Tuesday, 29 July 2014 00:00

Good Reads – 29/07/2014

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Two of E&M's editors share articles that recently got them thinking about Europe. Diána kicks off by suggesting an interesting interview and also a book review that might just make you look at the news in a completely different way. Then it's over to Edgar, whose picks include an article on the difficulties of observing Ramadan in Norway.

Diána, Managing editor


Little green men with faces

When we read it was 'pro-Russian separatists' or 'Ukrainian rebels' who shot down the MH17 plane flying over their disputed territory, it is often extremely difficult to imagine who those people on the ground are and why they see it as a realistic political option to call their territory The People's Republic of Donetsk.

The fighters themselves often seem to be missing from media coverage. From a European point of view, it can easily seem rather confusing, almost absurd, to be willing to embrace the authoritarian ways of the Russian leadership. This is why an interview with one of the so-called 'little green men' – the imported fighters from Russia – is an immensely interesting read. In the article, Artur Gasparyan, an Armenian-born former fighter, tells us about the details of his service, the complete anonymity of Russian recruitment and the often extremely chaotic conditions of the fighting involved.

Though the interview is not completely clear on certain points – personally, I'm not sure I understood why he was willing to talk and whether his position about Ukraine has now changed – one message comes across plainly: that for many in the post-Soviet world the very category of separate nation states still does not make sense. In their eyes, there are no 'Ukrainians', only 'Slavs'. For Gasparyan and the others still fighting for the Soviet Union, twisting time and space is possible in the present. However alarming that thought may be, this is an angle we need to tackle if we wish to understand what is going on along those borders.

When the news was a new story

On a completely different note, I really enjoyed Julianne Werlin's review of a book published recently about the history of the news. We all come to reporting and journalism having been exposed to the news for so long that we cannot help but take it for granted – both the fact that it exists, and the forms in which it does so. Andrew Pettegree's The Invention of News shows us how the news industry is, and always was, delicately intertwined with the world around it; he notes, for instance, that cheap labour for copying handwritten news items in Venice became an obstacle to establishing printed press companies there. 

As well as a few funny factoids, such as the first British women's magazine being called The Female Tatler, the article contains enough stories and examples from the book to make it an engaging read, not just the mere bones of an abstract theory. It also ends on a positive note, arguing that we need not necessarily expect an inevitable decline in printed daily newspapers because of the digital revolution.

Shaking heads or shaking off old identities?

Finally, I was thrilled to come across Cafébabel's new initiative Secession. The project is true to the original meaning of the word, when the Ancient Roman class of commoners, the plebs, left the elite alone and marched to the Mons Sacer. Their sheer number was a force the ruling political class could not possibly ignore, and thus new directions had to be found that were suitable for both sides.


Camille de Toledo and others in this new Secession aim to reshape our identities and sense of belonging through translation – be it literal or cultural and carried out by citizen translators who want to open up new possibilities of understanding. Identity should be radically reterritorialised, they claim, by showing the endlessly contested histories of the continent. Is this feasible? While the text reads almost like a manifesto, with many highlighted key-words that somehow patronise the reader, the message feels powerful and timely. It may make you want to join in or at least sit down and think once again of how we might actually go about building a Europe beyond the EU.


Edgar, Baby editor



Revanchism and other daunting words

It wouldn't be hard this week to find many hours' worth of engrossing reads solely on the subject of Russia and Ukraine. Aside from countless valiant attempts by learned folk to unknot the various threads of history, accident and political intrigue involved in the conflict, you can also find literary satire, long-form interviews and this vast trove of personal reminiscences compiled by Eurozine.

But my pick is a little more airy and abstracted than any of those. Carlin Romano, the famous and occasionally very controversial philosopher, has sifted through an impressively diverse range of books on statehood and national identity and brought their wisdom to bear on the crisis in Ukraine. His conclusion? There simply are no conceptually satisfying theories to determine where borders ought to be drawn. Politicians and pundits condemn Putin's actions with reference to cumbersome words like "revanchism" and "irredentism". But they have no solid alternative. "The whole map of the world," Carlin says, "is a holy mess of conquest, massacre, imperialism, and other nasty embarrassments to democracy and justice."

It's not an easy read, and I'm sure that a more informed social scientist than I am would find plenty of holes to poke in the argument. Still, it's interesting stuff and a good antidote to any illusion of certainty you might have about the problem of national identity – in Ukraine or anywhere else.

HUMan rights, british wrongs

A couple of weeks ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to neuter the Human Rights Act by allowing British courts to simply ignore its rulings. I’m often baffled by my native country’s singular reluctance to recognise universal rights. So I went in search of an explanation and found something approaching it in this excellent article published by the Guardian from December of last year.

Mostly it's a good, clear summary of what the European Human Rights Court does in practice: throwing out inadmissible appeals takes up by far the majority of its work, but once in a while it manages to identify "a dysfunction in the rule of law". The piece also makes a convincing argument that Britain's lack of a constitution makes many suspicious of judicial authority, something which possibly explains why so many Brits are hostile to the Court of Human Rights – in spite of the fact that their country was instrumental in setting it up.

ramadan minus the sunset 

Finally, in honour of Eid al-Fitr, an article from Der Spiegel on the dilemma of honouring Ramadan in the land of eternal sun. Observant Muslims are, of course, only supposed to break their Ramadan fast when the sun sets. But in the depths of the far northern summertime, it never does. And the Muslim population of Norwegian towns like Tromsø is growing fast. What is the solution?

It's complicated, apparently; and, even when the issue is resolved, it only gives rise to yet more quandaries. The article's not written in a particularly beautiful style, but its subject was unusual and evocative enough to keep me hooked. In any case, I'm relieved for the Tromsø Muslims that their Ramadan problems are over for another year. Eid Mubarak!

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 July 2014 08:38

If the Editorial team had an actual office it would have to stretch from the corner of Britain to the edges of Spain, Sweden, Germany and beyond. (With frequent trips to America too) .  The term 'from the editorial office' then, is very much a figure of speech. 

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