Croatia as Tragedy

Gregor Dotzauer in Taggesspiegel (translated over at signandsight):

When an angel first whispered in his ear that Central Europe would end in tragedy, it is impossible to say, after all the angels which have populated Delimir Resicki‘s poems. They feed him with clever and terrible words and if possible both at the same time. “If you have matches / then it its easy / to find a needle in a haystack,” they whisper to him for example, although the sinisterness of these lines is sapped by the daylight. At first glance, the Central European tragedy which Resicki is evoking here has something ghostlike about it. Perhaps it travels invisibly with the Bora, the Jugo or the Maestra, the three great winds which blow across Croatia. Or it hides behind the sun which floods the whole country from cave to coast, right down into the drowned valleys of the Adriatic. Beyond the showy Baroque that dazzles the visitor in Zagreb reigns the misery of the pre-fab high-rise, and beyond the elegant Roman ruins of Pula lurks a provincial narrowness you wouldn’t want to cross. But these things are not inescapable, as long as you can still find respite in Zagreb’s parks, or among a pile of books in a sofa of the art cafe Cvajner, once a bank of the Austro-Hungarian empire, with the intent not to rise again until next summer arrives.

So where is the tragedy? Is it heralded by the two German estate agents who in the queue at the airport shamelessly deliberate the most efficient way of coaxing the locals out of their houses while they forge plans to conquer Belarus and Ukraine because Croatia, as the mercenaries ensure one another, is the gateway to the entire East? Or does it manifest itself in the Russians who roll up with their coffers of cash to get their hands on private islands, as Tito did with Brioni, before EU regulations interfere? Or is it revealed in the skirmishes which border on bitter comedy, where politicians continue to slug it out as if, a decade after Franjo Tudjman‘s death, the leaden nationalism of the first post-Yugoslavian president was still alive, while all around the consumer world glitters in every capitalist brand and colour?

Is a Quiet Revolution Underway at the IMF?

Augustin Carstens in Project Syndicate:

As the turmoil swirling through global financial markets continues, there is a growing realization that global economic problems require global solutions and improved global governance. This March, amid the latest financial twists and turns, a significant achievement in this regard went largely unnoticed: an agreement by the executive board of the International Monetary Fund on a new quota formula and increases in quotas for under-represented members, particularly emerging-market and developing countries.

With that move, the IMF gave these countries a stronger voice in the main international organization charged with ensuring financial stability – and thus in the global economy itself. The decision, taken after nearly two years of highly technical and sometimes arcane negotiations, involved a set of measures that change the way quotas (which determine voting power in the IMF) are distributed.

Of course, at the end of the day, the total shift in voting power from developed to developing countries was only about 2.7%. So why is it important?

American Dreamers

William Hogeland on Pete Seeger, William F. Buckley, Jr., and public history in the Boston Review:

Buckley and Seeger share, along with fake-sounding accents and preppie backgrounds, a problem that inspires forgetfulness, falsification, and denial in their supporters. Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable.

But these two men—their careers strangely linked in the hunt for communists, the struggle for equal rights, and the emerging “culture wars” of the postwar era—are worthy of consideration without air-brushed reminiscence. Their names alone may evoke, for those who lived through it, the anxiety and turmoil that marked American cultural and political life during the Cold War. Mutual hostility between Seeger types and Buckley types devolved on fears of imminent, world-ending invasions; plans for preventing evil from ever recurring on a mass scale; and stark disagreements over what is legitimately American. When the Soviet Union was annexing its neighbors, filling gulags, and making swaggering predictions of world dominance, and the United States was toppling elected leaders in favor of authoritarians and hounding domestic dissenters, all amid the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the division among Americans could feel, to those on both sides, like the last battle for humanity’s soul. What Seeger and Buckley’s youthful actions meant in their time, deliberately obscured by today’s lionizers, continues to mean something crucial now.

Sunday Poem

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In the southwest corner of China, the grand mountains and rivers that border the Tibetan plateau are home to the Yi, an ethnic group often portrayed in the Chinese popular imagination as a fierce and defiant highland people. A down-to-earth poet caught between the Yi highlands and the Han Chinese lowlands, Jimu Langge (his Yi name) writes fluently in-between: More 

Humility
Jimu Langge

Within the literary world
of an era not distance past
because something was missing
(materially and spiritually
though young,
I still experienced that era)
There was a phenomenon, or call it
the style of an entire era,
and that was humility
If one was not humble then nothing was possible
Humility was a moral virtue
Only with moral virtue could you become an important person
and not being humble was arrogant
Arrogance would not make an important person
Not becoming a big important person
meant you were an unimportant person
A little unimportant person was just
a fucking peon
What other reason is there for writing?
See, one lapse in concentration
and again I’m being influenced by that era
It was such a reactionary era
because it was so humble

I like people who aren’t humble
and like arrogant fellows even more
The more arrogant he is the more I respect him
And vice-versa: the more humble he is
the more it makes me look down on him
Even though I know he has
humility

Today
my son said
“People should be humble.”
This is what his teacher taught him
I didn’t say a word
I thought, “You’re still young,
wait till you get older.
After you can think for yourself,
the first thing I want you to do is
not be humble.”
To not be humble, you need arrogance
and to be arrogant, you don’t need humility
Of course if you say you can when you really can’t
you will suffer the bigger loss

But this already has nothing to do with humility

//

Into the Egyptian underbelly

Kamila Shamsie in The Telegraph:

Book The pleasure you will derive from The End of Sleep by Rowan Somerville is directly related to your willingness to embrace exuberance as the primary tone in a novel. Rowan Somerville’s debut is awash with it. Almost nothing happens in a muted way – not the sipping of tea, not the drive through Cairo’s streets, and certainly not any act of eating food.

Fin, the Irishman who leads us through this story, has an in-between relationship with Cairo. He has been there too long to be a tourist, but not long enough to cease being an outsider. He is at the stage when a traveller takes on the air of propriety that comes with a slightly more than superficial encounter with a place, while every utterance still serves to underscore his alienness.

More here.

We Need More Novels about Real Scientists

From Scientific American:

Man In novels and films, the most common scientist by far is the mad one. From H. G. Wells’s Dr. Mo­­reau to Ian Fleming’s Dr. No to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, scientists are portrayed as evil geniuses unrestrained by ethics and usually bent on world domination. Over the past two years, as I struggled to write my own novel about physicists and their quest for the Theory of Everything, I often worried that I was falling prey to this stereotype myself. It is incredibly difficult to create fictional scientists who are neither insane villains nor cardboard heroes. To faithfully depict the life and work of a researcher, you need to immerse yourself in the details of his or her research, and very few writers have done this task well.

One of the earliest attempts to draw a realistic picture of science was Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. The book tells the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a callow Midwestern youth who after long travails throws off the temptations of money, power and fame to pursue a life of solitary medical research. Martin isn’t a very likable character—he’s peevish, disdainful and annoyingly self-important. One gets the sense that even the author doesn’t care for him much. The true hero of the tale is Martin’s mentor, Max Gottlieb, a long-suffering German-American bacteriologist. Dr. Gottlieb provides the novel’s wisest insights: “To be a scientist—it is not just a different job … it is a tangle of very obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry.” Arrowsmith also gives readers a fascinating glimpse of microbiology in the early 20th century. To get his facts right, Lewis relied on Paul de Kruif, a bacteriologist and science writer who received 25 percent of the book’s royalties in return for his help.

More here.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Pen and Sickle

Brodsky In the NYT Keith Gessen reviews Solomon Volkov’s The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn:

Volkov is not [morally] outraged because, in his view, he is telling a triumphant tale. In the book’s livelier second half, he narrates the post-Stalin era as a story of the irreversible liberalization of the arts, a liberalization that eventually spread to the rest of Soviet life. He may overstate the political significance for the arts, but even the crudest of crude oil determinists will admit that the yearning of the Soviet intelligentsia toward the West helped demoralize the regime. Volkov also spends some time on his own milieu, the émigrés and exiles who came to Paris, Boston and especially New York in the 1970s. Solzhenitsyn, thundering from his Vermont hermitage against the Soviets and, increasingly, the decadent West, was a distant presence for these émigrés; their true avatar was Brodsky, of Mount Holyoke and the West Village.

For a 20th-century Russian writer, Brodsky was notably apolitical — or, put another way, art was his politics. His poetry, partly confessional, partly metaphysical, held as its highest value the sanctity of the private self. Brodsky was anti-Soviet as a matter of course, but also a cosmopolitan. “Like a despotic sheik … untrue / To his vast seraglio and multiple desires,” he wrote in “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” “I have switched Empires.” The only constant was poetry, music and art. “I close my eyes and almost see them standing in their dilapidated kitchens, holding glasses in their hands, with ironic grimaces across their faces,” Brodsky wrote about his generation. “‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité. … Why does nobody add culture?’” This is the world that Volkov came from…

Spam Turns 30

Dn137771_250 Kurt Kleiner in New Scientist:

Thirty years ago next week, Gary Thuerk, a marketer at the now-defunct computer firm Digital Equipment Corporation, sent an email to 393 users of Arpanet, the US government-run computer network that eventually became the internet. It was the first spam email ever.

That commercial message, sent on 3 May 1978, drew a swift and negative reaction. Recipients complained directly to Thuerk, who had made no attempt to hide his identity, and DEC was reprimanded by the Arpanet administrators.

Nevertheless, the email was a portent of things to come. Today, spam makes up 80 to 90% of all emails sent – around 120 billion messages per day – and is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Today spammers target not just email, but also websites, blogs, social networking sites, and cellphones.

[H/t: Linta Varghese]

And there seems to be no end in sight, as spam-fighters struggle to keep the junk from overwhelming useful communications. Spammers and anti-spammers seem locked in an arms race. No one expects that the fight against spam will be won anytime soon, despite Bill Gates promise in 2004 that the world would be spam-free by 2006.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Desiring Arabs

Picture_2_85 Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs just received the Lionel Trilling Award.  In The Guide, a brief interview:

The Guide: Your work focuses on how radically different erotic desire is conceived in different cultures. But people seem remarkably able to adapt. You hear about men from the more overtly repressive parts of the Middle East Saudi Arabia coming to the West saying they feel like they’re in a candy store. Or Westerners travel to the Middle East and find that there’s a different way same-sex desires happen, but in short order it often all seems to make sense. Or people get sent to prison, and fall into a new sexual roles they wouldn’t have imagined playing before. Doesn’t this ready adaptability call into question the idea of irreconcilable, radical cultural differences when it comes to sexuality? Or that the way language is used around desire determines people’s experiences?

Joseph Massad: It’s not just language and discourse, but also structures such as law and the state more generally. But it seems to me that when Arabs who have same-sex desires or those who have different sex desires come to the US, they find their desires, which were not beholden to the hetero-homo binary, as intelligible only as “gay” or “straight.” This is on account of the closure of possibilities in the West, especially since the 1950s, for the multiple ways in which sexuality is organized outside the hetero-homo binary. The last opening for these multiple ways of understanding sexual desires to exist was the Kinsey reports, which were ultimately overthrown.

Henwood on Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine

Doug Henwood reviews Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine in The Left Business Observer:

As do many partisans of the global justice movement, Klein exhibits a nostalgia for the Keyensian welfare state model that prevailed in many rich countries in the decades following World War II. That model had a counterpart, roughly over the same period, in Latin America in the import-substitution model, in which tariffs and other import restrictions were used to protect local industries in the hope they’d develop.

Import substitution had its successes, for sure, but they were fairly limited. The regimes that practiced it were often corrupt and repressive, with deep ties between protected industrialists and their political patrons, and the products of these coddled industries were often shoddy and expensive. There’s no doubt that successful development requires some kinds of “protection,” but it’s hard to do it deftly.

And the victims of Pinochet and Argentine junta were rebels against that very model of capitalism. At first, the military dictatorships of Latin America weren’t trying to impose neoliberalism—they were trying to defend the system of private property against a variety of populists, socialists, and communists.

Using words like “Friedmanite” and “neoliberalism” is a way to avoid talking about capitalism in any systemic fashion. When Klein does address systemic issues, she professes that she’s not anticapitalist, but prefers a form of managed or welfare capitalism. It would be sectarian to say that managed or welfare capitalism isn’t better than what we’ve got now; it most certainly would be, especially in the U.S., where a single-payer healthcare system seems almost like a revolutionary impossibility. But it would be naive to think that we could get there without a political upsurge demanding an even more radical renovation, and evasive to deny that exploitation wouldn’t still exist under a regulated capitalism.

flavin

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Works of art often last forever, or nearly so. But exhibitions themselves, especially gallery exhibitions, are like flowers; they bloom and then they die, then exist only as memories, or pressed in magazines and books. Unless someone has the time, money, and obsession to regather the work, research how it appeared, and rehang a show—and the Zwirner & Wirth gallery has all those things, plus the understanding that forays into recent history burnish the reputation.

This Upper East Side establishment has done the art world a tremendous favor, restaging Dan Flavin’s historic breakthrough exhibition that took place at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery in 1964. Between 1960 and 1965, Green exhibited the work of artists who were redefining what art was, taking it into new directions, and using materials and forms in innovative ways. Claes Oldenburg made soft sculpture, Donald Judd deployed geometry and industrial materials in new ways, Yayoi Kusama painted webs of the mind, and Lucas Samaras made mind-expanding objects, paintings, and photographs. Flavin’s show pushed the Duchampian line of thinking a giant leap forward, arranging unaltered ready-mades, in this case standard fluorescent fixtures and tubes, into intensely optical aesthetic experiences. Just as Pollock found and deployed the drip—something that had always been there—Flavin wed medium, message, and space: Light fixtures became the form and the content of his art.

more from NY Magazine here.

the sporty halberstam

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When David Halberstam was killed in a car crash near San Francisco last spring, he’d just finished what turned out to be his final book, “The Coldest Winter,” a history of the Korean War. The indefatigable 73-year-old author was on his way to Palo Alto to speak with Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle. The interview was to be the first for his 22nd book, on the Baltimore Colts’ victory over the New York Giants in 1958, an overtime championship thriller that he believed marked the ascendancy of professional football in American sports.

Halberstam was one of a handful of writers who could tackle, in succession, the Korean War and the so-called Greatest Game Ever Played. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for groundbreaking coverage of the Vietnam War for the New York Times and went on to pen the signature 1972 book on the origins of that conflict, “The Best and the Brightest.” His 1993 book, “The Fifties,” was a sprawling account of that crucible decade in U.S. history. But all along, he’d had an affection for sports. Beginning in 1981, he wrote a series of sports-themed books, which were “a pleasant respite from my other seemingly more serious work,” he said, as if to apologize for the lighter material. They were anything but lightweight. Whether writing about the NFL, Olympic rowing or Michael Jordan, Halberstam examined essential themes: race and class, media and entertainment, heroism and myth, money and power, youth and old age.

more from the LA Times here.

“life and death are wearing me out”

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In the summer of 1976, as Chairman Mao lay on his deathbed in Beijing, the pigs at the Ximen Village Production Brigade Apricot Garden Pig Farm in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, also began to die. The first batch of five were found with “their skin dotted with purple splotches the size of bronze coins, their eyes open, as if they’d died with unresolved grievances.” The commune vet declared they had succumbed to “what we call the Red Death” and ordered them to be cremated and buried immediately. But it had been raining for weeks and the ground was too waterlogged. Dousing the carcasses with kerosene and trying to set them alight simply filled the farm with vile-smelling smoke. Soon 800 more pigs were infected. A fresh team of vets arrived by motorboat with more sophisticated medicines, but their ministrations were of little help. Dead pigs were piled up throughout the farm, their bloated forms expanding and exploding in the heat.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

One sense at a time

From Nature:

Kidwithblocks Adults readily integrate sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in their everyday lives without a second thought. But research is revealing that this is not the case with children. Two new studies hint that children under the age of eight only use one sense at a time to judge the world around them. Previous research has demonstrated that adults can easily combine and rank the value of the information that they gather from their senses. For example, a man looking for a flute player in a crowded room can use sight and sound to do so, relying more on sight in a room full of background noise.

David Burr of the University of Florence, Italy, and Marko Nardini at Birkbeck College, University of London, UK, each led a team of researchers to explore whether children possess this ability. Burr’s group asked children between the ages of five and ten and adults to determine which of two blocks was taller than the other. While making their decisions, participants were allowed to either touch the blocks, look at the blocks, or do both. The team report in Current Biology that adults and children eight years of age and older were better at this task when they could both see and touch the blocks. Their ability fell when they were denied one of these two senses.

But children under the age of eight did not show this difference at all.

More here.

Endless War

From The New York Times:

War_2 It was not one of the celebrated moments of what the Israelis call the War of Independence and the Palestinians call Al Nakba, the Catastrophe. But it is one of the more arresting ones. In late August 1948, during a United Nations-sanctioned truce, Israeli soldiers conducting what they called Mivtza Nikayon — Operation Cleaning — encountered some Palestinian refugees just north of the Egyptian lines. The Palestinians had returned to their village, now in Israeli hands, because their animals were there, and because there were crops to harvest and because they were hungry. But to the Israelis, they were potential fighters, or fifth columnists in the brand new Jewish state. The Israelis killed them, then burned their homes.

As much as in any other scene in this meticulous, disturbing and frustrating book, the ineffable tragedy of Israelis and Palestinians resides in that brutal, heartbreaking image. On the one hand, the Jews were fighting for a safe haven three years after six million of them had been murdered. Undoubtedly some of those soldiers on patrol that day were survivors themselves, who’d lost their entire families in Europe and been handed rifles after washing ashore in Haifa or Tel Aviv.

And then there were the Palestinians, who had watched in horror over the past 75 years as these aliens first trickled, then poured, into their homeland. Were he an Arab leader, David Ben-Gurion once confessed to the Zionist official Nahum Goldmann, he, too, would wage perpetual war with Israel. “Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them?” he asked. “There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country.”

More here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

What Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay Says About Us

Shayana Kadidal in The Nation:

To begin with, the reference works as a joke only because the vast majority of people now see Guantánamo as so illegitimate that it approaches absurdity. The man held for five years because of his friendship with a “suicide bomber” (who was alive and well in Germany); the Bosnian Red Crescent worker asked to respond to charges that he “associated” with a “known Al Qaeda member” (without being told that person’s name–because it was classified); the government lawyer who claimed in court that a little old lady in Switzerland whose charitable donation is unknowingly diverted to Al Qaeda could be detained as an “enemy combatant”–all of these may one day make the unwieldy “Guantanámoesque” replace “Kafkaesque” in the lexicon. The movie’s marketers would never have risked alienating a significant chunk of their audience by putting the word Guantánamo in the title if there weren’t a broad public consensus that the place is synonymous with injustice.

But the use of the prison as a metaphor for legalistic absurdity and government incompetence is only a small piece of the reality at Guantánamo. And this is the really telling thing about the title: America is not ready for Harold and Kumar Go to Abu Ghraib. Guantánamo can be treated as a punch line in part because it is seen by Americans as primarily an abstract issue about executive abuse of power instead of being about real people.