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Throughout the argument, Saul points out that historically, it is not through a blinding respect for one (sometimes isolated) principle that Western societies have developed, but that it is through careful (humanist) consideration of the complex and interrelated problems that constantly confront the varying interests of society. Though sometimes appalling in its generalizations and uncited factual accounts, the book is a satirical and correct swipe at our use of language sure to affect your own analysis of daily events.
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Read this novel first and then follow up with Christopher Moore's "Gods of Darkness."
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Not satisfied with hurtling the literary hand-grenade of the 1990's, "Voltaire's Bastards", into the midst of our oblivious Western society, John Ralston Saul has now equipped his metaphorical sniper rifle, and in his crosshairs is the 'deviant class' which has destabilized our American dream. In "The Unconscious Civilization", Saul targets 'corporatist' groups, the special interests (both economic and social) which have lulled citizens into replacing their own thoughts with those of factions who magically (and absurdly) claim to represent their beliefs and dreams.
"One of the difficulties faced by citizens today is making sense of what is presented as material for public debate, but is actually no more than the formalized propaganda of interest groups. It is very rare now in public debate to hear from someone who is not the official voice of an organization."
Characteristic of Saul's previous work, "The Unconscious Civilization" is a firm, wind-knocking shot to the gut. But luckily for you, your opponent is also teaching you how to fight. Hear him shout: 'Stand up, slothful citizen. Your constitution is failing.'
"The statistics of our crisis are clear and unforgiving. Yet they pass us by--in newspapers, on television, in conversations--as if they were not reality. Or rather, as if we were unable to convert knowledge into action."
Do you feel protected by the Internet, by the millions of voices which you feel will conglomerate to represent you? So how's it working for you so far? Sure we have information, but what the hell good is it doing for the spirit of our nation?
"Knowledge is more effectively used today to justify wrong being done than to prevent it. This raises an important question about the role of freedom of speech. We have a great deal of it. But if it has little practical effect on reality, then it is not really freedom of speech. Without utility, speech is just decorative."
In this work, Saul scopes out the corporatist mindset, the coalescence of many minds into one body with only one voice (corpus from Latin, meaning body), which has invaded business, politics, and civil society alike. The result is chilling, for when we rise to speak, we find our individual words have different meanings to each of these bodies. As a consequence, we are learning to speak less.
"In a corporatist society there is no serious need for traditional censorship or burning, although there are regular cases. It is as if our language itself is responsible for our inability to identify and act upon reality."
We may be blind to the corporatist processes, but we should be able to fairly see their results. In politics: 38% voter turnout rates, lowest political convention viewership, the quashing of third-party voices; in business: the plastering of disclaimers, sloganeering, and that opaque wall of business-speak between every salesman and their customer; in civil society: the inability to progress in conversation without soundbites, and the number of people who flat-out don't want to talk to you.
This partition of words has not obstructed John Ralston Saul, though. An advocate of "aggressive common sense", Saul portrays himself correctly as a classic liberal, defender and klaxon for the citizen, neither champion nor foe of the marketplace.
"The market does not lead, balance, or encourage democracy. However, properly regulated it is the most effective way to conduct business."
"Every important characteristic of both individualism and democracy has preceded the key economic events of our millennium. What's more, it was these characteristics that made most of the economic events possible, not vice-versa."
John Ralston Saul's work consists of five chapters loosely based off a series of 1995 lectures at the University of Toronto. Like "Voltaire's Bastards", Saul here is discursive and entertaining; each chapter is a new dive into an invigorating Arctic lake of realization. Chapter One, "The Great Leap Backwards" launches the assault. The remaining chapters focus on reconstruction... their titles: "From Propaganda to Language", "From Corporatism to Democracy", "From Managers and Speculators to Growth", "From Ideology Towards Equilibrium".
Moderately mistitled (resulting in a one-point demerit in the overall review score), a more appropriate title for this book would have been "The Corporatist Civilization". A true attack on the 'unconscious' among us would have been welcome, though Saul does meander briefly into this realm,with a few sections that fit cozily into the overall thesis:
"Perhaps the difficulty with the psychoanalytic movement is that from the beginning it has sent out a contradictory message: Learn to know yourself--your unconscious, the greater unconscious. This will help you to deal with reality. On the other hand, you are in the grip of great primeval forces--unknown and unseen--and even if you do know and see them, it is they who must dominate."
One-quarter the size of "Voltaire's Bastards", Saul this time out initiates a concise attack: on utopias, ideology, technocracy, demagoguery, and group mentality... all of which direct the individual to replace their view of the world with that of an 'official spokesman', eerily reversing the vector of our society towards a fascist state. An insightful read; terse, but somewhat condensed and abstract at places. The trade-offs are more than acceptable, though. Steel yourself for a barrage of Truth.
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This book is an attack on the rational system of thinking that has produced a world of technocrats and second rate managers, kept the United States in a wartime economy for 50 years and enveloped our government in a cult of secrecy. Saul's attacks- whether they be against the political system, modern culture or our convoluted economy- are dead on. As Jim Hoagland stated in his Washington Post review, "Voltaire's Bastards is a hand grenade disguised as a book."
Though Saul's writing style can be a tad stilted and occasionaly repetitious, this book is very well written- despite comments to the contrary in other reviews. Whatever flaws one chooses to find in Saul's writing style, they certainly don't detract from the overall importance of this major work.
I recommend that anyone who is even remotely concered with the course modern civilization is taking should read this book.
gives, I believe, some convincing reasons why. Fed as we are by the propaganda of those who profit from the world as it is, Saul's book is a refreshing and sobering reminder that we must act to change the path we are on.
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