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


(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.