Aug. 12th, 2006

rfmcdonald: (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] james_nicoll tagged me. Who am I to disagree?

1. One book that changed your life?

Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden, easily.

2. One book you have read more than once?

John Barnes' Thousand Cultures novels are just some of the books I've repeatedly re-read. Why wouldn't I re-read books I like?

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

After [livejournal.com profile] james_nicoll, The New Way Things Work would probably be a good text if I am, in fact, stranded on a desert island. If I'm a tourist certainly to spend only a short period of time on a hospitable island, then I'll pick Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days.

4. One book that made you laugh?

In an evil way? Diane Duane's mirror-universe Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Dark Mirror. Mirror-universe Troi makes for an interesting secret policewoman.

5. One book that made you cry?

Paul Monette's Borrowed Time.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Chaucer's complete Canterbury Tales.

7. One book you wish had never had been written?

The Turner Diaries.

8. One book you are currently reading?

Colm Toíbín's The Blackwater Lightship- Books.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Again, Michael Cunningham's Specimin Days.

10. Now tag five people.

Keeping in mind that this tagging by no means must be picked up, I tag [livejournal.com profile] agirlnamedluna, [livejournal.com profile] bitterlawngnome, [livejournal.com profile] ladyfelicity, [livejournal.com profile] sandor_baci, and [livejournal.com profile] vorpal.
rfmcdonald: (Default)
Slate has pointed to a recent survey article by the Economist on the parlous situation in the Horn of Africa ("The path to ruin"). The author argues that rapid population growth--the region's population is projected to nearly double between now and 2030--has combined with the degradation of the fragile environment to produce a general humanitarian catastrophe. The worst effects are apparently in the "borderlands," in the regions on the Kenya, Ethiopian, and Somalian frontiers that are home to pastoralists, mainly ethnic Somalis; these people, increasingly impoverished and often at odds with their national governments, might provide the tinder for wider conflict. Things aren't getting better.

Even with the fear of greater bloodshed, the main problem in the borderlands remains the stark environmental fact that there are simply too many people and too many animals and not enough grass. Some experts, such as Lammert Zwaagstra, an adviser to the European Union, believe that without outside intervention whole stretches of the Horn will come to look as wretched as Darfur in Sudan, with its people fighting over water, grazing, firewood and other scarce natural resources.

Mr Zwaagstra has been studying the borderlands for decades. Not known as an alarmist, he is now pressing the red alert button. There are too many cattle for the capacity of the land, he says, but too few to sustain the community. Population growth is part of the problem; drought is another. The Horn appears to be drying up. This may or may not be a result of climate change, but experts give warning that if the predicted increase in temperatures does come about, if only by one or two degrees, the borderlands will become unsustainable.

Rainfall is even less predictable. The drought cycle has shrunk from once every eight years to once every three years, according to the American government's Famine Early Warning System. "That means no recovery time for the cattle, for the land, for the people," says Mr Zwaagstra. And the changes are happening at breakneck speed.

Even the WFP admits that their delivery of aid is no more than sticking plaster. Others are even more critical. Food aid is like "crack", says one Nairobi-based aid chief: "It is addictive and creates an unhealthy dependency." Well, maybe. But any attempt to swing the balance from humanitarian aid to development aid comes against the imperative of saving the starving today. The scale of potential misery is becoming clearer. Rough estimates of famine victims in the next few years range upwards from 10m.

The risk of whole areas of the Horn collapsing with famine and irreversible environmental damage, urged on by jihadist and tribal clashes, is clear cause for alarm. A first task, if Somalia is to be salvaged, is to support a moderate and competent government there. That will be hard, to put it at its mildest. The transitional government is moderate but inept: the Islamists well-organised but given to jihadist tendencies.
rfmcdonald: (Default)
For your reading, Mike Pflanz' Daily Telegraph article "Evangelicals urge museum to hide man's ancestors".

Powerful evangelical churches are pressing Kenya's national museum to sideline its world-famous collection of hominid bones pointing to man's evolution from ape to human.

Leaders of the country's six-million-strong Pentecostal congregation want Dr Richard Leakey's ground-breaking finds relegated to a back room instead of being given their usual prime billing.

The collection includes the most complete skeleton yet found of Homo erectus, the 1.7 million-year-old Turkana Boy unearthed by Dr Leakey's team in 1984 at Nariokotome, near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

The museum also holds bones from several specimens of Australopithecus anamensis, believed to be the first hominid to walk upright, four million years ago. Together the artefacts amount to the clearest record yet discovered of the origins of Homo sapiens.

[. . .]

As part of an ongoing expansion funded by the EU, the National Museums of Kenya, which manages the country's cultural sites, is conducting a survey to determine what visitors to its Nairobi headquarters most want to see.

Church leaders aim to hijack that process. "The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact," said Bishop Bonifes Adoyo, the head of Christ is the Answer Ministries, the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya.

"Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory."
rfmcdonald: (Default)
I'm indebted to Will Baird for pointing out the recent reports that Russia appears to be trying to make the Moldovan region of Transnistria an a "second Kaliningrad."

Sponsored jointly by Russian big business and security services, a network of Greater Russia political and “civic” organizations is sprouting up in Transnistria, advocating the accession to the Russian Federation of this part of Moldova. Recent days have witnessed a wave of founding conferences of these organizations.

In the immediate term, this burst of activity is linked to preparations for the referendum that is scheduled to be held on September 17 by the Russia-installed authorities. A leading question on the ballot is asking voters whether they favor Transnistria’s entry into the Russian Federation. The “referendum” will be followed by a “presidential” election that is expected to return Igor Smirnov for a fourth term in that post. In the short-to-medium term, however, Moscow will use these organizations to provide a semblance of “democratic legitimacy” for Russian control over distant Transnistria in the form of a second Kaliningrad.

The Patriotic Party of Transnistria held its founding conference on August 4 in Tiraspol. It elected as its leader Oleg Smirnov, chairman of the Transnistria branch of Gazprombank, a fully owned subsidiary of Gazprom. Oleg Smirnov mentioned in his acceptance speech that the party’s propaganda activities would use “Gazprom’s resources.” He defined the party’s guiding goal as “integration into Mother Russia” (Olvia Press, August 4).

Oleg, who was the single candidate for the leader’s post, is the younger son of Igor Smirnov. Oleg’s brother, Vladimir, is the long-time head of Transnistria’s “customs” service, which has all along been the most lucrative source of illicit income to the secessionist authorities.

The Patriotic Party’s program defines Transnistria as “Russia’s outpost facing Europe.” The party will oppose changes to the format of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation. It will campaign for international recognition of Transnistria and its “right” to be part of a “union of sovereign states to be unified by Russia, of fraternal peoples tied to one another by their common history, culture, traditions, spiritual values.”


Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast was once the territorial core of the formerly German region of East Prussia, but was annexed directly to the Soviet Union's Russian republic in 1945 and has remained Russian after the Soviet state's dissolution. Transnistria is comparable to Kaliningrad in that it, too, emerged as a sort of historical parenthesis, tracing its origins to the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a territorial unit of the interwar Soviet Union. Part of the then-Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Moldavian ASSR was created in large part to irredentist desires directed towards the formerly Russian province of Bessarabia, containing a Romanian-speaking population but with strongly Russified urban areas. Never having been part of the interwar Kingdom of Romania, perhaps not unnaturally Transnistrians reacted to the prospect of Moldovan unification with Romania after the Cold War by declaring--with Russian support--an independent state of their own. Unrecognized by the wider world, with an impoverished industrial economy and a nomenklatura/mafia government, and locked into a relationship with a Moldova that now seems interested in at least trying to integrate with the European Union, Transnistria's leadership appears to be interested now in establishing their territory as a satrapy of Russia.

My immediate reaction is that this may be a good thing. Many of Moldova's identity questions have been aggravated substantially by the presence of Transnistria, with the rest of the country becoming increasingly Romanian-speaking (and, perhaps, Romanian-identifying) even as Transnistria becomes increasingly Russified. A Moldova that was thus able to unify with Romania would be a good thing for Moldovans, if only because it would make their mass emigration easier. The problem with Transnistrian secession to Russia, on sober second thought, is the potentially bad precedent that this could set: Is it really a good idea to let great powers carve off bits of territory from their smaller neighbours and annex these parcels to themselves?
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[livejournal.com profile] angel80 ("This week's obsession: racism, colonialism, nationalism and related insanities") and Hobson's Choice ("Zionism and US Policy") have each recently written about how the Israelis and the Palestinians have found themselves locked into inflexible national narratives. [livejournal.com profile] angel80, after tracing the origins of the Zionist immigrations to Ottoman Palestine in central Europe, concludes that as a Zionist national narrative was created that sought to restore an impossibly distant (and arguably, irrelevant) homeland, Palestinians came to define themselves in opposition to an unstoppable foreign invasion of their lands.

Zionist nationalism had come to be defined by ethnic expansionism based on stories from a distant past and Palestinian nationalism was just beginning. Palestinian nationalism seems to be defined by a series of 'don't haves' that create yearnings just as powerful as the Zionist narratives. Palestinians are the leftovers from the old Middle Eastern empires who don't have a nation state, who don't have the land or the homes that they used to have, who don't have the rights of citizens (or even ordinary human beings nowadays). The struggle against Israel is the only founding myth that the Palestinians have. It's interesting that Israelis often define Palestinians by what they were - Arab subjects of the former British Mandate - who are therefore really Jordanians now. Between 1949 and 1967, many of the original inhabitants of the West Bank might have gone along with that, but they were a minority of the Palestinian Arabs. Such a definition simply denies any attachment the majority might have felt towards their lost homeland - an attachment which is no doubt increased by having lost it. In any case the last 40 years of occupation have put paid to that. No one can seriously doubt that a Palestinian nation exists today.

Palestinian nationalism is also in many ways a mirror of Israeli nationalism. During British rule, although the majority of Arabs remained rural, many were also urban, living and working in cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa. Palestinians were noted for being more educated and secular than Arabs in neighbouring countries. In the 1980s, when the secular socialists lost their grip on power in Israel and the Likud (led by former terrorists Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir) gave more play to religious extremism within the country, the Palestinian resistance also began to turn away from secularism. I could be stretching things a bit too far here, because there was also another religious extremism on the rise in the 1980s after the Iranian revolution. But what the Iranians and Hezbollah have in common is a national state towards which their fundamentalist ambitions are directed. In both these cases Israel's existence is a convenient device by which they can promote their national ambitions. For Hamas, on the other hand, Israel is the very raison d'etre. Without the struggle there is no nation.


Hobson's Choice's James MacLean, in the meantime, also traces the origins of Zionism to the persecution of Jews in central Europe, observing that the exceptional marginalization of Jews in their European homelands after the Holocaust left Zionists with no choice but to accept a position as a Western march against the non-West. Israel might enjoy an exceptionally privileged position, true, but it has no choice but to accept this position given the regional climate and the fact of Palestinian dispossession.

The Israelis are stuck in an eternal war with their neighbors, internationally isolated, and reviled. People blame them for a situation that is so obviously out of their hands that they naturally develop a complex. Israelis have a huge fleet of F-16's because they have been stuck with being janissaries of the [Trans European Project]. That was never a job they wanted, but it was required of them. One could take the example of this poor fellow, who was faced with destitution or re-enlistment in the military, and say he is a winner because he has access to an M-16A3. I suppose I could rattle off all manner of other cool stuff he gets, such as access to the VA system of health care ("The 2nd largest US department, by budget!") or a chance to ride around in an M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, or the opportunity to abuse Iraqis with impunity. But he doesn't see it that way, and neither do I.

[. . .]

I'm not sure why my POV is so freakish. Why would a leftist find it so hard to accept that the Jewish population of Israel is being exploited by opportunistic white gentile Americans? That a small, politically invulnerable elite has managed to hijack the fears and vulnerabilities of an historically persecuted group, and throw them against a 3rd world population? Arm them to do the job, and make them even more dependent on the metropole? Why, on this one subject, must the left invariably switch polarities and absolve the West of responsibility?


MacLean goes on to conclude that "[t]he Israelis can be likened unto the slave armies of the 12th-16th century Middle East or East Asia: yes, those armies were well-equipped too, and sometimes they staged coups in the countries they controlled. But they remained slaves and soldiers; a peaceful, secure life was denied to them." One might conclude that Palestinians play much the same role in the Middle East, forming shock troops against Israel and an unpopular proletariat.

Why the expansion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Lebanon? Lebanon, founded as a refugee for the Maronites and other Christians of the central coastal Levant, has never been strong enough to resist foreign interference. One can talk of Israel's interest in acquiring the waters of the Litani River and even in annexing south Lebanon. One can as easily talk of the unpopular Palestinian refugee minority and the ephemeral PLO quasi-state of 1975-1982. The fact remains that Israelis and Palestinians, necessarily trapped in their ideologies of perpetual confrontation, have enough interests in a relatively weak Lebanon to be willing to transgress its border. The Palestinians were, at least; the actually existing Palestinians, whether one talks about the stateless Palestinian refugees of Lebanon or of the Palestinians in the occupied territories who have shown themselves signally unable to respond to an increasingly dominant Israel in ways that don't involve suicide bombing, no longer have the capacity.

This brings us to Hezbollah, founded in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to resist the occupation of the south, has proven its willingness to ally itself for tactical purposes with the Palestinians against Israel. This hostility isn't unsurprising, since, as Thomas Friedman described in his From Beirut to Jerusalem, managed to alienate a Shi'ite population that had initially welcomed their liberation from the PLO. The willingness of external powers--Iran most notably, but also Syria--to support Hezbollah certainly didn't help. Lebanon, for its part, lacked the ability to effectively control quasi-state Hezbollah or to do anything to Israel; excluding the Palestinians from the Lebanese body politic is all that the Lebanese state can do. Not that the Israeli state's tactics seem to be that effective, but there you go.

Here's to hoping that, once in effect, the ceasefire will hold. I'm terribly worried by all of the seemingly normal people who have said, in the course of the past month, that their neighbours have to "burn right now" if they themselves are to survive. If there's one thing that people in the Levant don't seem to understand very well apart from the fact that it's not nice to offer up unwilling other people as fiery sacrifices, it's the pleasantly and surprisingly self-serving nature of empathy for the other. Then again, that's not all that surprising, since radical breaks--the sort of radical breaks that can overcome victim mentalities, patterns of subordination to wider alliances, and generally destructive breakdowns--aren't fun things to try out. Things could change, see, and we've too much invested in the way things are to risk making everything new.
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