ISIS

Sounding the alarm about the Islamic State does not have to be a call to arms

Nor does glossing over the Islamic State’s ultraviolence help make the case for non-intervention.

The putative Islamic Caliphate

The putative Islamic Caliphate

On Dec. 18, the Guardian published a report by a team of reporters, including Focal Points contributor Ali Younes, titled The race to save Peter Kassig, the American aid worker who the Islamic State captured and ultimately beheaded. The article is full of juicy details such as this about Islamist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi:

On 18 October, Cohen and Abdel-Rahman flew from Kuwait to Jordan, and checked into the Four Seasons hotel in Amman. Two days later, they finally met Maqdisi, who arrived at the Four Seasons in his beat up ‘97 Hyundai. They set off for Maqdisi’s home, in a relatively poor neighbourhood 10 miles north of Amman. On the way, Maqdisi’s car broke down. Cursing and stuck in the middle of a traffic jam, Cohen said Maqdisi opened up the hood and started beating the engine with a wrench. Five minutes later they were off again. Continue reading

Journalism

The Steve Scalise story you’re not getting

Once again, journalists miss the big picture

As you may or may not have heard, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La), House Majority Whip since August, spoke in front of some bad people back in 2002. The story was broken at a (mostly) Louisiana political blog, CenLamar, by blogger Lamar White, Jr. Steve Scalise reportedly had spoken in front of a conference held by an organization founded by none other than ex-Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Louisiana political darling (sorry, Louisiana, but you wet your own nest, so the stink sticks), David Duke. Continue reading

Religion

Forget torture. Who would Jesus rape?

On the rapes of Majid Khan and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Pop quiz!

Fill in the blank: rape is morally acceptable when __________.

Time. Pencils down.

I don’t know about you, but there was never a point in my life when I needed to be told that there is no such thing as a good answer to this question. But let’s define our terms, shall we? In January 2012, the FBI finally updated its definition of rape:

“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” [emphasis added]

Furthermore, the Department of Justice clarified: Continue reading

CATEGORY: World

Havana here I come!

After 54 years, the United States will finally do the right thing, normalize its relations with Cuba and end its embargo. The embargo may be the longest-lasting ineffective and nonsensical foreign policy  in US history. This means that twenty years after getting my Masters in Latin American history, I will finally be able to legally visit one of the countries I read so much about. I’ve always supported the idea that the best way to “open” Cuba would be to normalize relations and expose Cubans to the flood of ideas–rather than trying to strangle it–ineffectually–into submission. Continue reading

Book-Review

Book Review: St. Nic, Inc. by S.R. Staley

It’s not Santa Claus vs. the Martians – it’s Santa Claus (sorta) vs. the DEA – which is, come to think of it, almost as nuts…

St. Nic, Inc by S.R. Staley

Sam Staley’s latest book is a Christmas story. It’s not, however, the sort of Christmas story ones hears in homes on Christmas Eve. There are no shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” or flying reindeer jockeyed by a “right jolly old elf.” Staley’s book is a Christmas story with all the 21st century twists: the North Pole is home to NP Enterprises, a slickly run distribution company with billions in revenues and a 26 year old MIT trained computer geek CEO named Nicole who employs large numbers of talented, intelligent people who happen to have the condition known as – you guessed it – dwarfism; its ability to operate is based on economic funding from a 21st century source – a computer operating system superior to others on the market; and its problems within the narrative come from overzealousness on the part of a government official.

NP Enterprises is a family owned business founded by Nicole’s great grandfather, a Dutchman named Nicholas Klaas, who moved to the Far North and began making toys which he sold to trappers and hunters for their children. Continue reading

Republican lawmakers such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham seek further sanctions against Iran. (Photo: Jeffrey Richardson / U.S. Navy / Flick Commons)

By pushing for more sanctions, U.S. hardliners play into hands of Iranian hardliners

New sanctions legislation against Iran would alienate Europe, Russia, and China.

Republican lawmakers such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham seek further sanctions against Iran. (Photo: Jeffrey Richardson / U.S. Navy / Flick Commons)

Republican lawmakers such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham seek further sanctions against Iran. (Photo: Jeffrey Richardson / U.S. Navy / Flick Commons)

“Buoyed by the failure of the US and five other powers to reach a comprehensive agreement with Iran over its nuclear program,” writes Jim Lobe for Inter Press Service, “pro-Israel and Republican hawks are calling for Washington to ramp up economic pressure on Tehran even while talks continue, and to give Congress a veto on any final accord.” But, he continues,

Most Iran specialists here believe that any new sanctions legislation will likely sabotage the talks, fracture the P5+1, and thus undermine the international sanctions regime against Iran, strengthen hard-liners in Tehran who oppose accommodation and favour accelerating the nuclear programme.  Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Love, art, mystery: Lawrence Durrell’s Justine

Durrell raises a question we are most afraid to answer: whether, as his character Clea asserts, “Lovers are never equally matched….” Is that, he asks, the source of the pain so many experience in love…?

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (image courtesy Goodreads)

We come now to another novelist who, like Paul Bowles, skirts the edge of wide acceptance as a major literary figure. Lawrence Durrell’s reputation rests on a group of novels called The Alexandria Quartet. The first of these is called Justine after the main character, a reluctant siren whose mystique pervades the work. It’s the latest from my 2014 reading list, and it’s a work that offers one the challenge of deciding whether to focus one’s discussion on the quality of the writing, the themes the novel explores, or the complexity of the  story.

To treat Justine fairly, it’s probably best to talk at least a bit about each. This is a novel in which writing, story, and themes are intricately woven. Durrell came under consideration for (and close to winning in 1962) the Nobel Prize on at least two occasions based on this work (and the others in the tetralogy). Justine offers a good example of why. Continue reading

Politics: Democrats vs Republicans

House Intel Committee: new report exposes lies while pushing more

Next up: Issa to investigate House Intel Committee?

Associated Press reports, as seen here at Time, that the House Intelligence Committee has released a new report on the Benghazi tragedy. Or, as AP put it, “The House Intelligence Committee report was released with little fanfare on the Friday before Thanksgiving week.” Why might that be? What could possibly be in a Republican-led Intelligence Committee report about Benghazi that the GOP wouldn’t want plastered all over the place for everyone to see? Read on. Then get the report straight from the horse’s mouth.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine: Il se souvient

Like other classics of of what might be called pioneer literature, Louis Hémon’s classic of Quebecois literature Maria Chapdelaine conveys the love of a people for the land in a way that is beautifully simple and simply beautiful.

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hemon (image courtesy Goodreads)

Maria Chapdelaine belongs to a noble tradition of what we can call pioneer literature. (It might also be called agrarian literature, but that term has come to be associated with the Fugitive Movement in Southern literature that began at Vanderbilt University in the 1920’s.)  Most readers have some experience with such books, especially in young adult literature – many have read at least one of the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley series.

More mature – and sophisticated – readers may be familiar with works such as Sergei Aksakov’s The Family Chronicle or any of several novels by Willa Cather, particularly O Pioneers! or My Antonia. These are works that celebrate the difficult but rewarding lives of settlers, lives that are quietly heroic and which are tied to the rhythms of the land whether that land is on the Russian steppes or the American plains.

Maria Chapdelaine stands slightly apart from these other examples of pioneer literature for a couple of reasons. Continue reading

Tokyo Freedom

Stopping in for a drink in a small, beautiful Tokyo dive…

The tiny neighborhood bars and watering holes distributed throughout Tokyo are probably as numerous as the stars on a clear night in the Himalayas. Perversely, they’re often the kinds of places that are easy to miss, at least in the daytime, even if a given joint is open when one happens to walk by.

But sometimes one can pass a Tokyo bar, even a run-down looking place, and feel strangely drawn to it somehow. Something about it catches the eye, perhaps the way it’s painted or how the bar’s name is displayed on the street. And suddenly one finds oneself walking into the joint even if one wasn’t originally in the mood for a drink.

Freedom in Nakano 5-chome is that kind of place, an unassuming little neighborhood bar that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but had an allure that made going inside an unexpected but rich Tokyo experience…

Continue reading

Arts & Literature

Peter Handke, the Nobel Prize, and the Weight of the World…

Handke, Austria’s (arguably the world’s) greatest living writer, will probably never get the Nobel…and maybe he shouldn’t…or should…

Peter Handke (image courtesy Wikimedia)

For some readers of this piece, the name Peter Handke will probably suggest only controversy. Handke has spent the last two decades of his life under attack for his association with – and inexplicable defense of – the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. No less a personage than fellow Nobelist-in-waiting Salman Rushdie has called Handke a propagandist for the Milosevic government’s genocidal policies. When Handke received the International Ibsen Award earlier this year, Pen Norway called for the selection jury’s resignation and one scholar called giving Handke the award the equivalent of giving the Immanuel Kant Prize to Joseph Goebbels. Other important literary figures have defended Handke stating that he deserves the Nobel Prize – one claiming that she received the prize when Handke was the more worthy recipient.

All this comes as no surprise – troubling though it is – to me. I’ve been an admirer of Handke’s work since I was introduced to him in undergraduate school. What grabbed me initially was his “anti-play” Offending the Audience. Continue reading

Long live rock (plus bonus track)

Odd thing about Tokyo: it’s more rock and roll than where you live…

American ghosts

do a rag time in Tokyo

smashing the feedback

of a million wartime guitars…

Continue reading

Scotland

Erm, hi, England here. I get it. I’m sorry.

I’ve been the problem all along

This is really awkward for me, what with being a country and all. I don’t usually speak, and I certainly never imagined I’d speak from a position of humility. That’s just never been my style. I’ve always been more of a see it, seize it, dominate it sort of country. Short on words, big on colonies. But ya know what? I do read the papers. There’s lots of talk about Scotland, well, about half the Scots, wanting out of this little forced arrangement that’s worked out so well for us, well, for me, sort of, for so long. But then there was this sore little reminder run by The Guardian, mapping out every one of my little imperialist failures.

Continue reading

Scotland

Scotland votes, and however it goes, expect bitterness to follow

Scottish voters, as the whole world probably knows by now, will be voting on their potential independence from the United Kingdom on Thursday. Actually, that’s not what they were initially going to be voting on—that would have been whether Scotland should enter negotiations for independence, but this question got changed somewhere along the line—it’s now “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Which is a pity, because the former question is actually a more sensible one. As it is, Scottish voters will be voting on whether Scotland should be an independent country without having much idea what that country would look like—how it would fund itself, what its domestic and foreign policies might look like, whether it will be in the EU or not, ditto NATO, all the mundane stuff that turns out to be the business of government. But these issues, much to the surprise of many outside of Scotland, seem to be of little concern to many in Scotland, or at least to those who support independence. There seems to be a lot of magical thinking involved.
Continue reading

Lucky 13

A 9/11 observance for the disenchanted…

It’s a sunny flag day here in USA Land,

a day when we think that our moments of silence say

that we honor the blood and flame clouds

which were human beings before the towers went the way

of the dodo, and Pan-Am Airways.

Continue reading

ArtSunday

Tove Jansson’s Summer Book: imagining reality

Jansson’s brilliance is her understanding that the world of childhood and the world of adulthood are separated by the thinnest of distances – sort of an “It’s just a jump to the left” thing….

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (image courtesy Goodreads)

Once again my fellow “mad for reading” sort Wufnik got to me.

Wuf wrote an intriguing piece about the Finnish writer Tove Jansson, she of “Moomins” fame, who also had a significant career as a writer of works for adults. I was vaguely familiar with the Moomin books (terrific stuff for children and adults smart enough to realize that kids like the best stuff), but I had no experience with – actually, knowledge of – her work for adults. So after reading Wufink’s essay on the dreamlike, magical memoir Sculptor’s Daughter, I expanded my 2014 reading list yet again (I have got to do a post to share the added works I’ve been reading) to add one of Jansson’s works. My choice was one of Jansson’s earliest forays into adult fiction, the in-its-own-right dreamlike and magical (magical and dreamlike aren’t fair terms to use for Jansson, for she has those qualities in ways that make other writers see uncomfortably pedestrian – in fact, what she does probably should have resulted in the coinage of its own term – Janssonesque) work, The Summer Book.

The Summer Book is a work of fiction – to call it a novel would not be accurate, nor would calling it a short story collection be correct in any strict sense. The term vignette is most apropos, probably, but that implies a fleeting quality to each of the 22 brief  – tales. Tales is a good term, one that links Jansson to the writer I know most akin to her in storytelling – Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the great Danish tale teller. While their subject matter is radically different, the spellbinding charm of the two writers as storytellers is such that reading one will remind one of the other. Continue reading

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance2

What do Nestle and Zyklon B have in common?

Nestle sells you chocolate farmed by child slaves and is okay with that, because profit

As San Francisco Chronicle reports: U.S. court rules OK to sue chocolate firms over child slave labor

The companies, which also included Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, were well aware – from their own frequent visits and independent studies – that they were selling the products of child slavery, but insisted on “finding the cheapest sources of cocoa,” said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: The Price of Ignorance by Fred Skolnik

Americans do not know very much about the world. Historically this is partly a result of distance and isolation and partly a result of arrogance. The arrogance comes into play when Americans consider the importance or relevance of what other people are doing, since it goes without saying that Americans do everything better than everyone else. Why individual Americans find it necessary to identify with the idea of America’s greatness may be sought in their need to bolster their self-esteem in the absence of personal distinction and in their feelings of insignificance in the shadow of the American Dream. The consequence of this arrogance and the ignorance it engenders may be found in the results of America’s involvement in armed conflicts around the world. Continue reading