Book review: Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist HandbookAntifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is it okay to punch Nazis? What if I told you that is only one of the tactics for dealing with Nazis?

The Anti-Fascist Handbook aims to summarise the history of fascism and its opponents, the rise of more recent fascist groups, the lessons from history for dealing with fascism, the issue of “free speech” and fascism, and how to combat fascism today. Historian Mark Bray has detailed the tactics of the Antifa movement and the philosophy behind it through interviews and the compilation of history and research into fascism.

I’ve noticed that there are several topics that seem to be widely discussed but never with any actual knowledge. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other social movements are prime examples. So when I saw Ollie from Philosophy Tube’s video discussing this book (and other related work) I knew that Bray’s book on Antifa would be another of my must reads.

I think one of the most important takeaways from this book is that the rise of fascism to power hasn’t historically required huge support, just a lot of apathy from the masses. Too often debates will rage around “free speech” or “is it okay to punch a Nazis” while completely missing the point that fascists are loving being legitimised with any of these debates.

The five important lessons (my summary of the headings):

  1. Fascist revolutions have never succeeded, they gained power legally.
  2. Many interwar leaders and theorists did not take fascism seriously enough until it was too late. (Sound familiar?)
  3. Political leaders/groups are often slower to react to fascism than those on the ground.
  4. Fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery, and culture (e.g. the liberal idea of “free speech”).
  5. It doesn’t take many fascists to make fascism (Overton windows shift easily).

Whilst this was a very interesting and important book, it wasn’t perfect. The coverage of fascism outside of Europe was limited; something Bray acknowledged he wasn’t going to cover in detail and would have been a nice addition – something for the next instalment perhaps. Also, the defining traits of fascism were clearly made, but the differences between groups that fall under that banner, or are adjacent (and thus facilitate normalisation), weren’t discussed. I would have found it interesting to have the discussion of how alt-right and alt-lite differ and how you combat the latter. Minor points that might be in future editions.

So before you next hear a professional opinion-haver brand Antifa as terrorists, it would be worth reading this book.

Philosophy Tube video:

Alt-lite influence: https://datasociety.net/wp-content/up…

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Food & Fiction: Memorable Meals in Literature

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This month’s It’s Lit! covers everyone’s favourite topic: food.

If it isn’t your favourite topic, just give yourself 48 hours without it and see if that changes your mind.

I’ve always found food scenes in books to fall into two categories: needless exposition, or important showing (Oliver Twist is a great example of this). While the video discusses the latter, it is all too common that the former is what we read most.

While I was watching the video I was reminded of something I read last year. The discussion of bread in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, particularly around the hard bread that needed to be soaked, was something that Karl Marx wrote about in Das Kapital. The hard bread was actually due to deliberate contamination to make cheap bread that workers could afford, knowing full well that it was bad for them to eat, and the employers knowing full well that the workers couldn’t afford to eat properly (keeping them hungry so they would work).

A great way to remind us future people of how society used to run.*

Food varies wildly from place to place and from culture to culture; since humans are such sensory creatures, using words to evoke the experience of eating is an excellent way to bring a text to life.

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.

*Let’s be honest, society would quite happily go back to those conditions, and in some areas of the world, it still is operating in that way.

Death of the Author

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author… or so says Roland Bathes in his essay Death of the Author. Are we talking about literally killing authors? No, this is figurative (like most uses of literally). Can Death of the Author include killing the author? Sure, but get a good lawyer first.

Let’s let Lindsay Ellis (and John Green) explain:

My take on Death of the Author is somewhat complicated. I think there is relevant information that the author has that doesn’t make it into the story (think Elvish languages from Tolkien*), but I also think that quite often if it isn’t in the story it doesn’t really exist. I think that stories are really up to the readers to interpret, as viewpoints and interpretations will change over time**, but that doesn’t mean readers always interpret correctly.

This is a hedged way of saying that Death of the Author is probably too simple a way of thinking about how stories should be interpreted. At least, that’s my interpretation of it.

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Source: Mimi and Eunice

*Let’s not get into how “relevant” I think those languages are, or a lot of that world-building from authors in general is.

**You may remember book reviews here where I’ve discussed how older books haven’t aged well due to changing societal standards. Sexism and racism are obvious changes that have happened in the last 50 years which make formerly acceptable, even progressive, moments in a story seem backward and unacceptable now.

Another thing that can occur is changes to society changes interpretations. E.g. The Baby It’s Cold Outside controversy can be summed up as an old song made references to things that we are no longer familiar with, so our interpretation changes. This makes Death of the Author a truly bad thing for any artwork that is “consumed” outside of the social and temporal setting it was made within.

Book vs Movie: Hellboy – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s instalment of What’s the difference? from CineFix looks at Mike Mignola’s graphic novel and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of Hellboy: movie or comic. Yes, I know, how dare you not love Del Toro’s amazing artistic vision! I’ve watched both Hellboy movies multiple times and have not loved them (and despite liking the Blade trilogy, Blade 2 isn’t my favourite – but Pan’s Labyrinth was fantastic). The comics I probably didn’t give them a fair chance, as I tried reading one omnibus after not enjoying the first film.

Anyway, the point I wanted to highlight from the video was something I think too many adaptations fail to do. When you are talking about a series of comics or books, there is often some prevailing themes, motifs, and imagery to them that may be less noticeable in any one edition, but taken as a whole it is important.

Because movies are often only drawing on one book at a time, or drawing on one run (or story arc) of a comic, important aspects may be lost. An example would be the Tim Burton or the Adam West takes on Batman versus the Christopher Nolan version. The latter drew upon more of the Batman comics than the earlier adaptations (not that either of those adaptations was bad*).

So while this doesn’t necessarily result in a direct adaptation, it does result in an adaptation that is faithful to the source material in the elements that matter.

*I’m pretending that the Joel Schumacher adaptations don’t exist. Akiva Goldsman is probably more to blame, given he has a long track record of making everything he is attached to that bit worse.

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Being prophetic is really easy when you make a “kids these days” argument.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is Neil Postman’s ode to the “good old days” before television when entertainment wasn’t ruining everything. TV bad, reading good!

I decided to read this book after it once again started to be referenced as prophetic in the modern age. The first time someone mentioned this book to me I couldn’t help but feel the argument was likely to lack substance – you can amuse and inform at the same time.* What I found in this book was a supposition that isn’t without merit – slogans and sound bites can be influential whilst lacking any substance – but is argued in a cherry-picked and biased manner.

One example is how Postman claims that political campaigns used to be written long-form to influence voters, whereas now (meaning then in 1985, but many say it is highly relevant today) we get political messages in sound bites and 30-second adverts. This argument underpins his work and is at best convenient revisionism, at worst it is naive drivel. To suggest that there is no modern day long form political articles (and interviews, etc) is rubbish, just like the idea that the historical long-form articles he alludes to were well read by the masses is rubbish.

Another example is Postman claiming that media organisations aren’t trying to (in general) maliciously misinform their audience. We know that this isn’t the case. Even at the time this was written there were several satires addressing how “news” is deliberately framed for ratings (e.g. Network, Brave New World, the latter he references in the book). Either he has a different interpretation of malicious misinformation or he just thinks the media are incompetent.***

Now, his idea that we should be trying to educate kids to be able to navigate this new media landscape – instilling critical thinking, understanding of logic, rational thought, basic knowledge so that we are less likely to be fooled – is laudable. I completely agree. I’d also agree that there is a desperate need for this in people of all ages when we have an attention economy in place that is less interested in informing you than making sure your eyeballs stay glued for the next advert. I think this is why Postman’s book has resonated with people, the arguments aren’t without merit. But they are also deeply flawed and problematic.

I can’t really recommend this flawed book, but it isn’t without merit.

Interview with Postman:

Attention Wars:

* This modern review from an education professional sums up this point:
“Instead of striking a balance between the use and over-use of media in education, Postman has completely shut down the debate in the belief that there is no good way to use visual media like the television and film in education. If you take his thesis to its logical conclusion, the number of technological tools in the classroom would be reduced to the overhead projector, the ScanTron grading machine, the copier and the laser pointer, and the field of educational technology would be greatly reduced in the process.”**

** Read this review particularly carefully. The author cites a number of problematic sources for claims made, such as Ben Shapiro, David Barton, Glenn Beck, Jonathan Strong (of The Daily Caller). All are known to deliberately misrepresent their sources (e.g. see my review of Ben Shapiro’s book covering this issue).

***Hmmm, could be something to that argument. As I regularly say, don’t attribute to malicious intent that which could be incompetence.

NB: I don’t normally post reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed (3 stars or more out of 5). It is my intention that this particular review will be one of few exceptions.

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