Book Review: The Age of Jihad

The Age of Jihad is a book about political unrest in the Middle East by Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn. The book is a compilation of his notes and articles over a 20-year period (1996-2016) while traveling throughout the Middle East. Cockburn did direct reporting where possible, and relied upon first-hand accounts when venturing into certain places was too dangerous.

Cockburn begins with his reporting from Afghanistan in late 2001 as the United States began its intervention to remove the Taliban from power. Next, he shares his experiences of Iraq under sanctions from 1996, 1998, and 2001, followed by his experiences there during the American occupation from 2003 to 2010. This is followed by his next forays into Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012.

The next part of the book focuses on the Arab Spring and the events that followed, with particular emphasis on countries in which the rulers were not quickly deposed. Cockburn begins with the Libyan Civil War of 2011 that removed Muammar Gaddafi from power, along with the difficulties that followed. Sectarian violence in Yemen from 2009 to 2015 and the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011 each get a chapter.

The last part of the book covers recent developments in Syria and Iraq. First, the Arab Spring in Syria and its development into the Syrian Civil War from 2011 to 2014 is discussed in two chapters. Another two chapters are devoted to the contemporaneous destabilization of Iraq. This culminates in the rise of ISIS and the establishment of the Caliphate, in and near which the final four chapters take place.

The book gives important insight into just how terrible daily life is for people in war-torn lands, including the near-absence of basic utilities, shortages of essential items, rampant unemployment, and fear of mistreatment both from rebel groups and one’s own government. The book is filled with anecdotes of behavior which have not been seen since the Renaissance in the West, and knowledge of this behavior helps to explain animosity toward migrants from that region. The reader may be familiar with some of the events described, but almost anyone would find new information somewhere in the book.

One comes away from the book with a sense that both Western and regional powers had to be trying to perform so poorly. Western powers sought to punish Saddam Hussein without regard for the Iraqi people who bore the brunt of sanctions. They ignored cultural attitudes and sectarian divisions while turning a blind eye to mass corruption that greatly weakened the nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. They removed dictators who were stabilizing forces, thus creating power vacuums which were filled by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. It is difficult to be so maliciously incompetent without intending to do so.

Overall, Cockburn does an excellent job of conveying the reality on the ground in most of the conflicts in the War on Terrorism and the Arab Spring. The only real improvement would be to add sections on recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, which only get passing mentions as sources for jihadists in other places. The Age of Jihad belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of recent history, the Middle East, revolutions, war, and/or the effects of foreign intervention.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: The Invention of Russia

The Invention of Russia is a book about the history of the Soviet Union and the formation of modern Russia by Russian journalist Arkady Ostrovsky. The book focuses on the time period of the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin. Special attention is paid to the role played by the media in shaping narratives and steering the population from the Soviet era to the present.

The prologue deals with the author’s experience during and immediately after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015. He briefly overviews events over the past few decades that factored into Nemtsov’s murder, and the author’s experiences through those years are also discussed.

The book proper is divided into two parts, each with five chapters. The division between the parts is roughly set at the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis. The first chapter begins with the end of the Soviet Union, then backtracks to give the reader a sense of Soviet history up to Gorbachev’s rise to power, with emphasis on the events that foreshadowed it, such as de-Stalinization and the crushing of the Prague Spring. The second chapter covers the time from Gorbachev’s appointment to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The nature of perestroika and glasnost are discussed, as well as how the Chernobyl incident affected both. Later in the chapter, Ostrovsky details the split between the liberal reformers and the Stalinist hardliners, as well as the beginnings of the privatization of state assets which formed the class of Russian oligarchs. The third chapter explores the final two years of the Soviet Union, including the economic difficulties, the rise of Yeltsin, the worries of the KGB and other elements of the Soviet power structure, the January Events in Lithuania, and the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. The fourth chapter looks at the role played by the media in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and how the generational shift from the shestidesiatniki to their children affected the changes. The Kommersant newspaper is highlighted as an example of the new Russian media, as well as one of several examples of less than honest business practices in the early 1990s, which occurred due to the moral vacuum left by communism. The fifth chapter covers the time from the end of the Soviet Union up to the 1993 crisis, with particular attention to the role of television, radio, and print media in shaping the narrative and saving Russia from another Communist takeover.

The sixth chapter continues the discussion of the 1993 crisis, then moves on to the creation of NTV, Russia’s first Western-style television station. Of course, NTV had to compete with Channel One and other state media, which caused tensions with the state when NTV covered the first Chechnya war from the Chechen point of view. The chapter concludes with the 1996 election, in which the media played an essential role in bringing Yeltsin up from single-digit polling to a victory over Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist challenger. The seventh chapter continues with the events after the election, including a battle between oligarchs that turned into a political crisis, continued troubles with Chechnya, the search for a vision for Russia moving forward, and finally, the 1998 Russian financial crisis.The eighth chapter shows how this milieu combined with NATO airstrikes in Serbia and an overly propagandistic media was able to elevate an obscure KGB agent named Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia. The decision of most of NTV’s leadership to side against this was the beginning of the end for the station. The ninth chapter covers the time from the beginning of Putin’s rule to the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, including the ouster of several high-profile opponents of the regime, the bringing of NTV into the control of Gazprom and its gradual turn toward the regime, further trouble with Chechen terrorists, the Russo-Georgian War, and the activities of various media personalities. The tenth chapter looks at Putin’s rule in light of Russian popular culture, the rise of the bureaucrat-entrepreneur, the protests of 2011-13, the military operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the use of propaganda to manufacture support for foreign aggression.

The book is excellent at face value, providing a perspective that can only come from a native person who lived through many of the events described in the book. But it is even more valuable to libertarians and reactionaries for the obvious parallels between Russian history and the current state of affairs in the West, as well as for the warnings concerning the improper dismantling of government monopolies, as happened during the transition from the Soviet Union to modern Russia.

To conclude, the unique explanations of historical events and the focus on the role of the media in steering the ship of state make this book an invaluable addition to the collection of any activist, analyst, historian, strategist, or student.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: Our Sister Republics

Our Sister Republics is a book about the history of the United States and its relations with Central and South America in the early 19th century by history professor Caitlin Fitz. The book discusses the popular sentiment in favor of revolutions against Spanish and Portuguese control in Latin America following the War of 1812, which turned sour after 1826 as the new republics suffered civil unrest and incompetent governance while the United States turned toward racialist nationalism.

Fitz first presents a map of the Americas as they were in 1825, to which the reader should continually refer while reading through the book in order to have a better sense of the involved geography. In the introduction, she explains her terminology, briefly covers American history from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812, and gives a short overview of what she covers at length in the rest of the book.

The opening chapter explains the context in which Americans first came to look fondly upon South America. Early references to Christopher Columbus would lead to the concept of a liberty-loving Columbia. Spain’s distractions with European wars resulted in less trade restrictions between the US and Spanish America. These factors led to affinities for Spanish America once they began to revolt against their colonial masters. Even then, there were some reservations about the ability of South Americans to form republican governments. From 1810 until the mid-1820s, these reservations came to be expressed only when revolutionaries faltered. It helped that the US fought a second war for independence while the South Americans were fighting their first.

The second chapter discusses the agents of revolution who came to the US to foster support for South American rebels. Occasionally exceeding neutrality laws and frequently using American presses for propaganda purposes, they helped provide revolutionaries with the materiel they needed to secure independence. Fitz shows that this was a colorful cast of characters in more ways than one, and illustrates the undercurrent of race which would eventually come to the forefront.

The third chapter gives an overview of the activities of the press in the 1810s, showing how they affected (and sometimes manipulated) public opinion in favor of the revolutionaries. There were occasional dissenters, but they would be marginalized and rebutted until some years into the 1820s. Fitz demonstrates that then as now, there is no such thing as objective journalism because editors are more likely to publish and treat favorably that which they support.

The fourth chapter is about Simon Bolivar and the perception of him in the US. Fitz shows through toasts and baby names that Bolivar gained much admiration in the US, even as Bolivar did not respond in kind. Both whites and blacks found something to like in Bolivar, even though these aspects were quite different. Whites saw republican unity; blacks saw an abolitionist leader.

In the fifth chapter, Fitz discusses the US government’s actions toward South America at the time. Some black and white pictures augment the chapter, and would have improved the book elsewhere had they been included in other chapters. The role of merchants in financing and supplying revolutionaries is examined, along with the activities of privateers and filibusterers. Many Americans today would be surprised to know how many in those days volunteered to serve in foreign militaries. The second half of the chapter focuses on the important American political personalities of the time: Henry Clay, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, but finally the rise of William Smith and those like him who eagerly defended racism and slavery.

The sixth chapter begins with the election of 1824 and the “corrupt bargain” that awarded the Presidency to John Quincy Adams instead of electoral vote leader Andrew Jackson. This event set the stage not only for the Whig versus Democrat party system, but for the turning of the tide in relations with South America. Fitz explains how the passivity of the egalitarian sentiments of the time left them vulnerable to growing slavery in the southern US and the arguments in favor of it. The controversy over the Panama Congress of 1826 furthered the shift in American views toward their southern neighbors. Though Clay, Adams, and Bolivar had high hopes, the congress was a disaster. It is interesting to note that some themes have been constant throughout American history; the Democrats’ antebellum platform of limited government, nationalism, racism, opposition to social reform, and economic populism has much in common with the views of the alt-right. And as always, when rhetoric and reality depart from one another, reality always wins in the long run.

The conclusion looks forward to the 1830s and beyond, showing how the sentiment of the 1810s and its reversal in the 1820s manifested going forward. Fitz ends the book by wondering how America could have turned out differently and for the better had the sentiments of the 1810s not been overthrown. The second half of the book shows how American exceptionalism originated as a pro-slavery, white supremacist idea, and how the US came to be a foe of anti-colonial movements in the 20th century.

Fitz’s appendix and notes demonstrate that she certainly did an appropriate amount of research for the project. Overall, this is an excellent book that covers an oft-neglected aspect of early US history in a manner which engages the reader much better than the average history book.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing

The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing is a how-to manual on the subject by author and editor Zachary Petit. The book discusses all of the fundamentals of freelance writing that an aspiring writer needs to know.

Petit begins by discussing full-time versus part-time freelancing, as well as the different venues for which a freelancer can write. He offers the wise advice to avoid content mills and be open to writing for almost every other type of publication, which would have saved me a lot of trouble had this book been published four years earlier. The second chapter is about what to write and how to get ideas for articles. Again, the advice is sound: go out and find stories rather than expecting them to fall into your lap, use your knowledge and expertise from other disciplines, cover events local to you, express yourself, and never stop studying.

The next three chapters discuss the process of getting a freelance assignment. First, there is the matter of one’s online and offline presence, as well as adherence to stylebooks (which felt like it belonged in the fourth chapter rather than the third). Next, Petit takes the reader through the structure of a magazine and the writing opportunities (or lack thereof) presented by each part. The fourth chapter concludes with a brief discussion of what is necessary to write for major publications immediately. The fifth chapter explains in great detail how to (and how not to) query a publication in order to get a freelance assignment and briefly discusses the typical hierarchy of publishers, editors, assistants, and interns.

The sixth chapter covers everything that a novice writer needs to learn about interviewing people, from the pros and cons of in-person, phone, and email interviews to journalistic ethics to dealing with troublesome sources and celebrities (and both). In general, in-person interviews are better than phone interviews are better than email interviews, though one must take what one can get sometimes. The seventh chapter discusses almost every other type of writing available to a freelancer, such as front-of-the-book content, newspaper articles, feature articles, Q&As, and profile pieces. To Petit’s credit, the puff pieces and hit pieces which are far too common in formerly respectable publications are absent, as new writers should make an effort to be better than that.

The eighth chapter deals with a writer’s relationship with editors; how to treat them, how to think of them, and how to make sure that an article is ready to be seen by them. The most important advice here is to take no criticism personally, eliminate as many errors as possible on one’s own, double-check everything before submitting an article, and realize that editors can be busy people with tight schedules that limit their ability to respond promptly. The ninth chapter concerns the business side of being a freelancer, including proper payment, negotiating contracts, dealing with delinquent clients, avoiding shady clients, and navigating the unique tax situation of being an independent contractor. The book ends with a short conclusion of encouraging words and an appendix which mostly contains more information about writing queries.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Petit explains the ins and outs of freelancing as only a veteran of the business can, and it can save an aspiring freelance writer a lot of trouble from learning the slow and hard way.

Rating: 5/5

Book review: It’s a Jetsons World

It’s a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes is a collection of essays about the wonders of the free market and the failures of statism written by Jeffrey Tucker.

Mr. Tucker begins by comparing the current world situation to that of the Jetsons cartoon, and finding that despite some differences in the available technologies, the only real difference is that we also have a leviathan state which runs counter to the advancements brought about by voluntary exchange. The rest of the first section, titled “Private Miracles,” explores the dichotomy between voluntary and coercive interactions through various situations and conundrums, from grocery store checkouts to auto-defrosting refrigerators to internet connections.

The second section of the book, “Free Association, Peace, and Plenty,” explores the benefits of voluntary interactions, some of which we overlook and/or take for granted. Several of the examples also make the point that central planning through government coercion could not produce such benefits, as Mises once proposed with the economic calculation problem.

“Work for Free,” the third section of the book, speaks mostly about the functionality of the free market and how it can adapt to various situations and problems. It is here that Tucker’s wisdom truly shows, for he is able to debunk with counterexamples the claims of anti-free market theorists that voluntary exchange has no way of dealing with heartless people, criminals, or uncertainties in the medium of exchange. He also shows through the examples of the decline of the U.S. piano industry and the relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake that economic interventions tend to hurt the very people they are supposed to help.

The next section of the book, “Can Ideas Be Owned?,” is a collection of arguments against patents, copyrights, and other forms of “intellectual property.” Tucker shows through examples of agricultural and pharmaceutical patents, as well as book, music, and movie copyrights, that monopolizing knowledge serves to restrict knowledge and hold back progress. A large part of the section is a favorable book review of Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David Levine.

Tucker concludes with a section on “Public Crimes,” which delves into the true nature of government laws and regulations and their ill effects on civilization. He also turns his attention to the difference between capitalism and corporatism, as well as the coercive nature of government-run military defense. The last subsection returns to the Jetsons theme, discussing a particular episode that presents a credible case for how even the remains of the state that may still be with us in the future will be relatively harmless and even comical compared to the monstrosities of the present day.

While the book does not go into extensive detail on free market economic theories, it presents a message of liberty in a fun, lighthearted manner that is ideal for a person curious about libertarian ideas.

Rating: 5/5

Book review: The Handbook of Human Ownership

The Handbook of Human Ownership: A Manual for New Tax Farmers is a book about historical and political theory written by Stefan Molyneux. In The Handbook of Human Ownership, Molyneux presents a theory of history and politics from the view that government emerged and evolved as a way for elites to control the masses. The book is presented as a welcome message and instruction manual from the ruling elites to a newly elected member of a government.

Molyneux makes the argument that history has been a process of the evolution of human ownership, beginning with primitive cannibalism and continuing through the slavery of classical antiquity, the serfdom of the medieval period, and the current period of free labor and taxed wages. He then portrays the role of public education as a means to keep the ruling classes from being overthrown by teaching children that government is necessary. Molyneux next discusses the origin of the socialist movement as a response to the declining influence of the church in the 19th century, and how the remnants of religion combined with socialism have been used to support and extend the power of the state. He finishes his historical theory by noting that the cycle of human ownership is nearing its end, as the system of fiat currency and government-protected corporations mathematically cannot continue.

Molyneux’s views of history and the future prospects of humanity are certainly not discussed in the mainstream, but the book does a good job of explaining this as well. For anyone who wishes to take a philosophical look at the current world situation and is unafraid of strong medicine, The Handbook of Human Ownership is an excellent, if short, read.

Rating: 5/5

Book review: The Law

La Loi (The Law) is a book about legal theory written by Frédéric Bastiat. In The Law, Bastiat analyzes the role that law has played in society, compared with its original purpose: to act as a shield against injustice, and thereby defend the natural rights to life, liberty, and property. He examines various government policies that have acted to do more than this, and shows that such actions lead to infringements upon individual rights.

Bastiat identifies two main ideological causes of such actions: stupid greed and false philanthropy. He shows that it is man’s nature to resort to crime when it is profitable to do so, and that the law becomes a tool for the commission of crime when enough people can convince a government to plunder on their behalf. He then points out a fundamental flaw of democratic government: when it is time for an election, the people are held up as experts on all important matters, but after the election, the people are viewed as little more than clay to be molded by politicians. Bastiat goes on to show that various government programs to help people ignore what people could have done to help themselves without government interference.

Bastiat’s view of God and religion may be off-putting to atheists, and his lack of consideration for anarchism is understandable for the time in which he wrote (1850), but if his reliance on a divine origin (rather than a logical origin) for natural rights can be overlooked, then The Law is an excellent blueprint for a free society.

Rating: 5/5