Archive for August, 2013

Syria and the Art of Moral Imperialism

August 28, 2013

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The conflict in Syria has been going on for over two years now, and President Obama has been doing everything he can to stay out of it, but now there is talk in the media of an attack, possibly this week. Confronted by growing evidence that the Assad government has used poison gas against civilians, President Obama now has to make good on all his talk about red lines. (Barry Crimmins recently said, “If we’re prepared to use force on people who commit chemical warfare, when do we attack Monsanto?”) He is reportedly studying different options that have been presented to him by the military. However, a White House spokesman, Jay Carney, has said, “The options that we are considering are not about regime change.” So what are Obama’s aims then? My guess is that he is going to carry out a one-off attack, similar to Clinton’s missile strike in Khartoum or Reagan’s bombing of Libya. Obama can then say that the U.S. has shown zero tolerance towards the use of chemical weapons, to the applause of his supporters. The attack will increase tensions with Russia and with Iran, but it will be a small price to pay so that the U.S. can maintain its facade of moral high-mindedness.

We have come a long way since the giddy days following the invasion of Iraq, when there was delirious talk about the prospect of U.S. troops marching through the streets of Damascus and Teheran. I argued in an earlier post that the U.S. empire is not in decline, and I still hold that view. What has happened is that the Iraq War and its aftermath has taught the U.S. ruling class to take a more realistic view of what it can and cannot do, as well as to take a more realistic view of the internal politics of other countries. (Contrast Gen. Dempsey’s sober assessment of the Syrian opposition with the neoconservatives’ love affair with the convicted embezzler, Ahmad Chalabi.) In that respect, it can be argued that the U.S. empire is actually in better shape today than it was under George W. Bush.

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Anti-Vaccination Hysteria and the Rich

August 20, 2013

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Source: http://eideard.com/2013/07/16/anti-vaccine-body-count/.

A recent article in Salon suggests that rich people are more likely to buy into anti-vaccine ideas. The author, Alex Seitz-Wald writes:

    California law mandates that all students get vaccinated, but it also makes it easy to get exemptions for personal beliefs. And parents in tony places like Marin County are taking advantage of it in seemingly growing numbers. One public elementary school in Malibu, an affluent beach town just north of Los Angeles, reported that only 58 percent of their students are immunized — well below the recommended 90-plus percent level — according to Shapiro.

    And it’s even worse in some of L.A.’s private schools, where as few as 20 percent of kids are vaccinated in some schools.

We also learn:

    But it’s not just California. Public health officials see large clusters of unvaccinated children in latte-drinking enclaves everywhere, like Ashland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo., where close to 30 percent of children are exempted from one vaccine or another. In some schools in Ashland two-thirds of the students have exemptions, according to Mark Largent, a James Madison College professor who wrote a book about the vaccine debate last year.

This goes against many people’s assumptions about the world. The rich are supposed to be better educated (although George W. Bush put a huge dent in that belief), therefore they should be more immune to anti-scientific beliefs. Yet the Republican Party’s wealthy donors don’t seem bothered by its support for anti-scientific ideas such as creationism and climate change denial. So, could it be possible that the tendency to have anti-scientific beliefs increases with income? I would be interested to know if anyone has done a study on this.

This is a serious matter. Whooping cough (pertussis), which was nearly eradicated has been making a comeback. Infants who are too young to vaccinate are vulnerable to this disease, which is why maintaining a high rate of vaccination is important. Yet vaccination rates have been dropping.

So why do people who should know better refuse to get their children vaccinated? Seitz-Wald quotes a pediatrician, Paul Offit, who says that these people are “used to being in control of their lives and at their jobs and want to control this aspect of their lives as well.” This is probably true, but I suspect there is probably more to it than that. The idea of vaccinations implies a belief in a common good. (Jonas Salk famously refused to accept money for his polio vaccine.) And these elites of our society have increasingly come to hate the idea of a common good.

Pham Binh and the Egyptian Revolution

August 14, 2013

I first became aware of Pham Binh during the late 2000’s. Don’t ask me why, but I had developed a fascination with British political blogs at the time. Binh would often comment on their threads. He would give the impression of being an ISO member (he had actually just left the ISO), while making snarky comments about Alex Callinicos and the British SWP. This struck me as an odd thing for someone to do.

In recent years Binh has taken to writing articles for The North Star website, which is definitely a step up from making weird sectarian comments on British political blogs. His latest article is titled Egypt’s Revolution: Democratic, Not Socialist. It begins:

    In Marxist lexicon, there are two types of revolution: democratic and socialist, or more scientifically, bourgeois-democratic and proletarian-socialist. These two types of revolution involve different class alignments, have different tasks, and lead to different outcomes, although a two-stage uninterrupted revolution that is initially democratic and becomes socialist is possible. The socialist revolution is a battle between the whole of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for political supremacy and ends with the victory of either the capitalist or socialist social systems. The democratic revolution is a battle against autocratic rule that removes fetters on capitalist development between a great variety of classes – peasants, workers, students, landlords, capitalists, small business owners. In democratic revolutions, bourgeois forces can be found on both sides of the barricades (unlike in socialist revolutions) and their concrete outcomes can vary tremendously because of their class heterogeneity. Making accurate generalizations about democratic revolutions is difficult since they have occurred on every inhabited continent in one form or another beginning at least 300 years ago.

This sounds ponderous, but it is actually simplistic. Some revolutions don’t quite fit the neat categories that Binh posits. The American Revolution, for example, involved a number of different class forces, and it was led by an alliance between Northern merchants and Southern plantation-owners who wanted to preserve slavery. Binh’s comment at the end about the “difficulty” of “making generalizations about democratic revolutions” is perhaps meant to acknowledge this. However, Binh then proceeds as if he never made this qualification.

Binh tells us that the Egyptian revolution is a bourgeois-democratic revolution, even though the Egyptian military is defending the interests of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. And Mohamed Morsi is a bourgeois democrat, even though he tried to assume dictatorial powers. Binh therefore argues that it was a strategic blunder for the Revolutionary Socialists and other Egyptian left groups to join the millions of Egyptians calling for Morsi’s ouster. So what should these leftists do about this? Binh tells us:

    Championing the democratic revolution in Egypt now means not only condemning the coup and the SCAF-controlled interim government in words but actively organizing to reverse the coup in deeds by literally breaking Morsi out of jail and returning him to his rightful office. The weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons, condemnation without action is phrasemongering.

    Marxists are not supporters of Morsi, but letting him rot in a Republican Guard cell and allowing the coup to proceed as planned is a death-blow to a democratic revolution barely begun and without the freedoms its victory will bring, no powerful proletarian movement can develop. Our loyalty is not to Morsi (who we will not hesitate to overthrow and defeat) but to the working class specifically and the democratic revolution generally. Breaking him out of a military jail today does not preclude arresting, overthrowing, or un-electing him tomorrow, nor does it imply an ounce of political support for the bourgeois-obscurantist Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi’s reformist ineptitude any more than the Bolsheviks’ active defense of the Kerensky government from Kornilov’s coup make them supporters of Kerensky’s strike-breaking and repression of peasant committees.

So, Binh is saying that having called for Morsi’s overthrow, the Egyptian leftists should now call for reinstating him, so that at some unspecified future moment (“tomorrow”), they can again call for his overthrow. Is he serious? Let me me point out here that calling for returning Morsi to the presidency is supporting Morsi, so it is nothing at all like the Bolsheviks’ position on Kerensky during the Kornilov coup. One of the reasons the Bolsheviks were successful in 1917 was that they maintained more-or-less consistent positions. They did not make sharp reversals, such as what Bingh is urging Egyptian leftists to do.

The Egyptian Left is facing a difficult situation, and, unlike Binh, I don’t pretend to be able to tell them what course of action they should take. One thing, however, is clear to me: the worst thing they could do is adopt a hare-brained scheme that is based on over-simplified Marxist theory and a faulty historical analogy.

The Devil’s Whore

August 11, 2013

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It’s official now. I am embarrassed to have graduated from the University of Oregon.

The New York Times has an article by Greg Butler entitled Oregon Embraces ‘University of Nike’ Image. Nike, in case you don’t know, is a company that pays people pennies to make sneakers that they then sell for $75 a pair. Who wouldn’t want to embrace being associated with a company like that?

The owner of Nike, Phil Knight, recently paid for the building of something called the Football Performance Center. (I assume this is a fancy term for a training facility.) Bishop tells us:

    The Football Performance Center, which was unveiled publicly this week, is as much country club as football facility, potentially mistaken for a day spa, or an art gallery, or a sports history museum, or a spaceship — and is luxurious enough to make N.F.L. teams jealous. It is, more than anything, a testament to college football’s arms race, to the billions of dollars at stake and to the lengths that universities will go to field elite football programs.

    The performance center was paid for through a donation from Phil Knight, a founder of Nike, an Oregon alumnus and a longtime benefactor of the university. During a tour of the complex Wednesday, university officials declined to give a dollar figure, even a ballpark one, insisting they did not know the total cost of a football center where even the garbage cans were picked with great care to match the overall design. (Early design estimates placed the center’s cost at $68 million, which, based on the tour, seemed conservative.)

This is a scandal already. The University of Oregon is a public university, and as such it must maintain transparency about everything it does. Yet it now has a “Football Performance Center” that sounds like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and no one (except Phil Knight, apparently) knows how much it cost to build or about the details of its construction.

Butler describes the overall layout of the place:

    The center is divided into three buildings, all black and shiny rectangular blocks, connected by a sky bridge. Those buildings — and everything around them — are black and boxy by design. Made of black granite, corrugated metal and fritted glass, the elements are arranged like pieces of a Jenga game to show cohesion between units (they also look like the shell of an impenetrable force). A local newspaper quoted an architect who described it as a “Darth Vaderish Death Star.” The designers took that as a compliment.

So, these people feel flattered by being compared to a genocidal murderer. Interesting.

Butler and some other reporters went on a three-hour tour of this facility. This apparently left Butler feeling giddy, because he wrote this:

    For Oregon football, black is the new black, down to the black toilets in the locker room that were described, perhaps in jest, as stealth. The athletes wanted it to look cool, and architects balanced their needs — down to the custom green PlayStation consoles and pool tables made by the same Portland company that designed two for Michael Jackson — with those of the coaches, who are older and spend most of their waking hours in the center and wanted, more than anything, a diverse selection of after-shave.

    Throughout the tour, Eugene Sandoval, design partner at ZGF Architects, and Randy Stegmeier, principal interior designer at Firm 151, returned often to their favorite buzzwords, which they said guided the design: sleek, bombastic, cutting-edge. They said things like, “the material palate is elevated to a very sophisticated level” and “you will see sequencing of form and function of space.”

Aside from the more opaque rantings of Nietzsche, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever read. I am going to break it down, in the hopes of being able to tease out the various layers of meaning here.

    For Oregon football, black is the new black, down to the black toilets in the locker room that were described, perhaps in jest, as stealth.

So they likened black toilet bowls to stealth bombers. This may or may not have been a joke.

    The athletes wanted it to look cool…

The word “it” apparently refers to the Football Performance Center, although that doesn’t follow from the previous sentence. And how does he know what the athletes wanted?

    …and architects balanced their needs — down to the custom green PlayStation consoles and pool tables made by the same Portland company that designed two for Michael Jackson…

Huh, what? They use PlayStation consoles and pool tables to train football players?

    …with those of the coaches, who are older…

The coaches are older than the players? No kidding?

    …and spend most of their waking hours in the center and wanted, more than anything, a diverse selection of after-shave.

That’s right! Those youngsters can keep their PlayStation consoles and pool tables. We mature men prefer to spend our time perusing a diverse selection of after-shave. No real man – especially an older real man – simply slaps on some Aqua Velva. And I’m sure these coaches want to smell nice if they’re going to spend their days surrounded by younger men.

    Throughout the tour, Eugene Sandoval, design partner at ZGF Architects, and Randy Stegmeier, principal interior designer at Firm 151, returned often to their favorite buzzwords, which they said guided the design: sleek, bombastic, cutting-edge.

Sleek is the opposite of bombastic.

    They said things like, “the material palate is elevated to a very sophisticated level” and “you will see sequencing of form and function of space.”

Now I know why it was that I hated the architecture students when I was in college.

Later on, Butler tells us:

    The coaches have their own locker room, complete with a hydrotherapy pool and steam shower, made from blue stone slate, and, of course, dozens of kinds of after-shave in front of the bathroom mirrors, which feature built-in televisions.

It seems to me that a built-in television defeats the whole purpose of a mirror.

All this is being done to attract top football talent. What happened at Penn State University should be a warning sign of what can happen when a university becomes all about football. (It’s worth noting here that Phil Knight defended Joe Paterno.) The people currently running the University of Oregon are like blind men stumbling towards a cliff.

A Reply to Noam Chomsky: America’s Imperial Power Is Not in Decline

August 4, 2013

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Aletnet has posted an article by Noam Chomsky entitled America’s Imperial Power Is Showing Real Signs of Decline. Chomsky cites as proof of his claim the fact that the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) has passed a resolution condemning the countries that refused to allow Evo Morales’s plane to enter their airspace last month. However, I doubt that this resolution will have any concrete results. What is of greater significance is the incident that led to this resolution in the first place. The U.S. apparently pressured four countries – France, Italy, Portugal and Spain – into denying passage through their airspace to the President of Bolivia, in the belief that Edward Snowden might be on his plane. In doing so, these countries not only violated international law, they insulted the leader of a resource-rich nation. So, the U.S. got four governments to act against their own best interests. That’s a pretty impressive display of political power, if you ask me.

Chomsky argues that the U.S. no longer wields as much influence over Latin America as it once did. This is true, but a major reason for this is that since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. foreign policy has shifted its focus to the Middle East and southern Asia. The U.S. now wields greater power in that region of the world than ever before. The U.S. carries out drone attacks in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen with impunity. The U.S. now has military bases set up throughout the region. The Arab Spring was a setback, but the U.S. has since been able to reassert its influence in the countries involved.

Empires don’t always get what they want. When the British empire was at its height, the British suffered a military defeat in Afghanistan. A resolution passed by Latin American countries is no proof that the U.S. empire is in decline. Neither is Putin’s refusal to extradite Snowden.

Chomsky wants to believe the U.S. is in decline when it really isn’t.