Showing posts from 2011

Good night, Hitch

Until you have done something for humanity you should be ashamed to die.   Horace Mann

Atheism crept up on me.  It was always lurking, but never fully made its move until I reached adulthood.  Several public intellectuals nudged me along.  Some like, Jared Diamond, are the type who don’t really care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists – quiet intellectuals who simply enjoy showcasing the joy of reason.  Then there are the other guys.  The bareknuckle boxing atheists – duty bound to lambast the illogical.  The folks who wade knee deep into the religious mire and enjoy it.  Among these characters there is the holy trinity of the modern atheist: Dawkins, Harris and Hitch.  Big Hitch.  Brother Hitch.  Christopher Hitchens died on December 15, 2011.   
Hitch was a fearless writer, a tough-guy liberal.  No one and nothing were sacred – the guy took on Mother Theresa and Ayatollah Khomeini.  I didn’t always agree with his views, but I respected his bravery in following his c…

Sandwiches at the Gates of Hell

When you tell UN and NGO people that that you’re going to Dadaab the reaction is usually sympathetic:
“Really?” they commiserate,  “For how long?”
We were in and out.  I can’t say that I’m looking forward to returning.    
Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp.  It is Kenya’s third largest “city” and by far its most miserable.  The population of the camps is almost entirely Somali.  The first refugee camps in Dadaab opened in 1991, when Somali strongman Siad Barre was overthrown, triggering the first wave of chaos in the country.  With Ethiopia’s recent (re)incursion opening a third front in Somalia’s conflict, we can be assured that the refugee population of Dadaab will not be declining anytime soon.
It was dusk when we arrived.  On the way from the dirt airstrip to the UN / INGO compound we passed lots of unsmiling people and evil looking storks picking at piles of rubbish.  The sunsets are incredible in Kenya’s northeast, unspoilt by pollution or buildings.  But, you can only lo…

The Black Geek: Skateboarding and Hip-Hop

I remember buying my first issue of Thrasher magazine.  I placed it on the counter tentatively, halfway expecting the saleslady to shake her head, call me a fraud and instruct me to return it.  
Before I ever landed a kick-flip or dropped in a half pipe, I studied that Thrasher magazine.  I loved the counter-culture feel of it.  The magazine had pictures of impossible looking stunts and advertisements for things with stunningly irreverent (for an eleven year old) names.  I’d never heard a Butthole Surfers’ song but I wanted to.  I had no idea what one would use Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax for but I wanted some (or at least a t-shirt advertising the mysterious substance). 
Proper “professional” skateboards weren’t cheap and you bought them in pieces – the deck, the trucks, the wheels.  After some pretty consistent begging I convinced my parents to buy me a “professional” deck for my twelfth birthday.  It was a “Lance Mountain.”  What a cool name for a skateboarder.  Later in my short-lived skate…


Siad Barre and Muammar Qadaffi
I’m not completely new to Africa.I’ve spent a couple weeks living in a tent in Rumbek, another few weeks (mostly) on the toilet in N’djamena, two or three weeks dying for a beer in Khartoum, a few weeks feeling the closest we Americans can get to post-colonial guilt in Monrovia and enough time in Kenya to understand that the presence of a United Nations headquarters in Nairobi probably brings more money into the country than tourism does.I’m not an absolute newbie to this part of the world, but I’m far from an expert.
While working in the Caucasus I took pride in being able to hold a credible conversation with my friends Azret and Maga about the security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria, a place many westerners are only vaguely aware of.I was proud that my Russian was decent enough to maintain informal contact with my counterparts in the local security services.When I was assigned a post with Somalia responsibilities I knew I was going to be playing catch…


Jefferson's War

Like the rest of the world, I watched the Arab spring unfold in awe.Most recently that awe has been centered on Libya. A lot of pundits have pointed out that it is oddly fitting that it is in Libya – the place where the Stars and Strips flew for the first time in battle on foreign soil – that the United States has taken its first stumbling steps in reevaluating the way we intervene abroad.I count myself among the chorus who were very happy to see the U.S. relinquish the driver’s seat to our European allies.But, when the “rebels” entered Tripoli on August 21st, this was not at the forefront of my mind; I was thinking of Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was President at the time fo the U.S.`s first foray into Libya during the first Barbary War in 1805 (the word “Barbary” stems from the Berber population of North Africa and also, probably, from the not so subtle similarity in English to the word “barbarism”).At Marine boot camp every young recruit learns the story of Lieutenant Presley …

UNsung Heroes

In 2008, when Samantha Powers’s biography of Sergio De Mello, “Chasing the Flame: One Man’s fight to Save the World,” was published it was a bit of an oddity.Jon Stewart’s interview with Rachel Weiz prior to the release of her new film “The Whistleblower” last month was more run of the mill.
“I am going to lose faith in our institutions,” Stewart quipped, “to hear that the UN mismanaged military contractors in a war-torn nation.”
I cringed.As an American “International Civil Servant” you get used to a certain degree of reflexive anti-UNism in our political discourse.But, when it comes from the left, from a pundit you actually respect, it is unexpected and stings.
I happened to be in New York when Powers’s book came out and I excitedly bought it in hardback.Powers painted a picture of Sergio De Mello as a very cool and deeply flawed guy who, while accomplishing incredible things at some of the defining UN missions of his era, was also (for most of his life) a hard-drinking womanizer.I cou…