April 2010

In Iceland, where I have spent the past week, it is illegal to name your son Dweezil or River or your daughter Moon Unit or Fifi Trixabelle.  The Government has long maintained a list of legal first names, all of which come from the Norse (Thorgil, Gunnar, Guðrún) or Biblical (Jón, Margret, Kristjana) traditions. There is also a list of middle names, many of which refer to places. For most of Iceland’s history, people had only one name, sometimes with a nickname (Eirik Raud, or Erik the Red) or a patronymic (Leifur Eiriksson, meaning Leif, son of Eirik). [click to continue…]

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Benjamin Franklin said, “Of two things you can be certain: death and taxes.” What was true in the 18th century is somewhat less so in 21st century America, at least where taxes are concerned. On this day, April 15, when most Americans are either submitting their annual tax returns or struggling to request extensions of the deadline, it is appropriate to consider the current state of taxation. It is widely reported that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, a number that has increased dramatically under the Bush and Obama presidencies. Yes, the members of this 47 percent remain subject to withholding for Social Security (pension) and Medicare (post-retirement health care) contributions, but they are exempt from personal income taxes. This obviously increases the burden on those who do pay taxes, but a far more important consequence is the establishment of a more or less permanent class of people who feel free to demand ever-more generous services from government knowing that someone else will pick up the tab. As a people we have already grown used to fighting wars in which other people will serve and die in our place, and we now have a society in which the demand for services is increasingly disconnected from any notion of responsibility to pay for them. This can’t help but erode the notion of what it means to be a citizen. [click to continue…]

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In 2003, motivated by the savagery of civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, 75 countries joined a U.N.-sponsored global initiative to prevent trade in “conflict diamonds,” popularly referred to as “blood diamonds.” Conflict diamonds are gems mined in areas afflicted by armed conflict, the proceeds of which go to purchase arms and other materiel to prolong and intensify the conflict, which is usually all about control of those same diamond deposits. This initiative, called the Kimberley Process, instituted a system of certification under which governments of both source countries and purchasing countries would collaborate to prevent conflict diamonds from being sold internationally. The Kimberley Process was endorsed by major diamond producers, including world market leader De Beers, to avoid being tainted by the blood diamond label and, perhaps coincidentally, to reinforce their market dominance by banning trade in stones of uncertain provenance.  But it was also a good-faith effort to put an end to the spread of vicious conflicts motivated and fueled by mineral resources.

Less well-known than the conflicts in West Africa is the civil war that continues to rage in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), known at various points in its history as Zaire, the Belgian Congo, and the Congo Free State, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the private preserve of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. The current war, which dates back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the overthrow of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and has its roots in earlier political and ethnic squabbles, is reckoned to be the deadliest armed conflict since the Second World War, claiming over five million lives between 1998 and 2008. [click to continue…]

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