Monday, March 28, 2005

John Rose - The Myths of Zionism

The most recent demonstration in London, against the ongoing occupation of Iraq once again showed that most of those who oppose the US and UK adventures in the Middle East also oppose the persecution of the Palestinian people by the Israeli State.

The huge anti-war demonstrations follow a tradition in this respect, because the great European anti-capitalist protests, in Prague and Genoa, closely followed by the European Social Forum events, also had numerous Palestinian flags, banners and badges.

John Rose’s book is a fantastic introduction to the arguments and historical basis for the existence of the Israeli state, and the consequent oppression of the Palestinians. Israel’s existence is down to the ideology of Zionism – the belief that there should be a Jewish state which would mean an end to the centuries of anti-Semitism and oppression that Jewish people have faced. The appalling genocide of the holocaust was for many, the final impetus for the creation of such a state.

Unfortunately, many of the assumptions and arguments in favour of Zionism are, as John Rose points out, based on half-truths and myths. The biggest lie, that Israel was a “Land without people, for a people without land”. This myth has been returned to, time and time again. Rose quotes, Israeli Prime Minister Peres in 1986,

”The land to which they came, while indeed the Holy Land was desolate and uninviting; a land that had been laid waste, thirsty for water, filled with swamps and malaria, lacking in natural resources. And in the land itself there lived another people; a people who neglected the land, but who lived on it. Indeed the return to Zion was accompanied by ceaseless violent clashes with the small Arab population”

While Peres at least acknowledges the existence of the Arab population, “small” is not the correct description of a people numbering at least 650,000. His description of their “neglect” of the land shows a level of racism towards a people who had successfully farmed and lived on the land for centuries.

The author is careful not to simply blame the Zionists for the current situation – he also points his finger at western imperialism and colonialism for its role. Notorious anti-Semites like Winston Churchill were quite happy to sponsor the aims of Zionism so that they could create a “Watch Dog” country, to support British (and later US) aims in the Middle East.

Rose’s book also looks at much historical and archaeological data to back his argument for a very different historical Israel, one far from the biblical myths that Zionism often uses to justify Israel’s existence. He documents how increasingly Israel archaeologists are finding it hard to “discover” the land they expect to find. But he also shows how historically, Jews and Arabs have lived together, often using the very differences of their religions to strengthen their mutual society.

Rose ends on an optimistic, if controversial point. His optimism, is that precisely because Jews and Arabs have lived together across the Middle East in the past (and the not to distant past) they could do so in the future. His controversy comes because he argues convincingly, that for this to happen Zionism as an ideology must be discredited and removed, just as apartheid was dismantled in South Africa.

If I can make one small criticism of this book, it’s simply to do with the design. Two things are very annoying – the references Rose cites are placed within the text, making reading difficult and the sub-chapter headings are often comical in their content, reading like stilted introductions to a GCSE essay.

But these are minor criticisms in a book that will no doubt be a source of impassioned debate and argument for many years.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Gordon Childe - What happened in history

First published in 1942, Gordon Childe’s classic work “What happened in history” is an attempt to explain to the ordinary, non-academic person a history of the world. Concentrating on early history, Childe looks at how the ancient economies, their development and growth (as well as their decline) allowed civilisations to develop, flourish and in some cases, disappear.

Childe starts his work by looking at the study of history, but quickly moves on to how societies move from small bands of people, to forming small communities and then the development of a class based economy.

Alongside all this, he charts how the development of rudimentary science, tool making and the associated trade created the basis for a bigger society.

It would take a far better review (and reviewer) to do this book justice. I suspect that some of what Childe writes has now been dated by later archaeological evidence or new insights from more contemporary scientists and historians. What makes Childes work almost unique is that he was applying a basic understanding of Marx’s theories of economics to the development of human society.

Marx based his understanding on all of human history on one simple fact – that people must eat, drink and have shelter before they can do anything else. The way that people in different societies have got those basics (whether through individual farms, small collectives, slaves or modern factories) he called the “forces of production”. By looking at these forces, and how they combined with different political and ideological systems, Marx and Marxists believe that you can understand the driving forces behind every stage of human society. Of course this is a gross simplification. Deliberately so. But I wanted to point it out, because it’s at this point that I think Childe’s work is both brilliant and slightly flawed.

Childe can be contrasted with those historians, whose work concentrates entirely on kings and queens, and other “great” men and women. His understanding of how societies like that of Ancient Greece or Rome can grow, and then collapse is based on an understanding of the basic contradictions in their economies.

Marx explained how the developing forces of production – which can be crudely explained by things like invention of new tools or machines, or new ways of organising production, (factories over cottage industries say) – eventually clash with the existing methods and a ruling class wedded to the old methods. At this point society can either move forward, or fall back.

Childe for instance draws our attention to how both Greek and Roman societies had developed machines such as water pumps that could do the work of many slaves, but to get rid of slaves and replace them with machinery would start to undermine to basis of the whole economy.

Further he points out that “the institution [slavery] continued to obstruct the progress of science by making labour-saving machinery un-profitable and contributed to the impoverishment of all producer by keeping down the purchasing power of the internal market”

This could only continue for so long, before things start to collapse inwards, and the Roman empire gradually declined over decades, while successive leaders attempting to debase the currency or stimulate the economy by public building but couldn’t save the once mighty empire.

This brings me to my only problem with the work. Childe argues right at the end of his work that “Progress is real if discontinuous. The upward curve resolves itself into a series of troughs and crests. But in those domains that archaeology as well as written history can survey, no trough ever declines to the low level of the preceding one, each crest out-tops its last precursor”.

He backs this up by pointing out how after the collapse of the Roman empire, Europeans didn’t return to living in mud huts and much of the knowledge of the ancients remained alive, if in the minds of a few individuals and sacred libraries.

But Childe ignores the fact that there are many examples of societies that did expand and then contract, leaving their grand children to scrabble in the mud while looking at monuments of their forefathers former glory – the civilisation on Easter Island springs to mind.

This aside, this is a readable, if dated introduction to early history whose approach has much to teach us today. The work must have been an introduction to archaeology and history that has inspired generations since, and the errors that do occur can only be built upon to further our understanding of the past to illuminate the future.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Audrey Niffenegger - The Time Traveler's Wife

Everyone is either talking about this novel, or about to start talking about it, and that is neither a bad thing, nor a surprising thing. When I first heard a description of the plot - probably a review in the Guardian on a bus somewhere - I knew that I had to read it. After all, I was brought up on time travel books, and I think that there are few better ways to examine the contradictions of history.

I wasn't disappointed either. For a novel that is essentially a love story (man has genetic disease that results in regular travel back and forth in time, time travel mostly takes him to the environs of future-wife as a girl or old lady, man deals with this) it does it surprisingly well.

Unfortunately, the reason most people read time-travel novels is that you get major contradictions that the author has to try and sort out. For instance, Isaac Asimov did a whole number of stories all the lines of hunters going back in time to kill dinosaurs, who then return to find the world has changed in major ways. There is another classic genre along the lines of the go back in time and kil (a) Hitler (b) Your grandfather (c) Yourself.

Nieffenegger cops out of this philosophical debate distinguishes herself by basically saying that none of this can happen. For the traveller to have gone back in time, he must have existed, thus he can't be killed in the past, or change history, etc etc etc

But as a love story with a extremely new, interesting and bold idea the novel hangs together very well indeed.

However there are some criticisms (not least the bad spelling of traveller). A book about time-travel that fails to mention anything about current/past events, politics, newspaper headlines or fashions with the exception of a rather interesting taste in music, is one thing. A novel that ignores all these things, but only mentions 9/11, says more about the US psyche than any number of mori polls could.

Additionally the book is thoroughly Middle Class. It's filled with middle class angst about relationships, babies and art. It reeks of middle class feelings of unworthiness and frustrations. It cries out for someone to be evil, rude or angry.

Nevertheless, it's a great book. But I bet there are book clubs the length and breadth of Britain arguing over it. Over a nice Bordeaux.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Alastair Reynolds – Redemption Ark

This is science fiction on a grand scale. When I say grand, I mean big. Everything about this novel is big. Firstly it’s 646 pages long. Secondly everything it discusses happens on a huge scale. From the time periods, caused by space's immense distances, to the gigantic “Doomsday” weapons that the various factions in the novel are racing to capture, across immense interstellar space, in gigantic spaceships. I think you get the picture.

In addition humanity is threatened by the rise of the inhibitors – beings with enough power, technology and energy to destroy suns and take planets apart, piece by piece. You can’t imagine a grander enemy.

If you haven’t read some of Reynolds earlier works you might suffer as he brings many strands of earlier stories together in this novel. If you have, you’ll find many of your questions answered – just why the inhibitors do what they do – destroying newly emergent intelligence in the galaxy – in particular.

Alastair Reynolds, in addition to being a bloody good SF writer, is also a trained physicist, and in his case this doesn’t just mean a university degree. It means he worked for ESA and he knows about space and stuff. Which doesn’t of course stop him playing around with faster than light drives and other wonderful future technology. It does however mean, that sometimes the detail is a little bit too technical. I’ve got a degree in physics and a healthy interest in mathematics and astronomy, but even my eyes glazed over some of the more detailed descriptions of stellar collapse and the problems with changing directions at velocities approaching the speed of light.

For Reynolds, space isn’t something that’s pure, nice and clean. People dies horrible deaths, space ships rust and breakdown. Computers get viruses. This isn’t a sanitised Star Wars story, rather this almost feels real, or at least imaginable. Sometimes however, you feel that Reynolds is trying a little too hard to write space opera:
He thought of the cruel balance of things: equating vistas of cosmic strife – millennia-long battles thrumming across the face of the galaxy – against infinitely grander vistas of cosmic silence.
But by and large this novel is well worth the time and effort, though if you’ve read none of Reynolds earlier work, I would recommend starting with his earlier novels, or his collection of two short stories Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days.

Related Reviews

Reynolds - House of Suns
Reynolds - Galactic North
Reynolds - Century Rain
Alastair Reynolds - Revenger

Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth
Reynolds - The Prefect
Reynolds - Pushing Ice

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Tom Holland - Rubicon - The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

The Roman Republic was a mass of contradictions, on the one hand it preached democracy and the power of the ordinary voter, on the other, it's wealth and economy was based on slavery, and while everyone was free to vote - the rich and powerful could afford the time to take part in the political process, so some people's votes counted for more than others. Tom Hollands book mirrors these contradictions and creates some of it's own. This is perhaps obvious from the start with the choice of quotes Holland uses to open the first chapter.

"Human nature is universally imbued with a desire for liberty, and a hatred for servitude." Caeser, Gallic Wars

"Only a few prefer liberty - the majority seek nothing more than fair masters." Sallust, Histories

Unfortunately for Holland, who has attempted to write a modern introduction to the history of the decline of the Roman Republic, his book never gets ahead of the inherent problems in Roman society.

Much of our historical source material for those times is reliant on the stories of great men, written usually by other great men. Often these are very detailed - we know much of the speeches of famous orators like Cicero because they were noted at the time - but it can leave an impression of Roman history dominated by powerful individuals who seem almost magically able to create armies of soldiers and crowds of rioters out of thin air.

The history is also hampered by another problem - most of those who chronicalled anything to do with Roman history also thought that the most important factor was what was done by a few individuals - colouring their impressions and writings.

For instance, one thing that annoyed me was the way class as a division in Roman society runs all the way through the first half of the book, a real discussion of those classes and their make up is limited. For instance there is no real discusion of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who lived in the Roman empire, until the first major revolt is described.

Many of the key generals or figures in the Roman senate clearly represented different sections of Roman society (retired Soldiers for instance) and it's these factors that most of governed many of their decisions - rather than the long standing feuds and personal antagonisms that Holland favours. Indeed at times, this book feels abit like a soap opera of the ancients.

Nevertheless, there is much to recommend this book. It's entertaining, humourous and exciting in places. If you thought you knew Rome through visiting a few monuments or what you learnt in school then your eyes will be opened to the violence, cruelty and torture at the heart of this rigid society. Oh and the sexism. Roman women didn't get a look in, except to make babies.

So if you're looking for a clear analytical explanation of why the Roman republic fell from the heights of its powers, you will have to go elsewhere for further insights. But if you're looking for a brief introduction to the key features of Roman history, the importance (or over importance) of individuals and a general introduction to why there are Roman remains from Egypt to Scotland then you will get a lot out of this book, but read it, as it were, with your eyes open.

Related Reviews

Holland - Persian Fire
Beard - SPQR
Beard & Crawford - Rome in the Late Republic

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Iain Banks - Whit

Iain Banks writes two types of books. Science Fiction (as Iain M Banks) and non-SF. But his novels can also be put into two other categories - really good and bloody awful. Luckily, Whit, which I have just read for the second time falls into the first category and is a damned good read.

Isis Whit isn't an ordinary young adolescent. She's the elect of God. However her upbringing on an isolated Scottish farm has left Isis is also naive to the ways of the world. Her religion shuns modern technology, preaches a form of free love as well as believing that certain individuals, born on February 29th are God's chosen.

However, the story of her attempts to rescue a "fallen" member of the religion, via a trip to London and beyond is more than an attempt to poke fun at odd cults and religions.

Isis goes out into the world knowing little about the basics of our society - the police, money, transport, technology. But she also views human relations through the prism of her religious upbringing. Isis' naivety about modern society (as well as human relationships) means Banks' can make interesting comments on almost every aspect of our society - The Police, Pornography, the Media, racism or alcohol and drugs for instance, as well as looking at religion - in it's many forms. Precisely because Isis has the naivey of a child, but is a young woman many contradictions are thrown up. We're left asking who really is living in a weird cult.

Though the ending of the novel feels a little like it's been crammed into too few pages this is an excellent read. I particular enjoyed the confrontation between Isis and the BNP. Now that's anti-fascism....