Issue 282 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review
This Is Not My Nose
Some poets write to be appreciated or admired. Others, like Michael Rosen, write to be understood.
There are dangers in this approach. Politically conscious poetry risks bypassing emotional connections by its directness. Autobiographical poetry risks being introverted and self obsessed. Michael Rosen's latest collection of prose-poems, This Is Not My Nose, expertly avoids both pitfalls, but it does more. It places the experience of a long term mystery illness into a collage of anecdotes and observations, which--although superficially commonplace--invariably contain more wisdom than is at first apparent. This 'memoir of illness and recovery' is also about discovery--self discovery, yes, but as an interdependent component of coming to understand the wider world of human relationships. Though the narrative is framed by his illness, the fear and frustration of which is palpable, Rosen recognises that life is always multi-faceted--with grief, love, regret and joy all finding genuinely eloquent expression.
The joy of new life, for example, is perfectly encapsulated in the following, most succinct of poems:
'We make a baby.
The baby smiles.
The baby makes us.
We buy her toys
But she plays with shoes:
She makes herself.'
Here the dynamic normally associated with nurturing is inverted. The baby becomes a subject (and not just a receptacle) in a dialectical exchange with her parents--she shapes them in the process of discovering herself.
Elsewhere such moments of discovery can be bitterly ironic. It is only when the local school is turned into luxury apartments that the old 'School Board of London' sign is cleaned as a curiosity piece. The local council's conscious neglect of flats leaves them derelict, bought up and boarded up as 'investors' wait for their price to rise--'for rent' unless you want to rent them. And the exchange between a Palestinian man and an Israeli family with property deeds written by god is sublime.
But to selectively quote or describe this wonderful collection cannot do it justice. It is best appreciated in its relaxed, complex entirety, the themes rippling into your consciousness like a cool backwash from a passing ship. The relationship between personal and political is always fluid, the emphasis--even in the dark times--always on change and development.
When his condition is finally diagnosed and treated Rosen describes, in full cathartic detail, how he ran:
'I ran. I ran round Hackney Marshes,
I couldn't stop. I ran to see friends.
I ran away from home. I ran round in
circles. I ran myself down. I ran
down the road. I ran back. I ran backwards.
I ran to the end and ran back again. I ran
in the wrong direction. I ran into things.
I ran through everything. I ran out of
reasons. I ran a half marathon.'
When you've read This Is Not My Nose you will probably feel like doing the same.
Crossroads of Freedom
James M McPherson
The first years of the 21st century, just like the second half of the 20th, have been dominated by the world's only remaining superpower--the United States. James McPherson has become the great chronicler of the birth pangs of the US, the American Civil War.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom McPherson managed to lay out all the political, economic and military complexities of the civil war in an accessible single volume. This was quite an achievement. Many of the thousands of volumes written on the civil war have gloried in its military intricacies, leaving the war as the preserve of certain military 'experts'.
In Crossroads of Freedom McPherson looks at one of the turning points of the conflict, the battle of Antietam. The battle was the climax of the Southern Confederacy's first invasion of the North. Victory for the South would have meant recognition and military support from Britain and France--it would have meant the preservation of slavery.
The battle came as the Northern Federal government led by Abraham Lincoln was on the verge of defeat. The North had suffered a series of defeats. Many of its military leaders, such as McClellan, the North's military commander at Antietam, openly opposed Lincoln's government. Increasingly Lincoln moved towards the position of radicals like black leader Frederick Douglass, who believed that to win the war the North had to take off the 'kid gloves'.
The South's economy depended on slavery. Only by attacking this engine of Southern power could the North prevail. Lincoln had drafted an 'emancipation proclamation', but believed he needed a military victory to clear the political ground for such a radical move.
On 17 September 1862 the two armies met. It was to be the bloodiest day in American history. Six thousand soldiers died at Antietam, more than twice as many as died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Thousands more soldiers were wounded or maimed.
The South's defeat ended all talk of foreign intervention and gave Lincoln the political confidence to announce the 'emancipation proclamation'. The proclamation helped turn the conflict from a war to re-establish the union into a revolutionary struggle to smash the slave power. The process was so revolutionary that by 1865 some 200,000 blacks, most of them ex-slaves, were in Federal uniform. This would have been unimaginable when war began.
While McPherson paints the big picture of what Karl Marx described as a 'battle between two social systems', he also gives us a view of how the war was experienced by ordinary people. Beside the voices of military and political leaders like Lincoln, Douglass and Lee we hear ordinary soldiers and civilians. McPherson shows us how the outcome of huge struggles like the civil war depend on the political motivations and courage of flesh and blood human beings, not just blind social forces or the actions of great leaders.
For anyone who wants to understand the power of the US in the modern world and the struggles of race and class that have shaped its history, the civil war is a good place to start. And McPherson is a good author to start with.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Jonathan Cape £10.99
'The world is full of obvious things, which nobody by any chance ever observes.' So says Sherlock Holmes, fictional detective--and supreme hero of Christopher Boone, the 15 year old protagonist of Mark Haddon's extraordinary and enthralling murder-mystery novel, which recently won the Whitbread Award for best book of 2003.
This book's many remarkable qualities will be discussed at length over the coming weeks. For a start, it is making literary history by being published simultaneously as an adults' and a children's novel. Secondly, the narrator, Christopher, has Asperger's, a form of autism which means he doesn't understand facial expressions or metaphors like 'you'll catch your death'. He can't imagine things which have not happened to him, or empathise. He can't lie and has no way of intuiting others' motives, except by their behaviour. He 'can't do chatting', and the deadpan style of his delivery is deceptively robotic. This emotional dissociation and his experience of the world through mathematical logic and observation have caught critics unaware, hardened though they are to the multifarious technical devices which characterise modern fiction.
The story goes like this--Christopher likes to pretend that he is the only person alive in the universe. On one of his late night wanderings he discovers a neighbour's dog, dead on the lawn, with a garden fork stabbed through it. He then sets out to deduce who carried out the killing. He little suspects that his investigation will unscrew the lid on his own family's secrets and lead to a devastating discovery which turns his world upside down. Along the way there's a police chase, a near-fatality for the sake of a rat, some red food colouring, a lesson in the kindness of strangers--and incontrovertible proof of the non-existence of god.
Breathlessly keeping up, the reader is taught by Christopher to see the world from an alternative point of view. If, from an early age, you are unable to clue into other humans' moods, you are also detached from cultural and social norms which channel and cover up states of mind and 'explain away' difficult realities. Christopher therefore relies on fact and memory. He will not be fobbed off with bland assurances that his dead mother is 'in heaven'. He points out that adults often don't like it when children tell the truth. He notices that the vicar smells like his father smells after a few beers. He notes how the Bible says, 'Thou shalt not kill', but that Christians kill people in wars.
Aware of people's inconsistency and unspecificity, Christopher questions and tests everything around him--religion, advertising, commonly accepted 'truths' and, rejecting superstition, uses science as a basis for decision-making. Conversely, he invents his own rituals--based on colours, cars and numbers--to draw order out of chaos and to make an unsafe world feel safer. This contradiction adds a powerful dimension.
The graphic device of using mathematical problems to explain ways of thinking draws the reader into solving the narrative itself, with its conventions of suspense and characterisation, as a puzzle. Christopher's digressions into maths and existential questions amplify what is, on one level, a family drama with a whodunnit attached. They create a challenge to look at the world with more awareness of its harshness, chaos and danger, especially for those who are vulnerable. It is also a call to read stories with more attention, to test what we are told and resist lies, hypocrisy and superstition.
Above all, this book is hilarious, tragic and thrilling. Read it, but don't miss out the maths bits--they contain important clues!
The Balkan Socialist Tradition
Dragan Plavsic and Andreja Zivkovic
Revolutionary History £12.95
The disintegration of Yugoslavia through conflict and war in the 1990s created an image of the Balkans that led some on the left to back Nato's 1999 war over Kosovo. In this picture, nationalism comes from within the Balkans while peace comes from western intervention.
This collection of socialist writings gives us a side to the Balkans that we are not normally shown. The articles--most of which appear in English for the first time--were written in the period from 1871 to just after the outbreak of the First World War. Some authors are socialists central to the development of revolutionary Marxism in the Balkans, such as Christian Rakovsky, Dimitrije Tucovic and Dimitur Blagoev. Others are western socialists who wrote on the Balkans, including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein.
Two key factors shaped the socialist tradition in the Balkans. Firstly, the region was economically backward, divided into small, weak states with little developed industry. This was the arena in which nationalist movements in each state could seek to create a stronger base for development by pursuing a policy of a Greater Serbia, Bulgaria or whatever.
Secondly, the region's key location at the crossroads between east and west meant the imperialist states of the period all had an interest. In 1871 Ottoman Turkey controlled most of the Balkans. By the start of the First World War, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Germany, Britain and France had all become players in Balkan politics.
The importance of the Balkan socialist tradition is that it developed in opposition simultaneously to Balkan nationalism and to imperialism. As in Russia, economic backwardness contrasted with political maturity on the part of the socialists.
Take the debate on the so called 'Eastern Question'. After Russia's role in opposing the revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels argued that Tsarism was the main barrier to revolution in Europe, and took sides against Russia wherever possible. During the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, Engels wrote that he would be 'delighted if the Russians take a pasting'. Marx and Engels opposed any national movements against Ottoman rule in the Balkans on the basis that they would lead to a stronger Russia.
But, as modern imperialism developed in the 1890s, it was not just Russia that sought to exploit Balkan national movements. The Balkans became an area of imperialist rivalry between Austro-Hungary, Germany, Britain and France. In fact the pretext for the First World War was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo in 1914.
After Engels' death in 1895, a debate developed among German socialists over this question. In 1896 the Bulgarian Marxist Christian Rakovsky presented a report on the Eastern Question to the Second International's London congress. Rakovsky argued--in a similar vein to articles by Luxemburg and Bernstein--that socialists should support the Balkan nations' independence from Turkey as a means of breaking them from the influence of Tsarism.
Another section deals with Austro-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia in 1908 and the failure of the Austrian socialists to defend Bosnia's right to independence. There has been much debate on the left about the approach of so called 'Austro-Marxism' to the national question, and the idea of national autonomy. The articles presented in this collection show that in practice this position led the Austro-Marxists into a tacit alliance with the Habsburg Empire and, ultimately, into support for their own ruling class in the First World War.
Both the Serbian Socialists and the Bulgarian Narrow Socialists (the Bulgarians had also split along Bolshevik-Menshevik lines in 1903) voted against war when it broke out in 1914. In this respect they were far ahead of most of the Second International parties who lined up behind their own ruling classes.
Other sections deal with the question of Macedonia, the impact of the Young Turk revolution of 1908 on the Balkans, the idea of a Balkan Federation, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. The authors' analysis is enriched by original research across many languages.
This book is an important addition to the history of socialism in the Balkans. It also provides an accessible introduction to an under-explored area in the development of Marxism.
Ellen Ruppel Shell
Food scares are regular occurrences, from salmonella in eggs and chicken, BSE in beef and foot and mouth disease in sheep to cancer-causing toxins in Scottish salmon. Now it's just eating. In the US obesity is second only to smoking as the greatest public health hazard. In 1983 14 percent of all Americans were obese. Today it's 27 percent and, according to Ellen Ruppel Shell, 'virtually all Americans will be overweight by 2030, and half will be obese'.
Childhood obesity has risen from 5 percent in 1964 to 14 percent in 1999. The same pattern exists in countries following the same pattern of deregulation, fast food and the destruction of the public sector. Obesity in towns in China has quadrupled in the last decade, and nearly 20 percent of Chinese people are overweight. Globalisation and the free market are leading to the grotesque spectre of starvation-induced death in some parts of the world alongside the debilitating effects of being overweight in others--unless you are rich, able to control your lifestyle, and have the money for the right food and exercise.
While food and fizzy drinks manufacturers pour millions into developing and advertising cheap rubbish which appeals to children's tastebuds, overworked parents increasingly rely on prepackaged foods and fast food chains for food, where the fat and sugar content has increased dramatically over the last decade. Fast food chains aim to get young children to dictate food patterns to their parents by nagging them for particular kinds of foods and drinks. In the past, children's palates were trained to appreciate different kinds of flavours in different societies through eating together with adults. The variety of foods eaten throughout the world proves that food tastes are learned.
Today the likes of McDonald's see children throughout the world as their market, and they set out to train their palates. Schools, in the past a source of a balanced diet, often rely on these same food and drinks manufacturers for money for essentials such as textbooks, televisions and computers. School canteens have become fast food outlets, and an overloaded curriculum means less PE.
Pressurised workplaces mean workers increasingly eat while working or on the hoof. For millions of people, eating is no longer a social activity to be shared and lingered over. Food is something to ram down your throat whenever and wherever you feel hungry. Fast food is about big business and profit, not about our health.
Just as the food industry increasingly controls what and how we eat, our lifestyles are shaped by other industries. Towns designed for cars mean that cycling has declined by 40 percent in the last 25 years in the US, and Shanghai has recently banned bikes in favour of the car. Time spent in traffic jams has risen by 236 percent between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. Children walk less, get less exercise and spend hours in front of TV screens watching advertising designed to persuade them to eat junk. Watching TV leads to more eating, unlike reading.
Obesity is now recognised to be a problem leading to ever-increasing misery for millions who usually see it as their individual weakness. Ellen Ruppel Shell charts the medical and scientific responses in Fat Wars. Predictably, these have ranged from medical interventions such as stapling the stomach to reduce its size to research into genetic factors which have an impact on weight and eating. So one industry spends billions to get us to eat junk food while another spends billions to develop drugs to counter the effects. Although too modular and a little light on analysis, Ruppel Shell's book is packed full of information about the scientific work and theories developed over the last 20 years, as well as about the impact of changing diet and lifestyles on the world's population. Obesity is not about individuals who can't control themselves--it's about industrial giants who control us.
The No-nonsense Guide to HIV/Aids
The number of people with Aids in Botswana has taken the average life expectancy from 72 to 39 years. This is an epidemic that is devastating the world and serves as a spotlight on the inequalities that are rife throughout the global economy. If Shereen Usdin simply focused on the statistics surrounding the disease it would be enough to bring home the changes needed to combat HIV/Aids, but she does a lot more than this, guiding responses towards effective action. Broadening her analysis of the epidemic, she includes everything from sexual discrimination to poverty and war, seamlessly linking the issues together and highlighting the pressures placed on developing economies by globalisation as part of the problem.
For a disease that is spread primarily by sexual intercourse, the book would not be complete without exploring issues of gender and sexuality, and it does so brilliantly. In the section 'Why Us, Why Now?' the pressures people are placed under by their perceived roles within societies are discussed, as well as the limits of many approaches to stopping the spread of Aids such as the ABC method (Abstain, Be faithful, wear a Condom). In the context of an abusive relationship or in a society where women have a diminished role and are not at liberty to demand fidelity from their partners, this solution can only have limited results. Also, where there is a greater stigma attached to homosexuality, the reactions of societies to the disease have been pretty brutal, leading to less understanding of the disease and a dismissal of it as something that only affects minorities.
The language used draws on metaphors that help the reader understand the many complex issues. To gain any knowledge of the nature of HIV/Aids it is necessary to dip into a wide spectrum of subjects. Sociology, politics, history, maths and medicine are all covered at a level accessible to people, such as myself, who have only a basic understanding of each. When describing the spread of the Aids virus through cells in the body, Usdin describes 'soldier cells... staging a hostile takeover of the body's entire immune system', making the medical theory more comprehensible.
The book is clearly written, and clarifies the many different organisations that are associated with HIV/Aids. Many points are highlighted by the personal stories of those affected. This is useful in reminding the reader that this disease can destroy lives, and isn't just a political and economic argument. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the disease. There are sections about poverty's effect on the epidemic, the influence of sex trafficking, migrancy and unemployment, and an in-depth look at globalisation and Third World debt.
The spread of Aids throughout the world is a modern catastrophe, something that seems almost unstoppable. The last chapter of the book, 'Turning the Tide: Responses to the Epidemic', concentrates on vital activism. It gives examples of effective campaigns, and shows that there is hope for people in standing up for their right to medication and equality. A strong sense of how the disease highlights almost all of the failings within the world economy is balanced by the will of people to challenge the actions and attitudes of governments and multinational corporations.
New Press £14.95
North Korea was named in George Bush's 'axis of evil'. It is periodically denounced for the insanity of its leaders and for attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. Bruce Cumings's book looks at the history of North Korea and where it is today.
North Korea is a country that has been shaped by occupation, war and the threat of war. At the end of the Second World War, when the occupying Japanese forces were driven out, two countries emerged--both weak and unstable--after a decision in August 1945 to partition Korea along the 38th parallel into US and Soviet influenced zones.
On 25 June 1950 the North invaded the South. For the US this was an unprovoked invasion. For the North it was an attempt to reunify the country--a civil war like the American one. The invasion was repulsed, but the US then launched an attack on the North, which was followed by China entering the war on the side of the North. The Korean War went on until an armistice was signed in 1953, although the US remains technically at war with the North to this day.
By the time the armistice was signed 3 million North Koreans, 1 million South Koreans, nearly 1 million Chinese and 54,000 US soldiers are estimated to have died. The US bombing campaign set out to level cities. Napalm was dropped indiscriminately, and the US seriously debated dropping nuclear weapons on the North.
Since the end of the war the border between the two states has remained one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world. The US maintains a substantial military presence, and introduced nuclear weapons to the area in breach of the armistice. These included 'atomic demolition mines', which were designed to be driven round in jeeps to stop a North Korean advance. North Korea has developed a nuclear programme that it has constantly tried to use as a bargaining chip with the US to extract concessions. It is debatable how effective this programme has been in terms of viable nuclear weapons, but it has clearly forced various US administrations into discussions.
The book documents very well how the North Korean state is heavily militarised and shaped by the perceived threat of the US. Only Israel has a higher percentage of its citizenry in the military. Cummings describes the development of North Korea's economy and government, where the guiding philosophy is known as 'Juche'--essentially the idea that the country should be self reliant and independent in all areas of economic and political life. The state-directed economy grew for many years, at times outperforming the South Korean economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a trading partner and various natural disasters have caused crisis and famines in recent years. Estimates of the dead in the famines vary from 200,000 to 3.5 million. North Korea has responded by trying to bring its currency into line with international exchange rates, which has caused a jump in inflation. It has also begun to create 'special administrative zones' on the coast operating market capitalism.
Bruce Cumings also covers the class nature of North Korean society, the lack of democracy and the cult of personality around the leadership. I would have liked to see more detail on both the class divisions in North Korea and the nature of the political regime. Cumings is clearly writing from the assumption that he has to challenge the propaganda of the US right about the North. He is therefore careful to put this and the state of the economy in its historical context and to point out that it is not especially 'evil' when compared to other regimes the US supports.
This is a good read for anyone looking for an introduction to this member of 'the axis of evil', especially given the lack of books on the subject which aren't hysterical denunciations from the US right or hymns of praise from Stalinists.
Tropical Truth will fascinate anyone interested in music and politics, and it gives plenty of insights into the Brazilian left along the way. Author Caetano Veloso is a popular Brazilian singer and guitarist who has worked with Giberto Gil for much of his life. Gil has become such an iconic figure for the left that President Luis Da Silva has made him minister of culture in the Workers' Party government.
Together, Veloso and Gil pioneered a new musical movement in the late 1960s that became known as Tropicalismo. Like punk, Tropicalismo enraged the establishment and turned its leading figures into stars. Like Dylan going electric, it offended most of the musical establishment. It mixed up some Brazilian styles, especially bossa nova, with rhythm and blues, radical poetry and a generally anarchic attitude.
Music has always been important in Brazilian culture--it has been a vehicle for rebellion, but has also been closely tied up with regional and national identity. In the 1960s music shows on TV--often organised by musicians themselves--topped the ratings. During the military dictatorship that seized power in 1964 music became politically supercharged. Tropicalismo became an anti-nationalist scandal as well as a provocation to fans of traditional Brazilian popular music.
A lot of the old left reacted against the new music. They didn't like the fact that Caetano and Gil were drawing on commercial, US and European influences like the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, or that they dressed in weird clothes and didn't always make sense.
Record buyers and the dictatorship saw it differently. The first Tropicalismo records were big hits. Veloso and Gil had connected with a deep mood of rebellion among young people. Mainly it was against the dictatorship--but it was also a reaction to the failure of the left to fight back and the folksy nationalism of Brazilian music. Veloso hated the 'politically clichéd A-list samba with a slick feel... that was reduced to becoming ideological--the defence of the purity of our traditions against all the trash that was for sale'. Tropicalismo aimed at a much deeper rebellion, wide open to the modern world but also trying to subvert it. Veloso wanted to use music to turn Brazil inside out.
In the context of the wave of student revolts around the world in 1968 the government started to panic about Tropicalismo. On 13 December 1968 an internal coup toughened up the regime. Fourteen days later Gil and Veloso were arrested, brutally interrogated for two months and only released on condition that they would leave the country. They did, and spent a pretty miserable few years in a flat in Notting Hill.
They got a heroes' welcome when they returned to Brazil in 1972, but they continued to provoke. At their homecoming gig Veloso did an ironic take-off of Carmen Miranda with sudden breaks to offer commentary on exile and the absurdity of Brazilian national identity. Veloso was clearly pleased that the gig was an overnight scandal. But in one of the many fascinating asides in the book he admits that the most radical artists struggle to avoid being incorporated. Tropicalismo still inspires, but it has also become a part of the official musical heritage of Brazil.
Tropical Truth highlights a lot of the stereotypes about South American music. It shows how popular culture constantly intersects with politics and how it is not something separate from so called 'high culture'. It exposes Latin American nationalism and it blows apart any simple opposition between a globalising western culture and Third World folk.