The un-Britishness of the zealot • 10 October 2007 • The SnowBlog

The un-Britishness of the zealot


So, Em and Anna are in Frankfurt now, and I am left in charge of feeding Em's cats. While they were getting themselves from the Flughafen to the Gasthof I was at the Cheltenham Literary Festival listening to an author speak. Having raved about her recent book, I was delighted that Naomi Klein had decided to make her way from Canada to the Cotswolds so that I could hear what she had to say in person. It was, of course, fascinating. Ms. Klein is a very good speaker and, whenever she extemporises, she's very funny too. Afterwards, there was a long, long line in the Waterstone's tent where she was signing books. I thought about joining it, wondering if I was the sort of person who values a signed copy more than an unsigned one, and if so why. I mean, a personal message from an author you know is one thing; a signature from someone who only laid eyes on you four seconds previously is... less good. But then I spied her husband and realised that I was the only one who knew who he was. So instead of queueing I had a wonderful (for me that is) chat to him about his documentary The Take and how in many ways it complimented his wife's writing. 

On the drive home I was thinking about the book, once more determined to tell people about it, to try to persuade them to read it, and at the same time aware that most people aren't interested, don't want to know and don't want me trying to nag, wheedle and plead with them to change their views. I want to persuade people, but I don't want to seem like a nut or a creepy zealot. And then I realised something: this must be a little taste of how proselytising Christians feel. They've got their favourite book, they want to change the world for the better with it - in fact they think it contains vital information everyone should be aware of. But Brits don't like people who believe anything too fervently, it doesn't matter what it is - and I include myself in that too. I know I don't want anyone talking to me about the bible because I already know it's not my sort of thing, that I don't believe 'all that stuff', even before I hear it. The difference is that I consider information about what's going on in the world genuinely important and old scriptures irrelevant - but then I would say that because I 'believe' in one and not the other.

I don't know what the answer to this is. Perhaps the parallels with Christianity end there, because a big part of the problem, I think, is with the medium. I talked to Avi Lewis (Naomi Klein's husband) about how books just don't reach most people. There are plenty of people who will watch a documentary on TV who won't read a four-hundred-page book, however good the book is. The tricky question is how to reach the remaining majority who won't watch a documentary either. The thing that gave me considerable hope was hearing that Alfonso Cuaron, who made Children of Men, and the third Harry Potter movie, wants to get involved in turning Naomi's book into a movie. Perhaps, if it's a really, really good movie it will reach enough people that its revelations become common knowledge. It wouldn't need to be as well known as the bible, just say as well known as Harry Potter. Is that asking too much? 

Just to remind everyone, here's my quick summary:

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

We're all in favour of capitalism, but it comes in different flavours. In Britain, we take for granted all sorts of socialist 'safety nets', like subsidised health care, state pensions, disability benefits, a minimum wage, unemployment benefit and fuel subsidies for the poor. But there are many influential people who believe that all the things in that list must be abolished to make way for a pure 'free market' - and while they struggle to get their way in places like Britain and America, they have more success in poorer countries - often acting in our name. For instance, when the IMF makes a loan to a poor country, they'll usually insist that the government stops giving cheap food to people who are starving. They'll insist, for instance, that water companies should be privatised, even if it means a section of the population can't afford water. They want capitalism without all the soft edges we take for granted. That benefits Western investors, Western businesses and allows Western governments to exert political pressure; it usually does so at the expense of the local people. And that's the face of the West that many in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe see. There is a rush to privatise everything and, like Russia after the fall of the wall, a few investors grab everything leaving the majority worse off. (Except that Russia was unusual: there local 'oligarchs' grabbed everything; normally it's foreigners who end up owning everything worth having.) And now that trend is coming to the West. America is privatising war, disaster relief, prisons, policing - even torture. And every time there's a disaster - a terrorist attack, a war, a hurricane, a flood - it's an opportunity to hand out more private contracts and to rush through more legislation to limit what ordinary people can do and to expand what corporations are allowed to take on. There are forty-thousand mercenaries in Iraq, working for companies like Blackwater. And these days, so many companies make money from spying, security and 'reconstruction' that the stock market goes up when there's a disaster. Free-market capitalism with no restraints may be good for 'the economy' as a whole, but that's just another way of saying that the super-rich make so much money it outweighs the losses of everyone else in the country. That's not what most people want and the only way it's allowed to happen is because most people don't know about it. That's why the book is important. Click to buy


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