Peace talks, bullshit walks in an invisible war

Edward B. Rackley

Once again, Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe made headlines today by issuing a new billion dollar note to keep up with the currency’s free-fall devaluation. The ICC war crimes indictment against Sudan president Omar al Bashir was also widely covered, as was the killing of Rwandan peacekeepers in Darfur last week. No one can accuse the international media of ignoring the human cost of these despots.

And yet, Darfur cannot count a death toll higher than a few hundred thousand. Mugabe would rather kill than feed his people, but how many have actually perished? Very few. Does either context represent a regional security threat? Chinese and Russian vetoes of proposed Security Council resolutions against these two regimes may seem duplicitous and self-interested, but their argument that neither crisis is sufficiently lethal or destabilizing to its neighbors is accurate. Best to let the fire burn out, wait for a coup d’etat or pray for popular intefadah.

Congo Congo’s war is different in every way. Over four million people have died here, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since WWII. It hosts the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force; at one point seven different national armies were fighting on Congolese territory. Neighboring countries continue to support various rebel groups here, and yet regional stability depends heavily on a pacified Congo. After years of foreign-funded peace talks and a tenuous transitional government, in 2006 the international community again forked out over $400 million for presidential elections. While these were generally free and fair, nothing has changed in the country.

President Kabila’s promises of massive reconstruction and reconciliation upon election have proven hollow. Instead he’s obsessed with consolidating and centralizing power, undermining planned provincial elections as his now-defamed party would lose across the board. So it’s déjà vu all over again as he drags the country back thirty years to Mobutu-style autocracy. All this and more, yet Congo’s problems are virtually unknown to the outside world.

Pyromaniac for president

Unfortunately, autocracy does not mean control for Kabila, who is weak and easily manipulated where Mobutu was steely and merciless. So Kabila watches as conflict burns here in the country’s eastern provinces. Twenty different armed groups continue to thrust and parry, murdering, raping, pillaging and displacing the civilians in whose name they claim to fight. Here in North Kivu alone, the number of displaced is estimated at 850,000, with a hundred thousand newly displaced in the last six months. The national army (FARDC) is ragtag, untrained, ill-equipped and must extort local populations to feed itself. Civilians flee areas of FARDC deployment, claiming they are better treated by rebel groups—whose leaders are wanted by the ICC. Talk about desperation.

After several humiliating defeats at the hands of these eastern rebels, most recently last December, Kabila called the US Embassy and asked for help. He agreed to negotiate with the strongest rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, and international facilitation was brought in to moderate the talks. By end January, concessions were made, amnesty extended, and a political settlement was on the table. The FARDC would absorb rebel troops, whose leaders would be given senior posts in the national army. There would be no ‘surrender’ by rebels, or justice for victims, only ‘integration’ of the forces negatives. Peace on the cheap, African style.

Since then, Kabila has begun to regret the decision. Hardliners who have Kabila’s ear appeal to his national pride, cannot abide negotiating with rebels, and despite repeated humiliations on the battle field, continue to fantasize over a military victory. Over 200 ceasefire violations have been documented since January.


One international body for whom Congo is not forgotten is the ICC. Former Ituri warlord Thomas Lubanga is in The Hague right now pending trial. Kabila’s opposant in the national elections, Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba, was recently apprehended by ICC officials while fleeing exile in Portugal for the US. Why the US? Because it doesn’t recognize the ICC, and Bemba thought he could escape extradition once on US soil.

Capt_a8e618937d10d3fd5f2d5ea363a78f Rebels who had agreed to the negotiated integration plan now smell a rat. The four most powerful groups have pulled out of the process. Everyone is now re-arming, recruiting, and training. So Plan B, the military option—aka the ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement’, or BATNA—is back on the front burner. Rebels know they can win any contest, and Kabila cannot stand to lose. The Angolan army, staunch Kabila supporters, is supposedly on call to assist.

Meanwhile, donors are putting together expensive programs to professionalize the national army and police, and to facilitate the integration of rebel forces. Ironically, the best way to kill the military option would be to let Kabila’s army decay to the point where accommodating the rebels is the only way out. More irony: reinforcing state security with massive international funding is exactly how the West propped up African dictators throughout the Cold War.

So while eastern Congo is not quite Somalia in terms of daily carnage and utter intractability, it could very well become Somalia as donors tire of funding false-start negotiations and aid agencies realize they have no access to targeted populations because of ongoing insecurity. If we all got out of here and let the cards fall where they may, anti-interventionists and their Chomskyite variants would have their day. But we would surely have another Somalia in humanitarian terms, and a possible regional war.

I Choose My Choice! The fruits of the feminist revolution?

From The

Sister As you may have heard, some 50 years after Betty Friedan sprang us from domestic jail, we women … seem to have made a mess of it. What do we want? Not to be men (wrong again, Freud!), at least not businessmen—although slacker men, sans futon and bong, might appeal. In these post-Lisa-Belkin-New-York-Times-Magazine-“Opt-Out” years, we’ve now learned the worst: even female Harvard graduates are fleeing high-powered careers for a kinder, gentler Martha Stewart Living. Not only does the Problem Have a Name, it has its own line of Fiestaware!

And what are our fallen M.B.A. sisters of Crimson doing? Kvells one Harvard-grad-turned-stay-at-home-mom, on the subject of her days:

I dance and sing and play the guitar and listen to NPR. I write letters to my family, my congressional representatives, and to newspaper editors. My kids and I play tag and catch, we paint, we explore, we climb trees and plant gardens together. We bike instead of using the car. We read, we talk, we laugh. Life is good. I never dust.

Is the mass media to blame (again!) for pushing women out of the workplace?

More here.

Nourishing Stories From Russian Native

From National Book Critics Circle:

Book When Nora Ephron wrote her bitterly comic novel Heartburn and threw in a few recipes to sweeten the effect, she was devising a recipe for other authors to follow. Since then, novelists including Jan Karon, Laura Esquivel and Diane Mott Davidson have made food an essential ingredient of their books and included recipes for the avid reader. We can now, happily, add Lara Vapnyar to that list. And more important, we also can note that Vapnyar is one of the increasingly impressive roster of authors who have emigrated from Russia and other Eastern European countries and are now producing, in graceful and nuanced English that seems like their mother tongue, some of our finest contemporary literary fiction.

In Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, she captures, with exquisite description and delicately irony, the loneliness of the outsider, grateful to be living here, yet longing to feel at home. Vapnyar, who emigrated from Russia in 1994 knowing only a little English, now lives on Staten Island. She has also written the novel Memoirs of a Muse and There are Jews in my House, a story collection, as is Broccoli. Food is a central element in these tales. In the opener, “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf,” Nina, an immigrant and “a computer programmer, like everybody else,” who considers herself plain and clumsy, reads cookbooks as if they were porn and buys vegetables by the armload, but never quite gets around to cooking them for her handsome husband. This is a story of emptiness amidst abundance, and it takes another immigrant — also plain, also lonely, but kind — to lift Nina up, literally and figuratively, into joy.

More here.

Strong Medicine, On Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma

1216322641large Melissa Holbrook Pierson on Ma Jian’s new novel, Beijing Coma:

Beijing Coma is no simple document of an astonishing event in human history. Subtle and didactic at once, it manages to join these opposing qualities without a visible seam. Characters declaim on recent Chinese history, then comment on why there is need to do so, in lessons that manage to directly educate the reader and illuminate the fictional character. Here is some sort of literary magic. That we know the outcome is actually something we forget as we read, another neat trick perpetrated by an author who is both crafty and passionate: once we come to know these individuals, down to the smell of their shoes and the shape of their toes, the final stupendously crashing scene of pandemonium (as it echoes later in the solitude of poor Dai Wei’s thoughts) is as shocking as it could possibly be, short of our having been there.

Ma Jian, as always, has bigger points to make (not to mention art with great emotional range). He does so by way of what looks like a bit of fun. Take the factions that grow like fungus in the damp medium of the encampment, the factions that he intimates are a congenital problem for the Chinese people: in one two-page span he enumerates the Dare-to-Die Squad, Hunger Strike Headquarters, the Beijing Students’ Federation, the Provincial Students’ Federation, the Workers’ Federation and a troop called the Wolves of the North-West. In a case of “like father, like son,” the students cannot get their march to the square under way until they have engaged in competitive slogan-crafting and painted the results onto banners, an endeavor that provokes ridiculous infighting. These young people are as prone to palace coups and militaristic overthrows as the oppressors they end up pelting with rocks and words. Ma has Dai Wei observe, “The vastness of the Square seemed to have inflated everyone’s egos”; of another compatriot, Dai complains, “With his constant strategising, Yang Tao was living up to his reputation as a modern-day General Zhu Geliang.”

the crunch-and-thump


If you’ve ever squirmed through a concert of what a composer I know calls “crunch-and-thump music,” you’ll likely feel a twinge of sympathy when you read “Admit It, You’re as Bored as I Am,” the slash-and-burn attack on contemporary classical music that Joe Queenan published last week in the Guardian ( story /0,,2289751,00.html). Mr. Queenan, a music-loving humorist known for his disinclination to suffer fools, has finally decided to admit, both to himself and to the public at large, that he doesn’t like modern music — any kind of modern music, so far as I can gather from his piece, which is a bit on the unspecific side. Still, it isn’t hard to catch Mr. Queenan’s drift from his description of “The Minotaur,” a new opera by Harrison Birtwistle, which he calls “harsh and ugly and monotonous and generically apocalyptic. . . the same funereal caterwauling that bourgeoisie-loathing composers have been churning out since the 1930s.”

more from the WSJ here.

vermeer’s hat


This is a spellbinding book, though it is not really about Vermeer. Timothy Brook is a professor of Chinese, and his subject is Dutch trade with China in the 17th century. Starting from details in five of Vermeer’s paintings, he takes readers on a series of brilliantly circuitous mystery tours that reveal the savagery on which western civilisation was built. The hat of his title is the wide-brimmed, high-crowned fashion item worn by the officer in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. To make a hat like that you must have stiff felt, manufactured from beaver pelts. By the start of the 17th century, European and Scandinavian beavers had been driven to extinction by the demands of the hatting industry, so a new source was needed. Brook’s first set piece is a battle in 1609 on the shore of one of the Great Lakes between a band of French explorers and an army of Mohawk warriors. Armed with arquebuses, the French rapidly gunned down the Mohawks, and this display of firepower persuaded the remaining tribesmen to provide a regular supply of North American beavers for European hats. It also marked the start of the destruction of North American native culture.

The French, though, were not really looking for beavers. They were looking for China.

more from the Sunday Times here.

What Does Poetry Make Happen?

0614891200 Jay Parini in The Australian:

One does not hope for poetry to change the world. W.H. Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for W.B. Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen”. That is, it doesn’t shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn’t usually send masses into the streets to protest against a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.

Language defines us as human beings. We speak, therefore we exist. We have the miraculous ability to gesture in words, to make statements and requests, to express our feelings, to construct arguments, to draw conclusions. Poetic language matters because it is precise and concrete, and draws us closer to the material world. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argues that the sheer physicality of words points us in directions that might be called spiritual. He puts forward three principles worth considering:

Words are signs of natural facts.
Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
Nature is the symbol of the spirit.

Those statements formed a platform of sorts for the transcendental movement, which studied nature closely for signs of spiritual life. The principles remain worthy of reflection. At some level, words suggest natural facts: rock, river, bird, cloud. The leap comes in the second statement, which posits a spiritual world. One can, I think, leap beyond conventional notions of spirituality here and acknowledge a deep interior world wherein each of us lives, no matter what our religious persuasion.

wood the great


To call James Wood the finest literary critic writing in English today, as is commonplace, is to treat him like some sort of fancy terrier at Westminster. It both exaggerates and diminishes his importance. It exaggerates in its specious assignment of rank, an insult to Frank Kermode, Daniel Mendelsohn, Helen Vendler, Louis Menand and other fine critics. It diminishes insofar as its trophy is a consolation prize for being not only a dog but an ornamental one.

It would be better to say simply that Wood is among the very few contemporary writers of great consequence. There is, nevertheless, something to the desire to claim Wood’s incomparability. Not many people I know, upon returning home to find a new issue of the New York Review of Books, speed it open to discover without delay how Kermode has taken to the new Ezra Pound biography. But there is vast anecdotal evidence of subscribers to the New Yorker and the London Review of Books reading Wood’s essays huddled in entryways, coats and keys and umbrellas still in their hands. He has earned a rare and awesome cultural authority.

more from the LA Times here.

Sunday Poem


“The wasichu (white man) came like locusts from the east with promises not to devour our future.  But not one promise was fulfilled.  The destiny of the wasichu was to count coup on, then to kill and scalp our destiny.” –Sees Nothing New, a shaman of the Plains Indians

Brave World
Tony Hoagland

But what about the courage

of the cancer cell

that breaks out from the crowd

it has belonged to all its life

like a housewife erupting

from her line at the grocery store

because she just can’t stand

the sameness anymore?

What about the virus that arrives

in town like a traveler

from somewhere faraway

with suitcases in hand,

who only wants a place

to stay, a chance to get ahead

in the land of opportunity,

but who smells bad,

talks funny, and reproduces fast?

What about the microbe that

hurls its tiny boat straight

into the rushing metabolic tide,

no less cunning and intrepid

than Odysseus; that gambles all

to found a city

on an unknown shore?

What about their bill of rights,

their access to a full-scale,

first-class destiny?

their chance to realize

maximum potential?-which, sure,

will come at the expense

of someone else, someone

who, from a certain point of view,

is a secondary character,

whose weeping is almost

too far off to hear,

a noise among the noises

coming from the shadows

of any brave new world.



A History and Philosophy of Jokes

William Grimes in the New York Times Book Review:

Screenhunter_04_jul_20_0933In “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This,” his wispy inquiry into the history and philosophy of jokes, Jim Holt offers up a choice one from ancient times. Talkative barber to customer: “How shall I cut your hair?” Customer: “In silence.”


This knee-slapper comes from “Philogelos,” or “Laughter-Lover,” a Greek joke book, probably compiled in the fourth or fifth century A.D. Its 264 entries amount to an index of classical humor, with can’t-miss material on such figures of fun as the miser, the drunk, the sex-starved woman and the man with bad breath.

Let us not forget the “skolastikos,” or egghead: “An egghead was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. ‘Don’t cry,’ he consoled them, ‘I have freed you all in my will.’”


Holt, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, combs through a number of obscure texts, ancient and modern, in his fast-moving, idiosyncratic survey of humor and its vagaries through the ages.

More here.

In Vitro We Trust

Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times Magazine:

20lede190Louise Brown turns 30 on Friday. These days, her name elicits little more than a mystified head shake. Who was she again? Let me refresh your memory: Little Louise was the world’s first “test-tube baby,” what we now refer to as an I.V.F. kid, or simply “the twins down the block.”

Brown’s life today is as unremarkable as the circumstances of her conception have become: she’s worked as an administrative assistant in Bristol, England, and is married with a naturally conceived toddler of her own. It’s hard to imagine that she begat one of the major revolutions of the 20th century: since her debut, more than three million babies have been born worldwide using I.V.F. or other reproductive technologies.

The dire, Henny Penny predictions that accompanied the Brown’s blessed event now seem quaint. An editorial in this newspaper observed that “probably not since the invention of nuclear weapons has a scientific advance been received with such mixed feelings.” Elsewhere, I.V.F. was decried as a “violation of God’s plan.” Conservative ethicists warned that the technology would ultimately create freakishly malformed babies or, equally monstrous, designer children genetically engineered to be stronger and smarter than the rest.

More here.

Fourteen Passive-Aggressive Appetizers

Yoni Brenner in The New Yorker:

Menu_appetizers1. Top thick slices of country bread with fresh goat cheese. Sprinkle with herbs and bake until crusty; serve to everyone but Jeff.

2. Vegetarian friends? Try veggie rumaki: wrap a strip of imitation bacon around a water chestnut, spear with a toothpick, and broil—but instead of imitation bacon use real bacon, and instead of a water chestnut use veal.

3. Steal Cheryl’s famous potato-salad recipe. When Cheryl asks, “Why did you steal my recipe?,” say, “I don’t know, Cheryl, why did you break my heart?” Then laugh so she knows you’re just kidding.

4. Blend fresh crabmeat with diced avocado, scallions, and a dollop of mayonnaise for a canapé topping so delicious that it will take your guests a full minute to realize that they’re eating it off dog biscuits. Once they catch on, act mortified and stammer that you must have “mixed up the boxes,” until everyone calms down. Then start crying because the biscuits remind you that today marks exactly eight weeks since you had to put down Buster, and you just miss him so much.

5. Tell Marissa that you appreciate her concern, but in the two years since Cheryl broke off the engagement you’ve grown up a lot, and you’re really in a much healthier place now. Then say, “Speaking of fiancés, how’s Peter’s alcoholism?” (Note: This is not technically an appetizer.)

More here.

Imagining justice in Palestine

Elias Khoury in the Boston Review:

Eliaskhoury_1sOn February 14, 1948, during the 1948 War—called the War of Independence by Israelis, and the Catastrophe (Nakba) by the Palestinians—the Palestinian village Sa’sa’ was invaded by the Palmach, the elite unit of the Haganah, precursor to the Israel Defense Forces. The villagers did not resist, but thirty-five houses were destroyed and 60-80 people were killed.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes the incident in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, drawing on a report by the commander of the battalion responsible for the attack. Pappé—along with Benny Morris, Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, and others—is a member of the group of “new historians” who have, since the ’80s, devoted their energies to reexamining their country’s founding myths and thus enlarged the space for critical discussion within Israel about the Palestinian tragedy. According to the report, a village guard in Sa’sa’ found himself caught in a verbal crossfire. Instead of asking, “Who is there?” (min hada) when the soldiers approached, he asked, “What is this?” (iesh hada). An Israeli soldier who happened to know Arabic replied, inverting the two words, “Hada iesh.” His use of “iesh” was not the Arabic, however, but the Hebrew in which it means “fire.” Thus mixing the two languages, he replied “this is fire,” before killing the astonished Palestinian.

The deadly reply was a mirror of the question, and the ways in which the response was understood and misunderstood—a mixture of knowledge and ignorance, real bloodshed and imaginary projections—reflect the intricate interdependence of identity that comes into play in both Palestinian and Israeli literatures.

More here.

Riffing on Strings

Amanda Gefter reviews the book, edited by Sean Miller and Shveta Verma, in New Scientist:

RiffingfrontcoverWhat first drew me to physics were the words. Cosmos. Entanglement. Spiralling galaxies and stars gone supernova, dark matter and charmed quarks. Physics brims with linguistic magic. And once you peer beneath the words, you find ideas can possess a poetry more poignant than any turn of phrase. String theory may turn out to be wrong. It might not be testable and it might not describe the real world. But it does describe a world that’s undeniably poetic.

Still, I’ll admit, when I picked up Riffing on Strings I was sceptical. Sure, the poetic building blocks are there, but creative writing and string theory? It’s got the potential to go horribly awry. So I was pleased to find such an eclectic, thought-provoking and entertaining collection of writing – perfect for toting along on travels in other dimensions. The book opens with Sean Miller’s introduction to string theory and its place in the arts, followed by a series of essays by acclaimed physicists. Michio Kaku’s piece on duality is especially informative. Then come short stories, poems and plays that show the myriad ways in which physics seeps into public consciousness, is absorbed by the artist and re-emitted as something entirely new. These are pieces inspired by string theory, not about it. It’s not a matter of whether the writers get the science right, it’s how they play with it.

Read more »

Mandela at 90

Lynne Duke in Root:

Mandelahomepageimagecomponent Who would ever have imagined the scene when South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Mandela strode onto the field at Ellis Park Stadium wearing the jersey of the team captain. In a spectacularly powerful moment of symbolism, the throng of Afrikaners chanted, “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!”—though Afrikaners at that time weren’t fully embracing black rule and often wouldn’t even sing the new national anthem.

Yes, Mandela would forgive. But he would not forget. His political agenda was crafted as corrective for all the damage the Afrikaners had done under apartheid. He had to transform an economy that had once served only whites; uplift the black poor; rewrite the legal canon; bring some human rights to a people who had for so long been denied. And the truth commission, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, would tend to the healing, the forgiveness. He was often called the “father of the nation,” though he rejected the notion that he was a kind of messiah. But in the townships and shanties, where life was bitter but dreams were sustenance, people revered him and hung on his every word. So many times, ordinary people would tell me, sometimes using Mandela’s affectionate clan name: Madiba says we must forgive, so I must try.

More here.

Rock the Casbah

From The New York Times:

Hampton190 This professor of Middle Eastern history walks into a bar in Fez, Morocco — right from the get-go, Mark LeVine’s “Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam” is not your typical dry academic slog. (Did I mention he’s also a longhaired Jewish rock guitarist whose bio lists gigs with Mick Jagger and Dr. John?) So when somebody in that hotel bar starts talking up the local punk and metal scenes, an incredulous LeVine is hooked. “There are Muslim punks? In Morocco?” Quicker than you can whistle “Rock the Casbah,” he’s on the trail of Western-influenced underground music movements that have blossomed under authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.

Going to meet the seven-string guitarist Marz of Hate Suffocation, a Cairo band, LeVine confesses sheepishly, “I still couldn’t tell the difference between death, doom, black, melodic, symphonic, grind-core, hard-core, thrash and half a dozen other styles.” (Marz explains that his group plays a cross between death and black metal: “But it’s not blackened death metal!”) Despite a certain amount of scholarly dogma that goes with the territory — here any combination of “neoliberal” and “globalization” is as ominous an epithet as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” — “Heavy Metal Islam” offers the hit-and-run (as well as hit-and-miss) pleasures of a lively road trip. Practicing a first-person brand of shuttle diplomacy as he moves between countries and cultures, musicians and Islamic activists, LeVine manages to unpack enough cross-cultural incongruities to mount his own mosh pit follow-up to “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”

More here.

Saturday Poem

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all /
but love’s the only engine of survival –Leonard Cohen

A Chinese Parable
Gwee Li Sui

Said the Premier: For a lifetime I have sought
only the common good and with bare hands wrought
a kingdom, whose vast wealth now stands testified
by pagodas, innumerable, sundried
as the blades of grass – a permanent fortune
locked from the barbarians of the warring dune
by the joining of walls. So long as we strive,
we shall enjoy our fruits; and he will survive
who works on diligently – for Work is Life.
God gave them the hands, I have given them tools;
and none starves in this kingdom except the fools.
Our magistrates are just and good law is praised.
Our governors are wise and the stores are raised.
Here are the foundations for millennial peace!
Is there more a people will desire than these?

Said the Mandarin: There is nothing lacking
in the provision of the body, seeing
our middle kingdom bodily strong, sinewy–
but there is more to Kingdom and Man than Body.
When a people clutch all gods as money gods,
you must be vigilant. Pieties are not rods
to fish material things; they form a World-Soul
to which one gives assent and he is whole
who lives in fellowship: this, too, is your goal.
Great cultures are not hewn from a heritage
for sons, but for great-great-grandsons of due age.
Some investments then must always seem pointless,
a fling into the well, but there’s some goodness
to be less than pragmatic. No work is ample
and no wall strong if you should slight the temple.

Thanks to Elatia