The Book Round Up #2: Previews & Notes on New Works


6-07-05, 9:30 am

Here is another of our occasional book round ups consisting of short notices, from many sources, of works we haven’t been able to fully review. These are essentially reviews of book reviews. If any of you are inspired to read one of these books and write a full review please contact pabooks.

ROGUE REGIME: KIM JONG IL AND THE LOOMING THREAT OF NORTH KOREA, by Jasper Becker, Oxford University Press, 2005, 300pp. Reviewed by William Grimes in The New York Times May 18, 2005.

After reading this review I can only feel sorry for Becker (writing such a cheap piece of propaganda), Oxford University Press (for sullying its reputation by publishing it), and Grimes (for taking it seriously). I would have included the Times, but no one takes that paper’s 'objectivity' seriously anymore, especially after its coverage of Iraq and WMD’s. Since I seem a little negative about Grimes review, allow me to explain. Grimes tells us that Becker 'takes an unblinking look at a dark regime that has made North Korea an international pariah [that] through torture and indoctrination reduced its subjects to virtual slaves, three million of whom, according to some estimates, perished in the late 1980’s' Let’s unpack this.

In the first place, North Korea is only 'a pariah state' in US propaganda and with journalists who subscribe to US propaganda. North Korea has normal relations with many other countries and, if you were to ask most of the world’s people I think they would be more likely to call the US a 'rogue state' and a 'pariah' than they would North Korea. We would all know that if the Times would report correctly and not just mouth the administration's viewpoints. Did three million people die in the late 80’s. Grimes must mean the 90’s and he is referring to the famine that took place at that time. There was indeed a terrible famine, complicated by record heat waves and floods, that overwhelmed the Koreans. No one knows how many died. People like Grimes and Becker can estimate all they like-- they want three million, maybe so. But the Asian Development Bank estimated the number at about 500,000. (Meredith Woo-Cummings, The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons, Asian Dev. Bank Inst., Tokyo, 2001). The famine was brought about by natural disasters and the loss of North Korea’s trading partners after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The talk about 'virtual slaves' is typical anticommunist hyperbole at the level of Cold War Reader’s Digest journalism. Grimes says the book is 'a slapdash production.' But he concedes the 'facts [in it] almost defy belief.' They do defy belief because most of them are ridiculous fabrications peddled by the right wing. Becker, for instance says, Kim keeps '100 limousines' but the Korean specialist Bruce Cummings (North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, 2004), by no means a fan, says he has twenty automobiles. Becker says Kim may be 'the last fat man in his country.' But Cummings writes that he is no 'playboy' and was trying his best to solve the food problems in his country. But Becker’s war mongering anti-North Korean attitudes are shown up by Grimes with respect to the later chapters in his book. It seems Becker has 'contempt' for a 'non-aggressive, open-handed approach to North Korea,' he wants to give 'up on the United Nations' in dealing with the country and goes along with Tony Blair (! read George Bush) and create 'new' international law frameworks and then enforce our will by 'military force.' All this because North Korea won’t give up on nuclear weapons without a promise from the US that it will not attack first. This book looks like a candidate for the garbage bin.

WOMEN’S LIVES, MEN’S LAWS by Catharine A. MacKinnon, Harvard University Press, 2005, 558pp., reviewed by Thomas Nagel in TLS 5/20/05.

Nagel sees the author as a representative of 'anti-liberal feminism' while he appears to be a supporter himself of the subordination of women. 'She comes from the Left,' he writes, 'and her anti-liberalism, like the anti-liberalism of Marx, derides individual rights as an ideological mask for the protection of existing structures of domination. In Marx’s case, the targets were rights of private property [Marx opposed slavery and other property abuses] and due process. In MacKinnon’s case they are freedom of speech and the right to privacy, and the domination [which Nagel seems to support] they uphold is sexual.'

To say that Marx 'derides' individual rights and due process exposes Nagel to the charge of monumental ignorance, as will be obvious to anyone who has read and understood Marx. What Marx derided was the hypocritical application of those two concepts by a small group of people to the overwhelming detriment of the mass of humanity.

I suspect Nagel doesn’t understand MacKinnon any better than he does Marx – judged by his reaction to some of the main ideas in her book – an anthology of her works over the last quarter century. Let’s cut to the chase. What bothers Nagel (among other issues) is MacKinnon’s views on pornography and 'her attempt [along with the late Andrea Dworkin] to make pornography civilly actionable as a form of sex discrimination.'

Nagel sees this as a 'freedom of speech' issue as well a 'right to privacy' issue. Every one of his arguments would also support the sexual exploitation of children by means of child pornography. He gives most of the usual banal arguments to favor his viewpoint. Here is one: 'Some of the most misogynistic and abusive cultures are those with the strictest censorship, and some of the least misogynistic, such as Sweden, were the first to lift restrictions.' He should keep up with his daily newspaper reading for he would then know of all the stories coming out of Sweden about the surprising extent and depth of brutality towards women that are now coming to light in that 'least misogynistic' of countries.

Anyway, pornography is in itself an expression of misogynism.

Nagel also objects to her support for the deployment of state power to try and end the domination of women – he thinks 'we will get tyranny.' This is the same argument the slave holders used to defend their 'rights.' This looks like a really interesting book, especially as it seems to stir up the passions of misogynists!

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL: THE ORAL HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR DISASTER by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen, Dalkey Archive Press, 2005, 240pp., reviewed by Fred Weir, in In These Times, May 9, 2005. Weir thinks this a good account of the disaster that 'can now be seen as the USSR’s death knell.' The bureaucratic incompetence of the Soviet system was demonstrated both by the scale of the accident and the 10 days of cover up that followed before the world was informed of it. Millions of Soviet citizens lost faith in the system and silently watched it implode under Gorbachev’s 'reforms' a few years later. The Republic of Belarus suffered the most, having 20 percent of its territory contaminated. The number of people world-wide who will ultimately die from thyroid cancers, birth defects, and leukemia is yet to be known. The book records a series of stories told by people 'who found themselves caught up in the disaster.' Chernobyl, more that Gorbachev’s perestroika, may be the real cause of the collapse of the USSR. Read it to find out!

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at