Veritas-online reviews

I've written several reviews for Veritas-online, the Napier University Students Newspaper, in university year 03/04 and a selection is reproduced here. Most reviews are quite short due to the editorial restrictions on word count.

Fisk, Robert: Pity the Nation
Margalit, Avishai: The Decent Society
Monbiot, George: The Age of Consent

Exihibition: Mao: Arts for the Masses

Pity the Nation
Robert Fisk

This book is truly excellent for many reasons, regardless if you agree or disagree with distinguished journalist Robert Fisk's point of view. In accessible English, he writes about contemporary 20th century history of the Middle East, and war-torn Lebanon in particular, provides an analysis and critical reflection of the events unfolding there as well as contributing to an insight into the profession, or should I say vocation, of journalism, including the power of words.

Probably, there are not many of you students who remember the TV news pictures of the vicious fighting in Lebanon in the 1980s. When I asked my parents back then what it was all about, they only could say "it's a mess over there…they're killing their neighbours". It was and they did. However, Fisk's account of these events sheds light on the factions involved and their motives and places it an historical perspective: how Lebanon was created, the civil wars, Israeli occupations (today reduced to a small pocket in the south of the country called the Shebaa Farms), failed US intervention and, as I gathered from the information in the book as well as interviews conducted with several (high-calibre) people in Lebanon in February 2002, the fragile stability that makes up present day Lebanese society. There are about 16 factions in the country, with the, in the context of the book, most important ones the (Christian-based) Maronites historically linked to France and the militant Phalangists, Palestinians stacked up like sardines in a tin can in refugee camps (Sabra, Shatila and Ain El-Helwe), Shiites and the emergence of Hizbollah, Syrian military presence and political influence, and the Druze in the mountains. A main thread is the "it's the interference of the foreigners - we can get along fine if we're left to ourselves"…

The descriptions of the events, however, weave words into sentences into paragraphs and chapters and come to life to create a mental visual picture that is for neither the faint-hearted nor suitable as bedtime reading. Sadly, these descriptions of the fighting, killings and massacres are true. Sometimes when reading the book I thought 'ok, my imagination takes a ride', but having visited for example Qana and its memorial building displaying pictures of the aftermath of the cluster bombing of the Fiji compound of the UN peacekeeping mission (called UNIFIL: United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon - 'interim' for over 25 years and counting) by Israelis, I came to realise it is more accurate than anyone wishes for. Even though there were only photographs, they matched the narration of the book; and it sure does make a difference standing there compared to the distance felt when watching it on TV. However, regardless how fragile or sustainable post-conflict Lebanon might be, at present, the country is relatively safe to travel to, where you can enjoy the beautiful scenery, delicious food and hospitality of the Lebanese.

The other main point of the book will be of particular interest to journalism students and anybody interested in use of language or interpretations of current affairs. Two chapters, called "Terrorists" and "Pandora's box", are particularly relevant. Starting with a quote by a Phalangist involved in the Sabra and Shatila massacre (about 1800 Palestinians were killed overnight), it sets the atmosphere: "pregnant women will give birth to terrorists; the children when they grow up will be terrorists" [used as a 'justification' to kill pregnant women with machetes]. Who are the terrorists? Fisk addresses the phraseology of not only the well-known endless discussion on 'the freedom fighters' and 'the terrorists', but also for example differences between 'prisoners' versus 'hostages' and reporting on a "ship 'diverted' to Haifa" versus "passengers had been 'detained'". At the time of writing this review, one can add for example 'apartheids wall' versus a 'safety barrier' being built between Palestinian refugee camps and Israel. Although note here that referring to the region as Israel and not Palestine is politicised in itself - I do not have the space to elaborate on this aspect here and 'merely' adhere to media practice, which is arguable and an interesting topic for further discussion.

A book counting 727 pages containing so much information does not lend itself well for a brief review. Read it. Even if you are not interested in Lebanon in particular, it is gripping; in an abstract sense, it provides an understanding of the dynamics of conflict zones, which is absent from the news headlines, and an awareness of the verbiage use that shapes public opinion.

Age of Consent
George Monbiot

The full title of the book written by George Monbiot is "The Age of Consent - A manifesto for a new world order". And a manifesto it is: very readable for the layperson (or bedtime reading for an informed reader) and Monbiot does propose alternatives for how to govern the world, unlike many of his left-wing peers, which are nowhere near the 'Pax Americana' and neo-liberalism of today.

After criticising international institutions such as the IMF, he proposes the viability of a Clearing Union Keynes came up with 60 years ago, primarily to fix the problems related to excessive debt, and a World Parliament in line with regional representation and winner-takes-all. As if proportional representation is the best way to implement democracy! We can't even create consensus about how to arrange democracy in a coherent way within the EU structures, imagine taking into account the diversity in governance of all the countries in the world…

Secondly, he suggests a dawn of the 'age of consent'. However, what started as a mild irritation and evolved to a serious annoyance, is that there it more sounds like 'imposing consensus' (uh?) when he keeps repeating that 'the poor MUST do' x, y, and z - 'the poor' are far from a homogeneous group. Dictating what all the people who suffer under the rule of the neo-cons, alas, the vast majority of world citizens, should do, does not energise me (ok, maybe I just have an aversion to 'must do').

Nevertheless, I do appreciate his attempt to formulate other possibilities and he explains them as if they are within reach [with a lot of effort], that the fall of capitalism is not the end of the world - on the contrary, to take it as an opportunity for the beginning of the creation of a decent society.
Further, there are 162 endnotes, many of them contain links to resources on the Internet in case you feel the urge to not only verify the claims ha makes, but also want to check out information that is 'out there' waiting to be discovered by you.

Read some of Monbiot's writings

The Decent Society
Avishai Margalit

This book, written by Avishai Margalit, ought to come with a mental health warning. If you already are of the opinion that the UK with its class system is unfair, then you may not like reading this book, because it provides insights into why this is so - or maybe you should read it and find further argumentation from the perspective of psychology and philosophy on why the UK is not decent. However, to put it into perspective - though cold comfort - at present, there probably does not exist a decent society anywhere anyway.

A civilised society is one whose members do not humiliate on another, whereas in a decent society, the institutions do not humiliate people. Aside from the concept of humiliation, Margalit addresses honour, rights, duty and respect, among other related factors, which provide ample material to ponder and analyse as well as predict the content of the last part of the book, 'Putting social institutions to the test'. For example, bureaucracy, the welfare society and the charity paradox do not live up to scrutiny.

Some quotes:
"[r]especting humans means never giving up on anyone, since all people are capable of living dramatically differently from the way they have lived so far."
"second-class citizenship cannot be considered a decent society… gives them the practical status of nonadult human beings"
"[I]n a democratic society political institutions are justified precisely by the fact that they are meant to protect the members of the society from humiliations generated by the market society."

The book is not easy to read for its used vocabulary and is not well structured, but if you indeed read it cover-to-cover, you will have gathered knowledge of many interesting aspects not only of characteristics of un-decent societies, but also a helping hand in how we can create a society that is more decent and fulfilling to live in.

Mao: Arts for the Masses

Everybody has his or her own opinion on a definition what Art is (with or without a capital A), and for each piece of art to assign it a value judgement. You can easily observe this conflict in policy measures, as well as in your average pub rant. There exist this distinct feeling that art is only for the rich and 'those weirdos'. Yet Pop-Art in the 1960s and more recent 'recycling art' - using discarded products and incorporate it into something that may, or may not, be a piece of art - at the same time use everyday objects. Although it might be that the latter two have some deeper connection as criticism on modern day life and attempt to keep a mirror in front of you. On the other hand, the landscape paintings and Realism of the times long gone merely try to capture the sign of times of that era (then again, maybe not…).

Either way, Mao Zedong had his solution to all this confusion when he came to power in China: the difficult to understand Chinese art, which emphasises capturing the spirit of the being or thing as opposed to an accurate depiction of reality, had to change to make it accessible to the masses - peasants and workers alike. The new art under his rule had to conform to represent everyday life and modern heroes of the Communist regime. In order to train the Chinese artists to paint e.g. depth in their paintings, make real life images of factory workers, or the 'young woman and her grandmother with lantern', he invited distinguished Western artist to teach the local artists how to create such 'Western art' that is characterised by its "simplicity". Now there is something to contemplate when observing Western art!

With the exhibition "Mao: Arts for the Masses" (1950-1976) at the Royal Museum you have the opportunity to judge for your self. Because the museum is rather huge, the relatively small exhibition is difficult to find and it is easy to get distracted with all sorts of other things on display that may pique your interest, but it is somewhere on the second floor, squeezed in between Japanese, Korean and, yes, Chinese art and utensils on display.

Personally, I did not think the "arts for the masses" posters, paintings and sculptures were overly exciting in itself. However, you are duly rewarded if you take the effort to read the little tags with brief explanations: its like a mini arts class without the boring teacher but with the real pieces (compared to straightforward slides) and all is explained in layman's terms. The accompanying explanations put the masterpieces into perspective, especially if you are not overly familiar with Chinese contemporary history, and provide insight in using art with a purpose, as opposed to art for art's sake. Although it is tempting here to digress in a treatise on its purpose(s), such as the glorification of some of the regime's ideals, it is more intriguing to go and judge for yourself.

Further, if you long to compare and contrast Mao's 'arts for the masses' with the older Chinese art: that is exhibited about five metres farther away in the exhibition room. Then, taking into account a potential insatiable hunger for more, there is a wall with mayor historical events in Japan, Korea and China compared to mainly UK efforts unfolding in the same time span (which has been backward hinterland for quite a while, and arguably still is depending on your criteria).

You can view this interpretation of the "formation of Communist China brought to life" until the 1st of March at the Royal Museum in Chambers Street (Edinburgh), opening hours are 10am-5pm (Tue to 8pm) and Sunday 12noon-5pm, and above all: it's for FREE. With the dreadful weather in these dark winter months, a visit to the museum will be time well spent, and just might even make you reassess the notion of what constitutes 'Art'.

These reviews were first published in Veritas-online, the Napier University Students Newspaper.