Friday, February 25. 2005
Another event tonight: "Peacemaking in Palestine: An Evening With Joe Carr." Carr is a young (age 23) activist who has worked with the International Solidarity Movement and Christian Peacemaker Teams in Palestinian occupied territories. He was working with ISM in Rafah when Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall were killed. More recently he has worked with CPT in the West Bank south of Hebron.
The idea of ISM is that the presence of Internationals (anyone not Israeli and not Palestinian) will inhibit Israelis from acts of violence against Palestinians. Often that works, but sometimes it doesn't. In many cases we're talking about violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, which seems to be largely tolerated by the Israeli military and judiciary. Carr detailed several cases where CPT members escorting children on their way to school had been attacked and injured severely enough to require hospitalization. How common this is across the occupied territories is hard to assess, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that it exists and in some areas at least is rather common. Hebron is particularly notorious, which is one reason CPT was drawn there.
Carr had a rather polished presentation, including several points where he broke to dramatically recite poetry or play guitar and sing songs that he had written. I lost my taste for poetry and folk music agitprop long ago, so we'll skip over that part. He had a good set of maps, including good deal of detail on the Rafah and Hebron areas, the current/projected "security fence" path, and a set of four maps detailing how Palestinian land control shrank from 1946. Interestingly, he had a corresponding set of four maps of how American Indian territory shrank from 1850 on. (Of course, maps from 1650 would have shown even more.)
He had, I think, a somewhat oversimplified sense of the big picture: quick to condemn the U.S., quick to ascribe American positions to racism and/or capitalist greed, a tendency to view Israel as subordinate to U.S. whims, that sort of thing. He said very little about Israelis, although he did praise the peace movement there -- especially those who demonstrated at the wall -- and, in q&a, he said that he thought that most Israelis were very sheltered from news of the sort of violence his groups faced everyday. But the value of his talk was in the small picture: that looking up at the bulldozers, the walls, the gun towers, the settlements that devour your land, the army that protects those settlers and elevates them above the laws of any civil society.
The second of the two lectures intended to supplement the Emily Jacir exhibit at WSU was held tonight. The lecture was given by Issam Nassar, a history professor at Bradley University. The talk was called "Palestine at the Crossroads: From al-Nakba to the Aftermath of the Peace Process." The lecture was attended by a crowd which overflowed the allotted 80 seats.
Nassar recounted a pretty straightforward conflict history from 1948 to the present. Two significant parts of the lecture help to provide essential background for Jacir's artwork (which he did not address directly). The first was by emphasizing the pivotal role of 1948 in forming Palestinian identity -- al-Nakba, the loss of land, community, home. The second was the evolution of legal status for Palestinians by locality, especially after 1967 and again after Oslo, which is reflected in the travel restrictions that are the basis for Jacir's exhibit. (This restriction of Palestinian rights contrasts starkly with Israel's extension of citizenship rights to foreign Jews under the Law of Return.)
The q of the q&a was pointedly partisan. One question pointedly invited Nassar to identify Sharon as the person responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres; he declined to answer. Another pointed to the Arab armies massed as Israel's borders in 1947 and 1967, the terrorism and suicide bombing of later years, then asserted that Israel has only tried to defend itself and that there would be peace if only the anti-Israel violence would stop. Nassar responded by discussing the wall, which is being built less for Israeli security than to pin the Palestinians down into smaller cages. Another question had to do with Palestinian textbooks not showing maps that recognized Israel, and Palestinian schoolchildren being taught to seek martyrdom. Nassar explained that he had studied the textbooks issue and that much of the problem is that Israel has preserved the pre-1967 Jordanian texts -- part of this is tied to international law. He also said that he had never seen or heard of any instance of Palestinian authorities training children for martyrdom, and that he couldn't imagine why Palestinian parents, or any other parents, would want anything other than future health and well-being for their children.
A more open-ended question asked about the Camp David accords and Barak's allegedly generous offer. Nassar explained this reasonably well, and pointed out the progress made in subsequent talks at Taba, then he sharply criticized the incoming Bush administration for lack of interest in continuing the talks. This I thought was noteworthy because nobody really talks about it. We tend to assume that the Peace Process was doomed before Bush took over, but one could make the case that Bush's inaction was in fact a signal to Israel to go ahead and elect Sharon. The Bush/Sharon elections not only put an end to all negotiation in the Peace Process, they led to an enormous increase in the level of violence: in the first three years under Sharon more Palestinians and more Israelis were killed than in the whole period since 1967. One thing Nassar did not point out is the unofficial negotiations that followed, leading to the Geneva Accords. Nobody talks about Geneva these days, but the fact is that there is a comprehensive peace agreement signed by key members of Barak's and Arafat's negotiating teams waiting for the powers in Jerusalem and Washington to take an interest. Which says as much as one needs to know about Sharon and Bush -- not that we don't know so much more.
Wednesday, February 23. 2005
Found in the Wichita Eagle "Opinion Line" (a good source of wise cracks and insane rants): "What a complete joke that Hillary Clinton is, quoting the Bible in her speeches." One reason I note this is that she has been getting a lot of flack on a local mail list I subscribe to for her murky position on abortion rights and her hawkishness on Iraq and any other potential cruise missile target you'd care to name. Juan Cole reports that she's also managed to tick off the presumptive next Prime Minister of Iraq. Clearly she's launched her campaign, but I have to wonder what her prospects are with an increasingly polarized public where both ends of the spectrum can't stand her. Maybe that would have worked to her advantage in the '90s when few cared about issues and most distrusted those who did.
I remember listening to a radio interview with her back in '93 or '94 when she was asked what her reaction would be if her health care reform was rejected, and she said that would be a shame. That might have been savvy had she been sure of winning, but when her plan went down is was just aloof. It was worse than a shame -- it was tragic, not so much what her lousy plan lost as that she blew a huge amount of political capital on something that wouldn't have solved the problem in the first place, that substituted for a serious plan, and that by failing cut the Republicans loose to do all the damage they've done since 1994. That health plan was the same sort of too clever straddle-the-middle tactic she's building her campaign on. I'm hoping that someone will take her to task in the NY Democratic primary in 2006 and knock her out.
The Boeing plant in Wichita KS, where my father worked for over 35 years, and my brother worked for 23 years before his layoff last year (he's back now), has been sold to a Canadian company called Onex. This illustrates various things, including the return of the U.S. trade deficit in exchange for another chunk of property here. For the short term Boeing will buy parts from Onex, which will allow the plant to continue operating as before. But Boeing expects those parts to cost less than when it owned the plant, and in any case can be expected to shop around for even cheaper parts. Onex, in turn, will have to run the plant more efficiently than Boeing did -- not a tough goal, according to my brother, but one that will pressure workers on all fronts, most likely including pay and benefits. The possible upside is that Onex can search out other customers, but the overall prospects for U.S. manufacturing aren't good.
Boeing's constant whining about how it has to reduce costs in order to compete with Airbus makes little sense when you consider that the dollar has lost something like 40% against the Euro in the last four years. Meanwhile, Boeing has lost market share, and stands to lose more as long as the 7E7 is vaporware. The latter is a problem because Boeing prematurely announced the 7E7 in order to pursue what's become its primary business: auctioning aviation jobs to local and foreign governments. The state of Kansas coughed up $500 million to secure some of the work in Wichita. The city of Tulsa OK chipped in another $350 million -- their Boeing plant has also been peddled off to Onex. China and Japan also get big chunks of work. In past years Boeing always insisted that it wouldn't make any difference if it farmed out fuselage work because the critical component of their business is the wing, but now Japan will build the wings. Meanwhile, Airbus has opened an engineering group here in Wichita to design wings, and they're looking for a manufacturing facility somewhere in the U.S. -- presumably to undercut Boeing's already undercut American-built pitch, although the cheaper labor may be a factor, too.
Boeing is keeping some of their military business here -- nobody's sure just what the facilities split is. Much of the Boeing plant here was actually built by the U.S. government during WWII, where a series of legendary bombers were built: B-17, B-29, B-47, B-52. Wichita nearly doubled in size during the 1940s when farmers like my father moved to town to build airplanes. Boeing is much smaller here now, but still by far the largest employer in town. For my father's generation it was good work. Today Boeing is a hopelessly corrupt deadbeat company that survives through inertia and political scams. (Another Boeing executive just went off to jail.) I'm tempted to say good riddance, but it's more likely to be a long, agonizing decline. Reminds me that a big part of the reason I left Wichita 27 years ago was my recognition that the local businessfolk were too dumb to stand working for.
Gary Giddins finally wrote up a year-end list. It appeared in his "Cadenza" Jazz Times column. No numbers. He broke the list out into loose categories like "big band" and "boudoir break." I've been collecting year-end lists in my notebook, but this time I thought I'd take his list and hang my own comments on it. Everyone comes to the table with slightly different experiences and orientations and agendas, so this juxtaposes two. The grades refer back to my CGs or notes, with ? indicating undecided.
One comment I will make on Giddins' picks is that they're less avant than in previous years, and note that the exceptions are all well into their 60s. (Taylor will be 75 this year.)
Sunday, February 20. 2005
Book: Max Boot: The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002; paperback: Basic Books, 2003).
This, along with Kevin Pollack's The Gathering Storm, is one of the books that bears some blame for Bush's Iraq misadventure. For his part, Pollack added a voice putatively outside the Bush administration that willingly pushed the WMD claims that were supposedly the casus belli. Boot's contribution was his argument that the Powell Doctrine unreasonably inhibited America's willingness to rush into small wars to defend American interests and promote American values and, as needed, punish transgressors. To make his case, Boot catalogued dozens of small wars going back to the shores of Tripoli, albeit skipping over the halls of Montezuma. The lesson Boot draws from his survey is that small wars, often with little planning, unclear directives, improvised campaigns, and no clue to an exit strategy, have mostly worked out for the best anyway. Or at least worked out better than the big war approach to counterinsurgency that was such a fiasco in Vietnam.
Boot's lesson for Iraq was go in light and don't worry about the consequences. As such he weighed in on the Rumsfeld-Feith side, as opposed to Gen. Shinseki and others who argued that 120,000 soldiers weren't nearly enough. I haven't followed Boot's prolific columns since the war began, but I suspect that he'd argue that the fiasco in Iraq, much like the one in Vietnam, had nothing to do with how many troops were put in play; rather, it depended on how quickly the U.S. could stabilize the situation, build ties with the people, and win their support. In such a scenario, all a big footprint does is to step on unnecessary toes. America's overwhelming firepower, utter dominance from the air, massive logistic requirements, and phobic obsession with its own soldiers' safety did nothing more than create new enemies while keeping potential allies at bay. On the other hand, just adding more of what the military was already doing would have multiplied the problems without adding much of a solution. As far as this critique goes, it makes a lot of sense. But bad as the approach taken was, that doesn't mean that there was an alternative that would have worked. One might fantasize about Special Forces with the right language skills and cultural experiences, but getting them on a scale to pacify Iraq wasn't in the cards for a six month run-up to war -- or, for that matter, ever.
One of the big problems with the political debate leading to the Iraq war, and for that matter the one in Afghanistan, was that we mostly talked about the faults of the enemies and almost never took consideration of our own limits. One of Rumsfeld's famous quips was that you go to war with the arms you got. He could have extended this line to include the army you got, the intelligence services, the political prejudices, the ethics and morals of the Commander in Chief. All of those were inappropriate, often grossly so, for the tasks at hand -- chief among which was convincing the Iraqis (and Afghans) that they would be better off with us than against us. As it were, the only real credible argument they heard not to be against us is the destruction we'd wreak otherwise -- in many cases the destruction we senselessly delivered anyway.
This gets us to the core problem with Boot's thesis. Actually, there are two of them:
As a conservative, Boot would reject the way I phrased these two points. In particular, he defends the need for punitive wars, which almost by definition show nothing but contempt for the punished. He also refers back fondly to the British tradition (although he cites American examples) of "butcher and bolt" operations, which had no purpose other than intimidation. More generally, Boot assumes that wars are a necessary thing -- that there are always people out to take away your freedom and your property, and that the only thing that deters them is vigilance and punishment. Toward the end of the book he goes through all the usual rationales, including quoting Vegetius in Latin (translation: "let him who desires peace prepare for war").
But for all his stuborn insistence, the chronology he tracks is one that shows that war, even as practiced by the enlightened rulers of the United States, has become increasingly useless and debilitating. The costs of war, both to wage and to defend, go up and up; benefits decline. The risks of global conflagration necessarily limited the scope of wars in Korea and Vietnam, precluding direct wars with Russia and China. With the goals of war so limited, and the risks to the nation similarly limited, the costs one was willing to bear declined: after the total warfare of WWII we became increasingly protective of our own soldiers through Vietnam and Iraq, fighting a war in Kosovo where our chief claim to fame was zero casualties. A similar trend was evident in the Soviet Union: after sacrificing vast numbers of soldiers and citizens in WWII the Russians became very unwilling to sacrifice themselves in Afghanistan, ensuring their defeat. Modern armies are able to project truly horrifying firepower, but do so at ever greater distances, where indiscriminate injustice becomes inevitable. The increasing incidence of suicide bombers shows an asymetry of desire to match the asymetry of power. But the most such desire can accomplish is to prolong the struggle.
It is time that we realize that war isn't a last resort. It's a fundamental failure in the political process. That we arrive there so commonly shows how little our political leaders have learned, how poor they are at spotting trouble, and how indifferent they are to the consequences of their acts. In the U.S. that may be because we haven't suffered from war like we've made others suffer. Of course, that only gets worse when you have a President and Administration that so shamelessly represents the interests of the most sheltered, privileged, and demented sector of the country. They like Max Boot because his advice reinforces their presumptions, at least to the paltry extent that they understand it. They bought his Iraq war, then went off and fought their own.
Speaking of Pollack, he has a new book out, this time on Iran (The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, 2004, Random House). I've read quite a bit on Iran, so I doubt that Pollack has much more to offer -- I suspect that, despite reports that he doesn't think it's a good idea to invade this time, he's likely to be more nonsense than anything else. (For the key story of the 1953 CIA coup, see Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror [2003, Wiley]; nothing much about the terror angle there, which was just the publisher's way of trying to hype the book.) But Reza Aslan's review in The Nation has a paragraph that suggests that my own reservations were too mild:
It's not so much that what he's saying is invalid as that it's so absurdly unreflexive -- you think Iran has "emotional baggage" and "unresolved pathologies"? Take a look at America, please! (Still, I have huge reservations about the usefulness of psychologizing interpersonal relationships, let alone relationships between countries.)
Saturday, February 19. 2005
Movie: Million Dollar Baby. I know a businessman here whose email signature reads: "Lottery (noun): A stupidity tax." I've had him explain to me how he expects to turn his business into millions of dollars, and I don't doubt that he will. He's a smart guy, but more than that he has an angle. Still, when I notice people buying lottery tickets it's more clear that they don't have the angle than that they don't have the brains. One could rephrase: "Lottery (noun): A tax on hopelessness." Or more precisely: "A tax on the hopes of the hopeless." Boxing may be the sport of the stupid, but this movie makes a case that it is the sport of dreams of the hopeless. That much sums up the boxers in this movie, a point driven home with stark economy in the two scenes where Hillary Swank faces her family. That doesn't sum up the fans, whose bloodlust frames the fight scenes. And that doesn't sum up the old guys -- the one-eyed ex-boxer Morgan Freeman, who's found a certain nirvana beyond stupidity and dreams, and a methodical but uneasy Clint Eastwood, who perhaps reaches his peace after the movie ends. Or perhaps not. Eastwood's struggle with his distrust of his religion makes for an interesting subplot -- never quite explained so it can never be judged. Along the way we get an intro to sweet science philosophy and technique, often the opposite of the initial instinct to fight. Triumph and tragedy follow, but they're hardly the point -- just the pace quickening and slowing down so the end can play out in its own time. I lost my stomach for boxing long ago -- never had the belligerent drive, and soured on the notion that something so primal could be redeemed as sport -- so none of that appealed to me. But the film has remarkably fine detail, keystone performances, economy and grace. It earns its keep. A MINUS
Friday, February 18. 2005
Max Boot, in The Savage Wars of Peace, lapses into a bit of fantasy discussing the "lost opportunity" of the U.S. intervention in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution (p. 229):
It's interesting how these inferences leap about. What gives them such vitality is that they conveniently ignore underlying reality, and that they idealize the hypothetical alternate routes. The weakest of these is the idea that a non-Soviet Russia might have stopped Nazi Germany before 1939 where the West alone had failed. The idea that a non-Soviet Russia wouldn't have created Communist buffer states in Eastern Europe makes some sense, but that there would have been no Communist revolution in China doesn't follow. The ascension to power of Lenin in 1917 and of Stalin following Lenin's death is, of course, highly contingent, and those individuals imposed a highly arbitrary shape on the Soviet Union. But they didn't do it alone, and in many ways they were typical products of the Tsarist police state. There were hundreds of like-minded leaders, thousands of militants, millions of oppressed cadres, and deep tears in the politico-economic fabric of the country -- the empire, really, since Russian dominance was built on the backs of hundreds of subjugated peoples. Even had the Whites broken the Revolution, they would have had to deal with the mess that the Tsars created -- in many ways they would have had to do what the Soviets did just to pull the fractured empire back into order.
The idea that all subsequent history changes from this one contingency is a convenient way of ignoring the deeper truth that Bolshevism (Communism, Marxism) was itself the inevitable offspring of the contradictions appearing with the triumph of capitalism. Suppressing it never made the problem go away, and therefore never eliminated the potential of revolution. The one thing that did work was the reform of capitalism, which more or less happened in the U.S. and Europe. Where communists did manage to seize power was in the backwaters of imperialism, where there had been no bourgeois revolution, where liberalism was weak but radicals were worldly and desperate, where most people were still locked in feudalism, where foreign imperialists and/or local oligarchs ruled viciously. In such cases, Communists more often than not came to recapitulate their oppressors, making a poor case for their ideals.
But if we want to indulge in "what if," we should at least take a look at what happened in the most similar case: what happened to Hungary after the Whites put down Bela Kun's revolution. Like Russia, Hungary had been an absolute monarchy, with no liberal traditions, even though it sported a much more developed capitalist economy. Having defeated the Reds, Hungary turned to fascism, becoming an ally of Hitler in WWII. Given this, why would anyone expect that a triumphant White Russia would have allied with the West? On the contrary, a fascist Russia allied with Germany and Japan would have been the West's greatest nightmare.
A more interesting "what if" question is what would have happened had Kerensky abandoned the war after the March Revolution. The war had put a huge strain on Russia, leading to the fractures that eventually allowed the Bolsheviks to triumph. Had the liberals and moderate socialists worked directly on healing those wounds instead of prolonging a senselessly destructive war they might have kept the more extreme Bolsheviks at bay. This didn't happen for a number of reasons, including that Kerensky's potential allies in the West were themselves committed to the war -- in fact, as Boot points out, much of the rationale behind the Anglo-American intervention was to try to steer Russia back into the war. But this sort of speculation isn't likely to enter Boot's mind, for the simple reason that is believes that war is a force for positive change. In America's "small wars" he sees what George Bush nowadays calls "democracy on the march." That's why Boot was such a staunch advocate of another small war in Iraq.
Which makes one wonder what might have happened differently if interventionist ideologues like Max Boot had managed to keep both feet grounded in reality.
Wednesday, February 16. 2005
I have a new Recycled Goods column posted today. This is the seventeenth such column I've written since Feb. 2003. The current format is to write a brief introduction, ten paragraph-sized reviews, a bunch of single-line (Briefly Noted) reviews (a record 46 this time), and some additional one-liners on notable records recently reissued where I haven't scored a copy of the reissue. My original plan was to split the coverage up roughly one quarter each between: jazz, rock, roots (blues, country, folk), and world. The breakdown this time is: jazz = 27 (47%), rock = 12 (21%), roots = 8 (14%), world = 10 (17%), plus, well, I don't know what the hell Jim Nabors is. Bottom line is that regardless of how I'd like to split it up I get more jazz reissues than anything else, so that's what I wind up reviewing. Over the 17 columns I've now covered 581 records.
The columns have been growing in length. The paragraph reviews have been getting longer and the "one-liners" often string together two or three distinct thoughts. Without getting trivial or pedantic, it seems to me that most albums can be summed up in three sentences or less, and Briefly Noted does that in almost haiku-like form. The grades are one more thought. While the form can only conjure up unpleasant memories, they save me from having to weigh adjectives and make it clear whether and how much I actually like the record. There's no other way to say so much so succinctly.
I have enough backlog written up already for my next column. I'd like to get back onto a regular monthly schedule, which was tough to do in 2004 because of various publishing glitches. Wouldn't hurt to make it a bit shorter, I suppose.
The following is a quote from a new book by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War, a long look at empire, freedom, and militarism in North America from the 17th century to Colin Powell. The subject is the Philippine rebellion that followed that "splendid little war" of 1898, better known as the Spanish-American War (p. 339):
The most immediately striking thing is the similarity in the raw numbers between then and Iraq now. Of course, losses due to disease are down -- American losses, anyhow -- and starvation hasn't been noted, not that the media noted it then. The costs of waging war have gone up too, although part of the difference is that the U.S. had fewer forces in the Philippines then. Max Boot, who also wrote about the Philippines in The Savage Wars of Peace, puts the maximum U.S. troop count at any one time at 69,000. There are many other differences: Boot attributes the U.S. "success" in quelling the rebellion to the U.S. soldiers' experience at counterinsurgency campaigns -- most of the U.S. officers had experience in the Indian wars -- and to their ability to develop viable intelligence. There is little evidence of either in the occupation of Iraq. Other points are that U.S. motives, such as establishing naval bases, were relatively benign in the Philippines, and that the U.S. was inclined to be more generous to Filipinos who bow to American wishes. Over time the U.S. did manage to build a more honest and equitable political order in the Philippines than the previous Spanish occupation, but desire for independence remained, and there remains a century later quite a bit of anti-Ameican feeling there.
Still, the big difference may be to come: the cumulative effect of losing vs. winning. The more the U.S. was able to suppress the Filipino rebellion the more leeway the U.S. had to disarm it -- to secure territory and rebuild, to recruit its leaders, etc. On the other hand, the more the U.S. has to fight in Iraq the less it can do to win allegiance. The recent elections there provide a measure of how little grip U.S. hegemony has on the country. The problem is not just that the Sunni minority didn't participate, or that the crony Iyad Allawi slate lost badly. It's also a problem that the Kurdish and Shiite sectors retreated into the shells of their respective sectionalisms. Instead of propagating an open, inclusive political culture such as is idealized in the United States, Iraq has turned into an embattered and embittered set of enclaves. How far this has progressed can be measured by the turn to religion, always a shelter in a storm.
When the U.S. decided to "de-Baathify" Iraq, it cut the legs out from under the single most popular, most broadly supported secular party in the region. Of course, other secular parties, like the communists or socialists, are anathema to the U.S. as well. The religious parties became the compromise-of-choice, as indeed they have often been for the U.S. in the Middle East, and the increasing hardships of war and occupation drove many Iraqis who in peaceful times would have been secularists into the arms of the clergy. This was easy enough to predict. The question is: was this intended?
Dominion of War is largely a book about how Americans have repeatedly manipulated the rhetoric of freedom and human rights to bring about empire. For most of American history this has had a measure of truth to it, but that changed during or immediately after World War II. The promise of Americanism was largely the promise of the bourgeois revolution: free men and free markets, which produced vast wealth distributed equitably enough to raise almost everyone's standard of living. But it never quite worked that way -- the corruptions of power and fortune all too often siphoned off more than their fare share. Communism was an alternate theory of how to achieve the fairness that bourgeois revolutions lacked, and as such it was a challenge to Americanism. But rather than let the two models compete, the U.S. gave in to the dark side of its empire and waged a tenacious war (sometimes military, sometimes economic) against communism and all it stood for -- much of which Americanism had once (if imperfectly) stood for as well. This became the struggle of the powerful for their prerogatives, of capital over labor on the global stage -- the containment of the Soviet Union abroad was paralleled by the diminution of the AFL-CIO at home. Along the way the right, the party of the rich and mighty, gained ground, eventually turning into the Bush Administration -- a cabal so cynical and jaded that they would poison the environment and wreck the Social Security program which keeps so many elderly and infirm Americans out of the grips of poverty. This was all done while continuing to use the same rhetoric that Americanism had always used. And they're very good at the words these days -- so good they've stripped them of all meaning.
A century ago America still held some promise to places like the Philippines, and that was decisive in persuading people to give up their own instincts for autonomy. America today offers no such promise to the world -- at least not a credible one. Few if any Iraqis believe that the U.S. has any intention of helping them. Despite its rhetoric, the Bush Administration must know that, otherwise they wouldn't have obfuscated the elections so completely. (That the elections were held at all was to validate the occupation for Americans who do need to believe, and to give the Shiites reason not to join the revolt yet.) It remains to be seen whether the elected Iraqis will be able to peaceably free Iraq from America's grip.
Tuesday, February 15. 2005
North Korea's announcement that they possess nuclear weapons was met first by some incoherent bluster by Condoleezza Rice, then by a marginally more thoughtful U.S. threat: let's see if they can eat their nukes. This is hardly America's first attempt to win hearts and minds through empty stomachs. During the Korean War the U.S. bombed dams to ravage Korean farmland. The many years of crippling economic sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on North Korea ever since then have resulted in chronic malnutrition and starvation. Now the idea is to tighten up the sanctions even more. It's not really clear how that can be done, but if it can be done one net effect will be to punish a people even more for their misfortune in leaders. Another will be to remind the world of how callous and cruel the U.S. can be.
Following WWII the U.S. established a reputation as being a gracious victor, but the stalemate at the end of the Korean War left a sour taste in the mouth of American triumphalism. Since then the U.S. has responded to each occasion where its will was rejected with the petty vindictiveness of a sore loser: Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq. After the shooting stopped in Korea the U.S. proceded to punish North Korea with every weapon short of invasion. North Korea's response was to internalize the threat, developing a defensive posture that makes invasion a very risky proposition and a deterence capability that could devastate the South Korean city of Seoul, while occasionally making aggressive, grimacing gestures. More recently, North Korea has made overtures to normalize relations, especially with South Korea -- that seems like the one way to escape America's death grip isolation. But the obstacle to normalization is the U.S., especially the factions in control of the Bush Administration -- for whom North Korea is most useful as a threatening enemy: especially as a rationale for their "missile defense" boondoggle, although one also suspects that they find North Korea's threat useful for keeping Japan in line.
Whether North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapons or not matters little. If they do and use them they risk utter devastation. Otherwise they are just one more deterrent against an attack that is already too risky to contemplate. Common sense should recognize that regardless of what's wrong with the North Korean government war isn't an option -- indeed, war hasn't been a viable option for more than fifty years now. But the U.S. persists in thinking that starvation is an option, and that starvation doesn't run the risk of being interpreted as an act of war. No country has used nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed foe. As such, so despite their terrible risks (and the eternally ominous Murphy's Law) nuclear proliferation has actually led to a more stable world. But this depends on recognizing the dangers, and on overcoming the temptation to settle matters by war. The Bush Administration, with its pre-emptive war doctrine, has proven to be singularly dense in this regard. Convinced of its overwhelming power and righteousness, Bush identified three nations as an "axis of evil," then proceded to wage war on what was by far the weakest of the trio, while continuing to villify and threaten the other two. In Iraq, a nation with virtually no military resources and a severely divided populace, Bush has already bit off more than the U.S. military can chew. Provoking additional strife in Iran and North Korea cannot possibly work out better, yet Bush knows nothing but his blind faith in the civilizing power of punishment. And if that leads him to escalate what is already a severe and insensitive regimen of punishment on the North Korean people, it is possible that his hubris will blow up on him.
Monday, February 14. 2005
Derek Penslar, of the University of Toronto, gave a lecture at WSU tonight. This was sponsored by the Ulrich Museum at part of their nervousness over the Emily Jacir exhibit, which they've conflated to "Two Peoples, One Land: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." Penslar's lecture was called "Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism: A Historical Assessment." The lecture was given in one of the Museum exhibit halls, and the crowd exceeded the available seating. The lecture was even-handed and historically accurate, although some things that he touched on could have been developed further. He didn't betray much of a political position, although at one point he seemed to embrace the desirability of a Jewish state, at another he criticized several Mideast Area professors for letting their politics get ahead of their academic responsibiities, and finally he criticized the current U.S. administration for not taking a more active role to bring about peace.
Penslar started by outlining a recent document attributing many events from the JFK assassination to 9/11 to a Jewish conspiracy -- the idea was to illustrate the paranoid dimension that animates so much anti-semitic propaganda. He then made a distinction between what he called "classic" anti-semitism and more recent anti-zionist anti-semitism. The former he likened to a psychosomatic illness, the latter to an allergic overreaction. The difference is that the latter is actually based on something real -- the political struggle over Israel-Palestine -- whereas the former is purely in the mind of the fantasists. He then went on to show instances where various anti-zionists have confounded their arguments with conspiracies borrowed from classic anti-semitism, most notoriously "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
The key point there is that anti-zionism and anti-semitism, despite their occasional conflation, are two different things, and he pointed out numerous examples where they remain distinct. Where he was most useful was in pointing out a wide range of Arab reactions to zionism and placing them in their contingent context, especially in terms of the Arab experience of European imperialism and colonialism. He concluded with a thought experiment which asked us to imagine a world where WWI did not end in the breakup of the Ottomon Empire and the creation of the British mandate of Palestine. In such a world it is extremely unlikely that zionism would have succeeded in creating a Jewish state. And in such a world it is very unlikely that we would witness the sort of anti-semitism that tends to erupt in Arab countries today.
Penslar pointed out that incidents of anti-semitic violence have become more frequent, especially in Britain and France, over the last 5-6 years -- although he emphasized that the level is still nowhere comparable to the '30s, and he pretty much dismissed Phyllis Chesler's alarmist book. He could have added that the the last 5-6 years coincide with the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process and the violent repression of the Intifada under Barak and Sharon, but he preferred to generalize.
He could have said more about zionism and anti-zionism. He did point out that many Jews were/are opposed to zionism -- communists and many socialists as well as most orthodox Jews. He didn't bring up more recent debates like the idea of post-zionism. He started to say something about anti-semites who might embrace zionism, but the sources he cited were French and German and the point he drew from them was that anti-semites in the pre-WWII period didn't take zionism seriously -- if anything, they considered it yet another semitic trick. Not discussed were British anti-semites, probably because they were less interesting as ideologists, but to a large extent it was British anti-semites, most notably Balfour and Lloyd George, who actually sponsored the zionist project. Also important for now would be a discussion of the protestant fundamentalists who provide much of America's political support for the Israeli right.
None of this is, or should be, controversial. The real question is why does anti-semitism matter, at least as opposed to any other form of paranoid and/or politically expedient bigotry -- of which there are many other current examples, including anti-Arab bigotry, especially in Israel and America. Part of the reason is that the Holocaust is such a horrendous historical proof of how much damage bigotry can cause. Another reason is that anti-semitism is not merely a description -- it's a brand name, coined by an ideologue who feared and hated Jews at the height of an age when racism was promoted as a cover for imperialism, and marketed by demagogic politicians to disastrous ends. But the fashions that made anti-semitism such a deadly force in the past have eclipsed. Yet the idea is kept alive, partly by memory, but more forcefully as a ruse to obfuscate a real current conflict that is related only through the Jewish identity of the Israeli state. It is, in other words, a shield: something meant to deflect a critical view of Israel today -- both how the state behaves, and how its people think of themselves.
I suspect that it would have been more interesting to explore what anti-semitism has in common with other bigotries, not least because we know from other cases how one group's bigotry becomes another group's revenge. But more than that, we need to figure out how anti-semitism created zionism and why zionism seems to need anti-semitism in order to survive. Then we might be able to show how Arabs have to discard their anti-semitic tendencies in order to overcome the inequities of zionism.
Friday, February 11. 2005
I want to reiterate and extend one of my comments that was printed, rather off topic, in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop comments:
What I should have added to this is to point out the example set by the music industry. Something close to 80% of the records sold in the U.S. come from "the majors" -- now just four companies, with the merger of Sony and BMG. None of these four companies are what you'd think of as American owned. The largest, Universal, is part of Vivendi, which is headquartered in France. Sony is Japanese and BMG is German, so the merged company is something like that, with Sony most likely the dominant partner. EMI is English. WEA was carved off from AOL/Time-Warner and sold for several billion dollars to one of the Bronfmanns, so that makes the controlling interest Canadian. Each of these has sucked up dozens of previously independent labels, building up huge portfolios of copyrights. The U.S. movie industry is similarly under foreign ownership.
Not that U.S. ownership would make any real difference to you or me, but it does have an effect when it comes to repatriating profits. For many years U.S. companies have invested a lot of money in the rest of the world, and have brought home a lot of profits from those investments. (Although they've also parked a lot of them in the Bahamas and elsewhere.) As foreign companies buy up assets in the U.S., they expect to do the same -- i.e., to suck money back out of the country. Everyone involved has every reason to try to keep these processes relatively stable, which is why it's in their interest to keep the money going in and going out relatively balanced, but if the ship starts listing it'll be every capitalist for himself -- i.e., panic.
It's probably more correct to view these capital flows as between classes instead of between nations -- the dominant flow is to the rich from everyone else, which is clearly shown by the eagnerness of the U.S. Congress to extend copyright grants that nowadays mostly benefit foreign proprietors. But the national flows are still worth looking at, because they imply great risks to those people who work within a nation, as opposed to the capitalists who've largely escaped national limits. The news today is that the U.S. trade deficit rose 24.4% in 2004, to an all-time high of $617.7 billion. That's three straight record-setting years for the Bush administration.
The Associated Press article attributed this to "soaring oil prices and Americans' insatiable appetite for everything foreign, from cars to toys to food." The latter point strikes me as pretty dubious: only by looking at the fine print does one realize that most of what's on sale at WalMart is foreign-made, and that the share is increasing year-by-year. The deficit with China is up 30.5% to $162 billion, which includes no oil and no big ticket items like cars or heavy machinery, but includes an awful lot of WalMart. It's also worth noting that these trade surpluses are occurring at the same time as the dollar is sinking to new lows. That, of course, is part of the problem, in that it makes foreign goods cost more, but all we hear from economists is how the low dollar helps American exports. It probably would help, if American business was trying to export, but most businesses still find it cheaper to replace their manufacturing with imports.
As I stated in my quote, reversing these trends is likely to be painful. Which most likely will be cause for denial now, and catastrophe later.
Wednesday, February 9. 2005
The Village Voice's annual "Pazz & Jop" Critics Poll came out this week. It's the last and biggest of the year-end pop polls, with 793 critics casting 100 points for ten albums each, plus a somewhat simpler poll for singles a/k/a songs. I have connections to this on several levels. Most commonly, I vote in it. Voters are invited to submit comments, which are then plundered to fill out the section. Partly because it suits my temperament to sort things out and sum things up, and partly because it's an opportunity to push some lines of thought that I don't get to indulge in otherwise (especially in my other writing for the Voice), I tend to go overboard in my own comments -- got four excerpts this year. I'm also connected in that I slurp up parts of the poll to post on Robert Christgau's website. Finally, this year the editors finally let me peek at the results ahead of time, which allowed me to identify a bunch of errors in their initial sort of the data.
In previous years I've tried my hand at various ways of analyzing the P&J data. This has become interesting since the Voice started posting each individual ballot, so we can actually connect records to voters. Haven't had time to do any of that this year, but some other people have taken a whack at it. In particular, Glenn McDonald has calculated his critical alignment rankings again this year. This is designed to sort the voters by how much in tune they are with the final results (the critical consensus). I came in #519 (out of 793), which means my choices ran a bit more esoteric than the average critic. Had I been able to restrain myself from voting for Brian Wilson and Rilo Kiley I would have been much closer to the bottom of the list. (I had actually considered just that -- not to be esoteric but knowing that those albums would get plenty of votes anyway, I was tempted to at least register something worthwhile but bound to be passed up.)
To recap my votes, only this time the bracketed number is the total number of voters for the record:
One thing being able to track back the voters means is that you can figure out who agrees with you. Ignoring Wilson (which probably intersects heavily with Rilo Kiley anyway), the following critics had at least two of my records on their lists: Robert Christgau, Carla DeSantis, Keith Harris, Dylan Hicks, Danny Hooley, Robert Johnson, Michael Lach, Craig Marks, Britt Robson, Michael Tatum (3!). I only know two of these people (Christgau and Tatum), and there's some connection there -- it probably took both of them to egg me into buying Rilo Kiley (they also got to Snider and Wilson first, and Tatum turned me onto Le Tigre, while I turned Tatum onto Vandermark. Still, these are low-grade statistics, which I believe are mostly due to the top ten constriction -- an artifact from the '70s origins of the poll, I'd say. I tried constructing a similar poll for people on the Christgau website mailing list where I allowed voters to list as many records as they liked, allotting 3 votes each for #11-20, 2 votes each for #21-30, and 1 vote each thereafter. Those polls were limited by a small number of voters, plus most voters were non-critics (the critics average more than 50 records, while the non-critics, and these are still serious fans, averaged less than 30). The last time I ran that poll was 2003 -- you can see the results here.
My actual year-end A-list came to 129 records this year, up from 96 the year before. Big difference is that I listened to a lot more jazz this time around. That took up so much time that I didn't manage to hear many albums in the P&J consensus: I've heard 6 of the top 10, 10 of the top 20, 16 of the top 40. Unfortunately, we don't have any data on how that ranks vs. the rest of the critics -- few of whom, I'm sure, have heard Pipi Skid or Capital D, Shipp or Vandermark, let alone SLF. One thing that every such poll measures whether it admits it or not is how much exposure critics have had to various records. And that works at several levels, including the distribution of critics' interests as well as the companies' publicity largesse. Sure, quality counts for something, but only among records you've heard.
Monday, February 7. 2005
This from an interview with Michael Pollan reprinted on TomDispatch:
It's easy to name lots of other issues like this. My big one is the War on Terror, which I contend is utterly bogus from the git-go, but nobody questions it because nobody legitimate questions it. On the other hand, people considered legitimate can stretch the bands of big media discourse. Bush does this all the time: after all, did the media get worked up back when Peter G. Peterson was the only one out there crying about the impending bankruptcy of Social Security?
I suspect that this is all a consequence of reporters chasing politicians' tails, as opposed to looking for real stories. But then how does a reporter recognize a real story? Politicians act as a filter for the news as much as the news filters politicians. This has some interesting implications for political change: one is that ideas won't enter the mainstream media unless you can get politicians or other legitimate leaders to espouse them. Another, I suspect, is that third parties -- attractive because they have a low threshhold to run -- can never succeed in putting an idea into the mainstream media, because they're never recognized as newsworthy (i.e., legitimate) movements.