Saturday, February 28, 2015

The many ways to lose your voice

Ophelia posted earlier today about Deeyah Khan’s article, “Women’s Voices Must Not Be Silenced.” It struck me because it touched on what I’ve been thinking about in recent weeks, especially since learning about the heartrending plight of Tamil writer Perumal Marugan last month. Khan argues:
We need to be able to guarantee the safety of all artists and activists for human rights, so that it no longer takes extraordinary courage to call for a better world – so that every person with the ability to imagine peace, equality, progress and justice can express their dreams and hopes without fear.
We tend to focus on the most desperate cases, on the bravest people who already write and continue writing in the face of threats, violence, and repression. My culture even tends to romanticize so-called artistic suffering, to the point that personal pain and political repression are thought to be the basis for and even a requirement of great art. But even the most courageous artists defending free expression don’t want to be martyrs. They want to live in a world in which there are no martyrs to free expression and in which voices aren’t lost. And there are so many ways to lose them.

If you’re raised to believe you have nothing to say, or nothing anyone wants to hear, your voice can be lost. If you’re ignored, your voice can be lost. If you’re abused or taught to fear and hide from the world, your voice can be lost. If you’re not taught how to read or to express yourself, your voice can be lost. If you’re hungry or malnourished, your voice can be lost. If you’re led to believe that writing isn’t something people like you should do – because you’re a boy, because you’re a girl, because you’re black, because you’re poor – your voice can be lost. If you’re indoctrinated, punished for independent or “sinful” thought, and sheltered from new ideas, your voice can be lost. If you’re bullied and terrorized at school, your voice can be lost. If you’re traumatized as a child by war or mass violence, your voice can be lost. If you’re forced to spend your childhood working on a farm or in a factory or taking care of others, your voice can be lost. If no one in your world understands or believes in you, your voice can be lost. If you have nowhere to share your ideas, your voice can be lost.

If higher education isn’t affordable, your voice can be lost. If every day is a struggle just to survive or to care for your family, your voice can be lost. If you have to work long hours to support yourself or your family, your voice can be lost. If you’re homeless, your voice can be lost. If you’re unemployed and lose hope, your voice can be lost. If you’re terrorized and abused by your partner, your voice can be lost. If you don’t have access to books or research materials, your voice can be lost. If you have to migrate and never have secure legal status, your voice can be lost. If you’re a refugee, your voice can be lost. If you become sick and don’t have access to health care, your voice can be lost. If you have a disability your society can’t or won’t remedy or accommodate, your voice can be lost.

If your country’s government censors or destroys your work, your voice can be lost. If they threaten you or your family, your voice can be lost. If they spy on you, your voice can be lost. If they criminalize writing about the subjects you care about, your voice can be lost. If they block your access to the internet and to communities you could join, your voice can be lost. If they bar you from studying, your voice can be lost. If they secretly destroy your career, your voice can be lost. If they alienate you from colleagues and friends, your voice can be lost. If they blackmail you, your voice can be lost. If they blacklist you, your voice can be lost. If they make you think you’re hated, harmful, or irrelevant, your voice can be lost. If you’re denied reproductive rights, your voice can be lost. If they conscript you into the military, your voice can be lost. If they convince you that it’s futile to continue writing since your work will never be published or have an audience, your voice can be lost. If they (or a corporation) launch an underground campaign to smear and discredit you, your voice can be lost. If they imprison you, your voice can be lost. If they call you insane, if they institutionalize and forcibly drug you, your voice can be lost. If they beat or torture you, your voice can be lost. If your country is invaded and thrown into chaos, your voice can be lost.

If your society ignores, dismisses, or mocks you or your work because you’re a woman, or black, or gay, or undocumented,…, your voice can be lost. If you’re harassed or threatened or stalked online, your voice can be lost. If you’re raped, your voice can be lost. If your family threatens you, your voice can be lost. If they claim you’ve dishonored them, your voice can be lost. If they force you into marriage, your voice can be lost. If your community denies you the right to go out alone, to socialize, to travel, to experience life, your voice can be lost. If fanatics threaten you or your family, your voice can be lost. If they intimidate media outlets so they won’t publish your words, your voice can be lost. If they create a climate of fear by attacking and killing writers and artists, your voice can be lost. If they create a climate of fear by attacking and killing black people, immigrants, Jews, Muslims,…, your voice can be lost. If they menacingly protest the presentation of your work, your voice can be lost. If they put a bounty on your head, your voice can be lost. If they convince you that things are only going to get worse for writers, your voice can be lost. If they force you into exile, your voice can be lost.

We should admire the bravery of people like Raif Badawi and his colleagues, like Avijit Roy and Rafida Ahmed Banna, like the staff at Charlie Hebdo, like the women listed by Deeyah Khan. We should honor those martyred for their courage. But we should understand that the struggle to realize the right of free expression involves so much more than these desperate battles, and so much more than the strength and resilience of individual writers. It involves the long struggle for a world that not only does away with the many forces that silence people but actively cultivates free expression. I think this also means greater empathy; it means not demanding some narrow model of heroism from writers.

I’ll leave you with Crystal Valentine, reciting her poem on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show this morning:

Freethought blogger Avijit Roy hacked to death on the street in Bangladesh

“All over the world, the nonreligious are growing in number faster than ever before. Nonbelievers are not only valuable contributors to society; they also constitute a large fraction of the world’s intellectual and academic community. Whether it is a courageous sixteen-year-old from Rhode Island or a group of individualistic bloggers on the other side of the world, we should never belittle the endeavors of bold human beings to create rational, secular, and freethinking communities.” – Avijit Roy and Trisha Ahmed, “Freethought Under Attack in Bangladesh,” 2013
Humanist, secular, atheist writer Avijit Roy and his wife, writer Rafida Ahmed Banna, were attacked with cleavers on the street this week, presumably by Islamists, after emerging from a book fair. She suffered serious injuries, and he later died.

The BBC reports on the attack and the situation in Bangladesh:

Taslima Nasreen, a freethought blogger in exile from the country, has posted some pictures of the moments after the horrific attack, which I link to because I think they’re important, if terrible, to see.

The Center for Inquiry has published a statement on their colleague’s murder, where they also make available Roy’s article in the upcoming issue of Free Inquiry:
We at the Center for Inquiry are shocked and heartbroken by the brutal murder of our friend Dr. Avijit Roy in Bangladesh, it is speculated at the hands of Islamic militants. Dr. Roy was a true ally, a courageous and eloquent defender of reason, science, and free expression, in a country where those values have been under heavy attack….
His daughter Trisha Ahmed has written on Facebook:
My dad was a prominent Bengali writer, most famous for his books about science and atheism. He and my mom went to Bangladesh last week to publicize his books at Bangladesh’s national book fair. 15 hours ago, Islamic fundamentalists stabbed my dad to death. My mom was severely wounded from the attack and is still in the hospital. His death is headline news in Bangladesh.

The reason I’m sharing this is less for me and more for my dad. He was a firm believer in voicing your opinion to better the world.
He and my mom started dating when I was six years old. In the twelve years that followed, he became my friend, my hero, my most trusted confidante, my dance partner (even though we’re both terrible dancers), and my father. Not once did he tell me to simmer down or be more polite; he taught me to be informed, bold, and unafraid.

To say that I’m furious or heartbroken would be an understatement. But as fucked up as the world is, there’s never a reason to stop fighting to make it better. I’ll carry the lessons he taught me and the love he gave me forever. I love you so much, Dad. Thank you for every single thing

What would help me the most right now is if everyone (even people I’ve never met) could share his story. His story should be heard in the US because Bangladesh is powerless; it’s corrupt, there is no law and order, and I highly doubt that any justice will come to the murderers. I want his story to be on US headline news, not only Bangladesh’s. If you could just do all you can to spread word of what’s happened, I would appreciate it so so much. Inform your schools, your communities, write all that you can. Please don’t allow my dad to die in vain.

Please use your influence to help bring some sort of justice to the atrocious acts that have been committed against my parents.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Would you eat them?

A hypothetical* question for carnists: Were hybrid dogpigs or catcows to be created, would you eat them? Why or why not?

* And rhetorical, both because I’m closing comments and because I hope people give some thought to their reasons.

Citizenfour and Online Covert Action

Of course, everyone should see Citizenfour:

Looking at the summary of disclosures since 2013, I was reminded (?) about the revelations at the Intercept a year ago about the GCHQ unit JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group) and its program of “Online Covert Action.”

Glenn Greenwald wrote at the time:
Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.

…The broader point is that, far beyond hacktivists, these surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats.

…Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.
It seems that for some reason this information didn’t fully register with me at the time. Naturally, it’s of great interest to me. Two observations:

First, corporations do this, too.

Second, seeing the documents (like the set of slides Greenwald links to – “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations”) evokes a mixture of rage and…sadness. Someone put this presentation together, and this is actual work people do. Like the employees of the repressive secret services of East Germany or Iran, they have, for whatever reason, chosen to devote years if not their lives to this. In some cases, people have dedicated their professional knowledge and understanding of psychology and sociology not to serving real needs, but to manipulating, deceiving, and destroying people in the service of the state. This is their legacy. It’s pathetic.

Venezuela: “Will they forget that they ever refused to lend a hand?”

Michael Albert has a new piece, “Whispering Venezuela?”, which tries to engage some sectors of the Left in an examination of the causes of their relative silence surrounding the ongoing efforts by the US government, in league with the Venezuelan Right, to destabilize and foment a coup against the country’s democratically elected government. Albert wonders about the reasons for this inaction in the face of a serious threat:
Neighborhoods organized, albeit with great difficulty, into councils, and councils into larger communes. Isn't this what an anti authoritarian, non violent, participation-advocating left wants?

Grass roots missions to solve social problems? Expanded education and health care? Democracy defended and plebiscites repeatedly taken and enacted? Do these and many other positive trends mean the Bolivarian project is flawless? Of course not. Do they mean that concern and criticism are unwarranted? Of course not. Do they mean the Bolivarian effort will succeed without doubt? Of course not. But the alternative to being a mindless sycophantic booster need not and should not be being silent or derogatory.

And in any case, why should Venezuela's project being less than perfect deter people from feeling outrage at the right wing and corporate opposition in Venezuela and at U.S. machinations seeking Venezuela's collapse? Why should the Venezuelan project being less than perfect prevent support for the best of Venezuela's efforts as well as constructive criticism of whatever one finds wanting?*

I think no serious progressive person would say the Venezuelan project being less perfect than some abstract textbook conception ought to terminate our support for it. Ought to silence our voices for it. Yet Venezuela being less than abstractly perfect often has had just that effect. Or so it seems to me. [emphasis added]
The article concludes sadly:
It is not the place of revolutionaries to watch world historic endeavors from the sidelines, either castigating aggressively or whispering unobtrusively due to thinking those endeavors aren't perfect, include errors, don't yet evidence complete and absolute freedom. Yes, someone looking on from the side, that way may, when the dust clears, in the socially worst case, be able to intone over the grave of the effort they rejected, ‘see, I told you so…I got it right. They failed’. What a sad kind of self affirmation that would be. And I have to wonder, in a vastly more preferable scenario wherein the rejected project persists and proceeds, will those same critics say, down the road, ‘I was horribly wrong’, or will they forget that they ever refused to lend a hand?
It’s quite perplexing to me that so many seem not to realize that in remaining silent on the matter they’re not only taking an extreme position on the Venezuelan government but in effect allying themselves with the US government and corporations and their view that they have the right to intervene in the democratic processes of Latin American countries. They’re in effect denying these countries’ claims to collective self-governance. They’re in effect choosing the alternative: a vicious neoliberal regime serving US-corporate interests. I can’t imagine that’s what anyone on the Left consciously wants, but it’s the scenario that history has well shown is made more likely by a policy of tacit abandonment.

A coup in Venezuela would have catastrophic consequences for democracy, for equality, for social justice and liberation (including secular) movements, for health, education, and other human rights, not just in Venezuela but throughout the region. People would die. They would be violently oppressed. Their life-chances would be sharply circumscribed. The power of Northern governments and corporations would be vastly increased, and their covert agencies more confident than ever in their ability to override democracy. If you make this more likely through your silence or inaction, you have no right to speak critically about Iran in 1953 or Chile in 1973.

* Here’s a somewhat more critical piece on the government’s policies. And here’s a more general post by me about leftwing movements and governments in Latin America.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I am (still) Charlie: anti-racist

In January and early this month, I wrote here and elsewhere about the murders at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the public reactions to this violence:
“Tragedy at Charlie Hebdo

“Before the massacre”

“Theocrats of all stripes”

“Interview with Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz”

“I wasn’t consulted about that faith compromise, and won’t respect it.”

“Global dog-whistle politics and words we should do without”
I particularly challenged a tendency among some on the Left to rush to accept claims about the racism of CH, to refuse the identification with the victims and survivors of the massacre implied in “Je suis Charlie,” and, when presented with evidence that their initial beliefs were mistaken, either to engage in mental gymnastics to try to uphold those claims in some form or to go silent and let the claims stand:
“A bad epistemic approach is anti-humanist, unwise, and unkind”

“Guest post: The problem with ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’”

“Guest post: The community of the potentially mockable”

“Preparing the ground for future crimes”
I noted at the time that while I thought this approach was unfair, disrespectful, and harmful, in most cases I believed the motives behind it were good. Some on the Left, sadly, just aren’t strong supporters of free expression and the right to blaspheme, and so had little compunction about suggesting that the people at CH were irresponsible or callous. But many others, cognizant of the reality of anti-Muslim bigotry and violence in Europe, (rightly) felt responsible to decry this racism and violence at the same time as they stood for free expression and the right to blaspheme, and (wrongly) saw calling out CH’s alleged racism in these terms.

So my posts at the time were directed at the people on the Left – arguing that for too many the fear of contributing to racism was leading to a failure to follow sound procedures for reaching and defending conclusions. I suspected at the time that some on the Right would take advantage of this episode, using it as an opportune moment to proclaim that (large segments of) the Left defend Islamism or that the vast majority of leftwing claims of racism are unfounded. And they have. (So be it – I’m not interested in their cynical and disingenuous games.) I expected that many would use the defense of CH to advance a racist agenda, dishonestly joining CH to their hateful movement. And they’ve done this as well.

So the Right have fulfilled my low expectations. But I want here to reiterate that my own support of and identification with the staff at Charlie Hebdo was based on a shared commitment not only to defending free expression and blasphemy but to opposing racism. This doesn’t mean I think they’ve been immaculately correct in every possible way; neither has anyone. But they’ve seen these missions – to oppose systemic racism, to fight for social justice, to defend and demand free expression and blasphemy – as generally compatible, while recognizing that this can be complicated in practice and trying to be careful not to set back one of these goals while advancing another.

My support for CH was never just about free expression and blasphemy, but about their real and longstanding anti-racist actions. When I first put the “Je suis Charlie” logo up here in the hours after the attack, this was what I had in mind - a commitment to anti-authoritarianism, real skepticism, anti-racism, social justice, and free expression. All of it, at once.

In practice, of course, this means different things for different people in different contexts. For me, today, in this context, it means:
• bringing attention to rightwing (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, nationalist, imperialist, racist, patriarchal, corporate, neoliberal,…) ideas, practices, and policies in those areas about which I have some knowledge;

• refusing to focus almost entirely on one form of rightwing ideology;

• analyzing the cultural, political, and economic roots of rightwing movements;

• examining the shared bases and common core of all forms of rightwing thought (including, importantly, speciesism);

• promoting liberation and social justice struggles;

• challenging faith and deference toward faith in general and in liberation movements specifically, and encouraging good epistemic practices;

• supporting blasphemy that isn’t hateful, demeaning, or aligned with rightwing projects;

• trying as best I can to do all of this in a spirit of humility, compassion, and fairness

Refugee citizens in a camp city

Prompted by a post at the anthropology blog Savage Minds announcing the relaunch of Allegra Lab, I looked into it and quickly decided to add it to my feeds. Here’s how they describe the site’s purpose:
‘Allegra Lab: Anthropology, Law, Art & World’ ( is a collective of academics, an association and an online experiment founded in 2013. It explores creative ways to fill the ‘dead space’ that exists between traditional modes of academic publication and ongoing scholarly and societal debates. Allegra Lab discusses issues related to anthropology, law, art and beyond, and it is run by a diligent editorial team of professional scholars.
Today they feature a great article by law and human rights scholar Geraldine Renaudiere, “When Camps become Home: Legal Implications of the Long-Term Encampment in Zaatari.” The number of Syrian refugees in the Jordanian camp in what the UNHCR calls a “protracted refugee situation” is large: Zaatari is, according to Renaudiere, “the world’s second-largest refugee camp and the fourth largest city in Jordan.”

It’s a quick and worthwhile read.* From the conclusion:
Indubitably, the worrying situation taking place in Zaatari reflects the shortcomings and the weaknesses of an International protection system which, however well-intentioned, is no longer adapted to the nature of conflicts in the current international environment. It particularly challenges two fundamental assumptions which somehow shaped the refugee protection regime: first, contrary to preconceived ideas, refugees should not be reduced to vulnerable people, unable to assume responsibility or to take their fate into their own hands. On the contrary, despite instability and lack of autonomy, the present example have shown that people progressively re-create social bonds and re-establish a semblance of society thanks to solidarity, structure mechanisms and collective organization.

Secondly, refugees’ protection cannot be limited to temporary response or short-term initiatives. As clearly demonstrated by the case of Zaatari, beyond the emergency stage, a stronger protection framework is needed, especially through human rights standards and effective enforcement mechanisms. This cannot be reached however without external support and assistance from both international organizations and host countries. While the former should better adapt structures of the camp over time, optimize the social organization and progressively grant refugees greater autonomy, host countries’ stronger involvement and support is not only welcomed but will soon become a matter of necessity. In fact, considering its geographical expansion and its population growth, the camp of Zaatari could progressively reach the borders of surrounding Jordan towns.
* Could have used a bit more proofreading/editing – the word “the” is frequently missing, for example.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The US as authoritarian father

The latest ginned-up controversy about whether the US president “loves America” is noteworthy not for the specific content of the so-called debate over the nature of (Obama’s) patriotism – that debate is absurd - but for what it reveals about US political culture.

In the terms of this discussion, the nation isn’t seen as a political community continually created to serve real needs by participating citizens on the basis of reasoned deliberation and evidence. It’s a distant father, to be feared, loved, and idealized, and to whom the only appropriate attitude is one of unquestioning respect, duty, and a willingness to be sacrificed. As I’ve suggested in connection with a related matter, these attitudes, largely beneath conscious recognition, contribute to the support of violence perpetrated by the father-state and his declared representatives against those perceived as weak, ungrateful, disloyal, or threatening.

More democratic models of citizenship and rebellion, of course, are often imperfect and tend to suffer from the very same unconscious distortions and biases, leaving those who espouse them liable to join in the displays of deference toward the father-state and the denigration of those concerns associated with “feminine” care and nurturing. My point here is fourfold: First, we should openly recognize how far these notions diverge from democratic ideals of equality and participation. Second, we should appreciate that many of these political ideas have deep roots in an authoritarian-abusive culture of parenting and largely remain below the conscious surface; this culture needs to be exposed and addressed. Third, given these first two points, we should explicitly oppose any debate in these terms, not just because the attacks are silly partisan hackery and often thinly disguised racism, which they are, but because debate under these premises is woefully unsuited to a democratic political community. Fourth, using this recognition, we should work on developing inclusive models of citizenship and political participation that aren’t fettered by these familial patterns.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Ben Affleck was a guest on the Daily Show a little while ago promoting some film or other. In the course of the discussion, he mentioned that now both he and Jon Stewart had made films about Iran. I’ve been plain about my opinion of Affleck’s dreadful Argo, which Peter Van Buren has recently called “honorary war porn,” and its undeserved Oscar. It shouldn’t be likened to Rosewater in any sense other than that they both concern Iran. (And not even in that sense, really, since Argo isn’t meaningfully about Iran at all, but uses Iran and its people as a backdrop for the struggles and heroics of innocent USians and their swashbuckling covert agents.)

Rosewater is a very different sort of film, both from Argo and from most political films about the Middle East. It actually treats its Iranian characters as human beings, with their own personal and national histories.

This compassionate attitude extends even to the “interrogators” of the nightmarish Evin Prison, like the man assigned to break journalist Maziar Bahari. In this sense, it reminded me somewhat of the fiction film The Lives of Others:

The character Georg Dreyman’s bitter remark to former minister Bruno Hempf after the fall of the GDR – “To think that people like you ruled a country” – could equally describe the pathetic bureaucrats of Iranian repression and their terrible work.

At the same time, unlike Argo and its ilk, which portray Iranians as driven by religious fanaticism, irrational paranoia, and instinctive hatred, Rosewater situates their motives within the real historical context of violent US and UK interference in the country and the region. And it does so without making the film “about” US crimes past or present - it keeps its focus on Iranian experiences.*

My biggest criticisms would be, first, that I wish the film had featured more of Bahari’s imagined conversations with his father and sister, which I found among the most interesting segments, especially as they related to (and to some extent subverted) notions of strength and masculinity. (Perhaps there’s more in Bahari’s book.) Second, the depiction of the democratic movements, while it did capture the energy and optimism of the 2009 election protests, didn’t show the activists and their goals in enough intellectual depth. This leaves the movements vulnerable to being set by British and North American audiences in a self-serving narrative - seen in simplistic terms as reflecting a desire for “Western” consumerist freedom.

* We shouldn’t, of course, lose sight of the fact that the US, UK, and other powerful states haven’t slackened in their efforts to overthrow democratically elected governments and install friendly dictatorial regimes, using slightly more sophisticated versions of the same techniques they employed in Iran in 1953.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

“It's a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”

I HATE that fucking song. HATE. It’s featured, fully into this century, in virtually every single season of singing competitions. And to make matters worse, it’s often chosen by women. Imagine if it were about how “this is a white man’s world.” Can we send it back to 1966?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The best television I watched in 2014

This will be a short one.

For news and commentary, I preferred some shows in the MSNBC line-up: All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and Melissa Harris-Perry (the most diverse of the Sunday shows in 2014 for the second year in a row). On PBS, Bill Moyers remained consistently good. (They’re liberals, but I’m not expecting anarchist television any time soon...) And for comedic political commentary, John Oliver’s weekly show has been a superb addition.

(That clip is actually from this week, but it’s important enough to mention here – I discussed this very issue here last year.)

I continue to enjoy Scandal, Revenge, and Castle on ABC, but there are two other lesser-known shows that captured my interest last year. First, Manhattan on WGN America:

I love the music and look forward to the second season. I can’t do that with the other interesting drama series on a small channel, We TV’s The Divide,

because they cancelled it. Very unhappy about that.

The best art I saw in 2014

We’re now well into February, but I still have a couple of categories to go in my 2014 favorites series.

Chilean artist Francisco Tapia’s work remains my favorite individual piece of 2014. The two others are museum exhibits.

The first is almost a punchline – “You know you’re in Maine when…” “…you’re viewing ‘Andrew Wyeth: The Linda L. Bean Collection’ at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.” It doesn’t get much Mainer than that, unless maybe you’re there snacking on blueberries with Stephen King and a lobster named Bog. A beautiful, wistful exhibit in a gallery overlooking the sea.

The small museum is in a pretty, peaceful location, and I enjoyed their permanent collection quite a bit. My favorite piece was a 1979 sculpture, “The Tyrant,” by Clark Fitz-Gerald. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, they didn’t have any images of it in the gift shop and I can’t find a decent picture online.

The second was the “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” show at the Neue Galerie in New York. The exhibit, so popular they had to extend its run, was extremely well done. It presented the history clearly and set the works (present and missing) in their historical context. One painting I was compelled to return to and ultimately had to tear myself away from was Lasar Segall’s stunning “The Eternal Wanderers”:


I read some reviews of the exhibit later and one concern some reviewers expressed, and which had crossed my mind at the time, was that because the show presented some art that was favored by the Nazis alongside the works they hated, it could lead to the message that art can or should be judged in these terms - if fascists liked it, it’s not good art, and vice versa. It’s a valid concern. The exhibit did show how the Nazis often (mis)interpreted art not on the basis of its political content or the artist’s “race” or politics but on its formal qualities. So an artist doing religious pieces in an expressionistic style, for example, could be persecuted for producing grotesque images or for denigrating or mocking religion, even if he was apolitical (or sympathetic to fascism) and even if he saw his work not as a criticism but as a celebration. The Nazis, unwittingly, were “right” in the sense that many of these works promoted a dangerously humanistic attitude; but that wasn’t the basis for their fearful rejection of these modernists. So it’s a complicated matter, and they probably could have done a better job in addressing it. Overall, though, a tremendous exhibit.

In related news, the Neue Galerie will host “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold” beginning on April 2 and coinciding with the April 3 release of the movie Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren:

(I don't know how good the film is. The trailer isn’t especially promising, and the early critical reviews are negative. On the other hand, it can’t be worse than The Monuments Men. Come to think of it, I learned of both stories through The Rape of Europa, which I would recommend quite highly.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

“…as with many other Dodd-Frank reform provisions…”

This piece by Sam Pizzigati caught my eye because it’s such a great illustration of the depth of the problem and the futility of calls for government (re)regulation of corporations. It’s about a Dodd-Frank provision concerning CEO hedging and how it’s, naturally, not been implemented:
Midway through 2010, lawmakers incorporated into the new Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act a provision that requires corporations to disclose whether or not they let their execs hedge their bets.

But that provision has never gone into effect. On this reform, as with many other Dodd-Frank reform provisions, SEC regulators have been dragging their feet. In the face of heavy corporate lobbying pressure, regulators simply haven’t yet issued the regulations necessary to fully enforce Dodd-Frank.
But here’s the good news:
Today, after over four-and-a-half years of delay on the anti-hedging front, we’ve finally scored a small victory: The SEC has just issued proposed regs on executive hedging.

Let’s keep the emphasis on “small.” These proposed new regulations have to go through a public comment period. We still could be a couple years more from a final set of anti-hedging regs.

And the SEC’s new proposed regs, keep in mind, don’t prohibit execs from betting against their own companies. They just require companies to let us know if they let their execs do this betting.

Still, progress remains progress. We’ve come a step closer to discouraging an outrageous ongoing CEO scam — and that’s a good thing.
It’s a move, after more than four years, in the direction of putting regulations on the books. Not regulations even to stop this one single practice (while others continue and in some cases are re-allowed), but simply to require its ever-so-effective disclosure. Which might or might not actually be implemented or enforced, years in the future, and which will undoubtedly carry laughable penalties for noncompliance.

I believe, based on my knowledge of the needs of humans and other living beings and of capitalism’s history and trajectory, that radical political, social, and economic changes are urgently needed. This is a long-term project, but not a romantic or unrealistic one. It’s the only realistic one. I’m constantly annoyed at people presenting reformist programs, in the face of a mountain of evidence that they’ve long failed and show every sign of continuing to fail in the future, especially as corporations continue to grow in power and influence, as “realistic.” They’re not. Capitalism is not going to be reformed. That’s not going to happen.

This isn’t an argument against reforms. It’s an argument against the idea that capitalism can or will be controlled through reforms and made to serve real needs. The further we move away from real needs and away from the recognition of the escalating damage, the more we focus on technical rules that will neither be truly implemented nor effective, the more illusory and unreal our politics become. So if we’re going to demand reforms, we should demand big ones, reforms that move in the direction of a good society, and nothing less.

Chloe Coscarelli opening vegan restaurant in New York this summer

Having recently recommended her latest cookbook, I was thrilled to discover that chef Coscarelli is planning to open a casual vegan restaurant in the Village in a few months. I look forward to trying it out when I’m in the city!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Judge to US government: Release pictures of detainees being abused

The Intercept reports on a federal judge rejecting the pretexts the government has been using to fight the release of photos of detainee abuse and demanding that they justify withholding each photo on an individual basis or comply with his order to release them:
A federal judge is demanding that the government explain, photo-by-photo, why it can’t release hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of pictures showing detainee abuse by U.S. forces at military prison sites in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a courtroom in the Southern District of New York yesterday, Judge Alvin Hellerstein appeared skeptical of the government’s argument, which asserted that the threat of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda exploiting the images for propaganda should override the public’s right to see any of the photos.

He was “highly suspicious” of the government’s attempt to declare the whole lot of the photos dangerous. “It’s too easy and too meaningless,” he said.

…“We’re at a line in the sand,” Hellerstein declared. “I’m not changing my view.”

He gave the government a week to decide what it wants to do: appeal the order, or put forward a plan to comply with it. He suggested that the government could present the photos to him, in a closed session, and explain their rationale for keeping them secret. He also advised the government not to try to delay “the day of reckoning” by drawing the case out on appeal.

Inside Job and the problem of capitalism

I saw the previews for Inside Job before it was released and was of course interested, but somehow didn’t watch it until now. The 2010 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Inside Job is easily the best of the films about recent financial crimes and the global crisis beginning in 2008.*

It tells the story in a clear way that can be understood by most people even if they have little previous knowledge of the subject. Matt Damon is an outstanding narrator, and when a weariness creeps into his voice, it seems genuine and appropriate. Perhaps my favorite aspect is that the film includes among its subjects the academic economists who are nothing but the courtiers of the finance Caligulas.

As impressed as I am with Inside Job as a documentary and political artwork, I have the same difficulties with it as I do with most work on the history and politics of capitalism. (For what it’s worth, I think Marx often had the same difficulties.) On the one hand, to focus on the decisions and acts of individual CEOs, politicians, economists, and government officials to some extent distracts from the inherent and powerful systemic tendencies of capitalism. The claim made in the film’s trailer and underpinning its entire argument is that the 2008 meltdown was “avoidable.” If people, especially politicians and government regulators, had chosen to behave otherwise, so the narrative goes, things would have gone very differently. This is related to a presentation of the decades following World War II as an era of great stability due to tight regulation of banking. The correlate is that we can “return” to prosperous, stable era through reregulation, criminal prosecutions, and renewed government oversight and responsible corporate ethics.

But these claims are highly questionable. I remember, back in the 1990s, becoming increasingly angry as I read yet another book on the history of finance (I think it was Eric Helleiner’s States and the Reemergence of Global Finance, but it could have been any number of others) suggesting that this history was largely driven by political choices which could conceivably have gone otherwise. Even in these narratives, it was clear that the allegedly stable Cold War system was already being chipped away at in the 1950s, and that governments, whatever their political orientation and whatever direction they were otherwise inclined to take, faced overwhelming pressures to comply with the demands of finance capital.

It’s true that neoliberalism is a political movement and that its representatives – Ronald Reagan and so many others – actively and explicitly made choices and policy contributing to the process, but it’s not a coincidence that these developments matched the predictions of Marx, Lenin, and others more than a century ago based on the analysis of how capitalism works. And it’s important to recognize that the attempts to rein in capitalism to save it from itself, even after the Great Depression and during the Cold War when capitalism’s defenders were concerned with avoiding crises that would help the Communists, weren’t successful. The stability of the postwar system, itself greatly exaggerated, was short-lived and always precarious. The claim that the return of the pattern of recurrent crises, growing ever larger and contributing to expanding inequality and the increasing concentration of wealth and power, was avoidable or the result of improvident or irresponsible choices is simply not supported by the evidence of the basic structure and tendencies of capitalism or the history of the past two centuries.

The suggestion that capitalist governments will now somehow turn around and successfully reform capitalism, prosecute bankers en masse, or return the stolen wealth is naïve and untenable. Finance capital, combining absolute vice with extraordinary power, is as strong as ever and continues to push further. I’m happy in a way that I didn’t see Inside Job until now, because the events of the intervening years make the case as strongly as any argument I could have put forward then that substantive reform and accountability aren’t possible within the capitalist system.

The same is true of presentations of the political class in terms of corruption, incompetence, and failed policies. They are capitalists and their representatives. The ideas they champion are those of the ruling class. Those who criticize the system from within or attempt to institute reforms that interfere in any meaningful way with the amassing of wealth and power are summarily pushed and shut out or simply ignored. Even if some minds could be changed, others will be happy to take their place. The government agencies involved aren’t going to change their ways or bring an end to crises through lasting reforms – these wouldn’t be effective if they were implemented and, more to the point, they’re not going to be implemented.

But at the same time I’m generally frustrated by analyses of capitalism that speak in abstractions and not about people. I’m pleased that the film focused on the people most involved and their actions and attitudes. Not because I think prosecuting them will happen or have any meaningful effect or because focusing anger on them as individuals, as despicable as their actions are, will do much good; but because in many cases they continue to have an aura or respectability and responsibility that prevents people from seeing them for what they are: the grasping, callous, shameless, obsequious protectors of their class and servants of an antihuman and absurdly destructive system.

So it’s worthwhile, I think, to show someone like Glenn Hubbard in all of his bad-faith glory:

Evidently, the embarrassment to Columbia of having their professors and deans so plainly and publicly revealed in the film not just as neoliberal ideologues but neoliberal stooges well remunerated for their services by investment banks led in 2011 to some cosmetic changes in the business school’s “transparency” policy. That should take care of the problem.

* To be sure, the competition hasn’t been too stiff. Some of the documentaries about Bernie Madoff, for example, have been, well, odd, and not in a good way.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Caligula, Inc.

“It seems that Nature produced him as an experiment, to show what absolute vice could accomplish when paired with absolute power.” – Seneca, about Caligula
I recently read James Romm’s book about ancient Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, which I learned about in the New York Times’ list of the top books of 2014.* The book’s subject is of great interest to me, both Roman politics specifically and the transhistorical question of the political ethics of intellectuals, especially in autocratic, repressive, and violent regimes, and the ways philosophy and political theory themselves can be used to rationalize acquiescence to or participation in political crimes.

The political violence of Seneca’s era is of course horrific. But one of the more painful aspects of this history for me to contemplate has always been how the Senate continued to exist and to appear to function after it had bowed under the emperors (princeps). To read about the votes of the Senate to laud Nero and to chastise those who spoke out against his worst excesses, about how they cheered bitterly as he emptied and wasted the state treasury, is in some ways worse than reading about the physical violence that was so prevalent. Of course, real democracy, to the extent that it had ever existed, was past, and the principle of autocracy was well established, but it still makes me queasy to read of what I think Romm calls at one point the abject “moral capitulation” of the once-proud Senate.

At the same time as I was reading the book and feeling this pity and disgust for a system which not only produced these Caligulas and Neros but required the representatives of a hollowed-out democratic institution to grovel before them and cater to their whims, this played out in the US Senate:

What does the fact that Warren is one of very few left who are willing to show even this sort of bravery say about how far we’ve gone in the direction of Rome?

Then more recently, with this all still fresh in mind, I learned of the Koch brothers’ “retreat” at which presidential hopefuls performed to win their favor, and of their plan to spend almost a billion dollars on the 2016 elections. Some of the candidates singing the praises of the Koch brothers and their necrophilous corporate desires - many of which are causing the destruction of the planet’s natural systems and making it unsuited for human habitation – can still recognize that the policies they champion are indefensible. But the moral capitulation is nearly complete. Several in the corporate media have even heralded the “openness” surrounding the Koch event and their “revelations” about donations as marking a new era of transparency, rather than the normalization of the abject surrender of political elites and the collapse of even the pretense of democracy.

The US political class, of course, faces nothing like the violent threats to themselves and their families that led the Roman Senate to accede to and even cheer the depredations of the princeps. Then again, they didn’t wake up one day in the midst of an autocracy in which even the basic principle of democracy had vanished from memory. And their humiliating state of moral capitulation and dependence wasn’t inevitable. It was brought about through a million acts of surrender, praise, and acceptance.

What’s being created today is beyond corruption: a system of corporate Caligulas – even more perfect combinations of vice and power than the original – cheered by a pathetic courtier class who prop up the empty myths and rituals of a past democracy as they destroy billions of lives.

* A shoddy list, to put it mildly – the fawning recommendation of a book by Henry Kissinger is only the worst of its problems. And I actually question the inclusion of Dying Every Day. I generally enjoyed the book and found it a nicely written popular history, and I thought this review by Michael Miller unnecessarily harsh and snotty. Unless someone has really basically duplicated what’s come before, I dislike criticisms of the “I don’t understand why the author felt the need to write this” variety, especially when the reviewer is contending that some books published several decades ago written in a different style for a different audience and which might not be known or available to many people should suffice for every reader. I’m fairly amused by Miller’s assertion that
There is always the question of the need for a modern writer to tell a familiar story all over again, when ancient writers told the story so well, if with distinct, contradictory points of view. Commented editions of these writers fit the bill, and for literary enjoyment, they remain unsurpassed. For that matter, would anyone entrusted with the transmission of the classics want to interpose his or her own writing between modern students or readers and the glorious originals?
I don’t think there is always that question – in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever questioned modern writers telling these stories.** Furthermore, Seneca’s story is hardly familiar to most people today, nor is the interest in reading the ancient writers so strong that a modern writer making the ancients more accessible can’t spark it.

Nor do I care for Williams’ sneering at animated, accessible writing: “Romm borrows mannerisms from crime journalism and pulp fiction to give his narrative a sensationalistic tone, peppered with anachronistic phrases and other banalities.” Seriously? Using phrases like “hit squad” and “in cahoots” to describe hit squads and people who were in cahoots to modern readers is “anachronistic”? And the stories themselves are so sensational that it requires training in dry, academic writing to render them boring. It doesn’t appear that Williams recognizes that describing existing works on Seneca as “written for the most part in sturdy Oxonian prose, built to haul information, argument, and ideas” which “may require a little more effort than Romm’s self-consciously user-friendly idiom” probably won’t make many people rush out to get them. I imagine when asking someone to write a blurb for a book jacket a publisher probably isn’t hoping for phrases like “sturdy Oxonian prose.” (Then again, I’m not British.)

That said, some of Williams’ more serious criticisms are valid. A popular work based on historical scholarship has to succeed in translating history based on the best current scholarship into readable prose. This is sometimes difficult – and of course even the most responsible scholars often disagree in their interpretations of the existing evidence. But writing for a nonspecialist audience doesn’t give an author license to disregard scholarly standards or to take off into speculative flights of fancy, which, as Williams argues, Romm does seem to do. At times, Romm approaches the ancient sources, especially Tacitus, with far too much credulousness - including with respect to some of their more misogynistic claims, which is somewhat surprising in light of Romm’s acknowledgment of the misogyny of their culture. And often he dates works based on a series of strange conjectures and assumptions, which is especially odd in those cases (most) in which the claim isn’t at all essential to the narrative.

This is compounded by the stupid manner of presenting the endnotes, for which the publisher is probably to blame. My personal preference in printed books is for sociological citations and footnotes for longer asides, and I don’t care – as this post probably demonstrates – if the notes take up half the page or more. I like to have the information accessible without having to flip around looking for it. But numbered endnotes are tolerable in most cases. In e-books, numbers can be links to notes or even to original sources, and people should have a choice of whether they want the link to take them somewhere else or to click on it and see the information on the same page. But an unacceptable and inexplicable structure is the one used in Dying Every Day: this nonsense of having notes at the end referring back to quoted snippets of the text, with no indication in the text that the notes even exist, so if the reader wants to see if there’s a note or source connected to something in the text, they have to go to the notes – this is even harder in an e-book – and then try to find the specific phrase the note is linked to. Why would anyone, ever think this is a good structure for notes, much less think it’s remotely appropriate for an e-book?

So overall I would recommend the book for people with an interest in Seneca, Roman history, or more general questions about intellectuals and political ethics (and intellectual political ethics). It’s a fascinating and touching story. I wouldn’t call it one of the best of the year, though, or a stellar example of how popular history should be done.

** Or devising characters like Seneca Crane, for that matter.

US government continues to try to overthrow Venezuelan democracy; Latin American resistance continues to grow and organize

The US government has added new sanctions to Venezuelan officials as part of its ongoing campaign to overthrow the democratically elected government of that country. The liberal New York Times continues to shamelessly propagandize on behalf of that campaign.

This film, “Imitation and Copy” – not free of propagandistic intent itself, but providing useful history – describes how many of the techniques employed by the US government in league with obedient or incurious journalists and the Latin American Right today are a continuation of those used to successfully oust the democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and install the murderous Pinochet regime:

(This is what you’re a part of, New York Times. Be proud, as you apparently are of fawning over Henry Kissinger’s book in your list of the best of 2014.)

There’s no sign that the US government will pull back on its campaign against the people of Latin America or the Caribbean. But there is resistance. Last week, CELAC, the organization of governments in the region formed in 2011 to contest the US-dominated OAS, met and signed the Belen Document, explicitly rejecting US imperialism in the region:
The CELAC is the first time than [sic] 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have been united in a regional organisation without the presence of the US and Canada. The organisation brings together governments from differing and even conflicting ideological orientations, including the rightwing governments of Mexico and Colombia and the socialist administrations in Venezuela and Bolivia.

“Beyond ideological borders and the politics that separate us, there is a diverse America...(the strength of CELAC) is to have achieved unity in diversity, based on respect, solidarity and helping each other in the joint construction of Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Maduro.

During the summit, the Pro-Tempore presidency of the organisation was officially passed over from Costa Rica to Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who applauded Venezuela and Nicaragua's initiative to have US colony, Puerto Rico, occupy a seat at CELAC's next summit. He stated that the action would “demonstrate that America is a region free of colonialism”.

“CELAC must play a protagonistic role in accompanying the process of decolonisation in the Latin American and Caribbean region. In general, it should be the “go to” organisation for the resolution of conflicts or long standing issues which affect the countries in the region,” stated the Ecuadorean president.

...With the exception of the French Caribbean islands, the United States has directly and indirectly intervened or occupied all Latin American and Caribbean countries since the early 19th Century. More recent examples include support for attempted coups against the leftist governments of Venezuela (2002), Ecuador (2010) and Bolivia (2008), as well as for the successful coups against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 and Fernando Lugo, the leftist “Priest of Paraguay” in 2012.
As Mano Singham reported today, Latin America is also standing strong against torture. This year really is potentially a turning point in struggles for democracy and social justice.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Tick tock?

GREECE: THE END OF AUSTERITY? from Theopi Skarlatos on Vimeo.

Syriza’s victory in Greece is potentially a huge turning point.

Anti-austerity, pro-democracy and justice movements are rising in Spain, where tens of thousands marched yesterday chanting “Tick tock” to count down the time that could be remaining for the dominance of the country’s traditional ruling parties, and it seems also in Belgium.

We shouldn’t forget that these movements represent only the most recent wave of opposition to austerity programs. These protests have been going on around the world, receiving even less attention and respect from the corporate media than those in Europe, for literally decades. Their success in Europe will hopefully contribute to the renewal or construction of links of solidarity with the millions of people in countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean who’ve been defending their rights against Structural Adjustment for so long, often at great cost.

It’s also important to remember that these struggles are not just about policies and statistics but people’s lives, their pain and their possibilities. As Paul Mason reports from Greece:
The organiser [of a Syriza food bank] tells me: “This is the opposite of charity. We’re supporting 120 families in one area, and a lot of the work we do is about isolation, mental health and shame.” You cannot get more micro-political than sitting in a small room with desperate people and talking them out of suicide. Spin becomes impossible, the trust built hard to destroy.
Austerity policies everywhere create suffering, despair, fear, and hopelessness,* and opposing them can mean healing and health. Reading about the refugees of the Spanish Civil War in Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen is a harsh reminder of what’s at stake. Victories of the Left don’t inevitably lead to perfect solutions, but victories of capital and the far Right lead to the ruin of everything good.

* And I’ll reiterate once more for the record: these are NOT failed policies. No reasonable person could possibly believe, given decades of evidence of their effects, that they represent anything other than successful attempts to achieve the real goals of finance capital and the IMF, and no one promoting or implementing them can claim otherwise in good faith.

Human football

Best line in Kitten Bowl commentary:
Boomer Esiason (Feline Football League Commissioner): I’m actually looking at players like Beau Catson and Joe Fluffo for possible MVK [Most Valuable Kitten] contenders, based on their performance so far.

John Sterling: Now, Boomer, you were the 1988 MVP yourself, in human football.

Boomer Esiason: That’s right, but we just call it…football.

“Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” and the Spanish Civil War

In connection to my last post… I’ve been meaning to mention that Noam Chomsky’s incisive analysis of liberal histories of the Spanish Civil War – part of the essay on “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” in his 1969 American Power and the New Mandarins - is included as a chapter in the recent On Anarchism:

I have problems with some of the arguments in the book, but if you’re interested in the Spanish Civil War and/or in how intellectual work is subtly shaped by politics and ideology, it would probably be worth buying for this chapter alone.


The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps is being marked in Spain by historical attention to both the Spanish deportees and the role of the Franco regime in the Holocaust. Carlos Hernández de Miguel has published Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen, which amazingly is available (only in Spanish) for Kindle for under $5:

The book draws on various sources, including the recollections of survivors. I’ve just started reading it, and my throat hurts from the rising emotions. I don’t know how I’m going to make it all the way through.

There’s a site, Deportados, where you can find more information:

The paper El Público is also running a series on the subject, featuring interviews with survivors and articles about the complicity of the Franco government with the Nazi genocide.