Tuesday, August 01, 2006


PA Book Round Up #7: Notes and Previews on New Works
By Thomas Riggins

Here is another of our occasional book round ups consisting of short notices of recent books. These are essentially meta-reviews (reviews of reviews). If any of our readers are inspired to read one of these books and wishes to write a full review, please contact pabooks@politicalaffairs.net.

SPINOZA AND SPINOZISM by Stuart Hampshire, Oxford University Press, 2005, 206 pp.
Reviewed by Avishai Margalit in "The New York Review of Books" October 20, 2005.

This is a reworking of the book "Spinoza: An Introduction to His Philosophical Thought" with some revisions and new interpretive introductions. Hampshire died last year at 89 and the original version of the book was published back in 1951.

It is important to know something about the philosophy of Spinoza as he was the great grandfather, as it were, of Marxism (Hegel being the grandfather). Engel’s famous definition of freedom as the recognition of necessity comes from Spinoza, for example.

Spinoza (1632-1677) is usually associated with Descartes and the scientific revolution. He has been called the first secular thinker in modern Europe. His philosophy is even more important today because it is not based on any appeal to religion or supernatural causes. Theologians like to say the universe was created by God but God is uncreated – being the cause of himself.

But Margalit says, "Only nature as a whole, according to Spinoza, is the cause of itself, meaning that nature should be explainable by what actually happens in nature and that no appeal to a transcendent reality, or separate God, is necessary for explaining its existence." Our friends the fundamentalists are four hundred years behind on their reading lists.

Margalit also points out that Spinoza "was a prime mover in shaping the European Enlightenment," and "that his skepticism about divine authority radicalized a generation of intellectuals in the last years of the seventeenth century." This opinion is based on J. Israel’s "Radical Enlightenment" (Oxford, 2002). Spinoza is thus the great grandfather of the modern secular outlook as well as of Marxism.

Hampshire, who thinks that biology rather than mathematics, was the inspiration for Spinoza’s thought, is quoted as saying Spinoza "believed his contemporaries could not even try to understand his thought, because its conclusions were evidently incompatible with their deepest religious loyalties and moral prejudices." Those conclusions were that the universe is all there is and that the traditional religions are illusions based on over active imaginations that have abandoned "the critical power of reason."

Today the fate of the world is in the hands of people who have abandoned reason and science for the delusional reality of their imaginations. In this world, the more we can learn about Spinoza the better. Hampshire’s last book is a parting gift to us and a welcome introduction to Spinoza’s "Ethics" and "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" (one of the best explanations of the Bible ever produced).

THE ASSASSIN’S GATE: AMERICA IN IRAQ by George Packer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005, 467 pp., reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in ‘The New York Times’ for Friday, October 7, 2005.

The "Times" reviewer calls this book "authoritative and tough-minded" for the way in which the author deals with the Bush administration's aggressive and botched war in Iraq. The neocons behind the war appear to be ninnyhammers of the first order with poor planing, falsification of intelligence reports, wishful thinking and outright lieing to the American people. How could they have ever dreamed of success? George Packer’s critique is more damaging because of his early support of Bush’s goals. He had hoped to see democracy take hold in Iraq but "now sees the chances of that happening dwindling in the wake of the administration's bungled handling of the war and occupation." But Packer harbors some illusions of his own. He should have known that democracy was never the goal in Iraq-- control of the oil was the real aim.

The actions of the Bushoids both at home and abroad show their total contempt for democratic values. Using 9/11 cynically to justify the (not so well) pre-planned war in Iraq is only one example. The charade of going to the UN, of only going to war as a last resort, has to be understood in the following context described by Packer: "By the early spring of 2002, a full year before the invasion, the administration was inexorably set on a course of war"-- aided and abetted, I might add, by terrible reportage from the news media, including the "Times."

Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, as well as the President were just full of imperial hubris. They are even now taking us down the road to nemesis. Packer says, "Plan A was that the Iraqi government would be quickly decapitated, security would be turned over to remnants of the Iraqi police and army, international troops would soon arrive, and most American forces would leave within a few months. There was no plan B." Great thinking guys!

Packer also notes that real experts on Iraq and the Middle East, as well on how to run a war, were ignored or never consulted at all. Would they have acted this way if their real goals were to establish "democracy" in Iraq? I don’t think so.

Michiko Kakutani says that Packer "blames administration members’ arrogance and carelessness about human life (amounting, in his words, ‘to criminal negligence’) for many of the current problems in Iraq." At this point Packer’s own illusions begin take over. He writes, "The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive."

Wars based on lies, rooted in a desire to take over the natural resources of another people, fought thousands of miles away from your "homeland" are no longer "winnable." To think they are only encourages the arrogance of power.

THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE by Chris Mooney, New York, Basic Books, 2005, 338 pp., reviewed by Naomi Oreskes in "Science" Vol. 310 for 7 October 2005.

This is an important book, especially when we bare in mind that before the ultra right came to power in Germany and Italy in the middle of the last century they systematically down graded the independence of science and made it serve not the search for truth but their own political agendas.

This book details how for the last twenty years the Republican Party "in concert with determined allies," the reviewer writes, "in private industry and fundamentalist Christian organizations, have systematically denied, disparaged and misrepresented scientific information on topics relevant to public policy." A partial list is given of the areas under attack – i.e., where science is brushed aside and the Republicans make their own reality:

1. Acid Rain
2. Global Warming
3. The use of condoms to prevent disease
4. The threat to health of excess dietary sugar and fat
5. Pushing a "link" between having an abortion and getting breast cancer (God’s punishment?)
6. The status of endangered species
7. Abstinence only sex education
8. The medical use of adult stem cells

Unmentioned here is the refusal to take mad cow disease as a serious threat or the assault on public education with the pushing of "intelligent design" versus modern biology.

The book points out that right-wing forces have deliberately set out to mislead the public about scientific conclusions and facts. This began with Reagan, continued in Congress under Newt Gingrich and is now part and parcel of the Bush way of "governing." The author also connects individuals with the corporate interests and right wing politicians who are behind the falsification of scientific findings in the interests the ultra-right.

Oreskes writes, "Those who would attack science for political gain are organized, persistent, and well-financed." I should point out that this is also a strategy of fascist movements. "The Republican War on Science" appears to be a book that everyone should read.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net.