Favourite Readings 2019 – Closing an Uneasy Decade with Rhythm and Blues

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As in previous years, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2019. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Michal Saliternik. You can read all the posts in this series here.

 

We are closing the second decade of the twenty-first century without seeing much progress in addressing this century’s most daunting problems, including violent conflicts, social inequality, environmental degradation, and the decline of democracy. My good reads for the past year deal with these problems from different perspectives and methodological approaches within several genres. Together, they take the reader to a journey between the small details and the big picture; between the past and the future; between the heart and the mind; between despair and hope.

I would like to begin this journey from the end, with the recently published anthology Palestine +100 (Comma Press, 2019). Edited by Basma Ghalayini, this breathtaking collection features twelve short science fiction stories written by Palestinian authors. The stories are all set in 2048, a hundred years after the Palestinian Nakba took place. This imaginary setting allows the authors to write about the most painful aspects of life in Palestine today—violence, poverty, distrust, humiliation, despair—with little risk of being accused of over melodramatization, self-victimization, or self-condemnation. Indeed, the only part of the book that can be criticized for being overly biased (against Israel) and for presenting controversial facts as truisms (e.g., regarding the reasons that led Palestinians to leave their homes in 1948, or “Israel’s 70-year programme of systemic, ethnic cleansing”) is the non-fictitious Introduction by Ghalayini. Remarkably, however, Ghalayini’s own perspective does not seem to have undermined the freedom of the authors to present the complex realities of Palestine as they see fit, and to criticize through their stories not only Israel but also Palestinian leadership and society.

Remaining in the zone of war, but moving from science fiction to international legal scholarship, Daniëlla Dam-de Jong’s International Law and Governance of Natural Resources in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations (Cambridge University Press, 2015) explores the intricate relationships between natural resources and violent conflicts. Using examples from several countries, it discusses the role that natural resources can play in triggering and sustaining wars, as well as the devastating effects that wars have on natural resources and the people that depend on them. The “resource curse” is a well-known problem to those working in the fields of conflict resolution and economic development. This book, however, is exceptional in that it offers a comprehensive, rigorous analysis of this problem from an international law perspective. Dam-de Jong skillfully maps out the relevant international legal norms—from the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources to general environmental norms to obligations arising from specialized environmental regimes to humanitarian duties—and examines their applicability to the different actors involved in resource-related armed conflicts, including states, armed opposition groups, and private corporations. This type of doctrinal analysis is the bread and butter of international lawyers, without which we cannot claim our place among those striving to save the world from war, environmental degradation, and other predicaments.

Bread and butter are essential, but sometimes one craves a glass of wine. Rogers Brubaker’s Grounds for Difference (Harvard University Press, 2015) can satisfy this craving for a while by offering broad theoretical observations on contemporary group identity and inequality. In this book, Brubaker reiterates and expands the constructivist conception of ethnic identity developed in his and others’ earlier works. He does so in the face of the recent comeback of organic, objectivist conceptions of ethnic identity, which he associates, among other things, with skewed interpretations of new developments in genomic research. While Brubaker emphasizes that group identities are socially constructed (or, to use Benedict Anderson’s term, imagined), rather than natural or objective, he also acknowledges the persistence of such identities and their sustained influence on domestic and international politics, even – or precisely – in the time of globalization and mass immigration. The book does not always flow smoothly, not least because it consists of a number of separate articles that seem to have been put together in a somewhat incidental way. Yet, the insights that it offers into contemporary conceptions and operations of ethnic, religious, and national identities can be much valuable for international lawyers concerned with social inequality, violent conflicts, and international cooperation more generally.

Whenever I wish to share some thoughts about groupism, conflict, and inequality with my kids, my first choice—in 2019 as well as in previous years—would be The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) (1961). This children’s classic tells the story of an imaginary society of creatures called Sneetches, whereby members who happen to have the mark of a star on their belly discriminate against plain-belly members and deprive them of social and economic opportunities. The absurdity of this arbitrary discrimination becomes apparent when a “Fix-It-Up Chappie” with a peculiar star-print machine adds and removes belly stars to whoever pays him, until all Sneetches are left penniless and exhausted. There are so many lessons to learn from this short story– about those who exclude, those who are excluded, and those who take advantage of both. But, to be honest, it is not these lessons, but rather the engaging plot, the smooth rhythm, the enchanting rhymes, and the funny illustrations, that make this book (like Dr. Seuss’ other books) so delightful for both children and adults.

Finally, the best book I have read (and looked at, and listened to) in 2019 is Leonard Cohen’s posthumous collection The Flame (edited by Robert Faggen & Alexandra Pleshoyano, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). The book includes hundreds of poems, lyrics, notes, and drawings selected from Cohen’s unpublished work (however, the lyrics were included in his last albums). Rather than attempting to catch the magic of this precious book in words, I wish to cite the first two stanzas of the poem Almost like the Blues (which also appears in Cohen’s 2014 album Popular Problems). There are many ways to understand this poem. To me, it is primarily a sharp, troubling, reluctantly amusing description of the inability—and perhaps also unwillingness—of privileged persons who hear, read, speak, and write about war, poverty, and persecution to fully grasp these experiences. This does not mean, of course, that we should stop caring and acting, or that “careless is the way to go”, as Cohen teasingly notes in another place. It only suggests that in our endeavors to make a difference, we—conscious individuals, political activists, international lawyers, and others—should be aware of and sensitive to such gaps.

 

I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues
It was almost like the blues

 

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There’s torture and there’s killing
And there’s all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it’s almost like the blues
It’s almost like a blues.

 

 

 

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