New Internationalist

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Issue 150

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NEW BOOKS

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This month’s books look at nuclear testing in the pacific and a new way of ecological planning.

Editor: Amanda Root

Bully boy in the Pacific

Collision Course at Kwajalein: Marshall Islanders in the Shadow of the Bomb.
by Gifford Johnson.
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Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, (pbk).
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[image, unknown] New Zealand has, in terms of defence strategy, little to offer the United States. Australia, by contrast, has plenty. So, when Uncle Sam’s antipodean allies early this year each displayed a streak of independent thinking, which just happened to be contrary to Pentagon philosophy, the superpower bully-boy reaction was quite predictable - it publically slugged the Kiwis but showed total understanding of the Australian position. (Well, on the record, at least: the fact that there was an almost overnight massive devaluation of the Australian dollar was not missed by those as suspicious of Washington as they are of Moscow.)

New Zealand’s crime against democracy American-style was to stick to its ruling Labour Party’s policy which appeared to have substantial public support at the last general election and deny nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels entry to its ports.

Australia’s irritation to the US was to backtrack on an earlier promise to help in the monitoring of US ‘Star Wars’ MX-missile tests after the ruling Labour Party persuaded its leader, Prime Minister Bob Hawke, to at least pay lip service to the party line.

Whatever may have been happening, the sequence of events and US reaction to them makes a recently published book even more relevant reading for nuclear-concerned inhabitants of non-superpower nations.

Collision Course at Kwajalein - Marshall Islanders in the Shadow of the Bomb by Gifford Johnson is the most comprehensive account yet of the United States’ unflagging determination to maintain a stranglehold on its Micronesian empire and, more specifically, its determination to persist in carrying out, irrespective of indigenous protest or interference of any kind, its N-weapon tests centred on the Marshall Islands Kwajalein Atoll.

Johnson has campaigned since the 1960’s, from his Hawaii base, on behalf of the Micronesian people who have not known any freedom from colonial grip since the 1960s when the Spaniards moved in, to be followed by the Germans, the Japanese and then ‘non-colonial’ America, which was given the ‘trust’ of the islands by the United Nations after World War II. Of the UN trusts granted in the Pacific, only the US has failed to relinquish its control, reports Johnson. And if the Pentagon gets its way, as it appears to do most of the time, propects of genuine self-rule for the Micronesian people appear remote.

Johnson’s book is an encyclopaedic appraisal of the use of the Marshall Islands, more specifically the Kwajalein Atoll, have been put to in the interests of the US development of nuclear weaponry. More importantly - and this is where the lesson for Australia and New Zealand is to be gleaned - the book vividly portrays just how ruthlessly the US will pursue its own interests to the cost of those on whose land Washington trespasses.

The US is unlikely to plop rockets into Tasman waters with as much abandon as round the Marshall Islands. But make no mistake, those who buck Uncle Sam will just as surely be squeezed (usually economically.)

Sometimes, as a member of a tiny nation at the mercy of the mighty leader of ‘right, freedom and democracy,’ I feel my country, Australia, is as vulnerable to oppression as were the Hungarians and Czechoslovakians when communist tanks rolled over their defiance. Talk to a Marshall Islander and he or she will tell you what it’s like to be looked after by the United States of America.

Bob Hawkins
Bob Hawkins is a journalist with The Age newspaper, Melbourne.

Collision Course at Kwajalein is available from the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, P0 Box 27692, Honolulu, Hawaii 96827, price in Europe. Asia, Pacific S9. 50 (airmail), US, Canada, Micronesia $7.95 (airmail).

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Unmapping myths

The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management
Editor Norman Myers
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Pan Books, £9.95, (pbk) Anchor/Doubleday $17.95.
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Atlases have come a long way since all they told you was where to find St Kitts and how much rain falls there. New-generation atlases like Pluto’s State of the World Atlas and War Atlas (both published in the UK by Pan) explain things as well as setting out the physical framework. This is fine as long as the assumptions behind the analysis are OK.

The Gaia atlas is designed for anyone with a concern for the global environment. It is called Gaia after the Greek goddess whose name the British chemist Jim Lovelock has applied to his theory that all life on the Earth is a single living structure. The theory is one of immense appeal, and so is the book. The atlas assembles the work of a vast range of experts like Paul Ehrlich, Paul Harrison, Harford Thomas, Alvin Toffler and others. It is assembled into sections on Land, Ocean, Elements (natural resources), Evolution. Humankind, Civilization, and Management, providing a clear structure for vast amounts of data on everything from manganese nodules to coffee.

If the Gaia atlas has a flaw, it is not in the details, which are expertly presented in a politically sound way, but in the overall idea. If Lovelock is right and we are in a living earth machine, the machine must be of immense resilience. Attempts by one part of the whole (like the human race) to take charge of the whole thing and apply techniques of ‘planet management’ are more likely to end in the kinds of ecological chaos we now see across the Third World than in the most rational use of resources. And even is we could ‘manage’ the planet, there are huge moral and ethnical problems in deciding to do so.

However, all this is a long way from the present order or things, where profit, power and advantage make for a system of planet management in the interests of only a minute fraction even of the human race. The Gaia atlas deserves to be an outstanding success because it sums up in a single book the whole of the earth’s resources and problems in a way which makes ignorance inexcusable. Obvious topics like population growth (handled in a thoughtful and political manner close to that developed in this magazine) or the Antarctic or the growing burden of human stress.

This means that a wide variety of readers will find the Gaia atlas useful, to provide ideas for their general thinking, to acquire a chunk of very lateral education, or to provide highly specific information for their campaigns and activities. Almost every page has something to tell people involved in development struggles. If we have to have ‘planet management’ It is the people-oriented, life-oriented, ecological type that we should go for.

Martin Ince


CLASSICS

Faces in the water
...being the book that shows how ‘sanity’
is forcibly inflicted upon society’s misfits.

A few months ago I was at a reception given for New Zealand’s greatest living writer. In a corner of the room thronged with silk, linen and pin-stripes sat a homely woman with freckled face and fuzzy greying hair: Janet Frame. Her inarticulate stuttering concealed a dazzling gift for words; her timid smile hid a terrifying experience of female insanity that carries a message for mad and non-mad alike. After my most banal self-introduction (‘I like your writing’) she told me what she had been doing with her mornings in Bloomsbury: carefully depositing her breakfast-croissants in strategically-placed bins, together with packs of butter and ham, where London tramps might find them. This anecdote, told to hands folding and unfolding nervously on her lap, illustrates Janet Frame’s unsentimental unswerving feeling for society’s glamour-less victims.

Janet Frame’s autobiographical novel, Faces in the water, stands as a metaphor for female powerlessness, and for the merciless imposition of ‘sanity’ upon society’s misfits.

In Faces in the water Janet Frame documents her own descent into madness through the character of Estina Mavet. A graceless impoverished woman surrounded by confident elegance and haunted by the idea of love which seemed to touch all others but withold itself from her, she flirts with the notion of a romantic insanity which would translate her solitude into artistic creativity. She decorates her invisibility with the garb of eccentricities, festive flags for attention, and is immediately committed to a mental asylum.

The proscribed cure for Estina’s condition of unhappiness obeys all of reason’s mad dictates: that her character be snipped, mutilated and battered into a fit shape for the world she has rejected. Her creativity is sedated with drugs, her anger continually erased by electric shock treatment, and her times of panic-struck obedience praised. When treatment fails, Estina follows the path of her creator into the hidden depths of madness. She is judged a hopeless case and banished to the ward for ‘forgotten people’ who are crowded like animals in their own filth and allowed to behave with the brutality and degradation of a people without hope. She ‘belonged now to the raging mass of people and the dead lying like rests in music upon the ground.’ Frame’s images of mutilation are finally made literal when her doctors plan a lobotomy upon her ‘condemned personality’ which they will ‘clear like a slum dwelling’. It was by an arbitrary miracle that Estina and Frame herself escaped: one of the more perceptive doctors discovered her writing and witheld the sentence. All around her unluckier women were merrily lopped into vacuity like so much dead wood.

But if Faces in the Water searingly indicts the world of the insane, where women clutch soiled cretonne bags as pathetic talismans against complete severance from the outside world while they squat in their own excrement, it is no less harsh about the normal’ world’s cold perplexity.

To be ‘mad’ is to be thrust to the edges of life in ‘the bitter south-east wind’: to be ‘sane’ is to dwell with the privileged arbiters of deathly ‘reasons’.

Janet Frames chooses neither: Faces in the Water points to a third way. Where both internal and external polarities are effaced. For what Estina learns is that the sane have grotesquely polarised the world, casting out all the misfits from its artificial edifice. She knows that many of the women around her are deemed mad because they ‘dared to believe what few others are scared even to suspect; that things are not what they seem’. Frame’s inconsolable voice accuses male law: ‘He sees the land of meaning, and one path to it, and the so-called ‘normal’ people travelling swiftly and in comfort to the land: he does not see the shipwrecked people who arrive by lonely and devious routes, and the many who dwell in the land in the beginning.

If there is hope in this chronicle of grief, elegy and stunned rage, it lies beyond Faces in the water’s ending. Janet Frame escaped into the freer world of words: words that alchemise suffering into a thing of dizzying loveliness, creating a lonely space from which to spell her bitter precious knowledge. Beneath their strange shards of beauty dwells a mind forever wrenched from the convenient angles of vision, which forges unfamiliar truths from the familiar scenes spread before her.

Faces in the water forces us to confront those parts of the self that we shuffle to the darkest crevices of our minds. For underneath the particular experience of suffering lies a message of electrifying simplicity that spills from Janet Frame’s narrator in one heartbroken cry: ‘My God, what means the hospitality of the soul?’ The question translates the treatment of insanity into a metaphor for all human behaviour, and rails against a world in which power sits astride powerlessness.

Nicci Gerrard

Faces in the water
by Janet Frame
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The Women’s Press (pbk) £2.75
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