Monday, 31 January 2011

Even pharaohs have bad days

The powerful have many tools, but they don’t control the weather. The episode that started in Tunisia and has now spiraled out of control throughout the Middle East is one of those rare but regular historical events that remind us how fragile their grip can be.

Looking back at the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1990, we can now see how those ruined economies and hollowed-out societies led by a discredited ruling elite made the region ripe for a series of quick shoves over the precipice once people lost their fear. But who at the time would have predicted that stable regimes led by brutish crews versed in repression and accustomed to crushing dissent would simply collapse?

If Tunisia was the region’s Poland, Egypt is its USSR. Alarm bordering on panic is now easily detected from Morocco to the Gulf Emirates, and no wonder: if Mubarak can be brought down by an inflamed populace, who among us is safe?

Democracy in the Arab world is like Christian brotherhood: to be praised in theory and promptly postponed for later. Although Obama’s team have been fairly decent so far in responding to the Egyptian uprising, it would be a mistake to think that the US is deeply enamored of the idea that the Arab masses suddenly should have more to say about their affairs than the pro-western elites who have been deciding for them.

Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor who enraged the Israeli lobby by writing a book about its excessive influence here, writes, ‘The United States has no idea how to deal with a Middle East where the voice of the people might actually be heard’.

Israelis and their backers are fond of pointing to the Jewish state as the only democracy in the region in comparison with the autocratic rulers in states surrounding them. But not surprisingly, Israeli commentators play a different tune when democracy actually threatens to appear elsewhere. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz says its government is urging others to soften criticism of Mubarak and quotes an anonymous senior official: ‘The Americans and the Europeans . . . have to make their friends feel that they’re not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the reactions in the West, how everyone is abandoning Mubarak, and this will have very serious implications’.

A columnist in the Jerusalem Post said it’s not a matter of ‘Egypt sneezing and Israel catching a cold—rather, this is a matter of Egypt having a heart attack’. Another called the Egyptian events ‘the worst disaster since Iran’s revolution’.

The paper said the prospect of revolutions throughout the region will make Israel even less likely to agree to peace terms and strengthen its conservative and reactionary tendencies. They could be describing Russia’s last Leninists, insisting that the system will still work, perhaps with some adjustments here and there.

Meanwhile, rain—hopefully not including frogs—is predicted.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Egyptians march, US reporters stumble [Updated]

We don’t expect our TV reporters to speak Arabic or know much more than where Egypt is situated on a map, but the low level of basic sophistication about political upheavals on the part of our overpaid ‘journalists’ is shocking. I suppose if you have been groomed for years to know what to say when you spot Kim Kardashian emerging from a nightclub, it’s kinda tough to figure out weird things like revolutions in the streets.
The Arab world may be experiencing its Berlin moment, as one Egyptian surmised, but in contrast with that time when U.S. reporters openly sympathized with the East Europeans masses in revolt, now the Egyptian people frequently appear as an afterthought. There are only two topics that seem to get our reporters’ adrenalin flowing: ‘chaos’ and the danger of an Islamist takeover that might threaten our interests.

‘Chaos’ is a highly charged and misleading term, but check how often it is used when one tunes in to the latest news. Dictatorship always say they stand between ‘order’ and ‘chaos’, so the term instantly marks one’s bias about the outcome.

For example, we never heard that Czechs, Poles or Hungarians were throwing their countries into ‘chaos’ in the 1990s—although surely the crumbling communist parties eagerly accused them of doing so. But now when Egyptians rise up against three decades of dictatorship, we hear of nothing else. Unconsciously perhaps, our media are trumpeting their own fears and eagerness for someone we like to come in and settle things down.

There is plenty of evidence that the ‘chaos’ may not be the result of mass action at all but a deliberate policy to scare the population into supporting a crackdown. The Guardian reports that a Human Rights Watch observer witnessed the arrest of two active-duty police officers engaged in looting—highly significant given that the police have withdrawn completely from any attempt to maintain order.

It is ironic that the hated, feared and highly politicized Egyptian police force immediately stopped doing any actual policing when they were most needed. (Residents of the Bronx would not be surprised.) If something similar had happened in Poland during the rise of Solidarity, I suspect the western news media would have sniffed it out quite easily.

The other howler is the worried concern expressed by the blathering heads that ‘Muslim parties’ will seize the opportunity to take over as in Iran. One wonders if these breezy Chatty-Cathys with their permanent, aerobic smiles ever read an article in a magazine.

But ignorance reigns even in the supposedly informed circles of our governing poobahs. Wikileaks exposed a hilarious cable from a Tunisian diplomat acknowledging that the ousted kleptocrat there was a disaster but at least acted as a bulwark against ‘al-Qaeda’ elements in the Magreb. That’s like praising the Gambino family for keeping us safe from gypsies.

However, it does reflect the concern in the White House and among the European allies about what will follow Mubarak and especially their fear that a nasty crackdown that might temporarily save the dictator would set the stage for a far worse outcome down the road. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it like this:

‘It is important for [Mubarak] to initiate that transformation and that broadly based government, and that is what we would like to see. That is far preferable, of course, to Egypt falling into the hands of extremism or a more authoritarian system of government’.

You get the idea despite the willfully ignorant line about a ‘more authoritarian system of government’. Excuse me? More than that of Mubarak?

Meanwhile, tanks massing in the central square is an ominous reminder that the army can still decide to save Mubarak at the cost of many, many deaths.

[update] Everything I am trying to say was just expressed much more eloquently here.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Days of rage [UPDATE]

Egypt is not Tunisia, said many knowledgeable persons when facile parallels began to be suggested about the upheavals of recent days in the two countries. At first, I agreed with the skepticism, but two things suggest that the original theory of revolutionary dominoes may be closer to the mark.

This is from The Independent (London) of today:

In one of many astonishing scenes earlier, thousands of anti-government protesters wielding rocks, glass and sticks chased hundreds of riot police away from the main square in central Cairo, and several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.

If those scenes become common, Mubarak is finished.

Meanwhile, the Cairo stock market is down 16% in two days. All these are signs of a remarkably fragile regime with few ideas of how to shut off the unrest. While blocking Twitter and cellphone service may complicate the protest movement, it also could simply speed things up and force people into more effective organizing routes. And while crashing the Internet and phone service helps the repressive forces, it also prevents any work from getting done in the entire country, which means that time is on the side of the people if they can maintain the disruptions.

[update] Robert Gibbs is now (3.00 pm Friday) refusing to say that the U.S. supports Mubarak’s permanence in power. Contrast this cutting-loose of Mubarak with Carter’s bitter-end backing of the Shah of Iran.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

How rife is 'rife'?

The AP ran a story last week about corruption in the Global Fund, the huge UN-sponsored agency that tackles AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and the story landed in dozens of big media outlets around the world. As often happens, the headlines featured an easily understood corruption narrative but missed the real story.

The easy shots were way up in the first paragraphs: millions misused in several African countries, donated anti-malaria drugs appearing for sale in secondary markets, falsified records, money spent on government vehicles instead of care, cash simply disappearing from accounts without a trace. All of which seems to justify the headline, ‘Fraud plagues global health fund’.

Except that it doesn’t. In fact, the Global Fund has been such a strict auditor of its quite generous grants that the inspection teams are sometimes accused of an overly prosecutorial approach. Theft and embezzlement clearly occur, but the GF has a far shinier record than its peer development agencies in rooting out corrupt practices and sometimes forcing countries to send the money back.

A development officer from a UN agency dealing with the Caribbean once told me that his bosses expected a certain amount of skimming from international cooperation projects and that if it didn’t exceed 15 or 20 percent, no one would say much. They considered it the price of doing business—the business of international aid—just as Exxon Mobil or Lockheed would understand the need to keep a bunch of Saudi princes well stocked in Gucci loafers.

By contrast, Bernard Rivers, who tracks GF affairs fulltime at his Global Fund Observer, estimates that corruption-related losses to the GF run to about 1% of its total outlays. While infuriating (1% of $13 billion is a lot of money), he notes that it hardly means the GF is ‘rife with fraud’ as many news articles alleged based on the AP account. Commentators on Fox immediately ran with the idea that the GF was a hopeless pit of corruption as it fits the driving right-wing narrative that public health and all public action is pointless and wasteful (except war-making, of course).

Stealing from the Global Fund is also rather risky, compared to stealing from, say, your clients if you work for Goldman Sachs. Thirteen people in Mali have been arrested on GF-related charges, and the health minister suddenly resigned. Countries have been forced to pay back misused monies or face exclusion from future grants.
Rivers argues that the GF can do a lot more to exercise vigilance over its grant-making so that corrupt practices are stymied before reaching grotesque levels. Local review bodies could have more authority to intervene early on, for example, without establishing a permanent external watchdog that would offend any country’s pride.

But a granting agency that saves an estimated 4,500 lives a day of people who would otherwise face a horrific death and that is trying hard not to be complicit with corrupt practices could reasonably expect a tad more circumspection and rigor from the world’s news media and its reporters looking for a good story. Let’s see the scribes go after the grants handed out by Gates, USAID and the European ‘development’ agencies with equal spunk and see if those outfits end up called ‘rife with corruption’ at the first sign of trouble.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Republicrat consensus builds

Obama had a few red-meat phrases last night—borrowed from the Republicans who hate his guts—about regulations that ‘put an unnecessary burden on businesses’, to go with his call last week to eliminate ‘outmoded, ineffective, insufficient or excessively burdensome’ ones.

Curiously enough, the very same day early leaks from the report of his Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) pointed to—guess what?—as the underlying cause of the 2008 bank panic and subsequent mega-recession: WEAK AND INEFFECTIVE REGULATION of the financial industry.

How perfect: the experts blame the banks and the banker-captured regulatory system while our president, who appointed them, ignores all that and insists that banks and businesses should be freed from ‘government overregulation and higher taxes’.

This is clearly a dangerous Stalinist about to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The litany of accusations against top-level bank executives and virtually the entire financial governance system of the nation in the FCIC report is breathtaking:
-Greenspan failed to perform his regulatory duties as Fed chief and enabled the housing bubble, allowed his ideological blinders to trump the data sitting on his lap;
-Clinton ceded to the banker wishlist and deregulated the dangerous derivatives markets (for which Larry Summers was chief cheerleader before going to work for Obama);
-Geithner had no idea that Citigroup and Lehman were teetering even though his job was to oversee them;
-the SEC did nothing while huge banks went over the edge on borrowed cash;
-Paulson and Bernanke napped throughout (why even mention Bush?);
-two Federal bank regulatory agencies blocked states from reining in excessive and abusive lending practices;
-AIG executives didn’t know what the fuck was happening in their own company.

And on and on. Basically, the report says that all those geniuses educated at Harvard and MIT and who belong to the elite clubs featured in The Social Network turned out to be a herd of clueless dufuses. This doesn’t say much for Obama’s clarion call to improve ‘education’ (whatever that means nowadays) as a way to remain competitive in the world.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Misreading Lincoln

The thoughtful Garry Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books that Obama’s Tucson speech merits comparison with the stirring words of Abraham Lincoln, and many others have echoed this praise of healing words at a troubled time. I dissent.

That Obama struck a proper note and expressed decent sentiments in the memorial speech is beyond debate. His use of the platform to remind people of the need for civil discourse that is actually civil and not murderous was entirely appropriate and seems to have cooled the violent rhetoric of the teabagger wing for now as white people with grandchildren suddenly feel vulnerable to random political violence. We’ll see how long it lasts.

But Wills goes further: in his brief article called ‘Obama’s Finest Hour’, Wills argues Obama ‘had to rise above the acrimonious debate about what caused the gunman in Tucson to kill and injure so many people. He side-stepped that issue by celebrating the fallen and the wounded and those who rushed to their assistance’. In this way, says Wills, Obama assumes the mantle of Lincoln at Gettysburg who, rather than blame the South, stopped to praise the dead and urge others to learn from them.

Noble sentiments all, and I wish I could applaud them. However, we seem to be missing a highly salient point when looking to Obama as the great peacemaker soothing the nation’s wounds, a magnanimous leader worthy of comparison to Honest Abe: Lincoln had just spent two years commanding his armies to slaughter the enemy by the tens of thousands.

I do not find this to be a detail of history. Lincoln was not forced to go to war to save the union; he chose it. He faced considerable opposition, too, including violent draft riots here in New York City where the populace rose up against the idea of getting killed for things they cared nothing about, like the fate of black slaves. A more timid president would have sought a ‘middle ground’ to keep the peace and allowed the Confederacy to secede.

Instead, Lincoln declared war. He tolerated General McClellan’s cautious, defeatist approach for a while but eventually tapped Grant and Sherman to kill, burn and pillage their way to victory. Gettyburg came before the serious scorched earth campaigns like Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia, but while Lincoln spoke movingly of the dead in Pennsylvania and did not recriminate the enemy there, he didn’t flinch from punishing the secessionist armies and ransacking their homes and lands. Lincoln wanted to forgive, but first came triumph in war.

Wills then compares Obama with Henry V at Agincourt whom Shakespeare allows the ‘king’s touch’ that people in medieval times believed to bring healing powers. It would be nice to also recall that Agincourt was a battleground of the Hundred Years’ War and that warfare in the XV century was not exactly a Kumbaya moment for either the winning or the losing side.

This really will not do. It is delusional to claim the mantle of peacemaker when enabling warmongers and to believe oneself noble while doing nothing to halt evil deeds.

To take the historical parallel further, try this bit of Obama-like rhetoric of reconciliation and tolerance from another figure of Lincoln’s times: ‘To the eye of local and sectional prejudice, [the people’s interests] always appear to be conflicting, . . . and the jealousies that will perpetually arise can be repressed only by the mutual forbearance which pervades the constitution’. That was president James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln and set the stage by his steady concessions to the South for the near dissolution of the republic.

Buchanan said he felt a ‘strong repugnance’ over incorporating the slave territory of Texas into the Union. But he did it anyway convinced that the institution was dying out if the abolitionists would just stop stirring up trouble with their demands. (The ghost of Rahm Emanuel must have hovered nearby.) Despite his constant efforts to mollify the southerners, Buchanan’s presidency ended with the collapse of the union, which he then very even-handedly blamed on ‘intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States’.

Buchanan said the states had no right to secede but also that the Federal Government had no legal right to prevent them from doing so, a lovely formulation that allows one to have one’s moral cake and placidly serve it to guests with monogrammed tea napkins. I fear that Obama misreads history and is headed for a Buchanan-like place in it.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Will Ireland knock over a domino?

When systems become fragile, any unexpected event can set off a chain reaction.

Far wiser heads than mine have not yet rung the alarm bells over Ireland’s billowing political chaos, but the coming week may be rather a surprising one.

The euro has been staggering for a year, and the ‘solution’ cooked up by the banker and political elites in the EU for the European version of the credit bubble cannot succeed unless the much abused workers, students and pensioners remain totally passive. I suspect this will not happen.

Ireland could provide the match in the gunpowder room. The Irish Green Party, headed by one John Gormley [above], has just quit the discredited coalition there, throwing everything into doubt. The government may not survive long enough to sign off on the mass beggaring of the Irish people forced on the country by the European Central Bank.

This careful deal could unravel in a matter of hours, queering the attempt to extend and pretend on Irish and other European debt. Euro bankers then would have to find another way to saddle the populace with the wreckage of their casino financing and insouciant building of massive fortunes for themselves.

Yum, yum, can’t wait.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Last laugh from Mr Hu

Petition is a new Chinese documentary containing amazing hidden-camera footage of people trying to get simple justice under a one-party dictatorship. It’s pretty hair-raising and a nice antidote to all the champagne-oiled mutual congratulations taking place in Washington right now where the smiles of the rich and powerful are so blinding as to suggest sustained aerobic training of the facial muscles.

People all over China are pretty much at the mercy of corrupt local officials and their entrepreneur friends, and the narratives of the petitioners in the Zhao Liang film stand for untold thousands of others. Given how easy it is here to railroad someone through the criminal courts—as the newspapers detail almost daily—imagine what people face who can appeal to no newspapers at all and must rely on a corrupt judicial system run by terrified lackeys.

No one even notices any more the irony of our Cold War economic and business elite completely selling out the country’s industrial base to a communist state. But of course China can hardly be confused with a workers’ paradise these days no matter how many Marxist textbooks they shove down the kiddies’ throats. It must be one of the most cynical places on earth given the contrast between the rhetoric of bliss and the relentless, crushing struggle for survival that recent films from there have revealed. (I heartily recommend Last Train Home for another depressing vision.)

As usual, we convince ourselves of our political and moral superiority with pious bleatings to the Chinese about human rights but don’t stop to question our own eager collusion in shipping jobs to this totalitarian moonscape as part of a long-term and very successful scheme to undermine the unionized workforce at home and makes trillions in the meantime. Now that factories lie in ruins everywhere, only teachers and civil servants remain as the last bulwarks of an organized workforce—and guess who is in the firing line from both Republican and Democratic pols from coast to coast? Note today’s trial balloon about how to steal state workers’ pensions under the guise of state ‘bankruptcy’.

As a country we have never dared to dabble seriously in left-wing politics of the European stripe or even generate a decent version of social democracy. But that doesn’t stop the wealthy from waging class war against the rest of us, and no doubt president Hu, as a lifelong scholar of Marxist dialectics, could give Obama some useful pointers. Meanwhile, business is to be done, goods are to be shipped, and government bonds are to be bought.

Therefore, all’s right in heaven, so who cares about a few poor slobs tossed under the train? We think modernization means our model gets shipped around the world, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mr Hu’s way of doings things represents the wave of the future.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Exit of Tweedledee. . . or is it Tweedledum? [Updated]

Joseph Lieberman, loyal servant of the ruling elite, has announced he will retire from the Senate next year, prompting questions about whether the Democrats can ‘retain’ his seat. Almost funny enough to laugh at—this from the guy who stood up at the Republican National Convention to mock the Democrats’ candidate and join the cheers for Sarah (Blood Libel Victim) Palin.

There’s a hilarious leak from someone—probably Lieberman himself—suggesting that he opposed the public option in the 2009 health care bill because all those mean liberals who tried to oust him the year before were in favor of it. If true, Lieberman is an adolescent sociopath capable of toying with the well-being of millions to feed his fragile ego. But it presumes that Holy Joe needs an excuse to side with the wealthy and the Hartford insurance companies. Please display the evidence—I see none.

The entire person of Lieberman reminds us of the grotesque complicity of the Democrats in the worst abuses of the Greed and Opulence Party, a sorry fact of our lives that Obama continues to remind us of with relentlessly depressing regularity. We believe ourselves free of European-style social class, and yet our system imitates an ancient feudal caste structure: the vastly rich (Republicans) scoop up the principal goodies and permit an underclass of permanent careerists (Democrats) to carry out their wishes and apply discipline to the unruly lower orders.

Juan Cole has a good summary of Lieberman’s loathsome legacy. We forget that Lieberman helped Bush promote further religious infiltration of public education, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the guy who snatched the election of 2000 from him, to push god onto defenseless children under the guise of ‘faith-based social programs’.

Cole’s picture gallery is a gauntlet of disgust: Lieberman and Cheney, Lieberman and Chalabi, Lieberman, J., with Liberman, A., the racist Israeli foreign minister—there’s no limit to the guy’s taste in thugs. Can’t wait for the hosannahs of praise for his years of ‘public service’ soon to follow.

[update]: Speech from a snake in human form (Lieberman on MSNBC yesterday re Saddam and weapons): ‘[Saddam] was also, the evidence shows, beginning really tactically to support the terrorist movements that had attacked us on 9/11 [complete, cynical, conscious falsehood]. . . So, yes, I think it [the conquest] was the right thing to do. Terrible cost we paid in life and treasure, but ultimately I think the right decision’.

Note that no Iraqis paid any price for this marvelous outcome, only ‘we’ did.

This humanoid imitation is beneath contempt.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A real tea party

It’s both chilling and inspiring to see people risk their lives to rise up en masse against tyranny as is occurring now in Tunisia, the first successful revolution in the Middle East in 30 years (since the Iranians threw out the shah in 1979). We see the classic hallmarks: popular mobilization, a split in the army and/or police, and a highly fluid and dangerous interim period (now) in which no one is really in control. It was not a coup d’état or a military assault on the centers of power (a la Fidel), in which one security apparatus replaces another. Instead, there is a scramble for power, and the disenfranchised masses of the population can briefly influence who wins. Should be fascinating, and let’s hope for a positive outcome.

While the usual experts in the foreign policy apparatus here quack on about how unimportant Tunisia is in the big geopolitical game, they also recognize that the revolutionary example could be contagious. All eyes are now on Egypt given that the conditions there are so similar: an entrenched, unresponsive, repressive, nepotistic and corrupt ruling elite and an educated and frustrated middle class whose sons and daughters have no future.

In that setting all it takes is the right economic spark affecting the cost of living to set things ablaze. Ergo: expect the price of bread to remain stable in Cairo for a few months. Mubarak also had been grooming his son to take over the dynasty, and that little plan may have to be postponed at least until the dust settles across the desert.

The coverage of the Tunisian revolution—given that it is a country that plays no major role in U.S. maneuvering for influence—has been spotty to non-existent. Now that the head of state has been run out of Tunis on a rail, the reports are picking up, all couched in terms of how ‘moderate’ the outgoing dictator was and how well he cooperated with American goals in the anti-terrorist campaigns. All that’s lacking are some mournful laments about how we can’t send people over there to be tortured any more, rats!

We can also count on future reporting to focus on who among the rivals is most pro-Western, rather than which one might be focused principally on the interests of the Tunisian people.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Cautious relief

The response to the Arizona massacre has been encouraging. I believe it has come as a healthy shock to many people to contemplate what all this loose rhetoric about ‘Lock and load!’ and ‘Second Amendment remedies!’ actually means in practice.

I am often struck by the odd parallels between the radical tea-bagger movement (joined by its Bible-thumper allies) and the more extreme expressions of left-wing radicalism from the 1960s and ‘70s. The Giffords assassination attempt is reminiscent of incidents like the Manson family killings or the brief heyday of Patty Hearst as the beret-clad ‘Comrade Tanya’. At that time a large body of people got some notions in their heads, for better or for worse, and the lunatic fringe promptly showed how dangerous half-digested versions of those ideas can be.

The reactions of the Limbaugh/Beck/Palin crowd were so stupid as to merit applause. They demonstrated for all the world that they perform on one-note instruments and have few intellectual or political resources. Instead of keeping a prudently low profile and allowing the storm to pass, they all went on the attack as if they had been the shooting victims and showed what whiny pussies they are. Limbaugh and Beck sounded pathetic, but Palin hit the home run with the fatal ‘blood libel’ crack as if her suffering were equivalent to that of the Jews.

It’s one thing not to know where Pakistan is, but a serious politician in the U.S. had better know the basics about European anti-Semitism. Palin proved she doesn’t and isn’t.

That said, several questions remain after Obama’s entirely proper exploitation of the tragedy to push his political goals. (We need many photos of the murdered girl’s bereaved parents and of the elderly ladies shot while out shopping.) All that is good. But the president also pointedly cautioned against blaming his sworn enemies for generating the climate of violence, even though they did.

This is disturbing since the Obama team has no problem demonizing people like Bradley Manning, Guantánamo detainees or Julian Assange as sympathizers of or actual ‘terrorists’ (a term never applied to white people, no matter how many 9-year-olds they kill). Amid all the churchgoing and memorializing of the Tucson victims, there is a stubborn unwillingness on Obama’s part to confront the racially-tinged nature of the ongoing calls for violence to stop the government from providing health care or collecting taxes.

It is no accident that the assault occurred in the new epicenter of racism—Arizona, where it’s okay to drum up all sorts of laws that are no longer acceptable when overtly directed against blacks.

It’s also worth remembering that the opening salvo of disrespect and the campaign to de-legitimize Obama’s presidency—the nasty ‘You lie!’ shout from South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson—occurred at exactly the point in Obama’s speech when he was assuring the rabid opponents of his health proposals that no immigrants would be served by them.

Obama turned the other cheek on that occasion and has been furiously backpedaling on anything that might upset the Republican and Teabagger right ever since—with marvelous results in the last election cycle. Not surprisingly, dead bodies have resulted, Obama now looks like the moderate, reasonable guy, and let’s hope that cools the ardor for blood from the lunatics.

However, if it doesn’t, the guy now in charge doesn’t seem to have a Plan B.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

I told you so and I'm not psychic

The attempted murder of Congresswoman Giffords in Arizona today was entirely predictable. In fact, I predicted it myself in April when foreign friends asked me if Obama was worried about assassination attempts. I said at the time that I thought it much more likely that a nutjob would be inspired by all the threatening rhetoric, heat-packing at Teabagger rallies and facile chatter about the Second Amendment to go after an obscure liberal member of Congress too minor to be well protected.

Dicho y hecho, as the remaining Latinos in Tucson might say.

I suspect and fear that this will be a defining moment in our history. What an opportunity for what passes for the sane leadership of the country to emit a multi-megaton rhetorical blast at the fear-mongers, hate-mongers and violence-mongers who have ruled our airwaves for the last two years [note Sarah Palin’s target map above, with a bull’s-eye aimed over Giffords’s district]. What a moment to denounce their irresponsible and anti-democratic behavior and wave the bloody shirt (like the one worn, say, by the now dead 8-year-old girl standing by) and shout, See where you are taking us!?

Now, on a scale of 10, what are the chances that Obama or any of his team will do this? I would say, um, zero.

Obama already looked like he was on the verge of an attack of narcolepsy in his statement on the shooting of an elected representative from his own party, who now sports a bullet hole in her head. If there is any outrage bubbling around in his head, you’d need an MRI, an EEG and a PET scan to detect it.

Just imagine if a Republican pol had been gunned down by a disgruntled liberal. We’d all be browbeaten for a decade to renounce our incorrect thoughts on health care and derivatives regulation or be branded terrorists.

Instead, count on Obama and A-G Eric Holder to concentrate far more energy on dastardly Wikileaks than on the enablers of today’s political assassination. Unless those who fomented the shopping center shame with their thugging, threatening rhetoric are made to pay a political price, it becomes just another incident, which can quickly be followed by another.

After all, who pays attention to how many Iraqis get blown up by bombs or how many headless Mexicans appear hanging from highway bridges? If there is no sustained fury at this outrage, it becomes the new normal. Expect the Democrats to facilitate the process by telling us all to remain cool.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

City Knows Best

The debate on the New York health department’s latest ill-advised AIDS campaign is exposing soft-headedness among all players in this debate. I hate sounding like a centrist worse than anything, but in this case both sides of the battle are stuck jerking their knees without displaying any of the original thinking that the the third decade of HIV requires.

The controversy arose a few weeks ago when the city launched a TV and YouTube spot [below] to encourage sexual caution. The ads display gross imagery of anal cancer and bone deterioration among melancholy actors playing gay men to remind people that getting HIV is no treat despite the advent of successful treatments. The campaign is an explicit attempt to counter drug company adverts that show comely HIV-positive guys sitting on mailboxes or climbing mountains with a smile thanks to the miracle effects of their Truvada or Atripla therapies.

It’s also taking a leaf from the city’s anti-smoking campaigns that use pictures of people missing fingers or talking through a hole in their throats. Officials say they believe that what works for one disease will work for another.

You can also use a carwash to take a bath, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

The city defends itself by saying it ran these ads past focus groups of gay men who thought it was important to hit the topic hard and remind people that getting HIV is really serious and no fun at all. Oh really? I wonder how many of the focus group participants handing out that sort of advice for all ‘those [other] people’ who have too much sex have recently dealt with someone newly diagnosed with HIV. I can assure them that the news is not tossed off casually. A person getting that slip of paper immediately will look for the silver lining and want to know about medication advances, but that doesn’t mean it’s all a big laugh.

What the campaign intends to encourage is people focusing on the bad news before it’s too late, and that’s also a nice goal—good luck achieving it. Bipeds are expert at pushing off the idea that they will have bad luck even while recognizing that unpleasant things might very well happen—to others.

In a Times article Amemona Hartocollis quotes a typical Manhattan internist as saying, ‘Younger gay men are not making some kind of rational choice to have unprotected sex the way many activists are maintaining in this disagreement’, Dr. Howard Grossman said. ‘These younger people are, like most young people having sex, living in the moment and making split-second, uninformed choices about unprotected sex’.

Doctors are often very smart, but anyone who can talk about sexual behavior in these terms is living among a species whose genitals behave quite differently from those I’m familiar with. Earth to Dr Grossman: ‘Split-second, uninformed choices’ about sex happen about 8 billion times per minute, and it’s not just dizzy-headed young people making them.

Curmudgeonly playwright Larry Kramer was quick to cheer the city’s campaign as it fits well with his belief that gay men (himself excepted) are largely jerks and have to be shamed into behaving properly. ‘It’s about time’, Kramer said, in an e-mail cited by the Times. ‘This ad is honest and true and scary, all of which it should be. HIV is scary, and all attempts to curtail it via lily-livered nicey-nicey prevention tactics have failed.’

Thanks for the vote of confidence about ‘all’ those efforts, Larry. By contrast, your beat-‘em-up approach has worked so well in which country?

What the city health poobahs, as well as Mr Kramer, reveal with this lame effort is how much they remain stuck in an individualistic paradigm of isolated personal responsibility and decision-making untouched by communal influences. Given that this is the reigning ideology of our times, they can be expected to do so despite the reams of analysis available that suggests this approach hasn’t worked so far and won’t in the future either.

It’s true people are lulled into complacency around HIV infection and AIDS, and I applaud the city’s efforts to restart that conversation, which has completely evaporated. Where once people calculated risk and considered their behavior in a context of a community protecting itself and its members, we’re now back to every-man-for-himself in a neo-liberal paradise where, as hateful old Madame Thatcher would say, ‘Society doesn’t exist’.

But no one talks about HIV in those terms anymore, or in any terms for that matter, except to remind themselves to make that annual contribution to the agencies so that people with the HIV diagnosis get what they need.

In fact, the local AIDS providers promptly trashed the campaign in terms recycled from the last 15 years of post-treatment AIDS. They criticized the ‘scare tactics’ and the unfavorable treatment of gay men as ‘dispensing diseases’. Or they said the ads don’t accurately portray what living with HIV is like.

But none of the groups had much to propose as an alternative message. They were unable or even unconcerned about how to restart the lost conversation about safety in sexual relations or how to reawaken shared responsibility for mutual protection. After all, the agencies exist to serve sick people or those who might get sick, and there's no shortage of those, with or without prevention campaigns.

That restarted community buzz, even if temporary, could be a positive outcome of this campaign, and I suspect the city knew and planned for the controversy to exactly that end. Even so, if manipulation was on their minds, it’s a pretty cynical way to treat your supposed community partners.

It’s too bad that no one in the huge AIDS industry managed to persuade the city to try a different approach in its social marketing. Would it be that hard to pull all those affected—agencies, gay advocates, harm reduction specialists, homeless service providers, substance abuse counselors, the HIV-infected, educators—into a broader discussion about what concepts should guide a public education campaign in 2011 with AIDS a permanent feature of our landscape?

But no, City Knows Best and will act accordingly. That fits nicely into a Bloomberg universe free of distasteful ‘political agendas’, meaning other people’s incorrect ideas.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Guilty until proven innocent

Crime drama/reality shows often pick up on cases where the accused perpetrator’s guilt is in doubt. This weekend, 48 Hours featured a Missouri case where the convicted murderer finally won a rehearing in which the judge immediately freed him after determining that they guy had nothing to do with the crime—for which he had spent 15 years incarcerated. A steady stream of DNA-related exonerations continues in Texas, including one just today.

Yet it’s remarkable that all this sympathy for mistreated individuals does not translate into its obvious policy implications: the defense of our legal protections as citizens in the face of state power. We don’t even discuss whether people condemned to our modern Devil’s Island at Guantánamo should get a fair hearing in a court of law because ‘terrorism’ is the new equivalent of being black in Alabama in the 1930s. You are guilty because of who you are.

The under-appreciated Soviet-era author, Vassily Grossman, wrote a chilling novel/memoir about the Stalinist terror entitled Everything Flows, a minor accompaniment to Life and Fate, his epic treatment of Stalin’s entire reign. It has some familiar material such as a fictionalized account reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which eventually was permitted to see the light of day. (Grossman’s work wasn’t—he wrote ahead of the de-Stalinization curve.)

But even more persuasive and equally terrifying is Grossman’s convincing description of how the survivors, those not picked up in the dead of night and put on trains for Siberia, adjusted their world views to get along. While not exactly believing that Jewish doctors were purposely infecting Christian babies or giving out poisoned medicines, many Soviet citizens were persuaded, or allowed themselves to feel persuaded, by the ‘confessions’ of the accused, which the news media trumpeted unceasingly. Peasants turned against their neighbors in the 1930s campaign against the kulaks and drove them off into exile and death, not stopping to consider how forced collectivization might lead to their own slaughter through starvation.

Memoirs or fictional treatments of genocidal murder like Grossman’s are depressing reminders than the bipedal race is an extremely dangerous species and periodically succumbs to induced, mass hysteria. We foolishly think we are safe from such upheavals, but consider what would happen now—given Obama’s utter disinterest in preserving our constitutional protections—if the Israelis go back to war in Lebanon or Gaza, and terrorist attacks ensue on our soil once again.

How much provocation would the country require before rabid crowds start to demand victims? How strong are our systems to withstand these pressures? Where are the political leaders willing to paddle against such a tide?