Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Israel's war crimes

Richard Falk, a United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in the Israeli Occupied Territories, catalogs Israel's violations of international law in The Nation online. A few excerpts:

Collective punishment: The entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.

Targeting civilians: The airstrikes were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world, certainly the most densely populated area of the Middle East.

Disproportionate military response: The airstrikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza's elected government, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians; at least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.

And Falk raises the crucial issue of complicity in these crimes by all nations that have aided and abetted them:

The Israeli airstrikes today, and the catastrophic human toll that they caused, challenge those countries that have been and remain complicit, either directly or indirectly, in Israel's violations of international law. That complicity includes those countries knowingly providing the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks, as well as those countries who have supported and participated in the siege of Gaza that itself has caused a humanitarian catastrophe.

The BBC is reporting tonight that the Middle East Quartet, that is the US, European Union, UN and Russia, are calling for a truce. That's promising news, although such calls always come after enough people have been killed to make it embarrassing for those who normally stand aside while Israel does what it wants.

By the way, the attack on Gaza has nothing to do with Israel's right to self-defense, because the rockets launched into Israel from Gaza had done minimal damage over the past year. The rocket launching is essentially a symptom of Palestinian rage and frustration at Israel's intransigence over making a true peace, and Israel's blatant campaign to create ever more irreversible "facts on the ground" in the West Bank--ie, to take over as much of that territory as possible--before someone, someday, gets around to calling a halt to its expansionism. Perhaps that someone will be Barack Obama, although that remains to be seen.

Cartoon: Carlos Latuff

Israel's merciless reputation. Vivian Salama writes about the background to the Jewish state's latest round of brutality, online in the Washington Post.

Self-delusion on both sides. Robert Fisk writes about it in the Independent. A key graf:

One common feature of Middle East wars is the ability of all the antagonists to suffer from massive self-delusion. Israel's promise to "root out terror" – be it of the PLO, Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Iranian or any other kind – has always turned out to be false. "War to the bitter end," the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, has promised in Gaza. Nonsense. Just like the PLO's boast – and Hamas' boast and Hizbollah's boast – to "liberate" Jerusalem. Eyewash. But the Israelis have usually shown a dangerous propensity to believe their own propaganda. Calling up more than 6,000 reservists and sitting them round the Gaza fence is one thing; sending them into the hovels of Gaza will be quite another. In 2006, Israel claimed it was sending 30,000 troops into Lebanon. In reality, it sent about 3,000 – and the moment they crossed the border, they were faced down by the Hizbollah. In some cases, Israeli soldiers actually ran back to their own frontier.

Update (Jan 1): New York Times reports on dozens of civilian deaths in Gaza.

Israel can't bomb its way to peace. So says the always wise Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times.

Reports on the impact of Israeli actions on civilians: Can be found at this link.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Tanrıça ve boğa

That's the title of the Turkish translation of my book, "The Goddess and the Bull," which has just been published by Istanbul-based Homer Books. This is a long-awaited event. I don't expect many readers of this blog to rush out and buy it, but I am sure you can all appreciate that this is a big deal for any author.

The book is also available, of course, in English (see left hand column of this blog for more information.) It is meant for a broad audience, and if you have never read a book about archaeology before--or even if you have read hundreds--I think you will enjoy it.


That's a pretty cool logo, no? It's the banner for Science's new policy blog, to which yours truly is proud to be an occasional contributor. I have a post on a scandal brewing among French geologists that went up this past weekend, check it out here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on Israel's actions in Gaza?

So far, a strange silence reigns among commentators and opinion pages in the American news media over Israel's actions in Gaza. While the Bush administration has put the entire blame on Hamas, the Obama camp has retreated to the "one president at a time" line, in stark contrast to Obama's outspoken rhetoric on many other issues--particularly the economy.

(CNN reports that Obama had an 8 minute telephone call with Condoleezza Rice about the Gaza situation.)

Overseas, however, commentators are actually speaking up about Israel's brutal actions, which are inevitably causing severe civilian casualties especially among children. Two leading left-of-center British newspapers for example, The Independent and the Observer, have already run pertinent editorials. The Independent's editorial, perhaps somewhat naively, looks forward to Obama's taking office and applying some wisdom and common sense to the disaster that the Bush administration pretty much ignored for the last 8 years:

Even in the midst of this depressing new turn of the cycle of violence, however, there may be hope. Already, we can imagine how Barack Obama, as US President, might respond to this bloodshed, and contrast it with George Bush's refusal to criticise the Israeli action in Lebanon.

I think it quite possible that Obama and Hillary Clinton will act more positively to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, but doing so will require acknowledging what the Independent editorial also states clearly: Hamas was democratically elected in Gaza, and as a result of Israeli policies:

The conflict between Israel and the people of Gaza is driven by democratic impulses. Hamas, the Islamic political party and paramilitary organisation, won control of the Gaza Strip in free and fair elections in January 2006. Its charter famously calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and, although that was hardly the issue on which those elections were fought, there can be little doubt about the depth and extent of hostility towards Israel felt by the majority of the population of Gaza.

On the other side, Israeli politics are dominated at the moment by the campaign for Knesset elections on 10 February in which Tzipi Livni faces the hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu. Ms Livni, having advocated a policy of restraint, now supports the use of military force against the Hamas infrastructure.

The Observer, on the other hand, more squarely puts the blame on Israel, and predicts that the current attempt to crush Hamas will not only fail but make the organization stronger:

Even those Israeli and Palestinian politicians who are minded to negotiate are boxed into uncompromising stances, and for both the main reason is Hamas. But attempting to remove the problem with military power will not work. Hamas craves confrontation because its support increases when ordinary Palestinians are collectively punished, as has happened under the blockade. There are compelling reasons why Israeli politicians do not try to talk Hamas out of its militancy. But the near certainty of failure is also a more compelling reason not to try force instead.

The strength of Hamas in Gaza, as many observers have pointed out over the years, is squarely due to the failure of the United States and Israel to broker a deal with more moderate Palestinians as represented by Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas. Instead, we read every month about new houses going up in West Bank settlements, new humiliations against the Palestinians, and new provocations to Palestinian militants. This is a one-sided war, in which Israel holds all the cards, bankrolled by the U.S. and encouraged by the fecklessness and political weakness of Europe.

If Obama and Clinton wish to play a new role in the Middle East, the time for them to speak up for new policies is now. There is indeed only one President of the United States at a time, and Obama has made it clear who that is: himself. This is not the time to be coy or shy about the disaster unfolding in Gaza today.

Photo: Palestinian children killed by Israeli gunfire in Gaza in 2007.

Update: Humanitarian disaster in Gaza. A new report from CNN.

How we got to where we are today. Some important background, a bit dated (2002 in the New York Review of Books), from Hussein Agha and Robert Malley about what actually happened at Taba and Camp David. Israel has done everything it can to avoid making peace with the Palestinians, in hopes that it can crush them into submission instead. But the myths and propaganda say otherwise.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Jazz profiles: Dave Brubeck (and Paul Desmond)

I've raved a number of times about National Public Radio's superb jazz profiles series, but they have really outdone themselves this time with the latest installment, on Dave Brubeck. The program is an unusually skillful blend of music and interviews (including with Brubeck himself), which is saying a lot considering the series' already outstanding production values.

Particularly well done are the segments explaining Brubeck's jazz innovations (very educational for amateurs like me) and the portrayal of his complicated collaboration with alto sax player and composer Paul Desmond, who wrote the classic "Take Five." Desmond himself makes a brief interview appearance, in which he explains how he and Brubeck almost left out the bridging segment of "Take Five" which probably ended up being the key to its tremendous commercial success.

While Googling around, I found this very interesting Web site devoted to Desmond, worth checking out--and be sure to download the profile at the link above.

Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Season's greetings to all!

I hope all readers of Balter's Blog are with their families and loved ones. Very best wishes to my regular readers and the occasional ones too.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

U.S. war criminals: have they suffered enough from history's judgement?

I'm going to cut to the chase and say that this is the basic conclusion of an editorial in today's Los Angeles Times, entitled "Is the Bush administration criminally liable for its lawlessness?"

Here is the basic question, as spelled out by the Times:

Whatever its other legacies, the Bush administration will be remembered for its contemptible disregard for the law in the post-9/11 war on terrorism. From the wiretapping of Americans without a court order to the waterboarding of suspected terrorists to the refusal to abide by the requirements of the Geneva Convention, many of the administration's policies can fairly be described as lawless.

But were they also criminal? Should officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, be put on trial, either in a court of law or in a forum like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission? As the Bush administration nears its end, calls for such a reckoning are coming from civil libertarians and some supporters of President-elect Barack Obama. Some even argue that President Bush should be indicted.

The paper's editorial writers go on, however, to find ways to let administration figures off the hook:

The former model is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal, in which several officials -- including President Nixon -- broke identifiable criminal statutes by obstructing the investigation of a burglary motivated by partisan politics. From there, of course, Watergate expanded into a web of criminal violations, from break-ins to the use of the IRS to punish political enemies of the Nixon White House. It's conceivable that individuals in the Bush administration violated criminal law. But if they did so as part of a post- 9/11 response to terrorism, it would be all but impossible to prosecute them successfully.

Besides, the scandal of the Bush administration wasn't a matter of individual, politically motivated violations of law. Rather, it was a systemic failure to take seriously the spirit as well as the letter of this country's commitment to the humane treatment of prisoners or the privacy rights of Americans secured by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

That's a failure in which Congress must share culpability with the administration. It was the administration that, with the help of compliant legal counsel, rationalized the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation and the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners of war and suspected terrorists. But, as the vice president argued recently, Congress at first either acquiesced in, or offered muted objections to, the administration's policies. That the failures were collective rather than individual makes them no less appalling, but it does suggest that a criminal prosecution will not remedy them.

The editorial goes on in that vein, and then concludes:

The Bush administration's lawlessness calls for a serious reckoning, one that already has begun with a scathing report by the Senate Armed Services Committee about the role played by Rumsfeld and other officials in the spread of abusive interrogation techniques. That's welcome and appropriate -- and a vindication of American institutions designed to investigate the misconduct of public officials. Further congressional investigation of the administration's spying program is also in order. But as enticing as many find the idea of putting Rumsfeld or Cheney in the dock, neither a show trial nor a truth commission would be the right way to expunge or atone for the abuses of this administration. Thankfully, those who sanctioned them will soon be history.

Read the entire editorial and see what you think, although we can expect more and more of this kind of argument in the coming weeks and months. The problem is that those who accuse Bush et al. of war crimes do so under statutes of international law as well as U.S. laws, which means that we--that is, we Americans--do not get the right to decide the issue. Indeed, similar arguments could be made about Nazi war crimes, which after all were approved by all levels of German society (who passed the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which were the basis of most subsequent actions against the Jews, in letter and in spirit? The German Reichstag.) And the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis in 1994 was likewise organized and carried out by a broad range of government officials.

The question of who should be charged, or not, for war crimes during the war on terror rightly belongs to international jurists and international courts, and sooner or later they will be invoked. When that happens, the U.S. Justice Department should provide them its full cooperation.

Homeless in Paris. My Paris colleague Katrin Bennhold, one of the finest journalists anywhere, has a story in today's International Herald Tribune about a homeless mother named Julie Lacoste, who is searching for an apartment for herself and her two boys as Christmas approaches. Despite the promises of the Sarkozy government in 2006 that homeless deaths would end within two years, deaths of homeless people are up in 2008 over 2007, Katrin reports. Lacoste, by the way, has a part-time job; Katrin brings the story alive by providing the details necessary to understand one person's sorrows. Kudos to her, and to the Trib's editors for giving her the space to tell the story.

Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet. The first apparent suicide in the Bernard Madoff investment fraud scandal is a French investment advisor (and presumed "feeder") based in Manhattan. His firm lost a reported $1.5 billion. (Other victims of Madoff include Steven Spielberg and a whole host of people who should have known better.) How is it possible that the titans of the financial world don't seem to know how wealth is created? That's the only thing one can conclude when investment wizards believe such high rates of return are plausible. Did they not bother to ask where Madoff was placing the investments, or were they told it was a "secret" when they did ask? (Perhaps making the fairy tale all the more enticing.) Well, perhaps they should read Balter's Blog on this subject, file: Madoff, or better yet go to some basic sources on the labor theory of value. "Das Kapital" would be a good place to start.

Marriage Saudi style. A judge has refused to annul the arranged (read: forced) marriage of an 8 year old girl to a 47 year old man to settle a debt. This is our great ally in the Middle East.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The philosophy of solidarity

Here is a story that gives one hope. According to a story in the French daily Le Monde, three philosophy professors on the way to a conference in Kinshasa in the "Democratic" Republic of the Congo were arrested for asking immigration police why a man being deported from France was handcuffed in his airplane seat. The original events took place on December 16, when the philosophers boarded an Air France flight and encountered the handcuffed deportee surrounded by five police officers.

One of the philosophers, Pierre Lauret, was thrown off the plane immediately, although not before being himself handcuffed "violently" by the police. Other passengers protested his treatment and that of the deportee, and a second passenger (not one of of the philosophers) was also ejected from the plane.

The other two profs, who had, together with Lauret, asked the police why the deportee needed to be handcuffed (a reasonable question, with five officers to keep him from--what, jumping out of the plane?) were allowed to continue on to Kinshasa, but were themselves arrested on December 22 when they returned to France.

According to Le Monde, a number of passengers had protested the treatment of deportees on previous flights, and immigration authorities are apparently getting pretty touchy about it. But it does my heart good to learn that some philosophers, rather than bury their heads in books about the meaning of life and how to live a good one, are acting out for justice in the real world.

And the subject of the conference the profs were attending? A meeting on international borders and the treatment of foreigners. Said Pierre Lauret, "that placed us in a delicate moral situation." Indeed.

"We can bomb the bejesus out of them..."

National Security Archive Update, December 23, 2008

"We can bomb the bejesus out of them all over North Vietnam."

Archive Publishes Treasure Trove of Kissinger Telephone Conversations

Comprehensive Collection of Kissinger "Telcons" Provides Inside View of Government Decision-Making;

Reveals Candid talks with Presidents, Foreign Leaders, Journalists, and Power-brokers during Nixon-Ford Years

Washington, DC, December 23, 2008 - Amidst a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon candidly shared their evident satisfaction at the "shock treatment" of American B-52s, according to a declassified transcript of their telephone conversation published for the first time today by the National Security Archive. "They dropped a million pounds of bombs," Kissinger briefed Nixon. "A million pounds of bombs," Nixon exclaimed. "Goddamn, that must have been a good strike."

The conversation, secretly recorded by both Kissinger and Nixon without the other's knowledge, reveals that the President and his national security advisor shared a belief in 1972 that the war could still be won. "That shock treatment [is] cracking them," Nixon declared. "I tell you the thing to do is pour it in there every place we can... just bomb the hell out of them." Kissinger optimistically predicted that, if the South Vietnamese government didn't collapse, the U.S. would eventually prevail: "I mean if as a country we keep our nerves, we are going to make it."

The transcript of the April 15, 1972, phone conversation is one of over 15,500 documents in a unique, comprehensively-indexed set of the telephone conversations (telcons) of Henry A. Kissinger--perhaps the most famous and controversial U.S. official of the second half of the 20th century. Unbeknownst to the rest of the U.S. government, Kissinger secretly taped his incoming and outgoing phone conversations and had his secretary transcribe them. After destroying the tapes, Kissinger took the transcripts with him when he left office in January 1977, claiming they were "private papers." In 2001, the National Security Archive initiated legal proceedings to force the government to recover the telcons, and used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the declassification of most of them. After a three-year project to catalogue and index the transcripts, which total over 30,000 pages, this on-line collection was published by the Digital National Security Archive (ProQuest) this week.

Kissinger never intended these papers to be made public, according to William Burr, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, who edited the collection, Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977. "Kissinger's conversations with the most influential personalities of the world rank right up there with the Nixon tapes as the most candid, revealing and valuable trove of records on the exercise of executive power in Washington," Burr stated. For reporters, scholars, and students, Burr noted, "Kissinger created a gift to history that will be a tremendous primary source for generations to come." He called on the State Department to declassify over 800 additional telcons that it continues to withhold on the grounds of executive privilege.

The documents shed light on every aspect of Nixon-Ford diplomacy, including U.S.-Soviet détente, the wars in Southeast Asia, the 1969 Biafra crisis, the 1971 South Asian crisis, the October 1973 Middle East War, and the 1974 Cyprus Crisis, among many other developments. Kissinger's dozens of interlocutors include political and policy figures, such as Presidents Nixon and Ford, Secretary of State William Rogers, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Robert S. McNamara, and Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin; journalists and publishers, such as Ted Koppel, James Reston, and Katherine Graham; and such show business friends as Frank Sinatra. Besides the telcons, the Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977 includes audio tape of Kissinger's telephone conversations with Richard Nixon that were recorded automatically by the secret White House taping system, some of which Kissinger's aides were unable to transcribe.

Visit the Web site of the National Security Archive for more information.


THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The torturers are us

The findings of Stanley Milgram, the psychologist whose infamous 1960s studies demonstrated that average people would administer potentially fatal levels of electric shocks if told to by an authority figure, have apparently been confirmed. According to a new study reported in the San Jose Mercury, a psychologist at Santa Clara University in California is about to publish similar results in the journal American Psychologist.

The new experiments were carried out by Jerry M. Burger. Here are some details:

Burger's findings are published in a special section of the journal reflecting on Milgram's work 24 years after his death on Dec. 20, 1984. The haunting images of average people administering shocks have kept memories of Milgram's research alive for decades, even as recently as the Abu Ghraib scandal.

The subjects — recruited in ads in the Mercury News, Craigslist and fliers distributed in libraries and communities centers in Santa Clara, Cupertino and Sunnyvale — thought they were testing the effect of punishment on learning.

"They were average citizens, a typical cross-section of people that you'd see around every day,'' said Burger.

In the study, conducted two years ago, volunteers administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. An "authority figure'' prodded the volunteer to shock another person, who was playing the role of "learner." Each time the learner gave an incorrect answer, the volunteer was urged to press a switch, seemingly increasing the electricity over time. They were told that the shocks were painful but not dangerous.

Burger designed his study to avoid several of the most controversial elements of Milgram's experiment. For instance, the "shocks'' were lower voltage. And participants were told at least three times that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive the $50 payment. In addition, a clinical psychologist interviewed volunteers to eliminate anyone who might be upset by the study procedure.

Like Milgram's study, Burger's shock generator machine was a fake. The cries of pain weren't real, either. Both the authority figure and the learner were actors — faculty members Brian Oliveira and Kenneth Courtney. (When Courtney failed to scream convincingly, a professional actor had to be hired; his voice was recorded.)

I don't think studies of this type should lead us to lament our innate cruelty, nor our innate desire to please authority--as I doubt that either quality is innate in the biological sense of the term. Rather, we should question the kind of society we live in and its values; and we should realize that even the president and vice-president of the United States can lead the nation in acquiescing to torture.

Photo: Stanley Milgram

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What future for Israel?

Today's International Herald Tribune features a story by Ethan Bronner about Avraham Burg, "How a Zionist in Israel went from leader to scourge." The occasion is Burg's book critical of the Jewish state, just recently translated into English, "The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes." Burg is an Israeli who realized that the Zionist dream is over and that Israel's very survival depends on accepting new realities it. A few extracts from the Trib article:

Widely known by his nickname Avrum, Burg, a happily married father of six and the son of one of Israel's most admired and longest-serving government ministers, was talked about as a candidate for prime minister. Long before his 50th birthday, he had headed the World Zionist Organization and served as speaker of the country's Parliament.

But four years ago Burg not only walked away from politics. He pretty much walked away from Zionism. In a book that came out last year, and has just been translated and released in the United States, he said Israel should not be a Jewish state, that its law of return granting citizenship to any Jew should be radically altered, that Israeli Arabs were like German Jews during the Second Reich and that, in fact, the entire society felt eerily like Germany just before the rise of Hitler.

Pretty strong stuff, although the Israelis are much more used to, and tolerant of, such views that Americans, Jews or non-Jews.

What are Burg's prescriptions? He wants a new Jewish identity focused not on the particular but on the universal, asserting that "if we do not establish modern Israeli identity on foundations of optimism, faith in humans and full trust in the family of nations, we have no chance of existing." He wants Israel to dismantle the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and replace it with the headquarters for the International Criminal Court, making this the epicenter of international prevention of genocide.

One can only hope that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now that she no longer depends on Jewish votes nor needs to pander to them, will take advantage of the soul-searching now going on in Israel and help negotiate a just peace between that nation and the Palestinians.

Photo: Avrum Burg

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Paris bound

After spending most of this year in Boston teaching, I am now on my way home to Paris. I am looking forward to seeing my family, going for my morning walks along the St. Martin Canal (see map at right), and generally enjoying a Paris winter (not as bad as it used to be, thanks to global warming.)

This blog's focus will necessarily change as well, at least to some extent. While I will remain attentive to events in the United States, being back in Europe will remind me that there is a whole big world out there. And that should bring a fresh, more international perspective to this blog--at least, let's hope so!

Back in touch soon...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

If the shoe fits, wear it

Here is the video, courtesy of the BBC. I have to admit that Bush showed good ducking reactions and kept his cool. Of course, it's not his life that has been ruined by the war in Iraq.

Photo: Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Update: Ah, I found an embeddable version of the video:

Update: The shoe-thrower, Muntader al-Zaidi--who, because he is a journalist, I am obliged to call my colleague--has become a hero in the Muslim world. No surprises there.

Hit Bush with a shoe game (from Norway.) I recommend setting vinkel at 10 and stryke at 50 (with thanks to RP.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Time to make money the old fashioned way?

Some of you may recall the old television ad for the Smith Barney brokerage term, which featured actor John Houseman declaring, "We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it."

Of course, neither Smith Barney nor its clients actually "earned" the money they made, nor do any investors for that matter. Investors, whether large or small, are merely hoping to rake off some of the wealth created by the people who really do the work, whether the company or corporation invested in provides tangible goods or intangible services. Karl Marx got a lot of things wrong, but his basic analysis of capitalism stands today, particularly his theory of surplus value. Basically, capitalism is a system of exploitation, no matter how much we try to pretty it up. And that basic fact about capitalism remains true whether or not a better system (for example, socialism) is actually possible.

That's why it may seem hard to feel a lot of sympathy for those who have now lost their money because they put their trust in Bernard Madoff, the latest "Wall Street wizard" to be facing charges for investment fraud. But we should feel sympathy nevertheless, particularly for the smaller players in the investment game, who hoped to live better lives by finding something else to do with their extra money other than simply park it at the bank (where it would only lose value to inflation.)

That's just one more reason why the recent attacks on the United Auto Workers and the allegedly high salaries paid to its members (not true, actually) are so off base. Are those who work hard for a living supposed to accept an increasingly impoverished state and give up their hard won benefits? Is that the kind of future we imagine for working people? Are only those who have a little (or a lot) to invest in the stock market or other vehicles for making money off of others' labor allowed to have decent lives?

The coming depression is going to create a lot of hardship, and in fact already is. But one good thing might come out of it: The more disillusioned investors the crash produces, the more people might realize that the entire system is rotten to the core.

Photo: Bernard Madoff.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Michael's Playlist

As a new feature on this blog, I've added my personal music playlist to the left hand column, below the Favorites and Archives. It will change as I add songs to it, but here is a fully functional preview of what it looks like.

Afterthought: This playlist includes "Falling Into You" sung by Celine Dion, a performance that demonstrates what a truly great singer she could have been if she had not allowed herself to be so badly mismanaged and saddled with a repertoire of one crappy, sappy song after another. In "Falling Into You," Dion is in complete control of her voice. What a tragedy her career turned out to be, for music lovers at any rate.

Christmas reading list

Monday, December 8, 2008

Trouble in Afghanistan

There has been a lot in the press lately about the serious situation the U.S. faces in Afghanistan, including pleas by U.S. and NATO generals for more troops, which they are almost certain to get under the Obama administration. As I have said before, if Iraq was George Bush's Vietnam, Afghanistan could turn into Obama's Iraq--and wreck his presidency no matter how well he does on the economic front.

One can only hope that Obama and his team are paying attention to voices such as that of Kai Eide, the United Nation's special representative to Afghanistan. The New York Times gave voice to Eide's concerns on one of its back pages today (and buried on its Web site), but they are well worth paying attention to:

KABUL, Afghanistan — In unusually blunt remarks, the chief of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan warned in an interview this weekend that unless Afghanistan’s international partners conducted their military operations with more care and cultural sensitivity, redoubled their work to minimize civilian casualties and accelerated their reconstruction programs, they risked jeopardizing their efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country.

Eide asks questions that the Obama team should be asking itself:

“Are we sufficiently sensitive to Afghan concerns?” he asked. “Are we sure that we behave in a way that brings Afghan communities closer to the government? Do we listen sufficiently to the concerns we hear from the president and so many Afghans? I’m not convinced that we are.”

Obama has little time to get it right in Afghanistan, after so many years of the Bush administration getting it disastrously wrong. Indeed, it may already be too late.

Have we learned nothing? That's the question about Afghanistan posed by veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk in the Independent (thanks to LKH for the link.)

Supporting the troops? USA Today reports that the Pentagon knew about the dangers of IED's (improvised explosive devices) to U.S. troops in Iraq but did basically nothing to develop more protective vehicles. The story is based on an investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Workers sit down

In a refreshing sign that workers aren't necessarily going to take layoffs laying* down, employees at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago responded to the plant's closing by sitting down rather than walking meekly out the door. Employers have been used to calling the shots about who works and who doesn't, who eats and who doesn't, and who has health insurance and who doesn't. That needs to change, and it needs to change now.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was a period of unprecedented worker militancy, and many of today's unions--despite their current emaciated, weakened state--got their start during those historic days. Unions could once again play a historic and heroic role, if they fight in the interests of the entire working population and not just their own narrow, ever decreasing ranks.

Photo: Strikers occupied the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, for 44 days between December 1936 and February 1937 (University of Michigan.)

*Update: In my zeal to make an alliterative pun, I made the kind of writing mistake I counsel my students against: Using the verb to lay, which means to put something down on something, instead of the verb to lie, which means to recline. Mea culpa!

Sitting down: a left perspective. It really won't do to rely solely on the capitalist press for information about this strike, so here is an account from the Socialist Worker online.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

That city by the bay

I've been on the road this week, visiting friends on the West Coast, so blogging has been nonexistent--not that there is not plenty to talk about. I hope to be back in action by the end of the week. Meanwhile, enjoy this view of San Francisco, where I will be dining with an old friend this evening.