The Clippings File: Our Friends, Our World.

Tahmima Anam


“As a Bangladeshi, it’s often difficult to know where to point one’s concern for the country,” Tahmima Anam wrote when the recent cyclone hit Bangladesh:

The truth is that nature itself is not just to blame. A natural disaster is only as much of a disaster as we allow it to become, and in the case of Bangladesh, far more needs to be done to ensure that fate’s twists and turns do not devastate the country and set it further back on its path to development. Storms kill people in Bangladesh because their homes are not sturdily built, because they live on sandbanks, and because rescue operations fail to reach remote areas.

It is also not just a question of local priorities, but of international environmental policies that urgently need to be addressed. The rising sea levels caused by global warming will plunge much of Bangladesh’s low-lying delta underwater. Without a consensus on climate change, Bangladesh will always be in the path of the storm.

Tahmima Anam. Comment is Free. The Guardian. November 17, 2007

Tahmima Anam was born in Bangladesh and grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, and now lives in London. Her father is Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest circulating English-language newspaper. Her novel, A Golden Age, is set at the time of the declaration of Bangladesh’s independence, and Pankaj Mishra wrote: “Tahmima Anam’s startlingly accomplished and gripping novel describes not only the tumult of a great historical event… but also the small but heroic struggles of individuals living in the shadow of revolution and war.”

On August 15 she wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian on the social divisions Bangladesh’s independence brought.

“Throughout the Bangladesh war, Pakistani soldiers repeatedly asked Bengali freedom fighters if they were Bengali or Muslim, as though the cultural identity could not coexist with the religious identity. The Bengalis of East Pakistan were Bengali and Muslim; they fought a war of independence so that they could have a country in which these two identities could be integrated. But sadly, the fight that led to the legitimisation of this identity did not lay the groundwork for pluralism, nor indeed did it result in a final resolution of the tension between cultural and religious identity. People are still wondering whether they are Bengali or Muslim, and in the wake of this great anxiety, a sinister and violent form of identity politics has taken root that has left many Bangladeshi citizens behind. For East Pakistan, and East Bengal before it, was not only made up of Bengalis and Muslims. It also included Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, and the indigenous peoples – Chakmas, Santals, and Garos. These people are neither Bengali nor Muslim, and this debate has not only disenfranchised them from the major questions of identity that grip modern-day Bangladesh, but has distracted us from the slow and steady colonisation of their lands, cultures, and habitats.”

And globalization has made people more vulnerable. “Creating poverty is not something that’s an unfortunate side effect of globalization,” Pankaj Mishra told The Brooklyn Rail Magazine in September. “It’s almost an essential part of much of the process. So it’s not as if we create wealth and then we take care of the needy and the poor. You need the poor. In his new book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis makes this very clear. Whether it’s India, Brazil or Bangladesh, slums are necessary for the development of these economies and for the type of economic growth they are seeking. You cannot do away with them. Making British Petroleum or Shell more environmentally conscious—these types of fine tunings that are constantly being attempted—are all admirable in their own ways. But I don’t know whether they can actually affect large-scale change.”


Every news cycle brings a fresh disaster, a new storm, and media organizations reconsider the disasters, like birthdays, on only the significant anniversaries: a year, two years, then ten, fifty, a hundred years. Recording Katrina keeps the spotlight on New Orleans. It takes an excerpt from a special Bill Moyers aired in August. He’s talking to a Princeton University Professor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell:

BILL MOYERS: I’ve kept in my files something written one week after the disaster. Listen to this. “What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequence of the welfare state. 75 percent of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane. And of those who remained, a large number were from the city’s public housing projects.” What does that say to you?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, it’s bizarre and inaccurate empirically. Because in fact, the public housing projects were on high ground. They experienced very little water damage. And most of the residents there who have been shut out by their government, by their city and by our national housing office, is not because of any destruction that occurred because of Katrina but because of the required evacuation that occurred.They were mostly safe.

The people whose homes were destroyed were mostly home owners. But they were poor people. And this is what we can’t deal with in America. They worked jobs every day. Most of them stayed because they needed to go to work in the morning. Most of them had to go to work in the morning in the hotels, in the tourist industries, in the restaurants that served to make New Orleans the fun place that the rest of us liked to visit. So they were homeowners who were poor. They were working people who were poor. Because we live in a country where we allow people to work every day and still be poor. To still have the inadequate capacity to leave.

And the third reason why many people didn’t leave are very thick social networks. So part of the question you asked is, why didn’t people think, oh, this disaster is coming? Well, Betsy, Hurricane Betsy was in living memory in New Orleans. And Hurricane Betsy was a terrible storm that many people had survived. If you had an aunt or an uncle or a grandmother who had survived Hurricane Betsy, she or he refused often to leave.

Bill Moyers Journal. PBS.

Recording Katrina links to the New Orleans journal that Harry Shearer has kept on the Huffington Post since the hurricane hit. I’ve set an e-mail alert to let me know every time he posts a story, and it’s at least once, maybe twice a week, and the majority of those posts relate to the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Robin Pogrebin, in Tuesday’s NYT, took a look at one of the tangible faces of that recovery, the design and construction of the new vintage of houses and public buildings. Of course, there actually are new, and restored, houses going up, while the public buildings remain concepts, if not whims and fancies. But the piece, which is heavy on quotes from architects and planners, revisits once more the fantasy that post-K New Orleans was a “clean slate” that planners should have seized to write a new chapter in the history of urbanism, and that those who resist are “historicists” in sentimental thrall to a past that’s not coming back.

To most of us who live in the city and love it, the clean slate theory ignores some basic truths: old houses, the ones we’re in hock to maintain, were built the way they were (despite some airs and pretensions in design) because it made sense for the area and climate. Big high windows and front porches weren’t only sensible for a time before air conditioning; like office-tower windows that can actually open, they make sense in times of emergency when the first thing to go out is the electricity. And houses were built using cypress because that local wood is the best adapted to the high humidity conditions of the area. That’s why old houses, gutted to the studs, are still habitable. There are splendid examples — not all that many, to be sure — of indisputably new architecture taking its place gracefully among the old. I’d point to the “Fred and Ginger Building” by Frank Gehry, nestling comfortably amid 19th century buildings on a prominent corner in Prague. But that kind of respectful contemporary addition to a historical tapestry doesn’t follow from viewing the place as an empty tablet upon which the architect and planner can be freed from all constraints of time and place. Planners already so freed in certain New Orleans areas–like “renewed” old public housing tracts — have ignored one of the basic parts of that city’s life, the street grid that makes possible corner groceries, corner bars, corner everything. Superblocks may look nice on a clean slate, but the New Orleanians who ache to return want to come back to someplace that looks, and feels, like the city they have missed for so long.

Harry Shearer. The Huffington Post. November 7, 2007


Five years ago, I imagined a website that would show how people were connected to each other in real life, so I built a prototype called ­Friendster. I decided that one of its central features would be a friend confirmation process. When you wanted to add someone as your friend, an e‑mail notification was sent with your request. If–and only if–the person approved your request, you were both listed as each other’s friends. Five years later, I am paying the price for this innovation as I face an avalanche of friend spam. I get several friend requests per day from Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, and also from social-media services such as Yelp, Flickr, and Pownce…

The press, bloggers, and the investment community are excitedly following every shift in buzz, from Dodgeball to Twitter to ­Pownce, or from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook. Since the launch of the Facebook Platform in May, the press and many so-called experts have finally begun recognizing the value of Facebook’s “social graph”–the map of connections between real friends. But ironically, as the tech elite have begun to deride MySpace’s seizure-inducing page designs and promiscuous friend seekers, Facebook’s clean user interface and focus on real friends faces an onslaught of new users and pointless applications where tattooed zombies buy drinks for your top friends….

So what advice do I have for dealing with the friend spam and keeping on top of all these new services? Every once in a while, turn off your computer and go hang out with your friends.

Jonathan Abrams. Technology Review. November / December 2007


Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of the United Nations called climate change “the defining challenge of our age” Saturday and called on the United States and China, the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, to be “playing a more constructive role” in coming negotiations for a new global climate treaty….

“Today the world’s scientists have spoken, clearly and in one voice,” Ban said as he released the final report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

International Herald Tribune. November 17, 2007

Humanity is rapidly turning the seas acid through the same pollution that causes global warming, the world’s governments and top scientists agreed yesterday. The process – thought to be the most profound change in the chemistry of the oceans for 20 million years – is expected both to disrupt the entire web of life of the oceans and to make climate change worse.

The warning is just one of a whole series of alarming conclusions in a new report published by the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which last month shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former US vice president Al Gore.

Geoffrey Lean. A World, Dying. But Can We Unite to Save It? The Independent. November 18, 2007


William Gibson told Web Watch magazine that his most recent novels have been openly set in the present because he can’t imagine a wild enough future to fictionalize.

The trouble is there are enough crazy factors and wild cards on the table now that I can’t convince myself of where a future might be in 10 to 15 years. I think we’ve been in a very long, century-long period of increasingly exponential technologically-driven change.

We hit a point somewhere in the mid-18th century where we started doing what we think of technology today and it started changing things for us, changing society. Since World War II it’s going literally exponential and what we are experiencing now is the real vertigo of that – we have no idea at all now where we are going.

Will global warming catch up with us? Is that irreparable? Will technological civilisation collapse? There seems to be some possibility of that over the next 30 or 40 years or will we do some Verner Vinge singularity trick and suddenly become capable of everything and everything will be cool and the geek rapture will arrive? That’s a possibility too.

You can see it in corporate futurism as easily as you can see it in science fiction. In corporate futurism they are really winging it – it must be increasingly difficult to come in and tell the board what you think is going to happen in 10 years because you’ve got to be bullshitting if you claiming to know. That wasn’t true to the same extent even a decade ago.

A website called Tyee in William Gibson’s hometown, Vancouver, concluded an interview with him by asking him whether he’s hopeful. “The present zeitgeist, now, is only one news cycle long,” he replied. “Something could happen tomorrow that would throw everything into a cocked hat.” On his own website he talked about a novelist writing books set in Victorian England that he sees as allegories for our own time.

Three of my favorite novels of the past four years are John MacLachlan Gray’s The Fiend In Human (2003), White Stone Day (2005), and the very recently published Not Quite Dead , all of which might be described as Victorian thrillers, but all which are something else as well, though it’s difficult to put a handle on just what that might be.

Perhaps what I find most magical about them isn’t Gray’s ability to shrug himself so snugly into their era, an act requiring more imaginative muscle than the creation of any wholesale fantasy-world, but rather his gorgeously subtle recursion of what we as a culture think we understand about the Victorians. To step into the rancid fog of Seven Dials with Edmund Whitty, polypharmically-challenged correspondent for The Falcon, is to enter a most satisfyingly strange universe, yet one based firmly (however wonderfully peculiarly) in that fundamentally speculative discipline that is history.

Through Gray’s fine optics, we observe phenomena that echo powerfully for us today: serial killings in The Fiend In Human, child pornography in White Stone Day, and ethno-secular terrorism (and that singular horror, my friends, that is the *book tour*) in Not Quite Dead.

William Gibson, from his blog.

Angelina Jolie talks to displaced girls in Darfur. October 2004


On August 22 The Economist published a “global peace index”. Norway, New Zealand and Denmark were the countries judged most at peace and the Sudan, Iraq and Isreal the least peaceful. The Economist claims the Dalai Lama’s support for the rankings. “Compiling and maintaining an Index of which countries are the most peaceful and publishing the results, will undoubtedly make the factors and qualities that contribute to that status better known and will encourage people to foster them in their own countries,” the Dalai Lama is reported as saying. “The project’s ambition is to go beyond a crude measure of wars – and systematically explore the dynamics of peace” the Economist said. “It provides a quantitative measure of peacefulness, comparable over time and its founders hope it will inspire and influence world leaders and governments to further action.”

Angelina Jolie closed an opinion piece that she wrote for The Washington Post with a statement that people whose countries are torn apart by war seek peace-of-mind through justice. “What the worst people in the world fear most is justice. That’s what we should deliver.” She reprised the article for The Economist.

On a recent mission for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I had the opportunity to visit a refugee camp in Chad just across the border with Sudan. Sitting with a group of refugees, I asked them what they needed. These were people who had seen family members killed, neighbours raped, their villages burned and looted, their entire communities driven from their land. So it was no surprise when people began listing the things that could improve their lives just a little bit. Better tents, said one; better access to medical facilities, said another. But then a teenage boy raised his hand and said, with powerful simplicity, “Nous voulons un procès.” We want a trial.

A trial might seem a distant and abstract notion to a young man for whom the inside of a courtroom is worlds away from the inside of a refugee camp. But his statement showed a recognition of something elemental: that accountability is perhaps the only force powerful enough to break the cycle of violence and retribution that marks so many conflicts.

Angelina Jolie. The World in 2008. The Economist.

Palagummi Sainath


Framework is a magazine supported by the Finnish Ministry of Culture, to expand the reach of local works and report on culture internationally. The June 2005 issue concentrated on the issue of truthfulness. “Events in the world at large are having an increasing influence on what people experience in their personal life-worlds,” Marketta Seppälä wrote in the editorial. “Information that is firmly rooted in reality is becoming increasingly valuable, but there are no firm criteria, let alone proof, that would allow us to draw the essential distinctions. We need to be able to question our own prejudices in order to discover new approaches and solutions to social, often increasingly global problems. We need to have the right to be ‘unrealistic’ and to dream of alternatives, to have utopias. The more our reality shrinks into a space in which truth and our own prejudices start to merge, the fewer opportunities there are for identifying the critical challenges presented by today’s world.”

Iikka Vehkalahti’s article borrows the title, “What the Heart Does Not Feel” from a story by Indian journalist, Palagummi Sainath, who bears witness to the despair of Indian farmers, giving identities to people who are most often grouped together as statistics. “Something very fundamental is happening,” Sainath reported in that story. “The central, driving factors behind the suicides remain the same. Rising debt, soaring input costs, plummeting output prices, a credit crunch and so on. But the outcome now adds up to more than just the sum total of these factors. After 15 years of a battering from hostile policies and governments, the world of the peasant has turned highly fragile. Problems that would not have driven many to suicide a decade ago do so now. It takes less to push farmers over the edge because their resistance is down. So fragile is their economy and equilibrium. The studies and surveys seldom account for one vital actor — the worldview of peasants. How that is changing as their links to the land erode. How their hopes of what’s possible are constantly dashed. How, losing their anchor, they drift to a frightening future. How it feels to watch your child drop out of school or college because education has become too expensive. Even as your daughter’s marriage is off, because you cannot afford it. You fail to get your ailing mother to a hospital because health is the most costly thing in your world. All this while agriculture itself is tanking. And there’s less food on the table. For too many, pessimism soaks the worldview this shapes. And despair gains ground as the coming deity.”

So how do we distinguish the essential through all the information flooding in? Hollywood’s answer is to “trust your feelings”, rendering the individual’s subjective experience the foremost guideline. “I feel what I feel and it’s true and you can’t deny it because it’s my feeling.” Though hardly a matter of dispute, the statement holds within an internalized conception of the existence of an ultimate truth.

To perceive the world through subjective experience is of course not enough either, but present reality does offer more and more opportunities to live (and seek refuge) in different fragmented realities. Prominent Indian journalist, Palagummi Sainath, has stated that “the assets of the top three billionaires are more than the combined GNP of all the least developed countries and their 600 million people together or that every year, Europeans and Americans spend between $ 36-40 billion on cosmetics, ice cream and pet food alone”. The subjective realities of the Asian slums and the poorest fifth of the world’s population are quite different from those of the European middle class, or of an art critic representing the intellectual elite, or of a documentary maker.

Sainath, whose articles on the poverty in rural India bind small events into global contexts, has taken upon himself to tell “the beautiful people” – the elite of his society – how the poor people in his country live, experience life and feel. He doesn’t pretend to be part of the poor or even to be able to see the world through their perspective, but his personal outlook, professional talent and studious interest in the matter enable him to describe the reality of poor people’s lives in an exceptionally holistic manner ( P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Penguin Books, 1996, New Delhi).

As an example of the truthfulness of history and weight of value perspective, Sainath uses the story of Nero and the fire that consumed Rome. According to Tacitus, Nero never started the fire or played the fiddle while watching it. Instead, he gave a party to all the high-ups in Rome to discredit this rumor. Serving as torches at the outdoor feast were prisoners burning on stakes. History has recorded countless stories of Nero’s cruelness, but very few of Nero’s guests: the artists, the philosophers, the politicians, the businessmen. What was it like to savor wine and grapes in the light of a human torch? Who are today’s guests of Nero?

Iikka Vehkalahti. Framework. The Finnish Art Review.