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Shark Attack: Fearing Monsters in the Whitsundays

Fri, 2018-11-09 15:40

It begins with a gruesome account: a tourist, paddleboarding and swimming in an idyllic setting baked by sun – in this case, Cid Harbour in the Whitsundays, Queensland – attacked by a shark.  He suffers a massive loss of blood; he goes into cardiac arrest.  The accounts that follow are just as predictable as the consequences of the shark’s work: a hunt for the animal, a debate about how best to curb future attacks, and an attempt to minimise adverse publicity for the tourist industry.

The death of medical researcher Daniel Christidis sent jitters through dive boat operators in the region.  Local dive boat operator Tony Fontes remained philosophical. “People are willing to take the risk of swimming in waters that are potential risk of a jellyfish, using precautions like stinger suits, and I’m sure that tourists will do the same with sharks.”

Marine biologists such as Blake Chapman have also made it into the news with cautionary notes, but there is a feeling that calm heads are about to be lost.  “We really need to be smarter than what we have been and actually learn from these things as opposed to just going out and killing animals.”  The increased number of attacks could, surmised Chapman, be the result of a range of factors: the movement of shark food sources in the area, increased rainfall or changes in water temperature.  According to Inspector Steve O’Connell, the Whitsunday area was not famed for its vicious shark attacks, featuring the odd “minor” nip and bite without more.

So far, Queensland Tourism Minister Kate Jones has resisted caving into demands that permanent drum lines be placed at Cid Harbour, while Fisheries Minister Mark Furner issued an unequivocal warning: “We can’t be clearer – don’t swim in Cid Harbour.”

The shark mauling was Cid Harbour’s third in the last few months (Two took place in September, one on a 12-year-old, Hannah Papps, whose leg required amputation; another, Tasmanian tourist Justine Barwick, who has returned to her home state to convalesce.)

With each attack, calls for further action in what resembles a guerrilla campaign are made.  The human tribe, going on ritualistic rampage, demands retribution. The September attacks precipitated an all too familiar reaction: a needless, bloody cull that did little to either address the issue of swimmer safety nor the behaviour of the animals in question.

In 2014, when surfer Sean Pollard lost an arm and his other hand near Esperance, the West Australian Barnett government took little time to implement what it termed an “imminent threat” policy.  A shark spotted near a popular beach was essentially fair game, to be pre-emptively slaughtered irrespective of how many people might be swimming or present in the area at the time.  To make matters that much murkier, Pollard himself expressed doubt as to which animal was necessarily responsible for his injuries.  Two bronze whalers came to mind.

Such policies, as Christopher Pepin-Neff observes in The Conversation, are based on the slippery foundations of myth: “individual large sharks pose a threat because they are territorial.  A shark that bites someone is likely to do it again, and even if there is not an incident now, it is better to kill the shark because it may return.”  These are the fictional “rogue” sharks, “problem” animals which supply the stuff of fantasy for confused policy makers more disposed to vengeance than accommodation.

Not being of the cuddly sort, sharks lie in the disturbed archive of the human unconscious, a monster that all too readily becomes a target and focus when an attack is reported.  “Myths and monsters,” Marina Warner reminds us, “have been interspliced since the earliest extant poetry from Sumer: the one often features the other.”  We are not only fearful, but wish to be entertained by fear.  When the more innovative instincts of the human species kicks in, the monster can serve various useful purposes, be it as weaponry or medicine with fictive, healing properties.

In August, the opening of The Meg, an adaption of the first of Steve Alten’s six-book horror sci-fi series, again featured that old monster versus man motif, with the naval captain, Jonas Taylor doing battle with this intimidating resident of the sea, the megalodon.  (To give the trope added ballast, Taylor is played by veteran action hero, Jason Statham, “the most fearsome type of human being to have ever lived” muse Luke Holland and Stuart Heritage in The Guardian.)  Reduced to celluloid and animation, a remarkable animal becomes the marine nightmare dangerous and nigh impossible to tame, terrifying humans young and old. The obvious point – that humans don’t tend to feature high on a shark’s menu list – is assiduously avoided.

As Vivienne Westbrook of the Oceans Institute based at the University of Western Australia cautions, “fictionalised versions, with their threatening fins, chomping jaws and general grudge against humanity, have tended to blind us to what is truly amazing about sharks in our oceans.” But being blind is actually what the human species is rather good at, relapsing into fits of retribution that serve no purpose other than to satisfy a brief communal lust for revenge.  The monster, even one whose predecessors have been on this planet for 450 million years, will be hunted and killed – by the tens of millions, if need be.

 

 

Categories: News for progressives

The Fate of Yemen’s Baha’is

Fri, 2018-11-09 15:37

It is common these days to read headlines such as “At least 19 killed, 10 injured in Saudi-led coalition air raid in Yemen” (Sputnik, October 24, 2018). We are reminded often how many Yemenis have died and are starving. But it is not common to learn that the Houthis, the Islamic extremist group who are fighting the Saudis, are persecuting the minority of Baha’is currently living and working in Yemen. In fact, the Left seldom turns its eyes to the on-going persecution of Baha’is in Iran and other places in the Islamic world. How often do you hear, for instance, that Baha’is are not even permitted to attend post-secondary institutions in Iran?

The Houthi regime believes that Baha’is are fighting a “Satanic war” against Muslim Yemenis. In the last five years, in particular, spiteful rhetoric has intensified. This enflamed language has reminded Baha’is of the horrible fate many faced in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian theocratic revolution. Since December 3, 2013 Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha’i leader, has been imprisoned, indicted for apostasy and accused of “being a destroyer of Islam.”

The National Security Office raided his home and seized laptops and documents. Reports indicate that he has been tortured (beaten and electrocuted). The history of the torture of Baha’is since the mid-19thcentury is like visiting a haunted house of horrors. He has also been denied legal and medical assistance.

In October 2014, Hamed was transferred to the Central Prison under the jurisdiction of the Prosecution Service. But the process of prosecution has been delayed. He was accused of being a spy for Israel; medical requests were repeatedly blocked; his prosecutor was extremely prejudiced against Hamed; he had been forced to sign several documents while blindfolded and repeated torture. On April 3, 2016, his sixth visit of the year, 100 supporters gathered peacefully outside the court. By mid-September of 2016, it was plainly evident that a faction within the Houthi political movement was under the influence of Iran. Hatred of Baha’is runs deep in Iran, and they pushed the Houthi faction to persecute the Yemeni Baha’is.

On January 10, 2017,  a hearing took place with a new prosecutor present. Hamed bin Haydara was, this time around, permitted to answer questions and his lawyer presented documents to confirm his Yemeni nationality. After this meeting, the old Yemeni tacticians cancelled meetings and judges mysteriously were absent. By January 2, 2018, the Specialized Criminal Court in Sana’a, Yemen, sentenced Haydara to death due to his religious beliefs. This was a devastating blow to the Baha’i international and local communities. Under the false pretext that Haydara had been in communication with the Universal House of Justice, the highest governing body of the Baha’s, his property was confiscated. But that was not all: all Baha’i Assemblies had to be disbanded (like the situation in Iran in the 1980s); and his execution was to be a public event. Now the Yemeni Baha’is were leaderless, fearful of further persecution.

These acts of radical violation of human rights and respect for the dignity of others caught the eye of the world. But on September 30, 2018 another sham trial occurred, with 20 Baha’is in Yemen accused falsely for espionage and apostasy.  The judge also requested that the names of 19 others (who had been arrested) be published in a newspaper. This act was designed to send rivers of fear coursing through the Baha’I community.

The judge, Abdu Ismail Hassan Rajeh, who had little trouble sending Baha’is to the gallows, froze the indicted Baha’is properties until a court verdict was issued. The judge also refused bail to five who were in the court.  On October 11, just one day after a group of UN experts condemned charges brought against more than 20 Baha’is in Yemen, Abdullah Al Olofi, member of the Baha’i community in Yemen, was on his way to the market in Sana’a when suddenly he was surrounded by armed soldiers in a pick-up truck, blindfolded and taken away.

“This latest arrest is extremely worrying considering the recent intensification of persecutions against the Baha’i community in Yemen, “ said Diane Alai, Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. A UN resolution called for the release of all Baha’is detained for their religious beliefs and to cease harassment.

But the hatred of Yemeni Baha’is runs deep. In a televised speech broadcast in March 2018 to a wide audience within and outside of Yemen earlier this year, Abdel Malik al Houthi, condemned and scorned the Baha’i Faith. Indeed, the nasty language of Malik al Houthi was reminiscent of the inflamed rhetoric of the Supreme Leader of Iran. Malik al Houthi warned Yemenis of the “satanic” Baha’i movement that is “waging a war of doctrine” against Islam. Baha’is were infidels, deniers of Islam and the Prophet Muhammed;  they were entangled politically with Israel. He declared: “Those who destroy the faith of people are no less evil and dangerous than those who kill people with their bombs.”

The leader of the oppressive Houthi regime urged his followers to engage in religious and cultural warfare against all Yemeni religious minorities (Christians, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims). In particular, Houthi clerics have alerted their followers about the dangerous presence of Baha’is. One prominent activist declared that “We will butcher all Baha’is.”  This is not the first time Baha’is have heard these terrifying words.

Sources: Baha’I International Community letters, January 18, 2018, September 26, 2018, October 12, 2018);  Iran Press Watch, October 4, 2018; The Globe Post, September 18, 2018.

Categories: News for progressives

A Muslim Wave?

Fri, 2018-11-09 15:35

With the Muslim Ban, the promotion of torturer Gina Haspel to CIA director, and increases in hate crimes, it’s been a rough year for us Muslims in the United States.

So hearing the words “Salam Alaikum” as Ilhan Omar took the national stage on Election Night to accept her win as Representative of Minnesota’s 5th District made it feel like I could finally breathe a little bit easier.

The first Somali-American elected to Congress, Omar joined Rashida Tlaib, a daughter of Palestinian refugees, as the first Muslim women to be elected to U.S. Congress.

The election of these women to Congress is a direct repudiation of the domestic and foreign policies of a country that’s been hostile to migrants and refugees from a number of countries, including Somalia, and has funded Israel’s occupation and destruction of Palestine.

But even though Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the country, and Tlaib’s state of Michigan has a large population of Arab and Muslim Americans, this “Muslim wave” was about more than faith or ethnicity.

Omar and Tlaib ran on unabashadley progressive platforms, joining other successful progressives like Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez in New York, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in Illinois, Veronica Escobar in Texas, and Sharice Davids — the first openly lesbian indigenous representative, who flipped a red seat in Kansas.

They’re also joined by more local progressive representatives like 26-year-old Mari Manoogian, who flipped a Michigan state house seat blue, and Sudanese immigrant Mo Seifeldein, who joined the Alexandria, Virginia city council. Both were endorsed by the Emgage PAC, which calls itself the “policy home of American Muslims.”

These candidates ran on health care for all, taking on our corporate welfare system, protecting black lives, and reversing our climate disaster. And many were unafraid to speak out against U.S. foreign policies that cause refugee crises and domestic policies that punish the desperate people feeling them.

The progressive Muslim wave, with the most Muslims running for office since 9/11, thrived even as it faced one of the most Islamophobic elections of our time.

A report by Muslim Advocates called Running On Hate outlined how, though anti-Muslim politicians have been lurking on the fringe for decades, “Trump’s presidency emboldened a new wave of anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists to run for office nationwide and at all levels of government.”

Anti-Muslim hate groups falsely attacked Omar and Tlaib as anti-Semites supporting terrorism. Groups supporting Dave Brat, a Republican candidate from Virginia, attacked his opponent for serving as a substitute teacher at a Muslim school, calling it “terror high.” Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobachbrought Trump a proposal to question “high-risk immigrants over support for Sharia Law.” Joe Kaufman, the head of anti-Muslim group Americans Against Hate, ran in Florida’s 23rd District.

But what many of those candidates have since learned the hard way is that smearing Muslims is not a successful campaign strategy. They all lost to Democrats, with Brat’s race flipping a Virginia seat blue.

And even some Islamophobes who did make it, like Reps. Steve King and Duncan Hunter, won by smaller margins in part because voters soured on their anti-Muslim, white supremacist rhetoric.

What all of this tells me about the U.S. electorate is that they care about issues like raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicare, and funding for education at the same time that they reject racist Muslim and immigrant-bashing.

And I have a feeling this is just a drop in the bucket of an even bigger progressive, young, woman, Muslim wave to come.

Categories: News for progressives

Taking the Anthill

Fri, 2018-11-09 15:20

Still from “Paths of Glory.”

In “Paths of Glory”, Stanley Kubrick’s  powerful depiction of the absolute absurdity and banality of World War I, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is between an immovable rock and the densest of hard places. He knows full well his next mission is virtual suicide, but at the same time the devotion and loyalty he feels for his men won’t permit him to turn it down. He has been ordered to take the “anthill”: an insignificant pile of bomb- cratered mud , barbed wire and the carcasses of untold numbers of dead, decaying men. But at the same time it‘s taking will be a plum for the Generals: for them it will mean adulation and back-slapping, medals, untold riches and fame.

This was the image presented by the wildly self-congratulatory leading Democrats and their stooges in the MSM following this weeks midterm elections.  How wonderful are we gushed Pelosi and Schumer and Feinstein! We won the House! Another insignificant pile of banality and decay.

Because just as Colonel Dax’s mission to take the anthill was about nothing substantive, or tangible or real so was the Democratic campaign to win the House. Like the bloated and corrupt French generals swilling champagne and medal pinning, the Democrats platform across the board was neither proactive nor the least bit positive. It was all just : well, at least we’re not Donald Trump.

Nothing will be done about universal healthcare, nothing on real job growth or a livable minimum wage, the tax structure, the Banks and Wall Street. Not a single word will be spoken against the Military- Security-Complex, little but platitudes will come about climate change. The House may move on infrastructure- but that will only be in lock- step with the Republicans. Infrastructure rebuilding will  not resemble FDR’s New Deal in the least. Construction projects will be fully privatized and corporatized- so we don’t need a crystal ball to see the coming corruption, thievery and incompetence.

The Democratic Party is thrilled because controlling the House it can now constitutionally begin impeachment proceedings. That, after all, has  been their entire agenda since 2016.  And the nation will be forced to witness the insanity : as the nuclear doomsday clock ticks, as Manhattan-sized glaciers drift into warming seas, as yet more wealth floods to the military and to the 1 percent, the Democrats will sip Chablis and cheer: we took the Anthill!

Categories: News for progressives

The Real Lessons From the Debate Between David Frum and Steve Bannon

Fri, 2018-11-09 15:17

Last November 2 the Toronto-based group Munk Debates organized a well-publicized debate between David Frum and Steve Bannon titled “Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist not liberal…” [2] Frankly, I didn’t care about the debate so I will not refer to its content because both debaters at this point in time don’t have anything new to contribute in my view. Also, the Munk Debates are just an elitist show of intellectual entertainment for a select privileged group of people, or in Frum’s exclusivist words, for “the learned, the preeminent, and the notorious.”

However, I read very carefully the article by David Frum in The Atlantic, “The Real Lesson of My Debate With Steve Bannon.” [1] Not having attended the debate I was curious about what he had to say about it.

I found out that apparently he “lost” the debate, or, as he put it, “bungled it” to Bannon by some questionable voting system that the organizers had set up. That outcome must have been quite a surprise to usually self-confident Frum who saw it necessary to write about what he had learned; and he did write about …sour grapes in both a self-effacing and unrepentant way.

My reading about the debate did teach me some lessons, and they come from two specific issues that I question in Frum’s article.

First, he dismisses the relevance of the protests about validating someone with the reputation of Trump strategist Steve Bannon by bringing him to the debate. I was one that signed a petition against his coming to Toronto, and I would have been protesting if I were there.

Frum wrote that “never before…had [the Munks Debates] ignited the fierce controversy that exploded around the scheduled debate between Bannon and me”, but he doesn’t consider the reasons why.

He goes on to write that people wanted to “shut down the debate by force and threat. They tried to block the entrance to the debate venue, then harassed attendees as they sought to enter.” The disruption delayed “the start time by 45 minutes”, which, he concludes, must have contributed to losing the debate.

But he does not stop there. He writes five paragraphs making his point against the attempt to cancel the event. In his words, “Forceful interruption of public events is almost always wrong. If I see you reading a book that I dislike, I have no right to grab it from you. In a free society, there can be no equivalent of the Saudi religious police…”

I will ignore the offensive analogy between my protest and the actions of the “Saudi religious police.” But I cannot ignore the oversimplification and the inane analogy of stopping someone from reading a book.

Protesting someone like Bannon is only part of the issue – albeit an important part. The other part that Mr. Frum cannot even conceive is that in his “free society” there are those who have large financial resources like Munk Debates that can afford to bring the Frum-Bannon pair to discuss their side of the worldview, and there are those like the “protesters” that cannot put up an exclusive show to promote the other side of the worldview.

In the fantasy free society that Frum imagines he lives in maybe he does not want to “grab” the book he dislikes from his opponents. But in the “free society” we really live in, his opponents don’t even have the resources to publish the book that will get his reaction. Frum must also be used to the idea that if protesters cannot afford to rent a “symphony hall” for a debate, they will use the public streets or any other free venue.

The second issue that I question about Frum’s pretentious article is something that is glaring for its absence; and I doubt that he would have addressed it in the debate. That is the fact that he does not even recognize his own contribution he made during his career to the populist ideology that he now blames on Steve Bannon and the current U.S. administration.

During his career, not just as a conservative but also like one who sold the worst brand of it as a speechwriter that excused all actions of former U.S. president George W. Bush, Frum provided his thinking and the words that created the extreme conservative ideology that has degenerated in the thinking of the current U.S. presidency that he so vehemently criticizes. He even quotes W. Bush once, “today’s ‘populists’ will follow their predecessors into what President George W. Bush so aptly called ‘history’s graveyard of discarded lies.’” Of course we know he is quoting himself.

Frum correctly declares that he spent his “life as a conservative” but he tries hard to re-define himself as a milder “liberal in the broad sense” wielding a “liberal project” in opposition to the “populist politics” that he uses as “the polite term for the politics of Donald Trump and the many Little Trumps in power or competing for power across our Earth”. I can only wonder whom he has in mind.

Sounding like his own eulogy, Frum grandiosely romanticizes that he “sought to conserve the free societies that began to be built in the 18th century.” But he betrays his real political position by putting together in the same sentence the “challenges to those free societies” from Communists and Marxists, Islamists and now populists. That is his way of scoring a point on his debate contender.

Frum is credited with coining the expression “Axis of Evil” in reference to Iran, Iraq and “North Korea”, extensively repeated by W. Bush during his administration, of which we are reminded by the new expression “Troika of Tyranny” recently used by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton in the current Trump administration in reference to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

More than an ideologue, I consider David Frum like a political technician. He is good at his technical skill with words to be used by others, just like an electrician who uses his/her skill to facilitate the task of the executioners. Just to turn around and accuse the executioner.

Finally, Frum cannot get away from his legacy, and he should use the title of his book “How We Got Here” published in 2000 with a question mark at the end as a personal question for today. I don’t think he will find the answer unless he learns to take some responsibility. But he has not learned that lesson.

Notes

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/bannon-frum-munk-debate-what-really-happened/574867/

[2] https://www.munkdebates.com/The-Debates/The-Rise-of-Populism

 

Categories: News for progressives

The Issues That Won’t Go Away

Fri, 2018-11-09 15:03

How much real change manifested itself in the 2018 midterms? How deeply does the outcome reflect the American soul?

Apparently, about 113 million Americans, basically half the electorate, felt compelled to vote in the midterms, revved up either by intense opposition to or support for Donald Trump. This is a lot more than usual for a non-presidential election, but still fairly pathetic for “the world’s greatest democracy.”

How much closer did we move to becoming a nation able and willing to focus on the real issues that threaten the planet?

To the extent that the election was about Trump and Trumpism:

“. . . keep in mind,” Tom Engelhardt reminds us, “that he entered an unsettled world already well prepared for such a presidency by his predecessors in Washington. If the fascist . . . tendency that lurks in him and in the situation that surrounds him does come out more fully, he will obviously be aided by the ever more imperial presidency that was created in the decades before he left Trump Tower for the White House.

“When he entered the Oval Office, he found there a presidency in which — particularly on the subject of war (the president was, for instance, already America’s global assassin-in-chief) — his powers increasingly stood outside both Congress and the Constitution. The weapons he’s now bringing to bear, including executive orders and the U.S. military, were already well prepared for him.”

This country has been spiraling in the wrong direction for a long time. Some progressives determined to change the game were among those who gained office in this election, which is something worth celebrating — but hardly reason to heave a sigh of relief. Most of the issues that truly matter, that require a fundamental shift in American politics, remain rawly unaddressed and unacknowledged. They were essentially invisible in the mainstream election coverage, which, as usual, presented it as a horse race for the entertainment of Spectator America, not the creation of the future.

These issues include:

A. Militarism, endless war, unconscionable military spending, nuclear weapons. This was utterly off the table in the midterms. As Chris Hedges pointed out, some 85 percent of Senate Dems voted for this year’s $716 billion military spending bill, indicating a “unity” of surrender to military-industrialism. We no longer glorify our wars, we ignore them. And even progressive candidates seldom declare an intent to challenge the culture of war. Is there any political traction whatsoever for the antiwar movement? I fear there hasn’t been for four and a half decades — since the defeat of George McGovern.

B. Climate change, environmental catastrophe. This is not unrelated to the issue of war, since the world’s militaries are by far the biggest polluters. While environmental sanity is at least something that can be addressed politically, the urgency of global warming hardly has political traction. And, as a headline on Vox summed things up regarding the midterms: “Fossil fuel money crushed clean energy ballot initiatives across the country.”

C. Poverty, inequality. “In the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” writes Maria Svart, national director of Democratic Socialists of America, “many of us live in quiet desperation. Farmers are committing suicide, and so are taxi drivers in New York City. That’s why in the battle for the soul of our country, we must win.” Capitalism is still sacrosanct and Donald Trump, the alleged working class populist, cuts the taxes of the rich and is, as Hedges notes, an “embarrassing tool of the kleptocrats.” But socialism is no longer a taboo word in American politics and self-declared socialists are getting elected. Medicare for all and publicly funded college tuition are gaining political traction. The 99 percent have a voice. But of course the rich still have almost all the power; for the most part, this means that their self-interest rules.

D. Guns, violence, mass murder, a culture of violence. This issue still carves a deep gouge across the American electorate. Mass murders keep occurring. Should we get serious about gun control or should teachers and rabbis be armed? There is no real dialogue across the divide. We still live in a culture that worships violence. Just as we will not, as a nation, consider demilitarizing, neither will we disarm. And war keeps coming home.

E. Militarized police, police shootings and racism. The antidote emerges in concepts such as community policing and restorative justice — security that involves connecting with and understanding others, even those we dislike and distrust. This transformation is taking place across the whole planet, quietly, and for the most part beyond the world of politics. From my point of view, it’s one of the biggest sources of hope — it’s the cultural path beyond the worship and glorification of violence.

F. The prison-industrial complex. The United States has the largest prison system in the world (and it’s becoming increasingly privatized), with 2.3 million people — mostly impoverished people of color — behind bars. Our prison system is a regrouping of Jim Crow America, which can’t stand having a country without second-class and tenth-class citizens. But here’s some good news from this year’s midterms: “Florida restored voting rights to more than 1 million people with felony records, which amounts to the biggest enfranchisement since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the women’s suffrage movement,” Vox reports.

G. Immigrant scapegoating, hatred and fear. Because our unwinnable, endless wars can no longer serve the function of unifying the country, Trump has turned to immigrants — in particular, that “invading caravan” of desperate, shoeless Central Americans — as the Other he needs to rev his base and get the vote out. However, the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants, including the cruel separation of parents and children, has shocked and enraged much of the country, putting the country’s long-standing policy of cruel indifference to global suffering (and of course one of its leading creators as well) into the national spotlight like never before.

H. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, hacking. Ah, democracy, a nuisance to the powerful, a system to be gamed! If the voting can’t be controlled, my God, Republicans could lose. Witness Georgia and North Dakota, where bureaucratic twists deprived African-American and Native American citizens of their right to vote in large enough numbers to skewer election results. Stacey Abrams may yet prevail in her quest for the governorship of Georgia over Secretary of State and Purger in Chief Brian Kemp. But American democracy is not safe from itself, no matter how much the media insists on blaming all its flaws on the Russians.

Categories: News for progressives

Religion, Reformation, and Modernity

Fri, 2018-11-09 14:54

It is extremely important for educated Muslims to argue for a rational Islam and to seek to reconcile Islamic teachings and democracy. We cannot afford to disavow the space of religion for fundamentalists to do whatever they like with it. To keep fundamentalist forces at bay, educated and rational people must endeavor to bring about a reformation, so that religion can be perpetuated in a modern age as a liberal force. We can try to combine the concepts of an Islamic state with the principles of a socialist state, advocating social equality and economic and political democratization. We need to keep in mind that communities can grow historically within the framework created by the combined forces of modern national and transnational developments.

I agree that the politics of religion as a monolith is hostile to pluralism and evolution, because it insists on the uniform application of rights and collective goals. Such uniformity is oblivious to the aspirations of distinct societies and to variations in laws from one cultural context to another.

For fundamentalist organizations, religion is meant to be a hostile and vindictive force that ignores art and tradition. For instance, impassioned appeals of the clergy to the outdated concept of Islam have bred rancorous hate against “outsiders” and exploited the pitiful poverty and illiteracy of the majority of Muslims in the subcontinent, who are unable to study progressive concepts of the religion for themselves. This strategy of fortifying fundamentalism has created a bridge between the “believers” and “non-believers,” which, I would argue, is rooted in contemporary politics. The ideology propounded by the ruling fundamentalist order reflects and reproduces the interests of the mullahcracy. Mullahs justify repression of the poor and dispossessed classes, subjugation of women, and honor killings with the language of culture and religion. Such practices have led to regrettable ruptures of the Indian subcontinent and to a denial of science, technology, and historical understanding of the precepts of Islam. I am highly critical of the kind of nationalist logic in theocratic countries in which an image of the non-Islamic world as chaotic valorizes the dominance of the fundamentalist order.

Here is my concrete example of social equality, economic and political democratization, and empowerment of minorities in a predominantly Muslim society:

Historical foundations for pluralist democracy in my State, Jammu and Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim, were established by revolutionary actions during the 1950s to keep the forces of religious fundamentalism at bay. Land was taken from exploitative landlords without compensation and distributed to formerly indentured tillers of the land. This metamorphosis of the agrarian economy had groundbreaking political consequences in a previously feudal economy. With landlord rule abolished and land distributed to peasants who formed cooperative guilds, the economy started working better for all those who cultivated the land and made livings from the forests, orchards, and fish-filled waters. Mineral wealth was reserved for the betterment of the entire populace, while tillers were assured of the right to work on the land without incurring the wrath of creditors and were newly guaranteed rights to basic social and health benefits. These measures signaled the end of the chapter of peasant exploitation and subservience and opened a new chapter of peasant emancipation.

Building on the earlier gains, a pluralistic government ensured further economic, social, and educational gains for women and marginalized groups.

The “Women’s Charter” in the “Naya Kashmir Manifesto” accorded equal rights to women with men in all fields of national life – economic, cultural, political, and in government services. Women had the right to work in every line of employment for terms and wages equal to those for men. Women would be assured of equality with men in education, social insurance and job conditions, though the law should also give special protections to mothers and children.

The convergence of religion with social and economic democratization increases my faith in camaraderie, humanity, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Categories: News for progressives

Britain Our 51st State? Better That It Become–Gasp–a U.S. Territory

Fri, 2018-11-09 14:45

Sad to say, but to read Brexit laments from the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), the country seems to be in almost worse shape than 55 BC when Julius Caesar’s Roman Army faced the wild-eyed, spear-bearing, barefooted tribes wearing only animal skins. Add to it anger over its current defense expenditures ($62.9 billion), run up largely from perpetual alliance with the United States’ unending wars and paranoia for domestic “protection” ($41.1 billion).

One recent and much-reprinted column bemoaned the setting sun of Empire that once ruled over 24% of Earth and 23% of its population. The writer chronicled events, artfully omitting the American Revolution in setting off the unraveling of its other defiant colonies up to the 1997 peaceful hand off of Hong Kong to China. Readers could easily conclude that after Britain leaves the EU in March, it will become a bankrupt, drifting lonely orphan in desperate need, as the writer said, of “a new way to rise ethically, morally, economically, politically and diplomatically.” Without that, the “current trajectory is to be the 51stState of America.”

That British sneer is scarcely new. Back in 1766, when both King George III and Parliament worried that its three million colonists were disobeying the Stamp Act, the famed and pragmatic MP William Pitt rose in Commons to demand we be excluded from that tax, but no others. Played for laughs, the sneer followed:

Our legislative power over the colonies is sovereign and supreme. When it ceases to be sovereign and supreme, I would advise every gentleman to sell his lands, if he can, and embark for that country.

Today, perhaps the laugh is on many unhappy Brits yearning do just that if emigration were not such an ugly issue in this country. Or if it didn’t look like jumping out of the frying pan into a far hotter fire.

Despite yesteryear’s contemptuous jest, today’s perilous times for both countries do suggest that the UK’s departure from the EU consider some kind of official union rather than continue our historic loose-knit alliance. After all, the EU is determined to become a major financial and trading rival of both the U.S. and U.K. Shades of 1939! The economic organization conceived for post-WWII peace now plans to establish its own army. Naturally, the Germans are in the forefront to field 200,000 troops by 2024. A navy and air force will follow.

Statehood, of course, is an unlikely route for the UK. It took Hawaii 60 years to become our 50th. It was one of the U.S. major territories: Puerto Rico, Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Northern Marianas, Swains Island and 11 other South Pacific islands and atolls. Puerto Rico has held five referendums since 1967 for statehood. It was finally successful last June only to be blocked by Hurricane Maria and president Trump’s imperious remark: “Puerto Rico should not be thinking about statehood right now.” That’s blatant avoidance of Hurricane Maria’s recovery bills and fears that voters among its 3.5 million residents might favor the Democratic party.

But what if UK voters, fresh from that Brexit decision and cast upon unknown and unfriendly waters, chose to weigh becoming a U.S. territory?

Initially, it would be a shock abroad and hard on pride and prestige at home—until recognizing greater advantages even as an unincorporated entity. Loss of EU trading privileges would be replaced by inclusion in U.S. bilateral pacts and escape from its ruinous import tariffs. Its formidable stock exchange probably would retain, even gain, investors because of the U.S. connection. And it would be easy to emigrate to the States.

Like other self-governing U.S. territories—and Commonwealth nations—it would retain Parliament, the monarchy, its currency, the budgetary allocations and taxing systems, social programs, and sporting events. Moreover, leaving the EU will save billions in membership dues: last year they were $11.6 billion against earnings of only $5.4 billion.

Distance wouldn’t be a problem. Guam, for instance, is 5,986 miles  from California, a far piece from the 3,462 miles between London and New York. That distance even in 1606 didn’t deter the little clutch of London speculators in the “Virginia Company” from sending 105 freebooters and disposable lordlings to hunt gold and silver along the James River. Or, at the least, to set up a trading post (“Jamestown”) for busy European colonizers exploiting our East coast and Caribbean islands.

Nor did King George III blench at shipping 22,000 troops to squelch troublemakers and tax-evaders launching the American Revolution. He could even spare 62,000 redcoats from the Napoleonic wars for the War of 1812-15 to finally stamp out those scrappy ingrates daring to become a trading rival and seizing resource-rich crown lands west of the colonies.

U.S. peace negotiators were also farsighted enough to ensure that a “territory” was specified in the Ghent Treaty that ended the war in a draw, to seize UK properties west of the Alleghenies.  Their patient British counterparts recognized that the U.S. would be especially dependent economically on the parent country for years. So they laid down terms designed to restore perfect reciprocity, Peace, Friendship, and good Understanding between them….There shall be a firm and universal Peace between His Britannic Majesty and the United States, and between their respective Countries, Territories, Cities, Towns, and People of every degree without exception of places or persons.

The treaty’s other important feature was Anglo-American “comity.” It has lasted from Britain’s early and significant waves of settlers to America, through wartime alliances and financial collapses, as well as sharing the common law and the language of Milton, Shakespeare—and Donald Trump. True, we Yanks struggle with UK dialects on BBC series such as Poldark, but so do our UK “cousins” with New Englander “ay-yups” and Southern drawls on PBS documentaries.

Too, for all the resentments rebels held against King George III and the royals, millions of Americans have always danced attendance seemingly on their every action whether it was King Edward VIII’s abdication for the American divorcee he loved, Princess Margaret in a can-can chorus line, or grief over Princess Diana’s untimely death. Didn’t 29.2 millionAmericans just spend a sleepless night riveted to the televised nuptials of Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle? Our mutual audiences of commoners are drawn to palaces and lives of the privileged. It’s the “emulative ethic” of not wanting to destroy the “haves,” but yearning to live like them.

Culturally, the two countries have cross-pollinated creativity whether in music, movies/theatre, writing, or the fine arts. And both countries share political activism that’s put millions on the streets opposing war and nuclear weapons, stopping global-climate change and sexual harassment, or vigorous opposition to Trump. His recent visit to the UK turned out thousands in its major cities. Londoners lofted a huge balloon of a diapered, demanding baby all but waving a nuclear missile. In a bit of lend-lease, they loaned it to Washington’s thousands for the national protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, neither populace is likely to know that U.S. territories were also specified in the U.S. Constitution. The third section of Article IV declares:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

Aside from offering protection to territories—except for expensive Acts of God and climate change—U.S. rules and laws don’t apply to territorial residents. Among the many other benefits, a territorial resident these days can:

+ become a U.S. “national”—but not a citizen.

+ be taxed onlyby the territorial government.

+ travel in the U.S. withouta passport.

+ vote and run for office—but only in that territory.

+ be elected as the territory’s single delegate to Congress, to author bills, vote on committees—but not on either floor.

+ vote in the U.S. primaries—but not general elections.

A much-needed and great benefit of the UK becoming a territory would be its influential voice to Washington decision-makers. It’s underscored by common sense and experience from centuries of being the world’s leading power. They certainly could furnish expertise to politically unhappy Americans in how they undermined rulers such as the war-loving Richard II,  John I, the weak Edward II, braggarts like Henry VIII, and the unhinged George III. Not to mention legions of prime ministers with similar qualities.

They also could teach us how the UK was able relinquish world power and its prohibitive costs to address crucial domestic needs and stave off rising fury of the ruled. Today’s priorities are reflected in its current budget allocations: pensions (20%), health care (19%), social needs (14%). Defense/security gets only 10%. In fact, defense spending has been dropping steadily from 2000 when it consumed nearly 3 percent of the GDP to nearly 2 percent this year.

The transformation has to be attributed to reality and practicality concerning Britain’s declining global role after WWII, but also Labour party control of the government from 1945-5, most of the 1960s and 1970s, and from 1997-2010.

Its singular achievement was establishing the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948   which covered everyone. It stemmed largely from middle-class’ anger for not receiving the free care provided the poor. Like the rich, they were forced to pay out of pocket for insurance, doctor visits, hospital stays, and nursing homes. Though the NHS cost taxpayers $198 billion this year for all those expenditures, it also includes the latest hearing aids, vision and dental care—and free prescriptions for those over age 60. Small wonder NHS is the envy of most Americans.

In the EU, Britain’s influence over policies became marginal, another reason for Brexit. It never was the case in, say, WWII when Winston Churchill was prime minister or other commanding leaders who followed. There’s something about the clipped speech of a Brit presenting issues and workable ideas that still commands respectful attention from American decision-makers and the 70 percent of us who desperately want the Medicare-for-All program.

Another area of advice and influence might be the millions in revenues the UK gained by a 5 percent “stamp duty reserve” tax on all stock market transactions. Add its new Unexplained Wealth Order detecting money laundering by high-rollers engaging in drugs and other illegal deeds. Or raising billions by working toward lower exemption rates and closing escape hatches in inheritance taxes. Britain’s current yield is $6,784,970,400. Replicating that change in our federal tax system would provide a good start for addressing economic inequality in this country.

But perhaps a UK territory’s greatest influence on Washington would be in controlling our exploitive global corporations, Congressional warhawks, and the military-industrial complex. Today, UK leaders and people want shut of joining our successive regimes’ bloody efforts to control global oil resources and trading. The UK has joined wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and is now complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen. Saudi bombing attacks have caused at least 56,000 deaths, the starvation of at least 14 million, and creating a potential 350,000 refugees. As an outraged Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell recently wrote in the Guardian:

As supporters of the Saudi/UAE-led coalition and key arms suppliers, we bear a unique responsibility. We cannot look the other way as this catastrophe in Yemen unfolds. We must stand true to our values, to strategic common sense, indeed true to our allies’ best interests and make clear that we can no longer support [the Saudi] war in Yemen.

Saying “no” to joining America’s endless wars would be difficult to be sure. But as a self-governing territory, the UK could call a snap election on this issue. If it passed, it would free up a sizable portion of current expenditures for defense and security programs (this year: $103.9 billion). And it would surely give pause to our endless wars by stopping a president and jingoistic lawmakers from ram-rodding unquestioned, unaudited $717 billion-dollar Pentagon allocations.

Sovereign pride probably would be the chief obstacle standing in the way of UK voters weighing territorial status. But instead of considering it a “come-down,” they could be asked to think it’s little different from being in a symbolic commonwealth of today’s large, self-governing countries like Canada or Australia, or small ones like the Bahamas, and Fiji. These former colonies still retain “friendship and practical cooperation” with the UK. Nor do their leaders shrink from consulting officials in the “mother country” about knotty problems. They have come to know UK responses are based upon 2,000 years of experience—fortunate and sometimes not-so-fortunate.

Besides, in deciding to bow out as the No. 1 world power these past decades, the UK’s people were well aware of the ancient proverb: “pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” The Kingdom has skillfully avoided destruction by putting practicality and survival ahead of pride or Brexit wouldn’t exist. Today, in the fearsome, monumental global challenges lying dead ahead for both of our countries, it might be wise to finally have an official, if loose, tie such as territorial status. It would legally bind and benefit the long-lasting comity hoped for long ago in the Treaty of Ghent.

Categories: News for progressives

Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet, Good Old Boys Are Hunting

Fri, 2018-11-09 14:32

In a recent New York Times column titled “White Male Victimization Anxiety,” Charles Blow described how President Trump publicly apologized to Justice Brett Kavanaugh for “the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure” at the hands of Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed that Kavanaugh had tried to rape her. Blow also cited Senator Lindsey Graham’s own plucky #MeToo moment during the Kavanaugh hearings, when Graham proclaimed, “I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up.”

Blow’s fine op-ed piece joins a growing media chorus studying the current “victimization” of white American men. We queers can assume – since everybody else does already – that we’re talking straight white American men, who, excoriated for their lapses of “politically correct” behavior, now identify as victims.

Frankly, I find the term “victim” offensive. These people are survivors! Straight white men haven’t recently begun to feel victimized: they’ve felt that way since the dawn of time. It’s one of their main feelings. I know. I went to a “Make America Straight White Male Again” rally and got a free MASWMA baseball cap! This deeply moved me.

So I sat down and composed a little history for first graders, to educate them about the oppressed straight white male diaspora. To explain the patriarchy, I’ve devised an unthreatening little Elmer Fudd-type character that children of all ages are sure to love.

Chapter One: Venus Envy

Long ago, in primitive times, there lived a straight white chubby little male. He had a large, hairless head, a nubby potato nose, shifty primordial eyes, and a dithering, crazed expression that only a Caucasian could love. All day long in his little hunter’s suit, he would stalk about matriarchal civilization, holding his slingshot at the ready.

“Shshsh,” he’d say to the villagers. “Be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting and gatherwing. Huh-huh-huh.”

Folks called him the Good Old Boy.

“That’s to distinguish me from women and minorwities,” he’d say, laughing bashfully.

One day, the Good Old Boy was hunting wabbits, when he tripped over one of those heavy Venus of Willendorf figures that the women kept lying around. “Ow! I bwoke my toe on the lady’s big rock boobies!” cried the Good Old Boy. Then he sighed. “All I have is this crummy penis.”

Suddenly, the Earth’s poles shifted. “Wait!” he said, raising his little fist in the air, “I am being victimized!”

Thus it was that the Good Old Boy started the first reproductive rights campaign! Surrounded by his followers, he held a primeval rally outside the village menstrual hut.

“We demand equal wights to have babies, you pesky bwoads,” he bellowed, as he and his gang threw themselves on the ground, groaning and simulating advanced stages of labor. This made the women stop menstruating and walk away. “Just for that,” called the Good Old Boy after them, “you don’t get to vote! Plus I get to feel you up anytime I want.” Then the Good Old Boy got up, dusted himself off, found Jesus, and conquered Europe.

Chapter Two: God Helps Boys Who Help Themselves

Life in Europe would have been pretty boring if it hadn’t been for God. One day, the Good Old Boy was sitting in his 11th century hovel, eating his Euro-breakfast of gruel and croissants. “Woman,” he growled at his wife, “this food is tasteless. Bring me nutmeg, dammit.”

Then he remembered that his wife had left him nine years ago, taking all the spices. So God told him to go all the way to the Middle East to get his nutmeg. “I’m a wegular Chrwistian martyr,” grumbled the Good Old Boy.

On his way out the door, he tripped over some local pixies who were wont to engage in zesty homosexual acts with each other. “Thou corn-holing, minorwity bog dwellers!” he scolded. “You better not be here when I get back.”

When the Good Old Boy got to the Middle East, he was so dazzled by the level of civilization, he almost forgot about his nutmeg. Never had he seen such fine buildings, such brilliant art. Then he noticed that the natives were laughing at him under the hot, Islamic sun. “Waskally people of color,” he seethed. “They’re giggling at my sunburn. Help me, Jesus – I’m being victimized!”

Then Jesus gave him the gift of Islamophobia and told the Good Old Boy to colonize the entire Mideast for centuries. So he did.

Chapter Three: Burn, Pixie, Burn

Back in Europe, our hero was finally starting to feel good about himself! But it isn’t easy for straight white males in this world, children. Often, he was forced to endure harassment from cackling old women who tried to turn him into a bat or make his crops fail. Then there were those rotten pixies, who followed him around making kissy noises.

So he lit a bonfire. “Burn in hell, evil hag,” said the Good Old Boy. “Take that, faggot,” he added, throwing another pixie on the fire. No doubt about it: he was developing real straight white male pride! Still, that old feeling came over him – he felt like a victim.

Chapter Four: Democracy

Fleeing victimization, the Good Old Boy crossed the mighty waves to the New Land. There he found millions of people who had lived there for centuries with their own forms of democracy. But the Good Old Boy had been duped before, so he conducted a little survey. He found that, in all the great tribal councils, there was not one straight white male. Imagine his feelings!

“You can’t fool me,” cried the Good Old Boy. “You’re all women and minorwities. This is weverse discrwimination.”

He sat down to clean his gun, which went off, annihilating 5,000,000 of the women and minorities. He turned and coughed in their direction and 5,000,000 more died of smallpox and other diseases. He picked up a catalog and ordered 450,000 slaves to build his life in the New Land. Then he thought about how good it would be to get together with other Good Old Boys and hammer out the Constitution. He felt better.

Yet, even today, the struggle continues. Plagued by invading caravans and the hoax of climate change, the Good Old Boy is forced to sleep with his gun. And he dreams. He dreams of how he will shoot the crap out of anyone who dares to make him feel like a victim.

Study Questions:

1) Write an essay about your favorite straight while male character in Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

2) Are there any women, Jews, or people of color in the membership rolls of the Proud Boys? Discuss.

3) Fifty-three percent of white women voted for President Trump. What the fuck?

 

Categories: News for progressives

Women in the Cinema of North Africa

Fri, 2018-11-09 14:12

Still from “A Day for Women.”

Too often, we are overwhelmed with woeful tales, painful memoirs and worn analyses of Arab/Muslim women. Most depictions, whether we’re besieged in a war, or if we’re just trying to get by making small advances like women anywhere, we are invariably portrayed as hapless victims. We’re in need of succor, or reform, or rescue.

Writings by our own talented authors are popular if they reveal exploitations or despairs or escapes. These feed enlightened sisters abroad who may feel better about themselves when they can pity others.

So I approach announcements of new releases—both these are from North Africa– with some apprehension. After screening the productions under review here, my fear dissolves.

Tunisia (through the films of Moufida Tlatli) and Egypt are highly regarded in the film world. Particularly Egypt with its glorious history of filmmaking and its distinguished line of actors proves its mettle in “Youm el-Setat” (A Day for Woman). This playful drama about serious issues becomes heartwarming and totally engaging in the hands of director Kamla Abu Zeki.

Three love stories and women’s eternal search for fulfillness is the focus of “Youm el-Setat”. The plot evolves around a neighborhood pool where a day a week is allocated for girls and ladies. Azza who initially appears simpleminded takes the first plunge. Eventually the whole neighborhood follows her and together they assert their solidarity and their rights. Scenes of their celebratory escapades are delightful; pool frolicking along with street encounters immerses us in that Cairo neighborhood. The story rises above place and religion, beyond covered or uncovered heads. Emerging romances threaded within this drama could happen anywhere.

Young Azza, it turns out, is not so simpleminded. She’s just naturally liberated! She’s attracts others with her naive joyfulness. Samiya too is a free-thinking woman from the moment we meet her although neighbors initially view her as a sassy whore. Her humor and honesty explode into courage and passion when, finally, she approaches Ahmed, a longtime sweetheart—both are by then middle-aged—to consummate their love. Laila, a forlorn young widow, belatedly joins others in the pool and awakens. Finally she can respond to the tenderness of the likable guy who as pool manager had launched this day for women. (A day for women becomes the ‘time for women’.)

It’s a film to swim along with.

“El Jaida” (The Jailer) by Tunisian director and actor Selma Baccar takes an altogether different approach to oppression and women’s determination to be free of patriarchal domination. In contrast with the Egyptian film, “El Jaida” is humorless. The lives of these Tunisian women seem irredeemable. Although defiant, they are an unhappy lot. The injustices they face are manifest in the family, but the story points elsewhere. Drawing on Tunisian historical experience, the film underscores how gender relations and politics intersect.

The story largely takes place in the 1950s when across the region the anti-colonial movement erupts. The story begins with a well-to-do housewife confronting her husband’s infidelity, then finds herself confined with others in jail. Initially adversaries, after learning each other’s stories, the women come together. While outside the prison’s walls, the nationalist movement to end French rule is gaining strength. The story abruptly shifts 50 years ahead to 2017. The occupiers are gone; so is the dictator. Baja, the film’s main character, has become a member of Tunisia’s new parliament where we find her reading the newly promulgated code establishing women’s equal rights in Tunisian law.

Both films premier in coming weeks at the New York Diaspora International Film Festival www.NYADIFF.org. For more than 25 years, ADIFF has been introducing to American audiences a taste of the extraordinary filmmaking talent at work beyond American shores.

Categories: News for progressives

Bach’s Day and Night

Fri, 2018-11-09 14:10

Time is not just relative. It’s political, too. We often measure our lives by presidential terms: the Carter years; Clinton time; Bush I; Bush II? The end of time under Trump?

Time can be bent to the will of the majority. This week California voters approved Proposition 7 enabling the state legislature to make Daylight Savings Time year-round. In a signing statement sending the referendum for the people’s decision on election day, November 6, Governor Jerry Brown endorsed it with the motto of his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley: “Let there be Light.”The measure was well-timed for passage since it came just two days after the clocks have been set back in the wee hours of the previous Sunday morning. Not yet used to the earlier onset of dark, Californians were yet more inclined to opt for eternal daylight savings.

While these electoral decisions confirm that time is a human construct, the heavens do not fix their course by referendum. The opening lines of one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the best time), BWV 106 makes clear who is the keeper of the eschatological clock.

Another of Bach’s youthful cantatas Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)—“God is my King”—addresses both time and politics. It is a sumptuous public work scored for three trumpets and timpani, a full battery of winds and strings, double chorus, and even a solo organ part played originally by the twenty-two-year-old composer himself. Bach was commissioned to write the piece for the investiture of the new town council in Mühlhausen in central Germany in February of 1708. Then the organist at the church of St. Blasius in this imperial free city, Bach answered the request with a work of great expressive range and civic fervor, from the martial blasts of the opening choruses to the stoic determination of the first aria “I am now eighty years old.” The text for this movement is based on the Book of Samuel, but as Bach scholar Daniel Melamed has argued, it refers more immediately to the new mayor, Adolph Strecker, an old man of eighty-four. Strecker died within a few months of taking office, buried, as the aria text presages, “in the town of his birth.” It is into this aria that Bach weaves his obbligato organ part with its triplet figures drifting through the texture like wisps of smoke, as ephemeral perhaps as earthly life. A young man at the start of a great career not only portrays the fleetingness of the earthly journey in his music, but he also performs it.

A change of government was a major event in the cultural life of German cities. After the largest bell in the tower of St. Mary’s had summoned Mühlhausen’s populace at around seven in the morning, the councilors, old and new, processed into the church between martial columns formed by the town militia, their entrance accompanied musically by trumpets and timpani. The procession took place in the dim February light and in what must often have been inclement weather.  In 1708 the trumpeters and timpanist also took part in the cantata heard after the sermon inside the church. Bach’s is music of a theocracy: “God is my King” shouts the chorus at the outset, and with the closing movement the joyous embrace of the new administration (“This is our new government / In every endeavor / Crown it with thy blessing”) is sealed by God’s arms.

One can get a sense of this huge church where the piece first resounded by watching a film of the cantata performed by the Michaelstein Telemann Chamber Orchestra and Chorus in the church where it was first heard. This performance is without the austere pomp that filled the church in 1708 and that provided the original context for Bach’s festive piece.  All we get in this modern performance is the cantata itself. A restored altarpiece and bits of religious art cling museum-like to the restored walls of the church, but the images on-screen confirm that Bach’s music has long outlasted its theocratic origins.

Such was the importance accorded the music marking the change of government that the city fathers of Mühlhausen paid for the text and score of the celebratory cantata to be printed. As a result Gott ist mein Königis the only one of Bach’s cantatas to have been published during his lifetime, excepting the lost cantata he wrote for the same event the following year. Such was the esteem that the council had for the young organist, that it commissioned a second town council cantata from him even after he had left Mühlhausen for a better post as court organist at Weimar, forty miles away.

The central bass aria of Gott ist mein König, the fourth of the cantata’s seven movements, addresses the issue of time. With minimal means, Bach portrays God’s division of night from day. The text, like much of the cantata, is taken from Psalm 74: “Tag und Nacht ist dein” (Day and night is yours) Above the organ and cello accompaniment, pairs of recorders and oboes echo each other as if from the light and dark, but the parts also entwine in the interstices between day and night. The mood is pastoral, the instruments’ evoking the flutes and shawms of biblical shepherds. But the aria also projects a contemplative rationality, as if God did his temporal work with utter calm and care. The bass line seems to mark out time, but it also conveys a process of thought and choice through its directed, but hardly relentless, progress: the notes proceed in graceful succession, though not with regularity. Godly deliberation seems still to be underway. We experience the division between night as it is being mulled over and enacted.

But it is Bach’s treatment of the vocal line that sonically maps out the course of the day with the simplest of musical figures. The composer sets the words “Tag und Nacht” (Day and night) with three notes that divide the octave in half: a high F for “day” and a Low F for “night” with “and” sung to a C in between them.  With this barest of musical ideas, Bach elegantly, yet unforgettably defines the transition from day to night. The distance between day and night changes over the four utterances of the line in this first section of the aria.  When Bach repeats the figure soon after its first iteration, he has it rise up from “day” to “and” and then jump down seven notes—one note short of an octave—and then rise up the already-heard fifth for “ist dein” (is yours). When Bach repeats the line a third time, he leaps from a high C for “day,” overshooting the octave to a B-flat nine notes below. The fourth and final instance also uses this nine-note spacing. “Day” is always placed higher melodically, and set at a large intervallic distance from, “night”—a spacing that signifies the separation between them. The evocative power of these musical figures suggests both ineluctability and comfort: God has set out the day precisely and perfectly. Time is beyond human tampering.

The changing proportions between day and night in “Tag und Nacht” suggest that the proportion between them is in a state of flux, something the listeners in St. Mary’s church would have known simply from the dim morning light of Winter.

The middle section of the aria dramatizes the path of the sun as set by God: “You make both the sun and stars, and set them on their course.” The music suddenly becomes busier, the cogs of the cosmos whizzing round. This contrasts with the contemplative pace of the earlier music describing day and its transformation into night. It is not that human life is calm; Bach loves also to depict the frantic pace of human activity. By contrast, God’s time proceeds inexorably, immutably. As if to reassure the Mühlhausen faithful, Bach grants them—and us—a reprise of the opening music. God’s time encompasses not only earthly life, but also the aria itself.

As Melamed has shown, the cantata is rich in topical themes: reference is made to a devastating fire in the city the previous year, to the make-up of the new city council, and to the ongoing wars with France and Sweden prosecuted by the Hapsburg Emperor, the nominal protector (duly thanked in the text) of the Protestant Imperial City of Mühlhausen.

But I like to imagine that Bach’s confrontation with time in this cantata takes on greater meaning when we remember that it comes in the aftermath of the decision of the Protestants states of Germany to adopt the new calendar introduced into Catholic lands in the late sixteenth century by Pope Gregory XIII.  While many of the patchwork of German territories had already accepted the “Catholic” system over the course of the seventeenth century, the new calendar was accepted by the rest of the Germans on Monday, March 1, 1700.  The new calendar amounted to a major wrinkle in the fabric of the Protestant time, one that is theologically smoothed out by Bach’s gentle, profound aria: however, much humans may fiddle with the hour hand, the days, the months and the years, God is the ultimate time keeper.

Only God can divide the day from the night. Undaunted, humans of the Secular Age have, over the last century, been obsessively fooling with time. Daylight Savings was first implemented early in the twentieth century, when the Germans put it into effect during World War I to save coal. Using less energy has been the most frequent rationale for adjusting the clocks. FDR put the U. S. on perpetual daylight savings, or War Time, from 1942 to 1945. Nixon’s Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973 was a response to the oil embargo. Given their latitude and energy reserves, the OPEC nations have never bothered with changing the clocks. I can still remember trying to get my mind around the concept of daylight savings as a kid, wondering how it was possible simply to alter time. Bush junior expanded daylight savings again in his energy bill of 2005, robbing the early risers among us of a couple more weeks of morning sunlight.

Regardless of when they want their light, some in California might see Proposition 7 as a first step towards political secession from the federal government now presided over by Donald Trump, whose midnight tweets do not obey the rising and setting of the sun, instead forsaking the political future for night-time gratifications. If California’s legislators move ahead as the voters have now enjoined them, the feds will still have to approve the change.  Whatever the case, the sum total of darkness gets ever smaller as the world gets lighter. At least we can be thankful that, as Cole Porter put it more than three centuries after Bach’s luminous and shadowy cantata, there is still “Night and day, day and night.”

Categories: News for progressives

The “Wisconsin Idea” Strikes Back!  Scott Walker Loses, Truth and the Human Condition Wins!

Thu, 2018-11-08 16:12

Early morning November 7th delivered jolly good news for Wisconsin. Butler (and sometimes Pinkerton) to Wichita’s dirty oil and coal billionaire Koch Brothers, Governor Scott Walker, lost his re-election bid. Late Tuesday night, Rick (aka, “Speculum”) Santorum, sallied forth with a hurrah that GOP Scott Walker was an “unkillable Zombie” on track to win again! With over 97% of the vote in, Walker looked to have another race in the bag in once progressive Wisconsin. But, then 45,000 absentee ballots from urban Milwaukee County came to the rescue, thus knocking off Santorum’s zombie.

The Dairy State has a proud progressive pedigree. It gave birth to the once anti-slavery progressive Republican Party in 1854. During the tragic Civil War, Wisconsin had the highest percentage of any state’s men enlisting on abolitionist grounds. Wisconsin helped give rise to the Progressive movement that overturned the Gilded Age and made government more rational and less special-interest based. Wisconsin served as an incubator for policies advancing the social interest, such as Social Security. Last, but not least, its public land grant university, the University of Wisconsin, was built on the noblest of ideas. It’s hard to imagine today when university presidents are chiefly occupied as: 1) fundraisers flattering the rich in hopes of securing donations and 2) assuring the state’s George Babbitts serving in the State Assembly that the business of the university is strictly business.  But, in 1905, University of Wisconsin’s President Charles Van Hise gave voice to the Wisconsin Idea. Van Hise defined the University’s highest as “searching for the truth” and “improving the human condition.”

Enter Scott Walker. Elected in 2010, this former college dropout whose professors commented on general boredom and lack of curiosity, made it his business to use the Governor’s pen to strike out the language of “truth” and “improving the human condition” from President Van Hise’s University of Wisconsin mission statement, and replace it with “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” In short, “truth” and “improving the human condition” were switched out with subsidizing job training for private business. The state’s George Babbitts were delighted, as would the Khmer Rouge of Nikita Khrushchev be with this practical, no nonsense “mission” for the university.

Walker was bested by Tony Evers, a life-long teacher and school superintendent. Evers exudes a midwestern nice guy earnestness. Moreover, having survived a bout with esophageal cancer, he’s uncharacteristically thin for a diary “stater.” Consequently, Evers looks like a teacher who walked off of an early 20th century Norman Rockwell painting, further contributing to his idealized archetypal Midwestern character.

Yet, Wisconsin has a dualistic character. While it has delivered the progressive traditions enumerated above, it has also given us reactionary figures like “Tail Gunner” Joe McCarthy and John Birch. Moreover, on the fault lines of race, it has frequently failed its progressive traditions. Yet, what forces gave rise to Scott Walker in a state that on balance has been more progressive than not? Events of the 21st century provide the answers.

In 2000, having lost the US election by 500,000 votes, the Republican Party seized the Presidency by contesting the election in Florida. That election night, an irregularity with the ballot type (‘butterfly ballots’ provided the pretext). The terrain selected for this electoral theft was brazen: West Palm Beach. A location disproportionately populated by elderly liberal Jewish retirees, the ballot’s confusing structure led many of these voters to select Right-wing Catholic stalwart and former President Richard Milhouse Nixon speechwriter, “Lock ‘n’ Load,” Patrick Buchannan. Buchannan preceded Donald Trump’s working-class racist nationalism political campaign by 2 decades. Buchannan, normally a “straight shooter” when nothing is at stake, appeared on the election night’s news programs and laughed off the idea that these voters were his. Yet, 24 hours later, as the stakes became evident (the Presidency of the United States) he fell into line and took orders from the GOP’s chain of command that he owned these votes. This, combined with a United States Supreme Court majority appointed by past Republican Presidents, meant the Presidency of the United States would be stolen. The Democratic Party acquiesced to this theft for reasons which the reader can decide whether they were national unity or cowardice. Thus, emboldened by their success, the GOP went for more.

Four years later, another close Presidential contest came down to one state deciding the election: Ohio. Ohio’s election was as mess. Hackable Diebold electronic paperless voting machines were frequently used. Voter suppression methods targeted at urban black communities. A solid, but at present, unprovable, case, can be made that this election too was stolen. The “known, knowns,” however, were that GOP voter suppression measures were in full force.

2008 saw the election of President Obama. The margin of his victory was too large to contest. But, the GOP responded by working to mute possible progressive legislative proposals, which were not forthcoming anyway. By 2010 the GOP regrouped, organized the Tea Party anchored in racist nationalism and doubled down on voter suppression through voter ID laws, scrubbing voter rolls, engineering ballot shortages in select (read: black) communities. This voter suppression strategy (branded as ‘voting integrity’) has seen two past state GOP Chairman (Florida and Pennsylvania) admit to its obvious purpose. Control of the franchise was further mounted in 2010 by the Supreme Court’s Orwellian titled “Citizens United” ruling that cash equals speech in elections, thereby coming under 1st Amendment protections.

2010 continued as a watershed year for the GOP and Walker’s war on democracy. Republicans gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure legislative control even in states where they lacked popular electoral majorities. Gerrymandering was used to devastating effect in its 2012 trial run in Wisconsin, in which Obama’s overwhelming electoral win was matched by the GOP taking 60 of WI’s 99 legislative seats with only 48.6% of the state’s popular vote.

Scott Walker used the above tactics to full effect to gain and maintain control of Wisconsin. Declaring himself the state’s CEO, with all that implies, instead of a public servant, Walker employed the full GOP panoply of voter suppression “tools” (as he was fond of referencing his democracy suppressing policies) and torrents of billionaire cash, both from in state and out. His 8 years in power saw use of loyalty tests (not signing petitions against him) to intimidate opponents. As former chief counsel for President Nixon, John Dean, said of him, “Walker is more Nixonian than Nixon.” Yet, unlike Donald Trump who uses air horns to broadcast his thuggery, Walker favored dog whistles to both communicate his extremism to his authoritarian base, while appearing moderate to others. This recipe kept Walker in power for 8 years.

Yet, Tuesday’s election emphatically asserted that the Wisconsin Idea is alive and back. To its enemies, consider yourselves on notice. Wisconsin

 

Categories: News for progressives

With Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Israel Finds Another Natural Partner on the Far-Right

Thu, 2018-11-08 16:00

Photo Source Janine Moraes / Câmara dos Deputados | CC BY 2.0

The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election last week has won Israel a passionate new friend on the international stage. The world’s fifth-most populous nation will now be “coloured in blue and white”, an Israeli official said, referring to the colours of Israel’s flag.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called to congratulate Bolsonaro, a former army officer with a pronounced nostalgia for his country’s 20-year military dictatorship. Critics describe him as a neo-fascist.

According to Israeli media reports, it is “highly probable” that Netanyahu will attend Bolsonaro’s inauguration on January 1.

The Brazilian president-elect has already promised that his country will be the third to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, after the United States and Guatemala. That will further undermine Palestinian hopes for an eventual state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Bolsonaro has told Israel that it can count on Brazil’s vote at the United Nations, and has threatened to close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.

One might imagine that Netanyahu is simply being pragmatic in cosying up to Bolsonaro, given Brazil’s importance. But that would be to ignore an unmistakable trend: Israel has relished the recent emergence of far-right leaders across the Americas and Europe, often to the horror of local Jewish communities.

Bolsonaro has divided Brazil’s 100,000 Jews. Some have been impressed by the frequent appearance of Israeli flags at his rallies and his anti-Palestinian stance. But others point out that he regularly expresses hostility to minorities.

They suspect that Bolsonaro covets Israel’s military expertise and the votes of tens of millions of fundamentalist Christians in Brazil, who see Israel as central to their apocalyptic, and in many cases antisemitic, beliefs. Not that this worries Netanyahu.

He has been engaged in a similar bromance with Viktor Orban, the ultra-nationalist prime minister of Hungary, who barely veils his Jew-baiting and has eulogised Miklos Horthy, a Hungarian leader who collaborated with the Nazis.

Netanyahu has also courted Poland’s far-right prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, even as the latter has fuelled Holocaust revisionism with legislation to outlaw criticism of Poland for its involvement in the Nazi death camps. Millions of Jews were exterminated in such camps.

Israel is cultivating alliances with other ultra-nationalists – in and out of power – in the Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

The conclusion drawn by Jewish communities abroad is that their wellbeing – even their safety – is now a much lower priority than bolstering Israel’s diplomatic influence.

That was illustrated starkly last week in the immediate aftermath of a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27. Robert Bowers gunned down 11 worshippers in the worst antisemitic attack in US history.

Jewish communities have linked the awakening of the white-nationalist movement to which Bowers belonged to the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric towards immigrants and ethnic minorities.

In Pittsburgh, huge crowds protested as Trump paid a condolence visit to the Tree of Life synagogue, holding banners aloft with slogans such as: “President Hate, leave our state.”

Equally hard to ignore is that Israeli leaders, while they regularly denounce US and European left-wingers as antisemites for criticising Israel over its abuse of Palestinians, have remained studiously silent on Trump’s inflammatory statements.

Chemi Shalev, a commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noted the disturbing impression created by Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, escorting Trump through Pittsburgh. Dermer looked like a “bodyguard”, shielding the president from local Jewish protesters, Shalev observed.

Meanwhile, tone-deaf diaspora affairs minister Naftali Bennett, leader of largest Israeli settler party, the Jewish Home, milked the local community’s pain over the Pittsburgh massacre to Israel’s advantage. At an official commemoration service, he compared Bowers’ bullets to rockets fired by Palestinians, describing both as examples of antisemitism.

In an online post before the attack, Bowers singled out the synagogue for its prominent role helping refugees gain asylum in the US.

Trump has rapidly turned immigration into a “national security” priority. Last week, he sent thousands of US troops to the border with Mexico to stop what he termed an “invasion” by refugees from Central America.

Drawing on the histories of their own families having fled persecution, liberal Jews such as those at the Pittsburgh synagogue believe it is a moral imperative to assist refugees escaping oppression and conflict.

That message is strenuously rejected not only by Trump, but by the Israeli government.

In a move Trump hopes to replicate on the Mexico border, Israel has built a 250km wall along the border with Egypt to block the path of asylum-seekers from war-torn Africa.

Netanyahu’s government has also circumvented international law and Israeli court rulings to jail and then deport existing refugees back to Africa, despite evidence that they will be placed in grave danger.

Bennett has termed the refugees “a plague of illegal infiltrators”, while the culture minister Miri Regev has labelled them a “cancer”. Polls suggest that more than half of Israeli Jews agree.

Separately, Israel’s nation-state law, passed in the summer, gives constitutional weight to the notion that Israel belongs exclusively to Jews, stripping the fifth of the population who are Palestinian citizens of the most basic rights.

More generally, Israel views Palestinians through a single prism: as a demographic threat to the Jewishness of the Greater Israel project that Netanyahu has been advancing.

In short, Israel’s leaders are not simply placating a new wave of white-nationalist and neo-fascist leaders. They have a deep-rooted ideological sympathy with them.

For the first time, overseas Jewish communities are being faced with a troubling dilemma. Do they really wish to subscribe to a Jewish nationalism in Israel that so strongly echoes the ugly rhetoric and policies threatening them at home?

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Categories: News for progressives

The Dystopian Future of Facebook

Thu, 2018-11-08 15:59

Photo Source thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

This year Facebook filed two very interesting patents in the US. One was a patent for emotion recognition technology; which recognises human emotions through facial expressions and so can therefore assess what mood we are in at any given time-happy or anxious for example. This can be done either by a webcam or through a phone cam. The technology is relatively straight forward. Artificially intelligent driven algorithms analyses and then deciphers facial expressions, it then matches the duration and intensity of the expression with a corresponding emotion. Take contempt for example. Measured by a range of values from 0 to 100, an expression of contempt could be measured by a smirking smile, a furrowed brow and a wrinkled nose. An emotion can then be extrapolated from the data linking it to your dominant personality traits: openness, introverted, neurotic, say.

The accuracy of the match may not be perfect, its always good to be sceptical about what is being claimed, but as AI (Artificial Intelligence) learns exponentially and the technology gets much better; it is already much, much quicker than human intelligence.

Recently at Columbia University a competition was set up between human lawyers and their AI counterparts. Both read a series of non-disclosure agreements with loopholes in them. AI found 95% compared to 88% by humans. The human lawyers took 90 minutes to read them; AI took 22 seconds. More incredibly still, last year Google’s AlphaZero beat Stockfish 8 in chess. Stockfish 8 is an open-sourced chess engine with access to centuries of human chess experience. Yet AlphaZero taught itself using machine learning principles, free of human instruction, beating Stockfish 8 28 times and drawing 72 out of 100. It took AlphaZero four hours to independently teach itself chess. Four hours from blank slate to genius.

A common misconception about algorithms is that they can be easily controlled, rather they can learn, change and run themselves-a process known as deep “neural” learning. In other words, they run on self-improving feed back loops. Much of this is positive of course, unthought of solutions by humans to collective problems like climate change are more possible in the future. The social payoffs could be huge too. But what of the use of AI for other means more nefarious. What if, as Yuval Noah Hariri says, AI becomes just another tool to be used by elites to consolidate their power even further in the 21stcentury. History teaches us that it isn’t luddite to ask this question, nor is it merely indulging in catastrophic thinking about the future. Rapidly evolving technology ending up in the hands of just a few mega companies, unregulated and uncontrolled, should seriously concern us all.

Algorithms, as Jamie Bartlett the author of The People Vs Tech puts it, are “the keys to the magic kingdom” of understanding deep seated human psychology: they filter, predict, correlate, target & learn. They also manipulate. We would be naive in the extreme to think they already don’t, and even more naive to think the manipulation is done only by commercial entities. After all, it’s not as if there aren’t lots of online tribes, some manufactured and some not, to be manipulated into and out of political viewpoints, our fleeced of their money.

In 2017 Facebook said they could detect teenagers’ moods and emotions such as feeling nervous and insecure by their entries, a claim they denied later, adding we do not, “offer tools to target people based on their emotional state”. The internal report was written by two Australian executives-Andy Sinn and David Fernandez. The report according to The Guardian was written for a large bank and said that, “the company has a database of its young users – 1.9 million high schoolers, 1.5 million tertiary students and 3 million young workers”.

Going one better still, Affectiva, a Boston company, claims to be able to detect and decode complex emotional and cognitive data from your face, voice and physiological state using emotion recognition technology (ECT)-amassing 12 billion “emotion data points” across gender, age & ethnicity.  Its founder has declared that Affectiva’s ECT can read your heart rate from a webcam without the you wearing any sensors, simply by using the reflection of your face which highlights blood flow-a reflection of your blood pressure. Next time you’re listening to Newstalk’s breakfast show, think of that.

Affectiva’s ultimate goal of course, when you get past all the feel-good optimistic guff about “social connectivity”, “awesome innovation”, and worst of all “empowering” is, to use their own words, to “enable media creators to optimize their content”. Profiting from decoding our emotional states in other words.

Maybe Facebook (and Google) would use this technology wisely for our benefit, then again maybe not. It isn’t such a stretch to imagine how it could be used unethically too. To microtarget customised ads and messages at us depending on our state of mind at given time, say, and allowing Cambridge Analytica to harvest the personal data of 87 million Facebook users to subvert democracy with Brexit & Trump. Facebook claims they weren’t aware of this though.  Well, maybe, maybe not, and in spite of their protests in recent years they are still not especially transparent or accountable given their enormous cultural and social power in our lives. Curiouser and Curiouser you might think, and you’d be right.

The second Facebook patent is even more interesting, if that’s the right word, or dystopian if you prefer. Patented this June, published under the code US20180167677 (with the abstract title of Broadcast Content View Analysis Based on Ambient Audio Recording, application no: 15/376,515) illustrates a process by which secret messages- ‘ambient audio fingerprints’ in the jargon-embedded in TV ads, would trigger your smart technology (phone or TV) to record you while the ad was playing. Presumably to gauge your reaction to the product being advertised at you through, perhaps, voice biometrics (i.e. the identification and recognition of the pitch and tone of your voice).

As the patent explains in near impenetrable but just about understandable jargon this is done by first, detecting one or more broadcasting signals (the advertisement) of a content item. Second, ambient audio of the content item is recorded, and then the audio feature is extracted “from the recorded ambient audio to generate an ambient fingerprint” and finally, wait for it, “ the ambient audio fingerprint, time information of the recorded ambient audio, and an identifier of an individual associated with a client device (you and your phone or smart TV) recording the ambient audio” is sent, “to an online system for determining whether there was an impression of the content by the individual.” It goes on to say that “the impression of the identified content item by the identified individual” is logged in a “data store of the online system”.

It goes on to state that “content providers have a vested interest in knowing who have listened and/or viewed their content” and that the feature described in the patent are not exhaustive, and that “many additional features and advantages will be apparent to one of ordinary skill in the art…”.

It is already obvious we don’t know how much Facebook and other big tech platforms monitor us, neither do we know how much data they hold on us individually and collectively and, critically, who has access to that data and how they could use it.

If you can sell consumer goods by such manipulation why not whole ideologies, chipping away at our human agency one dystopian tech innovation at a time, paving the way for the morphing of late stage capitalism into authoritarian capitalism; one efficiency gain at a time.

If put into place such “innovations” are designed to monitor our emotional states for monetary gain. In essence, it is a type of online mood tracking where we are the digital lab rats.  Facebook is already valued at half a trillion US dollars giving it huge economic and cultural power.

According to Private Eye magazine, Facebook’s legal team say the patent was filed “to prevent aggression from other companies”, and that “patents tend to focus on future-looking technology that is often speculative in nature and could be commercialised by other companies”.    As Private Eye pointed out though, it’s not as if Facebook has been completely transparent about such secretive issues in the past or present. The fact that Facebook generates billions by manipulating our emotions is not a surprise us, their business model is based on it, but how they intend to do it in the future should surprise, and alert us. We are after all the product. Over 90% of their revenues comes from selling adverts. They have the market incentive.

How will all this play out in the future? It isn’t difficult to build a picture of a commercialised and rapacious big tech dystopia, the very opposite of the freedoms and civil liberties envisaged by the original pioneers of the internet, and the opposite of how they currently perceive themselves.

Verint, a leading multinational analytics & biometric corporation, with an office in Ireland, has been known to install and sell, “intrusive mass surveillance systems worldwide including to authoritarian governments”, according to Privacy International. Governments that routinely commit human rights abuses on their own citizens.

China, a world leader in surveillance capitalism, recently declared that by 2020 a national video surveillance network, Xueliang, will be fully operationable, Sharp Eyes in English-Kafka and Orwell must be smirking knowingly somewhere. The term sharp eyes harks back to the post war slogan in communist China of “The people have sharp eyes”, when neighbours were encouraged to spy and tell on other neighbours of counter revolutionary or defeatist gossip about the 1949 revolution.

Democracies too have built overarching systems of surveillance. Edward Snowden told us in 2013 that the NSA was given secret direct access to the servers of big tech companies (Facebook, YouTube, Google and others) to collect private communications. As Glenn Greenwald said, the NSA’s unofficial “motto of omniscience” is: Know it all, Collect it all, Process it all.

Jaron Lanier, pioneer of virtual reality technology and a tech renegade, and an apostate to some, recently called the likes of Facebook and Google “behaviour manipulation empires”. Their pervasive surveillance and subtle manipulation through “weaponised advertising” he argues debases democracy by polarising debate at a scale unthinkable even just five or ten years ago, and it’s not only advertising that can be weaponised. Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram all have “manipulation engines” (algorithms we know little about) running in the background Lanier says, designed specifically by thousands of psychological & “emotional engineers” (“choice architects” or “product philosophers” to use the inane corporate gobbledygook). Their job is to keep you addicted to what’s now known as the “attention economy”-and attention equals profit. A better description still might be the attention/anxiety economy. Twitter has for instance a 3 second time delay between the page loading and notification loading, Facebook something similar-and always red for urgent. They are known in psychology as intermittent variable rewards, negative reinforcement in this context which keep behaviour going by the hope of maybebeing rewarded, with a like or a follower. This builds anticipation and releases feel good neurotransmitters, and taps into your need to belong, and to be heard-we’re intensely social creatures. The downside is the opposite of course,where we can be thrown into an emotional rollercoaster if the expected dopamine hit doesn’t come.

The goal is addiction into a consumption frenzy of socially approved validation. Big Tech’s social media universe is, as one reformed “choice architect” put it, “an attention seeking gravitational wormhole” that sucks you into their profit seeking universe. If you don’t think so, check how many times you look at your phone every day. The average person checks 150 times. Most of that is social media. We’re all in an attention arms race now.

There is a great German word: Zukunftsangst. It means translated, roughly, future-anxiety. Maybe it should be renamed Zuckerbergangst instead.

Categories: News for progressives

1918-2018: France  and Germany Mourn

Thu, 2018-11-08 15:58

Photo Source Maurice Pillard Verneuil | CC BY 2.0

On November 11, 2018, France commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice, the victory of the French troops and their allies (including soldiers from its African and Asian colonies) in the First World War.

Triggered by a marginal diplomatic dispute, propagated through a rigid system of alliances, escalating out of proportion through massive civilian recruitment and industrial advances, the 1914–1918 war, which supposedly no one wanted, led to unimaginable carnage: 18 million dead, 6 million cripples, 3 million widows, 6 million orphans. Among them were 100,000 Africans from the African colonies, forcibly drafted or recruited with the illusory promise of French citizenship once the “blood tax” had been paid, in the expression used by Blaise Diagne, who was in charge of recruitment for the colonial troops. It was a fratricidal war: some fighting for France, England, Belgium, or Portugal, others fighting for Germany, depending on where they stood in the colonial lottery. There is not a single village in France or Germany, however humble, that has not erected a monument in the town square commemorating those lost during the Great War. But only the city of Reims, in France, has built a memorial paying tribute to the African troops, the Armée Noire: the Zouaves, Chasseurs d’Afrique, Tirailleurs Sénégalais, Spahis. The great mosque in Paris, inaugurated in 1926, was built in memory of the 68,000 north Africans (Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians) who died during this war for a cause that was not their own. It would not be until 2006 that a military monument was erected, in Douaumont, to the Muslim victims. By comparison, the British built a memorial in London in 1921 to honor the Army of India that had fought in France and Belgium, and another one in Neuve La Chapelle, France, in 1927, where the Sikh contingent lost 80% of its men in March 1915. In Germany there has been only ingratitude and contempt for the former combatants from the African colonies (Tanzania, Cameroon, Namibia, Togo), without mentioning the black troops who occupied the Rhineland, referred to as Die Schwarze Schmach, “The Black Shame”.

Alain-Fournier, Charles Péguy, Guillaume Apollinaire, August Macke, Ernest Psichari, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg… how many writers and poets were sacrificed on the altar of the absurd that the governments and military apparatuses decked out with high-sounding words: “fields of honor”? The anthology of French writers who died during the war, published in five volumes in 1924 by Edgar Malfere, included more than 800 names.

Ezra Pound, Ernest Jünger, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Otto Dix, Siegfried Sassoon, George Grosz, Edmund Blunden, Henri Barbusse, Erich Maria Remarque, Roland Dorgelès, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fernando Pessoa, Cristiano Cruz… how many surviving artists were marked forever by this branding iron of horror?

The inexorable conflagration among nations that claimed to represent a model for their colonies in Asia and Africa was the burial ground of the values that allow humanity to live together. The ethical and moral trauma that spread through Europe, as evidenced in a literature of doubt and despair, reminds the belligerents that the laurels of victory are irrelevant compared to the brutal betrayal of values in the fighting and the contempt for human beings festering in the heart of the fighter. In his book La Crise de l’Esprit (Crisis of the Mind), published in 1919, Paul Valéry wrote: “We later civilizations … we too know that we are mortal.”

For what reason did the European nations march themselves into this hegemonic war in 1914? The question was hotly debated because, for perhaps the first time in history, the belligerents themselves were convinced that the war was absurd, ruinous for their shared civilization, disproportionate, feeding on its own fury, increasingly ignorant of its causes and objectives as it developed.

In August 1914, these rich and powerful nations mobilized popular enthusiasm through irresponsible nationalism to engage in a war that exterminated one third of their youth (18–27 years). In was almost an industrial enterprise. “Factories for the manufacture of corpses”, as Hannah Arendt wrote in a letter to Eric Voegelin. During the second battle of Ypres in April 1915, the use of poison gas by the Germans claimed 100,000 lives. Over the six days of the battle of Verdun in 1916, 25,000 French soldiers and 27,000 German soldiers died without either side gaining a single centimeter of territory. On one day, July 1, 1916, 21,000 British soldiers died on the banks of the Somme. At the end of four years, and with nine million troops dead, the two sides were almost where they were when they started.

This patriotic posturing harbored an ideology as pernicious as racism, colonialism, or imperialism: the concept of national superiority. Those who did not share this bellicose patriotism were considered traitors or communists and imprisoned (Paul Vaillant-Couturier in France, Bertrand Russel in the United Kingdom, Eugene Debs in the United States), murdered (Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany; Jean Jaurès, French political leader) or executed by firing squad “to serve as an example”, to teach a lesson. An estimated 600 young French soldiers questioned the sense of this slaughter and were sentenced to death during the conflict. In Italy, 750 met a similar fate; 306 in the United Kingdom. The only country that refused to execute its seditious soldiers was Australia.

The famous “Chanson de Craonne”, named after a French village, is an anti-war song composed in 1917 and sung by rebellious soldiers, who chose to defend and not to attack. The military authorities treated them very harshly and offered a reward for the head of the “criminal” songwriter, who remains anonymous to this day:

 The protests of these soldiers have been brought to the screen in many films, such as Uomini Contro [English title: Many Wars Ago] by Francesco Rosi (1970), King and Country by Joseph Losey (1964), and Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick (1957), which was not allowed to be shown in France until eighteen years after it was released.

After clashing again in a bloody conflict (1939-1945) that caused 60 million deaths, including 28 million Soviet troops and 8 million Germans, while France, collaborating with the Nazis, was partially spared (560,000 dead), France and Germany are now pacified, and to all appearances reconciled within the European Union. The stability and durability of this heterogeneous and  fragile ensemble, to which the Swedish Academy paid tribute in awarding it the Nobel Peace Prize, depends on the union of these two former belligerents.

They are nations of new generations but, in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Europe, they are confronted with new conflicts, new rivalries as absurd and pointless as the war experienced by their forebears, who were once young 18-year-old recruits. Grateful and compassionate, they pay bitter and painful tribute to them this November 11, 2018. They mourn their own dead but apparently feel no grief about causing more: France and Germany are the world’s third and fifth arms suppliers.

 

 

Categories: News for progressives

The Grizzlies of Wapusk: an Unfolding Story of Change

Thu, 2018-11-08 15:58

Most of what I thought I knew about grizzlies literally went out the window on June 6, 1998. That morning I was flying along the west coast of Hudson Bay with a team of four park officers for our first five-day foot patrol in newly-established Wapusk National Park. Better known for polar bears, Wapusk (Cree for “white bear”) lies just east of Churchill, Manitoba and you pronounce the word like you’re clearing your throat, with the emphasis on the first syllable.

The park is part of the world’s largest peat wetland, the Hudson Bay Lowlands, described by Zac Unger as an “inhospitable jumble of tundra, bogland, and thick willows”. It isn’t what’s usually considered grizzly bear habitat and the nearest grizzlies were then thought to be a very long way northwest, up in Nunavut’s Thelon Game Sanctuary. So when I looked down from the Canadian Coast Guard helicopter we were bumming a ride on to see a brown shaggy mass galloping along a beach ridge my first thought was “Funny, I can’t see the horns on that muskox”– a species which had been shot out there a century earlier, but which was still within the realm of the plausible. My next thought was “that’s not a muskox”. We took a few low passes over what was clearly a mature male grizzly in very good condition: I can still remember his body fat rolling as he ran, trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and that loud, red Bell 212.

I’d like to say that we were the first to see a grizzly in the park, but that distinction belongs to two USFWS personnel who photographed one in the same area two years earlier while surveying goose nests. However, our sighting got quite a bit of attention. Old-timers told me of sightings to the far northwest years ago, and a First Nation elder confirmed that there was a Cree name for that bear but it was not known from the park area (some families have since told me otherwise: grizzlies were there once, but they didn’t talk about them to anyone). For most folks though, and certainly within recent memory, these grizzly sightings were something new. It was news in a bigger sense too since grizzlies were thought to have been extirpated from the province of Manitoba during the 19th century.

Twenty years later it’s clear that our observation was at the beginning of something big. Soon grizzlies were seen every year in the park by scientists, park staff, and trappers. Over the past few years they’ve come closer to Churchill too, and – unsurprisingly – begun to come into conflict with people. At least two defense kills have taken place, and in July 2018 one that broke into a cabin was captured and released north of town wearing a GPS ear tag transmitter. Despite all this, after two decades of repeated observations grizzlies are still legally classified as “extirpated” under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act: a status that won’t change until evidence of breeding is documented within the province. So far, that hasn’t happened. No, it’s not an established population of grizzlies in Manitoba yet, but this is how that starts.

Wapusk’s grizzlies probably dispersed from established populations to the northwest in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, though their historic distribution is not particularly well documented. Their range is also apparently expanding in other areas of the Arctic too. Very little is known about grizzlies in northern Manitoba. How are grizzly bears making a living up there? Where do they den? What has driven their most recent range expansion? Is it likely to continue, and if so, how far? Optimistically, could they ever make it around the Bay and back to the Ungava Peninsula or Labrador? No evidence of breeding has been seen in the park, though given the very large home range of barren-ground grizzlies in the central Canadian Arctic, the bears observed in northern Manitoba are very likely part of a larger, continuous regional population of barren-ground grizzlies. These bears appear to be benefiting from a warming Arctic, at least temporarily, though precisely why isn’t clear. There’s probably not just one cause either since there have been repeated range expansions and contractions by barren-ground grizzlies over time. One possible clue about what could be driving the dispersal was revealed by my kids late last summer when they went berry picking near Churchill. They filled a bucket with blueberries in less than an hour. I was stunned because twenty-five years ago I measured berry production in the same area when I was a graduate student and it would have taken at least a whole day to fill that bucket back then.

While food is important, grizzly bear survival usually comes down to human tolerance, so the human dimensions of this situation are probably going to determine how thoroughly grizzlies establish themselves in northern Manitoba. Some communities, such as Baker Lake, Nunavut, initially had a hard time adapting to them when they showed up in the early 2000’s. Inuit there faced increasing conflicts with grizzlies, mainly over caribou meat they’d harvested and often processed at their cabins. Remarkably though, the community showed impressive restraint towards bears considering many of the town’s residents are survivors of the mass starvation that occurred in the 1950s and ‘60s when the caribou they depended on failed to show up. Some in the region have described this expansion as a wave of grizzly bear colonization that moved past Baker Lake almost two decades ago and is now hitting Churchill. I’ve heard the whole gamut of responses to grizzlies there, ranging from fear of the unknown to intense curiosity about something new. Attitudes have shifted since 1998 when a Park Management Board member told me to get out there with a trap and a rifle and get rid of the grizzly we saw. There’s still caution but now there’s also pride as Churchill residents realize that they now live in the only place where all three North American bear species have actually been observed living together.

It’s easy to give in to despair about the Arctic since things are now changing so fast up there. As climate change impacts accelerate in the Arctic there is no shortage of surprises, and most are profoundly negative from the perspectives of many people who care about the Arctic environment and its inhabitants. That bear showing itself to us twenty years ago is one of the few positive surprises though, at least from my point of view. To put what it means into perspective, grizzlies have probably gained more ground in the Canadian Arctic in the past three decades than they lost in the lower 48 states during the 20th century. Of course, from a species conservation perspective this comparison is probably a false equivalency since in the Arctic it’s unlikely they’d ever reaching anything like the density or numbers they did in places like California or the Great Plains.

Nevertheless, one lesson I’ve drawn from the still-unfolding story of grizzlies in Wapusk is that we need to rethink our perspectives on environmental change and get a bit more comfortable with the notion of being surprised by how the natural world responds to what we’re throwing at it. Many surprises in the conservation world are definitely unwelcome and while some are genuine losses (e.g. the rippling aftershocks of whitebark pine’s demise in Yellowstone), maybe we should be less hasty condemning all such events. After all, a species that’s become an iconic symbol of lost wilderness down south now has a new frontier of its own up north and it appears to be making the most of it. While it’s probably a sign of some ecological changes that are pretty serious (especially for polar bears), is the presence of grizzlies in a place where we didn’t expect to find them a bad thing in itself? I have a hard time seeing how it could be, and I’m really curious to see the next chapters of this story.

Speculating about what that might look like is risky, but there are a few things I’ll be watching for on the western coast of Hudson Bay that are relevant to bears. Wapusk’s Arctic species will lose habitat and probably settle into new equilibria where they’re increasingly dominated by boreal forest species. This means more berries and increasingly shrub-dominated tundra. That will probably appeal to moose, grizzlies, and black bears, but less so to caribou. Fish populations will probably change: Pacific salmon species are moving rapidly into the western Arctic, for example. I don’t know if we’ll see them in Hudson Bay (or even Atlantic salmon moving westward) but that would obviously be game changer for terrestrial bears. Sea ice is inexorably declining in Hudson Bay, and not in a smooth linear way, so the region’s polar bears may hit very hard times with little or no warning. I wouldn’t want to be a bear of any species around there when that happens, but I’d bet that after the dust settles most of the bears left walking that shore will be brown with long claws, and perhaps carrying some polar bear DNA too. If those bears can come to an accommodation with the coast’s human inhabitants they’ll probably do just fine for a long time to come.

Douglas Clark is an Associate Professor and Centennial Chair in Human Dimensions at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability. He served as the first Chief Warden of Wapusk National Park from 1997-2000.

And here is an important addendum from Doug: Grizzly bear-human conflicts are increasing in Churchill and nearby communities in Nunavut. In those places community members are very interested in working with Dr. Clark to monitor and better understand what bears are doing- especially around their remote cabins. Consequently we’re seeking support to purchase at least 60 remote cameras for community members to deploy at their cabins, creating a regional citizen science monitoring network to understand and prevent conflicts between people and bears in this remote region. Anyone wishing to support this effort should email Dr. Clark at d.clark@usask.ca 

Categories: News for progressives

What will it take for faith leaders to

Thu, 2018-11-08 15:57

Photo Source Denise Krebs | CC BY 2.0

What will it take for faith leaders to publicly condemn and call for the removal of President Donald Trump, whose toxic hate speech and policies are dividing Americans and inciting violence?

Faith leaders profess belief in the fundamental Christian ethic of welcoming the stranger.  Jesus is recorded as teaching: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25: 35)  Yet there is silence from many Christian faith leaders themselves as President Trump continues to demonize as “invaders” a thirsty, hungry, destitute caravan of Central American men, women and children migrants fleeing poverty and gang violence, mostly on foot, and seeking to apply for asylum in the United States.

The caravan started from Honduras, has reportedly shrunk to “less than 3,500,”and is “still weeks away from reaching the United States.”  Yet President Trump is manufacturing a national crisis by calling the impoverished migrants’ struggle to find safety in the U.S. an “invasion.” Without proof, he said that        “ ‘Middle Eastern’ people [i.e., terrorists] are part of a dangerous mob of migrants threatening to surge into communities here.  . . .  an invasion of ‘a lot of bad people’ and gang members, and said the migrants are wasting their time because the troops will block their entry.” (“Trump Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in an Election-Season Response to Migrants,”My Michel D. Shear and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2018)

First President Trump was reported to be sending 5,200 troops to the border to turn back this “horde of invaders.”  But as the midterm elections near, far more troops are “needed,” which number has now soared to 15,000.

President Trump promotes a precarious situation.  One day he says the troops can shoot immigrants who throw rocks.  The next day he denies saying it, and stresses rock-throwers will be arrested. (See “Trump reverses claim that US would shoot rock-throwing migrants,”By Maegan Vazquez, CNN, Nov. 2, 2018)  Trump is a master of mixed-messaging, of having it both ways.

The Nigerian Army heard President Trump’s first message, and reportedly killed 40 fleeing Islamic Shiite activists, who, in a protest, had “hurl[ed] rocks at heavily armed soldiers who then shot fleeing demonstrators in the back.”  Faced with criticism from “human rights activists and many Nigerians,” the Nigerian military posted a video on Twitter with the statement: “ ‘Please Watch and Make Your Deductions,’ showing Mr. Trump’s speech on Thursday in which he said rocks would be considered firearms if thrown toward the American military at the nation’s borders.” (“Nigerian Army Uses Trump’s Words to Justify Shooting of Rock-Throwers,”By Dionne Searcey and Emmanuel Akinwotu, The New York Times, Nov. 3, 2018)

This grave threat of “invaders at the Gate” is intended to get President Trump’s base to the polls.  It also provides a convenient distraction from how Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut is primarily benefiting corporations and wealthy Americans, and not, as he promised, those lesser off, including people in his base.

Republican leaders said the tax cuts would pay for themselves, but have not.  In fact, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the deficit “will add $1.8 trillion to the deficit over the coming decade.” (“Tax cuts, spending to raise U.S. deficit to $1 trillion by 2020, CBO analysis shows,”By Andrew Taylor, Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, April 9, 2018)  Thus countless millions of Americans – including many in Trump’s base – could be left holding the bag.  Republican leaders are talking about paying for the deficit by cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  Obamacare, which guarantees medical coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, was and also remains a target of Congressional Republicans if they retain power.

Thus a midterm campaign-stomping President Trump is trying to divert everyone’s attention from the threat to security and health he has created within, to the threat he has concocted from without: his demonizing of the latest “tired and poor huddle masses yearning to breathe free.” This time the woman he chooses to assault is the Statue of Liberty.

To keep the national conversation away from the threat Republican Party policies pose to the health, education and security of American children and their families, President Trump is also talking about using an executive order to end the constitutionally-guaranteed birthright citizenship of American-born children of non-citizens.  More xenophobia to rev up his base for the midterm elections.

In the face of President Trump’s dehumanizing, hateful, violence-inciting behavior, where is the prophetic judgement of the heads of Christian denominations?  The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church?  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?  The heads of other mainstream Christian denominations?  These and others are assumed to be the moral leaders of the country.

Certain people of faith in these denominations are addressing the plight of the Central American immigrants.  The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society strongly advocates for immigrant families at the Mexican border, with its latest statement opposing the sending of U.S. military to the border.  The Board sent a delegation to the border “to better understand the root causes of the immigration, the right of asylum and the criminalization of immigrants.”  The members report that all of the leaders they met with expressed “great concern and fear about U.S. troops being deployed.”   The Board members also “denounce and oppose the rise of xenophobic, racist and violent reactions against migrants in the United States,” and “support all efforts to build relationships among people, instead of building walls among diverse ethnicities and cultures.” (“Board opposes military at U.S.-Mexican border,”Church and Society, The United Methodist Church, mail.google.com)

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the statement of Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA in response to the threat posed by the U.S. military at the Mexican border.  The statement recognizes nations’ “right to protect their borders.”  But “this right comes with responsibilities: governments must enforce laws proportionately, treat all people humanely, and provide due process.”  The statement also provides an important reminder: “An enforcement-only approach does not address nor solve the larger root causes that cause people to flee their countries in search of protection.”(“CHAIRMAN OF THE USCCB COMMITTEE ON MIGRATION AND PRESIDENTS OF CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES AND CATHOLIC CHARITIES USA ISSUED STATEMENT URGING HUMANE ACTION TOWARDS THOSE SEEKING PROTECTION,’United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Oct. 29, 2018)

World Relief, an evangelical relief agency, is reported to have presented a similar statement as United Methodism’s General Board of Church and Society, “retweeting a post they had issued in August saying, ‘U.S. gives the right to any person seeking asylum in the U.S. to access a designated port of entry.’ ” Thus World Relief is “committed to protecting the right of immigrants lawfully seeking refuge in the      U. S.” (“Christian Organizations and Churches Defend Asylum Seekers amid Deployment of 5,200 Troops to Border,”By Kayla Koslosky, ChristinHeadlines.com, Editor, Oct. 30, 2018)

Similarly, numerous faith leaders have criticized President Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy that has led to the separation of some 2000 immigrant children from their parents.  Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski was quoted as saying, “Basically the administration has, in deciding to separate children from their parents, [tried] to weaponize children, using them as leverage against the parents applying for their asylum applications.” (“Faith Leaders Oppose Trump’s Immigration Policy of Separating Children from Parents,”By Sasha Ingber, NPR, June 16, 2018)

These responses of faith leaders are timely and greatly needed.  However, their responses seek to put out certain fires of injustice, not stop an incendiary, pyromaniac president who started them, and who is bent on torching any individual or group to defend or divert attention from his narcissistic delusions of grandeur.  If President Trump’s perception of and reaction to an impoverished caravan is that distorted and extreme, how can Americans relying on his judgment regarding the motives of Iran or North Korea, or what will “Make America Great Again?”

How many lies will it take before faith leaders realize that nothing President Trump says can be trusted?  CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizzareports: “As the 2018 midterm election nears, President Donald Trump is disseminating false and misleading statements at a pace that leaves even his own past prevarications in the dust.  . . . Trump is averaging – AVERAGING – 30 false or misleading claims a day in the last seven weeks.” (“Donald Trump didn’t tell the truth 83 times in 1 day,”Nov. 2, 2018)

For the sake of the country, what will it take for faith leaders to demand the removal of President Trump from office?

In Pittsburgh, Anti-Semitic Robert Bowers was paying attention to President Trump’s fanning the flames of hatred toward the Central American caravan and sending the Troops to the border to stop the “invaders”.  Bowers, who is white, had his own target in mind:  the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which, as reported, aids “refugees and asylum seekers,” and has a local affiliate, “Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh.”  Hours before Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue and massacred 11 Jewish congregants and wounded four police officers and two others, he posted on social media: “I can’t sit back and watch my people get slaughtered .  Screw your optics.  I’m going in.”  And, “in another post, he wrote, ‘You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.’ ”  With his post “was a link to information on the National Refugee Shabbat Event, celebrated on Oct. 20 at more than 300 Jewish congregations in 33 states.” (“HIAS, the Jewish Agency Criticized by the Shooting Suspect, Has a History of Aiding Refugees,”By Miriam Jordan, The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2018)

President Trump’s reported response to the loved ones and friends of those Jewish worshippers massacred in Pittsburgh?  “This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil.  . . . If there were an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop them.  . . . Maybe there would have been nobody killed except for him, frankly.” (“Trump’s Response to Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting and His Obsession with the Word ‘Frankly,’ “By Katy Waldman, The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2018)

Here is President Trump’s payback to the National Rifle Association for its generous financial support of his campaign and presidency.   If it were up to Trump, there would be armed guards not only at schools and houses of worship, but at playgrounds and senior citizen centers.  Calling for armed guards is also Trump’s way of distancing himself from the violence that he himself helps to inflame.

What will it take for faith leaders to speak moral truth to President Trump’s ingrained destructive behavior and call for his removal from office?

In Florida, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., a zealous supporter of President Trump, was arrested and charged with mailing pipe bombs to over a dozen critics of the president.  Those targeted include former president Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rep. Maxine Waters, Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, and actor Robert De Niro.  Explosive devises were also sent to CNN offices.

Cesar Sayoc lived out of his van, which is plastered with pro-Trump stickers and those of his critics: “Mrs. Clinton’s face [is] in the cross hairs of a rifle scope”; another said “CNN Sucks”; and a third “depicted a heroic Mr. Trump standing in front of flames and the American flag.” (“Outspoken Trump Supporter in Florida Charged in Attempted Bombing Spree,”By William K. Rashbaum, Alan Feuer and Adam Goldman, The New York Times, Oct. 26, 2018)

President Trump condemned the political violence, saying, “No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion or control . . .  We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony.”  Trump them attributed much of the political violence to the media, stating:

A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News.  It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description.  Mainstream Media must clean up its act.  FAST!  (“Supreme Leader Trump Brushes Off Terrorist Plot to Murder His Political Adversaries,” By Ryan Bort, Rolling Stone, Oct. 25, 2018)

During the time a fervent President Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to Trump’s critics and an anti-Semite killed 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, there was also the shooting and killing of two older black persons by a white man in Kentucky – after he unsuccessfully tried to force his way into a secured predominately black Baptist Church.  Following a week filled with such violence, Trump winked to his base about “toning down” his rhetoric.  At a reported “rally in Illinois,” Trump “told the crowd: “If you don’t mind, I’m going to tone it down, just a little bit.  Is that okay?”  When “the crowd responded with a ‘No,’ he said, ‘I had a feeling you might say that. So we had a great rally in Illinois.’ “ (“Trump on toning down his rhetoric: ‘You should go about your life,’ “By Morgan Gstalter, TheHill, Oct. 29, 2018)

President Trump’s greatest concern in response to his political enemies being mailed explosive devises and the horrible massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh?  He lamented the fact that the pipe bombs and Pittsburgh killings “ ‘had stopped the tremendous momentum’ for Republicans ahead of next week’s midterms.”  Washington Postwriter Allyson Chiu writes, “Speaking to an energized crowd in an airplane hanger decorated with American flags on Columbia, MO., the president took time at the end of his speech to brag about the ‘tremendous numbers’ of Republicans going to vote.”  But it hasn’t “exactly gone smoothly.”  Trump complained: “Now, we did have two maniacs stop the momentum that was incredible, because for seven days nobody talked about the elections . . . It stopped a tremendous momentum.’ “ (“Trump mourns loss of ‘tremendous momentum’ for GOP due to Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, pipe bombs,”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 2, 2018)

If President Trump loses all of his “momentum,” it is within him to encourage his base to act out by rioting.  How many in his base are prepared to do so?

President Trump lacks the basis humanizing quality of empathy, which is the heart of The Golden Rule.  What will it take for faith leaders to publicly speak moral truth to power and demand his removal from office?  What will it take for faith leaders to urge their constituents to join them?

 

Categories: News for progressives

Orson Welles in End Times

Thu, 2018-11-08 15:57

Still from “The Other Side of the Wind.”

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is Morgan Neville’s not–so-helpful addition to the canon of “Who Was Orson Welles and How Did He Do It?” documentaries, of which I’ve seen several, since I’m a fan. It didn’t make me particularly enthusiastic about The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ simultaneously released final monsterpiece (42 years in coming!) which is the nominal focus of the documentary. The footage of Welles pastiching European New Cinema (which did a fine job all on its own) and somehow critiquing toxic masculinity by having John Huston chew scenery while slathering the bronze body of his talentless late-life muse Oja Kodar across the screen (talk about having your cake and eating it) and wasting the talented Susan Strasberg in a vengeful bitch-critic role left me cold and rather sad. In solidarity with critics, I suppose, and Antonioni, and the billions of women who may be any number of worthy things without ever being the muses of iconic film directors.

I may still go to see the film, out of completism, which for Welles fans is an exercise in frustration and almost Borgesian impossibility. Or maybe I’ll watch it on Netflix, since I suppose my subscriber fees helped pay for it (both films are Netflix productions). As fans know, there’s usually at least one scene or shot in any Orson Welles film that actually makes you see in a new way, and that’s worth the price of many misfires.

The documentary is also full of specious choices, such as: why Alan Cumming? And why insert his narration into extraneous and tricksy settings, like the monitor in a faux editing room? Why shoot interviewees side-on or over the shoulder—one of them, Henry Jaglom I think, even questions this on camera—or wearing headphones, in bled-out black and white? Why not identify any of them with title cards, at least once? Why are some only voiceovers, never seen at all? Who knows? But if you have to ask, you’re being unnecessarily distracted from the subject matter.

Still, I’m glad I saw it; it gave me a lot of Orson Welles to contemplate, which caused me to reflect on the Greater Meaning of the Movies. And that’s because Welles was massive, iconic and chimerical enough to be a metaphor for the medium itself, during a time the cinema will not see again, for good or ill. He was like Prometheus, bringing fire to the masses, and condemned to exile and slow torture by the vengeful gods of the System for doing so.

Welles was also huge enough to bookend High Anglophone Culture historically: the artist most equal to the challenge of interpreting on stage or screen—in the final decades of unimpeded Anglophone cultural dominance—the work of that foundational artist, Shakespeare, who had reimagined our language in the incipient years of its now-occluding empire. Welles in turn gave us a new cinematic language for the story arc Shakespeare’s works had apotheosized: the rise and fall of the Great Man.

It was sheer myth, what Welles created, what he seems to have lived for, myth in both the modern sense of fabrication, and the ancient sense of a story of cosmic significance. Twentieth century movies and movie-going were the first and last gasp of a universal secular mythology. Once upon a time, we went to temples to commune with gods, larger than life, made of light, who danced before us, touching us without being touched. But they were also fictions, embodied by small (if very pretty) actual humans wearing the giant masks of projection. And Welles, consummately among his peers, understood that duplicity and transcendence were inextricable. That’s probably why his masterpieces are masterpieces of surface, to paraphrase the late Pauline Kael (who apparently earned herself the Strasberg caricature in The Other Side of the Wind for this insight).

But now that the ending he wrote for his own story is at last before our eyes, both as document and as fiction, are we allowed to ask what it was all for? Not the quest for mythic expression, the creation of narratives of cosmic significance, which we will need as long as we remain human, but the particular myths, the stories, his own Promethean story—where do they fit in our contemporary psychic toolbox? Do they have the power to persist in the future as they have dominated the past?

Tragedy, the rise and fall of larger-than-life heroes, comes out of a culture of surplus, because the rise that precipitates the ruin is only possible where there is lots to gain. A culture that raises up Prometheus or Faust has the luxury of not needing to honor humility or resilience, because it has the resources to waste on great striving and great loss.

That seems unlikely to be the culture of the future.

In The Great Derangement, novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh notes how ironic it is that, so far, only lowly genre fiction, and not much of that, seems able to grapple with what will likely be the defining circumstance of our lives: the exhaustion of the biosphere and the chaos that will engulf us if we run it to death the way our ancestors ran down the mammoths. “Literary” fiction is obsessed with meticulously chronicling the phenomena and mapping the psychology of individual lives; so-called serious films may have extended their subject matter to include a bourgeois liberal embodiment of certain social issues in an individual’s story, but high culture’s back is turned when it comes to a situation so monstrous it requires nothing less than the mythic, cosmological approach to storytelling.

And in that onrushing storm, the Great Man is lost and useless. The Great Man degenerates, as the Faustian bargain unravels, into a telegenic fascist, a blank-eyed billionaire eyeing only the next quarter’s returns, a slug-like Hollywood mogul strip-mining the humanity of vulnerable starlets. They aren’t even interesting villains, not a Hamlet, Macbeth or Charles Foster Kane among them. All the while, a much bigger story, the story of how to survive and thrive in a living world, goes untold.

Peter Bogdanovich quotes Welles: “no story has a happy ending, unless you stop telling it before it’s over.” That’s a riff on Hemingway’s “every true story ends in death.” (Hemingway, possibly more than Welles himself, is the artist Huston is meant to be channeling in The Other Side of the Wind.) That’s the tragic view, and tragedy is an exclusive creation—one might say a self-fulfilling prophecy—of boom-and-bust Western Civilization.But comedy is universal, or nearly, and survival is always comic, as the literary scholar and biologist Joseph Meeker (author of a seminal work of eco-criticism, The Comedy of Survival) reminds us. Comic heroes and heroines forgo transcendence for adaptation, fluid identity, minimization of risk and conflict. Their talent is a profound and sophisticated understanding of context, not a blind will to subdue the elements.

To make Welles’ late films and many others, lives were wrecked, bonds of friendship and love broken, chaos unleashed, all to chase some flickering remnant of magic that’s hailed as timeless even as it’s already fading back into all the other stories incessantly bubbling up, the rising din of billions who just got a toehold in modernity, and are only beginning to understand that their assigned job in it is to harvest the grapes of wrath. Magic forged in a privileged medium that won’t survive in any meaningful way in inundated cities, migrant camps, or vast resource-poor settlements where electricity has become an impossible luxury, won’t survive or have meaning in the sparkless eyes of the mechanical beings or burrowing animals that will haunt the ruins we’re rushing toward.

We distorted, we suppressed the age-old stories of connection to plants, animals, women, soil, one another. In one place on earth after another, the humble stories were displaced by Promethean pulp fiction, and now the price of that so-called progress may be the whole earth, and every living thing upon it. We may not even have Ozymandias’ “trunkless legs of stone” to gaze upon in a thousand years, much less the cinema of Orson Welles.

To avert this, sometime in the 21stcentury, during the lives of those now living or just being born, Prometheus must die, not merely be punished by serpents gnawing perpetually at his liver. He must die, or we will.

But for a little while longer, the shadows still dance before our hungry eyes, in lavishly restored Beaux Arts movie palaces like the Castro Theater, attended by the cultured and well-fed in the lucky rich cities like San Francisco, or in the booming multiplexes the less felicitous drive to in their dinosaur boxes just off the life-abhorrent superhighways, or on the ever-smaller screens we’re increasingly encouraged to insert between ourselves and all intrinsic perception, full stop. On all those screens still flicker daily the stories of the Great (White) Men, their lushly violent dreams, their overweening, complex projects, their hapless, idolatrous muses—rising and falling like the stock market in speed-up, making us believe, in our timorous and misplaced awe, that when they finally fall for the very last time, our whole world goes down with them.

Categories: News for progressives

Midterm Takeaway: We Need a Lot More Democracy

Thu, 2018-11-08 15:57


I can’t be the only one who spent the night of the midterms tossing and turning. Though I managed to shut off the coverage and try to sleep, spasms of anxiety woke me repeatedly throughout the dreary hours.

Ultimately, Republicans picked off several red-state Senate seats while Democrats won back the House and at least seven governships.

A Democratic House will serve as a badly needed check after two years of aggressive Republican monopoly, but I can’t help feeling uneasy. For one thing, I can’t shake the last days of the campaign.

For a while, Republicans “merely” lied about their policy agenda.

Rather than campaigning on the $2 trillion tax cut for rich people they actually passed, they promised a middle class tax cut they never even had a bill for. And after spending all last year trying to throw 20 to 30 million Americans off their health care, they (unbelievably!) promised to defend Americans’ pre-existing condition coverage — even as they actively sought to undermine it.

But the lies took a much darker turn as the White House took hold of the narrative.

Led by the president, GOP propagandists turned a few thousand refugees — over a thousand miles away in southern Mexico — into an “invading army.” The White House put out an ad about it so shockingly racist and false that even Fox News stopped airing it.

Unashamed, President Trump kept repeating the obvious lie that the homeless refugees were funded by Jewish philanthropist George Soros — even after a refugee-hating extremist murdered 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Such vile hatred may have been key to red-state Republican gains in the Senate. But where that wasn’t enough, it was backstopped by voter suppression and gerrymandering.

Suppression may have helped the GOP governor candidates fend off strong challenges in Florida and especially Georgia, where tens of thousands of voters were scrubbed from the rolls and lines in Democratic precincts ran up to five hours long.

And thanks to gerrymandering, it took an extraordinary effort for Democrats to win even a slim House majority. They’re up only a few seats despite decisively winning the popular vote by at least 9 points. Had it been “only” a 4 or 5 point win, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias estimates, the GOP might have retained its majority.

Also worth noting: Democratic Senate candidates actually racked up over 10 million more votes than Republicans, even as Republicans picked up Senate seats on a GOP-tilting map,

To me these results show that Republicans can’t win with their actual policy agenda — not even in many red states, judging by some ballot initiative results.

For instance, red-state voters in Missouri and Arkansas raised their minimum wages against the wishes of state Republicans. Missouri also legalized medicinal marijuana, along with deeply conservative Utah, and purple-state Michigan voters brought legal recreational marijuana to the Midwest.

Along with Utah, ruby red Idaho and Nebraska expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, a big win for health care.

These progressive policies are far more popular than their right-wing alternatives. So Republicans rely on a potent combination of lies, fear-mongering, and rule-rigging to win.

If Democrats ever hope to really come in from the wilderness, they need to support a host of radical pro-democracy reforms.

In that they can take inspiration from a stunning movement in Florida, where voters re-enfranchised over 1 million of their neighbors with felony convictions. And from Michigan, Colorado, Utah, and Missouri, which all passed initiatives to support citizen-led redistricting. And from Maryland, Michigan, and Nevada, which all made voter registration easier.

Uneasiness is part and parcel of drawing breath in 2018. But if I sleep a little better tonight, it’ll be thanks to movements like those.

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