Weekend Reading

If you’re in the need of some reading, take your pick from this sampling:

When Kim Jong Il died in December, his regime praised him and said he’d brought “dignity” to North Korea “on the highest level and ushered in the golden days of prosperity unprecedented in the nation’s history.” Or, translated from the original totalitarianese: North Koreans are two inches shorter than the average South Korean due to sheer malnutrition, and they wept forcibly at their dictator’s passing lest anybody suspected they possessed insufficient patriotic grief.

Dignity is not just a laurel for when totalitarians die but also for when we kill them. When President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, he said “his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.” I have no sympathy for bin Laden, but I would not attach the words “peace” or “dignity” to clandestine nighttime raids in which the state shoots its enemies through the face. Surely the relatives of 9/11 victims felt some quiet justice from the killing, but young Americans embraced peace and dignity by dancing in the streets and singing drunkenly of death.

So what is dignity, exactly? The word litters Cossery’s novel without much definition, much as we often use it casually with each other without ever saying precisely what we mean. In March 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics released a 555-page attempt to define the concept. It had to. Since the council’s inception in 2001 — after which its largely religious membership gave ethical opinions replicating the administration’s Christian orthodoxy on stem-cell research and abortion — critics believed it had “employed the language of human dignity so loosely that it was nothing more than a rhetorical trump card used to reject policies that were at odds with the Bush administration’s perspective,” Leslie A. Meltzer wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dignity was a blatant political weapon.

One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.

“We realised that if the government was going to use the internet, the internet had to be available to everybody,” Viik said. “So we built a huge network of public internet access points for people who couldn’t afford them at home.”

The country took a similar approach to education. By 1997, thanks to a campaign led in part by Ilves, a staggering 97% of Estonian schools already had internet. Now 42 Estonian services are now managed mainly through the internet. Last year, 94% of tax returns were made online, usually within five minutes. You can vote on your laptop (at the last election, Ilves did it from Macedonia) and sign legal documents on a smartphone. Cabinet meetings have been paperless since 2000.

Doctors only issue prescriptions electronically, while in the main cities you can pay by text for bus tickets, parking, and – in some cases – a pint of beer. Not bad for country where, two decades ago, half the population had no phone line.

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