Monday, 24 February 2014

Is there something fishy in our olive oil?

An article in the New York-based Epoch Times (apparently affiliated with the Falun Gong organization banned in mainland China) caught my attention this week as it confirmed a feeling I’ve had for a while about the suspiciously inexpensive olive oil on sale in all the major groceries here. The article, constructed around a trade dispute, suggests that not everything that is being marketed as “extra virgin” is as chaste as it claims.

Californian olive oil producers are eager to get a larger share of the booming market for the healthy stuff (they now have only 3 percent) are trying to get their boosters in Congress to impose stricter inspections on imports from places like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Greece. While those locales conjure up comforting images of Mediterranean bliss, the opportunities to mislabel products or adulterate oil lesser quality or non-olive oils to sell to the growing U.S. market must be awfully tempting.

And lo and behold, who is the defender of NOT inspecting olive oil more rigorously but good old Congressman Michel “I’ll-break-you-in-half” Grimm, Republican of Staten Island, who recently gained fame for threatening a gay TV newsman on camera. How interesting that swaggering Mike Grimm [below] is the point man for importers from southern Europe wishing to avoid added attention to their marketing and labeling practices.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Ukraine Upheaval

We’ve learned not to celebrate too quickly after the despot is ousted, having seen the heady Egyptian revolt of 2011 deteriorate into a renewed military autocracy. While welcoming the departure of the guy who sent snipers out with high-powered rifles to assassinate rebellious youth and the nurses who tried to keep them alive, it’s hard to be sanguine about the collapse of a large country in the middle of Europe. And anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of the past century should wish this part of the world the best—they’ve suffered quite enough. (Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder is a grim primer.)

If anyone has found a reliable source of cyber-commentary beyond the reporting of events, please post it in comments as the dearth of trustworthy analysis forthcoming is surprising. Professor Juan Cole draws from his Middle East expertise to suggest lessons from the unhappy Egyptian experience and notes, on the positive side, that the Ukrainian army has stayed out of the way so far, like in successful Tunisia and unlike failed Egypt and unstable Libya and Yemen.

But the regional split so much discussed is a serious danger even if possibly overblown. While the Russian role has been nefarious, the Ukraine is, after all, a border state; if it were Mexico, Obama would do exactly the same. And the post-Cold War insistence by the West to expand NATO right up to the frontiers of the former Soviet states set the stage for the Ukraine to become a geopolitical football, so responsibility is widely and deeply shared.

I’m personally fascinated by the elusive nature of political power and how the Ukrainian uprising displayed revolutionary tendencies as the coercive capacity of the state melted away with police switching sides and eventually ceding the streets to the mobilized populace. Why wasn’t the army mobilized to crush the revolt? I hope knowledgeable historians or political scientists soon can tell us.

The country has reverted to a prior (2004) version of the amended constitution, scotching the one Yanukovych rammed through in 2010 to consolidate his rule. (This is a good reminder than being ‘elected’ to office doesn’t necessarily a state of law make—note the Maduro regime in Venezuela.) So there is continuity of sorts in the institutional realm, and that’s probably a good thing. But it would be better yet if the revolutionary momentum carried forward to crush the oligarchs, of which Yanukovych was only one.

For example, if the suddenly heroic Yulia Timoshenko, she of the golden braids, becomes the new president, Ukrainians won’t have gained much. She and the handful of obscenely wealthy crooks who have dominated the post-Soviet Ukraine stand ready to get back to business as usual, and that’s exactly what the unemployed kids should want to prevent. Will any of the political forces present on the streets of Kiev have the organizational wherewithal and political savvy to take this opportunity to the next stage and make sure the restoration of Ukrainian democracy translates into a decent life for its inhabitants? Rather than the replacement of one set of thug nouveaux riches with a new claque of kitsch collectors.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Cash and cops

A startling piece in the NY Daily News today sheds some light on why the police department has been so recalcitrant in the face of obvious dysfunctional policies like stop-and-frisk. As is so often the case, the key is follow-the-money.

Turns out that among the top overtime earners in the department’s detective branch, DN reporters Sarah Ryley and Dareh Gregorian found names that had popped up repeatedly in court suits for false arrests. Without stating it explicitly, the story strongly suggests that the detectives were eager to rack up overtime hours and thus went out looking for crimes that did not exist.

The star of their amazing tales is detective Peter Valentin who earns a base salary of $87 thousand a year. He topped that up with a tidy $38 thousand more last year by charging the taxpery for 585 overtime hours, consistent with his record in prior years. How did he do that?

One hint at the tactics deployed by Valentin and his buddies shows up in a false-arrest lawsuit filed by Bronx youths Tyrone Shields, Gary Castillo and Marcel Grant (shown above). They were picked up in 2011 and driven around in custody for ‘several hours’ before being taken in to a precinct and booked. The stationhouse, however, was only two blocks away from the point of arrest. What took so long?

Well, if the goal is to rack up hours for extra pay, it make sense to have drug charge suspects in your custody and diddle around with them. After all, they’re just black and Hispanic teenagers, so who’s going to complain? As it turned out, there was no evidence against them, the charges were dropped, and the three sued successfully over the incident, costing New York City taxpayers another $83,000 in the settlement payout. But that’s only about one-tenth of all the money Detective Valentin has cost the city in lawsuit settlements: $884 thousand in all.

Although the city often pays up, it never admits guilt. So the whole sorry procedure continues with the next set of victims, and the city treasury is successfully bled. The air of corruption hangs heavily over the entire department, and stop-and-frisk abuses are only the most visible manifestation of a system engineered to channel public funds into private pockets—which, now that I think of it, is pretty consistent with how things are done these days everywhere.

We can hope that the new mayor and his incoming police commissioner, now said to be engaged in a ‘department-wide review,’ will take steps to end this farce. Outgoing Commission Kelly had no interest in rocking this succulent boat as seen in this detail from the story:

Another top overtime earner is Sgt. Fritz Glemaud of Brooklyn North Narcotics, who was given a promotion and a raise by former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly last August, despite having been named in 21 civil rights suits.

Or this:

Detective Vincent Orsini of Staten Island Narcotics has been named in lawsuits totaling more than $1 million in settlements. He raked in $46,133 for his 587 hours in overtime.

In any case, the often annoying Daily News has done us an excellent service is exposing the facts for all to see.

Friday, 14 February 2014

We like our new mayor

Just a few weeks into his tenure, our refreshing new mayor, Bill de Blasio [above with family], is sounding pretty much all the right notes and, by all indications, assembling the right team of collaborators. Even his miscues are so far more laughable than disturbing, the mistakes of a newcomer who wrong-foots out of inexperience with the intense spotlight now illuminating his every move.

I sat in on a meeting of the city’s AIDS service providers and longtime activists Friday afternoon, and the atmosphere was cautiously cheerful with regard to the incoming municipal government. De Blasio has just fulfilled a key campaign promise by pushing Gov. Cuomo to revive the 30% rent cap for people on HIV-related disability. This means, if the agreement doesn’t hit a snag, that people with HIV won’t be evicted from their apartments any more when skyrocketing housing costs gobble up their paltry checks.

Here’s a first-hand account by an acquaintance, Reginald Brown, about how it happened to him. The irony is that the city saves no money by letting this cruel practice continue because people like Brown still have a guarantee to shelter, so the housing agency ends up paying huge fees to slumlords (like the ones described here) to put him into a subsidized domicile. The measure de Blasio is championing as promised is actually revenue neutral for that reason.

It’s a good metaphor for the breath of fresh air that de Blasio brings us in contrast to Bloomberg’s years-long Scroogian sabotage of the 30% cap, consistent with his overall bloody-mindedness and dedication to turning Manhattan into a playground for plutocrats. But de Blasio has moved just as quickly on several other fronts as well:

• He booted Bloomberg’s miserable police commissioner and brought back Bill Bratton who, though the originator of stop-and-frisk, is now formally charged with ending it. A well-organized popular movement set the groundwork for this victory, aided by a successful ACLU lawsuit against the criminalization of black and Hispanic males for being on the street (or even in their building lobbies). The campaign was key to de Blasio’s victory in the Democratic primary, which came as a shock to many white residents who had no idea how deeply this racist practice bothered people—doh.
• He put an actual former teacher (and former school principal) in charge of the city’s schools, another stark contrast with Bloomberg’s privatizing thugs like Joel Klein (now making millions at the Murdoch empire) and the ridiculous Cathie Black, a fancy-pants magazine editor who didn’t know her ass from a hand grenade. De Blasio is forging ahead with his plan for universal, free pre-K services for all New Yorkers, and he’s got some upstate allies for that although the corruptoids in our state legislature undoubtedly will find some way to throw in a spanner.
• So that’s education, policing, and a smidgen of health, and de Blasio is making further noise about the broader housing crisis in the city, hospital closings, taxes and development. The rash of pedestrian deaths should get him thinking about land use and traffic, too, and Laetitia James, who took over his old job as Public Advocate, is militant on those issues.

On the debit side, de Blasio urgently needs some PR coaching to prepare for the mortar rounds heading his way as he treads on the tootsies of the power far too accustomed to getting their way under the reign of multibillion Mike. The mayor has taken heat for not closing schools after this latest winter storm, and he unwisely made a phone call to a top cop after one of his preacher supporters got popped on an outstanding warrant. Assuming de Blasio didn’t think through how it might look for a mayor to make a call like that, it’s clear that someone should be advising him to slow down and do so in the future to avoid costly distractions. There are plenty of people already gunning for him, and we want his good instincts to bear a lot of fruit.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Mandela, a month later

Now that Nelson Mandela has been properly eulogized and buried, it’s a good moment to reflect on his legacy and consider some puzzling aspects of his life and the conventional wisdom about it.

Along with the nearly constant laurels tossed his way after his emergence from prison and his long retirement, a few commentators have dug past the idolizing a little to suggest importance nuances about what he achieved—and didn’t. That’s fair enough; in fact, it would be unfair to the South Africans still living to forget that what he and the liberation movement fought for is still a long way off, namely a decent life for the vast majority who face an existence as short and difficult as it ever was, with the important exceptions of less overt political repression and less racist violence (though the regular old kind is still rampant).

A recent article in the London Review of Books (one of several thought takes on modern South Africa) notes that President Mandela wasn’t particularly vigilant about the budding corruption in the ANC-led state and that his admirable decision to depart after only one term opened the way for even more egregious raiding of the national treasury by the new elite. It’s great that current president Jacob Zuma was booed so roundly at Mandela’s funeral that he had to quit the stage, but mere protests won’t reduce the vast expenditure ($150 million) the country is forced to pay for Zuma’s entourage of four official wives and 21 recognized children (so far).

But aside from the obstacles Mandela faced and the limitations of his achievements in the new South Africa that he was so instrumental in bringing to life, there is another, stranger aspect to the Mandela story that has very little to do with him or his acts: how and why did a pro-Soviet communist committed to revolutionary violence (today we would call it ‘terrorism’) become the darling of the West?

Mandela’s story should have made him an icon of a small band of dedicated leftwingers who sympathize, or did once, with figures like Castro, Ho Chi Minh, the early Mugabe, Che Guevara, the armed guerrillas who saw the conflict with colonial powers as a struggle against capitalism itself and, one way or another, themselves presented a real threat to it. Few people currently know (or would care much if they did) that Mandela apparently sat on the central committee of the South African Communist Party. While those who prize his heroic leadership, myself included, will say ‘So what?’, it’s not a detail you’d expect the western media and commentariat to pass over unnoticed.

Then there’s the question of the armed struggle. Mandela pushed the ANC leadership to stage attacks on infrastructure and probably persons in the security forces. Even though they were pretty inept at it and got caught, the armed wing of the ANC kept going after Mandela’s imprisonment and had a lot of people shitting bricks over where the country was headed. Beyond the arguments over whether this was a good strategy or not, anyone trying it today would be the object of an Obama drone strike with half the population of the U.S. cheering it wildly. So isn’t it a little odd that Mandela gets a pass on that, too?

It was hard to watch things like Mandela’s fabulous 2008 birthday celebration with Bono and other celebrities praising him to the skies with a straight face. While he deserved every bit of the hero-worship, sober observers could be forgiven a frisson of cynical doubt. If the Cold War had still been on, would the negotiated end to apartheid have been permitted? Would Mandela have ended his long life in the Robbin Island dungeon instead? If he had persisted in the early plans to nationalize state industry, boost wages over the objections of industrialists, push a land reform that might curtail white domination of farming, in short, refused to play by the new rules of global capital, would he be remembered as saintly old Nelson, the grandfather of multiracial, rainbow South Africa?

Or would his experiment have been crushed from the start, the South African economy undermined and squeezed in retaliation, and the old man pilloried as a wild man with a terrible (now well-advertised) commie-terrorist past? It takes nothing away from his achievements to see through the gloss with which his life and his death were lionized through the hypocritical looking glass of our propaganda machinery. He made compromises that no doubt were forced upon him, and as a result, all is forgiven.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The 'mushroom cloud' we no longer hear about

One very effective theme utilized to sell us the Iraq war a decade ago in the face of uncertainty about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was the What if? scenario. While there was some vague evidence there might be dangerous, chemical or biological weapons or precursor nukes in Saddam’s arsenal, no one in the Bush entourage of war enthusiasts could produce a ‘smoking gun’.

But recall Condoleeza Rice’s notorious comment turning the ambiguity about whether these weapons existed or not to official purpose. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN in January of 2003, Rice said:

The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

What a brilliant manipulation of the public’s hesitation and reluctance to authorize war against a faraway state that posed no threat to American wellbeing. We don’t really know the situation, but look how terrible the consequences will be if we get this wrong. To be on the safe side, trust us with this—just in case.

How ironic then to listen to the political class twiddling its intellectual thumbs over the accelerating disaster to our human habitat. In this case of massive scientific consensus over real dangers, the What if? scenario doesn’t get a hearing at all. There’s no recognition from sensible Democrats—much less the wacko brigades of the theocon right—that humanity might want to err on the side of caution if climate change is real and as dangerous as many believe.

Instead, even Obama’s protected NSA is now known to have spied on the Copenhagen climate change conference to undermine the negotiating positions of those wishing to take the problem seriously, all to benefit U.S. ‘national interest’, narrowly defined as the profits of the fossil fuels industry. While sold to us as a necessary evil to ‘protect’ us from terrorist attack, the NSA/CIA/Homeland spy apparatus is in fact preparing our doom, not merely politically, but concretely and physically.

The ‘smoking gun’ won’t be a mushroom cloud after all, nor need we worry about paltry nuclear reactions produced by a Middle East dictator. The nuclear devastation produced by our old friend the sun’s fusion and fission reactions will do the job just fine, as soon as we finish permitting the carbon-happy, military-industrial-financial complex to destroy the livable planet we inhabit.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Christie implodes

It will be obvious in retrospect that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was a speeding trainwreck simply waiting for a sufficiently dangerous curve to go flying off. He got away with a lot, but his increased national prominence was fatal. [photo of Gov not laughing--NY Daily News]

It’s not clear what Christie could have done to salvage the giant problem created by ‘Bridgegate’ (I prefer ‘Bridgeghazi’) once his team had committed the hubristic screw-up in the first place. They might have messed up traffic on the GW for a couple of hours and got away with it, but four days?

Then after the truth about political payback came tumbling out, Christie immediately and foolishly turned on his former BFFs ferociously, reminding everyone that it was all about the Big Guy and him alone right from the beginning. He blamed them in a rambling and interminable press conference, a sure sign that he wasn’t getting good legal advice. But he also trashed them. From that moment, he was toast.

Glib commentators have loved Christie because he’s such a loudmouth and bully, and his political operatives delighted in uploading YouTube videos of him berating one of his favorite enemies to their faces. But he forgot that the people he started throwing to the lions after Bridgeghazi started were until days before his own protective phalanx. What, he thought they would remain loyal to him after being humiliated publically? Based on their deep commitment to some higher cause as opposed to sociopathic grasping self-interest as personified by Christie?

Christie’s career is imploding so quickly that FEMA should prepare for the possibility of its high-velocity remains endangering passers-by on the banks of the Hudson River. He’s now got into a public pissing match—that would be laughable if it weren’t pathetic—with his former buddy-boy, David Wildstein, late of the Port Authority. The governor’s email riposte to the bombshell that Wildstein is going to accuse of him knowing everything about the bridge shut-down contains this counter-accusatory gem: “He [Wildstein] was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.”

Can anyone imagine Richard Nixon even at the height of the Watergate debacle with his presidency hanging by a thread turning on his top aides like that and inviting them to retaliate? After all the brouhaha about Christie’s chances for a national career, he turns out to be just another goofball in the endless GOP clown parade, a bobblehead that will take his place next to the 2012 line-up of Bachmann, Trump, Perry and ‘999 Cain’, the gang that kept Saturday Night Live awash in material.