Whenever a new friend is perusing my bookshelves, I always find myself mentally cringing when they reach a certain point awaiting the persistent judgm...moreWhenever a new friend is perusing my bookshelves, I always find myself mentally cringing when they reach a certain point awaiting the persistent judgment-laced query: "why do you have so many biographies on dictators and mass murderers?" It's a hard question to answer, if only because it means I have to unpack nearly a decade's worth of my own jumbled thoughts on idealism, social upheaval, human fallibility, and the inevitability of revolution; a task which often leaves the questioner glassy-eyed and drooling as their thoughts turn toward more comfortable musings. That's no fault of the listener though, but more a reflection of my own imprecise grasp of my own ideas. I don't have a fully formed ideology of any sort, but rather a hodgepodge of ideas that I weave together and take apart with the tenacity of an obsessive-compulsive arachnid. This rejection of dogma is, I think, rooted in the lessons learned from the chronicles on my Shelf of Tyranny- our history is chock full of recent examples illustrating the power of an idea to cause much upheaval and while I make ample time to read of success stories (my Shelf of Liberation is directly above my Shelf of Tyranny) I feel that there are more lessons to be learned through the failures. In the case of the Cambodian revolution and the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, there are learning opportunities by the score.
Chronicling the rise of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) through, first, the struggle to end French colonialism, then to overthrow the monarchy of Prince Sihanouk, and finally to oust the military junta that took control following Sihanouk's abdication, author Philip Short places the revolution firmly in the context of a national history of struggle against outside invaders and the historic distrust for its Vietnamese and Thai neighbors. Likewise, he traces the evolution of the CPK's ideology back to its historical root in the French Revolution, by illustrating the commonalities between those two bloody epochs- the lack of an industrial class of workers made organizing the proletariat impossible so most of the organizing work was shifted onto the illiterate peasants in the countryside who were taught that they did not need to know the particulars of communism but merely needed to adopt the revolutionary struggle into their hearts, entrenching ignorance into the party platform, the struggle was primarily against the monarchy and the corrupt advisers and hangers-on who had found ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the peasantry. Most interesting to me, though, is Short's analysis on how Therevada Buddhism and its emphasis on the abnegation of personal desire and the self created the environment that would allow hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, mainly those forced to evacuate Phnom Penh after its capture by the CPK, to starve to death as they were forced into the countryside to work in the rice paddies as penance for their privileged lives under the old regime.
Put together from dozens of interviews with surviving CPK members, unprecedented access to historical archives, and news sources of the day, Short also does an amazing job at illustrating Cambodia's delicate position as a pawn between the Sino-Soviet struggle to control the Communist International, as well the love-hate relationship with its communist neighbor, Vietnam, a mercurial relationship that could flare into shootings and cross-border raids even as the two countries were working together to throw out American forces. All in all, this was a highly worthwhile read that served to broaden my understanding of modern Cambodian history. If Short gives short shrift to examples of the genocide, it is only because most books on the era already focus primarily on the atrocities and not the events that made such atrocities inevitable.
For those who seek information on the genocide, the amazing 1984 film The Killing Fields has already said all that needs to be said on the subject, and if the enigmatic Pol Pot never steps from the shadows to be analyzed as thoroughly as I had hoped, Short makes clear that this is due to Pol's obsession with secrecy and his desire to never be the face of the party, just the man pulling the strings from behind the curtain. There are tantalizing bits of biography that enter the text, such as the schizophrenia that plagued his wife, but throughout the book the Pol we are treated to is devoid of personality and is shown to be a leader with one goal in mind- revolution at all costs- a singular focus that would allow much to be done in its name.(less)
As someone who used to consume nonfiction with the voracious appetite of a trucker at an Old Country Buffet, I find it odd and not a little unsettling...moreAs someone who used to consume nonfiction with the voracious appetite of a trucker at an Old Country Buffet, I find it odd and not a little unsettling that, since joining Goodreads, a solid 95% of my reading material has come from the fiction side of the bookstore. While this has definitely helped fill some dramatic gaps in my knowledge, it was with much relief that I tucked myself into Klein's The Shock Doctrine earlier this week. I'd attempted reading this in the heady afterglow of the election this past November but I was not in the mood to be depressed so soon and replaced it on my shelf.
Two months into Obama's presidency, as the economy crumbles into so many pieces which are then greedily consumed by the jackals that make up the banking industry, Klein's definitive history of Friedman economics and their entwined history with brutality, terror and disparity seems especially apt. Granted, Friedman didn't do this all on his own. Rather, as Klein's thesis bears out, this occurs through a system of shocks to the nervous system of the target country, much as electro-convulsive therapy was developed as a means to wipe its subjects mind so that it could be reformatted into a socially acceptable form.
The first shock is generally political upheaval- a coup, terror attack, or governmental collapse, though Klein points out that natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina work just as well, that so upsets the regular routine of life that citizens are willing to invest extraordinary powers in the government and silence any dissent for the duration of the emergency. Sound familiar?
Next comes the economic shock, during which the social safety nets so despised by free-market zealots are taken away and former nationally-owned industries (oil, mineral, postal services, arms contracts, education, healthcare, pretty much everything) are "privatized," or sold at cut-rate prices to foreign investors who, through some never-explained sleight of hand will then lead the country into its bright capitalist utopia. Of course, as profit-driven enterprises are wont to do, this generally leads to corruption at unprecedented levels, currency inflation and record-bursting unemployment levels. "Relax," the economic advisers say (these well-trained theorists from Friedman's Chicago School of Economics), "these are just the birth pangs of a new economic era. Everything is under control."
Which is very true. Everything is very much under control. For, as social unrest grows, the next shock is coming. These are the state-sanctioned terror squads that quell social unrest by creating an atmosphere of unwavering brutality and terror. These are the Disappeared leftists of South America, herded into football stadiums and machine-gunned, the distraught funeral gatherings broken up with water cannons and riot police. These are electrodes under the nails, omni-present surveillance, bodies dropped from helicopters into farmer's fields, couples black-bagged during their own wedding ceremony and carted into torture facilities, in front of hundreds of witnesses who are all so very afraid to be next that they refuse to even acknowledge that the event occurred.
Klein charts the evolution of the titular Shock Doctrine from it's intellectual beginnings at the University of Chicago in the 1950s in horrified reaction to the New Deal and the Keynesian philosophy that holds that a country's economy should work to best serve the working classes that are it's lifeblood. Milton Friedman, godfather of this Doctrine, develops his economic theory of free-market systems using oh-so-precise calculations (this is the man who cried and recited Donne's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" upon seeing a geometric proof) yet lacks a real world opportunity to test them in.
Enter Chile in 1974, an alleged 3rd world country who has just elected the radical Salvador Allende who is promising further nationalization of vital industries and expanded benefits to its citizens. Obviously the man is a dangerous Marxist and must be deposed post haste, says the US-based United Fruit Company who has much to lose if these nationalizations occur. No sooner said than done. With the useful assistance of the CIA, the military executes Allende and installs General Pinochet as dictator who, with assistance from his Chicago Boys (worshipers at the fount of Friedman) dismantles the complete economy and disappears hundreds of thousands of upstart leftists.
Okay, so that was a bit too bloody for the world's tastes, but you can't argue with the profits. A few people got extremely rich, clearly the market works. Let's try that again, but this time a bit more slyly. So Klein ushers us through nearly every political upheaval of the past 30 years, from the Thatcherite Falklands War to the end of Apartheid in South Africa and communism in both Poland and Russia, illustrating in very explicit detail the cooption of movements in the name of free-markets, the economic blackmail of the IMF's structural adjustment programs, and the destruction of true freedom in order to create free markets.
What is shown is not a series of isolated events but the creation of post-nationalist systems in which the state serves as the source of endless wealth for a very few and muscle for the extortion that takes place in the name of freedom. Most effective is how, after hundreds of pages of showing how this program (or pogrom) worked overseas, Klein brings it home to the US and shows how the terror attacks of 2001, the Iraq War, and the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina allowed the Friedmaniacs to enact their policies in the states. Complete lack of oversight, no bid contracts, unregulated markets and massive speculation all ran rampant during the seven years of Bush's reign and Klein does well to show exactly how this system led to the economic armageddon that engulfs us today.
It is my only hope that Obama and his advisers have read and believed even one chapter of this book and seen Friedman's system for the massive fuck up that it is and are now looking to pull Keynes from the wilderness and enshrine his values firmly in the passages of law, finicky governors be damned.(less)
I've been a big fan of Johnson's past two books, Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire and have been looking forward to reading this most recent work sin...moreI've been a big fan of Johnson's past two books, Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire and have been looking forward to reading this most recent work since I first heard of it. However, where the previous two books clearly positioned US' foreign policy as an off-shoot of the militarism which infects every level of our economy and warned that the US' overseas adventures (everything from overthrowing unfriendly governments to funneling arms to other governments) would eventually lead to a blowback against the US- a theory that was proven true when the US' strategy of arming and training the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s came back to bite it on September 11- this new book seems like a collection of scraps that were left on the editing room floor when Johnson's previous books were published.
There's nothing especially new or ground-breaking here, though Johnson does a fantastic job of analyzing the Roman and British empires and juxtaposing their downfalls with the current state of US foreign affairs. Charting the vast network of American bases, prisons, and secret torture facilities is a vast task, but definitely one that Johnson is up to and the portrait he paints of a web of American influence is a very disturbing picture.
Unfortunately, by trying to tie his three most recent books together under a unifying theme, Johnson stretches his premise to absurd lengths and never really focuses, until the last 10 pages, on how all of the examples that he recites tie together into the sad picture of a flailing American empire that poses a threat not only to treasured systems of American governance but also the future existence of Western Civilization.
If this is the first Johnson book you're looking at, I'd recommend looking to his earlier work first.(less)
If anyone is needing a primer on exactly everything that is wrong with the Bush Administration from their wanton disregard for Constitutional preceden...moreIf anyone is needing a primer on exactly everything that is wrong with the Bush Administration from their wanton disregard for Constitutional precedent to rampant cronyism, then this is the book for you. There aren't any real ground-breaking revelations and nothing that was particularly new for me, but then I am not the average reader. I follow with a bitter heart and an angry eye each new piece of abuse perpetrated by BushCo. and the complete lack of reaction by the apathetic country-at-large.
Anyone who has read Greenwald's How Would A Patriot Really Act is already familiar with the subversion of the Geneva Conventions by John Yoo. Anyone who has read Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival or Failed States is already familiar with America's abomination of foreign policy. Anyone who has read Suskind's One Percent Doctrine already knows the abuses committed by intelligence agencies in the name of "security." Yet to see all of the Bush Administration's crimes lined up in chronological order from the moment of Bush's appointment to the Executive Office up through the 2006 mid-term elections is to see wholly and completely just how far off course our country has been driven in the past eight years and just how monumental the task of fixing these wrongs is.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of wrong-doing that Conason clearly and succinctly covers. It would be easy to shrug our shoulders and say "that's politics" and bury our heads back in the sand. That itself is part of the problem. Books like these should serve as agents of change. People need to get pissed. People need to get informed to the atrocities that are being performed in our name. People need to remind themselves that a plunge into an authoritarian government is accomplished with the public itself as an accomplice.
Then people need to act. Do some research, write your congress people, get involved locally, volunteer your time to your representative's election campaign or with the Obama campaign. Use this justifiable fury at the ugliness of our country to compel it to change. If we don't work for it, then who will?(less)
A fantastic how-to that can be said to have served as the 2006 guide to retaking Congress. Armstrong and Moulitsas take a lot of criticism for their r...moreA fantastic how-to that can be said to have served as the 2006 guide to retaking Congress. Armstrong and Moulitsas take a lot of criticism for their respective blogs, MyDD and DailyKos, but never let it be said that they are ignorant of electoral politics. A great read that should be picked up by anyone who works on a campaign or has even a passing interest in how democracy works in the 21st Century.(less)
I've been an avid reader of Glenn Greenwald's writing on Salon.com and his former blog "Unclaimed Territory" for some time. A former constitutional la...moreI've been an avid reader of Glenn Greenwald's writing on Salon.com and his former blog "Unclaimed Territory" for some time. A former constitutional lawyer from New York, in this book Glenn has turned his keen eye toward the Bush Administration and it's unprecedented increase of executive power. Through analysis of the Yoo memorandum and other quasi-legal arguments that BushCo. has put forward to legitimize their increasingly authoritarian governing (which is a term that can only be loosely used there), Glenn offers an insight into the minds that have crafted this power grab as well as a repudiation of the concept of an over-powerful executive branch.
A short read, and well worth it. If you like this, be sure to check out his next book, A Tragic Legacy, due out June 26 from Crown.(less)