Sunday, December 27, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

not you, sir

driving up route 17 to middletown tonight to return to the hospital where my wife and new baby are staying, i was listening to an oldies station. they played a song by Kool and the Gang, and as it ended the DJ said, 'that's 'i wanna kiss you all over,' and i don't mean you, sir.' his little comment right after saying the name of the song made me laugh. the accepted convention, fiction really, is that the intimate addresses of pop songs -- the 'you' in 'i love you' heard all the time on the radio -- are not to be taken literally. they are an abstract grammatical position, a subject that exists in a singer's imagination and might also be you. or not. but the purveyors of this odd sort of music (which we are all so used to now) rarely make this conventional practice's rules explicit. and rule number one: when we sing 'i love you,' or 'i wanna touch you all over,' whoever is listening is not necessarily the one addressed -- or rather, we are addressed personally by the song, but not by people repeating the lyrics or titles. so the funny, homophobic, comment by the DJ made me laugh.

did you get that? i'm not sure i did.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

walmart notes

1. to show the mad desire of junk food marketers to reach youths no matter how idiotic or cheesy, the Frito Lay display at Walmart, (or "Mall Wart" as one bumper sticker has it) is 'scrawled' with slogans imitating 7th grade bathroom grafitti: 'Corn Rules' and 'I (heart) spuds'. They refer to the Doritoes or potato chips and their bitter gang rivalry (which, now that it is known, is sure to excite kids across the nation). I wonder how many kids hankering for chips noticed this tiny detail. I wonder how many who noticed felt that Frito Lays 'gets' youth concerns and hence were moved to purchase a bag of chips.

2. I saw some T-shirts in the men's clothing section that evoked, and were modeled on, the baroque aesthetic of Latin gangs coming up from central America into the US. They both featured an archaic-looking crown or eagle, as if taken from a coat of arms, as well as a layered, patterned background much like the background etchings on dollar bills. I thought too of the complex tattoo patterns some of these gangs use. I have noticed for a couple of years now the popularity in NY of super complex, stitched and patterned designs on jackets -- Ben Franklin depicted huge, or dice, or money symbols, repeated over and over and all cluttering the surface. I don't know if this aesthetic has anything to do with Latin gangs or is separate.

One of the T-shirts was 'Royal Crown Dominance' or something like this, written in archaic, Germanic font, and shiny. The shirt comes with a long sleeved undershirt (sure sign of its Southwest origin) and a stretch cap.

Little Secret

Knowing you’ll be here any day now, you secret
wriggling, wriggling toward the light --
Christmas ever-closer and the due-date
come and gone,
your mother still twirls and prances to show
how agile she is, or to spur
you out from your slumber; the

blood that flamed in my left
eye spreads, slowly fades -- I sleep,
coughing, in the basement.

Knowing you’ll be here any day now Mom
and Dad sit us on the couch for
gifts that cannot wait: soft robes we
try on, the better to mother and father with.
Waipo buys roots and twigs and gathers Gingko nuts
on the sidewalk to build
your mother back up from the
ferocious bout of birth to come --
of which you’re all ignorant
and will never remember:

Wriggle, little secret, for that capricious light that
wavers wavering out here, wavering
way out where we are.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Glen Greenwald on US 'regression'

"When it comes to torture, the vast bulk of the country is now to the "right" (for lack of a better term) of Ronald Reagan, who at least in words (if not in deeds) insisted upon an absolute prohibition on the practice and mandatory prosecution for those responsible.

With these new numbers, it's virtually impossible to find a country with as high a percentage of torture supporters as the U.S. has. In Iran, for instance, only 36% believe that torture can be justified in some cases, while 43% believe all torture must be strictly prohibited. Similarly, 66% of Palestinians, 54% of Egyptians, and over 80% of Western Europeans believe torture is always wrong. The U.S. has a far lower percentage than all of those nations of individuals who believe that torture should always be prohibited. At least on the level of the citizenry (as opposed to government), we're basically the leading torture advocacy state in the world."

the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. people eagerly give up democratic rights and duties only when they are afraid. this is where we find ourselves: thinking that making a prisoner suffer can keep us safe. and lots of politicians seek to capitalize on this hysteria.

small minds consumed by . . .

consumer culture!

from a yelp review about a sports bar:

I went here on Saturday, Nov. 14th. It is truly only okay. Their alcohol selection is really very rudimentary. The pomegranate mojito I had was bordering on kinda gross. The appetizers were only so so. The whole thing was just so beaujois. Nothing at all special about this place.

i'd like to ask the person who wrote this: have you opened up a newspaper recently? i could pick something at random, anything, like: hey, have you heard seafood is disappearing from the oceans? seafood, fool! scallops, mahimahi, cod. gone in a couple of decades! what was that now about a pomegranate mojito?


i am always amazed when i go to costco: the scale and perspective of the place, running hundreds of yards in every direction, stacked with an infinity of goods.

the nutritional supplements aisle grows and grows. this fact shows us a populace afraid of disease and uncertain about medical care, a population eager to self-medicate and prevent disease if possible. it also shows a population that has in large part lost touch with the health benefits of food. finally it shows a culture which dreams of technological short cuts around nature: in other words, the hope that one can eat badly or not at all, and still magically plug oneself into pure nutrients, side-stepping food altogether or at least reducing it to the least troublesome amount possible. an 'acai berry digestive cleanser' featured hugely magnified images of acai berries, a beautiful and tantalizing scene which turns an industrial, scientifically-engineered product into a mere outgrowth of exotic nature. i am not saying this product is bad, per-se. all i am saying is, i bet that similar effects on the colon can be found among naturally-occurring foods available in the supermarket and a far sight cheaper than the product i saw.

another interesting trend: i saw two pallets of wooden tablets, about the size of notebooks. but the wooden tablets themselves had no functional use: they were merely carriers of a product message. one was a package of travel benefits, for bed and breakfasts or something. in short, they were gift cards. but in the land of the gigantic, little cards hanging near the check out aisle among the breath mints and soap opera digests get lost in the shuffle. giganticize them and stack them like all the other real products! this tactic seems to go against the larger trend to reduce the materiality of objects to mere images, as in internet purchase. in this case, the 'commodity' is access to a service of some kind, so it is not material. it is made so, as something that can be picked up and tossed into one's cart.

the breathtaking thing about costco is all the people: as busy as grand central station, here in the heart of suburbia we are unused to seeing so many people in one place. i wonder to myself: wow, there are so many immigrants here! it is kind of exciting, and may be the only place i will likely see so many and so diverse people in my day to day life. if only i did not have to drive to milford to experience it.

our wondrous "guided democracy"!

guided democracy was a term used by the Suharto government of Indonesia to refer to its political system. this system, they claimed, was democratic, but not to a negative extreme: it was 'guided' by major institutions, namely, the army and president. there were elections, but they did not dislodge the power of the military.

the US now finds itself a 'guided democracy.' the military is setting and carrying out policy, as well as engaging in political combat -- all behind the scenes. by presenting itself as apolitical, the military finds its approval ratings much higher than the government. in fact, the military is part of the government, co-governing with Obama. the legislature, most of it anyhow, blesses this arrangement.

what is the political aim of the military complex? simply the continuation of its own cushy position, shielded from public opinion because it operates behind closed doors, and enjoying the adulation of much of the public. it acts as a hero, selflessly committed to our 'defense,' while in secret behaving like a thug, out to preserve its turf and its profits.

this street-fighter with movie star good looks has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams: a government in serious deficit is made to expand a war that in fact offers no concrete effect on the security of americans. at the same time, a long overdue effort to reform the health care system -- an effort essentially prepared in league with the corporate sectors that will benefit -- is in trouble and seems on the precipice of failure. both initiatives -- the afghan war enterprise and the health care reform -- will cost around 1 trillion. but only one of these money makers is a slam dunk.

welcome to guided democracy. this is how empires fall -- the state hijacked by the military bureaucracy and led into endless wars; the populace enfeebled, disempowered, distracted by dreams of military glory. well done, O great generals. or should i say, proconsuls?

Juan Cole on Iraq's Surge

Juan Cole (at his blog, 'informed comment') punctures the 'Iraq Analogy' used by Obama and other supporters of further escalation in Afghanistan. besides pointing out the differences between the two countries, Cole points out that the civil war tapered off in 2007 simply because one side, the Shiites, had already won in Baghdad. The Sunnis turned to the US in desperation.

The simple fact of the matter is that in 2006 amd 2007 the Shiite militias and government troops decisively won the civil war in Baghdad. They ethnically cleansed the Sunni Arabs from the capital, creating a massive refugee problem in Jordan and Syria. Baghdad went from being a mixed city to being 85 to 90 percent Shiite, as a team at Columbia University recently charted. The killing thereafter was so much reduced because there were few mixed neighborhoods left. Even the willingness of Sunni Arabs to join pro-American Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq militias that took on Sunni extremist groups derived in some important part from this fear of being ethnically cleansed.

In Iraq, for all its acts of stupidity, the Bush-Cheney regime at least backed the majority, the Shiites. With 60 percent of the population, the Shiites were always likely to win the civil war produced by the power vacuum left by Washington’s defeat of Saddam Hussein and his feared Republican Guards tank corps.

In Afghanistan, the major allies of the U.S. and NATO have been the national minorities -- the Sunni Tajiks, the Shiite Hazaras and the Uzbeks. Admittedly, they are joined by pro-Karzai Pashtuns, but Pashtun support for the U.S. and NATO is clearly dwindling. Obama’s surge of U.S. troops into Helmand and Qandahar could easily provoke a Pashtun backlash. The Pashtuns are thus not analogous to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. They are a plurality of the population, not a minority, and they have not lost the low-intensity civil war in which the country is embroiled. Nor have they been ethnically cleansed under the current government. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq threw in the towel, joined in elections, and even formed pro-American militias only as it became clear that the Shiites were routing them. The Pashtuns are not in that position.

Friday, December 4, 2009

our feckless ruling class

listening to media commentators and politicians talk this week about afghanistan, with nary a voice boldly speaking the truth, the historical parallel that comes to mind is england in decline: bogged down in endless useless wars but still talking as if it had some, any authority.

for years on end we can expect to have these tin pot 'experts' analysing troop movements in helmand province; discussing hearts and minds initiatives; name-dropping ethnic groupings and their alleged proclivities; and reading the tea leaves of pentagon or state department leaked memos. and guess what? none of it matters in the least. whether we 'win' in afghanistan or 'lose' matters not one cent to our national interest, at least not directly. whether we win or lose, hundreds of billions of dollars will be added to the deficit without any concrete benefit in return. if we lose, of course, obama will be ruined, and there will be no health care reform or any other kind of reform. as it is, of course, i am not sure that the 'reform' on offer really does much but create a new market for our decrepit, greedy insurance industry. if we lose, we can expect generations of people on the right to moan about how we 'woulda won' if it hadn't been for treacherous democrats. very possibly a failure by obama would mean a hard-nationalist government. although i like to think most americans would be chastened by defeat into not supporting endless war.

obama had a chance to turn down this war. he has the smarts to know this war is meaningless. and i think he does know. but his conservative instincts, his conventional behavior, prohibit him from doing anything that striking, anything that would deny him a second term. and that is too bad. how his name would resound in history if he had joined the handful of leaders who decided to sacrifice their careers for the good of the country!

afghanistan offers as much danger to us as vietnam's bamboo ICBMs threatened this country decades ago. the taliban is an anti-imperial force. and even if their fringe is mixed up with al-qaeda, so what? so are dozens of organizations around the world, and remote-controlled war (drone strikes) and costly invasions are not what keeps us safe: it is good smart policing and spying.

what is most dismaying about obama's choice, going against his own good judgment as it does, beyond the people who will die as a result, is how the military establishment shines through its camouflage as co-ruler with the executive branch. they railroaded this thing, with leaks and hints. and obama flinched. god forbid a president tell the military what to do. in our 'democracy,' it is the military's way or the highway. but i say to obama: you should have taken the bullet for us and let the war-mongers ruin your re-election. history would have vindicated you. as it is now, by collaborating with them, you are consigning your potentially shining legacy to the dumpster out back of wendy's!

endless wars, with no need to pay for them. and endless excuses for not funding our real priorities: education and health care. the military, as in pakistan, is running the show, and our poor obama has to pretend he is in charge.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

october photos

a great one of mom and dad; the khammases looking up at skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan; me, fuad, and ali on the ferry; a food stand at the big E; a door on Wall street; sara looking pensive and pregnant (now she is more of the latter and less of the former).


two photos are from Clinton beach with Sara and the Khammas family. One is friends in NY when Mark came to visit. One is little Abdul, being comforted by his dad, Fuad. and the last one is the High Line Park in NYC, once an eleveated rail line, now turned into a park. it is hard to photograph, and with so many people on a sunday, it felt more like a crowded garden.

Monday, October 12, 2009

mabel in the dining room

This is the waiting room for final deportation
They are provided desserts, snacks, wine.

She can’t help the smile from smiling when
he asks if she would like some dessert:
Only if you’ve got some maple walnut
hidden away for me somewhere she smiles. It’s as good
as it was 70 plus years ago that rush of
the eyes, the hunger, and sweetness. But everything’s
ruined now gone and changed I’ve gone pretty well downhill
since then she says and the instinct to flirt or at least its
memory, what a curse it is Yes it is!

The smile is white
just from a distance.
The voice is worse:
A turkey’s ponderous
gobble any time of day
no matter the lilt and tease that’s meant I
can’t not want to follow him well my eyes are
alright the problem’s right there now isn’t it the eyes --
he appears from the right in his brown apron
and zips across the room pad in
hand asking Isabelle Are you going to eat
something today And he can’t get away from me.
The eyes are all there, still fifteen damn years old she
complains to herself and the will and the – the instinct are
there I wear sunny clothes sporty things white
jeans fitted and trim; Keds and a yellow sweater.
Sure he noticed them. Who else wears them. Sure he’s
thinking She musta been something back in the day Damn I
can almost see her how she was then and then
my damn throat has to go and squawk a
That’s very kind of you
and blow the moment it’s always just moments she thinks
positioning herself all so delicate slowly now to draw the legs up one by one
into bed delicate moments. He’s alright she thinks and feeds herself
his young pieces hands and legs Sure I can and lips or well, no, or maybe not that
at the last minute she can’t kiss him.

The thought of all those wrinkles holds her back and who can really tell
about their own breath, right, but she still lets her hands
stroke his strong and smooth oh creamy back I can just picture how his you know
feels and suck whatever happens to dangle within reach she thinks
I sure don’t need it with all this ice cream but he might, he yeah, and laughs
or what passes for one these days, a small smile,
head on a pillow that’s always too high by
midnight. Oh my neck is it’s what’s the word it’s as
stiff as his you know what would be – or would it, tormenting
herself would it be with this brown paper bag of a body would he be
you know good or how Lyle was in ’68 with all the insurers on
his back and his guilt and just pet my hair pet politely
dangling dryly But how can I do such a
and how, well I wouldn’t you
know he’s that’s a not in
well not now
anyhow. These meds are something else.

One lunchtime Lorraine even told him You’ve got such
flirty eyes. He grinned. Who wouldn’t, right? But with Doug
sitting right there can you believe can you
believe she would sure he’s half deaf but come
on can you past a certain age no one minds dead honesty though of course
it’s no use by that point, why not can you believe though What if I
paid him to lie here just once naked, why not, he knows how to
put down the ice cream and spoon all in one
swoop, dick just say it already I can’t believe what is happening
to me to say it what if he were to touch me here and say it
here money plenty I’ve say it I can’t really be thinking I’m not Lorraine it’s the
eyes that won’t let him go they just won’t
go dim now no not on him. Not now. Not him.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

stories of the sea

The sea doesn’t have any stories whatsoever,
it’s got absolutely nothin’ to tell I mean it might be
might be a world as you say but it’s a silent
one Oh sea let me see you
be in you seen by you sea, my sea
It’s like this gigantic eye you know what
I mean it’s seen everything under the sun but it aint
talkin’ it just aint it aint it’s just blinking, winking
under the sunlight --
Silent stories are stories Joe, silent stories are still
stories, we can make this thing yes with a little
imagination What, are we gonna shoot a minnow
and a seagull and call it Nemo 2, a perverted
love story? Are we are we you think we can but

I was born to be on the sea on it not just
by it like some pitiful supplicant and anyhow
what would I ever need from her
The waves still scare me even though it’s a
few years ago and the weather’s good
I read after the tsunami I can’t even eat Thai food
now I’m serious it makes me think of that guy floatin’
by like he was on a lounge chair, not a word, not even
no expression just this sorta ‘oh well’ sorta look just like
shiee-yoop and he’s gone. I read something said if
you were in a boat you’d barely even notice it, a blip, but
that don’t put me at ease! It’s like knowin’ there’s a boa
constrictor wide as a hospital right under me but it’s just
brushin’ the surface a thousand miles long and you can
barely see it Didja see
didja see that a jellyfish
Jesus didja wow Christ do you really hafta shout didja
shout like that right when I’m talkin’ about the tsunami didja though?

Earhart, Earhart’s who I’m channeling
she gave herself to it and was elevated to queen; she dared
survey it alone, from above, darkling plain, metal-shelled seagull if
you will. No, no, I’m not gonna see
the movie are you kidding me, a little kissy kissy and a
little lesbian action no, no thank you,
that’s not even close to who she was, is, people were blips
on her radar-eye, she dared the empty sky and sea more horribly caught than
the narrowest prison she knew exactly what that ecstasy
was and would do to her, with her she said she said.
Joe listen, look at this, two bikes over there parked in the
sand leaning into the sun but where oh where are
the owners, huh huh you feel a story there? That’s a story?
Two bikes? I got two butt cheeks on a toilet seat
Is that a story he asked and the wind kept
on oh yeah stealthy as hell as anything while they talked
it’s a saboteur

sarekat islam merah

apparently indonesian marxists infiltrated sarekat islam, a muslim nationalist organization, in the early 20s. for a short time they formed a 'red sarekat islam,' which is hard to imagine now, after the afghan jihad against the soviets. but in those days, i guess anything oppositional to colonialists seemed in harmony.

marxism and catholicism mixed in 'liberation theology' in latin america later in the century. but the church hierarchy was never in opposition in any way to political/social elites in latin america.

December 8, 1941

my dad told me the other day that the day after Pearl Harbor a classmate at school told him the japanese have an extra toe on each foot.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

tom englehardt on sovereignty

Packard reports Holbrooke's disappointment over the amount of aid Congress is ponying up for Pakistan ($7.5 billion) and, to add to his set of frustrations, there's this: "Because of Pakistan's sensitivity about its sovereignty, he had been unable to persuade its military to allow American helicopters to bring aid to the refugees," who had been driven from the Swat Valley by the Taliban and a Pakistani military offensive.

Let's think about that for a moment, especially since it's a commonplace of American reporting from the region and so reflects official thinking on the subject. Karen DeYoung and Pamela Constable, for instance, write in a Washington Post piece: "Pakistanis, who are extremely sensitive about national sovereignty, oppose allowing foreign troops on their soil and have protested U.S. missile attacks launched from unmanned aircraft against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan." In fact, let's reverse the situation.

Imagine that, after the next Katrina, Pakistani military helicopters based on a Pakistani aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Mexico are preparing to deliver supplies to New Orleans. Of course, you also have to imagine, minimally, that the Pakistanis are in the process of building a three-quarters of a billion dollar fortress of an embassy in Washington D.C. (to be guarded by armed Pakistani private contractors), that Pakistani drones are regularly cruising the Sierra Nevada mountains, launching missiles at residences in small towns below, that the Pakistanis are offering billions of dollars in desperately needed aid to a hamstrung American government and military in return for not complaining too much about whatever they might want to do in the United States, that top Pakistani military and civilian officials are constantly shuttling through Washington demanding "cooperation," and finally that Pakistani reporters covering all this regularly point to an "extreme American sensitivity about national sovereignty," as illustrated by a bizarre unwillingness to accept Pakistani aid delivered in Pakistani military helicopters. Then again, you know those Americans: combustible as spoiled kids.

Such reversals are, of course, inconceivable and so, nearly impossible to imagine. Today, were a Pakistani military helicopter to approach the U.S. coast with anything on board and refuse to turn back, it would undoubtedly be shot down. So much for American touchiness.

Monday, September 28, 2009

think tanks advise our military?

talking points memo carried an article on neocon fred kagan advising general mcchrystal on afghanistan policy. what opened my eyes what not the specifics about this political hack advising our military leaders, but the general fact that lots of think tanks are busy advising them! how is this accepted and normal? what does this trend do to the view of the military as 'non-political' or even above politics? i think this is very dangerous, since our democracy rests partly on the notion of a military outside of politics. is it already the elephant in the room, leaking to the media in order to get what it wants politically, an escalation in afghanistan? (which it got successfully in vietnam decades ago). quoting TPM:

We followed up by asking if it was accurate to describe the Kagans as "McChrystal advisers" -- as the AP and NPR have in recent days (AP mentions both Kagans, NPR only Fred). Sholtis responded:

"If you're just going to say they're advisers in some kind of neutral way, then yes. If by saying they're advisers you're going to imply that we're in some kind of neocon thrall, then no. Like I said, he takes advice from all sides."

It's been observed that no one who advised McChrystal on the review "thinks the war effort is adequately resourced." This list of the dozen advisers gives a sense of how "all sides" is defined. Besides AEI, other organizations represented include: the RAND Corporation, Brookings, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the Center for a New American Security.

in other words, ALL the groups advising the general are pushing for more troops. the military-industrial complex has a well-developed lobbying arm, apparently, apart from legislators.

muslims, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

i invited two iraqi friends to dad's 80th birthday party yesterday. most of the attendees were my parent's church friends. i greeted a couple of men who openly profess extremist views. one of them, named ed, got me really angry a couple of years ago by informing me out of his deep learning that all muslims are commanded to (and accept the command to) kill non-muslims. when i argued the absurdity of this point, he simply responded that the (seemingly) peaceful ones were just 'biding their time.'

people like this are not amenable to reason and evidence: their 'arguments' are no more than acts of faith. they know what they know because they believe in it hard enough.

i wondered as i saw these good christians sipping punch and nibbling cookies whether they really believed the bilge they spew: were they sure that my two friends, sitting together in the living room smiling at and chatting with others in their new english, were merely here to case the house for a terrorist attack?

the only reason these good people are here is because their country was ripped apart by terrorism and war after we invaded for reasons of (nudge nudge, wink wink) 'national security.' not everyone who comes here comes because they worship our country; some come because a parent is assassinated and the whole family's life is in danger. . . which might have occurred because our president decided he wanted to try on the uniform of 'commander-in-chief' and to do that, he needed a war. national security, my ass.

but i do not think these good christian men are interested in the real consequences of their cynically patriotic wars. they are content to attend their parties and ask no questions of the muslims in the corner. this way they can still imagine that america is the only and eternal victim.

even true believers in fantasy must work hard to maintain their fantasies.

fortunately there are members of my parent's congregation who are more inclined to thought rooted in reality. a kind old woman, kay, when my friend F. told her he was from Iraq, put her hand over her mouth and shook her head and said, with real pain, "I'm sorry." and F's face showed the sadness of his lost country -- a look allowed because of the kindness and honesty of an old woman named Kay. "They are war criminals," she said. and F. said, more generously than is warranted, "some people crazy."

but to call these perps crazy is to deny the cynical calculations that went into their evil plans.

the best men are haunted (for dad's 80th)

See his work pants, speckled with the paint
of a dozen dogged summers,
projects in wood and brick, bitter with detail;
his shoes, shredded and gouged
by nails, splinters, snags,
doubts, duties: have I really done enough?

In old pictures he’s delicately eared
and nosed, small of smiles, a colt gentle in
the eyes, but in the sinews

See him now, decades done, craggy and laconic,
shuffling head down on agendas never done,
see him and try to believe the stoic has not won.
It has not -- it has not: gentleness is never done.

Those eyes could not not see
Goya’s shadow-people wedged, writhing,
beneath Power’s gorgeous building.
For a tower this proudly
starred this fine
their bones must crack; marrow
must grind for
the mortar tomorrow. Best to just not
think about it, people say. Such people
are not followed.

But even gone he saw them – and saw them,
haunting him, mouthing their stories at him.

Consider this.
Guatemala City, 1950: Machine guns
are popping, the good guys lost, they said;
a young missionary hid under his bed
and went home with stories. In 1954, our
boys finally won:
Then looted the land for forty years,
snuffing out the brown folk he had loved.

It’s the nineties. See him now – the man grows old.
He wonders at the root of evil, and
empire’s fruits. He does
not retire. He stakes
out the perps. He
reads books. He
learned who pulled the strings, who
pushed the coup. He’s a
tough detective soul in Jesus shoes.


Friday, September 18, 2009

the pathos of a job app

the other day i accompanied an iraqi friend to apply for a job at Willoughby's, a popular cafe in town. 36 years old and struggling to learn english, with a strong limp from a gunshot wound to the leg, he painstakingly wrote his name and address in child-like script. when it came to 'previous work experience' i took a deep breathe. 'what was the name of that boutique you ran?' i asked. then i told him how to spell the name in roman letters. finally he looked at me for help and i took the pen and filled the lines in for him.

he was once a son of one of the big men of a big clan in Diyala, Iraq. he ran a chicken farm, several stores, who knows what else. no doubt his dad was close to Saddam Hussein's regime. he walked on top of the world until 2003. now he is a refugee in the country that did his father in.

with a smile at the absurdity, i wrote down the phone numbers for those businesses. under reasons for leaving, i wrote 'civil war.'

oh the pathos of trying to shoehorn any real person into a job application, not to mention someone whose life was broken cleanly off in the recent past and has no record here. at least he had a social security number. he pulled a card from his pocket and translated the modern Arabic numbers into the old-time Arabic numerals we use here.

at the bottom i wrote an asterisk, and then 'i'm great with people!' hoping with this comment to cut across the foreignness of his experience and back to the human heart of the matter: a once-exalted man, still able to smile, in need of a job.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

concentration camp origin

one of the few interesting facts learned from "the long recessional," a busy, but somehow empty biography of rudyard kipling, is this: the term (and method) "concentration camps" came from spanish military efforts to push civilian populations into "campos de reconcentracion" during the struggles of the late 1890s.

a few years later, in 1900, british general Kitchener decided to move Dutch-speaking civilians into camps while fighting the Boer War. this move shocked both left and right in England. Kipling and other conservatives railed against a policy that let Boer fighters act like "apaches . . . having the time of their lives" while knowing their wives and kids were being looked after.

but camp conditions were bad. two radical MPs (unnamed in the book) borrowed the spanish term and called them "concentration camps" meant for "extermination."

this little slice of history ties together Geronimo (subdued only a decade before), the end of Spanish rule in Cuba, and the consolidation of English rule in South Africa. apparently later, Nazi propaganda claimed England had invented the term and practice.

concentration camps are literally meant to concentrate populations: hence, the US concentration of japanese-americans in 1942 deserves this term. while these camps were not extermination camps, they are inarguably concentration camps.


Senator Max Baucus reported that some members of the town hall audience he faced in recent days were "holding Youtubes." what he meant was "holding cameras," but the slip shows something essentially true: hand held digital video cameras are basically broadcast platforms for YouTube. i thought the slip was hilarious. imagine a crime bass saying a suspected informant is wearing an "FBI" on his body (rather than a wire).

apparently Nadya Suleman has trademarked the name "Octomom" for herself. what a miserable form of child exploitation!

the internet has impacted inane, beer-fuelled conversations in complex ways. part of these conversations' fun is their resistance to other people's attempts to prove one wrong. you can argue on and on as long as the laughs keep coming from everyone's efforts to one up everyone else. last week we had a party which revealed these changes. a discussion of a nasty form of weasel, the "fisher cat," went on hilariously until someone decided to google it. a most horrific photo came up of a grizzly-like face on a small body. we hooted and howled. so the net did not kill our joy.

later we got onto the endlessly potential topic of testicle transplants. "what if you could have like seven of em?" was one comment. "but if i had a kid the black and the white nuts would beat out the asian nut," was another. once again, someone gave in and went appealing to a higher power. this time the research cast a pall on the atmosphere. the graphic mind's eye images of doctors in 1911 sticking ape testicles into human scrotums and the like sobered me up considerably. but then later lorri looked at the name of the website scott had been consulting:
howls of laughter like a fisher cat's devilish screams.

well, maybe it wasn't all a downer.

i wish google could tell me how we got onto that topic. i better watch what i wish for. . .maybe in 20 years google will be recording human interaction and archiving it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

the belgian mom and the iraqi grandma. . .

i was amazed at this coincidence: a belgian woman and an iraqi woman were talking at the party we had last saturday here. abdul, the two year old, was hiccuping. the belgian woman said, 'my mom used to tell me when i hiccup that my heart is growing.'

'my grandma used to tell me that too,' said the iraqi woman. somehow, across thousands of miles, these two cultures share a tiny sliver of commonality. not the general commonalities of most cultures, but something so specific it is hard to believe. and between the two countries there is no common history or colonialism or conflict, the usual catalyst for sharing in modern times. a coincidence, pure and simple?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


1885–90; < F, orig. brou, ha, ha! exclamation used by characters representing the devil in the 16th-cent. drama; perh. < Heb, distortion of the recited phrase bārūkh habbā (beshēm ădhōnai) “blessed is he who comes (in the name of the Lord)” (Ps. 118:26)

another funny note: in spanish, garlic is measured in "teeth," as in "dos dientes de ajo." seen on a morning cooking show.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

rich attack poor

at the end of vasily grossman's war notebooks (see post just below) he notes the bewilderment of soviet troops as they encountered the prosperity of the german landscape.

"our soldiers have seen the two story suburban houses with electricity, gas, bathrooms, and beautifully tended gardens. our people have seen the villas of the rich bourgeoisie in berlin, the unbelievable luxury of castles, estates, and mansions. and thousands of soldiers repeat these angry questions when they look around them in germany: 'but why did they come to us? what did they want?'"

when a certain rich country i know well attacked a certain impoverished country far away from it several years ago, i had the same feeling: why do people living in a material heaven feel impelled to attack countries whose people are living in hell?

it makes so little sense, i can only conclude that many people living in rich countries are completely insensate to reality, particularly the reality of poor people living far away. their imaginations are easily swayed by pro-war propaganda, which builds up dictators into all-powerful devils capable of destroying countries a thousand times more powerful than their own. people in rich countries, even while able to access much information, do not necessarily do so, and so, cut off from suffering by their own comfort, are susceptible to fantasies and paranoid visions. and so they accede to war against people who can scarcely bear it.

a few days ago i saw "the hurt locker," the first mainstream film to show americans the hell of the iraq war. the film is about americans, but in the background are those whose country was destroyed by the war. and we see how awful the landscape is: the trash on the streets, the lack of rain, the cement block houses. i wonder if americans watching the film think to themselves: why did we, with our sprinkler-fed lawns and thick trees and gardens, attack this miserable place?

because the collective psyche allowed itself to be focused on the devilish figure of the dictator, at the exclusion of the tens of millions of people who would bear all the suffering for our moral failure.

vasily grossman

i just finished a book called "A Writer at War," featuring the war time notebooks of Soviet writer Grossman. it offered vivid snippets of grossman's experience of the front during world war II. the snippets were contextualized by the editors, who explained where he was and what he was doing when he wrote his notes.

his notebook was like an artist's sketchbook. he was constantly describing people met along the road -- generals and peasants, soldiers and secretaries. i recall his description of village women running to german trenches after the germans retreated to take back all the quilts and pillows the germans seized.

i recall villagers' descriptions of germans breaking into peasant households in the dead of winter, shivering violently, shouting at the residents to hurry and build up the fire.

i recall the way soviet troops propped up frozen german corpses for a joke; troops surrounding a german soldier and shouting for him to surrender only to find he was a corpse.

i recall his 1941 description -- that year being the year germany attacked, driving back soviet forces all along the front -- of german fighter planes at night appearing like "lice darting among the stars."

he tried to capture the special ways of talking and acting of various specialized soldiers, from fighter pilots to tank men (or "tankists").

he was always attuned to the natural beauty of the world, and how oddly it contrasted with the death and destruction being wrought. he noticed how people laughed and played even in horrific circumstances: the wounded german soldier and the young woman sitting on a bench after the fall of berlin, embracing for several hours.

he wrote heartbreakingly about treblinka, where almost a million people, mostly jews, were killed.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

in praise of stems

i mean stems of words. all words in all languages have origins, but in most, the stem or root is buried in the modern word or eroded to a new form: looking at "good bye" one cannot know that the root of "good" here is actually "god," and "bye" is a mashing together of "be with ye."

but languages whose vocabulary branches out from ancient units, which one must know in order to use a dictionary, allow one to glimpse more easily the accretion of meanings. we still need a scholar to tell us exactly how one meaning evolved to another, but at least we can enjoy that sense of layering, like looking at the steps of building an old building: the old boards and mortar inside the modern wall.

using the arabic dictionary, for all its hassles (trying to divine roots from words is not always easy), has this pleasure. today i came across another one. i looked up the word (heard on a tv program) "qurud." i looked up the root "qarada" and there it was: it meant "loans." glancing at the stem qarada, i saw it meant "to gnaw, nibble, corrode, to loan money."

what a poetic evolution. you can really see, or imagine you see, the logic behind the evolution.

private loans in recent decades have become more chomping than gnawing. in the late 70s the US government decided usury was OK, and now it is common to see interest rates of 20 percent or more. it is immoral and shows how the people of this country are casually sacrificed for the profits of the powerful.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the girls who went away

this is the kind of book that gets me every time: devastatingly intense stories of suffering.

the book is the stories of women who gave up their babies for adoption in the 50s and 60s, before abortion was legal. 'gave up' is misleading -- they were almost never given a choice in the matter, forced by parents and the maternity home staff to give in to protect everyone's false, fragile sense of propriety. it is painful, brutal reading: how these traumas influenced these women all their lives.

one interesting historical tidbit: these maternity homes were originally religious institutions, devoted to "saving fallen women." they acted as refuges and supports, even if their philosophy and attitude was patronizing. they did not try to separate babies and mothers. they felt that women's fallen ways were related to their social background and environment.

ironically, the professional, social-science-oriented people who supplanted them in the 40s and 50s were absurdly off-base, scientifically and humanistically, as compared to these religious workers. the professional types saw out of wedlock births as a social disease to be treated. part of this treatment was to remove babies from the girls as a way to encourage them to wipe the slate clean and be proper members of society. as if such a thing were possible. as one such woman says in the book, adoption "amputates families."

the greatest numbers of shunned young women were from the striving middle classes, the Leave it to Beaver types obsessed with a proper performance. this cruel, inhuman, false suburban myth sacrificed these girls' interests. not one of them wanted to give their babies up; many fought; none were supported or even queried as to what they wanted. they were stigmatized and told they had shamed everyone.

from this perspective those good religious people of 90 or 100 years ago had it much more right than the social "scientists" of mid-century. these latter were no more than handmaidens to cruel, inhumane policies. they were handmaidens to power.

Grampa Lian, you've come back!

Sara tells me that this was how Nationalist Party chairman Lian Zhan was ceremonially welcomed when he made his first trip to China in 2005. A young girl raised her arm with a flourish and cried out, "Lian Yeye, ni huilai le!" Her artificial tone made this statement a hit with ironic cell phone users in Taiwan, many of whom used it as a ring tone for their phones.

Today I found a piece of calligraphy given to me by a man in Luzhou, Sichuan, in 2005. It commemorates the Flying Tigers, one of whose squadrons was based at Luzhou. It is funny that the only reason this man felt able to write that message was because Lian Zhan had visited China and therefore the Chinese media, overnight, "legitimated" all the previously not-talked about history of the Nationalist era. the flying tigers were officially part of the Republic of China (headed by the Nationalists) Air Force. Men in tea houses brought up the Flying Tigers with me.

the state decides so much, opening vistas for us and closing them at will.

Friday, July 10, 2009

1941, the year that keeps returning

in the ny review of books i read a review of a powerful book, not yet in english, by a croatian editor and journalist. goldstein wrote about the events of 1941, when croatia was taken, with nazi german help, by a fascist ultra-nationalist movement called the 'ustasha.' they put into motion a bloody plan that disturbed even the SS and the italians who were their allies, to wipe out the 1.8 million serbs in their midst. they 'only' got to 400,000 of them (this number includes many jews and gypsies as well); their insane brutality collapsed on itself when serbs and jews simply began fleeing for their lives, and joining up with geurilla movements that fought the regime.

his father was imprisoned and killed. for me, this story is how easily states can sway 'normal' people to engage in, or at least tolerate, murder. previously, serbs and croats had lived alongside each other. but this evil regime, a tiny number of people, was able to recruit thugs willing to go into towns and villages and drag non-croats out of their homes and march them off to killing camps in the woods. even though most of the perpetrators were not killing their own neighbors, these acts destroyed existing relations as those wiped out, the survivors anyhow, carried a grudge that would be satisfied afterwards. so, 1941 kept returning because: it stimulated an ethnic serb nationalist movement aiming at revenge against croats, the chetnik, and in the early 1990s, its memory fuelled ethnic cleansing of first croats and then serbs from the two countries' respective borderlands (i forget which happened first). the communists to their credit did not exploit national hatreds, aiming not at croats in general, but the ustasha, hence allowing non-implicated croats to join the national (or transnational) movement.

the lid came off in the 90s. the review also quotes a very moving letter from the father to the son before the father was killed. he writes about the lessons of prison life and his hopes for his son.

lewontin on darwin

i learned something very interesting in reading this review essay on books about darwin in a recent new york review of books (i like this magazine because it lets me 'read' dozens of books on the cheap, by simply reading their reviews, which always include the best or worst parts). i had always heard that political philosophy in the late 19th century borrowed from darwin's theories of evolution, to create the notion of "social darwinism," a corruption of his theories. lewontin argues pretty persuasively that it was the other way around: darwin grabbed hold of prevailing political and social assumptions about society, that under industrial capitalism the strong were getting stronger and the weak, weaker, and translated it into biological terms. this resonance explains the massive and immediate popularity of his major work, 'the origin of species.' "the perceived structure of the competitive economy provided the metaphors on which evolutionary theory was built. one can hardly imagine anything that would have better justified the established social and economic theories of the industrial revolution than the claim that our very biological natures are examples of basic laws of political economy."

he also asserts that the theory ought to be called "darwin-wallace-mendelism." without mendel, a german monk, the theory lacked an explanation of inheritance. darwin and wallace thought of organisms combining as a mixture of liquids, with the offspring being the average of the parents. but this leads to the ironing out of all extremes and variations. mendel saw genetics as a matter not of liquids but of little bits of something that retained their variety even after combination.

investors against genocide

at our latest amnesty international meeting here in madison, eric cohen, a co-founder of the group, spoke to us. apparently they are able to exert moral pressure through New Deal-era financial regulations, requiring companies and mutual funds to allow shareholders to present proposals for a vote. in other countries these laws don't exist, so what they are doing here is not possible. what they are doing is looking for volunteers who are investors in mutual funds (at least 2,000 dollars) to submit an IAG proposal in their name calling on the company to divest from companies that support genocide.

their specific targets are the big 3 mutual funds, vanguard, fidelity, and american funds, which invest heavily in sinopec and another chinese oil company. these two companies fund the sudanese government. they have so far refused to divest, though some smaller ones have. votes have gotten up to 30 percent support, which is pretty good considering most people don't even read proposals, just ignore them.

i am not sure i agree with the use of the word "genocide," but i do agree that government ought to come under pressure for it's brutal, rather one-sided civil war.

i am surprised to find that with all the publicity about darfur, these mainstream companies are so blithely invested in these blood-drenched oil companies. their response to calls to divest are that they are "legally obligated" to find the maximum return to investors. legally obligated? wow. so if they divest from genocide-enablers, they are liable to lawsuits?

Monday, June 15, 2009

first potatoes

these are the first crop of any kind we have harvested. how exciting it was, to dig them up and wash them off, revealing crisp white spuds. it's too bad our cooking that day did them little justice, stewing in a mediocre curry. but it was still a good feeling eating our own potatoes. maybe tomorrow i'll go out and pick that spinach that has struggled for months to attain even its puny size. . .

yeah, i'm weird

but really, the shape of the bananas was perfectly suited to the curve of my head. . .


as we sat at the birthday party yesterday, the younger son translated a charming bit of iraqi culture for us. the littlest boy was asking his father to throw him into the air and catch him. apparently that game is called "hoob" after the shout of the father as he throws the child upward. "dad, hoob, hoob," the toddler was saying. and the tired dad stood up to do it again. "hoob!" he shouted. "Hoob! Hoob!" the boy laughed happily, in a bit of a daze afterward.

iraqis come to the shoreline

not long after the US media reported on the mere 500 or so Iraqis admitted to the US -- out of a couple of million made refugees by our wonderful war -- this scandal is in a tiny way ameliorated. the scandal was that we had raped their country and were doing nothing to help those directly victimized by our presence, such as the translators who were threatened with death for helping our army. the worst part of it was that the US was terrified of the very people it had pretended to assist with the invasion, terrified that "terrorists" would slip in amongst the desperate and wreak havoc.

i don't know if media attention helped nudge the state department or not, but lo and behold, several iraqi families have appeared on the shoreline. yesterday sara and i attended a small birthday party for the girl in the picture. the 3 kids are adorable. tomorrow i will try a language exchange with the father, who is 3 years younger than me. his english is very minimal, not so different from my arabic, so it could be a good exchange. his younger brother's english is too good to make a good exchange with me.

seeing them here, sitting awkwardly in the suburban quiet, wondering where they are and what they are to do, makes me think. behind them, on their backs, is the violence and death they left behind. i wonder, but do not ask. that limp in the father's leg: was it from birth? or from a bomb? and on and on. . .

it is good to see their affection and love, especially between parents and children.

Monday, June 8, 2009

soul music in madison?

it was an amazing sight, to see a choir of almost all white people swaying and clapping and shouting -- and singing. their athletic director, angela clemmons, professional back up singer and soul music enthusiast, pumped her arms and used her entire energy to keep them moving. they had completed a four week workshop. i was impressed. it was funny to see the four or five men standing stolidly in the center, clapping hands but otherwise incapable of moving their bodies. but around them a sea of pastel-attired women swirled and swayed side to side.

i never would have thought to see soul music sung in madison. but even the mormons now are borrowing some of the verve of black church music, a total departure from the traditional mormon hymn staidness.

when angela began the show with a solo, i felt something was up when the right side of the chapel erupted in clapping and shouting whenever she reached a climax. obviously they had learned a different sociality from the hands in the lap style of white churches. it turned out they were the choir. they had been taught how to perform. and part of performance is knowing how to spectate, how to watch and react. it was inspiring from a cultural and political perspective. sure, class is now the great line dividing communities in this country, now that race is becoming less aligned with class. it is little comfort that a few blacks have moved into the upper and middle classes. but it is still something, something good.

and yes, it was inspiring spiritually too. clemmons invited an experienced soloist from her father's church in norwalk to sing one number, and it was intense. she cried after finishing.

family of the martyr

yesterday i saw part of an iraqi tv show which borrowed, i think, from two unusually different sources: iranian government policy and american television. it was a show featuring the families of men killed in the civil war. and although they made an inclusive statement near the end of the show saying something like all sects and communities were damaged by the violence, i suspect this channel's audience is shiites. so the featured family was shiite i think.

the host, a smartly dressed woman in green hijab entered the battered house. she was greeted by two women in billowing black abayas. they cared for four children. the older boy, of about 12 or 13, worked pushing a cargo cart through the city streets. i could not understand any of the conversation, really, whether because of their informal language, accent, or my preoccupation with the sad scene of human ruin revealed by the camera. the adult women's faces were marked by suffering. the children's faces were uncertain, awkward, eyes moving about.

the camera team dwelled on the chaotic, ruined nature of the house and its grounds.

at the end of the show, a truck pulls up outside the house and a team of men move a refrigerator and washing machine, as well as tables, blankets, and clothes into the kitchen. the women and children offer ritual and profuse thanks to al-forat tv.

it is a melancholy form of commercial populism, the station gaining points among the population for doing good. at the same time it reveals some of the human results of the heroic war unleashed by america's armchair hawks in 2003. i suspect none of the perpetrators will ever get the chance to visit the homes of martyrs. don't they want to get credit for their vicarious valor? what might they be afraid of?

the iranian element (i suspect) is the iranian state practice of designating "martyrs" who died fighting state enemies such as iraq and the mujahedeen militia, and rewarding their families with stipends and preferential treatment. this policy has aroused great resentment among other iranians, and defensiveness among recipients.

the american element, of course, is the popularity of home makeover shows.

Monday, June 1, 2009

teeming rain?

at the peace vigil i attended tonight (it is held every monday evening) in madison, a fellow participant described the "teeming rain" of a few weeks before, when a kind sympathizer brought them a pizza.

his usage of "teeming" was, i think, an inadvertent innovation. cities and streets teem. rain pours, streams, drives, etc in conventional usage. but like language used by non-native speakers, this "mistake" was nonetheless vivid and colorful, more so than the accepted combinations. when words jump the banks of their usual course, they can surprise and please.

yesterday i reflected on a word in korean. korean friends visited (long suffering phd pilgrim) and we enjoyed a beautiful day on the beach and in the yard, soaking in the sun and laughing at their adorable little boy grabbing other people's frisbee and other kids' toys on the beach. once i was pushing their stroller. when sujong, the woman, came over to take over the duty, she maneuvered to take the handles. as she did so, she said "cha. . ." perhaps as we might say, "OK," or "alright."

i realized middle class and wealthy korean women use this word/sound a lot. i am not even sure it is a word to be found in a dictionary. i don't think there is a meaning so much as a function. when she gave the little boy something, she might say "cha," as we might say "there." it is a curious linguistic particle, one indicating a proper femininity.

who was anna dickinson?

in NY a few weeks ago, i saw a book on "America's Joan of Arc" selling for 98 cents. it was an advance copy not meant for retail sale, but turned out to be a fascinating look at politics and culture in civil war-era and reconstruction-era america.

she was a quaker from philadelphia drawn to reformist movements on the eve of the civil war, namely women's rights and abolitionism. she was 17 when the war started, a cataclysm which made her famous. she was a fiery speaker, advocating patriotism and condemning war opponents as potential traitors. her youth and militant ardor won her the sobriquet, "america's joan of arc."

after the war she was one of the top draws in the lyceum lecture circuit, which the writer describes as a form of entertainment for the educated elite. she stayed with serious topics such as rights for ex-slaves and more economic opportunities for women, resisting the urge for lighter entertainment.

by the mid-1870s, she was struggling to maintain her visibility and income, and turned for a while to the theatre. but by the early 1880s she was in trouble. her sister had her forcibly committed to an insane asylum in 1891, which set off a decade of lawsuits and a split in their relationship. she lived out the rest of her life quietly in a NY town.

i got lots of fascinating glimpses of an earlier america. in her day, photo portrait-cards of celebrities were a popular collector's item. there were stores selling them, and people kept them in albums alongside photos of their own relatives.

when she helped out the republican party in the 1872 election, she raised eyebrows when she let loose her fiery, war-era rhetoric at her candidate's political opponent. in just 7 short years, the style that had made her famous was already out of date. america was already slipping into the blandness of the guilded era.

there was significant struggle within radical reformist circles over the 15th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote. most women's rights activists like anthony and cady-stanton (or stanton cady?) opposed the amendment vociferously on the grounds that it left women out altogether. dickinson also wanted woman suffrage, but supported the amendment anyhow. this caused a rift between her and the women's rights leaders who had actively courted her.

these leaders opened a newspaper in the 1870s called "the revolution." it only lasted a few years.

on a visit to san fransisco in the late 1860s she upset her wealthy hosts by taking them to task in her speeches for the horrible living conditions and lack of rights of the city's chinese residents.

in our now-centric cultural and media milieu, it is always pleasantly shocking to look into the past and see that, long ago and long before we imagined, the battles for rights and justice were already taking place. i had learned in middle school that after the civil war the states persecuted and excluded chinese people -- but i never knew that any voices were raised for their interests.

in a southern city she visited in 1875 (maybe columbia, SC), she reported that only recently public entertainments had been recently desegregated by law. but the resident blacks agreed amongs themselves to preserve the peace by continuing to sit in their accustomed section in the theatre. however, she saw one brave man insist on sitting in the previously "white's only" section. it caused an uproar. the theatre manager closed the theatre rather than pay the fine for non-compliance.

one has to think about those black residents, only 10 years after the war, being given certain rights but so traumatized by violence and persecution and habit that they elected to submit voluntarily to their old racial limits. and yet -- one man insisted on asserting his rights. tragically, no one else, not even other blacks, were ready to back him up.

this reminds me of a story i heard, i forget where, from the turn of the century south. a youth sits in a the white section of a street car, inciting white anger. an older black woman intervenes, criticizing the boy and pulling him off the car. only then does the boy realize she had saved him, adopting the mask of dominant society to get him away from an ugly and potentially violent scene.

the book also delved into her complicated personal life, criss-crossing the country, staying in friends' houses (and usually causing several members of the household to fall in love with her) and hotels, keeping in touch with her older sister in philadelphia. susan managed her correspondence. the quotations from letters reveals a luxurious world of correspondence -- the effusions of feeling and passion were so beautiful, and little imaginable in the present age. our correspondence is dessicated on the computer screen, disembodied pixels, words as vehicles for information only.

jordanian tv

today i was unable to get the iraqi tv channel i usually frequent, so i turned to my second favorite, jordan tv, the official government channel. one of its most salient features is its employment of every tall, commanding, long-haired woman east of the jordan river as anchors and talk show hosts -- or so it seems. and they all dress in modernistic blouses and smocks with ethnic patterns -- a model of locally-authentic modernization, the balancing act of elites all over the developing world.

but this morning, alas, it was a male host speaking to a turbaned cleric about the meaning of national independence. it was an interesting exercise, asking a theologian to expound on the politics of one nation. despite jordan's ethnic (arab) rather than sectarian character, it is not completely without a religious connection. the monarchy gains religious legitimacy from its ancestry with the family of the prophet. the cleric discussed the first hashemite king's rejection of ottoman domination, then expressed in religious terms as a "caliphate."

in this discourse we can see how islam is in so many parts of the world a vehicle for anti-imperial and anti-colonial sentiment, even when directed at muslim overlords. american commentators are mistaken in their obsession with islam as a system of religious thought, divorced from the historical conditions of its modern emergence, which was: opposition to colonial rule. hugo chavez, not osama bin laden, is the idol of arab youths. it's the politics, stupid (not the theology).

then i caught part of a rather boring lecture on child birth from a legal perspective. by a man.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Iraqi TV

the last few days i have gotten lucky with Iraqi TV. i have gotten programs on the Euphrates Channel that are not theologians in black robes and turbans. the glimpses i catch of Iraq through this channel show a society in turbulent, often fearful and anguished, transition.

there was a brief commercial advertising iran as an investment destination. there were no words or text, only pictures of famous landmarks, until the end; even then it was only the english phrase "Iran -- Land of Investment Opportunities."

first i saw part of a discussion-format show on the economy. the topic was, who is benefiting from Iraq's economic development? i could understand very little semantically, except that they made frequent reference to Japan after WW2, and they used the (to us) Leftist phrase "political economy." i suspect this usage is a reflection of Iraq's quasi-socialist heritage, common in many countries throughout the world. Iraq does have leftist parties, but i don't think they have their own TV channel. the discussants made frequent reference to foreign interests. recalling Naomi Klein's excellent book "The Shock Doctrine," and her point that countries "shocked" into accepting neoliberal economic policies, such as Iraq: often these countries upon emerging from their shocked state end up soundly rejecting the experimental economic surgery that was foisted on them (Bolivia a good example). i hope that what i was seeing -- discussion of economic policies -- is part of a similar waking up and reaction against imperialist "free market" domination.

i learned how to say "planned economy": iqtisadiyah markaziyah.

the studio decor, i have noticed on the few Iraqi talk shows i have seen, tends to bright, abstract patterns that can be a little jarring and bare. behind the host, several bars of primary colors rose above his head, part of the big background design featuring a graph. it is as if the new media has not had time to grow accustomed to its own existence, like a room smelling of new paint -- an awkward newness evident aesthetically in sterile, brightly colored studio design.

one of the two guests was an old man whose speaking voice was so unique and charming i found myself smiling and leaning forward, wishing i could understand what he was saying, rather than sitting woodenly, dutifully as i often do. his voice rose and fell dramatically, from crescendo to whisper, and it was thin and old like a grandfather's. he was delightful, gesturing and painting vivid pictures and scenarios, his face full of expression. the other two younger men often laughed. i saw a rich culture of intellectual pursuit and story telling in this old man, even through the horrific modern history of the country.

after this show there were two commercials that looked like public service announcements. one showed a man in farmer's attire, walking across a tilled field, reaching into his apron for handfuls of seeds to scatter. but his hands bring out not seeds but bullets, tumbling into the dirt. the next commercial shows a young boy and his father walking past a market. we see the merry bustle and chatter of people buying and selling, a fair-like atmosphere. the boy points at a man with a gun standing in an alley. "is that a police man?" he asks, and the father answers negatively as the man turns and slips away. i could not read the written message fast enough to get it.

these two announcements were visually and emotionally haunting.

then there was a ten minute performance of a song. it was most unusual to me. a youngish man sang, with a sheet of paper in front of him with the lyrics. his voice was piercing but resonant, and the music slow and stately. it seemed he was standing in a mosque, and his style reminded me of Quranic recitation contests in Indonesia -- but there was no use of words like "Allah" or "Muhammad" or "Ali." but it could be that the words used metaphors for religious concepts or figures. the only line i really understood was "I am a flower" (zahra), which also could be "I am bright." the solemn, measured singing was beautiful but haunting. every so often the camera showed a circle of young men swaying and clapping in unison, or clapping one hand across their chests. this action reminded me of things i have seen in news images of shiite pilgrimages, the blow to the chest a miniature act of flagellation, recalling Ali's tragic death.

following this song there was a static screen with a young boy's picture and a written message, read out by a voice. age: 13. residence: . . .there was a date, May 9, 2009, and a phone number. this plain message was utterly heartbreaking: an appeal for information about a boy who had been taken.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney: you hold half the blame for this boy's disappearance. your eagerly sought war turned iraq into a cauldron of anguish and death; the cauldron still bubbles. and you liberals who enabled their fantasies are also culpable. the pork-barrel king, sen. byrd, had guts when you did not by standing up to them.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

malls are now. . .

"lifestyle centers." oh, the beauty of corporate euphemisms! the joy of finding a "lifestyle" in a store! maybe we can even find "community" and "love" in these sterile, rule-bound spaces? no. "lifestyle" is where the money is at.

citbank is lobbying. . . ME

after getting billions in taxpayer bailout money, citigroup is lobbying me, a borrower, to petition the government to protect its racket!! are they out of their minds? i have neither sympathy nor love for these thugs. note how "choice" is always the word used in fake-grassroots opposition to state initiatives to help ordinary people. the point in state initiatives is precisely to give us a choice! without state help, its a choice between pain and suffering, citigroup or bank of america, 24 and 24.5 percent interest rates. in short: without the state, there is no real choice at all. we, consumers and citizens, are the prey.

Petition for Choice and Competition in Federal Student Loans
The President's FY 2010 Budget proposal would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program, effective July 1, 2010. At that time all new federal student and parent loans would be made by the Federal Direct Loan Program. Approximately 4,400 schools would have to switch programs. We invite financial aid professionals, parents, students, student loan professionals and concerned citizens to sign the following petition:

We, the undersigned, respectfully urge the Congress to preserve choice and competition in the federal student loan program. Competition between lenders that make federally guaranteed loans and competition between the two major federal student loan programs have led to significant and continuous improvements in service levels and quality and borrower benefits that reduce loan costs for students and parents.

Therefore, we urge Congress not to accept the Administration's Budget proposal to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program and to work on a bipartisan basis to preserve a stronger private sector-based federal student loan program that

Provides student and parent borrowers a meaningful choice of lenders,
Offers postsecondary institutions a meaningful choice of student loan delivery and servicing
Offers borrowers and postsecondary institutions the wide array of delinquency, financial literacy and default prevention programs that promote responsible borrowing and repayment and minimize defaults.
As of today, 8712 people have signed this petition. See who else has signed.

Sign Here to Support Competition in Student Loans!

Friday, May 8, 2009

The NYT Finally Prints "Torture"

from the Atlantic's blog --

Here we have it in broad daylight: the New York Times' cowardice in the face of its own government. In an obit today, the editors manage to use the word "torture". It's in an obit. The obit runs:

Col. Harold E. Fischer Jr., an American fighter pilot who was routinely tortured in a Chinese prison during and after the Korean War, becoming — along with three other American airmen held at the same prison — a symbol and victim of cold war tension, died in Las Vegas on April 30. He was 83 and lived in Las Vegas. The cause was complications of back surgery, his son Kurt said.

From April 1953 through May 1955, Colonel Fischer — then an Air Force captain — was held at a prison outside Mukden, Manchuria. For most of that time, he was kept in a dark, damp cell with no bed and no opening except a slot in the door through which a bowl of food could be pushed. Much of the time he was handcuffed. Hour after hour, a high-frequency whistle pierced the air.

After a short mock trial in Beijing on May 24, 1955, Captain Fischer and the other pilots — Lt. Col. Edwin L. Heller, First Lt. Lyle W. Cameron and First Lt. Roland W. Parks — were found guilty of violating Chinese territory by flying across the border while on missions over North Korea. Under duress, Captain Fischer had falsely confessed to participating in germ warfare.

You will notice how the NYT defines torture when it comes to foreign governments - isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation. Much milder than anything the US did to one of its own citizens, Jose Padilla. But the parallel is almost perfect: these are, after all, the exact Chinese Communist techniques that were reverse engineered from the SERE program. So you have a perfect demonstration of the NYT's double-standard. If Chinese do it to Americans, it's torture; if Americans do it to an American, it's "harsh interrogation." Does Jill Abramson really expect us to take this lying down?

You will also notice the quality of the intelligence procured through methods milder than the Bush administration's:

“He wanted me to admit that I had been ordered to cross the Manchurian border,” Captain Fischer told Life magazine. “I was grilled day and night, over and over, week in and week out, and in the end, to get Chong and his gang off my back, I confessed to both charges. The charges, of course, were ridiculous. I never participated in germ warfare and neither did anyone else. I was never ordered to cross the Yalu. We had strict Air Force orders not to cross the border.”

“I will regret what I did in that cell the rest of my life,” the captain continued. “But let me say this: it was not really me — not Harold E. Fischer Jr. — who signed that paper. It was a mentality reduced to putty.”

Dick Cheney believes that a "mentality reduced to putty" is the best source of reliable intelligence; that methods designed to give you false confessions should be the basis for national security assessments.

The NYT's incoherence and double standards, equally, are self-evident. But I would like to know if Bill Keller will remove the t-word from this obit and replace it with "harsh interrogations" as he does when referring to the US government's use of identical techniques. If not, why not? Remember: these people won't even use the word torture to describe a technique displayed in the Cambodian museum of torture to commemmorate the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge - as long as Americans do the torturing.

I mean: the NYT isn't just a vehicle for US propaganda, is it? It's a newspaper, right? It has standards that it maintains across its copy. Right?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

wondrous language

i learned a new word while watching jordanian tv this evening: "bawasir," meaning "hemorrhoid." it comes from the root "basara," meaning, "to scowl or frown."

it makes a certain intuitive sense, doesn't it?

johann hari on factory farms

Until yesterday, we could only speculate about the origins of the current H1N1 virus killing human beings – but now we know more. The Centre for Computational Biology at Columbia University has studied the virus and now believes that it is not a new emergence of a triple human-swine-bird flu virus. It is a slight variant on a virus we have seen before. We can see its family tree – and its daddy was a virus that evolved in the artificial breeding ground of a vast factory farm in North Carolina.

Did this strain evolve, too, in the same circumstances? Already, the evidence is suggestive, although far from conclusive. We know that the city where this swine flu first emerged – Perote, Mexico – contains a massive industrial pig farm, and houses 950,000 pigs. Dr Silbergeld adds: "Factory farms are not biosecure at all. People are going in and out all the time. If you stand a few miles down-wind from a factory farm, you can pick up the pathogens easily. And manure from these farms isn't always disposed of."

It's no coincidence that we have seen a sudden surge of new viruses in the past decade at precisely the moment when factory farming has intensified so dramatically. For example, between 1994 and 2001, the number of American pigs that live and die in vast industrial farms in the US spiked from 10 per cent to 72 per cent. Swine flu had been stable since 1918 – and then suddenly, in this period, went super-charged.

How much harm will we do to ourselves in the name of cheap meat? We know that bird flu developed in the world's vast poultry farms. And we know that pumping animal feed full of antibiotics in factory farms has given us a new strain of MRSA. It's a simple, horrible process. The only way to keep animals alive in such conditions is to pump their feed full of antibiotics. But this has triggered an arms race with bacteria, which start evolving to beat the antibiotics – and emerge as in the end as pumped-up, super-charged bacteria invulnerable to our medical weapons. This system gave birth to a new kind of MRSA that now makes up 20 per cent of all human infections with the virus. Sir Liam Donaldson, the British government's Chief Medical Officer, warns: "Every inappropriate use in animals or agriculture [of antibiotics] is potentially a death warrant for a future patient."

Of course, agribusinesses is desperate to deny all this is happening: their bottom line depends on keeping this model on its shaky trotters. But once you factor in the cost of all these diseases and pandemics, cheap meat suddenly looks like an illusion.

We always knew that factory farms were a scar on humanity's conscience – but now we fear they are a scar on our health. If we carry on like this, bird flu and swine flu will be just the beginning of a century of viral outbreaks. As we witness a global pandemic washing across the world, we need to shut down these virus factories – before they shut down even more human lives.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

torture as political tool

wow. i take this from "the daily kos," which itself quotes from a mcclatchy story.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that intelligence agencies and interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubeida at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Mohammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document. [...]

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.

According to another source, from the Senate Armed Services report:

"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."

I sat myself down to write a long essay about this, but I could not.

We have here the foul nexus between the Bush administration pushing "enhanced" interrogation techniques, and the ginned up case for the Iraq War. As early as 2002, torture was being used not to break "resistant" subjects, but in an effort to gain information that would be primarily politically useful.

Two points are critical. First, that both the approval for which "enhanced" techniques would be used and the political pressure to use them came directly from members of the Bush administration.

And second, that the torture was used in spite of the intelligence services involved knowing that the torture was extremely unlikely to produce any useful information, because they already knew -- despite the pressure from "Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people" -- that there were no such links. And yet they tortured prisoners in an attempt to find them.

They ordered torture; they approved the specific methods to be used, including "waterboarding", a long-recognized method of torture; they did it in an attempt to extract politically expedient information from prisoners; they did it in spite of knowing that the prisoners would almost certainly not be able to provide any such information.

I cannot come up with any rationale for why this would not be, unambiguously, a war crime.

Monday, April 20, 2009

my first iraqi television

by chance today, maybe a bad internet connection, my four reliable arabic tv channels -- the russian propaganda, the coptic christian theology, and the jordanian tall, majestic women talk show hosts -- were not available. i went back to a website i had tried before, and only come up with a scratchy, boring algerian channel. but lo and behold, when i clicked on al-furat out of baghdad, it played.

i saw a slightly uneasy anchor in bright pastel shirt and tie give the football league rankings. i saw a piece on a judo tournament, with massive-headed, thick-necked coaches and earnest athletes spout out cliches. i saw a wheelchair basketball game. i saw a volleyball match.

how good it was to see people absorbed in sports, even in the mundanest of gyms and most local of rivalries. i was hardly paying attention to the language, so transfixed was i by their faces, showing nervousness before a camera, or pride, or resolve. i wondered if any of the basketball players had lost their legs in bomb blasts or aerial bombings. how i wish for them more of this ordinary drama of two teams or two competitors fighting it out in an echoing gym, more of news anchors standing in front of garish backgrounds, more of determined men (and maybe women someday) telling their will to victory.

i looked up al-furat, and it means "euphrates," which itself means sweet (water).

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

how civilized. . .

we've caught our enemy. . . now we can indulge in middle-school-boy humiliations.

"During his captivity, US marines forced Saddam, who was executed in 2006, to repeatedly watch the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut, which shows him as gay, as well as the boyfriend of Satan. He was also regularly depicted in a similar manner during the TV series."

Monday, April 13, 2009

thanksgiving, 1676

thanksgiving of that year was celebrated with the severed head of wampanoag chief Phillip stuck on a pole in the middle of plymouth. phillip was the son of massassoiet, the chief who had signed a treaty of friendship with the english their first tough year at plymouth. unable to stem english dispossession of native rights to land, phillip was goaded into fighting so that the english could take final and total control of southern new england. he knew he would lose, but fought anyway.

the decisive blow was struck by the mohawks, allies of the english, who struck in the summer of 1676.

one of the most tragic notes on this war was the fate of the so-called "praying indians," natives who had moved into missionary-organized "praying towns," cut their long hair (if men), and witnessed their belief in jesus christ. the beleaugured english, paranoid about enemies within, loaded hundreds of them into canoes without food or blankets, and sent them to Deer Island near Boston Harbor. they died in the harsh winter wind -- they who had given up generations of culture to adapt to english ways and an english God, kicked out to die for it.

phillip's head was left on the pole for 20 years, proof of the result for any native person who dared resist White hegemony.

i learned all this from an excellent PBS program mixing re-enactment and interviews with historians and archaeologists, which gave the narrative much more texture than the usually simplistic tale of mistrust and woe. the first twenty or 30 years of puritan/native coexistence shows how much possibility there was as long as the english (enough of them, anyhow) were committed to peace and friendship. once those lovers of peace were gone, there was nothing to hold back the greed of the colonists. in this program we see clearly how colonial occupations proceed on various levels at once -- economic, cultural, social.

phillip's nine year-old son was imprisoned in boston during that savage, triumphalist thanksgiving when Our God was shown to be stronger than their gods. afterwards he was sold into slavery in the west indies. can that kind of shock and grief be imagined? did he live to age ten?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

glenn beck -- patriot?

Interviewing Norris on the March 3 edition of his radio program, according to a transcript posted on his website, Beck stated: "Somebody asked me this morning, they said, you really believe that there's going to be trouble in the future. And I said, if this country starts to spiral out of control and, you know, and Mexico melts down or whatever, if it really starts to spiral out of control. ... Americans will, they just, they won't stand for it. There will be parts of the country that will rise up. And they said, where's that going to come from? And I said Texas, it's going to come from Texas." Beck then asked Norris, "Do you agree with that, Chuck, or not?" to which Norris replied, "Oh, yeah. You know, Texas is a republic, you know. ... [W]e could break off from the union if we wanted to." Beck responded, "You do, you call me," adding: "Seriously, you do. I don't mind having that lone star on my flag. I really don't mind it. I've been out with a seam ripper looking at my flag going, I don't know, California could go."

i don't see how Beck can claim to love his country while fantasizing about breaking it up.

During the March 30 edition his Fox News program, Beck aired a graphic portraying Obama and Democrats as vampires and said, "The government is full of vampires, and they are trying to suck the lifeblood out of the economy." Beck then suggested "driv[ing] a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers."

this sounds like a call for violence to me. democrats are not humans -- they are vampires!

does beck really believe in jesus christ? because i can't recall jesus advocating violence or hatred.