Best of 2012: From Brull’s bookshelf

Other folks at Overland have been talking about books they enjoyed this year, and I recommended books last year, so thought I’d do it again – this time before Christmas.

Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia was fantastic. He makes corporate financial crimes very accessible. And he is hilarious. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X was a very interesting and engaging read. Marable was really quite remarkably critical of Malcolm X for most of his life. There are already two collections of essays responding critically to Marable’s biography. I suspect the enthusiastic reception for Marable’s book by so much of the corporate media reflects how critical the book is. If nothing else, I think it took a lot of courage for Marable to write the book, even if I doubt it will be the final word on the subject.

I really enjoyed Adam Hochschild’s To End all Wars. It’s a progressive social history of the First World War in the imperialist countries. Hochschild wrote about the lead-up to the war and then those who resisted the war. The account of the massive pre-war anti-war protests, which almost immediately died when war began, reminded me of the anti-Iraq protests in 2003. Except that the latter weren’t in the name of socialism. He includes a depressing account of how intellectuals sold themselves to the British government. There is also a charming story of Bertrand Russell leading a delegation to the prime minister to beg for the lives of 17 conscientious objectors who were facing execution. According to Russell: ‘As we were leaving… I made him a speech of denunciation in an almost Biblical style, telling him his name would go down in history with infamy. I had not the pleasure of meeting him thereafter.’ Russell had no way of knowing, but immediately afterwards, the prime minister ‘sent a secret order … that no CO was to be shot’.

I, Rigoberta Menchu was a very powerful and moving book. It is the autobiographical account of a Guatemalan peasant, and explores from one life story the poverty and horrifying repression that afflicted the country.

Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. Ahmed, a prominent feminist from Egypt, explores the meaning of the hijab and why Muslim women wear it. She argues that ‘the veil’s meanings are not fixed or static across histories and societies. The veil of the post-1970s era is distinctly not the veil of pre-colonial times, a veil which signalled both gender hierarchy and an understanding of society as necessarily and properly grounded in gender segregation.’ Her previous book, Women and Gender in Islam, is also an excellent book, and, in my view, essential reading.

I’m late to the party on this, but I read two very good books related to asylum seekers in Australia. One was Dark Victory, by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, and is the classic account of the Tampa affair and the lead-up to the 2001 re-election of Howard. As I was still in high school and didn’t really understand what was happening at the time, it was really a wonderful book to read. I also read Margot O’Neill’s excellent Blind Conscience. While Dark Victory is more of a top-down book, Blind Conscience explores the activists who struggle against our barbaric treatment of asylum seekers. There is also a disturbing interview with Philip Ruddock at the end.

Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act was a very impressive and brave book about the Armenian genocide. Akcam is a Turkish historian, living in the US. His conclusions are judicious, the scholarship is beyond extensive, and the moral base is inspiring. The preface of the book urges

the people of Turkey to consider the suffering inflicted in their name on those ‘others’. The reason for this call is not only the scale of the Armenian genocide, which was in no way comparable to the individual acts of revenge carried out against Muslims. It is also because all studies of large-scale atrocities teach us one core principle: To prevent the recurrence of such events, people must first consider their own responsibilities, discuss it, debate it, and recognise it. In the absence of such honest consideration, there remains the high probability of such acts being repeated, since every group is inherently capable of violence; when the right conditions arise this potential may easily become reality, and on the slightest of pretexts. There are no exceptions. Each and every society needs to take a self-critical approach, one that should be firmly institutionalised as a community’s moral tradition regardless of what others might have done to them. It is this that prevents renewed eruptions of violence.

This call should not just be restricted to Turkish people.

William Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice is a very thought-provoking and stimulating book, even if I don’t agree with all of its conclusions. Its argument that criminal justice should be further localised so that communities have a greater degree of control over the justice system intuitively has great appeal to me.

Also thought-provoking is Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage: a history. There is a vast, vast literature on the subject, which becomes apparent to anyone who skims through the book’s endnotes. The book makes clear how difficult it is to define marriage, and how many different types of relationships existed across societies around the world through history. It also notes how recent the triumph of monogamy has been. Some of the historical points are curious, and even hilarious. The book notes that ‘basing marriage on love and companionship represented a break with thousands of years of tradition’. Later:

Conservatives had long claimed that rising expectations about finding happiness in marriage would lead to an increase in divorce. They were now proved right. Increasingly, people filed for divorce because their marriages did not provide love, companionship, and emotional intimacy, rather than because their partners were cruel or had failed to perform their marital roles as housekeeper or provider.

Also interesting is her observation that ‘Throughout the Middle Ages women had been considered the lusty sex, more prey to their passions than men’. Furthermore, eighteenth-century ‘social critics’ were especially alarmed by the ‘threat of female masturbation’.

Verity Burgmann’s book on the IWW in Australia, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, is a fun read. It charmingly records the Wobblies proud embrace of a counter-bourgeois culture, including the song, ‘Hallelujah, I’m a bum!’

JK Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, doesn’t appear to have gotten particularly warm reviews, and most have been rather inane. The Daily Mail, perhaps predictably, complained of ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’. The Casual Vacancy is not a class-struggle book. But it is a class-conscious book. As much as I love Rowling, I think it is fair to say that the book does drag in some parts. I cannot speak knowledgably about all of the characters in the book; I was, however, amazed at the remarkably acute psychological insight Rowling displayed at times. And while I grant that the book feels slow at parts, it gathers pace, and has a very powerful conclusion.

I recently read Ze’ev Maoz’s Defending the Holy Land. It does not have a promising title. He is, after all, from the heart of the Israeli establishment:

[Maoz] was head of the Graduate School of Government and Policy at Tel-Aviv University. He also served as the Head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (1994–1997), as the Academic Director of the M.A. program of the National Defense College of the IDF (1990–1994), and as Chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Haifa (1991–1994).

Yet when Norman Finkelstein was asked what one book he would recommend for someone to read about Israel and Palestine, this was one of four. My primary reservation about the book for someone new to the issues would be that the book is very top-down, and is devoted to analysing Israeli policy. Its conclusions about Israel’s use of force are very damning. Maoz concludes that ‘Israel’s war experience is a story of folly, recklessness and self-made traps. None of the wars – with the possible exception of the 1948 War of Independence – was what Israelis call Milhemet Ein Brerah (“war of necessity”). They were all wars of choice or wars of folly.’ Furthermore, ‘Israel’s decision makers tended to overwhelmingly and systematically rely on the use of force as a favourite solution to both military and political challenges. This culture of trigger happiness characterised all of Israel’s governments’. As for peace policy, one of its central pillars is the ‘over my dead body’ syndrome. The book has some lapses, such as on the Sabra and Shatila massacres, but is a great book to recommend to a Zionist friend. It is also very long, and could function as well minus two-hundred pages.

I would also recommend Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance, though I think it becomes less reliable as it approaches the present day, when it primarily relies on interviews with policy makers. Between the Lines, edited by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad, contains an excellent collection of radical essays analysing the Israel-Palestine conflict around the time of the outbreak of the second Intifada.

As a sidenote here, I just want to note the impending appointment of Major General Gadi Eizenkot as the next deputy Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Ha’aretz reports that ‘If Eizenkot is appointed, he will be the natural favorite to become the 21st chief of staff when Gantz’s three-year term ends’. Here is Eisenkot:

What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. […] We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. […] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.

There hasn’t been such an openly racist and appalling Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, I think, since Rafael Eitan, who thought it would be a good idea to keep building settlements until ‘all the Arabs will be able to do about it is scurry around like drugged roaches in a bottle’. That said, Moshe Ya’alon was pretty shocking at times too, while Dan Halutz implemented the Dahiya doctrine in 2006, and Gabi Ashkenazi did so in Gaza in 2008–9.

Recently, Daily Life, the Fairfax women’s paper, listed the 20 ‘most influential feminists’ of 2012 and the 25 best stories for women. Amy McQuire is the editor of Tracker magazine, an Indigenous rights monthly magazine, with a national circulation of 35 000 (in her own right, a rather influential woman, one might think). Of the ‘influential’ list, McQuire said, she ‘was blinded by the whiteness of the whole thing’. And whiteness was not the only issue. Julia Gillard was the winner, and other feminist heroes included Nicola Roxon, Annabel Crabb and Penny Wong.

Interestingly, Eva Cox didn’t make the list. I suppose the Daily Life feminists found her extensive work on the Intervention tedious. So besides recommending you subscribe to Tracker, and that you follow Cox’s writings on the Intervention, I’d like also to recommend an excellent essay by Larissa Behrendt: ‘Aboriginal Women and the white lies of the feminist movement: implications for Aboriginal women in rights discourse’ (1993), from the Australian Feminist Law Journal 27.

Behrendt’s brilliant, trenchant essay remains as relevant today as it was then. She writes:

The difference in the history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women is one reason why Aboriginal women do not feel a strong affinity with the struggle of white women. That the women’s movement has been indifferent to the position of black women is evidenced by the gains the movement has made.

The best example of this is the right to vote. White women were gaining the right to vote in Australia as early as 1894 and by 1903 could vote in all state and federal elections. This was a victory for white women only. Aboriginal women did not get the right to vote until 1967 when Aboriginal women were given that basic right via a referendum. The right of black women to vote was not part of the political agenda which secured that right for white women over 60 years before black women.

She concludes:

Aboriginal women feel excluded from the women’s movement because it is concerned only with the struggle for power between white men and white women. Its goals are not those of Aboriginal women and gains made by the women’s movement have rarely trickled down to benefit Aboriginal women.

I recommend reading the rest of it too.

Anyway, hope you had a chag sameach, and have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. I will see you all in 2013!

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I only managed one on your list–Maoz. Some of us have to sleep. I don’t know how you manage to get through so much!

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