Monday, October 20, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE DWARF WHO MOVED” by Peter Williams Q.C. (Harper-Collins $NZ49:99)
I’m not exactly allergic to memoirs written by celebrity lawyers, but I am healthily sceptical of them. All memoirs – by people in all trades and professions – are to some extent a species of self-promotion and self-advertisement. By the very nature of the genre the memoir – the “as-I-remember-it” – frees the author from having to provide documentation and cross-references, the way a conscientious biographer would. The memoir enables the memoirist to give impressions and opinions without having to substantiate them. So it’s simply in the nature of the beast that there will be much that is vague and contestable in a memoir.
When it comes to memoirs by celebrity lawyers, however, there’s the clear temptation to give us a parade of “my most successful cases” and to score belated points against courtroom opponents. And this is exactly the territory that Peter Williams inhabits.
Peter Williams has for years been one of New Zealand’s most high-profile criminal lawyers, his name often in the newspapers as he defends people on sensational charges or, sometimes, on politically sensitive matters. Now aged 80, and apparently suffering from cancer, Williams has produced a new volume of memoirs in The Dwarf Who Moved. It consists of 36 bite-sized chapters, none any longer than a magazine article. They are mainly anecdotes of the cases in which he has been involved. All are given catchy titles, as newspaper and magazine articles are. I have to report that, while it was obviously chosen for its quirkiness, the heading that gives the book its title, “The Dwarf Who Moved”, is one of the briefest and least interesting of the anecdotes.
After an admiring foreword by the legal academic Bernard Brown, who says there was always an excited stir in Auckland’s law courts when it was known Peter Williams was on the case, Williams’ own introduction has him giving a mixed report on how things are now developing in the legal world. He’s a “liberal” so he says it’s good that abortion, homosexual activity and being drunk in a public place are no longer illegal and no longer the subject of prosecutions as they were when he was a young lawyer. On the other hand, he considers “three strikes” thinking to be retrograde and he is alarmed by the rise of the likes of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. He also regrets the loss of the “important defence” of provocation. He comments on this much later in the book when referring to one of his clients:
“His case relied upon the defence of provocation and the jury were amenable. It is a great tragedy that we have abolished this defence. Provocation was never a defence to murder but merely a mechanism that allowed a jury, if they so wished, to reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter. This, however, made a great difference to the penalty. Generally speaking, without going into all the legalities of the defence, if the situation was such that it made the jury sympathetic to the accused, even to the extent that they might have seen themselves in the same circumstances doing the same thing, provided that the judge considered there was a basis for raising the defence, the jury could be merciful and bring back the lesser charge of manslaughter.” (p.204)
Williams is a major supporter of the Howard League for Penal Reform. His introduction discusses the degrading conditions of New Zealand prisons, and mentions his admiring visit to Dutch jails where there were more humane ways of accommodating visiting families. Later, his main focus in the chapter on the “machine-gun” murderer Ron Jorgensen is to consider the harsh conditions under which Jorgensen was held in prison. Similarly, there is a chapter protesting at how a prisoner burnt to death at Paremoremo and a chapter on visiting a prisoner at the same prison and discovering him going insane in solitude. The second-to-last chapter criticises the Howard League for Penal Reform as it is now constituted because Williams sees it has having become incorporated under the presidency of Mike Williams, now having salaried officers and therefore, in Peter Williams’ view, losing its original reformist vision.
Elsewhere Williams tells us how much he admires Winton Peters for getting the “Winebox” enquiry off the ground and publicising tax evasion by the rich.
A minority of the chapters concern Williams’ life and background outside the courtroom. He begins with a childhood anecdote of police accusing his family of stealing a bike and cops giving his schoolteacher father a hard time. This is the first of many anti-police stories. Later he of course crows about his role in the Arthur Alan Thomas case and how the police and DSIR planted and misused evidence. He chronicles working as a student in the freezing works and cutting scrub in holidays to afford his university fees; piddling around in his first year as a student and then getting a dressing down from his father; so really getting his teeth into his studies thenceforth; being a rather dorky young hick in Auckland and how he was dissuaded from ever investing in the stock exchange. Later on there is a not-very-enlightening chapter about knowing James K. Baxter and a few other stories unrelated to legal cases, such as the one in which he shows how virtuous he was to turn down big bucks for working for rich villains in Sydney.
These things aside, we are mainly in the courtroom with Peter Williams as intrepid defence counsel and here most of this book’s problems lie. You see, it would appear that Williams never appeared for a client without the prosecution being biased, harsh, corrupt, unfair or aggressive, whereas his client was patently innocent or at least not as guilty as the police painted him. His story of an old man who decapitated a woman is written in terms of the complete lovability of the old man and the impossibility of the woman he decapitated. His version of Peta Awatere’s killing of his mistress’ other lover reads like what it is - the case for the defence. Apparently the victim literally “walked into” the knife Awatere was holding purely “for self defence”. Gosh
The police, of course, were always brutal, unfair, prone to beating up suspects and the evidence they gave was either tainted or partial. By an extraordinary coincidence, too, all judges and magistrates who ruled against Williams were bigoted, hidebound social conservatives, irrational and otherwise psychologically maimed. By contrast, judges and magistrates who saw things his way were all enlightened, broad-minded, fair and necessary pillars of justice. Gosh.
Peter Williams is, of course, a vigilant crusader against the injustices of society. He writes of his commitment to the down-and-out and how he helped a desperate woman with four kids whose meagre personal property was being seized by the rich farmer for whom her jailed husband had worked. He bravely faced huge odds. The book is replete with such statements as “The public were aghast when the details of this homicide were made known and, right from the start, we defence lawyers knew we faced an almost insurmountable wall of prejudice.” (p.125) [This is in relation to his defence of Ron Jorgensen who, it turns out, was a really soulful guy who loved the wind and sea. Gosh.]
We are also told, after another flawed and unjust successful prosecution:
“That night, the police and the prosecution held a great party to celebrate at the Station Hotel in Auckland, which is fairly near the Supreme Court. The Station Hotel was well known as a second police headquarters. In fact, one bar upstairs was specifically reserved for police officers. There were many anecdotes about this. In those days, it was generally believed to be the centre of an abortion racket and a place for the sale and distribution of stolen property. Just how closely the police were involved in this is not clear, but rumours were rife.” (p.127)
At which point I, presiding at the Court of Literary Judgment, halt proceedings and declare: “Mr Williams, would you please approach the bench. I am aware that rumours are part of a valid social description, but you are entering them into evidence at this point in order to prejudice the jury of your readers against the police, when in this particular case you have no stronger evidence with which to do so. I have noticed that this is a favourite technique of yours. Now would you please refrain from such innuendo and stick with statements you can verify?”
My words, of course, have no effect and Peter Williams continues on. And he can tell the story of the guy who was able to prove that he hadn’t been drinking after hours and who was roughed up by police.
Williams’ cases, as recorded here, usually end in judicial victory. (They always end in moral victory.) In the chapters where they don’t, the details he gives are rather vague, as in the case he recounts of the farmer who attempted to sue Scientologists. Williams is entirely on his side and (understandably) has no time for Scientologists – but he doesn’t give us much detail about what actually happened.
He can also be somewhat evasive about cases where he did score a judicial victory. The chapter concerning his defence of Terry Clark on a heroin-importing charge concentrates on an anecdote about something Clark told him in confidence that had nothing to do with the case. The case about polling a jury and getting a farmer off a charge of cultivating cannabis tells us, at most, that police might have planted one piece of evidence, but it does not affirm that his client was innocent. The case about a girl misidentifying a man she accused of rape leaves open the possibility (not explored by Williams) that the man she later identified was the culprit.
Apart from the self-praise with which this book drips, what am I most objecting to here? I am fully aware that it is the duty of defence counsel to provide the best possible defence for their clients, even if counsel privately thinks that there is a strong possibility that that client is guilty as charged. Likewise, I know that communications between client and counsel are confidential, and even in memoirs, there is much that a lawyer cannot reveal. So far, so good. But nowhere is this book do I find Peter Williams ever expressing the least doubt about ethical choices he made or ethical dilemmas he faced or times when he doubted the validity of his defence strategy. Surely in half a century of practice as a very active lawyer, there must have been times when he had misgivings about these things? But we never hear of them.
I don’t expect great literature in a book of autobiographical anecdotes like this. Williams’ prose usually does the journalistic business, though I find very trying his habit of ending most chapters with what he considers a clinching punchline. “And the boy, of course, was me”. “Justice had been done”. “And so in the end justice was achieved in more ways than one”. “I’m eighty now and I have no regrets”. “He was the most courageous man I have ever met.” “It will forever remain a mystery to me.”
I wouldn’t dream of ending a review that way.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MR PERRIN AND MR TRAILL” by Hugh Walpole (first published 1911)
As you are probably already aware, when I get into one of my more facetious moods, I like to write about bestsellers from long ago that I have read. If I am dealing with the likes of George Du Maurier’s Trilby, or W. Somerset Maugham’s Christmas Holiday or John Buchan’s The Three Hostages or Stephen McKenna’s Sonia [look them all up on the index at right], then I have the perfect excuse to lecture you yet again on how bestsellers pander to the fashions and prejudices of their age, and how sometimes, despite their trashiness, they often tell us more about the ethos of the past than more reputable works of literature do.
When, however, I choose to comment on the antique bestseller, Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, I hesitate to put it through this routine. The fact is, a recent re-reading of it tells me that it’s quite a good novel on its own terms, even if its tone is old-fashioned; and while its conclusion is marred by melodrama, it presents a soulscape much bleaker than that offered by the average bestseller.
In his day, Hugh Walpole (1884-1951) was a huge bestseller. He had a New Zealand connection, which was once loudly trumpeted here but which, like Walpole himself, is now largely forgotten. He was born in Auckland to a high-ranking Anglican clergyman father. But as he returned to England in childhood, the New Zealand connection meant nothing to him. For the best part of forty years, and writing at great speed, he churned out novels (a total of 36 of them), longed to be considered a serious literary figure like some of the big names he rubbed shoulders with, but never made the grade. He did, however, sell in the millions, become very rich and wangled a knighthood.
As a very active, if discreet, homosexual, Walpole spent much of his leisure time haunting London bath-houses and picking up casual male sexual partners. Of course this was unknown to any but his closest friends and was certainly unknown to his hordes of public-lending library admirers in the 1920s and 1930s. Walpole was the man to deliver solid but harmless tales, unchallenging, decorated with fine writing, and often patriotic in their exaltation of Olde England and cathedral towns. I’m making these broad generalisations partly on the memory of attempting his Rogue Herries series of historical novels when I was a teenager but mainly, let me admit, on what other people have said about him.
But notoriously, Walpole made an enemy of the equally middlebrow and equally homosexual W. Somerset Maugham. While Walpole’s general effect could be described as twee and tending to the camp, Maugham was bitter and sardonic (and, for all his very many faults, a bit more grown-up). In 1930, Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale concerned a social-climbing, talentless, bestselling, self-promoting novelist very clearly based on Walpole. Everybody recognised that it was Walpole, and from that point on his reputation began to plummet, never to recover. Walpole is now exclusively a back number, somebody who lives in the stacks and not on the shelves, a footnote in cultural histories.
And yet… and yet. As I said at the beginning of this outpouring, his first big success, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, published in 1911 when Walpole was 27, is really not a bad novel at all. Was it Walpole’s youth and desire to please his highbrow literary friends at the time (like Henry James) that made him craft it so well? Or was it the fact hat he put much more of himself into it than he did in his later and more fanciful efforts?
Mr Perrin and Mr Traill is the story of a prolonged rivalry between two schoolmasters in a shabby, second-rate public school in Cornwall. (Called Moffatt’s, the school is apparently based closely on the minor English public school Epsom College where Walpole had unsuccessfully tried his hand at teaching.)
Mr Vincent Perrin is in his mid-40s, unsuccessful, unmarried, pompous and not popular with the boys. He has his eye on Isabel Desart, but has not yet plucked up the courage to approach her, let alone to propose to her.
Mr Archie Traill is in his early twenties and is just down from university. Perrin at first tries to be Traill’s mentor, presuming to show him how the school functions and patronising him. But Traill rapidly grows beyond him. Effortlessly, Traill achieves what Perrin has never achieved – popularity with both staff and boys. Gradually, and largely because of Perrin’s tactlessness, they have a series of differences over trivial matters, climaxing in a knock-down fight in the staffroom when Traill inadvertently and without permission tales Perrin’s umbrella. The staff takes sides, and while some old codgers see things Perrin’s way, it is Traill with whom most of the staff sympathise.
More devastatingly for Perrin, Traill woos Isabel Desart successfully. They announce their engagement.
At which point Perrin in effect has a nervous breakdown.
He determines to kill Traill, but he lacks the courage to carry his plan through. In the melodramatic finale, he follows Traill down to the seashore and Traill falls over a cliff and is injured when Perrin brandishes a knife at him. Immediately overcome with remorse, Perrin puts the unconscious and injured Traill where is body will be seen and rescued. Then Perrin swims out to sea and drowns himself.
The finale has Isabel Desart and the injured Archie Traill leaving for a life outside schoolteaching, while a schoolboy who has been rude to Mr Perrin waits around to make his apologies to a teacher who will never return.
The ending is, frankly, a bit of a mess, which is one reason (apart from the novel’s antiquity) that I have not hesitated to give it away to you. Walpole’s language can relapse into the terribly twee, especially when he is dealing with women. Isabel Desart is strictly one-dimensional. Nevertheless, this is a good popular novel. It does capture the hopeless grind of schoolteaching and the bitcheries of the staffroom, especially in a single-sex school where half the staff insist on kidding themselves that they are going to escape to other jobs (they never do), while the other half have succumbed to desperation. Perhaps it implies, rather than really dramatizes, the really difficult part of schoolteaching – which is what goes on in the classroom.
Even so, Walpole succeeds in showing how things trivial in themselves can take on monstrous proportions in the psychological lives of people who have misdirected their energy towards a career they do not really believe in. Here is how he introduces the crucial scuffle over Mr Perrin’s umbrella:
“This Battle of the Umbrella stands for more, for far more, than its immediate contest. Here is the whole protest and appeal of all these crowded, stifled souls buried of their own original free-will beneath fantastic piles of scribbled paper, cursing their fate, but unable to escape from it, seeing their old age as a broken, hurried scrambling to a no-man’s grave, with no dignity nor suavity, but no temper nor discipline, with nerves jangling like the broken wires of a shattered harp – so that there is no comfort or hope in the future, nothing but disappointment and insult in the past, and the dry, bitter knowledge of failure in the present – this is the Battle of the Umbrella.” (Chapter 7)
“Stifled souls buried….beneath fantastic piles of scribbled paper”. A perfect description of teachers in many schools in many countries of the present day, even if many of the cultural markers of Mr Perrin and Mr Traill belong specifically to England of the period before the First World War.
Inevitable cinematic footnote: For the record, nearly forty years after it was published, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill was still popular enough to be filmed, in 1948. I have not seen this film, which appears to be of no particular distinction, but reviews I have accessed imply that the story had been updated to 1948, which may indicate how little England’s public schools had changed over those forty years. Another connection suggests itself to me. The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan (another discreet homosexual) is a play that also involves an embittered and spectacularly unpopular schoolmaster. I have seen both film versions of The Browning Version (the 1951 original starring Michael Redgrave and the awful 1994 remake starring Albert Finney). The scene in the 1951 film in which the unpopular Crocker-Harris is contrasted with the popular and younger cricket-coaching teacher strikes me as reflecting exactly the same sort of relationship as that between Perrin and Traill. I wonder if Rattigan knew the earlier work?
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
Critical thinkers? I would hope that everybody who thinks is critical in the real sense of the word – that is, capable of weighing, measuring and assessing things in a reasonable fashion and with all due scepticism, but without becoming enmeshed in the snares of pure cynicism. To think critically involves being able to separate fact from opinion; knowing what empirical evidence is; knowing when an hypothesis or theory is reasonable and based on adequate evidence; and knowing when what is only an hypothesis has been promoted by its supporters into a dogma. Critical thinking also involves the ability to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources. The partisanship of sources should also be regarded critically, although one interesting aspect of critical thinking is understanding that partisan sources are not necessarily wrong, although they often are. That somebody supports ardently a cause does not, of itself, make that cause a false one, although ardour does tend to cloud critical thinking.
Why am I lecturing you with these obvious truisms?
Because recently, and much to my regret, I have noticed that conspiracy theorists have begun to use the terms “critical thinking” and “critical thinker” as code words for supporters of their own pet (and in many cases untenable) theories.
I most recently saw this (mis-) usage in a context where one does not expect a high degree of reasoned argument.
I saw it on Facebook.
Some facetious wit had posted one of John Oliver’s comments about how it didn’t matter that one in four Americans didn’t believe climate change was happening, because climate change was a fact and whether people believed in it or not was as insignificant as whether people believed that hats existed or not. In reply, a comment was added by an angry dissenter from this view, who after stating (truly enough) that the media are awash with misinformation and facetiae, proceeded to say that real “critical thinkers” know AGW (anthropogenic global warming) is not an established truth. Further utterances showed that this angry personage was indeed a denier of the empirical fact of great human impact upon the climate. His denial came close to conspiracy theory. All those scientists who say there is a human impact on climate change, he claimed, have been suborned by institutions because they want promotion or grants or tenure and therefore they subscribe to a false theory.
In a way, one can see how the misappropriation of the term “critical thinking” has happened. Much that is presented glibly on the mass media (and certainly on satirical shows like John Oliver’s) is indeed untrue. It takes genuine critical thinking to separate fact from opinion in the media. But conflating media misinformation with the consensus of most scientists is not critical thinking. It is conspiracy theory.
If this particular person had been the only person in my ken to use the term “critical thinking” inappropriately, I would not have commented on the matter. But recently, not once, but twice, I have been harangued by a conspiracy theorist who repeatedly insists he is a “critical thinker”.
Time was, the most popular subject for conspiracy theorists was wondering who “really” killed JFK. Now the most popular subject for conspiracy theorists is what “really” happened in the destruction of New York’s World Trade Centre in September 2001 – the event which Americans (with their reverse dating system) insist on calling “9/11”. Apparently the twin towers, says this particular conspiracy theorist, were deliberately demolished by a secret weapon that the US government has developed, which is able, by sound waves, to cause tall buildings to collapse into their own footprint. As for the ‘planes that people saw crashing into the buildings – they were holograms created by Hollywood-like trickery. Why the US government did this was, apparently, to create a reason to go to war, so that they could invade the Middle East, protect their oil supplies, and continue to dominate the world. The destruction of the twin towers was an artificial “Pearl Harbour” and the conspiracy theorist was able to cite an article by an American official, written before “9/11”, stating that what America needed was a new Pearl Harbour to wake it up. As those who have had to trudge through this drivel before will be aware, this is called the “false flag” theory.
There is a major difficulty attempting to debate with conspiracy theorists. Like fundamentalists who have a mass of Biblical “proof texts” to floor all comers, conspiracy theorists really are immersed in their subject and have at their fingertips all that data which supports their pet theory. But, usually, ONLY that data. In the case of “9/11”, the mass of eyewitnesses and empirical evidence is simply ignored. Conspiracy theorists begin with their conclusion (in this case, that “9/11” was a put-up job by American security to create an excuse for war) and then work back from that, ignoring all the evidence that doesn’t support the pre-conceived conclusion. Additionally, much of their “evidence” is fanciful and purely imaginary.
Do I need to stress that none of this is true “critical thinking”?
Further, do I need to stress that conspiracy theory of this sort is not to be confused with genuine investigative reporting? In the process of his/her research, the investigative reporter, sifting through a mass of evidence, may indeed uncover grubby secrets which governments would wish to be left hidden (the “Watergate” investigation is the paradigm of this). But they do not begin with a conclusion and then cherry pick only those scraps of information that appear to support it.
Another point needs noting. Conspiracy theorists are masters at confusing cause with effect, or intentions with consequences. I have no doubt at all that the US government wages wars for its own national purposes, and that its involvement in the Middle East and Iraq is linked intimately with its desire to control oil. I am not naïve about how and why foreign policies are formed. I would even guess (and it is only a guess) that at least some members of the US administration used “9/11” as an excuse to beef up “Homeland Security” in ways they wanted to anyway, and that it gave them a neat casus belli to invade Iraq. Nor is it inconceivable that secret weapons have been developed.
But none of this is proof of a conspiracy causing “9/11”. At best, it is speculation.
Let me give an historical parallel. The Reichstag Fire happened when Hitler’s hold on power was weak and he wanted to secure absolute power. The Reichstag Fire was used by the Nazis as an excuse to round up socialists and communists, gag a free press and push through an Enabling Act that gave Hitler dictatorial power. Those who benefitted from the Reichstag Fire were clearly the Nazis. Therefore, outside Germany and at least until the end of the Second World War, it was long assumed that the Reichstag Fire was a put-up job by the Nazis giving them some popular support to do what they wanted to do anyway. Elaborate theories were devised to “prove” that the Nazis had set the fire. This conception has remained the popular legend of the Reichstag Fire. But the consensus among historians now is that the fire really was set by an ex-Communist arsonist, acting on his own. Certainly the Nazis used the fire opportunistically, but of itself this is no proof that they set it. The question cui bono? always produces answers that are at best circumstantial and that are not proof.
I make it clear that there are still some (reasonable) dissenters from what is now the historical orthodoxy about the Reichstag Fire, but my point still stands. The outcome (Nazis smashing their opposition) was opportunistic, but it was not the result of a conspiracy. The outcome of “9/11” (beefed-up “Homeland Security”, the invasion of Iraq) was opportunistic, but again it is no proof of a conspiracy. Not that this is of the least interest to conspiracy theorists. I note, in my own research for this piece, that those who believe in a conspiracy concerning “9/11” have produced posters comparing it with the Reichstag Fire. They are probably more right than they realize.
One final point. To sustain a conspiracy of the sort my ardent conspiracy theorist proposes would take many thousands of participants. In the thirteen years since “9/11” not one single person has been identified in relation with such a conspiracy or come forward or broken cover or even been exposed by the mountains of classified material leaked by the likes of Edward Snowden. Noam Chomsky is known as a trenchant critic of US foreign policy, an opponent of the war in Iraq, and no friend of government propaganda. Yet he rejects conspiracy theories about “9/11” as clearly as I have here, and for this very reason. There is not one scintilla of empirical evidence to support them. Only cherry-picked “evidence” to buttress a pre-determined conclusion.
This is the diametrical opposite of “critical thinking”.
Monday, October 13, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING – Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein (Penguin/ Allen Lane, $NZ37)
Naomi Klein tells us that evidence for the human impact upon climate change is overwhelming, that climate change is catastrophic and will have drastic effects on the nature of human life on this planet, and that only concerted, world-wide, cross-national, collectivist and governmental action will halt or reverse current climate trends and put the planet back on the path of habitability.
But, says Naomi Klein, the current economic system is totally opposed to concerted, world-wide, cross-national, collectivist and governmental action. The unregulated capitalism of free trade agreements, “globalisation”, privatisation, deregulation and corporatism is diametrically opposed to both the public interest of collectivist action and the larger powers that governments would need to carry through necessary eco-friendly changes. Ever since the collapse of Communism, neoliberal ideologues have triumphed with the notion that the “only alternative” to their preferred free market globalisation is extreme left-wing tyranny. Therefore any attempts to genuinely regulate the harmful use of fossil fuels are decried as a limitation on democratic freedoms and an insidious plot by the Hard Left. Green is the new Red and those who call for governmental intervention to restore the environment are just a new breed of Stalinists trying to inflate the state’s powers.
The subtitle to This Changes Everything is Capitalism vs. the Climate, which should be self-explanatory.
Klein divides her long volume (466 pages of text before 100 pages of endnotes and index) into three long sections.
Part One, “Bad Timing”, sets out to show how the triumph of neoliberalism came at just the wrong time, for it was exactly the moment when the threat of anthropogenic climate change and global warming, driven by the use of fossil fuels, was becoming most evident. Prior to the collapse of Soviet Communism, Western liberal and capitalist democracies were quite prepared to take the type of governmental action that solved social problems. With the neoliberal brand of capitalism triumphing, however, any interventions in “the market” were shunned and therefore any attempts to regulate extractive industries in the cause of environmental stability became impossible. After pointing out that as recently as the 1970s, Richard Nixon was willing to introduce wage and price controls, she continues:
“But by the 1980s, the battle of ideas waged out of the same Washington think tanks that now deny climate change had successfully managed to equate the very idea of industrial planning with Stalin’s five-year plans. Real capitalists don’t plan, these ideological warriors insisted – they unleash the power of the profit motive and let the market, in its infinite wisdom, create the best possible society for all.” (p.125)
In this first section, Naomi Klein also chronicles the negative effects of free trade deals, whereby multinational corporations are able to prevent local communities from regulating their own industries or acting in the interests of their own environment. She discusses the sham of “carbon credits”, by which global carbon emissions are not one wit lessened, but entrepreneurs are able to make big money by shuffling “credits” for them around the world. And she notes how many think tanks, which claim to have scientific evidence to deny climate change, are in fact bankrolled by the oil or natural gas industries.
Part Two, “Magical Thinking”, deals with what Klein sees as the illusory “cures” for the world’s environmental crisis – the ones that lead nowhere. First, there is the problem of what she calls “Big Green” – those environmental agencies and pressure groups who thought that they could woo big business off global pollution by doing deals with, and making concessions to, extractive industries in the name of “partnership” and peaceful progress. In every instance, argues Klein, this simply has not worked. Corporations enjoy using conservation-friendly images for public relations, but never concede their prime purpose of making a profit. When profit-making clashes with environmental projects, it is the environmental projects that are ditched. Klein gives a long litany of “Big Green” groups that have unwittingly ended up as drumbeaters for further drilling, fracking and emissions rather than less. Second, there is the delusion that some friendly billionaire, who makes the right ecological noises, will bankroll a real environmental movement. Somebody like Bill Gates or Richard Branson. But again, this always leads to no more than photo opportunities and broken promises. Klein speaks of supposedly “green” billionaires like Branson, Gates and T. Boone Pickens who “put a firewall between mouth and money” (p.236). Third, there is the delusion of “eco-engineering” – the notion that climate change can be halted or reversed by new technologies – something to suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, for example, or to turn down the heat of the sun. But this delusion serves only to give extractive industries a pretext to continue with business as usual, and as yet no planet-saving technology either exists or is on track to be invented.
Says Klein “If geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organised religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It’s the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won’t be God that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures. We hear versions of this narrative every time a commercial comes on about how coal is on the verge of becoming ‘clean’, about how the carbon produced by the tar sands will soon be sucked out of the air and buried deep underground, and now, about how the mighty sun will be turned down as if it were nothing more than a chandelier on a dimmer. And if one of the current batch of schemes doesn’t work, the same story tells us that something else will surely arrive in the nick of time. We are, after all, the super-species, the chosen ones, the God Species. We will triumph in the end because triumphing is what we do.” (p.289)
Finally, in Part Three, “Starting Anyway”, Naomi Klein champions what she calls “Blockadia” – local initiatives to directly confront, blockade and halt drilling, fracking, pipelines and all the other paraphernalia and activities of extractive industries. She also champions concerted pressure on governments to dis-invest in extractive industries. Much of this third section is taken up with her praise for indigenous peoples who have a more symbiotic relationship with nature than industrialised economies have. It also becomes very personal when, in the second-to-last chapter, she talks about her infertility and struggles to conceive a child without miscarriage, and how eventually she came to see the promotion of life itself as being threatened by climate change. That this third section is called “Starting Anyway” signals that she knows the solutions she proposes are incomplete ones. There will, she believes, be no reprieve for our climate until concerted government action is taken, and until the so-called developed world gets over its culture of crass consumerism, learns to live without unnecessary luxuries and coexists in harmony with the Earth.
Wittily, she has already signalled this theme much earlier in the book where, ironically, she attributes to the climate-change-denial lobby at least some intelligence. She writes:
“The free market capitalism of the last three decades has put the emphasis particularly on consumption and trade. But as we remake our economies to stay within our global carbon budget, we need to see less consumption (except among the poor), less trade (as we relocalise our economies), and less private investment in producing for excessive consumption. These reductions would be offset by increased government spending, and increased public and private investment in in the infrastructure and alternatives needed to reduce our emissions to zero. Implicit in all this is a great deal more redistribution, so that more of us can live comfortably within the planet’s capacity.
Which is precisely why, when climate change deniers claim that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s also because they are paying attention.” (pp.92-93)
As you will have noted, I have so far not written a review of this book. I have merely served you a summary of it.
Most obviously This Changes Everything is a polemic. That I find myself agreeing with Naomi Klein more often than not does not blind me to the book’s weaknesses. First, and most obvious, it is far, far too long. Klein indulges in a great deal of repetition and does tend to hammer home the same point by giving multiple examples in detail, where many of them could have been flagged more concisely. While I enjoyed her outbursts of wit, and her impassioned and committed tone, I did find it a real trudge to read it through to the end, especially as she had stated her overall thesis so clearly at the beginning. I also suspect that, given the book’s excessive length, it will be read mainly by those who are already committed to the cause she espouses, although doubtless this will not stop it from being a major bestseller as her earlier No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were.
So concerned is she to expose the sins of neoliberal capitalism (in which respect I have no quarrels with her), I think she does underplay the ecological sins of the old Hard Left, which was so intent on industrial development that it gave not a toss for the environment. True, at pp.176-182 she does have a section called “The Extractivist Left” in which she decries the ecological disasters created by Mao and Stalin and others, but this brief section, in my opinion, lets those regimes off too lightly.
Having said this, though, and despite the trudge that reading this book eventually became, it is a lively read and gave me many pieces of objective information that were news to me. It matters not at all that, as a Canadian, she devotes a disproportionate of her examples to Canadian cases of indigenous and local people opposing large violations of their environment (like exploitation of the Alberta tar pits). They will do as well as those of other nations.
I was interested in her early example of how capitalism readily adjusts to playing conservation games solely as a means of investment”
“Communal forests around the world are being turned into privatised tree farms and preserves so their owners can collect something called ‘carbon credits’, a lucrative scam… There is a booming trade in ‘weather futures’, allowing companies and banks to gamble on changes in the weather as if deadly disasters were a game on a Vegas crap table (between 2005 and 2006 the weather derivatives market jumped nearly fivefold, from $9.7 billion to $42.5 billion). Global reinsurance companies are making billions in profits, in part by selling new kinds of protection schemes to developing countries that have done almost nothing to create the climate crisis, but whose infrastructure is intensely vulnerable to its impacts.” (pp.8-9)
I note her skewering of the notion that carbon emissions are lessening:
“After a rare decline in 2009 due to the financial crisis, global emissions surged by a whopping 5.9 per cent in 2010 – the largest absolute increase since the Industrial Revolution.” (p.18)
I see her insistence that ecology and business are not a good mix, even if business seems to be actively concerned with producing alternative forms of energy:
“It’s easy to mistake a thriving private market in green energy for a credible climate action plan, but, though related, they are not the same thing. It’s entirely possible to have a booming market in renewables [=renewable sources of energy], while a whole new generation of solar and wind entrepreneurs are growing very wealthy – and for our countries to still fall far short of lowering emissions in line with science in the brief time we have left. To be sure of hitting those tough targets, we need systems that are more reliable than boom-and-bust private markets.” [She then goes on to note that historically governments, rather than the private sectors, has done most to invest in renewable energy sources] (pp.100-101)
She is right to deploy irony when dealing with those who insist on little government control and regulation until such time as they themselves require state assistance:
“ During good times, it’s easy to deride ‘big government’ and talk about the inevitability of cutbacks. But during disasters, most everyone loses their free market religion and wants to know that the government has their backs. And if there is one thing we can be sure of, it’s that extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the British floods – disasters that, combined, pummelled coastlines beyond recognition, ravaged millions of homes, and killed many thousands – are going to keep coming.” (p.107)
The extent to which corporations can attempt to bully nations because of free trade agreements is alarming:
“As the anti-fossil fuel forces gain strength, extractive companies are beginning to fight back using a familiar tool: the investor protection provisions of free trade agreements.” [The example she gives is the major US company Lone Pine Resources threatening to sue Canada for $230 billion after the province of Quebec successfully banned fracking.] (p.358)
Finally, I endorse heartily her condemnation of the media culture of distraction and trivia, which has accustomed people to thinking only in the short term:
“Climate change is… about the inescapable impacts of the actions of past generations not just on the present, but on generations in the future. These time frames are a language that has become foreign to a great many of us. Indeed Western culture has worked very hard to erase indigenous cosmologies that call on the past and the future to interrogate present-day actions, with long-dead ancestors always present, alongside the generations yet to come. In short, more bad timing. Just when we needed to slow down and notice the subtle changes in the natural world that are telling us that something is seriously amiss, we have sped up; just when we needed longer time horizons to see how the actions of our past [have an] impact [on] the prospects for our future, we entered into the never-ending feed of the perpetual now, slicing and dicing our attention spans as never before.” (p.159)
This is a lumpy, uneven, over-long and sometimes shrill book. But, if you can stay the course, it does the business it sets out to do.
New Zealand Footnote: For New Zealanders, it is very chastening to read (pp.161-169) Naomi Klain’s account of the recent history of Nauru as a microcosm for the dangers of extractivism.
Footnote on a footnote: I am sorry that Naomi Klein buries in a footnote (p.114) this piece if information: “The persistent positing of population control as a solution to climate change is a distraction and moral dead end. As [quoted] research makes clear, the most significant cause of rising emissions is not the reproductive behaviour of the poor but the consumer behaviours of the rich.” I wish she had given this argument more prominence.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“ZULEIKA DOBSON – or An Oxford Love Story” by Max Beerbohm (first published 1911)
I wonder how many readers would miss the tone that is being struck in the very opening paragraph of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson? The paragraph reads thus:
“That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. Young and careless, in the glow of the afternoon sunshine, they struck a sharp note of incongruity with the worn boards they stood on, with the fading signals and grey eternal walls of the antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.”
Yes, it is indeed setting a scene, telling us where the story is laid and letting us await anxiously the entry of the novel’s eponymous character. But it is also written with a distinct air of mockery. “Grey eternal walls” of a railway station, indeed! Clearly this is a parody of bad guidebook prose, just as is “the last enchantments of the Middle Age”. The author is at once telling us that he is aware of, but is not taken in by, the tourist’s “dreaming spires” version of Oxford, and his novel is going to send it up something rotten.
And it does.
Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was nearly 40 when he wrote Zuleika Dobson, and therefore most of two decades on from his own time as an Oxford undergraduate. He was already established as the essayist, bellelettrist and caricaturist that he would remain for the rest of his life, and this was his only novel. In it, he dissected in disdainful ironic prose, wild farce, hyperbole and baroque flights of fancy the whole dandyish, posing and self-dramatising ethos of the Oxford undergraduate. He also, I believe, discreetly thumbed his nose at decadents (Oscar Wilde and his circle) who had been his contemporaries.
Surely you can see such nose-thumbing in the very name he has chosen for his heroine. The oxymoron of it. “Zuleika” all that is wonderful from fable and Eastern romance. “Dobson”, the homely English surname only a whisker away from “Dobbin”.
“Clunk!” declares the title of this novel.
Or “Pray do not take what I am writing too seriously.”
Beerbohm’s tale goes thus.
Unbelievably beautiful Zuleika Dobson, music-hall conjuror and granddaughter of the warden of Judas College, comes to Oxford with her flighty French maid Melisande. At once all the undergraduates fall madly in love with her. But she seems to be attracted only to the young Duke of Dorset, aristocrat, dandy, aesthete, owner of many mansions, president and chief member of the exclusive student club the Junta, and brilliant speaker in the House of Lords even though he is still only an Oxford undergraduate. He falls in love with her too, much as it wounds his amour propre to feel such a vulgar emotion as love. Love, after all, is what the housemaid Katie feels for him, and she is not of his order of humanity, surely? Be that as it may, the young duke is smitten with gorgeous, enticing, haughty, and regrettably empty-headed Zuleika. Alas! He discovers that her game is to attract devoted admirers and worshippers, but not to actually love anybody in return. What she wants is the public acknowledgement of her allure, the joy of being cynosure and subject of envious gossip, but not the messy complications of a real relationship with another human being. When the Duke of Dorset understands this at last, he cautions other undergraduates, who pant with love for Zuleika: “Miss Dobson scorns me. She scorns me simply because I love her. All who love her she scorns. To see her is to love her. Therefore shut your eyes to her. Strictly exclude her from your horizon. Ignore her.” (Chapter 6)
The duke decides to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Isis, fully garbed in his lordly robes, as a public statement of his unrequited love for Zuleika. In the novel’s most famous line he declares (Chapter 7) “Death cancels all engagements”. Unfortunately, before he can consummate his plan, the hordes of undergraduates who also adore Zuleika decide to do the same thing. It becomes quite the fashion to commit suicide for unrequited love of Zuleika.
One notes in all this that the duke is as much a figure of fantasy as Zuleika is. In Chapter 5 he tries, absurdly, to woo Zuleika by telling her of all his aristocratic titles and of his vast manorial holdings. In Chapter 9 he plays Chopin so exquisitely that the ghosts of Chopin and of George Sand appear to him, and indeed George Sand pants to mate with him. From his reported appearance in the House of Lords, we already know that he is a Younger Pitt in the bud.
All this is the point we reach midway through this novel. But here, gentle reader, I will terminate my synopsis. As you are aware by now, my ethic is never to give away the ultimate plot twists of a newly-published novel, judging that an author has the right to expect readers to enjoy at least some of his/her surprises. Usually, however, I do not hesitate to synopsise to the bitter end novels that have been around from a long time, like the century-old Zuleika Dobson. But in this case I refrain from so doing as, by an extraordinary literary legerdemain, Max Beerbohm suddenly changes both the tone and the narrative voice of his novel at about midway point, and if Zuleika Dobson sounds at all like your glass of absinthe, then I do not wish to spoil it for you. From being the detached third-person author, Beerbohm suddenly intervenes in the first person, telling us of his intimate relationship with Clio the Muse of History, and therefore of his ability to be omniscient and understand the motives of the gods. The satire becomes more lordly and detached. The sly jibes and japes and irony and elaborate baroque prose continue, but the novel turns oddly melancholy, being largely an anatomy of the mentality of the duke, with Zuleika (at least until the last few pages) merely the pretext for his states of mind.
I can, however, throw some sugared plums at you.
I love this early description of the Duke of Dorset, where the anatomy of a dandy is presaged:
“It was imperative that he should banish her from his mind, quickly. He must not dilute his own soul’s essence. He must not surrender to any passion his dandihood. The dandy must be celibate, cloistral; is, indeed, but a monk with mirror for beads and breviary – an anchorite mortifying his soul that his body might be perfect.” (Chapter 3)
“A mirror for beads and breviary “? “That his body might be perfect”? Now what is this self-regard but the epitome of the milieu of Robbie and Bosie and Oscar?
I note with a polite chuckle the exquisite condescension of the duke on his first conversation with Zuleika, when he proposes to her and she hesitates and calls him a “snob”. Says the duke:
“Do not fear that I, if you were to wed me, should demand a metamoryhosis of your present self. I should take you as you are, gladly. I should encourage you to be exactly as you are – a radiant and irresistible member of the upper middle-class, with a certain freedom of manner acquired through a life of peculiar liberty.” And he offers to build her an “out-house” next to his largest mansion in which she can perform her conjuring tricks. (Chapter 5)
Be it noted that an author who can casually use such a term as “metamoryhosis” will not hesitate, elsewhere in his text, to also use such terms as “disseizin” and “aposiopesis” and “ataraxy” and “virguncules”, and if you tell me that you understand these without looking up a dictionary then I tell you in reply that you are a cad, a bounder and most probably a liar.
Yet even as Beerbohm is ridiculing the duke in the most sophisticated way, one does wonder if the duke does not sometimes become a mouthpiece for the author’s own prejudices. In the presence of an American Rhodes Scholar, wittily called Mr Oover, the Duke reflects thus:
“To all Rhodes Scholars, indeed, his courtesy was invariable. He went out of his way to cultivate them. And this he did more as a favour to Lord Milner than of his own caprice. He found these Scholars, good fellows though they were, rather oppressive. They had not – how could they have? – the undergraduate’s virtue of taking Oxford as a matter of course. The Germans loved it too little, the Colonials too much. The Americans were, to a sensitive observer, the most troublesome – as being the most troubled – of the whole lot. The Duke was not one of those Englishmen who fling, or care to hear flung, cheap sneers at America. Whenever any one in his presence said that America was not large in area, he would firmly maintain that it was. He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford. They were so awfully afraid of having their strenuous native characters undermined by their delight in the place.” (Chapter 8)
Ah me! When I read this, I dimly remember my adolescent reading of Compton MacKenzie’s near contemporaneous “dreaming spires” version of Oxford in his novel Sinister Street (1913-14), wherein the priggish hero spends many pages worried at how the tone of Oxford will be lowered by the admission of these barbarous colonials. A less ironical Beerbohm would have frankly admitted that he shared the duke’s views.
Much later, however, there is this disabused view of the general weariness and uselessness of Oxford:
“Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the willpower, the power of action. But in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their heyday.” (Chapter 12)
As my final throwing of a sugared plum, may I note how oddly affecting is the scene – just before midway – where Zuleika at last gets to perform her amateurish conjuring tricks before an Oxford audience? Beerbohm, having played with us and nudged us and winked at us, gives us a scene in which there is a real tension between the undergraduates’ continued worshipful ogling of the beautiful girl, and their frank realization that her talent is a pitifully small thing. Similar in effect – and similarly melancholy – is the later scene where the Master of a College and his subordinates go through all the rituals of holding a banquet in their banqueting hall even though the hall is empty of students.
Now for a few miscellaneous matters to conclude. Max Beerbohm writes so whimsically that he frequently breaks the fourth wall and goes all self-referential, commenting on his own style. Sometimes the effect can be quite arch, as in this exchange
between the Duke and Zuleika:
Duke: “Yet often you talk as though you had read rather much. Your way of speech has what is called ‘the literary flavour’ ”
Zuleika: “Ah, that is an unfortunate trick which I caught from a writer, a Mr Beerbohm, who once sat next to me at dinner somewhere. I can’t break myself of it. I assure you I hardly ever open a book.” (Chapter 7)
Later, however, there is a much better example, when the author “corrects” himself in order to skewer a cliché:
“The moon, like a gardenia in the night’s button-hole – but no! why should a writer never be able to mention the moon without likening her to something else – usually something to which she bears not the faintest resemblance?... The moon, looking like nothing whatsoever but herself, was engaged in her old and futile endeavour to mark the hours correctly on the sun-dial at the centre of the lawn.” (Chapter 9)
For aught I know, instances such as these may have led an academic nitwit somewhere to write a thesis telling us that Zuleika Dobson is really a precursor of postmodernism in its playfulness, changes of tone and self-references. In reply I shout “Bah, humbug!” before adding “Oh fie!” Such merry dandyish tricks were around when Laurence Sterne was a lad, not to mention clubman Thackeray.
Further miscellaneous matter: The novel’s ambiguity about sexuality. Well, yes, there is the fact that Beerbohm, for most of his life married childlessly and apparently peacefully to an actress, seems to have been a non-active homosexual who preferred domestic celibacy. Reading in Zuleika Dobson of the glamorous aristocratic Duke of Devon, admired by male and female, one can’t help thinking of other such pre-First World War Oxbridge glamour boys, admired by male and female, as Rupert Brooke (Cambridge – and a commoner of course). Is it really the duke upon whom Beerbohm is expending his innermost fantasies, especially as the eponymous heroine is such a wind-up doll and seen externally only?
And another thing: Somewhat chilling, isn’t it, that three years before the First World War, albeit in comical vein, Beerbohm depicts hordes of Oxford lads idealistically and willingly rushing to embrace their own death?
And yet another thing: The novel has been commented on as a precursor of the “cult of celebrity” in the age of the mass media, wherein a glamorous person of no talent become “news”. But personally I don’t think this is the main point. Personally I think…. Oh enough, enough!! Your eyes are now weary from reading this stuff. Take it from me that Zuleika Dobson is a delightful soufflé, light as a feather, and needs no further exegesis than that.