I'm in La Manzanilla, a tiny village on the west coast of Mexico, on vacation with my folks. I don't speak much Spanish, and don't expect to learn much in the next few days, so I've been reading a lot of books:
How to be Alone, essays by Jonathan Franzen
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
The Gold Coast, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Man Who Knew Charlie Chaplin, a novel about the Weimar Republic, by Eric Koch
Spinoza, Practical Philosophy, by Gilles Deleuze
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Franzen's essays were thoughtful, Patchett's novel was comfortably improbable but and quite engaging, and Robinson was technologically off the mark but existentially more tuned in, vernacular and flowing than he usually is, and at least as politically interesting as he usually is. Eric Koch was historically fascinating and for that reason worthwhile, but rhetorically inadequate, Deleuze was dense yet clear, and orders of magnitude more enjoyable than most commentaries on philosophy that I've read. I still can't decide what or how to think about Marquez, which is probably a good sign.
I just noticed that Robinson has a new book out (The Years of Rice and Salt) in which he apparently attempts to rewrite world history as if Europe has never existed. Apparently, imagining an entirely new civilization on Mars and squeezing it into three novels wasn't ambitious enough.
Uzbekistan Diary: "A year in the life of a North American journalist working to promote an independent press in Uzbekistan."
The Defense Department is considering issuing a secret directive to the American military to conduct covert operations aimed at influencing public opinion and policy makers in friendly and neutral countries, senior Pentagon and administration officials say.
Such a program, for example, could include efforts to discredit and undermine the influence of mosques and religious schools that have become breeding grounds for Islamic militancy and anti-Americanism across the Middle East, Asia and Europe. It might even include setting up schools with secret American financing to teach a moderate Islamic position laced with sympathetic depictions of how the religion is practiced in America, officials said.
Senior Pentagon officials say Mr. Rumsfeld is deeply frustrated that the United States government has no coherent plan for molding public opinion worldwide in favor of America in its global campaign against terrorism and militancy.
The addition of the word "militancy" is interesting. It affirms that we have absolutely no problem with not holding ourselves to the standard to which we hold everyone else, and it expresses our explicit willingness to crush nations who defy our interests (e.g. Bush's support of the coup attempt in Venezuela).
Washington Post: Casey Kasem or Freedom?
After an Iranian court sentenced the reformist academic Hashem Aghajari to death last month, the largest and most sustained student demonstrations in years erupted in Tehran. As they grew, day after day, U.S.-operated Radio Azadi, or "Radio Freedom," was their favorite medium. Every day, student leaders would call by cell phone from the roiling campuses to the radio's headquarters in Prague and narrate the latest developments live. Each night the radio would broadcast a roundtable discussion, patching together students and journalists in Tehran with exiled opposition leaders to discuss where the reform movement was going.
In an act that mixes Hollywood arrogance with astounding ignorance of Iranian reality, the board has silenced the most effective opposition radio station in Iran at a time of unprecedented ferment. In its place, at three times the expense, the United States now will supply Iran's revolutionary students with a diet of pop music -- on the theory that this better advances U.S. interests.
Maybe the US will build a series of Mosques which feature televised prayers by Brittany Spears, followed by a day of music videos.
According to an announcement I recieved today, the NDP's membership has increased by 24,168, or 41%, since they changed the party leadership election to one-member-one-vote.
I guess being more democratic is one way to get a lot of attention. If the NDP (New Democratic Party, Canada's left wing political party) is ever going to get in the news for something that isn't a fabricated scandal, that should do it.
But I'm not holding my breath.
The BBC has some decent coverage of the situation in Venezuela. The story actually deals with background information and the history of the current protests and economic situation. Amazingly, this kind of coverage is largely unheard of.
I find that a good way to understand the current situation in Venezuela is to imagine that a president and senate majority were elected on a basic left-wing platform of wealth redistribution, a living wage, stopping the "war on drugs'" exclusive focus on the poor, cutting back some of the really brutal exploitation and repression in foreign policy (IMF, WB), etc.
What would the reaction look like? First, corporations and rich people would effectively go on strike, pulling out of investments everywhere, and even shutting down key services (all of which are now mostly privatized). The media and armies of pundits would go completely nuts, dismissing the government as illegitimate (no matter how many voted for it) and using any possible excuse to create a huge scandal.
As a result, the economy would go down the tubes, and in the chaos that ensues, all kinds of bureaucrats would make off with taxpayers cash. Hundreds of millions of dollars are already unaccounted for in the Pentagon's budget, and this is when things are operating smoothly.
The immense power controlled by the media, wall street, and the rich is a very straightforward reason why a left wing party will probably never be elected in the US, no matter how much of the population is poor.
But it did happen in Venezuela. Chavez, the left-wing president who was elected with 60% of the vote (many of those being poor people) bears the blame for the economic chaos that is happening.
I, for one, think that we are a little too quick to say that economic policy that benefits someone other than the existing elite "causes" the economy to melt down. What really causes it is the fact that the corporations and uber-rich will not tolerate anyone denying or even questioning their privilege to get first dibs on economic spoils. Who hasn't noticed that Wall Street responds to even the slightest talk of, say, an increase in the minimum wage by falling 10%?
We've gotten to the point where, due to this collosal concentration of power, "the market" is seen as both inevitable and supremely beneficial, even democratic (see Thomas Frank's One Market Under God for examples). But this cultural kow-towing to economic systems is what allows the wealth and power to concentrate further.
Sane governance, it seems to me, is only possible on the basis of an honest assessment of why things are the way they are. If global capitalism really is the way to go (I have my doubts), then its supremacy should only be based on an argument that despite the fact that it concentrates money and power in the hands of very few, it is still the best system. Of course, once one concedes this utterly obvious point, it's hard to justify the current system, except by arguing that anything else will lead to disaster.
But if such an honest (and really quite obvious) assessment were commonly acknowledged and widely held, then the concentration of power would have alread lost its hold on public discourse, and the rest of its power (economic, political) would be perpetually checked. Things would already be a bit better.
dubyadubyadubya.com gets a few facts wrong (unfortunately, shooting first and starting wars for oil has been what we're about for quite some time*), but it is nonetheless a compelling use of flash for political satire.
* Another tune: "from the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli..." dum dum dum
Some great activist propaganda/art that I happened upon at Indymedia Sverige (Sweden)
Wow. From what I can tell, the media is spinning like crazy in their coverage of recent events in Venezuela.
What happens: Two million people take to the streets in opposition to the wealthy minority who supports removing Chavez from office. Most of these demonstrations are peaceful, but in one state, some protesters smash a TV studio. During the coup attempt, the TV stations had broadcast lies and misinformation, at one point reporting that Chavez had "resigned".
What gets reported: "Hundreds of supporters of President Hugo Chavez ransacked one TV station and surrounded others across Venezuela, accusing them of backing a general strike to force his ouster. " -- the AP lead, featured on Fox News, CNN, Toronto Star, many, many others.
What happens: The management and owners of the oil company, foreign-owned banks, and northern chains like McDonald's, in cooperation with some sympathetic union bosses, lock out workers.
What gets reported: A general strike.
It's remarkable. Every mainstream media outlet is simply assuming that it's a strike, while providing no details as to who exactly is "striking," and why (except that, whoever they are, they're against Chavez).
yet another interesting weblog I shouldn't be reading since my Cultural Studies paper is already a day late: blab-o-rama
Richard Stallman: Can you trust your computer?
Proprietary software means, fundamentally, that you don't control what it does; you can't study the source code, or change it. It's not surprising that clever businessmen find ways to use their control to put you at a disadvantage. Microsoft has done this several times: one version of Windows was designed to report to Microsoft all the software on your hard disk; a recent "security" upgrade in Windows Media Player required users to agree to new restrictions. But Microsoft is not alone: the KaZaa music-sharing software is designed so that KaZaa's business partner can rent out the use of your computer to their clients. These malicious features are often secret, but even once you know about them it is hard to remove them, since you don't have the source code.
Gong Szeto puts the Windows active desktop to good use by packing it full of updated webcam, satellite, and stock market images. It's neat. (via play with the machine)
From a protest against CNN's pro-war coverage.
In other news, Indymedia Iran is in the works, which is good. I've heard that they have a couple thousand people signed up to their mailing list, equally divided between those living in Iran and abroad. They just posted their first bit of coverage, and a site is undoubtedly forthcoming.
Annual military spending globally is over $780 billion. The US alone accounts for over $343.2 billion in military spending annually.
What the World Wants is a simulation project that attempts to calculate the cost of various basic needs of humanity, which include:
Eliminate Starvation and Malnourishment
Provide Health Care & AIDS Control
Provide Clean Safe Water
Provide Clean, Safe Energy: Efficiency
Provide Clean, Safe Energy: Renewables
Retire Developing Nations Debt
Prevent Soil Erosion
Stop Ozone Depletion
Prevent Acid Rain
Prevent Global Warming
Eliminating Nuclear Weapons
According to their reckoning, all of the above would cost (annually) approximately 30% of the world's annual military spending. If we go with their estimates, it would take ten years for stable versions of all of the above to be put into place.
They also have fun comparative costs. For example, eliminating starvation would cost approximately 55% of what Americans spend on weight loss programs each year.
Each category is accompanied by an account, with references, so it's possible to dispute each one, and I have no idea if the estimates are realistic or not. I hardly need to point out, though, that that is most definitely not the point.
If the over-developed world didn't attach all kinds of self-interested strings to "aid for Africa" deals like NEPAD, then something useful might get done with the relatively tiny sums that we devote to foreign aid. Of course, most of what counts as foreign aid consists of direct or indirect subsidies of western business. Whether we make aid conditional on changes to economic policy or just hand it over to US companies (e.g. lucrative contracts for textbooks in Afghanistan, then and now), the little money that is supposed to be doing good is mostly funneled back to Wall Street or its other G8 equivalents.
I won't pretend that anything like a ten year devotion of 30% of military budgets to humanitarian programs is possible, but every once in a while, it can't hurt to stop and ask: what if we actually wanted to do something about the world's problems, and not just look like we're doing something?
Heck, the US could do this on its own, and end up with more power and economic clout than any military initiative could ever achieve. It would be a great way to shut up all those pesky European "anti-Americans", leave the vast majority of the world's population in awe, and defuse the rage of those who support terrorists. And who could attack so generous a country without pissing off all the people who benefit from these programs?
I am, of course, dreaming, but it's worthwhile to ask why this is the case.
Why am I dreaming, you ask? Good question. Three quick answers: racism, fear, ignorance, and an overwhelming asymmetry in access to politicians. Those are themes that have been and will be expanded extensively.
(What the World Wants links via Beyond Greed)
"Democracy in Action" has a page on the 2004 presidential elections.
A critical gauge of success for prospective challengers in the first half of 2003 will be their ability to raise money; history shows the winner of the "money primary" almost invariably becomes the nominee.
Radical Urban Theory: "writings on the modern urban condition" (via Anarchogeek)
This was bugging me this summer while I was reading Lord of the Rings for the first time: the story is about as racist as it gets, and there's no getting around it. (via Laughingmeme)
This genetic determinism drives the plot in the most brutal manner. White men are good, "dark" men are bad, orcs are worst of all. While 10,000 orcs are massacred with a kind of Dungeons and Dragons version of biological warfare, the wild men left standing at the end of the battle are packed off back to their homes with nothing more than slapped wrists.
We also get a sneak preview of the army that's going to be representing the forces of darkness in part three. Guess what: "Dark faces... black eyes and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears... very cruel wicked men they look". They come from the east and the south. They wield scimitars and ride elephants.
Junk Science, Corporate Ideology, and Genetically Modified Food: An Interview with Ann Clark
Argosy: The Irving Media Monopoly in New Brunswick: An Interview with Dr. Erin Steuter
Some weblogs that I've recently discovered or rediscovered:
Jeremy Bushnell's raccoon
Steven Johnson's weblog
Invisible City, which somehow evapourated from my link list during one move or another.
Hypergene MediaBlog, all about participatory journalism.
It's kind of funny that people still refer to Democrats as the left. What Democrat positions could be taken as remotely leftist? Health care revamping that never happened? I suppose it's all relative.
In other news, Michael Kinsley who, according to commentators, is "left of center" writes:
Throughout the revolution of technology and globalization that has been going on for two decades, responsible mainstream commentators, pundits, analysts, and miscellaneous gasbags (including this one) have taken the view that progress is a good thing. Some people are unfortunately caught in the gears of change, but society as a whole benefits. It's not very complicated if you know a bit of economics. You've got your "invisible hand" (that's free markets), you've got your "comparative advantage" (that's free trade), you've got your "perennial gale of creative destruction" (that's competition and new technology), you've got your "can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" (that's attributed to Joseph Stalin, but never mind). The losers in this process deserve sympathy and help, but special pleading must not be allowed to thwart or slow this process.Sometimes I like to close my eyes and pretend that people who say things like that are kidding.