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26/10/2010

Magazine Roundup

Prospect | Outlook India | The New Yorker | Eurozine | The New York Review of Books | Salon.com | Elet es Irodalom | Newsweek | Slate | Magyar Narancs | The New York Times

Prospect 20.10.2010 (UK)

In an instructive, critical but not culturally pessimistic article, Tom Chatfield considers the structural changes heralded by the digitalisation of the book market. He talks to a number of authors and explains why genre literature has emerged triumphant from the tumult and why this is unlikely to change any time soon. He also explains why the principles of the publishing industry are about to be turned on their head: "It has long been a truth of publishing that - much as in movies - a small number of hits generate the bulk of revenues, allowing producers to take a punt on future productions. What, though, if there were no longer any need to gamble on success? Book publishing is based on the principle that publishers control access to a scarce, precious resource - print. But digital media models, where the costs of publication and reproduction are almost nothing, tend to function the other way around: material is first published, then the selection process begins among readers themselves. For all the weight attached to traditional models of discernment, it's hard not to see a logic that's already well-established in other fields gaining ground: put as much material as you can in front of an audience, and let them do the selecting for you. Then - when your best hope of a hit appears - maximise it relentlessly."


Outlook India 01.11.2010 (India)

Outlook dedicates its 15th birthday issue to the press. In an interview, Noam Chomsky explains why he has nothing but disdain for the press. It serves only to dull the will of the people: "That clearly is its goal, in fact its stated goal. Back in the 1920s, it used to be frankly called propaganda. But the word acquired a bad flavour with Nazism in the 1930s. So now, it's not called propaganda any more. But they were right in the 1920s. The huge public relations industry, for example, has its goal to control attitudes and beliefs. Liberal commentators, like Walter Lippmann, said we have to manufacture consent and keep the rabble away from the decision-making. We are the responsible men, we have to make decisions and we have to be protected - and I quote Lippmann - 'from the trampling under the rage of the bewildered herd - the public'. In the democratic process, we are the participants, they watch. And the task of intellectuals, media and so on is to make sure that they are quiet, subdued and obedient. That is the view from the liberal end of the spectrum."

Sumir Lal describes the decline of the Indian papers since the mid-1980s: today they sell advertising space to commercial clients, not news to readers. According to Lal, the media mogul Ravi Dhariwal (Times of India) bears much of the responsibility for this downward turn and if you read this interview with the man, that claim doesn't sound unreasonable. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta complains that corruption has been institutionalised in the Indian media: TV and newspapers are paid to spread information packaged as 'news', but which serves the interests of individuals, corporations and politicians instead. Shashi Tharoor would like to read more about politics and less about love affairs. Perhaps the media should take a leaf out of the film industry's book, Amrita Shah suggests. Roy Greenslade is convinced that the future of journalism is online, because that is where it is redefining itself.


The New Yorker 01.11.2010 (USA)

Should the USA be ducking and covering in preparation for a cyber war? Seymour M. Hersh assesses the potential scale of the online threat. Fears are often exaggerated, and are often based on "fundamental confusion between cyber espionage and cyber war, "Hersh says." The most common cyber-war scare scenarios involve America's electrical grid. Even the most vigorous privacy advocate would not dispute the need to improve the safety of the power infrastructure, but there is no documented case of an electrical shutdown forced by a cyber attack. And the cartoonish view that a hacker pressing a button could cause the lights to go out across the country is simply wrong. There is no national power grid in the United States. There are more than a hundred publicly and privately owned power companies that operate their own lines, with separate computer systems and separate security arrangements."

There is a review of the book "Overhaul" about the investor and advisor to the US finance minister for the automotive industry Steven Rattner, who describes how General Motors was brought back from the dead.


Eurozine 18.10.2010 (Austria)

The Belgians are a famously divided bunch. But every last one of them voted against the burqa in the Belgian parliament - a fact that raised the suspicions of Paul Doumouchel, in his left-leaning Catholic magazine Esprit. Eurozine republished his article: "The Assemblee nationale also voted unanimously for the ban on the full-body veil on May 11. Normally it is impossible to get politicians to agree on anything. Only in times of deep crisis do they caste their differences aside. Which is why is it so amusing that Western democracies are now joining forces in a union sacree to fend off a danger that threatens the whole of Europe... a few women in veils! Well, it would be funny if it weren't so disturbing."


The New York Review of Books 11.11.2010 (USA)

Historian Anne Applebaum respectfully reviews Timothy Snyder's book "Bloodlands" about the mass killings in Eastern Europe under Hitler and Stalin. IN fact, 'genocide' would be the appropriate terminology in both cases, she concludes, after reading Norman M. Naimark's book "Stalin's Genocides". "Until recently, it was politically incorrect in the West to admit that we defeated one genocidal dictator with the help of another. Only now, with the publication of so much material from Soviet and Central European archives, has the extent of the Soviet Union's mass murders become better known in the West. In recent years, some in the former Soviet sphere of influence - most notably in the Baltic states and Ukraine - have begun to use the word 'genocide' in legal documents to describe the Soviet Union's mass killings too. Naimark's short book is a polemical contribution to this debate. Though he acknowledges the dubious political history of the UN convention, he goes on to argue that even under the current definition, Stalin's attack on the kulaks and on the Ukrainian peasants should count as genocide. So should Stalin's targeted campaigns against particular ethnic groups."


Billionaire Georges Soros calls upon the US government to implement a giant stimulus package - a dirty word for Republicans - to boost not consumption but investment: "A large majority of the population is convinced that the government is incapable of efficiently managing investments. Again, this belief is not without justification: a quarter of a century of calling the government bad has resulted in bad government. But the claim that government spending is inevitably wasted is patently false."

Further articles: Diane Ravitch was singularly unimpressed by Davis Guggenheim's documentary: "Waiting for Superman", which tells the story of five pupils who are desperate to leave their public schools in favour of semi-private Charter Schools. Cathlee Schine sings the praises of Jenniger Egan's novel "A Visit from the Goon Squad". Jonathan Mirsky expresses his respect for Liu Xiaobo. And Daniel Mendelsohn reads Oscar Wilde.


Salon.com 24.10.2010 (USA)

Laura Miller was riveted by a book about West African witch camps. Just in case you're thinking this is some special interest marginal issue: Ghana's Gambaga camp alone is home to 3,000 women who were forced to flee their homes after being accused of witchcraft. In the course of her research, Canadian journalist Karen Palmer found out that the belief in witchcraft often has very tangible grounds. Witch camps are the "result of a destabilized tribal society on the lookout for scapegoats. 'In an African setting,' one of her guides tells her, 'any mishap - anything that happens - should have a cause.' Illness, natural disasters, accidents - all of these are likely to be blamed on a village's most vulnerable members: Women past childbearing age without sufficiently influential male relatives. Other targets include women with abrasive and uppity personalities, or 'tall poppies'; one accused witch Palmer interviewed had parlayed her good business sense into a modest fortune that aroused the jealousy of other small-time merchants. When she became a moneylender and made herself disagreeable by trying to collect from her debtors, her fate was sealed."


Elet es Irodalom 22.10.2010 (Hungary)

The journalist Benedek Varkonyi remembers the late Tony Judt as an historian who knew that history was very much part of everyday life. Judt knew that the past is not dead but lives on in every moment of the present. He lived at the interface of a closed past and a living world – that neuralgic point so many historians are unwilling to confront: "Today, after the long debates about history, we know that there is no such thing as 'one past'. No part of the world is closed, it is in constant flux. ... He is an historian for whom the past exists to illuminate the present. If there were such a thing as a philosophical quintessence of his passionate and far-reaching work, it would be the question of what history reveals about the present."

Newsweek 24.10.2010 (USA)

Digg.com, one of the USA's most successful websites, has been haemorrhaging readers over the past year (18 million unique visitors down to 5.3 million) and value too (from 130 to 30 million dollars) Daniel Lyons tries to get to the bottom of the problem. Could it be losing out to Twitter? But at Digg, people vote on articles; at Twitter they pass them on. These, one would think, are two different things: "But this is how disruption happens in tech. It's hardly ever about direct competition. Rather, something comes out of left field and provides a new way to do something. There have been plenty of Digg clones, but none of them ever hurt Digg very much. And nobody could have predicted that Twitter would take the place of Digg - not even the guys who created Twitter. And, if history is a guide, Twitter itself will be disrupted by something equally impossible to predict. This is why Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg said at a conference a few months ago that 'the biggest competitor for us is someone we haven't heard of.'"


Slate 21.10.2010 (USA)

Axes are falling fast in France and Britain. The British are showing plenty of stiff upper lip and the French have taken to the barricades (as shown over at the Big Picture). Why are these two nations such caricatures of themselves, Anne Applebaum asks in Slate: The answer, she says, lies in historical experience: "The British, unlike Americans, have positive memories of wartime austerity and even rationing. More recently, Margaret Thatcher's 1981 budget cuts heralded real reforms in Britain and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity. It is not unreasonable to imagine that these cuts will do the same. The French fondness for strikes is based on real experience, too. Strikes, riots, and street demonstrations led to real political changes, not only in 1789 but in 1871, 1958, and many other times, as well. Although they started over what seemed like trivial issues, the famous strikes of 1968 heralded real reforms in France and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity." The question remains as to whether current problems can be solved by repeating history…


Magyar Narancs 14.10.2010 (Hungary)

In the ongoing debate about Islam, the Hungarian Islamic scholar Robert Manyasz asks whether the statistics point more in the direction of a European Islam or an Islamic Europe. "The reason for people's perplexity when it comes to the challenge of Islam is that we almost always look for the answer in Europe. In truth, the problem is much a bigger, global one: the universal crisis of Islam. The problem is that for the past 200 years, Islam has refused to modernise and has no idea of how to face the challenges of globalisation. [...] The failure to modernise could have cataclysmic consequences for Middle Eastern societies, resulting in further waves of migration on an unprecedented scale. Then the pessimists could find themselves being proved right sooner than later and Europe will be Islamised. It is therefore very much in Europe's long-term interest to ensure that Muslim societies are modernised in situ, but this is hardly going to take place through uncritical export of liberal European democracy."


The New York Times 24.10.2010 (USA)

In a portrait of the Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Daniel Bergner also recounts a little-known chapter of the history of Liberia, which was founded by "free American blacks" in 1847. Unfortunately they more or less replicated the culture they had left behind and ended up suppressing the indigenous population. Strands of the violence which regularly erupts in the military coups that have brought the country to its knees, still stem from the rift between the "indigenous people" and the "Americo-Liberians". Samuel Doe, who came to power in a 1980 bloody coup and promptly disemboweled the president and executed 13 government ministers, was the first indigenous leader: "Since the early years of the republic, the poor have often sent their sons and daughters to live with the better off, to serve them in return for the promise of schooling and the hope of other opportunities. In this way, indigenous children have cleaned the homes and cooked the meals of the settler class. They have belonged, more or less, to their warder families, as something between slaves and foster children; they have generally been given their warders' last names. Over generations, the tradition hasn't eradicated distinctions of blood and status - the schooling provided can be meager and the chance for advancement minimal - but it has blurred the lines. And in Sirleaf's case, it eliminated them."

Further articles: Elizabeth Rubin sends reportage about the ever grim situation for women in Afghanistan.
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