Monday, July 31, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of Egypt
By Thomas Riggins

BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharoahs
by Jan Assmann (translated by Andrew Jenkins)
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2002.

You might think the Ancient Egyptians too remote in time to be anything other than intellectual curiosities for us. Jan Assmann, the great German Egyptologist, thinks otherwise. Early on in his masterful reconstruction of the Egyptian mind set, he tells us that "ancient Egypt is an intellectual and spiritual world that is linked to our own by numerous strands of tradition." A brief review can only barely touch on the topics discussed in this book, but I will try to give some examples of Assmann’s conclusions with reference our links to the Ancient Egyptians--they may be more extensive than you might think.

Take for example the ancient work "The Admonitions of Ipuwer" from the thirteenth century B.C., (around the time of Ramesses II) which describes "the nobles" as "full of lament" and the "lowly full of joy." Bertolt Brecht was so impressed by this work that, Assmann says, "he worked part of it into the ‘Song of Chaos’ in his play ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle.’" Ipuwer was lamenting the overthrow of established order by the lower classes-- so long has the specter of Communism been haunting the world (not just Europe) that Brecht could sense the presence of comrades over three thousand years ago! Brecht made a few slight changes, Assmann says, and the Egyptian sage’s lament became "a triumphal paean to the Revolution."

A useful Egyptian concept to know is that of "ma’at" which Assmann defines as "connective justice" which "holds for Egyptian civilization in general." Basically "connective justice" is the idea that all of actions are interconnected with those of others such that it "is the principle that forms individuals into communities and that gives their actions meaning and direction by ensuring that good is rewarded and evil punished."

Assmann likens this concept to what he calls the "connection between memory and altruism." Looking at our own times, he says this Ancient Egyptian concept is manifested in the ideas of Karl Marx (and also in Nietzsche’s "Genealogy of Morals"). He quotes Marx who wrote that [Private] "Interest has no memory, for it thinks only of itself." This is a quote from issue 305 of the Rheinische Zeitung, Nov. 1, 1842 (not as cited by Assmann issue 298 Oct. 25, 1842).

The point being that the State should look to the collective good of all citizens and not be used to further private or individual interests. It must have "memory" directed toward the general good. This is also the point of ma‘at. The Egyptian Middle Kingdom work "Tale of the Eloquent Peasant" makes this point. This implies that we could find basically "Marxist" social values being discussed in Egypt!

As Assmann points out, "Ma‘at is the law liberating the weak from the oppression at the hands of the strong. The idea of liberation from the oppression caused by inequality is informed at least to a rudimentary extent by the idea of the equality of all human beings." It should be noted that the picture many have of ancient Egypt as a repressive slave state is the result of the Old Testament tradition. That tradition does not represent the actual state of affairs with respect to the functioning of the Egyptian state.

An examination of the literary remains of the Egyptians themselves shows an entirely different society than that portrayed in Biblical propaganda. "The Egyptian state," Assmann writes, " is the implementation of a legal order that precludes the natural supremacy of the strong and opens up prospects for the weak (the ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’) that otherwise would not exist.

Besides Biblical misrepresentations of Egyptian thought there were also the misunderstandings of the classical writers. For example, the Greek Diodorus, who left behind a description of the "Judgment of the Dead", presents the "facts" in contradiction to what we know is described in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead." In fact, Assmann avers that the Egyptian account is similar to the 25th Chapter of the "Gospel According to St. Matthew" where the reward of going to the "House of Osiris" is "replaced by the Kingdom of God." In fact, I think, many so-called Christian values and beliefs actually have their origin in Ancient Egyptian religious and ethical concepts.

We should remember that the first "monotheist," after all, was the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (r. cir. 1352-1338 B.C.) who stood "at the head of a lineage very different from his predecessors’, one represented after him by the Moses of legend, and later by Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed," according to Assmann. As a truth seeker he also differs from the three aforementioned in that as "a thinker, Akhenaten stands at the head of a line of inquiry that was taken up seven hundred years later by the Milesian philosophers of nature [i.e., the Greeks] with their search for the one all-informing principle, and that ended with the universalist formulas of our own age as embodied in the physics of Einstein and Heisenberg." Assmann has a very high opinion of Akhenaten!

Unlike earlier Egyptologists who think the ideas of Akhenaten were repressed by his successors (due to their--Akhenaten's ideas that is-- "deism" rather than "theism" characteristics), Assmann maintains that they were "elaborated further and integrated into" the religious teachings of the age of Ramesses and his successors. From here they eventually influenced Plato, and, since Plato was the basis of the thought of Augustine, Christianity. Although, Christianity ended up the mortal foe of the Egyptian religion and ultimately destroyed it and the culture that produced it.

Today we know more about the civilization of Ancient Egypt than has been known since its own time. We must come to grips with his new knowledge, and especially with the recovered literature of the Egyptians and "attempt" as Assmann says, "to enter into a dialogue with the newly readable messages of ancient Egyptian culture and thus to reestablish them as an integral part of our cultural memory."

This review has only skimmed the surface of this important book. I hope it inspires you to read the book itself.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Friday, July 21, 2006


By Thomas Riggins

IMPERIAL GRUNTS: THE AMERICAN MILITARY ON THE GROUND by Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 2005, 421pp., reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in "The New York Times" for September 23, 2005.

The reviewer likes this book even though he is bothered by Kaplan's "romanticized and blinkered view of combat." Kaplan thinks people without military experience are not having "the American experience," which is "exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once."

With reference to the bloody doings in Afghanistan, Kaplan says the Special Operations troops he met "were having the time of their lives." It seems that Sherman's dictum "War is all hell" does not apply to them.

For those of us who are concerned with politics, it is not reassuring to find out that our professional Special Forces units have no interest in "political implications" or any "larger strategic thinking." They only care about "the mission." In reference to the Green Berets he met in Columbia, he says "they lived for the particular technical task at hand...." That sounds a little too Wehrmacht-ish for me.

Special Forces attitudes are further revealed by the almost universal greeting they give in places like the Philippines, Columbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan-- which is "Welcome to Injun Country." They compare themselves to the Indian fighters of the nineteenth century-- seeing the people they are killing as "Injuns." This book is probably worth reading just to find out what kind of Frankenstein's Monster the American military has become. By the way, if you have not had "the American experience" consider yourself lucky.

THE SHAME OF THE NATION: THE RESTORATION OF APARTHEID SCHOOLING IN AMERICA by Jonathan Kozol, Crown Publishers, 2005, 404pp., reviewed by Nathan Glazer in "The New York Times Book Review," Sunday, September 25, 2005.

This is a book every teacher and parent concerned with the education of children should get their hands on and read!

Kozol is dealing here with what the reviewer calls a "persistent" problem in American education -- i.e., "the conditions under which we educate the children of the poor and minorities." To be blunt-- we don't educate them. Forty years after the Civil Rights Movement our schools are being re-segregated. "Black and Hispanic students, [Kozol] writes, are concentrated in schools where they make up almost the entire student body."

This re-segregation is taking place regardless of which party controls the White House. This tells me there is no will on the national, let alone the state and local level, to end racism in this country outside of the Left. Kozol quotes Gary Orfield of Harvard: "American public schools are now 12 years into the process of continuous re-segregation.... During the 1990’s the proportion of black students in majority white schools has decreased... to a level lower than any year since 1968." That is real progress!

Glazer notes that Kozol doesn't address the reasons for this trend. Nor does he, according to the reviewer, ask if "desegregation would have the positive educational effects he hopes for." It seems that Glazer is suggesting that the call for school integration may not be a well-thought-out position.

Kozol is also against the mania for standardized testing--which sacrifices history, social sciences, art, music, geography, etc., to concentrate on reading and math alone. More balance is needed. Glazer seems to have more faith in
these tests than Kozol.

Glazer downplays racism as a factor in this re-segregation movement. What stands in the way of educational betterment of the poor and minorities, he says, are values "which are not simply shields for racism"-- such as "the value of the neighborhood school [why are neighborhoods not integrated?]; the value of local control of education [we can be rid of Darwin and minorities in one fell swoop]; the value of freedom from state imposition when it affects matters so personal as the future of one's children [unless the Army wants to recruit middle-schoolers]." This is bunk!

Glazer concludes his veiled attack on the book by saying the importance of the factors just listed "add up to nothing less than a commitment to individual freedom." Bull Connor would agree if he were still with us. In reality, without a good education and a decent income there is no such thing as individual freedom. The freedom of the poor and minorities has been repressed and stolen by the authorities responsible for public education in this country. True civil and human rights can never be achieved under capitalism. The sooner we build a socialist society the better.

BAIT AND SWITCH: THE (FUTILE) PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM by Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan, 2005, 237pp., reviewed by Michael Kazin in "The Nation" for October 3, 2005.

In this book Ehrenreich does for white-collar workers what she did for blue-collar workers in her earlier book "Nickel and Dimed" (2001). She shows the futility of trying to get ahead in today's corporate America for most people. In her new book she wanted to find out how difficult it would be for laid off white-collar workers to get another good paying job. She went undercover with a fake resume and tried to find a job in public relations. Like many of the people she writes about, she failed to find employment after, as Kazin says, "struggling for almost a year on the job market."

She writes about all the scammers and leeches that prey on middle-class workers trying to get back to good positions. They, the white collars, will do anything to prevent, as Marx says, being pushed down into the proletariat (their ultimate destination like it or not). She writes about so-called job coaches who charge you for their services (whether you land a job or not). Kazin uses the term "inferno of psychobabble" to describe these "networkers" and "coaches."

There are also sessions given by con artists posing as motivational speakers, whose seminars will help you get employed again. Kazin says that the “organizers secure a steady income for themselves by gulling the unlucky...."

Kazin makes some missteps, I think, when he criticizes Ehrenreich for lack of empathy with the white collars. He says she wrote with "affection" and "respect" for the blue- collar people she met in "Nickel and Dimed." On the other hand she "despises the kind of corporate shill she was pretending to be." He says "her loathing tends to rub off on the men and women who desired similar positions for themselves, who equated a secure one with the good life." And why not? The blue collars are struggling under maximum exploitation just to survive, and the white collars want to live the good life on their backs. The white collars would think nothing of sending off pink slips to hundreds of blue collars, but cry the blues if they happen to get one.

"Ehrenreich also slights," Kazin complains, "the ingenuity required in many PR jobs: in a market society, the selling of images can be as exciting and creative, if not as socially useful, as investigative reporting." What an incredibly shallow observation! Let us henceforth praise all the ingenuity it takes for corporations to lie to us believably: "Toxic sludge is good for you." The problem is that the market economy is the problem!

When Ehrenreich writes that "job coaches" teach that "only the 'relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic and obedient' will find secure positions," Kazin rejoins, "But is aggressive individualism so irrational a belief for those who want to make it in big business?" Have we come to this--that "aggressive individualism" is the term used to describe the "relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic and obedient?" Obedient individualists are my favorites, especially a whole room full of them with identical thoughts.

The review goes even more downhill from here. Ehrenreich supports demands for extended unemployment benefits and universal health insurance, and thinks white collars should support these demands. What we need here is union organization, it appears. Kazin sees "the benefits of spouting the company line" until "there's a broad revival of the American left" and the "goals for which professionals are hired" are changed.

While this review may not be so hot, it still appears that Ehrenreich's book is and that progressives will profit from reading it.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political
Affairs and can be reached at

Thursday, July 20, 2006


North Korea and The New Yorker – a Case of Hysteria in Print [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Usually the staid New Yorker magazine can be counted upon to publish fairly informative, if not always completely reliable, articles about the goings on in our world. The August 22, 2005 issue, however, has an hysterical rant about North Korea more suitable to a tabloid such as the Enquirer than to a magazine that prides itself on its "quality."

I am referring to Ian Buruma’s lurid "Kimworld: Inside the North Korean Slave State" a review of a book by Bradley K. Martin ("Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty") which "relies heavily" on the stories given out by one high ranking defector Hwang Jang-yop. Buruma, a real bottom feeder for juicy info also likes to quote such scholarly works as "Kim Jong Il’s Cook – I Saw His Naked Body."

While there are many problems with North Korea, to be sure, they are not the concoctions and fantasies put forth by Buruma in his "review."

Here is an example of his simple-minded analysis: "To begin with, Kim Il Sung, whom the Soviets installed as head of state in 1945, was responsible for starting the Korean War, which may have caused as many as a million deaths."

In the first place Kim was not "installed" by the Soviets – that is just old cold war codswallop. He was a major leader of the Korean resistance to Japan in the 1930s and throughout World War II. The Soviets actually favored Cho Man-sik – a non-communist nationalist. The Koreans themselves ended up favoring Kim as their leader after the commencement of the US buildup of an independent southern army of occupation full of old Japanese collaborators.

Nor did Kim "start" the Korean War. It is far more complex than that. The unilateral decision by the US to set up an independent southern state under its auspices, when almost all Koreans had expected a unified Korea to emerge after the defeat of Japan, was "the invitation" for the commencement of the Korean War, according to then British Minister of Works Richard Stokes. One man, Kim Il Sung, is no more responsible for the Korean War, than is, say Kaiser Wilhelm for World War 1. The war was the result of a whole concatenation of factors arising out of the decision to launch the cold war in 1945. Buruma’s cant notwithstanding.

Millions were killed – civilians – and the vast majority were killed by US and South Korean forces as a deliberate policy. Buruma says "many civilians were massacred by the Communists." What Buruma covers up, thru silence, is more telling than what he claims. Bruce Cumings, in "North Korea: Another Country", points out that the US with bombs and napalm, "leveled North Korea and killed millions of civilians’ and bombed "huge irrigation dams that provided water for 75% of the North’s food production." This was "a war crime, recognized as such by international law," as Cumings points out.

Buruma is not interested in facts. He claims the horrific famine of the 1990s in North Korea was "largely brought on by disastrous agricultural policies." Honest scholar that he is, he never mentions that many Korea experts blame the famine on severe floods over a two year period followed by an extreme drought. (If I thought as Buruma, I’d say these conditions were caused by global warming so the famine was really the result of US policies!).

Much of the rest of the review is full of the bad behavior of Kim Jong Il based on the tales of #1 defector Hwang. Buruma compares him to Nero and Caligula. He also refers to an idiotic propaganda piece by Jasper Becker to get some of his information [see my brief review of Becker's work here]. Becker, like Martin relies "heavily" on this one defector.

We get to the point of the review near the end where Buruma, like many supporters of US Imperialism, suggests we have to do something about the "evil" Kim Jong Il – he must be removed from power. We, mind you, not the Korean people have to figure out how to do this. This must be an appealing thought after our great success in Iraq.

Buruma, he has no shame, based on the memoirs of the cook and Hwang carries on about Kim Il Jong’s "sexual demands" and "debauchery" – including having husbands shoot their wives – naked girls forced to dance at his parties, etc. This is the basis of his comparison of Kim to the above mentioned Roman Emperors.

It is amazing to me that "The New Yorker" would let such trash be published in its pages. Cumings, who has spent his career studying North Korea and the Kims – and has no cold war imperialist mentality to warp his outlook, tells us that Kim "is not the playboy, womanizer, drunk, and mentally deranged fanatic ‘Dr. Evil’ of our press. He is a homebody who doesn’t socialize much, doesn’t drink much, and works at home in his pajamas, scribbling marginal comments on the endless reams of documents brought to him in gray briefcases by his aides."

Still, there are really problems in North Korea – and Cumings is very frank about the shortcomings in that country. But the Koreans can work out their own problems. If Mr. Buruma wants to write something worth reading on the subject he should read less contentious books and view fewer James Bond movies.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of PA and can be reached at

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Another Apologist for Israeli Aggression
By Thomas Riggins

Friday’s New York Time’s op-ed page (7-14-06) features an article by Michael Young ("Israel’s Invasion, Syria’s War"), identified as an editor at the Lebanese paper The Daily Star and also for Reason magazine. Young’s article is so ill argued and ridiculous that it can be used to demonstrate just the opposite of what it intends. It intends to more or less justify Israel’s newest aggression and blame Syria instead. It actually shows us that those who try to defend Israel’s actions have no worthwhile means for doing so and must resort to stretched logic, unverifiable assertions, name-calling and in general meaningless blather.

Young maintains that Israel’s attack on Lebanon is in response to "a general counterattack against American and Israeli power in the region by Iran and Syria." This means that Iran and Syria are in cahoots to bring down American and Israeli power and they are operating through proxies who do their bidding, Young calls them "sub-state actors’. They are Hezbollah and Hamas. Young says the fighting in Lebanon isn’t "merely" a proxy war--i.e., it is a proxy war and more besides. He blames Israel’s aggression against the Lebanese people on Hezbollah because Hezbollah "transgressed three political lines."

Transgression number one-- "kidnapping" two Israeli soldiers. Note that Hezbollah and Hamas "kidnap" while Israeli forces "capture" or "arrest" opponents. Young tells us that after Israel withdrew (or rather was forced out) its troops from Lebanon there was an "unwritten rule" that Hezbollah was only supposed to mess around with Israel in a "disputed" area called the Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah captured the soldiers outside of this zone. But this "unwritten rule" is a figment of Young’s imagination as he himself says that Hezbollah has attacked outside of this zone before "even killing some Israeli troops." The attack on Lebanon was well thought out and has been in the works for years. Any excuse would have done.

Transgression number two-- Hezbollah’s "evident" strategic "coordination" with Hamas. He means that while Israel is butchering Palestinian civilians in Gaza using the excuse of trying to free a soldier captured by Hamas, Hezbollah up and carries out an action of its own by capturing two Israeli soldiers. This left poor little Israel "feeling it was fighting a war on two fronts." This is a war it chose to fight as both Hamas and Hezbollah were willing to negotiate a prisoner release. There are thousands of political prisoners being held (or kidnapped) by Israel so three Israeli soldiers being held would seem to suggest an all out attack on civilian populations was an extreme response. So this "transgression", as the first, is purely imaginary.

Transgression number three-- "By unilaterally taking Lebanon into a conflict with Israel" Hezbollah was really trying to overthrow the "anti-Syrian parliamentary and government majority, which opposes the militant group’s adventurism." This is just foolishness. Hezbollah is not the government of Lebanon and it cannot unilaterally take Lebanon into a conflict. It was not the Lebanese army that grabbed the two Israeli soldiers. Common sense should tell anyone who uses it that it was Israel that unilaterally attacked the state of Lebanon. And what sense does it make to attack the state of Lebanon for the actions of Hezbollah if you know that the governing majority of the state of Lebanon "opposes" Hezbollah. This is also a purely imaginary transgression. Blaming Lebanon was a choice Israel made to give it an excuse to attack wider targets in the country as a tactic in its use of state terrorism against civilians in the hopes that they will turn against organizations that Israel opposes. This tactic did not work for the Germans in WW2, or the Americans in Vietnam and it won’t work for Israel either.

Young is also bothered by the fact while condemning Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Lebanese government for the crisis they themselves created, they failed to also fault Syria. "Israeli officials," he writes, "have left Syria out of their condemnations, in jarring contrast to the Bush administration's statements that have rightly highlighted Iranian and Syrian responsibility for Hezbollah's behavior." Iran and Syria are "responsible" only if Hezbollah is their creation and their puppet. There is no evidence of this. Hezbollah is an indigenous Lebanese movement that grew out of the resistance to the Israeli aggression of the 1980s. It has adopted the ideology of the Iranian "Revolution" and so is a fundamentalist Shia organization but this does not mean it is a puppet of the Iranians. To suggest that Syria, a secular state, is "responsible" for the actions of Shia fundamentalists is simply foolishness. No one considers the pronouncements of Bushites to be serious, except for Young and other apologists for the utra-right world view. Lets not forget the Bushites blamed Iraq for 9/11 (until reality forced them to back off), told us Iraq had WMD, call Cuba a "terrorist state", refer to the most popularly elected president in the history of Venezuela as a "dictator" and just recently recommended Iraq as a model democracy with freedom of religion and the press.

That the New York Times publishes such stupid articles is a wonder. Young tells us that "Israel can brutalize Lebanon all it wants," but it won't accomplish its aims unless "something is done to stop Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, from exporting instability to buttress his despotic regime." This is just hype. Everyone knows that the instability in the Middle East is the result of two main factors, the insupportable and failed war in Iraq that the Americans unleashed and the aggressive policies of Israel as well as its refusal to make peace with the Palestinians because it wants to keep the best parts of the West Bank for itself and prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Because the Syrians are acting to protect their national interests against two formidable aggressors, the US and Israel, the ultra-right wants to blame them, along with Iran, for the problems in the Middle East. What this really means is that only countries that are willing to let the US and its cat's paw Israel walk all over them are truly interested in maintaining stability. Let Israel make an honest deal with the Palestinians, return to its 1967 borders, return the Golan Heights (part of Syria after all) and treat the Arabs as equal human beings and not second class members of the species, and then see how easy it will be to have a comprehensive peace in the region and real security for all the nations of the region.

But don't expect Hezbollah or Hamas or the Palestinians to just roll over and play dead while their land is being taken away or threatened by an imperialist dominated aggressive Zionist state armed to the teeth by an outside power (what Hezbollah gets from Iran is a drop in the bucket compared to what the US lavishes on Israel).

Young has only one thing right in his article and that is "Israel must stop its attacks and let diplomacy take over." But he thinks in terms of diplomacy that will get Hezbollah out of south Lebanon and end the current crises. What is really needed is a comprehensive settlement, fair to all sides, such as I indicated above. It is the West Bank not Syria that is at the heart of the instability in the Middle East.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and be reached at

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


MARCH OF THE PINHEADS: Conservative values and the penguin movie [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Even though I would not call myself a "conservative," I have a great deal of respect for people who honestly hold well-thought-out conservative opinions. These are people with whom you can at least hold an intelligent conversation and even have an exchange of useful information. It must be disheartening to many conservatives to see the press give so much attention to self-proclaimed conservative "spokespersons," who once they open their mouths reveal themselves to be complete dunderheads.

It to these that this column is dedicated, for they are now marching along in single file, as it were, under the delusion that a group of birds living in Antarctica are to be role models for all the good God-fearing "Christians" who think Jesus would have voted for the war criminal that sits in the White House. This March of the Pinheads is truly remarkable because I had no idea how many so-called "conservatives" really were pinheads.

I am, of course, talking about the reaction of some "conservatives" to the movie "March of the Penguins" a documentary about the Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), one of sixteen species of aquatic birds making up the family Spheniscidae.

This is a great movie; Marxists and "conservatives" can agree on this, but Marxists will not attempt to explain the behavior of the penguins in terms of Marxist theory. We do not see the penguins practicing "primitive communism" nor having established the "matriarchate," nor do we expect, in the future, to see the male penguins revolt and establish patriarchy -- even though we call this group "Emperor penguins."

The "pinheads" of my title, however, see the penguins in terms of American family values and Christian values. This seems to indicate that the values of the radical right are for birdbrains -- but this would be to insult the penguins.

Here, in summary, is what the documentary discloses about these penguins. Once a year they migrate 70 miles inland from the sea to find ice thick enough to nest upon -- the ice insulates their eggs from the cold of the ocean. They pair off, have an egg, then the female splits and goes back to the ocean for about three months, leaving dad stuck with the egg -- which he incubates by keeping it on his feet covered by a flap of skin. He lives off his blubber. The eggs hatch, the females come back full of fish, and everyone gets to eat. When the little penguins are big enough to run around on their own, the adults all go back to the ocean and the little ones follow. This all happens in horrible Antarctic conditions that blow the minds of the audience (such as have them).

In the New York Times for 9-13-05 we find an article by Jonathan Miller, in the science section (!), "March of the Conservatives: Penguin Film as Political Fodder." Miller collected the opinions of some "conservative" and "Christian" leaders about this movie. None of these opinions are related to anything that was portrayed in the movie, relates to conservatism, or is particularly Christian, which shows that these people did not understand what they saw with their own eyes -- which is really pitiful. It shows, I think, that their brains, having been saturated for years with political, social and religious nonsense, can no longer function rationally.

But let me give some evidence for this position. According to Miller, the editor of the ultra-right National Review urged young Republicans at one of their conferences "to see the movie because it promoted monogamy." He also reports that the so-called "conservative" radio jock Michael Medved said about the movie that it was "the motion picture this summer that passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing."

Did I see the same movie? These penguins pair off for the mating season -- next year it’s a new ball game regarding who your mate may be. This is certainly like the monogamy practiced by many Americans -- i.e., serial polygamy. Having an egg every year with a new sex partner may be "traditional" for the ultra-right, and perhaps the young Republicans and Medved's listeners will be thrilled to have been encouraged to act likewise (even without the egg).

There is a scene where an albatross is trying to kill and eat a chick who is separated from its parent. The giant penguins -- four feet tall-- could easily have dispatched the smaller albatross -- but nooo! They stand around and watch with that "it’s not my chick" attitude. I'm sure this is also indicative of Republican concern for others -- but at least Rich Lowry (the National Review genius) and Medved had sense enough not to bring this behavior up as part of their "traditional" values.

As for "child rearing" -- as soon as the breeding season is over and the little chicks are fuzzy enough to fend for them selves, mom and pop take a powder -- some family values! As far as "sacrifice" is concerned -- there is none. If the female penguins don't get back in time with the grub, pop is off to the ocean -- egg or no egg, chick or no chick.

There are more pinheads to hear from. Here is a writer from the so-called Christian publication, World Magazine, as reported by Miller. "That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat-- and some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design. It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film."

"So you see Suzi, these eggs hatching proves intelligent design."

"But daddy, why did God put the breeding grounds seventy miles away from the food supply?"

"He had his reasons honey."

"But daddy, why does the man penguin have to do all the egg watching and go without food for three months until the mommy penguin comes back?"

"That is how God designed it all."

"Daddy does God want you to help around the house and watch me and Jimmy while mommy goes out to work?"

"Errr, I didn't get that from the movie. Its time for mommy to put you to bed."

The author of The Lutheran Milieu of the Films of Ingmar Bergman opined that he could see the movie "as a statement on monogamy or condemnation of gay marriage or whatever the current agenda is." I shudder at the thought of gay penguins. Perhaps the melting of the Antarctic ice is God's vengeance for such transgressions -- I'll have to check out Falwell's website.

The last word goes to Laura Kim, a veep at Warner Independent, the distributor of the film: "You know what? They're just birds."

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Monday, July 17, 2006


Iraq: Failure in Falluja [PA ARCHIVES]
By Thomas Riggins

It is impossible to read the daily press reports coming out of Iraq without feeling that the Bush/Cheney war for oil is going nowhere. Here is an update on what is going on in one city, courtesy of the New York Times of 7-15-05 (“8 Months After U.S.-Led Siege, Insurgents Rise Again in Falluja” by Edward Wong.”)

Wong begins his article by saying since the US has turned Falluja into a “police state” it should be the “safest city” in Iraq. After all we killed over a thousand people, mostly civilians, to bring “freedom” to the Fallujans, so what does it mean to say the insurgency is back? How could this be? Don’t the Iraqis appreciate Bush’s bombing and machine gunning them into “democracy”?

It would appear not. One of the rules of guerrilla warfare is that it cannot succeed without the support of the people. The guerrillas mix with the civilian population like fish in the sea. This seems to be what is happening in Falluja, as Wong reports, the insurgency is back in operation – car bombs are going off again, American and Iraqi troops are being killed and innocent civilians are being killed by both sides.

What is most telling is the attitude of the people that originally were supportive of the US – that is, people who did not support the insurgency. Wong quotes as widespread the following attitude expressed by a typical Fallujan, “after the unfairness and injustice with which the city’s residents have been treated by the American and Iraqi [puppet] forces, they now prefer the resistance, just so they won’t be humiliated.” In other words, Falluja is more like Paris under the German occupation than under the allied liberation. Once you lose the people the game is up.

Falluja is in many ways symbolic of the Bush/Cheney war against the Iraqi people. They can’t even control one city let alone the country. They have created a true quagmire exposing everyone, including their own troops, to a meaningless bloody slaughter since you cannot, in the world of today, impose your will on other nations by force of arms and expect to get away with it (unless you pick a tiny little country like Grenada or Panama).

As Wong points out, anti-American

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Catholic Cardinal Gets it Right on Evolution [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Ultimately the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster-- David Hume

Two pieces in the Times last week (“Finding Design in Nature” by Christoph [Cardinal] Schonborn, July 7, 2005 and “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution: He Says Darwinism and Catholicism May Conflict” by Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, July 9, 2005) finally resolves, for me at least, the question of the relation between a scientific outlook on the world and the outlook of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Schonborn is the archbishop of Vienna and chief editor, the Times reports, of the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). His understanding of science seems to be based on the works of Aristotle. The Cardinal begins his essay critical of “neo-Darwinian dogma” (I admit that the Cardinal is probably an expert on dogma if not Darwinism). He says the Darwinists have misinterpreted Pope John Paul II (another noted scientist) who said in 1996 that evolution is “more than just a hypothesis.” They think this means that Darwinism is “somehow compatible with Christian faith.”

They are wrong, says the Cardinal. I think he has it right. I will even go a bit further. Not only is Darwinism incompatible with the Christian faith (as interpreted by the Catholic sect), but any scientific understanding of the world at all is incompatible with it and any other system claiming to have some timeless absolute knowledge based on revelation rather that testable empirical investigations.

The Cardinal grants that there might be “evolution” in the sense of “common ancestry”-- we might indeed all come out of the primal ooze -- but not in the Darwinian sense of “random variation and natural selection.” He quotes the eminent evolutionary biologist, and sect leader, John Paul II, who said, “The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality [there is NO scientific evidence for this] which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose [it does?] a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.”

Cardinal Schonborn says we must note that the term “finality” is a philosophical term which means “final cause, purpose or design.” Well, at least he agrees that it is not a scientific term. We should also note that modern philosophy, at least since the sixteenth century, has rejected any type of “finality” in this sense. The Cardinal is using a term confined almost exclusively to sectaries, who need it to justify their otherwise outlandish beliefs.

Three centuries ago, and a century before Darwin, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) described what the “finality” of the world looked like to human reason unprejudiced by viewing the world through the prism of superstition. “Look around this universe,” he wrote: “What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences.... How hostile and destructive to each other!... The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children”(quoted from Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Voltaire).

This is not what Cardinal Schonborn sees when he looks at the universe. He sees with the eyes of “the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church.” He then quotes his new boss (Benedict XVI): “We are not some causal and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” Does that even make sense. How can you look at the heaps of skulls left behind by Pol Pot, or by the genocide in Rwanda and now in Dafur, or think of the thousands of children killed by the US in the name of “freedom” in Iraq, Central America and Vietnam, or think of the people lost in the Tsunami -- or contemplate the babies born with hideous birth defects or with AIDS or cancer-- how can any of that jive with being a loved and willed thought of God?

Only in your religious dreams can you hold the Pope’s ideas-- but let us not, as the Cardinal does, confuse this with “human reason” or “science.”

The news article, by Dean and Goodstein, gives some reactions by scientists and others to the Cardinal’s ideas. As might have been expected religious fundamentalists and proponents of design in nature theories are very happy with the essay. On the other hand “some biologists and others said they read the essay as abandoning longstanding church support for evolutionary biology.”

“‘Unguided,’ ‘unplanned.’ ‘random’ and ‘natural’ are all adjectives that biologists might apply to the process of evolution, said Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown and a Catholic. But even so, he said, evolution ‘can fall within God’s providential plan.’ He added: ‘Science cannot rule it out. Science cannot speak on this.’” There is a lot of conceptual confusion here. Just what kind of “providential plan” is “unguided,” “un-planned,” and “random?” What is clear is that all this talk about seeing design in nature is a lot of pre-scientific twaddle left over from the Middle Ages.

In closing, we should note that it is not just Darwin with which the church has difficulty. The church still can’t make up its mind about Galileo. Here is a quote from Benedict XVI when he was still just Cardinal Ratzinger and the head of the Inquisition: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.” And the Sun goes around the Earth.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Friday, July 14, 2006


Does Olmert Want a Palestinian State?
By Thomas Riggins, PA Book Review Editor

The answer would seem to be no based on the information I ran across in Amos Elon’s “What Does Olmert Want?”, a wide ranging reflection on the book THE ACCIDENTAL EMPIRE: ISRAEL AND THE BIRTH OF THE SETTLEMENTS, 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg (New York Review of Books, 6/22/06). I must admit, however, that I don’t understand the title of the book as Elon writes that “Gorenberg’s documentation shows” that Israel’s little “mini-empire” set up in the occupied territories “was the result of deliberate decisions by Israeli governments of the left and the right.” So, what is “accidental” about it. The reviewer doesn’t tell us.

What he does tell us is that the current Olmert government is weak. I should note this article was actually composed in May and thus before the current criminal aggression against the Palestinian people that Olmert has launched by his attack on Gaza. His government is weak because it won only 29 of the 41 Knesset seats it expected so he is forced to ally his Kadima party (the new party Sharon formed when he left the ultra-right Likud) with smaller groupings, including some way out "religious" parties that don't share his agenda.

The right wing in Israel seems to be losing steam in general. Benjamin Netanyahu, the new Likud leader, lost two thirds of his support in the recent elections, Elon reports. Netanyahu (it should be Netan-yahoo) is a vicious racist when it comes to the Palestinians so it is good news to read that his "political future now seems dubious."

Elon was encouraged by Olmert's first few weeks in power because he "stopped the process of reflexively administering vengeance. He resisted the wild talk of 'punishing' the new Hamas government in Gaza for the continued firing of ineffective, homemade, primitive Kassam rockets from Gaza in the direction of Israel." Please note that these "ineffective" rockets "land in open fields and cause little damage." Olmert has, however, as we now see, thrown caution to the winds and himself engages in "wild talk" using his American financed and modern sophisticated military machine to brutalize the Palestinian people and subject them to the good old German practice of collective punishment in retaliation for the actions of a few resistance fighters.

So does Olmert really want peace? It would seem not. While he and Bush, as well as the EU whine about the Hamas election victory, he refuses to deal with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him an ineffective peace partner. First it was Arafat that Israel couldn't deal with, now it is Abbas ("who keeps inviting Israel to renew peace talks.") It appears that no Palestinian leader would be acceptable because Olmert actually wants to impose a unilateral Israeli settlement. This is because he has no intention of returning Israel to its 1967 borders and has every intention of holding on to illegally occupied Palestinian land

There are three big problems that Olmert faces with this plan, according to Elon. They are his lack of a parliamentary majority, the refusal of the Palestinians to go along with it, and, finally, the new wall he is completing to cut off Israel from any contact with the Palestinians that will isolate 200,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem "from their relatives, their natural hinterland, their universities, public institutions, businesses, workshops, and property. Tens os thousands of other Palestinians on either side of the wall will be cut off from their orange and olive groves and their fields." The Jewish state, Elton writes, behind this enormous 759 kilometer wall will be "one enormous bunker."

The wall, in fact, will encompass Israeli settlements taking up much of the West Bank to such an extent that it will "cut the West Bank into at least two enclaves." This will have the practical consequence of making a viable Palestinian state impossible. The Israeli policies also have deep racist undertones smacking of "ethnic cleansing." For example, in so-called "Greater Jerusalem"-- i.e., Israeli West Jerusalem plus Palestinian East Jerusalem (illegally annexed) plus some additional suburbs, the treatment of the Arabs by the the Zionist government is markedly different than that of Israelis-- treatment based on "race". For example the Arabs were "encouraged to emigrate and later prevented from buying apartments in the new Israeli suburbs. Americans are quite familiar with this practice of keeping minority people out of "white" neighborhoods.

In addition, the Israeli parts of town are maintained by the Zionist government at the highest levels of contemporary urban development-- clean, good streets, gardens and parks, etc. How are areas where the Arabs live looked after? "Many are sadly run down," Elon writes. "Mountains of garbage lie on the street, there are potholes everywhere, no sidewalks, no proper streetlights, and no parks, as there are on the Jewish side. An open sewer runs through muddy streets." This is absolutely the result of racist Zionist attitudes. Our own experience, as Americans, with such racist attitudes should tell us that there can be no justice for the Palestinians while such inhumane racist practices continue. Unfortunately, the US government is itself racist and, as the main support of Israel, won't do much to chanege this situation.

The Israeli game plan is to make life so unlivable for the Palestinians that there will be a mass exodus from Israeli controlled territory. The whole of East Jerusalem and other former Arab communities have been so infiltrated by Israeli communities that it is now impossible to give to the Palestinians any connected land that they could live on as a separate people.
In other words, the final disposition of the status of East Jerusalem has already been decided "on the ground." Elton writes, "Large pockets of Israeli suburbs are surrounded by by larger Palestinian residential neighborhoods, and vice versa. It is difficult to see how these interlocked areas can be disentangled and redivided." The next step will be ethnic cleansing.

Israel has known since 1967 that its practices violated international law having been warned even by the US as well as by many others including the former legal advisor to the Israeli foreign ministry who, as Elon reports, went on to become a judge at the International Court in The Hague. The policies were carried out anyway and are still being carried out. It is Abbas, as it was Arafat before him, who cannot find a partner for peace.

What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is so outrageous that Elon has to compare it to the US's treatment of the American Indians in order for us to gain some perspective. He refers to Stuart Banner's How The Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier (Harvard University Press, 2005) and tells us that large areas of the West Bank "seized for alleged 'security' reasons ended up as Israeli civilian settlements." Elon points out that the Indians too "lost much of their land largely because of a continuing divergence between law and practice." This is a roundabout way of saying that the actions of the Zionist government not only violate international law, but also domestic Israeli law as well. As Americans well know, there is one law for the white man and another for everyone else. It is amazing that Israel ( and its enabler the US) thinks it can ultimately get away with treating the Palestinians the way the American Indians were treated. Does Olmert think Hamas will be satisfied with having casinos in the two West Bank enclaves left over from his wall building?

The right-wing made a big stink when the UN correctly classified Zionism as a form of racism. With the collapse of the socialist world the racists were able to get this classification rescinded. But, ask yourself if the following is racist or not. "Almost everywhere [on the West Bank] Elon writes, "there are completely separate road networks: one network for Israelis only, and another for Palestinians, with tunnels and overpasses enabling Israeli commuters to reach Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without meeting-- or often seeing-- a single Palestinian." Needless to say the Israeli road network is kept in excellent condition while the Palestinian one is "often old and full of potholes." Separate but not equal.

Just as the KKK and Jim Crow southerners treated Black folk in the South, so do many Israeli settlers, especially the younger yahoo "religious" nationalist Zionist types in the smaller settlements spread out in the West Bank treat the Palestinians. This type of behavior is officially condemned but is, in practice, condoned by the Israeli government the same way racism was officially condoned (and still is if truth be told) in the US.

These small settlements "are frequently populated by violent, heavily armed young men [the word is 'thugs'] who often harass the neighboring Palestinian farmers to make them move away. In many cases farmers have been beaten and their huts burned," Elon writes.

There can be no doubt that the whole region is being continually destabilized, primarily due to the policies of Israel and the US which ultimately foots the bill. Elon does hold, however, that the US "has different priorities from those of Israel." That is to say the US wants to halt the "spread of chaos in the West Bank and Gaza." Israel wants to keep large areas of the West Bank as parts of Israel. Since Israel can't do diddley-squat without US money, the US priorities can't be that different from those of the Zionists. Elon concludes that "With terror [ he makes no differentiation between "terror" and "resistance"] bound to continue, Israel's situation remains precarious, and that of the walled-in Palestinians becomes darker than ever." Is this not a formula for disaster? It all comes from one thing. The refusal of Israel to leave the West Bank which it seized in 1967. As long as Israel will not give back this stolen territory and continues to inflict racial policies of discrimination and oppression on the people of Palestine there will be no peace in the area. The ball is in Olmert's court. He can have peace whenever he wants it .

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Thursday, July 13, 2006


PA Book Round Up #5: Notes and Previews on New Works [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Here is another of our occasional book round ups consisting of short notices of works we have not been able to fully review. These are essentially meta-reviews (reviews of book reviews). If any of our readers are inspired to read one of these books and wish to write a full review, please contact

RUNNING THE WORLD: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL AND THE ARCHITECTS OF AMERICAN POWER by David J. Rothkopf, Public Affairs, 2005, 554pp., reviewed by Evan Thomas, The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 26, 2005.

You should read this book if you want an insider’s view on how the N.S.C. works. It is made up of the president, the veep, the secretaries of state and defense (and any other department head the president wants to include), but, as Thomas says, really "consists of the president’s inner circle of foreign policy advisors, served by up to 200 staff members writing papers and proposals." This is the group that consistently messes up the world for us. And no wonder. Rothkopf shows that the "experts" running the show are all Kissinger "acolytes." Thomas says that Rothkopf "plays a game he calls ‘Two Degrees of Henry Kissinger’ to illustrate that every national security advisor since Kissinger, all 13 of them, either worked for Kissinger or worked directly for someone who did." That’s just great. The war criminal's legacy lives on! But, according to Thomas, its not Henry K. that Rothkopf really looks up to -- its Brent Scrowcroft, the national security advisor for Ford and Bush 1.

Scowcroft considers himself a "traditionalist"-- which means the US should rule the world along with its front men (the so-called allies and the UN) and contrasts this view with that of "the true believers in the George W. Bush administration"-- whom he calls the "transfor- mationists"-- who think it is time for the US to rule the world on its own. The Bushites are certainly transforming the world but not, I think, for the better. Condoleezza Rice, by the way, was "Scowcroft’s one-time disciple." She has morphed into a transformationist but told Rothkopf we won’t know for thirty or forty years if Bush 2’s policies were any good! That is with respect to 9/11 if the policies were "disastrous" or "really creative." I don’t think we have to wait such a long time. The only thing "really creative" about the policies are the make believe "facts" dished out to the American people to justify a war of aggression. How can a policy based on lies be anything but "disastrous"?

PERILS OF DOMINANCE: IMBALANCE OF POWER AND THE ROAD TO VIETNAM by Gareth Porter, University of California Press, 2005, 403pp., reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich in The Nation July, 4, 2005.

The reviewer thinks this is a very important book which "demolishes our most fundamental assumptions about how national security policy is formulated." You think the President formulates it? Wrong! Often the powers on the NSC [see review above] brow beat the President (very subtlety of course) into doing what they want. This book also shows that the ideology (the "Cold War" as a useful construct is undermined) was not the motive force of US policy during the Vietnam Era. [The book is about the road to Vietnam but it is applicable to the entire post WW2 period.] If not ideology, then what was the force behind US foreign policy. It was the concept of "strategic asymmetry". This is what drives the neocons today in the Bush White House! Bacevich quotes the book-- this concept means the US has "something approaching absolute strategic dominance." We have held this dominance since 1953. This means we can basically do what we want and no one can stop us. The "Cold War" was constructed to lie to the American people about the mythical strength of "World Communism" to justify spending so much money on the military-industrial complex. The NSC people (Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, the Bundy brothers, etc.) all peddled the view that we could do as we liked in Vietnam. [This sounds just like Iraq.] They also held that the USSR and China would, as Porter writes, pursue "a conscious policy of appeasement of the United States on Vietnam." Porter maintains that is just what happened-- at first. The US was overly arrogant and along with its South Vietnamese puppet Diem, was so repressive and violent towards the people of South Vietnam that the Vietminh cadres were forced to rise up or face "extinction"-- Khrushchev and Mao were dragged along. Johnson was advised to pour in more and more troops, after all who can stop the US with all its power? McGeorge Bundy and McNamara told Johnson that unless we used our "enormous power" we would end up with "eventual defeat and an invitation to get out in humiliating circumstances." They said the blame would be all Johnson’s. Porter says "the national security bureaucracy acted [and still does I might add] as an independent power center within the US government with the right to pressure the president on matters of war and peace." Ideas about "freedom", "democracy" etc. are strictly for the TV audience because, as Bacevich puts it "values take a back seat to considerations of power." He says Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz [and their ilk] are going down the same road trod by "the odious" McNamara and the Bundy brothers. The US has become a "militarized global hegemon." Now how do we convince the "good Americans" not to follow the same path the "good Germans" went down not too many years ago?

Loretta Napoleoni, Seven Stories Press, 2005, pp. 324, reviewed by Phyllis Eckhaus in In These Times July 11, 2005.

Reading Eckhaus’ review makes me think two things: 1. Why did Seven Stories publish this book? They usually publish solid progressive works. 2. And where is Napoleoni coming from? We are told that she is an Italian economist and that Chomsky is quoted. But she also consults for the Department of Homeland Security, considers Yasser Arafat and the PLO as terrorist organizations, and cites, "as a credible source," the web site of Lyndon LaRouche. Lyndon LaRouche! He is up there in Looney Land with Sun Mung Moon and The Washington Times. Eckhaus says she ends the book "with a rousing endorsement of the Patriot Act. The author struggles to come up with a definition of terrorism that will distinguish the "good" guys from the "bad." Eckhaus says she fails. Here is what she comes up with. Terrorism has three components: "its political nature, the targeting of civilians and the creation of a climate of extreme fear." Eckhaus asks "What was Shock and Awe if not a terror campaign?" It should be noted that Napoleoni doesn’t recognize state sponsored terrorism-- she "grants states an exemption." Going by this review, I don’t think you should waste your time on this book-- but its your call.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs and can be reached at

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Peviews of 'The Ethics of Identity' (Appiah), 'The World is Flat' (Friedman) and 'The Ethical Brain' (Gazzaniga
By Thomas Riggins [Political Affairs Archives]

Here is another of our occasional book round ups consisting of short notices of works we have not been able to fully review. These are essentially meta-reviews (reviews of book reviews). If any of our readers are inspired to read one of these books and wish to write a full review for us, please contact

THE ETHICS OF IDENTITY by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Princeton University Press, 2004, 358 pp., reviewed by Jonathan Freedman in The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 12, 2005.

Any book by Appiah is worth reading. In this book he wants to give a boost to the revival of liberalism by up dating, as it were, the views of John Stuart Mill as expressed in his classic "On Liberty." Freedman says Appiah wants to "focus ethical attention on the notion of identity." The individual self has the freedom to create itself on the one hand, and on the other "it is shaped by collective identities" as Freedman puts it. This is a complicated dialectic to navigate. For example, Appiah says "The final responsibility for each life is always the responsibility of the person whose life it is." This was the also the view of J-P Sartre in his existentialist mood-- but the contradictions in this view drove him from existentialism towards Marxism. I wonder if Appiah will be nudged away from Mill towards Marx by those same contradictions. What are the contradictions? Here is Freedman again: Appiah "insists that [the] very process of having an identity involves ‘soul making’ the nurturance of the possibility of ‘ethical success’; and he is clear that the state has not just the right but the obligation to undertake this task...." Well he is in good company along with Plato and Aristotle and Marx himself! We see the contradiction-- the state is obligated to nurture our ethical consciousness but the "final responsibility" is ours. Is it? What about being in a state like the US-- a monopoly capitalist corporate dictatorship with a formal, but in many respects non-functioning, democracy that under educates the poor and exploits immigrants and racial minorities. If the state fails to undertake its ethical educative function, how can individuals end up with the "final responsibility" for their ethical makeup? Appiah deals with many other problems as well. He has a notion of "rooted cosmopolitanism." That is, I am a citizen of the world but I am also an American citizen citizen of the world. Appiah insists, according to Freedman, "that without a deeply felt commitment to the local there can be no genuine sense of obligation to the universal." This is an important book by one of the most important contemporary social philosophers.

THE WORLD IS FLAT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY by Thomas L. Friedman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 488 pp., reviewed by Amitabh Pal in The Progressive, July 2005.

I really feel for this reviewer, having to wade through 488 pages of Friedman’s nonsense when there are really important books to be read. This book is another paean to the wonders of globalization. The main point of this book is, as Pal writes, that "Technological forces-- such as the Internet and out-sourcing-- have altered the nature of the workplace so fundamentally that they have changed the world." This takes 488 pages? Friedman thinks this thesis proves how great globalization is for everyone in the world. That is why the world is "flat"-- our differences are flattening out. Pal points out that he does have a chapter about those who don’t benefit from globalization "such as in rural areas in many parts of the globe." We are talking here of billions of people but Friedman quickly gets back on track singing hosannas to "free trade [which is trade actually manipulated by the rich countries], capitalism, and technological innovation." Pal thinks, "The jury is still out on whether Friedman’s beloved globalization will bring any relief to the world’s deprived."

What is he talking about? The jury has been back a long time now. Globalization does not exist to bring relief to the deprived and it only worsens deprivation. Pal himself says, vis a vis India (one of Friedman’s examples of good globalization) that "free market policies have failed to reduce poverty any faster than the state-oriented policies before them...." In fact, he says, "the free market has done worse in some respects." As for the USA, which Friedman thinks benefits from globalization, Pal points out the poverty figure is "significantly higher" than in most of Europe. Yes Virginia, people are better off in France than here. Pal also says that this book virtually ignores South America. This is because South America "has fallen on hard times and the people of that region have repeatedly rejected the neoliberal model in recent elections." If Pal is still waiting for the jury to come back someone should tell him the courtroom is empty because they came back a long ago with a negative verdict for globalization and everyone has gone home already. Don’t waste your time with this book!

THE ETHICAL BRAIN by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Dana Press, 2005, 201pp., reviewed by Sally Satel in The New York Times Book Review for Sunday, June 19, 2005.

If this book is anything like its review then it has serious problems. Its author is a certified neuroscientist but appears to be prone to using science to support his personal opinions. This is similar to biologists bitten by the God bug who want to use Darwin to support religious causes. He is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Knowing of the President’s deep commitment to science and to ethics I imagine Mr Bush uses the same high standards of appointment for this position has he does in judicial appointments. Ms. Satel approves of this book. She is a resident "scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute. The quotation marks are to remind people that this is an Institute funded for and by the right-wing and any similarity to scholarship that goes on there is purely coincidental. This, by the way, does not stop The New York Times from opening its pages to it. Here are a few examples of Gazzaniga opinions. He thinks we will be able to do some tampering with our genes to increase physical and mental abilities. He concludes, "I remain convinced that enhancers that improve motor skills are cheating, while those that help you remember where you put your car keys are fine." This is based on, according to Satel, considerations having to do with basketball and the "logic of competition." He also has opinions about using science in social disputes. For example, some scientists argue against killing juveniles who have broken capital laws. Their reasons are that young people’s brains are not fully developed vis a vis their frontal lobes-- the brain area that helps "curb impulses and conduct moral reasoning." Is this sort of information relevant? Gazzaniga writes, "Neuroscientists should stay in the lab and let lawyers stay in the courtroom." This is in the Bush scientific tradition-- let environmental scientists stay in their labs and classrooms and let congressmen get on with making the environmental laws the administration favors, for example. Here is another finding: "It appears that a process in the brain makes it likely that people will categorize others on the bases of race." He also, the ethical part here, explores the idea that we have "an innate human moral sense." He concludes that, "We must commit ourselves to the view that a universal ethics is possible." I have a feeling the American Enterprise Institute thinks it has already been found: In the red states.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Online at:

Friedman’s Loose Talk About Iraq: PA's Thomas Riggins Responds to NY Times Op-ed piece on Iraq [PA Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

Thomas Friedman’s op-ed piece (“Let’s Talk About Iraq”) in The New York Times (6-15-05) is a perfect example of the gobbledy gook that the corporate media spews forth about the situation in Iraq. It is pretty obvious that Friedman, the Times’ so called expert on foreign affairs, hasn’t a clue as to what is going on over in the middle east-- and neither does anyone else who relies on the Times for his or her information.

I will take him up on his invitation. Indeed, lets talk about Iraq. Let’s talk about Friedman’s article. His first sentence sets the tone: “Ever since Iraq’s remarkable election, the country has been descending deeper and deeper into violence.” This was a remarkable election only because of the media’s wishful thinking. In the first place no election can be considered valid if it is held under the power of an occupying army. Secondly, it was marked by block voting – often thousands of people went off to vote the way some religious leader or other told them to vote. But Friedman is at least right about Iraq’s being in a pit of deepening violence.

He says the reason Iraq is in the fix it is because 1) conservatives just follow Bush uncritically [he is correct about this, it points out the worthlessness of the conservative pundits and their meaningless talking points in the media] and 2) the liberals don’t concern themselves because they think the war was wrong [it must have been wrong since ALL the reasons given for it turned out to be lies] AND they don’t want Bush to succeed [succeed at what? I’ll get back to this.] This leaves the “whole burden” of Iraq to the military.

All of this distresses Friedman. He wants to go gung-ho and win the war: “This is no time to give up – this is still winnable....” But we need a correct strategy. What is the main problem in Iraq? Not enough troops, according to Friedman. This is Rumsfeld’s fault, abetted by Bush. And where would these troops come from? Since we were basically going it alone, with an assist from the British pussy cat, we would have had to deploy our regular forces away from bases that we think it is important to keep at the ready OR have called even greater numbers of the reserves – no good with the election coming up – the number of dead might have been double.

He admits that “we are training Iraqi soldiers.... but I don’t think this is the key.” He appears to be right. The Iraqis won’t be viable as a force for years to come, by the Pentagon’s own estimates – plus they desert to the insurgents when they are not busy advancing to the rear. They have a problem with training. But this doesn’t bother Friedman. He asks, “Who is training the insurgent-fascists?” “Fascists?” Is this the best he can come up with. All the information available indicates that the insurgency is made up several streams-- religious fundamentalists, al-Qaeda types, former government cadre both civil and military, and genuine patriots who resent their country being taken over by a foreign power. To lump them all together as “fascists” precludes having any understanding of what is happening in Iraq.

So, Friedman doesn’t know what is going on. Need more proof. Think about this. After asking who is training the “fascists’ he answers “Nobody.” Nevertheless they are “doing daily damage to U.S. and Iraqi forces.” Therefore he concludes, “Training is overrated in my book.” [Don’t read this book!]The surrogate Iraqi troops don’t really need training – they need esprit de corps.

All that is needed is “motivated officers and soldiers.” Evidently “free elections,” “democracy,” the end of Saddam, etc., are not sufficiently motivating for the puppet troops. What will motivate them? Only “an Iraqi leader and government that are seen as representing all the country’s main factions.” So the new government now in power is not that and doesn’t motivate the troops.

The Kurds are ok, the Sunni’s have to get with the program, and Friedman laments, “No Shiite Hamid Karzai has emerged.” Hamid Karzai! He can’t leave Kabul, or even walk around it without a phalanx of American guards. “His” army is beholden to the old warlords and poppy growers and his main constituency is American television audiences.

Friedman now turns to “strategy” He thinks “we” win if we get “a self-sustaining, united, democratizing Iraq.” To do this he wants to “double the American boots on the ground” and have the Iraqi government, the US and UN make the political life more inclusive. He blames Bush and Rumsfeld for not doing this. We “are fooling ourselves to think that a decent, normal, forward-looking Iraqi politics or army is going to emerge from a totally insecure environment, where you can feel safe only with your own tribe.”

Bravo! Mr. Friedman. But you give Bush and Rumsfeld too little credit. They are not fools. Perhaps what is happening in Iraq is exactly going to plan. Since no one who reads history (especially American history) believes the US cares one whit about Iraqi democracy, or terrorism, or any of the nonsense the administration puts forth to justify its invasion of Iraq, there must be another reason we invaded. Could controlling Iraq’s oil have been a motive? I don’t want to seem cynical and doubting or anything. It is just a suggestion. Maybe He told Bush to free the people. But if it is oil that is at the root of all this, then the present situation in Iraq is just fine. We can’t leave. We will have to stay for years and years. A weak, fragmented government will always remain dependent upon us.

We would like to tame, not eliminate the insurgents. Tame them enough to allow us to get that oil out of the ground and leave us with military bases throughout the country so we can actually have effective control of the whole Middle East.

I think everything is going to plan. But you know what happens to the best-laid plans. Just as in Vietnam, the Iraqi people will eventually drive us out and dump the puppet government. It is usually futile to try and dominate and rule another people. I think Iraq is a case in point. So we should NOT double the boots on the ground. We should get our troops out of there as soon as possible. We will have to build a center left progressive people’s coalition to win back the government from the ultra-right and then work towards making those economic changes which are needed to eliminate corporate control of our country and its foreign policy. Maybe Mr. Friedman should be talking about that.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Monday, July 10, 2006


By Thomas Riggins

SECRETS OF THE KINGDOM: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE SAUDI-U.S. CONNECTION by Gerald Posner, Random House, 2005, 254pp., reviewed by William Grimes in The New York Times 5-21-05.

Remember the news clip of Bush holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah back at the ranch? Grimes thinks that is a good symbol of the US-Saudi relation-- very cozy. It is also the subject of this book-- which, by the way, Grimes doesn’t think too much of because it is derivative and unoriginal. Grimes says it does show that “the thirst for Saudi oil and the greed of American companies... have driven the United States into an unseemly alliance with a corrupt ruling family [he doesn’t mean the Bush family, but I don’t know why] whose chief export, besides oil, is the fanatical brand of Islam that led to the 9/11 attacks.” The reviewer doesn’t mention the fanatical brand of Christianity that has killed about 100,000 Iraqis. Posner does have one new thing to tell us-- i.e., the Saudis have a Dooms Day plan to destroy all their big “wells, refineries, pipelines and storage depots”-- in case they are attacked. One push of the button and Arabia becomes one big oil flambĂ©! When attacked? I should think they would wait to see if they lose first. Also, the explosive devices are hooked up to dirty bombs! So much for the new information-- and even that is somewhat speculative. Grimes concludes, “There may be an inside story to be told. But it’s not here.”

MARRIED TO THE MILITARY-- FOR BETTER OR WORSE by Karen Houppert, Ballentine Books, 2005, 248pp., reviewed by Laura Shapiro in The New York Times Book Review,
Sunday, June 5, 2005.
After reading this review it must be for the worse. How would anyone feel married to someone who was in an organization run at the top by a bunch homicidal maniacs? You think the government appreciates the grunts who fight for US corporate interests? Think again. The pay is so low “that more than a third of military families make use of federal poverty programs.” This is a book about what it is like to be a military wife. It is such a great experience that 64 percent of the wives don’t want their husbands to re-enlist. And, what does being in the military do to the husbands as human beings? Well, “rates of domestic violence are much higher than among civilians.” The review doesn’t give the exact rate (maybe its too shocking?). Please note the use of the word “official” that Shapiro uses in this quote: “From chapter to chapter, what emerges as the defining feature of the whole military-domestic complex is an official commitment to gender stereotyping at its most extreme and relentless.” This should tell you that besides hating gay people the Pentagon also hates women! What happens to your brain when you are married to the military. Speaking about the war in Iraq one of the wives says “’I’m surprised the CIA hasn’t planted some,’ she added, alluding to weapons of mass destruction. ‘I’m like, please, just plant something and let me believe.’ “ When the only way you can feel good about your country’s military is to practically beg to be brainwashed you know it is all over. If that’s how the wife thinks, just imagine how fried the husband’s brain is. Two eggs frying-- “this is your brain in the military.” But the wife has the right idea. She says, “You have to support the troops; what are you going to do?” She is correct. We must support the troops. But the Pentagon is misusing them in order to swell corporate profits. The best way to support them is to bring them home now-- and get them out of the control of the codswalloping Republican militarists in Washington. Don’t enlist, don’t re-enlist, and ladies-- if you have any desire for a normal life-- don’t marry anyone in the military. Houppert concludes that the basis of the problem with the wives is the “vast disconnect between what the Army [et. al.] believes about wives experiences and the reality of that experience.” Shapiro concludes that, with respect to the world of the military wife, Houppert “is a skillful guide to its paths and shadows.”

HENRY SIDGWICK: EYE OF THE UNIVERSE: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY by Bart Schultz, Cambridge, 2005, 858pp., Reviewed by Martha Nussbaum in The Nation, June 6, 2005.

A great review of what looks like a great book. Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was one of the three great English philosophers in the the tradition of Utilitarianism, along with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Remember the Utilitarian slogan: “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Too bad we can’t agree on what that good is.
Sidgwick is mostly remembered for his book The Methods of Ethics. Still a good read. This biography discusses both his personal life and his philosophy. He lived in a Victorian closet, even though he was married with children. Nussbaum writes, “He tried hard to be a proper Victorian, but he failed in two big ways, losing faith in God and owning up (though not publicly) to forbidden desires for sex with men.” [By the way, we can see how backwards the so-called Christian right is for still peddling these pre-Darwinian prejudices.] Nussbaum points out the three major ideas of Utilitarianism-- namely 1. consequentialism-- always choose that which brings about the best consequences, 2. sum-ranking-- we add up everyone’s satisfactions to get a total which would express the greatest good for the greatest number, 3. a definition of what is ‘the good’. Most Utilitarians opt for “pleasure”-- at least Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick did. Sidgwick, Nussbaum says, had a major problem he was never fully able to solve. He called it the “dualism of practical reason.” It goes like this. I’m after maximum happiness (pleasure) so why should I sacrifice any of it in order to help someone else? I feel a duty to perhaps but is it a rational thing to do? Can society make me feel pleasure in sacrifice? Sidgwick also said that we must make moral or ethical judgments from “the point of view of the universe”-- i.e., impartially. But how can we be impartial if our own pleasure is involved? Only the elite can figure this out. So he ends up with “indirect utilitarianism.” Following the tradition of Plato’s “philosopher kings” he thinks that, according to Nussbaum, “only a select few could be trusted to know the true principles of Utilitarian ethics, and the rest of the people would be better off believing in ordinary morality, with its notions of virtue and vice.” Marxists should disagree with this notion of an “elite.” While Communist Parties have had a notion of “vanguardism” it was never the view that the masses were too ignorant (or worse, stupid) to understand Marxist thought. Rather the view is that education will bring intellectual equality in moral and ethical understanding to all. So the Utilitarians have, perhaps, not answered the question “How can we be happy while at the same time pursuing fairness?” I think Marxists have a better shot at dealing with this question. Nussbaum has written a very interesting and informative review and this book should be read by anyone interested in these kinds of problems.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Sunday, July 09, 2006


The Book Round Up #2: Previews & Notes on New Works [POLITICAL AFFAIRS ARCHIVES]
By Thomas Riggins

Here is another of our occasional book round ups consisting of short notices, from many sources, of works we haven’t been able to fully review. These are essentially reviews of book reviews. If any of you are inspired to read one of these books and write a full review please contact pabooks.

ROGUE REGIME: KIM JONG IL AND THE LOOMING THREAT OF NORTH KOREA, by Jasper Becker, Oxford University Press, 2005, 300pp. Reviewed by William Grimes in The New York Times May 18, 2005.

After reading this review I can only feel sorry for Becker (writing such a cheap piece of propaganda), Oxford University Press (for sullying its reputation by publishing it), and Grimes (for taking it seriously). I would have included the Times, but no one takes that paper’s "objectivity" seriously anymore, especially after its coverage of Iraq and WMD’s. Since I seem a little negative about Grimes review, allow me to explain. Grimes tells us that Becker "takes an unblinking look at a dark regime that has made North Korea an international pariah [that] through torture and indoctrination reduced its subjects to virtual slaves, three million of whom, according to some estimates, perished in the late 1980’s" Let’s unpack this.

In the first place, North Korea is only "a pariah state" in US propaganda and with journalists who subscribe to US propaganda. North Korea has normal relations with many other countries and, if you were to ask most of the world’s people I think they would be more likely to call the US a "rogue state" and a "pariah" than they would North Korea. We would all know that if the Times would report correctly and not just mouth the administration's viewpoints. Did three million people die in the late 80’s. Grimes must mean the 90’s and he is referring to the famine that took place at that time. There was indeed a terrible famine, complicated by record heat waves and floods, that overwhelmed the Koreans. No one knows how many died. People like Grimes and Becker can estimate all they like-- they want three million, maybe so. But the Asian Development Bank estimated the number at about 500,000. (Meredith Woo-Cummings, The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons, Asian Dev. Bank Inst., Tokyo, 2001). The famine was brought about by natural disasters and the loss of North Korea’s trading partners after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The talk about "virtual slaves" is typical anticommunist hyperbole at the level of Cold War Reader’s Digest journalism. Grimes says the book is "a slapdash production." But he concedes the "facts [in it] almost defy belief." They do defy belief because most of them are ridiculous fabrications peddled by the right wing. Becker, for instance says, Kim keeps "100 limousines" but the Korean specialist Bruce Cummings (North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, 2004), by no means a fan, says he has twenty automobiles. Becker says Kim may be "the last fat man in his country." But Cummings writes that he is no "playboy" and was trying his best to solve the food problems in his country. But Becker’s war mongering anti-North Korean attitudes are shown up by Grimes with respect to the later chapters in his book. It seems Becker has "contempt" for a "non-aggressive, open-handed approach to North Korea," he wants to give "up on the United Nations" in dealing with the country and goes along with Tony Blair (! read George Bush) and create "new" international law frameworks and then enforce our will by "military force." All this because North Korea won’t give up on nuclear weapons without a promise from the US that it will not attack first. This book looks like a candidate for the garbage bin.

WOMEN’S LIVES, MEN’S LAWS by Catharine A. MacKinnon, Harvard University Press, 2005, 558pp., reviewed by Thomas Nagel in TLS 5/20/05.

Nagel sees the author as a representative of "anti-liberal feminism" while he appears to be a supporter himself of the subordination of women. "She comes from the Left," he writes, "and her anti-liberalism, like the anti-liberalism of Marx, derides individual rights as an ideological mask for the protection of existing structures of domination. In Marx’s case, the targets were rights of private property [Marx opposed slavery and other property abuses] and due process. In MacKinnon’s case they are freedom of speech and the right to privacy, and the domination [which Nagel seems to support] they uphold is sexual."

To say that Marx "derides" individual rights and due process exposes Nagel to the charge of monumental ignorance, as will be obvious to anyone who has read and understood Marx. What Marx derided was the hypocritical application of those two concepts by a small group of people to the overwhelming detriment of the mass of humanity.

I suspect Nagel doesn’t understand MacKinnon any better than he does Marx – judged by his reaction to some of the main ideas in her book – an anthology of her works over the last quarter century. Let’s cut to the chase. What bothers Nagel (among other issues) is MacKinnon’s views on pornography and "her attempt [along with the late Andrea Dworkin] to make pornography civilly actionable as a form of sex discrimination."

Nagel sees this as a "freedom of speech" issue as well a "right to privacy" issue. Every one of his arguments would also support the sexual exploitation of children by means of child pornography. He gives most of the usual banal arguments to favor his viewpoint. Here is one: "Some of the most misogynistic and abusive cultures are those with the strictest censorship, and some of the least misogynistic, such as Sweden, were the first to lift restrictions." He should keep up with his daily newspaper reading for he would then know of all the stories coming out of Sweden about the surprising extent and depth of brutality towards women that are now coming to light in that "least misogynistic" of countries.

Anyway, pornography is in itself an expression of misogynism.

Nagel also objects to her support for the deployment of state power to try and end the domination of women – he thinks "we will get tyranny." This is the same argument the slave holders used to defend their "rights." This looks like a really interesting book, especially as it seems to stir up the passions of misogynists!

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL: THE ORAL HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR DISASTER by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen, Dalkey Archive Press, 2005, 240pp., reviewed by Fred Weir, in In These Times, May 9, 2005.

Weir thinks this a good account of the disaster that "can now be seen as the USSR’s death knell." The bureaucratic incompetence of the Soviet system was demonstrated both by the scale of the accident and the 10 days of cover up that followed before the world was informed of it. Millions of Soviet citizens lost faith in the system and silently watched it implode under Gorbachev’s "reforms" a few years later. The Republic of Belarus suffered the most, having 20 percent of its territory contaminated. The number of people world-wide who will ultimately die from thyroid cancers, birth defects, and leukemia is yet to be known. The book records a series of stories told by people "who found themselves caught up in the disaster." Chernobyl, more that Gorbachev’s perestroika, may be the real cause of the collapse of the USSR. Read it to find out!

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Saturday, July 08, 2006


REMEMBERING PAUL RICOEUR: 1913-2005 (French Philosopher) [Political Affairs Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

The May 24 New York Times has reported the death of one of Frances’s most famous philosophers (“Paul Ricoeur, 92, Wide-Ranging French Philosopher, Is Dead” by Margalit Fox”). Many of Ricoeur’s ideas are interesting even when they clash with the Marxist philosophical outlook. We can always learn from those who don’t share our philosophical commitments.

Fox quotes Dr. C. E. Reagan who said about Ricoeur, “In the history of philosophy, he would take positions that appeared to be diametrically opposed, and he’d work to see if there was a middle ground.” In that spirit I propose to see what middle ground Marxists might be able to share with Ricoeur ( I don't think we will find too many-- but at least two come to mind: peace is better than war and democracy is a postive good)) whose philosophy, forbiddingly, is a species of “phenomenological hermeneutics.”

This is not as bad as it sounds. Phenomenology is the “science” of how we experience the world and hermeneutics is a fancy word for “interpretation.” It comes from the Greek for ”interpret” (originally used for interpreting the Bible) and ultimately from the name of the Greek God “Hermes” (Roman Mercury) who was the messenger of Zeus.

Christopher Norris (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. by Ted Honderich) wrote that Ricoeur found in his “middle ground” way of thinking a “kindred dialectic” with Marxism. Norris points out the double aspect of interpretation (it has a “positive” and “negative” moment). His interpretation of Freud is one example: the negative-- psychoanalysis looks for the past repressed information in the unconscious mind in order to find the positive-- a cure to repression and a new possibility for the future. He also sees this in Marxism: the negative-- class struggle, oppression, revolution leads to the positive-- a new society of human equality [hopefully].

G. B. Madson (The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. by Richard H. Popkin) tells us that Ricoeur comes out of the tradition of the German Fascist philosopher Martin Heidegger(this sounds bad and it is bad but not as bad as it sounds). This tradition breaks with the mainstream of modern philosophy from Descartes through Russell and their contemporary followers (almost all philosophers but not professors of literature and cultural criticism).

The first part of the break is not so bad. Modern philosophers have a tendency to start with the isolated consciousness of a particular person, the ego, and then try to see how this ego can get to an external world independent of its own thinking mind. We can agree with Heidegger that human beings find themselves, “always already”, as Madson says “in a world.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The gesture of hermeneutics is a humble one of acknowledging the historical conditions to which all human understanding is subsumed in the reign of finitude.” No problem. We awake to find ourselves always already in a specific historical context-- e.g., I’m a French worker or a German bourgeois, etc. Let’s agree not to start with the ego. But we are going to go downhill from here.

We all agree with the historical consciousness as a starting point. We do not need Heidegger or his followers to tell us this. It is a basic core belief of Marxism already. Let us assume that I am a sugarcane cutter in 1950’s Cuba. My consciousness is determined by what Ricoeur calls its “historicality.” Madson says, “As Ricoeur characterizes it, effective historical consciousness is ‘the massive and global fact whereby consciousness, even before its awakening as such, belongs to and depends on that which affects it.” In other words, Mr. Cutter belongs to and depends upon the world dominated by Mr. Plantation Owner and overseen by Mr. President Batista (and globally Uncle Sam).

Ricoeur continues, “The action of tradition [effective history] and historical investigation are fused by a bond which no critical consciousness could dissolve without rendering the research itself nonsensical.” This leads to the conclusion, Madson says, that the Enlightenment is wrong in thinking effective history must be overcome in order to really understand the “truth.” When Ricoeur proclaims that truth is historical you begin to think he must be on to something. But wait!

We are informed that this way of thinking rejects the “correspondence theory of truth”. This is the theory accepted by Marxism. A proposition is true if it corresponds to a state of the external world. “My car is red” is true if and only if my car is red. But we find out, says Madson, that “a core tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that genuine understanding is not representational but essentially transformative.”

Mr. Cutter has been reading the Communist Manifesto and has decided that there is no correspondence between a just society and the world of Mr. Plantation Owner. He is told, “I’m sorry, but we don’t use the correspondence theory anymore.” What does it mean to say truth is transformative. Well, you read the Manifesto and it transforms you, you “appropriate” it and interpret it in your historical context-- Cuba 1950”s-- very different from Germany in 1848.

Mr. Cutter objects. He thinks the Manifesto is appropriate for any class society, that Marx and Engels had it mind to lay down general truths corresponding to the entire historical epoch of capitalism. Well then, we have missed “one of the most distinctive tenets of philosophical hermeneutics: The meaning of a text is not reducible to the meaning intended by its author.” Its meaning is now what you make of it.

Ricoeur is quoted: “The text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say, and every exegesis unfolds its procedures within the circumference of a meaning that has broken its moorings to the psychology of its author.”

This may be going too far. Original intent is important. We must first understand the text’ before we can interpret it. How to make sense of the phrase “what the text says now’? This means to Ricoeur something like “what it says to me”. But this sounds like relativism. Anyone can read Marx, etc., anyway s/he chooses. It is not relativism, says Madson. Philosophers in this school reject dogmatism and “maintain that it is never possible to demonstrate conclusively the validity of one’s interpretations, they also maintain, against all forms of relativism, that it is nevertheless always possible to argue for one’s interpretations in cogent, nonarbitrary, reasoned ways [the Enlightenment lives on!]. In other words... if our interpretations can reasonably lay claim to being true, they must adhere to certain argumentative criteria, such as coherence and comprehensiveness.”

Mr. Cutter decides that the Manifesto is both coherent and comprehensive and runs off to the mountains to join Fidel. Was he right to do so? Our philosophers, following Ricoeur, think that the purpose of interpretation, of understanding, of finding the “truth” is ultimately to better understand ourselves [the return of the ego]. They reject “objectivism” and want to suborn it to “communicative rationality.” People, Madson says, “reason together in such a way as to enable them to arrive at common agreements or understandings (however provisional) that enable them to live together peacefully, whether as members of a particular scientific discipline or as members of society.” A revolution would seem to be a breakdown of "communicative rationality." The war in Iraq would be another breakdown.

But Mr. Cutter and Mr. Plantation Owner can’t reason together. They don’t have a “human” relation-- only an exploitative economic one. What this philosophy represents is bourgeois liberalism. It represents “none other than the core values of liberal democracy.” Remember “truth” is not “objective.” It really is for these thinkers, “subjective.” Madson quotes Ricoeur: “The truth is... the lighted place in which it is possible to continue to live and think.” That really doesn’t say anything! Madson continues, “Ricoeur has asserted that “democracy is the [only] political space in which [the conflict of interpretations] can be pursued with a respect for differences”-- that is to say, with a respect for the pursuit of truth on the part of each and every individual human being. When all is said and done, the basic tenet of philosophical hermeneutics is that there is only one truth, which is the democratic process itself.”

Here is another quote from Ricoeur, from Le Monde [2004] (via BBC News):

If I had to lay out my vision of the world... I would say: given
the place where I was born, the culture I received, what I read,
what I learned (and) what I thought about, there exists for me
a result that constitutes, here and now, the best thing to do. I
call it the action that suits.

This is an interesting quote, but what does it mean? This is true for everybody, including cats and dogs. It sounds like fatalism-- my actions are the result of my past history. A strange quote from someone associated with the exitentialist movement. Why not try thinking outside the box? Anyway, who cares what Ricouer meant? I can interpretet this to suit myself as long as I am coherent and comprehensive.

Mr. Cutter was right to run off to the mountains. In this class riven world where profits come before people this was the action that suits. The thinking of Paul Ricoeur cannot lead to the liberation of humanity from the bestial reality of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. We will have to evaluate him again when we live in a classless society. R.I.P.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at