Category Archives: Books

Notes on two new books added to Resources

Hi, all — just wanted to let you know that I’ve added my notes on two new books to “Resources, Non-fiction Books.” They are No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Want by Naomi Klein (2017) and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016). The notes on Nothing Ever Dies also include my notes on Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2016 novel about the Vietnam War, The Sympathizer. Look for “Resources” in the top bar of the web page.

As always, I heartily recommend that you read these books in their entirety yourself, but in case you don’t have the time, money, or interest to do that, these notes may be helpful to you. Share any and all widely.

A novel about the sexual abuse of children in a religious community

Here’s another book review for you. As always with my reviews, if you hate spoilers, read no further until you’ve gotten ahold of “Hush” by Eishes Chayil (Judy Brown) and read it for yourself — or decided not to read it.

Judy Brown first published “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil (“Woman of Valor”) because of her novel’s subject: the near impossibility of discussing — and, thus, trying to heal from — child sexual abuse in her ultraorthodox Jewish community. Like her second book, “This Is Not A Love Story,” “Hush” is semi-autobiographical, very expressively written, and told from the point of view of a child, then teenager, then young woman. Gittel, age 9, saw her best friend Devory being sexually abused by her older brother. Devory acts out her pain and desperation, since her parents and teachers refuse to listen to her, and finally hangs herself with a jump rope in Gittel’s bathroom. Gittel feels terrible pain and guilt over this, and can receive no help for it until, as a young married woman, she breaks with tradition by naming her first child after her friend and demanding that the issue of child sexual abuse be addressed by the community.

In the novel’s afterword Brown writes, “We didn’t need the outside world. We had our own…We built walls, and built them high. The walls would keep the gentiles and their terrifying world far away. The walls would protect us and shelter us — and as we built them higher, thicker, wider, we forgot to look inside. We forgot that the greatest enemies always grow from within…This is a story I wrote about life in the ultra-Orthodox Chassidic world — about our joy, about our warmth, and about our deep denial of anything that didn’t follow tradition, law, or our deeply ingrained delusions. It’s a story told through the eyes of children, those who need to learn to understand how and why it happened to them, and those who need to find a way to survive it. This is for all the children — past and present — who still suffer. I have used a fictitious name, Yushive, for the main sect in Hush, because I refuse to point a finger at one group, when the crime was [is] endemic to all.”

Indeed, the sexual abuse of children occurs in almost all human groups, especially, it seems those that for religious reasons impose unnatural strictures on sexuality. Unfortunately, these are also societies in which the discussion of such a problem tends to be taboo.

Three novels about early man

Shaman is one of several novels I’ve been reading about early man and the interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (more about the others below). It follows the early adulthood of Loon, a young Homo sapiens man training with Thorn, a cranky shaman. [Don’t read any further if you’re strict about “spoilers.”) I loved the description of Loon’s coming-of-age “wander,” in which he must fend for himself naked, without tools or clothing. Robinson also gives us a vivid sense of Loon’s sexuality, culminating in an ideal relationship with a woman-of-no-“pack” who gains acceptance in Loon’s group. The character of Heather, Thorn’s partner-yet-antagonist, an older wise woman herbalist who functions as Loon’s mother, is also interesting. Robinson describes Neanderthals as simpler, lesser beings who wander around as displaced individuals, but one of them, a man Heather has healed, ends up saving Loon, his woman, and Thorn when the woman is stolen by slave-keeping, wolf-taming northerners. Significantly (and inexplicably), the Neanderthal dies in the middle of the night on their return home, and is then eaten – and used as a frozen sled! – by the three survivors, thus saving their lives. In this way, it seems Robinson is suggesting that the survival of our species rests on the help of an earlier one, our older “brothers and sisters.”

Another thing I liked about Shaman was the beautiful description of the cave paintings made by Thorn, his predecessor Pika, and, ultimately, Loon. This is similar to the art made by Tiger in Bjorn Kurten’s earlier novel, Dance of the Tiger. Both authors suggest that only Homo sapiens made art, as does William Goldman in his novel The Inheritors. Kurten is (was?) a paleontologist, who uses Dance of the Tiger to give us a picture of how Neanderthals and Homo sapiens may have interacted and interbred. He imagines that the offspring of the two species would have been infertile, but there are other explanations for the fact that many descendants of European or Asian ancestors have a tiny percentage of Neanderthal genes (they could have come from more distant ancestors). Kurten explains more than Robinson does about the different perspectives and cultures of the two species, and in his book only some of the Homo sapiens “gods” think Neanderthals are inferior.

I almost stopped reading Golding’s book after the first chapter – it’s hard to read, because he’s taking the point of view of the Neanderthals, who don’t depend on language to communicate as much as Homo sapiens does. It isn’t even obvious until the end that these characters are Neanderthals. Now that I’ve done a little online research, I understand better what’s going on, and am going back to the book, which apparently even more than Kurten’s shows the good side, perhaps even spiritual “superiority” of the Neanderthals.

To clarify a bit more, all three authors seem to depict Homo sapiens as much more capable of evil (cruelty to others) than were the Neanderthals. They may even believe the Neanderthals to have been free of this kind of stuff.

I find all of this quite fascinating!

After finishing The Inheritors: Golding portrays the Neanderthals not as inferior at all, just different is their way of perceiving and thinking (they actually spend more time just being). They’re very group-oriented, as opposed to the homo sapiens group, which contains some individuals who are greedy and violent and some who are more thoughtful about what’s going on. Contact doesn’t turn out super-well for the Neanderthals, but I felt that there could be more to the story, since some of them survive – an epilogue or even a sequel.

Our relationship with technology

I’m re-posting two items from another blog of mine, Read the Writing on the Wall, that I’m letting expire. The “subtitle” of the blog was “cultural and other warnings and heads-ups…Be(A)ware…” and it was headed by this picture:

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Here’s the first post, dated 1-31-15, on our relationship with technology:

The New York Times just published an article about “Black Mirror,” a fascinating, if dark, British TV series you can watch on Netflix about our individual and societal relationship with technology. As the article, by Jenna Wortham, says, “Each episode of ‘Black Mirror’ — named for the way our screens look while powered down — paints a different nightmarescape of a future gone technologically awry.” Or, I would say, of a society not so far in the future that’s allowed technology via capitalism to twist it morally and emotionally. It’s already happening, of course — just not in exactly the same ways depicted on the show.

“When it comes to weaving technology into its story lines,” the article continues, “Hollywood tends to take an unimaginative path of least resistance. Some films imagine a world so fallen and far gone, as a result of technological excess, that it’s rendered unrecognizable, as in ‘Elysium,’ ‘Gattaca,’ ‘The Final Cut,’ or ‘Wall-E.’ Others rely on technology only as a backdrop or as a means of dazzling audiences with new gadgetry: ‘Interstellar’ (space travel), ‘Looper’ (time travel), and ‘Lucy’ (telekinesis and teleportation). Hollywood offers little between the horror of dystopia and the wonder of a trip to Q’s laboratory.

This problem persists in movies that are set on a more human scale and that actually imagine the near future of consumer technologies. ‘Her,’ for example, the sweet romantic comedy about a lonely man falling in love with his operating system, focuses more on the male protagonist’s inability to connect with other humans than the implications of unleashing such powerful programs on the world. Similarly, ‘Silicon Valley,’ Mike Judge’s comedy series on HBO, makes caricatures out of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists but not their comically arcane creation, a video-compression algorithm.

Occasionally, of course, Hollywood does dig deeper. ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ ‘The Matrix,’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ all stand out as excellent cautionary tales about the way humans can lose control over their inventions. But each is at least a decade old. It’s as if film producers caught a prophetic glimpse of the rise of Facebook and Snapchat and iDevices and realized that lecturing audiences about the perils of wasting time online wouldn’t be huge box-office draws.” An exception, which I’m adding today (9-7-15) would be “Ex Machina,” a more recent film, which suggests that android robots, created to serve us, sexually and otherwise, could make a break for freedom and take over “our” world.

The Times article concludes: “‘Black Mirror,’ equal parts horror and wonder, looks like a future we might actually inhabit, making the show a lot more effective as a critique of the tech industry’s trajectory — one that might make you think twice about which devices you buy and which services you use.” As in the ‘real’ world, “the gadgets shown look sleek enough to want, even as we see them used in horrifying ways.”

 

Everything you’ve been told about debt is wrong

That’s the title of the lead article in the current issue of Yes! magazine (see www.yesmagazine.org) by Charles Eisenstein, one of my favorite writers about economics and spirituality – and one of the opportunities we have for a wedge into the current inequitable system.

“The legitimacy of a social order rests on the legitimacy of its debts,” Eisenstein says. This was okay in traditional cultures functioning on the principle of a gift economy in which “repayment of debt [not usually monetary] was inseparable from the meeting of social obligations,” but we shouldn’t assume that the “moral associations of making good on one’s debts” should apply in the current predatory capitalist economy, as its legal code and “logic of austerity” attempt to dictate. According to this “logic,” if a country like Jamaica or Greece, or a municipality like Baltimore or Detroit, has insufficient revenue to make its debt payments, it’s morally compelled to privatize public assets, slash pensions and salaries, liquidate natural resources, and cut public services in order to pay creditors. Such a prescription,” Eisenstein says, “takes for granted the legitimacy of its debts.

Today a burgeoning debt resistance movement draws from the realization that many of these debts aren’t fair. Most obviously unfair are loans involving illegal or deceptive practices – the kind that were rampant in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis. From sneaky balloon interest hikes on mortgages, to loans deliberately made to unqualified borrowers, to incomprehensible financial products peddled to local governments kept ignorant about their risks, these practices resulted in billions of dollars of extra costs for citizens and public institutions.

A movement is arising to challenge these debts. In Europe, the International Citizen debt Audit Network (ICAN) promotes ‘citizen debt audits,’ in which activists examine the books of municipalities and other public institutions to determine which debts were incurred through fraudulent, unjust, or illegal means. They then try to persuade the government or institution to contest or renegotiate those debts.”

Going even further, Eisenstein suggests that “at a time when the law itself is so subject to manipulation by financial interests, why should resistance be limited to debts that involved lawbreaking? After all, the 2008 crash resulted from a deep systemic corruption in which risky derivative products turned out to be risk-free – not on their own merits, but because of government and Federal Reserve bailouts that rewarded the perpetrators of these ‘financial instruments of mass destruction’ (as Warren Buffett labeled them) while homeowners, other borrowers, and taxpayers were left with collapsed asset values and significantly higher debts.

This is part of a context of unjust economic, political, or social conditions that compels the debtor to go into debt. When that injustice is pervasive, all or most debts are illegitimate. In many countries, declining real wages and reduced public services virtually compel citizens to go into debt…African and Latin American nations, southern and Eastern Europe, communities of color, students, homeowners with mortgages, municipalities, the unemployed – the list of those who strain under enormous debt through no fault of their own is endless. They share the perception that their debts are somehow unfair, illegitimate, even if there is no legal basis for that perception. Hence the slogan spreading among debt activists and resisters everywhere: ‘Don’t owe. Won’t pay.’

Challenges to these debts can’t be based on appeals to the letter of the law when the laws are biased in favor of creditors. There is, however, a legal principle for challenging otherwise legal debts: the principle of ‘odious debt.’ Originally signifying debt incurred on behalf of a nation by its leaders that doesn’t benefit the nation, the concept can be extended into a powerful tool for systemic change. Odious debt was a key concept in recent debt audits on the national level, most notably in Ecuador in 2008 that led to its defaulting on billions of dollars of its foreign debt. Nothing terrible happened to it, setting a dangerous precedent (from the creditors’ point of view). Greece’s Truth Commission on Public Debt is auditing all of that nation’s sovereign debt with the same possibility in mind. Other nations are likely taking notice because their debts, which are unpayable, condemn them to an eternity of austerity, wage cuts, natural resource liquidation, and privatization for the privilege remaining part of the global financial system” that created their suffering in the first place.

“According to a report by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, since 1970 Jamaica has borrowed $18.5 billion and paid back $19.8 billion, yet still owes $7.8 billion. In the same period, the Philippines borrowed $110 billion, paid back $125 billion, and owes $45 billion. These aren’t isolated examples. What’s happening here is that money in the form of labor power and natural resources is being extracted from these countries. More goes out than comes in, thanks to the exigencies of interest.”

Eisenstein believes “that most debt owed by the ‘developing’ world is odious, born of colonial and imperial relationships,” and says “the same might be said for municipal, household, and personal debt. Tax laws, financial deregulation, and economic globalization have siphoned money into the hands of corporations and the very rich, forcing everyone else to borrow in order to meet basic needs. Municipalities and regional governments now must borrow to provide the services that tax revenues once funded before industry fled to the places of least regulation and lowest wages.

The rising tide of debt can’t be explained by laziness or irresponsibility,” Eisenstein says. It’s systemic, unfair, and inescapable. “As the concept of illegitimate debts spreads, the moral compulsion to repay them will wane, and new forms of debt resistance will emerge. They already are in places most affected by the economic crisis, such as Spain, where a strong anti-eviction movement challenges the legitimacy of mortgage debt and has just gotten an activist elected mayor of Barcelona.

As the recent drama in Greece has shown us, though, isolated acts of resistance are easily crushed. Standing alone, Greece faced a stark choice: capitulate to the European institutions and enact austerity measures even more punishing than those its people rejected in the referendum or suffer the sudden destruction of its banks. Since the latter would entail a humanitarian catastrophe, the Syriza government chose to capitulate. Nonetheless, Greece rendered the world an important service by making the fact of debt slavery plain, as well as revealing the power of undemocratic institutions such as the European Central Bank to dictate domestic economic policy.

Besides direct resistance, people are finding ways to live outside the conventional financial system and, in the process, prefigure what might replace it. Complementary currencies, time banks, direct-to-consumer farm cooperatives, legal aid cooperatives, gift economy networks, tool libraries, medical cooperatives, child care cooperatives, and other forms of economic cooperation are proliferating in Greece and Spain, recalling traditional forms of communalism still present in societies not fully ‘modernized.’

Three-quarters of Americans carry some form of debt. Student debt stands at more than $1.3 trillion in the United States and averages more than $33,000 per graduating student. Municipalities around the country are cutting services to the bone, laying off employees, and slashing pensions to make payments on their debts. The same is true of entire nations, as creditors – and the financial markets that drive them – tighten their death grip on southern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the rest of the world.

If one debt can be nullified, maybe all of them can – not only for nations but for municipalities, school districts, hospitals, and individuals. That’s why the European authorities made such a humiliating example of Greece – they needed to maintain the principle of inviolability of debt. That’s also why hundreds of billions of dollars were used to bail out the creditors who made bad loans in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, but not a penny was spent bailing out the debtors.

Mass debt resistance would be catastrophic for the financial system, which is so highly leveraged and tightly interconnected that even a small disruption can result in systemic crisis. Let’s organize and spread awareness. We needn’t confront the banks, the bond markets, or the financial system alone.”

Eisenstein goes on to point out the limitations of marginal reform of the system (à la New Deal), saying that “reducing rates on student loans, offering mortgage relief, reining in payday lending, or reducing debt in the Global South might be politically feasible, but by mitigating the worst abuses of the system, they make that system slightly more tolerable and imply that the problem isn’t the system,” which it is.

“Conventional redistributive strategies, such as higher marginal income tax rates, also face limitations, mostly because they don’t address the deep root of the debt crisis: the slowdown of economic growth worldwide, or, as a Marxist would put it, the falling return on capital. More and more economists are joining a distinguished lineage that includes Herman Daly, E.F. Schumacher, and even (though this is little known) John Maynard Keynes to argue that we are nearing the end of growth – primarily, but not only, for ecological reasons. When growth stalls, lending opportunities disappear. Since money is essentially lent into existence, debt levels increase faster than the supply of money required to service them. The result, as Thomas Piketty has described, is rising indebtedness and concentration of wealth.

The aforementioned policy proposals have a further defect as well: They’re so moderate they have little potential to inspire a mass popular movement, as, for example, pushing for the cancellation of all student debt would – or a jubilee, a fresh start for mortgage debtors, student debtors, and debtor nations.

The problem is that canceling the debts means erasing the assets upon which our entire financial system depends. These assets are at the basis of your pension fund, the solvency of your bank, and grandma’s savings account. To prevent chaos, some entity has to buy the debts for cash, and then cancel those them (in full or in part, or reduce their interest rate to zero). Fortunately, there are deeper and more elegant alternatives to conventional redistributive strategies. I’ll mention two of the most promising: ‘positive money’ and negative-interest currency, both of which entail a fundamental change in the way money is created. Positive money refers to money created directly without debt by the government, which can be given directly to debtors for debt repayment or used to purchase debts from creditors and then cancel them. Negative-interest currency (which I describe in depth in Sacred Economics) entails a liquidity fee on bank reserves, essentially taxing wealth at its source. It enables zero-interest lending, reduces wealth concentration, and allows a financial system to function in the absence of growth.

Radical proposals such as these bear in common a recognition that money, like property and debt, is a sociopolitical construct. It’s a social agreement mediated by symbols: numbers on slips of paper, bits in computers – not an immutable feature of reality to which we have to adapt. The agreements that we call money and debt can be changed. To do so, however, will require a movement that contests the immutability of the current system and explores alternatives to it.”

Eisenstein is the author of Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Search this website for detailed notes on these books.