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 »

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Orta Afrika Cumhuriyeti’nde Silinen İnsanlık İzleri

Originally appeared in Perspektif (Turkish).

Filed under: Perspektif, ,

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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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, , ,

Burmese Daze

Originally appeared in The Atlantic.

The Drug Elimination Museum, a brutalist eyesore about the size of Grand Central Station, occupies a weedy lot next to the state-television headquarters in Rangoon, Burma’s most important city. The building is silent and sepulchral, like a cavernous opium den whose patrons have set down their pipes and slipped into nap time. Since 2011, the military-allied government of Burma has softened restrictions on tourism, but hardly anyone seeks out this particular attraction. A mile and a half away is the golden spire of Shwedagon Pagoda, the foremost Buddhist monument in Burma and an architectural, aesthetic, and spiritual must-see. But for fans of irony and unintentional humor, this vast temple of propaganda should be a pilgrimage site in its own right. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

Ethnic Cleansing Just Went From Bad to Worse in Burma

Originally appeared in The New Republic.

The ethnic cleansing in Burma’s northwest has followed a jerky rhythm, coming in fits and starts since the first Buddhist-on-Muslim attacks in the middle of 2012. I visited the area for an article in the current issue of the magazine, and found it in a dangerous lull, with many Burmese Buddhists thrilled by the prospect of driving out the remaining Muslims and killing those who resisted.

The lull has broken over the last two weeks, according to reports gathered by a Bangkok-based human-rights group. On January 9, eight Muslims were kidnapped, and soon after, others “discovered a fresh grave with visible body parts.” In subsequent attacks, forty Muslims were killed and many more forced from their homes. The Burmese government has responded in part by ignoring the issue: The lead story in a state-run newspaper today is an urgent report about advances in organic farming. When asked directly, government spokesmen are propagating the story that Buddhists are blameless but Muslims murdered a Buddhist policeman on January 14. The implication is that even if the Muslims were attacked, they kinda had it coming.
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Filed under: New Republic,

A Countryside of Concentration Camps

Originally appeared in The New Republic.

 

On November 19, 2012, Barack Obama visited Burma to keep a promise he made in 2009 to tyrants everywhere. The promise: Stop being so tyrannical, and we’ll make it worth your while. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his inaugural address, speaking to the Burmese military junta all but directly, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Burma’s generals held up their side of things starting in 2010, by preparing for elections, freeing political prisoners, and relaxing controls on speech. Until then, Burma might have merited a spot on a junior varsity Axis of Evil, alongside such fellow totalitarian states as Cuba and Belarus. But in his address at Rangoon University, when the jackboot prints still hadn’t faded from the faces of the political prisoners, Obama said Burma’s “remarkable journey” toward freedom was on the right track, and he pledged U.S. support and money if reform continued.

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Filed under: New Republic,

Death at the Summit

Originally appeared in Pacific Standard.

More than 200 climbers are entombed in the ice on Mount Everest. When wind clears the snow away, clothing and limbs sometimes surface like saplings in a spring thaw. You can tell the older victims by their mid-century ice axes and crampons. The latest are recognizable by their branded parkas and iPhones, still loaded with text messages and snapshots.

The 2011 climbing season drew its usual clientele of rich mountaineers, and it left four more dead, at least one of whom had been trading messages with his office until days before his death. A goateed Irishman of 42 with the gaunt, taut look of a fitness obsessive, John Delaney ran the Dublin-based betting site Intrade, a playground for speculators whose interests extended beyond sports and stocks. At the time, Intrade allowed users to bet on the outcomes of a wide range of events—elections, legal cases, TV talent shows, hurricanes—and to buy and sell their bets using a dynamic stock market-like interface. Read the rest of this entry »

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