Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Yo Yo Yo

This shit has MOVED, yo.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Meanwhile in Iran...

Two stories from the Guardian:

Jailed Iran reformists 'tortured to confess foreign plot'

Jailed Iranian reformists are believed to have been tortured in an attempt to force them into TV "confessions" of a foreign-led plot against the Islamic regime.

According to Iranian websites, the "confessions" are aimed at implicating Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the defeated reformist candidates in this month's presidential poll, in an alleged conspiracy.

Neda Soltan's family 'forced out of home' by Iranian authorities

Soltan was shot dead on Saturday evening near the scene of clashes between pro-government militias and demonstrators, turning her into a symbol of the Iranian protest movement. Barack Obama spoke of the "searing image" of Soltan's dying moments at his press conference yesterday.

Amid scenes of grief in the Soltan household with her father and mother screaming, neighbours not only from their building but from others in the area streamed out to protest at her death. But the police moved in quickly to quell any public displays of grief. They arrived as soon as they found out that a friend of Soltan had come to the family flat.

In accordance with Persian tradition, the family had put up a mourning announcement and attached a black banner to the building.

But the police took them down, refusing to allow the family to show any signs of mourning. The next day they were ordered to move out. Since then, neighbours have received suspicious calls warning them not to discuss her death with anyone and not to make any protest.

A tearful middle-aged woman who was an immediate neighbour said her family had not slept for days because of the oppressive presence of the Basij militia, out in force in the area harassing people since Soltan's death.

OMFG times Infinity

He was Michael Jackson, for God's sake. All the weirdness/accusations of child molestation aside, the guy was (at one time) a freaking genius as far as pop music goes.

Perhaps it's better this way. We can remember him for his early music, and remember him as he looked before he became a perpetual carnival. Keep in mind he was the son of an abusive religious whacko, and he's been one of the most famous persons on the planet since he was a little kid. He never had a chance.

Anyway, rest in peace. Back to draft rumors and hockey operations (we shall throw back many an MJ toast tomorrow at TJ's). Any "haw haw little boys eye caint sepurate uh persin frum hiz art" comments will be deleted, so don't fucking bother.

UPDATE: As usual, Wonkette knows how to deal with these delicate situations.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Decay of Language, Decay of Society

Reading my usual late morning Greenwald today, I came across this, from a column by NPR ombudsman Alicia C. Shepherd:

How should NPR describe the tactics used to coerce information out of terrorism suspects?
Ted Koppel, the former ABC Nightline host and commentator on Talk of the Nation, said in May that the U.S. should "define it [torture] as being any technique or practice which, when applied to an American prisoner in some other country or captured by some other entity, that we would object to. If we object to it being done to an American, then I think it's torture."
That seems clear enough, but the problem is that the word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed.

NPR is part of the "liberal" media, mind you.

Greenwald does a better job of dismantling this representative idiot (representative of our toothless and banal American journalism) than I ever could, but once again we must note the utter disregard for clear, precise, concrete language meant to illuminate and describe reality, not bury it in a cloud of abstractions and contemporary newsroom jargon. Which is exactly what Shepherd does here.

OF COURSE the word "torture" is "loaded with political and social implications." How could it be otherwise when TORTURE ITSELF is loaded with awful moral implications that by their nature become political and social implications? People like Shepherd have forgotten--or perhaps they never learned, given the robotic courses in American journalism schools that teach future writers to be nothing more than courtiers and stenographers--that writers of any kind, journalist or otherwise, should strive to make their words correspond to the things they describe.

The word "torture" comes from the Latin "torquere," which means twisting, turning, wringing, writhing, bending something out of its natural shape. The implication is plain. In torture the human body is coerced into unnatural, painful shapes and conditions. Originally most torture was literally a forced contortion--twisting and wringing--of the body. But human ingenuity has invented countless other ways to break the human body, to force it into misery, always for some Great Cause or another.

The United States military has been using plenty of those techniques for a while now, and it's unclear how far the Obama administration is going to go towards enforcing the prohibitions on them that the U.S. agreed to in the Geneva Conventions and in its own Constitution, not to mention the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Using the word "torture," with its vivid historical associations, to describe what the United States military did in this past decade is a simple recognition of reality. The recognition of this reality very well SHOULD set off a torrent of political and social reactions, because the act of torture--the act of one person forcing the body of another into agonized conditions, sometimes resulting in the destruction of said body--is an act fraught with meaning.

This is but one symptom of the current disease of American journalism. The Washington Post's firing of Dan Froomkin (damn liberal media again) is another. It's worth noting, I think, that Froomkin was a clear, passionate, and talented writer as well as a crusader for accountability and for making truth public. Froomkin's columns and blog posts were clear and precise--his words were intended to describe and illumine, not to obscure or sanitize--and he had a distinctive, characterful voice all his own.

It's precisely these two qualities that current American journalism fears and punishes: the use of language to describe and not sanitize or hide reality AND a certain panache and individuality in the journalist's voice and tone. Froomkin himself has been excellent on this subject:

If we were to start an online newspaper from scratch today, we’d recognize that toneless, small-bore news stories are not the way to build a large audience — not even with “interactive” bells and whistles cobbled on top. One option might be to imitate cable TV, and engage in a furious volume of he-said/she-said reporting, voyeurism, contrarianism, gossip, triviality and gotcha journalism. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.

Obviously, we do some of that already. But I would argue that even then, we do so in a much too understated way. We stifle some of our best stories with a wet blanket of pseudo-neutrality. We edit out tone. We banish anything smacking of activism. We don’t telegraph our own enthusiasm for what it is we’re doing. We vaguely assume the readers will understand how valuable a service we’re providing for them — but evidently, many of them don’t.

There has always been hack journalism, power-worshipping journalism, and timid and conformist journalism. But there is a wide and rich tradition of journalists who meet Froomkin's requirements, who DON'T write in a banal, colorless, watered-tone style meant to hide reality from the reader. In the days of William Cobbett and William Hazlitt, and in the days of James Huneker and H.L. Mencken, then in the days of I.F. Stone and Murray Kempton (feel free to think of your own examples; they are endless) the journalist conceived of himself as a kind of modern-day knight. A drink-sodden knight, possibly, or one who lived an unconventional life in times when the culture of newspapers wasn't the sterile corporate Disneyland it is today, but a crusader for uncovering hidden truths and exploring the real, then setting it down in idiosyncratic but plain and forthright language.

Can we imagine such journalists today? Do we, the citizens of a decadent society whose mind grows softer and more complacent by the day, even deserve them?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Civil war at the very top of the Islamic Republic"

Excellent Pepe Escobar piece from Asia Times Online presenting the Tehran Spring (evocative phrase) as more or less fueled by a civil war within the Iranian elite.

This is emerging as a no-holds-barred civil war at the very top of the Islamic Republic. The undisputed elite is now supposed to be embodied by the Ahmadinejad faction, the IRGC, the intelligence apparatus, the Ministry of the Interior, the Basij volunteer militias, and most of all the Supreme Leader himself.

The elite wants subdued, muzzled, if not destroyed, reformists of all strands: any relatively moderate cleric; the late 1970s clerical/technocratic Revolution Old Guard (which includes Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Mousavi); "globalized" students; urban, educated women; and the urban intelligentsia.

Even fighting a cascade of political and economic setbacks, for the past three decades the regime has always been proud of the Islamic Republic's brand of popular democracy, and its alleged legitimacy. Now the revolution enters completely uncharted territory as thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest against the result.

Think Chile in 1973, or Iran in 1953.

Read the whole thing. It's much more informative than anything US commentators are spewing. But, in contrast to other things I've read, it now looks indisputable that, whoever won, it was a highly shady election:

The official breakdown of the vote had Ahmadinejad taking Tehran by over 50%. He may be popular in the rural provinces and in parts of working-class south Tehran, but not even "divine assessment" could be expected to give him more than 30% in the capital.

Ahmadinejad won in the big city of Tabriz. Tabriz is in Azerbaijan. Mousavi is Azeri. Azeris are an ultra-tight ethnic group, they vote for one of their own. The notion that Mousavi was beaten, four to one, in his home ground borders on fiction.


"Landslide" apart, a true Ahmadinejad victory would not be implausible. He could have reasonably scored something like 48%, for instance, ahead of Mousavi, and both would square off in a second round of voting. Ahmadinejad visited every Iranian province at least twice in these past four years. Deep, rural Iran has nothing to do with upscale north Tehran.


Ahmadinejad turned the election into a referendum on the whole idea of the Islamic revolution. He literally enveloped himself in the flag - a crowd pleaser in a very religious and nationalistic country.

Mousavi had the urban youth vote, the urban, educated female vote, the intelligentsia vote, the upper middle class, globalized vote, and even the bazaar vote. But that was not enough. In the showdown between SMS and Facebook and the poor, rural and working-class masses - many of whom have a lot of empathy with the pious son of a blacksmith - it's fair to assume he could be the winner. But not in a landslide. Khatami had a real landslide in 2001, when he got no less than 78% of the vote (after 70% in 1997). The notion that an over 70% reformist impulse has been transformed over these past few years into a 62% ultra-right wing fervor is questionable

It's so refreshing to read a piece rooted in the actual realities of the country and the election. Amazing what seeking knowledge and refraining from hysterical moralizing will do.

To somewhat summarize: What's happening in Tehran is not an example of an already monolithic regime tightening its grip; rather it's an example of a right-wing military coup in a quasi-democratic system, solidifying the power of the most authoritarian element in a hardly-uniform government.

This has nothing to do with the US-supported color-coded revolutions in Eurasia. This is about Iran. An election was stolen in the United States in 2000 and Americans didn't do a thing about it. Iranians are willing to die to have their votes counted.

How did that Rockwell featuring Michael Jackson song go again?

The other day, Dennis Perrin made clear some important differences between Iran and the United States. I would like to point out one more.

In Iran, reformist forces are occupying public spaces and refuse to stop protesting the government's abuses and tyrannies.

In the US, the officially "reformist" forces (read: the Hope n' Change Brigade) are dozing supinely as the government spies on them.

Since April, when it was disclosed that the intercepts of some private communications of Americans went beyond legal limits in late 2008 and early 2009, several Congressional committees have been investigating.

Going beyond legal limits here seems to mean spying on a huge number of American phone calls and e-mails, domestic and international. Awesome.

As always, Glenn Greenwald knows the score:

Every time new revelations of illegal government spying arise, the same exact pattern repeats itself: (1) euphemisms are invented to obscure its illegality ("overcollection"; "circumvented legal guidelines"; "overstepped its authority"; "improperly obtained"); (2) assurances are issued that it was all strictly unintentional and caused by innocent procedural errors that are now being fixed; (3) the very same members of Congress who abdicate their oversight responsibilities and endlessly endorse expanded surveillance powers in the face of warnings of inevitable abuses (Jay Rockefeller, Dianne Feinstein, "Kit" Bond, Jane Harman) righteously announce how "troubled" they are and vow to hold hearings and take steps to end the abuses, none of which ever materialize; (4) nobody is ever held accountable in any way and no new oversight mechanisms are implemented; (5) Congress endorses new, expanded domestic surveillance powers; and then: (6) new revelations of illegal government spying emerge and the process repeats itself, beginning with step (1).


Shall we review?

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Ah, the days when people still had papers!

UPDATE: Watch this jaw-dropping, but sadly not surprising, exchange between Attorney General Eric Holder and Russ Feingold, one of the few honorable Democrats still resisting unconstitutional security measures. Holder's evasive and tepid language is a perfect example of how our leaders like to wiggle out of forthrightly repudiating executive power.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

And On the Other Hand...

More and more evidence is appearing to suggest that Ahmadinejad did, in fact, win the election.

Sucks, but proven fuckwits win elections all the time. I'm still on the side of the rebelling students and other reformers, though; the fact that they're probably not quite a majority lends even more integrity to their arguments and more courage to their actions. Their day will come.

I wish them the best and know that Iran's huge under-30 population will eventually inherit the government and reform the country for the better, but let me say this: Americans and other outsiders should really stop their clamoring for intervention. Moral outrage over things like this, if you're an outsider who isn't remotely affected by anything unfolding on the ground, is cheaply come by and morally worthless. No one helps the cause of Iranian liberal reformers through self-righteous delusions about the virtues and capacities of American power.

Especially given our history vis-a-vis that country: the toppling of actual election-winner and actual decent reformist Mossadegh, the support for the Shah and his secret police which led directly to Khomeini's Islamic Revolution and all the insanity that went with it, only for us to turn around and send money to the mullahs during a brief period when the Reagan Administration favored them over usual good guy Saddam Hussein in the horrific Iran-Iraq War, and finally all the idiotic saber-rattling of the Bush-Cheney years, which is what spooked the ayatollahs and led them to put Ahmadinejad in power in the first place...

The green reformers will have their day.

Marjane Satrapi Says Election Was Stolen

It's interesting that there are so many wildly different claims being flung about as to how much of the vote Mousavi and Ahmadinejad each got. Throughout the protests I've been wondering what Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi--who lives in Paris still, I'm pretty sure--has to say. Now we know.

Marjane Satrapi, Iranian author and director and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an Iranian filmmaker and Mousavi spokesman, presented a document that they claimed had come from the Iranian electoral commission.

The document said liberal cleric and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi came second in the election with a total of 13.3 million votes, while president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came third with only 5.49 million votes.

However, there is no certainty about the legitimacy of the document.

"Ahmadinejad received only 12 percent of the vote, not 65 percent," said Marjane Satrapi, who was the director of Oscar-nominated film Persepolis.

Makhmalbaf, a representative for Mousavi abroad, called the declaration of Ahmadinejad's victory a "coup d'etat" and appealed to the international community not to recognise it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Not About Us

Spencer Ackerman gets it:

It’s emotionally unsatisfying not to proclaim unequivocal support for the protesters. But the truer measure of support, as Trita Parsi told me, is to follow their lead. Moussavi, for instance, has not issued any statement about what he wants the international community to do. If the protesters begin calling for a more direct American response, then that really will have to compel the administration to reconsider its position. But until then, with so many lives at stake, the administration can’t afford to take a stance just because it makes Americans feel just and righteous.

Monday, June 15, 2009


When I say that the Iranian insurrectionists deserve our solidarity and support, I mean they deserve our attention and encouragement and promotion of their struggles.

I DON'T mean "Let's invade Iran and kill everyone associated with the regime forever."

This is about them, not us. Societies reform themselves on their own. Given the history of the USA's meddling in Iran's internal affairs, it would be wise for our leaders not to kick up a huge sanctimonious fuss.

More Iran Stuff

Best places to read about what's happening on the ground, as it happens:

- Andrew Sullivan

- The Field

- The Guardian's live blog

- Tehran 24

There's more, of course.

Meanwhile, the militarists of America and Israel openly hope for a decisive Ahmadinejad victory.

James Wolcott Says It All

Which explains why he's writing for Vanity Fair and I'm writing for Atlanta cultural rags. Perhaps.

While Iran's "Green Wave" prepares a courageous General Strike to protest the legitimacy of the regime and the post-election crackdown--follow the action at Al Giordano's The Field, which is in the final furlong of its summer fundraiser--the conservative opposition here is mustering its moral force to Fire David Letterman, a half-assed campaign fronted by a complete ass, John Ziegler. I wonder if Ziegler will use the publicity occasion to do his special brand of civil disobedience performance art, where the heroic model of passive resistance exemplified by Gandhi and Martin Luther King produces something resembling an outtake from The Hangover or closing time at the titty bar, same diff.

The Field is an excellent source of information. Do read.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Vive la resistance:

What's happening in Iran right now is extraordinary. We'd all do well to pay attention, I think.

The young, the liberal, the feminist, and the secular are convinced that the election was stolen. Middle East scholar Juan Cole agrees.

On the other hand, one should remember that the liberal, cosmopolitan citizens of Tehran--especially the young--aren't the whole of the Iranian population. It seems that Ahmadinejad is still quite popular among the country's rural poor and uneducated.

Either way, the Iranian insurrectionists deserve our solidarity and support.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Teaching the Wogs

I have to admit I'm confused by this half-baffling/half-mindless piece on the Huffington Post. Some fellow named Peter Daou, who identifies himself as a "political consultant" and "former Internet adviser to Hillary Clinton," as well as (to establish his I-can-talk-about-the-Middle-East credentials) an American-Lebanese-Christian-Jew(???) criticizing Obama's speech in Cairo.

I'll start by pointing out where I agree with Mr. Daou. He's absolutely right that Obama is continuing--in some areas, I'm sad to say, intensifying--some of the worst policies of the Bush-Cheney era: indefinite imprisonment, suspension of habeus corpus, bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, etc. I've written quite a lot about this on this very blog.

That Obama is continuing many of the previous administration's policies is, whatever his personality cultists say, an ascertainable fact and not an opinion.

Elsewhere in his piece, Daou blasts Obama for not offering a more strident condemnation of oppression of women in the Middle East. Plus "to those whose abiding hatred of Israel (and thus America) is absolute, Obama's words will be seen as empty and hypocritical."

Okay. The widespread conspiracy against women's dignity and liberty in the Muslim world is an appalling thing, no doubt about it. But what, exactly, was Obama supposed to say in his Cairo speech? Daou is livid that Obama would defend the right of women to wear the hijab, but he seems not to have noticed that Obama was calling for choice: the right for an individual woman to CHOOSE whether or not she wants to wear the hijab. And his words about education for women were perfectly appropriate, I thought: they expressed a moral concern but not in a heavy-handed "YOU'RE ALL MURDERERS AND RAPISTS!" sort of way.

I'm not sure how a vehement denunciation of male domination in the Muslim world would secure women's rights. More than likely it would be a moralistic blowing-off-of-steam that had no real effect on any real-world practices.

I suspect Mr. Daou's problems with Islam are more than ethical, though. He says he grew up in Lebanon during the civil war, and given his description of his background one can only assume he comes from a Lebanese Christian/Israeli background, hardly a disinterested party in the violent power struggles of the Levant. To put it bluntly: he harps on about the (real) crimes of Islamic fundamentalists and Arab regimes, but doesn't have much to say about the crimes of the Israelis or the Lebanese Phalange (the heroes, remember, of Sabra and Shatila).

But the point I really wanted to make is this: I want liberalization and reform in the Middle East and the Muslim world as much as anyone. But I know enough about history and culture to know that it's wildly naive to expect women's rights, liberal government, and free speech to break out overnight just because an American President stridently declared something or other. Reform can only come from within the Muslim world, from Muslim (or secular but culturally Muslim) voices. It's much more important, I think, to listen to the actual voices for reform in the Muslim world than to the moralizing of American politicians and op-ed writers.

Voices like Malalai Joya, the closest thing in our world to a living saint. To the brave group of Afghan feminist dissidents RAWA, who despise Islamic fundamentalism and US imperialism. To fiery and beautiful Fatima Bhutto, who protests Taliban-like fanatics in her native Pakistan and speaks up for women's rights but also condemns the military regime that the US supports with money and arms. To Iranian voices, too, like the brilliant and hilarious graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, authoress of Persepolis. To poets like Adonis, the greatest living poet in Arabic, the man who brought new life and innovation to Arabic forms but routinely and pitilessly condemns the backwardness and intolerance of the Arab world; and Dunya Mikhail, the sardonic Iraqi poet who fled Saddam Hussein; and Maram al-Massri, whose poems incarnate the voice of woman as a free-thinking, sensual, independent, learned human being.

Not to mention eloquent, sometimes enraged Israeli voices like Peter Cole and Aharon Shabtai, present-day heirs of the Prophets. Not that Daou believes Israel is in need of any reform.

We should trust the exact visions of the Arabic poets, and the precisely-aimed polemics of the Muslim liberal intellectuals, not the finger-wagging and moralizing of some high-minded head of state, and certainly not some douchebag on the Huffington Post.

Oh yeah, here's a now-famous video of a bunch of American shitheels in Jerusalem:

from the indispensable Mondoweiss

Thursday, June 4, 2009

20 Years

(updated below)

That's how long it's been since students and other dissidents protesting China's tyrannical and brutal one-party state fell victim to that thing authoritarian regimes always do to protesters and dissidents: massacre, mass imprisonment, expulsion. That's how long the Chinese government hasn't said a word about what the Chinese themselves call "the June 4th incident." It's been erased from history, never mentioned on the news or in any history books or newspapers or magazines. Any books or films or works of visual art that acknowledge it have an impossible time getting published/heard/seen/read. If you look at the front page of (Hong Kong-headquartered) Asia Times Online today, you'll see nothing about Tiananmen Square. 

The Tiananmen Square uprising was, along with the uprisings against Communist rule in Eastern Europe the same year, one of many anti-tyranny rebellions where the protestors were inspired to no small degree by poetry: China's greatest modern poet, Bei Dao, along with the other poets of the so-called "Misty" or Obscure School (Duo Duo, Gu Cheng, Mang Ke, and others) wrote poems and published a magazine, Jintian (Today), that played a huge role in the students' Democracy Movement. Today none of those poets are allowed to enter China, and their works are banned.

Bei Dao

Wind at the ear says June
June a blacklist I slipped
in time

note this way to say goodbye
the sighs within these words

note these annotations:
unending plastic flowers
on the dead left bank
the cement square extending
from writing to

I run from writing
as dawn is hammered out
a flag covers the sea

and loudspeakers loyal to the sea’s
deep bass say June

Sign a petition demanding the Chinese government finally acknowledge the truth of their own history here. Read more about Bei Dao and the Misty Poets here.

UPDATE, via the BBC: The now "Special Administrative Region" of Hong Kong allows a candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In the Rain, In the Evening

PJ Harvey has been one of my favorite artists for years.

I've always wanted to see her live.

Tonight I finally will.


Albeit I'll be seeing her play material from her collaborations with John Parish (their new album is a good one, I think; perhaps I'll review it sometime soon). Which is fine, really, because of things like this:

Monday, June 1, 2009

What Kind of Country

Glenn Greenwald, a knight in shining armor as far I'm concerned, asks a simple question:

What kind of a country passes a law that has no purpose other than to empower its leader to suppress evidence of the torture it inflicted on people?

What, you're not familiar with the Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009, sponsored by those erstwhile patriots Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham? Neither was I until this morning.

Read Glennzila's post, then read the whole bill. I've written before about the effects of bureaucratic language meant to obscure and sanitize reality; this is yet another example. Though, to be fair, the bill does state what it's after in plain language: it allows the Pentagon to suppress and keep hidden any "photograph that was taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009 relating to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States."  But this blatant violation of specific court orders and the First Amendment, of pretty much any principle of open government, is all for "Protection," you see.

At the risk of becoming a bore, I suggest we turn to Montaigne again:

Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and gravity of lying, we would see that it more worthy of the stake than other crimes...Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up.
-from his essay "On Liars"

As the great I.F. Stone liked to say, all governments lie. But once the government starts to lie about damn near everything, it becomes very difficult to break the habit. And it doesn't matter which party is in power. We've acquired the habit of lying and believing lies, and I don't think we'll stop anytime soon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Release the Torture Photos Now

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.
Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.
- The Daily Telegraph, Abu Ghraib abuse photos 'show rape'

[The photos] are not particularly sensational, especially when compared with the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib.
- Barack Obama, May 13, 2009

I want to speak generally about some reports I've witnessed over the past few years in the British media. In some ways, I'm surprised it filtered down.

Let's just say if I wanted to look up, if I wanted to read a write-up of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League Cup, I might open up a British newspaper. If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I'm not entirely sure it'd be the first pack of clips I'd pick up.
- Robert Gibbs, May 28, 2009

Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and gravity of lying, we would see that it more worthy of the stake than other crimes...Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up.
- Montaigne, "Of Liars"

The Obama administration isn't responsible for these atrocities, but it seems they are helping to cover them up . And lying about them. It's better to release the photos now; if they don't come out now, they'll leak out one by one and further poison our national life and our relationship with the world, even with ourselves. Just get it over with: release the photos, then we'll see who's bending the truth. It's time to come clean.

Cultural Destruction

Another China post!

More like a note, actually. I just wanted to pass this along:

KASHGAR, China — A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.
Over the next few years, city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

China's Charter '08

Not sure how I missed this, but apparently a group of Chinese citizens--dissidents, writers, low and mid level government officials--has banded together to demand individual freedom, constitutional rule, and representative democracy. Basically, they want an end to their authoritarian one-party government. They call themselves Charter '08 in tribute to the great Charter 77, the 1977 Czechoslovakian manifesto-movement led by Vaclav Havel that demanded human rights and an end to Communist rule.

Read the Charter here.

Good and Bad

Listen to this piece of abject servility, glimpsed on CNN by Digby:

John King: are you ok with indefinite detentions and would that be here in the United States?

Barbara Boxer: I'll tell you what I'm ok with. I'm ok that the president of the United States says that our security comes first and foremost. I agree with that. But he went on to say, which you didn't show, that he's going to figure out a way to do this under the rule of law. So he is going to make sure that nobody is released into the United States who will be a threat to us and that these indefinite detentions will be somehow under the rule of law. And I want to give this president the credit for this. His wife said, one thing about my husband, he's not going to be afraid to change his mind or to nuance an issue. I applaud that frankly.

So the same policies--suspension of habeus corpus, eternal detention, near-total secrecy--that the Democrats opposed under Bush-Cheney are now being celebrated and defended. Not only that, but these policies are being celebrated and defended in the same language Bush and Cheney used: the Great Father of the People defending his children from Evil, security-uber-alles, etc. But all this is different, somehow, because it will all be "somehow under the rule of law." Right. But wait: the Democrats (with a few honorable exceptions) never did seriously oppose the Bush-Cheney torture and detention policies, did they? Surely it's time for a genuinely liberal alternative to the two "national security" parties.

Meanwhile, I'm very, very excited about this:

Jane Campion has put herself in line for her second Palme d'Or here at the Cannes film festival with a film which I think could be the best of her career; an affecting and deeply considered study of the last years in the short life of John Keats, and the ecstasy of loss which suffuses his love affair with Fanny Brawne – a love thwarted not due to illness, but to a pernicious web of money worries, social scruples and irrelevant male loyalties.

Campion brings to this story an unfashionable, unapologetic reverence for romance and romantic love, and she responds to Keats's life and work with intelligence and grace. Any movie about a romantic poet has to be careful how glowingly it depicts the great outdoors but this film looks unselfconsciously beautiful, and Campion and her cinematographer Greig Fraser never harangue the audience with their images. Poets, like musicians, need silence above all, and much of the film is played out in a deeply quiet calm.

I've always thought the story of Keats's life, particularly the anguished and beautiful story of his love for Fanny Brawne, would make an excellent movie. Jane Campion sounds like just the director to do it, and by all accounts it's a stunning film. You watch a few clips here; the cinematography actually carries the same lush, rich, luxuriant but sensitive atmosphere as a Keats poem. I can't wait.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ana Marie Cox Bitchslaps Press Control Cretins on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

It's amazing that, here in Freedom's Land, most of our mainstream journalistic establishment doesn't question, not even mildly, our most blatantly insane and counter-productive policies, like Don't Ask/Don't Tell.

This has been happening for several years now, but: Another group of skilled Arabic translators, West Point graduates, recently got thrown out of the military for being gay. Happened several times in this first hideous decade of the 21st century. Since I happen to think that militant Islamic terrorism (and all terrorism, pretty much) is a law enforcement problem and not a military problem, I think it's reasonable to rely on intelligence like, I don't know, ARABIC TRANSLATIONS, to combat such stuff. Even people who think of terrorism as mainly a military problem would agree, I think.

Whatever your approach to fighting terrorism, I don't see how any thinking person could be in favor of sacking skilled Arabic translators for being gay. But we do, we do.

And the witless White House Press Corps rarely questions these things. But you know who DOES? Wonkette founder and Arch-Mistress of Wicked Internet Snark Ana Marie Cox! Watch her subtle take-down, uh, here:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Some Noteworthy Things

Yes, I know, I've been neglecting the Skies. But no worries, non-existent reader, for your blogger is hard at work with a dear friend of his at creating a serious online magazine. It'll be like Clear Expensive Skies, but better. Much better.

Anyway, just thought I'd share a few things I've discovered in the news:

- George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia being made into a film! Colin Firth, apparently, is playing Orwell. Crazy.

- Orhan Pamuk--author of wonderful books like My Name is Red, Snow, and Istanbul--is in trouble with the Turkish nationalist press again.

- NATO air strike killed at least 8 today. This comes hot on the heels of a US air strike in Farah province that killed more than 140 people, 95 of them children.

- Obama's plan for Middle East Peace is becoming clear:

The matter of borders would be solved with territorial exchanges between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Old City of Jerusalem would be established as an international zone.

The initiative would require the Palestinians to give up their claim of a "right of return," according to Yediot, and Europe and the US would arrange compensation for refugees, including foreign passports for those residing abroad.

Obama's plan would also promote holding simultaneous talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria and Lebanon. Yediot said that when such talks come to an agreement on Palestinian statehood, diplomatic and economic relations would be established between Israel and Arab states.

The report added that in his Cairo address, Obama would reiterate calls for Israel to cease all settlement construction.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Empire, Confidence, Culture

Earlier today I was reading Bryan Appleyard's always-interesting blog, and I came across this:

There is a future danger that America may lose its distinct identity and become just another nation that believes nothing, though I don't think Obama embodies this danger. Relative decline may turn out to be the real culprit. It will be a sad day when - if - it happens.

Appleyard makes this point by way of contrast with his native Britain, where the Prime Minister never speaks with "a certain high solemnity and grandiloquence when addressing national issues," a country that no longer has a "destiny-laden sense of self."

It's indisputably true that America has a (to put it mildly) confident image of itself, and the most fervent of our nationalists make a fetish of outright America-worship. The US has always had a messianic self-image, and it's only inflated in the last few decades due to our economic and military pre-eminence. It does offer quite a contrast to post-imperial Britain, the culture of which has been marked by a sense of diminishment and depression ever since the end of the Empire in 1945. Britain's lack of self-belief permeates, probably excessively, quite a lot of the culture it's produced in the postwar period: Appleyard himself has written a great attack on Philip Larkin, a talented but imaginatively provincial poet that Appleyard thinks was grossly monumentalized to suit Britain's morose self-image. I tend to agree with this assessment, by the way. The best poets of Britain's post-imperial phase have, so far, kept faith with the best of British artistic traditions (the long march of English poetry, the painting of Constable and Turner, the visionary element in Blake, the Brontes, and Dickens) while cultivating an outward-looking, expansive aesthetic and attitude the polar opposite of Larkin and co.'s petty insularity. Examples: Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Kathleen Raine, Hugh MaDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Lawrence Durrell...

It's strange, though, that Brits and others associate the loss of empire with a loss of confidence and vision. This has been the case with Britian (though periods of cultural effervescence like the 60s contradict this self-image, and it's more or less fallen apart lately in the more open and cosmopolitan years under New Labour), but it hasn't been the case with every country that's lost its empire.

Spain, for instance. After a couple of centuries of relative cultural stagnation, the final blow to their empire in 1898 (delivered, of course, by the United States in its inauguration of its own empire) coincided with an explosion of great poets, painters, essayists, novelists, and film-makers that lasted up until Franco closed the lid in the late 1930s. There is even a group of poets, essayists, and novelists known as the Generation of '98; it includes classics like Antonio Machado, José Ortega y Gasset, and Miguel de Unamuno.

They were followed by the talented of the first Spanish generation to grow up without an empire: Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca (born in 1898), Luis Cernuda, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Rafael Alberti, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and many others.

This level of greatness shouldn't be cause for national self-flagellation along the lines of postwar/post-imperial Britain. No one knows how America will respond when its empire dissolves, with a Spanish-style explosion of creativity or with British mortification. At least history shows us that a total breakdown in cultural confidence isn't inevitable. This is especially heartening to someone like me, who opposes America's ruinous and criminal imperial projects but worries about a possible loss of creative power in American culture.

Not that empire = cultural confidence. The migration of the collective creative impulse is a mysterious thing; who would have thought that tortured, powerless, downtrodden Poland--stuck between two murderous totalitarian systems--would produce many of the best writers of the 20th century?

Even the colossal stagnation that occurred on the Italian peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire was pretty much made up for--very much so--a thousand years later by the imaginative genius and visionary hope of the Renaissance. I look forward to America's disintegration into dozens of distinct city-states...

Poem of the Day

I know I said I'd post some late Milosz, and I will soon, but today I've been daydreaming about the sea and its shore.

As upon seacoasts when the gods
Begin to build and the work of the waves
Ships in unstoppably wave
After wave, in splendour, and the earth
Attires itself and then comes joy
A supreme, tuneful joy, setting the work to rights.
So upon the poem
When the wine-god points and promises
And with the darling of Greece,
Seaborn, veiling her looks,
The waves beach their abundance.
-Friedrich Holderlin

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To See

A couple of Poles today: one a splendid and haunting painter of Parisian life, the other one of the finest writers of poetry AND prose alive today.

To See

Oh my mute city, honey-gold,
buried in ravines, where wolves
loped softly down the cold meridian;
if I had to tell you, city
asleep beneath a heap of lifeless leaves,
if I needed to describe the ocean’s skin, on which
ships etch the lines of shining poems,
and yachts like peacocks flaunt their lofty sails
and the Mediterranean, rapt in salty concentration,
and cities with sharp turrets gleaming
in the keen morning sun,
and the savage strength of jets piercing the clouds,
the bureaucrats’ undying scorn for us, people,
Umbria’s narrow streets like cisterns
that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine,
and a certain hill, where the stillest tree is growing,
gray Paris, threaded by the river of salvation,
Krakow, on Sunday, when even the chestnut leaves
seem pressed by an unseen iron,
vineyards raided by the greedy fall
and by highways full of fear;
if I had to describe the sobriety of the night
when it happened,
and the clatter of the train running into nothingness
and the blade flaring on a makeshift skating rink;
I’m writing from the road, I had to see,
and not just know, to see clearly
the sights and fires of a single world,
but you unmoving city turned to stone,
my brethren in the shallow sand;
the earth still turns above you
and the Roman legions march
and a polar fox attends the wind
in a white wasteland where sounds perish.

Painting: Józef Czapski
Poem: Adam Zagajewski

I've been reading the great Polish poets lately: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Zagajewski. I think Zagajewski might be my favorite living writer--his prose books are as good as his poetry--and I love Herbert's poetry, though I need to become more acquainted with his essays on art. 

Milosz is a titanic figure, more akin to Goethe or Victor Hugo than to any 20th-century-writer, except perhaps Octavio Paz. His many-faceted corpus of essays--on politics, religion, philosophy, literature, his own life and those of people he knew--are unspeakably rich, and his poetic talent never wavered or "fell off" at any point during his career. In fact, I think some of the poems included in his final volume, "Second Space," are among his greatest. Perhaps I'll post one of his late poems tomorrow.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poem for the Day

I'll get around to music, painting, and sensible words a bit later. For now let us continue with the springtime theme of the long majestic Paz poem. As a contrast and companion, let's listen to John Milton's brief, enchanting lute music.

Song on May Morning
John Milton

NOW the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose.
      Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
      Mirth and youth, and warm desire,
      Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,
      Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early Song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long. 

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sudden Spring...Tree of Noon...

I've been lazy about updating these here Expensive Skies, I realize, but ne'er you fear. For the time being I'm more or less treating this weblog as an online notebook: thoughts, observations on politics and current events (like Killer Swine!), and hopefully much more about art, literature, cinema, music, and culture generally.

From now on there's also going to be a new feature on this blog: the Poem of the Day. It'll be an exacting task, but I like the challenge of finding and sharing a poem that, in some way or another, reflects my sense of each day. It gives me an opportunity to act out Goethe's famous line from Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: "every single day one should listen to a little song, read a good poem, look at a fine painting and, if possible, say a few sensible words." That's the challenge I'm trying to meet with this blog. And now to the good poem of the day; I thought I'd begin with a great poem that's at once a meditation on mortality and a luxuriant song to welcome spring.

Response and Reconciliation
Octavio Paz
Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger


Ah life! Does no one answer?
His words rolled, bolts of lightning etched
in years that were boulders and now are mist.
Life never answers.
It has no ears and doesn't hear us;
it doesn't speak, it has no tongue.
It neither goes nor stays;
we are the ones who speak,
the ones who go,
while we hear from echo to echo, year to year,
our words rolling through a tunnel with no end.

That which we call life
hears itself within us, speaks with our tongues,
and through us, knows itself.
As we portray it, we become its mirror, we invent it.
An invention of an invention: it creates us
without knowing what it has created,
we are an accident that thinks.
It is a creature of reflections
we create by thinking,
and it hurls into fictitious abysses.
The depths, the transparencies
where it floats or sinks: not life, its idea.
It is always on the other side and is always other,
has a thousand bodies and none,
never moves and never stops,
it is born to die, and is born at death.

Is life immortal? Don't ask life,
for it doesn't even know what life is.
We are the ones who know
that one day it too must die and return
to the beginning, the inertia of the origin.
The end of yesterday, today, and tomorrow,
the dissipation of time
and of nothing, its opposite.
Then will there be a then?
will the primigenious spark light
the matrix of the worlds,
a perpetual re-beginning of a senseless whirling?
No one answers, no one knows.
We only know that to live is to live for.


Sudden spring, a girl who wakes
on a green bed guarded by thorns;
tree of noon, heavy with oranges:
your tiny suns, fruits of cool fire,
summer gathers them in transparent baskets;
the fall is severe, its cold light
sharpens its knife against the red maples;
Januaries and Februaries: their beards are ice,
and their eyes sapphires that April liquefies;
the wave that rises, the wave that stretches out,
on the circular road of the year.

All that we see, all that we forget,
the harp of the rain, the inscription of the lightning,
the hurried thoughts, reflections turned to birds,
the doubts of the path as it meanders,
the wailing of the wind
as it carves the faces of the mountains,
the moon on tiptoe over the lake,
the breezes in gardens, the throbbing of night,
the camps of stars on the burnt field,
the battle of reflections on the white salt flats,
the fountain and its monologue,
the held breath of outstretched night
and the river that entwines it, the pine under the evening star
and the waves, instant statues, on the sea,
the flock of clouds that the wind herds
through drowsy valleys, the peaks, the chasms,
time turned to rock, frozen eras,
time maker of roses and plutonium,
time that makes as it razes.

The ant, the elephant, the spider, and the sheep,
our strange world of terrestrial creatures
that are born, eat, kill, sleep, play, couple,
and somehow know that they die;
our world of humanity, far and near,
the animal with eyes in its hands
that tunnels through the past and examines the future,
with its histories and uncertainties,
the ecstasy of the saint, the sophisms of the evil,
the elation of lovers, their meetings, their contentions,
the insomnia of the old man counting his mistakes,
the criminal and the just: a double enigma,
the Father of the People, his crematory parks,
his forests of gallows and obelisks of skulls,
the victorious and the defeated,
the long sufferings and the one happy moment,
the builder of houses and the one who destroys them,
this paper where I write, letter by letter,
which you glance at with distracted eyes,
all of them and all of it, all
is the work of time that begins and ends,


From birth to death time surrounds us
with its intangible walls.
We fall with the centuries, the years, the minutes.
Is time only a falling, only a wall?
For a moment, sometimes, we see
not with our eyes but with our thoughts
time resting in a pause.
The world half-opens and we glimpse
the immaculate kingdom,
the pure forms, presences
unmoving, floating
on the hour, a river stopped:
truth, beauty, numbers, ideas
and goodness, a word buried
in our century.
A moment without weight or duration,
a moment outside the moment:
thought sees, our eyes think.

Triangles, cubes, the sphere, the pyramid
and the other geometrical figures
thought and drawn by mortal eyes
but which have been here since the beginning,
are, still legible, the world, its secret writing,
the reason and the origin of the turning of things,
the axis of the changes, the unsupported pivot
that rests on itself, a reality without a shadow.
The poem, the piece of music, the theorem,
unpolluted presences born from the void,
are delicate structures
built over an abyss:
infinities fit into their finite forms,
and chaos too is ruled by their hidden symmetry.

Because we know it, we are not an accident:
chance, redeemed, returns to order.
Tied to the earth and to time,
a light and weightless ether,
thought supports the worlds and their weight,
whirlwinds of suns turned
into a handful of signs
on a random piece of paper.
Wheeling swarms
of transparent evidence
where the eyes of understanding
drink a water simple as water.
The universe rhymes with itself,
it unfolds and is two and is many
without ceasing to be one.
Motion, a river that runs endlessly
with open eyes through the countries of vertigo
there is no above nor below, what is near is far
returns to itself
without returning, now turned
into a fountain of stillness.
Tree of blood, man feels, thinks, flowers,
and bears strange fruits: words.
What is thought and what is felt entwine,
we touch ideas, they are bodies and they are numbers.

And while I say what I say
time and space fall dizzyingly,
restlessly. They fall in themselves.
Man and the galaxy return to silence.
Does it matter? Yes but it doesn't matter:
we know that silence is music and that
we are a chord in this concert.

This poem is available in Eliot Weinberger's anthology World Beat: International Poetry Now from New Directions. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

And On a Cheerier Note...

Sleek sexy high speed trains yes pllz!

Oh how I long for fast, comfortable train service à la France or Switzerland to ferry me to and from the oaks and graveyards of Savannah. Not to mention New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, Key West, and New Orleans. Hell yeah.

Also: Can we go the whole hog and make it a North America-wide rail network, so I go see hockey games in Canada and wake up the next morning in Oaxaca?


Barack Obama deserves credit for releasing four Bush-era memos that detail--in generalized, clinical, and bureaucratic language--just what the CIA has been doing to prisoners in their "interrogation" sessions for the last 8 years. He's facing all manner of wrath from CIA and other military-industrial elites who don't care much for open government , not to mention the standard bile from the usual right-wing pundits, bloggers, and rank-and-file. This was a courageous move, and he deserves praise for it.

On the other hand, I have to admit I'm dismayed that Obama has already given up on the idea of prosecuting the people responsible for these war crimes. All the prattle about moving forward and not backward, a time for reflection and not retribution, is, well, just that: prattle. Prosecuting the torturers wouldn't be about "retribution"; it would be an act of reflection and consideration, bringing shameful crimes perpetrated in all our names to light and working through the consequences. "Reflection" is meaningless if it doesn't lead to action.

It's worth looking at all of these memos. Several commentators have already noted the unavoidable specter of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" thesis, her vision of Adolf Eichmann and other Nazi war criminals as not slavering diabolical fiends but as unimaginative, unreflective bureaucrats who murdered people from their desks because they couldn't imagine the concrete moral consequences of their document-typing and number-crunching. To them, mass murder was an abstract thing; they saw themselves as working with pens and paper, not with instruments of death. The bureaucratic jargon of the Bush-era torture memos just released are a thing to behold: atrocities recounted in the language of a corporate lawyer.

Via Glenn Greenwald, some excerpts from the memos:

One wonders just what has been redacted.

For a description of torture in living language, non-bureaucratic language, language that instead of being empty and mendacious and designed to sanitize or simplify or outright deny reality is meant to illuminate, evoke, and describe reality, let us turn to John Donne, speaking out against "stress positions" in a 1625 Easter sermon:

They therefore oppose God in his purpose of dignifying the body of man, first who violate, and mangle this body, which is the organ in which God breathes, and they also which pollute and defile this body, in which Christ Jesus is apparelled; and they likewise who prophane this body, which is the Holy Ghost, and the high Priest, inhabits, and consecrates.

Transgressors that put God’s organ out of tune, that discompose and tear the body of man with violence, are those inhuman persecutors who with racks and tortures and prisons and fires and exquisite inquisitions throw down the bodies of the true God’s servants to the idolatrous worship of their imaginary gods, that torture men into Hell and carry them through the inquisition into damnation. St Augustine moves a question, and institutes a disputation, and carries it somewhat problematically, whether torture be to be admitted at all, or no. That presents a fair probability which he says against it. We presume, says he, that an innocent man should accuse himself, by confession, in torture. And if an innocent man be able to do so, why should we not think that a guilty man, who shall save his life by holding his tongue in torture, should be able to do so?

And then, where is the use of torture? It is a slippery trial and uncertain (says Ulpian) to convince by torture. For many says (says St Augustine again) he that is yet but questioned, whether he be guilty or no, before that be known, is, without all question, miserably tortured. And whereas, many time, the passion of the Judge, and the covetousness of the Judge, and the ambition of the Judge, are calamities heavy enough upon a man that is accused. If the Judge knew that he were innocent, he should suffer nothing. If he knew he were guilty, he should not suffer torture. But because the Judge is ignorant and knows nothing.

Donne is speaking here as a believing Christian, of course. I'm not a believing Christian, but I think this is language far more attuned to the absolute degradation and destructiveness that torture always entails--and the practical absurdity of it--than these bureaucrats' memos. This sermon was dug up a few years ago by Scott Horton of Harper's; his essay on it is well worth reading:

It was delivered as his Easter Sunday sermon, which is important. Then as now, the Easter service drew the biggest crowd of the year. The Easter sermon was the minister’s minute in the spotlight—the moment when he would reach his greatest audience and make his reputation. And we know from John Donne’s correspondence, he was concerned about another audience: the king, his entourage and the courts. When Donne rose to deliver this sermon, torture was a heated “political” issue in England. Under the Stuart monarchs, the use of torture was viewed as a royal prerogative (how little things change). It was administered by judges, particularly by the national security court of seventeenth century England, the so-called Court of Star Chamber. John H. Langbein’s important book, Torture and the Law of Proof gives us very clear guidance into how torture was prescribed and used.

Over a series of centuries, the genius of the English law had been steadily to restrict and limit the use of torture, until at this point, under King James, it was controlled by the king’s judges and limited in practice through a series of special writs. Which is to say, legally it was far more constrained than it is today under an Executive Order issued by King James’s understudy in allegedly Divine Right governance, George W. Bush.

How little things change.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

And Now for Some Local Bitching

From Creative Loafing:

We all know that Senate Bill 120, the legislation that would’ve allowed MARTA to exercise control over its own finances and possibly prevent the transit agency from making drastic service cuts, failed on the final night of the legislative session. But why?
In a candid email to his constituents, State Rep. Ralph Long, III, D-Atlanta, says Georgia House Republicans used the bill as a “political football” and threatened to punt the measure if the Fulton and DeKalb delegations didn’t vote for a GOP-endorsed piece of legislation involving freezes on property values.

Long writes in the email:
I will always stay true to my commitment to keep my constituents educated about the pressing issues concerning us today.
On Wednesday, April 1st, two days before the end of the General Assembly’s 2009 session, the Fulton and DeKalb County delegations called a special meeting for the sole purpose of discussing MARTA. At that meeting, the Republican leadership approached the two counties with what they said was a deal. According to the Republican leader, they needed 20 votes to pass S.R. 1, an unpopular bill related to property valuation freezes.
We were told that we must support S.R. 1 in order to give the Republicans the votes they needed. In return, the MARTA bill would pass. If S.R 1 did not pass, we were told that the MARTA bill would die in committee and not be brought up for consideration before the end of sine die. The Republican leader said that he lives closer to Disney World than any MARTA train station, and that he only occasionally rides MARTA to ball games.

Fabulous. A bill that would have drastically improved Atlanta's transit system--and thereby might have helped Atlanta along its way of trying to become a truly world class city--gets voted down by Republicans who don't even live in Atlanta. That don't live in Atlanta and snicker about making life difficult for people who do live in Atlanta.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mind-Forged Manacles

This item in the New York Times really ought to tip off anyone who remains unconvinced to the fact that our society is every bit as beset with usurious evil--the poor and sick shackled to rich insurance salesmen, bloated city bureaucracies, and landlords--as that described by William Blake and Charles Dickens or Baudelaire and Balzac. Or even the one described by Dante. 

Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison.

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

-Blake, "London" (Songs of Innocence and of Experience)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Few Words of Encouragement

Now then. After criticizing Barry on a few things, the time has come for me to be an Obamabot/Muslin and defend/praise him on a few things.

- The Teleprompter Issue. The new wingnut meme is "ZOMG Nobama uses teleprompterz!!!!1!!11!!" These people seem unaware that 1) every President reads prepared speeches at press conferences, 2) making a joke about the Special Olympics doesn't somehow "prove" that Obama is hopeless and "inarticulate" away from his teleprompter machine (surely the problem was that he was too articulate for people's delicate PC sensibilities?), and 3) EVERY POLITICIAN IN AMERICA USES A TELEPROMPTER FROM TIME TO TIME. Christ.

- Good on Barry for calling on minority publications (geared towards blacks and Latinos, along with the military newspaper the Stars and Stripes) instead of the silly New York Times and Washington Post in his press conference last night. The reaction of the big media outlets was that of Failed spurned lovers. It was Teh Funny.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Weinberger With a New Batch of Essays on the Way

Eliot Weinberger is my favorite living writer. It appears he has a new book of essays coming out this summer via the great publishing house New Directions; now I know what I'll be reading on beaches and under trees this summer. That and Jacques Barzun's biography of Berlioz, possibly...

Anyway, if you don't know about Eliot Weinberger, head over to Amazon and order some of his books of essays: Outside Stories and Karmic Traces might be the best places to start, though all of his output is worth reading. His last book, An Elemental Thing, was probably his most imagistic and "poetic" book so far, full of strange and marvelous tales and hypnotic prose poems. Weinberger's writing has always had a poetic/dreamy strain, but his other collections combine those kinds of essays (many of them historical or mythological reveries written with no stage-setting context, with no hint of an authorial first-person essayist speaking) with more straightforward, recognizable essays about literature, history, culture, and politics. His book What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles is probably the best polemic (really a selection of articles he'd written for foreign newspapers throughout the Bush-Cheney years) about this decade's high crimes: Weinberger throughout is lucid and sharp, and he often writes with a grim gallows humor. 

He's excellent in both of these areas, a 21st century century cross between William Hazlitt and Jorge Luis Borges in the "non-fictions" that Weinberger has so beautifully translated. 

At any rate, can't wait for Oranges and Peanuts for Sale. If you're interested, here's a link to Weinberger introducing and then interviewing the great poet Gary Snyder at the New York Public Library. It's one of those great wandering digressive talks, with Weinberger offering a coruscating introduction, and Snyder radiating warmth, intellect, and good humor and giving excellent readings from Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, John Keats's "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," and his own work. Watch if you have time. 

Two Months In, Hopey's Hands Are Hardly Clean

Barack Obama is a cool guy. Barack Obama is a smart guy. He got elected largely thanks to these qualities, and thanks to many people's sound sense that there was no way a McCain-Palin administration would have turned out well.

Alas, he's an American politician, and what's more, an American President, so Obama also happens to be vaguely duplicitous (his handling of Afghanistan and the financial crisis) and conformist (his caving in to corporate America on certain environmental issues, and to AIPAC and its Christian zealot supporters on Charles Freeman). 

The Geitner stimulus plan is retarded, for a few reasons, and several of the decisions Obama has made on civil liberties are mirror images of Bush administration policies. The economic "dream team" he's assembled are mostly well-paid, process-minded technocrats who will achieve nothing in the way of serious reform. Many of his signals on Iran and Israel-Palestine have been very encouraging, but it remains to be seen just what his actual policies will be.

Meanwhile, he appears to be serious about doubling down on the Afghan War, which strikes me as a futile endeavor. 

I didn't expect Obama to be some kind of Black Jesus, but I did think at least some of his policies would implement meaningful change. His performance in certain areas--ordering the closure of Gitmo, appointing someone like George Mitchell, offering a holiday video greeting to the Iranian people and thereby appealing to them over the heads of their theocratic government--has been good, but his handling of the economic crisis is just more of the same technocratic tinkering that will do nothing but postpone the next financial disaster, not prevent it. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Richardson Version

One of the greatest theatre actresses of our time dies in a freak accident far too young, and someone like Dick Cheney gets to live out a long life. The universe can be a pretty wretched place, can't it?

I'll never forget, late one night in London, catching Ken Russell's insane film Gothic, about the Byron-Shelley circle and the writing of Frankenstein. Natasha Richardson was an excellent Mary Shelley, a young Gabriel Byrne was a randy Lord Byron, can't remember who played Percy Shelley. Not that that was anywhere near her finest achievement.

It's impossible to forget watching a DVD of her Ophelia at the National Theatre, and another of her Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Her most recent films, I think, were The White Countess and Asylum, both excellent and both featuring a fine performance from her in particular. In some ways, it seemed like she was just coming into her own. It's a bummer I'll never see her onstage; I'd always hoped to, especially since I've seen two members of the Redgrave-Richardson theatrical dynasty in the flesh: Corin Redgrave as King Lear, and Vanessa Redgrave as Hecuba.

It's a shame we'll never get to see her as Cleopatra, or Hecuba, or Lady Bracknell.

From what we've all heard, it sounds like fiery radical ultra-bohemian Vanessa Redgrave raised a pair of extremely grounded, sane, and sensible daughters in Natasha and Joely. Amazingly, Natasha Richardson seemed to have a quality marriage with Liam Neeson.

Again, the unfairness of it. Natasha Richardson, probably our greatest theatrical actress, dies in a freak accident at the age of 45. People who contribute nothing to the enrichment of the world, people who in fact do nothing but destroy things and preside over the deaths of thousands, get to live out a full life.

The Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington with a remembrance here.

And here's a photo retrospective from the Daily Beast.