Friday, May 30, 2008

Diversity Dispatches

Alex Shoumatoff, a correspondent to the New Yorker and Vanity Fair for two decades, gets around. He has a penchant for documenting the diversity of life, and has organized his far-flung dispatches here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Reckless Luxury

In the early years of post-communist totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe, brutal violence against ethnic minorities like the Roma (Gypsies) was almost commonplace. In Romania, for instance, police assisted murderous mobs -- numbering in the hundreds -- while they committed calculated attacks and arsons all over the country. The desire for ethnic cleansing was proudly proclaimed by many throughout the region, not just in the former Yugoslavia. As Isabel Fonseca wrote in her book Bury Me Standing, this epidemic constituted, "the violence of violated men".

Writers like Malcolm Gladwell (Damaged) and Lloyd de Mause (The Emotional Life of Nations) have cited scholarly studies demonstrating the corrosive effects of brutality on the human mind, but the long-term consequences of the psychological cruelty of totalitarian regimes is not as widely appreciated as it is in terms of phenomena like domestic violence and child abuse. Symptoms of community trauma crop up in ethnographic reports about such atrocities as aboriginal boarding schools in Canada, Australia and the US, or in medical papers on collective punishment in Palestine, but the sadism and seething hatred undergirding the resurgence of fascism in Europe is fueled by more than religious racism; it is sociopathic.

Unfortunately, this new pandemic is not limited to the geography of former dictatorships. As Hans Magnus Enzensburger, author of Civil Wars, wrote, "Those who look at globalization in purely economic terms have not understood it. Today, nothing is left that can remain separate from it, neither religion nor science, neither culture nor technology". As the new capitalist totalitarianism, it is proving itself no less capable of producing mindless violence.

With the loss of hopes and dreams, millions more in the so-called developed world are susceptible to mobilized resentment and scapegoating. With the loss of security and identity, they are easy prey for manipulated hatred and revenge.

Ignoring the dehumanizing effects of such colossal disempowerment of humanity is a reckless luxury; in no time at all it can become catastrophic.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Essence of Life

These [totem poles] were objects of bright pride, to be admired...They told the people of the completeness of their culture...

The people of the Northwest Coast were rich. Their sea even richer; they were enormously energetic, and they centered their society around what was to them the essence of life: what we now call "art".

--Out of the Silence by Adelaide de Menil and William Reid

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Big Halt

Law 74, the End of Nomadism, the Big Halt. The crux of the matter was assimilation, belonging, ethnic identity. We wanted them, but they wanted us to leave them alone.

They nodded and showed us the door, assured us they were on our side, but anyone could see that they were separated from honesty by fear.

--Zoli, a novel by Colum McCann

Friday, May 02, 2008

Sacred Games

The people in the Bombay underworld are terrifically international. I started the book because, like all other citizens of Bombay and India in general, I found myself living through an escalating level of violence in the 80s and 90s. The increasing influence of the underworld, of organized crime, in every aspect of public and private life was right in our faces. At one point in the late 90s, it was estimated that 50,000 people in the city worked in one way or another for these organizations. There were gang shootouts near my house, with AK-47s.

But once I started talking to people through the policemen and journalists I knew, it became clear that you couldn't talk about organized crime without talking, for instance, about politics. If the political entities in any state decide that organized crime is not going to exist, it will not--there's mutual profit and exchange going on.

--Vikram Chandra, author of Sacred Games