Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Book Reviews

Two book reviews that I wrote, Street Fighting Days by Tariq Ali and God's Politics , have just been posted here on the Media Mouse Website.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently, and since Media Mouse has started a book review section on their website, I thought I would start reviewing some of the books I have read. I don’t particularly enjoy writing book reviews, but I think it is a good intellectual exercise to interact with the material I'm reading. If any of you have been doing a lot of politically related reading, I’d encourage you to contact Media Mouse as well.

After writing these reviews, I have a lot more respect for friends like Phil Christman who frequently write book reviews. I thought these reviews would pretty much write themselves after I had read the book, but it is very difficult to write, in an organized fashion, all my reactions to a 300 page book. Especially since both books covered such large amounts of ground, I found it difficult to simultaneously summarize the book and write my reactions while also keeping the review short.

For instance in “Street Fighting Days”, Tariq Ali devotes a large amount of space to making the case that the Vietnam War equaled genocide. In addition to the saturation bombings of civilian targets in the North, Ali notes that the US objectives in Vietnam could only be accomplished by eliminating all pro-NLF Vietnamese. Since this comprised the vast majority of Vietnamese people, it was essentially a genocidal war. If you read his book, he makes a fairly good case for it, yet in my book review I felt like I more or less just mentioned his charge, and then left it unsubstantiated. The same with Jim Wallis’ book, in which he makes the case that Christians should not have supported the Iraq War. Wallis makes an excellent argument in his book, but these arguments were not all repeated in my review. Again, I felt like I left an argument hanging unsupported. I guess if you’re interested in either argument, you would be a whole lot better off reading the actual books instead of my reviews. (Both books I’d highly recommend, by the way.)

Speaking of which, I’ve noticed from your weblogs that a lot of you have already read “God’s Politics.” I’d be interested in your insights or counter-reviews.

I've decided to re-post both reviews on my own blog as well. They are written below.

Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties
Posted on May 16, 2005 | Author: joel | Comments Off

There are no shortage of memoirs concerning the 1960s, but it would be hard to find one that covers more ground than Tariq Ali’s.

Because of the diverse people Ali encounters, and the many different locations he travels to, it is difficult to summarize the book. Ali begins his story growing up in Pakistan, and then later becomes involved in the emerging Pakistan student movement. The Pakistan regime’s brutal crackdown on the students causes his parents to fear for his safety, and send him off to Britain to continue his education. In Britain Ali becomes one of the leading figures in the New Left. He eventually travels to Paris, Berlin, Vietnam, Bolivia, and back to Pakistan.

Ali met Malcolm X in Oxford, and apparently spent one evening talking late into the night with him about politics and religion. He debated Harvard Don Henry Kissinger as part of the televised Oxford/Harvard Vietnam War debates. He was recruited, and worked with Bertrand Russell on a Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal. He was also sent by Russell on a mission to Bolivia to make sure the recently captured Regis Debray was still alive, and to send words of hope to Debray. He marched in Berlin with the German SDS and advised Rudi Dutschke on strategy. He appeared on TV with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and apparently advised the later on how to deal with the BBC. He apparently talked politics often with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and provided the inspiration for John Lennon’s song “Power to the People”. He talked about the Vietnam War one night with Ulrike Meinhof. The various people who pop up in this book represent a “Who’s Who” of the 1960s.

And to a certain extent this might represent the book’s greatest flaw. At one point in the book, since the BBC had banned the song “Street Fighting Man”, Ali rings up Mick Jagger to ask for the lyrics to publish in his magazine, “The Black Dwarf”. He receives a handwritten copy of the song the same day, but after photocopying it, throws the original in the wastebasket. He justifies it this way: “No one in the office thought this was sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always, in the last resort, a substitute of collective action. Jagger sang well and he was helpful. That was all.”

And yet, by all the name dropping Ali does in his book, one gets the sense at times that he has been thoroughly seduced by the cult of celebrity. Although I suppose, if I had met all the same people, I would want to write about in my book as well.

And there are advantages to Ali’s approach. He paints a very vivid picture of Rudi Dutschke, and reading his book one gets a very good picture of the anger and despair felt by the New Left after Dutschke’s attempted assassination. Although Ali never actually meets Che Guevara, the section of the book dealing with his adventures in Bolivia and Regis Debray give a sense of the importance Che Guevara had to the period, and the shock felt at Che’s death, something that is sometimes lost with the over-commercialization of Che’s image.

Although it is hard to summarize the plot of the book, several themes can become evident. The failure of state communism is a major theme, both the failure of the USSR and China to help Vietnam, and the betrayal of May 1968 by the French Communist Party. Also the failure of liberal democracy during the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War itself are major themes.

Although the book was originally published in 1987, the new edition contains a new 50-page introduction that helps to highlight some of the parallels to the present. “History rarely repeats itself,” Ali says in the introduction, “but it echoes.”

Many of these echoes are self evident even without the aid of the new introduction. Such as the crisis facing the anti-War left in Britain as to whether or not to support the pro-war Labour government. Tariq Ali and his friends support the anti-war candidacy of independent Richard Gott, only to be demonized by others on the left out of fear of a Tory victory.

Unfortunately the candidacy of Richard Gott ultimately ends in failure, and Tariq Ali is unable to provide an easy answer to the problem of the failure of liberal bourgeois democracy to provide an anti-war alternative. It is a problem that still faces activists today on both sides of the Atlantic.

To collect evidence for Betrand Russell’s Vietnam War Crimes tribunal, Tariq Ali travels to Cambodia and Vietnam, and he devotes a large part of the book to describing the human cost of the war. It is heart-breaking reading for any American. He describes how schools and hospitals are bombed, and the heavy civilian casualties on the Vietnamese side. Tariq Ali correctly concludes that the Vietnam War is genocide, and quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre at the War Crimes Tribunal: “The present genocide, the end result of the unequal development of societies, is total war waged to the limit by one side, without the slightest reciprocity – Indeed, genocide presents itself as the ONLY POSSIBLE REACTION to the rising of a whole people against its oppressors.” (Capitals in the original).

Parallels are highlighted in the new introduction when Tariq Ali focuses on the civilian cost of the Iraq War, citing a study that indicates the Iraqi death toll since the March 2003 invasion might be as high as 100,000. Ali continues, “When the World Health Organization claimed that the sanctions against Iraq had cost the lives of at least half a million children, the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told CBS that it was a price worth paying. No doubt the debased politicians and even more debased apologists in the media think the same of the hundred thousand killed in 2003-4. Nice of them to be so generous with Iraqi lives.”

Tariq Ali, Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, (Verso, 2005).

This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged antiwar, history, left, social movements, the sixties.

God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It
Posted on May 16, 2005 | Author: joel | Comments Off

It has been said that the definition of good writing is, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” If that is true, then I submit Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It as an example of excellent writing.

The question Wallis poses at the opening of the book is, “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?” The basic thesis of the book is that true Christianity is none of these things.

Of course Wallis is not the first person to point this out. It doesn’t take a trained theologian to realize that the right has long been twisting the message of Christianity for its own benefit. As Wallis notes in his book, even non-Christians often realize the basic message of Christianity has been twisted by politicians.

But it is a pleasure to see a trained theologian systematically and thoroughly dismantle the ideological base that the religious right has been using for years. There’s not a lot of new material in this book. If you’ve been following the newspapers, you won’t read anything that will surprise you. But Wallis is able to weave all of his material into a masterful case against religious right.

As indicated by the title, however, the book is not simply a polemic against the Right. Wallis goes after the left at times as well. Wallis alleges that the Left has sabotaged itself by alienating people of faith, and in this way missed the opportunity to create a coalition with many people who would otherwise have been sympathetic to the goals of the left.

The most divisive issue in the religious wars is of course abortion. Wallis claims that the Left has helped to create the polarization of this issue by demonizing the pro-life movement as anti-feminist, instead of acknowledging that there were legitimate concerns represented.

“There are literally millions of votes at stake in this liberal miscalculation,” Wallis claims. And then later, “Republicans literally win elections on the basis of their anti-abortion position and then proceed to ignore the issue…by doing nothing to reduce the number of abortions.” Wallis claims that if the Left and the Right were to focus less on the legal battle surrounding abortions, but instead work together to reduce the need for abortion, many voters would be more comfortable voting Democratic. Admittedly Wallis is talking about bourgeois electoral politics here, as he is in most areas of the book, but the points he makes can spill over into activism and organizing as well.

A large section of the book is devoted to the Iraq War, in which Wallis convincingly makes the case that since the only two options in Christian theology are pacifism and the just war theory, Christians cannot support the Iraq War. Wallis’ arguments on this point are flawless, but unfortunately the book suffers from stylistic problems here. Wallis apparently feels that, given today’s political climate, he cannot mention Saddam’s name without taking a brief break from whatever he is talking about to remind us that he knows full well Saddam was a bad man. That should be assumed, and even if it is not mentioning it once should be sufficient. But, Wallis is apparently worried that if he even once criticizes the Iraq War without simultaneously condemning Saddam, he will be accused of being a Baathist apologist. Given the debating tactics of the Right, this might be a legitimate fear, but it is stylistically tiresome.

It is hard to imagine a Christian continuing to defend the Iraq War and the Bush administration after reading Wallis’ book. The question is, however, how many of the religious right will be able to pull themselves away from Fox news or AM radio long enough to hear out Wallis’s arguments? The tragedy of this book is that the people who need to read it the most probably won’t touch it. Wallis may well end up preaching to the choir.

Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, (Harper San Francisco, 2004).

This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged democrats, left, religion, religious right, republicans, rightwing.

Video  Version Street Fighting Days

God's Politics by Jim Wallis: Book Review (Scripted)

1 comment:

SN said...

hi joel :)

i'm reading God's Politics right now. brett and i went and heard wallis at calvin and i was inspired to buy the book. i'm not going to review it here or anything. but, i think that every american, especially those who call themselves christians, should read it. it's very striking to read in words how different things could be if people who believed in the Bible actually followed its instructions. now...i'm off to read your review. i'm curious.