Graeme Wood

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Panic Attack

Originally appeared The New York Sun.

Once, I had occasion to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. I was on crutches at the time, and at a reception after an opening-night performance of “The Dybbuk.” While leaning against a wall and eating a smoked-salmon canapé, I felt heat on my lower back. Smelling smoke, I craned my head to see a small candle igniting my shirt, and flames licking their way up toward my collar. The reactions around me were diverse and instructive. A woman shrieked, and a man laughed. But neither did anything. I picked up my crutches, hobbled to the open bar and asked them to douse me. Incredibly, the barmaid started by daintily pressing ice cubes against the flames, until I suggested that she just drench me with the contents of her bucket.

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The Bacteria Within Us

Originally published in the New York Sun.

The poet William Blake imagined what it would be like “to see the world in a grain of sand.” Reading “Microcosm” (Pantheon, 243 pages, $25.95), Carl Zimmer’s new book on the world’s most famous bacterium, one wonders whether Blake might have phrased his reverie differently if he had had an electron microscope. Had Blake looked closely enough, at a magnification that would make sand grains look like lifeless, barren mountains, the poet would have seen a remarkably complex creature, one so beguiling that it is, as Mr. Zimmer’s title suggests, easy to imagine it as a world in miniature. The bacterium, whose genome scientists mapped fully by 1997, fights viruses, just as we do; it fights its enemies, just as we do; it even has a primitive kind of sex. It is, the author argues persuasively, a model organism, and one with much to teach our own species. Read the rest of this entry »

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Economics by Other Means

The New York Sun
April 16, 2008

To be an economist nowadays is to be a professional smartypants, gleeful in explaining away nearly everything everyone else does or cares about. Got a funny name? Ask an economist, not Mom and Dad. Worried about spotted owls? Check out this incentive structure. Think each “X-Men” movie is worse than the last? Have I got a regression for you. In recent years, as if to signal that they have exhausted the field of human behavior, economists have tried (and largely succeeded) to move on to other species and explain capuchin monkey behavior as well.

“Castles, Battles, and Bombs” (University of Chicago Press, 424 pages, $29), co-authored by an economist, Jurgen Brauer, and a historian, Hubert van Tuyll, purports to explain military history through economics. It examines seven key moments in the last thousand years of warfare — among them, the building of castles in the High Middle Ages, France’s decision to irradiate the South Pacific with costly nuclear testing during the Cold War, the role of private military contractors in the Italian Renaissance, and the bombing of Germany in World War II. These are all, the authors say, susceptible to economic analysis and elucidation. If economics can explain the behavior of capuchin monkeys, then surely it can explain the behavior of Frenchmen.
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Why We Fight

The New York Sun

Review of Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (Princeton University Press).

Violence is rarely what we expect it to be. “It was so new and senseless that we felt no pain, neither in body nor in spirit,” Primo Levi wrote of his first experience of Nazi brutality. “Only a profound amazement.”

Sociologist and amateur martial artist Randall Collins starts his wonderful, rambling book, “Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory” (Princeton University Press, 584 pages, $45), by pointing out that violence baffles us, and that it rarely resembles our imaginations, or what we see in films. Between individuals, combat often looks goofy and undignified, more slappy flailing than solid punches. For group violence, the saloon brawls in Westerns have taught us to expect bystanders to join in and smash chairs over each other’s backs; but in real life, bar patrons tend to back off from the melee, staring inertly.

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Divining Patterns in the Imperial Cycle

The New York Sun

Review of Day of Empire by Amy Chua.

Finding a kind word for Genghis Khan, the Mongol warlord who built towering stacks of the heads of his enemies’ children, is the sort of comically revisionist exercise that can nevertheless make old history fresh again.

For Genghis — and for all world-class empires, from Persia to the present — the unhelpfully kind word Amy Chua finds, in her new “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — And Why They Fall” (Doubleday, 432 pages, $29.95), is “tolerant.” Received tales of Genghis’s pitiless subjugation of the known world obscure what was, she says, a willingness to tolerate the practices of many local groups within his dominion — broadmindedness remarkable at the time, even if the bloodshed and brutality are all we remember today. Accept vassal status, Genghis said, and you can keep not only your indigenous ways and leaders, but your children’s heads, too. Read the rest of this entry »

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Getting to the Very Roots of Genocide

The New York Sun

Review of Blood and Soil, by Ben Kiernan.

How much murder is too much? Ethnic cleansing is a crime, but what qualifies? Does slaughtering a village count, or do you have to lay waste to a larger polity, perhaps with some torture thrown in? How many people do you have to kill before graduating from mere mass murder to full-on genocide?

The legal answer, strangely enough, is zero. In Ben Kiernan’s “Blood and Soil” (Yale University Press, 606 pages, $40), a meticulous new study of this most slippery of criminal categories, he points out that the standard definitions of genocide — those offered by the U.N.’s Genocide Convention and International Criminal Court Statute — require not even a single death, or indeed any physical harm at all. In fact, the génocidaire need not even target a whole ethnic group. To win a place in the defendant’s chair — or a mention in Mr. Kiernan’s book — requires only the attempt to cause that group “serious mental damage.” The extermination of European Jewry counts, but so does a single British colonial officer’s efforts to take away an Australian aboriginal child from her parents, involving, as it did, the intent to “breed out the color.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Playing Nice with a Tyrant

The New York Sun

Review of The New Lion of Damascus by David Lesch

Among hereditary dictators, Bashar al-Assad is remarkable not only for once having held a real job, but also for having been, by most accounts, fairly good at it. An ophthalmologist training in London, he abandoned a promising career only in 1994, after his elder brother Basil wrapped his Mercedes-Benz around a road fixture outside Damascus. Basil’s airbags deployed, according to official accounts, but the car rolled over, leaving his younger brother to inherit the family business. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Pointillist Presentation of History

The New York Sun

Review of 1945: The War That Never Ended by Gregor Dallas.

“I personally do not know a single Frenchman who can remember the day the war officially ended in Europe,” writes Gregor Dallas. Coming from a resident of the country, this claim sounds odd. What excuse could exist for forgetting May 8, 1945? Paris, after all, marked it in style, with crowded streets, a triumphant address by Charles de Gaulle, and an aerial trick in which an American B-25 Mitchell bomber buzzed the Eiffel Tower and then – in an especially memorable touch – flew under it. Even the French are not so difficult to impress that they could forget a stunt like that.

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