The Best American Essays 2010

2011-01-18

in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Geek stuff, Science, Writing

For those without a great deal of time to spend reading GQ and The Atlantic Monthly, an anthology like this one prepared by Christopher Hitchens is probably a good idea. It covers a range of topics – from the political to the scientific to the literary.

As I mentioned before, I found John Gamel’s piece on eye disease especially compelling. Steven Pinker also has an interesting piece on personal genomics, which involves a fair bit of discussion on the genetic influence on personality (something I am meaning to write about at greater length soon). I hope I live to see the day when my entire genome can be sequenced for $1,000 or so.

Perhaps the most educational essay is Frederick Starr’s “Rediscovering Central Asia,” which relates some of the cultural and scientific history of the region that now includes Afghanistan and former Soviet Republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Starr argues that Westerners have been wrong since September 11th, 2001 to see the place as doomed to be a backwater forever, and just a source of dangerous fanatics:

Donning a bush jacket and filming at dawn and dusk, [Dan Rather] presented the region as inaccessible, backward, exotic, marginal and threatening – in short, the end of the world…

Even though the Central Asia of Rather’s depiction was and is an evocative image, it carries some bothersome implications. On the one hand, it conjures up a place where the best the United States and the world community can hope for is to limit the damage arising from it. That means destroying whatever threatens us and then getting out. The problem is that the thinking behind such an approach can then become self-fulfilling: a place we judged to be hopeless becomes truly so, and even more threatening than before.

If anything, I think many in the west overestimated the potential for transformation in Afghan society following September 11th. At least, they severely underestimated how much time and effort it would take to put the country on any kind of durable liberal footing.

Increasingly, it does look as though the wisest course after September 11th might have been to capture or kill as many members of Al Qaeda as possible, without overthrowing the central government and making an under-resourced effort to establish a state that respects human rights or democratic principles. Now, it seems plausible that all that will arise from that effort will be a relatively brief and bloody pause in Taliban control, in the space between the dramatic arrival and more subdued departure of NATO armies.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 18, 2011 at 11:21 pm

One essay also mentions a common misconception about the meaning of ‘oxymoron.’

As Wikipedia explains:

Although a true oxymoron is “something that is surprisingly true, a paradox”, modern usage has brought a common misunderstanding[according to whom?] that oxymoron is nearly synonymous with contradiction. The introduction of this usage, the opposite of its true meaning, has been credited to William F. Buckley.

. January 18, 2011 at 11:51 pm
oleh January 19, 2011 at 3:29 am

I agree that these annual anthologies are quite strong. This year is the 25th anniversary. I also appreciate that it covers a variety of subjects from a variety of quality publications. The 2008 version that I am holding in my hand has twenty essays from 16 publications (the exceptions were New Yorker with 4 and Harpers with 2.) Thanks for the reminder to pick up this year’s edition

R.K. January 24, 2011 at 9:14 pm

What about the deterrent power of removing the Taliban from power? Before September 11th, they were openly protecting and supporting Al Qaeda. The United States cannot actively prevent every government in the world from doing that. Not even the superpower can force people to comply all the time.

But, by removing the Taliban for aiding a violent terrorist group that targeted the U.S. homeland, they sent a strong deterrent message. Even regimes like the one in Yemen will think twice before hosting Al Qaeda people or facilities. Instead, they will offer material support in capturing terrorists in exchange for the U.S. not complaining about their human rights or democratic records.

Terrorist groups that never attack the U.S. homeland are less of a concern for the American administration.

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