Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn

David Seaton's News Links
Between the civil war in Syria, for that is what it is, and the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran, which would set the region -- at the very least -- ablaze, and probably start off a chain of events that could tip the whole world into full-scale depression, we have plenty to worry about... things that could pull our attention decisively away from the saga of Jeremy Lin.
At the bottom of what most of us worriers worry about is the economic crisis. In a nutshell we are looking at the result of an increasingly "friction-less" world market.
Perhaps the core problem is that we are a consumer economy and our consumption, from designer tee-shirts  to the iPad and the iPhone, depends almost entirely on the slave wages and slave working conditions of millions upon millions of Chinese workers, who, without old age pensions and healthcare, save all their money and so do not consume what we produce. Our money goes there and it doesn't come back and our own workers are impoverished by this phenomenon and thus also consume less and less.
And if we managed to solve this problem and the Chinese workers earned enough to consume like we do, we the "breathing class" would suffocate in the ensuing pollution and if the enriched Chinese chose to eat cereal-fed, animal protein on the scale we do, mass starvation in the third (or not so third) world would result... without entering into the feedlot methane gas and water pollution issues that enough steers, swine and chickens to supply a billion Chinese with a diet like ours would produce.
The sheer contradiction and intractability enclosed in the scenario described means that inevitably our entire system is in question and our priorities must adjust to this new reality and adjust they will, even if it takes great wars and massive civil disturbance to bring the adjustments about.
In every established hierarchy, those who most benefit from the statu quo naturally write the rules and laws that best suit their interests and also do their best to create an intellectual and political climate that makes any real questioning of that situation "unthinkable".
Nobody describes this paradox better than the Slovenian philosophe à tout faire, Slavoj Zizek does:
In such a constellation, the very idea of a radical social transformation may appear as an impossible dream—yet the term ‘impossible’ should make us stop and think. Today, possible and impossible are distributed in a strange way, both simultaneously exploding into excess. On the one hand, in the domains of personal freedoms and scientific technology, we are told that ‘nothing is impossible’: we can enjoy sex in all its perverse versions, entire archives of music, films and tv series are available to download, space travel is available to everyone (at a price). There is the prospect of enhancing our physical and psychic abilities, of manipulating our basic properties through interventions into the genome; even the tech-gnostic dream of achieving immortality by transforming our identity into software that can be downloaded into one or another set of hardware.  On the other hand, in the domain of socio-economic relations, our era perceives itself as the age of maturity in which humanity has abandoned the old millenarian utopian dreams and accepted the constraints of reality—read: capitalist socio-economic reality—with all its impossibilities. The commandment you cannot is its mot d’ordre: you cannot engage in large collective acts, which necessarily end in totalitarian terror; you cannot cling to the old welfare state, it makes you non-competitive and leads to economic crisis; you cannot isolate yourself from the global market, without falling prey to the spectre of North Korean juche.
Zizek concludes: "Today we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequence of non-action could be disastrous."
The disruption of existing relationships of power and authority, that the inevitable changes the situation will increasingly demand, goes a long way to explaining the polarization of much of politics today; especially where the world's power is still predominately brokered, the USA. And it is no surprise that the sound and the fury is mostly coming from the right, those who represent those who have much to lose if today's existing relationships of power and authority should ever change.
So that is the real bottom line: we have the privilege of living in a time of profound changes... a time of fear and a time of hope. As to hope, hopefully the metaphor that titles this post is apt, and the darkest hour does come just before dawn. DS

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Meditations on America and the the Flight of the Oozlum Bird

David Seaton's News Links
Just the other day I saw a well-known documentary, "Food Inc", which shines a light on the physically and morally toxic American food industry. I found myself getting very depressed about all the young people, especially poor, young people developing diabetes. Fully half of minority children are set to develop this disease

Being a Celt, certain types of sadness are pleasurable for me in a way similar to the Portuguese "saudade," and so I tend to nurse melancholic feelings along to see what juice they have in them.... Melancholy is like the dear brother pig, all of whom, except for his death screams, is either useful or delicious.

Thinking about Food Inc and ruminating on the sadness that the story of all the overweight, diabetic poor people dredges out of me, I remembered something that Felipe González, the former president of Spain, and an extremely intelligent and perceptive man, once said about Americans.

I'm quoting from memory, González said something like, "Americans are sad people, I find them touching" (me enternecen). My first reaction was to find his remark condescending and offensive, but after thinking about it at length, I decided he was right.

What is this sadness, where does it come from, what is it about?

Everybody, even Thomas Friedman, has read that bit in the Communist Manifesto, describing the action of capitalism on society that goes, "All that is solid melts into air" The full, famous paragraph goes like this:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It ... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” ... for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation ... Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. (emphasis mine)
Taking that as my text, I would preach that as America is and always has been the absolute vanguard and the world's most enthusiastic advocate of capitalism, logically no other people have ever felt capitalism's effects half as directly or half as powerfully as Americans have. If we add to that the deracination of the process of immigration, then we also talking about people who have had all the defenses and the retarding effects of "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" already stripped from them when they arrived.

More than even the British who invented capitalism, Americans therefore stand naked before the forces that "melt all that is solid into air" with all that is holy profaned.

That leaves the American "at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind".

How to avoid that self-examination is the central task that Americans have set for themselves.

This has led to a frantic search for new "veils of religious and political illusions" to make all of this contemplation of "his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind" bearable.

This explains to some extent the obsession with entertainment, the idolatrous celebrity culture and growing religious eccentricity.

The man and his companion whose statue grace this post might be apt symbols of an industrial effort at distraction from the "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" and the "uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation", as shown in "Food Inc", which make up the actual warp and woof of our lives.

The consolation would be that since American society has advanced far further on this road than any other, if capitalism is ever to take the path of the Oozlum Bird*, it will happen in America first. DS
*The Oozlum bird, also spelled Ouzelum, is a Legendary Creature found in Australian and British folk tales and legends. Some versions have it that, when startled, the bird will take off and fly around in ever-decreasing circles until it manages to fly up itself, disappearing completely, which adds to its rarity.

Homage to the people of Greece - Αφιέρωμα στους ανθρώπους της Ελλάδα

David Seaton's News Links
Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, on Wednesday went so far as to suggest Greece might postpone its elections and install a technocratic government free of all political parties, similar to Italy, to ensure that the bail-out programme is implemented. Financial Times
A visibly angry President Karolos Papoulias singled out Schaeuble after he appeared to suggest Greece might go bankrupt, and also attacked critics of his country in the Netherlands and Finland. "I cannot accept Mr Schaeuble insulting my country," said Papoulias, an 82-year-old veteran of Greece's resistance struggle against the Nazi occupation of World War Two. "Who is Mr Schaeuble to insult Greece? Who are the Dutch? Who are the Finnish?" he said in a speech at the Defense Ministry. Reuters
No further comment needed. DS

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A poem for ex-Judge Baltasar Garzón

ex-judge, Baltasar Garzón
Terrible crimes were committed during and after Spain’s 1936-39 civil war that no court has yet examined or judged. No one knows how many people were taken away, tortured and murdered. Now, one of Spain’s top investigating magistrates, Baltasar Garzón, is on trial for daring to open an inquiry into those atrocities. Editorial - New York Times

Baltasar Garzón, Spain’s internationally renowned investigating magistrate, is being prosecuted on charges that could end his career. The case has the hallmarks of a politically motivated attempt to smear and disbar a courageous public official who has fought terrorists and state-sanctioned death squads, corruption and tyranny. It is without merit and reflects poorly on Spain’s increasingly politicised judicial system. Editorial - Financial Times

A Spanish judge famed for his investigations into international human rights abuses has been found guilty of ordering illegal wiretaps during a case involving corruption within the country’s ruling Popular party. Baltasar Garzón was on Thursday unanimously convicted of overstepping his jurisdiction and was barred from the bench for 11 years by a panel of seven judges of Spain’s Supreme Court – a ruling that, if upheld, would effectively bring an end to his career. Financial Times

Villages of bones (for ex-judge Baltasar Garzón)

Under the ditches, fields and highways of Spain, there are tiny villages of bones

Sinews, tendons, loves, ideas and dreams,

Simmered in the broth of earth

Nothing is left but the bones

In the villages of bones

The warm blood and the warm tears

Long since turned to thistles, flow no more

Nothing is left but the bones


Thursday, February 09, 2012

Santorum, Mitt and Newt... Decline and Fall... a rant

"Oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption and of military violence, they for a long while preserved the sentiments, or at least the ideas of their free-born ancestors." Edward Gibbon, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"
David Seaton's News Links
Under Richard Nixon's guidance the Republican party executed the "Southern Strategy" and took know-nothing, racist-populist America to its bosom and began to win majorities sufficient to implement policies that have led that same voter base of know-nothing, racist-populist Americans to even greater degradation.
Now the Republicans are trapped in a nut house of their own creation.
Just as an exercise of political science fiction, try to imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower in the midst of these Republican primaries, try to imagine him on Fox news. 
Impossible, right?
A century from now, the years between Eisenhower's and today's Republican party will seem a brief interlude and I'm sure that Chinese historians will puzzle over the swift deterioration of America and its institutions in that time frame. 
I am neither Chinese nor a historian and I am puzzled as hell. I was a kid when Ike was president and I am an old man now... Blessed with an extremely good memory, I have trouble associating the America I was born into and the America that withers before my eyes today, as if it were being struck down by a wasting disease. DS

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Iran... is a trap being set?

If the United States and/or Israel finally do attack Iran, as it now appears inevitable, they may end up falling into a trap laid by Russia and China.

"Garden Airplane Trap"
Max Ernst - Art Institute of Chicago

The Americans know Iran did not bring the RQ-170 down because their intelligence agencies discovered the culprits were a Chinese cyber warfare team which seized control of the drone; Iran was given the passive role of being told where and when to hold out their arms to catch it. The Obama administration is keeping this information to itself so as not to compromise US economic relations with China, especially in a presidential election year. Debka

Iran tested its passive radar system and electronic warfare equipment in the latest aerial drills aimed at maintaining readiness of a nationwide radar network, local satellite Press TV reported on Sunday. Colonel Abolfazl Sepehri, spokesman for the four-day military exercises, said that Iran's armed forces deployed the country's most up-to-date passive radar system and hardware for electronic warfare on Saturday, according to the report, which did not elaborate on the system. Xinhua - 2011-11-20
For the modern armed forces of any large, militarily advanced country, which might find itself hypothetically facing the United States armed forces in battle -- probably only Russia and China  fit this description -- the problem of defending themselves (or more probably a client state) against an American offensive is above all about winning an anti-aircraft battle. Finding ways of raising the cost of an air attack, beyond what Americans would be prepared to pay, is surely one the most important, if not the most important, field of study for their staff officers.
In any hypothetical conflict, (which is what general staffs spend their lives preparing for) American ground forces could only enter China or Russia -- or their clients -- vital space if they could first destroy their air defenses and then follow it up with a "turkey shoot" in the same way they did to Saddam Hussein in both Gulf wars or to Serbia in the Kosovo conflict.This is the major problem to be solved and you may be sure that much treasure and grey matter are being spent on solving it.
Iran might prove to be an ideal place to "bench test" Russia and China's antiaircraft systems and perhaps deal a heavy blow to Washington and Israel's idea of cost-free gunboat diplomacy.
It is obvious that a large modern army with an adequate antiaircraft defense, which would also mean effective electronic and cyber countermeasures, would have little to fear from American ground forces, which have been turned into a "lean and mean" counter-insurgency force, but one which has not been able to emerge victorious from any counter-insurgency scenarios, either in Iraq or Afghanistan... or even clearly define what such a victory would be. This reduced ground capability would be totally inadequate for any "boots on the ground" activity in a terrain as large and rugged as Iran's, unless complete mastery of the airspace were insured.
Everything in American military thinking revolves around overwhelming air superiority in the face of a helpless and prostrate enemy. To be able to defang that air superiority from the ground, would entirely change the world's military balance of power. Therefore it is surely a primary objective of all states that feel themselves threatened by American power and any military-industrial complex that could develop such capabilities would be assured of brisk sales.
The US Navy's aircraft carrier battle groups, would also be extremely vulnerable to the same electronic and cyber counter measures and missile systems the that the USAF would be. The central challenge in resisting American power then is to stymy and neutralize its air and sea power from the ground.  The same in even a greater degree would apply to Israel. The Americans and the Israelis depend entirely on their technological superiority to attack others at little or no human cost to themselves. Much of America's foreign policy is predicated on this relative invulnerability of its forces, Israel's almost entirely so.
The escalating situation in Iran is providing both Russians and the Chinese with an ideal laboratory for bench testing and developing effective countermeasures against American air, cyber and electronic superiority. Something similar occurred in miniature in 1999, during the Kosovo conflict, but enormous Iran is an infinitely more interesting antiaircraft "laboratory" than tiny Serbia ever could have been.
The attack on Iran is now being treated as something inevitable, something which is sure to occur this spring... it could end up being a disaster on the scale of Spain's "Invincible Armada". DS

PS. This video is a very interesting addition to the conversation: