Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Name That Tractor Driver

..."I would suggest moving back...I'm about to crank this sucker up," she reports him saying.

But as White House staff started to move the press corps back, the situation became more chaotic. Bailey writes that "the tractor lurched forward" and White House staff "too were forced to scramble for safety. "Get out of the way!" a news photographer yelled. "I think he might run us over!"

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Civil War in Iraq as a War Crime

I strongly urge you to read this report from the Brookings Institution, Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War by Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack. It's a .pdf, downloadable here. Here's the blurb from the Brookings page:
This Saban Center Analysis Paper examines the history of some dozen recent civil wars to reveal the general patterns by which such conflicts can "spill over" into neighboring states, causing further civil wars or regional conflicts. Historically, six patterns of spillover have been the most harmful in other cases of all-out civil war: refugees; terrorism; radicalization of neighboring populations; secession that breeds secessionism; economic losses; and, neighborly interventions.

From this history, the authors propose a set of policy options that the United States could employ to try to contain the spillover effects of a full-scale Iraqi civil war. ..
You might not like Brookings; you might think they're the cat's meow. But this is an important report. Read it.

One thing that has been bothering me about Iraq, the "surge," and so on is not simply the absence of a "plan," but the absence of decent and reasonable objectives. You know I think we ought to get out of Iraq. But I also don't think this can be done by leaving the country in a state of genocidal war. The very real problem is that this is preciely the most likely outcome.

This part of the failure in Iraq can't be glossed over by the hackneyed tale about having bad intelligence about WMDs. This presidential administration ought, I think, to be impeached. And, really, they ought to be tried for war crimes. One of the obstacles, however, is how we think about war crimesd. According to international law, war crimes are largely defined "in bello." That is, they center on the conduct of war while at war, rather than ad bellum criteria of justification for going to war. I don't want to make too much of just war theories distinctions, but the very nature of how war crimes are defined does appear to ride on just such a distinction (and neglect of part of the equation).

Why is this important? I'm not going to say the obvious about manipulating people into believing a cause is just or at least justified in some measure. The lying on the part of this administration is well-documented, shameful, undemocratic, and a crime on its own terms. That the president continues to make public comments about how "the intelligence" just didn't seem to play out like "everyone" believed simply compounds the lie, given that there was good, publicly-accessible information suggesting that the rhetorical war buildup was indeed already a lie. Bush is at the end of the plank. The more interesting and powerful point is how we ought to treat a political entity that goes to war and, as a result, creates a genocidal civil war, even if they no longer play a central role in bello and even if the genocidal civil war is an unintended consequence of other policies.

The Byman-Pollack report isn't making a judgment on this. It's a discussion of how to manage the civil war, and it is worth reading for its dire assessment of what can be done and some rather radical policy suggestions (such as transforming the US relationship with Iran and Syria into one of alliance). As I've said previously, one central result of the war is that the US has emboldened and empowered Iran and most likely ceded half the country to the Iranian sphere of influence.

But as for the notion of a war crime, can we define war crime in terms of creating genocidal civil war? I think we should. Of course, all individual and group actions harbor potential unintended consequences. Every time I cross Wisconsin Avenue to go grocery shopping, I risk being killed by a speeding automobile. I plan on buying a pound of coffee and a bag of oranges and end up flattened in the middle of the street. Ouch. Or I might find they're out of oranges and come home with the coffee only. Or a meteor falls directly where I'm standing. As one recent politico said, "stuff happens." Of course. But it's rarely the case that genocidal civil war is the result of one's policies. The problem is that this real situation in Iraq was foreseen by many foreign policy analysts. That is, there are varying levels of risk. Making policy involves considering potential risks, which is a central component of any responsible policy. The probability of being killed by a meteor when I go to the store is very very low. Being killed by a car is much higher. Buying the stuff I need is far far higher again. It's worth going to the store because I want coffee and oranges. It's not worth worrying about meteors, and looking both ways before I cross the street does the trick in the case of the speeding automobiles.

What I'm saying is that the civil war we are seeing develop in Iraq, the one that could very well be bolstered by support from Iran for the Shi'a and support from Saudi Arabia for the Sunni, the one that could turn the region into a broader war involving also Israel as the US's proxy, is not an unforeseeable consequence of the Iraq invasion and occupation. It was a very real risk of the American invasion. And this was a known quantity prior to the invasion. It was either ignored by a blinkered and incompetent administration or played some intentional secret role in the administration's plans. Neither of those options are off the table, though it seems as if public discourse has settled on the former as an explanation. This does not, however, soften responsibility. The rhetorical games are a weak attempt to do so ("intelligence failure," "Iran's military intervention in Iraq," etc.).

The agent of the civil war is not the feuding factions but the current United States administration. It is directly responsible for the rapidly increasing deaths in Iraq of which most are civilian, the rapidly deteriorating internal order in Iraq, the nervous defensive movements of neighboring nations, the global unpopularity of the war (and concomitant collapse of American standing in the world), the bolstering of other regional regimes that are ostensible enemies of the West, the apparent recruiting boost for terrorism, the martyrdom of Saddam Hussein, and on and on.

Now, if we look at justifications for the Iraq war prior to the invasion, we're looking at appeals to ad bellum criteria. These include, traditionally, right intention, probability of success, proportionality of the response, war as a last resort, legitimate authority to use war as an instrument, and comparative justice. I won't go into this, except to say that the actual justifications for the Iraq war made some appeal to these principles combined with the notion of "imminent threat" (which provided the grounds for preemptive [or "preventive," if you prefer] war claims). As we know, all of these were bogus. Absolutely every one of them. The administration's claims, however, were painted in the colors of just war theory and imminent threat. It's simply that they were false claims. Given the fact that on nearly every point raised by the administration prior to the invasion there were serious objections and good evidence to the contrary, the overall justificatory package looks pretty much like a willful lie. There is no longer any doubt that this was cherry-picked intelligence. Enough with the language of "misleading."

Furthermore, the extent of the legerdemain demonstrates not only willful lying, but also clear intent. The package was built around an objective - to invade Iraq, period. The further objectives (oil? a base in the Middle East? etc.) are still a matter of conjecture, perhaps also for the administration. But it is clear that the administration was going to invade Iraq, period.

Of course, going back to the risk point, there are obvious risks involved in war. These don't need to be enumerated. But a central risk, one that was known at the time, and that was highlighted by experts on the region and many others, was the possibility of civil war approaching the level of genocide. There is no way that the administration could have avoided at least hearing the articulation of this grave and high-probability risk. That it has been actualized is not surprising. That the administration went ahead with the war in light of this high-probability risk makes them responsible for its actualization. The conditions for civil war may have already existed in Iraq, but it is the US that provided the catalyst.

Returning, then, to the point about war crimes. As mentioned, war crimes are usually articulated as crimes committed during the conduct of a war (rape, murder of non-combatants, torture, denying fair trials, etc.). Most wars generate these types of crimes. They can be individualized for political purposes. Thus, we see the trial of the American soldiers who shot defenseless Iraqis, or those who raped little girls, or those who tortured prisoners. Investigating further up the chain of command, we might find that some of these crimes were actively encouraged or known but ignored. Responsibility for these crimes can still be individualized. Ultimately, however, an environment is created in which these individual crimes may flourish. That goes much higher up the chain of command.

But the key point is this: we should consider as a war crime the creation of genocidal conditions at the very least when those conditions could be foreseen and had a high degree of probability, and at most regardless of whether they were foreseen or not even with lower degrees of probability. In the case of Iraq, they were actually foreseeable and had a high degree of probability. That the risk of genocidal civil war was not taken seriously by the administration (or worse, if it was) when many experts were outlining just such a risk is criminal conduct. This is criminal conduct that cannot be applied to lower ranking individuals involved in the actual conduct of war (in bello). This is criminal conduct in the ad bellum phase of war.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, explained in a February 2006 memo (.pdf) that he does not believe the ICC has the authority to prosecute ad bellum considerations, only in bello considerations. The nearest it gets is Article 8(2)(b)(iv) in reference to "clearly excessive" anticipation of "civilian damage or injury." Whatever you think of it, the reality is that the US military does, in its conduct of war, generally seek to limit civilian deaths and develops strategy and tactics based on this consideration. It appears that interpretation of the law suggests that US military conduct does not rise to the level of "clearly excessive." Politically, the US administration and media make much of the fact that many of the deaths are caused by internecine rivalries, death squads, and so on, rather than direct military confrontations. The US is now even trying to make a case for the conflict being prompted by Iranian military intervention in Iraq.

The overall catalyst framework for these deaths is the invasion itself. The situation was predictable, probable, and, at the time, high risk. It has actualized as predicted, and is developing in the direction of even more dire consequences, also as predicted. The responsible agent is ultimately the US administration. Invasions that cause genocidal civil wars should be considered war crimes.

Monday, January 29, 2007

One Step Closer

President George W. Bush has given his administration a boost in how the government regulates key issues such as civil rights and the environment, RAW STORY has learned The New York Times will report on its Tuesday front page.

The President "signed a directive that gives the White House much greater control over the rules that the federal government develops to regulate public health, safety," privacy and other issues, writes Robert Pear for the Times.

Pear reports that "in an executive order published last week in the Federal Register, Bush said that each federal agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee" who will monitor the creation of process and procedures and the associated documentation.

"The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency," Pear writes, "to analyze the costs and benefits of new rules and to make sure they carry out the president's priorities."

Here's the Times report.

Screwed Lemon

From here.

This Is the Way the World Works

In a nutshell:
Prince Charles was awarded the Global Environmental Citizen Prize by Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment in New York. He received the prize from last year's winner, former Vice President Al Gore. The prince said mankind was unlikely to stop damaging the planet until there was a change of outlook.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Nice piece with good links on the Venezuelan tepuyes (mesas) in that miraculous and ecologically unique part of the country called La Gran Sabana.

Music That Will (Gay) Liberate You

Via Pharyngula, here's a list of bands that might make you gay. Look out! Or you might end up a member of the circle of gay-caused Kansas fans. You can also recommend gay-causing bands at the site. And, remember...

...On a stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about I'm like a ship on the ocean
I set a course for winds of fortune
But I hear the voices say...
Carry on my wayward son
There'll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don't you cry no more...

Tinkering with Venezuela

From BoRev:

The Washington Post editorial page cares, really cares, about Venezuela, and only wants what’s best for its stupid, ignorant population. They want Chavez out because Venezuela’s democracy is either “dead, dying or in danger,” and because this year its economy, and that of its allies, is doomed. “The people of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba,” it seems “may be headed for a miserable year.”

Wow. Does the Post know something we don’t? Because last time I checked, Venezuela had the fastest-growing economy in Latin America, two years running.

Perhaps they’ve been talking to former Secretary of State (and Halliburton Director) Lawrence Eagleburger, who may have something up his sleeve. Appearing on Fox News last night, this Bush I figure lamented that the Venezuelan economy was not crashing fast enough for his taste.

When asked by David Asman if we should “just wait for the economy to collapse or do we push it in that direction?" Eagleburger replied :

"I think we have to push...anything we can do to make their economy more difficult for them at this moment is a good thing but let's do it in ways that do not get us into direct conflict with Venezuela if we can get away with it."
Why? I mean, really, why?

The only legitimate worry I can see, although I don't subscribe to it myself because I think it's overblown, is Chávez's growing ties to Ahmadinejad and other anti-American forces. In this case, the question for the US might plausibly be one of "national security." But, knowing Venezuela, chavismo among the population has nothing to do with anti-Americanism and everything to do with anti-imperialism. As I've said over and over, the extent to which the US takes the historical imperial stance towards South America is the extent to which South American nations move away from the US. On a personal level, however, Venezuelans and Americans are quite close. Many Venezuelans have family in the US and admire most Americans as a sympathetic people led unfortunately by an archaic imperial presidency. Indeed, this is not unlike how many Americans increasingly view their present government. The "national security" concern cannot be plausibly taken as a risk of terrorism or some such thing. The notion is ridiculous to Venezuelans across the political spectrum, except apparently for the rightwing Cuban / Venezuelan terrorist nexis, which includes Luis Posada Carriles, who is currently in an El Paso prison on US immigration charges and who Venezuela wants extradited to Caracas to face terrorism charges (which the US is resisting) for a series of bombings and hundreds of deaths.

It's difficult to say that the concern is Chávez's growing dictatorial powers either. The US traditionally has little problem with non-democratic governments when they are aligned with US interests. I'm personally worried about Chávez's new powers of decree, and I think they're inexplicable unless Chávez does indeed have dictatorial ambitions. He says these new powers are necessary to speed up the institutionalization of the Bolivarian revolution. But it's just not clear to me - and to many chavistas as well, I suspect - why such powers are necessary apart from a generic notion of greater institutional efficiency. This is the real point about which we should be worried. But we should be worried about it as democrats. Although it's no excuse, I would urge you to keep in mind the executive power grab in the US as well - see torture, war, loophole overrides of congress, signing statements, no-bid contracts, the ongoing replacement of federal judges with Republican cronies, etc. We should be at least as concerned about all this as democrats.

Furthermore, it couldn't be a concern about economic oppression in Venezuela. The economy is booming, driven by oil revenues. The people are generally satisfied that economic progress is being made. Unemployment has dropped again. GDP is up. The poverty rate continues to fall.

"National security" corresponds, rather, to economic interests that the US seeks to preserve in Venezuela and South America more generally. Given Chávez's current push to nationalize other industries such as telecommunications, some US companies in Venezuela - see Verizon - face potential losses in the country. This is the most plausible explanation for an American national security concern regarding Venezuela.

But notice that this is precisely the other side of the coin to the growing South American rejection of American economic interference, economic liberalization, and globalization (all of which are thought of by most people in the South as North American hegemonic illusions). When Eagleburger says "anything we can do to make their economy more difficult for them at this moment is a good thing," he is supporting what South Americans call US imperialism. They know that this comes not from economic tinkering but from the installation of nasty political regimes. They know that these regimes, often with direct US support and always at least with indirect support, committed some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

If you were in Venezuela right now, how would you react? David Rieff reminds us of the dynamic:

In moving from rhetoric to action, Chávez may indeed have set the stage for the end of his rule. But the Chávez phenomenon should not be dismissed. Not only is he still immensely popular within Venezuela, but he also has become an iconic figure for many people across the world who see the United States as the principal threat to world peace, not its benevolent guarantor. In fact, he has come to play the same role in 2007 that Fidel Castro played in 1967. Perhaps, globalization or no globalization, the world has changed less than most people thought.

Of course, it is anything but clear that communism in Cuba will survive the death of Castro. Indeed, Cuba hangs on economically only because Venezuela provides it with subsidized oil in much the way the Soviet Union did before it collapsed. At the same time, however, the left-wing surge throughout Latin America continues unabated. Ecuador’s new president, Rafael Correa, joins not only Chávez but also Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. It’s significant that President Ahmadinejad — who, it should be noted, is not a Socialist or particularly hostile to capitalism of the crony kind — met with all of them. More significant still is that all these men were swept into power by an electorate for whom globalization is an epithet, not the collective economic destiny of humanity in the 21st century.

If the US really wanted to do something in its own interests as well as the interests of others, it would get rid of dinosaurs like Eagleburger, Bolton, Cheney, et al., and take a deliberative, dialogical stance towards countries such as Venezuela. An interest in democracy would be a good place to start, since chavismo says that at its core it is a democratic movement. An open, fair, genuine dialogue about democratization would first of all be a good start in renewing relations with South America. Furthermore, it would put all of our cards on the table and show to the world who's really the democrat and who's not.

UPDATE (Jan. 29th, 1:00pm):

Via Anon, in the comments, comes this piece on the "rule by decree" business. I'm still a bit concerned, however, that we're not getting the full picture. Not from the US media, mind you - they've taken the administration's tack on Venezuela and haven't looked past their noses, which seem to grow any time they try. Some chavista sources of mine are themselves concerned.
Here's what's actually happening: The Venezuelan assembly is poised to pass a law that will give the executive branch greater leeway to establish norms on a certain range of issues. Most of these involve guidelines for the president's own cabinet-level agencies. In other words, the Venezuelan version of the IRS will map out the country's tax structure; the Transportation department will devise its own strategic plan for public transit nationwide, etc. This represents a shift of certain powers from the legislative branch to the executive, to be sure, but on paper they don't seem to stray too far from the powers that the executive branch in the United States already has. has a full listing of the ten issue areas that are affected.

It is important to note that this type of power-transfer is allowed under the Venezuelan constitution of 1999, which expressly permits the President to issue executive orders specifically within these issue areas. Of course, the constitution continues to guide the country's overall legal framework, which is to say that no "decree" can supercede constitutional law.

What's more, this "enabling law" is not new to the current constitution. Venezuela's previous constitution allowed for similar powers shifts to the executive, and you can be sure that past presidents took advantage of this authority on multiple occasions throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's. Here are a few examples:

In 1974, Congress gave President Carlos Andres Perez the right to "rule by decree" on a number of economic matters, which he used to pass a slew of new regulations-instituting a minimum wage increase, freezing the market price of "necessary" goods, instating tax relief on agricultural activities, increasing government pensions, and even establishing new state institutions, including the National Institute of Housing and an Industrial Development Fund.

But Perez was a close ally of the US government, so there was little controversy from Washington.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Allegory Now

These are two images from the inestimable BibliOdyssey. They're from the commemorative volume, Sammlung aller Denkmale des Westphälischen Friedens, published to celebrate the Treaty of Westphalia. Westphalia is generally viewed as the landmark historical moment in the creation of the modern state system.

Look at the images. They're... freaky,... to use a term of art. I don't possess the capacity to contextualize and narrate the individual images, but it strikes me that our own historical moment is most likely as flush with allegory and symbolism. Our supposed contemporary advantage is reflexive self-criticism, that the history of criticism collapses in on itself in the postmodern age and we find a hall of mirrors running throughout humanity, a source of endless linguistic games, criticism, the production of theory, irony. But we are most likely just as freaky, heads and institutions filled with allegory, symbolism, fantasy, of which irony is a puerile defensive reaction in the face of our own incomprehension of who we are and where we think we're going. The arrogance of modernity / postmodernity, however, is that we think we're on top of it all.

Can we imagine a contemporary moment such as Westphalia, celebrated in these images? That is, one in which we could celebrate with all our powers of fantasy and imagination the coming of a new world?

The Climate Change Magic Show

Starring Dick Cheney as the disappearing assistant....

It's curious that there is any tittering at all about Bush's SOTU speech in which he mentioned the phrase, "climate change." But there is, and that's the reason why.
...said Christine Todd Whitman, Bush's former Environmental Protection Agency administrator. "So the fact that he mentioned climate change in that context, that was a step forward, that was a change."
So, there. He said it. He also had a plan, he said, of reducing gasoline usage in the United States by 20% by the year 2017. But, as usual, and as with typical maneuvering over international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, US environmental plans regarding climate change tend towards the rabbit-out-of-a-hat end of the political spectrum.

Bush's plan calls for reducing projected gasoline consumption in the United States by 20 percent over the next 10 years by mandating a dramatic expansion in the use of alternative fuels such as ethanol and raising fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. According to the White House, that would cut annual emissions from cars and light trucks by 10 percent, or 175 million metric tons, equal to taking 26 million cars off the road.

Environmentalists noted that the 20-percent reduction target applies to how much gas is forecast to be used in 2017, not how much is used today. Because of an expected increase in consumption over the next decade, such a cut then actually might only slow the growth of gas use. Moreover, alternative fuels would include liquid made from coal, which emits its own toxic gases. And Bush's plan does not address the source of two-thirds of greenhouse gases, such as power plants and manufacturers.

The Bush plan fell far short of the mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions envisioned by the 1997 Kyoto accord, which Bush renounced in 2001. Days before the State of the Union, there was speculation he might embrace emission caps after James L. Connaughton, head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, agreed with such an idea "in concept." But White House spokesman Tony Snow slapped down the idea, and the speech made no mention of it.
But even some on the right, those who know now that climate change is real and anthropogenic, see behind the smoke and mirrors.

"To be perfectly frank, I thought it was an appalling disappointment for everyone, whether you're on the right or the left," said Samuel Thernstrom, a former Bush environmental aide now at the American Enterprise Institute. "We had all been led to expect . . . that we would hear a very substantial initiative from the president." Instead, he said, Bush's plan is "essentially trivial, it's marginal."

Right. Expanding alternative fuels and technology research and implementation is important. But it's difficult to see how this plan - such as it is - boosts research, implementation, and usage. As long as there are record profits to be made in the oil industry off of status quo petroleum usage, the spur towards seeking fuel alternatives is largely going to be the pangs of conscience and heeding these pangs "voluntarily." Or it comes from the political scare-mongering of "reliance on foreign oil," which has nothing to do with reducing consumption, but simply consumption of oil that comes from particular geographic areas. In other words, this is a faith-based environmental plan.
Bush still opposes Kyoto and argues that greater technology will solve the problem. The White House said he has devoted $29 billion to climate science, aid and incentives, and this week he ordered government agencies to buy more hybrid-fuel cars and otherwise curb the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2015. "We can get beyond . . . the pre-Kyoto era with a post-Kyoto strategy, the center of which is new technologies," he said on a visit to a DuPont facility in Delaware the day after the State of the Union.

Former EPA chief Whitman said that for the first time Bush may be willing to sign carbon emission caps into law. "He's kind of setting up for a carbon-constrained economy," she said. "I don't know whether there will ever be an administration bill, but it may be that he's setting himself up not to veto [someone else's] bill."

Kyoto is not necessarily the answer. It doesn't do much, even if the US had ratified. Even if China, India, and Brazil were on board. Technological shifts are most definitely a major part of any attack on climate change. There is some promise there from the Bush administration. But as the Whitman quote indicates, this is all going to require leadership from somewhere other than the Oval Office. This is a hopeless president. If the Democrats were to come up with a bill that actually goes some distance towards mitigating climate change, Bush may be more sensitive to a non-veto, but it would never come on a bill containing real solutions. At this point, if mitigation is measured in real terms that correspond to the problem rather than to political and ideological considerations and personal preferences, those solutions would necessarily be radical.

Still think this isn't all smoke and mirrors? How about some literal smoke and mirrors...
The US government wants the world's scientists to develop technology to block sunlight as a last-ditch way to halt global warming, the Guardian has learned. It says research into techniques such as giant mirrors in space or reflective dust pumped into the atmosphere would be "important insurance" against rising emissions, and has lobbied for such a strategy to be recommended by a major UN report on climate change, the first part of which will be published on Friday.

The US has also attempted to steer the UN report, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), away from conclusions that would support a new worldwide climate treaty based on binding targets to reduce emissions - as sought by Tony Blair. It has demanded a draft of the report be changed to emphasise the benefits of voluntary agreements and to include criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol, the existing treaty which the US administration opposes...

The US response, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, says the idea of interfering with sunlight should be included in the summary for policymakers, the prominent chapter at the front of each IPCC report. It says: "Modifying solar radiance may be an important strategy if mitigation of emissions fails. Doing the R&D to estimate the consequences of applying such a strategy is important insurance that should be taken out. This is a very important possibility that should be considered."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007



Bobby Lightfoo0t does some very naughty things to fruit. Phronesisaical gasps in horror,... then chuckles, but just a little. We might be disgruntled. Not sure, reflecting on fruit-eating techniques right now....
An insidgion is made in th' stem of the banaina and a steel ring passed through, attached to a small string that has been soaked in glue and rolled in crushed glass.

Banaina is then swallowed whole with the string held at th' mouth and allowed to pass through the upper descriptive system. At the juncture of the Colon to the upper archipelago an incision is made in th' mid-abdomen that permits the babana to be drawn through and out of the chesty clavity. Bleeding should be quickly staunced with burning poker or solution of lye and styptic. Removing the babnaina so that only the string remains, this is then moved back and forth using the withdrawn string and the string issuing from the mouth in a flossing motion.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, 1932-2007

Aw, damn. Ryszard Kapuscinski has died. If you've never read anything by Kapuscinski, I suggest you do so right now. My recommendations are the brilliant The Emperor (on Haile Selassie, but really a broader, rather hallucinogenic, meditation on dictatorship), Imperium (on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the gulags), The Shadow of the Sun (a lovely travel account through the diversity and richness of Africa), and perhaps especially now, Shah of Shahs (on Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, former client of the US).

A generous soul with brilliant, wide-open eyes....

“They started to build a roof over their heads, some little corner, a nook of their own. Because these arrivals had no money—having come here to make some from traditional villages where money is not commonly used—they could look for a place only in the slum neighborhoods. It is an extraordinary sight, the construction of such a neighborhood. Most often, the municipal authorities designate the worst land for this purpose: marshes, quagmires, or barren desert sands. Someone erects the first shack there. Next to it, someone else puts up another one. And then another. Thus, spontaneously, a street is formed. Nearby, another street is advancing. Eventually they will meet, and create an intersection. Now both streets will start to spread, divide, branch out. And a neighborhood will come into being. But first, people collect building material. It is impossible to figure out where they get it. Do they dig it out of the earth? Do they pull it down from the clouds? The one thing is certain: this penniless throng is not buying anything. On their heads, on their backs, under their arms, they bring pieces of corrugated iron, boards, plywood, plastic, cardboard, metal automobile parts, crates, and all this they assemble, erect, nail, and glue into something halfway between a cabin and a lean-to, whose walls configure themselves into an improvised, colorful collage. Because the floor of the hut often consists of swampy ground, or sharp rocks, they line it with elephant grass, banana leaves, raffia, or rice straw, so as to have somewhere to sleep. These neighborhoods, these monstrous African papier-mâché creations, are made up of everything and anything, and it is they, and not Manhattan or the Parisian La Défence, that represent the highest achievement of human imagination, ingenuity, and fantasy. An entire city erected without a single brick, metal rod, or square meter of glass!” – Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun

Night and Day

From Sleep City (via Pruned) comes this photo of the day of a cemetery in Nagasaki.

Where Is Venezuela Going?

The headline of this IHT article is misleading: Letter from Venezuela: Beyond fiery rhetoric, Chávismo is pragmatic. I expected a more nuanced discussion of Chávez than we're accustomed to seeing in the US. But, alas, it's mostly the usual simplistic story of the anti-American caudillo.

...Some here say Chávez's ideological shift is largely cosmetic, a continuation of the socialist rhetoric that intensified after his brief ouster in a 2002 coup carried out with the support of the Bush administration. They point to the pragmatism of compensating owners of nationalized companies and covering the foreign debt of oil-exploration ventures coming under state control.

But there are those who see Chávez's socialist ramblings more darkly. After hearing him resuscitate Che Guevara's idea of forging socialism through the creation of a "new man," the historian Manuel Caballero caused a stir recently by saying that a large part of the electorate voted for Chávez "because it wanted a dictatorship."

The recent congressional granting of rule-by-decree to Chávez for the next 18 months bodes ill for those worried about Chávez gaining dictatorial powers. Why, for instance, is rule by decree necessary when - since the opposition boycott of elections in late 2005 - the congress is now entirely comprised of chavistas?

There are a few things worth recommending the article, however, but it requires reading between the lines.

See, on a Fulbright and chaired lectureship in Venezuela in 2005, I noticed that the chavistas - as well as the more reasonable people in the opposition - are genuinely searching for good ideas about where to take the country. The way chavistas talked about "socialismo," it seemed to me, was as a marker used to indicate a set of problems rather than as a fully articulated political-ideological solution. I gave a series of lectures on democracy, globalization, civic society institutions, philosophical pragmatism, and ecology and environmental policy. I found everywhere, among chavistas and opposition thinkers alike, academics and policymakers and ordinary folk, a serious and critical attentiveness to what I had to say (in fact, the only outright rejection - and it was fiery rejection - I encountered was from opposition members at one of my talks. I'll tell you this story one day; it's rather funny). Even talking to taxi drivers, asking them about Chávez's Venezuela, would bring an intelligent and learned response - and when it came time for me to say how I saw things from my limited outsider's perspective and what I thought might be interesting solutions, they would grow quiet and absorb every word. This is not about me and what I have to say, which is simply a drop in the bucket; it's about Venezuelans and how they're thinking about their future.

In other words, despite the wild rhetoric wielded like sabers, which serves as a red herring for most outsiders and how they paint Venezuelan politics, the country is seeking effective solutions to serious problems that have long been neglected. The problems are multiple, but the central issue is the massive poverty rate (about 50% prior to Chávez's first election), what that means in terms of everyday life, and the gaping schism between the rich and the poor in Venezuela. It also includes a rejection of foreign meddling in domestic affairs, the anti-imperialism of chavista rhetoric. These key issues are central to understanding Latin American politics in general. Chávez, to his great credit, has given these problems center stage, has constantly told the poor that they are part of the solution, providing them with the resources and programs to gain their own autonomy (community-run schools, clinics, food programs, gardens, skills programs, small businesses, etc.), and has drawn the immense national wealth back into the hands of the nation to be used for the public good rather than to enrich an elite, many of whom didn't reside in Venezuela anyway. Clearly, this process might raise other issues, such as the much publicized problems of dwindling foreign investment and economic diversification, but the chavistas think that you have to raise a country out of poverty and previous efforts at attracting greater foreign investment and economic diversification only exacerbated the poverty.

The rubric for these programs is "socialismo" (the chavista slogan is, "socialism, Catholicism, and participatory democracy"). This is because capitalism or economic liberalization as generally practiced in a globalizing world is perceived as a patent failure in providing a good model for the development of healthy societies. This is not only a Venezuelan perception; it is global among the citizens of poor countries and some wealthy countries alike. Given inherited dualisms of politics and economics, Venezuela thus turns back to "socialismo." But what is crucial in understanding Venezuela is that, as I mentioned above, "socialismo" is a marker. It is a marker for a set of problems rather than a solution, in the first instance, but it is also a marker for what I think is a moribund distinction between political-economic programs. So, on one hand, "socialismo" is a rejection of economics and politics as usual, although it is curious that government people I spoke with said that they are not anti-capitalism. On the other hand, it inarticulately entails a search for a better, more inclusive society. As I've mentioned before, I often asked chavistas whether they thought a Latin American version of Norway might be a good model. They always said yes, precisely. If this could be called something other than "socialismo," so be it. In fact, I think Chávez would be better off calling the chavista program something else. It doesn't reflect that actual search for solutions to intransigent problems.

This must all be understood to have any intelligent and non-reactionary grasp on what's occurring in Venezuela and Latin America more generally. This is also why I'm hopeful for level-headed problem-solving dialogue on just what evolving ideals Venezuela and other developing nations seek to articulate so that they might make a difference in practice. These are countries reflecting on the future and, rather than reject this due to our own biases against certain rhetorical forms, we ought to engage in the quest with them. After all, we folks in developed nations aren't sure where we're going either.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Splat of the Union

A funny, chez Atrios.

Academic Blogging

Steve G, based on a question posed by Janet Stemwedel, raises the eternal virtual question of whether academic blogging ought to be counted as a service. Janet asks this question,
"Will tenure and promotion committees -- especially in the sciences -- come to see blogging as a valuable professional activity? When? What will it take to bring about this change?"
Steve expands the question,
Blogging is one way to be a public intellectual, to participate in wider conversations about topics in which you have training and background and therefore could hopefully make substantive contributions. Scientists are technicians in a largely scientifically illiterate society in which science and technology play more and more central roles. They already have professional obligations to do research and advance their field and to teach students (training some to be the next generation of scientists and teaching the large majority the basic foundations of their field). As it currently stands there is virtually nothing in the professional reward structure to encourage this third service component to the wider society. By virtue of having specialized expertise, do scientists take on a special obligation to be significant contributors to the general discourse around matters that have scientific components? Should we see those scientists who don't so participate as having failed to live up to social expectations? Or are the advances they make to their science and the teaching itself their contribution?...

...Do other occupations, or perhaps all occupations, also come along with moral imperatives to contribute to the broader society? Do philosophers have an obligation to write op-eds on ethical issues?....
I used to think that the answer to these questions was a blanket "yes." I'm not so sure now. What changed?

For one thing, an academic blog risks being a bore for both the reader and the writer. I still like the idea of taking academic discussions out of academia and into the virtual world. Lots of terrific blogs do this (think Steve G himself, Balkinization, Pharyngula, Juan Cole, Mad Melancholic Feminista, Peter Levine). I also think there's an obligation for any academic to communicate potentially important ideas outside of academia as well as to draw problem-solving sustenance from things other than theoretical academic disputes. But I, personally, don't want to be constrained by the topics, rhetoric, and style of academia when it comes to blogging. It's not as if this here blog is terribly iconoclastic. That's not the point. The point is that blogs written by academics ought to be open to being something other than academic blogs. If academic blogging ends up qualifying as a "service," then it will likely be constrained by the expectations placed on academics in the non-virtual life of the academy. If not, what criteria would be used? For example, although I'm an academic (for now), I wouldn't call this blog an academic blog. Sometimes I want to write about academic issues; sometimes I want to write about whatever comes to mind. This is not to say that I have the right attitude about blogging. I probably don't. It's simply to say that if this blog was judged in terms of "service," it probably wouldn't look at all like it does (for better or worse).

The way academia functions has a lot left to be desired anyway. Would we wish blog-service to be considered based on the number of readers, "prestige" of the blog, link ranking, advertising revenue? Much as academics say they dislike the characterization, the quality of work is often reduced to quantities (analogously, everyone disdains GRE scores as a measure of the quality of a student, but every department strives to have higher GRE scores from incoming students - money and prestige are involved). A massive amount of publications, regardless of their quality and importance (and there are well-known philosophers who have made their careers writing essentially the same paper over and over), almost always outweighs a smaller amount of more thoughtful pieces. "Research" and number of publications almost always outweighs influential teaching. A nice fit in the orthodox characterizations of problems and the going discourse almost always outweighs looking creatively at actual problems - academic or not - and to what can be done to alter a moribund discourse. Schmoozing trumps quiet generosity. Fashion almost always trumps creative idiosyncrasy. Money almost always trumps loyalty and commitment.... All of this is pretty much a reflection of society itself, at least for American academia and society. Would we want these factors to determine how academics blog? If blogging was deemed to be a service for the sake of tenure review, wouldn't these factors be precisely how blogs are considered? Out go the moldy fruit photos....

The set of ethical questions Steve asks is indeed broader than the one Janet asks. For philosophers, I think the proof is in the pudding. There are lots of technologies academics are encouraged to use - Powerpoint, Blackboard, etc. Personally, I like the good old chalkboard and an open discussion. Not all technologies are worth using. Blogging is different, however, because ideally it can be an extension of teaching and research or simply a way of encouraging a more intelligent public discourse. Blogging is not about efficiency. And it involves feedback. This puts it on a par with the op-ed, the public lecture, pro bono work, and so on.

Is there an ethical obligation to do this work? You know what I think. But I don't think that there is an ethical obligation to do this work in any particular kind of way, and I'm afraid blogging-as-a-service would be overly reductive and perhaps even further entrench some of the worst current traits of academia.

Monday, January 22, 2007

L'abbé Pierre, French Hero, Dies

L'abbé Pierre died today in Paris at the age of 94.
The founder of the international Emmaus Community for the poor, Abbe Pierre had served as a spokesman for France's conscience since the 1950s when he persuaded parliament to pass a law — still on the books — forbidding landlords to evict tenants during winter months.

President Jacques Chirac said in a statement, "We have lost a great figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness."

A former monk, Resistance fighter and parliamentarian, Abbe Pierre long remained spry and determined despite the infirmities of old age. Last year, he spoke to parliament from his wheelchair, urging lawmakers not to reform a law on low-income housing.

Often donning a beret and cape, Abbe Pierre — a code name from his World War II days — topped polls as France's most beloved public figure year after year. He had the ear of French leaders for decades.

The Roman Catholic priest freely admitted to using provocation as a tactical weapon in his war on misery.

"I'm not by temperament a man of anger," Abbe Pierre said in a 1994 interview with The Associated Press. "But when I must denounce something that destroys man, I get mad....

"It is love that engenders this holy anger. They are inseparable."

Photo (above): Remy de la Mauviniere, AP

Photo: Reuters

Young Mangosteen

Educating Kurdistan

This is interesting. We've heard of academics in Iraq being persecuted. Last week, Mustansiriyah University was bombed. Applications for visas to leave the country continue to pile up. But Kurdistan is apparently doing well on the academic front. University faculty in Iraq, seeking jobs and a modicum of security, are flooding Kurdish schools.

Consider how the void will be filled in the non-Kurdish part of Iraq, a once secular, well-educated and highly literate society (under Saddam Hussein, no less). War, it hardly needs to be said, damages lots of things, but neglected in all the geopolitical analyses and rapidly clicking death toll of the Iraq War is the high probability that Iraq will lose one or two generations of educated citizens.

This is bad for a number of reasons. Education is intrinsically valuable and the loss for Iraq's youth is immeasurable. But further, the war is creating a different intellectual landscape in Iraq. Just this fact alone suggests that, in fifteen years or so, we could see an Iraq that functions as a radical Shi'a colony of Iran, if not in legal terms, certainly in intellectual terms. That is, while Iran's education system remains diverse - perhaps ideologically polarized, but diverse nonetheless - Iraq, on the other hand, will have no choice in the near future other than to build and rebuild more Shi'a sponsored schools, assuming Iraq remains a state at all based on its current borders.

As a geopolitical matter, the US has most likely ceded nearly half of Iraq to Iran by simply invading. No military power can fully control - without mass oppression - the intellectual life of a people. Looking at Iraq in these terms, partitioning the country into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish nations appears inevitable.

After the initial days of the US invasion and occupation, schools in Iraq were pronounced rebuilt by the US administration once they had a new coat of paint on them. That seems to have been the entire plan for the Iraqi education system. Now, Iraq proper will grow increasingly devoid of secular education (who wants to go teach in Iraq? Who wants to stay?). Even the news for Kurdistan has its downside and potential backlash.
The new Kurdish universities mainly depended on local and expat Kurdish academics because they had no connection with universities in the rest of Iraq.

After 2003, the relocation of Arab lecturers reinvigorated academic life there, prompting the Kurdish education authorities to expand several colleges to meet growing local demand for higher education.

"If those [Arab] lecturers hadn’t come, teaching at Sulaimaniyah University would have been problematic," said Aras Dartash, dean of the College of Economy and Administration. At this college alone, there are 11 lecturers and assistant lecturers from central and southern Iraq.

He said they were a great help, especially in supervising masters and doctoral students.

The Kurdistan Regional Government seeks to encourage Arab lecturers to relocate by offering them financial incentives. Individuals are handed bonuses of 300,000 Iraqi dinars (200 US dollars) while those who bring their families receive an additional 500,000 dinars as a housing subsidy.

But there is a downside to the trend, and not only the obvious one that higher education in other parts of the country suffers.

Many young Kurdish university students have a poor grasp of Arabic because during the period of autonomous rule in the Nineties many studied only in Kurdish.

Aryan Qadir, a student at the College of Economy and Administration, failed a course in a topic that an Arab lecturer taught. "We know these lecturers are experienced but we don't understand them because they teach in Arabic," he said....

School Burnings in Afghanistan

A little note from on the ground from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting:
Over the past year, more than 100 schools have been burned down. This threatens to reverse one of the key achievements of President Hamed Karzai’s administration.

Throughout the country, but especially in the southern provinces, schools that opened to great fanfare after the fall of the Taleban are being quietly closed because parents and pupils fear retribution from armed insurgents.

Most people blame the Taleban, citing the fundamentalists’ opposition to secular schooling, especially for girls. In statements made by various spokesmen, the Taleban have denied carrying out these attacks,

Whoever is torching the schools, it is having a widespread negative impact on education for a new generation of Afghans. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but most experts estimate that no more than half of all school-age children are currently enrolled.

Afghan security forces have been overwhelmed by the problem, and the government freely admits that it lacks the capacity to protect all its schools...

Local residents contribute either labour or money. If they cannot take their turn guarding their school, they provide funding to pay those who do. Most schools will have two or three people on guard.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Remembrance of Things Being Lost

Mount Kilimanjaro, from Amboseli, Kenya. Photo: Helmut


"End of the Line," a brief photo-essay by Brendan Corr on the dismantling of ships in Bangladesh (via Next Nature).

Friday, January 19, 2007

We Are All Potential Enemies of the State Now

Friend Drew sent this to me by email from Bosnia. Astonishing. I post it at length. Read the whole thing - if you're American, your country depends on it.

Responding to questions from Sen. Arlen Specter at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 18, Gonzales argued that the Constitution doesn’t explicitly bestow habeas corpus rights; it merely says when the so-called Great Writ can be suspended.

“There is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution; there’s a prohibition against taking it away,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales’s remark left Specter, the committee’s ranking Republican, stammering.

“Wait a minute,” Specter interjected. “The Constitution says you can’t take it away except in case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus unless there’s a rebellion or invasion?”

Gonzales continued, “The Constitution doesn’t say every individual in the United States or citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn’t say that. It simply says the right shall not be suspended” except in cases of rebellion or invasion.

“You may be treading on your interdiction of violating common sense,” Specter said.

While Gonzales’s statement has a measure of quibbling precision to it, his logic is troubling because it would suggest that many other fundamental rights that Americans hold dear also don’t exist because the Constitution often spells out those rights in the negative...

Applying Gonzales’s reasoning, one could argue that the First Amendment doesn’t explicitly say Americans have the right to worship as they choose, speak as they wish or assemble peacefully. The amendment simply bars the government, i.e. Congress, from passing laws that would impinge on these rights.

Similarly, Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution states that “the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

The clear meaning of the clause, as interpreted for more than two centuries, is that the Founders recognized the long-established English law principle of habeas corpus, which guarantees people the right of due process, such as formal charges and a fair trial.

That Attorney General Gonzales would express such an extraordinary opinion, doubting the constitutional protection of habeas corpus, suggests either a sophomoric mind or an unwillingness to respect this well-established right, one that the Founders considered so important that they embedded it in the original text of the Constitution...

In effect, what the new law appears to do is to create a parallel “star chamber” system for the prosecution, imprisonment and possible execution of enemies of the state, whether those enemies are foreign or domestic....

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Space Is the Place for Losing Face

China shoots down one of its own, defunct weather satellites with a ballistic missile from an anti-satellite system. The US and others cry foul.
"The US believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of co-operation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area," [US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe] said.

"We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese."

But here's the problem with that having much play on the international scene.
This latest strategic document places America's emphasis squarely on making use of space for defensive purposes, linking this to protecting US national security.

It says the US will develop "capabilities, plans and options to ensure freedom of action in space", and if directed, will "deny such freedom of action to adversaries"...

Last year the US rejected a call from 160 other United Nations countries to have talks on banning weapons in space.
I won't harp on the hypocrisy. That would be too easy. I just want to point out that American exceptionalism on the international scene doesn't work any more, especially not with this president.

Good News for Cheney

Let it never be said that this blog never reports on the good news for this administration.
This has to be a milestone: A new poll has found that the American people dislike President Bush more than they dislike ... Dick Cheney. The poll — by Fox News, of all people — finds that President Bush's unfavorable rating is 58%, while Cheney's unpopularity rating is five points lower at 53%. Bush can, however, still take some small solace from the fact that his approval rating is one point higher than Cheney's; the President's is 38%, while the VP's is 37%.

"Sen. Brock O. Alabama"

Name change considerations for Barack Obama, at The Morning News.

Clear Memory

Swedish clearcut.

At McSweeney's (via BLDGBLOG).

Jimmy Carter's Point

What's not to understand?
The clear fact is that Israel will never find peace until it is willing to withdraw from its neighboring occupied territories and permit the Palestinians to exercise their basic human and political rights. With land swaps, this "green line" can be modified through negotiations to let a substantial number of Israeli settlers remain in their subsidized homes east of the internationally recognized border. The premise of exchanging Arab territory for peace has been acceptable for several decades to a majority of Israelis but not to a minority of the more conservative leaders, who are unfortunately supported by most of the vocal American Jewish community.

These same premises, of course, will have to be accepted by any government that represents the Palestinians. A March 2006 poll by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found 73 percent approval among citizens in the occupied territories, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has expressed support for talks between President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and pledged to end Hamas's rejectionist position if a negotiated agreement is approved by the Palestinian people.

Here's Powerline on Carter's essay:
Not to mention Jimmuh's omissions. He can't bring himself to call for the cessation of the tragic murder of Israelis by the terrorist groups operating as political parties within the PA, or to recognize the object of those parties as the causal factor in what he describes as "the tragic persecution of the Palestinians." Jimmuh's refusal to acknowledge the causal relationship between Arab murder and Israeli self-defense provides powerful evidence on which to base "allegations" that Jimmuh is hostile to Israel, or not committed to its survival in the same sense that he is committed to enabling Palestinian Arabs to achieve their homicidal objectives without impediment.
Methinks Powerline reads the NY Times too much. The NYT and other US media have a habit of creating a causal relation between Palestinian terror and Israeli response, when it is often the case that an Israeli attack precipitates a Palestinian response. People who are blind to the Israel-Palestine dispute usually put things in individualized, causal terms. All you can see then are stone-throwers.

But this causal tit-for-tat storyline is sandbox foreign affairs. Any intelligent attempt to discuss Palestine-Israel has to address the Palestinians' situation. Terrorism is, of course, a tactic, a means. Attacking the tactic misses the point, though it proves satisfying to those who view foreign affairs in terms of sensational events. Actually addressing terroristic tactics in Palestine entails addressing the real concerns of the groups terrorists ostensibly represent. In the case of al Qaeda, a fringe group with a radical ideology uses terroristic tactics to try to achieve some objectives that are plausible (e.g., overthrowing the Saudi authoritarian and theocratic state) and some that are implausible (e.g., installing a different radical Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia) to a Western mind. In the case of Hamas, some hold an ideology of the elimination of Israel, while others seek to free Palestine from Israeli oppression. When we talk about terrorism, the tactic, whether practiced by Palestinian or by Israel, we simply have to address the objectives of terrorism: what is the goal that is sought? In the case of Israel-Palestine, it is largely land, refugees, and security.

Anyone who knows anything about the Palestinian situation knows that Israel - as state policy - has encroached illegally on Palestinian lands, oppresses Palestinians, and terrorizes them daily. Many Israelis themselves seek to change the state policy. Many Palestinians also seek to change the tactics of the Palestinian effort. The point is that reducing the dispute to one that is one-sided in causality, and applies "terrorism" to one side while using the term "self-defense" on the other for rather similar tactics, is taking an ideological position themselves.

Fortunately, Carter is speaking to the reality of Israel-Palestine and ultimately what must be done to resolve the dispute. Powerline simply tries to inflame it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Specter is Haunting the Purges

Wink wink, nudge nudge.

(Via Mike the Mad Biologist) The purges continue with new information:

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) confirmed that as Judiciary Committee chairman last year he made a last-minute change to a bill that expanded the administration's power to install U.S. Attorneys without Senate approval.

Seizing upon the new authority granted by Congress last March, the White House has pushed out several U.S. Attorneys, and begun to replace them without the Senate's consent.

"I can confirm for you that yes, it was a Specter provision," a spokesperson for the senator wrote to me in an email earlier today, responding to repeated inquiries. Earlier we reported that Specter had been fingered for the last-minute change, made in a select Republicans-only meeting after the House and Senate had voted on earlier versions.

Still, a mystery remains: Why Specter wanted the change, which arguably weakened the Senate's role in selecting federal prosecutors.

$1.2 Trillion

Custard Apples

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Value from Culture-Nature

The labor theory of value, shared by both Locke and Marx (though not the originators of the idea), claimed that "nature" is value-less until manipulated by human labor. Labor creates value. Locke (Treatise of Civil Government, Ch. V): "Whatsoever... he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that it his own [the labor of his body], and thereby makes it his property." This passage from Locke, of course, is the keystone of the liberal tradition of private property... "it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men." This is also the point on which Locke and Marx part company (though Marx additionally seems to have ascribed a peculiar kind of value to nature absent human labor - this is a matter of dispute). Often neglected, but of crucial importance is Locke's "proviso" that property may be created and become one's own, "at least where there is enough, and as good left over in common for others."

Given this little context, what do we make of this?
"I remember what a man in the business told me back then," Zhang Yin said. "He said, 'Waste paper is like a forest. Paper recycles itself, generation after generation.'"

Zhang took that memory all the way to the bank. As a result of her entrepreneurship, she is now richer than virtually any other woman anywhere in the world, including Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, and the chief executive of eBay, Meg Whitman. Her personal wealth is estimated at $1.5 billion or more.

Her companies take heaps of waste paper from the United States and Europe, ship it to China and recycle it into corrugated cardboard, which is then used for boxes that are packed with toys, electronics and furniture that are stamped "Made in China" and then often shipped right back across the ocean to Western consumers.

Mortal Immortal

Bo Yibo dies.

Martyrs to the Bejeweled Cause of Idiocy

Me likes the primo Wolcott, and here's some for your pleasure.

The most euphonious bugler is a milblogger with the handle of Teflon Don, who sonorously proclaims:

Here I stand, in modern-day Iraq. I have come further to fight here than any soldier of any nation before me, and I fight with weapons and equipment that lay pale the panoply of earlier armies. I represent the pinnacle of force projection and decisive battle, and yet I fight here, where unnumbered young warriors have fought and died through time stretching out of memory. It was on this land that the Babylonian empire first arose out of those first Sumerian agrarians, only to be conquered by the Assyrians, and still later throw off the foreign chains. It was here that Alexander's phalanxes swept by, trailing Hellenism in their wake. Rome, and later the Byzantines, drew their border with Persia at the Euphrates River. At that river was where the Sassanids made their stand against the spread of Arabian Islam. The Khans of the Mongols laid this land waste, sometimes killing only to build their towers of bones higher.

War is war, his service to his country is commendable, we wish him safe return, but, really, there's no excuse for a pretentious prose style. Hemingway, Stephen Crane--they kept it bone-clean lean. They would have blanched at such gold-leafed Victor Davis Hanson vainglorious horseshit. Such as this:

This region is steeped in history. We walk on it; we breath it in. Eons of history surround us, infiltrate us, and turn to dust beneath our feet. The ashes of countless cultures, civilizations, and rulers dreams lie under the earth. With each breath, I inhale a few molecules of the dying gasp of Cyrus II, the Persian "Constantine of the East". In the howling wind I can almost hear the cries of a countless multitude dying on killing grounds that bridge across the ages. The same wind carries the red dust that might yet hold a few drops of blood from the battle at Carrhae- the first, crushing defeat for Rome's red blooded legions. Under my heel, a speck grinds into dust: the last grain of sand that remains of the Hanging Gardens at Babylon that are now known only in legend. Some of the world's oldest religions tell us that somewhere in this ancient Cradle of life, God himself breathed on this dust, and it became man, the father of us all. Whatever path we take here, we walk on history.

I walk softly, for I tread on the ghosts of years.

As I make my rounds on the Upper West Side, I inhale the cellular remains of lint from Lionel Trilling's old suits and the faintest trace of Alfred Kazin's old aftershave, which fortifies my faith in the wisdom of my intellectual fathers that the Iraq war is a freaking mess, a disgrace to American values, and a bloodstained blot history will find hard to remove. As for God animating the dust, I tend to think that evolution paints a more plausible explanation for the emergence of humankind.

Global Warming Archipelago

From the New York Times:
    "We are already in a new era of geography," said the Arctic explorer Will Steger. "This phenomenon – of an island all of a sudden appearing out of nowhere and the ice melting around it – is a real common phenomenon now." In August, Mr. Steger discovered his own new island off the coast of the Norwegian island of Svalbard, high in the polar basin. Glaciers that had surrounded it when his ship passed through only two years earlier were gone this year, leaving only a small island alone in the open ocean.
That image, of course, is both horrific and exhilarating – literally sublime: the discovery of terra nova, right here on a planet that once seemed topographically claimed. Surely our era is due for a new Jules Verne?
Meanwhile, as Arctic temperatures continue to rise, and as the Greenlandic ice cap continues to liquefy, we'll see more and more spectacular – if catastrophic – shifts in global geography. (Whole new continents!)
And this won't be limited to the Arctic: "Over the long term," we read, "much larger sea-level rises would render the world’s coastlines unrecognizable, creating a whole new series of islands."


With the terribly clever "urge to surge" expression going around, it's time to take account of the "-urges."

We've had the splurge, the surge, and now the purge. What's next? I say Serge, as in Serge Gainsbourg (English pronunciation, at least).

...Y a d'quoi d'venir dingue
De quoi prendre un flingue
S'faire un trou, un p'tit trou, un dernier p'tit trou
Un p'tit trou, un p'tit trou, un dernier p'tit trou
Et on m'mettra dans un grand trou
Où j'n'entendrai plus parler d'trou plus jamais d'trou
De petits trous de petits trous de petits trous.

...It's enough to make you nuts
Enough to take a gun
And punch yourself a hole, a little hole, a last little hole
A little hole, a little hole, a last little hole
And they'll put me in a big hole
Where I'll never again hear about holes never again a hole
Little holes little holes little holes.


And the verge (here and here).

More Torture

Sorry for the meager posting. Deadlines.... Here's a snippet of the essay I'm wrapping up. I'll be glad to be done with the torture volume....

The time bomb argument is bogus. It suffers from the same defect of most ends-justify-the-means claims. That is, it adopts an unquestioned fixed supposition or end by which the means to achieve it are simply to be manipulated in its service. The scenario hardly qualifies, then, as a model of either morality or truth-seeking, for the only question is which means to use, or, in other words, which “facts” will prove the supposition or end. Torture becomes a “successful” means in that the torture victim will usually confess to anything the torturers desire, thus confirming the supposition. The argument is a prescription for describing reality as whatever the torturers wish it to be.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Troop Casualties

The new year brought with it the 3,000th American death in Iraq. But what's equally alarming - and far less well known - is that for every fatality in Iraq, there are 16 injuries. That's an unprecedented casualty level. In the Vietnam and Korean wars, by contrast, there were fewer than three people wounded for each fatality. In World Wars I and II, there were less than two.

That means we now have more than 50,000 wounded Iraq war soldiers. In one sense, this reflects positive change: Better medical care and stronger body armor are enabling many more soldiers to survive injuries that might have led, in earlier generations, to death. But like so much else about this war, the Bush administration failed to foresee what it would mean. The result is that as the Iraq war approaches its fourth anniversary, the Department of Veterans Affairs is buckling under a growing volume of disability claims and rising demand for medical attention.

So far, more than 200,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at VA medical facilities - three times what the VA projected, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis. More than one-third of them have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, acute depression and substance abuse. Thousands more have crippling disabilities such as brain or spinal injuries.
(Via Norwegianity)

Cellphone Bananas

Photo: Helmut

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Making Enemies

More about the creation of enemies, courtesy of Whirled View:
As Informed Comment’s Juan Cole pointed out, the January 12 small anti-tank missile attack on the American Embassy in Athens suggests yet again that anti-American terrorist threats do not necessarily have Islamic connections.

It also shows that the use of violence for political purposes among Greece’s extreme left lives on. This despite the summer 2002 round-up of November-17 (N-17) – or most of N-17 - the country’s deadliest terrorist group to date whose ideology represented a bizarre blend of Trotskyite Communism and Greek ultra-nationalism.

Unfortunately, no one has let Mr. Bush in on either “secret.” You’d think he’d have caught on by now to the fact that various groups here and abroad use terrorism for political purposes and not all are Muslim – after all it is six years after 9/11 - but obviously not.

Meanwhile, Ws never-ending “war on terror” rages on, based on its simplistic and mistaken vision of us-versus-them. For Bush-43 to admit the existence of the complexities of terrorism and the differing motives of terrorists would undermine the rationale for his administration’s ill-begotten “stay-the-course-now-decked-out-in-new-clothes-also-designed-to-fail” Iraq policy. This doesn’t even get into the administration’s Israel right-or-wrong or Iran-baiting policies which, in my view, also closely relate to W’s latest errors vis-à-vis Iraq.


Pat Lang:
After watching the Sunday newsies with clips of Bush, Cheney on camera and Hadley the functionary, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that we, Americans are chasing phantoms in the world, phantoms carefully cultivated in a surfeit of seminars and an excess of Jungian memory.
Yup. I'm just now finishing up my essay for my torture book for tomorrow's deadline. I'm concluding with a discussion I mentioned earlier on the torture of witches in the Middle Ages. I'll just repeat part of that earlier post. We often talk about the Bush administration being not of the reality-based community. This is a kind of jokey way of talking about how badly they've screwed up everything they touch in the name of some ill-defined ideology. But I often think we're truly in Matrix world with this administration. Though Pat's talking about the "phantom" enemy, I'm so involved with the torture issue right now that I can only seem to think through that prism....

From the early Middle Ages to the 18th Century, those who were accused of being witches were tortured and thrown on the stake. Not, however, before being forced to give up another name of another witch, and not before having been tortured into explaining reality from the metaphysics of witchdom.

One of the accusations made against witches was that they determined the weather - more precisely, bad weather. Lightning, thunderstorms, high winds, were all the doing of witches. For a seafaring age, this influence had economic and political importance as well. When witches were tortured, they were forced to confess their dark manipulations of the weather.

Under torture, of course, one will say anything. This requires that the institution and "triangulation" of torture (and political torture is always institutionalized) engage in the practice broadly so that someone, sometime will surrender useful information out of all the desperate misinformation. In saying anything - perhaps, in the delirium of torture, even believing it - the accused witches would provide the most fantastic stories about their devilish manipulation of the weather. These were stories constructed not only from mere fantasy, but from dreamlike contradictions and paradoxes. So, one tortured story went, the nefarious coven rowed out to sea in a sieve to conjure storms against the king's ships bringing them near the dangerous, wave-strewn rocks.

Various scholars during the period attempted to explain that witches were unlikely to be the source of foul weather. But these scholars risked their own fate on the stake, and, in fact, many were doomed as heretics over the centuries. Notice that, then, the reality of weather was explained through a fantastical delirium that confirmed the mythical suspicions of church and political rulers. Fantasy confirmed fantasy through the abused and uncontrolled imagination of torture and, hence, became reality. Apart from the political uses of torture and the stake, the delirium of the witch became, in effect, the science of weather, something which, to this day, lies beyond fully accurate scientific prediction and technological control.

This is what is at stake in the current institutionalization, the precipice, of torture: the very nature of reality.

Wherefore Art Thou, O Patriot?

Frank Rich:

I have long felt that it will be up to Mr. Bush’s own party to ring down the curtain on his failed policy, and after the 2006 midterms, that is more true than ever. The lame-duck president, having lost both houses of Congress and at least one war (Afghanistan awaits), has nothing left to lose. That is far from true of his party.

Even conservatives like Sam Brownback of Kansas and Norm Coleman of Minnesota started backing away from Iraq last week. Mr. Brownback is running for president in 2008, and Mr. Coleman faces a tough re-election fight. But Republicans not in direct electoral jeopardy (George Voinovich of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) are also starting to waver. It’s another Vietnam-Watergate era flashback. It wasn’t Democrats or the press that forced Richard Nixon’s abdication in 1974; it was dwindling Republican support. Though he had vowed to fight his way through a Senate trial, Nixon folded once he lost the patriarchal leader of his party’s right wing.

That leader was Barry Goldwater , who had been one of Nixon’s most loyal and aggressive defenders until he finally realized he’d been lied to once too often. If John McCain won’t play the role his Arizona predecessor once did, we must hope that John Warner or some patriot like him will, for the good of the country, answer the call of conscience. A dangerous president must be saved from himself, so that the American kids he’s about to hurl into the hell of Baghdad can be saved along with him.