Thursday, 29 January 2015

Virtuous Germany v/s naughty Greece

We’ll be hearing a lot about the need for countries to pay all their debts and not shirk them, coming from German government officials full of piety about sacred contracts, prudent budgeting and all sorts of similar family values. They’ll insist those naughty Greeks that they mustn’t think of getting out from under their duly acquired obligations, whatever the new Syriza-led government has to say.

They ought to be reminded that a certain European country had its debts forgiven by half in 1953 when creditors recognized that the war-ravaged country was never going to pay in full. That country was Germany, the beneficiary of sensible policy by the victors of World War 2 who did not want to repeat the debacle of the 1919 Versailles settlement. They saw that the decision to impose impossibly harsh conditions led to the instability of Weimar and eventually the rise of Naziism (despite multiple, too-little-too-late rounds of debt forgiveness in 1924, 1929 and even to Hitler in 1934).

Greece is never going to pay off its accumulated debt, which anyone with a grasp of seventh-grade arithmatic can see. Greece’s Depression-level conditions, imposed by the German-led bankers, make it impossible to accumulate enough income even to pay off the interest. Facile talk about structural “reforms” and fiscal prudence are cruel jokes, like telling a child to get an education by chasing after a speeding schoolbus.

Greece will default or being given new loans to roll over the old ones because it cannot pay. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. The only debate is whether the country is to be crushed under north Europe’s thumb permanently or be allowed to come back to life. The default should have happened years ago, but that would have harmed the German and French banks that were on the hook due to their foolish lending to the Greek kleptocracy, the existence of which the whole country now has to atone for. The EU cleverly paid those banks off with new loans and saddled Greek citizens with repaying them, who are now expected to do so by starving and living on the streets. If they have nothing left to hock, well then, sell off the Parthenon—I’m not making this up.

So why is Germany the only country in modern times to be granted debt relief but refuses to do the same when it is holding the credit chits? Perhaps because it can exercise moral authority over the rest of Europe due to its sterling record as a good neighbor?

Syriza has an almost impossible task, and the EU banker mafia, convinced it holds all the cards, thinks it can dictate terms to whomever the Greeks happen to elect. That may be true for now, but the continent has given us ample lessons in unintended consequences. The financier class seems determined to sow the wind, and the ultra-right is standing by ready to offer its peculiar alternative. Europe should pray for Syriza’s success.


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Lemebel and "la diferencia"

I’m sure a thousand people in Santiago could tell stories of Pedro Lemebel, the Chilean author who died last week: the guy did not enter a room undetected. That said, here’s mine.

We (a half-dozen Chilean men and I) established a storefront HIV prevention and advocacy group in the late 1980s, which for years was located on Porvenir, a street one block off Avenida Matta in a gritty, commercial section just to the south of downtown. We didn’t have a dime and spent a lot of time—in between cooking up public health strategies that we didn’t know a thing about—just finding a way to pay the next month’s rent. This was before AIDS had become big business when everyone wanted in on the largesse. But we were the only outfit providing information to the gay boys who were quickly getting the infection without knowing it.

(Digression: The Dutch gave the new, post-Pinochet government a million dollars to deal with the epidemic, but none of that ever reached us—it was quickly siphoned off by the party-connected professionals and nonprofit entrepreneurs linked to the new “democratic” health ministry. Four mega-projects were funded with the divvied-up cash, none of which targeted the population that comprised 98% of the early infections. One of them dealt with “street children at risk”, which must have sounded good to someone in a development office in Europe. We funded ourselves by staging a monthly drag show and selling clandestine piscolas.)

Lemebel and his performance-art partner Francisco Casas were active by then doing their famous numbers as the Locas del Apocalipsis, “locas” being Chilean slang for “queen”. They were explicitly homosexual (not “gay”, a term they disdained), and so it wasn't surprising to find them one day sitting on the front step of the office when I showed up around 4 p.m. to open up for that evening’s activities. I knew who they were and invited them in.

I don’t recall a thing about the conversation we had that day except that we were not understanding each other in any language. It was clear that they wanted us to join them in some sort of action or campaign, but we were not at that moment engaged in gay-related advocacy, except indirectly by pointing out the need for a coherent approach to the sexual practices of people endangered by a sexually transmitted disease. In retrospect, we probably were excessively cautious, but this was at a time when no one in our entire organization dared to go on TV even to say the word “AIDS” for fear that grandma would figure out that they were gay (which she would have). So the first public face of the group was your humble blogger, on the Catholic station, channel 13. I believe it was early 1989.

I tried to listen respectfully to what Lemebel and Casas said they were doing, and why, while explaining that we were doing something else. That somehow did not compute for them; they went on their way. Later, Casas denounced me during a public reading as some sort of envoy of U.S. imperialism, which was a rare form of criticism during my many years there. He and his bohemian-intellectual crowd loved to challenge people by asking “desde dónde hablas tú?”, that wonderfully academic posturing about one’s supposed biases that substitutes for a debate about ideas. But he got over it and was cordial later.

But the most memorable encounter with the inimitable Lemebel occurred a few years later at some sort of public event in a bar, the specifics of which escape me, except that I was sitting with Leslie Crawford of the Financial Times when Lemebel pulled up, sat himself down at our table and helped himself to our wine without being invited. He turned to Leslie, who was dressed for an evening out, and said, “How elegant you are—like an international prostitute!” No doubt he meant it as a compliment.

Leslie was not amused and said to me, in English, “Did you hear what he said?” Yes, I replied, so we will now speak to each other in a language he does not understand. Which we did. It was quite effective in our goal of driving him off, and I never had the occasion to ”speak with” Pedro Lemebel again. However, I enjoyed his writings and understand that he could be a warm-hearted friend.

Pedro was an artful provocateur, and to say he didn’t know when to quit is both true and meaningless. He startled people; we organized them. While he shook up Chilean culture with his unique style and content, we established an HIV prevention and testing operation and brought awareness and solidarity to many people who fell in the grip of the virus in the terrible early years. No one could do what he did, and our work didn’t interest him in the least. Everyone contributed his part. Vive la différence!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Mayor de Blasio and Patrick Lynch @ Reichenbach

In the Conan Doyle series, the final struggle between Sherlock Holmes and archfoe Moriarty ends when they both tumble, locked in a final embrace, into the Reichenbach Falls. Moriarty hates Holmes for frustrating his criminal activity, and he is a far cleverer adversary than the mundane evildoers that Holmes easily hoovers up with his detective skills. But the price of his hatred is mutual destruction.

I fear that’s the outcome we can anticipate in the ongoing war between the NYPD union chief Patrick Lynch and our remarkably decent mayor, Bill de Blasio. While more public and private jockeying will follow last year’s disastrous events as the city and its cops figure out how to coexist, the brands of both, the hothead cops-do-no-wrong-ever Lynch and the clumsy political neophyte de Blasio, are damaged, probably beyond repair.

Lynch cashed in on the murders of two cops by a deranged gunman who cited the Garner and Brown cases, thereby trashing weeks of patient, largely pacific protest by thousands of New Yorkers concerned about racial targeting and abuse (myself included). He immediately blamed the protest movement and the mayor for the assassinations just as half of Washington will accuse Edward Snowden if another major terrorist attack ever takes place on U.S. soil. It’s outrageous but resonates with many citizens.

But Lynch overplayed his hand and began to act like someone had elected him mayor. The back-turning funeral incidents and the work slowdown made Lynch look juvenile and dangerous. He successfully demonstrated to one and all that he sees the department as a sort of Praetorian guard that possesses the city rather than merely policing it, a sovereign entity whose corporate spirit mystically brings New York into existence and without which the metropolis will sink back into the primordial slime.

That was a fatal error on the part of the mostly-white leadership of the police union, and the city has turned against Lynch specifically as a demagogue. The work stoppage also exposed the corruption built into everyday police work here as cops are driven to fulfill quotas of arrests and generate lucrative fines that are extracted from mostly minority detainees (a la Ferguson), upon which the city has shamefully come to depend for income. Lynch’s illuminating comment directing the force only to make “necessary” arrests will come back to haunt him both for what it implies (they normally arrest “unnecessarily”?) and for the blatant usurpation of civilian authority.

But de Blasio has probably wrecked his tenure as well with his handling of the admittedly awful situation. While his comments before the cop killings were unpopular with the rank and file, they weren’t false—everybody knows his mixed-race son has to be more careful with the cops and exactly why that is. While de Blasio needed to show understanding of cops’ fears after the killings, he should have simultaneously called them out over their disrespect, not just of himself but of us, the voters who put him in office and who are the cops’ ultimate superiors in our republican form of government. We needed to hear de Blasio remind Lynch and his mob that the people are sovereign, not the NYPD nor its union, and that the city that provides them with firearms has the right to tell them exactly how those weapons will and will not be used. He should have chastised them for thinking and behaving otherwise while holding out the olive branch.

Instead, de Blasio has looked weak, and that never ends well. He’s backed away from the sympathy he once expressed with the protest movement, indirectly reinforcing Lynch’s blood libel. He talks about better protections for cops as if the public’s fear of them has magically dissipated—it hasn’t. Nobody is coming out of this sorry episode looking like they know how to lead the city through the minefield of racial politics and racialized policing. While we await the inevitable next deadly incident, the mayor and the policeman remain locked in mortal combat and heading for the rocky falls below. Conan Doyle was forced to resuscitate Holmes after Reichenbach and bring him back for more stories, but I suspect not even the creator of Sherlock Holmes could write either Lynch or de Blasio into a new chapter.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The question Obama sidestepped

Unless one is amused by Washington theatrics, there were few reasons to watch the State of the Union address last night. No one thinks for a minute that the Republican Congress will pause from its baby-eating program to cooperate with a president that they have largely neutralized with their program of massive resistance to anything he proposes, suggests or even thinks.

“Massive resistance” was the term Virginia Senator Harry Byrd introduced into the national lexicon in response to the 1954 Brown decision by the Supreme Court outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Byrd called for the white overclass in the South to dig in its collective heels and defend the Jim Crow system by any and all means; the strategy was unapologetic, sometimes violent and quite effective. Even as the overt racism of the times slowly weakened and was discredited in its crudest forms, the mobilization of the white population to resist integration arguably succeeded. While blacks and whites in the South now mingle in lunch counters and universities, in many meaningful aspects their lives unfold in very separate spheres.

The film Selma shows something of the coalition that gradually pushed back against “massive resistance”: a mass movement of persons ready to face state-sanctioned violence, expert leadership both at the grass roots and recognizable icons, determined allies in the federal government. What is particularly compelling about the movie is that is shows us without explicitly stating it that blacks’ steady organizing and willingness to risk their lives gave the leaders and the politicians an arena in which to act. Without the patient groundwork of the SNCC organizers, who come off in the movie as somewhat unreasonable hotheads, the Selma march could not have taken place.

Obama knew, or should have known, that he was facing a new round of “massive resistance”—his enemies announced it from the rooftops. Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” at an earlier State of the Union address merely flagged it symbolically for all to see. (I often wonder what would have happened if Obama had called him out on the spot, told him off and reminded him that he had won the election and thus spoke for the people.)

That’s the question Obama has never chosen to address: what should his approach have been given that the white people’s party had no intention of giving him an inch. Like the southern segregationists thumbing their noses at the highest court of the land, the GOP used Obama’s electoral mandate as toilet paper. They were so determined to see him fail that the country’s failures domestically and overseas continued to be a source of sniggering delight.

But for the president, none of this is happening. He’s like the patient alcoholic’s wife who calls in to the office to say her husband slipped on the ice or has a nasty cold instead of admitting that he’s hung over. It’s remarkable to sit and listen to the guy pretending to direct the country’s affairs while staring at a roomful of white men (and a few of their horrible women) determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The 1950s and 1960s were a prosperous time in the United States, and the role of economic opportunity and spreading wealth in the post-war period in the burgeoning civil rights movement is largely unexplored. Black Americans had ways to earn a living, both down South and in escaping northward to the industrial belt to earn good union wages. Those days are over, and it’s no surprise that with much narrower possibilities for getting ahead and a shredded safety net, people are less combative.

With no mobilized base nipping at his heels, Obama could substitute rhetoric for results. So we got expanded health insurance, but not the right to health; Race to the Top-style corporate education for some, but no relief for the ragged public schools now populated increasingly by poor minority children. A black president watching impotently while the Voting Rights Act that made him possible is dismantled and various forms of poll tax restored.

Obama had a chance to reverse the pauperization of the populace at the end of the disastrous second Bush Administration, and he carefully destroyed it by siding with Wall Street. Now that the alliance of the financier class and the reactionaries of the neo-Jim Crow Republicans has been cemented, they no longer need an Obama to save them from the mess they made in the 2000s. He’s still the boss and can make some interesting moves with his powers like the opening to Cuba and executive action on immigration and the like. But politically he’s used up. The next two years will be a holding pattern while the country decides whether to give the architects of the new “massive resistance” further rope with which to hang themselves and us.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

"Selma"--too real for the Academy

There should be a new Oscar category for whoever managed to make all the actors in the film Selma look so uncannily like the historical figures they were playing. From King and Coretta down to the supporting characters, even the quick Malcolm X cameo, they made watching the picture feel like a strange docudrama combination.

But I digress. The brouhaha over Selma and the Oscars comes to this corner as a major yawn simply because it was so predictable. Politics of any sort makes the film poobahs uneasy (though they crank out ‘topical’ pieces easily enough), but racial politics really gives them loose bowels. When race does appear even in potentially inflammatory works like 12 Years a Slave, there has to be a final alleviating flourish that puts the whole topic back to bed and enables the audience to breathe a sigh of relief, like a horror movie where the evil creatures are beaten back.

After all, any entity that could hail It’s a Wonderful Life (in Auschwitz) as the best movie of any year—as opposed to an obscene mockery of human suffering—has a serious problem of criteria. I look forward to the equivalent film treatment of the 9/11 orphan being convinced that the twin towers collapse apparently burying his father was just a giant CGI stunt. Final frames, “Dad’ll be a little late for dinner, sweetheart, it’s just a game!”

Broadway has a similar problem. John Douglas Thompson did a star turn recently in a one-man show as Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, but the play never took off—it was too blunt about racial commerce in the music business, so the narrative wasn’t comfy enough. A brilliant musical based on the case of the Scottsboro Boys case did a little better a couple of years ago. But when the cast was invited to perform for the Tonys broadcast, they had to do a sappy number showing the Boys as happy hoboes—nothing about the crushing racism they would soon encounter (or the underlying thread of anti-Semitism cooked up to discredit their defenders and brilliantly portrayed in the tune ‘Jew Money’).

12 Years ended with Solomon Northrup finally liberated thanks to white allies’ intercession. Schindler’s List showed us a few hundred Jews who survived the death camps—fair enough as it’s historically accurate, but a bit of a cop-out. At the end of The Diary of Anne Frank, the final voiceover is a quote from her journal that ‘People are basically good,’ even while her family is being carted off to certain death. Lincoln, the most recent and comparable treatment to Selma, gave us the successfully passed 13th Amendment (complete with cheering “Negroes” in the galleries who apparently had nothing to do with its passage).

The problem with all these happy endings is that they let us off the hook too easily. The villains in those historical accounts are not Jasons or Freddy Krugers, but real people swept up by the historical forces that produced them and made them into monsters. By focusing on the few who got away, it subtly convinces us that the dangers are always avoidable, that a clever protagonist (by projection, us) will always find an escape.

Selma doesn’t escape this criticism, either. (And the heat it took for the LBJ-Hoover scene is deserved.) It finishes on a slightly facile, triumphant note without adding the obvious follow-up message in the final credits that the Voting Rights Act was just shredded by the Supreme Court to undermine black voting strength in preparation for 2016.

Nonetheless, Selma is a radical breach in that feel-good wall because it puts the movement of masses front and center even while allowing historical agency to figures such as King and LBJ. If for no other reason, the profoundly conservative, commercial empire represented in the Oscar vote would feel estranged. We are shown that collective action—not just individual heroics—is key to solving social ills. Who’d want to give a prize to that?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

EU to Greece: "The beatings will continue until morale improves"

While Europe licks it wounds over the shocking assault on Enlightenment values embodied in the slaughter of cartoonists, the ongoing assault on democracy (also an Enlightenment value, last time we looked) waged there by the banker class and its political toadies continues apace. Greece now has the chance to reverse that trend. Predictably, the suicidal elites are scrambling to crush the attempt by fair-minded Greeks to save the continent’s sorry ass.

Greece has been subjected to a punishment regime by the EU poobahs, who realized a few years ago during the euro crisis that they had screwed up badly in the creation of their single-currency zone. But the money boys were determined to have someone else pay for their mistakes. It’s a long story that one can read in the financial press: over-borrowing by governments and private entities in the southern tier countries (Greece especially but also Italy, Spain, and Portugal as well as Ireland) led to a run in their bond markets that threatened huge losses to German and other northern European banks. Instead of biting the bullet and admitting that those banks had lent money foolishly, the EU in cahoots with the IMF and the European Central Bank forced ‘bail-outs’ onto those countries whereby their citizens shouldered the losses, and the banks escaped. Sound at all familiar? It’s exactly what Obama engineered for us.

The difference is that we have our own currency, and socialized losses are spread around. Also, national safety net measures like unemployment compensation and food stamps can alleviate in part the devastating effects of mass unemployment while also generating the new purchasing power that can kick-start economic growth—classic Keynesian measures that the U.S. has long applied (although the Tea Party wackos would like to end that consensus and increase overall pain). But Greece and Portugal and the others, enslaved by the unified currency, cannot devalue and cannot replace lost demand with government spending. Facing compounding interest in condition of deep recession, they are being forced to slash everything and extract cash from the impoverished populace through onerous taxes, only to find that their debt totals accumulate. Europe’s treatment of the Greeks is like beating joggers with poles because they cannot catch up to a speeding automobile.

One wag has termed this approach ‘fiscal waterboarding’.

At long last Syriza, once a minor leftist party, stands a good chance of winning the national elections in Greece on Jan. 25 (meaning they may come in first—in Greece’s multiparty system, no one ever gets a majority). This party insists that Europe face reality and reschedule the unpayable Greek debt based on a plan to create conditions for renewed growth and prosperity to replace the permanent hard-labor camp that the country has been turned into. Listen to economist Yanis Varoufakis, a parliamentary candidate for the Syriza ticket, explain the details here.

Instead of welcoming this opportunity to find a reasonable, negotiated solution to an otherwise intractable problem, the tiny banker-politician-media elite that has Europe by the short ones is determined to undermine the Greek people’s democratic choice. German politicians openly threaten the Greeks with dire consequences if they dare to vote for the ‘wrong’ candidates 11 days from now.

The al-Qaeda thugs who walked into a newspaper office and fired deadly weapons at scribes yearned for an imam-dictator who would tell people what to do and beat them into obedience. It’s appalling to see how far such ideologues will go to terrorize and intimidate the liberal-minded who reject their view of religion. We shrink from such violent acts because we believe in the importance of the free expression of ideas as a cornerstone of our way of life, that open debate and disagreement are key to finding our way to proper governance and to solving the problems that arise among us. Europe’s nightmare of 70 years ago led to a reaffirmation of these beliefs and sentiments and a determination never to succumb to an al-Qaeda-like spirit again. But memories are short-lived, it seems.

Europe for years has been on a steady course toward a new form of authoritarian rule, that of the bankers, by the bankers and for the bankers. Citizens of half of Europe have been deprived of their sovereign right to determine their own futures as the ECB and banker-owned politicians impose their technocrat allies in one seat of government after another. Greece may reverse that trend and save the European Union from its march toward reaction. Before that happens, expect defeaning howls of alarm from the mouthpieces of the plutocrats likely to lose out as a result.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo attack an omen of breakdown

I noted that the week of the slaughter of cartoonists in Paris was also the anniversary #13 of the arrival of prisoners to the Guantánamo dungeon, a reminder of the great triumph of Osama bin Laden who managed with his nefarious assault on New York to undermine one of the key pillars of western democracy, i.e., the rule of law.

Of course, bin Laden didn’t do this; we did it to ourselves through the persons of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the neocon cabal, whose machinations were later excused by the Democratic Party apparatus under Barack Obama and, ultimately, by the American people. If the populace had valued its principles more, there would have been support for a leader who dared to put terror suspects on trial in courtrooms and insisted on proof of guilt. Alas, we preferred revenge and have paid a heavy price for it.

It remains to be seen how much of the Enlightenment legacy that originated in France over 200 years ago will survive the latest assault on free speech. Not that our rhetorical worship of freedom of conscience and expression extends very far in practical terms—our president has plenty of boilerplate to serve up about it but can’t bring himself to stop the Saudis from publicly torturing a blogger who dared propose reforms in that medieval kingdom with public beatings.

You’d think a kingdom that has permitted its oil barons to fund the Islamic State that marauds through the region beheading reporters, kidnapping little girls and slaughtering infidels would draw some attention from official Washington—but alas, not even liberal Democrats dare denounce the petro-state allies.

But we still have a semblance of public debate while the fetishization of Security proceeds. Meanwhile, France is already deeply in the grip of ultra-rightwing politics, and the latest shock will only further strengthen the ascendency of Marianne Le Pen and her neo-fascist legions, especially given the French elite’s acquiescence in the insane suicide-by-austerity program imposed by Germany’s bankers. What unemployed 25-year-old in France or anywhere in the Eurozone would not be tempted by Le Pen’s promise to smash the EU and reset the nation’s course? Fear and dislike of foreigners adds the perfect xenophobic condiment to the tasty dish.

Reading the commentary here and especially the Comments sections of articles about the Charlie Hebdo events, I am struck by the tendency to see the incident as an act of war and to filter one’s reactions accordingly. Many condemn the murders while those sympathetic to America’s adversaries condemn the condemnation; no doubt those hostile to Austro-Hungarian rule in Central Europe had similar sentiments about the assassination that set off World War I. People are so predictable—violent acts rarely bring out our better qualities, and cooler heads are unlikely to prevail.