Thursday, December 11, 2008

"After four decades of rapid modernization, the social fabric has worn paper-thin"

/ a government of clowns /

The Nation has an excellent piece by Maria Margaronis, on the Greek riots. It's right on the money, excerpt:

The rioters' first targets were banks and corporate headquarters. One in five Greeks already live below the poverty line; as the recession hits, the simmering resentment has taken on an edge of panic. Young people in low-wage, dead-end jobs--the "700 euros generation"--fear losing even those. Thirtysomethings live with their parents; parents work in shifts to earn enough to support their families. After four decades of rapid modernization, the social fabric has worn paper-thin. Discontent is policed with zero tolerance. Methods honed on the refugees who crowd Greek shores and have to be kept from seeking asylum in Europe's wealthier north can also be applied to permanent residents.

Also from "Le Monde Diplomatique":

The riots that have ravaged Greece's big cities - especially Athens - the last three days testify to the disequilibria of a society that over several years only went from being part of the Balkans to part of Europe. The December 6 death of a fifteen-year-old, Andreas Grigoropoulos, from police fire was the spark thrown into a powder keg primed to explode. Faced with thousands of young people who are conducting a veritable urban guerilla action - burning shops and cars, stoning the forces of order - the government seems incapable of restoring the peace.

It is impotent because it is in decay, undermined for a long time by pork, corruption and cronyism. It had already demonstrated its incompetence during the wave of fires that enflamed the Peloponnesus and Attica during the summer of 2007. And that was a natural phenomenon to a certain extent. Costas Caramanlis's Conservative government, which was then getting ready for general elections, quickly announced the release of millions of Euros for the benefit of those who had incurred losses from the fires. Once the balloting was over, the victims never saw a cent.

It's not a question of political party. The (Socialist) PASOK, which controlled the government from 1980-1990, suffers from the same evils as the right. It was unable - or unwilling - to build a modern state of law. The big families - the Caramanlis, Mitsotakis, Papandreou - that have followed one another in power for decades, have, along with their loyalists, profited from a system of which the scraps and crumbs have nourished a large part of the population.

Things are settling down today. At least for now. Mostly students protesting in various forms and intensity, from sit-ins to rock throwing. Reports of wide participation of undercover policemen in the riots and the destruction. Unless the people going in and out of an Athens precinct, as reported (in Greek) here.

Teacher Dude is covering the developing events from Thessaloniki.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The riots

/ the fire of youth /

By all accounts Alexis Grigoropoulos was an unlikely martyr. A "good kid", top student and nice with friends, he was born into relative upper middle class privilege and wealth. He attended good private schools. His mother and father were successful professionals. He didn't hang out in Exarchia regularly, and all his friends agree that he wasn't some sort of anarchist. A progressive kid, sure, but not someone who habitually clashes with the police.

He seems to have been, however, in the wrong place, the wrong time and he didn't realize the "cops" who are patrolling Exarchia, meant deadly business - more like rival gang members than cops. This was about to cost him his life and produce the most violent extensive and persistant rioting the country has ever seen in peacetime, since the Polytechnic uprising against the Junta in 1973.

[by: murplejane]

So it started: like something seen ten times daily in the neighborhood. The "anarchist heartland" of Athens, the Mecca of local protest. A no-go area for the police, supposedly, despite the fact that the neighbourhood has been frequently overrun by the authorities. It is a weird kind of lawlessness: it was, and probably still is, the safest neighborhood say, for a woman to walk alone at night (in a generally safe city, comparatively speaking).

Because of the frequent skirmishes with various anarchist and anti-authoritarian groups (understand that the majority aren't Wobbly activists, nor Kropotkin scholars - they are mostly teenagers with a very broad and possibly slanted idea of what anarchism is: they don't like cops mostly) the cops send the "worst" kind of police: untrained ramboid "special guards".  

Two of those Special Guards were on patrol Saturday night. Witnesses state that they were jeered when passing by Exarchia square by a group of kids. Water-bottles were possibly thrown at the patrol car. The two officers left, they parked their car a couple of blocks away, they notified a squad of riot police that were in the area, and they proceeded to the square. There they start threatening and swearing at the group of kids - quite possibly (though this is still murky AFAIK) a different or larger group of kids - from a distance of possibly twenty meters. The kids swear back. It's like a street quarrel, only one side is armed and dangerous. No side moves towards the other. There are dozens of witnesses to all of this because the area is packed with cafes and shops. The police officer by all eyewitness accounts raises his gun, aims and shoots at a figure from the other side. he shoots at Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 15, not an "Exarchia regular", who dropped by that day to meet some friends. The bullet hits the kid in the heart. He drops. Friends think he slipped and try to pick him up. They realize he's dead. The news spreads like wildfire.

I reported the following in a comment here, on December 7th:

It's difficult to describe, because it is unfolding right now even, but we're seeing large-scale, uncontrollable riots here, going on for a second night. Although there is a long history of anarchist and autonomist actions and (mostly) reactions, bordering often on a cowboy-and-indian style ritualized confrontation with the cops, last night (and today and tonight), the rioting was unprecedented in participation, in speed of reaction and in geographical extent. As I write this parts of Athens are burning, main University buildings are occupied by students, and looting has started. Most shops in Athens' main commercial boulevard, Ermou Str. have been burnt or smashed, and riots are ongoing in the country's second largest city, Thessaloniki, as well as Patras, Ioannina, Mytilene, Iraklion ,Chania, Agrinio, almost every town larger than 20k people it seems. From what I understood from the description of the Paris riots three years ago, this is pretty close in terms of the extent of damage inflicted on the city.

The trigger was the murder of the 16 year old kid in Exarchia, the alternative/atiauthoritarian hotbed of Athens, in what eyewitnesses describe as a shooting in cold blood by a Special Guard (like a policeman only less trained and more eager to shoot as not a few recent incidents have shown). But the tension that has created the possibilities of riots has been brewing for some time now, certainly since last year's student protests, when the police started a de facto feud with anyone under 30. And it isn't just the youth. The police were pelted with lemons thrown by apartment residents of all ages from their balkonies, I heard, as they were passing through Alexandras Ave and the composition of the crowd yesterday (2500 three hours after the event at midnight, of all ages), included some not so young faces.

There is a climate of utter disappointment with the government (and the political system as a whole I'd say), coupled with the grimmest mood I can remember, insecurity, high unemployment, high cost of living along with low paying and precarious work especially for young people - plus of course the ominous shadow of the Crisis.

IOW, in terms of societal weather: its rioty with a good chance of local revolts.

Rioty indeed. Even tonight the heat is still on and it seems like its not abating. Fires are still burning. There were up till a short while ago possibly 1000 people barricaded inside the Polytechnic schools. Looters were near lynched in down-town Athens. Neonazis "assisted" shopowners against the rioters in the port city of Patras.

Since Saturday there seems to have been few towns in Greece without some sort of disturbance: In the usually pacific island of Chios there was a demonstration of 1000 people. Protests were reported in the staunchly conservative town of Gytheio in the SOuthern Peloponnese. Down-town Thessaloniki is burning since Saturday.

Monday was the day the schools sprang into action. Pissed off but cheery, mourning but laughing, they flooded town and city senters. In Athens a humongous demonstration poured in from the more or less affluent Northern and Southern Suburbs, from the working class Western Suburbs, from the city's downtown semi-ghettos, from everywhere in Attiki. They marched to besiege Attiki Police Headquarters. There, students hurled stones and invective against the guards. At some point three students moved towards the building, stripped and fell on the steps of the Police HQ, as corpses:

In Pireus (Athens' port), students turned the square where the local police is headquartered into a... well a rather original work of conceptual art, but flipping over all civilian police vehicles:

Moving stuff, that had even conservative commentators "understanding" the students' rage. But the violence kept coming and it wasn't just clashes with the police, or against ministries and banks (I noticed that no one minded when banks were burned: everybody seems to love a burning bank these days). Monday night along with massive, and strong demonstrations of the parties of the left, small anarchist groups spread chaos by breaking shop windows, burning and/or looting shops of all sizes. This was a first and an indication that this wasn't your run of the mill anarchists who had up till now the political sense not to antagonize small business owners by destroying them. The looting spread. In Pireus' Str and Patission str. near the Polytechnic, rather poor commercial areas, looters that had nothing to do with the demonstrations rampaged through the broken shops, large and small. A certain part of the young demonstrators from all over the suburbs (local and immigrant) came to the demonstration singing football chants and ready for a different type of action. The poor and the marginalized in the city's center saw this as an opportunity. With cops overwhelmed and unprepared for anything of this scale (no longer 50-100 "anarchists" -  they were facing over a thousand people going berserk, drunk on the joy of destruction) the ability of the police to intervene collapsed. It was a free-for-all of looting in the city center. The same more or less for the country's biggest cities - and beyond Greek students occupied the Greek embassy in Berlin for a while, demonstrations of Greek students happened outside the embassies in London, paris and Madrid (I think). The state seemed to collapse.

As Athens' huge Christmas tree was burning early Tuesday morning, along with tens of cars, there was certainly no joyful festive mood.

Today, events started slow. Students had the day off (officially: the ministry of education declared the day a holiday). The teachers demo was pretty much uneventful. Minor skirmishes down-town were tame enough for spectators to gather around them. The funeral of Alexis was respectful, silent, grieving and massive. Then the police units near the funeral started displays of strength. There were pistol shots fired by the police's motorcycle squad members. Violence broke out nearby. Then as the day ran out the riots continued, all over Greece again. A friend who was checking out the situation from up close described the people on the street breaking stuff as "undercover police, common law criminals and assorted bums" (but yet another as "the true face of modern disadvantaged proletarian youth bereft of any political ambition whatsoever). These are people a lot of anarchists even, are pissed off with.

There is, I repeat, no obvious end in sight. The government is at a loss. The police is demoralized, pissed-off, incompetent and dangerous at the same time. Will the riots fizzle off? Will the students back down? I don't think so, though there is an obvious difference in intent and consequences between the organized students (and not just schools - the universities have also joined the demonstrations and the hullabaloo) and the shop-window smashers (though the intersection of these two sets is certainly not null). Will the latter give up?

Tomorrow the unions in both public and private sectors have called for a general strike (planned before the riots started) protesting against the government's economic policies (in short 28 billion Euro bail-out for the bankers - who haven't even offered proof that they need it - versus half a billion for the cohesion/anti-poverty fund - less than half of what was promised last year). The mix might be very dangerous. The papers are suggesting that if the riots continue past Thursday the government is considering enacting "special measures". Meanwhile the fascists are already in the streets mingling with infuriated shop-owners, building their base for the next decade possibly. The Conservative government has also the suicide option of quitting - but it seems unlikely that it would voluntarily do so since they are trailing in the polls by as many as 7 points behind the Socialists, despite a total Green/Left vote that surpasses the 20% mark.

Lastly, let me sum up the reasons that have converged to bring this enormous riot to a start: ubiquitous police brutality against youth, immigrants, the weak - brutality that routinely goes unpunished as it is swept under the rug; deep systemic corruption and perception of corruption; increasing income gaps; entry level monthly wages in specialized jobs < 700 euro that don't visibly lead to something better; precarity for the under 35s; a life-suppressing yet utterly ineffective educational system; the death of hope; the break-up of existing social patterns; the decay of public services; a justice system plagued with scandal itself; massive bailouts for the bankers - the same bankers who simply refuse to enact laws that they don't like (no, really). And on top of that the Crisis promising even more immiseration and discomfort... Now that I look at the list, the question really is: why didn't this explosion happen sooner?

[cross-posted in the European Tribune]

Friday, September 12, 2008

Naomi Klein responds to critics

/ a mob of straw men /

A while ago I ran across a criticism of Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" by Jonathan Chait, editor at the New Republic, and not an impressive prognosticator, titled Dead Left. Had one not read the book, it could possibly sway somebody into believing that it was some sort of debunking of Klein's positions regarding disaster capitalism and neoliberalism (an excerpt of the book can be found here). Reading the criticism however after having actually read the book, you're left to fume about the hordes of wild straw men that Chait has let loose, the implicit ad hominems and the disingenuousness displayed. Simply put Chait either skimmed through the book, or he was consciously distorting Klein's positions.

I was fairly sure that Klein would respond to this and as mentioned in the Opinion Mill that this would produce "a debate in which she defends The Shock Doctrine against Chait’s schlock snarking... [making] mincemeat out of him." Well she responded and she did make mincemeat out of him - and the Cato Institute which published a briefing paper with what seems as an equally unconvincing attack against Klein.

In Naomi Klein's response, she tears down among other claims, the single argument against the book that I though had merit: the assertion that she doesn't mention Milton Friedman's opposition to the Iraq war, despite attributing to him the political ancestry of the ideas that leas to the Shock treatment of Iraq. Yes, it wasn't an essential part of the argument, surely, but it should have been mentioned. Well I was wrong. Although Friedman was against the war in 2006 (taking his word for it: "As it happens, I was opposed to going into Iraq from the beginning. I think it was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States of America ought to be involved in aggression"), Klein points to an interview with the Nobel Laureate in the German magazine Focus in April, 2003 (original German, English translation), where Friedman sounds pretty much the cheerleader for Bush's invasion, and mixes cynicism with quite astonishingly poor predictions about the near future (and not only about Iraq) - a magnificent display of assertive non-wisdom, really.

Anyway, I yearn for the day when anyone meaningfully left of center will be attacked for things he or she said and wrote, rather than for the reviewer's misunderstanding of it (there must be some valid criticism of Chomsky somewhere, by people who have actually read him and are to his right - right? So far I haven't found any). It has been pointed out that among the serious, you can't even agree pretty much with Naomi Klein, without first denouncing her in some way.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

On drug resistant bacteria and the invisible hand

/ deadly efficiency /

From the New Yorker, Superbugs:

In the past, large pharmaceutical companies were the primary sources of antibiotic research. But many of these companies have abandoned the field. “Eli Lilly and Company developed the first cephalosporins,” Moellering told me, referring to familiar drugs like Keflex. “They developed a huge number of important anti-microbial agents. They had incredible chemistry and incredible research facilities, and, unfortunately, they have completely pulled out of it now. After Squibb merged with Bristol-Myers, they closed their antibacterial program,” he said, as did Abbott, which developed key agents in the past treatment of gram-negative bacteria. A recent assessment of progress in the field, from U.C.L.A., concluded, “FDA approval of new antibacterial agents decreased by 56 per cent over the past 20 years (1998-2002 vs. 1983-1987),” noting that, in the researchers’ projection of future development only six of the five hundred and six drugs currently being developed were new antibacterial agents. Drug companies are looking for blockbuster therapies that must be taken daily for decades, drugs like Lipitor, for high cholesterol, or Zyprexa, for psychiatric disorders, used by millions of people and generating many billions of dollars each year. Antibiotics are used to treat infections, and are therefore prescribed only for days or weeks. (The exception is the use of antibiotics in livestock, which is both a profit-driver and a potential cause of antibiotic resistance.)

Beyond this, the article is rather unsettling; we're overusing antibiotics to ineffectiveness it seems, and there doesn't seem to be an easy way out, maggot saliva notwithstanding. Vaccines might help in the not so near future, or then again maybe not that much. Their lethal impact is however terrifying.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Going privately postal

/ letters to nowhere /
The EU commission warns over "ploys" to protect public postal services, meaning attempts to minimize public cost. These ploys include apparently wildly unreasonable demands:

...Finland has in theory opened its market to full competition but insists on a fee from new entrants if they won't offer their service across all the territory, the official said.

"That, for us, is a freedom of establishment issue," the official added, referring to a plank of EU law that can be mobilised to stop a country hindering competition.

Brussels is also concerned about "protectionist thoughts" in Belgium where a plan is mooted to make all new entrants offer a service across the entire country, a costly undertaking...

Any attempts to "impose" universal service, are thus deemed unacceptable by the folks in the EU commission (the sensitivity of whom to public sentiment and common sense in the EU will virtually guarantee that any EU related issue put to referendum will fail). As the Apostate Windbag has explained some while ago:

So if the directive supposedly guarantees universal service provision, how exactly will the market provide?

The answer is it won’t, as, again, the Commission admits. In order to ensure universal service provision member states ‘may choose’ from a range of different options: state aid (subsidizing private businesses), public procurement, compensation funds or cost-sharing. In other words, recognizing that private providers will be extremely reluctant to provide loss-making services, the Commission has concluded that to continue to ensure universal service provision, governments will still have to pay for it.

Essentially, we are selling the goose that lays the golden egg. While still having to fund universal provision of service, governments will no longer have the subsidy for this service that business-originated and parcel post previously provided.

But what's the empirical evidence regarding the mythical beast called "benefits to the consumer" the appearance of which precedes but rarely follows privatisations the world over? In the British case, a recent report is rather unequivocal, and I'll let the impeccably unsocialist Telegraph, summarize it as "'No benefit' to opening up mail market":

Opening up the postal market to competition has undermined the future of the Royal Mail and provided “no significant benefit” to consumers or small businesses, a report has said.

It found that since liberalisation individual customers had no more choice in who delivered their letter, but were now faced with a complicated sizing and pricing system.

The review, by a Government-appointed panel, also warned that ending the Royal Mail’s monopoly posed a “substantial threat” to the financial stability of the company and the universal postal service in general.

The Telegraph puts it even more explicitly in a related article eloquently titled "Royal Mail privatisation 'hurts customers'":

Posting a letter has become more expensive and more difficult since the market was opened to competition, a government-backed report said yesterday.

Individual Royal Mail customers now have to contend with higher stamp prices and a complicated sizing system as a result of liberalisation, which has provided them with "no significant benefit".

Seumas Milne notes in the Guardian that:

"...The farce of [Labour's] claims [about the effectiveness of its policies] couldn't have been more clearly demonstrated than in the liberalisation and creeping privatisation of Britain's postal service. Far from "working" or delivering the goods, the corporate-skewed opening up of the market is progressively destroying a publicly owned network at the heart of Britain's social and business life. When New Labour came to power, the Post Office was an effective public monopoly handing over more than £100m profit a year to the public purse. Public and political support saw off successive attempts by the Tories and, more tentatively, Tony Blair to privatise what had become Royal Mail.

But eight years after New Labour began exposing the network to private competition and two years after Royal Mail's 350-year-old monopoly was finally abandoned, the postal service is in crisis and the universal service which guarantees delivery of mail anywhere in the country at a single price is in peril..."

Failures however can always be explained by arguing that reforms haven't been deep enough, or that any shortcomings are temporary etc - while governments are advised to leave the services up for privatisation to rot for a while, so that a demand for reform will make privatisation seem sensible. Local developments of course couldn't be allowed to trail behind.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, comedic genius, dead at 71

/ fuck /

"...But we have flamethrowers. And what this indicates to me, it means that at some point, some person said to himself, "Gee, I sure would like to set those people on fire over there. But I'm way to far away to get the job done. If only I had something that would throw flame on them..."

A few days ago in a rather absurd debate in the Greek blogosphere, I posted in an aggregator forum a link to George Carlin's "euphemism" sketch, the first time I've posted anything about my favorite stand-up comedian (comedic philosopher, really). It didn't help [around 9:05]. He died anyway. Apparently the simple act of my quoting him didn't relieve his heart problems as I learn today, to my utter grief. So in memoriam, Euphemisms:

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Did the United States Create Democracy in Germany?: The Independent Review

/ the raw story from an idealized past /

This Independent Institute review by James L. Payne, casts doubt on claims, current around the time of the invasion of Iraq all over the mainstream media and published by both scholars and think tanks (see this [pdf] on the subject; the whole report was critiqued by Le Monde Diplomatique at the time) in the aftermath of Iraq, that the US had successfully exported democracy to Germany in WWII:

Both advocates and opponents of nation building say that the United States played a key role in helping post-war Germany become a democracy. In fact, a close look reveals that, from the standpoint of democratic nation building, the U.S. occupation of Germany is actually a lesson in what not to do.

The full report can be found here, in PDF format: Did the United States Create Democracy in Germany?. Note that the report is written from a libertarian perspective and it shows in certain criticisms regarding the handling of the German economy and its view of the Marshall plan. However a lot of the facts mentioned are surprising and quite interesting and it seems like a valid case is being made. Quite interesting reading.

via monochrom

Monday, June 9, 2008

The eXile shutting down?

/ in fact I was amazed they got away with all that for so long /
According to the Moscow Times the english language Moscow entertainment (in the broadest possible sense) daily, the eXile, is being "inspected" "to check whether the newspaper had violated media laws or its license". The newspaper's editor Mark Ames, has said that "I get the general sense that they have decided it's time to shut us down, that they're not going to tolerate us anymore". I'm not sure if it has any bearing on the situation, but the last Feature Story - a review of the newspaper's misdeeds over the past 11 years - is currently missing from the newspaper's site (google cached here). [Correction June 11: It's up and working now]

I "discovered" the paper's site in 1999, while in the US, as the Kosovo war was starting. I remained a loyal reader (and in fact a buyer of Taibbi's and Ames' books) ever since. They seemed to offer one of the few sane descriptions of the feeding frenzy of the Yeltsin years - in fact the only western source people I met from or residing in Russia could recognize as having any relation with the reality of the times. Beyond that a mega-dose of cynicism and political incorrectness that was definitely missing from the media on everything in the world. I've been reading more or less regularly, stuff ranging from the infuriating to the sublime from the eXile for nearly a decade now (always expecting its demise - in fact the aforementioned Moscow resident told me that they must be CIA agents or something, because it's amazing they're not dead, much less still in press).

Hopefully they'll weather this one out too.

Update: And you can help them too! Apparently they need money to relocate and they're asking for donations.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Give me more oil or I'll hold my breath", a new school of American foreign policy is growing

/ how to generate Onionnesque headlines - for real /
On the heels of US presidential candidate Clinton's pledges to smash OPEC in a confident if utterly vague and unspecified way, reaching the "hollow threat" concept to unprecedented heights, the US congress has one-upped her, passing a bill to sue OPEC over oil prices, under US law, a move that even the hypertrophic jurisdiction cheerleaders in the current White House think is a bad idea. Ignore that in the current price range most oil producers are producing at near capacity. Notice however that the implementation of their proposals can only be established militarily and would certainly destroy supply along with demand (demand destruction in the form of mountains dead people, I mean to imply), to reach an uncertain final balance.

Meanwhile, back in reality, the International Energy Agency (hardly an alarmist institution, one is obliged to notice), flinches, as it is...:

...preparing a sharp downward revision of its oil-supply forecast, a shift that reflects deepening pessimism over whether oil companies can keep abreast of booming demand.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency is in the middle of its first attempt to comprehensively assess the condition of the world's top 400 oil fields. Its findings won't be released until November, but the bottom line is already clear: Future crude supplies could be far tighter than previously thought...

We're heading to a broad acknowledgment of the reality of Peak Oil, it seems, albeit obliquely, and a wide range of experts are predicting rough but promising to scary times, the last link being about the latest predictions of the man who wrote the Hirsch Report. Our world is about to be not very subtly transformed it seems.

This post came about through the utilization of this Eurotrib Diary, a website where peak-oilers (and other commie pinkos such as myself) abound. For a more dedicated peak-oil hub, check out The Oil Drum.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Milgram dissident

/ who disobeys? /
If you haven't heard of the Milgram experiment on obedience, see the relevant Wikipedia article first. Then, if you want, watch Milgram's fascinating short (44') film on the subject, Obedience:

I stumbled upon (via Metafilter) a first person account from one of the people who actually refused to continue the experiment (one of the 15 out of 40 only to do so in Milgram's first experiment), titled Resisting Authority: A Personal Account of the Milgram Obedience Experiments. It is a fascinating story that reveals - aside from the fact that this guy sort of figured that the whole thing might be staged that the man in question was a member of the Communist Party of the USA. This I think is highly relevant and I quote the man in full on his political opinions and their relevance to his behavior in the experiment:
In retrospect, I believe that my upbringing in a socialist-oriented family steeped in a class struggle view of society taught me that authorities would often have a different view of right and wrong than mine. That attitude stayed with me during my three and one half years of service in the army, in Europe, during World War II. Like all soldiers, I was taught to obey orders, but whenever we heard lectures on army regulations, what stayed with me was that we were also told that soldiers had a right to refuse illegal orders (though what constituted illegal was left vague).
In addition, in my position during the late 1940s as a staff member of the Communist Party, in which I held positions as chairman in New Haven and Hartford, I had become accustomed to exercising authority and having people from a variety of backgrounds and professions carry out assignments I gave them. As a result, I had an unorthodox understanding of authority and was not likely to be impressed by a white lab coat.
In the early 1950s, I was harassed and tailed by the FBI, and in 1954, along with other leaders of the Communist Party in Connecticut, I was arrested and tried under the Smith Act on charges of "conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence." We were convicted, as expected, and I was about to go to jail when the conviction was overturned on appeal. I believe these experiences also enabled me to stand up to an authoritative "professor."
This is not to say that membership in the Communist Party made me or anyone else totally independent. Many of us, in fact, had become accustomed to carrying out assignments from people with higher positions in the Party, even when we had doubts. Would I have refused to follow orders had the experimental authority figure been a "Party leader" instead of a "professor"? I like to think so, as I was never a stereotypical "true believer" in Party doctrine. This was one of the reasons, among others, that I left the Party in the late 1950s. In any event, I believe that my political experience was an important factor in determining my skeptical behavior in the Milgram experiment.

Update June 20 2008: A recent trial of the Milgram experiment concludes that: "Among other things, we found that today people obey the experimenter in this situation at about the same rate they did 45 years ago"...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Guantanamo:..."rats are treated with more humanity"

/ sami al-hajj is free /
Sami Al-Hajj the AL Jazeera cameraman arrested and detained without cause in the Guantanamo prison camp, is now free, realeased on May 1st. A campaign for the release of Al Hajj has been active these past six years, a cause which was well known in the Arab world, but not as much reported in the West (see this recent NYT article though). His case was picked up by Amnesty International and there was a campaign for his release. Recently sketches/cartoon of his from Guantanamo were forbidden release by the gulag's authorities, but were re created from their descriptions by Lewis Peake, a political cartoonist:

This is Sami Al Hajj's interview after he was released:

I quote from the moving interview as reported in the World Socialist Web Site the following shocking (well, for those whose view of the world is informed by the Mainstream Media, anyway) statement:

Although US officials have given multiple rationales for his detention, al-Hajj told reporters that a primary purpose was “to abort free media reporting” in the Middle East. He said that in the hundreds of interrogations to which he was subjected, his captors repeatedly tried to get him to say there was a link between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda.

Thus Al Hajj was used as a hostage and abused as a mafia abductee in the war against Al Jazeera. The War against Al Jazeera I emphasize not Al Qaeda. But hey what's he gonna do? Sue? Yeah right...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Warzone business opportunities or Why Kill 'Em If you can't Use 'Em

/ balkan mortuary /

Tales of organ trafficking by the KLA during the Kosovo campaign surfaced recently:

BELGRADE, Serbia: Serbia's war crimes prosecutor is looking into reports that dozens of Serbs captured by rebels during the war in Kosovo were killed so their organs could be trafficked, the prosecutor's office said Friday.

The Serbian prosecutor's office said it received "informal statements" from investigators at the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, that dozens of Serbs imprisoned by Kosovo Albanian rebels were taken to neighboring Albania in 1999 and killed so their organs could be harvested and sold to international traffickers.

Bruno Vekaric, the Serbian prosecutor's spokesman, said later on B92 radio that Serbian war crimes investigators have also received their own information about alleged organ trafficking, but not enough for a court case. Vekaric said Serb investigators also received reports suggesting there might be mass graves in Albania containing the bodies of the Serb victims.

Serbian media reported that the issue was brought into the open in a book written by former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that is to be published in Italy on April 3.

According to Serbia's Beta news agency, which carried parts of the book in Serbian, Del Ponte said her investigators had been informed that some 300 Serbs were killed for organ trafficking.

The Beta report quoted Del Ponte as saying in the book that her investigators were told the imprisoned Serbs were first taken to prison camps in northern Albania where the younger ones were picked out, and their organs were later sold abroad.

Here's the more detailed story from Belgrade's B92 and here is the story in Jurist.

To this Doug Muir responded over at A Fistful of Euros claiming that the story is unlikely on a number of grounds. While it is a matter of speculation and no one can positively determine that the crimes described did indeed happen, all of Doug's points seem moot to me:

- DM claims that 300 Serbs is over a half of all missing Serbs; this is debatable. The Serb side is claiming that over 3000 Kosovar Serbs are missing, but even if we are talking about a total of 400 missing, it doesn't stretch imagination much to picture an organized operation in which prisoners were directed to such camps - anyway the IHT article quoted above speaks of "dozens" of Serb prisoners. Other sources state that the number seems to be "at least 100" or "two trucks full of people". Thus, even if 300 is an inflated number (which it might well be) this does not disallow the possibility of the gist of the story being true.

- DM suggests that the great difficulty of disposing 300 bodies and of keeping silent about it afterwards makes the story unlikely. He compares the situation with the fact that the Serbian state didn't manage to keep secret neither the executions or the mass graves of abducted Albanian Kosovars. He thus seems to mistake state efficiency in Serbia and Albania with Mob efficiency (in either of these countries actually). Since the organ snatchers, if indeed they existed, would have to be connected with the mob, this isn't much of a problem. I'm sure that neither disposing 300 people a year or, much more, convincing people to remain silent about it, is something that is way beyond the capabilities of any self-respecting Mafia (see John Stanfa on corpse-disposal technique).

- Doug also suggests that the Albanian government would have to be complicit in such an operation. Not at all. Trafficking in people, including cases of organ snatching, already occur and have been occurring for way over a decade in much of the developing world and Eastern Europe, certainly including both Albania and Kosovo, and certainly without government complicity in most cases. In fact a few years ago a Greek-Albanian organ smuggling ring (mentioned here) was, according to investigations, active in Greek and Albanian hospitals and smuggled human organs through diplomatic pouch, having certain Albanian diplomats on the payroll as well. This was certainly neither done with the assistance or help of the Albanian government (DM brushes off a bit too lightly the connection between Berisha the Socialist Party and the KLA,but that's another story). I remind everybody that the border at the time we're talking about was quite porous with refugees coming in and out of Albania.

- The idea that this is a really difficult process, given the assistance of organizations that are superb smugglers of goods and people, have access to hospitals and doctors and very fast vehicles of all types, seems likewise an exaggeration. Again any decent-sized mafia could easily pull this over. Otherwise there would be no illegal organ trafficking trade at all. Something which is not the case.

Thus, while I agree that this is very far from proven, I'm much less confident that the whole story can be dismissed as "probably bullshit". If the story is totally bogus what in the world could make Carla Del Ponte of all people, include it in her book? And neither of Doug's two alternative scenarios regarding the "yellow house" is plausible IMHO. Firstly because no one in Albania would deny involvement in setting up a hospital for the KLA (which anyway could easily be disguised as a hospital for fleeing Kosovars) and secondly because the "torture-camp" idea, as Doug himself notes, doesn't explain why anybody would do this in Albania rather than on the field in Kosovo.

Two things to add:

1. The story itself is important in a sense that has little to do with whether it is actually true: This is an innovation, an idea that merges seamlessly with the current zeitgeist of market-driven-everything. It is a brilliant way to make a direct profit from what are usually considered to be martial waste products. The idea is so good that I'm willing to bet that if Dick Cheney has heard about it, having already dispensed with the most of the provisions of the Geneva conventions, he has his legal team turning the idea into some sort of non-biddable contract for KBR to sign, giving it full authorization for the expedient trafficking salvaging of usable organs from terrorists and other Arabs. This has the potential to be something that is praised in the OpEd columns of the WSJ, blessed by various US congregations and sold as some form of yet another triumph in the annals of ghoulishness graverobbing colonialism humanitarian-war. Similarly, smaller markets could emerge, as a vast array of mafias big and small will be rushing to war zones with medical trucks, doctors and nurses, in order to utilize the soon to be remains of those about to die. Thus, both legal and black market supply of organs will increase. The only problem will be keeping supplies of bootleg organs at low enough levels as to not effect prices by much. Everybody (that matters, anyway) wins! $$$$$$!!!! € € € € €!!!!!

2. Regardless of the plausibility and validity of the scenario, one can be certain that, had Carla Del Ponte heard of any similar reports of organ trafficking in 1999, but from the other side, i.e. were the accused body snatchers Serbs, with exactly the same evidence to back this up:

a. It would be out in the open well before CDP decided to write a book.
b. A Hollywood film about it would already have been released with a star cast and presented as fact
c. The alleged center of detention and organ snatching would be by now a byword for modern evil, casually referred to as such by pundits on both sides of the Atlantic.
d. The people claiming that the story was "possibly bullshit" would be dismissed as pro-Milosevic patsies or something like that.
e. I'd be writing a similar post complaining that were the perpetrators of the alleged crimes, anything other than Serbs and were the victims Serbs, people would dismiss the story as not very plausible and in fact it would barely make the news.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Covert War in Palestine

/ making civil wars /
A small price (for others) to pay for building democracy no doubt:
The Gaza Bombshell:
"Vanity Fair has obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the U.S. and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by Dahlan, and armed with new weapons supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power. (The State Department declined to comment.)

But the secret plan backfired, resulting in a further setback for American foreign policy under Bush. Instead of driving its enemies out of power, the U.S.-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories

/ simple truths /
This report: A/HRC/7/17 of 21 January 2008, was presented to the UN Human Rights Council by Special Rapporteur John Dugard, a South African legal scholar and 1980s anti-apartheid activist. From the report, which is of significant relevance given the current situation in Occupied Palestine, I would like to highlight the following very clear and very insightful assessment:

...Terrorism is a scourge, a serious violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. No attempt is made in the reports to minimize the pain and suffering it causes to victims, their families and the broader community. Palestinians are guilty of terrorizing innocent Israeli civilians by means of suicide bombs and Qassam rockets. Likewise the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are guilty of terrorizing innocent Palestinian civilians by military incursions, targeted killings and sonic booms that fail to distinguish between military targets and civilians. All these acts must be condemned and have been condemned.3 Common sense, however, dictates that a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or military occupation. While such acts cannot be justified, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation. History is replete with examples of military occupation that have been resisted by violence - acts of terror. The German occupation was resisted by many European countries in the Second World War; the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) resisted South Africa's occupation of Namibia; and Jewish groups resisted British occupation of Palestine - inter alia, by the blowing up of the King David Hotel in 1946 with heavy loss of life, by a group masterminded by Menachem Begin, who later became Prime Minister of Israel. Acts of terror against military occupation must be seen in historical context. This is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. U ntil this is done peace cannot be expected, and violence will continue. In other situations, for example Namibia, peace has been achieved by the ending of occupation, without setting the end of resistance as a precondition. Israel cannot expect perfect peace and the end of violence as a precondition for the ending of the occupation.

... A further comment on terrorism is called for. In the present international climate it is easy for a State to justify its repressive measures as a response to terrorism - and to expect a sympathetic hearing. Israel exploits the present international fear of terrorism to the full. But this will not solve the Palestinian problem. Israel must address the occupation and the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law it engenders, and not invoke the justification of terrorism as a distraction, as a pretext for failure to confront the root cause of Palestinian violence - the occupation.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Five of the west's most senior military officers and strategists" lose it

/ how I learned to stop worrying and use the Bomb /, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
General Jack D. Ripper - Dr. Strangelove

The Guardian reports that five prominent military officers have submitted a "manifesto for a new NATO" which advocates that

The west must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to try to halt the "imminent" spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction...

In this document the five former armed forces chiefs from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, claim that:

a "first strike" nuclear option remains an "indispensable instrument" since there is "simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world".

The manifesto as presented by the Guardian is like something out of an updated Dr. Strangelove movie. It purports to defend the West's values, lamenting that "the west is struggling to summon the will to defend them". The particular subset of the West's values being defended hails from the colonial era, with a healthy dose of the "shoot first and see who's dead later" ethos which has endeared billions of the unfortunate portion of humanity to the West and its values for some centuries now...

The threats to "our values and way of life" as presented in this document are apparently the following:

1. Political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism.

As I'm quite certain that this is not a call for nuking either the Huckabee headquarters or the Vatican, or indeed of turning the world's most powerful fundamentalist state, Saudi Arabia, into a radioactive desert, I assume that political fanaticism refers (as it does traditionally in these circles) to any political power that opposes a very narrowly defined set of western interests, as illustrated here; and religious fundamentalism, as a threat, refers to non-governmental Islamic fundamentalist actors - and possibly Iran. To make this last point more explicit it is repeated in the list as a second threat (international terrorism):

2. The "dark side" of globalisation, meaning international terrorism, organised crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Now, the first two have existed for a long time, with much less radical proposals for their elimination. In fact organized crime has had frequently mutually beneficial relations with western intelligence agencies. As for the spread of weapons of mass destruction the report apparently means the spread of weapons of mass destruction to countries we don't like (such as Iran and North Korea) and where we don't actually support their efforts to acquire them. The countries not-so-subtly indicated here, however, are motivated to obtain these weapons in no small part exactly because of the actions of the leading western power and the realization that they might be next in line for the carnage euphemistically "regime change" if they don't get them quick, and by the insane statements of the sort that these five Generals are making.

Thus the threat here again is either Iran and North Korea (which would be yet another incentive for those two countries to acquire any sort of WMDs they can get their hands on as fast as possible), or "organized crime" and non-state entities. If the latter is the case however, one wonders what kind of nuclear or conventinal deterrent effect on these organizations' actions is imagined. The only scenario I can think of is either blackmail ("we will bomb the countries in which these organization are based and everybody in them, regardless of whether the organizations are in fact a very small part of the population of said countries"), or a declaration of the intent of exterminating huge numbers of civilians in blind retaliation to a possible strike against "the West". One wonders whether this includes the bombing of Moscow in retaliation to a strike by the Russian mafia, or an invasion of Sicily and Southern Italy in retaliation against violent acts by the three branches of Organized Crime there. I doubt it.

3. Climate change and energy security, entailing a contest for resources and potential "environmental" migration on a mass scale.

Now, it is interesting to note that on both of these issues these former NATO commanders assume that there is a military role for the alliance, which is rather doubtful. Unless of course they imagine that the forced migration of millions due to climatic changes can be accomplished by creating a huge military fence around the most severely afflicted areas, thus letting the people that live in them starve in an extended concentration camp. Or unless they think that the "contest for energy resources" between Arctic states should be decided by forcefully excluding the main non-NATO (and non-Western) player in this new Great Thawing Game, namely Russia. That is indeed a situation which might potentially create a nuclear confrontation, but one has difficulty to understand exactly which of the West's values will be defended - other than greed that is... The prospect of a nuclear confrontation over Arctic fossil fuels (which is what they're talking about here) and the knowledge that it is seriously considered by "senior NATO military officers and strategists", is rather frightening... I imagine that military action to keep those damn Arctic fossil fuels in the ground, is not what is meant here, and the concept of modifying our way of life (and our energy production and consumption patterns) in order to mitigate climate change is beyond the scope of this proposal...

4. The weakening of the nation state as well as of organisations such as the UN, Nato and the EU.

I fail to see how this constitutes a threat, but one should note that the UN has been weakened most recently by US unilateralism and NATO, if indeed it has been weakened, has done so because it seems irrelevant nowadays to an increasing number of citizens in NATO-member countries. As for the EU, I fail to see how it has been weakened in any real sense.

These are the threats then. And what do these five military men suggest NATO does to face them? Among other things, the following:

To prevail, the generals call for an overhaul of Nato decision-taking methods, a new "directorate" of US, European and Nato leaders to respond rapidly to crises, and an end to EU "obstruction" of and rivalry with Nato. Among the most radical changes demanded are:

1. A shift from consensus decision-taking in Nato bodies to majority voting, meaning faster action through an end to national vetoes.

2. The abolition of national caveats in Nato operations of the kind that plague the Afghan campaign.

3. No role in decision-taking on Nato operations for alliance members who are not taking part in the operations.

4. The use of force without UN security council authorisation when "immediate action is needed to protect large numbers of human beings".

Let's translate this: The "overhaul of Nato decision-taking methods" and the "new 'directorate' of US, European and Nato leaders" (detailed in proposals 1, 2, 3), really means that NATO should be shielded both from pesky "smaller" members' opinions (suffering from the illusion of being equal partners in the Alliance) on how to use their own armed forces, as well as from possible popular majorities inside NATO-member countries that may disapprove of the Alliance's goals and methods. In fact this is a call for terminating (or at least limiting) public participation through elected governments in NATO's decisions. It is a contempt for democracy not at all uncommon among military brass, and quite dangerous for the, supposedly, core values of democracy that the west alleges it is trying to protect and export. This is amply demonstrated by Klaus Naumann's attack on his own country's performance in Afghanistan:

"The time has come for Germany to decide if it wants to be a reliable partner." By insisting on "special rules" for its forces in Afghanistan, the Merkel government in Berlin was contributing to "the dissolution of Nato".

A statement that should be seen in light of the fact that:

An opinion poll carried out by Forsa reported that over 60 percent of Germans wanted the troops brought home.

So Naumann suggests that the Merkel government, already performing a balancing act between its NATO "duties" and public disapproval for any sort of continued German involvement in Afghanistan, should ignore public opinion and, in fact, act exactly opposite to its demands. The legitimacy of such a policy does not seem to be an issue with the good general.

Further, the proposals contribute to the further weakening of state sovereignty (1,2,3), the "end to EU obstruction" weakens the EU, and proposal 4, weakens tremendously the UN. All of the above institutions' weakenings, are presented as threats above... There seems to be a non-trivial contradiction here.

Proposal 4 is, indeed, a direct affront to international law. The highly selective protecting of "large numbers of human beings", as judged by NATO, using its own highly partial criteria, constitutes potentially an act of aggression. I wonder if use of force is considered in protecting Gaza's population from starvation or if NATO would consider intervening in Iraq, to protect the huge numbers of human beings suffering, escaping or dying from the US invasion and its aftermath. The idea that NATO should become judge, jury and executioner of international law, given the history of its most powerful member-states is morally laughable and practically of disastrous potential consequences.

Some idea on how well thought this proposal is, is given by Naumann:

Naumann suggested the threat of nuclear attack was a counsel of desperation. "Proliferation is spreading and we have not too many options to stop it. We don't know how to deal with this."

However no mechanism by which the threat of a NATO nuclear first strike might prevent proliferation spreading is presented. Not knowing how to "deal with this", apparently leads the modern Dr. Strangeloves, to propose a policy that is likely to lead, among other more terrible things, to the acceleration of proliferation. That is, leaving aside the issue of whether nuclear proliferation is actually spreading, or whether there exist silver billets to counter it... I note in passing that Mohamad ElBaradei proposed in 2003, a sensible plan to end nuclear proliferation:

My plan is to begin by setting up a reserve fuel bank, under IAEA control, so that every country will be assured that it will get the fuel needed for its bona fide peaceful nuclear activities. This assurance of supply will remove the incentive – and the justification – for each country to develop its own fuel cycle. We should then be able to agree on a moratorium on new national facilities, and to begin work on multinational arrangements for enrichment, fuel production, waste disposal and reprocessing.

This plan, as Noam Chomsky noted, was rejected by the usual parties:

ElBaradei’s proposal has to date been accepted by only one state, to my knowledge: Iran, in February, in an interview with Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. The Bush administration rejects a verifiable Fissban — and stands nearly alone. In November 2004 the UN committee on disarmament voted in favour of a verifiable Fissban. The vote was 147 to one (United States), with two abstentions: Israel and Britain. Last year a vote in the full General Assembly was 179 to two, Israel and Britain again abstaining. The United States was joined by Palau.

All in all this proposal provides an excellent example of why generals should be restrained from participating in any kind of policy planning. Jack D. Ripper would be smiling.

[Crossposted at The European Tribune]

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Time magazine: Support the antiquities traffickers

/ incitation to plunder /

This is an outrageous piece of journalism from Time magazine in which the benefits of "investing in antiquities" are extolled, with no mention of the fact that the vast majority of such "assets" are the product of plunder, perpetrated by various smuggling gangs, at various times.

The article has the gall to begin by describing rather approvingly an auction of a Sumerian (?) artifact sold recently at Sotheby's, which - as Iraq is under colonial control (and obviously can't protect or demand back its cultural treasures) - is rather outrageous.

While it might indeed be true that "no matter how ornate a stock certificate might be, an Egyptian amulet is always going to look better in your living room display case", it's probably even more accurate to say that the amulet might look better in a museum in Cairo. And, as Digging Digitally suggests, the article doesn't even "hint at the larger external costs and widespread destruction that is part of this trade".

On the issue of post-colonial cultural plunder and antiquities trafficking from museums, Greekworks had a couple of interesting articles a couple of years ago, which are to the point and cutting in their critique.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Left Review - Qin Hui: Dividing the Big Family Assets

/ uncommon analysis /

This is an interview with Qin Hui, almost four years old now (brought to my attention via metafilter, triggered in turn by this recent piece), in which the historian discusses a broad range of issues:

Where is the PRC heading? One of its leading intellectual iconoclasts, after describing his origins in the Cultural Revolution, offers a long-range comparative perspective on the Chinese state’s strategy for land and industry today. The divisions in the intelligentsia and the fate of the peasantry, the overwhelming majority of the country, as China enters the WTO.

This is a treasure trove of information and insight for those (like me) who have a superficial knowledge of current China. It offers glimpses of the Cultural Revolution from within (a very different and more nuanced situation than that usually found in western publications), the situation of the peasantry and the problems facing today's China. He also points out the implications of China's current situation for the West:

Obviously, in the manufacturing sector no labour force—either under the welfare system of developed countries, or backed by trade unions in Third World or East European democracies—can ‘compete’ with a Chinese working class that has no right to unions or to labour negotiations. So too, Western farmers who rely on state subsidies may find it difficult to compete with Chinese exporters who can rely on peasant producers who have never enjoyed any protection, only strict control—causes underlying many of the ‘miracles’ in today’s China that often seem equally baffling to Right and Left in the West. In fact, though no one in the contemporary world will say so, such a situation is not without historical precedent. Around the sixteenth century, some East European countries became highly competitive in commercial agriculture by establishing a ‘second serfdom’. You can find people in today’s Chinese think-tanks who understand this very well. In some internal discussions they bluntly state that, as China has no comparative advantages in either resources or technology in today’s world, and cannot advance either to a real socialism or a real capitalism, its competitive edge can only come from its unique system of dependent labour.

Factually, I admit they are to a great extent right. Without this labour system China wouldn’t have been able to pull off the ‘miracle of competitiveness’, which attracts such interest from the West, the former Soviet bloc and many Third World democracies—but which they will never be able to emulate. The question I would ask, however, is whether a ‘miracle’ of this kind is sustainable? We might want to look at the long-term consequences of the ‘second serfdom’ in Eastern Europe. Nowadays there is a lot of talk in the US about a ‘China threat’. Actually, as no big power emerged out of the sixteenth-century East European experience, it is highly doubtful whether the current Chinese miracle could continue to a point where it really did threaten the West. But even if economic magic of this sort, that does not treat people as human beings, did take China to the top of the world, what would be its value? Such a development would first of all threaten the existence of the Chinese people themselves.

I would also highlight this insightful comment:

…The merit of general ‘isms’ lies in the universal values that inform them; yet the specific theory of a given ‘ism’ is usually constructed in response to particular historical questions, not universal ones. Therefore, when we advocate universal values we should be careful not to confuse them with universal questions. My slogan is: ‘isms’ can be imported; ‘questions’ must be generated locally; and theories should always be constructed independently…