Sunday, 14 September 2014

Film Festival

I spent the last week at TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, on a whim, viewing up to four films a day and wandering the streets in between. I made the trip on a bicycle straight from my flat in upper Manhattan, on which more in a later post. Most people find it hard to believe that I actually did that, and I must say I largely agree with them. The experience was in many ways unreal.

I gather that film festivals are populated by people from the industry itself with the rest of us popping in according to our tastes. The filmmakers are looking for distributors, the buyers for the next hot property, and the other hordes of technicians and journeymen drumming up their next gig or at least keeping connected to the people that might know where one is likely to turn up. There are red carpets, celebrity galas, premieres and a lot of bored gossip in the next day’s papers. Locals turn out to gawk.

Anyway, it had been 40 years or so since I visited Canada, and it’s worth a trip to see something recognizably North American that functions with a subtly different logic. People’s default reaction I discovered to be toward helpfulness and cordiality, and overt aggression is rare. I almost caused an auto accident behaving like a New York pedestrian, and the Torontonians yelled at each other over it, but not at me. Women react without wariness to a man asking them for directions; people wait for green lights and do not step into the street anticipating it. The equivalent Manhattanite would be halfway down the next block.

But I digress. One can only scratch the surface of the insane overload of films on offer, but I found three real gems and a number of pictures of interest, to wit:

In the Crosswind (Risttules)(Estonia). I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life but never anything quite like this. The technique is the novelty, which I recommend you know nothing about in advance. But it’s not a gimmick; the way novice director Martti Helde translates extracts from an Estonian deportee’s Siberian diaries is heart-stopping. Helde introduced his film; he looks about 16 and is actually all of 27. We will be hearing about him.

Labyrinth of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Sweigens)(Germany). A thriller about something that actually matters, this gripping picture tells the story of how a junior prosecutor forced open the Pandora’s box of the Holocaust at a time when Germans preferred not to know and Nazi criminals went about their business without the least fear. An unknown and challenging chapter of history is expertly unfolded as the protagonist realizes how ordinary and unremarkable the cogs of the Nazi death machine are—and how rarely anyone chooses moral heroism over collaboration.

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes)(Argentina). Four revenge fantasies from recognizable Argentine situations and characters. Completely over the top and particularly hilarious if you’ve ever been there.

More film news tomorrow.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

De Blasio-cops battle good for New York

A major police union called for a boycott of New York City yesterday as long as it doesn’t get its way. The Sergeants Benevolent Association told the Democratic Party leadership NOT to consider New York for its next convention, arguing that the city is too dangerous now due to the new mayor’s friendship with Al Sharpton.

The cop union is pissed off at the mild attempts by their ostensible boss, the mayor, to stop them from beating and killing people. So they took out full-page ads in newspapers to drum up demagogic support for their enforcement of the modern Jim Crow code of black-male control.

It’s pretty amazing that these top cops insist upon remaining a free-lance occupying force exempt from following the rules they impose on the rest of us and will even resort to open sabotage to protect their privileges. They are taking a lesson from their Republican friends in Congress who are happy to wreck the chances for an American economic recovery as long as that outcome damages Obama and benefits themselves.

The Staten Island chokehold case hasn’t inhibited the city’s cop leaders in the least—on the contrary, they’re even more determined to stop any pursuit of justice over that on-screen assassination of a non-violent detainee. To his credit, De Blasio has come out swinging, and there is now a chance that the conflict will bubble over into the real confrontation that the city sorely needs.

There must be plenty of rank-and-file cops who don’t feel the same way about the new mayor and the need to stop the most violent cops from continuing to abuse citizens. But they live within a strict hierarchy and know better than to challenge the white guys who can make their lives miserable.

If De Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton want to avoid much nastier violence, including inflamed racial sentiments that already are beginning to emerge, they will have to face down these cop union jugheads and make their intransigence costly to the uniformed services. Contract negotiations are coming up, giving De Blasio an excellent tool for demanding a modicum of cooperation from the cops as he has dispatched other union demands promptly and generously.

The sergeants and patrolmen’s association leadership probably think the city’s white residents will back them up no matter what, and they’re probably right. But Caucasian New Yorkers are a minority, and De Blasio doesn’t have to delight them to get his work done.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

When does it qualify as a "world" war?

Just as I was musing to myself publicly about things spinning out of control planet-wide, we have these new developments:

Planes from the United Arab Emirates, using Egyptian air bases, bombed Libya where Islamist militias seized control of the country’s main airport. You don’t have to know where to locate all these countries on a map to grasp that the entire region seems on the verge of a massive war of everyone against everyone else. And we thought the Iraqi adventure was a debacle—what if that was merely chapter one?

An Israeli commentator, Naava Mashiah, featured on the always astute Informed Comment blog, had this to say about the atmosphere:

But I would like to point out that this time, it is different. This time there is a different sense in the air. A point of no return has been crossed. . . . I have been witness to many of my Israeli compatriots seeking to issue a second passport, a European passport. Some of their parents or grandparents originally hailed from Europe, and people are taking the time to go to the various embassies, prove their family roots, and wait for a second passport to arrive in the post—just in case. Perhaps they will need it if the ‘situation’ deteriorates and they must search for a safe haven in Europe.
Ironically, she adds, Jewish Europeans fleeing the sharp rise in anti-Semitic sentiments are heading out in the opposite direction.

As usual, Iraq leads the way with tales of relentless horror. Women in the newly minted Islamic State’s capital of Mosul are now being forced to wear the full-body niqab. A well-known obstetrician, Dr. Ghada Shafiq, who objected that female doctors could not work in the bulky costume, was kidnapped leaving her hospital and murdered.

Meanwhile, the unspeakable Assad regime in Syria has offered to join forces with the West against the Islamist Frankenstein that has sprung up where George Bush so conveniently prepared the ground for them. Given the utter cynicism of our leadership, such an alliance is not hard to imagine (though impossible to stomach). It’s hard to know which of the two sides most deserves our contempt: serial killer desert militias who slaughter prisoners based on their ethnicity or one of the world’s most truly execrable regimes run by the Assad family’s Gestapo.

That’s a lot of bad news to keep up with even as the Greenland glacier prepares to sheer off into the rapidly warming seas. It’s enough to make one yearn for one’s 90s—anything not to see how this movie ends.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Helpless in Iraq

Life is full of contradictions, but neomarxist dialectitians tell us that this is not a mere irony but an aspect of reality. So it should not surprise us at all that the most powerful nation on earth seems increasingly led around blindly by forces far beyond its control. Or that those persons purportedly at the center of world dominion rarely exercise initiative and mostly react ad hoc to the events of the day. It is as if a mighty king’s options for dinner were at the mercy of his chef.

Obama is probably mightier than most of the kings of history, and he demonstrates his vast influence by playing golf. (Louis XVI, another elitist liberal confused by history, might have delighted in the game, played on lovely swards of greenery.) Obama has played 186 rounds of golf during his presidency to date, more than two per month. I don’t thinks it matters as long as he gets his work done, but the symbolism is less that of indifference to human suffering than incapacity to do anything about it. It was probably insensitive of him to golf twice after the recent beheading of the free-lancer though I see no particular reason to criticize him more for insensitivity to the gruesome on-air death of an American journalist than for the gruesome off-camera deaths of 72 Iraqis murdered yesterday in a Sunni mosque.

Iraq is the ne plus ultra of our daily witness to helplessness: armed men bristling with every sort of advanced weaponry who cannot assert their control. They can inflict damage and suffering, but they cannot organize society to their design. The latest explanation is that the recently departed and unlamented Iraqi president, Nouri al-Maliki, was a Shiite sectarian who drove the Sunni minority into the secessionist arms of ISIS. The new, improved Shiite president was supposed to fix all that, but then the mosque murders took place. Oops.

This commentator reminds us that the latest madmen we are now supposed to view with alarm are the ideological descendants of the same guys armed and empowered decades ago by the CIA to fight the Russians. Patrick Cockburn [see his new book, above] goes further back to point out that it is really the Saudi connection that gave such strength to the ultra-fundamentalist Islamic jihad sects, starting with the Saudi millionaire bin Laden. The Saudi fingerprint was all over 9/11, but how many Americans even know the nationality of the great majority of the twin tower hijackers?

Cockburn explains that the U.S. and its European allies have been very consistent in their inconsistency, trying to bake themselves a nice jihadist cake and avoid the resulting ISIS birthday party, trying to help the Iraqis crush the Sunni uprising in Tikrit while encouraging the same forces to overthrow Assad in Syria. He writes:

Iraqi politicians have been telling me for the last two years that foreign backing for the Sunni revolt in Syria would inevitably destabilize their country as well. This has now happened. By continuing these contradictory policies in two countries, the U.S. has ensured that ISIS can reinforce its fighters in Iraq from Syria and vice versa. So far, Washington has been successful in escaping blame for the rise of ISIS by putting all the blame on the Iraqi government. In fact, it has created a situation in which ISIS can survive and may well flourish.

Cockburn’s analysis is quite simple: the war on terror has failed because the Americans were unwilling to go to the source of the jihadist support: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The U.S. did not do so because these countries were important American allies whom it did not want to offend. Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated, and on occasion purchased, influential members of the American political establishment. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a military with close links to the Pentagon.

It’s not hard to imagine the multiple competing pressures on people like, say, Barack Obama or George W. Bush if they were to do anything to undermine these lucrative relationships with the jihadi enablers. So we will hear a lot about frightful terrorists and threats to the nation, but the events that will unfold have taken on a life of their own.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

No, I will not be pouring ice water on my head

What an old fart I am! I can hear the Facebook criticism now: Hey, show a little solidarity with the ailing and infirm! How hard could it be to film yourself hilariously grimacing in pain and post it to YouTube?

Blow me.

Every so often, someone comes along with a bright idea like the ice bucket challenge to coerce guilt-ridden contributions of time, attention or cash to an allegedly worthy cause. Give a “like” to this darling baby with brain cancer! Can I talk to you about endangered species [this from a grinning teen with a clipboard]?

I remember when supermarkets in Chile started extorting change from shoppers by asking if we wouldn’t like to “donate” the coins due us to X charity—sometimes including the anti-abortion leagues. That bad habit quickly moved to the U.S. where Staples kindly thought we should give an extra dollar of our money (not theirs, of course) to some nice-sounding mission they’d cooked up.

It wasn’t really about the charity, of course, but to make you think that Staples was such a good corporate citizen that they really almost didn’t care about making a profit at all.

As a toiler in the vineyards of medical research, I certainly think people studying Lou Gehrig’s disease should get all the money they can reasonably spend. Our country’s elected leaders could easily provide it to them given that the U.S. now produces more wealth than any society in the history of humankind. We found a couple trillion to flush down the Iraq toilet easily enough.

Nor would I object to Barack Obama getting a bucket of cold water on his head if I thought it would rearrange his priorities.

But all these feel-good campaigns to dislodge cash from the public for medical causes is a big, fat distraction that does more harm than good. We’re not short of resources; we’re short of people power.

If our system weren’t in the hands of a corrupt class of snakes masquerading in human form, we would be channeling money and scientific expertise into disease-curing research already.

You won’t see the guys at Lockheed or Raytheon or the cops in Ferguson resorting to gimmicks like the viral ice bucket. They get their cash from the source—Uncle Sam’s pocket. That’s why people like Bush II can join in the public bathing fun.

I pass.

Monday, 18 August 2014

What Israel won--and lost

The latest London Review of Books has a sober and sobering article summarizing the aftermath of the Gaza debacle. It is dated August 1, so there are subsequent developments it does not touch upon. But the reflective, Europe-based view is fascinating both for the tone and the details completely hidden from our awareness—whether by design or mere ignorance matters little. It provides a bracing contrast to the debate here.

Nathan Thrall writes first that the terms of the prior settlement between Israel and Hamas that ended the 2012 violence were never honored nor implemented:

It stipulated that all Palestinian factions in Gaza would stop hostilities against Israel, that Israel would end attacks against Gaza by land, sea and air – including the ‘targeting of individuals’ (assassinations, typically by drone-fired missile) – and that the closure of Gaza would essentially end as a result of Israel’s ‘opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas’. An additional clause noted that ‘other matters as may be requested shall be addressed,’ a reference to private commitments by Egypt and the US to help thwart weapons smuggling into Gaza, though Hamas has denied this interpretation of the clause.

Thrall then notes that very little violence followed, indicating that a peaceful settlement, a short-term one at least, was possible had there been the desire for one.

During the three months that followed the ceasefire, Shin Bet recorded only a single attack: two mortar shells fired from Gaza in December 2012. Israeli officials were impressed.

Next question: who then provoked the latest round of slaughter:

But [the Israelis] convinced themselves that the quiet on Gaza’s border was primarily the result of Israeli deterrence and Palestinian self-interest. Israel therefore saw little incentive in upholding its end of the deal. In the three months following the ceasefire, its forces made regular incursions into Gaza, strafed Palestinian farmers and those collecting scrap and rubble across the border, and fired at boats, preventing fishermen from accessing the majority of Gaza’s waters.

The end of the closure never came. Crossings were repeatedly shut. So-called buffer zones – agricultural lands that Gazan farmers couldn’t enter without being fired on – were reinstated. Imports declined, exports were blocked, and fewer Gazans were given exit permits to Israel and the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the idea of further Israel-Hamas talks, via third parties, also never went anywhere:

[Negotiations were] repeatedly delayed, at first because [the Israeli side] wanted to see whether Hamas would stick to its side of the deal, then because Netanyahu couldn’t afford to make further concessions to Hamas in the weeks leading up to the January 2013 elections, and then because a new Israeli coalition was being formed and needed time to settle in. The talks never took place.

Anyone following the farcical Kerry talks or the many previous ‘negotiations’ of recent decades will recognize this pattern of excuse-making.

There is a lot more detail in the article, including key facts about how life in the Gaza ghetto was made increasingly desperate. To cite just one example:

Shortages of fuel led to queues stretching several blocks at petrol stations, and fights broke out at the pumps. Garbage piled in the streets because the government couldn’t afford fuel for refuse lorries. In December sanitation plants shut down and sewage flowed through the streets. The water crisis worsened: more than 90 per cent of Gaza’s aquifer was now contaminated.

To alleviate the situation, Hamas agreed to long-standing Western demands: non-violence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel. Then Hamas acceded to the demands of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, all to get some relief from the crushing conditions of the trapped Gazans. The result was . . . nada:

The most basic conditions of the deal – payment of the government employees who run Gaza and an opening of the crossing with Egypt – were not fulfilled. For years Gazans had been told that the cause of their immiseration was Hamas rule. Now it was over, their conditions only got worse.

All it took was the spark of a new incident, provided by the murder of the three yeshiva students on June 12, followed by the kidnapping and immolation of a Palestinian teen. As in Ferguson, Missouri, it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether those in charge want a violent explosion to occur or just do everything in their power to guarantee that result.

Thrall says Hamas now has three new demands for a semi-permanent truce, all based on prior agreements that they want Israel to honor: the Shalit prisoner exchange accord, including the release of some 50 re-arrested former Hamas prisoners; the November 2012 ceasefire, which calls for an end to Gaza’s closure; and the April 2014 agreement to pay Gaza salaries and open up the border crossings to much needed construction materials.

Thrall also makes a startling final conclusion: that Israeli officials across the political spectrum ‘have begun to admit privately that the previous policy towards Gaza was a mistake’.

All parties involved in mediating a ceasefire envision postwar arrangements that effectively strengthen the new Palestinian government and its role in Gaza – and by extension Gaza itself. . . . Hamas knows it can’t defeat the Israeli military, but the Gaza war holds out the possibility of a distant but no less important prize: stirring up the West Bank, and undermining the Ramallah leadership and the programme of perpetual negotiation, accommodation and US dependency that it stands for. For many Palestinians, Hamas has once again proved the comparative effectiveness of militancy. . . . Since the fighting in Gaza began this summer, Israel has not announced a single new settlement and has expressed willingness to make certain concessions to Palestinian demands – achievements the Ramallah leadership has not been able to match in years of negotiations.

Finally, despite the awful carnage, it is not clear that Israel has won the military triumph it anticipated:

During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Israel went far deeper into Gaza and lost only ten soldiers, four of them to friendly fire; today Israeli ground forces have lost more than sixty soldiers. Losses among Hamas militants so far appear to be manageable. For the first time in decades, Israel is defending itself against an army that has penetrated the 1967 borders, by means of tunnels and naval incursions. Hamas rockets produced in Gaza can now reach all of Israel’s largest cities, including Haifa, and it has rocket-equipped drones. It was able to shut down Israel’s main airport for two days. Israelis who live near Gaza have left their homes and are scared to go back since the IDF says that there are probably still tunnels it doesn’t know about. Rockets from Gaza kept Israelis returning to shelters day after day, demonstrating the IDF’s inability to deal with the threat. The war is estimated to have cost the country billions of dollars.

Given the unfavorable outcome, it seems Israel can react in one of two ways: seek indirect negotiations and allow Gaza some breathing room essentially on the same terms that were already available before the latest round of bloodshed. That would calm Israel’s allies in the West and slow down the PR debacle that is undermining the zionist image worldwide and strengthening the divest and boycott movement.

Another approach is for Israel to plan for a far more comprehensive assault to destroy Hamas’s new military prowess. We should never assume such an act is unthinkable given the rampant madness—of a chillingly racist nature—now manifest in Israeli society. If 2,000 people, mostly civilians, can be killed today with such arrogance and unapologetic pride, why not 200,000 tomorrow?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

We need to re-racialize the conversation about policing

Yes, Ferguson is about race

The Daily News here has been on a tear over police abuses, hitting the Staten Island chokehold case hard. It has uncovered and highlighted the long history of repeated complaints about excessive force stemming from that particular precinct and editorialized in blistering terms (this week adding the Ferguson case, which it called a “national disgrace”). Its widely read columnist Mike Lupica has added an important voice insisting on deep reform. This campaign is, I believe, highly significant because the paper sits somewhere in the middle of the city’s political culture, between the stately, stuffy Times and the mammonites at the Murdochian Post.

But there’s an odd twist to the Daily News’s take on these repeated killings of black men: the paper insists they’re not about race. Cops like those who caused Eric Garner’s death are bad apples, says Lupica, violent loose cannon who must be reined in, disciplined, charged, prosecuted, fired. The NYPD is allowing rogue cops to get away with, yes, murder, says the DN, and it’s got to stop.

All this is welcome, and it reflects a long overdue recognition that letting repeated offender cops off the hook again and again is dangerous, not just to their next potential victims but to social peace and the city itself. New York has worked very hard to get its diverse population back on track after violent incidents in past decades embittered each ethnic group in turn, made people suspicious of each other, polarized and racialized the city’s politics, and scared off tourists. It wasn’t that long ago that New York was a laughingstock, a punching bag for Middle America, that place where no sane person would risk his skin to visit.

Why then is it so important to de-racialize the incidents? Why does Lupica insist that since black and/or Latino officers were involved in the Garner chokehold case, it couldn’t be about Garner’s ethnicity? (By the way, there were plenty of black cops in apartheid South Africa—that means nothing.) Where does this insistence on seeing the cases, despite their consistency in terms of who is doing the shooting and who ends up shot, from a faux perspective of color-blindness?

I believe that at least part of the answer is that to recognize that we are facing the lingering effects of the slave system is too painful for most Americans. While everyone knows that Africans arrived to these shores as chattel slaves chained together in the hulls of boats, those are supposed to be the bad old days that we left behind long ago. Even the Jim Crow segregation that took the place of slavery after Reconstruction and only ended 50 years ago is now supposed to be an historic relic, a crazy time when people lived with bizarre rules based on the color line, separate drinking fountains, exclusion from public eateries, a whole race-infused ideology of pollution and difference. But now we are to suppose that that’s all over and done with.

If we were taught as schoolchildren the grim details of how slavery worked, we might be better able to see through that facile dismissal and perceive the workings of the past in our present. The few narratives written by American freedmen about their experience of captivity are not well known—that’s a great loss. At best, we might get a few pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or some inspiring excerpts by Frederick Douglass—although neither of these were part of my all-white school’s curriculum. But there was no exposure to the hair-raising and devastating autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs, Charles Bell, William Wells Brown, or Olaudah Equiano, any one of which is like getting a Ph.D. in American history. Solomon Northrup’s story has just now become widely known through the hit film, 12 Years a Slave, for the first time since it was published in 1853.

Slaves were kept in line through a pervasive, relentless and complex system of social control. When on errands away from their place of bondage, they would be stopped repeatedly by any white man and compelled to explain themselves, to prove they were on their masters’ business. Even during their so-called ‘free’ time, a slave might be beaten for visiting other slaves without first obtaining permission. Torture was routinely applied for misbehavior, and the most effective techniques for inflicting disciplinary pain were highly developed and shared among slaveholders (a disturbing aspect of the recent debate about the practice, which erroneously assumes that torture is somehow un-American and a new phenomenon).

Without the entire system of control, the system could not work because slaves rebelled against the misery of their lives and yearned for their freedom, just as we say all men and women do when oppressed—and remind ourselves once a year on July 4th. Without constant spying on slave movements (hello NSA), backed up by heavy policing, slaves would have worked less, run off more, and subverted the slave economy at every opportunity. Even with the repressive tactics, slaves did often resist and suffered extreme consequences when caught out.

There is an underlying racialism lurking beneath the Ferguson debacle, the Garner chokehold, Trayvon Martin’s death, and the many cases we never hear about. White America has not made peace with the economic and moral crimes that were fundamental to the country’s early life and vast later prosperity. That’s why it’s easy for complacent white police officers everywhere to reenact the color line in their daily interactions and not have a clue where their own behavior comes from.

So it’s no good to try to individualize the abuses as mere ‘police brutality’ or individual cop pathology although the repeat perpetrators often linked to the incidents may be extreme cases. We are dealing with a legacy of social control with precise roots, which, like any pathology, thrives in secretive silence.

Obama’s role is a curious one, given that as a dark-skinned president the entire country looks to him for insight. He recognizes the obvious fact that a younger version of himself would not be immune to dying in a Trayvon Martin-type incident. But his rise to prominence began with a 2004 speech in which he appealed to the country to move ‘beyond’ racial differences and be united as Americans. Whites love that because they prefer to think of themselves and their country as post-racial. But one doesn’t have to read far into the comments posted on news stories about Trayvon, Garner or Mike Brown to know that that is still an illusion wrapped in dewy ignorance.