Surgery On The Shoulders of Giants

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Surgery On The Shoulders of Giants
Letters from a doctor abroad
By Saqib Noor
Kings X Press – £8.99

The term institutionalised corruption suggests that corruption has slowly crept into the psyche of the Pakistani people and into its government institutions like a plague of insects, thoroughly rotting the once noble foundations before taking over the system like money sucking leeches. However this term seems rather mild in describing the current affairs in the country.

                    ‘The Ministry Of Corruption (And Its Associated Buffoonery)’

That Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, recently resigned due to ‘dishonesty’ and corruption charges, would suggest said plague of insects have taken hold over the asylum. Or, in this instance, Pakistan, as if it were simply meant to happen.

I remember visiting the country on a couple of occasions (either side of 9/11) and in both instances, I was told by my host, that should we ever become separated, that under no circumstances was I to approach a policeman for help. Makes you think.

No wonder the country has an ”entire dedicated governmental Ministry of Corruption […] a specialised, well-formed institution with policymakers specifically producing disorganised and illogical thinking.”

Yey, now that’s what ye world needs: yet more policymakers specifically producing disorganised and illogical thinking.

But hey, wait; it’s already happening amid the epicentre of one of the most powerful countries on the planet. That’s right, Trump (who else?) and his co-conspirational cohorts from hell, subscribe to the very sort of illogical chutzpah – each and every one of us endeavour to avoid like cancer – on an almost daily basis. Hourly basis.

Makes the powers that be in Pakistan appear as if Noam Chomsky’s out on ethical manoeuvres, while this absolutely terrific book – the consummate template in what absolutely needs to be told. Right here. Right now.

Indeed, Surgery On The Shoulders of Giants – Letters from a doctor abroad, is, if nothing else, a mighty large humane inspiration.

Other than regaling the most varied and candid of ”human life lessons” from numerous front-line, health crisis constitutions in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Haiti, Cambodia, Pakistan, South Africa; its 197 pages (excluding many pages of black and white photographs) reveal sadness, truth, emotion, hypocrisy and of course, beauty.

Rather like that complex thing we oft refer to as life itself.
Powerful. Poignant. Persuasive.

David Marx

Polarized

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Polarized –
Making Sense Of A Divided America
By James E. Campbell
Princeton University Press – £22.95

You can compromise between good, better, and best, and you can compromise between bad and worse and terrible. But you can’t compromise between good and evil.

                    Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) – ‘One-Sided Party Polarization’

And so say all of us; well, most of us anyway.
At the moment however, there’s surely far more disparity within the realm of American politics, than, erm, well, perhaps anytime in it’s history.
At least within living memory, put it that way – which is where this stark and rather bold book ought to stand loud’n’roud within the current, quasi-blasphemous institution that both tellingly and rather laughingly, refers to the American Constitution, as if it were its own.

As if it were a standing joke – which clearly, Donald Trump, and his vile inner-circle are; although countless gullible innocents the (predominantly western) world over, will continue to believe the United States to be a nation of political moderates.

It absolutely isn’t.

The US is so utterly divided, it’s nigh impossible to distinguish between good, better and best, bad and worse; let alone good and evil. Although within the context of mainstream American ideology, it isn’t long before James E. Campbell writes: ”As rough as our political debates can be, and they can get quite vicious, happily we are not on the precipice of another civil war.”

Oh really?
Seems to me the US is most definitely on the precipice of something.
It might not be out and out civil war, but there’s absolutely no question that one of the most powerful countries one earth, is almost on the verge of self-imploding.
If not falling apart.
If not, along with (the former Great) Britain, very fast becoming the laughing stock of the world. A conundrum, which, in the big scheme of things – primarily that of Trump’s colossal ego – isn’t a particularly good thing.

The nine chapters of Polarized – Making Sense Of A Divided America pretty much contends as much throughout.

Hence my earlier description of these 246 pages (excluding Acknowledgments, Appendix, Notes, References and Index) being somewhat stark and outwardly bold: ”Some contend that party polarization has grown particularly severe in recent years as political leaders and activists sought ideological purity within their parties, particularly within the Republican Party. The ultra-polarization of American politics, as the claim goes, has been largely a one-sided or asymmetric affair. Republicans became a far-right ideological party while Democrats remained a fairly moderate and pragmatic centre-left party. This claim of one-sided party polarization was made most strongly by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their provocatively titled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Mann boldly claimed that ”Republicans have become a radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition” (‘One-Sided Party Polarization – Republicans Gone Wild’).

You can say that again (and again).
One need only refer to the Trump’s out and out, inflammatory dismissal of The Paris Agreement, to wholeheartedly agree, if not endeavour to come to terms with the above.
And a whole lot more.

Polarized – Making Sense Of A Divided America goes some way in deciphering the current shambles that is American politics; but I’m sure even Campbell must be somewhat surprised at the dire depths to which American politics has unfortunately sunk.

David Marx

Agrarian Crossings

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Agrarian Crossings –
Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside
By Tore C. Olsson
Princeton University Press – £27.95

At first glance, Tom Watson and Emiliano Zapata appear to have inhabited impossibly distant worlds. The former was a white country lawyer from rural Georgia, born in 1856; the latter a mesitzo horse trainer and small landowner, twenty-three years Watson’s junior, from central Mexico. The political vocabulary and cultural milieu of one would undoubtedly have been foreign to the other. Yet unpredictably, in the heady decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, both young men would champion daring revolts of country people against the entrenched powers that dispossessed and impoverished them.

               (‘Parallel Agrarian Societies – The US South and Mexico, 1870s-1920s’)

Fast forward to the 1930s and the 1940s, rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged further unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice along with agricultural productivity. This book regales that story. Of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange future plans, models and strategies with their counterparts across the border.

Could you imagine such co-operation between the US and Mexico happening today?
Amid Donald Trump’s overtly tremulous White House?
Wherein a revolving door policy of abhorrent, right-wing fundamentalism has taken hold?

Methinks very much not, which just goes to show the degree to which dialogue betwixt the two countries has almost broken down. And if it hasn’t already broken down in its entirety, it is definitely no longer taken (remotely) seriously as a form of statesman-like-currency.

Might this constitute where Agrarian Crossings – Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside fundamentally takes hold?
If not makes its mark?

In shining a quintessential, organic light upon a truly hideous, current political stalemate of a situation, Tore C. Olsson herein brings farming history right up to date. As Chris Boyer, of the University of Illinois in Chicago makes clear: ”Agrarian Crossings is a path-breaking history of the American and Mexican reformers who reinvented farming in the shadow of World War II. This impressive and scrupulously researched book is required reading for historians of agriculture, technocratic interchange, and the invention of development in the Americas, as well as for anyone interested in the surprisingly entangled origins of the green revolution.”

That, it most definitely is, and a whole lot more besides. The focus on the US-Mexican border in particular: ”Borders matter. Borders regulate the flow of people, the movement of commodities and capital. And the exchange of ideas. Borders separate citizens from aliens, the familiar from the foreign, and those belonging from those unwanted. And perhaps no border in recent history is more iconic in its power of partition than the line bisecting the United States and Mexico.”

Suffice to say, one could contend this argument with the mere word, Israel, but perhaps this is another, highly contentious issue altogether.

Moreover: ”In the century and a half since it was mapped onto the desert and water, the US-Mexico border has become a powerful visual representation of the strikingly unequal relationship between the two nations it anchors.”

Too right, one can without any shadow of a doubt, say that again.
The rampant inequality between these two great nations is as inexorably striking; as is the fact that it is surely only a matter of time before he who promotes the preposterous idea of a wall between them, is impeached.

Impeached beyond redemption might I add!

Here’s hoping this most rich and transnational of books will only accelerate its coming to fruition.

David Marx

The Legendary Past

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The Legendary Past –
Michael Oakeshott on Imagination and Political Identity
By Natalie Riendeau
Imprint-Academic – £30.00

In the modern world, as Oakeshott’s theory of modality implicitly recognizes, an irreducible plurality of viewpoints is the norm, but this plurality precludes the shared background he believed the Roman and Christian social myths had provided in ancient and medieval times. Hence, the possibility of maintaining the practical analogue of civil association, that is, government through the rule of law, is also adversely affected insofar as this depends on the existence of such a shared background.

(Legends of Political Life: Ancient Rome and Modern England)

Michael Oskeshott once declared that humans ”know who they are, where they are in the world and how they come to be there.” This might well be the case when it comes to normal people, normal, replete with a modicum of intellect.

Yet so far as Westminster is concerned, I’ve just read that a second Brexit Referendum may well soon be upon us; which, either by proxy or immense stupidity (or both), would wholeheartedly suggest that the so-called humans in charge of running Great Britain, have not an iota of a clue.

A sure-fire premise of a political persuasion, which looks set to continue ruining the lives of many millions -for many years to come. A fiasco of sorts, this book – which contends that political legends are imaginative constructs, poetic creations, which evoke an event from the practical past and allow societies to translate their political experience into the idiom of general ideas – does much to inadvertently shed some sort of abstract light on.

But where The Legendary Past – Michael Oakeshott on Imagination and Political Identity really comes to life, is amid its many provocative and social assertions, of which there are numerous.

For instance, the declaration that humans ”inhabit a mysterious and menacing universe for instance,” upon which authoress, Natalie Riendeau continues to write: ”while this might sound like a dramatic declaration […] a hyperbole the meaning of which may be easily dismissed or deemed to be only of relatively minor importance to his thought, such a conclusion would, in fact, be mistaken. The idea that humans are able to find their way in a menacing ad mysterious universe, more than this, that they are successful in making themselves at home in such a world, an achievement that paves the way for our ‘human living-together,’ to use Hannah Arendt’s expression, and consequently the political, is key to Oakeshott’s political thought.”

Hmm, human living-together, now there’s a concept (as well as an”expression”); especially given some of the raging conflicts currently taking place throughout the world – of which there really are far too many mention in a book review.

That said, when one places the above two strands of relative complex thinking side by side (Oakeshott’s and Arendt’s), one invariably knows one is going to be in for a topsy-turvy read of the most intense design; which in truth, is just one way of describing this altogether confrontational and rather robust read.

David Marx

Epistemic Friction

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Epistemic Friction –
An Essay on Knowledge, Truth, and Logic
By Gila Sher
Oxford University Press – £35.00

The light dove, cleaving the air in her free light, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that her flight would be still easier in empty space.

To describe this book as a little dense is akin to asserting that Donald Trump has made some rather bad decisions of late. Perhaps as much can be surmised in coming to terms with the above quote by Immanuel Kant; which, in and of itself, really isn’t one of his most profound. By an elongated stretch of the imagination might I add.

Having received her BA from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and her PhD from Colombia University in 1989, Gila Sher is current Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, of which this essay (!) really is a more than robust example of her accumulative study and research (her debut being The Bounds of Logic).

Divided into four distinct parts (‘Epistemic Friction,’ ‘A Dynamic Model of Knowledge,’ ‘The Structure Of Truth’ and ‘An Outline of a Foundation for Logic’), Epistemic Friction – An Essay on Knowledge, Truth, and Logic approaches knowledge from the perspective of the basic human epistemic situation – the situation of limited yet resourceful beings, living in a complex world and aspiring to understand it in all its entire complexity.

The two fundamental principles of knowledge are epistemic friction and freedom. Although let it be said, that the assorted (corrupt) powers that be in today’s Venezuela for instance, would no doubt, wholeheartedly contest the idea of freedom being actually considered as knowledge. That said, said ‘knowledge’ must be substantially constrained by the world (friction), but without active participation of the knower in accessing the world (freedom), theoretical knowledge is impossible.

Moreover, might not the actual knowledge of theory itself, be nigh impossible? Reason being, it’s not particularly quantifiable. And as is well known, nothing is more acute, if not absolutely exact, than that of mathematics – it even transcends language: ”While mathematism lacks logicism’s distinguished ancestry and rich body of literature, it shares the methodological advantage of reducing two foundational tasks to one. And since there exist several foundational accounts of mathematics that do not put the main burden of explanation on logic – e.g., naturalism and structuralism – mathematism could, potentially, provide an adequate foundation for logic, provided it employs a holistic foundational methodology” (‘An Outline of a Foundation for Logic – Logic and Mathematics: An Alternative to Logicism’).

Food for logical thought?
Too much to logically take in?
Logic for logic sake?

If anything, this book will most definitely take you on a logical journey – from which you might be a little reticent to return.

David Marx

The Politics of English Nationhood

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The Politics of English Nationhood
By Michael Kenny
Oxford University Press – £18.99

What counts as culture in England now […] is the detritus left behind by the disappearance of the stolid independence and self-reliance of it’s working class. In its place has emerged a loud, rude, and self-interested individualism which occasionally erupts in the form of chauvinistic nationalism.

At the vanguard of Britain’s deplorable chauvinistic nationalism, stands the overtly vile, dangerous and detrimental excuse of a human being, Nigel Farage; for whom the words intelligence and understanding clearly count for very little.

If anything at all.

As one of the prime, fundamental architects of Brexit, he and his most myopic ilk have a hell of a lot to answer for. First and perhaps foremost, for having promoted Engerland unto the nigh high-octane stakes of it, along with the US, being the laughing stock of much of the western world. Not to mention the ever increasing upsurge in all round general nastiness and hate-crime – wholeheartedly substantiated by the above opening quote.

To be sure, The Politics of English Nationhood absolutely isn’t coy in what it says; and luckily, for those with a conscience at least, nor does it cower beneath the power of the right-wing media and (surely unsustainable) abundance of fake news. A social cancer of sorts, currently doing the elongated and inexorable rounds of ill-advised persuasion.

But herein, Michael Kenny, who is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University in London, offers more than a mere ”powerful challenge” to current day thinking.

These 243 pages (excluding a Preface to the paperback edition, Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) do much to traverse the staid, negative, political behaviour, that is by far, far too prevalent amid Britain’s current political ideology: ”Throughout the EU Referendum campaign, the dual focus of the ‘Leave’ campaign upon the elitist and metropolitan interests served by arguments for ‘Remain,’ and a continual focus upon immigration, were combined with the language of popular sovereignty and national recognition. This rhetoric spoke particularly to English voters for whom worries over migration have served as a proxy for fears about the perceived indifference of the political establishment to their economic position and cultural traditions. The ‘Leave’ slogan ‘Take back control’ proved highly effective in this context, and allowed figures like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to speak simultaneously to concerns about sovereignty, belonging, and nationhood.

Refreshingly and rightly so, Kenny brings in all the relative parties here, and tells it with all the fine nuance of how it really ought to be told.

He also addresses all the terrible, smokescreen bullshit head-on, as he continues: ” Its vernacular companion was the phrase ”I want my country back,” and was repeatedly used by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. This spoke to nativist fantasies of an England unmarked by ethno-cultural diversity and of a socio-economic order that had long disappeared. The Referendum afforded the opening for an outpouring of some of the nationally focused frustration, and the inchoate desire for greater self-determination, which had been building in many different parts of England for the last quarter of a century.”

Equally well researched and illuminating, The Politics of English Nationhood, will in future years, be undoubtedly held in high-regard; not to mention referred to as the book that divulged how, where and why, England got it so horribly and undeniably wrong.

David Marx

Triumph and Disaster

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Triumph and Disaster – Five Historical Miniatures
By Stefan Zweig
Pushkin Press – £9.99

Enthusiasm, unlike a pickle/Does not keep well, but may prove fickle.

                                                                                                                          Goethe

Hmm, now there’s food for thought; or should I say, enthusiasm?

Although, whichever way one decides to look at it, the all round philosophical comprehension of this fine book ought to serve as some sort of sign – rather like so much of Stefan Zweig’s work.

Indeed, to quote Clive James: ”Zweig’s accumulated historical and cultural studies remain a body of achievement almost too impressive to take in.”

What accounts for Triumph and Disaster – Five Historical Miniatures being such a formidable read, is the acute degree to which Zweig grapples, and then ultimately comes to terms with the five very differing subject matters at hand – the titles of which are: ‘The Field of Waterloo,’ ‘The Race to Reach the South Pole,’ ‘The Conquest of Byzantium,’ The Sealed Train’ and ‘Wilson’s Failure.’ All of which are written so deftly and so remarkably well, James’s words linger with all the literary aroma of a fine wine.

For instance, writing of Captain Scott in the second short story, Zeig states: ”Scott writes English as Tacitus writes Latin, as if carving it in unhewn stone. You sense that he is a man who does not dream, fanatically objective, in fact a true blue Englishman in whom even genius takes the crystalline form of a pronounced sense of duty. Men like Scott have featured hundreds of times in British history, conquering India and nameless islands in the East Indian archipelago, colonizing Africa and fighting battles against the whole world, always with the same iron energy, the same collective consciousness and the same cold, reserved expression.”

Herein is a mere tip of Zweig’s investigative clarity, which, if (objective) truth be known, still roundly resonates today.

The following words being the perfect and most pristine example: ”A single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity.”

David Marx