August, 2011

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Book Reviews

By The Libertarian Heretic

Murray Polner. Thomas E. Woods, Jr. We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now. 2008.

Highly Recommended. This book is a collaboration of a progressive editor and a libertarian editor. They have together selected a rather remarkable set of well-thought out essays from our past. These are articulate and authoritaive objections made by persons from our past to wars throughout American history and challenging both the prosecution of the wars and the worthiness of individuals fighting in them. (The American war of independence is unforunately not included, a non-Tory objection would have been interesting. Nor, sadly, are the Indian wars of the old west.) Many of these discoveries of eloquent jeremiads against what the original writers and current editors saw as unnecessary cruelty perpetrated by the state are powerful and worth noting. The contemporary writers' objections are war-specific in many cases, so they are not necessarily pacifist in general. After all, Congressman Abraham Lincoln's passionate objection to the Mexican war -- included in the book -- can certainly not be extrapolated into a full pacifism. (Additional history suggests that he might have been more hawkish on a later occasion.) Other luminaries that appear here -- Mark Twain against American imperialism, Daniel Webster against the War of 1812 -- still resonate on the page. Some lesser known ones are quite interesting, such as a torn but convinced Jewish writer who was still uncomfortable with the idea of the US entering the Second World War against Hitler. Even when unpersuasive as some essays are -- such as that one, for example -- each selection contains insights into the feeling and thinking of the time and to the overpowering belief in the moral necessity of not being an unthinking tool in a killing machine, whether by cooperation, conformity or silence. In any event, the fact that many eminent and loyal Americans have refused to accept the call of the state to kill one's fellows, not always or typically rejecting that for touchy-feely or "left" or "unpatriotic" reasons, is a part of the historical record everyone should know more of. Polner and Woods do a superb job bringing the best of that record into current view.

Andrew Mango. Ataturk: The Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey. 2005.

Slightly Recommended. One can certainly appreciate the near-century of influential legacy wrought by the overrated Turkish reformer and crackpot megalomaniac Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from this biographical book, as it takes nearly that long to read it. The main problem with the bulky volume is that the author takes us along with his subject on a near day to day basis, as if we are watching an excruciatingly unedited shaky-camera videodocumentary. That notwithstanding (though nevertheless it does withstand) such a dense work of honest scholarship will be a useful resource even if introduction, narrative, and background are weak at times. (Subcaptions of the unstoppable prose would have helped.) One partial virtue, however, is that the author does not let his admiring bias get in the way, well not too much. He is candid about some flaws and crimes, though not always. He dances around some personal issues like Ataturk's "intimate companioning" of his adopted 18 year old daughter and his chronic drinking, but he still does not miss the irony of Mr. Reformer's divorcing his wife conveniently just a few months before he upgraded women's status in the civil code and abolished a Shariah-based family law system of divorce which allows male unilateral dissolution of a marriage. Ataturk is an important figure today because he remains an undeserved object of extreme admiration, and not just within Turkey. To be fair, the man's heroics and reforms had worthy direct impact in his homeland, even if creepily enough it is still a crime there to insult him today -- 70 years after his death. Ataturk and Kemalism is possibly THE diseased model of the modern Middle East, with the Cultural Revolutionary secularist set out as a hero for everyone who thinks that most Middle Easterners need to be brutalized into submission, and that every sign of a beard in the political street means that torture chambers and personality cults are the requisite signs of moderation and progress. That Ataturk-templated cult of the bully modernizer, which is the idea that sadistic egomaniacal political patriarchy is the answer to sadistic traditional or religious patriarchy, persists as the dark part of a legacy of a not wholly bad or dislikeable figure, at least as Mango presents him -- an almost endearingly goofy dictator and personally heroic, if a hat-obsessed, pseudo-rationalist, ethnic cleanser. Nevertheless, the broader fetishization of bully modernization that Ataturk represents has spiritually united such far-flung and mutually hostile admirers and imitators -- the Bernard Lewises and Saddam Huseeins, the Nassers and Ben Alis, the Shahs of Iran and Assads of Syria, (some) neoconservatives and (many) Arab urban elites, Qadhdhafis and Muslimphobes. The current Arab Spring is (thus far and hopefully) a riposte to such views and is really a direct shot at Ataturk's legacy, starting as it did in a place founded by Ataturk admirers (Bourguiba's Tunisia) and a place governed by a near-identical concept of military-secular guardian state (modern post-Nasser Egypt). (Ironically, the Ayatollah Khomeini is also what results from the Ataturk archetype-template, if one takes Ataturk's six ruling themes and then simply reverses "secularism" into "anti-secularism", and wonders how much note-taking on personality-cults Khomeini did while exiled in Turkey.) Overall, the fruit of Mango's effort in this standard biography of the Turkish hero/screwball is worth the trouble if the subject is of interest, and he should be, despite the book's length and occasional biases.