New Books

Story of a Big, Inconsistent, Brave Man

407 views
4 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, published by Penguin Random House

“Fellow countrymen,” Lincoln said, “at this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper.” His task today was less about how the nation must move forward than it was about why he believed the war had been fought, and what it meant. He had begun his presidency with a brief on secession and Union—a brief that had included support for a constitutional amendment that would have banned the federal government from abolishing slavery where it existed at the time. He was opening his second term with a searching statement about human nature, the relationship between the temporal and the divine, and the possibilities of redemption and of renewal.

Lincoln acknowledged that mortal powers were limited. “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish,” he said. “And the war came.” The gulf between North and South was so profound, so unbridgeable, that only the clash of arms could decide the contest between freedom and bondage. In a speech that stipulated the ambiguity of the world, Lincoln was unambiguous about why the war had come: slavery. “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it,” the president said. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” There was no escaping this central truth.

Lincoln turned to the perils of self-righteousness and self-certitude, North and South. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God,” he said, “and each invokes His aid against the other.” Then the president rendered a moral verdict: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.” In speaking of the strangeness of profiting from the labor of others—a subtle but unmistakable indictment of slave owners—the president drew on the third chapter of the Book of Genesis: “In the sweat of thy face,” the Lord commanded, “shalt thou eat bread.” Adam and Eve are being expelled from the Garden of Eden; the whole structure of the world as we know it was being formed in this moment. To work for one’s own wealth, rather than taking wealth from others, was the will of God.

In the same breath in which he framed slavery as a violation of God’s commandment, Lincoln invoked the words of Jesus: Judge not. This injunction is found in the Gospel of Matthew, in a plea for forbearance, forgiveness, and proportion: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The president believed he was doing the right thing—yet he knew that those who opposed him believed the same. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully,” Lincoln said of North and South. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln had come to believe that the Civil War might well be a divine punishment—a millstone—for a national sin. The president hoped the strife would soon be over, and the battle won. “Yet,” Lincoln said, “if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’ ” To Frederick Douglass, “these solemn words…struck me at the time, and have seemed to me ever since to contain more vital substance than I have ever seen compressed in a space so narrow.”

Lincoln’s point was a startling one from an American president: God was exacting blood vengeance for the sin of human enslavement in a specific place and a specific time—in the United States of America in the mid-nineteenth century. This was not routine political rhetoric. In the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln was affirming a vision of history as understood in the Bible: that there was a beginning, and there will be an end. In the meantime, the only means available to a nation “under God” to prosper was to seek to follow the commandments of that God.

The alternative? Chaos and the reign of appetite without restriction and without peace. Lincoln once said that “the author of our being, whether called God or Nature (it mattered little which), would deal very mercifully with poor erring humanity in the other, and, he hoped, better world.” Until then, “poor erring humanity” was charged with making its words and work acceptable in the sight of a God who had enjoined humankind to love one another as they would be loved. That is where Lincoln left the matter in his peroration on Saturday, March 4. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

His speech done, Lincoln turned to Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase for the oath of office. The sun came through the clouds. “It made my heart jump!” the president recalled of the breaking light. Lincoln, Noah Brooks wrote, “was just superstitious enough to consider it a happy omen.” A Black man who worked at the Washington Navy Yard, Michael Shiner, recorded the moment in his diary: “The wind ceas[ed] blowing the rain ceased raining and the Sun came out and it was as clear as it could be.”

The chief justice noted the passage of the Bible the president kissed—Isaiah 5:27–28, which reads: “None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken: Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.”

There would be no rest. The wheels turned. The work went on.

Later that afternoon, the president would ask Frederick Douglass what he’d thought of the speech.

“Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass replied, “that was a sacred effort.”

Click here to order your copy of this book

Copyright © 2022 by Merewether LLC

Bibi: Story of Israel Phoenix in His Words

472 views
5 mins read

In Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s sweeping, moving autobiography, one of the most formidable and insightful leaders of our time tells the story of his family, his path to leadership, and his unceasing commitment to defending Israel and securing its future. Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, “Bibi: My Story” published by Simon & Schuster, Inc

Author’s Note: Some details of military and Mossad operations described in the book are excised due to Israeli national security requirements. For the same reason, other such operations, as well as details of certain diplomatic missions, are excluded in their entirety.

What do I remember from my earliest years?

Our house on the corner of Ein Gedi Street in the garden neighborhood of Talpiot in South Jerusalem. It was a one-story home with tall ceilings, shaded by cypress trees. These were the years of spartan austerity that followed the end of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, a year before I was born. Determined to ensure that our family would have enough to eat, my mother raised chicks in our backyard. They were soon devoured by weasels. She found other ways to pamper us. In this she was helped by her friend Tessie from New York, who sent us food packets. What a wonder it was for me as a toddler and my brother Yoni to peer through those packages and discover glistening chocolate bars embedded in nylon stockings, along with other bounties sent to us from that magical land across the sea, America.

Soon, when I was three years old, my brother Iddo arrived. I vividly recall him confined in his crib, wailing in protest as his older brothers played freely around him. Perhaps some constraints on Yoni and me should have been in order: in one of my forays I explored an electrical socket with my mouth and the electrical current tore my upper lip, leaving a permanent scar. Often asked about it, I never claimed it was a battle scar. Those would come later.

Jerusalem in those days resembled more a sleepy town than the sprawling, vibrant metropolis it is today. The quiet Talpiot neighborhood where we lived was home to a few prominent intellectuals, writers and scholars, of which my father, Benzion Netanyahu, was one. As early as I can remember I knew my father worked on something called “the sicklopedia.”

A historian by profession, Father was the editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, which he modeled on the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

We led a comfortable life by Israeli standards because he was handsomely paid for producing a new volume each year. By 1959 the encyclopedia was purchased by 60,000 families out of Israel’s roughly 450,000 households,1 an impressive 14 percent, meriting our reputation as the People of the Book. My father broadened the orientation of the encyclopedia from a narrow Jewish one to one of general knowledge with emphasis on Jewish subjects. Families would wait for the next volume to come out, perusing the entries for their own erudition. The secret to the encyclopedia’s great success, my father said, was clarity. Eighth graders and doctoral students, he said, should be able to read and understand with equal ease complex entries made simple by his rigorous editing. And they did.

Father had a decidedly empirical approach to the search for truth and an intimate familiarity with Jewish history. He once asked his science editor, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, to review an entry on the origin of the universe submitted to the encyclopedia by a British scholar. Leibowitz, later an icon of the Israeli left, was my father’s friend. An eccentric who visited our home frequently, he combined devout religiosity with scientific expertise.

Sometime after my father requested the entry, Leibowitz submitted his edited version of the British scholar’s essay on the various theories of the universe’s creation. My father read it with great interest.

“Leibowitz,” he said, “you crossed out the theory that the universe was created by an omnipotent force. To me that makes as much sense as the other theories. You are, after all, a religious man. Don’t you believe in this possibility?”

“My dear Netanyahu,” Leibowitz said, “from a religious point of view of course I believe it. But scientifically? It doesn’t hold.”

Like his prolific mathematician brother, Professor Elisha Netanyahu, who was among the founding members of the math department at the Technion (Israel’s MIT), Father retained an unquenchable intellectual curiosity until the end of his life. In his nineties, he gave me two books he had just read, the first describing the development of the atom bomb and the second a biography of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist.

In many ways he was an intellectual descendant of our distant relative, the Vilna Gaon, the great Jewish sage who two hundred years earlier instructed yeshiva students to add mathematics and physics to the study of the Scriptures.

As a historian, Father sought the unvarnished truth and went where the facts took him. He would study historical developments with great depth, balancing conflicting theories and data, and only then make up his mind. But once he did, he was fearless in defending his views.

My father’s mentor, Professor Joseph Klausner, lived on a hill around the corner from our house in Talpiot. Klausner was a world-renowned historian of Second Temple Jewish history. He had written two definitive works on the origins of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth and From Jesus to Paul. He was also a great expert on modern Hebrew literature. A linguist, he had invented the modern Hebrew words for “shirt,” “pencil,” and many other terms. The rebirth of the Jewish state required the revival and modernization of ancient Hebrew, a task undertaken by several ingenious scholars, including Klausner.

As small children, Yoni and I of course knew none of this as each Sabbath we made our way to Klausner’s house, on whose door mantel he had inscribed the words “Judaism and Humanism,” the title of one of his books.

Crossing a field, we would pick flowers along the way, which we would give the professor in a fixed ritual. Klausner would greet us at the door, a kindly bespectacled man in his late seventies with a white goateed beard. A widower with no children and living alone, he would always greet us warmly.

“Welcome children,” Klausner would say.

“Shalom Professor Klausner,” Yoni would respond for both of us.

Klausner would then pose the obligatory question: “Tell me, Jonathan, did you come to see me or did you come for the chocolates?”

“Oh no, Professor Klausner,” Yoni would unerringly respond, “I came to see you.”

Klausner would then usher us to the living room, where he would pull out a box of chocolates from a heavy Central European cabinet. We would pick our choices.

Time after time, this procedure guaranteed success. Then a mishap occurred. One Saturday after Yoni assured the professor of the purpose of our visit, Klausner suddenly turned to me and asked, “And what about you, Benjamin? What did you come for?”

Three years old, I had never been confronted by such a question. Totally disoriented, I covered my eyes with my forearm to shield my bewilderment. For lack of a better answer I kept silent, stuck my other hand into my pocket, and thrust a bunch of crumpled flowers at my interrogator.

Klausner smiled. We got the chocolates.

This was not our only encounter with the great minds of the day. Next to our house was a green wooden shack that served as the neighborhood synagogue. As I peered from the outside through the slats, I saw Yoni join the other worshippers who included Klausner, the writer Shai Agnon, who would later receive the Nobel Prize in literature, and others.

“Why are you here alone, Jonathan?” they would ask Yoni.

“I am Aduk,” Yoni answered, using an arcane Hebrew word for ultra-Orthodox.

“And where is your father?” they pressed.

“He is not Aduk.”

That was definitely true, yet although we were a secular family, throughout most of our childhood my parents made Kiddush, kept Shabbat dinner and celebrated all the major Jewish holidays.

The affection that Yoni received from adults was mirrored by the respect he received from the children in the neighborhood. In the face of the unique, children often respond with either extraordinary cruelty or extraordinary respect. In Yoni’s case it was the latter.

I remember him as a small boy surrounded by children almost twice his age. Quiet and serious, he was totally lacking in bravado. He never posed. Yet older children strangely looked up to him in a manner that would follow him throughout his life, until his tragic death.

Click here to order your copy of this book

Story of a Troublemaker: Boris the Chaos

693 views
4 mins read

The following experts adapted from the author’s latest book, Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

‘Success is the child of Audacity.’ ~ Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880, in The Rise of Iskander, published in 1833

On the morning of Tuesday 7 April 2020, I was commissioned by the Daily Mail to write Boris Johnson’s obituary. At 7 p.m. on Monday evening the prime minister had been admitted to the intensive care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital, and nobody knew whether he would pull through. Death laid its icy hand on him, and opinion polls show he received greater public approval and sympathy than at any time before or since. For a few days Johnson was no more the hated Brexiteer, unscrupulous populist and brazen liar, but a fellow human being, equal with any other victim of the pandemic, mortal like the rest of us.

Your eye may have slid smoothly over the last phrase, but you, dear reader, will die soon enough, as will the author of this book. The glories of our blood and state are shadows, not substantial things. So says the poet, and I have tried while writing about Johnson, as insatiable a glory-seeker as our times can show, to bear in mind that he is also a man.

But an extraordinarily difficult man to write about. When I asked my children, then aged twenty-five, twenty-one and nineteen, if I could dedicate this book to them, provided I put in a line about their having slight reservations about Johnson, one of them replied: ‘Only if you say we think he’s a vile, disgusting human being.’ Boris Johnson inspires in many people a profound and implacable aversion; in many others the warmest affection and support. I do not aspire to change anyone’s mind about him: that would be a vain endeavour. But I do hope, perhaps just as presumptuously, to write a book which partisans on both sides will reckon is fair, and can read with amusement.

A great, maybe insoluble problem at once arises. As soon as I start to explain why Johnson has not, at certain times in his career, been a total failure, I open myself to the charge of seeking to ignore or extenuate his faults. But any sympathy that I extend to him (and I do not think he can be understood without a degree of sympathy) is liable to be dismissed by his admirers as pitifully inadequate.

There was no time to worry about all that while writing his obituary for the Daily Mail, which at a time of national shock and mourning would expect, I assumed, an account which at least ended on a relatively favourable note. This, roughly speaking, is what I sent them:

Boris Johnson loved the Chumbawamba song, ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down.’ He was often knocked down, but until his life was cut short by Covid-19 always got back up again. Johnson was far less cautious than the usual run of career politician, took risks which onlookers regarded as mad, but came back from blows which would have crushed a less resilient figure.
On entering the Commons in 2001 as MP for Henley, he decided, in defiance of all prudent advice, to remain editor of The Spectator. Senior politicians and pundits warned him that riding two horses was bound to end in tears. He defied their predictions, and at first all went well. He became more and more famous, and at the start of September 2004, Vanity Fair billed him as ‘the Tory MP who could one day be Britain’s prime minister’.

Michael Woolf, who wrote that magazine’s profile, likened him to two famous actors who had gone into politics: ‘He is, it occurs to me, as he woos and charms and radiates good humour, Ronald Reagan. And Arnold Schwarzenegger… He is, I find, inspirational.’ No other Conservative MP could have been compared to Reagan, one of the most successful (though at first derided) post-war American presidents, or to Schwarzenegger, then serving as governor of California. Johnson had an astounding ability to connect with the wider public. He had star quality, and the Conservatives began to think he might be the leader who could end Labour’s decade of success under Tony Blair.

In the summer of 2004 I started work on my first volume about Johnson, published in 2006 and updated in 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2016. As recounted in the introduction to that work, he was at first tremendously keen on the idea of a book all about him (‘Such is my colossal vanity that I have no intention of trying to forbid you’), but then got cold feet (‘Anything that purported to tell the truth really would be intolerable’) and offered me £100,000 to abandon the project, which I, annoyed by his assumption that I could be bought, turned down.

In October 2004, The Spectator published an editorial in which it abused the people of Liverpool and made several atrocious mistakes about the Hillsborough disaster. There was uproar, and Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader, who was a Liverpool fan, was warned that the next time he went to a game he would be booed. Howard was furious and ordered Johnson to go and apologise to the people of Liverpool, speaking only to the local media. This Johnson did, but the national press were determined to cover the story too, and during his visit to the city a media scrum developed which amused the watching nation, but made Howard look ridiculous.

Worse soon followed. Johnson dismissed press reports of his affair with Petronella Wyatt as ‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’, the press proved he was lying and Howard, who had only a few months previously promoted him to the post of shadow arts spokesman, now sacked him. By the end of 2004, Johnson’s political career lay in ruins. Many of his fellow Tory MPs, jealous of his fame and angered by his neglect of parliamentary duties, had concluded he was hopelessly dishonest and unreliable.

So when Howard lost the 2005 general election to Blair, and resigned the Tory leadership, Johnson was in no fit state to mount a bid for the vacant post, and instead supported David Cameron, who came through and won. Cameron had been junior to him at Eton, junior to him at Oxford, had a less original mind and, until becoming leader, was less famous than Johnson, who had reached the wider public by giving a series of brilliantly amusing performances on Have I Got News For You.

Click here to order your copy of this book

Yu Enguang: A Man behind China’s Global Spy Game

933 views
4 mins read

The following excerpts are adapted from the author’s new book, Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World published by Hardie Grant Books

Yu Enguang’s story has never previously been told. Before his death in 2013, he rose into the highest ranks of China’s intelligence community. He was instrumental in creating the organisations, practices and culture that make influence operations by today’s Ministry of State Security so successful. The MSS continues to emulate the boldness Yu showed as he engaged directly with an international power player, turning Soros’s dream of an open society in China into a source of funds, legitimacy and cover for influence operations.

The China International Culture Exchange Center that Yu led was an MSS-run front organisation, custom-built for engaging with foreigners like Soros. Nearly forty years later, it’s still in active operational use.

To foreigners who met him, Yu seemed like a man deeply interested in and acquainted with the capitalist world, not some paranoid Stalinist. He was a witty and memorable character, skilled at interacting with targets and adept at English – something that stands out in all accounts. While posted to America undercover as a Xinhua journalist, he charmed a Washington Post reporter with his commentary on the Cantonese meal they were sharing. He’d been trained well – the ability to introduce Chinese cuisine to foreigners was specifically drilled into Chinese spies during their English-language courses.

Yu made a mark on Soros representative Liang Heng too, who was persuaded to accept MSS control over the China Fund: ‘The impression Yu gave me was quite good. He was about fifty, tall, with strong eyebrows, big eyes and a sophisticated manner and he talked pragmatically … he’d been to many countries, seen and experienced much, and spoke fluent English.’3 Soros likewise bonded with him, despite some apprehension about his special background. Both of them had lived in London and Soros liked the British accent of Yu’s English.

Yu was not just any MSS officer. At the time he was a vice minister of the agency and among the Communist Party’s top foreign intelligence officers. Few within the agency could rival the depth of his overseas experience. Most of all, his operations in hostile capitalist nations taught him that loyalty to the Party came before all else. Only a politically secure officer would feel comfortable ‘dropping cover’ by revealing his MSS affiliation to Liang and Soros. This is also reflected in the fact that he was trusted to represent the MSS abroad, where he built partnerships with foreign intelligence agencies such as in Afghanistan.

But who was he, really? The first two decades of his spy career were spent embedded in the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, giving him rare opportunities to travel the world. In the 1970s he worked in Xinhua’s London bureau for eight years. One Thai woman living in London who met him at a Chinese embassy function noted that ‘he often worked at home late at night writing dispatches’. Clearly, he had more on his plate than journalism.

From London he was reassigned to the United States, which had only recently opened diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). During the Carter and Reagan years he headed the newly established Xinhua bureau in Washington, DC, overseeing coverage of the White House. ‘While I tirelessly reported on the activities and speeches of Carter, Mondale, Reagan and Bush and other key White House figures, I also observed many phenomena and gathered many materials,’ he reflected years later in a compilation of his US reportage, which doesn’t reveal his MSS affiliation. Hinting at his dual life as a spy and a journalist, he wrote that it was a job where most achievements were ‘fragile goods, and hard to attach to my name’. By 1985, while he was officially deputy director of the Xinhua department responsible for foreign correspondents, he was in fact probably leading an entire bureau of MSS officers.

Dual identities

Yet ‘Yu Enguang’ may not have existed at all. MSS officers use pseudonyms throughout their careers, even as vice ministers. These aliases often read like puns on their true names, with characters dissected and jumbled into new ones, or surnames replaced with homophones.

Yu is no exception. Though one writer on Chinese espionage assumed they were different people, little-known MSS vice minister Yu Fang looks identical to Yu Enguang. In the only published photo of Yu Fang, taken after his retirement, he stands with the same slouch, wears the same belt and dons the same pair of shaded glasses as Yu Enguang. Both reportedly studied at Renmin University and grew up in Liaoning province in China’s northeast. Yu Enguang was just a pseudonym for Yu Fang.

Among his comrades in the MSS, Yu Fang was just as respected as ‘Yu Enguang’ was by the targets he cultivated. At some point in his career he headed the agency’s important central administrative office, and in the early nineties helped secure the passage of China’s first National Security Law, which expanded and codified MSS powers. The authors of several MSS publications, marked for internal distribution only, thank him for advising on and improving their drafts. He also oversaw MSS production and censorship of histories, TV dramas and movies about spies, which were designed to build public awareness and support for the MSS’s mission.

Ironically for a man who helped bring Chinese intelligence history into the public sphere, Yu’s true legacy is an official secret. Official references to his achievements are brief and elliptical. The authoritative People’s Daily eulogised him in 2013, an honour only a handful of intelligence officers receive: ‘In his sixty years of life in the revolution, Comrade Yu Fang was loyal to the Party, scrupulously carried out his duties and selflessly offered himself to the Party’s endeavours, making important contributions to the Party’s state security endeavour.’ The article also noted that he’d been a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislature, but lists of delegates include only his pseudonym.

The MSS seizure of the China Fund was an impressive display of the agency’s confidence in engaging with one of America’s best-connected and wealthiest men. What it learnt could be applied to future operations as the agency grew more aggressive and internationally focused over the following decade. But it was far from a flawless effort: exposing Yu Enguang and CICEC as arms of the MSS leads to a string of covert operations against the United States, continuing right to the present day.

Soros had at first accepted the management change at his China Fund as a necessary cost of operating in China. Liang Heng claims he told Soros the truth about Yu’s identity in 1988. The MSS and Ministry of Public Security ‘were co-equal and they couldn’t interfere in each other’s affairs’, Soros argued in 2019, but partnering with the MSS offered quite the opposite of protection in the end. He may have thought he could handle the situation, that his ties to Party leaders could override the conservative proclivities of their spies. After all, his political philanthropy was thriving in Hungary and the Soviet Union despite their security agencies having been formed in the same ideological mould as the MSS.

Views expressed are personal

Click here to order your copy of this book

Mystique of Cannabis

/
904 views
4 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, Marijuana on My Mind: The Science and Mystique of Cannabis, published by Cambridge University Press

Martin was an intelligent and cocky young man whose father hoped therapy would help him cut down his cannabis use and mature enough to take over the family’s successful road construction business. Martin only wanted me to help him get away from his father. He was convinced that his cannabis use was part of a healthy life, and he constantly tried to prove that he knew more about the plant than I did. In fact, he did know far more than I about the latest varieties of cannabis and new methods of cultivation. I allowed him to be the expert about what was available at his favorite dispensaries, while I was more interested in hearing how it altered his mind. He dismissed my concerns as those of an old man, but he tolerated me because he liked to argue. In the end, he didn’t change his cannabis use, but he did gradually develop a better relationship with his family and returned home to manage the business when his father suffered a heart attack.

I saw an interesting and warm man beneath Martin’s arrogant exterior, and he knew I liked him. He arrived at our final session with a small, neatly wrapped gift and insisted I open it immediately. Inside the box was a dried cannabis bud resting on a royal purple, velvet pillow. It looked like a giant, withered, alien Brussels sprout (Figure 2.1). Martin proudly pronounced, “This is the best bud I have ever found, with a really spiritual high. You should know about it.”

I told Martin I appreciated the thought and knew he was giving me something precious, then closed the box and placed it back on the end table next to his chair. I handed it back to him as we shook hands when he left my office, but then I found it on the floor just outside my door when the next patient arrived. As I picked up the box, I said, “Drug reps are always leaving me little trinkets,” but I knew Martin’s gift was more heartfelt than the usual swag left by drug companies. I eventually encased the bud in a plexiglass cube and set it on my bookshelf beside the Freud action figure another patient had given me.

Figure 2.1 Dried cannabis flower, also called marijuana or bud.

The History Behind Today’s Cannabis

The dried bud Martin ceremoniously presented to me descended from a unique plant with a history that long predates humanity. Cannabis first emerged nearly 30 million years ago on the high-altitude, arid grasslands of Tibet, where it diverged from hops, its closest relative best known for flavoring beer. Cannabis became unique among Earth’s vegetation by developing chemical compounds never seen before. Like all flowering plants, different varieties of cannabis evolved, some with revolutionary new chemistry and some without. Marijuana on My Mind focuses on those varieties that developed medicinal and mind-altering properties. The varieties of cannabis lacking this chemistry, called hemp, evolved strong, flexible fibers that humans have used for a wide range of utilitarian purposes for the past 10,000 years.

Hemp arrived in the New World 53 years after Columbus first landed, but it is less clear when the smokable, intoxicating varieties of cannabis were imported. What we call marijuana today was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands by kidnapped Africans. The British also imported cannabis, primarily to pacify their slaves. It then arrived in the USA along four primary routes. Patent medicines from pharmaceutical companies containing cannabis extracts were popular through the mid- to late 1800s. Many Americans had their first puff of hash at the exotic Turkish Village in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Marijuana also arrived with sailors, Caribbean migrants filtering into New Orleans, and asylum seekers fleeing Mexico’s violent revolution in 1910, primarily through El Paso. All the derogatory racial stereotypes that white Americans held regarding brown and Black people were quickly ascribed to marijuana as well. Its use by despised and feared minorities was alien to white American culture and reinforced prejudice against immigrants. Smokable cannabis and racism were intertwined from the very beginning, until white youth cracked the mold in the 1960s.

Before the Mexican-Spanish word “marihuana” first entered English usage, “cannabis” and variants of “hash” were the only terms used. Bristol Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly listed cannabis and cannabis extracts as ingredients in their medicines during the 1800s. The word “marijuana” was later popularized in racially derogatory stories about Mexican refugees. When Pancho Villa and his bandoliered men briefly invaded New Mexico in 1916, they openly flaunted their pot use as they sang creative verses of “La Cucaracha” that included cockroaches smoking marijuana. But Pancho Villa’s greater crime was when his support of land reform wrested 800,000 acres of timberland from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst during Mexico’s uprising against foreign capitalist control. Hearst, who owned 8 million acres of Mexican land, used his media empire to strike back against the rebels by luridly sensationalizing both the Mexicans and marijuana.

In 1920, the USA joined Norway, Finland, and Russia in banning alcohol. This grand experiment of prohibition failed and was reversed in 1933, both because of the public’s widespread disregard for the law and state governments’ thirst for new tax revenue during the Great Depression. The Federal Bureau of Prohibition’s assistant commissioner, Harry Anslinger, had become commissioner of the new Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. He initially had little interest in leading a campaign against what he saw as a mere weed; he insisted that cannabis was not a problem, did not harm people, and that “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea that it makes people violent. His mind changed with the deepening economic depression and end of alcohol prohibition. Fears that Mexican migrants might take scarce jobs intensified racial prejudice and combined with bureaucratic mission creep after alcohol was relegalized. William Randolph Hearst paved the way for Anslinger’s conversion to antimarijuana crusader by publishing a steady stream of stories about the evils of marijuana that reached 20 million daily readers during the 1930s. Hearst needed to sell newspapers, and racially charged descriptions of violent and sexual crimes caused by this killer weed sold very well.

Click here to order your copy

© Cambridge University Press 2022

Churchill and His Crimes: The Indian Cauldron

1005 views
8 mins read

The following excerpts are adapted from the author’s later book, Winston Churchill – His Times, His Crimes, published by Verso Books, the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world, publishing one hundred books a year.

Life: enough of this poetry

We need hard, harsh prose;

Silence the poetry-softened noises;

Strike with the stern hammer of prose today!

No need for the tenderness of verse;

Poetry: I give you leave of absence;

In the realm of hunger, the world is prosaic

The full moon is scalded bread.

Sukanta Bhattacharya, ‘Hey Mahajibon’ (O, Great Life) (1944)

During the interwar period India was in a state of continuous turmoil. The reforms of 1919 – which had promised increased political participation of Indians in government but denied them power – were regarded by most Indians as ill-intentioned and offering very little. In Parliament in 1917, Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, had declared ‘the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire’. The result was a build up of pressure from below.

The British Empire clearly faced a choice: it could grant India dominion status or it could rule largely through repression. The failure to grant the first necessitated the second.

The Pashtuns, Punjabis, Bengalis and Malabari (now Keralans) saw the rise of mass movements and terrorism on the pre-revolutionary Russian model. Peaceful marches were violently broken up by the police. The 1919 massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar is the best known, but there were others. The Moplah peasant uprising in Malabar in 1924 was deliberately misinterpreted by Raj ideologues. The Chittagong Armoury Raid in April 1930 was an audacious attempt to seize police and auxiliaries’ weapons and launch an armed uprising in Bengal. The raiders were revolutionaries of various sorts, united by the belief that only an armed struggle inspired by the Easter Rising of 1916 (they called themselves the IRA: Indian Republican Army) could rid them of the British. The plan was to take government and military officials hostage in the European Club where they hung out after work, seize the bank, release political prisoners, destroy the telegraph offices and telephone exchanges and cut off all railway communications.

They partially succeeded, but could not capture the British officers and civil servants. It was Good Friday. The European Club was empty. Despite this, the main leader of the uprising, Surya Sen, assembled their forces outside the police armoury, where he took the salute as IRA members (numbering under a hundred) paraded past him. They hoisted the Indian flag and declared a Provisional Revolutionary Government. The British swiftly took back control and guerrilla warfare ensued. The IRA was outnumbered. A traitor gave away Sen’s hiding place. He was captured, tortured and, together with another comrade, hanged. Other prisoners were packed off to the Andaman Islands.

In Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, a twenty-two-year-old, Bhagat Singh, who hailed from a staunch anti-imperialist family, decided with a handful of supporters to carry out two missions in 1930. The aim of the first was to assassinate the British police officer who had badly beaten up the nationalist leader, Lala Lajpat Rai, at a demonstration in Lahore. But they shot the wrong police officer. The second was to throw a few bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi when it was empty. Bhagat Singh declared they did so because they wanted the noise of the blast to wake up India.

In prison he became a communist and wrote that terrorist tactics were not useful, but he refused to plead for mercy. Gandhi half-heartedly spoke on his behalf to Lord Irwin, the liberal Viceroy, but was rebuffed. Bhagat Singh and two comrades, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru (all members of the tiny Hindustan Republican Socialist Party), were hanged in Lahore Jail in 1931.

There were similar events on a lesser scale elsewhere, and peasant uprisings too, the largest of which, in modern Kerala, shook the landlords and their British protectors. The peasants were mainly poor Muslims. They were defeated and the leaders of the revolt despatched to the Andamans for fifteen years. In 1935, the British realised the seriousness of the situation and passed a second Government of India Act through the House of Commons.

Churchill was vehemently opposed to the new law but was out of office. The Act provided for a controlled provincial autonomy, with the governors in each province holding reserve powers to dismiss ‘irresponsible’ governments. The tiny franchise was somewhat enlarged, and in 1937 the dominant Congress Party virtually swept the board in provincial elections, with the crucial exceptions of the Punjab and Bengal where secular-conservative, landlord-run parties obtained majorities.

Within two years of these elections Britain was at war. The Congress leaders, astounded that they had not been consulted before India was dragged into the war, instructed all their provincial governments to resign in protest and refused to offer support for the war. All this confirmed Churchill’s prejudices. He simply refused to grasp Indian realities.

The volume of protests and resistance from the end of the First World War till the late thirties had been rising with each passing year. Gandhi himself, in his South African phase, was a staunch Empire-loyalist. His view that ‘the British Empire existed for the benefit of the world’ neatly coincided with that of Churchill, and the Indian lawyer was not in the least embarrassed at acting as a recruiting sergeant during the First World War. He moderated these views when he returned to India and reinvented himself as a political deity. He was happy to mobilise the masses, but on a ‘moral level’. He would leave statecraft to the politicians, mainly Nehru and Patel. Though when they needed his imprimatur during crisis times (Partition and the Indian occupation of Kashmir), he always obliged.

Gandhi’s decision to make the Congress a mass party by appealing to the vast countryside had increased its size and political weight. In an overwhelmingly Hindu country, Gandhi had used religious symbols to mobilise the peasantry. This began to alienate Muslims, and since the Brahmins dominated the Congress leadership, the ‘untouchables’ knew their grievances would never get a hearing. Despite this, Gandhi, Patel and Nehru built a formidable political machine that covered the whole of India. The 1937 elections demonstrated as much, and it’s worth pointing out that in the north-western frontier province bordering Afghanistan, the predominantly Muslim Pashtuns had voted for the Congress Party as well.

The decision to take India into the Second World War without consulting its only elected representatives was yet another avoidable error on London’s part. The British underestimated the change in mood among the masses and some of their leaders. Had they consulted Gandhi and Nehru, offering them a fig-leaf to support the war, things might have panned out differently. The Congress leaders felt they had been treated shabbily and, after internal discussions that lasted a few months (revealing a strong anti-war faction led by the Bengali leader, Subhas Chandra Bose), they opted to quit office.

The British Viceroy immediately began to woo the Muslim League, and vice versa. The League’s leader gave full-throated backing to the war as did the conservative pro-British elected governments in Punjab and Bengal.

When, on 22 December 1939, the Congress Party announced its decision to resign and did so a week later, Jinnah declared that henceforth 22 December should be celebrated as a ‘day of deliverance’ from Congress rule. Ambedkar, the ‘Untouchables’ leader, provided strong backing, saying he ‘felt ashamed to have allowed [Jinnah] to steal a march over me and rob me of the language and the sentiment which I, more than Mr Jinnah, was entitled to use.’ Surprisingly, Gandhi also sent his congratulations to Jinnah for ‘lifting the Muslim League out of the communal rut and giving it a national character’. Little did he know where this would lead.

Emboldened by the emergence of an anti-Congress minority, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow expressed some optimism:

In spite of the political crisis, India has not wavered in denunciation of the enemy in Europe, and has not failed to render all help needed in the prosecution of the war. The men required as recruits for the Army are forthcoming: assistance in money from the Princes and others continues to be offered: a great extension of India’s effort in the field of supply is proceeding apace.

With this in mind, Linlithgow was confident he could survive the storm. When the Congress ministers resigned en masse, the Viceroy ordered the arrest of its leaders and activists. They were released in December 1941 as the British attempted to reach some accommodation. Gandhi was carefully studying the development of the war in Europe as well as Japanese moves closer to the region, and wondering whether the British might be able to hold out. He was not yet sure. The local impact of Operation Barbarossa was the release of imprisoned Communist Party leaders and militants, who now came out openly in support for the war. Gandhi continued to wait. It was the humiliation inflicted on the British in Singapore in February 1942 that led to a change of course. The Congress leaders began to think about calling for a Quit India movement and, in this fashion, declared their own (partial if not complete) independence from the British. Gandhi had engineered Bose’s isolation within the Congress, but he was very critical of Nehru’s anti-Japanese militancy. Nehru had suggested that Congress should organise armed militias to fight against the Japanese were they to take India. Gandhi reprimanded him strongly. He should not forget that Japan was at war with Britain, not India.

In contrast to Gandhi’s handwringing and delays, the Bengali Congress leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, always deeply hostile to the notion of offering any support to the British war, went on the offensive. Of the entire Congress high command, he was the most radical nationalist. He began to work out a master plan that owed more to the organisers of the Chittagong Armoury Raid than to Gandhi. Bose did not believe that peaceful methods could prevail. They were fine at certain times, but the situation was now critical. Britain had insulted India by taking its young men away once again to fight in inter-imperialist wars. Bose wanted to create an Indian National Army and began to explore all possibilities.

In 1942 Churchill agreed that Sir Stafford Cripps, the left-wing, former ambassador to Moscow, be sent to India to meet with Nehru, Gandhi and other leaders and plead with them to help Britain. If they agreed, he could offer a verbal pledge of independence after the war. However, before Cripps could depart, bad news came from South-East Asia: Singapore had fallen. Churchill blamed the men in the field. The British Army had not fought back effectively: ‘We had so many men in Singapore – so many men – they should have done better.’ As stressed above, it was a huge blow.

Cripps arrived in India, but few were willing to listen to his message. Jinnah’s Muslim League and the Communist Party were backing the war, but so speedy was the Japanese advance that Gandhi genuinely believed they might soon be negotiating Indian independence with Hirohito and Tojo rather than Churchill and Attlee. When Cripps insisted he was offering Congress a ‘blank cheque’ they could cash after the war, Gandhi famously riposted: ‘What is the point of a blank cheque from a failing bank?’

After Cripps returned empty-handed, Churchill pinned his hopes for a stable Indian army largely on Jinnah and Sikandar Hyat Khan, the leader of the Unionist Party and elected Premier of the Punjab, a province crucial to the war effort in terms of manpower and for being the granary of India. When, after Cripps’s return, Churchill said ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’, he was expressing a long-held view, but in this instance was referring to the Hindus who had badly let him down.

Click here to order your copy of this important book

All rights reserved © Tariq Ali 2022

The Central Bank as an Organization

662 views
4 mins read

Following excerpts adapted from Tumultuous Times: Central Banking in an Era of Crisis by Masaaki Shirakawa published by Yale University Press. This is a rare insider’s account of the inner workings of the Japanese economy, and the Bank of Japan’s monetary policy, by a career central banker. 

Independence and accountability are indispensable building blocks of the framework for governing central banks in democratic societies. This incentivizes the central bank to achieve the stability of the currency in the long term, but it does not necessarily guarantee the actual delivery of a good outcome. Ultimately, it depends on whether or not the central bank actually makes the right decisions. Of course, it is not realistic to expect the central bank to be an infallible institution; our goal should instead be to make it less susceptible to making wrong decisions. Like any other institution, the central bank is an organization composed of people and characterized by its own unique culture. There are many organizational issues that are worthy of serious consideration.

CENTRAL BANKERS AND MEDICAL DOCTORS

Alan Greenspan, the onetime chair of the Federal Reserve Board (FRB), was once described as a “maestro” . This metaphor, though quite famous, does not fit well with what I understand the central bank governor to be, because the word “maestro” unduly emphasizes the great talent and skill of a single individual. To state the obvious, the central bank is an organization, and it is not and should not be dominated by a single person, as the knowledge and ability of a single person is inherently limited. Furthermore, the economy is not something that can be orchestrated freely through monetary policy.

I have come across numerous metaphors describing the job of the central banker. One example is that of an airplane pilot.1 When confronted with sudden troubles in the sky, pilots in the cockpit quickly need to make the right decisions. The same applies to the central banker when private financial institutions become insolvent during a financial crisis or when the functioning of financial markets is disrupted by natural disasters or computer breakdowns.

But important differences exist between a pilot and the central bank governor. As for the decision by the pilot, the time allowed in the face of imminent danger is very short. There are usually no experts on the airplane other than the pilot and the copilot once it leaves the runway. As for decisions by central bankers, the time allowed is usually longer than seconds or minutes. Further, we can tap on the wisdom of experts outside the central bank. Many people—both experts and self-proclaimed experts—express their views, and some of them are quite vocal. In fact, I suspect differences of opinion among experts are much bigger as regards monetary policy. While passengers of an airplane do not have a choice other than to leave their destiny in the hand of the pilot, the general public does not give the central bank such carte blanche.

If I were pressed to give my favorite metaphor for describing the job of the central banker, without hesitation I would choose that of the central banker as medical doctor. As doctors take care of the health of people, central bankers take care of the health of the economy—both in terms of price stability and financial stability. The biggest similarity is that both jobs presuppose an enduring relationship of trust with the beneficiaries of the services in order to do the jobs properly. Patients go to their regular doctors, as they know that the doctors can be trusted through a long-standing relationship. When we need to have surgery, doctors explain the efficacies and possible side effects beforehand, and we give our consent as we are confident that they are making an accurate diagnosis and proposing the best treatment. The same is true for monetary policy. The public’s trust of the central bank is vitally important. What constitutes such trust is twofold: the central banker makes his or her best judgment as an expert and then implements the best policies based on this judgment. Another similarity between medical doctors and central bankers is that the level of knowledge when making recommendations is often limited; both the bodies of human beings and the working of the economy and financial system are that complex.

Though there are many similarities between central bankers and medical doctors, one important difference exists. While patients can choose a doctor from a group of doctors, the general public cannot choose its central banker. That is why the public governance mechanism of the central bank—independence and accountability—is put in place. Independence makes it possible for the central bank to take monetary policy measures that it judges to be the right ones. This is necessary but not sufficient. The central bank actually has to have the ability to make the right decisions. Otherwise, an independent central bank can cause a disaster.

THE LEGITIMACY OF CENTRAL BANK INDEPENDENCE

In a democratic society, what is the legitimacy of a group of unelected officials at the central bank conducting monetary policy? Of course, the central bank is entitled to independence by law. But this legalistic answer is not complete. Central bank independence can be stripped if the country’s politicians and ultimately its citizens wish to do away with it. Furthermore, legal independence is not the same as de facto independence. In fact, the Japanese inflation rate was lower in the 1980s than that in West Germany with an independent Deutsche Bundesbank, despite the fact that the Bank of Japan did not have legal independence.

The legal independence of the central bank is a manifestation of the fact that people at large, recognizing the importance of price stability and financial stability, are prepared to delegate the task of achieving those goals to the central bank. Just stipulating independence in the central bank law is not enough; societal support for that independence is fundamentally necessary.

But the public at large understandably does not bestow such societal support for the central bank without actually enjoying good macroeconomic performance. This is a “chicken or the egg” problem. In any event, the legitimacy of the independent central bank depends on the public having a sense of trust that the central bank is competent and faithful in achieving its mission. The central bank is, like any other institution, formed by people, characterized by its unique culture, and influenced by subtle group dynamics. This means that, on top of public governance of the central bank, we have to pay sufficient attention to it from an organizational or administrative perspective.

Click here to order your copy of this book

Indonesia: Echoes of Munir’s Unstoppable Soul

552 views
5 mins read

This is a chilling work of true crime about the midair murder of a human rights activist, set against a riveting political drama in the world’s fourth-largest nation. Following excerpts adapted from We Have Tired of Violence: A True Story of Murder, Memory, and the Fight for Justice in Indonesia written by Matt Easton, published by The New Press. – Edts

Munir told a story. A few months before, an immigration officer had stopped him as he was trying to depart for Geneva. The man told him he was banned from leaving Indonesia. Unsure if the officer was following a genuine order or fishing for a bribe, Munir took out his phone. He called General Hendropriyono, the head of the State Intelligence Agency. Munir had recently asked a court to bar Hendropriyono from that job due to his role in a massacre years before. The effort had only succeeded in angering the general, but he answered when Munir called and assured him he was free to leave the country. As Munir described handing his phone to the wide-eyed immigration officer to hear for himself, the group burst out laughing around the box of donut holes. Suci smiled as her husband drained a threat of power, and made it, somehow, seem funny.

***

Soon after midday prayers the next day, Suci answered her home phone. It was Usman Hamid, Munir’s friend and successor at the human rights group KontraS.

“Suci, where are you now?” he asked.

“I’m at home. Don’t you know you called my home?” Her voice rose: “What is it, Usman?”

“Suci, have you heard the news about Munir?” Usman stammered. His voice was shaky and hoarse.

She hadn’t, and Munir really should have texted or called her by now from Amsterdam.

Usman told her, simply, “Munir has died.”

Suci felt as if she’d fallen from high up in the clouds onto hard earth. A darkness choked her, and her legs felt weak. Suci struggled to think. She needed to know what happened. She needed to prove it wasn’t true. Decades of censorship and lies, followed by years of political turmoil, had created an environment ripe for rumors in a village of 10 million like Jakarta. Many arose spontaneously, sometimes compared to mushrooms in the rainy season. More often, rumors were crafted to threaten and frighten.

Suci would not believe Munir was dead until she saw his body herself or spoke to someone who had. Her disbelief came not just from years of rumor and threat. She could not accept that someone she felt to be a part of her soul could be gone in an instant. Her suspicion and denial grew as Suci called the airports, the airline, and friends in the Netherlands. No one would confirm the rumor. No one would tell her anything at all. On her fourth call to Amsterdam, she erupted at a Garuda employee, “I have a right to information about my husband!”

There was a long pause, before the man whispered, “Yes. Yes, he’s dead.”

Had he seen the body, seen it with his own eyes? He had.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone I told you.”

***

Photo: Munir sits with Suciwati and his former driver Sugiarto at Jakarta’s airport shortly before his departure. (Poengky Indarti)

Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Students’ Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam, or HMI). HMI had recently split, and Munir joined the more pro-Suharto faction. He was not just a supporter of the president, but a militant one, often clashing with street activists demanding democracy or human rights. They generally fought through public debates, wherein Munir earned a fearsome reputation, and student government races, but the competition grew tense. Munir considered himself a soldier in a religious war, and by his own account carried a knife in his bag in these years, ready to fight. Munir might have developed into a lifelong pro-Suharto ideologue or a religious hard-liner.

But not long after arriving at college, friends, books, teachers, and his own curious mind began challenging his constricted views. He enjoyed taking the pro-government side when arguing with the radical street activists, but some of their arguments were persuasive. Munir also began excavating the history of HMI. He was surprised to discover its founding documents were almost radical in their challenge to state authority and capitalism. Drafted in 1960 by an influential and progressive Muslim intellectual named Nurcholish Majid, they used the Quran and the Hadiths to argue that Muslims should side with the oppressed.

Click here to have your copy of this book

Ouverture: Living in a Topsy-Turvy World

1087 views
4 mins read

Contemporary life is defined by excess. There must always be more, there is never enough. We need a surplus to what we need to be able to truly enjoy what we have. Slavoj Žižek’s guide to surplus (and why it’s enjoyable) begins by arguing that what is surplus to our needs is by its very nature unsubstantial and unnecessary. Following excerpt deported from the author’s most recent book, Surplus-Enjoyment : A Guide For The Non-Perplexed published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel uses the term “die verkehrte Welt”—usually translated into English as “topsy turvy world”—to designate the madness of the social reality of his time. “An example of topsy-turvy occurs when your carefully-made plans got messed up at the last minute and everyone is running every which way with no idea where to go.” Does this sentence from Yourdictionary.com entry for “topsy-turvy” not encapsulate perfectly the basic reversal in a Hegelian dialectical process in the course of which even the best-made projects turn into their opposite—a dream of freedom into terror, morality into hypocrisy, excessive wealth into poverty of the majority? Back in 1576, Thomas Rogers wrote in his A Philosophical Discourse Entitled The Anatomy of the Mind: “Devilish it is to destroy a city, but more than devilish to evert cities, to betray countries, to cause servants to kill their masters, parents their children, children their parents, wives their husbands, and to turn all things topsy turvy.” Three basic relations of domination (masters over servants, parents over children, husbands over wives) are here turned around or, rather, inside out—is this not a succinct formula of Hegel’s thought?

So is the present book yet another one on Hegel? In order to explain the logic of denial (Verneinung), Freud evokes a remark made by one of his patients: “You ask who that woman in my dream can be. Whoever she is, it’s not my mother.” Freud’s reaction (which has since become proverbial) is: the question is settled then, we can be sure it is indeed his mother. I can say exactly the same about this book of mine: whatever this book is about, it’s not about Hegel, and this is not a Freudian denial but literally true. Yes, Hegel is ever-present in it. Even when he is not directly mentioned he lurks in the background, but the topic of the book is exactly what its title says: it’s about how the paradoxes of surplus-enjoyment sustain the topsy turviness of our time.

In an ideological space, different stances get connected into what Ernesto Laclau called a “chain of equivalences”— for example, extreme right-wing conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic get combined with New Age spirituality. Melissa Rein Lively’s focus on wellness, natural health, organic food, yoga, ayurvedic healing, meditation, etc., led her into a violent rejection of vaccines as a source of dangerous contamination. Today, this process is palpable all around us. We live in a weird moment where multiple catastrophes—pandemic, global warming, social tensions, the prospect of full digital control over our thinking …—compete for primacy, not just quantitatively but also in the sense of which of them will count as the “quilting point” (Lacan’s point-de-capiton) which totalizes all others. Today, the main candidate in the public discourse is global warming, while lately the antagonism which, in our part of the world, at least, appears as the crucial one is that between partisans of vaccination and vaccine-sceptics. The problem here is that, for COVID sceptics, the main catastrophe today is the fake vision of the (pandemic) catastrophe itself which is manipulated by those in power to strengthen social control and economic exploitation. If one takes a closer look at how the struggle against vaccination condenses other struggles (struggle against state control, struggle against science, struggle against corporate economic exploitation, struggle for the defense of our way of life…), it becomes clear that this key role of the struggle against vaccination is the outcome of an ideological mystification in some aspects even similar to anti-Semitism: in the same way that anti-Semitism is a displaced-mystified form of anti-capitalism, the struggle against vaccination is also a displaced-mystified form of class struggle against those in power.

To find a way in this mess, we should perhaps mobilize the distinction between apocalypse and catastrophe, reserving the term “catastrophe” for what Anders called “naked apocalypse.” Apocalypse (“an uncovering” in Ancient Greek) is a disclosure or revelation of knowledge; in religious speech, what apocalypse discloses is something hidden, the ultimate truth we are blind to in our ordinary lives. Today we commonly refer to any larger-scale catastrophic event or chain of detrimental events to humanity or nature as “apocalyptic.” Although it is easy to imagine the apocalypse-disclosure without the apocalypse catastrophe (say, a religious revelation) and the apocalypse catastrophe without the apocalypse-disclosure (say, an earthquake destroying an entire continent), there is an inner link between the two dimensions: when we (think that we) confront some higher and hitherto hidden truth, this truth is so different from our common opinions that it has to shatter our world, and vice versa, every catastrophic event, even if purely natural, reveals something ignored in our normal existence, places us face to face with an oppressed truth.

In his essay “Apocalypse without Kingdom,” Anders introduced the concept of naked apocalypse: “the apocalypse that consists of mere downfall, which doesn’t represent the opening of a new, positive state of affairs (of the ‘kingdom’).” Anders’s idea was that a nuclear catastrophe would be precisely such a naked apocalypse: no new kingdom will arise out of it, just the obliteration of ourselves and our world. And the question we should ask today is: what kind of apocalypse is announced in the plurality of catastrophes that today pose a threat to all of us? What if apocalypse in the full sense of the term which includes the disclosure of hitherto invisible truth never happens? What if truth is something that is constructed afterwards, as an attempt to make sense of the catastrophe?

Like to find the answer through Zizek’s brain, click here to have your copy.

Dudley’s Resignation and Return to the Throne

//
812 views
3 mins read

The following excerpt was adapted from the official biography of late Prime Minister Dudley Senanayaka, published by the Senanayake Foundation and Sarasavi Publishers.  Dudley Senanayake was known as “the reluctant politician.” It was never his intention to pursue public office immense pressure brought on him by friends and relatives forced him to enter public life. He entered into politics at the age of 24 years and became four times prime minister of Ceylon (Sir Lanka) during the 37 years of his political career. He is perhaps the only leader in recent history who voluntarily gave up power when one was at one’s peak, and perhaps the only ex-leader to be persuaded back to revive the flagging fortunes of one’s party.

Dudley Senanayake, the second Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the man who led his party to a resounding victory at the 1952 General Election, for the first time obtaining a two-thirds majority in Parliament, resigned from the post of Prime Minister on 12th October 1953 and handed the reins to Sir John Kotelawala. This was the first and the only time a head of State has renounced power in Independent Sri Lanka. The only other parallel in our long recorded history is the renunciation of the kingdom by King Siri-Sangabo whose name transpires at the commencement of this book. Just one and half years after being elected as the head of the Government, Dudley resigned as Prime Minister and chose to remain as a backbencher until the Parliament was dissolved in 1956. Citing ill-health, he issued a statement pleading with the Nation to release him from his responsibilities. In his statement he stated,

Dudley attending a function with his mother after becoming a member of parliament for Dedigama in 1936 [Photo: Special arrangement]

“I have endeavoured to fulfil the heavy responsibilities of the important charge entrusted to my care with all the conscientiousness that is possible to a human being and it is the same spirit of conscientiousness which makes me feel now that at a trying time like the present there should be at the helm of affairs a person unhampered by any ailment such as has dogged me in recent months.

It is exactly 18 months since having scarcely recovered from the shock of the sudden loss of my father, I yielded not without hesitation to the persuasion of my colleagues in the Cabinet in the Parliamentary Party to undertake to carry on the work from where my father left it. Almost immediately thereafter I decided to dissolve Parliament and go to the country for a clear mandate. Though the result was most gratifying, the effort which I had to put into it left little room for any recovery from the earlier strain.”

He went on to say,

“The ‘unexpected misfortune of my not being able to continue to share in the service of my Motherland in an important capacity I must bear as best as I can. But I take my leave of you with firm faith that our Party and our new Government will work in unison for the welfare and happiness of Sri Lanka”

Plagued with illness and intrigue all Dudley wished was to lead a quiet life. There were also rumours that Dudley was going to become a Buddhist monk, but it was never to be. Even though he wanted to give up politics permanently, little did he realize that in a few years’ time he would lead his party once again like a colossus dominating the entire political arena.

RE-ENTRY TO POLITICS

The General Election of 1956 witnessed the debacle of the United National Party. The Party that held a two-thirds majority in Parliament was reduced to a mere 8 seats. Sir John’s leadership was clearly rejected by the masses and the U.N.P. was beaten to a pulp. Unable to fathom this pathetic performance, the elders of the U.N.P. were looking for ways and means to repair the damage done to the Party. J.R.Jayawardene who was considered the deputy lost his own seat. He was contested by R.G.Senanayake, one of his erstwhile colleagues, who left the U.N.P. to contest as an independent and was successful in winning not only his own seat in Dambadeniya but also defeating J.R.Jayawardene in Kelaniya and in both instances by huge majorities. The United National Party could not even become the largest party in Opposition. Dr. N.M.Perera, the leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, became the Leader of the Opposition.

Most people began to say and the U.N.P. itself began to think that the Party was finished politically. In sheer desperation, the elders of the U.N.P. decided to ask Dudley Senanayake to lead the Party again. After much persuasion, Dudley consented to lead the Party on condition that Sir John resigns from all positions held by him. Although many compromises were forwarded, Dudley rejected them all. Finally, Sir John stepped down and Dudley Senanayake found himself leading the U.N.P. once again.

S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, who won the general election of 1956 and became Prime Minister, was assassinated in 1959 and one of his Ministers W.Dahanayake succeeded him.

However, after numerous cabinet reshuffles and being unable to command the majority in Parliament, the Prime Minister dissolved Parliament and held a general election in March 1960.

The United National Party was led by Dudley Senanayake and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was led by C.P.De Silva, the deputy of late Mr. Bandaranaike. The incumbent Prime Minister W.Dahanayake contested from his own party, the Lanka Prajatantravadi Pakshaya and not only did he lose the election but also lost his own seat — Galle. The U.N.P. became the largest Party in Parliament winning 50 out of 151 seats in Parliament. Dudley in the absence of an overall majority formed a caretaker government in March 1960 and became Prime Minister for the third time.

Click here to order your copy of this book