Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Moby Dick" Revisited

Melville probed deeply into the American psyche, capturing its essential features, perhaps for all time. It really is a bloody business.


In Search of the Giants of the Sea

By Philip Hoare; Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

“Moby-Dick” is often viewed as a singularly American creation. Part of the beguiling genius of “The Whale,” a rhapsodic meditation on all things cetacean, is that Philip Hoare so suggestively explores the English origins of Herman Melville’s masterpiece while providing his own quirky, often revelatory take on the more familiar aspects of the novel. But “The Whale” is about much more than the literary sources of “Moby-Dick.” Always in the foreground of Hoare’s narrative is the whale itself, a creature that haunts and fascinates him as he travels to old whaling ports in both Britain and America, where he speaks with cetologists, naturalists, museum curators and former whalers on a quest to understand the whale, the cosmos and himself.

At least to the human eye, a sperm whale is a profoundly weird-looking animal, and Hoare makes the weirdness seem somehow familiar. The pale interior of the whale’s mouth “glows like a half-open fridge.” When the whale closes its mouth, the teeth of its lower jaw “fit,” Hoare informs us, “into its toothless upper mandible like pins in an electrical socket.” Hoare is always on the lookout for the revealing detail. When he visits the whaling mu­seum in New Bedford, Mass., he notices that the recently installed skeleton of a whale “incontinently . . . drips oil, like sap from a newly cut conifer.” He also has a finely tuned sense of perspective and pacing. As we read about how the six-man crew of a 19th-century whaleboat pursued its prey, we suddenly find ourselves under­water. “A mile below, the whale might be scooping up squid in the silent depths,” Hoare writes, “unaware of the danger that lurked above, the shapes that sculled over the ceiling of its world.”

Hoare is particularly insightful about Melville’s relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author whose influence turned what might have been, in Hoare’s words, “an exercise in propaganda for the American whaling industry” into “a warning to all mankind of its own evil.” It is a fascinating process to contemplate, how a 31-year-old former teacher and whaleman came to write a book “that saw into the future even as it looked into the past.” For a few brief months, Melville was in that unsustainable zone of miraculous creation, channeling a text that is as close to scripture as an American novelist is likely to write. “Each time I read it,” Hoare insists, “it is as if I am reading it for the first time.”

In one of the more entertaining episodes of “The Whale,” Hoare ventures to Cape Cod to trace Henry David Thoreau’s engagement with that region’s wave-battered coast. In Provincetown, he finds himself in a boat with the redoubtable and magnificently named Stormy Mayo, a Cape Codder who has devoted his life to studying and protecting the 350 to 400 remaining Atlantic right whales. Hoare describes how Mayo — wearing a hockey mask and a helmet equipped with a video camera — tries to untangle right whales from fishing nets. When Hoare finally sees a right whale for the first time, he is overwhelmed not by wonder but by the smell, which he describes as “somewhere between a cow’s fart and a fishy wharf.”

It is near the British whaling port of Hull in East Yorkshire, on the banks of the Humber River, that Hoare’s pilgrimage leads him to the “English Anchor” of “Moby-Dick.” In the great hall of the expansive manor house Burton Constable, Hoare comes face to face with “the only physical relics of Melville’s book”: pieces of the skeleton described by Thomas Beale in “The Natural History of the Sperm Whale.” Melville quoted relentlessly from Beale’s treatise, providing his own book with the factual ballast that kept it from being overwhelmed by its many literary influences, which in addition to Hawthorne included Shakespeare, Thomas Browne and a host of others.

Hoare provides a graphic account of whaling’s “historical crescendo” during the second half of the 20th century, when more than 72,000 whales were killed in a single year. Elsewhere he evokes a possible future in which the rising sea levels associated with global warming will allow the whale to become the planet’s dominant species “with only distant memories of the time when they were persecuted by beings whose greed proved to be their downfall.” As it turns out, whales have already ventured beyond this paltry ­planet. Unlike any other known substance, sperm whale oil works as a lubricant in the extra­ordinarily cold temperatures of outer space. “The Hubble space telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti,” Hoare writes, “seeing six billion years into the past.” But that’s not all. The scientists who fitted out the Voyager probe decided that the song of the humpback was the best way to greet any possible aliens. This means that long after all of us are gone, the call of the whale will be traveling out into the distant reaches of the universe.

Hoare is to “The Whale” what Ishmael is to “Moby-Dick”: the genial, deceptively complex narrator who reveals only those personal details that are essential to his narrative. Since this is a book about deep divers, Hoare starts with an account of his near birth within a submarine. His parents had just begun a tour of a naval sub tied up to the docks in Portsmouth, England, when his very pregnant mother felt her first contraction. “For a moment,” Hoare writes, “it seemed as though I was about to appear below the waterline.” As it turned out, Hoare was born not beneath the waves but at his parents’ home in nearby Southampton, the famous port to which he returns near the conclusion of the book to discover that his mother is approaching the end. After a night on a cot beside her hospital bed, he awakens in the early morning just as she ceases to breathe, “leaving me,” he writes in an evocation of Ishmael’s fate in the epilogue of “Moby-Dick,” “another orphan.”

In the end Hoare plunges into the amniotic waters surrounding the Azores, where he sees his first living sperm whale. As he snorkels beside the huge creature he can feel its sonarlike clicks resonating through his body. “My rib cage had become a sound box,” he writes. “The whale was creating its own picture of me in its head; . . . an outline of an alien in its world.” Coupled with the recognition of his own inherent strangeness is the realization that this is a female sperm whale and that there is “an invisible umbilical between us.” And so “The Whale” finishes where it began, in the midst of a birth at the surface of a deep and mysterious sea.

Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of “In the Heart of the Sea” and, most recently, “Mayflower.” His next book, “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn,” will be published in May.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Close Call by Basharat Peer

A short and simple story about life in a conflict zone, an occupied territory. In this case it is Kashmir but it could be in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Uganda, the Congo, Nigeria, anywhere political divisions are drawn along lines of violence. Ambition never rests, for some the conflict is just another opportunity to grab power and get rich. The innocent suffer, law and justice are suspended. What do the marines swooping down in their helicopters, drones or patrolling in their humvees really know?


"It was a miracle," Father said.

They were at a relative's wedding in Uncle Rahman's village, three miles from our ancestral home. The ceremonies were over by 1 P.M., and after lunch, they left in a car with my two cousins. The care moved out of the village, and they traveled on a narrow dirt road running past a cluster of houses built on a plateau on their right.

"I saw these two young men sitting on the plateau across the stream. They were looking at us," Father said. " Your mother pointed at one of them. He had something like a calculator in his hand."

The car slowed down. "We were crossing a concrete water pipe running through the road."

Then there was a loud explosion

" It was like a strong blast of air lifting the car."
The force of the blast pushed the car off the road. Bricks and stones torn from the road fell on the car roof.

For a few minutes they lay huddled, waiting for possible gunfire. The calculator Father had seen was a detonator; the two young men across the road had planted the mine inside the water pipe. Luckily, they had forgotten to block one end of the pipe. The force of the explosion had veered off toward the unblocked end of the pipe, and the car tossed in the other direction. They escaped with minor bruises. Physics saved my family.

"But why you?" I asked him. He had no answers. Militants had been killing pro-Indian politicians, police, or anybody they perceived as working against them. But civil servants like my father, whose job it was to look after daily administration, were rarely targeted.

Over the next few days, friends and relatives brought news and the name of the man who had convinced the militants to kill my father. He was a man of political ambition who my family had known for a long time. I shall call him Iago. A month before the attack, he had met my father in his office. Father was the head of administration for the district and had to decide various disputes between organizations and individuals. One of Iago's rivals, also a man of political ambition, had applied in my father's office for a certain permit. Iago wanted that permission denied. Father told Iago that, legally, his rival had the right to that permission. "But you can skirt around that if you want. It is a little known law," Iago told Father. Father disagreed, and Iago left, sullen.

Iago was the characteristic ambitious operator from a conflict zone, flirting with pro-Indian groups during the day, feeding, sheltering, donating money to the separatist anti-Indian militant groups by night. One of the commanders in the biggest militant group operating in the area, Hizbul Mujahideen, was from Iago's village. While the militant was on the run, Iago had supported his family. After his meeting with my father, Iago sent word to the militant commander: "Peer is dangerous for you. He is working to ensure that village elections go smoothly." Militant groups had called for a boycott of all elections- village, district, state- which they saw as an exercise in strengthening Indian rule in Kashmir.

Iago's men convinced them if the militant boycott of the village elections were to work well, they had to get my father out of the way. A month later the bomb went off. In the weeks following the attack, hundreds of people visited our house, and the phone never stopped ringing. Iago did not call.

Much later, I bumped into him on the street. He shook my hand, complained that I didn't visit his family, asked about Father's well being, and paid him many compliments. I kept up the pretense, smiled back, and asked about his family.

Father was scared and even stopped making the twenty-minute journey from his official house in Anantnag to our village. A few months later, he left Anantnag for a new job in the relatively safe Srinagar.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeff

There is a common misconception that "the Taliban" only came into being in 1994. In fact, the word Taliban is the plural form of Talib, meaning 'student'. As such, as long as there have been madrassas, there have been religious students or Taliban. The Taliban mostly eschewed politics, but beginning in the late 70s the government of Afghanistan tried to draw them in by pressuring them to be involved in land reform, or by threatening them in other ways.

As an ideology, Communism never had broad popular appeal. This was especially true in southern Afghanistan where, once the government implemented substantive land and social reforms that infringed on local marriage customs, land ownership and education, active resistance began on a small scale in 1979. The people were even more concerned with the government's suppression of local figures of authority. The Khans, Maliks, Sayyeds and Mullahs all started to disappear; in many cases imprisoned and executed. The murder of a teacher in a small village provoked demonstrations which were cruelly repressed by government forces in the area. Soon small resistance bases were established and massive numbers of Afghans were fleeing to Pakistan, among them myself and many members of my extended family.

At the time, the Taliban groups were somewhat set apart from the other mujahedeen, because they followed certain rules and habits which the other fighters considered too strenuous, or ascetic. Fighting alongside the Taliban in the jihad against the Communists and their Soviet supporters meant more than just being a mujahed. The Taliban followed a strict routine in which everyone who fought alongside us had to participate, without exception. We woke before sunrise to perform the morning prayer in the mosque. Afterward we would sit together and recite Surat Yasin Sharif* every morning in case we were martyred that day. Some would leave for the front, others would tend to prisoners, the wounded or spend some time studying. Apart from dire emergencies, during operations or enemy assaults, our mujahedeen were engaged in study. Senior Taliban members would teach the younger seekers, and the senior Mawlawi (clergy) would instruct older Taliban members. In this way, a common and illiterate mujahed could become a Talib within two or three years. I carried out both duties on the front; I would learn from my instructor and I would teach others the basics of reading and writing.

We all studied, and so I was able to continue my religious education. People who didn't want to study went to fight under other commanders. Not all fronts worked in this manner, but we were Taliban and this was our way. We wanted to stay clean, to avoid sinning, and to regulate our behavior.

The Taliban constituted the only legitimate authority on the shari'a in the greater Kandahar area and were best known for the formal justice system and and mediation services that provided to all the groups in southern Afghanistan.. These courts would adjudicate on issues small and large, from petty theft to murder and represented the apex of religious scholars' influence in the region prior to the later best- known Taliban movement which rose up after the withdrawal of the Soviets, the subsequent collapse of the central government and the anarchic period of gang warfare, mass theft, corruption and rape that followed.

The exact numbers and strengths of various factions and jihadi fronts during the war against the communists are still vigorously debated to this day but everyone still alive and with an opinion agrees that the Taliban played a significant role in the greater Kandahar area. Mujahedeen groups there worked in a much more co-operative manner than others elsewhere in the country. Everyone also agrees to the ferocity of the war in southern Afghanistan at that time. The human, social and agricultural costs of the conflict were massive. By 1987 even the City of Kandahar itself was one big ruin and the Soviets had been forced to withdraw their troops from the country.

By 1992 the Afghan government also started to lose its grip on the country and plans were laid to hand over Kandahar to the mujahedeen parties. The forces of the Taliban, however, were excluded from these deals and the other commanders rushed in to grab whatever they fancied. From this point on no rules obtained. Anything was possible, from robbery, murder to rape. Workshops, mills, factories and industrial-commercial assets of every variety were seized and sold off. Soon the first clashes between various topakiyaan (gunman) factions took place; no more law, no more order. By April 1993 these clashes were indiscriminately killing scores of civilians.

During this period I and many of the Taliban commanders had returned to our homes and banded together to study and teach in the districts outside Kandahar. It soon became evident that we would have to do more than that to secure Peace and the Rule of Law. Thus, the second phase of our jihad began, under the elected command of Mullah Omar.

Verily We shall give life
To the dead, and We record
That which they send before
And that which they leave
Behind, and of all things
Have We taken account
In a clear Book
(of evidence).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Osama Issue by Abdul Salam Zaeef

As Ambassador to Pakistan I had a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's special envoy Francesc Vendrell in his office in Islamabad. He talked enthusiastically about handing over Osama bin Laden to America, saying that the Taliban should respect the decision of the UN. It was not the the UN's decision to discuss handing someone over to America, and it was also not their right, but they were being pressured by America. I told him I was not in a position to decide about Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, I was curious and asked him why the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan should hand him over to America. He was a wanted man in America; but Afghanistan had made no legal agreement with America that would oblige them to hand over individuals. Furthermore, how could he, representing the supposedly impartial UN, support a request without a legal basis? He did not answer my question but said, "Listen! The decision has been taken, and if you don't hand him over soon, America will take him by force."

I didn't doubt that America was preparing for war and that the UN was cooperating. Only when and how she would start her assault was unclear. "America might go to war", I said, "but she will never reach her objectives. A war will ruin her administration and ours, blood will flow, hostility will rise and Afghanistan will fall into war with itself and the world once again." But they never listened to me.

Contrary to all our efforts, the situation kept deteriorating with each passing day. Sanctions and other impositions were toughened and increased, relations turned from bad to worse and one event after another took place that spoiled each previous effort. This was the downward slope heading to the events of 11 September 2001, when the world was turned upside down. Our most troubled relationship was with the Americans, with whom we used to have frequent meetings. Their demands caused many problems. Above all America insisted that Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden or drive him from its territory to a country that would be willing to do so.

The Taliban, however, argued for a trial- to preserve the dignity of Oama bin Laden. At one point I discussed the issue with the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan- Kabir Mohabat- at his office late in the evening, long after office hours. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had come up with three possible solutions that they deemed satisfactory for both sides, and I explained all three to him in great detail that night:

Firstly, if America blames Osama bin Laden for the bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania, and can present evidence for its claim, it should present all its findings to the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will legally summon Osama bin Laden to court. If there is proof, he will be found guilty and will be punished according to the Islamic shari'a law.

Secondly, if America finds the first suggestion unpalatable because it does not recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan or because it does not believe in the independent, unbiased and impartial stance of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, the Emirate suggests that a new court be formed, chaired by the Attorney Generals of three Islamic countries, proceedings of which would be held in a fourth Islamic country. America would be able to present its evidence in this court and make its case against Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan will be a partner in this court and will ensure that Osama is present at the trial and stands to answer any questions and defend himself against any allegations. If Osama is unable to defend himself and is found guilty, he will be punished for his criminal deeds.

Thirdly, if America does not trust a court set up by three Islamic countries and does not accept or recognize the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, we can offer to curb any and all activities of Osama. He will be stripped of all communications equipment so that his outreach will be limited to his immediate refugee life here in Afghanistan, and the Emirate will ensure that he does not use its territory for any activity directed against another country.

America rejected all three of our proposals and insisted that the Emirate hand over Osama bin Laden unconditionally, saying that he would be tried in a fair and impartial court in the U.S. and be punished if found guilty. They wouldn't even consider a joint court comprising America and some Islamic countries, nor the UN court at the Hague that would at least have had some measure of independence and impartiality, and would have been an option that would have allowed both parties to keep face.

The Islamic Emirate had two principle objections to America's demand. First, if every country were to hand over any person deemed criminal by America, then America would de facto control the world. This would threaten the independence and sovereignty of all countries. Secondly, America's demands and its rejection of all the suggestions of the Emirate implied that there is no justice in the Islamic world, and with it no legal authority of Islam to implement justice and law among people. This stands in direct opposition to Islam itself and its system to protect the rights of the people and to punish criminals.

Christina Rocca, the Secretary of State for South Asian affairs, passed through Islamabad on tour and requested a visit. We met on 2 August 2001 at the American Embassy in Islamabad. She was concerned only with Osama. During our visit she flouted every diplomatic principle, and every single word she uttered was a threat, hidden or open. Our meeting was a battle of harsh rhetoric.

I held four meetings with the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan over the issue of Osama bin Laden, each without result. The last time I saw him was when he came to say goodbye. He told me he appreciated the good diplomatic relationship that we had cultivated and expressed his concern about the future and about forthcoming events that were likely to spell disaster. He believed that Osama remained a threat and would continue his fight against America. It was time to find a solution or the problem will get out of hand. The issue continued to be discussed in countless private parties and gatherings; America would drop all its other demands and formally recognize the Emirate if Osama was handed over.

When the attacks of 11 September 2001 took place on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, everything came to a standstill and the world was flipped on its back. The negotiation process was derailed by the events and all of us witnessed what happened next.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lord Byron's Honeymoon by Edna O'Brien

After the Ceremony, Lady Judith gave her son-in-law a tepid kiss, then to his annoyance there was a rowdy carillon of bells from the nearby Saxon church, muskets were fired and local miners in pantaloons enacted a version of a sword dance in which a fool figure was beheaded. Hobhouse presented Annabella with a set of Byron's poems bound in Moroccan leather, wishing her many years of happiness. With naivete, she said if she were not happy it would be her own fault.

Melancholy and worse characterized the forty-mile journey to Halnaby, another of the Milbanke houses, in Yorkshire, which Sir Ralph had loaned them for their honeymoon. Snow and rain outside and inside the carriage an eruption. Bare of all reason and even sanity, Byron embarked on a singing spree, then turned to her, saying he was a devil and that he would prove it, that he had committed crimes which she, for all her catechising, could not redeem him of and that she would pay for the insult of having refused him two years earlier. Moreover, her dowry was a pittance. At Durham, as joy bells rang out to honor their passing, the execration grew worse, presaging the three bizarre, unhinging weeks that in his blither moments he referred to as 'the treacle moon.'

Their arrival has the suspense and thrall of gothic fiction- a sprawling mansion, a fall of snow, servants holding lit tapers, noting that the bride looked listless and frightened and that her husband did not help her down from the carriage. And so began the most public marriage of any poet, so infamous in its own time that it was lampooned in John Bull magazine and the subject of endless scrutiny, helped by the confessions of Byron himself in his Memoirs, as Tom Moore recalled it, and by Lady Byron's numerous and increasingly incriminating testaments to her lawyers and afterwards for her own 'Histoire. Though professing to Moore a reluctance to 'profane the chaste mysteries of the Hymen', Byron, according to Moore, 'had' Lady Byron on the sofa before dinner.

His tenets regarding sleeping arrangements were categoric. Inquiring if she meant to sleep with him, he claimed to have an aversion to sleeping with any woman, but that she could if she wished, one animal being the same as the next, provided it was young. She who in her charter for a suitable husband ( in a letter to Lady Melbourne) had recoiled from insanity was to have her fill of it. Their wedding night has its literary correlation in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a crimson curtain catching fire, a hallucinating bridegroom believing he was in hell, then pacing the long ghostly gallery with his loaded pistols.

By morning Annabella would say that 'the deadliest chill' had fallen on her heart. By morning also she was to conceive of her first suspicion of Augusta ( Byron's half-sister), 'transient as lightning, but no less blasting.' Meeting her in the library, Byron waved a letter from Augusta in which she had addressed him as 'Dearest first and best of all human beings.' Augusta described being clairvoyantly at one with his agitation at the precise moment the marriage vows were exchanged in Seaham, likening it to a sea trembling when the earth shakes. The letter, as Annabella noted, affected him strangely and sent him ' into a kind of fierce and exalting transport.' There were many portents, such as a chance remark of hers on Dryden's Don Sebastian, the story of a sinning brother and sister, sent him into a violent rage as he took up his dagger, which was on the table next to his loaded pistols and disappearing to the gallery next to gallery that adjoined his bedroom.

In those black moods he hinted at unspeakable crimes that preyed upon him, saying that he had already fathered two natural children and that they were fools to have married. He then set about her re-education, telling her that right and wrong were merely conventional phrases. Morality was one thing in Constantinople and quite another in Durham or London. Yet his letters to the outside world were filled with his customary banter; to Lady Melbourne, not 'waxing confidential' any more, he said that Bell and he got along extremely well and so far she had not bored him.

His moods would run the whole gamut from taunts to savagery, to hallucination and even to momentary contriteness when he said she should have a softer pillow than his heart to rest on, and she retaliating by asking whose heart would break first, his or hers. She describes the tears that would suffuse his eyes, then freezing there and giving the appearance of an icy coldness. Soon she was writing to Augusta, her one solace, craven letters, asking that this sister-in-law be 'her only friend' and the crooked reply, 'Oh yes I will indeed be your only friend. Augusta's letters to her 'dearest sis' are masterpieces of ambivalence. Annabella is deemed the most sagacious person to have discovered the art of bringing B back to good humor an giggles and when Annabella, in glaring contradiction to her reserved nature, admits to her tireless enthusiasm for sex, even when menstruating, Augusta retaliates with a rapier thrust- 'I'm glad B's spirit does not decrease with the moon. I rather suspect he rejoices at the discovery of your ruling passions for mischiefs in private'

Before returning to London, Byron decided he would visit Six Mile Bottom, encouraging Bell to stay with her parents or go on to London, something she bridled at, what with her suspicions aroused.

When she crossed the threshold of that 'most inconvenient dwelling', she was to step into a sexual labyrinth. Augusta came from upstairs, her ringlets carefully coiled, and while in her letters sisterly sentiment at brimmed over, she shook Anabella's hand 'in a manner sedate and guarded', then embraced Byron, who was in great perturbation.

'We can amuse ourselves without you, my charmer' Annabella was told after supper, as Byron dispatched her to bed and so initiated the hideous game in which she would lie awake each night listening to their laughter in the room below and then hours later, 'his terrible step' as he arrived to bed drunk, swearing at Fletcher, who had the job of undressing him, then taunting her, 'Now I have her, you will find I can do without you as well in all ways.'

The fifteen days that followed were enough to send any young woman, let alone a bride who had scarcely left the cocoon of her family, into the throes of hysteria, but Annabella kept her composure, this self-command driving Byron to worse furies... cruel pantomimes and drunken ridicule. Yet Guss complied because Goose must not be driven to a tantrum or worse, a silent rage in which he might even stab himself. Lying on the sofa he insisted that both women embrace him so that he could then, in the grossest language, compare their ardor. He wrote to Hobhouse that he was 'working both women well', his own perfidy not dilated upon, except to had that it was tumblers of brandy at night and magnesia in the morning.

There were no confrontations, no showdowns, each playing her or his part in this macabre ritual. Just as Byron had lied to himself during the courtship, a lie that he was now exacting vengeance for, Annabella would construct her own edifice of lies. She was present when Byron arose at dawn and went across to Augusta's room and she was made barbarously aware of Augusta refusing him during her menstruation and then returning to make gross professions of desire for her. Yet she never questioned. She rationalized, equivocated, convinced herself that Augusta was a victim just as she herself was, that both were instruments of his brutishness. She even told herself that although Augusta submitted to his affections, 'she never appeared gratified by them.' Byron perhaps did not love her, but with perseverance and habit, to which he was susceptible, she might win over his affections.

The presence of children did not seem to intrude at all on the various and infernal parlor games, but according to Annabella's biographer, Byron did once point to Augusta's Medora and say 'You know that is my child,' then went on to calculate the time of Colonel Leigh's absence from the family home, proving that it could not be the husband's.

It was Augusta, ultimately, who instigated their departure, Byron reluctant to leave and as his wife noted, waving his handkerchief passionately, straining for a last glimpse; then sinking down beside her, he asked her what she thought of the other A.

To Tom Moore he was proud to announce that Bell was showing 'gestatery symptoms' but for her part, Annabella in her commonplace book wrote, 'My heart is withered away so I forgot my bread'...

For Lord Byron marriage was 'the graveyard of love.'

The End of Lord Byron

"But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."

-Don Juan III.88-

Caught in a downpour as he galloped with Gamba in the olive groves outside Missolonghi, he was soon after seized with cold shuddering fits, for which he was prescribed a hot bath and doses of castor oil. Within days, the fever had worsened and two more doctors were summoned, all at variance as to whether he had rheumatic, typhoid or malarial fever. None could agree, except that they bled him frequently, the lancet sometimes going to near the temporal artery, so that the blood could not be stopped; Dr. Parry vehemently trying to stop them and Byron in agony crying out 'Close the veins, close the veins.'

A few days later on Easter Sunday the startled and disbelieving group began to fear the worst or, as Dr. Bruno said, the cup of health was passing from His Lordship's lips. Byron himself recalled that long ago a clairvoyant had foretold misfortune for him in his thirty-seventh year. Outside the pestulent sirocco wind was blowing a hurricane, the rain fell with tropical violence, the bedroom a scene of confusion and despair, the warring doctors unmanned by grief. Byron finally agreed to the fourth bleeding because Bruno warned that if he didn't, the disease might act on his cerebral and nervous system, thereby depriving him of his reason. Thus he lay propped on a pillow, his head bandaged, the leeches along his temples discharging trickles of blood, slipping in and out of delirium, giving confused orders and wishes in both English and Italian, a melee tongues, the baffled onlookers helpless as to what to do.

A deathbed scene that many an artist would have painted, litres of blood in basins, wrung towels, lancets, Byron holding Dr. Parry's hand and at times weeping uncontrollably. Delacroix would have done so with poetic ghastliness, Caravaggio with forensic cruelty, but only Rembrandt would have caught the fear and bewilderment in the eyes of the onlookers, all of who venerated Byron but in their zeal and helplessness differed as to what could or should be done. "You know my wishes', Byron would say, his commands wild, scattered and contradictory, his mood ranging from the philosophical to the frantic, pressing Parry to get on with building a schooner for their proposed trip to South America, then again believing that the evil eye had been put on him and requesting that a witch from Missolonghi be summoned to lift it. He raved and half rose as if he were mounting a breach in an assault, then according to Parry cried out 'My wife, my Ada, my country', while others claimed that he said 'Dear Augusta, poor Ada', then place names, numbers, snatches of Greek and Latin poetry from his Harrow days, a mysterious reference to 'something precious' that he was leaving behind, stuttered syllables, then nothing.

At dusk on Easter Monday, 19 April, amid dark skies and a thunderstorm, Lord Byron, who had been the hope of the Greek nation, who had known 'the idolatry of man and the flattering love of women', breathed his last, passing over, as it was reported, to 'his everlasting tabernacle.' The guns were fired over the lagoon at given intervals and answered by volleys of rejoicing cannon from the Turks at Patras and Lepano. The Greek woman who had laid him out said that the 'corpse was white like the wing of a young chicken' and the citizens of Missolonghi kept asking for his heart. Twenty-one days of mourning were ordered to be held in every Church in Greece.

'Let not my body be hacked or sent to England- here let my bones moulder', were two of Byron's injunctions that were ignored. The doctors found the cranium could be that of a man of eighty, the heart a great size but flaccid, the liver showing the toll of alcohol, stomach and kidney's impaired. Those honored organs were placed in urns for embalming, but the lungs and larynx allowed to reside in the Church of San Spiridione, stolen not long afterwards. The body was placed in a packing case lined with tin, the lid hermetically closed and fixed with the seals of the Greek authorities.

The 'fatal intelligence' came upon England like an earthquake on 14 May. "Byron is dead. Byron is dead.' Thus did Jane Welsh write to her future husband Thomas Carlyle, who felt as if he had lost a brother, as did Victor Hugo in France, where young men wore black crepes bands on their hats in mourning. A hasty painting depicting Byron on his deathbed was placed in the Passage Feydeau in Paris, where crowds filed past, and it was noted in the newspapers that the two greatest men of the century, Napoleon and Byron, had departed in the same decade. Schoolchildren were put to reciting verses of Childe Harold. Tennyson, aged fifteen ran into the woods and carved the same grieving sentence on sandstone rock near his father's rectory.

Sir Francis Burdett broke the news to Byron's half-sister at St. James's Palace, who clung to a sanctimonious straw, gathered from Fletcher's letter, that Mylord, since his first seizure, had place the Bible she had given him on the breakfast table each morning. It seems to be the only recorded time that Byron appeared at a breakfast table. Hobhouse advised that she should not disclose such a confidence, convinced as he was that Byron would not make 'superstitious use' of the Holy Book. As a young rising parliamentarian, Hobhouse appointed himself as Byron's keeper.

So in that great flux of grief and condolence, something ugly and incontrovertible was afoot, with Hobhouse a its mastermind, backed, as he wrote triumphantly in his diary, by Byron's publisher's (Murray) decisive conduct. The 'plaguy' Memoirs was for burning.

In 1819 when Tom Moore visited him in his villa at Brenta near Venice, Byron presented him with 78 folio pages of his Memoirs, written as he said ' in his finest, fiercest, Caravaggio style. Byron's one stipulation was that they could not be published in his lifetime and gave Moore the freedom to sell them if he had to. Murray had determined that the Memoirs were written 'in a language so horrid and disgusting'- most cruel and lamentable with regard to Lady Byron herself- that as a man of honor, he would not publish them.

The burning of the Memoirs remains an act of collective vandalism and redounds badly on all, on Moore for his fecklessness in having sold the manuscript in the first place, on Hobhouse for his bogus sincerity regarding Byron's reputation and on Murray for his evident self-righteousness, describing himself as "a tradesman determined to preserve' that reputation; on Augusta and Annabella (his wife), the silent colluders, and on the two 'executioners' who tore the pages from their binding and fed them to the fire. The folio sheets were swept in a fierce carnival of flames, before curdling to ash.

The ship Florida, carrying Byron's remains arrived in England in July 1824. Colonel Stanhope expected state barges to come bearing dignitaries and bands to play sacred music, but he was sorely disappointed. Byron in death, just as in life, would suffer the mildewing of official censure. The Times noted that 'others were more tenderly loved than Lord Byron'. Approached by Murray and Kinnaird about burying Byron in the Poet's Corner of Westminister Abbey, the Dean was unable to repress his disgust and told them 'to carry the body away and say as little about it as possible."

But Byron mania was to hit London again as it had at the height of his fame in 1812, but this time it was not in the gilded drawing rooms, it was the masses who thronged to pay their respects, believing that something of them had died with him. Tears, flowers, odes, laments and notes on black-bordered cards were strewn in the little parlor were his coffin was set out- though no one of note ever came. Lit by tallow candles, Byron's coat of arms hastily painted on a wooden board, the masses thronged in numbers 'beyond precedent, the melee become so obstreperous that a wooden frame was erected around the bed and police sergeants called to maintain order.

The hearse, with its twelve sable plumes, drawn by six black horses, left Westminister on a warm July day, bound for the family vault at Hucknall Church, not far from Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Of the forty-seven crest-emblazoned carriages following the the hearse, forty-three were empty, no loyal friend from the houses of Holland, Devonshire, Melbourne or Jersey had come to mourn but the people poured onto the streets to bid their farewells. The procession, minus the empty carriages, took four days to reach Nottinghamshire, mourners thronged the roadside, as from all the upstairs people craned to see the bier of the man they only knew by hearsay. At Blackamoor's Head where his remains lay in a little parlour, the crush of people was so great that a large body of the constabulary had to keep order; squires, squireens and farmers came to pay their respects.

At the very same time an epidemic of Byron mania struck the world. The literary deification, bludgeoning and misrepresenting was now afoot. Books of gossip, smut, malice, lies and 'intrinsic nothings' were soon to proliferate. Fascination, envy and literary malfeasance on Byron were unceasing. Before the end of the year Southy, the Poet Laureate, in the Quarterly Review, accused Byron of committing 'high crime, misdemeanors against society, work in which mockery was mingled with horror, filth and impiety, profligacy with sedition and slander'. A Mr. Dugdale was even more extreme, justifying his pirating of Cain and Don Juan as quite reasonable, since the works were ' so shocking and flagitious' as to be unworthy to be dignified by the word 'copyright.'

They buried Byron like a poet, but he resurrected as a legend. Why? we may ask. Why him above the legion of poets down the years? He was the embodiment of Everyman, human, ambitious, erratic, generous, destructive, dazzling, dark and dissonant, but yet there is the unfathomable that eludes us, and perhaps even eluded him. It was not simply that he was a poet whose poetry burst upon the world or that he was a letter-writer of consummate greatness, he reincarnated for each age as an icon with a divine spark and all-too-human flaws.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

More Stories by Eduardo Galeano.

Instructions for a Successful Career

A thousand years ago, the sultan of Persia said, "How delicious."

He was eating his first eggplant, sliced and dressed with ginger and Nile herbs.

The court poet praised the eggplant for the pleasure it brings to the palate and the bedroom, for the miraculous feats of love that outshine the wonders of the powdered tiger's tooth or grated rhinoceros horn.

Mouthfuls later, the sultan said, "What garbage."

The court poet then cursed the perfidious eggplant for the torture it wreaks on stomach and brain, for the delirium and insanity that brings virtuous men to ruin.

" A minute ago you had eggplant in paradise; now you're sending it to hell," commented one astute observer.

And the poet, an early prophet of mass media, set things straight: "I am the courtier of the sultan, not the courtier of the eggplant."

Against the Current

The ideas in the weekly Marcha tended to be red; its balance sheet was a whole lot redder. Hugo Alfaro, besides being a journalist, sometimes filled in as manager and had the demoralizing task of paying the bills. Once in a great while Hugo would jump for joy: "We've got the issue covered!"

Advertisers had come through. In the world of independent journalism, a miracle of that order is celebrated as proof that God exists

But the editor, Carlos Quijano, would blanch. Horror of horrors; there was no news as bad as that news. To run advertisements meant sacrificing a page or more, and he needed every sacred column inch to question certainties, yank off masks, stir up hornets nests, and help make tomorrow more than just another name for today.

After thirty-four years in print, Marcha ceased to exist when the military dictatorship that overran Uruguay put an end to such lunacy.

Instructions for Reading the Paper

General Francisco Serrano of Mexico was settled in a easy chair at the Sonora army casino, smoking and reading.

He was reading the news. The paper was upside down.

President Alvaro Obregon was curious. "Do you always read the paper upside down?"

The general nodded.

"And could I ask why?"

"From experience, Mr. President, from experience."

The Marne, 1914 by Holger H. Herwig

The Battle of the Marne* was a close run thing. It confirmed yet again the Elder Helmut von Molkte's counsel that no plan of operations "survives with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's major forces." And it reified yet again Carl von Clausewitz's dictum that "war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty." Nothing about the Marne was preordained. Choice, chance, and contingency lurked at every corner.

The Battle of the Marne did not end the war. But if it was "tactically indecisive", in the words of historian Hew Stracha, "strategically and operationally" it was a "truly decisive battle in the Napoleonic sense." Germany failed to achieve the victory promised in the Schlieffen-Moltke deployment plan; it now faced a two-front war of incalculable duration against overwhelming odds. A new school of German military historians goes so far as to suggest that Germany had lost the Great War by September 1914.

Many senior commanders on both sides did not at first hand understand the magnitude of the decision at the Marne. It seemed simply a temporary blip on the way to victory. The armies would be rested, reinforced, resupplied, and soon again be on their way to either Berlin or Paris. Below headquarters and army as well as corps commands, a million men on either side likewise had little inkling of what "the Marne" meant- except more endless marches, more baffling confusion, and more bloody slaughter.

The carnage was frightful. Although the French army published no formal casualty lists, its official history set losses for August at 206,515 and for September at 213,445. The chapel of the Ecole speciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, before its destruction in World War II, had only one single entry for its dead of the first year of the war: "The Class of 1914". In terms of natural resources and industrial production, France lost 64 percent of its iron, 62 percent of its steel, and 50 percent of its coal. The Germany army likewise published no official figures for the Marne. But according to its ten-day casualty reports, the armies in the west sustained 99,079 casualties between 1 and 10 September.

Artillery ruled the battlefield. The German 105mm and 150mm howitzers and the lighter 77mm guns ripped men and horses alike to shreds of flesh and deposited their remains as mounds of pulp. The French 75s, dubbed "black butchers" by the Germans, filled the air with shrieking shrapnel that exploded above the enemy and drenched those below with thousands of iron balls. For weeks, "crude, stinking, crowded ambulance wagons' jostled the wounded back to barns and churches hastily converted into field hospitals, where unfortunates lay for hours "in a cloud of flies drinking their blood. For days the common soldier of 1914 ate nothing, drank nothing, ever washed or had their bandages changed. The living moved on, a mass of stinking humanity advancing through a reeking foul air of dead and dying cattle and mutilated horses to fight another battle, another day."

The Battle of the Marne did not, of course, dictate another four years of murderous warfare. If anything, it prefigured the resilience of the European militaries and societies to endure horrendous sacrifices. To be sure, some historians have suggested that Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg's infamous "war aims program" of 9 September*, at the very height of the struggle at the Marne, committed Germany to push on to victory regardless of cost. But there were those at Imperial headquarters who fully understood that the time had come in the fall of 1914 to end the Great Folly.

Field Marshall Gottlieb von Haeseler, activated for field duty at the tender age of seventy-eight, advised Wilhelm II to shealth the sword. "It seems to me that the moment has come which we must try to end the war." The kaiser refused his advice. Moltke's successor, Erich von Falkenhayn, by 19 November had reached the same conclusion. Victory lay beyond reach. It would be "impossible", he lectured Bethmann Hollweg, to "beat" the Allied armies "to the point where we can come to a decent peace." By continuing the war, Germany "would run the danger of slowly exhausting ourselves." The chancellor rejected the counsel.

It began at the Marne in 1914. It ended at Versailles in 1919. In between, about sixty million young men had been mobilized, ten million killed, and twenty million wounded. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, the great tragedy of the Marne is that it was strategically indecisive. Had German First Army destroyed French Sixth Army east of Paris; had the French Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Army driven through the gap between the German First and Second Army expeditiously; had the French Fifth Army pursued German Second Army more energetically beyond the Marne; then perhaps the world would have been spared the greater catastrophe that was to follow in 1939-45.

* This actually includes the Battle of the Frontiers: the German invasion of Belgium and France, a series of battles ending in the static, entrenched positions north-west of Paris in September 1914- a stalemate.

* German domination of Central Europe "for all imaginable time", annexation of Luxembourg, reduction of France to second-rate powers, "vassal" status for Belgium and the Netherlands, and a German colonial empire in Central Africa.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Brands by Eduardo Galeano

With a wave of the hand the customer declined the glass of tap water and summoned the sommelier, who read out a long list of bottled waters.

The table tried a few brands not well known in California, at about seven dollars a bottle.

While they ate, they went through several bottles. Amazonia from the Brazilian jungle was very good, and the Spanish water from the Pyrenees was excellent, but best of all was the French brand Eau de Robinet

The robinet is where they all came from: the faucet. The bottles, with labels made up by a friendly printer, had been filled in the kitchen.

The meal was filmed by a hidden camera in a chic Los Angeles restaurant. And Penn and Teller showed it on TV.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The First Family by Mike Dash

The Italian district of New York, centered around Mulberry Street, was still in its infancy in 1893. It had been predominantly Irish as late as 1890, when Mulberry Bend, a kink in the road a few blocks north of City Hall, was the most reviled slum in the city: rife with disease, thick with litter, and home to communities of the most desperate and destitute with names such as Bandit's Roost and Bottle Alley. "There is not a foot of ground in the Bend that has not witnessed some deed of violence," wrote the reformer Jacob Riis, whose after-hour visits to the rotting lodging houses and drinking dens of Mulberry Street produced some of the most memorable images of old New York. Among the horrors Riis described were homes so caked in filth they would not burn when set on fire and "stale beer dives" in windowless, earth-floored cellars, where patrons desperate for oblivion drank rotgut whiskey and the flat dregs of empty beer barrels discarded by saloons.

It was largely thanks to Riis's eloquent campaigning that the worse excesses of Mulberry Street were swept away in 1890, leaving the district to the next wave of immigrants from southern Europe. Three years later there were already tens of thousands of men, women, and children crammed into the seething streets around the Bend, a population larger than most Italian towns.

Conditions in the tenements of Little Italy were grim, though certainly not worse than they had been at home. Most of these dilapidated premises had been built before new zoning laws improved the standards of New York housing. They typically sprawled over almost the entire lot, so there was little light and no room for recreation; in the absence of gardens and public parks, children played on the rooftops or in the streets. Almost every building was cold and damp in winter, when the walls became so saturated with damp they steamed whenever fires were lit. In summer the same apartments baked, so much so that even Sicilians, well used to infernal heat, preferred to sleep out on the rooftops or the fire escapes.

Privacy was nonexistent in the district. Bedrooms doubled as parlors and kitchens as bedrooms; every toilet, down the hall, was shared by fifty or sixty people. There were no bathing facilities; washing meant a visit to the public bath. There was no central heating; the only source of warmth in some apartments was the kitchen stove. Those lucky enough to have fireplaces in their rooms stockpiled coal on the floor, in corners, under beds, making it impossible to keep things clean. Every tenement, in any case, was infested with cockroaches and bedbugs. All had rats.

"More than anything I remember the smells of the old neighborhood," said one old Corleone Mafioso of the Little Italy of his youth.

You can't believe how many people lived together in those old houses. There were six of seven tenements on Elizabeth Street where we lived and in those buildings, which were maybe five or six stories high, there must have been fifteen or sixteen hundred people living. And everybody took in boarders too. A lot of the guys who came over from Sicily were not married or had left their families in Italy. They were only there at night since they were out working all day, and at night there must have been another seven or eight hundred guys sleeping in the building. We had it plenty good because there were only four of us in three rooms, but in some other apartments you had seven or eight adults and maybe ten kids living in an apartment the same size.

Some of the smells were good. I can remember, for example, that early in the morning, say five o'clock, you could smell peppers and eggs frying when the women got lunches ready for their sons and husbands. But more than anything else I remember the smells of human bodies and the garbage. There was no such thing as garbage collection in those days and everybody just threw it out in the street or put it out in the hallways. Christ, how it stank!

Poverty was an everyday reality for most of the families of Elizabeth street, just as it had been at home in Italy. Higher incomes in New York where it was possible for even an unskilled laborer to earn $1.50 a day- a sum thirty times the five-cent wage typical in Sicily- were offset by the higher cost of living, and many families willingly endured privation in order to remit larger sums to relatives at home. Pasta and vegetables formed the staple diet, meat remained a luxury. Few people owned more than the cloths on their backs and perhaps a single item of Sunday best. Even sheets and blankets were scarce commodities. Joe Valachi remembered that "for sheets my mother used old cement bags that she sewed together, so you can imagine how rough they were."

Simply finding accommodation in the overcrowded tenements of Little Italy was hard enough. Work, good work with decent conditions and some prospects, prove a good deal more elusive. Mnny emigrants, hundreds of thousands of them, had been lured across the Atlantic by tales of immense wealth of the United States and so arrived in New York filled with hope that they too, would accumulate an easy fortune. The reality proved different. The only jobs available to unskilled Italians were the filthy, menial ones that Americans though were beneath them. Rag picking- sorting through heaps of stinking garbage in search of bottles, bones, and cloth that could be resold for a cent or two- was one source of casual employment for men. Others labored on sewer repairs, did construction work on the new subway, or manned the city's garbage scows. Women worked in dimly lit sweatshops, ruining their eye by staring at the fat-moving needle of a sewing machine for nine hours at a stretch, or labored stripping feathers for mattresses and pillows in workshops that brought on lung disease.

This sort of casual work was monotonous, poorly paid and frighteningly insecure. Men were hired by the day to labor on contracts that might last for a week or two, rarely longer. Women did piecemeal work, perhaps gluing envelops at a rate of three cents for every thousand, and lived with the threat that any dip in productivity would result in dismissal. The endless stream of immigrants pouring through Ellis Island meant that there was competition for even the basest work, and for many Italians the solution was to go to work for a padrone, an overseer who spoke English and who contracted to supply cheap labor to a variety of businesses. The more fortunate- those with some wealth, some skill, or some connections - got help from friends and relatives who had already settled in the United States. This is almost certainly what Bernardo Terranova and Giuseppe Morello did. Small colonies of Corleonesi already existed in the New York of 1893, one in Little Italy and another in East Harlem. Terranova had some skill as an ornamental plasterer, and he and his stepson most likely got at least some temporary employment in this way.

Whatever the men of the family tried, though, it soon became apparent that it was not enough. The American economy was stalling. Fewer and fewer were able to find even temporary jobs; by summer there was almost no work to be had anywhere in New York. The American economy, foundering since 1890, was sliding into full-blown depression. It was the worst economic crisis yet experienced by the United States. The great crash of 1893 was on.. Morello and his family found work as farm laborers in Georgia and then share-croppers in Texas.

By the time they moved back to New York in 1897- with perhaps $500 in savings- the Italian neighborhood had changed considerably. Overcrowding had become an even greater problem, in some districts the population density was worse than in Bombay but the economy was flourishing again. In 1897, according to one estimate, the inhabitants of Little Italy were making so much money that $30 million a year was being wired or carried back to friends or relatives at home. A much larger sum was being earned and spent on the streets of New York.

With money came the prospect of a better life but for the petty criminals of the Italian district, the burgeoning wealth of many immigrants meant more and better opportunities to prey on their fellow men. In the course of the 1890s, the sorts of incidents that had characterized Little Italy in the earlier years- mugging, petty theft and knife fights- began to give way to new and more sophisticated forms of crime. The first protection rackets had begun to flourish in the Italian quarter by the last years of the decade. Then came determined attempts to target the Wealthiest of the districts immigrants: extortion, backed by threats of violence, and the seizure and ransoming of children. As early as 1899, there was a "kidnapping craze' among the Italians of of Brooklyn.

Bombs were the favored tool of the extortionists. They were anonymous, created a terrifying effect, and were easily assembled- it was a simple matter to steal dynamite. They could even be used outside the streets of little Italy; A new Jersey justice of the peace, who had convicted seeral members of one gang, was "literally blown to pieces" by a parcel bomb delivered to his office. But high profile cases of this sort were few and far between. Wealthy and influential Italians simply caved into the extortionists demands.

To many New Yorkers the most compelling feature of these cases was the bizarre decorations that adorned letters of extortion. Demands were accentuated with crude drawings of skull, revolvers, and knives dripping with blood or piercing human hearts. Many also featured pictures of hands, in thick black ink, held up in a universal gesture of warning- a "Black Hand". It was a short step from there to the idea of the Black Hand as a distinct organization, with its own leaders and hundreds, if not thousands of members scattered through the country. The notion of a powerful, professional criminal conspiracy did seem to answer many questions, not the least explaining why the authorities found it so difficult to make arrests. The police, led by Joe Petrosino, did what they could to ridicule the idea, but without success. Conviction that a Black Hand society actually existed soon took root.

From the perspective of most New Yorkers, the Black Hand was at once a thrilling sort of entertainment and a symbol of just how desperate uncivilized Italian immigrants could be. For the men and women of the Sicilian quarter, who lived with the threats of the extortionists every day, it was a reminder of how little had really changed since they crossed the ocean, to be preyed upon in the U.S. as they had been preyed upon at home. For Giuseppe Morello*, though, the success of Little Italy's extortionists was if anything an inspiration. For if unorganized amateurs, lacking skills and experience, could make a success of such illegal enterprises, what opportunities must there be for real criminals, men who would not scruple at bringing far greater destruction down upon their victims, enemies or disloyal associates? How much money was waiting to be made by the ruthless? What, in short, were the prospects for an American Mafia?

* first "boss of the bosses", aka "Clutch Hand" (after his deformed, one-fingered right hand) "There was nothing of the buffoon about Morello. He had a parched, gaunt voice, a stone face and a claw" said the terrified second-generation Mafia boss Joe Bonanno. Morello was finally murdered by rivals in 1930.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dirty Money by Nicholas Shaxson

Consider this: it is not unlawful for a United States bank to receive funds derived from alien smuggling, fraud, racketeering, handling stolen property, contraband, environmental crimes, trafficking in women, transport for illegal sexual activity, slave trading- and many other evils....Can this really be true?...

I could not believe it at first, and I checked. But it is true. The only catch is that the crimes must be committed abroad. U.S. anti-money laundering laws involve a long list of prohibitions on proceeds from crimes- including the above- committed at home, but a very short list for those committed overseas. Welcoming dirty money is profitable for American companies, and it helps fill the current-account deficit. And Europeans, it seems, are hardly better behaved... but how big is the problem?

Try this for size. the OECD reckons that about half of all the world's cross-border trade involves structures for concealing money, involving about 70 tax havens (the French call them 'fiscal paradises"), as corporations and rich individuals shuffle profits around to avoid taxes and for yet more nefarious reasons. Assets held offshore by rich individuals, beyond the reach of effective taxation, equal one-third of global assets- or $11 trillion, conservatively estimated, costing governments over $250 billion a year in tax revenues. This is more than twice the global aid budget for developing countries. A U.S. Senate report estimated - when the problem was smaller- that up to a trillion dollars is laundered through banks each year, half of it through U.S. banks.

There are basically three forms of dirty money. One is criminal money: from drug dealing, say, or slave trading or terrorism. The next is corrupt money, like the late former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha's looted oil billions. The third form, commercial money- what out finest companies and richest individuals hide from our tax collectors- is bigger. The point- and this is crucial- is that these three forms of dirty money use exactly the same mechanisms and subterfuges: tax havens, shell banks,shielded trusts, anonymous foundations, dummy corporations, mispricing schemes and the like all administered by the "pinstripe infrastructure" of mainstream banks, lawyers, and accountants.... U.S. Treasury officials told Raymond Baker that in a good year they caught 0.1 percent of illicit inflows into the country- a 99.9 percent failure rate.

In this parallel secret universe the world's biggest and richest individuals and firms- News Corporation, Citigroups, and, yes ExxonMobil - can quite legally cut themselves loose from pesky full taxation and grow explosively, leaving smaller competitors, who pay their full dues along with the rest of us, choking in the dust. This undermines the very notion of capitalism: the big companies' advantage has nothing to do with the quality or price of what they produce. If you are worried about the power of big global corporations, don't always attack them directly, but attack bank secrecy instead.

Much of the problem could be eliminated with a few well-aimed legislative strokes. One might make it a criminal offense for U.S. Banks to receive proceeds of overseas slavery, say, or credit fraud. Another might forbid banks from operating in jurisdictions where they are protected from foreign tax and judicial authorities. There are others. What is missing is political will.

One adversary will be what Eva Joly* calls the "media-industrial complex"- news outlets that themselves shuffle huge profits around tax havens to avoid taxes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

No Freedom Without Bread by Constantine Pleshakov

"If there is one good thing about emigration, it is that sooner or later you suddenly realize that all the awful things we blamed on communism or the unfortunate peculiarities of our fatherland are, in fact, just human nature."- Sasha Sumerkin (1943 - 2006)

With the fall of communism, no one had to teach Poles or Russians the basics of a market economy. Following its number-one rule ("Grab"), entrepreneurs devoured collective or, rather, state-owned property in the process known as "privatization". The things to "privatize", or, rather, loot, were astounding in variety: oil tankers; steel mills; diamond mines; gold depositories; oil fields; woods; car factories; newsstand kiosks; blueberry farms; aircraft; toilets; hospitals; parking lots; cows; skating rinks; wheat fields; wastelands; emeralds; nickel; newspapers; water; airwaves.

The looting came as a surprise to the international mass media, though some European thinkers started worrying about it ten years before it came. Recall that in 1980, confronted by a spontaneous pro-free market movement in Poland, the primate of Poland, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, warned its leader, Lech Walesa: "It's not a question of wanting to change the leaders, it's they who must change. We must make sure - and I make this comparison quite deliberately - that one gang of robbers doesn't steal the keys of the state treasury from another similar gang."

No one listened, and Eastern Europe found itself in the maelstrom of unbridled capitalism - again. Ironically, on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, Budapest saw the worse violence since then, the people protesting against a gang of robbers that had stolen the keys of the state treasury from another similar gang. Someone had leaked to the Hungarian media a tape on which the Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was caught saying, "We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening" - referring to his misrepresentations of the state of the economy in the election campaign. Gyurcsany was a millionaire and a former Hungarian Youth Communist Organization official, who had made his fortune during the privatization of the 1990s.

During the October 2006 riots in Budapest, 150 protesters were injured- by far more casualties than during the velvet revolution of 1989. A university student told the New York Times correspondent, "We should learn from the spirit of 1956. We should finish off what began in 1956, because in 1989 there wasn't really a complete change."

What the young man likely had in mind was a humane social contract, which makes rights to life and liberty unalienable, and pursuit of (material) happiness possible. A contract of such kind needs to be served carefully and maintained diligently, as it goes against the individualist streak in human nature. Like millions of other East Europeans, by 2006 the young man must have realized that free elections do not necessarily lead to more freedom and that the free market can impoverish a nation as effectively as central planning. Ironically, democracy involves just as much social engineering as its alternative - communism - which earlier generations of critical thinkers had tried and failed to establish.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Condition We Call Exile by Joseph Brodsky

As we gather here *, in this attractive and well-lit room, on this cold December evening, to discuss the plight of the writer in exile, let us pause for a minute and think of some of those who, quite naturally, didn't make it to this room. Let us imagine, for instance, Turkish Gastarbeiters prowling the streets of West Germany, uncomprehending or envious of the surrounding reality. Or let us imagine Vietnamese boat people bobbing on high seas or already settled somewhere in the Australian outback. Let us imagine Mexican wetbacks crawling the ravines of Southern California, past the border patrols into the territory of the United States. Or let us imagine shiploads of Pakistanis disembarking somewhere in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, hungry for menial jobs the oil-rich locals won't do. Let us imagine multitudes of Ethiopians trekking some desert on foot into Somalia ( or is it the other way around? ), escaping famine. Well, we may stop here, because that minute of imagining has already passed, although a lot could be added to this list. Nobody has ever counted these people and nobody, including the UN relief organizations, ever will: coming in millions, they elude computation and constitute what is called - for want of a better term or a higher degree of compassion - migration.

Whatever the proper name for this phenomena is, whatever the motives, origins, and destinations of these people are, whatever their impact on the societies which they abandon and to which they come, one thing is absolutely clear : they make it very difficult to talk with a straight face about the plight of the writer in exile.

Yet talk we must; and not only because literature, like poverty, is known for taking care of its own kind, but mainly because of the ancient and perhaps yet unfounded belief that, were the masters of this world better read, the mis-management and grief that make millions hit the road could be somewhat reduced. Since there is not much on which to rest our hopes for a better world, and since everything else seems to fail one way or another, we must somehow maintain that literature is the only form of moral insurance that a society has; that it is the permanent antidote to the dog-eat-dog principle; that it provides the best argument against any sort of bulldozer-type mass solution - if only because human diversity is literature's lock and stock, as well as its raison d'etre. We must talk because we must insist that literature is the greatest - surely greater than any creed - teacher of human subtlety, and that by interfering with literature's natural existence and with people's ability to learn literature's lessons, a society reduces its own potential, slows down the pace of its evolution, ultimately, perhaps, puts its own fabric in peril. If this means we must talk to ourselves, so much the better: not for ourselves but perhaps for literature.

Whether he likes it or not, Gastarbeiters and refugees of any stripe effectively pluck the orchid out of an exiled writer's lapel. Displacement and misplacement are this century's commonplace. And what our exiled writer has in common with a Gastarbeiter or a political refugee is that in either case a man is running from the worse to the better. The truth of the matter is that from a tyranny one can be exiled only to a democracy. For good old exile ain't what it used to be. It isn't civilized Rome for savage Sarmatia anymore, nor is it sending a man from, say, Bulgaria to China. No, as a rule what takes place is a transition from a political and economic backwater to an industrially advanced society with the latest word on individual liberty on its lips. And it must be added that perhaps taking this route is for an exiled writer, in many ways, like going home - because he gets closer to the seat of the ideals which inspired him all along.

* Wheatland Conference, Vienna, 1987

"The Condition We Call Exile, or Acorns Away" in "On Grief and Reason; Essays"; Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Aurelian Column by Frank McLynn

German society in the first century BC was primitive and clan- based, with an emphasis on communal ownership; the gap between the rich and poor was not large. Primarily pastoralists, the Germans enjoyed a climate and corresponding vegetation that made it unnecessary for them to be nomads. Highly dependent on cattle, they ate little grain and made little use of iron; they tended to live in open-plan villages, particularly detesting the kind of overcrowding that was routine in Rome. Clans would occasionally combine into larger units that the Romans identified as tribes (pagi), but the only real federations were in wartime.

Relying on serfdom rather than slavery, the Germans tended to use female captives only as slaves; males were either killed or traded to the Roman empire as slaves. Feuds were widespread, but were usually settled by reparations in the form of sheep or cattle. Routinely cruel, the Germans practiced various refinements of capital punishment, quite apart from the human sacrifice of those captured in war. Traitors and deserters merited hanging from trees, but cowards and criminals were plunged into marshes with weighed hurdles on their heads to endure slow drowning.

Largely an illiterate society, Germania was nonetheless distinguished by respect for women (whose intuitive and prophetic powers they prized) and strict sexual morality. Husbands provided dowries for wives and practiced monogamy, with adultery being regarded as a great crime and punished accordingly. As Tacitus put it, there was 'no arena with its seductions, no dinner table with their provocations to corrupt them.' Yet German society was no utopia and suffered from several drawbacks. One was the warrior ethos itself.

Although Tacitus claimed that the landscape had produced a physically huge and savage people, which made the German particularly dangerous- 'neither Samnite nor Carthaginian, neither Spain nor Gaul, nor even the Parthians have taught us more lessons'- outside warfare there was no focus for their energies and ambitions. In peacetime there was no proper civil or political society, no cities, proper houses, cultural pursuits or even very much agriculture. The men were notoriously lazy, doing nothing but eat, drink, pick fights and take offense. They had no awareness of chronology or notions of time-keeping, which merely compounded the general idleness. Consequently much of the ferocity in war went into their two great weaknesses: drunkenness and gambling.

All this began to change as the Roman impact on Germania became more pronounced after 50 BC. The influx of wealth from trade with Rome and money subsidies paid by the Romans to keep the tribes quiet made certain individuals wealthy and gradually displaced communalism with private property. The demand for Roman goods grew, imports increased, the economy became monetised by trade and wages paid to those Germans who served with the legions and by subsidies paid to the chiefs. Trade in cattle and slaves with the Romans was important, but the dynamic new element was commerce in amber. Since the only source of high-grade amber was the southern shores of the Baltic, and it was in high demand at Rome, areas engaged in this long-distance trade especially benefited. Salt, fur, and hides were also exported from Germany, while imports include Roman ceramics, especially the finest red tableware or terra sigillata and the best Roman vintages, which were greedily devoured by wine-crazy Germans.

As the demand for Roman goods increased throughout the first century AD, more and more Roman traders and money-lenders were found on German territory. Meanwhile German society itself became markedly more stratified, with something of a crevasse opening up between the wealthy nobles and the masses. By the end of the century the old clan system had virtually disappeared, displaced by a quasi-feudal grouping of rich aristocrats with the personal retainers.

The new class-bound society was the entering wedge the Romans used to control Germany. Their policy was to tie the new aristocrats to them with money and trading favors, while dealing harshly with the have-nots. They liked to take hostages from the sons of the tribal leaders and then educate them in Rome, teaching them to despise their roots, then sending them back to subvert any anti-Roman policies that might arise if decisions were made in a full assembly of all the people, as used to be the case. These kings were given money to buy off the opposition and to spend on conspicuous consumption that denoted their new 'royal' status; thus they became creatures of Rome, in some cases more sympathetic to the interests of the Roman state than to those of their own people.

To cow the opposition expected from the masses, the Romans would threaten at the limit to invade and lay waste tribal lands, though they rarely had to intervene; their client kings usually performed effectively. The final weapon the Romans had was to refuse to ratify any new ruler they did not approve of, which meant the end of trading privileges and money subsidies and the threat of invasion. The Romans perfected 'divide and rule' in Germany, both by setting the different tribes at each other's throats and by generating strife and class conflict within the tribes, setting up feudal retinues and private property against the masses, who were dedicated to clans and communalism. The trick was to keep powerful tribes in a state of permanent chaos and near civil war, while at the same time ensuring that the Roman proteges never became powerful enough to bite than hand that fed them. It is no exaggeration to say that the combination of increased wealth, private property and the aristocratic-plebeian split engineered by Rome bade fair to tear Germania apart.

The paradox was that to get a fixed system of clients, the kings or chiefs had to exercise tighter control and thus become more powerful, but this increased power in turn alarmed the Romans. The most powerful tribes were also those furthest advanced along the transition from the old clan system to the new quasi-feudal dispensation of great wealth and extreme socio-economic inequality. This can be very clearly correlated with the proximity to the Roman frontier on the Danube. Whereas the northern Germans lived in primitive conditions like Yahoos or Morlocks, the Marcomanni by the time of Marcus Aurelius lived in stone houses. By contrast the Teutonic tribes of the Baltic shores still practiced agriculture rather than commerce, had no houses but slept on the ground, and in some cases employed 'primitive' social systems like matriarchy. The correct model for the Marcomannic wars is not 'civilization' against 'barbarism', but a clash of wealth systems, with the Quadi and Marcominni seeking to put themselves on a level with the Romans and increase the distance in wealth between themselves and their benighted Baltic kinsmen. To put it in sociological terms, the model for the 'revolution' on the Danube under Marcus Aurelius was Tocquevillean rather than Marxian. To put it in Gibbon's terms, proximity to the Romans on the Danube had corrupted the 'noble savages'.

Much of the fighting in the emperor's campaigns (@ 170-180 AD) consisted of hard-fought skirmishes in the dark forests and dank marshes, a brutal slugging affair, with no quarter given or asked. Marcus's famous Aurelian column, later erected in Rome to depict his successes in the German wars, convey the reality only too vividly. It's iconography has been well described as conveying 'visible tenseness, anguish in the muscles and facial expressions as Marcus inspects the captured or when a barbarian chief pleads for admission'. Among the horrors depicted on the column are barbarians begging for their lives; Romans clearing villages and massacring all the adult males; the gutting and torching of entire settlements; Germans praying to the gods for divine intervention and rescue; long lines of unarmed men being decapitated as they step up to the executioner's sword; the mass murder of prisoners thrown into open pits, which they had been forced to dig for themselves; head-hunting by Roman troops who display trophy heads to an admiring emperor; the abuse and murder of prisoners; the death marches; the rape of women; the seizure of cattle and the killing of infants.

Contemporary sensibility would have it that these horrors were painful for Marcus and were sadly portrayed on the column, but this is a strictly modern view. The horrors of war are outside the ambit of meaning to be found on a Roman triumphal monument, and Romans would have seen the atrocities as just punishment exacted by a dutiful emperor. The correct analogy is not something like Picasso's Guernica, but the matter-of-fact report of executions and mutilations of Gauls and Germans during Caesar's Gallic Wars. Evidence of a sort for Marcus's attitudes can be found in Books Two and Three of the Meditations, written 'among the Quadi' on the Danube in 170-3, where death was omnipresent. He himself later refers almost casually to the severed heads, decapitated torsos and truncated limbs of the dead in war. Roman iconography dealing with war is concerned with far different things from alleged war crimes. We realize that Marcus's victories have given Rome confidence, that the Germans are no longer feared, as in the past; Marcus is often portrayed as a heroic figure, a giant, with the barbarians as dwarfs.

"Marcus Aurelius: A Life" by Frank Mclynn; Da Capo Press, 2009

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Marcus Aurelius: Philosopher-King by Frank McLynn

Cecil Rhodes and Jan Christian Smuts

The Victorian era was the high-water mark of Marcus Aurelius's reputation. One can see why he was so much admired by enthusiasts for the British empire like Cecil Rhodes, and why, by contrast, a Stoic ruler had far less to offer the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. No one any longer takes seriously the idea of benevolent empires and the pax Britannica is usually considered just as much an engine of exploitation as the pax Romana. The co-optation by Mathew Arnold, Ernest Renan and other Europeans in the nineteenth century led Americans to swing away from Marcus and towards Epictetus, who seemed a Stoic untainted by 'imperialism' ; certainly it is striking that it is Epictetus who features as a major influence on Walt Whitman, whose 'holistic' thought might be otherwise be thought more in line with Marcus.

Despite its occasional eruption on the silver screen, the Roman world in general seems less interesting to the modern sensibility. The Victorians prized duty as the highest moral responsibility, whereas the entire thrust of modern thinking is towards rights, usually so-called 'rights' with no duties attached. The entire modern therapy industry would be in danger if people took seriously the idea that only fools blame others for their failure. To an egotistical, hedonistic modern audience, Marcus's strictures on pleasure and the indulgences of sleeping, copulating and over-eating seem neurotic, and Stoicism itself seems over-rational and joyless. Marcus still has a certain vogue, but only because his so-called modern admirers tend to cherry- pick the convenient parts of his doctrine and ignore the rest.

Moreover, the twentieth century was par excellence the century of the great dictator. Max Weber made a famous threefold distinction in types of ruler: the traditional, the rational-legal and the charismatic. Whereas Marcus was the best example of a traditional ruler, all the great dictatorial figures of the twentieth century ( Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Peron, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and so on) were charismatic rulers. In such a context studying Marcus Aurelius as a guide to how to rule well seems absurd.

This connects with a more general consideration. Rationalism, or the idea that reason (rather than feelings, sense-experience or authority) is the only true guide to knowledge, probably reached a peak with Kant and Hegel, and has been in decline ever since. This is why the distinguished American philosopher Brand Blanshard lamented the decline of such men in ethical theory, instancing Renan, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Marcus himself as the finest of this breed. To a large extent the post-1900 trends in philosophy have all been in directions where Marcus's thought seems irrelevant: pragmatism in the USA, logical positivism in continental Europe, linguistic analysis in Britain. Only in three philosophical areas can one discern a continuation of the themes of Marcus Aurelius: in the work of 'time-obsessed' philosophers such as Henri Bergson and J.M.E. McTaggart, in the neo-utilitarian and deontological work of Henry Sidgwick and his handful of followers, and in some of the recalcitrant metaphysicians like Samuel Alexander and A.N. Whitehead.

It has been suggested in some quarters that the end of the road that leads from Epictetus and Marcus is Freud, but this seems less than convincing. In modern literature, however, Marcus's influence continues strong: here one might mention such figures as Maurice Maeterlinck, Anatole France, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Brodsky and Tom Wolfe, but there are many others.


In assessing Marcus Aurelius as an emperor the question of milieu and culture is crucial. Perhaps the most famous and most quoted of all passages from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the following:

"If a man were called to fix the period of history during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." ( M. Aurelius' son and heir).

There are not many propositions of famous historians that one can unhesitatingly dismiss as nonsense, but this is one. Hobbes's famous categorization of the life of Man in the State of Nature- 'nasty, brutish and short'- applies just as well to the Roman Empire. Quoting poignant testimonies to the horror of life for the vast majority of people during the 'grandeur of Rome"- even in normal years consisting chiefly of famine, plague, pestilence, slavery and oppression- quickly becomes wearisome. The absurdity and myopia of Gibbon is clear, but his Panglossian comments alert us to an important point about Marcus and the empire.

Eighteenth-century England had clear parallels with the Roman empire, even though the grandees of the Hanoverian periods chose to see themselves as Periclean Athenians, battling against either Persia or Sparta in the shape of the great Satan, France. Gibbon, Hume, Adam Smith, Johnson, Boswell and the other great figures of London's salons and the Scottish Enlightenment resembled Marcus and his coterie in that they discussed knotty philosophical problems that still trouble us today. They lived in an Augustan elegance and privilege, based on the fruits of an expansionist and predatory empire, which they took to be the natural order of things, yet their society was one characterized by the most draconian legal codes, the Waltham Black Act, the Riot Act and above all the Bloody Code, which could consign a starving man to the gallows for stealing an apple.

This schizoid nature of Georgian society in England found a pre-echo in the Rome of the Antonines. Marcus was a man who could preach wisdom, enlightenment and tolerance in the privacy of his diaries while being content to sanction hideous deaths- in the arena, in the jaws of wild beasts, on the cross- in the everyday life of Rome. His career highlights, above all, a failure of imagination- a failure imbricated in the very education, culture and assumptions of the aristocratic Roman. The Roman upper class had so little imagination that, even when the senatorial class plotted against an emperor, their only thought was to replace him with another one. Root-and-branch social change was beyond their universe of discourse. Innovation was something the Roman classes always dreaded.

Yet another aspect of Marcus's unimaginative approach the problems of the empire was his background as a cloistered, pampered heir to the throne, never ranging beyond the environs of Rome (or being allowed to by Antoninus Pius). Even rulers tend to take the line of least resistance and draw facile conclusions from what is apparent in their immediate environment, but which may be completely atypical. Marcus was not the only culprit. Tertullian, from his eyrie in North Africa, produced a pre-echo of Gibbon when he said that the world in his day was better known, better cultivated and more civilized than ever before; he spoke of cities where there had once been cottages, and of roads and trade everywhere in evidence.

"Marcus Aurelius: A Life" by Frank McLynn Da Capo Press, Perseus Books, 2009