Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, David Kertzer

For another book by David Kertzer on Catholic-Jewish relations, see my review of Unholy War here.

"Signor Mortara, I am sorry to inform you that you are the victim of a betrayal."  The officer felt uneasy, but he had his orders.  "Your son Edgardo has been baptised, and I have been ordered to take him with me."

The date was Thursday 24 June 1858, and the place was Bologna.  The Pope's military police had come to take 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents, Momolo and Marianna, and deliver him to the Church authorities in Rome.

A terrible scene resulted.  The police insisted that they were only following the orders of the local Inquisitor, Fr. Feletti.  The Inquisitor himself insisted that he was acting under orders from the Vatican.  In the face of the pleas of Edgardo's family, Fr. Feletti agreed to a 24 hour stay of execution, albeit with reluctance.  It turned out that he was worried that the Jewish family would murder their child to prevent him from becoming a Christian.

When the 24 hours were up, Edgardo was taken by carriage to Rome and consigned to the House of Catechumens, an institution for the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Catholicism.  During the journey, it was said that Edgardo showed a definite interest in the doctrines of the Catholic faith and an eagerness to go to church, though his police guard later suggested that this was the result of childish curiosity and the attention bestowed on him by Catholic fellow passengers.

This cruel situation had come about because the Mortaras were a Jewish family and Edgardo had been secretly baptised.  Shorn of its ritual accoutrements, baptism is not a very difficult sacrament to administer: it consists simply of sprinkling the subject with water and saying "I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".  The only intention that the baptiser needs to have is a general willingness to do what the Church intends to do in conferring baptism.  Then as now, Church law provided that a baby could be baptised only with its parents' permission and by a clergyman using the approved rites of the Church, but these requirements could be relaxed if the child was in imminent danger of death.  In any event, whether it was conferred lawfully or unlawfully, a baptism that fulfilled the minimal sacramental requirements was valid and irreversible.  A Jewish child who had been baptised was regarded by the Church as a Christian, and she could not be raised by infidel parents who would try to turn her away from her new faith.

Edgardo's case was not unique.  Kertzer refers to several other cases of Jewish children being abducted to be raised as Christians, in most cases because a Catholic servant had performed an illicit baptism.  In another case, a family had fled abroad in order to escape the same fate.  Some Jewish families had adopted the practice of requiring servants to make a notarised statement on leaving service declaring that they had not baptised any of the family's children.

These inhuman incidents were able to happen because they took place within the Papal States, the lands in central Italy which lay under the direct control of the Pope and the Catholic Church.  The Pontifical State had existed for centuries, but by the mid-1800s it had become a state of denial.  Since the time of the French Revolution, the Italian peninsula had been swept by waves of revolts and invasions inspired by the new ideas of liberalism, nationalism and constitutional government.  The tide of history was running against the notion that the Pope had the right to rule over an earthly kingdom through the medium of canon law enforced by civil police.  The pontifical government was living on borrowed time, propped up by French and Austrian troops and funded by loans from (oh, the irony) the Rothschild banking dynasty.  Yet the Catholic hierarchy continued to behave as if it was still the Counter-Reformation.

There was nothing inevitable about this ultra-conservative stance: it was a policy choice made by successive pontiffs with varying degrees of gusto.  There were reformers in the Church.  Cardinal Ercole Consalvi had held office as the papal Secretary of State a few decades earlier, and the reigning pope himself, Blessed Pius IX, had initially been regarded as something of a liberal.  But Pius had had his fingers badly burned by the revolutions of 1848, and the day of the modernisers was not yet at hand.  Not until Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) would the Church have a leader who was even half willing to make his peace with the nineteenth century.

Embedded in the reactionary Catholicism of the times was an unpleasant vein of antisemitism.  Jews had lived in Italy since before the time of Christ, but in the Papal States they had long been subject both to popular hostility and to legal restrictions imposed by the Church authorities.  In earlier times, the popes had shown a degree of benevolence towards the Jewish community, but since the Reformation their stance had hardened.  Jews were locked in ghettoes, forced to wear badges identifying their status and required to listen to compulsory sermons aimed at converting them.  It was still seriously believed that Jews kidnapped Christian children and consumed their blood (the notorious "blood libel").  In more recent times, the harshness of the anti-Jewish laws had been relaxed somewhat (Pius IX prided himself on his benignity in this regard), but Jews were still second-class citizens at best.

Nonetheless, the Mortaras and their supporters in the Jewish community did not take Edgardo's abduction lying down.  They fired off letters - respectfully worded, of course - to Fr. Feletti, the pontifical Secretary of State and Pope Pius IX himself, culimating in a full-scale submission in September 1858 claiming that Catholic theology and canon law were on their side (the Pope did not appreciate being lectured by Jews on his own doctrines).  The international press became interested, with editors using the plight of the boy from Bologna to fortify their readers' pro- or anti-Catholic political sentiments.  The French ambassador got involved, as did the Rothschilds and the Anglo-Jewish legend Sir Moses Montefiore.  The Jewish community of Rome, whose officials were at the forefront of the Mortaras' efforts, viewed these interventions with some concern, believing from their own long experience that the Jews of the Papal States could only lose from any attempt to strongarm the Pope.

Accounts of how Edgardo behaved in the House of Catechumens and how he conducted himself during meetings with his parents differed dramatically, and along predictable lines.  The official version, in which he gloried in his new Christian life, has the clear appearance of propaganda.  The natural assumption is that a 6-year-old boy forcibly separated from his parents must have been devastated by the experience, and that his parents' testimony to this effect must have been true and correct.  On the other hand, Edgardo does seem to have adapted himself to his new situation, and doubts developed among some of the Mortaras' allies, including a Jewish official who saw the boy himself, about where his loyalties lay.  After leaving the Catechumens, Edgardo seems to have settled quite well into his new life with the other boys at a church school in Rome, and in due course he was ordained as a Catholic priest.

Who had baptised Edgardo?  Suspicion soon fell on Anna Morisi, a former servant of the Mortaras, and it duly turned out that she was the guilty party.  Her story was that she had administered the baptism during a life-threatening illness that Edgardo had suffered in infancy.  A local grocer called Lepori had suggested that she baptise Edgardo to ensure that he went to heaven when he died, and she had decided to take his advice.  Several years later, she had told another servant in the neighbourhood, an enigmatic character called Regina Bussolari, what she had done.  It was allegedly after Morisi spoke with Bussolari that the Inquisitor got involved.  A woman called Elena Pignatti, who knew Morisi and had employed her after she left the Mortaras, recalled independently that Morisi had spoken to her about baptising Jewish babies several years before, at a time when one of the Mortara children was seriously ill.

This version of events did not go uncontested.  Both Lepori and Bussolari denied speaking to Morisi.  Most witnesses reported that Edgardo's illness had not been life-threatening, so a secret baptism should not have been necessary - and, in any case, Morisi herself had been sick in bed at the relevant time.  More intriguingly, it appears that Morisi may have had a financial interest in suddenly coming out with her story several years after the event.  In 1857, according to Elena Pignatti, just months before Edgardo's abduction, Morisi had been mysteriously summoned several times by the local priests, and she had explained to Pignatti that the Inquisitor had promised her a dowry.  Morisi herself acknowledged that she had been after a dowry, but she insisted that she had brought the subject up with the Inquisitor only after he had questioned her about the baptism.

The Mortaras went to some lengths to prove that Morisi was no simple, God-fearing peasant girl.  Marianna said that she had been a liar, and other witnesses claimed that she had been involved in several instances of theft.  Predictably, given the climate of the times, her sex life was held up as evidence of bad character.  Bologna was garrisoned by Austrian troops, and Morisi appears to have had a liking for handsome young men in uniform - not an unusual preference for a heterosexual female, but one which was politically incorrect in the 1850s.

The Church never provided a full account of its investigations, but its own version of events seems to suggest that the initial report came from a woman called Marianna Bajesi, who claimed to have heard rumours about the baptism originating from Regina Bussolari.  On balance, it is probable that Morisi did baptise Edgardo, no doubt oblivious to the trouble that her act would cause in the future.

The Mortara affair was one of the rude shocks that awoke the upper echelons of the Catholic Church to the realities of the modern world.  They may have been able to get away with this sort of thing in the middle ages, but the game had changed.  The affair may even have changed the course of European history, since it may have influenced Napoleon III of France to allow Prime Minister Cavour of Piedmont to annexe most of the Papal States in 1859-60, an important step in the creation of the modern Italian state.  When Bologna was freed from papal control as a result of this truncation of the Pope's realms, Fr. Feletti was arrested and tried by the new government.  Even within the framework of the old laws, it was argued, he was guilty and deserving of punishment: he provided no proof that he had followed proper procedures in ordering the boy's seizure, and he appeared not to have ascertained properly that the baptism had been validly performed.  The court, however, disagreed and acquitted him.

Fr. Feletti was small fry, though.  At the centre of the controversy were Pope Pius IX and his de facto prime minister, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli.  There is a longstanding tendency to see Pius as a kindly old buffoon who was manipulated by Antonelli.  Antonelli was a devious politician who become a cardinal without ever being ordained a priest, and he was said to be more interested in money and women than in religion.  There may be an element of truth in these caricatures, but Pius was no innocent dupe.  He took a close personal interest in Edgardo's upbringing, and he strenuously resisted attempts to induce him to release the boy.  He may have been an affable and pious man, but he was also wilful and intransigent.  He cared not what governments, ambassadors or journalists ("the truly powerful people of our times") had to say on the matter.  He had not the slightest qualm of conscience in keeping Edgardo separated from his parents, because he knew with unshakeable certainty that God was on his side.  As his namesake Pius X would later prove, the worst popes are sometimes the holy ones.

Not that Pius was lacking in defenders.  Catholic writers and newspapers praised his stoutheartedness and commended his actions.  The Pope, they said, had acted in accordance with his religious duties, and besides, the boy was clearly loving it.  His parents might be upset to have lost him, but they had lots of other children, and in any case they should have thought of that before they broke the law by employing a Catholic maidservant.  What was more, they could immediately be reunited with Edgardo by becoming Catholics themselves, in which case they would also be granted eternal salvation.  These lines of argument are oddly echoed by no less a person than the professional atheist Richard Dawkins.  In The God Delusion, Dawkins uses the Mortara case as part of his foolish argument that ascribing parents' religion to their children amounts to child abuse.  He seems to think that the Mortaras themselves were culpable because they had employed a Catholic servant due to silly Jewish scruples about the Sabbath and because they refused to make a fake conversion to Catholicism to get their son back.

In the meantime, events were moving on.  Edgardo wrote to his parents on a number of occasions but couldn't resist trying to convert them to Catholicism, leading to a breakdown in communications.  In 1864, a similar case to Edgardo's, involving a Roman Jewish boy named Giuseppe Coen, was reportedly instrumental in inducing Napoleon III to withdraw his troops temporarily from what remained of the Pope's territories.  In 1870, the French troops left for the last time to fight the Franco-Prussian War, and the Italian army entered the Eternal City.  The Pope's temporal power was extinguished, and the papacy enjoyed an extended toys-out-of-pram moment until finally the small area of western Rome known as Vatican City was handed back to Pope Pius XI in 1929.  When Rome fell to the Italians, Edgardo was visited by his brother Riccardo, an officer in the invading army.  Edgardo, now a young man of 19, insisted that Riccardo remove his "murderer's uniform" before he would speak to him.  He then slipped out of Rome and fled to Austria before his parents could catch up with him.  Coen's parents were similarly disappointed when they were reunited with a petulant teenager who wanted nothing more to do with them.

It seems that Momolo never recovered from his son's abduction.  In 1871, his maidservant died under mysterious circumstances, and he was initially convicted of her murder amid allegations that he was an angry and violent man.  The verdict was subsequently reversed by a higher court, and he died shortly afterwards.  Marianna, who was suspected of playing a role in covering up the alleged killing, made her peace with Edgardo and died in 1890.  As noted earlier, Edgardo himself became a priest.  A clever man, he learnt several languages and became a missionary preacher.  He eventually wound up in Belgium, where he died on 11 March 1940, just before the Nazi invasion.  It was a mercifully timed demise.  The baptism that took him from his parents and made him an international celebrity would, one imagines, have cut no ice with the SS.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Vindication of the English Constitution, Benjamin Disraeli

This is a little book written by the 31-year-old Benjamin Disraeli in 1835 in defence of the nineteenth-century British constitution.  His principal target was the liberal utilitarians of his day, who supported dangerous ideas like popular sovereignty and universal suffrage.

Disraeli sets out the familiar doctrines of classical British Conservatism: the importance of precedent, tradition, legality and the "wisdom of our ancestors".  He is for Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and historical British freedoms.  He is against a priori systems, "the barren assertion of abstract rights" and the Catholic Church.  He castigates his opponents for seeking "to form political institutions on abstract principles of theoretic science, instead of permitting them to spring from the course of events, and to be naturally created by the necessities of nations".

This is instantly recognisable as the creed of Burke, Salisbury and Oakeshott.  It is curious, however, to see it expounded by such an apparently marginal figure.  Dizzy was Jewish by birth, and an outsider to the world of the traditional ruling class.  He had been forced to embark on a career as a romantic novelist after losing all his money, and he may have been bisexual.  But then, of course, outsiders sometimes make the best conservatives.

The modern ideas that the constitution is, or should be, democratic, and that the House of Commons should enjoy primary legitimacy and dominance by virtue of being popularly elected, were already current in Disraeli's time.  He had no truck with them, describing such notions as "dangerous nonsense".  The Commons was no "House of the People", but merely the representative of one estate of the realm, and it would be deplorable if "the divine right of kings is to be succeeded by the divine right of the House of Commons".  When the Commons had got out of control under Charles I and "the People" had taken charge, the result had been regicide, chaos and tyranny, culminating in the military dictatorship of Cromwell.

By contrast, Disraeli liked the House of Lords (and one day he himself would sit on the red benches as the first Earl of Beaconsfield).  He did not blush to assert that the Bench of Bishops had a democratic character or that the landed aristocracy served as the representative of the peasants.  He dismissed the idea that an hereditary legislator is as absurd as an hereditary doctor, arguing that the propertied and leisured classes, with their education and their code of honour, were ideal candidates for lawmakers.

Dizzy does make a good point when he suggests that the credibility of a legislature is enhanced if its members are individuals who are already eminent and respected in the country.  While one may dispute the conclusions that he draws from this, it is not a bad principle to bear in mind when considering how to reform today's Upper House.  A second chamber of professional politicians is not an inspiring prospect, and one wonders whether it would be possible to devise a system whereby the House of Lords (or whatever it comes to be called) could be opened up to election under criteria that ensured that the stature and calibre of its members were not diluted.  (De Valera tried something like this with the Irish Senate, though it has never really worked in practice.)

By the "English Constitution", Disraeli meant not only the King and Parliament but also the rest of the institutions that made up contemporary civil life, such as "Trial by Jury, Habeas Corpus, the Court of King's Bench, the Court of Quarter Sessions, the compulsory provision for the poor [and] the franchises of municipal corporations".  At another point, he writes: "Without our Crown, our Church, our Universities, our great municipal and commercial Corporations, our Magistracy, and its dependent scheme of provincial polity, the inhabitants of England, instead of being a nation, would present only a mass of individuals....".  The repeated references to "England" are rather irritating, though Disraeli shows that he has not forgotten the Scots or the Irish when he condemns their MPs for propping up contemporary Liberal governments.

In one passage, Disraeli sets out a creed which sums up as well as anything the spirit of the conservatism which he espoused:

"[A]n Englishman, however humble may be his birth... is born to the noblest of all inheritances, the equality of civil rights; he is born to freedom, he is born to justice, and he is born to property.  There is no station to which he may not aspire; there is no master whom he is obliged to serve; there is no magistrate who dares imprison him against the law...."

Quite how this promise of freedom, justice and property worked out in practice for my own ancestors is another question, and one is reminded here of the rather different take on contemporary British life found in the works of Disraeli's fellow novelist Charles Dickens.  It is a noble ideal, though.

Disraeli loved his country, even if he got its name wrong, and he contrasted it with its unhappy neighbour, France, which had suffered first under the utopian revolutionaries, then under Louis XVIII's attempt to rule under a half-baked imitation of the British constitution, and most recently under the insipid and repressive rule of Louis Philippe.  Dizzy's words of scorn for foreign nations - France, Sicily, Spain and Portugal - which had hurriedly sought to adopt British constitutional forms as a shortcut to political modernisation were later quoted by opponents of the Iraq War against the modern neoconservative project of westernising the Middle East.  While travelling through southern Europe, writes Disraeli,

"I found a feodal [sic] nobility and a peasantry untinctured, even in the slightest degree, by letters, and steeped in the grossest superstition: I found agriculture generally neglected, or unchanged in its pursuit since the days of Theocritus; a teeming soil, no human energy; no manufactures, no police; mountainous districts swarming with bandits, plains whose vast stillness prepared me for the Syrian deserts; occasionally I reposed in cities where a comparative civilisation had been obtained under the influence of a despotic priesthood.  And these are the regions to which it is thought fit suddenly to apply the institutions which regulate the civil life of Yorkshire and of Kent!"

This is patronising stuff, but the man had a point.

The pragmatic, anti-utopian element in classical British conservatism is the element that I find it easiest to admire.  Unfortunately, conservatism these days seems to mean mainly economic neoliberalism - and the capitalism of Hayek and Friedman is nothing if not an abstract system.  It is also curious that the favourite foreign country of today's Conservatives tends to be the United States, a nation whose Constitution and Bill of Rights are saturated with the philosophical ideas of the same liberal reform movement that Disraeli decries (Disraeli attempts to avoid this criticism with the tendentious claim that the American constitution in fact represented an organic development from earlier American and British history).

Yet if Disraeli was a pragmatist, he was a romantic too.  The book has a misleading air of timelessness, and it seems to describe an organic society, a quintessential England that never existed either in 1835 or at any other time.  One would not guess from his elegant prose that Disraeli was writing in the midst of one of most important events to take place in the history of the human race, the Industrial Revolution.  The tide of political reform, swollen by the economic and social changes of industrialisation, proved to be unstoppable.  Three years before the book appeared, the first step to political modernisation had been taken in the form of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which Disraeli is forced to argue didn't really represent a break with the past (well, it did and it didn't).  Disraeli himself knew perfectly well that history is not static, that the England of the Plantagenets was not the England of the Tudors, and that the England of Charles II and James II was not the England of William IV.  Yet his emphasis on continuity and his presentation of changes as restorations of an older order may be regarded as tendentious.

The rhetoric of timelessness and essential Englishness (or Britishness) disallows a recognition that political change, whether of an evolutionary or a revolutionary nature, is often salutary, or even necessary - and it cannot be relied upon to happen by itself.  Indeed, it tends to be opposed at every step by conservatives armed with arguments like those deployed in this book.  What happens when national institutions, left to themselves, fail to keep pace with social change or are discredited by experience?  What happens when you discover that one house of your legislature is still filled with hereditary peers at the end of the twentieth century, or has reserved seats for bishops in the twenty-first?  What happens when we are confronted by a novel project like the European Union?  In the final analysis, these are questions to which the Disraelian doctrine does not provide reliable or satisfying answers.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

This is an interesting book in the mould of The Myth of Mars and Venus, which I reviewed on this blog a couple of months ago.  It seeks to challenge the fashionable belief that there are deep and clear-cut differences between male and female psychology which are rooted in biology and can be detected by scientific research.

I have a depressing feeling that this is a fool's errand.  Any well-argued attack on the Mars-and-Venus worldview is welcome, but in the final analysis that worldview derives its power not from its objective validity but from its psychological appeal.  Gender is an immensely important part of personal and social identity.  For most of us - though not all - affirming our identity as male or female feels good.  It gives us a sense of grounding and certainty, which are scarce commodities in human life.  It allows us to feel part of a wider social group, and if done in the presence of someone of the opposite sex it can set up a pleasantly flirty dynamic.  (I'd say that the foregoing is self-evident, but it has empirical support too: Fine refers to a study in which men who were told that gender differences are biologically predetermined reported feeling happier about things than men who were told, more accurately, that the evidence is unclear.)

From this standpoint, it is no surprise that people are receptive to the idea that the sexes are essentially separate and distinct tribes.  What's more, at a time of enormous social change, when traditional gender roles are constantly being challenged and deconstructed, a lot of people find it comforting to be un-PC and reassure themselves that men are still men and women are still women.  It must be appealing to be told that one's prejudices are confirmed by the latest scientific research, but the sources of those prejudices may be too deep for them to be shaken by a book like this.  As with the scientific and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God, most people have made their minds up before they start.


Underlying the Mars-and-Venus myth is the idea that the human mind is a kind of machine, with the male mind having very different parts and processes from the female version.  Sometimes this is made explicit, with writers referring to certain things - a man's sexual aggressiveness, a woman's hankering for children - as being "hardwired", a technical term taken from the vocabulary of electronics.  Fine, who is an expert in cognitive neuroscience, explains that this model of human psychology is inadequate and misleading.  The mind is not an identifiable, self-contained piece of hardware.  The way in which we think is variable, flexible, inconsistent, and flooded with influences from both our immediate circumstances and our wider culture. Mechanical and electrical analogies are inapt.

A large part of the problem is that the thought processes in our brains are not simply preprogrammed by our genetic makeup: they are shaped to a large extent by external influences too.  Far from being an engine or even a computer, the brain is a living organism.  Our genes put certain constraints on how we think and behave, but there is a lot more flexibility than most of us realise.  As Fine notes, "[w]hat we experience and do creates neural activity that can alter the brain, either directly or through changes in gene expression".  When you think about it, the fact that our neural pathways are not biologically fixed should be no more than common sense.  If this was not the case, people's personalities would be effectively frozen.  People would not experience bouts of depression, or periods of confusion about their sexuality.  Distinct subcultures and attitudes would not grow up in different professions, churches and workplaces, in rural and urban areas, or in different countries, and newcomers to such "corporate cultures" would not go native as often as they do (or indeed ever).

The idea that we unconsciously take on the prejudices around us is too obvious to require much elaboration.  To take a fairly banal example, American students who attend female-only colleges show an increased propensity to associate women with leadership roles.  Perhaps more surprisingly, girls who attend co-ed colleges end up being less ready to make that association than they had been previously. Moreover, we unconsciously align ourselves with gender roles.  French high school students were asked to rate their abilities at particular subjects.  Those who were reminded of the stereotypical view that girls are better at arts subjects and boys are better at maths were influenced by that view in the answers they gave as compared against a control group and their actual exam results.  Even asking subjects to tick a male/female box at the start of a test may affect the way that they answer the questions on it.

The other side of this coin is that most of us tend to avoid identifying with the opposite sex.  Men generally do better than women at exercises in which they are asked to visualise rotating objects.  But this advantage melts away when male test subjects are told that this skill is associated with fashion design and flower arranging.  Something similar happens in tests for emotional intelligence when male subjects are aware what they are being assessed for.  We don't want to come out looking like faggots, right?  Having said this, sometimes a hostile gender environment forces us to go native.  In one study, female science students at Stanford appeared to be less inclined towards wearing makeup and other traditionally feminine forms of behaviour (and this de-feminisation was observed kicking in, so it can't simply have been a matter of naturally unfeminine women choosing to study the sciences).

It hardly seems necessary to add that some well-worn gender stereotypes are quite culturally specific.  The notion that men are naturally inclined to their careers rather than towards childcare presupposes a modern dichotomy between career and kids that only arose during the nineteenth century as a result of social and economic changes.  In the early days of computer science, programming (a task which requires much patience and attention to detail) was seen as being a female domain: the image of the male computer nerd was only manufactured in the 1980s, with the help of Bill Gates et al.


Our best hope of circumventing the effects of social conditioning is perhaps to look at the behaviour of very young children (though we should not underestimate how socially aware and responsive human beings are even as babies).  Several studies have looked at toddlers' play preferences, and they tend to suggest that gender differences at that age are quite blurred and fluid.  In one study, one-year-old boys showed a preference for "boys'" toys over "girls'" toys - but only by an distinctly underwhelming margin of 46% to 37%.  In another study of one-year-olds, boys again showed a preference for "boys'" toys - but both sexes seemed equally interested in "girls'" toys, and were equally happy to be presented with a ball, a doll or a car by the assessor.

We may even be able to identify the point at which gender differentiation kicks in.  One study looked at the development of a group of children between ages 17 months and 21 months.  At 17 months, the boys and girls played undiscriminatingly with a doll, a tea set, a brush and comb set and blocks (though the girls were less interested in the final toy, a truck).  At 21 months, by which time the children had started to become aware of sex distinctions, the boys had grown less fond of the doll and the girls more fond of it.  Interestingly, the peak period in childhood for gender chauvinism seems to be 5 to 7 years, after which it tends to sink in that such distinctions are not absolute - though, as Fine acidly notes, some people seem to remain stuck in the earlier stage well into adult life.

One early childhood study has gained some currency among Mars-and-Venus theorists.  Newborn babies with an average age of a day and a half were invited to look in turn at the face of the postgrad conducting the experiment and at a mobile (interest in people versus interest in machines, see).  Fine points out that this study had serious methodological flaws, and it is far from certain how much it would prove in any event.  Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning the results, because they are taken to support the Mars-and-Venus line.  It seems that male and female babies spent on average equal amounts of time looking at the face.  Boys looked longer at the mobile than girls, but the difference in looking time is unimpressive (51% to 41%).  Likewise, girls looked at the face for longer, but only by a small margin (49% to 41%).  This, remember, is a study triumphantly held up by biological determinists as providing scientific proof of their case.

You can take it back further if you want.  Some researchers have looked for a correlation between gender behaviour and levels of testosterone in the womb.  To be fair, there is evidence that girls exposed to unusually high levels of testosterone have more tomboyish qualities, but even this is not clear-cut.  More generally, the evidence to link prenatal hormones to masculinity and femininity is lacking.  Less testosterone, for example, should mean higher levels of empathy and social intelligence, according to the stereotype.  "So, does amniotic testosterone negatively correlate, in boys and girls separately, with frequency of eye contact at twelve months old with a parent during play, quality of social relationships at four years old... propensity to use mental-state terms, scores on the child version of the Empathy Quotient... and performance on a child's version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test?  The answers are, respectively: no; not really; not really; no; and yes."  Even that final "yes" turns out to be significantly qualified.  If you want to make a case for biological determinism, it turns out that the womb and the nursery are not the places to look.

The animal kingdom might provide an alternative source of data, but again it fails to provide much support for determinists.  Gender roles are clearly in evidence among other primates, but they vary between different species, and even (perhaps surprisingly) within the same species.  It appears that male macaques in Takasakiyama, Japan have an enlightened, New Chimp attitude towards childcare, whereas their brethren in Katuyama are more traditionally minded, presumably preferring to focus on their careers.  In another species of macaque, there are similar differences in infant rearing between males in Gibraltar and their friends across the Med in Morocco.


I am living proof that at least one popular gender stereotype is false: despite being a man, I regard the realm of science with an uninterest bordering on contempt.  This is not because I have a female brain, if such a thing exists.  Rather, it is a culturally specific attitude which has evolved for historical reasons in British culture among privately educated humanities graduates.  Nonetheless, when I am told that scientists have discovered that women like shopping more than men because their corpus callosum has more neurons than their cerebral cortex (or whatever), I am inclined to take it more or less at face value.  It sounds hard and objective, and I am very unlikely to question it.  For this reason, I found what Fine had to say about Mars-and-Venus neuroscience to be very enlightening.

Neuroscience is a discipline that needs to be handled with care.  It is a young science, and the technology needed to answer the questions that we want to ask is simply not there yet.  Neuroimaging is a somewhat unreliable technique, and its results need to be treated with caution.  This is partially down to the inherent complexity of thinking and feeling.   We can't just take brain scans of (say) a man watching a football match or a woman ironing a shirt and decide that this area or that area of the brain is linked with gendered behaviour.  "It's simply not the case", says Fine, "that people use one particular lobe, or a circumscribed area of the brain, to read a novel, or write an essay, or solve an equation or calculate the angle of a triangle".

Even more importantly, as already intimated, differences in brain structure and functioning are not necessarily inborn, but may be acquired.  As Fine rightly asks, "where else but in the brain would we see the effects of socialisation or experience?".  The best known example of environmental influences affecting brain structure is the larger than average hippocampus size of London cabbies, who are renowned for their encyclopaedic memory of the city's street and byways.  (A diehard biological determinist might argue that people with large hippocampuses gravitate towards taxi driving - aside from being inherently implausible, this would not explain why hippocampus size increases the longer the cabbie has been on the job.)

Some claims of Mars-and-Venus theorists are so silly that even I can spot the overinterpretation: the notion, for example, that the use of smaller brain areas and shorter neural circuits mean a narrower focus of the mind.  In some cases, the fallacies require expert analysis and familiarity with notions such as brain lateralisation.  Fine is helpful here.  For example, on the subject of male and female language use, a particular hobby horse of biological determinists, she explains the facts with this trenchant conclusion: "Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralisation, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills".  (For more about the nonexistence of innate differences in language use, see Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus, which I referred to at the start of this review.)

Not many people go to the trouble of following the scientific footnotes of Mars-and-Venus theorists.  Fine does, and the results are not edifying.  One prolific writer and speaker, Dr Leonard Sax, argues that men have difficulty talking about their feelings (I suspect that my girlfriend would laugh hollowly at this) because emotions are processed in the amygdala, which has few direct connections with the cerebral cortex, whereas girls' emotions are processed in the cerebral cortex itself.  Fine points out that (1) the amygdala is in fact richly connected with the cerebral cortex and (2) Sax's theory is based on a small neuroimaging study in which children were passively shown pictures of fearful faces - brain activity was not even measured in most of the areas associated with language and emotion.  Elsewhere, Sax expounds a theory about why girls need to be taught maths differently based on one neuroimaging study relating to maze navigation.

Dr Sax is not alone here.  Among the most popular Mars-and-Venus writers are Allan and Barbara Pease.  In their book Why Men Don't Listen And Women Can't Read Maps, they have a diagram showing the locations of emotion in men and women's brains.  The male picture shows neatly segregated blobs, while the blobs are scattered indiscriminately through the woman's brain.  This is laughable on the face of it - the sort of thing that a couple of blokes in a pub might draw as a joke - but the Peases assure their readers that it is backed up by neuroscientific research.  Fine tracks down the relevant paper, and it turns out that they are seriously misrepresenting its findings.  Put simply, it seems that the women had two left blobs and one right blob, while the men had either two left blobs or two right blobs (an important intra-male difference).  Lest it be thought that this still reveals some profound truth about the sexes, Fine goes on to point out that the lack of a blob does not indicate a lack of brain activity, that the sample size was very small (16 people), and that the criteria for registering a blob are probably faulty, since one test registered apparently meaningful blobs in brain scans of a dead fish.  This, of course, is on top of the inherent problem with relating specific parts of the brain to particular, complex thoughts and feelings.

One could go on, but this is the sort of "evidence" from which the myth of Mars and Venus is constructed.  A further point suggested by the book is that, even if brain structure did correlate with psychology and social behaviour, the true distinction may not be between men and women, but between larger and smaller sized brains, which in turn indirectly correlates with the male/female division.

It comes as little surprise to learn that we have been here before.  Pseudoscience never goes out of fashion.  In the nineteenth century, it was thought that intellect was associated with the frontal lobes, which were observed to be better developed in men, rather than the parietal lobes, which were better developed in women.  When scientists were led to reassign the location of intellect to the parietal lobes, they also arrived at the conclusion that, on fuller examination, the parietal lobes actually appeared to be better developed in men.  It's easy to laugh at this sort of thing and to assume that the scientists of today would never subconsciously move the goalposts in this way, but this requires quite a leap of faith.  Remember, Mars-and-Venus theories were once used to justify denying women the vote and a role in public life (and let's not even get into biological determinist views about race).  Scientists are only human too, and they do not lay down their prejudices when they put on their white coats.


The fundamental problem with it's-all-in-the-genes views of gender is that physical sex is binary but psychological attributes aren't.  A human being can be either physically male or physically female.  Leaving aside the uncommon phenomenon of intersexuality, there is no compromise, overlap or third option.  You either have one thing or you have the other.  The fallacy that underlies Mars-and-Venus thinking is the assumption that this blunt physical dichotomy is replicated in the human mind, so that you either have a male brain and emotions or you have their quite different female equivalents.

Put this starkly, the limitations of the Mars-and-Venus worldview are fairly clear.  The idea that psychological differences between men and women are as clear and binary as the difference between a penis and a vagina is untenable.  Even the high priest of biological determinism, Simon Baron-Cohen, reports that less than 50% of women (along with 17% of men) have what he defines as a "female brain".

This isn't to say that there are no innate psychological differences between men and women - but then there aren't many people who would make such a claim (and Fine doesn't appear to be one of them).  The notion that the mind is a blank slate is to a large extent a straw man, a kind of caricature of 1970s feminism.  One might mention here the tragic case of David Reimer, a Canadian boy born in 1965 who was raised as a girl without his knowledge or consent after suffering genital injuries as a young child.  He ended up readopting his male gender as an adolescent, and committed suicide in 2004.  Few people in the mainstream, including those who identify as feminists, would claim that either nature or nurture allows us to make free with gender in such a cavalier way.  The point is rather that on top of any genetic sex differences there is layer upon layer of strong environmental and cultural influences - and, in any event, any innate average differences between the sexes are dwarfed by the enormous innate variations within them, between different men and different women.

The result is that saying that women are inherently A or men are inherently B is likely to be a fatuous over-generalisation of the black-people-are-good-at-sports variety.  You start with a well-worn social prejudice, simplify it, exaggerate and generalise, add a footnote to a scientific study that doesn't prove what you think it does, and you end up with something like Baron-Cohen's infamous statement in The Essential Difference that men are good at being scientists, bankers and programmers, but don't worry, girls, you're going to make great nurses and primary teachers.  Homo sapiens has limited mental powers, and stereotypes can be helpful shortcuts.  But when they lead to misunderstanding, prejudice and injustice, their cost is surely too high.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 3


In most other areas of policy, Bush was a failure.  He is proud of his education reforms - the No Child Left Behind Act, which was guided through the Senate by Ted Kennedy - and his faith-based initiative.  But he is unable to spin his much more ambitious projects of immigration and Social Security reform as anything other than gross, abject flops.  His chapter on Hurricane Katrina makes some fair points, but it is difficult to take his efforts at self-exculpation at face value (the villain of the piece turns out to be Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who happens, by odd coincidence, to be a Democrat).

Worst of all was his inertia on climate change, the greatest challenge of our generation and the one least forgiving of bluffing and incompetence.  Bush wasted precious time doubting the science, then ended up offering too little too late.  He hardly even discusses the subject in the book.  At the other end of the scale, the closest he came to an unqualified success was in his aid programmes for Africa, which sought to tackle problems like HIV/AIDS and malaria.  By the end, sub-sarahan Africa was, together with the Bible Belt and Tel Aviv, one of the few places in the world where people still quite liked him.

Bush has something of a liking for presenting himself as a middle-of-the-road guy beset by extremists on the right as well as the left.  There is something in this.  Conservative Republicans resisted him on Medicare reform, immigration and the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry.  But, while he might have been to the left of Glenn Beck, no-one would mistake him for a progressive reformer.  It bears remembering that this was a man who (amongst other things) slashed taxes to a level that continues to threaten Obama's attempts at deficit reduction, attacked the totemic Social Security system that millions of Americans depend on in retirement, and sought to cement the right-wing majority in the Supreme Court for another generation.  His political philosophy, as I have intimated, is boilerplate American conservative capitalism, with limited pragmatic concessions.

American capitalism was very nearly brought down on Bush's watch.  Say what you like about the man, he deserves the gratitude of the whole world for pushing the TARP programme and the bail-out of Wall Street in autumn 2008 rather than siding with the nihilist Republican headbangers in Congress who opposed any government-led attempt to stop the economy from collapsing because that would be socialism and that's bad.  But it was on Bush's watch - and Clinton's watch before him - that Wall Street was deregulated to the extent that it could imperil the financial system of the entire world.  Bush seeks to dodge this criticism, but it is valid enough.  Even Alan Greenspan, a man whom Bush continues to regard as something of a genius, admits that his guiding ideology contained a "flaw" (which makes him "very distressed", poor chap).  Anyone who is ill advised enough to turn to the memoirs of George W. Bush in search of challenging reflections on contemporary deregulated financial capitalism will be disappointed.


After a while, I stopped counting how many times Bush mentions God.  He talks repeatedly in religious language and recounts with apparent sincerity his own conversion to evangelical Christianity.  He tells a bizarre story about encountering a turkey on his ranch while in the company of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: for reasons that are not made entirely clear, both men appear to have taken the bird as a sign from God.  Bush also gives an interesting and markedly defensive account of the infamous moment in the 2000 Republican primary debates when he told his audience that Jesus was his favourite political philosopher:

"I thought about citing someone like Mill or Locke, whose natural law theory had influenced the Founders.  Then there was Lincoln, hard to go wrong with Abe in a Republican debate.  I was still thinking when Bachman turned to me: 'Governor Bush?'  No more time to weigh my options.  The words tumbled out of my mouth: 'Christ', I said, 'because He changed my heart.'"

The name-dropping of Mill and Locke highlights a telling aspect of the book.  Bush appears to be quite chippy about his intelligence and education.  At the start, he describes meeting a series of academic historians and reading the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.  He later reminds us that he was a history major, and he lists the various courses that he took at Yale.  He insists that he settled his policy on stem cell research only after studying the relevant literature on medicine, law and moral philosophy.  He boasts about getting through 95 books in a reading competition with Karl Rove.

Defensive and exaggerated as all this may be, there must be some element of truth in it.  You do not go to Yale and Harvard Business School, make it in the commercial world, and go on to become Governor of Texas and President of the United States if you are a slobbering moron.  Nepotism alone cannot explain it.  Coming from a political dynasty was a necessary condition for Bush's success, but not a sufficient one.  Bush is no intellectual - and no Obama, for that matter - but the guy isn't dumb.

At the end of the day, Bush comes across as an affable, gregarious sort of chap.  Of course, this says precisely nothing about his political convictions or actions as president: Joe Stalin was apparently up for a laugh at dinner parties, and Kim Jong Il is said to be a witty raconteur, though that may just be because people tend to laugh at his jokes.  Bush very clearly has a sense of humour, though it generally amounts to wisecrackery rather than wit.  Obama probably had the measure of the man when he described the then president as a shrewd guy who would probably be fairly good company as long as the conversation was confined to the kids and sports.  Quite how he became the leader of the free world, nuclear codes and everything, is a mystery which this book doesn't adequately explain.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 2


Bush's presidency was defined above all by the "War on Terror", a conflict which Bush hadn't sought but which he embraced enthusiastically and pursued through mountains of money and rivers of blood.  The tone was set by his reaction to the September 11 attacks: "My blood was boiling.  We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass."  He did - and he did.

Bush's treatment of the lead-up to 9/11 is deficient.  He refers to the famous "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" briefing given to him by the CIA on 6 August 2001, but without exploring its implications.  Unsurprisingly, he does not quote George Tenet's judgement that "the system was blinking red" in the preceding months, or address the unfavourable comparisons that have been made with the way in which the Clinton administration handled similar security alerts.

Bush has few regrets about this part of his record.  When he talks about Guantanamo Bay, the "PATRIOT" Act and his secret surveillance programme, he seems to regard congressional oversight, public scrutiny and the rule of law almost as unwarranted inconveniences.  When even the conservative-majority Supreme Court ruled against him in Hamdan v Rumsfeld, he accepted the decision fairly grudgingly.  The notion of a balance between liberty and security is alluded to but not really explored.  Bush acknowledges the crimes that his soldiers committed at Abu Ghraib and says that he felt sick when he was told about them, but he seems to feel no such nausea about the murky practice of extraordinary rendition.

On the subject of his forces' brutal interrogation techniques, Bush says that he was advised that the practices in question did not amount to torture, that he vetoed a couple of the more outlandish ones, and that only three prisoners were waterboarded.  This isn't really the point, though.  When you've reached the stage of splitting hairs about what is and isn't torture, and arguing that you didn't do it to many people anyway, you are self-evidently in a morally grubby position.  The President of the United States doesn't get to argue that his interrogation practices aren't torture because his lawyer wrote him a memo saying so.  There is a distinct lack of ethical clarity here.  Of course, an awareness of moral ambiguities isn't always a bad thing, but one doubts that Bush would allow himself a similar level of ambivalence about, say, abortion or gay marriage.

And so to Iraq.  In human terms, the legacy of the Iraq War is hundreds of thousands of early deaths and a society which has taken seven and a half years to turn into a corrupt and unstable democracy.  If you want to argue that Iraq is now a better place than it was under the Ba'athist insanity, then fine, let that be Bush's epitaph: "He wasn't as bad as Saddam".  Politically speaking, taken together with the stalemate of Afghanistan, the Iraq adventure fatally exposed the limits of US power.  The strength of empires lies in perceptions and myths as much as it does in tanks and B-52s.  When the American Empire was at its zenith, Bush chose to show the world in plain sight that it could be ensnared and resisted.  For a superpower already destined for long-term decline by demographic and economic trends, that was the fatal misjudgement, the unpardonable sin.  American global hegemony may have been born in the mud of the Western Front in World War I, but it withered away in the land of Nineveh and Babylon.

Bush, predictably, insists that he didn't want to create an empire.  Ironically, he says that he didn't deploy more troops in the early stages of the Iraq War because of the dangers of looking heavy-handed and provoking unnecessary resentment against an occupying foreign army.  He fails to rebut the argument that his own employees at the State Department knew exactly what was going to happen and tried to tell him how he should approach the rebuilding of the country.  Maybe there is some truth in Niall Ferguson's critique of Bush-era policy: the Americans were trying to maintain an empire on the cheap, without committing the resources that were needed for success.

The failure to secure Iraq was followed by the failure to find those elusive WMDs.  Now, it is well known that spies around the world believed that Saddam had WMDs, and his own behaviour was not that of a responsible statesman who had nothing to hide.  Nor did Bush himself present WMDs as the only justification for war (though he isn't foolish enough to try to revive the old canard that Saddam was complicit in 9/11).  His neoconservative Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who had been dreaming of going after Saddam since the 90s, went so far as to describe WMDs as a "bureaucratic pretext" for the invasion.  But the fact remains that the case of the missing WMDs was - or should have been - a scandal on a colossal scale.  In any other walk of life, including the business world in which Bush cut his teeth, such a massive cock-up would have spelt immediate resignation and career death.  For Bush - and indeed for Tony Blair - it spelt re-election.  Sometimes we get the leaders we deserve.

The sections of the book on the "War on Terror" and foreign policy contain various vignettes of encounters with civilians and servicemen which Bush found memorable, touching or otherwise encouraging as he attempted to grope his way to victory.  To European eyes, these are likely to come over as maudlin, if not downright manipulative.  Is this perhaps too cynical?  I wonder.  To be fair, Bush does also mention encountering ordinary Americans (Cindy Sheehan being the best known) who didn't see eye to eye with him.

Bush has a few interesting titbits.  Tony Blair was instrumental in persuading him both to address the Saddam problem initially through the UN and to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  That process could have reached something like a successful conclusion if Ehud Olmert hadn't fallen from power at the wrong moment.  Little that Dubya says, however, comes as a surprise.  Of the Iraqi people, he tells us: "They were grateful to America for their liberation.  They wanted to live in freedom.  And I would not give up on them."  In fact, surveys of Iraqi public opinion revealed a deeply divided society in which supporters of the American war effort were matched or outnumbered by opponents - Iraqis who supported the insurgency or at any rate wanted the foreigners to leave their country.  A similarly deep and bitter division over Bush's Mesopotamian adventure persists in America and the rest of the West, and seems likely to do so for some time to come.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 1


"You like George Bush?" asked the grinning waiter when he saw what I was reading.  He was probably hoping for a tip, or else he might have been considerably ruder.  Reading this book in public made me feel self-conscious in a way that is rare for a mere item of reading matter.  Even if I'd been able to disguise the front cover, Bush's grinning, look-at-me-I'm-holding-a-coffee-mug shot on the back would have given me away.  I would have felt a good deal less embarrassment on the bus or the Tube reading Piers Morgan or Jeremy Clarkson's latest, or perhaps Razzle.

For George Walker Bush is not a popular man.  Mr Bush, known to his friends as "Bushitler" and "the world's greatest terrorist", was the most despised and hated American president in recent memory.  With approval ratings at home of 25%, the lowest of any president for 56 years, he left office reviled around the world as the architect of the greatest western foreign policy disaster since the Suez Crisis and the most catastrophic economic collapse since the Great Depression.  A 2010 poll of 238 presidential scholars ranked him 39th out of 43 presidents, lower than Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon.

So, what does Dubya have to say for himself?  Is there a case to be made for the defence?  Is the invective in which he is so freely doused merely the progressive version of the Tea Partiers' raging against Obama for improving their healthcare?  Or was he just a really, really bad president?


Bush was born with an entire silver cutlery canteen in his mouth, but he is at pains to portray his upbringing and early adulthood as being relatively normal.  His account of his early life is shot through with the same regular-guy folksiness that so charmed his supporters and wound up his detractors.  He takes care not to come across as a snob or a princeling.  He admits to misbehaving as a child and struggling at school.

To a certain extent, the tactic succeeds.  His early life in Midland, Texas seems to have been boringly middle-class, and after graduating he declined the opportunity to use his name and contacts to walk into a stellar job on Wall Street.  But a lot is left out.  The fact is that his background and family circumstances were not normal.  He may have struggled at school, but he struggled at Andover.  Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a US Senator and a titan of the business world, and his father was an aristocratic diplomat and politician.  From time to time, the privileged nature of Bush's early life comes through.  He tells, for example, of his profound disgust when, at a formal meal with his grandparents back East, the servants put a bowl of borscht in front of him for the first time.

Bush rarely comes out favourably in a comparison with his relatives.  Prescott Bush would have winced at his grandson's declaiming about misunderestimating and wings taking dream.  George H.W. Bush was a bona fide hero, a top-class scholar and athlete who fought bravely in World War II and chose to move away from the Connecticut family home to Texas in order to work his way up through the oil industry from the shop floor.  By comparison, George W. comes over as a bit of a disappointment.

The adult Bush didn't amount to much before his thirties.  He protests that he did not, as rumoured, go AWOL during his service with the National Guard.  On the other hand, we don't hear about how far his father's influence helped in getting him into that particular branch of the military and keeping him at a safe distance from an early death in a rice paddy.  He bummed around during his twenties, deliberately refusing to get tied down - though he does let us know that he worked in a mentoring programme in Houston.

Bush's family background, education and experience in business meant that he was never going to be anything other than a solid Republican.  His right-wing convictions were strengthened when he visited communist China in the 70s while his father was working in a diplomatic post over there.  His political philosophy seems to consist largely of low-tax, small-government conservative platitudes.

His big break, of course, was defeating the popular incumbent Ann Richards to become Governor of Texas in 1994.  He was then just 6 years away from the White House.  He doesn't go into details about the mess of the 2000 election or attempt to refute the argument that Gore would have won Florida if the votes had been counted in an equitable way - though he does highlight the little-appreciated fact that Gore lost 7-2 in the Supreme Court on the main plank of his case (the headline-grabbing 5-4 decision was on a secondary issue).  It hardly needs to be said that he doesn't discuss the rather disturbing allegations that his 2004 victory was equally down to sharp practice by unscrupulous Republicans at state level.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens

This is a well-written, informative and rather weird book, originally published in 1999.  It is a lament for the decline of traditional British culture, written by one of Britain's most thoughtful and original ultra-conservative writers.  It is a serious book: there is none of the tedious angriness of Simon Heffer or the puerility of Richard Littlejohn.  Its message may be stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off, but it is stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off with source citations and footnotes.

The book begins with the conceit of a mourner at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997 being transported back to the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.  In a series of remarkable passages which are among the most poignant in the book, Hitchens writes:

"[S]he would be astonished by how strongly men outnumbered women, and by the dowdy and conservative fashions they wore....  Overhearing their conversation, she would notice the absence of swear-words, the edgy, plummy accents of the middle-class and the earthy tongue of the working-class Londoner....

She would be pulled up short... by the absence of heavy traffic, the smallness of lorries, the cumbersome designs of vans, by the slowness and the bulbous shape of most cars, by the speed and frequency of buses, which would seem unnaturally red because of the general absence of bright colour from the streetscape....

She would turn up her nose at the number of people smoking....  She might be shocked to hear homosexuals openly refered to as 'queers'....

She would find the generally accepted level of hygiene rather low, the slogans on the advertising billboards blatant and naive, the policemen astonishingly numerous yet far less menacing....  She would search long and hard for a public telephone....

London itself would seem extraordinarily dark and dirty even by daylight....  The colour brown... would seem to crop up in almost every aspect of urban life, from food to furniture....  She would rapidly notice that the past was smellier than the present, the air often reeking of breweries, cattlemarkets, cabbage and hot grease.

....She might be perturbed to see that most drivers, and most people working in jobs above the level of secretary, cleaner and shop assistant, were male....

She would realise that she had hardly seen a black or brown face all day....

....An off-licence would surprise her with its small selection of beer, cider... uninspiring wine, gin and whisky.  The pub it was usually attached to would not be welcoming...."

Remember, this is a world whose loss Hitchens mourns and which he would like to recreate.

Hitchens is being slightly misleading in choosing 1965 as his index year for the old Britain.  Modernity had already begun to assert itself long before then.  Church attendance had peaked in the 1930s.  The divorce laws had been reformed in 1937.  The education system had been reconstituted by the 1944 Education Act.  Legislation to legalise homosexual behaviour was before Parliament (though even the supporters of reform regarded gay sex with some distaste).  The Beatles had released Help! and Rubber Soul, and young Britons could listen to Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline.

To be fair, Hitchens is well aware that the old Britain was already on its last legs by the 1960s.  He points to the Second World War as a catalyst for the decline of traditional ideas about the family and relationships, not least because the country experienced an influx of 1.6 million well-paid GIs from a very different sexual culture while her own young men were away fighting in Monte Cassino and Tobruk.  In fact, Hitchens believes that the rot set in some time before then.  He writes: "The argument between Christianity and liberalism" - note the unexamined assumption - "had been quietly lost during the First World War".

Since 1997, of course, social attitudes have grown steadily more progressive.  A better milestone than Princess Di's funeral would perhaps have been the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, though Hitchens, as noted, was only writing in 1999.

Hitchens lambasts the modern teaching of history and English literature, and the postwar reforms to the education system.  He mourns the loss of patriotism and the empire, and argues that the old attitudes towards foreigners and people of colour weren't as crude and ignorant as they are often portrayed (being, for example, more gentle than those of whites in the American Deep South towards African Americans).  He castigates town planners and television, the satire boom and Grange Hill.  He writes a lot about family life and sex.  He does not like divorce, illegitimacy or the Pill.  He contrasts, with apparently genuine bafflement, public attitudes towards smoking and lung cancer with attitudes towards gay sex and HIV/AIDS (this particular chapter was apparently omitted from the book's first edition).

Hitchens is a religious man, and he laments the decline of Christianity in general and the Church of England in particular, which (like most conservatives) he thinks has become far too soft and cosy.  He notes that Anglicanism had important cultural and political functions because of its liturgy and architecture, its links with the monarchy, and the distinction that it marked from continental Catholicism.

The villain of the book is none other than the portly figure of Roy Jenkins, the Right Honourable the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.  Jenkins was an important advocate for many of the social changes that Hitchens decries, particuarly during his tenure as Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967.  Identifying (and damning) Jenkins as the architect of modern British social mores is not an original move on Hitchens' part, but he does go further than most right-wing commentators in claiming that he was the most influential politician of postwar Britain, including Thatch.

Hitchens notes that the social changes of the postwar years were promoted by politicians, satirists and liberal reformers in declared opposition to "an all-powerful establishment, made up of hanging judges, public school headmasters, hereditary peers, biblical bishops, militarists, Fleet Street barons, Royal Academicians who still liked proper pictures, the Lord Chamberlain, poets who rhymed and scanned, and of course the monarchy".  But Hitchens points out that this old establishment was already moribund by the 1950s.  Its true value was as a symbol, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984, against which reformers could define and oppose their own agenda.  That agenda - thank goodness, one might think - has long since triumphed.  It was the suburban social revolutionaries who had put up Che posters in the 60s and 70s who "occupied the corner offices in the 1990s". 

Hitchens attacks the standard left-wing myth of the Second World War and the years that surrounded it: Britain had been hungry and improverished in the 1930s, and led by Conservatives who were too friendly towards Hitler and sold out to the Nazis at Munich.  Then came the great war against fascism, followed by the Atlee government and the birth of the modern civilised welfare state.  Hitchens points out that the Labour Party of the 1930s had been far from eager to take on the Nazis (though the British left had been remarkably friendly to Stalin's USSR), that parts of Britain were very prosperous by the late 30s, and that various elements of the welfare state were already in place.

There are still quite a few people in Britain who share Hitchens' worldview - more than might be imagined by urban-dwellers like myself who grew up after the 1960s.  To this extent, the tendentious myth of the liberal élite has an element of truth to it.  It is rare to find supporters of Hitchens' views in prominent positions in public life - though certain members of the royal family probably have some sympathy with them - and their best-known spokespeople are ageing and marginal figures like Peregrine Worsthorne and Roger Scruton.  The editors of the Daily Mail peddle a cheap, insipid caricature of such ideas in order to sell copies of their paper.  David Cameron has occasionally vaguely flirted with something like Hitchens' agenda by giving aid and comfort to the self-described Red Tory, Phillip Blond, but the influence of the ideas set out in this book on the contemporary Conservative Party is fairly minimal.  Most Hitchensian traditionalists are more likely to vote for UKIP (if ex-Conservatives) or the BNP (if ex-Labour).

The book is undoubtedly conservative - indeed, its conservatism is of an extreme, diehard variety.  The ghastly old neo-Nazi John Tyndall (a man whom Hitchens probably despised) said that he agreed with three quarters of it, while Polly Toynbee, the Marie Antoinette of the British left, called it "[m]ad, obnoxious, elegantly written incoherent nonsense".  But the book's analysis is not party political, or even left/right in the conventional sense.  There is little discussion of taxes, welfare, trade, industrial policy, trade unions or bankers, and Hitchens is surprisingly cool towards the Thatcher governments of the 1980s.  His is a social and cultural conservatism, which used to cut across party lines (and to some extent still does).  "Working-class socialists", he comments, "were likely to be less sympathetic to homosexuality, more opposed to abortion, [and] more likely to support stiff alcohol licensing laws... than middle-class Conservatives".

A progressive reader is unlikely to agree with much of the detail of Hitchens' argumentation, but at times it feels like the guy is not entirely wrong.  This is what he has to say, for example, about Thatcherite capitalism:

"In search of a guiding ideology, the Tories could come up with nothing better than the brute force of the market, whose inhuman logic of course ignores patriotism, morality, tradition and beauty, and elevates the businessman to the role of bishop."

This is far from being the language of liberalism, but the sentiment behind it rings true enough.  One does not have to want to return to a caricature of 1950s Britain, where children at primary school are caned and sleeping with another man is a police matter, to believe that Hitchens, in all the blindness of his masochistic nostalgia, has remembered something that most of today's Conservatives appear to have forgotten.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Germany Reborn, Hermann Goering

This is an odd little book that appears to have been written to persuade the British people, and perhaps also the Americans, of the virtues of the Third Reich.  Its author was "General Hermann Goering, Prime Minister of Prussia", and it was first published in London in 1934.  It was reissued in 2003, and I believe that a neo-Nazi publishing house produced its own edition in 2009.

Goering says that he wants to set out "a few of my ideas about the struggle of the German people for freedom and honour".  The propaganda purpose of the book is clear.  It is no secret that Hitler considered Britain to be a natural ally of Germany, and in 1934 it was still possible for a British observer to look on the Nazi regime with some degree of respect or even admiration.  People knew about the repression of Jews and socialists, the concentration camps, and the crushing of free speech and democracy.  A case could be made, however, for seeing Hitler as a popular leader who had brought Germany political stability and economic recovery.  If nothing else, he appeared to be the lesser evil compared with Joseph Stalin, who had just carried out the mass murder of 6 million people.  In 1936, David Lloyd George, the former Liberal leader and one of the greatest British statesmen of the century, wrote a famous article in which he praised the genocidal tyrant's "dynamic personality" and "dauntless heart".  Only a few, like Winston Churchill, fully understood the nihilistic barbarism that lay behind the newly built autobahns, or foresaw the winters of Stalingrad and the furnaces of Treblinka.

The book begins with a brief historical sketch, which leads into Goering's observations on the Great War.  He is diplomatic about Britain's role in the conflict, which he describes as "a sea of blood and misery".  He embraces the "stab in the back" legend, according to which Germany's defeat was brought about not by failure on the battlefield but by left-wing traitors back home.  The result was the monstrosity of the Treaty of Versailles (which, Goering omits to mention, was relatively generous compared to the terms which Germany would have imposed had she won the war).  Goering talks of how the Weimar years brought with them the collapse of Germany, not merely as a military power but also economically, culturally and morally.  He talks about the final Weimar governments of the 1930s, led by the ineffectual conservative Catholics Heinrich Brüning and Franz von Papen and the devious soldier General Kurt von Schleicher.

On Nazi ideology, Goering is not quite candid.  The anti-semitism is there, but it is not as prominent as one might expect.  Goering is prepared to accept that "decent Jews" exist.  In general terms, he presents Nazi doctrine as nationalist rather than racist.  He writes as a good old-fashioned German patriot who wants to restore his country's honour.  There is no mention of the pseudoscientific racial doctrines that formed the bedrock of Nazism, whether in order not to frighten the readers, in order not to frighten Goering's fellow Germans (old-style nationalists were still a power in the land and President von Hindenburg had not yet died), or because Goering really was a traditional German nationalist rather than an aficionado of Nazi racial theories.

On the other hand, Goering makes no bones about his authoritarian, anti-democratic convictions, writing that "the laws of Nature demand that authority should be exercised from above downwards and responsibility from below upwards".  He is also not shy about flagging up the socialist side of National Socialism.  There is some rather tedious red-baiting, but he speaks with contempt of the German middle classes and their "snobbery and self-conceit".  He has little time for the old aristocracy, the middle classes and the army officer corps.  He also recounts how the nominally Marxist leaders of the Social Democrats became smugly bourgeois.

Goering was the creator of the Gestapo and was proud of his baby.  Its achievements were "one of the glories of the first year of German recovery".  He talks openly about the concentration camps, though he describes the brutality to which inmates were subjected as inevitable "excesses" carried out in the first flush of the Nazis' victory.

I first read this book a few years ago as a postgraduate student researching the subject of divine kingship, and Goering did not disappoint me:

"Just as the Roman Catholic considers the Pope infallible in all matters concerning religion and morals, so do we National Socialists believe with the same inner conviction that for us the Leader is in all political and other matters concerning the national and social interests of the people simply infallible."

Hitler, Goering tells us, was "a plain, simple man, but one who had overwhelming genius and greatness of character".  His appeal was attributable to "something mystical, inexpressible, almost incomprehensible which this unique man possesses".  What was more, the Fuhrer was the gift that kept on giving: "every day I spend with him is a new and wonderful experience".  One has to wonder how much of this guff Goering actually believed, how much was cynical sycophancy, and how much was put in by his ghost-writers.

All in all, this is not a bad work of propaganda - not a bad example of how to put lipstick on a pig.  One wonders how many people it convinced.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

War and Revolution, Karl Marx

This is a collection of short journalistic pieces by Marx from the 1850s and 1860s.  They speak with the somewhat unfamiliar voice of Marx the reporter and commentator rather than Marx the historian and philosopher.

Some of what the father of communism has to say is fairly unsurprising.  He didn't like British rule in India (or, indeed, traditional Indian society, despite never having visited the place).  He backed the Union against the Confederacy in the American Civil War.  He didn't think much of the contemporary press, and he approved of strikes in Britain, because of their political importance rather than their economic objectives.

Other elements of his writing are more counter-intuitive.  He supported tax reform and smaller government, albeit in the specific context of Spain in the 1850s.  He spoke very highly of the United States and its Republican administration.  Sometimes he is simply wrong: he thought that a largely forgotten crisis in China in the 1850s was going to lead to an international revolution.

For all Marx's rigid dogmatism, these pieces cannot quite be dismissed as partisan rants.  While at times one can detect echoes of modern-day hard left journalism - and the old boy is not exactly writing without an agenda - Marx's reportage is distinctly different from the monochrome ideological whinges of our own dear John Pilger and Seumas Milne.  Marx's ideology gives a palpable shape and context to the reportage and the facts, but does not usually overwhelm them.  For that sort of thing, one has to turn to his more overtly political and philosophical works, in particular The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.

The pieces in this book are of purely historical interest.  They are little more than curiosities, and not especially curious ones at that.  They neither give any detailed insight into Marx's broader political ideas nor shed much light on the events on which they report, unless perhaps one happens to know the background already.  It is no more than mildly interesting to read Marx's thoughts on, for example, the Trent Affair or the details of life and politics in the Ottoman Empire.  It is not clear how the contents of the book were selected, but a better choice could surely have been made.  At the end of the day, the old fanatic ends up coming across as rather dull.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Fascism: A Very Short Introduction, Kevin Passmore

"Along with liberalism, conservatism, communism, socialism, and democracy, fascism is one of the great political ideologies that shaped the 20th century....  Yet how can we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; denounces the bourgeoisie while forming alliances with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for a return to tradition and is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people and is contemptuous of mass society; and preaches violence in the name of order?"

For a movement that appears to deal in iron-hard certainties, fascism is notoriously inconsistent and difficult to define.  In this short and interesting study, Kevin Passmore well brings out the unique and protean nature of fascist ideology and politics.  His definition of fascism is quite lengthy and subtle, though its keystone is the primacy of the idea of the nation: fascists sought above all else to create a "mobilized national community".

Passmore looks for the origins of fascism (and its sibling, Nazism) in various diverse places, including the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the Ku Klux Klan, the antisemitic Austrian politician Karl Lueger, Social Darwinism, and nineteenth-century French ultranationalism.  He touches on some of the classic explanations for the rise of fascism, including the Marxist theory that it represented a kind of capitalism on steroids, and Max Weber's view that it was a vehicle for pre-capitalist ruling classes such as rural landowners in Spain and the old Japanese military caste.

Passmore also notes, however, that fascism was closely linked to a particular time and place: Europe between the two World Wars.  Every modern Western political movement of any importance - conservatism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, Christian democracy, nationalism, even feminism - was in place by 1914, and the only two exceptions were environmentalism and fascism.  Fascism, an exotic compound of nationalism and elements of conservatism and socialism, was essentially a product of a continent that had been brutalised and bankrupted by a catastrophic war and was fearful of the prospect of communist revolution.  The links with older movements were tenuous: as Passmore notes, there was no clear link between Nazism and the antisemitic movements of Wilhelmine Germany.  Passmore ends the book with the suggestion that fascism might re-emerge in the future, but this surely goes too far.  While it is unfortunately possible to imagine in general terms the return of authoritarian racist politics in the West, fascism was a very specific phenomenon which has thankfully had its day.

The sheer strangeness of fascism is striking.  Its extreme nationalism and its murderous hostility towards socialism mean that it tends to be placed on the far right of the political spectrum, despite the entertainingly silly efforts of right-wingers like Jonah Goldberg and Daniel Hannan to link it with the left.  But it differed significantly from traditional conservatism.  Unlike conservatives, fascists were prepared to exert state authority over the economy, interfere in private family life, disrespect monarchies and churches, and reshape traditional institutions like the army and the civil service.  In some countries, such as Salazar's Portugal and Baldwin's Britain, orthodox conservative governments sought to suppress the local fascists, and Mussolini's original squadristi were radicals who fought with conservatives and Catholics as well as socialists.  On the other hand, there was in practice more to unite conservatives and fascists than to divide them: fascists generally respected private property (as long it wasn't owned by Jews or other undesirables), and the two movements shared the common reference points of veneration for the nation, the state and the military.  There were good reasons why they both viewed socialism as their mortal enemy.

Passmore rightly rejects the idea that modern parties of the extreme right like the BNP and the French National Front are fascist organisations - their ideal state would be closer to Verwoerd's South Africa than to the Third Reich.  The fortunate truth is that genuine neofascist parties have been confined to the lunatic fringes of politics since 1945 - the one exception being the MSI in postwar Italy, which attracted significant support from right-wingers who were disenchanted with the centrism of the Christian Democrats.  It has since renamed itself and sought to distance itself from its fascist roots.

This is a good little book, well-judged and containing a body of useful information.  It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to inform themselves before using the political f-word.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl

"But the Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies....  [I]f we only begin to carry out the plans, Anti-Semitism would stop at once and for ever."

This, they say, is where it all started.  This little book was the charter of the international Zionist movement - the foundation stone of the State of Israel.

The book was first published in Vienna and Leipzig in 1896, and it was published in English translation in London the same year.  In 1897, the First Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland, and Herzl's movement was off and running.  In 1917 came the Balfour Declaration, and in 1922 Zionism was written into the title deeds of the British Mandate in Palestine.  On 14 May 1948, the Jewish state came into being, just 52 years after The Jewish State had first appeared.  When David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independence of Israel, he did so underneath the patriarchal gaze of a portrait of Herzl.  Someone who read the book as a young man or woman when it first came out might well have lived to see the fulfilment of the plans contained within it.

Or possibly not.  In many ways, the most striking features of Herzl's book are the differences between his blueprint and what actually happened.

Herzl favoured securing statehood through agreement with the international community, then undertaking gradual, orderly mass immigration into the new state, with the poorest Jews going first.  He even tried to negotiate over Palestine with the Ottoman Sultan.  He predicted that the creation of a Jewish state by gradual immigration into an existing territory would falter because the locals would start to object once their Jewish minority started growing too large, and counselled against this path.  But this is precisely what happened during the days of the British Mandate, and limits on Jewish immigration became a central plank of British colonial policy (interestingly, British policymakers were also debating the merits of a one-state versus a two-state solution by the late 1930s).  The catalyst for the creation of Israel, moreover, was a series of events which Herzl had no inkling of: the mass murder of European Jews, followed by an armed campaign and takeover of the land.

Herzl envisaged that the establishment of the Jewish state would be facilitated by two specific and distinct bodies, the Society of Jews (a political organisation) and the Jewish Company (a commercial organisation, incorporated in London).  He goes into considerable detail on the practical, political and economic steps that would be required to build the new state.  In fact, Herzl arrived slightly late on the scene.  Zionism was not a new movement, and significant Jewish immigration to Palestine had already begun in the 1880s.  The orderly scheme of the Society of Jews and the Jewish Company turned out to be an untidy thicket of interlocking political and commercial organisations: the Zionist Organization, the Zionist Congresses, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Keren Hayesod, Bank Leumi, the Anglo Palestine Company, and the Jewish National Fund.

Herzl envisaged the Jewish state as having an oligarchic constitution (he should have known better in 1896).  What emerged was a parliamentary democracy with quasi-British institutions run, at least initially, by politicians with socialist leanings.  He didn't hold out much hope for a resurrection of Hebrew, which has turned out to be the only language to be successfully revived in modern times.  He thought that the flag should be a white banner (half marks) with seven gold stars to represent the seven-hour working day.

Once the state was established, Herzl thought that Jews who did not wish to be part of the Zionist experiment would remain in their existing countries and simply become Frenchmen, Americans, and so on.  In fact, Israel's fortunes continue to be followed keenly by Jews in other parts of the world, who have by no means lost their ethnic or religious identity.  American policy towards Israel has been a major factor in the development of the state, and is in turn strongly influenced by Jewish Americans and their supporters (albeit perhaps to a lesser extent than some conspiracists would claim).

Strikingly, Herzl didn't think that the new Jewish state had to be located in Palestine.  His other favoured candidate was Argentina, and after writing the book he went on to consider seriously a British proposal for a Jewish homeland in Uganda.  He does not, however, seem to have given much thought to the existing native populations of any of these territories.

Most poignant of all is Herzl's enthusiastic optimism.  Even making allowances for the usual overselling of a grand design, Herzl had tremendously high hopes for the Jewish state.  It is here, most of all, that the reality has fallen tragically short of the expectation.  Whether one believes that the State of Israel is a beacon of democracy which has suffered 60 years of deadly onslaught from armed soldiers and terrorists, or a noble project that has degenerated into right-wing militarism and racism, it can't be denied that Herzl was dead, dead wrong on this score.  Herzl also believed, incidentally, that Jewish emancipation in Europe would not be reversed, and he failed to predict the Holocaust - but then everyone failed to predict the Holocaust.

None of which should detract from the importance of Herzl as an historical figure or the enormous contribution that he made to the Zionist movement.  The above does, however, illustrate that even Jews can sometimes make poor prophets.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Epidemic, Jonathan Engel

The Epidemic, Jonathan Engel
Smithsonian Books

At some point in the first part of the twentieth century, a huntsman in what is now southern Cameroon had an encounter with a chimp.  He may have fought with it and been wounded.  He may have killed it cleanly and then cut himself while butchering it.  A few people think that he had sex with it.  Whatever - the result was that an odd and obscure virus jumped species to homo sapiens, and the seed was planted of the greatest epidemic of our time.

The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was first publicised and named in the United States.  The existence of the terrifying new disease was formally announced in a low-key article in a routine bureaucratic report in June 1981 (it had been mentioned in print for the first time in a New York gay newspaper the previous month).  The syndrome affected mainly gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where a distinctive and highly sexualised gay culture had developed in the 1970s.  It was not a pleasant way to die.  Alongside the gay victims there emerged an unlikely combination of haemophiliacs, female prostitutes, intravenous drug users - and, rather bafflingly, Haitians.  Meanwhile, doctors in Europe had begun to observe strange, untreatable diseases in a few patients who came from or had worked in sub-Saharan Africa.  They heard reports that their American colleagues had come across something similar and were classifying it as a disease of homosexuals - those crazy Americans, always so obsessed about sex!

But it was mainly a gay disease in America - and increasingly in Britain and Germany too.  It was like something out of a horror movie.  Gay men suddenly found that thousands of their number were infected with a lethal virus which had no known cure.  They reacted with horror and desperation.  The Reagan administration was a prominent target of criticism (something of a flavour of this emerges from Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On and the spinoff HBO film).  There was an upsurge in homophobic incidents. Undergraduates at Dartmouth celebrated Rock Hudson's death with a sorority party.  Health insurers refused to cover male hairdressers and florists.  In the later 1980s, anti-gay sentiment began to enter the mainstream, perhaps catalysed by the 1988 elections.

Some gay activists played a dangerous game, angrily rejecting attempts to change their community's sexual mores.  For the most part, however, the gay community acted resolutely enough to reduce transmission rates significantly by the mid-to-late 1980s, while infections became more prevalent among IV drug users and their (heterosexual) partners - though, of course, the virus's long incubation period meant that this cultural change came too late for many.

The virus was discovered in 1983, and was initially called LAV or HTLV-III, depending on who you asked. Its discovery was either ably assisted or else set back a year by the American celebrity scientist Robert Gallo, and its existence was announced in 1984 by Ronald Reagan's health secretary Margaret Heckler. She predicted that a vaccine would be available within two years.  Within the Reagan administration, there was palpable distaste at dealing with a disease that seemed to affect mainly promiscuous homosexuals and drug abusers - though honourable mention should go to Dr Everett Koop and Admiral James Watkins, two Reagan advisers whose fastidious Christian distaste for such things did not stop them from taking a hard-headed and practical approach to the epidemic.  In Britain, the Thatcher government adopted uncharacteristically liberal AIDS policies, though the Iron Lady did intervene personally to change a reference in a newspaper advert from "anal intercourse" to "back passage intercourse".

Engel notes that AIDS, contrary to many worried predictions, never became a heterosexual pandemic in the West.  In Africa, however, the story was very different.  The virus had originated in Africa, before apparently being transported by Haitian migrants from Zaire to their home country and then brought into the US through gay networks.  The virus was already quite well entrenched in Africa by the first half of the 1980s.  The drivers behind the African epidemic seem to have included the mobility of migrant workers, local cultural attitudes to sexual activity, and a high prevalence of other STDs (which made it easier for HIV to be transmitted).  The epidemic disproportionately affected educated middle-class professionals, a feature that gave it broader social and economic implications.

HIV has a number of biological features that make it a particularly difficult pathogen to treat, and its long incubation period allows it to spread itself widely before it kills its host.  The search for a cure has proceeded steadily, albeit more slowly than Margaret Heckler predicted.  In 1987, the American Food and Drug Administration granted approval to AZT, a drug so feeble that it prolonged life expectancy only by a year and at the same time so toxic that some patients actually preferred AIDS to its side-effects.

By the end of the 1980s, the pharmaceutical arsenal was slowly growing.  In 1996, effective antiretroviral therapies became available.  These were initially primitive and cumbersome, requiring multiple doses at specific times of the day.  Some of the drugs in the cocktail had to be kept refrigerated, while others had to be taken on a full stomach, or on an empty stomach, or with milk.  The side-effects were still a problem.  But antiretrovirals revolutionised the treatment of HIV in the West, and turned it from a death sentence into a serious, chronic but manageable illness.  Thousands of men and women were suddenly confronted with the prospect of living for years or decades longer than they had expected - and, in some cases, of unexpectedly having to pay off enormous debts or having to retire on underfunded pensions.  Meanwhile, millions of HIV-negative people began to let their defences down, or even, unbelievably, to actively court infection.  In the developing world, access to antiretrovirals became a sensitive political and commercial issue, and Engels deals sensitively with the various arguments and pressures surrounding it.

Overall, Engel tells his story well and backs it up with solid research and evidence. He appears to be coming from a moderately conservative perspective.  His judgement on the Reagan White House, for example, is less hostile than that of most AIDS activists at the time, albeit far from laudatory.  He has no time for homophobic conservative responses to the epidemic, but he is not writing from a civil libertarian perspective either.  There are a few mistakes and inaccuracies.  He doesn't say much about the very early history of the virus, and some of what he says is a little inaccurate (and slightly out of date by now - the book was published in 2006).  In all, however, this is a serious and impressive work of medical and social history, and a respectable addition to the HIV/AIDS literature.