My studies of writing

Everybody writes. I started studying writing in the high school writer's craft course. I don't remember many craft lessons from that class but I do remember writing a lot of stories, which is what was important – to get writing. Since 2010 but intensifying in 2015 and 2016, I have spent a lot of time reading about writing, taking courses about writing, and trying to apply the lessons I've learned. Here's some of what I've read and thought.

Style

I started around 2010 because in that year I tried to submit my writing to a bunch of magazines that I had never submitted to before. I thought my writing was pretty good. I'd been in Znet and Z Magazine with the best of them, so why not try some other publications? I got a raft of decisive rejections and very little feedback. What feedback I did get, suggested that they didn't like my style. Style, and voice, are elusive terms. I started on a quest to figure out first what they meant, and then, whether we would have to agree to disagree (which I have mainly concluded) or whether I could improve my style (which maybe I have done).

I had already read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, which is mainly about writing concise and clear prose. Followed that with Zinsser's On Writing Well, which didn't stick with me very much but which I remember liking. I had also read Orwell's Politics and the English Language, very important stuff about avoiding bureaucratic, deliberately muddled language and cliched images.

Recently picked up Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, which had some interesting stuff in it – what I took from it mainly was his prescription to use classical style, in which you describe exactly what you mean using visual metaphors and talking across to your reader (as opposed to talking down to your reader). Very recently I read Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools, in which he talks about a “ladder of abstraction”, of using higher and lower levels of abstraction, and the placement of nouns and verbs in the sentence (at the beginning and at the end). Along the same lines, I was recommended Sol Stein On Writing, and Theodore A. Rees's Getting the Words Right – 39 ways to improve your writing.

Héctor Mondragón: The plan to Gaza-ify the Colombian Peace Process

[This important article is by the Colombian economist and activist Héctor Mondragón and argues that Colombia's landowning elite are not interested in peace, even though negotiators have gone to great lengths to placate them. Originally in Spanish - translated by Justin Podur.]

To understand what is happening with the Colombian Peace Accords, it is necessary to identify the enormous political power held by Colombia's large landowners. Without understanding the problem of the concentration of land ownership, it is impossible to understand anything that has happened in the country in the past eighty years.

The Socialist Worker's Party of Germany in 1875 identified in their program the problem that the means of production were under the monopoly control of the capitalist class. Marx criticized their formulation for neglecting the “monopoly of the land owners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital)”. He added that even “in England the capitalist class is usually not even the owner of the land on which his factory stands.”

Now, in the 21st century, in Colombia the economic and political power of the large landowners is notorious. The prolonging of the armed conflict unleashed an agrarian counter-reform and millions of peasants are displaced. Colombia has become the country with the most expensive land in the region (1) and the majority of arable lands are not cultivated. (2). 

The armed conflict has become an anchor weighing down social movements and an obstruction in the path of workers and peasants' struggles for their rights. It serves as the pretext for repression and murder of popular leaders. Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Colombians, peasants and unionists, and human rights defenders have paid the highest price in lives and suffering for the continuation of the armed conflict. They want an end to it.

The landowners have made their profits throughout the period of war. They have no interest in returning the lands they have stolen and want to continue the process of displacement. The war also serves those who impose mineral, petroleum, and other megaprojects that devastate the environment because it provides the pretext for the physical elimination of the leaders of opposition to these projects. These assassination campaigns are not unique to Colombia – they occur throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

The Case of Hassan Diab: a 3-part podcast series

hassan_diab

This is a 3-part podcast series on the case of Hassan Diab, a Lebanese-Canadian sociology professor extradited from Canada and currently in a French jail, accused of a bombing that happened in Paris in 1980.

Part 1 looks at the bombing of the synagogue at Rue Copernic in 1980 - the turn French investigators made from suspicion of the extreme-right anti-semitic terrorism to suspicion of "middle eastern terrorism".

Part 2 looks at the way French investigators created a story about Hassan Diab to try to match the bombing - the perils of using intelligence as evidence.

Part 3 looks at why Canada handed Hassan Diab over to France - the nature and price of Canadian diplomacy.

The Ossington Circle Episode 7: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 1 of 3

The Ossington Circle Episode 8: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 2 of 3

The Ossington Circle Episode 9: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 3 of 3

 

The Ossington Circle Episode 9: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 3 of 3

The Ossington Circle Episode 9: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 3 of 3

Episode 9 of The Ossington Circle is Part 3 of a 3-part series on the case of Hassan Diab, a Lebanese-Canadian sociology professor extradited from Canada and currently in a French jail, accused of a bombing that happened in Paris in 1980. In this episode, I am trying to answer the question: Why would the Canadian Supreme Court agree to hand Diab over to France, knowing that his trial there would not meet Canada's standards for fairness? The answer is in Canadian diplomacy.

The Ossington Circle Episode 8: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 2 of 3

The Ossington Circle Episode 8: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 2 of 3

Episode 8 of The Ossington Circle podcast is Part 2 of a 3-part series on the case of Hassan Diab, a Lebanese-Canadian sociology professor extradited from Canada and currently in a French jail, accused of a bombing that happened in Paris in 1980. In this episode, I talk about the evidence that the French investigators assembled for their case against Hassan Diab - based mainly on unsourced intelligence and the reports of a handwriting expert.

The Ossington Circle Episode 7: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 1 of 3

The Ossington Circle Episode 7: The Case of Hassan Diab Part 1 of 3

Episode 7 of The Ossington Circle is Part 1 of a 3-part series on the case of Hassan Diab, a Lebanese-Canadian sociology professor extradited from Canada and currently in a French jail, accused of a bombing that happened in Paris in 1980. In this episode, I talk about the 1980 bombing and how French police went from suspecting the extreme right, to chasing "middle eastern terrorism".

Three Lessons this Leftist Takes from Trump’s Victory

I have been surprised by two electoral events in a few months: Trump’s election victory and the Colombian referendum on the peace accords. Both votes were very close, had low participation rates, and were expected to go the other way. If I were a closer watcher of British politics, I would no doubt have been equally surprised by the Brexit vote. In trying to learn from my own errors of analysis, I have come to these conclusions.

1. This is a world of bubbles.

One important and constant argument made on the left is for the need for independent media. The reason we believe in devoting resources and energy to creating and supporting independent media is to try to reduce our dependence for information on analysis on corporate media sources. Whether those sources support Democrats or Republicans, whether they are liberal or conservative, their corporate values and their business models trump the political considerations of their journalists or editors.

We used to focus our analysis of media bias against the corporate, agenda-setting media and especially their flagship newspaper, namely the New York Times. The NYT would receive the most criticism, not because it was the most biased, because there have always been many outlets to the right of it, but because it had the most influence. With the decline of newspapers and more and more people getting their information from different media – TV, social media, other web sources – audiences fragmented.

That fragmentation process is now complete. The agenda-setting media set agendas for only one bloc of Americans. Another bloc, the one that just elected Trump, uses a different set of media – one with its own set of assumptions and biases.

So my daily media routine goes like this: I use a carefully curated Twitter feed, following journalists and writers that I like and trust. When I have analyzed what I end up reading via Twitter, it seemed to me that I was clicking a lot of links to The Guardian, The Intercept, and Al Jazeera.

No to Peace in Colombia?

In the four years that it took to negotiate this peace deal, Colombia has been moving inexorably towards October 2, the day that the people could have their say about the deal that would end the five-decade long war. The polls predicted an easy win for the "yes" side. The government's negotiators and the guerrillas (FARC) campaigned for a strong "yes" vote. This was the best deal that could be had, they said.

There are around 34 million Colombians eligible to vote out of a population of around 48 million. My own prediction was that about half of that would vote in the referendum and around 70% of them would vote "yes".

But the 'No' won with 6,422,136 votes, defeating the 'Yes' who came in with 6,361,762. A difference of 60,374 voters. A difference of less than half a percentage point of the 12.8 million who voted. An even smaller fraction of the 21.2 million who didn't vote.

With peace at stake, why was abstention so high? High abstention is a feature of recent elections - it was high in the 2014 election as well - with 32.9 million eligible voters in 2014, just 14.7 million voted, and only 7.8 million of those voted for the winner, President Santos.

But Santos and the peace bloc weren't able to get that number to vote "yes". What happened?

The polls predicting an easy "yes" victory may have played a role. Why would "yes" voters feel the need to vote if the outcome was a foregone conclusion? The "no" side, by contrast, was mobilized by the ever-polarizing ex-President and war candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez.

The areas most affected by the war voted "yes", while most of the cities voted "no" (Bogota and Cali, however, voted "yes"). Hurricane Matthew may have played a role, since the Caribbean Coast has been severely affected by the war and was expected to be a "yes" stronghold.

Free Homa Hoodfar

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 26/16: Homa Hoodfar was released from prison.

At the end of August, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to six Latin American countries: Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela. On what was mainly a business tour, Zarif discussed megaprojects like the Grand Interoceanic canal. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said that “Iran has such a position that it can pick its political friends and trade partners and does not have to cooperate with a specific country or region in the world.” After the successful diplomatic conclusion of the nuclear agreement last year, Iran is pursuing a foreign policy to break the isolation that the US has sought to impose on it.

Good for Iran. The economic sanctions did nothing but harm and those in the US and elsewhere who fantasize about war with the country, after so many decades of destruction in the region, should be made to wait in frustration. Latin American countries who have suffered so much under imperialism have every reason to forge closer relations. And businesses like Boeing, currently hammering out a multi-billion dollar (perhaps $25 billion) deal with Iran for passenger planes, have no special reason to not do business with Iran, despite attempts by US legislators to stop the deal.

In recent decades, as efforts to demonize Iran in the West have proceeded, sensible people have stepped forward to try to point out some basic truths: Iran is a vast, diverse country of nearly 80 million people; These people cannot be reduced to racist caricatures about Islam; From a foreign policy perspective, Iran has good reasons to want stability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; Western cooperation with Iran could help the region, while demonization can only do more damage.

Haiti 101 Years After US Invasion, Still Resisting Domination

US invaded and occupied Haiti 101 years ago today, and remained there for nineteen years. Accomplishments of the occupation include raiding the Haitian National Bank, re-instituting forced labor, establishing the hated National Guard, and getting a 25-year contract for the US corporation, United Fruit.

There was a pretext for the invasion – the assassination of Haiti's president in 1915. But to understand the event, which has lessons to draw from a century later, it is necessary to look more closely at the invader than the invaded.

In 2016, the United States is living through a presidential campaign with a candidate willing to exploit racism and pander to anti-immigrant sentiment. Police are killing black people in cities across the US. Having drawn down troop levels in its two big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US still runs air srikes and drone strikes in the region, and covert actions all over the world. The US is still the determining voice in Haiti's politics and economy. In other words, one hundred and one years after its invasion of Haiti, the US retains two features of what it was then: violent racial inequality, and empire.

The US presidential candidates can be looked at from the perspective of Haiti. One candidate has an extensive record there. The other has some historical parallels.

The Clintons have treated Haiti as a family business. In 2010, after an earthquake devastated the country, the Clinton Foundation was among the horde of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that stepped up their role in the still unfinished rebuilding phase. Haiti's social sector had already been taken over by NGOs and its streets, since the 2004 coup and occupation, were patrolled by United Nations troops. The Clinton Foundation received pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid to rebuild Haiti. The crown jewel of the Foundation's work: the disappointing Caracol Industrial Park, opened in 2012, which promised and failed to expand Haiti's low-wage garment-processing industry, long a source of foreign profits and little internal development.