Wednesday, 24 January 2018

book review: More Dire and Dirty than Fire and Fury - inside the Trump White House

Fire and Fury – inside the Trump White House
by Michael Wolff
Pubs. Henry Holt and Co.

The furore surrounding Wolff’s book is unsurprising because he lifts the lid on the foetid cesspit that is Trump’s White House. In the tradition of scandal-mongering journalism, he reveals the back-stabbing, in-fighting and squabbling of this ramshackle administration of bigots, ignoramuses and incompetents.

Successful Lid-lifting exercises are not new and offer their authors rich rewards, even if what they reveal is less rewarding for the reader. Trump’s election and administration have been mired in controversy from the start and already he threatens to compete with Roman emperor Caligula’s antics. Wolff’s insider’s revelations embellish the tale, but does little to reveal the political and economic factors behind Trump’s elevation? The collapse of Trump’s flagship aim of repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act, for instance, is given less than a single sentence in the book.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Trump came to be the soundboard for the widespread discontent in the US, and that deserves greater examination. Among the book’s chief shortcomings is its failure to explain how in the world’s ‘greatest democracy’ someone like Trump became president.
Wolff’s book rips off any remaining veils, allowing those who know Trump best to reveal his obscene nudity in full. But Wolff is more consumed with the news media and personalities than policy issues. He says he’s not interested in politics but people and power … and while what he writes is compulsively fascinating, he does exclude facts and fudges specifics. He excoriates the entire Trump entourage and is a keen judge of character. Much of what he says, though, has to be taken on trust, as few sources are cited.
Wolff didn’t write this book because he abhors Trump’s policies. He is a journalist who, like Trump, is not squeamish about bending the truth in favour of a good story. His book opens with a dinner conversation that included Bannon and Ailes, former Fox News boss, before the inauguration, offering verbatim quotations. He says the dinner took place ‘in a Greenwich Village townhouse’, but omits to reveal that it was his home and he was hosting it.
Bannon has the loudest mouth – a spurned lover invariably becomes a most vitriolic critic. He brands the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower,  attended by a number of Russians, as ‘treasonous’, unpatriotic and bad shit’. Wolff also quotes Henry Kissinger’s take on the internal feud between Kushner and Bannon as ‘a war between the Jews and non-Jews’.
As Jonathan Martin in the New York Times (8 Jan) puts it: ‘Wolff is unsparing in his portrayal of Trump as an aberrant chief executive, not only detached from governance but barely literate. He summons withering on-the-record assessments from ostensible allies of a seemingly infantile president.’

Fire and Fury has ignited a war that will leave its share of ‘collateral damage’. In essence the book underlines that Trump is simply Trump, he has no clear ideology, no political cause, he is simply an extreme egotist.


Book review - fascinating biographical story: The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter – A Memoir

The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter – A Memoir
by Jane Lazarre
Hdbck. Pub. Duke University Press

Jane Lazarre here weaves a complex and fascinating memoir of her father, the life-long communist, Party organizer and Spanish Civil War veteran, William Lazarre/Bill Lawrence. She does it in the form of an inter-generational dialogue.

Her father came to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century, to escape the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Already enthused by the ideals of communism, he joins the US Communist Party and becomes a full-time organiser.

He volunteers for Spain in December 1936, leaving New York harbour on the S.S. Normandie bound for Le Havre. Arriving in Spain, he becomes a commissar with the Lincoln Battalion. Almost a year later, in October 1937, ‘Bill Lawrence, the popular and hardworking American Political Commissar of the International Brigades base’ left Spain after months of ‘unstinting and fruitful activity’. Once back in the USA he continued working for the Spanish cause and, in early 1938, still hoping for victory, he wrote Democracy’s Stake in Spain. Here, he recounts stories of individual soldiers, most of them involving heroic deaths, sacrificing themselves to save others and he describes the profound friendships formed between men who knew nothing of each other before Spain.

The author, his daughter, visits Spain in 2013 to retrace her father’s footsteps and curious to know how modern-day Spaniards reflect on the Civil War, if at all, and what their attitudes are. For her, it is also an attempt to relive history and gain a deeper sense of what Spain meant to her father. The Spanish Civil War, she writes, ‘had its mythic place in our childhood’. 

Back in the USA, Bill Lawrence would spend time in prison as a result of his activism, and, in the fifties, he falls foul of the McCarthy witch-hunts and is threatened with deportation for refusing to testify against his comrades.

The post-war splits in the US Party and the later Khrushchev revelations cause him great heartache as well as the loss of friends. To compound his woes, his wife dies of cancer when their two daughters are quite small, leaving Bill to bring them up by himself. Jane, his elder daughter, has grown up surrounded by communists and their ideas. She has experienced the elation and comradeship, but also ostracism and a sense of being different to other children, of learning to lie to the FBI agents arriving on the doorstep looking for her father.

She writes movingly of her turbulent relationship with her father, of her rebellion during her teenage years, but also of his unstinting love for her. This book is an attempt to discover who her father really was, the significance of his life and his contribution as a communist to US society. The author also attempts to come to terms with her teenage rejection of her father, when she blamed him, unfairly, for her mother’s death. She peels away the hurt and the reveals the misunderstandings, layer by layer, exploring his life and her own relationship with him and his politics. In a meticulous, elliptical way, she builds up a fascinating interlace between the personal weft and the political warp of both their lives, and in doing so creates a fitting monument to a selfless and heroic US communist. She even visits modern-day Spain to retrace her father’s footsteps and finds  those battles of the thirties still resonating today. Into this rich fabric of his East European Jewish heritage and deeply-held communist beliefs, she introduces an Afro-American element through her marriage to a black American from the deep south and bringing up two mixed-race children. This is a memoir rich in intelligent reflection of an aspect of US political history that receives little airing. An elegantly written and moving account.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Princess Diana and the evil of landmines

Princess Diana died this month 20 years ago and the media (apart from the Morning Star) have been commemorating her death with tasteless posthumous intrusions into her private life. What no one mentions is the one thing she really deserves to be remembered for: her surprising but genuine commitment to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Such awful weapons still pose an existential threat in many parts of the world, even when the wars that brought them have long since become history.

The Vietnamese government says that around 14 million tons of ordnance, nearly three times the amount used by the allies in the Second World War, was dropped on Vietnam between 1959 and 75. Between 10-30 per cent of that failed to detonate and now lies scattered throughout the country like deadly poison. Explosions caused by buried bombs and mines claimed around 105,000 civilian lives between 1975 and 2007. In total the Vietnamese government estimates that around 15 per cent of the total surface area of the country is still contaminated in this way. A war that families in the farming communities did nothing to start and knew little about, has never ended. Every time they go out to plough their fields or clear weeds, they risk losing legs and arms or even their lives. And these mines target indiscriminately men, women, children and animals. Everywhere you go in the country you will come across some of the many maimed and disabled individuals, their lives shattered by this ongoing war that no one talks about.

In 1962 Laos was drawn into the Vietnam war despite being an internationally-declared neutral state and between 1964-73, the USA dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on the country – the equivalent of one plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years. Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare and many of those unexploded bombs still lie undetected in the country and a re killing daily.

Cambodia, too, is another neutral country that the US chose to bomb indiscriminately in its desperate attempt to dislodge guerrillas hiding in the jungle. It also still has a major problem with landmines. Today there are around 40,000 amputees in the country – one of the highest rates in the world.

Courageous bomb removal experts are working tirelessly to disarm and remove these bombs but it is a Herculean task. At the present rate, it would take another 50 years or more to free these countries to an acceptable degree of these hidden dangers.

There is, however, now some hope that new technology, developed in Israel, could help track and defuse these bombs and mines more effectively. A team at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University is using genetically modified bacteria to detect hidden mines. The bacteria give off a fluorescent light when mines are close. The mines are, iniquitously, often made of plastic, and are thus invisible to metal detectors. The bacteria react to tiny amounts of vapour given off by explosives. Such technology could bring about a transformational change and save thousands of lives once it is made available.

Since 1997 there has been a Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, and it has become the cornerstone of an international effort to end the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel mines. It came into force in March 1999. To date, 162 states have formally agreed to be bound by the Convention, including the UK, but significantly not the United States, Russia or Israel who have yet to sign up.
Princess Diana was a tragic figure caught up in the archaic rituals of the monarchy and the intrusive prurience of the tabloids, but clearly her love for her own children and empathy with others gave impetus to her commitment to the campaign against land mines. Something the ruling class was undoubtedly unhappy about. For that she certainly deserves to be remembered.

The information in this article was based on the recent bulletin from the organisation, Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, written by Mary Lidgard.

If you want good sex –socialism will give it you!

If you want good sex –socialism will give it you!
Many readers may think of the former socialist countries as being full of serious Stakhonovite men and heavy-set peasant women, leading lives of hard work and little pleasure. Well if you do think that, it will come as a surprise to you that according to a recent essay by Kristen R. Ghodsee in the series Red Century, about the history and legacy of Communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution, published in the New York Times (12 August 2017) women had better sex under socialism!
She writes, “A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women. Researchers marvelled at this disparity in reported sexual satisfaction …”. While East German women invariably carried a double burden of formal employment and housework, most women in West Germany stayed at home and also had access to more labour-saving devices produced by the bouyant economy. But apparently, according to the author, they had less sex, and less satisfying sex, than women in the East.
It was also certainly true that life in general was not so sexualised as in the West. There was an absence of using women’s bodies to sell consumer products and there was no objectification of women’s bodies. This was reflected in the numbers of sexual assaults in both states.
A study carried out in 1990 showed that 62 per cent of girls interviewed in West Germany had experienced a sexual assault of some sort, whereas of those who had grown up in the GDR it was only 36 per cent.
Of course any reporting on sexual behaviour has to be viewed with a certain amount of scepticism, and there have been other studies that suggest there was little difference in terms of sexual behaviour between East and West.
However, it is certainly true that women throughout the socialist bloc did have many rights and privileges not widespread in the West at the time, including generous state investment in their education and training, their full incorporation into the workforce, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care.
Ms. Ghodsee  spoke to Daniela Gruber, a recently married 30 year-old, in the eastern German city of Jena and more than 20 years after reunification. “Her own mother — born and raised under the Communist system — was putting pressure on Ms. Gruber to have a baby,” she writes.
Daniela says, that her mother “… doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women before the Wall fell. They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
Ghodsee says that “This generational divide between daughters and mothers who reached adulthood on either side of 1989 supports the idea that women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era. And they owed this quality of life, in part, to the fact that these governments saw women’s emancipation as central to socialism.”
The number of orgasms GDR women may have had is perhaps not so relevant, but certainly the attitudes to gender relations, to marriage and sex were much more relaxed an untrammelled by religious or social factors as they were in the West. Women didn’t have to fear that a sexual encounter would result in an unwanted pregnancy, demotion or loss of  job; being in a relationship outside marriage brought no stigma with it. Job security as well as the right to a home at a low rent were guaranteed. It is perhaps little wonder that without the stresses that women (and men) experience under capitalism as well as the absence of  ubiquitous sexualised advertising, helped make sex non-stressful.
It is also certainly true that women in the territory of the former GDR as well as throughout Eastern Europe have been the big losers since the demise of socialism. It is they who have suffered the biggest loss of jobs and the resultant erosion of economic independence. The imposition of capitalism’s stereotypical gender imagery and the closure of the many state-funded childcare facilities has also hit women hardest.
Many western feminists, even if they grudgingly recognised what state socialism did for women, were critical because they did not emerge from an independent women’s movement, but came from above.

But the liberation brought about in the socialist countries,  Ghodsee  writes, “radically transformed millions of lives across the globe, including those of many women who still walk among us as the mothers and grandmothers of adults in the now democratic member states of the European Union”. Quite a surprising viewpoint to be given space in the New York Times.