Graeme Wood

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Can Culture Make us Crazy?

Originally appeared in Pacific Standard.

Review of The Truman Show Delusion by Joel and Ian Gold.

In 2003, at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, Dr. Joel Gold met his first patient suffering from what is now called the Truman Show delusion: the belief that he was being stalked by reality television, and that almost everyone was in on the gag but him. Gold’s current book, written with his brother Ian, a philosopher, is an attempt to explain the cultural roots of madness, with Truman Show patients and others as case studies. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Pacific Standard, ,

The African country where compasses go haywire

UNTIL THE LAST YEAR, when the Central African Republic’s civil war became a humanitarian crisis too dire to ignore, most Americans thought little about the country at all. It has a low global profile in part because it is exceedingly poor, with four out of five people living on less than $2 a day. It has some natural resources, but because it is landlocked by other troubled countries—Chad, Sudan, Congo, and Cameroon—even if a lull in the war allowed it to extract those from the ground, it would still face formidable problems in exporting them.

But for one group, the Central African Republic is anything but ignorable, and in fact is home to an enduring scientific mystery. Geophysicists who map the earth’s magnetic fields have identified a disturbance in the earth’s natural magnetic fields within the Republic. They still have few clues about what causes it, but at least some think it could be key to understanding one of the most dramatic events in the history of the planet.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Boston Globe, , ,

Take it from a former military deserter: Bowe Bergdahl has suffered enough

Three years ago, I asked an Afghan with ties to the Taliban what he had heard about captured Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He replied that Bergdahl had briefly escaped, then been found hiding in a tree by Kuchi nomads and returned to his captors.

After that, his captors locked him in a dark room, in a cage “for a dog”.

I had no idea if these details were correct – Afghans spin tales, and I had no way to confirm – but preliminary reports suggest that Bergdahl probably did endure punishment worse than anything a court martial might offer.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Guardian, ,

Review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

Review of No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Long before Edward Snowden selected Glenn Greenwald as the bucket into which he would direct his NSA leaks, Greenwald enjoyed a reputation among his fellow American political bloggers as a man to avoid provoking. He lives in a compound in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by his beloved dogs, and his style in argument resembles the behavior of a mastiff protecting a beloved chewtoy. Counterargument meets growls and indignation, and long after the arguer has decided to move on to another subject, Greenwald continues to snarl and fight, publishing post upon post, update upon update, and never conceding anything at all, even when he is clearly wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Barnes & Noble Review, , ,

Orta Afrika Cumhuriyeti’nde Silinen İnsanlık İzleri

Originally appeared in Perspektif (Turkish).

Filed under: Perspektif, ,

Sorcery at War

Originally appeared in The New York Times.

BANGUI, Central African Republic — This nation is flirting with genocide. Two barely organized groups — one Christian, one Muslim — have been fighting for control in the last year, and in some areas have tried to hunt each other to extinction. C.A.R. is splitting in two, with Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Much of the capital is already empty of Muslims.

And yet casting the conflict in religious terms is a poor way to understand it. The war was caused not by sectarian differences, but by political and economic grievances, the products of systematic neglect of Muslim areas by the government once run by François Bozizé, a general backed by Chad and France. Religious divisions mapped onto, and exacerbated, senses of longstanding economic and political injustice. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: New York Times, , ,

A Dozen Words for Misunderstood

Originally appeared in Pacific Standard.

Review of The Language Hoax by John McWhorter

 

Few fields of study suffer from a more complete public misunderstanding than linguistics. It isn’t uncommon for a linguist to be asked, on meeting a non-linguist, how many languages he or she speaks, or to hear the exclamation, “Oh dear, I must watch my grammar!” Linguists study languages and their structures, but speaking many of them isn’t a job requirement, nor is being a professional grammar scold. A slightly rarer misimpression is usually held by those with just enough knowledge to be dangerous. These people think they flatter a linguist when they say how important linguistics is, “because what we think depends on the words we use to think it.”

This last belief is the bugbear that’s been eating John McWhorter’s trash, and that he hopes to kill off once and for all with his latest book, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter’s writing appears frequently in the liberal New Republic and the conservative City Journal, often on the subject of race and politics. (McWhorter subscribes to a number of political heterodoxies.) But before he went into punditry, McWhorter trained as a linguist and contributed to the study of creolization, the process by which two or more languages coalesce into a full-featured third language.

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Filed under: Pacific Standard, ,

Hell is an Understatement

Originally appeared in The New Republic.

Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), has never been known for the reliability of its public utilities. Most trash is picked through by scavengers, and the remaining mango pits, scraps of plastic, and rusty bottlecaps pile up on dirt roads or get blown into fetid open sewers. But since December, along a desolate stretch of the Avenue de France, the Red Cross has operated an on-demand, white-gloved sanitation service that, within an hour of being called, will show up to collect human bodies, whether chopped up or left intact.

The Avenue de France marks a divide between two neighborhoods, and the human remains belong to those who have, for one reason or another, strayed too far in the wrong direction. The road itself is devoid of foot traffica no-man’s-land where both sides can deposit their victims, so they don’t have to bury them or let them rot within smelling distance in the African sun. North of the line is the Fifth Arrondissement, a neighborhood inhabited almost exclusively by Christians now that its Muslim residents have either been killed or forced into exile. The Muslims who haven’t fled the country live primarily in the Third Arrondissement, just south of the Avenue de France. There, being a Christian is a condition nearly as fatal as being a Muslim is to the north, south, east, or west. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: New Republic, , ,

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