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.