 'modern' Britain and its furthest colonies was simply the tension of the former realising just how much its own civil service and local military had 'gone native'.
Mountbatten and Slim would be recognisable in today's British military - highly intelligent men with the ability to inspire - whereas types like Dorman-Smith were little more than arrogant local potentates.
The unjustified self regard of the British locals (satirised by Maugham and others from the metropolis) continued after the war in the detemination to treat its own suffering as somehow unique.
Yes, some 14,000 European men died horribly on the Burma-Thailand Railway but this was perhaps 5-10% of the total deaths caused by the panicking Japanese on this project. The rest were 'natives'.
The story of the comfort women is also well told now but the scale of it will help explain why Japanese failure to 'atone' (unlike democratic Germany) makes it so deeply unpopular even today.
For all its claims of Asian for the Asians, the Japanese militarist onslaught was like the German - a grab for power that misused local nationalists and left its naive or corrupt quislings high and dry.
We have the civilian deaths from the bombings of Singapore and Rangoon (twice), the terrible fate of refugees, the avoidable famine in Bengal in 1942/1943, inter-ethnic pogroms and evil collective punishments.
Bayly and Harper's account of the mass exodus from Burma as the Japanese advanced should be read by every Briton who thinks the values of our ancestors were based on some code of honour.
The conduct of the British community was more than self-preservative, it was totally dismissive of the lives of even those of mixed race descent who had given exceptional service. One is ashamed.
The Japanese reached the dizzy heights of evil more even than this but then there are the effects on British prisoners of the mistreatment of Japanese in India and the British 'no prisoners' policy in 1944.
The sheer scale of dislocation and death, the sheer malice and brutality of the Japanese invaders and the sheer incompetence of the old imperial elite makes this a depressing read at times.
There are some heroes - Major Seagrim surerendered himself to certain death rather than see Karen villages destroyed in reprisals - but most of the story is just of men and women driven to hell and back by fate.
And at the end - the Japanese rightly beaten and humiliated but the British and other colonial empires now unsustainable. Oh, the scale of suffering needed to oust a bunch of minor public schoolboys!
Notes are private!
May 28, 2014
Jan 01, 1960
Aug 13, 2013
Originally written in 1960 (though the publishers seem to do everything they can to hide this), this ancient Farmer science fiction fantasy is a rehas...more
Originally written in 1960 (though the publishers seem to do everything they can to hide this), this ancient Farmer science fiction fantasy is a rehash of Farmer's reading of Campbell, Frazer and Graves.
The story can be simply summarised as the arrival in a dystopian neo-pagan future of a space crew from the past. Neo-pagan memes are interwoven with a variety of religious myths.
It starts quite well with that wry satirical approach that a certain sort of American writer does well but almost exponentially degenerates into the ridiculous - both as theory and as sociology.
The writing is also a bit pedestrian. This condemnation is written by someone who greatly admires 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' but, let's be frank, this is a potboiler trying to shock and it shows.
Farmer does not entirely fare well as time passes and not just because technology always tends to out-play all but the best of science fiction writers. The shock effect is just no longer there ...
In Farmer's case, technology is not the problem (we can overlook this) but an approach to religion and sexuality that derives from a peculiarly American, dare we say neurotic, context.
The book is helped by the Afterword of Dennis Power who places the work firmly in the context of Farmer's religious concerns and there might be much to be written about its meaning if it was a better book.
Here one's review falters - one could take the book seriously and produce an extensive analysis of Farmer's investigation of matriarchy and male violence or one could just move on.
Life is short, the psychology of the frustrated male writer of the 1960s is of minimal interest today and few take Campbell, Frazer and Graves wholly seriously now, so let us move on ...
Notes are private!
May 25, 2014
Jan 01, 1998
Dec 01, 2012
Another solid thriller from Alan Furst, a cut above the average. The characterisation is one stage improved on 'Spies of the Balkans' and the sexual r...more
Another solid thriller from Alan Furst, a cut above the average. The characterisation is one stage improved on 'Spies of the Balkans' and the sexual relationships vastly so.
Furst is good at creating believable heroes - not so much likeable as manly and with existential integrity. His Austrian-turned-Hollywood star Frederic Stahl is in that mould. His woman are also well drawn.
The book is not subtle politically. Furst's history is accurately researched even if the Nazis are all straight out of New York cultural demonology but this is a thriller and to be judged as such.
A hidden pleasure is being taken through the making of a film of that era without really noticing it. And there is the usual - perhaps less necessary this time - map. Recommended. (less)
Notes are private!
May 23, 2014
Every time I walk past the statue 'honouring' the aircrews of Bomber Command in Green Park, I taste something unpleasant in my mouth.
I can imagine a d...more
Every time I walk past the statue 'honouring' the aircrews of Bomber Command in Green Park, I taste something unpleasant in my mouth.
I can imagine a decent German feeling much the same if Berlin had a major monument to the Eastern Front war dead of the Wehrmacht.
Yes, both sets of men were courageous and died for the sins of their leaders but both sets of men were complicit in appalling atrocities under orders that specifically targeted civilians.
This remarkable, well evidenced and well written book is about the use of bombing and its effects in Europe during the Second World War - at least that is its primary purpose. It is, in fact, a book about evil.
Half a million Europeans were murdered from the air either indirectly as part of the prosecution of war or directly as a deliberate strategy of area or political bombing by air power advocates.
The book is dense in places. Overy does not put statistics into foot-notes but makes sure you have them to hand when you read of this raid or that campaign - whether deaths or tonnage of bombs.
He does not go into too much detail of effects - just enough for us to be clear what bombing involves - because his interests (and ours) are the policies that led to these horrors.
This is one of those books where the complexity of issues requires that we do not try an easy summary. Overy is fair-minded. He seeks to understand and not condemn. There is no emotion here.
The final conclusions are measured and pointed. He also provides a useful coda that suggested that nothing was fundamentally learned from the experience.
He rightly points out that the area bombing of Bomber Harris - who must be the very epitome of the banality of evil if you have a soul - was of its time and could not be repeated.
He then stops any sigh of relief at this point by pointing out that these maniacs (my opinion, not his) did not need to repeat it because they soon had nuclear weaponry. We have been lucky so far.
Half a million dead over five years could now become 80million Russians in a few hours. The strategy of total war would dictate first strike in the forlorn hope of limiting the effect at home.
One should continue to think on this as a bunch of war loons try to convert crises in the Middle East or over local self-determination in the Ukraine into confrontations with well armed nuclear powers.
The point is that the area strategy was not a general one amongst the combatants but a specifically Anglo-American - indeed British one - based on the thinking of an Italian proto-fascist, Douhet.
The irony of this is not lost on Overy who points out that Allied bombing of Italians (while their Government was an ally) cost more lives than the Blitz.
One gets a shock to the system when one discovers just how evil the British as a war state had become in what was clearly an existential struggle of constant escalation with no quarter given.
Let us start by noting something uncomfortable. Although air power advocates promoted independent bombing strategies, the general view in the 1930s was that civilian bombing was a horror.
Neither the Soviets nor the Americans adopted civilian bombing as a policy directive and (surprise!) it was Hitler who attempted to outlaw it and chemical and gas weapons at the beginning of the conflict.
Of course, this does not gainsay Hitler's villainy against first the Jews and the mentally disabled and then anything that got in his way of a civilian nature in the East or in terms of reprisals.
But facts are facts. And probably because he still had a residual notion that the West Europeans were a basically civilised people, Hitler seems to have thought it uncivilised to bomb people in war.
There is, as well, multiple room for misunderstandings, sometimes wilful, in international relations with deeply unpleasant political warfare operatives muddying the truth at every opportunity.
Overy, somewhat embarrassingly, places Guernica, Warsaw and Rotterdam in their military context and draws the critical line between what we call 'collateral damage' and deliberate terror.
This is central because we need to understand that the British not only had a strategy of terror (the only nation to do so) but, with the Americans, banked up gas bombs in Italy ready to use in the last days.
Biological weapons may have been in their infancy but it seems (from Overy's coda) that the next total war contemplated by the air power loons included advocacy of bacteriological warfare to retain assets.
So what is going on here? Certainly Churchill was troubled by the strategy of terror though unafraid to use any resource to meet political ends. As we will note, we can still see his point.
Similarly, not only the Germans and the Soviets but also the Americans may have been ruthless though happily held to the notion of tactical use of air power where civilians were unfortunate collateral damage.
The secret of evil seems to lie in its true source - the corporate mentality. The RAF was a new arm of state force and competed for budgets and resources. It positioned itself as the future.
Its chief, Bomber Harris, somewhere ceased to be a human being and became the pure will of his force. He had done a common thing, lost himself in the task and ceased to be more than the task.
Edgerton has written persuasively that last century air power was associated with the technological right and he has pointed out the ideology underpinning Liberal Militarism.
Overy does not go down this route but we should remind ourselves that the driver for techno-war was the protection of one's own people by mustering massive power targeted at the population of the other.
This reversion to a Mesopotamian attitude to the cities of your enemy also held a sub-text of fear that democracy (actually the hold of the liberal elite) could not survive another general call-up.
The solution - tanks on the front and planes in the sky - neatly converged with the institutional aspirations of the RAF to an equal or dominant role in war strategy.
Since fighters and fighter-bombers by definition were always going to be ancillary to armies fighting blow by blow across country and naval forces defending trade routes, this meant bombing.
The justification of bombing however was not easy. Aiming was poor, air crew losses were high and the equipment was very expensive. To be more than ancillary required a 'result'.
What these callous men offered was one or both of two possibilities, one taken up more reasonably by the Americans and the other - fanatically - by Bomber Harris.
The first was to claim that bombing raids directed at aeroengine works, transportation and oil facilities (and so on) could degrade the economy of the other side so that his war capacity would fail.
Naturally, given the weakness of bomb aiming equipment and the constant pressure on air crews of fear, this meant serious collateral damage to the civilian population.
Needless to say, this is what happened not only in the Blitz (which was always military in purpose in terms of economic warfare) but also in many of the major raids on Germany and all those in allied states.
Overy plausibly demonstrates that this sort of airpower was far less effective than the bombers claimed but he (and we) can give the men of the time the benefit of the doubt here.
The bombers in these cases seem to have killed a lot of people, including allied citizens to the increasing frustration of the resistance, but there was at least a theoretical case for action.
It could be reasonable in an escalating existential crisis to accept this massive collateral damage if it brought the hell to a faster end - this is the dark justification, of course, for Hiroshima.
This sort of bombing is just - just - on the right side of morality for most people: we say again, that which reasonably might be considered to be the lesser evil in an existential struggle.
Strategic area bombing of civilians to inspire terror in the dubious and unevidenced belief that this might cause panic and bring down a regime is another kettle of fish however.
There are cases where regimes were brought down by terror bombing - Italy seems to be an example - but nearly all countries appear to have adapted and even seem to have seen the regime strengthened.
The fact of bombing and disruption exposed weak and poor regimes like Mussolini's but it enabled a narrative of resistance and a politically-led popular organisation to emerge elsewhere.
Just as general tactical asset bombing oddly tended to increase production through reorganisation, substitution and determination so area bombing tended to strengthen political legitimacy.
In the first case, it might be very reasonable for strategists not to have understood that this would be the case but in the second we are faced by two new factors.
The Blitz itself should have provided sufficient evidence that regimes strengthened on existential threat while what we have here is something different - the deliberate targeting of workers.
Ah, I seem to have slipped into the unforgivable here - the values-driven business of morality!
The point is that Bomber Harris was no different from Himmler in this - the destruction of persons deliberately because of their nature, in this case as German workers, in Himmler's as Jews.
The argument that the Jews were 'innocent' and the German workers were 'guilty' is specious. To Nazis, the Jews were as 'guilty as hell' as origins of the war (yes, absurd but believed culturally).
German workers, many of whom voted social democratically in the 1932 and previous elections and who were led no less than workers anywhere by malign elites, were suffering here from collective punishment.
The deliberate firestorming of Hamburg and other cities was a war crime that the Allies knew to be so when they decided not to prosecute the Nazis at Nuremburg for their bombing atrocities.
The most notorious case, Dresden, ironically probably falls into the milder category of tactical warfare bombing in support of the Soviet push to the East. Overy is good at revising our preconceptions.
The lessons of all this are largely academic, on the old mafia saying that 'that was then and this is now'. The conditions were peculiar and unrepeatable - new atrocities entirely are for our time.
However, we can draw some lessons about the human condition, about the blind and unaccountable nature of institutional forms operating in unevidenced ways and doing bad things under unrestrained leaders.
To be fair, Churchill was a man under severe pressure to whom bombing remained a tool-at-hand and a sideshow and, though committed absolutely to success, he was neither stupid nor psychopathic.
What is worrying is that, under conditions of existential crisis, power to do great evil can be delegated so easily. This story raises very uncomfortable thoughts about other war leaders.
And not just Stalin and Hitler but Cameron and Obama. The post-war Presidents, for example, appear to have had some reasonable grip over their forces through acceptance of their authority. Are we so sure now?
One question is what happens when the 'fuhrerprinzip' sends down the line vague generalities alongside instructions that can be interpreted brutally because they were stated brutally (the Hitler/Stalin model).
But another question is what happens when a Leader is not working on full information and makes false or 'bad' judgements on the claims of the institutional pressure groups who claim to serve him.
There are signs on several occasions in this story that Bomber Command lost the ability to do two things under Bomber Harris: think beyond the interests of itself; and have reasonable moral boundaries.
The British were far from alone - the Soviets were restrained only because they were fighting a different sort of war - and the Americans soon descended into hell themselves with the Tokyo firebombing.
But bombing itself was over-egged as tool - strategic bombing in the battlefield could lead to the 'friendly fire' errors that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan as well and often did more harm than good.
It may - given existential struggle and acceptance of the 'just war' (ho, hum!) - have had some important function in degrading the flow of materiel to the enemy front and redirecting production.
What strikes me as unconscionable, especially with political motives of pure populist revenge, is to continue with a campaign of total war against civilians long after it is clear that it is just murder.
Almost every civilian death could be justified by some rational explanation based on the struggle for existence by the end but, by that time, everyone has lost the moral plot.
The great lesson of all this is that war has its own remorseless logic in which (as Overy wisely notes) political conditions eventually block the chance to do the right thing.
However, you can make up your own mind. Overy is detached and clinical. The facts are all there in his book. I urge you to read it and ask where you think the boundaries of death-dealing should lie.
Notes are private!
May 11, 2014
Jan 01, 2010
Jan 01, 2011
This is a solid wartime Balkans thriller with an appealing central character that wears its debt to Ambler with pride.
Furst is an American yet there...more
This is a solid wartime Balkans thriller with an appealing central character that wears its debt to Ambler with pride.
Furst is an American yet there is something British about his sensibility and style although it almost lost a star for an absurd romantic element that stretched patience a little.
One of the reasons for reading this thriller, other than that it is almost a compulsive page-turner, is educational - he tells the story of one year (1940/1941) of critical Balkans history well (with map!).
Recommended for when you are in the mood for an easy-to-read but well written thriller, one almost tailor-made for an ITV three-part drama. (less)
Notes are private!
May 03, 2014
Oct 24, 1996
Nevin produces a perhaps overly generous but nevertheless useful account of one of the last century's most important European intellectuals, giving po...more
Nevin produces a perhaps overly generous but nevertheless useful account of one of the last century's most important European intellectuals, giving powerful insights into the 'German mind'.
Of course, Junger was an exceptional - a hysterical personality hidden behind an icy persona. His morbid and intense fanaticism presented in cool and refined terms, the aesthete of collectivised death.
The book only covers half his life. This would mean the story of a young man in most cases but here covers five decades at the heart of a terrible history. Junger's responses to them have things to tell us.
The master works are two-fold - immediate post-war and then polished memoirs of what a fanatic feels and does in mechanised trench warfare and diaries of Nazi occupation from a consummate aesthete.
The first, notably 'Storm of Steel', created an hysterical mythology that undoubtedly helped fuel the Radical Right capture of power in Germany in 1933.
The second, the 'Paris Diaries', should be reissued as an insight of immense value into what it means to occupy and what it means to resist.
But how to evaluate this important figure who represented the German haute bourgeoisie's adoption of faux-aristocratic elitism and its subsequent conversion, after trauma, into conservative revolutionism?
The writings in the interwar era bear all the hall marks of a form of literary post-traumatic stress response - the violence and morbidity packaged into grand schemes detached from all observable reality.
During that period, like many committed ideologues, Junger would find that national socialism was somehow not quite right, too demotic, too pragmatic, not cosmic enough perhaps.
He entered into what we now identify as National Bolshevik circles - the Left critics within the broad national socialist ideology associated with Niekisch and the Strassers.
Junger - a minor political figure as much as he was a major cultural figure - was by-passed by the Night of the Long Knives as he escaped the terror after the July bomb plot. He was both lucky and protected.
In the 1930s, his aestheticism dominates. He writes the spectacularly effective and misunderstood 'Auf den Marmorklippen' and sees through Hitler early but his politics remain fundamentally militarist.
Back in military service in the early 1940s, without changing his radical conservative views, merely adapting them, aesthetic distaste for the modern techno-brutality of demotic Hitlerism grows.
Does this redeem him? That case is hard to make. He is complicit. His aestheticism of elite domination, his disregard for the ordinary person, his sentiment - all these remain.
All he does is write beautifully and with acute observational skill (to the delight or horror of other highly educated intellectuals) about monstrosities and what the rich do on their holidays.
As a result of his brutal and cold honesty, there is far more to be learned about the human condition, however, than there is from the worthy whining and dishonesty of liberals.
The only place where this author's writings (which are not covered after 1945) filled me with an almost physical repulsion was at the very end when he discovers 'religion'.
Nevin tries his best to make this 'turn' interesting but the effect is part deadening and part visceral gut-wrenching disgust. In the midst of hell, with defeat on the horizon, he turns intellectual coward.
But the malign political influence does not stop with this intense new round of hogwash - it starts all over again.
We have written elsewhere of the attempt to whitewash the conservative nationalist hog in today's Europe. Here we see more of the origins of that whitewash in the 'programme' for post-war Europe.
Junger's interwar influence is still to be found reborn, alongside Evola's, in the rise of the political soldier and National Bolshevik activists' dabbling in Kiev and the undergrowth of European Rightism.
What is not so well appreciated is the influence of the wartime conservative nationalist idea of a united Europe based on 'Christian' values - little more than a ploy to win back the alienated occupied.
Junger's programme was not alone in this but it was part of the implicit strategy of the July plotters. Nevin's description of its main thesis is worth quoting at length.
... Junger seeks an authoritarian state that will unify Europe. He cites as visionaries of this union Richelieu, Cromwell [sic], and Bismarck, champions of statism but not certain friends of individual conscience. Suggesting that a democracy can be both authoritarian and liberal, he likens the state's security and the individual's prosperity to a mussel: hard outside so that the pearl may grow. .... He envisages an imperial state in tandem with a virtually established church, a tableau that conjures authoritarian Prussia.
We must always remember that Junger is rarely an original thinker on politics. What he does is take the general belief of his broader circle and the National Right and extend it into imaginative extremity.
He does this with the enthusiasm for war in 1914 and its ideology of the disciplined violence. And with the demand for integralist fascist order on the 1930s. And now with conservative survival.
The model for Europe, nurtured in the viper's nest of the German conservative elite and amongst complicit church-goers, the lesser evil to the satanic hatreds of national socialism, is that of today's Right.
The demand for peace - the leitmotif of the pro-European movement - is still cast on the Right in terms developed before 1914 by anti-Bolshevist conservatives under conditions of impending defeat.
This is the ultimate 'detournement' - turning defeat into ultimate victory. One wonders if the distaste of German liberal intellectuals for Junger is partly awareness of his partial victory.
The implication is that German violence can only be straight-jacketed by Europeanism and the Church (to the Right) and can never be a free liberal and democratic nation in its own right.
I want to praise Nevin for one minor innovation. When he cites an article or a book at the back he describes what is in it and whether he thinks it stands up to scrutiny or not.
I wish more academic authors would do this. It helps us get a better sense of controversy and the possible differences of opinion on how a work is to be interpreted. Junger must be seen in this way.
Finally, I think this book reminds us why books should never be banned or forgotten. Junger's work is very important and not as an 'object lesson' (as left-liberals might like it to be).
They are important because they are emotionally and intellectually 'true'. The blood-lust, grand schemes, detachment, controlled hysteria and fantastic essentialism are true to what we are as a species.
The paradox is that Junger is in good faith about laying out his limitations and bad faith. It is no accident that Celine and Bloy appear in the pages on occupation.
We need to know not only what we are but what we could be and therefore what others could be if we give them authority and power. Junger is what we all could be under certain conditions.
I find I cannot relate to some aspects of this conservative extremist but that he does speak to other aspects of me as possibly no other writer can.
Junger dances around the dark demonic without ever becoming quite satanic himself. His world visions are fusions of pessimism and dark hope, clear observation and the fantastic.
At one point, some passage or other triggers thoughts of the cosmic despair of a Ligotti. At another, he appears to get into the very heart of what it is to be compassionate, almost by accident.
But remember that the story ends in 1945. There is another 53 years of life to go - some may consider that long and full life mere proof of a godless universe but his work remains of inestimable value.
Notes are private!
Apr 26, 2014
Jan 01, 1999
Mar 28, 2014
Pasi took some two decades to write this relatively short work. What started off as a dissertation in an area of maximal obscurity (the politics of es...more
Pasi took some two decades to write this relatively short work. What started off as a dissertation in an area of maximal obscurity (the politics of esoterism) has become important in post-recession Europe.
In fact, Pasi is writing a corrective. Crowley's involvement and interest in politics (except as means to ends related to his religious ambitions) was actually very small and intermittent - and unstable.
This has not stopped Crowley being adopted by elements in the neo-fascist European Right, almost certainly through the different magical interest of Evola and the flummery of Rightist occultism.
This New New Right (since the New Right tends to neo-conservative extreme radical individualism) goes beyond even populism to revive the 'political soldier' model of the 1970s and seeks revolution.
Regardless of the extremities of Russian propaganda, it is to be found in the Ukraine and lurking in competition with more obvious traditionalist excesses and nostalgia for a Nazi-led Europe.
Paganism, occultism, esotericism - all the mish-mash of thought found in a rootless bourgeoisie who know, as we all do, that something is wrong but who are incapable of thinking through what is to be done!
Pasi does us the service of going back to the man, asking what he was in his own time and what his purposes were, and then placing any politics to be found there in that context.
The answer is not good for latter day extremist acolytes. First of all, Crowley was either a conventional man of his time or (in his second phase) a pragmatist and an opportunist.
His conventionalities were the Tory attitudes of his generation and his class alongside periodic rebellions that had him dabbling in romantic political games that attracted many well-fed esotericists.
If anything, though never a materialist, his anti-traditionalism and commitment to religion being justified in scientific terms by results pushes him into the progressive camp, if kicking and screaming.
Alleged flirtations with Mussolini, Hitler and Sovietism were nothing more than naive attempts to get his religion in front of the masses by whatever was to hand in the conditions of the time.
In fact, there is so little to say about his politics in the long run that Pasi effectively 'pads out' the tale with extended essays on Crowley's relationship with Pessoa and (by Hakl) on Evola.
Neither essay really tells us much about Crowley but I have no complaints. Pasi's scholarly discipline is exemplary and we learn important detail about what really matters - the culture of the era.
In that context, the book is a valuable monograph that shows just how the decaying upper middle classes interconnected on nonsensical beliefs and intellectual fads - from jacobitism to pseudo-communism.
In fact, for all his faults, Crowley comes out of this not too badly if you stick to the image of someone who stuck to his last on core anti-Christian, libertarian and elitist values.
That odd mix means that there is no way that he can be seen as part of today's traditional revival - Thelema is definitely not a primordialist religion but a revolutionary new religion.
It also means that it is intrinsically anti-totalitarian and closer to what Nietzsche might have seen as a transvaluation of values (though I doubt the philosopher would have been impressed with him).
One can see why this old roue flirted with systems like scientific socialism, national socialism and fascism as an intrinsic libertarian anti-democrat but also why each flirtation lasted for such little time.
He thought these systems could bring spiritual liberty to the masses (not to be confused with political liberty), only to find quite quickly, as Evola did, that these were practial men of brute power.
What is more interesting throughout this book is the peculiar culture of pre-war and interwar esotericism and the underground of ridiculous theory that seems to be finding fertile ground again.
My own view is that no one understood Nietzsche at that time except in simple terms because he was asking far too much in terms of free thought but Crowley probably made most progress in a half-baked way.
I am not and will never be a Thelemite - a cure as bad as the disease - but I will always admire Crowley, for all his irresponsibilities and narcissism, for asking the right questions.
The right questions were ones of liberating the individual self from the trammels of inherited forms, re-invention if you like. He came (as Pasi notes) to see this as a mission - hence his political dabbling.
The message remains liberatory even if he is as misused in the practice as was Nietzsche whose role in triggering his thought may have been under-estimated. They were both men before their time.
The book is highly recommended not only as an intelligent evaluation of the man - more measured than acolytes and critics - but as providing insights into a period of Western cultural confusion.
Pasi does not engage much with his influence after Evola (who seems not really to have been influenced!). But the notes are excellent in every respect and his judgments strike me as sound at every point.
We have had good works appearing now on traditionalism and on the esoteric cultural environment as well as on the post-war Right but it is good to see some facts laid down before further abuses take place.
Notes are private!
Apr 21, 2014
Oct 18, 1988
I will come clean - I generally find South Asian spirituality obscurantist (not helped by its Sanskrit technical terminology) and tend to avoid it.
I will come clean - I generally find South Asian spirituality obscurantist (not helped by its Sanskrit technical terminology) and tend to avoid it.
However, this book is a worthy addition to the library. It is scholarly and as clear as can be expected with the subject matter.
Silburn was Honorary Research Director at the French CNRS and has taken seriously her task of comprehensively studying the texts that are available and works hard to explain what we have to hand.
Many modern readers will be most interested in what the texts have to say about the esoteric sexual practice of tantra in the third part and the book certainly has insights.
Sexual transgression was still transgression in early medieval Vedic India so the obscurity of some practices will remain a secret forever unless a new hidden cache of texts is found.
Nevertheless, what we have here is a recognition of the transcendental orgasmic response identified as a very real phenomenon by Dr. Jenny Wade and others and an attempt to explain it along traditional lines.
My own view is that the spiritual language of universal consciousness is sincere obfuscation - the sort that we are used to hearing from drug-happy Californians - but there is still something to learn here.
The egalitarian attitude between men and women is refreshing but the real interest lies in the awareness of sexual union and transgressive behaviour as in themselves potentially personally transformative.
There is a certain gnostic pessimism in the texts about just how many people might benefit and the claims are extreme to say the least but something very real in terms of experience was going on here.
The precise techniques are probably lost though they clearly involved self-generated sound and vibration, concentrated mental effort and breath control but not scientifically non-recoverable if we will it.
The question is whether our culture can will it because the process clearly requires a particular sexual dynamic that is counter-intuitive to Western habits and separate from 'household sexuality'.
The question beneath the question is how much people want to be transformed in line with their inner nature. This is the real barrier then and now to adoption of sex as transformation tool.
The adoption of sanskrit gobbledygook (by Westerners) is really a sign of evasion and resistance to early medieval South Asian discoveries. Sexuality has to be cloaked even now in invented 'meaning'.
I am pleased to see scholars - professional and amateur such as Phil Hine - working hard to uncover the real meaning of sanskrit texts to contemporaries and their subsequent interpretation.
This is a major service to culture but, if the discoveries are to be productive, the texts have to be not merely translated into terms we can understand but understood as suggestive rather than scripture.
The discoveries need to be considered in a modern materialist context as matters for bio-physical, neuro-scientific and psychological investigation and offered as possibilities and tools for today.
Hidden in the coded language of South Asian and alchemical texts are important insights into the way we can control our bio-mental faculties to remove past encodings and realign ourselves.
One of the tools for this has to be a non-neurotic approach to sexuality that permits it to be a tool for such an alignment and not just a bonding mechanism to keep society ticking along.
This dual nature of sexuality - as trigger for bonding and as source for personal transformation - has never been accepted fully in Western society and not always wholly or healthily elsewhere.
Perhaps the lesson of seeking sexual means to non-dualism is that we need to deal with the dualism of society as part of the process of general species transformation.
To be uncharacteristically idealistic for a moment, one can envisage a situation where people are so economically, socially, culturally and sexually secure that they can integrate these two sexualities.
A society of multiple bondings between transformed and non-neurotic individuals is a pipe dream at the moment because economic insecurity, social and cultural competition and sexual neurosis are normal.
Once the bonding element is sorted out (which is really a sub-set of anxiety), then minds can turn to sexuality as a tool in conditions where 'detachment' and 'love' are not incompatible.
Still, this book at least offers a small corner of the history of the world where, in a perhaps unsatisfactory way, men and women could consider practical measures on equal terms to achieve transcendence.
Notes are private!
Apr 18, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
Oct 02, 2013
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distil...more
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distilling at least two decades of thinking on the subject.
Although a Professor of War Studies, Freedman does not restrict himself to the conduct of war but reviews revolutionary and dissident stategy on the one hand and business strategy on the other.
He is highly critical of some of the nonsense (he is too kind to call it that) from business gurus and I can only be pleased that I smelled the rat throughout the 1980s and 1990s and read few of them.
Where he gets to is a sceptical view of what we can possibly know about our own futures or control them.
He outlines, in the final section, the role of narratives and scripts in giving us the illusion of control.
This is not a counsel of despair. There is no fatalism in Freedman's approach but he does suggest that 'real life' requires a degree of detachment from scripts and narratives while making use of them as tools.
Educated readers will probably not be surprised by the general thrust of the section on war where there is a sort of master in Clausewitz (and the influence of Jomini) but it will bring you up to date.
As we write, a rather odd crisis between the 'West' (whatever that is) and Russia, after some egregious blundering by the European Union, has allowed all sorts of absurd 'narratives' free rein.
Trying to rein in historic stories about fascism and appeasement as well as more recent tales of humanitarian intervention and self determination has been part of the problem for intelligent diplomats.
The Ukraine remains unresolved as we write but the undoubted strategic skills of Putin and Lavrov on the one hand and Obama and Kerry might be enhanced by having this text at their sides.
The second section on the strategic attempts to overturn elites and systems gives due weight to the role of Marxism but is perhaps too easily seduced into a highly US-centred picture of political struggle.
This provides us with one of the few 'strategic' criticisms of the book - the elephant in the room that Freedman assiduously dances around: the State.
Military strategy is the expression of the force of the State, revolutionary strategies seek to overturn or capture the State and business strategies compete with the State ... but what of the State?
The State, emergent out of warlordism and dynasticism (or small trading communities), is the thing that should interest us most because we are most stuck inside its narratives and scripts.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of space (the book is over 600 pages long) but one senses sometimes that the broader academic community is always nervous of telling us the truth about what feeds it.
But this may be unfair. The book is mostly easy reading (though the idiocies of academic social scientists often cause one to lose patience) and the assessments are honest and fair to all parties.
Indeed, it is good to find a book that both gives due to the troubled struggle by educated revolutionaries to speak for the masses and to the games businessmen play to try to control what cannot be controlled.
A book which treats Rockefeller of Standard Oil and Karl Marx fairly, let alone Tom Hayden, has a lot going for it though maybe Freedman should throw up his hands at Sun Tzu as perpetual strategic cliche.
Will this book make you a better 'strategist'? Well, it will do a service if it makes you sceptical about books that claim to offer that particular pot of gold.
Strategists are probably born rather than made but many of the skills can be learned - or rather 'bad' unstrategic narratives might be unlearned and 'scripts' recognised.
His story of continuous failures to 'get it right' becomes a bit cheerier when rationalist progressives begin to be challenged by the behaviourial economists.
Though I remain unconvinced by this particular discipline - and consider political science to be an utterly absurd concept - cognitive psychology has helped us here.
Increasingly, we are beginning to stop whining that we are not 'rational' (or rather autistic academics are) and beginning to see our mentalities as extremely good survival machines for uncertainty.
Freedman is persuasive that we have a sort of double action mind where intuition and 'art' working in real time gets things right most of the time under most conditions (his System 1 strategic thinking).
Habit and narratives and scripts can get in our way in a crisis and the reasoning abilities of his System 2 thinking enable us analytically and critically correct our own biases and errors.
However, we can only do this in real time, constantly adjusting to realities that are, in themselves, way beyond any form of reasonable long term analysis because of so many variables and unknowns.
Perhaps the thinking started with John Boyd's simple but productive concept of OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) but Freedman here develops a more interesting model of struggle.
In essence, the only strategy is the intuitive positioning of oneself to win each battle as it comes within a general vision of where one wants to be - and this is not a matter for mathematicians.
Notes are private!
Apr 13, 2014
May 01, 2008
'The Grin in the Dark' is less a horror tale than a novel of unease. From that perspective, the three pages of closely set third part endorsements giv...more
'The Grin in the Dark' is less a horror tale than a novel of unease. From that perspective, the three pages of closely set third part endorsements give the wrong impression on this occasion.
The tale uses the conceit (known to us from Japanese horror) of a creative medium - the cinema shorts of a disturbing lost silent comedian - that infects the minds of others.
There are strong elements of the gothic, the occult and Kingian coulrophobia and the whole novel leaves us with a lingering sense of disorientation but it is primarily a dark fantasy about modern life.
The rule is no spoilers. Not too much can be said except that the internet plays a major role as do a series of paranoid experiences with authority and with our complicated culture of automated responses.
Is our hero mad, drugged or the victim of dark forces? The doubt is maintained and Campbell sets the whole in a family structure that is superficially stable but riddled with misunderstandings.
It has to be said that Campbell writes well and he delivers more than the genre expectations we pay for - the human dynamics and characters are well done and assist the sense of Simon's and our alienation.
Alienation requires something to be alienated from. The family and society are portrayed as always just off normal in a way that it is hard for us to put our finger on. This takes great creative skill.
If it has a meaning as a novel beyond the thrill, it lies in a solitary male's alienation from the world, the 'victim' of unseen forces in a world where other men have become uniforms or strangers.
At times, it is oddly restrained - thrills are held back where a lesser writer might have reveled in them. Nothing quite comes to the sort of negative resolution we might expect until it has to.
The 'family life' always makes Simon the outsider, one felt to be an outsider, whose emotional reality depends on the whim (freely provided it would seem) of one self-sufficient woman and her young son.
The effect of the comic's material on Mark (a seven year old) gives us an example of Campbell's restraint. It would be obvious to place him in danger. He is in danger but it would seem no more than others.
This is a world closer to Ligotti than Lovecraft but without the former's relentlessness. Campbell's world is really just our world seen through a distorting prism on the edge of being 'true'.
If you are overweight and sensitive about it, you might find this story just a little offensive because fat people are quite clearly associated with a bigger meme - descent into mindless conformity.
Unusually, though, mindless conformity is associated with hilarity - not the usual combination - so that this represents part of the disorientation we feel. It seems we laugh together ... we are 'canned'.
Campbell's world (in this story) is a world where the individual finds himself constantly coming up against the Clausewitzian friction of a system that is always breaking down at the margins.
This breaking down seems to be something we simply put up with - increasingly with laughter, whether at our situation or because the situation is laughing at us and we just join in with it.
As part of the world, he (and we) are also always breaking down at the margins. The inhabitants of this world end up all looking much the same, obese and eternally grinning.
This laughter is the 'grin in the dark', an aimless, general laughter that comes when we have turned into roly-poly conforming creatures of what it is that lies under all things, something very primitive.
Campbell takes us through the process of discovering an existential discomfort - one is reminded of Roquentin staring at the tree in Sartre's 'Nausea' - but without any philosophical resolution.
It is important that Simon is ordinary, bright enough to be a graduate but not bright enough to see his own predicament clearly. Our ordinariness is in the face of things and people becoming things.
This is a book reasonably put on horror shelves but not one that seems prepared to reach too deeply into the dark night of the soul - as we say, it is a novel of deep unease about the world we thrown into.
Notes are private!
Mar 29, 2014
Mar 31, 2011
David Edgerton's book turns popular myths about Britain in the Second World War upside down and inside out. But a word of warning first.
He is making a...more
David Edgerton's book turns popular myths about Britain in the Second World War upside down and inside out. But a word of warning first.
He is making a point about history and not giving us a narrative so it would help if you already had some understanding of the course of the second world war and its past historiography.
There are times when the author revels in his piling up of data to prove his points - which are very many - so that some chapters require a fair amount of concentration of effort to understand fully.
But I do not want to put you off the book because it is informative, sometimes downright exciting as it shifts mental models and well illustrated with tables, maps and extensive notes.
Where to begin? I was persuaded by the sheer logic of the book that much of what I thought was true was not true ... it has even changed my view of contemporary political priorities.
He is persuasive that the British Empire was never not going to win the Second World War (with perhaps my own caveat that a lucky invasion and a bunch of quislings might have made it a very different Empire).
The scale of the trading and financial muscle of the Empire with its Dominions (four of the five 'Big Eyes' of global surveillance today) meant that what became the United Nations would conquer in the end.
By the end of the book, one might even feel sorry for Germany if it were not for the vile nature of its regime, blockaded, led by a blockhead, self-murderously running itself into the ground.
There is, of course, the story here of how the US displaced the Empire as hegemonic Western power but Edgerton is persuasive that this was not Britain declining but the US making use of spare capacity.
The difference between the two powers in 1939 was that the UK was an efficient global trading operation (which it still is) and the US had still not found a way to mop up the mass unemployed of 1929.
War permitted that massive surplus capacity to be employed. There is a fascinating transfer of capability from the UK to the US where it becomes clear that the US is simply more effective at utilising assets.
This is one of the points that come out of the book - Britain was so prosperous that it was monstrously wasteful. War is wasteful, of course, but the level of waste here was something else.
What was happening was that Churchill and his cronies exemplified a peculiar form of Liberal Militarism (still operative today) that created what amounted to a warfare state.
But the liberal part of that apparent oxymoron included an evident reluctance or perhaps political inability to expend human life with the gay abandon of the Central and East Europeans.
Edgerton has written elsewhere on this idea of a Liberal Militarist warfare state beyond categories of Right and Left (perhaps more to the Right) that saw total victory arising out of machines.
What this meant was that the right application of technology to wielding death on your opponents would permit the minimum death to your own side and the minimum disruption of the good life at home.
He makes clear that it was rather a 'good war' for Britons compared to what was experienced on the Continent. Not for some individuals or families perhaps but undoubtedly for many young workers.
In general, people were well nourished and the bombing campaigns were isolated to a relatively short period and area. When they came, they were horrific but most people most of the time were secure.
But it was no welfare state - the poor, the young, the old and the vulnerable were shunted aside to ensure that war workers and the military had the best of what was going.
Similarly, the death rates for troops were far less than the bloody milling going on from the suburbs of Moscow to Berlin. Bomber crews and merchant navy men were the worst affected with significant losses.
And that in itself tells you something - one set of men were expended to wreak greater death largely on civilians and the other lost their lives ensuring their fellows were well nourished and armed.
The US was to bring to a higher level this Anglo-Saxon belief in technology - the atom bomb and B-52 - as assurance against sending voters' kids too lightly to their deaths.
This attitude is very much part of what it is to be a modern liberal in the age of democracy and it empowered the State to allocate vast sums to armament and social control for decades to come.
Not that any liberal has ever hesitated to send another father's son to their death if it was 'the right thing to do' but only that it was deemed better to have your enemy and his mother killed remotely.
If the British Empire was never going to be defeated (and the German regime is now reliably seen as economically flawed at its very core), this was because it was never alone.
The Empire was not just a formal empire but an informal network of global relationships. Much of the world was dependent on patterns of trade and finance set by London and London dictated its terms.
The UK was quite capable of shifting its supply around from a blockaded Europe to the rest of the world in a way impossible to Hitler as much as Napoleon and to do so very quickly.
European dictators have to grab territory - drive desperately for oil fields or wheat lands - whereas the great Anglo-Saxon empires have simply sent a ship, theirs or one purchased with their geld.
Europeans within the blockade and third world suppliers of single crops that were no longer a priority suffered terribly. The Bengal Famine of 1942 was the fruit of a callous shift of shipping priorities.
The Empire treated much of the world as private property required to maintain the homeland and war then became a means of creating a strong national state that could disregard the interests of its partners.
Edgerton is persuasive that the war represents a transition not only from British to American global dominance but also from an imperial mind-set to a nationalist mind-set.
But Britain was 'never alone' - the rhetoric was nonsense and should be seen to be nonsense. The British were just the self-regarding beneficiaries of their own past piracies.
In the end, the myths were necessary to create a certain spirit or morale, helped by the fact that the Nazis really were rather vile. Perhaps we did not do bad things simply because we did not need to.
But we did. This brings us to the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon contribution to the long litany of man's inhumanity to man - the strategic bombing campaign where the British made a fetish out of area bombing.
The brutality of this is fascinating. Though we are brought up on Guernica, in fact the Nazis retaliated rather than initiated bombing and bombing of civilians was absolutely central to British strategy.
Indeed, it is interesting that it was the Americans that insisted on trying to be precise and break down transport and oil supply while the horrible Bomber Harris insisted on area bombing.
It was all part of this idea that war could be won by technology so minimising harms to the homeland. Edgerton is particularly good on this, showing not merely a warfare state but an aviation state.
The interwar ideology of world peace being enforced by a British imperial air force links us directly with the mentality behind atomic warfare and the repulsive bombing campaigns of Vietnam.
The same mentality is behind 'shock and awe', drones and surveillance as means of both crushing alternative military structures and controlling errant asymmetrical tribes people - increasingly ourselves.
The Liberal Militarism (precursor to neo-conservatism and Blairismo) of empire is matched by its wastefulness and its intense interest in technology as weapon of state expansion and social control.
I think you are beginning to see the importance of this book because, alongside the work of Peter Hennessy on the Cold War State and many others, we have a picture of the democratic state that disturbs.
Huge resources are made available to the State, justified by war or emergency, that can be applied not merely to winning the war but to controlling how we see that war. This is totalitarianism-lite.
Edgerton does not spend a lot of time on culture - his metier is science and technology - but his few examples show how the arts contributed to our own contemporary false consciousness about our past.
We need to start thinking about this. His and other historians' remorseless engagement with the facts tell us a very different picture about the Second World War than we had been led to believe.
We leave the book with a profound sense of confusion because he has dismantled a structure of belief (like Nietzsche killing God) but has not given us alternative structure.
He takes no ideological position so perhaps we have to - we might go back to the myth and say simply that this was what we were led to believe and now we have become what we believe.
This would be no different from any member of any religion who has inherited norms which scholarship will dismantle easily enough but which the believer chooses not to listen to.
What we have done is inherited a national religion - as perhaps all nations have done - and the new facts require either forgetting or a reform of our belief.
Certainly, the book has led me to 'fix' some revisions of belief that were already in my mind but has produced some new ones.
Thanks to Hennessy and others, I already knew that the United Kingdom had become a warfare state in stages throughout the last century and that welfare was a poor relation made necessary by political pressures.
I was never sold on the country having a well functioning democracy so the account of Churchill's cronyism - as oligarchical as anything to be found in Putin's Russia - did not surprise me.
Perhaps the historical depth of liberal internationalism as Liberal Militarism was new to me but not wholly a surprise.
After all, I had, when young, sat in on private meetings at which noble lords and industrialists had plotted with surety the defeat of the Left precisely in order to save the nuclear deterrent.
And, finally, no one but a fool does not understand imperialism and capitalism as essentially exploitative, although without necessarily believing that the exploitation cannot be progressive and modernising.
No, what was new was the realisation of just how much the 'ordinary folk' of Britain, the British working class, had been bamboozled about their own condition and in so many different ways.
The worst culprit is ironically the Party in which I spent much of my life - the Labour Party.
Although it did triumph in 1945 and it did shift into a welfare agenda, it never shifted out of the warfare agenda (excepting perhaps under Harold Wilson and then in its time of troubles in the 1970s).
It was brought into Government by Churchill as a political manouevre to counter the free trade and peace elements on the Right and was largely cover for his own Liberal Militarism and imperialism.
From that point on, although it captured the State through elections, in fact the State captured it, culminating in the final indignity of a full-blown Liberal Militarist running it like a dictatorship in Blair.
1926 may have proven decisively that the revolutionary path was not possible for the Left but Ramsey Macdonald and then Attlee both hammered nails of different sorts into the coffin of left democracy.
Macdonald toadied to the prevailing vision of economics when he had no need to and Attlee (far more forgivably) sacrificed democracy for the power to make material changes in the lives of the people.
Similarly, the book helps to lay to rest another set of malign myths that come from the closed elite that seems to decide how we are to think as well as live - about Europe.
The logic of the European Union for Europeans is profound in the context of world war. Any power that conquers Europe by force destroys Europe by triggering blockades on one side and Russia on the other.
From this perspective, unifying Europe and turning it into a single market by consent halts competition for internal imperial control and ensures that scarcities can be ameliorated by internal trade.
But for the United Kingdom and for Russia, the same logic does not apply. Let Russia speak for Russia but the United Kingdom only survives as an island through global and not just European trade.
Inside Europe, the United Kingdom is just a Province, outside Europe it is a wealthy Informal Empire. The welfare state depends on it being more than a Province. It requires the City and exports.
Just as the Labour Party needs to be removed or become the voice of the people, so the United Kingdom needs to recognise that what is in the interest of the people is independence of Europe.
The elite that blundered into war in 1914 and in 1939 is still with us. It still has a Liberal Militarist ideology and it still buys off any attempt to question its rule in just the way it has always done.
It is committed to its own survival by selling out a rather limited democracy and our independent cultural tradition to a bureaucracy that reproduces its own desire for waste, warfare and a trough.
Neither world war was necessary to the British people unless you are a card-carrying liberal internationalist but that is what these people are. The same people took us to edge on the Ukraine only this month.
The same bureaucrats and intellectuals from the same network of schools and universities, with the same editors, run rough-shod over both the wealth producers in business and the 'workers'.
One of the tricks is to divide us aggressively into right and left as if the worker and the financier do not actually have more in common as wealth creators than either do with those who live high on the tax hog.
Workers who won't work but want a regular wage and capitalists who are pig-greedy are minorities we can deal with but a free nation is one with absolute equality of opportunity and reward for effort.
But back to the book, where none of this politics exists, just straight talking on the facts that stands in a long tradition of independent historical thought that goes back to Angus Calder.
Each generation of historian - I admire Richard Overy in this respect too - is stripping way the mythology of power and allowing us to make choices about the narrative that works for us.
Increasingly, one sees accepted history as a form of belief, a religion of identity, and the best historians of our time as critics of culture whose impact is like that of philosophers on religion.
Identities have become fluid in the internet age. So they should be, matters of choice and not imposition, but identities have not gone away.
Just as someone might choose to be transgender, another might reaffirm their traditional masculinity. Someone might choose to be a Wiccan and another affirm an existential belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So it is with national identity - it is a thing that we inherit and then we have to choose what to do with the inheritance, adopt what we have been given, reject or adapt it to new conditions.
I hope the new fact-based and humane historiography of war, empire and nationality enables us to begin to analyse our position without falling into the trap of ideology.
What are our own core values - what is the good - and how do these values related to what I have been told it is to be (as I choose to be) English, British or even European.
Edgerton's book, alongside others, reaffirms that what it is to be British is my choice on the facts and I choose to be enraged at the incompetence and waste of our ruling elite and at the warfare state.
However, I also choose to be deeply impressed by the way the people of a very small island created a global trading system that, on balance, if callously, brought a positive modernity to the world.
I also choose to think that the suppressed and repressed radical democratic tradition of the English remains fundamental to reviving Britain as a peaceful, prosperous and humane nation.
An English Left, shorn of ideology, critical of power, engaged with global wealth creation and abandoning liberal internationalism and techno-warfare as false and cruel, may be far away but it can be.
If we come to see an equivalent Right that is individualistic and democratic and competes for space with neo-socialism in a free independent Britain, this will also be down to good historiography.
Notes are private!
Mar 21, 2014
May 05, 2011
May 05, 2011
This is entertaining hokum even if it keeps you reading. None of the stories is foot-noted as to source so this is very much a book for the gullible o...more
This is entertaining hokum even if it keeps you reading. None of the stories is foot-noted as to source so this is very much a book for the gullible or for the light-hearted.
Having said that, the book could be useful to some as a gold mine of ideas for creative writing in the supernatural and horror genre.
It also makes a few points well - about cultural differences in the treatment of ghosts and demons or the psychic thuggery in the Christian tradition of exorcism - and it may encourage you to do some research.
But, on balance, only read this for the pleasure of its cheap thrills and not for much else ... or if you are prepared to stretch the concept of truth to breaking point. (less)
Notes are private!
Mar 11, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
I regret that this superb 'five star' exhibition was not matched with a catalogue. Instead, the Guildhall Art Gallery offered us this amusing but actu...more
I regret that this superb 'five star' exhibition was not matched with a catalogue. Instead, the Guildhall Art Gallery offered us this amusing but actually rather lightweight collection of essays.
It has its moments, including a nice little short story by Lee Jackson, but a very stimulating exhibition that was far more than a tale of fashionable steam punk is not fully reflected here.
It is perhaps an aide memoire to some of the works that are referenced (only a small sample) - the reproduction of Yinka Shonibare's superb 'Dorian Gray' series still requires me to remember their scale.
Oh, and I hate actually spending money on ridiculous New Left feminist ideological nonsense - the artist is superb, the theory tiresome - although, to be fair, it was only one essay.(less)
Notes are private!
Mar 07, 2014
Apr 27, 2004
Apr 27, 2004
As a 2004 biography of Gamel Abdel Nasser from a well known Arab journalist, this is worth reading for insights into events that have taken place much...more
As a 2004 biography of Gamel Abdel Nasser from a well known Arab journalist, this is worth reading for insights into events that have taken place much more recently in Egypt and the wider region.
Aburish expresses ambivalence towards this curious character, a romantic idealist whose personal conduct as a dictator was (unless you were Muslim Brotherhood or Communist) better than most.
Aburish's Arab heart seems to appreciate that Nasser represented an emotive restoration of dignity to a people who had been denied respect over a long period of Turkish, French and British imperial control.
On the other hand, although his last years showed some ability to function effectively within the rules of the game, his story is one, fundamentally, of failure and not just because of imperial opposition.
Aburish writes of him as a man 'whose heart was in the right place but whose policies were too weak to cope with the problems he faced', an autodidact small town dreamer. He is right.
But one should not be too harsh. It is unlikely that any man could have done much better. Sadat and Mubarak clearly failed to resolve any of the problems he faced, merely intensifying thuggish dictatorship.
By the end of the book, we are, if we have a heart, faced with the same ambivalence to him as Aburish. If only, if only, we say ... and then find the 'if onlys' multiply to meaninglessness.
On the one hand, the man was just another Arab dictator in a culture that has still (today) not really got past the stage of relying on pashas, tribal leaders and autocratic dynasts.
On the other, he at least tried to reflect the will of the people and made real efforts to modernise his country (with some success) despite the traditionalist obscurantists - and was only tactically brutal.
Much of the problem here is central to the Arab condition. Autocratic leadership is accompanied by a complete lack of an institutional learning process to create administrative capability.
Such leadership is also used to surrounding itself with a court of friends that are judged on friendship and loyalty and not on competence or shared vision. The result is inherent instability.
Nasser retained power because he had one unusual skill and one new tool - he could speak to the crowd as Churchill could in another era and, like Goebbels and FDR, he had radio to spread his message.
The army too often becomes the only structure where some form of capability meets vision but, here too, Nasser was ill served by his own generosity and lack of interest in the quality of his colleagues.
He was thus a very Arab leader, with all the strengths and weakness of the culture, and it is valuable to have an experienced Arab journalist interpret him for us.
Indeed, there are times when Aburish goes a little native, not so much in his sentiments as in his style, with repetitions for emphasis and the fluctuations of heart and mind that are intrinsic to the culture.
Indeed, the book is fascinating until the end of the Suez gamble, about half way through the story, when the decline in Nasser's mission sets in and seems to be reflected in Aburish's suddenly heavier style.
To his credit. he avoids blaming everyone but the Arabs themselves for the catalogue of errors that we see in the book, also a history of the region from the Free Officers coup to the rise of the PLO.
There is sorrow rather than anger as tribal interests, ideology, egos, the superior cohesion of the Israelis, Western ambitions and corrupt and decadent elites create the unending mayhem we know so well.
But this is not to exonerate the West at all. The behaviour of the CIA is interesting not only for its despicability but for its lack of political accountability at home - still going on in the region today.
CIA involvement in drawing up death lists for the Baathist coup (that was eventually to lead to the 'regime' of Saddam Hussein) against Kassem in 1963 makes a mockery of US moral claims to leadership.
The West was involved in assassination as strategy and instrument of policy. Only fools really believe that there is much moral content to Western decision-making as we hurtle towards war in the Ukraine!
The book is also a sustained critique of Western support for Political Islam which started much earlier than most believe and which has been an own goal of no less standing than has been the Saddam one.
In assessing the successes (rhetorical) and failures (practical) of 'Nasserism' - Arab nationalism - its culturally-sensitive secularism was the baby that got thrown out with the bath water.
The relationship between an essentially conservative Nasserism, the more radical Baathism and Communism with Political Islam is a story of incommensurate ideologies manipulated by outside powers.
Perhaps only Nasser, based on the instinct of a modernising soldier recalling his small town background, saw the danger in Political Islam if it was allowed to take hold if ever Arab nationalism failed.
Ghaddafi attempted another solution, of course, which was to incorporate Islam within a revolutionary national socialist model but the Baathist model of secularism jettisoned culture altogether.
Instead of understanding that Arab Nationalism was a potentially progressive and collaborative force, the West, the British in particular, did everything they could to undermine it.
Progressive for Arabs but also progressive in order to reach some form of equitable relationship with the West - this demand for equity, respect and dignity seems to have been dismissed out of hand.
The Western tool in the war against communism (the primary driver of Western foreign policy) and Arab nationalism alike was Islamism which is not to be confused with Islam (Nasser was a sincere Muslim).
The book is worth reading just to remind ourselves of the foolish decisions made by 'our side' against secularism that ultimately led to bloody civil war in Syria and counter-revolution in Egypt.
As I write this, dimilar decision-makers seem to be teetering on the edge of yet another global war (the Ukraine) so questions have to be asked about their competence to rule over the long run of history.
This is not to exonerate Nasser himself from egregious blunders and often being all mouth and no trousers but the resistance to what he stood for was undemocratic and ignorant.
There were ample opportunities to work with rather than against those who spoke for real popular sentiment and feeling ('dignity' above all) and still draw appropriate red lines - even over Israel.
Underhand subversion by adventurers, failing to appoint and listen to seriously effective diplomats, obsession with communism and working with obscurantists in preference to secularists were crimes.
Nasser was a romantic failure, a creature of his culture, an inspiration perhaps still to many Arabs but ultimately a lesson in there being no substitute for political discipline and capacity.
Notes are private!
Mar 02, 2014
Oct 29, 2013
A largely entertaining and informative account of the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi who was the guiding force in China during the era in which it was mo...more
A largely entertaining and informative account of the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi who was the guiding force in China during the era in which it was most under direct pressure from the West to modernise.
Part of Jung Chan's mission is to rehabilitate Cixi from historical criticism and to a great extent she succeeds in restoring some balance.
However, she goes too far, almost certainly because Jung Chang is something of a liberal-conservative and wants to think the best of a fellow woman - you have to see the book through this gender prejudice.
A more considered opinion is that Cixi was a highly intelligent woman who knew how to play the peculiar anthropology of imperial political rule for traditionalist ends - but those ends were absurd.
She was a naturally gifted ruler amongst traditionalist fools, largely male by the nature of things, in an inherently corrupt and feudal system that had ceased to be able to protect its own people.
The insights into the international politics of the era are useful in understanding modern tensions and there are no surprises.
The British had matured into patronising assistants to the local ruler much as they did in India, the French were opportunists, the Germans were little more than global thugs and the Japanese had a plan ...
The role of the Japanese in destabilising China is well articulated here and it is clear both that they had many allies within China, traditionalist and revolutionary, and were extremely clever.
The Japanese aim might simply be summarised as to rule China by replacing the Manchus on the basis that the Han Chinese and tributaries would not care if one set of foreigners replaced another.
Much that drives the fierce Chinese nationalist response today to Japan can be traced back to the politics of the 1890s onwards. This reached its natural end with the invasion of China in the 1930s.
America comes out well as a non-patronising friend of China and as a sensitive moderniser. It is no accident that non-Communist Chinese nationalism eventually orientated itself towards the US.
The more one reads of history, the more the US appears to be the best of nations except when it becomes obsessed by ideological bugaboos - whether communist or 'terrorist'.
Cixi herself has a story of three parts - influential in opening up China to the West, then making serious mistakes in trying to challenge it and, finally, too late, being a force for constitutional monarchy.
Jung Chang occasionally errs in trying 'clean' Cixi's reputation beyond credibility - the constraints of Imperial practice may have obligated cruelties but cruelties there were.
If we think that there was a possibility of a foreign imperial and obscurantist dictatorship based on humiliation being transformed from within to make China strong, then Cixi might be regarded as 'heroic'.
Regrettably the whole imperial project was absurd once greedy forces with superior technology emerged. Cixi's constant ducking and diving to preserve a political corpse strikes me as often just self interest.
Stories of women in power before the modern age are always fascinating, precisely because they tell us so much not about 'patriarchy' but about how the clever can always work a system.
We should get out of the malign modern habit of being impressed with such women without any serious analysis of the system they command - whether Byzantium or China.
What we have here is not a world dominated by men as such but one ruled by small cliques with a history whose mentality is that of thieves who will hang together lest they hang separately.
The bottom line is that China was trapped in a weak economy surrounded by technologically superior enemies and arriving at that situation was precisely down to traditionalism and magical thinking.
Empress Dowager Cixi did little more than permit a jaded system to survive for long enough that its degeneracy had become clear to everyone but the most ignorant peasant.
Perhaps that was a major achievement of sorts.
Notes are private!
Feb 23, 2014
Nov 07, 2013
Nov 07, 2013
Colin Brown is a former senior political journalist and his book has all the hallmarks, good and bad, of a current genre - the retired news man wantin...more
Colin Brown is a former senior political journalist and his book has all the hallmarks, good and bad, of a current genre - the retired news man wanting to top up his pension and sweat his intellectual assets.
The good parts first. Brown writes well and clearly. He has made a real effort to get behind the wheel of history, visiting the sites of central historical events and understands the importance of place.
His account of battles are very good (Azincourt and the holding of Hougoumont at Waterloo in particular). He is equally good on the myth-making around events such as Magna Carta and the Armada.
His choices are (with one exception) important markers for what it is to be English (rather than his claimed Britishness) and he is good at showing just how contingently events have turned out.
Very few of the events in this book were 'inevitable' (other than perhaps the creation of the NHS) though probability was with some (1688, women's suffrage and 1940) and chance with others.
The weather of North Western Europe plays an inordinate role on the touch-and-go nature of national survival but it is also true that the English/British commitment to military innovation is always high.
He is (again with one exception) no sentimentalist either, able to point out that many major events were largely 'fixes' by special interests in struggles high above the world of us peasants.
He is a fairly typical example of the modern progressive-Tory-Whig, a creature squaring a lot of internal contradictions to come up with the right answer - a modern variant of the 'God is an Englishman' thesis.
But, like most British journalists, he is averse to analysis. The story is told, the falsities exposed but no conclusions drawn that are not rather simplistic and often comforting despite what we have read.
And the book takes a sharp turn for the worse at the end, after excellent and enlightening accounts of the two pivotal events that shaped the modern English mind - 1940 and the NHS in 1948.
It is as if that mind is his mind and he becomes the nation for the last event because he was there and can report on it as a newsman with 'inside information' - the Falklands and sinking of the Belgrano.
But, bluntly, the Falklands has been manufactured here as a defining event when it was merely a gamble that paid off for a Government that had already set the tone for the next thirty years.
More defining events might have been 1956 (Suez) or the defeat of the coal miners or the lifting of exchange controls (my personal choice) or are yet to come (the Scottish and European Referendums).
Similarly, he prefers the Falklands to the dissolution of the monasteries, the union of 1707, the Somme and so many other 'bigger' events ... this just does not work.
And the final chapter seems to be little more than a complacent establishment manifesto for monarchism and for our increasingly shoddy parliament ... the junior ranks of the establishment speak!
All in all, a well written and informative book that makes a good read for a journey and will change your views perhaps on aspects of our 'island story' but the jewels are set in a lazy and tinny setting.
At one level, this is excellent infotainment and I applaud Brown's active engagement with place and evidence but, at another, it represents, once again, that our elite still does not 'get' it.
Notes are private!
Feb 09, 2014
Oct 01, 1993
Sometimes it is good to back in time and read an out-of-date book on a current issue to see just how much has changed since it was written - especiall...more
Sometimes it is good to back in time and read an out-of-date book on a current issue to see just how much has changed since it was written - especially if it comes from a pioneer, as in this case.
This is a 1994 Edition (it was updated at the end of the decade) and so gives us a picture of what virtual communities implied and meant a full two decades ago - an eternity in internet history.
It remains valuable as a solid historical account of the early days of what would later become social media and of the ideology of participation that lead to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Much of the book is now just of historical interest and Rheingold's communitarian liberalism might now seem more than a little naive in the aftermath of 2008 and the failures of the Arab Spring.
But Rheingold is no simple booster. He raises the threats to freedom in his last chapter in ways that have proved prescient ... the references to the interest of the NSA most noticeably.
He paints both a nightmare scenario and a scenario of hope but, in this respect, two decades on, we are no further forward. Neither one has won the war but the balance of power is shifting towards nightmare.
Social media have blossomed into a huge multinational medium in their own right, making Usenet groups and MUDs redundant and the Well a back water. Facebook Groups now serve as our virtual communities.
We see global dominance by Facebook, Google and Twitter but sharing is now not so much a conversation as an exercise in preening narcissism (as perhaps it always was)
Broadcasting has been democratised: everyone is an anchorman rather than a participant in public life. Only local activists in patchy localities or for single issues seem to meet the original vision.
We have all got wise to the politics of the internet and it has made us cynical. We are not quite what the hyper-realist school feared (we all know it is not real and we are) but we are not liberated either.
The issue is thus not so much our lack of privacy or that government agencies and marketeers track our every move as that we now know that we are powerless spectators of a flailing elite circus.
The internet and sharing have not created effective change but merely allowed change to be used as a trick to put favoured liberals into the Presidency or help NGOs raise funds and fix legislation.
'Be the change' meant little more than 'be the sap who legitimised a softer version of the system you voted against' while Occupy has turned out to be little more than a school for future lobbyists.
The public observes our elites make mistake after mistake after mistake and then learn not only that they are powerless but that democracy actually means very little, that the Emperor has no clothes.
Activism is also exhausting, only for the few whose over-enthusiastic personality types soon alienate those who just want a quiet life. Virtual groups require very demanding levels of moderation.
One of the great hopes of Rheingold's book - the rise of a countervailing civil society to Power - has turned to dust as NGOs have become integrated into the elite and learned to lie for funds.
The Jeffersonian Democratic hopes of the idealists probably collapsed because big commercial operations filched their mass base from under them. Big capital was simply better at meeting basic desires.
Yes, local activism can still make a mark. Things are certainly much more efficient amongst activists in our small town because of the internet but not much has really changed for the better.
If anything, lack of resources, bureaucratic inertia and exhaustion have resulted in a general cynicism to the effect that governance will always be a shoddy affair by the self-interested and barely competent.
Although the tools are still in place for Rheingold's rebirth of democracy, the truth is that few want to use them and their potential is next to useless against the prevailing hard power of the State.
Civil society activism on the internet needs an organisational real world structure but the ability to organise has been lost with our isolation into small family units and decentralised office functions.
With no industrial work place to rely on and most people developing more links outside immediate localities (very much encouraged by the internet), information is exchanged more effectively but not power.
Power ultimately does come out of the barrel of a gun. It is a material business of not accepting a writ or paying a tax or of seizing a building or shooting an official. It is ultimately very real.
We have been deluded into thinking that knowledge and information in themselves are the basis of power when it is control of information and of secret knowledge that are the tools of Power.
We are not more powerful by knowing more things. People with hard power become more or less powerful to the degree that they know more things that are useful than we do. And they always do ...
It is no accident that the EFF soon concentrated on traditional lobbying in DC rather than a strategy of mobilisation of the masses - the masses simply were not only not interested but not relevant.
The purpose for the political class of the internet is simply the emotional mobilisation of the masses in the competition for power and the acquisition of aggregated information to use against the masses.
Ten radicals in a squat could once have created the illusion of a mass movement in a couple of days. Many of us, including the powerful, were fooled by this for quite some time. They have got wise to this now.
Many of us have become cynical - or at least, while the majority may be fooled by the claims of activists to speak for history, the brightest and the best know that it is no more than rhetoric.
Many causes and claims have proved organisationally shallow. Although Twitter could get millions on to the street on occasions, the masses won not on their own force but on a loss of nerve by the authorities.
Once the authorities started to treat rights activists as so much flotsam, order could be restored or at least a straight fight might be organised with the extremists and gangsters who knew how to fire a gun.
We are now experiencing the greatest test of all - an association of Western States has admitted a massive intrusion into private lives in order to acquire big data for analysis, some of it clearly 'illegal'.
Does this illegality matter? Not a great deal. The system can simply sweep around objections because big data is as essential to governance and control in the future as it is to marketing.
Not all of it is bad - epidemiology might be well served by Big Data and it may be some tiny virus that proves our greatest existential challenge - but we can suspect that a lot of it is.
The best the little man can expect is that the need to believe in the private sector's guardianship of their data will force the State to construct some safeguards for normal times for average people.
What the little man does not understand is that sufficient reserve power will still have accrued to the State that, in abnormal times, he will be as much victim of its tyranny as he was in 1916 and 1941.
The civil society model of the internet is being crushed on the indifference and cynicism of the masses, the weight of desires being fulfilled by business and the appropriation of activism by the elite.
The model of Big Government, Big (Old) Business and Big Unions has simply been replaced by one of Big Government, Big (New) Business and Big NGOs. The lies and obfuscations continue ...
The sad truth is that very few people are interested or competent enough to engineer the internet into a tool for liberation other than at the personal or individual level. And personal freedom is key.
It is quite interesting that, despite some recent attempts to reimpose 'morality' by the back door, these attempts have been half-hearted and the State has become defensive about tampering with private life.
The one area where the internet has had a major cultural impact is in permitting the affiliation and association of interest groups, especially in matters of sexuality. Private life has been secured.
It is hard to see how sex workers, polyamorists, transgender people and gays could have protected themselves so fully without the binding force of the internet. Yet most of these remain on the defensive.
States have to use the most extreme of behaviours - paedophilia - to help impose controls and mount interference on the internet because of this presumption to a private life. Privacy still rhetorically matters.
Putin is back-tracking on the gay issue because of the force of gay activism making maximum use of the sharing function on social media to embarrass him before Sochi.
People can still be mobilised to defend lifestyle choices - what they cannot be mobilised to do so effectively is make economic or political claims that relate to older values like fairness or participation.
If all is permitted on paper, the one or two things that are not permitted are quite sufficient to allow States outside the land of the First Amendment (like the UK) to seek some control of the internet.
The technique of creating fear amongst 'abnormals' of any kind that their private communications are being monitored for the greater good dampens the very instinct for freedom that created the internet.
The US is different because of the Constitution but even here Rheingold's account of the first tragi-comical dabbling of the FBI in policing the internet suggests a mentality that dislikes its freedom.
The prospect now is of a feint. On the one side, a global clash of ideologies where liberal internationalism represents little more than a rhetorical flourish designed to open up markets and remove threats.
On the other, States of all types are looking for cracks in the building in order to find an excuse to send in the inspectors and have it rebuilt as a prison.
These things are being fought over our heads. We can write and share and argue on social media but big data will merely treat this as a massive opinion poll. Most politicians have no other interest.
And the more we engage with the internet, then the more the system can manipulate us - through behavioural sciences and spin, the continued control of broadcasting and ultimate censorship in a crisis.
We never stood a chance ... this book helps us to understand how idealism and enthusiasm once made an attempt to turn the internet into the tool of the people. We should thank the activists for the effort.
Notes are private!
Feb 01, 2014
Aug 01, 2013
May 13, 2014
This may not be the definitive text on paganism in Britain before and during the Christian era but it is not going to be easily bettered in terms of g...more
This may not be the definitive text on paganism in Britain before and during the Christian era but it is not going to be easily bettered in terms of grand narrative.
Hutton's approach, not at all unsympathetic to the way we all imaginatively reconstruct the world out of slender evidence, is highly sceptical of academic claims to know very much about paganism.
Until we reach the historical record, imperfectly represented for Roman evidence and only becoming clearer during the Middle Ages, what we have is material evidence that can be interpreted in many ways.
Over and over again, he takes a site or an artefact or a 'deposit' and shows us how little we can be certain of what it may have meant to the people of its time.
The book, for much of its length, runs along two parallel tracks: a precise description of the evidence to hand and an account of how earlier and current generations of academic have interpreted it.
We are all used to books of archaeology that give us inordinately dull descriptions of pots and post-holes and then, having flummoxed us with 'facts', try to persuade us of something we cannot argue with.
Although Hutton's book has its share of descriptions of burials and stone circles, just as we are about to stifle a yawn, up he pops with a bit of intellectual history that makes it interesting again.
His fundamental scepticism about claims is refreshing which is not to say that he is not describing significant progress in the archaeology of belief if only to show how evidence can strip away old theory.
As he suggests, the evidence has the virtue of not permitting certain beliefs to hold water (e.g. that the Egyptians built Stonehenge) but it has the vice of allowing a great deal else.
His response is to be tolerant - to let a thousand flowers bloom of academic suggestions and counter-cultural beliefs so long as none claims the mantle of evidenced truth.
From this perspective, the book is invaluable. He strips away the nonsense of the great goddess as truth but permits women to invent her (even if it clearly turns some of them into irrational harridans).
He does similar 'knife jobs' on the survival of the old religion as witch cults, the 'Celtic goddesses' allegedly to be found in Celtic literature, Heathen survivals and more.
Perhaps the best chapter is the last where some historical evidence can be added to the archaeological yet even here texts prove slippery and contingent with much later invention being misinterpreted.
His critical analysis of all the evidence, written or otherwise, tells us that we are unlikely ever to know what pagans actually believed and did before Christians arrived and started writing texts.
Hutton is also fair to the totalitarian religion that replaced paganism. He elucidates its power well and is persuasive that it did, indeed, almost entirely replace paganism without permitting survivals.
He reinstates Britain as a fundamentally Christian country between the integration of the last pagan Scandinavians and the recent arrival of secularism, atheism, pagan revivalism and imperial migration.
Indeed, from this perspective the last three hundred years or so of rationality looks a little exposed and vulnerable in the long run of 5,000 years - though perhaps palaeolithic man was rational too.
In that last chapter, he takes a surgical knife to almost every claim of pagan survival from the sacredness of yew trees to the existence of Herne the Hunter so that we are left with very little tangible.
What survives is a generalised set of cultural assumptions that do seem to have survived Christianity simply because they were not a challenge to it - and were largely expressed as folklore and 'cunning'.
He is persuasive that belief in fairies and elves is an ancient pre-Christian survival and there are a number of other customs and habits that may be but almost no identifiable folk rituals.
The final picture is one of a somewhat anxiety-driven middle class rediscovering paganism in response to modernisation and desperately seeking proofs that are not there of meaningful continuities.
Many appropriations are purely political - especially for feminism but also as reflections of the uncomfortable status of the middle class in relation to its own working class and the colonised.
Hutton is persuasive that what we might attribute to pagan sensibility was actually fully Christianised in the sense that no one believing in folk ideas or doing folk acts was not self-defined as Christian.
This book will be troublesome to true believers who want belief to be true. Hutton is more tolerant than me in that he wants us to have respect for belief rather than (my view) respect for the believer.
He leaves open the door to the right to accept an unproven belief (which is going to be no worse than believing Christian claims) so long as it is definitely not contradicted by the evidence.
And, of course, the nature of the evidence means that a lot of reconstructionist neo-paganism cannot be contradicted as a claim about past belief. Phew! Like Christianity, neo-paganism can be absurd.
A pagan Kierkegaard might now with justice throw himself or herself into the Mother Goddess or communion with Nature or Odin without having to worry about most claims by most archaeologists.
He is, consequently, as tough or gentle with his fellow academics as with believers and he maintains his scepticism about their claims being anything more than probabilities and possibilities.
Even more, he recognises that counter-cultural theories about survivals or the beliefs of the ancient may have been shown to be wrong-headed but they did stimulate important lines of research.
Although most cases result in investigation showing why the counter-cultural belief was false, this is far from the case in every respect - sometimes, the line of enquiry throws up new evidence.
Although ley lines now seem to have no basis in fact and archaeo-astronomy is highly problematic, serious investigation of both has thrown up new facts to consider.
He thus places counter-cultural believers in, say, earth mysteries much closer to most academic theorists as really not that different in their relationship to truth-telling.
Both sets of believer really can believe that they have the answer to the same evidence under conditions where neither can prove their claims, merely offer contingent probabilities and possibilities.
This is why the book is so useful. It offers us a senior academic's assessment of academic epistemology and it comes to a conclusion that is highly sceptical (possibly an edge too much so in the last chapter).
There are philosophers today who are also asking similar questions about their own discipline, beginning to question whether they are destined always to go round in circles on some central questions.
The value here lies in demarcating the so-called social sciences - the exploration of what is human that is not hard biology - much more from the 'hard' sciences which have laws and can create technologies.
This is important because the 'soft' sciences are making claims increasingly in political contexts that are merely probabilities and possibilities and have always done so, sometimes dangerously.
The point is that, as with half-baked genetics in the nineteenth century, soft scientists are in danger of claiming that they can provide technologies - of social control above all.
This book and other humanist contributions rightfully help us to be sceptical of theory based on evidence with multiple interpretations and sparse or selective in its nature. So much for 'nudge' ...
By repositioning archaeology as a hard science in terms of provision or critique of evidence but as a humanity in terms of its interpretation of evidence, he does a great service.
He runs both positions in parallel in this book to the benefit of the discipline. We thus feel more confident about the facts but decline to accept the fact-definers as more than guides to interpretation.
Not only can facts be overturned (after all Christ just could appear in all his glory on Tuesday morning) but interpretations are seen as highly contingent on social conditions and personal prejudices.
Hutton shows that the history of archaeology has included a Mulderian 'need to believe' and, if this is so, then the 'need to believe' is a human quality that neo-pagans have as much right to.
However, what he also does is reintroduce us to the concept of judgement, weighing up all the options and sceptically waiting until the balance of evidence holds little other than one interpretation.
Very few claims about the actual beliefs and behaviour of pre-historic Britons hold water in that context. We are faced with hypotheses that we should treat as more or less plausible stories.
Nor can we expect this situation to change. All early historical texts are unreliable. Stones do not speak. Our ancestors cannot be brought back from the dead. So much has been destroyed.
Notes are private!
Jan 26, 2014
Jan 01, 2011
Sep 01, 2011
This is what good history should be about - an evidence-based narrative exploration offering the best working explanation of a particular problem of p...more
This is what good history should be about - an evidence-based narrative exploration offering the best working explanation of a particular problem of possible concern to us today.
Ian Kershaw asks a simple question of why Germany continued to fight on, far beyond reason, against the overwhelming force of Russian manpower and of Anglo-American air and technical superiority.
The book takes us from the failed Operation Valkyrie (the only serious revolt by conservative nationalists against national socialism) in July 1944 to the final capitulation in May 1945.
These were ten months in which it was pretty clear after the failure of the Ardennes Offensive and then the massive punch of the Soviets to within 80km of Berlin that the 'regime' had no chance of survival.
Yet Germany fought on - not just the Nazi Party but the entire military, the bureaucracy, the increasingly discredited judiciary and a good proportion of the common people. Kershaw simply asks why?
This period saw not just the military dead but the death marches of concentration camp victims, significant refugee losses, mass aerial bombings (including Dresden) and German-on-German terror.
And yet the system did not break even as the country was split - not until Hitler was known to be dead and a more rational if still ferociously Nazi Donitz eventually sued for unconditional peace.
Can it be down to the force of Hitler's will or the blind obedience of the German people? Kershaw explores these and many other reasons and like all the best history comes up with some very complex answers.
However, the best history seeks patterns in the chaos and in the interweaving of many causes and effects. Kershaw is no exception. There was some binding force that locked Germany into its apocalypse.
Kershaw finds this force in the functional reality of the 'fuhrerprinzip' where military, bureaucracy, party and national identity were bound into one locus represented by a monomaniac.
Unlike Italy, where Mussolini could be ousted by the Fascist Grand Council and the military and state be redirected under a national identity separate from the man, Germany was bound into one figure.
Beneath this man, all the players could dispose of forces towards one end set by Hitler but under conditions where each gathered power in competition with the other.
After Valkyrie, Bormann turned the Party into a mechanism of terror directed at controlling the German people through fear. Goebbels took responsibility for the engagement of the masses in the war effort.
Speer used his power to broker a corporatist economic state directed at armaments production, binding military, industrialists, workers and, more unwillingly than most, slave labour.
Himmler imposed discipline on the army in a collaborative relationship with the Wehrmacht. Powerful pro-Nazi Generals took advantage of Valkyrie to place their honour and duty in the hands of the Fuhrer.
Above all, the whole 'fuhrerprinzip' was underpinned by a dreadful combination of German nationalist duty and honour and national socialist fanaticism against both communism and the 'Jewish threat'.
If most soldiers may not have cared that much about the Jews, they were prepared to sacrifice them and other race-hate targets in the primary war against the Bolsheviks.
It was this hatred of the East which bound military and Hitler together and the hatred was fully returned. Soviet vengeance became a genuine fear factor in the continuation of the war.
Any deal with the West that did not allow Germany to release its troops to fight the Soviets was seen as a cultural and possibly real death sentence for half of the country.
Anti-communist fanaticism and fear were so strong that senior figures often could not comprehend that the Western Empires would prefer to fight alongside Stalin to the end rather than save Germany.
If I have not mentioned the opinions of the ordinary German (though Kershaw is very enlightening here) it is only because they had very little to say that mattered. They were not permitted much agency.
By the last months of the war, Germans, including ordinary German soldiers in some zones, were placed under a brutal terror regime of arbitrary executions that meant revolt was a death sentence.
And this is what strikes us about the story - the extreme lack of agency offered by the 'regime' where, although paid the weekly or monthly cheque to the end, a German was the slave of his Government.
Kershaw is also good on the fundamental attitudinal split between military and civilians in the East (fearful of Soviet atrocities) and in the West (almost desperate in some places for the Allies to arrive).
He also reminds us of the human cost, with atrocities in which no player in the game was not guilty. Nazi atrocities in the East were simply compounded at home under what amounted to a gangster regime.
Soviet atrocities were real enough (it took some time for control to be re-asserted by the authorities over their own occupying troops) and led to a tragic refugee exodus in icy conditions.
The French destroyed a whole village under circumstances still not clear today and the mass aerial bombing of German civilians by the British, notably the fire storm at Dresden, still leaves a bad taste.
This was a maelstrom of horror in which the men at the top (and their wives) reveled in their own fanaticism, desperation, 'heroism', brutality and power. But can we learn from this?
The puzzlement of Kershaw was that it was so rare, possibly unique, in history for a state to go so far and so willingly down the road to potential annihilation and at such cost to itself.
It is unlikely that it will ever be repeated as a case since now we know that even communist regimes can fall without a fight - their internal complexity perhaps helps to explain why.
Perhaps Stalin's Russia came closest and perhaps it was an intelligent analysis of his own situation - a lesson that Saddam Hussein attempted to copy, not reckoning on the sheer firepower of the US.
The story tells us something about our species and power that, on reflection, is rather grim - it is that the state's strength is in opposition to individual agency on terms very favourable to the former.
Even in our lovely cuddly liberal democracies, the state has immense reserve powers - as Americans saw under Woodrow Wilson and Britons saw under Lloyd George and Churchill. These are truly formidable.
We think our agency is a human right in that magical thinking about contracts and rights of which liberals are so fond. It is true that political culture in the West usually restrains the worst of the State.
But be under no illusions that the restraint exists only because those who control the State do not have a monomaniac will to use the State for some mad cap ideal. It is convenient for them to separate powers.
If a State is so disrupted that a monomaniac can systematically unravel pluralism and centre the bureaucracy, the military and the police on him then you and I do not stand a chance.
We are then simply not in a position to organise anything but the most futile of resistance (basically, we die or are imprisoned). We should remember this when think of the powers now accruing to the NSA.
This leaves us with an interesting dilemma in our dealings with the modern state. Do we trust it to be restrained and hope it is never disrupted so that some extremist loon can seize power?
Or do we begin to consider how we can make sure that the State is always actually rather than theoretically beholden us. In short, what checks can we the people make against a loss of checks and balances.
Certainly, in 1933, the elite handed power to a genius in political manipulation and turned itself into his willing creature. Within a little over a decade, the population ended up in a hell on earth.
Even today, the British and American military have ideologies of duty and honour towards single sovereigns that are scarcely different from that of the Wehrmacht in functional terms.
It is, of course, extremely unlikely that we, in the West, would be ruled by a monomaniac able to terrorise us into total compliance but, even today, the state's weapon of choice remains fear and half truths.
Outside the West, the idea of monomania is less ridiculous when there are religious and nationalist parties which offer path ways not dissimilar to that of the Nazis in the drive to control the State.
Perhaps this is why Sisi's coup in Egypt may not be pleasant but should be heartening in a way. The military turned away from obscurantist magical thinking in favour of rational administration.
The book should thus be read not as something distant from us but as a lesson in our lack of agency even in more benign conditions and in the ridiculous power that we give to institutions and belief systems
It should also be read as an essay in the consequences of particular modes of thinking - duty and honour in the military, duty and 'public service' in the bureaucracy and belief in the party and the nation.
We think of heroism, duty, honour, ideals and often faith (though less so with maturity and education) as positives but they are not if there is no serious questioning of why the heroic act and to whom the duty.
In Silesia, the Soviet advance isolated a town. The local Gauleiter became a Nazi hero for his defence to the end against the 'Asiatic horde' but the citizens would have done better to have surrendered.
This is not an argument for pacifism or 'cowardice' but for reason. Continuing a fight against overwhelming odds for gangsters is simply stupid, worse, it is criminal where lives are concerned.
It is time to look duty, obedience, honour, authority, custom, claims of heroism, idealism and leadership in the eye and call them out by asking them why and for whom people hold to these magical beliefs.
The Nazi regime was a merger of an aristocratic presumption on its last legs and the resentments at the uglier end of the masses in a malign war on modernity and progress.
Such people were not and never could be heroes. They were simply, so it was proved, not bright enough to understand their own condition and they dragged a lot of innocent people down with them.
Let them now be cursed again. In the end, these were only dim thugs who denied humanity its greatest evolutionary prize - personal agency and freedom.
Notes are private!
Jan 15, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
Jun 18, 2013
Where to begin? This is wonderful stuff so long as you are not daft enough to take any of it seriously.
The Nazis have been associated in the popular i...more Where to begin? This is wonderful stuff so long as you are not daft enough to take any of it seriously.
The Nazis have been associated in the popular imagination with the occult with increasing intensity over time, much to the despair of professional historians. The introduction by Kenneth Hite perhaps does not have sufficient health warning here.
It is true that Germany was riddled with occultist societies and that this infected early German nationalist circles. The best source is always Goodrick-Clark who made a specialty of unravelling what was true and what was false about occult claims to great effect.
It is also true that astrology was possibly more important in interwar Germany as a cultural phenomenon than elsewhere and that secret magical societies could be found in many places - and that Hess and Himmler had occultist interests as others had neo-pagan concerns.
However, culturally fascinating though all this is, German politics and culture were as materially grounded as any other, there were no occult elements in the conduct of social control or military direction and Hitler himself found the interests of his colleagues laughable.
Having got the obligatory health warning out of the way, what we have here is a chaos magical approach to the subject - setting up the story of Nazi occultism as if it were true and then playing it out with the sort of solid illustrative work for which Osprey is well regarded.
What, however, Osprey, as publishers, are doing here is a bit mysterious. They have built a strong brand on reliable accounts of military matters - weaponry, campaigns, battles, sieges - and yet here they have embarked on a deliberate assault on the hokum market.
This is the first in a series called Dark Osprey so we canot wait to see what else they have in store for us (the Templars apparently!) - but this short dense illustrated book with its further reading in comics, games and movies is not what we are used to from the house.
But get past the surprise and we have some loony joys where the author has genuinely tried to make the nonsense plausible with historical and military fact - we are drawn into the madness through plausible enough accounts of the Ariosophists, Ahnenerbe and Thule Society.
Then we have mad science based on magical energies, death-wielding rabbinical literature, meetings with yeti in Tibet, the search for the Ark of the Covenant, witch soldiers on the Eastern Front, failed attempts to raise a zombie army, resistance werewolves ...
... and Nazi UFOs in Antarctica with the wonderful conclusion that, Byrd's Expedition to oust the Nazis having failed because of the threat of the globe-shattering Thorshammer weapon, an armistice was agreed to allow Majestic to come up with an Allied occult counter-weapon!
The odd aspect is that Hite has done his research into the actuality of Nazi Germany. The insanities are embedded in a framework of reality that might be quite seductive to imaginative teenagers. Should we be 'concerned'? I think not ... this is now popular culture, not politics.
In any case, any non-teenager who takes at face value such lines as "The Ryokuryukai [Japanese occult researchers] exchanged the Mireniamu data for nuclear material in March of 1945, and the Reich had true werewolves at last" or ...
... "Their program to create an army of Nazi zombies never altered the war's strategic balance: undead soldiers remained vulnerable to artillery ..." might suggest a serious failure in our general educational system.
At one level, of course, this could all be seen as an insult to the millions of dead of seventy years or so ago but we live in a free society and imaginative nonsense might be regarded as prophylactic - we can laugh at Nazis or we can turn them into symbols of dark evil.
In the end, national socialism was not very funny and was more a bunch of half-educated people lurching from chaotic crisis to chaotic crisis than anything so interesting as a force of deliberate evil harnessing occult forces.
It may be that we find it hard to cope with this truth. If we cannot laugh at them and don't want the explanation that they were just us only in different conditions, then, in a world without God, reconstructing them as a dark occult force exorcises something.
Certainly, this book is no encouragement to a political programme. The worst it might do is encourage some naive ceremonial magical play and, though that might frighten the local evangelical vicar, it should not frighten us.
So, if you enjoy imaginative play, then this book is amusing ... otherwise don't bother. (less)
Notes are private!
Jan 04, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
This is a useful but flawed account of an important theatre of war in the struggle of liberal internationalism (Western imperialism) and socialism aga...more This is a useful but flawed account of an important theatre of war in the struggle of liberal internationalism (Western imperialism) and socialism against the attempted imperialisms of rising powers.
The story has two contemporary sets of resonance - the obvious one is the tricky current state of Sino-Japanese relations that has Westerners rushing to books like this. The less obvious is the attempt by the West to answer the question, 'what to do with rising powers?'
On the surface it is traditional narrative history. It starts at the beginning (what led up to the Marco Polo Bridge incident, the 'Sarajevo' of eight years of slaughter) through to the surprise ending - the 'deus ex machina' of the Atom Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With the usual unconscious racism of the Western armchair liberal, the debates on the use of the Bomb usually wonder about the dreadful morality of wiping out 100,000 persons in a few days in terms of saved men and materiel for the West.
A more open view would throw into the pot the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Chinese and Japanese lives saved from not going down the Nazi route of a year or two of mayhem as Japan fought to the end despite its prospect of certain defeat.
Between 8 million and 20 million, variously estimated, died in those eight years with perhaps three to four million the victims of first the deliberate flooding of Henan and then its appalling famine (Mitter also notes the estimated 3m who died in a similar Indian wartime famine).
The whole business is another story of 'things getting out of control' with millions being disrupted, starved, conscripted, terrorised and murdered as a few 'big men' squabble for advantage and for 'values' that are often noble enough but equally as often hypocritical.
It is a story played out almost continuously even today - Africa being the current playground for 'big men' and psychopaths of all 'moral' persuasions. We should be pleased the rising thuggery of new empires was suppressed but it was not a simple tale of good and evil.
The flaws in the book, however, detract from its usefulness as analytical tool although the 'further reading' at the back is useful for anyone wanting to delve deeper.
Above all, the book often reads like an unjustifiable apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek, warlord leader of the Nationalist Chinese with most claim to legitimacy as ruler of China. It certainly spends more time on the squabble with General Stilwell than a straight narrative deserves.
What is going on here? The reality is that, legitimate though he was, Chiang Kai-Shek was soon run out of town (the core of China in the East) and was not much more than a superior warlord from an earlier era.
He could speak for China and for millions of men but he had proved an unimaginative and narcissistic leader before the Marco Polo Bridge incident and was not much better after it. Mitter justifiably contextualises his decisions but they were more often than not poor.
Most of the non-Communist warlords in the south marked time under his leadership but his control was limited, while the Communists under Mao cannily created a state within a state in North West China that treated the peasantry as if they mattered instead of as fodder.
By the time the Americans arrived (and the Communists are almost exclusively seen through American eyes by 1942/3 as Mittar swerves off into analyses of thinking in Washington), Chiang's China was virtually being re-colonised by the US by stealth without benefit to the people.
The blunders of Stilwell and the Americans can be charitably put down to them 'learning on the job' as they slowly displaced the British Empire as global arbiter. US foreign policy does not really settle down into full competence until after the McCarthy blood-letting.
Mitter's attempt to recover Chiang's reputation by pointing out the new status given to China in the 'UN' holds little water. Yes, this was a fact on the ground and it portended great things, a benefit that India failed to achieve, but China was always a tool under Chiang.
In essence, China held down some 600,000 Japanese troops and that was important for the Allied war effort but it presupposes that this was always in the interests of the Chinese who died in huge numbers holding together a ramshackle strategy of mere survival.
It is noticeable that in the struggle against the last Japanese offensive - like the last push of the Germans in 1918 - Nationalist troops were attacked by Henan peasants who had suffered deliberate flooding and then famine, fertile ground for communism later.
The second flaw is associated with the first. Mittel devotes about the right amount of space to the Communists in Yan'an but his coverage is still cursory and lacking in analysis. His great lack is any serious investigation of Japanese thinking and Japanese motives.
This is highly problematic. The book is about the Japanese war on China. That means it is about both main participants and the whole war zone yet we hear virtually nothing of East China other than Nanking and little of Japanese-collaborationist dealings.
He devotes a great deal of attention to the Petain of China - Wang JIngwei and his circle - but always in the light of them being implicitly honourable Nationalists who got it wrong.
This misses the point - they were naive and 'useful idiots' but there were important ideological and practical Japanese reasons for creating 'Vichy' regimes across Asia and for nationalists to choose what they thought might be the lesser evil. We get little sense of this.
Right or wrong, what was actually happening in the huge area of East China under Japanese rule needs to be explained in terms of Japanese conduct on the ground after the Rape of Nanking and of the motivations for Chinese collaborationism and resistance.
By the second half of the war, just as the National Socialists could put 'national' SS divisions into the field against the Soviets so there were substantial collaborationist Chinese troops fighting against the nationalists alongside the Japanese in the final offensive.
This has to be explained. It cannot be explained by giving excessive coverage to the superior warlord's dealings with Washington and almost completely neglecting the dynamic between Tokyo and Nanking except in terms of the factional struggles of a few failed politicians.
The net effect is that we have a book that does not take the detached and cold view of the struggle that we need to have in order to assist with the analysis of the twin issues noted at the beginning of this review - Sino-Japanese relations and the rise of new powers.
Instead, what we have is another easy read for liberal internationalists that seems intended to guide them through the group think politics of their own side rather than assist in understanding complexity and think about the unthinkable.
It is a morale-booster that seems to say that the 'real' China was only accidentally corrupt and incompetent and that if we (the West) had behaved in diferent ways and taken a flawed great man at face value, things would have been better. It is like a polemic for the past!
However, there is lot to learn from this book - about Mao's genius for making inaction look like action, about the cynicism of the Allies, about the delusions of the Japanese elite, about the resilience and humanity of the Chinese people and about the chaos of war.
One lesson is fascinating and well taught. Under conditions of war and threat, all three regimes in China turned to terror to try and hold power - Mao's reined in his intellectuals and mobilised the peasantry with the help of the Yezhov-trained Kang Sheng but he was not alone.
Chiang used the dedicated monster Dai Li (with the close co-operation of the Americans) to eliminate opposition to a regime that was really not much different from those targeted in Libya and Syria more recently. Chiang was not a democrat but an authoritarian militarist.
Wang Jingwei hired politicised gangsters to do much the same in Nanking from a class which, in Shanghai, had helped Chiang himself on his road to power. Even today, it is clear that, after seventy years of Communist 'totalitarianism', South China's gangster culture thrives.
Although the victor Mao adopted techniques later that taught Pol Pot and the extremists in North Korea their techniques of terror and power, thuggery arose on all sides out of warfare and whatever state might have emerged, none would have had much truck with 'human rights'.
This makes any attempt to make the 'less worse' seem good rather futile - Chiang murdered 800,000 Chinese in a somewhat poorly thought-out tactical attempt to slow down the Japanese by breaching the dams on the Yellow River. No wonder the Henanese peasants were obstructive!
At the end of the day, the whole debacle came down to an incident where a rising power thought that it had rights, demonstrated by its imperial enemies in the Opium Wars and subsequently, to use force to extract concessions on spurious grounds against a weak target.
That the target was weak was definitely not the fault of Chiang Kai-Shek. He was dealt an appalling set of cards but, given the realities of the situation, his decisions tended to make things worse, starting with his initial 'Night of the Long Knives' against the Reds.
Still, the book remains a valuable narrative introduction to one of the nastiest wars in an era of nasty wars. It left this reader with an abiding sense of solidarity with the Chinese people if not their leaderships.
Above all, I have come to admire the achievement of China in not merely holding itself together but appearing to cohere into a Great Power that has managed, through the construction of its own creation myth, to bind together the East, the Party and the nationalist impulse into one.
The nervousness of the West - and the margin states of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and perhaps Vietnam and the Philippines as well - is understandable but it may be that the US in particular is still not learning the lessons of the 1940s.
The book reminds us of the fragility of the Communist 'achievement'. The European Union is now seeing old interwar attitudes re-emerge in troubled economies - notably Spain and Eastern Europe - and there is no reason why something similar might not happen in China.
In its hour of greatest need, 'Free China' needed unconditional love like the battered child it was but instead it got used as a tool and was patronised by its equals - no wonder its successors are disinclined to trust anyone but their own instinct for tough love.
Notes are private!
Jan 03, 2014
Apr 01, 2013
This 1991 well argued polemic has been reissued by Penguin, perhaps to set the context for Edgerton's latest book 'Britain's War Machine' but with two...more This 1991 well argued polemic has been reissued by Penguin, perhaps to set the context for Edgerton's latest book 'Britain's War Machine' but with two useful additions - a new introduction and a superbly informative historiography bringing the story right up to date.
Despite his own 2012 caveats, this book is well worth reading and Edgerton's calling it a 'polemic' does it a disservice - it is solid and well argued history. Perhaps his use of the term simply gave him space to be a bit more assertive early in his career.
The book is set in the context of a historical debate about 'decline' that has been the standard psychological currency for anyone educated before the mid-1990s - whether from the Right or the Left. This means policy-makers who are now over 40 and who do not 'keep up with things'.
Edgerton's politics are not worn on his sleeve but one guesses he is an industrial progressive that would have felt at home (as, with caveats, this reviewer would) in the old Labour Party before it got turned into a liberal internationalist simulacrum of the Left. Perhaps not.
Edgerton's thesis is very important. He is saying - as De Jouvenal might have done from a Republican Right tradition - that the UK as advanced liberal democracy was not a welfare state at heart but a warfare state with an ideology of liberal internationalism at its core.
Far from the UK being the first industrial nation in decline, he presents it as technocratic and modernising with immense reserves of organisational and state-directed power that out-competed all its competitors, bar, in the end, the 'American colossus'.
This is dealt with in greater detail in relation to the Second World War in his latest book which we hope to review later in the year but the point he is making is important for a reason he does not give - how our perceptions are formed by group consensus rather than the facts.
This lays us open to confusion but also to manipulation. He describes, through the medium of aviation history, how early aviation strategies were strongly lnked to the political imperial Right - as readers of Nevile Shute's novels will quickly recognise.
Although this might often shift under pressure into pro-fascist and anti-democratic tendences (there is a hint of aviation industry links to those Hess expected to meet on his ill-fated trip), the best description is of it being a liberal-democratic internationalism.
This liberal internationalism is not as lovely and cuddly it seems. This reviewer sees considerable continuities between the maintenance of empire over subject peoples, the brutality of air power strategies and the trajectory that would put the Trident-loving Blair into power.
The history of aviation is only one facet of British political history but, taken as the history of air power, it is a definer of foreign policy imperatives alongside the search for oil. Its neglect until Edgerton synthesised the work of many others has made us ignorant.
We are (as British) profoundly ignorant of the nature of our State which has learned a certain rhetoric of freedom, rights and democracy but is still the creature of the few and of its own urgent desire to survive at all costs - and I mean, at all costs.
We have reviewed some of the issues arising from this in relation to the Cold War at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... [Peter Hennessy's 'The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War'] but Edgerton's book supplies us with more evidence for the prosecution.
There is so much meat in this short book about the interplay of the technology of aviation with economics, culture and politics that we should not lose contact with Edgerton's primary thesis - that the UK did not decline, it appeared to decline only because others rose.
Apart from the massive mobilisation of an empire in order to participate in a struggle to the death at mid-century, the continued mobilisation of resources directed at subsidising the military aviation (and then missiles) sector was remarkable.
The scale of the military-industrial state constructed out of the 'reforms' of 1916 (equivalent to the allegedly progressive quasi-fascism of Woodrow Wilson and the real thing produced by Mussolini) and through the Cold War saw only one serious attempted check.
Whereas Eisenhower and Reagan brilliantly used military-industrial expenditure to develop the civilian infrastructure of the US - industrialisation of the West, road systems, civil aviation, satellite technology and the internet - the traditional elite in the UK did not.
There was a moment when elite insiders (Harold Wilson and Tony Benn) made a material effort to shift expenditures from the production of nonsensical attempts to keep ahead of a military game that could not be won into civil applications but the project fell apart on politics.
The experience appears to have radicalised Tony Benn into becoming an easily discreditable target of that same elite, while Wilson developed a partially justifiable paranoia about the right's determination to destroy him.
Even in the 1990s when I was involved in Labour Party politics, the military-industrial nationalist Labour Right plotted in my hearing to restore Trident to the top of the agenda and Amicus played a critical role in putting the Brown-Blair 'team' into power.
Much of the argument was around industrial decline, maintaining skills and full employment but what it was really all about was the military-industrial interests in the State ensuring that it would be 'business as usual' as Communism collapsed.
As the Left collapsed into a ridiculous sub-Marxism that gave cause for the Right to appeal direct to the people, New Labour eventually emerged as the synthetic merger of State resistance to fundamental change and the 'useful idiocy' of ambitious former Marxists on the make.
A similar failure took place in the Soviet Union where attempts to turn war expenditure into civilian expenditure crumbled on vested interests and sclerosis until the internal contradictions of bureaucratic paranoia resulted in the collapse of Russia into populist nationalism.
Russian populist nationalism is merely the Russian version of the British solution - the power of the State allied to a rhetoric that seduces an ill-educated population whose politics are those of slogans, prejudices and hand-me-down analyses endorsed by the media.
Edgerton does not deal with any of this grand theory but he does provide another fruitful source of data on the true nature of the state and the degree to which all is not what it appears to be in quasi-democratic states - like the UK and Russia.
His work starts to strip away our myths without in the least being 'ideological' or anything other than descriptive. The facts simply speak for themselves - the class basis within the RAF, the cruel calculations behind the use of air power, the interconnections.
If the book has a message for me, it may not be one intended by Edgerton. I am sold on the idea that the UK was not subject to decline in the twentieth century or indeed in the twenty first century. The Labour Party may indeed be electorally stuffed by robust recovery.
I am also sold on the idea that an advanced technology like aviation is transformative of political and economic structures and, another Edgerton proposal, that technological progress and modernity are very much at home, possibly more at home, on the Right than on the Left.
No, the lessons for me are several. First that the British ruling elite, as a closed-in caste that ably incorporate threats and assimilates them like an amoeba ingests food, is as powerful as it has ever been but has never been truly competent in its decision-making.
Second, that the public remains a prey to the elite's command of the terms of debate about important political issues under conditions where its 'Left' and 'Right' are merely struggling to rise to the head of something that exacts its own high price for the welfare it offers.
Third, that Right and Left are meaningless because both have been captured by the State and can only become meaningful when the Right means Republican Virtue (in the manner of De Jouvenel) and the Left means the Commonweal (in the manner of the English revolutionaries).
We have a very old story here - the struggle between Crown and People which the Crown won in 1660. It has brilliantly adapted its form to exist at the expense of the people - even today.
This book is, above all, a study of the relationship between a new and advanced technology (aviation) and its adaptation to the interests of the state and its eventual reformulation as a doctrine of mass murder in the mass bombing campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s.
It is this aspect of tolerance for mass murder as instrument of policy that took the 'regimes' of 1916 (Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George) from the more efficient use of conscripted labour to sustain the machine in the direction of two further dark ends.
The first dark end was preparedness to slaughter civilians overseas to avoid slaughtering young men at home, forgetting that the capability was mutual - and the second (see our Hennessy review) was acceptance that the nation itself could be obliterated to save the 'Crown'.
None of this was spoken of. None of this was analysed. Everything was accepted as most Germans accepted radical nationalism in the 1930s and most Russians accepted Marxism-Leninism in the 1970s. But it was no less totalitarian - simply the totalitarianism of consensual ignorance.
History may show that the conquest of the air was one of our darkest moments - darker in actual lives lost than the discovery of nuclear power (so far). This has to raise questions about a more recent invention, the internet.
Aviation was 'invented' by two brothers who had an eye to military applications from the very beginning. The internet was created by a military-industrial complex under a democratic system that saw civilian applications as a reasonable pay off for taxation.
Aviation gave us globalisation but it also gave us Dresden. The internet is currently seen as giving us 'empowerment' but also 'child porn'. 'Child porn' is the excuse for controlling action much as 'insurgency' was an excuse to drop bombs under the British Empire.
The complexities suggest a 'game' in which the State will want to command and use this tool - as Edward Snowden has apparently exposed - while getting the economic benefits for the population that supplies it with the taxes to dole out death and welfare to taste.
The question arising from the history of aviation is this - have we, the people, actually analysed correctly what is going on here and who is actually benefiting or are we taking on a narrative written by special interests for special interests?
Above all, the myth of 'decline' owed a great deal to liberal intellectuals with minimal experience of the world asserting truths without evidence because it felt right. Has much changed? A daily read of the nonsense in the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' would suggest not.
How much of the current story of the internet and its purpose and use as well as its relationship to freedom and power is truly understood by these commentators. And, if they do not understand the crude nature of power and history, why are we listening to them?
Notes are private!
Jan 02, 2014
Aug 27, 2013
Oct 01, 2013
The wartime 'pin up' is usually associated with the United States but there is a British tradition best represented by the glamorous, lean and languid...more The wartime 'pin up' is usually associated with the United States but there is a British tradition best represented by the glamorous, lean and languid women of Derek Wright.
This book, mostly pictures but with a useful biographical introduction by Tery Parker, tells a simple story of how commercial illustration techniques were applied to the problem of morale in war.
The women are models for sexual aspiration - nubile, beautiful, erotic, feminine and strong - that suited something embedded in English class. This is upper class totty made available by grant to the ranks.
David Wright himself is not what the image suggests - a family man who used his own attractive wife as model. She seems to have been happily 'game' in this respect and the family to be sound and happy.
The high point of the work is wartime - a sort of low art equivalent to Dame Laura Knight - and then there is decline into pulp and advertising before hints of a British rival to McGinnis emerging in the 1960s.
Sadly David Wright died in 1967 but he leaves a body (no pun intended) of work that cannot be dismissed - amidst the fast work of a competent illustrator under pressure are one or two masterpieces.
His erotically charged young woman - stylish and fashionable with nipples pert through transparent material - in Men Only (pre-Raymond) of September 1953 is precursor to modern fashion photography.
She is beautiful and self-assured, equal to any man whether as fashion model, courtesan, wife or mistress. This is a lost world of transient beauty made permanent far from today's growling harridans.
'Anglo-Saxon' from The Sketch of June 1944 could be a defiant spit-in-the-eye from the liberal English to Nazi Nordic purity claims and the erotic in-jokes for the troops ('kit inspection') are delicious.
It is not often appreciated that most men did not fight for democracy and human rights but for truth and duty, comrades, family and beautiful women ... it is why we will now cynically let the modern liberal hang. (less)
Notes are private!
Jan 02, 2014