Colin Powell Center Weekend Reads, May 12-13

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Some brief thoughts on things I read or came across this past week.  Happy weekend, everyone!

  • The week began with sad news that children’s author (and one of my absolute childhood favorites) Maurice Sendak had passed away from complications after suffering a stroke.  Sendak was eighty-three years old. The Christian Science Monitor has a nice reflection on the author’s life and work which includes video and links to pictures from his life. RIP.
  • Last week, I posted about the mini brouhaha at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Well, turns out that the outrage over Naomi Schaefer Riley’s vile post about Black Studies was significant enough to warrant her firing. TheChronicle canned her on Monday, justifying the move by rightly noting that “When we published Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog posting on Brainstorm last week (“The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations”), several thousand of you spoke out in outrage and disappointment that The Chronicle had published an article that did not conform to the journalistic standards and civil tone that you expect from us. We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.”  Good for them, though the question still lingers—did they not thoroughly read Riley’s original post the first time through? Or, more troublingly, does the fact that the editors didn’t think the post was offensive in the first place suggest that they share Riley’s prejudice, consciously or not? In that case, perhaps it isn’t just Riley that needs to go…
  • Those who trumpet the success of Libya as evidence that NATO forces get involved in the horrors playing out in Syria would do well to read this tremendous piece by Robert Worth in the New York Times on the current state of political control in Tripoli, and the role that torture plays in the new, post-Qaddafi Libya: “Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police… What Libya does have is militias, more than 60 of them, manned by rebels who had little or no military or police training when the revolution broke out less than 15 months ago. They prefer to be called katibas, or brigades, and their members are universally known as thuwar, or revolutionaries. Each brigade exercises unfettered authority over its turf, with “revolutionary legitimacy” as its only warrant. Inside their barracks — usually repurposed schools, police stations or security centers — a vast experiment in role reversal is being carried out: the guards have become the prisoners and the prisoners have become the guards. There are no rules, and each katiba is left to deal in its own way with the captives, who range from common criminals to Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the deposed leader’s son and onetime heir apparent. Some have simply replicated the worst tortures that were carried out under the old regime. More have exercised restraint. Almost all of them have offered victims a chance to confront their former torturers face to face, to test their instincts, to balance the desire for revenge against the will to make Libya into something more than a madman’s playground.”
  • Jacques Hymans, who wrote a marvelous book on understanding the psychological motivations of world leaders who chose to build the bomb (or, more importantly, not) has a solid essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairsassessing approaches to tackling the challenge of a possible nuclear Iran.  In an environment where talk about going to war in Central Asia to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear capability has reached dangerous levels, Hymans clear-headed, rational take on the matter is a welcome relief. And, in my opinion, correct. He says, “Taking radical steps to rein in Iran would be not only risky but also potentially counterproductive, and much less likely to succeed than the simplest policy of all: getting out of the way and allowing the Iranian nuclear program’s worst enemies—Iran’s political leaders—to hinder the country’s nuclear progress all by themselves.”

I read three books this week, as well.

  • Charles Kenny’s Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More offers a nicely written, deeply researched and clear-headed antidote to the pessimism that animates the great majority of development literature.  Shifting the analytic lens away from worrying about income, Kenny persuasively argues that other indicators are just as, if not more, important to understanding social well-being than simply stats charting economic growth. From this perspective, there’s much evidence to suggest that things are quite a bit better than is readily acknowledged by scholars and practitioners of development. There are certainly challenges that need serious attention if the world is going to survive the coming centuries intact, Kenny argues, but acknowledging the seriousness of our current condition shouldn’t obscure the fact that more people, in more parts of the world, are enjoying better, longer, happier lives more of the time than at any other time in recorded history.
  • Again, on an academic note, I tore through Guns, Drugs and Development in Colombia, a slim, interdisciplinary volume that analyzes the nexus of these three features of Colombian society from a variety of standpoints. Jennifer Holmes, Sheila Amin Gutierrez de Pineres and Kevin Curtain are pretty deft at weaving together political economy and geographical approaches to understanding markets for drugs and violence in Colombia and conclude their look at the available data with a reasonable game plan of coordinated action to effectively implement peaceful resolution where previously there has been little other than violence perpetrated by non-state and state actors alike. A valuable contribution to the literatures of Latin American and development politics.
  • It’s been a real treat to blow through graphic novelist Guy Delisle’s latest, hulking book, Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy CityDelisle’s books cover his unique and far-flung experiences travelling with his wife, a Doctors without Border’s employee, to some of the more interesting and least known spots around the world. He has written cartoon travelogues about his time in Burma and North Korea, and so his latest offering from Israel and Palestine offers impressions of distinctly more familiar territory. I’ll have more to say about the book itself sometime soon, but if you’re a fan of comics, travel, and world politics, Delisle’s Jerusalem will be a delight. —Michael Busch

Michael Busch is coordinator of the Colin Powell Program in Leadership and Public Service. Read more about him and our other contributors here.

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