A land of bards

The contemporary Western image of Somalia was forged in 1993, when American special forces and U.S. Army Rangers fought an overnight battle in Mogadishu with the militia of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, resulting in the loss of 18 American soldiers and the wounding of 73 more, and the deaths of up to 700 Somali militiamen and several hundred civilians. The battle was described in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999), and retold in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film of the same name. Say the word “Somalia” and you’ll summon visions: of the half-clothed bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing crowds, of thin young men in dungarees manning heavy Soviet-era machine guns mounted on the back of Nissan pickup trucks, of emaciated civilians waiting in line for food. Continue reading

The Rabbi’s Birthday

By conventional agreement, this is the birthday of the rabbi Yeshua bar Yoseph, known to some as Masih Isa ibn Maryan. To mark the day, I’m republishing an old article I did about the rabbi’s life and legacy:


Like us, the rabbi Yeshua bar Yoseph lived in the shadows of a great and overweening empire that was held together by military might and a harsh judicial system heavily reliant on the death penalty. Although knowledgeable in the Hebrew scriptures, Yeshua often jostled with the religious authorities and was affiliated with no synagogue. The title “rabbi” was in fact an honorific bestowed on him by friends awed by his learning.

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The Ignatieff Revolution

Simon Hayter, Getty Images).    

Ignatieff at the November 2006 Liberal leadership convention (credit: Simon Hayter, Getty Images).

On the occasion of Michael Ignatieff’s ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, I thought I would repost a review I wrote in 2000 of The Rights Revolution. Ignatieff and his party inevitably divide people, and my own faith in him as a leader is more tempered than it once was (I would have preferred that he assume the leadership after a contest, not before). The Rights Revolution, by contrast, is a well-written and thoughtful book that deserves to be more widely appreciated. It is surprising how little the vision of Canadian political life it offers has figured in the debate about Ignatieff the politician.–A.M.

In his 1993 book Blood & Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, Michael Ignatieff took a trip to LG-2 (“Le Grande Two”), a massive hydro project 1,600 kilometres north of Montreal. Ignatieff’s guide explained that the engineering project was a point of national pride for the Quebecois, but Ignatieff had a slightly different reaction. He stressed how the dam made life miserable for the equally nationalistic Cree of northern Quebec, and that its chief illustration was that “the rights of two nations are in conflict.” Ignatieff spoke on behalf of a cosmopolitan, tough-guy liberalism that was uneasy about nationalists of all stripes: “Cree and Quebecois both argue their demand for national survival in terms of cultural survival. This link between survival and self- determination is central to nationalist claims everywhere, but it deserves skeptical examination.”

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To Lawren Harris, from Wang Hui

Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris
Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris (1930)

It sold for nearly $2.1 million dollars, that little oil painting shown above. Only 12 by 15 inches, the work came to the art world’s attention a few months ago, when a Vancouver woman decided to have her collection appraised. The painting by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris had been given to the woman’s father, commercial artist Gordon Davies, by Harris himself in the 1930s, and it had remained in the family for more than seventy years. Interestingly, the piece itself is merely a sketch for the painting “Greenland Mountains”, which was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1936, mislabeled, and subsequently turned into a 1967 stamp celebrating the Canadian landscape. The Danes must have been very proud. Continue reading

Bush’s Legacy

Over at the National Post, I try to assess Bush’s legacy. The full article can be read here.

Some excerpts:

The wreckage that Bush has left is there for all to see, so much so that even erstwhile supporters like David Frum, who wrote some of Bush’s most memorable speeches, acknowledge that this has been a “failed presidency.” The stock market is in free fall, the largest banks and automotive companies are on the verge of bankruptcy and begging for government handouts, New Orleans is still a shadow of its old pre-Katrina glory, the nation persists in mortgaging its future to its old Cold War foe Red China, Islamic radicals continue to launch bold attacks on allies like India, violence is on the rise in Afghanistan, and Iraq (although slightly more stable than before) remains a tinderbox ready to explode.

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Obama’s Strategy: Lieutenants not Generals

Like a lot of people watching Obama at a distance, I was a bit dismayed at how establishment his big foreign policy picks have been (Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates). But as we’re seeing more and more names, it looks like there is a method to his seeming madness (as there almost always is with Obama). He’s letting the establishment names remain as figureheads but he’s putting his own people in secondary positions at State or the United Nations (Samatha Power, Susan Rice, maybe Jim Steinberg). These are all people loyal to Obama. In effect, the establishment will continue to be the face of policy but the actual makers of policy will be Obama’s people.


In some ways, Obama is doing exactly what Cheney did in late 2000 and early 2001 (when he was in charge of staffing the Bush administration): Cheney co-opted familiar big names (Colin Powell, Paul O’Neill) but he made sure that all the secondary people were neo-cons loyal to the vice-president. In sum, the strategy seems to be to let the generals keep their ribbons, as long as the lieutenants belong to the President.

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Happy Belated Birthday, Claude Levi-Strauss!



Claude Lévi-Strauss, just celebrating his centenary.


This blog has been amiss in not wishing a happy birthday to Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was born on November 28, 1908. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House when Lévi-Strauss entered this world and he’s lived to see Obama elected.

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