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Jaks View from Vancouver

Thursday, April 29, 2004


This piece from Eric Blumrich and the folks at BushFlash is from last year.

However, after the events of the last few weeks in Iraq, it bears watching again.

Stern as Hero

I have rarely listened to Howard Stern, and only then in very small chunks. The little I heard convinced me that he wasn't what I wanted to listen to. But it's a big world and a huge radio dial is available for every taste. I have therefore followed the Stern v. Michael Powell War only at a distance. It seems of passing importance to me, frankly, because I don't believe that freedom of speech actually is at risk in his case. I could be wrong, but there it is. However, what I am interested in is the reaction of the listening public. Adrants reports, via fmqb, that ClearChannels decision to drop Stern has cost it in at least one market.
"When they dropped his show from six stations at the end of February, Clear Channel expected a morning ratings exodus to follow. In San Diego, they got it. With Stern, KIOZ was No. 1 12+ in February with an 8.9. Without him, the station's morning drive ratings crashed to a 27th place 0.7 in March. The in-demo decline was even more spectacular: 12.7 to 0.7 in Men 18+, 20.6 to 0.8 in 18-34, and 10.1 to 1.0 in 25-54."
That is a massive decline, almost equivalent to shutting down the station. I'm assuming (given Stern's increasing figures in other markets included in fmqb's report) that KIOZ's missing audience did not suddenly decide not to listen to the radio. They are now listening to some other station that is either playing Stern or someone trying to be like Stern.

So who's winning? Not Powell, I suspect (except in the hearts and minds of far-right Republicans, perhaps, flexing for 2008 or 2012). Not the listeners, who have to switch stations just to listen to what they want to hear. So, I'm guessing, that it is Howard Stern who is actually winning. He is still making his millions, he's keeping his core constituency, and he's gaining a persona as an anti-Republican and thus almost welcome to the liberal left. Yup, it's Stern who's winning.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

More Scenes From Iraqi Life

Riverbend --
"There are two different kinds of strain. There's the physical strain of carrying 40 pails of water up and down the stairs to fill the empty water tank on the roof- after the 4th or 5th pail of water, you can literally see your muscles quivering under your skin and without the bucket of water, your arms somehow feel weightless- almost nonexistent. Then there's mental strain… that is when those forty buckets of water are being emptied in your head and there's a huge flow of thoughts and emotions that threaten to overwhelm you.

I think everyone I know is suffering from that mental strain. You can see it in the eyes and hear it in the taut voices that threaten to break with the burden of emotion. We're all watching things carefully and trying to focus on leading semi-normal lives all at once. The situation in the south seems to be deteriorating and we hear of fresh new deaths every day. Fighting has broken out in Falloojeh again and I'm not quite sure what has happened to the ceasefire. It's hard to know just what is going on. There's a sense of collective exhaustion in the air."
Jo Wilding:--
"Qusay Ali Yasseen, spokesman for the IRC, said there are a lot of kids, especially, suffering from diarrhoea, either from unclean water they had to drink on the journey or from unhygienic conditions since they arrived in Baghdad, their immune systems suppressed by trauma and shock. Chest infections are also rife among the kids because of the heat. Some of them walked for a day or two to safety. In the middle of each day, local people arrive and unload trays, boxes and pans of food. They have taken on the responsibility of feeding the increasing numbers of homeless, Qusay said. Through the day, other locals arrived in cars to offer help. A three truck convoy flying Unicef banners unloaded boxes of parts for a water tank, a 70 foot tent for a children’s area and several crates of crayons and paper and other kids’ stuff."
"Faiza: -- “Good morning. All news are depressing. Nothing is promising. Falloja is still on fire.”

Monday, April 26, 2004

Our Record

The excellent folks at MoveOn have another of their clever ads:

It made me stop and think. About things that perhaps the ad makers hadn't considered.

This is surely the final major election for the Boomers. We are getting old now and newer cohorts of leaders have already taken our ground. I suspect this is one of the last elections in the U.S. when the Boomers will have a chance to vote for any of their own. From here on in the candidates just get younger than us by bigger and bigger margins. And it made me consider how my generation -- the idealistic and idealised 60's generation -- has done over the last twenty years or so when we've been in power. And frankly, it's kind of sad.

The ad itself is called "War Record" and it features lovingly portrayed images of "our man" fighting and killing in Vietnam. It contrasts the heroic Navy man with the rich man's son who bought his way out of danger, skipping out on the draft by playing the National Guard card with his Dad's connections. Remember, this time, Rambo is on our side. The fun-loving draft dodger is now the enemy.

Forgive me for not laughing out loud at the irony.

More generally, and leaving aside the personalities, it should surely appall beatniks and hippies and yippies and punks that the 2004 US Presidential election is entirely about the military and how it should be used for foreign policy purposes. Didn't we say "Fuck it!" to all that shit forty years ago? And what good did that do for us, eh?

We haven't even worked out the problems our parents left us! In the "LA Times" today I read in an important essay by Robert McNamara and Helen Caldicott that the US and Russia still have thousands of ICBMs pointed at each other, on hair-trigger alerts.
"According to a report on nuclear war planning by the National Resources Defense Council, Russia aims most of its 8,200 nuclear warheads at the U.S., and the U.S. maintains 7,000 offensive strategic warheads in its arsenal, most of which are targeted on Russian missile silos and command centers. Each of these warheads has roughly 20 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Of the 7,000 U.S. nuclear warheads, 2,500 are maintained on hair-trigger alert, ready for launching. In order to effectively retaliate, the commander of the Strategic Air Command has only three minutes to decide if a nuclear attack warning is valid. He has 10 minutes to find the president for a 30-second briefing on attack options. And the president has three minutes to decide whether to launch the warheads and at which targets, according to the Center for Defense Information. Once launched, the missiles would reach their Russian targets in 15 to 30 minutes.

A nearly identical situation prevails in Russia, except there the early warning system is decaying rapidly."
Unbelievable. This is the same nightmare I was waking up to every day in the 50s and 60s. What the hell have we been doing for forty years?

What Does George Do When The Going Gets Tough?

Josh Marshall over at the always useful Talking Points Memo has an excellent piece today about how George Bush hides behind friends and family whenever there's trouble. I hope Josh doesn't mind me quoting most of the piece as it bears repeating:
"Yesterday the president's longtime handler and current campaign advisor Karen Hughes was on CNN attacking John Kerry's military service record and subsequent work as a Vietnam war protester ... What's the signature pattern of the president's life? When he faces a challenge or a tough scrape, he lets his family and friends bail him out, do his fighting for him. You see it again and again through failed businesses, legal scrapes, the whole matter of ducking service in Vietnam and then getting help cleaning up subsequent unfortunateness while he was serving in the Texas Air National Guard.

It's even come up again and again on the campaign trail. George W. Bush has faced three opponents (McCain, Gore and Kerry) since he came onto the national political stage -- each served in Vietnam, though each under very different circumstances. He's had his lieutenants attack the service of each one.

So here we have the same pattern again -- no different. The president wants to challenge John Kerry's military service. So he gets Karen to do it for him. You can get tripped in the chutzpah of this because this not only throws light on an earlier period when the president couldn't fight his own fights, it repeats the pattern."
That's a good observation. Of course, it is equally true that this ability to avoid one's own fights has brought Bush fils to the Presidency. We do ourselves ill to consider this man nothing more than a simple fool or a puppet. I am not suggesting that observers such as Josh Marshall are that short-sighted. But Bush the Fool is a view that I hear too often on the street or in casual conversation. The Bush opposition cannot allow itself the hubris of intellectual arrogance.

Branding The Unnatural Beauty

Josephine Esther Lauter nee Mentzer was born in Queens, NY, 97 or 96 or 95 years ago. By the time she died this week, the woman she had become -- Estee Lauder -- had helped create celebrity culture and had built a cosmetics empire conservatively valued at $5 billion.
"Lauder was among the first of the great beauty titans, men and women such as Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Revlon's Charles Revson, who trafficked in hope. Lauder began her career in 1946 at a time when women spoke openly and earnestly about appearance without fearing the wrath of feminists, intellectuals and spoilsports who would accuse them of being shallow and narcissistic. Great beauties were celebrated without irony or dismissiveness back then. And Lauder tapped into the desires of the average woman to look her best and to be pampered ...

"A relentless saleswoman, Lauder was an early advocate and adopter of celebrity marketing. She envisioned her product in the hands of the world's most prestigious women, and so Lauder was profligate in sending out samples of her products to prominent women, such as the Duchess of Windsor. She wanted her goods sold in the most expensive department stores of the day, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus ... Lauder used signature models to personify the company and helped to transform the beauty business from one that was simply a blend of luxurious creams, science and hucksterism into one that also incorporated romance, sex appeal and fantasies."
The closing paragraph of the Post's obit nails it quite perfectly:
"The entire beauty business has changed significantly since Lauder began concocting skin creams in her kitchen with the help of an uncle who was a chemist. Indulging in beauty products and attempting to stave off the signs of aging have become activities fraught with negative social connotations; they have become flashpoints for social commentary. As a businesswoman, Lauder proved what determination and savvy can build, but she also helped to set the groundwork for a culture obsessed with a narrow range of beauty -- often to the detriment of the individual."
The lessons of Estee Lauder, "whom history will judge as one of the world's great entrepreneurs", are worth mining. Study capitalism's successes, understand the limitations, identify the weaknesses.

Bush's Poodle Bitten Again

Fifty-two former British ambassadors -- many with expert knowledge of the Middle East -- have written to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The 52 diplomats urged Mr Blair to use his alliance with Mr Bush to exert
"real influence as a loyal ally... If that is unacceptable or unwelcome, there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure."
This open letter -- which one Opposition spokesman has called "a most remarkable intervention in the debate about the Middle East from a group of people who are almost certainly the most expert in Britain on the issue." -- takes aim at the US-UK policy in Iraq ...
"We do think that through lack of planning and through a misunderstanding, a misreading of the situation, we have got ourselves into an extremely difficult situation"
but is primarily concerned with the recent reversals of policy with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. They condemn Mr Bush's decision to endorse an Israeli plan to retain some settlements in the West Bank as an illegal and one-sided step - and criticise Mr Blair's public support for the move.
"Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land."
They go on to say that
"the views expressed are widely felt by officials in the Foreign Office though they are not shared by the prime minister or the foreign secretary."
Blair will of course shrug this off as the whining of a group of macontents, unaware of the situation on the ground. Blair will probably remind them that his knowledge of all possible situations is vastly superior to theirs, and that they should line up behind him and Big Brother George like loyal soldiers. However, having taken this unprecendented step of public crtiticism, I think it unlikely these diplomats will now just keel over and toe the line.

Vancouver blossoms....

... as it does each Spring.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

American Idol Fixed?

I just haven't been watching "American Idol". Not this season. Not last season. Not ever. A karaoke gong show where the Brit dude who invented it gets 50% of the winner's checks for life just didn't fit into my viewing habits. Until last week. Last Wednesday, there was a spare half-hour between the end of one of the funniest shows on TV -- "Corner Gas" (only available in Canada, I'm sure) -- and the start of a new episode of "West Wing". Not having any urgent chores to fill the time, I chose to stay affixed to the couch and thus was subjected to a special half-hour episode of "Idol".

This particular episode has already become notorious, with the black girl who was generally agreed to be the most talented of the six finalists, being voted off the show by the telephone electorate. The surprise to the show regulars -- Ryan, Paula, Simon, et al -- was obvious even to a virgin viewer like myself. And the story is all over the media. My favourite article so far is from "MediaLife".
"First came the cries of vote fixing. Then came accusations of racism. That’s not surprising, considering the show’s history. In season one, Tamyra Gray, who is black, was voted off before the final in an upset that ranked just behind Hudson’s on the surprise scale. And last season producers booted fan favorite Frenchie Davis, also black, for posing topless for pictures for an internet site called “Daddy’s Little Girls” despite her mentioning the pictures on her application. In season one, producers let a white former stripper nonetheless stay on.

Fox’s accusers worried that the network did not want all three black women making the final, perhaps worried a fickle white audience would tune out, though again, they have no evidence. Of course, a greater percentage of black households than white actually watch “Idol.” “I knew once they let [Ruben Studdard] win the last show they will not let another black person win," a fan said on the “Idol” web site. “They are intimidated by the talent and skills of the black singers.”
Will the viewers stay if the junk gets a free pass? Has the "Idol" phenomenon reached its flood? What's next?

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Cultural Depth

Another of my enthusiasms is the paleo-anthropology of culture -- how long ago, and how, did we begin to do some of those things that we consider to inform culture. And for how long did the older forms persist. Music, dance, art, mytho-religion, all these and more are included in that remit. This has been an interesting month so far for news in these areas.

Clearly, the big news was the announcement that archeologists working the Blombos Cave in South Africa had discovered "41 shells, all with holes and wear marks in similar positions, in a layer of sediment deposited during the Middle Stone Age." It is a string of beads dated to 75,000 years ago, almost doubling the age at which we can now say for sure that humans adorned themselves. It means even more to those seeking the earliest signs of symbolism:
"The Blombos Cave beads present absolute evidence for perhaps the earliest storage of information outside the human brain," says Christopher Henshilwood, program director of the Blombos Cave Project and professor at the Centre for Development Studies of the University of Bergen in Norway ... "Agreement is widespread that personal ornaments, such as beads, incontrovertibly represent symbolically mediated modern behaviour. Until now, the oldest beads in Africa date to about 45,000 years. The discovery of 41 shell beads in sand layers at Blombos Cave accurately dated as 75,000 year old provides important new evidence for early symbolically organized behaviour in Africa" ...

The shells, found in clusters of up to 17 beads, are from a tiny mollusk scavenger, Nassarius kraussianus, which lives in estuaries. They must have been brought to the cave site from the nearest rivers, 20 kilometers east or west on the coast. The shells appear to have been selected for size and deliberately perforated, suggesting they were made into beads at the site or before transport to the cave. Traces of red ochre indicate that either the shell beads themselves or the surfaces against which they were worn were coated with this widely used iron oxide pigment."
Jumping ahead 50 or 60 thousand years, there was more evidence of the Europe-wide influence of the Magdalenian Culture. Reading a Sean Clarke article from the Guardian, we learn that
"The discovery of 13,000-year-old rock paintings in Nottinghamshire last year rewrote ice-age history in Britain. Today, archaeologists from all over Europe are in Creswell to discuss how the finds form part of a continent-wide culture known as the Magdalenian. Paul Pettitt, of Sheffield University's archaeology department, said: "The Magdalenian era was the last time that Europe was unified in a real sense and on a grand scale." According to Mr Pettitt, the artists behind the Creswell paintings would have spent summers in the area feasting on migrating reindeer, but the winters on lowlands which now form the North sea or in the Netherlands or central Rhine areas."

Of particular interest is a depiction of an ibex, an animal now only to be found in Europe in the Pyrenees. "Not one ice-age ibex bone has been found in Britain. The nearest ibex remains [from the period] were found in Belgium and mid-Germany," said Mr Pettitt. He said the most likely explanation is that Magdalenians saw ibexes elsewhere and painted them in Creswell as a reminder.

"Other shapes found at Creswell were initially thought to be long-necked birds. "Looked at another way," said Mr Pettitt, "You see a naked women in profile, with jutting out buttocks and raised arms. It appears to be a picture of women doing a dance in which they thrust out their derrières. It's stylistically very similar to continental examples, and seems to demonstrate that Creswellians are singing and dancing in the same way as on the continent."
Both of these fascinating pieces deal with that most important of times before the tyranny of agriculture and then cities ("civilization") distorted human development.

Wal-Mart the Great

Wal-Mart is a fascinating study of the modern Corporation, for good and ill. I wish I had more time to write about it, especially these days when there is so much good material. Here are four recent stories that are well worth the read to anyone interested in modern retailing, marketing, social engineering, capitalism, and similar stuff.

First there is an excellent piece on Wal-Mart's social impact in the "New York Times".
"[W]ith $256 billion in annual sales and 20 million shoppers visiting its stores each day, Wal-Mart has greater reach and influence than any retailer in history. "In each historical epoch a prototypical enterprise seems to embody a new and innovative set of economic structures and social relationships," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California here and the organizer of the conference. "These template businesses are emulated because they have put in place, indeed perfected for their era, the most efficient and profitable relationship between the technology of production, the organization of work and the new shape of the market."
Then there is a useful overview article at "The Economist, which concludes:
"With so many eyes watching it, Wal-Mart may have decided that it has to sacrifice a bit of its entrepreneurialism to reduce its legal risks. It recently set up a “reputation taskforce”, introduced new personnel procedures, hired extra lobbyists in Washington, DC, created an “office of diversity”, and launched new public-relations and advertising initiatives, dubbed “good jobs” and “good works”, featuring lots of beaming associates. These are not the actions of a company intending to get smaller. Wal-Mart, already huge, is preparing to get a whole lot bigger."
Opponents of Wal-Mart -- and there are many -- are obliged by the sheer bulk of the "enemy" to concentrate their energies on local battles. Guerilla News Network has an opinionated piece about the anti-Wal-Mart actions in Inglewood, California. The same article almost canonizes Costco for having 20% union membership compared to zero at the "Evil Empire".
"Costco, surprise, has a lower turnover rate and a far higher rate of productivity: it almost equaled Sam's Club's annual sales last year with one-third fewer employees. Only six percent of Costco's employees leave each year, compared to 21 percent at Sam's. And, by every financial measurement, the company does better. Its operating income was higher than Sam's Club, as was operating profit per hourly employees, sales per square foot and even its labor and overhead costs. Here's a quote to emblazon for corporate America: "Paying your employees well is not only the right thing to do but it makes for good business," says Costco CEO James D. Sinegal."
Still, other businesses look on Wal-Mart with awe and appreciation. It is always the benchmark for comparison. For example, Business Week Online has a fascinating article about German retailer Aldi:
"Aldi is Europe's stealth Wal-Mart. Like the Arkansas-based giant, Aldi boasts awesome margins, huge market clout, and seemingly unstoppable growth -- including an estimated sales increase of 8% a year since 1998. It relentlessly focuses on efficiency, matching or even beating Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) in its ability to strip out costs. Yet privately owned Aldi is also very old-school German, financing expansion with cash to avoid debt, shunning publicity, and moving quietly into new markets before the competition catches on. That has allowed the onetime local grocer in Essen to become one of the world's biggest retailers, with $37 billion in sales, a fraction of Wal-Mart's $245 billion but enough to give Aldi a 3.5% market share in Europe, vs. 6.8% for market leader Carrefour, according to Brussels-based market watcher M+M Planet Retail. Even mighty Wal-Mart has struggled against Aldi in Germany."
To close, the Times article quotes Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California here and the organizer of a recent academic conference on Wal-Mart:
Today's prototypical company, he declared in opening the conference, is Wal-Mart, which, he said, rezones American cities, sets wage standards and even conducts diplomacy with other nations. "In short, the company's management legislates for the rest of us key components of American social and industrial policy," Mr. Lichtenstein said.

The Best Half-Hour on TV

The ever-interesting Gothamist's Jen Chung, a "Law and Order" fan, writes about jogging into Jerry Orbach's last day of filming on the series. Good selection of pictures, too.

copyright: Jen Chung

I have to admit to the "Law and Order" addiction myself. However, as I call it the "best half hour on television", you may recognize that I generally stop watching after Lenny Briscoe's part is done. We'll all be looking forward to Jerry Orbach's next incarnation in yet another (not complianing) "Law and Order" spinoff this fall.

"Brands exist in people's heads"

Did you know that Britain's famous spy agency, MI5, has its own website? It does, and I was led to this fascinating fact from an article by Chris Grannell at brandchannel.com.
"That a notoriously secretive organization even has a website is in itself a sign of the times – but in a world where just about everybody has a website promoting just about anything perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. What makes this development all the more interesting is that, according to the Financial Times, “MI5 plans to use the cachet of its brand as a strategy to encourage businesses and the public routinely to access its website ...

Many will be surprised to learn that MI5 has a brand – but that it does is hard to deny. And yet there’s not much of a logo, no advertising campaign, only a small PR program, and very few spokespeople or celebrity endorsers ... Without doubt, MI5 is widely viewed as a premium product within its sector, but its brand is very different from that of, say, Cadbury or Coca-Cola. MI5 is by its very nature a secretive organization – and in this sense it is more like a corporate or investor-facing brand.”
Grannell makes note of the fact that
" ... organizations do not always choose whether to have a brand. Any organization or business about which people have opinions and perceptions by definition has a brand ... Brands exist in people’s heads, which means that your organization can have a brand even if you haven’t paid someone for a fancy logo ... With the launch of its public-information website (which comes complete with cartoons and Flash programming), MI5 has clearly opted not only to manage its brand, but to actively exploit it within the public arena. This reflects a popular line of reasoning used by brand owners: namely that once you accept your brand is going to appear in the public domain, then you might as well use it to further your goals."
Knowledge is the essence of defensive power. Articles like this help us understand the way the Corporations are playing with our heads.

Intelligent Design My Ass!

One of the most insidious manifestations of religious bigotry rampant in America today is the revival of anti-science creationism under the fancy name of "Intelligent Design." The zealots of this ideology seek to exclude evolutionary science from schools, in particular, and general discourse in general. Their aim, of course, is to replace it with God-driven Bible-authorized drivel.

Although I have a deep interest in this subject and an inclination to snap at some of the ID rubbish I read, I have neither the time nor the academic background to counter the ravings of the loony right on this issue. Luckily, there are scores of sensible, well-trained scientists who are willing to take arms against this sea of idiocy. One of the most interesting to read on a daily basis is a fine blog called "The Panda's Thumb".

The items on "The Panda's Thumb" usually attract a wide range of fascinating comments. And the site contains enough links to get you onto the most creative biology sites. Ahhh, I wish I had more time!

Two Windows

Two Windows

Another Day in Iraq

Faiza --
"Today is the weekend...thank god we are all home. I always hated this day, weekend, since it has always been the day when i am supposed to finish all the house work that wasn?t done during the entire week. And I used to feel that it's a long boring day... But now, and considering the bad security situation, this day became such a relief, since we all stay home, hiding, it saves us the panic of moving around the city, where you never guess when the next bomb will explode. Everyday in the traffic, i keep staring at the cars around me and think which one is going to explode now and kill us all? And when i am home, at night, while I am in my bed, I hear explosions coming from a distance, then it start to come closer and closer, and I keep thinking that maybe a bomb will fall on our house by mistake, shoot by Americans or Iraqi people, what's the difference?"
Riverbend --
"There have also been explosions in Basra and Baghdad but they hardly register on the news anymore. Iraqis take it in stride along with dust storms, blackouts and mosquitos. It has become a part of life and one simply has to find away to live around it, just as one finds a way around American road blocks and concrete walls that are rising ever higher. There is a sort of muggy, heavy heat lately. It's not the usual dry Iraqi heat that we're accustomed to. It's more of a moist, clammy heat that feels almost solid. The electrical situation is still quite bad in many areas. We're on a schedule of 3 hours of electricity and then three hours of darkness. While it was tolerable during the cool winter months, the hellish summer months promise to be torture."
Dahr Jamail --
"Here is what ?relatively calm? looks like in Baghdad on a daily basis-using the last 24 hours as an example. Early this morning I was awakened by a huge explosion quite a distance off. Far away, yet large enough to wake me and shake my bed, followed by a couple of smaller explosions. Nearly every time a bomb goes off, people are killed. There is sporadic gunfire every night--this in one of the better areas of central Baghdad. Several friends of mine who live in Adhamiyah district report that on a nightly basis the U.S. base there in the Adhamiyah Palace is bombed by mortars. This is the same area where a South African mercenary was shot dead yesterday ... The suffering is everywhere. Anyone traveling outside the ?Green Zone? cannot help but have it thrust in their face. Begging women and children on the streets, people with disabilities sitting legless near buildings holding out their hands for a few dinars. Nearly every car on the street looks as though it has been pulled from a scrap yard. The electricity blinks on and off, and if you are lucky, you have heated running water for a shower."

Friday, April 23, 2004

Bush's Scandals

During the Democratic primaries, Don Conley enthusiastically supported the candidacy of John Edwards to the very end. His blog was always an interesting read -- especially once it became clear to all but the fanatics that Kerry was bound to win. Don still keeps a worthwhile blog that I always approach with anticipation. A couple of weeks ago, he wrote an excellent summary of the claims made in John Dean's latest book, "Worse Than Watergate" This is a long quote but I think it worth the coverage:
"1) Bush character issues. We've already had a whiff of these in election 2004 with the focus on Bush's national guard record. And the press (finally) reported on his DWI arrest the week before the 2000 election. But what about Bush drinking and drug use? Bush claims that he learned from the mistakes of his youth ... so why then doesn't a reporter have the guts to ask the obvious question: what did George W. Bush learn from using cocaine?

2) Bush business conduct. Martha Stewart was convicted on a far lesser abuse of our nation's securities laws than George W. Bush may have been guilty of in the late 80s when he sold $800,000 worth of Harken Oil stock only a week before bad economic numbers dropped the value of Harken stock by 40 percent. George Soros served on the board of Harken Oil back then and he's committed to dropping as much of his personal fortune necessary to independent groups to defeat Bush. Somehow I don't think we've heard the last of this story.

3) Dick Cheney's health records. Cheney has stonewalled for nearly four years now on his personal medical information ... and the little that has leaked out indicates that this is a man with serious, chronic heart problems that could manifest at any moment. Cheney's health itself is a problem, but the lengths that the White House has gone to cover up his medical history is the real scandal.

4) Cheney's past business dealings. If Bush's security law violations topped Martha Stewart, Cheney's may top Ken Lay's. Cheney cashed out of Halliburton just in time to avoid a crash in the Halliburton stock from $52 to the high teens. Why did this happen? Because Halliburton hid the costs of a merger with Dresser, which had more than a 100,000 asbestos claims against it when Halliburton purchased it -- something Cheney clearly knew about at the time. The SEC is currently investigating Halliburton and by extension Cheney. And oh by the way, the French government is also investigating whether Halliburton bribed foreign officials to gain new business.

5) Civil rights violations against anti-Bush protestors. The ACLU has sued the White House over heavy-handed tactics used against groups protesting Bush and Cheney appearances, including the use of the Secret Service to keep protestors away from the President. And Dean doesn't even mention the gestapo tactics used in Miami this winter to squelch anti-globalization rallies.

6) Bush's illegal executive order dismantling the Presidential Records Act. This one is a doozy -- Bush ordered a completely turnaround of the PRA that shielded Reagan, Bush I and Bush II records from the public eye. Oh, and what about Clinton records? The Bush administration had no qualms about selectively leaking information about Clinton's pardons in the early weeks of their Presidency.

7) The National Energy Policy records. Dean says the scandal isn't just the secret meetings, but it also extends to the campaign contributors who benefittted directly from this administration's executive orders not just in the Energy Bill, but also in securities, environmental, health and safety regulation. Paul Krugman mentioned one facet of this today in his column about mercury ground water deregulations.

8) The 9-11 commission. Did the White House have adequate information to stop an attack and if so, why didn't they do more? Alternatively, why didn't the White House respond to the U.S.S. Cole attack from 2000?

9) Continuation of Government. Did the White House hand pick hundreds of bedrock conservatives and form a secret government-in-waiting post 9-11 to rule the nation in case of a catastrophic attack? Crazy as it sounds, it appears that's exactly what the White House did ... and if they overly politicized COG and some of the government employees holed up for weeks post 9-11 ever talks, there could be a scandal there.

10) The Iraq War resolution. Dean insists that the White House violated the Iraq War resolution by never sending up a determination that Iraq both had weapons of mass destruction and a hand in the 9-11 attacks while also demonstrating that no diplomatic effort could bring about disarmament and regime change. If it can be proven that the White House knew very well that they had no proof of Iraqi WMDs, this would constitute perhaps the greatest violation of the U.S. Constitution and Presidential war powers in our history.

11) The Valerie Plame Affair. Dean says the exposure of Plame was more vicious and criminal than anything done in the Nixon White House. The question now is when did the White House start the leak cover up and how far did it go."
Don Conley then adds three Bush scandals of his own:
"12) Medigate. The Medicare actuary knew the cost of the Medicare "reform" bill would be hundreds of billions of dollars more than the Bush White House reported to Congress. When he wanted to come forward with this information, he claims his job was threatened. If true, how high does this threat go? The Bush White House's actions here show a contempt for Congress matched only by their war justification.

13) Electoral Theft. No, I'm not talking here about 2000, I'm talking about 2004 and the new touch-screen voting machines with no paper trail. We won't know if this is a real scandal until the election is over and normally I'd say that no White House would be crazy enough to try to steal a U.S. election. But these are not normal times and these aren't normal occupants of the White House ...

And here's number 14 ... Bush using federal civil servants for political purposes."
Makes you think, doesn't it. And where is the mainstream media coverage on most of these items? Rarely have we seen the American press quite so well managed. Luckily, a few exceptional pieces are written. One, in the "Daily Herald", covers Don Conley's scandal number 14:
"The Treasury Department analyzes John Kerry's tax proposals and the numbers quickly find their way to the Republican National Committee. The Health and Human Services Department spends millions on ads promoting President Bush's prescription drug plan. The House Resources Committee posts a diatribe against Kerry's "absurd" energy ideas on its Web site.

With friends like these -- all operating at taxpayer expense -- who needs a re-election campaign?

In the time-honored tradition of presidents past, Bush is skillfully using the resources of the federal government to promote his re-election. And some critics say the president is going far beyond his predecessors in using government means to accomplish political ends ...

Bush is flying Air Force One to battleground states at a clip that eclipses even that of President Clinton, known as a particularly political president. His Cabinet secretaries are covering additional ground to spread good news about the Bush administration. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who insists, "I don't do politics," has chimed in to cast Kerry as a flip-flopper on jobs and to question his claim that some world leaders quietly prefer the Democratic presidential candidate over Bush ...

Bush gets plenty of help from Congress, too ... congressional committees have posted anti-Kerry commentary on their Web sites. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was out front in attacking the credibility of Richard Clarke, the former Bush administration official who criticized the president's terrorism policies. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., regularly uses his daily chats with reporters to critique "John Kerry & Co."
There have of course been complaints from the usual suspects:
"Rep. Robert Matsui of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has complained that House Republicans abused taxpayer resources to attack Kerry on an official congressional Web site. Other Democrats tried to get the Medicare prescription drug ads yanked from TV, and asked the General Accounting Office to examine whether that was proper use of taxpayer dollars ...

"While the trend toward utilizing the White House to maximize your electoral prospects began with President Nixon, I think it's only been strengthened during the Bush administration," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution ...

Doug Sosnik, who was White House political director during Clinton's re-election campaign, says any incumbent president "would be crazy not to take advantage of all opportunities of incumbency to get re-elected, but these guys have gone off in areas that are way over the line and I can't imagine that the American public will fall for any of it."
Will they even notice is the real question.

Fog At Sunset

To see more, go here.

Bush and Blair at The Gay Bar

This from BushOutTV. Turn your speakers on and enjoy:
"Check out this funny Flash video of George Bush and Tony Blair lip synching Electric Six's "Gay Bar". This is another example of how the wide availability of video editing software combined with the easy distribution of the internet is reshaping parody."

Thursday, April 22, 2004

In Iraq Today ...

Faiza, a mother in Baghdad --
"I woke up before seven in the morning….the sound of birds turned my attention to the tranquility. I haven’t heard the sound of birds for such a long time. I remembered the Dutch journalist who came to visit us a week ago, who said that he woke up to the sound of tanks and helicopters in the morning…and then after a few hours he heard the sound of birds….I laughed and told myself, look at this bourgeoisie man - we have forgotten this, romantic sages from antiquity ...

"All we do is read subtitles on the American and Arab media that the Americans are studying the possibility of sending organized forces to ensure security in Iraq and nothing is sent. It’s as if they are looking at us while we are dying a slow death. Exactly like an injured person in the emergency room of a hospital, trying to breath, and speak of the accident he’s just had. And the doctor thinks and waits, and organizes a meeting for the doctors, in the future. It’s not important, because this issue is not a priority, and perhaps, if the injured man dies, then the problem would be resolved completely. This is how we feel the American administration is treating us."

Jaffar Raed --
"Over a year, and no one can name a single success for the American administration in Iraq… I mean… I really try to find something bright… Public services? Electricity... water... telecommunication… hospitals… schools… The only thing that has happened is “rehabilitating” some schools by Bechtel, and let me tell u more about it…

Bechtel charged around $75,000 per school, and gave the contracts to Iraqi sub-contractors, the Iraqi sub-contractors gave to other Iraqi sub-sub-contractors, and the sub-sub-contractors painted the schools, fixed the bathrooms, changed the broken windows and put some light bulbs, the thing that cannot cost more than $7,500 (around fifteen million Iraqi Dinars). Rehabilitation was poor and extremely costly; it was the first corruption story that destroyed the credibility of the plans of reconstruction. I’m sure I had already said many things about how bad the situation of hospitals, libraries (the ones that were not burned and looted), universities and gas stations are.

Infrastructure? Landmarks? Governmental buildings? Telephone exchanges? Destroyed buildings and bridges are as they were one year ago, some buildings were brought down at Najaf and Basra (which is better than leaving them standing and adding more depression to the urban skyline), but the buildings in Baghdad were not even touched… they look sad and painful, downtown Baghdad looks like a battlefield, can you imagine all the buildings that you love… that you spent your life watching and using… being burned and partially destroyed? Can u imagine the feeling you would have if you went by the White House or the Capitol while it was burning and destroyed? Can you imagine what it would feel like to have the twin towers of the WTC standing for months burned and partially destroyed… the skyline of Baghdad reminds me of war and death, reminds me of explosions and destruction. Other smaller landmarks like status of people, pictures, small monuments and other things that were destroyed after the war, under the campaign of De-Baathification left Baghdad and the other Iraqi cities full of small destroyed icons."

Rahul Mahajan --
"Before we go to the airport, I tell the driver I'd like to take a picture of the statue in Firdaus Square. I want to be able to show people back home the ugliest thing in all of Iraq. He is skeptical about whether I will be able to -- there is a permanent U.S. military detachment, complete with a big tank, guarding the Palestine Hotel and the Sheraton.

I approach the statue that has replaced Saddam Hussein's and take several pictures. There are two old men sitting at the base; I wave to them and they wave back. Then, not satisfied with the fact that I have almost no pictures from my trip (on the trip to fallujah, I did the digital equivalent of keeping the lens cap cover on), I suddenly take leave of my senses. With my mind already wandering past Iraq, I forget that my body is still planted very firmly in Iraq. I swivel around to take a picture of the tank. Suddenly the men at the base of the statue erupt, jumping up and gesticulating wildly. I suddenly come back to my senses. the most dangerous thing you can do in Iraq is take a picture of an American soldier with a big gun pointed at you. If they don't think you're shooting at them, they're likely to think you're a journalist, which is even more dangerous. In front of the "Green Zone," where the CPA headquarters are, there's a sign that says, "No photography." But nobody needs the sign; everyone knows."
Jo Wilding --
"This is my honeymoon,” Heba said, in the crowded corridor of bomb shelter number 24 in the Al-Ameriya district of Baghdad. Married just under a month, she fled Falluja with her extended family. “There were bombs all the time. We couldn’t sleep. Even if you fell asleep, nightmares woke you up. We just gathered the whole family in one room and waited.

“It is better here than in Falluja. We hear bombs but they are far away and not so many. But there is no water in here: we have to go outside for water for drinking, cooking and washing ourselves and our clothes and we buy ice. There is no fridge, no fans, no air conditioning, no generator and only one stove for us all. We have to go to the garden for a toilet and that’s a problem at night. Everyone has diarrhoea from the ice that we bought."

"When I got home Raed said the colour had come back to my cheeks for the first time since the Falluja trips. “I think you have been playing with children,” he said. It’s true. It did make a difference. The violence starts to pervade everything: Karlu and the other kids on our street were playing Hostages as we left in the morning, Ahmed holding one hand over Karlu’s eyes and making sawing motions at his throat with the other hand."

Goodbye Freedom, Hello Unemployment

A few days ago, a photograph was published -- on this blog among other places -- of the coffins of US servicemen being shipped home from Kuwait. Today, the photographer and her husband were both fired from their jobs with the cargo company.

So much for the "land of the free" and the land of the First Amendment. This is repressive Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft-land now, and don't you forget it!


Upon Reflection -- Downtown

Baghdad Today

Rahul Mahajan:
"Firdaus square is ... testament to the CPA's ineptitude. On April 9, 2003, the whole world was saturated with images of Firdaus square, and the American tank-retriever pulling down Saddam's statue while a small crowd of Iraqis cheered. Well, you'd think it would be a no-brainer to put up something grand in its place. Maybe a statue of a proud, handsome Iraqi couple striding off into a glorious future, with a plaque saying that Americans are glad to have had the opportunity to help Iraq realize its glorious destiny. Also with water fountains perpetually fountaining, verdant greenery, and so on.

But no. On top of the marble column where Saddam's statue stood, someone put up the most hideous monstrosity I've ever seen. A green statue, not green because of paint but because it's like brass that's been out in the air for 1000 years, with a face that is not recognizable as anything human. It's supposed to be some kind of "goddess of liberty," but it looks like nothing in any of the worlds. For the rest, the square is untended. The twin pools in front of and on either side of the main column have the fetid stink of stagnant water, and are full of garbage. Posters and graffiti are everywhere, and it all looks horrible. There is an old man who every morning cleans up the trash from the bushes, but he's likely doing it on his own and anyway he's not up to the task.

Of course, this way there's more of a ring of truth. Firdaus square now is the perfect symbol of the occupation the way it actually is, not the way George Bush always claims it is."

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Woodward's Trojan Horse

It had occured to me late last week that Bob Woodward's new book "Plan of Attack" was a Trojan Horse. It appears at first glance to call Bush's leadership into question -- thus guaranteeing the mass media coverage that we have seen this week. However, on deeper reading, it proves to be a Great Leader text, supporting Bush as strong and principled.

Woodward's tome is full of what "The Daily Howler" calls "scripts -- scripts that flatter a bold, daring president." But it is possible to deconstruct some storylines and figure out the gaps that couldn't be closed by the scripts.

One such space is the story of the December 2002 briefing by the CIA to the President on the status of WMD in Iraq. "The Howler" shows that the story of that briefing given in the book doesn't actually make sense; that Bush and Cheney were making definitive statements about Saddam's WMD capabilities well before the President was briefed on intelligence activity in that area. The discussion and arguments are detailed in "The Howler" and are worth reading.

Does that make "Plan of Attack" the Trojan Horse I described? I think it is very possible.


I have thoroughly enjoyed Paul Farmer's piece in the London Review of Books entitled "Who Removed Aristide?".

Farmer makes an excellent case that Aristide's departure was forced by the United States.
"Did the US and France have a hand in Aristide's removal? Were he and his wife being held against their will? Most of Aristide's claims, initially disputed by US officials from Noriega to Donald Rumsfeld, are now acknowledged to be true. His enemies' claims that Aristide met with officials in Antigua - Aristide said they were not allowed to move from their seats - were undermined by reports from Antigua itself. Noriega acknowledged during a House hearing that Aristide did not know of his destination until less than an hour before landing in the Central African Republic. Even CAR officials acknowledge that no Haitian authorities were involved in the choice of destination."
More importantly, perhaps, is the history lesson he gives on American involvement in Haiti over the last decade and a half, and their close ties with some of the most vicious thugs involved with the overthrow.
"[O]n 16 December 1990, [Aristide] got 67 per cent of the vote in a field of 12 candidates. No run-off was required. The United States might not have been able to prevent Aristide's landslide victory, but there was plenty they could do to undermine him. The most effective method, adopted by the first Bush administration, was to fund both the opposition - their poor showing at the polls was no reason, it appears, to cut off aid to them - and the military. Declassified records now make it clear that the CIA and other US groups helped to create and fund a paramilitary group called FRAPH, which rose to prominence after a military coup that ousted Aristide in September 1991. Thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled overseas or across the border into the Dominican Republic. For the next three years Haiti was run by military-civilian juntas as ruthless as the Duvaliers.

In October 1994, under Clinton, the US military intervened and restored Aristide to power, with a little over a year of his term left to run. Although authorised by the UN, the restoration was basically a US operation. Then, seven weeks after Aristide's return, Republicans took control of the Congress, and influential Republicans have worked ever since to block aid to Haiti or burden it with preconditions.

The aid coming through official channels was never very substantial: the US gave Haiti, per capita, one tenth of what it distributed in Kosovo. It is true that, as former US ambassadors and the Bush administration have recently claimed, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into Haiti - but not to the elected government. A great deal of it went to the anti-Aristide opposition. A lot also went to pay for the UN occupation, and Halliburton support services. There was little effort to rebuild schools, the healthcare infrastructure, roads, ports, telecommunications or airports."
Moreover, the democratic government was forced to pay for the debts incurred, under US auspices, by the previously unelected tyrants. In order to even be considered for more aid,
"the cash-strapped Haitian government was required to pay ever-expanding arrears on its debts, many of them linked to loans paid out to the Duvalier dictatorship and to the military regimes that ruled Haiti with great brutality from 1986 to 1990. In July 2003, Haiti sent more than 90 per cent of all its foreign reserves to Washington to pay off these arrears."
As Farmer points out, the US has close ties with a number of the brutes who's fortunes have been greatly improved with the coup. For example, there is former General Propser Avril
"a leader of the notorious Presidential Guard under both Duvaliers. Avril seized power in September 1988, and was deposed in March 1990. A US District Court found that his regime engaged in a 'systematic pattern of egregious human rights abuses'. It also found him personally responsible for enough 'torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment' to award six of his victims a total of $41 million in compensation. The victims included opposition politicians, union leaders, scholars, even a doctor trying to practise community medicine. Avril's repression was not subtle: three torture victims were paraded on national television with their faces grotesquely swollen, their limbs bruised and their clothing covered with blood. He suspended 37 articles of the constitution, and declared a state of siege. The US started protecting Avril shortly after the 1994 restitution of Aristide."
Once US troops from the previous intervention had been removed in May of 2001, Haitian magistrates moved against Avril.
"He was in prison awaiting the end of the pre-trial proceedings when he was freed [by the new US-installed regime] on 2 March - a few days after Aristide was deposed."
And then there is Guy Philippe who made a splash during the overthrow.
"The rebel leader Guy Philippe received training, during the last coup, at a US military facility in Ecuador. When the army was demobilised, Philippe was incorporated into the new police force, serving as police chief in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas and in the second city, Cap-Haïtien. During his tenure, the UN International Civilian Mission learned, dozens of suspected gang members were summarily ex ecuted, most of them by police under the command of Philippe's deputy. The US embassy has also implicated Philippe in drug smuggling during his police career ... Philippe fled Haiti in October 2000, when the authorities discovered him plotting a coup with a clique of fellow police chiefs. Since then, the Haitian government has accused him of masterminding terrorist attacks in July and December 2001, as well as lethal hit-and-run raids against police stations on Haiti's central plateau."
And yet there was Philippe boasting to the US press on 2nd March that the country was in his hands.

It is dangerous and violent people like these, favoured by State Departrment and CIA creatures such as Otto Reich and John Negroponte, who work hand in hand to create and action US policy in Central and South America.

The View Through

The view through an arched gateway at the Sun Yat Sen Chinese Gardens in Vancouver.

News From The Rehabilitation Ward

Oprah fav Wally Lamb has been teaching a creative writing course to inmates of York Correctional Facility in East Lyme, Connecticut. He has done a fine enough job that one of his students, Barbara Parsons Lane, suriving time for the killing of her abusive husband, won a $25,000 PEN American Center prize for her work on the 2003 book "Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters."

And what did the prison authorities do to celebrate this award? They deleted the hard drives of the 15 women taking the course, wiping out five years' worth of writing.

The prison says it was all a case of "miscommunication" and the warden will look into the matter. Yeah, right.

Oh, yes, the "New York Times" covered the award, but failed to mention the punitive followup measures. As usual, they live up to their standard motto: "Some of the News That's Fit To Print".

Bush's Press Conferences

It is not news that George Bush gives few press conferences. He clearly doesn't like the form. What is news, perhaps, is Ron Suskind's claim, in a recent debate at USC, that these press conferences are managed even more than we might suspect.
"For each press conference, the White House press secretary asks the reporters for their questions, selects six or seven of the questions to answer and those reporters are the only ones called upon to ask their questions during the press conference, Suskind said. This system makes it so that the president has answers already prepared for questions that he knows will be asked, Suskind said.

Suskind says that this level of control also applies outside the press conference:
"Suskind also said that the White House uses intimidation to force writers into only writing favorable stories about the administration. "If you write something the White House doesn't like, they take you in and say, 'If you ever write something like you did today, nobody from the White House will ever talk to you again,'" Suskind said. "(The White House is) pissed, and ... angry."
I guess we always knew, but ...

Fables of Reconstruction Indeed!

A few weeks ago, a senior official working with the US-backed Coailition Provisional Authority in Baghdad wrote a top secret memo outlining the problems with nation building in Iraq since the invasion. This memo came into the hands of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) who, in turn, hired Jason Vest to write an article based on the memo. Mr. Vest's excellent article has been all over the net in the last day or so. Now, the AAN has released the redacted text of the memo itself.

The author begins by praising the occupation ("what we have accomplished in Iraq is worth it") and commenting on the positive changes to be seen in the country:
"It is easy to see progress in Baghdad. Driving from Jadriya to Mansour around 7 p.m. on March 4, shops were bustling. Women and girls, some with hair covered and others not, crowded shops selling the latest fashions from Italy via Lebanon, cell phones and electrical gadgets, fancy shoes, and cell phones. Baghdadis are out and about, looking more self-assured. Gone is the confusion that permeated Iraqi society in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall. Shwarma and ice cream shops do a booming business, and families patronize restaurants. Twenty-somethings and teenagers meet in internet cafes. The internet cafes that we see from the roadside on the main streets are just the tip of the iceberg; many mahalla have their own internet cafes set off in alcoves off side streets. Even in poorer areas like Baghdad al-Jadida, new plastic signs plaster the sides of buildings. Pundits and others harp on lack of security, but shopkeepers pile electrical appliances, clothes, bicycles, and other goods on the street. New cars crowd the street, as well as older models long forbidden (Saddam used to forbid cars of a certain year from entering Baghdad). Car dealerships continue to open around the city.
The author is also full in his praise for that old crook Ahmed Chalabi, giving him the credit for having achieved the interim constitution that the writer describes as "quite a success."
"When I see the results of his maneuvering and coalition building, I wonder how much farther we could have gotten if so many in the U.S. government had not sought to undermine him at every possible opportunity."
However, the writer swiftly moves on to some of the day-to-day difficulties experienced by everyone:
"Traffic police go through the motions, but remain too fearful to enforce regulations. Street lights function irregularly and traffic lights not at all, but private investors have brought in generators so that shops can function after dark. Electricity in Baghdad is fluctuating between three hours on and off, in rotation, and four hours on and off. There is no consistency. Despite assurances to the contrary, neither the CPA nor the Ministry of Electricity publishes a schedule of power cuts and rotations. It is now starting to get hot. I hope that the Ministry of Electricity will be ready for the summer. You can’t run an air conditioning unit on a household generator."
The memo's author suggests that the Americans have isolated themselves from what is really going on:
"[W]e are handicapped by our security bubble. Few in CPA- Baghdad get out of the Green Zone anymore, at least outside the normal business of going to their respective ministries, etc. Most drivers work during the day, but not in the evening hours when Baghdad is most alive. The U.S. Government has spent millions importing sport utility vehicles which are used exclusively to drive the kilometer and a half between the Convention Center and the Palace. We would have been much better off with a small fleet of used cars, and a bicycle for every Green Zone resident.
Given that isolation, is is probable that many in the governing regime do not realise that the lack of air conditioning is the least of most people's concerns. The author ascribes many of the problems directly to the US Gauleiter Paul Bremer, noting that there are
"deeper conflicts that revolve around patronage and absolutism. Bremer has encouraged re- centralization in Iraq because it is easier to control a Governing Council less than a kilometer away from the Palace rather than 18 different provincial councils who would otherwise have budgetary authority. The net affect, however, has been desperation to dominate Baghdad, and an absolutism borne of regional isolation."

"Our failure to promote accountability has hurt us. If we fail to fire corrupt ministers, we promote an air of unaccountability. Bremer’s less than subtle threats have aggravated the situation. Whenever Bremer repeats that he has the power to veto what he does not like, he gives a green light for Governing Council members to pursue their most populist demands, knowing they can build constituency without ever having to face the consequences."

"Iraqi politicians, ordinary Iraqis, and U.S. contractors have the sense that Bremer’s goal is to leave Iraq with his reputation intact."

"We also share culpability in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. After all, we appointed the Governing Council members. Their corruption is our corruption. When [REDACTED] work to exclude followers of other trends of Shi’a political thought from minister and deputy minister positions, Iraqis blame Bremer, especially because the Governance Group had assured Iraqis that their exclusion from the Governing Council did not mean an exclusion from the process. As it turns out, we lied. People from Kut, for example, see that they have no representation on the Governing Council, and many predict civil war since they doubt that the Governing Council will really allow elections.

In retrospect, both for political and organizational reasons, the decision to allow the Governing Council to pick 25 ministers did the greatest damage. Not only did we endorse nepotism, with men choosing their sons or brothers-in-law; but we also failed to use our prerogative to shape a system that would work."
The memo goes on to detail the lack of any genuine feeling of security in the country, a lack exacerbated by the way the Americans do business:
"The use of Personal Security Details [PSDs] also handicaps our ability to report on certain key trends, especially in the south and south- central. PSDs are necessary for protection, but they hamper communication with ordinary people. It is ingrained in the Iraqi psyche to keep a close hold on their own thoughts when surrounded by people with guns. Even those willing to talk to Americans think twice, since American officials create a spectacle of themselves, with convoys, flak jackets, and fancy SUVs. No one in Hilla, Nasriya, or Basra can surreptitiously complain, for example, about Iranian influence to Americans or British officials in CPA-SC or CPA-S when they feel that all eyes — including those of people reporting to the Iranians — are watching them. Likewise, no one in Baquba can complain of the presence of Baathists when they feel that Americans’ ability to be inconspicuous may bring them personal harm. Iraqis fear entering the headquarters of provincial CPA offices when they perceive, as in the north, that many of the guards and translators report to regional oligarchs."

"Baghdadis have an uneasy sense that they are heading toward civil war. Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurd professionals say that they themselves, friends, and associates are buying weapons fearing for the future. CPA is ironically driving the weapons market: Iraqi police sell their “lost” U.S.-supplied weapons on the black market; they are promptly re-supplied. Interior ministry weapons buy-backs keep the price of arms high ... [T]he south may be calm, but it seems the calm before the storm. Iranian money is pouring in ..."
The author of the memo clearly has his best contacts in the north, with the Kurds, and his description of political life there is fascinating:
"We have bestowed approximately $600 million upon the Kurdish leadership, in addition to the salaries we pay, in addition to the USAID projects, in addition to the taxes which we have allowed them to collect illegally. I spent the night of March 3 and morning of March 4 watching The Godfather trilogy on DVD with an Iraqi Kurdish contact who had ridiculed me for never having before seen any of the films. The entire evening was spent discussing which Iraqi Kurdish politicians represented which character. It is telling that it’s remarkably easy to do — it was even easy to identify [REDACTED] in the film."
Finally, with all the latest talk about a policy switch in Washington that would see the United Nations play a bigger role after the end of the CPA, the following paragraph makes intriguing reading:
"It would be a very grave mistake to transfer authority to the United Nations. Kofi Annan once said that “Saddam Hussein is a man I can do business with.” Not only can we expect such a tape to be aired often on Iraqi television, but also we can expect further revelations that Kofi Annan was speaking literally and, not just figuratively. I spent a great deal of time with Claude Hankes-Drielsma, chairman of Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, when he was in Baghdad earlier this week. Many of you may remember him from his service with the 1985 South African debt commission, and as an investigator who exposed the Nobel Foundation scandal several years back. He is currently serving as advisor to the Finance Committee of the Governing Council, in which capacity he is organizing the audit of the UN oil-for-food system. Already, the audit has uncovered serious wrongdoing in banks, and discrepancies of billions of dollars. Anger is rising at just how little Iraq got for its money under UN auspices, when the UN oversaw contracts that inflated prices and delivered substandard if not useless goods. While the Western press has focused on officials like Benon Sevan who, according to documents, received discounted oil, the real scandal appears to be in some of the trading companies which would convert such oil shares to cash. For example, Sevan cashed his oil share with a Panamanian trading company, which, it turns out, was controlled by Boutros-Boutros Ghali. This scandal is going to run deep, and will likely erupt prior to the U.S. presidential election. Senior UN officials know that an independent audit is being conducted, and are not cooperating. It would be a shame if it turns out we knew about this, and yet did nothing to ensure that key UN and bank documents were not shredded. Regardless, to allow the United Nations to again loot Iraq will be problematic at best."
Of course, the memo's writer is not entirely accurate in his predictions. Written a few weeks before the recent "uprising", his take on what would happen in the south if the Americans moved against al-Sadr shows an easy arrogance of power:
"The fact that we do nothing to roll up Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi which is running around Najaf, arresting and torturing people, and trying Iraqis before their own kangaroo courts signals to Iraqis that we lack seriousness. It also telegraphs weakness not only to Muqtada al-Sadr, but also to others who realize they cannot win legitimacy through the ballot box, and therefore will seek to grab it through violence. Yes, we would have violence for two or three days after arresting Muqtada (whom, after all, has had murder charges leveled against him by an Iraqi prosecutor), but that would subside. Since so many of us have gone through it, allow me a metaphor to the small pox vaccine: Getting the vaccine results in a pustule which is unpleasant, but the vaccine also prevents the potential of thousands of other pustules. Arresting Muqtada would signal weakness, and would make other populist leaders think twice."
In hindsight we can see that even the very attempt to arrest al_Sadr has led to weeks of violence and hundreds of deaths. But this memo shows clearly the mindset that led so many GIs into the ambush.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Mordechai Vanunu: A True Hero

Tonight is the last night that Mordechai Vanunu will spend in the confines of an Israeli jail. After serving his full eighteen year sentence, including a dozen in solitary confinement, the Sharon regime is obliged to release this true modern hero.

However, spiteful as ever, the regime has imposed draconian restrictions on the movements of the supposedly "free" Vanunu. He has had his passport impounded, the defence ministry says it has given him a map of Israel marking the areas off-limits to him including ports and airports, he has been forbidden from entering any foreign embassy or telling the media about his work at the Dimona nuclear plant, and he is not allowed to meet with foreigners.

That last condition will be tested first tomorrow morning when, at his release, Vanunu will find a huge crowd of Israeli and international supporters waiting for him outside Shikma prison. The foreigners will include actress Susannah York and Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairaed Maguire. I thoroughly agree with Ms York, who called Vanunu a "man of honour and principle. He is one of the bravest men of recent times."

We will not, of course, hear a bleat from the Bush regime about this brutal and totalitarian treatment. The Americans have known about the Israeli nuclear programme from the beginning. They sure don't want someone like Vanunu saying more than he already has.

Bravo Mordechai! I hope you can enjoy the life they have left you.

The Picture Bush Doesn't Want You To See

The US regime learned certain lessons from Vietnam and Somalia and Afghanistan and Iraq I. Most importantly, they learned that the public was swiftly turned off wars once the bodies started coming home. Therefore, the regime learned to hide the bodies as much as possible. You may not have even realized that there have been no pictures of coffins or burials or true ceremonies for the fallen. That is because these images have been deliberately suppressed.

This image was captured by Tami Silicio, a contract employee from the Seattle area who works the night shift at the U.S. military area of Kuwait International Airport. It ran on the front page of the Seattle Times. The Times offered also their thought process on deciding to run the image.

Ahhh, Commercial Drive ...

Street Art I

Monday, April 19, 2004

Cuttings from bloggers in Iraq...

Faiza, a mother in Baghdad, looks at the big picture --
"Bush led a war on Iraq in the name of God. He said that God sent him to undertake this war against Saddam and his oppression, and that he will give freedom to the Iraqis. Exactly like Saddam, when he announced a war on Kuwait, and placed God?s name on the Iraqi flag. God is innocent of what they do. And there are millions of ignorant, tricked idiots, running to clap and whistle. Doesn?t it appear to be a sight to make you laugh, and make you sad, at the same time? When will the ignorant wake up and not repeat mistakes already made by others?

Bush holds on to Iraq because it's the straw that will save America?s destroyed economy. And it will pay for all the money and boys lost. To win the second largest oil fields in the world, and use it to pay off massive losses. And if he retreats and loses, how will he pay off the debts? That?s a disaster for him. He won?t withdraw, this is a question of life or death for the American administration, and its dinosaurs filled with greed, who own companies about to go bust. Who will save them, except Iraq?"
Riverbend from Baghdad Burning talks about the TV coverage that is available --
"I know it bothers the CPA terribly to have the corpses of dead Iraqis shown on television. They would love for Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia to follow Al-Hurra's example and show endless interviews with pro-occupation Iraqis living abroad and speaking in stilted Arabic. These interviews, of course, are interspersed with translated documentaries on the many marvels of... Hollywood. And while I, personally, am very interested in the custom leather interiors of the latest Audi, I couldn't seem to draw myself away from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia while 700+ Iraqis were being killed.
Rahul Mahajan of Empire Notes points out an important facet of imperial reconstruction --
"[O]n the way to Fallujah, at a checkpoint near Abu Ghraib prison (used first by Saddam, now by the United States), we saw truckloads and truckloads of lumber and other materials being driven in vehicles that clearly belonged to the U.S. military. It was all for building detention facilities. Since 9/11, the United States has embarked on the building of a global Gulag Archipelago; Guantanamo has gotten the most attention, but the number detained in Iraq is far greater. An administration that can build prisons but not schools or hospitals in the United States can build prisons but not schools or hospitals in Iraq ...

I've started seeing the new Iraqi army at the odd checkpoint around town. The Iraqi police have been a fixture for some time, but the "army" is new. You just have to look at them to tell that they're not part of the coalition forces. Their uniforms are cheap and shabby; they have no protective clothing worth anything. You can tell just how underfunded they are by this fact: they all carry Kalashnikovs. Most people in Iraq, whether mujaheddin or not, modify their Kalashnikovs by removing the butt of the rifle and sometimes sawing or breaking off the metal skeleton to which the butt is attached -- makes the gun lighter and more maneuverable. Many of the Iraqi army's Kalashnikovs have been so treated. They look as ancient as all the others. The United States hasn't even equipped the army with new guns (presumably, they would have used M-16's). This is because, as any Iraqi will tell you, the new army is not supposed to be an army, but simply a thin layer of human shields for the U.S. forces.
Juan Cole's "Informed Comment" looks at the current spin about Syrian involvement in Iraqi unrest --
"Despite the constant drumbeat about alleged Syrian complicity in infiltration of foreign fighers into Iraq, there is not any good proof of it. The fighters that have been captured are mostly Iraqi (some 10,000, I think), with only a few foreigners among them. And, Syria is lambasted for having massacred the Sunni Arab radical fundamentalists, so it is a little unlikely to be supplying them deliberately to Fallujah, which has lots of its own. Rather, if there is infiltration, it is mostly because Syria has a long desert border that can't be controlled (the US should talk--look at its border with Mexico, which is like a sieve). I think this ritual invocation of Syria in connection with infiltration is just a way of attempting to intimidate and bully Syria, which some in the Bush administration would like to topple. If they think Iraqi instability is bad, wait until they see Syria without a proper government in Damascus. It won't be pretty.
Jarrar Raed looks at the tense standoff in the south --
"A funny image of AlMahdi Army soldiers going around Kufa today driving an American Hum-vee, the military Hummer was left behind after some clashes around the city. That happened after AsSadr announced that no more attacks on the Spanish army are going to happen, and that Shia are happy with the withdrawal thing. I don’t think things would be funny or happy next week though ... Kimmett said today that the withdrawal of the Spanish Army is NOT going to have any effect of the military situation, and I agree on that… Most of the military presence for the “coalition forces” (except the US and Brits) is just symbolic, giving a fake political cover to the war of bush ...

That man, Zapatero, rocks"

Art Nudes

The folks at Art Nudes have an entirely different idea about naked bodies than do the seventeenth-century thinkers discussed below.

Often gorgeous, always intriguing, this growing collection of photographs is a continuing treat.

Sex, Nudity and a Good Laugh

The naked body has often been the subject of jokes (as I am reminded each morning as I look in the mirror). It was therefore a propos that I should spend some of this last weekend with two reviews: one on Laura Gowing's "Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in 17th Century England"; and another by Jim Holt on the history of jokes and those who collect them.

Laura Gowing's book is the subject of a piece in the London Review of Books by David Wootton under the title "Never Knowingly Naked". Wootton notes that we learn a great deal from Gowing's research:
Take nakedness. One may doubt whether early modern English men and women were ever naked. In the mid-17th century Quakers went 'naked for a sign', but they often turn out to have been wearing sackcloth coats - 'naked' here means without shoes, hats or outer garments. Men and women both wore smocks, and you could be 'naked in your smock'. (There was no 'underwear', so everyone was naked under their smocks.) People did not take their clothes off to go to bed, but they did take off their hats (if they were men) and coifs (if they were women); thus a brother and sister were suspected of incest when they were discovered in bed together, 'both bareheaded'. John Donne was exploring a metaphysical extreme of sensuality when he wrote a poem in praise of 'full nakedness': a poem which describes his lover's clothes, but not her body, and in which his hands rove in unexplored places, like those not of a husband, but of a midwife. Whether Donne himself ever saw and touched a fully (or stark) naked body, the point of the poem is surely that his readers will scarcely be able to imagine anything so strange. Renaissance artists had rediscovered the classical nude two centuries before, but Donne was (I suspect) the first Englishman to propose going naked to bed.
However, he also notes that a
central difficulty with the book is that, like Gowing's earlier Domestic Dangers (1996), it is based almost entirely on court records. Inevitably, few of her stories have a happy ending. But this is hardly surprising: imagine writing a history of Christmas on the basis of the records of a hospital accident and emergency department. Gowing has more to say about rape than about love-making, more about illegitimate births than legitimate ones, more about conflict than co-operation ... Gowing would have produced a very different history of women's bodies if she had turned from her court cases to poetry and plays; but anyone who wants to understand women as they are embodied in plays and poems will need to read her book, for in it we encounter what Stephen Greenblatt has called 'the touch of the real'.
Jokes, on the other hand, might be considered somewhat more surreal. In his New Yorker piece, Jim Holt notes that jokes
fall into the category of folklore, along with myths, proverbs, legends, nursery rhymes, riddles, and superstitions. And a good proportion of the jokes in oral circulation involve sex or scatology. If the history of folklore aspires to be a history of the human mind, as some of its practitioners insist, somebody has to do the irksome job of collecting and recording obscene, disgusting, and blasphemous jokes, and ushering them into print.
As Holt elucidates, the collecting of jokes has a very long history:
In the Athens of Demosthenes, there was a comedians’ club called the Group of Sixty, which met in the temple of Heracles to trade wisecracks, and it is said that Philip of Macedon paid handsomely to have their jokes written down; but the volume, if it ever existed, has been lost. On the Roman side, Plautus refers to jestbooks in a couple of his plays, while Suetonius tells us that Melissus, a favorite professor of the Emperor Augustus, compiled no fewer than a hundred and fifty joke anthologies. Despite this, only a single jokebook survives from ancient times: the Philogelos, or “Laughter-Lover,” a collection in Greek that was probably put together in the fourth or fifth century A.D. It contains two hundred and sixty-four items, several of which appear twice, in slightly different form. This suggests that the volume is not one jokebook but two combined, a hunch borne out by the fact that it is attributed to two authors, Hierocles and Philagrius, although joint authorship was rare at the time. Virtually nothing is known about either man; there is some scholarly speculation that the Hierocles in question was a fifth-century Alexandrian philosopher of that name who was once publicly flogged in Constantinople for paganism, which, as one classicist has observed, “might have given him a taste for mordant wit.”

The jokes in the Philogelos are spare and pointed. (“‘How shall I cut your hair?’ a talkative barber asked a wag. ‘In silence!’”) They take on a gallery of stock characters: the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the sex-starved woman, and the man with bad breath, as well as a classic type known as the scholastikos, variously translated as “pedant,” “absent-minded professor,” or “egghead.” (“An egghead was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. ‘Don’t cry,’ he consoled them, ‘I have freed you all in my will.’”)
As with much learning, the European Dark Ages lost touch with the ancients' joke treasury (though most was retained in Arabic romance tales) and was only rediscovered during the Renaissance. As Holt points out, "Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was one of the most colorful and versatile of the Italian humanists". However, he
ended up being best known for a book of jokes. The Liber Facetiarum, usually called simply the Facetiae, was the first volume of its kind to be published in Europe ... Some of the material had been gathered by Poggio during his travels through Europe; several of the jests have been traced to tales told by Provençal bards in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But much of it came out of a sort of joke club in the Vatican called the Bugiale—the “fib factory.” Here, papal scribes would gather at the end of a tedious day spent drafting bulls, dispensations, and encyclicals to shoot the breeze and tell scandalous stories. Poggio published his Facetiae in 1451, when he was seventy years old. Soon it was being read throughout Europe.
Holt tells us that "although many of the jokes were about sex and poked fun at the morals of churchmen", there was no peep of disapproval from the Holy See, probably because the book was published in Latin and could, therefore, be kept from the illiterate masses.

Holt points out that some "jokes" have been reversed in meaning in modern times:
In Facetia XLVII, a husband asks his wife why, if women and men get equal pleasure out of sex, it is the men who pursue the women rather than vice versa. “It’s obvious,” the wife says. “We women are always ready to make love, and you men aren’t. What good would it do us to solicit you when you’re not in the mood?” As jokes go, this is less than sidesplitting, and yet the precise reversal of it appears in the television show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” when Cheryl, lying in bed with her husband, Larry, asks him why she’s the one who always has to initiate sex. It’s because we men are always ready to go, he replies—just tap me on the shoulder when you want it!
But other jokes stay always the same:
Consider the following joke, current in mid-twentieth-century America, about an impecunious couple who marry for love. Since there is nothing for breakfast in the morning, the husband instead has sex with his wife on the kitchen table before going off to work and also when he returns home for lunch. Coming back famished in the evening, the husband finds his wife sitting in the kitchen with her panties down and her feet up on the oven door. “Just warming up your supper, darling,” she says. This jest can be traced back to a late-eighteenth-century Scottish rhyme titled “The Supper Is Na Ready,” and from there almost two centuries earlier to a 1618 French collection of libertine poetry (“Mais le souper n’est pas encore cuit”), and ultimately to the Philogelos: “Said a young man to his randy wife, ‘Wife, what shall we do, eat or make love?’‘Whichever you like; there’s no bread.’” This may be the longest joke lineage ever established, reaching back some fifteen centuries.
Having reached the vast age that I have, I can -- almost -- appreciate an occasional laugh at the expense of my body (thank goodness for a wonderfully loyal wife!) but I hope that Leo Rosenberg is wrong in my case:
First you forget names, then you forget faces, then you forget to pull your zipper up, then you forget to pull your zipper down.

Taxing Times

It's that time of year again -- taxes are due. For many people -- those, apparently, who are happy to have paid too much tax to the government over the year in a kind of forced savings routine -- this is a time to look forward to refund checks and the additional consumerism they can create. For those like me who discover that -- yet again -- they just haven't paid enough on each paycheck, it is time to dig even deeper into one's pockets. However, for some, a band of dedicated crazies, this time of year is the season of the anti-Christ.

In ReasonOnline this month, Brian Doherty has an interesting piece about the folks of "We The People Foundation for Constitutional Education" who continue to believe that the US government simply has no right to demand of them payment of income taxes.
Americans have been protesting and avoiding taxes since before the U.S. officially existed. We are a nation born of tax protests. This tradition feeds the attitude that unites the serious, almost obsessed crowd here: the belief that they are the true patriots,staunch constitutionalists fiercely dedicated to the ideals that make America great. A radical transvaluation of values is going on right here in Crystal City. Far from being the very foundation of solid citizenry, acceding to the federal personal income tax is, among this crowd, an act of treason against what defines America: its Constitution and its "true laws" ...

The movement against the income tax has lately adopted one of the tropes that define an on-the-rise minority in modern America: Its members want to be called what they call themselves -- the "tax honesty" movement -- and not be slapped with the pejoratives that most people have known them by (if aware of them at all).
As Doherry points out these "cranks" have lost every single battle in every single court challenge they have laid against the government's income tax.
Never has any court anywhere -- much less the IRS -- accepted as valid any of the many arguments the movement offers for how and why there is no legal obligation for individuals to pay federal income tax. In fact, courts will fine you up to $25,000 for even raising them, insisting such arguments have been rejected so often by so many courts at so many levels that they are patently frivolous and time-wasting.
Of course, it doesn't help their credibility with me when they allow their conference to be lectured to by Mel Gibson's anti-semitic and Holocaust-denier father, Hutton Gibson, who gives "a rousing speech on the need to fight the New World Order to defend our traditional liberties and is cheered heartily. Many of these folks are not just "cranks" about the income tax.
In his role as general MC for the conference, [Bob] Schulz is clearly wearied by the obsessions of some of his audience members -- for example, the notion that hiring an attorney means abandoning personal sovereignty before the law, or that having a yellow-fringed flag in a room means you are under martial law. But he is generally polite about it, if in a pained way.
None of this would be an issue if we adopted the Jak King Voluntary Tax plan. This is the way I laid it out in June 2002:
Within a broader set of thoughts regarding movement toward a reduction in government, I have been sketching out my ideas for an altered tax structure. I thought I'd lay them out here in the hope that a debate is generated that will allow me to sharpen and focus my own thoughts.

[Note, although I am an anti-statist anarchist, I am also a pragmatist: I think there is little point in laying out idealistic end games without having some method of getting from here to there. The following ideas are a way of moving along that path.]

The basic principles for the tax scheme are that it should be essentially voluntary, and concerned with ensuring equal opportunities for all. Therefore, I would propose the elimination of all personal and corporate income taxes as they violate by their nature the voluntary aspect of taxation. I propose to replace the revenue with an all-inclusive sales tax on all goods and services with a few, well-defined exceptions (the figures below represent Vancouver costs of living and could be adjusted as required):

-- all non-prepared foods

-- shelter (to $12,000/year rent or the first $200,000 of purchase)

-- medical and dental services

-- educational services

-- financial services to $500/year.

The sales tax should be a single percentage across all categories of goods and services in order to reduce accounting and bureaucratic requirements.

My tax plan would also include a 100% estate or death tax. Those who approve of giving advantages to those who have not earned them but have merely acquired them through accident of birth (closet monarchists, all of them) can insert some other percentage into their model.

Finally, I would also grant the government revenues from criminal fines, all of which would be levied (above a certain minimum) based on the criminal's net worth. The purpose of this is to level out the cost of criminality (the current arrangement allows, say, the same $1,000 fine on a millionaire -- for whom it means nothing and therefore no deterence -- and a welfare gasper -- for whom it may mean starvation or worse.)

That would be it for government revenues -- sales taxes, death taxes, criminal fines. The use of the sales tax for the bulk of government revenues brings a great deal of volunteerism to the matter: The exceptions provide an important and necessary break for those goods and services which can be described as the necessities of life; above that, the more I choose to buy, the more taxes I choose to pay.

On the other side of the ledger, also to the good, the simplicity of the scheme allows for huge bureaucratic savings in both administration and compliance.
I have thought about this quite a lot since I first posted it, and I'm still very keen on the basic idea.

Danny's The Wake Up Call

It is hard to imagine there was a time I ever woke up without turning my first bleary eye to Danny Schechter's News Dissector site. A cup of steaming hot tea, a quick check on BBC for the cricket scores, and then Danny's in-your-face reporting -- this is what sets me up for the day. From today's edition:
"Yesterday, I made the mistake of tuning in the two Georges, Will and Stephanopholous on the Disney news. Who was the lead guest—yes, it was Condi again, showing off some diplo-speak and urging us to look forward and not dwell on the past. Why don’t they just give her a show of her own since she blitzed once again between networks, denying this, explaining that, and tell us again why just [we] don’t understand the complexity of presidential decision making, why we must be corrected again and again as the school kids we all are."