Monday, October 31, 2011

Violence Begets Violence, or the Other Way Around

Here's another one of those things that reveals a strange attitude in our media -- strange when you think about it, anyway, or when I think about it.

The Huffington Post posted a story on the Occupy Wall Street protests, headlining the corporate media's favorite Catholic fascist and former Nixon toady, Pat Buchanan. For a supposed extremist, Buchanan has enjoyed a very comfortable ongoing relationship with the mainstream, even more comfortable than Rush Limbaugh's. But anyway, today was Buchanan's day for some concern trolling about OWS:
“It’s going to end very, very badly with these folks in the winter and they’re not going to be getting publicity and they’re going to be acting up and acting badly like the worst of the demonstrators in the 60s," Buchanan said. "They’re going to start fighting with the cops.”
This was on The McLaughlin Group, a weekly program with a notable right-wing slant; so of course it originated on the commie Public Broadcasting System, though in 2007 it began airing on some CBS stations.

The HuffPost story then offered anecdotes which I suppose were intended to support or illustrate Buchanan's prediction.
Occupy Wall Street took a violent turn this week as Oakland police unleashed tear gas on protesters and injured an Iraq war veteran.

On Saturday, scores were arrested in Denver after protesters clashed with local law enforcement. When cops began to spray Mace on the crowd, several protestors reportedly retaliated by kicking and pushing police.
So, it was OWS that "took a violent turn" in Oakland -- not the police, who initiated the attack. And in Denver, when the police just began innocently and nonviolently "to spray Mace on the crowd," some protesters fought back. True, OWS has declared a nonviolent stance, which usually means non-retaliation even to police violence. But still, wouldn't it have been more accurate to write something like
The Oakland Police turned violent Thursday against Occupy Oakland, unleashing teargas against nonviolent demonstrators and critically injuring an Iraq war veteran.
or
On Saturday, scores of OWS protesters were arrested in Denver after some fought back mildly against an unprovoked police attack.
Even that is granting the Denver police too much, since they doubtless intended to arrest scores of protesters whether they fought back or not. I suppose this sort of reportage and commentary is a preview of propaganda and state violence to come.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

There's an Echo in Here!

Ah, I knew there was something else I'd been meaning to write about.

Kim Brooks, whose reflections on the uselessness of high school English classes I discussed some time ago, returned to Salon last weekend with weeping and lamentation over ... erm, well, her own narrow-mindedness and intolerance on Facebook. The given title was "Is my Facebook page a liberal echo chamber?"

She'd found herself in what is probably a common situation for us older people who've been out of school for a few decades and didn't construct our school environment around the Internet from the start, because it didn't exist back then: she was re-establishing contact with people she knew in high school. She questioned the decision at first but then figured, What the hell, why not? I did pretty much the same thing when I began getting friend invitations on Facebook from high school acquaintances a few months after I joined.

She quickly learned why not.
President Obama had just given a televised speech on the economy, and this particular gentleman, someone I’d never known well but with whom I’d shared a neighborhood and a classroom for most of kindergarten through 12th grade, a fellow I remember as being pleasant, a bit on the quiet side, a member of the marching band, certainly not a bully or a jerk, had written, “Just turned off the t.v. More lies from B. Hussein Obama.” Within a few minutes, 10 people had “liked” this comment. Within a few more minutes, others had begun to add comments of their own, nearly all of which made reference to the president’s skin color, “questionable” national origin, or socialist death-panel agenda. I nearly fell out of my chair. My heart was racing. I squinted at the screen. I read the comments again and again. This was the real deal, not on Fox News but right here on MY computer, on MY Facebook page. I’d invited it in, that horrible place I’d left the day I graduated from high school. I looked down at my keyboard and saw that my hands were shaking. I decided to add a comment of my own: “Don’t like! Boy, am I glad I don’t live in Richmond anymore. You are un-friended!”
My own situation was different. I expected to see such things. But then I've been using the Internet for twenty-five years. I've spent a lot of time reading the subliterate ravings of people I hadn't gone to school with, but might have, and learning to deal with them, to call them out when they lie, to point out when they've passed along a well-discredited legend, to read with care what they replied, and to try to answer them without jerking my left-wing knee too much. I've also debated people who fall on the same place of the political spectrum as I do; there's no guarantee that we'll always agree with each other. This has been useful, if only to hone my own arguments, but also to make sure that I hear the views of people with different perspectives.

But I also had the advantage of spending thirty-seven years working with college students from all over the world (and contrary to popular stereotypes, not all college students are liberal hippies), but also with plenty of good old boys and gals from Southern Indiana (and contrary to popular stereotypes, not all good old Hoosiers are right-wing rednecks). Not only that but working on, and eventually running, the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Speakers Bureau put me regularly in front of audiences that included everyone from raving homophobes to the children of gay or lesbian parents. Since we provide panels, not solitary speakers, I was sharing the stage with gay people who ranged from fellow Gay Liberationists to the (former) president of College Republicans. (He was kicked out of the organization and pulled from school by his parents when word got around that he was gay.) A lot of those people are in my Facebook friends list now. So my Facebook page, let alone my world, is not a liberal echo chamber.

I can't say the same for Our Ms. Brooks. Not only her Facebook page, but her life is evidently structured so as to protect her from people with differing values and opinions.
As an angsty teenager and college student, I used to mock people who lived in gated communities, who were so afraid of the unfamiliar world they had to erect a physical boundary to keep it at bay. But now I wonder, aren’t the boundaries we draw with Facebook just as secure as a man-made moat or an underpaid security guard manning a booth? Was the daily back-and-forth on my Facebook feed really a conversation, or was it no more than an echo chamber?

... In a world of friending and unfriending, the 99 percent versus the 53 percent, Obama as antichrist against Obama as savior, who, I wonder, has the tolerance anymore for such messy contradictions, such tainted, imperfect kinships? Who has the patience?
The most pertinent response to this, I think, would be "What do you mean 'we', white woman?" The only person in her article she really can point to who fits this picture is herself. Not that she's alone -- far from it. I've been unfriended for True Political Incorrectness by a few people on Facebook myself. The only person I've unfriended was a former co-worker who moved to another state and sent me a friend invitation before he found Jesus and began spamming his feed with Bible quotations, self-pitying inspirational soundbytes, and overtly racist anti-Obama material. He attacked me when I commented critically on his postings, so when I found that blocking his Bible feed wasn't enough to stem the flood of swill, I finally unfriended him.

As those who read this blog will know, though, I have plenty of contact with other right-wingers on Facebook, such as my two Right Wing Acquaintances. They've given me a lot of material, which saves me the trouble of browsing the Right's propaganda mills; RWA1 especially gives me what he considers the cream of the crop, the serious commentators, so he can't accuse me of cherrypicking ignorant yahoos. Then there's my Tabloid Friend, who's one of several Obama stalwarts in my Friends list. I've also got my high school friends, most of whom are simple Republican fundamentalists, though there's also the middle-of-the-road minister and his wife and a Randite high school teacher who recently moved from teaching Army brats in Europe to a different environment in Africa. I don't respond critically to everything they post, but when it seems proper, I do. Some have defriended me, others ignore me, and I'm having real (though virtual) conversations with some others. With War on Christmas Season less than a month away, I'm sure things are going to heat up again.

Who has the tolerance, who has the patience? Well, I do, for one. But so do the people who put up with me, online and face to face. Kim Brooks is overgeneralizing and oversimplifying from far too small a sample: a sample of one. What disturbs me is that she's not just a Salon pundit; she's also been a college writing instructor -- might still be, for all I know -- and not in the Ivy League, but in community colleges, which aren't exactly liberal hothouses either. She must have been a really involved, empathic teacher if she never noticed that her students didn't always agree with her politics.

One more thing, though: there's no reason why anyone's Facebook page has to be an arena for debate or the broadcast of opinions (whether your own or your friends'). That's one reason, apart from shyness, that I usually wait until people I knew in high school invite me on Facebook; and when I accept their invitations, I don't grill them on their political or religious positions to ensure they meet my high standards. They'll see some of my opinions expressed in my newsfeed soon enough, and they're welcome to react. I wait to see how they use Facebook, and if they only post photos of their grandchildren and Youtube videos of cute kittens or Top 40 hits from our youth, then butter won't melt in my mouth. If they start posting stuff about Illegal Immigrants Who Don't Pay Taxes, or the Kenyan Usurper banning Christmas Trees from the White House, though, they've entered the arena of debate.

So I don't object to Kim Brooks defriending anybody whose politics she dislikes, any more than she should object if they do the same to her. What I object to is her projecting her own hatred of difference onto everyone else, as though she weren't responsible for her own opinions and actions. (I suspect her freakout over commas is not entirely unrelated to this.) I realize that many people think of stating their opinions in public as an invitation to social bonding: You and I both agree that Meskins are dirty and should go back home, right? The homosexuals want to bring America to its knees, don't they? They need to learn that they won't always get the agreement they seek. I've gotten used to it; so can they. And now that I think about it, that's probably what Brooks was doing in this and her other essays for Salon: We're all intolerant, aren't we? All mothers are Jewish mothers, aren't they -- really? People who can't use commas correctly are low-class and stupid, aren't they? Well, since you ask ...

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Production of Ignorance

I'm almost caught up on topics I've wanted to write about, though some have just slid away and been forgotten. This one will almost bring me up to date. For this week.

Last Sunday one Nathan Jurgenson published an article on Salon claiming that Noam Chomsky is "wrong about Twitter." His chief source was an interview Chomsky gave to a fanboy blogger last March, though he did link to a 1997 article by Chomsky on the mainstream media and to the Wikipedia page covering Manufacturing Consent, which Chomsky coauthored with the economist and media analyst Ed Herman. A lot of people tend to forget Herman's contribution. (My ghod, Herman is three years older than Chomsky; for some reason I took it for granted that he was the younger of the two.)

So, what does Chomsky get wrong about Twitter? Quoth Jurgenson,
“Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing […] is extremely rapid, very shallow communication,” he said to interviewer Jeff Jetton. Chomsky said. “[I] think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent.” Chomsky expanded on this point in another interview last December with Figure/Ground Communication, a site devoted to technology and society.

“Well, let’s take, say, Twitter,” he said. “It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication […] It is not a medium of a serious interchange.”

Maybe I should not read too much into these statements, but “off-the-cuff” remarks often reveal much more than we might assume. They illuminate Chomsky’s larger view of media and, most importantly, highlight the larger trend of established first-world intellectuals dismissing digital communications as less deep or worthwhile than the means of communication that they prefer.

A number of commenters, including me, jumped all over Jurgenson's claims. Some appealed to authority (How dare a young upstart like you criticize an honored thinker like Chomsky?); others bitched about "relativism" and the decline of punctuation in our post-modern society. Several pointed to other "off-the-cuff remarks" Chomsky made in another interview Jurgenson cited: "... in the existing society – which has very high concentrations of power – then access to social media can be a positive force. It has negative aspects too in my opinion, but in general it is fairly positive." Chomsky's well aware of the uses of the Internet generally and of social media in particular; he's been talking about them for years in connection with political organizing, as far back as the 90s if I remember right.

Nothing Jurgenson says really answers, let alone refutes, Chomsky's negative remarks about Twitter. He cites claims that "nonwhites are much more likely to connect to the Web, communicate and create content on mobile phones than are whites." Maybe so, but this says nothing about the quality of nonwhites' communication using that technology, unless Jurgenson is assuming that nonwhites are naturally, automatically deeper than whites. But even that is dignifying him too much; Jurgenson is mainly concerned to show that Chomsky is old and white, so he couldn't possibly understand what the cool young people are doing with the new media. And Tahrir Square! The Arab Spring!
In fact, in the debate about whether rapid and social media really are inherently less deep than other media, there are compelling arguments for and against. Yes, any individual tweet might be superficial, but a stream of tweets from a political confrontation like Tahrir Square, a war zone like Gaza or a list of carefully-selected thinkers makes for a collection of expression that is anything but shallow. Social media is like radio: It all depends on how you tune it.
"In fact," Chomsky did not say that "rapid and social media are inherently less deep than other media." He explicitly said that they have positive uses. Nor does Jurgenson offer any evidence that "a stream of tweets from a political confrontation like Tahrir Square" would be deep. He seems to assume that they must be, because Tahrir Square was like, world-historic and fateful and people-of-colorful. I suppose that the tweets that came from Tahrir Square were on the order of "Mom, I'm safe, I'll be home by midnight," "The police are coming from over there, so we're all moving over here," "Where are you?" "We need more people to help fight against Mubarak's thugs." Such communication is valuable, human, moving, important, but it isn't deep. How much discussion of aims and goals and methods in the Arab Spring has taken place via Twitter, and how much was done face to face in the crowds? If social media were so world-changingly effective, there would have been no need to gather in Tahrir Square at all -- the revolution could have been virtual. Jurgenson not only misunderstands Chomsky, he misunderstands social media.

I have my own doubts about some of Chomsky's remarks. He does, as I've noticed before, have little appreciation for popular culture, which has more to do with his science-nerd temperament than anything else. But from what I've read, most human use of language isn't deep, even when it's face to face. But again, that doesn't make it less valuable. We use language as a form of grooming; that may be how it first evolved. "Hi! How are you? I'm so glad to see you! What's new? Have you heard from your daughter? I love you, mommy! Are you there? Yes, I'm here," and so on. Probably very little language use, comparatively speaking, has been for the purpose of writing philosophy or science or great literature. If most text messages and tweets are this sort of grooming, that doesn't count against them.

A more serious criticism of electronic communication media, and from what Chomsky says I think it's what really concerns him, is that it's a tool for the atomization of the populace, separating us from each other, which is what the rulers want. (He refers in the interview to the value of the local post office as a community gathering place, though the gathering was probably as much for mutual grooming, in the sense I just mentioned, as for exchanging information. Once more: that doesn't mean it wasn't important.) I've argued before that individualism, far from producing bold nonconformists who will stand up to authority, produces isolates who are easily beaten back into line. It's those 'primitive' collectivist societies that produce people who overthrow dictatorships and stand up to water cannons. Occupy Wall Street, for all that it uses electronic communication media, is built on collective, face-to-face interaction, and if it succeeds, it will be because of that, not because of Twitter. (Like many people, Jurgenson seems to think that electronic / digital / instant communication is the point of activism; but for activists such communication is a medium -- not an end but a means for bringing people together face-to-face.)

I've also noticed that most of the young computer-savvy people I've known aren't really that computer-savvy at all. Yes, they grew up with the damn things, so they're comfortable with them, but that's not a sign of greater intelligence or advanced consciousness. (There's a lot of essentialism in the celebration of the various computer generations.) But they learned only what they needed to know: how to work a game controller, how to log in to Facebook or Myspace, how to compose a message in textspeak. As a result they are stunned when they find out that their Facebook page or e-mail or text messages aren't private. (Wait a minute, isn't it totally a federal crime to open someone's e-mail, just like snailmail? That is so gay.) They know how to upload a memory card full of blurred party photos to Facebook, but it never occurs to them to edit them, let alone that the picture of them deepthroating a beerbong might be seen by their Mom or a potential employer. They know how to Google themselves and Rick Santorum (giggle), but not how to check the authenticity of that awesome Ghandi [sic] quotation they saw the other day. Just about everybody I worked with, regardless of their age, was amazed when I closed the timecard program's window with Alt-F4 instead of using the mouse. Keyboard equivalents? Who knew? Only us old farts, I guess.

Jurgenson, who incidentally is "a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Maryland", concludes:
Chomsky, a politically progressive linguist, should know better than to dismiss new forms of language-production that he does not understand as “shallow.” This argument, whether voiced by him or others, risks reducing those who primarily communicate in this way as an “other,” one who is less fully human and capable. This was Foucault’s point: Any claim to knowledge is always a claim to power. We might ask Chomsky today, when digital communications are disqualified as less deep, who benefits?
First of all, Twitter and e-mail are not "new forms of language-production": they're media for transmitting language that has already been produced. Jurgenson is just waving around technical sounding jargon he doesn't understand. Second and more important, Chomsky hasn't "disqualified" anything. Certainly he hasn't said that the messages that can be sent with these media are unimportant, let alone that the people who send those messages aren't important or shouldn't be taken seriously.

One commenter on Jurgenson's piece essayed a backhanded defense of Chomsky thusly:
Well, okay, granted, Chomsky didn't know in March that the Arab Spring and OWS were going to happen. But couldn't a man with his understanding of communications have foreseen uses like that for Twitter and texting?
Chomsky didn't have to foresee such uses. The people who are out of touch are those who think that the use of cellphones and texting to coordinate demonstrations was invented in Egypt in January 2011. As I noted above, Chomsky has been fielding questions about the uses of the Internet for political organizing for at least a decade. Not that that has anything to do with anyone's "understanding of communications," which is something else: it has to do with knowledge of current and recent events. (Chomsky's linguistic work has little to do with the theory of communication anyway, it's a different area of the field.) The smartalecks who are putting down Chomsky here are not nearly as smart as they like to think; but that's usually true of self-appointed elites. With friends like this commenter, who needs enemas?

Foregoing the shift key for some reason or other, Jurgenson made at least one reply to the comments:
as i stated in the article, and something the vast of the commentators missed, i'm not really debating if digital communications are shallow, but instead using the claim to dismiss them as a lesser form of communications. so, i think we agree. but, as we both know, these claims of depthlessness are so often coupled with viewing the "shallow" form as lesser. and all i am pointing out is that claim to knowledge is a claim to power.
The writer Nick Carr answered wryly:
Hmm. What are you saying here - that the bottom-up horde of commenters lacks the depth to read you correctly? That sounds like you're making a top-down claim to knowledge, and hence to power. Or am I misreading your comment?
Jurgenson didn't answer that one, but Carr is right: Jurgenson is playing games that have more to do with power struggles in academia and 'disqualifying' one's opponents and competitors than with serious discourse. He cites Foucault in his article, but I suspect it's a safe bet he's never read Gayatri Spivak's ovarian essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?", which among other things catches Foucault in his own colonialist toils. I mean, honestly, Nate, Foucault is like so Seventies -- Eighties, if you can't read him in French.

Jurgenson also linked to his fellow blogger and "cyborg" (?) P.J. Rey, who's even more fatuous than he. Rey wrote a defense of Jurgenson's claim to knowledge and power by accusing others of making claims to knowledge and power:
Jurgenson offered an epistemological critique of Chomsky, arguing that Chomsky’s dismissal of social media as superficial fits a long-standing pattern of affluent white academics maintaining their privileged position in society by rejecting media that is accessible to non-experts. Jurgenson pointedly asks “who benefits when what you call “normal” human relationships get to be considered more “deep” and meaningful?” Chomsky is seemingly ignorant to the use of Twitter and other networks in shaping the Arab Spring and the #Occupy movement; or the fact that young people are voraciously sharing and consuming important news stories through these same networks; or that Blacks and Hispanics were early adopters of smartphones; or that gay men have been pioneers in geo-locative communication. In many cases, historically-disadvantaged groups have used social media technology to find opportunities previously foreclosed to them. For these folks, social media is hardly trivial.
An epistemological critique? Whoa, the demons also believe, and tremble! Since everything Rey writes here is irrelevant at best and false at worst, as I've already shown, there's no need to rebut it at length. Of course Chomsky "is seemingly ignorant of the use of Twitter and other networks in shaping the Arab Spring and the #Occupy movement," because he's totally old and gnarly and disqualifies the struggles of the young and hip -- which is why he's often spoken about them. "... or that gay men have been pioneers in geo-locative communication"; given Chomsky's temperamental aversion to discourse on sexuality, I think he can be spared a Powerpoint presentation on Grindr for finding hot man2man Action. Once again, Rey exhibits the worst of the academic tendency to mistake jargon for substance, and the medium for the message. (Isn't McLuhan passe by now? I seem to recall Raymond Williams demolishing him somewhere; I'll have to check.) With fearless epistemological critics like Jurgenson and Rey, Wall Street and the Corporate Consensus can rest easy. Luckily, they're irrelevant.

The Other 99 Percent

From today's Hankyoreh:
Independent opposition candidate Park Won-soon won the Seoul mayoral election on October 26 handily, and he's already on the job -- he even took the subway to the office.

This was an off-year election, with the big one coming up next year, and there's good reason to expect that the ruling Grand National Party will take a beating then. President Lee Myung-bak has been running a thoroughly corrupt plutocratic administration, and his GNP has repeatedly been defeated at the polls, so it will be interesting to see how things turn out in 2012. I should see if I can arrange my travel plans so as to be in Korea for one or the other election.

I get the impression that some Koreans, at least, are getting their hopes up too high. Park's support was strongest among what Koreans call the 2030 Generation, today's 20 and 30-year-olds. (The GNP also lost support among voters in their 40s, however.) But I remember all too well how the 2030s' older siblings (the 386 Generation) celebrated the election of Noh Mu-hyeon to the Korean Presidency in 2003. Noh, a very courageous human rights lawyer, had no real political experience, and he was up against international pressure to continue the neoliberal assault on the Korean economy, which he didn't really know how to fight. He quickly disappointed his supporters without appeasing the Korean Right, which continued to hound him even after he left office. I worry that Park Won-soon will disappoint many of his supporters too.

The Hankyoreh is optimistic but skeptical too:

Park pledged that he would run a participatory model of government, installing a city management council under him to this end. It is true that some are worried that the involvement of different forces could leave the city’s administration in chaos. We hope that the new major will show the political skill to create a new model for cooperative governance. Attention is also sure to focus on Park’s actions in discussions on opposition party integration and solidarity in the wake of the by-election. This, too, requires a thoughtful response. Park must be prepared to cooperate equally with the Democratic Party (DP) and with progressive parties like the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).

He also needs to work to build his abilities as a leader. In television debates during the election campaign, he became flustered by questions from the rival candidate that were not especially tough. This may have been because he had little experience with criticisms or attacks over the course of his civic organization activities. The mayor of Seoul occupies a high public office. It is difficult to hear people speaking honestly when you are surrounded by government employees. We hope that Park Won-soon does not lose the readiness to listen he showed during the election, and that he creates opportunities for himself to hear some strong criticism.

This is the ongoing problem with elections as a source of change: the GNP has given Korean ample reason to vote against them, but that doesn't mean that the opposition will come up with effective replacements. The GNP, like the ruling parties in the US, has big money behind them, and the GNP gets along well with international business and political interests. George W. Bush liked Lee Myung-bak much better than his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, and I've seen no indication that Obama likes Lee any less. Mayor Park should prepare himself for the usual storm of abuse and misinformation that any opposition figure, no matter how mild, can expect.

From the Original French

Oh yeah, that was what I wanted to write about tonight! Today I began reading Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? by Dany Laferriere, published in 1994. The title had caught my eye, but alas, Laferriere doesn't have anything much to say on his subject. (The original French title was Cette grenade dans la main du jeune Negre est-elle ou un fruit?, which is even worse, I think; a better title for the translation, with the original in mind, might have been Is That a Pineapple in My Pocket, or Am I Happy to See You?) The tone of the book is 1960s hipster, and it's been done and done again.

But one passage jogged me a bit.
America owes an enormous debt to Third World youth [by which he means, of course, young men only]. I'm not just talking about historical debt (slavery, the rape of natural resources, the balance of payments, etc.); there's a sexual debt, too. Everything has been promised by magazines, posters, the movies, television. America is a happy hunting ground, that's waht gets beaten into our heads every day, come and stalk the most delicious morsels (young American beauties with long legs, pink mouths, superior smiles), come and pick the wild fruit of this new Promised Land. For you, young men [you see, I told you!] of the Third World, America will be a doe quivering under the buckshot of your caresses. The call went out around the world, and we heard it, even the blue men of the desert heard it. Remember the global village? They've got American TV in the middle of the desert. Westward, ho! It was a new gold-rush. And when each new arrival showed up, he was told, "Sorry, the party's over." I can still picture the sad smile of that Bedouin, old in years but still vigorous (remember, brother, those horny old goats from the Old Testament), who had sold his camel to attend the party. ... Work? Our Bedouin didn't come here to work. He crossed the desert and sailed the seas because he'd been told that in America the girls were free and easy. Oh, no, you didn't quite understand! What didn't we understand? All the songs and novels and films from America ever since the end of the 1950s talk about sex and sex alone, and now you're telling us we didn't understand? What were we supposed to have understood from that showy sexuality, that profusion of naked bodies, that total disclosure, that Hollywood heat? [36-37]
This, of course, was the complaint of white American males in the 50s and onward: there were all those hot babes in the movies, on TV, in the ads, in the pinup calendars, but they thought they were too good for Joe America: you had to be a smooth rich guy like what's-his-name Hefner or Jack Kennedy. Women's desires, women's wishes and fantasies and dreams aren't even on the map (link is NSFW). (There's a not-very-funny scene in the book where the narrator recounts, or maybe just imagines, being accosted by a male Brit who adores black men; the narrator panics, assuming that he'll be expected to fellate the guy in public, which shows how little he knows about Mandingo fantasies. I can't help suspecting a certain disingenuousness on his part, though. It still shows how much Laferriere's fantasies are built on the objects of his desire as objects, not people, so that being desired objectifies and feminizes him.)

I've written before of the technocratic "faith that on the other side of the next mountain there lives a 'race' of natural slaves who are waiting to serve us, their natural masters. They will welcome our lash, set our boots gratefully on their necks, and interpose their bodies between us and danger, knowing that their lives are worth less than ours. Since there is no such natural slave race, the obvious solution is to build one." Laferriere's fantasy is testimony to a similar dream among many men that while the bitches at home are ugly and stingy with the sexual favors, across the ocean or in a mountain valley there exists a race of beautiful, complaisant, insatiable lovelies who've never learned the word "No", who live only to service the masculine ego, who never have a pimple or a wrinkle or a bad day of the month. (Just because your culture and religion pronounce such women harlots and Jezebels, that doesn't mean you don't want your fair share; maybe even more so, and you can even punish them because you desire them.) Since there is no such race, the obvious solution is to build one, which is what Hollywood and Madison Avenue did; but they never really existed except behind the glass screens, on the page, on stage or screen. And they were never "free"; they were expensive -- certainly high-maintenance.

These fantasies aren't limited to straight men, of course; many gay men also dream of a world packed full of mustached manly men with their hairy pecs a-bursting out of flannel shirts, six ax handles across the shoulders, and nary a sissy in sight. Or complaisant blond party twinks with bubble butts, whatever.

What amazes me about these fantasies is the assumption of entitlement they incorporate, though as Laferriere shows, the entitlement is connected to deprivation: I don't have, but I should -- it's my right.* So, of course, there's resentment, even before the rejection or after the acceptance. Women for Laferriere aren't people, they're the opposite of men, his opponents in the war between the sexes. (Again, this attitude is not unknown among gay men.) Lester Bangs wrote, in his book on Blondie, that he believed that if your ordinary Joe were given an hour alone with the sex-goddess of his dreams and total freedom to do as he wished, he'd beat her up. (Analogously, the imaginary slave race would be available to be whipped. Just because the Master could.) I think Lester was right, and something of the mentality he imagined underlies Laferriere's indignation at the broken sexual promises of the West.

* P.S. I know better than to trust an interview, but here's what Laferriere told an interviewer who asked if he was the great womanizer who narrated his novels:
You know, writers will often write about the things they lack and I’m no exception to that rule. I had no money for wine, so I soaked my [writing] book in wine, I did not manage to eat my fill so I put food in my book, I lived alone, so therefore many girls appeared in my first book.
Which makes sense to me; but if this is true, it's interesting that his fantasy women still are adversaries.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy New Delhi

I just finished reading Arundhati Roy's Broken Republic: Three Essays (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin, 2011), about the uprisings in India's forests against government-corporate depredations. The highest-profile rebels are led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and though Roy discusses other groups, the Maoists are her focus in this new book. In the second essay she recounts a time she spent "Walking with the Comrades" in the forests, and it's a moving piece of work.

Of course Roy has come under attack for her sympathetic account of the Maoists and the poor farmers they are trying to organize. I trust her more than her critics, though, because she is critical of the Maoists, though not as critical as she is of state terror against the poor. Her sarcasm against respectable Indians can be withering (page 69):
Baba Amte, the well-known Gandhian, had opened his ashram and leprosy hospital in Warora in 1975. The Ramakrishna Mission and the Gayatri Samaj had been opening village schools in the remote forests of Abujhmad. In north Bastar, Baba Bihari Das had started an aggressive drive to 'bring tribals back into the Hindu folk', which involved a campaign to denigrate tribal culture, induce self-hatred, and introduce Hinduism's great gift -- caste.
(This reminds me of a friend many years ago who'd just watched Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth on PBS and told me how wonderful it was. Among the things she'd learned was that Judeo-Christianity was the only religion that was used as a means of social control. What about Hinduism? I asked her -- you know, the caste system? She hadn't thought of that. But it's easy to romanticize oppressive systems if you don't have to live under them.)

The important thing is that Roy asks the right questions, which must be answered by not only the Maoists but by other Indian Communist Parties, and by anyone else who says they want to help all Indians, not just the 100 Indian billionaires (210-211). (Compare the quotations from Raymond Williams in these posts.)
But let's take a brief look at the star attraction in the mining belt -- the several trillion dollars' worth of bauxite. There is no environmentally sustainable way of mining bauxite and processing it into aluminium. It's a highly toxic process that most Western countries have exported out of their own environments. To produce one tonne of aluminium, you need about six tonnes of bauxite, more than a thousand tonnes of water and a massive amount of electricity. For that amount of captive water and electricity, you need big dams, which, as we know, come with their own cycle of cataclysmic destruction. Last of all -- the big question -- what is the aluminium for? Where is it going? Aluminium is a principal ingredient in the weapons industry -- for other countries' weapons industries. Given this, what would a sane, 'sustainable' mining policy be? Suppose for the sake of argument, the CPI (Maoist) were given control of the so-called Red Corridor, the tribal homeland -- with its riches of uranium, bauxite, limestone, dolomite, coal, tin, granite, marble -- how would it go about the business of policy making and governance? Would it mine minerals to put on the market in order to create revenue, build infrastructure and expand its operations? Or would it mine only enough to meet people's basic needs? How would it define 'basic needs'? For instance, would nuclear weapons be a 'basic need' in a Maoist nation state?
Over the years I've asked questions like these to various politicos, all of whom brushed them aside impatiently, which probably means they don't want to think about them, or to admit that they've already thought about them, and see no problem with running the poor off their land to permit industrial development. This is a mindset shared by private-sector capitalists and public-sector capitalists alike, though "private-sector" is a misnomer since Western anti-communist capitalism still leans heavily on the state for support, defense, and subsidy. Roy is aware of this, for she immediately points to the record of industrialized societies on both sides of the ideological divide. For the nominally socialist countries no less than the 'capitalist' ones,
the ability to consume has become the yardstick by which progress is measured. For this kind of 'progress', you need industry. To feed the industry, you need a steady supply of raw material. For that you need mines, dams, domination, colonies, war. Old powers are waning, new ones rising ... [212].
Except that there's nothing new about this process. For Marx (as Roy acknowledges earlier in the book), revolution would come out of the smokestacks of factories; the reason why the Soviet Union rejected Maoism as an "infantile leftist disorder" was that Mao thought revolution could arise in a country of peasants, with no industrial base to speak of. Once that revolution succeeded, however, the industrial base followed in the Great Leap Forward, with great human cost. But industrial capitalism always exacts a great human cost, in the West, in the East, and what's now called the Global South.

That's important to remember, because apologists for the West have pointed to the human costs of Stalin's and Mao's "modernization" of their respective countries; the resultant debate rather resembles the Creationist / Evolutionist debates, in which sides assume that between them they cover all possible positions. Creationists assume that if they can find crucial flaws in Darwinism, Creationism will be the only option remaining. It isn't; but it also doesn't follow that if Creationism is false, Darwinism as it's now construed must be true. There are always other alternatives. Likewise, Capitalists assume that if Socialism fails, Capitalism is vindicated. Looking at the world today, it's hard to take that claim seriously.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Media Res



This was good to see, though I don't quite agree with Avedon that Hedges "gave better than he got." Why should he get flustered just because some corporate toady calls him a "left wing nutjob"? I'm not all that concerned about such labels, and I have the impression that most of the OWS people aren't either, but I don't feel defended when Hedges says that those who oppose the corporate state are "the real conservatives." It's a claim that can be defended, but why waste time doing so? If Occupy Wall Street be left wing nutjob-ism, make the most of it!

Which reminds of something I should have written about last week. Sarah Sobieraj's recent book Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism (NYU Press, 2011) ought to be read by anyone who's interested in strategy for the current movement. I have some minor quibbles, for example that her discussion of media ignores people like Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, Mark Crispin Miller and others who've done important work on the subject; she does cite Nina Eliasoph's Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (Cambridge, 1998), but I don't remember Eliasoph reaching the conclusions Sobieraj attributes to her; that may just mean it's time for me to reread Eliasoph. My only real complaint is that Sobieraj doesn't follow her arguments quite far enough, but if other people see what I see and draw the same conclusions, it won't matter much.

Sobieraj is a sociologist who studied and observed political activists during the 2000 and 2004 Presidential campaigns, primarily the party conventions and the debates between the nominees. She went for breadth more than depth, intending to cover as broad a range of organizations as possible. What she observed was that media-savvy activists who put together big actions aimed at getting the attention of the media failed almost entirely to do so, for two main reasons.

First, reporters chose to cover the conventions and debates themselves, with only cursory accounts of what was going on outside. At most, activists appeared as a faceless, nameless sea of nobodies, putting on an incomprehensible performance that no one could possibly understand. Second, even when a group was identified by name and an activist spoke on camera, their aims and reasoning were ignored. Neither of these points will be news to many activists, but they continue trying to get corporate-media attention anyway, apparently in the belief that someday they'll crack the code that will give them the media access they seek.

Sobieraj finds revealing contradictions on the reporters' side, though. For example, after describing the scriptedness of the nominees' debates, she writes (page 71),
In light of this … it seems entirely plausible that the press would prefer to cover the activists, gravitating toward the less predictable, more colorful set of events and organizations clamoring for attention in its wings. Yet this is not the case. Why is there such [sic] little news about these groups and their activism, and why is the news that does circulate so prone to exclude political content? I argue that this dismal showing in the news is a product of a set of unwritten expectations that govern the coverage of political “outsiders,” which is diametrically opposed to the professional norms and work routines involved in the creation of most political news stories.
Or as "Dustin, a reporter with a primary newspaper for a major metropolitan area" (77) put it:
… "If people riot, we’ll pay attention. We’ll wanna know why they’re so damn upset."

The newspaper articles, however, suggest this is not the case, that there actually is minimal interest in “why they’re so damn upset.” In the conflict / crime model stories, associations usually receive more extended attention than in local stories, but they are still largely unsuccessful at injecting their issues and perspectives into the mainstream discourse.
But Sobieraj overlooks the way that coverage of the debates and conventions is also "prone to exclude political content." In The Bush Dyslexicon Mark Crispin Miller describes at length how, after the third debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in October 2000,
the "analysts" at CNN said not one word about the substance of the candidates' exchange but just kept harping on the general "statements" were putatively "trying" to make about themselves through their tone and body language.

Although a waste of time, the postdebate bull session was at least not strongly biased, nor was its anti-intellectualism too pronounced. On ABC there was a far more noxious session on the subject of the third debate.
This session, featuring Sam Donaldson, George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts, and George Will, "captures perfectly the the barbarous synergy between the right and TV news, each feigning populism for its own elitist purposes." Roberts complained that the issue debated by the candidates wasn't "the important point there. ... Because that's not what comes across when you're watching the debate. What comes across when you're watching the debate is this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak" [pages 68-69]. The irony of four Beltway media insiders denouncing Al Gore for being a Beltway insider, while delicious, was totally lost on Roberts. It's a reminder of how little facts matter, but personalities do matter, to the corporate media. And that means that if activists did manage to secure the magical gaze of TV cameras on the same level as political insiders, their ideas and programs would still be ignored in favor of image and presentation, just as they are now.

Political insiders, of course, are virtually guaranteed ample coverage, whether or not they have anything substantial to say. Reporters profess to be frustrated by this, but they go along with the program: it's their job. They have a different set of standards for "outsiders," which Sobieraj discusses (page 83):
I watched, time and time again, as reporters gave the cold shoulder to voluntary associations following standard industry practices. In many respects, those organizations that followed the rules most judiciously were the least attractive to the news workers they were courting. Journalists accept press releases, press conferences, and spokespeople in their routine political reporting, but their coverage of activism was governed by a very different set of rules and practices, which in many ways was diametrically opposed to those employed in routine newsgathering. When activists attempted to conform to journalists’ model for routine newsgathering, they failed, not because they didn’t conform to the “implicit rules of newsmaking,” but because they were following the wrong rules.

When journalists looked at activists, they weren’t looking for talking points, they were looking for authenticity.
"Authenticity" means that
"real" activists are politically driven as a result of personal connection to an issue. Reporters preferred sources who discuss issues as individuals with stories to share, rather than as publicly minded advocates. This is primarily because the journalists were not looking to write about issues or about associations, they were looking to tell stories about individuals [94].
... It is a fine line to walk, because fervor simultaneously attracts and repels the news media. Too little passion and the associations are inauthentic, too much and they are zealots [96].
Now, there’s a double bind. To add to the problem, Sobieraj noticed that many organizations were so busy courting the media that they made no plans for engaging the public that they presumably were trying to reach.
Activists lost opportunities to connect meaningfully with nonmembers by treating bystanders as passive audience members and offering pedestrians symbolic acts rather than interactions. Their public performances were often compelling but rarely engaging. In most cases, onlookers had no structured opportunity to ask questions, share insights, or probe behind the chants, comedic skits, or dramatic displays of emotion. Speech about politics was central to association activities around the conventions and debates, but talk about issues – two-way exchange – was exceedingly rare. The same flamboyant techniques that groups concocted to draw the media often captured pedestrians’ attention, but the activists did not know what to do with that attention once they had it [111].

... When I later asked Eli [of Republican Freakshow] why they didn’t “work the crowd” a little more, he explained that they were mostly focused on being available to journalists. When I pressed him, commenting that there were no journalists around, he indicated that he just wanted to get ready to do the routine again in hopes that some would come by ... Most activists were more responsive to pedestrians than were Eli and his colleagues, but they often deferred interested parties to websites or handed them a pamphlet. They were usually prepared to direct bystanders to resources, but they seemed noticeably unprepared or unwilling to actually talk with them [118-9].
If I understand the purpose of media outreach, it is to use the media as a means to the end of reaching the public. Since this mostly fails, it would be wise to forget about the middleman -- the medium -- and try to reach the public directly. This may be slow -- Noam Chomsky, for example, remembers speaking against the Vietnam War to tiny groups in people's living rooms at the beginning of the anti-Vietnam war movement -- but it produces more real understanding. Even if the media gave more coverage to activists' performances, the task of building a movement would still remain. (My own -- limited -- experience with activist groups is that they sometimes begin by organizing, and only afterward try to think of something to do.)

From what I've seen, compared to the groups Sobieraj observed, the Occupy movement is less obsessed with media attention and more interested in putting people together with people. Her account of the way the corporate media cover activism fits well with mainstream journalists' frustration that they don't know what OWS wants, which shows that this isn't a new theme. But the media aren't interested in, or capable of even hearing, what activists want. That's not news in itself; it's been noticed for a long time, from the "anti-globalization" protests of the late 1990s to the antiwar protests between 2001 and 2003.

So it seems to me that reaching the corporate media ought not to be a high priority for serious activists. It should be a low priority, after seeking the attention of fellow citizens, welcoming them into the group or movement, and dealing with other strategic concerns like the hostility of government at all levels. Sobieraj notices that many groups put most of their energy into grooming members to deal with the media or to hide from them; during her fieldwork she often had trouble getting rank-and-file activists to talk to her because they thought she was media and they hadn't been cleared to talk. She suggests, and I believe she's right:
If members could understand the organization, its work, and its priorities. their unrehearsed responses to journalists’ questions would be “on message.” In other words, talk is exactly the type of association activity that builds these relationships, and with stronger ties, activist groups could worry less about being derailed by their members and could begin to benefit from them. Promoting healthy dialogue, then, would likely yield both cultural and instrumental benefits [151].
But even if she's wrong, it's more important, and more effective, to build numbers and organizational strength by concentrating on the members' interests and morale than to court the corporate media, because building the organization is an end in itself, as well as a means of producing social and political change.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More and Better Opposition Candidates!

From the Hankyoreh:
Merchants of a traditional market in Busan’s Saha District carry out a campaign to urge voting, Oct. 24, two days before the by-elections. They hold signboards reading, “You casting a vote is beautiful!!” “Make sure you urge others to vote!!” and “State your opinion through voting.”
An editorial from the Hankyoreh:
According to an analysis of social indicators released this past April by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea ranked dead last among the 34 member nations in its voter turnout for parliamentary elections. The 46% rate recorded for the 2008 general elections was roughly half the rates observed in the top three countries: 95% in Australia, 92% in Luxembourg, and 91% in Belgium. It was also far lower than the 70% average for member nations as a whole. Germany recorded a rate of 78%, Japan 67%, the United Kingdom 61%, and the United States 48%.

There is a tendency among South Koreans to view interest in politics as a sign of backwardness and to make it the target of cynical derision...
That's depressing; I thought Koreans had a better turnout than the US.

From another editorial, "KORUS FTA in conflict with the Constitution":
... The KORUS FTA implementation law passed by Congress contains only some of the provisions of the agreement. It contains only four amendments to U.S. law. Even these are trivial, procedural rule amendments necessary for trade, related to matters like tariffs and proof of country of origin; there is nothing that disturbs laws or systems, as in South Korea. Article 102 of the implementation law, moreover, clearly states that U.S. law takes priority in cases where it clashes with the KORUS FTA. This makes it explicit that U.S. policy will not be violated based on the agreement.

The government explains such imbalances in the treaty by saying that the U.S. legal system is different. This attitude is one that respects only the U.S.’s legislative sovereignty. The National Assembly must now eliminate unequal article in the KORUS FTA, just as Congress has done in the U.S.

This reminded me of something that has been bothering me, at first only obscurely, about a lot of what I've been reading by Americans about Free Trade Agreements. It's almost always about the effects of these agreements on Americans: "our jobs" being "shipped to other countries," that sort of thing. Even this sensible piece, which also mentions Colombia's awful human rights record:
The Korea FTA is the most economically significant since NAFTA, is projected to increase our trade deficit in key “jobs of the future” sectors such as computers, high speed trains and solar and result in the loss of an additional 159,000 U.S. jobs.
This is a perfectly valid concern, but it often leads to outright foolishness, trying to imply that the US is a pitiful helpless giant brought to its knees by hungry orientals who suck our economic lifeblood for their own enrichment. It's possible to talk about the harmful effects of FTAs on the American economy without ignoring their harmful effects on the US "trade partners."

As many people have pointed out, when we hear talk about dealings between "countries," what is meant is the ruling elites, not the overwhelming majority of citizens. The richest, most powerful people in the US, as in Korea, Panama and Colombia, will benefit greatly from the FTAs, which "have only a limited relation to free trade." Again:
I don't understand how people can talk about "free trade" with a straight face. Apart from the transparent violations of free trade built into the World Trade Organization rules-monopolistic pricing guarantees that go far beyond anything in economic history, for example-what does it mean for political entities that rely crucially on the dynamic state sector for economic development (like the US) to enter into "free trade agreements"?
The same goes for "globalization," which as we usually encounter it is a doctrinal term that refers only to a limited range of interaction among countries, instead of "international integration, economic and otherwise":
So, at some level, workers and companies agree: everyone favours globalization, in the technical sense of the word, not the doctrinal sense that has been appropriated by advocates of the investor-rights style of integration that is built into the so-called "free trade agreements," with their complex mixture of liberalization, protectionism, and undermining of popular democratic control over policy.
I wrote before that the trouble with "shipping jobs overseas" is that the jobs being shipped aren't replaced with more jobs here. It's certainly a mistake to write as though our captains of industry and finance were exporting jobs for the benefit of them foreigners over there; of course they aren't -- they're doing it to benefit themselves.

It should be remembered just how global the "anti-globalization" movement is: contrary to the caricature of the movement in the corporate media, the protests against the World Trade Organization include not only American college students and union members but people from all over the world. including workers and farmers from Asia who've suffered from "free trade" being imported to their countries. This, I think, should be the background if not the focus of criticism of FTAs: not an exclusive concern for those who will be hurt here, but with the recognition that people all over the world will be hurt by them.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Non-Corporate Media Stumble

Okay, see how this looks to you:
The Obama administration has announced plans to withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year after failing to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government. The United States had discussed keeping thousands of troops in Iraq, but had insisted their immunity be extended as a pre-condition. After the Iraqi government refused, the administration said Friday it would withdraw all its forces except for around 150 troops to guard U.S. sites. At the White House, President Obama said the withdrawal will mark the end of the Iraq war.
If you didn't know that the US had agreed in 2008 to remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, and if you didn't know that President Obama had been pressuring the Iraqi government to allow American forces to remain there since he took office, would you have gotten that impression from the paragraph above? Or would you think that the US position was that "If the Iraqi government wants us to stay we will stay"?

The second sentence especially: it doesn't explicitly say that it was the US who wanted to stay and Iraq who wanted us to leave, but it is exactly the kind of thing I've been hearing and reading in the corporate media. Same for "failing to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government": it's literally true, but it still sounds to me like the US was negotiating in good faith, which wasn't happening.

And those paragraphs came not from CNN or the New York Times but from the left-liberal Democracy Now. Listening to Amy Goodman read them on the radio brought me up short. To give credit where it's due, she went on to describe the ongoing US mercenary presence in Iraq and

In addition to maintaining a large private force in Iraq, Obama administration officials have also floated the possibility of maintaining a large military deployment in neighboring countries such as Kuwait. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States will negotiate a new agreement with Iraq over military training and assistance.
You know -- we'll come back if they ask us nicely, and grant our forces carte-blanche to commit more atrocities. It's probably naive and foolish of us, but that's how America is: we keep giving and giving no matter how little appreciation we get from those ungrateful wogs.

I'm still listening to the same installment of Democracy Now. Goodman's talking to her guests Cornel West and Michael Moore. West annoys me intensely with his gaseous religiosity ("let me just first say I’m blessed to be here") and both of them annoy me with their dishonesty.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you both supported President Obama.

CORNEL WEST: It was critical support, I think, we both had—

MICHAEL MOORE: Yeah, yeah.

CORNEL WEST: —because we looked at, of course, the right wing, and the right-wing takeover would have been even more atrocious. But I think both of us knew that he tended to move too much toward the center.
I don't remember either of them having been critical of Obama on principle during the campaign, and since then Moore has been giving Obama the benefit of every doubt, while West has been indulging in creepy ad hominems against Obama like accusing him of "a certain fear of free black men…" rather than substance. Even today Moore hopes that Obama "can either go down as a historic president, who becomes the FDR of this century," as if that were any interest of Obama's.  Obama wants to be the Ronald Reagan of this century, and he's well on his way.

And then Goodman -- who knows better -- says:

AMY GOODMAN: And [Obama] won by many, many people giving very little money each. Now going for a billion dollars, he is going to massive fundraisers throughout this country—what, $38,000-a-plate, etc., fundraisers—continuing through all of this period.
Obama's been going to such fundraisers all through his term, this one last September for example, and the small donors to his presidential campaign were outweighed by big donors from the insurance industry, the oil industry, Wall Street, and corporate America generally. He also voted for Bush's bank bailout. And he's doing even better with Wall Street this time around, which no doubt will mean lots more cozy golf outings with the corporate elite (I got this one from Democracy Now, in fact).

Look, Amy and Michael and all the rest of you: I know you're in a codependent relationship with Obama, but you mustn't go on being his enablers. Break the cycle of abuse now!

(Image was a banner ad at Salon.com)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

When Bad Presidents Happen to Good Democrats

Though I may be giving them too much benefit of the doubt there.

Michael Tomasky has a piece on the Triumph of the Obama at the Daily Beast, celebrating not only the death of Qaddafi but how foolish the neocons look now. Obama, weak? Not in foreign policy, bitchez!
It’s worth stopping to realize that this Libya operation is, so far, not only a big success, but also a historic accomplishment in American history. Is it not the first multilateral and bloodless (as far as U.S. lives are concerned; admittedly not Libyans) intervention the United States has helped lead in its history to rid a people of a dictator and try to bring them democracy? It surely is.
I like that "so far": Tomasky's not so far gone as to ignore certain small failings of the Libyan rebels, and the fact that we really don't know yet who or what kind of system will replace Qaddafy. But right now, everything's coming up roses, especially on the graves of the Libyan civilians who weren't lucky enough to fall on the "bloodless" side of the ledger. As for "try[ing] to bring them to democracy," that remains entirely to be seen: Obama has not shown much interest in democracy so far. But no American blood was shed, and frankly, liberal Obamacrats don't care about any lives but Americans'.

This is an old trope, after all. I remember an article in The Nation that I wrote about exactly two years ago today. Eyal Press defended Obama against charges that he didn't care enough about human rights, claiming that Obama "has made it clear that he is a cautious realist, not a crusading idealist", and quoted Stephen Walt:
" ... No U.S. President--not even Jimmy Carter--was ever willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights, and Obama isn't going to be the first. And given that the U.S. record on this issue looks has been tarnished by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, forced rendition, "enhanced interrogation" (aka torture), extra-judicial killings (aka "targeted assassinations"), our reaction to the Goldstone Report, and the thousands dead as a result of the invasion of Iraq, I'd say a bit of humility on this front was probably in order."
That's a contender for the understatement of 2009, wouldn't you say? I wrote at the time that the US has shown itself quite willing to spend quite a lot of "treasure" and plenty of foreigners' blood violating human rights.

But back to Tomasky. He's thumping his chest to celebrate Obama's supposed political victory over the neocons, confirmed by the defeat and death of Moammar Qaddafi. This was a "multilateral" intervention in the same way that Bush's invasion of Iraq and Bill Clinton's assault on Kosovo were. Bush's removal of Saddam Hussein wasn't "bloodless" even for American forces, but NATO suffered no military deaths in Kosovo, though Milosevic remained in power until he was voted out by his people. There were plenty of native dead in both cases, but Tomasky is willing to overlook that. Goodness, are American liberals already forgetting Clinton's historic victory in the Balkans? It was one of the security blankets they clung to fiercely throughout the Bush years to show how much better Democratic presidents were. Kosovo is conspicuous by its absence in Tomasky's piece, but then his whole aim is to put Obama's foot on the neck of the neocons: is Obama "weak"? Noooooo!
And finally: how out to lunch do those Republican presidential candidates look now on foreign policy? Though the foreign-policy discussion got little attention, it was the most unhinged part of the last GOP debate. The Republican electorate may eat up potshots at Obama for being weak, but I doubt the broader public is buying it. A president who iced bin Laden and has overseen the ousters of two leading autocrats (and a couple of other minor ones) is not weak. Leading from behind, the sneerers forgot, is still leading.
But Tomasky's article is mild compared another post at the Beast by Bruce Riedel, "a former longtime CIA officer" and "a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution." Which Middle East dictator is going down next? he asks rhetorically. The piece is illuminated with a picture of "deadliest dictators": Hitler, Pol Pot (I think), Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, and another Asian I don't recognize. Ho is out of place there; he wasn't Santa Claus, but he was "deadly" only to US hegemony in Southeast Asia. The US installed a dictator in Saigon who was at least as bad as Ho, as usual in such cases.

After tossing out a few other cases, Reidel mentions the elephants in the room:
The Bahraini ruling family has never supported terror nor been as brutal as the Libyan mad man but they should also be worried. They have rejected reform for far too long on their little island kingdom. The Bahrainis and their Saudi backers seem to believe repression will work forever. They are mistaken. The 21st century Arab world is changing like no one anticipated, least of all its dictators.
Except that there is no indication that Obama has any interest in seeing the King of Bahrain come tumbling down, let alone the Saudi rulers. Indeed, the Obama administration just announced the sale of $53 million worth of weaponry to Bahrain. Some of my readers may recall how the Saudis and the UAE assisted Bahrain with mercenaries to kill dissenters there just a few months ago, with nary a complaint from the White House. Reuters just reported that Obama has decided to delay the sale because of a "local investigation into alleged human-rights violations since an uprising in February."
The Sunni ruling family put down the pro-democracy uprising with the help of neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, spearheaded by a reported 1,200 Saudi forces in 20 tanks and in other armored vehicles.

A key U.S. concern is that a fall of the Al Khalifa family and rise of a Shiite-led government could boost Iran's influence and lead to a loss of access to Bahrain's military facilities and U.S. influence in the region.
The US has no concerns of its own about those "alleged abuses," of course. Democracy must take second place to "Bahrain's military facilities and U. S. influence in the region." Nor was there any indication that the Obama administration was eager to see the dictator Hosni Mubarak fall in Egypt.

But hey, Obama just announced that US troops will be completely withdrawn from Iraq by the end of this year -- in compliance with the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration. Of course "complete withdrawal" means "with several thousand exceptions": a hundred fifty or so "to assist in arms sales," plus "about 1,700 diplomats, law enforcement officers and various economic, agriculture and other professionals and experts who will be in Iraq into 2012, according to the State Department. In addition, 5,000 security contractors will protect the U.S. diplomats and another 4,500 contractors will serve other roles, such as helping provide food and medical services, until they can be done locally." "Security contractors" is US Newspeak for mercenaries hired through private companies like Xe (formerly Blackwater), of course.

Almost since he took office Obama had tried to pressure the Iraqi government to let American forces stay longer, without success. (Which means that despite his best efforts to break it, he kept his campaign promise.) The sticking point turned out to be Iraqi refusal to grant "legal protection" to US troops (again, Newspeak for immunity when they commit atrocities). Our mercenaries have no accountability, and a long record of atrocities in the US and abroad.

But credit where credit is due: Obama didn't unilaterally override the SOFA, and most US troops will be removed from Iraq by the end of this year, which isn't far away now. Some good things do happen. And once again, Oscar Wilde was a prophet:
Jack. Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?
Gwendolen. I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In the Latter Days There Shall Arise Many Anti-Obamas

There's another Facebook friend of mine, let's call him the Tabloid Friend because of his fondness for linking to stories of sensational crime stories and sex scandals. He's a devout Obamanian -- in fact a few weeks ago he urged me in evangelical terms to let Obama into my heart, it would change my life the way Obama had changed his -- so he also links to Obama apologetics and material that mocks the Stoopid Republicans. But he's mad hot cute, so I keep him on my friends list while annoying him and his many allies in comments. (I'm not such a slave to lust as to let my politics be compromised by it.)

Today he wrote something that surprised me. He'd linked to a political cartoon that showed Qaddafy waiting to be admitted to Hell, while the Admissions Demon complains over the phone that Obama is killing too many Muslims: "Things were sure quieter here under GW Bush's watch." I commented that Bush killed a few hundred thousand Muslims, so of course it was hardly quieter then; and if you believe in the Christian Hell, that of course is where they went. Another commenter replied, "Duncan..get an education!! Ignorance sucks!!"

It now occurs to me that the person was upset that I'd said that Muslims would go to Hell; I didn't realize that because I thought I'd made it obvious that it was only "if you believe in the Christian Hell." If you don't, as I don't, then of course they won't. I thought the complaint was about the subject of the cartoon, the large number of Bad People with Arabic names being sent to Hell on Obama's watch, and that the person disagreed that Bush killed a few hundred thousand Muslims. Certainly the cartoonist was ignoring that fact. The joke demands that selective amnesia to work.

Tabloid Friend then addressed the other commenter: "
He was being facetious. I know the snark is a bit over the top at times but he's generally harmless." I was not being facetious about the number of people Bush killed, nor about Christian belief in Hell. (And being criticized for "over the top" snark by TF is like being accused of rudeness and meanness by Ann Coulter: like getting an A on my report card.)

Still, given the cartoon itself, it seems that even Obama fans are forgetting the murderous record of his predecessor. Is it because their policies are too similar for comfort? Or is it that they're so busy rewriting and obfuscating Obama's record that they're whitewashing Bush too, just to be safe?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

People Are Not Excess

I finally got a copy of Fred Barney Taylor's 2007 documentary The Polymath; or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, and watched it tonight. TLA Video had it on clearance, so I snapped it up, but it can be ordered directly from the filmmaker. It's an odd sort of documentary, consisting largely of Delany talking over solarized footage of water, rivers, train tracks, and the like; there are also Delany family home movies and clips of Delany receiving awards, traveling, and walking around New York City. Still, it's highly interesting and well worth seeing.

Towards the end, Delany reads from his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, page 90:
The easy argument already in place to catch up these anecdotes is that social institutions such as the porn movies take up, then, a certain social excess -- are even, perhaps, socially beneficial to some small part of it (a margin outside the margin). But that is the same argument that allows them to be dismissed -- and physically smashed and flattened. They are relevant only to that margin. No one else cares.

Well, in a democracy, that is not an acceptable argument. People are not excess. It is the same argument that dismisses the needs of blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Asians, women, gays, the homeless, the poor, the worker -- and all other margins that, taken together (people like you, people like me) are the country's overwhelming majority: those who, socioeconomically, are simply less powerful.
That sounded familiar! Noam Chomsky says almost exactly the same thing -- though I don't think he'd agree with Delany about the value of men having sex with each other in (mostly heterosexual) porn theaters. Much as I love Chomsky, he has his blind spots. But still, their coincidental agreement on the notion that the margins put together equal the country's overwhelming majority was too striking not to mention.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

American Interests?

Glenn Greenwald has a good, if by-the-numbers piece on Obama's hypocrisy in condemning Iran for hypocrisy. It's good to have the quotations, but there's nothing really new in it; anyone who hasn't noticed Obama's hypocrisy either isn't paying attention, or doesn't want to see it.

Obligingly, an Obama apologist with the screen name JC Watts leapt into the fray. His rebuttal is also by-the-numbers, and it's worth looking at what he says for its incoherence as well as the way he regurgitates the familiar talking points.
The fact that Glenn is comfortable, no gleeful, in his assessment of false equivalence between President Obama and a Iranian theocracy, is stunning. But it shouldn't be. Glenn represents a type of liberalism that lost us every major election until Clinton. That allows chicken hawk republicans to call democratic war heroes cowards and get away with it. I have friend who believes in almost everything dems stand for and he still votes republican. Why? because when his dad came back from Vietnam dems spit on him. He can't get past it. Won't. Doesn't even try. Glenn is like those protesters.
Watts trips over his shoelaces in the first sentence, which on its face says that Greenwald was claiming a "false equivalence between President Obama and a Iranian theocracy." It's Watts who accuses Greenwald of declaring a "false equivalence" between Iran and the US -- "false equivalence" means that someone says two things are the same when they aren't. Greenwald was saying that the US and Iran claim to be different, but when it comes to a particular issue, namely supporting dictatorial states that kill their own people, they are more alike than different. So first off, Watts reveals that he doesn't know the terms he's using; he's probably parroting what he's heard from other loyalists. (Someone like the guy I discussed here, say.)

Second, which "democratic war heroes" does Watts have in mind? Not Obama; not Clinton. John Kerry was meant, I suppose, whose status as a hero is open to debate, as is that of the Republican "war hero" John McCain. Certainly George W. Bush had no war record to point to. Granted, attacking the Democrats as soft on Communism or terror is a popular Republican tactic, but the Democrats also use it when they can. But it's not at all obvious that Democratic presidential candidates have lost elections because of such accusations; it could be because of their economic policies, which they get from the Republicans. And what this has to do with Greenwald's criticism of Obama is far from clear. Again, Watts seems to have simply put together a word salad of Democratic talking points.

Third, Watts appeals to the right-wing urban legend of hippies spitting on returning Vietnam veterans. Hippies -- not "dems", unless they were wearing buttons "that said 'I AM A DEMOCRAT' to be sure he remembered which party spat on him". Several other commenters challenged Watts on the claim, which has never been documented and has been shown to be an urban legend, especially by Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke in his book The Spitting Image (NYU Press, 1998). Ironically it's Watts who accepts Republican propaganda on all these matters, and posits that the only way to resist it is to refrain from any criticism whatever of Democrats. (I don't believe that would work.)

Watts goes on:
We aren't Iran, we haven't been and won't be again. But there are no saints amoung state actors. There are nothing but murders and people acting in the interests of their nation. Before people ask whether killing Al- was in our interests I will point out that unlike many other places on earth, including Iran, we have elections to determine who makes that call. We select someone to represent us and our we have to live with the consequences of those choices.
First off, of course, Iran does "have elections to determine who makes that call." Iranian elections are as corrupt as American ones, of course, but they do have them. And Watts appears to be the person who doesn't want to "have to live with the consequences of those choices," not even to acknowledge the consequences.

The key to this paragraph, though, is the remark that "there are no saints among state actors. There are nothing but murders and people acting in the interests of their nation." This is generally what state apologists say when confronted with undeniable evidence of atrocities by their nation: States aren't moral actors. Ironically, people who point this out about our own state -- Noam Chomsky or Greenwald himself, for example -- will be denounced as America-hating terrorist-loving traitors. It's only acceptable to point it out in order to excuse American crimes.

Greenwald replied to Watts, who countered that he was complaining that
your entire discourse, and I include here not simply this post but your continued hectoring of the President, is based on a first principle that the US government's role is to act morally or humanistically. It isn't. Why would it be? The obligation of nationhood is self propagation. They are neither moral nor immoral they are amoral, with their own interests as the only controlling factor.
Greenwald replied:

This is absolutely not my principle at all, let alone my "first principle."

If American political and media elites admitted that the country acts in its self-interest just like every other country, then I'd stop objecting to the constant stream of propaganda and deceit about Ameria's moral superiority and exceptionalism. It's precisely because America does operate by self-interest like every other country - albeit with more aggression and violence -- that I find the propaganda so harmful.

Taken as a principle, though, this means that Watts can't consistently criticize the government of Iran, or Syria, or any other official enemy according to Obama. (Of course he doesn't care about consistency: defending the right of the United States and its god-king is all that matters.) You can't consistently attack other states for immorality and then defend your own state by saying that states are "amoral, with their own interests as the only controlling factor." (It would be more accurate to say that it is elites' interests, not those of the general population, that are the controlling factor, but who needs accuracy when you're defending a beleaguered President?) But this sort of waffling is common if not universal in nationalist propaganda.

Under questioning by other commenters, Watts naturally insisted that he didn't mean to say that Greenwald couldn't criticize Obama, but not very convincingly. Like so many Americans, he trumpeted American freedom of dissent compared to countries like Iran, but is hostile to any American who actually exercises that freedom. To criticize a Democrat, anyway.

Watts finally (so far) addressed Greenwald:
You are tilting at windmills or swinging at phantoms. Let me assure you Pols aren't coming with the customers. There are hoops you have to jump through in order to be elected in this country, in any country. Propaganda is one of them. Saying you believe in "American Exceptionalism," is like wearing a flag pin, or going to church, synagogue or mosque. Ubiquitous and necessary but not demonstrative of conviction.
And so on. Once again he undercut himself here, as so many Obamaristas do, for if "there are hoops you have to jump through to be elected in this country", then he can't criticize Republicans either. He also tacitly or unconsciously admitted that the real Obama (as opposed to the sweet-talking campaigner) is a hypocritical murderous thug. Not quite what he hoped to achieve, I daresay.

The Salon comment system is going haywire again (though obviously not for all the other people), or I might have put most of this in comments there. But it might be convenient to have this fine example of Obama apologetics collected in one place here.