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.