Book Reviews

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THE GARDENS [image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month's books include an analysis of the part played by the US in creating the crisis in Central America and the Caribbean - and a cookbook to encourage the would-be self-reliant.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Standard response

Under the Eagle
by Jenny Pearce
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Latin America Bureau, 1 Amwell St., London EC1R 1UL, UK.
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(Pbk) UK: £2.50/Europe with p & p £3.25/US $7.50
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Illustration: Peter Brooks The nearest thing we’ve had to a nuclear explosion in Europe was at a recent press conference in Brussels, held for the American Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. A reporter suggested to him that the US might be applying double standards in opposing the military takeover in Poland when they supported similar regimes in Turkey and Latin America.

The jaw clenched. The blood pumped through the swollen jugular. He really did look as though he was going to burst. In the end all we got was an indignant splutter and the suggestion that the people really to blame for the world’s problems were the ones who asked questions like that.

Such questioners tend to have read books like Under the Eagle. America’s involvement in Central America and the Caribbean over the last century and a half is one long story of applying whatever standards came to hand at the time: ‘double’ would be a considerable underestimate.

President Monroe started it all with the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ hack in 1823 which said that any interference by a European power in South America would be treated in the same way as aggression towards the United States herself. To be protected from the rapacious Europeans was of some benefit to the nascent republics and no doubt they were grateful. But who was going to protect them from the protector?

For the United States had not only the force of arms. Even in those days she had developed that potent combination of self-righteousness and greed that today enables her to light candles for Poland with one hand while selling grain to the Soviet Union with the other.

In Central America the stories and justifications have changed with the times. President Taft back in 1917 did not yet have the Russian or Cuban bogeymen to justify US intervention. But then he did not seem to feel the need of it.

‘The day is not far distant when three stars and stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory, one at the North Pole, another at the Panama Canal and another at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will he ours in fact as. By virtue of our superiority of race, it is already ours morally.’

This is a little more flamboyant than the acceptable rhetoric of today’s presidential press conferences. But such vanity is no longer necessary now that many of those battles have already been fought and won. President Taft’s flags are planted more or less where he wanted them.

Just how those flags were planted and continue to be planted is told with marvellous clarity in this book by Jenny Pearce. A popular history of the battering that Central America and the Caribbean have taken from their neighbour to the north is long overdue. And it turns out to be highly readable not just because it is well written but because she allows many other people to join in and tell the story with her.

General Smedley D. Butler of the US Marine Corps headed much of America’s military intervention in the region at the beginning of this century. His contribution now is as irresistible as it was then:

‘During that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business. . . Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests back in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Batik to collect revenues in ... I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brother in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American Sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903.'

General Smedley at least knew how many standards (double? Triple?) he was applying. One can hope that when the time comes for ex-general Haig to put down his memoirs he will feel that the time has come to be frank about the US involvement today in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. If he needs any reminders he could do a lot worse than read this book.

Peter Stalker

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Also received

Appropriate Technology Sourcebook Vol. II
by Ken Darrow, Kent Keller, Rick Pam

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Appropriate Technology Project Volunteeres in Asia, Box 4543, Stanford, California 04305, USA
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US: $6.50 (for local Third World groups, $3.25) + $1.50 surface mail. $11.50 clothbound library edition
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The Appropriate Technology Sourcebook Vol. II is for people getting their hands dirty in Third World villages. Over 400 pages of concise reviews of practical books on very small scale technology: how to build a hand-powered cement mixer, look after water buffaloes, use medicinal plants instead of imported drugs. Vol. I is currently in use in over 100 countries the good work and adds new topics, including forestry, non-formal education and how to set up a co-operative.

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For conscience stricken cooks

Diet for a Small Island (pbk) £4.50/$12.00
Living Better on Less
(pbk) £2.50/$8.00
Living on a Little Land
by Patrick and Shirley Rivers

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Turnstone Press, Denington Estate. Wellingborough. Northants, UK
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‘If sugar gives me energy, why is it bad for me?’ demanded my 8-year old. Now I know. In Patrick and Shirley Rivers’ Diet for a Small Island, the island in question is Britain, but the good sense it contains about nutrition will be welcome to anyone who wants to know, as precisely as in a chemistry class, why locally-grown ‘natural’ foods are better for the individual’s health than the pre-packed luxuries multiplying on supermarket shelves. These luxuries are often imported from countries whose own people go hungry. So being self-reliant in food is not only better for the personal and national purse say the Rivers' it’s also better for the poor world’s economy and ecology.

The Rivers’ style is as fresh and crisp as the foods they recommend. And in case you’re too rushed to translate nutritional theory into hot dinners, they’ve taken care of that too: half the book consists of recipes.

The Rivers' live deep in the countryside, among hushed woods: they warm their water with solar panels and keep three generations of nanny-goats. If that’s the lifestyle you’re after, try their earlier books for inspiration. In Living Better on Less and Living on a Little Land, they share the story of their own conversion from London rat-race through hard slog to rural idyll.

Not everyone could or would wish to — live in such sylvan bliss. But if you’ve longed for a smidgeon of the natural life or feel guilty about wasting Third World grain resources each time you bite into a quick-thawed hamburger, the ‘small island diet’ is a good start.

A. V.


Existentialism and Humanism
... being the book that brought philosophy on the streets

WHEN JEAN-PAUL SARIRE died in 1980 he was hailed as one of the greatest intellectuals in the post-war era. Few have managed to complete his colossal and opaque Being and Nothingness and he is best known through his novels and plays. But in all his work his theme was freedom and he made it his life’s task to expand human possibility. As such, he came to symbolise the radical conscience of the West.

It is the philosophical essay Existentialism and Humanism, delivered first in 1946 as a lecture, which has had the widest popular influence. Its fundamental argument is that there is no fixed human nature or essence: first we exist, surge up in the world and define ourselves afterwards. Consciousness is an ineradicable part of our being, and it creates a gap or ‘nothingness’ between ourselves and things (thereby enabling us to act) and within us (to be filled by our choices). We are therefore free to become what we will.

Absolute freedom however makes us totally responsible for our unmade futures, and such an awareness of the enormity of our task can easily lead to a sense of despair or anguish. In this sense ’man is condemned to be free’. In reaction, many in bad faith pretend they are not free, that they are like stones governed by fixed laws. But Sartre will have nothing of this: we even choose not to choose, he claims. The authentic man, on the other hand, will recognise that he is without excuse and must consciously shape himself through his actions.

But how should I act? Values, Sartre argued, are not God-given or to be discovered in nature, but are man-made. We invent our own morality. At the same time, he depicted the human condition as one of inescapable conflict: your freedom threatens my freedom, hence ‘Hell is other people’. To avoid a self-asserting nihilism, Sartre suggested in his essay that when I choose I should choose on behalf of humanity. As a social being, ‘I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim!’

Sartre quickly realised the inadequacy of this account: it sounds grand as a sentiment but offers no guideline to how one should act in specific situations. Although the essay has remained for most the quintessential Sartre, he went on to argue that an ethic of freedom could only be elaborated by free men and women. The first task was therefore to bring about a free society. Hence flowed Sartre’s support for ‘progressive’ forces: his refusal to condemn the USSR outright, his flirtation with the French Communist Party, his fight for Algerian independence, and his sympathy for the underdog — whether Jew, Arab or Renault worker.

Unhappy with extreme individualism, Sartre declared himself in 1960 a convert to Marxism. He had come to recognise that his existentialist image of man as an isolated individual in an alien world overlooked the fact that he was situated in history, a member of a particular social group in a specific time and place. Conflict was not inherent in the human condition, but due to material scarcity and the unequal satisfaction of needs. Quite simply, the black garbage collector did not live in the same world as the Sorbonne professor.

This recognition of the social and historical limits to freedom did not lead Sartre to abandon the notion altogether. We might be conditioned, but there still remains a small area where we can say no to our conditioning, Scarcity, moreover, could be overcome through collective action. Sartre devoted the rest of his life to achieving this end. As he grew older, he became more active and radical. He mixed with the students in the Paris rebellion in 1968; he helped set up the extreme Left-wing paper Liberation and presided over the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Whatever his stature as a novelist and philosopher, Sartre’s own life was an example of the authentic man struggling to act out his beliefs. He remained to the end a profound humanist, intent on liberating his fellows from all forms of psychological dependence and economic want. ‘Man,’ he always argued, ‘is the future of man.’

Peter Marshall

Existentialism and Humanism
by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946) Translated by Philip Mairet

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Eyre Methuen (1973) UK: paperback 2.25.
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New Internationalist issue 109 magazine cover This article is from the March 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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