Saturday, January 15, 2022

Review: The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins

I read The Jakarta Method over just a few days, but it took me nearly twice that to pinpoint what about this book left me feeling unsatisfied. 

It's very well researched, gathering information from interviews, contemporary reporting in both Western and Third World news outlets, and CIA documentation. These sources are woven together into a gripping narrative. The subject matter — the brutal, relentless, anti-communist international interventions carried out by the United States in the twentieth (and twenty-first...) century — is vital to know, and Americans are grossly, depressingly ignorant of it. The victims of this aggression are humanized, their stories of shattered dreams for a better world are poignant, yet these violent, gory moments are never played for titillation. The events are contextualized well, drawing a line between colonialism/imperialism, communities depleted of their natural resources and finding solutions in communism. It's good investigative journalism.

But it feels like just that. An unusually long investigative article.

With a title like "The Jakarta Method", I was expecting to learn some sort of framework, something like Manufacturing Consent's Propaganda Model. A 12-step plan for a military coup of a socialist government? Seven signs to look for to identify an upcoming CIA-backed extermination of communists? Some other Buzzfeed listicle-ready structure? I had lingering questions: were all anti-communist interventions after the events in Indonesia in 1965 using the Jakarta Method? were there exceptions: "successful" interventions that used some other method? were there unsuccessful attempts at employing the Jakarta Method, and if so, why did they fail? Bevins doesn't have answers for these questions, but then again, he never promised anything more rigourous than an exhaustively-researched, accurately-told story (and he uses that word to describe his work here repeatedly). So maybe that's on me.

Setting aside this disappointment and accepting the book for what it was rather than what it could have been, I did learn a lot. I had a bare bones understanding of events in South East Asia and South America, and this story fleshed out many missing spots. 

That said, I recommend that readers read it with a critical eye. For all that Bevins has been able to dig through the muck of Western reporting to uncover some really ugly truths about American foreign policy, I think he rather fundamentally misunderstands why this aspect of US foreign policy is unknown domestically:

I fear that the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the Cold War was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.

Ah yes, your typical American learns the facts of these events and simply chooses to ignore it out of national pride. 

This naïveté extends from analysis of propaganda and politics in the First World to discussion of the Second World. The same sorts of narratives Bevins questions when applied to Indonesia are not questioned when their subject is the USSR.

In this book, I spent less time discussing the real atrocities carried out by certain communist regimes in the twentieth century. That’s partly because they’re so well known already; it’s mostly because these crimes truly didn’t have much to do with the stories of the men and women whose lives we traced throughout the past one hundred years. But it’s also because we do not live in a world directly constructed by Stalin’s purges or mass starvation under Pol Pot. Those states are gone. Even Mao’s Great Leap Forward was quickly abandoned and rejected by the Chinese Communist Party, though the party is still very much around. We do, however, live in a world built partly by US-backed Cold War violence.

I would, with the above reservations, recommend this book to those interested in learning more about recent history in Indonesia, Chile and Brazil. It's a good story.

These countries were trying to do something very, very difficult. It doesn’t help when the most powerful government in history is trying to stop you. It’s hard to say how they might have reshaped the world if they were truly free to experiment and build something different.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Review: Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin

Mrs Jane Tabby could not explain why all four of her children had wings.

"I suppose their father was a fly-by-night," a neighbour said, and laughed unpleasantly, sneaking round the dumpster."

"Maybe they have wings because I dream, before they were born, that I could fly away from this neighbourhood," said Mrs Jane Tabby.

I loved this little tale. So much fun Ursula Le Guin-style social commentary woven into a really cute story about kittens with wings. Not a word nor a sentence out of place.

I liked best the outrage of the birds at discovering cats that dared ascend into their ranks (and the lack of sympathy felt by the mouse towards the birds
— "you could try tunnels").

Insofar as books about animals leaving their homes in search of a better life elsewhere go, this one is so much better than Watership Down — from a narrative perspective, from an allegorical perspective, from a feminist/not-misogynist perspective that I can't believe anyone bothers reading the latter.

The fish in the creek said nothing. Fish never do. Few people know what fish think about injustice, or anything else.


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Review: F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

I read this novel for the first time shortly after reading Nghi Vo's The Chosen and The Beautiful, a retelling of The Great Gatsby told through the eyes of Jordan Baker but in a magical realism world. I find it impossible to disentangle the two books in my mind -- they share several scenes, and often even exact lines. Where Vo's interpretation examines the choices and societal pressures faced by the female and racialized characters, the original tale looks at Jay Gatsby's obsessive idolization of Daisy and Tom's self-centered possessiveness of Daisy.

The role of women as decorative, sexual objects — to be possessed, obsessed over — was highlighted in several passages that stood out to me. Here, at the death of Tom Buchanan's mistress, her corpse is described in an offputting, vulgar way:
 

when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped a little at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.


Here, two musings from Gatsby, conflating Daisy and treasure:

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.

That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

And:
He had intended, probably, to take what he could and go—but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn’t realize just how extraordinary a “nice” girl could be. She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby—nothing. He felt married to her, that was all.

When they met again, two days later, it was Gatsby who was breathless, who was, somehow, betrayed. Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned toward him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth. She had caught a cold, and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever, and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.


The tone of the story made me think a little of a more modern, more cynical Jane Austen; a critique of the unique problems and snobbery of the Very Rich, woven together with romance, portrayed mainly through conversations in carriages and living rooms. A stand-out scene for me along this theme was the absurd banter as Jordan, Daisy, Tom, Nick and Gatsby discuss who knew who at Tom and Daisy's high society wedding as Tom simmers furiously at Daisy flirting with Gatsby.

The narrator's imaginative, at times romantic, and humorously humorless prose was captivating. I thought a little of Frankenstein — a similar sort of dreamy broodiness.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Review: Take Back The Fight: Organizing Feminism for the Digital Age by Nora Loreto

I got three things out of this book.

First, I learned for the first time, the history of feminism in country of my birth and my citizenship. It's embarrassingly easy to accidentally form ones understanding of politics and history based only on events in the US. This is harmful in three ways: first it becomes too easy to look at failures south of the border and pat oneself on the back and conclude nothing needs to be done because "at least we are better than them." Second, it masks very real, very uniquely Canadian issues. Third, it makes Canadian would-be activists ill-equipped to advocate for their causes: what worked successfully, what didn't, what examples can we draw from? I though Loreto did a fantastic job laying out the story of the NAC and its eventual demise.

Second, I liked her analysis of #MeToo, Slut Walks and other 21st century feminist movements -- what lasting change did they have, and why didn't they have a larger impact? Although I'd lived through them, for many of them I didn't have the political consciousness to really examine at the time. It was fun to revisit, particularly through the lens of identifying what is required for sustained political movements and change.

Third, I enjoyed her argument for the value of debate. Debate within an organization prepares an organization for attacks from outsiders. Debate brings newcomers into the fold. Debate trains the next generation of leaders to think and speak. I was not fully swayed by Loreto that some of this couldn't happen in online spaces -- discord servers, smaller Zoom groups, etc... But I do agree there's value in real world physical togetherness

I felt there was a gap in terms of assessing economic and political structure. Examples of positive change were almost entirely instances of bills being passed. Can we eradicate white supremacy, state violence, and misogyny through the passage of new laws one by one, maintaining the fundamental structure of Canada intact throughout? Or what major systems need to be removed or reinvented from the bottom up? What is the role of feminism versus a movement rooted in class analysis and anti-captialism?

Overall, it was an easy, compelling read, if not necessarily succinct. I'm glad I read it, and would recommend it to Canadian feminists looking for an introductory to moderately advanced read.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Review: Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's The Odyssey

I do a little technical writing translation here and there for a website, after naively answering "yes" to "Hey, you speak French and know this one specific scientific domain, don't you?" I've since learned it's one sort of thing to carry a conversation or write a technical report in a language, and quite another sort of thing to faithfully translate both the tone and the content of words written by someone else within the limits of a restrictive character count.

Humbled by this experience, I was fascinated by Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's The Odyssey, a retelling in contemporary language arranged in iambic pentameter matching the line count of the original poem. These stylistic choices no doubt created quite the linguistic puzzle, but I loved the thought she put behind it, laid out in her translator's note:

The use of noncolloquial or archaizing linguistic register can blind readers to the real, inevitable and vast gap between the Greek original and any modern translation. My use of contemporary language—rather than the English of a generation or two ago—is meant to remind readers that this text can engage us in a direct way, and also that it is genuinely ancient.

She also took a thoughtful approach to how to portray moral values in this very ancient text in a modern, understandable way.

Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. (...)

Because The Odyssey has become such a foundational text in our educational system and in our imagination of Western history, I believe it is particularly important for the translator to think through and tease out its values, and to see the reader to see the cracks and fissures in its constructed fantasy.

This reconsideration of beliefs and mores made it fun to compare other translations, particularly when the poem dealt with feminist topics or relationships between the elite aristocrats and the slaves or the peasants. Here's an example of one of my favourite passages by Wilson, foiled against one by Alexander Pope (1725). The gods have staged an intervention, insisting Calypso allow Odysseus to leave her island, where he has been her captive for seven years.

Wilson's:

You cruel, jealous gods! You bear a grudge 
whenever any goddess takes a man 
to sleep with as a lover in her bed. 
Just so the gods who live at ease were angry 
when rosy-fingered Dawn took up Orion, 
and from her golden throne, chaste Artemis
attacked and killed him with her gentle arrows.
Demeter with the cornrows in her hair
indulged her own desire, and she made love 
with Iasion in triple-furrowed fields
till Zeus found out, hurled flashing flame and killed him.
So now, you male gods are upset with me 
for living with a man. A man I saved! 
Zeus pinned his ship and with his flash of lightning
smashed it to pieces. All his friends were killed 
out on the wine-dark sea. This man alone,
clutching the keel, was swept by wind and wave, 
and came here, to my home. I cared for him
and loved him, and I vowed to set him free
from time and death forever.

Pope:

“Ungracious gods! with spite and envy cursed!
Still to your own ethereal race the worst!
Ye envy mortal and immortal joy,
And love, the only sweet of life destroy,
Did ever goddess by her charms engage
A favour’d mortal, and not feel your rage?
So when Aurora sought Orion’s love,
Her joys disturbed your blissful hours above,
Till, in Ortygia Dian’s winged dart
Had pierced the hapless hunter to the heart,
So when the covert of the thrice-eared field
Saw stately Ceres to her passion yield,
Scarce could Iasion taste her heavenly charms,
But Jove’s swift lightning scorched him in her arms.
And is it now my turn, ye mighty powers!
Am I the envy of your blissful bowers?
A man, an outcast to the storm and wave,
It was my crime to pity, and to save;
When he who thunders rent his bark in twain,
And sunk his brave companions in the main,
Alone, abandon’d, in mid-ocean tossed,
The sport of winds, and driven from every coast,
Hither this man of miseries I led,
Received the friendless, and the hungry fed;
Nay promised (vainly promised) to bestow
Immortal life, exempt from age and woe.

Wilson's translation highlights the agency of the goddesses (compare "indulged her own desire" with "to her passion yield"), emphasizing the double standards the famously promiscuous gods hold towards the goddesses. Calypso's interest in Odysseus is portrayed more as born of love versus an interest born of charity and pity, tinging her enraged censure of the gods with a little more heartbreak.

Another comparison of translations, this time spoken from the perspective of Odysseus' (eye-rollingly) loyal slave upon their reunion, on the subject of the suitors:

Wilson: 

We suffer / in bitter toil for these white-tusked pigs, / while others eat the food we labor for, / and give us nothing.

Samuel Butler (1900):

We have had trouble enough this long time feeding pigs, while others reap the fruit of our labour.

Pope:

For great and many are the griefs we bear, / While those who from our labours heap their board / Blaspheme their feeder and forget their lord.

The focus of Wilson's translation here is on the hardships of the slaves. Butler's is a substantially milder version of Wilson's. In Pope's, these lines serve as a sort of background chorus to emphasize how much the suitors shame Odysseus in his absence.

Reading the text, I felt very conscious that it was a translation. Although the story and the language were both familiar, it had an alien feel to it. There was a lot of unusual imagery ("Dawn's rosy fingers", "wine-dark sea"). There was an inordinate amount of time precisely detailing exactly how each sacrifice to the gods was made. It also felt very apparent that The Odyssey was first and foremost an orally performed epic. Key plot points were repeated several times over—presumably in case the poem wasn't performed in its entirety or someone missed something on a trip to the washroom. Unimportant characters were given a lot of inconsequential backstory—perhaps tying in the events and characters of the story to popular contemporary tales?

And what of the story itself? Classics are funny; you think you've absorbed a reasonably faithful understanding of the text based on triangulation of pop culture references. Sometimes it works out; the various works inspired by Pride & Prejudice provide a pretty good picture for what you'll find following the famous phrase "It is a truth universally acknowledged". On the other hand, pop culture is a terrible coordinate system for Frankenstein and it is similarly a poor mirror for The Odyssey.

I was surprised by how little of The Odyssey was sea monsters and sirens. Indeed of the 24 "books" that divide the poem, only books 5-13 relate to Odysseus' wanderings. This part of the poem starts in medias res, and follows Odysseus for an adventure or two in the third person, until he finds an eager audience to listen to his tale, allowing him to catch us up to his exploits since the Battle of Troy in the first person. This part of the poem felt a little like a musical; characters are given extensive monologue time to impress upon the audience just how impressive (or not impressive) they find Odysseus, while the plot moves from event to event with tenuous or circumstantial links between problems and resolutions. I was surprised at how much the Coen Brother's O Brother Where Art Thou really nailed the tone of this part of the book.

The remaining nearly two thirds of the book have a more forward momentum sort of plot, but it wasn't at all what I expected from The Odyssey. It was your basic vengeance story. The suitors courting Odysseus's wife Penelope are cartoonishly selfish and irredeemable. Odysseus' slaves and dog are obsequiously, irrationally, loyal to him. There are dozens of long scenes dedicated to everyone from Odysseus' son Telemachus to the slave swine-herders to the gods themselves wailing about how much the suitors disrespect Odysseus. There's an odd scene in which a disguised Odysseus is humiliated by the suitors, seemingly just to sweeten his revenge and his displays of superior bowman-ship. This all culminates in a bloody, gruesome, merciless slaughter of the suitors and the slave women who slept with them. The story was reined in from veering into vengeance porn only by virtue of Penelope being a fascinating character and her eventual reunion with Odysseus being really quite sweet. (For the nuanced portrayal of Penelope, I assume I have much to thank Wilson for.)

The main theme linking Odysseus' wanderings and his vengeance was the idea of how you treat guests. Penelope's suitors overstay their welcome and eat their way through Odysseus' wealth. Calypso violates hospitality expectations in the other direction, hosting Odysseus and lavishing him with gifts but refusing to let him leave. Odysseus himself violates the sanctity of one's home; invading Polyphemus' peaceful abode, blinding him and stealing his sheep. Odysseus is a gracious, entertaining guest at Alcinous' palace, and Alcinous inexplicably rewards him with mountains of treasure.

Odysseus is not particularly sympathetic; Wilson translates the opening lines of the epic to describe his as "a complicated man", and "complicated" really captures her portrayal of him.

I'll end my review here with one more quote from Wilson's Translator's Note that I think summarizes what makes this such an interesting read.

The gendered metaphor of the "faithful" translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

Briefly, Zuboff's accounts of the horrors of surveillance capitalism (clandestine collection of data and manipulation of behaviors) and the landmark legal cases surrounding this industry are well-documented but won't contain new stories for anyone already familiar with the topic.

This book isn't without a few good points. The repeated mantra of "who knows? who decides? who decides who decides?" is a good starting point for media/PR criticism. I also agree with Zuboff that using only terms like "monopoly" and "privacy" as grounds for criticizing surveillance capitalism industry leaves us woefully unprepared for battling surveillance capitalism and the commodification of human behavior.

I was hoping she would deliver on the promises she made in the intro: to demonstrate that surveillance capitalism was a separate beast from regular old capitalism. And while she uses terms that make it seem like the nuts and bolts of surveillance capitalism are distinct from capitalism (e.g., "behavioral surplus", "prediction imperative"), I think she really fails at making this argument. Is Google hiding how much data it collects from you really all that different from Apple hiding the conditions of its manufacturing facilities? Is Facebook's attempts to manipulate your emotions or your sense of self-worth really a whole new beast or just another step in the advertising industry's development? Is the desire of surveillance capitalism companies to expand vertically and horizontally into new parts of our lives and into new parts of the world, to privatize or profit off public goods any different from the same expansion drive of any other company? If anything, Zuboff inadvertently convinced me the exact opposite is true: surveillance capitalism is just capitalism.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

It's the mid 2010s, and suddenly, women everywhere discover they can produce and control electricity. This power has a seismic effect on societies across the globe (the parallels with COVID-19 are stark and in some ways prophetic) as people react to the balance of power between men and women is thrown topsy-turvy. The inversion of gender stereotypes is intentionally overt. If the idea of exploring this thought experiment holds no charm for you, it will be a charmless read. 

The story telling is allegorical, both textually and meta-textually. The framing story is one of a (male) writer 5000 years into the future, presenting his well-researched but unorthodox theory for how his contemporary matriarchal society may have arisen. He notes to his (female) colleague that the characters are just instruments he uses to describe what he thinks could have happened. But of course, the characters also play the same role for Alderman in her exploration of gender and power structures.

Being allegorical, the message of the story is more important than the nuances of the character arcs or the world-building. One possible interpretation of its message is that if women were more powerful than men, it would be a matter of just years before the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation. It wouldn't be a technically incorrect interpretation of the plot of the novel, just an obtuse one.

Another interpretation of the message is that there is no possibility of overcoming ingrained sexual or class disparities except through a Pyrrhic victory - only a cataclysmic event in which society must redevelop from the stone age could bring women to the same place of power as men.

The women will die just as much as the men will if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age.

And then we'll be in the the Stone Age.

Er. Yeah.

And then there will be five thousand years of rebuilding, five thousand years where the only thing that matters is: can you hurt more, can you do more damage, can you instill fear?

Yeah?

And then the women will win.

But I do think Alderman is a little more optimistic than that. Change without a cataclysm seems possible for her heretical historian:

The world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent... But we don't have to act that way now. We can think and imagine ourselves differently once we understand what we've based our ideas on.

Through Mother Eve's voice, this change requires collective action:

It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying “It is thus.” But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold. 
 
And this change requires recognizing that men and women are equally prone to violence and vengeance and other destructive tendencies, that it is the centuries or millennia of systemic power differences that produces the behaviours we see now.

I particularly loved the framing story. The little microaggressions from the female reviewer to the male author (including the final line of the book: "Neil, I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman's name?") were amusing, as were her arguments against his theory:

Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women - with babies to protect from harm - have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.

I think it did a fantastic job at showing how our current cultural lens shapes our understanding of history.

This is the trouble with history. You can't see what's not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something's missing, but there's no way to know what it was.

However, I think I enjoy this book more in the rear view mirror. While reading it, I felt like it was overly long, with a rather long, odd and unnecessary "beware of fascism" detour. It could have been a fantastic novella, but it was an okay novel.