The Age of Jihad
There have been many observers who have looked at the wreckage of the post-Arab Spring Middle East and wondered went wrong (I’ve reviewed some of them here). During this time Patrick Cockburn has been a better situated observer than most, and his on-the-ground reporting, particularly from Iraq and Syria, provides an antidote to the state propaganda usually retailed in the news. He is both a resourceful journalist (he recommends visiting military hospitals to talk to eyewitnesses who are now lying around bored out of their skulls) and a brave man. With the advent of the Internet insurgent forces no longer need the media any more, which makes newsmen useful to groups like ISIS only as kidnapping targets.
As for what went wrong, a big part of the answer is that the local economies failed. As one Iraqi minister puts it, “if the Sunni could just get jobs and pensions all this fury would ebb away.” That’s a remedy that would go a long way to curbing the anger everywhere these days. But a more cynical answer would be that for many of the different groups involved nothing has gone wrong. One of Cockburn’s conclusions is that nationalism in the Middle East has been replaced by sectarian and tribal politics, and the undermining of nationalist projects has long been a Western goal in the region.
In addition, chaos has bred opportunity for groups looking to draw on U.S. or other foreign assistance, while as for the West, isn’t it better that “they” kill each other over there than us over here? Cockburn doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories, but he can see instances in all this where they plausibly gain traction. It’s a sad fact that even a humanitarian disaster as profound as we see in today’s Middle East is not without profit or usefulness to some. Given the dynamics we might expect desperate conditions to continue for a while yet.
A pair of wannabe religious leaders came to California at the height of the Summer of Love and got ideas. All that naivety and idealism on display seemed ripe for corruption. They both set up cults and attracted a family of followers. Their main method for growing their church was to use young women as honey traps, “sacred whores” practising the art of “flirty fishing,” or just plain prostitutes to use the legal term.
One of the two, Charles Manson, was undone by paranoia and megalomania. The other, David Berg (who died in 1994), founded a kind of church (now known as The Family International) that is a continuing albeit marginal presence on the religious scene. At one point Ricky Rodriguez had been groomed to be leader of the Family, but he left the church and later planned a revenge on its leaders, who had abused him as a child. In the end he only killed one person before committing suicide. Jesus Freaks is thus, at least in part, a true crime story, but one where our sympathy is largely with the killer. More than that though, it reveals once again the darkness that lies behind so many religious origin stories. How close did Manson come to being bigger than The Beatles?
It’s hard to judge little children. They aren’t as morally developed as adults, and are likely to behave in ways that are selfish and irresponsible. At least that’s the generous way of looking at Sarah and Todd, a couple of young married types, each with kids, but unemployed and still wondering what they want to do with their lives. Can we forgive these grown-up yuppie kids, or “grups,” their infidelities? Isn’t it the adult world that has in some way let them down?
I really enjoy Perrotta’s eye for contemporary detail and his ironic adaptation of Madame Bovary to the Boston ‘burbs. The one reservation I have is that while all of Perrotta’s characters are presented in a wry but humane manner – as flawed, humorous, and sympathetic – he doesn’t take their lives seriously. Are there, finally, any consequences to their actions? It can’t be a coincidence that the novel begins and ends on the playground, and we spend more time there (and the pool, and the playing field) than we do at any workplace. This isn’t life in a bubble but a bubble chamber. I don’t think a novel, or the novel, should be such a safe space.
Andrew J. Bacevich
The title of this broadside has a double meaning, referring to America’s status as imperial superpower as well as the set of doctrines and principles by which it seeks to govern the world. It was published as part of the American Empire Project alongside books like Noam Chomsky’s What We Say Goes, and Chomsky’s title also works as a pretty good summary of what Bacevich means by the rules, which boil down to the application of force to achieve immediate, and often self-defeating or inconsistent, ends.
The basic point is that American foreign policy is grounded in the projection of military force globally and that as an empire America now exists in a permanent state of war. The tricky question is to what extent the American people have knowingly signed on to this program, been kept in the dark, and/or been willfully blind. Bacevich’s analysis suggests willful blindness, making the public not only complicit but culpable. Given the existence of books like this, it’s hard not to agree.
Simon Sebag Montefiore
The Russian ruling dynasty of the Romanovs (1613 – 1918) has always provided dramatic material for popular history. This really helps here, because Simon Sebag Montefiore, whatever his other virtues as a historian, is a dry, undramatic writer. He reminds me a bit of Ian Kershaw, an even duller and more exacting writer who is a bestseller because he writes about Nazis.
The Romanovs tries very hard to make its subject uninteresting. There’s little in the way of synthesis and far too much in the way of involved footnotes cataloguing secondary and tertiary figures. One would like to skip all of these, but they are in some cases integral to the main text. In at least one case the main text even refers back to one!
Despite these hundreds of not-so-tiny anchors some of the excitement of the dynasty still comes through. It helps a lot that much of the story is filled with sex and cruelty. Then there is the drawn-out final act: the tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra, which makes up a quarter of the book despite Nicholas’s reign running for less than 25 years out of the Romanov’s grand total of just over 300. Seeing as this will likely be the most familiar part of the story for most readers, I’m not sure this much attention was necessary or advisable, but by the time I’d made it to this point I was relieved at the slower pace, which came like the cool-down at the end of an exhausting workout.
Overall, however, I can’t say The Romanovs is a book that works particularly well either as a reference or as old-fashioned narrative history. It falls somewhere in-between, which is a long way to fall.
Who Rules the World?
While the nation state is still the primary political actor on the world stage, the true rulers of the world are the institutions of the “masters of mankind,” an expression Chomsky borrows from Adam Smith to describe the commanding heights of corporate capital. The masters of mankind, in turn, rule the world in accordance with certain doctrines, which broadly fall under the category of neoliberalism, or class war waged by the rich on the poor.
Chomsky’s method here is consistent with the rest of his political writings, being mainly an exposé of the hypocrisy of America’s imperial ideology, of the sort disseminated by the mainstream media. It’s not new, but then we’re still being lied to.
Revolutionary Russia 1891 – 1991
Historians love defining historical periods, and in the absence of clear markers will happily make up their own. So here we have a history of “Revolutionary Russia” that takes us not from the Russian Revolution in 1917 but rather from 1891, when a famine crisis set the public “for the first time on a collision course with the autocracy,” and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Orlando Figes calls this “a single revolutionary cycle” but I don’t know how cyclical it is, and I don’t buy the starting point at all except as an excuse to make said cycle a neat hundred years.
Matters of periodization aside, this is a decent overview of Russia in the twentieth century, though it’s much stronger on the early days of the Revolution than it is on what happened after Stalin. On the failed reforms of Gorbachev (meaning they failed to achieve what he intended them to achieve), the coverage and analysis is particularly thin, and there is only the briefest of nods to the Revolution’s aftermath. This is disappointing, as we still need to come to grips with what the legacy of Communism was, and what it might yet turn into.