Terror In France

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Terror In France –
The Rise Of Jihad In The West
By Giles Kepel
Princeton University Press – £24.00

”On Friday, November 13, 2015, a group of killers connected with the Islamic State in Iraq spilled blood in Paris. This massacre came hardly ten months after the tragedies  that took place on January 7-9 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes. In response, the hashtag #jesuisparis (I am Paris) proliferated over social media, just as #jesuischarlie (I am Charlie) had done at the beginning of the same year, and an immense movement of solidarity arose              around the world. Monuments were illuminated with the colours of the French flag,        and ‘The Marseillaise,’ remixed, was sung from America to Australia.”

                                                  ‘Paris, Saint-Denis, Friday, November 13, 2015’

I remember all of the above very well; even the then US President, Barack Obama and the actor George Clooney came out in very visible support of what was happening in Paris. This partially explains why one can read this altogether unsettling book and come away feeling many things: disturbed, upset, (un)convinced, somewhat enlightened or highly frustrated. Or perhaps a mixture of all of these feelings.

Whatever the case, there’s no denying the sheer amount of scholarly integrity that has gone into its publication. For Terror In France – The Rise Of Jihad In The West is both precise and concise, not to mention written in such a reportagesque kind of way, that one cannot help but come away feeling just a little more secure in the knowledge of having been (wholly) alerted.

Alerted to what the hell has been going on in France in recent years.
Or, as the author of the Isis Apocalypse, William McCants has since written: ”The doyen of Jihadist studies has not only penned a masterful study of recent Islamist violence in France that is meticulous in its detail, comprehensive in its scope, and stimulating in its analysis; he’s written a blinking-red warning to his countrymen and fellow Europeans not to overact to the provocations of an enemy that seeks to turn them against one another.”

Suffice to say, this is so much easier said than done, as recent events within the wider European social context have clearly shown. And while these 198 pages (excluding Preface to the English Edition, Paris, Saint-Denis, Friday, November 13, 2015, Acknowledgements, Chronology of Events, Key People and Organizations and Index) illustrate the degree to which home-grown terrorism is a nigh self-perpetuating, kaleidoscopic problem, it does nevertheless, home in on certain, fundamental key issues.

Secularism for instance, where, quoting the then Minister of National Education in Le Journal du dimanche, Vincent Peillon, Kepel writes: ”the goal of secular morals is to allow each student’s self-emancipation, because secularism’s starting point is the absolute respect for freedom of conscience. To allow for freedom of choice, we have to be able to detach the student from all kinds of determinism, whether familial, ethnic, social, or intellectual, in order afterward to make a choice” (‘Secularism as an Irritant, The Reversals of the Muslim Vote’).

Given the inflammatory subject matter, I personally found Terror In France – The Rise Of Jihad In The West to be a wholly trustworthy, very readable read. There again, it has been something of a sensational bestseller in France – regardless of the fact that it is rather stark in nature.

Even the cover, with its harsh, block white lettering on a fierce black background, may be construed as being a little jagged. But if anything, it’s the opposite: well written and idiosyncratically informative.

David Marx

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The Extreme Gone Mainstream

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The Extreme Gone Mainstream –
Commercialization & The Far Right Youth Culture In Germany
By Cynthia Miller-Idriss
Princeton University Press – £24.00

          Nazis don’t look like Nazis anymore.

               Justin, seventeen year-old carpentry apprentice
               (‘Branding Identity’)

          Mi Casa is not your fucking Casa.

              2016 T-shirt from the Erik and Sons collection
              (‘Global Symbols, Local Bans’)

It really is disconcerting to ascertain, let alone fully comprehend that this book is so uncomfortably and uncontrollably pertinent to what is currently going on within certain sections of western society.
The US for instance, which is referenced throughout.
Although, as its secondary title confirms, these 214 pages (excluding List of Organizational Acronyms, Archival Sources, Preface and Acknowledgements and Index) essentially focus on current day German society.

What with recent deplorable events which took place in the former East German city of Chemnitz, and with more predicted, this book couldn’t be more jaggedly acute, even if its authoress, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, tried her utmost.

Each of the six chapters (the latter three with such pernicious titles as ‘Dying For A Cause, Causing Death,’ ‘Global Symbols, Local Bans’ and Soldier, Sailor, Rebel, Rule Breaker’) wholly tackle and elaborate upon the degree to which many young Germans openly embrace Nazi ideology.

Indeed, as evidenced at Chemnitz just under a fortnight ago – where mobs of young German youths were openly filmed and photographed sieg heiling the police (an act which has throughout Germany, been outlawed and strenuously banned for years) – The Extreme Gone Mainstream – Commercialization & The Far Right Youth Culture In Germany, powerfully addresses that which could be construed as being the fervent kernel of hatred.

As such is wholeheartedly substantiated by the mere fact that Miller-Idriss immediately underlines as much, very early on, when she writes: ”Some of the images and comments I discuss in the following book are disturbing and offensive. It wasn’t always easy to look at them, nor to hear the anger and vitriol that some youth communicated when they talked about Muslims, migrants, and others […]. More importantly, the hardest words to listen to are, I believe, the most important ones. It is my strongest belief that we need to understand as much as possible how young people are thinking in order to develop effective strategies to address this kind of hatred.”

The final word, ‘hatred,’ is of course, fundamental here.
Hatred is after all, very powerful.
And very negative.
Although one really does need to ascertain where it comes from; which, in the utmost cold light of day, is either our parents, our politicians, or the media. Or, as is quite often the case, a combination of all three.

One need look no further than Donald Trump – who is the unquestionable, absolute pristine epitome of all three.

As the singer/songwriter Billy Bragg once said: ”So join the struggle while you may/The revolution is just a T-shirt away.” which, to all intents and unfortunate purposes, The Extreme Gone Mainstream surely clarifies. Unfortunate, not because of what Bragg happened to state, but because, as is often the case, so much of today’s youth are fully embracing that which they are (sometimes subliminally) force fed via populist, tyrannical, scapegoatism.
By the harrowing likes of the aforementioned Trump for instance.

One need only dip into a mere few pages of this overtly enlightening, and rather excellent book, to ascertain as much.

David Marx

The Changeling

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The Changeling
By Victor Lavalle
Canongate – £8.99

Lee Harper’s To Kill A Mockingbird is referred to on a number of occasions throughout this book, perhaps, as if to assemble some sort of connection – regardless of how tenuous. But where Harper’s characters seemed so effortlessly believable and easy to relate to, Victor Lavalle’s appear a little disjointed

To be sure, most of The Changeling’s characters, although relatively convincing on occasion, come across as having to try too hard. Even the name of the prime protagonist, Apollo Kagwa, sounds kind of…well, just wrong.

And the fact that the name is itself, regularly mentioned just a little too often, becomes a little jarring after a while: ”[…] Apollo placed the copy of To Kill A Mockingbird inside. What better place for a find like that than in a magic box? Apollo closed the lid, climbed back up on the footstool, and hid Improbabilia inside.”

Were the character(s) hinted at, or referred to just little more (rather than being constantly pronounced) would have wholeheartedly added to the whole reading experience. If not enjoyment.

Furthermore, having already mentioned the fact that the characters in this book come across as being disjointed, isn’t in any way helped by the fact that The Changeling is inexorably broken up and numbered – no less than every three or four pages.
Thus amounting to one hundred and three sections!
What on earth is all that about?

This may well be ”an epic novel for our anxiety-ridden times,” but unlike the Harper classic, it is severely lacking in both humility and continuity.

David Marx

Hope Stories

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Hope Stories
By John Sentamu
Darton, Longman &Todd – £8.99

What’s that relatively well known saying: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?

I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by the one simple fact that that it is usually pain, or indeed, some sort of struggle, which more often, than not brings out the best in people. A rather sad indictment of human behaviour if you really care to think about it, but one that is nevertheless, fundamentally true.

It was with such thinking in mind, that I both stumbled upon and approached Hope Stories – 20 Stories of Faith Changing Lives Today.

Compiled by John Sentamu, who is the current Archbishop of York (while previously, Bishop for Birmingham and Stepney), these authentic stories by ordinary people reflect how (Christian) belief is able to shine a certain kind of light within the parameters of a certain kind of acceptance.

Acceptance, surely being the key word here, for without it, it could be argued that very little light would ever enter the fray; which is why so many of these stories are what they essentially are.

For instance, story number fifteen, which involves a fella by the name of Andy Roberts who regales the reader with the following: ”When I was a child I used to watch a cartoon called Popeye. Popeye was a sailor man and if anyone messed with his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, you’d see the anger building up inside him until he couldn’t take it anymore and he’d crack open a can of spinach, from which he’d gain all the strength he needed to sort out the situation […]. I thought about Popeye when I was in Brazil […]. It’s hard to comprehend what it feels like to be approached by a ten year who is selling her body. The first time it happened to me, it broke my heart. That was my real Popeye moment, when I knew that I couldn’t take it anymore […]. Like Popeye, I knew that I had to do something, So, I suppose you might say that I turned to my ‘spiritual spinach,’ to show me the way.”

Needless to say, most of the stories throughout this book are of a similar persuasion; where faith, or at least, belief in faith, shows ‘the so-called way.’

As such, this book will undoubtedly appeal to all those who either (already) believe, or truly want to believe.

David Marx

Us Vs Them: The Failure of Globalisation

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Us Vs Them: The Failure of Globalisation
By Ian Bremmer
Portfolio Penguin – £14.99

Add the migrant crisis that brought the largest influx of homeless people since World War II, many of them Muslims fleeing violence in the Middle East and North Africa, and Europeans begin to feel much less secure about the future of their nations. Recent terrorist attacks, many like those in Paris (2015), Brussels (2016), and Manchester (2017) carried out by Muslims born inside Europe, have added accelerant to the political fire.

                                                                       (‘Winners and Losers’)

For as long as there are the likes of Venezuela’s Chavez, Turkey’s Erdogan and America’s Trump shouting that their utterly vile, nonsensical rhetoric from the rooftops of so-called protectionist populism, there will always be an abundance of uninformed people, readily prepared to believe them.

As we have clearly seen in the case of Venezuela, Chavez triggered disastrous economic effects, while so far as Turkey is concerned, Erdogan hasn’t so much as inaugurated an economic disaster, but more of a highly contentious and inflammatory, nationalistic one.
Whereas the US; well what more is there to say?
The country appears to be in the grip of spinning out of control – so well done Donald.

In all three instances, globalisation has played an ever increasing part, which is what accounts for this recent book by Ian Bremmer (whose previous publications include The J Curve, Every Nation for Itself, The End of the Free Market and Superpower) being so pertinent – and as a slight reason thereof: totally readable and totally convincing.

Right from the very outset of the Introduction to Us Vs Them: The Failure of Globalisation, Bremmer’s language and example(s) nigh immediately entice the draw reader to continue reading:

”Why do Palestinians throw rocks? To attract attention? To improve their lives? To make progress toward creation of a Palestinian state? They throw rocks because they want others to see that they’ve had enough, that they can’t be ignored, and that they can break things. Voting isn’t helping them. Outsiders don’t care. Where are the opportunities to bring about change? There is nothing left but to throw rocks.

In that sense, there will soon be Palestinians all over the world. Workers everywhere fear lost jobs and wages as a shifting global economy and technological change leave them behind. Citizens fear surging waves of strangers who alter the face and voice of the country they know. They fear terrorists and criminals who kill for reasons no one can understand. They fear that government cannot or will not protect them. Gripped by anxiety, they get angry. To make themselves seen, heard, and felt, they start to throw rocks.”

The recent upsurge in (predominantly European) fear and anxiety, is herein put into context immediately. There’s no beating about the bush, no diversionary explanation; nor, as Malcolm X oft used to say: no flim-flam. Which all in all, accounts for Us Vs Them: The Failure of Globalisation being a most absorbing read.

David Marx

Spiritual Atheist

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Spiritual Atheist –
Reunite Science & Wisdom to Thrive in Life, Love &
Leadership in the Digital Age.
By Nick Seneca Jankel
Switch On Books – £12.99

Depression is now the single greatest burden on health worldwide. Suicide kills more people than war and natural catastrophes put together, and more US troops die from killing themselves than from conflict. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine across the planet. These numbers are set to double in the next five years.

This is one of those publications that endeavours to combat life, loss and loneliness.
Described as ”a modern-day ‘bible’ for the spiritual not religious exploring how to embrace both cutting-edge science and timeless, love-fuelled wisdom without betraying reason,” it could be considered as being down to the individual as to whether or not it is a good book.

I guess it depends on the degree to which one accepts what’s written within these 246 pages (excluding Introduction, Glossary of Philosophical & Wisdom Words, Notes and Index). On the one hand, if one wants to embrace and believe, then Spiritual Atheist – Reunite Science and Wisdom to Thrive in Life, Love and Leadership in the Digital Age will most probably reach out and resonate with substance. On the other hand, if one doesn’t want to be embrace nor believe, then it won’t.

It’s as simple as that.

Rather like the author, Nick Seneca Jankel’s own words, on the opening page of the Introduction: ”[…] the words of the rabbis fell flat on my ears. The ancient rituals and writings offered in that temple to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, seemed of no use to me as a teenager. They did nothing to assuage my pain or provide me with a galvanizing sense of meaning.”

Personally, I’ve never been one that subscribes to this sort of reading.
I don’t know why.
Seems to me that the depth and clarity of such enormous subjects as spirituality and atheism, are something that one doesn’t necessarily read or write about – although there is indeed, absolutely nothing wrong with reading or writing about them. It’s just that I’ve always believed that spirituality – along with the relative private thinking and experience thereof – is best left within the domain of the self.

But hey, who am I to say?
Why not read this very readable, forthright and altogether commendable book, and decide for yourself?

David Marx

Chernobyl

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Chernobyl –
History Of A Tragedy
By Serhii Plokhy
Allen Lane – £20.00

Mikhail Gorbachev had little to offer the struggling power plant by way of new funds as the Soviet economy was in free fall, accelerated by declining oil prices on world markets – the main source of hard-currency earnings for the state budget. He placed his hopes for improving Soviet economic performances in market reforms[…]. Inspired by a vision that dated back to the Prague Spring of 1968, when the Czech communists tried to create a communism with a ”human face,” Gorbachev believed that economic reform was impossible without some form of democratization. What Gorbachev saw around him seemed to confirm his view that the two aspects of reform were interdependent. His perestroika initiative undermined the state monopoly on ownership of property and thus the economic foundations of Soviet socialism […].

                                                                                  ‘Nuclear Revolt’

Would it be wrong to surmise that the one positive thing to have emerged from the terrible Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986, was the degree and the speed with which Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms took place?

That his Perestroika initiative would have eventually happened anyway – as so much of the former Eastern block, if not the Western World as a whole, was more than ready for it – is in absolutely no doubt. But it was surely the unquestioning haste of Perestroika and Glasnot’s implementation, that, like Chernobyl itself, caught the world by relative, if not complete surprise.

Hence the hinting, if not the prime substantiation of the opening quote, which, a couple of pages later, is somewhat further enhanced when Serhii Plokhy, the author of Chernobyl – History Of A Tragedy writes: ”Throughout the Soviet Union, the leaders of the new awakened civil society, distressed by economic hardship but encouraged by Gorbachev’s political reforms, turned to eco-activism. It soon took on the features of eco-nationalism, a political movement whose leaders linked concerns about environmental protection with ethno-national agendas, presenting their republics as the principal victims of the centre’s environmental policies.”

As such, there’s no question whatsoever, as to whether or not Mikhail Gorbachev’s political agenda was highly influenced by what took place at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. Naturally, Ronald Reagan may too have played an intrinsic part, when in Berlin on June 22 the following year (1987), he made his infamous ”tear down this wall” speech.

To be sure, there will be those who might consider this assumption as nothing other than wild conjecture, but I personally think not. There again, if it’s an actual blow by blow account of what actually took place at Chernobyl, then this overtly dramatic, moment-by-moment account of one of the most terrifying events of the Cold War, is most definitely a book for you.

It’s 354 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Index) literally regale the reader with what happened, along with a technical breakdown as to why it happened:

”The introduction of the control rods with their graphite tips caused a spike in the level of the reaction and a dramatic rise of the core’s temperature. The rise in temperature, in turn, caused the cladding of the fuel rods to fracture. These tubes, less than 14 millimeters, or approximately half an inch, in diameter, have zircaloy walls less than 1 millimeter, or 0.04 inches, thick, making them thinner than a strand of hair. The fractured fuel rods jammed the control rods, which by that time had been inserted to only one-third of their length. The core and the bottom of the reactor’s active zone remained out of reach of the rods, and the reaction there spun completely out of control” (‘Explosion’).

Without wanting to give too much away so far as actual drama is concerned, the award-winning writer and historian, Serhii Plokhy (Professor of History at Harvard University), has herein written a book that is as detailed as it is gripping as it is meticulous.

In other words, quite possibly the finest book on the Chernobyl disaster so far.

David Marx