Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Asylum by Andre Alexis

Asylum is a work with highly detailed and rich character development and introspective insight into the nature of people and their reasons for thinking certain thoughts or performing certain actions. Additionally, the setting is Ottawa in the 1980s, mostly around the realm of politics, so I found that interesting. Unfortunately, the book does not provide much of a compelling narrative as it has only a few moments of suspense. Consequently, if you place characters above story, you will likely think this a wonderful book.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Aristotle in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

Decent little description of his life and influence. Interesting to hear of the relationship with Plato and that he didn't even attend the Academy until his early 30s. It is hard not to be impressed by the man who is credited with creating logic (although easy to be amused when he illogically deduced people's personalities based on the structure of their noses).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner

Legacy of Ashes is a fascinating and thorough history of the CIA from its inception in the late 1940s through to 2007. It is a story of incompetence, blustering, foreign intervention and terror, espionage, alcoholism, disunity and both intentional and unintentional obfuscation. At times the President did not know what CIA’s covert ops were doing even though he wanted to, but just as often did not want to know. Sometimes even the director of the CIA had little knowledge of covert operations. Weiner suggests that CIA has been perpetually flawed because of its inability to succeed at espionage, provide useful intelligence in a timely fashion and adapt to changing circumstances. The CIA has often trimmed evidence to fit the policies and politics of the White House, but just as often has been ignored or marginalized by various presidents and their secretaries.

Legacy of Ashes describes how the CIA intervened in other nations by setting up secret police, creating or backing political parties, propaganda, buying and trading arms, supporting various rebels, assisting in coups, buying foreign intelligence as well as monitoring domestic peace movements. A non-exhaustive list of the countries covered in the book includes Korea, Iran, Germany, Russia, Guatemala, Japan, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia, Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam (South & North), Ecuador, El Salvador, Cambodia, Columbia, Peru, Honduras, Brazil, Guyana, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Italy, Greece, Angola, Egypt, Afghanistan, and the United States (which actually violates their charter). Other events that were mentioned include the Korean War, Cuban missile crisis, Bay of Pigs, Castro/Cuba, wars in Indochina, Radio Free Europe, and 9/11.

Even though domestic surveillance is against the CIA’s charter, it was done by various presidents before Bush Jr. (at least Kennedy &, Nixon)

The CIA is/was almost everywhere in the world; if not trying to gain intelligence, then trying to intervene to create situations favourable to US interests. Often these interventions occurred and reoccurred many times within one country.

At a meeting during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy expressed his confusion about why Khrushchev would put missile into Cuba. He said it would be like the US putting missiles in Turkey. Supposedly an awkward pause followed until one aide said, “Sir, we do have missiles in Turkey.” Kennedy had actually green lit that project years ago. (Sigh!)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Good old Kurt! Wonderful messages and perspectives presented with decent writing and some humour along the way.

Two excerpts that were highlights for me:
[Set-up: Claire Minton is the wife of American Ambassador Minton, which was relocated due to a letter she wrote.]

Claire Minton’s letter to the Times was published during the worst of the era of Senator McCarthy, and her husband was fired twelve hours after the letter was printed.

“What was so awful about the letter?” I asked.

“The highest possible form of treason,” said Minton, “is to say that Americans aren’t loved wherever they go, whatever they do. Claire tried to make the point that American foreign policy should recognize hate rather than imagine love.”

“I guess Americans are hated a lot of places.”

People are hated a lot of places. Claire pointed out in her letter that Americans, in being hated, were simply paying the normal penalty for being people, and that they were foolish to think they should somehow be exempted from that penalty. But the loyalty board didn’t pay any attention to that. All they knew was that Claire and I both felt Americans were unloved.”
(pg. 98)

[Set-up: American Ambassador Minton is reassigned to a small island nation and is soon making a speech in honour of Hundred Martyrs to Democracy that occurred in the WWII. The hundred ‘soldiers’ of this nation died when their ship sunk soon off the coast and therefore did not even see combat.]

“A light sea wind ruffled his thinning hair. “I am about to do a very un-ambassadorial thing.” He declared. “I am about to tell you what I really feel.”

“We are gathered here, friends,” he said, “to honor the [Hundreds Martyrs to Democracy], children dead, all dead, all murdered in war. It is customary on days like this to call such lost children men. I am unable to call them men for this simple reason: that in the same war in which the [Hundreds Martyrs to Democracy] died, my own son died.

“My soul insists that I mourn not a man but a child.

“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays.

“But they are murdered children all the same.

“And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.

“I do not mean to be ungrateful for the fine, martial show we are about to see – and a thrilling show it really will be…”

He looked each of us in the eye, and then he commented very softly, throwing it away, “and hooray say I for thrilling shows.”

We had to strain our ears to hear what Minton said next.

“But if today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war,” he said, “is today a day for a thrilling show?

“The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of ourselves and of all mankind.”
pg. 253-255

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Animals behaving badly - New Scientist

A tour through the world of animal sexuality: Part I, Part II

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Herman & Chomsky

Thorough, informative, impressive and disheartening.

Herman and Chomsky present a ‘Propaganda Model’ about how U.S. mass media reports news and information and uses various case studies to support the theory. It is one (easy) thing to say that the mass media are biased; it is another (far more difficult) thing to demonstrate the fact.

Manufacturing Consent was not exciting, nor pleasant to read, but so very educational – Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and numerous other places and events are discussed.

As for the Propaganda Model, I shall let the author speak for themselves.

"The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news "filters," fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism. These elements interact with and reinforce one another. The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print. They fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns." (p. 2)

The Conclusion really rebutted the conspiratorial connotations that are associated with Manufacturing Consent because Herman and Chomsky state that this system of filtering is so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness. It is not like a government official told various media outlets to change certain stories or that there is a large intentional collusion going on, it is just that various structures and biases are in place and as a consequent the information presented does not represent a ‘free and independent press that delivers objective information.’*

I also appreciated that Herman and Chomsky more than once point out the difficulty of anyone who is not an ‘ardent researcher’ being able deconstruct the propaganda and discover information that is closer to objective notions of truth. It is extremely difficult to figure out what is actually going on in this world.

There isn’t sufficient space (or current inclination) to provide a more detailed assessment of their work, suffice to say that their model seems to be supported by the evidence and the model is rigorous enough that it makes predictions; most of which I have seen validated in my own experience with U.S. mass media.

Lastly, more personally, this one has been on my list for awhile so I am pleased to have finally read it and now can have a more informed opinion regarding one of the great works of dissident thought.

*In fact, the CIA did have the power to change news stories and there are coteries that control the media, but it isn’t likely one consistent body.