Monday, February 28, 2011

America: only one revolution to a customer

David Seaton's News Links
Why is it that when you study the graph above and then read the quotes below, the graph seems so real and the quotes seem some sort of political science fiction, verging from the absurd and childish to the puzzled or even hopeless?
“What you are looking at in Tunisia, in Egypt … Libya, in Bahrain … what you see happening there … you’d better prepare because it will be coming to your door,”(Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis) Farrakhan said in a booming voice, thousands of followers cheering in his wake. Chicago BreakingNews

Meanwhile, in far-off Wisconsin, the protesters who massed for a huge rally Saturday evidently know instinctively which side of history they're on; unlike the Obama administration, they identify with those organizing the “days of rage” in the Middle East, not with its autocrats. American demonstrators may still be focused on issues of immediate self-interest, but remember, only yesterday no one thought a non-Tea-Party-type would ever again take to an American street shouting protest slogans. Tom Engelhardt

You can't fight something with nothing. But as long as Democrats refuse to talk about the almost unprecedented buildup of income, wealth, and power at the top - and the refusal of the super-rich to pay their fair share of the nation's bills - Republicans will convince people it's all about government and unions.  Robert Reich
The graph topping this post clearly shows an unhappy country with a crumbling infrastructure, poor schools, the grossest inequality imaginable in a developed country,  its masses struggling to make ends meet, an enormous prison population, many of its people without health care and even going hungry. All of this and yet the idea of great mass demonstrations on an Egyptian scale seems unthinkable... Why should this be? Is this truly the oft boasted "American exceptionalism"? That nobody cares enough to even set a few cars on fire?

We are taught in school, and have it endlessly drilled into our heads lifelong, that America is a nearly perfect democracy dedicated to promoting the general welfare of its citizens.  Perhaps though, in reality, it is a nearly perfect regime dedicated to promoting the interests of tiny, deeply entrenched, oligarchy and no matter how obvious that is, it appears that nothing will ever change, that an endless chain of presidential Tweedledees and Tweedledums in various sizes and colors and campaign fund starved legislators will make sure that the interests of that oligarchy are always efficiently served.

How does that work? How did that happen? How did America turn into a regime?

Recently I posted the BBC video, "The Century of Self", which tells the story of how Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays used his uncle's insight into the human psyche to create a propaganda machine (for which he created the euphemistic name of "public relations") in order manipulate and milk the desires and fears of the masses, whose intelligence he despised. "Engineering Consent" it was called, a political version of slipping a pill into girl's drink. This is no huge discovery on my part, quite a few people are perfectly aware of this, I heard it first from Noam Chomsky, but somehow, knowing the truth does not set us free. In fact America's slimiest, most cynically manipulative, barefaced, contemporary propagandist, Glenn Beck, can even have the chutzpah to denounce Bernays on his program, while using a textbook collection of Bernays' techniques in every broadcast himself; finally with what seems the  sole object of trashing Cass Sunstein. All on Fox News, the most popular mouthpiece of America's oligarchy. Adding insult to injury.

I remember back in the 1970s a Hungarian friend of mine describing the Communist regime in his country: "they control everything", he said, "you are helpless, powerless facing them, all you have is the company of your few trusted friends" (apparently Hungary was freer than East Germany, where you couldn't even let down your hair with your friends). But, thinking it over, it occurs to me that those regimes at least paid their people the compliment of being afraid of them. America's regime will let you say anything you want, because whatever you might say won't matter one bit.

Maybe someday the price of gasoline and the price of food will burn away this fog, but I wouldn't bet on it, I would say that the Mubaraks and the Ben Alis of America can rest easy, their fortunes are in safe hands. DS

Monday, February 21, 2011

Globalization and its discontents: a new paradigm

I have an "impossibility theorem" for the global economy (...). It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.  Dani Rodrik - Kennedy School Harvard
David Seaton's News Links
In the Middle East -- and who knows where else next -- the masses are on the march and the mystery and the mystique of revolution unfolds once again.

There is a mixture of things, like a chemical formula, that leads to revolutions, here is a sample of  the mixture that is brewing up in the Middle East right now:
  • Generally people are tired of being intimidated and resentful at being tortured and oppressed. 
  • Then, thanks to modern medical advances and the lowering of infant mortality, there are huge numbers of young people and very few jobs for them.
  • Thanks to advances in education, many of these young people are vastly overqualified for any jobs they might ever manage to get: the revolutionary leaven of dissatisfied intellectuals is well known. 
  •  Add food inflation, which brings the sans culotte into the street.
  • Remember that the rising price of oil brought on by these disturbances adds exponentially to that food inflation.
      Everybody has their own spin on Egypt's revolution and the word "freedom" is being thrown about a lot as if it were an end in itself instead of simply being a means, a precondition of action. Who is free? Free to do what? Free from whom? The question might be better expressed as: now that they are free, what are they going to express with that freedom?

      Of course the American media inventively associates "freedom" with "free market capitalism" and as we saw in the previous post on the BBC video, "The Century of Self", this was an idea that cost American business a huge amount of money and time to sell to its first victims, the American people, and is not that deeply rooted in countries that were heavily exploited former colonies at the mercy for centuries of foreign interests and not their own..  I think that many commentators are neglecting the anti-imperialist angle in all of this: once free from the local "foreign client" dictator, the desire all these countries have for national independence and sovereignty and how that contradicts with America's brand of multinational corporate globalization.

      Again, most commentators read the role of Islam in this struggle for freedom from foreign tutelage in a shallow manner. If American dominated globalization is seen as a dissolvent of this new freedom to "be themselves", then what ideology is robust enough to be indigestible by globalization. What set of ideas and customs can bullet proof these newly free societies from what the Chinese call "America's candy bullets"? Obviously Islam is well suited for that role, both nationally and internationally.
      Sheik Qaradawi, a popular television cleric whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide, addressed a rapt audience of more than a million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate the uprising and honor those who died. On Friday, he struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching. He began his sermon by saying that he was discarding the customary opening “Oh Muslims,” in favor of “Oh Muslims and Copts,” referring to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. He praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt’s revolution and even lauded the Coptic Christian “martyrs” who once fought the Romans and Byzantines. “I invite you to bow down in prayer together,” he said. He urged the military officers governing Egypt to deliver on their promises of turning over power to “a civil government” founded on principles of pluralism, democracy and freedom. And he called on the army to immediately release all political prisoners and rid the cabinet of its dominance by officials of the old Mubarak government.“We demand from the Egyptian Army to free us from the government that was appointed by Mubarak,” Sheik Qaradawi declared. “We want a new government without any of these faces whom people can no longer stand.” And he urged the young people who led the uprising to continue their revolution. “Protect it,” he said. “Don’t you dare let anyone steal it from you.”(...)  Scholars who have studied his work say Sheik Qaradawi has long argued that Islamic law supports the idea of a pluralistic, multiparty, civil democracy. But he has made exceptions for violence against Israel or the American forces in Iraq. “You call it violence; I call it resistance,” said Prof. Emad Shahin of the University of Notre Dame, an Egyptian scholar who has studied Sheik Qaradawi’s work and was in Tahrir Square for his speech Friday. New York Times
      And speaking of the Chinese and what  they call, "America's candy bullets". Quite a few people seem to think that China is a loser in all this business because it isn't a liberal democracy on the western model.  They miss a very important point: China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and does not lecture them on "values" or export revolution. America is guilty of all these sins and is an inveterate and unrepentant sinner. For any former colony of the west, be it a democracy or a dictatorship, China is a more comfortable business partner than the USA. I think China is finally going to be one of the biggest winners of the upheaval in the Middle East.

      The United States has two principal objectives in the Middle East: to control the world's access to its oil reserves and to give political and military cover to the state of Israel, for reasons of purely domestic, American politics.

      As to the role of the Israel Lobby in Washington, truly the joker in the deck, they have their work cut out for them, Americans may soon find themselves in the dilemma of being forced to choose between their undying love for Israel and their legendary addiction to cheap gasoline. Israel is a wonderful country, but you can't fill your gas tank with it and drive to a minimum wage job over American distances. This is a dilemma that could leave America's strained domestic peace in tatters. Oil at $200+ a barrel could bring America's sans culottes into the streets... Running, walking, but not driving.  DS

      Wednesday, February 16, 2011

      The Nephew from Hell: Edward Bernays and the science of American bullshit

      David Seaton's News Links
      A couple of summers ago I read a lovely book called "The Metaphysical Club - A Story of  Ideas in America", a Pulitzer Prize winner, by Louis Menand.  The book is about a group of philosophers: William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey, thinkers who grew out of the yeast culture of Emerson and Thoreau's Boston. The period in which these men worked, was the aftermath of the American Civil War, a time marked by an explosion of sordid robber barons and hucksters of every stripe whose patron saint might be P. T. Barnum, certainly not Saint Dismas, the "good thief".

      At that time two America's coexisted, one dark and sleazy: the America of Jay Gould and Boss Tweed and another pure and bright: the America of James and Holmes. As different as they were, both of them, each in their way, were as real, as clearly drawn, as mordant and as "what you see is what you get" as the writings of Mark Twain and Herman Melville. 

      While I was reading the book I kept getting the feeling that the sense of reality that permeated that era of America's past, has been almost entirely lost. I have experienced some of that reality myself in the person of my grandmother, who was born and raised in 19th century America, and the men and women she grew up with in the tiny Midwestern village, where I spent many of my summers as a small boy. I wondered, while reading, "The Metaphysical Club" when and how America had become such a sinkhole of spin and mendacious euphemism, storytelling and bullshit. I had no answer, only the feeling of a better, nobler, America that had been lost. An America I am much proud of, hardly recognizable in the bloated, deluded, self-indulgent America of today.  Who was responsible for wrecking it, when, how? I had no answer.

      Then, the other day, a good friend sent me the link to the video that I have posted at the top of this piece and I suddenly was getting an idea when bullshit became America's native dialect. When I saw it, I thought it might have been some historical fiction dreamed up by Doctorow.

      Here is the summary of the video.
      BBC resume of "The Century of Self":

      The story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud's ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn't need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

      Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticising the motorcar.

      His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

      It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today's world.
      I am going to say some pretty strong and uncomplimentary things about Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, so before going any farther, I wish to make clear, that I consider Sigmund Freud himself as one of the noblest and most creative minds in western history, a man who dedicated his life to fearlessly exploring the darkest recesses of the human mind with an intent solely to heal and ameliorate the human condition. As a tiny, but revealing sample of Freud's nobility and humanity, this sample, his account of his meeting with William James, will have to suffice.
      Another event of this time which made a lasting impression on me was a meeting with William James the philosopher. I shall never forget one little scene that occurred as we were on a walk together. He stopped suddenly, handed me a bag he was carrying and asked me to walk on, saying that he would catch me up as soon as he had got through an attack of angina pectoris which was just coming on. He died of that disease a year later; and I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.
      The video shows that it was Bernays' public relations skills that made a scientist like Freud and his very complex and esoteric theories a household word in middle class America on the order of Picasso and Charley Chaplin and led to today's enervating psychobabble and of course led to the insidious and Orwellian monster of American marketing. 

      Where Freud saw knowledge for healing Bernays just saw money and he showed America's corporations how to mine humanity's dark side for profit. Pimping is an honest dollar compared to Bernays' game.

      One of the great ironies of this video is to learn that Eddy Bernays, the man who taught American women to smoke, was also a major influence on an admirer of his, Joseph Goebbels, who used "Uncle Siggy's" insights into the levers and pulleys of human emotions to whip up a bestial  frenzy in the highly civilized German people, a frenzy that ultimately killed and "smoked" six million European Jews. Sigmund Freud fortunately died in the first months of the war and so never really learned what use his ideas had finally been put to. 

      If you stop and think about it Bernays may be one of the most poisonous and evil men in history, certainly in America's history, nobody, not even Ayn Rand, can touch him.

      It is an hour long with three more to follow, but it is a true treasure. Please watch this video. DS

      Sunday, February 13, 2011

      A Valentine story

      David Seaton's News Links
      I thought something romantic and sad was required for Valentine's day and thinking about it, up popped the saddest love story I remember. A story that if it wasn't true would be pure schmaltz.

      This all happened when I was a little kid.  My stepfather was a doctor of musicology with a masters in psychology and was a pioneer in using musical therapy in the treatment of the mentally ill. He worked at a huge Veteran's Administration hospital on Chicago's North Shore. Those were fat days in the USA and the hospital had a huge orchestra and choirs and a "big band", all of this was my stepfather's turf.... He was the musical director of an insane asylum.

      In those days there were none of the marvelous drugs they have today, which make it possible for people with severe bi-polar disorders, epilepsy or schizophrenia to live "normal" lives without needing to be confined to a hospital. I've heard that the hospital where my stepfather worked no longer exists, but in those days it had hundreds of patients. Among them was a man,  named Don, who certainly wouldn't be hospitalized today, because his particular cross in life was acute gran mal epilepsy, contracted while in military service, and he often suffered several seizures a day. Today this sort of thing is treatable, but in those days he had to under constant care, impossible then for him to be outside on his own.

      He must have come into the world with strange karma, because aside from his illness, he had movie star good looks and a voice of operatic quality, all the way from baritone to lyric tenor. I remember that he was very charming and very sad.

      Among the volunteers who worked at the hospital was a girl named Jesse, also beautiful and also with an enormous soprano voice of operatic quality. She gave voice lessons at the hospital. She was confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down from an automobile accident.

      Don and Jesse were hopelessly in love. "Hopelessly" was the operative word.

      I was a little kid, so I have had to figure a lot of this out later, at the time though I was aware that they were in love and this was all very sad.

      I knew them quite well and not from hearsay because every so often my stepfather would check Don out under his responsibility and bring him home for dinner and to spend the night at our house, a huge three story Victorian pile near the Northwestern campus. On the way home he would pick up Jesse too.

      I remember that after dinner, they would sing duets, while my stepfather played the piano, Italian and German opera mostly, but occasionally an old chestnut like "Ah Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I've Found You", where at least I could understand the words. I still remember the tableaux, my stepfather at the piano, Jesse in her wheelchair, Don standing beside her. They used to look into each others eyes while they sang. 

      Soon it was my bedtime and I had to go upstairs to my bedroom way up on the third floor, the beautiful, powerful, voices followed me all the way up there and sang me to sleep.

      What Don and Jesse did after I went to sleep, nobody ever told me, but there were lots of spare bedrooms in our house and I hope they got to be happy for a while.

      My Valentine's wish is that all my readers should have love as rich and beautiful as Don and Jesse's, but less complicated. DS

      Friday, February 11, 2011

      Cairo: the revolution will be televised

      "Liberty Leading the People"
      Delacroix, Eugene
      Musée du Louvre, Paris

      Wednesday, February 09, 2011

      We are all Egyptians now

      The Tahrir Square uprising “has nothing to do with left or right,” said Dina Shehata, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is about young people rebelling against a regime that has stifled all channels for their upward mobility. They want to shape their own destiny, and they want social justice” from a system in which a few people have gotten fantastically rich, in giant villas, and everyone else has stagnated.  Thomas Friedman - NYT
      We have an inequality index that can go head to head with Egypt’s. Of course food’s cheaper here, so no one’s in the streets. Thomas Geoghegan, Chicago labor lawyer - NYT

      David Seaton's News Links
      No matter how sympathetic we are with their struggle, most of us following the events in Egypt probably see it as something very foreign: an exotically attired, dark skinned people, speaking heavily accented English in a far off land, rebelling against the corrupt regime of an aging dictator, something to which we can only identify with by an intensely imaginative use of our powers of empathy, seeing few similarities with our own lives and condition. Wrong. Thomas Friedman, of all people, brought it all closer to home for me.

      I am no a fan of Friedman's, but the insight he gave me today was worth reading through a ton of his previous twaddle: "young people rebelling against a regime that has stifled all channels for their upward mobility" and "a system in which a few people have gotten fantastically rich, in giant villas, and everyone else has stagnated", sounded disturbingly familiar to me. It reminded me of many developed countries, but especially the USA. Reading further in the same online edition of the New York Times, I came upon the next quote by a Chicago labor lawyer, Thomas Geoghegan, "We have an inequality index that can go head to head with Egypt’s. Of course food’s cheaper here, so no one’s in the streets." Suddenly Cairo seemed much closer to home.

      There is one of those wonderful Spanish sayings which goes, "when you see your neighbor's beard on fire, put your whiskers to soak". The domestic peace of the the "world's greatest democracy" could be hanging on the price of America's food and gasoline.    I was also struck by another common factor, the similar declining value of a university education:  all these revolts began when a Tunisian university graduate, unable to find work in any profession in consonance with his education and forced to earn his living peddling vegetables from an illegal pushcart, set himself on fire in protest.  His suicide struck a chord in the entire Arab world and maybe, deep down, farther afield as well.

      In a globalized economy, everyone is exposed to the same general forces.  We are ruled by the "butterfly effect" and the butterflies are flapping their little hearts out all over the world today. Some countries and some people are much more vulnerable than others and that makes them more immediately and visibly victims to the forces that are also bending millions of people's lives more subtly and more gradually out of shape in more powerful, richer and more dynamic economies.

      With every day that passes it seems clearer to me that growing social and economic inequality is the most dangerous wild card in the world's deck and that within a decade, or perhaps much less, what is happening in Egypt today will be seen as more than the beginning of a revolution in the Arab world,or in dictatorships, but a harbinger of even wider disturbances in places you might least suspect. DS

      Monday, February 07, 2011

      America's future role in the Middle East

      "There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda.... [That is] why I think it is important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice-President Omar Suleiman." - Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State

      When will Washington learn that you cannot simultaneously proclaim your commitment to democracy and freedom and then insist on dictating who is allowed to win? - Stephen Walt

      It's worth remembering what has led to the rise of Islamic extremism and anti-American rage in the Middle East. Arabs see Washington as having supported brutal dictatorships that suppress their people. They believe that it ignored this suppression as long as the regimes toed the line on American foreign policy. If Washington is now perceived as brokering a deal that keeps a military dictatorship in power in Egypt, de jure or de facto, the result will be deep disappointment and frustration on the streets of Cairo. Over time, it will make opposition to the regime and to the United States more hard-line, more religious and more violent. - Fareed Zakaria

      "In this world, it is often dangerous to be an enemy of the United States, but to be a friend is fatal." - Henry Kissinger
      David Seaton's News Links
      It would appear that not only is Israel the Middle East's sole vibrant democracy, the United States is sparing no effort, leaving no stone unturned, to keep it that way.

      Seeing how the US administration is handling the grassroots rebellion in Egypt (it is much too early to call it a "revolution"),  it would appear that except for supporting  the region's necklace of military dictatorships and their mukhabarat state security forces, the USA has no role in the Middle East other than  to assist Israel in killing people and blowing things up.

      American pronouncements about democracy, its institutions and the rule of law sound more and more like the following video:
      At this point the conflict of interests between America's realpolitik-geopolitical-superpower necessity to dominate and control the world's access to the oil reserves of the Middle East and the purely domestic, but no less  plumbean, imperative to defend à outrance Israel's right to maintain an atomic-apartheid, Club Mediterranee in the midst of such spectacular and oil-soaked misery, seemingly has the United States paralyzed in its hypocrisy. DS

      Wednesday, February 02, 2011

      How do you say, "Tienanmen" in Arabic?

      Bring on the goons
      Omar Suleiman (Arabic: عمر سليمان‎; born July 2, 1936) is an Egyptian politician and military figure who was appointed Vice President of Egypt on January 29, 2011. Previously, he was Minister without Portfolio and Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (EGID), the national intelligence agency, from 1993 to 2011. In his role as Director of EGID, the British Daily Telegraph dubbed him as "one of the world's most powerful spy chiefs". Foreign Policy magazine ranked him the Middle East's most powerful intelligence chief, ahead of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

      Dr. Marouf Suleiman al-Bakhit (Arabic: معروف البخيت‎, born 1947) is the current Prime Minister of Jordan. He first served as Prime Minister from November 27, 2005 until November 25, 2007. He was previously the Jordanian ambassador to Israel and the national security chief. Appointed as Prime Minister by King Abdullah II less than three weeks after the 2005 Amman bombings, Bakhit's main priorities were to maintain security and stability in Jordan. He was reappointed as Prime Minister by the King on February 1, 2011, following weeks of protests.
      David Seaton's News Links
      When an opaque "security state" (name for military and police backed oligarchy) is falling apart, it is much more important to observe what people do, than what they say.  Only a fly on the wall would really know what is happening inside the regime... quick bring me a fly on the wall! In  a military dictatorship even the flies, especially  the flies work for the regime.

      If you look at the biographical snippets of the two prime ministers above, one Egyptian the other Jordanian, you will see that the two men have more in common than the name "Suleiman": they are both military intelligence chiefs. This is because the real danger the ruling oligarchy is facing in both countries at this moment is not so much the street, but the young officers in their armies who when they shave in the morning these days, look in the mirror and think how pretty that face would look on a postage stamp.

      As I write this, in Cairo the regime has called out its "demonstrators" (read goon squads and agents provocateur) and the Egyptian army command is asking the people to "return to normal life", which of course they won't.  There will be "clashes"... Fights will break out, shots will be fired, blood will flow... some poor army conscript will stop a mysterious bullet (fired by an agent provocateur) and the army will be sent in to restore "order".... and how do you say, "Tienanmen" in Arabic?

      This is why you have the military intelligence working overtime, because this is the moment that a young officer who refuses to fire on the people and leads his soldiers to overthrow the tyrant can in an instant become a hero, sung in song and story for generations, with avenues named after him, or be shot down like a dog and his widow and orphans starve without a pension... or lose his nerve and spend the rest of his life regretting it. Knowing who that young officer might be, even before he knows it himself, is what military intelligence in a "security state" specializes in.

      So we watch as the tragedy unfolds... they have even turned the Internet back on so everybody gets a good look. DS