“The Classic book of American short stories” published by Oxford and with an introduction by Douglas Grant, 1990.

The fourteen short stories in Oxford’s 1990 collection highlight the diversity of life in the burgeoning United States. It is not a pretty picture. The stories contained within are loosely chronological from mid nineteenth to twentieth century:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne “My Kinsman: Major Molineux” 1851
  • Edgar Allan Poe “The Black Cat” 1845
  • Herman Melville “Benito Cereno” 1856
  • Mark Twain “Baker’s Bluejay Yarn” 1880
  • Ambrose Bierce “The Coup de Grace” 1892
  • Hamlin Garland “The return of a private” 1891
  • Edith Wharton “Roman Fever” 1936
  • Stephen Crane “The Open Boat” 1898
  • Jack London “The Heathen” 1911
  • Sherwood Anderson “I Want to Know Why” 1921
  • Katharine Anne Porter “A Day’s Work” 1944
  • William Faulkner “Dry September” 1931
  • Ernest Hemingway “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” 1938

Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman: Major Molineux” is a wonderful story to begin with. It chronicles the tale of the young man Robin as he arrives in Boston trying to find work. He witnesses the very devil himself as tries to find the man who promised him a job. Upon meeting his tarred and feathered Kinsman, he wants to get the first boat back out, before being persuaded to stay, thereby perfectly encapsulating the difficulties of the generations of settlers that came to America in their droves, in search of work.

One theme that struck me throughout was water. Living at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, it is difficult to appreciate the amount of time that people spent on boats getting to and from their destinations. Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno” illustrates the inherent dangers of the journey, detailing a mutiny aboard a Spanish slave ship. The brutality meted out to the slaves on board for the mutiny was astonishing – the main conspirator Babo’s head was placed on a stick and his body burnt alive. The narrative in “Beneto Cereno” is  distorting and choppy.

Stephen Crane’s beautifully written “The Open Boat” expresses similar concerns about travelling on the treacherous seas, telling us of an escape from a sinking ship. Four men travel on a dinghy and see a lighthouse tantalisingly close in the distance. Eventually they try to swim for shore and it is the strongest of the four men, the oiler Billie, who winds up dead when they arrive, his limp, lifeless body immune against the force of the lilting waves on the beach.

In Ireland, we know all too well of the dangers of travelling by coffin ship to build a new life in America. Yet, a lot of these stories of travel were to bring slaves to America. This horrible practice rears its horrid head in many of the tales within, but none more shockingly than in Faulkner’s “Dry September” where a lynch mob violently chase down an African American man suspected of raping a white woman. It is a thoroughly difficult read. The use of the word “nigger” is rife throughout many of these stories, rendering them problematic for the modern reader. Given the derogatory slur was definitely offensive when at least some of these stories were published, these artefacts leave an indelible memory on the brain of a time when America was not at all tolerant.

It is the same with the stories detailing slavery throughout. Jack London’s “The Heathen” is also emblematic of the epoch, another story that I could not read in 2017 without being grossly offended. Charley thinks his “Heathen…gross materialist…friend” Otoo is there to serve him. He saw African Americans as existing solely to tend to his every whim. It is a vile story, with Otoo dying trying to save his Master. The story made me question the very foundation upon which the United States was built.

Edgar Allan Poe offers some light relief from the harshness of slavery and racism with a story about a thoroughly enjoyable story of a husband murdering his wife.

I did try desperately to not let Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” end up as my favourite story here, but failed, much like Macomber himself. Maybe it is my own bias added to the fact that by the 1930’s, the English used is easier to read, but “The short…” is deliciously opaque, forcing the reader to confront some unsettling themes.

The classic American short stories here reveal the real underbelly of life at the time. With the United States being the overarching hegemonic power in the time during which I write this, it is too facile to fall for their land of the free guff that they write about their past. It was nothing of the sort, as the tales here can attest to.

 

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Learning from our past: how the tale of “CuChulainn” can show us some ways forward…

Introduction:

 

I am fascinated by what values my Irish ancestors saw as worthy of mythologizing. After examining these qualities, I believe our past may offer an insight into how we might behave in the future. Have we lost touch with some of our core values and can we bring them to life again?

 

Women              

 

Ireland was a land where women ruled just as effectively as men. Think of Medb, the Queen of Connacht, in the story of CuChulainn. There was no doubting her brilliance and ruthlessness as a leader based solely on her gender. Clearly it was a monarchical system so, logically, it could be argued that she took power by default. The question still arises: in the superior, modern democratic system that we currently have, why is it that we have not had a female leader in over a hundred years since the beginning of the State? I am not critiquing democracy, it is the only game in town. Yet, it is a telling insight into the inherent misogyny in our political system that this has not happened yet.

Women were warriors in Ireland at the time. CuChulainn went to Scatach, the legendary Scottish warrior Queen to receive his training to be a warrior King. She is the very best at her trade and hones his fighting skills, teaching him to use a spear that enabled him “to rip (a person’s) innards to shreds”. I love the fact that she is the best warrior available in the Emerald Isles to train the young CuChulainn. Why, then, were Irish women not allowed to serve in the Irish military until 1979? Again, the only answer I can think of for suppressing the natural fighting is deep seated sexist impulses.

CuChulainn marries Emer, who is “wise, modest and chaste”. This is the archetypal Irish woman at the time. Not that women were expected to be as pure as this. Medb  was evidence of this as she “took many male lovers”.

This is not glorify the role of women in Irish mythology. Chonchobar sent nine men to “find a wife for CuChulainn”. During this process, which women were not included in, they discuss “which of the women of Ireland CuChulainn might take”. That women were seen as objects for men to “take” is shocking and shameful. There is no going back to that dark era. Doubtless, we have evolved. Yet, the tale of CuChulainn can show us that we need to shed our deep rooted sexism that is pervasive in Ireland. Women should lead our country as much as men do. Is anyone seriously suggesting that there are no women that could lead Ireland more effectively than our last two Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen?

 

Ethics:

 

CuChulainn was pre-ordained to “right all wrongs”. It is interesting to interpret this as the great Irish hero as trying to choose the correct moral course of action and not just superficially slaying other clans of fellow warriors. Maybe this higher level of ethics is what set him apart from all the other warriors.  It would be imprudent to draw too many conclusions about his morality as he was extremely violent, staking his claim as a warrior by slaying Chonchobar’s slobbering, snarling jowly mutt. Still, as a trait for Irish people to aspire to: doing the right thing seems like a worthwhile goal. In fact, when you think about, is there anything that each Irish person should be aspiring to over this? If we all chose, to the best of our ability, to “right all wrongs”, I think we can definitively say that we would have a better country. Especially now that we have, largely, managed to resolve our disputes through peaceful means and not with the spear.

CuChulainn’s education was instructive. Three talented experts in their fields were deliberately chosen to mould his character. The disciplines chosen were revealing. Poetry, fighting and caring for the weak. With the obvious exception of the redundant field of learning to fight, it would be beneficial if we could revisit our roots here and teach our young to care for other people. A cursory look at the despicable levels of homeless on the streets tells us that we have gone wrong somewhere. Once religious schools are finally phased out from Irish society and we have belatedly discarded all vestiges of theocracy in our primary and secondary schools, it is time that we begin to teach children ethics in school. Not just a perfunctory whizz through Buddhism etc but as a distinction in itself. Again, what could possibly have more long term benefits for our society than teaching young people help the weak and care for other people? We are more focused on personal finances than personal morality in modern Irish society. Paying our way and saving are of course part and parcel of doing the right thing, so we can do both.

 

Gaelic Sports:

 

150 “warriors” were playing Hurling in Emain Macha when Setanta first arrived. Indeed, he played hurling himself as a child, oftentimes by himself, helping to build his great strength. With the Anglicisation of Ireland from when the first British plantations arrived in the 16th Century, our national sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football have been constantly eroded away with other alternative’s. I am indicative of this too, I follow U.K. football. Would the great dilution have happened if we were not colonised for generations?  Should we move towards promoting our own sports or continue to diversify as we are at the moment? Every Irish citizen has, and should have, the freedom to choose the sport they want to play. Yet, there should be a duty on us collectively to promote Gaelic Games and keep the tradition alive.

 

Society:

 

Ireland was a land of warriors, poets, of wise sages, storytellers and of magicians. We loved nature. Artists and sages were prominent in local communities.

We liked a drink, even back then. Think of the wine that Deirdre drunk that sent her into a stupor and ended up with her beginning her epic journey.

 

Conclusion:

 

The tale of CuChulainn can point us towards some parts of our past that we have lost touch with. Traits that we should not have discarded. Certainly, we should keep alive our great tradition of playing and promoting Gaelic Games. Women should lead in Ireland as much as men do. Hopefully, the election of Varadkar, a gay son of an immigrant and the youngest Taoiseach in our history, can open up the path for a woman to lead the nation. It speaks volumes that it was possible for him and not a woman though. However, the most important lesson for all of us, woman and man, is the need to focus on “right(ing) all wrongs” and helping the “weak” in Ireland. If we all did that…

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Review: “This boy: A memoir of a childhood” by Alan Johnson

Introduction:

 

My mother gave me a copy of Alan Johnson’s “This boy: A memoir of a childhood” earlier this year, and I hungrily devoured it in a day recently! It is a wonderfully written history of a childhood growing up on the penurious streets of 1950’s North Kensington, long before it transmogrified into the wealthy, elite area of London that it now is. The narrative is direct and honest. At times, I felt like Johnson was talking to me over a couple of ales in a London boozer. This is a testament to the genuine warmth that Johnson writes with and is particularly impressive considering he was reliving an upbringing where he and his sister often went hungry in a cold, tenement house with an absentee father. Ultimately though, this is a tale of triumph over adversity. The two heroines, Johnson’s mother Lily and his sister Linda, overcame their tough start in life to succeed in different ways. Linda, Johnson’s sister, was forced to raise Alan after his mother passed away prematurely.

 

True heroines:

 

Johnson’s father was a boorish, violent drunk. An alcoholic clochard, who gambled away the little money that came into his possession. Johnson tells us about Christmas 1957 when his mother was in hospital with a serious illness. Where was his father Steve? He had disappeared for two days and blackmailed Alan and Linda into not telling his mother that he was away, telling them that it would upset her.

The true heroines are Lily and Linda. They worked themselves to the bone to try to improve their families lot in life, providing a way out for young Alan. Johnson makes a great observation about how the stereotypical image of the working class British woman of the 1950’s of staying at home and only doing the housework did not match up to his experience. Lily and Linda toiled in multiple jobs simultaneously just to subsist. Johnson’s father Steve refused to pay any maintenance after he left, despite a legal ruling forcing him to, meaning they had to work doubly hard to make up for this.

Johnson writes with real humour. During 1962, Lily had met potential new suitor Ron after putting an advertisement in the lonely hearts section of the Kensington Post. The relationship blossomed and the two families agreed to spend Christmas together. However, there was a sinister subtext to the invitation. Ron from Romford had secretly set a “challenge” to “test” Lily’s culinary skills while he went to the pub. That was the male mind-set. Johnson’s history is, in some ways, a measure of the huge social progress that has been made.

Lily was too preoccupied with earning a living to have honed her culinary skills in the kitchen, so she duly made a hash of cooking the festive goose. An argument ensued, where Lily gave as good as she got, and defended Alan by hugging him, something she rarely did. This in an era where Johnson says that “many men thought it was acceptable to hit their wives”. The threat of domestic violence was rife.  Not on Lily’s watch, though.

There is no doubt that the decrepit, cold and damp conditions that Lily lived in resulted in a shortening of her life. Multiple visitors from professionals and family alike confirmed this. Upon her untimely passing away, Johnson eloquently and succinctly notes that “Women like Lily are dispatched quietly and with little fuss”. This sentence typifies the poetic pathos within these pages.

Linda was just as pivotal, perhaps even more so, in shaping Johnson’s early years. After Lily passed away, the government tried to put them into care but Linda somehow, inexplicably, managed to convince them that she could manage on her own. She had been paying the rent for some time beforehand anyway and continued to manage the home. She even convinced Steve to fork up some money to help them. She was determined to keep her family together regardless. Her bravery, determination and courageousness is inspirational.

 

Poverty:

 

The housing conditions that they lived in were inhumane. They had no heating and surviving the winters was very difficult. They could not afford an electric heater. The only one who had any money was Steve yet he absconded and set up a new life for himself, leaving his family destitute.

Lily always dreamed of having “her own front door” but never managed it. Subsisting was all that was possible. She had to buy kitchen utensils and electrical equipment such as radio’s etc. on hire purchase. Inevitably, she could not afford to pay the bills and had to return the products. This affected Alan deeply and hit home even more directly when he had to buy groceries from his local store on credit, knowing that the bill was rarely cleared. This caused him acute embarrassment in his adolescent years and affected his dignity as a human being.

In spite of the harsh conditions people were forced to live in, what shines through is the human spirit. The neighbours cared for each other. Whilst being careful not to glamourize poverty, the book delicately demonstrates how human beings survive, adapt and overcome it. With determination and humour in this case. After Alan met Linda’s new boyfriend, “the real Mod”, he is advised by him “You may be poor, but don’t show poor”.

Another key theme is the shocking level of violence that was prevalent in society at the time. In school, on the streets. He learnt that “not fighting was a sign of gentility, of prosperity”. The link between poverty and violence implicit.

 

Race:

 

“A memoir” details how London transitioned into becoming a multicultural society from the 1950’s on.  Johnson chronicles the beginning of the influx of people from the UK’s crumbled empire.  There is a horrible example of the naked racism that existed at the time when Lily gets chased by a “Teddy Boy” in London for sleeping with a black man.

He tells us that most people in society used “openly racist language” and how this “filtered through to the youngest members of society”, thereby condemning previous generations to be racist. Again, it is hard not to consider the level of social progress made when reading the story. Consequently, it is a tough, but ultimately rewarding read.

 

Escapism:

 

The lifelong QPR fan chronicles his various trips to Lofthus road and some of the victories they had, included their only trophy to date, the epic 1967 3-2 league cup triumph over West Bromwich Albion, coming back from 2-0 down too!

As Lily’s family was from Liverpool, Johnson tells a wonderful story about going to see an Everton match in Merseyside with his Uncle Harry, who used to smoke the filter-less woodbine cigarettes. After Alan had smoked 15 of them, to keep up with the Johnsons, he collapsed during the game.

Johnson was in a band that nearly succeeded. “We had so much fun failing that it didn’t matter” he remembers. He was a Beatles fan and an avid reader. Art and sport were something to help escape the drudgery of everyday life in poverty. They pointed a way out.

 

Conclusion:

 

“A memoir” is a testament to a bygone era where the fight for racial, class and women’s equality was still in its infancy. Lily and Linda’s personal struggles were emblematic of this. They railed against the system, fought the patriarchy and personified the struggle in society at large. It is a reminder of how the human spirit will endure. The point surely, is how do we can create a society where children do not have to jump over these obstacles to begin with? It would have been intriguing to see how Johnson would have performed at the helm of the Labour Party in the UK in the post Blair years. We will never know, but he certainly would have had the passion, humour, personality and vision to help create a better world. Of course, politics is just one way to achieve that aim. Lily and Linda are proof of that.

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Review: Noam Chomsky “Who rules the world?”

I like to think of Noam Chomsky, the Brain, as the benevolent, human manifestation of the Eye of Sauron, the ethical conscience of the United States. “Who rules the world?” is a collection of the Brain’s essays. From the outset, he points out how American intellectuals get sucked into the prevailing orbit of power surrounding the United States, thus frequently making them afraid to honestly critique the oftentimes hypocritical and unnecessarily violent behaviour perpetrated in its name. His geopolitical comparisons are regularly unexpected, original, cogent and honest. One of the most rewarding things about reading the octogenarian antinomian is his scientific use of language and the exigency he writes with. I find it impossible to disagree with the Brain’s diagnosis of the world. What of his prognosis?

 

The hypocrisy of the United States:

 

He points out the United States’ refusal to sign up to the International Criminal Court whilst expecting other countries to adhere to it, thus underscoring the obvious fact that there is one rule for the Superpower in a unipolar world and one for everyone else. Put simply: do as we say, not as we do. The Brain cites George W. Bush’s ludicrous 2002 Netherlands Invasion Act, where the use of force could be authorised to take back any American citizen, military or otherwise, if they were brought before the ICC in The Hague. This would-be duplicity on a comical level if it did not have such grave consequences. How can the US expect any country to obey the ICC under such circumstances? Furthermore, the Netherlands Invasion Act is proof of the US’s intent to break International law during the Iraq war. It was a scare tactic to send a clear message: we will do whatever we want. There will be no consequences if we break International Law. We do not answer to anyone.

The Brain has an inimitable ability of creating hitherto unthought-of comparisons. He contrasts the US reaction to the Russian separatists in Ukraine’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to the US’s destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. Obama (rightfully) condemned the barbaric act in the Ukraine. Rewind to Reagan’s earlier reaction: “I will not apologise for any American actions no matter the facts”. If we do it, it is acceptable. If they do it…

He also details the most obvious case: Israel’s despicable and barbaric treatment of Palestinian peoples. He identifies the international consensus for a two-state solution that virtually the entire world believes should happen and points out how it is only the US that is stopping this from becoming a reality. Chomsky details numerous war crimes committed by the Israeli’s, such as deliberately attacking civilians and their destruction of a water treatment plant in Gaza. He pokes fun at the United States’ depiction of itself as a bastion of upholding Human Rights whilst simultaneously supporting Israel’s systematic abuse of Palestinians on a daily basis. All of this is, one would think, blindingly obvious. Not so. You take a supposedly well respected intellectual like Sam Harris and listen to him speak about Israel and realise how deep rooted the double standard is in Western Culture.

 

Intentionality:

 

In terms of international violence, the Brain denotes three general types of intentionality:

 

1) Murder with intent.

2) Accidental killing.

3) Murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent.

 

This is a significant distinction and I find it very helpful when assessing the actions of Western countries. Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory 2011 “Thinking fast and slow” could almost add an extra cognitive bias for analysing Western foreign policy: The Chomsky Bias. One in which countries must triple check any proposed military plan to ensure that they are choosing the correct moral course before acting. The world would be a significantly less violent place if this was the case.

 

This is not to say that violence is never justified. Chomsky himself is on record as not being a pacifist. Personally speaking, I believe any military action must only be used to reduce the suffering or loss of life of other human beings. It could be argued that the US did not intervene militarily when it was morally necessary and justified. Think of the number of people killed in Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR and, more recently, during the genocides in Rwanda and Syria. Tens of millions of lives were needlessly slaughtered. One could further argue that the US intervenes when it is not necessary. Vietnam, Chile, Iraq etc. Then does not intervene when the most lives are at stake. Logically, this would prove that their logic for getting involved is not humanitarian. Thereby rendering these interventions illegitimate. The fact that they occasionally get it right has lead to the false conclusion that they only intervene for humanitarian reasons. 

 

Take the current situation in Syria. The Brain is against military invention there. I think some of the half a million lives might have been saved by intervening earlier. The Brain questions whether any intervention can be genuinely humanitarian since virtually all of them use this name when they were anything but. This is where the “Chomsky cognitive bias” is so handy. It can be used as a triple check to ensure that reducing the number of potential deaths is the only answer.

 

 

 

 

Democracy:

 

 

The Brain’s assessment of the current democratic situation in the US is that it has been hijacked by neo-liberal economics, making it unfit for purpose.

 

He baulks at how some in the US view themselves as promoters of democracy around the world, easily refuting this self-assessment by specifying numerous examples of when the US installed and propped up many brutal dictatorships.

 

He analyses how corporate lobbying has corrupted the US’s domestic democracy, citing the disconnect between public opinion and policy in handling the number one issue facing the human species today: the destruction of our environment. He refers to how most polling clearly shows how the general population want the American government to act to reduce the US’s carbon footprint. Yet, the “Institutional structures that block change (create) a big gap between opinion and policy”. He highlights how the oil lobby stymied any responsible policies being enacted. Reading “Who rules the world?”, it becomes apparent that true representative democracy, in the literal sense, in the US has been hijacked by vested interests. As the US is the Superpower, this is a perturbing global trend. Any breakdown in trust between the electorate and the system of governance would leave the democratic institutions vulnerable to a takeover.   It is not as if there are any other Superpowers in waiting that are more democratic. Are China or Russia better options? No, we need a healthy, open and transparent democracy in the US.

 

He quotes Thomas Carothers: “The US supports democracy when and only when it suits its economic interests”. As previously mentioned, they do not promote democracy because it is the right thing to do, they do it when it matches their vested interests. I would be a loose adherent to the democratic peace theory so, in a sense, any time the US helps or influences a country to transition to democracy, this can be seen to be a positive. However, it is impossible to ignore the plethora of examples where they overthrew democracies and installed violent autocrats. The Brain highlights the necessity to see past the “We only do good things” mentality and view the US in its totality.

 

The Brain writes of another truly preposterous incident which shows up the double standards of the US’s supposed democracy promotion when Turkey refused to participate in the Iraq war after 95% of their population voted against intervening. Cue, neo-conservative Paul Wolfowitz demanding an apology from their fellow NATO ally for refusing to respect the will of their people. A truly democratic opinion. Farcical.

 

 

 

Iran and North Korea:

 

 

These countries are of particular relevance in 2017 given the current US administration’s aggressive rhetoric towards them. Take North Korea. On the surface, when you listen to the antagonistic orotundity regularly expressed by the North Korean regime towards the United States and their repeated testing of medium range ballistic missiles, in violation of UN resolutions, it is easy to see why a military response is being increasingly discussed. The Brain references the 1950 obliteration of 75% of Pyongyang during the US bombing campaign as playing a critical part in their current mind-set. They are afraid of another attack. This is a factor that needs to be considered when dealing with Kim Jong-un and his regime. One that is being lost in the current debate.

 

Iran is completely different. When the US “put Iran on notice” in early 2017, it was an unnecessarily aggressive statement. The alleged reason for the threat was for destabilising the region. Yet as the Brain points out, the US consider themselves a stabilising force despite invading their neighbours Iraq, leading to the deaths of approximately 1 million people and throwing the region into complete chaos.! The US being concerned about some Iranian militias filling the void in Syria and Iraq after their devastation of the Middle East is laughable.

 

The Brain also points out that Iran spends less on their military than most of the other countries in the Middle East, making their view of them as a destabilising threat more ludicrous. He also mentions numerous global surveys asking which country is the biggest global threat. Iran never scores highest. Yet, the US keeps denoting them as such. The US view of Iran as a destabilising threat is false and absurd.

 

 

Language:

 

 

The Brain unearths some true linguistic insight into global politics. Why, for example, does the US name its weapons after Native Indians? The Apache helicopter. The Tomahawk missile. Why did they name the mission to kill Osama bin Laden as “Operation Geronimo”?

 

He writes of how Israeli’s call Palestinians “grasshoppers”, “two-legged beasts” and “drugged roaches”. In both cases, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the two regimes are deeply racist and view other people as sub human.

 

 

 

 

Solving the problem:

 

 

His diagnosis of the flaws in the United States system is accurate. What of his solution, which seems to be somewhere on the spectrum of anarchic-socialism? I am not sure increased State ownership is the solution to the issues that he highlights. However, it is key to realise that the Brain is writing in an American context. In “Who rules the World?”, he points out how the US has shifted further to the right in the last twenty years, describing the current Republican party as “completely off the spectrum”. He viewed Bill Clinton’s 1992 election as an important milestone in this trend when he “outflanked Bush from the right” during that election campaign. In that framework, any move to the left would be welcome and sane!

 

In a European context, I am not sure the analysis holds up. His recent support of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK is revealing. This is a leader who has campaigned for the abolition of NATO and vapidly campaigned for “Remain” as the UK voted itself out of the EU. During the campaign, Corbyn said he was a lukewarm “seven out of ten” on whether it was a force for good. He has shown that he is unable to communicate his vision with the population at large.  In short, he is not a leader. Yet the Brain believes that he is the answer to the problem? I am not sure. He has some excellent policies, but if he cannot take his own party with him, how can he take the country with him?

 

The Brain sees the two biggest issues facing the species as our continued destruction of the environment and a potential nuclear apocalypse. Any sane person would have to agree. Therefore, I am surprised that he never advocates for voting for any “Green” political parties. For example, why not vote Green in the UK election instead of for the hapless Corbyn? If you truly believe that those are the most critical issues facing us, surely voting for a party that pushes for a safer, greener, cleaner, nuclear free world would be beneficial? Personally, that is how I would vote given the choice. Given the Brain’s chief concerns, he does not mention them. Apparently, he replies to emails. I must ask him* why he did not recommend voting for them.

 

 

Consider too the Brain’s support of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. It does not appear that socialism was the answer there either.  Again, I cannot disagree with his diagnosis. The prognosis, I am not so sure…

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

The Brain is the best political mind of his generation, a modern-day Plato. His political insight may well last longer than his linguistic one. “Who rules the world?” is not always chronological or logically put together as the essays hop back and forward, the same idea re-surfacing two or three times. Yet, these are mere trivialities. The Brain highlights the hypocrisy of the ruling Superpower and how their interest in democracy is purely selfish. He sets out a structure for how we should think about violence in the world. He is truly enlightened and an inspirational sage. I found myself researching the writers and thinkers he cited throughout. Many of their work is available for free online. For example, I have signed up to the weekly email from the bulletin of Atomic scientists. In short, the Brain makes me want to improve my one.
* Postcript June 2017. I did email the Brain. He agreed with my logical conclusion about voting green, but said voting for Labour was important to tactically defeat the ruling Tory party. 

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Sam Harris’s inexplicable defence of Israel

Introduction:

 

I agree with a lot that Sam Harris has to say. I find him an erudite and intelligent commentator. I have been listening to his “Waking Up” podcast for some time. I sided with him in the Cenk Uygur debate, after watching the 3 hour back and forth they had and I was absolutely in agreement with him and Bill Maher when they duelled with Ben Affleck on “Real time”. So far, so good. I decided to go back to one of the first episodes of the “Waking up” podcast (#2 Why don’t I criticize Israel?) recently, and this is where the problems arose for me. Harris began to outline what he saw as the moral differences between Israel and Palestine. It shook me so much that I have had to completely revaluate everything I thought about the man. I have to seriously question anybody who genuinely believes Harris’ portrayal of what is going on there.

 

Should Israel exist?

 

He calls the doctrine of Judaism “unethical and sickening” and “worse than the Koran”. Being a fellow atheist, I agree with his assertion that virtually all religious doctrine is bad. However, he then says that “most Jews recognise this and don’t take the text seriously”. This is problematic. It is a pure fluke that more Jews are not extremist. If the doctrine is equally as bad or worse, the chances are equal that more people could become extremist. I can only assume that because there are numerically more Muslims than Jews, that he thinks that it is not as big an issue. If the doctrine was not as bad, I could understand why he would think that. By his own admission though, it is.

There are a number of Israeli settlers who use their beliefs to justify their aggressive settlement expansion, causing untold suffering for innocent Palestinians. You do not have to dig too deeply in Israeli history to see their Zionist extremism surface. Yitzhak Shamir was the Israeli Prime Minister in 1983 after he had previously led the extreme Zionist group Lehi. The former Israeli Prime Minister was in a paramilitary group before Israel was founded as a State. Sound familiar? Oppressed people get pushed to extreme ends. 

The only reason there are not more Zionists is a statistical one. Taking a position that Israel are morally superior, as Harris does, is an aberration of any human being who thinks about ethics in a cogent manner.

There is some hope for Harris when he admits that “the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable”. The question is why does he view it as less untenable than a Muslim theocracy, like say Iran. Extreme doctrine is there in both religions. The potential is there for it to be exploited on both sides. 

 

War Crimes:

 

“They (Israel) have shown more constraint in fighting against the Palestinians that we the Americans and Europeans have used in any of our wars”. This is where Harris begins to go off the deep end. Any supposedly intelligent human being that uses the word “restraint” when describing or comparing how the Israeli’s operate in Palestine is to be questioned. I am not sure how any sane person can come to this conclusion. There are countless instances of Israeli brutality. Let us take just one. In 2014, the Israeli air force destroyed a water treatment and sewage plant after they had deliberately intended to target it. How can this be viewed as a “constrained” action? It is a war crime plain and simple. Not an accidental one. Harris paints this imaginary world where Jewish war crimes are all accidental. They are not. Here is a specific example of a deliberate war crime where the Israeli government specifically targeted Palestinian civilians. There is absolutely no justification for this. Any civilised society would never target civilians in this manner. It is disgusting to view this war crime as in some way morally superior to the crimes that the Palestinians commit. It is a vile conclusion to draw.

Harris talks about Israel enduring excessive “scrutiny” while having to “defend themselves against aggressors”. I cannot fathom how a person who thinks deeply about morality can come to this conclusion. Israel were and are the aggressors. They invaded land that was not theirs and have, at every opportunity, sought to expand their territory, at horrifying cost to Palestinians, who have to accept Israeli soldiers taking land by force. They throw Palestinian families living on land that they have owned for generations off of it. How can this be justified? It is an aggressive act. In no universe can it be construed as a “defensive act” to deliberately displace people from a house where they are living. Harris’s thinking about Israel as fighting a defensive war is utterly absurd. If you take a person’s land, you are an aggressor. It does not matter if you are religious or not. It is unacceptable. By this Machiavellian rationale, it would have been justified for the American settlers to take native Indian American’s land. He would point to their “intent” of creating a great society in the future. Doubtless the English thought they were bringing civil society to India, Ireland and everywhere they conquered. It does not matter that the Israeli’s have a secular democratic society. They have no right to take another people’s land.

He acknowledges Israel’s disproportionate killing of a number of innocent people yet claims that this is a “bad” way to think about it. He thinks that the images of innocent babies being killed is a “moral illusion born of the failures to look at the actual causes of the conflict”. Earth to Sam: the cause of the conflict is not purely religious in Israel. It is due to continued expansion in taking land that is not theirs. There is no moral illusion here. Global opinion is revealing here. Virtually every civil society on Earth points to a two state solution as the way forward. The US and Israel are the only ones who do not want it. They want to continue to annex land that is not their own. The only illusion here is Sam Harris’s concept of Israel as a benign state with “good intentions”.

Harris goes on to talk about Hamas as a political entity and how they call for the annihilation of the Jewish state. I agree with him in his condemnation of this violent group. I share his belief that religion is not the future. Yet, it is blindingly obvious that Hamas must be viewed as a reaction to brutality that the Palestinians endure.

Imagine for a moment, that Israel had settled in a remote country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Imagine there was nobody there. Do you really think that Hamas would be flying out into the Pacific Ocean to kill the Jews? The likelihood is that they would not care. Hamas has been voted into power as a reaction to the violence inflicted upon Palestine. Plain and simple. Geography, not religion, is the issue in Israel.

 

Intent:

 

There is where Sam Harris is a complete failure. He talks about the difference between Israel and Palestine’s intentions. He describes the Israeli dropping of a bomb on a beach as “almost certainly an accident” and goes on to state categorically that “they are not targeting children”. So, let us revert back to the example of when Israel deliberately targeted a water treatment plant. This was not an accident. They deliberately targeted children in this instance. They knew they would be affected. There is absolutely no doubt about this. So, we can easily conclude that Harris is categorically wrong in his assertion that Israel do target children. They absolutely do.

Let us not kid ourselves that the water treatment attack was an isolated incident either. The Israeli’s systematically attack Palestinians. Consider for a minute the March 2016 incident in Hebron where Israeli soldier Elor Azaria callously and deliberately shot to death Abed al-Fattah Yusri.  Again, we can easily conclude that the Israeli’s do target Palestinians. It is fundamentally dishonest of Harris to suggest otherwise.

Furthermore, let us think of the Israeli reaction to this incident. If Harris claims that their intentions are benign and they do not tolerate unethical behaviour, then they would surely have punished Azaria appropriately? Yet, he received an 18 month sentence for it. Again, the global reaction from virtually every civilized nation was condemnation. The Israeli reaction? Netanyahu instantly called for him to be pardoned, calling the whole incident as “painful for his family”. Zero mention of the dead Palestinians family.  I guess in Sam Harris’s bizarre world, this is just another example of Israeli soldiers showing “restraint”.

Harris admits that it is possible that some Israeli soldiers to go “berserk” when faced with Palestinians throwing rocks at them. Again, just watch the video of Yusri’s murder. Azaria did not go berserk. There was no threat to him, there were no Palestinians throwing rocks. Any intelligent person can only come to the conclusion that he thought that Yusri’s life was worth less than an Israeli’s. There is no other explanation. Yet Harris concludes that “we know that Israeli’s do not want to kill non-combatants”. I cannot take this opinion seriously. There is ample conclusive evidence that the Israeli’s do target, intentionally or otherwise.

I agree with Harris that Hamas should not use human shields. He says it is morally abhorrent to shoot “non-combatants if you can avoid it”. Yet, we have seen that Israel does exactly that. Both sides do. They shot a wounded Palestinian in a completely avoidable situation. So, because Hamas uses human shields, it “tells us everything we need to know” about their morality. No, Sam. It tells us that both sides have resorted to barbaric acts. All of these acts should be condemned.

“There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel” says Harris, quoting Hamas. This gets to the heart of Harris’s incorrect thinking. He confuses the conflict in Palestine as being a religious one. It is not. It is about the Palestinians right to their own land. He assumes that Palestinians want to see an Islamist state because they voted Hamas in.

Let us compare the situation in Palestine with Iran for a moment. 95% of Iranians voted for Khomeini’s Islamist revolution in 1979. Does the fact that they installed a theocracy give another country the right to take their land if they would install what Harris would deem a morally better society? Of course not.

If we truly believe in democracy, we have to accept what a country votes for. It is a nation deciding its own path. I can disagree with it, sure –as I vehemently do. But if the majority of Iranians or Palestinians want to live in a theocracy, that is their right. And yet, event that is not even what is going on here. Palestinians chose Hamas because they do not see any hope in the face of constant Israeli settlement expansion.

Harris goes on to condemn Muslims who blew themselves up “just to get at the American soldiers giving out candy at them” in Iraq. Oh dear, Sam. Those nice American soldiers, just handing out candy. Really? US good. Muslims bad.

He then refers to the suicide bombers who blew up hospitals as being barbaric. Again, it is easy for any intelligent human to condemn these acts. He speaks as if the US military is above this kind of action. This despite the fact that they deliberately targeted a hospital in Fallujah during the Iraq war in 2004, justifying it by saying it was a propaganda outlet. I guess that was OK for Harris as the overall “intent” was to bring a civil society to Iraq? What a moronic and morally vacuous position to take. All violence should be condemned equally. We should not prioritise Muslim violence over Western violence as they are religious.

As Chomsky pointed out to Harris in their email exchange, everyone believes they have good “intentions”. The Japanese viewed their 1937 rape of Nanjing as justified as they saw the Chinese as or sub human. They were merely bringing civil society to the Chinese. The fact remains. Nobody has the right to take another country over.

 

Conclusion:

 

Harris decides that he “has to side with Israel” as they want to “live peacefully with its neighbours”. Let us remember the definition of the word peaceful. “1: without disturbance; tranquilly. 2: without war or violence”. It may be revealing to ask the ordinary Palestinians whether they see their neighbours as peaceful.

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Review: “The magician” by Raymond E. Feist.

Feist’s 1982 novel “The Magician” is a page-turner, a barnstorming adventure from first page to last. Be warned: do not expect any deeper subtext or subtle revelations here. “The Magician” has only one string to its bow. Although, what a splendid bow it is. The plot is beguiling, moving at a frenetic pace throughout.

The character development is both exciting and anodyne. The main character Pug is a Gandalfian moral magician who is humble and displays a love of learning throughout. This propensity for self improvement is pleasing. He does not just rely on his innate talent but works hard to better himself.

” I’ve seen brave men die because they couldn’t forget they were free” he utters whilst he toils away as a Tsurani slave. The expected route for Pug was to die in chains. It was not his talent that saved him at this point; it was his decision to work hard to overcome his plight. A lesson for us all.

The female characters disappoint the most. Women wait around to marry men in “The Magician”. Take Carline. After she is done waiting for Pug, she shacks up with Roland. Anita and Katala’s lives play out in much the same way. Surely in a fantasy world, women could be imagined as being of equal value? Apparently not.

The magician is like eating a brown paper bag of penny sweets. Fun at the time but results in a sour tongued hollowness afterwards. It follows the classic Lord of the rings template throughout, sometimes drawing too heavily from Tolkien. A holiday read.

 

 

 

 

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Review: “More than this” by Patrick Ness

Ness has written a bleak, coming-of-age science fiction thriller where the protagonists’ emotions swirl around in a dizzying eddy of uneasy teenage sensations. Strange feelings jolt around while an awkward journey of self-discovery unfolds. “More than this” is set in a dystopian sinkhole where vast swathes of society have decided to subjugate their normal everyday experience to a life inside a sleek, shiny coffin, while their brains are logged onto a computer simulation where they live a happier existence in their minds. Think a Young Adult version of the matrix.

 

More than what:

 

There are interesting metaphysical questions throughout. Mainly what does it mean to be alive and what happens when we die? “People see stories everywhere. We put random events together as a story and pretend it’s true”.

This focus on stories is a crucial point about the human minds compulsion to create them. Yuval Noah Harari (author of the important “Sapiens” book) has written religion in a similar light. He labelled it our first quest to find out the answer to a lot of the big questions that we face as a species.

The human mind will search frantically to connect the dots between sometimes random and unconnected ideas.

Ness leaves the ending deliberately opaque. In fact, we are never certain how much of this online simulation is genuine. Somewhat like our belief in God. “There is always something more than this” says Regine, acknowledging that no story can ever provide all the answers.

 

Social Media:

 

I read “More than this” as a critique of the impact that the internet has had on modern life. When tragedy befalls Seth’s family, a social worker steps in to advise them that the best course of action is the escapism of the burgeoning online world that increasing numbers of people were connecting to. It is sold as a panacea to the pain and risk we experience in everyday life. It makes you think: are we already using the internet in this way? Albeit, to a lesser degree.

Seth, Tomasz and Regine ignore the temptation to go back online when they are first disconnected. They have an innate sense that the physical world, with all its flaws, is where they want to be. They are willing to die to stay alive. They understand that the visceral sense of living on the edge, inherent in our mundane daily existence, is something that we need.

“How can you keep anything to yourself in this uselessly connected world” exclaims Seth when the pictures expose his relationship with Goodmund. His phone is the device that is used to rapidly share the inner details of his relationship with his school. Technology has had myriad benefits. Is exposing the inner details of our personal lives one that we should add to the list of human achievements?

Seth even tells us that he dislikes being photographed. It is only because he trusts Goodmund that he allows the picture to be taken, highlighting the enormous control that is now in our hands. The power to make the intensely private public in a matter of seconds. Have we thought this change through?

How will this evolve? Where does this end? We can already see evidence of society questioning the rate of change, with social media providers being increasingly put under pressure to tighten their privacy settings.

Seth sees his relationship with Goodmund as “their own private universe”. This is an interesting concept – that private associations can act as a bulwark against the modern obsession with capturing everything and sharing it online.

 

Life as a homosexual teenager in “More than this”:

 

The reaction to Seth coming out is mixed. His mother is angry, his father accepting. He knows that society is set up such that he will be “teased” in school when his sexuality is exposed. Goodmund cannot return to school for some time as he is in fear of being bullied when he does. His parents do not accept him.

The name Goodmund is interesting, symbolising all that is good in Seth’s life. Monica decides that she has to out Goodmund after discovering the pictures. She is ashamed of being with a bisexual man. Why? Is she just hurt because her boyfriend cheated on her or does it hurt more because it was with another man? That the word “good” is used to describe a teenager confused about their sexuality, is important, as it tells us that this sense of confusion is a normal process to go through.

Ultimately, Seth is driven to suicide after being outed as a gay man in love with a school friend. He feels he has no other out and drowns himself. Social media and

 

Environmental concerns:

 

We are told that governments encourage its citizens to go into hyper sleep in “More than this” as it would help the environment. This is an intriguing idea. If millions of people were to not consume for their whole lives, it could change the economics involved in order to save the planet. It seems a strange way to live but the less we eat and travel could make the difference between saving our doomed planet or the destruction of it. This is the most pressing issue we are dealing with as a species. Maybe Ness has offered an unconventional solution.

 

Conclusion:

As our lives digitize at an astounding rate, we are beginning to confront the reality of the impact that AI will soon have upon us as a species. Will the “world go online to forget itself” as Ness imagines?

Or will we evolve as Seth does when he progresses to becomes a “man who saves his friends”, having been unable to protect his brother as a child?

The real question is whether we will have the collective humanity to make the right ethical decisions to safeguard the future of the planet.

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