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Archive for January, 2009

haliphron-atlanticus

Females of Haliphron atlanticus are very large, reaching 400 mm ML or a total length up to 2m (Nesis, 1982). Body tissues are gelatinous; the mantle is short and broad and the head wide; the eyes are large and the short arms have a deep web. The funnel is embedded in head tissue. Males are much smaller than females but are relatively large (ca. 300 mm total length) for an argonautoid. The hectocotylus develops in an inconspicuous sac in front of the right eye which gives the male the appearance of having only seven arms. The hectocotylus detaches at mating. Females brood their eggs, which are attached to the oral side of the arm bases near the mouth (Young, 1995).

This species is widely distributed from tropical to high latitudes and occupies meso- to bathypelagic depths. It is commonly associated with slopes of land masses. The habitat of this octopod is unusual. It has been captured in bottom trawls and videotaped swimming within centimeters of the ocean floor (brooding female) suggesting a benthopelagic habitat along the slope. However, it has also been taken from the open ocean thousands of meters from the ocean floor and hundreds of miles from the nearest slope.

– from Tree of Life web project on haliphron atlanticus:

Also, animations of the beast swimming in its deep sea void: http://www.mnh.si.edu/cephs/young92/cephs6.html

Alabaster pale, blood drained white,

gelatinous mayonaise flesh

held together by tissue mesh,

drifting alone above stygian sludge.

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The goal of Daniel Lord Smail’s book is close to my heart, in that one of the various projects he outlines is to broaden the use historians make of other disciplinary fields (beyond say sociology and archeology usually connected to history) to include genetics and neural psychology as tools of historical analysis. This appeals to me personally, both because I started out as a science kid, studying dinosaurs and dead things, and then moved on to studying dead humans, and because in a general sense, I’ve always felt acquiring even a rudimentary understanding of the sciences, of ecology, biology, chemistry, psychics, paleontology (or architecture, or art, or economics) is crucial to understanding our world both in a pressing, active, engaged way and for the sheer joy of knowing the world, and being baffled by it (plus, all my friends are scientists or technicians, and I don’t feel foolish around them and their languages of genomes and code). This is hardly a new project, or one that is not generally of interest or support amongst historians; the irony, of course, is that people in the sciences have always been willing to interact with history as a discipline, and almost any description of DNA or chemisty begins historically, even in the most rudimentary, remedial textbook, and because many fields (geology, paleontology) are themselves a kind of history, studying what Smail calls, quoting others, ‘deep time.’


It is the historians who have let us down, writes Smail, and so this book is really directed at them. Of course, anyone with any interest in either neuro-chemistry, human evolution, or history and its writing will understand and enjoy this book. Smail’s prose is clear and engaging, his arguments lucid and his examples generally well chosen. The main thrust of On Deep History and the Brain is not just to argue for more inter-disciplinary work to be done, but that the focus of history has still been far too presentist (should I point out that Smail is a French medievalist, and like many of their brilliant and cantankerous ilk resents the marginalization of his area of study?) and far too documentary in its attention; documents in the sense of written documents, whereas Smail argues for the older meaning of document, ‘that which tells,’ which basically means anything: DNA and archeology, studies of the brain, can tell us as much about our more distant past, and indeed are the only source for it; “all rely on evidence extracted from things” that “encode information from the past” (48). Why privilege the written word? Because it is privileged by historians, deeply imbedded since Vico and Ranke in the writing of history and excluding all non-written sources. Yet scientists have long considered their objects of research, in a metaphorical sense, to be texts, archives, information contained in remains and traces that can be used to tell a story. Take for instance genetics and brain chemistry. Progress in these fields, rooted in the evolutionary history of the human race, has made it possible to trace our past much further back than ever possible; no longer, says Smail, should the distant past be treated as totally alien and beyond us, there should be, in essence, no prehistory, no division between the glowing world of the written world and what was once claimed was a static, frightful, ignorant world. And why not? We have given voice to the voiceless, and no one, as Smail says, “would deny history of the Incans, Great Zimbabwe or to the illiterate slaves and peasants of societies past and present” (6). Why then our ancestors?

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The problem is that historians have been trapped, even in the age of Hayden White, in the meta-narrative of Western Civilization. History begins with the written word, with cities and urban man, right in Mesopotamia where the Garden of Eden was placed in medieval and early modern history. We have secularized the story but not fundamentally changed its structure or its conclusions that human history, and therefore humanity worth studying, started at 4000 BC and led to Europe (despite the absurdity of some its claims, such as the idea of continuity between Babylon and Bolingbroke, its ignorance of archeological examples demonstrating much earlier urban civilization in Iran and Turkey, and its continuing marginalization of China, India, the Americas until the 70’s). Of course, there was resistance: H. G. Wells, for one, started his Outline of History in human prehistory. But by and large historians have insisted on a clear delineation between prehistory and history: only civilizations that write history, are aware of the past, can be modern, and only collective societies, united by writing and language in part, can be modern, beyond the mindless horror of prehistory. History is when evolution ceased to affect us, ceased to influence our behavior, when we broke the chain through writing and cities. Smail doesn’t seek to question the importance of writing or cities or agriculture in changing mankind, but he does question how epochal it was: housing has been around for tens of thousands of years, constructed at the size of later housing of hide and bone and centred around the hearth, oral histories for just as long, even agriculture and trade may be older than we imagine.

(more…)

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“I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself… I think we’re gonna take good care of this planet shortly…there’s never been a weapon created yet on the face of the Earth that hadn’t been used. We’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche. As long as we go out and buy stuff, we’re at their mercy. We’re at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed…

We all live in a little Village. Your village may be different from other people’s villages but we are all prisoners.”

-Patrick McGoohan, 1977

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How fitting that Patrick McGoohan should leave our little global village within weeks of princiapl shooting finishing on the remake of his brainchild, the brilliant and still subversive The Prisoner.  If it be triumph or tragedy, he need not see it; his feelings about it are largely unknown, though in some ways it shows promise; it will be tightly focussed, only six episodes long, which despite its punny elements is only one longer than the original projected run of McGoohan’s Prisoner.   On the other hand, quotes from the director reveal that they are consciously trying to seperate the remake from the original, make it a new beast, update it and make it relevant, the standard defenses of those who always think they can improve on someone else’s artistic project.  A remake is a tenuous project, because no matter how often the remaker claims to respect and admire the original, there is always a tension between contempt and a desire to improve, and a deep-seated reverence for this cultural product; and below all that, money.  The Prisoner was a unique television programme,  a success critically, artistically and commercially, a  popular hit of subversive, difficult science fiction.  Will the remake be able in any way to match that particular moment in time when McGoohan could make a genuinely popular attack on those who run us?

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Number 6: I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!

Somehow, I doubt it, no matter how hard it tries.  It is too tempting to call McGoohan a visionary, especially now that he is dead, and thankfully he was not right about our nuclear self-destruction,  but that The Prisoner remains relevant today is a sad commentary on the stagnancy of our political and economic system: we were ran by television, Madison Avenue and the Pentagon then, and we are now, so to speak.  It isn’t prophecy then, really, any more than Jules Verne predicted the future: he knew of television protype experiments when he wrote about television ‘prophetically’.  McGoohan was no prohet, but he distilled something, crystalised and popularised a critical analysis of the world; few who have seen The Prisoner would mistake it or forget its accomplishment.  Which raises the question: is a remake even necessary?  Obviously it’s too late now one way or the other: it has been made and will be broadcast.  But The Prisoner, like McGoohan himself, aged very well, and little dates it save some of the clothes and the later episodes.  What a remake would offer is beyond me. At least those remaking seem to care more than the original people slated to do it.

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Number 2: What in fact has been created? An international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.

Number 6: The whole earth as… ‘The Village’?

Number 2: That is my hope. What’s yours?

Number 6: I’d like to be the first man on the moon!

The BBC reported on 4 May 2006 that Granada TV in Britain would revive the series for the Sky One network in 2007. Christopher Eccleston, who you may, or may not, know as the second newest incarnation of Doctor Who, has been linked with the role, but these were rumours; the Radio Timesfor 3 June – 9 June claimed the new series would be titled Number Six and not The Prisoner. American cable network AMC was to co‑produce; I’ll let you judge what the quality of this show would be from this newspeak laden nonsense:  “The Prisoner is like Pandora’s box ‑ it’s the ultimate conspiracy thriller,” said Damien Timmer, executive producer of the show.”Like 24, the new series will entrap you from the opening scene. We hope it will tap into this iconic show’s existing cult following, whilst creating a whole new generation of fans.” Which means, bear with, the man tapped to fill McGoohan’s shoes as producer had no clue what the show was about, because The Prisoner is the opposite of 24, with no violent shoot outs, evil lesbians and pro-American patriotic chestbeating and righteous torture.

In October 2007, British broadcaster ITV stepped in to replace Sky One as co‑producer with AMC. They are  the ones still going ahead with it.  Sir Ian McKellan will play Number 2, which really is not news anymore Apparently, the talking heads of the network also claim their new version will be “a racy, radical reinvention of the original show.” The richest part of this story is that Sky One, a British television channel owned by Rupert Murdoch was producing this show up until ITV, the orginal producers, stepped in. A remake of one of the most anti-authoritarian television programmes being funded by a news channel notorious for its spin related to the Iraq War, for one, and for its genuine low level, a la CanWest here, of editorial and journalistic freedom.  That’s so ironic you can eat it with a spoon.

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Perhaps the remake will be all too dreary and topical, full of war on terror references, torture, suicide bombings, and Blairisms and the national security states post nine-eleven, which will turn this into a gritty British Battlestar Galatica; unfortunately, The Prisoner was not the original Battlestar, all feathered hair and hippy new age mormon nonsense.  McGoohan dealt with all these issues before, and did so elusively enough that they couldn’t be pinned down; who and what ran The Village was and is beyond us, and the side they were on really didn’t matter in the end.  The remake will have to tread that same line without being a joke or a travesty; of course, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it makes money; there is nothing constitional about respecting the ‘rights’ of a piece of art once it has been bought, sold and traded as commodity.  ITV doesn’t have any need or desire to respect McGoohan’s memory, or the production he was so involved with.  My only hope is that the show ends as the original does, with Number 6 still a prisoner in London, thinking he is free.  London, and Britain, is the Village; the most surveilled society on Earth, where 200 CCTV cameras sit within a mile of Orwell Boulevard.

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Jean Paul Satre, Nausea

nausea

A classic, a Nobel-Prize winner, the literary work of existentialism alongside Camus’ L’Etranger. How is one to feel after Nausea?  How is one supposed to feel after existentialism?  This not between existentialism and marxism, ther is nothing but pitiuless withering contempt, for those who have not been enlightened, who have not had the awakening to authetic humanity.  That is, not a phony; there is something very similar between the astetic hippy and his concern for the fake, the fraud, the tool; and the existentialist, who sneers at the petty conventions and platitutes of the bourgeois world: the smiling youth, in love without knowing why, the quarelling couples unsure of themselves, all that being “motionless and empty, plunged in a horrible ectasy.”  It is easy to be immune to this kind of writing and philosophy; I’ve read Sartre, I’ve passed my existential phase, or so I assumed that it would be easy enough to dismiss, especially Roquentin whose awareness of what he says is pettiness and bad faith is just as easily the crankiness of a loner, disaffected and isolated from any sense of meaningful human contact and construing it as enlightenment rather than failure.

And yet the Self-Taught Man.  He, more than any of the overt philosophy of Nausea haunts me.  Because he is, in a way, me.  And Roquentin’s criticism and contempt for him is withering and crippling, especially to a young student beginning to feel that the academic and intellectual world is a trifle too serious and demanding than his dedication will allow.  Self-education, autodidaticism, I have followed those paths, spent years removed from post-secondary education, from the halls of hallowed knowledge to ‘expand my mind’ in an equally cliched fashion.  No discipline to my reading, no conscious effort to formulate and understand it.  Just reading, and pretending reading is knowledge.  That is the Self-Taught Man, who shrinks from responsibility and commitment to ‘deeper’ knowledge, whether of the history Roquentin studies or of existential truth as well.  The coward’s way out: that is the question, isn’t it?  Easy humanism, easy socialism, easy assurance, easy confidence in civilization, in man, in society, in love.  Too easy.  Struggle then?  Only to see the awful energy of life; but I have, and I flee.

Almost every existentialist work I”ve read demands an extremely personal response, more so than almost any other style of novel, play or poem.  The private Catholic poetry of Cesar Vallejo, or the compulsive love of surrealism do not affect me so.  The novels of Victor Serge, Bruno Janieski, Ilya Ehrenberg, even Celine, do not have that same forcing of introspection, of questioning, of a claustrophibic, inescapable feeling of crisis, of personal judgement and decision and interrogation, now, now, now.

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Two Brief Thoughts

Thoughts on Palestine and Hamas:

Hamas is accused by Israel of hiding bombs and weapons amongst civilian populations and essentially using them as human shields; most famously, the Israeli government bombed a UN school, justifying this action by the same claim, that Hamas had secreted weapons there.  The UN catagorically denied this, and in this case, was quite right to do so.  That it might happen is much harder to deny, and leaving aside from the moral and strategic considerations of stashing weapons amongst civilians, and whether Hamas actually engages in such a practice, the Israeli accusation bothers me.  The IDF claims it takes great care to warn homes that are to be demolished or bombed ahead of time, theoretically allowing time for the inhabitants to escape.  They warn the soon to be former tenants that Hamas has hidden guns and rockets in their homes, schools, hospitals.  Though the subtext certainly demands elaboration, that those bombed, evicted or killed knew about the weapons, the general way in which these warnings and declarations were reported and issued suggested, curiously, that the guns and rockets had been snuck in, without the tenants knowing that their house had just become an arms depot.  I take it Hamas has been trained by ninjas, then, or Santa Claus.

mmk

This is how the takeover will look from your end, Middle America.

During the United States election, a dark episode best forgotten, if only for a moment, much was made by the more…convinced…opponents of Barack Obama that he was not what he claimed to be, that he was, indeed, a traitor of the highest order.  A communist.  A crypto-Muslim.  Well-educated.  Alien to American life and values, the haunting Other; this is all pretty bog-standard, repeated ad nauseum for months and years as if through repetition reality might melt away.  The accusation barely stands up, but stand it does: Obama was a Muslim sleeper agent, programmed to overthrow the United States, throwing off his wide smiled face once ensconed in the White House to reveal the hungry eyes and sprawling beard of the Terrorist, whose phrenology suggests the dim disposition of a common criminal.  And so they stock up on guns, hoping in their paranoid-critical mode to avoid what surely might seem the end of the world.  A thought:  John McCain spent several years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, did he not?  Subjected to harsh tortures and brutal interrogations, so bad he has stood ever more against the use of torture as a reliable means of extracting meaningul information from a prisoner.  And yet, and yet: what if it were not Barack who is the candidate, but McCain, and only the election of the United States’ first black president prevented the rise of a man programmed by communist ‘gooks,’ as he might colourfully call them, to overthrow the government and establish a proletarian dictatorship, Hanoi-style, all of us sent off to work camps and learn humility and toughness after so many years of dreaming soft-bellied bliss.

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Been reading Discover Magazine‘s Top 100 science stories of 2008, and some other assorted articles on the world that may naturally be ignored in the larger scheme of things.  A sample:

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“The microscopic aquatic creatures known as bdelloid rotifers are used to enduring dry spells—in more senses than one. In their common habitats of moss, soil, and seasonal pools, these minuscule, transparent animals routinely survive periods of complete dessication that can last from days to years. They also hold the record for celibacy among animals: All 460 known species of bdelloids consist exclusively of egg-laying females that have essentially been cloning themselves for 100 million years. Their endurance has long posed a kind of scientific mystery, as the majority of asexually reproducing species tend to fade away over time. But a genetic study published in May in Science [subscription required] hints that bdelloids emerging from a drought might have a kind of bizarre sex after all.

For most life-forms, going for long periods without water spells certain doom. But dehydrated bdelloids somehow reconstitute themselves when moisture returns, even though their metabolic activity stops, their cell membranes rupture, and their DNA probably gets fragmented too. “You add water, they fix themselves up, and they swim away,” says lead investigator Matthew Meselson of Harvard University.”

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And the first known case of virus preying on virus:

“Viruses, generally the most minuscule of parasites, apparently have to contend with vermin of their own. In August, infectious diseases physician Didier Raoult of the Université de la Méditerranée in Marseille, France, reported [subscription required] that he had discovered a tiny virus infecting another, a giant virus called Mamavirus. This unexpected type of attack suggests for the first time that one virus may influence the evolution of other viruses.

Raoult and his colleagues found Mamavirus in water taken from a cooling tower in Paris. The giant virus, a strain of the previously identified and slightly smaller Mimivirus, was found through microscopy to be infected by a 50-nanometer-wide virus. They named it Sputnik, after the first satellite to orbit Earth.

When the scientists cultured Mamavirus and Sputnik with an amoeba, they found that Sputnik forces Mamavirus to produce not just copies of Sputnik but fewer, and deformed, versions of itself. And when they sequenced Sputnik’s genome, they found its small ring of DNA contained genes from three different viral families, including Mamavirus.”

jewel-squid
And best of all, persistent man-made chemical pollutants have been found in deep-sea octopods and squids:

“It was surprising to find measurable and sometimes high amounts of toxic pollutants in such a deep and remote environment,” Vecchione said. Among the chemicals detected were tributyltin (TBT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), brominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs), and dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT).  They are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because they don’t degrade and persist in the environment for a very long time.

Cephalopods are important to the diet of cetaceans, a class of marine mammals which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Cephalopods are the primary food for 28 species of odontocetes, the sub-order of cetaceans that have teeth and include beaked, sperm, killer and beluga whales and narwhals as well as dolphins and porpoises.

Recent studies have reported the accumulation of POPs in the blubber and tissues of whales and other predatory marine mammals as well as in some deep-sea fish. Other investigators had speculated that the pollutants in marine mammals had resulted from feeding on contaminated squids. However, almost no information existed prior to this study about POPs in deep-sea cephalopods. Vecchione and colleagues wanted to see if whales had a unique capacity to accumulate pollutants or if they were simply one of the top predators in a contaminated deep-sea food web.

The researchers collected nine species of cephalopods from depths between 1,000 and 2,000 meters (about 3,300 to 6,600 feet) in 2003 in the western North Atlantic Ocean using a large mid-water trawl.  Species were selected for chemical analysis based on their importance as prey and included the commercially important short-finned squid Illex illecebrosus, as well as cockatoo squid, “vampire squid”, and the large jelly-like octopus Haliphron atlanticus.”

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An undescribed Cirroteuthidae

An undescribed Cirroteuthidae

The finned octopods are of medium to large size (up to 1.5 m total length, although there is a photographic record of one estimated to be over 4 m in total length: Voss, 1988). The body is usually gelatinous and strongly foreshortened. The mantle opening is reduced and swimming via jet propulsion seems to have been abandoned. Fins are present and are the primary means of locomotion. The fins attach to and are supported by the internal shell which has an unusual consistency (i.e., cartilage-like structure) and an unusual shape (i.e., a U, V or saddle-shape). The arms have one series of suckers down the midline of each arm and a series of cirri along each side of each arm (i.e., two cirri per sucker). The cirri alternate with the suckers along the arm length. The web is usually well developed and may reach the tip of the arms.

– from the excellent Tree of Life web project, on cirrata

Octopus

I want to paint you poems full of fire,
you who I do not know.
Now my mind is tested with love which
twists and wavers from side to side and which
some day soon you may see…
I want you to cascade through ten thousand
rainbows with me and dredge mountains
from the sea:
you who I now begin to know.
But emotion is pent up inside,
too scared of dying again to live,
and meanwhile I must endure your
red-copper hair screaming like a
water-baby black eyes stare
from my ceiling:
you who I now truly know…
Now I cannot see too clearly
and already my trellis stands bare…
How can I break free of these overclinging
arms which entwine and enfold me?… And reach
to the clear blue sea?
I want you to know, but how can I
tell you? I want you to see
but my o
wn eyes are blind…
The Octopus now enfolds me,
I know you too well…

– Peter Hammill, Van Der Graaf Generator, 1970

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Gaza Forever

Palestinians at a school building in a refugee camp in Gaza

What can I possibly say about Palestine right now?  The words to keep speaking are there, of course, tangible almost by the sheer volume of texts, print and electronic, that havedeluged the world of bombs and ruined homes, rockets and helicopters blasting hsopitals.  It won’t do, it won’t: Thoughts of Xanadu points to a protest in Trafalgar Square, shoes scattered as if the wearers had been spirited away by rapture, a beautiful, poignant and perhaps, like so many of our protests, sadly, unable to help Palestinians now, or convince our governments to actually be more than vaguely critical of Israel’s actions; instead, Obama’s silence, Bush’s backing  of the official Israeli line that it was all in self defense, the gentle puppet nodding of Sarkozy, Brown, Harper

…impressive, a revolt in the back benches in Parliament, bi-partisan, demanding a stronger line against Israel, who it appears have finally, in the deaths of hundreds for a paltry few missiles, dangerous and violent as they are to Israelis; is Gaza to be a prison and tomb for decades still to come?

Znet, MRZine, Counterpunch, Lenin’s Tomb or Socialist Unity have all much more to say than I, in much more detail, in much more savage and uncompromising energy; I can know anger, the kind that is slow and exhausting, and like struggling through snow while walking in the cold, drains without revealing.  I read about revolutions, and nothing happens.  Of note, the great white media as always is its usual self: when not blaming the Palestinians or at least Hamas, it is at least trying to be neutral, the kind I was angered about during Musharaf’s state of emergency  in Pakistan: the CBC was so neutral it basically made the opposition into the people responsible.  The same happens in Gaza: violence and death is bemoaned and the destruction of Gaza is state

d as a matter of fact, but the battle is equal, always: Israeli aggression is equal to Palestinian violence, following the old narrative about the population being ‘caught in the middle’ in Vietnam.

Of interest:

Toronto: Wednesday January 8, 2009 Time: 10:25 am
A diverse group of Jewish Canadian women are currently occupying the Israeli consulate at 180 Bloor Street West in Toronto. This action is in protest against the on-going Israeli assault on the people of Gaza.

The group is carrying out this occupation in solidarity with the 1.5 million people of Gaza and to ensure that Jewish voices against the massacre in Gaza are being heard. They are demanding that Israel end its military assault and lift the 18-month siege on t

he Gaza Strip to allow humanitarian aid into the territory.

Blaming the victim:

Israel said on Tuesday that an initial army investigation showed mortar fire may have come from a UN-run school in Gaza, where dozens of people were killed in an Israeli strike.

“The initial findings… are that t

here was hostile fire at one of our units from the UN facility,” government spokesman Mark Regev told AFP.

“Our unit responded. Then, there were explosions out of proportion to the ordnance we used,” he said. “And then you can only speculate as to why. We are still investigating.”

And the truth?:

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office asserted that militants fired mortars from inside the school at troops involved in Israel’s controversial incursion into the Gaza Strip in pursuit of Hamas fighters — a military operation that is drawing fierce international condemnation as civilian casualties mount. “The IDF returned fire,” according to the spokesman’s office.

But after a preliminary investigation of the Jan. 6 attack at the Fakhura girl’s elementary school, “we’re 99.9% sure that no militants were at the school,” says Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency questioned survivors, including UNRWA staff that run the school under U.N. auspices.

Before the school was hit by Israeli bombs, some 400 Palestinians fleeing shelling of the Jabalya refugee camp had taken shelter inside Fakhura, hoping that the U.N. flag would shield them from harm, according to survivors. Earlier, the U.N., which oversees relief efforts for more than 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza, had passed along the coordinates of all its schools and buildings to the Israeli military so that its humanitarian missions would be spared attack.

The Tomb has some especially scintiallting and enraged notes about the myth of Hamas rejectionism, the doctrines of official cleansing and destruction, the apopletics of the defenders of Israel, etc. etc.

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A deeply divisive novel, laying bare the troubled divide between the political and the philosophical aspects of existentialism.   It cannot resolve that divide, between the communal dream of a better world and the isolation of an individual being; it does not offer salvation from the latter in the former, save in the words of Kyo and Katov who at least stand for the dignity and freedom of the ‘masses’ though their doctrine is notably free of any actual content.

Key words: isolation, aloneness, painful freedom of relationships, the void of opium haze, “an ectasy toward downward”, “murder left no trace upon his face”.  Fate, condemnation, “the fate of China being decided,” and “the illusion of being ble to whatever they pleased”  fatalism as Marxism, a fascination with suicide as radiant exhuberance, pain as caused to others, as others caused to oneself.  Murder as aloneness, “all fighting was absurd, nothing existed in the face of life”.   It is a grim existentialism, in which our fate is suffering, our situation alone, the human condition.  And the revolution, doomed to fail.  A human being, thought Ferral, “an individual life, unique isolate, like mine…” spoken like a true capitalist?

And yet, the human condition: if we are fated, if “no doubt they were all condemned, the essential was that should not be in vain” we are free to “serve the gods of one’s choosing,” Kyo as hero: “no dignity for man who does not know why he works” and “freedom is not an exchange, it is freedom” and it must be fought for struggled for, died for.  Heroic, successful, sympathetic revolution, and in Kyo’s work to the Comintern agents in Hankow, the peasants must unite with the workers, “behind the army, in the rural districts, the Communists are beginning to organize the peasant Unions,” the people will never be satisfied with the betrayal of the revolution, the revolution fated to succeed, because it offers dignity, purpose, hope, because it is right.  Katov’s sacrifice, to save others.  It is hard to squre the realism, the intimacy, the sympathy of the description of the April 12 incident, the Shanghai uprising of 1927 and its bloody suppression at the hands of the Nationalists, with the atomization of existentialism.  Why make it so specific, so sympathetic, if only to use it for an existentialist fable.  Perhaps that is the fable: an existentialist revolution.

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The city in revolt: Hankow, 1927.

“Over there were chimneys, cranes, reservoirs – the allies of the Revolution.  But Shanghai had taught Kyoo what an active port was like.  The one he saw before him was full of nothing but junks and torpedo-boats.  He took his field-glasses: a freight-steamer, two, three….

He walked about at random.  The kerosene lamps were being lut inside the shops; here and there silhouettes of trees and the curved-up roof-ridges rose against the Western sky, where a light without source lingered, seeming to emanate from the softness of the sky itself and to blend far, far up with the serenity of the night.  In the black holes of shop – nonwithstanding the soldiers and the Worker’s Unions – doctors with toad-signs, dealers in herbs and monsters, public writers, casters of spells, astrologers, and fortune-tellers continued their timeless trades by the dim light which blotted out the blood-stains.  The  shadows melted rather than stretched on the ground, bathed in a bluish phoporescence; the last flash of the superb eveneing  that was being staged far away, somewhere in the infinity of worlds, of which only a reflection suffused the earth, was glowing faintly through an enormous archway surmounted by a pagoda eaten away with blackened ivy.  Beyond the din of bells and phonographs and the myriad dots and patches of light, a battalion was disappearing into the darkness which had gathered in the mist over the river.  Kyo went down to a yard filled with enormous stone blocks: those of the walls, levelled to the ground in sign of the liberation of China…

Cantonese soldiers with their newly-supplied Russian equipment after arriving at Hankow as reinforcements for the Red Garrison.

Original caption: 1927: Cantonese soldiers with their newly-supplied Russian equipment after arriving at Hankow as reinforcements for the Red Garrison.

Rickshaws were waiting on the quay, but Kyo’s anxiety was too great to allow him to remain idle.  He preferred to walk.  The British concession which England had abandoned in January, the great world banks shut down, but not occupied….”Anguish – a strange sensation, you feel by your heart-beats that you”re not breathing easily, as if you were breathing with your heart…”  It was becoming stronger than lucidity.  At the corner of a street, in the clearing of a large garden full of trees in bloom, gray in the evening mist, the chimneys of the Western manufactures appeared.  No smoke.  Of all the chimneys he saw, only the ones of the Arsenal were operating.  Was it possible that Hankow, the city to which the Communists of the entire world were looking to save China, was on strike?  The Arsenal was working; could they at least count on the Red Army?  He no longer dared to run.  If Hankow was not what everyone believed it was, all his people were already condemned to death.  May too. And himself.

At last, the building of the International Delegation.

The entire villa was lighted up.  Kyo knew that Borodin was working on the top story; on the ground-floor the printing-press was running full speed, with the clatter of an enormous ventilator in bad condition”

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The McCarthy era saw redoudled efforts to search out and punish “gender inverts.” Targets abounded: “egg sucking phony liberals,” East Coast intellectuals, and emasculated “pinks, punks, and perverts” were all part of government that was, in the words of one of McCarthy’s aides, “a veritable nest of Communists, fellow travelers, homosexuals, effete Ivy League intellectuals and traitors.” Even Adlai Stevenson did not escape such bashings: the New York Daily Mail called him “Adelaide” and ridiculed his supporters as “Harvard lace cuff liberals” to whom Stevenson spoke in a “fruity” voice.

Military expert and Pulitzer-Prize winning Hanson W. Baldwin put the matter starkly: “Can American man – after years of protective conditioning – vie with the barbarian who has lived by his wits, his initiative, his brawn? Will he retain the will to fight for his country?” He was not optimistic. American virility had been replaced by a boyhood and manhood enfeebled by “sedenterianism, push buttonis and indoorism…from this emerges a picture – not of an American who can lick any two or three enemies, but of a slow-witted, vacuous adolescent with an intellectual interest keyed to comic books and a motivation conspicuous by its absence.” Soft bellied American boys could not stand up to hard-muscled Communist youth…

Disparities in military hardware might be dangerous, but defieciencies in bicep circumference might be fatal. Bodies unsuited by for military combat were unsuited for the Cold War world. “For the indubitable muscle gap between us and those who would bury us,” opined the radical turned conservative Max Eastman, “may well in the long run prove more disastrous than any missile gap ever will be.”

– from Robert L. Griswold, “The ‘Flabby American,’ the Body and the Cold War,” in A Shared Experience: Men, Women and the History of Gender. Edited by Laura McCalled (NY: New York University Press, 1998 )

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Terry Eagleton wrote last year : Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington’s neocons.” Hitchens responded in a ‘Comment is Free’ piece on the Guardian website: “Eagleton also slammed me for disappointing him and not, after all, becoming the George Orwell of my generation. I have instead, he snorts, become the Evelyn Waugh! How is one to come to grips with a man so crude in his sneers that his idea of an insult is to compare me to one of the greatest novelists of the past century?” For a man who has read and admired both Eagleton and Hitchens (Hitchens before Eagleton, and Hitchens no longer, though I respect his rhetorical wit and skill even if overblown and portentous) and has not touched Waugh at all, this comparison mystified me. Then I read Piers Brendon’s lengthy The Dark Valley, and in his chapter on the invasion of Ethiopia and its destruction at Italian hands, we find a choice quote from Evelyn Waugh, referring to the chemical gas attacks against the cities and soldiers of Haile Selassie: “i hope the organmen gas them to buggery” (325) Of course, in Ethiopia, Waugh refused to see “anything more than a travesty of white civilization mummed by outlandish natives, many of whom ‘were still primarily homicidal in their interests.’” (311) This all reminds me of some of the more damning statements that Hitchens has made in the last five years or so: “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.”


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That was probably the most memorable result of reading The Dark Valley, and the Waugh quotes were chosen carefully in a chapter as much about European colonial racism as about the invasion and conquest of Ethiopia. To his credit, Piers Brendon does not hold back his scorn or contempt for colonialism, nor does he hesitate to point out the brutality of the British and French (Black races to an Englishman are always niggers and we don’t see why we should be plunged into a war on their account – General Pownall, War Office) (424) and the “racial arrogance” (639) of their empires that so incensed the Japanese popular imagination; indeed, his book, which is written for and targeted at a popular audience, is refreshing in some ways for its refusal to sugarcoat the past, or fall into the clichés so common of the 1930’s more popular literary and electronic visions of that decade; that is, he can be equally scathing of the democracies as of their contemporaries in communism and fascism. He is not polite to the House of Lords and its membership, nor of the police and their bias towards Mosley in the early 30’s nor to Lord Beaverbrook or the lickspittle press of Great Britain, ready and willing to censor itself without being asked in deference to royal command, or in support of the Conservatives: Baldwin was portrayed as a British bulldog, the epitome of patriotism, appearing in newsreels before Greek columns and leatherbound books, delivering his speech with fluidity, while his Labour opponent, Clement Attlee, was filmed from a high angle to reveal his balding head and left to stumble through his speech perched on a chair. “The film companies pretended to be neutral,” says Brendon, but they inserted cheering audiences and campaign slogans for Baldwin in their reels. Brendon has no trouble pointing out how little many of the elites of democratic countries actually wanted to do about the Depression, and the cowardice ofabout aid to Spain is likewise harshly criticized, and we are left with the impression that if nowhere near as ‘villainous,’ brutal and extremely dangerous like the totalitarian states, Britain and France were corrupt and craven.

There is about the 1930’s and the 20th century in general, a long tradition of moralistic historical writing for Brendon to fit himself within snuggly, and aside from what seems to be a greater degree of emphasis on the failings of the ‘heroes’ there isn’t actually all that much to distinguish The Dark Valley from dozens of other similar histories. It’s certainly long, which in itself is no distinction but the prose is clear and readable without flourishing, workmanlike I suppose being the favoured term in this case (save that the workers never actually appear much in this history as actors in their own right, or even as a subject to be written about); there are, as there tend to be in narrative history like this, plenty of interesting quotes and anecdotes to liven up the proceedings, and I had little trouble working through chapter after chapter, each one covering a region or country for few years and covering all the major events, personages and politics in a thorough enough way. His description of France’s ‘hollow years’ and of the Depression in Japan are particularly good, and treats them with a sympathy and depth that is unusual in so broad a work and impressive given that Brendon doesn’t read or write French or Japanese. Yes, it’s one of those books: the author writes about half a dozen countries without knowing the languages of any of them, and therefore relies almost exclusively on translated documents and other people’s histories, and contemporary coverage by English speakers; it’s enough to give a specialist historian who actually knows the language and the literature to a point of tizzy (France is my specialty, but luckily I could get on easily enough without gritting my teeth too much). To his credit, he is well versed and idscusses historical debates about this and that with knowledge and familiarity; Brendon isn’t a bad historian, and this book, by and far, wasn’t that bad either. There are no enormous revelations but as noted, it is refreshing to find an author, a historian of Churchill even, who refuses to idolize his home country.


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As I mentioned, Brendon’s focus is almost exclusively on states and statesmen, wars and militaries and political actors; the masses suffer, starve, strike and occasionally rebel, but they are never the focus, Hobsbawm this is not, and organized labour, international Communism and the working man in general receives scant attention, and there is little feeling save in his sections on the America and Japan that there was any widespread discontent with the status quo. Likewise, India, Gaza, the British Empire as a whole, or the French Empire, Latin America or Africa outside of Ethiopia, in any way, and much of Europe, receive scant or no attention; this is a Eurocentric narrative, by and large. Instead, the Popular Front in Spain and France are disasters that change nothing and do nothing to benefit the working class, the anarchists are bloodthirsty and foolish, the Communists in Germany disorganized and outmaneuvered and lacking support (true in the first two cases, certainly) and the only time that Communists really get sympathy from our historian is when they are tortured by Japanese military officers or sent to concentration camps (though strangely the Mao of the 1930’s, the Communist Party of China and the Long March are treated with a glimmer of respect and heroism). His approach to the Soviet Union is the standard line, and so really should elicit no surprise or shock; he repeats the standard claim that Soviet and German totalitarianism are basically the same, without any sort of measured distinction, indeed going so far as to quote Hitler (!) and his belief that “there is more than binds us to Bolshevism than separates us from it” (286), a bit like relying on a slave owner for an objective analysis of his slave taking; only a few sentences later, Brendon states “fanaticism, so alien to bourgeois liberals, was what the two creeds had in common.” WTF, as they say on the internets.

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Thankfully Brendon doesn’t tread in orientalist stereotypes when dealing with Japan (aside from the odd ‘inscrutable’) but he does call Haile Selassie’s support for the League of Nations “something like a fetish” (315) as if he was a tribal witch doctor praying to the god of collective security (even historians trade in afrobollocks, it seems). Likewise, Franco and the republicans are often equated because both told propaganda lies, it seems. The worst is his respect for Churchill (Piers
Brendon is a historian of Churchill so this expected): while admitting that he was a political opportunist, a “pirate” at one point, a man of the wilderness who was odd with modern society, who supported or admired Franco and Mussolini, angered everyone almost all of the time, and was essentially absolved only by World War Two, Brendon nonetheless treats the more problematic of Churchill’s political ideas, his “blimpish reactionary” ideas about India, his adherence to Edward VIII, his attitude towards the working class and his harsh attacks on strikers, simply as “aberrations fed by ambition” (608), as if they were not fundamental to his character. WFT, indeed; imagine, Hitler’s bloodthirty eradication of the SA, for instance, was just ‘an aberration fed by ambition.’ There are plenty of other howlers like this scattered throughout the book, and many more could be mentioned, but then this review would balloon up far too much: by of them, let me just say quite strongly that this book was a bargain bin find and probably will return there now that I have read it.  I don’t want to give the final impression this book was bad; far from it, it was competent, entertaining and served to give a detailed overview, with enough moral editorialising and eye for paradox and hypocrisy to be additionally engaging; this is a book one’s mill working dad could read, and indeed mine did. So instead, I’ll end this review with a brief quote from a section that I thought was really quite good: Japan in 1938, a country essentially hostage to the demands of its military. It’s a subject much less known about than Germany at the same time, so it really does represent a nice addition to a Eurocentric narrative:

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“The pressure to pinch and scrape left its mark on the entire population. They were pressed to renounce costly
ornaments, seasonal gifts and new clothes. Women wearing bright kimonos, cosmetics and permanent waves were publicly rebuked. Later kimonos were compulsorily abbreviated to save material; and some were died khaki, while others bore patriotic motifs – arrows, fans, bells. Frills and pleats were removed from Western dresses, though women who really wanted to identify with the military adopted mompei, drab peasant pantaloons. Men wore single-breasted jackets, shirts with attached collars and shortened tails, and trousers without turn-ups. Brass buttons and hair-pins were banished. Iron was as scarce as gold and children were no longer given metal toys. To save timber, matches were shaved by 0.029 of an inch. To save leather, handbags were made of bamboo, willow or cellophane. Shoes were fashioned from shark or whale skin, and there was a campaign in favour of cloth slippers (zori) and wooden clogs (geta). Chemists from the ministry of Agriculture experimented with tanning rat skins. Designs were even advance for a national uniform costing 30 yen (less than 2), to be worn by officials, and if times got harder, by everyone.”

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I saw the movie Triage the other night.  As always, difficult film to watch at times; footage of skeletal Somalis dying of hunger and neglect, pawns of warlords in ‘value-added’ machine-gun equipped pickups and of the theatrics of United States intervention, refugee camps whose chief component besides people is sqaulor, footage of bereted soldiers skulking amidst victims of their genocide in Rwanda, the twisted and crushed bodies preserved in lyme like the ghosts of Pompeii.  How to react: anger, frustration, despair, tears and shock, despite knowing and seeing these images on the news (indeed, the film integrates news coverage of the US humanitarian intervention in Somalia (Operation Restore Hope) with Orbinski’s return to the same places two decades later) yet still they stretch reason: they are unreal, seemingly impossible, easy at times when a flicker on the television (or movie screen) to pretend as phantasms of Hollywood.  Instead of the lyme phantasms of twisted corpses in Kigali.  His description of that benighted city in 1994 is literally haunting, right out of a horror movie: walls and gutters dripping with blood, dogs wild and ripping at corpes, trying to explain to a UN medical bureaucrat at King Faisal Hospital the screams and murders happening right at their gates.  I wanted to crumple in my seat.

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What then, is Orbinski’s main reaction?  Rage.  Rage he repeats, again and again, and vomit, and despair; post-tramautic stress disorder, perhaps? He swears violently in a few rares instances of full candour Anger, and his attempts to remain stoic returning to places of such terrifying aura is impressive (if not a tad disturbing: he and his film crew revisit sites long since cut off from foreign medical expertise that Orbinski provided for Medecins Sans Frontieres; did he return merely to be filmed being troubled by returning?).  Rage fueled and fired by knowledge and first hand experience.
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Orbinski is something of a firebrand.  His prepared statement before the film is critical of the pharmaceutical industry and its role in inflating the price of AIDS drugs, of Canada and the United States and the hijacking of humanitarianism in Afghanistan and Iraq, amongst other places (he does not but could, as the bombs fall on Gaza, mention Palestine and remember, as a Canadian, how quick our country was to cease sending aid to the then newly elected Hamas government, or the only recent de-politicising of aid, so that it’s physical forms ((food, machinery)) no longer is required to come from, be bought from or manufactured in Canada).  Orbinski accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Médecins
Sans Frontières (MSF) as their president, and was a field doctor during
the 1992 Somali famine and the Rwandan genocide, among other catastrophes.  He is highly placed, visible and courted by those who wish through him, as fetish, to have moral standing (much as those movie stars who make a pilgrimage to meet Mandela).   He confides that he hates fundraising from banks and financial institutions; in a perfect world, aid would flow untouched by capital and politics.  He is mercenary: he bribes gangsters in Somalia to save his friend’s life, the head of the Somali medical staff working with MSF in 1993 (who in the most touching emotional moment weeps several times after returning to the MSF base in Somali, near where his family were murdered or starved) and he trades on guilt to get aid; he hates the way in which media lurches and attaches itself to tragedies (such as the refugee camps in 1995 in Goma, in east Congo, run by the genocidaires.  His hope is still there: he meets friends, and men he treated who remember and thank him for his treatment; he relates the story of the family, and meets them again, who snuck into his closet to sleep.  This, I suppose, is the reason why he does what he does.

The film is minimal in many ways; few scenes without talking heads.  Too hagiographic, too many closeups, too much lingering on Orbinski and his troubled face.  But worst of all, this film neuters much of what is most important about Orbinski, according to his own statement: his opposition to politicised humanitarian aid and humanitarian intervention, his anger at the hypocrisy of the West and his fundamental support for Medecins Sans Frontieres and local organisation.  He is harshly critical of France’s role in selling arms to the genocidaires in Rwanda, he opposes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (sold as humanitarian), to US military policy as a whole and to international pharmaceuticals (though the UN gets away with a lot, here, and he rightly places the most hope in it: I have no idea how he would feel about UN missions to Darfur, for instance, though I suspect anything that involved invasion rather than ceasefire or peacekeeping would fire him up).

Much of this is carefully circumscribed or elided or only touched upon in the film; his medical experience, organizational experience, compassion  and visibility, is praised, but the where his anger has led him politically, quiet.  Yet it is key to understanding him, and the kind of international humanitarian effort he stands for and fights for; humanitarianism can never be linked to militarism and the demands of great powers; it must be hardheaded, principled, perhaps political, prepared for the worst, but free of strings from the suits with skulls and metals sitting in their chairs, hands on the button.

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