Rwanda, 12 Years After the Horror

In Dissent, Constance Morrill looks at Rwandan politics in the shadow of the genocide 12 years ago.

RWANDAN political culture under the RPF is defined by the familiar Orwellian dynamic in which the state is the arbiter of historical truth. The RPF’s own “regime of truth,” to use Foucault’s term, has consisted of shrinking political space to avoid criticism and maintain power, and of “instrumentalizing” the genocide in its relations with the international community, while denying crimes committed by its own military wing against Rwandan Hutu civilians in 1994 and in the northwest in 1997–1998. Evidence of this cynical strategy abounds, although the U.S. government, one of Rwanda’s chief sources of aid, diplomatically characterizes the country as “a republic dominated by a strong presidency.”

Political space is constrained by a 2002 law that makes incitement to irondakoko (“ethnicism” or discrimination) and amacakubiri (“divisionism”) crimes that carry prison sentences of up to five years and a two-million-franc fine for government or political party officials who are found guilty. Divisionism is defined as any “speech, written statement or action that causes conflict . . . ” In practice, this law is less a tool to fight ethnic division than a political weapon designed to suppress dissent. Being accused of divisionism is tantamount to being accused of perpetuating the “genocidal ideology.”

René Lemarchand, a political scientist and scholar on Rwanda and Burundi, writes, “What is being thwarted through the ban on ethnic identities is the memory of atrocities endured by Hutu and Tutsi, where ethnicity, though singularly unhelpful for discriminating between victims and perpetrators, is crucially important for addressing the roots of the injuries suffered by each community.” The ban is heavy-handed—both psychologically and practically—and could well backfire. So far, numbers of Rwandan journalists and other civilians have been accused of inciting divisionism, arrested, interrogated, and otherwise threatened; many have fled the country.

Our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias

Michael Shermer in Scientific American:

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men–half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats–were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning–the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex–was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and–once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable–the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.

More here.

A Nuclear Renaissance?

Jon Gertner in the New York Times Magazine:

16atomic1Over the past year, the debate over nuclear power has increasingly been framed as an environmental one, as several commentators — most notably Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace (and now estranged from the organization); the British conservationist James Lovelock; and the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand — have stepped forward to assert that global warming requires an embrace of new nuclear plants, because unlike gas- or coal-powered plants, nuclear reactors produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gasses. The nuclear industry, in turn, has capitalized on the chance to adopt a green tinge, or at least greenish one; among its recent slogans is the exhortation to “Go nuclear: because you care about the air.” Most environmental groups have not softened their opposition, however. “This is more a propaganda exercise than a serious discussion of the viability of the industry,” Jim Riccio, the nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace, told me. By using global warming, he added, “the nuclear industry is trying to find some fear greater than the nuclear fear to be their selling point.”

More here.

The US vs John Lennon

“As President Nixon geared up for re-election, his administration enlisted the FBI, immigration and police to get the ex-Beatle deported. Now a new film by the team behind ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ reveals the full extent of the plotting.”

Anthony Barnes in The Independent:

FrontjohndJohn Lennon outraged ordinary Americans with his remark that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. He angered the American authorities almost as much after he set himself up in New York and openly criticised the war in Vietnam.

Only now, however, is it being fully revealed how the authorities in Washington spent years amassing a dossier of evidence against the most outspoken Beatle with the sole aim of ejecting him from the United States for good. The evidence is to be exposed in a new film by the team behind Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s documentary opposing George Bush’s “war on terror”.

The Lennon movie, which opens in US cinemas in September, will embarrass the agencies which unsuccessfully tried to block his stay.

More here.

Rashid Khalidi on the Israel and Lebanon Crisis

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies of the Middle East Institute, Columbia University. Interview from PBS:

Some have suggested that Israel’s response to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers is excessive and disproportionate. What’s your reaction?

Khalidi_1Israel has hit and closed Beirut airport, depriving the country of its sole air link to the outside world. It has blockaded the coast, and has hit the route to Damascus, effectively cutting off Lebanon from the outside world. It has hit the main electricity facilty at Jiyye, knocking out the fuel tanks, and causing electricity cuts in much of the country. So far about 60 Lebaanese civilians have been killed against three Israeli civilians killed in Hizballah shelling (this is besides Israeli soldiers killed and captured, and Hizbullah militants killed).

This offensive is nothing if not disproportionate, and grossly excessive, not to speak of counter-productive in terms of Israel’s stated aims vis-a-vis releasing its captured soldiers and weakening HIzbullah.

Those of Israel’s attacks directed against the civilian population constitute war crimes (or terrorism if you prefer) as does Hizballah shelling of Israeli civilians (but not the killing or capture of Israeli soldiers or Hizballah fighters).

More here.

Lessing on Sex and War in Lady Chatterly’s Lover

In The Guardian, a edited extract from Doris Lessing’s introduction to Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

“We are among the ruins,” says Lawrence, opening the tale which is supposed to be all about sex, and announcing what I think is the major theme of the novel, usually overlooked. It is permeated with the first world war, the horror of it. And against the horrors, the rotting bodies, the senseless slaughter of the trenches, the postwar poverty and bleakness – against the cataclysm, “the fallen skies”, Lawrence proposes to put in the scales love, tender sex, the tender bodies of people in love; England would be saved by warm-hearted fucking.

Now, looking back from our perspective of over 60 years after that second terrible war, we see Mellors, who was a soldier in India in the first world war, and Constance Chatterley with her war-crippled husband, clinging on to each other, and just ahead the next war that would involve the whole world.

It is not that, once having seen how war overshadows this tale, threatens these lovers, the love story loses its poignancy, but for me it is no longer the central theme, despite what Lawrence intended. Now I think this is one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written. How was it I had not seen that, when I first read it?

Our man in trouble

From The London Times:

Craig_1 MURDER IN SAMARKAND: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror by Craig Murray: Craig Murray is a former British ambassador to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. To get the flavour of his astonishing career there from 2002-04, consider some of the headings under his name in this book’s index: “accusations against; bugging suspicions; sacking; Tashkent, asked to leave; topless bathers; visas for sex allegations; marriage, end of”. Lest anyone still fears this is a humdrum diplomatic memoir, here is Murray’ s account of his first meeting with a teenage belly dancer in a Tashkent niterie: “I astonished her by saying that I wanted her to give up the club and be my mistress. I explained that I could not marry her, as I was married, but I would keep her. I gave her my card and urged her to phone me.”

“So much for your dolly-bird secretary,” he records his wife remarking, in a characteristic marital conversation after a less-than-successful embassy dinner. “Even if you aren’t screwing her, everybody thinks you are, and that suits you and your bloody ego!”

The pity of all this soap-opera stuff is that it cripples Murray’s purpose in writing his book: to expose the ghastly conduct of the Uzbek dictatorship and Anglo-American collusion with it. From the day Murray arrived in Tashkent in 2002, aged 43, he was appalled to discover that the regime of President Islam Karimov subsisted on a diet of mass murder, torture and slavery.

More here.

Stem Cells: The Real Culprits in Cancer?

From Scientific American:Stem_cells_2

After more than 30 years of declared war on cancer, a few important victories can be claimed, such as 85 percent survival rates for some childhood cancers whose diagnoses once represented a death sentence. In other malignancies, new drugs are able to at least hold the disease at bay, making it a condition with which a patient can live. In 2001, for example, Gleevec was approved for the treatment of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). The drug has been a huge clinical success, and many patients are now in remission following treatment with Gleevec. But evidence strongly suggests that these patients are not truly cured, because a reservoir of malignant cells responsible for maintaining the disease has not been eradicated.

In CML and a few other cancers it is now clear that only a tiny percentage of tumor cells have the power to produce new cancerous tissue and that targeting these specific cells for destruction may be a far more effective way to eliminate the disease. Because they are the engines driving the growth of new cancer cells and are very probably the origin of the malignancy itself, these cells are called cancer stem cells. But they are also quite literally believed to have once been normal stem cells or their -immature offspring that have undergone a malignant transformation.

More here.

Letter from Beirut

My Israeli friend Moshe Behar has forwarded this letter from his friend Rasha. She is in Beirut:

Dear All,

I am writing now from a cafe, in West Beirut’s Hamra district. It is filled with people who are trying to escape the pull of 24 hour news reporting. Like me. The electricity has been cut off for a while now, and the city has been surviving on generators. The old system that was so familiar at the time of the war, where generators were allowed a lull to rest is back. The cafe is dark, hot and humid. Espresso machines and blenders are silenced. Conversations, rumors, frustrations waft through the room. I am better off here than at home, following the news, live, on the spot documentation of our plight in sound bites. The sound of Israeli warplanes overwhelms the air on occasion. They drop leaflets to conduct a “psychological” war. Yesterday, their sensitivity training urged them to advise inhabitants of the southern suburbs to flee because the night promised to be “hot”. Today, the leaflets warn that they plan to bomb all other bridges and tunnels in Beirut. People are flocking to supermarkets to stock up on food. This morning, I wrote in my emails to people inquiring about my well-being that I was safe, and that the targets seem to be strictly Hezbollah sites and their constituencies, now, I regret typing that. They will escalate. Until a few hours ago, they had only bombed the runways of the airport, as if to “limit” the damage. A few hours ago, four shells were dropped on the buildings of our brand new shining airport.

The night was harrowing. The southern suburbs and the airport were bombed, from air and sea. The apartment where I am living has a magnificient view of the bay of Beirut. I could see the Israeli warships firing at their leisure. It is astounding how comfortable they are in our skies, in our waters, they just travel around, and deliver their violence and congratulate themselves.

The cute French-speaking and English-speaking bourgeoisie has fled to the Christian mountains. A long-standing conviction that the Israelis will not target Lebanon’s Christian “populated” mountains. Maybe this time they will be proven wrong? The Gulfies, Saudis, Kuwaities and other expatriates have all fled out of the country, in Pullman buses via Damascus, before the road was bombed. They were supposed to be the economic lifeblood of this country. The contrast in their sense of panic as opposed to the defiance of the inhabitants of the southern suburbs was almost comical. This time, however, I have to admit, I am tired of defying whatever for whatever cause. There is no cause really. There are only sinister post-Kissingerian type negotiations. I can almost hear his hateful voice rationalizing laconically as he does the destruction of a country, the deaths of families, people with dreams and ambitions for the Israelis to win something more, always more.

Although I am unable to see it, I am told left, right and center that there is a rhyme and reason, grand design, and strategy. The short-term military strategy seems to be to cripple transport and communications. And power stations. The southern region has now been reconfigured into small enclaves that cannot communicate between one another. Most have enough fuel, food and supplies to last them until tomorrow, but after that the isolation of each enclave will lead to tragedy. Mayors and governors have been screaming for help on the TV.

This is all bringing back echoes of 1982, the Israeli siege of Beirut. My living nightmare, well one of my living nightmares. It was summer then as well. The Israeli army marched through the south and besieged Beirut. For 3 months, the US administration kept dispatching urges for the Israeli military to act with restraint. And the Israelis assured them they were acting appropriately. We had the PLO command in West Beirut then. I felt safe with the handsome fighters. How I miss them. Between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army I don’t feel safe. We are exposed, defenseless, pathetic. And I am older, more aware of danger. I am 37 years old and actually scared. The sound of the warplanes scares me. I am not defiant, there is no more fight left in me. And there is no solidarity, no real cause.

I am furthermore pissed off because no one knows how hard the postwar reconstruction was to all of us. Hariri did not make miracles. People work hard and sacrifice a lot and things get done. No one knows except us how expensive, how arduous that reconstruction was. Every single bridge and tunnel and highway, the runways of that airport, all of these things were built from our sweat and brow, at 3 times the real cost of their construction because every member of government, because every character in the ruling Syrian junta, because the big players in the Hariri administration and beyond, were all thieves. We accepted the thievery and banditry just to get things done and get it over with. Everyone one of us had two jobs (I am not referring to the ruling elite, obviously), paid backbreaking taxes and wages to feed the “social covenant”. We faught and faught that neoliberal onslaught, the arrogance of economic consultants and the greed of creditors just to have a nice country that functioned at a minimum, where things got done, that stood on its feet, more or less. A thirving Arab civil society. Public schools were sacrificed for roads to service neglected rural areas and a couple Syrian officers to get richer, and we accepted, that road was desperately needed, and there was the “precarious national consensus” to protect. Social safety nets were given up, healthcare for all, unions were broken and coopted, public spaces taken over, and we bowed our heads and agreed. Palestinian refugees were pushed deeper and deeper into forgetting, hidden from sight and consciousness, “for the preservation of their identity” we were told, and we accepted. In exchange we had a secular country where the Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces could co-exist and fight their fights in parliament not with bullets. We bit hard on our tongues and stiffened our upper lip, we protested and were defeated, we took the streets, defied army-imposed curfews, time after time, to protect that modicum of civil rights, that modicum of a semblance of democracy, and it takes one air raid for all our sacrifices and tolls to be blown to smithereens. It’s not about the airport, it’s what we built during that postwar.

As per the usual of Lebanon, it’s not only about Lebanon, the country has paradigmatically been the terrain for regional conflicts to lash out violently. Off course speculations abound. There is rhetoric, and a lot of it, but there are also Theories.

1) Theory Number One.

This is about Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah negotiating an upper hand in the negotiations with Israel. Hezbollah have indicated from the moment they captured the Israeli soldiers that they were willing to negotiate in conjunction with Hamas for the release of all Arab prisoners in Israeli jails. Iran is merely providing a back support for Syria + Hamas.

2) Theory Number Two.

This is not about solidarity with Gaza or strengthening the hand of the Palestinians in negotiating the release of the prisoners in Israeli jails. This is about Iran’s nuclear bomb and negotiations with the Europeans/US. The Iranian negotiator left Brussels after the end of negotiations and instead of returning to Tehran, he landed in Damascus. Two days later, Hezbollah kidnapped the Israeli soldiers. The G8 Meeting is on Saturday, Iran is supposed to have some sort of an answer for the G8 by then. In the meantime, they are showing to the world that they have a wide sphere of control in the region: Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. In Lebanon they pose a real threat to Israel. The “new” longer-reaching missiles that Hezbollah fired on Haifa are the message. The kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia issued statements holding Hezbollah solely responsible for bringing on this escalation, and that is understood as a message to Iran. Iran on the other hand promised to pay for the reconstruction of destroyed homes and infrastructures in the south. And threatened Israel with “hell” if they hit Syria.

3) Theory Number Three.

This is about Lebanon, Hezbollah and 1559 (the UN resolution demanding the disarmement of Hezbollah and deployment of the Lebanese army in the southern territory). It stipulates that this is no more than a secret conspiracy between Syria, Iran and the US to close the Hezbollah file for good, and resolve the pending Lebanese crisis since the assassination of Hariri. Evidence for this conspiracy is Israel leaving Syria so far unharmed. Holders of this theory claim that Israel will deliver a harsh blow to Hezbollah and cripple the Lebanese economy to the brink of creating an internal political crisis. The resolution would then result in Hezbollah giving up arms, and a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon under the control of the Lebanese army in Lebanon and the Israeli army in the north of Galilee. More evidence for this Theory are the Saudi Arabia and Jordan statements condemning Hezbollah and holding them responsible for all the horrors inflicted on the Lebanese people.

There are more theories… There is also the Israeli government reaching an impasse and feeling a little wossied out by Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Israeli military taking the upper hand with Olmert.

The land of conspiracies… Fun? I can’t make heads or tails. But I am tired of spending days and nights waiting not to die from a shell, on target or astray. Watching poor people bludgeoned, homeless and preparing to mourn. I am so weary…


Questioning Free Speech

Jeremy Waldron reviews John Durham Peters’n Courting the Abyss and considers free speech, in the LRB:

[M]any members repeated the saying often attributed to Voltaire: ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Actually, as John Durham Peters points out in Courting the Abyss, there is no evidence that Voltaire ever said any such thing. An English writer, Beatrice Hall, writing under a male pseudonym in 1906, suggested that Voltaire’s attitude to the burning of a book written by Helvétius might be summed up: ‘How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’ It was her readers – and countless civil libertarians afterwards – who made the mistake of attributing the saying to Voltaire himself.

Whoever said it, Peters has written an interesting and provocative book, exploring what might lie behind that smug liberal proclamation. To begin with, the language attributed to Voltaire is bewildering. ‘Defend to the death your right to say it?’ Whose death? How would death be involved? I guess its most attractive meaning is something like: ‘I will fight and, if need be, lay down my life for a Bill of Rights that may have this implication.’ A more troubling reading, however, is that Nazi speech is worth protecting even if a consequence of that protection is that someone gets hurt or killed. ‘I will defend your right to say it, even if your saying it makes violence more likely against the people attacked in your pamphlets.’ Is that what is meant? Defenders of free speech squirm on this point. On the one hand, they want to say that we should be willing to brave death for the sake of this important individual right. On the other hand, they assure us dogmatically that there is no clear evidence of any causal connection between, say, racist posters and incidents of racial violence, between pamphlets that say ‘Hitler should have finished the job’ and anti-semitic attacks, or between pornography and violence against women. Indeed, they pretend to have no idea of what such a causal mechanism could possibly be: ‘We are defending only the Nazis’ speech. How on earth could there be any connection between what they say and the things that some violent individuals do?’

It’s a strange dichotomy because, in other contexts, American civil liberties scholars have no difficulty at all in seeing a connection between speech and the possibility of violence.

Hybrid chocolate won’t melt in the heat

From MSNBC:Chocolate

Chocolate is not widely consumed in the tropics, even though that’s where most of the world’s cocoa is produced. The reason: It’s too hot. High temperatures in countries like Nigeria reduce chocolate into a sticky, gooey mess. Food scientists have been trying to remedy this situation for decades, and now researchers in Nigeria believe they are close to achieving the holy grail among chocolate manufacturers: a heat-resistant chocolate that actually tastes like chocolate. Most brands of chocolate melt at temperatures between 77 and about 91 degrees Fahrenheit (25 to 33 degrees Celsius).

S.O. Ogunwolu and C.O. Jayeola, food scientists at the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, have mixed cornstarch with cocoa to produce a heat-resistant chocolate that they say compares “favorably with conventional milk chocolate in terms of color, taste, smoothness and overall acceptability.” The starch acts as a chocolate thickener and prevents the outflow of cocoa butter — the natural fat of the cocoa bean — when the heat is on. The researchers found that using 10 percent starch was ideal and produced a product that was comparable to milk chocolate in taste tests.

More here.

Misery Loves a Memoir

From The New York Times:Thoreau_1

The best and most Romantic memoir an American has produced is “Walden” — though nobody calls it one. But it is: Here is what I did with a few years of my life and how I feel about it now. What Thoreau has to overcome during his time in the woods is not a lapse in mental health. His great problem is to escape the mental health of his neighbors, their collection-plate opinions, their studious repetition of gossip. Thoreau isn’t against self-esteem (he admires a friend who has learned to “treat himself with ever increasing respect”); but his main task is to lose his esteem for society in which “trade curses everything it handles” and the singular natural resource of time is wasted in barren productivity. Maybe he had vices out there in the woods, but that’s not his concern, or ours. The overwhelming impression is of his philosophical ardor, which he tries to fuse with his practical ardor. There’s not a note in the book of self-pity, or nostalgia. And why did he quit his cabin in the end? “It seemed to me that I had several more lives to live.”

More here.

The World on Fire

Here are a few of today’s news stories:

Afghanistan is a Mess — from the Sydney Morning Herald

Gunmen ambush Shi’ite pilgrims in Iraq, kill five — from Reuters

Hezbollah ready for ‘war on every level’ — from CNN

Iran threatens to halt inspections, quit treaty –from Business Day

N. Korea has more missiles, U.S. says — from the Washington Times

Israel Vows to Crush Militia; Group’s Leader Is Defiant — from the New York Times

India PM: Pakistan ties threatened — from CNN

EU worries Mideast conflict could spread to Syria — from Reuters

Shiite leader in Pakistan killed — from CNN

Militants Hit Nigeria Oil Facilities — from the Los Angeles Times

16 Killed in Rebel Clash With Sri Lanka — from the Washington Post

Southern California Wildfires Spread, Burning Homes — from Bloomberg

Indonesia stuck with bird flu as US confirms latest H5N1 death — from Monsters and Critics

Women in International Law

In The Nation, Martha Nussbaum reviews Catharine MacKinnon’s Are Women Human?

MacKinnon has gathered the speeches and articles that she has delivered over the past twenty years on sex equality and international law. The result is a sparkling book, perhaps her finest. Unsettling in the best sort of way, Are Women Human? shows her to be not only a prodigiously creative feminist thinker who can see the world from a fresh angle like nobody else (and I mean the angle of reality, as opposed to the usual one of half-reality) but also one of our most creative thinkers about international law. As elsewhere in MacKinnon’s work, we find plenty of trenchant and eloquent writing; but we also find more systematic analysis and more extensive scholarship than we sometimes get, and the book is the richer for it.

MacKinnon’s central theme, repeatedly and convincingly mined, is the hypocrisy of the international system when it faces up to some crimes against humanity but fails to confront similar harms when they happen to women, often on a daily basis. There is a category of torture, and we think we know how to define it. We think we know what it does: It uses violence to control and intimidate. And yet when violence is used to control and intimidate women “in homes in Nebraska…rather than prison cells in Chile,” we don’t call it torture, and we somehow think it is not the same thing. Torture in Chile is not explained away as the work of isolated sick individuals. We know it is political, and we can see how systemic it often is. When violence happens to women in Nebraska, we say, Oh well, that was only some sicko, and men really aren’t like that. Well, given the numbers, shouldn’t we ask more questions about that?

Voices of Peace Muffled by Rising Mideast Strife

Michael Slackman in the New York Times:


Regional momentum is supporting hard-liners. Newspapers and television commentators have assailed Egypt and Jordan for trying to negotiate a peaceful solution between Hamas and Israel. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who planned to call a referendum on whether to support a two-state solution, has been increasingly silenced. Even the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which had sought to forge a consensus with other Palestinian factions, found itself trumped by its more militant members.

More here.

A Practical Quantum Computer

Via EurekaAlert:

Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have designed and built a novel electromagnetic trap for ions that could be easily mass produced to potentially make quantum computers large enough for practical use. The new trap, described in the June 30 issue of Physical Review Letters,* may help scientists surmount what is currently the most significant barrier to building a working quantum computer–scaling up components and processes that have been successfully demonstrated individually.

Quantum computers would exploit the unusual behavior of the smallest particles of matter and light. Their theoretical ability to perform vast numbers of operations simultaneously has the potential to solve certain problems, such as breaking data encryption codes or searching large databases, far faster than conventional computers. Ions (electrically charged atoms) are promising candidates for use as quantum bits (qubits) in quantum computers. The NIST team, one of 18 research groups worldwide experimenting with ion qubits, previously has demonstrated at a rudimentary level all the basic building blocks for a quantum computer, including key processes such as error correction, and also has proposed a large-scale architecture.

Far From the Madding Gerund

Essays from one of my favorite blogs, Language Log, have been collected into Far From the Madding Gerund. Robert Greene reviews it in Slate.

David Foster Wallace once invented an organization called the “Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts” whose members boycott stores with signs reading “10 items or less.” It was a joke (from the novel Infinite Jest), but it’s not too far-fetched. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book that took as its primary subject the misuse of various punctuation marks, became an international best seller a few years ago, and on bookstore shelves today it has plenty of company: Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English; The Grouchy Grammarian; The Dictionary of Disagreeable English; Lapsing Into a Comma, and so forth.

These books tend to be written by prescriptivists—people who would dictate how language should be used. Descriptivists—those who would describe how language is actually used—have rarely had such eloquent (or prolific) spokesmen. As a result, they’re often ridiculed. Wallace, who himself is a somewhat militant grammarian, has argued that descriptivism is hopeless as a scientific endeavor: Using what people actually say and write to determine appropriate English usage is, he says, like writing an ethics textbook based on what people actually do. But descriptive linguists have finally found persuasive champions in Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum, who have collected a series of essays from their blog Language Log into a new book, Far From the Madding Gerund.

The two bring usefully different styles to their arguments. Pullum, a syntactician at UC-Santa Cruz and currently a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard, can be vicious (and very funny), whether criticizing inept usage or demolishing prescriptivist myths. Liberman, a phonetician at Penn, takes a more data-driven approach, analyzing modern vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar with custom-written computer scripts and plain old Google.

literature tasmanian and newfoundlandish


It matters because we expect literary fiction to be universal and particular at the same time, and accurate in its particularities. Tasmanian and Newfoundland literatures have captured the international imagination, to the extent that they have, partly because they are charting uncharted territory—the specific details of place, voice, cadence, and wit that come from living on islands at the periphery, at the ends of the earth. London, Paris, Rome—these are places that have existed as solid landscapes in our imaginations for centuries. But the imaginary landscapes of Tasmania and Newfoundland are still relatively wild.

more from The Walrus here.

graffiti at the Brooklyn Museum


In retrospect, just when the party got going it came to a screeching halt. Inadvertently, the exhibition reminds us that the high-low hybrid of grafitti didn’t produce particularly memorable art. Oh, there’s a sense of awkwardness that’s endearing, and bravura as the artists show off their chops, but the paintings testify to what emerged as a kind of “truth”–spray paint on canvas was never as good as the real thing happening in the street. Graffiti had to be tamed in order to function as proper art, and that was the beginning of the end.

Despite their efforts, the Brooklyn Museum contributes to the “dumbing down” of graffiti art by couching it as harmless child’s play. An immense wall, constructed dead center in the middle of the exhibition and accessorized with felt-tip pens, invites children to scribble and become little graffiti artists in their own right.

more from the Village Voice here.

packer on liberal internationalism

One of the greatest challenges of the next few years will be to rescue democracy, human rights, and national security from the company these words have recently kept. A clear-eyed understanding of our predicament begins with the recognition that American interests and values do not always rhyme; imagining that they do makes it more likely that in the end we’ll compromise both. How can the U.S. fight jihadism without supporting dictatorships? Regime change by force has proved disastrous; elections have brought to power Islamists whose commitment to democracy is doubtful; ongoing blank checks written to Saudi princes, Pakistani generals, and a decaying dynasty in Cairo are bound to bankrupt sender and receiver alike. It’s hard to imagine a waning of the jihadist threat that doesn’t involve some kind of liberalization in the Muslim world, either because Islamism comes to be reformed from within or because it comes to be rejected by subject populations. (Iran, several decades ahead of the Arab countries, is where this struggle can be seen in sharpest relief.) A serious American policy toward Islamism will do well what the Bush Administration has done badly or not at all, and without the triumphalist speeches: modest, informed, persistent support for reformers, without grand promises of regime change; concerted efforts at reconstruction and counter-insurgency that bring to bear the full range of government agencies as well as alliances and international institutions. Since these tasks will fall to the United States one way or another, we should learn to do them better rather than vow never to try again. Large ideas drawn from historical analogies can help as guiding frameworks, but the glamorous certainties they seem to offer are illusions; we still have to think for ourselves.

more from The New Yorker here.