Weekly Review — January 29, 2013, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

Inauguration week politics, Aramaic vowel preservation, and Canadian foreskin awareness

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office using a Bible that once belonged to King, and Beyoncé lip-synched “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The president attended a public ball at which guests were served pretzels, mixed nuts, and Cheez-Its, then went to an afterparty in the East Room of the White House, where he led a conga line and competed in a dance-off to the song “Gangnam Style” against singers Janelle Monáe and Usher. “Today has been dubbed . . . ‘Blue Monday,’ the most depressing day of the year,” said Fox News host Steve Doocy. “It has to do with drab weather, holiday bills, and resolutions that we have not met.”[1][2][3][4][5][6] Reince Priebus, who installed in his office the empty chair Clint Eastwood addressed as if it were Obama at the Republican National Convention, was elected to a second term as Republican National Committee chairman at the party’s winter gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina. In an address to attendees, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal asserted that “a handful of good websites” could replace most of the federal bureaucracy. “We must stop being the stupid party,” he said.[7][8][9] New Mexico state representative Cathrynn N. Brown introduced a bill classifying fetuses conceived through rape as “evidence” and abortion of those fetuses as “tampering,” a measure she explained would prevent rapists from compelling their victims to have abortions.[10] The Mississippi Department of Health announced that it would revoke the license of the state’s only abortion clinic over its failure to comply with a newly passed law requiring providers to have hospital admitting privileges, which have been denied the clinic’s doctors by seven hospitals in Jackson. “We were last on civil rights,” said anti-abortion lobbyist Terri Herring, “but we can be first on human rights.”[11][12] A Catholic hospital in Canon City, Colorado, successfully defended itself against a wrongful-death lawsuit over its failure to perform a Caesarean section to save the unborn twins of a dying pregnant woman by arguing that a fetus is not a person. “They’re acting like harlots,” said Catholic League president Bill Donohue. “They should be stripped of their Catholicity.”[13][14]

In Santa Maria, Brazil, 231 people died in a nightclub fire after pyrotechnics set off by country band Gurizada Fandangueira set alight soundproofing panels on the ceiling. The band’s accordion player was killed when he re-entered the burning club to save his instrument, and an investigation determined that the club had no fire alarm, fire escape, or sprinklers, and had only one exit.[15][16] In Mali, French-led troops regained control of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu from Islamist forces. Before fleeing Timbuktu, militants set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute, which houses manuscripts dating to the twelfth century. “They are bandits,” said institute employee Ali Baba.[17][18] Exxon Mobil overtook Apple to again become the world’s most valuable company, and an Australian company announced the discovery of up to 233 billion barrels of oil beneath the outback.[19][20] Putrid fumes from a gas leak at a factory in Rouen, France, drifted to Paris and the English coast. “Put some Vicks on a tissue,” tweeted the Hastings police, “or carry a scented pomander.”[21][22][23] Twenty-seven tons of caramelized goat cheese burned for five days after catching fire in Brattli Tunnel in Tysfjord, Norway, and an Australian judge exonerated a goat for eating flowers outside the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art.[24][25] The USS Guardian, a U.S. navy minesweeper, struck the Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines, damaging 10,000 square feet of coral. “Just the fact that you allow it to touch ground,” said Filipino transportation secretary Joseph Abaya, “is a mortal sin.”[26][27]

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It was reported that University of Cambridge linguist Geoffrey Khan and tax preparer Elias Bet-shmuel were recording members of the Assyrian community in suburban Chicago, who are among the last speakers of Aramaic, in an attempt to preserve the language’s dialects before it dies out. “I’m getting very excited about some vowels here,” said Khan. “I’m getting excited about the kadeh [pastry],” said Bet-shmuel.[28] Two employees at a cold-storage facility in Georgia stole $65,000 worth of chicken wings, which tend to be scarcest during Super Bowl week. “Chicken companies are not able to produce wings,” said a National Chicken Council spokesman of possible wing shortages, “without the rest of the chicken.”[29][30] In Trinidad and Tobago, a security guard was charged with carrying an unlicensed firearm after he accidentally shot off his penis.[31][32] Activists from the Canadian Foreskin Awareness Project (CAN-FAP) protested Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of an antiwrinkle cream containing cells from the foreskins of infants; the sheriff of Woolwich, Maine, revealed the theft of a rare porcelain Oprah doll; and the leader of a gang of Colorado laundry-detergent thieves was sentenced to 30 months in prison.[33][34][35] In New York City, the subject of the 2007 documentary Crazy Love reported the death of his wife, whom he married in 1974 after serving a 14-year prison term for hiring hit men to blind her with lye. “This,” said Burton Pugach, “was a very fairy-tale romance.”[36]


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“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
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Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
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To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
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In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

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The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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