Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Getting Home"... a Missive from India by Anuradha Roy

Earlier this week I asked my friend the novelist and publisher Anuradha Roy about the recent protests over the gang sex attack in Delhi.  She offered this account, and then gave her permission to publish it here:
I came back to Delhi from travels elsewhere on Christmas eve. The roads were windswept and foggy and, unusually for any Indian city, almost deserted. Through a drive of about 20 kilometres, there was not a single pedestrian for long stretches. There were fewer than usual cars, hardly any auto rickshaws. Enormous state transport buses sailed past with no occupants other than the driver and conductor.

In response to the brutal gang rape in Delhi on 16th December of a young student, the state had taken several steps, the results of which I was witnessing from the window of my taxi from the airport: the Delhi metro, by which an average of about 1.8 million people travel every day, had been shut down; the state had cordoned off the entire central vista of Delhi where the protesters had been attacked the day before by the police, with water cannon (in freezing December weather), tear gas and batons. It had also set in force something called Section 144, which makes it punishable for more than five people to gather anywhere.

Gandhi described British colonial rule over India as ‘satanic’. It is hard to find any other word to describe the way India is ruled now.

The daily violence against women in India is nauseating enough but people are yet more livid because of the state’s routine indifference to it. The Home Minister has said that if he went to meet the protesters at India Gate today, as was being demanded, he might some day be asked to meet ‘Maoists.'  Both he and the police commissioner justified the violent action against the thousands of students agitating for justice, claiming that the protest had been taken over by hooligans.

The prime minister made a brief statement *eight days* after the rape. It was delivered in his usual robotic manner, successfully dispelling the notion that he had any capacity for  human anguish. The PM is not given to making speeches, he is said to be a reserved economist. Not many days before, he had addressed industrialists – for about twenty minutes. It appears pretty clear what he feels passionate about, if anything.

Meanwhile, with reassuring predictability, another man from the ruling party wagged a paternal finger at the raped woman: she should never have been out at that hour. Just because India became free at midnight did not mean she should have been out at midnight. (Factually too, this was wrong. She and her friend had got on the bus at 9.15 pm, after waiting an hour for other public transport.) This is not unusual. After almost every rape that makes it to the headlines, someone in power usually chastises the victim for going out/ dressing too provocatively/ staying out too late. A survey in June 2011 named India (alongside Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Congo) as one of most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. As a woman you know the truth of this every day on the streets of Indian cities, particularly Delhi.

I came to Delhi at 26 for a job, a migrant, just as this young woman is. My housemate, also a migrant, a student from the north-east of India, would tell me she was molested almost each time she stepped out in public transport and was often flashed. We’re used to being groped in buses, leered at on the streets. It’s normal for cars to slow down and for sleazy men to roll down windows and invite us in when we’re waiting for public  transport. We are used to walking with our arms close to our bodies, making no eye contact with men. We don’t stroll, we walk quickly to our destinations. If it’s after dark we try and have someone we know accompany us home. Even so, when we get home safe we count ourselves lucky. Of course many girls and women aren’t safe in their homes either.

It’s impossible to feel remotely celebratory on Christmas day knowing that a young woman who came to Delhi merely to train as a physiotherapist is now on a ventilator in a hospital not far from my house. Most of her intestines have been removed because six men, not content with shoving their penises into her, used an iron rod. They carried on torturing her with the rod even after she fell unconscious from the agony. Then they threw her and her friend, whom they had also beaten unconscious, out of the road and drove away. The woman and her friend were naked and bleeding. That was how they remained at that roadside for the next hour until the police reached and covered them with bed sheets borrowed from a hotel nearby.

Transport restrictions make it hard to reach central Delhi where the main protests are. But in my neighbourhood today, there was a procession of men and women. Not a big one that would stop the traffic, just about thirty or so people holding lit candles and placards, shouting slogans seeking justice. If there is no metro and the roads are blocked by riot police there is no choice but to decentralize the protests. The tragedy is that the Indian state has perfected a system of delaying justice so infinitely that while most of the world thinks of India as the world’s largest democracy, it is actually among the world’s largest and most corrupt tyrannies.
For background, an early account of the attack in Delhi last week, here.

An account of the shooting death of a journalist covering the protests, here.

About Anuradha Roy and her work here, and here.

UPDATE: The victim of the attack has died, as report here.  Meanwhile, it should be noted that the immediate neighbors of those arrested have strongly condemned the attack and the attackers.

Track backs, and thanks to those who've linked to this post: The Browser, 3QuarksDaily, and others.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Children of Hannibal

The Arab Spring has not been going particularly well... or, I would say "not as planned" but I'm not sure anyone, other than the Muslim Brotherhood, engaged in a great deal of planning.

This sweeping political change throughout the region began in 2010 in a small Tunisian town.  The peripatetic on-line correspondent Michael Totten revisited the country recently and found some signs for hope.  It's an interesting piece with a broad historical perspective:
It should come as no surprise, then, that this area [of North Africa] became the overseas core of the Roman Empire. But an advanced civilization existed there long before Rome arrived. Legend has it that in roughly 900 BC, a princess named Elissa was exiled from the Phoenician city of Tyre, in what today is southern Lebanon. (Most Westerners are more familiar with her Greek name, thanks to Virgil, who immortalized her as Dido in The Aeneid.) She founded a new city on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and became its queen.  That city was Carthage, and it became a megacity by antiquity’s standards, with 300,000 residents. Indeed, the city was so dense that the Carthaginians built six-story apartment buildings to house everyone, a feat that had never before been accomplished.
Totten tends toward pessimism but even he found some signs for hope.
The fact remains that Tunisia, while politically liberal in some ways, has no actual experience with working democracy. “My feeling is that Tunisia will cross five years of uncertainty,” says [Tunisian diplomat Ahmed] Ounais. “But the trend is toward a strong Arab democratic society. Within five years, I think we will stabilize with a new legislative assembly and create a new tradition of democratic rule in the country. We are the ones who are creating this pattern of Arab politics. We are the first.”   Will the Arab Spring succeed in its extraordinary birthplace? Years are likely to pass before we’ll know for sure.
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tours of Literary New York

Last weekend the New York Times published a much commented upon piece of putative travel journalism, "A Critic's Tour of Literary Manhattan," by staff writer/editor Dwight Garner.  Even my mother sent it to me.  Garner is a very fine critic, but his travel reportage here is rather curious.

As a former editor myself of an effete New York literary magazine... The Paris Review... which is neither in Paris, nor does it review anything... I did in my time many a tour of such literary haunts, and of course I have an opinion.  In his article, Garner details the sorts of places patronized by well-educated, white, writer types in their late thirties and early forties (ie, people like him)... and then he throws in the Algonquin Hotel for historical perspective.  It's a nice selection, and gives an amber-hued picture of a world and life that is changing as print moves to digital. 

Somewhat, missing, however, are where today's twenty-something writers gather (I'm not telling... by which I actually mean they haven't told me).  And there's no mention of where an older crowd might congregate, such as Elio's, the Upper East Side restaurant started by a waiter from Elaine's, still a "local" for Nicholas Pileggi, Gay Talese and others, especially since Elaine's restaurant has closed.  And, incomprehensibly, no mention of Elaine, the den mother over five decades for comers in the quality lit game.  Many an eve, at the end of book party, my old boss George Plimpton would pipe up to a group of staffers and young writers, "What say?  Shall we go to 'The Fat Lady's'?" and off we'd be to the northern, and not particularly glamorous, reaches of Yorkville.

Lastly, there is no mention in Garner's piece of Brooklyn, where most writers now live and drink and dine.

As one commentator on the piece observes:
There's a sweet kind of denial in going to Manhattan to report on literary nightlife. It's like going to Coney Island looking for freak shows. Or heading over to far West Side to do a report on longshoremen.  Times change, but not at the Times? 
Still, during my most recent visit to New York last month I happened to gather with a few friends at one place mentioned in his piece, Cafe Loup.  I also made a few new friends there.  What's more, I spotted the current Editor of Paris Review, one Lorin Stein, who is doing a superb job.  Attempting to do our part, our group closed the place at 2 AM... on a Monday.  Cafe Loup seems better than ever.  New York is all right too.

Read Dwight Garner's literary tour here, and take it with a grain of salt, and leave a comment there... and here too.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reuters goes Dada-esque

... from an article on that news-service: "Kelley told the mayor that Petraeus, Allen and Vice Admiral Robert Harward had sought her help in preventing a local disc jockey known as Bubba the Love Sponge from deep-frying a Koran."

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Red Poppy, and Remembrance Day, in London on 11.11.11

This past Sunday, the eleventh day of the eleventh month, was Remembrance Day in Britain.  A two minute silence is observed at the eleventh hour, the time when the armistice was declared at the end of World War I, 1918, and the guns stopped firing and the war that tore Europe apart ended.   Of course, as Walter Russell Mead points out...

The consequences of that war were only beginning. In Russia, the Civil War was picking up steam as the Bolsheviks crucified their nation in an agony of confusion and hate. Refugees wandered through Europe, hungry and weak. The coming influenza epidemic would be as deadly as the war. In Germany, the shock of unexpected defeat was about to launch Adolf Hitler on a political career as Benito Mussolini in Italy took stock of the state of his country.
Remembrance Day, then, is to remember those who served, fought, perished far from home, and gave their lives for Britain.

Last year, in 2011, in the afternoon, well after the eleventh hour, I was walking with a British friend near the Mall, by Horse Guards Parade, when I came upon a group waiting for something.  The  Remembrance Day ceremony had ended long before.  The great and good, and the Queen, had gone home hours ago.  The crowds had dispersed.  The media had unplugged and gone to their editing rooms or Sunday lunches.  Crowd barriers had been taken down.  The streets swept... but here they were, this group.

I introduced myself to two women, Sandra Warner and her friend, who told me that a private ceremony was about to take place, and that I should stay for it.  “It’s Prince Charles, he’s about to come and observe remembrance with members of his regiment.  He does this every year, just before dusk.  No one knows he does this. They do it away from the cameras, but I always come to watch.”

I’m grateful to Sandra because the ceremony was like nothing I’d seen in my years in this country, and perhaps like nothing you’ve ever seen.  I’ve tried to explain to my American friends that, though we share the same language, Britain is different.  What’s more, this ceremony, formal, though oddly intimate, showed a rather different Prince Charles than is depicted in the mass media.  You can see him most clearly in the ceremony’s aftermath, after the soldiers and veterans have marched past, the lone figure in the background, standing in front of the Guards Memorial.

Fortunately I had my phone with me, so I’m able to offer a record of this moment of reflection and remembrance now.  The video clip is ten minutes long, and there are some dark patches, for which I’m sorry, but I offer it below (the second clip down) without interruption.  First, though, Sandra Warner explains Remembrance Day and the meaning of the red poppy worn this month on so many lapels. 

Herewith, Prince Charles and members of the Welsh Guards pay tribute to the fallen members of their company, on 11/11/11.

More about Remembrance Day from Walter Russell Mead’s blog, HERE.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mr. Bond

A wonderful observation here on, and appreciation of, James Bond, by banker/professor Frank Schell:
As Bond in cinema celebrates his 50th, it is appropriate to ask if a vibrant western democracy should measure itself against Bond, or should it measure Bond against itself? Put another way, should we assess changes in society against the values of Bond, or should we evaluate Bond in the context of contemporary tastes and mores?

[His] is a grand, purposeful, and heroic existence, and Bond is the instrument that assures the continuation of Western civilization, with a waning but surviving tradition of the British Empire, at times partnering with the Central Intelligence Agency. And danger is his business. Alas, what could be more noble?

In our current times, however, Bond could be adjudged an unmitigated disaster. His directness of purpose is at odds with a pluralistic and highly matrixed society, where indiscipline, fissiparousness, and nuance can define national character. There would be few convenient places to smoke a Morland blend of Balkan and Turkish tobacco; Bond might need to excuse himself for a cigarette break a stipulated distance from the ominous MI6 headquarters on the banks of the Thames River. Further, protective lobbies could make it hard to find foie gras, and environmentalists and the need for governments to economize would force Bond to drive a Prius hybrid.

Read the whole thing HERE.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Tell me how this ends" ... including that Awful Mess in Tampa, Florida

The DCI David Petraeus has just admitted to an affair with his attractive biographer, Paula Broadwell, and has retired.  Some weeks ago his biographer gave a speech making reference to sensitive security matters regarding the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the death of the much admired American ambassador Chris Stevens.  It turns out the affair was exposed after the biographer sent a stiff warning from an anonymous account to an attractive Tampa-based "social liaison" to the military's Central Command base there.  Got that?  Okay.  An FBI agent took a special interest in these threatening emails to her, which turned out to be not so threatening, after all... and he took his shirt off for the photos he sent to the complainant.  Meanwhile, it turns out the "social liaison" had apparently exchanged some 20,000 pages of emails (presumably not double-sided, and photos would each count for one page) with General Allen of ISAF, who is sometimes based at Centcom, which oversees special operations.

The "social liaison" in question is from Jouniah, Lebanon, and is a Maronite Catholic Christian, so unlikely to be a sympathizer with Hezbollah, or al Qaeda, let alone a Quds Force sleeper.  But as a social liaison she may have some sensitive home addresses of military figures.  Oh, and she has a twin sister.  I may be wrong, but I suspect the sister may be involved in whatever kicker, whatever spectacular next act, emerges.

When Petraeus arrived in Iraq in 2003 he famously asked "Tell me how this ends?" which became the title for Linda Robinson's book on Iraq.  My initial reaction on learning all the above was "I've seen this movie and it does not end well."  But now I suspect it will end in further retirements, multiple covers for People magazine, a reality show, a run for the US Senate, the further trivialization of public life, and the Gulliverizing of our security and foreign policies for some time to come.

Of course it all could have ended so differently.  I'm reminded of the conclusion of the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading."  How apropos.

Video at this LINK.

Meanwhile, William McGurn, bringing acute moral vision to wider matters, asks in the WSJ whether David Petraeus's personal troubles influenced what he said regarding Benghazi.   Read the whole thing HERE.

And Richard Cohen of the Washington Post argues well that "P4" deserves his job back.  Read that HERE.

Buy "Tell Me How This Ends" via Amazon HERE.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On Remembrance Day: I Was a GI Baby - An Interview

Somewhat past the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month I was walking in central London and by chance, near Horse Guards Parade, met a small group waiting for something.  One of them, Sandra Warner, explained what they were waiting for… but first she told me about herself.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dan Buettner, the Johnny Appleseed of Long, Happy Lives

A wonderful story in the NYT magazine this weekend by my pal Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones.  Dan has identified the secrets to a long, happy life to be: friends, afternoon naps, a sense of belonging, belief (in one way or another), a Mediterranean diet, a bit of red wine, and a few other thing.  He explains the quest he's been on these last ten years:
For a decade, with support from the National Geographic Society, I’ve been organizing a study of the places where people live longest. The project grew out of studies by my partners, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer. In 2000, they identified a region of Sardinia’s Nuoro province as the place with the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world. As they zeroed in on a cluster of villages high in Nuoro’s mountains, they drew a boundary in blue ink on a map and began referring to the area inside as the “blue zone.”
Danny, I can attest, doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk.  I first met him long ago when I was twenty-two and proof-reading, somewhat miserably, late into the night at the Paris Review office on 72nd St.  He came downstairs from a charity fundraising meeting, and introduced himself, saying, "You really ought to knock off and show us out-of-towners where to have a drink in this neighborhood."

He wasn't trying to teach me a lesson, per se, just being himself and a good guy. He added, "Your work will still be there in the morning, I'm sure."

Read the whole thing HERE.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Myth of the Myth of Voter Fraud


Do we now have, in Patrick Moran, a real-life "Great McGinty"?  An associate of James O'Keefe has caught Moran, the son of Virginia Congressman Jim Moran (and the Field Director for his father's campaign) on tape allegedly explaining how to cast ballots deceitfully for registered voters. 

Apropos... in this week's New Yorker magazine Jane Mayer poses the question, in her headline no less, "Who Created the Myth of Voter Fraud?"

I dunno... Tammany Hall?  Joseph P. Kennedy and Mayor Richard Daley (circa 1960)?  No, each of those would be a LEGEND, for voter fraud to a legendary degree, rather than a myth.

In any case, theirs is a headline of art in that like a prestidigitator she and The New Yorker direct the reader's attention to the question of "Who" supposedly created this myth, rather than the question of whether the occurrence of voter fraud is in fact a myth.

I will let talking heads debate whether voter fraud happens to a greater or lesser degree than voter suppression, and instead refer you to what may be the greatest movie about politics ever made, The Great McGinty, that tart, cynical film by Preston Sturges.  The film, from 1940, traces the rise of its hero from hobo to governor.  In the scene below, McGinty, having been cajoled into voting under a false name for a $2 fee, impresses the local political boss by voting thirty-seven times in an election the boss's machine is rigging.  The machine paymaster, who has seen it all, protests: "I don't believe a man CAN vote thirty-seven times!"  (Thirty-seven times?  It's a MYTH I suppose.)

The story, and video of Patrick Moran allegedly explaining how to commit voter fraud HERE.

Buy The Great McGinty as part of the Sturges collection, all of which are superb, here.

You can read Jane Mayer's New Yorker article here.

There is an excellent history of New York's legendary Tammany Hall machine inside this book. (More Tammany links will be added.)

Read about the PBS documentary tracing Richard Daley and the Chicago machine's work in the 1960 election here.  (Note to PBS: please re-release that doc!)

For more about Sturges, see his biography here, or read the wonderful, Academy Award-winning script for The Great McGinty in this collection

Monday, October 15, 2012

Camille Paglia on the Crisis in Art

A wonderful and important essay by Camille Paglia in today's Wall Street Journal.  I love that she addresses the matter of Art, with a capital "A," rather than "the arts."

Does art have a future? Performance genres like opera, theater, music and dance are thriving all over the world, but the visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years....

But there is a larger question: What do contemporary artists have to say, and to whom are they saying it? Unfortunately, too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber. The art world, like humanities faculties, suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s. (I am speaking as a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.) Today's blasé liberal secularism also departs from the respectful exploration of world religions that characterized the 1960s. Artists can now win attention by imitating once-risky shock gestures of sexual exhibitionism or sacrilege....

We live in a strange and contradictory culture, where the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible. In the realm of arts and letters, religion is dismissed as reactionary and unhip. The spiritual language even of major abstract artists like Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko is ignored or suppressed.  Thus young artists have been betrayed and stunted by their elders before their careers have even begun. Is it any wonder that our fine arts have become a wasteland?

Read the whole thing HERE.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Some Very High-Level Fact-Checking... Not Yet on the Front Page

It's big news in Britain, and Jennifer Rubin references it as part of a larger Washington Post blog item, but it doesn't seem to have made any news in the US so far.  Perhaps this will be on the front pages tomorrow.

Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff have released this statement:

“During the Vice Presidential debate, we were disappointed to see Vice President Biden blame the intelligence community for the inconsistent and shifting response of the Obama Administration to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Given what has emerged publicly about the intelligence available before, during, and after the September 11 attack, it is clear that any failure was not on the part of the intelligence community, but on the part of White House decision-makers who should have listened to, and acted on, available intelligence. Blaming those who put their lives on the line is not the kind of leadership this country needs.” 

Hat-tip Jennifer Rubin, and thanks to MT for sending me her piece, which is well worth reading in its entirety, HERE.

UPDATE: yesterday Michael Walsh made a prescient point over at NOR:

It seems to me that the Obama administration has made a huge unforced error in trying to lay off blame for the Benghazi fiasco on the intelligence community. Because, wherever the buck stops when we get to end of this debacle, it’s not going to be in Langley, Va. (the CIA), Fort Meade, Md, (the National Security Agency), or any of the other centers of the American IC.

Read the entirety of Walsh's piece HERE.

Notes on the Vice Presidential Debate

I tried to stay awake here in the UK to watch the Biden-Ryan debate, but couldn't.  For those who like me missed it, Talking Point Memo offers this 100 second condensation.  It's strong on the gestures, cackles, eye rolls, while leaving out entirely all "content."

In a sense this reduces the event, I suppose, to a study in primatology.  Given that we're in a recession that's not inapposite. 

Last evening, in preparation, I also watched on youtube the first presidential debate.  Mitt Romney was excellent AND President Obama really was bad… and his performance played worse on TV, with sidelong and downward looks, than it would have if followed on the radio.  

Once Romney let drop, during his first two minutes, the phrase "trickle-down government" (a term of art) many of the president's points were ruined… they were simply going to sound illustrative of Romney's thesis.

The Republican platform, and Romney's move to the center aside, the strategic messaging the Republicans prepared for Romney were superb.  Whoever prepared President Obama's messaging anticipated none of Romney's points.  It was as if they believed their own truths were self-evident and didn't require arguing.  I suspect the American media may have too long convinced them that was the case. 

I do think President Obama has it in him next debate to walk that line being resolute while not seeming angry, angry as he did in the video dredged (or drudged) from years ago by the Daily Caller, nor indulging in the kind of antics that Vice President Biden did.

Post-Debate: We are Polarized and Partisan

The morning after the vice-presidential debate, and as always Walter Russell Mead as always looks at the big picture:

A rational person could vote for the Democrats on the grounds that the Republicans aren’t ready to govern until they can talk more credibly about what a new system would look like. And a rational person could vote for the Republicans on the grounds that the Democrats will simply make things worse by spending money we don’t have to prop up a system they can’t save.

In a perfect world, an impasse like that should lead to an era of modest politics and bipartisan goodwill. In the real world both Republicans and Democrats feel frustrated and angry.  We are polarized and partisan not because either party has a strong set of ideas but because neither party has solutions big enough for our problems and the sense that things aren’t right combined with a lack of solutions is making us all just a little bit cranky.

Read the whole thing, with its unfortunate title, HERE.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Lesson from the Master

Bill Clinton, love him or hate him, delivers a brilliant, and charming, response to Mitt Romney's performance in last week's debate with President Obama.

Can such skills be taught?  Perhaps, if a student is willing to listen.  But Clinton more than that has great political instincts and an easy rapport with the crowd and camera.

I only wish Romney had been there to respond, and that the two of them could have carried on all evening.  I'd have purchased on pay per view.

Worth noting: as usual, Clinton does an effective take down against the opponent, though not in a way one would much begrudge (that's his post-presidency mode); but he doesn't mention Barack Obama, and as usual I'm not entirely sure he does him much of a favor.  Clinton's mastery makes the President look like a student.

The President is just going to have to depend, come this Thursday, upon Joe Biden besting Paul Ryan.  (I was just reading in John Cassidy's New Yorker blog what a liability Ryan is... )

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Video: How to Get to Mars

Earlier, here, I'd lamented the decline of American space exploration. Um, perhaps I spoke too quickly, because there is some interesting exploration of Mars going on right now.

Also, some very cool video simulations of those trips.  This clip is taken from the IMAX movie "Roving Mars."

The Spirit is a robotic rover on Mars, active from when it landed in 2004. The rover, after travelling 7.73 km (much beyond the planned 600m), became stuck in soft soil in late 2009, and its last communication with Earth was sent on March 22, 2010.

A formal farewell was planned at NASA headquarters after the Memorial Day holiday 2011, and was televised on NASA TV.

Thanks to IMAX, and to Norman Berke for tipping me off to this.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In the Middle East, Where is the Indispensable Nation?

As President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly today many there were asking where does America stand on matters ranging from the crisis in Syria to Iran’s program to develop nuclear weapons.  Others were asking where is President Obama?  He declined to meet any foreign leaders this week, averring with the excuse that if he met one, he’d have to meet ten.  He has nonetheless found time in his schedule over the last week to appear on the morning talk show The View, attend a fundraiser put on by rapper Jay-Z and singer Beyonce in a New York nightclub.  His multi-tasking White House staff found time in advance of the UNGA meeting to send out gags about the president meeting in the White House with a man dressed as a pirate (*).  

Of course, the President needn’t have met with ten leaders, but he might have met with the leaders of the handful of countries that are close American allies.

Meanwhile, across the pond two remarkable events have taken place in British diplomatic relations.  As reported in the Daily Mail, Sir John Sawers, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6), travelled to Israel, not a particularly close ally of Britain, to confer with its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Until recently the holder of that post was never referred to publicly by name, but only as “C.”  Historically, the chief of the SIS, unlike his American counterpart (the director of the CIA), never travelled as a diplomatic messenger for the British government.  As far as I know, such a trip is unprecedented.

Additionally, and so far unreported, is that at about the same time a very senior figure in the British military embarked on a whirlwind tour of Arab countries with which Britain has cordial relations. 

These two trips, taken together, bespeak A Moment.

The civil war in Syria has now become a grave humanitarian crisis; it will also soon become a serious political and security crisis for many countries in the Middle East, issues I addressed weeks ago in a post here.

What’s more, whereas the Iranian ambition to develop nuclear weapons has, in the American press, been portrayed as a problem primarily for Israel, a country that the Iranian president has threatened to wipe out; it is in fact a problem also for a number of Arab countries in the Gulf that Iran has been actively trying to destabilize.  Saudi Arabia and these other countries do not particularly desire to have nuclear weapons but have made clear that they will need to develop or acquire them for deterrence’s sake should Iran do so.

Neither the Obama White House, nor its State Department, have declared, let alone put up for debate, a comprehensive plan for helping to shape the future of a Middle East in flux, or upheaval, since the onset of the so-called “Arab Spring.”  If one peers closely one can see the outlines of a sophisticated, long-range strategic plan... but so far, in practice, this plan has only meant “When in doubt, do nothing.”  Unfortunately, the US at this moment seems only ever to be in doubt.  Worse, events in Libya and Egypt on September 11 this year have revealed unsteady hands in communicating America’s aims and values, as well as in providing security for our diplomats and those locally who engage with our diplomats.

Meanwhile, this week President Ahmadinejad threatened “World War III.” 

In the past, at times like these, the world looked to the United States.  This month, America’s long-time allies in the Middle East searching for counsel or solidarity of purpose have had to turn to Britain, a wonderful but small country that for some time has wanted to leave in the past the modifier “Great.”  Perhaps the US now does too.

When then-Senator Obama was running for office he suggested that because of his background, life experiences and understanding, many of America’s problems in the Middle East and with Islamic countries would, upon his becoming president, settle down.  What’s more, his first foreign trip on becoming president was not, as is customary, to close historical allies Britain or France, but instead to Cairo, Egypt, to deliver an address offering a new beginning, or a “re-set” as it were.  At this moment, it appears that today’s Middle East has instead become a hostage to this president’s dysfunction and his ambivalences about both Islam and America’s role in the world.

Breaking news: The Emir of Qatar has just called for military intervention in Syria.

                                                      + see note below

Daily Mail: "MI6 chief made secret trip to meet Israeli PM to head off plans to bomb Iran's nuclear programme" here.
Intelnews: "MI6 chief paid ‘extremely rare’ secret visit to Israel" (background) here.
Spiegel: "Obama's Middle East Policy Is in Ruins" here.
White House staff Pirate Photo Communique here.

* So far as we know the president met neither with pirate nor clown this week.  Presumably that will teach news organizations not to believe everything the White House staff says.

+  A note regarding the accompanying image… the image was created as a White House tribute to astronaut Neil Armstrong following his death.  Some uncharitable commentators, noting the image's the foregrounding of the President, suggested that it was another example of President Obama's supposed narcissism (ie, "Wasn't it great that Neil Armstrong traveled to the moon and then died just so Obama could have a chance to think about the heavens").   At the time, I didn't understand why no one noticed that with the crescent moon and single star at the focal point of the picture, the White House was also, inadvertently or not, channelling classic Islamic iconography.

Insta-lanche!  In fact, instant Insta-lanche.  Thank you Instapundit, Michael Totten, and Glenn Reynolds.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Arthur Conan Doyle in the Arctic... and Sherlock Holmes at the Beginning

An interesting literary artifact has come my way, a bit of text from Arthur Conan Doyle's Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, during which adventure the "biographer of Sherlock Holmes" shipped out as doctor on a far-flung trip at sea.  Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower have edited and provided notes.  Most intriguing is the diary's connection to "A Study in Scarlet," the classic short detective novel that introduced Holmes.

In the second to last entry of the Diary, dated August 10, 1880, Doyle notes that The Hope was returning home that day, when it stopped briefly at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands to let the third of the crew who are Shetland Islanders off.  The entry reads:
Passed the skerry light, and came down to Lerwick but did not get into the harbour as we are in a hurry to catch the tide at Peterhead, so there goes all my letters, papers and everything else. A girl was seen at the lighthouse waving a handkerchief, and all hands were called to look at her. The first woman we have seen for half a year. Our Shetland crew were landed in four of our boats and gave 3 cheers for the old ship as they pushed off, which were returned by the men left. Lighthouse keeper came off with last week’s weekly Scotsman by which we learn of the defeat in Afghanistan.  Terrible news."
The editors offer this context:
“A terrible and most unlooked-for disaster has befallen the British arms in Afghanistan,” began the Scotsman account of July 29, 1880, headed “Disaster in Afghanistan / Severe Defeat of Burrows’ Brigade / Retreat on Kandahar.” A British force of some three thousand had been close to annihilated at Maiwand by Pathan tribesmen. It made a lasting impression. Six years later Conan Doyle started writing a tale called "A Study in Scarlet," set in London in 1881, and made his narrator a former army surgeon, Dr. John H. Watson.
In that story Watson offers this biography for himself:
“I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy's country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself….  The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines." 

Now home, uncertain about his future, and looking to share the expense of lodgings, Watson is introduced to someone described as “a little queer in his ideas—an enthusiast in some branches of science.”

“How are you?” says the man he meets in the laboratory of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

It is Sherlock Holmes, beginning the partnership that would bring A. Conan Doyle literary fame and fortune.

The book is published in the US by Chicago, and in the UK by the British Library.

More information here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Don't Tug On Superman's Cape

... Don't spit into the wind/ Don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger...

... And don't tease tigers.

At the New York Zoo this week a person intent on suicide dropped from the zoo's monorail into its tiger's den.  The tigers seemed willing to assist, and he lost his foot (link below).

In Thailand it's a popular tourist attraction to tease tigers.  The tigers here look teenager-ish, not fully grown, and not particularly angry, but they could in town grow frustrated.

The video "Tourists Teasing Tigers In Thailand" is below, with advice following below.

Some advice on How to Escape Dangerous Animals in the Wild:

Use your arms and clothing to make yourself look as big as possible, then back away slowly. When attacked: Fight back, striking the animal's eyes and mouth.

Further advice here.

And news of a New Yorker looking for the wild life here.

Hat tip for the tiger video to Ace of Spades HQ.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mexico and Its New Wave of Artists - Dulce Pinzon

My article about Mexico City and its Nueva Onda of artists is now up on the BA High Life magazine website.  In the piece I chart the recent transformation of Mexico City into a cosmopolitan city and a world-class contemporary art destination.  Here I highlight some of the artists:
... Then, there are the creators themselves, like Gabriel Orozco, the first Mexican artist to establish an international reputation since Kahlo and Rivera did so in mid-20th Century.  Now fifty, Orozco, a protean stylist, went to New York and painted, photographed, videoed, and made “found art” from objects picked off the street.  When he returned to Mexico City in 1999 he found that other young artists, like former cartoonist Damien Ortega (whose signature piece was a disassembled and suspended Volkswagen Beetle), and Dulce Pinzon, a photographer, had grown open to international influences and conceptual styles. 
Below is an example of Pinzon's  recent work, a self-portrait no less.  As the piece continues below she discusses her breakthrough photographic series.

Pinzon, while living in Brooklyn, made a tongue-in-cheek documentary series of photos showing everyday Mexicans as superheroes, the conceit being that Paulino Cardozo, a green-skinned, muscled Incredible Hulk, is an immigrant in NY who works long hours to send money home.  Pinzon told me: “When I moved to New York in the mid 1990s the art scene in Mexico was small and everything revolved around the established, consecrated artists who’d passed away decades before.  As the art market developed and young artists became open to ideas from New York, Berlin and elsewhere I saw that living in México again and producing art here was finally possible.”

Read the whole thing (a five page click-through) HERE.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Violence Interrupters... and the Untold Story of Chicago's Epidemic of Violence

A fascinating mini-documentary from VICE magazine about the untold story of an epidemic of violence in Chicago and the people who are working to end it.

Just last month producer Jedd Thomas and his team followed violence interrupters Ameena Mathews and Lamar Evans onto the streets of the South Side of Chicago, heading for places where violence is set to explode.  The two had been trained by Tio Handiman, the founder of Ceasefire Project at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  In an interview Handiman points out that there are on average ten murders and forty shootings every night in this neighborhood, a rate comparable to hotspots in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hardiman and Mathews recount the story of Mathews' father, Jeff Fort, a one time gang-leader turned (supposed) progressive leader, now in prison for terrorism-related charges.  (Eh-hem, a different era!  See links below.)

Hardiman and associated researchers have been using techniques to disrupt gang violence borrowed from health science and epidemiology, and the two part documentary is worth watching for his interview alone.  Meanwhile resources remain scarce, and this story virtually unreported until now.

Part I is here:

Part II is here:

About Jeff Fort here and here.

Thanks to VICE and Jedd Thomas.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Did Romney Just Lose the Election... or Did His Campaign Just Punk the Media?

In the wake of a viral video of Governor Romney's off-the-cuff remarks to wealthy Florida donors about the supposed feckless nature of Obama voters, the Republican nominee's Intrade contract has just sunk to 32%, the first time it's been below 35% since March.  Accordingly, some say he just lost the election.  I wonder, instead, if his campaign didn't just "punk" the media.

David Brooks has commented in the NYT that Romney "violated the social contract." 

William Kristol, an actual supporter, chastises him:
It's worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don't pay income taxes are Romney supporters—especially of course seniors (who might well "believe they are entitled to heath care," a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they're not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan. So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.
When Romney has lost Kristol...

Yet Romney's remarks in the video also highlight what has been an explicit appeal repeatedly made to Obama voters... and now Democrats themselves and the media (but I repeat myself) are the ones spreading this "meme," and reminding the electorate.

Meanwhile, it's worth flashing back to 2010 to watch another viral video, of Nancy Pelosi speaking to a group of young voters about the appeals of the signature piece of legislation of President Obama's first term:

That's right.  She said: "You can quit your job, and not worry about paying for your own health care."  Of course, that's not precisely how things work.  And who in Pelosi's young audience for her speech has a job to quit?  And of course what she suggests here also violates the social contract.

Read William Kristol here.

Read David Brooks here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Billy Wilder on "The Lubitsch Touch"

... from my interview with Billy Wilder, in The Paris Review's Writers at Work Series:

Coming to the American movie industry at a time when many distinguished German directors were working, did you feel part of a special group?

There were some excellent German directors, led by Mr. Lubitsch, but I simply met him and shook his hand; he had no interest in me when I arrived. In fact, he was very reluctant to give jobs to Germans; it was only four years later that he hired me. I had written some pictures in Germany, usually working alone. But when I came here I had to have a collaborator on account of my unsteady English and my knowledge of only about three hundred words. Later I found that if I had a good collaborator it was very pleasant to talk to somebody and not come into an empty office. The head of the writers’ department at Paramount had the good idea to pair me with Charles Brackett, a distinguished man from the East, who had gone to Harvard Law School and was about fifteen years older than I. I liked working with him. He was a very good man. He was a member of the Algonquin round table. He had been the movie critic or theater critic on The New Yorker in the beginning, the twenties.
   One day, Brackett and I were called in to see Lubitsch. He told us he was thinking vaguely about doing an adaptation of a French play about a millionaire—a very straightforward law-abiding guy, who would never have an affair with a woman unless he was married to her. So he married seven times!
   That would be Gary Cooper. Claudette Colbert was to be the woman who was in love with him, who’d insist “I’ll marry you, but only to be the final wife.” As the meeting was being adjourned, I said, I have a meet-cute for your story. (A “meet-cute” was a staple of romantic comedies back then, where boy meets girl in a particular way, and sparks fly.) Let’s say your millionaire is an American who is very stingy. He goes to a department store in Nice on the French Riviera where he wants to buy a pajama top, but just the top, because he never wears the pants. She has come to the same counter to buy pajamas for her father, who as it happens only wears the pants. That broke the ice, and we were put to work on that picture, which became Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.
   Lubitsch, of course, would always find a way to make something better. He put another twist on that meeting. Brackett and I were at Lubitsch’s house working, when during a break he emerged from the bathroom and said, What if when Gary Cooper comes in to the store to buy the pajama top, the salesman gets the floor manager, and Cooper again explains he only wants to buy the top. The floor manager says, Absolutely not, but when he sees Cooper will not be stopped, the floor manager says, Maybe I could talk to the store manager. The store manager says, That’s unheard of! but ends up calling the department store’s owner, whom he disturbs in bed. We see the owner in a close shot go to get the phone. He says, It’s an outrage! And as the owner goes back to his bed you see that he doesn’t wear pajama pants either.

When you first met Lubitsch over lunch, did you think of that meet-cute on the spot?

No, I already had that. I had been hoping to use it for something, and when he told us the story of the picture I saw how it might fit. I had dozens of meet-cutes. Whenever I thought of one I’d put it in a little notebook. Back then they were de rigeur, a staple of screwball comedies. Every comedy writer was working on his meet-cutes; but of course we don’t do that anymore. Later, I did a version of the meet-cute for The Apartment, where Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, who when they see each other every day have this little routine together. And in Sabrina, where she reappears and the younger Larrabee, William Holden, doesn’t recognize her—him not recognizing her becomes a kind of meet-cute. When Sydney Pollack was remaking that movie, I told him they should make the Larrabee family’s company a bankrupt company, and Sabrina’s competition for the younger Larrabee the daughter of a Japanese prospective-buyer.

You have a gold-framed legend on the wall across from your desk. How Would Lubitsch do it?

When I would write a romantic comedy along the Lubitschian line, if I got stopped in the middle of a scene, I’d think, How would Lubitsch do it?

Well, how did he do it?

One example I can give you of Lubitsch’s thinking was in Ninotchka, a romantic comedy that Brackett and I wrote for him. Ninotchka was to be a really straight Leninist, a strong and immovable Russian commissar, and we were wondering how we could dramatize that she, without wanting to, was falling in love. How could we do it? Charles Brackett and I wrote twenty pages, thirty pages, forty pages! All very laboriously.
   Lubitsch didn’t like what we’d done, didn’t like it at all. So he called us in to have another conference at his house. We talked about it, but of course we were still, well . . . blocked. In any case, Lubitsch excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back into the living room he announced, Boys, I’ve got it.
   It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.
   I’ve got the answer, he said. It’s the hat.
   The hat? No, what do you mean the hat?
   He explained that when Ninotchka arrives in Paris the porter is about to carry her things from the train. She asks, Why would you want to carry these? Aren’t you ashamed? He says, It depends on the tip. She says, You should be ashamed. It’s undignified for a man to carry someone else’s things. I’ll carry them myself.
   At the Ritz Hotel, where the three other commissars are staying, there’s a long corridor of windows showing various objects. Just windows, no store. She passes one window with three crazy hats. She stops in front of it and says, “That is ludicrous. How can a civilization of people that put things like that on their head survive?” Later she plans to see the sights of Paris—the Louvre, the Alexandre III Bridge, the Place de la Concorde. Instead she’ll visit the electricity works, the factories, gathering practical things they can put to use back in Moscow. On the way out of the hotel she passes that window again with the three crazy hats.
   Now the story starts to develop between Ninotchka, or Garbo, and Melvyn Douglas, all sorts of little things that add up, but we haven’t seen the change yet. She opens the window of her hotel room overlooking the Place Vendôme. It’s beautiful, and she smiles. The three commissars come to her room. They’re finally prepared to get down to work. But she says, “No, no, no, it’s too beautiful to work. We have the rules, but they have the weather. Why don’t you go to the races. It’s Sunday. It’s beautiful in Longchamps,” and she gives them money to gamble.
   As they leave for the track at Longchamps, she locks the door to the suite, then the door to the room. She goes back into the bedroom, opens a drawer, and out of the drawer she takes the craziest of the hats! She picks it up, puts it on, looks at herself in the mirror. That’s it. Not a word. Nothing. But she has fallen into the trap of capitalism, and we know where we’re going from there . . . all from a half page of description and one line of dialogue. “Beautiful weather. Why don’t you go have yourselves a wonderful day?”

He returned from the bathroom with all this?

Yes, and it was like that whenever we were stuck. I guess now I feel he didn’t go often enough.

You’ve indicated where Lubitsch got his ideas. Where do you get yours?

Read Wilder's answer, and the rest of the interview HERE.

                                                                                       -- JSL

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Prime Function of a First-Rate Newspaper

H.L. Mencken, the greatest American newsman ever, recounting his newspaper work in the 1920s:

I believed then, as I believe now, that it is the prime function of a really first-rate newspaper to serve as a sort of permanent opposition in politics, and I tried to show that the Sun, because of its geographical situation, had a superb opportunity to discharge that function effectively. Baltimore was but forty miles from Washington — and the Washington papers were all third-rate, and seemed doomed to remain so forever, for the overwhelming majority of their readers were petty Federal jobholders, which is to say, half-wits. In consequence of their badness all Washington officials in the higher brackets had to read out-of-town papers, and not a few of them, including Wilson, read the Sun, for that was in the days before airships, and the Sun could get to Washington with news nearly five hours earlier than the news in the New York morning papers…The rudiments of the New Deal were already visible in those days, and I did not neglect to sneer at the “utopian ideas, economical, political, and ethical” that were going about…

– from Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: A Memoir

(hat-tip Ed Driscoll)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mexico City and Its New Wave of Artists

I've written about Mexico City and its new wave of artists in the September issue of British Airways High Life magazine.  The feature should be on planes now and available on line soon.  I'll be writing more on that subject here, with interviews, artifacts, and a mini profile of photographer Dulce Pinzon.

What has driven this recent explosion of art in Mexico?  Damien Hirst, the original YBA (Young British Artist) has ideas what about the culture connects artists to the most chthonic streams of inspiration. For the last eight years Hirst has been living part-time in the country, collecting the work of Mexican artists, and of course his latest sensation, a diamond-encrusted skull entitled "For the Love of God," was itself a quotation of the Mexican tradition.

In an interview seven years ago for the Guardian he opined: "It’s about death. In England people hide or shy away from death and ideas about it, whereas Mexicans seem to walk hand in hand with it.  In that way I feel a bit liberated here."  Read the whole thing, at the link below.

This spring Hirst himself interviewed his dealer in Mexico Hilario Galguera, at a link below.

When I was in Mexico this May for the Zona Maco contemporary art fair, I spotted this (artist unknown to me) in the hallway of a patron's home. 

                                                                                                     Artist unknown.  Photo: JSL

Read Hirst in the Guardian here.

Galguera interviewed by Hirst here.

Friday, August 31, 2012

David Foster Wallace's Vision of a Balanced Life

... and it's a beautifully simple one, rooted in everyday happiness.  Young writers should study this carefully:

What Balance Would Look Like

- 2-3 hours a day writing

- Daily exercise

- 2 nights/week spent with other friends


DFW's list for a balanced life continues on from there.

This is taken from D.T. Max's new biography of Wallace, available here.  I'll be reading and will report back this fall.

Read a review here.

The thing about History is that the darn thing never stays written...

Kitchen Tip: Cool Way to Separate Egg Yolk from White

Very much off-piste here, but fascinating idea from an obscure Chinese website, a new cool way to separate the egg yolk from the white.

I'm going to go make some garlic mayonnaise now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dear CNN, Release the Footage, Identify the Peanut Thrower

At the Republican National Convention last night Ann Romney made a poised debut, Chris Christie speaking off the cuff threw his hat into the ring for 2016 and (after a while) had something nice to say about this year's candidate, and neither Sarah Palin nor a hurricane stormed the Tampa area; but the big story may have been the emergence of Mia Love, the Brooklyn-born mayor of a small Utah city who is contesting Utah's tough 4th congressional district against a six-term incumbent (and son of the former governor) Jim Matheson.

Or those were the stories until they were superseded by disturbing reports surfacing in Talking Points Memo that one attendee to the convention allegedly threw a handful of nuts at a CNN camera woman and declared "This is how we feed the animals."  Given that the camerawoman was black the incident, if as reported, has nasty and offensive racial overtones.  Since then, this incident has been topic #1 in media circles. (Update, yesterday the story was trending at #1 for yahoo.)

According to Talking Points Memo's Kyle Leighton, who following a tweet from @DavidShuster, broke the story, a CNN official has actually somewhat (but only somewhat) confirmed his account.  Leighton elaborates:

The CNN official declined to confirm specific details of the incident to TPM but generally confirmed an account posted on Twitter by former MSNBC and Current anchor David Shuster: “GOP attendee ejected for throwing nuts at African American CNN camera woman + saying ‘This is how we feed animals.’”  In a written statement, CNN addressed the matter: “CNN can confirm there was an incident directed at an employee inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum. CNN worked with convention officials to address this matter and will have no further comment.”
To clarify, then, this story originated with a reporter for Al Gore's Current TV, a reporter in fact who was recruited to the network by Keith Olbermann.  So far, no first-hand eyewitness has spoken on the record.

I see now that Leighton's account has also been picked up this morning by the Times of London, so it is officially now A Major International Story.  Why is CNN confirming the general outline of this offensive act that has attracted so much attention and then working in concert with the RNC to cover up the details and prevent further examination of it?  Why did they let themselves be scooped by other news organizations?  More importantly, given the occasion and the setting, who in the world would ever do something as racist, irresponsible, and offensive as that?  And why would they throw peanuts... something associated with elephants, the mascot of the Republican Party?  Leighton, in his post, holds out the possibility that the perpetrator may have been a Republican delegate.  Others have suggested it could be a Ron Paul ally bent on spoiling the party, or simply a drunken hanger on.  But heck who knows?  They could be associates of Obama campaign manager David Axelrod, on a false flag / dirty tricks mission.

Well, it should be very, very easy to find out.  The victim of the alleged attack was, after all, a camera woman, with her camera running.  The convention center was filled with members of the electronic media, and in these times every man and woman is a citizen journalist, with a video camera in their pocket.

I hereby call on CNN to bring forth the footage of this incident immediately.  Given the prominence this story has now taken on, the peanut thrower should be identified, and the facts made known. Without rush to judgement, if the account from Kyle Leighton and CNN is true, the perpetrator should be named and shamed.  Furthermore, it should be very instructive to the world how the organization responsible for him, presumably the RNC, though we can't be sure, deals with someone committing such an act.

CNN, release the tape!

The Talking Points Memo story here.

David Shuster's twitter feed here, and his Take Action News / "We Have Your Government Surrounded"  web-site [yes, that really is its name] here.

A CNN follow up here.

Oh, and the big story of the day, buried now... Mayor Mia Love's RNC convention speech here.  MSNBC declined to broadcast her speech, choosing instead to go with Chris Mathews offering his opinions, but three months earlier they helped Love vault on to the stage with a compelling five minute profile by Craig Melvin, well worth watching here.

Further commentary via Zombia from PJM here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On Handling the Koran... and mishandling justice.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the US military is disciplining troops over an incident that provoked outrage in Afghanistan early this year, the burning of some copies of the Koran.  In the wake of that incident some thirty people were killed during riots in Afghanistan.

It's unclear to me that US soldiers serving in Afghanistan need to abide by Islamic law while there; but if, according to US military guidelines, that is the case, so be it.  Unfortunately, there may be some misunderstanding on the part of the US military, as well as those Afghans who rampaged, about the pertinent point of sharia law.

When the incident first happened I decided to ask the opinion of a friend who is a member of one of London's leading chambers of barristers, is one of Europe's leading experts on sharia law, and is a descendent of a Sufi saint... Sadakat Kadri, author of the best-selling Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law.

Kadri responded to me via email that the prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it. 

Let me re-state that, adding my own emphasis:   

The prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it. 

Why, then, were the US soldiers who disposed of those books under threat of a serious prosecution, and why are they being disciplined now?

First, of all, as a writer I believe all books should be treated with respect.  Further, one should, of course, make a distinction here between burning as an act of disrespect and burning to end the existence of a copy that, for whatever reason, can no longer be used.  Americans should easily be able to understand the distinction between the burning of a flag in protest or anger and the burning of a flag that is already damaged and can no longer be displayed.  In the later case, that is, indeed, the prescribed way for handling an official flag, or a flag of a certain size if it has been damaged, soiled or even touched the ground.

The copies of the Koran in question were apparently altered, or marked up, by Afghan prisoners in order to pass messages amongst themselves.  As such, the books were unusable.  The question remains whether the prisoners who marked up those books and made them unusable should be disciplined under Islamic law... but that seems a question we ourselves should turn away from.

In any case, as I've said, given the above, it seems very odd that these soldiers should be disciplined at all.

The Christian Science Monitor report, which improperly conflates the above incident with another incident in Afghanistan, may be read here.

My earlier posts on this topic can be found here and here.

Kadri's fascinating book on sharia, Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law, may be found here.

The Blu-ray edition of Bruce Beresford's classic film Breaker Morant can be found via here.

And more on the topic of etiquette around these matters by Lee Smith, from some years ago in Slate, here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Syria, an Arab Fall... and a Threat from Iran's Supreme Leader


Almost a year ago pundits noted how the Arab Spring of democratic uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East was fast turning into an Arab Winter... a winter of discontent and dashed hopes.  Yet, soon ahead, we have an Arab Fall, that of the Assad regime in Syria.  Not "a fall" in the sense of a season, of course, but rather a tripping up and an ending.

Syria has at times presented itself as all things to all people: a police state that has for the last five years marketed itself with astonishing success as a tourist destination for bien pensant westerners; a seemingly cohesive, multi-faith society that "held together" (or so Anna Wintour's Vogue told us) but did so via unimaginably brutal repression; Iran's closest ally and yet (some have suggested) a one-time covert ally of the US; a sponsor of terror and yet also at times a supposed ally in the War on Terror.

Soon it may all be different.  Whereas thirty years ago Hafez al Assad put down an uprising in Hama, slaughtering more than 20,000 of its citizens, including women and children, his son Bashar, whose forces have already killed that number, will not be able to contain or defeat the current uprising led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  A coalition of the West (including France, Britain and the US), along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are now considering the imposition of a no-fly zone, which will protect the beleaguered population of Syria and also offer cover for FSA fighters.  In the meantime, there has been considerable equivocation about proceeding with such a motion without the moral authority of China and Russia, such as it is, in the form of UN Security Council backing.  Even without such a no-fly zone, the FSA will in time prevail, but at a cost: when guerrilla wars or civil wars are drawn out the most brutal elements within respective factions tend to rise to the top, with an attendant marginalization, or elimination, of those whose aims and skills are directed toward the creation of civil societies.  If the result of a drawn out civil war and long-delayed regime change is simply the replacement of one degraded, brutal society for another, no one will have won.

Yet another factor in international involvement in events in Syria will be the reaction of its neighbor and ally Iran, who themselves are already deeply involved in the country.  Iranian military advisers, and snipers from its Lebanese proxy militia Hezbollah, have been active for the past year in Syria.  (An aside: I continue to hope for a western peace movement to emerge exclaiming: "Stop the War!  Iran and Russia out of Syria now!" but so far no luck.  Similarly, in European and American cities, many of the same who decades ago marched demanding nuclear disarmament of the US and the UK, in order presumably to induce the Soviet Union to disarm, now counter: "Well, why shouldn't Iran have nuclear arms?").

There has, of course, been wrenching debate about how best to handle Iran's ambition for nuclear weapons.  However, in the short term, of much greater strategic importance for Iran is their maintenance of a reliable ally in Syria via the Assad regime, as well as (jointly with the Assads) with Hezbollah, who in their role as political actors are a prime mover, via the March 8 coalition, in the current government of Lebanon.

Keep all this in mind when reading Con Coughlin's scoop this week in the Telegraph:

According to Western intelligence officials, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the order [to explore terror attacks] to the elite Quds Force unit following a recent emergency meeting of Iran's National Security Council in Tehran held to discuss a specially-commissioned report into the implications for Iran of the Assad regime's overthrow.

Damascus is Iran's most important regional ally, and the survival of the Assad regime is regarded as vital to sustaining the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia which controls southern Lebanon.

The report, which was personally commissioned by Mr Khamenei, concluded that Iran's national interests were being threatened by a combination of the U.N. sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear programme and the West's continuing support for Syrian opposition groups attempting to overthrow the Syrian government.

Intelligence officials say the report concludes that Iran "cannot be passive" to the new threats posed to its national security, and warns that Western support for Syrian opposition groups was placing Iran's "resistance alliance" in jeopardy, and could seriously disrupt Iran's access to Hizbollah in Lebanon.

It advised that the Iranian regime should demonstrate to the West that there were "red lines" over what it would accept in Syria, and that a warning should be sent to "America, the Zionists, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others that they cannot act with impunity in Syria and elsewhere in the region."

Mr Khamenei responded by issuing a directive to Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, to intensify attacks against the West and its allies around the world. 

Coughlin is a reliable journalist on these matters.  Khamenei, as best one can tell, and it's not entirely clear, is in fact the highest power in that country.  Does Iran have the capability to strike outside its region?  Unfortunately, yes, given that in the 1990s it carried out an assassination program in the heart of Europe against Iranian dissidents, as well as terror attacks against Jewish social organizations in Argentina and elsewhere.  What's more, and more to the point, last year the Iranian government was implicated in an assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the US to be carried out in Washington, DC. 

Will Iran strike against Western targets?  For a country that has generally operated in a careful and strategic way that would seem unlikely, unless circumstances were to change drastically.  As it happens, circumstances in the Middle East are in fact changing drastically right now and we have little idea precisely how matters will play out.  This is certain: that sooner or later, gradually or faster, the Assad regime, which has been Iran's sole reliable ally for the last few decades, will end.

What will Iran do?

In the meantime, we should ponder, when the Assad regime goes in Syria, what will take its place?

One would like to be hopeful and see a democratic country with structured power-sharing and rights secured for all minorities, including the Christian and Alawite communities likely be threatened by the fall of this regime.  (A model for this sort of structured power-sharing could be the Taif agreement of 1989 that ended the Lebanese Civil War.)  So far, the Syrian civil war has not been primarily a sectarian affair.  The FSA, though comprised of many fighters drawn from the disenfranchised Sunni communities, does encompass members from a variety of outlooks and backgrounds.  Many of the FSA leaders have a strikingly modern, technocratic, and secular outlook.  Late last week, however, the Syrian Army made a drive through Daraya, a predominantly Sunni suburb, reportedly slaughtering hundreds, including women and children.  Reports recount the army searching house to house and killing men of fighting age unable to produce papers.

The longer the conflict in Syria grinds on the more likely it becomes that the government will be a Sunni majority dominated affair, with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, as well as to the Sunni community in Lebanon, a country to which Syria has long been intimately, sometimes smotheringly, connected.  (It is, of course, here worth noting that, in fact, Saudi Arabia played a relatively positive role in the supporting the pluralistic March 14th coalition that led Lebanon following the Cedar Revolution.)

A third possibility would be an extended civil war, extreme chaos, population movements and refugee crises, with a rump Alawite state forming in the northwest of the country... essentially a re-drawing the national boundaries delineated, for better or worse, in the Sykes-Picot agreement drawn up by Britain and France during WWI and refined in the 1920s.  (For a primer on those agreements and what preceded them... events "long ago, in distant lands" that are somehow much alive and with us... I recommend watching David Lean's magnificent film Lawrence of Arabia, and reading in conjunction with that David Fromkin's classic book of history A Peace to End All Peace.)  There are signs already of just such a rending of boundaries.  Syria's Kurdish community (2.5 million, or 10% of the country's population, and concentrated in the north) have played a canny waiting game, delaying their participation in the uprising against the Assad regime.  In the meantime, the Syrian army has withdrawn from that region, giving the Kurdish north of the country a de facto autonomy akin to that achieved by the Iraqi Kurds in 1991.  In doing so, the Assad regime has put pressure on neighboring Turkey, the leader of the coalition backing the FSA and who have their own restive independence-minded Kurdish population, as well as on neighboring Iraq, who have been struggling to keep their own oil-rich Kurdish region within a tight federal framework.  In essence, the Assad regime is holding out the threat of shattering the region and its long-delineated national boundaries.  It also may be suggesting what is its fall-back plan, of a "lesser Syria," with micro nation-states drawn along ethnic and confessional lines, including an Alawite redoubt in the northwest of the country to which the upper levels of the government and the army would retreat.

When History is moving forward, and people are dying, it is unwise to stand still at the cross-roads.  It is unconscionable as well.

Read Con Coughlin on Khamenei's statement HERE.

Study David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, available HERE.

Watch David Lean's brilliant Lawrence of Arabia, available HERE, or via Apple itunes.

Hat tips to Now Lebanon, Lee Smith, and others, whose columns have been educational.

Remember that in a sense the Arab Spring began in Lebanon, with the Cedar revolution, in response to the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.  I was in Lebanon for the fourth anniversary of his death, and my interviews with Christopher Hitchens and others, conducted at a rally in Martyrs' Square, can be seen HERE.

The Vogue profile of Asma al Assad is no longer available via the Vogue or Conde Nast websites, but may be found at Bashar al Assad's official website.  (Link not provided, and if you think about visiting it be very careful about those cookies.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How About "Barry Lyndon" for Starters?

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has put his foot in it.

He has said that Hollywood stars just can't "do" period drama.  Presumably he means American actors, as opposed to the many British and Australian actors who have become stars via films made by American studios and independent companies.

At a recent seminar he argued: "Our actors have an understanding of period--for Europeans the past is very much in them as well as the present.  Americans find it harder."

I'm not so sure.  I'd say Los Angeles-born Ryan O'Neal, then a neophyte and heartthrob, had little trouble carrying the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, and made by the Bronx-born filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.  That picture may well be the greatest period adaptation of English literature ever made.  It is worth studying alone for Kubrick's ingenious fitting of vintage super-fast 50 mm projector lenses on to his cameras, allowing him to shoot on film using only available light.  When you watch (below) the scene, set in the evening, of players at a card table lit by candlelight consider that that set was lit only by those candles, giving the whole scene a resemblance to a painting by, say, Gainsborough, one of the masters of the era of the novel from which the film was adapted.

Chinatown was, of course, a period film, and Nicholson and Dunaway were superb in those roles, seemed natural, and were Oscar nominees for their performances.  The Godfather films were, of course, in period.  Marlon Brando won an Oscar in 1973 for originating the role of Vito Corleone.  Two years later, Robert De Niro, playing the young Vito Corleone in Sicily at the dawn of the twentieth century, won the Oscar for best supporting performance.  Friends who speak Italian better than I do, and who understand the Sicilian dialect in which De Niro delivered his lines, say he did well.  Apropos, his performance in Bertolucci's 1900 was superb, and his Italian, the only language spoken in that film, was well handled.

Perhaps Mr. Fellowes meant American actors are not very good in British period roles, and that may very well be so; but the same might be said of many British actors (excepting Daniel Day Lewis!) taking American roles in period films... though Fellowes, being British, might not be in the position to know this.  Whatever Mr. Fellowes did mean, the collaboration of British and American filmmakers has produced many fine films.  I am, however, growing concerned that since pulling off a superb Olympics presentation, and since winning all those gold medals (3rd place overall), the Brits may start to lose the self-deprecating style we all so admire.

In any case, Ryan O'Neal is pretty good in Barry Lyndon.  Watch at the beginning of the scene below for a funny subtext, where Lyndon's employer speaking to him (O'Neal) says: "Pretend that you speak not a word of English."  Is this a mischievous Kubrick joke meant to send up attitudes akin to Fellowes's?  Perhaps.  A bit later in the scene watch O'Neal pull off dialogue spoken in passable German:

Regarding Fellowes, and his thoughts on the matter, more here.

UPDATE: In response to the above I received a call from filmmaker John Irvin (director of Hamburger Hill, A Month in the Country, The Garden of Eden).  Irvin knew Kubrick and said that Kubrick chose to make Barry Lyndon and indeed his many other films in Britain because of the high quality of the film craftsmen, the editors, sound technicians, set builders, costumers, wig-makers, etc...  Just before ringing off he said, "But Gone with the Wind... the civil war... a period picture... wasn't that made by Americans?  Performances very good."  Too right, as some Brits might say.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Mexico, on the Pacific Side

Last night in rainy London I saw new friends from Mexico visiting here for work.  I want to go back, next time to the Yucatan, and then again to the Pacific where I was last month.  I'll be writing more about that trip soon.  Meanwhile...

The Paris Review, at the beginning, and now

For years I've been reluctant to wade in and address some tendentious and shoddy commentary about the beginnings of The Paris Review, a magazine where I worked for many years.  All of it fairly silly stuff.

For now I'll just say I wish the magazine, or someone at Wikipedia, would address the TPR wiki entry.  It rather absurdly repeats the unsupported allegation from the "Underground Literary Alliance," made in 2004, that the magazine was "exercising influence" over the London Review of Books.  Where to begin?  Well, the ULA when they made that claim seemed to mean me.  It is true I live in London, and that my brain waves are very strong, but I hadn't been in touch with the London Review of Books since I arranged, from New York, an exchange of ads in the late 1990s, and that's extent of my engagement with the LRB... though come to think of it I wouldn't mind writing for it. 

I'd asked people at TPR to address this, but so far no soap.  Are they enjoying the prank aspect of all this, or is making such a change too difficult to do?

In any case they're doing a great job putting out the mag... or the paper as they've taken to calling it.