Days of Glory

by Lisa Lieberman

I used to teach a course on French colonialism, from the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century through the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). On the first day of class, we read Jean de Brunhoff's classic children's book, The Story of Babar. De Brunhoff's story can be viewed as “an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers,” to quote New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik:

Encountering Arthur and Celeste

the naked African natives, represented by the “good” elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not. The true condition of the animals—to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle—is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule.

Gopnik, I should add, distances himself from such political readings of the book. He sees Babar as both a manifestation of the French national character, circa 1930 (when de Brunhoff's wife first came up with the tale, which she told to the couple's young sons as a bedtime story) and a gentle parody of it, “an affectionate, closeup caricature of an idealized French society.”

I remember enjoying the book as a child, and I've read it to my own children, but for all its charm, I'm not willing to let Babar off the hook quite so easily. The business of the civilizing mission—the “native” elephants adopting the values and behavior of the humans who inhabit the city—is cringe-inducing enough, but what really troubles me is de Brunhoff's ending. Here the fantasies of French nativists come true. The elephants come and immediately assimilate, recognizing the superiority of the mother country, hang around long enough to entertain their hosts with anecdotes about their exotic origins, and then they go home.

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Blindspots and A Democratic Euromaidan: On The Protests in the Ukraine


First, Volodymyr Ishchenko in Eurozine:

[T]he open letter signed by established academics, many of whom are mainly politically progressive, ignores the extent of far-right involvement in the Ukrainian protests. One of the major forces at Euromaidan is the far-right xenophobic party “Svoboda” (“Freedom”). They are dominant among the volunteering guards of the protest camp and are the vanguard of the most radical street actions, such as the occupation of the administrative buildings in central Kyiv. Before 2004, “Svoboda” was known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine and used the Nazi “Wolfsangel” symbol. The party leader Oleh Tiahnybok is still known for his anti-Semitic speech. Even after re-branding, Svoboda has been seeking cooperation with neo-Nazi and neo-fascist European parties such as the NDP in Germany and Forza nuova in Italy. Its rank-and-file militants are frequently involved in street violence and hate crimes against migrants and political opponents.

At Euromaidan, particularly, far-right attackers assaulted a left-wing student group attempting to bring social-economic and gender equality issues to the protest. Several days later, a far-right mob beat and seriously injured two trade union activists, accusing them of being “communists”. Slogans previously connected with far-right subculture, such as “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”, “Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!”, “Ukraine above all!” (an adaptation of Deutschland über alles) have now become mainstream among the protestors.

More here. Volodymyr Kulyk responds:

In his blinding opposition to both nationalism and capitalism, Ishchenko lumps together two very different matters: the role of rightwing radicals in Euromaidan and the role of these protests in Ukraine's choice of future. He is right that the radical nationalists do not share the protests' original goal of bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union and harm the democratic movement with their divisive slogans and their attacks on ideological opponents within the movement. However, he is wrong in arguing that such slogans and attacks invalidate the protests' value as a manifestation of the democratic and European aspirations of the Ukrainian people.

Although radical nationalists such as the Svoboda (Freedom) party and the less well-known organization called Rightwing Sector do not by any means constitute the majority of protesters, they are indeed rather prominent due to their vocal and visually striking behaviour.

More here. Also see this piece by Alex Motyl.

The Left in India has lost touch with the instincts and knowledges on which it has traditionally based its theoretical and practical positions

Akeel Bilgrami in The Indian Express:

Belief-mIn the United States, where I am domiciled, very little that makes for fundamental change in people’s lives gets onto the agenda of what is on offer in electoral politics. The two parties in the political arena merely represent competing “power elites”, to use a term of C. Wright Mills, and any basic opposition to this consensus of elite (mostly corporate) power has always come not from policies creatively formulated in the corridors of power by elected leaders, but from movements on the street which have occasionally forced elected leaders to make important changes — such as the labour movements of the 1930s or the civil rights and women’s movements of a few decades later. India, by contrast, has the distinct advantage of having a multiparty political system and so, even if there is a consensus among two of the major parties, there are others which may present alternatives outside the consensus, so long as the people are cognitively prepared to see the merit in the alternatives and their minds are not entirely shaped by the ideologies and ways of thinking underlying the consensus itself.

That brings us to the second question. The outcome of the 2004 elections in India is a telling example of what is at issue here. It is known that in the months prior to that election, pundits in the print and televised media were cheerleading for the utterly illusory claims of an emergent India under the policies that the government had been pursuing. Yet the government was defeated. In a sense, then, the mass of our people were saved by a combination of their illiteracy (the illusion of “India Shining” afflicted only the literate metropolitan classes who were cognitively fed by the media) and their knowledge of the causes of their own impoverished conditions, thereby revealing that everyday political knowledge and media literacy are by no means the same thing.

More here.

Open Letter from Ukrainian Writer Yuri Andrukhovych

From New Eastern Europe:

Andruchovych_yuriDear Friends,

These days I receive from you lots of inquiries to describe the current situation in Kyiv and overall in Ukraine, express my opinion on what is happening and formulate my vision of at least the nearest future. Since I am simply physically unable to respond separately to each of your publications with an extended analytical essay, I have decided to prepare this brief statement which each of you can use in accordance with your needs. The most important things I must tell you are as follows.

During the less than four years of its rule, Viktor Yanukovych’s regime has brought the country and the society to the utter limit of tensions. Even worse, it has boxed itself into a no-exit situation where it must hold on to power forever – by any means necessary. Otherwise it would have to face criminal justice in its full severity. The scale of what has been stolen and usurped exceeds all imagination of what human avarice is capable.

The only answer this regime has been proposing in the face of peaceful protests, now in their third month, is violence, violence that escalates and is “hybrid” in its nature: special forces’ attacks at the Maidan are combined with individual harassment and persecution of opposition activists and ordinary participants in protest actions (surveillance, beatings, the torching of cars and houses, storming of residences, searches, arrests, rubber-stamp court proceedings). The key word here is intimidation. And since it is ineffective, and people are protesting on an increasingly massive scale, the powers-that-be make these repressive actions even harsher.

More here.

Weekend Diversion: Make Yourself Hallucinate (Safely)


Ethan Siegel in Starts With a Bang!:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’” -Hunter S. Thompson

For those of you who’ve never experienced exactly what it feels like to alter your perceptions, and for those of you who have but don’t want to spend hours and hours experiencing the effects, your options have traditionally been limited. Perhaps a song might provide a window into the experience of blurred reality for you, such as Stereolab’s song: Hallucinex.

Thanks to the combined power of technology and our understanding of neuroscience (and perception), you don’t need drugs or to provoke your brain into releasing DMT. Rather, a simple visual pattern can induce temporary (lasting under a minute) hallucinations, safely and temporarily.

The visual patterns that can make us hallucinate typically involve tunnel-like perceptions, something that both math and neuroscience back up. In general, there are a number of things you can do to disorient your visual cortex, and your brain’s attempts (and failures) to adapt to the stimuli are what trigger the hallucination effect!

More here.

Syria’s Polio Epidemic: The Suppressed Truth

Annie Sparrow in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_472 Jan. 26 16.31One way to measure the horrific suffering of Syria’s increasingly violent war is through the experience of Syrian children. More than one million children are now refugees. At least 11,500 have been killed because of the armed conflict,1 well over half of these because of the direct bombing of schools, homes, and health centers, and roughly 1,500 have been executed, shot by snipers or tortured to death. At least 128 were killed in the chemical massacre in August.

In the midst of all this violence, it is easy to miss the health catastrophe that has also struck Syrian children, who must cope with war trauma, malnutrition, and stunted growth alongside collapsing sanitation and living conditions. Syria has become a cauldron of once-rare infectious diseases, with hundreds of cases of measles each month and outbreaks of typhoid, hepatitis, and dysentery. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, and whooping cough are all on the rise. Upward of 100,000 children are stigmatized by leishmaniasis, a hideous parasitic skin disease that flourishes in war. Many of these diseases have already traveled beyond Syria’s borders, carried by millions of refugees. Five million more children have been forced out of their homes but are still living within Syria, increasingly vulnerable to early marriage, trafficking, and recruitment as child soldiers.

And now polio is back.

More here.

Death by data: how Kafka’s The Trial prefigured the nightmare of the modern surveillance state

Reiner Stach in New Statesman:

Data“Kafkaesque” is a word much used and little understood. It evokes highbrow, sophisticated thought but its soupçon of irony allows those who use it to avoid being exact about what it means. When the writers of Breaking Bad titled one of their episodes Kafkaesque, they were sharing a joke about the word’s nebulousness. “Sounds kind of Kafkaesque,” says a pretentious therapy group leader when Jesse Pinkman describes his working conditions. “Totally Kafkaesque,” Jesse witlessly replies. If the word is widely misused, it is also increasingly valuable. Last year, when the attorney and author John W Whitehead wrote about the US National Security Agency scandal in an article headlined “Kafka’s America”, the reference to Kafka clearly made sense:

We now live in a society in which a person can be accused of any number of crimes without knowing what exactly he has done. He might be apprehended in the middle of the night by a roving band of Swat police. He might find himself on a no-fly list, unable to travel for reasons undisclosed. He might have his phones or internet tapped based upon a secret order handed down by a secret court, with no recourse to discover why he was targeted. Indeed, this is Kafka’s nightmare and it is slowly becoming America’s reality.

We live in a world of covert court decisions and secret bureaucratic procedures and where privacy is being abolished – all familiar from Kafka’s best-known novel, The Trial. This year marks the centenary of the book’s composition, though it was not published until after Kafka’s death, in 1925. Kafka’s texts age far more slowly than those of almost any other author of his era. In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme. Readers under communism, however, pictured a situation that they knew all too well, in which the fundamental rights of the individual had been stripped away. Many gravitated to a political interpretation of Kafka, bolstered by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, who had proclaimed Kafka a prophet.

Picture: Eyes in the sky: a security camera monitoring station in Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

More here.

Her art belongs to Dada: Hannah Höch

Adrian Hamilton in The Independent:

Dada-2“Hannah Höch the Dadaist” is the way that this German artist is usually pigeon-holed in art history. And indeed she was a leading member of the movement in Berlin in the 1920s, full of the calls for artistic revolution, the rejection of all that had gone before, the hectic partying and the collage works which made this movement so energetic and so productive.

…Born in 1889, Hannah Höch went through two world wars and the prolonged periods of economic distress and rebuilding which were their consequences. The experiences were quite different. In the intellectual ferment of Germany's Roaring Twenties which followed the First World War, the mood (except among those who had fought in it) was one of release from the past mistakes and clear horizons of a new world to be created out of its ashes. Hoch, who always tended towards anarchism rather than the communism of many in her circle, responded at first with some wonderfully witty and scabrous photomontages attacking bankers and ridiculing men in the family and in power. Adding watercolour and ink to collage, she seizes the spirit of the times with some joyously satirical collages of Coquette and the Singer and some open explorations of her own complicated sexuality.

A 10-year relationship with the Dutch Dadaist poet, Mathilda Brugman, and visits away from Berlin brought a change in mood as aesthetics. Höch became increasingly interested in collages as a means of representing the fragmentary and multi-faceted nature of a life, particularly a woman's. In a remarkable, and justly famous, series, (Untitled) [From an Ethnographic Museum], she uses the photographic images of primitive statues in museums and from magazines and pastes on contemporary heads and body parts. The result is an astonishingly subtle and challenging portrayal of what makes up the human and gender in the modern world. It's quite brilliant but also intriguing in its layered meaning.

More here.

Sunday Poem


Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals
That will do for a place to sit.
—Kabir, “A place to sit”

Rolls of rice paper in the corner,
jars of soft-haired brushes,
elegant cakes of watercolour,
black inkstone at the centre.

My mother held the brush vertically,
never slant, arm and fingers poised,
distilling bird or breeze into
diligent rows of single characters.

Hours rippled. Years of practice urged
the true strokes forth—stiff bamboo
now waving in white air, cautious lines
ribboning silk folds of a woman's gown.

My favourite of her paintings
was of chrysanthemums. They began
as five arcs of ink, long breaths in the emptiness
alluding to stem and blossom. Then,

from the finest brush, the outline of each petal.
Flesh flowed from the fuller one, tipped
with yellow or lavender, until every crown
bloomed amid the throng of leaves.

If only I had been paper,
a delicate, upturned face stroked
with such precise tenderness.

by Fiona Tinwei Lam
Enter the Chrysanthemum
Harbour Publishing, 2009


Bill Gates at the website of the Gates Foundation:


I've heard this myth stated about lots of places, but most often about Africa. A quick Web search will turn up dozens of headlines and book titles such as 'How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor.'

Thankfully these books are not bestsellers, because the basic premise is false. The fact is, incomes and other measures of human welfare are rising almost everywhere, including in Africa.

So why is this myth so deeply ingrained?

I’ll get to Africa in a moment, but first let’s look at the broader trend around the world, going back a half-century. Fifty years ago, the world was divided in three: the United States and our Western allies; the Soviet Union and its allies; and everyone else. I was born in 1955 and grew up learning that the so-called First World was well off or “developed.” Most everyone in the First World went to school, and we lived long lives. We weren't sure what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, but it sounded like a scary place. Then there was the so-called Third World—basically everyone else. As far as we knew, it was filled with people who were poor, didn't go to school much, and died young. Worse, they were trapped in poverty, with no hope of moving up.

More here.

Rosetta comet chaser set to wake up on Monday after three years’ sleep

Ian Sample in The Guardian:

Rosetta-deploys-Philae-sp-011At 10am GMT on Monday morning an alarm clock will rouse a snoozing spacecraft that is hurtling through the darkest reaches of the solar system. Launched 10 years ago, and in hibernation for the last three, the time for action has come at last.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta probe aims for a spectacular first in space exploration. The billion-euro machine will catch up with a comet, circle it slowly, and throw down a lander to the surface. With gravity too weak to keep it there, the box of electronics and sensors on legs will cling to its ride with an explosive metal harpoon.

Together, the Rosetta probe and its lander, Philae, will scan and poke the comet as it tears towards the sun. As the comet draws near, it will warm and spew huge plumes of gas and dust in a tail more than one million kilometres long. The spectacle has never been captured up close before.

The comet, named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, formed from cosmic debris 4.6bn years ago, before material had coalesced to form the Earth and our nearest planets, and the sun was a newborn star. Even rocket scientists find the comet's name hard work. Some opt instead for “Chury”.

By studying the comet – some of the most pristine and primordial material there is – scientists hope to learn more about the origins of the solar system. The presence of ice, and traces of organics, might hint at answers to other big questions: how Earth got its water and how life began. But first the spacecraft must wake up.

More here.