Democracy as a religion?
In Dubya's eyes, anyway: that, in short, was an analysis by Dr Youssef Choueiri of the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, heard on the Beeb.
I never thought to see it quite that way myself, the fundamentalist fervour of the Washington administration.
Choueiri is good at dissecting fundamentalism and its strength in today's Arab world. Some of his writing came my way a few years back, and I'd suggest that 'Islamic Fundamentalism' (Continuum International Publishing, 2002) remains a good read for anybody trying to see beyond current conflict and the so-called war on terror.
George Mitchell, who for six years took the vote of bipartisan peers as "most respected member" of the US Senate and founded an academic institute on retirement in 1995, said "Vietnam" this morning, when he meant Iraq.
That woke me up, coming from a politician and scholar of his renown!
Picked up by Jim in 'Today' -- the uncharacteristic lapsus is now on the 'Today' website (RealPlayer clip, 9'22") -- the Senator was swift to apologise and stress the differences.
It was the kind of slip the lugubrious local philosopher Baudier would leap on with zeal, along with Choueiri's view of the American "crusade" in Iraq, which is what the war currently is, despite all bids to keep that dangerous word out of it.
The other George, spouting on about the export of democracy as if this "religion" was some commodity made in the USA to be bestowed on cultures worldwide like Coca Cola, divided this morning's British papers (BBC news) more than ever.
Kim Stanley Robinson's history of a world without Europe and the United States couldn't have been more apposite bedtime reading for the past few weeks, with its insights into Islamic and eastern cultures, other deeply varying ways of living and seeing in our world.
So many rave reviews greeted 'The Years of Rice and Salt' (HarperCollins, in paperback this year) when Robinson published it in 2002 that I almost hesitate.
Like the Mars trilogy and 'Antarctica', it's a monumental achievement, but one I found uneven. Some stretches bored me, but Robinson regularly revived any flagging interest with the next episode in his saga of events since the Black Death wiped out European civilisation 700 years ago.
Discussing the book with a couple of friends who beat me to it, I find that the passages that I raced through as tedious were those that most fascinated one or other of them, just as we have different "favourite" periods in the "real history" of the world. This can only be a tribute to Robinson's imagination and the scope of his gifts as an artist, thinker and narrator.
Some like the way he interweaves his character threads down the centuries by means of reincarnation, sending his disparate group of souls into the Bardo, the in-between (bar) landing stage, island (do) of Tibetan Buddhism, with its panoply of gods, demons, judges ... all ultimately illusion. Others find this artifice an irrelevance. For me, it worked best when an inevitable clash for power and dominance between Muslim and Chinese civilisations plunges the whole planet into the 'long war', so long, so hellish that soldiers whose eyes we see it through finish by not knowing whether they are alive or dead, which worlds they are in. Such sections hold images and ideas of striking brilliance.
Having a mind strongly influenced by decades of amateur but still profound study of Asian and African religions, philosophy and cultures -- far less so by Islam and the other monotheistic faiths -- I admire Robinson's grasp and deep insight into these civilisations, extending to what we called the Americas and some splendid passages in India.
There are so many layers to 'The Years of Rice and Salt' that it's undoubtedly become one of the handful of books I shall return to, finding new connections and more discoveries in an evolving reader's interchange with an involving and immensely compassionate writer.
Why so many reviewers have labelled Robinson and reckon the novel is set to become one of the great classics of 21st-century science fiction escapes me. Such an enterprise simply cannot be pigeon-holed to the SF or even "alternative history" shelves of any library. It is great and -- relatively -- mainstream modern literature in any class.
'The Years of Rice and Salt' is a challenge to anybody who imagines that, say, a George Bush's simplistic, sublimely ignorant faith in US-style democracy and free market capitalism as models to be exported all around the planet, often enough through the barrel of a gun, is much more than a wretched, neo-imperialist insult to societies the remaining superpower would like to mould to its own convenience and interests.
If this book reminds me of any other, it's the magnificent 'Creation' (republished by Vintage Books), by an often far more openly political animal, Gore Vidal. He in the early 1980s crawled right inside the skin, not without humour, of a Persian who manages to meet and confront the views of the likes of Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha.
Some critics see weakness in the way Robinson's alternative vision of where humanity might be without Western civilisation sometimes closely parallels the history of our own. I consider these temporal bridges across from his world to the one we live in a strength of his writing, one manifestation of his skill in asking the reader to reconsider the all too familiar markers of our "progress" as a species from novel perspectives.
Bereft of such parallels, links and twists, Robinson's world would be "just" another piece of original fantasy writing, not what it is: a superbly polished and multi-faceted mirror casting back different lights on our contemporary cultures.
Well, I hope I've managed to say one or two things others haven't yet. Often have I seen Robinson accused of being too didactic in his life's work, but it's precisely as a gentle and subtle teacher that he shines apart from other stars in modern writing.
I found patience with 'The Years of Rice and Salt' well rewarded by the fresh thought it stimulates on who constitutes the real terrorists and where the true horror stories are in these troubled times.
4:17:32 PM link