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Illegal Abortion: Lessons From Romania


Illegal Abortion: Lessons from Romania

by H. Bradford


I recently read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity.  In the past, I had read parts of the book, drawing from it for my thesis on the topic of abortion in formerly communist countries.  In preparation for my upcoming short vacation to Romania, I wanted to read some books about Romanian topics, so I reconnected with the book for that purpose.  Reflecting upon the book, there are some lessons that can be drawn from Romania’s abortion experience.  Abortion access has been relentlessly attacked and restricted since its legalization in 1973 and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will certainly be hostile to Roe v. Wade.  While the spectre of inaccessible, if not illegal, abortion has haunted America for decades, there is fearful anticipation among activists that a new era of attacks on reproductive rights is upon us.  Therefore, Kligman’s book is timely for anyone looking to learn from the historical horrors of illegal abortion.

To provide some context, in 1966 abortion was made illegal in Romania by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.  Decree 770 made abortion illegal in most cases, spare some medical conditions, age thresholds (40 or 45 depending upon the age), rape, incest, fetal deformity, or having already raised a certain number of children (4-5 depending on the year).  Abortion remained illegal until the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1989.  During this time period, contraceptives were unavailable in Romania, women were subjected to regular mandatory gynecological exams to monitor pregnancies/abortions/reproductive health, abortion seekers and providers were imprisoned, childless people were fined, homosexuality and adultery was criminalized, and divorce was made difficult to obtain.  The state mobilized propaganda, medical institutions, and the criminal justice system towards enforced reproduction in the interest of demographic goals.  According to Kligman’s book, this reproductive dystopia was the inspiration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Although the United States is very different from communist Romania in the 1960s-80s, some important lessons can be drawn from these nightmarish decades.

1.Abortion Does Not End With Illegality:

Despite Romanian’s draconian laws and lack of access to birth control, abortion did not end.  Women either found legal channels, such as obtaining an abortion for medical purposes (as some conditions allowed for abortion) or faking a miscarriage or illegal channels, such as willing doctors or underground providers.  Most often it was through illegal channels.  The option of travel was not available to most Romanian women, but for a privileged minority this was also a means to obtain an abortion.  One way or another, women continued to seek abortions.  Of course, the ability to seek an abortion was largely dependent upon privilege.  Women who knew doctors, had more social networks, had favorable connections to the police or state, more money, or other resources could more easily circumvent the laws.  Thus, the burden of illegal abortion hits the most marginalized populations the hardest.  It is the poorest and most estranged from social institutions who were forced to reproduce.   For example, Kligman (1998) relayed the story of a peasant woman who was awarded a Medal of Maternal Glory for having 10 children.  She used the award ceremony as a platform to beg for an extra bed.  While she was celebrated for her large number of children, it may very well been for lack of access to an alternative and certainly, this state celebrated choice was not supported by accompanying material resources.

Within the United States, if abortion was made illegal, abortion seekers would continue to have access to it.  Women with careers, credit cards, no criminal histories, U.S. passports, and paid vacation time could access abortion in other countries if it was made illegal here.  Generally, those with resources such as money and vehicles could travel to states where abortion laws were less restrictive.  Those with social networks or living in urban areas, might have access to underground illegal abortion services.  Thus, once again, abortion would not disappear, though the limited access would have the greatest impact on poor women, women of color, rural women, women with criminal histories, immigrant women, and those whose access is already severely limited by lack of abortion access and funding.  The Anti-abortion movement is inherently a war against the most oppressed members of society.  While illegal abortion would certainly be a challenge to educated, “middle class”, mobile, white women, the impact would be deeper felt by those who face multiple oppressions.

  1.  Unsafe Abortion:

The illegality of abortion in Romania drove women to seek abortions.  Some abortions were performed by doctors looking to supplement their modest incomes and some were performed by those who genuinely wanted to help women.  These abortions were made unsafe by the secretive conditions that illegal abortion created.  Doctors had to hide their tools, work quickly, and perform abortions in private residences.  Others were self-induced or performed by non-professionals.  About half of these illegal abortions were performed without harm to the woman.  As for the rest, women often found themselves suffering complications from the herbs, plants, toxins, or objects used to perform the abortion.  This created the hard choice between seeking medical help and risking criminal charges or the possibility of death.  Around 60% of women who went to the hospital for pregnancy complications had sought illegal abortion.  In all, there was an average of 341 deaths per year from abortion complications while abortion was illegal in Romania.  Illegal abortion is the death sentence for some women.

Maternal death can also be expected if abortion were to be made illegal in the United States.  There are some key improvements in the United States compared to Romania.  For one, abortion medicine is more advanced.  In Romania, abortions were only performed by curettage, as vacuum aspiration was unavailable before 1989.  Mifepristone had not yet been invented, so medical abortion was also unavailable (misoprostol the other drug used to induce abortion had been invented but would not have been available in Romania).  The lack of abortion technology made abortion less safe in Romania than if abortion became illegal in the United States.  Nevertheless, if abortion were illegal in the United States, abortion seekers and providers would still face tough choices if complications arose.  Because doctors in the United States are better paid than those in Romania and their education comes at a steep cost, fewer might be incentivized by earning extra money than those in communist Romania were.  This may put women in the hands of those who have less access to abortion medicine/knowledge.  Illegality means less regulation, oversight, uniformity, accreditation, sanitary conditions, and more dangers.  This isn’t to argue that only medical professionals are capable of providing safe abortion.  There were certainly Romanian women who obtained safe abortions from non-medical providers whose folk knowledge of plants and good fortune were enough to end a pregnancy.  However, illegal abortion creates more unknown variables that can contribute to a lack of safety.

  1. Criminality:

In Romania, both women and doctors were imprisoned for seeking/performing abortions.  Time in prison was generally one to three years.  However, some repeat offenders found themselves in prison for longer.  Even those who facilitated abortion were imprisoned, such as the girlfriend of a doctor who was imprisoned for one year without a change of clothes.  She was believed to have hosted the abortion in her apartment.  Doctors who performed illegal abortions could lose their medical license, or at the very least, had to work in another area of medicine.

If the anti-abortion movement in the United States believes that abortion is murder, then it follows that abortion must carry with it some sort of penalty.  In the U.S. the penalty for murder is often life imprisonment and sometimes capital punishment.  Those who argue that abortion is murder rarely argue for the same punishment as murder, which is odd, as it indicates to me that they do not believe it is actually murder or that if it is murder, it is a different kind of murder.  Why is it different?  And, if it is different, it concedes that a fetus is not the same as a born human, for which the punishment is the harshest among all crimes.  But, supposing that abortion is made illegal but the punishment is more minor, such as a few years in prison.  The United States has the largest prison population in the world.  22% of all of the prisoners in the world are in the United States.  Illegal abortion could potentially add many people to our prison system, as one in three women have had an abortion.  What would society be like if one in three women were imprisoned?  The United States has 30% of the world’s female prison population.  African Americans make up 40% of the United States prison population, despite the fact that they are 13% of the general population.  Criminalizing abortion, like criminalizing anything in this country, disproportionately impacts people of color.

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  1. Unwanted Children:

One outcome of illegal abortion in Romania was unwanted children.  After all, not all women could successfully access illegal abortion.  Many of these children found themselves on the streets or were put into overcrowded, underfunded orphanages.  Because of unsanitary medical practices and lack of transparency/policy regarding HIV, some of these orphans contracted HIV.  After the collapse of communism in Romania, the Western Media broadcasted the images of underweight, despondent, dirty, neglected children in Romanian orphanages, revealing and perhaps making a spectacle of the horror of their abuse.  Romanian society failed to care for the children that women were forced to birth.  I doubt the United States would do much better.

Romanian society had some advantages over the United States when it comes to the care of children.  In Romania, retirement age was 57 for women (and 55 upon request).  For men, it was 62 or 60 upon request.  Therefore, unwanted children or children that parents simply could not care for, could be sent to retired grandparents or other relatives.  In the United States, full Social Security benefits begin at 66, but many people feel that they can no longer retire.  The pool of retirees who can provide care work for children is smaller as the economy and lack of pension benefits at jobs forces U.S. workers into the job market longer.  Romania also offered 112 days of paid maternity leave, a birth bonus, and a 10% stipend for their second child (more for additional children).  While these government funds were not sufficient to defray the actual cost of raising a child, at least the government made some effort to provide for families.  The United States does not offer free daycare, paid maternity leave, or any additional funds to support families.  In this sense, our country is profoundly unequipped to support mothers and children.  There are programs for needy families, such as MFIP and food stamps, but only the poorest can access these and this does not resolve problems such as affordable daycare and paid leave, which all working parents need.

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  1. Ideology of Gender Oppression:

In the United States, it seems that one of the biggest incubators of the ideology of gender oppression is religion.  After all, most anti-abortion groups are religiously affiliated.  Because religion has been used to justify homophobia, lack of abortion access, and the oppression of women, it is easy to view religion as the source of gender oppression.  However, one lesson from Romania is that religion can be completely absent from public life and the state can still propagate ideologies that justify the oppression of women.  Romania, like all communist countries, was an atheist state.  Nevertheless, the state created mythologies about nationalism and building communism, in which the role of women was both that of a worker and glorified mother.  While the case for illegal abortion is often made on religious grounds in the United States, nationalism, economic prosperity, and even science can be mobilized to oppress women.  In Romania, propaganda created a mythology that women were naturally meant to be mothers.  That this was what made them the healthiest, happiest, and most productive.  Any ideology that states that women are naturally “X” should be a red flag.  Women are not naturally anything.  Woman is a social category which has divided the world in an unequal gender binary.  So, while I write now about women and often discuss women’s rights to abortion, it is important to remember that men and non-binary people also seek abortions.  Not all people with uteruses are women.  Part of the fight for reproductive rights is the fight to challenge notions of gender or what is natural, since “natural” is a dog whistle for what is expected and enforced.  The fight for reproductive rights is not a fight against religion, though some religions are involved in the anti-abortion movement.  In a discursive sense, it is also a fight about the very notion of what it means to be a woman.  It is a fight against the demographic and economic interests of states, which are invested in the reproduction of workers and soldiers if not the actual upkeep of children.

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  1. Culture of Suspicion:

Kligman (1998) noted that Romanian abortion laws created a culture of suspicion.  Women were made to have regular gynecological exams.  Doctors were mobilized by the state to police the bodies of women.  Everyday citizens were recruited by The Securitate to spy on one another.  Relationships between couples, neighbors, co-workers, doctors, etc. deteriorated as it was never certain who could be trusted and who could not.

The United States is not the same sort of police state, but because of our political and cultural environment, abortion is still a matter of secrecy and shame.  Few people discuss their abortion experience even though abortion is common.  If abortion were illegal, this secrecy and shame is likely to increase because of the legal consequence.   Therefore, it is important for supporters of abortion to fight the shame.  In the arena of discourse, we should never accept that abortion should be rare, that it is shameful, regrettable, or that no one is pro-abortion.  I am pro-abortion.  If abortion is medicine, then I am as much for abortion as I am for dental treatment, eye exams, cancer treatment, or any other form of medicine.  Abortion can be life saving.  Abortion is sometimes freedom from poverty or abusive relationships.  Like anything, it can be a positive, negative, or neutral experience based upon social and personal circumstances.


  1. Abortion and Abuse

Kligman (1998) did not give as much attention to this topic as it deserves, perhaps because of lack of research in this area.  However, she mentioned that in Romania, divorce was hard to obtain and abuse was considered a personal/family matter.  Even if a woman sought to escape an abusive situation, survival on a single income and the ability to obtain housing would have been nil.  She also wrote that men really did not take responsibility for pregnancy prevention and that it was up to women to obtain an abortion or deal with the consequences of pregnancy.  State health propaganda suggested that couples should have sex several times a week.  The state fostered a society wherein domestic violence was inescapable by virtue of social norms, lack of resources, enforced pregnancy, and state sanctioned male entitlement to sex.

If abortion were illegal in the United States, victims of domestic violence would similarly find themselves forced to have the children of their abuser.  Due to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence is not inevitably viewed as a personal or family matter but a problem related to patriarchy and the exertion of power.  Advocates have pushed back against this narrative.  Shelters, community responses involving education police and social services, and laws that protect victims from such things as eviction or job loss are some of the victories of the feminist movement which Romanian society did not have.  However, illegal abortion would still have an impact on victims/survivors as it would force them to have the children of their abuser and through this connection continue to have to deal with them in courts (for child support, custody, visitation) and in life (if the abuser does have partial custody, visitation).  Enforced pregnancy (through rape or sabotage or denial of birth control) is one of many ways that abusers exert control over victims.  Illegal abortion is essentially the state’s sanction of sexual abuse.

  1.  U.S. Foreign Policy- Exporting Anti-Abortion

One final lesson from Romania is that Western countries were either indifferent or supportive of Ceausescu’s abortion policies.  Nixon visited Romania in the early 1970s, Jimmy Carter hosted a visit of Ceausescu in 1978, and the United States looked at Romania as a potential ally due to its independence from the Soviet Union, relations with Israel, and willingness to engage in trade agreements with the west.  The suffering of the Romanian people and the restrictive abortion laws mattered very little to the two ruling parties of the United States.  This is because ultimately, U.S. economic and political interests as an imperialist power supersede principled concerns about the rights of women.  Lip service may be given to these concerns from time to time, but these concerns meet their horizon where US hegemony is challenged.

Our country’s hostility towards abortion has a global impact.  One example is the Global Gag rule, which began with Reagan and has been squarely supported by Republicans since.  Basically, it means that oversees organizations which receive U.S. aid cannot provide or promote abortion services.  I expect that if abortion became illegal in the United States, we would empower and expand restrictions elsewhere.  In terms of abortion, the worst offenders, of course, are Republicans, but at the heart of the issue is a shared, underlying view that the United States is exceptional, correct, important, and deserves a disproportionate place in shaping the history of the world and lives of the people of other countries.  The United States is not exceptional, or it is only exceptional in its atrocities, war mongering, genocide, racism, mass incarceration, and capacity for immiserating the world.  I believe that if abortion became illegal in the United States, the people of the world would help the oppressed women here.   In return, it is our duty to demolish U.S. power abroad.

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Illegal abortion seems like a nightmare, but in this nightmarish lens, it is always an Other.  It is an exotic, Eastern, communist dystopia that is distant from the United States on account of time, place, and political/economic system.  But, the challenges faced by Romanians are some of the same faced in the United States before abortion was illegal and which are faced today where abortion has not yet been legalized.  In Romania, the people rose up and killed their dictators.  In the United States, social movements also tirelessly worked to legalize abortion and contraceptives.  While women might not have the power  to “shut things down” when it comes to reproduction (to quote Todd Akin famous rape statement) there is always the power to shut society down through protest, strikes, and civil disobedience.   As challenging as it is, it is our best and only hope in rolling back the tide of attacks against reproductive rights.


This Beast

I have failed to write a poem for EVERY book I have read this year, but the most recent book that I read was The Democrats: A Critical History by Lance Selfa.   This book was well written and clearly identifies the long history of contradictions, empty promises, and duplicity of the Democratic Party.   The book is wonderfully enraging.    Here is a poem to express my revolutionary anger.


This Beast


Know this beast

Study it everyday

Like the features of a monster

With gnashing teeth to grind up the working class

Bludgeoning them like Hartley and Taft

The demon who ignores poor women

The Jekyll and the Hyde Amendment

The Jackal and the corporate cabal

Who broke bones with austerity?

Who championed NAFTA, WTO, World Bank, IMF, and the CIA?

These are not gladiators,

But emperors and vampires.

There is no lesser evil

There is only the evil of two faced capitalism,

Which devours children and shortens lives,

The time must come when people no longer bow before

Great and terrifying things

Yielding power to imagined behemoths

Their immortality is mythical

The immorality is real

We already possess the power to end this nightmare

To liberate the dispossessed

And dispose of every neo-liberal liberator


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Book Review: War Against All Puerto Ricans

Book Review: War Against All Puerto Ricans- Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony

H. Bradford


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Like many Americans, I know precious little about Puerto Rico.   I traveled to San Juan briefly in 2016, which piqued my interest.   When I attended a Letters to Prisoners event a few months later, I wrote to Oscar Lopez Rivera, who I didn’t even know about and was surprised that he was still in prison after 36 years.  Last January his sentence was commuted as Barack Obama was leaving office and he has since returned to Puerto Rico to live with his daughter.   After writing to him, I purchased one of his books and a book by Nelson Denis about Puerto Rican’s history entitled: War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.   Both books sat in my room, quietly collecting dust until Hurricane Maria hit the island in September.   The climate and colonial nightmare inspired me to finally make time for War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony something that the U.S. has been making time for since 1898.   The following are some things that I learned from the book.

Denis’ (2015) book does not cover much history prior to the Spanish-American war.  So, the narrative pretty much begins when Puerto Rico shifts hands between Spain to the United States in 1898.  Though, there was an interesting story about Taino resistance to Spanish conquest- as a Taino named Urayoan tricked a Spaniard named Diego Salcedo into believing he was being led to a lake full of virgins. (Why a lake would be full of virgins or the importance of such a lake is another question…).  Instead of finding this lake, he was ambushed, killed, and his body was watched as it decomposed to make certain he was human (as there was some doubt due to immunity to smallpox).  When it was determined that he decayed like everyone else, riots broke out across the island-only to be squashed by Ponce de Leon, who had 6000 Tainos killed.   In any event, other details regarding Spanish rule are not covered in the four pages dedicated to this four hundred year time period.  I suppose that information is left to be discovered in other sources.

What is discussed in the book is an overview of the long history of terrors inflicted upon the island by the United States as well as some of the resistance against this.  It is hard to even know where to begin, but one of the worst things that the United States did includes a forced sterilization project that began in the early 1900s and continued into the 1970s.  For instance, in the town of Barceloneta alone, 20,000 women were sterilized.   And by the mid 1960s, one third of the entire female population of the island had been sterilized, the highest incidence of sterilization in the world.  Women were not told nor did they consent to sterilization, which was done for purely racist motives at Puerto Ricans were seen as inferior, promiscuous, over populated, etc.  Besides literally trying to kill off Puerto Ricans as a people through sterilization, the U.S. sought to kill of their culture and identity through their education system.  English became compulsory in schools, but since this drove up drop out rates, this policy was overturned in 1909.  Today, fewer than 20% of the population speaks English fluently, which could be seen as an accomplishment in resisting U.S. designs for the colony.  However, the biggest theme in the oppression of Puerto Ricans in the deplorable labor conditions.

Labor conditions require special attention because this offers insight to why Puerto Rico is a territory rather than a state.   In 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated the island, but instead of providing hurricane relief, the U.S. further impoverished the populace by outlawing the Puerto Rican pesos and announcing that the currency was valued at .60 cents to the dollar.  This caused Puerto Ricans to lose 40% of their savings overnight.  In 1901, a land tax called the Hollander Bill forced farmers from their land in a classic capitalistic ploy to proletarianize farmers and amass capital in the form of land.   The farmers sold their lands to US banks and moved to the cities.   At the same time, the first governors of the island were unelected U.S. men with ties to sugar or fruit companies.   In 1922 the island was declared a colony rather than a state, as this was a way to avoid U.S. labor laws such as minimum wage and collective bargaining.   Thus, by 1930, 45% of all arable land was owned by sugar plantations and 80% of these plantations were US owned.  During the 1930s, prices were 15-20% higher on Puerto Rico than in the US and wages were half of what they were under Spanish rule.  At the same time, while FDR is often lauded for providing relief to Americans during the Great Depression through the New Deal, his policy in Puerto Rico was to militarize the island, suppress nationalism, and appoint a hard-line governor named General Winship to oversee the island.   Winship tried to reinstate the death penalty, constructed a Naval-Air Base, expanded the police, and imported more weapons to the island.  Winship also ordered the Ponce Massacre, in which 19 men, one woman, and one girl were killed by police while participating in or viewing a non-violent, unarmed nationalist parade.  200 others were injured when police opened fire on the march, shooting people as they fled.  There were 85 strikes in Puerto Rico during 1933, and in a sugar cane strike, workers went on strike because their wage for a 12 hr day was cut from 75 cents to 45 cents.   The workers actually won that fight and saw their wages increase to $1.50.  However, it is important to note that both Democrat and Republican politicians have historically sought keep the island in colonial status to extract as much profit as can be gained from the beleaguered island.   Over the decades, the island has become a tax haven for corporations and currently it produces 25% of the world’s pharmaceuticals.  Yet, in 2015 the unemployment rate was 15% and the poverty rate was 45%.  33,000 government jobs were eliminated between 2010-2015 and utility rates in 2015 were 300% higher than in the U.S.  Both parties supported PROMESA, which put the island under a bipartisan financial control board in order to control the countries finances (i.e. impose austerity measures to balance the budget).  Of course, the book predates PROMESA….which I believe is Spanish for our promise to allow the corporate plunder of the island.  The book is not overtly theoretical or anti-capitalist, so there is no specific critique of imperialism, capitalism, or how both parties follow the logic of American exceptionalism.

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Image of the 1937 Ponce Massacre

This history of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation sets the backdrop of nationalist struggle in War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.  The book mainly focuses on nationalist struggle from the 1930s to 1950s.  The book follows the history of the Nationalist Party and does not discuss other independence parties or socialist/communist history.  Because it covers one party and a specific time period, it obviously does not provide a full overview of social struggle in Puerto Rico.  Even the labor movement is given passing attention.  Still, the events and personalities that are covered are certainly interesting.   Albizu Campos is given a lot of attention.  He was an impoverished orphan turned American educated lawyer turned nationalist revolutionary.  He created the Cadets of the Nationalist Party, a youth organization and formed the Workers Association of Puerto Rico with striking sugar cane workers.  He was arrested under the rule of Governor Winship, who made nationalist expression illegal (such as owning a Puerto Rican flag or organizing for independence) and spent seven years imprisoned.  After his release, he tried to organize a revolution in 1950.  This revolution failed due to heavy FBI infiltration into the Nationalist Party (which comprised plans, members, and weapons stores) and the fact the US actually bombed the city of Jayuya.  The US National Guard even shot nationalists after they had surrendered.  The saddest part of Albizu’s story was after the failed 1950 revolution, he was arrested and experimented on at La Princessa prison.  He was sentenced to life in prison, kept in solitary confinement for months, then given doses of radiation as an experiment/torture.  Even though he showed signs of radiation poisoning, U.S. psychologists deemed him insane for thinking that he was being experimented upon.  However, the global community was not as convinced of his lunacy and a petition to have him released was brought to the United Nations.  Pre-revolution Cuba (an ally of the U.S. still) also passed a resolution to have him moved to Cuba for medical treatment.  He had a stroke in 1956 in which he lost the ability to speak and died 10 years later.

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An image of Albizu Campos as a prisoner-covered in sores and burns from alleged radiation poisoning.

Another interesting nationalist discussed in the book was Vidal Santiago Diaz.  He was a barber who availed himself in the Nationalist Party by stockpiling weapons and commanding the Cadets while Campos was imprisoned.   He was arrested and tortured for his role in gathering weapons- but never provided information about the nationalist movement to the police- even when he was electrocuted, beaten, water boarded, starved, and isolated.  When he was released from imprisonment, he even managed to tell his allies who among them were actually informants (based on what he learned while imprisoned).  His most amazing feat was fighting off 40 members of the US National Guard/Puerto Rican police from his barber shop during the 1950 uprising.  The battle was broadcast live on the radio and it was assumed that the shop was full of nationalists as he fired the various weapons he had stored upon them for several hours.  He was shot various times, but continued fighting until a stairway collapsed upon him.  He was then shot in the head once authorities entered the shop and assumed to be dead, but as he was dragged into the street by the police he regained consciousness.  He was imprisoned until 1952 and lived until 1982.   His story was the most interesting in the book, since he was an everyday person of astonishing conviction and determination- who alone put up the best resistance in the whole nationalist movement in the 1950 revolt.


There are other interesting stories in the book, such as the extensive surveillance of the Puerto Rican population.  The Carpetas program collected files of information on 75,000 people.  This information was used to arrest people involved with the Nationalist Party, but also used to blackmail, threaten, and bar employment from dissidents.   Another theme of the book was the lack of coverage in the U.S. media of events in Puerto Rico and how the media framed issues in Puerto Rico as internal and inconsequential.  Even a nationalist assassination attempt on President Truman was framed as a communist plot (even though the assassins were Puerto Rican National Party supporters).  It is no wonder that the movement for independence was not successful, as organizers were challenged by infiltration into their organization, extensive surveillance of the populace,  torture, medical experimentation, imprisonment, military occupation, lack of media attention, and other facets of a fully U.S. funded and supported police state.   Unfortunately, the book ends after the 1950 uprisings (the October 30, 1950 revolt and failed the assassination attempt on Truman).

In all, War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, was an engaging read that covered some interesting events and characters from history.   My main critique of the book is that it does not provide much analysis or critique.  Certainly, the book does not provide any solutions.  Also, because the book covers history until 1950, it seems incomplete.  How does this history connect to today?  What about the nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s?  How is this connected to other nationalist struggles?  What is the nature of social movements in Puerto Rico today?  Therefore, the scope of the book tends to be narrow in many ways.  The narrative itself is jumpy, moving back and forth between the decades as the first half of the book focuses on events and the second half focuses on people.  While the book is short, there are parts of the narrative that seem less necessary.   For instance, there is a chapter on an OSS agent who runs a club in Puerto Rico.  While it may be useful in creating a U.S. villain to highlight the “terror in Amerca’s colony” aspect of the book, the tone of this chapter is playful and forgiving.  After all, the chapter ends that he “never watered down his booze and brought a touch of class to colonial espionage (156).” As a minor detail, the book specifically mentions coqui frogs croaking at least a half dozen times.  The scene setting novelty of the endemic amphibian wore off eventually.

One book cannot be everything.  After I read it, I did feel that I wanted to learn more.  There are facets of the book that could certainly be their own books, such as the history of the sugar cane industry in Puerto Rico, the history of hurricanes, the labor movement,  socialists and communists on the island, or the nationalist movement after 1950.  And, certainly there are books on at least some of these topics.  Thus, I don’t feel that the book is the best introductory reading to the topic of Puerto Rico, as it offers a truncated piece of history.  It does provide context, but I think the book would best be read after a survey of history or along with other books.  Since I do intend to read other books, I didn’t mind the read- though I was left hoping for more.  Nevertheless, the book is very accessible, quick to read, and full of fascinating people and events.   It is also a timely read, as Puerto Rico has finally BEEN in the news lately because of Hurricane Maria.  Oddly enough, Guam was also in the news this past summer.  With the spotlight on our forgotten colonies, it is a great time to learn more about them to contextualize current events and make certain that their struggles stay pertinent to activists.

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A Year of Books

A Year of Books

H. Bradford 1/13/17

One of my favorite things to do in read.  However, I don’t always find enough time for it.  In 2016, I read 24 books (not counting books that were assigned during my last semester of my teaching program at CSS).  It seems that I read far less than my friends but far more than the general public.  Still, I think that a goal of reading two books a month is probably fine enough, as it leaves me time to pursue my other hobbies.  At the same time, I hope that I read more books in 2017 than I did in 2016.  Thus, my New Year’s Resolution is to read 28 books.  In the meantime, here is a brief overview of the books that I read in 2016.  About fourteen of the books were written by men and ten by women.  Overall, 95% of the books were non-fiction, as I have a strong preference for non-fiction.  About 16% of the books were about animals.  8% of the books were about plants.  Approximately 33% of the books were related to histories of people of color.  16% of the books were specifically about Africa.  Based upon this, it can generally be said that I sought to increase my knowledge of plants, animals, Africa, and sexuality.

  1. Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers by Simon Winchester (2015).


I read this book about a year ago, but I generally liked it.  There were some chapters which engaged me more than others.  For instance, I found the information about the atomic bomb tests in the Pacific interesting since I was not aware of how this impacted the indigenous people of Bikini Atoll.   The information about China’s claims to various islands in the Yellow Sea  was also interesting.  On the other hand, I was less interested in the chapters on radios and surfing.  With that said, the book was a hodgepodge of Pacific history.  It wasn’t a heavy, hitting theoretical work, of course.  Rather, it was a fluffy pop history that was engaging enough to capture my attention

2. Socialism and Sexuality by Sherry Woolf (2009)


I wrote a review for this book last January.   I devoured the book within a day.  Highlights of the book included the history of sexuality after the Russian revolution,  the failure of the Democratic party to be a consistent ally, and a critique of biological determinism.  My review can be read at:

3. The Witches by Stacey Schiff (2015)


This book was extremely detailed, but rather dry.  I slogged through it, not particularly interested in the book-despite what should have been an exciting topic.  I think that it did not capture my attention since the history was not held together by a central theory or argument as to the cause or purpose of the Salem Witch Hunts

4. Warrior Nation by Anton Treuer (2015)


    This book was a history of the Red Lake Nation. I am going to be honest and say that I did not enjoy this book as much as I thought I would.  One reason that I probably did not enjoy it as much was because I am not versed in Minnesota history.  The book was very detailed, but became repetitive.  Of course, that is the nature of the history.  However, it was a bit of a challenge to slog through broken treaty after broken treaty.  Another challenge was that the book put emphasis on the leaders of Red Lake.  I tend to shy away from histories of great individuals and lean more towards social histories.  Anton Treuer visited Duluth last year and gave a talk.  He was engaging to listen to, extremely informed, and had a great sense of humor.  He also signed my book.  Perhaps one of his other books would be more accessible to me.

5. The Beast Within by Joyce Salisbury

I found this book at the Superior Public Library book sale and wrote a review of some of the highlights.  The thesis of the book is that throughout the Middle Ages, people came to view animals as less different than humans and humans as less different than animals.  A flaw was that the book tried to condense a long period of history and large geographic area into a few hundred pages.  Still, it was a fun read with many memorable anecdotes- such as the avoidance of eating the meat of hare because they were viewed as extremely sexual animals that grew a new anus each year of their life.


6. Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin (1994)

    This book was another find from the Superior Public Library book sale.  I also reviewed it earlier last year.  The book was not what I expected (a diatribe against eating beef).  Rather, it was a history of beef.  The book did make me feel angry about beef and how it is historically connected to patriarchy and genocide.   It is nice to find a book that creates an emotional response and food for thought.

7. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich (2006)


    Once again, I wrote a review of this book earlier in the year.  I am actually a little surprised that I took time to review some of the books that I read.  Thanks past self for helping me remember what I read and what I thought of it!  Anyway, this was a beautifully written book of interviews with survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

8. Apartheid: A History by Brian Lapping


    This book was a forgettable history of apartheid, which I picked up from the Duluth Public Library book sale.  I was looking for books about African history and it was one of the few that I could find.  The book was written in 1986, so it was pretty outdated and the book ended before the end of apartheid.  The only positive is that it was an easy to read introduction to the basic history of apartheid.

9. Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future by Martin Meredith (2009)


    This book was pretty interesting, as I knew little about Robert Mugabe going into it.  The history is well written, detailed, and engaging.  A person could know nothing about Zimbabwe and still easily read this book.  The author was sympathetic to the white farmers who lost their land during the 1990s.  He also seemed to have a negative opinion of how this land was subsequently managed.  This seems to be the mainstream opinion on white landownership in Zimbabwe.  Thus, a person needs to think against the book and its narrative and consider what right do white people have to stolen land or ill-gotten land?  Weren’t they always living on borrowed land and borrowed time?  Also, the reader should think against the narrative that Black people can’t govern themselves.  Perhaps the land distribution and management has had negative consequences, but leaving it in the hands of the white minority diminishes the autonomy and power of Zimbabweans.

10.  Traveler’s History of the Caribbean by James Ferguson (2008)

Another easily forgettable history.  I don’t have much to say about this book other than I read it before travelling to the Caribbean to brush up on the history.  It reads like a long Wikipedia article, so it isn’t terrible, but also isn’t memorable.

11. Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, The Boers, and the Making of South Africa  by Martin Meredith (2008)

Of the three Martin Meredith books, I found this one the least interesting.  However, the book provided me with a pretty solid overview of South African, Zimbabwean, and Namibian history from the 1800s.  The book was full of colorful characters with a lot of attention given to Cecil Rhodes.  This in itself made the book interesting and visiting his grave more meaningful to me.  Rhodes embodied capitalism in so many ways.  Capitalism and capitalists are abstract things that exist somewhere in the world.  The 1% is hardly imaginable.  Cecil Rhodes embodied the economic, political, and military mechanisms of capitalism.  Perhaps the only area of capitalism that he did not represent was the ideological aspect of its existence, since he wasn’t an intellectual or philosopher.  In any event, that was the main thing I took away from the book.

12. Fate of Africa:  The History of Africa Since Independence by Martin Meredith (2011)


    This was the most interesting of the three Meredith books that I read this year.  The book is a great overview of the entire modern history of Africa.  It is a story of the struggle for independence, hope for the future, descent into dictatorships, and shaky futures.  As a Marxist, it is certainly disheartening to ready the story of how socialism failed so spectacularly across the continent.  But, to be fair, capitalism hasn’t been much better.  The book doesn’t really offer an explanation of why this is.  Or, if it does, the blame is placed on corrupt individuals.  This is true of all of the Meredith books.  The engine of history tends to be centered on individuals or events, rather than economics.  Theoretically, the books are weak, as they offer a mainstream journalistic style which masquerades as unbiased but is pro-capitalism and pro-West.  In any event, each of the countries inherited faulty mechanisms of governance and underdeveloped economies from their colonial masters and were expected to develop within the context of global capitalism in a Cold War.  Was there much hope to begin with?

13. Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa by Ashley Currier (2012)

I wanted to read a book about sexuality in Africa and this is what I found.  The book was short and read more like a research paper or thesis project than a book.  The book studies LGBT groups in South Africa and Namibia and uses interviews and observation to identify some of the struggles of LGBT organizing in these countries.  Both countries have struggled with the influence of Western NGOs and how these can de-legitimize their organizations and shape policies.  For instance, Western NGOs can provide funding and support to African LGBT organizations.  However, in doing so, the countries are encouraged to adopt the language and worldview of Western NGOs.  Thus, indigenous beliefs about gender and sexuality may be ignored or mislabelled.  Another challenge was inclusivity.  In South Africa, there were organizations specifically for Black lesbians.  However, this excluded whites, Coloured, and gay individuals.  Exclusive organizations were often established for the safety of participants.  I think this is a very relatable social movement question, especially in terms of domestic violence shelters, which are gender segregated- and often in the interest of safety.  This is a perennial problem that social movements must face, since various groups of people may demand exclusive spaces- such as lesbians and women have in the past.  These groups may have special experiences or needs, which lead them to organize autonomously.  At the same time, exclusion narrows the pool of participants and reifies differences.  The book contrasted some of the differences between LGBT organizing in these countries.  In South Africa, there has been state support of LGBT rights, whereas in Namibia, the state has been hostile.  This has caused the LGBT movement in Namibia to be smaller and more underground.

14. Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (2001)


This is a fun history of one of Europe’s most unique and ancient ethnic groups: the Basques.  The book contains recipes, cultural tidbits, economics, and history.  Everything from the most authentic Basque cherry pie recipe to Basque independence is covered.  I learned that anyone who speaks Euskera is considered Basque, which allowed ETA to recruit people after their language and culture were suppressed by Franco and diluted by immigrants to Basque regions.  I was also unaware that Guernica was a Basque village (I thought it was a generically Spanish village).   Basque whaling, cod fishing, shipbuilding, and tourism are also discussed, along with the development of written Euskera, Basque literature, and national identity.   I found nothing boring in the book, as it moved along from topic to topic in an exploration of all of the facets of Basque history.

15. Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott (2012)

    I read this book in October to get me in the mood for Halloween.  I gleaned quite a bit from this book, which I used to inform my blog post: The Sociology of Pumpkins.

I can’t imagine that there are many histories of pumpkins, so as far as plant histories go, it was a pretty good book.

16. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1998)

This book has the unique distinction of being the only piece of fiction that I read in 2016.  It was lent to me at a meeting of Books and Beer (which I attended one time).  I was hesitant to read it because I don’t enjoy reading fiction as much as non-fiction.  I was also squeamish about it because it was a feminist version of a Bible story.  While some feminists might enjoy imagining God as a woman or the secret feminist lives of Biblical characters, I am atheist with little time for invisible masters, male or female.  With that said, I actually liked the book.  It brought me back to my childhood.  I remembered the old Bible stories from Sunday school and was amused with the narrative from the women of what “really” happened.  The book was a little bit sad (since it went through the entire life of the character), but also satisfying.

17. Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan (2006)

This book was so-so.  I found the information about the culinary history of acorns to be rather interesting.  However, the focus on oak being used in shipbuilding and architecture did not capture my imagination in quite the same way.  The book is probably more interesting to someone with an interest in carpentry or ships.  As for myself, I would have been more interested in the ecological and symbolic history of oaks.

18. Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis (2016)

    This book is the story of a woman who travelled solo, on foot, across Mongolia, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.  Along the way, she is met with many perils and challenges.  She does not speak Mongolian, she must protect herself from sexual assault, her health and gear sometimes fail her, her beloved dog dies, and she has difficulty navigating the social expectations of Mongolia.  I enjoyed it because it is a travel story.  While it is certainly a dramatic travel story, I think that anyone who has ventured anywhere can relate to the themes of missing home, leaving things behind, making sacrifices for the adventure, and feeling afraid.  To me, the book captured my imagination of what is possible.  Some people test their limits by biking across the country, doing the Appalachian trail,  running marathons, etc.  I was left wondering, what can I do?  What are my own limits?  Of course, she is extremely privileged to be a white woman who has the time, money, and physical ability to travel across very poor countries without invitation or sufficient knowledge of their customs and language.  But, this is also the story of almost all travelers, who come from a place of privilege to indulge in some sort of escapism or self-actualization.


  1. Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the present by Neil Miller (1995)


I found this book at the Duluth Public Library book sale.  This is a wonderful source for books!  The book was pretty interesting.  It covered the LGBT movement and individuals from the mid 1800s onward, beginning with the invention of modern notions of sexuality and the stories of Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.  The origins of biological determinism in sexuality can also be tied to this early history.  The book explored the sexual histories of many famous individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia, though it was mostly focused on U.S. and British history.  There were many fascinating nuggets.  For instance, the Canadian government was extremely homophobic and even invented a “fruit machine” to detect homosexuality amongst government employees.  The book covered the LGBT movement in its various organizations and incarnations, ranging from Uranians, Stonewall, and the HIV crisis.  As a whole, the book was very gripping.  My main complaint is that the history actually did include some transgender and bisexual history, though these are not specifically spotlighted in the title or chapter headings.  While it might be difficult to write a book about all sexual and gender minorities, their absence in this history is an example of erasure.


  1. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James Baker and Peter Gomes (2009)


    Just as I tried to get in the mood for Halloween with a book about pumpkins, I tried to get into the spirit of Thanksgiving with this book about Thanksgiving.  This book was much more sociological than the pumpkin book.  The book argued that there was no original Thanksgiving, as there were many Thanksgivings in many places by many people.  The Plymouth Thanksgiving was one of several and accompanied by fasts.  Just as Thanksgiving is socially constructed, Pilgrims and Indians are.  Pilgrims are depicted wearing dark colors and buckles, but this came from the Victorian imagination of the Pilgrims as quaint and austere.  The Native Americans that accompany the Pilgrims are often shown in the clothing of Native Americans from the Great Plains and inaccurately dwelling in teepees.  The vision of a shared meal between this group only appeared in American culture after the wars against Native Americans had been completed and it was possible to imagine them as a sympathetic, pacified group of people.  Even the long shared table and outdoor feast were invented in the literature of the late 1800s rather than off of actual historical events.  The holiday itself was selected by FDR as the third Thursday in November in order to bolster the Christmas shopping season.

Although there is little historical about Thanksgiving, the authors are middle of the road when it comes to celebrating the holiday.  On one hand, they are against Fundamentalists who insist that it is a part of American heritage, as clearly, the holiday has evolved over time.  On the other, the authors are also against Native Americans who protest the holiday, as this is also viewed by them as ahistorical as Plymouth Thanksgiving did not mark the beginning of genocide against Native Americans.  I think this misses the point that the history itself doesn’t matter so much, as it is still a symbol of genocide and colonization.  In other words, I think that the authors were too dismissive of the Native American perspective on Thanksgiving.    

  1. Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior by Beth Bartlett (2016)


    We read this book through the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition book club.  It is a must read for anyone engaged in feminist activism or non-profit/social work in the Northland, as it offers a comprehensive history of the major feminist organizations in the Twin Ports, such as PAVSA, CASDA, Safe Haven, AICHO, the Women’s Health Center, etc.  One theme from the book is that many of these organizations began with a small core of dedicated people and few resources.  Originally, these organizations were run with an egalitarian feminist vision, but over time this was compromised in the interest of growth, funding, and conforming to external restraints.  It leaves the reader wondering what can be done to reinvigorate these organizations, the downside of the professionalization of social movement organizations, and how organizations are constrained by a larger context of capitalism.

  1. 50 Animals that Changed the Course of History by Eric Chaline (2011)


This book made a big promise!  That is, it promised to tell me about 50 animals and how they changed history.  However, the history was lackluster, childish, and sometimes inaccurate.  It read like a children’s encyclopedia of animals and offered about two pages of basic information about each of the animals.  It was a huge disappointment.

  1. Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenberg (2009)

I liked this book since it highlighted the importance of predators to ecosystems.  We tend the envision the food chain from the bottom up, but this book had many examples of how things at the top of the food chain impact those at the bottom.  It helped me to re-think a very basic understanding of ecology.  It cited various examples of situations wherein predators disappeared and how this had a detrimental effect on the rest of the ecosystem- ranging from starfish to otters.  I think this book would be useful for anyone who is against sport hunting of predators.  On the other hand, the book did get a little strange towards the end when the author suggested “rewilding” the Americas.  This does not mean re-introducing predators that have vanished in the last few hundred years- it means trying to turn back the clock 13,000 years by introducing lions, camels, and cheetahs to the Americas.  While this is interesting, I think that working with the past few hundred years is more realistic.

  1. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher Beckwith (2011)


This book was weird and boring.  To be fair, I am not very knowledgeable about the “stan” countries.  Hence, I am trying to brush up on them through my recent reading choices.  Since the topic is not familiar, it is always harder to wade through the history.  Nevertheless, the book attempts to condense several thousand years of history across a diverse region into a few hundred pages.  As such, it reads like a timeline.  I was not very engaged in the book and struggled to keep up with names, places, battles, empires, etc.  Towards the end of the book, the author devotes two chapters to make a surprising argument against modernity.  This perked me up a little.  This did not come from a postmodern perspective either.  Basically, the argument was that modernity failed Central Asia, as it lead to economic decline during the rise of capitalism elsewhere, communist rule, and religious fundamentalism.  I suppose it was interesting to consider religious fundamentalism as an expression of modernity (which I associate with Enlightenment ideas like secularism and the separation of church and state.)  To the author, the glory days of Central Asia were in the past.  This isn’t entirely untrue, but begs the question, whose glory days?  It wasn’t a glorious time for women or slaves.  The author disdains mass culture, even taking the time to pooh pooh popular music.  To him, anything produced for and by the masses is too easy and accessible, and therefore can hardly be esteemed as art.  This weird ending seems out of place with what was otherwise a really dull history.  It made me wonder if historians who are interested in the “stan” countries are conservative and elitist.  Perhaps studying them is depressing and lends itself to embracing some bygone time when they were not collection of dusty, forgotten countries but centers of trade and culture.

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

I recently read Martin Meredith’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. My boyfriend saw the book and asked me what a “Mug-a-bee” was. As my previous post indicates, I am not an African history buff. I wish I was a history of everything buff. But, I am just me. This version of me is interested in history, but has so much to learn. That is why I read Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. I wanted to know what a Mugabe was.

To give a brief history, as presented in the book and from some previous knowledge, the country now known as Zimbabwe was once called Rhodesia, named after the British diamond mine owner/promoter of imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Basically, Rhode’s mining company BSAC was granted the mineral rights to an enormous track of land spanning from Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. To secure the land (i.e. colonize or take control of), Rhodes promised 3,000 acres of land to anyone who volunteered to be in his pioneer army. Thus, an army of volunteers basically conquered what would become modern day Zimbabwe, taking over the land, killing native people, crushing resistance, and forcing the remaining native people to pay taxes (thus forcing them into a cash/labor/wage based economy).

Fast forward to 1965. A minority of wealthy white land owners have controlled the country since 1890. This is because in order to vote, the electorate must meet certain wealth, educational, and property thresholds. Only the white population, 5% of the total population, met these qualifications. And, having enjoyed over seventy years of uncontested political and economic power, this white minority was not eager to give it up. Thus, in 1965, Rhodesia, which is still a British territory, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. They did this because the white elite did not want to negotiate with the British for their independence, as this would entail at least some commitment to transferring power to the black majority. In short, the UDI was not really a declaration of independence, but a declaration of the government to independently continue the status quo of white power.

While I don’t expect much from the United States, UN, or Britain, in this case, the whole world was against white Rhodesia (or at least gave lip service to being against white Rhodesia). The UN condemned the declaration as illegal and racist and the Security Council imposed sanctions on the country. The sanctions weren’t necessary strictly followed and South Africa continued to provide military support, Iran provided oil, Japan purchased imports, and the United Sates continued to purchase chromium and nickel. Meanwhile, various rebel groups launched a bloody war of liberation that continued until 1979, when all parties agreed to terms of independence (elections, delayed land reform, a constitution, ceasefire, etc.) in the Lancaster Agreement.

That brings me back to the original question, “What is a Mugabe?” In the book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future, Robert Mugabe began as a relatable character. He was an isolated, serious, bookish person. I can relate to that. He didn’t drink or smoke. I can relate to that. He became a teacher and worked in Ghana, where he was introduced to socialism. I can relate to that. Then, he becomes a paranoid, ethnic cleansing, corrupt dictator…wait, what happened?! I’ll back up. Alright, so Mugabe was a part of a Maoist leaning rebel group called ZANU. This was one of two major Marxist Leninist rebel groups in Rhodesia, the other being ZAPU, a Warsaw Pact, Soviet aligned rebel group. To make things more complex, these parties have armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA. Mugabe eventually became the head of ZANLA, the armed wing of ZANU. Now, the author of the book portrays Mugabe’s descent into dictatorship as somewhat of a personal matter. For one, he spent eleven years in prison for his role in ZANLA. During his time in prison, his three year old son died. Ian Smith, the Prime Minister, personally denied his request to leave prison to comfort his wife, even when prison guards believed he could be trusted to return. Besides prison, he fought in a civil war that killed over 10,000 guerillas. The book suggests that going through the experiences of war, prison, and loss contributed to the direction he took after he was elected and became Prime Minister in 1980. It is also suggested that his austere and driven personality traits contributed to his dictatorship. While this may be a welcome explanation compared to the typical “absolute power corrupts” or “socialism always leads to dictatorship” I was not satisfied with this storyline.   Why does a man starve his country to root out opposition? What did he oversee the killing of up to 30,000 political opponents in the early 1980s, killed along ethnic lines? Why the corruption? Why the excess and pilfering of state money? Rather than the question of “what is a Mugabe?,” which I think the book answers by conveying his history, terrible deeds, and persona…I wonder, why Mugabe?

At first I thought that perhaps it was a matter of some ideological flaw. ZANU was aligned with China and sought assistance from North Korea. North Koreans helped Mugabe train his notorious 5th Brigade, which was used to crush political and ethnic opposition. To clarify this, ZANU was mainly supported by Shona people in the north of Zimbabwe, whereas ZAPU was supported by the Ndebele. When someone in Mugabe’s government is quoted as stating that they will bring Zimbabwe back to zero if they must, I couldn’t help but think of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The official believed that it was alright to starve the population if this meant starving out opposition to the government. Thus, food distribution occurred along party lines. Both ZAPU and ZANU were products of their time. Both carried the baggage of the logic, or illogic, of degenerated workers states. That is, their templates or role models were repressive, so why would either be different once in power?

Both of the perspectives are flawed because they keep things within the realm of the personal and the ideological. While wrestling with this, I discussed this with my friend Adam, who added the material. I had some inkling of the material as well, but had not been thinking about the topic long enough to fully flesh out my thoughts on that matter. Adam rightly observed that a socialist revolution would have been fairly impossible in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, as well as anyone else in ZAPU or ZANU were raised in racist Rhodesia. Their consciousness, tactics, world view, way of living, was shaped by racist, classist oppression. The existence of Zimbabwe itself is artificial. South Rhodesia, North Rhodesia, really all countries of Africa, are imperialist constructs. Their borders were decided by Europeans. As a result of colonization, ethnic groups were mashed together or pulled apart haphazardly. Mugabe inherited a colonial construct with an economy geared towards a peripheral role in global capitalism.   Making any sort of socialist reform that challenged global capitalism, without worldwide revolution, would cause the country to become an isolated, embargoed, pariah state. Which is exactly what it is, though for humanitarian and democratic reasons. The cards are stacked against socialism. Even with the best intentions. Machel, the Marxist leader of Mozambique even warned Mugabe against pursuing socialism too aggressively. Can it be expected that there would have been anything different or the country would have had a different fate? Anything is possible. I am a socialist, of course. But, there were many material factors, along with some ideological and personal ones, which directed the course of events.

Having addressed the what and why of Mugabe, there is one critique that I will launch against the book. The book is very sympathetic to white farmers. This raises many questions. Now, the book discusses how his first decade or so in power consisted of consolidating his party with ZAPU, destroying political and ethnic opposition, while enriching the political elite with the profits derived from state owned enterprises/investments. However, as criticisms mount regarding the corruption of the government and misuse of a veteran’s fund, he turned his attention to the white population. In various waves through the 1990s and 2000s, he unleashes bands of veterans to attack white farmers, taking their lands. Eventually almost all of the white farmers are evicted from their lands. The book is very sympathetic to these white farmers, who hide in terror as their land is ransacked and occupied. Throughout this narrative, Mugabe is called a racist. Cowering, courageous white folks flee the country and mourn the losses of their farms. Another part of the narrative is that after the veterans took over the farms, they fell into disrepair and food production plummeted. The author seems to ignore how this narrative is very much like the Rhodesian narrative that black people are not ready to govern themselves, as they will ruin the country. Apparently, black people cannot farm, as they will ruin the farms. This is incredibly racist.

The book portrays white farmers as victims. To backtrack, in 1980, 70% of the land was controlled by less than 5% of the population (whites). To backtrack further, white people were given 3,000 acres of land when they conquered what became Zimbabwe in 1890. For almost 100 years, white people had a monopoly on political and economic power in the country. This raises the question of what rights do colonizers have? Do the white farmers have a right to keep their land? On what basis? If they earned or obtained that land any time during the 100 years of white rule or because an ancestor did, then they have no real right to it. It was not collectively decided that white people should own 70% of the land. The land was taken and maintained through a repressive government atop of a segregated society. And while the white owners must have done a good job overseeing the land and making it productive, this also does not give them a right to keep their land. If someone took your house, but repaired it and kept it cleaner, it does not give them the right to own it. The problem of course is that the land was taken violently and erratically. Much of the land fell into the hands of government cronies. Ideally, a more peaceable, rational, and socially beneficial land distribution should have occurred. But still…what rights do colonizers have? Further, they are called “farmers” but this invokes grandma and grandpa on a 40 acre farm. The farms were mega, corporate, sometimes cash crop farms with hired workers. The whites were wealthy landowners, not farmers in the mom and pop with a few milk cows sense. So, while I don’t want to see any human being suffer, I am uncomfortable for the sympathetic nature in which the whites were portrayed.

In all, I feel that I learned quite a bit about Mugabe. I read the book in about three days, so I found it engaging enough to plow through it. Finally, it raised some questions. As a whole, I enjoyed it and would recommend it, though, it is lacking political analysis and self-awareness of its own narrative.

What Do We Learn about South African Apartheid?

What do we learn about South African Apartheid?

This blog post stems from my plans to embark on a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in late June. Now, I am not an expert on South Africa or Africa in general. I really am in the stages of learning and thinking, rather than producing knowledge. In this attempt to learn more about Africa in general, I headed to the Duluth Library Book Sale. I came home with dozens of books, but there was next to nothing for sale on the topic of Africa! The only book I found was Brian Lapping’s Apartheid: A History, which was written in 1986! I read the book, but because it is so old, it does not make sense to write a book review. If I reviewed the book, much of the story would remain untold.   In any event, the book was a quick read that didn’t offer much depth or political analysis. I wouldn’t recommend it except as a nice introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write an easy to read blog post about apartheid in South Africa. As I thought of the topic, I considered what I learned about South Africa in school. Really, I learned next to nothing. I think I was given this general idea that once upon a time there was racial inequality in South Africa, then Nelson Mandela came along, and everything was better. With that said, I will explore some of the narratives about South Africa that seem to be popular in our society.

  1. Everything is Better Myth:

If you learn about apartheid in school, the narrative of apartheid is one of victory over injustice. This is the same way we learn about the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage movement. We are provided with a narrative that a historically isolated moment of struggle ends in triumph and change. Everything is better. The end.

Spielvogel’s Glencoe World History textbook, published in 2005 and used at a local high school, ends its two page coverage of apartheid (out of over 1000 pages) with the election of Nelson Mandela and a quote about the rainbow nation. This leaves the distinct impression that good triumphed over evil.

One of the problems with this narrative is that it ignores the ways in which apartheid continues through economic mechanisms. In 1993, South African Trotskyist Neville Alexander, wrote that apartheid laws could be removed because racial inequality already had a firm foundation. Over two decades later, 60-65% of South African wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. 47% of the country lives in poverty and 25% of the country is unemployed. If unemployment is looked at along racial lines, about 39% of Black South Africans are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average white family earns six times more than the average Black family. Although some Black South Africans have joined the middle class since the end of apartheid, the country remains economically divided along racial lines.

There are many reasons why economic inequality persists. Although the original Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC supported the redistribution of wealth and land, economic demands of the charter were not adopted. The ANC is not an anti-capitalist party and apartheid was built upon economic inequality. As such, the end of apartheid allowed only for a democracy founded upon fundamental inequalities and a system that promotes such inequalities. The same state, police, and military continued on, but with a different face. While the racial demographics of government have changed, the state remains the same inasmuch as it has pursued neoliberal policies and used the police to kill workers (i.e. the Lonmin mine massacre that killed 47 people)!


2. The Nelson Mandela Myth:


Nelson Mandela died back in 2013 when I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. The children told me that they learned about Nelson Mandela in school. Although they learned about him in school, the content was pretty minimal as he was presented as a sort of Santa Claus like character. He was a mythical, jolly, peaceful fellow who ended apartheid and brought the gift social justice to the world. While there is nothing wrong with learning about Nelson Mandela, the way in which he and any other historical figure is presented is as a maker of history. This ignores other individuals, economic conditions, social movements, labor organizing, and other important factors in social change. In short, social change is reduced to the heroic actions of a mythical individual. Beyond this, the depiction of these heroes is white washed. For example, Spielvogel’s (2005) Glencoe World History textbook says the following: “After the arrest of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1962, members of the ANC called for armed resistance to the white government (p. 922).” In this statement, Nelson Mandela is a catalyst for armed resistance but not a promoter of it. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mentioned that Nelson Mandela believed in armed resistance and was the head of the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the ANC). He co-founded it in 1961 AFTER the Sharpeville massacre wherein 69 unarmed protestors were shot (in the back as they fled) by police. But, the textbook does not mention the Sharpeville massacre and the role it played in changing the tactics of the ANC. Rather, the reader is lead to believe that it was the arrest of Nelson Mandela (the great individual in this narrative) which was the cause of arm struggle. This neutralizes the subversive aspects of Nelson Mandela, making him out to a Barack Obama type character.   He was considered a terrorist and leader of a terrorist organization. He went to prison under laws made to persecute communists. He was, at least for a time, a member of the South African Communist Party. He was also a domestic abuser who threatened his first wife that he would attack her with an axe.

Individuals are thorny and imperfect. The right wing has a heyday with such things. Instead, it should raise issues of how a “terrorist” is socially constructed and what is deemed a terrorist organization is a matter of the power. It should also raise issues about the role of violence in social change or considerations of the role of capitalism in promoting racial inequalities (the SACP should not be idealized, but at least recognized as a part of history). In later textbook passages, Nelson Mandela is described with more apolitical staleness. He was imprisoned for 26 years and became the first Black president of South Africa. That is all. Desmond Tutu is mentioned in one sentence as a person who helped to release him. This is the complete cast of characters in the story of apartheid. There is no mention of Steve Biko, one of many people who mysteriously died in police custody (after torture). More important than the addition of other anti-apartheid figures is the lack of coverage of social history. The textbook does not mention the Soweto massacre, for instance. Students might be able to relate to the struggle of fellow students against curriculum changes. Up to 1000 (700?) people died to learn math and to speak their own language!

  1. America the Invisible/Elephant in the Room:

            Nowhere in the textbook I’ve been using as an example is there any mention of the role of the United States in all of this. I learned the other day that U.S. companies Polaroid and IBM profited from the creation of identification cards and card reading systems used for the passes that kept Black South Africans segregated and relegated to Bantustans. As of 1985, U.S. companies controlled 70% of the computer market in South Africa. The tires used by South African police and military vehicles were purchased from Firestone and Goodyear. In 1985, 20% of all foreign investment in South Africa was American. These corporations profited from the cheap labor of black workers, who lived and worked as impoverished guest workers in the slave like conditions of their own country. The United States refused sanctions against South Africa until 1986 and vetoed a UN resolution to expel South Africa’s membership. Even under the Carter administration, the United States abstained from a UN vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa. Beyond the economic bounty that corporations gained from apartheid, South Africa was an important U.S. ally and staging point for wars against left leaning independence movements in Africa.   Of course, textbooks try to be apolitical and inoffensive, so the omission of this close relationship with South Africa is expected. But, the absence of the U.S. is political. It only adds to the amnesia of our negative role in history and a denial of our own troubled race relations. Digging deeper, it might call into question the U.S.’s relationship with Israel or the parallels between Israel and South Africa. White South Africans (of Boer descent) saw themselves as a chosen people who belonged on the land. People who had always been there. They also saw themselves as victims of British imperialism and genocide with a right to defend themselves. Just as the story of apartheid ends with Nelson Mandela, the story of segregation ends with Martin Luther King Jr. or the story of slavery ends with the Civil War. In these stories, racism exists only in a historical moment. It existed and, like the dinosaurs, vanishes into the deep history of dust and fossil imprints. The dinosaurs aren’t with us now. And we are led to believe that racism is also a thing of the past.


I am not an expert on South Africa or racism. I am not an expert about anything. I am a student. I like to learn. I would also like to be a teacher. In this capacity, I hope I taught you a few things about apartheid and how we think about it in American society. There is much more to say on this topic. I have a lot on my mind. I will save it for another post or wait until I do more reading. Until then, the story continues.

Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster


Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexeivich

This past April was the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Last August, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a larger trip to Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. While I don’t remember Chernobyl when it happened, I remember learning about it in elementary school and high school. Even at that young age, it captured my imagination. Really, it is hard to imagine it. As a child, I imagined some glittery cloud of poison spreading across Europe. As an adult, having been there, my imagination is even more stilted. It is warped by adventure, bragging rights, and voyeurism. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a necessary dose of lived experience. The book is a collection of interviews from survivors of Chernobyl. It is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. I am in awe of the immensity of the human suffering caused by this event.

The problem with being a tourist is that it experienced as an outsider and consumer. Experiences are packaged and devoured. While I certainly felt the gravity and horror of the Chernobyl disaster as an outsider and drew some lessons from the experience, I could only experience Chernobyl safely (relatively), for a short time, years later, and with the freedom and privilege of a traveler. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster provided me with more material for deeper reflection and understanding. To the people who contributed to the book’s narrative, Chernobyl was hellish. It deformed their babies. It ruined their relationships. It killed loved ones. It poisoned food. It killed painfully, often slowly and gruesomely. It destroyed beloved pets and livestock. It vacated villages and emptied lives. I knew all of this, but I really didn’t FEEL all of this. The book helped me to feel the suffering and desolation of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster.




(Years later, it doesn't seem real.  It is a decaying world of lost things.)

There are a few themes that struck me or made me think a little more deeply. One very common theme was the sense that Chernobyl felt like war. This was because of the military’s role in evacuating villages, the use of military material, a sense of duty in cleaning or fighting the disaster, the mass dislocation of people, a lack of personal choice, leaving things behind, the and destruction of forests, animals, and villages. This made me think about how military or authoritative responses to disasters impact the psyche of a people. Even when natural disasters happen in the United States, it is not uncommon that the National Guard would be dispatched. But, this pairing of disasters with the military must have some psychological impact on people. Perhaps we like to think of this as a benign role for the military, but it is still a display of military power, imagery, and authority. What does it mean to be at war with a disaster? At war with nature? Can governments muster a less militant response? To what degree is authority necessary for public safety?

Another theme from the book was the reproductive consequences of radiation. One woman was told it was a sin to reproduce. Another had a child who was born with no vaginal, anal, urethral opening and other health issues. This required enormous care, endless surgeries, frustration, and hopelessness. I believe I read that Chernobyl resulted in 200,000 abortions in Belarus. Many women had children with severe disabilities. Some women had miscarriages as their fetus took on radiation. All of this amounts to tremendous suffering. Those who chose to have children often had enormous challenges, disappointments, and death. Many women could not have children. Others chose not to. But these are all choiceless choices wherein no one has the agency to make the “right” choice. There is no right choice. There is endless, demoralizing, sickness and suffering. Men were also impacted by the disaster, as they were mobilized as soldiers, pilots, liquidators, and firefighters. I learned in the book that one of the effects of radiation is erectile dysfunction. Discussing this was highly stigmatized, but impacted the relationship prospects of these men. Finally, children who survived or were born after grew up in an environment of death and sickness.


Another theme was gender roles themselves. The men who were interviewed were stoic and dutiful, if not somewhat fatalistic and nihilistic. Men played an important role in containing the disaster and evacuating villages. If men were not bound by duty and suppressed emotions, they would not be so easily mobilized into self-sacrificing heroics. The men saw themselves as robots. They were like robots, as they literally replaced the malfunctioning robots who failed to remove graphite rods from the roof of the reactor.   Certainly this was an important task, but it was a sentence to a painful, miserable, grotesque death. We make men into robots so they can fight wars, shoot “criminals,” guard prisons, break strikes, and do all of the other violent dirty work that society requires. Sometimes these robots malfunction and strike the women, children, and animals that society deems that they should not. Yet, society does not care of this violence is unleashed against foreigners and “bad guys” (often Muslims and African Americans).

Animals were often discussed. After the disaster, soldiers killed every animal in the exclusion zone, from cows to cats to foxes. Those who were evacuated and some who remained told stories of beloved cats and dogs that they left behind. The soldiers who killed the animals viewed it as a job, but unpleasant none the less. The animals were feared to be radioactive and thus capable of spreading radiation. So, they were killed. In a way, killing pets and livestock represented killing the remnants of civilization. Some animals escaped and became feral, but even the feral animals represented the human life and activity that once was. It was a connection to the former humanity the land. In the absence of humans, wild animals returned. To those who stayed behind, the wild animals seemed a bit fiercer. This might be imagined, but in this vision, the violence and destruction of nature made the animals mean.

Hopelessness was another theme. There is no justice. There is no one to blame. The Soviet Union is gone. The Soviet Union could be blamed for responding slowly, for secrecy, for lying to people, for building less safe reactors, and for instilling in people faith in nuclear energy. But, what happened cannot be undone. People live with the consequences. The magnitude of the problem would have been daunting to any country. Any country would have had to sacrifice human beings in the heroics of stopping the disaster. Again, the wiggle room for choices is small. The faith in nuclear energy and the naivety of people is the most tragic. In the first day after the disaster, children played and people marveled at a nuclear fire! Fisherman experienced an atomic tan, none the wiser that they were killing themselves. The juggernaut of ignorance resulted in a lot of cancer. Then, I think of the greatest disaster we face today: CLIMATE CHANGE! Like radiation, it is hard to see climate change. At ground zero of melting ice caps, not so much. But for most of us, we don’t see it or don’t want to see it. So, there is this disaster of global proportions. A disaster greater than Chernobyl. Yet, governments are just as slow to respond. Worse, society propagates the naïve belief that it can be stopped by green consumerism and within the framework of capitalism. In the face of grand human suffering, the destruction of nations, the extinction of life…we are fisherman with a nuclear tan. This is not to blame people themselves. But, I think that the same mechanisms that resulted in a slow response to Chernobyl operate quite well in the face of many disasters. Why? Responses are hard. They are scary. They require resources and restructuring. They require vulnerability. They require informed people. They require things that undermine the power of those in power. It is easier to ignore, minimize, hope for the best, or hope no one notices. At least that it what I thought when considering this aspect of the Soviet response.

A good book is a book that makes me think.   It is rare for a nonfiction book to make me both think and feel. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a great read. It adds to my understanding of Chernobyl and has given me a lot to consider.

My Two Cents on Two Twenty Five Cent Books


The Superior Public Library hosted its annual book sale a few weeks ago.  Usually I pick up way too many books, but this year was pretty modest.  This is partially because the house I live in has over 2,000 books and there isn’t much space for more.  With that said, I picked up the following two books for 25 cents.  Here is my two cents on two twenty five cent books:

Beyond Beef-The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture by Jeremy Rifkin, 1994

I had some misgivings about the book because it was from 1994.  I thought that the book would be about factory farming and all the horrors of meat consumption.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, I thought that if it was about these things, it would be dated and inaccurate.  While this is one aspect of the book, the book is more of a multifaceted history of beef.  Therefore, I think that a meat eater and vegetarian could be both frustrated and pleased with the book.  The following are some of the ideas that I found the most interesting about the book:

Beef and Patriarchy:

A vegetarian or vegan feminist reader might enjoy the connections between beef and patriarchy in the book.  Basically, the book posits that beginning in about 4000 BC, nomadic herders from the Pontic Steppes conquered Europe.  Over three thousand years there were several waves of conquest, which introduced cattle culture to Europe.  This also introduced private property in the form of cattle and as such, more patriarchal social relations.  Prior to this, Europeans were more agrarian, female centered, and less warlike.  Essentially, this perspective is part of the Kurgan Hypothesis of where Indo-Europeans came from.

The author posits that beef as movable wealth was a form of proto-capitalism, but this isn’t elaborated upon in the two chapters on this topic.  I would have liked to see this argument developed and what the author meant by proto-capitalism.  Capitalism is based upon private property, but so is any deeply stratified society.  This does raise some interesting questions about the relationship between animals, property, and patriarchy.  Perhaps it is nice to think that at one time Europeans were more peaceful, collective, agrarian, and equal.  Then, suddenly invaders came on horses with herds of cattle…plundering, destroying, and introducing property/patriarchy.  Modern Europeans are descendants of those plunderers.

A knee jerk reaction to this is, “Aha, beef is terrible.  Beef is the food of patriarchy!” I certainly had this reaction.  But, many things could have and probably did serve as the basis of early private property: land and other kinds of animals for instance.  In this sense, an aversion to beef on the basis of its connection to private property can only be a kind of guilt by association.  And, the book points out that the relationship between humans and cows has changed over history.  For instance, the book argues that over time cows became sacred in Hinduism because of their value for fuel, housing material, fertilizer, and dairy, as well as depleted land resources, popular unrest against beef eating overlords, and Buddhist influences.  The book also notes that cows can be symbolic of fertility, bounty, and the feminine divine.  In this very materialistic perspective, the relationship between humans and animals is based upon economic relationships and necessities.

The book later discusses the relationship between gender and meat.  Like clothing, hair styles, emotional patterns, and career choices, food is gendered.  There are foods that are seen as masculine and foods that are viewed as feminine.  It is not because of an inherent characteristic in the food, but rather, because of such things as the function and value of the food in society.  Unsurprisingly, salads, diet food, and vegetable based foods are viewed as feminine.  Steaks as masculine.  The book spends a chapter or so discussing this.  Again, the chapter is short and this topic could be explored at greater length.  It made me wonder what should be done about this?  Meat is idealized because it is associated with masculinity, which is valued over femininity.  The nihilist in me does not want anyone to idealize anything.  We could unhappily eat gray mush and endlessly contemplate our meaningless existence.  The feminist in me recoils at anything that promotes a masculinity based upon conquest, subjugation, mastery of nature, and rugged individualism.  The socialist in me wants what is sustainable and equitable for the environment and society.  These three ideas run around in circles, like dogs chasing each other’s tails.  Conclusion: dismantle gender, don’t idealize foods, think about nature and the future of society.

 Beef and Ecological Imperialism:

Another interesting thread in the book was the association between beef and imperialism.  Basically, the book argues that one reason or at least benefit of slaughtering all of the bison was so that the West could be used as pastureland for the beef industry.  There were definitely some startling passages about the slaughter of bison and the subjugation of Native Americans.  It is no wonder why many Native Americans feel that their fate is connected to the fate of animals.  They have been.  The book included stories of tribes looking for the last buffalo so that they could perform certain ceremonies, but found none.  It is hard to imagine how such a dramatic and quick change in something that was taken for granted as plentiful and central to survival is suddenly entirely gone.  Can we imagine that?  It would be like the sudden end of electricity or automobiles.

Europeans introduced cattle to the Americas pretty early on, letting them go wild for future colonization efforts.  The cattle themselves introduced invasive grasses that are now taken for granted as having always been here.  So, we really changed the landscape.  Like aliens terraforming a new planet…we introduced our animals and plants at the expense of what…AND WHO… was there.  Again, in reading this there is a tendency to hate cattle as a symbol of conquest.  Really, the book did a good job introducing me to new ways of thinking about cattle.  However, this is again guilt by association.  Cattle didn’t ask to come here.  They have no adversarial relationship with bison.  The fault is with European conquest.  Of course, it isn’t always easy to separate a symbol from an action, event, or system.  Cattle did not ask to replace bison.  Red, white, and blue did not ask to be colors on our flag.  Bald eagles did not ask to be our national bird.  Cattle are not widely seen as a symbol of conquest.  Though, it seems reasonable that those who relate to this symbolism might have an aversion to beef in the same way a socialist probably doesn’t wear patriotic clothing and a Lutheran does not keep statues of Mary in their home.  These things can always be explained away, but if something has a symbolic meaning that a person doesn’t want to associate with…it is challenging to navigate the expression of the self (i.e. it’s just a nice statue) with the perceived meaning of the self (i.e. you worship Mary! Catholic!).

Other Ideas:
 Throughout the book, beef is associated with many things.  Beef, or meat in general, is discussed in its relationship to social classes.  For much of history and much of the world, meat was not eaten much my lower classes.  Women and children ate it even less.  Meat was also connected to race and warfare.  There were some interesting passages about how British people viewed their racial superiority as evidenced by their meat consumption.  In the refrigerator logic of Social Darwinism, superior people eat meat because they are higher on the food chain.  Thus, British people looked down upon their imperial subjects as lessers, partially because of their plant based diets. The British even attributed their military successes to their larger rations of meat.  There was even a weird quote from the head of Japan’s McDonalds, Den Fujita, that if Japanese people eat beef for 1,000 years, they will conquer the world and grow blond hair.  Thus, a common thread in the book is the long connection between cattle and conquest.

There are other ideas as well.  Attention is given to factory farming and the rise of McDonalds.  This itself is connected to Taylorism or quick, rational, efficient production.  Horrors of factory farms are given attention.  I am alienated from the production of meat, I can only shiver at the thought of rotten meat, pus, and feces mixed into sausages and hamburgers. Yikes!

The information on hamburgers was quite interesting.  The book observes that hamburgers are deconstructed meat.  This is true, as hamburgers really don’t resemble any particular part or aspect of a cow.  The burger itself could be made from many cows.  This very aspect of the hamburger has historically made them so palatable to me.  They are not a fatty, bony, cow part that advertises its existence as an animal.  It is like red and brown Play Doh.  But, interestingly, many people don’t want their meat to look like living animals.  For instance, people don’t want fish that have eyes and heads.  In contrast, in medieval times, animals were reconstructed.  Bird feathers were put back onto the bird carcass to create the illusion of a living animal.

The book was a hodgepodge of ideas.  Each chapter was short and no topic was visited for very long, though there were themes.  The goal of the book was to make a case for giving up beef or meat, but the goal was not always overt.  Arguments were not followed to their logical end and ideas were not given enough depth to support some arguments.  So, perhaps the book tried to do too much with too many different ideas and histories.  I don’t think that anyone would read the book and give up beef.  Someone who is already against meat might have a few new ideas to think about.  The conclusion did not seem to flow from the rest of the book, as the conclusion was that more people would question beef eating and work towards a kinder, gentler, more sustainable world.  The flaw of this was that the book never made a convincing argument that beef was the problem.  There is a cart load of problems: Imperialism, conquest, capitalism, and corporate agriculture…but the cart is hardly ox driven.  Thus, the idea that giving up meat will solve these problems is odd.  It is also odd that people would magically reach this conclusion without a social movement or social upheaval.  Thus, while I like that the book covered a lot of economic and historical topics, I dislike that it does not question economic systems which meat is a part of.  In this way, it is materialist, but not Marxist.   Because the materialism is not given direction by any theories regarding social movements or social change, there is no gelatin to hold the ideas and history together.  That is my beef with  Beyond Beef-The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture  and far too many meat metaphors.

Book Review Two:  The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages

The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages- by Joyce Salisbury, 1994
Have you ever wondered what people in the Middle Ages thought about animals?  I hadn’t either until I saw this gem of a book.  Like Beyond Beef, this book was written in 1994.  It is also a book about meat, but this time, without a political agenda.  This book is much shorter and tighter than Beyond Beef.  The thesis of the book is that throughout the Middle Ages, people came to view animals as less different than humans and humans as less different than animals.  The book is pretty short and sticks to building this thesis, making it a tighter narrative than Beyond Beef.  
To begin, the book discusses how Europeans viewed animals in the Early Middle ages, which has some echoes to today.  Back then, animals were seen as separate and beneath humans.  They were created for humans or in the very least, humans were created above them.  In this understanding, animals had value inasmuch as they had use value.  Since they had tremendous use value as food, labor, and transportation, there were many laws to protect animals from theft or misuse.  But, they did not have value for their being living things with any independent value as a life form.  This view makes sense, in that it was a pretty agriculturally centered world so animals had value based upon their usage in this arena.  At the same time, religious views played an interesting role in shaping how people related to animals.  For instance, when there was a larger population in Europe and less land, there were more fasting days in the Catholic calendar.  It is also interesting how Monks ate fetal or just born rabbits as a way to circumvent fasting rules, as this was not considered meat.  Perhaps the criteria was life began with breath, so fetal or just born life could be taken.  Certain kinds of meats were viewed as corrupting forces.  As such, young men were told not to eat rabbit as this would make them promiscuous.  Oddly enough, people believed that hares grew an extra anus for every year they were alive as a sign of their promiscuous nature.  I feel that some of these old fashioned, silly ideas are still with us.  For example, when I wanted to become a vegetarian, my parents told me that God made animals for us to eat them.  This is a very Middle Ages idea!  Even the concept of you are what you eat, which isn’t taken too seriously today, has a Middle Age history.  Finally, the weird things that people give up for Lent, such as Pepsi and Facebook, probably result in no more suffering than baby bunny eating monks endured when they fasted.

It was also interesting to learn how breeds of animals and uses for animals changed over time.  For instance, the book said that Germanic tribes were very fond of pig meat and that in the early middle ages, pigs were allowed to wander and forage in forests.  With time and changes in property, pigs were enclosed in pens.  Also, sheep were mostly used for meat during the early Middle Ages, and only with the introduction of Mediterranean breeds of sheep with heavier wool did they begin to be used more for textiles.  The book also described the rituals surrounding hunts and how dogs were fed special animal parts from a fancy glove as a reward for the hunt or how hawks and dogs were trained to work together to take down larger prey, like cranes.  The breeding and value of horses was also discussed at length.  Like cars today, the coloration and unique markings of a horse became a status symbol.  This was all pretty fascinating.  Also interesting was the evolution of food taboos.  Christians wanted to differentiate themselves from Pagans, which is why they made it taboo to eat horses as this was viewed as a pagan practice.  Likewise, eating animals that gruesomely bled out was also taboo, perhaps a throwback from Jewish dietary laws. Eating raw meat was also viewed as taboo.

I didn’t care for the chapter about sexuality and animals.  It was mildly interesting to learn about laws and punishments for bestiality, but I thought that the book could do without this chapter.  It didn’t add much to the book or the narrative that over time, humans began to see themselves as more animal like and animals as more human.  The book became a bit more interesting again when it discussed myths and stories about animals.  These stories about animals were connected to social relationships.  For instance, animals were used in fables to teach lessons about a person’s place in society.  Fables were used in churches as part of the sermon, as they were popular and easy to understand.  Though, over time secular fables became more popular as well.  Also over time, the types of animals in the stories shifted, with a growing popularity of apes.  Salisbury believed that fables might have helped people to imagine themselves as more animal like and animals more human, though these characters.  There were also a few examples of Saints which according to legend preached to animals or showed exceptional kindness.  This also indicates a shift from a merely utilitarian view of animals.  There was also a growing interest in Bestiaries, or guidebooks which depicted some animal/human hybrids.

While the book maintains a tight and easy to follow thesis, it does not support this thesis adequately.  To support the thesis would require a systematic cultural analysis of 10 centuries and diverse regions.  The book mostly focuses on England, France, and Germany.  It is not clear which years or time periods are discussed throughout the book.  I would like much more social context.  Also, the approach to the supporting the thesis is pretty mixed.  Much of the book focuses on changing ideas, but I would like more political, religious, and economic context.  Why did these changes happen?  Why would viewing animals as more like humans benefit 14th century societies over 4th century societies?  The book is lacking a strong material grounding.  Instead, it flits around between ideas, finally settling on fables.  While a content analysis of fables is provided, it still leaves me wondering why the fables changed over time.  The stories that we tell have a social purpose.  They way that humans relate to animals has some social logic (or at least had some social logic at one time).  With that said, I am not entirely convinced by the thesis.

Still, the book is entertaining and fun.  It provides some interesting tidbits to consider.  If nothing else, it made me consider how we relate to animals today.  Modern relationships to animals are complex and contradictory.  Some farmers continue to have a utilitarian view of livestock.  There are imaginary lines between animals that can be eaten (cows) and those that cannot (dogs).  There are class, gender, and racial lines of how animals are related to.  Cats are seen as feminine.  Steak is masculine.  Girls love ponies.  African Americans do not have the same opportunities to experience wilderness and wild animals.  While science has taught us that humans are indeed animals, this is still hard for people to accept.  It is hard to accept that humans might not be as special and above the rest of nature.  Evolution is still controversial.  So, accepting our connection to animals is still an incomplete process.

Sexuality and Socialism: Book Review


Sexuality and Socialism by Sherry Wolf was candy.  I devoured the book in less than 24 hours.  I didn’t expect the book to be as good as it was.  Judging by the title, I thought that it would be a little dry.  Instead, it was engaging, accessible, and humorous.  The book was good in that it was a fast read that approached sexuality from a Marxist perspective.  Grounding sexuality with materialism is something that I don’t often encounter as the dominant discourses around sexuality tend towards matters of biology and identity.   The book offers a fascinating history with a critique of popular paradigms of sexuality.

One highlight of the book is a chapter on the Russian revolution and Marxist thought regarding sexuality.  I was previously unaware that following the Russian revolution, there are some medical records of rather primitive attempts at sex changes as well as instances of same sex marriages.  This is quite astonishing how a relatively backwards, peasant based, monarchy could in the advent of revolution come to frame sexuality as a matter of public health, privacy, and scientific inquiry, rather than morality and crime.  So, Wolf’s chapter “The Myth of Marxist Homophobia” was refreshing.  Wolf very clearly elucidated the idea that Marxists do not view sexuality as secondary to social class, but rather that solidarity between workers hinges upon ending sexual oppression as well.  In this perspective, homophobia is not vastly separated from class oppression, but a means by which workers are divided.  It is itself an outcome of the material conditions of capitalism which require a nuclear family and rigid gender roles for the reproduction of workers, division of laborers, gender based unpaid labor, and privatized responsibility for children.  This materialist perspective shows the connection between oppressions.  The same chapter is also useful as it speaks about the specific failures of various communist countries and movements.  For example, while Cuba has moved towards more just treatment of sexual minorities, it has a dark history of putting homosexuals into work camps and denying LGBT activists entry into the country.   I visited Cuba in 2008 and was impressed that the country offered sex changes for free and was very pleased with my visit to the CENESEX (the national center for sex education).  In fact, the year I visited was the first year that sex changes were offered for free and the first year that there was a Pride Festival.  I was not aware that the Pride Festival was shut down due to the participants asking for an acknowledgement of past wrongs.  Nevertheless, the book is a bit hard on Cuba, as Fidel Castro has called this history a terrible injustice and most people supportive of LGBT rights would view Cuba’s reforms over the last decade or so encouraging (even if there is debate or cynicism regarding the purpose of these reforms.)  Yet, it is important to acknowledge an entire history rather than some hopeful reforms.

Another highlight of the book was a chapter on how the Democratic Party has been an enemy at worst and fair weather friend at best, when it comes to LGBT rights.  High lights, or low lights, of this history include Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, Howard Dean promoting civil unions over marriage, Obama being pro-state rights on the question of same sex marriage, Dukakis advocating against a gay caucus within the democratic party, and other instances in a long history of betrayals.  These tidbits appealed to me out due to my deep and terrible disdain for democrats that comes from watching flames of social movements or the sparks of social movements burn out in the stifling, airless environment that is electoral politics.  Another interesting part of this chapter was about the marketization of gay identity, or how the media portrays the LGBT community as wealthy, leisurely, and white.  This creates an identity based upon consumerism (for people to aspire towards through buying), but also ignores the experiences of LGBT individuals who are working class or people of color.

The working class is something that the book pays special attention to.  Despite media myths, gay men actually have a lower annual income than straight men (though lesbians make more than straight females-perhaps because they may not leave the labor market to raise children).  The book also mentioned that some early LGBT rights activists were also involved in the labor movement, such as Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society and IWW organizer.  The connections between labor and LGBT history is important in building solidarity but also viewing sexuality based oppression as built into our economic system.  There is perhaps a stereotype that the average blue collar worker is a homophobic white man. Many workers may very well be homophobic.  Yet, the stereotype that workers are particularly homophobic blames workers for sexual oppression rather than grounding it in capitalism and ideologies that benefit the ruling class.  The liberation of working people hinges upon their ability to unite.  I liked reading about examples wherein workers saw the connection between oppressions, such as the book’s example of Teamster’s uniting with San Francisco’s LGBT community in a boycott against Coors. In a similar vein, African Americans are often stereotyped as being more homophobic than white people.  I appreciate that the book addresses this as a racist myth that ignores that most conservatives are white and that the majority of African Americans have voted in favor of same sex marriage and expanding rights to LGBT people.  Finally, I enjoyed the insight about same sex marriage.  Many leftist activists pointed out that same sex marriage was not really an accomplishment to celebrate, as it reinforces monogamy and marriage, which are cornerstones of capitalist patriarchy.  Another critique is that there is a conservativism in the demand to marry, as it is an attempt to be just like normal, heterosexual people.  However, a person can be against monogamy and marriage and still for the extension of rights to oppressed groups.  There is nothing to lose by extending these rights as it challenges discrimination and can be a springboard to more radical demands.  In this same way, a person should support voting rights for women even if a person doesn’t necessarily believe in the electoral system or the right to serve in the military for LGBT people even if they don’t believe in imperialist war.   A person can remain principled against monogamy, marriage, war, the two party system, etc. but also believe in extending basic democratic rights to oppressed groups.

The book spends some time picking apart Queer Theory, identity politics, and Postmodernism.  I feel that the attention given to this critique was a little bit overzealous.  While postmodernism can certainly be critiqued for its lack of solutions, academic jargon, pessimism, and over emphasis on language, I think it is also useful to see what can be salvaged from some of the insights offered by postmodernist thinkers.  Since social movements do use language to frame arguments and slogans, language should be viewed tactically and anything postmodernism offers on this front, a possible weapon for social change.  Likewise, discourse is distilled reality, so I find nothing wrong with trying to determine how to most powerfully express material conditions. But, language can be a tar pit.  Focusing too much on it or over emphasizing its power just leaves a movement stuck in the muck…left to slow, fossilization.  As for Queer Theory and identity politics, I think that these theories are meaningful to LGBT people and that it is wise to tread lightly when critiquing ideas that oppressed groups find valuable, meaningful, or important.  Identity is a pretty important part of the lives of people, even if identity is shaped by consumerism and capitalism.  But, the book’s critique is not so much about focusing on identity as it is the tactics of certain groups (which shunned mass movements).  Honestly, a group should have the autonomy to chose its own tactics.  While some tactics may not be traditionally as effective, they might be coupled with mass movements or used creatively to attract people to more massive actions.  As for queer theory, I cannot weigh in on the book’s criticisms as I am simply not knowledgeable enough.  I had a positive view of queer theory as an attempt to unite at LGBTQIAH…people under an umbrella of queerness and for trying to dismantle false dichotomies between gay and straight or queer and not queer.  Although the theory is not a class based analysis, in my limited understanding, I appreciate attempts to deconstruct what is taken for granted as truth about sexuality.

A more satisfying section on the book is about the dominance of biological determinism in the discussion of LGBT people.  This has been a personal pet peeve of my own.  Biological determinism has been useful to activists, since it legitimizes LGBT identities and experiences through the notion that people are born that way.  From my own experiences, I don’t feel that I was born bi, female, male, heterosexual, asexual, or any sexual/gender identity really.  I don’t view my life as a long narrative of unchanging desires or orientations.  In high school, I was uncertain about my sexual orientation and even at this moment, I am uncertain of my gender identity. To others, this might seem inauthentic.  Somehow biology makes something authentic, whereas choice does not.   The book emphasizes the social aspects of identity/desire/orientation and the interplay between biology and environment.  Even if some choice is involved in gender and sexuality and that the meaning of these things changes with changes in material conditions, this does not justify oppression.

As a whole, I enjoyed the book.  There are some things I didn’t agree with, but I largely enjoyed the book for its attempt to root LGBT issues and history within capitalism.  I can’t imagine a work on this topic, from a materialist perspective, that is more accessible and fascinating.  My review is far from comprehensive, but documents my impression of the book and some of the arguments therein.

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