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

Monday, April 30, 2007

Truly Frightening 

One of the deficiencies here at American Leftist is our sparse coverage of environmental perils. The Independent is known for its commitment to serious coverage of them, and yesterday's article was truly frightening:

From what we understand so far, five great extinction events have reshaped earth in cataclysmic ways in the past 439 million years, each one wiping out between 50 and 95 per cent of the life of the day, including the dominant life forms; the most recent event killing off the non-avian dinosaurs. Speciations followed, but an analysis published in Nature showed that it takes 10 million years before biological diversity even begins to approach what existed before a die-off.

Today we're living through the sixth great extinction, sometimes known as the Holocene extinction event. We carried its seeds with us 50,000 years ago as we migrated beyond Africa with Stone Age blades, darts, and harpoons, entering pristine Ice Age ecosystems and changing them forever by wiping out at least some of the unique megafauna of the times, including, perhaps, the sabre-toothed cats and woolly mammoths. When the ice retreated, we terminated the long and biologically rich epoch sometimes called the Edenic period with assaults from our newest weapons: hoes, scythes, cattle, goats, and pigs.

But, as harmful as our forebears may have been, nothing compares to what's under way today. Throughout the 20th century the causes of extinction - habitat degradation, overexploitation, agricultural monocultures, human-borne invasive species, human-induced climate-change - increased exponentially, until now in the 21st century the rate is nothing short of explosive. The World Conservation Union's Red List - a database measuring the global status of Earth's 1.5 million scientifically named species - tells a haunting tale of unchecked, unaddressed, and accelerating biocide.

When we hear of extinction, most of us think of the plight of the rhino, tiger, panda or blue whale. But these sad sagas are only small pieces of the extinction puzzle. The overall numbers are terrifying. Of the 40,168 species that the 10,000 scientists in the World Conservation Union have assessed, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, one in three conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less thoroughly analysed, but fully 40 per cent of the examined species of planet earth are in danger, including perhaps 51 per cent of reptiles, 52 per cent of insects, and 73 per cent of flowering plants.

By the most conservative measure - based on the last century's recorded extinctions - the current rate of extinction is 100 times the background rate. But the eminent Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson, and other scientists, estimate that the true rate is more like 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. The actual annual sum is only an educated guess, because no scientist believes that the tally of life ends at the 1.5 million species already discovered; estimates range as high as 100 million species on earth, with 10 million as the median guess. Bracketed between best- and worst-case scenarios, then, somewhere between 2.7 and 270 species are erased from existence every day. Including today.

We now understand that the majority of life on Earth has never been - and will never be - known to us. In a staggering forecast, Wilson predicts that our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by 2100.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Yeltsin Remembered 

UPDATE: LarryE over at Lotus deconstructs Yeltsin's record as a purported democrat, and specifically explains how he exploited Gorbachev's weakness to concentrate power in himself.

INITIAL POST: Earlier this week, Boris Yeltsin died. It is one of those deaths that make you feel old, just like Kurt Vonnegut's a few weeks ago. I first recall hearing of Yeltsin during the Gorbachev years, glasnost and perestroika, those naive days when we believed that the end of the Cold War would lead to a new age. And, for a few years, it did. People with long memories will remember the peace dividend, the downsizing of the US military, something that it is incomprehensible today.

Yeltsin was a central player in the events that lead to the downfall of the Berlin Wall, the radical Moscow party boss that buried the dinosaurs of the Brezhnev era. As he once famously said, if I didn't exist, Gorbachev would have to invent me. In the mid to late 1980s, I was walking along Market Street in San Francisco, and the afternoon Examiner had a screaming headline, something to the effect, YELTSIN PURGED. But it was no longer the 1930s, the 1950s or even the 1970s, and his removal only enhanced his stature.

Recognizing that the process of decentralization within the Soviet Union was irreversible, he ran for the governorship of a major province, the Russia Republic, I think, and, after his subsequent victory, with the natural resources under his control, became nearly as powerful as Gorbachev, if not more so, because, as Gorbachev's power waned, Yeltsin's grew. Yeltsin was on the right side of history, riding the tiger of a process of decentralization and the opening of the Soviet economy to neoliberal finance capital, while Gorbachev, ever the romantic, naively thought that the US, Europe and Japan, the G-7, in other words, would reciprocate his gestures of disarmament and withdrawal from Eastern Europe with financial support.

Gorbachev erroneously believed that the G-7 would financially support the modernization of the Soviet Union, the creation of a Third Way between capitalism and socialism, under the leadership of reformers like him. Conversely, Yeltsin either consciously or subsconsciously understood that Gorbachev's belief was ridiculous, that the G-7 had no qualms about shattering the Soviet Union into pieces in order to loot the assets within it, sort of like breaking apart a multinational conglomerate and selling, or securitizing, through public offerings, the different businesses bound together by it. Chevron no longer wanted to deal with Moscow, rather it looked forward to working with regional apparatchiks like Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. Admittedly, one can argue that the Europeans, especially the Germans, were not so ruthless in this regard.

In any event, Yeltsin was proven correct, and became the most powerful figure after the Soviet Union passed into history on December 31, 1991. At that point, as explained by Justin Raimondo, the fire sale began. State industries and resources plundered by former apparatchiks and their financial allies, the infamous oligarchs. Living standards plummeted, as did life expectancy. Russians were at the mercy of a network of gangsters, state security service operatives and oligarchs, a network analoguous to what one finds in much of China, as discussed here last year, all sheltered by Yeltsin, a President ruling with extraordinary decree powers, and promoted outside the country as liberal democrats by Western investors. Eventually, even powerful Russians within the system like Vladimir Putin had enough, and turned the country in a different direction, using the arbitrary police powers developed under Yeltsin against many of the very people who created them, or, at least, benefitted from them, oligarches like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Raimondo describes much of this in great detail in his excellent column over at antiwar.com, which I highly recommend, and, as Raimondo recognizes, Yeltsin and those around him manipulated the war in Chechnya to achieve their ends. Raimondo fails to observe, however, and it is an uncharacteristic omission on his part, because he usually sees these sorts of connections, that the neoconservatives seized upon the governmental, business and social model of Yeltsin and the oligarchs in anticipation of coming to power, which they did, of course, after 9/11.

With the Russian frontier of ruthless neoliberalism now closed, it was necessary to find a new opportunity for exploitation: Iraq and, by extension, the entire Middle East. But Iraq serves another purpose as well. Just as Yeltsin and his entourage used Chechnya to loot the Russian economy, the neoconservatives are using Iraq to win a much greater prize: the looting of the US economy, a story that to this day goes woefully underreported as a series of piecemeal, seemingly unrelated scandals. The ambitions of the neoconservatives are global, including the US, and Yeltsin should be remembered as one of the architects of their grandiose strategy.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Film Notes: The Wind That Shakes the Barley/Army of Shadows 

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is Ken Loach's communitarian epic about the struggle of the Irish Republican Army to liberate Ireland from the British, while Army of Shadows is Jean-Pierre Melville's intimate classic about the French Resistance, based significantly upon his own experience. I had the opportunity to see The Wind That Shakes the Barley yesterday, while I saw Army of Shadows during its limited US release a couple of months ago.

Predictably, as each profiles indigenous resistance to foreign occupation, the films share a number of common concerns. Stylistically, I prefer the claustrophobic, psychoanalytical perspective of Melville in Army over Loach's more viewer friendly naturalistic narrative, but this is just my subjective quibble. The Wind is excellent, winning the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and Army, released in France in 1969 (and the US in 2006), is a superlative one.

Each has, as a central theme, the consequences of armed resistance upon those nationalistic enough, and idealistic enough, to cross the line into the use of violence to liberate one's country from occupation. In The Wind, the protagonist is the character of Damien O'Donohue, potrayed by Cillian Murphy, while in Army, the movie is anchored by the brilliant performance of one of the great actors in the history of French cinema, Lino Ventura, in the role of civil engineer, and resistance leader, Philippe Gerbier. O'Donohue aspires to help his people as a doctor before making an agonized decison to join the IRA. Gerbier applies his technical insight and organizational skills to the task of creating an underground network against the Nazis.

In short, while Gerbier and O'Donohue have very different temperments, partially attributable to age (Gerbier is a middle-aged Gaullist, O'Donohue a young Irish nationalist), they are both educated professionals. Gerbier is a bourgeois, O'Donohue is an emerging one. Neither anticipates that life in the resistance will radicalize them and destroy their social identity. Both find themselves irretrievably separated from the people that they committed themselves to liberate. Melville and Loach recognized this seemingly inescapable paradox of armed resistance, in the words of novelist Thomas Wolfe, you can't go home again.

Each film presents this process in a unique way because the transformation is dependent upon the specific historical circumstances. In The Wind, the IRA is supported by much of the Irish populace, so O'Donohue persists in the illusion that his participation in it is merely an extension of the community in which he has lived all his life, which is quite understandable, given that his initial refusal to join was condemned by most, if not all, of his family and friends. Conversely, Gerbier is isolated, Vichy France is a treacherous world where nothing is as it seems, where you run into a barber shop in desperation in the late night hours to escape the Nazis and the proprietor, whom you've never met, comes out to give you a shave, and thus, an alibi, to escape arrest.

Even so, both Gerbier and O'Donohue discover that life in the underground requires the creation of a covert identity that eventually supercedes your public one. It is a remorseless experience, one piercingly displayed in Fassbinder's classic about left wing violence in Germany in the 1970s, The Third Generation, most powerfully in that harrowing scene where the former middle class teacher, now Baader-Meinhof type terrorist, Susanne Gast, played by Hanna Schygulla, seeks to remember her new name by hypnotically reciting it in front of a mirror as she puts on lipstick.

Accordingly, O'Donohue will never serve his neighbors as a doctor; Gerbier will never design civilian projects for post-war France. Each discovers that resistance involves not only the use of violence against the enemy, but against your own people as well, people that you know and love, and once they shatter the bonds of kinship in the service of an abstract ideal like liberation, nationalism and independence, they are personally doomed.

In The Wind, there is a whiff of anarchism in the tragedy of O'Donohue, perhaps, things would have turned out differently if he could have embraced a world beyond nationalism, a world without borders, a world of people instead of nationalities. Loach implies that the true revolution is not a nationalistic one, but rather, one of class, one that will resonate among all peoples. Meanwhile, in Army, the message is much narrower, more Gaullist, fitting with its theme of alienation. France was saved by the nihilistic sacrifice of those who participated in the resistance, people like Gerbier, people who lost not only their lives, but their souls as well.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Another Hunger Strike at Guantanamo 

I have frequently posted on the attempts of detainees at Guantanamo to compel improvements in their conditions, if not their release. Brutal methods of forced feeding have been used to break them, including the use of a torture device reminiscient of the Middle Ages known as the restraint chair. Click on the Guantanamo label at the conclusion of this post for a list of my posts on the topic.

Now, according to Nicole Colson, yet another hunger strike has commenced:

More detainees at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are so desperate to end their suffering that they are going on hunger strike--willing to risk death if it means an end to their imprisonment.

According to press reports, at least 13 prisoners are on hunger strike in protest of the harsh conditions at "Camp 6," a new maximum-security section of the camp. Two have reportedly been refusing food since August 2005, while most of the others began striking in January or February.

Most are forced to undergo daily force-feedings at the hands of their U.S. captors--an often brutal and dehumanizing process that lawyers and human rights advocates say is meant to make detainees suffer more.

The novel aspect of this story is Colson's reference to the creation of Camp 6, the new maximum security section of the camp:

According to "Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions of Isolation for Detainees at Guantánamo Bay," a report released earlier this month by Amnesty International, the situation inside Guantánamo is actually becoming worse for detainees--particularly the approximately 160 (out of a total of 385) detainees who are thought to be housed at Camp 6.

According to the report, Camp 6 "has created even harsher and apparently more permanent conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation in which detainees are confined to almost completely sealed, individual cells, with minimal contact with any other human being."

Prisoners in Camp 6 are confined to 8-by-10-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day, and are allowed out only infrequently to shower or to exercise in enclosed areas surrounded by high concrete-and-wire walls. They are not able to speak to each other except by shouting through a narrow gap at the bottom of their steel cell doors. There are no outside windows, and detainees have reported that air conditioning is left on high--making the metal cells intolerably cold.

Someday, Guantanamo will be closed, but the sadistic practices will undoubtedly be perpetuated elsewhere in rendition facilities around the world, and the people responsible for them will probably find themselves moving through the revolving door to lucrative positions with private military and security contractors.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century 

Every now and then, we encounter books that transform the way that we perceive history and human experience. The London Hanged is one of them. Written by Professor Peter Linebaugh, and published in 1991, it presents a fascinating portrayal of class conflict in England in the 18th Century. It is also one of the most exciting, idiosyncratic books in terms of its language and storytelling method that I have stumbled across in quite some time.

Linebaugh selects a provocative entry into the subject: the public hangings at Tyburn in London, hangings that, according to Linebaugh, exposed the relationship between the concepts of crime, primitive accumulation by the emerging merchant classes and perpetual class conflict. During this period, civil society as we know it today, with strictly defined property rights, protected by professional police and the judiciary, and facilitated by technological advances motivated by the need to create a disciplined workforce compensated through wages, came into existence.

Accordingly, there is a profound social context to the hangings, as they involved the creation of a system of justice by which individuals who transgressed the commercial values of the new order were charged, convicted and publicly hung in front of large crowds as an example to others. At the heart of the struggle was the unwillingness of the English working class to accept the loss of what was then commonly known as custom, or, alternatively, perquisities.

Neither term is easy to define, but they involve at least two notions. First, the accepted practice that a worker, based upon the residue of feudal social relations, shared in the materials used in production. The merchant possessed a limited right of ownership, subject to the right of the worker to take for his own use waste or even a small percentage of the total amount. Accordingly, it was implicitly acknowledged that the merchant and the worker had a shared ownership, even if the merchant's was by far the greater one. Such a right in the workplace was often critical to the survival of the workers and their families, as, alarmingly described by Linebaugh, most English workers in this period could not subsist on what they were paid.

Linebaugh addresses this aspect of the meaning of these terms in extraordinary detail, providing us with a fascinating glimpse of the trades practiced in London at the time, explaining, for example, how tobacco was transported from the Tidewaters of Virginia to London and the specialization of labor that it engendered. Tobacco ignited a remorseless conflict between workers and merchants over the extent and nature of the perquisites associated with it, as everyone involved in the transport of the valuable commodity took the opportunity to help themselves to a share of the crop, even customs officers. Other instances of this conflict include the rags associated with silk production, the cabbage related to the fitting of clothes by tailors and the chips taken from the yard by dock workers.

Second, the terms also involved a certain amount of control by workers over the means by which they performed their tasks, and the nascent capitalists of England perpetually complained about their idleness and the need to impose discipline upon them. Hence, the factory workhouse, the textile mill and the notorious brutalities inflicted upon sailors. Indeed, while sailing in the 18th Century is now often retrospectively romanticized, Linebaugh quotes a colleague to the effect that sailing prefigured the creation of an industrial, factory proletariat. He cites Professor Rediker to the effect that sailing resulted in the first collective laborer, based upon a sophisticated specialization of tasks and the use of an international work force.

Of course, the ultimate goal was not the elimination of an abstract evil like idleness, but the submission of workers to a wage system whereby they would be closely monitored, supervised and compensated based upon a quantification of a portion of the value of what they produced. Workers, quite predictably, resisted it, and Linebaugh explains how the hangings at Tyburn, with their emphasis upon property crimes, such as theft, embezzlement and larceny, should be properly understood as one of the measures of the harshness of this conflict. In fact, these property crimes were more and more rigidly defined and enforced as a means of destroying the system of perquisites that workers so zealously asserted.

Linebaugh is especially good when he places these trends in the context of the emergence of London as the center of a global economic system, ravenously searching the world for more commodities and more workers to fuel the transformation of England from a mercantile society to a capitalist one. His descriptions of the involvement of black and Irish peoples in this struggle are especially compelling. On the other side, it was a struggle personified in Patrick Colquhoun, a man who implemented the concept of the urban police as a necessity for protecting the public against what he perceived as the immoralities and predations of the working class in the 1790s, during struggles with silk and dock workers. As described by Linebaugh: Thus, he knew the meaning of the 'division of labor' in both senses--namely, as commerce (the social division of labor) and as fractionalization (the specialization of tasks).

Colquhoun and those who saw the future like him prevailed, imposing a division of labor in both aspects, but, and this is an essential point, they never succeeded in destroying the willingness of people to resist, a resistance that continues to this very day. Linebaugh presents us with a social history that speaks strongly to us in the present, defiantly refusing to accept the end of history, rebelliously rejecting Thatcher's dictum that there is no alternative to the present neoliberal order.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Update on the Condition of Steve Gilliard 

About a month ago, I posted about the life threatening condition of Steve Gilliard, originator of the News Blog. Now, it looks like he will live, but he has a long recovery ahead. Don't hesitate to visit his blog, currently being maintained by guest posters, and express support for him. While liberal, as opposed to left, he has long been a voice of integrity on the 'Net.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Five Years Ago 

An excerpt from an article by Gregory Wilpert at venezuelanalysis.com:

The April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez represented the perhaps most important turning point of the Chavez Presidency. First, it showed just how far the opposition was willing to go to get rid of the country’s democratically elected president. Up until that point the opposition could claim that it was merely fighting Chavez with the political tools provided by liberal democracy. Afterwards, the mask was gone and Chavez and his supporters felt that their revolution was facing greater threats than they had previously imagined. A corollary of this first consequence was thus that the coup woke up Chavez’s supporters to the need to actively defend their government.

Second, the coup showed just popular Chavez really was and how determined his supporters were to prevent his overthrow. They went onto the streets, at great personal risk (over 60 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by the police in the demonstrations that inspired the military to bring Chavez back to power), to demand their president’s return to office.

Third, the coup woke up progressives around the world to what was happening in Venezuela. It forced them to examine why a supposedly unpopular and authoritarian government would be brought back to power with the support of the county’s poor. As such, the coup shone a spotlight on what was happening in Venezuela and eventually rallied progressives around the world to support the Bolivarian (and now socialist) project.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly for the future evolution of the Venezuelan conflict, the coup was the third nail in the political coffin of the country’s old elite. The first such nail was Chavez’s election in 1998, which brought an explicitly anti-establishment figure into Venezuela’s presidency for the first time in forty years. The second nail was the passage of the 1999 constitution and Chavez’s confirmation as President, in 2000, which democratically swept the country’s old elite almost completely out of political power, such as the governorships, the Supreme Court, and the National Assembly. With the third nail, the failure of the 2002 coup, the opposition lost a base of power in the military and a significant amount of good will in the international community. The next three nails, the failed 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, the August 2004 recall referendum, and the December 2006 presidential election, only further solidified the old elite’s demise as a political force in Venezuela.

Wilpert omits another important aspect of the failed coup: it rendered the movement in South America away from the US and towards regional economic integration irreversible. The mass movement that returned Chavez to power showed the rest of the continent that it was possible to chart a left, integrationist course without the approval of the US. It repudiated the clash of fundamentalisms upon which the Bush Doctrine is based, and demonstrated that another way is possible, neither capitalist nor religious fundamentalist extremism, but inclusive, communitarian and humanistic. Accordingly, the failed coup may ultimately be considered more historically significant than the violent pyrotechnics of 9/11.

Finally, Wilpert's forensic work is exceptional in regard to providing a detailed social chronology of the events surrounding the coup and the successful resistance to it. At such moments, history truly does hang in the balance, determined by the courageous, spontaneous actions of individuals in the face of great adversity. Decades from now, we may recall, the collapse of the American Empire improbably commenced on the streets of Caracas on April 11 through April 13, 2002.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt. 

Kurt Vonnegut was an American leftist.

He wouldn't have labeled himself as such, but I don't think he labeled himself as anything more than "human being". However, when I look back on it, the first person I ever read who touched on themes of the justness of socialism and the immorality of capitalism and so forth was Kurt Vonnegut back when I was in high school.

Anyway, here's this:

First things first: I want it clearly understood that this mustache I’m wearing is my father’s mustache. I should have brought his photograph. My big brother Bernie, now dead, a physical chemist who discovered that silver iodide can sometimes make it snow or rain, he wore it, too.

Speaking of weather: Mark Twain said some readers complained that there wasn’t enough weather in his stories. So he wrote some weather, which they could insert wherever they thought it would help some.

Mark Twain was said to have shed a tear of gratitude and incredulousness when honored for his writing by Oxford University in England. And I should shed a tear, surely, having been asked at the age of 80, and because of what I myself have written, to speak under the auspices of the sacred Mark Twain House here in Hartford.

What other American landmark is as sacred to me as the Mark Twain House? The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln were country boys from Middle America, and both of them made the American people laugh at themselves and appreciate really important, really moral jokes.

I note that construction has stopped of a Mark Twain Museum here in Hartford —behind the carriage house of the Mark Twain House at 351 Farmington Avenue.

Work persons have been sent home from that site because American “conservatives,” as they call themselves, on Wall Street and at the head of so many of our corporations, have stolen a major fraction of our private savings, have ruined investors and employees by means of fraud and outright piracy.

Shock and awe.

And now, having installed themselves as our federal government, or taken control of it from outside, they have squandered our public treasury and then some. They have created a public debt of such appalling magnitude that our descendants, for whom we had such high hopes, will come into this world as poor as church mice.

Shock and awe.

What are the conservatives doing with all the money and power that used to belong to all of us? They are telling us to be absolutely terrified, and to run around in circles like chickens with their heads cut off. But they will save us. They are making us take off our shoes at airports. Can anybody here think of a more hilarious practical joke than that one?

Smile, America. You’re on Candid Camera.

And they have turned loose a myriad of our high-tech weapons, each one costing more than a hundred high schools, on a Third World country, in order to shock and awe human beings like us, like Adam and Eve, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The other day I asked former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton what he thought of our great victory over Iraq, and he said, “Mohammed Ali versus Mr. Rogers.”

What are conservatives? They are people who will move heaven and earth, if they have to, who will ruin a company or a country or a planet, to prove to us and to themselves that they are superior to everybody else, except for their pals. They take good care of their pals, keep them out of jail—and so on.

Conservatives are crazy as bedbugs. They are bullies.

Shock and awe.

Class war? You bet.

They have proved their superiority to admirers of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and Jesus of Nazareth, with an able assist from television, making inconsequential our protests against their war.

What has happened to us? We have suffered a technological calamity. Television is now our form of government.

On what grounds did we protest their war? I could name many, but I need name only one, which is common sense.

Be that as it may, construction of the Mark Twain Museum will sooner or later be resumed. And I, the son and grandson of Indiana architects, seize this opportunity to suggest a feature which I hope will be included in the completed structure, words to be chiseled into the capstone over the main entrance.

Here is what I think would be fun to put up there, and Mark Twain loved fun more than anything. I have tinkered with something famous he said, which is: “Be good and you will be lonesome.” That is from Following the Equator. OK?

So envision what a majestic front entrance the Mark Twain Museum will have someday. And imagine that these words have been chiseled into the noble capstone and painted gold:

be good and you will be lonesome most places, but not here, not here.
One of the most humiliated and heartbroken pieces Twain ever wrote was about the slaughter of 600 Moro men, women and children by our soldiers during our liberation of the people of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Our brave commander was Leonard Wood, who now has a fort named after him. Fort Leonard Wood.

What did Abraham Lincoln have to say about such American imperialist wars? Those are wars which, on one noble pretext or another, actually aim to increase the natural resources and pools of tame labor available to the richest Americans who have the best political connections.

And it is almost always a mistake to mention Abraham Lincoln in a speech about something or somebody else. He always steals the show. I am about to quote him.

Lincoln was only a Congressman when he said in 1848 what I am about to echo. He was heartbroken and humiliated by our war on Mexico, which had never attacked us.

We were making California our own, and a lot of other people and properties, and doing it as though butchering Mexican soldiers who were only defending their homeland against invaders wasn’t murder.

What other stuff besides California? Well, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

The person congressman Lincoln had in mind when he said what he said was James Polk, our president at the time. Abraham Lincoln said of Polk, his president, our armed forces’ commander-in-chief: “Trusting to escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory, that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood —that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy, he plunged into war.”

Holy smokes! I almost said, “Holy shit!” And I thought I was a writer!

Do you know we actually captured Mexico City during the Mexican War? Why isn’t that a national holiday? And why isn’t the face of James Polk up on Mount Rushmore, along with Ronald Reagan’s?

What made Mexico so evil back in the 1840s, well before our Civil War, is that slavery was illegal there. Remember the Alamo?

My great-grandfather’s name was Clemens Vonnegut. Small world, small world. This piquant coincidence is not a fabrication. Clemens Vonnegut called himself a “freethinker,” an antique word for humanist. He was a hardware merchant in Indianapolis.

So, 120 years ago, say, there was one man who was both Clemens and Vonnegut. I would have liked being such a person a lot. I only wish I could have been such a person tonight.

I claim no blood relationship with Samuel Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri. “Clemens,” as a first name, is, I believe, like the name “Clementine,” derived from the adjective “clement.” To be clement is to be lenient and compassionate, or, in the case of weather, perfectly heavenly.

So there’s weather again.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Demand Tenure for Norman Finkelstein 

Anti-Zionist scholar Norman Finkelstein is facing the end of his academic career unless we publicly demand that he obtain the tenure at DePaul University that he has earned. Finkelstein has been a tireless researcher into the abuses of anti-semitism as justification for the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians, with numerous publications.

As observed by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb:

You may not have heard that Norman Finkelstein is under threat of being excluded from tenure. It became clear last week that, while he had the overhwelming support of students, his department and his college, the Dean was refusing to endorse his candidacy (probably under pressure from the University president). Finkelstein is routinely nominated for the top teaching award from DePaul's students, and had been nominated for it again this year. However, if he fails to get tenure, his professional life at the institution will be more or less finished: he will no longer be able to teach or have access to university facilities. It has emerged that Alan Dershowitz has been working away to disrupt his tenure bid, circulating a dossier accusing him of antisemitism and "egregious academic sins". DePaul faculty staff have written to its President, and to Harvard University to decry this interference, and internal investigations have rebutted Dershowitz's claims, but the faculty dean has effectively taken Dershowitz's side, saying: "I find the personal attacks in many of Dr. Finkelstein's published books to border on character assassination and, in my opinion, they embody a strategy clearly aimed at destroying the reputation of many who oppose his views."

Efforts have already emerged to publicly support Finkelstein, and you can add your name to them. Here's one :


April 11, 2007

The Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., Ed.D.
DePaul University
55 East Jackson Boulevard, 22nd Floor
Chicago, Illinois 60604 U.S.
Phone: +1.312.362.8000
Fax: +1.312.362.6822

Dr. Helmut Epp, Ph.D.
DePaul University
55 East Jackson Boulevard, 22nd Floor
Chicago, Illinois 60604 U.S.
Phone: +1.312.362.8760
Fax: +1.312.362.6822

Dear Rev./Dr. Holtschneider and Dr. Epp:

As scholars and teachers in various institutions throughout the U.S. and abroad, we are writing to inquire about Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s tenure case. We have seen a memo, dated March 22, 2007, from Charles Suchar, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to the University Board on Tenure and Promotion, recommending against tenure for Dr. Finkelstein, despite favorable votes at two levels of faculty review. Dean Suchar justifies his recommendation on the ground that Dr. Finkelstein’s scholarly work, though sound in its content, is often uncivil, disrespectful, mean-spirited, inflammatory, and so on, in its tone. We object to this weighting of criteria, especially when a scholar’s polemical style is cited as evidence that he lacks “values of collegiality.” The American Association of University Professors has explicitly challenged the use of criteria such as “collegiality” in tenure and promotion evaluations, precisely because these terms are subject to a wide range of interpretations. The AAUP rightly notes that criteria of this sort are often used to mask retribution as well as disciplinary or other biases. We note that they often stand in for political disagreement. The likelihood increases, in our view, when the criteria are couched as vague institutional principles, such as “personalism” and “Vincentian values.” Moreover, Dean Suchar’s use of “Vincentian” values is at odds with DePaul’s mission statement, which advocates social justice, a “Vincentian” value at the heart of Dr. Finkelstein’s scholarly work, service, and teaching.

We know that any teaching and writing about culture, and politics can seem controversial. This is especially so in fields such as Latin American studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and Middle Eastern studies. In such areas of intense debate, a polemical tone is not unusual, and does not discredit the underlying scholarship. Tenure exists precisely to allow scholars the pursuit of candid intellectual inquiry, even the most controversial fields, without fear of retribution. To challenge the status quo of Zionist historiography in the U.S., as Finkelstein has done in his scholarship, most certainly ignites controversy; but his ability to address the subject with thorough documented evidence that encourages readers to see the subject of Palestine and Israel anew is precisely why scholars around the world value his work. While researchers—like diplomats and heads of state—cannot avoid appearing polemical given the highly charged nature of fields such as Dr. Finkelstein’s, it is imperative that we protect the right of research scholars and teachers to work in this field unhindered by fears of retribution.

Faculty specialists are the most reliable judges of a peer’s teaching, research and service contributions. Dean Suchar’s overriding of faculty assessments, using malleable and subjective criteria, is a clear violation of the principle of intellectual freedom that is a hallmark of higher education. Without the protection of this valued principle the integrity of higher education is irreparably harmed. The professional reputation of DePaul University also stands to suffer if an internationally recognized and reputable faculty member’s tenure is denied on such reasoning.

We respectfully request that you investigate the matter at hand. Dean Suchar’s letter sets a dangerous precedent, and also sends the signal that arts and sciences are now endangered at DePaul University and in the American academy in general. In this tenure case, there appear to be gross violations of professional protocol (e.g., the Dean’s decision in reference to a possible lawsuit as further evidence of Dr. Finkelstein’s lack of “personableness”). Many academics are following this case and are legitimately interested in the outcome as our own careers, and the very mission of the academy, also rest in the balance.


Scholars, Teachers, and Professionals for Intellectual Freedom In Support of Dr. Norman Finkelstein

And, here's another. Please consider adding your names to both in his support.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Growth Industry: Construction of More Indefinite Detention Facilities in Iraq (Part 2) 

Yesterday, I posted about plans for significantly expanding the network of detention facilities within Iraq, and the number of military police required for them. But, as reported in today's Los Angeles Times, it turns out that these facilities have been . . . . . you guessed it, a prime recruiting venue for al-Qaeda:

U.S.-run detention camps in Iraq have become a breeding ground for extremists where Islamic militants recruit and train supporters, and use violence against perceived foes, say former inmates and Iraqi officials.

Extremists conducted regular indoctrination lectures, and in some cases destroyed televisions supplied by the Americans for use with educational videos, banned listening to music on radios, forbade smoking and stoked tensions between Sunni and Shiite detainees, they said.

Iraqis swept up in security operations and held indefinitely while the Americans try to determine whether they have any links to the insurgency are susceptible to the extremists' message, former detainees said.

Their accounts of life in Camp Cropper, the main U.S. detention center at the Baghdad airport, indicate that three years after the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison, the U.S. is still struggling to find a balance in the way it runs its detention system.

Prisons have long served as an incubator for radicals, and mass roundups by the U.S. military after the 2003 invasion are now blamed for antagonizing Iraq's Sunni Arab population and feeding the insurgency.

How has the US military attempted to address the problem? The article provides the humorous answer:

A year ago, the U.S. military instituted a rehabilitation program that consisted of educating detainees about Iraq's new political process, Sultan, the Human Rights ministry liaison, said. However, counter-terrorism experts say that the U.S. military needs to take a far more comprehensive approach.

"Simple classes … aren't sufficient. It has to be part of a broader, comprehensive program," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. De-Nazification efforts in post-World War II Germany involved more than a civics class.

"Our failure to pursue such programs is indicative of the low priority we have always inexplicably given to acquiring detailed psychological, demographic and cultural intelligence from the detainees in Iraq," Hoffman said. "All that is valued by us is hard tactical intelligence — when there is a wealth of other information that we can obtain that in the long run could be decisive strategically."

So far, Sultan said, radicals have sabotaged the U.S. program of civics and literacy classes.

"It's very difficult when you have a one-hour class, and you spend the next 23 hours with the imam," he said.

The hidden pearl here is the comparison to de-nazification: De-Nazification efforts in post-World War II Germany involved more than a civics class.

Yet again, we have a subtle, but clear attempt to analogize Iraqi Baathism to Nazism, an acceptance of the puerile good versus evil mentality that has pervaded the purported war on terror and the invasion and occupation of Iraq since their inception.

Significantly, however, the horrors of Nazism did not require the banishment of many of its most socially prominent adherents. Indeed, de-nazification did involve more than a civics class, it emphasized the reentry of politically, economically and technically skilled Nazis back into German society, shorn of public knowledge of their notorious pasts, so that the US could fight a Cold War against the Soviets in a fractured Germany.

In other words, de-nazification never happened, unless one is enamoured of the Orwellian use of the English language. The anger of the postwar generation of German youth over the discovery of this policy was a major incitement of social unrest in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as an inspiration for the great German filmmakers of that era and beyond, such as Straub, Fassbinder, Reitz, Schlorndorf and others.

And, hence, we should not be surprised to hear the neoconservative chorus now singing, in unison, that the discharge of the Baathist Iraqi army in the summer of 2003 was one of the most grave errors of the Occupation Authority. And, similarly, the increasing acceptability of ex-Baathists to the US, such as Allawi, for example, echoes the illusory de-nazification of the late 1940s.

Finally, the article reveals the self-sustainability of military neoliberalism. Private security contractors and prison construction have become enduring profit centers in the evolving neoliberal order. Hence, it requires a perpetual stream of people to surveil, arrest and incarcerate. Accordingly, we should not be surprised to discover that, rather than effectively deterring crime and violence, the system of US detention facilities in Iraq actually serves to facilitate it.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Growth Industry: Construction of More Indefinite Detention Facilities in Iraq 

As described here in the past, the US continues to incarcerate, on average, approximately 13,000 Iraqis at US military facilities around the country. According to the Christian Science Monitor, it is anticipated that this number will soon triple:

But as the Baghdad security plan also known as Fard Al Kanoon moves forward, Petraeus is planning for the possibility of holding as many as 40,000 captives. Most are being held at two facilities, one at Camp Cropper in Baghdad and another at Camp Bucca, south of the city.

American commands will hold many of those detainees indefinitely to collect intelligence about local networks and terrorist or insurgent activity, providing regular reviews of their cases to assess the security risks they would pose if put back on the street. Many others will be transferred to the Iraqis, where they would become the subjects of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.

Predictably, this will require the construction of more prison facilities and more US military police:

As the Baghdad security plan under Army Gen. David Petraeus moves forward, US and Iraqi forces are apprehending hundreds of insurgents, terrorists, and other criminals. Many of them are quickly being transferred to the Iraqis for detainment. There's just one problem: The Iraqi judicial system, which is responsible for processing such detainees, isn't yet up to the task. This is forcing the Americans to build more detention facilities to hold all the detainees – and bring in more US military police to guard them.

The Iraqi judicial system has been hobbled by the four years of war, as well as the loss of judges and lawyers who either fled the country or were murdered. As a result, the judicial system simply doesn't have the capacity to process many of the new detainees.

This is posing a key challenge as American and Iraqi forces try to bring stability to some of Iraq's most dangerous neighborhoods. Thus US forces are beefing up their facilities, and also helping the Iraqis build their own detention centers. In addition, on Monday, the Pentagon formally announced the deployment to Iraq of more than 2,000 additional US military police, who will join the roughly 3,000 MPs already there.

A number of things come to mind when reading this story. First, let's look at this first sentence of this quote: As the Baghdad security plan under Army Gen. David Petraeus moves forward, US and Iraqi forces are apprehending hundreds of insurgents, terrorists, and other criminals. Really? If so, then why do we perpetually encounter stories about people seized and detained by occupation forces without any connection to the insurgency or any violence directed towards Iraqis?

Second, I thought that we were transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis, but it is a strange form of sovereignty that entails more US detention facilities and more US military police, with US commanders making the ultimate decision as to the disposition of detainees. Third, if the surge is resulting in the seizure of hundreds of insurgents, terrorists and other criminals, then why are facilities required for 27,000 more? Apparently, prison construction and the employment of correctional officers is a growth industry beyond the confines of the US. Lastly, it is evident that the author of the article, Gordon Lubold, qualifies as a classic embedded journalist, as he credulously accepts all of the explanations of the US military.

The institutionalization of indefinite detention in Iraq recalls the recent New York Times article by philosopher Slavoj Zizek about the confessions of al-Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed obtained through torture:

Mr. Mohammed has become what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “homo sacer”: a creature legally dead while biologically still alive. And he’s not the only one living in an in-between world. The American authorities who deal with detainees have become a sort of counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, they operate in an empty space that is sustained by the law and yet not regulated by the rule of law.

Here again, we encounter how Iraq has become the definitional experiment for military neoliberalism. Through a combination of military violence, privatization of government services and the stripping away of individual rights and privileges associated with the nation state, the US intends to create a new imperial model for the 21st Century.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance 

I was just reading a David Brooks column from two weeks ago about the death of "neoliberalism" and am wondering if it's just me -- and it really might be -- or has the word "neoliberalism" recently taken on a new meaning? Doesn't neoliberalism just refer to an economic ideology? The "liberalism" that neoliberals neo-ify, as I have always taken the term, is the economic liberalism of the era of laissez-faire capitalism and robber barons, right?

Brooks in the above uses "neoliberal" to mean centrist liberal, to mean the politics of The New Republic and Clinton-style DLC Democrats as a whole, not just regarding economic policy. Actually Matthew Yglesias recently used the term in the exact same way, applying "neoliberal" to the DLC and The New Republic, and applying it specifically to non-economic political positions like being anti race-based affirmative action. So I'm guessing that this is a usage that it is in the culture -- but then why doesn't the author of the wikipedia entry mention this usage?

Anyway, in the above column, Brooks asserts that The New Republic is going to swing leftward because "younger leftist" interns are "crowd[ing] out vanishing neoliberals", and that, get this, TNR's editor Frank Foer has hired "neopopulist" Thomas Frank to cover the presidential campaign. This oughtta be good ... strange times...

(I must say, I am looking forward to reading Thomas Frank in The New Republic)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Iraq Before March 19, 2003 

Heartbreakingly poignant footage of street scenes in Iraq just weeks before the invasion:

Rarely has such scenes of everyday life had such an emotional impact. It is impossible to imagine when life in Iraq will return to the mundane normalcy conveyed in this video.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Egypt: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised? 

I hate to be stealing so much material for lenin over at Lenin's Tomb, but this is really important, and, as implied by the title of this post, virtually ignored by US media:

I say Egypt could be the next Venezuela - it would be more accurate to say that it would be far, far more significant than what is happening in Venezuela, much as one admires the popular movements and the political leadership shown thus far in that country. The reasons are obvious: the overthrow of a pro-imperialist dictator subsidised by $2bn dollar donations from the Washington treasury each year, on the back of a massive wave of labour strikes and uprisings, would lay the grounds for a revolutionary transformation of the Middle East that no neoconservative would appreciate. Every single pro-American dictatorship would be under threat, and every opposition group in the region would acquire a bastion of support - especially the Palestinians, the self-righteousness of whose oppressors is limitless. Perhaps you imagine I'm writing my April Fool piece, but if that breathless enthusiasm does seem a little overdone to you, perhaps it is because you haven't seen a fraction of what is happening in Egypt on your television screens, in contrast with the regular bulletins on Iran.

Hossam el-Hamalawy's blog contains regular updates on the strikes sweeping across Egypt, and the state's crack-downs. Plenty will you read of bloggers and dissidents taken away and tortured in Mubarak's cells, and you can even watch footage of the ballot-stuffing carried out by state officials in the recent referendum on constitutional amendments designed to crack down on opposition groups, but much also about the victories of the workers' movement. These strikes are illegal, frequently wild cat actions, and the state has not been slow to send in the goons where it has had the confidence to do so. But from time to time, they have been outnumbered. And, of course, a report from this remarkable Cairo Conference, the fifth since they began. (Last year, we had a report and some pictures from our own Guy Taylor, so I hope he's been again this year). This year, Rose Gentle of Military Families Against the War spoke alongside Alex Callinicos and John Rees in front of socialists and resistance groups from across the Middle East, as well as Muslim Brothers, Hizbollah and Hamas representatives, and anticapitalist activists from South Korea. The conference's anti-torture forum featured bloggers who had been detained and tortured by Mubarak's secret police, and also a chap named Abu Omar who had been kidnapped by the CIA in Italy and packed off to Mubarak to be electrocuted. Others were put through sexual abuse alongside the other forms of torture. That is how the empire, and its client despots, keep order: this repression, this tyranny, is paid for with a share of the profits of the American capitalist class, the very same who we are supposed to believe are concerned for democracy and human rights in Venezuela.

Of course, there's more, much more, including links to primary Egyptian sources over at Lenin's Tomb. Curiously, lenin seems to have adopted an attitude about the geopolitical significance of Egypt, from the opposite side of the spectrum, of course, as the former LaRouchite, neoconservative fantasist Laurent Murawiec. At least, lenin's perspective is based upon some objective reporting of facts on the ground.

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