War on Terror in the Sahara, The Chinese Communist Party and The Science of Gender: Weekly Reviews Roundup

Books Reviewed:

Jeremy Keenan – Dark Sahara:  America’s War on Terror in Africa (2009) Pluto Press

Richard McGregor – The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (2010) Allen Lane

Cordelia Fine – Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences (2011) Icon Books

This weeks reading began with Jeremy Keenan’s Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa. While I picked it up largely due to my ignorance about Washington’s relationship with the Sahara region and North Africa in general,  as it turns out the  book instead has much narrower remit. In short, Keenan’s intention is to demonstrate the American/Algerian duplicity in the kidnapping of 32 tourists in the Sahara in 2003, something attributed at the time to regional terrorists.  Unconvinced by the conventional account, Keenan wants to demonstrate the manner in which this act was part of a broader trajectory towards an increased U.S. role in Africa, under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’. Less than terrorism, Keenan argues, we should seek to explain AFRICOM and other such developments as expressing America’s increased dependence on African oil, as well as fears of Chinese expansion and so on.

Disappointly, however, Keenan’s book doesn’t quite get there. The quality of Keenan’s enquiry is really problematic because, in lieu of some sort of confessional statement or documentary evidence, it boils down to a series of inferences from circumstantial evidence which we, the reader, are in no position to verify. This passage is typical:

“El Para’s two visits to the Gharis group, as well as his other comings and goings, raise another very pertinent question. How was he able to drve between the two hostage locations, Gharis and Tamelrik, which were known to both Algerians and Americans, then they were reportedly surrounded by some 5000 troops, and when vehicle tracks not only last for a long time but can be identified and tracked with ease? The questions must be asked of his access to the later camp in the Mouydir/Ifeetessn Mountains. There can be only two possible answers: either the DRS stood the army patrols down on the key routes on those nights thus allowing him safe passage, or there were no army patrols in the area. Following on from this question is another: If, as we now know, El Para spent so little time with his hostages., where did he spend his time? The answer must surely be: wit his handlers in the DRS.” (110)


The DRS is Algeria’s state intelligence service, in case you’re wondering, and while Keenan undeniably picks up on many inconsistencies between the ‘official’ narrative and some ‘facts on the ground’ it remains ultimately unsatisfying.

It doesn’t help that, as Daniel Volman pointed out in the African Studies Review[1], Keenan’s use of sources creates problems. This is reflected in his consistent use of un-sourced informants for information and analysis. Some of this can be forgiven, given Keenan’s pedigree as a scholar of the region and the nomadic lifestyle of many of the people he draws upon for knowledge, but this only goes so far.

The book also has a narrative problem: by front-loading of the book with Keenan’s attempt to unravel the kidnapping and only waiting until the second half to explain the context in which this takes place – i.e. America’s strategic focus on Africa alongside Algeria’s duplicitous role in ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts –  doesn’t really work. Because you lack a broader picture with which comprehend the first part, it becomes tedious and repetitive, and by the time you do understand you’re in no mood to return.

Despite all this, the book does present some interesting information. Policy decisions, relating to Africa’s relationship with the U.S., and military expeditions are documented that were news to me. However, just when things are starting to get interesting, we come into direct contact with the book’s third major problem. Much of the analysis that is introduced is not developed here, but in Keenan’s other work: The Dying Sahara. It’s pretty frustrating to advance so far into a somewhat murky text only to be told that the real story is elsewhere. It also reduces the book to being, primarily, a rather shaky ‘whodunnit’ (a limitation the author does, to his credit, acknowledge).

Next up is The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor, which I enjoyed a lot more. The book attempts to shed some light on the nature of China’s secretive political system. I was impressed by the fluidity and style of the book and while there might be an argument for more statistics and data to supplement the interviews and commentary, the balance wasn’t too bad

And, as it happens, the information presented here is extremely interesting. Throughout, we are shown the real nature of the Communist Party. Fascinatingly, it functions like a hyper-refined version of how Goran Therborn describes the ruling class in capitalism: something that includes but is above and beyond the state. As McGregor writes about one party organ, the Central Organization Department:

“The best way to get a sense of the dimensions of the department’s job is to conjure up an imaginary parallel body in Washington. A similar department in the US would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governor and their deputies, the mayors of the major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE. Exxon-Mobile, Wal-Mart and about fifty of the remaining largest companies, the justices on the Supreme Court, the editors of the New York times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities, and the heads of thin-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.” (72)

The various methods of control are also documented. We are told of ‘red machines’: phones which adorn the desks of prominent people, giving the Party permanent and direct access. We are also shown how much the Party has managed to become subtle in it’s control, yet remain effective. As McGregor points out: “The days when the Party automatically jails or even kills it’s critics are long gone. There are many more subtle, sophisticated ways for a media-savvy propaganda department to deal with problems. Trouble makers, as the Party likes to call its most dogged critics, as if they are naughty schoolchildren, can be removed from their jobs, silenced with quiet threats to their families, excluded from the media and shamed by being labelled unpatriotic.” (232) The Party control over large enterprise has also been consolidated, to the extent that entrepreneurs will ensure a Party shareholder and make sure not to get too involved in politics.

The book also demonstrates the many conflicts that characterize modern China. A large part of this comes from the country’s extremely rapid economic growth. As well as fostering the corruption mentioned above, McGregor touches on a point similar to the one made by John Kampfner in Freedom for SaleL that the population supports the Party on the basis that it can continue to provide stability and growth beyond all else. As one of McGregor’s interveiwees note: ’The party leaders realize that they don’t have a dominant ideology they can use to run the country any more. For them, there is no core social value. At this moment, the sole, dominant ideology shared by the government and the people is money worship.’” (133)

The corruption is also astonishing. At a certain level, it has become endemic simply because, due to the Party’s ossified Leninist structure, corruption investigations undertaken by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection require authorization from someone senior to the person being investigated.. As a result, the most senior members are relatively immune from charge and investigations become a tool for conducing political rivalries.

While there are times when you suspect that the book is going to veer into the well-worn notion that, to advance, China will have to inculcate some of the West’s democratic institutions and values (a la Will Hutton) McGregor is more ambiguous. While not  shy about the limitations the system, he introduces  a number of points that demonstrates it’s inherent strength:

“At the end of 2008, when the economy dropped into a hole with the rest of the world in the financial crisis, the Party ordered banks to lend, which they did with gusto. In the opening months of 2010, the Party reversed course, and told the banks to slow down, a diktat followed with much greater reluctance, but followed nonetheless. the Party’s power is also being felt on the environment. After decades of largely ignoring the issue, the central authorities have now attempted to take hold of a national environment policy. They have done this not by suppressing development but by turning the environment into an economic opportunity, by giving huge incentives to business to invest in alternative energies. In a few short years, as a result, China emerged as the largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels and the biggest investor in so-called clean coal technologies.” (269)

Similarly, he describes competition between the regions is one factor in making China so economically competitive, as a strange consequence of the inherent authoritarianism:

“The local party secretary with near-dictatorial powers is a dangerous enemy for anyone who takes him on tin the area under control. He can lock up petitioners and any other activists who challenge him, and prevent rivals from advancing within the local government through control over appointments. When it comes to the economy, however, these same powers make the local party secretary a lethal competitor for any rival business centre in the world, especially the one right next door.” (176)

I can’t imagine a more important time to start learning more about the Party that oversees a sixth of the world’s population and is increasingly becoming the economic power to watch. This book is a good place to start.



Finally, there was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. This book, which is both erudite and charming, takes aim at use of science to argue for men and women’s intractable genetic mental differences.  This trend, which encompasses both trashy pseudo-scientific pop-psychology (Men and from Mars, Women are from Venus, and so on) to slightly more respectable figures like Stephen Pinker, have not only been propagating what is quite probably nonsense, but adding a veneer of respectability to contemporary sexism. The motivation for moving towards ‘brain science’ as an arena for preserving sexual difference is clear. As Fine writes:

“The effects of neuroscience may be personal as well as political. Gender stereotypes are legitimated by these pseudo-scientific explanations. Suddenly, one is being modern and scientific, rather than old-fashioned and sexist.” (172)

Having sensed these trends but not scientifically literate enough to get a full grasp of either side’s evidence, I found Fine’s guided tour around the research both illuminating, easy to understand and a welcome respite from the fear that science might not, after all, be on the side of equality.

The first part of the book is concerned with demonstrating the importance of gender beliefs on people’s behaviour. We are  shown various examples of anti-female bias and implicit sexism in the workplace and educational system, demonstrating the extent to which sexist attitudes are present even in those who consider themselves unbiased. Alongside this, Fine describes a large number of tests that show a link between negative gender stereotypes (women are bad at maths, men are poor at skill x, etc) have profound effects on individual performances. This is shoring up one of Fine’s most importance points, made throughout the book, namely that: “it makes a difference what we believe about difference.” (184) As Fine notes: “Cultural realities and beliefs about females and males – represented in existing inequalities in commercials; in conversations’ in the minds, expectations or behaviour of others ; primed in our own minds by the environment – alter out self-perception, interests and behaviour.” (95)

We are  then treated to an incisive and intelligent look at the current state of science pertaining to male and female brains and shown conclusively that substantial evidence for significant brain differences simply does not exist. Fine also illuminatingly explains what she calls the 5% rule, which accounts for why so many of the media stories about this science report the opposite of this. In fact, she explains,  because there are so many neuroscience studies done, there will always be reliable number (around 5%) which show gender differences, simply due to random factors. Typically, these are studies with less participants, and of course these differences disappearing when large numbers of results are aggregated but, because the results are unexpected and conform with existing prejudices, they get far more attention, despite being unrepresentative.

Fine is also critical of modern books on gender for making elaborate inferences from incomplete data. Regaring the effects of testosterone on newborns, for example, she writes: “There’s something a little shocking about the discrepancy between the weakness of the scientific data on the one hand and the strength of the popular claims on the other.” (117). Similarly, she sees neuroscience, alongside many practitioners, as simply too rudimentary and our knowledge of the brain too incomplete to come to many firm conclusions.

The third section deals with child rearing. Here, Fine considers the evidence surrounding gender socialization among children where she demonstrates the pressure on children to adopt gender in a number of social settings and the consistent gendering that our culture creates in children’s films, books, and so on. This, in turn, make Fine sceptical about claims that ‘gender neutral’ parenting ‘doesn’t work’ because gender is simply ‘genetic’.

This allows Fine to elaborate on a final, important, point. For whatever reason, genetics in our society have come to mean ‘hardwiring’ in the sense that what is in our DNA is forever part of the core of who we are. This interpretation, however, is a long way off what contemporary science is showing.

“When it comes to genes, you get what you get. But gene activity is another story: genes switch on and off depending on what else is going on. Our environment, our behaviour, even our thinking, can all change what genes are expressed. And thinking, learning, sensing can all change neutral structure.” (177)

This, in turn creatse a situation in which the environment itself is realized within our genetic structures, within the genetic parameters which we don’t yet really understand. As Fine notes: “This neuroplasticity means that, as Kaiser puts it, the social phenomenon of gender ‘comes into the brain’ and ‘becomes part of our cerebral biology.’” (236)

I was impressed with this book not only because it laid to rest that nagging doubt that Stephen Pinker might be right and science might be at odds with what I would like to think about gender. It’s a relief to know that the science is either on my side or highly ambiguous, placing the claims of contemporary sexism are on dicernably thin ice. Despite it’s interesting range of evidence, however, the book does however have some limitations. For example, the book doesn’t seem to engage with women who are anything other than relatively middle class and presumably western, with one or two deviations here and there. As has been written, college students (who make up many of the studied subjects) are the ‘low hanging fruit’ of scientific research, so it’s no surprise to see them in abundant numbers here. Still, this makes the book seem narrower than need be the case.

A second limitation is the decision, presumably taken for tactical reasons, to avoid engaging with not just the idea of gender difference but the specific types of differences being argued for. While some of the terms of sexism have changed, the desire to prove that men are some variation of systematizing, analytical, linear, or whatever, as opposed women are networked, communicative, empathetic, and so on seems remarkably consistent, as some of Fine’s historical references show. Why these traits and not other traits? While there is too much to say on this subject to go into much detail here, the fact that Fine does not engage directly with this question occasionally leaves you with the impression that confusion about gender is an exclusively academic issue. This is unfortunate and detracts from what is otherwise an important, fun, well-informed read.






[1] Volman, Daniel The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa (Review) (2009) African Studies Review, Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 181-2

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