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Read or Die

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
09.16.2000 | BOOKS

A Fate Worse Than Debt: A Radical Analysis of the Third World Debt Crisis
by Susan George
Grove Press, 1990

It's worth noting that Susan George takes her title from the expression 'a fate worse than death,' which is used by the police when abducted children undergo the kind of sustained abuse that culminates in a pair of hedge clippers and a tripod mounted camcorder. But George is not overstating, and this gruesome metaphor is more than borne out by her damning examination of the institutional causes and human consequences of Third World debt. Geared toward the general reader, A Fate Worse Than Debt is a solid introduction to the interlocking network of national banks, Third World elites and Bretton Woods institutions--what George calls 'The Consortium'--responsible for the birth and continuation of the debt crisis. She does not offer a conspiracy theory, but a rational analysis of the ideology and structures that drain over $100,000 a minute from poor countries, the results of which, according to UNICEF, are directly responsible for the death of 500,000 children a year worldwide. In English, we have a word for this kind of 'development': that word is genocide. George does not say that genocide is part of conscious policy, but correctly claims that the result is identical. Whether or not the bankers in the US Treasury realize that their free-market, export oriented religion of GNP measured Growth is a horrible, bloody failure, they are incapable of doing anything about it and enslaved by the tri-faced god of the profit motive, a discredited ideology and their sheer unaccountability. With the help of friends in high places and a handful of IMF/World Bank whistle-blowers, George proves that finance officials are perfectly aware that 'structural adjustment' programs disproportionately affect the poor and cause hunger; just as they are aware that the Environment--an 'externality' in business speak--doesn't figure into their economic framework at all. George illustrates how the Bretton Woods twins serve as funnels for the channeling of public funds into bloated private banks, feeding Third World graft and encouraging capital flight right back to major western players like Citibank. She also details the role of petrodollars in the wild super loaning of the Studio 54 seventies, as well as the way Reagan's deficit financed arms bazaar passed the buck to the poorest indebted countries by triggering global inflation and higher interest rates. This book has hardly aged a day in six years, and proves with bulging veins the bumper sticker wisdom that says: if you're not angry, you're not paying attention.

History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s
by Timothy Garten Ash
Random House, 2000

With justification, Timothy Garten Ash probably thinks of himself as the bad boy of Oxbridge. Not content with the dusty historian's craft, he has carved out a small granite bust of fame as a hard traveling 'historian of the present' with muddy boots. But while this renegade Oxford historian cum war correspondent may be familiar with the acrid smell of fresh corpses and political powder kegs, he remains a mannered Liberal don who can use the word 'splendid' without irony. Which is just as well; the profound knowledge of European history absorbed during years of cloistered study is precisely what makes Ash's corpus the paragon of 'high journalism' that it is. In this new edition of History of the Present, our narrator weaves in and out of Balkan history lectures, private conversations with Vaclav Havel, and anti-Milosevic student demonstrations with the an assassin's eye for detail and a good professor's sense of pace. Between dates laden seminar room sessions and memorable quotes from diplomats and dishwashers, he gives a bird's eye view of contemporary Europe that swoops down to rat level just when the picture threatens to lose focus or-worse-turn to yawns. The re-unification of Germany, the meaning of Central Europe, the implosion of Yugoslavia, the ghosts of History and the personal demons of Havel, Walesa, Khol, Michnik, Meciar, Karadzic. If you spliffed your way through the 1990s, Ash pulls you to his bosom and starts from the beginning, telling parts of a sinewed tale that unfolds with every daily headline, but requires a knowledge of the past to fully grasp. Ash is an apt guide, and this collection should be required reading for expats. Especially ignorant American ones.

Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life
by William Leach
Vintage Books, 2000

American civilization has always been less grounded than the others. The whole idea behind the national project is to move in and move up. Mass internal migrations across the continent fueled US 'progress' until the beginning of the 20th century, and Americans still move more than any other people: to Dallas, to LA, to Prague. But this readiness to skim the earth's surface in search of wealth and self has taken a turn for the extreme in recent decades, and William Leach wants to slow down and look back in Country of Exiles, his second work of contemporary cultural criticism. He offers a brief sketch of "place" in American life--with well worn quotes form Touqueville and Turner--but focuses on the recent developments he sees as the market driven hyper-causes of placelessness: an intermodal transport system that lays a thick weave of highways across the country and crowds them with fifty foot trucks; the 'mallification' of communities; increasing dependence on real-time communications technology; deregulation of trade and labor markets; the frenetic emptiness of a tourist industry that whores out the past; the corporatization and internationalization of American higher education; and the eerily similar cosmopolitanism of liberal academics and business elites who want to break off the conceptual and tax shackles the nation state itself. The hidden histories of these developments are rich and fascinating, but read like disconnected essays and fail the admittedly daunting task of capturing the "there"-less nature of US society in an ether neoliberal age. Nor does Leach seem attuned to the ways in which placenessness is becoming a global phenomenon, influencing Tehran as well as Tallahassee. Alas, the author is an old school social critic and lacks the philosophers bone to really nail his subject on the head. His closing exhortation that "it would be a good thing" if we remembered and rooted ourselves in a shared past is almost touching in its anachronistic flaccidity. But one gets the feeling that Leach knows this, and his blurb informs us that he is currently working on a book about butterflies.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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