Archive for the 'Recent Reading' Category

Honesty of intention

Some people I have encountered in this life have impressed me with their integrity-of-pupose, the coherence, sincerity and compellingness of their objectives and mission.  Sometimes these objectives have been political, as in the case of Don Day and Bill Mansfield.  In other cases, they have been spiritual or religious, as in the case of Albert Moeller. In some cases, they are both, which seems to have been the case for Vaclav Havel.   In my experience, this human attribute is rare.  And I have never seen or heard anyone else talk of it, until now.  In Judith Wright’s autobiography, she speaks (page 234) of her partner and later husband Jack McKinney meeting her father:

That my father was grieved by my relationship with Jack is undeniable but, once they met, he gave in to Jack’s obvious honesty of intention and the needs of my own that Jack was filling. . . . “

Judith Wright [1999]: Half a Lifetime.  Edited by Patricia Clarke. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing.

The photo shows Judith Wright McKinney, Jack McKinney (inset) and their daughter Meredith McKinney.

Caning John Pilger

Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983) was a brave and intrepid Australian journalist who mainly reported from the other side in the Cold War. He was the first western reporter to visit Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, something he did without permission from the US Occupation authorities, and was thus able to counter attempted US military lies and disinformation about what we now know was radiation poisoning; he did this most dramatically at a US military press conference in Japan immediately after his visit to the city.  For many years in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Australian Governments unjustly refused to renew Burchett’s Australian passport, something only remedied by the incoming Labor administration of Gough Whitlam on 6 December 1972, four days after Labor’s election win. That Burchett may possibly have self-censored his writing for his Socialist Bloc hosts (or worse, been their dupe) does not diminish the wrong he suffered at the hands of petty conservative Australian governments.

Another Australian journo, John Pilger, wrote a preface to a collection on articles about Burchett, edited by Ben Kiernen in 1986. On the second page of his preface, Pilger quotes from Burchett’s autiobiography, and then commits a schoolboy howler. “Soon afterwards [Pilger writes, page x], Wilfred went ‘on the road with a swag’ and in Queensland was adopted by a group of cane-cutters . . . ”

No, Mr Pilger, no! Although Burchett is careful not to name the location of the sugarcane farm he worked on, he says (page 62) it is on an arm of the Clarence River, upstream from a sugar-mill whose chimney effusions he could smell and possibly also see, on a large island bisected by a canal with horse-drawn barges transporting bundles of cut cane. The mill would be the one at Harwood (still in operation today, thanks to former state MP, Don Day), and the island most likely Palmers Island. Other large islands upstream of the Harwood Mill would be Harwood Island itself or Chatsworth Island, but these are not bisected by canals.  But all of these, including the entire mouth of the Clarence River are in New South Wales, Mr Pilger, not Queensland.

Burchett is briefly mentioned as a social acquaintance of Guy Burgess in Moscow in the 1950s in the recent biography of Burgess by Andrew Lownie, reviewed here.



Wilfred Burchett [1969]: Passport: An Autobiography. Melbourne, Australia: Nelson.

Ben Kiernan (Editor) [1986]: Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World 1939-1983. London, UK: Quartet.

Ends and Means

I have just read the memoir of Michael Hayden, USAF General and former head of both NSA and CIA. The book is interesting and mostly well-written.  It appears, as much as such a memoir could be, honest and truthful.

The torture of detainees undertaken by CIA personnel took place before Hayden was Director, so he could absolve himself of it completely.  But, as he did while Director and subsequently, he defends strongly and bravely his CIA staff, who acted under what they believed were legal orders and within what they believed to be constitutional limits.  This defence is admirable.

How one could imagine that torture would be legal under a constitution which prohibits cruel or unusual punishments remains one of the great mysteries of our age.  Hayden, however, also defends the torture itself.  He does so on grounds of effectiveness, grounds which are demonstrably, and which have repeatedly been demonstrated to be, spurious.  It is no good Hayden, or any other official paid by the public purse, saying “trust me, I know”.  We live in a democracy, and we need, ourselves, to see the evidence.  It has not ever been provided, at least not definitively and uncontestably.

Such a defence is essentially that the end justifies the means.  As a Roman Catholic, Hayden should appreciate the counter-argument that rebuts this defence: that certain means may vitiate, or irredeemably taint, the ends.   So, even if using torture were to be more effective than not using it, we still should not use it.   We should not because torture is contrary to our values as a humane, civilized, society, respectful of  human dignity, and using it undermines any claims we may have to moral superiority over our terrorist enemy.

Like players cheating in sports, support for torture shows what sort of person you are, and what values you consider important. Hayden seems like an intelligent, thoughtful, and humane person, so it is a great pity that he, and others in the Bush 43 administration, came to view torture as acceptable. Not everyone in CIA thought so, which was, indeed, how we citizens came to learn about the secret detention camps and the torture in the first place.


Michael V Hayden [2016]: Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.   New York: Penguin Press.

Guy Burgess and Bosie Douglas

I am reading Andrew Lownie’s fascinating new biography of Guy Burgess, member of the Soviet spy circle, the Cambridge Five. Lownie’s book contains something very curious. (I am reading a Kindle edition, so can only give chapter references.)

In Chapter 20, Relationships, we read in paragraph 1:

“In June 1945 [Peter] Pollock returned to Britain.”

Pollock had been away several years, fighting with the British Army in North Africa and in Italy, and having been captured and held as a POW in Italy. In Paragraph 4, we read:

“That summer Pollock and Burgess had seen much of Brian Howard and his boyfriend, Sam, staying with the couple at their home in Tickerage, East Sussex. On one occasion, they had visited the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas in Brighton, as Burgess wanted to show off Pollock and prove he was even more attractive than the famously attractive Douglas in his youth.[Footnote 5]”

The source (footnote 5) is given as: “Pollock taped interview, by kind permission of Miranda Carter.” Pollock died in Tangier on 28 July 2001.

But, according to Wikipedia, Bosie Douglas died on 20 March 1945, so Pollock and Burgess could not have visited him in summer 1945. Was Pollock mis-remembering the year they met, or deliberately lying about meeting Douglas? In either case, the date of Douglas’s death is surely something Lownie could have checked, rather than repeating Pollock’s statement without critical commentary.

Although the content of the book is superb, the book shows the weaknesses of a text written over a long period (30 years), together with some fairly mediocre editing. On several occasions, the author mentions something without explaining it, forgetting that what he knows is different to what the reader knows. Sometimes explanations are given at the second or later mention, instead of at the first. When Lownie mentions “Johnny Philipps, a rich gay bachelor who lived in Albany”, for example, he does not explain what or where is Albany. Only in a later chapter when talking of someone else do we learn that the Albany was “a fashionable set of apartments off Piccadilly.” Likewise, the Venona transcripts are mentioned in Chapter 26, but only explained in Chapter 28. At one point, we learn that Burgess earnt some GBP 800 pa from a Canadian Trust Fund. Nothing is said about this fund, nor how Burgess came to be a trustee of it, although there is an earlier mention of a trip he took in 1930 with his mother and brother to visit Canada, before going up to Cambridge. In Chapter 40, in another example, there is a throwaway reference to a Moscow party given by “the Burchetts”. Australians of a certain age would catch the reference to left-wing journalist Wilfred Burchett, who lived in Moscow in the 1950s, but who else would?

Another instance of poor editing is the description of Novodevichy Cemetery in Chapter 37. Burgess moved to a flat near the cemetery in 1956. Lownie describes the cemetery thus: “where amongst others were the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Khrushchev, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stalin’s wife . . . “. That “were” points to the time Burgess moved nearby. But, Khrushchev only died in 1971, and Shostakovich in 1975, both well after 1956; indeed, well after 1963, when Burgess died. I imagine that such poor editing must be an embarrassment to an author whose day job is acting as a literary agent for other authors.  Or is Lownie another author confused about the working of tense in English?

And perhaps taking so long to write a non-fiction book means not enough advantage has been taken of the Web. For instance, is the young German actor named George Mikell mentioned in Chapter 26 the same person as the Lithuanian-Australian actor named George Mikell who has a website? Is the drifter of no fixed abode named James Turck mentioned in Chapter 29 the same James Turck (1924-2011) who acquired an MBA from Columbia and a seat on the American Stock Exchange? I find myself Googling every name mentioned, so I am surprised the author has not done so too.

Overall, the book is fascinating and riveting despite the sloppy writing and apparent lack of editing. Lownie makes a convincing case for the importance of Burgess as a Soviet agent, detailing the documents he was able to provide to his handlers at each stage of his career. Whether Burgess was MORE important than his fellow spies could not be assessed from a life of just one of them. My one major disappointment from the book was the absence of any discussion of the theory that one or more of the Cambridge Five were known to Britain’s senior spy-masters, long before their departures East, to be Soviet agents and were allowed to remain in place. If you want to deceive your enemy you need to communicate through channels your enemy will likely believe, and that may mean using their own loyal agents (or people they believe to be their loyal agents). Such channels are even more necessary if you mostly communicate to deceive but occasionally want, or may need, to send truthful messages.

Indeed, this hall of mirrors might even have further mirrors, if one or more of Burgess, Maclean, or Philby were themselves witting in this deception, and sacrificed their public reputations, their pensions, and their quiet English country-side retirements to serve the land of their birth even beyond their defection. Lots of Britons gave their lives to defend their country in WWII, so the Cambridge spies may have done similarly.  To my mind, such knowing and self-sacrificing deception by these upper-class Englishmen, students of great public schools and habitués of fashionable London clubs, is immensely more plausible than any other explanation I have seen for their treason. Does MI6 hold secret medals for them all in a hidden safe in its Ziggurat-on-Thames?


Andrew Lownie [2015]: Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

Recent Reading 11

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

Francis King [1970]:  A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014.  A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession.  Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.

Continue reading ‘Recent Reading 11’

Love and Math

Frenkel Edward 2008Talking of his grandfather who had overcome poverty and blindness to become a US Senator, Gore Vidal once wrote that no challenge is finally insurmountable if you mean to prevail.  I was reminded of this in reading Edward Frenkel’s superb memoir, Love and Math.  Frenkel overcame the widespread and systemic anti-semitism in Soviet Mathematics to establish himself as a world-leading mathematician at a very young age.  

Denied entry in 1984 because of his ethnicity to Moscow State University’s (MGU’s) Department of Mechanics and Mathematics (Mekh-Mat), the leading undergraduate mathematics programme in the USSR, he entered instead the mathematics program at Kerosinka, the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas.  Anti-semitism (and anti-Armenianism, anti-Chinese racism, etc) in the admissions process at Mekh-Mat was so widespread, that other Moscow institutions, such as Kerosinka, were able to recruit very good Jewish and minority students.   One theory is that this policy was deliberate, since having all the Jewish mathematicians studying in one or two institutions made their monitoring easier for the KGB.

Frenkel had grown up in Kolomna – only 70 miles from Moscow, but well into the provinces – and had not attended a special mathematics school (as did, for example, Vadim Delone at FizMat #2), nor had an opportunity to participate in the mathematical study circles that were widespread in the larger soviet cities.  He did have the help of a local mathematician, Evgeny Petrov, a professor at a teacher training college in Kolomna.   Frenkel was very fortunate to have such help.   I recall my envy on learning on the first day of lectures in my first year at university that some of my fellow students, who had grown up near to the university, had been meeting our professors for years previously for after-school mentoring and coaching. (On the other hand, even the brightest of my fellow students so mentored ended up winning no Fields Medal, nor even becoming a mathematician.)

Good mathematical undergraduates from Kerosinka and other specialized institutes in Moscow literally scaled the fences at MGU to attend, illegally but often with the encouragement of the teachers, lectures at Mekh-Mat.  Frenkel did this and was again fortunate in being befriended by some very great mentors:  Dmitry Fuchs (now at UC Davis), his student Boris Feigin, and Yakov Khurgin.  Their generous mentoring was unpaid, time-intensive, and often brave, given the society they lived in.   As a result, Frenkel wrote his first research paper in only his second year as an undegraduate, a paper subsequently published in Israel Gelfand’s famous journal, Functional Analysis and Applications.  Gelfand was someone that even my professors, in the 1970s and in faraway Australia, spoke of with awe.

With the opening of perestroika, the Mathematics Department at Harvard University decided to invite some young Soviet mathematicians for research visits, and Frenkel was one of these:  He received his invitation in March 1989, before he had even completed his first degree.  While at Harvard, he had another Russian mentor, Vladimir Drinfeld (now at University of Chicago), and Frenkel completed his PhD there, in 1 year, under the supervision of another Russian, Joseph Bernstein (now at Tel-Aviv).  Frenkel is very generous in his acknowledgement of the support he received from his mentors and from others, and his story warms the heart.  Despite the anti-semitism he experienced, he has prevailed in the end, being now a professor at U-Cal Berkeley (and a film-maker).  Reading his account, I was reminded repeatedly of the ancient spiritual wisdom:  When the disciple is ready, the guru will appear.

Frenkel interleaves his personal story with an account of his changing research focus along the way, a focus which has mostly followed the powerful thread of the Geometric Langlands Programme.   His writing is fluent, wise and witty, and he manages to convey well the excitement and pure, joyous exhilaration that mathematical thinking can provide.  His writing makes most of the underlying mathematical ideas clear to non-experts.  That said, however, the text has a couple of weaknesses, both minor, although both I found irritating.  No one who does not already know something of category theory would understand it, even at a high level, from the single paragraph devoted to it on page 156.   Another minor criticism is that the text does not always adequately explain the diagrams, or what is being done with them.    But then I have particular views about reasoning over diagrams.

In summary, this is a superb book – wise, generous, witty, and heart-warming – and reading it will enlarge your knowledge of mathematics, of the Langlands Program, and of the power of the human spirit.   Everyone in the pure mathematical universe should read it.

An index to posts on the Matherati is here.


Edward Frenkel [2013]:  Love and Math:  The Heart of Hidden Reality. New York, NY:  Basic Books.

Recent Reading 10

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

David Eagleman [2010]: Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.  (London, UK:  Canongate).  A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating.  One will blow your mind!  (HT: WPN).

A. C. Grayling [2013]:  Friendship.  (New Haven, CT and London, UK:  Yale University Press).

Andrew Sullivan [1998]:  Love Undetectable:  Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival.  (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).

Michael Blakemore [2013]: Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber).  A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac [1945/2008]:  And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. (London, UK:  Penguin Classics).   Mostly writing alternate chapters, this is a fictional account of events based on the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr.

Jack Kerouac [1968]:  Vanity of Duluoz.   (London:  Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).

Charles McCarry [1974]:  The Tears of Autumn. (London, UK:  Duckworth Overlook, 2009).   The assassination of JFK as a conspiracy organized by the family of the Diem brothers, involving Cuban military officials, the KGB, and the Mafia.

John Williams [1965]:  Stoner. (London, UK: Vintage, 2012).  Alerted by the enthusiasm of the late Norman Geras, and reinforced by the praise of Julian Barnes,  I starting reading this book with keen anticipation.  I should have known better:  someone who liked the books of Philip Roth clearly had a literary taste to be wary of.     Stoner was a great disappointment, and certainly does not belong in any collection of Great American Novels.

Is the book great literature?  Well, frankly, no.  It is well-written, no question, but not well enough.  We are told the main character William Stoner has no friends while an undergraduate, but nothing in the thin preceeding pages would explain why.   We are told he switches from studying agriculture to literature after an epiphany in a compulsory literature class, but this paragraph (and it is just a paragraph) is very thin indeed.   Why did he have this epiphany?  Where did it come from?  Nothing beforehand (in the book) would justify this event, and the event itself is only barely described.   Do people make such a switch so often, that no explanation is needed?  Not in my experience.

I can see that members of the literati – for instance, Julian Barnes – would like to read about people who come to love literature and who then devote their life to its teaching.  But Williams merely states these attributes of William Stoner as facts, without providing any compelling justification – not psychological, nor social, nor familial, nor cultural, nor literary, not spiritual, nor nothing – for these facts.     Indeed, there is hardly any justification at all, let alone a compelling one.

The narration is by a third-person narrator, and he or she seems to know what is inside Dr Stoner’s head.  Moreover, every other character is a cypher to the narrator, as (presumably) they are to Stoner himself.  One is therefore tempted to read the narration as being in the first-person.  But then, some of it is too vague for either a knowledgeable first-person or an omniscient third:  on pager 109, for instance, we read that Stoner disposed of his $2000 inheritance by giving “a few hundred dollars” to his parents’ black farm worker.    A few hundred?  Surely, Stoner knew at the time exactly how much he gave.  Likewise, surely, an omniscient narrator would also know the amount.   This is sloppy writing, and it undermines the case for the narrator being either first- or an omniscient third-person.

Similarly, we are told several times that Stoner had a deep friendship with Dave Masters, who is killed in the Great War.   But although this friendship is mentioned, it is not described in any depth.  It is certainly not invoked, nor is an invocation even attempted.  So, again, we come away thinking the narrator barely knows about which he speaks.   Just how credible, then, is anything the narrator says?    The book undermines its own case.

Why has the book proven popular?   Well it is more popular in Europe than in America.  I believe the answer to this disparity goes to something the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, once said when comparing political life in Europe with that in Australia, New Zealand, or North America:  In the New World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to fix it.  In the Old World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to live with it.   Stoner is a book about a man who lives with every major problem of his life, accommodating himself to an unhappy marriage, to a wife who appears on the edge of madness, to the end of his only happy relationship, to an alcoholic daughter, to not seeing his only grandchild, to an unsatisfying and tedious job, to an unfair assignment of work duties, to no promotions, to a lack of close friendships, to public gossip and innuendo about his marriage and relationships, to the death of his parents and his one apparently-close friend, while only ever once, it seems, standing up for himself.  And the counter-attack he launches is in such a small and picayune way, hurting the very students he is supposed to care for, that it can hardly be worthy of any emulation.

Certainly such people exist (indeed, the Old World is full of them),  but this novel never presents a compelling case that this particular man, William Stoner, should behave in this way.   Indeed, it hardly presents any case at all – the writing is all tell, and no show.    The power of showing is demonstrated by the one scene where the author does invoke the events, rather than merely mentioning them: the PhD upgrade viva of Charles Walker, where we can read the dialog for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions.    If only the author had done this more often, the book would have been much better.


Recent Reading 9

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

Anita Raghavan [2013]:  The Billionaire’s Apprentice:  The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund.  (New York:  Business Plus).   This is a fascinating and excitingly-written account of the rise and fall of several people, many of them Americans of South Asian descent, associated with the activities of the Galleon hedge fund.  First among these is billionaire Tamil-American Raj Rajaratnam, founder of Galleon, and convicted insider-trader.  In the next tier are his many insider informants, primaily Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar, both prominent partners of McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm.  Indeed, Gupta was three times elected global MD of McKinsey by his fellow partners, and thus the book has lots of fascinating information about The Firm and its operations, incidental to the main story.

Insider trading is a strange crime.  Surely most traders engaged in trading for its own sake (and not hedging some activity or transaction in non-financial markets) seek to take advantage of something they know that others don’t, even if it is just knowledge arising from more clever or faster analysis, or the knowledge that comes from aggregating views across multiple trades.   And who, exactly, are the victims here, since any trading requires a willing counterparty?    But even if insider-trading is not considered an evil, there is great dishonour in breaching confidences gained in positions of trust, and there seems little doubt that Rajaratnam’s informants did that.

An odd feature of the book, where so many prominent Indian Americans and South-Asian businesspeople are name-checked, is the failure to mention Praful Gupta.   As far as I am aware, the two Guptas were no relation, and met when they were fellow students at Harvard Business School.  Rajat Gupta, in a newspaper interview in 1994, said they became and remained very good friends.  While Rajat pursued a career with McKinsey, Praful became a management consultant and partner with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, and later a senior executive with Reliance Industries.

An annoying feature of the writing is the author’s repeated confusion about tense.   On page 217, for instance, we read, “In 2005, Lloyd Blankfein’s predecessor and former secretary of the Treasury Henry M. “Hank” Paulson Jr. had approached Gupta about joining the Goldman board of directors.”  But Hank Paulson only became Secretary of the US Treasury in 2006, where he remained until January 2009.   At the time this sentence was written by Raghavan in 2012 or 2013, Paulson was a former Treasury Secretary, but not in 2005, the time referred to at the opening of the sentence.   There are similar instances of inaccurate or confused tense on pages 257, 288, 347, and 362, and no doubt more that I did not catch.  These appear so frequently that one is tempted to consider them not mere lapses nor evidence of a non-grammatical linguistic style, but indicative of a more fundamental difference between the author’s conceptualization of time and that of most speakers of English. There are also a number of confusions or ambiguities of subject and object, and of deictic markers, in sentences throughout the text.


Recent Reading 8


The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Jason Matthews [2013]:  Red Sparrow (New York: Simon & Schuster). A debut spy-thriller by a 33-year CIA clandestine service veteran,  this book is well-written and gripping, with plot twists that are unexpected yet plausible.    The book has placed the author in the same league of Le Carre and McCarry, and I recommend the book strongly.   As so often with espionage and crime fiction, the main weakness is the characterization – the players are too busy doing things in the world for us to have a good sense of their personalities, especially so for the minor characters.  Part of the reason for us having this sense, I think, is the sparsity of dialog through which we could infer a sense of personhood for each player.    And the main character, Nate Nash, gets pushed aside in the second half of the book  by the machinations of the other players.  In any case, the ending of the book allows us to meet these folks again.    Finally, I found the recipes which end each chapter an affectation, but that may be me.  The author missed a chance for a subtle allusion with solo meal cooked by General Korchnoi, which I mis-read as pasta alla mollusc, which would have made it the same as the last meal of William Colby.


  •  Henry A. Cumpton [2012]:  The Art of Intelligence:  Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. (New York:  Penguin).   A fascinating account of a career in espionage.    Crumpton reports an early foreign assignment in the 1980s in an African country which had had a war of liberation war, where the US had a close working relationship with the revolutionary Government of the country:  The only candidates that seem to fit this bill are Zimbabwe or possibly Mozambique.  Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF Government was so close to the USA in its early years that the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) had only two groups dealing with counter-subversion:  a group seeking to counter South African subversion and a group seeking to counter Soviet subversion.  Indeed, so great was the fear of Soviet subversion that the USSR was not permitted to open an embassy in Zimbabwe for the first two years following independence in 1980.

The book has four very interesting accounts:

1. Crumpton’s perceptive reflections on the different cultures of CIA and FBI, which are summarized in this post.

2.  The account of the preparations needed to design, build, deploy, and manage systems of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in Afghanistan.  The diverse and inter-locking challenges – technical, political, strategic, managerial, economic, human, and logistic – are reminiscent of those involved in creating CIA’s U2 spy-plane program in the 1950s (whose leader Richard Bissell I saluted here).

3.  The development of integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for tactical anti-terrorist operations management in the early 2000s.  What I find interesting is that this took place a decade after mobile telecommunications companies were using GIS for tactical planning and management of engineering and marketing operations.  Why should the Government be so far behind?

4. An account of CIA’s anti-terrorist programs prior to 11 September 2011, including the monitoring and subversion of Al-Qaeda.  Given the extent of these programmes, it is now clear why CIA embarked on such an activist role following 9/11.  George Tenet remarked at the time (in his memoirs) that such a role would mean crossing a threshold for CIA, but until Crumpton’s book, I never understood why this enhanced  role had been accepted at the time by US political leaders and military leaders.  From Crumpton’s account, the reason for their acceptance was that CIA was the only security agency ready to step up quickly at the time.

  • Paul Vallely [2013]:  Pope Francis:  Untying the Knots. (London, UK:  Bloomsbury).  A fascinating account of the man who may revolutionize the Catholic Church.    Francis, first as Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ and then as Archbishop and Cardinal, appears to have moved from right to left as he aged, to the point where he now embraces a version of liberation theology.   His role during the period of Argentina’s military junta of Jorge Videla is still unclear – he seems to have bravely hidden and help-escape leftist political refugees and activists, while at the same time, through dismissing them from Church protection, making other activitists targets of military actions.

Bergoglio seems to understand something his brother cardinals appear not to – that the Catholic Church (and other fundamentalist and evangelical Christian denominations) are not seen by the majority of people in the West any longer as places of saintliness, spiritual goodness, or charity, but as bastions of bigotry, irrationally opposed to individual freedom and to human happiness and fulfilment.  In its campaigns against gay marriage rights, euthenasia, abortion, and other private moral issues, the Church opposes free will not only of its own clergy and lay members, but also of other citizens who are not even Catholic adherents.   Such campaigns to limit the freedoms and rights of non-believers are presumptious, to say the least.  The Catholic Church does a great deal of unremarked good in the world, work which is sullied and undermined by the political campaigns and bigoted public statements of its leaders.

The book is poorly written, with lots of repetition, and several  chapters reprising the entire argument of the book, as if they had been stand-along newspaper articles.   The author clearly thinks his readers have the minds of gold-fish, since interview subjects are introduced repeatedly with descriptions, as if for the first time.

The photo shows one of the demonstrations of the The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, held weekly since 1977  to protest the junta’s kidnap, torture, and murder of Argentinian citizens.   We should not forget that the military regimes of South America, including the Argentinian junta of Videla, were supported not only by the Vatican and most local Catholic clergy (with some brave exceptions), but also by the US intelligence services, including during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

Recent reading 7

Berliner Ensemble

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:

  • Igor Lukes [2012]: On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague.  Oxford University Press.   Some comments here.
  • Randall Woods [2012]: Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA.  Basic Civitas Books. Colby comes across as remarkably liberal, pragmatic and sensible in this account of his life, promoting agrarian socialism and grass-roots democracy to beat the communists in South Vietnam, for example.
  • Roger Hermiston [2013]:  The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake.  Aurum Press.
  • C P Snow [1969]:  Variety of Men.  Penguin Books, second edition. (HT:  Saul Smilansky at Normblog.)
  • Charlotte Joko Beck [1997]: Everyday Zen: Love and Work.  Thorsons.
  • James Button [2013]:  Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business.  Melbourne University Press.   A mention here.
  • Robert Dessaix [2012]: As I was Saying.  Random House Australia.  A typically erudite collection of talks and essays, as smooth as a gimlet.
  • Charles S. Maier [1999]:  Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany.  Princeton University Press.
  • Meredith Maran (Editor) [2013]:  Why We Write.  Plume.
  • Marci Shore [2013]:  The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.  Crown Publishing Group, New York.
  • Thomas Nagel [2012]:  Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  Oxford University Press USA.  Any book so heavily criticized by Brian Leiter has to be of great value, and this was.

The photo shows the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, from 1954 home of the Berliner Ensemble.