Force-feeding at Guantánamo

July 8, 2013

Like everything to do with Guantánamo, this video of Mos Def subjecting himself to the Standard Operating Procedure for force-feeding detainees—currently done twice a day, every day, two hours at a time, mostly to desperate people held for years without charges and cleared for release but with no end to their imprisonments in sight—is really disturbing. At a certain point I no longer see how you avoid the following conclusion: Gitmo is the running sore of America making a mockery of everything it so loudly claims to uphold.


Usable Pasts

June 21, 2013

Much of history—emphasis on story and, yes, too often it does still belong to a him—is not about what actually happened, but what it is useful to tell ourselves happened. Here is an exemplary and well-told NYT story about the collapse of a “usable past” which had held in place in postwar Italy for decades. What held it in place was the degree to which it served the myth that, during WWII, most of Italy—its institutions and its mostly heroic individuals—resisted the worst encroachments of the Nazis.

Once you start seeing much of official/national/textbook history as driven at least in part by this search for a usable past—think: World War Two was fought to save the Jews; Rosa Parks was just a tired black woman looking for a place to sit down; Reagan ended the Cold War—it can function in the manner of a key to unlock what’s most fascinating about the unknowable past: the role it plays in our present.

Image below: the bed of Procrustes. Should the legs of the bed’s proposed occupant prove too long, they would be rudely shortened in order to fit the fixed dimensions.

What if we needed the seams? Thoughts on the portentous Facebook-NSA nexus…

June 20, 2013

It’s not my nature to be paranoid or apocalyptic, but I’m starting to feel an alarming tug in both directions. Consider for a moment, as this NYT article on the Facebook-NSA nexus does, the current array of public and private incentives to monitor and mine our activities. Then combine those incentives with the ever-improving technology allowing both public and private actors to give freer rein to their darkest impulses whilst spurring each other on to greater heights in pursuit of their converging goals.

On the “public” side—if such a reassuring adjective still applies—the government collects and stores our data the better to police and discipline us. If need be, we’ve been told it can even go “back in time” in search of deviant behaviour. Initially, the policing is carried out by algorithms but gradually—”it is not easy to become sane,” as O’Brien tells Winston Smith at the end of 1984—through a combination of fear and the desire to conform, we learn to do this work ourselves before the algorithms even need to flag us. Data mining, as someone has remarked, is not about finding a needle in a haystack, it’s about incrementally moving the haystack.

On the private side, the incentives are obvious: harvest and process our data in the name of monetizing our activities; in a twist on the just-in-time production model, provide us with products before we’ve even become aware we want them.

In both domains—of citizen or consumer—the functioning is seamless: we become equally scrutable, equally benign. But what if we needed the seams? I’m imagining a world like WALL-E where the only things left roaming the earth aren’t genial robots, but algorithms trolling for data, programming Pandora™ stations with no one left to hear the music…

This just in! Chavez didn’t think Chomsky was dead after all! (Chomsky still reading!)

October 7, 2006

As part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ebullient, unrestrained address at the UN not long ago he waved a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance at the assembled (and perhaps nonplussed) delegates. And as has been widely reported, the gesture did wonders for Chomsky’s book sales, but one of the more curious aspects to emerge from it all, at least in the New York Times coverage, was the assertion that Chavez suggested in his speech that Chomsky was dead. Yesterday the Times published this Editors’ Note that merits reading in full:

An article on Sept. 21 about criticism of President Bush at the United Nations by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran reported that Mr. Chavez praised a book by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic. It reported that later, at a news conference, Mr. Chavez said that he regretted not having met Mr. Chomsky before he died. The article noted that in fact, Mr. Chomsky is alive. The assertion that Mr. Chavez had made this misstatement was repeated in a Times interview with Mr. Chomsky the next day.

In fact, what Mr. Chavez said was, “I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago.” Two sentences later Mr. Chavez named John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last April, calling both him and Mr. Chomsky great intellectual figures.

Mr. Chavez was speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith and made it sound as if the man who died was Mr. Chomsky.

Readers pointed out the error in e-mails to The Times soon after the first article was published. Reporters reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish, but not carefully enough to detect the discrepancy, until after the Venezuelan government complained publicly on Wednesday.

Editors and reporters should have been more thorough earlier in checking the accuracy of the simultaneous translation. (Go to Article)

Editors’ Notes are something the Times only resorts to when it considers it – or Judith Miller – has made an especially egregious error (and/or, as in this instance, left uncorrected for some time an egregious error to which its attention had previously been drawn). Conspiracy theorists might be inclined to read some intent into both the original mistake, and the time it took to correct it. Certainly the error does little to help Chavez’s profile in the US. The idea that a President could endorse a scholar – and perhaps the world’s most famous extant left public intellectual to boot – while mistakenly believing him to be dead, does much to further the impression of Chavez as an unhinged wingnut (can a wingnut be unhinged?). The implication is that anyone with similar leftist views must be similarly unhinged and misinformed. [For the record, Chomsky told the Times of Chavez’s policies: “Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive. I would be happy to meet with him.”] But I’m not so sure the Times‘ error was deliberate in any direct sense. In such instances I’m generally more inclined to chalk up such “mistakes” to rank human incompetence. It is certainly the case, for example, that the Times also makes missteps that are of little help to the boosters of US global hegemony, as this correction, also from yesterday, attests to:

Because of an editing error, a caption on Wednesday about an American armored vehicle that ran into a ditch in Baghdad, attracting a crowd of children, misidentified the object in the left hand of a G.I. who was shown trying to disperse them. It was a glove, not a side arm. (Go to Article)

This does strike one as a not insignificant correction. However, to return to Chavez, it certainly seems possible that Times‘ editors, reporters, fact-checkers etc. would have had an easier time ascribing such an error to Chavez than, say, a more “credible”, more “balanced” (because less leftist) world leader. Granted Chavez is responsible for a lot of his own bad press, but it’s these kind of assumptions – the assumptions that are a central meaning of hegemony,* the manner in which the boundaries of common sense, the thinkable and unthinkable are formed – that are really in need of interrogation. But I’m not anticipating an Editors’ Note on that revolutionary topic anytime soon.

*Raymond Williams offers an excellent working definition of “hegemony” from what we (or me anyway) might call a disabused Marxist perspective:

For hegemony supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely secondary or susperstructural, like the weak sense of ideology, but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the substance and limits of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure. For if ideology were merely some abstract, imposed set of notions, if our social and cultural and political ideas and assumptions and habits were merely the result of specific manipulation, of a kind of overt training which might be simply ended or withdrawn, then the society would be very much easier to move and to change than in practice it has ever been or is. [Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture (New York, 1980), 37]

Postscript: Interestingly, over on the New York Times quasi-endorsed Freakonomics blog (there’s a Freakonomics column in the NYT Magazine), much the same open-ended conclusion re: the Times‘ “mistake” is hit upon. The word “hegemony”, however, is notable by its absence:

It sounds to me like a very honest mistake. But it also suggests an interesting psychological element: we are probably more willing to identify and exploit a flaw in those whom we have already deemed very flawed.

To cite Tony Judt writing on Thomas Friedman in a recent article excoriating US liberals for their failure to oppose Bush, Freakonomics is perhaps rather proffering “pieties…road-tested for middlebrow political acceptability.” Actually, that’s more than a bit unfair to Freakonomics in this instance. Mostly I just needed an excuse to deploy that Judtian bon mot. That said, my point about the Freakonomics’ reading is that it fails to ask the (archæologically) prior question of how we ended up being convinced Chavez is “very flawed” in the first place.

meanwhile tony snow sells siding AND the global war on terror

October 6, 2006

from the New York Times, a story that pretty much speaks for itself such that creating category-tabs for it along the lines of “auto-satirical”, or, “would be hilarious if it wasn’t so endlessly tragic”, seems kind of beside the point:

“Just imagine, you’re listening to the radio, Tony Snow has been speaking to you as the spokesman for the leader of the free world, and then a commercial comes on with him trying to sell you a window,” Ms. Henderson said Thursday. “He introduced himself as Tony Snow, talked about the travails of remodeling projects, boasted about the 30-year history of this business and delivered the 800 number of the business, twice.”

 I’m particularly fond of her use of “travails”.

Times article

of hosiery and other total institutions

October 6, 2006


friday at noon, or “how I came to borrow my lover’s socks even while she’s away for a series of days camping in separate tents with her mother somewhere in deep New Jersey”:

watching the mets game in a wisconsin ex-pat bar last night on the fringes of the west village, christopher street near a second floor where a grad student strike meeting was held months ago for a strike that failed to. hold, that is. feeling disaffected, more than a little disconsolate – unconsolable? – as is my wont after a day of reading, not writing, and not always even reading as one proved overmatched, again, by the bottomless lure of internet flânerie. but the mets were doing well in game the second of their march to yankees domination and my beer had heft and bite; a brewery based in red hook, my beer-wench who doesn’t drink beer patiently explained (actually she spoke to me a little bit as though I was hard of learning, an urban marginal, which, truth be told – and, yes, why not tell it? – was somewhat how I was feeling in any event so perhaps I was grateful). so as she outlined, the brewery was based in red hook, brooklyn but was not affiliated with the “red hook brewery” which is in fact owned by the tyrannical banalical “king of beers” and was based somewhere I don’t remember but in any event a long way from the ex-stevedores and cobblestoned roads that is the hopeful, decayed – exquisite deliquescence – land of the hook of rouge.

so plucky mets continue to pluck away at their midnight shea melody and my spirits – plucky betimes themselves – rose in kind. in-between innings I texted aforementioned girlfriend with the previously alluded to hosiery – she, presumably, in her solo tent under the trees (do even bears have cell signals now?) and me on my ex-wisconsin couch feeling increasingly more consolate.* or I whiled away the ad time reading in hard-won light about communist crimes and french intellectuals – another bottomless theme I suppose – and the less than enlightening debate: whose crimes were more execrable, whose blood spots more indelible: hitler’s or stalin’s? as is so often (always?) the case, the arguments had a tendency to cast more light on the argumentee than on the phenomenon ostensibly under discussion. exiguous** little minds, I thought, deploying my just gleaned word of the day (“deliquescence”*** was from last week).

the mets won, I exchanged a couple of desultory high fives with the other mets fans in the bar – one had an orange mets cap I rather envied – and then headed for “home” – tonight being my rarely occupied actual le brooklyn profond home seeing as best friend and red hook bed sharer was with the blackberrying bears. checked in with the phone hotline for the total institution of the MTA – New York’s public transit – to make sure my L train (the very consonsant inspires horror) would be running after midnight – it often isn’t – and was reassured by the presence of an absence of warnings, caveats, jeering that I’d make it home and could even stop for groceries on the way. I’m an organised guy. I mean, I make phone calls like this; I even have the number programmed into my phone. of course getting to the station – two bags of optimistic groceries now in tow – I discover the train is in point of fact not running. or not so much discover as surmise. because the MTA doesn’t tell you anything, or, say, shut down the platform. they just let you wait until someone – in this case, me (I’m into text) – reads the fine print and discovers in fact we’ve all missed the train. I strode munificently about the platform informing the patient, sheep-like brooklyn multitudes, a gentle word in the ear that was soon confirmed – here’s how the MTA communicates – by a cleaning employee a platform up hollering down that there were no trains and she didn’t know what we all thought we were waiting for. so, great, I trundled off to another train – the F for friendly – and came to the aforementioned red hook, grateful for my house key, and took over the girlfriend’s place even while she’s, well, far away. hence the wakeup here in chilly maritime glorious red hook – only this time without cuddly maritime glorious bedbody beside me – the long, leisurely breakfast and the need for socks. thankfully my lover has big feet. my dawgs are happily ensconced in a nice pair of game-show gleaming white sports hosiery. the MTA, and the yankees, be damned.

*1818 T. L. PEACOCK Nightm. Abbey 4 One morning..‘he woke and found his lady dead’, and remained a very consolate widower [With humorous reference to disconsolate].

**1654 tr. Scudery’s Curia Pol. 39 If they have any being, it is so exiguous, that it is scarce visible.

***1863 HAWTHORNE Our Old Home (1883) I. 259 The English..hurry to the seaside with red, perspiring faces, in a state of combustion and deliquescence.

the day the mountain fell on wallace

September 25, 2006

I really hate to do this – hate, that is, to add anything to the e-cacophony on fox’s “interview” with clinton – but this is both so predictable, and yet so difficult to credit, that it’s here in case you missed it. (of course if you care, you likely didn’t miss it.) this is the fox reporter, Chris Wallace, describing the fear and terror he felt confronted by what fox is now calling a “crazed” clinton:

Former President Clinton is a very big man. As he leaned forward–wagging his finger in my face–and then poking the notes I was holding–I felt as if a mountain was coming down in front of me.

click here for: i_felt_as_if_a_mountain_was_coming_down_in_front_of_me

i’m still trying to decide whether this is a joke, but this question seems increasingly irrelevant, archaic even. Wallace’s comments, his aggrieved, wounded tone – he’s shocked, shocked, to imagine anyone could presume him guilty of partisanship – are the very model of disingenuousness. But, as a descriptor, “disingenuousness” may also have increasingly little purchase when it comes to US political discourse. The “disposition to secure advantage by means not morally defensible; insincerity, unfairness” (to cite the OED definition) ceases to be remark-worthy when it becomes structural to, if not constitutive of, the words being spoken.

meanwhile, here’s the clip fox is running to promo the day the mountain fell on wallace. looks pretty fair and b’d to this guy. then again, Clinton didn’t make it difficult for fox to portray him as hectoring and bug-eyed:

still the shape of jazz to come

September 22, 2006

With the Mets having secured the NL East pennant – and with a subway series in the offing where the plucky Mets sweep the hegemonic Yankees in four raucous games – I may have temporarily acquired a new go-to page in the paper. It seems a little too dark altogether to just plunge right into one’s morning update on the learned debate as to precisely which species of enforced organ failure constitutes torture, so for now I’m starting with the Arts section, a decision which this morning yielded considerable dividends. Ornette Coleman:


We listened to “Cheryl,” a Parker quintet track from 1947. “I was drawn to the way Charlie Parker phrased his ideas,” he said. “It sounded more like he was composing, and I really loved that. Then, when I found out that the minor seventh and the major seventh was the structure of bebop music — well, it’s a sequence. It’s the art of sequences. I kind of felt, like, I got to get out of this.”

He talks a lot about sequences. (John Coltrane, he said, was a good saxophone player who was lost to them.) With regard to his Parker worship, he kept the phrasing but got rid of the sequences. “I first tried to ban all chords,” he said, “and just make music an idea, instead of a set pattern to know where you are.”

Times article

oh, just a farrago of benign news items…

September 21, 2006

…all read in the Times on the subway home and, cumulatively, telling you far more about the world than you ever wanted to 21train6001.jpgknow even if you already knew it. Consider each a sort of putrid world in a grain of unhappy sand. Where to begin…

1. The Bush administration is stalling an investigation of a brazen act of state-sponsored terrorism – a pair of assassinations; one of those killed was an American – committed on US soil. This sounds decidedly odd – didn’t I hear something about a war on terror? – until one twigs to which state sponsored the terrorism: Augusto Pinochet‘s Chile:

grain of sand the first

2. The US Justice Department is forced to contradict comments from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Yesterday, Gonzales denied responsibility for the deportation of Maher Arar to Syria and said he was “not aware that [Arar] was tortured.” The Times reports the comments “caused puzzlement” as the US decision to deport the Canadian citizen is a matter of public record, and the results of a public inquiry just released in Canada confirmed Arar had been repeatedly tortured during his more than year long imprisonment. (Not incidentally, the inquiry also found no evidence linking Arar to “terrorism” despite the Mounties’ best efforts to find something, anything, to justify the faulty, unverifed “intelligence” they passed on to the Americans which likely led to Arar’s deportation in the first place.)

grain of sand the second

3. Four US government auditors launch a lawsuit against their own bosses claiming they’ve been prevented from going after tens of millions of dollars oil and gas companies have been fraudulently holding back from the government:

grain of sand the third

4. The UN says far more people have died violent deaths in Baghdad (5,106) in the last two months than was previously thought. Meanwhile, US officials claim even the earlier number revised by the UN is inflated. The UN report also describes evidence of torture on many of the bodies:

grain of sand the fourth

5. Documents reveal Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed combined have attended more than 100 meetings at the Bush White House:

grain of sand the fifth

6. And Hugo Chavez waves a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance before the UN General Assembly. There’s even a photo:

grain of sand the sixth

In fact to segue to some less dispiriting grains,

An Australian court rules the entire city of Perth belongs to Aborigines.

And a charming story about subway sounds and a cell phone call from Neil Young. It’s all very reminiscent of the Wim Wender’s movie Lisbon Story, a tale about a movie soundman who arrives in Lisbon to discover a movie with no sound, and no filmmaker, and a beautiful woman with a haunting voice sharing his mansion. Highly recommended, but in the interim read about the subway sounds and the singular pleasures of exploring a city with large headphones and a powerful microphone.


The Pope and ancient prejudices

September 20, 2006

An excellent, thoughtful piece in The Guardian from Karen Armstrong, noted historian of religions, that helps put the Pope’s recent remarks on Islam in perspective. In the process, she makes their import even more alarming. It’s worth remembering that Benedict’s “faux pas” wasn’t off-the-cuff – as Bush’s may well have been in his infamous “Crusade” comment – but considered and deliberate. Armstrong helps us to understand the ignoble genealogy of that deliberation, and along the way provides some very useful history lessons:

Until the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Qur’anic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own. The extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim world in our own day are a response to intractable political problems – oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands, the prevelance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and the west’s perceived “double standards” – and not to an ingrained religious imperative.

Karen Armstrong on Islamophobia and the West

(thanks mom)