There is a strain in American popular thought and foreign policy which can perhaps best be paraphrased by a t-shirt I remember from the seventies. PurThere is a strain in American popular thought and foreign policy which can perhaps best be paraphrased by a t-shirt I remember from the seventies. Purporting to quote the Airborne, it said, "Kill them all: let God sort them out." This is the same attitude that has justified successive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone killings, and the infamous use of torture by U.S. intelligence services. Not only is such an approach morally repellent, but even the most hardened advocate of Realpolitik should be able to see by now that it is ineffective. Thinking that we have removed the cancer of Saddam Hussein, we have created the constantly metastasising Islamic State. Our cynical reflex is either to prop up brutal dictators like Abdel Fatteh El Sisi or the brutal Saudi regime when they serve us, or to obliterate their countries when they don't.
Karima Bennoune's insightful book suggests that there is a third approach, superficially less attractive and certainly more difficult, but morally appropriate and more conducive to long-term success. Bennoune is the daughter of an Algerian university professor and intellectual who survived the nineties in Algeria under constant threat from fundamentalist death squads and yet maintained a principled support for civil society. Inspired in part by her father's example, Bennoune has woven together the stories of courageous dissidents in the Muslim (mostly Arab) world who despite the neglect of Western media and human rights organizations, have continued to attempt to navigate the Scylla and Charibdys (her metaphor) of fundamentalist terror and state oppression.
Bennoune boldly, and I think correctly, asserts that the first bulwark and the last refuge against these twin evils is assertion of the rights of women in civil society. Women's rights are consistently among the first targets of fundamentalist violence, and state sponsorship of religion quickly curtails the rights of everyone who does not conform to the ethos of the prevailing regime. Thus it is no surprise that many of Bennoune's heroes are women who have opposed fundamentalist terror, both those who have risked or lost their lives and those who bear witness to the slaughter of their family and friends. In this sense, this is not an easy book to read, in light of the scale of suffering and the gruesome tactics employed against anyone who dares stand for simple human values.
One more point that Bennoune makes quite tellingly, however, is that however neglected they may be, the courageous champions of civil society, democracy, women's rights, and the rule of law whose struggles she memorializes are largely Muslims or at least citizens of Muslim states. Bennoune is at pains to shatter the perception that the Muslim world is no more than a seething cauldron of radical Islamism, and she issues a cri de coeur on behalf of the people in Muslim societies seeking to build — and rebuild — civil society. ...more
Paul Barrett’s Law of the Jungle is a fast-paced and compelling account of legal corruption and corporate wrongdoing, in which a passionate advocate iPaul Barrett’s Law of the Jungle is a fast-paced and compelling account of legal corruption and corporate wrongdoing, in which a passionate advocate is undone through his own hubris and unscrupulous pursuit of what began as a noble crusade to rescue the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants from massive pollution by Big Oil. Although the dominant theme is the tragedy of single lawyer undone by his loss of a moral compass, the story could equally well be read as a giant corporation’s escape from deserved liability as a result of the fecklessness of the legal system and the failings of the victims’ advocates. In the end, the Indians of the Amazon are faced with ongoing, unchecked pollution, and the oil company’s victory serves as a cautionary tale to any lawyer who dares to attempt to hold Big Oil accountable for its actions.
The signal failure of the American legal system from the outset of the case was to delay adjudication on the merits for nine and half years while it noodled over the question of forum non conveniens, i.e. where the case could best be tried, and in the end turned over the case at Big Oil’s request to a weak and corrupt third-world judiciary that was wholly unequipped to handle it. Much to the surprise of the oil company’s battalion of high-priced lawyers, in the corrupt world of Ecuadorian politics they were outmaneuvered at every turn by a no-holds-barred advocate whose dirty tricks more than matched their own. It is clear that the oil company was no more principled in its conduct of litigation in Ecuador than plaintiff’s attorney Steven Donziger; its clumsy Armada was simply far less agile and maneuverable than Donziger’s slick fleet of native activists, paid off experts, and corrupt judges and politicians, who deployed a devastating public relations campaign complete with rock stars, investigations on Sixty Minutes, and a canned documentary film, resulting in a $19 billion judgment against Chevron.
Donziger’s dishonest tactics ultimately proved his undoing when Chevron initiated a ruthless campaign against him under the racketeering laws in the American court system after 19 years of litigation – with virtually no cleanup. Barrett offers a trenchant final chapter of conclusions at the end of the book, which it would be tempting to read first, but one question that lingers is whether the Donziger debacle and subsequent Supreme Court rulings gutting the Alien Tort Statute leave any hope that the rights of indigenous people trampled by American multinationals can be vindicated by legitimate means. Donziger only prevailed in Ecuador because he was more proficient at dirty tricks than Big Oil, but the book leaves open the question whether in light of its refusal to hear the case on the merits in a fair forum, the American legal system has the will or capacity to hold its corporate citizens accountable for their irresponsible actions abroad. In the end, the abiding impression this book leaves is one of deep pessimism....more
Great writers often seem to lead messy lives, and none more so than great memoirists, for tidy lives do not make great memoirs. While not as talentedGreat writers often seem to lead messy lives, and none more so than great memoirists, for tidy lives do not make great memoirs. While not as talented a poet, Robert Graves was every bit as batshit crazy as William Butler Yeats, with more cause, and as with Yeats, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of love with Graves over the decades. As Paul Fussell explains in his magisterial The Great War and Modern Memory the only way to understand Graves' Good-bye to All That is as a mordant burlesque on the darkest of events. (A commonly cited example is Graves' story about making tea from machine gun coolant.) It may seem irreverent to write about the "Great War" in a comic vein; in fact, it undoubtedly is. But there is no reason that war should be regarded with reverence, and, as Fussell points out, perhaps humor is the only way to come to grips with the horror.
Graves' own approach to Good-bye to All That is perhaps summed up by his comment on life after the War:
I still had the Army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth — it was always easier for me now, when charged with any fault, to lie my way out in Army style.
Graves, Good-bye to All That 287 (Anchor 1985). These are lies in pursuit of a larger truth (as Fussell also points out). Even for someone with the good luck and mental toughness to survive the horrors of the trenches, it must be hard to look back into the abyss straight on. Sometimes, mockery is the only antidote to madness. Sitting here on a Sunday morning in my bathrobe at the keyboard with a cup of strong coffee, it is easy to contemplate the sucking, shell churned mud of half-frozen ditches, swarming with rats, amidst the heavy whine and thud of the shells, the moans and shrieks of the wounded in no-man's land, the ever present fear of gas, and the fatal knowledge that sooner or later one would be ordered to march straight on with bayonet fixed into the stuttering maw of a machine gun. Perhaps not quite so easy to contemplate for one who has lived the experience — a possible explanation for the taciturnity of so many old soldiers.
P.S. As a bonus, for anyone who has ever taught English as a Second Language abroad, see Graves' penultimate chapter on his assignment to Egypt as a professor....more
For anyone who has ever worried about genetically modified organisms, incurable plagues, climate change, war, famine, or global dominance by giant corFor anyone who has ever worried about genetically modified organisms, incurable plagues, climate change, war, famine, or global dominance by giant corporations, this book is your worst nightmare. The eponymous heroine of the book is a genetically engineered and enhanced "New Person" who is enslaved in a decadent future Thailand, riven by internal political division but gamely attempting to fight off floods, epidemics, and the giant food consortia that now dominate the earth. Self-interest and survival are the dominant motivations of the characters, and yet the story is nevertheless engaging, fast-paced, and instructive....more
This book is not so much about the love of food as it is about using food to fill the absence of love. As Tolstoy pointed out, every unhappy family isThis book is not so much about the love of food as it is about using food to fill the absence of love. As Tolstoy pointed out, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and that certainly holds true in this fascinating and engaging memoir. Christensen chronicles a series of dysfunctional relationships, from her abusive father to her incompatible lovers, awash in a sea of alcohol and punctuated by bouts of depression. At times, the book seems like an extended therapy session. Christensen, however, not surprisingly, is perceptive, funny, and a trifle acerbic. It is not hard to believe that she is yet another successful novelist with a messy personal life. And for all that food is a proxy for love, the recipes are mouth watering. If only life were as straightforward as cooking....more
The fall of the tiny Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492, marking the consummation of the Spanish reconquest and the division of the Iberian peninsula The fall of the tiny Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492, marking the consummation of the Spanish reconquest and the division of the Iberian peninsula under Spanish and Portuguese rule, generated a ripple whose shock wave ultimately resounded throughout the world, not least in Spain's neighbor the Sultanate of Morocco. As the last remnants of the glittering kingdoms of El Andalus fled across the straits to North Africa, Ferdinand and Isabella were able to employ the fruits of victory in financing an obscure Genoan adventurer on a desperate voyage to the Indies. In one of history's greatest accidents, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, setting off a chain reaction of disease, conquest, and exploitation that swiftly overturned the established order in the New World to the unimaginable enrichment of the Spanish empire. The dazzling success of Cortes in Mexico spurred the Spanish nobleman Panfilo de Narvaez to mount an expedition to la Florida in the buoyant expectation of outdoing his predecessor on the shores of the vast unexplored North American continent. After all, there was every reason to believe that the untold riches of the New World had barely been tapped, and the unmatched superiority of the Spanish fleet at sea and the Spanish cavalry on land had allowed relatively small forces to melt all resistance from the Native Americans like wax in a blast furnace.
It is a commonplace of classical tragedy that the hero is brought low by hubris born of overconfidence in his great strength – whether it be Achilles rushing forward into battle, Odysseus taunting the Cyclops, or Oedipus slaying the king his father and marrying the queen his mother. This story of the Narvaez expedition melds a fast-paced adventure story with the arc of a Sophoclean drama. Abandoning its ships and plunging headlong into the swamps of Florida, the Narvaez expedition drives all resistance before it only to find itself stranded without either gold or food, and its dwindling number of survivors – ultimately only four – find themselves at the mercy of the very Indians they had hitherto so cavalierly murdered and tortured in their monomaniacal– but futile – search for gold. In the end, the only four survivors were three Spanish noblemen – one of whom, Cabeza de Vaca, wrote the definitive account of the ill-fated voyage – and a Moroccan slave known only by his Spanish diminutive – “Estebanico.”
In her richly imagined novel, Laila Lalami recreates the disastrous expedition from Estebanico's perspective, interspersing flashbacks to his upbringing in the Portuguese-dominated Moroccan city of Azzemour with a fast-paced narrative of hardship and danger as the desperate Spanish seek to cut their way out of the trap of their own making in what is now the Southeastern United States. Told from the perspective of a man gradually emerging from slavery in reliance upon the good will of the native tribes, the novel simultaneously offers an empathetic view both of the disastrous impact on native culture of the Spanish incursion and of the ruthless invaders undone by their lust for gold.
Lalami's deft narrative not only conveys a sense of the sixteenth century down to the very diction of the narrator but also creates an impression of scrupulous historical accuracy. In so doing, it provides a kaleidoscopic insight into the intersection of Arab, Spanish, and Native American cultures in the age of exploration from a refreshingly different point of view. Quite apart from being a page-turner, this novel offers a fascinating insight into the devastation of old civilizations and the birth of the modern age....more
A History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists bA History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists because it deftly explores a wider mystical tradition that goes well beyond the literalism of Western Protestantism against which modern atheism is chiefly a reaction. It is a good book to instill humility into Christians because it exposes the religious limitations of the cramped historical literalism that has proved a cul de sac for modern Christianity.
By definition, the more mysterious God is, the less knowable it is. At the same time, the more knowable God is, the less credible it is. If the notion of God is to be saved, it must be predicated upon the mystical, ineffable, incomprehensible awareness of a divine being that transcends the nature of the physical universe as we know it. The problem then becomes that such a God is not only essentially unknowable but also irrelevant to human affairs. Every attempt to connect God to human affairs makes God at once less mysterious and paradoxically less believable.
On the one hand, the author does provide a fascinating history of the attempts of mystics — from Buddhists to Byzantine Christians to Sufis to Kabbalists — to attain an experience of God by routes other than rationalism. And she has a fascinating insight into the universality and openness of such approaches, which typically recognize the possibility of many approaches to one God. These approaches have the merit of recognizing that what cannot be apprehended by reason should be approached by other means, and there is clearly something to be said for the idea that reason is not the only mode of perception. The more unapproachable and incomprehensible God becomes, however, the less apparent it becomes that its existence or non-existence has any bearing on human affairs.
On the other hand, the literal, personal, interventionist God of Western Christianity has become increasingly untenable thanks, ironically, to Western Christianity's emphasis on literal interpretation of the scripture. The problem with the literal historicity of the Bible is that much of it is demonstrably, provably, laughably false. Quite apart from the question of human parthenogenesis or revivification, my then six-year-old daughter exposed the empirical problem quite succinctly when listening to Bible stories at the County Fair: "There's no way you could fit all the animals in the world on one boat!" People who insist on the literal nature of parables set themselves up for self-contradiction, and people who insist on the parabolic nature of reality open themselves to the charge that they are merely reciting fictions.
Fundamentalists come in different stripes, however, and the author draws a distinction between the cultural conservatism and literalism of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-imperialist reaction of Islamic fundamentalism, which she argues is primarily a reaction to the political evisceration of the Muslim world by superior European technology. As such, she argues, it is marked not so much by anti-scientific obscurantism and as by a fierce desire to reverse European political dominance.
Although the author concedes that "a passionate and committed atheism can be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism," it is clear that she finds atheism an emotionally unsatisfying alternative. After all, her comment assumes that "religious" is a term of approbation and leaves no room for a clear-eyed and dispassionate skepticism that the "force is with us." Armstrong gives a nod to the idea that one can be passionate about the world as it is on the assumption that for all practical purposes we are on our own, but she is clearly unwilling to accept such a view as the final word. ...more
George Orwell is indisputably the greatest didactic writer in the English language since Samuel Johnson. As an essayist, he is a nonpareil, and his inGeorge Orwell is indisputably the greatest didactic writer in the English language since Samuel Johnson. As an essayist, he is a nonpareil, and his insights — which he modestly characterized as "a power of facing unpleasant facts" — are remarkable, original, and biting. The scintillating force of his pen shines most brightly in his essays and his memoirs.
The very power of his personal prose that gives such force to his essays and memoirs, however, leaves his fiction curiously flat. For all his insight, he seems to lack the ability to free his characters to lead independent fictional lives. A person reading Orwell's novels for their characterization would shoot himself.
Such is the force, clarity, and originality of Orwell's ideas, however, and the freshness of his candor, that it is easy to forgive the flat characterization and intrusive narration of the novels. And while each generation seems to find some pundit who dismisses Orwell's dark vision in 1984 as passe, fresh revelations of the octopus-like stranglehold of the National Security Agency over the daily minutiae of the the lives of 300 million Americans gives proof daily of how prescient Orwell was. Big Brother is indeed watching.
We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect rec
We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect recall. In fact, it is more akin to an evolutionary afterthought that operates on dubious premises, fuzzy memories, and irrational impulses. We are finely tuned to survive in a world where we may be someone's next meal, but the very behavior that may be adaptive under those circumstances may be unforeseen, unnoticed, or ignored in today's world, with consequences that range from the comical to the tragic.
McRaney offers a series of tart essays, each of which illustrates a quirk of the human mind that may be familiar to clinical psychologists but a revelation to the rest of us. If, like the ancient Greeks, one seeks to know oneself, this is an excellent place to start. ...more
My best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homewoMy best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homework in a demanding scientific discipline (while studying Chinese on the side) before dinner, and went to bed promptly by 9:00 p.m. after a leisurely dinner and a couple of hours of science fiction. This book is not for him.
Being the opposite of my best friend on the organizational scale, much of my life has been spent on a journey to bring life into focus and clean up my act. I am a modest, but not obsessive, consumer of organizational self-help books, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow to David Allen's Getting Things Done to Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.
J.D. Meier's Getting Results the Agile Way, based on his experience as a program manager at Microsoft, strikes me as a thoughtful and important contribution to the genre. Meier does not despise the minutiae of task management, but he attempts to transcend it. His emphasis is on identifying measurable goals, working toward them systematically, and evaluating the results regularly. In addition, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing that time and energy are finite resources, and he writes at some length about both effectiveness — doing the right things — and efficiency — doing them well.
Part of being both effective and efficient is boundaries and balance. If you work to exhaustion, it affects your ability to perform in every other area of your life. If you do not get at least a minimum amount of sleep, you won't function effectively. If you do not have some fun, your motivation will plummet. And if you do not pay attention to your relationships with other people, they will atrophy. While these observations may seem obvious, it nevertheless takes a certain amount of planning and discipline to ensure that people schedule a ceiling to the amount of time spent at work and a floor to the amount of time spent for fun, sleep, and other people.
Beyond his emphasis on the importance of short and long term goal setting, Meier is also an astute observer of the self-defeating mind games that prevent people from working effectively toward their goals, and he breaks down a number of simple strategies for addressing them, from settling for something less than perfection on a first iteration to plunging into work to escape analysis paralysis.
In all, Meier's book achieves what should be the goal of every good organizational book: it does not settle for tidying our schedules, but insists that we examine our goals in the hope that we will choose to live more meaningful lives....more
Marrakesh by Design is a perfect pearl of a book; brilliant on the surface but also containing many layers of effort and experience accumulated over tMarrakesh by Design is a perfect pearl of a book; brilliant on the surface but also containing many layers of effort and experience accumulated over the years. The aim is to bring the beauties of the Moroccan decorative arts to an American audience so that they can be infused into American design in new and creative ways. The book includes a number of stunning examples from Marrakesh's chic expatriate community, whose riads and villas meld Moroccan tradition and modern flair.
As befits someone who has lived in Morocco many years, Maryam Montague is fluent in the vocabulary of Moroccan artisanry, whether it is the intricacies of plaster gep or the beauties of zellij mosaics or the merits of organic versus chemical dyes. Montague displays sensitivity toward the integrity of autochthonous art forms, knowledge about the importation of Persian and Arabic influences, and a talent for applying her knowledge to contemporary decor. Indeed, one of the unexpected pleasures of this book is its practical guides for do-it-yourself design projects and its catalog of merchants who deal in Moroccan decor.
In short, this is a book for the practical aesthete in search of a way to incorporate the elegance of Moroccan design into a Western setting. It is not a detailed treatise on Moroccan artisanship, nor is it a scholarly history of the Moroccan aesthetic. But for those who aspire to have a little bit of the glamor of cosmopolitan Marrakesh rub off on their own homes, Marrakesh by Design should be a welcome addition to their library. ...more
I am haunted by the ghosts of the breaker boys. At the beginning of the twentieth century, little boys of 10 and 12 worked six days a week for ten-houI am haunted by the ghosts of the breaker boys. At the beginning of the twentieth century, little boys of 10 and 12 worked six days a week for ten-hour days perched over coal chutes from which they plucked bits of rock. Clarence Darrow, at the time the most famous attorney for the coal miners, described the fate of one such boy as follows:
One day his little companion who always sat beside him leaned too far over as he picked the slate. He lost his balance and fell into the trough where the lumps of coal ran down. He plunged madly along with the rushing flood into the iron teeth of the remorseless breaker.... It took a long while to stop the mighty machine, and then it was almost an hour before the boy could be put together in one pile. Several days thereafter a man in a little town in Massachusetts thought that he saw blood on some lumps of coal that he was pouring into the top of his fine nickel-plated stove — but still there is blood on all our coal — and for that matter on almost everything we use, but a man is a fool if he looks for other people's blood.
Darrow was labor's lawyer early in his career, until his defense of the McNamara brothers for blowing up the Los Angeles Times building collapsed in a guilty plea, albeit one that saved the brothers from the gallows.
At the other end of his career, one of Darrow's more notable cases, tried in the wake of the famous Scopes monkey trial, was the defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American physician who moved with his family into a white neighborhood in Detroit, where they soon found themselves surrounded by a lynch mob numbering hundreds of angry white people. Sweet had taken the precaution of seeing that his family was well armed, however, and they fired repeatedly into the crowd, killing and wounding several people. In the subsequent murder trial, Darrow took on the defense and won a remarkable acquittal.
It was said of Darrow that he was cynical in everything, except that he lacked real cynicism. An atheist, a champion and practitioner of "free love," a lawyer who would defend the most depraved criminals and take on the most hopeless causes, Darrow earned his sobriquet "attorney for the damned" honestly. Convinced that human beings were the products of their circumstances and that free will was a myth, the only thing Darrow truly believed in was mercy. And he was perhaps the century's greatest exponent of mercy, a quality that was all the more remarkable in the astonishingly brutal and corrupt Chicago of his day. Though he was willing to defend the most depraved of criminals if the price was right, he was also highly unusual in his willingness to take up such hopeless causes as those of the breaker boys and Ossian Sweet.
This fine biography by John A. Farrell not only evokes Darrow in all his brilliant, Byronic splendor and fallibility, but also provides a keen insight into America's crippled psyche....more
It is not often that the final course of a six course meal is as satisfying as the first, but Dorothy Dunnett serves up a banquet in the Lymond ChroniIt is not often that the final course of a six course meal is as satisfying as the first, but Dorothy Dunnett serves up a banquet in the Lymond Chronicles that pleases more with every volume.
The violence of the sixteenth century court and battlefield sometimes reaches almost cartoonish levels, and the level of intrigue is such that, did we not have a record of such (later) historical events as the Gunpowder Plot, it could hardly be credited. Nevertheless, the novels are beautifully paced and plotted, and Dunnett weaves a rich tapestry depicting the pageantry, poetry, music, literature, and science of the era immediately preceding the cultural explosion of Elizabeth's reign. Indeed, while the novels deal principally with France and Scotland, looming in the background throughout is the rise of English greatness following the ascent of her most illustrious monarch.
To borrow a phrase from As Time Goes By, in the end, it's "the same old story, a tale of love and glory." But what a tale, and how beautifully told!...more