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Book Reviews

Rogue State - A Guide to the World's Only Superpower. By William Blum, Common Courage Press, 2000.

For over one hundred years, the United States has presented itself to the world as a bastion of freedom and democracy, a global defender of the weak and helpless against oppression and injustice. For much of this time it allegedly protected us from an International Communist Conspiracy, just as in recent years the US has fought a war against drugs on our behalf. Throughout this period, the US has always pointed out to us the "rogue states", those countries that posed the international community and the peace they enjoyed the greatest threat, and has selflessly been at the forefront in every attempt to curb their evil ambitions, whether in Korea or Vietnam, the Middle East or Central America.

In reality, the United States has been and remains the United States a rogue state. In his newly-published Rogue State—A Guide to the World's only Superpower, William Blum goes to great lengths to prove that rather than being "the greatest force for peace", as one William Clinton would have us believe, the US has employed terrorist tactics throughout the world for decades. In over 300 well researched and well-argued pages, Blum helps put to death the myth that the US is the champion of liberty and human rights.

While the US fought a Cold War to defend us from the Communist threat—"the greatest protection racket since men convinced women that they needed men to protect them"—they relentlessly supported dictators and tyrannical regimes on every continent, from Pol Pot and Suharto to Saddam Hussein and Papa Doc Duvalier. Between 1945 and 1999, this same defender of the global well-being toppled 40 governments and helped crush 30 populist movements, assassinated scores of prominent individuals and perverted elections in every corner of the globe. During this same period the US armed terrorists, trained right-wing guerilla movements in the art of torture and financed armies intent on overthrowing democratically elected governments.

Not content with with employing such tactis outside its frontiers in the interests of its own corporate elite—and many times Blum's makes this connection—the US has also been ruthless in the treatment of its own citizens as they pursue their American dream. Whilst we're all at least suspicious of the crimes of governments against their own people, the US, Blum reveals, is guilty here. Just as it could casually use 600,000 of its own military personnel in mustard gas and blister gas tests in the 1940s, so too could the Pentagon calmly announce that 100,000 of its servicemen were exposed to sarin gas during the Gulf War. Not content with experimenting with its cannon fodder, the US has shown the same disrespect for its own civilians in peace time, using them as guinea pigs. It has released zinc cadmium around cities, as well as whooping cough and smallpox bacteria and all manner of chemical concoctions to test the effectiveness of biological warfare. It has released millions of infected mosquitoes and infected oat crops with cereal rust spores. All of this in spite of the fact that the first tenet of the Nuremberg Code, polished up by the US itself in anger at Nazi medical experimentation, states: "The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential."

This “land of the free” is where the CIA and FBI will intercept and open domestic and foreign correspondence, where private corporations videotape, bug the offices of and requests urine samples of its own employers, where children are encouraged and enticed with monetary incentives to inform on their parents and fellow pupils, where state troopers enlist hotel workers to spy on guests, where schools ban hundreds of “subversive” books (Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist for example) and the FBI urges librarians to report the books taken out by patrons. Blum reveals this and very much more to be the experience of tens of thousands of US citizens.

Blum asks why does the US get away with all this? How can it connive in a global drugs trade, have helped incarcerate Nelson Mandela, increase its global interventions at a time when we're supposed to be enjoying the benefits of the peace dividend bequeathed by the demise of the Cold War? How are its leaders not brought before international tribunals and charged with human rights violations and its institutions asked to account for themselves?

A major reason, he suggests, is the ongoing love affair with the mystique of America, the world's adoration of what it perceives to be the relentless devotion to the cause of freedom and human rights that is “America”. And this adoration itself stems from the US as the inventor and perfecter of modern advertising and public relations—its existence as the world's only information superpower perpetuating that same illusion.. Questioning why so much cruelty is endemic to US foreign policy, Blum relates it to the ”Peter Principle” which states that in a hierarchy every employee rises to their level of incompetence: "in a foreign policy establishment committed to imperialist domination by any means necessary, employees tend to rise to the level of cruelty they can live with”. And being the US means never having to say you're sorry. As President George Bush once famously commented: "I will never apologise for the USA. I don't care what the facts are.”
Whatever we may think we know about US foreign and domestic policy, Blum's work, in all its grotesque detail, shows us it is not folly to imagine the lengths to which capitalism's executive will go to secure their own interests.
JOHN BISSETT

 

Spiritualism and British Society between the Wars. By Jenny Hazelgrove. Manchester University Press

Many, perhaps a majority, believe that there is life after death. Although the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, discourage the view, some draw the conclusion that it is therefore possible for the living to contact the dead and vice versa. This is the basis of Spiritualism and its "mediums" between the living and the dead.

Spiritualists have evolved an elaborate theory to explain how this is possible but most adepts are no more interested in this than the average church-goer is in theology. It's the simple, popular belief that it is possible to contact the dead that attracts them. But it is not only ordinary people who believe this. It is a view that has been shared among others by Robert Owen, Alfred Russell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and WB Yeats.

Hazelgrove examines the popularity of these beliefs between the wars and is particularly concerned with the image of the medium, who was generally a woman (medium, apparently, is also a feminist issue). As she is writing from a sociological point of view, she is not concerned with the truth or otherwise of Spiritualist claims but only with the existence of Spiritualism and mediums as social facts. Nevertheless, there is enough material in her book to use to reinforce the case against Spiritualism.

Since there is no scientific evidence of life after death, it's reasonable to assume that mediums cannot be contacting the dead. So what are they doing? Some will be out-and-out frauds who are deceiving vulnerable and gullible people as a way of obtaining the money we must all obtain, one way or another, to survive under capitalism. All so-called "materialisation mediums", those who claim to produce physical manifestations of the dead, fall into this category since they will know that they themselves produce the muslin or cheese cloth they call "ectoplasm".

Some of the others will be frauds too, feeding back to their victims information supplied by them or which they have previously researched. Some may be sincere in the same way that a Roman Catholic priest, who will know full well that he is only serving sour wine and dry biscuits to his parishioners in communion, will genuinely believe that he has somehow transformed them into the blood and flesh of Christ. In other words, they will know that they have fished for the answers or have caused the tapping noises but will mistakenly but genuinely believe that this was prompted by their "Spirit Guide" "from the other side". Others will justify their activities as bringing solace to unhappy people (which they do). Yet others will be suffering from a severe mental disorder involving hallucinatory delusions.

As Hazelgrove explains, you can't just become a medium like that. You must have some aptitude for the role and you must be accepted by the Spiritualist community. There was even, between the wars, a special residential school for training mediums. It is clear from the account Hazelgrove gives of the background of some well-known mediums of the inter-war years that mediumship did provide a socially acceptable role for some women who heard voices and saw visions and who would otherwise have ended up in a mental asylum.

Hazelgrove also examines the role of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). This was a society set up by a group of Cambridge academics in 1882 to investigate life after death in a scientific manner. Their basic premise was that this existed and their work consisted in trying to distinguish fraudulent mediums from genuine ones.

Hazelgrove doesn't like them (because they were men investigating women) but she does record the amusing fact that every "psychical researcher's" dream was to find a genuine medium while exposing those allegedly discovered by their rivals as frauds. The overall result was that there was no general agreement that any one was genuinely able to act as a channel between the living and the dead. It never occurred to them that this failure to find a genuine medium might be due to the fact that there is no life after death and that they were therefore never going to find what they were looking for.

ALB

 

The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. Oxford University Paperback.

The concept of a "meme"—a word invented by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene to describe what might possibly be another, but non-biological, "replicator" (something that copies itself) like the gene—is a highly dubious one, especially when starting, as Blackmore does, from the same premise as Dawkins that "memes" are just as "selfish" as genes. All the same, its introduction into the debate on what governs human behaviour does undermine the views of the socio-biologists (who say that even our behaviour in society is governed by our genes) and of the evolutionary psychologists (who argue that we still have the psychology of hunter-gatherers that humans were when we first evolved). This is because a "meme" (which appears to be a fancy name for what used to be called an "idea"), as a unit of cultural as opposed to biological inheritance, allows culture as well as biology to be taken into account as an influence on human behaviour.

And not just behaviour but even the later stages of the biological evolution of homo sapiens. Engels, in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, had already suggested that the hominid capacity to make and use tools would have had an effect on the biological evolution of humans. Blackmore makes the same point in relation to language. Once language began to be used by early forms of homo, whether in tool- making and using or to express complex social relationships, it would have led, through the normal operation of natural selection, to the evolution of a bigger and bigger brain capacity. In other words, the later stages of the biological evolution of our species were not driven purely by biological factors but by the interaction of these with non-biological, cultural factors.

Once this is admitted, as Blackmore rightly insists it should be, it is no longer possible to talk in terms of our physical anatomy, let alone our behaviour in society, being shaped entirely by the action of so-called "selfish genes". In fact, it rather undermines the theory of the selfish gene, which should rather be replaced by that of the stupid gene, since, in evolving homo, genetic evolution led to a life-form that was capable of affecting genetic evolution and has ultimately led to the evolution of another life-form (us) which is not only capable of using non-biological criteria for choosing a mate (and does) but also of manipulating genes through genetic engineering. A rather counter-productive end-result of evolution supposedly driven by genes whose only concern is supposed to be their own survival.

Not that this Blackmore's view. Far from it. She's a great admirer of Dawkins (who writes the Foreword to her book) and her aim is to supplement his theory of the so-called selfish gene with that of the "selfish meme". We are, she says, the puppets not just of our selfish genes as socio-biologists claim but also of our selfish memes which in fact have taken over from our genes:

"The pace of memetic evolution is now so fast, relative to that of human genetic evolution, that we can safely ignore the latter for most purposes. The genes cannot keep up" (p. 162).

Expressed more conventionally, what she is saying is that human evolution is now social and cultural and no longer biological. Our behaviour is not governed by our genes, but by our ideas. Blackmore believes that these ideas (which she calls memes) have an autonomous life of their own (apparently they pushed humans to invent the internet so they could spread more), but in fact our ideas reflect our material conditions and it is changes in these material conditions that lead to changes in our ideas.

Socialists will find the underlying idealism of The Meme Machine annoying, and will disagree even more with the Buddhist conclusion that we should just lie back and let things take their course as nothing is that important, but it is interesting that the milieu of socio-biology should have produced a writer who undermines their views. If they won't take it from us perhaps they'll take it from her that human behaviour is socially determined.

ALB

 

The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine by James Le Fanu. Abacus, 2000.

This intriguingly titled book makes fascinating reading. Le Fanu argues that in the forty or so years following the end of the Second World War the achievements of medicine were prodigious, but that by the beginning of the 1980s "the age of optimism had ended". The first half of the book, which charts the rise of modern medicine, Le Fanu associates with a series of spectacular discoveries and developments, and particularly with "twelve defining moments"—including the discovery of penicillin and cortisone, smoking being identified as the cause of lung cancer, tuberculosis being cured with streptomycin etc, the development of intensive care, open-heart surgery, hip replacement, the prevention of strokes, the cure of childhood cancer. The second half, the fall, he associates with the "blind alleys" of "Social Theory" and "The New Genetics".

It is instructive to note that most of the favourable reviews which are quoted at the beginning of the paperback edition, are especially generous when writing about the first part of the book. And it is easy to see why. Le Fanu juggles his story marvellously, mixing medical history, reflections about the scientific method and enthralling anecdote, skilfully and entertainingly. The first part of the story is essentially descriptive—discussing the combined impact of drug therapy and technological developments in combating disease. In contrast the second part is more polemical, and this more contentious, and reviewers in, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, are generally much happier with exposition than argument. This is especially the case when the argument reveals that the public can be persuaded to believe the most fanciful nonsense, if it is offered by supposedly credible authority figures.

But why the fall? Why did the great advances of the years following 1945 come to an end? First, says Le Fanu, because the rate of introduction of new drugs tell in the 1970s, as the discovery of new biologically important chemicals ended. And, second, because new technological innovations seemed only able "needlessly to prolong the process of dying".

Into the vacuum two new specialities have emerged: genetics and epidemiology. However, says Le Fanu, since genetics is not a particularly significant factor in human disease its impact is limited. But if the author has little faith in the efficacy of genetics, he reserves his most devastating criticisms for epidemiology and the Social Theory that it spawned.

Social Theory seeks to provide not only an explanation for disease, but also to suggest ways of engineering its prevention. For example, if smoking can be shown to be associated with lung cancer, causing people not to smoke will reduce the incidence of the disease. Health promotion (or what Le Fanu calls social engineering) thus becomes associated with changes in lifestyle and diet, and can be seen as the modern-day equivalent of the great sanitary reforms of the late 19th century, which were based on massive civil engineering projects.

Unfortunately much of the so-called evidence which informs current Social Theory is specious. Le Fanu has much fun setting out the way in which eminent scientists, health administrators and politicians have become involved in some of the fictions of the last 20 years, especially those associated with supposed "Diseases of Affluence"—various cancers, strokes, heart disease etc. Thus it turns out that there is no evidence to sustain the supposed link between eating large quantities of meat and dairy products and cancer, even though in the last five years the population of the USA has been spending $3 billion a year on cholesterol-lowering drugs, on the basis of just such a connection. "Together the drug companies and Social Theorists had triumphed."

And there is more, much more. Le Fanu offers convincingly evidence to show that most of the claims that associate diet with disease are at best tendentious half-truths. And whilst he doesn't suggest a conspiracy uniting the leaders of the medical profession, with drug manufacturers and politicians, there is no doubt that the nostrums which underpin Social Theory are consistent with the interests of all three groups, if clearly not with the public-at-large. Socialists will find this unsurprising. Professionals with reputations to preserve frequently find themselves allied to capitalists who want to make money, and politicians anxious to save it. Every politicians knows that prevention is cheaper than cure, especially when the former is paid for by the individual and the latter by the state.

On reviewer reports that "this excellent book" has changed his opinions about modern medicine. It has certainly changed mine.

Michael Gill