Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Review: Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie

I've never been a fan of Salman Rushdie's genre of magical realism and I've never been able to finish one of his novels, yet I found his memoir "Joseph Anton" compelling. 

It's a memoir emphasizing Rushdie's plight as an object of a fatwa called by Muslim leaders and supported by the Iranian government because of his alleged disparaging portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad and his wives in the novel The Satanic Verses.

Critics have argued that Rushdie was careless and should have known that fundamentalist Muslims would take issue with his work, The Satanic Verses, or that Rushdie intended to purposely insult Islam for publicity. Rushdie argues against these ideas very convincingly, but more importantly, so what if he "should have known"? Western enlightened society is built on the foundation of personal civil liberties, and paramount is the protection of everyone's right to express ideas, no matter how disagreeable.

Rushdie is an excellent writer but the 600+ pages is lengthy. I frequently thought as I listened--I borrowed the Audiobook from the library-- Does his publisher employ editors? Twenty-two hours of audio! But now, having finished, I can say that the length of the book is necessary to truly understand the complexity of the person Salman Rushdie and the events he endured. He effectively portrays his weaknesses as he honestly admits to heavy alcohol use that damaged his relationships, among other shortcomings.

Another criticism is that Rushdie put publishers, book store clerks and other personnel at risk by insisting that his right to free speech was upheld. Bullshit. Nobody entered into their interactions with Rushdie and The Satanic Verses against their will, and it was Muslim leaders who instigated violence. The publishing industry is the true guardian of such freedom and their professionalism is praised by Rushdie throughout the book. Rushdie mentions the sorrow he felt when translators of The Satanic Verses were attacked, one killed and another injured, by Islamic fundamentalists, but we must all remember who are the criminals in this situation, and it's not the novelist. 

Further critics argue that Rushdie has not shown proper gratitude for the protection and expense put forth on his behalf by the British government and the agents involved. Again, bullshit. Rushdie exhibits gushing praise for the "prot" agents who ensured his safety, although he often voices frustration with the Bureaucracy of Scotland Yard. An example of supreme frustration is that the British government had anti-blasphemy laws on the books until very recently, and these laws, while originally enacted centuries ago to protect Anglicanism, the laws were expanded to prohibit negative opinion of any religion. These laws have been expunged following, and perhaps because of, the Rushdie fatwa.

Like others I found Rushdie's use of the third person confusing at times, but who am I to argue with an accomplished award winning author? Deal with it. Hillary Mantel uses the same literary device in her historical novel Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell. 

Rushdie exhibits traits of self-confidence, what others might call narcissism, but there is a distinction between pathology and mere personality traits. I cannot imagine any interesting and successful writer lacking such high opinion of himself or herself; detractors should get over it. Rushdie has lived an interesting life which he has explored with effective introspection. As memoirs go this one is very, very good. He gives a clear impression of his emotions and motivations, his anger and frustration as well as the love and gratitude he feels. Moreover, Rushdie educates the reader on the events of the day and how they are affected by religious ideology and the deadly political and personal ramifications. 

More recently, Salman Rushdie has been interviewed and while he quickly cops to his lack of god-belief, he has a nuanced respectful view of Islam: while he may not agree with the tenets of the faith, he recognizes that it's the leaders of Islam who have made the grievous violent overtures for political purposes. Followers of Islam need to be more vigilant of the true meaning of their religion and not allow it to be co-opted by mullahs for political motives.

Rushdie never apologizes for writing The Satanic Verses, never expresses regret. That is the true message of this story: we have a choice to make as members of a free society, we can stand with the fundamentals of freedom of expression or we can allow assholes to steal our freedoms. The choice is ours. No matter how much or how little we may enjoy a particular writer's work it is our imperative duty to defend his right to express the art.

Joseph Anton is a well-written account of the life of a writer enduring a harrowing assault on his freedom and threats to the life of himself, his family and his colleagues. Rushdie provides an introspective and sometimes humorous (parts are very funny, especially his close encounter with a Playboy Bunny!) rendering of the experience. He addresses detractors (John Le Carre is portrayed as a willful moron) and supporters very effectively and makes the case for the unabridged freedoms of an open society.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Warren and the big banks

Let me preface this with the statement that I think Bernanke has done a fine job given his tools and the depth of the crisis. He has called for fiscal solutions to augment his monetary policy and his calls have been met with Congressional gridlock.

Sen Warren voices the frustration that taxpayers should have with the de facto corporate welfare that seems to never end. Meanwhile, Congress is debating how much of Social Security benefits will decrease for workers who have paid in their entire lives and former Sen Scott Brown, whose place Warren has taken, is now employed as a bank lobbyist and paid Fox News commentator.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dinesh D'Souza: My favorite nut

Dinesh D'Souza is one of my favorite wingnuts for several reasons. First of all, his craziness is entertaining as evidenced by the following CPAC appearance. (Watch the CSPAN video-- not embeddable-- it's great.) Second of all, D'Souza entered Dartmouth in 1979, the same class that turned me down after my application and interview. Essentially, I assume that he took my spot, and it's a clear case (in my mind) of affirmative action, the bane of his brand of boot-straps faux meritocratic conservatism; after all, he's darker than I am and certainly added more diversity that I would have, and I guarantee his ACT scores and academic record were not better than mine. Third of all, he is a hypocrite, having left his wife of two decades for a floozy. He represents the trifecta of the wingnut right: unintentional humor, blindness to the social advantages he has benefited from, and, of course, hypocrisy. 
Here is his latest entry into the canon of jumbled conservative ideology, from Alternet's "10 craziest things heard at CPAC":
8. Dinesh D'Souza, outsted Christian college president, filmmaker and author: One problem with liberalism is the notion that slavery involved the theft of labor from African Americans. Again with the slavery. Sigh.
Riding high on right-wing acceptance of his theory that Barack Obama's worldview is shaped by Kenyan anticolonial sentiment against Great Britain, D'Souza is expanding his theory to include all of liberal America, which, according to him, imported the anticolonial worldview in the 1960s, and thus came to ostensibly regard all wealth as a form of theft. (This is apparently not to be confused with thegood anticolonial worldview of the founding fathers, who decried, in the Declaration of Independence, how King George "plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.")
Given the success on the right-wing conference circuit of his book about Obama's purported Kenyan resentment, and his movie on the same subject, 2016: Obama's America, D'Souza showed a film clip from a forthcoming picture in which he promises to make "a moral case" for what he calls "the free enterprise system," one that is designed to counter all this theft nonsense. (Apparently, slavery was just an entrepreneurial exercise on the part of the slave-traders.) From D'Souza's remarks, delivered on the main stage at CPAC on Saturday:
It isn’t just some Kenyan thing, isn’t just some foreign thing. Anti-colonialism has come to American in the ‘60s. It’s part of American liberalism. And if you listen to the liberal story of America, it is a story of what? Theft. How did we get America? We stole it from the Indians. Slavery is, in a sense, seen as stealing the free labor of African-Americans. And so the whole story of America is a story of oppression. This is the liberal argument in its broad scale, and it needs to be answered. And in our film, we intend to answer it.
Now this is not just, I should say, about the makers and the the core idea is that free enterprise is a form of theft. We have to make the moral case for free enterprise and for America. A conservatism that did that would be a conservatism that is viable and powerful again.
Watch the C-SPAN video, and you'll also be treated to the metaphor of Barack Obama as a lion-tamer. In that vein, were D'Souza more enchanting, we might view him as a snake-charmer.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wealth Tax. D'uh.

A while back I saw this video about the wealth inequality in the United States.  It reminded me of the old economic adage that if aliens had come to earth and collected all the wealth and evenly distributed it among humans and left for 50 years, when they came back the wealth would be concentrated into a few individuals. That's just a natural trait among humans: some are better at accumulating assets than others.

But there really is more to the story of wealth distribution. The way wealth is distributed varies depending on what is valued within the society at the current time. I doubt Bill Gates would have been as successful writing software had he been born in Mongolia under Genghis Khan 800 years ago. Charles Manson, on the other hand, might have parlayed his psychopathic conscious-less killing into a lieutenant-ship. Who knows?

Christopher at Christopher's Apologies had an odd take, a head scratcher. He presented the above video and basically shrugged off the epic wealth inequality, saying
"Just so we’re clear: there are no rules, laws, or regulations governing who can have money in this country or how much they can have.  So then what is it that prevents people from moving from one economic stratum to the next? Why is it so many people believe government needs to enter into the fray in order to level the playing field and redistribute wealth on behalf of the lowest income earners?"
Huh? Government redistributes wealth "on behalf of the lowest income earners"?  I have no idea what universe Christopher is observing. Did he even watch the video? Wealth is not being re-distributed to the lowest earners at all. That's the point. Nearly every single penny of efficiency squeezed out by the huge gains in worker productivity has been transferred directly into the bank accounts of the wealthiest 5%. I guess the Wal-Mart heirs deserve it all, Christopher is just sorry we cannot give them more.

We have socialized risks made by banks and oil companies and really every corporation, yet they keep their profits private. When they make money, great, they get to keep it, less of course some nominal income tax which is lower than mine....but when they lose money, oops, they need a bailout.  Nobody goes to jail, nobody even loses a bonus check. The laws are ALL in their favor.

Christopher adds, 
"My second problem with the video (and it’s premise) is that it stokes the fires of greed in people.  I won’t say that it creates greed in people since everyone has that flaw as part of their sinful nature, but media with this type of content pours gasoline on the greedy fire that burns in all of us."
While I'm not 100% sure his point here, I think he is concerned with "stoking" the greed of the less wealthy who are apparently pining for a free giveaway from the wealthy. The video is really just giving a blow-by-blow account of the statistics of the wealth distribution, and I think we can determine who has the greed and who doesn't. 

From the NYT:
A common statistical measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient, a number between 0 and 100 that rises with greater disparities. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the Census Bureau recorded Gini coefficients for income in the low 40s. Yet by 1992, the Gini coefficient for wealth had risen into the mid-70s, according to data from the Federal Reserve.
Since then, it has risen steadily, to about 80 as of 2010. In 1992, the top tenth of the population controlled 20 times the wealth controlled by the bottom half. By 2010, it was 65 times. Our graduated income-tax system redistributes a small amount of money every year but does little to slow the polarization of wealth.
These are stunning changes. The global financial crisis did make a dent in the assets of the wealthiest American families, but its effects for the bottom half were utterly destructive; the number of owner-occupied homes has fallen by more than a million since 2007. People in different socioeconomic strata are living ever more different lives, with dangerous results for society: erosion of empathy, widening of rifts and undermining of meritocracy.
History tells us that at some point the fabric of society deteriorates when a few have all the wealth-- think Czarist Russia or France circa 1790. Maybe we're not close to that point but that's the question. How soon until the the aliens come back to see how we've reallocated the wealth? I'm not clear at all on how greedy tendencies of the poor are a problem.
Robert Reich echos the New York Times on this topic, calling for a wealth tax just like property taxes that we all pay. Why not?

Instead we tax income and not wealth. We give a  negative incentive to work and produce, but Paris Hilton gets a pass. I can hear all the Rand-bots predicting that the wealthy will "Go Galt" and move their wealth off-shore and property values will sink and the apocalypse will commence. Really? Where else are the wealthy going to put their assets to be safe and their families protected? Mali? 

I comment not because I see anybody addressing the wealth inequality which is growing in logarithmic fashion-- we know who makes the rules. I just find it interesting that given all the insanity that has occurred with trillions in bailouts and transfers from our Treasury to the connected corporate elite, S&P profits at record levels, stock prices reaching new all-time highs, the wealthy getting wealthier and the poor getting poorer, yet we cannot collect enough to balance our budget...and we can STILL find apologists like Christopher who see nothing wrong here...move along.   

And, oh yeah, the poor are greedy.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Was the Soviet Union atheistic?

Karen Jacoby, author of the recent biography of Robert Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic, was interviewed in Five Books. The entire interview is worthwhile but especially her comments about the trope that the misdeeds of the Soviet Union and other secular regimes somehow discredit atheism, materialism and rationalism. [Emphasis is mine]:
Question: What do you think about the critique of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, not necessarily the book by him you’ve chosen, but God is Not Great, for example – that they put too much blame on religion? I’m in China right now, you’ve got a lot of friends in Russia, what about this argument that countries that have really embraced atheism have seen some of the worst excesses of human nature? Even if you don’t believe in God, don’t the teachings of, say, Christianity – for example loving your neighbour as yourself – help make the world a better place?
Ms Jacoby: Yeah, right. That’s why everybody was so tolerant in 16th and 17th century England, because they were Christians. I’m really glad you asked that question. The idea that some of the worst things happened under countries that were officially atheist, well firstly, lots of people never embraced atheism. The salient point about the Soviet Union, like Hitler’s Germany (which was not officially atheist), is that when secular ideology is treated as something that cannot be challenged and that need not be proven, then it becomes a religion. Stalinist Communism was every bit as much a religion as Roman Catholicism at the height of the Inquisition. Why? It was a religion because its tenets could not be challenged. And if they contradicted the laws of nature, they couldn’t be challenged either. An entire generation of Soviet biologists and agronomists were destroyed because Stalin had a favourite biologist named Lysenko, and Lysenko’s basic belief was – and this went right along with Communist ideology – that you could change species by changing their behaviour, in other words a new Soviet man, or a new Soviet cow, could be made genetically different by the teachings you gave them. Scientists who said no – and everything we know and have proved about science including Mendelian genetics says that it is not true – went to the gulags and were killed. Soviet science was two generations behind the West when it emerged from this era in the mid-1960s. So what I say is that in fact what is often used as proof that religion is good is proof that religion is bad, because religion doesn’t have to call itself Christianity, or have Yahweh or Jesus as its idol, it can have secular idols. The characteristic of a religion is that no evidence-based challenge is allowed. Soviet Communism fit that model perfectly, and as soon as evidence-based challenge was allowed, it took just 30 years to collapse, which may seem long, but as historical time goes is not long at all.