Trenchant Lemmings
"Arrive in a clown car, bursting with anger."
Robert Weaver
Sydney, Australia
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The weblog description is a misquotation from Steve Aylett's Indicted to a Party: What to Do, Who to Blame.
The weblog title links to the "No Country Redirect" version, for whatever that might be worth.
January 31, 2011

Pepe "Pipelineistan" Escobar gets clamorous at Asia Times Online:

Islamophobes of the world, shut up and listen to the sound of people power. Your artificial Middle East dichotomy - it's either "our" dictators or jihadism - was never more than a cheap trick. Political repression, mass unemployment and rising food prices are more lethal than an army of suicide bombers. This is the actual way history is written; a country of 80 million - two-thirds of which born after their dictator came to power in 1981, and no less than the heart of the Arab world - finally shatters the Wall of Fear and crosses to the side of self-respect.

Egypt's neo-Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak threw a curfew; people never left the streets. The police dissolved; citizens themselves organized for security. The tanks rolled in; people kept singing "hand in hand, the army and people are together". This is no think-tank-engineered color revolution, this is not regimented Islamists; this is average Egyptians bearing the national flag, "together, as individuals, in a great co-operative effort to reclaim our country", in the words of Egyptian Nobel prize-winning novelist Ahdaf Soueif.
Via Nana Levu commenting at Larvatus Prodeo, where some are taking a moment to whimper about the Muslim Brotherhood.

January 30, 2011
Limited Options

This week's "well, exactly" come from Middle East Report Online:

Amidst the hand wringing in the mainstream media over Obama's "limited options" in Egypt, through whose Suez Canal cruise oil tankers and the warships of the US Fifth Fleet, the truth is that the entire debate over democracy promotion in the Arab world and greater Middle East has been one long, bitterly unfunny joke. The issue has never been whether the US should promote democracy; it has been when the US will stop trying to suppress it. The bargains with tyrants lay a "commitment trap" for Washington, which must solemnly swear allegiance to each strongman lest others in the club have second thoughts about holding up their end. The despots, in turn, assume that the Marines or their equivalents will swoop in to the rescue if need be. Most, like Ben Ali, are mistaken, if nothing else because an ambitious underling is often waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, just as Iranians have not forgotten the Carter administration's eleventh-hour loyalty to the Shah some 32 years later, neither will Pakistanis soon forgive the US for standing by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans wondered why their country had been targeted. Many, of course, settled upon the solipsistic, emotionally comforting explanation that "they hate us for our values" or resorted to conspiracy theory about Islam and world conquest. Saner sorts looked to the US history of support for Israel in its colonization of Palestine or coziness with certain kingdoms sitting atop vast pools of petroleum. But these factors have never been the whole answer. All who continue to wonder about the rest should ponder this day, January 28, 2011. The words of Obama and his chorus of apologists say it all: When it comes to the aspirations of ordinary Arabs for genuinely participatory politics and true self-determination, those vaunted American values are suspended, even when "special relationships" and hydrocarbon riches are not directly at issue. And the anti-democratic sentiment is bipartisan: On this question, there is less than a dime’s worth of difference between "progressive" Democrats and Republican xenophobes, between pinstriped State Department Arabists and flannel-clad Christian fundamentalists, between oil-first "realists" and Israel-first neo-conservatives. There is none.
Via Mr Loewenstein.

January 29, 2011
Meet Cute

From Peter Pomerantsev at the LRB blog:

This is how they met. He was alone and bored at his post, a little brick hut high in the Caucasus. It was night and he was drunk. He wanted to find a girl away from the front. He looked down at the serial number on his gun. Just for the hell of it he took out his phone and dialled the Moscow area code followed by the serial number. A sleepy girl answered.

'Who is this?'

He told her. She slammed down the phone.

'I just liked her voice,' he said. 'So I kept on phoning.'

He called every day. Slowly she caved in. They sent each other photos of themselves on their mobiles. Two weeks before our shoot he had some leave and came to visit her. She was from a traditional family from the Caucasus, and he asked her father’s permission to marry her. He agreed. Now they both wore rings. The wedding was planned for when he returned from the Chechen front in six months time.
Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how this story ended.

(And, yes, I'm being more than usually irrelevant.)

January 24, 2011

Mr Denmore commenting at Larvatus Prodeo:

Political journalists hate numbers (generally) because numbers provide proportion and sometimes that can ruin the story. The pink batts saga, that Possum so brilliantly deconstructed, was a prime example.
So innumeracy is like anonymity in that respect.

(Link to Possum piece added by me.)

January 19, 2011

From some tangential historical background in an article about the War-on-Terror gulag, by JoAnn Wypijewski for the latest subscriber edition of Counterpunch:

In photographs, those [World War 2] POWs are always bareheaded, facing the camera, in shirt-sleeves, often picking crops or felling trees, or standing in groups in a gymnasium. Back in the 1990s I came upon a plaque in Aliceville, Alabama, touting the arrival of the German prisoners there as the impetus for a sports arena and playing field, a theater, bakery, and other appurtenances of bustling society. A museum displays specimens of the Germans’ pottery, mementos of their productions of Faust, their concert performances of Wagner and Beethoven, their newspaper, Der Zaungast.
Literally "fence guest", zaungast refers to people who watch concerts and shows for free by peeking over the wall around the venue. By extension it means those who observe situations over which they can have no possible influence. Which is to say, the Germans have a word for everything.

January 14, 2011
Primordial Debt

An alternative explanation is primordial-debt theory, a school of thought developed largely in France by economists, anthropologists, historians, and classicists; its foundational text is Michel Aglietta and André Orléan’s La Violence de la Monnaie (1992). Adherents insist that monetary policy cannot be separated from social policy, that the two have always been intertwined. Governments use taxes to create money, which they are able to do because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself.

At first, the argument goes, this sense of debt was expressed not through the state, but through religion. The hymns, prayers, and poetry collected in the Vedas and the Brahmanas, the foundations of Hindu thought, constitute the earliest-known reflections on the nature of debt, which they treat as synonymous with guilt and sin. According to the commentators of the Brahmanas, human existence is itself a form of debt: A man, being born, is a debt; he is born to death, and only by way of sacrifice does he redeem himself from death. Two famous passages in the Brahmanas insist that we are born as a debt not just to the gods (to be repaid in sacrifice) but also to the sages who created the Vedic learning (to be repaid through study), to our ancestors (to be repaid by having children), and, finally, to the whole of humanity (to be repaid with hospitality to strangers).

The first explicit theory of the debt owed by each living person to the society that makes his or her existence possible was formulated by Auguste Comte in his last work, The Catechism of Positive Religion (1852)...

Comte doesn’t use the word debt, but it is clear what he means: We have already accumulated endless debts before we get to the age at which we can even think of paying them. And by that time there’s no way even to calculate to whom we owe them. The only way to redeem ourselves is to be dedicated to the service of humanity.

Comte’s notion of an unlimited obligation to society crystallized in the notion of social debt, which was taken up among social reformers and, eventually, socialist politicians in many parts of Europe and abroad. In France the notion of a social debt soon became something of a catchphrase, a slogan — and, eventually, a cliché: “We are all born as debtors to society.” The state, according to this view, was merely the administrator of the existential debt that everyone owes to everyone.

Theories of existential debt always end up justifying — or laying claim to — structures of authority. What we really have in the idea of primordial debt is the ultimate nationalist myth. Once we owed our lives to the gods who created us, paid them interest in the form of animal sacrifice, and, ultimately, paid back the principal with our lives. Now we owe our lives to the nation that formed us, pay interest in the form of taxes, and, when it comes time to defend the nation against its enemies, pay back the principal with our lives. This is a great trap of the twentieth century: On the one side is the logic of the market, which insists that we don’t owe one another anything. On the other is the logic of the state, which insists that we are born with a debt we can never truly pay. In fact, the dichotomy is false. States created markets, markets require states, and neither could continue without the other.
From "To Have Is To Owe" by David Graeber at Triple Canopy.

January 07, 2011
Failure to Communicate

Patrick Cockburn at Counterpunch on how Wikileaks has done April Glaspie, former US ambassador to Iraq, a favour:

Transcripts of varying levels of credibility have been released over the years, but this week WikiLeaks published Glaspie's cable to the US State Department reporting her discussion with Saddam. What comes shining through is that the Iraqi leader never made clear that he was thinking of annexing the emirate as Iraq's 19th province. Notorious though he was for his bloodcurdling and exaggerated threats, for once he was not threatening enough. Everybody suspected he was conducting a heavy-handed diplomatic offensive to squeeze concessions, financial and possibly territorial, out of the Kuwaitis. Almost nobody predicted a full-scale invasion and occupation of Kuwait, in large part because this was an amazingly foolish move by Saddam, bound to provoke a backlash far beyond Iraq's power to resist.

I have always sympathized with diplomats and intelligence agents unfairly pilloried for failing to foresee that a country, about which they claim expert knowledge, is going to commit some act of stupidity much against its own interests.

History is full of examples of experts being dumbfounded by countries acting contrary to their own best interests. Stalin is often denigrated for disbelieving Soviet spies who told him that the German army was going to invade the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. No doubt his paranoid suspicion that Britain was trying to lure him into a war with Hitler played a role. But another factor was that Stalin simply did not believe that Hitler would commit such a gross error as attacking him before finishing off Britain and thus start a war on two fronts, something that the Nazi regime had previously taken great pains to avoid.

A more recent example of a country's leaders blindly shooting themselves in the foot was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. I had been spending a lot of time in Iraq and was in Jordan when it happened. I had seen repeated Israeli incursions into Lebanon fail bloodily in the years since 1978. I could not believe the Israeli military were once again going to try their old discredited tactic of mass bombardment and limited ground assault in a bid to intimidate the world's toughest guerrillas.

Israelis tend to be more cynical about the abilities of their own military commanders than the rest of the world and, looking at the Israeli chief of staff on television, I thought of the old Israeli saying: "He was so stupid that even the other generals noticed." Even so, I could not rid myself of the idea that the Israelis must have something new up their sleeve. I was quite wrong and the war was a humiliating failure for Israel.

In Saddam's case it would be wrong to think of him as a stupid, though he had an exaggerated idea of his own abilities and place in history. He was a cunning, ruthless man who knew everything about Iraqi politics and how to manipulate or eliminate his rivals. Outside Iraq he was far less sure-footed, having spent little time abroad, and disastrously overplayed his hand by invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait 10 years later.
Dang. I guess I'll have to finally let go of this little fantasy scene, then.
Saddam: I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell, George, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics. You know I'm a drilling man. I like to tap the black gold. And I figure I got a right to expect that I can sip the dinosaur wine under my own patch. But every time I strike a field layin' a part under those sonofabitch Kuwaitis, before I know it the damn thing's dry. The Kuwaitis are draining it from their end. They know where I'm goin' to drill and they get to the field first. The point is, they ain't satisfied with the honest dollar they can make off their share. They ain't satisfied with the business I do with them or with the money I spent kicking the Iranians for 'em. They’re draining my fields, and blockin' my access to the Gulf, and that means part of the payoff that should be ridin' on my hip is ridin' on someone else's. So back we go to these questions - friendship, character, ethics. So it’s clear what I'm sayin'?

George H W Bush: As mud.

Saddam: It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from resource extraction. Now if you can't trust that, what can you trust? For a good return you gotta go with a mixed economy, and then you're back with anarchy. Right back inna jungle. On account of the breakdown of ethics. That's why ethics is important. It's the grease makes us get along, what separates us from the animals, beasts a burden, beasts a prey. Ethics. Whereas the Kuwaitis are a horse of a different color ethics-wise. As in, they ain't got any.

H W: You sure it's them, ripping you off?

Tariq Aziz: It ain't elves.

H W: Nobody else knows about the fields?

Saddam: No one that ain't got ethics.

H W: What about the geologists you pay to sniff 'em out?

Tariq Aziz: We only pick geologists we can put the fear of God in.


H W: So you wanna invade.

Tariq Aziz: For starters.

H W: Sorry, Saddam. Kuwait pays me for protection.

Saddam: Listen, George, I ain't askin' for permission. I'm tellin' you as a courtesy. I need to do this thing, so it's gonna get done.

H W: Then I'm telling you as a courtesy that you'll have trouble. You came here to see if I'd kick if you annexed Kuwait. Well, there's your answer.

Saddam: Listen, George, I pay off to you every month like a greengrocer - a lot more than those playboy princes-

H W: You pay for protection, just like everyone else. Far as I know - and what I don't know in this town ain't worth knowing - the Congress haven't closed down your arms deals and the UN hasn't sanctioned you for gassin' Kurds. You haven't bought any license to conquer medieval statelets and today I ain't selling any. Now take your flunky and dangle.

Saddam: You think I'm some raghead fresh outta the dunes and you think you can kick me! But I'm too big for that now! I'm sick of takin' the strap from you, George! I'm sick a marchin' down to this goddamn office to kiss your scrawny New England ass and I'M SICK A THE HIGH HAT! (At door.) Youse fancypants, all of yer.

H W: Saddam, you're exactly as big as I let you be and no bigger and don't forget it. Ever.

Saddam: 'Ats right, George, you're the big-shot around here and I'm just some schnook likes to get slapped around.

January 05, 2011

Via Antony Loewenstein, Newsweek helpfully explains why American journalists are such craven lickspittles. Judging by the comments thread (which seems, happily, to contain as many skeptical Americans as other nationalities), Mr Loewenstein isn't the only person intrigued by the grotesque insularity and self-delusion evidenced in this choice quote:

American journalists, unlike many of their foreign counterparts, have a strong commitment to objectivity and nonpartisanship.
What's sad is the person who wrote that was almost certainly stating their honest belief.

Zonage à l’Américaine

From Luc Sante's review of The Invention of Paris, in the New York Review of Books:

A less visible, more insidious form of social control practiced in the 1960s was the elimination of the ancient practice of mixité: “The same building would house shops on the ground floor — the shopkeeper living on the mezzanine — apartments for the aristocracy on the second storey (the ‘noble’ floor before the invention of the lift), and workers in the attics” — the theme of Zola’s novel Pot-Bouille. Under Malraux, Pompidou, and their minions, zonage à l’américaine — zoning by income — was ruinously introduced to the oldest parts of the city. The results of all these social-engineering strategies include high prices, a fetishistic but skin-deep style of historical preservation, an antiseptic street culture, the further polarization of classes, and the gradual strangling of vertical mobility. But contrary to the crêpe-hangers, Hazan knows that even the ensemble of these factors cannot kill a city that is open to change, and that Paris can be redeemed by expansion, both cultural and geographic:
The tacit understanding with past generations is beginning to be renewed, and another “new Paris” is taking shape…. It is leaving the west of the city to advertising executives and oil tycoons, and pressing as always towards the north and east…. It is spilling over the line of hills from Montmartre to Charonne, crossing the terrible barrier of the Boulevard Périphérique…and stretching towards what is already de facto the twenty-first arrondissement, towards Pantin, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, Bagnolet, Montreuil….
In order for its vitality to endure, that is, Paris must incorporate the banlieues and their inhabitants, just as in previous centuries it had knocked down its walls and taken in the masses crowded outside them.
(In French cuisine, à l’Américaine refers to cooking with a spicy tomato sauce. The phrase is also used in cinema criticism, meaning what you'd expect, and apparently was also a term of art in French brothels, though for what I'm not entirely keen to check.)

January 04, 2011
Pete Postlethwaite 1946-2010

And just last week I was remarking how often I would find myself thinking "Pete Postlethwaite? Why on Earth would they cast him in a role like this?" and then watching for a while and saying to myself "Ah. That's why."

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