Category Archives: Context

The Olympics as wonderful kitsch

Uri Avnery writes: To sum up the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in one word: kitsch.

To sum up the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in two words: wonderful kitsch.

Honest disclosure: I am an Anglophile.

At the age of 15 I started working for an Oxford-educated lawyer. At the office only English was spoken. So I had to learn it, and immediately fell hopelessly in love with the English language and British culture in general.

Some may wonder at this, since at the same time I joined a terrorist organization whose aim was to fight the British and drive them out of Palestine.

Soon after my 15th birthday I faced the admission panel of the Irgun. I was asked if I hated the British. Facing the beam of a powerful projector, I answered: no. Sensing the consternation on the other side of the blinding light, I added that I wanted to liberate our country, and did not need to hate the British to do that.

Actually, I think that most Irgun fighters felt like that. The nominal Commander in Chief, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, was an ardent anglophile and once wrote that the Englishman in the colonies was a brutal oppressor, but that the Englishman at home was a decent and likeable fellow. When Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Jabotinsky ordered the immediate cessation of all Irgun actions. The Irgun’s military commander, David Raziel, was killed by a Nazi bomb while assisting the British in Iraq.

His successor, Menachem Begin, came to Palestine with the Polish exile army, in which he served as a Polish-English interpreter. In this capacity he was often in contact with the British authorities. He once told me how he brought documents to British officers in the King David hotel, the building which he later – as Irgun commander – ordered to be bombed. Years later, the Queen graciously received him as Prime Minister of Israel.

Altogether, we had the feeling that we were lucky to be fighting the British, and not, say, a French or American (not to mention Israeli) occupation regime.

After this confession, another one: I am not a sports enthusiast. Actually, I have no sense for sport at all.

Even as a child, I was the worst in gymnastics class. A good book always attracted me more than an exciting football game. My father treated sport as “goyim-naches” – Pleasure for Goyim. (Naches in Yiddish is derived from the Hebrew word Nakhat, pleasure or satisfaction.

But back to the Olympics. In the summer of their discontent, the British produced something unique: original, exciting, surprising, moving, humorous. I laughed when Her Majesty jumped out of the helicopter, I almost shed a tear when the handicapped children sang “God Save The Queen”.

But let us go beyond the pomp and circumstance. Do the Olympic games have a deeper significance? I think they do.

Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian professor who researched the behavior of animals as a basis for understanding human behavior, asserted that sports are a substitute for war.

Nature has equipped humans with aggressive instincts. They were an instrument for survival. When resources on earth were scarce, humans, like other animals, had to fight off intruders in order to stay alive.

This aggressiveness is so deeply imbedded in our biological heritage that it is quite useless to try to eliminate it. Instead, Lorenz thought, we must find harmless outlets for it. Sport is one answer. [Continue reading…]

Gilad Atzmon joins forces with Robert Wyatt

Yaron Frid writes:

In 1963 a baby was born in Israel. In 1972 a man fell from the third floor (or the fourth – views are divided ) in England in the middle of the night. Both of them took off on the wings of music, and life would one day organize a surprising encounter between them.

This is a sad story with a jolting soundtrack made of the howl of a saxophone and the wail of a clarinet. It’s a story of displaced persons who have no other country, featuring war criminals, Nazi-hunters and God in a cameo role, tempered by large daubs of irony and a few crumbs of hope.

Morning. Rain. Rail strike. Soho, London. Who is the huge chuckling fellow in the Italian cafe who is polishing off a schnitzel sandwich (washed down with tea ) and welcomes me with comments like “There is no light at the end of the Israeli tunnel”? Or, “I think there is something untenable, simply untenable in the fact that the Jews, who suffered so much racial discrimination, should establish a state that is founded on race laws.” And, topping the charts, “I am dead against the existence of the Jewish state.” It’s still early in the morning, let me remind you. I-am-dead-against-the-existence-of-the-Jewish-state-and-pass-the-sweetener-please. Good morning to you, too, Gilad Atzmon.

The fact that the cafe is across from Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club offers a subtle hint about Atzmon’s identity. He is one of the most acclaimed and in-demand jazz musicians in the world and he only enhances his glory – or totally destroys it, it depends whom you ask – when his mouth isn’t otherwise occupied with a saxophone (or a schnitzel ).

Atzmon says he is dealing not with politics, but with ethics. Maybe in his case it really isn’t just a matter of semantics. Or cosmetics. But we’re here to talk about music. And about beauty. “This beauty which simply spills out of you,” he says, “effortlessly, unconsciously, in the most wonderful moments of creativity, and when that happens you understand that you are only the carrier of the spirit, of something bigger than you, over which you have absolutely no control. I have no connection with that beauty, I just eat schnitzels. I am only the messenger. I don’t look for the beauty, the beauty finds me and through me finds its way into the world.”

And plenty of beauty finds its way into the world in “For the Ghosts Within,” the new album by Atzmon and his musical partners, which has already earned rave reviews in the British music press, with praise such as “the surprise of the year” and ecstatic descriptions of angels entering the listener’s heart. On the album Atzmon joins forces, as performer, composer, arranger and musical producer, with Ros Stephen and Robert Wyatt.

This is the great Robert Wyatt himself. Cult figure, one of the fathers and pioneers of progressive rock. The one calls the other a genius (“We have a mutual genius pact,” Atzmon chuckles ), while Wyatt says, “It’s a huge honor for me and not at all self-evident that Gilad agreed to work with me. He is an amazing musician, amazing.” But judging by the people Wyatt has worked with – Jimi Hendrix, Mike Oldfield, David Gilmour, Paul Weller, Syd Barrett, Brian Eno, Bjork (a “heavenly creature,” Wyatt sighed ) among others – it’s clear that the honor is also definitely Atzmon’s. He has performed with Paul McCartney, but the collaboration with Wyatt, 65, a unique object of admiration who cuts across tastes, generations and categories (just ask Radiohead’s Thom Yorke ), is something of a step up and a certificate of honor that further cements Atzmon’s status in the British music industry.

Wyatt is the hippie enfant terrible who became a white-bearded guru, a kind of secret national treasure, a genuine survivor who is almost unclassifiable. A drummer in Soft Machine (from which he was thrown out – to this day he maintains “there is nothing worse in life than humiliation” ) and in Matching Mole, he was reborn as a singer-songwriter after falling out of that London window during a drinking binge that lurched out of control. (Pink Floyd immediately rallied to the cause and organized a benefit concert for him. ) The fall left him in a wheelchair for life.

Few musicians have done all he has done – psychedelic, punk, post-punk, avant-garde, fusion and now “clean” jazz with his own twists.

Wyatt is married to Alfreda (Alfie ) Benge, who came to England from Poland as a childhood war refugee. She does the artwork for his album covers, once wrote a searing song about his alcoholism (he has since kicked the habit, or maybe not ) and calls him an “overgrown baby,” while he calls her “the dark side of my moon.” He records his albums, which are like nothing else and are always received as an “event,” in a studio in his home. He has a distinctive tremulous voice (a kind of trademark ), which the composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto called “the saddest sound in the world.” Wyatt has survived periods of bottomless, suicidal depression, and for entire decades avoided performing live. (“I think it’s stage fright,” Atzmon says. )

In an interview with the Guardian in June 2009, Wyatt selected Atzmon as the “greatest living artist” and noted that he was “born in Israel, which I prefer to call occupied Palestine.” Atzmon, for his part, says Wyatt is “a genius of the kind that Kant described so well – a genius who seemingly has no part in his own genius, who creates beauty as though ex nihilo. Everything he touches sounds new and completely different and utterly his own. He is totally transparent and through him you see the light.”

Gilad Atzmon writes:

Netanyahu, Barak and many other Israelis are often ‘outraged’ by FM Lieberman. I guess that Israelis grasp that their senior diplomat exposes the Israeli ploy: when Israelis talk peace — what they really mean is war with no end. When Israeli government spokesmen insist that Lieberman “misrepresents Israeli Government’s policies” — what they really mean is that he fails to repeat the Israeli official lies. As it stands, Lieberman’s UN speech few days ago, conveys not only Israeli cabinet vision, it is also a devastating glimpse into the Israeli mindset, worldview and spirit. Lieberman is a transparent image of the Israeli desire for racial and cultural homogeneity. Many Israelis claim to detest him and his ideas: but my guess is that they grasp that Lieberman is actually their true mirror. Otto Weininger wrote in “Sex & Character” that people hate in others that which they detest in themselves. Many Israelis ostensibly oppose Lieberman because he reminds them of the bigot whom they can’t stand in themselves. Some people do not like to look in the mirror; others are devastated when the mirror gazes back at them with pity.

Musical genius rarely accepts the confinement of a genre — or even a restrictive definition of music. In “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road,” Robert Wyatt takes a sound that generally remains on the periphery of most people’s consciousness when they hear it, and turns it into a song. It’s a sound probably unfamiliar to many Americans: the sound of a high speed train as it passes into the distance, heard from the platform of a station at which the train didn’t stop. The airborne noise of the engine and carriages are long gone but continue being telegraphed down the tracks in steel-shaped frequencies.

There’s real hope from Haiti and it’s not what you expect

Johann Hari:

In the weeks after a disaster like the Haiti earthquake, journalists always search for an upbeat twist to the tale. You know it by now – the baby found alive after a week under wreckage. But this time, a shaft of light has parted the rubble and the corpses and the unshakeable grief that could last for years. In the middle of the Haitian people’s nightmare, a system that has kept hundreds of millions like them poor and broken might just have shown its first fracture.

To understand what has happened, you have to delve into a long-suppressed history – one you are not supposed to hear. Since the 1970s, we have been told that the gospel of the Free Market has rolled out across the world because the People demand it. We have been informed that free elections will lead ineluctably to people choosing to roll back the state, privatise the essentials of life, and leave the rich to work their magic for us all. We have seen these trends wash across the world because ordinary people believe they offer the best possible system.

There’s just one snag: it’s not true. In reality, this gospel has proved impossible to impose in any democracy. Few politicians have believed in its core tenets more than Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – yet at the end of their long terms, after bitter battles, the proportion of GDP spent by the state remained the same. Why? Because these doctrines are extremely unpopular, and wherever they are tried, they are fiercely resisted. There are majorities in every free country for a mixed economy, where markets are counter-balanced by a strong and active state.

The gospel spread across the poor world because their governments were given no choice. In her masterpiece The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein shows how these policies were forced on the world’s poor against their will. Sometimes rich governments did it simply by killing the elected leaders and installing a servile dictator, as in Chile. Usually the methods were more subtle.

One of the most marked came in the form of “loans” from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The IMF would approach poor countries and offer them desperately needed cash. But from the 1970s on, they would, in return, require the countries to introduce “structural adjustments” to their economy. The medicine was always the same: end all subsidies for the poor, slash state spending on health and education, deregulate your financial sector, throw your markets open.

Here’s a typical example of what happened next. In Malawi, the country’s soil had become badly depleted, so the government decided to subsidise fertiliser for farmers. When the IMF and World Bank came in, they called this “a market distortion”, and ordered Malawi to stop at once. They did. So the country’s crops failed, and famine scythed through the population. Tens of thousands starved to death. The Malawian government eventually listened to the cries of its people, kicked out the IMF, and reintroduced the subsidies – and the famine stopped that year. The country is now an exporter of food again.

When people are living so close to the edge, even small increases in prices can break them. The IMF systematically disregards the fact that every country that has lifted itself out of poverty has done the opposite of its commands. For example, South Korea went from poverty to plenty in just two generations by protecting and heavily subsiding its industries and jacking up state subsidies – to the IMF’s horror.

Even Professor Jeffrey Sachs – one of their former lackeys – calls the IMF “the Typhoid Mary of emerging markets, spreading recessions in country after country”. So why do they carry on like this? Primarily, it is because IMF programmes work very well – for the rich. They ensure that we get access to the cheapest possible labour and can help ourselves to the glistening resources that inexplicably ended up under their soil.

Goodbye Howard Zinn

Goodbye Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and the author of the seminal A People’s History of the United States, died today at the age of 87 of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California. He was in a swimming pool doing laps and was spotted immediately by lifeguards but died instantly.

Zinn’s brand of history put common citizens at the center of the story and inspired generations of young activists and academics to remember that change is possible. As he wrote in his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

Watch these videos to get a sense of what we’ve lost.


Don’t send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me

Homeless Haitians told not to flee to U.S.

America has a message for the millions of Haitians left homeless and destitute by last week’s earthquake: Do not try to come to the United States.

Every day, a United States Air Force cargo plane specially equipped with radio transmitters flies for five hours over the devastated country, broadcasting news and a recorded message from Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador in Washington.

“Listen, don’t rush on boats to leave the country,” Mr. Joseph says in Creole, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon. “If you do that, we’ll all have even worse problems. Because, I’ll be honest with you: If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”

Homeland Security and Defense Department officials say they are taking a hard line to avert a mass exodus from the island that could lead to deaths at sea or a refugee crisis in South Florida. Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is about 700 miles from Miami.

So far, there has been no sign of Haitians trying to flee the island by boat, United States officials say. Nor has there been a mass exodus of Haitians into the neighboring Dominican Republic, except for about 3,000 injured people who are being treated at hospitals just over the Dominican border, officials there say.

But United States officials say they worry that in the coming weeks, worsening conditions in Haiti could spur an exodus. They have not only started a campaign to persuade Haitians to stay put, but they are also laying plans to scoop up any boats carrying illegal immigrants and send them to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Department of Homeland Security officials have also transferred 200 illegal immigrants from the Krome Service Processing Center here — a federal jail for people awaiting deportation — to make room for a possible influx of Haitian migrants.

The State Department has also been denying many seriously injured people in Port-au-Prince visas to be transferred to Miami for surgery and treatment, said Dr. William O’Neill, the dean of the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, which has erected a field hospital near the airport there.

“It’s beyond insane,” Dr. O’Neill said Saturday, having just returned to Miami from Haiti. “It’s bureaucracy at its worse.” [continued…]

Escaping the capital as help is arriving

Wharf Jérémie on this city’s edge was all chaos and destruction on Monday, with upturned shipping containers lying in the sea and pigs foraging on piles of refuse. But for a thousand or more seeking a ride on rickety boats away from the ruined capital, the wharf was a means to something hopeful: escape.

“Our home is destroyed,” said Yanique Verly, 33, who sells vegetables on the street. She waited for a boat to take her and her three children to her home on Haiti’s western coast. “My only hope is to return to my family’s arms.”

Ms. Verly joined thousands of others, as the exodus from the capital accelerated on Monday, by boat, bus, car and truck, in uncertain quest for shelter, fresh water and stability in the countryside. They sought to leave an anarchic city marked by acute shortages of basic goods and aid efforts hampered by bottlenecks and security fears. [continued…]

Why America and China will clash

Why America and China will clash

oogle’s clash with China is about much more than the fate of a single, powerful firm. The company’s decision to pull out of China, unless the government there changes its policies on censorship, is a harbinger of increasingly stormy relations between the US and China.

The reason that the Google case is so significant is because it suggests that the assumptions on which US policy to China have been based since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 could be plain wrong. The US has accepted – even welcomed – China’s emergence as a giant economic power because American policymakers convinced themselves that economic opening would lead to political liberalisation in China.

If that assumption changes, American policy towards China could change with it. Welcoming the rise of a giant Asian economy that is also turning into a liberal democracy is one thing. Sponsoring the rise of a Leninist one-party state, that is America’s only plausible geopolitical rival, is a different proposition. Combine this political disillusionment with double-digit unemployment in the US that is widely blamed on Chinese currency manipulation, and you have the formula for an anti-China backlash. [continued…]

Turkey and Russia move closer to building strategic partnership

Turkey and Russia move closer to building strategic partnership

Turkey and Russia have come closer to building a strategic partnership by agreeing to deepen cooperation in the area of energy and work on a plan to lift visa requirements for their citizens.

The two countries also have ambitious plans to boost their trade volume to $100 billion in the coming years. “Our relations are developing and becoming more diversified in the political, military, economic and cultural spheres. What is exciting for me is that both sides have a positive will,” to further boost ties, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, late on Wednesday.

Erdoğan, who had talks with Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his one-day visit to Moscow, announced that the two countries will start work on abolishing visa requirements for their nationals. [continued…]

After the earthquake, how to rebuild Haiti from scratch

After the earthquake, how to rebuild Haiti from scratch

President Obama has declared that the United States will not forsake Haiti in its moment of agony. Honoring this commitment would be a first for Washington.

To prevent a deepening spiral of death, the United States will have to do things differently than in the past. American relief and development institutions do not function properly, and to believe otherwise would be to condemn Haiti’s poor and dying to our own mythology.

In Haiti, we are facing not only a horrific natural disaster but the tectonics of nature, poverty and politics. Even before last week’s earthquake, roughly half of the nation’s 10 million inhabitants lived in destitution, in squalid housing built of adobe or masonry without reinforcements, perched precariously on hillsides. The country is still trying to recover from the hurricanes of 2008 as well as longtime social and political traumas. The government’s inability to cope has been obvious, but those of us who have been around Haiti for many years also know about the lofty international promises that follow each disaster — and how ineffectual the response has been each time. [continued…]

Why Haiti matters

… above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do. For decades, America’s leadership has been founded in part on the fact that we do not use our power to subjugate others, we use it to lift them up — whether it was rebuilding our former adversaries after World War II, dropping food and water to the people of Berlin, or helping the people of Bosnia and Kosovo rebuild their lives and their nations.

At no time is that more true than in moments of great peril and human suffering. It is why we have acted to help people combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa, or to recover from a catastrophic tsunami in Asia. When we show not just our power, but also our compassion, the world looks to us with a mixture of awe and admiration. That advances our leadership. That shows the character of our country. And it is why every American can look at this relief effort with the pride of knowing that America is acting on behalf of our common humanity. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When human misery is at its most extreme and acute, is this the time to start singing praise to America?

President Obama is sending the fleet, soldiers, and relief to Haiti because… because that’s what we do: we’re Americans.

Instead, why not because… the Haitians, dirt poor, are nevertheless just like us (even though they’re not Americans)?

Is it possible to offer help without turning the occasion into a demonstration of national sainthood?

Of course there is nothing uniquely American about seeing crude nationalistic PR opportunities riding on tragedy.

Israelis, acutely conscious of the extent to which their national reputation has been shredded in recent years, clearly see in Haiti a stage for demonstrating the depth of compassion that exists in the Jewish state.

If the devastation wrought on southern Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza a year ago and the ongoing merciless siege of Gaza all serve to reinforce an image of Zionist brutality, then sending teams of doctors to Haiti might go some way to counter that impression.

That at least seems to be the thinking behind Haaretz‘s headline story today, “Life amid death: Baby born in Israeli field hospital in Haiti” – a gripping narrative from the intrepid Natasha Mozgovaya.

She starts:

Amid the tragedy and devastation encompassing the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince since Tuesday’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake, a happy event took place Sunday inside the field hospital erected by the Israeli relief delegation in the city. Doctor Shir, who works at Hadassah, delivered the first healthy baby in the Israeli hospital.

The mother told Dr. Shir that she would name her son Israel. “Amid all the death around us,” the doctor said, “it is very symbolic.” He added that childbirth in Haiti doesn’t usually take place in a hospital in the impoverished country, and that this particular woman received the best care from the best doctors.

Oh my! Israeli doctors in an Israeli hospital delivering a baby called Israel! And who would have thought little Israel could do so much good so far away?

Here’s one Haitian who was dumb-founded:

One of the Israeli search and rescue teams on Saturday freed 69-year-old France Gilles from the rubble.

“We told him we were from Israel and he asked if we were mocking him,” one rescuer said.

As for the non-Israeli relief efforts, well, when non-Israelis try and rescue someone the victim doesn’t survive:

Elsewhere, a British team was able to make contact with a woman trapped beneath the debris but was unable to reach her. Before they could dig their way through, a Haitian bulldozer destroyed the remains of the building and the woman was recovered, dead.

Poor woman, that the Israelis couldn’t get there first. When they do, they heroically save lives:

At another site Israelis spoke with a trapped man, seemingly the only survivor after a building collapsed. Following several hours of excavation, rescuers had succeeded in injecting him with fluids, one worker said, and that the team hoped to extricate him within a few more hours.

“We’ve had to drill through a concrete girder, as he is trapped between pipes and planking,” said Liron Shapira, deputy commander of the Israeli delegation. “We have already removed most of the piping and have managed to attach intravenous drips to his torso. As far as we are concerned, as soon as the drips are attached we can proceed smoothly. Now we need to remove the debris from around his legs. Then we should be able to pull him free.”

And might there be a religious dimension in the league table of compassion?

Distress has clearly not bred solidarity and shouts and elbows fly as the needy jostle for food. Three young women from Wisconsin – Susan, Becky and Jamie, volunteers at a Catholic orphanage – are trying to board their flight. “Don’t tell her anything,” one of the girls warns her friend, pointing at me. “She’ll use it to take our place on the flight.” Only after I explain that I have no intention of stealing their seats do they calm down. “We were originally supposed to leave today but because there are no phones or communications we didn’t know if there was a flight, so we came anyway.”

OK, cynicism aside, Israel’s 220-strong relief team is impressive coming from a country of just 7.5 million. Mind you, Iceland, a country that’s bankrupt and has a population of just 320,000 has managed to send a 37-strong search and rescue team. Good on those plucky Icelanders!

Obama confidant’s spine-chilling proposal

Obama confidant’s spine-chilling proposal

Cass Sunstein has long been one of Barack Obama’s closest confidants. Often mentioned as a likely Obama nominee to the Supreme Court, Sunstein is currently Obama’s head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs where, among other things, he is responsible for “overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.” In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-“independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories” about the Government. This would be designed to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists. The paper’s abstract can be read, and the full paper downloaded, here.

Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.” He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” Sunstein’s 2008 paper was flagged by this blogger, and then amplified in an excellent report by Raw Story’s Daniel Tencer. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Glenn Greenwald’s whole analysis is well worth reading but I’ll make a couple of points. If Sunstein gave more attention to where conspiracy theories come from, he’d come at this issue from a completely different direction.

Buried deep in his paper is the following remark:

… we have conjectured that there is a causal link between the prevalence of conspiracy theories and the relative absence of civil liberties and a well-functioning marketplace of ideas, so it is unsurprising that such theories are even more widespread in the Muslim world than in the United States.

But as soon as has he makes this important observation he goes on to imply that the US government can exploit political repression overseas to its advantage. He notes that in the foreign arena “the U.S. enjoys greater freedom of action, in part because domestic U.S. politics will tolerate some actions abroad that it would not tolerate if taken at home.”

What Sunstein fails to do is look at the psychological dynamics in play in situations that provide fertile ground for the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

The US, relative the Middle East, might enjoy the protection of civil liberties and a marketplace of ideas — though I don’t know that anyone could seriously describe the latter as well-functioning — yet the appetite for conspiracy theories here, particularly relating to 9/11, is huge.

This is a reflection of two things:
1. Massive and historically deep-rooted mistrust of government, and
2. The widespread and well-founded belief that the citizens of this country exercise little influence over the workings of government.

Both of these factors (and especially the second one) serve to reinforce a profound sense of the grossly inequitable distribution of political power and a subjective experience in which government appears all-powerful and the individual essentially powerless.

The instinctive response to feelings of powerlessness is to grasp hold of a narrative of agency. Rather than feel that we are living in a world out of control, we prefer to believe that the control we lack is possessed by someone or something else. That might be a supposedly benign entity such as a loving God, or alternatively a cloaked and dangerous entity: the US government, a global Zionist conspiracy, aliens… you name it.

The psychological comfort that a belief in malevolent agency provides, is that it tells us we are not truly impotent but we have been deprived of the opportunity to exert our natural power. We are imprisoned but we can still rattle the bars.

Circling back to the problem that Sunstein wants to address, a real solution would not involve any of his preferred Orwellian machinations.

If the US government wants to challenge dangerous conspiracy theories it needs to pursue two far-reaching political goals:

1. Make government more trustworthy.
2. Turn “government of the people, by the people, for the people” into a reality.

For as long as neither of these goals have effectively been accomplished, conspiracy theories will remain popular. They should be seen for what they are: a symptom of an underlying socio-political disease; not the disease itself. People who think like Sunstein are part of the problem; not the solution.

Obama pledges aid to Haiti

Obama pledges aid to Haiti

President Obama on Thursday promised $100 million along with more American troops for the relief effort in Haiti, vowing that the United States would stand with the impoverished nation as it grappled with the devastation of its capital city.

The Pentagon sent 125 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C., and said that by the end of the week their number would grow to 3,000. Military officials said their primary mission would be to provide security as aid began to arrive.

Those Army troops will be supplemented in the coming days by 2,000 Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., who are scheduled to arrive in Haiti by Monday. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — How much is $100 million?

As much as the US Department of Defense spends in one hour, each hour, 24/7, 365 days a year. (In this case the DoD is of course making a major effort to help the people of Haiti so the US contribution will be more than $100 million.)

But since the United States is expected to spend over $880 billion on defense in 2010, it’s worth asking: Forgetting about the humanitarian imperative, which makes a more significant contribution to the US national security? A $100 million spent on relief work in Haiti or $100 million spent on the war in Afghanistan? (Before Obama announced his surge plan, the war was estimated to be costing $133 million a day.)

Haiti, the devil and Pat Robertson

Haiti, the devil and Pat Robertson

Pat Robertson is at it again. The purported Christian minister who suggested assassinating Venezuela leader Hugo Chavez and nuking the U.S. State Department, the reputed follower of Jesus who blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina on pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, is now attributing the Haitian earthquake to Haiti’s “pact to the devil.”

“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about,” Robertson said Tuesday on his 700 Club show. “They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.’ True story. And so the devil said, ‘Ok it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Stripped to their psychological core, there are two responses that animate life: attraction and recoil. The interplay of these two movements operates in one of its most complex ways when we witness the suffering of others. Do we empathize and through our imagination enter into that suffering, or do we move with the core and instinctive reflex which is to step away? Inevitably and in infinitely varying degrees we do both.

Pat Robertson, with his warm and fuzzy, how tragic — but those Haitians had it coming, offers a salve to the selfish response by suggesting that this disaster is an act of divine retribution. In so doing he creates a space for sympathy with no empathy. White suburban evangelical Americans can be charitable but sleep soundly knowing that since they have not made a pact with the devil, they should have no fear that they might suffer like the Haitians.

Meanwhile, for those of us who see neither the divine nor the demonic at work in nature, we have another reminder that since misery is never far away our only hope will be found in mutual aid.

How you can help.

World races against time to aid Haiti

resident Barack Obama says “one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history” is moving toward Haiti. Some U.S. resources already are on the ground providing water and medicine, search and rescue efforts and airlifts of the injured.

Speaking to reporters Thursday at the White House, Obama said the U.S. government is making an initial investment of $100 million for the earthquake relief effort in Haiti. He said the amount would grow over the year.

He said it will take hours “maybe days” to get the full U.S. relief contingent on the ground, because of the damaged roads, airport, port and communications. He acknowledged that “none of this will seem quick enough” to the many suffering. [continued…]

The other plot to wreck America

The other plot to wreck America

There may not be a person in America without a strong opinion about what coulda, shoulda been done to prevent the underwear bomber from boarding that Christmas flight to Detroit. In the years since 9/11, we’ve all become counterterrorists. But in the 16 months since that other calamity in downtown New York — the crash precipitated by the 9/15 failure of Lehman Brothers — most of us are still ignorant about what Warren Buffett called the “financial weapons of mass destruction” that wrecked our economy. Fluent as we are in Al Qaeda and body scanners, when it comes to synthetic C.D.O.’s and credit-default swaps, not so much.

What we don’t know will hurt us, and quite possibly on a more devastating scale than any Qaeda attack. Americans must be told the full story of how Wall Street gamed and inflated the housing bubble, made out like bandits, and then left millions of households in ruin. Without that reckoning, there will be no public clamor for serious reform of a financial system that was as cunningly breached as airline security at the Amsterdam airport. And without reform, another massive attack on our economic security is guaranteed. Now that it can count on government bailouts, Wall Street has more incentive than ever to pump up its risks — secure that it can keep the bonanzas while we get stuck with the losses. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — It’s always struck me as odd that the expression “parasite on society” is so often applied to society’s least fortunate members. On the contrary, it is those who like bloated ticks engorge themselves at the host’s expense who are surely the real parasites.

Frank Rich picks the right metaphor, yet at this time America’s nemeses far from being hunted down by the US government have instead repeatedly been provided with a safe haven.

Should we make any distinction between those who harmed us and those who now give them protection? Indeed we should because it is the banking bandits who should be brought to justice. Indiscriminate rage against government simply helps the culprits stay in hiding.

Still, there is one caveat I would add before getting completely carried away with this populist vent: the greed on Wall Street is not an aberration — it simply represents one of the most extreme expressions of American values.

The titans now reviled were until quite recently revered as models of American success, for in society at large we still too often measure success by the outcome — how much gets accrued — rather than the path that led there. We value rewards above accomplishments.

Wall Street couldn’t wreck America if America didn’t have a propensity to wreck itself.

For the West, ‘Game over’ in Central Asia

For the West, ‘Game over’ in Central Asia

Last month, the West officially lost the new “Great Game.” The 20-year competition for natural resources and influence in Central Asia between the United States (supported by the European Union), Russia and China has, for now, come to an end, with the outcome in favor of the latter two. Western defeat was already becoming clear with the slow progress of the Nabucco pipeline and the strategic reorientation of some Central Asian republics toward Russia and China. Two recent events, however, confirmed it.

On Dec. 14, Chinese President Hu Jintao and the heads of state of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan personally opened the valve of a new gas pipeline transporting Turkmen natural gas from the state-of-the-art processing facility of Samandepe to the city of Khorgoz, in China’s western province of Xinjiang. The pipeline, developed by the Chinese state-owned energy giant, CNPC, has a capacity of 40 billion cubic meters and traverses almost 1,250 miles through four countries.

Earlier in the month, on Dec. 3, the venture had received the blessings of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who declared that Moscow was comfortable with the idea of Turkmen gas flowing eastwards to China. Putin’s words further underscored ongoing Sino-Russian energy cooperation, which has made significant advances and is shaping the new political economy of energy in Central Asia and elsewhere. In an accord signed on Oct. 13, the two countries set the basis for a long-term partnership based on joint explorations in Russia and third countries, as well as cheap loans from Chinese banks to the Russian energy sector, even if complex pricing issues remain unresolved. [continued…]

What doesn’t work in America

What doesn’t work in America

Lately, I’ve been studying the climate-change induced melting of glaciers in the Greater Himalaya. Understanding the cascading effects of the slow-motion downsizing of one of the planet’s most magnificent landforms has, to put it politely, left me dispirited. Spending time considering the deleterious downstream effects on the two billion people (from the North China Plain to Afghanistan) who depend on the river systems — the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya and Tarim — that arise in these mountains isn’t much of an antidote to malaise either.

If you focus on those Himalayan highlands, a deep sense of loss creeps over you — the kind that comes from contemplating the possible end of something once imagined as immovable, immutable, eternal, something that has unexpectedly become vulnerable and perishable as it has slipped into irreversible decline. Those magnificent glaciers, known as the Third Pole because they contain the most ice in the world short of the two polar regions, are now wasting away on an overheated planet and no one knows what to do about it.

To stand next to one of those leviathans of ice, those Moby Dicks of the mountains, is to feel in the most poignant form the magnificence of the creator’s work. It’s also to regain an ancient sense, largely lost to us, of our relative smallness on this planet and to be forcibly reminded that we have passed a tipping point. The days when the natural world was demonstrably ascendant over even the quite modest collective strength of humankind are over. The power — largely to set an agenda of destruction — has irrevocably shifted from nature to us.

Another tipping point has also been on my mind lately and it’s left me no less melancholy. In this case, the Moby Dick in question is my own country, the United States of America. We Americans, too, seem to have passed a tipping point. Like the glaciers of the high Himalaya, long familiar aspects of our nation are beginning to feel as if they were, in a sense, melting away. [continued…]

The happiest people

The happiest people

Hmmm. You think it’s a coincidence? Costa Rica is one of the very few countries to have abolished its army, and it’s also arguably the happiest nation on earth.

There are several ways of measuring happiness in countries, all inexact, but this pearl of Central America does stunningly well by whatever system is used. For example, the World Database of Happiness, compiled by a Dutch sociologist on the basis of answers to surveys by Gallup and others, lists Costa Rica in the top spot out of 148 nations.

That’s because Costa Ricans, asked to rate their own happiness on a 10-point scale, average 8.5. Denmark is next at 8.3, the United States ranks 20th at 7.4 and Togo and Tanzania bring up the caboose at 2.6. [continued…]

America is losing the free world

America is losing the free world

Ever since 1945, the US has regarded itself as the leader of the “free world”. But the Obama administration is facing an unexpected and unwelcome development in global politics. Four of the biggest and most strategically important democracies in the developing world – Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey – are increasingly at odds with American foreign policy. Rather than siding with the US on the big international issues, they are just as likely to line up with authoritarian powers such as China and Iran.

The US has been slow to pick up on this development, perhaps because it seems so surprising and unnatural. Most Americans assume that fellow democracies will share their values and opinions on international affairs. During the last presidential election campaign, John McCain, the Republican candidate, called for the formation of a global alliance of democracies to push back against authoritarian powers. Some of President Barack Obama’s senior advisers have also written enthusiastically about an international league of democracies.

But the assumption that the world’s democracies will naturally stick together is proving unfounded. The latest example came during the Copenhagen climate summit. On the last day of the talks, the Americans tried to fix up one-to-one meetings between Mr Obama and the leaders of South Africa, Brazil and India – but failed each time. The Indians even said that their prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had already left for the airport. [continued…]

Wade Davis on endangered cultures

Wade Davis on endangered cultures

You know, one of the intense pleasures of travel and one of the delights of ethnographic research is the opportunity to live amongst those who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that Jaguar shamans still journey beyond the Milky Way, or the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, or that in the Himalaya, the Buddhists still pursue the breath of the Dharma, is to really remember the central revelation of anthropology, and that is the idea that the world in which we live in does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of adaptive choices that our lineage made, albeit successfully, many generations ago.

And of course, we all share the same adaptive imperatives. We’re all born. We all bring our children into the world. We go through initiation rites. We have to deal with the inexorable separation of death, so it shouldn’t surprise us that we all sing, we all dance, we all have art.

But what’s interesting is the unique cadence of the song, the rhythm of the dance in every culture. And whether it is the Penan in the forests of Borneo, or the Voodoo acolytes in Haiti, or the warriors in the Kaisut desert of Northern Kenya, the Curandero in the mountains of the Andes, or a caravanserai in the middle of the Sahara. This is incidentally the fellow that I travelled into the desert with a month ago, or indeed a yak herder in the slopes of Qomolangma, Everest, the goddess mother of the world.

All of these peoples teach us that there are other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in the Earth. And this is an idea, if you think about it, can only fill you with hope. Now, together the myriad cultures of the world make up a web of spiritual life and cultural life that envelops the planet, and is as important to the well-being of the planet as indeed is the biological web of life that you know as a biosphere. And you might think of this cultural web of life as being an ethnosphere and you might define the ethnosphere as being the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s great legacy. It’s the symbol of all that we are and all that we can be as an astonishingly inquisitive species.

The role of place in the world

The role of place in the world

In recent years, the notion that the world, if not flat, is rapidly flattening as a result of the forces of globalization has gained currency to the point of becoming a platitude. So mobile, so interconnected, so integrated is this new world that historic barriers are no more, interaction is global, ever-freer trade rules the globe, the flow of ideas (and money and jobs) accelerates by the day, and choice, not constraint, is the canon of the converted. Join the “forces of flattening” and you will reap the benefits, say Thomas Friedman and others who advance this point of view. Don’t, and you will fall off the edge. The option is yours.

But is it? In truth, though the world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, we are still parachuted into places so different that the common ground of globalization has just the thinnest of topsoil. One of some 7,000 languages will become our “mother tongue”; only a small minority of us will have the good fortune of being raised in a version of English, the primary language of globalization. One of tens of thousands of religious denominations is likely to transmit the indoctrination most of us will carry for life. A combination of genetic and environmental conditions defines health prospects that still vary widely around the planet. [continued…]