Sunday, November 13, 2005

A History of Violence

David Cronenberg's latest, A History of Violence, is a fine reworking of the Western and film noir in his "realist" turn. In a feminist twist of film noir, in this film it is a man, not a woman, who has a past. The past that the man (well played by Viggo Mortensen) thought he left behind in the East catches up with him in the West, after he becomes a "local hero" by killing two murderous robbers who threatened his life as well as his customers' and employees' in a diner he runs.

A History of Violence

The past in question is a history of violence, his service as a violent foot soldier for a gangster capitalist (who happens to be his brother). To defend his family and home in a small town in Indiana from the long arms of the gangster capitalist, he ends up resurrecting an extremely efficient killing machine that he once was and finds himself at odds with his wife and teenage son, who feel betrayed by his secrecy (he had hidden his past from them by assuming a new name) and appalled by the newly resurrected violent masculinity in him (which begins to bleed into his sex with his wife), though they love one another. The man overcomes the gangster capitalist's underlings in the West (and in the process makes his son an accomplice in violence) and the capitalist himself in the East. Then, he comes back home.

The film's ending is a tense and ambiguous scene of homecoming. His wife, son, and daughter are at dinner table. When he comes in, there is silence. After a moment that feels longer than it is, his daughter (who is too young to fully understand the meaning of trust and betrayal) makes place for him at the table. He and his wife look into each other's eyes, wordlessly, as she passes a plate to him. Fade to black.

A History of Violence makes no explicit reference to the Iraq War. Yet you keep thinking about it, as you watch the film. There must be many homes where soldiers' homecomings are as fraught as the protagonist's in A History of Violence. Divorces are sharply up in the military.

Repeated long deployments alone take their toll. And, then, there is psychological trauma: "Of the 244,054 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan already discharged from service, 12,422 have been in VA counseling centers for readjustment problems and symptoms associated with PTSD" (William M. Welch, "Trauma of Iraq War Haunting Thousands Returning Home," USA Today, 28 February 2005).

The violent past cannot be buried and forgotten, nor can the home and hometown be insulated from the violent "outside," as the protagonist of A History of Violence, like many Americans, thought they could. The history of violence must be dealt with. But how? The film does not seek to answer that -- it wants the audience to think about it.

[This essay was first published by]

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Venezuela's Independence Day: Literacy, Petrocaribe, and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas

Today is the 195th anniversary of Venezuela's independence. There are three developments to mark the happy occasion.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez Declares Venezuela Free of Illiteracy during a TV Show in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 3, 2005 (Miraflores Press/AP)Venezuela has won its battle for universal literacy, thanks to Cuba's assistance: "The two-year Robinson Mission, in the process of concluding, has taught 1.5 million adults learn to read, while Robinson Mission II will help those without prior opportunity to study to reach a sixth grade level, and the Ribas and Sucre programs are concentrating on university education" ("Venezuela´s New Independence Day," Prensa Latina, 5 Jul. 2005).

Venezuela created Petrocaribe.
"Today I propose to the Caribbean that we form an energy alliance," Chavez told the visiting leaders, saying the oil plan would be a new force for integration.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Castro called the plan an important step toward greater solidarity, "the only method of survival for our countries" as oil prices continue to rise.

 Caribbean Leaders Pose for a Group Photo during Their Meeting in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, June 29, 2005. (Howard Yanes/Reuters)The initiative, called Petrocaribe, would extend and improve special financing arrangements under past oil deals and use an expanded fleet of Venezuelan tankers to deliver fuel directly to bypass costly intermediaries, Chavez said.

He said the Venezuelan state oil company had created a new affiliate called PDV Caribe to coordinate the project and that Venezuela would be willing to accept goods such as bananas or sugar for a portion of payments. He said Venezuela also was prepared to help build new oil depots in the islands to help.

The initiative could help small Caribbean countries save a projected $6 a barrel on fuel, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez said. (emphasis added, Associated Press, "Caribbean Plan for Cheap Regional Fuel," CNN, 29 Jun. 2005)
And Venezuela launched the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) for a true social and economic integration of Latin America, declaring "the US-sponsored Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (ALCA) dead and impracticable in current regional conditions" ("Venezuela Celebrates Independence and Integration," Prensa Latina, 5 Jul. 2005).

Monday, July 04, 2005

Chávez Congratulates Ahmadinejad

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he had met before when he visited Iran, and congratulated him on his landslide victory:
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez congratulated his Iranian counterpart President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory in a telephone conversation, arguing, "Your high vote secured Iran's legitimacy at international scene." Expressing his delight over President-elect Ahmadinejad's victory, Chavez added, "My government is determined to continue Venezuela's comprehensive cooperation with Iran."

The Venezuelan leader meanwhile considered the expansion of bilateral ties as a need, and asked for reviewing the two countries' already signed agreements and seeing into their proper implementation as a mutual necessity.

He added, "I would be glad to dispatch to Tehran a high ranking Venezuelan delegation to attend your excellency's Oath Taking Ceremony."

According to the report by president elect's office, Ahmadinejad, too, in the phone talk appreciate President Chavez for his kind congratulation contact, adding, "My government would continue the Islamic Republic's basic policy in expansion of relations with Venezuela, as a friend and brother nation."

Dr. Ahmadinejad meanwhile invited President Chavez to visit Iran in near future to exchange viewpoints on bilateral and international issues.

The Iranian president elect emphasized, "Your excellency's state visit to Tehran would mark a turning point in our two nations' relations, and accelerate the process of the reached agreements' implementation." ("Chavez: Ahmadinejad's Landslide Victory Secured Iran's Legitimacy Worldwide," Islamic Republic News Agency, 28 Jun. 2005)
Closer cooperation between Caracas and Teheran did not begin with Ahmadinejad's election, since it had long been part of Chávez's efforts to diminish Venezuela's dependence on the United States as its primary energy export market (e.g., Andy Webb-Vidal, "Venezuela Enlists Iran to Steer Oil to China," Financial Times, 31 Jan. 2005), diversify its trade partners (e.g., "Iran and Venezuela Sign Contracts Valued at the Equivalent of over US$1 Billion,", 11 Mar. 2005; "Iran-Venezuela-Exports: Tractor Parts Shipped to Venezuela, Sunday,", 18 Apr. 2005; and "Iran-Venezuela-Trade: Iran, Venezuela Discuss Agriculture Trade,", 18 Apr. 2005), and support the right of self-determination (e.g., "Chavez Backs Iran's Nuclear Goals," Al Jazeera, 12 Mar. 2005). Caracas and Teheran are said to be both price hawks when it comes to oil (Oxford Analytica, "The Geopolitical Influence on Oil Prices," Forbes, 24 Mar. 2005; and "Oil in Troubled Waters," Economist, 28 Apr. 2005), which is another tie that binds.

Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad, in terms of his economic program and base of political support, has much more in common with Chávez than Mohammad Khatami, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mostafa Moin, and other elite "reformists" do with the Bolivarian revolutionary. Chávez's public salute to Ahmadinejad -- that the president elect of Iran is "a very young man who is committed to his people and struggles for sovereignty and self-determination" and that the Iranian people should be congratulated for "faith in their revolution and democracy that they have shown" -- suggests as much:
El presidente de la Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frías, conversó este lunes, vía telefónica, con Mahmud Ahmadinejad, mandatario recién electo de la República Islámica de Irán.

En el acto de entrega del Premio Nacional de Periodismo, el jefe de Estado saludó públicamente al presidente electo de Irán, "y lo voy a hacer a nombre de todo el pueblo venezolano", dijo al referirse a Ahmadinejad como "un hombre muy joven y comprometido con su pueblo y por las luchas por la soberanía y la autodeterminación".

El mandatario venezolano conoció al actual presidente iraní en la última visita oficial que realizó a Teherán, cuando inauguró la Plaza Bolívar en esa ciudad, para entonces Ahmadinejad era el alcalde de la capital iraní.

"Aprovecho para felicitar al pueblo iraní y a la demostración que han dado de fe en su revolución y en su democracia", agregó Hugo Chávez al señalar el respeto que tiene al modelo de gobierno iraní, porque "nadie puede exigirles que adopten otro sistema democrático, como el norteamericano, por ejemplo". (emphasis added, Prensa Presidencial, "Venezuela saluda al nuevo presidente de Irán," 28 Jun. 2005)
Watch how their relationship will develop.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Face

Since the landslide electoral victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the George W. Bush administration's propaganda machine has already gotten into high gear. All manner of allegations made by Iranian exiles (e.g., Louis Charbonneau, "Austrian Makes New Charge against Iran President-elect," Reuters, 2 Jul. 2005)* and ex-hostages in the US Embassy seizure (e.g., Brian Knowlton, "Iranians Deny Leader Is Tied to Hostage Standoff," New York Times, 30 Jun. 2005) have surfaced.

Thankfully, intelligence agencies, burned by the Iraq War, appear to be putting a brake on the Bush administration -- for the time being.
Iranian Student Radicals and an American HostageU.S. investigators have concluded that Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the glowering Islamic militant seen escorting an American hostage in a 1979 photograph that was widely publicized this week, officials said Friday.

The conclusion casts doubt on what had been considered a key piece of evidence indicating that Iran's new president was among the leaders of the group of students who seized control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and went on to hold dozens of Americans hostage for 444 days.

A U.S. official familiar with the investigation of Ahmadinejad's role said that analysts had found "serious discrepancies" between the figure in the 1979 photo and other images of the Iranian president-elect. The discrepancies included differences in facial structure and features, the official said.

If there is a case to be made that Ahmadinejad was among the hostage takers in 1979, the official said, "it doesn't look as if it will be done on the basis of those photographs." (Greg Miller, "U.S.: Photo Not of Iran Chief," Los Angeles Times, 2 Jul. 2005)
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vs. A Hostage TakerThe ex-hostages' allegations led Iran to release a photograph of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, circa 1979 (Knowlton, 30 Jun. 2005). The young man on the left, Ahmadinejad around 1979, bears no resemblance to the hostage taker on the right (except in the eye of a racist to whom all Iranians look alike).

Mahmoud AhmadinejadHere is a larger image of the same photograph of Ahmadinejad. In the 1979 photograph, Ahmadinejad, then 22 or 23, looks not like a theocratic bully but like a delicate Ernesto Guevara in his Motorcycle Diaries days. The face in the photograph is enchanting. What is the punctum in this photograph, an "element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me" (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Trans. Richard Howard, NY: The Noonday Press, 1981, p. 26)? The young man's eyes and brows are caught by his photographer "at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment" (Barthes, p. 59), freely and generously offered to the viewer. The photographer has found "the right moment, the kairos of desire" (Barthes, p. 59).

To this day, Iran, unlike the United States and other rich countries, is a nation where the ruling class are fatter than the working class. Ahmadinejad is slight, almost diminutive, which makes him look exactly like a civil engineer that he is. His well-lined face is now only a faint reminder of his youthful good looks, but, with his easy smile, he is still far more pleasant to look at than the old, ugly, and corpulent Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose face and body, like the picture of Dorian Gray, proclaim to the whole world: "I got fat on oil profits. I'm living large . . . literally."

So must the Iranian working class have thought, whose welfare is threatened by the neoliberal economic program of Rafsanjani (who held the office of the president between 1989 and 1997) and other so-called "reformists" who backed him:
  • Food and housing subsidies, as well as public education and health care continued as long as Khomeini was alive. But with the Ayatollah’s death and the election of Hashemi Rafsanjani to the presidency of Iran, neoliberal policies replaced those of the welfare state of the Khomeini years. This marked a new era; in the late 1980s, when President Rafsanjani came to power, open-market policies led to economic measures such as devaluation of the currency (which increased the cost of living for the poor), privatization (which left many workers unprotected), and the decline of social services, all of which forced many women to enter the labour market. (Roksana Bahramitash, "Islamic Fundamentalism and Women’s Economic Role: The Case of Iran," International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 16.4, Summer 2003, p. 565)

  • President Rafsanjani was very clear about its economic policy. He called for liberalization and he himself benefited from through easier borrowing and became a rich man. His neo-liberal policies increased female employment, but they did not necessarily bring more economic power to women, as is the case in the rest of the developing world. Throughout the Third World, the percentage of female labour is increasing but because of the liberalization of the economy, rising prices of basic goods and welfare reduction have badly affected women.24 Today, there are 1.3 billion people living on less than a dollar a day and 70 percent of them are women.25 Iran is no exception: the increase in labor force participation by women may have increased, but the poverty and income disparity that has come with liberalization of the economy remain a serious challenge to female empowerment. The fact that there are more women in the labor force in Iran is important because it does give them some degree of autonomy. But rising prices of basic goods and cutbacks on social spending have hindered the growth of women’s economic autonomy by undermining their decision-making power. (Roksana Bahramitash, "Revolution, Islamization, and Women’s Employment in Iran," The Brown Journal of World Affairs 9.2, Winter/Spring 2003, p. 238)
That is a trend readily observable in many countries, neoliberalism being a global phenomenon.

It is not the reformists' promise of freedom of expression and association that the Iranian working class rejected in the presidential election this year. "Assuming that all of the votes cast for the other rightwing candidates in the first round went to Ahmadinejad in the runoff; he still had to attract an additional five million reform and progressive votes to end up with a seven million winning margin in the final tally," as Ahmad Sadri points out ("Exact Opposite of Paranoia,", 28 Jun. 2005 / ZNet, 30 Jun. 2005). What they refused to tolerate any longer is deteriorating economic conditions that neoliberalism brought them, which Michael Slackman ably documents below.
They had come from very different neighborhoods and backgrounds, but they were all there for the same reason: to buy government-subsidized food.

The line ran from the basement up the stairs and out the door.

Inside, sugar and rice were selling for about one-fifth of the retail price, a huge savings in a country where according to an opposition economist more than a quarter of the people live below the poverty line - which is defined as a family of five with an income of less than $278 a month.

"I cannot make ends meet," said Hossein Ganji, 49, who works behind a counter in the food distribution center. Mr. Ganji supports his wife and three children on about $150 a month.

"I am the only person that works in my family," he said. "All the others are unemployed."

This distribution center in a crowded basement in southern Tehran and many others like it around the country represent the kind of government assistance that many people here want more of -- and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to provide in his successful campaign to become the next president of Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who catapulted to president-elect from near obscurity as the appointed mayor of Tehran, campaigned on a populist message, promising to redistribute the nation's wealth, hold down prices, raise salaries and lift state-supported benefits for the poor. He infused those pledges with the theme of social justice, which resonated in a society where aiding the poor is considered an obligation for the faithful.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Average salaries run about $200 a month in Iran, with a salary of $300 to $500 considered generous. But costs are fast outstripping the ability to pay -- government figures put annual inflation at about 15 percent, though on some products, merchants say prices rise far faster than that.

In a food store in central Tehran, the owner, Reza Karimi, said pomegranate paste had doubled in price to nearly $2; a bottle of olive oil rose to about $4 from $3, and in the last three months a little more than a pound of rice climbed to $1.80 from $1.30.

The price of dairy products sold by a state-owned company jumped 17 percent on Wednesday alone, he said. "The prices will jump again next month," he said. "And when one company raises their prices, they all do."

Khodabaksh Jalili, 30, is typical of many people in southern Tehran who supported Mr. Ahmadinejad. He moved to the city from Asadabad, a village 200 miles west of Tehran, when the farm that had supported his family for generations failed because of drought and a shortage of supplies, he said.

He has a wife and two children and earns about $200 a month working in a food store. His rent is $50 a month, and he makes extra money on his day off ferrying passengers on his scooter. If he is lucky, he said, he takes in another $20 a month.

"I have very little," he said. "I am married eight years. I have never been to the cinema with my children."

Iran is awash in oil money, as the price of crude topped $60 a barrel this week, pumping billions into the government treasury. But this country's economy is still tied down by a system in which the state and a shadowy collection of foundations controlled by clerics monopolize the vast bulk of its industries, including oil.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Rahim Oskui, who described himself as an opposition economist working for the Industrial Management Institute, a quasi-governmental agency, said the official figures of 10 percent unemployment and 27 percent living in poverty were most likely understated.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hamid Shahrabi, 31, is the kind of person Mr. Oskui was talking about. Because of Mr. Ahmadinejad's economic message, he said, he got involved in politics for the first time. "I never voted in a presidential election before," Mr. Shahrabi said. "This guy put his hand on the Koran and said he would work for poor people - so I worked for him and voted for him."

Mr. Shahrabi lives with his wife, Azam, 30, and two small children in a one-room apartment in southeastern Tehran. There is no furniture in the living room, just a carpet on the concrete floor, a few pillows along the walls and a small television on a stand. They turned a walk-in closet into a separate bedroom, where their 12-year-old daughter sleeps and where they keep their bed cushions during the day. On any given day, the family's refrigerator is almost empty, but for a pot of traditional Iranian stew -- a mix of rice, meat and vegetables -- three-day-old bread and some tomatoes. They survive on their government rations.

Mr. Shahrabi moved to the city from Arak, a province in central Iran, when he was 15 years old, following his brothers in search of work when the family farm was no longer making enough money. He found a job with a state-owned oil company, which he kept until he was laid off four years ago. He has not found work since, and rides around the city on his battered motor scooter making deliveries and carrying passengers for about $5 a day. Of that he has to set aside $3 a day for rent.

"I feel really ashamed in front of my family," Mr. Shahrabi said, without a trace of self-pity. "My doctor said I need to feed my daughter better. I cannot afford to buy my wife new dresses. My son always feels dizzy. The landlord has asked me to find another place to live."

The Ahmadinejad campaign message of economic hope -- as well as social justice -- captured the hearts not only of people like Mr. Shahrabi but also of middle-class families. Parts of the middle class have trouble meeting their own financial needs, although their support for Mr. Ahmadinejad also stems from having grown used to buying subsidized food, even if they can afford to pay market prices. (Michael Slackman, "For the Poor in Iran, Voting Was About Making Ends Meet," New York Times, 3 Jul. 2005)
It is not clear if Iran's new president has what it takes to radically improve the conditions of working-class Iranians to whom he gave economic hope, but the way he lived his life as the mayor of Teheran suggests that those who voted for him had a good reason to believe that he won't get fat at their expense:
[F]riends, supporters and neighbors here describe the diminutive, bearded man as humble and caring. Mr. Ahmadinejad has a small circle of aides, one that appears a bit overwhelmed by all the demands and preparations ahead. Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University, said that he had known the president-elect since childhood and that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not involved with the student hostage takers. He said they grew up together in East Tehran, and Mr. Hadian-Jazy described his old classmate as among the brightest in the neighborhood.

He called Mr. Ahmadinejad "self-confident, committed and absolutely incorruptible." He said he is very religious, but modern in his thinking. If there is a negative quality, Mr. Hadian-Jazy said, it is that he is very set in his views, and can be hard to persuade otherwise.

"If you can force him to sit down and listen, he has the capability to understand," the professor said.

While Mr. Ahmadinejad maintained a humble life style as the appointed mayor of Tehran, that is likely to change, if for no other reason than security. He lives at the end of a dead-end street, more of an alley that runs alongside a school. The alley opens onto a circle, with a small park in the middle with benches and a field of grass that now attracts those who come to ask favors of the president-elect, and serves as a spot for neighbors to socialize. These days, cars packed with sightseers drive around the circle, stopping to look down the alley, a far cry from the palatial and off-limit homes of other Iranian leaders.

On Friday, the day of prayer and rest in most Muslim countries, some of Mr. Ahmadinejad's neighbors sat on a bench, talking about their favorite son. It is almost a rule that when someone is asked about Mr. Ahmadinejad, the first thing said is that he is a modest person who has never lost touch with his roots. Security is very tight in the neighborhood, and with soldiers and plainclothes agents around, the neighbors were afraid to give their names.

One older man, who said he had lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said that every year for the Iranian New Year, Mr. Ahmadinejad invited the neighbors over for a celebration. He is described as a devout man who lives in a three-bedroom house with two sons and a daughter. His family has little furniture, they said, and has machine-made carpets, not the more expensive hand-woven ones commonly owned by the better-off.

One son is finishing high school, and the two other children are studying in the university, the neighbors said.

Since he became mayor of Tehran, the city has had a driver pick Mr. Ahmadinejad up for work every day. But on his days off, neighbors said, he still drives the same 1977 Peugeot, without air-conditioning, that is parked in the alleyway beside the house.

People are quick to offer stories about Mr. Ahmadinejad, almost as if he was a religious figure. They say, for example, that he always brought his own lunch to work because he did not want the city to have to pay for his meals.

At the municipal building, Ahmad Esmali's job is to deliver tea to the offices. "This mayor was better than the others," he said recently. "He saw managers and workers with one eye."

In the park on Friday, one neighbor said the mayor had given money to the local butcher, at a shop called Zand, so the butcher could give poor and needy people meat at a discount. Two young men working in the butcher shop said they believed it was true.

It is a common practice in many Middle Eastern cultures for leaders to have audiences with citizens seeking help, or to accept their petitions for assistance. Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to take that custom to heart.

A small security booth sits at the mouth of the alley leading to his house. As Mr. Ahmadinejad's car pulled out, a security agent handed the president-elect a pile of letters that had been delivered that morning, from people seeking some kind of help.

Ali Ghorbani, 29, had just driven up to deliver a letter to the guard booth when Mr. Ahmadinejad pulled up. Mr. Ghorbani wanted to ask for a loan so he and a friend could open a cultural center in Tehran. He was allowed to hand the letter directly to the president-elect. "I didn't have the faintest idea I would see him," Mr. Ghorbani said as he walked away. "He took the letter and told me I would have a reply in two weeks." (Michael Slackman, "Iranian Leader Denies He Took Embassy Hostages," New York Times, 2 Jul. 2005)


* A spokesman for the Austrian public prosecutor's office, Ernst Kloiber, appears to find the allegation (that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was involved in the 1989 assassination in Vienna of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran) doubtful.
Kloiber cast doubt on the strength of the journalist's testimony.

"According to our information, he has third-hand information on the murder," Kloiber said. "It would therefore be very difficult" to open an investigation against Ahmadinejad, he said. (Agence France-Presse, "Austria Seeks to Interview Journalist over Ahmadinejad Murder Accusations," 5 Jul. 2005)
The "journalist" is said to be an unnamed Iranian whom the Austrian Green party's spokesman on security, Peter Pilz, claims to have "met on May 20 in Versailles, France" (Agence France-Presse, 5 Jul. 2005). Sounds like a potboiler concocted by the Fake News machine.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Sandra Day O'Connor Resigns: Will Bush Hit Another Trifecta?

Sandra Day O'Connor drops a bombshell: she quits ("O'Connor's Retirement Letter to President Bush," New York Times, 1 Jul. 2005).

The only consolation is that O'Connor, surprising as it may be to Democrats and Republicans alike, is to the right of Anthony M. Kennedy (Jason DeParle, "In Battle to Pick Next Justice, Right Says, Avoid a Kennedy," New York Times, 27 Jun. 2005). Kennedy agreed with John Paul Stevens (a registered Republican in 1975 when he became a justice but he sits on the farthest left end of the court now) oftener (36% of the times) than O'Connor did (33% of the times) from the 1994-5 term through the 2003-2004 term.
Agreement among Supreme Court Justices
"Agreement among Supreme Court Justices," New York Times, 1 Jul. 2005 [Click on the link or image above to enlarge the graphic]
MoveOn, for once, comes up with a petition that I can sign without reservations (signed by 207,223 others as of 2:15 PM today):
MoveOn: Protect Our Rights
It's doubtful that it will do any good, Senate Democrats being who they are (e.g., they failed to filibuster Alberto Gonzalez and six -- Mary Landrieu [D-LA], Joe Lieberman [D-CT], Bill Nelson [D-FL], Ben Nelson [D-NE], Mark Pryor [D-AR], and Ken Salazar [D-CO] -- even voted for the advocate of torture), but it can't hurt, so I recommend that you do as well.

O'Connor's resignation won't be the last vacancy that George W. Bush will fill.

William H. Rehnquist, afflicted with thyroid cancer, missed "44 oral arguments before the court in late 2004 and early 2005" ("William Rehnquist, a Biography," Justice News Daily, 2005) and is unlikely to last very long; and Stevens, who had prostate cancer, is 85 years old, still vigorous though he appears to be.

In February 2002, Bush joked:
You know, I was campaigning in Chicago and somebody asked me, is there ever any time where the budget might have to go into deficit? I said only if we were at war or had a national emergency or were in recession. (Laughter.) Little did I realize we'd get the trifecta. (Laughter.) ("President's Remarks at GOP Luncheon: Remarks by the President to Robin Hayes for Congress and Elizabeth Dole for Senate North Carolina Republican Party Luncheon," Charlotte, North Carolina, 27 Feb. 2002)
Will Bush, one lucky SOB, hit another trifecta?

America was once a revolutionary nation. Prepare to defend your liberty by any means necessary. That should be your pledge of allegiance on the Fourth of July.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Poll: Democrats Weaken More than Republicans

As a host of issues, from major (the Iraq War and Social Security) to minor (the Terri Schiavo affair), do real damage to Republicans, Democrats still manage to sink lower than them in a new poll:
Though 56% of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, a new Democracy Corps poll also shows that voters have more positive feelings about Republicans. Specifically, 43% of voters favor the Republican Party, while 38% had positive feelings about Democrats.

The Christian Science Monitor quotes pollster Stan Greenberg: "Republicans weakened in this poll... but it shows Democrats weakening more." Greenberg attributes the decline to the perception that Democrats have "no core set of convictions or point of view." ("Democrats Still Not Seen as Alternative," Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, 30 Jun. 2005)
No mean feat, but that is to be expected.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Obama Yo Mama

The 2004 elections, among other things, ushered in the twilight of Black broker politics: "Having virtually shut down the activist wing of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement in favor of electoral and broker politics at the dawn of the Seventies, Black leadership now finds itself blackballed from the $200 million-plus soft money Democratic campaign feast. Essentially, they have been sidelined from the only mass action game they chose to play" ("Black Anger, White Money: A Crisis for Black Leadership," The Black Commentator 109, 14 Oct. 2004).

Barack Obama Having dumped Black brokers who emerged from movement politics, the Democratic Party cultivated the great white hope of a Black politician, Barack Obama, whose message on race and class would never alarm even the most anxious white mind: "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America" (Barack Obama, Keynote Speech at the Democratic National Convention, Boston, 27 Jul. 2004).

What does Obama have to say about George W. Bush's latest speech on the Iraq War?

Obama waxes hawkish: "I believe the president must take a realistic look at our current strategy and reshape it into an aggressive and workable plan that will ensure success in Iraq" (emphasis added, Barack Obama, qtd. in Dori Meinert/Copley News Service, "Dems, GOP Differ on Bush Speech," The Lincoln Courier, 29 Jun. 2005). In other words, No Exit. What's his plan, then?
"It is a challenge now to try to fix the mess that has been made by this administration," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said in an interview. "There aren't any easy answers. It would be irresponsible to just spout off without having thought through what all the alternatives -- and implications of those alternatives -- might be." (Charles Babington and Dan Balz, "Democrats Press Bush Harder on Iraq: Words Reflect Drop in Public Support for War," Washington Post, 22 Jun. 2005, p. A6)
Should he not have thought about "all the alternatives" to the continuing occupation of Iraq and their "implications" by now, especially since he had already thought about what to do about Iran (David Mendell, "Obama Would Consider Missile Strikes on Iran," Chicago Tribune, 25 Sept. 2004)?

Surely, the American people "want and deserve better answers about where we go from here in Iraq" (Barack Obama, qtd. in Mark Silva, "Bush: Iraq Is Worth Sacrifice: President Invokes Sept. 11 in Appeal for Support," Chicago Tribune, 29 Jun. 2005) than Bush's insistence that their sacrifice is worth it; but they also want and deserve better answers than what Obama delivers.

Uzbekistan: GUUAM, the Andijan Riots, and the Elephant in the Room

Uzbekistan joined GUAM in 1999, but, in 2002, it announced an intention to withdraw from GUUAM (Maria Tsvetkova, "Central Asia Comes Back to Russia,", 17 Jun. 2002).
Then, Islam Karimov took his fateful step this year: "On May 5, 2005, Uzbekistan finally gave an official notice of withdrawal from the organization to the Moldovan presidency" ("GUUAM," Wikipedia). The corporate media in the United States maintained studied silence on the fact that "the Andijan riots ensued just a week after Karimov's decision to quit GUUAM" (Sergei Blagov, "An Iron Fist, Without the Glove," 17 May 2004), refusing to connect the dots.

But now the plot thickens -- here comes talk of a meeting between George W. Bush and Mohammed Salih (Salai Madaminov). . . .
A test of the extent of Bush's commitment to this hands-on approach could come in the next two weeks when Mohammed Salih, chairman of the Democratic Erk Party of Uzbekistan, a leading opponent of the Central Asian government, visits Washington. The Bush administration has been torn over how forcefully to respond to the recent massacre of hundreds of protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan, with the State Department pushing for a firm repudiation and the Pentagon resisting for fear of jeopardizing its base there.

Salih, who received a U.S. visa on Monday and will be in the United States from June 27 to June 30, hopes to meet with senior Bush administration officials and to describe the situation in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov has banned genuine opposition parties and independent media and imprisoned thousands of government critics.

"We have calls out to everybody, and, right now, we don't have a yes or no from anybody," said Frank Howard, a media liaison for Erk. A high-level meeting, he added, "has not only symbolic importance, it has potential real importance."

Karimov's government has curtailed U.S. military flights at the Uzbek base in response to the Bush administration criticism, but Rice promised rights groups yesterday not to ease up on calls for an international investigation of the Andijan massacre.

"I told her that the State Department approach was absolutely right, but they're being completely undercut by the Pentagon, and the Uzbeks are playing them," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'We will not let Karimov play us.'" (Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler, "Bush Meets Dissidents in Campaign for Rights," Washington Post, 15 Jun. 2005, A1)
That compels Karimov, finally, to resolve to talk openly about the elephant in the room:
"The events in Andizhan were organized by the scriptwriters and directors of the 'colored' revolutions," Uzbek President Islam Karimov said on Tuesday.

"It doesn't matter what we call these revolutions -- tulip or orange ones. I would call them simply operations. These operations are being conducted on CIS territory most flagrantly and without any punishment," Karimov said while meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow.

In Karimov's view, recent events "might have been speeded up by Uzbekistan's more independent policy and the rejection of some proposals." (Interfax, "Andizhan Plotted by Authors of Colored Revolutions -- Karimov," 28 Jun. 2005)
As Reuters hints, Karimov probably crossed the Rubicon:
Karimov had earlier blamed his radical opponents for stoking Andizhan revolt and denied suggestions that it was akin to peaceful revolutions, which had changed governments in ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia in the past two years.

But Karimov, who sees himself as a U.S. ally in the war against terror, had so far carefully avoided making any links between the West and Andizhan violence. (Oleg Shchedrov, "Uzbekistan Points Finger at West over May Violence," Reuters, 28 Jun. 2005)
Putin makes a big show of backing up Karimov:
Vowing all help to Tashkent to fight terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has said that armed Afghan militants were concentrating near the borders with Uzbekistan and infiltrating into the Central Asian countries.

During talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, at the Presidential residence at Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, Putin said that Russian special services had information about the concentration of militants in Afghanistan before the Andizhan events, in Uzbekistan, on May 13.

"We confirm the information that militants infiltrated from bases in Afghanistan. They were concentrating on border territories. Our secret services confirm that it is true," Putin said emphatically. (Dadan Upadhyay, "Armed Militants from Afghanistan Infiltrating C. Asia," Indian Express, 30 Jun. 2005)
The question is whether Putin will stand by Karimov, when push comes to shove.

Sanjar G. Umarov, a pro-Washington oligarch who heads up "Sunshine Uzbekistan" (an opposition group of neoliberal business leaders), is visiting Moscow at the same time as Karimov:
By the invitation from Russian business and political circles Mr. S.G. Umarov the Chairman of coalition for National Unity “Sunshine Uzbekistan” will visit Moscow beginning June 27 to July 3.

Considering interests of Russia in different sectors including the Oil and Gas, cotton, mining, as well as in communication and transportation infrastructure of Central Asia, meetings are expected on the different level, anticipated topics will be participation of Russian organizations in peaceful resolution, from the political crises in which Uzbekistan has fallen following Andijan tragedy. (Sunshine Uzbekistan, Press Release, 25 Jun. 2005)
At a minimum, Moscow is hedging its bets.

Then, there is a question of the relation between Umarov and Gulnara Karimova -- Karimov's daughter and one of the most powerful Uzbek industrialists -- which remains murky. Is it an alliance, an antagonism, or a mixture of both (Gulnoza Saidazimova, "Uzbekistan: Sanjar Umarov -- An Oligarch Angling for The Presidency?" Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2 June 2005; Dmitry Kamtsev, "Professor Aleksei Malashenko: Gulnara Karimova Is One of Preferable Candidates for Successor to the President of Uzbekistan,", 9 Jun. 2005; and Daniil Kislov/Ferghana.Ru, "The US Will Listen to the Uzbek Opposition Leader While Putin Is Meeting with Karimov," Journal of Turkish Weekly, 28 Jun. 2005)?

The Great Game in the Caspian Sea Region is stranger than a potboiler, but the intricate intrigue with many subplots will soon come to a boil, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Afghan War as a "Loss Leader"

The China National Offshore Oil Corporation's $18.5-billion bid has put Unocal back into headlines, a company whose pipeline politics, many suspected, may have been behind Washington's Afghan War.

Certainly, the official story of hunting down terrorists in Afghanistan made no sense. Why expect Osama bin Laden or any other high-ranking member of Al Qaeda to sit and wait until US troops arrive nearly a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Any intelligent leader of a clandestine organization would have left the country long before October 7, 2001, the beginning of the US invasion. Apparent irrationality of the Afghan War, in terms of effectively fighting terrorists, fueled the suspicion. However, if Washington had been after pipelines in Afghanistan, the last thing it should have done was to attack the country, destroying what little stability its weak state had maintained. So, the idea of a pipeline war doesn't make sense either.

If neither pipelines nor bin Laden was the point of the Afghan War, what was?

The invasion was, first and foremost, Washington's reassertion of power and prestige, necessary because the 9/11 attacks put big holes in them, showing that even the Pentagon itself -- the headquarters of the biggest military in the world -- was not invulnerable to attacks. Afghanistan was simply the most convenient target among all countries -- reportedly about sixty -- in which Al Qaeda was said to have its cells. It was poor, it was diplomatically isolated, it was politically fragmented, and its military force was weak. What better country to invade?

Besides, the main prize that the George W. Bush administration was after was not Afghanistan but Iraq. By now, we know that "barely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq -- even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks" ("Plans for Iraq Attack Began on 9/11," CBS, 4 Sep. 2002). Therefore, it is best to regard the Afghan War as a "loss leader" in marketing terms, a grand opening sale to draw American suckers into Washington's supermarket of wars.

Moreover, warriors do not need to seize any resource such as fossil fuels to make war economically productive. War itself is a big industry, a very profitable enterprise for friends of a war-making government. Even NGOs, which are ostensibly non-profit and humanitarian, can get a piece of action, too, after the target country's government crumbles. Fat grants to pay for their directors' salaries and aid workers' wages make them addicted to disasters.

Destruction and construction are both big businesses -- sharp arrows, along with big tax cuts for the rich and bubble-inducing low interest rates, in the quiver of an empire in deflationary times. Remember the fear of deflation before the sharp rise in oil prices (cf. Kenneth Rogoff, "Escape from Global Deflation: A Commentary," Nihon Keizai Shimbun, July 17, 2003; and Matthew Davis, "Fighting Deflation in the U.S. and Japan," NBER, 29 Jun. 2005)?

The best war of all in the history of the United States, from the point of view of the power elite, must be the Gulf War, as allies like Japan and Saudi Arabia practically financed the whole venture and US casualties (not counting the victims of the Gulf War syndrome) were very low. Riyadh and Tokyo's refusal to loosen purse strings for the ongoing Iraq War, forcing US taxpayers to foot the bill, may have done as much damage to Washington's prospect of winning the war as guerrillas and terrorists in Iraq.

Considering all this, I'd say, block the Unocal deal. Beijing, one of the largest customers of US government bonds, might get motivated to dump the dollar, monkey-wrenching war finance.

Better Default than "Debt Relief"

G8 claims to write off the debt of $40 billion that highly indebted poor countries owe the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the African Development Bank, saving them the debt service of $1.5 billion a year. What's in fine print?
The debt deal enacts 100% cancellation to these creditors for 18 countries in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. The other 20 countries that are part of the HIPC Initiative will be eligible for debt cancellation on much less favorable terms: only after reaching the “completion point” in the HIPC Initiative; to reach this point, these nations must adhere to economic policy conditions which have been detrimental to growth and poverty eradication.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

For the 20 HIPC countries beyond the 18 that have now qualified for cancellation, it could take years before they become eligible for cancellation. After all, it took the 18 countries included in the G-8 proposal eight years to satisfactorily implement the harmful economic conditions mandated in the HIPC process and thereby reach “completion point”. In order to progress to these points, nations must draft and have the IMF/World Bank approve Poverty Reduction Strategy papers (PRSPs) and be in compliance with conditions on other World Bank and IMF loan agreements, including the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) of the IMF. PRSPs and PRGF loans contain hundreds of policy conditions that nations must enact in order to qualify for debt cancellation. Jubilee USA and social movements oppose the linking of debt cancellation to countries’ implementation of such economic policies.

These economic policies include privatization of government-run services and other entities, increased trade liberalization, and budgetary spending restrictions, as mandated by the IMF and World Bank. These policies have not been proven to increase per capita income growth or reduce poverty as found in research by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Jubilee USA and social movements clearly call for these conditions and polities to be abandoned. (emphasis added, Debayani Kar and Neil Watkins, "The G-8 Debt Deal: First Step On A Long Journey," 21 Jun. 2005)
That's essentially the same old blackmail as the bad old Structural Adjustment Programs.

The poor have already more than repaid their debt. Take Africa, for instance. "As the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s 2004 report reveals, 'the continent received some $540 billion in loans and paid back some $550 billion in principal and interest between 1970 and 2002. Yet Africa remained with a debt stock of $295 billion'" (Norm Dixon, "Africa Needs Justice Not Charity," Green Left Weekly, 29 Jun. 2005). Enough is enough. Compelling them to pay a penny more would be a crime.

As the G8 charade demonstrates, however, there is no such thing as "debt relief," doled out as charity, with no strings attached. Paltry gains hardly justify pains of structural adjustment to meet the creditors' conditions.

The best bet for global justice activists in highly indebted countries is to force their governments to default. Countries "with more than $1 billion in international bonds outstanding" can pull off an "orderly default," as Norman Strong ("the pen name of someone who spends his life surrounded by financiers and central bankers") explained in "How to Default: A Primer" (Left Business Observer 99, February 2002). The virtue of "orderly default" is that, unlike in the case of "debt relief" trumpeted by the G8 power elite, which come with stringent policy prescriptions and excruciatingly slow timetables, indebted governments can cut debts more on on their own terms and on their own schedules than creditors' (though the terms still have to be negotiated with "market makers"). By now, activists have real-world examples of economic recovery following default: e.g., Argentina (one only wishes that Argentina had not squandered its reserves to defend its exchange rate peg prior to the default). Why not follow them?

For "the poorest countries, who can't sell bonds, and rely largely on official lenders like governments and the World Bank" (Strong, February 2002), Strong recommends the work of such organizations as Jubilee USA, but the G8 package painfully illustrates how far the Drop the Debt campaign has fallen short. There is still no way out for the poorest except a debtors' cartel for collective default. The G8 "debt relief," which separates the poorest from the next poorest and obliges each to jump through numerous policy hoops individually, is precisely designed to prevent such collective action.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

War: the Finest "Terrorist Training Ground"

Among ever-changing and ever-proliferating rationales for the Afghan War that Washington promulgated, the least convincing of all is to destroy a terrorist training ground.

The finest training ground for all warriors -- soldiers, guerrillas, and terrorists -- is war itself. The real thing beats a simulacrum of it. Terrorists now get better training in Afghanistan than under the Taliban, as US and other troops provide live targets for practice.

Iraq is now the best terrorist training ground of all:
Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists, according to a report released . . . by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director's think tank.

Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills," said David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats. "There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries." (Dana Priest, "Iraq New Terror Breeding Ground: War Created Haven, CIA Advisers Report," Washington Post, 14 Jan. 2005, p. A1)
The more wars Washington makes, the more terrorist training grounds it creates.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Juan Cole's Class Trouble

Juan Cole, whose blog Informed Comment has enlightened and entertained many (including this reader), gets the class question wrong on the American and Iranian presidential elections:
Newly elected Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad won in some part by using the same electoral tools as George W. Bush and Karl Rove.

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2. False Consciousness

Ahmadinejad, a rightwinger, poses as a champion of the common people, and once dressed up as a street sweeper. He thus got a lot of working class people to vote for him, even though he will do the bidding of billionaire clerical hardliners who have done little for ordinary folks.

Likewise, George W. Bush affects a southern drawl (he is from Connecticut) and makes himself out to be a friend of the common man, with his "tax cuts" and program to "save" social security. In fact, everything Bush does primarily benefits the rich and actually hurts the interests of workers and farmers. Nevertheless, as with Ahmadinejad, he gets many in the working classes to vote for him. (Juan Cole, "Ahmadinejad Uses Bush's Tactics," Informed Comment, 26 Jun. 2005)
First of all, while Bush may pretend to be "a friend of the common man," his economic policy, even at the level of rhetoric, is the antithesis of Ahmadinejad's's platform. Bush wouldn't even dream of using the populist rhetoric of taking from the rich and giving to the poor that Ahmadinejad did, let alone putting populist economic policy in practice. The language of Ahmadinejad is precisely of the sort that Bush, as well as the Republican Party in general, abhors as stuff of class warfare from below.

Secondly, both the majority of the American and Iranian working classes knew where Bush and Ahmadinejad stood on class matters and voted accordingly. Take working-class voters in Ohio, the crucial battleground state, last year: "Ohioans whose annual income is less than $50,000 voted against Bush by a margin of 16% (Ohioans whose annual income is $50,000 or more voted for Bush by exactly the same margin), but they constituted only 48% of the Ohioans who voted" ("Ohioans with an Annual Income of Less Than $50,000," Critical Montages, 3 Nov. 2004). Nationwide, 55% of voters with the annual income of less than $50,000 (constituting 45% of those who cast their votes) voted for John F. Kerry and 44% of them voted for Bush; and 43% of voters with the annual income of $50,000 or more (making up 55% of those who cast their votes) voted for Kerry and 56% of them voted for Bush (, "Election Results: US President/National/Exit Poll"). While a minority of working-class voters indeed voted for Bush, it's clear that his base is the rich, the majority of working-class America being still opposed to the Republican Party. Not so with Ahmadinejad: "Ahmadinejad’s supporters, in contrast [to Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's as well as Bush's], come mostly from the working class, rural poor and unemployed who admire his humility and pledges to redistribute the country’s vast oil income" (Paul Hughes, "Iran Run-off: Voters Split along Class Lines," Indian Express, 24 Jun. 2005).

In short, in terms of both political platform and base of support, Ahmadinejad and Bush have nothing in common.

Whether or not Ahmadinejad will deliver on any of his campaign promises is another question, but liberal reformers who can't see the glaring difference between him and Bush can't hope to appeal to workers in either Iran or America.

The Iranian Working Class Rejects Neoliberalism and Imperialism

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received 61.69% of the roughly twenty-eight million votes cast in the Iranian presidential election run-off. The turnout was about 59.6%. That's a landslide victory by any standard. What does it mean politically?

Such adjectives as "reformist" and "conservative," "soft-line" and "hard-line," "moderate" and "fundamentalist," and so on -- all too frequently employed by the corporate media -- do not shed light on what happened at all. Take a good look at what Ahmadinejad said to the Iranian public, and you'll see that his election is, first and foremost, the result of the Iranian working class's rejection of both neoliberalism and concessions to imperialism, represented by former President Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and so-called "reformists" who see themselves as "the elite."
  • His [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's] views on the policies he would follow if elected president, as expressed by him during his election campaign, are given in the following sub-paragraphs:

    Domestic policy: "If elected, I would implement development projects on the basis of justice and the wishes of the people. Political, cultural and economic developments are not isolated from each other and at the very core of all of them is justice and public consensus. Among my priorities are removing the problems of the youth related to employment, housing and marriage. My idea of political development is different from its foreign interpretation. We must expand freedoms quantitatively and qualitatively, and determine ways in which freedoms could be used. The way we have been dealing with the youth on the streets does not solve anything."

    Foreign policy: "The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is in principle based on the establishment of peace and justice worldwide. For this reason, the expansion of relations with all countries is on the agenda of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I mean balanced relationships, based on mutual respect and observance of each other's rights. There are very few countries that fall outside this scope. If they do, it is due to their blind approach to the Islamic republic. Of course, there are hierarchies in the diplomacy. In these echelons, we give priority to the establishment of relations with our immediate neighbors, then with countries that once fell within the zone of Iran's civilization, then with Muslim states and finally, with all countries that are not hostile towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. We desire an expansion of relations with regional states and the establishment of extensive public contacts. We believe that visa quotas should be lifted and people should visit anywhere they wish freely. People should have freedom in their pilgrimages and tours."

    Relations with the US: "I meet ambassadors from European, African and Asian countries once a week. Iran does not need imposed ties with the United States. When the world formed a united front to fight Iran, our oil could not sell on the international markets and our economy was paralyzed [due to the 1980-88 war imposed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq], the nation did not extend its hand [to outsiders] for help. Now that we have managed to build the infrastructure [for development] and the country has progressed, we do not need to accept any imposed relationship with America. The US severed its ties with the Islamic Republic to harm the Iranian nation and so do those who favor resumption of ties with the US."

    UN reforms: "Global equations undergo changes, this is their nature. Today, the Muslim world is the poorest of the global powers. The UN structure is one-sided, stacked against the world of Islam. The Muslim world should be allowed a chance in the UN Security Council, where certain groups now possesses the right to veto. We consider this privilege essentially wrong. It is not just for a few states to sit and veto global approvals. Should such a privilege continue to exist, the Muslim world with a population of nearly 1.5 billion should be extended the same privilege."

    Nuclear energy: "This subject has been given a tremendous amount of publicity. It is a critical subject. Nuclear energy is the scientific achievement of the Iranian nation. Our youth have crowned themselves with this achievement, via domestic technology and by reliance on their own knowledge. The energy belongs to the Iranian nation. Definitely, the progress of a nation cannot be obstructed. Scientific, medical and technical development of our nation is necessary. I believe there are certain individuals that create a false mood. They want to portray the situation as critical, while there is no crisis here. The technology is at the disposal of the Iranian nation. Certain powers do not want to believe this. They resist against accepting such a right, such an achievement of the Iranian nation. Their scientists and experts have admitted that the Iranian nation is entitled to this right. I believe the problem can be solved with prudence and wisdom, by utilizing opportunity and relying on the endless power of the Iranian nation, through our self-confidence. The ongoing artificial mood is political sleight of hand. The mood aims to influence the Islamic Republic's domestic developments.

    "One cannot impede scientific progress. You can see scientific progress everywhere in the world. One cannot obstruct this movement. This is not something that can be prevented with an order. No one can deprive the Iranian nation of this right. They are vainly trying to stir conditions worldwide. They want to fan tension, create crisis to meet their transitory objectives. That's a kind of psychological war. This is as if you want to deprive someone of industrial progress. This is something impossible. Industry is intertwined with the nature of an individual. Technical knowledge has now become an integral aspect of the Iranian psyche. You cannot say that the Iranian nation should not use math, should not have physicians, should not build large dams, or should not be able to build a refinery or a plane. This is an illogical claim; no one accepts it. Fortunately, the world has seen this. God willing, these few arrogant powers will accept it as well. We have relations with governments and nations. The basis of those engagements is guaranteeing and respecting each other's national identities. Iran's present status in the field of nuclear energy is indigenous and it has been gained without reliance upon foreigners."

    Threats to Iran: "The system of domination is founded on depriving nations of their true identity. It seeks to deprive nations of their culture, identity, self-confidence and in this way dominate them. Our dear country, Iran, throughout history has been subject to threats. These were due to its advantages and geopolitical conditions as well as the capacity of the great Iranian nation. The Iranian nation for a long period of time has been the architect of civilization and the standard bearer for science, technology, culture, literature, arts, math, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and the like. It still holds these standards. It continues to hold the banner of independence and freedom. These threats, however, are not of recent origin. These threats have been with us for a long time. Our enemies can deal a blow to us any time they wish. They do not wait for permission to do this. They do not deal a blow with prior notice. They did not take action because they can't. Our nation is today a powerful nation. Fortunately, Iranians are politically active worldwide. For hundreds of years Iranians have been migrating to many parts of the world. They took Islamic culture to other parts of the world and established it there. Now too, Iranians have a wide-scale influence in the world. They have strong cultural, scientific, political and economic influence. The presence of an Iranian elite, outstanding figures in many parts of the world is a precious asset for the Iranian nation. Iranians defend and present their Islamic and Iranian identity to other people worldwide." (B Raman, "Bush's Imprint," Asia Times, 21 Jun. 2005)

  • [I]n his speeches as a candidate, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, has attracted a following not with his talk of strict Islamic values but by presenting himself as a sort of Islamic Robin Hood, promising to strip away the power and privileges that have enriched a small segment of society and to distribute the nation's wealth to the poor.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    While Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former two-term president, promotes his many years of experience in Iran's government as his credential for election, Mr. Ahmadinejad essentially casts himself as the anti-Rafsanjani: a simple, religious man, the son of an ironworker, who refused to accept his pay as mayor and who, if elected president, will fight for the poor.

    He has promised to deliver pensions, health insurance and unemployment insurance to women. He has promised to shift state money away from more-developed cities to less-developed communities. He has promised zero-interest loans to farmers. He has promised to stabilize prices and give teachers a raise. (Michael Slackman, "Upstart in Iran Election Campaigns as Champion of Poor," New York Times, 23 Jun. 2005)

  • Iran will flush out corruption from the country's oil industry and favour domestic investors in the underdeveloped hydrocarbons sector, Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed on Sunday.

    He has previously promised to cut the hands off the "mafias" he says run the oil business in OPEC's number two producer and has made a pledge to distribute Iran's oil wealth more fairly.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    "Fighting bureaucratic corruption in all sectors, including oil, is part of a definite policy for our government," he told reporters at a news conference.

    "In all fields, including oil, priority will be given to local investors," he added. (Reuters, "Ahmadinejad Vows to Favour Locals in Iran Oil Deals," 26 Jun. 2005)
As for questions of personal freedom, this is what Ahmadinejad has to say: "'People think a return to revolutionary values is only a matter of wearing the head scarf,' Reuters quoted him as saying. 'The country's true problem is employment and housing, not what to wear'" (Nazila Fathi, Blacksmith's Son Emphasized His Modest Roots," New York Times, 26 Jun. 2005).

Whether Iran's new president can deliver on his promises of populist economic and foreign policies, while practicing pragmatic tolerance on cultural questions, remains to be seen. But there is no question that not only his platform but also his working-class family background, his modest manners, and even his simple appearance stood in stark contrast to all other candidates', so working-class Iranian voters, fed up with "an official unemployment rate of 16 percent, and unofficial estimates of 30 percent" ("In Iran, It's Jobs, Not Bombs," Christian Science Monitor, 27 Jun. 2005), cast their lot with him. That's democracy Iranian style, whether Washington likes it or not.


Read Nema Milaninia's insightful commentary on why "[m]ost journalists and bloggers supported reformist Mostafa Moin's candidacy and envisioned significant support for him," completely blindsided by Ahmadinejad's victory ("A Tehran Bias: Why We Iranian Bloggers Were Wrong About the Election," Pacific News Service, 22 Jun. 2005). The short answer to the question is that "[t]he failure by bloggers, reporters and analysts to accurately predict the election results is largely due to our 'Tehran-centricism.' As the country's large metropolitan capital, Tehran is the focal point of most news coming out of Iran. The vast majority of journalists, including bloggers, focus on the ambitions and struggles facing Tehran's disgruntled youths, rather than Iran's disgruntled poor" (Milaninia, 22 Jun. 2005). Fred Feldman adds that the class bias of bloggers, reporters, and analysts may be more accurately called "North-Teheran-centrism," as the city's south side is mostly populated by the working class. The class bias of Iran's liberal reformers is akin to that of liberal reformers in formerly socialist countries.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Soldiers vs. Intellectual Property Rights

Despite Dick Cheney's insistence that the insurgency in Iraq is in its "last throes," American casualties are at their all-time high:
US Troops Killed by Homemade BombsLast month there were about 700 attacks against American forces using so-called improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.'s, the highest number since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the American military command in Iraq and a senior Pentagon military official.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I.E.D.'s of all types caused 33 American deaths in May, and there have been at least 35 fatalities so far in June, the highest toll over a two-month period, according to statistics assembled by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. . . . (David S. Cloud, "Iraqi Rebels Refine Bomb Skills, Pushing Toll of G.I.'s Higher," New York Times, 22 Jun. 2005)
Higher casualties are said to be due to Iraqi guerrillas' advancements in military technology: "the use of 'shaped' charges that concentrate the blast and give it a better chance of penetrating armored vehicles" and "the detonation of explosives by infrared lasers, an innovation aimed at bypassing electronic jammers used to block radio-wave detonators" (Cloud, 22 Jun. 2005).

In contrast, US troops have yet to see improvements in their vehicles. The Humvee is still "the Pentagon's vehicle of choice for American troops," the vehicle shunned by Donald Rumsfeld and other dignitaries visiting Iraq:
When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Iraq last year to tour the Abu Ghraib prison camp, military officials did not rely on a government-issued Humvee [$140,000 for an armored vehicle] to transport him safely on the ground. Instead, they turned to Halliburton, the oil services contractor, which lent the Pentagon a rolling fortress of steel called the Rhino Runner [$250,000].

State Department officials traveling in Iraq use armored vehicles that are built with V-shaped hulls to better deflect bullets and bombs. Members of Congress favor another model, called the M1117 [$700,000], which can endure 12-pound explosives and .50-caliber armor-piercing rounds.

Unlike the Humvee, the Pentagon's vehicle of choice for American troops, the others were designed from scratch to withstand attacks in battlefields like Iraq with no safe zones. (Michael Moss, "Safer Vehicles for Soldiers: A Tale of Delays and Glitches," New York Times, 26 Jun. 2005)
What the Armor Can Withstand

While Iraqi guerrillas' innovations made even the best-armored Humvees unsafe, most US troops cannot even avail themselves of them: "[A]ccording to military records and interviews with officials, about half of the Army's 20,000 Humvees have improvised shielding that typically leaves the underside unprotected, while only one in six Humvees used by the Marines is armored at the highest level of protection" (Moss, 26 Jun. 2005).

Why? It turns out that US capitalists are at war with US troops:
The Defense Department continues to rely on just one small company in Ohio to armor Humvees. And the company, O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, has waged an aggressive campaign to hold onto its exclusive deal even as soaring rush orders from Iraq have been plagued by delays. The Marine Corps, for example, is still awaiting the 498 armored Humvees it sought last fall, officials told The Times.

In January, when military officials tried to speed production by buying the legal rights to the armor design so they could enlist other venders to help, O'Gara demurred, calling the move a threat to its "current and future competitive position," according to e-mail records obtained from the Army.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Robert F. Mecredy, president of the aerospace and defense group at Armor Holdings, the parent company of O'Gara, acknowledged that the company was protecting its commercial interests. (emphasis added, Moss, 26 Jun. 2005)
Soldiers' lives are evidently less important than intellectual property rights that confer monopoly profits on capitalists. The Iraq War is the best crash course in the ABC of capitalism.

Art at "Ground Zero"

The Drawing Center, noted for its formalism, recently came under attack, because the gallery, which is to be "part of the projected International Freedom Center at ground zero," has shown a few pieces of "political art critical of the current Bush administration" since 2001 (Holland Cotter, "Where Drawing Is What Counts," New York Times, 25 Jun. 2005). How political? Here is an artwork currently being exhibited at the Center which has drawn attention of politicians and the corporate media on the Right.Orthographic Projection of the Axis
Charbel Ackermann's "New Geometry" is . . . about confusions of perspective, but of the conceptual as well as optical kind. The piece takes the form of a mock-PowerPoint computer presentation, projected on the wall, and its subject is a drawing by someone else that already exists: namely, the Axis of Evil traced by President Bush, linking nations hostile to the United States.

Mr. Ackermann's piece, sly and funny, was, of course, among those cited by The Daily News as a problem. Just as the show as a whole pushes the notion of drawing as a medium to absurd lengths, testing its limits and possibilities, so does Mr. Ackermann push the image of the Axis of Evil to the max, extending, dividing it, passing it through a pseudo-scientific prism of Ptolemaic geometry, orthographic projection and statistical analysis, until it ends up in a crazy tangle. Depending on your perspective, that tangle represents either a political critique, or political reality, or art doing its ambiguous, needling thing, which is exactly what it's supposed to do, wherever it lands. (Cotter, 25 Jun. 2005)
According to another New York Times article on the same controversy, "Gov. George E. Pataki delivered an ultimatum to two important cultural players [the Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center] at ground zero yesterday, demanding 'an absolute guarantee' that they would not mount exhibitions that could offend 9/11 families and pilgrims to a proposed memorial nearby" (Patrick D. Healy, "Pataki Warns Cultural Groups for Museum at Ground Zero," 25 Jun. 2005). While there is no reason why Ackermann's deconstruction of "the Axis of Evil" should offend any 9/11 family, since none of the countries that the Bush administration bundled into an imaginary "Axis" had anything to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is impossible to guarantee that it won't, art being in the eye of the beholder.

Nay, it is nearly a virtual certainty that at least some of the "9/11 families and pilgrims" will be offended by art at "ground zero." Take a look at Fred R. Conrad's photograph of "about 200 relatives of 9/11 victims" and others protesting against "inappropriate programming" at "ground zero." Protesting a Planned Museum near the 9/11 MemorialWhat are artists and curators to do? One way would be to insist on total freedom for artists and curators, resisting pressures from politicians, victims' families, and the corporate media. After all, what better way to survive terror -- terrors wrought by the fundamentalist empire as well as its fundamentalist enemies -- than to celebrate artistic freedom that both would deny? Another way would be to refuse to participate in the highly politicized project of 9/11 commemoration at all. Absence of art can be as eloquent as presence of it. It will speak volumes about the nature of a society that cannot tolerate art except as an object of investment.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

"Get Out, You Damned"

According to Al Jazeera, a novel that Saddam Hussein is said to have "finished writing . . . a month before the U.S. occupation toppled his regime in April 2003" will be published in Jordan next week:
Get Our, You DamnedJordan's independent Al-Arab Al-Yawm newspaper said it had already received a copy of the Arabic-language book titled "Ekhroj minha ya mal'un", which can be translated into "Damned one, get out of here".

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Al-Arab Al-Yawm said that English and French copies of the novel are to be published later as well.

"Get Out, You Damned” tackles the life of a man called Haskeel who moves from his hometown to a city, where he starts making conspiracies to oust the local chief. At the end of the novel the chief's daughter, succeeds in kicking Haskeel out of the city with the help of a knight. ("Saddam’s 'Get Out, You Damned' Novel Out Next Week," Al Jazeera, 23 Jun. 2005)
Sounds like a potboiler, but I'm struck by the fact that in Iraq even a tyrant, who could control the masses through fear, felt he needed to show them that he was cultured enough to write novels (Get Out, You Damned is Hussein's fourth novel).

Can you imagine the current POTUS reading a novel, let alone writing one? Lack of cultural pretensions, however, is an asset in American politics. Or at least a carefully cultivated appearance of the lack is. Recently, it was revealed that John F. Kerry's grade (a cumulative 76) at Yale had been worse than George W. Bush's (77) (Michael Kranish, "Yale Grades Portray Kerry as a Lackluster Student," Boston Globe, 7 Jun. 2005) -- much to the surprise of both Democrats and Republicans. How Bush managed to come off as much less intellectual than Kerry and why Kerry failed to leak his transcript early in his campaign are mysteries.

Of course, both men's grades say nothing about their intelligence. Rather, they say everything about their privilege: they both came from such wealthy and well-connected families that they felt they could settle for gentlemen's Cs and still aspire to the highest office in the nation, unlike a son of a poor family in Iraq who yearned for cultural capital as well as political and economic power.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Zombie Revolt or Revolution?

The American working class, who live the lives of the political living dead, may be best symbolized by zombies. But don't underestimate zombies.

Land of the DeadIn the latest installment of George Romero's zombie series, Land of the Dead (2005), the rich live in a tower of luxury, separated from the poor who are still technically alive and supplied and protected by mercenaries who shoot zombies for sport. The living dead, slowly but surely, begin to communicate among their kind, develop political consciousness, and . . . pick up guns. They are armed and hungry, and they have nothing to lose! Led by a Black zombie Big Daddy, a former gas-station attendant (whose line of work probably died before his body did), they storm the enclave of the rich.

Is it a zombie revolt or revolution? We'll find out.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Big Brother Wants to Keep a Log on You

From The Red Geek (18 Jun. 2005), I learn that "[t]he U.S. Department of Justice is quietly shopping around the explosive idea of requiring Internet service providers to retain records of their customers' online activities" (Declan McCullagh, "Your ISP as Net Watchdog," CNET, 16 Jun. 2005).

As you expect, the pretext is "child pornography," an always convenient bogeyman: "The current proposal appears to originate with the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, which enforces federal child pornography laws. But once mandated by law, the logs likely would be mined during terrorism, copyright infringement and even routine criminal investigations" (McCullagh, 16 Jun. 2005). With such a law in the hands of the federal government, the POTUS who wants to pull a Watergate wouldn't need to have anyone break into any building!

Besides, the more data are retained, the more likely they will be stolen.
Collectively, nearly 50 million accounts have been exposed to the possibility of identity fraud since the beginning of the year, a significant increase from last year.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A boom in data collection has created a marketplace of valuable information stored on computers in thousands of places, many with weak security. (Jonathan Krim, "Ubiquitous Technology, Bad Practices Drive Up Data Theft," Washington Post, 22 Jun. 2005, p. D1)
If anything, the government ought to be prohibiting unnecessary data retention, since it is not possible to establish computer security that no hacker can breach.

Common sense, however, doesn't come easily to the current administration. In "the year of the data breach" (Krim, 22 Jun. 2005), it embarked upon creating a massive new database:
The Defense Department began working yesterday with a private marketing firm to create a database of high school students ages 16 to 18 and all college students to help the military identify potential recruits in a time of dwindling enlistment in some branches.

The program is provoking a furor among privacy advocates. The new database will include personal information including birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, ethnicity and what subjects the students are studying.

The data will be managed by BeNow Inc. of Wakefield, Mass., one of many marketing firms that use computers to analyze large amounts of data to target potential customers based on their personal profiles and habits.

"The purpose of the system . . . is to provide a single central facility within the Department of Defense to compile, process and distribute files of individuals who meet age and minimum school requirements for military service," according to the official notice of the program.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen] Krenke said she did not know how much the contract with BeNow was worth, or whether it was bid competitively.

Officials at BeNow did not return several messages seeking comment. The company's Web site does not have a published privacy policy, nor does it list either a chief privacy officer or security officer on its executive team. (emphasis added, Jonathan Krim, "Pentagon Creating Student Database: Recruiting Tool For Military Raises Privacy Concerns," Washington Post, 23 Jun. 2005, p. A1)
The daftly-named BeNOW, Inc. is a private company that has only 50 employees and the income of just $9 million. Its history is short, too. In 2003, it had only ten clients, "four of which were added in 2002" (Eric Schmitt/Forrester Research, "Database Marketing Vender Profile: BeNOW," 18 Apr. 2003). Its specialty in 2003 was unsophisticated services for "the catalog and retail markets":
Our evaluation also reveals several concerns about BeNOW that prospective buyers should take into consideration, including its:
  • Analytical skills gap. Unlike most of its competitors, BeNOW has not built out a deep analytical organization. . . .

  • Limited resources. BeNOW's small employee base, along with the recent growth in its client roster, should give potential buyers pause. Before signing on, prospective buyers should interview account team candidates including ongoing service staff -- not just the database build specialists. Inquire about these employees' other commitments, and negotiate the mechanics of the relationship upfront.
(Schmitt/Forrester Research, 18 Apr. 2003)
Such gaps and limits, as well as the apparent lack of a chief privacy or security officer, may not deter catalog merchants from hiring BeNOW, but they sure suggest that BeNOW may not be a company to which the federal government should entrust sensitive personal data of the youth of America.

My bet is that BeNOW will follow in the footsteps of ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, CardSystems, and other databases hacked to notoriety.