Monday, November 23, 2015

Room 101

This meme is unfortunately representative of so many more, and of a tendency in religion and spirituality that is far older than the Internet.

When this one turned up, I had just read a review in The Atlantic of Primo Levi's newly-published Complete Works, and the reviewer says that Levi rejected the idea of prayer when he was in Auschwitz:
He was not a believer, he explains, and “the rules of the game don’t change … when you’re losing.” Besides, to pray that you and not another should survive is such a prayer as the Lord should “spit … out upon the ground.”
I'm not so sure about that last part, though, because Yahweh requires prayer, and that Levi's dilemma didn't originate during the Holocaust. I imagine you can see why I thought of that when I saw this. Life is good for me, but it's not good at all for many other people. Whom should I thank? Why should I thank them? For letting me off while crushing someone else? You can't give a deity (or whatever) credit for being nice to me while denying it's responsible for the bad things that happen to other people.

I commented to this effect, and the person who passed along the meme replied, first, that the meme doesn't mention God.  That doesn't work, because I was explicit that I wasn't talking only about gods.  Second, she was just thankful that she had enough good karma to receive good things.  That just dug her in deeper.  It would seem to follow that if someone is suffering, it's because they hadn't generated enough good karma; and that, not to put too fine a point on it, is vile.  That Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach: bad karma, right?  He must have done something bad in a past life for that to happen to him.  Not many people are careless enough to agree, but it follows from their understanding of karma as they express it.  They need to rethink their doctrine.

The doctrine of karma, from what I know of it (admittedly not much), doesn't mandate it, but it appears to be compatible with the understanding that those who suffer do so because they earned bad karma, and so deserve the bad things that have happened to them.  It is certainly used that way by many devotees of the idea.  Used loosely, as many people do, it's compatible with gloating over the downfall of someone they dislike.  They try to distance themselves from the imputation they are judging (which they generally pretend they don't do): it's not me, it's karma!  But like early Christians who imagined that their bliss in Heaven would be amplified by the pleasure of watching the torments of the damned in Hell, their denials are not convincing.  Thomas Aquinas proved it logically; according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus taught that the damned deserve and should receive no pity.

I have had a notably easy life, with relatively little suffering in it so far.  I don't imagine for an instant that I did something to earn it.  If there were anyone to thank for it -- as an atheist, of course, I don't believe there is -- my second impulse after doing so would be to berate him for letting other people suffer.  It's why I'm bemused when Christians deny that their god is a micromanaging god, especially when they're trying to explain away natural disasters.  If their god is responsible for the good things that happen to them, he is a micromanaging god, so he's also responsible for the bad things that happen to them, or to other people.  Since he's all-powerful and reputed to be quite touchy (R-E-S-P-E-C-T, what that word it means to Him!), it wouldn't be prudent to take him to task, but a bold person might do so anyway.  I don't know if I'd be that brave, but again, I don't think it's likely to come up.

People who grapple with the Problem of Evil, whether philosophers, theologians, or laymen, generally distinguish between what you might call natural evil (earthquakes, plagues, comets striking the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs) and what you might call moral evil (the Holocaust, Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge,).  They generally take for granted that moral evil isn't really a problem for their god because (they claim) that he gave us free will absolves him of responsibility for it. (They don't do a very convincing job with natural evils either.)  I don't think this approach works: apologists don't even really believe it, because they routinely give their god the credit when people do good things.  If he could guide Jonas Salk to invent the polio vaccine, for example, or divert a bullet from someone's heart to a less vital part of the anatomy, he could guide a bad agent away from doing bad things.  It's no more a violation of free will to do the latter than to do the former.

Now, I'm not saying that whoever made this meme, or the person who passed it along, is a bad person.  They're just thoughtless, as most of us are much of the time.  But that's not anything to brag about.  As in George Orwell's 1984, who can blame a battered person for wishing the torture of Room 101 onto someone else, anyone else?  But the fact remains that they did it, and it's hard to live with yourself afterwards.   I know that after a course of treatment in the Ministry of Love, I would do the same.  But should I be thankful to the torturer for taking the rats away from my face?  (Remember: Orwell's target in 1984 was religious as much as it was political.)  I say no.  Many people disagree.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Luckily, We're All Enlightened Progressives Here

Someone I know "liked" this image on Facebook today, and I couldn't comment there so I'm reposting it and commenting here. It's not the first time I've seen it. It comes via a page called "The Comical Conservative," and when I've seen it before it's been shared by right-wing white racists who want to believe that they are endangered by Obama, just like the Jews under Hitler. (Never mind that if they were alive in the 30s, they'd probably have been fans of Father Coughlin and other anti-Semites, and would have objected to letting refugees from Nazism into the US.  European Jews didn't accept their fate "blindly"; the only workable option, though, was emigration, and that door was locked on both sides.) I think that's what the meme is meant to say, because the text is confused, perhaps deliberately.

Hitler didn't "get over 6 million people to follow along blindly and not fight back." By the 6 million, the meme-maker means the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, and they mostly did not follow Hitler.  There were some German Jews who did support Hitler, thinking that they could prove that they were Good Germans.  But they were few.  Before Hitler came to power (if you don't vote, you can't complain!), the Nazis relied on street violence through their thugs to intimidate their opponents, not all of whom were Jews.  After he came to power Hitler passed laws depriving German Jews of their rights as German citizens; these were enforced by more violence, this time official state violence.  Many of the 6 million weren't German -- they were in countries the Germans invaded and controlled. They didn't follow Hitler either.

The racists who share this meme think that German Jews could have resisted successfully if they hadn't been disarmed. (It's a popular racist Israeli fantasy, too.) That's doubtful, since Jews were a tiny minority in Germany: even armed resistance would have been put down brutally, and would have been used to justify Nazi propaganda against Jews as a threat to civilization. By contrast, the white American racists who share this meme are among the overwhelming "racial" majority in the US. They are generally armed, and no laws have been passed that would change that.  African-Americans, who are an oppressed minority in the US, have often resisted, sometimes but not always violently, but the white racists who made this meme don't approve; instead they see their dark compatriots as a threat to them.

The message of the meme, then, is that HitlerObama is leading white Americans, whom he has disarmed, down the primrose path to their/our ultimate elimination. The person who shared the meme from The Comical Conservative remarked, "The even more scary thing is that almost all 'western' nations are on that path, threatening something much much worse than WWII. If we are truly honest, WWIII is already underway."  Evidently he didn't think about its content either.  So why did an anti-racist, politically left person approve this nonsensical piece of racist propaganda? 

From what the friend who liked the meme on Facebook told me, she assumed that "more than 6 million" could not refer to the Jews, presumably because the iconic number for Jews killed in the Holocaust is 6 million, not "more than" 6 million.  I understand this, since it initially gave me pause when I first saw the meme.  Probably she read it in the light of what she knew of the person who brought the meme to her attention, another progressive.  Someone else, commenting on our exchange, said that he'd seen the same meme invoked against Donald Trump and his racist followers.  I think this confirms that they're misreading it: who would expect Trump's white racist fans to "fight back" against him, any more than one would expect German anti-Semites to "fight back" against Hitler?

I'm also put off by "almost all 'western' nations are on that path."  Why "western," and why in quotes?  Non-western nations don't have a good record either.  The strange thing, for a person as misanthropic as my friend, is that she can look at human history and see Hitler and the Holocaust as aberrations in kind, rather than in degree, let alone affect to be surprised by them.  Anti-semitism was deep-rooted in Germany, as in Europe generally; the mechanization of death began not with Zyklon B but with heavy artillery (remember that the American Civil War was the bloodiest war in history in its day), if not the invention of gunpowder; Nazi race science drew heavily on American eugenics, as well as the extermination of our pre-Columbian peoples -- who were no angels themselves, but the wrongness of mass slaughter is not dependent on the moral purity of the victims.

No doubt I'm overreacting; I don't see that as necessarily invalidating my response.  It's legitimate to be appalled by the eruption of white racism in the US.  Racists have clearly been emboldened by Donald Trump's strutting about; comparisons to Hitler are not entirely out of line.  But simple Us/Them divisions aren't going to help, and we need to think about the propaganda we ourselves appropriate.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My Grandfather Didn't Flee the Potato Famine for America to See This Country Overrun by Refugees

John Scalzi's got another post up about the refugee question, this one titled "Frightened, Ignorant and Cowardly Is No Way to Go Through Life, Son."  (I don't know about that: it seems to work for a lot of people.)  One commenter especially amused me, by saying that "Refugees are less likely, statistically, to commit mass murder than white people are." I love the assumption embedded there, that refugees aren't white; it's similar to the popular assumption, now being challenged, that terrorists aren't white.  (Or that "Hispanics" or Mexicans aren't white.)  It's not even clear that Syrians aren't "white," but then such words mean what we choose them to mean.

Along the same lines, a meme I saw today features Ron Paul saying "Here is the solution to the refugee problem: stop meddling in the the affairs of countries."  Once again Paul shows his great knowledge, wisdom, and compassion.  Leave aside that the issue right now is what to do with the refugees we and others have already created.  Refugees can be generated simply by oppressive government action within a country. An obvious example: Nazi Germany created many refugees. The US created internal refugees by its treatment of Indians and people of African descent. So yes, not interfering in other countries' affairs is a good idea, though it's not always easy to determine what is interference and what is wise interaction. But it won't solve "the refugee problem."

But back to Scalzi.  He wrote that, "as many have noted, there is irony in the freakout about Syrian refugees coming into a season which celebrates a notable middle eastern family who famously were refugees at one point in their history, according to some tales."  This trope has been popular among liberals on social media lately, but it has problems.

Scalzi presumably was referring to Joseph and Mary, who indeed could be viewed as refugees at one point in their lives.  That would be when King Herod, alerted by the Three Wise Men that his replacement had been born in Bethlehem, ordered the killing of all male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matthew 2:16).  An angel warned Joseph and Mary of the coming trouble, and they decamped to Egypt, where they remained until Herod died.  One might ask why Yahweh couldn't have somehow prevented the Slaughter of the Innocents altogether, perhaps by giving Herod an embolism; killing turbulent kings is certainly in his repertoire.  The answer is that the killing was Yahweh's plan and will, in order to fulfill a prophecy of Jeremiah's (Matthew 2:17-18).  Otherwise prophecy would not be fulfilled, which would undermine God's credibility.  When Herod died, an angel let Joseph know it was safe for the Holy Family to go back home.

On this analogy, we should suppose that ISIS is an instrument of the Lord, carrying out his murky and mysterious intentions.  Who knows?  If Babylon was doing his work by conquering Jerusalem, destroying Solomon's temple, and carrying the children of Israel into exile, then perhaps ISIS is doing the same.

But as the meme I posted above shows, the Flight into Egypt isn't what these folks have in mind.  When I've seen Joseph and Mary referred to as refugees (or, sometimes, "homeless"), it has always been in connection with the Nativity as told by the gospel of Luke, which depicts Mary depositing the baby Jesus in a manger, "because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:16).  Luke, who doesn't seem to know about the Slaughter of the Innocents or the Flight into Egypt, isn't depicting Joseph and Mary as refugees.  According to him, they were in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus had ordered a census of the Empire, which required that "all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) ..." (2:3-4).  So he wasn't in Bethlehem to seek refuge from state violence, nor was he homeless; he had a home in Nazareth.

It seems odd that Joseph had no relatives to stay with in Bethlehem, but according to Luke he had to go there because he was remotely descended from King David.  Also, Yahweh couldn't arrange housing for his only begotten son, though he could send vast heavenly choirs to announce the blessed event and send shepherds to pay homage.  None of this makes any sense, and there is no evidence either of a Roman census at the time Jesus was probably born, nor that men had to uproot their households and travel to the hometowns of their distant ancestors to be counted.  Luke's Nativity story is almost certainly a fiction he invented, as is Matthew's.  Matthew, by the way, has the baby Jesus and his parents staying in a house in Bethlehem (Mattew 2:11).  Why they moved to Nazareth when they returned from Egypt is not explained, unless it's to fulfill a bogus prophecy that Jesus would be a "Nazarene."  (I say "bogus" because there's no such prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.)

Still, both Matthew and Luke probably intended to move their audiences with the pathos of the Messiah, the Son of God, passing his infancy in humble, even difficult circumstances, just as Scalzi and other people today want to move us with the plight of Syrian and other refugees.  And of course it's hypocritical of American right-wing Christians to try to gin up panic about people who are refugees as a direct result of US policy and aggression in the Middle East.   If you're going to mock their ignorance and distortion of the Bible, though, you need to be more scrupulous in your own account than they are in theirs.  After all, there are plenty of other Biblical passages that could be used, on the theme "Do not oppress or mistreat a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21; compare Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 19:34) This fine sentiment was honored by Israel more in the breach than in the observance, like most of the Torah's ethical teachings; especially when you consider that Israel occupied its land by massacring and enslaving its inhabitants rather than coexisting with them.  And besides, Christians are free from the restrictive Old Testament law.

It's fun to throw Christians' hypocrisy in their faces, as long as they're the right Christians.  (Liberals aren't hypocrites by definition.)  As Christmas approaches we're going to see more convenient distortions of biblical material by all and sundry; I figure it's not to early to start the corrections.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Only Nixon Could Go to China

It was really just a tactical rhetorical move, I know, but I was slightly surprised by Roy Edroso's decision yesterday to speak ill of the Only President We've Got:
I realize that, as circumscribed as he's been, Obama has accomplished some good things for the country. The trouble is, they're mostly half-measures. Take Obamacare. We only have this shaky Rube Goldberg system because the insurers and the AMA had to get paid off or national healthcare would never fly -- Senators and Congressmen have to get their contributions from somewhere, y'know! Single payer has been and remains the choice of the American people, but in the name of prudence and moderation we have instead a system nobody's entirely happy with, and because they're not happy Republicans get to exploit it while scheming to bring back their preferred Pay or Die healthcare system.
Okay, maybe not ill but less than the adulation that is mandatory for the faithful.  I mean, how can Edroso undermine POTUS like this?  If Barack is defeated by Ann Coulter in 2016, we'll know who to thank.

Edroso's mild critique followed on praise of Obama for criticizing Republicans who wanted to block Syrian refugees from our shores.
Naturally I am very pleased to see this, not only because Obama is usually much too nice to these assholes, but also and mainly because it's a refreshingly strong defense of common sense in the normally common-sense-free War on Whatever. When was the last time you heard any other top-tier elected official call bullshit like this?
Better late than never, I suppose.  As I've said before, it would have been better to anticipate the Republican hysteria before Obama was even elected, instead of whining that no one could have foreseen that the Right would be so mean.  But you'd have to be mighty gullible to think that Obama really will follow through when he talks tough.  I don't deny that he faces a vicious, obstructionist opposition -- "art of the possible and all that," as Edroso says -- but it seems to me that in such a case it's better not to make threats or promises you can't keep.  In Obama's case, I doubt he even intends to do so.  These remarks are meant to excite his fans, who will spread them all over the social media and pump their fists and hoot derisively like the Bandur-log they are.

I decided to look at the comments to see if any of his regulars would attack Edroso as a turncoat stealth Republican and Trump-lover.   So far (I'm not up to wading through all 350-plus comments), no.  What there was was funnier.  The first comment is from the blogger Susan of Texas, whose Hunting of the Snark is even more specialized than alicublog: most of her posts for the past several months have been devoted to jeering at Megan McArdle.  Here's Susan of Texas's opening volley:
When somebody starts talking about reality and common sense, run for the hills. They're about to do something stupid and they want you to tell them that they are being smart.
Okay, I agree with this too.  But Ms. Texas seems to have missed Edroso's invocation of common sense in his post.  Did she mean that he was about to do something stupid and wanted his readers to tell him that he was being smart?  Of course not: she was attacking the centrist writer Kevin Drum for expressing his commonsense concern about letting thousands of Ayrabs into our country.  Several other commenters defended Drum, and I quit scrolling through the comments when one of them accused Drum's critics of "purity of rhetoric."  It's entertaining to see conventional liberal-Democrat invective turned back on its usual deployers, though.

For what it's worth, Ms. Texas herself has been known to call on the name of Common Sense in her critiques of the Right ("Stupid people think they are following their ideology to its logical conclusion. They ignore common sense, logic, reason, and empathy because they they have an ax to grind."  So has Barack Obama.  So does just about everybody, including sophisticated moral philosophers who ought to know better.  It's almost always a sign that someone is arguing in bad faith.

And what's wrong with talking about "reality"?  That used to be popular among Democratic loyalists as it is on the Right.  Am I the only person who remembers liberals casting themselves and their positions as "reality-based"?  The very Republicans supposedly conceded that they were, by contrast, "faith-based."  But since then, Democrats gained Hope, and they're clinging to it fiercely, until you pry it from their cold, dead fingers.

Monday, November 16, 2015

To Lose One Stereotyping Tendency May Be Regarded As Carelessness

John Scalzi wrote a sober, sensible, responsible, "Can't-we-all-get-along?" post about the Paris attacks for his blog.  Specifically, he wrote about Americans' reactions to the Paris attacks, and argued against stereotyping all Muslims because of ISIS' crimes.  As usual, he warned at the outset that he would be monitoring the discussion in the comments; as one would expect in a hot-button topic like this one, there were numerous commenters who tried to test his resolve.

One commenter whose contribution wasn't deleted wrote under the name of Mark.  He announced that he's highly educated ("three postsecondary degrees"!), took numerous courses on Islam and the history of the middle east, and has continued to read about these matters since then.
And yet yesterday evening I found myself thinking “what the f*** is wrong with those people”, and I’d be lying if said I meant just the murdering a*******. I should know better. I DO know better. And yet… I don’t know any muslims. It’s so easy to slip into that lazy, wrongheaded thinking, even when you know better. Hence, this was thought provoking, even though it shouldn’t have been.
How odd.  I lack Mark's great educational advantages — not even one undergraduate degree to my name — but while I did think something like “what the fuck is wrong with those people” when I heard of the Paris attacks, it never occurred to me to mean “all Muslims” by “those people.” I meant the people who did this thing.  I feel the same way about US soldiers who welcomed the chance to kill Hajis in Iraq because 9/11.  Maybe it's because I do know some Muslims; I also know some US veterans of our past several wars.  (It seems strange that Mark apparently never met any while studying middle eastern history at the college level, but I don't know where he studied.)  But I don't really think that's why.  Somewhere along the line I lost that particular stereotyping tendency, I guess.

I'm not claiming any great moral superiority here, because I haven't entirely lost that stereotyping tendency, but I don’t see what is so difficult about recognizing that the misdeeds of some are not necessarily the deeds of all of a group.  Yet many (most?) people do find it, not merely difficult, but impossible to do so.  Mark must know, better than most people, something of the range of cultures and attitudes among Muslims around the world, and that the Paris killers are not representative of all of them. I think that most people are quite capable of this recognition about their own group, though that’s less a sign of rationality than a weasely defensive move, in the mode of #NotAllMen, #AllLivesMatter, and the like. I think it basically accepts the They-All-Do-It stereotype, while still trying to carve out an except for one’s own side.

And yet I’m also wary of the reflexive NotAllMuslims move, for similar reasons. I recently read a book called Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, published by Gallup Press in 2008, using international polling data, and while I learned a lot from it, I also was not entirely reassured.  For example, Esposito and Mogahed write:
Forty-six percent of Americans say that the Bible should be “a” source, and 9% believe it should be the “only” source of legislation.

Perhaps even more surprising, 42% of Americans want religious leaders to have a direct role in writing a constitution, while 55% of want them to play no role at all.  These numbers are almost identical to those in Iran [49].
I think there's cause for concern in both cases.  Muslims are no worse as a group than Christians on many issues, but that’s not saying much.  I don’t have any numbers for atheists, but I don’t assume that we’re much better, if at all.  Of course it's unfair to speak of Muslims, or Christians, or atheists, or anyone "as a group."  I don't assume that someone like Noam Chomsky is more representative of atheists than, say, Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  It's simple enough, I think, to address the person or persons whose words or actions concern you.

Esposito and Mogahed’s book ought to be read by everyone who generalizes ignorantly about Islam (or Christianity), whether positively or negatively.  It should be read critically, though, and there's a lot to criticize, as when they write that "The majority in the Muslim world see Islam through different eyes – as a moderate, peaceful religion that is central to their self-understanding and their success" (46), and quote "one 20-year-old female engineering student at the University of Jordan" to the effect that "There should be rules and law to respect people of other religions and not make fun of them.  We must endeavor to relay the accurate picture of Islam to the West – showing that Islam is a religion of goodness and love, and not terrorism.  The West must be willing to accept the true picture of Islam and not hold on to the negative picture that serves terrorists" (87).

Most Americans, after all, see America through different eyes: as a moderate, peaceful country whose values are central to its success; and many Americans would advocate rules and law to enforce respect for their nation and their religion.  While the young engineer should be free to advocate laws mandating respect for people of other religions, etc., she doesn't really value freedom of speech or religion.  Disrespect for and mockery of people of other religions is a core aspect of most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- but also the "pagan" religions that many moderns ignorantly believe to have been more tolerant than the Yahwist cults.  I don't believe that the young engineer really wants to "relay the accurate picture of Islam to the West"; I believe she wants a positive propaganda image to be relayed and accepted.  That's not sinister, of course; it's all too human.  Substitute "Christianity" or "America" or "Israel" or "France" for "Islam" in her words, and many would agree with her.  But, like many Christians (or patriotic Americans), I think she would be surprised to find that what she considers an accurate, true, and positive picture would still be open to skepticism and criticism.  As the political philosopher Michael Neumann wrote on this subject:
Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
With that in mind, let's look at one area the Gallup pollsters explored:
A recent study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Contrast this with data taken the same year from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%.

Similarly, 6% of the American public thinks that attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified.”  As points of comparison, in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it’s 4% ... [Esposito and Mogahed, 95]
I don’t consider any religion to be positive overall, so I reserve the right to criticize Islam just as I criticize Christianity, Judaism, paganism, and atheism. If I actually criticize Islam less often, it’s because I know less about it, and I prefer that my critiques be well-informed.  For well-meaning liberals to swerve to the other extreme, and eulogize Islam as a peaceful, tolerant, moderate "faith," is an overcorrection.  One should always ask: Which Islam? (Or which Christianity / Hinduism / Buddhism / Judaism / Atheism etc.?)  Which Muslims?  In which country and culture?  Are we talking about their words, deployed for public relations and self-esteem purposes, or their actions?  Only then can one begin to talk sensibly.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Forward into the Past!

I don't have anything to say yet about the terrorist attacks in Paris; I haven't seen much information, and it does't seem that there is much information yet -- just the usual speculation masquerading as news that one usually sees.  Maybe later.  Meanwhile:

I confess that although I find the 1960s movie versions unwatchable now, I feel a certain nostalgia (or is it encroaching senility?) for Ian Fleming's James Bond books, especially the final three.  It has been a long time since I read any of them, though, so when I happened on the e-book of The Man with the Golden Gun, I decided to see how it looks to me now.  So far it doesn't look very good, though I see from the Wikipedia entry that Fleming had only completed and submitted the first draft when he died suddenly, so it didn't receive the second-draft enhancement that he expected to give to it.  The Man with the Golden Gun was published posthumously in 1965.

This bit tickled my funny bone, though.  In the book, James Bond has been sent to the Caribbean to take out a bad man, a very bad man.  In the Kingston, Jamaica spy office he encounters Mary Goodnight, who had previously been his secretary in London.  She helps get his mission in gear, and when they have dinner she fills him in on the local situation, which she claims to have learned from the Kingston newspaper, The Gleaner.  The bad guy is in cahoots with Castro, who'd only been in power in Cuba for a few years at that time.  Goodnight says that Castro is trying to sabotage his neighbor countries' sugar crops to raise prices, because of that year's poor harvest, caused by Hurricane Flora.
" ... So it's worth Castro's trouble to try and keep the world price up by doing as much damage as he can to rival crops so that he's in a better position to bargain with Russia.  He's only got his sugar to sell and he wants food badly.  This wheat the Americans are selling to Russia.  A lot of that will find its way back to Cuba, in exchange for sugar, to feed the Cuban sugar croppers." She smiled again. "Pretty daft business, isn't it?  I don't think Castro can hang on much longer.  The missile business in Cuba must have cost Russia about a billion pounds.  And now they're having to pour money into Cuba, money and goods, to keep the place on its feet.  I can't help thinking they'll pull out soon and leave Castro to go the way Batista went... "
In the next paragraph Goodnight continues:
"Washington's trying to keep the price down, to upset Cuba's economy, but there's increased world consumption and a shortage largely due to Flora and the tremendous rains we've been having here after Flora which have delayed the Jamaican crop.  I don't understand it all, but it's in Cuba's interest to do as much damage as possible to the Jamaican crop ..."
I don't know how much of this has any basis in fact, and I'm not sure it's worth while to look it up.  But the prediction of Castro's imminent downfall is probably indicative.  I also like the casual remark that the US was trying to keep the price down, to upset Cuba's economy.  At this time the US was engaged in a protracted campaign against Cuba, to sabotage its food supply, and a typical propaganda move in those Cold War days was to accuse Communist countries of doing what the US was doing.  One example was the "Manchurian Candidate" fantasy that the ChiComs were brainwashing US prisoners of war into robotic assassins, which actually was a US project of the period.  Another was the accusation that the Communists were engaged in the drug trade to destroy the moral fiber of America's youth, when in fact the US and its allies were more likely to be doing so.  I don't know how much Fleming knew, but it's interesting that he should admit, however faintly, that the US was trying to sabotage the Cuban economy to punish Cubans for getting rid of Batista: it was in the US interest to do as much damage as possible to the Jamaican crop.  If for no other reason, I'm going to reread the late Bond books for such glimpses into the Cold War paranoia and mainstream conspiracy theories of the period.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

U-G-L-Y, You Ain't Got No Alibi!

Avedon links to a lot of good material in her latest post at the Sideshow, so go and check it out.  (Including the above image.)

Something occurred to me when I read Avedon's remarks about Hillary Rodham Clinton's call to increase the minimum wage to $12.  (Which is better than Obama's target for it; I suspect both of them are trying to position themselves as moderates, between the extremists who want to raise it to $15 and those who want to abolish it.)  I'd been thinking inchoately about this for some time, at least since I wrote this post right after Obama's election in 2008, but it finally worked its way up to consciousness.

I notice that a lot of Clinton's boosters are stressing not how good her positions are -- perhaps because they know full well her postions aren't good -- but how important it supposedly is that we have a woman president. Here's the thing: it isn't important, it isn't important at all that we have a woman president, just that it was not important at all that we have a black president. It's a nice detail, but if you really oppose racism and sexism, the plumbing or pigmentation of the President is not important. What we need is not a woman president or a black president, but a good one. (Obama has been mediocre at best, and often quite bad.) Sex and skin color are not qualifications. I'm not sure that even Bernie Sanders will be a good president -- but hey, isn't it important that American have its first Jewish president? He might be better than the rest of the field, and I'm willing to vote for him, but I am not a cheerleader for anybody, and I do not trust cheerleaders.