Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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“The New Middle East” – an eyewitness account.

Trying to take the long view on the fallout from the Arab Uprisings?  Here’s my holiday reading.  Paul Danahar’s “The New Middle East”  uncovers the forces behind the turbulence – religious, economic, historic.  

It also reads in part like a geopolitical thriller because, for much of the time, he was there  – in Tahrir Square with the revolutionaries; in Libya talking to Gaddafi and then seeing the dictator’s brutalized body; witnessing the horror, hatred and hunger that’s destroying Syria.

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Kashmir and Korea: stories from the inside

Kashmir and North Korea. We see both in news headlines, both as political flashpoints, both as tough places for outsiders to comprehend. 

They both exist in my imagination today in a way they didn’t a week ago – thanks to two women writers I met at the Oslo Freedom Forum – and their books, “In the Valley of Mist” and “Nothing to Envy”.

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The State Department spokesman and the Prisoner in the Brig

I just heard an extraordinary remark from State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. He was speaking to a small audience at MIT on “the benefits of new media as it relates to foreign policy”, an event organised by the Center for Future Civic Media.

Around twenty of us were sitting around the table listening to his views on social media, the impact of the Twittersphere, the Arab uprisings, and so on, in a vast space-age conference room overlooking the Charles River and the Boston skyline. And then, inevitably, one young man said he wanted to address “the elephant in the room”. What did Crowley think, he asked, about Wikileaks? About the United States, in his words, “torturing a prisoner in a military brig”? Crowley didn’t stop to think. What’s being done to Bradley Manning by my colleagues at the Department of Defense “is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” He paused. “None the less Bradley Manning is in the right place”. And he went on lengthening his answer, explaining why in Washington’s view, “there is sometimes a need for secrets… for diplomatic progress to be made”.

But still, he’d said it. And the fact he felt strongly enough to say it seems to me an extraordinary insight into the tensions within the administration over Wikileaks.

A few minutes later, I had a chance to ask a question. “Are you on the record?” I would not be writing this if he’d said no. There was an uncomfortable pause. “Sure.” So there we are.


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“Why the West Rules – for Now”

I just finished 620 densely written pages that propelled me through history from the Ice Age to the Atomic Age – filled with dramatic stories of war and sex and famine and migration and discovery – and suddenly realised that this is the best history book I have ever read.

Ian Morris began in the fields of ancient history & archeology. His book, published four months ago, reads like a life’s work. It aims to chart the entire course of human history “East and West”, tell us which trends matter, explain which factors had most impact and why, and extrapolate our probable future – or extinction – as a species. I’d be interested to hear any other readers’ thoughts on how he does it. Or what I should read next!

“Why the West Rules – for Now” is a book that made me think about why we need to study history, and why I want my little boy to enjoy it. If he grows up disconnected from the past, he’ll lack vital resources for shaping his future – and that of others. Especially now we feel as if we’re hurtling down the path of history thanks to the pace of technological advance – as if time itself is speeding up. My eight year old is going to get so much more out of life if he can adopt adaptation as a lifestyle. Continue reading