From the monthly archives:

November 2013

Something Changed on the Internet

by Maria on November 19, 2013

It’s only been five weeks since the organisations that manage the Internet’s technical infrastructure dropped the bombshell that they want the oversight of ICANN and IANA to be done by all governments and stakeholders, and not just the US. In a statement made in Montevideo, ICANN, ISOC, the IETF, all the world’s regional Internet registries, the Internet Architecture Board and the World Wide Web Consortium all called out the Snowden revelations as having ‘undermined the trust and confidence’ of users so much that it’s now time to get on and build truly ‘global multi-stakeholder Internet cooperation’.

What does all that mean? Basically, the people who built and run the global Internet no longer trust the US government to be its sole public-interested global steward. Despite a six-month scrum of self-satisfied lobbyists falling over each other to say ‘everyone knew what was going on’ and nothing fundamental has changed since Snowden; everyone only thought they knew what was going on and something fundamental has changed since Snowden.

Whether you think real ethical and legal issues are raised by mass surveillance or that the uproar is just an opportunistic response to one country spying merely too successfully on all the others, it is very clear that the US security services stepped far, far over the line when they took part in IETF technical working groups to purposely undermine the security of the Internet. It’s one thing to play an ‘all’s fair in love and war’ game to exploit networks and business relationships to surveil the population, quite another to knowingly introduce vulnerabilities that your enemies can also exploit. This, and disquiet at how some large US corporations act – forced or willingly – as arms of that state, is the basis of the breach of trust.

You don’t get to invent the Internet, export it around the world as a force for free markets, innovation and human progress, oversee the volunteer organisations that make it work, host the most important companies that deliver and use it, and then say it’s not fair that other countries think you are unfairly exploiting a home advantage. You also don’t get a pass on what Milton Mueller calls out as a strange blindness to the privileged role of your own government when you go around the world proselytising that ‘governments should stay out of running the Internet’.

Before Snowden, Russia’s and China’s paranoia and distrust of Internet freedom as a merely tool of US foreign policy designed to weaken their states could be dismissed as the kind of twisted thinking you expect from authoritarian states that simply can’t imagine not abusing a global common pool resource under their control. That’s how they would behave, so of course they think it’s how we would.

After Snowden, we live in a world where country after country has taken steps to distance itself from the current status quo on who oversees the Internet, and to condemn the US for abusing its role. But neither the US nor its junior partner in electronic surveillance, the UK, has made a concerted public effort to counter the claims of moral equivalence made by our rivals in the battle for Internet control; Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The silence of what are, after all, democratic governments about what legal constraints the UK and US’s spying systems operate within – and how those frameworks can and should be improved – means that rival states are controlling the narrative. Controlling the narrative means getting to decide its ending. Lots of us saw this coming. At a national meeting in September we urged the UK to develop a positive response to its role in global surveillance. Snowden wasn’t even on the agenda. But our governments seemed to slope off to the annual global Internet Governance Forum in Bali with no story to tell about itself, merely the plan to slip a few words in the right ears in the corridors outside public meetings, and to hope for the best.

Meanwhile, the business lobbyists swarmed everywhere repeating the mantra that ‘everyone knew; nothing has changed’, hoping their claim of knowing and worldliness would make anyone who disagreed feel like an ignorant rube, hoping repetition would drown out incredulity. That was both stupid and wrong.

By September, there was a fundamental breach of trust between the US government and the global technical communities, between the US and UK and pretty much every envious middle-income country on earth. But instead of facing up to the problem, the West and its international business community put their fingers in their ears and pretended everything was the same as before, or, at worst, just a little bump on the yellow brick road.

Let’s look at what happens when parts of a powerful institutions go bad and the whole institution ignores, denies and then attacks the accusers; for example, the Catholic Church. First, the people who accused the Church of systematically protecting abusers were written off as kooks. Remember the response to Sinead O’Connor ripping up the picture of the Pope. (Tinfoil hat brigade, anyone? How smoothly those ‘in the know’ transition from laughing at conspiracy theorists to claiming everyone always knew what only paranoids used to claim. But of course we’ve always been at war with Oceania.)

Then came the denials – refusals to cooperate with investigations, claims of special privilege, attacking the victims and accusers and writing them off as ne’er do wells, misfits, the terminally damaged. All that was predictable enough. But the point where the Church really lost its flock – and I’m thinking here specifically of the moment church attendance in Ireland dropped right off the cliff – was when, even though they seemed to be facing up to the need for due process and redress, they just couldn’t fathom the depth of the breach of trust. There was and still is a complete disconnect between what the Church did wrong and what it thinks it did wrong. Many elements of the Church still feel truly hard done by because they fundamentally do not understand why they lost the trust of the people they served. And now it’s too late. People voted with their feet and they’re never coming back.

What the US did to the Internet isn’t the same as the Catholic hierarchy protecting paedophiles, not even remotely. But what is eerily similar is its utter refusal to face up to the fact it they lost the people, it lost the battle, it may just have lost the war.

Getting proxies to run around international meetings saying nothing had changed – and that everyone who thought it had was either knavishly opportunistic or ridiculously naive – was a stupid mistake, a tactical error rooted in an inability to accept that the strategic environment had fundamentally changed. It was a car crash in slow motion. Someone had to do something. Someone did.

More on that anon.

In Addition to Being Racist, Everyone is Pro-Infanticide

by Belle Waring on November 19, 2013

What I am curious about in the Singer/infanticide/ending the life of the disabled vein is, what do those who are totally opposed to every form of infanticide think about anencephalic babies (and babies who have similarly non-survivable, severe birth defects)? I don’t think that, as a formerly pregnant person who has given birth to healthy children, my opinions on these questions have any extra merit, but I do think others not so situated may share my opinions without feeling so strongly about them, or in the same way. Perhaps the situation calls for some epistemic humility? The terrifying prospect to me, and to many mothers, of “late-term” abortion bans, is that pregnancies which are terminated after 20 weeks are almost all wanted pregnancies in which something horrible has occurred or been discovered. (And, in those cases where the baby is unwanted, there are almost certainly serious problems in the woman’s life that have led to the delay in getting an abortion sooner.) So, in a situation of supreme horror, the fetus might die, but the mother might be forced to carry the dead fetus inside her and have labor induced, to struggle in pain and blood to bring her dead baby into the world. She would feel the liquid inside her, and the lax ligaments, and all the other things she felt in pregnancy, but she would know the baby was dead. I have heard of mothers knowing right away. So close to you then, infinitely close, but infinitely far, and a rotting thing now, a poison for the rest of your body. So awful.

My first pregnancy was easy and wonderful. I felt and looked glowing, and although I was in labor for more than 40 hours (remind me not to do that again) I gave birth vaginally to a healthy girl who latched onto the breast just a few minutes after she was born, and fed well and naturally. In my second pregnancy I had unexplained bleeding starting at 19 weeks. Bright pink fresh blood in the toilet bowl. I thought my heart would stop. I thought her heart had stopped. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I was in terrible pain (I often am; but it seemed like she was tap-dancing on the worst bit of me.) I kept bleeding on and off. I knew how many movements she was supposed to make in an hour and I counted, and counted, and counted, hour after hour, so scared, and then another hour. The doctors were determined to deliver her surgically as soon as they felt she was cooked up right, so, 37 weeks. It turned out to be nothing serious, placenta previa (the organ grew over the cervical os, the opening to the birth canal, blocking the baby’s egress.) She was fine.

But sometimes when the doctors check, they find that the fetus, which has appeared to be developing fine, has no brain at all, that the blackness inside her skull on the scans is only water. This is not even a fetus, really–certainly not a future infant. It will never feel pleasure at a mother’s touch, or pain from being pinched by a crib mattress, or see anything, or hear anything. It is empty. Laws that would force a woman to stay pregnant and nourish and grow that wrongly-made creature inside her, and to suffer the agonies of childbirth, and to bring forth this…not-baby–laws like that are torture. I would go mad. I would try to abort the fetus myself. I would try to kill myself. I would want to be put to sleep then, there, in the doctor’s office, and wake up, not pregnant, and with a little coffin to bury my hope and love inside. With ashes inside, only, because I would want not to look, but I would look, and I would always wish I had not.

But let us say an unjust, oppressive, Christian regime forces me to endure, and to deliver this severely deformed baby. Does anyone think we should use artificial life support to keep the baby alive? Almost all fetuses of this type are stillborn, and those that are not usually die on the first day of ‘life.’ Even the Catholic Church has some hand-waving about letting God’s will take its course. That is, they are not insistent on providing hydration and nutrition–no one even considers artificial respiration. Reading on it, three children have lived a year or so. There are pictures of course, and now I wish I hadn’t looked at them, and I am so sorry, the poor little things, and so sorry for the parents. For the mothers! When I think of those oscillations inside you, feeling movements you didn’t make, the mysterious gliding of blood-wet surfaces over each other in the absolute black, the not-you inside you…what if you knew in the end there was nothing? Some kind of seasickness of death? At the last you would be holding a newly hatched chick, naked and grey and dead, grey and jerking with dying? But back to the matter at hand, we all think a form of infanticide is appropriate here, right? No one’s on team ‘drastic measures for resuscitation?’ Artificial respiration for 80 years, for something that can never feel you hold his hand? A rough golem on whose forehead no glyph has been inscribed? So isn’t there a small number of real-world, continuously-occurring cases in which we are all pro-infanticide?

UPDATE: so misinterpreted! Obviously my fault also. I didn’t jump in to give Singer crucial moral support. I’m not totally sure how I did…I guess I’m implying all his critics are disingenuous and have parked themselves at the top of a slippery slope with some dubious wedge. I apologize to sincere Singer-critics for insulting their position in this way. That wasn’t actually what I was trying to do at all. I was genuinely curious. There was a case maybe eight years ago now, but I can no longer find it in the welter of anti-abortion and pro-abortion articles, in which a woman’s 24 or even 26-week-old fetus died, and the laws of her state required a waiting period before you could get a late term abortion (Texas IIRC?). The removal of a dead fetus is done via dilation and curettage, i.e., via abortion. So she had to go talk to some doctor, and then go stay by herself in a motel with her dead baby inside her for two days. She wrote about her experience and I remember thinking, I don’t know if I could live through two days of that. A responsible, thoughtful doctor would have deemed the dead fetus a threat to her health and her ability to have future children and had it removed on those grounds, but in this particular case, it was a Catholic hospital and none of these things happened. So I did mean to say, I think there are a number of infants born each year whose lives everyone agrees cannot go on in any way. That doesn’t mean that–HAHA! now everyone is obliged to accept all Singer’s positions; I was honestly curious, not mock-curious, and I honestly don’t know what all Singer’s positions are. But I also meant to describe to people who haven’t been pregnant the terror of something going wrong, and how you hope you would be a good enough person to accept your baby any way she came, but you fear you’re not brave enough, not really, not truly brave enough. And that as long as she was inside maybe you could pretend it would be alright somehow? But even then there is only one feeling that is ever like this, of having something inside you that is alive, that isn’t you, that you are waiting for, and how would it be if you were waiting for nothing? That’s all. I really don’t know enough about Singer’s positions to arbitrate on any of these questions; I was just thinking, we need to hear from severely handicapped people who were written off as a total loss before we know whether he can be right. We might also be interested to hear from mothers. And I’m only the mother of perfectly healthy babies! That’s it. I’m not laying down my life for in-group sacrifice.

Lysander: Proceed, Bushwick Bill

by Belle Waring on November 19, 2013

All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the
lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this
thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog.

‘Ah, so it’s come to this, I see! Ms. Waring wishes to share with us her love of Geto Boys. This is a bridge too far. Really, though. These are the Let a Ho be a Ho people here. Is this some sort of feint after which other marginally less implausible opinions will seem more plausible?’ (hint: ish.) Oh look everyone! It’s Unsung, a Behind-The-Music style show about black musicians, with a whole episode about Geto Boys!

What’s that? You say that it is, possible worlds and all, conceivable that I might have found something you were less likely to watch/listen to, but I would have had need to strive hard? Look, you goobers listen to podcasts about Alan Greenspan’s tragic and shamefully-lauded legacy in US monetary policy. Multiple podcasts of such wise. You listen to podcasts with Dan Drezner in them! (Sorry Dan, but you’ve never laid down beats like this.) It would hurt you real bad to hear about a concrete way in which racism in American society is applied to obscenity and threats of violence, would it? And hear some killer tracks? Scroll on, then, one wouldn’t want you to dirty your hands. SIKE! No, motherf%*#kers! Just open a tab and listen; it ain’t like it’s going to kill you. Though you will be missing interesting and humorous visual effects. “But Belle, I hate all rap music!” OK, this is nonetheless rather historically interesting, you may find, about the spasm of violence in the late ’80s and mid ’90s in the US that seemed like it would never end, and the real fear that hip-hop induced in white listeners. This white dude who was covering the hip-hop beat at Source magazine at the time is probably the single whitest person who has ever lived, including Immanuel Kant. His last name is Soren! When he tells you, “people were scared of this music!” you think, “you wet your pants when Paul Anka came on the oldies station!” Nah, but, in fact he’s extraordinarily well-informed etc. “But Belle, I only care about the history of Neolithic Northern Africa!” Oh really! How fascinating! Well, you’re off the hook then, but you should be getting about your business, I must say. This is rather a lot of slacking already. Oh hey five minute version!
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The Night of the Doctor

by Harry on November 18, 2013

My plan, for the day itself, since we do not have cable, is to go round to my daughter’s friend’s house and watch it there, without a wife to make fun of it or a 7-year-old to interrupt it. Then back to my house to make a dinner for my daughter’s said friend, who wants to celebrate her birthday a day early by having my fondue with numerous other friends. Then, on Monday my daughter and I will go to the local movie theater to watch it again, this time in 3D. We’ve been waiting for this for about 3 years (whenever it was that I realized that November 23rd 2013 is a Saturday).

I have been avoiding the trailers, and any information contained therein — I have already learned more than I want to know. But, apparently this is a prequel, so I watched it; and it does seem like it is worth watching before Saturday (but on your own head be it if you regret it — if it helps, I didn’t regret it).

Oh, and I quite liked the Big Finish special, more for the obvious delight the actors are taking in it than the implausible plot.

How are you celebrating?

Peter Singer, Round 2

by John Holbo on November 18, 2013

I found comments to my Peter Singer thread – that’s what my utilitarianism thread turned out to be! – quite interesting. I’ve read a few of Singer’s books. I like The Expanding Circle, in particular. I’ve never paid much attention to the drama of his philosophical celebrity, so the thread educated me about that. What was most striking was this NY Times piece a couple commenters linked to, I think intending it as evidence of his bad character. But I had more or less the opposite reaction. I don’t know the man, obviously. I don’t stake any claim to insights into his psychology (beyond those democratically available to any other reader of the linked piece, and a few of his books) but he struck me as bend-over-backwards and turn-the-other-cheek, rhetorically. He’s apparently unfailingly polite to people who call him a moral monster, unspeakably evil, sending them books and thank-you notes and all. (And then this.) Maybe he’s just an Asperger’s case, and just doesn’t process insults as insulting. But he doesn’t seem like that, to me. That doesn’t really fit with his patience and solicitude for the likes of Harriet McBryde Johnson. I can, of course, see that the whole ‘but, captain, I’m just being rational’ Spock schtick only sets people’s inner McCoy off worse. And if you think he’s a Nazi on the merits – well, we know from the movies that the polite and polished ones are the worst ones. But seriously. What’s the guy supposed to do, given the case he wants to make? Yell at his critics? Whine that they are being mean to him? That would be a disaster. So it’s this elaborate, placid front of unfailingly polite rationality or nothing. This is not to say that he’s some great hero for keeping his cool when people insult him. But, to me, he came off not as an evil A.I. but just as someone trying to step his way through an emotional minefield, because he’s decided he really wanted what was on the other side. [click to continue…]

Only Bertrand Russell

by Corey Robin on November 17, 2013

I’ve spent the last month working on a paper on Burke, Babeuf, and Adam Smith. (Guess which of these two had a similar theory of value? Hint: It’s not Smith.) It’s been a miserable experience.

Whenever I have trouble writing, I remember this passage from Philip Roth:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.

And I feel better.

But then I read this from Bertrand Russell:

I…found that my first draft was almost always better than my second.  This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time.


On the migrant trail to Australia

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

I blogged a few days ago about Oscar Martinez’s brilliant account of the dangers migrants from Central America face as the travel through Mexico, so this is a follow-up to that. In the latest New York Times Magazine, journalist Luke Mogelson and photographer Joel van Houdt recount the experience of disguising themselves as migrants and taking the trail from Kabul to Australia. Harrowing and depressing stuff. There are fewer predators on the road, but the mostly Iranian travelers have to face the endless sea and the burning sun, and, at the end there is no hope. All detained and sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea and their dreams of new lives in Australia turn to dust. In the piece we learn that Australia has absorbed a tiny number of asylum seekers compared to many European states, but the votes are in pandering to the racists, so that’s what Australian politicians do. (h/t to the brilliant BritCits )

Scott on Diamond (and Pinker)

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

The latest London Review of Books has an unexpected bonus, a review by James C. Scott of Jared Diamond’s The World Before Yesterday. Scott also takes aim at Steven Pinker’s arguments in Better Angels. Scott is particularly scathing about two issues: first, the assumption that remaining hunter-gatherer societies can tell us anything about the societies of our distant ancestors, since these survivors are profoundly shaped both by interaction with and marginalization by statist societies; second, the claim that states emerged as responses to levels of pre-state violence. In respect of the first claim, I’m not totally convinced, since there’s been good work done by anthropologists and primatologists who know the “marginalization” criticism but find sufficient material in the commonalities among such societies and in our similarities (and dissimilarities) to our ancestral species to draw at least some inferences (see Christopher Boehm’s work, for example). In respect of the second, I’m largely in agreement, though I’d note that Scott uses the word “state” in the review to denote a heterogeneous range of forms of political organization (as anthropologists often do) and that’s a departure from his usage in Seeing Like a State. But read the whole thing, as they say.

Wall Street Isn’t Worth It

by John Q on November 14, 2013

That’s the title of my new piece at Jacobin, which links back to a variety of discussions we’ve had here at CT, in particular this one from Ingrid. Mankiw, whom Ingrid cites, offers an implicit defence of the 1 per cent, implying though not quite asserting, that the gains accruing to those in this group (largely senior executives and the financial sector) have been the price we pay for a process that benefits everyone, yielding a Pareto improvement. As Ingrid says, Pareto improvements aren’t as self-evidently desirable as Mankiw assumes. My argument focuses on Mankiw’s factual premise, concluding that the expansion of the financial sector has made the majority of people worse off. This implies that a response to the global financial crisis focused on attacking the financial sector is feasible as well as being, in my view, politically necessary as an alternative to rightwing populism.

Jacobin doesn’t appear to have a comments section, so feel free to comment and criticise here. I’ve had an interesting discussion with Daniel on Twitter already, but it’s not really a great medium when more than a few people are involved.

Top Shelf Sale On Comixology; also, Kindle Matchbook

by John Holbo on November 14, 2013

Mostly I read comics in digital form these days. Comixology is a pretty good platform – bit crashy on my old iPad. But I like the Guided View format. If you haven’t gotten into the whole buying digital comics thing yet, you might check out the Top Shelf sale going on right now. Top Shelf is a major indie publisher with a lot of great titles and a pretty extensive catalogue. You can get Alan Moore, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. You can get Jeff Lemire stuff like Essex County and The Underwater Welder. You can get Nate Powell stuff like Any Empire and Swallow Me Whole (which I previously recommended here.) You can get hilarious Jeffrey Brown stuff like The Incredible Change-Bots (also recommended before.) Lilli Carre, Tales of Woodsman Pete. James Kochalka, Monkey vs. Robot and Superf*ckers. And on and on. Good stuff!

I also notice, via the Top Shelf front page, that there’s a new Amazon thing called Kindle Matchbook. If you’ve bought a physical book through Amazon, at any point in the past, you can add a digital copy for cheap. I so much prefer digital, especially for research purposes, that I will probably be availing myself of that option in future. But Kindle comics aren’t so good. You can’t zoom individual frames, as with Comixology. And not that many publishers are on-board with this Matchbook thing, apparently. I suppose they feel it will put yet more pressure on paper sales by encouraging people to sell their used paper copies, once they’ve got the Kindle copy. Probably they’re right.

The Chattering Absence of Epistemic Humility

by Maria on November 12, 2013

Of course mine was unplanned. Which goes to show anyone can. Never say never!

Believe me, you don’t want the heartburn, the swollen ankles, the back ache and I swear to God if ___ just brushes my nipples again I’ll murder him.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

I never really wanted them myself.

You know, a friend of mine moved to a warmer country and within weeks. Have you ever thought of doing that?

You know, a friend of mine tried for ten years and then they gave up. And then it just happened like that. And they’ve had two more since.

You know, I have a good feeling that it’ll work out for you. I just know it.

If you could just relax a little, you know? Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

Have you thought of trying fertility treatment?

But you’ll be such brilliant parents. You just have to believe it and it’ll come good.

God I know exactly how you feel. We thought my first one was an ectopic until I had the scan.

God I know exactly how you feel. It took us nearly a year for the first. I was sure there was something wrong.

Have you thought about adoption? They’ll let anyone do it these days. Sorry. You know what I mean.

Well at least you have each other.

You’re so lucky. Lie-ins are a thing of the past for us. I haven’t been to the toilet on my own in three years.

Still, there’s always being a god-parent and uncle or aunt. Lucky kids. And you get to give them back when you’ve had enough.

Have you thought of volunteering?

Think of all the holidays you can take. Just the two of you.

My friend went to some clinic and it worked for her. I’ll get the name of it. I’m sure it will work for you.

You’re always hearing of people it worked out for in the end. I’m sure it’ll be the same for you.

Well you know, what with over-population and everything.

Look at the state of them. Are you still sure you want any?

At least you‘ll never have to go through childbirth.

You know I really believe you’ll get there in the end. You just have to stay positive. I know you can.

And here’s the one response that doesn’t cut down to the bone, whatever the situation or experience of the friend / acquaintance / or heavily pregnant lady at the parking permit office who wouldn’t take no for an answer (yes, just this morning):

“I’m so sorry.”

How We Got Somewhere Else – Very Briefly

by John Holbo on November 11, 2013

I’m reading David Frum, How We Got Here: The 70’s, the Decade That Brought You Modern Life – For Better Or Worse.

Why am I reading it? Oh, you know me.

But consider this bit (Corey Robin, I expect you to be particularly interested): [click to continue…]

Actually, that’s an unnecessarily coarse title for this post, which is a pointer to a thoughtful, timely and by all accounts superbly executed play about bankers’ role in Ireland’s financial crisis. Journalist documentary-maker Colin Murphy (full disclosure, an old and dear friend) has written a play called ‘Guaranteed. It tries to get to the heart of what the *%$%ing £$%! happened in 2008, using official documents and interviews with insiders. Let’s just say it’s a little more insightful than Michael Lewis’ back of the taxi/fag packet journalism, and goes gratifyingly against the official grain.

‘Guaranteed’ is in Waterford tonight, Dun Laoghaire on Tuesday and Wednesday, then around the country till the 29th.

A palate cleanser afterward might be Colm McCarthy’s recent piece in the Indo, marking the triumvirate of ECB/IMF/EC and their involvement in Ireland’s forced bail-out out of 10. You may be surprised by who scored highest.

Armistice Day (crosspost)

by John Q on November 11, 2013

I usually write a post on 11 November, the anniversary of the armistice that brought a temporary end to the Great War that engulfed Europe in 1914 and continued, in one form or another, until the end of the 20th century. But nothing I write could match this from former Australian Prime minister Paul Keating. The core of the piece

The First World War was a war devoid of any virtue. It arose from the quagmire of European tribalism. A complex interplay of nation state destinies overlaid by notions of cultural superiority peppered with racism.

The First World War not only destroyed European civilisation and the empires at its heart; its aftermath led to a second conflagration, the Second World War, which divided the continent until the end of the century.

But all of it is worth reading and remembering, along with Keating’s 1993 speech at the funeral of the unknown Australian soldier.

I’m not going to take comments on this at CT, but you can discuss it at my blog.

Cormac McCarthy used to live in El Paso, just over the border from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. I kept thinking about this as I read Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso) because the parallels between Martinez’s non-fiction work and McCarthy’s novel The Road were sometimes striking and horrifying. Martinez is a journalist from El Salvador who has taken the courageous step of following the migrant trail that Central Americans would-be migrants to the US take through Mexico. “The Beast” of the (English) title is a reference to the trains that so many of them cling to through days and nights. Each chapter tells a different aspect of the story, from what makes people flee their homes in El Salavador, Guatemala or Honduras to the risky business of how to swim the Rio Grande at the end. Each chapter is different, yet each has the same essential theme: poor and desperate people who are the prey of criminal organizations in Mexico – the drug cartels – with police, the “polleros” and “coyotes” (migrant guides) and others being induced by a mixture of greed and fear (mainly the latter) to act as agents for the cartels (such as the Zetas) or at least to pay the tax they demand.

If you are a woman who undertakes the journey, you will almost certainly be raped, perhaps many times. Maybe this will happen when your are misdirected into an ambush in La Arrocera (near the beginning of the trail), perhaps it will happen on the train, perhaps it will happen when you are kidnapped and held on a ranch with hundreds of others whilst your relatives wire a ransom to the gangs, perhaps near the US border where a “bra tree” displays the underwear of victims as the rapists’ trophies. The stories of mass kidnapping and the warehousing of migrants by the gangs, with torture a regular part of the plan and summary death (in front of the others) for escapees are chilling.
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