Friday, May 31, 2013

John McPhee on how not to write?

Many of you will have read John McPhee's recent pieces in the New Yorker about how he writes, and how he seems to be recommending that others write too. Recently a reader wrote in with what seems to me a very appropriate reaction to this, as follows:

John McPhee, in his essay about writing and rewriting, essentially asserts that the only real writers are those who are so paralyzed by their internal critic that they can barely put two words together during the first draft (“Draft No. 4,” April 29th). Others, such as Junot Díaz and Jay McInerney, have said the opposite: that accepting the imperfection of the first draft, learning to allow oneself to write without interference from the inner editor, is what frees a writer to work. Kurt Vonnegut said he was glad that he had untutored years as an undergraduate to fill up notebooks uncensored: “I was growing my soul!” He was grateful not to have “learned taste too early.” And Natalie Goldberg, in her book “Writing Down the Bones,” urges writers to “keep your hand moving.” No one-word-an-hour for her. “How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” McPhee asks. A priori, unearned love helps something become good.
Jenae Marks
Berkeley, Calif.

As a writer, and as a writing teacher at NYU (Carter Journalism Institute), I agree with this objection to the McPhee method. The more some writers make writing out to be an esoteric art that only a small elite can perform, the fewer people will dare to do it. That might be good for business, but bad for literature.

I say this as someone who has long admired McPhee and learned a lot from him.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Office of Communications, Princeton University.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney Houston: Drug addiction isn't cool

Here in Paris, the main pop music TV cable channel is featuring Whitney Houston videos nonstop today.

I'd have to say that this one has hit me harder than most recent celebrity deaths, because I remember so well when her first album came out back in the 1980s. It was hard to say what was a bigger shock, how beautiful Whitney Houston was or how incredibly well she could sing. Maybe it was just the moment, during the middle of the Reagan years, when we needed a young Black woman to hit the heights.

Along with pretty much everyone else, I'm guessing that the coroner will eventually conclude she died from some sort of drug overdose. Drug addiction is not a moral issue, it's a medical issue. But because cultural conservatives, and the right-wing in general, have made it into a moral issue, some people think drug-taking is some sort of cultural statement, or at least that tolerating it or condoning it is a cultural statement.

That might have been true back in the days when we all smoked marijuana, but it's getting old now. It's hard to stomach the music-industry hypocrites who got up at the Grammy Awards and talked about losing a "member of the family" when so many of them were complicit in Whitney Houston's slow destruction, directly or indirectly.

If that sounds like something a right-winger would say, please remember that I am a left-winger--but one who doesn't think that dying young is cool.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The United States arms most dictatorships

News Release


The United States arms most dictatorships

The Chinese are about to change Africa. In January, a survey conducted by the Financial Times showed that over the last two years, China has lent more money to developing countries than the World Bank.
Trade between China and Africa has increased dramatically in the last ten years, and in 2009 the Chinese were Africa's largest trading partner. In 1950 the trade volume between the two countries was USD 12 million. In 2010 that figure had ballooned to USD 115 billion.
And while Barack Obama is struggling hard to get the American economy back on track, China's economy is growing strongly. Indra de Soysa, a professor of political science and director of NTNU’s Globalization Programme, predicts that in 20 years, the Chinese economy will be larger than the US economy.
Follow the arms flow
“Journalists, academics and politicians in the West express fear that a dictatorship like China will come to have such a dominant position in the world’s economy. Many think that the Chinese have no morals, and that they do not care about worker protection, human rights and democratic conditions in the country where they trade,” says de Soysa.
To determine if this was true, de Soysa, along with Professor Paul Midford from NTNU, followed the export of weapons from China and the United States to African dictatorships from 1989 to 2006, using figures from the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research.
“If a nation sells or gives away weapons to a country, this is a sign that the countries are looking for a more long-term relationship,” said de Soysa, who has now documented that the US arms far more African dictators than China.
And if that isn’t enough: The figures also show that Americans clearly prefer dictatorships, such as Equatorial Guinea and Djibouti, while the Chinese clearly prefer democratic regimes, as Zambia and Namibia.
Strategy versus profit
“I was very surprised by the findings. There is this international image of China as the enemy, like the big bad wolf that sucks out the resources from its trading partners without worrying about how people feel.
"People think that because China is a dictatorship, the country will try to sell weapons to other dictatorships, and that the US will do the opposite. But the USA looks to promote its strategic interests, even if it means supporting dictatorial regimes, while China is primarily looking to make money,” de Soysa says.
De Soysa thinks that the fear of China's entry into the world economy is partly due to its silencing of political protesters, such as Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
China's sale of arms to dictatorial regimes such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, from 1990 to 2008, also sparked anger from Western human rights activists who claimed that China was undermining the development of democratic rights in Africa.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il

 The deaths of these two leaders--one despised around the world, the other admired--are linked in ways that might not be immediately obvious. Havel argued that the "victims" of authoritarian Communism were, to a large degree, complicit in their own oppression and lack of freedom; they accepted the status quo for decades even though they had the power to change things. The Arab Spring is a latter-day example of how right Havel was about that.

Now pundits and analysts are pondering what will happen in North Korea now that Kim Jong-il is dead. Will his young son have the credibility and support necessary to avoid a possibly bloody battle for leadership? Will the people rise up and say enough is enough? If they don't, and if the transition is smooth and uneventful, North Koreans won't have anyone to blame but themselves. Indeed, as Havel so rightly pointed out, not everyone wants to be free so badly that they are willing to take serious risks for their liberty.

What tips the balance? When does yesterday's complacency give way to today's revolutions? If we understood that better, we might be able to control our destinies instead of letting others control them for us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Israel has never been so ugly

Of late the "Jewish state" has been showing a face that many American Jews might not want to recognize: Racist, anti-democratic, and even terrorist. Writing in Haaretz, columnist Ari Shavit sums up the country's current mood, and places the blame squarely on its leaders. 

A few excerpts, but please click the link and read the whole thing:

We have never been so ugly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu seeks to silence the call to prayer over the loudspeakers of the country's mosques, and to shut down Channel 10 television. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expresses support for the Russian "democtator" who has just rigged elections. Defense Minister Ehud Barak stands by while Jewish settlers victimize Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox religious nationalists victimize female soldiers...

There has never been such a comprehensive attempt to remake the face of Israel and to replace it with something else. Under Netanyahu and Lieberman's leadership, Israel been turned into a country with the values of Newt Gingrich and the look of Vladimir Putin. What's happening here? And why now exactly? Why are anti-democratic forces at work now to run roughshod over human rights and human dignity and freedom? Why are the Jewish nationalists and ultra-Orthodox fanatics, along with Russian statism, bursting forth now all at the same time?

The answer, Shavit says, is Netanyahu. But I'm not sure it's that simple. Israeli voters have been endorsing their nation's right-wing politicians with increasing fervor in recent years, and it's safe to assume at this point that Israel's leadership reflects the increasingly warped viewpoints of the majority of its citizens. This move to the extreme right could not be possible without the complicity of a large number of American Jews, who have long turned blind eyes--innocently or not--to the oppression and human rights violations of the nation that claims to speak for all Jews everywhere. It's time for that to stop. Indeed, there are now plenty of signs that it is stopping, as more and more American Jews join groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Photo: Torched mosque in Tuba Zangaria/Avihu Shapira

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

US to Gaza: Round Two

Act now!!


Israel and the U.S. outsourced the siege of Gaza to Athens last summer by preventing 8 boats in the Freedom Flotilla 2-Stay Human from sailing from Greek ports to Gaza. Despite this we were able to bring world-wide attention to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Our efforts in Greece only fueled our determination to challenge the imprisonment of the people of Gaza. We said we would continue to sail and so we are!!!

At this moment, two boats are in international waters in the Mediterranean heading to Gaza.  One boat, the Saoirse from Ireland, includes parliamentarians among its passengers.  The other, the Tahrir, carries representatives from Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Palestine.  The U.S. Representative on the Tahrir, Kit Kittredge, was a passenger on the U.S. Boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope mission in Athens in July.  A journalist from Democracy Now is on the Tahrir also. Civil society organizations in Gaza await their arrival, and look forward to the delivery of letters collected from thousands of U.S. supporters in the To Gaza With Love campaign. 

We need your help to make this mission a success. Please take these actions immediately.

1. Check these websites for updates:  U.S. to Gaza, Irish Ship to Gaza and Canadian Boat to Gaza,  watch or listen to Democracy Now for live coverage from the Tahrir. Look for twitter hashtag #Freedomwaves.

2. Spread the word far and wide - send this alert to your contacts.

3. Call the State Department  and the White House- demand that they take immediate action to ensure the safe passage of these boats and to put an end to the siege of Gaza.

Call the State Department:

Here are some talking points or suggested messaging: 

Gaza has been under siege since mid-2006, depriving 1.6 million people of their liberty and basic human rights.  Although the siege has been condemned by the United Nations, the Red Cross, and many national governments, nothing has been done to ease the plight of these civilians.  Civil society has had to act where governments would not.  Two ships with 27 passengers from 5 countries are sailing to Gaza to confront the Israeli naval blockade, and to bring medical supplies and letters of support.

As Americans we insist that our government (which sends Israel $3 billion in military aid every year), demands that Israel insures the ships' safe passage and ends its illegal blockade of Gaza. There is absolutely no excuse to subject 1.6 million people to collective punishment. Ask your local press to cover this story.  Up-to-date information will be available at and




For immediate release, November 2, 2011
In New York: Felice Gelman, 917-912-2597917 679 8343
At sea: phone numbers will be released when you call the above press contact


Organizers say: "It is time to lift the siege of Gaza which deprives 1.6 million civilians of their rights to travel, work, study, develop their economy and be free."

The Canadian ship Tahrir and the Irish ship Saoirse have successfully reached international waters, initiating the "Freedom Wave to Gaza." The boats have embarked from Turkey and are on the Mediterranean Sea.  In all, the 2 boats carry 27 passengers  from  Canada, Ireland, U.S., Palestine, and Australia.

Kit Kittredge on board the Tahrir was previously a passenger on the American ship, The Audacity of Hope, which attempted passage to Gaza last July.  Kittredge says, " The only obstacles in our way are Israel's military and the complicity of the Obama administration but in our sails is the wind of worldwide public opinion which has turned against the illegal blockade."

Ann Wright retired US army Colonel and former US Diplomat says, "We carry inspiration from the Arab Spring and the worldwide "Occupy" movements that are demanding freedom and justice. Where governments fail, civil society must act. As Americans we are fed up with our government's unquestioning support of Israel no matter how violent, illegal and  oppressive its actions.  We will not stand by and watch $30 billion of our tax money committed to buying Israel weaponry used to carry out this illegal occupation of Palestine including the blockade of Gaza."

Jane Hirschmann added, "Our sailing coincides with UN agency UNESCO's recognition of Palestine as a member state, defying US threats to cut off $80 million of US funding in retaliation. This shows the growing strength of opposition by the international community to U.S. and Israeli policies in Palestine. We call on the international community to go further and take effective action to lift the siege of Gaza. Hirschmann was one of the organizers this past summer of the U.S. Boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope which is still captive in Greece.




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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Israel Doesn't Want Peace Nearly as Much as It Wants the West Bank

This slideshow from Peace Now shows how it's being done. With thanks to Mondoweiss for posting it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ben-Hur and how the Los Angeles Times swallowed revised Jewish/Palestinian history whole

The excellent blog Mondoweiss describes a particularly interesting (I would say amusing but it's not really funny) example of the way in which Israel lobby groups try to distort the truth about Israel and Palestine. It's also an example of how easily newspapers like the L.A. Times are cowed into submission by such groups, even at the price of accuracy.

Please read it at the link.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Obama and Palestine

“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N."
     --Barack Obama in his speech before the United Nations.

Peace would have come a long time ago if U.N. resolutions were actually enforced.