January 2009

2009 01 30
Recently read: The Forever War

Posted by in: Books, The Iraq War

Dexter Filkins. The Forever War

The Forever War begins in Afghanistan in 1998 and devotes a few opening chapters to that time and place, but most of the book is devoted to Iraq and the three and a half years that Filkins spent there as a reporter for the New York Times. Filkins touches on political events and characters, but he does not really attempt the sort of larger structural analysis of the situation in Iraq that many books on the subject offer. He also provides an indirect look at the terrible forces at work on Iraqis during those bleak years, but unlike reporters like Anthony Shadid or Nir Rosen, Filkins doesn’t speak Arabic, and so much of what we learn from him about Iraqis and their lives is filtered through translators, and an honestly confessed cultural incomprehension on his part.

What we really get from Filkins in this book is a very finely written account of what it is like to be a reporter in a war zone. He travels through Fallujah days before the four contractors are killed, then travels back in in the company of Marine’s taking over the city block by block. He jogs through Baghdad in the early days of the occupation, before it becomes too dangerous. He travels to the South of the country to talk with the Mahdi as they clash with government forces. And he noses about the city, with a surprising tolerance for danger, writing about kidnappings, politicians, ethnic cleansing, disappearances, and more.

Filkins attacks his subject from a variety of angles over a series of chronologically and thematically disconnected chapters, none of them very long, some as brief as a single page. Taken singly, the anecdotes are compelling and readable. Cumulatively, they build an atmosphere and a complex impression of his subject very effectively.

Filkins’ time in Iraq covered the very worst years for the country after the beginning of the occupation. Recently, and after his book came out, he returned (he’s currently on assignment in Afghanistan) to Iraq and wrote a frankly astonished piece about how far the country had come since he left it, if not politically then at least in terms of safety and stability. My own sense is that the country is more likely than not to collapse into a full blown civil war within the decade, rather than emerge slowly but surely from the carnage of the last few years. But we’ll see; with a bit of luck I’ll be wrong again. Certainly Filkin’s most recent piece on Iraq is much lighter than this very dark book about that troubled place.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 01 28
Recently read: My Man Jeeves

Posted by in: Books

P.G. Wodehouse. My Man Jeeves

This is a collection of early Wodehouse stories. If you’ve never read Wodehouse, his stories and books always involve convoluted plots, upper class (though not always wealthy) characters behaving in very silly ways, and happy endings. None of the stories in this collection is especially strong, but they were entertaining enough. If you want to start with Wodehouse, this is probably not the best place. For that, you might check out Code of the Woosters.

By the way, I was prompted to start reading Wodehouse by Anthony Lane’s wonderful piece on him in the New Yorker a few years ago—one of the best appreciations of a writer that I’ve ever read. Sadly, it seems to be restricted to subscribers, but it’s worth reading if you can get your hands on it.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 01 27
Recently read: Ways of Seeing

Posted by in: Art, Books

John Berger.* Ways of Seeing

This book is based on a BBC television series that originally aired in 1972.** It contains seven essays, three of which are entirely pictorial. The first essay develops a few ideas about the influence of modern mechanical reproduction on visual art – ideas that, we are told (and I had to be told, since I haven’t read him yet), are due to Walter Benjamin. Other essays take up the tradition of nude painting and subject it to feminist criticism; explore the distinctive features of European oil painting; and then compare the tradition of European oil painting with modern advertising.

Berger develops these themes in interesting and provocative ways. Regarding the female nude, Berger stresses the way in which the unnatural poses so often adopted by women in paintings is related to the viewer’s gaze. The female nude twists, often unnaturally, toward the viewers gaze (and often unnaturally away from the gaze of the male subject in the painting, when she has company) in ways that would be entirely unnatural for a male subject. The supine posture of the female nude in the European tradition is not only impossible to find in depictions of men within the same tradition. As Berger points out, it is also absent in non-European traditions of depicting nakedness. All this might be obvious to you, but Berger’s discussion was very helpful at getting me to notice things I tend to miss otherwise.

The same is true of Berger’s discussion of the tradition of oil painting, which I can hardly do justice to here. Berger, developing a basically Marxist insight, is interested in the way that the tradition fits into the interests of successive ruling classes over several hundred years. He thinks that what is really distinctive about oil painting is its ability to depict objects in an exceptionally realistic and lifelike way. He suggests that in oil painting, “a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil paintings, and could not have found it in any other visual art.” Is this true? I have no idea, but Berger at least discusses obvious counterexamples (some great paintings) and classes of counterexamples (landscape painting, for example).

I think Ways of Seeing is the first book on art that I have ever read. It turns out to have been a great place to start. My first impression of the book, however, wasn’t as favourable as my opinion when I turned the last page. Berger is given to the oracular mode, which is always annoying, but most of all when you’re being told something dubious or false. Here we are, for example, close to the very beginning of the book, and getting ready to think about ways of seeing:

To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it. (Close your eyes, move round the room and notice how the faculty of touch is like a static, limited form of sight.

The first sentence here is a pretty mundane observation, decked out in pretentious language. The second sentence strikes me as false, silly, or trivial, depending on how exactly we load up the “like” with meaning—and Berger moves on from this point without suggesting how we might do that.

The book might rub other readers the wrong way for being unapologetically indebted to a Marxist perspective in its cultural criticism. (I’ve got no beef with this in particular. Indeed Marx seems a potentially rich source of insight on all sorts of cultural matters.) Here’s a nice example:

Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged an individual right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.

I’m not sure whether that’s true, or what ways exactly that it’s true and false, but it’s not the sort of passage you’d expect to run across in a popular and influential book published today—especially the casual reference to the “overthrow of capitalism.”

But wait! Come back! This is really a remarkable book, both stimulating and provocative. Berger had me looking at, and thinking about looking at, visual art in ways that I never had before. This may be partly a reflection of where I’m starting from —with very little natural aptitude in this area or experience appreciating visual art—but I doubt that’s the whole story. So: recommended.

* John Berger gets his name on the cover, as the principal author and thinker behind both the series and the book, but an unsigned “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of the book distributes authorship more broadly among five contributors. I couldn’t find their names anywhere in the book. Wikipedia has them, of course, but references the very book in which I couldn’t find any mention of them. Oh well.

** I haven’t seen it and, sadly, it’s not on Netflix. (As of this writing, the phrase “not on Netflix” has only 1,740 occurrences on Google. “Sadly, it’s not on Netflix” has 5 hits.)

Howls of outrage (5)

2009 01 25

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I was taking a walk this afternoon when I passed two people trying to park a car on the side of the street. The car was in neutral, the engine off. A woman was steering. A man who looked at least 70, and very tired, was pushing ineffectually at the rear of the car and saying something like, “Turn the wheel to the right. You need to turn the wheel to the right.”

I walked over and said, “Excuse me, do you need a hand pushing?”

And he turned to me and, without any trace of sarcasm or hostility or anything that might have led me to think he was being anything but serious, said “Oh, no thanks. We’ll turn the engine on if we need to.”

Howls of outrage (12)

2009 01 22
Recently read: Gomorrah

Posted by in: Books, Organized Crime

Roberto Saviano. Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System

Roberto Saviano is in hiding now—that, apparently, is what you get for writing an international bestseller about organized crime in Italy. His Gomorrah is an undeniably brave book, but it also reads as though it were the product of some deep compulsion, as if he sat down and the words poured out of him in a single session, as if he hardly had a choice about whether to write it or not.

Saviano knows his subject intimately, but seems also to have retained the capacity for outrage and shock that you might expect to be diminished by long exposure. His book details the way that the Camorra, the crime organizations around Naples, have wormed their way into just about every facet of the Italian (and frequently, by extension, good parts of the European) economy. It’s hardly surprising to read that the Camorra controls the drug trade, or that it’s heavily involved in an industry like construction. More discomfiting is the news that it is deeply implicated in everything from garbage collection to the world of fashion and clothing to the distribution of consumer goods that illegally slip past customs into the port of Naples from China, and so on and on. For 300 pages Saviano sets out the economic activities of the Camorra, along with the killings and clan wars that have claimed thousands of clan members and innocents alike.

This bitter, disturbing depiction of a society in the firm grip of organized crime leads naturally to the question of how Italy, or any society in a similar predicament, ever manages to escape from such a mess. One of the things that makes Gomorrah such a disturbing book is that Saviano has very little to say about what might be done, so consumed is he simply by the desire to state exactly what he knows as precisely and vividly as possible. But perhaps all the attention recently lavished on the book is, on top of the simple fact of its existence, some modest sign of hope.

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2009 01 20
Predictions: Looking back edition

Posted by in: Predictions

This prediction is pretty vague, but I think it’s safe to say it was wrong:

The Bush team behaves in a deeply unprofessional way during the transition. The media’s response is disappointingly tepid.

I’m sure we’ll find out later about some of the crap that Bush has pulled, but he appears at this point to have avoided anything like the orgy of badness I was anticipating. He also avoided a Mark Rich-style debacle. And, much to my surprise, I was wrong in predicting that Bush would pardon Pollard.

Do I ever get anything right? Well, I think reality has been much kinder to my 2006 Iran/US predictions, which also come due today.

Howls of outrage (7)

2009 01 20
Inaugural address

Posted by in: U.S. politics

I thought this was a classy touch in Obama’s inaugural address:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.

Damn straight “non-believers.” Without intending any disrespect to Hindus, they appear to comprise 0.4% of the country, whereas “Unaffiliated” (broken down into Atheist, Agnostic, and Nothing in Particular) make up a whopping 16.1%, according to the same source. If I’m not mistaken, they also make up 100% of this august blog.

I watched the address on the video feed of the NYT side. Some cheeky producer made the decision to flash over to the camera trained on Bush during this bit:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

It was a nice, though not terribly subtle, acknowledgment that Obama was taking a good swipe at Bush and his legacy with those words—though it also clearly wasn’t the only swipe in the speech. I hope Obama remembers those words, and I hope you do too.

Howls of outrage (12)

2009 01 18
Recently read: Panic

Posted by in: Books, Financial markets

Michael Lewis. Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

If you want to learn how to read the news, the current edition of your favourite newspaper or magazine is not the best place to start. There, you’ll find assumptions, supposed facts, arguments, prejudices and opinions galore, but even if they seem dubious, you’ll often need to wait a long time to take the full measure of the errors. No, the best way to learn how to read the news is by spending time with newspapers and magazines that are long past their recycle date. Read those and see for yourself: almost all of the time almost everybody is completely fucked in the head. Once you’ve got solid confirmation of that most basic of facts about the world, you’re ready to open up (in your browser, of course) the day’s paper.

This is what makes anthologies of dated popular writing so valuable and interesting. Michael Lewis’ recent book Panic is an excellent addition to the genre.* It covers the story of several panics and crashes in the world of finance since the market crash of 1987. The selections for each crisis give an example or two of pre-crash reporting (sometimes eerily prescient, sometimes hilariously backwards), followed by a series of postmortems.

Lewis has been writing about the markets for a while now. He was present as a bond trader during the 1987 crash, and left the financial world afterward to write a smart, funny book about the experience, Liar’s Poker. And luckily for readers of Panic he hasn’t been too modest to omit selections from some of his more recent writing about the financial world. These selections are among the best in the book. In addition to the 1987 crash, Panic covers the Asian currency collapse of the late 90s, the bursting of the dot com bubble, and our most recent mess sparked by the collapse of the subprime mortgage market.

Rounding out the book is a helpful glossary by Chris Benz, one of five interns who helped Lewis put together the selections. The glossary will help orient readers who aren’t quite up on all the financial jargon. In the case of this especially ignorant reader—I don’t really understand yet exactly how even the most basic financial instruments are supposed to work—the glossary wasn’t quite enough to get me through a few of the slightly more technical pieces toward the beginning of the book. But the relentless logic of these crashes is clear enough: building prices, hype, outsized gains for those who get in early, followed by a stampede to the door that is typically cruelest to those latest to join the party. This does not mean that all crashes are created equal. Indeed, the selections are also well chosen in the way they illustrate differences as well. In one especially interesting essay, Lewis argues that the dot com bubble had socially useful benefits that the other bubbles clearly lack.

So, good stuff and probably worth your time.

* A genre which includes the absolutely superb anthologies of mainstream writing about the first and second gulf wars respectively, The Gulf War Reader and The Iraq War Reader, both edited by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf.

Howls of outrage (6)

2009 01 13
Recently read: French Kiss

Chantal Hébert. French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec

The Conservative Party of Canada today is the product of a merger between the Western-based Reform party and the much older Progressive Conservative Party that contested for power with the Liberals for most of the life of the country. (The merger, when it was first proposed, was very briefly called the Conservative Reform Alliance Party until someone worked out the acronym.) Although the merger with the Progressive Conservative Party softened the edges of the Reform portion of the new party, much of the party remains rooted in Reform’s culture of Western alienation, fiscal conservatism, and an often jaundiced view of Quebec’s aspirations. This legacy is hardly an asset when the Conservative Party comes calling in socially progressive Quebec, or the often-economically troubled Eastern provinces.

And yet, in the 2006 federal election, the Conservative Party managed to pull out a surprisingly strong show of support within Quebec. In the same election, the NDP, the left-most leaning party in Parliament, managed to continue its miserable showing in Quebec, the most socially progressive province in the country. Meanwhile, Bloc Québécois (BQ), the Federal wing of the province’s separatist movement, had to face the fact that the Conservatives, rather than their own party, had picked up many of the votes that the Liberals lost. Had the decade and a half of participation by the BQ in Federal politics led, paradoxically, to a greater level of engagement on the part of Quebecers with the rest of the country?

These and other mysteries of Canadian politics are the subject of Chantal Hébert’s French Kiss. It’s a good, insightful book, and I learned a great deal from it about the country that I’ve been slowly drifting out of touch with over the last ten years of living in the United States.

Hébert examines the carefully laid groundwork that preceded Harper’s 2006 breakthrough in Quebec. Enough wooing preceded Harper’s breakthrough to call into question the appropriateness of the book’s subtitle. As for the basis of the attraction, Hébert argues against much of the conventional wisdom about Quebec in relation to the rest of the country: that patronage politics is the royal road to electoral prosperity in the province; that Quebecers would reject a Prime Minister who didn’t hail from the province; that the socially progressive province would never be a match for a federal right-leaning party.

Hébert points out how poorly supported many of these conventional assumptions are. In fact, Harper’s pledge to stick to federal responsibilities found a receptive hearing in Quebec, which was never keen on Federal meddling. And Quebecers may be socially progressive, but they tend to look to the provincial government for the realization of their progressive values. And no wonder. It’s not just a separatist impulse that is responsible for this tendency. After the federal budget slashing of the 90s, the federal government’s fondness for agenda setting in matters of provincial jurisdiction has not been consistently matched with funding to support those priorities.

This last point is part (though only a part) of the story, Hébert argues, behind the NDP’s poor showing in Quebec. The NDP’s fixation with the notion that social justice is best realized (and enforced) at the federal level is an irritant in a province that prefers to run its own programs its own way.

So, very interesting stuff. Two reservations—well, ok, one and a half—about the book. First, French Kiss is clearly written for politically informed Canadians. If you’re not informed about Canadian politics but this blog post has suddenly filled you with a lust for knowledge, I think you’re going to have to look elsewhere for an introduction to the subject. Hébert often alludes in passing to facts, events, controversies and so on without explaining them in a way that would allow outsiders into the conversation. It’s too bad, because not only do I think Canada is a fascinating country, but I think I would find Canada a fascinating country even if I weren’t Canadian. And perhaps you would too, outsider.

That was the half-reservation. The other reservation, the one which I have no reservation calling a full reservation, is that very often the quality of Hébert’s writing fails to match the high quality of her analysis. Sometimes we get not only prose weighed down by cliches and stale images, but a series of jarringly different stale images in rapid succession:

. . . the federal Liberals were about to fly blind into the perfect storm of the sponsorship scandal with only a skeleton crew on board, and endure a barrage of sovereigntist flak. . . The sponsorship scandal was the poison pill of Paul Martin’s prime ministership, but it need not have been fatal. A mouse of an affair got the better of a political elephant.

So in the space of a few lines the scandal morphs in the reader’s imagination from a storm to a pill to a mouse. Or rather, it would morph in the reader’s imagination but by this point most readers, realizing that Hébert herself doesn’t have a clear image in her mind, will have stopped assuming that she intends to produce one in them. In this way prose is drained of its vivacity. Here is Hébert describing the effect of Buzz Hargrove’s appearance at a Liberal rally:

It was a shot across the bow of the NDP and its leader, Jack Layton, that would reverberate until voting day.

That does not, strictly speaking, make sense, does it? A shot across a bow flies past the bow. If anything reverberates after a shot across the bow—does it?—it isn’t the shot, it’s the bow. But never mind whether this makes sense, since in a few lines we’re about to be too grossed out to care:

At the tail end of the campaign, Buzz Hargrove hit the panic button—and it virtually blew his finger off, showering Paul Martin with debris in the process.

Ew! Paul Martin standing on the still-reverberating bow of a ship covered in Hargrove-bits!

It’s interesting to consider how far Canadian politics has already moved since Hébert’s book was published in 2007. Since the 2006 election, we’ve had another election (in October 2008) in which Harper managed match his 10 seat showing in Quebec from the 2006 vote, but dipped in the popular vote in the province from 24.6% to 21.7%, while the Liberals picked up a seat and a good part of the popular vote that the Conservatives lost. Returned to Parliament with a slightly strengthened minority government, Harper then badly blundered, all but forcing the Liberals, NDP and BQ into an informal coalition that threatened to topple him. Harper appears to have survived the crisis, but in the meantime his public relations strategy was heavy on vilification of the BQ. Whether this will hurt him in the long run in the province remains to be seen. But it is clear that he will have a difficult, if not impossible time, governing Canada without Quebec. My hope is that Quebec has seen enough at this point to toss Harper to the curb, hit the panic button, turn the plane around, and ride the elephant of good sense past the mouse of the federal Conservatives on to a brighter Canadian future.

Howls of outrage (7)

2009 01 11
Recently read: Bonk

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Mary Roach. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

As the title indicates, this book is about the science of sex, but unlike the recently reviewed Science of Orgasm, the science is presented in a way that is much more accessible to a lay reader. Not content to offer a clear and readable overview of modern sexology and its many intriguing questions, Roach was also clearly aiming to write a funny book. In this she certainly succeeded, but, as they say, ymmv. Roach can be funny—indeed, at times, absolutely hilarious. But the book is so chock full of jokes and wisecracks, which are, I’m sorry to report, of vastly varying quality, that at times it was almost too much even for me (of all people). At times. But in the end the book is undeniably a lot of fun and certainly worth reading. And if I’m going to report that I groaned over a few of the jokes, I should also admit that I found it very difficult to put down.

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2009 01 10
Recently read: Through a Window

Posted by in: Books, Primatology

Jane Goodall. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe

When Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees in the 1960s, it was not considered proper to speculate about the mental states of animals. Animal ethology was at the time very much influenced by behaviourism, which was then still influential in the study of human beings, and also by much deeper and longer running currents in Western thinking about animals. As Goodall tells it, she escaped the dominant fashion in animal ethology because she was launched fortuitously without any formal training into the study of chimpanzees in Gombe, now a national park in Tanzania, by Louis Leaky, and only came into contact with the prevailing wisdom about animals when she subsequently went to Cambridge for doctoral work. By this point, the Goodall story goes, she had accumulated too much naive experience simply observing animals to accept the standard party line.

This story strikes me as possibly a bit too modest. Goodall seems to me much too tenacious, too temperamentally biased against then current assumptions about animals, and too sharp to have settled for them in some counterfactual world in which formal training preceded fieldwork. In any case, one of her accomplishments over a long and celebrated career was to help overturn many of the assumptions then current in animal ethology and primatology, with work that stands as a model of empathetic observation and engagement.

Through a Window is about that long career, filled with reflections accumulated over a lifetime of such observation. Much of the book narrates various happenings in the champanzee communities in Gombe, as observed by Goodall herself and other scientists and helpers in the park. Goodall relates the rise and fall of various alpha males in shifting networks of coalitions and alliances; a series of cannibalistic infanticides practiced by a mother-daughter team of chimpanzees on other weaker mothers and their infants; her discovery of tool use among chimpanzees; the fate of a splinter group of chimpanzees inhabiting a dangerous sliver of territory between two other groups; and more. If you find such stories fascinating and addictive, as I do, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book.

The account also has all of marks of Goodall’s particular brand of engagement with her subjects. She does not affect the traditional pose of scientific detachment, for example, while relating the series of infanticides. She is (understandably) horrified and even angry. Even more interesting, I thought, was her statement that after the first infanticide, she and her research team were determined to intervene to prevent another such incident, if they could. The statement raises interesting questions about the relationship between the observed and the observers that her book does not really address. The desire to intervene in such cases must be strong, but I wonder if enough interventions of this kind would leave the researchers with a distorted view of wild chimpanzee behavior and their group dynamics. I had similar questions about the treatment of some chimpanzees with medicine and the use of bananas in researcher/chimp interactions. (As it turns out, there appears to be some controversy (under “Criticism”) about precisely this last worry among primatologists. Goodal touches on this issue at the end of the book, but in a way that seemed to me perhaps in some tension with earlier parts of it.)

But I’ll leave these worries to the primatologists. The most striking thing for a layperson in books such as Goodall’s (or Frans de Waal’s, to name another well-known primatologist—see his engrossing Peacemaking Among Primates, for example) is how engaging the narratives are. So much about human beings is unique in its character and its complexity. But for all that, we share a great deal in common with other animals too, and the most with chimpanzees, our closest cousins. Goodal has a real talent for bringing out both the contrasts and the points of comparison with these stories, and that’s reason enough to recommend giving this book a try.

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2009 01 06
Recently read: The Iron Cage

Rashid Khalidi. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood

The story of Palestinian dispossession and statelessness begins in the transfer of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire to the British in the aftermath of World War I. The terms of the League of Nations mandate under which the British assumed responsibility for the territory encouraged the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” but in the same breath warned that “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

How exactly these aspirations came to find expression in the space of a single sentence, let alone a single document purporting to articulate a workable plan for the territory, is not clear. In 1922 the Jewish population of Palestine was a little under 10% of the total. Even in the 1930s, after the waves of immigration to Palestine that followed Hitler’s rise, and the shutting of other borders around the world to Jews (including, to their eternal discredit, those of the U.S. and Canada), the Jewish share of the population remained about a third of the total. This move to establish a national home for a single minority was hardly welcome to what the terms of the Mandate delicately refer to as the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” And indeed, it was clear to less myopic Zionists that, given the natural resistance of the then current inhabitants of Palestine, the establishment of such a national home would eventually require the mass “transfer”—ethnic cleansing—of a significant portion of that population. This is exactly what later happened when war broke out in response to the founding of Israel after WW II.

The stage was set for tragedy early, then, with a mix of desperate Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitic persecution in Europe, in search of a national home for which there was now some plausible basis in international law; British colonialism, with all its stupidity, mismanagement, double dealing, and arrogance; and the growing nationalism of the Palestinian people out of the old political order of the Ottoman Empire.

Rashid Khalidi’s superb Iron Cage examines this tragedy, with a special focus on the many causes of enduring Palestinian statelessness, past and present. It is a remarkable work, characterized by moral sophistication and a refusal to settle for simplistic narratives. Khalidi is acutely aware that the Palestinians faced considerable odds from the start in their own struggle for national rights. The influence of the British, the Arab nations, and then later the U.S., as a staunch and deeply biased supporter of Israel, has deeply disadvantaged the Palestinians in their struggle for recognition as a people deserving a national home of their own. It is impossible to understand the Palestinian predicament without grasping the larger forces acting against them throughout their troubled history.

But Khalidi is also motivated by a respect for Palestinian agency, which means an insistence on treating the Palestinians as always more than passive victims of events that befall them. Although facing very long odds, Khalidi argues cogently, Palestinian leadership during the Mandate period failed, among other things, to develop the state or para-state capacities which would have served it well in the coming confrontation with Israel. Many of the failings of the Palestinian Authority after Oslo were continuous with this original failure to prepare in a serious way for the eventual responsibilities of statehood. Subsequent Palestinian responses to Israel were often incoherent on the uses and limitations of political violence, and deeply ambivalent about the shape of a final settlement that might be both plausible and acceptable. A discussion of the successes and failures of Arafat, and the dismal mess made of things by the Oslo Accords rounds out Khalidi’s remarkably balanced treatment of this subject.

A final word about the author might be in order. For those who have short memories, Rashid Khalidi was recently the target of some vicious rhetoric during John McCain’s recent Presidential bid. Having finally gotten around to reading Khalidi’s book, I now think that McCain couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate target in his attempt to smear Obama by association.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 01 04

Posted by in: Anecdotal, New York City

I was in the mood for a stroll yesterday morning, so I took the subway to the North end of Manhattan and then walked from the point at which Broadway enters Manhattan from the Bronx down its entire length to where it stops not far from the Southernmost tip of the island.

It’s a nice walk. Google Earth tells me that it’s about 13.5 miles, or 21.5 kilometres. But most of the walking is flat, or on a gentle grade, and there’s a lot to look at. I took a leisurely pace, and stopped a number of times, and the whole walk took me less than 5 hours.

Great waves of money have washed over Manhattan in the last decade or so, destroying a lot of its social and economic diversity. So a walk down Broadway doesn’t offer the same crosscut of Manhattan society that it once did. Still, there’s plenty of variety on that one road.

Broadway begins in Manhattan on a very modest note, in a sort of ugly industrial squalor. To get there, you take the 1 train to 215th St in Manhattan, and then walk a few blocks North. Then you turn around and begin walking South, through Inwood, under the George Washington Bridge, through Washington Heights, getting glimpses of the Hudson River at each of the side streets for a time, then past Harlem, and Columbia, the Upper West Side, drawing away from the West side of the island as you move South, past Lincoln Center, through Columbus Circle, where Broadway finally, briefly touches Central Park, and then on into the canyon of buildings that leads up to Times Square, with its crowds of tourists, and cops, and street preachers, and then past Herald Square and Korea Way on 32nd st., and then past Union Square, and the Strand Bookstore, and Houston, finally leaving the numbered streets behind, and then past Canal and Chinatown, and City Hall, though the financial district and right to the end, by a statue of a Bull, symbol of a prosperous stock market, which faces up Broadway, and which seems to be surrounded by tourists at any hour of the day snapping shots of it, as if worshiping the symbol of a departed god.

No small part of Manhattan’s appeal is the modesty of its geographical size relative to its ambitions and its accomplishments. This makes for an incredible density of visual and architectural experience and historical reference, but on a scale that is walkable, and so both human and accessible. It’s an amazing city, and one way into it, into its life and its energy and its accomplishment, is to take an afternoon, and walk one of its most famous streets, from one end to the other.

Howls of outrage (7)

2009 01 03
Recently read: The Science of Orgasm

Posted by in: Books, Sex

Barry R. Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Beverly Whipple. The Science of Orgasm

This fascinating book has everything you ever wanted to know about orgasms, and possibly even more. The authors are, respectively, a neuroscientist, an endocrinologist, and a sexuality researcher. The team approach has resulted in an unusually comprehensive look at the subject. The authors detail not only the mechanics of organism (from the point of view of physiology, neurology, and endocrinology), but also at the effects of disease, aging, medication (especially anti-depressants and anti-psychotics), and illicit drugs on orgasm. And the recent publication date, 2006, means that we’re treated to a pretty current look at what science has to tell us about this process, at once so very, very, very, very familiar, and yet still so mysterious.

Also mysterious is who exactly this book is aimed at. For reasons I no longer remember, I was under the impression when I got it out of the library that it might be aimed at a popular audience. But although the chapters vary a lot in terms of how demanding they are, more than a few of them are awfully tough on a lay reader. This is especially so in discussions of the nervous system. Take this paragraph, chosen almost at random:

Dopaminergic axons that project to the paraventricular nuclei originate from a small group of neurons, termed the A-14 dopaminergic group, which constitute the incertohypothalamic pathway. In rats, the axons originate in a forebrain area, the subthalamus, and project to the hypothalamus. In the paraventricular nucleus, D2 receptors are located on oxytocin-synthesizing neurons . . .

I found these passages a bit more accessible than I might otherwise have because by happy coincidence I only recently finished reading Eric Kandel’s memoir, which spends a lot of time discussing neuroscience. That said, I’m not going to pretend I understood everything in this book, and until you present your credentials, I’m not going to pretend that I think you’ll do much better.

Even if dense scientific prose isn’t for you, parts of this book make for more accessible reading. I imagine too that the book will be of considerable use as a reference for both laypeople and health practitioners looking to understand orgasms, and a host of related issues.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2009 01 02
Best vocal release/Best tribute album

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I forgot to mention that All About Jazz (New York edition) chose Yoon’s album Imagination as one of the top five vocal releases of 2008 and one of the top five tribute albums of 2008.

If you haven’t bought a copy yet, I suppose it was probably because you couldn’t stop wondering, “Am I really worthy? Do I deserve something this good in my life?” But those aren’t really the right questions. The question is whether you can buy it, and the answer to this question is probably: yes. The physical CD can be purchased here, but the impatient can buy a (DRM-free) digital download of the entire album right here.

(UPDATE: Oh, forgot: Jazz.com listed Imagination as one of the top 50 jazz albums of 2008.)

Oh, and if you’re into solo ukulele (and really, who isn’t?), Yeah Yeah Records is offering free downloads of a great solo uke EP for a limited time.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)