Category Archives: Book Review

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

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

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

Developing England’s North

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Developing England’s North –
The Political Economy of the Northern Powerhouse
Edited by Craig Berry & Arianna Giovannini
Palgrave Macmillan – £92.00

The whole deal with developing England’s North ought to be just as deeply and as equally entrenched within the staid stasis of attitude, as it is within the all to considered sphere of finance and economics. But it isn’t; which, given much of the mire in which the North invariably finds itself, is a mighty big shame.
If not an inexorable problem.

Reason being, in the so-called futuristic, (B-I-G) scheme of all things progressive, one of the most fundamental issues which ultimately holds the North back, is the North itself.
By which I mean, its devout desire to assert it’s very ‘Northerness.’
If you’ve ever spent time in Yorkshire, you’ll know what I mean.
If you haven’t, let me put it this way: Yorkshire prides itself on it’s idiosyncratic stubborness – plain and exceedingly simple.
Regardless of issue.
Regardless of what’s at stake.
Regardless of anything ‘other.’

This essentially explains why most of the North, along with Cornwall and vast swathes of South Wales, voted for Brexit; despite the fact that Brussels has been keeping much of these deprived areas financially afloat for years.
Talk about biting the hand that feeds you, but that’s Yorkshire for you.
Along with most of the North.

This partially explains the background behind a lot of Developing England’s North – The Political Economy of the Northern Powerhouse, as the editors Craig Berry and Arianna Giovannini make abundantly clear at the outset: ‘Brexit’ – the UK’s decision, in the referendum of 23 June 2016, to withdraw from the European Union – looms large over the book’s content. Like the UK in general, most parts of the North are highly integrated with, and as such dependent upon, at least in the short-term, the wider European economy. More generally, the EU’s political and economic structures and processes are in an integral dimension of the (evolving) political economy of the North. Interestingly, the areas of the UK (including large parts of the North) where jobs and production are most dependent on European economic integration (and indeed EU investment) are those that voted most strongly to leave […].”

Therein, I’d have like to have read a little more about the North from as much of an ideological perspective, than that which the book’s secondary title suggests. As again, the area’s social attitudes, wants, needs and desires, will continue to play just as big a part within the realm of The Political Economy of the Northern Powerhouse than is generally given credit.
Or realised.
Perhaps even more in fact, as the subliminal trajectory thereof is huge.

Might this be just one reason why it is never ever, truly confronted?
Might this go some way in explaining ”the fact that the Northern Powerhouse as a specific discursive ploy appears to have been marginalised within Theresa May’s government?”

Compartmentalised into three specific sections (‘Economic Policy and the Political Economy of Northern Development,’ ‘Place, City-Regional Governance and Local Politics’ and ‘Inequality and Austerity in the Northern Powerhouse Agenda’), all the fine contributors to this book have done a most magnificent job within the economic area(s) of their own committed fields. But with possible exception of Chapter Ten’s ‘Regionalisation and Civil Society in a Time of Austerity: The Cases of Manchester and Sheffield’ by David Beel, Martin Jones and Ian Rees Jones, far too much of Developing England’s North is far too entrenched within a myopic quagmire of it’s own linear design.

David Marx

When They Go Low, We Go High

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When They Go Low, We Go High – Speeches That Shaped The World – And Why We Need Them
By Philip Collins – £16.99

”Beyond human aspiration, there is no end and no point. There is only time and chance. Perhaps this makes life absurd but there we are. Politics is the system by which we gather to accept and negotiate this ineluctably tragic fact of human existence. Camus understood that the supreme political virtue was moderation; Sartre never did, and in politics, if you don’t understand that you don’t understand anything.”

‘Revolution: Through Politics the Worst is Avoided’

”’There are two countries, real and fictional, occupying the same space,’ said Salman Rushdie in Shame. Unfortunately, in the history of nationalism, shame is too often the appropriate emotion.”

‘Nation: Through Politics the Nation is Defined’

It might be said that moderation and quintessential consideration for others, are the two integral necessities by which most great and respected world leaders are particularly renowned.

The American likes of both Carter and Clinton had it in abundance. As did Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and of course, said country’s first black President, Barack Obama.
All of whom were Democrats.
All of whom are rightfully written about in this altogether terrific book.
That’s not to say Republicans don’t get a look in because they do, as do a number of international politicians of unquestionable repute – among them Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Vaclav Havel. The latter of whom began life as a writer/playright, and who is, for all intents and purposes, one of the few mentioned herein that doesn’t happen to be (an out and out) politician. The others being Martin Luther King and of course, Elie Wiesel – both of whom spoke and wrote with far more eloquence than most of us could ever dream of. Let alone aspire to.

To be sure, Philip Collins – columnist for The Times, associate editor of Prospect Magazine and one of Tony Blair’s former speechwriters between 2004 and 2007 – has herein compiled an outstanding and lest it be said, important book. Important, because it de-blurs the political lines and puts so many things into prime perspective; which far too much of today’s society take for granted. Outstanding, because it well…. just is.

Reason fundamentally being: not only does Collins critique and analyse all twenty-five of the most notable speeches in world history throughout When They Go Low, We Go High – Speeches That Shaped The World – And Why We Need Them. But, amid its 409 pages (excluding Bibliography and Index), he also asserts his own mighty correct, crystal-clear thoughts on many an inflammatory issue.

For instance, in the ‘Gettysburg Addresses,’ he bequeaths the reader with a most appropriate take on the ghastly resurgence of populism: ”The populist utopian has all the answers […]. No sooner has he ejected the hated elite than the populist’s entourage become the elite themselves. He glosses the shift by posing as the tribune of the people. No need for a manifesto: he simply intuits the general will. Populism is a movement with no ideological content beyond its resentment of an elite. It therefore requires a charismatic leader – lately a Trump, a Chavez, an Erdogan – to glue it together. The movement gathers around the leader as if around a maypole. Its name proclaims allegiance to the people, but in fact populism requires the people to swear allegiance to the leader. The bargain rests on the populist knowing everything, but, of course, the truth is that he knows almost nothing. The populist has a utopian account of political change, which is to say no account at all.”

Sound somewhat familiar?
Do such names as Adolf Hitler (”populism requires the people to swear allegiance to the leader”) and Nigel Farage (”The bargain rests on the populist knowing everything, but, of course, the truth is that he knows almost nothing”) leap forth?

So far as right here, right now is concerned, it’s worth reading When They Go Low, We Go High for the above quotation on populism alone. And apart from all the high-octane, well considered analyses, it also makes for convenient, refreshing reading, to have all these marvellous speeches in just one book.

None more so than the undeniably, utterly heartbreaking words of the brave and brilliant, Elie Wiesel, which, to my mind, really ought to have concluded the final chapter ‘Revolution,’ but for some reason, doesn’t. Although Collins does lead into it with the following sentence: ”There is no more affecting passage of rhetoric anywhere than this, from Night:

”Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

David Marx