Friday, January 30, 2015

"Or was the Spaniard less hardened than the Jew...?"

Slowly making my way through Melville's Benito Cereno.  In this passage the character Capt. Delano is trying for the umpteenth time to figure out Don Benito's behavior:
Why was the Spaniard, so superfluously punctilious at times, now heedless of common propriety in not accompanying to the side his departing guest?  Did indisposition forbid?  Indisposition had not forbidden more irksome exertion that day.... [Benito's] last glance seemed to express a calamitous, yet acquiescent farewell to Captain Delano forever.  Why decline the invitation to visit the sealer [Delano's ship] that evening?  Or was the Spaniard less hardened than the Jew, who refrained not from supping at the board of him whom the same night he meant to betray?
An obvious reference to Judas and the Last Supper.  But what with his references to "the negro," "the mulatto," "the Spaniard," and "the Jew," Delano's mind, externalized on the page, is a riot of unexamined stereotypes.  (I know that the story, written in the 1850s, is set in 1799.  But still.)

Added later: Finished Benito Cereno; credit to this post for prompting me to read it.

Note: This post changed/edited on 9/11/2017.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Saudi Arabia's border wall

Via Pub Editor, an item about the wall Saudi Arabia is building on its border with Iraq.  Wendy Brown, a political theorist at Berkeley, wrote a book several years ago on the wall-building trend: Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010; Zone Books paperback, 2014).  Happen to own the book but haven't really read it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Quote of the day (Melville)

Reading an unannotated version of a classic has more drawbacks than advantages, but one of the latter is that it allows one occasionally to pick up allusions for oneself, without aid of an editor's note.  Here's a passage from Melville's Benito Cereno:
But ere long Captain Delano bethought him that, indulgent as he was at the first, in judging the Spaniard, he might not, after all, have exercised charity enough.  At bottom it was Don Benito's reserve which displeased him; but the same reserve was shown towards all but his faithful personal attendant.  Even the formal reports which, according to sea-usage, were, at stated times, made to him by some petty underling, either a white, mulatto or black, he hardly had patience enough to listen to without betraying contemptuous aversion.  His manner on such occasions was, in its degree, not unlike that which might be supposed to have been his imperial countryman's, Charles V., just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne.
As some will know, the reference is to the abdication of the Habsburg emperor Charles V and his subsequent retirement to a monastery (hence "anchoritish").

Thursday, January 22, 2015

MidEast open thread

Developments in the broader Middle East -- Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya (there was a WaPo editorial about the last not too long ago that I was thinking of linking to, though not necessarily because I agreed with it) -- might ordinarily call for comment here, but I'm somewhat preoccupied at the moment, plus I'm not sure I can add much 'value', so to speak, not being a regional expert.  But in the unlikely event someone is passing through and wants to comment on the developments, please feel free to do so.  (Or on anything else for that matter, assuming it's roughly within the blog's remit.)  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Sri Lanka election

From a week ago: here (h/t).


I haven't read the J. Fallows piece on the U.S. military in the current Atlantic (though I bought the issue), but the NewsHour had a couple of segments about it last night, in case someone here is interested. There were no COIN proponents represented (true, it was a total of only three: Fallows, and then two people commenting on Fallows), but I still thought that was noteworthy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The problem with an IR 'must-read' list

Since putting up the previous post, I've been toying with the notion of a 'must-read' list for graduate students in International Relations. I even have something in draft. But the more I think about it, the more uneasy I am with the whole idea. The field seems to have become so fragmented that I'm not sure there are any books or articles that every grad student simply must read. Fifteen or twenty years ago, I suppose one might have said that every IR grad student had to read, say, Waltz's Theory of International Politics, but I'm not sure that's true anymore. So what one is left with is a it-would-be-nice-if-you-had-read-this list, rather than a you-must-read-this list, and the former kind of list is not going to excite anyone much, it seems to me.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

R.P. Wolff's '25 must-read books for philosophy grad students'


Of course I'm not a philosophy grad student or philosopher, but for parlor-game purposes I could mention which I have read and haven't. But I think I won't, unless someone asks me to, in which case I'll do it in comments.

What might really get the traffic going here (relatively speaking, of course) would be an analogous list of 'must-read books/articles for grad students in IR'. Maybe I'll turn my thoughts to that at some point.

A photo is worth...

I haven't written anything here about the recent events in France, partly because I can't add much or anything to what has been said elsewhere; however, I just saw, via WaPo, the photograph of Hollande at the mass demonstration flanked by various notables, including Netanyahu and Abbas. Just thought it worth mentioning the presence of the latter two.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A missed comment

Looking back over some old posts last night, I ran across a comment I don't think I had seen before. It showed up in the comment file, which I check periodically, but for some reason I missed it.

The post, from Sept. 9, 2014, was this:
Why has Kissinger, at 91, published a 400-page volume called World Order that seems, judging from this review, to be mostly a repetition of things he's said before?
And the comment by 'anonymous', from Nov. 19:
Why are people actually giving it publicity? (and I don't mean you) What does that say about the reviewers?
I think the answer is that any book by Kissinger automatically gets publicity. In the case of the NYT, for example, some editor probably made the decision to review it and then assigned it to the reviewer, so I wouldn't especially blame the reviewer in that case.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Facts of the day

In a the-world-in-2014 discussion several days ago, David Miliband mentioned that "one refugee occurred every four seconds in 2014" and that half of all people living on less than $1.25 a day "are in conflict or fragile states." (Btw, what's the definition of a fragile state? Is there a generally accepted one? Possibly, but I'm not going to look it up right now.) 

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Joseph Bara, once (and maybe still?) a widely-known name in France, was a drummer boy in a French republican force fighting in the Vendée when he was killed at the age of thirteen in December 1793, having refused to surrender some horses when captured. Helped along by a speech by Robespierre, who portrayed the boy as having died crying "Vive la république!," Bara became a republican martyr.

I ran across Bara's name last year in David Bell's The First Total War, which carries as one of its illustrations J.-L. David's painting of the death of Bara. Then the other evening I happened to pull from my bookcase Robert Gildea's The Past in French History, saw the book's cover painting, said to myself "what is that?," turned to the back of the paperback, and discovered that it is J.J. Weert's painting Death of Bara, done in the 1880s. The Wikipedia entry on Bara reproduces both of these paintings (as well as a third one). The Weerts in particular should be viewed full size (click on the image).

Added later: For those too busy to click through to the Wiki entry, here is the Weerts painting:

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The executive-congressional balance

Listening some days ago to a broadcast of a panel discussion about Pres. Obama's welcome move to normalize relations with Cuba, I heard one of the panelists imply that the absence of congressional involvement in the initiative is noteworthy.  I don't think so.  American presidents, certainly in recent decades but also throughout U.S. history, have typically conducted foreign policy by doing what they want and then consulting Congress afterward, if at all. 

Although I think the balance between Congress and the President has tipped too far in the latter's direction when it comes to decisions about the use of force, as a general matter it makes sense for Presidents to have a somewhat greater scope for independent action in the area of foreign affairs. That's not necessarily to say that the well-known (in certain circles) Supreme Court case (Curtiss-Wright) that held that the President has "inherent power" to conduct foreign relations was correct, but that's a somewhat different point. (Not taking the time to look the case up and refresh my memory.)

Whether Pres. Obama has made, on the whole, wise use of his power to conduct foreign affairs is also a separate question, one I won't take up in this post. But the Cuba move is unquestionably a good step, in my view.