Friday, January 30, 2009

Poetry Friday - a short and dreadful poem

this is a short and dreadful poem
about love. what else?
when you like awake wrapped in your caftan
without a comforter
alone like an abandoned baby tangled in a shawl

think of the moon locked in its orbit
in the scorching vacuum and darkness
with always the same face turned to the earth
unable to look away, unable ever to come nearer.
this is a short and dreadful poem
about love. what else?

23 January 1977

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

But How Many Divisions Does He Have?

Now and then over the past couple of decades I've subscribed to In These Times, most recently from 2006 to 2007, so I'm still on their e-mail list. Today I got their latest e-mail newsletter, which included a link to an article, "Moving Forward Without Dogma," by one of their regular online columnists, Ken Brociner. It's a painfully bad piece, badly written and devoid of thought.

Brociner praises "progressives" for having "approached politics in a principled and pragmatic manner" in the past year. They didn't make any third-party moves, and better yet, progressives resisted the "temptation of political purists to sit on the sidelines as a presidential election hung in the balance because the Democratic nominee wasn’t progressive enough."
In short, the unrestrained progressive activism during the campaign signals a weakening of the dogma that has previously stifled the left. To build on this momentum, we should do all we can to further minimize both doctrinaire thinking and shrill rhetoric within our ranks. By doing so, we’ll be able to enhance our movement’s ability to communicate with the American public.
As I said, Brociner writes badly, tossing a fine salad of clichés: "doctrinaire thinking," "shrill rhetoric," "enhance our movement's ability to communicate with the American public" (as though liberals and progressives weren't part of the American public). Judging by the articles listed in the sidebar, "dogma" is one of Brociner's cusswords. And "unrestrained progressive activism"? Where did that come from? What does it even refer to, in the context of the Obama campaign, which harnessed the energy of many progressives in the service of a center-right candidate? Oh, I don't know... "unrestrained" sounds so cool, like an ad for tampons or feminine hygiene spray; it's marketing talk, not argument.

Brociner begins his article by exulting, "Liberals, progressives and leftists worked their tails off to help elect Barack Obama—and this time we won!" Did "we"? What exactly did "we" win? Yes, "our" candidate was elected, but he's given nothing back to the "liberals, progressives and leftists" who worked their tails off to help elect him. His advisors and cabinet appointees are overwhelmingly right-wing, with the notable exception of Hilda Solis, who's under attack from the Republicans for her pro-labor stance. (There's a good article on Solis at the In These Times site. The author thinks that the Republican attacks won't succeed in blocking her appointment. I hope he's right; Obama has already backed down on support for contraception in his economic stimulus plan, under attack from the usual Republican suspects.) Brociner sounds like a sports fan to me, happy because "we" -- the corporate-owned team he roots for -- won. After his victory, Obama moved quickly and decisively to reward his corporate and party supporters; he has not been so generous to liberals, progressives, and leftists.

(P.S. February 1: It turns out that it isn't the Republicans who are blocking Solis' nomination in committee; it's the Democrats, with Obama's encouragement.)

Argument generally is in short supply in Brociner's piece. All is not well in Progressiveland, for "even progressive icons can, at times, have a negative influence on the movement’s ideological understanding of the world." Brociner has a bone to pick with two such "icons", Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein.

He begins by praising Chomsky in a way that strongly suggests he knows him only as an icon; he doesn't seem to have read his writings much.
One of Chomsky’s many strengths has been his uncanny ability to deconstruct propaganda and, in doing so, expose the hypocritical—and often criminal—nature of our government’s actions.

Chomsky has often complained about fans who think he "deconstructs" anything, claiming in his endearing Old-Left Philistine way that he doesn't even know what "deconstruct" means. Well, neither does Brociner. As Chomsky has always insisted, what he does is nothing particularly complex or technical; he just reads a lot and pays attention to what he reads, much as the journalist I. F. Stone used to do.

However, while Chomsky’s biting skepticism towards practically everything that emanates from official sources is generally on target, his bitterness, has at times, come to cloud his better judgment. Furthermore, his writings all too often tend to convey an overly conspiratorial view of world politics.

Ah, "bitterness." Numerous people have accused Chomsky of such things. I've been trying to track down a review of one his books in The Nation, from the 1990s I believe, which lamented that while the great man had been on-target during the Vietnam era, as time went on and he was ignored by the Powers That Be, his work took on a harsh and bitter tone. This prompted me to reread American Power and the New Mandarins, Chomsky's first book of political writing. It seemed to me that if anything, Chomsky was harsher and more excoriating when he was younger. Not that it matters: even if he was bitter, that wouldn't prove him wrong.

For example, when the Clinton administration finally did the right thing by intervening in order to stop Milosevic’s brutal aggression in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), Chomsky adopted positions that assigned such sinister motives to NATO that they crossed over into a form of demonization.

According to Chomsky the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Bosnia was really driven by the interests of “wealth and power.” As for Kosovo, Chomsky pronounced that “in brief, it was well understood by the NATO leadership that the bombing was not a response to the huge [Serbian] atrocities in Kosovo, but was their cause, exactly as anticipated.” (Monthly Review, Sept. 2008)

Brociner doesn't try to explain why Chomsky was wrong about US motives in Bosnia and Kosovo -- he just knows, dogmatically, that the US "finally did the right thing", and for the right reasons. Chomsky doesn't merely "pronounce," he always marshalls evidence for his arguments and claims, and he documented that the NATO bombing was a cause of Serbian atrocities, not a response to them, and that NATO anticipated this result. If Brociner objects to what Chomsky says, he needs at least to point to evidence that supports his position, not indulge in name-calling.

Brociner continues:
Fast forward to the 2008 presidential election and we hear a similarly dogmatic—and cynical—reaction from Chomsky. “So, every year, the advertising industry gives a prize to, you know, to the best marketing campaign of the year. This year, Obama won the prize. Beat out Apple company. The best marketing campaign of 2008. Which is correct, it is essentially what happened.”
First of all, it happens to be true that Barack Obama's presidential campaign won an Advertising Age award for marketer of the year, beating out Apple Computers. So who's cynical, Chomsky or the advertising mavens who anointed Obama as one of them? Nor was Chomsky being dogmatic: he explained in detail (via Distant Ocean) why he said what he did, and what he meant by it. If Brociner objects, he needs to construct an argument, not call Chomsky names. But that would be, like, hard.

Second, if Brociner wants to lump Chomsky together with "purists" who "sit on the sidelines as a presidential election hung in the balance because the Democratic nominee wasn’t progressive enough", he's in error, to put it as gently and neutrally as I can. Chomsky has always urged leftists to vote in elections, including Presidential elections, and 2008 was no exception. Even when the differences between the candidates are small, as they were in 2004 and 2008, "given the magnitude of U.S. power, ‘small differences can translate into large outcomes.’” This is an utterly pragmatic, non-dogmatic position, and a fairly well-known one, since numerous leftists have criticized Chomsky for it. But evidently Ken Brociner is unaware of it, perhaps because it clashes with his shrill, dogmatic rhetoric. Or maybe he just considers it unacceptable to express any doubts whatever about the candidate to which a liberal, progressive, or leftist has hitched his or her star.

Brociner takes the same tack with Naomi Klein; I'll leave the dissection of his critique as an exercise for the reader.

He concludes his piece with a ringing peroration.
In order to effectively move forward, we’ll need to reject any and all dogma—wherever and whomever it may come from. By doing so, we’ll be in a better position to understand the nuances of the obstacles and opportunities that we will be facing in the critical years ahead.
Ouch. That is some bad writing, but I agree with him this far: it's always a good idea to reject dogma, including the dogmas of people like Ken Brociner.

Cult of Personality

Back in the early years of this century (pardon that, but I couldn't resist), I worked with a student who told me that she didn't want to discuss George W. Bush's conduct as President because she knew him personally. She'd met him at a state dinner while he was governor of Texas, and she liked him.

I respect her feelings, but something is wrong when adults (and as a college student old enough to vote, she was and is an adult) can't even conceive of a difference between their feelings about a person and their judgment of his or her conduct. This seems to be a basic human trait, though; I'm beginning to realize that what I consider a basic necessity is for most people an ability to be gained, if at all, only slowly and painfully, with regret that it's even necessary. It's so much nicer and easier simply to judge people by their cuteness or lack of it, by their accent, by their shared fascination with this or that Saturday-morning children's tv show, by the color of their skin, by the way they dress or walk or wear their hair.

One reason I've always liked online discussion is that you get to know people only by their words and, ahem, ideas. It took me a while to figure out that for most people, this is a major downside. It especially seems to bother people who are used to getting their way either by being cute and charming, or by being threatening. Suddenly the physical presence they've always relied on doesn't work any more. Wink! Grin! Twinkle! Menace! Loom! Argh! What's the matter with this thing?

It took me a while to figure out that, as I mentioned once before, many of the political / intellectual writers I follow know each other in person, and underlying their debates with one another is their personal friendships and enmities. Which, of course, they're entitled to -- they're only human, after all -- but it sometimes introduces undercurrents and weirdnesses in their published writing that interfere with their argument and analysis. I am still haunted by the memory of mentioning to a friend a scholar of Judaism I'd been reading with interest. Her response: "Oh, I've heard he's really hard to get along with!" I was boggled. What does that have to do with his scholarship? I'll never meet him; nor, as far as I know, did my friend. But gossip takes precedence, I guess.

So, of course, I've been working my way around to our new God-King, Barack Obama. As I've said before, I suspect I would like him if I ever met him. (Weirdly, over the past few weeks I've had several dreams in which he was a character.) But that had nothing to do with how I voted, or how I'm going to evaluate his presidency. For many people, though, it's all that matters. I decided to write this posting after I found a comment on another blog by someone who found it "amazing to feel such closeness--true 'intimacy' with the occupants of 1600 Penn..." Even if she does (and I think it's a self-deluding fantasy), so what? A good many Americans felt "true 'intimacy'" with George W. Bush and his lovely family, or with Sarah Palin and hers.

Still, I admit to a slight, infinitesimal sense of inner conflict. My friend Anne Haines mentioned at her blog that
Later on, I watched an online video of the Obamas dancing at one of the balls -- not the ballroom dancing with each other, but cutting loose a bit and dancing with the crowd. And there was Barack, big as life, DOING THE BUMP.
... with a teenaged girl who asked him to, it turned out when I found a clip.

It's true, Obama is a good dancer, if a bit too contained. (On the other hand, can you imagine the corporate media's reaction if he'd let loose and done something fancy?) I wouldn't mind dancing with him myself. And it was sweet to see him dance with the girl; I'm sure she'll tell her grandchildren about it. But a few days later, Obama was killing children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He's talked about how he'd feel if his daughters were killed by Palestinian missiles; but what if they were killed by US missiles, fired at the orders of the President of the United States?

Then there's this photo. Had I known before that Obama is a southpaw?

(But then, so is McCain; and so were Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bill Clinton. The horror ... the horror... ) That gives me a sense of fellow-feeling with him. Intimacy, though? Huh-uh. He also used that hand to sign the orders that killed civilians a few days later.

Finally, there's this photo by White House photographer Pete Souza:

Such a likable man, really. But he's taken on a job that enables him, requires him to do horrible things, and he's shown no hesitation about doing them.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv

(Photo from Chris Floyd)

Okay, credit where credit is due. Like so many other people, I was pleased that President Obama plans to close Guantanamo, though I also agree with Michael J. Smith: "How we would laugh at some foreigner seeking our approval with this kind of initiative. Ahmadinejad: Okay, I'll stop hanging gay guys.... Next year. But this year -- hoo-ha! Line 'em up and keep 'em coming!" And I was pleased that Obama has forbidden torture, though with Chris Floyd I notice that he actually limited "the overt use of torture to the torture techniques approved of by the Pentagon -- although his own intelligence supremo, Dennis Blair, refuses to say if "waterboarding" should be considered torture, and assures Congress that he will examine 'whether certain coercive techniques have been effective'; i.e. which torture techniques should be continued." All this, "while leaving alone the Pentagon's numerous and far worse gulag centers -- where thousands of Terror War captives languish without charges, representation, or the slightest legal recourse." Too many people on the left still believe that the US didn't torture before Bush came along, and that if we could just put the Bush years down the memory hole, the US would have an admirably high moral character, and once again be the beacon of freedom, a light unto the nations. (Oh wait, that's Israel.)

I was also pleased that Obama rescinded Bush's gag rule on abortion for clinics that receive US funding, though I wonder what he'll do to prevent what he criticized as "a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us." As usual where US politics are concerned, I hadn't noticed much "debate" on this or any other issue, though Obama promised to start a "conversation" about it. Should this sort of matter be subject to Presidential decree in the first place? Bush the Elder initiated the gag rule, Clinton rescinded it, Dubya replaced it, and now Obama has rescinded it again. That's not a "debate," as Obama called it, but power politics. People's lives around the world should not depend (though they do, I know) on the vagaries of American voters.

There've been some intriguing reports (via) that Obama dropped his touchy-feely bipartisan mask in meetings with Republican congressional leaders who tried to dictate some features of the economic stimulus package. "I won," he reminded them.
Even better, he told them (via) that "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done." And I wouldn't be So Gay if I didn't also point and giggle and say rude things about House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH)'s complaint, "You know, I'm concerned about the size of the package." We all have our little insecurities.

But I'm not pleased, to put it mildly, that Obama promptly began killing people. (And dammit, Chris Floyd beat me to the title I'd thought of for this posting.) Just dusky foreigners, mind you, of no great concern to right-thinking Americans; and it was really no surprise given the man's belligerence, expressed in speech after speech during the election campaign, but that's no excuse for anti-Americanism! We may not be perfect, but our virtues greatly outweigh our defects, especially now that we have this inspiring, shiny-new President!

Nor am I pleased by Obama's pronouncement on the Israel-Palestine conflict. It's the same old lies -- as Noam Chomsky said on Democracy Now!, it's basically the Bush administration's position, though that should be no surprise by now. Obama treated Palestinian deaths and Israeli as if they were equivalent (instead of the 100-to-1 ratio that actually obtained), demanded that the Palestinians relinquish their right to self-defense without making similar demands of Israel, and spoke as though Palestinian Authority President Abbas (whose term of office expired on January 9 but refuses to step down, claiming that he has the authority to extend his term, not that that bothers Obama) spoke for all Palestinians. In a move worthy of the Ministry of Truth, Obama simply erased the fact that Hamas is the democratically-elected government of Palestine.

Of course, Obama here shares the attitudes of most of the American elite. John Caruso pointed out this reality-challenged headline from the Washington Post:
"Battered Gaza Still In the Grip Of Hamas." (There seems to be general acknowledgment that the Israeli massacres increased Hamas' popularity among Palestinians.) And let's not forget Israeli elites, such as the former air force colonel also quoted by John Caruso: “When you have a Palestinian kid facing an Israeli tank, how do you explain that the tank is actually David and the kid is Goliath?"

(Photo from The Distant Ocean)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Poetry Friday - What does withdrawal do

What does withdrawal do to a fetus?
I've pulled my knees up to my chin
and I'm hiding. Seven months spent
banging up against my mother's bones,
I cut my wrists and didn't die, what
an abortion. Took seven Seconal, a dozen
Darvon, spent seven hours throwing up.
Hands holding my head under the water:
You're bad, you're bad. I don't even deserve
to die. Can't you see how bad I am?
Seven months of nightmares, things I wanted
to remember now I wish I could forget.
Sometimes I feel like I'm being torn to
pieces. I don't want to come out of here.
I don't want to be locked up. It's different
when the door is locked from this side.

A found poem, from sometime in 1977 or 1978.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Fire This Time

It's become routine for Korean people being dislocated by "redevelopment" programs to protest. But under President Lee Myung-bak's administration, such routine democratic behavior is more and more embattled. Lee is hostile to citizens who behave like citizens instead of docile employees, as shown by his paranoid response to last summer's candlelight vigils against US beef imports.

Tuesday morning the Seoul police raided a sit-in on the rooftop of a five-story commercial building in the Yongsan district. Accounts of what happened vary, naturally, but it is certain that six people were killed, one of them a policeman, and twenty-three were injured when a fire broke out. The police claim that the protestors threw Molotov cocktails which ignited cans of paint thinner. The protestors say they threw Molotov cocktails after the police turned water cannons on them (in January weather, on a fifth-story rooftop!). It was the first day of the protest, and the police seem to have moved in without attempting to deal with the protesters first. According to The Hankyoreh, 1600 police were involved in the action; I haven't yet seen any report of the number of protesters.

I have mixed feelings about this. The Hankyoreh chides the police for moving carelessly into "an area they knew to be dangerous", though I'd criticize them more for using water cannons in such a confined space -- were they trying to kill people? On the other hand, the protesters brought Molotov cocktails into an area they knew to be dangerous -- 70 containers of highly inflammable paint thinner! -- and threw at least one of them; for once, the police claims seem to coincide with the protestors'. I support people who fight back against police violence, but the weapons must be chosen sensibly. It's lucky more people weren't killed, and both sides share the blame.

And now it seems that the families of the dead (except for the one police officer, of course) have been impeded by the police "from confirming the identities of their bodies".
In addition to being consistently irresponsible towards the victims’ families, police are using harsh tactics against citizens protesting the deaths. They used a water cannon against 1,500 people who held a candlelight protest late Tuesday night, then engaged angrier protesters in a stone-throwing battle. then the police threw rocks back at the more active protesters. Roughly twenty people were injured at the candlelight protest, including members of the press, and were taken to area hospitals. Two people were arrested.

Police even used violence against members of a National Assembly fact-finding mission.

According to statements from the Renewal of Korea Party Wednesday, party member Yu Won-il identified himself as a member of the National Assembly but was verbally abused and beaten, with police demanding to know “if you can do what you want ‘cause you’re a member of the National Assembly.” He has since been diagnosed with a concussion, requiring two weeks of treatment.

In other news, the blogger known as Minerva has been indicted "on charges of spreading false information through online articles to destabilize the foreign exchange market." The Korea Times is a bit more critical than I'd have expected, noting again that the information Minerva posted was accurate, not false.

(P.S. January 24: The Hankyoreh reports:

A recording of a police radio transmission made just before Tuesday’s deadly crackdown on a protest in the Yongsan district revealed that police armed and hired security guards to participate in a joint operation to evict tenants and protesters. The record, which contradicts the police’s assertion that it did not mobilize the contracted personnel, is expected to influence an ongoing investigation being conducted by the prosecution.

This news fits with the Korean government's increasing tendency to try to repress dissent under Lee Myung-bak. It's depressing to think that Koreans should have to fight again the battles they fought for freedom in the years before 1987. But at least, under present conditions, it's a little easier to expose the government's lies, and it may be possible to fight this out in the courts rather than the streets. More information here.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

See Those Children Dressed in Red (and Blue)

I've been trying to remember the last time I watched the inauguration of a US President on TV. Probably John F. Kennedy in 1961, if we watched it at school. I don't remember watching Lyndon Johnson's inauguration in 1965, but who knows? It's virtually certain I wouldn't have watched Nixon's in 1969; by then I hardly watched TV anyway. Today was a work day, so I couldn't have watched the ceremonies for Barack Obama even if I'd wanted to, which I didn't.

In general I don't watch these spectacles, these extravaganzas. The last such a one that I saw was the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, because I happened to be in a bar waiting for a friend to arrive; I was surprised to find myself moved. Before that, the 1969 moon landing. I must lack the gene or whatever makes one susceptible to such things.

Perhaps I'll dissect Obama's inaugural address some other time. It's a cloud of gaseous platitudes that leave a nasty aftertaste. But for now, I'll recommend to you Chris Floyd's essay on the festivities, John Caruso's brief comparison of Obama and MLK, and this remark I overheard today by a student in the dorm where I work: "For me, I think it's the idea of change ..." Not the reality, apparently. I think that a lot of Obama's fans feel that way. All in all, I feel like I'm in a replay of 1993, when Clinton took office to the snap, crackle and pop of expoding conservative heads, and the frothy foam of hope flecked the lips of liberals and progressives.

Finally, Dave Lindorff had this article at Counterpunch, with a link to the video clip above. It's not really about the inauguration, but the concert that took place a couple of nights ago. Lindorff said:
Maybe symbolism is just symbolism, but the optimist in me says that Barack Obama's invitation to former Communist and life-long political activist Pete Seeger (along with Bruce Springstein and 89-year-old Pete's full-throated grandson Tao) to sing Woody Guthrie's anthem This Land is Your Land, and the fact that the once blacklisted folk legend chose to do not just the feel-good, approved-for-public-school-music-class-use verses, but all the verses, including Woody's long-censored "commie" verses, and that Obama was right there singing those verses along with the rest of the million people on the Mall, has to mean something.
That I had to see! Seeger looks remarkably spry for 89; look how he trots off the stage at the end of the song. There's one second, maybe two seconds of Obama at 3:28, who isn't singing as far as I can tell -- it looks to me like he's saying something to the person on his right. He rocks gently from side to side in time with the music, but I think he looks a little bored. More like "Who let these old hippies in?" than "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh." Did Obama invite Seeger et al. to sing this song? Someone, I think, has let his optimism get the better of him.

Monday, January 19, 2009

My Brother's Keeper

Jack. I fear there can be no possible doubt about the matter. This afternoon during my temporary absence in London on an important question of romance, he obtained admission to my house by means of the false pretence of being my brother. Under an assumed name he drank, I’ve just been informed by my butler, an entire pint bottle of my Perrier-Jouet, Brut, ‘89; wine I was specially reserving for myself. Continuing his disgraceful deception, he succeeded in the course of the afternoon in alienating the affections of my only ward. He subsequently stayed to tea, and devoured every single muffin. And what makes his conduct all the more heartless is, that he was perfectly well aware from the first that I have no brother, that I never had a brother, and that I don’t intend to have a brother, not even of any kind. I distinctly told him so myself yesterday afternoon.

Lady Bracknell. Ahem! Mr. Worthing, after careful consideration I have decided entirely to overlook my nephew’s conduct to you.

Jack. That is very generous of you, Lady Bracknell. My own decision, however, is unalterable. I decline to give my consent.

I haven't done much posting this past week, because I was spending a lot of time reading discussions at other sites on the Israeli Blitzkrieg in Gaza -- sometimes posting comments, doing a little debate, but mostly seeing what I could learn. I spent most of an evening scanning over 400 comments on Glenn Greenwald's critique of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's enthusiastic endorsement of Israeli terrorism against civilians. (It's up to 799 comments tonight, but I haven't bothered to catch up.) I knew I was going to have to write about this; I should have done it sooner, since nothing I have learned in the past week or two has made Israel's conduct look any better. If anything, it's made it look worse.

The same goes for the arguments (maybe that word should be in scare quotes) of Israel's defenders. Most of them make just as much sense reversed. For example: Israel has the right to defend itself (or its citizens) against terrorists. So it does, but Palestine has the same right, and much more restricted means for self-defense. The Palestinians aren't getting big arms shipments from the US, as Israel is, to make sure they don't run out of ammunition. Israel has just, as I began writing this post Saturday night, declared a ceasefire in Gaza, but they plan to keep their troops there until they feel like removing them. On the other hand, they're saying they'll withdraw them in time for Obama's inauguration tomorrow. So who will defend the Palestinians from Israeli occupation and violence? Hamas declared a ceasefire of its own, "for a week to give Israel time to withdraw its forces from the Gaza Strip."

Which reminds me: the terminology being used could use some scrutiny. The parties to the conflict now going on are generally labeled Israel and Hamas, especially in the American corporate media. But Hamas is a political party, so perhaps it would be more correct to refer to Likud and Hamas. It wouldn't change much, since the vast majority of Israelis, regardless of party, support the Blitzkrieg. Support for Hamas is apparently growing among Palestinians as the invasion goes on, in the West Bank as well as in Gaza. Even if Israel and Palestine are too prejudicial, I intend to use those names here except when I'm specifically talking about political parties or factions.

I point this out mainly because there is a tendency, among Americans at least (though probably also among Israelis) to forget that Hamas is the present, democratically-elected government of Palestine. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, referred to Hamas as "non-state actors" at her recent confirmation hearings (via Chris Floyd); Barack Obama said, during a visit to Israel last summer, "In terms of negotiations with Hamas, it is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation-state ..." No doubt he'd rather negotiate with the increasingly discredited Fatah party, who attempted a coup against Hamas (via ATR) at the instigation of the US and Israel, but failed. You may see this fact turned around, even at The Nation -- yes, even that far-left outpost of Israel-hatred! -- where a writer claimed that among the "sins" which led to the Israeli attack was "the fact that Hamas carried out a coup against the PA in Gaza."

More entertainingly, the US ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, Martin Indyk found himself paired on Democracy Now! with Norman Finkelstein, who kept correcting Indyk's -- well, let's call them misstatements:
Hamas, having won the PA elections and then—we don’t need to go into the details of that, but essentially what happened was, as a result of a competition between Hamas and Fatah over who would rule, Hamas took control of Gaza by force in what was, in effect, a putsch against the Palestinian Authority. It therefore moved from being a terrorist organization to a terrorist government, responsible for controlling territory in Gaza and responsible for meeting the needs of one-and-a-half million Palestinians in Gaza. ...

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I think the problem of Mr. Indyk’s presentation is he constantly reverses cause and effect. Just as he said a moment ago that it was Hamas which broke the ceasefire, although he well knows it was Israel that broke the ceasefire on November 4th, he now reverses cause and effect as to how the present impasse came about. In January 2006, as he writes in his book, Hamas came to power in a free and fair election. I think those are his words. He then claims on your program and he claims in his book that Hamas committed a “putsch”—his word—in order to eliminate the Palestinian Authority. And as I’m sure Mr. Indyk well knows and as was documented in the April 2008 issue of Vanity Fair by the writer David Rose, basing himself on internal US documents, it was the United States in cahoots with the Palestinian Authority and Israel which were attempting a putsch on Hamas, and Hamas preempted the putsch. That, too, is no longer debatable or no longer a controversial claim. ...
Indyk responded to Finkelstein's rebuttal by calling him "just a propaganda spokesman for Hamas, you know" and protesting that
I was invited on to talk about my book and the Gaza situation. I was not invited on to debate with Norman Finkelstein, and I’m not prepared to do that. So if you want to talk about the situation, I’m happy to do that, but I’m not here to be the representative of the government of Israel.
He could have fooled me. One indication of just how deeply in the wrong Israel was in this most recent attack on Gaza was how much its defenders had to falsify the facts. It was Israel, not the Palestinians, who broke the ceasefire; it was Fatah (with the US and Israel) that tried to overthrow Hamas, not vice versa. It's the IDF, not Hamas, that uses civilians as human shields. There's really no need for Israel and its advocates to lie about breaking the ceasefire in the first place, because they also argue that Hamas only wants a ceasefire so that it can rest and get more weapons for another attack on Israel. In fact, though, it's usually Israel that violates the ceasefires and truces it enters into, and the longer the ceasefire lasts, the more likely it will be Israel who breaks it. But on the apologists' showing, Israel doesn't want the war to stop in the first place. The Arabs, they claim, are dedicated to the destruction of Israel, and will never give up that aim. They'll only stop fighting strategically until they can rearm. If this is what Israel believes, then its own pious talk of peace should be taken as a front for its intent to continue killing Palestinians.

I want the Palestinians to stop firing homemade rockets into Israel too, but that's not likely to happen as long as Israel continues its longstanding assault on Palestine. I have to keep reminding myself that most Americans probably don't know about the decades-long campaign of harassment, random violence, confiscation of land and other property, extrajudicial killings, imprisonment, and torture that Israel has been waging against Palestine. Most Americans think that as long as they're not hearing about Arab suicide bombers, everything is peaceful in the Holy Land, no matter how many Palestinians are being killed. The media watch group FAIR discussed this a few years back with regard to American corporate media coverage of the Middle East:
The Los Angeles Times (8/13/03) wrote that the [Palestinian suicide] bombings "broke a six-week stretch during which the people of this war-weary land had enjoyed relative quiet."

During this six-week period of "relative quiet," however, some 17 Palestinians were killed and at least 59 injured by Israeli occupation soldiers and settlers, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The dead included Mahmoud Kabaha, a four-year-old boy, who was sitting in the back seat of a jeep with his family at a checkpoint when an Israeli soldier shot him dead--in a spray of bullets that the army simply called an "accidental burst of gunfire" (Associated Press, 7/25/03). Virtually none of the major U.S. news reports on the August 12 bombings alluded to the Palestinian death toll in this period, leaving out a key piece of the story: For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the violence had never ceased; while the Israeli attacks had decreased, there had never been anything like an Israeli cease-fire.
As long as only Palestinians are dying, FAIR found, Americans were told that Israel was "calm." So, of course, when there is an outbreak of violence by Palestinians against Israel, from most Americans' point of view it seems to come out of nowhere: the "peace" has been shattered by the apparently motiveless craziness of Islamic "terrorists." (The terrorism of Israeli settlers, who carried out pogroms against Palestinians with general impunity, is also usually overlooked here.)

Partisans of Israel are often quite open about their disregard for Palestinians' lives.

They believe, or at least claim to believe, that everyone who is critical of Israel's conduct wants to see 'the Jews driven into the sea.' One such person tried to bait a critic in comments at A Tiny Revolution:
When you talk about Israels defeat, can we hope that soon the country will cease to exist and that the Jews will have to pack up and abandon their criminal project? Where will they go? Not here I hope!
This is a mild version -- more often the partisan accuses the critic of exulting in the thought of all Jews being killed because they wouldn't defend themselves, like this commenter from Salon:
Glenn and your misguided supporters: it is indeed wearying to listen to the same drivel from you always attacking Israelis for defending themselves against what Glenn admits is "exactly the same "logic" that fuels the rockets from Hezbollah and Hamas into Israel." What would you have the Israelis do? Lie down and die? NEVER AGAIN! I'm afraid that your answer will be so awful that I'm almost hesitant to post. But I realize that my comment here will really make no difference to the Israel haters. This is an old and tragic story, and people never seem to learn. Woe is us. All of us, impoverished humanity.
What would this commenter have the Palestinians do? Lie down and die? NEVER AGAIN! I'm afraid her answer (like Israel's) will be so awful that I'm almost hesitant to ask. ... And so on. One reason I find it easy to dismiss this tactic is that it's also used against critics of US violence: we are accused of wanting, craving, dreaming of the destruction of America. I wrote about this in a posting on patriotism last year:
But as usual with people of her ilk, it soon becomes clear that Barkan will not concede that America has ever done anything wrong, that any people anywhere in the world have reason to want to strike back at us, that no country in the world has any business defending itself against us, that it’s time to throw out reason and complexity and boil everything down to the question, “Do you want to see America conquered, or don’t you?”

No, I don’t -- not that America is in any danger of being conquered: the US has not fought a war of self-defense in my lifetime. But I don’t want to see any country conquered. People like Barkan get so furious at any mention of American malfeasance because they’ll gladly sic the dogs of war on any other country that behaved as the US has behaved, that killed a tenth as many people as the US has killed, that supported a tenth as many dictators as the US has supported, that harbors the kinds of terrorists the US harbors – so it is they who want to see the US attacked and humbled, if they had any consistency of principle. Those of us who can recognize the faults of our country, by contrast, simply want it to stop hurting people so wantonly.

I think it’s a safe bet, for example, that in 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. called his own government the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, he wasn’t calling for other governments to invade the US. No, he said explicitly that he had come to realize that he couldn’t condemn the violence of others without first condemning and opposing the far greater violence being done in his name by his own government.

When I say that Israel is the aggressor in the conflict in Gaza, that doesn't mean I want to see Israel destroyed, any more than I want to see Palestine destroyed. Or the United States. If Hamas are "terrorists," so are Likud and the IDF. So the exchange of epithets is meaningless. If Israel wants peace (which, as I've shown, is dubious), it will have to start negotiating in good faith, with Hamas, the democratically-elected government of Palestine. (Some who are reading this may not be old enough to remember that until the 1990s or so, Israel refused to negotiate with Palestinians at all, or even to acknowledge their existence. Now Israel is trying to do the same with Hamas.) The usual pro-Israel response to the critics of Israel is to accuse them of anti-Semitism. That doesn't follow, any more than my criticism of the US makes me anti-American; but it also doesn't matter. Even if I were anti-Semitic (which I don't think I am), Israel would still be the aggressor, and it needs to stop right now.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


The BBC has an article and video clip about a Southampton bus driver who was so "shocked and horrified" by the atheist adverts being displayed on 800 buses around the UK, that he refused to drive one. Since there were no buses available with advertisements he found acceptable, he went home for the day. "I think it was the starkness of this advert which implied there was no God," he told the BBC. Talk about Political Correctness run wild! But though the company "said it would do everything in its power to ensure Mr Heather does not have to drive the buses", on Monday he "agreed to go back to work with the promise he would only have to drive the buses if there were no others available."

Incidentally, I learn from the article that the advertisements are backed by "prominent atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins." I'd have thought "There's Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life" would be too lackluster for him, but given Dawkins's generally middlebrow cultural sensibilities, I shouldn't have been surprised.

I wonder if an atheist bus driver could refuse to drive a bus with a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish) display ad, because of the starkness of the advert which implied that there is a God. If so, cool (though I'd want to give such a milquetoast atheist a resounding dope slap). According to the BBC article,
Pressure group Christian Voice has questioned the campaign's effectiveness but the Methodist Church said it would be a "good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life" and suggested it showed there was a "continued interest in God".
I question the campaign's effectiveness, too; I don't know what it means that the only story the BBC could find involved one hysterical bus driver. But look at the headline which refers to the "No God" buses, as though the advertisements had taken over the buses' souls and were running over hapless Christians like something out of an early Stephen King novel. I'd really be interested to know what most people think about these ads. Do large numbers of Britons feel reassured because their Shadowy Humanist Overlords say that there's probably not a God? Are they laughing themselves silly over the meekness of the ads? There's probably not a Santa Claus, so go ahead and pout and cry as much as you like; you'll have to buy your own Christmas presents, though. There's probably not a Cthulhu, so no dark subterranean god will eat your heart for breakfast. Probably. Have a nice day!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Poetry Friday -- Quadragesima


(The possession of Mercy Short, Winter 1692/3,
in Boston. It is Cotton Mather who speaks.)

These cases are brought to our attention
of late; that we who want not for evils
might see how our children in affliction
would speak in tongues of spirits and devils.

These young ones, easy prey to suggestion,
throw off counsel of the godly for others':
"Why falls it to our own generation
to mend the broken fences of our fathers?"

Not head nor heart speaks true. The Prince of Lies
has broken in: these little ones perforce
eat not, nor drink -- such poor things as these
be denied them, much less the Spirit's peace.

We saw the skin fetched off her tongue and lips
by fires our eyes saw not, and blisters raised.
How then call you but childish dreams our hopes
of Light, and wish the doors of Heaven closed?

[Summer 1977]
I read about Mercy Short in Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft at Salem (Braziller, 1969 [and still apparently in print]). The story made an impression on me, and I'd begun writing "Quadragesima" even before I finished reading the book -- in fact, I worked on it as I read Hansen's account of Mercy Short's ordeal. In the pamphlet he wrote about Short's bewitchment, Cotton Mather reported that she demanded that the Devil show her the book he wanted her to sign, and she read aloud from it in front of the observers. One long word she had trouble with sounded to Mather like "quadragesima", which may refer to the festival of Lent or the first Sunday of Lent. This pleased Mather and the other Puritan divines present, apparently because it confirmed their hostility to Roman Catholicism: the Devil was clearly a Papist, if not the Pope himself.

I recall assembling the poem like a jigsaw puzzle with words I found as I read the story of Mercy Short in Witchcraft at Salem, filling in around them as I figured out where each should go. (The italicized words at the beginning of the fourth stanza came from Hansen's quotation of Mather.) Not my usual way of writing; I can't remember ever doing it again. But it worked nicely this time.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Don't Mess with Owl-eyed Athena

One big story in South Korea right now is the arrest of a man Lee Myung-bak's government accuses of spreading false rumors on the Internet. Prosecutors have identified this man, a unemployed 30-year-old whose family name is Park, with a blogger called Minerva who became famous for his commentary on Korean business and government last year. According to The Hankyoreh,
Minerva was dubbed “the Internet Economic President” for the accuracy of his predictions about the collapse of Lehman Brothers as the financial crisis that began in the United States was escalating, spiraling out of control and the South Korean currency’s sharp decline in value against the U.S. dollar. He posted over 100 articles on the Internet portal site Daum, but his identity remained hidden. Some people believed that Minerva was an official somewhere in his or her 30s or 50s at a securities firm who had experience living and working overseas. Others speculated that he was in fact a senior citizen in his 70s.
It's hard to disentangle the facts from the rumors in Mr. Park's case. It's certain that he's not a professional economist (which may be why his predictions were so successful): he attended a small two-year college and acquired his knowledge of economics later, on his own. What I'm having trouble telling from what I've read online is what credentials, if any, he claimed in his writings. The Korea Times reports that "According to prosecutors, Minerva identified himself as an elderly man who had worked at foreign securities firms to explain his economic knowledge"; the Hankyoreh attributes these beliefs to the speculations of Minerva's readers. From what I know of President Lee's government (and also of what readers invent about writers), I'm inclined to trust the Hankyoreh's account.

Especially since the prosecutors are finding themselves in a bind. Not only are they coming under attack for trying to stifle free expression, it appears that Minerva did not spread false rumors. The reason the government doesn't like him is that what he said was true. For example,
"On Dec. 26, 2008, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF) convened a meeting of representatives from the country's seven biggest banks (and they) were forced to attend,'' Rep. Lee Seok-hyun of the Democratic Party told The Korea Times.

"At the meeting, I learned that banks were requested not to buy dollars, just as Park had contended. I confirmed it with multiple attendants. Accordingly, Park is not guilty,'' the fourth-term legislator said.
According to the Korea Times, "foreigners" are also critical of the government's case.
But for foreigners and overseas bloggers, the Internet witch-hunt is a ridiculous episode that could only hurt the image of one of the world's most-wired countries.

"Korea is starting to look silly for trying to imprison a blogger,'' said Tom Coyner, who helps advise foreign investors in South Korea as president of Soft Landing Consulting. "Authorities are taking this too far.''
That name sounds familiar! Apparently the Korea Times considers it acceptable to quote their own columnists as if they were independent sources; the other foreigner quoted in the article, Michael Breen, has also contributed regular opinion pieces to the Times, and judging by the one I just linked, he's every bit as historically and politically perspicacious as Coyner. (Coyner seems to have changed his mind about the Internet since last summer.)

On the other hand, the Korea Times reports that "
a survey showed a majority of opinion leaders supported the Internet guru's arrest for spreading 'groundless rumors.'''
A survey conducted by the Institute of Global Management, an education institute for CEOs, Sunday, saw 99 percent of 640 corporate leaders, business management professors, lawyers and reporters participated saying they knew of Minerva, with 58 percent supporting the ongoing legal action against him. CEOs marked the highest percentage of support for his arrest at 62 percent.
(Not to hammer the point into the ground, but Minerva did not spread "groundless rumors": his information was accurate, grounded, true. It's likely that these "opinion leaders" know it. So are they, or the Korea Times itself, spreading "groundless rumors" on the Internet?)

(P.S. Just for balance, compare this blast from the American past:

[Rush] Limbaugh took this baseless rumor from a small insiders' newsletter and broadcast it to his radio audience of millions, adding his own new inaccuracies: The newsletter did not report--as Limbaugh claimed--that [Vince] Foster was murdered, or that the apartment was owned by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Limbaugh's repetition of an unfounded rumor has been credited (Chicago Tribune, 3/11/94; Newsweek, 3/21/94) with contributing to a plunge in the stock market on the day it was aired.
Via alicublog, dealing not with Minerva but with American right-wingers trying to exhume Foster's cadaver. Limbaugh remains at large.)

The Hankyoreh has discussed the relevance of university snobbery to media coverage of Park's situation.

They seem to be saying that only people with prestigious degrees have the right to speak about such things. You can finally make sense of why a presidential administration full of individuals rich in Gangnam real estate, who attended Korea University, who go to Somang Church, or who are from the Yeongnam region is trying to maximize the socioeconomic disparity in education so that only the “haves” can enjoy the most prestigious education.
In that respect, of course, Korea is not so different from the United States.

In other news, Samsung Corporation has been blocking demonstrations near its company headquarters by filing for permits for "ghost protests" that never take place. Since only one permit will be issued for any specific time or place, no other demonstrations can get permits. And it appears that President Lee not only wants to go ahead after all with the big canal project he supposedly abandoned last summer, his government has distorted various studies to make the project look more attractive than it really is.

But enough of the heavy stuff. Yesterday the weather in Korea turned very cold, -11 degrees Celsius. (That's about 12 degrees Fahrenheit.) The Hankyoreh ran this photo of a street vendor selling hot sweet potatoes at an open-air market:

and this one of Sri Lankan workers using their vacation day to give charcoal briquets to "underprivileged people" in the city of Pocheon.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Poetry Friday - On the art of poetry

on the art of poetry

here's one gladiator who's
had it spilling my guts
all over the page for you
the spectator caesar

willingly i've walked onto
the pounded sand to hear
the roar of 20,000 throats
and the breathing of my partners
my adversaries

and each time we faced off
i knew come good or bad
i'd make something of the outcome
blood from stones and roses
from the blood

if i thought i'd gone through
all this the ups and downs
the feet on the throats
the drawn swords the blood
the tears

just to give you the opportunity
to hold a life in your hands
i'd know that not one line
not one long night of joy or pain
had been worth it

here's one gladiator who's
had it bitten the dust
for your diversion and the education
of the young for the last
goddamned time

June 30, 1977

What is poetry for? Or fiction, or drama, or any other art whose maker seeks an audience? And why make it? By the time I began writing poetry again, in my mid-20s, I'd often encountered the idea that an artist takes his or her suffering and transmutes it into art, which helps not only the artist but the audience understand Life better. I was also doubting it. Around this time I read an essay on Sylvia Plath by William Gass, who declared that making art out of suffering may well make the pain hurt worse, and that was an insight that I recognized.

"On the art of poetry" was difficult to write. After several years away from poetry I had written one poem that seemed acceptable, and several that didn't. And I was still struggling with the question I've mentioned before, of what makes a poet. How do you know you're a poet? Was I just another poseur, trying to be a poet even though I wasn't good enough? Was I seeking out unrequited love in hopes that it would give me material? Was it worth it, struggling to make something good if I wasn't good enough? (The editors of the campus literary magazines hadn't thought so when I submitted poems five years earlier.) How good do you have to be? And who's watching the struggle, or the outcome? Does an artist need an audience? I was, of course, basically looking over my own shoulder, being a backseat critic; which is fine after you've written the poems, but not while you're trying to write them.

I still don't have answers to any of these questions. They continued to dog me for the next few years as I wrote more. Some friends whose opinions I respected encouraged me, so I hoped that what I was writing was good; it even seemed good to me. But to this day, unlike my prose writing I find it difficult to judge the poetry I wrote in this period.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Darwin Groaned

The Sideshow has a link to an article at the Guardian about an "atheist bus", which turns out to be no such thing. (Whatever that would be -- a bus that doesn't believe in gods?) The Atheist Bus Campaign raised £135,000, "breaking our original target of £5,500 by over 2400%", to put advertisements (or adverts, as the British call them) on the sides of 800 buses. And the magic words?

There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

Ooooh, child! I'm reminded of IOZ' parody of militant but well-behaved Homo-Americans ("We're Here. We'll Just ... Uh, Oh, You Don't Have to Get Used To It."). This catchy bus slogan was meant as a "positive counter-response" (um, "counter-" is redundant) "to the Jesus Said ads running on London buses in June 2008." Ariane Sherine, the author of this series of articles, felt that the threat of hellfire is a depressing thing to see at 8:30 in the morning when you're on your way to work, and will cause people to kill themselves. "Our rational slogan will hopefully reassure anyone who has been scared by this kind of evangelism." Just reading Ms. Sherine's article makes me want to kill myself. But not to worry: thanks to the gratifying popular response, and inspired by suggestions by other bloggers, "from Monday January 12, 1,000 tube cards will run on London Underground featuring atheist quotations from Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn ... , alongside the original campaign slogan."

It's not that I want the adverts to be more aggressive, in the mode of, say, Christopher Hitchens (Abandon Islam Or We'll Bomb You Out of the Stone Age!), Daniel Dennett (Accomodate Atheism Or We'll Reluctantly Cage or Disarm You!), or Richard Dawkins (Theism Is Megalomaniac Insanity! Darwin Is Truth, and I Am His Prophet!). I'm not even sure I want that "probably" to come out of the slogan, though I think it comes across as excessively diffident and not particularly rational. There probably won't be a worldwide nuclear war either, but that doesn't mean it's okay to relax and do nothing to make sure it never happens. Sherine reports, by the way, that although the campaign has gone international, Australian atheists' bus signs were turned down by the country's largest outdoor advertising agency; they seem to have given up there, rather than going to the second or third-largest agency. There's such a thing as not being aggressive enough.

People differ widely, so it's likely that there are some who will be cheered just to read on a bus that there probably isn't a god, so have a nice day. The American Humanist Association's entry, "Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake", is not much better, partly because of its echo of Santa Claus (another old guy with a beard who'll punish you if you're bad), but also because being good for goodness' sake is, if anything, less rational than being good to avoid going to Hell. And what is good? How do we know? When people disagree in their moral judgments, how should the disagreement be resolved? Not all religious people worry about going to Hell or obsess about going to Heaven; different believers believe for different reasons and in different ways. Many of them are not at all comforted by the idea that there is no god out there to take care of them, to tell them what to do, to reward them for being good and punish other people for being bad.

The same, as far as I can tell, is true of atheists and agnostics. Some of us yearn for an external standard of morality as rigid as that of any Pope or Imam, only based (supposedly) on science rather than Scripture. They aren't interested in tolerance or pluralism, because there can be only one right answer, and if Science tells us objectively what is right and what is wrong, there's no need to let people with the wrong answers go around confusing the weak and ignorant. What really counts to such people is who gets to run the show, and like their religious counterparts they take for granted that it will be them.

Given the high visibility of religion in all media, I don't object to atheists getting into the act. As I've tried to indicate before, what bothers me about other atheists is not so much their pugnacity as their ignorance and sloppiness about facts. Just being an atheist does not, in itself, make you either an expert on religion or on how best to get along without religion. Calling yourself a rationalist doesn't make you rational. Atheists are as apt as believers to make misinformed claims about Christianity, and trying to boil atheism down to soundbytes that will grab commuters' attention from the side of a bus doesn't help.

Look again at the Atheist Bus Campaign advert: "stop worrying and enjoy your life." There are Christian ad campaigns which encourage the public to get right with God, stop worrying about Hell, and enjoy their lives, because Jesus loves them and wants them to be happy. Are atheists happier, free of worry, more relaxed than believers? I'm not sure. I've known atheists who envy the devout their certainty. Others are, if anything, too confident that they have all the answers that matter. Both atheists and theists like to accuse each other of taking the easy way out; C. S. Lewis liked to say that being a Christian didn't make life easier, and scorned even other Christians who constructed a God who would make no demands on them. Atheists will often accuse Christians of the same thing, of letting other people do their thinking for them. I think that sometimes we do need to worry if we're doing the right thing -- not because we'll be punished, but because we are hurting other people.

Nontheistic philosophers have grappled with this problem. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), for example, wrote in a famous letter to one of his students:
... what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc. & if it does not improve your thinking about important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious ... You see, I know that it's difficult to think well about 'certainty,' 'probability,' 'perception,' etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people's lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it's nasty then it's most important.
Happiness is hard to define, but I think I can safely say that by all accounts Wittgenstein wasn't a very happy person. This seems to have been more a matter of his temperament than of his lack of religious belief; suffering seems to have run in his family. Philosophy was an ongoing struggle for him, but it was still important to him to continue that struggle. The quotation above has challenged me ever since the mid-1970s, when I first encountered it in Walter Kaufmann's The Faith of a Heretic (Doubleday, 1961). It wouldn't fit on the side of a bus, nor I think would it appeal to someone whose day is already going downhill at 8:30 in the morning.

On the other hand, Kaufmann remarked (and I agree) that although "thinking about these things" is nasty, it is also thrilling. The psychologist Dorothy Dinnerstein made roughly the same point in a more inspiring manner, I think, in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976, vii):
And in either case, to fight what seems about to destroy everything earthly that you love – to fight it not passively and autistically, with denial; and not unrealistically, with blind force; but intelligently, armed with your central resource, which is passionate curiosity – is for me the human way to live until you die.
Many religious believers don't think they have all the answers, and they spend a lot of time and energy questioning themselves and their values. This is among the reasons why I reject a simplistic division between religion and irreligion, as though they were totally, mutually exclusive opposites. Many atheists and theists, whatever else they disagree about, agree that they are -- religion is irrational, atheism coldly rational; religion is based on authority, atheism has no foundation; etc. -- but I think they're wrong. Probably. Not to be too militant or aggressive about it, y'know. If you don't think so, I'll just give up and sit over there, if that's okay.

Monday, January 5, 2009

More Freedom, Whether You Want It Or Not

There was one more bit I wanted to quote from James Traub's The Freedom Agenda, and rather than insert it into a post that was already too long, I thought I'd give it a post of its own:
And so, having taken the islands, it was our duty to "impart to [the Filipino people], if it be possible by contact and sympathy, and example, the drill and habit of law and obedience which we long ago got out of the strenuous processes of English history." As England did for us, so we would do for the Philippines.
The quotation is from Woodrow Wilson, writing in 1902. I'm not sure Traub's summary accurately restates Wilson's assumptions, though Wilson does seem to come perilously close to it.

Traub is assuming an analogy that breaks down under the lightest scrutiny: England was to the United States as the United States was to the Philippines. A better analogy would be: England was to the American Indians as the United States is to the Philippines. The settler-colonists who broke away from England in 1776 were the English; they brought English history and law with them.

The English did not bring "the drill and habit of law and obedience" to the Indians; they drove them from their land, killing them off as convenient. The Americans treated the Filipinos somewhat differently, killing off a few hundred thousand of them in a brief period and then organizing what could probably be called a puppet government of collaborators under American governance, with (as Traub put it) "a strict control over the franchise." (See my earlier post for more details.)

Maybe I shouldn't assume that Traub actually believed what he wrote there; maybe he was just paraphrasing Wilson's position as he understood it. Given the attitudes he exhibits in the rest of his book and his slapdash approach to history, though, I think he agreed with Wilson, or with what he thought Wilson was saying.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Park Hyo Shin, Continued

I could have put this clip in my earlier post about Park Hyo Shin, but I hadn't watched it at the time, thinking it was the performance -- not one of his best, to my mind -- from his concert DVD. It's not; apparently it's from a TV appearance the beginning of his career.

One commenter here claims that Park was 17 in this clip. I can't find a date for it, but it's possible. (P.S. Or maybe not: According to Wikipedia he was born in 1981, and his first album was released in 2000, when he was 18 or 19. But he was still probably a teenager at the time of this performance.) If so, he's just that much more impressive. His English diction is rough (another commenter said when Park sings in English, he sounds like he has a mouthful of marbles), but that's more than made up for by the fluency and emotional intensity of the performance.

Giving Democracy a Bad Name

Whenever I see a book like James Traub's The Freedom Agenda (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008), the first thing I do is check the index to see what it has to say about East Timor. When I did that with Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A problem from hell" : America and the age of genocide (Basic Books, 2002), I found these now-notorious words:
In 1975, when its ally, the oil-producing, anti-Communist Indonesia, invaded East Timor, killing between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians, the United States looked away [146-7].
That was all she had to say, and I don't think it's going too far to call it a lie. The United States did not look away; it okayed the invasion in advance, supplied weapons and training to the Indonesian troops, and blocked any UN action against the slaughter, right up until the 1999 referendum in which the Timorese were allowed to vote for independence from Indonesia.

But enough about Power. I checked the index of The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way Bush Did It), which, like Power's book, I happened on at the public library. Traub, a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, is just as sparse in his coverage of East Timor as Power. Here are both references listed in the book's index:
In Bosnia and Kosovo, and in East Timor, sovereignty rested with the international forces, as it had not in Haiti; but the effort to create an effective and trusted police force, an independent judiciary, a responsive civil service, and the like proved maddeningly difficult. East Timor, like Haiti, relapsed into violence when the occupying force went home. The arc of democratic development, it seemed, was vastly longer than the arc of international attention [87f].

In mid-February [2003], barely a month before the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld gave a speech in New York in which he extolled the “light footprint” in Afghanistan, and criticized the nation-building exercises in Kosovo and East Timor for distorting local economies and creating a culture of dependency [120].
If Traub were writing only about the Bush years, he might be able to justify this treatment, which focuses only on "nation-building" in East Timor after 1999. But The Freedom Agenda is a sort of historical panorama of American democracy-spreading, starting with the Spanish-American War. In that holy conflict against the Popish antichrist, the United States liberated the Philippines from Spanish rule, but then decided we should keep them -- for their own good, of course. They just weren't ready for freedom and democracy. The Filipinos had different ideas, however, having been trying for years to get rid of the Spanish themselves, so they rebelled. Against us, the light of the world, the beacon of freedom! So we squashed them. In a typical application of today's journalistic balance, Traub puts it this way: "More than 220,000 Filipinos are thought to have died in battle, as well as more than 4,000 American troops. … Each side routinely tortured the other."

Right, the destruction was mutual. What Traub doesn't mention is that the Filipino casualties didn't all occur "in battle": American forces moved through the countryside, massacring everybody they encountered. No one knows how many were slaughtered, since no records were kept, and estimates range widely, with 220,000 nearer the low end, but we'll never know.

Traub goes on to describe U.S. "nation-building" (I'm not quite sure why that term sets my teeth on edge) in the Philippines, which mainly involved winning the hearts and minds of local elites: "neither could we offer [the Filipinos] the American principle of universal suffrage" (page 17).
What’s more, as in Cuba, a strict control over the franchise was to curb the excesses of popular democracy. Only males twenty-three or older who had either served in the Spanish local government, paid taxes, or could demonstrate literacy in English or Spanish would be allowed to vote. This constituted less than 3 percent of the population [22].
In 1900, a strict control over the franchise also obtained in the United States: women and various other lesser groups were not allowed to vote here, and literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other restrictions were widespread. Curbing the excesses of popular democracy had always been a concern of our rulers, so it's hardly surprising that they extended it to our new possessions. But for Traub, this hardly registers. He's too busy beating the drums for our benevolence to the lowly Filipino, even while reporting some of the milder racism of the Americans who determined US policy, and lamenting that, doggone it, the Filipinos just wouldn't take responsibility for their own democracy:
The idea of inalienable individual rights had come naturally to the yeoman farmer and the tradesman of colonial America, who stood on their own two feet. But in the Philippines, almost everyone depended on the favor of powerful clans. The habits of deference were deeply ingrained. Filipinos considered the relationship of patron and client every bit as rooted in the nature of things as Americans did the bonds of equality among citizens. Politics depended far more on kinship and on personal friendship than it did on abstract principle or belief. Politicians gained office with the support of their actual and metaphorical kin, and then offered recompense with jobs, contracts, and the like. The Americans called this corruption, but for the Filipinos it was simply an extension of the family system....

Some leading members of the elite absorbed the ethos of self-reliance and equality; others learned how to parrot it back to their gullible masters [28-29].
Damn! We Americans, especially our wise leaders, are so trusting! Even in those days we couldn't believe that the dusky races might not be telling us the truth, or that they weren't really constituted for a meritocracy. Given how corrupt the American system was in those days too, it's hard to believe that Traub is deaf to the irony in what he's writing, but he is. Consider this choice bit in which Traub quotes Larry Diamond, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and "
professor by courtesy of political science and sociology" at Stanford, contrasting two styles of democracy.
In a liberal democracy, he wrote, "the military is subordinated, the constitution is supreme, due process is respected, civil society is autonomous and free, citizens are politically equal, women and minorities have access to power, and individuals have real freedom to speak and publish and organize and protest." An electoral democracy just had elections.
It clearly doesn't occur to Traub (or, presumably, to Diamond), that by these criteria the United States has not been a liberal democracy for most of its history, down to at least the 1960s when the franchise was guaranteed to racial minorities and they began to be elected to political office in significant numbers. It's laughable to say that "the constitution is supreme" in this century, but one may doubt how supreme it was even before the accession of George W. Bush. (Who, remember, was not actually elected to the Presidency in 2000.)

Traub's summary of American democracy promotion is just this selective throughout. To point out all his careful omissions of inconvenient fact would take a lot more space than I feel like devoting to it now, so let's jump ahead to the Bush years. Traub is critical of Dubya, as the title of the book implies, but he's so habituated to whitewashing US history that he can't stop doing it. Here's Traub's take on the aftermath of the September 11 attacks:
Some of the left … argued that the problem lay in American policies toward the Middle East. But whatever truth this claim may have had, Americans were in no mood to hear it. A more popular, and maybe more plausible, suggestion was that the problem lay inside Arab states. V. S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize-winning author, said that the angry young men of the Arab street really wanted an American green card; furious at the reactionary and paralytic states in which they lived, they lashed out at the world of prosperity and freedom that they desperately envied but could not enjoy. Conservatives agreed, of course, but this was no mere ideological hobbyhorse. In a cover story in the October 15, 2001, issue of Newsweek bluntly titled "Why Do They Hate Us?" Fareed Zakaria located the answer in "the sense of humiliation, decline and despair that sweeps the Arab world." … The U.S. must also "help Islam enter the modern world" [104].
Leave aside the question of whether the correctness of an argument lies in whether Americans (or anyone else) are in a mood to hear it. Certainly Naipaul's "suggestion" was popular in the U.S.; its flaw is that it doesn't really trump the argument of "the left." "The left", as far as I'm aware, would agree that people around the world would like some of that "prosperity and freedom that they desperately envied but could not enjoy." The question immediately arises: Why can't they enjoy these things? Despite all our naïve and gullible democracy promotion, the US consistently supports the most corrupt, reactionary regimes in the Arab world. ($2 billion a year to Mubarak's Egypt, for example.) We have also employed Islamic fundamentalists to further our aims, which, as is well known by now, led to the rise of Al-Qaeda and to the September 11 attacks as well as much more terrorist violence around the globe which doesn't count unless it hurts some Americans along with the brown people. (This was true, for example, of the Mumbai attacks in November. I happened to pass a TV set at the student union which was showing a CNN reporter on the scene, coiffed and made-up as if she were standing on the streets of Manhattan. An explosion went off behind her, and she ducked and cringed, as well she might. But would you see a similar reporter's-eye view of US bombing in, say, Iraq? Of course not; it would make America look bad. The point of showing this clip was to demonstrate the viciousness of the Mumbai terrorists, so disdainful of human life that they mussed a CNN reporter's hair. And got debris in it. Animals.)

Traub isn't totally unaware of this, I think. The best part of The Freedom Agenda are the chapters in which he talks to people in Egypt and Mali. His condescension to the Malians ("It wasn't very much, but it seemed to matter to them" [204]) is annoying, to put it gently, but the presence in the book of ordinary people who are struggling to get some real democracy in their lives is a breath of fresh air after so much of Traub's posturing. For his coverage of the 2005 Egyptian elections Traub even talks to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, though he deplores their unwillingness to accept "Israel's right to exist as a matter of principle" or to oppose "terrorist attacks against it" [182]. Still, as Mubarak reestablishes his stranglehold on even the most rudimentary political organizing, Traub can only shake his head in world-weary dismay. It's very convenient -- the US supports ($2 billion a year!) the suppression of political institutions that might foster democracy, and then if the oppressive regime is finally overthrown, people like Traub can claim that the people aren't ready for democracy because they have no democratic political institutions.

But back to Bush and his "passionate call for democracy" (162) -- unless elections are won by people the US doesn't like, as with Hamas' victory in 2006. No one could have predicted that democracy would lead to the wrong people winning an election! Condoleezza Rice "later admitted to an interviewer that she was so shocked by the news [of Hamas’ victory] that she climbed off her elliptical trainer to call her aides. Told that Hamas had in fact outpolled Fatah, she said to herself, 'Oh my goodness, Hamas won?' This was scarcely what she had imagined in 2002 when she took on both Colin Powell and Dick Cheney to argue for democracy promotion in the Palestinian Territories" [135f]. Granted that Rice was a member of an administration that took great pains to ensure that the Right People won elections in the United States, her surprise may make sense, but still -- someone this stupid was a Professor of Political Science at Stanford? Traub seems to share her surprise, though:
As Dennis Ross says, "[Rice] does have a kind of view that elections are a built-in self-correcting mechanism. You may bring in people you don’t like, but accountability will bring changes over time." That certainly wasn’t true here: the White House was not about to do business with an organization that openly avowed terrorism. The Bush administration, along with its European allies, took the position that it would not recognize the new government unless Hamas renounced the use of violence – which of course it would not do.
Um -- has the US, or Israel, ever renounced the use of violence? Once again Traub shows his tin ear for irony.

The easiest way to deal with such issues, of course, is to ignore inconvenient facts. Traub mentions briefly the famous "purple-dyed index finger [which] was to become, if briefly, the icon of a Middle East liberated from tyranny" [128], but not that Bush never wanted the Iraqi elections and tried to block them; having failed to do so, he simply ignored the results (which would have meant a prompt withdrawal of US forces, for one thing) and installed the government he wanted. That goes a long way toward explaining why, "By the end of 2005, the euphoria of the purple index finger in Iraq had faded to a dim memory. The sovereign Iraqi government barely functioned. Rather than stemming Iraq’s terrifying violence, the election had, if anything, deepened sectarian rivalry by installing the Shias in power" [134]. This was only surprising to American corporate media; those actually paying attention to Iraqi (and American) reality had known better all along.

And so on. Traub garbles everything else he touches -- Haiti, Nicaragua, Chile ("Pinochet was not a crook, like Marcos" [66]; the echo of Nixon eludes him, of course), the breakup of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, you name it -- and always with the same bias: it's not our fault, we did our best, our intentions were good, but we are gullible and blundering and naive and misunderstood. (Oh Lord! please don't let us be misunderstood.) "In each of these countries, of course, we will continue to face hard choices between advancing our strategic and economic interests on the one hand and protesting human rights abuses on the other" (233). We could begin by cutting back on our own support for and perpetration of human rights abuses, but such things do not register on Traub's awareness, which wouldn't matter if he were the only person with such a view of the world. For example:
In a speech delivered in Washington in August 2007, [Obama] observed that United States senators typically see the "desperate faces" of Darfur or Baghdad from the height of a helicopter. He added: "And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope or do they feel hate?" [227]
False antithesis. Maybe they feel fear, which would be a totally realistic reaction. But for Obama to admit that would mean accepting that reactions to America might have something to do with what we've done, rather than what others feel about us for no evident reasons. "Hope," meaning they're good, willing to come under the shelter of our helicopters; or "hate," meaning they're bad, blindly irrational.

As Traub puts it: "The issue, in many ways, was the pathology of the Arab world, which expressed itself in unreasoning contempt for the United States, and which was, in turn, compounded by American behavior and policies" (113), which means that the contempt, if that's what it is, isn't unreasoning. He also mentions with dismay that we live in a time "when much of the world is recoiling from what it sees as an American crusade" [230], forgetting that Bush himself called his wars a crusade.) Why do they hate us? What have we done to them? That so many Americans can say such things and ask such questions with a straight face, at most willing only to blame everything on George W. Bush, does not inspire hope in me.

I don't think democracy can be "exported," nor do I think it needs to be "promoted", even if the US had a better record in either department than it does. Exporting it implies that democracy is a product, possibly a high-tech gadget, best made in American factories and shipped at "a high price, but we think the price is worth it" to the downtrodden masses of the world. Nor does democracy need to be promoted: I think history shows that democracy is more like cannabis -- a hardy weed that keeps sprouting up in all kinds of soil despite the best efforts of Those Who Know What's Best For You to eliminate it. Raymond Williams wrote in Keywords (Oxford, 1985, p. 94) that "democracy, in the records that we have, was until [the 19th century] a strongly unfavourable term," used in elite discourse as "anarchy" is used today, to imply mob rule and chaos, apocalypse. (You'll learn more from Williams's brief article on democracy in Keywords than from all the authorities Traub quotes so fawningly in The Freedom Agenda.)

I also don't think that anyone knows what sort of conditions are necessary for the growth of democracy. Looking at historical cases as Traub does won't help unless you're willing to look more carefully at the pressures involved, such as the 19th-century American eagerness to sell American products in the vast Asian markets; or take more seriously the racism that underlay the programs even of those who thought the Filipinos (or the Haitians, or the Vietnamese, or the Timorese, or the Iraqis) could be taught democracy, like children, by their betters. To criticize the democracy promoters is not to deny that people of certain other countries are capable of democracy, but to insist that the promoters are not qualified (or even interested) to impose it on them, whether by the carrot or the stick.