Places

2011 04 03
L’Etat, C’est Moi


Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

With an election in Canada fast approaching, my cousin is doing his part and fighting Stephen Harper with the awesome power of disco.


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2010 06 26
Recently read: Coming up for air edition


Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books, Canada, History

Whew! Busy, busy. But at least I can read on the subway on my way to work.

Adrienne Mayor. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy

Rome fought four wars—the so-called Mithradatic wars—against Mithradates in the first century B.C. The wily, resourceful Mithradates makes such a perfect subject, and the story of his setbacks and accomplishments is so much fun, that I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t been all over him. Perhaps now they will be. Mayor tells his story with real verve. Mithradates was especially famed for his extensive toxicological investigations—for practical reasons he was very interested in how to poison others and how to build up immunity to poisons that others might use on him—and Mayor, an expert in ancient toxicology, is especially well-suited to relate this part of the story. Where the evidence grows thin, at the beginning and the ends of Mithradates’ life in particular, Mayor allows herself speculative passages that might have been more suitable to a historical novel. But that’s partly just a matter of taste, and these passages are usually marked out very clearly as speculative. This book is recommended.

Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar

Solid, though now somewhat dated (published 2007), account of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Emphasizes the extent to which policy was not really driven by larger strategic considerations, but rather emerged through a series of accidents. My only complaint is that the book might be a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with Canadian politics. This is a pity, since I think it would be really useful for Americans to have a sense of what the war looks like from the perspective of a close coalition partner.

Edward Gorey. Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks

This book is a children’s classic published in 1950 and recently resurrected by the New York Review of Books in their excellent children’s series. The stories are well told, though it dragged in places. That might just be me, though—I’ve never had much interest in Greek myth. A chart at the back helps the reader keep track of Latin equivalents of Greek gods and heros, but there is no introduction explaining why Gorey chose to use the Latin equivalents in the first place.

Félix Fénéon. Novels in Three Lines

This is a collection of three line news summaries written by Fénéon for a French newspaper over the course of 1906. The summaries occasionally touch on politics, but they’re mostly about every day pieces of news: suicides, burglaries, assaults, and accidents. This might sound monotonous—and actually I would recommend that people not try to read the book through cover to cover without a break—but Fénéon’s summaries are, as the title of the book suggests, absolute masterpieces of compression. Fénéon was an anarchist and an important behind-the-scenes literary and cultural figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. He wrote little and the contents of this book were only saved for posterity by lucky chance.


Howls of outrage (3)

2010 02 12
Recently read: Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters


Louis Begley. Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was accused in 1894 of selling secrets to a German military attaché. A note had been discovered indicating that someone was selling secrets to the attaché. The note was real; just about everything else that became associated with the case was not. The only actual evidence brought against Dreyfus was the claim that the handwriting on the note was his own. It was not. Dreyfus’s first trial, resulting in a conviction, was a travesty involving significant judicial misconduct, in which antisemitism played a crucial role.

And then things got really bad. As evidence identifying the real culprit started to surface and Dreyfus’s few supporters rallied against an obviously bad decision, Dreyfus’s superiors dug themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. As the 1890s wore on, the Dreyfus Affair became bewilderingly complex, with forgeries, suicides, conspiracies, missteps on the part of Dreyfus’s supporters, and stunning reversals on both sides.

The conservative, militarist, antisemitic response to the scandal was essentially to point out that for Dreyfus’s supporters to be correct, a deep rot would have to have infected the military, a pillar of French society, and parts of the political establishment. Since this was unthinkable, so too was Dreyfus’s innocence. They were wrong, of course, and it is a mistake that continues to be instructive.

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is a tightly written account of this affair, which so thoroughly rocked French society in the 1890s. I’ve just called the plot bewilderingly complex. Begley is to be commended for having written such a clear and engaging account of it. One highlight of the book is a brief but penetrating discussion of the Dreyfus Affair in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which should be accessible to people who haven’t slogged through it, but especially interesting for those who have.

I’m not sure Begley did as good a job explaining why the Dreyfus Affair matters. Begley finished his book just as Obama was elected. Begley, who is clearly no fan of the Bush administration, takes a few stabs at connecting the Affair to current events. The lack of due process and forms of incarceration found at Guantanamo are compared to the travesties of Dreyfus’ trial and exile on a remote island. A brief section on official reactions to whistle blowers connects a defender of Dreyfus’s to Joseph Wilson. This, I take it, constitutes the main part of Begley’s answer to the question raised by the title of his book.

This is weak stuff.* There are of course similarities between any two miscarriages of justice. But even if the similarities were more striking than they are, they wouldn’t tell us why the Dreyfus Affair matters today. You can be entirely ignorant of the Dreyfus Affair and still be offended by the scandal of Guantanamo Bay. All you need for that is a functioning conscience. If you’re not offended, you’ll hardly be convinced by a series of strained analogies with the Dreyfus Affair.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to get very deeply into the question of why any historical incident matters, but here are two fairly obvious (non-competing) answers as they bear on the Dreyfus Affair.

First, from history we (sometimes) find out why we are a certain way now. My understanding is that French society and politics is the way it is today in part because of the reverberations and aftershocks of the affair. Begley has nothing (that I can recall) to say about contemporary French politics or culture, focusing mainly on the United States. That’s fine, but I don’t believe the United States was shaped in significant ways by the Dreyfus Affair, and it’s an American audience that he seems mainly interested in addressing.

Second, studying history can broaden our sense of what’s possible. There are all kinds of contingent features of society and human nature that look fixed and permanent, and all kinds of things that seem certain at any moment that turn out to be thoroughly mistaken. I think the Dreyfus Affair matters, and not just in France, in this way. Many of those involved in persecuting Dreyfus, even after it was, or should have been, clear that he was innocent, acted in ways that were utterly irrational, stupid, and blindly defensive. It was unthinkable to many that such trusted figures of the establishment could behave this way. But it is an incontrovertible fact that they did. It was unthinkable in particular to people who thought a certain way: people with a streak of authoritarianism, who were reflexively inclined to give people in power the benefit of the doubt.

As I said above, this is instructive. It gives us a nice morality tale about the dangers of trusting officials in authority. It’s a story that ought to leave us a little more paranoid, a little less trusting of authority. But as instructive as it is in this sense, it would be a mistake to think that we can simply take the case and apply its lessons to contemporary political issues. As controversial as Guantanamo is, I don’t see how parallels between Guantanamo and some now unambiguous miscarriage of justice at the end of the 19th Century are going to be less controversial. The Dreyfus Affair, like most history, matters, but in a less direct and much more subtle way than that.

* Though Begley’s criticisms of certain French judicial procedures that worked against Dreyfus, such as an acceptance of hearsay, is certainly relevant to the issue of whether the American military tribunals contain stringent enough protections against abuse.


Howls of outrage (2)

2010 02 12
Great moments in Canadian politics


Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

A politician got tossed yesterday from the New Brunswick legislature after giving another politician the finger. This write up of the story doesn’t come close to conveying how hilarious the audio recording of the incident is. As a friend of mine remarked, they sound like a bunch of kindergarten kids.

Via Kegri.


Howls of outrage (3)

2010 01 17
Recently read: Clearing out the Backlog Edition


Posted by in: Books, Brooklyn, Math, Programming

Peter Siebel. Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming

This superb book is a collection of fifteen interviews with well-known and highly-regarded programmers (Norvig, Armstrong, Knuth, etc). Siebel (author of Practical Common Lisp) is a professional programmer with a keen sense of the (brief) history of the profession. This gives the interviews a depth and a richness that even a clever journalist could never have matched. Siebel is a consistently thoughtful interviewer who asks just the right mix of questions. In any one interview, the questions range from practical ones concerned with how the subjects debug code to more general questions about whether the nature of programming has changed over time. Across interviews, Siebel asks enough of the same questions that we can start to view the answers in comparative perspective, while also allowing what is special about the careers and interests of the subjects to emerge.

In short, if you’re interested in programming, this book is wildly engrossing. A word of warning: If you don’t have any experience programming, and some background knowledge of the field, you’re probably not going to be able to get much out of the book. Some passages were certainly over my head, as I’ve only been a professional programmer since June, when I got my green card, and if I recall correctly, only really got started teaching myself Python about a year and a half ago. But most of it was accessible and inspiring to this junior programmer.

Amy Sohn. Prospect Park West

We lived briefly in (very South) Park Slope when we first moved to Brooklyn, and although we’ve since moved out to Flatbush, we’re back in the Slope all the time. We eat at Al Di La whenever we can afford to. We’ve been members of the infamous Park Slope Food Coop for several years now, and we’re set to have a baby in the Spring. So although my expectations weren’t all that high, I pretty much had to check Prospect Park West out of the Brooklyn Public library, after waiting patiently for my turn in a queue that was over 250 holds long. Prospect Park West is set against this familiar background. The plot follows the ill-considered affair of a Park Slope mother, whose life is connected to a few other characters by a string of coincidences that I would have found far-fetched ten years ago, before I started to notice equally striking coincidences in my own life. (Always remember that odds are that life will be filled with the improbable, since there are an enormous number of possible improbable events—so many that it would be highly improbable for us to go long without another improbable event occurring. This is one reason, among several, that life is filled with strangeness and magic, if you keep an eye out for it.)

Prospect Park West is not a great work of literature, but it’s readable enough. The book’s basic outlook is misanthropic without much in the way of compensating insight. I get that some Park Slope mothers can be a bit much, but so can the author when she (in the mouths of her characters) gets going about them. The author gets points, though, for her depiction of the strange, confusing, prickly racial tension you run across in Brooklyn all the time, and which I struggle to explain to my friends back in Canada. This too was perhaps also a bit overdone, but unfortunately not by much.

One correction: A check out line at the Coop that stretches back to the bread section does not count as long. I don’t know when Sohn shops, but that’s pretty routine in my experience. Long is when it goes all the way along the produce aisle as far back as the milk section.

Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist

This is only the second Dickens novel I’ve read, the other being A Tale of Two Cities. I found A Tale of Two Cities pretty silly, but against my better judgment found the ending weirdly sublime. I didn’t have as much luck with Oliver Twist, which I read for the sole reason that we’re naming our kid “Oliver” and I figured I should at least read the book that helped make his name famous. (On my to do list: Who the hell is Oliver Cromwell?) I found the social commentary in the first part of the book entertaining enough, if heavy-handed. But as the plot advanced, the melodrama and the general absurdity of it all started to suck the fun out of it. Also, I know the book is a product of the early nineteenth century, but the fact that one of the characters is usually referred to simply as “the Jew” and even gets to be the butt of a big nose joke was driving me nuts. What’s that? Dickens was a child of his era, so cut him some slack? Well, I’m a child of my era, so take your own advice and cut me some slack while you’re at it.

Vivant Denon. Introduction by Peter BrooksNo Tomorrow

Vivant Denon was, among other things, the first director of the Louvre Museum, in charge of sorting and cataloging all the goodies that Napoleon stole from the Egyptians. A wing of the Louvre bears his name to this day. Denon was also “maybe, probably,” in the words of Peter Brooks, the author of No Tomorrow a thirty odd page long erotic masterpiece. The New York Review of Books has recently published a fine bilingual edition of the story with an introduction by Peter Brooks. The intellectual imprimatur provided by the publisher and the scholarly introduction makes it totally not skeevy that I’m writing about erotica on my blog.

There’s a lot to admire in Denon’s story and the way he tells it. As for the tale, a woman seduces a man, for pleasure, without negative consequence for either. As for the telling, Denon is delicate without ever being prudish, erotic without ever being explicit. It’s good clean fun for the adults in the family.

Surendra Verma. The Little Book of Maths, Theorems, Theories, and Things

This book covers a very wide variety of mathematical and logical puzzles and problems and more. The author even throws in a discussion of the Body-Mass Index*, presumably because it’s . . . expressed in numbers? Because it’s a little book, and because it’s trying to get to so many subjects, and because the author also likes to throw in limericks and factoids and anecdotes willy-nilly, this book treats each of its subjects in an extremely superficial way. I like limericks and factoids and anecdotes as much as the next guy, but there really wasn’t room for a lot of math in this book, or much opportunity for the author to make the case that mathematics is intrinsically interesting.

Let me also take a moment to plead with the publisher to fix the typos in this book before reprinting, if the book ever gets another shot at life. You know you’re in bad hands when you read the sentence: “No one has ever found an even number that can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers” (p. 76). Oh, really? Cause I think I might be about to make mathematical history!

* Verma tells us that knowing your BMI “can give you an idea of how healthy your weight is.” He doesn’t note that a lot of researchers think the BMI is misleading or useless.


Howls of outrage (6)

2010 01 13
A poll in Afghanistan


Posted by in: Afghanistan

Last month I was complaining about Michael Walzer’s lazy aside about the important question of public opinion in Afghanistan about a continued U.S. presence. So it’s worth noting that a poll (via Matthew Yglesias) conducted in the country very recently suggests that support is actually fairly high (68%) for a continued U.S. presence, giving some support to Walzer’s position.

I’ve been very, very bleak about the prospects for success (whatever that means, exactly, which is part of the problem) in Afghanistan, and although it hardly settles the question, it’s good to know that a fair number of Afghans don’t agree with me on the issue. They are, after all, considerably better acquainted with what’s happening in their country than I am. Since I’m not going to get my way about leaving the country, I’m always happy to find evidence that I’m mistaken to think staying is futile.

As Yglesias points out, the polls show a fairly sharp division between the Pushtun belt in the South of the country and the rest of the country on the issue of a continued military presence. I gather this is at least in part because the US and coalition forces are widely perceived in the country as a bulwark against Pashtun hegemony, and supported or rejected on that basis. I think there’s some truth to the perception, actually. Unfortunately, the U.S. and its allies are stuck in the middle of some pretty sharply conflicting visions of the country’s future, and I’m not sure they have any more idea how to resolve them than I do.


Howls of outrage (4)

2009 12 09
Walzer on Afghanistan


The other day, Commenter DC mentioned this Michael Walzer piece on Afghanistan. One line in it was irritating enough to rouse me to write a letter to Dissent this morning:

Re: Is Obama’s War in Afghanistan Just?

In support of his position on Afghanistan, Michael Walzer remarks, “I also think that most of these people [that is, Afghans] would agree (they should be asked).” I would like to second Walzer’s proposal that Afghans be asked what they think. If any organization had bothered to conduct opinion polling in Afghanistan, Walzer might have been able to discover its results with a search engine, thirty seconds of spare time, and just a smidgen of curiosity. It is a shame that Walzer was forced instead to speculate about a matter of real importance to his position.


Howls of outrage (7)

2009 12 05
Rashid on Obama on Afghanistan


I thought Obama’s recent speech on Afghanistan was pretty stinky. As I skimmed through it, grumbling to myself, I wondered what Ahmed Rashid would make of it. Answer here, and very much worth reading.

In the lead up to Obama’s decision about what to do about Afghanistan I had drawn some faint comfort from the story that he had supposedly rejected all four of the plans presented to him, and sent his advisors back to the drawing board. I always had the impression that one of the things that made Bush such a wretched decider-in-Chief was that he tended to select only from the options presented to him by his advisors, since he lacked the imagination and the background knowledge to force them to rethink the options they presented to him.

But so much for Obama’s ability to free himself from the conventional wisdom here. His speech was such a disappointment, not just because the arguments were lousy, but because they so clearly failed to really engage the concerns of those of us who feel that an Afghanistan surge isn’t going to help (as Rashid’s post makes very clear). Really engaging the concerns of the other side is the sort of thing that Obama often does very well, so the failure to do it in this case is all the more striking. This makes me worried not just about the decision he’s making, but the process of decision-making that’s getting him there.

I’m not implacably opposed to any sort of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, so long as it’s got a clear exit date. But I don’t see any realistic prospect for success there. I don’t know what most proponents even mean when they talk about success in this context. Even when I do, I really don’t see how the benefits of hanging around (militarily) outweigh the costs, either for the U.S. or for Afghanistan.

I don’t even understand most of the time what people mean when they talk about “the Taliban.” The Taliban movement which consolidated control over a large part of Afghanistan prior to September, 2001, and which was led by Mullah Omar, no longer exists. It has not really existed for years now. Scattered remnants of the original crew remain, but not in a coherent form as a political movement. When people speak now about the Taliban it isn’t clear whether they mean to refer to this original movement, to some remnant of it, to plain old organized crime groups, to disaffected Pashtun nationalists, to disaffected Afghans of any ethnic or religious background, or to something else altogether.

I think this ambiguity is often the result of honest confusion, but it’s worth noting how very useful it is to proponents of the war. The original Taliban movement makes a rhetorically persuasive target. They gave shelter and support to people who attacked us! How could we go wrong making war against them? But when the target morphs into, say, some ill-defined and shifting group of disaffected Pashtun nationalists whose main enemy is the sharing of power with other ethnic groups in the country—well that represents a much less feasible and clearly defined target.

In any case, I think the appropriate response when someone starts talking about “the Taliban” in Afghanistan is to say “Who?


Howls of outrage (7)

2009 08 03
Recently read: Sowing Crisis


Rashid Khalidi. Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

I read and enjoyed Khalidi’s The Iron Cage back in January, and so got this, Khalidi’s latest book, out of the library shortly afterwards (I’m only getting around to writing about it now). Sowing Crisis is a more sharply polemical book than The Iron Cage and I liked it a bit less, partly because I have a limited appetite for polemic and partly because Khalidi isn’t really great at it. (He’s not awful; just not great.) Nevertheless, there is a lot in this wide-ranging review of American foreign policy to learn from and by stimulated by. Khalidi’s main objective seems to be to try to get Americans to understand how non-Americans see American foreign policy. This is a worthwhile project, and Sowing Crisis is a worthwhile book.


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2009 05 03
Recently read: A Continent for the Taking


Howard W. French. A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

This is an angry book. On practically every page French has something withering to say about a Western diplomat, or an African leader, or a thug at a checkpoint trying to extort money. They have all contributed in their own way to the lost opportunities and staggering suffering of a continent with extraordinary potential. French, an African American born in Washington, D.C., spent more than two decades in Africa, first as a translator and then as a journalist. He has stories to tell, and a few scores to settle, and in A Continent for the Taking he does both in a compelling way. His book does not range across the whole of Africa, as the title might suggest. Rather, French focuses on a few countries where he has significant experiences to relate, among them Nigeria, Liberia, Mali, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

Perhaps the most gripping and interesting part of the book is French’s account of the fall of Mobutu and the rise of Kabila in the DRC in 1997. French won awards for his reporting on this incident for the New York Times, and he offers more than simply a gripping story about the dissolution and chaos of the end of one regime and the rise of another. He argues that the United States, attempting to make up for turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide three years earlier, again turned a blind eye to Ugandan and Rwandan efforts to use Kabila as a proxy to dominate their much larger neighbour. French claims that in this they were heavily influenced by the strongly pro-Kagame slant of Philip Gourevitch’s We Regret to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. (I have occasionally wondered whether subsequent events led Gourevitch to revise his opinion of Kagame; I don’t think I’ve seen anything else on the subject by Gourevitch since I read Regret to Inform). Unfortunately, backing Kabila at the crucial moment meant backing away from the most credible democratic figure in the DRC. Once again, the US’s involvement in the region was cynical and counterproductive. The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion-by-proxy of the DRC marked the beginning of an absolutely catastrophic war that claimed the lives of millions.

This book has a lot to recommend it: close observations of people from all walks of life, reflections on the depiction of African issues in the Western media, trenchant critiques of the foreign policies of outside actors in African affairs. But perhaps the book’s greatest virtue is simply that it made me very curious to learn more about the entire continent: about the ancient culture of Mali; the history of Belgium in the Congo; the Ashante and their struggle with the British, and so much more.


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2009 04 09
Recently read: The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan


Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books

ed. Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi. The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

A collection of academic papers about the Taliban movement, past and present. These are by scholars and written, I think, for scholars. But the wealth of detail and insight here makes it worth the trouble for a non-specialist if she wants to move past a lot of superficial reporting about the region. Topics include the causes of the rise of the Taliban; the intersection of the Taliban’s religious fanaticism and Pashtun politics; the Taliban’s anti-modern approach to the private sphere; and the present day neo-Taliban. This last issue is of particular relevance to the situation in the country today. The media often speaks about the Taliban, but the movement splintered after its defeat, with multiple spokesmen issuing conflicting demands and threats with little apparent coordination between them.


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2009 04 04
Recently read: Taliban


Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books

Ahmed Rashid. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia

At the end of the 1990s, Ahmed Rashid finally got around to distilling two decades of reporting about Afghanistan into a book. It turned out to be an valuable resource, an insightful and crisply written account of the rise of the Taliban. It was a good bet when it was published in 2000, however, that the book would end up as ignored as the troubled country ruled over by the Taliban. But of course in the fall of 2001 the world found itself suddenly riveted by the country and the movement that had not long ago consolidated power over most of it. I think it’s safe to say that Taliban ended up selling more copies than anyone anticipated when it was first published.

I got my hands on this book after finishing Rashid’s more recent (and excellent) Descent into Chaos. Once you get over the oddness of reading about the Taliban as if they are still in power, there’s a lot here of continuing relevance and interest. The book is divided into three sections, the first devoted to the history of the movement, the second to the relationship between Islam and the Taliban, and the third to what Rashid calls “The New Great Game,” the struggle for power and control of the valuable resources in the region by oil companies and regional governments.

There is no doubt that the Taliban showed ingenuity and cunning in their rise to power. As others have pointed out, it’s not sufficient to explain the rise of the Taliban by pointing to their fundamentalism, their backing from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and their promise of a resurgence of Pashtun influence in the country. For other movements led by other leaders (the best example is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader and founder of the Hezb-e Islami) had these things in spades, and nevertheless failed to match the Taliban’s achievements.

These achievements notwithstanding, the overriding impression of the Taliban one takes away from the book is of a group of dangerously ignorant fanatics, ill-equipped not just to provide even the most basic services for the people they claimed the right to rule over, but even to interpret the religious texts they claimed implausibly as the basis for their demented style of rule.

The most frustrating moments in the book for me were those chronicling the futile attempts of aid organizations to secure permission from the Taliban to provide aid to the displaced and the widowed and the orphaned. Having forbidden the education of women, the Taliban then forbade women to see male doctors. After aid organizations responded by hiring a number of foreign female Muslim doctors to provide desperately needed care, the Taliban then decreed that these foreign Muslim female doctors would need to be accompanied at all times by a close male relative. True, this was infeasible, but Allah would provide. (Unfortunately, Allah usually did not get around to it.) As Rashid points out, this sick set of priorities runs contrary to both the letter and the spirit of Islam.

This book would have been almost as upsetting to read in 2000 before the full tragedy unleashed by the Taliban and their guest, bin Laden, became apparent. Afghanistan was in a desperate position when the Taliban began their rise in 1994, so much so that they were often welcomed as an alternative to the squabbling warlords who tore the country apart in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. By the time Rashid published his book in 2000, the Taliban were themselves, he suggests, on a course to collapse into hostile factions, and were deeply feared and resented in much of the country, especially the North. The Taliban were able to consolidate their rule over much of the Pashtun-dominated South, but they had a much harder time holding territory in Northern parts of the country, where different ethnic minorities saw them as illegitimate occupiers. Looking ahead from 2000, Rashid sees only a few faint glimmers of hope.

Looking ahead from 2009, it’s not clear how much more hopeful the situation really is today. It’s not just that former members of the Taliban, or groups sympathetic to the general aims of the Taliban, are still at war with NATO and the government in Kabul. It’s that the basic conditions for chaos and instability which led to the rise of the Taliban persist to this day. These were formed over a decade of resistance to the Soviets and a decade of fighting after the withdrawal; they are not intractable, but they discouragingly close to it.


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2009 04 02
Recently read: The File


Posted by in: Books, Germany, History

Timothy Garton Ash. The File: A Personal History

The East German state subjected its citizens to a virtually unprecedented degree of scrutiny. The system of surveillance was run by the Stasi, the East German secret police, but it relied on an extensive network of informal collaborators, or IMs (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter). At the time of its collapse in 1989, at a conservative estimate roughly one in 50 adults had a direct connection to the Stasi.

When the East German state collapsed, it collapsed so quickly that the Stasi found themselves unable to shred most of the hundreds of thousands of documents about its citizens that it had assembled so dilligently over the years. Most countries at a similar point simply pause for a moment and then continue to destroy the evidence, or file it away forever, hidden. Germany, by contrast, embarked on the unprecedented experiment of allowing everyone with a file to see it for him or herself. Care was taken to protect innocent parties named in the files, but everyone had a right to learn the identity of anyone who informed, betrayed, or reported on them.

Some couldn’t bring themselves to look; some discovered that they had no file; some were able to cast away long-harboured suspicions of acquaintances who turned out not to have informed on them. Others were not so lucky, and some of their stories are horrifying. One woman

had been imprisoned for five years under the communist regime, for attempting to escape to the West. Now she found out, by reading her file, that it was the man she was living with who had denounced her to the Stasi. They still lived together. Only that morning he had wished her a good day in the archive.

Timothy Garton Ash lived in East Germany during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He subsequently wrote a book critical of East Germany, and was banned from the country. Not surprisingly, he had a file. The File is about Ash’s attempt to track down and speak with everyone named in his file, from the casual acquaintances acting as IMs who filed reports about him to the officers who supervised the case. The book follows him as he criss-crosses the country speaking with people and working through the file comparing its reports with his own recollections and diaries.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in Ash’s file, but that doesn’t stop him from writing an absorbing account of this moral, personal, political and historical detective work. The File is so much more than simply a superb book about life under the East German regime and Ash’s mostly harmless brush with the Stasi. It’s a finely written meditation on memory, betrayal, the psychology of rationalization and evil, and chance. Recommended.


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2009 03 04
Recently read: Descent Into Chaos


Ahmed Rashid. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

At roughly 500 densely packed and depressing pages, this not an easy book to read. But it added immeasurably to my appreciation of the current position of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Central Asia and of how that position came to be so desperate. Ahmed Rashid is an famously well-connected veteran Pakistani journalist. His book takes us from the weeks before September 11, 2001 right up to 2008, pausing from time to time to provide some historical perspective to his main narrative. It’s a valuable book to have on hand as we watch policymakers struggle to discover a way out of their—and for a substantial subset of this site’s readers, our—current predicament in Afghanistan.

Rashid gets his book off to a poor start with a long and unremarkable introduction that reads like just another litany of Bush’s misdeeds. It’s all true, of course, but you can find this sort of thing in any number of places, if you still care to, which I don’t. As soon as the book proper is underway, however, Rashid starts to unpack his case in copious detail and to draw on an almost uniquely broad range of sources and experiences. (When I’m interested in a subject I have an insatiable appetite for detail about it, but it did occur to me that readers who take a less Aspergerish approach to a subject might wish that Rashid’s editor had succeeded in forcing more of these details into the footnotes.)

The main thing I took away from Rashid’s book is how reliably most actors in the region have made a bad situation worse whenever they’ve been given a choice about how to proceed. Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked, and long-troubled country, but it’s been made much, much worse than it ever needed to be by the cascading effects of a series of poor decisions by just about everyone involved.

In the late 70s, the CIA weighed stability in the country against the chance to goad the USSR into a debacle, and chose the latter. On December 24, 1978, Brezhnev took the bait, and the Soviet army blundered into the country, against the advice of his top generals.* Seeing the chance to trap the USSR into a painful “Vietnam” of its own making, the US then poured money into resistance fighters in the region. That decision reflected another ranking of priorities: the prospect of stability and the development of democracy in Pakistan was trumped decisively by the goal of encouraging resistance to the USSR in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US channeled money and arms through Pakistan, entrenching and legitimizing the military’s intrusions into the country’s political life, and encouraging the slow-spreading poison of radicalism, militarism, criminality and drug-trading in the entire region.

After the withdrawal of the USSR, there followed several years of horrific fighting between rival warlords. The success of the Taliban movement owes something to popular disgust at the instability and corruption sown by these warlords. It also owes something to money and logistical support from the ISI, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, which sought to cultivate ties in Afghanistan in order to train and encourage Kashmiri militants and provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a full out conflict with India.

As it happens, after September 11, 2001, it was Pakistan which ended up providing strategic depth to the Taliban, after Taliban forces were routed by US air power and US proxies on the ground. It was there, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (which are, in fact, anything but Federally Administered), that the Taliban and Al Qaeda found refuge, in some cases with the support of the ISI, which continued to play a dangerous double game of privately supporting and publicly (sometimes) condemning militant groups, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban and other militants was a sore point for US-Pakistan relations, but the Bush administration continued to believe, against all evidence, that Musharif was their man, and refused to push Pakistan too hard on the issue.

The US went into Afghanistan without a clear policy on the issue of “nation building.” Bush had trouble walking back from his earlier campaign pledge to avoid such activities, and Rumsfeld remained, to the end, deeply hostile to the notion and employed all his considerable bureaucratic savvy to thwart the efforts of others in the US administration who wanted a more substantial engagement with the country. After much dithering, there was briefly talk from Bush himself of a Marshall Plan for the country, but the idea quickly slipped away as if forgotten as other priorities loomed into view.

The main other priority looming into view was a new war on a different front. At precisely the moment that the US faced the daunting prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan, it turned its attention to Iraq. I have long seen it written that the war in Iraq provided a distraction from Afghanistan that seriously jeopardized that mission. But until Rashid’s book I had not grasped the details, or understood how much evidence there really is for the proposition. Efforts to establish Karzai’s new government in Kabul were undermined by a policy Rashid calls “warlordism,” that is, providing financial and political support to warlords who then worked to undermine the government in Kabul. With resources diverted to the coming war in Iraq, Washington had clearly determined that nation building in Afghanistan would have to be done on the cheap, and warlordism seemed to offer a shortcut to the difficult and resource-intensive process of establishing and extending Kabul’s legitimacy and reach.

Stand back for a moment and marvel at the various trade offs involved here: The US pursues the Iraq War at the expense of the larger mission in Afghanistan, and loses both. The Bush administration’s uncritical support of Musharif helps set the conditions for the ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban. This in turn vastly complicates the hope of achieving even minimal security in Afghanistan, and plays a role in allowing Al Qaeda figures to escape and plan more attacks (the more recent London and Madrid bombings were almost certainly plotted from within the FATA). Having sacrificed security in Afghanistan to the goal of maintaining solid relations with Pakistan, US policymakers were then forced to watch conditions in Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, further diminishing their leverage with the country.

There’s much more like this in Rashid’s book, if you can stomach it, buttressed by a wealth of supporting facts and argument. Since the book’s publication conditions on the ground have further deteriorated. As the new administration tries to salvage the mess handed down to it from its predecessors, I hope Rashid’s book gets the attention it deserves.

* I’m simplifying to make a point, at the risk of giving the CIA far too much credit. The decision to invade might well have been made without any CIA involvement, as Brezhnev was intervening in a complicated conflict involving the USSR’s communist allies in Afghanistan and their enemies.


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2009 02 27
Follow up: 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave.


I went out to 2017 Caton Ave last night to observe a meeting between the tenants at 2017 and 2023 Caton Ave and two of the five owners of the building, Asher Alcobi and Ami Blashkovsky. The previous day, the tenants had protested outside the real estate office co-owned by Asher Alcobi, and that morning, with the help of Michael Grinthal at South Brooklyn Legal Services, they had filed an HP order against the landlords (an action to enforce the housing code). That morning, a three quarter page story about the building’s problems and the protest, had appeared in the Daily News.

The meeting was well attended, and ran from about 8pm to 9:45pm. About 25 tenants crowded into the lobby of the building, which was noticeably cleaner than I had found it on Wednesday. They were joined by Latrice Walker, a representative from the office of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke’s, and for part of the meeting by New York City Council Member, Mathieu Eugene. Michael Grinthal and tenant organizer Aga Trojniak from the Flatbush Development Corporation were also present.

Considering the level of anger and frustration among tenants, the meeting went surprisingly smoothly, for the most part. Much of the credit for this has to go to Samantha Paige, a tenant in 2017 Caton who led the meeting in an efficient and productive way, and to Alcobi, who struck a conciliatory tone on behalf of the landlords. Paige went through a list of demands that the tenants had presented to Alcobi in his office on Wednesday. These included, among other things, a qualified superintendent for the building (which has not had a super for at least six months), that work be done by qualified, licensed tradesmen, and that problems be dealt with in an efficient, responsive, and timely way. Paige volunteered, with another tenant, to coordinate efforts to ensure that tradesmen would have access to individual apartments. Paige made it clear that the access issue was a practical matter that tenants could deal with effectively later, and kept the meeting focused on the list of demands. As a conciliatory gesture, she also stressed that tenants would need to do their part to assist in keeping the building clean and safe, and emphasized some sympathy with the landlord’s perspective a businessman.

After Paige finished, Alcobi spoke. In a rather quiet and understated way, Alcobi is clearly a gifted public speaker, and he handled the situation about as deftly as I can imagine anyone doing it. After thanking Paige for acknowledging his own perspective, he moved on to his main concerns. These included trash in the hallways, and what he described as illegal washing machines in apartments that he blamed for some of the leaks. At this point, Latrice Walker pointed out that whether the washing machines were illegal or not depended on whether they were permitted by individual leases. No one at the meeting, including Alcobi, actually knew off the top of their respective heads what the leases said, and Alcobi was forced to moderate this point.

There followed a lengthy back and forth as the tenants attempted to tie each of the demands to a date by which Alcobi would commit to fulfill the demand. Some of the deadlines were easier to fix than others. The issue of a qualified super was especially thorny, with Alcobi protesting that it was difficult to find a qualified super in short order, and tenants pointing out that they had already been waiting six months. The tenants insisted that Alcobi find a super by the next meeting with him, which was scheduled for March 18th, but Alcobi wouldn’t commit to the date, though he said he would try to find someone.

After the meeting broke up, I spoke with Alcobi briefly. I recreate the conversation from memory, because Alcobi told me that he wasn’t comfortable being taped. I asked him if he was pleased about the meeting. He said he was, but made clear that he didn’t appreciate having a different, and unrelated, business picketed the other day. (Alcobi is a part owner of the building, and a part owner and founder of Peter Ashe Real Estate.) I said that I could understand that, but that I had spoken to a number of tenants and heard a lot of horror stories. “This is a building with a lot of problems,” he told me. “A lot of problems.”

I asked Alcobi if he was pleased with the management company he had hired to handle the building’s affairs. Even with someone from the management company standing beside us, Alcobi wasn’t willing to go this far.

“I’m putting a lot of pressure on them to do things right,” he said. “Let me just say that.”

“So would you say that they’re on probation now?”

“No. Close watch. Not probation.”

He told me that firing the management company would hardly solve anything, since this would just lead to significant delays as an entirely new team worked to get up to speed. Alcobi stressed to me that he was only now learning about the seriousness of the problems in the building.

Given the general incompetence of his management company and what tenants had told me about their style of communication, I can readily believe that Alcobi hasn’t been receiving candid and regularly updated accounts of the state of his property. Still, I wasn’t convinced by the “shocked, absolutely shocked” pose Alcobi struck in both the meeting and in conversation with me. Alcobi has been contacted directly by tenants and tenant organizers repeatedly over the last few months. He arranged a meeting several months ago between tenants and management in which the management committed to fulfill a number of tenant requests that were subsequently ignored. Even if Alcobi had not conducted any active follow up on the progress of the repairs following that meeting, the steady stream of complaints to his office should have tipped him off that something was amiss. It isn’t as if the tenants suddenly jumped up one day and started to picket the man’s office in a fit of pique. They’ve been working fruitlessly for months to get basic repairs done on their apartments.

In any case, how much Alcobi knew on Wednesday morning about the condition of his property is sort of a moot point now. It is certain that he knows now, and that he’s given a commitment to fix the problems. I’ll revisit this issue in a future post to let you know how all this turns out.


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