Helen Pinkerton names “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read.”

August 28th, 2014
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Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

Helen, me, and the late, great Turner Cassity

We’ve known poet and historian Helen Pinkerton for ohhh, a zillion or two zillion years. We’ve written about her on the Book Haven here and here – and also for a Stanford Magazine article here. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and just received this email this week. We thought it was worth a share with you. You will recognize the book she mentions from our plug for the NYRB Classics’ “Classics and Coffee Club” here.  We showed the book. We showed our cup of coffee. We even had a nice quote from the book: “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But alas, we actually haven’t had the time to actually read the book. Not yet. But soon.

Meanwhile, here’s Helen’s mini-review, and more:

“About a year ago Steven Shankman recommended to me Vassily Grossman‘s novel, Life and Fate, and had sent me several essays he has written on it. I finished it recently and found it possibly the greatest novel I have ever read. He creates a world – actually, two worlds, the Russian and the German – of believable human characters, who try to live worthy lives under a totalitarian government that is structured to destroy their humanity by bringing out the worst in each of them. Chapter after chapter unfolds individual dramas, wherein moral choices are made that are lived with and often died by.

nyrb“Meanwhile, spurred by Grossman’s vision, I have been catching up on the history of the period 1917-1945 in Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries. I haven’t read Robert Conquest‘s great work, but I know what he has revealed about those years. And I have read some Solzhenitzyn, Winston Churchill‘s history of that period, and others, in a search into what actually took place during the years that I was growing up in Montana, sheltered from those far-off terrors. Now, in my old age, at least I’ve become sharply aware of a potential repeat in our time of the great evil that human beings can inflict on one another, when driven by a false and monstrous ideology. We are this very week presently confronted with the apparition of an Islamic Caliphate, announced by Bakr al-Baghdadi, which is appallingly similar to the rise of Hitler in 1933. I congratulate you on your perception and your ability to write with such good judgment about what is going on. And I agree that ‘nihilism’ is a most appropriate word for the intellectual root of it all. Keep it up!”

The Islamic Caliphate?  That is sooooo last week!  Helen is referring to my discussions of the parsimonious, reluctant, and even timid use of the word “genocide” in the last month here and here, and the grisly slaughter of American journalist James Foley. (Believe me, they’re off to a much faster start than the Nazis were. The Nazis weren’t sending off snuff videos and films of mass executions as part of their world debut.) As for “nihilism” … more on that in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, “Life’s grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction…” But they’re trying. Really they are.

R.I.P. Simin Behbahani, “lioness of Iran” and first recipient of Stanford’s Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom

August 26th, 2014
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“To stay alive, you must slay silence … / to pay homage to being, you must sing.”

Iran’s leading poet Simin Behbahani died last week in Teheran, of natural causes at the age of 87. This is no small accomplishment in post-1979 Iran.

According to the New York Times obituary here: “In 2006, the Iranian authorities shut down an opposition newspaper for printing one of her works. In 2010, when she was 82 and nearly blind, she was barred from boarding a Paris-bound plane and interrogated through the night regarding poems she had written about Iran’s 2009 elections, which were considered fraudulent by government opponents.”

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“I have put my poems forward for everyone to see.”

Her literary awards include the 2013 Janus Pannonius Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club, which carries a 50,000-euro prize. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. She also was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammett grant in 1998 and, in 1999, the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for her struggle for freedom of expression in Iran.

But there was one award not mentioned in the obituaries: in March 2008 she was the first recipient of Stanford’s Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom. The $10,000 prize was part of the Daryabari Persian Studies Fund, endowed by Bita Daryabari to support and promote teaching, research and scholarship relating to Iran, including the area formerly known as Persia, and people of Iranian or Persian heritage. I wrote about it here. Here’s what I wrote way back then:

Behbahani is one of the most prominent figures of modern Persian literature and one of the most outstanding among contemporary Persian poets, as well as a leading dissident. She is Iran’s national poet and an icon of the Iranian intelligentsia and literati, who affectionately refer to her as the “lioness of Iran.” Her poems are quoted like aphorisms and proverbs.

Behbahani was born in 1927 in Tehran. Her father was a writer and newspaper editor; her mother was a noted feminist, teacher, writer, newspaper editor and poet. Behbahani started writing poetry at 12 and published her first poem at 14.

She has expanded the range of the traditional Persian verse forms and has produced some of the most significant works of Persian literature of the 20th century. While many poets of her time embraced free verse, Behbahani’s signature writing focused on the traditional ghazal form and took it to new lyrical heights—with a modern twist in perspective and voice. For example, while the form traditionally is a male poet courting a woman, in Behbahani’s verse the man is the object.

She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. She also was awarded a Human Rights Watch-Hellman/Hammett grant in 1998 and, in 1999, the Carl von Ossietzky Medal for her struggle for freedom of expression in Iran.

Behbahani said: “I have put my poems forward for everyone to see. What can they be from the year 1979 onward? We wrote our books not with ink but with blood. No doubt, the same is true about the works of every other poet.”

As she has written in one of her poems: “To stay alive, you must slay silence … / to pay homage to being, you must sing.”

I dropped in for the award ceremony six years ago. I didn’t stay long – I had another appointment, and the proceedings were in Farsi, anyway – but she was a grand presence, gracious and magnanimous. She seemed to me a Persian Anna Akhmatova.

Joseph Brodsky on “the spirit of tolerance, the spirit of intolerance”

August 23rd, 2014
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We liked the “merciless honesty” of the Avedon photo, too.

NEWS FLASH! Newly discovered 11-year-old review says great things about Joseph Brodsky: Conversations! Bless you, Theo, whoever you are! Much to our surprise, we just learned that long ago, on September 23, 2003, we got a nice write-up in a blog called Private Intellectual, which still exists today (though Theo seems to have disappeared from it) – this is not something to be taken for granted in the blogosphere, which has much deadwood floating in it. We ran across the review when we were looking for an article on Madame de Staël, of all things.

Theo lamented that the book was not published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, he wished it had been reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, he decried the lack of public notice (well, we got a little notice, in the Times Literary Supplement, among others…) What can we say? We love him.

Here‘s what he wrote, way back when, a year after the book was published:

The role Edward Teller played in freeing Joseph Brodsky, is told rather briefly in the single most rewarding tome of what the darkening Atlantic skies over Providence, Rhode Island, tell me has already been my summer reading.

In San Francisco two months ago, I picked up Joseph Brodsky. Conversations, at City Lights Bookstore (Ferlinghetti was winding down, in the background, from preaching in the Beatnik mode: a Jeremiad against this country in the name of this country – the classic exemplum being Ginsberg‘s “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. /America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. (…)/America when will we end the human war?/ Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb /(…) America when will you be angelic?” ).

The book is a compilation of interviews with the poet recorded throughout Brodsky’s short life, collected from wide and far by Cynthia L. Haven. Because many of the pieces are from small literary magazines and many of the questions are outright stupid – no literary publisher – not even JB’s own Roger Strauss (not a publisher, more like my living room, JB said), seems to have wanted to bring them out. Not even the merciless honesty of the cover photo by Richard Avedon caught the eye of Manhattan’s literati. One wonders whether if this book would have been brought out by FSG, it would have been hailed by Michiko Kakutani as “monumental, of the essence, the poet continues to speak from beyond the grave”, etc. but since it comes from the Mississippi State University Press [No – the University Press of Mississippi's "Literary Conversations" series – ED.]  it has been utterly neglected – a decadent snobbery of the worst kind; for I daresay this is a posthumous collection of perhaps the greatest poet who lived on earth when we did (born as we were, after Auden and Celan‘s deaths).

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Mississippi (Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt)

At the end of the day, Brodsky being a blues singer of sorts (one of his rare poems in English is even titled Blues – “Eighteen years I’ve spent in Manhattan,” it starts), it’s just as well that the little book’s from Mississippi. [We might also note JB's beloved cat was named "Mississippi" – ED]

Ask a stupid question, as the saying wrongly goes, get a stupid answer. Brodsky answers some of the most embarrassing and awful questions (an interviewer asking about his internment for manual labor in the polar circle as if it was a trip to Disneyland), in ways only he could. They are mostly unedited, and brilliant. I give one little excerpt, since no one anywhere seems to have discussed a book that deserved much more attention. I am struck by the following, from as far back as the pivotal year 1989:

InterviewerAndre Malraux said that the twenty-first century will be either spiritual or it will not be at all.

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He said lots.

Brodsky It may be … Well, Malraux said so many things.The French are very fond of making up reasons, ever since La Rochefoucauld, and presumably before, I don’t know. Milosz thinks that we are entering, the world is entering an entirely nihilistic stage. I am not so sure of that, although on the face of it, reality doesn’t conform to any ethical standards, as we see it. It’s getting rather paganistic. I think what may emerge – and this is on of my greatest apprehensions – what may emerge is a tremendous religious strife, not exactly religious, between the Moslem world and the world that is vaguely Christian. The latter won’t be able to defend itself, the former will be terribly assertive. It’s simply for the numerical reasons, for pure demographic reasons, that I perceive the possibility for such a strife. I am not a sage, I am not a prophet, I can’t presume to say what the twenty-first century is going to be like. To say the least, I am not going to be there, for one thing, so why would I bother … And it was easier for Malraux, it was clear that he wouldn’t be there, so it was easy to fantasize … The foreseeable future, that is, foreseeable by me, which again can be terribly erroneous, is precisely the conflict of the spirit of tolerance with the spirit of intolerance, and there are all sorts of attempts to resolve that conflict now. The pragmatists try to suggest that there is some equivalence between these principles. I don’t believe that for a minute. I think that the Moslem notion of universal order should be squashed and put out of existence. We are, after all, six centuries older than the Moslems spiritually. So, I think we have a right to say what’s right and what’s wrong …

Perhaps Michiko would like to review the Italian edition, which my publisher tells me will be coming out next year with Adelphi.

Book Haven remembers World War I – send us some un-famous poems, letters, reminiscences

August 21st, 2014
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George in WWI

A Cambridge man.

A few days ago, we discussed Philip Larkin‘s “MCMXIV” as a candidate for the iconic poem of World War I, as we commemorate the centenary of that war’s beginning.  Others had other nominations. Joseph Koczera wrote, “I always think of Wilfred Owen‘s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ as the WWI poem, though I like Larkin’s more – it’s kind of an apples-and-orange comparison, though, as they reflect very different perspectives and voices. Given its content, I can kind of see how ‘MCMXIV’ fits the spirit of the centenary more exactly than ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ would.” Shirley Huang wrote, “Paul Fussell’s ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ does a good job of exploring WWI and lost innocence as reflected in literature and language.” Book Haven penpal George suggested Robert Graves’s “Recalling War,” A.E. Houseman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenary Soldiers,” and Thomas Hardy’s “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations.’”

Then Lisa Trei (she’s written guest posts on Estonia at the Book Haven here and here) sent me something privately – a poem her grandfather had written at 21, while serving in France. Lieutenant George P. McNamee, Jr. served in the 50th Artillery Coast Artillery Corps of the U.S. Army. He had been a student at the University of Oregon from 1914-17, then volunteered in the Oregon National Guard, which became part of the U.S. Army during the war. He was stationed in Abbeville, France, when the Armistice was signed in November 1918. After the war, he attended Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge. The San Franciscan died in 1990 at the age of 97. “He was very proud of his service in the U.S. Army,” Lisa wrote.

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Granddaughter

That gave us an idea: We welcome any poems, letters, or other reminiscences of World War I, for the rest of the the month of August – maybe longer, we’ll see. Yes, yes, yes – we know we’re late to the table. The big centenary events happened earlier this month. But 2014 is still a hundred years after 1914, and will be till the end of the year, by our reckoning. And, for that matter, it’s still August. This is not a literary contest. We won’t be judging or awarding prizes. Our aim is simply to commemorate the soldiers and civilians of that long and terrible war – in particular, those who haven’t been quoted in articles or interviewed on TV,  those who haven’t written books, or been written about in books. We’re looking for, as Lisa put it, the un-famous poem, or letter from the front, or reminiscence.

Like this one:

Grandpa's poem

“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.


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