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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

    

  In lieu of actually writing about the anniversary of one of the most important and tragic events of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, here is a book, available fully and freely online, by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick. I Saw A Nightmare is an excellent and (so far) thorough study of the June 16, 1976 riot by students against the new government policy of teaching Afrikaans as a primary language in school; in response to the peaceful protests and strikes of the students, 26 people were killed by indiscriminate police fire into a confused but mutinous crowd.  I haven’t finished Pohlandt-McCormick’s book yet, but she makes excellent use of the html format, providing easy links to running commentary, supplementary essays and key segments from other chapters.  Pohlandt-McCormick’s is aiming for a kind of total history, much like Paul A. Cohen’s History in Three Keys; she starts with a detailed attempt to reconstruct the narrative of what exactly happened on June 16, using the conflicting and fragmentary stories told by official documents, memories, interviews and testimonies.  The next section concentrates on the crafting of a narrative around the uprising by both the South African government, the ANC and other groups at the time, and then explores the conflicts and problems of historical memory, of who remembers, or is allowed to remember (publicly) what had happened, the appearances and disappearances of archival materials, and the failures or interpretations of other historians, followed by deep historical analysis of the long-term build-up to, and aftermath of, June 16, 1976. I Saw A Nightmare is a fine book, and an important contribution to historical memory in its own right.

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Marxists.org has done a wonderful job putting up, with the original colour covers scanned to boot, the run of the International Socialism quarterly, from 1958 on into the 1980’s.  That is a fairly exciting development, if only because the complete collection is a fine example of why online archives must continue to expand.  On the other hand, IS is rather dowdy compared to the sexy and ephemeral avant-garde, counter-culture and Situationist publications that grew in prominence during the 60’s, stealing the thunder of the ‘Old Left.’ Nor was IS a theoretical juggernaut, full of new ideas on organisation and ideology of the student movement, aside from what seems an interminable debate about bureaucratic collectivism and state capitalist that filled the letters and debate page.  Nonetheless, it’s an incredible treasure trove, especially for a fellow traveller and historical enthusiast.

(more…)

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Glory be to the Kyrgyz people, who did what I admit fully I would be far too chicken to actually do:  take on their corrupt government, fight the riot police and army in the streets, take over the armouries and ram the Presidential Palace with an armoured carrier, seize the means of communication, including state television, proclaim a revolutionary government and chase the hated president into hiding, bringing the armed forces to your side.  That is a brilliant heroism, paid for with a steep price in dead and wounded, especially after the Kyrgyz police opened fire with live rounds  in the capital, Bishkek.  Western commentary is predictably rather worried about the US military presence in the country, including a detailed article in Business Week that repeats twice that the US airbase is safe and unharrassed, and then relieved that the interim leader has “adopted Western mores,” whereas only a day later Time is rather distraught that “it seems clear now that Kyrgyzstan will quickly return to Moscow’s sphere of influence after months of strained relations with Russia, making the U.S. military presence in the country all the more precarious.”  Unsurprisingly, almost all the papers in the US, and it seems in Canada, are running with this story as a case of Russian resurgence or troublesome Kyrgyz, but beneath the rather pedantic and typical quivering boilerplate is a dramatic story that has become quickly elided.  A piece in Eurasia Insight traces the origins of the successful revolt to arrests of opposition leaders after disorders in Talas, the exclusion of northerners from the Kurultai, and economic sanctions from Moscow that raised the price of gasoline.  A massive hike in utilities seems to have been the final catalyst, hitting the urban workers, immigrants from the countryside, especially hard. The eXiled has, at yet, nothing to tell me about it, a shame because these kinds of events are often their speciality.  And we have seen the rise, according to this site, of the Fanny Pack Revolution:

Bakiyev’s fall marks  the first time this has occurred to leader elected during the journalist-named ‘colour revolution’s in the former Soviet Union, in his case the Tulip: the Rose brought Saakashvili in Georgia to power, and the Orange brought Yushchenko to the presidency in Ukraine.  In all three cases, they were not revolutions in the sense that this week’s events in Kyrgyzstan are: they all occurred during contested elections between an incumbent seen as being pro-Russian and using fraud to rig the vote in their favour, the response being small but well-organised protests, marches, sit-ins, some strikes in the Ukraine but all part of a protracted election and inter-elite bickering, a bit like the 2000 recounts in Florida if people had went out in the streets for a week for Gore.  Dramatic events, surely, for all involved, but the ‘colour revolution’ were also lauded, exalted and fellated in the Western press, NGOs and politicians (I recall some particularly adulatory articles from Maclean’s at the time) as if these electoral struggles were a kind of liberal democratic second coming, freedom finally here, universal human rights and American-style politics triumphant, the overthrow of evil kleptocratic ex-Soviet anti-democratic Russian bootlickers finally at hand!

Not, of course, that popular revolt wasn’t in the streets, or that the governments unseated by the ‘colour revolutions’ weren’t unpleasantly corrupt, but to advocate that they were only grassroots events involves “steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the extent to which today’s velvet revolutions have fallen increasingly prey to manipulation by ruling class and imperialist interests,” as Dragan Plavsic has it; Mark MacKinnon’s book on The New Cold War might also be worth reading along these lines.  The sequel to the ‘manufactured’ revolutions aren’t exactly encouraging, either: Saakashvili turns out to be little better than his predecessor, starting a war with Russia, cracking down savagely on protestors and the opposition in general, his popularity slipping fast.  Yushchenko turned out to be an ugly character when in office, dissolving the Rada twice and bitterly battling in the dirtiest political way, kicking out former supporters, his popularity slipping fast.  Bakiyev doesn’t appear to have been much better, and he followed the ‘colour revolution’ pattern of also advocating and pushing through neo-liberal structural adjustment and privatisation; the opposition had, as one of its first aims, the return of some companies to state control. The movements that brought them men to power obviously believed deeply in real democracy, and practised it in the streets, but what they got was, it seems, another aspect of real democracy: out with the old, in with the new, more of the same.

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About those Christian militia guys who got arrested in the States.  One of them is a real Surrealist, it seems, and surely is prove enough that Surrealism and its bastard child of absurdist comedy has infiltrated the consciousness of even those one who one who least suspect of it:

But Sickles, who in those videos identified himself as a member of the Ohio Militia, may also have a lighter side. The accused plotter looks to have starred in a deeply Not Safe For Work movie, filled with cursing, mock violence, pot jokes, and sound effects conveying flatulence. Sickles appears entirely naked but for a mask of President George W. Bush that obscures some, but not all, of his genitalia.

In the film, Sickles’s chubby, tattooed character finds himself attacked by an enormous creature which appears to be half man, half duck. “Scar my tattered body no more with your punishing dildo mallet,” Sickles exclaims at one particularly dramatic moment.

The Freudians should have a field day with this as well:  Christian anti-federalist militias as projections of deep sexual anxiety about dildos, duck-rape and skull-fucking George W. Bush.

Link:     http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/04/scar_my_tattered_body_no_more_with_your_punishing.php

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Heard a strange little show on the CBC today, on Family Day, our lovely government mandated holiday round this province wherein we get to take a day off and not spend time our families in lew of drinking and such like. Rewind, hosted by CBC regular Michael Enright which repeats old shows from the CBC archives, had a special for the day, on the definition of the family from the 1940’s until today. A rich part in the beginning: Mr. Enright affirming with all seriousness that the CBC once was dominated by politicians, pundits, intellectuals and stars, but no longer; the misses quipped rightly ‘sure, now they have call in show occasionally.’ Then the segments, all of them interesting for the particular attempts to deal with the changing role of the fathers, the freedom of teenagers and woman’s place in the home and workplace. The first dealt with….well, with not much at all, just interviewing a couple about the possibilities of post-war prosperity in 1945, but the way in which the CBC framed their interview is a telling sign of how much ‘the middle class’ was a construction even then. The CBC opined that this small shopkeeper, who runs a shop out of the front of his house and makes (in 1945 dollars) $2000, is part of the largest social group in Canada, the middle class, and is a part of that great prosperity that so distinguishes Canada. The actual shopkeeper and his wife seem less certain, but eagerly agree that they are just like everyone else, privileged, wealthy, happy, bourgeois. They are the backbone of society.

It has long been an argument, voiced as much in Barthes and Sontag as in any classic or canonical Marxist text, that the bourgeoisie assumes universalism, assumes that its mode of life, aesthetic sense, cultural mores and political beliefs are universal and shared by all; actually, this is more likely a liberal bourgeoisie attitude, because I can’t imagine the conservative or monarchist financiers of Paris arguing they ever had much in common with the shopkeepers. That the majority of the CBC’s reporters now, as then, are bourgeois, upper middle class, educated, professional, travelled and mostly intelligent, should be a given. That they impose their own sense of what is right about politics, war, society, the economy, on what they report, without doing so actively or even in some cases realizing it, and assume that their listeners all hold stocks, think politics is about soundbites and image, care about the Dalai Lhama and the employer’s eye view of the world, is not as popular an explanation. It makes more sense, I think, though it would need to be sketched out much more, than the Chomsky thesis from Manufacturing Consent (I suspect his later works are better than this), that all media is bought out and controlled by governments and corporations; I’d argue that plenty of reporters for a figurehead of the liberal, business establishment like the CBC don’t need to be bribed to follow the narrative of the War on Terror or fret over employer’s and their problems, because they genuinely assume those issues are of universal concern and are approached in the same way by all Canadians. It isn’t an agenda, it’s just being upper-middle class professional reporters. Now, this analysis can and should be more complete, and far be it from me to discount the fact that their political editorial lines at Canwest or the CBC, or that many reporters are deeply moral people who care actively about reporting injustice and corruption;  but try telling me when they ramble on about stocks in the business reports that that isn’t for a specific, privileged demographic who actually has an extensive portfolio they manage themselves.

Back to the 1945 middle class. The concept of the middle class is ideological, a product of a universalising assumption and tendency integral to the bourgeois. That there is a middle class is beyond question, of course, and its existence can be objectively proven, as much as possible, through census data on incomes, mobility, jobs and such. But far more people, just like those shopkeepers in 1945, belief they are middle class than is actually demonstrable by any census data. This may very well be an artifact of the post-war world, the result of a prosperity that allowed even millworkers like my dad to afford a big house, televisions and two cars, and that continues to inform many of our assumptions to this day, that owning a computer, an iPod or a car is a symbol of being ‘one of us,’ that universal middle class. The inscription of objects with class values has a long and storied history of its own, from sabots and sans culottes to peaked caps or tails to denim and bow ties, so it isn’t really a surprise that it still occurs to this day. But it is a confused identification, for the costs of those items have gone done, most obviously in the cases of appliances and electronics, and because so much of our culture is popular, and denim is no longer a class signifier.  It is a confusion that leads Labour governments in Britain to argue ‘we are all Middle Class now’ even if such uniformity is bought by cheap tricks on censuses and the manipulation of poverty measurements, so that the lower you go, the more middle you are (and this just isn’t in stats and figures, I remember reading an article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee in which City bankers were certain an employee would ‘only’ need 20,000 pounds a year to live, which is below the official poverty line). And even if Canada is more egalitarian and less class conscious and allows for more ‘upwards mobility’ than Britain, or even ‘egalite, liberte, fraternite’ France, or the United States, that a universal middle class does not make.

That the project to make a middle class is so old did surprise me, as ten years earlier in 1935 it was quite clear there was something called a working class, which made up a good percentage of the population; ten years and one depression and one world war later, we are all middle class. The shopkeeper, the miner, the lumberjack and steel worker and textile worker and professor and doctor, all middle class, all friends, the bedrock of our democracy. That was what the CBC said in 1945, telling the petty shopkeeper he is now a member of the good class, it does the same now, in 2009. There are some potent democraticising elements there, especially when compared to the fierceness that Tories, capitalists and the Church clung and endorsed hierarchy and aristocracy even today, and rail against popular culture, that is to say working class culture, of a sort, which has triumphed against all odds over its more rarified but universaling bourgeois antecedents; indeed, popular culture now makes those same claims, that it is represented by all, and counter culture and subcultures are placed in the position of railing against their own forebearers.  There is something very nice that my father is no longer as openly snubbed by doctors and teachers, even as they both behind each others back mutter curses.

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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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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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The New Iraq

Laura Bush on Iraqi TV reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi, throwing the other shoe at her dear husband:

“But I know that if Saddam Hussein had been there, the man wouldn’t have been released. And he probably … you know, would have been executed,” she said. “As bad as the incident is, in my view, it is a sign that Iraqis feel a lot freer to express themselves.”

The Times Online and its strange opinion about this brutal assault with heavy duty leather patent shoes:

The Arab world has a new hero. Muntazer al-Zaidi, a young Iraqi journalist, shot to fame when he hurled his shoes at President Bush. The US leader nimbly ducked the flying footwear but his assailant has secured his brief moment in history.

A poem has been written on an Islamist website praising his action. Demonstrators have taken to the streets of Baghdad demanding al-Zaidi’s release. Many Arabs believe that the insult hurled at Mr Bush, who was branded a “dog”, is a fitting end to his troubled history in the region.

It is easy to sympathise with Iraqis who feel angry, betrayed and frustrated at the US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. But in his act of defiance al-Zaidi has also demonstrated how far Iraq has come. Not long ago, a young Iraqi man with a grudge against America would have vented his anger by using a grenade or a roadside bomb against US troops. It is also worth reflecting that, had a protester hurled shoes and shouted insults at Saddam Hussein during the visit of a world leader, the perpetrator and all his family would probably have been put to death.

A reply from Yasmeen in Iraq in the Comments box:

One and a half million iraqis killed after the Occution is a hugely high price for enjoying “FREEDOME OF EXPRESSION”. Would you accept this situatuin to prevail in the states?

An early BBC report on the arrest and beating of this reporter, who has apparentely been arrested by the US Army several times and kidnapped by insurgents:

Muntadar al-Zaidi has allegedly suffered a broken arm, broken ribs and internal bleeding, his older brother, Dargham, told the BBC.

A later report from Al-Jazeera, using the testimony of his lawyer:

Al-Zaidi was allowed to see his lawyer on Sunday afternoon, who confirmed initial reports that he had been beaten and that his medical condition “was very bad”.

“There are visible signs of torture on his body, as a result of being beaten by metal instruments,” al-Sa’adi said.

“Medical reports have shown that the beating he was subjected to has led to him losing one of his teeth as well as injuries to his jaw and ears.

“He has internal bleeding in his left eye, as well as bruises over his face and stomach. Almost none of his body was spared.”

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The shoe thrower incident has had repercussions across Iraq:

Iraqis on the street continue to show support for Zaidi, who disrupted a news conference Sunday in Baghdad by Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

University students rallied for Zaidi in Fallujah on Wednesday, drawing the attention of U.S. forces.

Students raised their shoes and threw rocks at American soldiers, who reportedly opened fire above the crowd. Protesters said that indirect fire wounded one student, Zaid Salih. U.S. forces haven’t confirmed the account.

“We demonstrated to express our support for Muntathar al Zaidi, but we were surprised with the entrance of the U.S. military,” said Ahmed Ismail, one of the protesters. “Unconsciously, we raised our shoes expressing our support for al Zaidi, but they attacked us.”

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From a version directed by Yury Lyubimov. Scenography by Vladimir Boyer, and music by Sergey Letov,

From a version directed by Yury Lyubimov. Scenography by Vladimir Boyer, and music by Sergey Letov,

Sade:

Compassion
Now Marat you are talking like an aristocrat
Compassion is the property of the privileged
classes
When the pitier lowers himself
to give to a beggar
he throbs with contempt
To protect his riches he pretends to be moved
and his gift to the beggar amounts to no more
than a kick {lute chord}
No Marat
no small emotions please
Your feelings were never petty
For you just as for me
only the most extreme actions matter.

Marat:

If I am extreme I am not extreme in the same
way as you
Against Nature’s silence I use action
In the vast indifference I invent a meaning
I don’t watch unmoved I intervene
and say that this and this are wrong
and I work to alter them and improve them
The important thing
is to pull yourself up by your own hair
to turn yourself inside out
and see the whole world with fresh eyes

A difficult play; I’d like to see it performed live, but what, I wonder, would be the chances of that, when Tom Stoppard is the height of political drama?  Certainly, it could be put on, absolutely so, it is the kind of play that one might love, huge cast, plays within plays, an ideal Postmodern piece they might say, and assume it is ironic in its commitments. A quick search reveals its popularity: still put on, favourite of theatre schools (too used to parochial small town rejection of anything that isn’t a comedy or Shakespeare)

From the UA film

From the UA film

Three levels: the feud between De Sade and the warden of the Charedon asylum, power struggle between man of order and man of anti-order (anarchist, perhaps) but a struggle in which De Sade is the hero against the disciplining, normalising State; the play, The Death and Persecution of Jean-Paul Marat, the baptism of a counter-revolutionary, the moanings and declamations of Marat, the knowledge of his death already widespread, the best of classical irony and the movement of fate.  Third level: the dialogue between De Sade and Marat, a dialectic of sorts, an argument in which both sides trade insults and argue in grand eloquence over the fate and direction of mankind, two visions of the way forward, nihilism and rejection of the norms of society, of society, or revolution, the changing of society through its material conditions.

Marat is the victor, of sorts, it is clear to whom Weiss ultimately agrees with, but De Sade is the romantic, rebellious anti-Hero, like Wolverine or Nieztche, we find him appealing even if we find his frankness and brutality disquieting.  Interesting structure, totally engaging, reminds me of the furour around Hans Werner Henze’s Das Floss der Medusa (a requiem dedicated to Che Guevera)
if only because they were both contemporary works of scandalous political engagement.  No good answer, no moral summation, no simple political solution presented; suitably satisfying ending in its lack of satisfaction.

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A Joke

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The arch-imperialist, guarded by khaki soldiers in kepi, supervises the doling out of justice in the market square, his boots spike despite the dust and cool despite the Sudanic sun.  He is a professional, no spite has he, but he knows reality, and so he stands broad legs spread chest out before the prisoners tied between wooden stakes hammered into the ground.  The imperialist winks to the sun, or perhaps to the guard in second hand uniform, neck unstarched and skin black as night beneath the fez, eyes hooded, dark or unseen, an onyx .  In his hands he holds a hippopotamus hide whip.  Later, after the punishment, when confronted by a journalist, and less than impressed by the man’s sweat and the choppy wrinkles of his jacket, tells him angrily, in a long unbroken grunt, his head swelling red like a blister pinched by officers collar:

“The hippopotamus hide whip is all these brutes understand!  Perhaps when they are more civilized, they will not need such discipline meted out; at it is now, those deep furrows in their flesh keep the peace and the smooth running of our government.  Without the knout, we would surely lose face to the forces of barbarism, who must be met by the only thing they understand: blood.”

chicotte

At home there is a furor in Parliament, and a member of the Loyal Opposition gets to his feet: it is cold in the hall, and he wears about him a fur-lined coat.  Outside snow falls on the metropolis in pensive silence.  He reads the newspaper, is shocked into red-faced anger by the brutality described; he is the most celebrated of the Party’s speakers, one of their youngest, perhaps fit someday to be a Minister in the Cabinet.  He is socially liberal, claims to support suffrage and unions and argues that the free enterprise and industry of their nation, the formula of greatness, should be protected  He launches with stubborn immobility into his prepared speech:

“Such brutality is unwarranted and inefficient.  It merely alienates our new subjects and ensures their restlessness.  I suggest replacing the hide with police batons (manufactured here in our great country) and all officiers of the government should be equipped with soothing balm for their wounds.  In such a fashion, we can molify the natives insolent resistance to law by demonstrating that the hand that punishes can also assuage and protect them.  A softer touch can ensure that our burden to civilize can go on unhindered and ensure our place in the sun the next one hundred years!”

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Afrobollocks

Only recently have I started Daniel Davies website with the unsellable and unsexy name ‘Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived,’  also known as the “D-squared Digest — FOR bigger pies and shorter hours and AGAINST more or less everything else” but I like what I read, even if the posts, like mine, are sporadic and unpredictable; unlike my blog, a midden heap if there ever has been one, his is an excellent source of information,.  His primary focus is Africa, though the majority of his posts are generally narrowed to Zambia because, well, Africa is a pretty big continent with thousands of cultures, languages and dozens of states, and can’t be easily surveyed by an observer seeking to avoid the most egregious simplifications and journalistic continents.  Alongside Alex de Waal and a few others, or Juan Cole on the Arab world, he is one of the more reliable deconstructors of journalistic nonsense and sensible analysis on a part of the world whose presentation in our culture consists of a few stock images, what Davies has termed ‘Afrobollocks’. Its main contours are explained in this article critiquing a Chicago Tribune article about the severe food shortages in Ethiopia during the summer. Firstly, his sober and intelligent description of the situation, while cutting into the story and revealing the neo-liberal propoganda that infests some much of commentary on Africa:

First, the combination of green fields and famine is not “ironic” or “strange” – it’s pretty much fundamental to the whole question. It means that any explanation of the famine based on the failure of the spring rains has to be wrong. If grass is growing, then grain is growing, or at least, if grain isn’t growing then there’s some other reason why than drought. So the Ethiopian government are, as far as I can see, at the very least not being totally straight here.

It looks to me like a classic Sen famine, with the root cause in (among other things) the fact that wine is more profitable than wheat[2], being dressed up as an ecological rather than economic crisis in order to save everyone’s blushes. I don’t doubt that the Meles government have screwed things up much more badly than they needed to, and suspect that their recent Somalian adventure might have caused them to take their eye off the ball. But it seems as if the famine is being used by the global punditosphere to twist their arm a little bit further up their back in the direction of neoliberal reform.

And then, we learn just what Afrobollocks is:

Bonus points for the mention of “the Chinese model” in a country that’s so utterly a US catspaw in the region, by the way – the nefarious representative of the PRC is fast becoming a stock Afrobollocks character, along with the poor little starving person, the Nigerian fraudster, the Harvard-educated hope of his country, the “tribal chief” and the James Bond villainesque President for Life (with proverbial “Swiss bank account”, natcherally; the Caymans, Channel Isles etc apparently have zero market share with African dicators according to Western hack journalists), the bright-eyed and impractical aid worker and the rascally international banker.

It’s not so much that deregulation and land reform are bad ideas – quite the opposite. I’m more worried here that the incessant habit of the neoliberal world to hang them on any passing news story is more or less bound to diminish their own credibility. This is a classic example of a long term solution to a short term problem, coupled with a domestic solution to a fundamentally global problem. We all knew back in March that the sharp increase in soft commodities prices was going to cause famines – now here we are in August and it is causing famines. This isn’t new information.

As I’ve argued before (but never in these precise words), the big underlying trouble with Globollocks in general and Afrobollocks in particular is that neoliberal commentators have a completely, utterly 180 degrees wrong assessment of their own credibility with the people that they’re talking too. Someone like Tom Friedman clearly believes that he can lecture the Third World to his heart’s content, and they will lap it up. He even seems to reckon that he can glide over a few difficult proofs and stick in a couple of non sequiturs, and his basic message (which I reiterate, is not even necessarily a bad one) will get across – the Africans will treat him as having super-credibility because he plays for Team USA, the winningest team in town.

I’m glad someone is saying this out there; Afrobollocks, and its wider cousin Worldbollocks, are wonderful.

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An interesting editorial from my hometown paper, circa 1927, just after a major socialist/communist riot/march in protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti:

“There seems to be some surprise expressed over the fact that Miss Aurora D’Angelo, who led a mob of demonstrators in a riot over the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in Chicago, passed the mentality tests of psychiatrists with flying colours.

There is no reason for supposing that the intellect of those who lead movements opposed to the theories that govern society of today is defective.  If they are regarded as being warped in their judgements, that is chiefly due to the fact that their ideas differ profoundly from those of the majority.  It does not imply that they have less mental ability than the average.

It is possible that these people have allowed their emotions to assume control of their minds rather than their reason, and that they are therefore prevented, in certain cases, in which their emotional nature is mainly involved, to pronounce as well-balanced a decision as they might otherwise do, but it must be remembered that mankind is largely made up of emotional creatures, and these are not to be classed as subnormal.

In the famous case of Eddie Sidis, who was trained from babyhood by his father, the well-known psychologist, and possessed and twelve or more actual learning than the average man has at thirty, all this brilliant achievement in the way of early education did not prevent him from being arrested while making a revolutionary speech to a mob of red agitators.  Had young Sidis possessed a subnormal intelligence, his father’s experimental education must have failed.

Eddie Sidis and Aurora D’Angelo were both 18 years old when arrested as disorderly rioters.  Youth is the time when emotion has the ruling place in most human mentalities.  It is not often that the wild enthusiasm of youth are carried, unimpaired, into the maturity of middle and old age.  But the world would be a dull place  if the young people did not have their occasional outbursts.

It would be very satisfying to those who feel that the only path to safety is that of extreme conservatism, if they could pronounce all agitators to be defective in mind and have them placed under lock and key.  But a glance over even recent history goes to show that the revolutionary thinker of today is likely to be the conservative of tomorrow or the next day, and that the progress of humanity is largely due to those who have differed from their fellows and who have been persecuted for their ideas.

The youthful anarchist will probably become the middle-aged constitutionlist and, at any rate, no case can be made out against such persons on the ground of defective mental powers.”

In less words, “at 20, you think with your heart, at fourty with your head”.  An interesting defense of radicalism that defends against calling radicalism an ‘infantile disorder’ and then calls it that.  For some context to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution, some more news from the same time:

Guns and Bombs Scatter Red Mob

Chicago Rioters Are Injured in Scramble with Police when they Charged

August 10, 1927

Demonstration against exucution led by pretty sixteen year old, Aurora D’Angelo…mob of four thousand singing Internationale, shouting ‘Mob the Police’, marched toward district jail today, dispersed only after clashing with police…used tear bombs and pistols…sixty-seven men, four women, arrested…several rioters trampled in scramble to escape.  “Ain’t this a free country?  I’m only a girl, a kid.  I know what this means, I’m going to jail.”
And:

Armoured Cars Readed To Stop Disturbances

August 8, 1927

New York police take great precautions against violence as excitement grows as execution day draws near for Sacco and Vanzetti, denied a stay from death…greatest police guard in history of the city, including during the war, patrolled New York from Hudson to the railway yard in Queens…comissioner Warren disclosed elaborate plans against further disorder…two Italians loitering arrested on charge of disorderly conduct.  Police break up several attempts to stage meetings under permit of Socialist party…Communists predict 500,000 will down tools protestings the executon of the two anarchists.”

All those “young people [with] their occasional outbursts” causing all that trouble!  The horrors!

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Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is a novel about crisis.

The Englishman narrator, his life seemingly at a crossroads, his moral and ethical beliefs in question in the first pages of the novel, is mysteriously disembodied. His consciousness embarks upon a fantastic journey across time, space and the entire Universe; you know, everything. As he journeys, the narrator gathers up, like a snowball tumbling down a hill, fellow intelligences from every planet that he, and then they, visit. The narrator comes to discern that each world, each intelligent species scattered through the cosmos, is experiencing or has experienced a profound crisis, sometimes spiritual, sometimes material, resolved through a fall into barbarity or a rise into a new enlightenment. Interestingly enough, though not surprising, Stapledon places our world at the cusp of this crisis, marked by the spectre of industrial exploitation, class warfare, mass movements, war and the Fascism and Stalinism of the 1930’s.

The shadow of these events lays heavy across Star Maker.

The most viscerally interesting aspect of Star Maker, however, is the incredible variety of alien worlds visited by the exploring mind narrator. Star Maker is boggling in its variety; for the nineteen thirties, homeland of the bug-eyed monster, Stapledon’s aliens are incredibly original: massive aquatic beings shaped like ships; communal-mind bird flocks; symbiotic aliens made of crab and great sea fish, cooperating to build factories and radiocommunication. Star Maker is often credited with inventing concepts of science fiction that have become practicably cliche now: guided evolution, prime directives, dyson spheres and constructed worlds, planet-sized ships, stars exploding as weapons, space empires and federations, sentient energy beings, hive-minds and shared consciousness, omnipotent aliens unto God. It’s quite humbling, to think that one man, in brief jottings and short chapters, crafted the meat and bones of so much science fiction, and then really didn’t even make those dyson spheres or space empires key to the story. The aliens keep the novel interesting, because it is barely a novel; for science fiction fans interested in tight plots and constant action, there is NONE of that here. Star Maker reads like sometimes like a dry philosophical text, at other times like a history, and the bulk of the action unfolds on a scale that is alienating, if you pardon the pun; the rise and fall of civilizations, again and again, isn’t exactly capable of communicating individual pathos and emotion, though it can be riveting in the same way that archeological studies of the Huns can be.

Star Maker isn’t going to be an easy read, but if you do it, satisfaction and wisdom may be yours. Star Maker is first and foremost a didactic novel, a result of Stapledon, a British pacifist, socialist and ethic philosopher, finding science fiction a more useful vehicle for exploring man’s purpose, the nature of God and the ideal human society, then any philosophical tract. Star Maker, despite its dryness, is an extended, broad history of galactic civilization, (much like the Silmarillion, but you know, earlier and better, in its avant garde rejection of avant garde and ordinary conventions of novels). It is as a novel of philosophy, and social criticism, that I choose to read Star Maker, but it is much much more, a rich seem of fantastic visions and strange insights the likes of which have rarely been matched.

The aliens of Star Maker, despite then their unearthly physical appearances and modes of perception, are engaged in the same spiritual crisis that humanity has reached.

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This slim book of sociological and philosophical musing, a gentle and
intelligent polemic, attempts to answer why violence and the need to belong are
linked together.  He notes, for instance, that violence is often committed by those
whose identities feel threatened, citing the Okalahoma City bombings as an extreme
and monstrous example of this.  The analysis is not particularly deep, in the sense that
Maalouf offers few concrete examples, studies or research to support his points, and
thus relies on well-argued supposition to press his point; that is not to say that In the
Name of Identity is a shallow book. Quite the contrary.  Maalouf’s analysis, especially
of the Arab and Muslim world, is very intelligent, enlightened and useful; his place as
an Arab who lives in France, he claims, gives him a foot in both worlds, a two-faced
Janus vision of identity that he returns to throughout to lend credence to his
argument.

His thoughts about identity, in short, come down to a deconstruction of what
makes up an individual: he concludes there is no one fixed, monolithic identity, but a
series of what Maalouf calls ‘allegiances’: all the various vastitudes of history,
customs, religion, gender, class and the outlooks they entail. The individual,
therefore, is the sum of all their surroundings, society and acts of free will and quirks
of personality.  Out of that complexity we build ourselves and our built, and
sometimes, we come to hide those other facets in the name of one part of our
identity.  Maalouf does not agree with doing this, but can understand it, even if he
believes that it is morally wrong to force any human being to hold to one allegiance of
their identity, for instance, to Islam, at the expense of their other identities, whether
cultural, as an Arab, gendered or class, (Maalouf, however, stays away from class,
and indeed barely touches on economic conditions and their overwhelming effect on
people, including on all their other identities, a serious weakness it would seem, but
hold still…).

Often, Maalouf gets caught up in the liberal or postmodern understanding of
identity politics to such an extent that he rattles off bills of rights and what people
deserve to have acknowledged, about the needs of individuals to be more
understanding, open, and reflective:

“It is essential that we establish clearly and without ambiguity, and that we
watch over tirelessly, the right of every man to retain and to use freely his language,
which identifies him and with which he identifies himself.  I regard that freedom as
even more important than freedom of belief” (etc. etc.  The flaws to this kind of
preaching about essential freedoms is self-evident, I think)

This stance can be a commendable and ethical stance, but it can be a little
ridiculous, to read such warbling, which often disconnects itself from the material
conditions that influence human behaviour and seems to have little concrete to offer
(a biological/behaviorist critique of this book would be interesting, along the lines of a
John Gray) .  Maalouf does not dwell on the surface, nor does he delve that deep.  He
is smart enough to root the construction of an individual to the society that shaped
him and the many years, and deeper centuries, that plant their roots like cat parasites
in our fibres.   He is no fool in that regard.

And there is much to commend this book to someone who does not
necessarily share Maalouf’s soft but thoughtful liberalism and enthusiasm for a rights
based ideology of individual freedom.  His central and longest chapter on “Modernity
and the Other” contains much that goes against the dominant ideology in the media
and culture: that is, he argues, as an Arab himself, that Arabs, especially Arab
Muslims, are not intrinsically backwards, and do not necessarily have a problem
coping with issues of modernism, multiculturalism and tolerance (Maalouf, who
wrote a history of the Crusades from the Arab side, notes that over the long historical
term, neither religion has overall been more tolerant or enlightened then the other).

In his discussion of Islamist movements and Jihad, he is both disgusted by
their violence and fanaticism but is smart enough, again, as an Arab himself, to
recognise the cultural, material and personal humiliations of the greater civilization
that informs part of his identity.   He sees, as many other observers have, that Hamas
or the Iranian Revolution has far more to do with Third World revolutionary
movements then with the history of Islam, that poverty, land hunger, overpopulation,
ignorance and oppression are usually at the heart of why many young men are driven
to acts of violence on a social level, and that it is the failure of liberal humanism,
nationalism, socialism and communism, both suppressed by Western-backed regimes,
to mobilize the masses or provide solutions to poverty and weakness that has made
Islam acceptable again as the guide for action (indeed, he laments for a few pages that
Communism now appears to have been a much more palatable alternative to Islamic
fundamentalism).   What is more, and I have argued this relentlessly myself, when the
condition of ‘modernity’, however one wants to define it, is presented to people who
will probably never experience its benefits, who see exploitation, the destruction of
their livelihoods, their cultures, a way of life long solidified by tradition and the blood
of generations melting into air.  When telecommunications only allows more
oppression, when the freedom of modernity is denied, then how are they expected to
react?  To embrace feminism with open arms when they haven’t enough to eat?  To
belief in the free market when they have no jobs?  This, Maalouf attests, is all it takes
for desperate situations to seem palatable, and to see the bearers of Modernity,
wealthy, haughty, morally hypocritical, white and Western, as worthy of revenge.

(more…)

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Two news reports I recently stumbled upon while reading through the Fort William Times Journal.  Both of these articles fell in June 1913.

The first is about anti-socialist police in Breslau, then a part of German Silesia, now Wroclaw in Poland, and in 1913 the German Empire’s sixth or seventh largest city, a major industrial centre, especially for linen and cotton manufacturing, and capital of a region dominated by coal mining.  The police, as part of a government campaign against trade unionists, would actually attack and accost funerals for workers identified as members of the Socialist Party or at least members of a local trade union.   The red ribbons and flag were a dead give away.   As many funerals would become large processions, often rancorous, proud and politically charged, especially if the deceased was a member of the labour or socialist movement considered to have died unjustly, the police may have felt it posed a threat to ‘public order’; but clearly, the lengths they went to represent, according both to the article and a little sense, an attack upon organized labour far beyond ‘keeping the peace’.

The police, according to this Fort William Times Journal report, would charge and break up large funeral processions; smaller ones they would accost, either way with clubs a swinging.  Then, having disrupted the march, the police would tear off the ribbons from the casket, and even reach inside to pull the red ribbon pinned to a lapel.  In some cases, according again to this cable from Breslau, they would actually attack the physical burial and reach into the grave to remove any red tokens.  Seems a little over the top, doesn’t it?  It certainly might be a biased report, especially given the tensions between Germany and Britain at the time (the Fort William Times Journal would often carry headlines about German officialdom and its belligerency).  Certainly the Fort William Times Journal was not a pro-labour paper, given its attitude towards strikes and organising.  So, there must be some truth to this.  There is something almost ‘tribal’ or ‘ancient’ in it as well, assaulting and demeaning an opponents death ceremonies, but clearly we are dealing with something much more interesting and pertinent to today: a state using its armed guards to assault both mentally and materially any opposition to its sway, and to the rights of capital.

I found a more amusing story a week later in the paper.  It concerns a German official, unnamed but apparently well connected to the Chancellery, and speaking in the name of some branch of the German Government, calling President Wilson of the United States an “Agitator for Socialists.”  “Lecturing  Socialist, it has dubbed him” the article goes on to say.  “A bigger disturbor of peace than the Balkans War” according to the Germans.  For anyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson, this is ridiculous, and the Fort Williams Times Journal says as much, at least in its tone of bemused amazement.  For anyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson, his personal beliefs, his racism, attitude towards Progressivism and socialism, and the labour movement in general, and towards business and monopoly, then calling him a socialist would be like calling him an idolater: crude and insulting, the opposite of what he really was, and what forces in the United States he represented.  Hell, Teddy Roosevelt was more socialist than Woodrow Wilson, or was at least someone like Jack London could quote him approvingly.

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