Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Heather and Gary Botting, "The Orwellian World of Jehovah's Witnesses" (1983)

Published by University of Toronto Press.

This book provides a fascinating glimpse into the cosmology and history of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a particularly unique sect of Christians known for their door-to-door proselytizing. While it is dated in many respects, the quality of its longue duree assessment of the evolution of JW thinking, as well as its assessment of many older JW texts, and as an older book that is likely out of print, it is worth the much reduced price you'll likely pay for it. It is also rather unique in that it is an academic book written by (former?) Jehovah's Witnesses.

The text combines doctoral research by Heather Botting on the JW's with her husband's research on George Orwell's writing (particularly 1984). At the time, JW's were speculating that the Final Judgement was likely to occur in 1984 (using an arcane set of calculations that indicated that the Second Coming had occurred in 1914, and that the Final Reckoning would occur within about 70 years, while the generation alive in 1914 would live to see the Final End). As we know now, this did not happen. Nonetheless, the analysis the Bottings offer of the 1984 preparations within the Kingdom is fascinating.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Max Elbaum, "Revolution In the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che" (2006)

This book is not for everyone. It offers a detailed, acronym-heavy genealogy of the New Communist movements that populated the far left in the United States between the late 1960s and late 1990s. Some chapters are too detail heavy for the casual reader, while others offer refined, clear summaries of some of the major points of philosophical disagreement between these groups, and through which even someone with passing curiousity could gain a useful sense of the politics of the times.

What I found most interesting, however, was the approach to organizations on the far left through a form of network theory. Understanding how these groups intersected, shared and competed for resources (whether funding, members, volunteer time, etc.), and proselytized to converts and to potential adherents, made for particularly fascinating reading. While Elbaum in some respects keeps this facet of the book comfortably in the background (not letting an academic, organizational approach overwhelm a more historical narrative type of story), his conclusions and summary observations clearly indicate a sensitivity to these issues, and perhaps a struggle to find some sort of useful, functional advice for future organizers on the far left.

Read an interview with Elbaum in Monthly Review, Oct. 2006.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Anatoli Fursenko, Timothy Naftali, "Khruschev's Cold War" (2006)

Khruschev's Cold War is a well-researched, calmly argued revision of popular understandings of the Cold War during the critical period of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Fursenko and Naftali take advantage of recently accessed/released files from Russian archives, correcting previous calculations regarding Khruschev and the Soviet government's ideas, concerns, and positions with reference to actual meeting minutes, diary entries, and interviews. In particular, they convincingly portray Khruschev as near-obsessed with mitigating the military aspect of the Cold War in order to allow the already-strapped Soviet economy to concentrate on domestic needs. He is shown as idealistic about Eisenhower's and Kennedy's desire for co-existence with the Soviet Union, impulsive in his foreign policy decision making, and opportunistic with regards to the possibility of extending Soviet influence in the Third World. The best aspect of this book, as suggested above, is the use of previously unavailable Soviet archival records, which give an entirely new perspective on events such as the second Berlin crisis, the Suez crisis, the U2 crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis.

I have really only two complaints about this book. Firstly, it almost entirely skips over the fascinating removal of Khruschev from the leadership of the Soviet Union. While the topic doesn't necessarily fit neatly within the purpose of exploring his Cold War thinking, it's such a critical element of the man and the Soviet government's story for the period that it does seem an odd omission. Secondly, the (hardcover) version does suffer from sloppy editing (typos are rampant), but the quality of writing is good overall.

Jules Verne, "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" (1837)

A classic work, I read this as a bit of a "before bed" intellectual palate-cleanser. It's an intriguing story, but doesn't necessarily wear well with age. There are some rather implausible propositions, such as the suggestion that the narrator, his uncle, and their Icelandic guide walk (through subterranean caverns) from Iceland to southern Italy. More importantly, in the last 170 years or so, we've made tremendous progress in terms of learning about the earth, and on this knowledge it's difficult to suspend disbelief enough to fully engage with Verne's tale. Nonetheless, it is stories such as these that motivated generations of science fiction writers, and I can see how such tales could also lie deep in the roots of allohistory.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Andrew Macdonald, "The Turner Diaries" and "Hunter" (1978; 1984)

Macdonald is the pseudonym of William Pierce. These two novels are renowned as essential reading for the current generation of American neo-nazis, and circulated in photocopied versions throughout the 1980s. More recently, they came to wider attention when it was discovered that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, had been selling them at local gun shows. His interest in these books raised the spectre that Pierce's novels were inspiring "copy-cat" types of crimes.

Both novels are awkwardly written, pedantic, and more than a little amateurish. Pierce's aim in writing them was clearly not to create great art, however, but to address a cadre of his "racial comrades" in a way that might speak to them in a more evocative or effective way than a direct political treatise. This development is mirrored in the move in the 1990s towards using hate music to win over converts to "white" racism who might not be inclined to read Rosenberg, Rockwell, Duke, and Hitler.

Of the two, The Turner Diaries is far more readable, though Pierce apparently believed Hunter was far more realistic. The Turner Diaries essentially narrates a form of apocalypse story, more or less seen through the eyes of a single male participant, where global racial conflict leads to the rise of an all-white racial state in North America (and perhaps beyond). Hunter also focuses on the efforts of a single 'revolutionary' assassin who participates in underground efforts to overthrow the US government and spread racial hatred.

Racial, gender, and political characterizations in these books are simple, hateful, and loaded with very troubling stereotypes. They are not for the faint of heart. In my research on the US and Canadian far right, however, I've seen these books referred to so many times, I felt I needed to read them to understand some of the references, and to better get 'inside the heads' of the kinds of far right volunteers that I am studying.

I found it particularly intriguing that the date of the beginning of the revolution in The Turner Diaries is September 11. Given that the book was published in 1978, the coincidence is haunting.