June 29, 2009

I Am Part Of The Problem

Spanish sociologist Pablo Ouziel writes at Consortium News:

Serious events and acts are taking place everyday which merit serious social debate, yet because of the fact that our societies are deeply fragmented, broken and clashing between each other, we are unable to grant ourselves the necessary pause, required for conciliation and unity.

Because of this, we are easy to control as a mass of isolated individuals, which is held together by norms and regulations, bureaucracies, military and police, and concepts such as the nation state, the church and the corporation.

If we are to stay in this model of society, I fear we will live in perpetual war until we destroy ourselves by not paying attention to the fact that something is drastically wrong.

I've long believed this. I also could barely pay attention long enough to write this blug post.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 05:29 AM | Comments (19)

June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson Died For Our Sins

By: Mike Gerber

When I heard that pop singer Michael Jackson had died, I could not help but remember what a staple he was in the late-night monologues. What would all the hacks, myself included, do now? Crypto-queer GOPers and philandering family-values types can only get you so far. Perhaps Roseanne Barr could be coaxed out of retirement and given the Ambassadorship to Iran. Perhaps Oprah could be slipped some chemical that turned her into a combination of James Brown, Wilhelm Reich, and Minnie Pearl. Even then, they'd be no Michael Jackson. Everything Jackson did was a set-up; everything he was, a punchline.

For his entire adult life, Jackson was ridiculed in public by the best in the business. Think about that for a second. He knew what everybody thought of him--he must've known. At what point did all that weirdness change, from something inside of him, to something caused by all of us? Only he could know, if he ever did, and now he's dead.

Some portion of this ridicule was earned: the compulsive plastic surgery, the persistent whiff of child molestation, the bizarre marriage to Elvis' daughter--these were, if not earth-shattering events, deviations from the norm reasonably worthy of a satirist's attention. But I think anyone not getting paid on a 13-week contract has to admit that at a certain point it became a peculiar kind of public torture. Most of the time that Michael Jackson made the monologue, he hadn't done anything genuinely newsworthy. Yet there he was, the butt of another joke about gayness, or pedophilia, or plastic surgery, or germophobia...I could go on, but there's no point. There never was.

One of the biggest changes in American pop culture has been the demise of humor based on stereotypes (or at least its widespread concealment). This is a good thing, but as the humor of stereotype has waned, other things have had to step in. The things that have filled the void are

a) celebrity humor; and for those intellectuals among us
b) absurdism about "inhuman autopilots"--zombies, pirates, robots, ninjas, etc.

Add in reflexive taboo-busting--sex and drug jokes--and you have described 99% of what passes for comedy in these United States. Most political humor is celebrity humor with a veneer of importance; it comes from no political viewpoint, only comments on behavior. Most of the NPR/New Yorker brand is absurdist autopilot humor, with enough celebrity to satisfy their timeliness fetish.

All that is another post, so I'll leave it and finish this one. Unlike say, Cary Grant, Michael Jackson had the ill fortune to be a celebrity when nightly scrutiny of a pop singer's personal habits became what passed for incisive commentary. Precisely when American power needed all the restraining that satire could throw at it, satire became obsessed with celebrities. Coincidence? Surely not. Part of this was the entertainment industry's self-aggrandizing belief that nobody in the audience knows about anything but entertainment--which, after fifty years, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But even more powerful was simple risk-aversion. Any Jackson joke was risk-free. Since he was both celebrity and inhuman autopilot, the material flooded forth; and in that flood was protection, safety in numbers. That's why it all felt strangely impersonal, as if this "Michael Jackson" we were all laughing at didn't exist as a person. To the extent that anybody I knew spared a thought for the guy, the human being, they decided he deserved it for being so weird. Such is the compassion of the herd.

But so what? you might say. Life's rough, and Jackson didn't have to be rich and famous. He didn't have to get nose jobs and sleep in a hyperbaric chamber. Well, here's what: It's inconceivable to me that all this concentrated ridicule did not drip down, poison-like, to the man himself, and make a difficult life even more difficult. And it would be one thing if the enjoyment generated as a result of this pain was in any way instructive, constructive, or substantial. It wasn't. It was just meanness. Occasionally Jackson deserved our scorn, but most of the time he didn't, and it says a lot about the culture in which we live that Michael Jackson--a pop singer--was the target of so much vitriol. Anybody who runs for President, much less does what it takes to win, is just as weird as Michael Jackson was. They simply hide it better. Here was a guy so terrorized by his father that he'd vomit at the sight of him; a guy whose talent robbed him of his own childhood; a guy who spent the rest of his life mutilating himself and possibly mistreating others in an utterly doomed attempt to release from his pain. Apportion the blame however you like, but what the hell is funny about that? The moment you stop to think about it--for one second--it no longer becomes fodder for humor. So when we laugh at a Michael Jackson joke, we should know: that's not laughter, that's keeping yourself dead inside.

To accept that there is a limit to how much we can make fun of a celebrity, is to accept that certain behavior is more important than other behavior, and proportionality is a dangerous thought in our politicized times--if you want to get another 13-week contract. Yes everybody knew about Michael Jackson, and his existence as shorthand predisposed him to be joked about; but every second of airtime that he was being ridiculed, other much more worthy targets were escaping without critique. It's not a stretch to suggest that this, too, has created our troubled world.

If satire has a salutary effect (which is debatable), its benefits come in proportion to the importance of the target: what sort of danger is being curtailed or avoided by the force of ridicule. In blasting away at Michael Jackson, American comedy did more than merely shoot a perfectly motionless fish in a tiny glass barrel; it ignored some authentic sea monsters cruising the coast. And for that, everybody in the satirical end of comedy needs to take a long, hard, look--not at the spectacle of Michael Jackson, but at ourselves.

Which was maybe why we were so content to look at him in the first place.

—Mike of Angle

Posted at 09:39 PM | Comments (32)

Smells Like Pulitzer Spirit

By: Bernard Chazelle

The Times has an informative piece on Honduras.

From the byline alone, you know this is going to be good: Elizabeth Malkin, in Mexico City, with reporting by Simon Romero from Caracas. Which makes perfect sense since, as we all know, Mexico City and Caracas are the two major cities in Honduras. (Too bad they had no reporter in Bangkok. I hope the Pulitzer committee doesn't notice.)

The Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted by the army on Sunday after pressing ahead with plans for a referendum ...

A referendum? OK, but for what?

... a referendum that opponents said could lay the groundwork for his eventual re-election

Ok, so we ask his opponents what the referendum is about. How about asking a more neutral observer? Like?

Mr. Zelaya pressed ahead with plans for a nonbinding referendum that opponents said would open the way for him to rewrite the constitution to run for re-election despite a one-term limit.

Yes, I think we got that point. Opponents of the referendum really don't like that referendum. But what's the referendum about? I'll go out on a limb and, on the basis of what our crack reporters have told us, I'll take a wild guess: "Can I, el Caudillo Zelaya, run for president again and again and again? Yes or no?"

Let's check with Dr Wikipedia to see how well I'm doing:

Incumbent President Manuel Zelaya wanted to hold a non-binding referendum on whether to convene congress to modify the constitution.

Hmm... me very confused.

It's non-binding, meaning that it has no enforcement power.

It's not a referendum to change the constitution.

It's a referendum to convene a constitutional assembly to modify the constitution.

Further investigation shows that right now a president is only allowed a single term of 4 years, which of course works great for the opponents of reform. (Note: term limits are not necessarily a bad idea, but which country in the world has a single 4-year term limit?)

After the armed forces commander, Romeo Vazquez, said that the military would not participate in the referendum, Mr. Zelaya fired him. But the Supreme Court declared the firing illegal.

Nice! If Obama wants to fire Paetreus, he'd better be nice to Scalia. But I really enjoyed this line: "the military would not participate in the referendum." I am sure Jon could write an entire SNL skit just out of that one line.

The Times goes on to quote our own president:

“I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic charter,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”

Nice little jab at Chavez while failing to condemn the coup. "Let's all be good boys and girls..." Neat. Barack-Hillary will play their good-cop/bad-cop routine, which proves to me that the Honduran military got the go-ahead from the CIA. Or, rather, let me clarify this statement. There's no way this would have happened if the US had said no. And if anyone doubts there's bad blood between Honduras and the US, one has to go back only 9 months for Honduras' decision to delay the accreditation of the US ambassador in solidarity with Bolivia.

To quote our hero Augusto Pinochet, "Sometimes democracy must be bathed in blood." Now that we've had our "democracy" moment, is the bloodbath next?

Perhaps our NYT correspondent in Tahiti can tell us.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 06:13 PM | Comments (31)

June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson Is Pop King Of Sick Fucking Country

There are no current events that cannot be used as fodder for a critique of U.S. foreign policy and society.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:47 PM | Comments (17)

June 24, 2009

Latin America, World's Moral Political Leader

By: Bernard Chazelle

For several years now, the most socially and politically inspiring place on earth has been Latin America. The US establishment loves to hate Venezuela and ignore everyone else. What a blessing it's been. While the US has been busy transforming the Middle East from hell to absolute hell, all over Latin America a quiet revolution has been taking place. In a few months, for example, Colombia will be the only country south of the border left with a US military presence. Eat your heart out, Europe, Asia, and Africa! Latin America might be the only place on earth where social progress has been visible lately. Latest from Peru, via Johann Hari:

In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, the poorest people in the world have taken on the richest people in the world to defend a part of the ecosystem none of us can live without. They had nothing but wooden spears and moral force to defeat the oil companies – and, for today, they have won.

Responding to intense pressure from the US,

Peru's right-wing President, Alan Garcia, sold the rights to explore, log and drill 70 per cent of his country's swathe of the Amazon to a slew of international oil companies. Garcia seems to see rainforest as a waste of good resources, saying of the Amazon's trees: "There are millions of hectares of timber there lying idle."

Only flaw in Garcia's brilliant plan, the indigenous people of the Amazon.

They have no guns. They barely have electricity. The government didn't bother to consult them: what are a bunch of Indians going to do anyway?

What the bunch did is use their own bodies and wooden weapons to blockade rivers and roads. They captured two valves of Peru's only pipeline.

Garcia responded by sending in the military. He declared a "state of emergency" in the Amazon, suspending almost all constitutional rights. Army helicopters opened fire on the protesters with live ammunition and stun-grenades. More than a dozen were killed. But the indigenous peoples did not run away. Even though they were risking their lives, they stood their ground. One of their leaders, Davi Yanomami, said simply: "The earth has no price. It cannot be bought, or sold or exchanged. It is very important that white people, black people and indigenous peoples fight together to save the life of the forest and the earth. If we don't fight together, what will our future be?"

And then something amazing!

The indigenous peoples won. The Peruvian Congress repealed the laws that allowed oil company drilling, by a margin of 82 votes to 12. Garcia was forced to apologise for his "serious errors and exaggerations". The protesters have celebrated and returned to their homes deep in the Amazon.

Read the whole thing.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 07:20 PM | Comments (37)

Obama Repents

By: Bernard Chazelle

It's Wednesday so it must be time for the usual headline:

US Drone Strike Said to Kill 60 in Pakistan [...]

as the Obama administration has intensified a policy inherited from the Bush administration.

Naturally, President Obama expressed his distress:

"I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

Look, these young Iranian people are my heroes. They take to the streets, they fight for their rights, they risk their lives. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs announces the biggest bonuses in its history (with our own AIG-laundered tax money) and Americans sigh, grumble, and take it on the chin. That makes us what? Sheep, stoics, whatever. If Obama wants to give a speech to explain why Americans may have a thing or two to learn from the Iranians, fine, let's have a good laugh together. But when your hands are soaked with the blood of 60 people, Mr President, the only right you've earned, when it comes to berating thugs, is the right to shut the fuck up.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 11:31 AM | Comments (21)

CBS News Edits Out Billy Graham Reference To "Synagogue Of Satan"

Yesterday CBS ran a story about the latest batch of Nixon tapes made public. And they included a section of a February 21, 1973 conversation with Billy Graham that showed Nixon at his psycho best:

CBS: In another of the candid and sometimes coarse conversations released today, the President muses about anti-Semitism. He's talking to Evangelist Billy Graham - and worries about reaction to the Washington visit of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir—because Israel has just shot down a Libyan passenger plane.

NIXON: This anti-Semitism is stronger than we think, ya know. It's unfortunate, but this has happened to the Jews, happened in Spain, it happened in Germany, it's happening, and now it's gonna happen in America if these people don't start behaving. It may be they have a death wish, that's been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.

GRAHAM: Well, they've always been through the Bible at least, God's timepiece. He has judged them from generation to generation and yet used them and they've kept their identity.

What do you think about Graham's response there? True, he didn't stand up to Nixon's rambling insanity, but at least he deflected it. He comes out looking pretty good!

Too bad this is how the conversation actually went (mp3)

NIXON: The thing that you've really got to emphasize to him, Billy, is that this anti-Semitism is strongly than we think, you know. It's unfortunate, but this has happened to the Jews, it happened in Spain, it happened in Germany, it's happening—now it's going to happen in America if these people don't start behaving.

GRAHAM: Well, you know I told you one time that the bible talks about two kinds of Jews. One is called the Synagogue of Satan. They're the ones putting out the pornographic literature. They're the ones putting out these obscene films.

[three minutes of talking]

NIXON: It may be they have a death wish, that's been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.

GRAHAM: Well, they've always been through the Bible at least, God's timepiece. He has judged them from generation to generation and yet used them and they've kept their identity.

P.S. CBS is also wrong that Nixon was talking about anti-Semitism being generated by the shooting down of the Libyan plane. Nixon was actually responded to Graham being angry about a rabbi criticizing a new attempt at widespread evangelism.

The whole thing is well worth listening to if you're a connoisseur of the psychosis of the people who run this planet. My favorite part is the repeated tongue baths Graham bestows on Nixon, assuring him the country loves him and he may well be the greatest president in history.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:11 AM | Comments (16)

June 23, 2009

More Boring Old History

One interesting part of the newest batch of Nixonalia is a National Security Council memo about the Israeli nuclear program. Here you see both (1) the U.S. government talking to itself honestly about Israeli nukes in private, rather than the desperate avoidance of the topic in public, and (2) part of the U.S. government not knowing what other parts were doing, since Nixon and Kissinger had already decided it was fine if Israel (and others) built nuclear weapons.

It's unclear exactly when this was written, but it appears (pdf) to be from late 1969-early 1970:

The importance to the U.S. of Israeli adherence to the NPT lies not only in the very great effect of its adherence to the prospects for the general success of the Treaty, but also because, unlike other hold-outs, we believe Israel is actively working to give itself the capability to build a bomb...Should it become generally accepted that Israel possesses nuclear weapons (even if Israel has not conducted a test), it would reduce even further the prospects for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem, and it could well cause so many hold-outs to the Treaty throughout the world as to seriously vitiate the effectiveness of the Treaty...

Thank god none of that came to pass!

If the U.S. decides that Israeli adherence to the NPT is of major importance to its policy objectives, we must be prepared to make this a crunch issue with Israel and to make it clear that if Israel elects to go the nuclear route it would cause a fundamental change in the US-Israeli relationship, including our long-standing concern for Israel's security. To make the Israelis believe in our determination, we would have to show that we are prepared to have the issue become public and to defend our position in the face of domestic pressure.

Domestic pressure!?!?!? Who knew John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were working on the NSC back then?

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:22 PM | Comments (6)

June 21, 2009


I continue to have my hands full with actual work. But I've been quietly excited about what's going on in Iran, even though:

1. Mousavi is obviously as big a fuckhead as Ahmadinejad or (for instance) Hillary Clinton. But this appears to be a situation where the leader is largely irrelevant and is mostly following his followers. Moreover, the psychology of leaders can change in such situations. I can even imagine a set of circumstances in which George W. Bush would have found himself a populist leader and genuinely meant it.

2. I'm amused by all the attention this is getting from some of the best U.S. liberal bluggers, such as Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings. Even when they're at their best, American liberals essentially follow in lockstep the agenda of the governing classes. Would they care anywhere near as much if Iran weren't an Official Enemy? Obviously not. Thus even when "opposing" William Kristol, they're ratifying the right's power by giving them the ability to decide what gets talked about.

3. I'm 100% certain some of what's going on in Iran is covertly funded by the U.S. government. But who cares? Some fraction of the civil rights movement was probably funded by Moscow. It's really, really hard to get popular movements off the ground—so hard that even with some foreign funding with nefarious motives, it generally only happens when they're legitimate.

So despite these factors, I find this pretty great, and a possible harbinger of a better future for All Mankind. Hopefully normal people outside of Iran can explore ways to fill in the "???" part of this diagram.

ALSO: I loved this from Gary Sick last week:

The Iranian opposition, which includes some very powerful individuals and institutions, has an agonizing decision to make. If they are intimidated and silenced by the show of force (as they have been in the past), they will lose all credibility in the future with even their most devoted followers. But if they choose to confront their ruthless colleagues forcefully, not only is it likely to be messy but it could risk running out of control and potentially bring down the entire existing power structure, of which they are participants and beneficiaries.

Huh. Sounds like a certain 2000 U.S. election I've heard about.

AND: Jonathan "Name Thief" Versen has his own thoughts on this matter.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:43 PM | Comments (88)

June 20, 2009

"Kommt Ihr Töchter"

By: Bernard Chazelle

Some time in mid-career, a strange ailment struck the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett: music ceased to have any effect on him whatsoever. Everything he heard or played left him cold. Why? Good question. But perhaps a better one is, Why not? Did you ever wonder how air bumping against your ear drums can conspire to have such a profound impact on your emotional state? Why does music move you? You may say it's no different from poetry. Just as a poem is a collection of words with the right arrangement, so music is a time series with the right Fourier spectrum. Ah, but words have meaning while notes do not: if a poem is a message then a song is a massage. Music strokes, caresses, aggresses. If it points to everyday life experience, ambiguity is its essence. If Beethoven hadn't told us that his 6th symphony was "pastoral," honestly, who'da thunk it? Music is both the most physical and the most abstract of all arts.

Kant lived a life of stultifying monotony, yet he became the greatest philosopher since Aristotle. Bach lived the stifling life of a provincial civil servant, yet he composed music of unparalleled greatness. How does that work? Only Mozart's music matches Bach's perfection, but Bach is more complex and more human than the Salzburg wunderkind. A bit of a paradox, no? The dirty little secret about the Baroque era is that it is among the poorest musically. Mozart could worship at the altar of Bach, Handel, Haydn, etc. But who was Bach's musical hero? Buxtehude. Yes, that's right, the immortal Dietrich Buxtehude himself! Sure, Bach also had the French and Italian masters to learn from, but no artist in history ever so towered over his elders.

Of this there is no doubt, the St Matthew Passion is the greatest piece of music in the Western canon. Unlike Coltrane's music, it is easily accessible, but that instant welcome is deceptive. As in the case of Coltrane, to appreciate the Himalayan heights of the SMP takes a little initiation. The Mass in Bm and Mozart's Requiem, both worthy rivals, are much easier to ingest and digest. Ultimately, staying power is the measure of all art. I can still listen to "Idiot Wind" but "Yesterday" makes me yawn. Even Dylan eventually gets dull. I have found that there are only so many times one can listen to a pop tune before the thrill is gone. On the other hand, I've been listening to the SMP for four decades -- at this point, I can't resist mentioning that my first full exposure to the SMP, at de Gaulle's funeral, gave Nixon, Ben Gurion, and the Queen of England a chance to walk right by the young teenager that I was and who was then wondering what a marvelous place his native city would be if the PA system could blast Bach in the streets 24/7 as it did on that day. To this day, every time I hear the SMP I discover nooks and crannies I'd never noticed before. It's like a fractal line: the more you look, the more you see. Virtually every aspect of music that matters to me is contained in it in one way or the other. The SMP was Bach's 4th Passion. He was at the absolute peak of his technical skills when he composed it.

The SMP starts with a bang, probably the most stunning musical intro ever. It features two orchestras and three choirs! "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen" (Come, you daughters, help me lament) is a musical Agnus Dei and starts at the end. Jesus is dead and the daughters of Zion (ie, the Church) are called to share the choir's mourning. The SMP is a palindrome and each movement is itself circular. Bach's nested circles are a theological reinterpretation of time meant to shatter the linear ordering of past, present, and future.

1. 0:00-0:22. Check out that low E in the bass. It goes on uninterrupted, drone-like, for 22 seconds! It's like an engine revving up. The takeoff at 0:23 climbs up the scale of G. Hold that thought. I'll return to it. The piece is in Em but performed one tone lower, presumably to accommodate the boys' vocal range.

2. The two orchestras play together until the chorus kicks in at 1:11 with a radiant ascending arpeggio (E, G, B, E). Such a powerful vocal entry is also something you'll hear nowhere else.

3. At 1:39, we have the melodic culmination of the chorus with a very simple, descending line. I'll write it one note per beat:


A pop musician would slap Em, D7, and C chords and be done with it. Not Bach. What he does, instead, is run up the scale of G starting at E -- remember that thought you've been holding -- ie, he goes up the scale of the relative major of Em, one note at a time over 13 beats. I'll spare you the technical analysis of why it gives you not only the chords you need but it creates a contrary contrapuntal motion, and all that with a simple ascending scale. The brilliant simplicity of the harmony is amazing but, hey, that's why he is Bach and we're not. (If you want to try it on your favorite instrument at home, remember to lower all these notes by one tone to match the YouTube audio. The G scale is like the C scale with an F sharp.)

4. At 1:54, the chorus breaks into two for an amazing call-and-response between Orchestra 1- Choir 1 and Orchestra 2- Choir 2. I use caps for the second group:

Sehet - WEN? - den Bräutigam

Seht ihn - WIE? - als wie ein Lamm


See - WHOM? - the bridegroom;

See him - HOW? - as a lamb.

The lamb and the bridegroom are Jesus (don't ask). This call-and-response is repeated twice. Then...

5. at 2:14, the most breathtaking contrapuntal construction I've ever heard in any vocal work. We now have three choruses competing for attention! The new one (which has been quiet until now) breaks into a soprano chorale (the kids with the red gowns):

O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig

Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet,

meaning "O Lamb of God, innocent, slaughtered upon the cross's branch."

Meanwhile the other choruses are still telling us about the weeping daughters of Zion. This is the kind of passage that I believe requires initiation. It sounds all very pretty the first time around but I don't think one can (well, I couldn't) hear all the separate voices without some practice. If all you hear is a big wall of sound, then it sounds like fine Baroque harmony but you're missing a lot. Only once your ear can break apart the counterpoint can you appreciate why you're truly witnessing something very unique in the history of art. (Probably Richter's version -- available on YouTube -- is easier on a beginner's ear, but I find it too slow. On the other hand, I find this version a little too fast. Oh well.)

The ending is marvelous. All choirs and orchestras join together and swell in volume until that final Picardy third. This first movement leaves you breathless and emotionally drained. And it's been only 7 minutes. With only 3 more hours to go!

Performance: Cambridge King's College Choir / Brandenburg Consort directed by Stephen Cleobury.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 06:34 PM | Comments (16)

June 17, 2009

Shell Game

By: John Caruso

I've written before about the proliferation of misunderstood memos, but it looks like the problem is even deeper than I realized.  Consider the case of some of the letters Shell sent to the Nigerian government and security services:

In one document written in May 1993, the oil company wrote to the local governor asking for the "usual assistance" as the Ogoni expanded their campaign. There was a stand-off between the Ogoni and the US contractor Willbros, which was laying a pipeline. Nigerian military were called in, resulting in at least one death.

Man, you send one innocent message about the "usual assistance" and the next thing you know someone's dead—when all you really wanted was, oh, I don't know, translation services for gas flaring regulations.  And the comedy of errors just continued:

Days later, Shell met the director general of the state security services to "reiterate our request for support from the army and police". In a confidential note Shell suggested: "We will have to encourage follow-through into real action preferably on an industry rather than just Shell basis". The Nigerian regime responded by sending in the Internal Security Task Force, a military unit led by Colonel Paul Okuntimo, a brutal soldier, widely condemned by human rights groups, whose men allegedly raped pregnant women and girls and who tortured at will. Okuntimo boasted of knowing more than 200 ways to kill a person.

That's "real action" all right.  So what did Okuntimo do, thanks to his utter and complete misreading of Shell's benevolent intentions?

In October 1993, Okuntimo was sent into Ogoni with Shell personnel to inspect equipment. The stand-off that followed left at least one Ogoni protester dead. A hand-written Shell note talked of "entertaining 26 armed forces personnel for lunch" and preparing "normal special duty allowances" for the soldiers.

But surely they'd have gotten those "special duty allowances" whether they'd attacked the Ogoni protesters or just reasoned calmly with them over a few drinks, as Shell no doubt intended.  Right?  And Shell was probably just giving them lunch to make them feel better for the terrible mistakes they'd made based on their misinterpretations of Shell's intentions.  Who's with me on this?

Shell is also accused of involvement with the MPF [aka the "Kill and Go"], which worked with Okuntimo. One witness, Eebu Jackson Nwiyon, claimed they were paid and fed by Shell. Nwiyon also recalls being told by Okuntimo to "leave nobody untouched". When asked what was meant by this, Nwiyon replied: "He meant shoot, kill."

Yeah, yeah, we get the picture.  Look: it's not Shell's fault if its entirely innocuous requests were constantly misread by the Nigerian soldiers and paramilitaries they were paying, feeding, and harmlessly arming with Beretta semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns.  If you think about it, it was just like a zany episode of Three's Company—except instead of Mr. Roper finding Jack in bed with Chrissy, some protesters were beaten and shot.  Oh, right, and hanged.  But otherwise exactly the same.

Whatever your feelings about all of this, though, I think we'd all agree that human communication is rife with misunderstandings.  For instance, if I say that Shell is a vicious corporate criminal willing to bathe in vats of human blood to boost its profit margins, you might think I'm being critical, right?  But you'd be totally mistaken, because all I really meant is that Shell is a major oil company and an important part of the global economy.  You see how it happens?

— John Caruso

Posted at 09:50 PM | Comments (11)

June 15, 2009

Help With Definitions

By: John Caruso

Binyamin Netanyahu explains what he meant when he used the seemingly-clear but actually quite subtle phrase "without preconditions":

Therefore, a fundamental prerequisite for ending the conflict is a public, binding and unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. To vest this declaration with practical meaning, there must also be a clear understanding that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside Israel's borders. [...]

Palestinians must clearly and unambiguously recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The second principle is: demilitarisation. The territory under Palestinian control must be demilitarised with ironclad security provisions for Israel. Without these two conditions, there is a real danger that an armed Palestinian state would emerge that would become another terrorist base against the Jewish state, such as the one in Gaza. [...]

Regarding the remaining important issues that will be discussed as part of the final settlement, my positions are known: Israel needs defensible borders, and Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel with continued religious freedom for all faiths.

Wow, who knew such a straightforward phrase was fraught with such complexity!  Now you can see why peace in the Middle East is so difficult.

(In fairness to Netanyahu, the full quote was "Let's begin negotiations immediately without preconditions," and he didn't specifically say negotiations on what—so maybe he's just looking forward to getting together with some Palestinians to decide if they should get a falafel and, who knows, maybe play some foosball.  Or perhaps "preconditions" is actually a Swahili word which translates roughly as "a chance in hell of success.")

— John Caruso

Posted at 02:24 PM | Comments (17)

June 13, 2009

I Don't Get It

As we know, Juan Cole is an "anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, an apologist for radical Islam" who "peddles Hamas propaganda." Obviously if he were Iranian, he would have just voted for Ahmadinejad while shouting "Allahu Akbar."

And yet today he's written extensively about the evidence the election in Iran was just stolen by the country's Islamic theocracy.

I'm confused. It's like the world's turned upside down!

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:45 PM | Comments (39)

June 12, 2009

People: Are They Salvageable?

Sholmo Ben-Ami, Israel's Foreign Minister in the Ehud Barak government in 2000, is about as "liberal" as you can get in Israeli politics and still hold office. He acknowledges there were Palestinians living in present-day Israel who were kicked out. He has said he wouldn't have accepted the 2000 Camp David offer if he were Palestinian.

And yet he apparently cannot the hear the words coming out of his own mouth. This is from a 2001 interview with him:

Shlomo Ben-Ami: Never, in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians, was there a Palestinian counterproposal. There never was and there never will be. So the Israeli negotiator always finds himself in a dilemma: Either I get up and walk out because these guys aren't ready to put forward proposals of their own, or I make another concession.

[yammer yammer yammer]

Q: What was the new map you showed the Palestinians at Taba?

Ben-Ami: Here it is, you can see for yourself...

Q: Did the Palestinians accept this map?

Shlomo Ben-Ami: No. They presented a counter-map....A calculation we made showed that all they agreed to give us was 2.34 percent.

Now, on the one hand, this is funny:

Those Palestinian fuckers—they never have made and never will make a counterproposal! Now, I will precisely describe for you one of their counterproposals!

Also, when I say there is no cannibalism in the British Navy, I mean there is a certain amount.

But on the other hand, it's horrifying, because you can't indict Sholmo Ben-Ami here, unless being human is an indictment. This is just the way people are—or more exactly, this is just the way the most "liberal" members of powerful societies are, almost uniformly.

And that's the problem. Can this species be salvaged?

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:39 AM | Comments (24)

June 10, 2009

Hard-Wired For Imperialism

By: Mike Gerber

Agit-prop suffers from technical ineptitude because it is rhetoric masquerading as art. It suffers from heavy-handedness because it is argument masquerading as life. This fundamental dishonesty can only be overlooked if you agree with the politics, but that doesn’t make it any less third-rate. It’s talk radio with intellectual pretensions.

Nevertheless, Jon’s post below stimulated a question: Can you think of any country in a dominant position that hasn't succumbed to imperialism? Has any society successfully resisted the desire to control others--had power and ability on an imperial scale, but chose not to exercise it?

I really couldn’t think of one. You might say that Han China was less expansionist than Rome, but I doubt that gave any of their Asian vassal states much comfort. It would be fascinating to find such an empire, because the moral/spiritual climate of that place might contain a cure. That’s what we should be looking for, antibodies; some peaceful idea that binds to our “imperialism receptors” and renders that hoary political gambit useless. Because we can all agree that this King of the Mountain shit has got to go; a lucky few get to spend a bit of time on top, but everybody spends most of their existence getting pissed on from a great height. So why do we continue doing it?

It's not really fair (or useful) to disapprove of imperialist behavior unless it’s a choice, and the dearth of counterexamples suggests that it may not be. The desire to expand one’s influence, for reasons of security, self-aggrandizement, or neurosis, may be hardwired into homo sapiens, just as the things that cause obesity are. People bitching about US imperialism often remind me of people with high metabolisms bitching about fatties--not that the people with high metabolisms don't have a point (gluttony is bad, all that weight harms your health, there are people starving in the world) but that their circumstances are determining their behavior, just as the obese people's are. Morality, much less wisdom, doesn’t enter into it.

The ATR community would, myself included, get more goodies if a fairy came and transformed the world into a place where might didn't equal right. We tappers and scribblers are not disinterested observers, but grubbing after bits of power and authority, just like the slick businessman or favor-trading politician—and if our ability to impact the world is less than theirs, that doesn’t make us wiser.

What is a blog but an attempt at intellectual imperialism? Each day brings new battles, new opportunities to extend one’s influence. Each reader is another field to be brought under the plow. Those of you who comment regularly on ATR, are you not displaying the desire to dominate? That doesn't make you wrong—I agree with much of what’s said here, much of the time—but if the goal is wisdom, and not simply power in the hands of We Who Surely Would Exercise It More Wisely, these issues bear some thinking.

Before you leap on my ass—and I fully expect everyone to do so—understand that I am posting this solely at Jon’s request. I have no desire to make you think like I do. I sent him an email; he thought it might stimulate wiser discussion, and asked me to post it as a birthday present. He’s still getting something, but here you go.

—Mike of Angle

Posted at 09:13 PM | Comments (69)


I can't get behind most agit-prop, because it's usually either technically incompetent or heavy-handed in a way that doesn't work. But I give this two thumbs up.

(Via the MySpace page of the G.I. coffeehouse Coffee Strong. More by Leon Kuhn here.)


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:29 AM | Comments (24)

June 08, 2009

The Habit Of Skepticism

By: John Caruso

I have an embarrassing admission: I may have been too harsh in my judgment of Barack Obama's speech in Cairo.  Maybe years of reading the words of politicians with a critical eye, always looking for the rotten core of hypocrisy and dissembling, have made me too reflexive in my rejection of the potential for real change; I was dead certain it would just be a shiny new coat of paint on the same decrepit house, and I suppose I saw exactly what I'd convinced myself I was going to see.  Perhaps I've just made too much of a habit of skepticism to let myself believe in the possibility for transformative honesty in our deeply-corrupted system.

Whatever the case, I decided to read Obama's speech again, but this time with a mind cleared of all prejudice and preconceptions—and as much as it pains me to say so given how hard I've been on him in the past, I have to admit I was impressed to hear an American politician (finally) say some of these things.  Let's look at a few excerpts.  First, there was the deference for Muslim culture and traditions:

We have great respect for the commitment that all Muslims make to faith, family, and education. And Americans of many backgrounds seek to learn more about the rich tradition of Islam. [...] I have asked young Americans to study the language and customs of the broader Middle East. And for the first time in our nation's history, we have added a Koran to the White House Library.

That bit about the Koran was particularly bold since it was bound to be red meat for conservatives in this country (especially given his own background), but he took it even farther later, mentioning "the revelation of God's word in the holy Koran to the prophet Muhammad" and observing that "today this word inspires faithful Muslims to lead lives of honesty and integrity and compassion."

The flip side of his respect for Islam was the way he used the secular and inclusive "E Pluribus Unum" to characterize the U.S. rather than the more divisive or religious alternatives favored by some other presidents I could mention:

Our country's citizens come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, which has enabled us to realize the vision embodied in our first national motto: "E Pluribus Unum," meaning "Out of many, one."

These are all just platitudes, you might say (and I wouldn't argue with you)—but consider the importance of this respectful approach, given the audience.  And in any case, there were plenty of specifics as well, like his commitment to a state of Palestine and his recognition of the suffering of the Palestinians:

I'm committed to two democratic states -- Israel and Palestine -- living side-by-side in peace and security. I'm committed to a Palestinian state that has territorial integrity and will live peacefully with the Jewish state of Israel. [...] The Palestinian people have suffered from decades of corruption and violence and the daily humiliation of occupation.

"The Palestinian people have suffered the daily humiliation of occupation"?  Now that's political dynamite.  But throughout the speech he refused to kowtow to AIPAC and Israel, as though he was unconcerned with the potential political cost:

Israel also has a large stake in the success of a democratic Palestine. Permanent occupation threatens Israel's identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state.

"I challenge Israel"?  Tough language like that certainly isn't going to make him more popular in Tel Aviv.  And he refused to back down on his demand that Israel stop all settlement activity, going so far as to cite U.N. resolution 242 (with its incendiary language about "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"):

Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop. And the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognize boundaries consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. [...] Israel should also show a respect, a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people who are and will be their neighbors.

After reading this speech I can almost bring myself to understand how some supporters of Israel might consider him "pro-Palestinian".  He's still got a long way to go, but this is an important start.

Moving on, there was this detailed declaration of his commitment to a full and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq (one of the very welcome changes from his predecessor):

This withdrawal will take place in two stages: The first stage will occur [in 2009], when Iraqi forces assume the lead for security operations in all major population centers, while U.S. combat forces move out of Iraqi cities and move into an overwatch role. After this transition has occurred, the drawdown of American forces will continue to the second stage, with all U.S. forces returning home from Iraq by the end of 2011.

And then there were his thoughtful overtures to the people of Iran and his embrace of multilateralism on a host of global issues—worth quoting at length to fully appreciate the depth of the compassion he made a point of showing during this wide-ranging speech:

Let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.

To overcome dangers in our world, we must also take the offensive by encouraging economic progress, and fighting disease, and spreading hope in hopeless lands. Isolationism would not only tie our hands in fighting enemies, it would keep us from helping our friends in desperate need. We show compassion abroad because Americans believe in the God-given dignity and worth of a villager with HIV/AIDS, or an infant with malaria, or a refugee fleeing genocide, or a young girl sold into slavery.

There was also the bold new approach he took on Iran—granting their right to have civilian nuclear power so long as they'll give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons:

[The international community has] made the Iranian regime offers that would enable Iran to have a civil nuclear energy program. [...] Iran's true interests lie in working with the international community to enjoy the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy, not in isolating Iran by continuing to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons.

And finally, the religious and cultural sensitivity he exhibited as he made it clear that he understands how misguided it is to blame Islam—or any religion—for the behavior of a small minority of violent extremists who threaten us all:

By deliberately murdering the innocent to advance their aims, these extremists defy the fundamental principles of international order. They show contempt for all who respect life and value human dignity. They reject the words of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or any standard of conscience or morality.

Yes, it was quite a speech.  After reading it a second time I think I can almost begin to understand the ecstatic praise so many liberals offered Obama after they heard it (which I admit I first thought was not only embarrassing but dangerously naive).  After all, who could fail to respond to such an intelligent, thoughtful, nuanced, articulate, compassionate attempt to begin a genuine dialogue with the rest of the world?  Honestly, I think even the most unrepentant leftist reading these words with an open mind would have to admit that they show just how different Barack Obama is in every imaginable way from George W. Bush—and more generally, the huge differences between Democrats and Republicans.

There's just one problem: none of these quotes were actually taken from Barack Obama's speech.  Not a single word.  They are quotes from an American president, though.  No points for guessing which one at this point, but if you need a hint I can tell you that he was in office from January of 2001 through January of 2009.

(Observant readers may have noticed that I gave away the game with the Iraq withdrawal quote—since unlike Bush, who as you can see cited the correct date of 2011 that's mandated by the U.S./Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement, Obama apparently feels he has the right to unilaterally change the negotiated terms of that agreement and declare that U.S. troops Iraq won't leave until 2012.)

As these quotes make clear, there's scarcely a sentiment in Obama's Cairo speech that wasn't already spoken by George W. Bush.  And yet when Obama offers the same platitudes—sometimes in the exact same words—credulous liberals are seized by fits of swooning and enraptured praise just shy of glossolalia.  Obama's speech wasn't some epoch-defining moment of transformation from a "transcendent leader"; it was a moment of polished stagecraft from a consummate salesman for American empire and corporate capitalism.  It was the same old wine in a lovely new bottle, from someone who's already shown us repeatedly that his words aren't matched by his actions.  And had it been their arch-nemesis George Bush giving this speech instead of the Anointed One, they'd have had no trouble seeing that.

One can only hope that some day these people will embrace the habit of skepticism for all politicians, not just the ones on the other side, and finally and fully accept that fine words alone mean nothing at all—no matter who speaks them.

— John Caruso

Posted at 07:01 PM | Comments (126)

June 06, 2009

They Also Serve Who Only Take French And Play Baseball

Today the news is filled with remembrances of the heroism of the soldiers who stormed the beach at Normandy. But why have we as a society forgotten the heroism of those who, on that terrible day, took French classes and played baseball in the afternoon?

This question is particularly piquant for me because my grandfather was one of these heroes. Here's the cover of his journal from World War II:

CA Det D3D1
First U.S. Army
Northern France
Cour Z

And here's his entry for June 6th, 1944:
6 June 1944

French class and road march made up morning schedule. Detachment played baseball in the afternoon, after which all members discussed implications of D-day.

Just imagining what it was like for those young men gives me chills.

(He did end up in France ten days later.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:02 PM | Comments (15)

June 05, 2009

Where Your $700 Billion Went

A real estate agent from the Florida coast explained to me today how much the housing market has fallen there. He said one condominium that had sold several years ago for $425,000 was just resold for $100,000. And a house that was built new and sold for $550,000 was recently resold for $185,000.

Nevertheless, as extremely fancy Harvard professor Greg Mankiw tells us, no could possibly have foreseen etc., etc., etc. That's especially excellent considering that I asked him in 2005 why he was ignoring the work of people like Dean Baker who were screaming about the housing bubble at the top of their lungs.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 06:06 PM | Comments (9)

June 03, 2009

President Obama's Speeches

By: Bernard Chazelle

Tomorrow, the president of the United States will give a speech in Cairo that the White House has modestly called an "address to the Muslim World." I saw on their web site a list of Obama's forthcoming speeches.

June 04, 2009: Address to the Muslim World

August 12, 2009: Address to Humanity

October 07, 2009: Address to All Eukaryotic Life Forms and Wiccans

November 23, 2009: Address to the Universe

December 15, 2009: Address to AIPAC

Feb 6, 2010: Address to All Deities

April 5, 2010: Address to My Puppy

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 07:47 PM | Comments (92)

June 02, 2009

Business, As Usual

By: John Caruso

Bloomberg explains the true significance of the loss of hundreds of human lives:

The following companies may have unusual price changes in European trading. Stock symbols are in parentheses, and share prices are from the previous close. [...]

Air France-KLM Group (AF FP): An Airbus A330-200 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 228 people aboard went missing after reporting an electrical-circuit breakdown and encountering turbulence, the company said. The shares gained 3.5 cents, or 0.3 percent, to 11.26 euros.

— John Caruso

Posted at 08:00 PM | Comments (10)

From the Oubliettes of History: the Negligibles

By: Bernard Chazelle

In the early seventies, the US decided to take control of Diego Garcia from the Brits, who naturally said, How high? (By protocol, a US request to the British government is always formulated as "Jump!")

One ever-so-minor detail was that on that beautiful island lived what's commonly referred to as "people." Well, not by everyone. As Jonathan Freedland puts it:

Best of all, the population was such that it could be written off, in CIA-speak, as NEGL: "negligible."

Once the Negligibles were negliged away, the island became a crucial military outpost for the empire,

both the launch pad for the B-1s, B-2 "stealth" bombers, and B-52s that pounded Afghanistan and Iraq and a crucial node in the CIA's rendition system, a "black site" through which at least two high-value suspected terrorists were spirited, far from the prying eyes of international law.

Meanwhile, the Negligibles

were forced to board crammed cargo ships for a nightmarish crossing—sleeping on decks slick with urine and vomit— to Mauritius or the Seychelles where they were dumped, with no homes to go to and no compensation to make up for the possessions and livelihoods they had been forced to leave behind. From then until now, they have lived among the corrugated tin shacks of the slums of Port Louis in Mauritius, their lives scarred by extreme poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and diseases unknown in their previous island home.

The US military was at the time busy committing worse atrocities in another part of Asia. But it's worth pausing over this episode of ethnic cleansing in the proud tradition of the trail of tears (if not the middle passage). With always the same motivation: to steal someone else's land.

And now a nice touch that will endear our glorious military heroes to all the children gathered around the campfire:

[T]he commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as it was now renamed, gave the order for the islanders' pet dogs to be killed; after US soldiers armed with M16 rifles failed to shoot them all, the animals were gassed as their owners looked on.

The gas-vs-bullets thing, that's one neat trick we got from the Germans in the forties.


Diego Garcia minus the Negligibles

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 12:28 AM | Comments (26)

June 01, 2009

Dick Cheney Was Right!

Obama failed to torture people, and now we've had a terrorist attack on the United States by crazy fundamentalists.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:58 AM | Comments (22)

Advances In Spam Psychology

It was a good idea to send spam with the subject "You asshole, answer." It certainly got me to read it. "Crap, who is Elsie, and what did I do to offend her so badly?"

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:30 AM | Comments (5)