Saturday, May 23, 2009

There is more to torture than waterboarding

It now goes without saying that Cheney told quite a few lies recently. What he said in and of itself was quite ugly. The truth is far uglier, and bears repeating over, and over, and over again. Contra Cheney, the people rounded up and then shipped to Guantánamo Bay were very often folks who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were sold to US officials or turned over to US officials to settle personal or political scores. They are at this point little more than chattel as far as the US government is concerned. Given the underwhelming response by the American public, perhaps a case can be made that these human beings are little more than chattel in the eyes of most Americans. Nor is there any indication that a recent change of regimes in the US has changed anything really. Chattel the prisoners of Gitmo remain.

It also should now go without saying that contra Cheney, torture (which by the way should not be reserved for anyone under any circumstances) was (and is) not merely "reserved" for those deemed have the "highest intelligence value", but rather can be used on anyone caught up in the US gulag. Furthermore, even those who only treat torture from a more Machiavellian perspective will end up acknowledging that information is better obtained through other means (for the intellectually and morally dense, that is means not involving torture).

Then there are the techniques themselves. Much gets made about waterboarding, which is a horrible technique that itself has a long sordid history (Pol Pot's regime used it during his reign of terror in Cambodia during the mid to late 1970s, and the technique dates back at least to the days of the Inquisition). Alex Gibney goes into the even uglier side of torture somewhat in Killing Wussification:

There has been a lot of arcane talk about the memos produced by the Office of Legal Counsel about specific "no-touch" torture techniques which, out-of-context, can sound harmless, if a bit weird. (In one of Office of Legal Counsel memos written by Steven Bradbury, he notes that, while it's OK to strip a detainee naked and make him wear a diaper, one must be careful not to chafe the skin with the Velcro straps when taking them on and off.)

What has been mostly missing from the recent debate about detainee abuse is that over 100 detainees died in custody during the war on terror. Nearly half of those deaths have been classified as homicides. For all sorts of reasons, it's worth looking at one case in particular. It's the story of Dilawar, a 22-year old taxi driver whose murder was at the center of my film, "Taxi to the Dark Side."

Dilawar lived in Yakubi, a small peanut-farming village in Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border. Shy and a bit of a dreamer, Dilawar drove a taxi to support his wife and young daughter because he wasn't really cut out for the hard work of farming. On December 1, 2002, he was carrying three paid fares home from the provincial capital of Khost when he and his passengers were stopped and arrested by Afghan militia. Accused of launching a rocket attack on Camp Salerno, a nearby US base, Dilawar and his passengers were turned over to American forces.

On December 5, Dilawar was flown to Bagram, the headquarters for US forces in Afghanistan and a key detention and interrogation center, where he was designated a PUC - person under control - number 421. Five days later, he was dead.

Only a week before, another detainee named Habibullah had died. The medical examiner noted that he had a pre-existing pulmonary condition. But it was the beatings he sustained at Bagram that led to the cause of his death: a blood clot that traveled to his lungs. As one member of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion recalled, "two prisoners dying within a week of each other. That's bad."

Indeed it was.


Further investigation revealed that Dilawar's cause of death was remarkably similar to that of Habibullah. He died of a pulmonary embolism caused by trauma to his legs that was so severe that the coroner said his legs were "pulpified," and looked like they had been run over by a truck. Had he lived, the coroner later testified, Dilawar's legs would have had to have been amputated.


What could have caused such trauma? A criminal investigation revealed that the Military Police at Bagram had pummeled Dilawar's legs with peroneal strikes, an "approved" control measure that the MPs had learned one day in their guard training. It involved slamming their knees into the nerve endings on Dilawar's thighs. "It drops 'em pretty good," said one MP.

At first, soldiers told me, they used strikes to control the 122-pound Dilawar because he would often try to take off his hood, perhaps because he suffered from severe asthma. Later, as Dilawar continued to moan and cry out for his mother and father - which MPs, who couldn't understand him, may have mistaken for the signs of a troublemaker - the guards would pummel him with knee strikes over and over again, just to shut him up, or sometimes, for their amusement, just to hear him scream "allah."


Dilawar and Habibullah died, in part, because they were hooded and shackled to the wire mesh ceiling of their holding cells for hours at a time so that the blood flowed to their legs, turning peroneal strikes into death blows. But the illegal practice of overhead shackling was not the work of bad apples. It was routine at Bagram. It was policy.

For reasons no one can explain, and without written orders that anyone can or is willing to produce, a program of sleep deprivation was instituted at Bagram whereby MPs would shackle detainees to the ceiling of holding cells so that if they tried to fall asleep they would be awakened by the tugging of the handcuffs on their bloody wrists. There was nothing secret about this. There was a regular "sleep dep" schedule posted on a white board in the prison that was visible to the many high-ranking officers and Bush Administration officials who toured the prison. (It was only erased and the prisoners unshackled when the Red Cross visited Bagram.) The office of Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, was a stone's throw away from the prison.

Off-limits to journalists, the Bagram prison was a showplace for many touring dignitaries and high-ranking military officers. As Damien Corsetti, a member of the 519th MI unit told me, "Mr. Rumsfeld's office called our office frequently. Very high commanders would want to be kept up to date on a daily basis on certain prisoners there. The brass knew. They saw them shackled, they saw them hooded and they said right on. You all are doing a great job."

There were other "techniques" in regular use at Bagram: the use of snarling dogs, deafening music, forced nudity, and, according a number of soldiers, a kind of low-rent, homemade waterboarding set-up: wetting down a hood, putting it on a detainee's head and then heating it up to let the steam to suffocate the detainee.

It should be noted that none of these techniques were interrogation techniques per se. But they were all in the service of softening up detainees for interrogation. Other techniques - such as stress positions, like "the invisible chair," in which the detainee is made to sit as if there were a chair under him - were used in interrogations. In Dilawar's case, however, the beatings to his legs made him unable to sit on "the invisible chair," during one of his last interrogations. Thinking Dilawar was mocking him when he slid down the wall and fell on the floor - he couldn't see the deep bruises under his orange jump suit - his interrogator punished him some more.

Here's the kicker - about three days into Dilawar's ordeal, his interrogators had determined that he was just an innocent person who had been inadvertently imprisoned in Bagram. So what did they do? They kept torturing him to death. To our pro-torture crowd, he was probably an "Islamist" any way, so what's the harm? Note that in a different era, it would have been "he's just a gook" or "just a darkie" or something to that effect. If you get the impression that I'm implying that there is some underlying racism at work here, then you would be correct.

Another story over at True/Slant offers up yet one more harrowing account of life in the US gulag (h/t The Newshoggers) - this time the sort of torture experienced by a teen detained at Gitmo:
The government accuses Khadr of killing a U.S. soldier with a grenade during the battle, but in 2008 the Pentagon accidentally revealed that it had no evidence of this; it had evidence only that Khadr was present at the time. Khadr was far too young to have any useful knowledge of al Qaeda activities. Still...he was treated as a dangerous, savvy enemy combatant.

A few months after Omar Khadr arrived at Guantanamo, he was awakened by a guard around midnight. “Get up,” the guard said. “You have a reservation.” Reservation was the commonly used term at Gitmo for torture session.

...the MPs uncuffed Omar’s arms, pulled them behind his back, and recuffed them to his legs, straining them badly at their sockets. At the junction of his arms and legs he was again bolted to the floor and left alone. The degree of pain a human body experiences in this from of “stress positioning” can quickly lead to delirium, and ultimately to unconsciousness. Before that happened, the MPs returned, forced Omar onto his knees, and cuffed his wrists and ankles together behind his back. This made his body into a kind of bow, his torso convex and rigid, right at the limit of its flexibility. The force of his cuffed wrists straining upward against his cuffed ankles drove his kneecaps into the concrete floor. The guards left.

An hour or two later they came back, checked the tautness of the chains between his hands and feet, and pushed him over onto his stomach. Transfixed in his bonds, Omar toppled like a figurine. Again they left. Many hours had passed since Omar had been taken from his cell. He urinated on himself and onto the floor. The MPs returned, mocked him for a while, and then poured pine oil solvent all over his body. Without altering his chains, they began dragging him by his feet through the mixture of urine and pine oil. Because his body had been so tightened, the new motion racked it. The MPs swung him around and around, the piss and solvent washing up into his face. The idea was to use him as a human mop. When the MPs felt they had sucessfully pretended to soak up the liquid with his body, they uncuffed him and carried him back to his cell. He was not allowed a change of clothes for two days.
Waterboarding perhaps makes for some conveniently "entertaining" fodder on what passes for news programs these days. As Jay McDonough notes, swimming metaphors are relatively easy to understand. Euphemisms for that require minimal intelligence or creativity. Euphemisms for using someone as a human mop or to explain the slicing of a torture victims genitals with scalpels, or to explain what happened to Dilawar on the other hand would be a tad more difficult. And then, even if one can get the American public to actually face what is being done - whether it's directly in Bagram and Gitmo or in those prisons where other torture victims are renditioned - can one drill through centuries of Eurocentric imperialist racism to get the viewers, readers, or listeners to recognize that the victims are real, living breathing human beings? That last bit may be (and I understate this considerably I admit) the most difficult.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Right-wing shock jock admits it

Waterboarding is torture:

It the consensus of my particular household that anyone who seems to think waterboarding is not torture should at bare minimum allow themselves to experience what Eric "Mancow" Muller goes through on the video above. Keep a few things in mind.

1. "Mancow", unlike an actual torture victim, knew what to expect.

2. Unlike an actual torture victim, "Mancow" was relatively unrestrained, and could escape the situation at any time he felt too uncomfortable.

3. "Mancow" will undoubtedly remember his relatively tame encounter with waterboarding for life - it even brought up memories of having drowned as a kid. Imagine the psychological scarring that occurs to those who don't have the luxury of being able to escape, and hence undergo the rather horrid process for far longer durations.

More on the story can be found here. For what it's worth, I am guessing "Mancow" held up as well as any normal human being would, so for those expecting some sort of snide remark from me, forget it. What I do hope instead is that "Mancow" never forget his experience, never forget that for those who are really being waterboarded that the experience is in no uncertain terms torture, and that he has had a permanent change of mind on what the right-wing media has dismissed as merely nothing more than "hazing."

Josh Marshall sez:

The upshot is that the guy goes into it in cocky Hannity mode and then after maybe 5 or 6 seconds he struggles up and he's converted, claiming it's "absolutely torture", that he never realized it was that bad, etc.

Now, here's the thing. I'm genuinely surprised that he was was surprised that it was that bad. I'm not saying that for effect. Muller really seemed to think it was like getting dunked by your friend in a pool or something. Just factually, everyone who knows anything about this says that it's horrific and you pretty much instantly feel like you're drowning and at the edge of death. And it's a physiological response. So even if you've gone through it ten times and know rationally that you don't die, it doesn't matter. You're instantly put back into the mental space of drowning and being at the edge of death.

I must confess that when I see Hannity or the rest of these guys saying it's no big deal and it's not torture, I kind of figured they're playing semantic games and essentially saying 'I don't care what we do to evil Muslim terrorist bad guys.' Hang them from them toes, waterboard them, whatever, who cares? I don't agree with that. It's hideous. But I understand it. But here it turns out they're just completely ignorant, just haven't been paying attention. Just in the purest factual sense have no idea what they're talking about.

Ignorance (a fair amount of which is willful), I suspect, is a good deal of what fuels much of the pro-torture rhetoric.

Say hello to

Reading The Spectacle

Another example of structural violence

The invisible cost of being poor:
Let’s take this bad boy, point by point, and I’ll try and put the pieces together since people can’t easily read the article (I guess you’ll have to trust me a little bit that this is what the article did in fact say).

Corner store:
Wheat bread: $ 3.79
Milk 4.99
Bologna 3.79
Butter 4.49
Total: $17.06

Wheat Bread $1.19
Milk 3.49
Butter 2.49
Bologna 2.50
Total $9.67

Difference: $7.39 for FOUR items. These four items each week is nearly $30 for a month. I would walk to the the store for that kind of money.

The article points out that it is a 3 hour bus trip for people to go to the Safeway from the neighborhood where they price-checked the corner store. Nobody’s walking that far, particularly when time is at a premium and the article reiterates, over and over again, that there is a time crunch for working poor. For fuck’s sake, the last line of the article is “When you are poor, you wait.” Additionally, if you don’t have a lot of space in your apartment, you’re not going to be able to store food, so you’ll need to make these purchases again and again. You’re not going to be spending 6 a week just getting to and from a store.

I'd strongly recommend reading the whole damn thing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Part of how structural violence works

Manuél sez:
The historically dominant side seeks to eradicate the perceived weak by two methods: denouncement and/or disappearing.

Perceived because the weakness is like a mirage in the Sonoran desert.

Over the past few years, my experience of being a citizen of the United States with Mexican ancestry has been enlightening, to say the least. Anti-migrant hysteria from conservatives and nativists who've declared war on my cultura and identity alongside demands for mass deportations and family destruction have been a source of radicalization that's ignited the habanero in my bloodstream.

The haters have a smart strategy, though.

By making immigration a "Latino issue", they've succeeded for years in ghettoizing (denouncement) and marginalizing (disappearing) voices like mine and others who can actually speak to how failed immigration policies affect those whom are targeted by enforcement-only campaigns. Institutional and often outright racism has guaranteed that the vast majority of faces of those raided at their work sites or homes, detained and deported, are brown, even though the U.S. has undocumented workers from every part of the world with varying degrees of melanin.
Seemed like a fitting variation on a theme that I've touched on here periodically (including recently). Imperialist racism continues to cast its ugly shadow centuries after it reared its ugly head. One consequence of such racism is fairly straightforward if one merely is willing to look: it is so embedded in the cultural Zeitgeist that many don't even see it (the word insidious often is used to describe the mindset and the structural violence that accompanies it). Again go back to Hannah Arendt, and her concept of banality of evil:
The concept of "banality of evil" of course comes from Hannah Arendt's writings - originally appearing in her classic work, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Bethania Assy notes in an essay on Arendt's term "banality of evil" that the key appears to be a lack of thinking, a noticeable shallowness - not just at an individual level but at a societal level. The sorts of evils that we can attribute to the Nazi Holocaust, to the bombings and sanctions against Iraq, the torture and extraordinary renditions, etc. are ones in which are treated with a sort of shallowness. They are normal, merely part of the background. One doesn't think much about them, but rather just accepts them and moves on to the next reality TV show. A point that shows up in Assy's summary as well as in Arendt's writings, is the potential that in reflectively thinking about what is going on, one might then question one's support for the status quo:
How, then, does the faculty of thinking work in order to avoid evil? First of all, according to Arendt, the moral and ethic standards based on habits and customs have shown that they can just be changed by a new set of rules of behavior dictated by the current society.In Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship, Arendt emphasizes: "It was as though morality, at the very moment of its collapse within an old, highly civilized nation, stood revealed in its original meaning, as a set of mores, of customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with no more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of a whole people." (28) Thenceforth, Arendt claims the bridge between morality and the faculty of thinking. In this same article quoted above she asks how is was possible that few persons resisted the moral collapse and had not adhered to the regime, despite any coercion. Arendt herself answers: "The answer to the ...question is relatively simple. The nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience but, ... because their conscience did not function in this, as were, automatic way, ... they asked themselves to what an extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be charged for the better, but because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves." (29) (emphasis added)

Arendt clearly attributes to the faculty of thinking the presupposition for this kind of judging extremely necessary in times of moral collapse, that is to say, "when the chips are down." Arendt argues: "The presupposition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but merely the habit of living together explicitly with oneself, that is, of being engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking." (30) (emphasis added)

Another clip of Arendt (also from Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship) courtesy of Arthur Silber:
In our context, all that matters is the insight that no man, however strong, can ever accomplish anything, good or bad, without the help of others. What you have here is the notion of an equality which accounts for a "leader" who is never more than primus inter pares, the first among his peers. Those who seem to obey him actually support him and his enterprise; without such "obedience" he would be helpless, whereas in the nursery or under conditions of slavery -- the two spheres in which the notion of obedience made sense and from which it was then transposed into political matters -- it is the child or the slave who becomes helpless if he refuses to "cooperate." Even in a strictly bureaucratic organization, with its fixed hierarchical order, it would make much more sense to look upon the functioning of the "cogs" and wheels in terms of overall support for a common enterprise than in our usual terms of obedience to superiors. If I obey the laws of the land, I actually support its constitution, as becomes glaringly obvious in the case of revolutionaries and rebels who disobey because they have withdrawn this tacit consent.

In these terms, the nonparticipators in public life under a dictatorship are those who have refused their support by shunning those places of "responsibility" where such support, under the name of obedience, is required. And we have only for a moment to imagine what would happen to any of these forms of government if enough people would act "irresponsibly" and refuse support, even without active resistance and rebellion, to see how effective a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many variations of nonviolent action and resistance -- for instance the power that is potential in civil disobedience -- which are being discovered in our century. The reason, however, that we can hold these new criminals, who never committed a crime out of their own initiative, nevertheless responsible for what they did is that there is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters. The only domain where the word could possibly apply to adults who are not slaves is the domain of religion, in which people say that they obey the word or the command of God because the relationship between God and man can rightly be seen in terms similar to the relation between adult and child.

Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders should never be, "Why did you obey?" but "Why did you support?" This change of words is no semantic irrelevancy for those who know the strange and powerful influence mere "words" have over the minds of men who, first of all, are speaking animals. Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word "obedience" from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of self-confidence and even pride, that is, regain what former times called the dignity or the honor of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.
I get some semblance of hope from that last passage in particular, to the extent that it sows some seeds for something new. In the meantime, we do have a rather entrenched power structure and an entrenched cultural Zeitgeist that make invisible many, many injustices.

Hypocrisy watch

GOP congress-lizards and pundits having once contended that the CIA was not forthcoming on that little matter of torture, have done a 180. My quick and dirty take:

1. Be wary of partisan posturing.

2. Never forget that both officially sanctioned US parties have very dirty hands with regard to torture (and yes, Pelosi still sucks).

3. An independent truth commission that leaves no stone unturned and takes no prisoners is long overdue (and that may be my understatement of the year).


I've been in the process of moving the archives of both old blogs to the new blogging home. That process should be complete by week's end. To be honest, right now I just don't have a lot of stamina. Also stay on the lookout for some new guest bloggers at some point this summer. I'm hoping to take a few more breaks from here, while knowing that fresh material is always there to be found. My first three guest bloggers did some fantastic stuff during their stay. My emeritus guest blogger regrettably is no longer with us - although none of us knows entirely what happened, given his own rather tenuous health, we've assumed that he simply passed away. The other two have been more than busy with other projects, but of course they know that their contributions are welcome any time they wish.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Anywhere near UC Riverside on the 26th?

Looks like an interesting talk. H/t Adrienne Carey Hurley.

The roots of fascism: imperialism

I've been reading through Richard Seymour's recent book The Liberal Defence of Murder, which I strongly recommend. Here's one passage from his book that jumped out at me that should provide some food for thought, and which I think provides some continuity with some of the material that I have either written or referenced in the past:
...imperialism and fascism ... are in fact contiguous. The models for Nazi barbarism had been supplied not only by the bureaucratic institutions of European modernity - the workhouse, the prison, the barracks, the abbatoir - but also crucially by European imperialism. Enzo Traverso explains: 'The notion of "living space" was not a Nazi invention. It was simply the German version of a commonplace of European culture at the time of imperialism.' It 'stemmed from a vision of the extra-European worlds as a space to be colonised by biologically superior groups.' Similarly, the ideological justification for racial extermination had been prepared by European Social Darwinism, and the process had been practised in various ways in Tasmania, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. L. Frank Baum, for example, reporting on the Indian Wars, had written:
The whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians...better that they should die than live like teh miserable wretches that they are.
As Claudia Koonz points out, when the Nazis wanted to annul the legal protections of assimilated citizens, they appealed to analogies with American policy, hoping the Nazi racial codes would soon be as widely accepted as 'US immigration quotas, antimiscegenation laws, involuntary sterilisation programmes in twenty-eight states, and segregation in the Jim Crow south'. Adolf Hitler was himself full of admiration for Europe's colonial model - particularly the British role in India, which they had governed 'very well'. The Nazi Drang nach Osten was to repeat Britain's imperial successes:
It should be possible for us to control this region to the East with two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand men plus a cadre of good administrators. Let's learn from the English, who with two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand men in all, including fifty thousand soldiers, govern four-hundred-million Indians.
Or again: 'What India was for England, the territories of Russia will be for us.' It was for him, as for the British, a matter of Aryan supremacy. He wrote in Mein Kampf,
The Aryan races - often in absurdly small numbers - overthrow alien nations, and favoured by the numbers of people of lower grade, who are at their disposal to aid them, they proceed to develop, according to the special conditions for life in the acquired territories - fertility, climate, etc., the qualities of intellect and organisation which are dormant in them.
National Socialism also shared important characteristics with Germany's own colonial past:
both called for a racial order based on racial reproduction as the foundation of the state; both sought, at least in part, to replace the classic nation-state with a racial state; both implied the dissolution of the bourgeois family through the complete subordination of sexuality to racial purity; and both entailed an expansionist drive to reproduce this racial order elsewhere.
And of course, both involved genocide (in 1904, openly referred to as 'annihilation') in the pursuit of the race war. This connection was intuited by Hannah Arendt, who detected the basis for modern 'totalitarianism' in nineteenth century imperialism. (pp. 64-65)
Seymour goes on to briefly note that this particular nuance in Arendt's writing is often entirely ignored by those who've subsequently cited her work on totalitarianism.

Here's something I wrote back in late 2007 that seems relevant to what Seymour has written:
I'm just enough of a history buff to find this of interest - old Adolph Hitler had something of a love-hate thing going on with the US. Although initially prone to badmouth the US (for example see Mein Kampf), but the time of Zweites Buch, he'd become quite the fan of American pioneering of eugenics practices such as forced sterilization and US immigration law (which by the 1920s was pretty draconian). Of course that wasn't all. See Why Hitler Loved America:
In Hitler's view, the US had become a major power by 'ethnic cleansing' of the native inhabitants: he saw clearly that the US itself, which poses as a nation state, is in fact an Empire. It's just that the anninhilation of the indigenous inhabitants was so complete that we don't see the US as an Empire.

As Finkelstein has pointed out, Hitler's 'push for the East' was explicitly inspired by the American setttlers 'push for the West'. As Adam Tooze reveals in his superb Wages of Destruction, it's true that Hitler compared the Russians to Indians, but it's ALSO true that he compared them to AMERICAN Indians. As the Indians had been pushed off their lands and herded off to reservations, so the Russians (and Poles) would be herded off to super-concentration camps: i.e. neo-reservations, where, Hitler hoped, their numbers would be 'thinned' to the extent that Germans could easily rule them while using them as cheap labour.
Hat tip to Inteligentaindigena Indigenismo Novajoservo. Scroll down and you'll find out that Hitler used to refer to the Russians as "redskins."

And even if in Mein Kampf, Hitler comes off as sour toward the US, he still found plenty to inspire him - including none other than Teddy Roosevelt. At least one passage in Mein Kampf reads like an abridged version of Roosevelt's The Winning of the West, Volume One. I guess if you were an aspiring fascist dictator during the 1920s, what with ethnic cleansing, eugenics, reservations, etc., what was there not to love about the US?
There are clearly some common threads in the imperialist inclinations and actions under Hitler's Germany, England's colonization of India, and of course America's Manifest Destiny. We can see these same threads in action when looking at more recent colonization and ethnic cleansing programs - a few of which I tried to highlight last year.

The Dark Wraith sez:

You. Were. Warned.

Read the whole feckin' editorial.

Since I can't sleep

I was taking some of those stupid Facebook quizzes. My favorite was "what drug are you?" Turned out I'm heroin. Makes sense given some of my answers - I love the 1970s, Velvet Underground, prefer colors like gray or black, and would much rather be mostly left the fuck alone to chill. Not to worry I'd never actually use that shit - knew too many junkies in what seems to be another lifetime. It's an ugly addiction. Trust me - you're much better off living vicariously through William S. Burroughs' writings or Charlie Parker's later recordings.


I saw several clips of what is arguably one of my favorite songs from the 1980s over at BLCKDGRD. The first time I heard "Ceremony" was when it had been performed by New Order (the band that rose out of the ashes of Joy Division, in case one needed to know that), with former Ian Curtis bandmate Bernard Sumner handling the vocal chores. "Ceremony" seems to be making its way back into my consciousness for whatever reason. Just seems right.

Here are some more clips of New Order performing "Ceremony". They'll vary in quality a bit.

The first is from a live 1981 gig. The film and sound quality are a bit shitty, but there is something very appealing in its rawness.

Here's another 1981 clip - this one performed at the Ukranian National Home in NYC, 11-19-1981 - one stop on New Order's first US tour. The film and sound quality are both dramatically improved. The lyrics seem as much wept as they are sung. Quite a moving performance.

The final clip is from a 1984 performance - get past the cheesy tv show intro, and again you'll be treated to good sound and film quality.

Ceremony - lyric by Ian Curtis (7-15-1956 - 5-18-1980)

This is why events unnerve me
They find it all, a different story
Notice whom for wheels are turning
Turn again and turn towards this time
All she ask's the strength to hold me
Then again the same old story
Word will travel, oh so quickly
Travel first and lean towards this time

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it's got to be this time
Watching her, these things she said
The times she cried
Too frail to wake this time

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it's got to be this time
Avenues all lined with trees
Picture me and then you start watching
Watching forever, forever
Watching love grow, forever
Letting me know, forever

"They came first for..."

The picture comes from a Holocaust Memorial in Boston, courtesy of Svetlana Miljkovic who kindly put this picture in the public domain.

I've seen variations of Pastor Martin Niemöller's poem. The following is most consistent with the image above:
In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me —
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
There is much to be read out of that poem, including a rather important idea: tyranny thrives whenever individuals are apathetic. Somehow, during one of the most recent accusations hurled at me for being allegedly "pro-Islamist" (and deserving to be blacklisted from the academy) Niemöller's poem immediately sprang to mind. Although some will take issue with a poem describing the Nazi brand of tyranny in the context of early 21st century American society, I would merely retort to think critically about the level of apathy at so many levels of our culture, including (perhaps especially so) among our so-called intellectuals. So few would speak out when the Bush II regime was deporting or rounding up people of Arab descent in the aftermath of September 11, because they were not Arab, were not Muslim, and quite frankly plain did not give a flying fuck. When fascist elements in the US accuse those who insist on an apparently rather radical concept - that instead of bombing families in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or wherever; that instead of imprisoning alleged "enemy combatants" for life sentences including heavy doses of torture; that instead of blackballing those who are Muslim (whether of Arab or central Asian descent or elsewhere around the globe) - of treating the billion-plus Muslims on the planet as human beings of being "pro-Islamist", who is there to speak out and debunk such nonsense? To what extent are you willing to risk the day when there will be no one left to speak on your behalf? What can you do today to prevent that day from ever coming?

File under change you can believe in

Ever heard about those Black Shirts of Guantánamo under the Bush II regime? You'll be just delighted to know that they continue to operate now that the Pope of Hope runs the show. I'm sure the goon squads torture very "progressively" now, though.

(h/t Green Left Infoasis)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Absolute Must-Reading

The Four Torture Memos, Eichmann, and the Obama Administration, Part III.


I was just looking at my jazz calendar and noticed two heavyweights in the jazz world celebrate birthdays today: bassist Cecil McBee, who turns 74 and saxophonist/flautist Sonny Fortune, who turns 70. Fortune I know of more from his work as part of Miles Davis' band around 1974-1975 - but he also has a considerable catalog of recordings as a leader. McBee's work I know primarily via his album Mutima (worth seeking out) and of course his work as a sideman for Pharoah Sanders (on a number of sessions during the early 1970s), Alice Coltrane, Grachan Moncur III, Jackie McLean, Sam Rivers, Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim, on his wonderful album African Space Program), Wayne Shorter and Leon Thomas.

Hopefully both men celebrate their respective birthdays with the knowledge that they have created one hell of a legacy.

Defending Sonic Youth

Well, they're still pretty damned sonic, but youth? Not so much (then again, I'm not so young either). Still, I like what this blogger says:
In the context of commercial music under capitalism, with its institutional disdain for the things people care about, for families and communities, with co-optation ongoing and inevitable--given this context, isn't much of what Sonic Youth does exactly the kind of thing we need? For one thing, of course, they actually play music. They are not just spectators, as so many of us are (myself especially). And they are a cohesive unit and a family. They pay due respect to a certain tradition, one that matters to them, and are generous with younger musicians and artists. Isn't the Left supposed to value such common efforts and communal activity? Isn't expecting "culture" to somehow transcend itself and deliver the future a bit much to ask of it, on its own?
H/t BLCKDGRD. You know those cats have been around when I'm digging up my old Sonic Youth cds so my son can put them on his iPod, that and I'm thinking the boy is actually digging on their late-career work quite a bit. They're not "big stars" but they do okay, and they periodically do cool things like introduce their audience to folks like David S. Ware and Arthur Doyle (the former a relatively accessible free jazzer, the latter simply is too wild to categorize). All that aside, the bits about family and community are ones that should be repeated - clearly there's a model in how these cats work and live that could give some clues as to how a left in the US could function. Hint, a "left" that stares longingly at its posters of its "American Idol" in the White House ain't exactly all that functional or useful.

One can only hope the Tillman family finds some justice

Until then, let's keep the story front and center.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The state budget won't be a complete disaster

Oklahoma's budget situation could have been a lot worse. I won't go as far as saying that "Obama rescued us," but some of the few good things that came out of the stimulus legislation earlier this year should be noted. One of the bottom lines for this state will be an increase in education funding (apparently 2%) - both at the K-12 and higher ed levels. These folks were bracing for budget cuts, and understandably so given the state's increasingly hostile stance toward its educators and the institutions that serve children and adult learners. Other state agencies are bracing for 7% cuts - which will be really bad for those who most vulnerable in Oklahoma. That it could have been worse is a rather disquieting thought indeed.

By the way, Dochoc's blog also makes mention of a fact that rarely gets acknowledge in all the tough talk from the teabaggers, right-wing legislators, or the state's "news" media: Oklahoma receives $1.48 for every dollar paid in Federal taxes. That's right: the state is basically a leach on the Federal budget. I suspect much of that is self-inflicted - with the state's anti-intellectual climate, it is difficult to attract and retain the sorts of people and organizations that could help the state flourish economically and culturally.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A follow-up to January 27th as Holocaust Memorial Day

As a follow-up to my brief post this past January on Holocaust Memorial Day, so named as it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, I thought it would be useful to make note of some of the other camps that would be liberated later in the spring of 1945:
Buchenwald by the Americans on April 11; Bergen-Belsen by the British on April 15; Dachau by the Americans on April 29; Ravensbrück by the Soviets on the same day; Mauthausen by the Americans on May 5; and Theresienstadt by the Soviets on May 8.
From what I recall, my dad remembers when newsreel footage of the liberated extermination and concentration camps was shown at his community's local movie theater, and still remembers the sense of overwhelming shock at what the footage was showing. There was a sense, from what I gathered, that the Nazis were in the process of committing genocide, but what wasn't quite clear until the liberations and the aftermath was just how bad it really was. It is still a relatively regular occurrence for me to encounter folks who lost relatives to the Holocaust - these days mainly grandparents and great uncles and aunts. Of course it bears repeating that in addition to the raw number of deaths (estimates vary from 11-17 million when Jews, Slavs, Poles, Roma, physically disabled, mentally ill, gay, and political opponents to Nazism are included), but also the sheer volume of mass human displacement and social death that were inflicted.

If one ever wonders why I tend to vehemently oppose eliminationist rhetoric - which is replete with the dehumanization of eliminationists' intended victims, along with the demonization of those deemed political or cultural enemies - one need only understand that I've been influenced by too many personal stories from the victims of genocide and/or their extended families, as well as more books on the topic than I would care to list. What I've learned is that it is crucial to remain aware of the psychological and social conditions that invite the occurrence of genocides, whether within a nation's borders or as a consequence of the process of colonization or warfare. Suffice it to say, I don't suffer genocide deniers glady.

Follow up to "Just when I thought I'd seen it all"

Since I had already mentioned a bit of my disgust with regard to a website that glorifies the genocidal Pol Pot regime, I would be remiss if I did not make mention that this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime:

On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese troops seized the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, toppling the brutal regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 after years of guerrilla warfare and ruthlessly imposed an extremist programme to reconstruct Cambodia on the communist model of Mao’s China – creating “Year Zero”.

All political and civil rights had been abolished. Children were taken from their parents and placed in forced labour camps. Factories, schools and universities were shut down, as were hospitals. Lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field were murdered, together with their extended families.

Religion was banned, so were music and radio sets. It was possible for people to be shot simply for knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses, laughing, or crying. One Khmer slogan ran “To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss.”

Civilian deaths in this period, from executions, disease, exhaustion and starvation, have been estimated at well over 2 million.

The good folks at the Holocaust Memorial Trust Fund have offered up some resources about the Cambodia genocide. Among other things, this jumped out at me:
Also targeted were minority groups, victims of the Khmer Rouge’s racism. These included ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, and also Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry. Half the Cham Muslim population was murdered, as were 8,000 Christians. Buddhism was eliminated from the country and by 1977 there were no functioning monasteries left in Cambodia.
If Pol Pot were running the show today, all he'd have to do is refer to those who were Cham Muslim (and any intellectual who dared defend their right to worship as they choose) as "Islamist" or "Pro-Islamist". You should also read the accounts from eyewitnesses who were there for the atrocities - for example, Ranachith (Ronnie) Yimsut and Sophal Leng Stagg. As mentioned before, since I have had friends who immigrated from Cambodia to escape that particular holocaust, the stories have an air of familiarity to them for me. Of course that is not something that would stop me from reading these accounts or from listening to any other survivors whom I may yet encounter.

An estimated two million people died during Pol Pot's reign of terror. The slogan used by those who keep the memory of the Nazi Holocaust (or Shoah) alive applies with regard to the Khmer Rouge-induced genocide as well: never forget.

Things you should know

Steven D sez (h/t Avedon):
"Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" was originally a term coined by the (wait for it) Gestapo. Something to consider when you hear someone (typically a Republican politician) using that term as a substitute for torture.
Torture has long-term harmful psychological consequences - now there's a statement that should not have to be repeated. Nor should the usual lame ego defense mechanisms (whether on the individual or national level) be accepted. (h/t BLCKDGRD).

Pelosi may be a joke (a very sick joke at that), but that shouldn't stop belated efforts to form a truth commission on torture. Personally, I like Raimondo's idea regarding the composition of such a truth commission: make it truly independent by keeping it out of the hands of Congress (since we don't know how many of those folks have dirty hands themselves) and put it into the hands of professional researchers and investigators, and competent academicians. Hold public hearings. I'd go further and strongly recommend keeping the commission out of the hands of the White House (for what should now be very obvious reasons).