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The Daily Briefing 8/11/05
1 The CIA, torture and a death at Abu Ghraib
From Seymour Hersh's revelations about the abuse at Abu Ghraib to Jane Mayer's expose on extraordinary rendition, The New Yorker has led the pack in investigating officially sanctioned torture and abuse in the "war on terror". In the latest edition of the magazine, Mayer is back with an exceptional piece of journalism. She painstakingly details the treatment meted out to Manadel al-Jamadi, who died at Abu Ghraib during a CIA "interrogation". Mayer links his death, and the failure to prosecute his interrogator Mark Swanner to secret White House and Justice Department memos sanctioning torture, and the current political battle in Washington to outlaw it. "The Bush Administration has resisted disclosing the contents of two Justice Department memos that established a detailed interrogation policy for the Pentagon and the C.I.A. A March, 2003, classified memo was "breathtaking," the same source said. The document dismissed virtually all national and international laws regulating the treatment of prisoners, including war-crimes and assault statutes, and it was radical in its view that in wartime the President can fight enemies by whatever means he sees fit."
The Washington Post reports that Dick Cheney is still the Vice-President for Torture to use the paper's earlier expression; and Newsweek reports that Cheney is increasingly isolated.
JANE MAYER/THE NEW YORKER
2 Blair failed to restrain Bush
Was John Howard seduced by George Bush in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, and did he wear comfortable trousers for those Crawford ranch photo opportunities? The Guardian has begun serialising "DC Confidential" by Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's ambassador to Washington at the time. In its news story from the book for yesterday's paper (link below), it reports that "Tony Blair repeatedly passed up opportunities to put a brake on the rush to war in Iraq, a failure that may have contributed to the country's present anarchy". What was the attitude of "the Man of Steel"? Perhaps - may we live that long - one day Howard's role and conduct in the lead up to war will be given the scrutiny it deserves, the scrutiny due to a member of the "Coalition of the Willing", the sort of scrutiny that Blair and Bush have been subjected to. Perhaps, although we might need to borrow a couple of journalists from The New Yorker or The Washington Post.
The link below will take you to a number of extracts from Meyers' book, and it's not all heavy going, geo-political analysis. For example, Meyer shares that in his experience, "prime ministers have an unhappy relationship with clothes", in 'the case of the wrong trousers'. "Blair put on a pair of ball-crushingly tight dark-blue corduroys. I was later told that his wardrobe for the weekend had been the result of intensive debate within No 10." Another story tells how Blair, in Meyer's view, was seduced by the glamour of American power. (At TDB, John Howard is seen as more down to earth than that, comfortable in pair of wash 'n wears, safe from imperial blandishments.)
The Sunday Times profiled Meyer in advance of the book's release and picked up on his comments that the invasion of Iraq had increased the risk of home-grown terrorism. "Don't tell me that being in Iraq has nothing to do with it," he declared. "Of course it has."
Also in The Times, Oliver Kamm makes the left-wing case for the invasion. Kamm, who has a book on the subject out on Friday, "Anti-Totalitarianism: the Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy". He appears to disagree with Meyer's view that Blair was dragged along with Bush - he sees it the other way around. "So far from following President Bush's bidding, Blair persuaded Bush to abandon an instinctive aversion to foreign engagements and promote global democracy as our defence against theocratic totalitarianism. For all the failures of postwar planning in Iraq, that strategy is right."
3 Fear and what the Sheikh said
TDB has not made a study of the utterances of Sheikh Mohammed Omran, and is inclined not to agree with them, as currently understood. But the simplistic mob mentality in full flight is never an edifying spectacle. Which is why Dr Amjid Muhammad, a member of the advisory committee of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah Association of Australia, deserves a hearing as he attempts the difficult job of putting his comments into context and pointing out that stirring up fear is an age old ploy for political rulers bent on control (as they all are to a greater or lesser degree). "Clearly, if we were disciplined enough to study quotes in their proper setting, we would realise that Omran's opinions are being distorted by certain sections of the media and the Government as part of a strategy to inculcate fear into the community. In reality, ASWJ and Omran are simply airing unfamiliar views that are contrary to the Government's position. The fact that these views are different should not be seen as a threat but as an integral part of civilised discussion and debate."
AMJID MUHAMMAD/THE AGE
4 Gough, Malcolm and the dismissal
The great political battles of 1975 are being fought all over again on the opinion pages this morning. Phillip Adams (link below) focuses his attention of the shared humanity and, in these strange times, political views of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser who are now divided over just one thing - the dismissal. "Two warhorses, 30 years on, united on so many policies and as one on Howard. Yet as far as November 11, 1975, is concerned, time stands still."
In The SMH, Gerard Henderson predictably turns his column into another round of the political-culture wars, belts up on a few journalists, before dismissing the dismissal as much ado about nothing. (Oh, really Gerard. TDB could fill a largish hall with constitutional lawyers, political academics, commentators and practitioners who would disagree with that sentiment. How does this bloke get away with convincing people that he is the smartest chap in the room? Was it empty when he walked in?) "The constitutional upheaval of three decades was caused by Fraser who wanted to block supply and Whitlam who was determined to govern without supply. Kerr had the unenviable task of solving the matter. He did so by sacking Whitlam and replacing him with Fraser, who was required to call an immediate election. That's all what is sometimes called the "coup" of 1975 amounted to."
And David Smith, official secretary to Sir John Kerr at the time, says the denial of supply to the Whitlam Government was not unconstitutional, nor a breach of convention, and in fact was something Labor had sought to do many times. "However, in November 1975 Whitlam decided to ignore the Constitution, ignore the convention and ignore the will of parliament. As Whitlam refused to advise the governor-general, John Kerr, to dissolve parliament and to order an election, the governor-general was obliged to appoint a caretaker prime minister who would. The governor-general's intervention ensured that the ultimate authority of parliament over the executive was maintained."
PHILLIP ADAMS/THE AUSTRALIAN
5 The pope and Darwin
Early reports, including an op-ed in the NYTimes that TDB linked to (in Archives) indicated that the new Pope may have been likely to take a more fundamentalist view of evolution and its place in relationship to church theology. Former Times' editor William Rees-Mogg, who has some experience in these matters as a member of the Vatican's International Committee of the Pontifical Council for Culture, thinks this will not be the case. "Cardinal Poupard's statement clarified the acceptance of Darwinism and rightly asserted that religious belief is compatible with the theory of evolution. He also gave a further indication that the mindset of Benedict XVI may be a good deal more modern than had been expected. One should have foreseen that with a German pope. The German Church has a strong tradition of theological inquiry in which Benedict XVI has been educated."
WILLIAM REES-MOGG/THE TIMES
6 Abraham, Condi and Hillary get Lost in Hell with Lady Franklin, while Turow goes to War.
Tuesday Books: a selection by donn wood.
'The Meaning of Tingo' and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World' by Adam Jacot de Boinod
Helena Drysdale reviews 'The meaning of Tingo' in The New Statesman. (I especially liked 'plimpplamppletteren', which is the Dutch word for skipping stones. "Let's go down to the beach and plimpplamppletteren, baby." Who could resist a line like that?) The perfect book to read and chuckle over while they're lying to you about how important your call is to them.
'Haunted' by Chuck Palahniuk
In Three Monkeys Online, Michael O'Connor reviews the latest from the author of eight previous books including 'Choke', 'Lullaby', and 'Invisible Monsters', as well as the cult novel and film 'Fight Club' (although he didn't write the film script). 'Haunted' is a novel in linked stories, told in a unique narrative style and full of Palahniuk's trademark blood and guts (his 'horror writer' tag has little to do with the supernatural). "... 'Haunted' is a fine literary work. Flawed perhaps, but daringly imaginative, experimental, and a gripping read", O'Connor says, "'Haunted' can't simply be read, it must be re-read."
'The Dictionary of Bullsh*t' by Nick Webb
In September I linked to a review of three books about bullsh*t. Not a review this time, but an extract, in The Independent, from the book. This one's good for a laugh too, albeit a rueful one.
'Snake Agent' by Liz Williams
In this novel set in the near future, Snake Agent (he polices the supernatural) Chen lives in Singapore 3, and is married to a demon (talk about your classic conflict of interest) from Hell, which is a mirror image of Singapore 3. He meets and works with Seneschal Zhu Irzh, who is a cop from Hell (literally) on the Vice squad (also literal). "Chen is a reluctant hero and a quintessential cop. He is an average Joe, a public servant doing his duty and trying to balance the demands of Heaven, Hell, the city, the politics that invade all police activities, and his wife. Because of this everyman aura, his forays into mystical dealings with deities, Hell, and with the superstitious untrusting cops in his precinct have a subtle and wry humorous irony." In Bookslut, Beth Dugan's review ends with ... "I am looking forward to the next Zhu Irzh and Inspector Chen novel."
'The book or the world?' by Sarah Kanowski
In Eureka Street, the winning entry in the inaugural Margaret Dooley Young Writers' Award was this essay on biography by Sarah Kanowski.
'Ordinary Heroes' by Scott Turow (link below)
"Scott Turow virtually invented the contemporary legal thriller in 1987 with "Presumed Innocent," and could probably, and profitably, have kept writing the same book to everyone's satisfaction but his own. Instead, he has pushed at the genre's boundaries... " and "...in "Ordinary Heroes," his seventh novel, he's made a leap and left the genre altogether." Joseph Kanon begins his review in the New York Times. The novel's protagonist "...finds himself swept up in actual combat, almost accidentally put in command of a rifle company outside Bastogne during the hell of the Battle of the Bulge. This is the centerpiece of the book, and it is vivid and immediate - the cold, the fear, the relentless casual horror. It is one of the best pieces of writing Turow has done, and it gives the book the anchor it needs to support the plot twists and moral dilemmas that follow."
'Lady Franklin's Revenge' by Ken McGoogan
This historical biography of the wife of Sir John Franklin, an Arctic explorer (and the subject of the author's previous book) who was wrongly (mainly at the hand of Lady Franklin) credited with the discovery of the Northwest Passage, while the real hero was vilified (ditto). In January Magazine, India Wilson reviews the book. "Jane Franklin clearly emerged from 'Fatal Passage' as the villain. In that book, McGoogan left us with a portrait of a vindictive woman, shamed at the possibility that society will get wind of her husband's less than heroic end. In 'Lady Franklin's Revenge', none of that has changed. Not really. But with that episode seen as only one chapter -- or, actually several -- in an extraordinary life, the inexcusable behavior is, while still inexcusable, at least understandable. More: Franklin herself emerges as extraordinary, someone due much more than the sound bites history has accorded her in the past." The review concludes ... "Though some of her actions were reprehensible, Lady Jane Franklin emerges as a fascinating character, one well worth the study McGoogan has given her here. Historically significant moments aside -- and there are more than a few of them in 'Lady Franklin's Revenge' -- her life was full and interesting if, no doubt, not always happy."
'Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Sh*t?' by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur
A couple of weeks ago it was 'Talk To The Hand' by Lynne Truss; now 'Is It Just Me ...' is reviewed by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent. But unlike some of the other "...rather lacklustre flock of wannabes" shuffling their literary Zimmer frames in the footsteps of Grumpy Old Men, Boyd thinks that this book will appeal to fogies of all ages, because it's not just a list of complaints. "Above all, Law and McArthur have that rarest of things in the stocking-filler market: a mission. They pin the rap for the physical and spiritual dreck around us on overmighty money and the media that worship it. To use the sort of language this pair understand, you may cheer up the grumpy older person in your life no end with this not-so-little Book of Crap Capitalism."
'The Man in My Basement' by Walter Mosley
"Mosley has always, obviously, been finely attuned to matters of race; but he has also been interested in evil, or warped morality. Here the two concerns come together in a most bizarre and fascinating novel." Nicholas Lezard, writing in The Guardian, finds the new book by the African American writer better known for his Easy Rawlins series of crime fiction to be "...creepily gripping, confidently resonant."
'Team of Rivals: The political Genius of Abraham Lincoln' by Doris Kearns Goodwin
"'Team of Rivals' tells the story of Lincoln's prudent political management as a highly personal tale, not a political or bureaucratic one." Allen C. Guelzo in The Washington Post writes that "...this immense, finely boned book is no dull administrative or bureaucratic history; rather, it is a story of personalities -- a messianic drama, if you will -- in which Lincoln must increase and the others must decrease."
'Memories of My Melancholy Whores' by Gabriel García Márquez
"Memories of My Melancholy Whores" feels less about love than about age and illness." John Updike, writing in The New Yorker about the latest novel by the author of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'. In this story about a ninety-year-old man and an under aged prostitute (who is asleep throughout the book!) the "... septuagenarian Gabriel García Márquez, while he is still alive, has composed, with his usual sensual gravity and Olympian humor, a love letter to the dying light." Perhaps feminists might have a slightly less sanguine take on this book, or at least its subject matter.
'A Field Guide to Getting Lost' by Rebecca Solnit
And I thought you got lost by accident. Mais non, one needs a field guide. Is this quintessential California, or what? But seriously, ... "Solnit's work at its best is as fresh as an orange, and over the past dozen years this prolific Californian has produced a series of consistently provocative books." In The Nation, Michael Gorra reviews 'A Field Guide to Getting Lost'. "Solnit's prose here glistens like a snake with a new skin. In her earlier work you hardly ever noticed a sentence. Now her language demands a different level of attention, as though it were trying to achieve a new adequacy to the physical world it describes. Her style is not as mannered or as memorable as that of Joan Didion, and because of that her version of California may never gain the traction it deserves. Yet it is every bit as suggestive."
'Condi vs Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race' by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann
In the Sunday Times, Sarah Baxter reviews this book by Morris, former Clinton political consultant and latterly Hillary-basher, and McGann, CEO of Vote.com and Legalvote.com, who according to HarperCollins' flack page "...works with Dick on campaigns around the world, specializing in using the Internet to win elections."
"The prospect of two women fighting for the chance to make history is genuinely exciting, but Morris is so busy working out the angles he sometimes misses the main point. For all his admiration of Rice's talents and her remarkable rise from segregated Birmingham, Alabama to secretary of state, she comes across as little more than the "un-Hillary", a characterless meritocrat who is useful only in so far as she can be contrasted point by point with the former first lady and make off with enough votes of African Americans and women to sink the Democrats."
Baxter, a life-long Labour voter in Britain and a registered Democrat in the United States, is mildly infamous in leftist circles for a story last year in The Sunday Times called 'I'm a Democrat for Bush', but even as you read her proclaiming ... "Rice deserves better than to be a vehicle for Morris's stop-Hillary machinations. She is a supremely capable political appointee, but she has never run for office, not even at school, whereas Hillary has spent her life campaigning for herself and Bill. Rice is certainly ambitious enough to run, although she keeps ruling it out in interviews, but she is not as hungry for the White House as Hillary. She could well stumble on the campaign trail and, unlike Morris, she knows it...", you have to wonder, is this a kettle of a different complexion or merely a similarly-coloured pot? Never mind, it's splendidly bitchy on several levels.
'In Tasmania: Adventures at the End of the World' by Nicholas Shakespeare
The Sunday Times Books Pick of the Week is written by Bruce Chatwin's biographer, about his own emigrant experience in our southernmost state (which includes genealogical links to Tasmania's past), and is reviewed by by Brian Schofield. More William Tell than the Apple of his Ey(l)e.
Lastly, you may have noted a slightly different format to this week's Books. After some comment and feedback, we (your editor and I) thought we'd give the (slightly) more organised look a go, as opposed to my usual shotgun-style layout. Is it better? Worse? Don't care? You'd like something entirely different? Let us know what you think. (We promise to at least read it carefully before sending it to the trash basket.)
JOSEPH KANON/NYTIMES BOOKS