Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best reads from around the world.


Allow us a quick word about this new partnership between Longform and Foreign Policy. First off, we’re hugely excited to be here — we’re big fans of FP, of course, and are honored to be contributing to such a great site. Starting today, we’ll pick our five favorite international stories of the week every Saturday. Got a story we should read? Submit it here or tweet it to @longform.

Second, for those of you unfamiliar with what we do, an introduction: Longform curates the best narrative non-fiction, both new stuff and classic, from across the web. Since launching back in April 2010 we’ve posted more than 2,500 articles, and new stories are added every day. You can find those at Longform.org or on Twitter and Facebook. But the best way to read Longform is in our new iPad app, which features our picks, plus all of the latest in-depth articles from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy. Here’s a link to download it from iTunes.  

OK, onto this week’s picks!

1. Paintballing with Hezbollah, by Mitchell Prothero. Vice

A clandestine meeting between Western journalists and Hezbollah fighters in a Beirut strip mall:

We figured they’d cheat; they were Hezbollah, after all. But none of us — a team of four Western journalists — thought we’d be dodging military-grade flash bangs when we initiated this “friendly” paintball match.

The battle takes place underground in a grungy, bunker-like basement underneath a Beirut strip mall. When the grenades go off it’s like being caught out in a ferocious thunderstorm: blinding flashes of hot white light, blasts of sound that reverberate deep inside my ears.

As my eyesight returns and readjusts to the dim arena light, I poke out from my position behind a low cinder-block wall. Two large men in green jumpsuits are bearing down on me. I have them right in my sights, but they seem unfazed-even as I open fire from close range, peppering each with several clear, obvious hits. I expect them to freeze, maybe even acknowledge that this softie American journalist handily overcame their flash-bang trickery and knocked them out of the game. Perhaps they’ll even smile and pat me on the back as they walk off the playing field in a display of good sportsmanship (after cheating, of course).

Instead, they shoot me three times, point-blank, right in the groin.


2. Death of a Data Haven: Cypherpunks, WikiLeaks, and the World’s Smallest Nation, by James Grimmelmann. Ars Technica

The strange story of Sealand, an independent nation housed exclusively on a World War II anti-aircraft platform seven miles off the English coast:

HavenCo’s failure — and make no mistake about it, HavenCo did fail — shows how hard it is to get out from under government’s thumb. HavenCo built it, but no one came. For a host of reasons, ranging from its physical vulnerability to the fact that The Man doesn’t care where you store your data if he can get his hands on you, Sealand was never able to offer the kind of immunity from law that digital rebels sought. And, paradoxically, by seeking to avoid government, HavenCo made itself exquisitely vulnerable to one government in particular: Sealand’s. It found that out the hard way in 2003 when Sealand “nationalized” the company.


3. Mail Supremacy: The Newspaper That Rules Britain, by Lauren Collins. The New Yorker

How did The Daily Mail, a middle-market tabloid, become the most powerful paper in Britain?

Mail Online, with its parade of celebrities in their bathing suits, gained six million viewers between December and January alone. American traffic was up sixty-two per cent last year. Its home page has become furtively prevalent in Manhattan cubicles. In January, when Mail Online surpassed the Times, a spokeswoman for the latter said, “A quick review of our site versus the Daily Mail should indicate quite clearly that they are not in our competitive set.” The Mail’s contention is that American newspapers have become too effete to prosper. Its ambitions transcend Pulitzers. “They’re not in our competitive set, to be honest,” Martin Clarke, the editor of Mail Online, said when I asked him about the Times. “I did think they were spectacularly sore losers, but I could not care less if we overtake the Times. What matters to me is: Are we bigger than MSN? Are we bigger than Yahoo?”


4. Havel’s Specter: On Václav Havel, by Caleb Crain. The Nation

Vaclav Havel tried to turn himself into a savvy politician, but in his heart he was always a writer:

At a writers’ conference in 1956, Havel, at the time a floundering economics student and a literary unknown, caused a small stir by accusing establishment writers of failing to read poets outside the Stalinist-era canon. Over the next couple of years, during his military service, he entertained himself and friends by writing plays, and after leaving the army he took jobs as a stagehand and eventually as a playwright in small Prague theaters that were experimenting with literary absurdism. His break came in 1963, when Communist censors were so demoralized by the Cuban missile crisis that they permitted a production of The Garden Party, his first full-length play, which satirized bureaucracy. In 1965 he again set a writers’ conference on edge, this time with a bold defense of a literary magazine he was editing, which had sidestepped state ideology and dodged the literary establishment’s control. The political thaw known as the Prague Spring was under way. In April 1968 an essay of Havel’s appealed for the creation of an opposition party, and Moscow put his name on a blacklist. Soviet tanks rolled into the country in August, and in March 1969 Havel found in his home a bug planted by State Security (StB), Czechoslovakia’s Communist-era secret police. His long internal exile had begun.


5. The Revenge of Wen Jiabao, by John Garnaut. Foreign Policy

The ouster of Chongqing boss Bo Xilai was 30 years in the making — a long, sordid tale of elite families and factions vying for the soul of the Chinese Communist Party:

If Premier Wen Jiabao is “China’s best actor,” as his critics allege, he saved his finest performance for last. After three hours of eloquent and emotional answers in his final news conference at the National People’s Congress annual meeting this month, Wen uttered his public political masterstroke, reopening debate on one of the most tumultuous events in the Chinese Communist Party’s history and hammering the final nail in the coffin of his great rival, the now-deposed Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai. And in striking down Bo, Wen got his revenge on a family that had opposed him and his mentor countless times in the past.

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive. 

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