Adventures in Book Reviewing

by Daniel on April 27, 2009

I think it’s generally agreed that the worst possible sin for a book reviewer is not to have read the book in question. However, what if you really really knew what the book was going to say? How about if you’d spent the previous five years obsessively maintaining a blog about the author, reading all of his published work and developing a whole political philosophy in reaction to his? If the book hadn’t quite come out yet, would you really feel like you had to wait until it did to write your response? Remember, when the thing comes out, it’s going to be reviewed by all sorts of people who have only the barest awareness of the context of the author’s views, and will most likely have skim-read the thing working to a deadline.

Basically, David Aaronovitch (the British Thomas Friedman) has a book in press entitled “Voodoo Histories: The Role Of The Conspiracy Theory In Shaping Modern History“. I’ve been aware that something like it was in the pipeline since 2006, when he delivered a lecture on the subject. I have a number of political disagreements with Aaro, and one of the most important ones is over his structural tendency to give politicians the benefit of the doubt, the origins of which I locate in his early career working on “Weekend World” with John Birt. I also don’t like the general tendency among commentators to act as if explanations of events by reference to covert or criminal/political activity were per se evidence of unseriousness or paranoia; after Watergate, Iran/Contra, P2, the Tonkin Gulf and the Zinoviev Letter one might have hoped that we would have learned a lesson. I’ve written an essay on this subject, over at “Aaronovitch Watch (Incorporating ‘World Of Decency’)”, in the form of a review of the forthcoming book. I honestly believe that more thought and effort has gone into it than is remotely likely to be exerted by any of the eventual reviewers who write with the benefit of having read a copy. See what you think.

{ 73 comments }

1

ari 04.27.09 at 9:18 pm

Have you read Kathy Olmsted’s (full disclosure: she’s both a colleague and a co-blogger (not that I really blog much these days))new book? If not, you should.

2

harry b 04.27.09 at 9:31 pm

I’m not at all annoyed by the two reviews of my book (in academic journals, so not to deadline) that revealed that the reviewers hadn’t read past the 2nd chapter (one by discussing only the introduction to the book, the other by castigating me for making arguments for a claim that most of the book was arguing against). I was at the time, though.

Question: is there any former president of the NUS who has had a respectable career? (ok, now I realise I can just look it up in wikipedia, which I will go on to do).

3

ari 04.27.09 at 9:39 pm

As for reviewing a book you haven’t read: poor form. Writing a pre-publication review, though, in which you acknowledge that you’re speculating, now that could be interesting.

4

PreachyPreach 04.27.09 at 9:42 pm

harry b> Stephen Twigg did defeat Michael Portillo in ’97, which can make a man forgive a lot of things.

(I wonder if there’s still the awful picture of him in the Balliol JCR office?)

5

PreachyPreach 04.27.09 at 9:43 pm

But slightly less snarkily, where exactly is the formal conspiracy in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, beyond the shameless political exploitation of the habit that panicked sailors have historically had of seeing torpedo boats in the night?

6

Aaron Swartz 04.27.09 at 10:09 pm

Despite being a regular reader of your secret-societies-and-insurance-pools series, I don’t recognize the Freemason incident you mention. Can you say what it was or where to read about it?

7

chrismealy 04.27.09 at 10:16 pm

I hadn’t heard of it either. It’s totally insane.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_Due

8

Daniel 04.27.09 at 10:20 pm

#5: most of the key communications relating to the Gulf of Tonkin were “intercepts” from a station in Japan which couldn’t possibly have intercepted North Vietnamese communications. (I’m talking from memory here and will look up the ref. in Peter Dale Scott’s book in the morning). It was definitely an intentional deception, rather than a convenient accident (and of course, even if it had been a convenient accident, there was always the option of not exploiting it in the way in which LBJ actually did).

9

Robert 04.27.09 at 10:26 pm

I love the pre-refutation genre, especially when the target is so predictable and a Johnny-one-note. But it can be risky, if the target has an unexpected change of heart. And to be most effective it’s should inoculate, but inoculation requires reaching the potentially infected. That’s difficult, pre-publication.

10

Daniel 04.27.09 at 10:28 pm

#6, #7 – yep, P2. The Wikipedia article doesn’t (for some reason) mention Operation Gladio, the CIA program to subvert Italian politics, which was totally interpenetrated with the P2 affair. It’s one of the most astonishing things in postwar politics, and it doesn’t seem to get mentioned at all. This is, by the way, as good an opportunity as any to plug Phil Edwards’ book on the anni di piombo, which I probably ought to read before reviewing, but am certainly prepared to recommend ahead of having done either.

11

chrismealy 04.27.09 at 10:47 pm

The bit about DDT is going to cause some confusion. Maybe a link to Quiggin and Lambert would help.

12

Cryptic ned 04.27.09 at 11:07 pm

It seems to me like half the articles in the New York Review of Books are written without reading the book they are supposedly reviewing.

“In honor of Expert A’s new book about the Elgin Marbles, we have allowed Expert B to write eight pages of his own thoughts about the Elgin Marbles, which will also include his thoughts on Expert A. He’s promised to include some quotes from the new book, if we can get a copy to him before he finishes the article.”

13

P O'Neill 04.27.09 at 11:16 pm

I thought for sure I would finally have the dispensation from having to read Liberal Fascism.

14

Danny Yee 04.27.09 at 11:28 pm

I once reviewed a book having read only the last 40% of it.
http://dannyreviews.com/h/Clear_and_Present_Danger.html
Which the author complained about to me, but which I think was perfectly fine since I owned up to the partial reading in the first sentence of my review.

15

notsneaky 04.27.09 at 11:53 pm

Wikipedia has a separate article on Operation Gladio, which talks about P2

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Gladio

16

Salient 04.28.09 at 3:05 am

However, what if you really really knew what the book was going to say? How about if you’d spent the previous five years obsessively maintaining a blog about the author, reading all of his published work and developing a whole political philosophy in reaction to his? If the book hadn’t quite come out yet, would you really feel like you had to wait until it did to write your response?

You’re spending a lot of time defending the defensible. ;-)

This is a fantastic gimmick which pairs well with your other fantastic gimmick, e.g. “Shorter What Aaronovich Is About To Say In His Forthcoming Book: You Can Learn Everything You Need To Know About Covert Activity Through Official Reports.”

In a just world this meme would catch on like wildfire and the fine folks at Sadly, No! would compulsively pretend to have invented it.

17

Henry 04.28.09 at 4:03 am

Yep the P-2 stuff is pretty extraordinary. Stille’s book on Berlusconi is very good, although it focuses more on the mafia stuff. Sciascia’s Moro book is excellent, although it presupposes that you already know enough to follow the threads where they lead. I think that the New York Review printed it up again recently. My favourite bit of so-absurd-that-it-would-be-funny-if-it-didn’t-represent-all-sorts-of-horribleness from the years of lead was Romano Prodi’s claim that he had learnt key information about where Moro was being held “from a seance”:http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/the-seance-that-came-back-to-haunt-romano-prodi-517786.html.

18

John Quiggin 04.28.09 at 4:04 am

One of the real oddities in the literature on conspiracy theories is reference to Watergate conspiracy theories.

In this case, the official line is that the break-in was the product of a criminal conspiracy in which the President of the United States and most of his senior staff were accessories after the fact. Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman were all convicted of conspiracy, and Nixon could have been if Ford hadn’t pardoned him.

But it’s only claims that the real truth differs in some way from the official account of a conspiracy that are commonly called “conspiracy theories”. It’s the word “theory” that’s doing a lot of the work here.

19

Henry 04.28.09 at 4:05 am

And people should of course always remember that the dubious world of Italian-US intelligence connections was where Michael Ledeen first started showing form. Not to mention the as-yet unresolved question of where those funny Niger yellowcake documents first came from …

20

Doug 04.28.09 at 6:48 am

What about reviews of books that you’ve only read part of? I seem to have a little premature evaluation problem, and a public one at that. Occasionally, I’ll follow up after I’ve finished, but I don’t make a habit of it. (Could be fun, Salient, to combine with the “shorter” trope; after all, length matters.)

21

dsquared 04.28.09 at 7:40 am

Further to John’s #18, all we really know about the Bologna massacre is that there was a bomb planted in Bologna train station, four neo-fascists were convicted, that the bomb parts came from an arsenal used by Gladio and that Licio Gelli was convicted (along with two SISMI agents) of interfering in the investigation.

To speculate that P2 and Gladio might have been involved in the bombing, and that it might have been carried out as an agent provocateur operation, is a conspiracy theory. But is it really such a strange or irresponsible thing to suspect? (Particularly given that it’s known that the “strategy of tension” was a key plank of US intelligence’s anti-Communist strategy in Western Europe during the period).

22

Phil 04.28.09 at 8:47 am

The Gradoli seance thing is one of those points where I pull up short and wonder about getting interested in another area of history. (They seriously want us to believe that? Romano Prodi seriously wants us to believe that?)

Thanks for the plug, Daniel. My book isn’t about the conspiratorial underbelly of the Italian Right (ugh… sorry about that image) so much as the conservatism and willed stupidity of the Italian Left, the PCI in particular. With the Christian Democrats permanently in power, with Gladio in the background and with both the CIA and the FBI operating in Italy, the PCI had a pretty poor hand to play, but did they have to play it so badly? It’s also about the incredible political ferment of the late 70s, among the groups of the further-Left and beyond-Left, all of which the PCI steadfastly refused to have anything to do with, to the detriment of all concerned – they even refused to rip them off. (In a relatively closed political system, getting your social movement innovations ripped off by the Man is a good outcome.) A 1980s in which the PCI had successfully absorbed half the social-movement Left and got Moro released would have been very different. (Basically we would have got a Democratici di Sinistra and Rifondazione Comunista lineup 20 years early, and both starting from a much stronger position.)

Yes, Sciascia’s Moro book is excellent – still the best book I know on the kidnap, which is pretty remarkable when you consider it was written straight afterwards. One of Sciascia’s musings on the PCI is that their thinking seems to come from Hegel, but “more from the right than the left of Hegel”. About half of my book grew out of that thought.

23

Preachy Preach 04.28.09 at 9:06 am

Phil> Freely admit to knowing little about the intricacies of Italian politics – my two main sources are The Dark Heart of Italy and a very superficial reading of Paul Ginsborg’s Italy and Its Discontents a few years back (about which I can remember depressingly little) – how reliable are they as sources?

24

Alex 04.28.09 at 9:23 am

most of the key communications relating to the Gulf of Tonkin were “intercepts” from a station in Japan which couldn’t possibly have intercepted North Vietnamese communications

or from some other system that wasn’t then publicly acknowledged; I think there were COMINT satellites at the time, but they were highly secret.

Anyway, one reason I object to a lot of classic conspiracy theories is that they deny the people involved any agency, rather like state-sponsorship theories of terrorism really function to deny the agency of the oppressed. In fact, state-sponsorship theories are really a subset of conspiracy theories.

25

Phil 04.28.09 at 9:28 am

I’d recommend anyone interested in post-war Italy to read Ginsborg; his previous book on Italy from Liberation to the 1980s is also excellent, and his short book on Berlusconi is good. Ginsborg’s weak spot is that he doesn’t devote much attention to the conspiratorial side of politics. In that respect David Lane’s book on Berlusconi (the book of the Economist feature) is surprisingly good – he turns over quite a few stones. Philip Willan’s The Puppetmasters is the conspiracist account of post-war Italian politics in English; God only knows how accurate it is, but it’s extremely suggestive. The Dark Heart of Italy… meh. I enjoyed it (Tobias Jones writes well), but it’s a bit Orientalist.

26

Preachy Preach 04.28.09 at 9:28 am

or from some other system that wasn’t then publicly acknowledged; I think there were COMINT satellites at the time, but they were highly secret.

Oh, yes. It was quite a surprise to me to find out how many US planes were shot down by the USSR while on spying missions…

27

Phil 04.28.09 at 9:32 am

Alex – there’s a lovely quote from Adriana Faranda of the Red Brigades in Alison Jamieson’s (out of print) book on the BR, the Heart Attacked. Jamieson asked her what she thought when she heard the news media saying that the kidnapping was obviously carried out by East German special forces, the killers looked foreign and they fired with military precision, etc, etc. Faranda said they were all furious when they heard those stories – I mean, we spent ages training with those guns… Nobody gives you credit for a job well done.

28

dsquared 04.28.09 at 9:38 am

or from some other system that wasn’t then publicly acknowledged

there were such systems and of course fibs were told about them, but in the specific case of the Tonkin Gulf, it’s unlikely that these were genuine intercepts from a secret system, because they were *wrong*; ie, they were “intercepting” North Vietnamese communications about an attack that wasn’t ever actually carried out.

29

Preachy Preach 04.28.09 at 9:47 am

Have you seen this? I’m reading through it now (in preference to writing a very dull email) – it’s the quasi-official NSA analysis of the sigint position surrounding the Tonkin Gulf incidents – it doesn’t seem to tally with your argument, while admitting that there were lots of shady attempts to escalate US involvement going on beforehand – I freely, admit, however, to knowing next to nothing about the incident itself beyond the consequent effects…

http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB132/relea00012.pdf

30

dsquared 04.28.09 at 10:04 am

Looking up the ref in “The War Conspiracy”, I find that the Japanese station confusion was related to a different (but similar) incident with respect to the USS Pueblo, so sorry about that. The overall shape of the point I was making though (that invalid intelligence was portrayed as definite, in a way which would be hard to achieve by accident) is right though.

31

bert 04.28.09 at 10:10 am

Allan Frankovich’s BBC films about Gladio here:
http://www.informationliberation.com/?id=16921.

Frankovich had a wide range of conspiracy theories (Lockerbie was Iran not Libya, for instance) that would doubtless have Aaronovitch twitching.
But as Phil mentions, if you decide to ignore this stuff when you look at postwar Italy then all you’re seeing is shadows on the wall.

32

Preachy Preach 04.28.09 at 10:18 am

dsquared> I don’t think we’re that far apart – I’m taking the view that politicians/senior generals are willing to opportunistically take advantage of a convenient casus belli to achieve long-standing goals (and sending warships to patrol off the coast of North Vietnam is kind of, even if unconsciously, creating a situation in which incidents like it are likely to arise), but that the specific incident that triggered full-blown US involvement wasn’t foreseen…

33

dsquared 04.28.09 at 10:47 am

PP: fair enough – I personally think that the introduction of August 2 intercepts into August 4 intelligence with the wrong dates on them was as likely to have been purposeful as accidental but there’s no evidence (funnily enough, there often isn’t when you’re dealing with secret organisations)

Frankovich had a wide range of conspiracy theories (Lockerbie was Iran not Libya, for instance) that would doubtless have Aaronovitch twitching

this theory is not actually all that crazy, although as always, real evidence is thin on the ground. The convicted Libyan guy is currently the subject of a big judicial review into a possible miscarriage of justice, but I haven’t really done any reading on this so I don’t know any more.

34

bert 04.28.09 at 11:07 am

Recent news from Italy: Adamo Bove. Lots here for conspiracy fans. The CIA, jihadists, wiretaps, faked suicides, soccer. And it features Al Jazeera interviewing journalists for the Corriere della Sera (a P2 asset).

In a way this is the problem with this Italian stuff. It exists in a semi-acknowledged parallel reality, in such massive stinking volume that the response is not outrage but cynicism and fatalism.

35

Preachy Preach 04.28.09 at 11:09 am

W.r.t. Lockerbie, I’ve never seen a convincing rebuttal to arguments that the people jailed were basically patsies in a stitch-up between Western governments and Libya to get sanctions on the latter lifted in a crude bit of utilitarian politics.

36

bert 04.28.09 at 11:27 am

“not actually all that crazy”

Tam Dalyell thought it stood up, certainly.
On the other hand, this fella is a problematic source.

The process against the Lockerbie defendants began long before the Bush/Blair deal with Gadaffi. But Libya officially copping to it was part of the deal, of course, along with handing over those flatpack nukes.

37

Ginger Yellow 04.28.09 at 11:36 am

The Lockerbie thing is about the only “conspiracy theory” I actually subscribe to. To summarise, the only “solid” evidence linking Megrahi to the bombing is his identification by shopkeeper Tony Gauci as having bought clothes from him in Malta that were linked to the suitcase containing the bomb. The problem being that his identification was about the weakest identification ever heard and that Megrahi wasn’t in Malta when Gauci originally said he sold the clothes. His appeal is hearing evidence today that the clothes were bought then, not on his revised date.

Incidentally, as I understand it, the conspiracy theory goes that it was Syria, acting through the PFLP-GC, not Iran. The investigation of PFLP-GC (so the theory goes) was dropped when the US and UK needed Syria on board with the original Gulf war. I have no opinion about the truth of that part, just on Fhimah’s and Megrahi’s innocence. There’s also some even more speculative stuff about CIA coke running on the Lockerbie flight, but I have even less desire to follow that road.

38

John Meredith 04.28.09 at 11:45 am

[actually I’m just going to delete these. John, you’ve got plenty of form as a troll on this site; you need to be very careful indeed to make sure you’re not only making substantial points but doing so very clearly, and avoiding personal insults entirely. You cannot expect to get the benefit of the doubt any more]

39

Daniel 04.28.09 at 12:05 pm

John, I’ve deleted three or four of your comments now. Let’s be very clear about this. If you think your point is important enough to make, then do so in a way that doesn’t derail discussion, and go out of your way to be polite to me and to other commenters. Then, people can decide whether they agree with you or not. If it’s not important enough to you to make that effort, then it’s not going to appear on this site.

40

Henry 04.28.09 at 1:28 pm

For my dissertation research, I spent time talking to Emilia-Romagna regional bureaucrats in 1999, right at the fag-end of the dream, where all the old 1970s and 1980s PCI dreams of creating a better way of doing things were collapsing into vague planning documents that were never quite delivered, and the out-and-out marketization of policy instruments. But I’d be fascinated to find out more about the argument of your book, Phil. From the vague folk memories I’ve heard from people who were on both sides of this fight, I’ve gotten the impression that Toni Negri was quite a prick. Did this kind of stuff (pure personality politics), play a significant role, or were the fractures on the left structural?

41

Tom Scudder 04.28.09 at 2:03 pm

Wow, the Propaganda Due stuff really casts Foucault’s Pendulum in a new light. I may need to go back and give it a re-read.

42

Phil 04.28.09 at 2:12 pm

By all accounts Negri could be very difficult to work with; at a meeting shortly before the dissolution of Potere Operaio, one of his comrades was actually seen reaching for his gun when Negri delivered his summing-up of the situation, and admitted later that he’d been that close… Negri also came from a Socialist rather than a Communist background, so there was absolutely no love lost between him personally and the PCI. (His elder brother, incidentally, fought in the army of the RSI, and was killed by Yugoslav Partisans.)

But it went a lot deeper than individuals. (OK, Berlinguer was pretty crucial, but even he was in the right place at the right time.) Basically you have two successive waves of disorderly social movement innovation, circa 1966-70 and 1974-8. The PCI faced the first wave with the usual kind of defensive hostility towards anything that challenged the party’s leadership role, tempered by a shrewd awareness that this would be a good wave to stay on top of – and they gained enormously by doing so, in terms of votes, membership and new blood generally. Come the second wave, the party’s hostility was untempered by anything; even people like Rossana Rossanda, who had been calling for a more definite opening to the Left 5-10 years earlier, denounced the new movements as dangerous hooligans. A lot of what made the difference was conjunctural – a party with a weak leader & a strong left wing the first time round, Berlinguer entrenched and facing Right the second time. The result, I argue, was massive repression, a move to the Right by the PCI – under (mostly self-induced) pressure to differentiate itself from the movements – and a rise in ‘armed struggle’ activity. (This last point is contra Sidney Tarrow, who argued that the anni di piombo were an after-effect of a successful “cycle of contention”, which had left a bunch of professional activists all tooled-up and with nowhere to go.)

Does that answer the question? I could go on!

43

Phil 04.28.09 at 2:17 pm

Why’s my last comment stuck in moderation? (Delete this one at will.)

[dunno – happens to us all, including me – dd]

44

Salient 04.28.09 at 2:37 pm

Why’s my last comment stuck in moderation?

You can learn the names of prescription drugs by scanning words from a stuck-in-moderation for drug-name-sounding phrases. Your “offending” word is Socia!ist, which means “treatment for erectile dysfunction” in auto-moderation-speak.

45

minneapolitan 04.28.09 at 4:23 pm

To the post: I’ve read pretty much all of every book I’ve reviewed, and I’ve even gone so far as to read the source books for plays and movies I’ve reviewed. But if you know essentially what’s going to be said, and are responding to the general argument rather than supposed specific points, and you acknowledge all that, then it doesn’t seem unethical not to read the book itself.

For me, still, the conspiracy is in the cash register. What does it matter to me that some particular group of spies was or was not behind some particular atrocity? They’re all guilty of some atrocities, and by the very nature of their business, we’ll never know the full truth of what they’ve done. Meanwhile, billions of people wake up every morning to sell their labor for a pittance, which they’re then cheated out of by merchants and revenuers and gangsters. There’s no doubt about who the oppressors are. They put their names in big letters on the sides of skyscrapers for chrissakes. Arguing about which of their minions did which audacious crime is pointless and obscures the real struggle.

I hope you all will be out in force on Friday. 123 years later and neither the stakes nor the combatants have changed one whit.

46

ejh 04.28.09 at 5:48 pm

then it doesn’t seem unethical not to read the book itself.

As long as you don’t mind saying you didn’t read it in the review.

47

minneapolitan 04.28.09 at 7:02 pm

Yes, I was perhaps unclear. I meant “and as long as you acknowledge that in the review”.

48

Martin Bento 04.28.09 at 7:40 pm

Tom’s comment at 41 scrapes the edge of an interesting point. Eco’s polemic against and parody of conspiracy theory in the form of a novel is the highest expression of a genre and attitude that reached a certain peak in the 90’s, and that Bush seems to have forced us past now. Essentially, Eco is attacking conspiracy theories as a form of teleology, as argument that has been made in explicit form by the likes of Hofstadter (the pop form was the X-files). But looking for purpose in history is not necessarily mystical, as it is to look for purpose in nature, because history is made by human beings, and we know that human beings can and do act purposefully. Hofstadter claims that failing to see history as a “flow” is paranoid, and clearly there are limits to how much one can see history overall as consciously shaped. But the refusal to infer the presence of a planning mind behind actual human action is also charateristic of a mental disorder: autism. Autism seems to be largely a matter of seeing human action that way you would see natural phenomena, as an unthinking “flow” of actions that may be governed by logic, but not by planning or intention.

The willingness to get a little teleological can make up for many other weaknesses. Robert Conquest is a third-rate mind, but he got many things about Stalinism right that entire generations of historians – most of them probably fundamentally brighter than he, but sharing Hofstadter’s epistemological biases – not only missed, but dismissed out of hand when presented to them. For example, there is massive starvation in the Ukraine. Seeing history as a “flow”, as the product of “forces”, or otherwise in terms of metaphors appropriate to the inanimate world, one can only see this as some sort of spontaneous disaster. When many Ukrainians insist that, no, Stalin was seeking to kill them all, you smile indulgently and pat your copy of “Paranoid Tradition in American Politics” (I don’t know what the historians patted before the publication of that essay, but apparently it codified biases they had held for some time). Conquest approaches the problem with sufficient ideological hatred of the communists that he is willing to take these “fantasies” seriously. Conquest, of course, tries to claim an ideological victory, but the more fundamental problem is not ideological (many previous historians were anti-communist), but epistemological and ontological. Can apparently spontaneous events be the result of human intention, covertly expressed, and, if so, can this intention be known inferentially (even if direct evidence beyond inference eventually emerges, you are unlikely to find it unless you look, and you are unlikely to look if you dismiss such ideas out of hand).

49

notsneaky 04.28.09 at 9:51 pm

Just out of pure curiosity and perhaps somewhat OT, what’s the take of all these books on post WWII Italy and the associated conspiracies, on somebody like Salvatore Giuliano (and the Portella della Ginestra massacre)? I only ask because once, long, long time ago (i.e. long enough for statue of limitations to expire) I broke into an apartment abandoned, in the middle of the night, by a lady, my neighbor, who was rumored to have been some Mafioso’s ex wife in hiding, only to find a photo of Giuliano on her wall. (I was curious. And the apartment was obscenely filthy). I kept the poster (the only thing I took and the only thing that was there to take, except for total refuse) without knowing who it was until recently. Didn’t the CIA dip its fingers in that affair as well?

50

belle le triste 04.28.09 at 9:58 pm

you should have kept shtumm, notsneaky — now they know where you post

(i like “statue of limitations”: it’s like the climax of don giovanni)

51

Phil 04.28.09 at 10:50 pm

According to Carl Oglesby in the Yankee/Cowboy Wars, the CIA embraced the Mafia more or less as soon as the Allies hit Sicily (and for that matter Marseille). Personally I don’t know any more than that – the books about the late 40s have passed me by.

52

nick s 04.28.09 at 10:56 pm

It seems to me like half the articles in the New York Review of Books are written without reading the book they are supposedly reviewing.

That’s the art of the ‘review for the magazine with “Book Review” in its title’, which consists of writing a 2500-word essay on a topic vaguely related to the subject of the books mentioned in the subhed, the objective being to make one’s references to those books as subtle as the misting of vermouth in a pretentiously overdry martini.

53

Daniel 04.28.09 at 10:57 pm

Oglesby is not 100% a reliable source IMO, but Alfred McCoy says the same thing in “The Politics of Heroin”, although I don’t think he mentions Salvatore Giuliano specifically.

54

nick s 04.28.09 at 11:30 pm

Incidentally, as I understand it, the conspiracy theory goes that it was Syria, acting through the PFLP-GC, not Iran. The investigation of PFLP-GC (so the theory goes) was dropped when the US and UK needed Syria on board with the original Gulf war.

That’s basically the conclusion of Paul Foot’s work on Lockerbie. I still have the special Private Eye somewhere, though not in the same continent as myself– so from memory, one of the points the Eye analysis made was that the speed with which the PFLP-GC link was dropped by investigators in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait.

The Dark Heart of Italy is a good read, though I think the criticisms upthread are valid about its “Orientalism” are valid. (obDisclosure: Tobias is an old acquaintance, who I bumped into after a decade when he was plugging the book at Hay.) And my Italian is far from great, but pretty much every political story in every Italian newspaper I’ve looked at seems to read as if it has been excerpted from one of those deep-politics books, with a nod to those who know the allusions. Conspiratorialism is the normative mode there.

55

Ginger Yellow 04.28.09 at 11:45 pm

“That’s basically the conclusion of Paul Foot’s work on Lockerbie. “

Indeed. There’s a book (Cover Up of Convenience) which lays out the evidence in more detail than Foot could given his space and time constraints, and tends to follow the more far out/conspiratorial angles further than the available evidence supports, but basically tells the same story as Foot. It’s well worth a read for the nuts and bolts of the case.

56

Daniel 04.28.09 at 11:50 pm

Probly your best bet though (because Footie, god bless him, did tend to be a bit terrier-like in pursuit of a particular line, often at the cost of objectivity – this tendency carried on at the Eye, leading to their excruciating MMR supplement, which I have salted away to be brought out at any interval when they decide to get holier-than-thou about someone else’s bad judgement) would be to look at the reports from the Scottish miscarriage of justice review people on Megrahi’s appeal.

57

Alex 04.29.09 at 12:04 am

I only ask because once, long, long time ago (i.e. long enough for statue of limitations to expire) I broke into an apartment abandoned, in the middle of the night, by a lady, my neighbor, who was rumored to have been some Mafioso’s ex wife in hiding, only to find a photo of Giuliano on her wall. (I was curious. And the apartment was obscenely filthy). I kept the poster (the only thing I took and the only thing that was there to take, except for total refuse) without knowing who it was until recently.

I love you. Anyway, yer man here is surely Norman Lewis, in which case you get the benefit of a work of world literature with your conspirin’.

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notsneaky 04.29.09 at 2:09 am

Re:56
“In Sicily” or “Naples ’44”?

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ejh 04.29.09 at 6:42 am

when they decide to get holier-than-thou about someone else’s bad judgement

“When”?

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Phil 04.29.09 at 8:46 am

Depends what you mean by “when”. It’s sunny in Manchester at the moment, but I can foresee a time when it will rain.

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Alex 04.29.09 at 9:00 am

Naples ’44 certainly, but I was thinking of The Honoured Society. Which a friend of mine who I recommended it to tells me is still untranslated after 40-odd years.

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dsquared 04.29.09 at 9:38 am

Yes, in retrospect “salting it away” was a mistake – I have to drag the thing out every fortnight and the salt gets in the carpets and everywhere.

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Phil 04.29.09 at 9:39 am

pretty much every political story in every Italian newspaper I’ve looked at seems to read as if it has been excerpted from one of those deep-politics books

Italian deep politics is sui generis, though. It’s very ideological – the lines being drawn have always got some kind of political meaning, however hard it may sometimes be to make out (“ah, so he’s one of those ex-Christian Democrats who were on the more overtly Catholic wing of Moro’s pragmatist tendency, and subsequently lined up with Berlusconi on broadly pro-family and anti-Communist grounds, then broke with Berlusconi on anti-corruption grounds, but refused to merge with that other group of ex-Christian Democrats who had broken with Berlusconi because of their position on Europe”…) And it’s very open – it’s the language they use to talk about politics.

The really odd thing is that it goes along with very high levels of political participation. There’s a market for books about contemporary politics – not just a Dan Elliott here and a Will Hutton there, but a steady production of mass-market paperbacks analysing what’s happened in the last few years. Election turnouts have historically been in the high 80%s and low 90s; anything below 80% is cause for solemn editorial comment about the decline of Italian society and/or the corruption of Italian politics. Italy has a long tradition of “anti-politics” – populist distrust of all the corrupt, hypocritical bastards – but the typical form it takes is turning out in large numbers to vote for the anti-political candidate. It’s as if there were a Ross Perot or a Martin Bell – or both – at every election. (Berlusconi has capitalised on this way of thinking, which is pretty ironic when you think about it.)

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dsquared 04.29.09 at 9:44 am

The interesting thing to me is how the example of Italy should cause you to update your Bayesian priors: is it more likely that all countries are about as good or bad as each other at keeping things secret and Italy is unusually corrupt, or that all countries are about as corrupt at each other and Italy is unusually bad at covering up?

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magistra 04.29.09 at 12:34 pm

The interesting thing to me is how the example of Italy should cause you to update your Bayesian priors

I’d go for Italy as unusually corrupt. We have good historical evidence that countries can change in their levels of corruption: whatever you may say about British politica and society now, it it much less corrupt than the eighteenth century (or contemporary Kenya, for example). On the other hand, it’s not clear that there’s been much change in the ability of governments etc at keeping things secret, unless they make extraordinary efforts at repression (e.g. some of the efforts in WW2).

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Chris Williams 04.29.09 at 12:45 pm

Or alternatively, all modern states have this level of conspiratorial shadiness built into them, but only in Italy do the mass of the population understand this, and act accordingly?

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Preachy Preach 04.29.09 at 1:29 pm

Purely anecdotally, over the past year or so, I’ve started doing a lot of work involving the former Eastern Bloc. Some of the discussions I’ve had have been something of an eyeopener…

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bert 04.29.09 at 1:43 pm

I always thought there was something distinctively Italian going on in their approach to politics. Recently contrived national institutions prone to capture. Democracy chanelled into self-sustaining patronage networks. Strong organised crime. Cold War context. And there’s the role-model of classical Rome still radioactively ticking away in the background. All in all a rich medium for corruption.

Arguably, postwar Japan showed a similar pattern (Christian Democrat/Cosa Nostra = LDP/Yakuza), with American great power interests nudging things along in a similar direction. But the Japanese have the added element of deference and hierarchy that the Italians don’t have. In its place they have something else. From what I remember, Tobias Jones had a go at generalising it (“furbismo”, etc …), and did a decent enough job – but I guess that part the core of what Phil objects to as orientalism.

Anyone seen “Il Divo” by the way? Any good?

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bert 04.29.09 at 1:44 pm

(On the eastern bloc, Misha Glenny’s latest, “McMafia”.)

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Preachy Preach 04.29.09 at 1:51 pm

bert> When your firm’s general counsel has a copy of it on his desk…

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Alex 04.29.09 at 3:17 pm

Anyone seen “Il Divo” by the way? Any good?

Seen and reviewed.

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Henry 04.29.09 at 3:33 pm

Thanks Phil for the summary – look forward to reading the book (although I hope that they come out with a paperback – sixty quid plus transatlantic shipping fees is steep). On Negri – one of the odder things I discovered when I was in Florence was that he was matey with Gianfranco Poggi, one of my professors, and a conservativish old-Christian Democrat intellectual. It turned out that they had both been sent to the same left-of-center-Christian youth camps when they were boys …

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Phil 04.29.09 at 4:03 pm

Unfortunately the prospect of a paperback edition depends on the hardback (400 copies) selling out. If you know any librarians (or eccentric millionaires)…

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