Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, March 19, 2008

It seems like after Christmas and New Years France never really stops going on vacation. This weekend is Easter and then we have a few more weeks of “work” and then it’s two weeks of more vacation. I wonder how people are ever “productive” here…

1.) Accounting for Journalistic Oversight in Pre-War Iraq. In Five Years After John F. Burns at the NY Times gives us a rather moving piece attempting to recap the history and the lessons learned about Iraq since the war began 5 years ago from the journalistic perspective that documented Iraq pre- and post-Saddam. He attempts to show that our understandings (even those of journalists who had documented Saddam’s atrocities and lived with the Iraqi peoples) were also skewed:

In time, those who launched the war will answer in history, as much as they will claim the credit if America ultimately finds a way home with honor, and without destroying all it went to Iraq to achieve. But reporters, too, may wish to make an accounting. If we accurately depicted the horrors of Saddam’s Iraq in the run-up to the war, with its charnel houses and mass graves, we have to acknowledge that we were less effective, then, in probing beneath the carapace of terror to uncover other facets of Iraq’s culture and history that would have a determining impact on the American project to build a Western-style democracy, or at least the basics of a civil society.

Burns remarks that what we saw from abroad and with our cultural prejudices haven’t exactly matched with the Iraqi perspective:

The harsh reality is that many Iraqis, at least by the time of the two elections held in 2005, had little zest for democracy, at least as Westerners understand it. This, too, was not fully understood at the time. To walk Baghdad’s streets on the voting days, especially during the December election that produced the Shiite-led government now in power, was inspiriting. With 12 million people casting ballots, a turnout of about 75 per cent, it was natural enough for President Bush to say Iraqis had embraced the American vision. In truth, what the majority produced was less a vote for democracy than a vote for a once-and-for-all, permanent transfer of power, from the Sunni minority that ruled in Iraq for centuries, to an impatient, and deeply wounded, if not outright vengeful, Shiite majority.

He concludes with a hesitation and note of caution:

Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.**

2.) Fuzzy Geography. You can’t expect the properly understand the world and its political and social happenings today without properly understanding the underlying history and geography. As Philippe Rekacewicz bring up in La cartographie, entre science, art et manipulation, equally worth noting is the fact that maps and the mapping of the world still play an important role in many political debates in terms of their designation of borders and political status. For example, during the yearly meeting of UN on the environment in February 2002, the Chinese delegation walked out because Taiwan was labeled as an “independent state.” “Improperly” naming a place can bring on political backlashes (for example, National Geographic was criticized and politically sanctioned by Iran when the magazine used the term Arabic Golf instead of Persian Golf.) As Rekacewicz writes:

La carte sert aussi à formaliser des revendications identitaires et nationales, en particulier lorsqu’elle figure les frontières modernes, exercice toujours très périlleux tant les Etats entretiennent un rapport irrationnel avec la perception de leur propre territoire. La carte peut alors manifester le déni des peuples. Ainsi ce cartographe professionnel qui, témoignant de sa « passion pour le monde des cartes, pour les voyages virtuels », nous écrivait : « La représentation des frontières est pour nous un casse-tête permanent. D’autant plus qu’on a toujours envie de les effacer, de les déplacer… Lorsque je dessine une carte d’Afrique, par exemple, au moment où je place les frontières, j’ai le sentiment d’agresser et de blesser les peuples. Elles apparaissent ensuite, sur la carte, comme de vilaines cicatrices. »

Penser qu’il existe des représentations « officielles », admises par tous, du découpage politique du monde constitue une illusion que les cartographes doivent s’attacher à détruire. Quelle serait donc la bonne carte, donnant la vision « avalisée » d’un pays ? En trouver l’expression cartographique pertinente relève du défi. Chacun a sa vérité et ses arguments, mais il n’existe ni « règles » ni « autorité » délivrant des solutions faciles. Rien d’autre ne permet de trancher** que des constructions intellectuelles plus ou moins défendables, inspirées de la culture, de l’histoire et de la géographie, et dont s’emparent les producteurs de cartes, y compris les Etats eux-mêmes. Ou, mieux, l’ONU, souvent prise entre plusieurs feux, mais qui reste l’institution la plus légitime pour proposer des solutions équitables.

There is an extremely interesting and clarifying Cartography section at the Le Monde Diplomatique, which provides numerous maps meriting our closest attention in a political world played out on both on the ground and on the imaginary, representative level of our maps.

3.) ‘Til Death Do We Part? A recent article at the New York Times entitled In Most Species, Faithfulness Is a Fantasy chronicles the scientific data on adultery and monogamy, and the results show that:

*Yet as biologists have discovered through the application of DNA paternity tests to the offspring of these bonded pairs, social monogamy is very rarely accompanied by sexual, or genetic, monogamy. **Assay the kids in a given brood, whether of birds, voles, lesser apes, foxes or any other pair-bonding species, and anywhere from 10 to 70 percent will prove to have been sired by somebody other than the resident male. *

The rare example of total monogamy is

*Diplozoon paradoxum, a flatworm that lives in gills of freshwater fish. “Males and females meet each other as adolescents, and their bodies literally fuse together, whereupon they remain faithful until death,” Dr. Barash said. “That’s the only species I know of in which there seems to be 100 percent monogamy.” *

4.) Neurohistorian. In a book review, Alexander Star explores the neurological and historical issues in Daniel Lord Smail’s book On Deep History and the Brain, namely how have certain historical practices and behaviors affected and modified our brain chemistry: “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.” Specifically, our adoption of drinking coffee has stimulated the brain in a new way that previous societies did not; likewise, smoking has lead to a dissimulation of the brain. Star writes:

Ever since the invention of agriculture, Smail claims, we have seen “an ever greater concentration of mood-altering mechanisms.” Some of these mechanisms Smail refers to as “teletropic”: they work primarily to affect the moods of others, stimulating a wash of neurochemicals at a distance. A baby cries and arouses its mother’s instinct to care; a priest intones a Mass and relieves parishioners of stress hormones. The modern era, however, belongs to what Smail calls “autotropic” devices, devices that alter our own moods. In modern Europe, coffee from the Arabian peninsula became a stimulant to “mind, body, conversation and creativity” for the rich and the mercantile. The cultivation of sugar on Caribbean slave plantations made cheap rum freely available, further inebriating the working classes. Individuals became ever more expert at changing their own chemistry, sometimes just for the pleasure of modulating one set of sensations into another. But ingesting substances was only the beginning. The same era saw the rise of novels and erotica, shopping and salons. Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood; indeed, in the 18th century, their impact was often likened to a fever, jeopardizing readers’ purchase on reality and their physical strength. In the age of Enlightenment, man overthrew kings and subjected himself to mild and intermittently pleasurable addictions.

With the so-called “psychoactive revolution,” he asks:

What happens when we learn not just how to alter our moods but also to identify the chemical and electr*ical constituents of our experiences while we are having them?** *

5.) Reconciling Religion and Science. Michael Heller, a Catholic Priest, Cosmologist and Philosopher recently received the Templeton Prize. He said in an interview, “I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.

Statistic of the Week:

The Greediest and yet Most Generous Nation** in the World? The United States is often described as an individualistic, selfish nation, only concerned about itself. But, leaving aside the sociological, cultural and economic reasons brought up by a post Not Your Daddy, the U.S. is statistically-speaking the most charity-giving country in the world.


Equally interesting is the fact that the top givers were all Anglo-Saxon countries, including UK, Canada, and Australia.

Quote of the Week:

“In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.”

– Mark Twain