Monday, November 30, 2020

Dan Simmons - The Fall of Hyperion

The Fall of Hyperion is a very different novel to the previous book in this series by Dan Simmons, but it is still a remarkably rich and detailed book that repays careful reading. The ending of Hyperion saw the Hegemony of Man under external threat as the Ouster's attack the worlds on the fringe of its web of connections.  On Hyperion itself the depleted band of pilgrims from Hyperion are at the Time Tombs and facing the Shrike. Their experiences are relayed back telepathically to an AI who has taken the form of the poet John Keats, and has the ear of the Hegemony's CEO Meina Gladstone. Gladstone uses this info as part of a tense struggle within the government about how to deal with the invasion.

Gradually it becomes clear that there are deeper forces at work, that connect Hyperion, the Shrike and different forces within human and non-human space. It takes the whole novel to unpick what these relations are, and like the first book Simmons makes every word relevant in understanding what it is happening. While the story jumps back and forth in time, and across space, making things difficult to understand the immense detail creates a wonderful background to the main action.

An additional confusion is caused by the AI character John Keats. He is both Keats and Keat's companion Joseph Severn the guise in which he is known to Gladstone. As the novel progresses he increasingly takes on the character of Keats and is transported to an artificially constructed 18th century Rome where he lives out the end of Keats' life. The reader needs to keep their wits about them to keep track of the multiple personalities, locations and time zones. But it is Keats who is the fulcrum by which humanity (and the reader) learns about what is actually happening.

At times Fall of Hyperion feels a little overwhelming, and certainly it might leave the reader gasping for breath. But Simmons manages to juggle multiple time lines and characters very well. He's also got an eye for period detail and a great knowledge of Keat's life and poetry, as well as building on the universe set out in Hyperion. I found the ending remarkably satisfying and it is a fitting sequel to the first book. Again, highly recommended.

Related Review

Simmons - Hyperion
Simmons - Endymion
Simmons - The Rise of Endymion

Dan Simmons - Hyperion

Hyperion, the first of a series of novels by Dan Simmons, is often listed as one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. It is a work that transcends genres, and were it not labelled science fiction would probably be considered a great work of literature. But sadly it is relatively ignored beyond the ranks of SF&F fandom. This is a shame, because it is a remarkable work.

It draws inspiration from The Canterbury Tales. A motley crew of characters is placed on the planet Hyperion. Hyperion is a planet that is loosely connected to the Hegemony of Man - humans have managed to travel the galaxy using star ships, but their planets are mostly connected by a web of portals, technology given to them by a civilisation of AIs. These portals allow instantaneous communication and travel between planets. Inevitably humans have taken this wonderful technology and use it for wholly unremarkable purposes - having the different rooms in a house on different planets for instance.

Hyperion however is different to other planets. On it are the Time Tombs, inexplicable structures that are travelling backwards in time and are guarded by a violent monster known as the Shrike. The Tombs and the Shrike have attracted tourists, archaeologists and pilgrims who form a malevolent religion known as the Church of the Final Atonement. 

Galactically a third force, the Ousters, humans who have evolved to live in deep space, challenge the Hegemony. On the eve of an attack on human space by the Ousters, a final pilgrimage to the Time Tombs sets off. Its members are a hand-picked but extremely disparate groups of people. As they travel across land (cleverly Simmons has ensured that even with humanity's portal technology and space-going vessels) no-one can fly to the Tombs, they exchange stories to explain how they arrived there.

As in The Canterbury Tales it is very much the stories that matter, not the journey. As we learn each of the party's background, by turns tragic, violent, poetic and romantic, we learn more about the universe of the Shrike and the Hegemony of Man. Nothing is as it seems, of course, and forces far beyond the small party have much invested in their success. It is the combination of stories and how Simmons unravels the world through them that make the novel such a classic work. Simmons has a neat way of painting a technological future without actually explaining the detail. We don't know how a hellwhip works, but the name of the weapon tells you everything you need to know. 

I read this back to back with the follow up The Fall of Hyperion as the two make a continuous story though they are very different in approach. Both are highly recommended.

Related Review

Simmons - The Fall of Hyperion
Simmons - Endymion
Simmons - The Rise of Endymion

Friday, November 20, 2020

Rob Wallace - Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19

Back in February 2020 when Covid-19 was just beginning to make headlines I lost count of the number of times I was asked by fellow left-wing activists to recommend a book on capitalism and disease. My answer was always Rob Wallace's book Big Farms Make Big Flu. Published in 2016, those of us who had read it were a little forewarned and forearmed for coronavirus. Reviewing it back then I wrote the book warned us that pandemic was "very much a question of not if, but when". 

While I was recommending his earlier book, Wallace himself was being bombarded with requests for interviews, articles and speaking engagements. Out of that came this excellent new book. Dead Epidemiologists is a collection of material that grapples with the big questions around Covid-19 - its origins, the failure of capitalist governments to deal with it and the way the disease exacerbates existing social, political and economic fractures in society. 

Wallace explains the mindset behind the book:

The reactionary bent to disease control left and right has since pivoted me to assisting efforts in anti-capitalist agricultures and conservation. Let's stop the outbreaks we can't handle from emerging in the first place. At this point in my career, with the structural pacing the emergencies, I generally write about infectious diseases in only tangential terms.

It's not surprising. Given an extensive disease shopping list that begins "African swine fever, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Ebola, E. coli O157:H7" and finishes with a potpourri of initials, H1N1, H1N2v, N3N2v, H9N2 etc, Wallace points out that:

near-nothing real was done about any of them. Authorities spent a sigh of relief upon each reversal and immediately took the next roll of the epidemiological dice, risking a snake eyes of maximum virulence and transmissibility.

And here we are. This week the stock markets have rallied at the prospect of multiple vaccines coming online, and politicians are breathing sighs of relief as they recklessly anticipate being out of danger at some point soon. But nothing fundamentally has changed. The root causes of disease spillover and the structural problems in capitalist society that means that future pandemics are both likely ("not if, but when") and deadly, have not gone away. Wallace again:

Agribusiness ever turns us toward a techno-utopian future to keep us in a past bounded by capitalist relations. We are spun round and round the very commodity tracks selecting for new diseases in the first place.

These arguments are the key part of the book. Wallace skewers the idea that when it comes to disease the problem is simply the genetic makeup of different viruses. Rather it is about the circuits of capital. The flows of commodities and money, a system where corporations diversify by investing in housing and pig farms to make money from both, encouraging the creation of disease with one hand and the conditions for disease spread with the other. Big agriculture drives deforestation, it helps concentrate reservoirs of animals and disease in smaller areas, encouraging their spread and evolution. Capitalism creates concentrations of animals in vast numbers; thousands of cattle, tens of thousands of pigs, millions of chickens - the perfect petri dish to evolve new strains of disease and the opportunity to leap to human hosts. It does so because this is how to accumulate vast profits. 

The answer is obvious. Pull the rug from under the multinationals. Protect the forests, "reintroduce the livestock and crop diversities and reintegrate animal and crop farming", allow farm animals to "reproduce on site, restarting natural selection that allows immune evolution to track pathogens in real time.... stop treating nature and community... as just another competitor to be run off by the market".

It's a compelling vision, but one that won't come about through signing a few petitions and donating to some kindly NGOs. Instead "people must walk through the door of a global clash with capital and its local representatives... however much any individual foot soldier of the bourgeoisie... attempts to mitigate the damage."

That's the hard bit. But its a conclusion that cannot be ignored. For two reasons. Firstly, as Wallace points out "agribusiness is at war with public health. And public health is losing" but, more dangerously, the capitalists see the crisis as an opportunity. 

There's a disturbing part in Dead Epidemiologists that shows how this happens. Disease kills off a few million animals and then the capitalists move in to fill the space and grab the money. When Donald Trump deployed the Defence Production Act in Summer 2020 he did so for the meat industry (but not, as Wallace cynically points out for PPE production). The meatpacking industry, which had been and continues to be the epicentre of local outbreaks of Covid-19, was protected in order to allow "Big Hog's access to a bullish China market that lost half its domestic pig supply last year to African swine fever". They really will fiddle while we feverishly burn up.

Industrial agriculture is a driver of disease, and much else. Wallace talks about regenerative alternative agriculture. But he also points out that the food system as a whole is at fault. The US coronavirus outbreak began in big, globally connected, cities. But among rural areas through a "vast commodity trade":

However mechanized the value chain, there are people interacting with each other all along the way. Food commodities are the means by which even the most isolated county can be linked into global epidemiologies.

Reading media reports of disease outbreaks in meatpacking plants in the US and UK, we know this is true. The Defence Production Act forced workers back into work, and they got sick while the bosses got richer and richer. The cynicism is appalling; "under the guise of an emergency the administration... allowed poultry plant lines to speed up to rates that require workers to bunch closer together not farther apart."

While lack of union organisation and management callousness in the face of requests for PPE makes the spread of Covid-19 much easier, it is the capitalist need to continuously accumulate more wealth that prevents even a temporary break in the chain of trade and commodity production taking place.  

Wallace never loses sight that Coronavirus is a crisis for ordinary people. Capitalism has created the conditions where pandemics are both more likely, and more deadly. It has ensured that those that suffer first and most are the poorest, in both the Global South and North.

But Wallace also reminds us that there is a force in society who can challenge this and build an alternative society. The migrant workers in America's food industry, the peasants of Asia and South America, the meatpackers, lorry drivers and supermarket workers who are part of a global food system are also the very people who can rebuild it from the bottom up. 

Once again, in this excellent readable polemic, Rob Wallace has shown us the problem and the alternative. We now need to act.

Related Reviews

Wallace - Big Farms Make Big Flu
Malm - Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the 21st Century
Davis - The Monster Enters
Quammen - Ebola: The Natural and Human History
Harrison - Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease
Horton - The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What's gone wrong and how to stop it happening again

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Mark Harrison - Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease

Those people who returned home from coronavirus hotspots during 2020 and entered quarantine for two weeks to hopefully avoid spreading Covid-19 to family, friends, colleagues might have been interested to know that the term 'quarantine' has a long pedigree. It's origins are in 1397 when the Republic of Ragussa (Dubrovnik) allowed for the "detention" of ships for "up to forty days" to prevent the plague spreading into their area.

It's an interesting snippet of information that reminds us that humans have long lived with the threat from disease and have come up with ways to prevent its spread. As civilisation developed humans encountered new diseases and spread existing ones. As trade became an integral part of societies and different, previously isolated groups of people came into contact, diseases travelled on the ships, in the trade goods and crucially, on the humans and animals.

Mark Harrison's book is a history of the close links between commerce and disease. The Covid-19 crisis has shown how modern society, where travel is no longer limited to a few traders or soldiers, has exacerbated the ability of diseases to become pandemics. The speed of airlines has meant that people can arrive at their destinations long before the symptoms become visible. But this isn't new. As caravans gave way to oceanic sailing ships and thence to steam vessels, the same process scared contemporaries.

The awareness of close links between commerce and disease spread aren't new either. In the 14th century people "distrusted" merchants and traders because they associated them with spreading disease, particularly the plague. The Bishop of Rochester, England saw plague in 1375 as being due to traders who each "studies to deceive the next man". Ironically the Bishop had hit upon a key problem that would undermine efforts to stop or contain disease over the coming centuries. The fact that those whose livelihoods depended on moving people and goods would frequently seek to undermine quarantine or restrictions in order to make their money - even at the risk to thousands of lives.

Even in pre-capitalist eras, the interests of commerce whoever weren't just limited to those of individuals, but were bound up with those of nation states. By the 1660s, with the early development of capitalism, the Dutch Republic and England were already engaged in "tit for tat" quarantines designed to undermine each others economies under the guise of protecting health. Officials might lie to prevent "disruption to commerce" as was the case in 1720 when plague arrived in Marseilles, France. Officials at Livorno declared sick men on board a ship bound for the French port as suffering from a fever, not plague. Merchants involved in trade with the Levant were critical of plague restrictions "which cost them dearly through delays, fees and the damage of goods by fumigation".

One of the most fascinating aspects to Harrison's book is how he shows that ideas of how to prevent diseases spreading became ideologically charged. Opposition to quarantine became closely linked to those who promoted free trade, for instance. As Harrison points out: 

Politics, commerce and medicine were becoming closely intertwined. In the heady atmosphere of the 1780s and 1790s many reformers - not least medical practitioners - began to portray quarantine as a relic of a less enlightened and brutal age.

Echoes of this reoccur today. Politicians are desperate to reopen economies after lockdowns, or stop quarantines to prevent damage to the travel and holiday industries. Those who were willing to sacrifice lives in 2020 through herd immunity shared a world-view with those who saw quarantine as an obstacle to commerce in the era of the corn laws. 

Before 1840 most British politicians and most of the British public did not wish to see the nation's quarantine laws repealed or even significantly relaxed. Despite the gloss of liberalism, those who pressed vigorously for the abolition of quarantine tended to be regarded as exponents of vested interests who were prepared to sacrifice the public's health for selfish gain.... but from the mid-1840s there was a significant change, with opposition to quarantine becoming more respectable and more widespread.

In part this was tied up with discussions about how best to deal with disease and new insights into how diseases spread - especially the peculiarities between different diseases. There was also not a touch of racism to imperial views of the world outside of Europe as being dirty, dangerous and unhygienic, compared to the modern industrial nations. Colonialism, imperialism and racism combined with the drive to make a profit that coloured attitudes to fighting sickness. 

In this context the series of international conferences that took place through the 19th and 20th centuries to discuss responses to diseases and try and agree global approaches to disease spread tended to be shaped by what Harrison calls "sanitary imperialism". He contrasts the "theatre for imperial rivalry" at European sanitary conferences with those in Pan-America, where the interests of the US dictated the course of events. It is a process that continues into the 21st century with international agreements about disease often being distorted by the interests of the most powerful nations.

Following the collapse of Communism and the globalisation era, with massive volumes of goods being transported globally and supply chains spanning continents the potential for disease to spread became huge: "Global cities have been linked by a chain of infections ranging from multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis to SARS, while the long-distance trade in animals threatens to spread new strains of influenza and other pathogens capable of crossing between species". 

The contradictions are brought out in a useful section about BSE, where Harrison shows how different commercial interests drove nation states into conflict with others about the export of beef. Laws that should have been about protecting citizens for disease because weapons in tit for tat revenge for bans on imports. He also shows how this has the potential to become an issue for working people as in South Korea were a massive wave of protests and strikes were initiated as the President was seen to be soft on US interests and allow potentially dangerous beef into the country.

If Harrison's sections on the diseases of the globalised era - Sars, Bird Flu and so on - seem to downplay the potential for disease, its possibly on because of hindsight from the Covid-19 era. For Harrison the main question is how and when quarantine is most useful in stopping disease. Rightly he argues that decisions cannot be made by those with vested interests, but must be based on collective global governance. 

Harrison's book is interesting, though it is a somewhat dry read, packed with detail that often obscures rather than clarifies. One problem I did identify is that Harrison tends to see commerce as being an unchanging thing - essentially the same today as it was in the 14th century. As such he doesn't really explore the way that capitalism has changed our relations to nature and made pandemics more likely. There's only a little on how the concentration of animals in massive feedlots has made outbreaks more likely. Instead the author focuses on the trade and movement of commodities, not the system that produces them. 

The problem is that it is the nature of production under capitalism that both undermines attempts to prevent disease spread and encourages the emergence of new diseases through deforestations, industrial agriculture and so on. We need to talk about more than just "commerce". That said, Mark Harrison's book is one of the few that appeared before the Covid-19 pandemic that offers insights into what has taken place and what needs to be done. For those on a "deep dive" into disease reading it should certainly be on the list.

Related Reviews

Horton - The Covid-19 Catastrophe
Davis - The Monster Enters
Malm - Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Richard Horton - The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What's gone wrong and how to stop it happening again

Richard Horton is the influential editor of The Lancet, perhaps the most important medical journal in the world. He has been a vocal commentator through the Covid-19 pandemic, a critical thorn in the side of the British government and an important source of news for the lay person. Despite the fact that we are still in the midst of the "catastrophe" of his book's title, what he has to say deserves a wide readership. There are lessons here for future pandemics, as well as guidance for what we should be doing to survive the one we are already in.

Horton begins with the origin story of Covid-19. Here he focuses less on the origins of the virus itself - that's a story that's told well in Andreas Malm's book that I recently reviewed. Instead he looks at how the disease was first identified and how it spread. Reading Horton's brief account of coronavirus' spread around the globe I realised I had forgotten how quickly events unfolded in early 2020. Within weeks the disease had gone from infecting a handful of people in a food market in Wuhan to full-on pandemic. Something even Trump acknowledged on March 17th. 

But while we watched the events unfold on social media and websites that updated statistics in near real time, Horton explains how governments, particularly in the UK and the USA did little to prepare us. He highlights how the Chinese medical system was incredibly open with its information and knowledge - after a brief attempt by authorities to shutdown whistle-blowers. While the success of the Chinese in cautiously lifting lockdown after ten weeks led us to believe we'd have a similar short experience, in fact, there's no doubt that many politicians clearly believed that superior medical technology, better government and large multinational corporations would mean that we'd do better than the Chinese. 

Horton is certainly no apologist for the Chinese state. He makes the point that the "Chinese government owes the world a more detailed explanation of what took place in Wuhan... We need to know so that we have the best chance of preventing it from happening again". But he also says:

Chinese scientists and health workers deserve our gratitude. I know from my own knowledge of these dedicated individuals that they worked tirelessly to understand the nature of this pandemic. They made it their duty to inform WHO when they were sure there was reason to signal global alarm. And, in my dealings with Chinese scientists and policymakers, I have observed nothing less than an extraordinary commitment to collaborate openly and unconditionally to defeat this disease.

Highlighting this is important. Donald Trump made great political play out of arguing exactly the opposite. In barely concealed racist language he blamed the Chinese, the WHO and anyone else he could for the disease. His rants covered up the fact that his administration was doing nothing.

While there was much to learn from China's experience, Trump and the British government failed to heed the lessons. But they also failed to learn from their own planning. In 2016 Exercise Cygnus modelled an influenza outbreak in the UK for the government,. One of the chief scientific advisors to the government commented that "we learnt what would help, but did not necessarily implement those lessons".

In fact the only concern of the British government seemed to be moving back to business as usual as soon as possible. As Horton points out:

In the UK, just three weeks into its lockdown, public debate was already focusing on an exit strategy. But, without either a vaccine to confer immunity or adequate capacity to test, trace and isolate contacts, the prospects for an early exist were nothing more than speculation mixed with touches of fantasy and delusion.
Writing this during Lockdown 2 we can attest to the singular failure of this strategy. Horton points to the confusion at the heart of British government:

As March [2020] proceeded, government ministers became increasingly anxious. But they were still unable to act decisively. Their staccato decision-making suggested an atmosphere of mounting confusion and fear. On 16 March the public was advised to cease non-essential travel. On 18 March schools were closed. And on 20 March, entertainment venues, bars and restaurants were shut. It took until 23 March for the 'stay at home' order to be issued. Critical time had been lost.

Tragically part of the problem were the scientific advisers. Horton says that "they too did too little, too late". He continues:

In the UK, the government had the services of some of the most talented researchers in the world on which to draw. But somehow there was a collective failure to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending. The UK had the opportunity and the time to learn from the experience of other countries. For reasons that remain not entirely clear, the UK missed those signals and missed those opportunities.

I write this the day after the UK passed 50,000 Covid related deaths. Many (most?) of those should not have died. Horton might argue that the reasons are not entirely clear, but I suggest that many of the problems lie in part in the government's belief in the free market and its consequent hope that a vaccine would be found quickly. In passing it might be worth noting the close links between this approach and that of neoliberal governments seeking to respond to climate change. But the main reason is that Boris Johnson et al, were committed all the way through events to following the path that was most beneficial to business.

Horton cautions that we don't simply see Covid as a disease, but as something at the "meeting of biology and biography" a concept he attributes to the French sociologist Didier Fassin. It is worth remembering this. Pandemics are not simply experienced as illnesses, but are changed, multiplied and redirected according to the fractures and fissures of society - another parallel to climate change. Lockdowns, as Horton points out, haven't just been deployed to try and stop the spread of disease, but they've also led to mental health crises, increased domestic violence and child maltreatment. The UN estimates at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence as a result of lockdown so far.

But Covid also points to something else, an "opportunity to rethink the ethical basis of society". Capitalism, Horton notes has "weaknesses that contributed to the tragic toll of deaths". Might we "seize a moment to redefine our our wellbeing over our wealth"? Its certainly a laudable hope. The Marxist in me would have to point out that doing this would mean a revolutionary challenge to capitalism itself, and I'm not sure that Horton is going that far yet.

Written in the midst of pandemic this short book packs a great deal of punch. It skewers the collective failures of governments and politicians and celebrates the frontline health workers and scientists who've sacrificed their energy and sometimes their lives, to trying to stop the disease. But it also shows that we live in a broken system that is unable to respond to disease. There are many lessons to be learnt from Covid-19 and Richard Horton's book is an extremely good place to start.

Related Reviews

Davis - The Monster Enters
Malm - Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency

Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl

In the not to distant future, a series of genetic plagues have devastated global food production. Climate change, rising sea levels, war and the rise of oppressive regimes have forced countries to aggressively protect their borders and their natural resources. The huge city of Bangkok, Thailand is protected by enormous sea walls from the rising oceans, and internally by military forces representing different factions of the government. These personnel, though heavily corrupt, are dedicated to preventing the explosion of further epidemics spread by uncontrolled disease imported into the country. Fossil fuels are frowned upon, and energy comes from the tightening of springs through human and animal power - the new technology being sufficient to drive vehicles, but also offering a potential lucrative source of profit for those who develop new versions.

This is the frighteningly real future world in which Paolo Bacigalupi sets The Windup Girl. The main figure is Anderson Lake, in the style perhaps of the old European colonial representatives who embodied their national interests, except he represents AgriGen, a massive agricultural conglomerate capable of deploying vast sums and heavily armed forces to gain access to new genetic sources. Lake's shady past includes at least one bungled attack on a Scandinavian seed bank, but here in Bangkok he's got wind of a renegade genetic scientist who might offer access to impossibly valuable sources of genetic material.

But at the heart of government there are other forces who want to stop Lake and his ilk. Their interests lie, at least partly, in defending Thailand's state. But they are also factional, and tensions between government departments are reaching a boiling point as the wider global crises are putting pressure on the world. Emiko, the "windup" of the title, is a New Person, a specially bred woman used for the whims (sexual and otherwise) of the rich and powerful. She's been dumped in Bangkok and has become trapped in sex work. Lake becomes obsessed with her, and the two of them find themselves at the centre of a convoluted and violent attempt to overthrow the Thai government so that AgriGen can move in and capture the county's genetic wealth.

Its a well thought through story, built within a clearly drawn future world. It's particularly exciting because Bacigalupi uses the threat from the western multinationals to open up the contradictions and tensions at the heart of the Thai government. Despite the books blurb, and perhaps the impression I've given so far, much of the book focuses on the lives of people in Bangkok. The workers in Lang's factory who frequently lose their lives in accidents, and Lang's manager Hock Seng, a refugee from anti-Chinese pogroms in Malaysia are so well drawn that they make the book seem more real than many similar future fantasies I've read. Hock Seng in particular, is ever fearful and prepared to flee another pogrom - desperate not to make the mistakes that cost him the lives of his families previously.

Emiko is also a brilliant drawn character. Very much a victim - she rapidly becomes a powerful figure of resistance, who is inspired by rumours of communities of New People deep in the jungle. Can she escape the sudden collapse of the social order and live in peace with others like her?

Finally there are key characters in the White Shirts who move from defenders of the existing order to representatives of the new - prepared to resist the external corporations and Thailand's internal enemies.

This is a brilliantly drawn book that weaves many different strands together. The cast of characters is diverse, and excellently drawn. They move around a world that seems incredibly real, a future that is entirely possible. Where the corporations that have destroyed global ecosystems in their quest for money haven't been defeated and constantly threaten more chaos. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Bacigalupi - Ship Breaker

Friday, November 06, 2020

James Campbell - The Color of War

Books about World War Two are two-a-penny in most bookshops in the UK. Most simply retell a relatively well known military history, few of them find a new angle. So I was very pleased to discover James Campbell's The Color of War in a second hand bookshop a few months back. It is, essentially, a history of black Americans in the Marine Corps and Navy during World War Two. Reading it, I was struck by its relevance for a new generation of Civil Rights activists. There is a forgotten history of the early Civil Rights movement and social movements during and before World War Two. In particular, there was a major struggle by the  Civil Rights movement so Black people should be allowed to join the US military, fight and serve on an equal level with their white comrades.

In the run up to the start of World War Two the US military and government strongly resisted the use of Black men in the different branches of the services. The explicitly racist opposition to this was, in fact, detrimental to the US's military strength because it cut them off from millions of potential recruits. Here, for instance, is a report from the Army War College on why black "manpower" should not be used "in war". I apologise for the racist language here, but I think the insights this gives us means its worth requoting from James Campbell's book:

In the process of evolution the American Negro has not progressed as far as other subspecies of the human family... The cranial cavity of the Negro is smaller than whites... The psychology of the Negro, based on heredity derived from mediocre African ancestors, cultivated by generations of slavery, is one from which we cannot expect to draw leadership material... In general the Negro is jolly, docile, tractable and lively but with harsh or unkind treatment can become stubborn, sullen and unruly. In physical courage, [he] falls well back of whites... He is most susceptible to 'Crowd Psychology.' He cannot control himself in fear of danger... He is a rank coward in the dark.

Such clear racism undermined the ability of the US military to mobilise to fight their country's enemies. It is also worth noting though, that their racism towards other peoples, would also come back to haunt them. For instance, in his recent trilogy on WWII in the Pacific Ian Toll has shown how racist ideas about the Japanese meant that the US military simply didn't believe their airforce was a threat. Pearl Harbour taught them a terrible lesson in this regard.

So it is no surprise that the early Civil Rights movement fought to allow integration in the Army. In fact figures like A. Philip Randolph put enormous pressure on US President Roosevelt to allow black people to serve in the military and work in war industries. They were, at least, partially successful. One consequence was the involvement of black men and women in the airforce industries and space-programmes that are detailed in Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures. A less well known consequence was that black men were recruited into the US Navy.

Campell's book tells the story of many of these men. In particular he focuses on a convergence of events during World War Two in the Pacific. The US invasion of the island of Saipan which saw the first combat experience of black marines in the battle and the experiences of black naval personal at Port Chicago, a munitions loading port near San Francisco. The two stories are closely intertwined, mostly because it was the enormous pressure to supply vast quantities of ammunition to US invasion forces that led to one of the greatest, and least known, racial disasters in US history.

The black men who joined the Navy through the war hoped to fight for their country. Instead hobbled by institutional and personal racism, the navy authorities directed them to load ammunition at Port Chicago. There, hundreds of black men, worked in dangerous conditions - driven by their officers to ever more intense work in highly unsafe environments. No white naval personal were given the same work. Subject to racism, humiliation and intolerable conditions to black men worked hard, but everyone knew that there was a extremely high risk of explosion. As Campbell writes, "the depot was ill equipped to handle such an onrush of ordnance, and the longshoremen's union warned that Port Chicago was a powder keg waiting to blow."

When the explosion happened it was the "worst home-front disaster of World War II" and "one of the largest explosions in American history". On 17 July 1944, some 390 men lost their lives and almost 400 more were injured. The inquiry that followed was a literal whitewash, but exposed racism, bullying and "the inequities of the Navy's benighted policy on race." As Campbell explains:

When Port Chicago's [black] seamen learned that the [white] officers had been given survivors' leaves that had been denied to them, they grew bitter. Many felt like lambs being led to slaughter. Black servicemen, in general, had always done the work that no one else wanted. They were the one who buried the dead, build bridges and airfield, cleaned latrines, drove trucks, peeled potatoes, handled toxic chemicals and loaded ammunition.

It is no surprise that the men revolted. Hundreds of them refused to return to work loading ammunition and many of them were court-martialled for mutiny. The case became a major Civil Rights issue, with "all of black America" fed up. The trial "heaped injustice upon misfortune" and the one-sided trial led to appalling unjust sentences.

Faced with this, the Black community fought back. 1000s of black servicemen went on hunger strike, A Philip Randolph threatened a boycott of the draft and eventually the new President, Truman, relented and desegregated the military. The resistance of the Port Chicago men had born fruit.

The story is told extremely well, though Campbell sometimes struggles to tie the twin histories of Saipan and Port Chicago together. Much of his descriptions of fighting on Saipan are about the white marines and this seems peripheral (though interesting) to the main story of the experience of the black servicemen. Told through personal reminisces the book is full of memorable accounts and heart-breaking stories of racism in the United States. Many of the fifty who were found guilty, though released early back to the military. Joe Small, the alleged ringleader was particularly harshly treated, and on being released to the navy in 1946 was finally allowed to serve on a ship. But neither he, nor other black sailors had any duties, "Nothing to do but make mess call, roam about the ship and sleep". 

The most interesting part of the book is the struggle of the black seamen themselves to work safely, but also to fight for their country. This is a key part of the Civil Rights struggle that setup the movements that would evolve and then exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. But there is also a contradiction, and unfortunately James Campbell doesn't explore this. By winning the desegregation of the military, long before any other section of US society was opened up in this way, the Civil Rights movement allowed black men to become part of the machinery of imperialist violence that oppressed millions of others around the world. This became starkly real to many black servicemen in Vietnam, as they were used to kill in the name of the United States, a country that still worked hard in many states to prevent black people voting or going to school with white children. Ironically one of the victories of the early Civil Rights movement was to allow black people to support US imperialism.

2020 has seen new growth for the Civil Rights struggle with the emergence of Black Lives Matter. It's a movement that is fighting the deepseated racism within the US. James Campbell's fascinating book is more than military history. Its a contribution to understanding how racism has been fought, but also, paradoxically, it shows the limitations of trying to fight for liberation within a system that is fundamentally built upon oppression. Its a story that James Campbell tells well which deserves to be much better known so new generations can celebrate the forgotten struggles of the past.

Related Reviews

Shetterly - Hidden Figures
Younge - The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream
Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism
Gregory - N*****
Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King
Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Richard A. Hamilton - Arctic Journal Northeastland

In the 1930s scientific expeditions were dispatched all around the world from British universities. One of the less known, but nonetheless important trips, was one made by ten men to North East Land, a huge ice cap north-east of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago. Its an empty land, populated by bears, seals and in the spring and summer some birds. The team was there to map, observe and experiment. One of the members, and the team's physicist was Richard A. Hamilton. Later a well known scientist in 1935 he had just graduated from Oxford. His observations in Northeastland helped scientists understand the propagation of radio waves in the upper atmosphere - crucially important as radio became a global form of communication.

During the 18 month expedition several of the scientists kept personal journals and this book is Richard's carefully transcribed by his daughter Elspeth. The journal is personal. As such there is little about what Richard, and others are doing on particular days. Rather the entries focus on the details of the day - the sledge trips, cooking, conversations, feelings and frustrations. We learn about the reality of crossing a massive icecap during a spring thaw, the difficulties catching near wild sledge dogs as well as Richard's musings on the beauty of the place. There is also plenty of travel to and from observation posts (and later on Richard makes an epic journey with a fellow scientist to map a segment of the island). But very little about what he is doing when he observes Polaris, or studies the ionosphere - in fact there's more here about the personalities of the different dogs. 

It is tempting to feel frustrated by these omissions and not read on, but that mean missing what the journal is really about - the experience of being in a remarkably remote and very challenging environment. So Richard tells us of the difficulties baking bread or hunting seals, the seemingly petty factionalism that develops between members of the team and the joy they have when hearing news from home. 

Today we look back on 1935-36 and think about the Germany and the Nazis. Richard often refers to members of the expedition discussing politics or arguing about things. But the outside world barely impinges on their time. Bizarrely they manage to listen to the Boat Race on the radio, and they hear of George V's death. But of larger events - say the Spanish Civil War - Richard notes nothing. Oddly though the team does send messages and Richard refers to at least one meal spent composing a message for Mussolini, though we do not know the occasion or text of the message.

I was also struck by the reading material the scientists took with them. There are some novels, including Pickwick Papers, but oddly (to me) mostly they seem to enjoy reading accounts of other polar expeditions. Richard gets annoyed at Scott's diary from his fatal trip to the South Pole, chastising the British hero for his failure to compliment Amundsen's success.

In these Covid times, armchair travellers might well find the mundane accounts a fascinating and safe alternative to real adventure. Those who travel to the poles for modern expeditions will probably enjoy the minutiae of the expedition. It is of course, likely to be very different today. I doubt contemporary scientists shoot Reindeer to feed their sledge dogs, and then shoot the dogs before leaving for home. But I suspect that his Richard's self-effacing descriptions of learning to ski or drive a sledge will be fascinating to those who travel to the ice today.

Related Reviews

Slaght - Owls of the Eastern Ice
Pollack - A World Without Ice
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Monday, November 02, 2020

John Newsinger - Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right & American Capitalism

In this new book, published just before the 2020 US election, British socialist historian John Newsinger turns his analytical eye on the Trump Presidency. This is not a blow by blow account of Trump's first term. Instead, and more usefully, its a study of on part of the social forces that put Trump into the Whitehouse - the Christian right. 

For those of us watching the US election, and US politics in general, understanding the Christian right is crucial. Until I'd read Newsinger's book I'll admit that I underestimated their influence in the general political scene. It is easy to look at post-war US history and look at individuals like the conservative televangelist Billy Graham and see them as oddities. But, as Newsinger explains, they and their more modern contemporaries are a direct result of a set of politics that used the Christian Right and, were in term shaped by them.

Newsinger begins with a conundrum. Why hasn't the United States secularised in the same way as other developed countries? The answer requires looking at "the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War". In the aftermath of World War Two the US saw an "unprecedented religious revival". As Newsinger says it worth examining the detail:

In 1850, only 16 percent of Americans claimed membership of a church. The percentage had risen to 36 percent by 1900, to 43 percent in 1910 and 1920... and to 49 percent in 1940.... by 1950 the percentage... had risen to 57 percent and by 1960 to 69 percent.

This revival, Newsinger shows was the result of the top echelons of US society "using all the resources at its disposal to mobilise Christianity in defence of American capitalism and imperialism against the threat of atheistic communism". Of course this process had begun earlier. At the end of the 19th century, fearful of radical revolt from below, religious right-wingers had skilfully positioned themselves as a bastion against left ideas. They offered, in exchange for heaps of cash, to stand up for the family, Christianity, capitalism and the profit ideal against atheism, communism and the trade union movement. 

There followed a symbiotic relationship between the political right and the Christian right. Post war US Presidents who had seldom talked of their religion suddenly became incredibly religious in an attempt to court and use the Christian right for its own end. Billy Graham ended up having an office in the Whitehouse. There was, of course, vast sums available for the churches who got this right, but more importantly the Christian right became adept at using the media to raise its profile, its influence and its worth. 

Newsinger documents some of the corruption, scandals and political intrigue that inevitably came about. Some of these are entertaining examples of contradiction. Few of the leading figures in the Christian right really took to heart the teachings of the Bible. We can snigger at this, but in reality the insipid way that a pro-capitalist doctrine came to dominate Biblical interpretation is rather depressing. In this reading of the teachings of Jesus Christ, God rewards those who seize the capitalist imperative to put profit before everything else. Its a recipe that leads to poor people sending cheques and prayers to vastly wealthy preachers who have no interest in helping them. Crucially the Christian eight was part of an appalling bulwark against the Civil Rights movement.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the Christian right took to Trump faster than Zacchaeus giving half his possessions to the poor when Jesus stayed overnight. His politics melded with their anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-family politics. Trump promised the Christian right everything and the same people who'd tried to drive Clinton from office for his affair with Monica Lewinsky ignored Trump's own transgressions. For the Christian Right its been a marriage made in heaven:

Trump has delivered for his evangelical constituency, more than any previous president. The man most responsible for this is Vice President Mike Pence, a determined member of the Christian right, absolutely committed to their cause, and moreover, very much hoping to succeed Trump as president. Trump has staged the events and mouthed whatever vague Christian platitudes he can call to mind, parroting the danger that Christian America faces, but it is Pence who has organised the evangelical advances within the federal judiciary.

What of the future? The Christian Right will not disappear with a Trump defeat. Indeed all Presidential candidates have been pulled closer to it. Newsinger points out that "elements of the Christian right" could easily end up "manifesting themselves as an American fascism". 

Unfortunately its in his final conclusions I found myself disappointed by this otherwise fascinating and alarming book. While the Christian right is clearly powerful, confident and strong, there are other forces in US society that can challenge it and pull constituent parts away. In particular Black Lives Matter is a reemergent Civil Rights movement that offers real, concrete, hope to the oppressed. Newsinger does, rightly, point out that there are "many American Christians fighting for a better world" as part of numerous progressive causes. But I felt that this important aspect to contemporary US politics was neglected almost entirely. Defeating Trump and Trump's politics, as well as the right-wing politics embodied in the Christian right will need mass movements and I'd have liked to know more about how that has worked in the past.

That criticism aside, this is a very useful, readable and condensed introduction to a sector of US politics that proved crucial to getting Trump elected in 2016 and may well do the same in 2020. I highly recommend it to everyone trying to understand the United States in the 21st century, especially those fighting for a real alternative.

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