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The Daily Briefing 17/10/05
1 Journey through Iran
Contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash recently spent two weeks travelling through Iran, and found a complex, multi-dimensional society with a rich mix of ancient and modern, a society that has mastered the art of double talk to avoid the pitfalls of straight talk. It is, he says, a society controlled not by Islam, but by "Khomeinism", and a regime that will ultimately fail if the West doesn't interfere. "If, however, Europe and the United States can avoid that trap; if whatever we do to slow down the nucleariza-tion of Iran does not end up merely slowing down the democratization of Iran; and if, at the same time, we can find policies that help the gradual social emancipation and eventual self-liberation of Young Persia, then the long-term prospects are good. The Islamic revolution, like the French and Russian revolutions before it, has been busy devouring its own children. One day, its grandchildren will devour the revolution."
As you'd expect, Ash touches on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, and the NYTimes is reporting that US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has failed to get backing from the Russians to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.
TIMOTHY GARTON ASH/NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
2The end of the patriarchy
Conservative NYTimes columnist David Brooks makes a big call in the column linked to below: the end is nigh for the patriarchy, brought down by the information age in which brains beats brawn. (TimesSelect subscribers will find it here). As a result, Brooks says, it's time for an honest discussion about the innate differences between the sexes with a view to redressing the difficulties faced by both at school.
According to this report in the NYTimes, innate biological differences means women are four times more likely to cry than men, but that it remains a taboo for women in the workforce, one that ends a career if breached. "More than two decades later, women have stopped trying to behave like men, trading in drab briefcases for handbags and embracing men's wear only if it is tailored to their curves. Yet there is one taboo from the earlier, prefeminist workplace that endures: women are not allowed to cry at the office. It is a potentially career-marring mistake that continues to be seen as a sign of weakness or irrationality, no less by women themselves than by men."
In The Spectator, Molly Watson responds to comments by Susan Bewley, a consultant obstetrician who reportedly said that women in their 30s who delay pregnancy because they "want to have it all" run the risk of not being able to have children. Watson says the problem is not "selfish" women, but men who refuse to grow up and accept family life. "Dr Bewley accuses women of ‘playing Russian roulette’ with nature, but the point is we’re only interested in having babies if they are fathered by men we love and who are going to stick around and enjoy bringing the little brutes up. By the time they hit their mid-thirties even the most dedicated career women are ready to do some nesting — even if that means grudgingly accepting that our careers are more likely to suffer than our mate’s and that we’ll probably end up changing most of the nappies. The trouble is that very few of our male contemporaries are what you might call twig in beak."
3 Flat tax going off the boil
TDB has linked to a number of articles in the past to follow the flat tax debate in the UK and Europe where it was gaining momentum following its introduction in several eastern European countries. And it is likely that the reason Peter Costello had Treasury cost the introduction of a flat tax here (as reported by The Australian on Friday) was to be prepared if the debate spilled over here. Anthony Browne, European correspondent for The Times, reports that the recent election results in Germany and Poland have all but killed off the debate, something he obviously regrets. "The danger for the flat tax is not losing the intellectual argument but losing the politics. Being right isn’t enough; you have to convince the voters you are. It has been the Left’s great short-term strength and long-term weakness that although it loses the arguments, it wins the politics, putting the Right on the defensive before adopting its policies."
Further to the German elections, Timothy Garton Ash (who makes an appearance elsewhere in this email), an advocate for a united and expanded Europe, has also been commenting on the outcome for The Guardian. "In German, there's a nice phrase for giving something a mixed greeting: "with one laughing and one weeping eye". I greet the prospect of chancellor Angie with a laughing eye. But as for the prospect of her walking stalemate of a government: it makes me weep."
ANTHONY BROWNE/THE SPECTATOR
4 Spreading fear of avian flu and terrorism
Suitably scared out of your wits about the possibility of an avian flu pandemic? If not, Charles Krauthammer may tip you over. On the other hand you might remember that Krauthammer was one of the leading neo-conservative scare-mongers who talked up the fear of Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. (Would you buy a used fear from this man?) In his most recent column for the Post, he raised the possibility that the recreation of the 1918 "Spanish" flu virus, and the publication of its DNA, makes it possible for terrorists to start a flu epidemic. (Fair dinkum, this bloke is doing a good job of terrorising himself and anyone who will listen to him without any help from al Qaeda.) "Anybody, bad guys included, can now create it. Biological knowledge is far easier to acquire for Osama bin Laden and friends than nuclear knowledge. And if you can't make this stuff yourself, you can simply order up DNA sequences from commercial laboratories around the world that will make it and ship it to you on demand."
Author Wendy Orent, link below, is much more relaxed about the whole business. She thinks that a lot of nonsense is being spoken about both the possibility of the human to human spread of avian flu, and of ways of dealing with it. "Despite all the hysteria, there isn't a shred of evidence that a pandemic is actually on the way. Developing new flu vaccines is a useful thing to do. Pandemic or not, flu kills thousands every year. But devising quarantine plans is useless."
WENDY ORENT/THE WASHINGTON POST
5Bullying over the International Criminal Court
The International Criminal Court began work in 2002, despite a concerted campaign by the Bush administration to stop it being set up. Since then, it has tried to undermine the work of the court and has used most methods of diplomatic arm-twisting available to it to get countries that have ratified the court to grant immunity from it to US citizens. The court has just issued its first arrest warrant, "seeking the arrest of the leader and four commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army, a two-decade-old rebel movement in Uganda" (the link to this report appears in the article linked to below).
NYTimes columnist Nicholas Kristof, currently in Niger, reports on the impact those bullying tactics are having. Kristof columns are now pay-to-view and TimesSelect subscribers will find it here; otherwise follow the link below for substantial excerpts from it plus another link. "The terms of the court make it very unlikely that it is ever going to hound American officials or military officers. And while we have little to fear from the court, we have plenty to worry about if we continue to antagonize the rest of the world. Frankly, the Bush administration's campaign to bully poor countries over the court is cultivating more ill will toward the U.S. than extremist madrassas ever could have."
6 The great potty training debate
OK, so there's a 17-month-old proudly mastering the art of walking as TDB is being put together, but this is not totally a personal indulgence. The report linked to below spent days as the number one story on the NYTimes "most emailed" list, and inspired an opinion piece by Meredith Small, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University. The report below reports on the 'diaper free baby' movement, which believes that infants six months old nd younger can be potty trained. "About 2,000 people across the country have joined Internet groups and e-mail lists to learn more about the techniques of encouraging a baby - a child too young to walk or talk - to go in a toilet, a sink or a pot. Through a nonprofit group, Diaper Free Baby (www.diaperfreebaby.org), 77 local groups have formed in 35 states to encourage the practice. One author's how-to books on the subject have sold about 50,000 copies."
Small supports the idea, though acknowledging that it had to overcome culturally entrenched child-rearing traditions. And Freud. "Thanks to Freud, we also see the bathroom as a snake pit of psychological danger, and believe that the only way to prevent scarring a child for life is to let him or her come to the toilet in his or her own time, assuming there will be a diaper pinned on for as long as it takes. (I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the 75 countries that practice diaper-free training do not have a disproportionately high number of obsessive-compulsive adults. Of course, adults who were raised diaper-free may have other issues to deal with, like a strange sensation whenever anyone makes a hissing sound or the knowledge that at 7 months, a photo of you sitting on the toilet appeared on the front page of this newspaper.)"
Emily Brazelon in Slate is a long way short of being convinced, and thinks the diaper is not about to disappear any time soon. "The mantra of the diaper-free gurus is "elimination communication," or EC, which means picking up on the little signals your baby makes before, well, eliminating. "The diaper-free devotees love to point out that in much of the world, babies don't need drills—toilet training comes to them naturally. "Most babies and toddlers around the world, and throughout human history, have never worn diapers," Small writes. In China, India, and Kenya, she continues, "children wear split pants or run around naked from the waist down. When it's clear they have to go, they can squat or be held over the right hole in a matter of seconds." Right, because presumably those babies live in rural villages or in cities where peeing down a hole or in the gutter isn't viewed as unsanitary or unseemly. That's not the sort of diaper-free culture likely to catch on in the United States in 2005."
7 Fatwa on the beautiful game
Not sure if this is for real, but one thing is for certain, this version of soccer is not going to catch on outside jihadi circles. Geoff Porter, we are told, directs Middle East and North Africa analysis at a political risk consulting firm, and Porter says he translated this fatwa on soccer which was published in Arabic in the Saudi newspaper, Al Watan which in turn says it translated them from a web site. Sounds a bit like I danced with a girl, who danced with a boy ... and so on, but in fact this is the second reference TDB has seen to it, the first being in this article by Michael Ledeen for the neo-conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Ledeen urges the US to call "on the people of the Middle East to rise up against their cheerless oppressors. All the while holding them up to ridicule. All in the name of fun."
8 Religion and movies that think
Sometime back, TDB linked to articles reporting that Hollywood was attempting to cash in on the recent rise in religiosity in the US. Paul Harris in The Observer (link below) reports that Disney is running "one of the biggest marketing campaigns in recent cinematic history" to promote its version of CS Lewis's Narnia series. He also reports criticism of Lewis and his books by Phillip Pullman ("His Dark Materials"). "Pullman believes that Lewis's books portray a version of Christianity that relies on martial combat, outdated fears of sexuality and women, and also portrays a religion that looks a lot like Islam in unashamedly racist terms. 'It's not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue. The highest virtue, we have on the authority of the New Testament itself, is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books,' he said."
And Caryn James in the NYTimes looks at another strand currently in vogue, "movies that think". But, James says, they face a problem. "Because these movies are Hollywood products, though, they need to navigate between inoffensively pleasing a mainstream audience and actually saying something. What results is a genre of timid films with portentous-sounding themes, works that offer prepackaged schoolroom lessons or canned debates. Hollywood may be drawn to Big Ideas, but it is always more comfortable with sound-bite-size thoughts."
9 Bush's fundamental supporter
Through the many difficulties George Bush has faced, and amid the clamour of the critics ( a growing number of whom were once conservative supporters), the POTUS has been able to count on the staunch support of one man - Hugh Hewitt, columnist and talkback host. He remains one of the few influential voices on the right backing the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. And what is his reward for such loyalty? The kind of undergraduate, scatological send-up that appears at the website linked to below.
But it did stir the brain cells over here at TDB - who would be Hewitt's Australian equivalent? Over to you, let's hear your suggestions. If enough come through, perhaps an award (with a suitable title - suggestions?) could be established to honour the commentator who stuck true in the face of all evidence and reason. Wouldn't have to be limited to coverage of George Bush - it could be on most any subject, and it could any writer from any political perspective. The best suggestions will be published, but please, let's keep this semi-serious at least. Suggestions that are merely offensive and abusive will be deleted and certainly will not be published. And where possible, links to specific columns, and of course to those classic sycophantic quotes, should be included. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
10 BOOKS: Obits, war, spin, colours and soul.
A selection by donn wood.
An obituary piece in the TimesOnline for Professor Wayne Booth, who died last week. Booth was an American academic, literary critic, and the author of award-winning books such as "The Rhetoric of Fiction", and "A Rhetoric of Irony", which is still regarded, some 31 years after its initial publication, as " ... the most indispensable study of the term to date". (It should be required reading for all journalists and sub-editors, as it is painfully clear that a substantial number of them don't even know what the word means, let alone its correct usage. Whoops, the hobby-horse got loose again.) Not surprisingly, there are many other American obits, including this one by Margalit Fox in the NYTimes.
It's not often I link you to an academic review, because the subject matter is often too specialized to be of wide interest, or the review is either deadly dull, an exercise in intellectual point-scoring, and/or unintelligible to mere mortals. So I am delighted to link you to this review, by David Friedman in The Independent Review, of "The Size of Nations" by Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore. You may never read the book itself, but you should read this article, at least. It is a model of review writing, by someone who clearly has expertise in the subject and a deft literary touch, and it is a pleasure to read. I'm sure yesterday I had no interest whatever in why nations were and are the size they are, or whether they should be any particular size at all, but this review got me thinking that I might just chase the book up and find out. Well done, that man. (link below)
On the other hand, this piece by Richard Hamblyn in The Sunday Times illustrates why (I fondly hope) you bother to read this eclectic (not to say eccentric) selection of writings about books - to save yourself from having to wade through Claytons reviews like this to get to the good stuff. If you didn't read last week's linked review by Bryan Burrough in NYTimes Books of Simon Winchester's "A Crack in the Edge of the World: A Natural History of Disaster", do it now before you read the Sunday Times article. Burrough tells you what he dislikes about the book (pretty much everything), but lets you know that if you're fond of Winchester's style (and lots of people are), you may feel differently about it. Hamblyn, on the other hand, tells you .... um, nothing. Indeed, about the only reference he actually makes to the book itself is that Winchester writes a " ... superb description of the treacherous geology of the San Andreas fault zone - the "crack in the edge of the world" ...". Gee, it's got one catchy phrase in it, it must be a good book, or maybe it's a bad book, or ... well, it's a book, anyway. I think Richard phoned this one in.
Hard on the heels of last week's linked review of "Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War" by Theodore Nadelson, comes Anatol Lieven's review in LRB of "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War" by Andrew Bacevich. Again, a well-researched, well-reasoned book by a well-qualified writer (that's Colonel Bacevich to you, soldier) on a subject that should be of grave concern to us all. (And depresses the hell out of me.)
In Bookslut, Barbara J. King's review of "Pearl" by Mary Gordon ends with ... "The beauty of Mary Gordon's love and language suffuses "Pearl". It's a book to be read slowly and savored."
The publication of "The Spin-Doctor's Diary: inside No 10 with New Labour" by Lance Price has evoked madly varied responses, the range perhaps typified by Stephen Wall's review in New Statesman, which describes it as " ... sharp, often very funny, and always readable", and this one from Rod Liddle in Sunday Times Books. "Trust me, you will not find a book that is more sapping and pointless on so many different levels. I had to get drunk to finish it, but at least I've been paid for the job." Were they reading the same book? As a bonus, (apart from the wonderfully poisonous sentence ... "One of the problems, of course, is that Price was not the pox doctor, he was merely the pox doctor's clerk."), Liddle's article also reviews "Tony and Cherie" by Paul Scott, which he says is " ... a thoroughly professional, well-written and copiously researched analysis of Tony and Cherie Blair's strange and disquieting relationship ... " which " ... should make us all laugh for many years to come." Methinks a bit of partisan politics informs this discussion. But wait! There's more! Just to add a bit of balance (apologies to Richard Alston), here's a link to the transcript of Mark Colvin's interview with Lance Price on ABC Radio's PM program from last Friday.
Oh, and while I'm plugging the ABC, I noticed that on next Thursday's Late Night Live on Radio National, Philip Adams will be talking with the wonderful Karen Armstrong, the author of (among many other eye-opening, iconoclastic books) "A History of God", which in my humble opinion should be required reading for all human beings. (I might be prejudiced.)
Mary Ward Menke, writing in January Magazine, reviews "Wave Watcher", a children's book by Craig Alan Johnson and says ... "It is truly a treat for the literary soul."
Also in January Magazine, another obit; this time for Ed McBain (aka Evan hunter, aka Salvatore Lombino) whose last novel we linked to (the review of) last month. In a memorial service on Saturday 15th, the city he wrote about so often honoured him on what would have been his 79th birthday. If you've never got into police procedurals in general, or Mc Bain in particular, this article by Anthony Rainone might convince you to try one on for size.
I thought it rather ironic (see above) that the review of "The Great War for Civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East", Robert Fisk's enormous 16-years-in-the-making book comes under the heading of HOME > ENJOYMENT > BOOKS > REVIEWS. Enjoyment? I can't imagine anyone enjoying reading this book. Enraged, depressed, saddened by it, sure; but no enjoyment. This review in The Independent by Phillip Knightley, makes it clear why this book is a must-read for anyone interested in Middle Eastern affairs. (i.e. the world.)
Now this is something else. No, really. Graphic novels, phhh! Been there, read that. But have you read any metafiction lately? If you have, you're one up on me. I didn't know there was such a category until I read Tom Phillips' review of 'Woman's World' by Graham Rawle in The Guardian. "For five years Rawle, Stakhanovite of the scissors and paste, has laboured 17 hours a day, seven days a week, assembling 40,000 fragments of text from women's magazines to produce a tale that moves with the pace of a thriller, with as many cliffhanging chapter endings and swerves of story. But there's the added excitement of a typographical rollercoaster: each page features nearly 100 variations as we lurch from sedate Times Roman to the fullblown exclamations of advertisers' fancy capitals." Now 'fess up, the next thing you expected to read was that this process-driven style of composition was going to produce a ridiculous mish-mash of incoherence. Me too. But no, ... "I once saw the virtuosic John Tilbury play, recognisably, the opening movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with his back to the keyboard. It was a feat I never thought to see equalled, but this, as Rawle himself might say, eats everything." Who'd a' thunk it?
Okay, in a really crowded week when I passed over many other worthy offerings, I had to mention the review by Joel Selvin in The SFChronicle of 'Dream Boogie; The Triumph of Sam Cooke' by Peter Guralnick. The story of (arguably) the greatest singer of his generation (Jerry Wexler thinks so, and Guralnick has already written the definitive 2 volume bio of Elvis, so he should know) is told in "... a richly detailed portrait of Cooke as a driven, proud and independent spirit who flourished in a white man's world on his own terms but was ultimately undone by his own dark drives." If you don't already have at least one, go out and buy a Sam Cooke cd (they're in the $5 bin), and find out what we're talking about. The man had soul.
In TLS, John Tyler Bonner reviews "Seven Deadly Colours :The genius of nature's palette and how it eluded Darwin" by Andrew Parker. This is one of those reviews that starts off on the book, and ends up on the reviewer's ideas. (Why didn't he write his own book then?) But there's enough here to make 'Seven Deadly Colours' sound like one well worth following up.
And on a lighter (as in pie-in-the-sky) note, Joost Smiers and Marieke van Schiijndel in the International Herald-Tribune argue that the world would be a better place for artists if the laws of copyright were no more. Nice idea, right up there with Unconditional Love and Peace on Earth. Hey, I'm not knocking; I agree. I'm just not sure Sony is going to roll over any time soon.
Lastly, (no link) Monday Books seems to have grown beyond (my) Sundays' capacity to produce it. Starting next week, Monday Books will morph into (wait for it) .... Tuesday Books. Until then.
DAVID FRIEDMAN/THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW