“Mom, Mom, it’s me, Jim.” Remembering James Wright Foley, 1973-2014

August 20th, 2014
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“We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people,” said Diane Foley, mother of the murdered photojournalist James Wright Foley. “He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person.”

As everyone has heard by now, Foley was beheaded by ISIS (or ISIL, or the Caliphate, or whatever it’s calling itself – I prefer calling it by its maiden name, nihilism). He had been kidnapped in northwestern Syria in November 2012. Being the kind of people his captors are, they released a gruesome snuff video to accompany their death announcement. A Facebook friend of mine who had known Foley pleaded on her status line: “I will remember James Wright Foley as I last saw him: laughing, engaged life, intelligent. He was executed today by ISIS. Please, for the love of all things decent and human, do not post or ‘share’ any images from his beheading. I’m begging you. Please allow this courageous journalist the dignity and respect he so deserves. Rest in Peace, James.”

James Foley, Aleppo, Syria - 07/12. Photo: Nicole Tung. Authorized use: alongside article on James Foley's kidnapping in Syria only.

Foley in Aleppo (Photo: Nicole Tung)

Following her lead, I thought the best way to commemorate him might be excerpting some of his writings and a few videos I could find online. Here’s a prophetic one from the Global Post on September 27, 2011, “Why They Fight Muammar Gaddafi”, explaining why some soldiers continued to fight for Gaddafi, a month after the fall of Tripoli. Many fought to protect their families, for others:

The threat of civil war is also likely motivating many soldiers to continue fighting. Omran [a soldier] said that a strong central leader like Gaddafi was needed to prevent the break up of the country.

Even outside observers, and leaders in the West, have expressed concern that Libya could fall into civil war after the last remnants of Gaddafi’s army are defeated. Power struggles between rebels based in the western part of the country and rebels based in the city of Benghazi in the East have already been well documented.

“From the beginning, Gaddafi told us, ‘If I fall down, everything will collapse into tribal and civil conflict.’ I was afraid of city against city, so I was loyal on this matter,” Omran said.

Ibrahim said he didn’t think it was possible for Libya to remain stable without Gaddafi at the helm.

“After two or three years, you will see this … a very sad future under east, west, south — Libya will be split up,” he said.

Muftah Sadik, a loyalist soldier from Sirte who surrendered in July, said those officers who are members of Gaddafi’s tribe in Sirte would never surrender. He guessed that at least two Gaddafi battalions had pulled back from the eastern front to further defend the city.

“Some have the idea, if I’m going to die, let’s fight to the death,” he said.

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In Syria, 2012 (Photo: Manu Brabo)

In April 2011, Foley was detained in Libyan military detention center while working for Global Post. Here’s an excerpt from his short piece for his alma mater, at the Marquette University magazine about his 44-day detention, published

Each day brought increasing worry that our moms would begin to panic. My colleague, Clare, was supposed to call her mom on her birthday, which was the day after we were captured. I had still not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened. But I kept telling Clare my mom had a strong faith.

I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.

I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. 
I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.

Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.

Later we were taken to another prison where the regime kept hundreds of political prisoners. I was quickly welcomed by the other prisoners and treated well.

One night, 18 days into our captivity, some guards brought me out of the cell. In the hall I saw Manu, another colleague, for the first time in a week. We were haggard but overjoyed to see each other. Upstairs in the warden’s office, a distinguished man in a suit stood and said, “We felt you might want to call your families.”

I said a final prayer and dialed the number. My mom answered the phone. “Mom, Mom, it’s me, Jim.”

Read the whole thing here.  Requiescat in pace, James Wright Foley.

Tobias Wolff on race: “None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any.”

August 17th, 2014
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Toby explores race and illusion. (Photo: Sonia Lee)

With chaos and curfew in Ferguson, Missouri, race has been everywhere in the news this weekend. A few wise words are welcome, so please don’t miss award-winning author Tobias Wolffs “Heart of Whiteness,” his powerful piece on race in this week’s New Yorker. It opens with Toby going through stacks and stacks of old correspondence, including letters from writer Raymond Carver – “the tone so immediately and unmistakably his that I felt almost as if he were reading them to me.” Funny, that’s exactly what I felt about reading Toby’s own words. We work together on Stanford’s “Another Look” book club  (I’ve written about it tons – try here and here and here and here and here), and I could hear his voice behind every phrase.

He continues: “Then I put the file aside and began glancing through some of my own. And I was disheartened by what I found there. Clumsy, effortful wit. Vulgarity. A racist joke. Sitting there alone, reading my own words, I felt humiliatingly exposed, if only to myself; naked and ashamed.” He recalls his early gifts as a clown and satirist, with “plenty of company in this line of banter.”

None of us would admit to a prejudice—why should we? we didn’t have any—and the atmosphere of right-mindedness could become so absolute, so cloying, that one was sometimes compelled to say the unsayable just to break the spell, make some different music. But this was always done with a dusting of irony. After a black family bought a house on Ray’s block, an unredeemed neighbor complained to him that “a certain element” was taking over, and the word “element” immediately entered our lexicon as an irresistibly sublime piece of swamp-think. So, too, the word “Negro,” as if delivered by an out-of-touch white alderman seeking votes from that highly esteemed, if underserved, corner of his ward.

Could I have played with these words if I had been a racist? No—I couldn’t be a racist. Even as a boy I had been shocked by what happened in Little Rock, the spectacle of pompadoured thugs and women in curlers yelling insults and curses at black kids trying to get to school. With my brother, I joined the March on Washington. We were there.

When I joined the Army, at eighteen, I was trained by black drill instructors, marched and pulled K.P. and showered and bunked and jumped out of airplanes with black troops. If it hadn’t been for a black sergeant I served with in Vietnam, I doubt that my sorry ass would’ve gotten shipped home in one piece.

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James Baldwin with Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte are also in the crowd.

I read Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes and, especially, James Baldwin—“Jimmy” to my brother, Geoffrey, who was his friend when they both lived in Istanbul. I even almost met Baldwin! He was supposed to drop by the apartment in New York where Geoffrey and I were staying, Christmas of 1963. We waited all night, drinking, talking nervously, but he never showed up; one of the great disappointments of my life. It turned out that he’d been stopped by the white doorman.

Yet there was that joke. And a couple of other cracks.

I didn’t like meeting the self I had been when writing these letters—still playing the rake, tiresomely refusing to toe the line and speak the approved words in the approved way. Mostly I didn’t like the sense of exertion I found here, the puppyish falling over myself to amuse and impress another man. The result was coarse and embarrassing. I wanted to think that this wasn’t really me, just some dumb, bumptious persona I’d adopted, which, to some extent, it was.

But I had, after all, chosen this persona rather than another. And I had to wonder why. When we speak with a satiric voice, in mimicry of the unredeemed neighbor, aren’t we having it both ways? Allowing ourselves to express ugly, disreputable feelings and thoughts, under cover of mocking them? I didn’t want to believe that there was anything of me, the real me, in this voice, but, given the facts of my past, looming in piles around me, how could there not be?

It’s a beautifully written piece. Please do read the whole thing here.

 

 

When life resembles art…

August 15th, 2014
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A candid photo of a fight in Ukranian Parliament is as well-composed as the finest Renaissance art …  (Via Twitter)

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Philip Larkin on WWI: “Never such innocence again.”

August 12th, 2014
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Larkin at Oxford in 1943, before “the failures and remorse of age.”

W.H. Auden‘s “September 1, 1939″ was a World War II poem, without a single gun in it, and then had a powerful revival on 9/11. The New York Times recounted its newfound fame:

”Auden’s words are everywhere,” wrote the author of a ”Letter From New York” in The Times Literary Supplement of London. At least a half-dozen major newspapers reprinted ”September 1, 1939” in its entirety. It was read on National Public Radio. It was introduced into hundreds of chat rooms on the Internet. In the Chicago area, the Great Books Foundation and The Chicago Tribune sponsored discussions of it. Students at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, produced a special issue of their school newspaper (which The New York Times distributed to its readers in the metropolitan area) prominently featuring one of the poem’s most familiar lines, ”We must love one another or die.”

Surely, however, it shared the somber honors with Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which appeared on the back cover of the New Yorker after 9/11.

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Praising the mutilated world…

Could the poem for World War I be Philip Larkin‘s MCMXIV? It’s getting a lot of play this month, during the centenary of the beginning of the Great War.  The poem was first published in 1964, fifty years after the events it describes, in the collection Whitsun Weddings. 

A few words from critics about Larkin that I found along the way: Andrew Sullivan feels that Larkin “has spoken to the English in a language they can readily understand of the profound self-doubt that this century has given them.” X.J. Kennedy wrote that Larkin’s oeuvre is  “a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight.” J. D. McClatchy said that Larkin wrote “in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires.”

XCMXIV is only one remarkable sentence long  (mind the punctuation), and describes the enlistment of naïve young men at the war’s outset. Read it, and hear it, in the video below.

 

Genocide: “That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”

August 10th, 2014
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13th century Tomb of Jonah. It’s history now.

On Friday, we said the “g” word has a lot of gravitas. An unnamed government official agreed in the most literal way: “That word has a lot of weight.” But this weekend post from Politico has left me more confused than ever:

But Thursday morning, the urgency to act in Iraq became clear: Obama’s advisers warned that there would likely be a genocide.

“I had not heard the word ‘genocide’ used in the Situation Room before,” the official said. “That word has a lot of weight.”

The reports from the intelligence community and the State Department were vivid and compelling, the official said: People were dying of hunger and thirst, women risked being enslaved and the existence of a religious minority looked imperiled. It more than met the legal definition of genocide, aides told Obama.

“While we have faced many difficult humanitarian challenges, this was in a different category,” the official said. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things we have confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature, the scale of it, the fact this is a whole people. That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”

I’m somewhat flabbergasted by this report. Tens of thousands of Yazidis had been cornered on a mountain, and were already burying scores of children, the ill, and the elderly in shallow graves after they had died of hunger or thirst. Clearly the ISIS intent was to kill without mercy adherents of the fascinating “devil-worshipping” religion – and those plans were not a possible genocide, but one that was well underway. As we wrote on Friday, Norm Naimark defined genocide as “the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” So how many have to be “eliminated” before it is considered genocide? How many murdered to determine intent (even when the intent has been openly stated already)?

obama3I’m glad the horrific situation with the little-known Yezidis finally inspired some action, but I have been tracking the genocidal intent toward Iraqi Christians for months and waving my arms and jumping up and down about it (read the links on the Wikipedia entry here for some of the history). It’s too bad the ancient Chaldean, Melkite, Syriac Armenian, and Assyrian churches in Iraq, who numbered 1.5 million adherents a decade ago, failed to capture the public attention in quite the same way. About 200,000 are now fleeing their homes, given the choice of leaving fast with nothing but the clothes on their backs or being slaughtered. This may be about the total of all the Iraqi Christians left, and Mosul for the first time in 2,000 years has been emptied of them.

Clearly, words matter. This raises another question about genocide: is it only the most camera-ready situations that get labeled genocide? Only those people who manage to capture the public fancy?

If it hadn’t been for the Yezidis and the Kurds, would we be allowing the remainder of these Christians, and other minorities, to be robbed, beaten, raped, mutilated, beheaded, crucified, and otherwise killed or put to flight? What about the horrific massacres of Shia minorities (read about it here)? If no one calls it genocide, did it not happen? If a tree falls in the forest…

When is murder genocide? Obama drops the “g” word.

August 8th, 2014
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The word that gives gravitas.

It was, perhaps, his most statesmanlike moment: a president brought to the decision he didn’t want to make, to defend a far-off nation he’d hoped was part of our nation’s past. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said in a somber statement delivered from the State Dining Room. “Well, today America is coming to help.”  The New York Times described the situation with a certain amount of prissiness:

Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Mr. Obama also said that American military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq, having fled the militants, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who threaten them with what Mr. Obama called “genocide.”

Dropping the “g” word gives gravitas to any presidential statement. What Mr. Obama “called” genocide presumably included not only the attempt to wipe the small tribe of Yezidis off the face of the earth by allowing them to die of thirst and hunger on a mountain, but also the attempt to erase 2,000 years of Christian history in Iraq, along with its Chaldean, Assyrian, and other adherents (some of whom are the last speakers of Aramaic anywhere – we wrote about that here), along with the massacre of hundreds of young Shia men at Takrit, with more, much more, to come.

If that’s not genocide, what is? What does it take to get the scare quotes off? It’s a more complicated question than might first appear. The current definition includes the planned elimination of national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. In that case, the definition definitely embraces what is happening in Iraq today, even if carried out by a non-governmental actor.

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Genocide as “the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” (Photo: John LeSchofs)

However, Norman Naimark, author of  Stalin’s Genocides, argues that we need a much broader definition of genocide, one that includes nations killing social classes and political groups. His case in point: Joseph Stalin. I wrote about this a couple years ago, here – it turns out that the Soviet genocidaire had a hand in deciding how we define the word genocide.  The Soviet delegation to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide vetoed any definition that might indict its own leader, who killed 15-20 million of his own people.

Accounts “gloss over the genocidal character of the Soviet regime in the 1930s, which killed systematically rather than episodically,” said Naimark. In the process of collectivization, for example, 30,000 kulaks were killed directly, mostly shot on the spot. About 2 million were forcibly deported to the Far North and Siberia.

He argues that the Soviet elimination of a social class, the kulaks (who were higher-income farmers), and the subsequent killer famine among all Ukrainian peasants – as well as the notorious 1937 order No. 00447 that called for the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people” – were, in fact, genocide.

“I make the argument that these matters shouldn’t be seen as discrete episodes, but seen together,” said Naimark, who argues that social classes and political groups should be considered in the definition of the “g” word. “It’s a horrific case of genocide – the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.”

Read “Stalin killed millions. A Stanford historian answers the question, was it genocide?” here.  (We’ve written about Norm elsewhere, here and here and here and here.) Also, Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, and Norm on genocide here.

Postscript: Here’s more: “Isis persecution of Iraqi Christians has become genocide, says [sic] religious leaders” in The Guardian. You mean marking homes with a “nun” sign; torturing, mutilating, raping Iraqi Christians; the destruction of 1,800-year-old churches and shrines; beheading children and crucifying adult adherents; burning homes and driving thousands of people from their homes with a warning to convert or be put to the sword – that didn’t count already? Is it  only the success of the mission what determines the label “genocide,” rather than the intent? In that case, the Holocaust was not genocide because it failed to kill every Jew.

What he said.

August 7th, 2014
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“…atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.”

George Orwell 1942

 

 

(Thanks, Dan Rifenburgh)

The “Great War” centenary: Henry James saw it all

August 5th, 2014
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James.

“The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness… is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.”

– Henry James, August 5, 1914

 

 

 

What’s Jon Stewart telling the young journos at the Michigan Daily?

August 4th, 2014
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420maynardVia the Michigan Daily grapevine, I heard that Jon Stewart would be larnin’ the current crop of journalists at 420 Maynard, with help from Neetzan Zimmerman, former editor of Gawker.  The old building where I spent most of my time as a University of Michigan undergraduate looks far more spacious, far less cramped, than it appeared in real life decades ago – that’s the camera work, I suspect. However, this may be the real innovation: it looks much cleaner than I remember it, as if someone shrank the whole building and dunked it repeatedly in a bucket of soap and bleach. What accounts for the change? No more printer’s ink and typewriter ribbons make for less smeared surfaces, most probably – we were one of the last holdouts for hot-type presses, locking up the paper the old-fashioned way at 1:40 a.m., six nights a week. And of course nobody smokes cigarettes anymore. In the background of the clip, I see the refrigerator in place of the funky old machine where we used to get small, 5-cent Coca Colas in thick green bottles. We lived on those, and took pride that we were considered the New York Times of university newspapers.

What does all this have to do with now, now, now, and finding click-bait? Let the experts tell you how in this short clip.

Meanwhile, you can also see the historic Michigan Daily building for yourself. And maybe you’ll pick up some tips from Jon or Neetzan. I picked up one of his tips in this headline. But I skipped the advice about the side-boobs. (But what the hell, I didn’t spend 15 minutes on the headline, anyway.)

Happy 195th birthday, Herman Melville!

August 1st, 2014
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What he looked like.

Herman Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in November 1851: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” The book, of course, was Moby Dick. Funny, he doesn’t look like a lamb. See right. He’s kind of a hunk, in a 19th-century sort of way.

Sheila O’Malley of Sheila Variations writes of the two authors: “They were dear friends and there were many dark years in Melville’s life, when his work was either not being published or being published and ignored when Hawthorne was one of Melville’s only champions. Melville opened his heart to Hawthorne, in letters – about what he was going through, what he was working on with Moby Dick – and, like a great artistic friend and mentor should, Hawthorne never said, ‘Don’t you think you need to scale it down a bit?’ or ‘Who will want to read 20 consecutive chapters about the etymology of blubber?’ No. Hawthorne basically just kept saying to his friend, ‘Keep going. It’s brilliant. Keep going.’” He did! So happy 195th birthday, Herman! From all of us!

She continues:

I read Moby Dick in high school and despised it. I thought it was one of the most boring pointless things I had ever read. It was on our summer reading list, and I clearly remember forcing myself to read the damn thing, during the dog days of August … nearly crying from the psychological boredom. Whatever, man … Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, endless discourses on blubber … I was 16. I DIDN’T GET IT.

Cut to many many years later. 2001, to be exact. I read it in the spring of 2001. Around that time I decided to systematically go back and re-read all of the books I had been forced to read in high school (which, obviously, made me despise them at the time). I read The Scarlet Letter (excerpt here) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (excerpt here) and many others. Moby Dick is such a massive book, and I had hated it so much when I first read it that I hesitated to put myself through it again.

And honestly – it blew the top of my head off. Every page. Every page.

I have rarely had such an exciting reading experience as that one. I didn’t want it to end. I underlined passages feverishly. I put exclamations points in the margins next to particularly amazing sentences. Honestly. It blew me away.

Here’s a couple notable quotes from Melville himself. The first was unburied by colleague Hilton Obenzinger for Facebook celebrations today:.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

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What he thought he looked like.

This one is from friend Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.:

“To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”

A few lingering thoughts on yesterday’s post about the current production of Orson Welles‘s Moby Dick – Rehearsed at Stanford. I said Ahab’s face (portrayed by the face of Bay Area actor Rod Gnapp), was a “rictus of resentment,” or words to that effect. It got me to thinking … isn’t that always what revenge is about? To say someone is “obsessed with revenge” makes them sound big and grand and epic and Old Testament-y.  Resentment makes us sound so … so little, so peevish, so trivial. But isn’t resentment, really, what Ahab is about? He goes about jabbing creatures that never harmed him any with sharp spears and then takes it amiss that one of them strikes back. He has an inflated sense of himself  and his importance (“I’d strike the sun if it struck me!”) and takes Moby Dick’s behavior personally. Clearly, I’ve been reading too much René Girard lately; he’s always one to puncture big, grand, romantic emotions that turn out to be rather little, commonplace, self-centered delusions. Looks like I prefer lambs, after all. And not for eating.

birthday cake“Parmacetty” is used several times in the Orson Welles script – “the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!”  It sounded familiar. Where does the word come from? Where had I heard it before? I went to my OED. I squinted and squinted, since I’ve lost my lorgnette, and finally resorted to the internet OED, which calls the word “obscure,” a variant of spermaceti, “with simplification of the initial consonant cluster.” Here we go! First usage was 1545, but third is in William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Pt. 1, when Hotspur jeers at a perfumed soldier wannabe who was telling him that “the soveraignest thing on earth Was Parmacitie, for an inward bruise.”  I knew I’d heard it recently! Read about our Twelfth Night with Henry IV here. But Shakespeare’s parmacetty is another word for the herb “Shepherd’s Purse.”

Meanwhile, and once again, happy birthday, Herman!
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