Saturday, December 6, 2008

"A pogrom in the worst sense of the word"

An innocent Palestinian family, numbering close to 20 people. All of them women and children, save for three men. Surrounding them are a few dozen masked Jews seeking to lynch them. A pogrom. This isn't a play on words or a double meaning. It is a pogrom in the worst sense of the word. First the masked men set fire to their laundry in the front yard and then they tried to set fire to one of the rooms in the house. The women cry for help, "Allahu Akhbar." Yet the neighbors are too scared to approach the house, frightened of the security guards from Kiryat Arba who have sealed off the home and who are cursing the journalists who wish to document the events unfolding there.

The cries rain down, much like the hail of stones the masked men hurled at the Abu Sa'afan family in the house. A few seconds tick by before a group of journalists, long accustomed to witnessing these difficult moments, decide not to stand on the sidelines. They break into the home and save the lives of the people inside. The brain requires a minute or two to digest what is taking place. Women and children crying bitterly, their faces giving off an expression of horror, sensing their imminent deaths, begging the journalists to save their lives. Stones land on the roof of the home, the windows and the doors. Flames engulf the southern entrance to the home. The front yard is littered with stones thrown by the masked men. The windows are shattered and the children are frightened. All around, as if they were watching a rock concert, are hundreds of Jewish witnesses, observing the events with great interest, even offering suggestions to the Jewish wayward youth as to the most effective way to harm the family. And the police are not to be seen. Nor is the army.
The rest...

Friday, December 5, 2008

RIP, "H. M."

Henry Gustav Molaison (or H. M., as he's known in the textbooks), arguably the most important patient in the history of neuroscience, died yesterday at the age of 82. A surgical procedure that involved removing both halves of the hippocampus in early adulthood left him with anterograde amnesia - basically he was unable to form certain types of long-term memories that cognitive scientists call declarative (general knowledge and autobiographical information). I knew he had to be fairly elderly, but was not sure as of the most recent time I covered his condition and its implications for understanding the nature of learning and memory whether he was still alive.

An extended quote by Glenn Greenwald regarding Democrats and their supporters with regard to torture

Here's what he sez:
...I'll never cease to be amazed at the infantile way that so many people view political debates. Apparently, just like a junior high school football game, there are two teams -- the Democrats and the Republicans -- and, before the game begins, everyone picks which team is theirs, and then cheers for them no matter what. Hence, Dianne Feinstein has a "D" after her name, which means she's "on my side," which means it's irrational to criticize her too much, because she's one of my team members.

Except: like so many Senate Democrats, Feinstein has supported one measure after the next that I find objectionable in the extreme (see here and here). Huge numbers of Congressional Democrats in general have not only supported one radical, destructive Bush policy after the next -- from the Military Commission Act, the Iraq War, warrantless eavesdropping, telecom immunity, Patriot Act renewals and so much more -- but many of their leaders were aware of and actively assented to many of the most extreme and anti-Constitutional of those abuses, including Bush's torture and illegal surveillance programs. Even the best of them -- such as Ron Wyden, whose comments I criticized yesterday -- have, on occasion, voted for grotesque measures such as denying Guantanamo detainees the right of habeas corpus review.

How adolescent does someone have to be to view political disputes through a binary "team" prism where you cheer for people who are said, somehow, to be on "your side" -- even though they do and say things that fundamentally violate one's core political values and are wildly destructive? These are politicians. They all benefit from skepticism and pressure, not blind, pom-pom-waving support. They deserve support when they do good things, opposition when they don't, and pressure and scrutiny at all times.

In particular, Congressional Democrats have not exactly covered themselves with glory when it comes to civil liberties, defending the Constitution, and impeding the worst aspects of the Bush agenda. To the contrary, they've acquiesced to virtually all of it and enabled much of it. Dianne Feinstein, using her influential positions on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, has been among the worst. Anyone who sits back and assumes that they're going to do the right thing when it comes to interrogation and surveillance policies all because they have the glorious "D" after their name hasn't been paying attention to anything over the last several years.

There are going to be all sorts of pressures exerted from many different directions. Feinstein, in her follow-up statement yesterday to Scherer, even seemed to suggest that she expected Obama officials might be the ones who exert some of that pressure. The CIA and their supporters aren't just going to sit back and let Congress straitjacket them, as they perceive it, without a serious fight. Congressional Democrats have demonstrated no willingness whatsoever to take a stand on any of these issues. It's nothing short of delusional to think they're going to do that now without constant vigilance and pressure being exerted -- all because they're Democrats and therefore they must be good and inherently deserving of giddy cheerleading from those "on their side."

UPDATE: There is one other point worth noting, especially in light of Feinstein's odd statement yesterday "that she may be willing to be talked back from that position [using the AFM as the standard] by the Obama Administration, if it chooses to do so," and, more generally in light of the obvious discomfort Democrats are exhibiting on this issue right now.

Here is the very specific and emphatic pledge Barack Obama made last December when answering a questionnaire on executive power and related issues sent by Charlie Savage, then of The Boston Globe:

As President I will abide by statutory prohibitions, and have the Army Field Manual govern interrogation techniques for all United States Government personnel and contractors.

That's quite a solid vow, with no real wiggle room. I have never personally argued that the Army Field Manual is the only, or even best, way to end torture. But Democrats -- and Obama -- have argued that, repeatedly, and have vowed to use it as the standard for defining permissible interrogations techniques. It will be interesting to see how much flexibility their supporters are willing to accord them if, as they are now obviously at least toying with, they decide they do not want to pursue that course of action. Much of that will, I presume, depend on what their alternative is. Still, Obama's pledge was quite emphatic.

Who'da thunk it?

According to Gulf Oil CEO, gasoline prices could bottom out at $1 per gallon, with crude oil prices dropping down to about $20. That comes on the heels of news that crude oil had dropped to near the $40 mark. Of course, one might not want to get too excited - there are forecasters who expect oil to be back at the $100-$150 mark before 2009 ends. As for our own driving habits - those are pretty unlikely to change; we've cut our miles traveled in half, and are quite accustomed to consolidating trips to Guymon.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


When you see this time
This grey day
From the distance of history
Ask if some
Without pretence
Fought for freedom
Lived with decency
By caring risked their
Portion of life
Against the business of death

- Ashanti Alston Omowali

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Another sign of the times

College May Become Unaffordable for Most in U.S.

There's definitely some food for thought in that article. One passage that caught my eye:
Mr. Callan, for his part, urged a reversal in states’ approach to higher-education financing.

“When the economy is good, and state universities are somewhat better funded, we raise tuition as little as possible,” he said. “When the economy is bad, we raise tuition and sock it to families, when people can least afford it. That’s exactly the opposite of what we need.”
Yet another example of disaster capitalism in action.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Film Notes for V for Vendetta

Just noticed Richard Estes' commentary on the film V for Vendetta. I have an interest in dystopian novels and films, and am always curious to read others' reactions such works of art. An extended clip:
V carries out a killing spree for reasons of revenge (evocative of the great Vincent Price cult film, Theatre of Blood, wherein Price, playing a Shakespearan actor, kills the critics who denied him a prestigious acting award), but for V, the personal is the political, as they used to say, with his vengence releasing the latent discontent of the populace against their authoritarian government.

Accordingly, the Wachowski brothers are traveling over a terrain that is most disconcerting to anyone who believes that the hegemony of the US empire can be overcome solely through non-violence. V is a flawed, egomanical character that reveals the extent to which rebellions are often lead by marginalized figures who live outside of societal convention in profoundly troubling ways. Revolutions invariably, as shown in the film, involve a complex interweaving of violent and non-violent components. One need only look at the extent to which the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela basks in the security offered by the resistance in Iraq, a resistance that prevents the US from taking action thousands of miles away, as a contemporary example.

Significantly, however, the true protagonist of the film is Evey (a strong performance by Natalie Portman), not V. V needs someone who will carry his vision forward, because it will die with him, a solitary dream, a fantasy, if the next generation does not share it. Evey's evolution into a fearless, nameless (she ultimately survives with a fake ID), confident woman as she is forced to confront more and more harrowing degrees of loss, violence and deprivation, most memorably in a prolonged incarceration sequence, is therefore central to the film's premise. In this, V transcends his desire for grandiose revenge, and creates an enduring social legacy, much as the character of Prospero does at the conclusion of the great Shakespeare play, The Tempest, but the legacy requires that someone grasp it, and that person is Evey. Thus, the Wachowski brothers, paradoxically through the genre of the comic book action film, insist that we engage with the past, present and future by recognizing history as it is, not as we would like it to be.

Indeed, a detective, Eric Finch, played by Stephen Rea, is involuntarily compelled to do so in one of the film's most compelling sequences, as V, reminiscent of Prospero, skillfully stage manages his impending insurrection, navigating the chaos around him with ease. V's willingness to voluntarily hand over his movement, no strings attached, to Evey, leaving success or failure to her, distinguishes him from the fascist, Mabuse.

All along the way James McTeigue, the director, utilizes some effective alienation effects, as the past (Fawkes), our ephemeral present (through flashbacks of Evey, V and Valerie, an incarcerated lesbian) and the impending future, the present setting of the film's narrative, are powerfully contrasted. The surface normality of our times, with our knowledge of its concealed atrocities, and our belief that we are privileged enough to remain securely and happily independent of them, degenerates into the explicit brutality of an authoritarian future. Valerie's recollection of her affectionate London life with her partner, as the world around them becomes more and more intolerant of any expressions of compassion, is especially poignant.

A fusion of fear, fascism and media manipulation relentlessly devours all remaining sanctuaries of personal kindness and autonomy, as Evey's dear friend Gordon, who shelters her, tragically discovers as a result of V's obssessive pursuit of Old Testament revenge and revolutionary transformation. Yet another splash of ice cold water from the Wachowski brothers: a radical consciously goes forward despite the certain knowledge that some good hearted innocents will inevitably be consumed by the conflict around them, something that John Sayles acknowledged as an essential feature of his brilliant 1987 film about a turn of the century West Virginia coal miners strike, Matewan. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice has warmly described V for Vendetta as a supremely tasteless movie. Let's have many more of them.

I cut to the punchline, but hope that you'll check out the rest of essay.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can we use the D word yet?

Leave it to the feisty (and I really mean that as a compliment) Helen Thomas to say what many won't. Actually, once we get away from the fantasies of Beltway and Wall Street types, one can find large swaths of the US that have seemed in a depression of some sort for a while. The return of Social Darwinism in the form of neoliberalism was bound to produce precisely what was produced the last time our elites tried it: disaster. The birds have once more come home to roost.

Say Hello To

Breakfast in the Ruins.

Habermas on the economic crisis

This interview certainly makes for an interesting read (h/t BLKDGRD). I'd just wish Habermas and other great thinkers would think outside the capitalist box. At least Habermas recognizes that Friedman-esque orthodoxy (i.e., neoliberalism) has been the driving intellectual force behind the current clusterfuck. I'm not sure I have any profound answers either, but I can't help but think that were at the cusp of a new era and that it would be helpful to imagine what a post-capitalist world would look like.