Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Reading Habits of Guantanamo Bay Inmates

Yesterday I learned an interesting fact: When it comes to books, the bearded inmates of Guantanamo Bay are totally hot for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the first novel of a popular trilogy about the erotic adventures of a young female graduate named Anastasia Steele and an international businessman named Christian Grey. No, really – a US congressman said it, so it must be true.
Indeed, Representative Jim Moran of Virginia told The Huffington Post: “Rather than the Quran, the book that is requested most by the [detainees] is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ They've read the entire series.”

The Slow Creative Death of Vladimir Mayakovsky

Last Friday, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky would have turned 120 years old. Given that he was born in the Caucasus where longevity is not unusual, it’s almost feasible he could still have been among us, ancient, wizened, extolling the virtues of Borjomi mineral water and regular exercise.
But it was not to be. Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930 aged 36, and was immediately co-opted by the Stalinist regime. A big bronze monument was erected on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad in Moscow, a central metro station was named in honor of him and his desecrated mummy became one of the central pillars of official Soviet culture. Already dead, the poet was subjected to a second death, his verses conscripted to serve “the most gigantic lying mouth of all time.”

Why J-lo Is More Ethical Than Our Greatest Satstesmen

I am not sure when I first became aware of the oeuvre of the “singer” Jennifer Lopez – she of the two-note vocal range – but it may well have been when I was living in Kazakhstan in late 1999. As the new millennium approached, her track “Waiting for Tonight” was in heavy rotation on the German music channel I got with my satellite TV package. It was utterly rotten, but better than the works of Die Fantastischen Vier, so I sometimes let it play out.
Anyway, that early association of J-Lo + Central Asian autocracy might explain why I was neither shocked nor all that bothered when word got out that Jenny from the Block had performed for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the dictator of Turkmenistan.

Does Being a Rubbish President Invalidate Democracy?

I haven’t smoked enough crack in my life to believe that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is a force for good in this world. Call me crazy, but I just can’t get down with that whole Jew/gay/woman/Christian/etc-oppressing vibe. And unlike the Brothers, I like the separation of religion and politics – I think it’s one of the great ideas of Western civilization.

How Condemned Men (and Women) Say Goodbye

Last week Texas put to death Kimberley McCarthy, the 500th inmate to die since the state resumed carrying out executions in 1982. And once that was done, a data entry clerk in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice participated in a local tradition – he (or she) entered McCarthy’s last words into a database containing all the final statements of those who have died by the state’s lethal needle.
Although I’ve lived in Texas for years, I didn’t know the database existed until this week. I spent some time reading it Tuesday afternoon, and the experience was as somber as you’d expect. In our culture we like to record the last words of the famous, but most people slip away without saying anything memorable. Since we rarely know when we’re going to die, very few of us get an opportunity to compose a final statement. It’s a privilege that belongs mainly to the condemned, one of the few they enjoy, and not one that I envy.

McCarthy’s last words had nothing to do with her crime, which was heinous - the murder of an old lady for money to buy crack. Rather, she

Edward Snowden and the Irony of Leaking

When I first heard that Edward Snowden, the National Security Leaker, was holed up in a capsule hotel in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo 2 airport, I allowed myself a dark chuckle. What a terrible place to land in on a flight to freedom!
Flying in and out of that airport in the 1990s and early 2000s was a grim enough experience. But to actually live in that post-apocalyptic scab pile, drowning in the murk, wading through the miasma of hostility, now that is a cruel and unusual punishment. Sheremetyevo 2 was so unwelcoming I always thought it must be intentional, a warning to visitors: “Yeah, this is Russia. We don’t care what you think. Get used to it.”

Monday, January 6, 2014

Istanbul and the Trouble with Opposition

What will future historians make of our age of mass protests? Since the stolen Iranian elections of 2009 the masses have revolted repeatedly in radically different countries with radically different results. Some governments have collapsed; others have been shaken; while still others have carried on regardless. It’s a bewildering time, akin to the era of revolutions that briefly turned Europe upside down in the mid-19th century.

Seeking to explain what’s going on in faraway places, journalists, analysts and politicians usually opt for simplistic narratives. We thus lump Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria together as they are (mainly) Muslim Arab nations where (some of) the people rose up against corrupt dictators.