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'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Hatemonger 

As governor of Massachusetts, he pandered to the religious right in anticipation of his run for the presidency by opposing gay marriage and civil unions. Confronted with competition from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, he criticized Huckabee for providing in-state tuition to the children of undocumented workers who were in the process obtaining citizenship. Most recently, he has made it clear that Muslims need not apply for a Cabinet position in his administration if he becomes President, but that they might be acceptable at lower levels of my administration.

At this point, despite the polls, you'd have to say that Mitt Romney is in trouble. He hasn't even gotten to the Iowa caucuses, and he's already played the cards of scapegoating gays, immigrants and Muslims. Who's left? Probably just African Americans and trial attorneys. No wonder Huckabee is now the flavor of the month.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

But What If It Was Bush? 

Every now and then, we see this sort of story coming out of Venezuela, and the US media cooperatively portrays it as just another example of Chavez's looniness, one of the perpetual themes in US coverage of him:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Wednesday CNN may have been instigating his murder when the U.S. TV network showed a photograph of him with a label underneath that read "Who killed him?"

The caption appeared to be a production mistake -- confusing a Chavez news item with one on the death of a football star. The anchor said "take the image down" when he realized.

But Chavez called for a probe in an interview on state television, where he repeatedly reviewed a tape of the broadcast, questioning why the unconnected photograph and wording were left on screen for several seconds.

"I want the state prosecutor to look into bringing a suit against CNN for instigating murder in Venezuela," he said. "... undoubtedly it is part of the psychological warfare."

The anti-U.S. president often denounces plots to kill him without providing much detailed evidence. On Tuesday, he said a sniper trained his gun on him at a political rally this month.

Yes, that paranoid, crazy Hugo. But, what if we turned this around, what if CNN ran a photograph of Bush with the same caption? Of course, the Secret Service would just laugh it off as a production mistake, another example of the incompetents that run CNN.

I don't think so. Consider what happened to Barry Reingold, when he committed the faux pax of comparing Bush to Bin Laden, and A. J. Brown, a first year student at Durham Tech University who had a unflattering poster of Bush in her apartment.

That's right, Brown received a visit from the Secret Service because of a poster inside her apartment. So, it is pretty safe to say that Secret Service might respond pretty aggressively to a broadcast of Bush like the one of Chavez in Venezuela. It is also pretty safe to say that the Secret Service displays more paranoia than Chavez. After all, Bush hasn't been the target of a coup attempt supported by Bush and reported favorably by US media outlets like CNN.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Holiday Hiatus till the 28th? 

Going on holiday with my wife and son, chances of any posts here by me between now and next Wednesday, the 28th, are slight. Not entirely out of the question, but slight. Meanwhile, you might be interested in perusing this article about the crisis in Respect, the grassroots antiwar, anticapitalist coalition in Britain, authored by lenin from Lenin's Tomb.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: I Went for a Walk 

If you have read this blog, since I started posting here in April 2005, you probably, and with good reason, believe that I am a cantankerous curmudgeon. It is hard to avoid coming across that way when events don't seem to be moving the world in a direction that you consider ideal.

In fact, I can be a pretty warm, gregarious person, especially now that I get to go out into the community with my nearly 8 month old son to children's events like book readings and musical events, not to mention just plain old stroller rides. Now, I have the opportunity to put my counterculture knowledge to good use, finding delightful books, CDs and toys outside the mainstream for him.

Here's a good example, something that I suspect playful adults will enjoy as well, a YouTube video of the children's book, I Went for a Walk, by the husband and wife team of Shanti Wintergate and Gregory Attonito:

Yet another instance of how things created for children serve the not so secret purpose of allowing us adults to have fun as well.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hell's Bells Ringing on Wall Street 

Turns out that billions of collateralized debt obligations issued by the major Wall Street brokerage houses are being insured by an entity that is woefully short of the capital required to fulfill its obligations.

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In the Hands of the Military 

Chris Hedges has come to the same conclusion expressed here since February, namely that the US military is the only impediment to an attack upon Iran:

The last, best hope for averting a war with Iran lies with the United States military. The Democratic Congress, cowed by the Israel lobby and terrified of appearing weak on defense before the presidential elections, will do nothing to halt an attack. The media, especially the electronic press, is working overtime to whip up fear of a nuclear Iran and tar Tehran with abetting attacks against American troops in Iraq. The American public is complacent, unsure of what to believe, knocked off balance by fear and passive. We will be saved or doomed by our generals.

The last wall of defense that prevents the Bush administration from targeting Iran, an attack that could ignite a regional conflagration and usher in apocalyptic scenarios in the Middle East, runs through the offices of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Adm. William Fallon , the head of the Central Command (CENTCOM); and Gen. George Casey, the Army’s new chief of staff. These three figures in the defense establishment have told George W. Bush and the Congress how depleted the U.S. military has become, that it cannot manage another conflict, and that a war with Iran would make the war with Iraq look like an act of prudence and common sense.

The reliance on the military command, however, to be the voice of reason in the debate about a new war is not a healthy sign for our deteriorating democracy. Compliant generals can always be found to carry out the Dr. Strangelove designs of a mad White House. Those who resist implementing decisions can easily be removed. The protective cover provided by these figures in the defense establishment could vanish.

The United States is able to launch a massive and devastating air attack on Iran’s military installations. It can obliterate the Iranian air force. It can cripple if not dismantle effective communications and military command and control. It can destroy some of Iran’s underground nuclear facilities. But our intelligence inside Iran, as was true in Iraq, is uneven. We do not know where all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are. And it is probable that an Iranian response against American targets, such as the Green Zone in Iraq, as well as Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks on American soil, would follow. Shiites in the region would interpret an attack as a war on the Shiite community and would unleash unrest, terrorism and violence against us and our allies from Lebanon to Pakistan.

The battle is between the Cheney camp, which would like to carry out strikes on Iran before Bush leaves office, and Gates and his senior generals. Cheney, who has always been able to push aside the feckless Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is having a tougher time with the military. Fallon, for example, was successful in his attempt to block efforts by Cheney to move a third aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf earlier this year and bluntly said that “there would be no war against Iran” as long as he was chief of CENTCOM.

As forlorn as it sounds, we can only hope that the US military disobeys an order to launch the attack.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Bhutto Calls Off the Revolution 

As expected, Bhutto calls off the revolution after US envoy John Negroponte tells her to do so:

Pakastani President Pervez Musharraf yesterday nailed down January 8 for elections while opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, in yet another political backflip, appeared to lay the groundwork for resuming power-sharing negotiations with the military ruler.

"Inshallah (God willing), the general elections would be held on January 8," a government statement quoted General Musharraf as telling supporters in Karachi amid rumours of a possible meeting between him and Ms Bhutto.

Both General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto were in the city at the same time following the departure from Pakistan of top US diplomat John Negroponte.

Mr Negroponte delivered a tough message to General Musharraf demanding an immediate end to the country's state of emergency and restoration of its constitution.

The meeting came as protests against General Musharraf's tactics spread to Britain, where demonstrators, including Jemima Khan, the former wife of detained politician Imran Khan, rallied outside Pakistan's High Commission to call for an end to the emergency rule.

Mr Negroponte strongly advised both General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto, whom he spoke to by phone, to shelve their differences and revive the power-sharing talks they have been having over the past few months.

After all, it is essential that the conflict between Musharraf and Bhutto be contained so as to avoid accidentally igniting a true mass insurrection against the regime.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Support antiwar.com 

For the same reasons mentioned here last year, with one additional one, Iran:

. . . I believe that it is very important that we support antiwar.com during its quarterly fund drive. Fund drives are always challenging, and it is easy to succumb to the temptation that a wealthy saviour will step forward at the last minute, as has appeared to have happened during previous antiwar.com drives. In this instance, we need to resist it, and show our appreciation for the most dynamic American anti-imperialist site on the Internet.

Admittedly, antiwar.com is not a leftist one, it is avowedly libertarian. I have substantial disagreements with the social and economic beliefs of the people who operate it. Even so, on the most important issue of our time, the expansion of the American empire through extreme violence and economic coercion, the people involved with antiwar.com are unequivocal and forthright in their opposition to it.

It is the portal to news articles and columns from around the world regarding the war in Iraq, the war on terror, a possible war in Iran and the perpetual attempt of the Israelis to colonize the entirety of Palestine. It has played an essential role in destroying the monopoly of information that the US media once possessed. No longer are we at the mercy of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and, worst of all, FOX News.

The breath of news and commentary at antiwar.com is, quite simply, without peer. Ideologically, one finds the anarchist Noam Chomsky alongside Reaganite Paul Craig Roberts, the Tory Peter Oborne with Tom Engelhardt of The Nation Institute. Indispensable reports and analysis from Dahr Jamail, Aaron Glantz and Jorge Hirsch are readily available. Without antiwar.com, it would be much more difficult to readily access such disparate sources of information.

The thread tying them all together is the essential cause of creating a broad based coalition from right to left to resist the predations of the American empire, a cause that has become even more urgent as a consequence of neoconservative control over US foreign policy.

The quarterly fund drive goes through this Sunday at midnight, but donations will, of course, be accepted at any time. Personally, I contributed $90. For anyone else who is interested, please click here.

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UPDATE: Los Angeles Abandons Mapping of Muslims 

But, of course, the LAPD still defends the proposal as paradoxically both useful and innocuous. Curiously, no one mentions one of the major sources of anxiety associated with it, the notorious history of the LAPD in regard to people of color.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

If the Occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan Are Such Noble Endeavors . . . . 

. . . then why are the veterans of them killing themselves in such shockingly large numbers?

. . So CBS News did an investigation - asking all 50 states for their suicide data, based on death records, for veterans and non-veterans, dating back to 1995. Forty-five states sent what turned out to be a mountain of information.

And what it revealed was stunning.

In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.

Dr. Steve Rathbun is the acting head of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at the University of Georgia. CBS News asked him to run a detailed analysis of the raw numbers that we obtained from state authorities for 2004 and 2005.

It found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 than non-vets. (Veterans committed suicide at the rate of between 18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000, compared to other Americans, who did so at the rate of 8.9 per 100,000.)

One age group stood out. Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age. (The suicide rate for non-veterans is 8.3 per 100,000, while the rate for veterans was found to be between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)

"Wow! Those are devastating," said Paul Sullivan, a former VA analyst who is now an advocate for veterans rights from the group Veterans For Common Sense.

The report concluded with an appeal about the need to address the mental health needs of these veterans when they return home. Predictably, the superior alternative of refusing to send them to places like Iraq and Afghanistan to brutalize the populace wasn't mentioned. Nor was the possibility that some of these people are experiencing impaired mental health precisely because of the horrors they experienced.

No wonder the US military is relying increasingly upon air strikes in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Putting our troops into direct contact with the people of these countries through combat, checkpoints, house searches, detentions and torture, with rules of engagement that permit the use of indiscriminate force, appears to be, quite literally, killing them, even after they return home. Perhaps, the incipient symptoms of dismay and mental disorder also partially explains why many troops are conducting search and avoid operations.

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Remembering Tomorrow 

Just wanted to come out of hiatus to flag this long Michael Albert clip that Jonathan Schwarz has up on his blog. The story about the rightwing guy coming to fix his computer on the eve of the bombing of Afghanistan I had never heard before ... a quintessential Michael Albert story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Bhutto Farce 

The Musharraf/Bhutto conflict exposed as an elaborate ruse, for reasons explained here. Turns out that both of them need to replace the old Supreme Court with a new one to avoid the prospect of some disquieting decisions. Jurists may play an essential role in legitimizing capitalist processes of wealth accumulation, but at the price of punishing those they consider excessively greedy and corrupt. Bhutto fears that she is going to be sacrificed so that the others who looted Pakistan along with her can be rehabilitated.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

The Great American Novel 

On Friday, as noted here on Saturday, Norman Mailer died. For me, it is an unusual event to acknowledge. Unlike many, I have never read any of Mailer's fiction or non-fiction, although I have been tempted to read The Executioner's Song. As someone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, I related to Mailer as a mythic cultural figure beyond flesh and blood. Unlike authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon, his personality so obscured his body of work, almost like a solar eclipse, that I encountered little, if anything, that motivated me to read any of it.

Two other factors were in play as well. First, my puberty corresponded almost perfectly to a period of Mailer's life where he produced few, if any, large scale works of significance, If one accepts that the time between Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song, basically 1967 through 1979, constituted a period in which Mailer published provocations and articles for magazines, then this corresponded almost perfectly to my attainment of adulthood, and the time in which I was beginning to undertake elemental cultural explorations. Mailer was, in a sense, missing in action.

Second, my impression is that there was always something adult about Mailer, he came across as a kind of high brow Mickey Spillane, and this did not carry great appeal in the 1970s. Of the three contemporary novelists that I encountered, Vonnegut instinctively examined the transformation from childhood to adulthood, retaining a Surrealist sort of nostalgia for the joys of being a child, Pynchon, aware of the emerging technocracy, searched for the residue of the individual in an increasingly deranged world of purportedly objective science, preserving an anonymity for himself that would have been anathema to Mailer, while Heller deflated the social and cultural balloons that had elevated people like Mailer with the humorous instruments of irony, satire and parody. While all three of these had produced critically acclaimed novels before the 1970s, they retained their allure in a way that Mailer did not.

Mailer emerged at a time when great novelists (great in the subjective, not the illusory objective, sense) replaced priests and ministers as the moral voices of their time (a process commenced by, interestingly enough, Tolstoy), and their works were therefore accorded a tendentious importance unimaginable today. After all, God was dead, and the author stepped forward as the modernist voice of the world and the psychological passions within it. Not surprisingly, as in Hollywood, Freud provided the roadmap.

In other words, Mailer was in the right place at the right time. Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner were either dead (Fitzgerald) or considered irrelevant in the post-World War II environment (Hemingway and Faulkner), so there was an opportunity for someone with talent and a relentless drive for self-promotion. Mailer possessed both.

Contemporaneously, there was this hunger for what critics, scholars and writers described as the great American novel, that brilliant masterwork that would incisively present America in all of its outsized, contradictory glory, yet rendered within the context of literature, marked by a mastery of plot, character and dialogue, in short, a new Bible to replace the old one that many condescendingly assumed was obsolete. The US was a now a superpower, and it required an authorial voice commensurate with its political and economic might. Mailer assured one and all that he was going to write it, and people were only too happy to believe that he would. It was one of the ultimate utopian modernist projects, like serialism in music, the Bretton Woods monetary system, the perfectability of foods and drugs (remember Pop Tarts, Tang and the pill?), the skyscraper and, of course, the computer.

Mailer must have known, as many others did not, that the creation of such a novel was an impossibility. And the passage of time soon proved him correct. I am tempted to say that his own falliability did as well, but then, as already noted, I haven't actually read Mailer, a fact that doesn't prevent us from recognizing the cultural manipulation associated with him. The essential point here is that he shouldn't be maligned, as he was at various times in his career, for being incapable of doing something that was, upon the most rudimentary examination, both preposterous and impossible.

To his credit, however, Mailer did attempt to personally fulfill the role to which he and others had elevated him. He lived an outsized life, he perpetually broke the rules of social convention and he was never afraid to voice his barbed opinions about US foreign policy, social life and cultural values. Accordingly, he was, by turns, an anti-imperialist, a male chauvinist and contemptuous of middle class values, even as he displayed the most conventional middle class value of all, a father's love for his children. He struggled against the postmodern revelation that there were no longer any grand narratives by, on the one hand, accepting it through his articles, and, even, possibly, non-fiction, like The Executioner's Song, while still aspiring to publish the novel that would finally satisfy the expectations that he had aroused so long ago.

Along these lines, we should not ignore the possibility that Mailer's fiction is more consistent in quality over his life that his obituaries suggest, with the controversy associated with it the consequence of the proliferation of genres of literary criticism, critical studies, feminism, deconstruction and postmodernism, just to name a few. Indeed, postmodernism also revealed that there were no longer any great men, men capable of recasting the world around them, but Mailer resisted it, publishing a novel late in life about . . . why, Hitler, naturally, because, to admit otherwise would mean that he was no longer a great man, either.

Other acclaimed postwar novelists either avoided this struggle, or foreshadowed the future. Heller was the visionary. Catch-22, published in the 1950s, is, in many ways, the prototypical postmodern novel. In this novel, he ridicules the notion of the seriousness of World War II, and by implication any war, as well as, conceivably, any major social event, such as a revolution. Even more, he exposes American masculinity as equally ludicrous, an expose, in effect, of Mailer and his public persona.

Vonnegut was postmodern in his own way. He stripped down the language of the novel, and expropriated the pop culture of serials and science fiction as grist for his literary mill. His innovations captured the spirit of his times. Like Heller in Catch-22, he presented America as an absurdity, but as a sad and melancholy one. His novels were more akin to, if one accepts the musical analogy, chamber works than symphonies. He was an anti-imperialist like Mailer, but more pessimistically so. Mailer's pugilism always carried with it hope for change, but Vonnegut was that avuncular friend whose whimsy concealed a profound despair.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

I Think That the Novel Is On Its Way Out 

Friday, November 09, 2007

Get the Horse Stalls Ready 

UPDATE: From the Los Angeles Times:

City officials this morning defended the LAPD's decision to identify Muslim enclaves across the city, saying that instead of "mapping," Angelenos should see the program as "community engagement."

Civil rights groups have harshly criticized the new initiative as racial profiling that unfairly targets Muslims. The American Civil Liberties Union along with other community groups sent a letter to the LAPD this week saying the prospect of such a measure raised "grave concerns."

At a press conference about police recruitment in Elysian Park, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William Bratton and Councilman Jack Weiss said they stood behind Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing's decision to gather extensive intelligence about local Muslim communities.

"Chief Downing has good intentions here," said Villaraigosa, who added that he had only learned of the new program through newspaper articles and at a short briefing.

Of course Downing does, just like Earl Warren did in 1942. One wonders if Villaraigosa would be so sanguine if the LAPD was engaged the mapping of communities with large numbers of undocumented people. I doubt that he would consider it community engagement.

INITIAL POST: From the New York Times:

A plan by the counterterrorism bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department to create a map detailing the Muslim communities in that city, an effort described as a step toward thwarting radicalization, has angered civil rights groups, which say it is no better than racial profiling.

At least three major Muslim groups and the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter yesterday to top city officials raising concerns about the plan.

“When the starting point for a police investigation is ‘let’s look at all Muslims,’ we are going down a dangerous road,” Peter Bibring, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. of Southern California, said in an interview. “Police can and should be engaged with the communities they are policing, but that engagement can’t be a mask for intelligence gathering.”

The objections started after Michael P. Downing, a deputy Los Angeles police chief who heads the counterterrorism bureau, testified before a United States Senate committee on Oct. 30 that the Police Department was combining forces with an unidentified academic institution and looking for a Muslim partner to carry out the mapping project. He emphasized that he wanted the process to be transparent.

In his testimony, to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mr. Downing said the project would determine the geographic distribution of Muslims in the sprawling Los Angeles area and take “a look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions.”

The idea, Mr. Downing said in an interview yesterday, would be to determine which communities might be having problems integrating into the larger society and thus might have members susceptible to carrying out attacks, much like domestic cells in England and elsewhere in Europe.

“There are people out there who believe in extreme violent ideology who present a threat to the American people, and that is what we are trying to prevent,” he said. “This could be called another prevention strategy.”

The civil rights groups argue that contrary to what has been found in Europe, the scattered cases exposed in the United States have involved individuals with no clear ties to international terrorism groups.

The estimated 500,000 Muslims living in the greater Los Angeles area, including Orange and Riverside Counties, make its concentration of Muslims the second largest in the United States, after New York City’s.

For those of you insufficiently curious to investigate the horse stalls reference, here it is:

In the hysteria following the outbreak of the World War II, the United States government feared that Japanese Americans would commit acts of sabotage against their country. Although no such act was ever committed by a Japanese American, some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the Western United States were removed from their homes and made to live in internment camps. Of these, almost 80,000 were United States citizens; 40,000 were children. Ruth Asawa was one of these citizen children.

In February 1942, Ruth’s father Umakichi, a 60 year-old farmer who had been living in the United States for forty years, was arrested by FBI agents and taken to a camp in New Mexico. The family did not see him for almost two years. In April, Asawa was sent along with her mother and five siblings to the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, California, where they lived for five months in two horse stalls. They took only what they could carry. "The stench was horrible,” Asawa recalled. “The smell of horse dung never left the place the entire time we were there."

Japanese Americans in Northern California were housed at Golden Gate Fields. A story like this should send shivers down the spine of anyone familiar with episodes like the internment or the forced expulsion of Mexican Americans in the early 1930s.

Somehow, I can't shake the feeling that the emergence of this story at this time is not a coincidence. I can't help but think that it is connected to the prospect of an impending attack upon Iran, and fears of domestic unrest as a result.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Washington Mutual: A Credit Crunch Case Study 

UPDATE: Credit default swaps for Washington Mutual, not pretty.

INITIAL POST: If you want to attempt to understand the credit crunch in all of its myriad forms, the Calculated Risk blog is essential reading. For example, consider this post about Washington Mutual and its alleged efforts to persuade appraisers to inflate the values of properties for home mortgages. Any attempt to summarize it would be a travesty. Read it, and all of the comments, and you will gain a shocking insight into the extent of the fraud associated with the housing bubble.

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Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss? 

UPDATE: Is Musharraf feeling the pressure? Has he realized that he must quickly become the civilian alternative for prosecuting the "war on terror" or quickly find himself in the dustbin of history?

INITIAL POST: The US faces a serious dilemma in regard to the current situation in Pakistan. Yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte described Musharraf as an irreplaceable ally in the "war on terror", and this is certainly the prevalent US perspective at this time. But it's not quite that simple.

Why? Because the opposition to Musharraf, attorneys and NGOs that are leading the opposition to the state of emergency are precisely those people and institutions normally relied upon by the US to legitimize neoliberal policies, primarily by reducing broad social needs to legal rights and privileges.

Hence, attorneys and NGOs (and I speak in a global context here) emphasize due process and human rights (such as freedom of speech, the right to travel, women's rights, the right to judicial due process) even as neoliberal economic policies eviscerate public services for much of the populace through loss of housing, education and medical care, not to mention employment under sweatshop conditions (which, of course, is legally prohibited, providing the illusion of social justice, even as it is practically impossible to enforce).

For example, in relation to Pakistan, look at this statement by Shanin M. Cole, the wife of Michigan professor Juan Cole, and an attorney educated in Lahore, one of the centers of protest against Musharraf. Her emphasis is upon the rule of law, a phrase that has increasingly been utilized by US governmental officials as a euphemism for privatization of resources, deregulation and the free flow of capital. She advocates the classic liberal notion that US financial assistance for the Pakistani military should instead be directed towards the education system, thus liberating Pakistani children from the madrassas.

Note that Cole does not suggest that the crony capitalism of Pakistan, evocative of Suharto's Indonesia, should be abandoned. After all, the rule of law is an instrument for G-8 investors to obtain economic privileges in Pakistan. It is not a means for Pakistanis to challenge the corruption of the political and military elite. Nor does she address the extent to which Musharraf (and Bhutto before him) adopted neoliberal economic policies to the detriment of millions of Pakistanis.

Put simply, Cole is not advocating a mass movement to change the social order in Pakistan. Rather, she seeks to appeal to educated, middle class people, in Pakistan and elsewhere, to come forward in opposition to the state of emergency. It is, in effect, the substitution of one elite form of politics for another. As for all those Pakistanis who have been victimized by neoliberal economic policies, Cole provides an answer that should be familiar to all of us who have been subjected to New Democrat nostrums for the last 20 years: of course, it's education.

Accordingly, does anyone doubt that if Musharraf were deposed, replaced by, say, Bhutto, or some other political figure accepted to the Pakistani middle class, that Pakistan would, this time, from an explicitly secular position, continue to prosecute the "war on terror" in the tribal areas and Afghanistan, while continuing to enforce neoliberal policies? Indeed, one should not ignore the possibility that such a figure would intensify conflict against Islamic radicals as a cover for eviscerating whatever remains of social welfare services while pursuing reforms recommended by US, IMF and World Bank economists under the guise of fighting corruption.

Perhaps, Bhutto has already given the game away here with her (literally) incendiary remarks about confronting Islamic extremists. Thus, the US faces a tough call: support Musharraf over the short to medium term, at the price of allowing him to destroy the "civil society" that serves as the foundation of the neoliberal order, so as to permit the ongoing prosecution of the "war on terror", or push Musharraf out, to preserve the people and institutions that the US intends to utilize to preserve long term control over the society.

Breaking news stories to the effect that the state of emergency will end as soon as Musharraf obtains a decision from his puppet Supreme Court allowing him to rule for 5 more years may indicate that the US is already recognizing the wisdom of the latter course. More specifically, it may have recognized, as stated here, that a civilian leader will have even greater latitude to pursue the "war on terror" than him. Such an insight may be gaining greater currency in light of recent reports that Musharraf, because of the state of emergency, now finds himself constrained in his ability to launch military operations in the tribal areas.

One possible outcome is that the US and Britain will start gently pushing for Musharraf to stand aside, and permit some heretofore unknown, younger military leader with a reformist image to take charge, a person who then proceeds to make a deal with Bhutto, containing the pressures for radical change that bubble beneath the surface. Because nothing is more essential than the preservation of elite control over Pakistani social life and politics.

The elites have been properly domesticated to subordinate themselves to the US, but who knows what might happen if an emboldened populace of all classes insists, after having been incited to action by, paradoxically, representatives of that most conservative of professions, the legal one, upon a truely democratic and independent Pakistan? They forced their way onto the stage in the late 1960s, and almost prevailed. Perhaps, they are about to return after a long hiatus.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

The War on Wireless 

I had heard of this before, but this article from yesterday's New York Times reminded me:

One afternoon in early September, an architect boarded his commuter train and became a cellphone vigilante. He sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was “blabbing away” into her phone.

“She was using the word ‘like’ all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl,” said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.

Andrew reached into his shirt pocket and pushed a button on a black device the size of a cigarette pack. It sent out a powerful radio signal that cut off the chatterer’s cellphone transmission — and any others in a 30-foot radius.

“She kept talking into her phone for about 30 seconds before she realized there was no one listening on the other end,” he said. His reaction when he first discovered he could wield such power? “Oh, holy moly! Deliverance.”

As cellphone use has skyrocketed, making it hard to avoid hearing half a conversation in many public places, a small but growing band of rebels is turning to a blunt countermeasure: the cellphone jammer, a gadget that renders nearby mobile devices impotent.

Typically, the writer of the article, Matt Richtel, leads with that great stereotypical romantic figure, The Man With No Name, a figure who, in this instance, makes skillful use of forbidden technology to stealthily achieve his ends. Who among us is not, by turns, seduced (when we imagine ourselves with such power) and frightened (when we imagine it to be in the possession of unknown others)?

Predictably, the victim (does the 20-something woman qualify? or is she such a villain that she is the legitmate target of a vigilante jammer?) is not very sympathetic. She chatters incessantly on the BART? the MUNI? as if the entire passenger car has been providentially provided for her personal use, along with a cast of extras, the other passengers, including the architect, to serve as an impromptu entourage. She brings to mind the vain, the slutty, the cruel, the victims of Michael Myers in that 1978 classic Halloween.

In other words, Richtel has placed the problem of the abuse of wireless technology within the context of misogynistic slasher films. Women trivialize the wonders of the cellphone as yet another expression of their inherent, annoying narcissism, while men, like "Andrew", prowl public venues like transit systems, restaurants and medical facilities to exact their revenge, as a sort of contemporary Witchfinder General.

All very interesting, these direct action efforts by people to purify a public sphere contaminated by the invasive, cacophonous world of wireless communication, a task as impossible as Matthew Hopkins' mission to root out sin in 17th Century England, because aren't injudicious speech and sin inextricably interwoven, and hence, equally impossible to eradicate? Turns out that there are more materialistic concerns as well. Consider:

Gary, a therapist in Ohio who also declined to give his last name, citing the illegality of the devices, says jamming is necessary to do his job effectively. He runs group therapy sessions for sufferers of eating disorders. In one session, a woman’s confession was rudely interrupted.

“She was talking about sexual abuse,” Gary said. “Someone’s cellphone went off and they carried on a conversation.”

“There’s no etiquette,” he said. “It’s a pandemic.”

Gary said phone calls interrupted therapy all the time, despite a no-phones policy. Four months ago, he paid $200 for a jammer, which he placed surreptitiously on one side of the room. He tells patients that if they are expecting an emergency call, they should give out the front desk’s number. He has not told them about the jammer.

Ponder this one for a moment. Most likely, "Gary" either owns or leases the location where he conducts his therapy sessions. He possesses all of the rights of control over the property associated with either ownership or a leasehold. Yet he is legally prohibited from installing a device that prevents his patients, and any other visitors, from receiving wireless telephonic communications. Richtel also describes a restaurant owner who has otherwise been unable to prevent customers from using cell phones.

Predictably, Richtel blandly observes that cellphone carriers purchase the right to broadcast their signal, suggesting that they have paid for the right to broadcast anywhere, even within the confines of our homes or our businesses. In effect, the federal government is collecting money from corporations in return for giving them an easement, a right of access, into all private property, punishable by Federal Communication Commission fines if it is impaired.

Arguably, there is nothing new about this, after all, electric and gas utilities, as well as phone companies, have been given easements to bring the service to property and maintain it. But, isn't there something qualitatively different about requiring people to have their use of their property for their enjoyment seriously compromised by the random, yet ubiquitous speech of others, no matter how puerile and obnoxious? Turns out that Bruce Schneier, a computer security consultant, believes that there is, although, like Richtel (or, possibly, because of Richtel, as Richtel wrote the follow up comment about him as well), Schneier ignores the obvious fact that the cellular franchises, and the investment behind them, lose much of their value if people are allowed to legally jam the signal.

At the level of abstract theory, this story presents another fascinating question. As with its cousin, the Internet, wireless communication is, despite being a technological product of capitalist investment and entrepreneurship, actively eroding the centrality of private property by diminishing the value of what is commonly known as quiet enjoyment. Similarly, cyberspace, whether wireless or not, permits individuals to gain access to intellectual property without payment, most specifically in entertainment, one of the most important fields of opportunity within contemporary capitalism. Cell phone service providers and file sharers are accordingly engaged in one of the most enduring aspects of capitalist expansion and, paradoxically, resistance to it, piracy.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Chaos in Pakistan 

UPDATE: Block out the noise. As far as the US is cocerned, Musharraf can do whatever he wants:

The stakes are high and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is monitoring the fast-developing situation, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Pakistan is a very important ally in the war on terror and he is closely following the developments there,” Morrell told reporters aboard Gates’ plane as he traveled to China.

The emergency declaration “does not impact our military support of Pakistan” or its efforts in the war on terror, Morrell said of the country that’s a key U.S. partner in the fight against al-Qaida militants.

Neoconservatives and most liberals have been bleating over the last couple of years about the prospect of a genocidal bloodbath in Iraq as a way of justifying the brutalities of the occupation. Have we overlooked the prospect that such a bloodletting could really occur in Pakistan instead because of our decades long support for the Pakistani military, our opposition to any legitimate independent democratic movements and the more recent incorporation of Pakistan into an essential role in the purported "war on terror"?

INITIAL POST: The "war on terror" faces the possible loss of an indispensable ally, an essential linchpin in support of the US presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. US policy has already destabilized Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and, now, Pakistan, with the attack upon Iran yet to be launched:

President Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan on Saturday evening, suspending the constitution and ordering troops to secure key government buildings. President Musharraf appointed Abdul Hameed Dogar as the country`s new Chief Justice after sacking Iftikhar Mohd Chaudhary.

The government dismissed Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhary saying his services were no longer needed. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has ordered the other judges not to take oath under the new PCO.

All opposition lawmakers have resigned and a caretaker government will take over after seven days. The Senate, Cabinet, all assemblies and state governments will continue to function normally. Assembly elections are scheduled to be held on the 15th of January 2008.

It is believed that an eight-member bench had termed the decision to impose emergency as illegal and declared it null and void.

Reports suggest that the decision may have been provoked by an adverse judgement by the Supreme Court against Musharraf. It is suggested that a written judgement that invalidated Musharraf’s eligibility to run for the post of President was signed and ready.

This would have forced Musharraf to step down as President and make a way for another candidate thereby ending his tenure at the helm of affairs.

"The Chief of the Army Staff (Musharraf) has proclaimed state of emergency and issued provisional constitutional order (PCO)," a brief announcement on the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) said at 6.10 pm Pakistan time without giving any details. All private news channels were immediately taken off the air.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was removed from his post and troops took control of the Supreme Court.

All 13 Supreme Court judges have been asked to take fresh oath under the PCO but eight of them, including the Chief Justice, were taken into custody after they termed as unconstitutional the declaration of a state of emergency. Iftikhar Chaudhry is supposed to have been put into ‘protective’ confinement.

Iran increasingly looks like a safe harbor of stability in comparison to the turbulence that is inextricably interwoven with the US presence nearby. But, for now, there are more pressing questions, such as, how long before Musharraf is assassinated? Or, will we awaken one day soon to discover that he has taken sanctuary in Costa Rica?

It is hard to imagine that he will be alive at this time next year if he remains in Pakistan. And, then, there are those nuclear weapons. Is it possible that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto will get his revenge upon the US from beyond the grave? As Tariq Ali recently explained:

Benazir Bhutto’s father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, a party which was originally founded because in the late ’60s, in November ’68, you had a giant movement against the military, a insurrection, which carried on for three whole months, uniting workers and students and peasants. Many of the students were killed. But, finally, the movement was triumphant, and the dictator was overthrown, and the country had to have its first general election.

And the politician who won in what is now Pakistan was Benazir’s dad, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who pledged—his big slogan was food, clothing and shelter for the poor, massive social reforms, massive land reforms. He could have changed the face of Pakistan, had he so wanted, because the military was completely weak by then. But, in fact, he pledged all these things and did nothing. And so, when the military captured him, Henry Kissinger said to him, “Unless you desist on the nuclear question, we’re going to make a horrible example out of you.” And he didn’t, and so they made a horrible example out of him. He was executed.

Apparently, his play, The Leopard and the Fox, has a contemporary resonance that we could have never anticipated.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Film Notes: Lust, Caution 

Last week, I snuck out and watched this movie, or, to be more accurate, I watched about 2 hours of its 2 hour and 37 minute running time. Now, I will be the first to admit that it is hard to properly review a film that you haven't watched in its entirety. I have seen quite a number of films that were hard to engage until a crystalizing moment, a brief scene that placed all that had come before into a compelling narrative context.

For example, the obsessive eroticism of In the Realm of the Senses acquires a powerful social meaning as the result of one very short scene, probably not longer than 5 seconds, in which the male protagonist, Ichida, is observed walking towards the camera along a rail line in which Japanese troops are being transported to, probably, Manchuria, by a train moving in the opposite direction. If you miss the scene, you miss the allegorical message that the sexually voracious affair of Ichida and Abe is a withdrawal from the militarism that defines 1930s Japan, a conscious refusal to conform to the violent perversity of this society, although, predictably, this perversity eventually infects their relationship as well.

But, somehow, I doubt that there is such a scene in the final 37 to 40 minutes of Lust, Caution. In Lust, Tang Wei plays a young woman in the turbulent southern China of the late 1930s, Wong Chia Chi (someone, if you will, on the receiving end of the violence perpetrated by the soldiers who departed Japan in Realm), a young woman who, upon arrival in Hong Kong, joins a nationalistic theatrical group that branches out into espionage and assasination.

The target of the group, a collaborator named Mr. Yee, performed with typical subtlety and restraint by Tony Leung, takes a fancy to Wong (undercover as Mrs. Mak, the wife of an import-export businessman), and, well, you can sort of guess the rest. After an attempt to kill Yee in Hong Kong fails, she subsequently encounters both Yee and one of her old comrades in occupied Shanghai, where she, with the assistance of an old comrade, makes contact with Yee, and initiates a sexual relationship with Yee, a relationship that is, by turns, cold and brutal, to finish what she started in Hong Kong.

While the film is critically acclaimed in some quarters, I found it to be lethargic, with the most compelling character insights occuring during the sex scenes that resulted in an NC-17 rating. Such a shame, because the performances of Tang Wei and Tony Leung are first rate, but both find themselves trapped in an otherwise visually uninspired narrative. Much of the period setting of the film in Hong Kong and Shanghai is presented through what appears to be poor quality matte and computer generated graphics.

Furthermore, the attempt to develop character insight through interiors suffers greatly in contrast to a film like Flowers of Shanghai. Perhaps, it is unfair, but one can't help comparing this work by Ang Lee against the masterworks of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, films, like Flowers, that address similar themes in a very different, more revealing, elliptical way. Both Lust and Flowers can be legitimately summarized as ones about two people unable to love one another because of the internalized constraints of social convention.

Indeed, I frequently had the aggravating sensation that I was much more curious about what happened off-screen in Lust. For example, upon leaving Hong Kong for Shanghai, Wong Chia Chi lives in poverty during the Japanese occupation. Yet, we see little of it. She reestablishes contact with the resistance in Shanghai, but, again, we observe nothing of it, except for reports to her handler, one of the members of the Hong Kong theatre troop who also made his way to Shanghai.

Of course, the film is based upon an Eileen Chang story, so it is possible that I just don't relate to the story itself. Even so, isn't it a reflection of Ang Lee's skill (or lack thereof) that I found myself distracted from what was happening on screen to what may have happened off of it? Now, some directors are actually encouraging you to do so, but that's not the case here.

I have to admit, I guess that I don't get the critical acclaim associated with Ang Lee as a director. I have seen three of his films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, and I have only been impressed by Brokeback, although it, too, is flawed, especially by, not surprisingly, Lee's reliance on Hallmark card mountain visuals. Of all the directors that have come from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the US, I find his work the least impressive, but the most adaptable to the marketing requirements of the Hollywood studio system.

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