Monday, August 04, 2008

Thomas and Hobbes; Monbiot's Apocalypse

Thomas has been looking forward to his ninth birthday celebration next week with the avid anticipation that I would have expected to be reserved only for Christmas. For a long time he wanted to have the same portable game player that his little friend has, a Nintendo DS. For a while I tried to persuade him that a more expensive Sony PSP might be more versatile, but he was adamant. Then he himself changed his mind. He asked for and I ordered from an online bookstore an only slightly less expensive gift, "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes." This comprises every Calvin & Hobbes comic ever written and costs a hundred dollars. No more selected or treasuries of Calvin and Hobbes, now he will have the whole corpus at his fingertips.

Thomas has become ever more devoted to this comic strip over the past year, almost worryingly so. He carries a stuffed tiger named "Hobbes" with him wherever he goes. Once, after our daily Baha'i class, Thomas candidly commented, "You know, sometimes I think that Bill Waterston (the author of Calvin and Hobbes) is inspired." I replied, "You mean you think that he is a genius?" "Well, maybe a bit more than that..." was his discrete reply.

I just finished George Monbiot's "Bring On the Apocalypse," a collection of his best columns from the Guardian. Our library was kind enough to purchase a copy at my request. This is from an online blurb for the book:

"In this explosive collection George Monbiot sets out exactly what he believes can and must be done and establishes how it can be achieved. Bring on the Apocalypse scrutinises the promises of supermarkets to become carbon neutral and asks why, if they can make such promises, cannot governments? It attacks the self-serving interests of those who dismiss climate change and discusses the consequences of eco-living, from keeping an allotment to surviving without a car. George Monbiot's accumulated wisdom unpicks the confusing mass of contradictions surrounding environmental debate to demonstrate that there is a way to save our future, if only we would listen." (

In reality, the book is useful only in that it picks out what some editors think are his best columns. Unfortunately, many are dated, especially those dealing with the early stages of the Iraq conflict. Others are merely contentious and niggling, though always in the cause of justice. But his best work is very, very good, offering insights that are just dazzling. Since all his essays are online on his blog, you can wade through them all and judge for yourself which are the best, if you are the sort who likes reading on your computer. Myself, I found the paperback book a lot more convenient. The rest of this post gives you a selection of what I think are his best essays from the Apocalypse collection.

In an essay called "How Britain Denies its Holocausts," ( Monbiot discusses the findings of a 2001 book by Mike Davis called "Late Victorian Holocausts." This "tells the story of the famines which killed between 12 and 29 million Indians. These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy." That is a very big number, more I note than the six million Jews that Hitler killed.

"When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way". The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited "at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices." The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within the labour camps, the workers were given less food than the inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.
"As millions died, the imperial government launched `a militarized campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought.' The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places which had produced a crop surplus, the government's export policies, like Stalin's in the Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the North-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceding three years, at least 1.25m died."

The difference between this event and Hitler's work is that, diabolical as it was, it was largely the work of a few mad, bad and out of control administrators rather than open state policy working out ideological principle. The British did not enter India with the goal of exterminating all Indians, as Hitler did when he invaded Russia. A brief but horrific holocaust tolerated for a while in the name of state and personal interest is not the same as an out and out extermination campaign like Hitler's was. Then again, both equally happened from the same motive: racist contempt. This tragedy indeed deserves to be named right along with Stalin's intentional famines in the Ukraine and Mao's partly inadvertent starvation events. As Monbiot points out, it is hypocritical of any people to deplore other peoples' atrocities while ignoring and burying all record of their own, and the British are guilty of that.

Sadly, there is not a people or nation (that I have heard of) that does not have plenty of holocausts in its past to keep the fires of guilt burning indefinitely. As a Baha'i of British heritage, I can only point out that at least `Abdu'l-Baha was of the opinion that the British crown and empire, taken all in all, was just in ideals and intent. He said this in his first address in London and later on, after Palestine had fallen under the direct administration of the British after the Great War. You could not have a higher endorsement of one's nation's hight ideals, though it certainly does not excuse the blindness to one's own holocausts that Monbiot denounces.

Other fascinating essays are "Property Paranoia," a brilliant essay about the right to roam and capitalism's fallacious idea of happiness, and "Britain's Most Selfish People," a startling moral thesis that it is immoral to own more than one home when others are going homeless -- this is an idea that Baha'u'llah Himself seems to have pioneered when He spoke of the rich in their mansions and the poor in their cottages, implying that housing will be a universal right one day. But as Monbiot points out, as long as parliament and the press are run by people with multiple dwellings, this is not likely to make it onto the agenda in the near future.

"Expose the Tax Cheats" is, I think, hands down the most important in the book. First of all, it talks about how there is no moral distinction between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Yes, the first is legal and the second illegal, but morally both amount to the same thing. Then he points out the reason why billionaires are so avid to own the press: not to make money out of the investment itself but because owning our media gives them power over the public agenda. It is a chance to put forward their preposterous opinion that tax avoidance is some kind of natural right on their part. The very idea that they should pay their fair share of taxes is systematically throttled before the public can even consider it. Nobody but a billionaire makes money from owning a newspaper; his profit comes not from the so-called business itself but from its ability to keep annoying tax obligations off his back. And, as Monbiot points out, whereas the law requires that the income of all parts of society be public knowledge, the amount of tax paid is a strictly guarded secret. Whether that is true in North America, I do not know. In any case this is a very important essay that deserves to be made into a book, if a publisher could ever be found who would dare publish it -- of course I forgot, the publishing industry is a corporate structure too, owned by the same plutocrats.


Anonymous said...

I haven't dug very deeply on this issue, but your comment about whether this (keeping tax records private) is true in North America peaked my interest.

Based on this article, tax records in Canada are confidential, and MPs have some degree of authority to investigate tax records.

Anonymous said...

Oh, LOL!! I remember that! :) I never really thought much about it though...

Tom can be so funny sometimes!!! 83
I love Calvin and Hobbes! Post more fun stuff!!!!! ^^