Monthly Archives: December 2008

Arabia Felix

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Last night I finished Thorkild Hansen’s Arabia Felix, about the fateful 1761-1767 Danish Expedition to Yemen. Although the book is very well-regarded in Denmark, Arabia Felix and his Slave Trilogy are all often out of print, difficult to find, or expensive in English. Nevertheless, I definitely recommend Arabia Felix. It is a fast-paced page turner (I finished it in three sittings) and reads more like a novel than non-fiction. Furthermore, the real life cast of characters is great with the rivaling personalities and heroic lone survivor.

Originally published in 1962, some of the terminology may appear out-dated, and Hansen also tends to embellish the story with his own interpretation of events. Nonetheless, Arabia Felix is such a good read that I am surprised it is almost unknown in the English reading public, especially at a time when the Middle East is very much on the radar.

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The Subprime Super Power

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I know it’s not news and I have alluded to it before, but this whole talk about toxic loans and bailouts is a just one laughable joke. Everyone complained about how the auto executives flew into Washington on their private jets, but no one gave the Wall Street bankers the same scrutiny when they flew into town. How much worse was the auto industry’s management than that of Wall Street? Yes, American cars suck and nobody wants to buy them, but our investment banks weren’t that much better — otherwise they wouldn’t have crumbled.

What continues to shock me, though, is that our government is the most toxic of all the players. Recognize that we have been fighting two wars that have cost billions of dollars while the American people got a massive Bush tax cut. We talk about the costs to the American tax-payer of the trillion dollar bailouts, but the tax payers will not have their taxes increased. We simply borrow the money abroad, mainly from China. Our wars and our bailouts are being bankrolled by the Chinese. We are the world’s greatest toxic borrower; we are the Subprime Super Power.

It’s just like the private security forces that we outsourced to fight the war in Iraq because it would have been devastatingly unpopular to enlist a higher number of troops. We don’t mind fighting wars, as long as they don’t affect our bottom line: our taxes aren’t increased, and the wars are fought by minorities, poor white people, or military families. We pretend we care about the bailouts, but as long as our taxes aren’t increased to pay for them, we’re game.

Meanwhile, the right wing has blamed the toxic mortgages on the left wing’s liberal policies that forced banks to make loans to the poor and minorities who had bad credit. And most have agreed that a huge culprit has been the American public’s consumptive appetite to live beyond its means on credit. How different is that from our government paying for wars and corporate bailouts with borrowed money? Eventually someone’s taxes will be increased to pay the bill. Our politicians are betting that that time will come on someone else’s watch. As we’ve learned from Wall Street this year, the day of reckoning can come sooner than thought.

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Collective Innocence Part II

After having written Collective Innocence, I grew worried that I was becoming a touch radical in my views about how as a nation, we Americans allow ourselves to view the world in black and white, good and evil, and thereby justify, rationalize or overlook our own dubious acts both at home and abroad. Then I read the news about how the U.S. was purposefully silent after our Afghan ally hid its own war crimes. But is that so surprising?

After European colonization throughout the Middle East, the U.S. consistently supported repressive regimes (or the continuation of European dominance) in subversion of local grass roots democratic and social liberalization (including womens’ rights) for the sole purpose of hindering the spread of Soviet communism. Ironically, we now criticize that which we promoted — essentially dictatorships and theocracies — without ever acknowledging our share of the responsibility. We contrast Israel’s democracy with the tyranny in Syria, Iran and Sadam’s Iraq, yet we poured millions of dollars into Musharraf’s Pakistan since 9/11. We are huge financiers of Egypt and are best buddies with Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

We have a serious case of cognitive dissonance. Glen Greenwald does an excellent job of pointing this out in this week’s edition of the Bill Moyers Journal: Continue reading

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Collective Innocence

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A few weeks ago while running at the gym, I was listening to a podcast of an interview on the Leonard Lopate Show with the now infamous William Ayers . While I am not qualified to comment on the veracity of Ayer’s accounts of the 1960s, I did find the following remarks by Ayers to be thought provoking:

We have never come to terms with the war in Vietnam, what we really did, what was lost there. in terms of purpose and so on. We haven’t learned what it means to invade and occupy a country. We haven’t accounted for responsibility. So while I get held up as somebody who was violent which I reject. I was not violent. Henry Kissinger gets a pass. There is something wrong with that. We ought to really have truth and reconciliation process if we want to understand what went on.

His words reminded me of another podcast I had listened to last year in November at the airport in Paris on my way back to Madrid. It was the Bill Moyers Journal podcast, and James H. Cone was talking about the history of lynching in America and how as a nation we refuse to recognize our collective guilt. For whatever reason, we take ourselves out of the historical context of our nation’s sins, and think of ourselves therefore as collectively innocent. How can I be responsible for slavery, the genocide of native Americans, or any serious of morally reprehensible actions committed by the nation before I was even born? As a matter of fact, even bringing up any of these matters can often times be considered anti-patriotic. Continue reading

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Why Bombay?

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I have noticed over the past few weeks since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that the press in Spain always refer to Mumbai as “Bombay”. At first I thought it was just El Pais where my friend, Teo, works, and that it was probably his fault. Then I looked at other newspapers like El Mundo and El ABC. None of them seemed to have gotten the news that in 1996 India officially changed the city’s name to Mumbai.

Then when I complained about it to my my girlfriend (who lives in Paris), she said that the French press also widely refer to the city as Bombay. When I then went to check Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, I was first distracted by the abundance of scarcely dressed women all over its website, but then saw that Mumbai was most commonly used.

But for Spain and France, Continental Europe’s most prolific colonizers, why “Bombay”? It’s not like the case of Burma where for political reasons one may refuse to call the nation “Myanmar” in protest of its totalitarian regime. And while I understand that the average Joe may take more than 12 years to adapt to a distant city’s name change, you’d at least think the press could get it right and respect the will of a nation of one billion people.

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Christmas with the Rat Pack

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So I have decided that it’s time to start annoying my neighbors like I do every year in December. This time, though, I am starting off in style with the fantastic Christmas with the Rat Pack. If you’re a fan of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., then you should definitely get yourself a copy. It is upbeat and has a fun early 60s feel to it.

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Tea in the Harem

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After a two month hiatus, due in part to the presidential election and podcasts, I am finally back in the saddle again. Over the past few days, I finally finished Morocco Since 1830 and then Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Saleh. I am now about half way into Medhi Charef’s Tea in the Harem, the first “beur” novel in France. There is a rawness to Charef’s novel that reminds me of that of Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue and Coin Locker Babies, though Charef’s main character is a bit more empathetic. Perhaps, though, any attempt that Charef might have had back when the story was first published in 1983 to shock French society no longer feels so shocking today. On the other hand, Saleh’s 1969 Season of Migration to the North is much fresher and more poignant today.

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