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

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Ostriches 

Yesterday, I got this e-mail from someone:

From: xxxxxxxxxx
To: xxxxxxxxxxx
Sent: Monday, June 22, 2009 3:45 PM
Subject: FW: Iran: Are you ready for a war with demonized Iran?

Cindy's on to the sham.

-----Original Message-----
From: Cindy Sheehan [xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx]
Sent: Monday, June 22, 2009 2:25 PM
Subject: Iran: Are you ready for a war with demonized Iran?

I was speaking in Princeton yesterday and an Indian man asked me about what I thought about what is happening in Iran.
I really couldn't comment because I am not sure about what's going on.

An Iranian man came up to me after and said that was a good answer, because he has a lot of family back there and they are not sure what is going on.

If CNN, MSNBC and Fox have their way, we will have a war with Iran.

This is a good article by someone that I respect a lot: Paul Craig Roberts.


And one from Politico



Here, in a nutshell, we have the perspective of many in the US who purport to be either leftist and/or anti-imperialist. I don't know what is happening in Iran, and I don't want to know. Neither of the links provided by Sheehan provide any meaningful information about the Iranians themselves or ongoing events inside Iran. Instead, they evaluate events through their own preoccupations, the mendacity of the US media, and their belief that governments opposed to the US invariably fall from power because of the machinations of the US and Israel. The possibility that there might be indigenous reasons for Iranians to reject theocratic rule doesn't seem to have occurred to them.

It is rather sad, because while Sheehan deserves great respect for recognizing that the Iraqis have been the primary victims of the invasion of Iraq, despite the loss of her son, she renders the people of Iran invisible, stripping them of any historical agency when it comes to the transformation of their society. A closer examination of the links in her message make this all too clear. One is an article from Paul Craig Roberts, saying that the protests are part of a covert US/Israeli destabilization effort, while the other one, one that states Ahmadinejad won the election, is authored by a couple of neoconservative pollsters. Again, the possibility that the protests have merit, because they challenge the infrastructure of theocratic control over most aspects of daily life in Iran, regardless of the objective outcome of the election, isn't considered.

Of course, there is also the obvious fact that the people who have most effectively discredited the election results are Ayatollah Khamenei and the other people who govern the country. Shooting, beating, killing and arresting people who protest is not consistent with an election result that has integrity. Nor is calling upon government created parmilitaries like the basiji to participate in their suppression. In Central and South American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia, we call armed groups like this death squads, but, in Iran, their activities are apparently considered sufficiently innocuous so as to pass without any expression of concern. Despite all this, Sheehan, and others who perceive the explosion of protest in Iran like her, would have us believe that our failure to recognize that Ahmadinejad may well have won the election is because of a commonality of interest between US media, the US government and Zionists, within and without Israel.

The response of the person who forwarded Sheehan's message is even more disheartening: Cindy is on to the sham. For this person, the Iranians are merely a crowd of extras participating in a sham co-produced by the US and Israel. I feel compelled to explain all this, even though, as I implied earlier, the election result is now increasingly irrelevant, because the protests would be legitimate even if Ahmadinejad did, in fact, prevail. Iranians have every right to protest a government that imposes oppressive social controls upon women and young people, while criminalizing homosexuality, subjecting gays and lesbians to brutal punishments, if not death, and prohibiting the emergence of independent trade unions. I intend to address this particular aspect of the protests in more depth in a future post, but, for now, I will just observe that the left historically, as personified by its anarchist, communist and social democratic manifestations, has always been a secularizing force, hostile to the imposition of religious constraints upon personal conduct.

Sheehan is not the only person sticking her head in the sand on this. I have engaged in an ongoing e-mail exchange with someone who sends me, and a number of others on his list, articles related to anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism, South American social movements and the predations of the American empire. He has sent me a number of articles purporting to defend the Iranian election result, while maligning US media coverage and the pronouncements of Obama. I encouraged him to expand the scope of his submissions by sending out links to the ongoing debate between lenin and Yoshie over at Lenin's Tomb, as I did here earlier today. In other words, I didn't insist that he send out articles and links in support of the protests, but that he merely send out ones that set forth both sides of an engaged, passionate left debate. He was polite, but evasively firm. Forget about it.

It is a marked contrast to lenin, Richard Seymour, who has allowed Yoshie to post several articles and numerous comments that defend the regime on his site. He recognizes that it is essential for people on the left to participate in an open, vigourous discussion. Eli, over at Left I on the News, has also been silent, while posting articles complaining about the hypocrisy of US media and the President in regard to their responses to the Iranian protests. He quite properly pilliories them for their refusal to apply the same standards to the brutalities of US and Israeli actions nearby. He does not, however, take it one step further, as As'ad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab, has done, and address what is happening inside Iran as well. Abukhalil combines a curiosity about the protests from a Middle Eastern perspective with a sharpness of political interpretation that puts the rest of us to shame. Unlike others here in the US, he is aware that waiting for the Iranian protesters to just go away is no substitute for urgently required sociological and political analysis.

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Iran: lenin nails it 

An excerpt:

The key here is universality: these protesters are no different from those who have been beaten or killed in Genoa, in London, in LA, in Athens, and everywhere that the state is challenged by a democratic movement and responds in this way.

Lenin's Tomb has been an excellent site for left debate about ongoing events in Iran, with numerous posts over the last week. By and large, the dialogue has been passionate and informative. To get the full flavor of the discussion, it is essential to read through the comments.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

How to Help Iran 

An insightful post that challenges us to respect the Iranians as people with independent, subjective voices even as we interpret events through our own ideological lens.

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From The Guardian:

A confidential record of a meeting between President Bush and Tony Blair before the invasion of Iraq, outlining their intention to go to war without a second United Nations resolution, will be an explosive issue for the official inquiry into the UK's role in toppling Saddam Hussein.

The memo, written on 31 January 2003, almost two months before the invasion and seen by the Observer, confirms that as the two men became increasingly aware UN inspectors would fail to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) they had to contemplate alternative scenarios that might trigger a second resolution legitimising military action.

Bush told Blair the US had drawn up a provocative plan "to fly U2 reconnaissance aircraft painted in UN colours over Iraq with fighter cover". Bush said that if Saddam fired at the planes this would put the Iraqi leader in breach of UN resolutions.

The president expressed hopes that an Iraqi defector would be "brought out" to give a public presentation on Saddam's WMD or that someone might assassinate the Iraqi leader. However, Bush confirmed even without a second resolution, the US was prepared for military action. The memo said Blair told Bush he was "solidly with the president".

The five-page document, written by Blair's foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, and copied to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, the chief of the defence staff, Admiral Lord Boyce, and the UK's ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, outlines how Bush told Blair he had decided on a start date for the war.

We live in an age when such damning information can be released to the public without consequence.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Ride the Tiger 

I will be the first to admit that I'm not especially knowledgeable about Iran. Outside media coverage of the country has been limited since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Combine that with the demonization of the country's political leadership within the US since the hostage crisis, and the impediments to reliable information become even more severe. Even otherwise responsible journalists like Robert Dreyfuss find themselves recycling tired, embarrassing stereotypes about the populace when they are impertinent enough to support Ahmadinejad. Anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism become evidence of a virtual fascist movement.

My political perspective has been shaped by two touchstones. First, Tariq Ali published one of the most incisive critiques of the Islamic regime in his chapters related to Iran in The Clash of Fundamentalisms. Based upon his encounters with exiles, he describes life within Iran as one of a stifling conformity, with women and young people especially estranged from the remorseless constraints of fundamentalist life. But, as with any inflexible social system, it is not uniformly enforced, as the powerful were able to buy their way out of marriages, morals charges and military service (a matter of urgency during the Iran-Iraq War). If this society could be summarized in one sentence, it would be this: Do as we say, not as we do.

Second, as someone who came of age in the period leading to the 1979 revolution, and encountered the history of US involvement in Iran, I have always been insistent that the Iranians should decide their destiny in the absence of American intervention. As readers of this blog know, I am generally negative about the policies of the Obama administration, but, on this one, Obama has gotten it right. Through past actions, and present day threats, the US government has figuratively cut out its tongue when it comes to making statements about Iran. A country that refuses to disavow the possibility of launching airstrikes against an imaginary nuclear weapons program, airstrikes that could even involve nuclear weapons, while imposing economic sanctions, has nothing to say about what is transpiring there. At most, it can say this: the future of Iran is something to be decided by Iranians, hopefully in the most non-violent way possible.

On the left, there is a vibrant, creative debate about how to respond to the protests. Some believe that Ahmanijedad did win the election, and that Mousavi and his patron, Rafsanjani, represent a neoliberal alternative that will retain the oppressive state apparatus while impoverishing workers even more:

In the history of social revolutions, it often happened that leftists helped to bring about social revolution (socialist or nationalist), and then, after the overthrow of the ancient regime, a faction of revolutionaries (usually centrists) liquidated left-wing and right-wing revolutionaries as well as defenders of the ancient regime.

That's what happened in Iran, too. The revolution did in its leftists, as well as rightists. But, over all, the Iranian Revolution has done more good than bad for a majority of Iranians, making Iran the best country -- the most democratic! -- in the Middle East today.

Others believe that the protests can create an opportunity for the Iranian working class to rediscover its voice and obtain the right to independently organize:

. . . Reza Fiyouzat makes what seems to be to be a far more compelling point, though: "The most class-conscious, the most politically active of the Iranian working classes, are by far the most anti-government. How do we know this? We know this because they invariably end up in jail." Well, quite.

The issue of class is important here, not because the workers are angels with whom we may not ever differ, but because their organised power is necessary to make even these democratic demands effective. Even if the protesters were all middle class, I would want them to win. Truth be told, I would want them to win even more than they bargained for - to win so comprehensively that they gave a shot in the arm to the working class and facilitated their rapid self-organisation outside of the Islamic Labour Council approved unions. Never mind a general strike: what is urgently needed is the reappearance of the shoras. And we have seen the riots spread chaotically to working class areas of Isfahan (see also), where the protesters drove out the police, and the southern city of Yazd. The protests have spread to workers districts in southern Tehran. Reports of working class turnout are appearing, albeit infrequently, in some of the English-language press.

As you might have guessed, I find this latter perspective more compelling, but the first one is not without credibility. For example, the protests that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the USSR resulted in nearly incomprehensible immiseration for most people, as the old apparat, with the willing help of foreign investors, spirited away the resources of many of these countries while interior ministries and intelligence services suppressed any dissent. Furthermore, ethnic violence exploded throughout the Caucasus, with the countries of this region ruled by gangsters. We should not blithely dismiss similar outcomes in Iran if the Mousavi/Rafsanjani faction prevails.

Even so, is it possible to avoid such traumas by holding fast to a repressive social system imposed by a discredited elite? To ask the question is, as the saying goes, to answer it. It is also important to note that the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the USSR occurred as neoliberalism was in the ascendancy, while it is now in decline, making it plausible to suggest that an Iranian revolution could carve out the path advocated by Ali, a rejection of the fundamentalisms of both American neoliberalism and extremist Islam. Indeed, American policymakers and journalists seem to vaguely sense this troubling possibility. Unlike with the anti-communist revolutions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, support for the protesters is not uniform and unequivocal. And, then, there are the geopolitical fears, what if the people of Saudi Arabia and Egypt get the same idea?

Finally, as an anarchist, it is hard for me to oppose a movement directed against religious forms of social control. One of the central tenets of anarchism is a condemnation of the feudal powers assumed by religion over everyday life. As someone told the Angry Arab:

. . . I am glad that you are defending neither Ahmanijejad nor Mousavi. It is frustrating that everyone I talk to from Pakistan to Egypt loves Ahmanijedad and is shocked to hear that many Iranians think he is ineffective and embarrassing. Meanwhile every Westerner seems to think that Mousavi is a great reformist or revolutionary, and some kind of saintly figure beloved by all. He's an opportunist crook. That being said, I support the students and protesters in Iran, even the ones chanting Mousavi's name. I believe they are putting their lives on the line to fight for greater freedom, accountability, and democracy within the Islamic Republic, and they have to couch that in the language of Islam and presidential politics in order to avoid even greater repression than that which they already face. A friend who is in Iran right now confirms: "half the kids throwing rocks at the police didn't even vote." To me, that means that they are not fighting for a Mousavi presidency, but for more freedom, which they must hide under a green Mousavi banner in order to have legitimacy in the eyes of the state."

Even in the absence of immediate economic concerns, workers can find this just as objectionable as purportedly more secular intellectuals. The challenge is, of course, for workers to participate with such effectiveness so as to economically empower themselves as well:

Strike in Iran Khodro:

We declare our solidarity with the movement of the people of Iran.

Autoworker, Fellow Laborers (Laborer Friends): What we witness today, is an insult to the intelligence of the people, and disregard for their votes, the trampling of the principles of the Constitution by the government. It is our duty to join this people's movement.

We the workers of Iran Khodro, Thursday 28/3/88 in each working shift will stop working for half an hour to protest the suppression of students, workers, women, and the Constitution and declare our solidarity with the movement of the people of Iran. The morning and afternoon shifts from 10 to 10:30. The night shift from 3 to 3:30.

Laborers of IranKhodor

If they can strike against the Ayatollah Khamanei, one hopes that they can also strike, if it becomes necessary, against those that replace him if the protests blossom into a successful revolutionary movement.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I Want to Support My President 

Hard to imagine a more horrible piece of legislation, a bill that combines more funding for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan with loan guarantees for the International Monetary Fund. Naturally, enough House Democrats repudiated past commitments to get it passed over Republican opposition.

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Obama to California: Drop Dead 

Apparently, there are a few people in the White House who have awakened to the fact that the California budget crisis imperils any possible economic recovery. But, faced with a choice between strict adherence to neoliberal policy, or preventing the complete evisceration of California's safety net, such as, for example, the elimination of welfare, as well as the reduction of public education to a skeletal system of warehousing children, they are still, of course, choosing the former. Trillions for banks? No problem. 24 billion for California, and possibly billions more for other states in a similar situation, like Michigan? Forget about it.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Black Oak Books Closes 

Black Oak Books on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley has closed, a possibility that I mentioned back in January 2007. Outside investors were uanble to keep it open at its most recent location:

With nary a goodbye to the Gourmet Ghetto community that supported it for years," reports Bob Zagone, Black Oak Books in Berkeley closed May 31.

Gary Cornell, one of a group of investors that bought it a year ago, paid off the IRS and attempted to keep it open in hard times, said attempts to renegotiate a lower rent failed. "We couldn't afford the rent, and the landlord wasn't going to raise it, but wasn't going lower." The investors "didn't care about making a profit, but we couldn't keep losing money."

"Bookstores can't afford to pay prime retail rent anymore. Amazon is just too strong. When the state of California passed a bill - about a month ago - not to charge tax on Amazon purchases, that was the final straw." For a bookstore to survive in this era, said Cornell, it's pretty much necessary for it to own its real estate.

He said the investors are hoping "to buy a building on San Pablo and reopen in a few months. ... There are no villains in this story except for the state Legislature, who didn't want to tax Amazon sales." Three staff members (of about seven full-time) will keep their jobs, maintaining "a small retail presence out of our warehouse. ... We're going to try to buy a building, we love books. We have other businesses, too, we don't need this to make money. We just don't want to lose any money."

Black Oak Books joins Cody's Books as two of the most prominent casualties among lost Bay Area bookstores. Cody's, a fixture on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley since the 1960s, closed in 2007.

There is something especially troubling about the closures of Black Oak and Cody's in Berkeley. Berkeley is, of course, a university town, and one could go there and engage in the delightful pasttime of going through various stores in the commercial districts near campus, searching for things impossible to find elsewhere. To find something strange, fascinating and thought provoking, and go through the pages while deciding whether it was important enough to purchase and take back home was a priceless experience. It was a place that valued literacy and the effort involved in intepreting the world around us in print or creating new ones.

A few sanctuaries for such activity still remain, places like Moe's Books, Pendragon Books and Revolution Books. If one goes across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, Modern Times, Green Apple Books, Dog Eared Books and Bound Together Books remain. But the trend is clear, one that has been remorselessly consistent since the 1990s. The independent bookstore is under siege, even in places where it has socially thrived. Of course, I can always order books over the Internet, but it is so impersonal and intangible, and the loss of these bricks and mortal stores in the real world will invariably affect the quality of the selection.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Post-Katrina Blues 

From an article by Trinh Le and Jeffrey Buchanan at Counterpunch:

Despite President Barack Obama's decision to allow residents living in FEMA Trailers to remain in their trailers while the federal government partners with residents to find permanent housing, the Biloxi City Council is preparing to take action to kick these hurricane survivors out of their city. The Biloxi City Council will vote June 16th on an ordinance, backed by the City's community development office, forcing FEMA trailers to be removed from residential zones by August 9th. Housing and human rights advocates have denounced the proposed ordinance as another step in the victimization and marginalization of residents with disabilities, low income, elderly, immigrant, and minority survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by their elected officials.

Chuck Rogers, a long-time Biloxi resident is currently living in a trailer along Redding Street as he works with Hope Community Development Agency, a community-based nonprofit working to find permanent homes for Katrina survivors, to redesign a new home for his lot. He is eager to move out of his trailer but now fears the city council ordinance will set back his plans to rebuild saying, "I'm just trying to do the best I can to build to the future."

"I think it's important that the city recognizes that everyone has not recovered completely from Katrina and that a number of people are still working on their homes," said Ward 2 Councilman Bill Stallworth, an outspoken critic of the ordinance who also serves as Executive Director of Hope Community Development Agency. "It will be unconscionable for the city to throw its citizens onto the streets."

"Biloxi will run afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act if the trailer occupants it displaces include high numbers of racial minorities, persons with disabilities, or single mothers with children," noted Reilly Morse, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Nearly 4 years have passed since Katrina struck New Orleans, and the victims are slowly, but surely, melting into an indistinguishable populace of poverty. Sadly, they appear doomed to live as perpetuately internally displaced people.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

They Aren't Hiding Their Intentions 

From an article by Barry Grey at the World Socialist Web Site:

Testifying Wednesday [June 3rd] before the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke demanded that Congress and the Obama administration map out a program of austerity measures to bring down record budget deficits. Bernanke made clear that the heart of this program should be sharp cuts in social spending, including basic entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

“Maintaining the confidence of the financial markets,” Bernanke said in prepared remarks to the committee, “requires that we, as a nation, begin planning now for the restoration of fiscal balance.”

The phrase “confidence of the financial markets” is a euphemism for the interests of Wall Street and major international banks and investors. In demanding the preparation of austerity measures to be imposed on the American people, Bernanke was speaking in behalf of the financial elite whose massive taxpayer subsidies have been the major cause of the explosive growth over the past year of the federal deficit and the US national debt.

It is all going according to plan.

Hat tip to rjones at All Over the Board.

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Storm Warning? 

A substantially underfunded Creigh Deeds, a state senator, upsets former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe to win the Democratic nomination for governor in Virginia:

Nearly 320,000 people voted in the race, only 6 percent of the state's 5 million registered voters but more than officials predicted. Deeds piled up surprisingly large margins across the state, including in the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia that his opponents call home.

Deeds raised only about $3.7 million, far less than his rivals. McAuliffe, who dominated fundraising, received nearly twice Deeds' total. Deeds' staff was so sparse he often drove himself to campaign events, and he had to lay off field staffers at one point so he could afford to run television ads in the final two weeks of the campaign.

McAuliffe and Moran had criticized Deeds for legislative votes supporting Virginia's broad pro-gun laws, actions popular in rural areas that don't play well in cities and affluent suburbs.

McAuliffe's political connections from his days as chief fundraiser for Clinton and chairman of the DNC helped him dominate press coverage and amass a hefty amount of cash in his first bid for elective office.

And yet, he lost, and lost badly. As long time readers of this blog know, I don't think much of the electoral process. But, in this instance, it may be telling us something important.

Money and establishment connections, heretofore an essential requirement for political success, may now be a negative in the current sour social climate. A generational turnover of elected officials, similar to what transpired in the immediate post-Watergate period in 1974, may be in the offing. The inability of those newly elected officials to cope with the political consequences of defeat in Vietnam and economic distress at home set the stage for Reaganism. If this electoral storm gains strength and makes landfall, will the beneficiaries do better this time? Or, will they merely channel the discontent of an impoverished working class towards suitably defenseless targets while an even more remorseless neoliberalism takes hold?

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Cost of Doing Business 

From The Guardian:

The oil giant Shell has agreed to pay $15.5m (£9.7m) in settlement of a legal action in which it was accused of having collaborated in the execution of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni tribe of southern Nigeria.

The settlement is one of the largest payouts agreed by a multinational corporation charged with human rights violations. Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary SPDC have not conceded to or admitted any of the allegations, pleading innocent to all the civil charges.

But the scale of the payment is being seen by experts in human rights law as a step towards international businesses being made accountable for their environmental and social actions.

In the past, it has been notoriously difficult to bring and sustain legal actions involving powerful corporations.

The settlement follows three weeks of intensive negotiation between the plaintiffs, who largely consisted of relatives of the executed Ogoni nine, and Shell. "We spent a lot of time trying to put together something that would be acceptable to both sides, and our people are very pleased with the result," said Anthony DiCaprio, the lead lawyer for the Ogoni side working with the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights.

5 million dollars will go towards a trust fund to support educational and community initiatives in the Niger delta. It will be interesting to see how it is implemented, because there is a possibility that the fund will become yet another form of social control.

Let's hope that it doesn't happen. Here is what the Center's press release says about it:

One of the aspects of the settlement is to establish The Kiisi Trust. “Kiisi” means “progress” in the Ogoni languages. The Trust will fund education, health, community development and other benefits for the Ogoni people and their communities, including educational endowments, skills development, women’s programs, agricultural development, small enterprise support, and adult literacy.

The Trust Deed was made by the Estate of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Owens Wiwa, the Estate of John Kpuinen, Karalolo Kogbara, Michael Tema Vizor, the Estate of Saturday Doobee, the Estate of Felix Nuate, the Estate of Daniel Gbokoo, the Children of Barinem and Peace Kiobel, and the Estate of Uebari N-nah. This trust will facilitate community participation in decisions related to the use and enjoyment of the Trust Fund, and emphasizes the importance of transparency in its operations.

According to the Center, the settlement is only the beginning of a process of reconciliation:

The Ogoni people have many outstanding issues with Shell, and it is Shell’s responsibility to resolve those issues with the Ogoni people themselves. The Plaintiffs do not speak for the Ogoni people, nor have they attempted to resolve those issues.

The Center has won a great victory within the constraints of the Anglo American legal system. But the amount of the settlement is, sadly, merely the cost of doing business for a transnational energy company like Shell. For example, would it induce Shell to act differently in the future? There is good reason to doubt it. So, in this respect, the settlement is the beginning of a process, not the end of one, as recognized by the Center.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Film Notes: Summer Hours 

When my wife and son are away, I get to indulge myself in one of my favorite pastimes, watching movies. First, there was The Girlfriend Experience last Sunday, then Summer Hours while biking around San Francisco on Wednesday.

Summer Hours is a French family story centered around the decisions that the siblings must make in relation to the estate left by their deceased mother, a warm, beautiful country home filled with the artwork, sculptures and furnishings acquired during the her life through her association with her uncle, a respected, if now largely forgotten, artist. The French, it seems, are no longer special, and even the French have reconciled themselves to it.

Assayas, the writer and director, tells the story through a conventional narrative in his typically naturalistic style of subdued light and color. His emphasis is upon our integrated experiences of work, family and culture as it has evolved over time. Early on, we discover that France is no longer a large enough canvas to contain the ambitions of its middle class. Helene, the matriarch, is celebrating her 75th birthday with her three children and their grandchildren. One of her sons, Jeremie, is a business executive in China, while her daughter, Adrienne, is a designer living in New York. Only Frederic, her other son, remains in France as a professor of economics in Paris.

Over the course of the film, we discover that Jeremie left to work in China because of the lack of similar opportunities in the European Union, and a promotion to Beijing means that it is unlikely that he will ever return to France. Similarly, Adrienne has become so acclimatized to life in the US, with an impending second marriage, that her time in France will be even more limited. Only Frederic has followed path that has allowed him to preserve his French cultural identity. Adrienne and Jeremie have been scattered by the winds of globalization, a wind that has also worn away the prestige formerly accorded academics like Frederic.

The family estate is an allegorical repository of the French cultural heritage. Full of paintings, sculptures, panels, furniture and vases, they are subjected to the process of classification and categorization that Edward Said identified as central to the French imperial enterprise in Egypt. A country that once imposed its cultural standards upon others finds itself experiencing the same processes of subordination. The family is caught between the contradictory hopes of keeping this rich collection within France or maximizing potential profit from the sale of it.

Assayas returns to an old theme, the means by which the intellectualization and monetization of art go hand in hand. At one point, Frederic permits Helene's servant to take any vase that she wants. She selects one that she often used to display flowers, without knowing that it was crafted by a well known 19th Century modernist. As she walks home with it, she talks to herself about how she selected something ordinary, because, after all, what would do with something that carries the burden of artistic achievement. The scene recalls one from an earlier Assayas flim, Late August, Early September, a scene where the teen aged lover of a deceased novelist of the May '68 generation receives a Keith Haring print from him through his will. She keeps the print under her bed, connected to it because of its emotional content as opposed to its desirability if offered at an art auction. Similarly, Helene's servant is drawn to the vase as a memorialization of their relationship.

Assayas counterposes an alternative appreciation of art as an expression of our experiences and relationships as a substitution for the abstractions of intellectual content and financial value. Other Assayas preoccupations also emerge. For example, his interest in the shadow that May '68 casts over its progeny and those that follow manifests itself when a police officer informs Frederic that his daughter, Sylvie, has been arrested for shoplifting. The officer also tells Frederic that he discovered a useable amount of a controlled substance in her purse. Frederic can't say much, as he uses marijuana himself, but involuntarily starts making parental demands about the boyfriend that he believes must invariably be involved, understanding all along that he is acting precisely like his parents did, and the parents of the May '68 generation did. For Assayas, renewal lies along a path of youthful transgression, a path that he personally traveled and addressed fictionally in his 1994 film, Cold Water.

Hence, Assayas suggests that another world is possible when Sylvie and her friends have a party at the estate at the conclusion of the film. They immediately proceed to plug in stereo equipment and computers and blast out music throughout the house. They respect the house, and yet this respect does not prevent them from putting it to their own uses, to incorporate their own social identity into it. Sylvie leaves the house and takes her boyfriend to a place where she and Helene watched the harvesting of fruit when she was a little girl. Despite the rational calculations of responsible adults, the young and the old will inevitably preserve and renew France as a lived experience as opposed to the warehousing of artifacts.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

The Mendacious President 

First, we found ourselves subjected to a mendacious Pope, now, we must additionally endure a mendacious President. As Alexander Cockburn trenchantly observed in regard to Obama's purportedly landmark speech in Cairo:

“I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, “ Obama declared in Cairo, “and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” Vivid in the minds of many Muslims listening to this passage would have been the fate at the start of this week of Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih -- a 31-year old Yemeni who had been in a wire cage since February, 2002 (more than seven years) without charges and declared by his U.S. military jailers “an apparent suicide”. Salih, on hunger strike, was down to 85 pounds.

Torture is certainly the label any morally balanced person would attach to his travails and it’s quite reasonable to speculate that his end came amid yet another attempt to forcibly feed him. Air Force One headed for Cairo with one Muslim barely in the ground after having been tortured to death in a US prison. Many in Obama’s audience would have been well aware too that even if – a big “if” – Guantanamo does get shut down, its inmates will endure similar horrors in Bagram, and that Obama favors imprisonment, permanent if necessary, of enemy combatants, without charges or trial.

Obama’s talk of the evils of Al Qaida’s “violent extremism ” will have fallen ironically on the ears of Palestinians who endured Israel’s monstrous and criminal onslaught in Gaza earlier this year, or of Afghans still seething at the loss of civilians in US bombing raids. The noble pledges about economic assistance to the Muslim world sound hollow against the realities of how US aid really gets administered, starting with the huge sums filched by the “non-profit” aid agencies.

Domestically, the speech was euphorically received, except among Christian conservatives who can't abide any engagement with Arabs and Muslims that doesn't involve seizing them, detaining them, killing them and decimating the infrastructure of their societies.

Meanwhile, the contours of Obama policy in the region remain the same: covert operations and military engagement in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Lebanon and Palestine, Israel, with American supplied weapons, carries out the attacks, while in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US does so directly. Recent terror attacks in Iran have been carried out by a group that receives covert US assistance.

Yet, Obama would have us believe that the real problem in the Middle East is Holocaust denial, as he said nothing to condemn the horrific conditions imposed upon the Palestinians by Israel. As As'ad Abukhalil has frequently observed, it is impermissible for anyone in a position of political responsibility in the US to attribute the suffering of the Palestinians to the acts of Israelis. Instead, one is left with the impression that the Palestinians are the victims of some sort of intergalactic conspiracy requiring the intervention of Captain Kirk and Mister Spock.

But, of course, when it comes to the Palestinians, it is very different. Unlike Israelis, Palestinians must abandon violence. His subsequent remarks to the effect that the Palestinians must seek to attain their nationalistic aspirations through non-violence were straight out offensive. Historically, whenever Palestinians have sought to do so, they have been imprisoned, deported and stripped of their land, their property and their citizenship, if not killed. And, as we all know, the US has done nothing to stop it, to do anything that would create a space for viable non-violent civil disobedience within Palestine.

Let's be blunt: If Martin Luther King had been Palestinian, and launched an action like the Montgomery bus boycott in the occupied territories in 1956, he would have been lucky if Israel had only expelled him from the country and stipped him of his citizenship. More likely, he would have been imprisoned, tortured and probably killed, as Stephen Biko was in South Africa. For the president of a country that has done nothing to protect Palestinians to lecture them on the virtues of non-violence is an embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Obama, in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, stated that the US has no intention to retain permanent military bases in these countries. Has he not read his own plan for withdrawing from Iraq, which contemplates leaving nearly 50,000 troops behind? Perhaps, he is more sincere when he speaks of Afghanistan, but it is hard to reconcile such a statement with his decision to send more troops to the country and launch drone attacks within both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Or, is there something Machiavellian to it, a careful parsing of language designed to conceal that that the future face of the occupation will increasingly be one of death delivered by drones launched and controlled from US soil?

Time will tell, but there was nothing in this speech to suggest anything other than the continuation of US policies designed to preserve hegemonic domination. With the passage of time, and a growing awareness of the consequences of these policies, the glow surrounding this speech will fade, and it will be recognized for what it is, yet another example of an American president seeking to dress up policies of imperial expansion in the garb of idealism. The most striking aspect of it was Obama's polished invocation, through a respectful characterization of the virtues of Islam, of the allure of diversity and multiculturalism to support the enterprise.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

We Need Freedom 

From the Associated Press:

As visiting journalists walked by, two of the inmates held up sketch pads on which they had scribbled "We need freedom." One of them shouted: "Is Obama communist or democrat?"

The protesters were Uighurs, Chinese Muslims swept up in the Bush administration's Afghanistan war, and their brief protest was indicative of the frustration building up in the Guantanamo Bay prison over the likelihood that freedom will take longer than they expected after Barack Obama became president and ordered the prison closed by January.

In Obama's less than five months in office, the U.S. military has opened communal spaces and started building a new classroom in the prison, and some cell blocks now have satellite television, DVDs and wireless headphones. But nearly half the detainees are still locked up alone for most of the day, and one of every eight prisoners is on hunger strike.

Shane Kadidal, who meets with detainees as an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said expectations for dramatic change have ebbed. He said prisoners know that only two prisoners have been released since Obama took office, compared with more than 500 under the administration of former President George W. Bush.

"They're saying, 'At least Bush sent some people home,'" he said.

Some inmates report an increase in hostilities as guards clash with inmates counting down the months to the January deadline.

"Oppression has increased," wrote Adnan Latif, a Yemeni detainee, in an April letter shortly before he slashed his wrist while meeting his attorney. "The best thing that I can hope for is death."

On Monday night a Yemeni detainee was found dead in his cell, an "apparent suicide," the military said.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Film Notes: The Girlfriend Experience 

Looking back wistfully, Hal Ashby attempted to capture the zeitgeist of that period when the expanding horizons of the 1960s imperceptibly receded. He did so by profiling the life of a popular, libidinous Southern California hair dresser in the final hours leading to the 1968 election. The movie was, of course, Shampoo, and Warren Beatty portrayed the hair dresser, George Roundy, in one of his best performances. Roundy discovers that the power of money and the need for emotional security trumps the willingness of people to take the risks required to achieve personal fulfillment.

Over three decades later, Stephen Soderbergh has remade Shampoo, but, apparently, in such a way as to render it unrecognizable to most people, even movie critics. In The Girlfriend Experience, a high end call girl, Christine, portrayed by Sasha Grey, a porn star, navigates her way through a world that Roundy could have only vaguely anticipated, a world where the circuits of capitalist exchange have moved beyond the commodification of sex to the commodification of personal relationships themselves. In a disjointed narrative that remains faithful to the broad outline of Shampoo, Christine provides her New York City clients with something more addictive than sex, the illusion of a perfect relationship.

While Christine has sex with her clients, this is not her selling point. Rather, it is her willingness to spend most of her time with them as if she was their girlfriend as she goes to Manhattan clubs, restaurants and movies with them. Indeed, while she doesn't always have sex with them, she always ends up listening to them. She does so with feigned empathy as they engage in meandering dialogues about their families, their jobs, and, most especially, their financial anxieties. Because, just as Shampoo is set in the hours before the 1968 election, The Girlfriend Experience captures the moments in the lives of Christine, her boyfriend and her clients in the days before the 2008 one.

Hence, her clients are terrified and disoriented as they live through the collapse of the financial system. Frustrated with their loss of control over their investments and businesses, they compensate by perpetually offering Christine financial advice. Invariably, they supply her with such insights as to buy gold, because there is no way of knowing when this is going to end. As you have probably already guessed, they never, with one exception, show any interest in her life, and they certainly don't want her to express any opinions beyond banalities such as I definitely think relationships are about communication, don't you?

Through their attainment of great wealth, Christine's clients therefore find themselves incapable of resisting the transformation of human relationships into a form of consumption whereby one can purchase a partner that will go to the movies that you want to see, listen raptuously to everything that you have to say and go to bed with you whenever you ask. In response to an inquisitive reporter's question as to whether she believes that there is anyone who wants her for who she is, she responds: If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn't be paying you. Yes, Christine gets it, even if the reporter does not. She gets paid precisely because she is willing to strip away those all too human qualities of annoyance, independence of mind, fatigue and disinterest that always manifest themselves periodically in any real relationship.

Christine provides, in effect, a simulacrum of a relationship, bringing to mind a quote from a great French film of the early 1970s: the simulacrum is superior to the original. Or, more precisely, the simulacrum is always more irresistable than the original, with all its imperfections. As Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times described the film: . . . an exquisitely filmed piece of urban impressionism that, unfortunately, leaves one feeling that a sleek gadget has been needlessly purchased. Implicitly analogizing Christine to a sleek gadget is an admittedly brilliant insight, but she is most assuredly not needlessly purchased. Soderbergh is telling us a cautionary adult fairy tale about how we have moved beyond the fetishism of objects to the fetishism of people.

Perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of the film is the extent to which Christine and her clients internalize the values of this world without question. The only collective ethos expressed by the characters is one of self-promotion and enrichment. They are incapable of the contemplative reflection of alternatives, even as one of the greatest speculative financial bubbles in history unwinds before them. Instead, they aspire to be among the few that escape the wreckage unscathed. The scriptwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, empower their characters to give expression to it through dialogue that is so banal, so spot on, as to be unintentionally hilarious. In fact, one can argue quite convincingly that The Girlfriend Experience is actually a black comedy.

Soderbergh and the scriptwriters tell this story by means of a narrative that is chronologically fragmented, with a visual emphasis upon cool, modernistic interiors of loft apartments, fashion boutiques, warehouses and restaurants. Colors are consciously drained of their vibrance. Overall, the effect is mildly claustrophobic, an urban environment lacking any spontaneity, one in which its protagonists measure their success by recourse to cynical calculation. Soderbergh has cited Antonioni's The Red Desert as an influence, but the precision of the compositions within an experimental narrative also invoke the work of Oshima Nagisa and Peter Greenaway as well. In this instance, Soderbergh exposes the soullessness of contemporary, neoliberal Manhatten much in the same way that Oshima did in regard to the utilitarian Tokyo of the late 1960s. There is an extreme formalism on display here, one deftly executed on a level commonly associated with the most daring and creative filmmakers.

Most impressively, the tone of the film is consistent throughout. Greenaway has said something to the effect that the challenge for a filmmaker is to take an idea and relentlessly follow it through to its conclusion, and Soderbergh accomplishes this difficult task here. Characters are portrayed in a low key naturalistic way devoid of sentimentality, paradoxically rendering them more accessible to audience identification. Rarely have I seen a film in which I was immediately able to recognize and relate to the characters upon contact as I was with this one. I was engrossed as I was carried forward from scene to scene. Predictably, critics get enmeshed with the fact that the lead, Grey, is also a porn star, and, in most instances, derided her performance. But I thought it was quite fine, because it seamlessly blended into the overall mood. Most professionally trained actresses would have brought an artifice to the role that engendered a more emotional audience response that undermined Soderbergh's intentions.

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