Graeme Wood

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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.

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Orta Afrika Cumhuriyeti’nde Silinen İnsanlık İzleri

Originally appeared in Perspektif (Turkish).

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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 »

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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 »

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Book review: The French Intifada

Review of The French Intifada by Andrew Hussey.  Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

Nowadays it’s neither fashionable nor conscionable to feel nostalgic for the colonial era. But it’s clear that some colonial powers left more fragrant legacies than others, and one of the smelliest of them all was that of France. The country amassed a near perfect record of mismanagement, everywhere from Algeria and Indochina to the Central African Republic, and France is the only great colonial power whose misdeeds abroad keep haunting it, more or less constantly, at home.

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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 »

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Review of Words will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

One of the virtues of thuggish dictators is that their thuggishness makes their opponents look good — even opponents who have glaring faults of their own. Masha Gessen’s previous book, The Man Without a Face, argued that Vladimir Putin’s thuggishness borders on psychopathy; in her current one she turns to a portrait of three of his female antagonists. These antagonists are callow, juvenile, and sometimes vulgar. But as if by alchemy, the juxtaposition with Putin makes them into heroes, and makes their publicity stunts into sublime acts of political defiance.
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