Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The End of the Hutong

Photo: Shiho Fukada
Tim Stevens of Ubiwar headed off to China two days ago. We had a brief little conversation in the comments at his blog post asking his readers about what to visit in Beijing. Here's what I said,
I was last in Beijing in 1989, and I know the city has changed radically. But I would suggest searching out the old neighborhoods of the city. From what I hear, they’re almost completely built over now. In 1989, they comprised most of the city away from the central monuments of Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City. The old neighborhoods are where you’ll see the remaining China of the previous 200-300 years, the kind I knew when I was a kid growing up in Asia. The new urban China is, like most modern cities, nearly interchangeable with other cities. We end up in these cities being amused by the little cultural variations on near-universal modern-urban themes. But spending some time in the old neighborhoods will show just how radical and melancholy the changes are in China (and elsewhere in the world).

...I spent days wandering through the hutongs, everyone wondering what the hell I was doing there. I had absolutely terrific roasted duck, spent time with Chinese students in their labyrinthine hutches squatting over tea or wine talking politics, and, from a fellow wheeling along a wooden cart of various goods, bought a little packet of black and white yearbook-type photos of old Chinese generals that had been colorized with magic marker. That one attracted a crowd, all of us laughing at the curious little event.
Tim pointed me to this NY Times article on the old neighborhoods, the hutongs, of Beijing. I had previously seen another, here, on home renovations for the well-off in the formerly quite poor hutongs. But capitalism and the Olympics surge on into the future, and the hutongs are in their path. The entire city of Beijing since I was there has, I've heard, changed so radically that the remaining monuments, most from the early Ming Dynasty period in the 1400s AD - Tian'anmen, the Forbidden City, the old city gates, the Temple of Heaven - provide the sole geo-architectural points of reference between the early 1990s and today. Indulge me, here's another little story...

I arrived in Beijing from Tokyo and was met at the airport by a friend of the family, a professor from Beijing University. I would be staying at his apartment home with his family in the northern part of the city. Professor Chi (a pseudonym) was a die-hard Communist who sat me in front of the tv each evening watching the news - endless streams of video of the production of wheat and other goods from around China, touting the splendid production capacities of the communist state. The Chi family lived in a very modest apartment next to an elementary school (which woke me up in the mornings to their coordinated courtyard exercises done to the sounds of Michael Jackson's "Thriller"). We ate modest but delicious meals (delicious, if you have the taste for real Chinese food); a daily tear-off calendar was the toilet paper; and the apartment was decorated with postcards and tourist trinkets from elsewhere and plastic flowers.

The first night after I arrived and settled into a small room in the apartment, Professor Chi said we were going for a bicycle ride. I loved the idea and the opportunity to have an initial peek at the city. He, his daughter, and I hopped on the creaky bikes in the dimming light and took to the large, dusty avenues full of bicycle riders. Prof. Chi said he had a little surprise for me.

We rode and rode, chatting along the way in broken languages. The sun was gone, only a faint ambient glow in the dusty haze, before we set off and the streets grew darker and darker, finally going pitch black. Street lamps illuminated the route on rare occasion, directed at the ground below like a theater spot during a monologue. In between was sheer darkness and the jangle of creaking bicycle bells from every direction as, somehow, like bats whisking past, everyone was able to avoid each other.

The three of us continued for half an hour, then maybe an hour. I began to wonder where we were going, what our goal was, as there were no other lights from houses, the hutongs - the old neighborhoods surrounding the avenue - or shops or anything. Only darkness and dust and hundreds of bike riders moving past us.

A small dot of light appeared on the black horizon. A faint yellow glow. We were riding towards it. It grew in size, but the disorientation of the darkness - with the glow being the sole landmark - confused its shape. Slowly, as we approached, the image took on contours. It was a small corner shop, the only sign of illuminated life in this part of the city. We arrived and parked the bikes. Inside, Prof. Chi went directly to what we were after from the poorly stocked shelves.

It was a roll of pink toilet paper. Prof. Chi placed the lone roll in my bicycle basket between the handlebars. I almost laughed, but stopped myself. He was clearly proud of the toilet paper roll - a moment in which gratitude was due on my part. This was the surprise goal of our long bicycle mission, a gift of welcome to the American.

We returned on the same route in the darkness and bicycle bells, in which, on rare occasion, a light-skinned foreigner with a pink roll of toilet paper in his bicycle basket was illuminated in the theater spots of the avenue.

Photo: Shiho Fukada

Fear and Courage

A former student and continuing friend, Theresa MacPhail, does a segment of NPR's This I Believe called "Courage Comes With Practice." Here's, also, Theresa's blog.
...Courage isn't a natural attribute of human beings. I believe that we have to practice being courageous; using courage is like developing a muscle. The more often I do things that scare me or that make me uncomfortable, the more I realize that I can do a lot more than I originally thought I could do.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Rose Apples


Campaign contributions from oil industry executives to Sen. John McCain rose dramatically in the last half of June, after the senator from Arizona made a high-profile split with environmentalists and reversed his opposition to the federal ban on offshore drilling.

Oil and gas industry executives and employees donated $1.1 million to McCain last month -- three-quarters of which came after his June 16 speech calling for an end to the ban -- compared with $116,000 in March, $283,000 in April and $208,000 in May.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interim President Obama of the Reality-Based Community

From the department of Wish I Would Have Written It Before Frank Rich... I've been thinking the last few weeks about how much Obama seems almost to be leading US foreign policy. The Bush administration - devoid of ideas that aren't nefarious - and the McCain campaign - Clinton campaign lite, except that it can't remember its own policy statements from day to day (so why should any of the rest of us try to keep track?) - seem to have capitulated to the only smart assessments out there: that is, from the Obama camp. The 16 month timetable, what Obama has been pitching since last year, is now becoming policy, although Bush and McCain are so embarrassed that they have to use laughable language like "time horizon" rather than "schedule." Bush and McCain have both been forced to focus on Afghanistan recently, which had been relatively ignored until Obama started pointing out a year ago the slow collapse of the regime there. This combined with McCain's constant gaffes and confusion about where countries are located and what they and the US are doing make the foreign policy experience point moot in this election. Even if you don't like his policies, it's clear that Obama is, by far, better than McCain on foreign policy. Obama is right and more innovative on oil/energy, and on most domestic policy. Sometimes it's extremely important not to have been too corrupted by the language and conceptual paradigms of the insiders.

Obama has also been right on about diplomacy on his Europe trip and the world has reacted. Obama's trip to Europe, although the press is atwitter about whether it helped his campaign, was an actual piece of masterful diplomacy. It's not only the US that wants Obama as president. The world wants healing from the sado-masochistic cutting the Bush administration inflicted upon them in a splurge of violence partially sociopathic and frenetic and partially organized around the enrichment of a tiny minority of insiders.

Frank Rich has the summary today:

The growing Obama clout derives not from national polls, where his lead is modest. Nor is it a gift from the press, which still gives free passes to its old bus mate John McCain. It was laughable to watch journalists stamp their feet last week to try to push Mr. Obama into saying he was “wrong” about the surge. More than five years and 4,100 American fatalities later, they’re still not demanding that Mr. McCain admit he was wrong when he assured us that our adventure in Iraq would be fast, produce little American “bloodletting” and “be paid for by the Iraqis.”

Never mind. This election remains about the present and the future, where Iraq’s $10 billion a month drain on American pocketbooks and military readiness is just one moving part in a matrix of national crises stretching from the gas pump to Pakistan. That’s the high-rolling political casino where Mr. Obama amassed the chips he cashed in last week. The “change” that he can at times wield like a glib marketing gimmick is increasingly becoming a substantive reality — sometimes through Mr. Obama’s instigation, sometimes by luck. Obama-branded change is snowballing, whether it’s change you happen to believe in or not...

Given that Mr. McCain has already used a refitted, hand-me-down Obama campaign slogan (“A Leader You Can Believe In”), it can’t be long before he takes up fist bumps.

American foreign and domestic policy, across the board, needs serious repair and it may be doubtful that any president, constrained by convention and the operational conservatism of the US institutional structure, can make such changes. But, basically, Obama is now the de facto president of the reality-based community, starting to clean up for supposed big boys who turned out to be petulant and cruel schoolboys.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Good Deeds in Small Town America

Fábula Encinal, by Janet Eager Krueger

Friends of ours here at the blog do really nice work in the little Texas town of Encinal. The organization is Hecho en Encinal, and the artists do really good work. From the website:
Hecho en Encinal is the operating name of Art's For Everyone, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Encinal, Texas, a South Texas community located about 100 miles south of San Antonio and 40 miles north of Laredo. Our mission is to offer arts, arts education, and cultural activities to rural populations in South Texas by providing access to materials, to dialogue, and to the kinds of performers and exhibits that rarely stray from urban orbits.

Among the fundamental principles fueling our work at Hecho en Encinal is the idea that encouraging people to access and exercise their own creativity will lead to stronger, happier, and healthier communities...

Encinal is a very small, rural South Texas town. Like many rural towns across the United States, Encinal lacks what might be called a "cultural infrastructure." Put simply, kids here don't have access to the things their counterparts have access to--libraries, adult-led activities (like sports, boys, and girls clubs, and scouts), after-school clubs.

Hecho en Encinal has been seeking to fill these gaps by drawing in funding from outside of this extremely poor town; to date, we have provided after-school arts and writing clubs, coordinated the community creation of a magnificenttile mural , brought theater performances to town, and developed collaborative relationships with other cultural agencies (most notably, the Alexander Memorial Library in Cotulla).
If you're into making a donation to a lovely cause, please go here.

Or, if you're in the area, please pitch in the small sum for their raffle. The prizes are local, but go to what I promise you is a really nice cause - one of the best things about our country.
Hecho en Encinal Raffle Tickets are for sale--only $2 each...

The drawing will be held on Friday, August 1st at the premiere screening of 2 youth documentaries made this summer in Encinal: Quince (15) and No Importa Que...(No Matter What). The screening starts at 7 PM at the park in Encinal.

The raffle helps support Hecho en Encinal to provide arts, cultural and educational programs in Encinal, Texas.
Contact me if you'd like to buy raffle tickets and I'll pass along the word to the director (don't want to list her email openly online). And please explore Hecho en Encinal's site.

The Foreign Policy Experience Caricature

...the big nail-biter: Would Obama, the first-term senator and foreign-policy newbie, utter an irrevocably damaging gaffe? The nightmare scenarios were endless. Maybe he would refer to "the Iraq-Pakistan border," or call the Czech Republic "Czechoslovakia" (three times), or confuse Sunni with Shiite, or say that the U.S. troop surge preceded (and therefore caused) the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Vive le Tour Encore

This year's Tour de France started out rather slow for excitement, especially if you're not a fan of group sprints after 200km of one or two long, but tragically flawed escapes. It's certainly no fun if you're a purist regarding doping (though the doping busts seem less dramatic this year than in previous years - it's mainly Italians and Spaniards who don't get it), but then you the purist would have quit watching the Tour in the 1920s. The stages in the Pyrenees this year seemed curiously absent the orange jerseys of the wiry climbers of Basque team Euskatel. Mark Cavendish showed he's the best in the final 100m sprint, then left the Tour yesterday to prepare for the Olympics. Cadel Evans showed he's a serious overall contender, as expected. Ricardo Ricco showed that he's a crook. But... there has been something missing this year. This is going to change tomorrow, as the riders move into the Alps and then on Wednesday with the two transcendently difficult climbs, the Col de Galibier and the famous Alpe d'Huez (tossing in the Col de la Croix de Fer for additional insanity).

The top six riders in the overall classification for the start of tomorrow's stage 16 from Cuneo to Jausiers are all within one minute of each other. Eight seconds separate the top three: Frank Schleck (maillot jaune for the moment), Bernhard Kohl, and Cadel Evans. Denis Menchov is fourth at 38 seconds back with Christian Vandevelde a mere second behind Menchov. Carlos Sastre, at 49 seconds back is a threat, as are the next four riders, though they've got much more difficult work to do in the Alps.

Cadel Evans, who wore the yellow jersey for the past five days until Frank Schleck took it away on Sunday, is the better time trialist of the bunch, meaning that everyone from the current yellow jersey, Schleck, on down to Alejandro Valverde (nearly five minutes back) are going to have to attack in the mountains. Schleck has to put further time between himself and Evans, preferably about two minutes. The 32-year-old American Vandevelde, a decent time trialist, has to hold on for dear life and try to gain primarily on Evans. Menchov could very well sneak through and build a gap. And Carlos Sastre, a great climber, has to pick apart the whole field of contenders. Evans, for his part, needs to stay close to the top five or so and the Tour should then be his for the taking. A major crack in the Alps and the yellow jersey is a nice Provence memory.

But what a couple of days in the mountains we're going to have. These are incredibly difficult attacking stages and with the times so close, the whole general classification could be turned upside down by Wednesday evening. I hope you appreciate this. This is probably the most grueling sport in the world and the next two days are the best it gets.

Karadzic Arrested

Big breaking news about a war crimes fugitive:

BELGRADE - Bosnian Serb wartime president Radovan Karadzic, one of the world's most wanted men, has been arrested, a statement from the office of Serbian President Boris Tadic said on Monday.

"Karadzic was located and arrested," the statement said. He was detained and taken to see judges of the war crimes court.

Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnia war, was indicted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague in July 1995 for authorizing the shooting of civilians during the 43-month siege of Sarajevo.

He was indicted for genocide a second time four months later for orchestrating the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men after Mladic's forces seized the U.N. "safe area" of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.


He went underground in 1997 after losing power.

I'm sure Eric will have more soon.


Yes, Eric is the go-to guy. This is a particularly interesting development:
...I just heard an interview on the radio, Tatomir Toroman interviewed the editor of Zdrav život magazine, who published a series of articles on meditation by Dragan (sometimes David) Dabić [Karadzic's alias in hiding], and who says that his lectures on meditation were outstanding. The editor had no clue who was hiding behind the assumed name.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Banana Leaves

Photo: Ian Maguire

Saturday, July 19, 2008

McCain October-surprises Obama, leaks Iraq arrival info

McCain appears to have just thrown a wrench in Obama's Iraq visit. I'm guessing this will mean hasty changes to Obama's itinerary, and not that Obama's handlers will allow increased risk to his security--if indeed McCain's secrecy breach has compromised it. Maybe elements of the visit will have to be scrapped? Did McCain's have particular ones in mind or just to make Obama's tour less productive, graceful and politically advantageous in general? True, it's not October, but as a surprise this one does seem to fit in with the sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in '68 on behalf of Nixon and the sabotage of talks for the release of American hostages in Iran alleged of Reagan in the '80 campaign.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Front-page realities have intruded into my life. Busy couple of days here.... In the meantime, here are some links - nothing too long - well worth your while. I don't necessarily agree with all of them, so take them with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, they're all well done.

BLDBLOG on the "Akwizgran Discrepancy."

Cass Sunstein on the precautionary principle.

Newsweek's Stuart Taylor
saying give the torture enablers a break.

Chris Floyd on the Nangarhar wedding massacre.

Sic Semper Tyrannis on the Pakistan border situation.

Errol Morris on the Iran missile test and photo manipulation.

Tony Karon on the phony Iran saber rattles.

Jonathan Schwarz
recalls wise words on energy by Jimmy Carter from 29 years ago.

An academic piece on Deweyan institutional economics.

And, via James Wolcott, the quote of the day:
"Things have deteriorated to the point where staffers at People are mystified by the inanity of the political press corps."--Bob Somerby, Daily Howler

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sloterdijk on the Tour de France

Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk comments on the Tour de France in an interview with Spiegel.
SPIEGEL: The best-looking breasts, in general, are artificial. The strongest sexual performance is fueled by Viagra. Why are we getting so worked up about athletes doing the same thing?

Sloterdijk: There is an obvious reason: The relationship between sports and everyday life is like that between the holy and the mundane. It forms a model world, in which everything we know from the average world is intensified. The same values apply there as anywhere else, but in a more concentrated form. This is why the idea of pure performance is more important there than anywhere else. Fraud is normal in the gray zone of the normal, but in the model world it must be proscribed. This special world, framed by clear rules, is inherently designed as an artificial sphere of pure performance, which gives it a special mission. Our meritocratic society celebrates its contradictions within sports. For this reason it is, if you will, an innately transient zone. Athletes cannot be saints or priest, but they must at least live up to their reputation as heroes, and when they no longer can or want to, they become like everyone else -- and we can put them on welfare.

From Iraq to Iowa

In May this year, ICE raided a chicken-processing plant (Agriprocessors) in Postville, Iowa and arrested nearly 400 immigrant workers. I linked to the story earlier here. The Washington Post's story on it is here. (XicanoPwr has a very good description of the background and raid itself here.) The NY Times then reported that 270 of the immigrants were being sent to prison rather than deported. The new form of federal charge being used against illegal immigrants is aggravated identity theft (for using fake Social Security numbers). This allows for criminal prosecution and serious prison time. After these articles, the event seems to have dropped into a black hole in the mainstream media. What the case shows is the growing criminalization of illegal immigration on grounds other than, well, illegal immigration.

Erik Camayd-Freixas, a professor and legal interpreter in the case, who worked closely with the immigrants during their "processing," has decided to speak about the case at length and in detail about both the personal stories and the legal maneuvering on the part of the federal government.

His letter, originally circulated to other legal interpreters, can now be found here. You must read it. Why? Because, hopefully, you're humane.

Camayd-Freixas describes the setting,
...a 60-acre cattle fairground that had been transformed into a sort of concentration camp or detention center. Fenced in behind the ballroom / courtroom were 23 trailers from federal authorities, including two set up as sentencing courts; various Homeland Security buses and an “incident response” truck; scores of ICE agents and U.S. Marshals; and in the background two large buildings: a pavilion where agents and prosecutors had established a command center; and a gymnasium filled with tight rows of cots where some 300 male detainees were kept, the women being housed in county jails...

...Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10. They appeared to be uniformly no more than 5 ft. tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, some being relatives (various Tajtaj, Xicay, Sajché, Sologüí…), some in tears; others with faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment. They all spoke Spanish, a few rather laboriously. It dawned on me that, aside from their nationality, which was imposed on their people in the 19th century, they too were Native Americans, in shackles. They stood out in stark racial contrast with the rest of us as they started their slow penguin march across the makeshift court... They had all waived their right to be indicted by a grand jury and accepted instead an information or simple charging document by the U.S. Attorney, hoping to be quickly deported since they had families to support back home. But it was not to be. They were criminally charged with “aggravated identity theft” and “Social Security fraud” —charges they did not understand… and, frankly, neither could I.
In the meantime (echoing the problem I noted earlier):
Postville, Iowa (pop. 2,273), where nearly half the people worked at Agriprocessors, had lost 1/3 of its population by Tuesday morning. Businesses were empty, amid looming concerns that if the plant closed it would become a ghost town. Beside those arrested, many had fled the town in fear. Several families had taken refuge at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, terrified, sleeping on pews and refusing to leave for days. Volunteers from the community served food and organized activities for the children. At the local high school, only three of the 15 Latino students came back on Tuesday, while at the elementary and middle school, 120 of the 363 children were absent. In the following days the principal went around town on the school bus and gathered 70 students after convincing the parents to let them come back to school; 50 remained unaccounted for. Some American parents complained that their children were traumatized by the sudden disappearance of so many of their school friends. The principal reported the same reaction in the classrooms, saying that for the children it was as if ten of their classmates had suddenly died. Counselors were brought in. American children were having nightmares that their parents too were being taken away. The superintendant said the school district’s future was unclear: “This literally blew our town away.” In some cases both parents were picked up and small children were left behind for up to 72 hours. Typically, the mother would be released “on humanitarian grounds” with an ankle GPS monitor, pending prosecution and deportation, while the husband took first turn in serving his prison sentence. Meanwhile the mother would have no income and could not work to provide for her children. Some of the children were born in the U.S. and are American citizens. Sometimes one parent was a deportable alien while the other was not. “Hundreds of families were torn apart by this raid,” said a Catholic nun. “The humanitarian impact of this raid is obvious to anyone in Postville. The economic impact will soon be evident.”

But this was only the surface damage. Alongside the many courageous actions and expressions of humanitarian concern in the true American spirit, the news blogs were filled with snide remarks of racial prejudice and bigotry, poorly disguised beneath an empty rhetoric of misguided patriotism, not to mention the insults to anyone who publicly showed compassion, safely hurled from behind a cowardly online nickname. One could feel the moral fabric of society coming apart beneath it all.
Apart from humaneness, you might also worry about what the excess bloat in the monstrous anti-terrorism bureaucracy - i.e., Homeland Security - now does to fulfill its mission and fill its quotas. I'm a believer in sound government run by competent people and driven by concerns for solving real problems and for the well-being of the people who ostensibly endow it with its existence and legitimacy. But like any expanding bureaucracy driven at its originating core by fear and suspicion, we may now have a government more involved in creating its own enemies - from Iraq to Iowa - than battling real ones.

Camayd-Freixas writes,
It is no secret that the Postville ICE raid was a pilot operation, to be replicated elsewhere, with kinks ironed out after lessons learned. Next time, “fast-tracking” will be even more relentless. Never before has illegal immigration been criminalized in this fashion. It is no longer enough to deport them: we first have to put them in chains. At first sight it may seem absurd to take productive workers and keep them in jail at taxpayers’ expense. But the economics and politics of the matter are quite different from such rational assumptions. A quick look at the ICE Fiscal Year 2007 Annual Report (www.ice.gov) shows an agency that has grown to 16,500 employees and a $5 billion annual budget, since it was formed under Homeland Security in March 2003, “as a law enforcement agency for the post-9/11 era, to integrate enforcement authorities against criminal and terrorist activities, including the fights against human trafficking and smuggling, violent transnational gangs and sexual predators who prey on children” (17). No doubt, ICE fulfills an extremely important and noble duty. The question is why tarnish its stellar reputation by targeting harmless illegal workers. The answer is economics and politics. After 9/11 we had to create a massive force with readiness “to prevent, prepare for and respond to a wide range of catastrophic incidents, including terrorist attacks, natural disasters, pandemics and other such significant events that require large-scale government and law enforcement response” (23). The problem is that disasters, criminality, and terrorism do not provide enough daily business to maintain the readiness and muscle tone of this expensive force. For example, “In FY07, ICE human trafficking investigations resulted in 164 arrests and 91 convictions” (17). Terrorism related arrests were not any more substantial. The real numbers are in immigration: “In FY07, ICE removed 276,912 illegal aliens” (4). ICE is under enormous pressure to turn out statistical figures that might justify a fair utilization of its capabilities, resources, and ballooning budget. For example, the Report boasts 102,777 cases “eliminated” from the fugitive alien population in FY07, “quadrupling” the previous year’s number, only to admit a page later that 73,284 were “resolved” by simply “taking those cases off the books” after determining that they “no longer met the definition of an ICE fugitive” (4-5).

De facto, the rationale is: we have the excess capability; we are already paying for it; ergo, use it we must... why focus on illegal workers who pose no threat? Elementary: they are easy pickings. True criminal and fugitive aliens have to be picked up one at a time, whereas raiding a slaughterhouse is like hitting a small jackpot: it beefs up the numbers...

Simply put, the criminalization of illegal workers is just a cheap way of boosting ICE “criminal alien” arrest statistics. But after Postville, it is no longer a matter of clever paperwork and creative accounting: this time around 130 man-years of prison time were handed down pursuant to a bogus charge...

This massive buildup for the New Era is the outward manifestation of an internal shift in the operational imperatives of the Long War, away from the “war on terror” (which has yielded lean statistics) and onto another front where we can claim success: the escalating undeclared war on illegal immigration. “Had this effort been in place prior to 9/11, all of the hijackers who failed to maintain status would have been investigated months before the attack” (9). According to its new paradigm, the agency fancies that it can conflate the diverse aspects of its operations and pretend that immigration enforcement is really part and parcel of the “war on terror.” This way, statistics in the former translate as evidence of success in the latter. Thus, the Postville charges—document fraud and identity theft—treat every illegal alien as a potential terrorist, and with the same rigor. At sentencing, as I interpreted, there was one condition of probation that was entirely new to me: “You shall not be in possession of an explosive artifact.” The Guatemalan peasants in shackles looked at each other, perplexed.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Over on the culture-war front at Fort Pharyngula, PZ Meyers and the Catholic League seem to be in agreement that the best defense is a good offense. After PZ ranted anti-religiously in support of a Florida student who turned around and pocketed his just-blessed sacramental wafer, instead of crushing it against the roof of his mouth and swallowing it, the Catholic League announced they would be complaining to PZ's university regents and president, suggesting he was in violation of the school's official "Code of Conduct." The League release presented an e-mail address for the president to encourage others to complain personally, and of course they offered directions to PZ's blog as well. You can imagine the rest. Comments shut down due to overflow long ago. If you're religious, this would be a good time, I think, to pray for them all. I'll just dance around the pyre.

If you've never seen how the knights fight and wonder what it would look like, consider this 2006 conversation between Bill Moyers and Daniel Dennett.

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures. Rather than attempting to place the experience of others within the framework of such a conception, which is what the extolled "empathy" in fact usually comes down to, understanding them demands setting that conception aside and seeing their experiences within the framework of their own idea of what selfhood is.

- Clifford Geertz, "'From the Native's Point of View': On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding" 1974

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Whiner Candidate

Phil Gramm, McCain economic advisor:
"You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession," he said, noting that growth has held up at about 1 percent despite all the publicity over losing jobs to India, China, illegal immigration, housing and credit problems and record oil prices. "We may have a recession; we haven't had one yet."

"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," he said. "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline" despite a major export boom that is the primary reason that growth continues in the economy, he said.

John McCain:
Trib: Are we in a recession now in your opinion?

McCain: Of course, I believe that we're in a recession, but the important thing, you know, people sit around the kitchen table at night saying how are we going to make the mortgage payment?

Pollution Head

Via Hilzoy, The Independent notes Bush's farewell remarks to the G-8 meeting in Hokkaido.

President George Bush signed off with a defiant farewell over his refusal to accept global climate change targets at his last G8 summit.

As he prepared to fly out from Japan, he told his fellow leaders: "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter."


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Book Bush in '09?

The International Court in the Hague may be more romantic, and a formal action by Congress more desirable, but maybe the most practical way to make an example of George W. Bush would be through your district attorney's office. Was a Guardsman in your county one of more than 4000 soldiers to die in Iraq over WMD, as a result of fraudulent findings, which Bush submitted knowingly and with malice aforethought, in order to receive consent from Congress to wage a war there? Then your local DA may have an excellent case for murder. Veteran prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi has been making this case before growing numbers of people, and despite a shut out by the networks, in connection with his most recent bestselling book.

Such a case is bound to shoot like a rocket up to the Supremes, I suppose, but given a set of facts so different from those of Bush v. Gore, it's got to be worth a try. Anyway, three branches means we get three swings at good governance under the Constitution, and to quit at two just wouldn't be patriotic. Let's Book Bush in '09

Maoist Separatists in Northern India

This is a terrific essay in VQR by Jason Motlagh, a South Asia-based freelance journalist. A few snippets from a story that is both unique to the place and common in its economic dynamics the world over:
“The Islamist is dying, the ethnic [separatist] is dying,” Sahni warned, “but they may be replaced by the Maoist.” He spoke of a rift in the Indian security establishment between those who are looking at the Maoist movement as it stands today, and those who see its potential. “The Home Minister has more transient political objectives in mind. He says the Naxal threat is fading . . . If that’s the case,” Sahni asked, “then why is the movement spreading?” Prime Minister Singh, on the other hand, is one of the few who recognizes the Maoists are “building up to a confrontation that is based on the exploitation of every single vulnerability and fault line within the Indian system, which they are already doing with great rigor and,” Sahni hesitated, “almost with genius.”...

In January, I spent a week in western Orissa state with the Dongria Kond tribespeople. Cannibals until the late nineteenth century, they live outside of Indian history—except for once a week when they travel on foot as many as ten miles to sell tendu leaves (used to roll bidi cigarettes) and palm wine at the nearest town market. For the past four years they’ve been involved in fierce legal battle with a UK-based company that wants to mine bauxite ore from sacred hills. In a scenario typical of many others playing out around India, Vedanta Resources built a refinery at the base of Niyamgiri Mountain without approval, expecting ex post facto support from the state. The Dongria, backed by a small army of activists, fought all the way to the Supreme Court in Delhi. The bench made a surprise ruling in their favor. In doing so, they also spelled out a loophole that may one day allow the company to break ground. Once again, the Dongria are bracing for a fight. “If anyone comes to take our Niyamgiri we will fight them with axes and shoot them with arrows,” tribal farmer Bari Pidikaka, told me, raising his battle-ax, “so these people can understand how the Dongria Kond are strong and love these hills.”

Lower-caste groups face the same assault. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)—which since independence has dominated West Bengal politics on a platform of social justice—decided last spring to allow an Indonesia-based company to set up a chemical hub, and that meant converting 10,000 acres of farmland into a Chinese-style Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Villagers resisted for months, until the state government dispatched 4,000 armed police and party thugs to evict them. In the ensuing violence at least 11 people were killed and 70 wounded. Nine more people died when protests flared again in November. The Marxists have accused the Maoists of stoking tensions, which still boil in the region, and elsewhere, as similar projects are imposed. Indian trade minister Kamal Nath, for his part, recently defended SEZs—now totaling 453 across 19 states—for generating billions in exports, “notwithstanding the skepticism expressed by a few persons.”

The backlash at Nandigram and Niyamgiri illustrates how development in India often favors a select few at the expense of many, widening social rifts the Maoists are keen to exploit. “We, the Maoists, are confronted with the great task of providing revolutionary leadership to over a billion people, at a time when the entire country is being transformed into a neo-colony, when the country is being sold away to the imperialists and the big business in the name of SEZs, when millions upon millions of people are being displaced by so-called development projects, when workers, peasants, employees, students, sections of the intelligentsia, [untouchables], women, [tribals], religious minorities, and others are seething with revolt,” proclaimed the Community Party of India’s general secretary, Muppala Lakshmana Rao who operates under the nom de guerre Ganapathy. “We shall be at the forefront of every people’s movement.”

Bergamot Orange


Robert Farley, at Tapped:

Is Iran a threat to the existence of the United States? Joltin' Joe Lieberman says yes:

Obviously Israel is first in the line of Iranian fire. And it represents an existential threat to Israel. But you know who is next? The Arab countries in the Middle East and they’re worried about the Iranian program and want us to ask strongly to stop it. And we’re next! Because Ahmadinejad in Tehran constantly leads the mobs in shouts of death to America. And they mean it.

...Fortunately, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has prepared a helpful chart:

Population 303,824,646 65,875,223
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) $13.8 trillion $0.75 trillion
Defense spending fiscal year 2009 $711 billion $7.2 billion
Total troops 2,580,875 895,000
Main battle tanks 8,023 1,613
Reconnaissance vehicles 348 35
Armored infantry fighting vehicles 6,719 610
Armored personnel carriers 21,242 640
Artillery units 8,041 8,196
Helicopters 5,425 311
Submarines 71 6
Principal surface combatants 106 5
Patrol and coastal combatants 157 320
Mine warfare ships 9 5
Amphibious ships 490 21
Fighter aircraft 3,538 286
Long-range bomber aircraft 170 None
Transport aircraft 883 136
Electronic warfare/intelligence aircraft 159 3
Reconnaissance aircraft 134 6
Maritime patrol aircraft 197 8
Anti-submarine warfare aircraft 58 None
Airborne early warning aircraft 53 None
Nuclear warheads ~5,400 None
Is there any graver threat to the US in the world today than artillery units and patrol and coastal combatants (halfway across the world)?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Selective Editing

So much about the current US presidency has been about lies, trickery, misinformation, propaganda, ignorance, cronyism, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and, well, outright crimes by the dozens. They have treated the American people as idiots and, well, much of America has proven them right. The lack of democratic spirit in the administration's approach is profound. I don't think many people yet understand how deep the attack on democracy by this administration runs. We tend to spend much more time on specific instances - the wars, FISA and other forms of domestic spying, pretty much every policy proposed by the administration....

I'm not much for founding father worship (to treat them as final authorities belies the democratic spirit, not to mention Jefferson's and Madison's own thoughts on democratic experimentalism). But you would expect a president to be faithful to the words of Jefferson. Not this president...
Here's the president's citation from Jefferson in his speech at Monticello on July 4:

In one of the final letters of his life, he wrote, "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."

Here's the original:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

The former is Bush's ideological version of what is otherwise a typically anti-authoritarian statement by Jefferson, a concern that dominated traditional liberal political thought. Bush excludes that part.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Doing Business from the Green Zone

Here's an example of a sales-pitch to an Iraqi host for casinos in Baghdad, via Mother Jones:
When you have a jack and a six and you hit, everybody's in it together. That rush transcends your language, your culture, your religion. And that's what I think is really bring people together, whether you're Sunni, Shia, or Kurd, you're going to wearing that same casino uniform. With the same nameplate, that says, "We're all one, we all work for the casino, there are not differences between us."
I'm probably soon going to be an adviser to the McCain campaign… and I can assure you that John McCain supports this effort. John McCain, who will likely be the next American president. And I think the people here in Baghdad should understand that a future American president supports this endeavor. And John McCain as the head of the Indian Affairs Committee in the Senate knows hands-on, full well the importance of development. And how a casino, how a sauna, how a golf course can transform a people, can transform a region, and bring peace to groups that otherwise fight.
We also had a racial conflict, between the Indians, the white people (the Caucasians from Europe), and the black people from Africa — and somehow casinos have managed to fix that divide. Where only 20 years ago, Indians were drunk and homeless and committing crimes. Today they're prosperous and wealthy, driving in Mercedes. Their kids with Gameboys and Playstations. Satellite dishes on their homes.
And so too the black people with the sports have managed to advance themselves in this kind of entertainment sector. And it's brought a harmony between all the people. And we intend to bring that kind of thing here to Baghdad.
The man speaking, Martin Eisenstadt, has since apologized, saying that he was "representing commercial interests in the Green Zone, and did not formally have a position with the McCain campaign." Yet, he means. He also claimed to be taken out of context....
Watch the video for "context," if you must.


McCain took Congress to task for taking a July 4 recess without completing action on a housing rescue plan, calling it "incredible that Congress should go on vacation while Americans are trying to stay in their homes."

...until you realize that John McCain has missed 367 votes in the 110th Congress. He is the most absent member of the Senate.

Welcome, MT!

I'm very pleased to say that we have a new occasional contributor here. It's MT. You may know him from his smart, funny, and critical comments here and elsewhere or from his blog, Murky Thoughts. Please give him a big welcome by writing sardonic comments on his first post.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Notes on War with Iran

Thomas Powers' essay in the New York Review of Books is right on the mark regarding potential war with Iran. It is, of course, an absolutely crazy idea, but the Bush administration doesn't appear to want to disabuse anyone of that crazy idea. Read the piece.

There are three points I want to highlight here:

1) Iran's leaders are not "crazy." I discussed this two years ago in a slightly different context. But the point bears repeating for a targeted reason: the Bush administration uses this claim as one of the many ideological blinders in its ideological toolbox. Powers, however, writes,
Nothing in the modern affairs of nations has been more exhaustively analyzed and debated than the utility and dangers of nuclear weapons, and yet the dangers posed by Iran with a bomb have been barely discussed. They are treated as a given. The core idea is that Iran cannot be trusted because the country is run by religious fanatics crazy enough to use a bomb if they had one...

The seriousness of American threats is confirmed by the fact that no significant national leader in the United States has ever disowned or objected to them in clear, vigorous, principled language. It is as if the whole country listens to the administration's threats with breath held, wondering if Bush and Cheney really mean to do as they say, and in effect leaving the decision entirely to them. Americans may count on the President to think twice, but why would leaders in Tehran, responsible for the lives of 70 million citizens, want to depend on President Bush's restraint for their survival and safety? Bush has a history. On his own authority, without the sanction of any international body, he attacked Iraq five years ago and precipitated a bloody chain of events that shows no sign of ending. It would be natural, indeed inevitable, for any government in Tehran, seeing what has happened next door, to ask what could save Iran from a similar fate. An answer is not far to seek: nuclear weapons with a reliable delivery system could do that.
The logic is pretty simple, but apparently beyond the hawks' grasp. The threat dynamic is precisely the inverse of what the Bush administrations says it is. The threat from Iran is vague and ill-defined by the administration. The threat to Iran from the Bush administration, however, has been clear for years. The invasion of Iraq gives the threat a concrete reality unmatched by any purported threats from Iran, which tend to remain local and rhetorical. People and governments who are threatened respond by defending themselves or preparing to defend themselves. Administration policy is, in this sense, making Iran stronger by giving its defensive efforts - whether nuclear or not - rather clear legitimacy.

2) The US military are currently the rational ones in the area of Iran policy. Recall that Admiral William Fallon, entered into early retirement in March, had said that an Iran attack wouldn't happen on his watch. Powers writes,

When a reporter asked Gates if Fallon's departure "means we're going to war with Iran," the secretary called the idea "ridiculous." But he didn't leave it at that. He began his own campaign of public remarks stressing the importance of a peaceful resolution of the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program. As he had at West Point, Gates held fast to the administration's basic stance—"all options are on the table"—but he drained the pugnacity of the claim with Fallon-like flourishes. "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage...and then sit down and talk with them," Gates said in mid-May. "There is no doubt that... we would be very hard-pressed to fight another major conventional war right now." Admiral Mullen sounded a similar note when he recently told a television journalist in Israel that he was "very hopeful" that the US could avoid a conflict with Iran, which he evaluated as "a very significant challenge." Mullen added:

I certainly share the concern about Iran and about the leadership, and I think it is very important that we increase as much as possible the financial pressure, the diplomatic pressure, the political pressure, and at the same time keep all the military options on the table.
An anecdote.... In the recent past, I taught a graduate course in which the students were comprised of a number of people from across the intelligence and defense world in Washington, DC. There were civilians and there were military people in the class. By far, the military people were sharpest, most willing to engage ideas from a number of different perspectives, and most eager to find and develop the best arguments. Some of the civilians trotted out reactionary patriotic claims as arguments or blurted out "nuke them all" types of conclusions. The military people, on questions of war and foreign policy, were very careful, analytical, and understood that actions give legitimacy - whether right or wrong - to the operative principle underlying them. That is, if the US tortures (which was viewed as morally wrong by the military students), this opens the way for other countries also to torture. If US actions violated the principles of just war doctrine, this opened the path for others to do the same. Justifications for such views were not simply based on self-interest, but on ideas of principled conduct. These students sought objective moral and political arguments. The "nuke them all" civilian patriots, on the other hand, upheld the moral relativist claims of the Bush administration that if the US does it, it cannot be wrong.

It's important to understand that there are many in the military leadership and lower ranks - perhaps most? - who view war as a last resort and a great human evil. This contrasts with Bush administration policy and rhetoric, which is quick to the draw and which glorifies war. The latter plays well with its political audience, especially the "nuke them all" civilians of the right. But this rhetoric is not reflected in military analysis, intelligence, and leadership. A sane Iran policy is, thus, not to be sought form the administration - hardly a controversial statement - but from real military analysts independently considering the facts on the ground in conjunction with the best available tools of theoretical analysis.

3) Regarding the statment by Gates excerpted above, Powers writes again,
Develop some leverage...sit down and talk...financial pressure, diplomatic pressure, political pressure.... These are unfamiliar words coming from the Bush administration. They roughly echo the approach of Barack Obama, who has said he would "talk" to the leaders of Iran, meaning that he would commence discussion of serious issues without first demanding concessions. The Bush administration rejects this idea.
That speaks for itself.

Thursday, July 03, 2008



Documenting the endless political repositioning of John "I never said that" McCain.... From the past couple of weeks alone (go to Carpetbagger Report for the whole litany):
* McCain supported the drilling moratorium; now he’s against it.

* McCain strongly opposes a windfall-tax on oil company profits. Three weeks earlier, he was perfectly comfortable with the idea.

* McCain thought Bush’s warrantless-wiretap program circumvented the law; now he believes the opposite.

* McCain defended “privatizing” Social Security. Now he says he’s against privatization (though he actually still supports it.)

Wait, I’m not done with the last two weeks yet….

* McCain wanted to change the Republican Party platform to protect abortion rights in cases of rape and incest. Now he doesn’t.

* McCain thought the estate tax was perfectly fair. Now he believes the opposite.

* He opposed indefinite detention of terrorist suspects. When the Supreme Court reached the same conclusion, he called it “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

* McCain said he would “not impose a litmus test on any nominee.” He used to promise the opposite....

John McCain... the guy everyone says is already a known quantity.

A Russian Abu Ghraib?

Valery Dzutsev reports that Russia may have set up its own Abu Ghraib in the North Caucusus:
In a special report, published Monday 23 June [Russian news agency, Regnum] publishes letters of terrorist suspects that were arrested after the attack in October 2005 in Nalchik, Kabardin-Balkaria.

The author of the letter describes the horrible ways in which he was treated in the police department, including electric shock, death squads, sexual violence, beatings, etc. These facts have been collected and filed in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Number of the described characters died either while in detention or immediately after their release. Russian prosecutors found no evidence of excessive application of force.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Mitigating Militantly Mindless Militarism

If you can wade past all the hysteria out there in the media and internets, Cheryl Rofer talks sense on the whole ridiculous Wesley Clark affair and her brief remarks are basically all you need to read:
When I heard Wesley Clark say, on Sunday, that while John McCain's behavior as a prisoner of war was honorable, it wasn't a job qualification for the presidency, I breathed a sigh of relief that at last someone was calling the McCain campaign, and possibly even more so, the media, on the unthinking conflation of things military with things civilian.

McCain's POW experience speaks to a particular kind of military discipline and honor. Those qualities have some relevance to the character traits we want in a president. But too often, McCain's POW experience seems to stand in for experience in foreign affairs, military command, and numerous other intellectual/managerial qualities we want in a president. I thought that Clark made the distinction nicely, and that it was a distinction that needed saying...

The problem with a lifetime of honorable service in the military, intensified by experience as a POW, is that it can produce a mindset that elevates that military. McCain's membership in today's Republican party and everything he has said so far on the Iraq war suggest that he shares this mindset, part of the militarization of our society.

So I'm joining others in the blogosphere in saying that Wesley Clark said nothing wrong. In fact, what he said could be a beginning of disentangling American security from mindless militarism.

Eulogy to Saffron

One of my newly favorite-est writers on the internet is Elatia Harris, who writes at our friends' place, 3 Quarks Daily. I previously linked to her fine essay on Japanese art. Now, Monday's essay continues a series she's been doing intermittently on her love for saffron. Elatia writes beautiful eulogies without a hint of the pomposity sometimes accompanying the form. These are subtle, lovely essays in praise of the intricacies of fine substances and objects often at the margins of our lives.

A Really Really Bad Presidency

My desultory blogging habits can't keep me away from the link of the day which is making the blog-arounds. It is Andrew Bacevich's piece counting some of the ways in which the Bush presidency has been really really bad. Let's enumerate:
The administration's many failures, especially those related to Iraq, mask a considerable legacy. Among other things, the Bush team has accomplished the following:
  • Defined the contemporary era as an "age of terror" with an open-ended "global war" as the necessary, indeed the only logical, response;
  • Promulgated and implemented a doctrine of preventive war, thereby creating a far more permissive rationale for employing armed force;
  • Affirmed - despite the catastrophe of Sept. 11, 2001 - that the primary role of the Department of Defense is not defense, but power projection;
  • Removed constraints on military spending so that once more, as Ronald Reagan used to declare, "defense is not a budget item";
  • Enhanced the prerogatives of the imperial presidency on all matters pertaining to national security, effectively eviscerating the system of checks and balances;
  • Preserved and even expanded the national security state, despite the manifest shortcomings of institutions such as the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff;
  • Preempted any inclination to question the wisdom of the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus, founded on expectations of a sole superpower exercising "global leadership";
  • Completed the shift of US strategic priorities away from Europe and toward the Greater Middle East, the defense of Israel having now supplanted the defense of Berlin as the cause to which presidents and would-be presidents ritually declare their fealty.

    By almost any measure, this constitutes a record of substantial, if almost entirely malignant, achievement.

  • No kidding. If I hadn't been making such lists for the past seven years, I'd pitch in. Now, I'm just tired. There's so much work to do over the next few decades to clean up the god-awful mess that it's best to conserve energy for now.

    There's more from Brad Reed at Alternet.