We’re doin’ it for the kids

An Afghan woman and her daughter grieve after an air strike in Shindand district last summer. Photograph: Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP

A very interesting article appears today in the Independent, discussing some policy concessions proposed by representatives of the Taliban who have been quietly negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Among the proposals: a commitment to refrain from banning the education of girls, measuring the length of beards, or making the wearing of burqas compulsory.

This puts in a new context yesterday’s revelation that President Karzai recently signed a law that codifies the rights of Afghanistan’s Shi’as to be governed by family law based on traditional Shi’a jurisprudence, which (it is believed, since the law itself has not yet been publicly released) prevents women from refusing to have sex with their husbands or leaving the house without their husbands’ permission.

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Japan’s Open Future



At long last, my book Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship (co-authored with Tomas Casas i Klett and Jean-Pierre Lehmann) has landed in warehouses in the UK and the US. My fellow bloggers at Sans Everything will know that this has been a long time in the making, and I thank them for some very helpful feedback on earlier drafts. 


Japan’s Open Future is ambitious, drawing on a range of disciplines and themes including history, communication, business, economics, politics and geopolitics. It seeks to present a grand strategy for Japan by showing how all these issues are connected. Over the next couple of months I will be posting commentaries and excerpts here that draw on specialist topics from the book; as I do I will invite people with a stake in those topics to drop by and join us for a discussion.


Let me start by sharing an opinion piece I wrote for the Huffington Post, “Japan in a Post-American World.” It provides a summary of our argument as it relates to these acutely challenging global circumstances. In our book we argue that Japan has no choice but to look outward and become a global citizen if it would like to have a more secure and prosperous future. The alternative, of remaining insular and closed to new ideas, immigration and trade, would be a loss for the global community and would exacerbate Japan’s current problems. The financial crisis has only served to reinforce our argument on many levels.


Yet more than one recent commentator has underscored the absence of good ideas and creative reform efforts emanating from Japan. Let me share four recent examples. Continue reading

In Honour of Musa Khankhel


As with all his writing, Kafka’s masterful story Ein Brudermord (A Fratricidecan be read on many levels.  Most immediately it is about the inexplicable murder of Wese by Schmar, with the neighbour Pallas a passive observer to the scene; Wese’s wife arrives too late, only to discover her husband is already dead. Yet on a deeper level the story reads as an allegory for the death of reason as progress, the bludgeoning of Enlightenment philosophy at the end of a knife: “An und für sich sehr vernünftig, daß Wese weitergeht, aber er geht ins Messer des Schmar.”  In and of itself it is very rational for Wese to go forward, but he goes into the blade of Schmar. The philosophical cadences here are unmistakeable: “an und für sich” is the language of Kant, and even the name of the protagonist – Wese – evokes the German word “Wesen,” or “essence” in the German philosophical tradition (Schmar, meanwhile, suggests Schmarre; a slash). Schmar’s irrational opposition to Wese, his old “friend,” his brother in humanity, is as complete as it is impatient: even after Schmar has already stabbed Wese, he turns to his body and asks: “Why aren’t you just a balloon full of blood, so that I might sit on you and make you disappear altogether? … What silent question do you mean to pose?”

Writing against the backdrop of World War I, Kafka did not need to be reminded of the manifestations of his allegory, of the hope of progress and civilization’s rational advance terminated by brutal, unmediated violence. My friend Imtiaz Ali, a courageous journalist from Pakistan who has himself been threatened by the Taliban, wrote yesterday with the sad news that his colleague Musa Khankhel, 28, was murdered after a brief abduction by militants.  “It is all the more painful,” reflected Ali, because Musa Khan was working in a critically important part of Pakistan, where the Pakistani government had just signed a peace deal with militants in the hope of bringing peace to a turbulent and violent region.  But this was Khan, says Ali: a “peace activist,” a muckraker who “broke many stories,” and “a fearless man.”  

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Updike and Caniff


Milton Caniff and Joan Crawford, holding a drawing of the Dragon Lady

Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates was one of the great comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s: it had action, lovely ink-rich noir art, a winsome young hero who matures during the course of his adventures, an exciting Asian backdrop (which in the late 1930s became timely and even urgent), and sexy femme fatals (the famed Dragon Lady).

In 1946, Caniff left Terry and started a new strip, Steve Canyon, a move that caught the attention of comic strip fans all over the nation.

John Updike, then 15 years old and living on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, was one such Caniff follower. On September 6, 1947, Updike wrote a letter to Caniff, which I found among Caniff’s papers at Ohio State University.

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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

Keeping up with Mr. Incursion

U.S. special forces attacked a village/building/camp (select one) inside Syria on Sunday, killing eight people, according to Syrian officials. A rationale, given “on background” as all such messages are these days, was soon forthcoming: the area near the Iraqi town of Qaim had long been regarded by the Pentagon as a crossing point into Iraq for weapons, money, and foreign fighters, so as the unnamed U.S. military official in Washington told AP, “We are taking matters into our own hands.”

This, obviously, raises serious issues of national sovereignty, jus ad bellum, and the rule of international law. But the most serious of all is the question of how I’m supposed to keep track of this stuff. Continue reading

Imploding domino

An angry crowd protests power cuts in Multan, Pakistan
April 15, 2008: An angry crowd protests power cuts in Multan

As both myself and Jeet Heer have noted recently, American military policy towards Pakistan’s tribal areas has recently taken a more aggressive turn, with stepped up missile strikes and even an unauthorized ground attack by U.S. special forces. Although American generals have not launched additional incursions — the policy has not yet turned into a re-run of the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 — they are playing a most dangerous game that risks destabilizing the country for the sake of killing some Taliban leaders.

Pakistan’s increasing fragility as a state was the subject of a powerful essay last week in the Washington Post by Indiana University’s Sumit Ganguly, a longtime observer of Pakistani politics. How grim is the news?:

Today’s ongoing crisis — marked by a rash of suicide bombings, the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December, inflation as high as 25 percent and a resurgent Taliban movement — could spell doom for the Pakistani state itself. The global financial crisis has only made matters worse: Pakistan’s foreign-exchange reserves are collapsing, and credit markets are worried that it could soon default on its debt payments. The grim truth is that Pakistan is becoming something alarmingly close to a failed state.

What’s most effective about Ganguly’s piece is the comprehensive but concise overview of the 60-year path that has gotten Pakistan to this precipice. A failed state, after all, is rarely the work of a year.

Théâtres Sans Frontières

U.S. soldier in Cambodia catches up on all the good news
1970: U.S. soldier in Cambodia catches up on all the good news

In late January, 1984, Soviet-backed Afghan MiGs crossed the border into Pakistan and bombed targets in the village of Angoor Adda, killing 42 people. After another series of cross-border raids in 1987, which reportedly killed 85, State Department spokesman Charles Redman made the following statement:

These deliberate attacks are brutal attempts to force a change in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. They will not work. We are confident that Pakistan will continue its courageous and principled search for peace and, at the same time, to continue to offer a haven to almost three million Afghan refugees.

Twenty years later, in early September, 2008, U.S. special forces in Afghanistan crossed the border into Pakistan and raided the village of Angoor Adda, killing 20 people. Since August 20, U.S. drones have launched more than ten missile attacks on Pakistani soil.

Let it never be said that U.S. foreign policy is uninformed by history.

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Chinese Intellectuals and Tibet

The situation in Tibet is disheartening but not without hope. Realistically, I think the best chance Tibet has is for the emergence of a Chinese Gorbachev or de Gaulle, a member of the ruling elite who recognizes the need for granting autonomy to colonized regions within the empire. What are the chances of that? Better than one might think. The Chinese political elite, while corrupt and authoritarian, is also very technocratic, and thus open to suasion. Although this fact doesn’t get reported much, China is alive with intellectual ferment. Particularly hopeful is the emergence in the last fews decades of a Chinese New Left (centered around the Journal Dushu), which is very critical of rising inequality.  Dushu is arguably one of the most important magazines in the world, although for those of us who can’t read Chinese are only starting to get a glimmer of its impact.

For more on the Chinese intellectual scene, see here and here

 The New Left Review in particular has been doing a good job covering Chinese intellectuals (see here for a good history of Dushu).  

And for the issue of Tibet, it’s very much worth reading this article by Wang Lixiong, a Chinese writer who makes some concessions to Tibetian claims (albeit in the framework of a Chinese nationalism). Tsering Shakya, the leading Tibetian historian,  responds to Wang Lixiong here. The entire exchange is worth reading to get a sense of the parameters of dissent in China, and how the Tibetian exile community might respond to overtures from Chinese reformers (should those reformers come to power).  Ultimately, if there is going to be a just settlement of this issue, it will probably follow the lines rehearsed by Lixiong and Shakya.

It should be added that whatever criticism one may have of Lixiong, he’s writing in China and has suffered much government persecution. His bravery, and the bravery of his wife, the poet Öser, is beyond praise.

Comparing apples and oranges


We’re not supposed to compare apples and oranges – or so the saying goes. But as H.P. Glenn, erudite author of Legal Traditions of the World points out, we can compare apples and oranges: “[t]here are obvious criteria of roundness, acidity, colour, sweetness, price and so on. “ As Glenn goes on to ask, “Why do people say you cannot compare things, that they are incommensurable, when they are so obviously comparable or commensurable?”

A bit of etymology may be in order: ‘incommensurable’ is the negation of the Latin ‘com’ and ‘mensurabilis,’ indicating, as Glenn says, “a degree of common measure.” Incommensurable, in other words, is a fancy way of saying that things are incomparable. The term derives from debates in ancient Greek mathematics: there was an issue at the time of whether everything mathematical could be expressed in integers, and the Pythagoreans demonstrated that some aspects of geometry could not be so expressed.

I mention all this not out of sheer pedantic interest, but because some friends have been urging the notion of incommensurability on me recently in the context of energy policy debates. Oddly enough, the abstruse idea of incommensurability has implications for our energy choices. Continue reading