Derek J Wilson
Steele Roberts, $59.95,
It’s been a drawn-out business preparing this review. For the first week after the great volume (472 pages long) bumped through the letterbox, it sat on the window sill, glowering at me. At breakfast time, I glowered back, and told myself that even a flip through the pages of a book titled Five Holocausts would quite put me off my muesli. So I got on with the Dominion Post crossword. As the days went by, my avoidance behaviour worsened. No, I said, I feel haunted by one holocaust, I don’t want to know about any more. After all, it is early springtime; the tuis are chortling from kowhai to flowering cherry; the Government seems to be getting the country to rights; and I’m picking up the grandchildren after school for a run on the beach. The last thing I need is to read a book with a cover showing a ticking bomb and people with their heads in the sand.
Eventually, of course, I had to open Five Holocausts, if only because I’ve long admired its author, Derek Wilson – good architect, dedicated researcher, passionate and tireless advocate for sanity. After ten pages I was caught up in his intense, uncompromising, compelling book. Like the Ancient Mariner, Derek Wilson “[held me] with his glittering eye”, and “[I could not] choose but hear.”
And what I heard most strongly was the powerful question that begins his section on militarism – “Are my sons and their sons and untold millions of other sons and daughters to be sacrificed, wittingly and unwittingly, to the machinations of men and their insatiable lust and greed for power and wealth or to the frightening fanaticism of religious zealots?” Until then, enjoying the tuis and tussling with the daily crossword, I had managed to avoid this enormous question. Now Five Holocausts has forced me to confront it.
Over 260 pages of closely detailed text, Derek Wilson describes many aspects of the lamentably selfish and damaging behaviour in which humankind has indulged for centuries, bringing us by 2002 to a state where we could be destroyed within days, while our planet could collapse within years. Humanity’s sins (to use the old language) are catalogued in five areas – the “holocausts”– war and militarism; human oppression; economic destitution; ecological/environmental destruction; and the population explosion. As you can imagine, it is a chillingly moral book.
At first I did my best to dismiss it as a jeremiad, the diatribe of a sour puritan prophet railing against wicked generations. Derek Wilson is angered by the cupidity and stupidity of so many who call themselves leaders, and his book carries strong echoes of Isaiah and Jeremiah. But while the ancient prophets offered their miscreant people the chance of divine rescue – “Honour the law, tremble in the Presence of the Lord and everything will be OK” – Derek Wilson lets us know, uncompromisingly, that it is all down to us. “Straighten up and fly right,” he says, “or we’re all gone.”
Five Holocausts makes it clear that the problem isn’t other people’s poverty: it is our greed. Not their politics, but our militarism; not their low production, but our selfish distribution; not their low growth, but our high waste. And while the actions of evil people are the cause of much of the world’s misery, it is the inaction of good people (and we hope he includes us among them) that allows those evil people to succeed.
The first five sections tell how global capitalists, despots, megalomaniacs, and similarly wicked people have developed and used systems such as trilateralism, SLAPPS, Round Tables, Think Tanks, structural adjustment, GATT, WTO, MAI, state terror, poverty traps, and all manner of other devices to control events and economies so they can take and keep power and money. Then, in the three most intriguing sections (“Our Common Future”, “A Matter of Survival” and “Investing in Peace”), Derek Wilson moves into a more positive mood and tells us how he thinks we should approach the “Herculean but not insuperable task” of “markedly changing those policies and patterns which are causing irreversible damage to humankind and its habitat.”
I hope thousands of people read Five Holocausts and are persuaded to start making those changes, but I think Derek Wilson might have helped his case somewhat if he had not come on so hot and strong. The tone throughout is didactic and dark. From page one, you know that this is going to be a gloomy journey and the only new thing you are likely to discover is the author’s conviction that the forces of darkness are winning the battle between good and evil hands down.
I think I might have offered my support more readily if Derek Wilson had encouraged me ever so slightly by mentioning one or two of our (admittedly minor) successes. For example, our generation has been the first for some time to avoid world war. The British, French, Dutch and Belgian empires have been largely dismantled, and their former subjects are beginning to control their own affairs, despite new types of colonialism. The Cold War has ended, and millions more people now live in what can be called democracies than was the case 60 years ago. In our own country, Wilson acknowledges the Hikoi of Hope, but I couldn’t find much mention of a more representative Parliament, the advancement of women, the work of the Waitangi Tribunal, the rescue of Te Reo and the Maori Renaissance, our anti-nuclear stance, much stronger environmental awareness, and moves to correct the extremes of Rogernomics. These are a few positive glimmers, a few policies and developments of which we can be proud. A word about some of them would have relieved the gloom and set us forward with hope.
Here and there, the great volume has something of a “scrap-book” feel, with snippets of vaguely related information included not as cogent evidence, but because they had caught the author’s attention during his huge research task. For example, most of the material about the world wars is familiar and somewhat randomly selected. Jokes about politicians don’t really tell us much, and while I am sure that people who have power and are determined to use it for their own benefit are far more cunning than the rest of us, it is difficult to take seriously the book’s briefly supported assertion that “upheavals, revolutions and wars … down through the ages … have been largely contrived, organised and manipulated by Freemasons, Brotherhoods, Grand Lodges, Round Tables and other secret societies under the direction of … a Global Elite.” Tougher editing would have helped.
These minor cavils apart, Five Holocausts certainly earned and held my attention. I cannot say that I read it from cover to cover – at almost 500 close-packed pages, it is more a work of reference than a sustained narrative. But once started on the story of a holocaust, I stayed with it, compelled by the length and breadth of the evidence presented, and drawn along by Derek Wilson’s scourging admonitions. The reference notes and bibliography are excellent, and almost every page carries an apt illustration or a clever cartoon.
And please don’t make the mistake I made, and try to discount this as a gloomy book directed at people far away. Five Holocausts is for and about us and our follies and failures. One copy at least should be lodged in every classroom, newsroom, NGO office and library in Aotearoa New Zealand. It challenges us, and, more valuably, helps us with scores of practical ideas, to start living and working for a future that will give our children and grandchildren some chance of a peaceful life, and a viable planet on which to live it.
Ian Johnstone is a Wellington broadcaster and writer.