Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Darfur, Politics and The War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

On July 14, 2008, after much advance publicity and fanfare, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) applied for a warrant for the arrest of the president of Sudan, Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, on charges that included conspiracy to commit genocide along with other war crimes. The application charges al-Bashir with (a) racially polarizing Darfur into "Arab" and "Zurga" or "Black", (b) turning the 2003-5 counterinsurgency into a pretext to expel "Zurga" ethnic groups from their dars (homelands), and (c) subjecting survivors to "slow death" from malnutrition, rape and torture in their IDP (internally displaced persons) camps.

None of these allegations can bear historical scrutiny...

In the prosecutors mono-causal and one-dimensional version of history, colonialism turns into a benign "tradition" and any attempt to reform the colonial legacy of tribal homelands is seen as a dress rehearsal building up to genocide, just as any part of the historical record that suggests that the violence in Darfur has multiple causes (the 1987-89 inter-tribal civil war, the environmental crisis, the Chadian civil war, and the "war crimes" attributed to rebel groups by the UN Commission on Darfur) and thus multiple responsibilities, is expunged from the record. Having assumed a single cause of excess deaths in Darfur- violence- the application goes on to ascribe responsibility to a single source: "what happened in Darfur is a consequence of Bashir's will." This is demonization masquerading as justice.

The kernel of truth in the prosecutor's application concerns the period of 2003-4, when Darfur was the site of mass deaths. There is no doubt that the perpetrators of this violence should be held accountable, but when and how is a political decision that cannot belong to the ICC prosecutor. More than the innocence or guilt of the president of Sudan, it is the relationship between law and politics- including the politicalization of the ICC- that poses a wider issue, one of greatest concern to African governments and peoples...

The year 2003 saw the unfolding of two very different armed conflicts. One was in Iraq, and it grew out of war and invasion. The other was in Darfur, Sudan, and it grew in response to an internal insurgency. The former involved a liberation war against a foreign occupation, the latter a civil war in an independent state. True, if you were an Iraqi or a Dafuri, there was little difference between the brutality of the violence unleashed in either instance. Yet much energy has been invested in the question of how to define the brutality in each case: whether as counterinsurgency or as genocide.

Here we see the astonishing spectacle of the United States, which has authored the violence in Iraq, branding an adversary state, Sudan, which has authored the violence in Darfur, as the perpetrator of genocide. Even more astonishing, we have a citizens' movement in America calling for a humanitarian intervention in Darfur while keeping mum about the violence in Iraq. And yet, as we have already seen, the figures for the total numbers of excess deaths are far higher for Iraq than for Darfur. The numbers of violent deaths as a proportion of excess mortality are also higher in Iraq than in Darfur.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Wind of Death by David Killingray

During the space of a few months in 1918 and early 1919, when large areas of the world were involved in the greatest war ever fought, virulent influenza struck. No continent was spared the silent and frightening arrival of the disease which left in its wake not only the dead, widowed, and orphaned, but often economic dislocation and famine. The global death toll has been variously estimated but may have been more than 50 million people.

The flu pandemic of 1918-19 was the single largest demographic disaster of the twentieth century, and, almost certainly the single greatest short-term demographic catastrophe in Africa’s history’. Whatever its origin the disease spread with great rapidity around the world along the conduits of war and commerce.

Most victims did not die of the infection itself but from pneumonic complications that accompanied the disease. The incubation period was between 48-60 hours and victims suffered cynosure, coughed blood, and in fatal cases often died by drowning from an accumulation of fluid in their lungs. In some cases death was sudden with apparently healthy people succumbing to the disease. More mystifying was the universally high death rate among younger men aged 15-40 years, the population group usually deemed to be the fittest and most strong and thus best able to resist the infection.

The pandemic was characterized by a ‘W’ shaped mortality curve: deaths being highest among the predictable victims, very small children and the very old, but also among younger men, and to a lesser extent women in the same age group, especially those who were pregnant. A possible reason for this is that in confronting the infection, the more robust natural resistance system of younger and stronger people went into overdrive and simply collapsed leaving them vulnerable.

The various measures taken to prevent, arrest and cure the disease were of little avail. Inoculation was at best ineffective, at worst lethal. Masks worn widely in hospitals and public places appear, from recent research, to have had some efficacy. Probably the best treatment for an infected patient was go to bed, take regular doses of aspirin, and be properly nursed*, a degree of care available only to a very small number of victims.

In East Africa and neighboring parts of central Africa, African populations suffered from the disruptions of war with harsh labor demands, loss of cattle, famine, human and cattle disease, all of which left them weakened to the ravages of influenza. Influenza was democratic, killing rich and poor, black and white alike but hitting hardest the poor and malnourished and those who lived crammed into insanitary slums and crowded housing that were vulnerable to infection. High mortality occurred in the confined mine compounds of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia.

Thus to the already 100,000 or more deaths as a result of war (mostly carriers), need to be added a further150,000-190,000 (5.5 percent of the population) deaths from influenza, totaling more than a quarter of a million deaths in a period of just over four years. A recent tentative estimate of flu mortality in sub-Saharan Africa by Johnson and Mueller suggests a total figure of 2.375 million dead in the space of few months. But all such figures are tentative and the truth is that the total death toll in Africa during the influenza pandemic can never be accurately computed. What is certain is that the pandemic brought a crisis of mortality to Africa.

*see comment

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Myth of the Oil Crisis by Robin M. Mills

In recent years, it has become the mantra among peak oil believers, the media, and even many industry professionals that "the age of easy oil is over". As William J Cummings, Exxon Mobil's spokesperson in Angola, said, "All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas".

This contention does not stand up to investigation. There has never been an age of easy oil, beginning with Colonel Drake's first well in Titusville, Pennsylvania (1859).

William Knox D'Arcy's 1908 discovery at Masjed-e Suleiman in Iran, the first find of oil in the Middle East, was a formidably difficult endeavor:

' At seven in the morning, the temperature was 110 degrees in the shade...and already five of the small band of Europeans, together with a Baghdad mechanic, ha been touched by the sun and one of them was dying. For the last six days grasshoppers swarmed across the country like locusts and devoured every trace of green pasture. The river was full of them and the water stank. Their bodies lay all over the camp and everywhere the men went they trod through a squelching mass of dead insects. Every half-hour they skimmed them from the water tanks. Small pox had broken out at Sekhuan, where they got their food and water. Their dwindling stock of firewood for the boiler was constantly being raided and then the boiler itself collapsed, its tubes corroded by the sulphorous waters. Letters from home, always the consolation of the exile, had failed to arrive because the carrier and his camel had died on route- and to cap it all, some idiot had just dropped a 14-lb. sledgehammer down the well.'

'The development of North Sea oil during the 1970's was the greatest technical challenge the industry ever faced. Entirely new technologies, backed by innovative financing, had to be devised to meet the vast cost of developments in this hostile environment. A series of disasters cost many lives: the sinking of the Sea Gem in 1965, with thirteen deaths, having just discovered the first offshore hydrocarbons in the U.K.; three sailors who died during the evacuation of the Hewett platform during the 1967 blowout; the collapse of the Alexander Kjelland rig in 1980, killing 123; and the fire and explosion on the Piper Alpha platform in 1998, in which 67 people died. Easy oil proponents should try telling a driller who worked the North Sea in the 1970's that this was easy oil- but keep a safe distance."

'The Soviet exploitation of the West Siberian oil fields involved the construction of million strong cities in some of the coldest areas of the planet, such as Novosbirsk (January temperature -19C)
The big Russian gas fields, brought on stream in the 1970's and 1980's, lie north of the limit of continuous permafrost, in which there are only two months per year when rivers are not frozen (and during those months, the area floods to a depth of 1.5-2 meters, a treeless region swept continuously by gale-force winds. Concrete had to be made with steam to prevent it from freezing."

Those who talk about easy oil lack a sense of perspective, because one's own problems tend to loom larger than others, particularly in the past. Alternatively, and in a more Machiavellian way, the industry likes the idea of the end of easy oil because in emphasizes the challenges they face. It also appeals to environmentalists because it promises an end to this nasty black stuff. However, although convenient, the idea of easy oil or an end to it is incorrect.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Big Necessity by Rose George

'Japan makes the most advanced, remarkable toilets in the world. Japanese toilets can, variously, check your blood pressure, play music, wash and dry your anus and "front parts" by means of an in-toilet nozzle that sprays water and warm air, suck smelly ions from the air, switch on a light for you as you stumble into the bathroom at night, put the seat lid down for you ( a function known as the "marriage-saver"), and flush away your excreta without requiring anything so old-fashioned as a tank. These devices are known as high-function toilets, but even the lowliest high-function toilet will have as standard an in-built bidet system, a heated seat and some form of nifty control panel... This is the Washlet experience (usually translated as Washeretto).

Ryosuke Hayashi is Chief Senior Engineer and Manager of the Restroom Product Development Department at TOTO, one on the most successful toilet manufacturing corporations in Japan. 'Rick' is an important man. Of the 1,500 patents that TOTO has filed in Japan ( and 600 internationally), the Restroom Department is responsible for half and he finds my interest in Washlet quaint. It's been around since 1980, after all, when TOTO revamped the Wash Air Seat and launched the Washlet G ( for 'gorgeous') series. He'd rather talk about the Neorest, Toto's top-of-the line toilet and, in his engineering eyes, an infinitely superior combination of plumbing and computing.. retailing in Japan for $1,700, and in the United States for $5,000.

I persist in asking about the genesis of the Washlet and how it changed Japan and Rick finally humors me.

The original Wash Air Seat operated mechanically. It took several minutes for the spray to spray and the water to heat. TOTO solved this problem by making the workings electronically operated, the spray instant and the angle perfect. The Washlet nozzle extends and retracts at exactly 43 degrees, a position precisely calibrated to prevent any cleansing water from falling back on the nozzle after doing its job (this is known as 'backwash'). Determining the angle was a long, careful process, says Rick. I ask him how the research was done. He says, "Well we have 20,000 employees" and stops. I wait for enlightenment.

His assistant Asuka hands me a comic book by way of an answer. It is a 48-page TOTO history published by Weekly Sankei magazine in 1985.

The nozzle has to be accurate, and to make it so they needed to know the average location of the human anus. Facts like this are not easy to find, so they turned to the only source material available, which was anybody on the company payroll. Their workmates weren't impressed. "Though we are colleagues", one said with politeness, " I don't want you to know my anus position."

The engineers prevailed by performing the dogeza, the exceedingly respectful bow that requires someone to be almost prostrate. It is the kind of bow, a translator tells me, "that a peasant would do to a passing samurai if he wanted the samurai not to kill him- an exceedingly shocking thing to do in the context of toilets. Yet it worked...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Dynamite Club by John Merriman

At precisely 4 a.m., the silence on the square was broken by the sound of the interior gate opening beyond the prison door, followed by the roll of drums and the rifles of the soldiers snapping into position. Deibler led Emile, his chest largely uncovered, toward the guillotine. With his hands folded in front of his stomach, he was being pulled more rapidly than his shackled legs could move. In the first light of the new dawn he could see spectators perched on the roofs and a photographer pointing his camera in the direction of the apparatus. He saw the mounted calvary of the Republican Guard, and the gendarmes, with sabers drawn, in a semi-circle.

Someone said, "poor lad! You wouldn't think him more than fifteen years old". Another witness remembered how incredibly calm his face looked. Conversations stopped and hats came off, as if a religious service were about to begin. The chaplain was two steps behind Emile, with nothing to do. Emile looked quickly right and left, as if looking for someone he knew in the crowd.

He had been contemplating his final moments for three weeks and wanted to project a noble image. Twenty steps from the guillotine, his face became paler. After a few more steps, he stopped and shouted what everyone expected to hear: "Courage, comrades! Long live anarchy!"

As he reached the scaffold, he repeated, "Long live anarchy!" Deibler's aides then grabbed him, pushed him brutally against the plank so that he lay flat, and shoved his head through the little window, which resembled the porthole of a ship.

Twenty seconds later, the dull sound of the guillotine reaching the end of its rapid descent could be heard. Emile's head fell to the ground and was quickly tossed into the awaiting basket just as casually as one would throw a large wad of paper into a small bin. An almost inaudible gasp of horror rippled through the crowd; some people turned rapidly on their heels and moved rapidly away. Two assistants pushed the body into a waiting box and then carried it quickly to the executioner's wagon.

The politician and journalist Georges Clemenceau left place de la Roquette horrified by the "crude vengeance" of French society that he had just witnessed. Emile's terribly pale face disturbed him: he saw the young man as a tormented Christ, "trying to impose his intellectual pride upon his child's body..let those for the death penalty go, if they dare, to smell the blood of La Roquette. We'll talk about it after"

Paris, 1894

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

'One would with difficulty discover which is worse: a successful or a failed C.I.A. mission'.

But all the missions dealt with in this novel are stupendous failures and only Bobby Kennedy * and a couple of KGB higher-ups attract any sympathy.

The book is perhaps the Moby Dick of Mailer's generation in terms of structure and bedrock themes: the question of salvation, whether by faith, works or grace-although the latter is now more like sheer luck than the old notion of providence. The C.I.A. is like the whale, an anomaly of nature representing the abundance and freedom of the American scene, pursued by people cut off from their roots and afflicted by various obsessions which have their usual random, self-delusionary flavor.

Realism rules, probably at the expense of literary excellence though the fact that the whole novel is delivered in dialogue is no mean achievement. Some chapters, like 33 in the final part, reflect truly superior craftsmanship and artistry. It is an honest book for, about and by Americans. The author's neutrality is exceedingly mature.

" Whom? Whom does all this benefit?" ( Vladimir Lenin) are the final words.

*Bobby quotes Aeschylus, from Agamemnon: "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God"

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lenigrad; State of Siege by Michael Jones

One theatre in Leningrad had stayed open that winter (1941)- the Musical Comedy Theatre. Georgi Maximov, the theatre's director, had noticed something interesting about siege psychology: 'In the first months of the war our attendances dropped sharply. But after 8 September, when the city was surrounded, they rose again, and continued to rise despite the shelling and bombing.'

'The theatre became an island of joy in a sea of grief', actress Evgenia Mezheritskaya said. 'The front of the building might look like a military base, for the square was filled with camouflaged lorries, armored cars and even light tanks. But inside, soldiers and civilians could, however briefly, forget about their worries.

Sometimes there were seven or eight air-raid alerts during a performance. The audience would be led to the bomb shelter under the nearby Philharmonic Hall while the actors went to their posts, still in their costumes, to watch out for incendiaries. From 20 November these actors, who toured the front during the day as well as giving performances every evening, only received the minimum bread ration of 125 grams. They grew weaker and weaker. 'Every day things were getting worse and worse', actor Nikolai Rudashevsky recalled, 'by December many of us were finding it hard even to walk to the theatre'.

Yuri Panteleyev remembered appearing before the marines of the Baltic fleet. 'We had almost finished the show when one of the sailors reported that the Nazis were about to shell the area. It was decided to continue nonetheless, so we speeded things up, the singing became very loud and the men in the hall were roaring with excitement. The spontaneous applause and cries of "Bravo!" drowned the noise of the bombardment. Threatened with death, the audience came totally alive. That evening we truly understood the power of performing to others'.

Tamara Salnikova recalled a performance of "The Three Musketeers" given on 7 December:

' It had been snowing all day. I was walking to the theatre but was finding it really difficult to keep going- it was bitterly cold, and I was already dizzy from starvation. As I crossed the Kirov Bridge artillery shelling started. I tried to take cover, along with several other women, and we rushed to the snow mounds on either side of the bridge, and flung ourselves face downward. But suddenly, one of the women cried out and then began to crawl, leaving a trail of blood behind her. The shelling was still going on, but I followed her, and tried to haul her away from the bridge. Fortunately, at the Field of Mars, a militia unit appeared and they carried her off to the hospital'

Exhausted by this Salnikova eventually managed to reach the theatre, bloody and bedraggled:

' I went to the dressing room. The temperature inside was well below zero. I changed into my costume, and as there was a little electricity running I tried to melt my frozen make-up container on a small lamp. Then the hairdresser got to work and I did my vocal exercises. Unfortunately, my character was supposed to appear for the first act in a low-cut blouse...!'

She made it through to the interval, which offered her something of a reprieve, for in the second act- mercifully- she had a warmer outfit. Suddenly, she heard agitated voices in the corridor outside:

'I looked out, to see that one of our best actors- Sasha Abramov- had collaped. He had been standing next to the hot-water tank, trying to warm himself up, and drinking a little tea. His cup lay shattered beside him. Sasha died during intermission. At that time, thousands were dying of starvation, but the loss of my colleague, still in his musketeer's costume, left me absolutely stunned. The stage director spoke to us, and tried to rally us. He told us that we needed to go on- for the audience's sake- but I felt lost in a fog of disbelief"

Someone helped Salnikova change and got her out onto the stage, but as the curtain lifted she stayed rooted on the spot, unable to utter a sound:

' I was supposed to sing and dance- but nothing happened. I couldn't find my voice and my feet simply refused to move. Then as I looked out at the full audience, waiting expectantly, I recalled the exhortation of our stage director" "It is the duty of us- artists- to continue". The power of his words awoke something in me, and somehow, my duet happened after all.'

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bloody Monday

'Through the haze, steeped in memories that roil with anger I see the images of 12 July, 1993, when both outrage and need to forgive battle to control my emotions, when friends died brutally at the hands of Somalis, and when many more Somalis died murderously at the hands of American forces. These impressions surround one moment- 17 critical minutes, precisely- that would prove the turning point in Somalia. It was a case in which bloodshed compounded bloodshed, a monumental example of vengeful rage exacted without accountability. This moment inflicted murder in the service, unbelievably, of a sad oxymoron: peace enforcement.

For the Somalis, this act meant war. There was no more middle ground upon which to make peace. The American-led UN mission was proved to be irredeemable. Peaceniks thereafter took up the gun. Somalis have come to call this catastrophic moment Bloody Monday.

But no lessons are likely to be learned, because those responsible for launching the attack- for causing this massacre- insisted that there was no reason for remorse. They believed that their attack was just.'

-Scott Peterson-

American Technicians of Pain

'Nobody had ever spoken to them like this before. It was all very clear; but at the same time they were stunned. Torture, in the hands of the police officers, had always been a confused affair of kicks, punches, angry swearing, insults that led to more violence, flying fists and a brawl in which none of them knew for certain where it might end.

They flung themselves into it blindly, passionately and even when the desired result was achieved, it left everyone exhausted, covered in blood. Sometimes, in the brutality of the attack, the prisoner died on them, so thwarting the whole object as he took with him the knowledge that they wanted.

They had always gone about it in this chaotic, disorganized manner until now; but here is the AID adviser to help them improve their techniques and their mental preparation...a way not to waste their hatred, no display of emotion. No fear, no arrogance. Method and more method...

El Infiero by Carlos Martinez Moreno (1981)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Voting Democracy Off The Island; Reality TV and The Republican Ethos by Francine Prose

What lends the scene its special poignancy is that Melana knows, as do we, that what has befallen her is not some cruel accident of fate. Rather, she has brought misfortune on herself. In filling out the questionnaire that led her to being selected as the heroine of Average Joe, she indicated that " a good personality" mattered more to her than did appearance. And in doing so, she violated one of the cardinal rules, a basic article of faith, one of the values that this new version of reality pumps out, hour after hour, night after night, into the culture . Had Melana watched more reality-based TV, she would have learned that surface beauty (preferably in concert with a strong manipulative instinct, a cunning ability to play the game , and vast quantities of money) is all that counts. Melana has transgressed...

The most obvious lesson to be drawn from reality TV, the single philosophical pole about which everything else revolves, is that the laws of natural selection are even more brutal, inflexible, and sensible than one might suppose from reading The Origin of the Species. Reality is a Darwinian battlefield on which only the fittest survive, and it is not merely logical but admirable to marshal all our skills and resources to succeed in a struggle that only one person can win.

And in case we lose sight of first principles, the show's (Survivor) motto, which appears in its logo , is "Outwit. Outplay. Outlast."

Observant readers may already have noted that the guiding principles to which I have eluded- flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that signs of altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled common enemy to solidify group loyalty- are the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing and continue to hear from the republican Congress.

But even when the collaboration between the military, the government, and the entertainment industry is not overt, these shows continue to transmit the perpetual , low frequency hum of agitprop. The ethics ( if one can call them that) and the ideals that permeate these programs at once reflect the basest, most mindless and ruthless aspects of the current political zeitgeist

The merciless individualism and bloodthirsty competition turn out to represent the noblest, most heroic aspect of this new reality. The darker more cynical message- the lesson beneath the lesson, so to speak- is that every human being can and will do anything for money.

Pragmatism ( actually the deformed cousin of pragmatism: "the art of the possible') is the main concern, whereas morality is a luxury or worse, an impediment, an albatross. And given the limitlessness of what our fellow human beings will do for cash, considering the folly of acting according to ethical principles, its only logical that everyone lies all the time.

If the truth is a millstone around one's neck, civility is likewise a hobble guaranteed to slow us down. And why should we be polite when rudeness is so amusing, and when we all secretly know that the spectacle of exclusion and humiliation is the highest form of entertainment?

Contestants remind themselves and one another to "follow your heart" to "listen to your heart" as if ( and despite the observable evidence to the contrary) neither the eyes, the brain, nor the genitals deserve to be consulted.

But even if reality TV continues to explore the far frontiers of cruelty and competition, its unecessary for these programs to get much more sadistic or grotesque. They merely need to stay the same, and to last long enough to produce an entire generation that has grown up watching them and may consequently have some trouble distinguishing between reality TV and reality. Because what matters is not what's on television but the ghostly after-image that lingers in our minds and clouds our vision after we turn off the television.

The castaways votes, as we do, but its a democracy that might have been conceived if the spirit of Machiavelli had briefly possessed the mind of Thomas Jefferson ; indeed, the reasons behind the survivors' ballots might puzzle our founding fathers. Because this fun-house version of the electoral process seeks to dismantle civilization rather than improve it ; the goal is neither the common good nor the furthering of life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. It's a parody of democracy, robbed of its heart and soul, a democracy in which everyone always votes, for himself.

- Harpers- March, 2004

Monday, April 13, 2009

"What Intelligence Tests Miss; The Psychology of Rational Thought" by Keith E. Stanovich

Mr. Stanovich is professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. That IQ and SAT exams only indicate a general capacity for rational thought-processing without demonstrating in the least whether those processes are actually being used by the subject is "the hook" upon which the professor hangs a wide-ranging discussion of various cognitive mal-functions.

To put his thesis into the inconsistent mess of 'folk language' (everyday usage) one could simply say : supposedly 'smart' people often do very 'dumb' things.

The author's schemata for rational cognition looks like something akin to the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages. Perhaps Predictably Irrational; The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely gets closer to the earth people actually walk on. Neither are there very many interesting stories in this book with the exception of his examination of the behavior of Wall Street investors which looks cribbed directly from Nassim Taleb's Black Swan. One could boil the whole matter down to an even more concentrated form:

' At seventy I realized that instead of being a lunatic, I was a moron. I read too little and read very slowly, I knew too little about so many things. I picked out this and that which interested me and jumbled them into a bag but that's not the way to make a work of art. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I've always been wrong, eighty-seven percent wrong! Do what you can to save the innocent...stop this Pound influence from spreading to the young!' *

- Ezra Pound-

Sustained rational thinking takes a lot of attention (requires concentration), is slow and interferes with other more pleasant thoughts and actions. But before coming to a conclusion about any important ( and even some seemingly unimportant questions) it is wise to collect a lot of information, seek several different points of view, think of future consequences, weigh the plus and minuses as explicitly as possible, seek the nuances and avoid absolutism. Remember that ambiguous evidence should lead to tentative beliefs; eschew overconfidence, don't waste effort trying to explain chance events and focus more on what you have to gain then what you might lose.

* see comment

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker

This nearly exhaustive account of the slaughter of 120 members of the Francher-Baker immigrant train in the Utah territory on September 11, 1857 was co-authored by the assistant historian and director of the museum of the Church of the Latter-day Saints.

After several days of siege members of the Francher-Baker party- who had been moving through Mormon territory to California- were lured out of their encirclement with promises of free passage and then systematically slaughtered, only 17 children deemed too young to testify coherently against the perpetrators were spared.

Only one man- John D. Lee- was eventually prosecuted, convicted and punished for this crime. He was taken to Mountain Meadows for execution. In his final words Lee said nothing about the fears, the rumors, the mistaken beliefs, the bad timing, the poor communication, the leadership failures, the violent times, the unintended consequences of the Utah War- and the simple bad luck- that led to the massacre. He said nothing about such things as guilt, crime, and redemption- how he and others in the massacre represented human struggle in a large and horrible way... John D. Lee sat erect on his coffin, hands on his head, his chest thrust out. "Don't let them mangle my body," he said to the marshal.

At exactly 11:00 am, five balls tore through Lee and left a skipping patter on the grass behind.

For the most part, the men who committed the atrocity at Mountain Meadows were neither fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people.

' For such crimes against humanity to occur certain social factors must be in place, and often there are three. Most ordinary people readily allow the dictates of the authorities to trump their own moral instincts, one scholar wrote, summarizing a half century of experimental and historical experience. The second [factor] is conformity. Few people have the courage to go against the crowd. The third is the dehumanization of the victims. Ordinarily, there is no conspiracy. "Orders, peer expectations and dehumanization need not be explicit to have a powerful effect. In adversarial settings...subtle clues and omissions- the simple failure of authorities to send frequent, clear and consistent messages about appropriate behavior, for instance- can be as powerful as direct orders.'(Stanley Milgram).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Black Spots on the Map; The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World by Trevor Paglen

This study began at the geography department at U.C. Berkeley in the basement of McCone Hall where the earth science library collection makes available the aerial images of the United States Geological Survey. Originally the author was researching California's prison system which, since the 1980's, had been undergoing the largest expansion in the history of the world. The State had built thirty-three prisons in just a few decades whereas in the previous 132 years they had only built twelve. Soon he expanded his investigation to include the 'next generation' of prisons all over the Southwest.

'As I worked my way through the archive, I noticed that vast swaths of land were missing from the imagery collections. I assumed that my own ineptitude with the archive's antiquated filing system was to blame. I expanded my search to the entire USGS archive, plugging longitudes and latitudes into a government search engine to retrieve image previews'.

'When I did that I stumbled across a series of images that left me flabbergasted: black plates with stenciled white letters reading simply FRAMES EDITED FROM ORIGINAL NEGATIVE. Someone, somewhere, in some official capacity had deliberately removed these plates from the archives.'

Thus the author discovered the location of all the top-secret U.S. government installations- weapons testing , manufacturing and communications centers, intelligence facilities, bases and satellite launch sites etc.- not only in America but through-out the world. A similar investigation into the 'black holes' of the official budget statements of the U.S. Government- all undertaken in complete disregard of of Section I, Article 9, Clause 7 ('receipts and expenditures') of the Constitution- provided the author with a general outline of our spending on secret defense or 'intelligence' operations. This amounts to approximately $60 billion dollars annually.

Considering what we now know about the occupation of Iraq and the generally preferred direction of appropriations by Congress it is not surprising that nearly 70% of this classified Intelligence spending is outsourced to private industry, at as much as three times the cost using regular government employees.

One of the most interesting parts of Trevor Paglen's book is the coverage he gives to the network of independent professional and amateur astronomers who track the objects the U.S. puts into space most of which are highly classified and often remain that way for years, even decades.

But where there is a will there is a way. Success can be achieved with the simplest instruments and commonly available software. The shape and size of satellites can be determined by their reflective properties or by the non-reflective, anti-spy properties that the government often builds into them, for example.

Variations in the motions of the orbiting material caused by consistent environmental factors-like rays emanating from the sun- tell a lot. Observations can be correlated with known launch dates and information derived from de-classified programs. Rough and sometimes even very accurate estimates of the costs of the governments projects can be inferred. A very elaborate taxonomic system has been established in order to avoid the confusion of the government's system of identifying codes but, at the same time, uses information gleaned from efforts to crack those codes.

Of course a lot of what the government does remains out of the reach of these modern-day Galileos. But they are a determined bunch and very committed to the axioms of experimental science. Their attempts to unravel some of the "mysteries" of the black-op universe sometimes takes years but they persist and cooperate on a world-wide basis.

The Case for Big Government By Jeff Madrick

The case AGAINST big government, the policies that have evolved from and the financialization of commerce and industry that have accompanied growing suspicion of big government in the United States since the 1970's have undermined growth in the standard of living for the majority of its' citizens. 'What history and contemporary examples teach us is that the nation has the capacity to regulate, tax, and invest adequately in public goods without undermining the entrepreneurial capacity and material prosperity of the nation'.

The failure of both political parties, Congress and the presidents to address serious problems in health care, education, housing, infra-structure and the environment during the last four decades has led to a decay of Productivity and growth in the Gross Domestic Product unprecedented in American history. In light of the record its seems exceedingly doubtful that restoration of the credit markets ('the bail-out') as they existed before the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 represents a credible or lasting solution to the current recession since it is primarily designed to underwrite the very markets (finance, insurance and real estate) to which the public good has been sacrificed.

Perhaps the economist Michael Hudson has stated the problem more forcefully:

"You have to realize that what they (the antagonists of 'big government) are trying to do is to roll back the Enlightenment, roll back the moral philosophy and social values of classical political economy and its culmination in Progressive Era legislation, as well as the New Deal institutions. They’re not trying to make the economy more equal, and they’re not trying to share power. Their greed is (as Aristotle noted) infinite. So what you find to be a violation of traditional values is a re-assertion of pre-industrial, feudal values. The economy is being set back on the road to debt peonage. The Road to Serfdom is not government sponsorship of economic progress and rising living standards, it’s the dismantling of government, the dissolution of regulatory agencies, to create a new feudal-type elite."

As noted, a crucial document in the political and economic developments that have brought this country to the brink of depression is Friedrick Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom", published in 1944. For Hayek "the road to serfdom" inadvertently set upon by central planning, with its dismantling of the free market system, ends in the destruction of all individual economic and personal freedom." In the wake of World War II- what with the exposure of the horrible excesses of the Nazis regime and Stalinist totalitarianism- Hayek's libertarian philosophy was widely acclaimed although it did not get much political traction until the elections of Thatcher and Reagan both of whom were great admirers of his work.

Both John Maynard Keynes and George Orwell wrote fairly positive reviews of this book but, interestingly, hedged their praise with clear reservations. Keynes wrote "In my opinion it is a grand book...Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement" but at the end of his letter conceeded 'your greatest danger is the probable practical failure of the application of your philosophy in the United States.'

George Orwell stated: "in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often — at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough — that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of". Yet he also warned, "[A] return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state."

More of this interesting part of the story at

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Edwardian Lady

'An Edwardian lady in full dress was a wonder to behold, and her preparations for viewing were awesome. Silk stockings, carefully smoothed, went on first. Then she would rise in her chemise while her lady's maid fitted the long stays of pink coutil, heavily boned, around her hips, fastening the busk down the front, anchoring the garters to the stockings and tightening the silk lacings. Pads of pink satin would be affixed on the hips and under the arms, to stress the narrow waist. Drawers came next, after which the maid would spread the petticoat in a ring on the floor, and the lady, now wearing high-heeled shoes, would step into it. Buttons would be buttoned, tapes tied; then she would dive into a massive gown of taffeta and tulle and stand rigid while the maid laced up the bodice. Jewels went on last: rubies at the waist, dog collars of rubies and diamonds around the neck, and a tiara on top. As she sailed forth from her boudoir, you'd never have guessed how quickly she could strip for action.'

Assignations depended on circumstances. Vita Sackville West explains in The Edwardians: "The code was rigid. Within the closed circle of their own set, anybody might do as they pleased, but no scandal must leak out to the uninitiated. Appearances must be respected, though morals might be neglected." The King's mistresses had an easy time of it. No one would question a royal command, and few husbands, even in the aristocracy, were prepared to challenge His Majesty's droit di seigneur. Indeed, some women wore, pinned to their blouses, the little watches he gave them, bearing a true lover's knot of mauve enamel ribbon, and, on the back, the crown and the interlaced E.R.VII. 'Of course I don't like it', they would say,' but its a good little timekeeper, and so I wear it.' Actually, HM's watches gained, on the average, about an hour a day."

-William Manchester-

Thursday, April 9, 2009

John Brown

'Through-out the 1840's while trying to establish 'a community plan of cooperative industry' among American wool producers and in his English venture John Brown showed one weakness of his character: he did not know or recognize the subtler twistings of human nature. He judged it ever from his own simple, clear standpoint and so had a sort of prophetic vision of the vaster and eternal aspects of the human soul. But of its kinks and prejudices, its little selfishness and jealousies and dishonesty, he knew nothing. They always came to him as a surprise, un-calculated for and but partially comprehended. He could fight the devil and his angels, and he did, but he could not cope with the million mis-births that hover between heaven and hell.

But the men he brought together for the raid on Harper's Ferry were idealists, dreamers, soldiers and avengers, varying from the silent and thoughtful to the quick and impulsive. They believed in God, in spirits, in fate, in liberty. To them the world was a wild, young unregulated thing, and they were born to set it right. It was a veritable band of crusaders and while it had much weakness and extravagance, it had nothing nasty or unclean...They were not men of culture or great education, nearly all were skeptical of the world's social conventions. John Brown narrowed their dreaming to one intense deed.'

-W.E.B. Du Bois-

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dinner with Wilhelm Lehmbruck

Shortly after the end of World War Two Gunther Grass took a job as a stonemason mostly carving tombstones and restoring the stone facades of public buildings bombed during the war. At one point, however, his boss asked him to carve a copy of a sculpture by Wilhelm Lehmbruck. You know: a forgery (one of three) to be sold on the black market.

He did, though not without some difficulty, especially with the calm yet mobile surface of the torso's back. These had to be reworked, which meant that the stone layer between the shoulder blades had to be evened out, but what had been removed from the surface was gone for good.

Who is enjoying my Lehmbruck today, wondered Grass, the client of an anonymous dealer of yore or, if it has since been resold, a new owner?

' I would give anything to be able to ask Wilhelm Lehmbruck, who took his own life shortly after World War I, to forgive my trespass. I really should use my at times successful method of issuing a "subjunctive" invitation to him, who Lili Krohnert praised as incomparably great, and to the painters Macke and Morgner, who fell in battle at Perthes-les-Hurlus and Langemarck, respectively, to break bread at my imaginary table.

We would fall into a conversation about current events- how enthusiastically we went to war- then only about art. What has happened to it since. How it survives every attempt to ban it, yet once the external restraints are removed has on occasion contracted into a dogma or vanished into the abstract.

We could then laugh at the junk assembled for installations, the fashionable shallowness, the restless videomania, the event-hopping- the beautiful scrap metal, that is, in the overfilled void of the ever contemporary art business.

Then it would be my privilege as host and cook to treat my guests on leave from death to a fine meal: a bouillon of cod heads seasoned with fresh dill, for starters; next, a leg of lamb larded with garlic and sage, lentils simmered in a spicy marjoram sauce; and to top it all off, a fine chevre with walnuts. With brimming glass of aquavit we would toast one another and rail at the world...

After the meal I would surely find an opportunity to thank him, the chance master of my apprenticeship who set the standard by which I learned to fail...'

Peeling the Onion

Of the Difference of Manners by Thomas Hobbes

By manners, I mean not here, decency of behavior; as how one should salute one another, or how a man should wash his mouth, or pick his teeth before company, and such other points of small morals; but those qualities of mankind, that concern their living together in peace and unity. To which end we are to consider that the felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus, utmost arm, nor summun bonum, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose senses and imaginations are at a stand.

Felicity is a continual progress of desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, that the object of man's desire, is not to enjoy once only, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions, and inclinations of all men tend not only to the procuring, but also the assuring of a contented life; and differ in only one way: which ariseth partly from the diversity of passions, in divers men, partly from the difference of knowledge, or the opinion each one has of causes, which produce the effect desired...

Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from the consideration of the effect to seek the cause; and again the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last, that there is some cause whereof there is no former cause, but is eternal; which is it men call God. So that it is impossible to make any profound inquiry into natural causes, without being inclined to believe there is one God eternal; though they cannot have any idea of him in their mind, answerable to his nature. For as a man that is born blind, hearing men talk of warming themselves by a fire, and being brought to warm himself by the same, may easily concieve and assure himself, there is somewhat there, which men call fire, and it is the cause of the heat he feels; but cannot imagine what it is like; nor have an idea of it in his mind such as they have who see it; so also by the visible things in this world and their admirable order, a man may conceive there is a cause of them, which men call God; and yet not have an idea or image of him in his mind.

And they that make little or no inquiry into the natural causes of things, yet from the fear that proceeds from the ignorance itself, of what it is that hath the power to do them much good or harm, are inclined to suppose, and feign themselves, several kinds of powers invisible; and to stand in awe of their own imaginations; and in time of distress to invoke them; as also in the time of expected good success, to give them thanks; making creatures of their own fancy their gods. By which means it hath come to pass, that from the innumerable variety of fancy, men have created in the world innumerable sorts of gods. And this fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion; and in them that worship, or fear that power otherwise than they do, superstition.

And this seed of religion, having been observed by many, some of those that have observed it have been inclined thereby to nourish, dress, and form it into laws; and to add to it of their own invention, any opinion of the causes of future events by which they thought they should be best able to govern others, and make unto themselves the greatest use of their powers.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

'Americans Cannot Stand Criticism'; A Speech By Norman Mailer,

October 29, 2001

Norman Mailer was in top condition Saturday afternoon at the Nieuwe de le Mar theater in Amsterdam. As an extra performance after his show at the Crossing Border Festival, for a room full of invited people, he held a brilliant and completely improvised speech about 'the american ego'. Him entering the room with the use of two walking sticks must of been a shock to many people who have become used to the ultra-masculine image that he has kept up for the past fifty years. Although Mailer is almost eighty years old, his mind is still clear.

He doesn't want to downplay the human tragedy of the thousands that died when the two planes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan, but Mailer will not cry for the disappearance of those towers.

In the aftermath of the events it turned out how much these towers were worshiped by the American people, not as examples of beautiful architecture, but as distinguished pieces of corporate powerplay. The WTC wasn't only an architectural monster because it disturbed the rhythm of Manhattan's skyline, but also as a symbol of lack of respect. It was also a monster for the people that did not work there because it said to those people: 'if you didn't make it up there, boy, you're out of it'. Therefore I am sure that if these towers would have been destroyed without any loss of life, a great number of people would have cheered. Everything that is wrong about America has led this country to the point that it built this Tower of Babel* that would have to be destroyed subsequently.

* (translator's note: I hope this is the right expression)

One shock followed another and another in the days after, and it soon turned out that the impact was so much bigger than all other events- because these disappear to the background very soon in a country that has such a short collective memory as ours. First the Americans saw something which looked like a fifty-million-dollar-movie-scene, those magnificent images of the planes that entered the building. It was as if God and the devil had decided that they could do a better (movie) shot than any of these bastards down below would be capable of. And then came the next shock: we had to realize that those who did this were brilliant (people). It turned out that the ego which we could uphold until the 10th of September was inadequate.

Mailer is without mercy in his analysis of present day America:

America is a country that is built on a tremendously optimistic and riskfy idea of human nature: if you give people enough freedom 'good' will always overcome 'bad'. Many elements of this idea lived on long after World War II, even until today. That was why we became known as a very friendly country, something the country need because it lacks roots characteristic to many other countries.

The rise of technology in the fifties and sixties is partly responsible for the eradication of those roots. Television, with its unrelenting commercial interruption added to this.

Television does not tell you anything about the meaning of events, it disturbs and twists every notion of what could be important. We leave the thinking to what I would call pundits, people that keep babbling to us from TV-screens and know for themselves that there is nothing inside except a deep mediocrity.

The material success of the country together with the lack of roots and historic insight gave rise to a soothing and [ yet?] unpleasant feeling of self-love that made it ever more difficult to talk about a few essential characteristics that were lacking.

We have completely lost our respect for language. A democracy cannot function without accuracy and intensity of language. Take a good bureaucrat like Colin Powell, how can he speak of an attack by cowards? That is an enormous misuse of language. You might call it a monstrous deed, devilish, low-down (?), but how can you say the terrorists were cowards?

Americans cannot get themselves to say that courage is needed for such an act, that those people might well be admired. Your words might be explained in the wrong way. The key issue is Americans are convinced that it were blind, lunatic fanatics that did not know what they were doing. But what if the perpetrators are right and we are wrong? We have lost the ability to rationally analyze the enormity of our enemy's position long ago.*

*(translator's note: I am sorry, but the Dutch text here hardly makes sense so I am afraid the English does not make sense either)

Like the 20th century started in 1914, the 21st century started September 11, 2001. The last century was according to Mailer the worse century in the history of Christianity but the 21st might become worse. The possibility that we in this panic, with all the security measures that are in place, will degenerate into a police state- there are many Americans who would like that idea anyway- is real, when not enough people will keep cool. Chance is that these ideas will flourish, because in the past decades the country has become numb and less alert, more stupid and most of all more spoiled than twenty years ago. All other values became second after money ( translation alt.: Money became the prime value), we became obsessed by it. We have become a country where a strong ego means a mental condition that does not like questions of which the answer takes longer than 10 seconds. That's why we finally have in George W. Bush the president that we deserve.

When somebody from the audience criticizes Mailer for his not so patriotic point of views he shakes his head slowly. The true test for a great country is that it can stand criticism. We do not behave like that because we cannot stand it. There is something more important than 'my country right or wrong' and that is the idea: let us hope we are right and use our best talents to try to show that we are. I never liked the idea that you have to be thankful because this country has given you so much. You do not have to spend the rest of your life on your knees cleaning the dust from your parents' shoes with your tongue because you have so much to thank them for.

To The Reader

I am adding notes to the older Posts in the comments as I go along.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Premiere of the 9th Symphony, Karnthnerther Theatre, Vienna; May 7, 1824

For obvious reasons, Beethoven could not conduct, but he was encouraged to mount the podium with Michael Umlauf and set the tempo for all four movements.

It was his downbeat, therefore, that produced the most revolutionary sound in symphonic history: a long, hovering, almost inaudible bare fifth on A, seemingly static but full of storm.

High over this cloud layer, like reflections of distant lightening, a series of broken fifths dropped pianissimo and very slowly. They repeated themselves, no louder but more often, while the hovering fifth prevented any sense of acceleration. Odd wind instruments joined the general drone on A (was the whole universe tuning up?), then, unexpectedly and quite off the beat, a low bassoon sounded D. At once, still without any crescendo, the sense of space filling the hall gained extra dimension. This was not a symphony in A, but an epic in D.

Now the broken fifths began to proliferate wildly, the drone swelled to a roar, and a huge theme built of all the elements crashed down fortissimo. Beethoven's Ninth was under way, and for the rest of the century, symphonic composers would struggle in vain to write anything that sounded bigger.

Accounts differ as to when, exactly, the following happened: either after the scherzo (with its shock drum solo, throwing the 'flashing' theme off-beat) or after the choral finale (with its climatic double fugue praising Joy and embracing Millions). At whichever moment, while the audience erupted with delight, Beethoven stood with his back to the hall, absorbed in the score before him. One of the soloists, the teenage soprano Caroline Unger, had to take him gently by the sleeve of his coat and turn him around so that he could see the tumult.

Never in my life', Schindler wrote in his conversation book afterward, 'did I hear such frenetic and yet cordial applause'. The symphony was in fact interrupted four times by rapturous demonstrations, until the city police commissioner had to call for order.

Only the imperial box remained silent, for the good reason that it was empty. Ten years before, at the premiere of Der glorreiche Augenblick , Beethoven had been the toast of European royalty. He was now, in perhaps the strangest turn of his career, a hero of the people. The Ninth Symphony's success was extraordinary (a repeat performance had to be scedualed) and not the least because in it Beethoven managed without intellectual condescension to strike the populist note. Connoisseurs could revere its contrapuntal and formal complexities, and details such as the long appoggiatura on C in the theme of the slow movement, poignant almost beyond bearing. But the Millionen felt themselves addressed in the compulsively singable, anthem-like tune of the finale, and the fivefold invocation of 'all humanity' at the end.

Beethoven the artist had discharged his last public work, commissioned by a society and petitioned for by a delegation. He was now free, in the summer of 1824, to do what he had wanted to do ever since undertaking the "Razumovsky" Quartets: devote himself entirely to music's most cerebral medium."[ that is Opus 127,130,131, 132 & 133, the string Quartets 'generally agreed to represent the summit of instrumental music in the West'].

-Edmund Morris-

Deborah in Kenya

Katika real life…
April 5, 2009 by deborachi

In Kiswahili the word Katika means in, on, or at. So, as you can imagine, it is used quite often in conversation. The other students and I like to use it in the phrase "katika real life…" followed by a description of something we’ve done here that we would never do back home in America. Like for example we say…

Katika real life…

…I would never just brush off a handful of ants off an old cookie and eat it as if nothing was wrong.

…I would never describe the color of my poop to a person I met only a few weeks ago.

…I would never get super excited about watching ridiculously cheesy Mexican soap-operas that are badly dubbed in English.

…I would never serve myself peanut butter before receiving bread.

…I would never come back from going to the bathroom in the ocean and in all honestly say, "that was the most pleasant bathroom experience I’ve had in days."

…I would feel scandalous because I’ve exposed my shoulders.

…I would affectionately pet a goat and then drink its blood and guts ten minutes later.

I’m sure you’re wondering about this last one so I’ll tell you more but be prepared to be grossed out.

Just a few days ago we visited a Masai community in Northern Tanzania. The Masai are famous for holding on to their tribal traditions and for making beautiful bead work. They are accustomed to sacrificing a goat or a cow whenever they have visitors and they were kind enough to do this for us.

The ceremony involved starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together and placing the hot wood ashes into a dry ball of cow dung. Then, two men placed the goat over a bed of leaves underneath a sacred tree. One man held the goat’s mouth shut while the other held its leg still. Everyone watched in silence as the goat slowly suffocated to death.

We listened to it moan and watched his struggles to break free become weaker and weaker. After about five minutes the goat was dead. Then, a few men carefully skinned it, cut its breast open, seperated its organs, ate its kidneys raw, and cut its head off. They then placed most of its organs and some meat into a pot of boiling water, roasted large chunks of meat on sticks over the fire, and then made a kind of soup inside of the goat’s breast cavity. The soup consisted of mostly blood, some flesh, and chucks of cooked intestines. They ripped a rib cage off and used it to scoop blood soup and to pass it around for everyone to try. Like almost all the other students I drank a bit of it. It tasted like what you taste when you bite your tongue but a little sweeter and less metallic.

I think when I go home I’m going to be a vegetarian again. And it’s not because watching that goat die and drinking its blood repulsed me and now I can’t stand the idea of willingly choosing to eat an animal. It’s actually because I know none of the animals I’ll eat will have died with as much dignity as that goat did.

The frozen cow I buy at Hannafords or Stop and Shop will not have been pet the last few minutes of its life, nor will it have been placed on a special death bed under the peaceful shade of a sacred tree. If the thought of eating a raw kidney straight out of a freshly killed goat seems barbaric to you, just think about a conveyor belt of cows hung upside-down by their legs and having their throats slashed systematically one-by-one.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Holy Qur'an

Say, even if the ocean were ink

For (writing) the words of my Lord'

The ocean would be exhausted

Before the words of my Lord were exhausted

Even if We were to add another ocean to it.


"Now for fifty drams of ink", explained Rumi, "one can write out the whole Qur'an. This is but a symbol of God's knowledge; it is not the whole of his knowledge. If a druggist put a pinch of medicine in a piece of paper, would you be so foolish as to say that the whole of the drugstore is in this paper? In the time of Moses, Jesus and others, the Qur'an existed; that is God's word existed; it simply wasn't in Arabic.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bases Overseas by George Weller

The American people have been politically bewildered about their foreign policy for fifty years. In war they are alternately drugged about the promise of bloodless and easy victory, then whipped up with official warnings that peace will be expensive and far off...Politically this new American is not only ignorant; he is indifferent. There is the United States, or Home. And there are all the other places...

Unsupplied with statesmen capable of building him an enduring peace consonant with his own sacrifices, the American turns by reductio ad absurdum to an emotional apprehension of war. If you cannot think about the war, can you not at least feel about it? Besides the escapism away from the war there is in the United States a unique escapism into war , into atrocity stories, into magic-weapon stories, into hero stories, into sex-and-war stories, that defeats the political teacher.

Today the fighting man overseas is waiting for the statesman at home to do something. The statesman at home is waiting for the people to suggest for him to do something. The people are waiting for the press and radio to suggest what they should ask the statesman to do. The press and radio are waiting for their foreign correspondents and war reporters overseas to suggest to them what they should suggest to the public. And the reporters and correspondents are unable to analyze, much less suggest political action, because the fighting man (officers and censorship, that is) want one last orgy of home town stories, more mindless and more alike than the slow molasses drippings of four years of sloppy, apolitical, dear-mom war and say that politics is the affair of the statesman back home.


The Little Red Pack

People often ascribe the inability to quit smoking to a weak will. In reality, it is well known that many great men smoked, like Churchill, Mao Zedong etc. The smokers all around us now are also people of outstanding character. They have a great deal of determination and strength. The courage that they show in the face of unforeseen events- a courage that many non-smokers are unable to muster- is unforgettable.

Look at what we know about dictators: Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler all abhorred smoking. Napoleon once instituted a country-wide smoking ban. Dictators are completely opposed to people gratifying their desires. Hitler harbored a rigid, fierce hatred of smoking. The only person he allowed to smoke in his presence was Mussolini.

In the midst of war, however, cigarettes prove their unique worth. They can be the most valuable weapons in the arsenal, as valuable as gold, and more valuable than food. A general who is now an official at the Ministry of Defense wrote in a letter:

"You ask me what we need to win the war. I tell you we need cigarettes, more cigarettes- cigarettes even more than food. Smoking cigarettes can temporarily conceal brutal reality and help soldiers find a moment's rest. They not only produce the feeling of being under anesthesia but can help the smoker forget the present and, like a two faced god, remember the past and dream of the future. A general once said: "The cavalryman who doesn't smoke is hopeless as a soldier."

His affirmation brings to mind the image of the Marlboro man- deep in the mountains, relyng on his own strength as he contends with nature.

Even as people are being executed, the only thing they can think about is smoking a cigarette. In the middle of their last cigarette, they can get past their fear, face their chosen destiny and calmly accept death. Today, in wartime situations, cigarettes are millions of people's favorite thing, the last thing left that brings them adventure and meaning....

-tobacco information website of the Chinese government-

Friday, April 3, 2009

Ho Chi Minh by Pierre Brocheux

He was thirsty for knowledge, and spent all his free time on board ship reading, writing, working on his French, and learning English, while his friends spent their time sleeping, playing cards or getting drunk. Not content with simply being cultivated, he wanted to educate others, starting with his own Vietnamese acquaintances. Many of them were illiterate and unschooled, and so Thanh taught them to read and write quoc ngu and urged them to behave so as not to tarnish the image of Vietnam and the reputation of its people. A certain cook who usually spent his salary on games of chance and loose women, for example, thanked Thanh for teaching him, for helping him save money, behave with dignity, and rid his speech of foul language.

One should not see these accounts as mere products of an iconography, as edifying inventions, inasmuch as Ho Chi Minh later behaved in exactly the same manner. His conduct was the same as communist leader and as President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with his own people or with foreigners, and with his followers as with his adversaries.

Those who knew him remember his easy manner and his talent as a teacher, which helped spread his ideas. He used a simple vocabulary and very imagistic language, incorporating popular proverbs and anecdotes inspired by such authors as Tolstoy, Anatole France, and Shakespeare, which of course delighted his audience. He also wrote short plays and historical sketches, as well as songs about the national hero Tran Hung Dao.

Jean Sainteny was also quite impressed with Ho, and he wrote:"From our first meeting on 15 October 1945, I had the conviction...that Ho Chi Minh was a person of the first order." The young lieutenant Francois Missoffe was part of the Sainteny mission and also liked Ho, the "small skinny fellow" who was "upbeat, very curious, asks about everything, makes others talk a lot. I will also be meeting frequently with him. He is very sensitive. He never gives the impression of having already made up his mind about things."

He lead the war of resistance by drawing on his philosophy of human relations, by preferring face to face encounters, direct dialogue, and correspondence in verse, and by reciting proverbs rather than presenting arguments based on the rules of Marxist dialectic.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Financial Crisis- A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a little chicken, the pet of a boy who often cried wolf, who had become convinced, through the poultryfied lens of pure animal intuition, that the sky was falling and made a business of going around telling all the other dumb beasts in the barnyard just exactly that.

At first his woolly neighbors, and even some of the insects and snakes that abounded in nearby forests, were perfectly convinced of the little chicken's hypothesis. After all, for the wild creatures it was late in the season and food was growing scarce. For their domesticated brothers and sisters, well, you know, lately the Farmer in the Dell was having marital difficulties and often appeared late or only half completed his watering, feeding and bedding activities so naturally things seems somewhat cock-eyed and likely to grow worse, especially in the dim light of the usual bad weather.

But, after a while, as the hours, days and weeks past by all the folks down on the farm got mightily sick of hearing about a disaster that never completely made its appearance and started to seriously discount the veracity of the little chicken's disquisitions.

Oh well, you know, things down in the Valley of The Jolly Green Giant did slow down quite a bit. After all, it was winter: the wind blew, snow crept in through the cracks in the old tumbled down barn and the hay grew stale. Then there was mud season and the usual growing piles of stinking manure but eventually spring arrived and things got back to normal, at least as much normal as can be expected up on Dead Man's Creek.

Perhaps the greatest relief came when that sly old fox what lived in Tubb o' Crock Cave up by Pilomoosepoop Mountain came down, rung that little chicken's neck and carried him away for dinner. Everyone sagely nodded their head and unanimously agreed that, after all, chicken little was telling the truth: FOR HIM, indeed, the sky was falling!