Critical Texts for Critical Times

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Spoken Word

Critical: Non-Fiction Books


Prisons We Choose To Live Inside ~ Doirs Lessing ~ Nobel Prize Winning essay series transcribed from 1986 Massey Lectures
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing's 1986 Massey Lectures expose many aspects of being human that are agonisingly familiar to our social scientists and psychologists but which have not risen to public consciousness. These include traits used against us as individuals and groups to coerce behaviour counter to our general moral and ethical sensibilities.

I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other. It is this--that we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past. But that very little of it has been put into effect... The sciences in question are sometimes called the behavioural sciences and are about how we function in groups and as individuals, not about how we like to think we behave and function which is often very flattering. But about how we can be observed to be behaving when observed as dispassionately as when we observe the behaviour of other species. There is a great mass of new information from universities, research institutions and gifted amateurs, but our ways of governing ourselves haven't changed.

Our left hand does not know--does not want to know--what our right hand does.

This is what I think is the most extraordinary thing there is to be seen about us, as a species, now. And people to come will marvel at it, as we marvel at the blindness and inflexibility of our ancestors.

-- Doris Lessing

Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram
This may be the single most important and least well known and understood piece of research ever undertaken. I first encountered the Milgram Experiment in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. In the wake of Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, Milgram undertook to understand the motivations by which many seemed so willing to follow orders they apparently found distasteful, immoral and/or unethical. The results of his famous experiment are chilling. See the reviews at Amazon for a thorough discussion.

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.
-- Stanley Milgram

The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris
Another in a series of books from Desmond Morris determined to upend the flattering view of ourselves as primarily rational beings, as anything other than The Naked Ape. Additional titles by other authors along parallel lines of inquiry include The Territorial Imperative and The Manipulated Mind.

In some way we must tackle, at the roots, those conditions...that are ripening us so effectively for inter-group violence....
1. The development of fixed human territories.
2. The swelling of tribes into over-crowded super-tribes.
3. The invention of weapons that kill at a distance.
4. The removal of leaders from the front line of battle.
5. The creation of a specialized class of professional killers.
6. The growth of technological inequalities between the groups.
7. The increase of frustrated status aggression within the groups.
8. The demands of inter-group status rivalries of the leaders.
9. The loss of social identity within the super-tribes.
10. The exploitation of the co-operative urge to aid friends under attack.
-- Desmond Morris

Censored 2004: The Top 25 Censored Stories of the Year
The stories you never saw on television, heard on radio, read in the newspapers and magazines...and why you didn't:

In past years Censored has been instrumental in helping to push underreported stories into the mainstream. In the 1997 edition, Karl Grossman’s article "Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space" led to 60 Minutes doing a national feature on the subject. Censored 1999 featured Monsanto’s "terminator seed" project, which was subsequently discontinued because of negative publicity. Censored 2001 exposed the disasterous impact of the increasing privatization of the global water supply, a story that is rapidly becoming one of the major issues of the twenty-first century. We can expect more of the same vital and aggressive coverage from Censored 2004..-- Book Description


Terrorism and War (Open Media Pamphlet Series), Howard Zinn
Arguably America's most articulate dissident, Zinn here offers his post-9-11 take on how the world's shaping up in the aftermath through a series of interviews:

The continued expenditure of more than $300 billion for the military every year has absolutely no effect on the danger of terrorism. If we want real security we will have to change our posture in the world--to stop being an intervening military power and to stop dominating the economies of other countries. According to a 1997 Defence Science Board report, "Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States." "Involvement" is a euphemism for military and covert intervention.

-- Howard Zinn


Ground Zero, Paul Virilio
The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers, Jean Beadrillard
Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates, Slavoj Zizek
Three philosophical studies of the Post-911 world by European thinkers

Appearing on the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, these series of books from Verso present analyses of the United States, the media, and the events surrounding September 11 by Europe's most stimulating and provocative philosophers. Probing beneath the level of TV commentary, political and cultural orthodoxies, and 'rent-a-quote' punditry, Baudrillard, Virilio, and Zizek offer three highly original and readable accounts that serve as fascinating introductions to the direction of their respective projects, and as insightful critiques of the unfolding events. This series seeks to comprehend the philosophical meaning of September 11 and will leave untouched none of the prevailing views currently propagated.

-- Series Description

The War on Freedom: How and Why America was Attacked, September 11, 2001, Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
The news behind the events; the news mainstream media isn't reporting:

The most complete book I know of, summarizing the relevant background and foreground intersecting upon the events of September 11...

-- Barry Zwicker, Vision TV Insight


Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America, by Anonymous
An unflattering perspective:

Here "a senior U.S. civil servant with two decades of experience in the U.S. intelligence community's work on Afghanistan and South Asia" argues that the U.S. was unprepared for September 11 because "our own naivet‚ and insularity led us to underestimate the complexity and determination of our adversaries." Examining bin Laden's words and his leadership qualities, the author says that Al Qaeda remains largely intact and that its next attack will be more lethal than September 11.

-- Publisher's Weekly

Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel, Anthony Roberts (Translator)
A history of militant fundamentalism in Islam:

We hear more about Muslim extremists than ever before, but Kepel argues that the terrorism seen today throughout the world results from the failure of Islamic fundamentalism and not its success. Beginning his history with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, Kepel details the rise of Islamism as an alternative to the nationalist visions of the postcolonial Islamic world. Although the growth of this new kind of Islam among poor and bourgeois alike was indeed astounding for a time, these groups met with little political success. Covering the entire Islamic world, from Malaysian extremists to bin Laden and the Taliban, Kepel exposes a pattern of failure. The inability of Islamic militancy to sustain popular support and implant its impractical ideology (which failed spectacularly in Afghanistan) resulted in increased militancy and the tolerance of terrorism. Fascinating despite its copious detail, Kepel's history has a wider focus than Ahmed Rashid's Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia and more analytical depth than Robin Wright's Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam (1986). The first in-depth history of political Islam appropriate for newcomers to Islamic history.

-- Booklist


Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy, Saudi Arabia and the Failed Search for bin Laden, by Jean-Charles Brisard, Guillaume Dasquie, Wayne Madsen, Lucy Rounds (Translator)
If no oil pooled beneath the sands of Iraq, would we be there now, on a campaign of shock and awe? If the Middle East weren't the single greatest source of fuel for the West, would we be any more concerned about tyrants there? Any more than we are concerned about the tyrants in Africa, the Americas? If we can keep the tyrants in line, can deal with them economically, then there is no need to risk soldiers' lives.

There's been a lot of prepublication buzz about this book, especially on the Web. A best-seller in Europe and banned in Switzerland (because of a bin Laden lawsuit), this first American edition links the events of September 11 to pipeline politics, especially as practiced by the Bush administration. Although these sorts of charges have been made in a general way, the authors have collected a great deal of information, all footnoted. Investigating for three years, Brisard and Dusquie were able to follow the dots along a "parallel diplomacy" in which the private negotiations of oil tycoons, religious extremists, international financiers, and American politicians had little to do with the U.S.' best interests. The book is not particularly easy on the Clinton administration; however, especially incriminating is the authors' claim that FBI counterterror chief John O'Neil quit his job to become security head at the Twin Towers, where he died, because of his frustrations with the Bush administration's willingness to accommodate the Taliban (and bin Laden) for the sake of the pipeline. Considering how complicated the material is, this book is surprisingly easy to follow.

-- Booklist

9-11, Noam Chomsky
Chomsky was quick off the blocks, publishing this brief book concerning the events of September 11 within 30 days of the event. The publisher describes the book:

Based on a composite of interviews conducted in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Chomsky's impeccable knowledge of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia sheds light on the rapidly shifting balance of world power.

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, Chalmers Johnson
This book comes through the recommendation of a reader. If nothing else, read the excerpt on Amazon (follow the link above), from which the following quote is taken. Note that the prescient hardcover edition of the book was published in March, 2000...

There are more effective--and certainly less destructive--ways of dealing with the threat of "terrorism" than instant military retaliation. Spetember 1998, Libya finally agreed to surrender to a Dutch court the two men charged with bombing the Pan Am airliner of Lockerbie, Scotland. [This] agreement came about through a multilateral reliance on international law and an economic embargo of Libya and so avoided the spiral of blowback and retaliation that is undoubtedly not yet at an end in the case of bin Laden.

-- Chalmers Johnson


The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalization, Corporate Cons, and High Finance Fraudsters, Greg Palast

Sometimes criticised for his bombastic vitriol, Palast's critics often resort to the same tactics they criticise in Palast's work. When those critics fall back on the "yes, it's all so shocking but haven't we heard it all before?" response, it's easy to understand why Palast is madder than hell and not going to take it anymore. "Yes," he may well admit, "you have heard it all before, but evidently you weren't really listening because you're not doing anything about it! So excuse me while I shout it from the rafters."

Muckraking has a long, storied tradition, and Palast is evidently proud to be part of it. In this polemical indictment of globalization and political corruption, Palast (a reporter with the BBC and London's Observer) updates the muckraking tradition with some 21st-century targets: the IMF, World Bank and WTO, plus oil treaties, energy concerns and corporate evildoers of all creeds. Some of Palast's reports are downright shocking (if familiar). He shows, for example, how the WTO prevents cheap AIDS drugs from reaching victims in Africa and how World Bank loan policies have crippled the economies of Tanzania and other developing countries. On the home front, he details Exxon's horrific safety record before the Valdez disaster and reveals the price-gouging by Texas power companies during the California energy crisis. In Britain, Palast exposes the "cash for access" policies of the Blair administration, and blasts the legal system for shielding Pfizer Pharmaceuticals from lawsuits by victims who had defective Pfizer valves installed in their hearts. These are all good, important stories. Most of them, however, have been published before.

~ Publisher's Weekly

Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy, Saudi Arabia and the Failed Search for bin Laden, Jean-Charles Brisard, Guillaume Dasquie, Lucy Rounds (Translator), Wayne Madsen
The result of three years of investigation by a leading French intelligence expert and investigative journalist, Forbidden Truth is the untold story of the Clinton and Bush administration's attempts to stabilize Afghanistan so that U.S. energy companies could build a pipeline. In particular, it details the secret and hazardous diplomacy between the Bush administration and the Taliban between February and August 2001 — a story still untold in the U.S. media — talks that ultimately led the US to make threats via Pakistani intermediaries to the Taliban in July 2001 that they were going to bomb Afghanistan if the Taliban didn't comply.

John O’Neill the former head of the FBI’s antiterrorism division – who perished in the World Trade Center on September 11—told Jean-Charles Brisard in July 2001, "All of the answers, all of the clues allowing us to dismantle Osama bin Laden's organization, can be found in Saudi Arabia."

from the book cover.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt
The title of this volume may be unfortunately deceiving. Within the book itself, Arendt never refers to Eichmann's evil as banal. Instead, she portrays him as a petty bureaucrat who proclaimed, simply, infamously, "I was just following orders." This is a defensive lament that has been repeated through the ages in defense of atrocities the world over. And we of the West, of NATO, of the UN, are no less prone to uttering it than Eichmann. Says one reviewer:

Arendt's analysis of the seductive nature of evil is a disturbing one. We would like to think that anyone who would perpetrate such horror on the world is different from us, and that such atrocities are rarities in our world. But the history of groups such as the Jews, Kurds, Bosnians, and Native Americans, to name but a few, seems to suggest that such evil is all too commonplace. In revealing Eichmann as the pedestrian little man that he was, Arendt shows us that the veneer of civilization is a thin one indeed.

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl
Frankl survived the horrors of one of the 20th Century's bleakest tragedies: Auschwitz. Some refer to such events as 'dark nights of the soul.' At such times we are given a choice: to die or to find some way to move on and live. To move on implies to learn and grow from the experience, implies introspection as much as action. For Frankl, this meant coming to the conclusion that human beings' innermost motivation for existence is meaning, purpose.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
-- Viktor Frankl

Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century, Nadine Gordimer
Gordimer, a Nobel laureate for fiction, is among my favourite authors. She has explored South Africa's history from Apartheid through reconciliation in numerous novels and stories. And any commentator of those times necessarily builds a considerable understanding of human nature, and the forms it takes under duress. The following is from a review appearing on Amazon.

A compilation of essays by Ms. Gordimer not to be overlooked by those of us "burnt out" on societal issues...or even personal issues. A heartfull of optimism and honesty that I found refreshing.... Reading her thoughts and essays I couldn't help but be inspired not only by her optimism and honesty and her unflagging belief and value in people, but also her analytic mind. She's obviously not afraid to think deeply about peoples and is not afraid to "get personal". I read the book late last year and will probably pick it up again or another of hers. I quit my 19 years of successful employment in the private sector and am now considering non-profit work, thanks to Ms. Gordimer and others like her.

Small Wonder: Essays, Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Mirocha (Illustrator)
Kingsolver's novel, The Poisonwood Bible, struck me right in the solar plexus. Small Wonder was brought to my attention by another creative, sensitive, insightful soul. I'm eager to read this series of essays, which Kingsolver began writing and editing on Septermber 12, 2001. The following, which sums up the internal conflicts arising in the aftermath, is from a review appearing on Amazon.

If you are stunned that Kingsolver has the audacity to criticize America and its citizens, don't be, the rest of the world shares the same intelligent objections to the emptiness of American consumerism. And most likely if you're amongst those that are stunned it's because you haven't reached out to other sources of world events and opinions besides CNN and your local NBC affiliate. Americans, leading the world's corporate conglomorate, are slowly killing both the ecosystem and cultural diversity. It's not something that's up for debate, it's not something that's defendable, it's the truth, but we're also taught that we're glorious and true and just and so we shouldn't have to take criticism, we shouldn't question status quo. I'm not interested in arguing with anyone, all I will ask of you is that if this book has made you angry, ask yourself "why" and then go out and investigate the truth for yourself. Consider other alternatives. I give the book a positive review because it [straddles] both mainstream and counter culture society, and can potentionally expand the minds of some persons in great need of just that.

Buy it, read it, argue it, debate it, criticize it, mark it up with your pen and tear [out] pages. Whatever you do, be ACTIVE, engage the possibilities of both great books and your own life.

Voltaire's Bastards, John Ralston Saul
Reason ain't all it's cracked up to be. That's the short answer. The long answer is that our society is built on a model of "Rational Management" without moral foundation, structure or operation. In this model, questions of efficiency, efficacy, practicality and economy smother the simpler question of "what is good?" (and the more difficult responses to it.) We operate, then, on the unreasonable assumption that what is reasonable is good.

This is a wise, civilized, and deeply democratic book. John Ralston Saul wants to persuade us that real enlightenment lies not in the modern cult of Answers but in the stubborn, skeptical and human pursuit of Questions, and he does this in a beautifully-argued work.
-- Jane Kramer

The Holy Quran, Allamah Nooruddin (Translator), A. R. Omar (Translator), A. M. Omar
The Meaning of: The Glorious Koran/an Explanatory Translation, by Marmaduke Pickthall
One of my favourite authors, Mark Helprin, disappointed me gravely in a Wall Street Journal editorial that generalised the terrorist perpetrators as belonging to an "alien civilization," with a brush stroke scouring all of Islam. Several news articles reported copies of the Quran had been found in apartments, vehicles and baggage of various terrorist suspects, as if the Quran itself is a tool of terrorism. (Do we report that copies of the bible were found in the possession of those suspected of fire-bombing abortion clinics?) It occurs to me that if Islam is alien to much of the Judeo-Christian West, it is due in part or in whole to our own ignorance of the religion and the people who follow the prophecy of Mohammed.

Rather than a quote, I'll use this space to note that any translation of a holy text is guaranteed to generate controversy. Some favour a literal reading, while others desire translation that interprets the text in a context the reader can better grasp. Add to this the problem of attempting to bludgeon the subtle and elegant arabic language into english. So, you may wish to consider Pickthall's more literal version. Incidentally, I believe you'll find that both texts unequivocally forbid acts of suicide. Mohammed was apparently a pacifist who fled from persecution, defended himself when left no other option and sued for peace to the point of negotiating his own political disadvantage. The vast majority of Muslims are as sickened by the September 11 attacks as Christians are by those who fire-bomb abortion clinics, in as much as the two acts can be compared.

An Autobiography : The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Mahatma Gandhi (Mahadev Desai, Translator)
I owe Richard Attenborough a great debt for bringing this master of peace into my consciousness with his film titled, simply Gandhi. There are no small number of resources available for getting a deeper insight into Mahatma Gandhi's successful campaigns of non-violentresistance and, ultimately, victory. Next on my reading list is Gandhi: A Life

Although Gandhi presents his episodes chronologically, he happily leaves wide gaps, such as the entire satyagraha struggle in South Africa, for which he refers the reader to another of his books. And writing for his contemporaries, he takes it for granted that the reader is familiar with the major events of his life and of the political milieu of early 20th-century India. For the objective story, try Yogesh Chadha's Gandhi: A Life. For the inner world of a man held as a criminal by the British, a hero by Muslims, and a holy man by Hindus, look no further than these experiments.
Brian Bruya

Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, Saul D. Alinsky
OK. So we can't defeat terrorism by bombing countries back to the stone age. What can we do? Well, what if we build a new world order based on the principles of the Enlightenment? The ones upon which the constitutions of all Western democracies were written. The ones we all seem to feel in our guts have somehow gotten lost. Afterall, it was our own governments that armed and trained the fanatics we now call enemies. Would these terrorists now have this power over us if we had not given them terrible power over others?
How do we set about building a new world we can believe in? I'm not sure, but this book and Reveille for Radicals, also by Alinsky, suggest one potent course of action.

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.

In this book we are concerned with how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which man can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life.
Saul D. Alinsky
Rules for Radicals, p. 3

Organizing For Social Change, Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max
A recipe book for organising and a good companion to Alinsky's more potent calls to action.

A comprehensive manual for grassroots organizers working for social political, environmental, and economic change at the local, state, and national level. It is a book that builds on America's tradition of organizing that began with the nation's fight for independence.

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu
Arguably the greatest wisdom ever collected in just 81 short chapters (a page or two each). It offers new insight with every reading. I recommend one of two versions: the Stephen Mitchell translation which is a marvellously poetic rendition (and is available on the net here); The Gia-Fu Feng translation is breathtakingly published in accompaniment with Jane English's photography making it beautiful to contemplate in word and image. The following is all of Chapter 31, from the Stephen Mitchell translation.

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn't wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff
When an academic challenged Benjamin Hoff that there are no masters of Eastern philosophy in the West, he replied: "Winnie the Pooh." Hoff's blending of Lao Tsu and A. A. Milne is a winsome exploration of Taoism and Pooh, and a fun read to boot.

One of the world's great Taoist masters isn't Chinese, or a venerable philosopher, but is in fact none other than A. A. Milne's effortlessly calm, still, reflective bear Winnie-the-Pooh. While Eeyore frets and Piglet hesitates and Rabbit calculates and Owl pontificates, Pooh just is. And that's the clue to the secret wisdom of the Taoists.

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Critical: Fiction Books

The Fever, Wallace Shawn
Wallace Shawn is most widely known as a short, bald character actor in film (filmography), but he's also an important screewriter and playwright. The Fever flexes some most insightful muscle. It is a one-act monologue portraying the narrator's harrowing transition from a naive recipient of privilege through the daunting realisation that the cost of privilege for one is poverty and terror for dozens, or hundreds. Don't look to The Fever for solutions. It's about opening the can, not what to do with the worms set free in the process. A brief excerpt...

Well, maybe for certain people--maybe for certain people who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century--what was hidden and unconscious was the inner life. Maybe the only thing those people could see was the outward circumstance, where they were, what they did, and they had no idea at all of what was inside them. But something's been hidden from me, too. Something--a part of myself--has been hidden from me, and I think it's the part that's there on the surface, what anyone in the world could see about me if they saw me out the window of a passing train.
Re, Colonized Planet 5: Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by Johor (George Sherban Emissary)
, Doris Lessing
Lessing takes a long, hard look at the whole long history of Shikasta--Earth--from a bureaucrat's perspective. A long-lived bureaucrat, 10's of thousands of years long-lived. A bureaucrat not only from another planet, but from another way of being, a bureaucrat and an agent of spirit. Perceived by the hapless inhabitants of earth as a god-like being, or, often-as-not, a lunatic. But to the reader, a wise, well-intentioned, fallible bureaucrat in a wise, well-intentioned, fallible beaurocracy. A beaurocracy attempting to divert Shikasta, the Broken from self-destruction.

And here is the place to say that the mass of the populations, the average individual, were, was, infinitely better, more sane, than those who ruled them: most would have been appalled at what was being done by 'their' representatives. It is safe to say that if even a part of what was being kept from them had come to notice, there would have been mass risings across the globe, massacres of the rulers, riots . . . unfortunately, when peoples are helpless, betrayed, lied to, they possess no weapons but the (useless) ones of rioting, looting, mass murder, invective.
History of Shikasta, VOL. 3012, The Century of Destruction

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Francis Ford Copolla adapted Heart of Darkness to film and the American experience of Vietnam, resulting in Apocalypse Now. Some years later I first encountered the text of this original story in a college literature class. I think of this first reading as the first time I understood, concretely, the very thin margin between sanity and madness, and that while individually we had an option to go there or not, the structure, methodology and discourse of Western civilisation had crossed that margin long ago.

Heart of Darkness has had an influence that goes beyond the specifically literary. This parable of a man's 'heart of darkness' dramatized in the alleged 'Dark Continent' of Africa transcended its late Victorian era to acquire the stature of one of the great, if troubling, visionary works of western civilization.
-- Joyce Carol Oates
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
The American Civil War saw the phenomenon of realistic portrayals of war for the first time in Brady's photographs and in Stephen Crane's classic novel.

As to 'masterpiece,' there is no doubt that The Red Badge of Courage is that, if only because of the marvellous accord of the vivid impressionistic description of action on that woodland battlefield and the imagined style of the analysis of...the inward moral struggle going on in the breast of one individual--the Young Soldier .
-- Joseph Conrad

Slaughterhouse Five or the Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death, Kurt Vonnegut
This one was suggested to me and while I have not read it yet, it is included here for the parallels with other works listed on this page as evidenced in the following review extract by Amazon staff:

Don't let the ease of reading fool you--Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters..." Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy--and humor.

The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis
Another suggestion I've added to my reading list. Screwtape an elder demon who instructs his nephew, Wormwood, in a series of letters on the finer arts of temptation. Apparently, there's also an audio version read by John Cleese which some have recommended.

When he wrote The Screwtape Letters, with its pretended advocacy of the Devil's point of view, C. S. Lewis found a wonderfully entertaining way to advocate just the opposite: the appeal of a committed religious life. Lewis formulates several "spiritual laws" in the book. Here's a memorable one, taken from chapter six: When we find ourselves in the grip of a toxic emotion (for example, anger), we should attempt to be self-aware and to focus on the fact of our anger, rather than on the object of the anger (e.g., some other person). On the other hand, when we find ourselves under the sway of charitable feelings, we should try to do the opposite-- we should try to fix our attention outward, on the person who is the object of our positive feelings, ignoring the fact that we are feeling charitable, and striving NOT to be self-conscious. It is a simply stated law. But it goes so much against our natural inclinations that if we somehow managed to apply it consistently, it would be radically transformative. (Maybe that's just another way of saying that it is a true spiritual law.)
-- Richard Barkow

Blindness, Jose Saramago
Blindness falls in the category of works characterised by Lord of the Flies. It asks the question, "Under the worst possible circumstances, how will humans react?" Here the premise is: what if blindness should become, somehow, contagious? As I recall, Saramago penned this as a response to the multiple genocides ongoing in the former Yugoslavia. So you can guess where it's going. A cautionary tale that earned its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There is no cynicism and there are no conclusions, just a clear-eyed and compassionate acknowledgment of things as they are, a quality that can only honestly be termed wisdom.
-- Andrew Miller, The New York Times Book Review

The War Prayer, Mark Twain
This one was also suggested. It's brief, powerful, laser-sharp and appears in full on the web at Mark Twain's War Prayer. Read it in contrast to Patton's famous speech to his troops, and then go to Chapter 31 of the Tao Te Ching.

When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory—must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
-- Mark Twain
   From War Prayer

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Critical: Periodicals

The Economist
This is arguably the world's best weekly news magazine, and the most overlooked as well. Amazon's reviewer says of it, "Founded in 1843 to boost the cause of free trade, The Economist has widened its focus considerably since the Victorian era. These days the London-based weekly offers a sober, factual, and surprisingly spry take on politics, business, technology, and the arts." You will not get in-depth reporting of this caliber in any other weekly magazine, including the US news weeklies. Says the publisher:

THE ECONOMIST is a weekly news and business publication written for top business decision-makers and opinion leaders who need a wide range of information and views on world events. It explores the close links between domestic and international issues, business, finance, current affairs, science and technology.
The bimonthly publication of FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR's weblink, where it's cheapest to subscribe). FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. As an anti-censorship organization, we expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, FAIR believes that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information. Says the publisher:

Extra! accepts no outside advertising-- each 28-page issue is filled with hard-hitting, well-documented media crticism. You also get six issues of Extra!Update, FAIR's activist-oriented newsletter. The printed versions of the magazine and newsletter contain material not available online or anywhere else.

Your subscription also supports FAIR's efforts to bring its criticism directly to newspeople and media audiences, aids in FAIR's mission of increasing media pluralism and the inclusion of public interest voices in national debates.


Another bimonthly publication of produced by the Vancouver-based Adbusters group (Adbusters weblink, with the cheapest subscription). Adbusters began as a direct-action group attempting to re-orient the way society views advertising.

A reader-supported magazine with no ads, Adbusters offers incisive philosophical articles as well as activist commentary from around the world, addressing issues ranging from genetically modified foods to media concentration. Our aim is to forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.

Subscribe and become a part of our culture's next major mindshift.


Black Bear Review
The Spring/Summer 2002 edition of BBR reprinted a Post 9-11 blurb that once appeared on this page's In Context sidebar. See above.

Black Bear Review (est. 1984) is an international, not-for-profit, small-press literary magazine for the socially concerned poet and artist. Published semi-annually by Black Bear Publications, funding is provided by the editor, the readers, poets, and artists. The magazine's poetry and artwork reflect social, environmental, political, and ecological concerns. -- From the website.


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Critical: Documentary Films

9/11 - The Filmmakers' Commemorative Edition, Gédéon & Jules Naudet
Including this document here is a difficult decision on several levels. In the end, this is what it's all do we recreate our world so that the tragic events captured here are never repeated?

"It's amazing how many successes there are if you really think about it. Take something which very few people have been interested in. Take the issue of East Timor, the massacre there. I got involved in that about 15 years ago. People didn't want to hear about it. Things finally got to the point where the U.S. Congress barred military aid to Indonesia. That's a tremendous change. You could save hundreds of thousands of lives that way. How many people can look back and say, 'Look, I helped save hundreds of thousands of lives?'"
-- Noam Chomsky

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Peter Wintonick & Mark Achbar
This incisive video documentary presents the material of Noam Chomsky's book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, in a thoroughly entertaining and illustrative way.
Although he is often derided as a conspiracy theorist for his insistence that mass media outlets refuse to portray his views and those of other marginalised dissidents, ironically Chomsky's message is not one of despair. Rather, it is intended to bolster those outside the normative discussion to hammer away at the accepted truths through any available outlet.

"It's amazing how many successes there are if you really think about it. Take something which very few people have been interested in. Take the issue of East Timor, the massacre there. I got involved in that about 15 years ago. People didn't want to hear about it. Things finally got to the point where the U.S. Congress barred military aid to Indonesia. That's a tremendous change. You could save hundreds of thousands of lives that way. How many people can look back and say, 'Look, I helped save hundreds of thousands of lives?'"
-- Noam Chomsky

Islam: Empire of Faith, Part III of PBS Empires
A look at the history of Islam with which, apparently, many muslims concur.

The demonization of Islam by the West has a long history, stretching back to the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century. This documentary redresses the balance by showing the riches of Islamic culture and the vital role played by Islam in preserving and building upon ancient wisdom from East and West at a time when most of Europe was stumbling through the Dark Ages. Muslim physicians, mathematicians, and astronomers stretched the boundaries of human knowledge, and Muslim architects created some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
-- Simon Leake

Trade Off, Shaya Mercer
The Battle of Seattle. Remember what you saw on TV? Violence. Havoc. Vandalism. Great images for CNN to fill the time between commercials. But there was another story unfolding in the streets of Seattle, a peaceful demonstration in which the majority of protestors participated. A broad-based coalition of dissent discovered a common cause in globally significant issues. Trade Off explores the battle from a perspective not presented by the mainstream media.

An extraordinary film, with strikingly solid journalistic coverage as well as a deeply-rooted and passionate examination of the global issues impacting our daily lives..."
-- Kathleen McInnis, FILMFESTIVALS.COM

This is What Democracy Looks Like, Independent Media Center & Big Noise Films
Another valuable look at the Seattle protests. We can't lose sight of these issues. Ask this question: to what is anti-Western anger essentially directed? For the people living in many non-western nations, Globalism is to the 21st century what Colonialism was to the 19th and 20th. Contemporary Western rhetoric elucidating the benefits of participation in a global economy is eerily reminiscent of European and American colonial self-congratulatory notions of 'civilizing' whole populations for their benefit.

As the winds of change blow ever stronger across this land, This Is What Democracy Looks Like can be regarded as THE documentary account of the first great political democratic struggle of the 21st century."
-- Robert McChesney, Author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy

Who's Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics, Terre Nash
So what are our options? Obviously, we need to rethink the premises and principles upon which our economics are defined.

With irony and intelligence Marilyn Waring demystifies the language of economics by defining it as a value system in which all goods and activities are related only to their monetary value and monetary exchange with the result that unpaid work, usually done by women, is unrecognized and activities that may be environmentally and socially hazardous are regarded as productive. She maps out an alternative economic vision based on the idea of time as the one thing we all have to exchange. Shot in Canada, New Zealand, New York City, the Persian Gulf and the Philippines this film is an entertaining primer for anyone who suffers from what Waring calls "economics anxiety."
-- National Film Board of Canada

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Critical: Dramatic Films

The Beast, starring Jason Patric and George Dzundza
Green Berets it ain't. The Beast leans more toward in your face pop-culture. This is a heart-stopper of a war film which makes apparent why so many refer to Afghanistan as the Soviet's Vietnam in the desert. And unlike such well-known films as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket which sledgehammer their anti-war messages home as much with production design as with story telling (and are recommended nonetheless), The Beast gets it done with tense, realistic action, concise, meaningful dialogue, and gritty performances set against the sparse background of the mountainous Afhganistan desert. Available in both VHS and DVD.

When Afghan rebels find the lone tank lost in the high desert, a cat-and-mouse chase commences with nail-biting, emotional precision. The Russian tank crew is also at war with themselves after the sympathetic driver (a stalwart Jason Patric) debates the brutal tactics of his commander (George Dzundza). This visceral action drama was adapted from--believe it or not--a stage play but keeps its feet firmly planted in the war-action genre... Made directly after the Afghan war, the film was hard to sell in the late 1980s. With the Russians speaking English (and the Afghans their native dialect), the viewer is uncomfortably bonded to the unpopular aggressors. Yet the film reverberates in the sweat and toil of battle, with Patric bringing a more dramatic flair to the role than comes from the usual set of cinematic action heroes.
-- Doug Thomas

The Thin Red Line
, Directed by Terrence Malick
A tense, moving ensemble character study of men thrust into the horror of war, remarkable for flowing cinematography and rousing acting. This is not your typical war film but rather a cinematic meditation on the nature of madness/sanity, death/life, hatrde/love, violence, courage, redemption, God and a host of other deeply relevant themes. The simple question is: what do we become when we are thrust into a dark night of the soul? The answer is, of course, only answered by a personal journey.

Terrence Malick's first movie in 20 years is a daring stream-of-consciousness war epic. Contemplative, horrific, sometimes inscrutable, often extraordinary, it could be called the "Red Badge of Courage" of World War II movies.
-- John Hartl
Lion of the Desert, starring Anthony Quinn, director Moustapha Akkad
Like The Beast, Lion of the Desert suffered critical lambastings based, perhaps, more on contemporary politics (a Libyan story bank-rolled in the 1970s by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi) than the film's own merits. Also like The Beast, Lion of the Desert enjoys an enthusiastic following from film-lovers. For example, this review was written May 2, 1999:

Today, as Muslims struggle for self determination and political independence, this movie serves as an excellent historical backdrop. It removes the stereotype portraying the Islamic struggle as one of mindless, bloodthirsty terrorists. It provides a look into the military campaigns as well as providing a glimpse into the personal life of Omar Mukhtar. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the African struggle against imperialism during the turn of the century.
-- from Portland, Oregon, USA

The Message, starring Anthony Quinn, director Moustapha Akkad
Quinn and Akkad team up again for another popular epic Arab story, this time featuring the founder of Islam. Entertaining and informative.

Originally released as "Mohammad: Messenger of God" in 1976 and more recently on DVD as "THE MESSAGE" (Anchor Bay, $30), this lavish, nearly four hour epic focuses on the life and impact of Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim, the founder of Islam, who was born about 1,600 years ago in Mecca. Orphaned at six and trained to be a merchant, Mohammad received the prophetic call in a series of visions that later were recorded as the Koran.
The movie never actually shows an image of Mohammad. A respectful religious conceit that works. Sometimes the camera assumes his point of view or cuts to his companions. Anthony Quinn stands out as warrior Uncle Hamza.
-- Robin E. Simmons

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Critical: Spoken Word

A Call to Conscience : The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, An Audio CD
No American has resisted hatred and violence with greater grace and humanity, not to mention success, than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And not since Churchill has there been a better orator. Also available in hardcover, for which this review was written.

The best thing about this book is that it shows that Dr. King was about much more than "The Dream Speech" and Rosa Parks. It shows, in the Selma Alabama Speech, his ability to explain the root causes of segregation (which all Americans should understand), it shows his courage in being able to stand up to the powers that be in his Vietnam speech, and it shows his amazing ability to improvise amazing speeches in the 1955 Bus Boycott speech. In short, it shows the genius of Dr. King and I have used this book in class to teach my students that Dr. King was about more than dreaming dreams.

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Critical: Music

A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, Gang of Four
Within all this heady material rock&roll may seem a little trite, but music was my philosophy 101 and no record raised my consciousness--along with my dander--more than Songs of the Free, by Gang of Four. It's not currently available on any of the music sites I've searched, but several songs appear on this compilation, and a few goodies from the seminal Entertainment as well. I Love a Man in a Uniform mocks the army's "Be All That You Can Be" recruitment campaign, and Call Me Up asks, like several other songs, why do the little people have to wait for heaven to get theirs? The History of the World slyly chronicles cultural thought patterns from egg to grave. However, you'll miss Muscle for Brains which lobs one onto the bow of the moral majority and Life, It's a Shame's shameless attack on received wisdoms. Not for the faint of mind, heart or ear. But if you don't mind a little philoso-political deconstruction along with the aural deconstruction of a guitar, this is the band to play.

Don't help me I can save myself
If I'm incomplete don't fill the gaps
Save me from the people who would save me from myself
They got muscle for brains

For reasons that are not mysterious
The weak are sent to the wall
They have reservations in heaven
Down here they're not so fashionable
-- from Muscle for Brains

Trespass, Foxtrot, Wind & Wuthering, Genesis
Before Gang of Four, back in my rural New Hampshire days, when local radio would get perhaps as revolutionary as Paul McCartney and Wings, I was gleaning the cut-out sections of record shops and department stores. The real finds, the albums that really captured my imagination, that got the whole thing running, were a number of songs by Genesis spread across several albums: Trespass's The Knife, subtitled "For Those that Trespass against us" which reads remarkably like political speeches issued of late; Foxtrot's Time Table, which artfully voices Santayana's refrain about history and those who forget it; and Wind & Wuthering's One for the Vine, a song almost prophetic in that George Bush is once again leading us into an Arab desert, but also Blood on the Rooftops, which reminds how a public overfed on the images of news @ 10 can dissociate from the awfulness reported.

Though your eyes see shipwrecked sailors you're still dry
The outlook's fine though Wales might have some rain
Saved again.

Let's skip the news boy (I'll make some tea)
The Arabs and the Jews boy (too much for me)
They get me confused boy (puts me off to sleep)
And the thing I hate - Oh Lord!
Is staying up late, to watch some debate, on some nation's fate.
-- from Blood on the Rooftops

Animals, Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Pink Floyd
Arguably the most imporant band in the early formation of my opinions. Animals with its caustic Orwellian riffs includes lines of prophecy in Sheep; Dark Side of the Moon's anthemic Money counterweighted by subtler yet no less potent observations in Us and Them and Time; Meanwhile The Wall is an epic sweep through multivalent themes of personal disaster.

Harmlessly passing your time in the grassland away
Only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air
You better watch out
There may be dogs about
I've looked over Jordan and I have seen
Things are not what they seem.

What do you get for pretending the danger's not real
Meek and obedient you follow the leader
Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel
What a surprise!
A look of terminal shock in your eyes
Now things are really what they seem
No, this is no bad dream.
-- from Sheep

Relayer, Yes
An underrated masterwork both musically and lyrically. The Gates of Delirium delivers a seesawing war of instruments, notes and words that edges toward a peaceful solution: Soon, oh soon the light/Ours to shape for all time/Ours the right.... Then To Be Over completes the soulful, personal journey to balance and tranquility begun in Sound Chaser

Listen, should we fight forever
Knowing as we do know fear destroys?
Listen, should we leave our children?
Listen, our lives stare in silence;
Help us now.

Listen, your friends have been broken,
They tell us of your poison; now we know.
Kill them, give them as they give us.
Slay them, burn their childrens' laughter
On to hell.
-- from The Gates of Delirium

Buffalo Springfield , Buffalo Springfield
Perhaps it's too much to ask of today's music industry. Because it's now an Industry, I shouldn't expect it to participate overmuch in the kind of counter-culture attacks which made rock-n-roll such a formidable force against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. It's our failing that songs well over a quarter-century old should be so applicable to so-called modern times. Keep in mind the resistance to globalisation that now seems a conflict as historically remote as Vietnam. Know this, however, that conflict has not been resolved.

For What It's Worth
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

-- Stephen Stills, 1966
as performed by Buffalo Springfield.

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