December 9th, 2009
According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center poll, 54% of Americans believe that the use of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists (note the adjective) is often or sometimes justified. This represents an increase since the last time the question was asked (49% in April and 44% in February.) Which reminds me of this passage from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, where Captain Segura explains who can and can’t be tortured:
‘Did you torture him?’
Captain Segura laughed. ‘No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.’
‘I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.’
‘Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.’
‘There’s torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hasselbacher’s laboratory they were torturing … ?’
‘One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.’
‘The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.’
I had not realized that so many Americans subscribed to Segura’s philosophy.
December 8th, 2009
I wrote a short opinion piece for The Nation about the Swiss minaret ban. Here’s how it begins:
When I was five years old, my parents enrolled me in Sainte Marguerite-Marie, a French grade school in a suburb of Rabat, in Morocco. The school was run by a group of Franciscan nuns who had arrived in the country during the colonial period but had stayed behind after independence. My favorite teacher was Soeur Laurette, who nurtured my love of books, and my regular tormentor was Soeur Isabelle, who, whenever I made a mistake, pulled my ponytail so hard my neck would hurt for hours.
My father, like his father before him, had memorized the Koran by the time he started his own grade school education; but he did not see any danger or contradiction in having his child attend a French school. My mother, who did not cover her hair, did not seem to have any anxiety about my spending half my day with women dressed in austere tunics and long black veils. I suppose that my parents’ guiding principle was that they had to choose the best neighborhood school. The fact that it happened to be run by Catholics did not scare them–they understood that being in daily contact with another religion is not dangerous. It does not mean you will be converted. It does not mean that you will have to change. Religion is not passed through the air you breathe or the sidewalk you tread or the classroom you share.
You can read the rest of the article here.
(Photo: Minaret in Wangen bei Olten. Via: Reuters.)
December 7th, 2009
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine wrote to tell me how impressed he had been by a lecture on the challenges of social democracy that Tony Judt gave at New York University. Fortunately, the text of this talk is now available at the New York Review of Books. Here is a small excerpt
But my concern tonight is the following: Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?
Our shortcoming—forgive the academic jargon—is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things. To understand why this should be the case, some history is in order: as Keynes once observed, “A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind.” For the purposes of mental emancipation this evening, I propose that we take a minute to study the history of a prejudice: the universal contemporary resort to “economism,” the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs.
For the last thirty years, in much of the English-speaking world (though less so in continental Europe and elsewhere), when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.
You can read the lecture in full here.
December 4th, 2009
A propos of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the always incisive Mr. Fish had this cartoon.
Cartoon Credit: Mr. Fish at Truthdig
December 3rd, 2009
I went to see the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a couple of days ago. I tried to trick myself into not expecting anything from the movie because I thought that would prevent me from being disappointed. There was anything wrong with director John Hillcoat’s work. And Viggo Mortensen delivers a fine performance (but then he nearly always does.) But I was still terribly disappointed. The problem, I think, is that there was no poetry to this movie and it simply doesn’t do justice to the novel.
November 30th, 2009
I have a new essay in December 14th issue of The Nation magazine, which just went up online. It’s about the spate of books that claim that Europe is headed to its demise because of its rising Muslim population, with a particular focus on the most recent exemplar, Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West. Here is how it begins:
At a literary festival in New York City some years ago, I was introduced to a French writer who, almost immediately after we shook hands, asked me where I was from. When the answer was “Morocco,” he put down his drink and stared at me with anthropological curiosity. We spoke about literature, of course, and discovered a common love for the work of the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, but before long the conversation had turned to Moroccan writers, then to Moroccan writers in France, and then, as I expected it eventually would, to Moroccan immigrants in France–at which point the French writer declared, “If they were all like you, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
His tone suggested he was paying me some sort of compliment, though I found it odd that he would want the 1 million Moroccans in his country to be carbon copies of someone he had barely met and whose views on immigration–had he asked about them–he might not have found quite to his liking. It was only later, when I had returned to my hotel room, that it dawned on me that the profile of the unproblematic Moroccan immigrant he might have had in mind was based solely on conspicuous things. Some of these, like skin color, were purely accidental; others, like sartorial choices or dietary practices, were in my opinion inessential, but from his vantage point perhaps they suggested a smaller degree of “Muslimness.”
Was this man really suggesting that I was a more desirable immigrant because I did not look Muslim? We had started our conversation as two equals, two potential friends, two writers discussing literature, but we had ended it as judge and supplicant–the former telling the latter whether or not she would make a suitable immigrant. And why on earth did I not say something on the spot? Why did I not ask him what he meant? Instead, I had stared back at him with what I imagine was dumbfounded perplexity, and then changed the subject. Perhaps if I had confronted him I would have been able to remove the sting of the insult that had lain hidden inside the compliment.
You can read the essay, in full, here. The picture above is from an election poster by the Swiss People’s Party, which recently led a campaign to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. In a referendum held yesterday, the Swiss people approved the proposed law. It is now set to become part of the Swiss constitution.
November 25th, 2009
We’re spending the Thanksgiving holiday at Yosemite National Park. I hope everyone has a safe and happy weekend. See you back here on Monday.
November 24th, 2009
I’ve always been amused by the prevailing idea in our culture that writers are anti-social creatures, people who would rather spend time alone in a room than have to speak to other sentient beings. The writers I’ve met come in all types, of course, but very few have really fit this cliché. In fact, I’ve noticed that whenever they are thrown together at a conference, a festival, or some other literary event, writers don’t mind gathering, late into the night, to talk. I rarely ever take part in these late-night chats, simply because I can’t handle them. I sleep, on average, between nine and ten hours a night. I can function on eight hours, if I have to. But if I’m forced, by circumstance, to get by with seven hours, I’m nearly useless.
When I was in Indiana last week, for instance, all the invited writers and artists wanted to go have drinks. It was almost midnight. I excused myself because I could barely think, let alone talk. They insisted. Why, they asked, could I not come just for a bit? I said I had to go to bed. Which, of course, sounded like the lamest, most ridiculous excuse to their ears. They looked at me sideways. I imagine they thought I was being standoffish. But, really, I was just exhausted, and already counting how many hours of sleep I could get. And the morning after? I was the last one to get up.
November 23rd, 2009
When I was an undergraduate at University Mohammed-V, I used to find all my English-language books at the aptly named English Bookshop in downtown Rabat. The store was so tiny that the aisles only fit one person at a time. The shelves were stacked high, and you had to get a ladder to reach the top one. The books were ordered in sometimes surprising, but ultimately perfectly sensible ways. I remember the hours and hours spent browsing the shelves, looking for something I could read in my new, halting language.
I went back there last summer, for a visit, and was amazed that nothing had changed. The owner was there, and we chatted for a while about the old days. I know it sounds terribly cliché, but I would never have thought that some day my books would be sold there. (And I couldn’t have thought that not just because the idea of being published was so remote, but because back then I wasn’t even writing fiction in English yet.) The physical experience of browsing through a store—finding new, used, and even out-of-print books side by side—is one that I miss, particularly now that so many independent bookstores have closed.
November 17th, 2009
A few weeks ago, when I heard that Farrar, Straus and Giroux was publishing a new volume of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, I was thrilled. But I was also a little disappointed that such recognition would come after his passing. (Darwish has been published in the United States before, of course, though never by a major commercial press.) The book is called If I Were Another, and it is translated by Fady Joudah.
“If I Were Another” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) presents long poems from the latter part of Mr. Darwish’s career—the only part that the poet, persistently self-critical, regarded as “mature.” These “lyric epics,” drawn from four collections, weave together many settings and voices. An elegy for the author’s father is followed by a polyvocal poem spoken by birds; a series on Andalusia, by the monologue of a Native American.
You can read more on the book at Speakeasy, the WSJ‘s book blog. Joudah previously translated the lovely volume The Butterfly’s Burden, published by Copper Canyon Press.