Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones.

The key foci of this book are urban development and population growth. In the first three chapters, we witness the ups and downs of a small island in the middle of the Seine. Continually, its indigenous population, later identified as the first Parisians, is imposed upon and influenced by successive interlopers. From the Romans through the Capetian monarchs, we watch as the outline of ancient Paris grows in population and construction. Chapter Four, “Paris Reborn, Paris Reformed,” will establish a pattern that we will see throughout the rest of the book: presenting the changes occurring in Paris, and the building projects associated with those changes. If you’re already asleep, Jones’ book is not for you.

This approach to the study of Paris does have its limits. It maintains a traditional historical focus on the wealthy and powerful, since they are the builders and planners. The less powerful are presented only insofar as they create urban challenges to overcome. In addition, some very important events in the life and culture of Paris are ignored because they do not affect planning or population growth.

French Enlightenment culture and ideas, arguably the greatest intellectual contribution of France to the rest of Europe, rates four paragraphs. Buildings and commercial growth during this period cover 32 pages. One could debate from the perspective that a greater proportion of city residents were affected by the changing composition of buildings and business interests, than they were by topics of salons and belles-lettres. But that’s like saying “we should judge McDonalds to be the most important American contribution to 20th Century North American culture, because the number of their restaurants grew so precipitously during that period and many citizens ate there. Even Voltaire is a pawn in the discussion of urban planning. No mention of Candide or his social critiques, just a short blurb involving Les Embellissements de Paris where he proposes combining “humanitarian, hygienic and utilitarian considerations with a concern for urban beauty” (Jones, pp. 207-8).

Some important occurrences in French history that did affect the populace at large, but do not involve urban growth, receive little attention as well. The Dreyfus Affair divided parties and households for a decade. It is dispatched in one paragraph, with just two other mentions in name, within this 566 page book.

We get a reprieve from tales of urban renewal in the first part of Chapter Seven, “Revolution and Empire.” This is largely due to the fact that benefactors of construction were more busy preserving their wealth, their political positions and their heads, than building. But then it’s back to cityscapes with a vengeance as we head into Napoleonic projects, through Baron Haussmann’s reinvisioning of the city, and ending with Mitterrand’s “Grands Projets.” There are a couple of lulls in construction during wars and occupations. But mostly it’s build, build, build.

For tourists interested in the history of buildings they will see in Paris, this book is a fine resource. Architects, urban planners and those interested in municipal physical growth, will find Jones‘ book a fascinating read. But those more interested in a cultural and political history will be disappointed by the dearth of examination.

Jones, Colin. Paris: Biography of a City. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2005.

For more on French History and culture see:


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Collapse by Jared Diamond.

Initially, when I decided to read Collapse, I thought that the purpose was, as mentioned in the subtitle, to examine “how societies choose to fail or succeed.” This is only in part true. It is a limited discussion of how specific past and present societies endangered by an environmental component (human mismanagement of natural resources and/or climate change) have chosen to fail or succeed. So the book would not be discussing the collapses of Carthage, the Soviet Union, The British Empire, or any society where an environmental component was not a catalyst. I was hoping for a broader view. But the author’s motivation was to provide information on the environmental threats to modern societies so that we might avert failure.

Diamond presents a framework for analysis using five points that contribute to societal collapse. They are: 1) Damage that people inflict on their environment, 2) Climate change, 3) Hostile neighbors, 4) Decreased support by friendly neighbors and 5) Societies responses to its problems. Not every collapse discussed included all five points, but all did include the first one.

Diamond begins his exploration in Montana. Montana? I’m not going to hear about Rome, Ancient Greece or The Spanish Empire; instead we’re going to cover Montana? First off, Montana is boring both as a state and a subject. Second, it’s not an independent civilization; it’s a state within a still wealthy and successful country. Third, it hasn’t collapsed. Alright, I understand that Diamond has connections in Montana, and an intimate understanding of its environmental difficulties. So I take my deep breath and suffer through a history of environmental depredations and attempts at recovery, in a state that‘s as exciting as an interview with Stephen Hawking‘s stunt double.

After practically flat-lining through the Montana chapter, I am rewarded with an honestly fascinating Part Two of histories involving past societies that failed: Easter Island, The Pitcairn Islands, The Anasazi, The Mayans, The Vikings; now we’re getting somewhere.  Diamond discusses these collapses with exceptional detail and complexity. Brilliant and depressing. Just as you’re ready give-up on humanity, he follows with a hopeful chapter on three societies that sustained their populations and environments, for an extended time, through intelligent resource management. This success is somewhat mitigated since each group faced famines, and two of them employed war and genocide against competing tribes. Each was finally overcome by an aggressive, expansionist foreign population.

Part Three is an overwhelming look at modern societies facing environmental difficulties: Rwanda, Hispaniola, China and Australia. It is a numbing set of pictures and problems that leaves you feeling as cornered as the pretty guy in a men’s prison.

Part Four isn’t exactly a reprieve, but it does offer some strategies for success with big business polluters and ends with a few pages on “Reasons for Hope.” His reasons are that we have a choice, and we have information technologies which our predecessors lacked.

Unfortunately, there are elements of human nature about which we do not have choices, and Diamond does not address these. In his truly excellent book The Third Chimpanzee, Diamond elucidates how close we are genetically to other primates. We are animals. As animals, our purpose is to put our genetic material into the next generation. Any more thoughtful goal is secondary for our species. In the face of impending catastrophe, our population continues to climb. Even China’s draconian population control policies have resulted in addition, not subtraction. So it doesn’t matter how much information we have. Our population will continue to rise until an unresolvable ecological crisis occurs (a shortage in food, water, energy, etc). Anyone who wishes to pit wishful thinking against this reasoning need only answer one question: “Is our population going up or is it going down?”

Diamond, Jared. Collapse. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld.

I heard about the controversy surrounding Great Soul before I ever got a copy in my hands. So the main question I had was “Is this going to read like a Jackie Collins novel, or is this a factual biography?” The main objections from the State Assembly in Gujarat, India, which resulted in their vote to ban the book, involved suggestions that Gandhi had a gay relationship, and that Gandhi made racist comments. So lets tackle these issues right away.

Regarding the purported gay relationship: the author stays within the evidence and does not stray into speculation. Lelyveld presents the existing letters from the Mahatma to the architect, Hermann Kallenbach, his alleged beloved. The author’s citation and interpretation are as follows:

If not infatuated, Gandhi was clearly drawn to the architect. In a letter from London in 1909, he writes: “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.” Cotton wool and Vaseline, he then says, “are a constant reminder.” The point, he goes on, “is to show to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.” (Lelyveld, p. 89.)

Lelyveld does not then jump to say “and therefore, they were having sex.” At most, we can conclude that there was undoubtedly an affectionate, homoerotic relationship between the two men. While the question for a free-thinker may be more along the lines of “who cares who Gandhi was intimate with; that’s his business,” the State Assembly of Gujarat clearly has enough issues with gay men that even the suggestion of homoeroticism is too much.

The evidence of Gandhi’s racism is far more conclusive. Here, The Mahatma’s own words indict him. In 1896 Gandhi writes about “the raw Kaffir,” a pejorative term for black South Africans, “whose sole ambition is to collect a number of cattle to buy a wife, then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” (Lelyveld, p. 57.) Twelve years later, Gandhi’s attitude towards black people has not improved. In 1908, reporting in South Africa on his first incarceration, Gandhi writes:

We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs…We could understand not being classed with the whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. It is indubitably right that Indians should have separate cells. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized--the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals. (Lelyveld, p. 54.)

Years later, Gandhi stops using the word Kaffir, which does show some progress.

But there is much to Great Soul, beyond discussions of race and sexual orientation, worth reading. Gandhi, as a political operator, is quite intriguing. The man was a lawyer long before he was a saint. He is shown courting support from Indian Muslims not only because he honestly stands for Hindu-Muslim unity, but also because this stance wins him political prominence. “He stepped to the fore for the first time in the national movement, on a unity platform.” (Lelyveld, p. 159.) Great Soul shows this leader forced into unpleasant compromises on a number of occasions. In dealing with upper caste prejudice against untouchables, Gandhi must temper his commitment to “taking down untouchability” to avoid “cleaving his movement” for independence (Lelyveld, p. 193.) Periodically, Gandhi uses religion inconsistently as justification for his actions. “a method that could be classed as immoral when pursued by others was a religious obligation when undertaken by himself” (Lelyveld, p. 230.) Even the pure white hem of a saint’s garment can be sullied when dragged through the dust of politics.

I must add that Lelyveld writes beautifully and compassionately about Gandhi. At one train stop in India, Gandhi brushes past students and notables, and heads toward a roped-off enclosure of untouchables where he greets them and sings with them:

“He was raising the subject of common humanity, not only for the sake of the untouchables, but for the students and the notables and the villagers who’d taken the dust from his feet. And, as so often in his unusually well-recorded life, it is the action rather than the always earnest, sometimes contradictory, sometimes moving words that leap off the page” (Lelyveld, p. 196.)

This is not a biographer who is attempting to deride his subject. Lelyveld presents his material in a sensitive, accurate manner, without the extremes sensationalism or worship.


Lelyveld, Joseph. Great Soul. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Atlas Drugged by Stephen L. Goldstein

I am about to show what a drab, fun-less, plodding reader I am: I don’t like most fiction. For me, it is usually a waste of time because it doesn’t convey factual information. Clearly, the warm summer sun of recreation does not shine in my brain or thaw the ice in my heart.

But occasionally I will break this pattern and pick-up a work of fiction. If the book is historically important (i.e. Tolstoy’s War and Peace), or expresses a philosophy that has impacted culture (i.e. Camus’ The Stranger), or has some relevance to current events (i.e. Hosseini’s The Kite Runner), I may read it.

Stephen Goldstein’s book Atlas Drugged is one such novel for which I have made an exception. It is a response to Ayn Rand’s mammoth ode to corporate greed Atlas Shrugged. In his dystopia, the author represents what would happen if Rand’s characters had attained their results in the U.S. This book has the chilling propensity to be correct in anticipating our own current events.

One example illustrating prescience is how it anticipated the response of America’s financial sector to Hurricane Sandy. Goldstein’s book shows corporations buying-up real estate after a disastrous East Coast hurricane devastates the properties in its’ path. Sound familiar? No, Goldstein is not Nostradamus. He is simply a rational observer who understands how greed works in the business world. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that current events are Dr Goldstein’s stock and trade. He is a columnist for “The Sun-Sentinel” in Florida.

Atlas Drugged
came out at the beginning of 2012. Another plot line involves a power drink called the Atlas Energy Drink, which has less than healthy consequences for those who drink it on a prolonged basis. In November of 2012, in the real world, the FDA began investigations of energy drinks, where suspicions that some of them may have caused deaths were revealed. Amusingly, Goldstein presents his accurate predictions of our country’s misadventures with greed, using the same polemical style, soliloquies and stark language format, that Rand uses in her tome.

Finally, there is the issue of John Galt’s Strike. In both Atlas Shrugged and Atlas Drugged, Ayn Rand’s conservative hero successfully brings the country’s economy to its knees. While not an exact mirror of the GOP-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, there are enough parallels to make a reader take notice. Both the GOP and Galt reveal attempts to force an economic downturn for their own purposes. We will soon see if the Republican unwillingness to compromise has an effect similar to that produced in both books.

I’m not a political Pollyanna. I recognize that human beings are selfish. This isn’t a judgment, it’s a biological reality. Humans did not get to the top of the food chain by sitting around a camp fire with the antelope singing “Kumbaya.” If a Cro-Magnon tribe controlled a water hole in the middle of a desert, they fought to keep it against invading tribes. The healthier, more cunning, more ruthless tribe, drove the losers into the desert where they would perish. The winners would survive to reproduce their winning traits, including selfishness. If you want a more scientific explanation concerning the origins of human selfishness, read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

It is because human beings are selfish, and because capitalism rewards selfishness, that one of our government’s chief duties is to police capitalism. Atlas Drugged presents a dystopia where unrestrained capitalism harms the public. Its examples only appear to be magically prescient to those who do not understand the nature of human beings or capitalism. Dr Goldstein does understand, so his book’s scenarios pan-out in real life. In addition to being an amusing piece of fiction, Atlas Drugged has proven to be an accurate portrayal of what happens when corporate greed goes unchecked.

Goldstein, Stephen L. Atlas Drugged. Ashland: Grid Press. 2012.

For more political books by Stephen Goldstein, see http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-dictionary-of-american-political.html