Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reality Wedge #3: having and eating cake

Professor Andrew J. Bacevich
Some texts on "torturegate":
Torture, as a word, except in documents or in the mouths of other people -- those "critics" -- has evidently lost its descriptive powers in our news world where almost any other formulation is preferred. Often these days the word of choice is "harsh," or even "brutal," both substitutes for the anodyne "enhanced" in the Bush administration's own description of the package of torture "techniques" it institutionalized and justified after the fact in those legal memos. The phrase was, of course, meant to be law-evading, since torture is a crime, not just in international law, but in this country. The fact is that, if you can't call something what it is, you're going to have a tough time facing what you've done, no less prosecuting crimes committed not quite in its name. Tom Engelhardt

International law and American treaty obligations were defied, as were established American law on the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners, constitutional protections, and the surveillance of citizens. All of this occurred without meeting serious, or at least successful, Congressional or judicial challenge, with little or no objection from the national press, and all but unanimous support from the national audiovisual media. One needn’t go through all that again.(...)President Obama’s unwillingness to see his first term dominated by the crimes of the Bush administration is comprehensible. Yet there is a limit. The latest case of the human moral vacuum created and encouraged during the Bush years is so outrageous, perverse, sadistic and nihilistic that it demands attention, for all that it tells us about the rest that has happened. I speak of the ordered, authorized, and conscientiously supervised water-boarding of two prisoners 266 times. The men who authorized, ordered, and performed such acts should be hanged. It is as simple as that. William Pfaff

Americans should be clear on what Obama has done. In a breathtaking display of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance, the president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families. The interrogation techniques in question, the president asserted, are a sign that Americans have lost their "moral compass," a compliment similar to Attorney General Eric Holder's identifying them as "moral cowards." Mulling Obama's claim, one can wonder what could be more moral for a president than doing all that is needed to defend America and its citizens? Or, asked another way, is it moral for the president of the United States to abandon intelligence tools that have saved the lives and property of Americans and their allies in favor of his own ideological beliefs? Michael Scheuer

Hard though it is to believe, Barack Obama may be facing an issue with bigger consequences for the US than any already on his desk: whether officials from the previous administration – perhaps up to and including George W. Bush – should be prosecuted for violating domestic and international laws on torture.(...) Many Americans would see prosecutions as partisan; their loudest advocates do seem driven more by loathing of the Bush administration than zeal for justice. Rather than building a consensus against torture, which is the real prize, prosecutions might militate against it. Mr Obama may now be unable to halt the process. Before choosing not to try, he should think hard about where it might lead. Editorial - Financial Times
David Seaton's News Links
Beginning with Professor Bacevich's masterful, almost Swiftian, evisceration of the jingoistic ignorance and hypocrisy which after more than a century finally was symbolized by what we call "George W. Bush", the above texts lay out with clarity the full gravity and the deadly vortex facing the United States of America in the torture controversy

In my view, at the heart of all of the controversy of whether to prosecute or even investigate torture is the following consideration:

The United States of America is not a not a "normal" country.

The USA is not a "nation" in a traditional sense as England, France, Japan or Spain are: with hundreds of years of common history, religion, language, culture, victories and defeats to fill and color their daily lives with unspoken meaning and identity no matter what constitution or regime happens to be in power at the moment. That is not America's case.

Without it's laws and republican traditions the United States of America would simply be a multicolored spectacle of fat people out shopping. That is what it is in danger of being, may already have become. The United States without habeas corpus becomes merely the sinister, hypocritical, mastodon that Andrew Bacevich paints.

Admitting the use of torture and not prosecuting those who have bent or broken the Constitution and international law is the slipperiest of slippery slopes. Not only America's identity is at stake, even the ideas of the enlightenment: liberty, equality and the rights of man themselves, which America likes to think it incarnates, are at risk.

As an example:
Since Eisenhower embraced Franco, "black Spain" has treated America and its president much as their ancestors treated the Pope, as the final guarantor of their legitimacy to rule. I have seen with my own eyes how much of Spain's unreconstructed, Francoist right wing, symbolized by José María Aznar, cloaked themselves with the democratic seal of approval and modernidad that Bush conferred on their own ancestral toxic mixture of religion, selfishness, greed and centuries of the systematic violation of and contempt for human rights. At this moment they are nonplussed by many of Obama's opening initiatives. That is much to Obama's credit.

Finally the decision that faces America is the same one that faced ancient Rome, whether to be an empire or to be a Republic. Of course that decision was taken long ago... America is an empire and America tortures and has taught others how to torture for decades. This what Chalmers Johnson calls "The Sorrows of Empire".

The real question today is whether the cat can ever be walked back.

To prosecute the torturers right up to the top with the same vigor that the United States employed against the villains of Nuremberg or Slobodan Milošević would be a fundamental first step in reclaiming the Republic.

This is a fork in the road. One path surely leads to hell on earth and the other, perhaps, possibly, maybe, could be, might be, the path where happiness, so long pursued, could finally be caught. DS

Monday, April 27, 2009

British in need of reality check

David Seaton's News Links
The other day I went to a debate in a big Spanish bank about the EU and the “crisis”, which was held under the “Chatham House” rule so I can use the information, but I can’t reveal the names of the participants. I’ll just say that the star speaker was a very prominent British journalist, specializing in EU affairs. His greatest complaint was that the Germans no longer just signed the checks and silently nodded agreement to everything that the USA, Britain and France requested and that they had a strategic understanding with Russia due to energy.

Listening to him talk, I got the feeling that his reality was much more British weighted than reality itself is.

Germany is the most important country in Europe both economically and demographically and as the journalist pointed out they are no longer docilely following the traditional, "Russia out, America in and Germany down" script. And as the journalist also mentioned, if there is any bailing out to be done in countries like Greece or points east, it will be the Germans who do the bailing. It seems to me that this adds up to a very German slant to things in the near future. Who else is there, when you really come down to it?

Britain? France?

As the journalist also pointed out, the euro-skeptic Tories who detest the EU are set to win the next UK election and if we add to this that the British economy is now like some cratered giant Iceland and its financial industry disgraced (manufacturing left ages ago)... then except for Tommy Atkins, what else has Britain got left to sell, lease or rent?

As for the French, Sarkozy has tardo-Bush popularity levels and his enthusiasm for NATO and Afghanistan are not shared by the French people in any poll I've seen.

Except for the British government and Sarkozy does anybody anywhere in Europe in their right mind really want to see the Germans getting militarized ever again?

Since Af-Pak is going down the drain, at this very moment, the German reluctance to get any deeper involved in the coming debacle makes quite a bit of sense.

I would argue that the official German position fits EU public opinion better than either Britain's or France's.

So to sum up, the Germans are paying the piper and they are no longer reluctant to call the tunes. That for better or worse is the EU of today and tomorrow and the crisis is going to enhance that. They have the money, the population and their policies are more in tune with European public opinion... What could be more obvious? DS

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reality Wedge #2

What troubles some of us about President Obama isn't a single apology here or a single handshake there; it is evidence of a particular cast of mind. For Obama's foreign policy gambit to succeed, it isn't enough for him to "listen" and sit passively by as America is castigated by the Daniel Ortega's of the world. He also, and most importantly, needs to press reluctant allies and our enemies for concessions and actually get a few. Peter Wehner - Commentary

If, as we all suspect, (Obama) means to push the sides toward a deal, there is no obvious reason apply pressure privately. It is time he started talking more like John Foster Dulles and less like Oprah. Obama, in other words, has to start by imposing an agenda on Israel's conversation. He can win over Israelis eventually, but only if every front page story for the next six months is about whether or not Bibi and Lieberman are destroying relations with Washington. That is the only thing Israeli elites fear more than the loss of solidarity. Bernard Avishai
David Seaton's News Links
You may remember from my last post, that I refer to an area of agreement between people who can agree on very little, as the "Reality Wedge".

I would class Israeli peace activist Bernard Avishai and former Bush-II White House aide, Peter Wehner, writing in neocon haven Commentary Magazine as "people who can agree on very little", wouldn't you?

Nobody could be more in Barack Obama's corner than Eugene Robinson, who wrote in the Washington Post about the Trinidad Conference and the Chávez handshake:
My argument isn't that Obama should try to be someone he's not. It's that he's declining to use one of the tools at his disposal. As public anger over the U.S. bank bailouts was rising, a well-timed burst of presidential outrage might have allowed him to get out in front of it.
What these people are saying is that they are afraid that Barack Obama is a wimp.

Personally, I don't think he is.

JFK wasn't a wimp either, but Nikita Khrushchev thinking he was nearly started WWIII.

Khrushchev, had come up in a much more dangerous and difficult environment than JFK and misread him. Likewise, most leaders in the world's problem countries today have come up in very hard schools, much harder than "tough" old Chicago. They are not going to cut the USA any slack... They are simply waiting for "Obamamania" to run out of gas.

At the moment Obama is enjoying this incredible tailwind all over the world by simply not being George W. Bush... It is impossible to exaggerate how relieved the world feels that the most powerful (or at least the most dangerous) country on earth is no longer governed by a murderous idiot. But, at the same time, it would be most ingenious to confuse that relief with a massive urge on the part of the world to gulp down America's Kool-Aid.

Not being Bush is a wonderful thing but it isn't a solution, because Bush wasn't the problem itself, only an outward sign, a symbol of that problem. The problem is still there... with bells on.

American power was built around a healthy population, great manufacturing, good public education, solid money and a victorious military: all of which are simultaneously in crisis. America has created a web of world power well described by Chalmers Johnson and Noam Chomsky and many people around the world are eager to throw that yoke off. Now is their chance... be assured they will take it.

Obama is going to have to draw some clear red lines somewhere, sometime, but I think that is going to be difficult... it would be like Microsoft manufacturing airplanes... that is not how they got where they are.

My basic reading of Barack Obama and his problem remains more or less the same: he got where he is by appearing to be all things to all men. In this he is a genius... I have never ever seen such footwork before. Comparing Obama's powers of triangulation to Bill Clinton's or Tony Blair's is like comparing Einstein to Euclid. Finally, he is going to have to play the ball where it lies. To do that, however, would be to betray his very nature, his strategy of life, which is ambiguity.

He may find himself in a great war without really understanding how it happened to him. DS

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Reality Wedge

This is a cartoon from today's edition of the left wing Spanish daily, Público.

In it two GIs are taking to an Afghan peasant. They say, "President Obama has a plan to end the Afghan war." The peasant replies, "I'm going to give you an idea, we would really appreciate it if you just stopped bombing us and went home and took the money you saved and shared it out among us. In four days it would eliminate poverty, terrorism and the common cold. Everybody would be happy except for the people who manufacture bombs".

Neat, huh?
David Seaton's News Links
I am nothing if not a promiscuous reader. I cover the waterfront from left to right and I take special trouble to read carefully and extensively those with whom I agree very little, if at all. I am especially intrigued whenever I find myself agreeing with them on the facts stated, even if I disagree strongly with their reading of those facts. I am even more fascinated when I agree with both facts and reading. This narrow area of mutual agreement I call "the reality wedge".

One of those I read regularly and with whom I agree on practically nothing is Caroline Glick a Chicago-born, dual-national, American-Israeli journalist and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. She is also a "Fellow" of the neocon organ called the "Center for Security Policy".

Ms. Glick is a sort of "by Tennessee Williams out of
Bud Schulberg" character, her columns often have a borderline hysteria of the paranoiac, Chicken Little, "sky is falling" variety. A sort of Daniel Pipes with hot flashes: a type of lady my Victorian granny would have called "high strung".

After eight years of Bush, I'm sure that few of my readers need to be brought up to speed on who neoconservatives are and what their agenda is. Suffice to say, it appears obvious that for Ms. Glick the USA, its people, their lives and their treasure are mere instruments whose sole purpose is to eternally pull Israel's chestnuts out of the fire.

The other day she wrote a column titled,
"Surviving in a post-American World". Here is an excerpt:
Like it or not, the United States of America is no longer the world's policeman. This was the message of Barack Obama's presidential journey to Britain, France, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Iraq this past week. Somewhere between apologizing for American history - both distant and recent; genuflecting before the unelected, bigoted king of Saudi Arabia; announcing that he will slash the US's nuclear arsenal, scrap much of America's missile defense programs and emasculate the US Navy; leaving Japan to face North Korea and China alone; telling the Czechs, Poles and their fellow former Soviet colonies, "Don't worry, be happy," as he leaves them to Moscow's tender mercies; humiliating Iraq's leaders while kowtowing to Iran; preparing for an open confrontation with Israel; and thanking Islam for its great contribution to American history, President Obama made clear to the world's aggressors that America will not be confronting them for the foreseeable future.
If Ms. Glick continues in this vein a few weeks longer I will find myself converting to high church Obamism. Anybody that draws this kind of fire from Caroline Glick must be doing something right.

I am of the opinion that instead of changing or creating "reality" what president Obama is doing is putting a "seal of approval" on reality. The reality we know as "Bush" is by now inescapable. I say "the reality we know as 'Bush'", because I believe that Bush is more a product of that reality than the primary cause of it. A more realistic term might be "moldy Reaganism". If we have to blame anybody for the straits that America and all who sail in her find themselves, I'd blame it on the Gipper. Following my reading, compared to Reagan, as a harmful influence, George W. Bush is just something that a 'right to life' fanatic fished out of a waste basket.

So Barack Obama is just making the best out of a bad job,
putting lipstick, false eyelashes and autologous fat transplants on a pig.

Here a distinguished voice of the left, sociologist, historical social scientist, and world-systems analyst Immanuel Wallerstein gives a reading of the G-20 parallel to Caroline Glick's:
(Obama's) interlocutors all said he took them seriously, listened to them attentively, admitted U.S. past errors and limitations, and seemed open to compromise solutions of diplomatic disputes - nothing of which they might have accused George W. Bush. But did this make any difference in achieving U.S. diplomatic objectives? It is hard to see in what way.(...) The French and the Germans seemed to use the London meeting more to demonstrate that the geopolitical commitments they refused to make for Bush they would continue to refuse to make for Obama. The German newspaper, Der Spiegel, was harsh in its judgment. It said the cause of the financial disaster is that George W. Bush had been a "poppy farmer" who had "flooded the entire world [with cheap dollars],...creating sham growth and causing a speculative bubble...." Worse still, "the change in government in Washington has not brought a return to self-restraint and solidity. On the contrary, it has led to further abandon." Its conclusion: "German Chancellor Angela Merkel is right. The West may very well be giving itself a fatal overdose." In the geopolitical arena, the Franco-German approach to Afghanistan is unchanged - verbal support for U.S. objectives but no more troops. Would they receive prisoners released from Guantanamo? Germany continues to say absolutely not. France magnanimously agreed to receive one - yes, one. Obama gave a major speech in Prague outlining a call for nuclear disarmament - presumably a big change from the Bush position. The French conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, reports that the diplomatic cell in Sarkozy's inner circle took a very "abrasive" view of the speech. Just public relations, they said, masking the fact that the negotiations of the United States with Russia on this question were getting nowhere. Furthermore, France was not about to take moral lectures from the Americans. So much for Obama's new diplomatic style appeasing the West Europeans. Elsewhere, it didn't seem to work too much better with the East-Central Europeans, where the outgoing conservative Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek of the Czech Republic denounced Obama's stimulus proposals as "a way to hell." Obama's speech to the Turkish parliament did get him great applause from all factions (except the proto-fascist right) for its concrete and modulated approach to Turkish questions. But observers noted that the language on Middle Eastern questions was both traditional and vague.
And yet all of this has given Caroline Glick a case of the shivering fits.

Where I think that Glick has a point (strictly from her point of view)
is that American power is greatly diminished and that this is going to
eventually leave Israel hanging out to dry. The role that the neocons and AIPAC have had in damaging US power seems, however, to escape Ms. Glick.

It is always interesting to remind people of the difference between a neoconservative and the paleoconservative variety. To round off our little tour of "the reality wedge" let us read from one of the most paleo of them all, Pat Buchanan, and see if you don't shock yourself by nodding affirmatively at some of his rant... at least this part:
Europeans had us figured out a long time ago.

They sense that we need them more than they need us.

While NATO provides Europe with a security blanket, it provides America with what she cannot live without: a mission, a cause, a meaning to life.

Were the United States, in exasperation, to tell Europe, "We are pulling out of NATO, shutting down our bases and bringing our troops home because we are weary of doing all the heavy lifting, all the fighting and dying for freedom," what would we do after we had departed and come home?

What would our foreign policy be?

What would be the need for our vaunted military-industrial complex, all those carriers, subs, tanks, and thousands of fighter planes and scores of bombers? What would happen to all the transatlantic conferences on NATO, all the think tanks here and in Europe devoted to allied security issues?

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the withdrawal of the Red Army from Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO's mission was accomplished. As Sen. Richard Lugar said, NATO must "go out of area or out of business."

NATO desperately did not want to go out of business. So, NATO went out of area, into Afghanistan. Now, with victory nowhere in sight, NATO is heading home. Will it go out of business?

Not likely. Too many rice bowls depend on keeping NATO alive.

You don't give up the March of Dimes headquarters and fund-raising machinery just because Drs. Salk and Sabin found a cure for polio.

Again, one recalls, in those old World War II movies, the invariable scene where two G.I.s are smoking and talking.

"What are you gonna do, Joe, when this is all over?" one would ask.

Years ago, we had the answer.

Joe stayed in the Army. He couldn't give it up. Soldiering is all he knew. Just like Uncle Sam. We can't give up NATO because, if we do, we would no longer be the "indispensable nation," the leader of the Free World.

And, if we're not that, then who are we? And what would we do?
To the extent that you recognize yourself in such widely different commentators as the left wing Spanish cartoonist Ferreres, or the left wing sociologist, professor Wallerstein or in paleoconservative Buchanan's text, to that extent the reality wedge exists and Caroline Glick's hysteria is justified and her instinct that the jig is up is correct. DS

Monday, April 06, 2009

Af-Pak, where Barack will need all his baracka

When Mr Obama won office, The Onion, a satirical magazine, greeted his victory with the headline “Black man given nation’s worst job”. Watching Mr Obama’s progress around Europe this week, this seemed a reasonable summary of the situation. The new American president faces an economic disaster at home, a stalemated war in Afghanistan, unpredictable adversaries in places such as North Korea, and largely unhelpful allies in Europe. This week Mr Obama cemented the impression that he is an unusually gifted and intelligent politician. But that does not mean he will succeed. It could just be that he is the right man at the wrong time. Gideon Rachman - Financial Times
David Seaton's News Links
There seems to be a sidereal distance between official statements about American objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan and any reality based assessment on the possibility of achieving those objectives.

What is now called "Af-Pak"is in danger of becoming the mother of all tar babies, if it isn't already.

From the point of view of clear thinking, calling Iraq the "bad" war and Afghanistan the "good" war is on the order of "do you still beat your wife?" What could be said is that Iraq is Switzerland compared to Af-Pak and that even after being criminally mauled by the USA, before too many years have past Iraq will go back to being one of the most modern and prosperous countries in the Middle East. Af-Pak is the disaster that was waiting to happen... that happened.

At the heart of it all is America's refusal to give true value to history and culture... those of others and perhaps even of its own. As if history were like the film, "Groundhog Day", where every day was a totally fresh chance till you finally got it right. As those other Utopians the Soviets learned, Allah appears to have created Afghanistan specifically to humiliate those who have been eager to "take up the white man's burden".

A few days ago the veteran journalist H.D.S. Greenway wrote one of the most pithy illustrations of the mission's essential hopelessness entitled "Westernizing Afghanistan". Here are some excerpts:
Nearly 30 years ago I was taken to a refugee camp on Pakistan's Northwest frontier called "Kerala." It was named after an Afghan village whence most of the refugees had come.(...) An informer had told the Kabul government that the village was hiding insurgents, and when the government forces with their Russian advisers came many of the men of the village were lined up and shot. It was April 1979. Most of the villagers fled across the border to Pakistan. The Kerala incident interested me because of what the refugees said about their grievances against their government. What they objected to most was the government trying to force reforms on them - reforms such as secular institutions that the villagers saw as a threat to religion, and the education of girls. I thought to myself, how ironic. The Communists are trying to modernize the country much as we might do, but the people resist sudden change. I wrote in my notes: "The lesson seems to be, whether you are a Communist or the Shah of Iran, you force reforms and modernization down the throats of traditional and deeply religious peasants only at your peril." (...) Three decades have passed since then, and today it is the United States, not the Soviet Union, that is bogged down fighting Afghans who have a different vision of how society should be organized.(...) in a society so steeped in a contrary tradition, is it up to us to tell Afghans what customs they can or can't keep? Is the goal of westernizing Afghanistan sustainable? Is it realistic? Is it worth dying for?
The situation in Pakistan seems even nastier and more adhesive and, through American meddling, now is inseparable from the historically intractable swamp of Afghanistan.

Here is how the New York Times lays it out:
President Obama’s strategy of offering Pakistan a partnership to defeat the insurgency here calls for a virtual remaking of this nation’s institutions and even of the national psyche, an ambitious agenda that Pakistan’s politicians and people appear unprepared to take up. Officially, Pakistan’s government welcomed Mr. Obama’s strategy, with its hefty infusions of American money, hailing it as a “positive change.” But as the Obama administration tries to bring Pakistanis to its side, large parts of the public, the political class and the military have brushed off the plan, rebuffing the idea that the threat from Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which Washington calls a common enemy, is so urgent.(...) Some analysts here and in Washington are already putting forward apocalyptic timetables for the country. “We are running out of time to help Pakistan change its present course toward increasing economic and political instability, and even ultimate failure,” said a recent report by a task force of the Atlantic Council that was led by former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The report, released in February, gave the Pakistani government 6 to 12 months before things went from bad to dangerous. A specialist in guerrilla warfare, David Kilcullen, who advised Gen. David H. Petraeus when General Petraeus was the American commander in Iraq, offered a more dire assessment. Pakistan could be facing internal collapse within six months, he said.
Immanuel Wallerstein wrote this about "Obama's war" a few days ago:
In short, the "clear and focused goal" that Obama proposes - "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" - will probably be further than ever from accomplishment. The question is what can Obama do then? He can "stay the course" (shades of Rumsfeld in Iraq), constantly escalate the troop commitment, while changing the local political leadership (shades of Kennedy/Johnson and Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam), or he can turn tail and pull out (as the United States finally did in Vietnam). He is not going to be cheered for any of these choices. I have the impression that Obama thinks that his speech left him some wiggle room. I think he will find out rather how few choices he will have that are palatable. I think therefore he made a big, probably irreparable, mistake.
What to do?

This is what I think.

I think the USA would actually do better with the Taliban themselves than with Karzai or any other leader that the USA could pull out of a hat. Let them run the country or at least the Pashtun part of it. In their fanatical narrow mindedness they seem not to steal as much as the "good" Afghans.

How could this possibly work?

First there should be clear, limited and hopefully achievable objectives with
believable carrots and believable sticks.

What could they be.

To begin with, convince the Taliban with sweet reasonableness not to allow foreign extremists to plan terror attacks against western targets from Afghan soil in exchange for not having their clans indiscriminately wiped out at leisure from the air. They have direct experience of this and they surely would like it to stop. This can be done without western soldiers on the ground. That would be the stick. I don't think any other would be needed.

What about the carrots?

Offer to build the gas pipelines across Afghanistan which are of major interest to NATO and the EU, pay the Taliban protection money for their cooperation and encourage them to wet their beaks in all the construction projects. Once completed the pipe lines will give the country a steady, legitimate income.

Create an international consortium with EU, Japan and China and including the IMF, the WHO and the WTO to purchase the entire annual opium crop of Afghanistan for worldwide, legal medical use. Create another consortium of the neighboring countries to supervise this legal trade. Let them wet their beaks in all the associated projects, so that they discourage smuggling of illegal opium across their frontiers. This will also give the Afghanistan a steady, legitimate income and cut off funding for mischief.

Prosperity might just make them all a bit less bloody minded.

Now for Pakistan.

The first thing to remember is that the Pakistan army, which basically runs the country still considers - and will always consider - India, not Afghanistan the major threat. Therefore if Pakistan's cooperation is desired don't let Afghanistan be a pawn in the struggle between India and Pakistan. Any India-weighted shift in America's foreign policy dooms any Af-Pak strategy to failure.

Settle the Kashmir question. Pressure India to allow the inhabitants of Kashmir to decide their future in a UN supervised referendum. Support the results.

America's efforts should not be directed toward the internal social questions of Pakistan, but should be directed toward bringing peaceful relations between the India and Pakistan

The US should not make any speculative alliances against any of the countries in the region and should not attempt to play India against Pakistan or China or any of them against Iran.

The object should be to defuse the entire area. Getting involved in local religious, geopolitical and social disputes is constantly re-lighting the fuse.

And of course, in order to make any progress at all in dealing with extremist Islam anywhere in the world, it is essential that the United States be more evenhanded in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians so that Muslims anywhere in the world who might be well disposed to the USA are not made to feel like damn fools or quislings. The United States should not allow Israel to drag it off a geopolitical cliff... if it hasn't been permanently dragged off it already.

Of course, any real prospect of peace with the Muslim world will set off all of AIPAC's alarm bells, with all that entails.

Do I think any of this will ever happen?

Perhaps but probably only when it is too late. DS

Friday, April 03, 2009

Tyler Perry, America's Auteur

David Seaton's News Links
I was perusing The Guardian the other morning looking for articles about the G-20 for a press dossier, when I stumbled On this about the American actor, writer and director Tyler Perry:
Why is the man ranked by the business magazine Forbes as the third top-earning black artist in America, with a personal income of $125m (£87m) a year, also described by Forbes as the "best kept secret in movie-making"? Why is he a virtual unknown outside America, while even within the US, he is regularly panned by critics or, worse, utterly ignored by them? Why, in return, has he turned his back on mainstream Hollywood, shunning the big studios, refusing to screen his films for critics, barely marketing them to wider audiences?
Why indeed?

Here are Perry's numbers from Entertainment Weekly:
Number of Tyler Perry Films: 7
Number of Films That Have Opened at No. 1 or No. 2: 6
Combined Domestic Gross: $356 mil
Living outside the states, Tyler Perry was completely off my radar, but I get the impression that he could also be completely off the radar of almost any white person actually living inside the United States today.

It seems that he is literally worshiped by working class African-Americans, but is a bit of an embarrassment for upwardly mobile members of that community.
Todd Boyd, an expert on race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, draws a connection between the stereotypes of black people perpetrated by Hollywood in the days of legal segregation and Perry's caricatures. "Black people were portrayed as slow and dumb; they scratched when they didn't itch, laughed when they weren't funny. They were buffoonish. "Tyler Perry has taken a number of those stereotypes and owned them - reinterpreting them for a new era. The difference is they used to be perpetrated by white Hollywood studio bosses. Now we have an African-American getting rich off them."
Of course the difference is that nowadays black people are doing the laughing, not white people, and black people are making Perry rich, not white people. Perry proves that African-Americans enjoy seeing themselves stereotyped by an African-American in ways that would not be acceptable in white hands. That is probably the biggest and certainly the most crucially important difference between Tyler Perry and say, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.

I watched some very crude, but very fresh and very funny Perry/Madea videos on Youtube and the first thing that came to my mind was that Perry's Madea was doing "Moms Mabley" with a pistol. Moms Mabley was a legendary comedienne, doyenne of the "chitlin circuit", the theaters and night clubs like Harlem's Apollo that catered exclusively to African-American audiences.

So much of America's exportable culture, its image, especially it's music, language, sports and fashion, or practically anything joyous it sends to the world, is of African-American origin
and there have always been an enormous number of hugely talented black performers that were unknown to white audiences. This was principally due of course to segregation, but even in those days white cognoscenti were constantly visiting the circuit eager to steal the routines and techniques of its stars like Bojangles Robinson, getting rich from it while the black artists often made very little themselves by comparison. The examples are countless

Again, what sets Tyler Perry apart today is the money he is making... and his independence.

For me the most interesting thing about Tyler Perry beyond his highlighting America's enduring racial-cultural divide is how through extremely viral marketing techniques he has managed to maintain total control of his work. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the most totally in control auteur in American cinema, perhaps in American cinema's history.

I also enjoy what many critics, both black and white, criticize, even detest about Perry's work, which is its crude, homemade, almost amateurish quality.

In the era of huge super productions filled with super heroes, superstars, special effects and 3D animation, it is wonderful to see films about ordinary people with ordinary problems; films with the production values of a high school play, giving a box-office drubbing to deracinated, polystyrene films with budgets that would dwarf the GDP of a small country.

Another very interesting facet of Perry's work is that his films begin as plays that go on tour all over the country, so that all the material has been amply tested in front of live audiences - his audience - before any camera ever rolls. As far as I know this hasn't happened since the days of the Marx Brothers, who also liked to test their new material with live audiences to see what worked and what didn't before they began to film.

Perry's whole approach to his audience reminds me of the "slow food" movement: maximum respect for the ingredients and maximum respect for those who consume them.

What makes me sad is that despite Obamania, the cultural divide between Americans is still so great that only five percent of the audience for such genuinely American films is white. DS

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

G-20 and the Jade Goody Super Power

As her performance on Big Brother made clear, her years of formal education had left Jade Goody with little knowledge. She thought that a ferret was a bird and abscess a green French drink; that Pistachio painted the Mona Lisa; that Sherlock Holmes invented the flush lavatory; that East Anglia ("East Angular" in Jade-speak) was abroad; and that Rio de Janeiro was "a bloke, innit?" Telegraph Obituary
David Seaton's News Links
To compare America's decline on view in London this week to the recent death watch of British reality television star Jade Goody is in bad taste and unfair... especially to the late Ms. Goody, whose losing and obscenely public battle with cancer was filled with a blithe pathos, cheerful fortitude and dignity that turned her from being simply a motormouth, 'poor cow' from hell, into some sort of patron saint of the tacky and underprivileged.

It's in poor taste to make the comparison, but Jade was all about poor taste, ignorance and huge sums of money paid for absolutely nothing and so, alas, very sadly for all concerned, is today's America.

Would we could go out with her class. DS