Archive for December, 2009

Wrapping Up the Naughts

December 30, 2009

Well, not only have we come to the end of the year, but we have also come to the end of the decade. All the reviews of the 2000’s that I’ve read have been pretty much the same. There seems to be universal agreement that this decade sucked big time. W.H. Auden once called the 1930’s a “low, dishonest decade.” The 2000’s certainly had more than their share of dishonesty. Just think of the mind-numbing barrage of lies during the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

This is all the more dismaying considering that the decade started out promisingly. The Anti-WTO demonstration in Seattle in November 1999 had reinvigorated the left. People wanted to do things, to get out in the streets and make a statement. During the Democratic National Convention in 2000, 40,000 people marched through the streets of Los Angeles, in the face of intimidation by the police. When George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, that didn’t put any damper on things. To many people, it just confirmed their suspicion that the system is totally corrupt. The police repression at the Genoa demonstration in the summer of 2001 did disturb some people, but still they felt that they could accomplish something.

I remember that summer I was living in Los Angeles, and I was involved in a solidarity campaign with the Immokalee farm workers. They had called for a boycott of Taco Bell, to get them to pressure the growers into raising their wages. Once a week we would have a demonstration in front of a Taco Bell in East Los Angeles. Each week the protest got bigger and louder. People from the neighborhood would join in, as well as students from nearby East Los Angeles College. They wanted to make a difference in the world. Teenagers would go up to cars in the drive-thru and explain to people why they shouldn’t buy from Taco Bell.

Then September 11th happened.

Suddenly people were all driving around with American flags on their cars and bumper stickers saying, “United We Stand.” This was an understandable visceral response to the attacks, but I could see that it would only lead to trouble. The media suddenly stopped treating Bush as a joke and began touting him as a national hero (even though he hid out at two air force bases during the day of the attacks.) In the economic slump that followed the attacks, Bush urged people to go out and shop. The media treated this as serious advice.

The left never really recovered from what happened. I think it fair to say that most of the people who marched through the streets of Seattle probably voted for John Kerry in the 2004 election. This is really sad, especially when you consider that Kerry is an enthusiastic supporter of everything those people were protesting against. (And Kerry was promising to send 40,000 more troops to Iraq.) “Anybody but Bush” became the mantra. Anyone who questioned this immediately found himself a pariah, if not threatened with physical violence. Kerry’s campaign slogan was “Help is on the way.” I guess people didn’t think they needed help, since Kerry lost the election.

Four years later, we had Obama promising us “hope”, which sounded a little catchier. Then there was the financial meltdown, and Obama became a shoo-in. The irony here was that Obama is a firm supporter of the economic policies that led to the meltdown. Sometimes hope is just that.

The year started off with Israel’s savage attack on Gaza. Not a murmur of criticism from Obama or any of the other Democrats. Once in office he impressed everyone with his ability to form complete sentences, such a refreshing change from his predecessor. He put forward an economic stimulus plan (mostly tax cuts) that was too timid to have much effect. The Republicans immediately started screaming “socialism”, and they’ve been like a stuck record ever since. In October it was announced that, for no clear reason, Obama was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (It seems that the prize was actually for not being George W. Bush. The legacy of W.’s presidency is that the bar has been lowered on just about everything.) Shortly afterward, Obama announced he was going to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Now, the Democrats in Congress are on the verge of passing a Health Care “Reform” bill that has nothing progressive about it and is in some ways actually reactionary. One hopes that the way this bill made its way through the Senate will make people question the way our government is set up. The Senate (originally modeled after the British House of Lords) is an inherently undemocratic institution. Every state gets two senators, regardless of its size. Thus, California, which has a population of 36 million, has the same number of senators as Wyoming, which has 544,270 people. (More people live in the city of San Francisco than in the whole state of Wyoming.) This problem is compounded by the filibuster rule. It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. (The idea here seems to be that having a simple majority just isn’t good enough.) So, we had the disgusting spectacle of Senate Democrats groveling at the feet of Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (pop. 3 million) and Ben Nelson of Nebraska (pop. 2 million). The most hilarious moment of the year came when Lieberman announced that he had suddenly changed his mind about the Medicare buy-in (which he had supported for years). He was now opposed to it, just because he had heard a liberal congressman say that he liked the idea. (This is the conservative mentality in its purest form: if the liberals are for it, I’m agin’ it!) So the Medicare buy-in was immediately jettisoned, without a murmur of protest. As for the cynical promises that were made to Nelson to get his one lousy vote, you can expect the Republicans to be making hay out of them in next year’s congressional elections.

Everything is not bleak, however. There have been a few glimmerings of a fightback, such as this summer’s G20 protests and the demonstrations at the Copenhagen climate conference. And there were the Viva Palestina convoys to Gaza. Interestingly, there has been an upsurge in struggle in Iran. It seems I was right in guessing that last summer’s demonstrations were about more that just a stolen election. So, I guess Obama wasn’t completely wrong about there being “hope”. It’s all a matter of what one does with it.

(By the way, the Immokalee workers eventually won concessions from Taco Bell. This was one of the few labor victories of this miserable decade.)

Is the Church of England Breeding Anarchists?

December 24, 2009

I found this the other day at the HuffPost:

Tim Jones, English Priest, Says Shoplifting Okay At Times

I guess this is another indication of how bad the economy has become. When priests start sounding like anarchists, you know the situation is serious.

Winter Solstice

December 23, 2009

Christmas is coming up, and I just haven’t been able to get into the holiday mood. I’ve been thinking a lot of dark thoughts lately. I guess there’s just not much for me to be merry about this year. The Democrats are about to pass a health care “reform” bill that will force working class people to buy medical insurance they can’t really afford (to add to the credit cards they can’t really afford, and the mortgages they can’t really afford.) Obama is sending more troops to Afghanistan. Oh, and Tiger Woods cheated on his wife. I’ve been repeatedly told that this last point is a matter of great importance, perhaps of equal, if not greater, importance than the first two points I mentioned. (I’ve been told that the New York Post devoted 19 consecutive front pages to this, which is more than they devoted to the Sept. 11 attatcks. Maybe this is one indication of why people are no longer reading newspapers.) I must confess that it’s not at all clear to me why I should care about Woods’s sex life. Am I missing something here? I have that feeling one gets when one is at a party and there’s a joke going around that everyone is clued into except oneself.

They say that at this time of year people get depressed because the days are shorter. It doesn’t help that I have gotten into the habit of staying up late surfing the Internet. I now get only a few hours of daylight every day. I try to find things to cheer me up. I can perhaps find some grim satisfaction in that I was right in expecting the Copenhagen climate conference to be a complete failure. It’s ludicrous to think that the world system as it presently exists could possibly come up with a rational plan to deal with an issue as complicated as global warming. And I can enjoy some schadenfreude at the fact that Al Gore embarrassed himself at the conference. I can tell myself that it’s perhaps just as well that George W. Bush stole the 2000 election from him.

Still, I can’t get myself out of this funk. I just read Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire. I enjoyed it a lot, and it even had a happy ending, but still I had dark thoughts after I had finished it. I was at the supermarket today and the cashier told me how the Christmas music that the store played all day long was driving her crazy. All I could do was smile stupidly at her. Afterwards, I tried to cheer myself up by doing some photography, which is one of my passions. I like to take pictures at night, because of the interesting effects of lighting and color one can get. I pulled over on a country road – not far from where I live – to take a picture of an old building that looked abandoned. A man who apparently lived nearby came up to me and all but accused me of being a burglar. He seemed to think I was casing the area. I smiled and explained to him that photography is a hobby of mine. This didn’t seem to make much impression on him, so I got in my car and drove away. After I had driven a ways, I felt a sudden impulse to turn around, so I did. When I drove past the spot where I took the picture, there was the same man having an animated conversation with several other men. It seems the photograph I took stirred up a hornet’s nest. Perhaps I injected some excitement into their lives.

Update: I’m sorry if this sounds like a messy and confused post, but it reflects my feelings when I wrote it yesterday. My mood has improved somewhat since then. I went to the supermarket today and I was actually able to have a conversation with the cashier. Perhaps what has cheered me up is the news that the health care “reform” bill may be in trouble because of the possibly illegal promises that were made to Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, just to get his one lousy vote. This may be too much to hope for, but for now it has cast a ray of sunshine in my life.

Oral Roberts (1918-2009)

December 16, 2009

Oral Roberts has died. He was a famous television evangelist and the founder of Oral Roberts University. He was an advocate of “prosperity theology”, which claims that if you’re faithful, God will reward you with material wealth. Roberts also claimed to be able to heal people through prayer. Strange to say, none of the obituaries that I’ve read mention what, to me, is the most interesting thing about him: he saw a 900-foot tall Jesus (or at least that’s what he said.) And he saw Him more than once. The second time, Roberts was having trouble raising money for a medical center he wanted to build. (If he could cure people by praying, what did he need a medical center for?) According to the Tulsa World, when Roberts talked about his problems, the 900-foot Jesus said, “I told you that I would speak to your partners and, through them, I would build it!” (The wording here suggests to me that Jesus felt that Oral was starting to nag him.) I don’t know about you, but if a 900-foot tall Jesus showed up at my door and told me to give money to Oral Roberts, I don’t think I would be in a position to say “No”.

To me, there is something quintessentially American about all this. I doubt that it ever occurred to Bernadette Soubirous that her accounts of meeting Mary would have sounded more impressive if she said that the Holy Virgin was 900 feet tall. A predilection for gigantism seems characteristic of Roberts. In the 1980’s he built the City of Faith Medical Center, which included a 60-story building, in Tulsa, Oklahoma; even though the local medical community said it wasn’t needed. It went out of business in 1989. (When he was raising funds for the place in 1987, Roberts told people God would kill him if he didn’t raise the necessary money. It seems that God doesn’t mess around.)

Out of curiosity, I went to the website of Oral Roberts University. What do they teach at a Pentecostal Christian university? I found that they have colleges of Art and Cultural Studies, Business, Nursing, and Theology. I’m pleased to find that they also have a college of Science, though it is unclear whether they teach evolution – or geology, for that matter. Discussing the accomplishments of the school’s graduates, the website notes: “One of our recent French language students was hired by the CIA.” That’s not something I would brag about.

In 2007, ORU was the scene of a scandal involving Roberts’s son, Richard Roberts, who was then president of the university, as well as Richard’s wife, Lindsay. According to the Associated Press:

    Richard Roberts is accused of illegal involvement in a local political campaign and lavish spending at donors’ expense, including numerous home remodeling projects, use of the university jet for his daughter’s senior trip to the Bahamas, and a red Mercedes convertible and a Lexus SUV for his wife, Lindsay.

    Lindsay Roberts is accused of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, awarding nonacademic scholarships to friends of her children and sending scores of text messages on university-issued cell phones to people described in the lawsuit as “underage males.”

Maybe they thought that God was rewarding them for being faithful. Just a suggestion.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

December 14, 2009

A while ago I saw the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). I found it sufficiently interesting that I then read the John le Carré novel on which it is based. The book was written at the height of the Cold War, which provided fertile ground for spy novels, since it was essentially a war of bluff.

Alec Leamas works for British Intelligence. He is in charge of British agents in East Germany. His plans are all foiled by the head of East German Intelligence, Hans-Dieter Mundt. When Mundt kills Leamas’s last operative, Leamas returns to London, expecting to be sacked. Instead, his boss persuades him to undertake an audacious operation. Leamas will pretend to defect to the East. He will then spread disinformation meant to make the East Germans think that Mundt is a double agent working for the British. I can’t tell much more without giving things away. Suffice it to say that, like any good spy novel, it is essentially a story of betrayal.

The British agents in this novel are shown as being no better morally than their East German and Russian counterparts. They justify their actions to themselves by saying that they must use the same tactics as their opponents. (One can perhaps detect a foreshadowing here of the arguments later used to justify torture in the “War on Terror”.) At one point, Leamas says that such methods are necessary so that “the great moronic mass… can sleep soundly in their beds at night.” He expresses contempt for the people he is supposedly serving. Indeed, a contempt for people in general seems to underlie the operation he is carrying out. Leamas says of his fellow spies: “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards. People who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” Le Carré was reportedly working for British Intelligence while he was working on this novel. One can only wonder what his colleagues thought about this book.

The communists in this book all sound like religious fanatics. (An exception is Fiedler, an East German spy who is one of the few sympathetic characters.) I read somewhere that when le Carré was working for MI5 in the 1950’s, he spied on meetings of the British Communist Party. I take it from this book that they didn’t make a very good impression on him. Also, it is implied that Mundt is actually a Nazi. I find this a bit far-fetched. It seems that le Carré wanted to make Mundt as repulsive as possible, but I think this was over-doing it somewhat.

There’s a general belief that movies are never as good as the books they’re based on, but I don’t believe that this is necessarily true. When the source is a mediocre novel, the film version can actually be better. A good example of this is The Shining. Hitchcock’s Rear Window is based on a barely competent story by Cornel Woolrich. (The Tarzan movies, as silly as they are, are actually better than the even sillier novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.) There’s an episode in the novel in which someone tries to kill Leamas, which is never really explained. This is left out of the movie, with the result that the story hangs together better. However, in the novel there’s a wealth of detail that’s lacking in the film, and the motives of some of the characters are clearer in the former than in the latter.

I’m told that in recent years le Carré has been an outspoken critic of US foreign policy. I will have to check out some of his recent works. If they are anywhere near as good as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, they will be well worth reading.

Battles without Honor and Humanity

December 13, 2009

I recently saw the film, Battles without Honor and Humanity (1973). It is a Japanese yakuza film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. It tells the story of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), an ex-soldier in post-World War II Hiroshima, who joins a yakuza family. The film, which is reportedly based on real events, details the struggles between and within yakuza families. It was both a critical and a popular success when it was released in Japan, and it has been called the “Japanese Godfather.”

Throughout the film, the yakuza talk about their “honor”, though it’s clear that they have none; they are continually betraying one another. An implicit connection is made between the savagery of these gangsters and the destruction of Japan during World War II. At the beginning of the film, the title is shown over the mushroom cloud of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, thereby drawing an explicit connection between that event and the events in the film. In the opening scene, some US GI’s try to rape a Japanese woman in the middle of a crowded marketplace. They are attacked by a couple of men who will go on to become yakuza. The implicit message here is that the violence of the yakuza is rooted in the brutality of the US occupation. (Also, many of the yakuza are former soldiers.) Later, we’re told that the yakuza have gotten rich off the black market during the Korean War. War is shown as a corrupting influence.

The is film is shot in a lurid, semi-documentary style. Every time a gangster is killed, his name and date of death are splashed across the screen. This has two effects. First, it reminds us that the story is based on real events. Second, it tells us that ultimately the most important thing about these people is the fact that they are killed. It is a comment on the emptiness and futility of their lives.

On one level, this is a fast-paced action film, but on a deeper level, it is a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing social commentary.

Worse Than Nothing

December 9, 2009

It now looks as though the Republican party and a few right-wing Democrats are the only things that stand between us and a truly terrible health care “reform” bill that will actually be a huge hand-out to the insurance industry. How did we get into this situation? People had the naive belief that the Democrats would “do something” about the health care crisis, unlike the Republicans, who prefer to do nothing. Many figured that even if the Democrats came up with something lame, it would better than nothing Yet now the Democrats are threatening to pass a bill that is worse than nothing.

At times like this, one really must question the assumption that the Democrats are a “lesser evil”. Not only are we getting screwed over on health care, but Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan – something that Bush refused to do. Because we’re locked into a two-party system, people assume that one party can’t be as bad as the other. However, it’s not a matter of one party being better or worse than the other. This is the wrong way of looking at the matter. The two parties are bad in different ways. This is because they simply represent different tendencies in the corporate elite.

The essential problem with our health care system is that it is if for profit. However, the Democrats can only come up with “reforms” that are meant to protect profits. This means that the Democrats will come up with “reforms” that will make things worse, not better.


December 2, 2009

Obama never served in the military, yet I don’t hear any liberals calling him a “chicken hawk”. This is not a minor point. If Bush and Cheney deserved this epithet, then Obama and Hillary Clinton deserve it just as much. Obama has just announced in his speech at West Point that he is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Many of these troops will be killed, and many of them will kill Afghans who may or may not be aligned with the Taliban. What Obama is doing is no better morally than what Bush did in Iraq. True, Obama has not invented any phony-baloney stories about “weapons of mass destruction”. His argument, however, is more subtly dishonest. He says it’s necessary to send troops to Afghanistan to keep Al Qaida from re-establishing itself there. In fact, it’s because of US policies in the Mideast that groups like Al Qaida exist. Since Obama has made no change in these policies we can expect there to be more such groups. Obama can send all the troops he wants to Afghanistan, and it won’t change this fact.

Obama says in his speech: “We do not seek to occupy other nations.” This is a lie. The US is currently building permanent military bases in Iraq. We have military bases all over the world. The US is currently negotiating with the Columbian government to build seven military bases in Columbia. I doubt that they’re going to find Al Qaida there. Perhaps these military bases have something to do with the fact that much of the US’s oil supply comes from South America. Obama says in his speech: “We will not claim another nation’s resources..” No, instead we will prop up corrupt governments that give us whatever we want. That is the more principled thing to do.