Monday, 27 July 2009

“Thanks for the Memories, George”, by Mike Loew (Three Rivers Press)


A no-holds-barred retrospective of what eight years of Bush will do to a country

Barack Obama has been safely ensconced in the White House for about seven months, and is plowing ahead with his agenda intended to fix the many ills currently afflicting the United States. It is perhaps, therefore, a good time to remind ourselves how the US got into this mess in the first place. It is not, as some conservative radio- and TV-hosts would have us believe, “Obama’s recession” or “Obama’s bail-out” plans that brought us to this point. Rather, a lot of the blame (though not all) can be lain at the feet of one Republican in particular: Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush.

In Thanks for the Memories, George, Mike Loew, graphics editor and writer for satirical newspaper The Onion, has written an acerbic and angry appraisal of the George W. Bush years. In well-structured and paced chapters, the author looks at the whole panoply of Bush issues. He begins with Bush’s and the Republican approach to elections (short version: they steal them), then moves on to Bush’s approach to the economy, the environment, and military matters (reserving a considerable amount of vitriol and ridicule for the Iraq debacle); as well as touching on a number of other issues such as America’s standing in the world, a tiny amount of Bush family history, and what this all means for the future. His conclusion in a nutshell? America “got screwed repeatedly by Bush, and now we’ve all got a nasty STD.”

According to Loew, President Bush had America “by the nuts” for eight years, and over that time he “squeezed the very life out of America”, giving many Americans the impression that “the sky could really, truly fall at any time.” The Bush administration siezed on every disaster and consequent failure to respond to its political advantage; especially using the War on Terrorism and 9/11 to boost election favourabilities and to hurt his and the Republican Party’s political opponents. (Indeed, Loew provides a very good chart following Bush’s approval ratings, with explanations for each lift in the number – terror alert levels are such handy tools!)

As well as looking at Bush’s legislative and executive failings, Loew takes no short-cuts when describing and listing Bush’s many embarassing personal moments while president, painting a picture of a frat boy who’s way out of his depth and has yet to leave behind his days as a member of the Skull & Bones secret fraternity at Yale (which gets a decent amount of ink itself). These embarassments include greeting to the Prime Minister of the UK with “Yo, Blair” at a G8 luncheon, giving a backrub to Angela Merkel, getting confused by the doors at a press conference in China, and almost suggesting Queen Elizabeth II is 262 years old when he said she helped celebrate the US’s bicentennial “in 177... uh, in 1976”.

Loew writes long and depressingly about Bush’s impact on the US economy, and considering we are living through the immediate aftermath at the moment, it would perhaps be best just to offer this summation of the author’s argument, which is substantiated by facts and careful discussion (completed by an angry sarcasm): “This careful economic steward spent like a drunken wastrel, pointlessly pouring money out of the nation in thundering, fraudulent waterfalls of lost wealth. This true patriot’s real goal was for the country was to loot its treasure” for cronies and campaign contributors.

Naturally, Bush’s military misadventures receive the most ink. Primarily, Loew looks at why the Bush administration chose to invade Iraq, how it fumbled Afghanistan (which “is not called ‘the graveyard of empires’ for nothing”), and the suspicious levels of preparedness of the US military to deploy into both theatres of war. Personally, I think the author’s maybe trying a little too hard to paint the most damning portrait possible, but there’s a lot to consider with his evidence and in his arguments.

The Bush Doctrine (a term Loew finds preposterous when considering it will be seated next to the Monroe Doctrine, an actual doctrine) is characterised as giving “the right to the president to attack and replace the government of any country he wants if he thinks that country is looking at us funny.” A simplistic, glib explanation for sure, but I can’t help thinking the author has a point – by writing it in this way, Loew manages to bring it down to the level of discourse reached by the president for which the doctrine is named.

One of the things that seems to depress Loew the most is that, following 9/11, the US could have counted on good will and a warm welcome from the majority of the globe, but instead, because “Our president acted likea bully in a schoolyard”, the Bush administration squandered most of this goodwill, driving allies and neutral countries to oppose US initiatives (not to mention wars).

The nations of the world have always been wary of the power of the United States, Loew tells us. As the only global military superpower, America is the 900-pound gorilla in any room. Bush, however, “decided to throw open the cage of that gorilla, which ran out in a berserk rage and jumped up and down on a lot of people.” By treating other nations as if they don’t matter, Bush and his cabal of advisors ruined America’s chance of dealing with the greater concerns of the global community, let alone leading the push for solutions. Instead, “President Bush set the all-time record for the most people worldwide to simultaneously take to the streets to protest him,” on February 15th 2003, when approximately 15million people protested the imminent invasion of Iraq. Loew does highlight the one positive aspect of this global anti-Bush sentiment: “Bush always kept the international markets in papier-mache, cardboard, glue, craft paint, lighter fluid, and matches humming right along” as people the world over need the materials to burn the 43rd president in effigy.

Loew spends one final chapter looking at some of the Bush-related conspiracy theories – without coming down on one side or another; he just offers some facts and lets the reader make up their own mind. For example, he paints a detailed picture of the ties between the Bush family and the bin Laden family that is anything but complimentary, offering some pretty devastating (at first glance) examples of the ties between the two families. One can’t help but think that, had the Bushes been Democrats, this sort of information would have been common knowledge. 9/11 conspiracy theories get a brief airing, too, as well as the mysterious disappearance of evidence that would have been of great help in discovering what truly happened that day (after all, as Loew tells us, the Bush government walked back from its assertion that bin Laden was definitely involved in and responsible for 9/11). All this topped off by the fact that George W Bush’s administration had the highest spending on secrecy in the past decade – in 2003 alone $6.5billion was spent creating 14 billion new secret documents and securing old ones (helping to ensure those unpleasant secrets of the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations don’t come out any time soon, if ever).

While I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book, it’s not perfect: Loew doesn’t do enough to differentiate between President Bush and those who handled and took advantage of him – Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz surely deserve far more ‘credit’ than the author gives them (that’s not a defence of Bush’s malpractice and malfeasance), and the overt opposition to anything related to the Bush family can be a little narrow-minded. Thanks for the Memories, George is a funny, acerbic attack on George W Bush and his legacy of destruction. Filled with widely available facts and details (and a few that were under-reported), but bolstered by Loew’s original and intelligent opinions and approach (while never allowing his anger to get the better of him), this book is an absolute must for anyone interested in understanding why America has been circling the drain of the world. Loew also offers some suggestions for the new administration, which, while very much the Democratic Party’s standard hopes, need reiterating now.

Highly recommended, you won’t find many funnier or more devastating books on the Bush years.

Also try: Al Franken, The Truth With Jokes (2008); Matt Taibbi, Smells Like Dead Elephants (2005) & The Great Derangement (2007)

Review posted from Cusco, Peru

Friday, 17 July 2009

“Have A Nice Doomsday”, by Nicholas Guyatt (Ebury Press)

Guyatt-HaveANiceDoomsdayWhy do 50 million Americans believe the world is about to end?

After reading countless liberal and secular attacks and exposes on the Religious Right, Nicholas Guyatt still didn’t understand what it was that the apocalyptic Christians actually believed. Have a Nice Doomsday is the author’s exploration of their world, addressing a number of key questions: Why did the movement become involved in politics, especially when everything is prophesied already? Why do they get involved in debates about abortion, gay marriage, and even foreign policy? Are their lives “totally overshadowed by the End Times”? Why do they believe what they do? How did the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, become such mega-sellers (60 million copies in print), and just how influential are they?

Guyatt’s mission is not entirely successful, as some of these questions aren’t answered as fully as one might like, but for the main, the book is an enlightening look into the more paranoid and fatalistic side of Christianity in America. The book is more descriptive than explanatory.

The portrait of the religious right that Guyatt paints is disturbing and somewhat terrifying. Their message can be simplified as: convert or die. While I doubt they would ever put it in such blunt terms, this is the underlying message. This is perfectly displayed in the Left Behind video game, in which you go around New York City converting passersby or, if they don’t prove amenable to conversion… well, it’s not clear, but you do get to control a tank. In addition to the video game, there is now a military-thriller offshoot.

It ought to be pointed out that this is not an anti-Christian polemic in the vein of Richard Dawkins and his ilk. Rather, Guyatt approaches his subject in an open-minded, fair manner – he’s not attempting to ridicule believers, though it’s sometimes difficult not to (for example, in his description of Tim LaHaye’s “undercover” adventures at gay pride parades). The author is attempting instead to both understand what these apocalyptic beliefs are, and also attempt to find out how widely accepted they are – as it turns out, not particularly, as the author appreciates that of the millions of readers of the Left Behind series, many likely don’t believe entirely in both the books’ content and teachings as doctrine – many, in fact, seem to pursue a more Church of England-esque style of Christianity (i.e., ‘be good to thy neighbours and do good works, but do it quietly’).

What is frightening, for Guyatt and also this reviewer, is that some of those who do buy in to the doomsayer prophecies hold government posts (at least they did when the book was first released) or enjoy a high level of influence over some Republican officials: I’m sure we can all remember the brief closeness of John McCain and John Hagee, who crops up in Have a Nice Doomsday, and not in a complimentary light. By the end of Have a Nice Doomsday, we are left with a disturbing portrait of an incomprehensible, paranoid group with an increasing proximity to the levers of American power (though, following the “thumpin’” the Republican party received in 2006 and 2008, their influence is clearly waning, though perhaps not within that party).

For the main, Guyatt focuses on the domestic impact of these believers, rather than the international impact, or the impact these beliefs might have on America’s foreign policy (for this, I would recommend Lee Marsden’s For God’s Sake: The Christian Right & US Foreign Policy), while still referring to the unwavering support of Israel that appears inseparable from the wider apocalyptic Christianity faith.

Have a Nice Doomsday is a witty, highly readable investigation into apocalyptic Christianity in America and Guyatt is the perfect guide into this world: his academic background, his prose style and his clever wit all make this book a pleasurable and entertaining read. The book’s content is alternately disconcerting and eye-opening, but always interesting. Well worth checking out.

Also try: Jeff Sharlet, The Family (2008); Chris Hedges, American Fascists (2008); Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming (2007); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (2006); Glenn Greenwald, Great American Hypocrites (2008); Ryan Sager, The Elephant in the Room (2006); Alex Heard’s Apocalypse Pretty Soon (2000)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

“Prisoner of the State”, by Zhao Ziyang (Simon & Schuster)

ZiyangPrisonerOfTheState1 “The Secret Journal of [Purged] Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang”

Zhao Ziyang, Party Chief of the Chinese Communist Party from 1987-1989, was placed under house arrest for objecting to and outwardly opposing the brutal crackdown more commonly known as the Tiananmen Square Incident (or “Massacre” if you want to be particularly sensational and risk the ire of the CCP).

Zhao writes of those few days before the violence, “I told myself that no matter what, I refused to become the general secretary who mobilized the military to crackdown on students.” Unfortunately, on the night before, he recollects that, “While sitting in the courtyard with my family, I heard intense gunfire. A tragedy to shock the world had not been averted, and was happening after all.” Learning Zhao’s thoughts surrounding this event are without doubt the clearest attraction of this book, but there is much more on offer. I will, however, start with Zhao’s chapters about Tiananmen – before, during, and its aftermath.

The atmosphere in 1989 China was far from comfortable. The student protests that escalated into anti-government demonstrations grew from an outpouring of grief at the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer who had been expelled from the Party. Zhao believed the public display of solidarity with Hu was a result of him being “incorruptible while in power”. At the time, “There was a lot of dissatisfaction with corruption… so commemorating Hu Yaobang provided a chance to express this discontent.” Zhao was in Pyongyang when the protests started to get out of hand, allowing the Party hardliners to convince Deng Xiaoping (still the supreme authority in China) that something must be done to stop the spreading protests, and (among other things) an ill-advised April 26th editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper, which described the demonstrations as “premeditated and organized turmoil with anti-Party and anti-socialist motives”. Zhao describes a feeling of paranoia and desperation among Party elders and elite, as they realised old tactics and symbolic gestures no longer had the impact they once did. When Zhao returned from North Korea, the “situation had grown perilous. Large-scale bloodshed had become all too possible.” One can’t help but wonder how China might look today if Zhao had not been ousted, but instead managed to steer the CCP away from pursuing a policy that still echoes through Western commentary and imaginations whenever China enters the news.

Prisoner of the State takes a long, detailed look at the investigation conducted by senior cadre members into Zhao’s actions, which ultimately led to nothing, and is said to have actually held a positive view of Zhao (the document has never been made public). Zhao draws on official documents and correspondence to draw a complete picture for the reader. Zhao outlines the results of the investigation, concluding that much of the “facts and evidence” that was supposed to show how he was “supporting turmoil” and “splitting the Party” was contradictory and didn’t support actual events and facts, concluding that, even falsified, “they were still not enough to support the judgment made against me.”

Zhao’s house arrest, under which he remained for the majority of the rest of his life, came complete with plenty of difficulties – for both Zhao and also the Chinese Party elite who wished to effectively brush him under the carpet: “Even mundane things, such as attempts to go out golfing, set off tragicomic clashes with authorities who want[ed] him out of the public eye.” Zhao also describes how, for the first few years, the restrictions to his movements were never made official – he was not presented with documentation or a list of rules and regulations that would define his pseudo-incarceration until after a golfing trip, with an official paper trail laid down when Li Peng and Jiang Zemin officially complained. The chapters about Zhao’s house arrest are a fascinating look at an institutional paranoia that resulted in detailed regulations and limitations to Zhao’s movements and activities – no contact with foreigners or reporters being most significant, to the extent where Zhao was restricted from even playing golf (an obvious passion of Zhao’s) at foreign-owned clubs.

His attempts to get his house arrest rescinded, writing many letters to Deng and other Chinese officials, met with no success: “All these letters of mine fell like stones dropped into the sea, disappearing without a trace. Their tactic was simply never to respond.”

At a time when China (and the world) are still deciding how best to address the economic crisis that started in 2008, Zhao’s account of the economic reforms of the late-1970s and 1980s is a valuable insight into China’s previous major reforms. He talks at length about this period (which he had a considerable hand in, even if progress was disrupted by the Tiananmen protests and government reaction) and what they meant for China; for example, the development of the coastal regions into major trade and manufacturing hubs, and how China followed the model set down by other Asian Tigers – i.e., taking advantage of the abundant, cheap, and skilled labour supply, which allowed for considerable growth that continued consistently until the economic shock towards the end of 2008. “For many years, [China’s] economic development efforts yielded poor results. They demanded a great deal of effort while providing few rewards,” which was compounded by the politicised virtue of self-reliance, Zhao says. He continues,

“The result of doing everything ourselves was that we were not doing what we did best. We suffered tremendous losses because of this. I now realize more and more that if a nation is closed, is not integrated into the international market, or does not take advantage of international trade, then it will fall behind and modernization will be impossible.”

Zhao’s insistence that corruption (a constant in Chinese history) needed to be addressed, and the fact that “the only solution for resolving this issue is continued deepening of reform to separate government from enterprise,” by delegating responsibilities and authority to institutions and regional administrators, and also by increasing accountability and transparency, because “The less transparency, the easier it is to cheat”, was met with hostility and opposition from the stalwarts in the Party, and probably started the process to oust Zhao. “If a political party has no check on its power, its officials easily become corrupt,” Zhao writes. The implications of his conclusion are considerable, when you consider who is writing it:

“The situation will eventually improve with the building of democratic politics, a wider variety of political activities, a wider slice of the populace participating in the process, and checks on power by public opinion.”

The final section of Prisoner of the State offers Zhao’s proposals for how China must adapt to the challenges of the 21st Century, and also chapters that tie together the events previously covered in the book. This section includes the following: his opinion on what Deng Xiaoping really believed, alleging that he was dissatisfied with the political system in place (247-253); evidence that Hu Yaobang had “undoubtedly” wanted to make China democratic (254-255); an explanation of the evolution of his views on economic- and political reform; he refutes the claims in Gorbachev’s memoirs that Zhao hinted at a move towards multiparty democracy in China, as at the time (1989), Zhao was still very much a political conservative even if he did believe in modernisation and greater freedom of the press (256-260); finally Zhao admits that China’s political system is not ideal, and that “if a country wishes to modernize, not only should it implement a market economy, it must also adopt a parliamentary democracy as its political system,” and that the ultimate goal of China must have this in mind. (270) While accepting that China’s condition will enforce a long transition, Zhao continues:

“If we don’t move toward this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China’s market economy: issues such as an unhealthy market, profiting from power, rampant social corruption, and a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor will the rule of law ever materialize.”

Even though it’s portioned into short chapters, the book was at times a little slow. This being said, certain chapters were riveting as they detailed the behind-the-scenes political struggles, back-stabbing, rivalries and drama that came with many important events and decisions as China stumbled economically and socially as it tried to acquire the best of both worlds (communist and capitalist). Ably introduced, concluded, and contextualised by the three editors – Adi Ignatius, Roderick MacFarquhar, and Bao Pu – Prisoner of the State is a timely, important account of some of the major events and issues that formed the political landscape of China towards the end of the 20th Century.

Overall, I would say that Prisoner of the State is a must-read for anyone with an interest (professional or otherwise) in China and Chinese history. With the government in Beijing retaining a tight grip on the dissemination of information, Zhao’s memoirs are an invaluable addition to the existing literature on the fateful events of April-June 1989. Very worth your time.

Further reading: Andrew Nathan, Perry Link, Orville Schell, & Liang Zhang, The Tiananmen Papers (2002); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes (2008); Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution (2005); John Gittings, The Changing Face of China (2006); Jonathon Spence, The Search for Modern China (1999); Philip Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow (2008)

Tiananmen Related Media: BBC, “China Memoir Challenges Party Line”; BBC Archive, “Tank Man Confrontation

Saturday, 4 July 2009

“American Heroes”, by Edmund S. Morgan (W.W. Norton)


Profiles of Men & Woman Who Shaped Early America

“American heroes. Probably most of the people in this book would have disclaimed or disdained the title,” (xi) so begins Edmund S. Morgan’s account of a number of known and unknown heroes of American history, a collection of past essays – some published, some as-yet not available, with a loosely-tied common thread of “heroism”.

Heroes have a long-established, special place in American history and culture. Whether it is genuine heroes of the revolution or modern wars, ascribing to the traditional definition of a hero as warrior, or if it is the too-commonly thrown adjective to describe just about anyone who has achieved something or been the victim of a tragic accident or event (e.g., the 9/11 victims, deemed “heroes” on the commemorative plaque at Ground Zero).

Some of those featured in the book are obvious inclusions. These include George Washington and Benjamin Franklin: “Franklin is truly my hero, and so is Washington, two men for whom my admiration never stops growing.”). The author’s respect for these two is considerable. He explains how it is likely that, without these two historical giants, the United States would likely never have worked or existed, in some ways because their greatest strength “was the talent for getting things done by not doing the obvious, a talent for recognizing when not doing something was better than doing it, even when doing it was what everyone else wanted.”

The other characters mentioned are not your usual cast. Morgan explains his choices thus: “The people I have selected here, whether public heroes or simply my favourites, have surprised me in one way or another.” Morgan’s definition of hero, for the purposes of this volume, is a person “who [goes] their own way against the grain, regardless of custom, convenience, or habits of deference to authority,” who has an “ability to say no.”

The book is separated into three parts, each looking at a specific ‘type’ of hero. The first, “The Conquerors” takes a look at Christopher Columbus, who Morgan argues without whom, none of the others could ever have played the heroic roles they did. The second section, “Puritans, Witches, and Quakers”, as the name suggests, focuses on minor players in the American story presented with situations (relating to religion, heresy, and so forth) they courageously overcame or tackled. The final section, “Revolutionary Leaders”, takes a look at more famous heroes such as Washington and Franklin, as well as the Anti-federalists and Perry Miller. Overall, a mixed selection that manages to keep the book both interesting and different from the usual volumes of Founding hagiography one finds clogging up store shelves.

Given Morgan’s past publications and research interests, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he writes a good deal about Puritanism and various aspects of its development through the theological debates of the 17th and 18th Centuries. For those interested in this subject, the book will have plenty to offer. This focus on Puritanism, in fact, was quite interesting as Morgan clearly finds them interesting and yet difficult at the same time.

For those actually looking for an account of the lives of American Heroes might come away slightly disappointed, as it’s not always clear why some of these people have been included. Some, of course, were heroic, when they stubbornly stood in the face of persecution, refusing to sacrifice their principles (other others). Not so much heroes, they are, well, just interesting. Perhaps the book should have been titled, Interesting Americans.

Morgan’s research effort for these essays is very impressive, and he draws extensively from primary sources (such as diaries, correspondence, and court transcripts). Coupled with the author’s obvious enthusiasm for the task he has set himself, this makes for a thoroughly interesting read – whether you are reading the chapters on established heroes, Yale presidents Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight, the Salem Witch Trials, or puritans such as Michael Wigglesworth (in an interesting essay that attempts to dispel much of the received wisdom of Puritans as prudes with unhealthy attitudes towards sex and desire).

As 93, Morgan remains one of America’s most interesting and imaginative historians, and American Heroes is a worthy addition (if ill-named) to his extensive bibliography. (Morgan has 18 books and five edited volumes to his name.)

An interesting read, though perhaps not for everyone (at times I struggled to remain wholly interested, though Morgan’s writing style is very readable), it offers a twist in the approach to American history that is worth a curious look.

Further Reading: Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (2003), The Genius of George Washington (1983), Birth of the Republic 1763-89 (1956), The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958/2000), The Meaning of Independence (1988); Michael Beschloss, Presidential Courage (2007); Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men (2009); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers (2002)