Sunday, 29 December 2013

Coup in Turkey mirrors Morsi power-grab

This is not likely to end well.

Demonstrations have broken out in Turkey again in response to the latest repressive tactics from a regime looking daily more like a police state.

A massive corruption scandal was unearthed in Turkey in recent weeks, but as the cases were proceeding, the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Erdogan intervened to stop further judicial action. Dozens of police and court officials were fired, and police refused to carry out judicial orders in Erdogan’s version of Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre (which, incidentally, marked the beginning of the end for Tricky D).

This is a creeping coup d’état, similar to the one Mohammed Morsi staged in the months leading up to his ouster when he ignored half the country, cooked up a Brotherhood-friendly constitution, and decreed himself special powers. When courts cannot count on exercising their legal duties, the pretense of the rule of law has collapsed.

Erodgan, who arrived a decade ago as an Islamist-‘lite’, has sounded more and more like an ayatollah as he rode Turkey’s booming economy boomed to repeated election victories. Despite his attempts to look unthreatening to secular Turks, he now looks determined to lead the country into confessional upheaval.

A finance-page commentator pointed out that the earlier demonstrations against Erodgan over the destruction of Gezi Park in downtown Istanbul—to be replaced by an Ottoman-era mega-mosque—looked to we outsiders as a battle between a heavy-handed regime and westernized, liberalish student types, environmentalists, reformers, and the like—sort of an Occupy Asia Minor. But the deeper rift in Turkish society is good old Sunni-Shiite hostility.

Erdogan has been known to use dog-whistle hints to his followers in the past, some of a most disturbing nature. For example, he has recently again referred to the dangers of a repeat of the ‘Karbala tragedy’, which Muslims know refers to the massacre of the followers and family of Muhammed’s grandson, Hussein Ali, 1300 years ago. Given Erdogan’s Sunni background, it’s kind of equivalent to a Blackhawk chief warning about another Custer’s Last Stand.

The Islamist angle puts Erdogan’s enthusiastic support for the overthrow of the non-Sunni Assad regime in Syria and active collaboration with his Sunni opponents in a new light.

Turkey is also notorious for holding the highest number of journalists behind bars (211) of any country in the world, a dubious record it has racked up for two years running.

Turkey is also facing economic crosswinds as it is vulnerable to policy changes among the bigger players. Access to cheap credit has fueled a construction boom (at the center of the corruption allegations). Hints of a monetary policy reverse in the U.S. and elsewhere already has had ripple effects in Turkey where the currency has lost a quarter of its value this year.

With religious war overtaking the democratic ‘Arab spring’ spirit of the first year of the revolution, I am reminded of the lessons I learned during my brief visit to Lebanon during their nightmarish civil war: no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Previews suck

I now look down at my popcorn at the movies during the interminable advertising for the cinema’s next offerings.

They are not merely insults to adult intelligence. They are the exact same insults to adult intelligence repeated over and again.

It started with the habit of interspersing clips with the sort of slobberingly breathless praise used in newspaper film ads, stuff one would be embarrassed to hear at a cocktail party. ‘Stunning!’ ‘Heartbreaking!’ ‘Instant classic!’ I guess there are enough cheap film critic whores around to crank out prose like that for whatever trash gets thrown at us.

By refusing to be distracted by the rapid-fire flashes on the screen, one can pick up the manipulative pattern used in every single trailer: quick cuts of images going by too fast to focus on that then accelerate into a dizzying spin with a crescendo of background music consisting either of soap-opera organ chords or thump-thump thriller cues all climaxing in a final explosion, sometimes a literal one. And then the coda: a telling phrase whispered into the sudden silence between the main characters like, ‘It’s too late for that!’ or ‘Come back for me!’

Okay, it’s advertising, and it must work, or they’d do it differently. But the movie theatre is one place where we can’t turn down the volume or skip ahead on the TiVo past the commercials. That means we need new methods of resistance, and I recommend mine: catch the first few frames to get a quick idea of the picture they want to sell you, then refuse to watch. When you realize the ads are all the same, it’s not even tempting. And you won’t get a migraine.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Further Thoughts on ‘12 Years’


Film awards speculation has begun, and the trophy season will soon be upon us. So we will be hearing a lot more about the Steve McQueen slavery feature ‘12 Years a Slave’, and much of coming commentary will adopt the tone of, At last we are facing the whole awful truth about our past!

Except not.

The film does bear us grim new truths, and so good for that. [I wrote about it before here.] But in a key aspect it simply furthers the, dare I say, whitewash about slavery without in the least intending to do so.

This was brought home to me by a recent exchange in the London Review of Books on the subject of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was formed after the end of apartheid to resolve the unfinished business of the crimes committed during that sorry period. The appointment of a commission of this sort was an attempt to establish an historical record for the new nation while recognizing that insistence on fairness, either as punishment for the guilty or recompense for the victims, was impossible if the two sides were going to live together. Real justice would have required an outright revolutionary victory, and Mandela and the ANC knew that was not going to occur without appalling bloodshed.

The LRB disputation was sparked by a Nov. 7, 2013, essay by Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda-born academic now at Columbia University, in which he describes how the TRC fit, or did not fit, into legal and political framework established as Nuremberg at the end of the World War 2. While recognizing that the imperfect process was necessary to prevent civil war, Mamdani outlined how the concessions Mandela was forced to make perpetuated the impoverishment of the black majority and its continued exclusion from South Africa’s riches.

Where property rights were in contention, as they were between white settlers and black natives, the former appeared to enjoy a constitutional privilege as a result of the Bill, the latter only a formal acknowledgment of “the nation’s commitment to land reform”. Even greater concessions were made at provincial and municipal level, with hybrid voting systems that precluded absolute black majority control in local government and made it impossible for taxes to be levied in white areas for expenditure in black areas. White privilege was, in effect, entrenched in law in the name of the transition.

Mamdani later wrote in the LRB’s letters column (Dec. 19, 2013) that the decision to limit the TRC’s work to a few perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes such as torture and murder:

. . . overlooked the beneficiaries of the mass violations of rights abuses—such as the pass laws and forced expulsions—[and thus] allowed the vast majority of white South Africans to go away thinking that they had little to do with these atrocities. Indeed, most learned nothing new. The alternative would have been for the TRC to show white South Africans that no matter what their political views—whether they were for, against or indifferent to apartheid—they were all its beneficiaries, whether it was a matter of the residencial areas where they lived, the jobs they held, the schools they went to, the taxes they did or did not pay, or the cheap labour they employed.

This is getting to the heart of the matter in a way that the McQueen film, by its similar focus on evil kidnappers, Simon Legree-type overseers and rapacious plantation owners with their harpy wives, does not. White viewers are permitted a get-out-of-jail-free card by seeing the accumulation of evil-mindedness without a hint of the highly seductive internal logic of the slave regime and the enormous benefits it provided to everyone, whether or not they enjoyed beating defenseless human beings half to death.

Slaves, however, had a broader view, and those very few who acquired a voice explained it to us masterfully. In his extraordinary Interesting Narrative of the Life of Obadiah Equiano, the eponymous author, writing as a freedman, notes that the most vicious slave traffickers were merely the product of their line of work:

[Slavery] corrupts the milk of human kindness and turns it into gall. And, had the pursuits of those men been different, they might have been as generous, as tender-hearted and just as they are unfeeling, rapacious and cruel. Surely this [slave] traffic cannot be good, which spreads like a pestilence, and taints what it touches!

Equiano, later echoed by Frederick Douglass, saw that the slave system drew people in irresistibly and poisoned everyone. (He, like slaves everywhere, recognized that whites were human beings like himself even if they did not.) This is where the Disneyfied stick figures of ‘12 Years’ fail to serve our understanding of our own past as we urgently need it to do. By turning the apparatus of slavery into an adult Harry Potter morality play with easy-to-spot saintly and evil characters, we remain outside the entire tableau. We view American slavery with horror and fascination as if we were taking in a Discovery Channel documentary on a strange culture in the Amazon or New Guinea, not the formative fact of our nationhood that marks and colors every aspect of political and social life right to the present day.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Films of 2013


The Village Voice has a great new category in the best-of lists that will start raining down on us like volcanic pyroclast until Dec. 31: “Movie Everybody’s Wrong About.” They list 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Nebraska and give no further details. But I admire the attempt to include dissident views about what Kontemporary Kulchural Wisdom has declared.

The Voice, which once upon a time was a newsmagazine and looks destined to sink into obscurity as another boring cultural website, says the critics it consulted thought these were the ten best films of the year:

10 Blue Is the Warmest Color
9 Frances Ha
8 Gravity
7 Upstream Color
6 Leviathan
5 The Act of Killing
4 Before Midnight
3 12 Years a Slave
2 Her
1 Inside Llewyn Davis

These voters are clearly arthouse critics, not your USA Today mass-market reviewers—there aren’t more than a couple standard-fare blockbusters on the whole list.

Of those that are, I’ll grant Gravity’s ooh-ahh appeal and extraordinary creepiness although no one seems to have noticed that the writing stank.

I do not at all get the appeal of Before Midnight, a vapid exercise in faux-profundity. (The Past, the latest from Iran, probes adult relationships in a far more credible and challenging way.)

If you take the allegedly hot lesbian sex out of Blue, it’s an excellent portrayal of the obsessive pull of erotic love and only lasts 2 ½ hours instead of the tiresome 3.

The Act of Killing deserves all the attention it gets and a lock on the documentary awards. The unsatisfying 12 Years a Slave, although an improvement on the usual cinematic treatment of slavery, doesn’t probe human evil-doing at all by comparison.

Great that people in the film business can endorse a weird-as-shit item like Upstream Color. I’m also struck by the placement of Inside Llewyn Davis so high up as it’s hard to imagine this extremely satisfying but Woody Allen-ish minor-key portrait getting much enthusiasm from audiences. I guess that’s why we have art critics in general, to make us stop and take a second look at things that don’t speak to us at first glance. Maybe it’s crap, or maybe we’re just not on to what it’s trying to do.

Friday, 20 December 2013

E-cig scam set back by New York City


Our City Council has put a big dent in the tobacco industry’s stealth campaign to renormalize smoking through the E-cigarette, banning the use of the products in a decisive 43 to 8 vote.

The campaign to establish public acceptance of e-cig smoking is a remarkably insidious strategy even for the cynical peddlers of death at Philip Morris and the rest. Producers and their defenders have tried to justify the tobacco-less smoking devices as a ‘harm reduction’ tool as just needle exchanges for heroin addicts prevent HIV and Hep C infection. Their promoters insisted that the practice of ‘vaping’, or using the little tubes to inhale nicotine vapors, was a way for addicted smokers to wean themselves off more harmful cigarettes.

But from the beginning marketers quickly exploited the legality of these ‘not cigarette’ devices to renormalize images of elegant people holding little white sticks. Corner stores in my upper Manhattan and nearby Bronx neighborhoods are plastered with disturbing ads for e-cigs showing hot babes sucking on them—material that would never pass if the ads were for tobacco products.

E-cigs have enabled people to light up once again in bars and restaurants, undermining the highly effective bans now in place for over a decade. New York City’s overall smoking rates have dropped steadily from the low 20s in 2000 to about 15 percent today as the smoke-free laws pushed smoking into the streets. But getting rates down further has proven difficult, and the sight of people merrily waving their e-cigs around after dinner wasn’t going to help.

It was pretty clear that something fishy was up with e-cigs when the topic started to pop up on discussion fora related to tobacco control a few years ago. While some were open to the idea of another harm-reduction tool that might work for some people, e-cig boosters sounded suspiciously like the defenders of old-fashioned cigarettes and used a lot of the same aggressive rhetoric about ‘adult choice’ and the ‘nanny state’.

And as some advocates and public health figures have argued, nicotine replacement ‘therapy’ for smokers does nothing to address the underlying problem of nicotine addiction. Patches, gum and other nicotine-replacement therapies have worse aggregate outcomes than old-fashioned cold-turkey quitting. There is also some evidence that E-cigs may attract curious youth who might have gotten the message about the dangers of smoking but want to mess around with something cool-looking anyway.

It’s an encouraging sign that the arguments of the e-cig lobby didn’t impress many people on our council.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Chilean students intimidate politicians


Michelle Bachelet is president of Chile again after winning a hefty 62% victory over the right-wing candidate, the daughter of a former member of Pinochet’s junta. The margin was comfortable although not as impressive as it looks given the utter ridiculousness of the opposition.

What’s really curious is that Bachelet’s victory speech promptly endorsed the central demands of the years-long student mobilization: to get university education away from the profiteers:

There is no question about it: profits can't be the motor behind education because education isn't merchandise and because dreams aren't a consumer good.

Bachelet did not talk that way when she was first elected president eight years ago. There is one and only one reason why this statement was so prominent in the hours following the vote: the Chilean political class is desperate to find a solution to the problem because the kids won't let them off the hook. They have mercilessly harassed the authorities over their lousy and expensive degrees that lead to lousy and underpaid jobs. And they promise to do the same to whoever comes along to replaces them.

The details will be highly contested, without a doubt (the profiteers in question have been happily tolerated by Bachelet’s party and its partners for years), but the fact that an extra-parliamentary movement has imposed its agenda is highly significant. It’s a lesson for people who remain determined to worry about who gets elected.

Well over 50% of the Chilean electorate refused to go vote at all now that voting is no longer compulsory. Hackers immediately dove into the Education Ministry’s website and warned the ‘Señora Presidente’ that they planned to make her life miserable.

The young people who have been on the streets more or less permanently during the term of the outgoing president, Sebastián Piñera, did not sit around worrying whether the pinochetista candidates were worse than the nominal socialists. No doubt they had people in their ranks accusing them of facilitating reaction by refusing to play the electoral game, just as we regularly get blackmailed into rushing out to support the latest lame Democrat who pretends to not be a Republican and then, once elected, busily enacts the GOP program.

How curious that the radical Chilean students have achieved not only a progressive-sounding president but one that had better actually do something about their demands. And all that without even bothering to vote.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Beware "reasonable"

There may be a federal budget next year, and we’re therefore supposed to be glad that the government isn’t going to be shut down again. Okay, but the idea that this undermining of the Tea Party loonies represents something good in the sense that it’s better to be chasing a speeding car than a Japanese bullet train.

We should always get nervous when Democrats announce a deal with Paul “destroy-the-New-Deal” Ryan as occurred this week when he and Washington senator Murray announced an agreement to avoid a repeat of October’s shutdown debacle. [photo: Miz Patty explains how sensible this will be, Ryan looks on benignly] This is the same Paul Ryan whose “Path to Prosperity” budget is now gospel for the wacko-bird right wing. It’s that document that put Ryan on the map and made him Romney’s VP candidate.

We all heard about the document last year. We voted against it. He lost.

Now it’s back.

True, Ryan got heat from the ultras in his own party and had to blast back against some, like Marco Rubio who, Ryan said, should “read the deal and get back to me.” Meaning that it’s really great for his side, don’t criticize until you see what I got.

Ryan is taking note of the fact that the extremist wing of the GOP wants no deal at all on anything, which at least has the advantage of preventing Obama from getting his wish on Social Security and Medicare (i.e., slashing them). Obama, now bent so far over backward that his head is touching the floor, still can’t get an agreement on those items, and this is the bright side of the current impasse.

Under these circumstances, any bipartisan deal should scare us until further notice given the consistent record of congressional Democrats at selling out the impoverished and middle classes rather than defending us.

John Boehner also chewed out his erstwhile comrades on the Republican side, saying that if you’re “for more deficit reduction, you should be for this agreement.”

So Ryan and Boehner are happy. We should be?

Maybe they liked the fact that unemployment benefits are not extended in the midst of this grinding recession.

We’ll hear the argument that some of the sequester funds were recovered in the bargain, which is hardly surprising because the Pentagon-related ones that the military-industrial congressmen are eager to save were to be included in the next round. So lo and behold, the sequester arrangements that have crushed social spending for two years are now to be partially reversed. Hallelujah.

The peculiar and perverse political world we are now living in must make us wary of anything smacking of bipartisan “sanity” given that the terms of what is considered reasonable now is how much austerity pain should be inflicted on the most vulnerable, NOT whether relief should be provided instead.

Monday, 9 December 2013

NSA on the defensive


Two incidents today point up the severe beating the National Security Administration (NSA) has taken with the Snowden revelations. The momentum for change is growing fast, and the next question is, Will it be cosmetic or real?

Today’s big news is that eight Internet giants, AOL, Apple, Facebok, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo—anybody feel left out?—slammed the Obama Administration over the runaway surveillance it is practicing on users of their services. Did they suddenly get Fourth Amendment religion? Hardly. Their profit statements on overseas account are bleeding like crazy.

This was predictable. When the Chinese, Brazilians and anyone else with a minimum of cybertech capability starts thinking about jettisoning the big U.S. firms to protect their own political and commercial data, it was only a matter of time before the threatened Silicon Valley got into gear. However, the drama of a joint statement from all the big players—who normally would be trying to slash each others’ throats—is impressive.
Principle number 4 of the Internet companies’ statement is particularly telling:

The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

When Angela Merkel finds out the CIA can learn what she’s saying on her private cellphone or Brazil’s state petroleum company can’t be sure its proprietary data is safe on its São Paulo computers, you know some shit has got to fly. Access to the entire world is central to the long-term business plans of the big tech players. But as potential customers realized buying software from Oracle or using Google tools for internal communication meant inviting their commercial rivals to take up residence in their board rooms or cabinet meetings, new orders dried up.

But as least as damaging potentially for the NSA is the unsurprising news that morale among its own staff is miserable. Goody! People who have been faceless and hidden for decades suddenly have to answer unpleasant questions at dinner parties about why they’re vacuuming up all our business and storing it in Utah. A Washington Post story cites the usual anonymous sources thus:

“The news questions the integrity of the NSA workforce,” he said. “It’s become very public and very personal. Literally, neighbors are asking people, ‘Why are you spying on Grandma?’ And we aren’t. People are feeling bad, beaten down.”
Marcy Wheeler cites at Empty Wheel an internal memo sent by the NSA bosses to their employees trying to deny the reports and further burying themselves in falsehoods.

Some media outlets have sensationalized the leaks to the press in a way that has called into question our motives and wrongly cast doubt on the integrity and commitment of the extraordinary people who work here at NSA/CAA — your loved one(s). It has been discouraging to see how our Agency frequently has been portrayed in the news as more of a rogue element than a national treasure.

However, we are human and, because the environment of law and technology within which we operate is so complex and dynamic, mistakes sometimes do occur. That’s where the unique aspect of our culture comes into play. We self-report those mistakes, analyze them, and take action to correct the root causes.
Ha ha, I’m laughing now! Does anyone with a pulse really believe that without the Snowden disclosures the NSA would be carefully trying to clean up these oh-so-unfortunate errors?

Wheeler comments:
Of course, the phone dragnet problems were not a mistake at all. . . . Not only had the NSA twice been caught programmatically conducting illegal wiretapping of Americans in America, after which it started stealing data from American companies overseas to conduct the same wiretapping with no oversight. That overseas collection includes the collection of cell location. Once collected, NSA can search for US person information in it — including content – with no reasonable articulable suspicion. In addition, NSA had also been systematically weakening US cybersecurity in its zeal to support spying and cyberattacks overseas.

The plaintive letters from beleaguered bosses to their discredited employees are getting more pathetic, but Wheeler points out that many NSA staffers may not have had any idea of what was going on around them, given the compartmentalization of the work they do.

Most of the NSA’s employees have not been read into many of these programs. . . . so much more of these disclosures have made the news, including the Washington Post, for NSA employees to be learning some of this for the first time. . . . That raises the distinct possibility that NSA morale is low not because the President hasn’t given them a pep talk, but because they’re uncomfortable working for an Agency that violates its own claimed rules so often. Most of the men and women at NSA have been led to believe they don’t spy on their fellow citizens. Those claims are crumbling.
As the Vietnam war illustrated, when people start questioning and criticizing their own family members for their role in immoral behavior, the jig is up. Stay tuned for the sound of the latest popping bubble as the blank check of gazillions of dollars these spy outfits have been scooping up, along with our data, to create the American Stasi, gets the scissors.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Mandela worship from his enemies a tad hypocritical

I had the pleasure of hearing Nelson Mandela speak at the International Conference on AIDS in Durban in 2000, and it was obvious in the first minutes that he was a statesman of a different category. While Bill Clinton pandered (succssfully) to the crowd with facile boilerplate, Mandela’s comments were thoughtful and informed as well as elegantly phrased. And Mandela’s successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, was still in the disgraceful role of AIDS denialist, a policy that condemned many hundreds of thousands of South Africans to painful deaths (which, incidentally, had it been done by the old apartheid regime, would have been called genocide and rightfully so).

There was an oddly parallel event another day at the conference when the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer addressed a small lunch to offer her take on the country’s initiatives to promote sexual health among the youth of the country facing terrifying rates of HIV infection. While recognizing the need for concrete safety advice like condom use, she mused about what might be lost when the mystery of erotic love appeared to be reduced to its mechanics. It was a marvelous and unusual address, and I regret that to my knowledge it has never been published—certainly not in the vast academic and journalistic literature on HIV and prevention.

Gordimer was followed by Danny Glover, a nice man who just happens not to be in her league. But he’s a movie star, and his perfectly meaningless rhetoric was greeted with raucous ovations. Mandela also got an enthusiastic reception, but he was a celebrity by then, too. I suspect people were more impressed by his personal story than appreciative of his analytical skills.

Like Martin Luther King, Mandela is an icon and deservedly so. But in the process their messages and legacy inevitably are diluted into something manageable and not too threatening. The violent opposition, be it from the apartheid goons or J. Edgar Hoover’s, to their eminently fair demands is airbrushed into poor judgment and lack of historical vision rather than vicious, murderous reaction that could be too easily identified in the present. But read Mandela’s statement to the court on his conviction for sabotage: these are not the words of an avuncular hold-hands-and-sing preacher of good will towards men, but a revolutionary ready to apply the tactics required for victory.

Most of what we will hear in the next few days will be lip service from the mighty who didn’t care if Mandela rotted and died in jail but eventually realized that they couldn’t keep backing the neonazi apartheid state forever and needed him to keep South Africa from blowing sky-high. Once he’s properly buried, they’ll go back to jigging the system to favor the rich, throwing a few millions more off food stamps and providing back-up to the Israeli version of bantustans.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

“12 Years” treatment of slavery an improvement, but not a cigar

I’ve been trying to figure out why the all-the-rage new film 12 Years a Slave left me rather cold. It’s certainly an improvement over recent silliness like Django (admittedly never meant to be taken as a historical anything), but IMHO the suggestions that this picture is some sort of Roots II that will blow the remaining lids off American slavery are way off. I think we’re still a long way from a solid treatment of America’s Original Sin because we’re still focused on individuals as action figures of good and evil rather than appreciating the deeply perverting effects of the institution on everyone it touched. That is, on everyone.

Frederick Douglass in his brilliant autobiography pointed out 150 years ago that even Sophia Auld, the decent slavemistress he landed with in Maryland as a young adult, could not overcome the moral rot that inevitably accompanied the owning of another human being by another. He paints her as a rather nice lady who at first thought he should learn to read the Bible; soon, however, she evolves into a stinking harpie vigilantly enforcing slavery’s rules.

Twelve Years doesn’t probe in that direction at all. On a superficial level, the film seems to play rather fast and loose with historical accuracy. In an early scene Solomon Northrup is enjoying a rather fancy meal in a Washington, D.C., restaurant with the two white men who would later kidnap and sell him. A viewer would never suspect that segregation in public facilities in this border city lasted well into the 1950s when organized civil rights agitators forced an end to it. While a flashback scene shows that racism was alive and flourishing in the North, the active color bar that operated in the minds of most whites, both North and South, is whitewashed out and replaced with an anachronistic—and audience-comforting—Northern attitude of respectful equality.

In another peculiar incident, Solomon fights back against a white overseer early in the film who then vows to murder him and is about to do so—rather strange since the overseer did not ‘own’ Northrup and would not have had the right to dispose of the master’s ‘property’ in that way. Later, Northrup stumbles upon a lynching of two slaves in a forest clearing.

But as first-person slave accounts such as those in the recent book A Slave No More make clear, while the pre-war environment for slaves could include horrific beatings and torture for misbehavior, executions were rare—slaves were too valuable alive. Once slavery ended after the Civil War, however, lynchings became epidemic throughout the former Confederacy since social control now had to be enacted indirectly. As there was no profit in keeping alive individual blacks when their labor was plentiful and easily substituted, terrorism via the rope and the bonfire made sense and remained highly effective for a century.

Still, there is a deeper problem with 12 Years than this or that possible distortion. We don’t really get a coherent look at how the slave system systematically crushed the human spirit. The characters who populate the film tilt into caricature: evil owners, whip-cracking Simon Legrees, a frustrated and vengeful plantation wife, the heroic Canadian dissident, noble and long-suffering slaves who are unfailingly kind to each other. (The briefest exception is a house servant who shoos Northrup off the plantation porch.)

These characters existed, in one form or another, to be sure, but they are simply immoral monsters, and that’s a cop-out because it permits us, watching this version of history, to suppose that any decent-minded individual (ourselves, of course, in our fantasy landscape) could and would make a difference, resist, somehow breach the slave system. Brad Pitt, the good lad who engineers Northrup’s return to freedom, even challenges the slaveowner to his face and is not immediately run off the property as a nigger-lover. He stands in for us, helping us refuse to countenance the far uglier likelihood that in that nightmarish environment, even decent-minded folks who might improbably pop up probably couldn’t have done much.

Even lovely Patsy, whom we watch being beaten to a bloody pulp by her jealous owner who is also sexually fixated on her, is an angel of unreality. She regularly picks 500 pounds of cotton compared to the others’ measly 200-250 pounds, causing the latter to be taken off and whipped. One would expect therefore to see a hint of resentment from them at her Stakhanovite over-production. But the other slaves don’t seem to mind her sterling performance as a work mule making their own lives more miserable.

Nor do we get any real insight into how the total control exercised by the owners, accompanied by the constant threat of violence, would have colonized slaves psychologically, led them to identify with the masters and obey them instinctively. Concentration camp literature and even accounts of women trafficked for prostitution provide plenty of accounts of how easily and quickly even a modicum of judiciously applied trauma will cripple the victims mentally and turn them into passive cooperators. We see Northrup betrayed by a white cotton picker--how much more disturbing to our facile categories would it be to see him betrayed by a fellow slave.

On the flip side, amidst all the brutality we get little sense of the owners' version of affection for individual slaves, that essential form of self=delusion that would have provided the plantation class easy confidence that they had the welfare and well-being of their ignorant servants at heart.

Twelve Years is clearly a shocking tale for an American viewer—several people in the audience with me had to leave in the first half hour. But like Holocaust films such as Schindler’s List in which the victims manage somehow to escape, this latest attempt to plumb the depths of American slavery is weak tea with a conveniently happy ending. For all its brutality, even this reminder doesn’t really come close to giving us a picture of the soul-putrefying sickness of slavery during the early centuries of our nation. For that, we need to return to more authentic voices like those of Douglass and other, unfortunately rare, slave narratives—among them Solomon Northrup’s original text.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Pope says Thatcher was wrong, wrong, wrong


Some early comments on the papal ‘exhortation’ entitled Evangelii Gaudium has focused on Francis I’s more explicit objections to unbridled capitalism. Lynne Stuart Parramore at Alternet wondered if he was staging a Karl Marx revival, and others noted that after his two predecessors’ three decades of relentless persecution of the progressive Latin American priesthood, the basic tenets of liberation theology are back (one is tempted to add the un-Francis-like phrase ‘with a vengeance’). The remarkable pendulum swing is a reminder that the Catholic Church has survived for 2,000 years and probably isn’t going anywhere.

After a close reading of the document’s full 80-plus pages, I find ample confirmation of a sea change in Vatican thinking, with some signals more explicit than others. I’m no authority on Catholic theology, but they gave us plenty of Bible study during my Methodist upbringing. I’d say the new papal posture revives the Gospel message in fascinating ways. Or recalling the wags’ comments on John Paul I (the 30-day wonder), maybe the cardinals accidentally elected a Christian.

I’m drawn, oddly perhaps, not directly to the social doctrine in the document, but it’s treatment of one of the more mysterious aspects of Christian dogma for historians and certainly modern society—that of the idea of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. The pious and very sweet Sudanese Muslims I stayed with in 1979 respected the historical figure of Jesus but rolled their eyes at this heresy. It’s been standard Christian belief since the fifth century, and given that civil wars broke out over it way back then, it’s clearly fundamental.

Francis sets this concept at the heart of his criticism of modern secularism and capitalism in particular: the incarnation, he writes, “means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. . . . Our redemption has a social dimension because God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men.” In other words, Margaret Thatcher, in her famous crack that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families’, was all wet.

To ‘desire, seek and protect the good of others’ is at the core of Catholic doctrine, says Francis, and he repeats throughout the document that this principle of loving one’s neighbor outranks all the other teachings, including, he suggests fairly directly, all our dogma about sex and whatnot. We’re not here to judge but to elevate this Gospel message of love and concern for our fellow human creatures above all other tenets.

That’s strangely radical because Francis is pitting his version of the Ineffable against the frigid tenets of neoliberal capitalism and its god-like Invisible Hand. In fact, the debate is pointing up the quasi-mystical and downright religious underpinnings of the current worship of mammon being performed by our ruling elites and political classes of the ‘developed’ world.

Francis never repeats the Latin American bishops’ famous phrase from the 1968 Medellin conference about the Catholic Church’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ (later stamped out by John Paul II and his attack dog, Ratzinger cum Benedict XVI), but he paraphrases it over and over as early as paragraph #2 where he criticizes ‘the feverish pursuit of frivelous pleasures and a blunted conscience’. There’s much more in this curiously thought-provoking document, and I’m overcoming my resistance to give it a thorough read. More to come.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

World AIDS Day #25


It’s a familiar ritual now 25 years later with the high drama of the AIDS apocalypse somewhat past, at least here in the richer parts of the world. HIV continues to present a knotty problem to societies everywhere, and although there are no ready-made, “silver bullet” solutions, political will (lack of) and spending priorities (ass-backwards) are still the key drivers of new infections, disease and death.

I attended the main AIDS Day rally in Times Square Sunday afternoon, and it’s progress of sorts to see the big Bank of America logo flashing its cozy endorsement over the event from its giant screens. But it’s hard to know what that actually means given the financial sector’s takeover of our federal government and the 1%’s successful skewering of fiscal policy to starve social services of all kinds so that they can continue to vacuum up all our wealth. If ending AIDS takes money, and you refuse to make any available, how does that ‘support’ the cause?

A lot of the rally speakers seemed to be stuck in a time warp, and given the level of trauma among the old-timers, I don’t exactly blame them. But it was refreshing to hear some explicitly political rhetoric among all the sloganeering and recollections of the deceased. Jim Eigo, a veteran of the original ACT UP whom I have come to know slightly, told the crowd that many tools are now available that can drive new infection rates down. It’s just a question of whether governments and those who run them are willing to make it happen and spend the money to do it.

The potent movement that grew up around the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s is not likely to reappear in anything like its prior form, and we should be glad that those awful times are long gone. People are no longer losing most of their friends and terrified of their own sex lives, and that’s a good thing even though it makes mobilizing interest in the topic tough, even among gay men in this city (despite the fact that one out of every six or so is already HIV-positive). The bulk of the attendees at today’s rally were clients and employees of the AIDS service organizations boosted by the thin ranks of activists and volunteers.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of interest, agitation, organizing, sympathy and still a good deal of clout. I’m particularly encouraged to see the glossy gay club & nightlife magazine NEXT [pictured above] dedicating a thoughtful feature article to the topic in this week’s issue, which included profiles of four HIV-positive local guys who braved the ongoing stigma attached to their diagnosis that plagues the scene as much as ever.

It’s clear that facile exhortations to condom use and cautious monogamy aren’t sufficient to bring down the new infection rates, and there are a plethora of additional prevention tools in the growing toolbox: pre- and post-exposure prophylaxsis, microbicides, viral suppression (known as TasP, Treatment as Prevention). They’ll require new programs and a resuscitated campaign of community education, and the city’s record on the latter has been particularly weak for a decade. Now is the time for a techno-political approach that combines the old militancy with specific, targeted demands based on solid science. We have a more sympathetic mayor coming into office and a fairly reliable ally in the governor’s office. Real progress could be within our grasp, and as New York goes, so goes the nation.

What the CIA-NSA snooper state left behind in Iraq

Here’s yesterday’s news from Iraq tucked away on page A6 of the Saturday Times (Headline: ’18 are found shot to death after abduction in Baghdad’.)

*Eighteen people were seized by ‘armed men in sport utility vehicles and dressed in military uniforms’ who went from door to door pulling out specific individuals (all Sunnis). They were found shot and the bodies dumped on a farm. In plain English: death squads operate with impunity, probably at the direction of the central government authority. However, among the dead were an army officer and a policeman, so there appear to be more than one death squad operating at the whim of different factions among the powerful.

*Seven laborers were found decapitated near Tikrit north of Baghdad.

*Five people were killed by a roadside bomb in Radhwaniya.

*In a Shiite area of Baghdad, three men’s bodies were found showing signs of torture.

*Six women living in a house together were found assassinated by weapons with silencers.

*29 other people were killed, as the Times tersely puts it, ‘in shopping areas’. We can assume this means the usual pattern of bomb attacks in food markets that are so routine now that reporters barely need to describe them.

And that’s just one day in the life of the average Iraqi.

Let’s keep this in mind when debates about whether Edward Snowden and The Guardian are damaging ‘national security’ by letting us know about the snooping powers of the state. This is the same state that systematically lied to us about Iraq after 9/11 to falsely blame the Iraqi people for it, that persecuted domestic dissidents (like Michigan State professor Juan Cole) for daring to oppose the war plans, that sent off crusading knights to seize control of that country, that substituted Biblical exegesis for common sense and planning in doing so thereby setting off an appalling spiral of violence that utterly destroyed a society already devastated by decades of terrifying dictatorship, that showed indifference and contempt for the safety of the residents of its conquered territory and that eventually withdrew in defeat but is now too embarrassed by that failure to remind itself of the horrific, ongoing destruction that it wrought on innocent civilians.

So yes, governments theoretically have the right to keep secrets and to maintain an intelligence apparatus. But they have to earn it.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Neocons mourn loss of new war ops

A lengthy New Yorker piece published September 30 related how the U.S. and Iran began secretly to cooperate militarily after 9/11 because al-Qaeda was their common enemy. Iran actually borders Afghanistan, and the al-Q Sunni fanatics consider Shiites (like the Iranians) to be apostates. So, as the story describes in detail, Iranian operatives meeting with Americans secretly in Switzerland, provided usable military intelligence to the Bush Administration to facilitate the U.S. attack.

But that all collapsed when neocon chicken hawks like Cheney and Wolfowitz got Bush to insert the ‘axis of evil’ line in his State of the Union speech. They indulged themselves in the infantile fantasy that invading countries all over the globe was pretty much like a board game that you can win without getting out of your jammies. Iraq came first, of course, but they openly boasted that once that mission was done, Iran was going to be next. ‘Real men go to Teheran’ was their yuk-yuk slogan.

You have to wonder what planet these acne-plagued boys live on to treat warmaking like a big game using other people’s children and possessions. But somehow they got the whole country to go along with it, and now they’re howling with grief over the Kerry-Rouhani deal that just might defuse the ongoing pointless confrontation that serves only the short-term interest of the nuttiest faction among the Israeli elites.



Thursday, 21 November 2013

Cops, bankers, shills

According a city gossip column, our-soon-to-be-dismissed-and-not-to-be-missed police chief, Ray Kelly, could be going to work for Henry Kissinger.

What a marvelous blast of clarity into what Kelly has been about for the last decade, turning black and Hispanic youth into automatic criminals, backing up his trigger-happy officers who ‘accidentally’ shoot them and presiding over a mini-CIA in the department that collects detailed information on who goes to what mosque. Now he gets to graduate to providing muscle to our very own resident war criminal.

Not only that, but the elites have such contempt for the rest of us poor slobs that they don’t even hide how they’ve rigged things to suit themselves. After popping in to visit Dr. Strangelove, Kelly was feted at a dinner party by Tina Brown, no less, the queen of periodical destruction. Get a load of the guest list as reported by Page Six:

Among those who thanked Kelly for his service to the city were CNN boss Jeff Zucker, former schools chancellor Joel Klein, “Nightline” co-anchor Cynthia McFadden, financier Don Marron and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen with Pat Duff.

[Photo: funeral of Ramarley Graham, unarmed teen shot to death in his bathroom by NYPD]

The glimpse of the wink-wink alliance among the security state (Kelly, Kissinger), high finance (Marron, ex-CEO of Paine Webber) and the propaganda apparatus (Brown, Murdoch toady Klein, McFadden and ‘white guys with black wives EWW’ Cohen) is classic. As Gawker put it in response, can you imagine a room where you’d rather not be?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Chile votes, shrugs it off [updated]

Chile, where I spent one-third of my life, just held presidential and legislative elections, and my reading of the results is that times really have changed there in a startling way. The electoral outcome isn’t obviously dramatic, but what the polling numbers—and the winners—say about the future is very telling.

As many people may be aware, the popular ex-president, Michelle Bachelet, is on her way to a crushing second-round victory for another four-year term. But her program this second time around is rather amazing in that it seems to be lifted directly from the placards of the student protesters who plagued her predecessor in a more-or-less non-stop multi-year protest. She says she agrees that says the country should have free university education and should rewrite the 1981 constitution that was rammed down Chile’s collective throat during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

In fact, Bachelet is going to be dealing even more directly with four of those student leaders, including the now famous Camila Vallejo, who won seats in the country’s parliament headquartered in Valparaíso. Bachelet’s center-left governing coalition, which has been in power for 20 of the 24 post-Pinochet years, boosted its parliamentary bloc from 57 to 68 seats (out of 120) in the lower house and from 20 to 21 senators out of 38.

But hidden in the rosy figures for the social democratic “New Majority” pols is the very considerable abstention rate of 44 percent, which in the Chilean case is not so much a sign of apathy (though it is certainly a factor) but of outright rejection of electoral politics, especially by the young.

Of course, it’s hard to draw judgments from a non-act like not going to the polls. But young Chileans have been massively turned off to electoral politics ever since Pinochet was slowly eased out as president in 1990. Despite the heady promises of those early years, the incoming “democratic” parties kept far too much of the dictatorship’s structural changes intact.

The lethargy reached a peak when the current president, billionaire Sebastián Piñera, beat former president Eduardo Frei in 2009 enabling the pinochetista parties to form the first right-wing government in 20 years. They might now regret it. Paradoxically, that might have been the best thing that could have happened to the hibernating social movements. Without the superficially sympathetic liberals and socialists in the government any more, students exasperated with their expensive, low-quality education and bleak employment prospects hit the streets and haven’t left them since.

That’s why careful calculations of whether Bachelet’s coalition has enough votes to pass constitutional reforms (some of which require a 3/5 or 2/3 vote) is missing the point. No one would even be talking about constitutional reform if the younger generations had not made life hell for the powers that be, and everything they are saying now indicates that they have no intention of giving Mme. Michelle a free ride based on pretty words.

[Update] I wrote most of this yesterday and then hours later received this hilarious account of voting day from a friend there:

My hairdresser called her 20-year-old son and asked him whether he had done his civic duty yet, and he said he was still in his pyjamas (at 4 p.m.) so she yelled a few garabatos and told him he had to vote.

When she came back at night feeling exhausted after the ordeal at her local precinct, she asked him about his civic duty again. He said he had reached the place where he had to vote at 5 minutes past 6 which was the closing time, and when he entered there was a total silence and all of a sudden everyone started applauding. He was quite surprised.

They said, the polls are closed, but we will make an exception and let you vote because you are the first and only young person who has set foot in this voting location.

So as you see, I'm not making it up. País ganador!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Brazil jailings amaze cynics


FORTALEZA, Brazil – Last week I joined Brazilians by tuning in to a remarkable spectacle: top politicians convicted of corruption getting carted off to jail. That’s not something that happens very often in Brazil. No, wait; that NEVER happens in Brazil. But it did.

About eight years ago, a scheme came to light by which Workers Party (PT) officials passed a juicy monthly emolument (known as a mensalão) to members of the Brazilian congress in exchange for support on key votes. The PT, now in power for a dozen years, is the country’s largest left-wing party and emerged from a decades-long alliance between intellectuals, progressive Catholics and a strong labor movement. Its charismatic two-term president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula” for short), remains enormously popular. Lula was never accused of complicity in the mensalão scheme although it’s also pretty hard to believe that he knew nothing about what was going on under his nose. In any case, his popularity did not stop the glacially slow wheels of justice from turning on his top aides.

Legal maneuvering to keep the party’s former president, José Genoino, and Lula’s one-time chief of staff, José Dirceu [pictured], out of the clink fell apart when the supreme court told them they had to start serving their sentences. This was shocking in a country where the rich and powerful usually get away with murder. (Literally: one parliamentarian famously continued to serve after being convicted in a homicide case.) Television provided live coverage of the event as cars pulled in to prisons in different states.

It’s hard to say what the precedent-shattering event means. Most Brazilians I met are far too cynical and resigned to the rampant corruption they live with to believe anything has really changed. But it was encouraging to see even the slightest breach in the grotesque two-tiered system of rich/poor justice even while the papers were full of the next big scandal that, in cash terms, far outstrips the mensalão.

It’s not as if Brazilians are inherently less honest than anyone else. I bought a hammock from a downtown shop in Fortaleza, and due to some confusion in the jam-packed place, I ended up paying 75 reales instead of the discounted 65 a clerk had offered me. As I carried the package through the crowded square, a store employee shouted after me and came running with a 10-real bill. ‘You forgot your change, sir’, she said.



Monday, 11 November 2013

BRIC-bats

(Salvador de Bahia, Brazil) – The day I arrived here, Brazil’s most important newspaper carried the following three front-page stories:

*Ninety-seven employees from four ministries in the São Paulo city government are under investigation for a series of corruption schemes including allegations they were bribed to slash property tax bills for developers. The investigation is focusing (à la Al Capone) on individuals whose impressive wealth could not be explained by their salaries and whose telephones were then wiretapped by prosecutors searching for an explanation.

(Let it be noted that the guy thought to be the mastermind of this scheme, Undersecretary of Municipal Revenue Ronilson Rodrigues, earned a monthly salary of 24,063 Brazilian reales: or US$ 10,935 at current exchange rates. But that was not enough to finance his Peugeot sports car.)

*A sitting and a former member of the state supreme court of Bahia are under investigation for misusing their office to deprive the state of $200 million.

*Four other SP ministries—Environmental Protection, Housing, Labor and Administration—are also under the inspectors’ gaze over “evidence of irregularities.”

And that’s just one day’s news.

Brazil is sometimes treated as a powerful new player on the verge of joining the big fellows at some sort of neoliberal power table. We hear a lot about the BRICs countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—as the new counterweight to the old key states of Europe, the U.S. and Japan. (Sometimes Indonesia gets stuck in there as another “I” country.) But these breathless accounts about these countries’ growing GDPs tend to downplay just how fucked up they are as if a larger GDP is all you need. Size really matters for these guys.

I’m here for a national meeting of the AIDS nonprofits that are trying their best to salvage Brazil’s ground-breakingly humane national strategy for that disease, which included massive antiretroviral coverage for everyone at a time when the experts said it was crazy. The approach was hailed as a huge success and imitated everywhere, most notably in Bush II’s PePFAR program, which brought modern HIV treatment to poor countries in Africa.

But that was then, and this is now. The AIDS program is facing serious difficulties, which I’ll save for later comment. What’s more interesting is how Brazil’s apparent ‘success’ as another neoliberal poster child masks the unease and discomfort experienced by the people who live here. How does growth translate into well-being for the majority?

As became evident during the June-July demonstrations in response to a public transit fare hike in São Paulo from 2.75 reales to 3, Brazilians aren’t at all convinced that the shiny new country they’re supposed to be so enamored of is benefitting them. The corruption stories that greeted me last week are one symptom of a deep malaise.

Carlos Melo writing in O Estado de São Paulo warns of boring the reader by listing all the most recent corruption scandals that can no longer be said to ‘rock’ the country given that most people are too weary of them to pay much attention. The latest, however, is also the largest: even the payoff scandal known as the ‘mensalão’ of a few years ago that toppled Lula’s chief of staff, only involved 50 million reales (20-30 million dollars depending on the exchange rate). This one cost the city of São Paulo something like 10 times that.

Melo laments what he calls the ‘democratization of pillage’, a frequent comment heard from people who suffered greatly to restore democracy after a ferocious military dicatorship (1964-1985) that proceeded to teach other Latin American countries exactly how to torture and disappear their enemies.

The perception that corruption is generalized generates much more perverse effects than the corruption itself. On top of undermining belief in political activity of any kind, it subjectively liberates everyone to become a criminal. A vicious cycle then blooms: if the authorities do it, why shouldn’t an average citizen? What can we say about a society in which it’s worse to be called a fool than to be called a thief?
--which sheds a certain light on the notorious insecurity and uncontrolled street crime of many Brazilian cities. Melo goes on to say that when everyone is found with a thumb in the potpie, no electoral channels remain by which the citizenry can put a stop to it, and ballot box fights degenerate into mere gladiatorial spectacles. ‘Mortars are launched by each side at the other in a pleasant, shared game of imbeciles in which both sides are right without being right at all’. In this arena the Brazilians and in fact many in Latin America are way ahead of us—at least they see what is happening.

So when the authorities tried last June to jack up the price of public transport by a fairly measly amount, hundreds of thousands of fed-up users poured into the streets of São Paulo, Rio and other cities, not to protest the few extra cents but to object to the ongoing looting of their city and state treasuries by elected and unelected officials who openly sneer at the idea of public service. They didn’t wait for the next election because they have no illusions about the impact of reshuffling the faces at the top.

That’s what my colleagues in the HIV/AIDS service industry and advocacy movement are trying to articulate as well—that Brazil once held out the promise of development with a human face in which people with needs, like medication to stave off a deadly virus, could count on the country’s new-found wealth to take care of them. Instead, they see a ruling elite bent on cashing in as quickly as possible through any deal, licit or under-the-table, that can generate a quick pay-off. This has nothing to do with building a sustainable, health society over the long run, which would require investment in the people who comprise it.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Cinematic insights from Egypt, Poland and here at home

The Square, which tells the unfinished story of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and beyond, shows how the army made sure it was itself the principal beneficiary of the mass uprising against Mubarak. The generals hated the idea of having to share the spoils of the Egyptian dictatorship with Mubarak’s son, and the sudden outpouring of mass resistance to the regime played nicely into their plans to interrupt the dynastic succession. Once Mubarak was toppled, they had what they wanted, promised democracy and sent everyone home.

The film then displays how the Muslim Brotherhood got played by the army and confused electoral victory and formal officeholding with power. It’s pretty depressing to see the missteps on the civilian side, the Brotherhood’s sectarian ambitions and disdain for dissent coupled with the secular liberals’ cluelessness about how to organize themselves and channel their mass base into a political structure. In the end both sides endorsed the use of the army’s ruthlessness against each other, and the prospects for democracy in Egypt today are not bright—although the story is far from over.

But documentary is not the only way to perceive what is churning away within a culture. In the Name of . . . is an unsettling new Polish film that grapples with sex and Catholicism and says something oddly encouraging about how that society is absorbing conflicting influences in its third post-communist decade. The tale is that of a well-meaning young priest torn between his authentic vocation for service and his homoerotic desire. Casual brutishness seems to spring from the soil in the film where children lace their cruelty towards anyone showing signs of weakness with interchangeable anti-Semitic and homophobic taunts.

The story takes place in a sort of rural halfway house for delinquent teenaged boys, and in this atmosphere of sullen hostility, Catholic practice and belief appear as a dissonant force, potentially humanizing but also hypocritical, as embodied by Father Adam himself. In one telling scene a tough newcomer, himself fond of sex with his fellow inmates, is asked by the priest what he seeks and answers with a penetrating glare, ‘The same thing you do, Father.’ How the movie resolves the clash of Catholic ideology and more indulgent modern attitudes toward sexual expression (see Pope Francis I) is a neat twist—which I won’t ruin.

So what does the recent output from Hollywood tell us about ourselves? Gravity, an amazing technical feat, gets us to focus on ‘how did they do that?’ and marvel at its effects, our very American default reaction. Bullock and Clooney float around in outer space and struggle against technological obstacles to their safe return. It’s a bit of Robinson Crusoe and a dozen other survivor tales.

But by placing Gravity side by side with Robert Redford’s marvelous survival-at-sea story All Is Lost, which I did on successive weekends, I perceived a common thread. Both Bullock and Redford fight their way to solid ground while staring at the terrifyingly indifferent natural world and a chilling silence from human civilization. Bullock can’t get anyone on her radio; Redford sends up a flare to passing container ships, but no human face or voice responds to either of them.

If we take these films as statements about the societies they portray, Egyptians are buffeted by their cruel politics, and the Poles are wondering what to do with their Catholic identity, a questioned institutional church and modern sexuality. What about us? Perhaps we Americans see ourselves as adrift and alone, unable to rely on the technological marvels that once promised security and safe docking.




Sunday, 3 November 2013

Guess what? we're voting Tuesday on casinos!

Something popped up in the election materials that reached me last week for our Nov. 5 vote that took me completely by surprise. Lo and behold, we’re going to vote on a referendum authorizing casino gambling outside of Indian reservations! Who knew?

The mayoral race is all but a done deal with de Blasio expected to crush the Rudy Giuliani sidekick by a massive margin. So a lot of people aren’t even aware of the call to urns, and turnout should be more pathetic than usual.

It’s a real pity no public interest group managed to put together an opposing coalition and drum up some propaganda against this very bad idea. The pro-referendum literature in my mailbox is signed by Democratic Party poobahs, no doubt since I am registered as one, along with labor leaders willing to sell out for anything with the word ‘jobs’ attached to it. (The pro-casino coalition is subtly called NY Jobs Now.) The latest poll shows it winning approval comfortably.

This announcement, the first on the topic that has reached me, came exactly one week before the vote will take place. The silence is very convenient for the casino backers who depend on the populace not having a chance to think through what more casinos will mean for our collective welfare. In the last few days, they’re going all-out to overcome any lingering distaste for gambling among the populace with no opposing views getting much airing.

The Times has some standard boilerplate today laying out the reasons more gambling is not what we need, which is better than nothing, I suppose. In it, Cornell University economics professor Robert A. Frank refers to the loathsome ad campaign that the state already runs encouraging poor people to spend their meagre resources on lottery tickets:

As parents tell their children, the best way to get ahead is to get more education, work hard and save for the future. For many years, however, New York has encouraged its citizens to rely instead on luck, to dream about what they’d do if they won the state lottery. “I’d buy the company and fire my boss,” intoned one artfully produced, state-funded television spot.

Governor Cuomo, a depressingly typical example of what non-insane political leadership looks like these days, favors the casino measure as it will enable him to pull in revenue without having to look for tax revenue. That’s convenient for him and his ambitions—not for us.

The referendum includes a particularly offensive requirement that casino taxes go to education. Oh please. Money is money, but this demagogic add-on will permit the pro-casino forces to parade as defenders of Adorable Children, just like the big-box stores now force their cashiers to panhandle you for change so that you focus on their corporate charity instead of the overpriced crap you just bought.

I don’t have moral objections to gambling and have done some myself. But I don’t think the working people of New York need more glossy entities dedicated to separating them from their cash. (The Yankees organization alone is more than sufficient.) Too bad no one got it together to generate a public debate on the issue.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Is the Obama presidency crumbling?

People are furious,” said a senior intelligence official who would not be identified discussing classified information. “This is officially the White House cutting off the intelligence community.
Cited by Ken Dilanian and Janet Stobart in the Los Angeles Times.

“Crumbling”? That may seem a harsh judgment, even phrased as a question. But the signs of disarray and poor crisis management are mutliplying. Given that Obama’s tenure still has at least two more years to run even before the next round of electoral distraction, premature lame-duckism is not a favorable prospect for our well-being.

But Obama is reaping the deserved fruits of his own bad habits, so it’s hard to work up much sympathy for his travails despite the revolting behavior of his sworn enemies (whom he seems determined to keep courting). For starters, the entire NSA scandal, now mutating and ballooning on an hourly basis, springs from Obama’s own coddling of the spy/war-making apparatus. He provided cover for their Bush-era crimes (by failing to prosecute torture among other things), continues to tolerate the inexcusable Guantánamo nightmare, and acceded to the pointless prolongation of the Afghan war demanded by his generals (who loathe him) despite its futility, no doubt to preserve his tough-guy stance and his chances for a second term. And of course he has been a vigorous defender of the electronic snoopery and major hater of Mr. Snowden for exposing its creepy, Orwellian behavior—until now.

Meanwhile, it’s lovely to see the NSA leakers (leaks! lawbreaking! treason!) try to undermine the White House’s claims that Obama did not know about Angela Merkel’s phone being tapped. At long last, Obama has a problem he can’t lawyer his way out of given that he either (1) did know all along and is lying; (2) really did not know and is thus a piss-poor manager; or (3) kinda-sorta knew but kept himself at arm’s length of the gory details in time-honored Washington style. Or he could simply spit out the more likely story and admit that (4) no one in elected office, including himself, can rein in the spy agencies or even ask what they’re up to any more because they’ve got dirt on everyone or can easily generate some.

Another aspect of the fracturing of Obama’s leadership is his peculiar tolerance for endless buckets of right-wing abuse full of barely concealed racial overtones combined with his furious retaliation against populist or left-wing critics or, heaven forbid, whistle-blowers, whom he loves to prosecute for espionage. Anyone who might have alerted him to embarrassing facts about the wiretaps on foreign leaders surely got the message long ago that the prez did not want to hear them, would not defend anyone who blurted them out, and was content with his role of manager-in-chief of the security state, including turning a blind eye to the boys as they ran wild with drones, electronic bugs, and forklift pallets of $100 bills.

There have been tons of people trying to warn Obama about the dangers, both political and moral, of excessive snooping, slaughter-by-drone, the ongoing cruelty of Guantánamo, the crumbling of the rule of law, and in an entirely different realm, the runaway powers of the finance sector. But he would hear none of that. Now he’s on his own defending all those bad habits, and his only allies are the security state itself, a large part of which hates his guts.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Stop focusing on the Tea Party; watch out for the other guys


Laments such as this one on the exasperatingly demented behavior of our GOP Wacko Brigade proliferate across the Web, and private conversations throughout the land. But while true as far as they go, I believe they miss the point.

The danger to our polity and our wellbeing, in the long run, is not—or not solely—due to the reactionary nuttiness of the Ted Cruzes and the Michelle Bachmanns, but also to the steady adoption of several of their key assumptions in slightly modified form by their supposed adversaries. We can debate whether this is intentional or unconscious but not, I repeat, whether it is taking place. In a process that directly parallels the British New Labour self-seduction into Thatcherite neoliberalism, the Obama Administration and the Democrats as a whole skate ever closer to the GOP view of the role of government and social solidarity, thus setting the stage for even more devastating attacks on the poor, workers and the middle class.

In other words, while we can and should fear the occasional tactical victories of the radical right wing and cheer their defeats, we should not lose sight of their continuing strategic triumph.

Gloating over the Tea Party/GOP plunge in popular opinion after they engineered the recent shutdown has obscured their success in setting the terms of our national debate over spending. Obama himself talks incessantly of an alleged need to reduce government spending despite the clear evidence that employment recovery is still distant. His abysmal reaction to the last round of Tea Party blackmail was the sequester, which locked in 8% cuts across all social spending, relief from which is not even on the table. Some defeat for the ultras of the GOP! Instead of having to do the tiresome and tedious work of lopping off bits and pieces through the normal legislative process, they intimidated the majority party into giving up 8% of the store in exchange for nothing.

The apparent struggle over budgetary priorities masks the Obama surrender on a key ideological point: is there a federal deficit “problem”? As Dean Baker has insisted for years in his essential Beat the Press column, the shortfall in our public purse is not the cause of our economic ills but the result of it—the banker-induced crash of 2008 wrecked federal finances, and full employment would repair them.

The destitute and the unemployed should be demanding action from Obama on jobs, but instead they are given the spectacle of goofy Sarah Palin and repugnant Eric Cantor calling for debtors’ prisons and chain gangs. The Dems, who enjoy the craziness to the extent it will get them votes, do nothing to reframe the debate. Instead, they shake their heads like Serious Adults and prepare the way for cuts in Medicaid and Social Security that will further harm the needy.

Rather than fight the tendentious and dishonest Republican complaints about the deficit (which, by the way, would have ended instantly had Romney become president), Obama has made their rhetoric his own as he begs his sworn enemies for a Grand Bargain to begin dismantling the New Deal in exchange for them to like him. The GOP Br’er Rabbits pretend not to want it, and we should all pray hard that they keep refusing.

Meanwhile, further ragging on the excesses of the drunken sailors in the House of Representatives is a misguided diversion. By themselves, the Teabag contingent can only perform sabotage. But real long-term damage is within the power of the liberals like Dick Durbin of Illinois who just promised to open the Pandora’s Box of Social Security reductions so as to further glut the insatiable trough wherein the troops of the renascent Confederacy feed.

So those among us who eagerly await the congressional election of 2014 so that the Teabagger minions can be disapatched back to their plantations should be careful what they wish for. If there is no sustained pushback from alarmed citizens against the growing assault on our retirement security, we may welcome back to Washington a Democratic majority just in time to witness it hand the cashbox over to the Wall Street financiers.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Biting the hand that gives trillions


Murdoch’s New York Post had a screaming headline yesterday ‘UNCLE SCAM’ , alluding to the upcoming $13 billion fine to be levied against JP MorganChase. The thrust of that article was that the big, bad government was staging bank robbery by extracting hard-earned cash from an upstanding pillar of the economy headed by perfectly nice Jamie Dimon.

The Post follows up today with another piece outlining that Dimon’s only real sin was his opposition to Obama’s unhealthy economic policies such that the big fines were political punishment.

You really have to have the balls of an elephant to pull off a cynical exercise like this (Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism shreds the supposedly big fine here), but Obama and the Dems left themselves open to an attack of this staggering chutzpah by coddling the financial sector and refusing to expose their crimes. The country was primed to extract real concessions from the banking sector after the meltdown of 2008, and the public could easily have been educated about what had taken place if the light had been shined on Dimon and his colleagues publicly. What an educational opportunity was lost when the Obama team refused to hold public hearings on what went wrong. We needed a modern Sam Ervin to grill these banker-anarchists until the truth came out for all to see.

Instead of a Pecora Commission like the one set up under FDR to probe the causes of the 1930s Depression, we got Democratic cover for the banks that bankroll both parties and a full bailout with no change of management. Now the counterattack from the guys who asses were saved is in full swing. Like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz staging protests at the veterans memorial over the shutdown THEY engineered, Democratic collusion with the bankers’ crimes provided the demagogues with a giant opportunity.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Post mortem on the wounded republic


Hopefully next time it won't be in the 11th hour. We've got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis.
–Barack Obama

Now is not the time for pointing the fingers of blame. Now is the time for reconciliation.
– Harry Reid (D-NV)

This is not over.
–Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

Amidst the heaving sighs of relief at the end of the useless and seditious attempt by a minority to blackmail the rest of us into getting their way, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the big “losers” have no real reason to despair. Listen to Obama’s tone in his statement above: “we” have got to stop governing this way—since when are “we” doing so? If I’m not mistaken, it was “they” who insisted on this bullying tactic, and we can bet, given his lame-ass, passive response, that “they” will be at it again very soon, as Teabagger Mike Lee promised.

Then there’s the comment from Harry Reid who led a respectably pugnacious fight on the Senate side and didn’t sound as tongue-tied as the Prez when characterizing the wacko leagues. If “now” is not the time for pointing fingers of blame, when on earth would that time be?

A lot of the post hoc commentary now consists of gloating over how badly the Republicans have harmed their “brand” and the possibility of punishment a year from now at the mid-term elections, all of which is highly speculative. But as one of the ‘baggers pointed out in the midst of the spat, their last round of blackmail was highly successful and resulted in the sequester, brutal cuts to social programming that not even the Democrats are complaining about any more.

Sure, this time they got bupkis in concrete terms, but they managed to push the discussion even further toward their overall position on things like the need to slash Social Security and other “entitlements.” Here Obama entirely agrees with them as he has been trumpeting for years to no avail. Ironically, the Tea Party loonies have done us a favor by refusing to come to terms with Satan. We should fear that the “sensible” GOP types take over and push through a deal with Obama that will be far worse for our futures than anything done so far.

Another big topic of discussion is the anti-democratic nature of the GOP revolt given that Obamacare was passed by both houses of Congress, signed into law and upheld by the Supreme Court, i.e., a legal statute under the Constitution that these tinfoil-hats pretend to uphold. Explain to me why this is news? These are not the same crew who imposed themselves in the presidency despite losing (possible twice), drove voter suppression to new limits, de-legitimized Obama’s presidency from Day One, enabled birther demagoguery, and continues to look for ways to subvert due process on any front?

I think the tone of the Obama presidency was set during the first State of the Union message he delivered by the interruption from a racist asshole from South Carolina. Instead of calling out the guy, Obama just swallowed it and has been on the defensive ever since.

For that matter, why not go back to the worst subversion of democratic process in our lifetime, the 2000 judicial coup that the Democrats took lying down with hardly a peep. If anyone should have been staging last-stand shutdowns of the federal government lately, it was them and then.

So what can we expect next? Once the hoopla dies down, I expect the country to sink back into complacency. After all was said and done, the disaster scenario did not occur. As the financial markets largely anticipated, there was no collapse, no runs on banks, no sudden drops of 600 points in the Dow, no wild foreign exchange gyrations. The Democrats get to look like adults, but who cares? That didn’t save John Kerry’s ass in 2004, and it won’t save Obama’s come January when we get to do this or something like it all over again.

This was not a fight with the wackos but rather with their enablers. I am glad to see that more and more commentators (like Frank Rich in New York magazine) draw a parallel with our current state that has often occurred to me: the antebellum period of the 1850s when the Confederacy-to-be started to withdraw from the nation. Here’s Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books:

The people behind these efforts are imitating what the Confederate States did even before they formally seceded in 1861. Already they ran a parallel government, in which the laws of the national government were blatantly disregarded. They denied the right of abolitionists to voice their arguments, killing or riding out of town over three hundred of them in the years before the Civil War. They confiscated or destroyed abolitionist tracts sent to Southern states by United States mail. In the United States Congress, they instituted “gag rules” that automatically tabled (excluded from discussion) anti-slavery petitions, in flagrant abuse of the First Amendment’s right of petition.

The Southern states were able to live in such open disregard for national law because of two things. First, the states were disproportionately represented in Congress . . . . Second, the national Democratic-Republican Party needed the Southern part of its coalition so badly that it colluded with the Southern states’ violations of the Constitution. In 1835, for instance, President Andrew Jackson did not enforce the sacredness of the US mail, allowing states to refuse delivery of anti-slave mailings unless a recipient revealed his identity, requested delivery, and had his name published for vilification.

As Wills points out, the guiding principle at work is resistance to majority rule. Concessions from the central government in the 1850s merely emboldened the secessionists to go further, and that dynamic is at work today. Obama will continue to seek common ground with the enemies of our national polity, and they will continue to bait him as an uppity Negro. At some point, the center will not hold--maybe now, maybe later.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Parallel cops


At least four active-duty New York cops were part of the motorcycle gang that terrorized and assaulted a driver in front of his wife and kid last week, and luckily the local prosecutors are hauling them in one by one to face indictments. Some of them are going to use as a defense the claim that they were undercover and looking for illegal behavior, which is both plausible and disturbing.

Disturbing because cops infiltrating violence-prone groups always have to walk a careful line between observing criminal acts and putting a stop to them, thus ending their undercover status. And in this case, at least one is alleged to have actively participated in the assault, which raises the question, To what extent should undercover spying influence the chain of events? This is a burning issue given the frequent use of agents provocateurs now to uncover ‘terrorist’ plots that often would never have come to fruition without the active encouragement of the policing agents themselves.

In the New York biker incident, the issue is particularly germaine given that one of the undercover rowdies, Wojciech Braszczok, turns out to have been a regular spy at the Occupy Wall Street activities as well. It will be interesting to learn more about his role there: for example, did he actively encourage the OWS folks to engage in more confrontational tactics or even provoke the police himself so that they would have an excuse to wade into the crowds and stage mass arrests? There are preliminary hints that this might be so.

Aside from the illicit spying on a constitutionally-protected protest activity, the presence of Braszczok in these various capacities should give us pause given the likelihood of increasing resistance to the pillager/looter state now firmly in the pocket of our banker overlords. What is to prevent these secret agents from simultaneously undermining legitimate protest while tolerating or even protecting and fortifying violent fringe groups that can be turned to convenient use by their bosses? Or do we believe the police to be a neutral force committed to protecting all citizens equally?

We need look no further than the Golden Dawn phenomenon in Greece to see how a society on the verge of complete collapse can open an enormous wedge to racist hate groups or even death squads, and there is plenty of historical precedent to suspect deep penetration by such groups into the security apparatus where they frequently find ideological sympathizers (Colombia and Northern Ireland come to mind).

We should hope and demand that our district attorneys prosecute these crimes fully and impartially and refuse to be intimidated by the many powerful friends of active-duty cops. Letting them off the hook after a driver out with his wife and minding his own business was dragged from his vehicle and beaten on the street would be yet another chilling precedent.