Friday, October 30, 2009

Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Gerald Martin

The year 1955 would see the publication of Garcia Marquez's most famous newspaper story. It was based on a immensely long interview, in fourteen sessions of four hours each, with a Colombian navy sailor, the only survivor of eight crewman who fell overboard from the destroyer Caldas when she rolled out of control- supposedly during storm- on the way back from refitting in Mobile, Alabama, to her home port in Cartegena. After the fourteen- part series had come to an end, El Espectador put out a special supplement reprinting the entire story with what it claimed was "the biggest print run any Colombian newspaper has ever published."

Garcia Marquez, with his rigorous and exhaustive questioning, and his search for new angles, had inadvertently revealed that the boat had not pitched and rolled in a violent storm but had sunk because it was carrying illegal merchandise which was improperly secured; and that regulation safety procedures were grossly inadequate. The story put El Espectador in direct confrontation with the military government and undoubtedly made Garcia Marquez still more of a persona non grata , a troublemaker considered an enemy of the regime. Garcia Marquez must undoubtedly have been a marked man and, although he characteristically played down the dangers of the time, it is easy to imagine his feelings whenever he had to walk home a night through a grim, lugubrious city (Bogota) floating uneasily in the tension of a military dictatorship. It is something of a miracle that he survived unscathed.

Many years later the story was republished, after Garcia Marquez became a world-famous writer. It was entitled The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor ( Relato de un naufrago, 1970). It became one of his most successful books, selling 10 million copies in the next twenty-five years. Garcia Marquez never directly challenged the reactionary government in 1954-5 but in report after report he took up a point of view which was implicitly subversive of official stories and thus challenged the ruling system more effectively than any of his more vocal leftist colleagues, guided always by rigorous investigation, reflection and communication of the realities of the country. All in all, it was a sustained and brilliant demonstration of the power of the story-teller's art and of the power and central importance of the imagination even in the representation of factual material.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

428 AD by Giusto Traina

The examination of people belonging to different and distant worlds like King Artashes of Armenia, Euthymius and Vortigern within the same work almost seems the kind of expedient that would be used in the popular novels of Christian Jacq or film scripts for a particularly fantastic sword-and-sandal movie. But this is one of the characteristics of Late Antiquity: the imperial crisis and the arrival of new peoples were responsible for bringing the various and previously hidden elements of a complex and multi-ethnic world to the surface.

King Artashes was the straw man whose "plunge without restraint into licentious pleasures" incurred the hostility of the local potentates, who organized what can only be called a Fronde with the support of the Persian Empire. After years of trying the Sassanids finally succeeded in overturning the balance that kept the King of Armenia in a position above the other noble families, over the objections of the catholic patriarch of the Armenian Church. The centuries-long Armenian question, which had so often led to conflict between Rome and Persia, ended with this lasting blow to the prestige of the Empire, in spite of its military superiority over the Persians and the attempt in 428 , by Flavius Dionysius, to limit the damage by negotiating guarantees for the Christian communities.

Euthymius himself was a native of the most westerly regions of Armenia and was fifty years old when, in 428, he established his monastic foundation in Palestine, halfway between the Holy City and the Dead Sea, not far from the road to Jericho. This was not a site that lend itself to the isolated life of an anchorite. A biography of the saint recorded the sojourn of as many as four hundred pilgrims on their way from Jerusalem to Jordon who decided to take a detour. Domitian, the steward of his laura, told Euthymius of his concerns: how was such a crowd to be fed? The monastery's scarce resources- bread, oil, wine- were multiplied 'miraculously' and this definitively established Euthymius's fame. He attracted monks and virgins from all over the Empire, including many from the cream of the senatorial aristocracy which thus provided 'charisma' and large endowments.

The official demobilization of Britain occurred around 410, but it was not entirely abandoned. The Imperial court (then centered at Ravenna) decided to discontinue its control of Hadrian's Wall and the western borders, but continued to garrison the forts to defend the eastern and southern coast known as the Saxon shore. The administration of Britain was trusted to a leading figure in the local Celtic aristocracy, who had been romanized to some degree: the semi-legendary figure of Vortigern (Welsh Gwrtheyrn, meaning 'highest lord'). The medieval chronicles of the 9th century claim that 428 was the date of an epoch-making event for the island: Vertigern was supposed to have summoned Saxon mercenaries to assist him in defending the country from attacks by the Picts and the Scots. The Angles and the Saxons were more interested in a romanized territory, took over, and forced the Celts to abandon their lands and move to their current territories of Wales and Cornwall. However,in the near future, new anthropological perspectives may well make it possible to clarify further the problems of the "Dark Ages" in Great Britain .

Whatever the variety and complexity of the voices of the Roman world in the 5th century, and their evident conflicts-whether imperial or foreign- the empire remained the key reference point. Subsequent events would undermine this view and accelerate the centrifugal tendencies in the Mediterranean, but in 428, Rome, although a little less eternal, was still very much a real entity and had not been reduced to a mere concept.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fallujah by James Hider

April, 2004

From the very start of the occupation, Fallujah had been the epicentre of the incipient insurgency. Its citizens proudly called their hometown the City of Mosques, a description that made it sound much grander than it was. Sure, there were plenty of shiny mosques (or at least, they had been shiny before the mortars and machine guns chewed up their minarets until they looked like used toothpicks). But otherwise it was a run-down, forbidding den of haughty and staunchly religious tribesmen, perched on an ancient smuggling route from Jordan to Baghdad. It was a city steeped in tribal honor, with all the brutality and human suffering that entailed. The men of Fallujah, I was told, would pull their guns on each other for trying to jump a petrol queue. Proud and devout, with a hair-trigger response to any slight upon their manhood, the city's population of 300,000 was entangled in a web of centuries-old blood feuds into which the American army- the largest and newest tribe on the block- had stumbled.

The men of the city had a frightening disregard for the fighting capacities of their occupiers, matched only by a flagrant indifference to their own deaths. Their fate was in Allah's hands: their task was to defend only their honor and their families, in that order. Fallujah had often been described as a hotbed of support for Saddam. Closer to the truth was that even Saddam had been wary of these ferociously insular desert berserkers and had co-opted them into his Republican Guard regiments, subscribing to the old adage that you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

The buildings were the same washed-out non-color as the dusty flat-lands that limped off to the horizon, as though one of the seasonal dust storms had long ago been frozen by some capricious djinn into the shapes of houses and streets. The merchants' homes were walled mini-fortresses, or sprawling neo-Babylonian displays of gaudy opulence, with every possible combination of stone colonnade, Swiss gable and Roman palisade available to the kitsch-loving ranks of Iraqi sheikhdom...The last time I had plucked up the courage to walk through the market in Fallujah, while on a trip there a couple of months before, a small boy had called out to me. 'Mister, Mister.' When I looked at him he mimed firing an imaginary RPG at my face. I smiled nervously and walked quickly back to my car, the market stallholders staring at me impassively as I left. At few weeks after that, a group of American security contractors working for the firm were ambushed by local clansmen, raked with machine-gun bullets and blown up by rocket fire. Then a howling, capering mob came out and beat the burning bodies with sticks, tied them with string to the rear bumpers of cars and dragged then down Fallujah's main street, to a steel girder bridge built by the British in the 1940s....

Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Regiment of the U.S. Marine Corps ordered his men to shave off the wispy moustaches they had been told to grow as a token of respect for the local tribesmen and launched a large-scale 'cordon and knock' sweep of the city for the killers. Almost instantly they ran into a well-prepared guerrilla force. Lulu, who was with the marines, was pinned down by rocket and machine gun fire with her embed unit and had to be extracted by armoured vehicles. She phoned me in my Baghdad hotel room the same night and told me to get down to Fallujah as quickly as possible.

Unlikely as it had seemed even a week before it happened, the American military had lost control of the main highway leading west from Baghdad to Jordan. Right on the outskirts of the occupied capital, gunman pinned down US supply convoys with roadside bombs and rocket attacks, the terrified ex-military drivers hunkered by their stalled 18-wheelers, clutching carbines and waiting to be kidnapped or killed. The sinews of the occupation were snapping fast... It took a week of badgering the marines before the agreed to fly me and a few other journalists to the fighting...

Colonel Byrne was becoming increasingly frustrated that his assault was going nowhere in those early days of April. He knew his men could take the city, if he was just given clear instructions to do so. But the instructions never came. Instead, the marine commanders, who had initially advised against Washington's determination to invade the city, knowing what a bloody price would be paid, were ordered to pull back and train a local force of ex-army officers from Fallujah to police the city. It was a disastrous decision. The Fallujah Protective Force, as it was known, turned out to be little more than he same guerrillas the marines had just spent the month trying to defeat. And the Mujahedin, gloating at the withdrawal of their seemingly unstoppable foe, declared a miraculous victory for Allah.

If it was a stinging climbdown for Byrne and his men, it was much, much worse for the people of Fallujah. The real nightmare was just beginning for them, as their city became a mini-Taliban state of beheadings, beatings and summary executions. Fallujah also quickly became the Detroit of car bombs, with the workshops of the industrial quarter once again put to use in churning out explosive-rigged vehicles destined for the Shia markets just up the road in Baghdad.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog

Camisea June 1984

This first of June seems like a momentous day to me because we still have not begun to haul the ship. I keep thinking, in a panic: it is June, it is June. I wish I could hold back time. Kinski paddled clumsily and unsteadily past our camp in a dugout, without any of the gentle elegance of the Indians. He was wearing his olive-green made-to-order fatigues, had girded on a machete and a knife, and had jungle and survival rations in a small, sturdy canvas backpack. He managed to go about a hundred meters, but the illusion he creates for himself that is expedition is taking hm into the heart of the inscrutable but inspiring natural wonders of the jungle apparently makes him happy...

Wisps of smoke are eddying through our camp today, and under the large, patient trees peace reigns. Today the sun feels gentle for the first time, without any of its usual vicious aggression. My existence is reduced to one dimension: a cleared landing strip up a steep hillside and a ship at the bottom. White, firm clumps of foam drift quietly by on the river, and they will still be doing that long after we have left these parts, and even when there are no humans beings on earth, only insects.

Today the jungle seemed peaceful on the mild light, self-absorbed and resting contentedly. On the gravel bank I saw stones into which the Campas have scratched their names. I feel as if I were in a concert hall where a little-known orchestral work is being performed, and at the end no one is sure whether it is finished and one should clap. Since no one wants to appear ignorant by clapping too soon, everyone waits for a moment to see what the others are going to do: this moment of silence and irresolution in which the applause does not set in to provide release: I am irreversibly thrust into this moment, which, however, continues for months.

In its all-encompassing, majestic misery, of which it has no knowledge and no hint of a notion, the massive jungle stood completely still for another night which, true to its innermost nature, it did not let pass unused for incredible destruction, incredible strangulation.

In the face of the obscene, explicit malice of the jungle, which lacks only dinosaurs as punctuation, I feel like a half-finished, poorly expressed sentence in a cheap novel. While hauling away a mud-smeared, uncooperative cable, one of the Indians farted from the effort with such force and duration that it sounded amid the roaring vulgarity of nature like the first indication of a human will to impose order. In my imagination my wishes carry me away to a place where people fly over church towers, church towers over farmland, ships over mountains, and continents over oceans.

Our kitchen crew slaughter our last four ducks. While they were still alive Julian plucked their neck feathers, before chopping off their heads on the execution block. The albino turkey, that vain creature, the survivor of so many roast chickens and ducks transformed into soup, came over to inspect, gobbling and displaying, used his ugly feet to push one of the beheaded ducks, as it lay there on the ground bleeding and flapping its wings, into what he thought was a proper position, and making gurgling sounds while his bluish red wattles swelled, he mounted the dying duck and copulated with it.

The next day the camp is silent with resignation; only the turkey is making a racket. It attacked me, overestimating its own strength, and I quickly grabbed its neck, which squirmed and tried to swallow, slapped him left-right with the casual elegance of the arrogant cavaliers I had seen in the French Musketeer films, who dutifully do fancy swordplay, and then let the albino go. His feelings hurt, he trotted away, wiggling his rump but with his wings still spread in conceited display.

It was already dark when I was called to the medic's station in the big camp. Up on the plateau between the two rivers, woodsman had been felling trees, barefoot as usual, and one of them had been bitten by a snake. Snakes had never been seen anywhere near chainsaws, because the noise and the exhaust fumes drive the snakes deep into the jungle, but this man had suddenly been bitten twice in the foot. He had dropped his chain saw and just caught a glimpse of the snake before it disappeared into the underbrush; it was a chuchupe. Usually this snake's bite causes cardiac arrest and stops breathing in less than a minute, and cases in which a person has survived a bite longer than seven or eight minutes without treatment are almost unknown. Our camp doctor and the antivenom serum was twenty minutes away. The man, so I was told by someone who was working next to him, had stood motionless for a few seconds thinking hard. Then he plucked up his chain saw, which had stalled when it hit the ground, pulled the chord to start it, the way you pull an outboard motor, and had sawed off his foot above the ankle.

I saw the man- his whole body was gray. He was alive, perfectly collected, and very calm. Before they took him to the doctor, the others had tied off his leg in three places with lianas; below his crotch, below his knee, and above the stump and had twisted the lianas with sticks to make a tight tourniquet. They had stuck a kind of moss on the stump to stop the bleeding. I had a plane readied to fly him out to Lima the next day. It is better in any case to keep him under observation overnight to make sure he does not go into shock.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Private Armies by Tony Geraghty

Reagan's new policy was given strident expression in October 1984 by Secretary of State George P. Schultz, in an address to the Park Avenue Synagogue, New York, entitled "Terrorism and the modern world". It was a scary speech that argued, in clear reference to covert, unconventional operations, that 'our nation has forces prepared for action, from small teams able to operate virtually undetected to the full weight of our conventional military might.' But public understanding would be needed in advance of the use of such power. 'The public must understand before the fact that there is a potential for loss of life of some of our fighting men and the loss of life of some innocent people...that occasions will come when their government must act before each and every fact is known to ensure public support for U.S. military actions to stop terrorists before they commit some hideous act or in retaliation for an attack on our people."

If America was 'to respond or pre-empt effectively...there will not be time for a renewed national debate...We never have the kind of evidence that can stand up in an American court of law. But we cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations...Fighting terrorism will not be a clean or pleasant contest but we have no choice but to play it."

Here, plainly laid out, was an agenda for covert, pre-emptive use of lethal force, or for retaliation, without pause for thought or argument or adequate proof, combined with an acceptance that innocent lives would be lost.

Action soon followed in the bombing attack on the Imam Rida Mosque in a suburb of Beirut which killed 86 persons and wounded 256, mostly women and school girls though the intended target, the alleged mastermind of the bombing of the Marine barracks, escaped unharmed. According to Bob Woodward, senior Saudi government officials and CIA director Bill Casey directed this bombing using several English-speaking, U.S.- trained 'rogue operators' acting in cooperation with elements in the Lebanese government.

During the Iran-Contra hearings in July of 1987, some Senators were not overjoyed to discover a foreigner acting as a surrogate for a covert American military program. Senator William Cohen questioned 'whether it is appropriate to use private entrepreneurs to carry out covert objectives without specific and very rigid guidelines to make sure that profit motives don't contradict or corrode the public purpose...Whether it is a tolerable practice to authorize a covert solicitation of foreign countries to pay for programs either not authorized by Congress or rejected by Congress.'

Representative Henry Waxman's long campaign to investigate Halliburton, the U.S.'s chief private military contractor both at home and abroad, has met with nothing but foot-dragging delays, censorship and lies, probably resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars lost to U.S. taxpayers in overcharges, waste, bribery and fraud. When Halliburton or its subsidiary Kellog, Brown & Root have been caught red-handed their fines have been minimal and their rewards renewed, no- bid contracts negotiated in secret.

Following the deaths of seventeen Iraqi civilians, at the hands of Blackwater guns protecting U.S. diplomats in Baghdad on 17 September 2007, Senator Hillary Clinton announced that she had co-sponsored legislation to ban the use of private military companies in Iraq. Her statement said:

From this war's very beginning, this administration has permitted thousands of heavily-armed military contractors to march through Iraq without any law or court to reign them in or hold them accountable. These private security contractors have been reckless and compromised our mission in Iraq. The time to show these contractors the door is long past due..."

If neither nation-states nor the UN could legislate effectively against the excesses of the worse kind of mercenary- and plenty of those are still at work-- then there is one final, forlorn hope. That is the International Criminal Court (ICC), a worthy body invented by the UN in 1998 after a mere 50 years of gestation. As the UN itself explained:

An international criminal court has been called the missing link in the international legal system. The International Court of Justice at The Hague only handles cases between States, not individuals. Without an international criminal court for dealing with individual responsibility as an enforcement mechanism, acts of genocide and egregious violations of human rights often go unpunished.

The ICC was able to start work in 2002 when 60 countries ratified the relevant treaty but progress was slow. One of the reasons for this limping progress was the decision of President George Bush not to ratify the ICC treaty since he feared that American soldiers serving as peacekeepers in such places as Bosnia might be the victims of show trials characterizing them as terrorists. In fact, the U.S. did get its way in arranging with the UN that its peacekeepers were exempt from arrest or trial by the ICC for one year. The UN caved in after the US threatened to veto UN peacekeeping missions one by one.

Washington went further. It offered a number of hard-up governments trade-and-aid deals, so long as the recipients did not sign up to the ICC. By 2003, a total of 37 countries worldwide, some in Africa, had agreed to join Washington's ICC-Boycott club. Philippe Sands, and international lawyer and author of Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules, recalled in 2005 a typical shoot-from-the-hip Bushism : "I don't care what the international lawyers say."

Some observers noted the extent to which private security companies based in the U.S. were on the ground in large numbers in some of the key areas affected by Washington's attitude towards the ICC.

In such a climate the prospect of bringing the security companies (however they identified themselves) under the rule of law seemed very unlikely. It was not only Paul Bremer's Order 17 that provided the better-connected freelance soldiers with a license to kill in Iraq. Bush's opposition to the ICC potentially extended the process to many other parts of the world.

His approach had deep roots. One might almost say that to impose US law outside its proper jurisdiction was almost part of the American tradition by the time Bush expressed his distaste for any alternative. A policy known as "the Presidential snatch option'- the arrest anywhere of terrorist suspects as an alternative to assassination- was invented by Reagan in 1985. The new doctrine was set out in a secret legal opinion entitled 'Authority of the FBI to Override Customary or Other International Law in the Use of Extraterritorial Law Enforcement Activity".

In the post-9/11 world US jurisdiction was extended beyond the reach of US jurisdiction, at Guantanamo Bay and countless secret CIA prisons around the globe. In such a world, the prospects for any viable international law to control freelance soldiers were less than good. The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, appeared to bow to the inevitable when he wrote his introduction to his department's Green Paper in 2002. He said, "One of the reasons for considering the option of a licensing regime is that it may be desirable to distinguish between reputable and disreputable private sector operators, to encourage and support the former while, as far as possible, eliminating the latter."

Selective self-regulation, commercially controlled in a world of privatized warfare and corporate peacekeeping, was now seen as an alternative to the vision of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations in defending the rule of law and fundamental human rights.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Real Bible by Bart D. Ehrman

As soon as I came fully to grips with the reality that we don't have the actual inspired words of God in the Bible- since we no longer have the originals, and in some cases don't know what the originals said- it opened the door to the possibility that the Bible is a very human book. This allowed me to study it from a historical-critical perspective. And doing so led to all the results we have seen in this book.

* I came to see that there were flat-out discrepancies among the books of the New Testament. Sometimes these discrepancies could be reconciled if one worked hard enough at it with pious imagination; other times the discrepancies could not, in my judgment, be reconciled, however fanciful the explanation.

* I further came to see that these differences related not just to small details here and there. Sometimes different authors had completely different understandings of important issues: Was Jesus in doubt and despair on the way to the cross (Mark) or calm and in control (Luke)? Did Jesus' death provide an atonement for sin (Mark and Paul) or not (Luke)? Did Jesus perform signs to prove who he was (John) or did he refuse to do so (Matthew)? Must Jesus' followers keep the law if they are to enter the Kingdom (Matthew) or absolutely not (Paul)?

* In addition, I came to see that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people to whom they are attributed (Matthew and John) or by the people who claimed to be writing them (2 Peter, 1 Timothy). Most of these books appeared to have been written after the apostles themselves were dead; only eight of the twenty-seven books are almost certain to have been written by the people traditionally thought to be their authors ( The undisputed letters of Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians,and Philemon; plus the Revelation of John, although we aren't sure who this John was.)

* The Gospels for the most part do not provide disinterested factual information about Jesus, but contain stories that had been in oral circulation for decades before being written down. This makes it difficult to know what Jesus actually said, did, and experienced. Scholars have devised ways to get around these problems, but the reality is that the Jesus portrayed in these Gospels (for example, the divine being become human in the Gospel of John represents an understanding of who Jesus was, not an historical account of who he really was.

* There were lots of other Gospels available to the early Christians, as well as epistles, Acts, and apocalypses. Many of these claimed to be written by apostles, and on the surface such claims are no more or less plausible than the claims of the books that eventually came to make up the New Testament. This raises the question of who made the decisions about which books to include, and of what grounds they had for making the decisions. Is it possible that non-apostolic books were let into the canon by church leaders who simply didn't know any better? Is it possible that books that should have been included were left out?

*The creation of the Christian canon was not only the invention of the early Church. A whole range of theological perspectives came into existence, not during the life of Jesus or even through the teachings of his original apostles but later, as the Church grew and came to be transformed into a new religion rather than a rural sect of largely illiterate, Aramaic- speaking Jews. These included some of the most important Christian doctrines, such as that of a suffering Messiah, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and the existence of heaven and hell.

And so, just as I came to see the Bible as a very human book, I came to see Christianity as a very human religion. It did not descend from on high. It was created, down here on earth, among the followers of Jesus in the decades and centuries after his death. But none of this made me an agnostic.. that is the subject of another book.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Health Care Systems in the Developed World by T.R. Reid

There are a few common building blocks of health care system architecture that all developed countries (except the United States) have agreed upon. Each country uses one system that applies to everybody. Young, old, employed or unemployed, military or civilian, sick or well, aboriginal or immigrant, private citizen or public minister, newborn or about-to-die- everybody is included in the same system and covered by a single set of rules. All other rich nations have embraced this principle, because they think it's fairer if everybody has the same access to the same level of care. They find that a single system is much easier to administer, with one set of forms to fill out, one book of rules, and one price list.

A unified system is a powerful force for cost control. As the only buyer of medical services, it has enormous market clout in negotiating fees with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, facilitates communication and control within those professions and makes digital record keeping easier and more effective. It also helps to eliminate the gamesmanship and cost-shifting that permeates the American health care ( forcing veterans to use only VA hospitals, charging privately insured patients more to cover the cost of those on Medicaid, overcharging for diagnostic tests to cover shortfalls in other departments, for example). Such systems also create incentives for preventive health measures- such as regular check-ups, health education and use of the most effective treatments as well.

Another basic building block in the health care systems of every country- except the United States- is the principle that financing health care must be a non-profit endeavor. The health insurance plans of all the other nations of the developed world exist only to pay people's medical bills, not to make a profit. Private Insurance companies still exist. In Germany there are at least two-hundred, in Japan over 2,000, but they must accept all applicants and pay all claims. They are allowed to sell for-profit policies to satisfy the cravings and vanities of the very rich for such things as cosmetic surgery and luxury hospital suites, but not for the basic services at fixed prices stipulated on a universal basis in the unified system. Otherwise they compete for customers by offering special services outside the standard plan- like relaxing vacations at health spas, house calls and the like.

All the health care systems of the developing world have problems delivering effective and affordable health care. In the democracies of the developed world, however, universal health care coverage creates a sense of common purpose and solidarity- the expectation of both mutual sacrifice and gain- and a political will to overcome difficulties with long-term strategies- which hardly exists at all in the United States.

By the most careful and rigorous estimates of the esteemed Institute of Medicine, more than 22,000 Americans die each year for the lack of accessible and affordable heath care. At least 700,000 go bankrupt paying their medical bills out of pocket, many losing their homes entirely. This never happens in the other developed nations of the world because they have universal health care systems.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Predator State and the Battlegrounds of American Politics by James K. Galbraith

The metaphor of predation is evolutionary, and its origins are to be found in evolutionary economics, specifically in Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899 and a classic of American thought. Veblen wrote that predation is a phase in the evolution of culture "attained only when...the fight has become the dominant note in the theory of life"

In the "higher barbarian culture', Veblen wrote, the industrial orders comprise most of the women, servants, slaves, and other chattel, plus the craftspeople and a smattering of engineers. These people are underlings, and they alone perform what in modern societies is called work. Only for them, therefore, is it appropriate to think of wages and salaries as compensation for the drudgery of toil. Those who are higher up in the pecking order take a different view.

The nonindustrial order comprise the leisure class: warriors, government, athletes and priests. Captains of industry are an outgrowth of the warrior caste, they do not work. Rather, they hold offices. They perform rituals. They enact deeds of honor and valor. For them, income is not compensation for toil and is not valued mainly for the sustenance it makes possible. Income is, rather, a testament by the community to the prestige it accords the predator classes, the esteem in which they are held. It is a way, in other words, of keeping score.

The leisure class is predatory as a matter of course: predation is what it does. The relation of overlords to underlings is that of predator to prey. The categories of Veblen's economics include prominently the absentee landlords and the vested interests, who live off the work of others by right and tradition, and not by their functional contribution to the productivity of the system.

The ecology of predator-prey relationships is one of mutual interdependence. Predators rely on prey for their sustenance, but they also require and must motivate their assistance. The normal function of the clan, tribe, family unit, or company is not to enrich the owner or master at the expense of the underlings, but to enrich him at the expense of the surrounding clans, tribes, families or companies. In this contest, the underlings naturally must enjoy some benefit both to motivate their cooperation and illustrate the success of the collective enterprise. The success of the enterprise also depends in turn on keeping the predators sufficiently in check. If in their compulsion to fight, they lay waste to the environment, then neither they nor their prey will survive.

Thus, contrary to Marx, in Veblen's scheme of things the industrial orders are not driven to the brink of subsistence. On the contrary: the success of the predators depends in part on a healthy prey. And to a degree, their prestige also depends on it. Wives and servants are therefore fed and decorated to reflect the stature of their masters; engineers are kept comfortable with "full lunch buckets" so as to keep the industrial machinery running smoothly. Since the lower orders generally understand this, those who are included within the program also realize that their position could be worse than it is. For this reason, they are not intrinsically revolutionary or inevitably destined to become so.

Veblen himself had very little interest in the process of social reform. Though he toyed with the prospect of a society ruled by "a soviet of engineers" he never seriously believed the conditions under which they might be induced to cast off the gilded chains of the predatory and unproductive classes were likely to take effect. And he died, in 1929, before the Great Depression started to give rise to the social transformations of the New Deal.

My father admired Veblen. But he was also formed in the Depression and by the New Deal and by the great mobilization of World War II. In some ways for his generation, the soviet of engineers was no fantasy at all; it was their experience of the world created during their youth. That world had virtues, including counter-veiling power and the mastery of advanced technology. Its vices- private affluence and public squalor, environmental decay, the manipulation of consumers- were the consequence of unbalanced power. It was a world in which Veblenian predation was possible, but in which the predatory instinct might come under enduring political and organizational control through progressive business practices, labor unions, government safety nets, tax codes and regulatory agencies, particularly in the fields of banking and finance.

But after the initial challenge of the Great Depression, W.W. II and the great post-war expansion, the project of taming the predatory classes through enlightened corporate governance and the partnership private and public interest gradually began to fail. Power was again dispersed to finance and the C.E.O's. This dispersion led to the reconnection of power with particular persons and the result would not have surprised Veblen: the reemergence of predation, predatory conduct and pathologically predatory conduct as the central theme in business life.

This is the Predator State. It is a coalition of relentless opponents of the regulatory framework on which public purpose depends, with enterprises whose major lines of business compete with and encroach on the principle public functions of the enduring New Deal. It is a coalition, in other words, that seeks to control the state partly in order to prevent the assertion of public purpose and partly to poach on the lines of activity that past public purpose has established.They are firms that have no intrinsic loyalty to any country. They operate as a rule on a transnational basis, and naturally come to view the goals and objectives of each society in which they work as just another set of business conditions, more or less inimical to the free pursuit of profit. They assuredly do not have any of society's goals as their own, and that includes the goals that may be decided on, from time to time, by their country or origin, the United States. As an ideological matter, it is fair to say that the very concept of public purpose is alien to, and denied by, the leaders and operatives of this predatory coalition.

The major battlegrounds of American domestic politics today emerge clearly once there is an understanding of the Predator State. They do not consist in the bipolar argument to which so much thought and argument is directed- that of "government" versus "the market". They do not for the most part consist in a perpetual war, as many are led to believe, over whether the frontiers of the state should expand or contract. Rather, they assume that over time, the role of the state will gradually grow. At some deep level, everyone with a serious role in policy debate agrees on this. The politics consists in a continuing battle over who gets cut in on the deal- and a corresponding argument over who gets cut out, and how, for there is profit in both cutting in and cutting out, and profit is all that really matters.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The End of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand Patenaude

Up on the roof, inside the blockhouse, Joe Hansen was labeling the switches connecting the alarm system to the rooms of the individual guards. Suddenly a terrible cry pierced the afternoon quiet- "prolonged and agonized" is how Hansen registered it, "half scream, half sob. It dragged me to my feet, chilled to the bone." He scrambled out of the blockhouse and onto the roof, searching for its source. Melquiades was aiming his rifle at the window to the study, where there were sounds of a violent struggle. For a brief moment Trotsky's blue jacket became visible as he grappled with someone. "Don't shoot" Hanson shouted. "You might hit the Old Man!".

As Hansen entered the dining room Trotsky stumbled out of his study, blood streaming down his face. "See what they have done to me!" he moaned. Robins entered through the far door of the the dining room with Natalia close behind. She rushed over to her husband, his face now covered in blood. He had lost his glasses. His arms were hanging limp. "What happened? What happened" she asked, flinging her arms frantically around him and walking him out onto the porch.

Hansen and Robins entered the study, which was a shambles. Chairs were overturned and broken, papers and books scattered all about, the Dictaphone had been smashed. There were large pools of blood on the floor and blood spattered on the desk, the books, the papers. The assassin stood in the middle of the room, gasping, his face contorted, his arms hanging limp, a pistol dangling in his hand. Robins struck him on the head with the butt of his revolver, sending him to the floor.

Later, under questioning from police, the assailant began to spin a web of tangled lies about his background, his contacts in Mexico City and his movements before the attack. "It was a veritable maze", said Colonel Salazar. Yet Mercader's account of the the details of the crime had the ring of authenticity. He said he closed his eyes before striking the blow. "The man cried out in a way that I shall never forget as long as I lived. "His cry was 'aaaaaah...' very long. Infinitely long. And it appears to me still in these moments that this cry penetrates my brain."

Trotsky rose up like a madman, Mercader said, threw himself on him and bit his hand. Mercader pushed him away and he fell to the floor but managed to get up and leave the room. "I remained like one demented, without knowing what to do. At this time people entered and beat me". He begged Trotsky's guards to kill him, he said, but they refused. "I want to die."

The sirens died away as the ambulance pulled into the entrance of the Green Cross Emergency Hospital, where a crowd had gathered. Inside they laid Trotsky on a narrow cot. Silently the doctors examined the wound, as Natalia stood alongside her husband. On their instructions a nurse began to shave his head. With a hint of a smile, he said to Natalia, "Look, we found a barber."

Trotsky looked over at Hansen and gestured weakly with his right hand. "Joe, you...have...a notebook?" Hansen leaned against the cot and with the hand he had broken hitting Trotsky's assassin repeatedly in the face, recorded the Hero of Red October's official last words:

I am close to death from the blow of a political assassin, who struck me down in my room. I struggled with him. He entered the room to talk French statistics. He struck me. Please say to our friends that I am sure of the victory of the Fourth International. Go Forward!"

They began to undress the patient. Using scissors they cut away his blue jacket, then his knitted vest, then his shirt, and then they unstrapped his wristwatch. As they began to remove his pants, Trotsky said to Natalia, "I don't want them to undress me...I want you to do it." These words, spoken in a grave and sorrowful voice, were the last he ever spoke to Natalia. When she had finished, she bent over him and kissed his lips. He kissed her back. Again she kissed him, and again he responded. And then one final time.

Trotsky underwent surgery that evening. The doctors trepanned an area of the right parietal bone. Blood and gray matter spilled out from a wound three-quarters of an inch wide and two and three-quarters inches deep. The weapon itself had resembled a prospector's pick: one end was pointed, like an ice pick, the other was flat and wide; the handle about a foot long, had been cut down for concealment. The direction of the attack was from top to bottom, front to back, and right to left. Thus it turned out that his attacker had not struck Trotsky from behind, as was initially believed, which might explain why the victim was able too prevent his assailant from striking him a second time.

Early in the evening of August 21 Trotsky's breathing became alarmingly rapid. Natalia, losing her composure, asked the doctors what it meant. For the next twenty minutes they worked to save the patient, but at 7:25 Trotsky's last struggle ended.

When it was over, Natalia knelt down and pressed her face against the soles of her husband's feet. Until the very end she had waited for him to awaken and decide matters for himself. She would see this happen, though only seven months later, in a dream. She had moved out of their bedroom, and into an adjacent room that had once belonged to their grandson Seva. Trotsky came out of his study, passed through their bedroom and entered her room. He appeared vibrant and was immaculately dressed. His white hair thick and full. His eyes were a piercing blue. He walked over to her, stood there a moment, then said calmly, "Everything is finished".

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gangs in Garden City by Sarah Garland

One study in Florida- among the most aggressive states when it came to cracking down on youth crime- found that putting children in prisons, especially adult prisons, raised the recidivism rate. The longer they were in detention, the more likely it was that they would go back to crime after their release, the study found. Another study compared juvenile recidivism in New York, with its tougher laws, to New Jersey, where juveniles were largely kept out of the adult criminal court system. It found that the New Jersey youth were less likely to be arrested again after their release. New York's system, in contrast, was a revolving door. A Center for Disease Control report also recommended against sending juveniles to adult jails, finding that that it "generally resulted in increased arrest for subsequent crimes, including violent crime." But by the time the report was published in November of 2007, following 'legislation beginning in the 1970s and 80s, the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Acts of 1992- 94 and the Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Act of 1997, hundreds of thousands of young people had already passed through adult jails.

Minority youth bore the brunt of the crackdown. Studies showed that African American and Hispanic teenagers were arrested at higher rates, given harsher sentences and kept in jail longer than whites. Furthermore, thousands of young African Americans and Hispanic teenagers were listed in gang databases- suspects e before they had even committed a crime. Gang experts noted that the efforts of law enforcement officials to label the gang members complemented the work of the gangs themselves by fostering cohesion and further alienating the members from mainstream society. At same time, the definitions of gang membership varied widely across states and jurisdictions. Besides these wide variances in state laws, local law enforcement agencies often had a lot of discretion in deciding what counted as gang-related crime. The confusion about what constituted gang membership did little to stop widespread panic- fueled by media and politicians- about its growth.

In 2004, a group of Long Island police chiefs, among them Chief Russo of Hemstead and Chief Woodward of Freeport, released a joint report with a youth advocacy organization, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. The report warned that gang homicides were increasing, gangs in Long Island were growing, and that the members were getting younger and younger. Quoting Chief Russo, the report called gangs "domestic terrorists", who "intimidate entire neighborhoods and entire communities."

But throwing more of them in jail would backfire, the Long Island police argued. They pointed to a decade of cracking down against juveniles to prove their point. "Locking up youths in juvenile facilities may only increase the likelihood that they will continue a life of crime", the report said.

In Long Island in particular, the influx of young inmates had strained the already embattled juvenile justice system. In 1999, 1,000 children were held in Nassau and Suffolk annually, about quarter of the state juvenile inmate population and more than during the crime wave in the 1970s- even though crime among youth dropped 20% in Suffolk County and 29% in Nassau County over three years. The swell of new cases meant children waited longer in the island's dilapidated detention centers for their cases to wind through court and became more likely to act out again when they left.

The police report was critical of the Pataki administrations introduction of a new antigang initiative that year, Operation IMPACT. The program pumped more than $7 million into new gang task forces around the state, promoted information sharing, and trained law enforcement and educators in how to identify gang members. More law enforcement was "only a partial solution" the chiefs' report said. "Identifying gang members was only half the battle."

Their recommendations weren't innovative. They echoed the fifty-year-old 'Great Society' crime report commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, dusting off proposals to enhance intervention, address poverty, improve public schools that had been discarded in the anti-rehabilitation, 'get tough on crime' movement of the 1970s. The report was novel only in that it was written by a group of police officers begging to expand the response to gangs beyond more funding for their departments. "Law enforcement cannot solve the juvenile crime problem themselves. We can deal over and over with disasters, repeatedly repairing the expanding leak, or we can find the money to fix the hole in the roof", the report concluded.