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Buying for Lefties II January 7, 2008

Posted by franklittle in Art, Books, Culture, Film.

Last year we ran a Buying for Lefties thread, suggesting books and films that some of us here at the Cedars had enjoyed over the year. The notion was that those of us with friends or spouses without political inclinations could be quietly directed to the site to better facilitate the purchasing of presents and ensuring quieter, happier households come Christmas Day. Regrettably, we didn’t get around to it before Christmas but perhaps it’s now in time for the January sales. So these are some books or films that I highly recommend from 2007 for the lefty in your life. With one exception they all came out this year. Please feel free to add or criticise.

I was a big fan of Naomi Klein’s No Logo when it first came out and had been slightly disappointed with her works since then like Fences and Windows but she redeemed herself bigtime this year with The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism, easily the best book I’ve read this year. Klein defines what she calls ‘the shock doctrine’, the use by capital of the disorientation left by war, revolution, coups or natural disaster to push through right-wing economic policies based on privatisation and the seizure of land and resources. She uses as a continuing metaphor the practice by the CIA in the 1950s of psychologically dismantling innocent people who had volunteered for psychiatric treatment. This practice, previously unknown to me but well-documented, was based on wiping a person’s personality and then building a new person on the ‘blank slate’. Disaster capitalism is the transference of this way of thinking to whole countries. She examines a range of countries as case studies including Chile, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Poland, Sri Lanka, the US post-Katrina and others. Highly recommended.

Níamh Puirseil’s The Irish Labour Party: 1922-73 is a workmanlike account of the history of Ireland’s third largest political party from the foundation of the state up until the 1973 election and the height of the conflict in the North. As a factual historical account of who did what, where and why it’s a pretty good read and interesting, also depressing, to see the same fights within the left fought out again and again. The weakness of the book for me was in its analysis. Puirseil, who is clearly sympathetic to Labour, ends with the damning conclusion that, “Offering little and delivering less, Labour received the support it deserved.” Yet she is clearly uncomfortable with those who argued for a move to the left within Labour over those five decades and especially so to those outside Labour on the left. She is also pretty good on the failures of Labour in government to deliver but tends to ascribe this as much to the failures of individual Labour ministers than the conservative alliances ranged against them, though the Church does come in for a bit of a kicking.

Earlier in 2007 I was delighted to get a copy of Steve McGiffen’s The European Union: A Critical Guide, a very well-written and direct analysis of the European Union from a radical left perspective. One of McGiffen’s strength is that while he makes his bias extremely clear, he is also able to separate it from the straight-forward factual information required for people to navigate the European Union. First published in 2001, an expanded edition in 2005 contains an analysis of the then European Constitution. For those on the left who always meant to find out more about the EU but never got around to it, this is the perfect choice as McGiffen brings us around the EU’s decision making structures without ever losing sight of the sheer madness of most of it.

While Noel Whelan still stalks the land touting his inept punditry and the occasional book of election statistics it is well to remember that Ted Nealon got it right a long time ago and it hasn’t been improved on since. Nealon’s Guide to the 30th Dáil and Seanad, now published by the Irish Times and edited by Stephen Collins, is still the definitive guide to Dáil elections. Every count in every constituency is broken down. Detailed profiles of TDs and Senators are contained. Well designed and laid out and even Collins is tolerable enough in it. A must for election nerds like me (I confess to having every one as far back as the ’87 election) and a valuable resource tool for political activists and commentators. Slightly surprised that nothing similar has come out from the Northern Assembly elections come to think of it but perhaps the previous effort from Whelan and Whyte showed there wasn’t a market for it.

And, moving onto films. I have to admit to having always had a sneaking regard for Michael Moore. Yes, he does occasionally play a bit fast and loose. But then, they have Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on their side and frankly, a little politically skewed editing seems like small potatoes next to outright personal, political and professional dishonesty. But in Sicko he makes his best movie to date, due perhaps in no small part to the fact that Moore has less screen time than he has had in other films and that with one big exception, he avoids a lot of the ‘stunts’ that featured in his other films. He simply allows Americans who have been victims of their health industry to tell their stories and in doing so lets them deliver a severe beating to the American health insurance industry a severe beating. While he’s wearing a seriously rosy tinted pair of spectacles when looking at the British and French health models, it does bring home how much we take public healthcare for granted when compared to the US version and when Tony Benn outlines the ideology of public healthcare, of public ownership and of solidarity with those in need, it’s almost enough to bring a lump to this old cynic’s throat.

Another outstanding documentary this year for me was Occupation 101, which I wrote about after attending the premiere back in November and so will merely direct you back there for more information.

Finally, two outstanding films for me. The first overturned years of dislike for Pat Shortt in Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage, one of the most powerful and certainly the most emotionally moving film I saw all year. It doesn’t seem to be out on DVD yet but it picked up a few prizes over the year and hopefully it’ll be available soon. Again, I wrote about this earlier in the year so more detail here. Best Irish film this year and a must-buy when it comes out.

And finally, we come to a film that can, I was surprised to discover from an old Stalinist acquaintance be seen as a tribute to the all-powerful and vigilant nature of the Stasi but which I took as an exploration of the effect living in, and assisting to administer, a totalitarian state can have on a person. In The Lives of Others Ulrich Muhe gives a very subtle, complex performance as a Stasi agent put in charge of a surveillance operation whose disquiet with the regime grows rapidly after he discovers the operation has more to do with a high-ranking official eliminating a romantic rival than the protection of the state. Deserved winner of an Oscar watching it now is especially poignant after Muhe’s death from stomach cancer earlier this year. Ironically, he was himself under surveillance by the Stasi as a young actor in the GDR and his wife was one of the agents recruited to monitor him. That level of surveillance is conveyed brilliantly in a film that brings home the atmosphere of paranoia and fear of the state that characterises totalitarian states.

Also rans. I haven’t got round to reading Judging Dev by Diarmaid Ferriter or The Corporate Takeover of Ireland by SWP capo Kieran Allen but both are on the seriously considered list. Comments on either would be welcome.


1. WorldbyStorm - January 7, 2008

Judging Dev is remarkable, not so much for the text as for the reproductions of documents from archives, personal collections,etc, etc. The beauty of it is that you can actually read for yourself the original in colour (another point the reproductions are large but not overly so – which makes it seem still an authentic piece of research rather than a glorified coffee table book… although its arguably both!). Perhaps the finest book of its kind I’ve ever seen, certainly in terms of Irish history and a real indication of how historical research can and should be produced in a period of inexpensive colour reproduction.


2. Idris - January 8, 2008

I know there’s the old argument against charity, that it’s the equivalent of putting an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff instead of a fence at the top, but this xmas I asked everyone I knew to get me charity donations rather than, say, Dunnes Stores gansies.

In the end only my sister did so, making a donation to these people:



3. WorldbyStorm - January 8, 2008

Somehow though it seems better… I’ve pretty much given up on gifts…


4. Justin - January 9, 2008

Currently reading Allen’s book. Haven’t read beyong chapter 3 Interesting enough ananlysis of the roots of neo-liberal thinking (Hayek, Friedman, etc). Allen’s analysis of corporate takeover is used to justify the current SWP turn towards popular fronts or maybe just fronts e.g. People Before Profit – a turn which has gone disatrously wrong over the water with RESPECT. However, even if one disagrees with Allen’s particular political agenda, it looks like a timely analysis of the corportae takeover and the always accommodating role of the Irish State. As I say, I haven’t got into the meat of it yet.
So, worth reading. Oh my god, a Stick who reads McCann AND Allen!Has the world gone mad??


5. Ed Hayes - January 9, 2008

Funnily enough, despite (because of?) my former membership of the SWM I can’t bring myself to read Allen’s book. I always found the stuff he wrote on Connolly and other matters to be really sloppy and ill researched. McCann at least is an engaging polemicist.

Btw I found Joe O’Connor’s Redemption Falls to be a great read, and I hope they make a movie out of it, maybe with Brendan Gleeson as the governor of post Civil War Montana. Shane Meadows ‘This is England’ brought back all sorts of early 80s memories, mostly bad ones! The opening credits are a montage of stuff from about 1979-1989, very evocative. Clair Wills ‘That Neutral Island’ was an interesting read on Ireland during WW2 and its cultural impact. CLR and Splintered Sunrise as best Irish blogs.


6. ejh - January 9, 2008

I stopped reading the latter when the comments box descended into a freak show. Has it improved?


7. splinteredsunrise - January 10, 2008

I hope it will improve… the comments box did go a bit bearpit for a while, I must admit. Still, it’s hard to legislate for your readers.


8. WorldbyStorm - January 10, 2008

Ach, it’s still great… an education. BTW was I wrong about you and the LWR? Or did you come across them?


9. Ed Hayes - January 11, 2008

I have to say Splintered is one of the few places that the origins of Irish Trotskyism can be discussed along with the success of Girls Aloud. I also love the Swiss Toni stuff!


10. Barry - January 11, 2008

….Clair Wills ‘That Neutral Island’ was an interesting read on Ireland during WW2 and its cultural impact….

I got this as a pressie, and was looking forward to it. Oh what a disappointment…. a mish-mash of information and opinion with no discernable thread, not even Ireland in the ’39-’45 period. Unbelievably poorly edited. I just could not decide whether she had ever read anything else but Cavanagh and Myles na G…. ad nauseam….


Now, as to Sicko, anything from Ken Loach, Henry Patterson……that’s more like it


11. Idris - January 11, 2008

Does anyone know of a book that gives a blow-by-blow account of the Dev government’s decision to remain neutral in the world war?


12. splinteredsunrise - January 12, 2008

Actually WBS I was just about to reply to you on the LWR… no, I was never in it. To my knowledge they never had any members in the North. Jim Monaghan would be your man there.


13. WorldbyStorm - January 12, 2008

Hmmm… I might have something else you might like to write about… AWL linked from 1989. And I’m very interested in the LWR anyhow so any thoughts…


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