Thursday, March 12, 2015

On the Death of Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett, an English fantasy writer of humorous and gently sarcastic works,  has died at the age of sixty-six.  He is the creator of Discworld, an imaginary planet which is a flat disc standing on the shoulders of four giant elephants which in their turn stand on the shell of an even more giant turtle.

The turtle is swimming through space towards an unknown destination, and with the turtle swim all creatures Pratchett has peopled his world with: gnomes, trolls, dwarfs, vampires, werewolves,  humans of various types, from powerful witches to funny wizards, melancholy policemen and even a benevolent dictator whose degree is in assassination studies.

While those creatures are carried on to nobody-knows-where, they live their lives, love, hate, steal, help, perform magic, fight wars, pollute their environment, educate their children and practice politics.

In short, they are very much like us here on earth, except for not being like us at all.  Even their politics has a familiar tone:  their gods bicker with each other and play dice games with the creatures, cultures clash, prejudices flare up and are sometimes resolved, wars begin for no good reason at all and are waged ineffectively and stupidly, and at the end of every life there is Death, an anthropomorphized figure with the dark cowl, the skull head and the scythe.

Pratchett's Death wishes to be human.  In one of the books he temporarily adopts a human son and ultimately ends up with a half-human granddaughter (one of my favorite figures in the books).  Death likes a good strong curry (does it just go through his ribcage?) and has strong opinions about the most humane way of harvesting his people.

Death is ultimately just.  That aspect of his personality can be seen in the battles against the auditors of the universe, an odd (infinite?) group of identical creatures without hearts but with an extremely strong urge for tidiness,  order and proper hierarchies.

The creatures of the Discworld are anything but orderly, and so sometimes face the wrath of the auditors who would prefer a silent and quiet planet.  Death refuses to be cowed by the auditors.  He takes the part of his people, his harvest, helped by various individuals of the planet and also the secret weapon which is chocolate.

You may see why I love Pratchett's books.  They have everything:  Political jokes, parables to our world's history and myths, and chocolate.  They even have empathy, compassion and realistic female characters, drawn with skill and often equipped with power.

But mostly I love the books because they are based on a deep thirst for justice and fairness.  Neil Gaiman has written about the anger of Terry Pratchett, the kind of cold and glorious rage which can fuel writing about injustices. 

In one of Pratchett's books a character states: "There is no justice.  There is just us."  I read that as telling us what our role in the collective sense should be:  To create that missing justice and fairness, to make it, so to speak,  the unknown destination of the giant turtle carrying our Discworld.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

David Brooks' Moral Measles

How is that for a post title?

David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, has recently gone on (and on) about values.  Values are things which Brooks believes conservatives have and liberals do not have.  It's not that everybody has values, nope.  Or, rather, some people have bad values and other people have good values.  Good values are about family and sacrificing oneself for the sake of order and hierarchy (though the sacrifices are mostly expected of women).  Good values are firmly conservative, bad values are firmly liberal.

That's the first thing you need to know about Brooks and his writings.  The second thing is the manner in which he appears to approach science:  He starts from the conclusions he wishes to draw, then goes backwards until he finds a study or a book which supports those conclusions, then he ignores all other evidence and writes his piece by beginning with the study he likes, implying that it's accepted wisdom by all and then writing how it results in his conclusions.

This pattern is visible in his latest column which is about the good values of rich people and the bad values of poor people.  If only poor people had better values, they, too, could be rich people!

Well, not quite.  But they'd be a lot less trouble to the rich people that way.

Monday, March 09, 2015

IS And Women. Part 2: Sexual Slavery And Rape of "Non-Believers"

It all began last summer.  In August,  news from Iraq noted that IS had attacked villages inhabited by Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish group with a religion which combines elements of Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions (1):

The gunmen had surrounded the village for more than a week, refusing to let residents leave and saying they had limited time to save themselves by converting to Islam.
When that time ran out, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria stormed in, killing the men and rounding up the women and children, a survivor and Iraqi officials said Saturday.
The extent of the killings on Friday in Kocho, a tiny, isolated village in northern Iraq that is home to members of the Yazidi sect, remained unclear on Saturday night. Some officials said they believed that at least 80 people had died, although no one had been able to visit the site to assess the damage.
Later in the same article we learn that though most adult men were killed, the fate of most of the women and children remained unclear:

It remained unclear what had become of the village’s women and children. Mr. Khidr said he did not think they had been killed, but had been rounded up and taken somewhere else.
Mahma Khalil, a Yazidi leader and a former Parliament member, said he had received reports that they were taken as prisoners to the nearby town of Tal Afar.
Other news (impossible to independently verify) told of women who were found naked and tied after IS attacks, apparently repeatedly raped by the terrorists.

Soon, however, we learned what happened to all those captured Yazidis:

They were taken into slavery (2).  Their expected destiny differed by gender and age.  The young boys would be turned into IS jihadis (3) by religious education and brain-washing, the older women would perhaps become general household slaves and the young women and girls would be used to satisfy the sexual needs of the IS fighters.

At the time I'm writing this the total number of Yazidi women and children captured by IS is thought to be in several thousands, though precise numbers are difficult to get.  Some of the captured remain in Iraq, some have been taken to Syria (or even further, given the aspect of sexual trafficking in IS-created slave markets).

Some appear to have been given to individual IS fighters right after the killing of the Yazidi men in various villages, as war booty,  some have been assigned to the IS movement, to be further distributed among fighters, and some young women seem to have been placed into brothels near Mosul in Iraq.  Further trading of the slaves takes place in markets in both Syria and Iraq.

The rest of this post looks deeper into this particular hell.