Whacked by the book meme stick

It looks like I have been infected by one of those chain-post blog thingies, courtesy of the Hon. J. Skelly Wright. What the heck, I'll play, looks like fun:

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

I read that book a long time ago (for the convenience of this blog's European readers, that would be Celsius 232,7), but if I recall this means that I get burned, right? So is this supposed to be a book that I dislike? Or am I supposed to stretch my imagination and consider that I would want to be burned?

Maybe it is better to consider the question as asking what book I respect enough to take the effort of saving it from burning. In that case it would have to be Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, because it does the most to explain what makes contemporary cultures hostile to culture in general, and how that relates to pleasure. I think.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Way back in my undergraduate days everyone in the seminar had a crush on Molly Bloom! But that may be unavoidable. Also the professor was of the "erotics of the text" school, heavy going for a bunch of recent postadolescents trying to look smart. But even with the benefit of hindsight, Molly Bloom remains Molly Bloom.

The last book you bought is?

I'm a little ashamed here, but my excuse is that I was looking for something current and popular to use in "Sociology of Culture," for which I often mine the cheesy NY Times bestsellers lists, figuring that it is better to pander than to be frustrated. It was Jihad vs McWorld by Benjamin Barber. The guy's heart is probably in the right place, but I didn't like it. First of all, these "explain the whole world" books always run into the problem of having so wide a scope that they do not get the facts right. Second, even though Barber goes around trying to minimise the effect, I remain offended by the way he uses the term jihad, which is close to the popular journalism usage and has nothing to do with the way that most Muslims understand the meaning of the word.

What are you currently reading?

Atentat na Zorana by Milos Vasic. This is the book that everyone was talking about during our visit to Belgrade last week, and we brought back multiple copies because it is what everyone gave us as gifts for their relatives. It is an effort to recount the murder of Zoran Djindjic, its causes and the responses to it, by tracing the ways in which an alliance between security services and organised crime came to occupy the state then tried to make this occupation permanent. Good stuff. I'm also carrying with me a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which a student was kind enough to give me as a gift, but much to my regret I haven't got to it yet.

Five books you would take to a deserted island:

I haven't got any novels here, even though I like them, but then I rarely read them twice.

1. How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. What can I say, it is the family bible. Mark Bittman's general idea is to develop recipes that look impressive but do not involve inordinate amounts of work, and this is an idea that translates well to all spheres of life.

2. A Grammar of Motives and A Rhetoric of Motives by Kenneth Burke, because they have been sitting in my "must read soon" pile for well over a decade.

3. A good Indian cookbook, because there comes many a day when I wish I had a good Indian cookbook. But I never buy them because here where I live there are lots of good Indian restaurants.

4. Economy and Society by Max Weber, because you never know when you will need to find a good Weber quote. He has also rarely been surpassed in terms of theory, especially if you consider theory a set of propositions that leads to the development of new ideas, whether these propositions turn out to be true or not.

5. A phone book. Definitely a phone book.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Quod, because I really want to see what she will say.

The Prairie sociologists, because the heartland must be heard.

Bora Coturnix, because he always seems to find fascinating things I have never heard of.

On this day in 1957

The BBC ran its legendary April Fools documentary on the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland.

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The BBC's On This Day section recalls: "The hoax Panorama programme, narrated by distinguished broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, featured a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest. It showed women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry." Responses ranged from criticism for using serious programming time for an April Fool joke to inquiries as to where a person could buy a spaghetti bush. Follow the link above, and you can watch the original segment.

Obligatory periodic Ceca post

Poor Svetlana Raznatovic wanted to give concerts to her adoring fans in Australia and Canada, but has been left hanging like an apple on a branch. The flower of the Canadian consular service is nagging her for "an interview with the singer for security purposes, likely because she was married to Zeljko Raznatovic," reports the Toronto Sun, whilst the Australian government says that in denying her a visa "her application was treated like any other," according to the Melbourne Herald. Her Canadian immigration lawyer is dismayed, saying that Ceca is "the biggest thing since Britney Spears." But he must not have seen her recently, she is much bigger.

Thanks to loyal reader AR for the tip.


Pro-lifers vs the lifeless, media circus ends

After twelve years of interference by a coalition of publicity-hungry relatives, political poseurs and religious fanatics, Terri Schiavo was finally permitted to die, ending fifteen years of involuntary life support. The long-term combined efforts of charlatans from every margin to force institutions of political power to substitute their own judgment for the interest of the person involved should cause everybody to shudder, and then produce a written document rejecting in advance the intrusions of people who make a career of defending "life" against the living.

Update: Nicholas W. over at the thumping Heart of Europe has found a sample of such a document.

Also, the bicyclists

It would seem that Vojislav Šešelj is preparing his defence at the Hague. He seems to be organising it along the theory that, according to the request for discovery he has filed with the trial chamber, «all of the war crimes which the prosecutor falsely attributes to Šešelj, are in fact primarily the work of the Roman Catholic pope John Paul II.» Clearly, a case of mistaken identity.


An import we like

One of the areas where the US continues to fall behind Europe is in the pleasantness of its cities, since for the past fifty or sixty years policy has been to make spaces more accessible to automobiles and less accessible to people. The consequences of this have been congestion, pollution, population flight and sprawl. Now Boston city councillor Paul Scapicchio is proposing that our fair city emulate the example of London, which has tried to control traffic in the city center by imposing entry tolls. The larger businesses will probably oppose the plan, but there seems to be some positive reaction both from Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts transportation prophet Fred Salvucci.

Charging fees by itself, of course, is an incomplete policy. The plan would need to be part of a larger effort to develop a center city pedestrian zone and to invest heavily in the city's certifiably wretched public transport system. Malo da se i mi Ameri civilizujemo.

An end to hassles over castles

A group of 71 big German landowners whose property was seized by the Soviet occupation government between 1945 and 1949 do not have the right to claim compensation from the German government, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled. The court found that it did not have jurisdiction to hold the present German government accountable for actions by the Soviet Union or the former German Democratic Republic. As reported by Deutsche Welle, the decision does not apply to land taken after 1949, and there is some controversy over whether the German government accepted a demand by the Soviet Union in 1990 that the postwar land reform not be reversed.

The access of various vons to their castles is mostly a matter of local color and minor interest, of course, but it is possible that the ruling could be meaningful for other cases in which current governments are faced with demands for compensation for acts which previous governments carried out. A few such cases come to mind, but all of them involve states less powerful than Germany.

An explosive coincidence

As it turns out, we were in Belgrade on 24 March, the anniversary of the day that the NATO bombing campaign began in 1999. The evening was punctuated, but not filled, with a lot of reminiscences about who went where, who was surprised by what, who called whom, and so on. Really it was more surreal than tense. On 6 April, there will be another incedniary multianniversary: the day the invasion of Yugoslavia began in 1941, Belgrade was bombed in 1944, and the seige of Sarajevo began in 1992.

So others might also be interested in reading the account by Coyu at Halfway Down the Danube which includes a reminiscence by the American poet Charles Simic of meeting another poet who bombed him from a plane when he was a boy in Belgrade in 1944, and a letter from that poet in response. If nothing else, the exchange suggests that whatever intentional effects bombs have in blowing things apart, there are some unexpected ways in which they bring people together. Which is probably not a reason to recommend them.


On balance, normality and children

Serbian president Boris Tadic's sentiments are most likely in the right place, though he is certainly not the political force against which possibilities are measured. Yesterday at a roundtable on "Thought crime, ten years later" (dedicated to commemorating the prosecution of Belgrade intellectuals for an illegal meeting, a case in which the prosecutor was current justice minister Zoran Stojkovic), he directed a part of his remarks to questions of war crimes. As reported by Danas, Mr Tadic said:

"When I see in Kosovo the grave of a four year old child who was killed because of his Serbian nationality, by Albanians who think that is normal, I regard that as pathology. And I ask whether somebody has killed children of another nationality in the name of our nation. Maybe that somebody has been celebrated as a hero our celebrated in the institutions of this society. In this state there exists a negative attitude toward raising the question of war crimes"


"So now I am raising that question: what if somebody committed war crimes, killed others --on a fairly massive level-- and is now free? That person comes into contact with our children, he is a part of our everyday experience, he lives a completely normal life, and the consequences of his life are the deaths of other people. And that is done in the name of our nation. How will we build a normal environment in which future generations will be formed as people with normal values, if the state protects or fails to punish people who have committed crimes of this type, people who carry with them a pathology that threatens the security of every child."

Credit to Mr Tadic for raising the issue, especially in a context other than economics. What seems interesting about the way he raises it, though, is his combination of rhetorical elements. First, there is the invocation of balance, in which any mention of crimes by one side has to be prefaced by a mention of crimes by another side. This may be a form of political self-protection, or an effort to invoke the popular psychology of victimhood as the only way possible of directing attention to something other than victimhood. Second, there is the invocation of normality, a construction that I believe originates with the popular chansoneur Djordje Balasevic. In the context, it seems to be a way of dividing the moral universe into malicious peddlers of violence on the one side, and normal people on the other. Clearly normal people would never think of supporting the sort of things that have been done in their name. But as appealing as this rhetoric is for Mr Balasevic as a way of communing with his adoring pan-Balkan audiences, it comes off a bit as autoamnesty coming from a politician. Third, of course, is the theme of children. Presumably we all love our children more than we like criminals, so we know whose interest comes first. This is the construction that leaves the greatest number of questions open for me, and it seems to be fairly new as a part of at least this particular controversy. Mr Tadic seems to be using it a bit broadly, but it is possible to imagine some potential here. Where it might fit is as a part of a general critique of what some people have called (vid. Ivan Colovic) the necrophilia of dominant political culture in nationalism. Cast right, it calls to mind the lamented Stojan Cerovic's question: "Maybe our problem is more a shortage of life than an excess of death?"

Note: The pljeskavica on every streetcorner is better

And probably healthier. Which may be why the McDonald's corporation is reduced to offering popular hiphop artists 5 USD for each instance in which a song of theirs mentioning their Big Mac product is played.

It is an offer that can be refused, of course, but it is also hard not to wonder whether Mickey D will shell out the five bucks regardless of the context in which their product is invoked.

The initiative is probably an effort to increase sales by attracting the attention of people in those age groups who prefer that type of music (I know, great insight, do I get that degree in marketing now?). Kafedzije of smaller size still have resort to the older and possibly less reliable method of making good food.

Special war crimes issue of Spaces of identity

The April issue of Spaces of Identity is dedicated to war crimes. It includes, among other pieces, an article on denial among the Ukrainian diaspora by John-Paul Himka, a reflection on the seige of Dubrovnik by Srdja Pavlovic, a discussion of war crimes in Chechnya by W. Andy Knight and Tanya Narozhna, and a philosophical discussion of war by Lise Hogan and William Anselmi.

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All of the articles can be downloaded in PDF format.

While I was away

My friend Milena M. writes to let us know that she has found Ante Gotovina. Thanks, Milena!

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The futility of travel

I thought I was reasonably well travelled until I tried this simple game, software which makes a map showing where in the world you have been. Looks like it only adds up to about 9%. Better get moving.

create your own visited country map

Things we discovered while travelling

1. The trains in Italy. They do run on time, are inexpensive and comfortable, and there is this neat game in which you are supposed to punch the ticket before you get on. If you forget, the conductor first looks at you in utter disbelief, then after listening to your attempts to explain in a funny accent, looks at you in greater disbelief, says "Lei non e italiano?," then it dawns on him that there is no way you could understand anything and he scribbles something incomprehensible on the back of it, smiles indulgently and lets you go on. However, when we arrived in Trieste the train workers went on strike, so the next morning our friend drove us to Ljubljana and we continued by bus.

2. The students in Forli. Hello Hanne, Margherita and Guiseppe! I'm back and have got some sleep now, so I will be back to you with the documentation and advice on your papers today. Thanks for providing the pretext for the whole trip.

3. Restoran Zaplet in Belgrade. We already knew that this place was quite elegant and very good, plus it is just around the corner from our apartment. But a milestone was reached when I ordered a rare steak and, for the first time in over a decade of gluvarenje around the Balkans, actually got one. The pleasure of seeing our friends competed the rest of the evening with incredulous culinary joy. Let the cows get as mad as they want to be.

4. The departure of a hero. Since 1990 the best thing about Thursdays has always been Stojan Cerovic's column in Vreme, which would take you through the characters, contexts and events of the week with a shining intelligence, an astounding economy of words, and a turn of phrase that focused sharply, more like a razor than like the kind of dull serrated blade (or rusty spoon) that is so typical of political commentary in most places. Every week he accomplished the amazing feat of reminding hopeless people that a moral compass existed while being clever, provocative and gentle at the same time. I was happy to see that the memorial at the Medija Centar attracted an overflow crowd, made up mostly of people I like and respect, to pay their respects to this courageous and decent journalist.

5. Give them shelter. Congratulations to the Pepper People and to the TV Manijaci, who have got themselves lovely new apartments!

More to come as East Ethnia slowly but surely regains consciousness.


Today back on your computer screens, tomorrow in your heads

Well, then! We are just back from spreading Ethnian joy in Milano, Forlì, Verona, Venezia, Trieste, Ljubljana and Belgrado, an intensive two weeks but probably much better than staying at home would have been. Today I expect to take a few hours unpacking, rescuing poor Lajoš from his domestic doggie exile, getting some items to fill the kitchen, and coming back to consciousness. Boston is as gray and rainy as expected, but our apartment was gloriously cleaned in our absence! Quelle raskoš! Normal posting, then, to resume eveningward unless we all collapse in exhaustion.