Monday, 18 June 2012

Annie Jacobsen, "Area 51: An Uncensored History..." (2011)

This book averaged a solid premise. Jacobsen essentially posits that much of the mystery attached to Area 51 is its use as a testing ground for atomic and nuclear explosives, and as a centre for testing new spy-oriented aircraft.

Near the beginning she also suggests that the Russians may have been making flyovers (or at least wanted it to appear they were making flyovers of US territory) using advanced aircraft developed from prototypes the Nazis had in development.

While much of the book is well-documented, cogently presented, and plausible, the theories surrounding the Russian craft seem to dwell in the twilight that most of the theorizing about Area 51 has. As any claim to dispel the myth of Area 51 will have to do, Jacobsen's claim isn't grounded in enough verifiable, multiple unrelated sources to convince me.

Jean-François Nadeau, "The Canadian Führer: The Life of Adrien Arcand" (2012)

I wanted to like this book. I was hoping for something that mixed the research quality of Stanley Barrett's Is God a Racist? with the engaging narrative of Warren Kinsella's Web of Hate. The Canadian Fuhrer offers neither.

First off, what's with this title? It seems a cheap attempt at generating sales, particularly when, as Nadeau notes in the book, Arcand's interest in fascism was more influenced by Mussolini than Hitler. Losing sight of this element helps to confuse some of Arcand's values, such as his granting Catholicism an essential role in his world view.

Nadeau does provide a useful overview of Arcand's thinking, and makes a significant contribution by providing an in-depth description of Arcand's political, personal, and career trajectory. Unfortunately, the narrative and analysis seem to peter out by the middle of the Second World War period. Perhaps this is a personal desire, but I think it would be quite fascinating to see the level of analysis given Arcand's pre-war thought and activities applied to his post-war output. Nadeau intimates how Arcand how ideologically managed the fall of Nazism and Italian fascism, but we don't get much sense of how his post-war thinking really coalesced. Maybe it didn't. Maybe Arcand was simple too old, or too ill, or too disillusioned to worry about formulating an adapted world view. If so, this interpretation needed to be fleshed out. As it was covered, it seemed more that Nadeau simply lost interest in what Arcand was doing after his stay in an Ontario detention camp during the second half of the war.

Aside from this weakness, the book suffers from some editing issues that are perhaps a result of poor translation or rushed production. For instance, a sentence is almost repeated verbatim on pg. 267 (of the hardcover version).

Similarly, some pictures are missing credit lines. I raise this as an issue because most of the pictures are culled from a ‘private source’. It would be useful to know the archival location of any others.

Finally, some some of the commentary is questionable. For instance, a photo of two men standing in the entrance to a store (?) suggests that people were able to openly wear swastikas in public even during the late 1930s. While this may be true, some wider context for the image could clarify that it was a special event, or even a photo staged to normalize wearing of this type of symbol.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Sherene Razack, "Dark Threats & White Knights..." (2004)

The full title of this text is Dark Threats & White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism.

The sad events associated with the activities of the Canadian Airborne Regiment before they were deployed as part of a UN force in Somalia, as well as the reprehensible conduct of some of these soldiers while in Somalia are difficult to understand. Racist hazing rituals carried out by white soldiers on a black soldier in Canada, video recordings of racist epithets used to describe the mission in Somalia and Somalians, and photographs of hooded, manacled, and beaten Somali youth beside grinning, shameless Canadian soldiers are images that deeply conflict with the modern Canadian perception of ourselves as tolerant, helpful, peace loving intermediaries between conflicting parties. The government (in particular the national defence apparatus), the national media – not to mention most Canadians - were able to make sense of the shameful episode by believing that a few soldiers who got out of control produced the problems. Few asked deeper and more probing questions regarding the complicity of the military leadership, and the core beliefs that allowed the country to engage in a foreign country with its military.

Razack offers a probing analysis of what she characterizes as a distinctly Canadian form of imperialism – peacekeeping – investigating not only how its character shaped the behaviour of Canadian soldiers serving in an African nation, but how the character of this imperialism also relates to the domestic realization of imperial sensibilities.

Razack also does not avoid the difficult questions regarding the role of Aboriginal and/or mixed heritage soldiers in the Canadian Forces UN contingent, and carefully considers their unique location within Canadian imperial efforts.

Additionally, much to her credit, she does not leave unchallenged the tidy excuses that blame the panoply of transgressions carried out by Canadian soldiers on a few ‘bad apples.’

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Tim Lahaye & Jerry Jenkins, "Left Behind" (1995)

I was drawn to Lahaye’s book primarily because I wanted to gain a glimpse into what evangelical Christian fiction would be like. I expected it would be read like most propaganda; offering an educational view into the core philosophies of the movement it advocated for, but in its prioritization of ideology offering little in the way of compelling narrative, character development, or plot. In this case, I was absolutely correct.

Left Behind begins a few hours before millions of devout Christians and ‘innocent’ babes mysteriously and suddenly disappear. The world descends into chaos, with those left behind struggling to understand what happened. Focusing on the search by an airline pilot and his daughter, the solution arrived at is that the Biblical stories of the ‘end times’ described in the Book of Revelation are coming true. Parallel to, and intertwined with the disappearance story is the parallel rise of a mysterious but compelling East European politician to a position of unprecedented global power.

Warnings aplenty are offered. ‘Sunday Christians’ are left behind. The surviving converts are convinced that they must aggressively proselytize to save whomever they can within the time they have left. Of course, the messages here for Christians in the real world are obvious: anything less than total commitment to evangelical Christianity might pose the risk of eternal damnation.

The pilot, a married father who was tempted to have an affair with a stewardess, is plagued with guilt. The stewardess, meanwhile, who is less stricken, succumbs to the charms of the man pointed to as the Anti-Christ. Here the woman is the weaker sex, and the similarity to the Adam and Eve story – with its tale of temptation, failure, guilt, and punishment – is clear. The pilot, of course, finds evangelical Christianity, and converts his daughter, who joins a burgeoning ‘action group’ called the Tribulation Force.

An accomplished, analytical and critical journalist converts to Christianity almost purely it seems by the emotional force of the pilot’s argument (and the wiles of his daughter). A description of his past exploits allows Lahaye to tell some backstory of how Israel has become a global power, and rescued from a Russian military attack by apparent miracle. Here, too, we see how even clever, cynical liberals can be brought to Christ by the virtue of conviction, power of belief, and the innocent and unintentional allure of Christian heterosexual innocence and purity.

Lahaye’s book has some solid portions. The backstory element is interesting, and descriptions of the journalist’s activities are generally plausible. The characters are not well-developed, however, with their decisions rarely being very well set-up or explained, but clearly being driven by the need to carry a particular plot turn to fruition. Attempting to make sense of a confusing and deeply symbolic text, Lahaye incorporates some elements that are so fantastic as to challenge even the most well-suspended disbelief. A reader might be willing to consider that millions of people disappear simultaneously, but as miraculous dropping of hundreds of Russian jets from the skies of Israel (without, of course, harming any Israelis), the utter and complete willingness of global leaders to hand over control of their military forces to the United Nations, and the folding of the world into three financial zones within the very near future taxes the imagination of the most forgiving readers.

As I read Left Behind, I couldn’t help but consider how it compared to The Turner Diaries (which I have reviewed on this blog), a similar attempt at prophetic fiction by an adherent to a significantly different set of beliefs. Perhaps because the author of The Turner Diaries knew that their prophecies were very unlikely to come true, and because they were not tied to a pre-existing narrative, this work is a more compelling story than Left Behind. To my mind, that’s saying something. The only reason I can offer for the success of Left Behind is the large constituency of evangelical Christians searching for entertainment that reinforces their values, their ethics, and their understanding of texts they believe to be prophetic. As far as I know, there is not an overwhelming number of texts that blatantly and unashamedly appeal to this market.

The book was eventually adapted into a feature-length film, in which Kirk Cameron appears as one of the stars. I can only imagine how the film struggles to give the characters a little more depth, or whether it is carried along as well by the need for message over believable plot.