Category Archives: Book Reviews

Problem From Hell, A: Chapter 5

Notes from Chapter 1-3, 4.

Lemkin needs the 20 UN members that voted for the genocide ban in the general assembly to now take that legislation home and ratify it domestically. Many assumed the U.S. would be among the first to ratify (we were among the first to sign the pact).

U.S. grievances to law:

Nature of violence needed to trigger global response not specific enough (law focuses on the intention to wipe out a group/culture – not just numbers or percentage points).

American Bar Association criticized law:

Certain [this] doesn’t mean that if I want to drive 5 Chinamen out of town… that I must have the intent to destroy all teh 400,000,000 Chinese in the world.

These details would be used later to argue intervening in the Cambodia/Khmer Rouge, Iraqi and Bonsian Serb exterminations.

Convention includes bodily harm, sterilizing, removing children – as part of a larger plan of extermination.

Concerns this would apply retroactively to the genocide of Native American tribes in the 19th century. Or even segregation in the South.

1950 U.S. Senate Subcommittee considered rider saying that:

Genocide does not apply to lynchings, race riots or any form of segregation.

Biggest opposition: American sovereignty (amplified by 1950s ‘Red Scare’).

Even though Eisenhower lauded the liberation of Buchenwald – he didn’t choose to put his support behind the convention ratification.

Post-WWII Holocaust was barely discussed (fears of reigniting Anti-Semiticism, Americans uncomfortable with topic of extermination).

1952 Diary of Anne Frank play, then movie (1959), then 1961 Judgement at Nuremberg.

1959 – New York Times uses the word ‘holocaust’ for the first time.

1945 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights eclipsed Lemkin’s campaigning. Some opponents of the genocide convention would try and kill the ratification since the UDHR might cover the genocide legislation.

1959 – Lemkin collapses and dies of a heart attack. 7 people attended his funeral.

Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire takes up gauntlet and begins speaking every day on genocide in Congress – over 22 years – 10,000 speeches (also originated the Golden Fleece awards for worst pork-barrel spending).

1968 Nigeria rages war on Christian Ibo – attempted to seceded – cut off food supply to population. Is starvation a legitimate weapon of war? 1 million people in Nigeria starved to death.

1971 – Pakistani troops kill 1-2 million Bengalis, raping 200,000+ girls/women. Indian invasion halts genocide.

1972- Burundi – Tutsis hunt down and kill 100,000 – 150,000 Hutus (mostly elites). 1,000 dead/per day. No reaction from U.S. for fear of disrupting U.S. relationship with the Tutsi regime.

Proxmire continue his daily soliloquies.

Problem From Hell, A: Chapter 4

Notes for chapters 1, 2, 3.

Chapter 4

Scholars urge that sacrosanct sovereignty does not include slaughter.

Hans Frank: (former German minister of justice)

Law is that which is useful and necessary for the German nation.

The shiny new United Nations would decide if genocide would go in the same container as piracy, forgery, sex trade, slaves and drugs (and later, terrorism).


It seems inconsistent with our concepts of civilization that selling a drug to an individual is a matter of wordly concern, while gassing millions of human beings might be a problem of internal concern.

Nuremberg trials chip away but treat agressive war as the crime – crimes committed after Hitler crossed an internationally recognized border. Atrocities before WWII were not included in the jurisdiction.

49 of Lemkin’s family members (incl parents) perished in Warsaw ghetto, death camps or death marches.

1945 October: Genocide mentioned in Nuremberg trials – first mention of the word in an int’l legal context.

19 Nuremberg defendants convicted of ‘crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity’ – but not genocide.

1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Criteria for guilt – party had to:

  1. Carry out one of the acts
  2. With the intent to destroy all or part of
  3. One of the groups protected.

Key word is intent – not success.

What mattered was that one set of individuals intended to destroy the members of a group not because of anything they did but because of who they were.

Convention closed loopholes of internal aggression, pre-war agression. (Of course, prevention and prosecution was a huge concern)

1948 December: 48 signatories vote yes.

40 years would pass before the United States would ratify the treaty.

50 years would pass before the int’l community convicted anyone of genocide.

Problem From Hell, A: Chapters 1 – 3

Book cover: red and white blinds, a pair of blue eyes looking through.

I re-started reading A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide today. Samantha Power takes us through the major genocidal events of the last century and the American reaction (or lack of). I’m gonna blog my notes:

Chapter 1

1915 persecution of Armenian population in Turkey (Wikipedia Entry)

Pasha Talaat: (Turkish Interior Minister)

We have been reproached for making no distinction between the innocent Armenians and the guilty. But that was utterly impossible, in view of the fact that those who were innocent today might be guilty tomorrow.

Talaat attempted to get New York Life Insurance Company, which insured many Armenians, to pay up saying: “They are practically all dead now and have left no heirs. The Government is the beneficiary now.”

This mass murder pre-dated Hitler. Before WWII, the yardstick for slaughter was Abdul Hamid (kiled 200,000 Armenians in Turkey 1895-1896) and the Belgian king Leopold, who pillaged the Congo for rubber (late 19th/early 20th cent).

Djelal Munif Bey: (Turkish consul)

Discrimination is utterly impossible and it is not alone the offender who suffers the penality of his act, but also the innocent whom he drags with him…. The Armenians have only themselves to blame.

1918 – war ends – first war crimes tribunal is planned (to try Kaiser and friends + Talaat and Co.). No U.S. support (isn’t that a surprise). Fell apart when Britian and Turkey did a prisoners/war criminals swap.

Chapter 2

Raphael Lemkin – Polish Jew – linguistics prof – came up with the term ‘genocide’
Apalled that ‘state sovereignty’ shielded wiping out a minority.

Sovereignty cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people.

Youth: Occupied with studying atrocity. Russian/German battle came to his home. They hid in the woods.

Talaat’s assassination (by an Armenian survivor) brought him back to the topic. Wanted to link barbarity and vandalism – not just physical extermination, but cultural/intellctual as well.

Advocated for international law – always rebuffed (incl League of Nations).

WWII Persecution of Jews (and other groups) by Hitler Germany (Wikipedia Entry)

Hitler: (1939)

The aim of war is not to reach definite lines but to annihiliate the enemy physically. It is by this means that we shall obtain the vital living space that we need. Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?

(one week later – invasion of Poland, Hitler later restored Talaat’s ashes to Turkey where he was enshrined as a fallen hero)

Molotov-Ribbentrop pact: secret Soviet/German agreement. Poland divided into 2 zones.

Lemkin frustrated by his fellow Jews’ apathy, a baker said:

There is nothing new in the suffering of Jews, especially in time of war. The main thing for a Jew is not to get excited and to outlast the enemies. A Jew must wait and pray. The Almighty will help. He always helps. How can Hitler destroy the Jews, if he must trade with them? I grant you some Jews will suffer under Hitler, but this is the lot of the Jews, to suffer and to wait. We Jews are an eternal people, we cannot be destroyed. We can only suffer.

Lemkin tried to get his brother and parents out but they resisted leaving.

I read in the eyes of all of them on plea: do not talk of our leaving this warm home, our beds, our stores of food, the security of our customs. We will have to suffer, but we will survive somehow.

Lemkin makes it (alone) to Sweden in 1940 then to United States, began campaigning and lecturing. No result from Vice President (Wallace). No result from Roosevelt (who requested Lemkin prep a one-page summary).


We are in the presence of a crime without a name.

Chapter 3

Szmul Zygiebojm, also traveled Europe/U.S. lobbying and lecturing.

Why the apathy?

  • Hitler presented a threat to civilization – overshadowing his targeting of the Jewish population.
  • Anit-semiticism contributed as well, people were indifferent to their fate.
  • Belief that the Allies were doing all they could (no point in getting depressed).
  • Cremation factories/gas chambers sounded too far-fetched.

April 1943 Allies reject proposals to expand refugee admissions (limiting the number of Jews granted refuge in U.S. and Europe).

Zygielbojm kills himself in May 1943, suicide letter:

By my death I wish to express my strongest protest against the inactivity with which the world is looking on and permitting the extermination of the Jewish people. I know how little human life is worht, especially today. But as I was unable to do anything during my life, perhaps by my death I shall contribute to destroying the indifference of those who are able and should act.

Nov 1944 Lemkin published Axis Rule of Occupied Europe. 712-page exam of rules/decrees in 19 Axis countries:

The present destruction of Europe would not be complete and thorough had the Gemran people not accepted freely [the Nazi] plan, participated voluntarily in its execution and up to this point profted greatly therefrom.

Came up with ‘genocide’ term: ‘geno’ (tribe/race) ‘cide’ (killing).

Many of Lemkin’s Jewish contemporiaries desparied, wanting silence preferable to naming.

Also from Axis Rule:

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.

(A group did not have to be physically exterminated to suffer genocide – they can be stripped of cultural identity)

On to Chapter 4…

He’s Just Not That Into You

I’d heard about this book bubbling up on the talk shows a few weeks back. It sounded like another version of The Rules. Excerpts from a debunking review:

The thesis of the book is that because men are so simple-minded and caveman-ish, they will chase you if they dig you, and therefore if they do not chase you, they do not dig you, and if you are not with a man who chased you, you are with a man who doesn’t truly dig you.

This book, which tells women, in the great tradition of the whore/Madonna paradigm, that their role is to be passive and pursued, because otherwise they risk emasculating the guy they are trying to attract, is a best-seller.

I just can’t figure out why the entire culture is so terrified of leaving single women alone.

This book sounds so repellent and 1950s. I’m scared for my sister to read it – she’ll gut it for sure. I guess you can always make a buck convincing women to succumb to the roles to which they continue to be socialized.

Marriage as a trap where women win. That seems to sum it up.

Don’t Think of an Elephant

If you cringed hearing a relative over turkey blurt out a typical red-state missive – you need to read this book.

Don’t Think of an Elephant is one of those books that changes your mind – not your opinions necessarily but your mindset. After the election many of us on the Kerry side were wondering what the hell the other half of the voters knew that we didn’t. Is there such a thing as tax relief? WHat about partial-birth abortion? Are we the crazy ones?

This review is going to be messy. Either way – please please please pick this book up in the bookstore and take a gander. Here’s the first chapter online. I can’t write a cogent review because there is just so much to think about and comment on.

George Lakoff who specializes in cognitive linguistics lays it all out in stunning detail. Earlier in the week I’d posted the crux of Lakoff’s argument:

People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values.

Lakoff takes two oppposing models of parenting and sees how they echo across generations of politics. He has ‘strict-father’ and ‘nurturant-parent’ poles. ‘Strict-father’ believes that God rewareds the good people with power – therefore the powerful people are good. Any threat to the command-and-control nature of this model is immediately smacked down. God wants America in power. We are the chosen people – because we have the most money/power. Social programs gives resources to those that don’t deserve them – money to those that haven’t worked for it – and this leads to a breakdown in discipline:

The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong. Without such punishment, the world will go to hell. There will be no morality.

Very Old Testament isn’t it?

Whereas Lakoff proceeds that the progressive point of view if:

The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. It means two things: empathy and responsibility. Since you cannot take care of someone else if you are not taking care of yourself, you have to take care of yourself enough to be able to take care of the child. All this is not easy. Anyone who has ever raised a child knows that this is hard. You have to be strong. You have to work hard at it. You have to be very competent. You have to know a lot. In addition, all sorts of other values immediately follow from empathy and responsibility. Think about it.

He continues that we all have both models – and all shades in between – inside us. Some mothers are ‘strict-father’ at work but come home to a nurturing household, some fathers are nurturing to their fellow employees but strict with their children. It is when these models are applied to politics (and economics) that things go awry).

Lakoff also touches on the use of Orweillian language to veil legislation: like in the destructive No Child Left Behind, Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives. Though he makes fascinating point:

Orweillian language points to weakness… a guide to where they are vulnerable.

Another great point that I remember reading somewhere on Alternet a year ago is how the right-wing groups and foundations have poured their money into think tanks and professorships – they’ve built an entire infrastructure in reaction to Goldwater’s loss many years ago. They have created an entire mediasphere that easily plugs into the mainstream and cable news networks to present talking heads perfectly synchrnonized and on-message. The left is too busy actually feeding the poor and the homeless to build this kind of foundation. ‘The right is privatizing the left.’ As social programs get slashed the left figures they can’t just sit there and watch people suffer so they pick up the slack as the right ‘starves the beast: The right creates deficits to shrink social programs – after all, shouldn’t they be the first thing to go when we are in a deficit?

At the end of the right’s world view is a caste system where the underclass of poor – undeserving simply because they are not good people – are there to serve the rich and deserving. I have had my moments of being angry at seeing social programs wasted on people who seem hellbent on destroying their lives and adding to the ‘surplus population.’ But I’ve had friends that grew up on welfare and they have no idea how their families would have survived.

And consider this:

Why should we give welfare to companies and industries that tank? Because thousands of people rely on them for jobs and prosperity. Why isn’t an individual allowed that same hope? That same comfort.

I think it is absolutely appalling that anyone in this country is hungry right now. I think it is disgusting that we subsidize farmers not to grow crops when we have children starving to death in the inner cities. I think it is stupid to treat drugs problems as crime instead of a medical problem. I think it is stupid to think that abstinence-only education works when time and time again study after study as shown it doesn’t. I think it is crazy to believe that America is God’s favorite country. That America is somehow the chosen, lone superpowr and can therefore stomp where it wants and garrison the globe to protect and extend it’s economic interests.

I keep opening the book back up and re-reading passages.

The right has won the race to frame the debate. It is going to take more than soup kitchens and AIDS rides to transform the debate.

Go read this book. It’s not even 120 pages.

Just re-read this disjointed review. It all comes down to Fear or Hope. How do you want to motivate yourself and the world around you?

King Lear (No Fear Shakespeare Edition)

What a combo – stationary bike and King Lear. I love this edition, too. I always felt like I wasn’t in on the whole Shakespeare cult in college – classmates would read some swatch of King John and we were all supposed to sigh and sip from our water bottles and marvel at the beauty of the language (for the Peter Brook The Empty Space fans out there, this would be Holy Theatre). I understood why these stories are timeless and why their plots and sentiments echo across generations – but felt that the language bound them to obscurity and the comedies had to be enriched with slapstick to be even remotely funny (and I still think A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be set on fire).

The No Fear edition realizes what nearly every other edition fails to: normal readers don’t care jackshit about the footnotes. Yes, I would love to take a few days and compare this edition to the Riverside edition or the fascimile of the First Folio. This edition presents the original text on the left page and then on the right – a complete modern language translation. I so wish I’d had this in undergrad. I hated to read a line – see a footnote – read the reference – reread the passage – forget where I was in the plot and then reread it again. Further, these types of translations can be a gateway drug to reading the full text, unencumbered by such easements. It would be great to use this edition for staging – have the actors first play out the scenes in the modern language to ensure sentiments and staging echo the meaning – and then reign it back into the original text.

I contend the best parts of Shakespeare are the plots, not the language. I say hack and slash for comprehension – keep the rhyming couplets, but damn-it-all if no one understands what the hell you’re saying. So far I’m re-thinking my stereotyped view of Regan as a victimized Ophelia – the play just sort of happens to her. Now, as I read the ‘modern English’ version – I see how pissed off she is that her dad is being so pig-headed. A play should muddle an audience in moral ambiguity. Like with Antigone, Creon and Antigone are both being stubborn, selfish assholes – the moral high ground is always a murky one.

Anyway – if you want a good approach to a Shakespeare play (Julius Caesar is often a good start because it is pretty streamlined or Othello because there’s few sub-plots – Macbeth is fun because it’s so bloody) I’ll toss the No Fear recommendation to you. Also: you can get them cheap and used on Amazon (though buy from only highly ranked sellers).

The DaVinci Code

Ron started reading The DaVinci Code this week. I’ve never seen him obsessed over a book before. He read it for 15 hours solid on Monday – until 3 AM yesterday morning. He can’t stop talking about it and I keep smacking him around when he reveals a plot point. I’m going to start reading it. I’ll report back!

Please do not post any spoilers!

Update: Half-way through… Oooo – it’s good! It makes me think of Michael Chrichton with mysticism instead of technobabble or X-Files with religion instead of aliens (actually that’s pretty close to what Millenium was, right?). The technical craft of why the novel works is so evident – the same reason why I love 24 – to take all these tired plot tricks and mechanics and throw them willy-nilly is just thrilling.

Finished: I liked this book a lot. Da Vinci Code has lots of clever codes and twists and turns that make it a satisfying read – I can see why it’s one of those ‘summer at the beach read’ type of books. Underlying the novel is a foundation inspired tons of alternative Christian mysticism – some of which my sister had told me about when she got her Masters in Religion. I forget that some people don’t realize how the major themes of Christianity are really nothing new – the plot devices (like the plot devices of the book) are tried and true. Virgin births, crucified messiahs, carnivorous communions… it’s all been done before. My favorite example of this is how Saint Brigid in the Catholic canon of saints is actually a derivative of a Celtic goddess of the same name.

I was familiar with the vague notions of divorcing the feminine out of religion when the Roman empire converted to Christianity but didn’t know the exact details of what happened. I understood what the Council of Nicea was about but not why it was an effective political tool. I know about the apocryphal books of the Bible and the narratives of Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Mother Mary (my favorite highlight is when the rabbi examines Mary’s virginity in the temple and her womb burns his hands off).

The book is like Crichton – it reads like a screenplay. Which I like. It’s very talk-y and action-y. In the end the book has a nice ending that sums up a good 440 pages of reversals and blackmails, making it all worthwhile.

The crux of the plot does rely on a true believer. From one point of view I don’t doubt the Catholic Church’s influence over the past 20 centuries. I do doubt it’s power today. I think it is a human reaction to chaos that we like to think there is a secret organization somewhere that is watching it all move and the machinations will add up to either rapture, apocalypse or alien colonization. I do think that we should be more worried about the WTO and the IMF more than any supposed The Catholics (Jews, Gays, Blacks, Muslims, women) society taking over.

I still contend the best parts of the Church are the music and the architecture and art. The symbolism and legacy of filtering pre-Christian symbols and rituals into an amalgamation that conquered peoples would believe is fascinating.

Anyways – go buy it at a used bookstore and enjoy it. Here’s what other bloggers thought of the book.