It’s different now. I see the brutal succession of recent events–Bashar Assad’s unchecked murderous spree, Ukraine, Gaza, Ferguson, the violence of the Islamist garbage that calls itself ISIS–as not only a reshuffling of the cards, common enough in the horrible games everyone is constantly playing, but as portends of major changes.
Historical events, the ones in books and the ones we personally live through, no matter how spectacular, atrocious, or unacceptable, still fall in the realm of things we know. But those parameters are obsolete and everything is bursting at the seams.
International organizations are broken– not only useless, obsolete ones like the United Nations but those that used to have some weight, like NATO. No economy is functioning correctly and no amount of throwing round the names of Keynes or Picketty will help. The very rare ones that still stand, say Germany, will soon be overcome by less lucky partners and immense society problems: immigration on a scale unknown till now, deficits gone wild, wars we’re being dragged into, hunger and poverty, poverty and hunger. Read more…
On June 28, 1914, exactly one century ago, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist, shot and killed the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Archduchess Sophie. You may remember—or, if not, have been reminded by the media these days—that the event is generally accepted as the trigger of the Great War (1914-1918). After decades of diplomatic clashes between the main powers and mounting tension in the Balkans, Europe was ripe for a conflict and the assassination gave it the needed push.
Exactly a month after that assassination, all diplomatic efforts toward an entente having come to naught and Serbia refusing to give in to Austria’s demands for greater interference in Serbian affairs, Austria declared war on Serbia, causing a domino effect that eventually involved all of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Japan, Australia, and some Latin American countries, with the United States entering the fray in 1917. All in all, the conflict saw the end of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires and made tens of millions of military and civilian victims worldwide. It has been called a “calamitous conflict that, more than any other series of events, has shaped the world ever since; without it we can doubt that communism would have taken hold in Russia, fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany, or that global empires would have disintegrated so rapidly and so chaotically.”
Not a shabby achievement for Gavrilo Princip, celebrated day before yesterday in East Sarajevo as his statue was unveiled while West Sarajevo more somberly commemorated the Archduke’s assassination and the terrible events it set in motion. (If anything, the conflicting ceremonies illustrate that the past hundred years have not taught us how to move beyond ethnic divides. But then, we should know by now that nothing teaches us anything.)
The assassination shook the world and its consequences are still with us but the chain of events was more Marx Brothers than Greek tragedy, its main actor an unlikely hero. Princip, barely 19 years old, a frail young man already racked with skeletal tuberculosis, was a devoted admirer of Walt Whitman and, by some accounts, the president of the Walt Whitman Society in Sarajevo (the absence of Twitter and Tumblr presumably allowed loftier interests). About Princip’s love of Whitman, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes, “The young revolutionaries in Belgrade read [Whitman] politically as a singer of democracy, of the crowd en masse, the enemy of monarchs… and that is how an American poet was responsible for the outbreak of World War I.”
Princip was a member or follower of the Black Hand, a secret military society, and of Young Bosnia, inspired by the many wooly anarchist/romantic/Nietzschian currents of the time. He was part of a handful of young literary aficionados, also nationalists, who resented the tall shadow of their Austro-Hungarian neighbor who taxed them heavily and didn’t allow them enough autonomy. Assassinating a prominent figure was a long-time dream of these young people. When they learned that Franz Ferdinand would visit Sarajevo for the opening of a hospital, Princip and five fellow conspirators recruited by Black Hand members knew they had found the perfect target. They traveled from Belgrade and, on June 28, stood at various points of the official route, armed with hand grenades, four Browning pistols and cyanide powder with which to kill themselves after the act so they wouldn’t be captured.
Transfixed by the fear of getting caught, the first would-be assassin watched the procession of six cars go by, unable to move. Another one threw a hand grenade at the Archduke’s open-topped car but the driver saw it coming and accelerated. The grenade ricocheted against the car, fell back on the street and exploded under the next car, wounding occupants and onlookers. The grenade thrower swallowed the cyanide (the poison, probably an inferior quality, didn’t kill him and only made him sick) then, running to the nearby river, jumped in to drown himself but the water was not more than four inches deep. Police hard on his heels pulled him out and arrested him on the spot.
A while later, after the commotion had died out, the Archduke decided to go to the hospital to visit the victims of the explosion. Princip who was still around, indecisive, had just had coffee and bitten into a sandwich when he saw two cars drive by and recognized the Archduke. As luck would have it, the drivers had taken a wrong route and while being turned around, the Archduke’s car stalled. Seeing his opportunity, Princip ran and shot the Archduke and his wife. The couple would die within the hour.
The assassin then swallowed the cyanide, which didn’t kill him but made him sick as it had his co-conspirator, and turned the gun to his own temple but was stopped before he could pull the trigger. Arrested and tried—but too young to be condemned to death— he spent almost four years in the Therensienstadt jail (yes, the same Therensienstadt that during WW II became a ghetto and concentration camp), his body covered with sores and his rotting bones causing him such pain that his right arm had to be amputated, before illness got the better of him.
The echo of those two shots continues to reverberate down our history.
In the strange world of politics, there are the clowns (Bush, Palin, French President Hollande), the phenomenal, hard-to-classify figures (Bill Clinton), the tough, practical ones (Angela Merkel), the absolute villains (Assad, Cheney), the also-rans (Chris Christie), the complicated may-runs (Hillary Clinton), the much-admired (Mandela), the no-longer-admired (Aung San Suu Kyi), etc. And then there are the Shakespearean, monumental characters. I realize that I’m applying here one of the favorite cliché of people who love clichés–mixing apples and oranges–by mentioning these public figures in the same breath although some are important or infamous for the reality of their exercise or pursuit of power, past or present, and others simply there as background brouhaha. The point I want to make is that a look at today’s media demonstrates that Ariel Sharon who just died after eight years in a coma is in a category of his own, remarkable in bad as well as in good, on a scale different from that of ordinary politicians–and with much vaster consequences. I used to detest the man, particularly after the Israeli forces under his command looked the other way while Lebanese militia massacred hundreds and perhaps thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982. The decades that had preceded and those that followed don’t make him any more endearing. He was an unbending, self-serving and self-promoting bastard, bulldozing his way through obstacles, facing off with a conniving, corrupt Yasser Arafat on the Palestinian side, both men finding their bread and butter in making sure that no agreement would ever bring peace to that benighted region. Read more…
American we knew and Kenyan we knew, but Iranian? Trust me, now we know. Let me explain. Iranians famously don’t like to fight. I’m not talking about actual killing—since its inception 34 years ago, the Islamic Republic has amply demonstrated that it has no qualms about that. No, I mean street fights. On a Naples or Medellin or Peshawar street, no one would think twice about engaging in fisticuffs in retaliation for a perceived offense but when an Iranian male feels insulted, his first reaction is to look around to make sure there are enough buddies nearby to restrain him and prevent him from jumping on the offender. When living in Iran, I used to see any number of these displays—two guys yelling bloody murder at each other and occasionally turning to the people subduing them to say “hold me, don’t let me hit him” (begir mano, nazar bezanam), as the last thing on their mind is to actually fight. Read more…
No matter how you look at it, democracy is still the best system—nay, the only system—to govern our messy human race. But with this system spinning out of control, here comes a conundrum: can we have democracy without elections and if so, what would replace them?
Item: There are signs that the Iranian President shortly to begin his mandate may not be all he was touted to be—or, if not quite an dangerous cretin like Ahmadinejad, not allowed much leeway by the power elite in the Islamic Republic. The U.S. response to Iran’s perceived or real threat regarding the nuclear issue so far has been to impose ever stricter sanctions. For me, these fall under the “don’t know” category, meaning I’m neither for nor against, unable to figure out their utility. Are they working? If the goal is to weaken and even destroy the economy, then yes, they are. Will it bring the Iranian regime to its knees and make it renounce its evil ways? I don’t think so. We’re giving too much credit to the Supreme Leader and his clique when we attribute to them a Machiavellian mind capable of reasoning and strategizing rather than see how incapable they are of realizing that their repressive and irresponsible regime will eventually fail, with or without sanctions. And while analysts analyze and Middle East or Iran experts pore over tea leaves, Congress does what? Votes 400 to 20 to increase sanctions, in a move typical of a system—ours in democratic countries—gone amok. Read more…
“Don’t know” is a response that doesn’t exist outside polls. Everywhere else, everyone knows everything, has an opinion about everything and is busy sending it out for all to hear. What we don’t always realize is how obvious our buttons are, the ones that every social, economic, or political issue pushes. We are robots with features incorporated by our background and circumstances and rarely are we capable of moving beyond. Think? God forbid. We just jump in and engage in disquisition about this or that issue that’s already being beaten to death. The public gabfest wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t carry my voice, would it?
Case in point, the Zimmerman verdict. This guy, a self-appointed vigilante who thought packing heat made him someone to be reckoned with (my regular readers know how I feel about guns) shot and killed a young black man. Neither the police investigation nor the trial that just ended with Zimmerman’s acquittal could establish the exact sequence of events, only that the armed guard was not racist. The jury did its best under murky circumstances and returned a not-guilty verdict. But the chorus of voices on all sides pitching in with arguments and opinions? The only one worth hearing was the President with a moving unscripted statement about what it means to be a black man in America today. Everything else, just so much wind.
Case in point. Rolling Stone magazine’s cover of surviving Boston Marathon bomber, Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, and the related story by Janet Reitman. Howls of outrage went up; calling it a glam shot glorifying the assassin, retailers refused to carry the issue; one Boston police photographer retaliated by producing photos of Tsarnaev bloodied and dazed flushed out of his hiding place. Personally, I’m not as worried about the cover as about the question foremost in my mind: how many Tsarnaevs, Adam Lanzas, Mohammad Attas are even now stirring in their primal muck in pods like those in the old horror film “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” getting ready to unleash mayhem? But does the magazine cover insult the victims of the bombing? I don’t know.
Case in point, Edward Snowden. Now stuck in Russian limbo, was this man–overnight celebrity for the next fifteen minutes–right when he denounced the NSA’s vast spying system of unsuspecting citizens? Here I do have an opinion. Yes, he was. But the rest of the discussion about his life, personality, motivation—out to make a quick buck, selfless whistleblower, cheat, hero? Who knows? I certainly don’t. And I’ll defer to Daniel Ellsberg, certainly more qualified than anyone to have an opinion on the matter, when he says that Snowden was right to make a run for it.
Case in point, Syria and American intervention. Is it okay for tens of thousands of Syrians to die while Bashar Assad emails congratulations to his wife for buying her latest Louboutin heels? Should Obama go in, is he half-hearted about it, has he moved the red line again, should he actually arm insurgents? I don’t think anyone, including the President, has the answer to that. The administration is playing it by ear. Two years ago, something could possibly have been done to overthrow the tyrant son of a tyrant and replace him with a more palatable government (though America would never have heard the end of it) but now? Obama promised light armament and logistics help to the insurgents but despite David Ignatius’ op-ed echoing others accusing the president of equivocating, the situation is not clear. Whom would we be arming? Sectarian fanatics? Democratically inclined future leaders, potential allies of the US? Brutal thugs who think nothing of ripping out their enemy’s heart and eating it, as we saw in one video? What should Obama do? Once again, I don’t know.
About many things, I have an opinion, some too strong for my own good. But about many others, such as in the above examples, sorry, the earth will have to continue turning without knowing what I think. All of you out there express more than enough to fill the void.
I forget them as soon as I make them, so what would be the point? One day at a time or even one hour at a time is how we can best deal with things, on our terms, with the unavoidable bumps and mistakes. To what specific area should I turn my attention? Well, there’s the crucial and ongoing effort of jettisoning clutter. That includes people guilty of one or more of the three unforgivable sins: rudeness, arrogance, and stupidity. It also includes cleaning out cabinets and rooms and closets that keep on filling up no matter how little I acquire. And the more insidious clutter of thoughts, the absurd spurts of anger, the repetitive longing for what didn’t happen, the crippling sense of incompetence or failure, and the projects too grandiose to come to fruition. Also, throwing out poisonous memories to keep only the good ones, those that spread a pleasant glow inside me as my fireplace with its just-swept chimney does inside the house. Read more…