Fourth part of my 2022 reading list, going into the tail end of the university semester and onto other, not formal study related books. As with the Pilger book in a previous post, there are some books in this part that are written by journalists and, for the most part, it is why I think some of the best journalism can be considered the “history of the present”, people whose jobs it is to find sources, record information, and – taking in mind their own social and cultural upbringing and lens – interpreting it.
Women, Race & Class – Angela Y. Davis
While, as an Australian, this classic work of Davis is focussed on these struggles in the American context and is therefore not directly pertinent, Davis and her analyses of these topics are widely influential and well-known. Before it really started to gain traction in academia, let alone general society, it was an excellent work of intersectionality, showing the complex and dynamic interactions between different forms of oppression. It does get a bit dense in terms of American feminist and African American history, but overall I would certainly recommend it.
Gender: In World Perspective – Raewyn Connell
I actually got this book well before I got Connell’s other book I read this year, The Men and the Boys, and at first I did not realise it was written by the same author – The Men and the Boys was released before Connell came out as a trans woman, which may be the explanation for using R. W. Connell for her earlier work, while her more recent work is (at least as far as I’m aware) her full name. I also read the latest edition (4th) that came out in 2021.
This was a very short book, like an introduction to what gender is and how it is theorised and discussed – obvious things being Connell’s own hegemonic theory or Judith Butler’s performative theory of gender. As someone who has, I would tentatively say, a fair basis of understanding of gender and feminist theories (not necessarily the same thing, even if gender studies does focus on women a lot), this was a good introductory book that can lead you down some rabbit holes of sources.
Media Framing of the Muslim World: Conflicts, Crises and Contexts – Halim Rane | John Martinkus | Jacqui Ewart
This was an excellent little book that I picked up at Bookfest (like most of my books) that I pulled out specifically to read for an international journalism course that focussed on conflict reporting. If you have an interest in journalism and media, and/or specifically how Muslims and (for the most part in this book) the Middle East is presented in Western media, this is definitely a must read. It goes over the concept of Orientalism, as explored by Edward Said, and the “clash of civilisations” that goes back to the Crusades and earlier.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this book, as an Australian, was the spat the Australian government under Howard had at one of the authors, Martinkus, over his reporting in Iraq after being released by terrorists who considered him a fair representative of the situation. Basically, a journalist doing their job (which included holding truth to power at home) and having a heavy dose of luck, turned into a swift enemy of the government. This is the trap where if one is not seen a deeply patriotic and on board with the official line, then you must obviously be a terrorist sympathiser. If only the world were so black and white.
Journalists in Peril – Nancy Woodhull | Robert Snyder
This book I read most of (it appeared to be a special large edition of some kind of journal in the 1990s), and it was alright. This was also mostly in relation to conflict reporting, and I cited a few sections of it in some assessments. One of the important, if obvious, takeaways is that reporting on war – particularly if you are in the conflict zone – is not a game and must be taken seriously. That does not just include terrorist or insurgent groups, but also government forces or rogue actors. One of the pieces referred, correctly I believe, to journalists to be canaries in the coalmine – if they start getting killed, you know things are beginning to unravel if they haven’t already.
The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution – Nils Melzer
This was an excellent book written by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture who confirmed what many human rights organisations and supporters of Julian Assange (the credibility of the case is not diminished even if some of his fans post-2016 are fucking morons) – that various states worked together to ensure Assange suffered and remained isolated for as long as possible as they tried to extradite him. This ultimately resulted in a verdict of torture, with the United States, the UK, Australia, Ecuador, and Sweden all complicit in how he has been treated and the conditions he was and is currently in.
Melzer meticulously goes over the rape charges in Sweden, Assange’s detention in the Ecuadorian Embassy and the machinations by various governments to make things miserable for him and to spy on him before pressuring Ecuador to allow him to be dragged out, to the farcical trial being undertaken by the US to extradite him for being a publisher of information. Regardless of your thoughts on Assange as a person, WikiLeaks and the journalistic integrity and freedom it had been a paragon of for many years must be defended.
The amusing part about this is that Melzer has obviously had a long and bright career, including on matters of torture and human rights abuses – and then goes on to explain how his view of the world has completely changed as he realises how it really works and how the states that supposedly aim to uphold “international order” don’t do that. Even better was his discussion about the media, which originally shaped his views of Assange and whether he would investigate his case especially after the 2016 tide against him, where he specifically mentioned Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman as a book he read that changed his life. It should not have been so surprising that someone embedded in the existing system would have had rosy views of the existing system, but it was, especially given his recent role was focussed on torture – has he seen ANYTHING the US has done the last 50 years?
The Greatest Story Ever Told… So Far: Why Are We Here? – Lawrence Krauss
I was somewhat hoping this would be a broader science history book, but it was obviously focussed on physics and cosmology which is Krauss’ forte. Like A Universe from Nothing, this was another great book that explained a number of things from electromagnetism (which I genuinely do not comprehend, I would need to read more to have any hope there) to the Higgs field (which is why electromagnetism, one of the major forces, split from the weak nuclear force and gave “stuff” its mass). Just a lot of cool stuff that I try to understand.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari
There were a lot of good things said about this book, but I was kind of underwhelmed by it. It had some interesting ideas in it, but it falls into what I think is a flaw of the “big history” works like this where there is some sense of “progress” that humanity is working towards. This just isn’t, in my view, realistic at all for multiple reasons. The main one is the idea of society and states being a positive endeavour, that Hobbes, rather than Rousseau, was correct and that we needed the Leviathan to prevent us from tearing each other apart in the state of nature. To the contrary, much of the evidence points towards the opposite, and that early states were always collapsing and relied on violence to maintain themselves.
Sure, today we look ahead to technological advances that we can (hopefully) use to make life easier for everyone and we can call it “progress”, but the notion that it is inevitable, or that the path we took to get here was inevitable, is just absurd. It wasn’t inevitable that we formed states and that they dominated and evolved the way they did. It wasn’t inevitable that certain historical events turned out the way they did. We can only say that with hindsight, and there are so many issues with that way of thinking that leave out so many important details.
The other major issue I had with this book was the lens used to, basically, justify atrocities. The main one is the British domination of India, where Harari says well you don’t see Indians tearing up the railroads the British built so obviously it was good overall. My honest response is no, fuck you, it is entirely possible to build railroads or undertake any infrastructure or similar projects without the racism, economic exploitation, and genocidal tendencies alongside it. The idea that horrific acts can be downplayed simply because the people who suffered for decades or even centuries got some (subjective) quality of life improvements is disgusting. That may not be Harari’s intention, but that is definitely how it read and soured the whole book for me.
We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know: Dispatches from an Age of Impunity – Sophie McNeill
An ABC journalist, McNeill has been covering the Middle East for some time and this book is a compilation of events and stories of her own reporting and travels and of others in the region. From medical staff working in Syria besieged by the Assad regime, to the plight of the Palestinians or the brutal war against Yemen by the Saudi-led, US-backed invasion, it is mostly journalism with a sharp hit of activism – we know these atrocities are happening, you can’t say you didn’t know, what are you going to do about it?
One interesting part was when she called out someone she looked up to as an aspiring and young journalist – John Pilger, who in his own right asked those questions of the atrocities being committed in places like Indonesia and East Timor. Here, however, Pilger has leaned towards a defence of Assad seemingly out of principle against the US. As with many things, however, there is nothing black and white about these conflicts, and often you end up with multiple shades of shit. The US has committed many atrocities globally, but that does not mean that its antagonistic and mostly unwelcome role in Syria, for this example, implies support for a violent and authoritarian regime that has descended into civil war. The same standards must apply to all.
Plants: Past, Present and Future – Zena Cumpston | Michael-Shawn Fletcher | Lesley Head
This is the latest First Knowledges book on plants. Like the others in the series, it focusses on Indigenous knowledges and uses of, in this instance, plants, from food to materials and tools. This one certainly had a much more practical feel to it, with a lot of focus on the sustainability of methods and the plants themselves. While perhaps some practices have been technologically supplanted, others, and certainly the principles underlying them that are ubiquitous in indigenous societies globally, probably ought to be brought into the modern mainstream. I believe there is one more book yet to be released, simply title Law, so I will be reading that this year.
The Carbon Club – Marian Wilkinson
I have omitted the subtitle for this book because it is long, but the Carbon Club refers to the business and political interests that support fossil fuels and aggressively oppose any discussion, let alone action, on climate change. This book by Wilkinson – also a journalist – goes over the history of climate change in Australia from the Howard era to Morrison. And it’s a pretty sad affair. Suffice to say that the major parties in this country, particularly the Coalition with its ties to far-right think tanks and political/corporate entities in Australia and the US, are committed to ensuring one of the greatest existential threats to humanity continues unabated. Unsurprisingly, a major catalyst for this corruption was Cory Bernardi.
From Howards “climate agnosticism” to Rudd’s heavily compromised legislation shot down (justifiably) by the Greens and then years of destructive practices by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison clown show, the only time Australia had a positive climate policy is arguably the short-lived Gillard era. Then, Labor actually worked with the Greens and, while not perfect, set up many great initiatives and foundations for future policies and action. This was, as expected, torn down immediately by Abbott and his band of happy little criminals.
The book was published in 2020 so does not include the last two years, including Labor winning the 2022 election, but suffice to say that things are only looking marginally better than where they left off at the start of the decade. But hey, at least the rhetoric is nicer I suppose.