Friday, June 02, 2006

Bloggerback: Picks and Pits of the Day

*Funny how the American press and the rest of the world’s press are playing the Iranian nukes negotiations story. In the US, it’s all about Condoleezza Rice taking the initiative. Here’s how the Washington Post, diary to the imperium, puts it this morning: “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the U.S. policy shift at a State Department news conference, warning that if the Iranian government chooses not to negotiate and to continue pursuing its nuclear ambitions, "it will incur only great costs.” Here’s how Le Temps, a Swiss daily, put it (my translation from the original French): “After having treated European diplomatic efforts with condescension, George Bush, faced with Teheran’s defiance, embraces realism. Switzerland mediates this historic decision.” The Swiss have a right to be full of themselves today: their little near-insignificant soccer team just managed to hold Italy to a 1-1 tie in a World Cup warm-up. (You won’t read about that Swiss mediation bit in the American press, though the Times this morning does lead more accurately than the Post: “After 27 years in which the United States has refused substantive talks with Iran, President Bush reversed course on Wednesday because it was made clear to him — by his allies, by the Russians, by the Chinese, and eventually by some of his advisers — that he no longer had a choice.”

*While the US military’s Stars & Stripes continues to downplay the Haditha massacre by leaving the reporting to sidebars and the Associated Press, instead of assigning its own (whatever happened to a reporter’s Army of One?), the Washington Post pretends to catche up with the story’s import by revealing how “some officers gave false information to their superiors, who then failed to adequately scrutinize reports that should have caught their attention,” only to then delve into the comparatively idiotic and flaccid facts about how the military wants to better train its men in Iraq. The press’ various subtle means of burying the story, even when it’s on the front page, are truly lawyer-inspiring. And the Times of course continues to play the Iraqi government angle of controlling mayhem, which is another way of downplaying the mayhem (in fairness though, the Times did a fair job last week reporting on how the US training of the Iraqi police, a half-assed job worthy of Cunégonde’s sliced-up rear, only fuelled the insurgency). The Los Angeles Times provides yet again one of the better accounts of the slaughter.

*Also not to be seen in the American press, Gunter Grass, speaking at the annual congress of PEN, the writers’ organization, goes Pinter on Bush’s ass: “The crimes of the U.S. have been systematic, constant, vicious, and remorseless but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised quite a clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's brilliant, even witty, a highly successful act of hypnosis. How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?”

*In the Toronto Star, Tarek Fatah, host of a weekly Canadian TV show called Muslim Chronicle, writes of his run-in with the paradoxes of multiculturalism: “One recent Friday, I attended an Iranian Canadian event in Toronto where I was, perhaps, the only non-white, non-Iranian among the 1,000 immaculately turned out guests. When I asked friends at the table why there were no black, Chinese or Arabs at the event, I drew blank stares of bewilderment. Unsaid, but easily understood in the silence was the answer: ‘Why would a Chinese Canadian or an Indian Canadian be interested in an Iranian event?’” He had a similar experience of “this celebration of ghettoization” at a Tamil Canadian event, which leads him to ask a question relevant to the entire North American continent: “Why is it that whenever the Chinese or Pakistani or any other ethnic minority organizes events, the only other community invited to participate is the dominant white community?” [the full coulmn…]

*Remembrance of Things Swift: Don’t miss Jon’s latest take—his funny as hell, as usual, “50 More Conservative Rock Songs,” a follow-up-send-up of National Review’s operatic wrap around the same subject.

*US Jobless claims were expected to fall by 50,000; they rose by 7,000. But more evidence that the Fed under Bernanke doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

*Blithe Death Romance: Nathaniel Hawthorne will finally get a little post-mortem action with his bride after 150 years of separation.

*Our own World Cup warm-up: Knight Ridder, a dying hope of American journalism, takes the competition as seriously as the world now appears to be taking the U.S. team

No Gitmo. Kafka.: Guantanamo’s Chained Innocents

If you still doubt that the United States’ prosecution of this vague war on terror has reduced the country’s justice system to an East German revivalist replica, you need only read today’s account in the Wall Street Journal of the fate of five Chinese Muslims wrongly imprisoned at Guantanamo. It’s the seemingly minor details that show up the brutality a system that has lost all pretense to fairness and conscience, like the way, even after the five were declared “no longer enemy combatants”—that is, innocent—they were not told so for months, and were kept shackled to the floor of their cells; the way even after they were told, they were not transferred to a less punishing camp for another month; the way they were held there for another year and a half because, out of supposed concern for the inmates, the United States didn’t want to send them back to China, where they would be executed (the Chinese government considers the group to which the Muslims belong a terrorist organization, and of course point to their detention t Guantanamo as proof. It isn’t Gitmo. It’s Kafka.) “The U.S.,” the Journal reports, “is in a predicament it never expected: What should it do with Guantanamo inmates who have been found deserving of release but who face jail or execution if retu7rned to their homelands?” As if Guantanamo’s location on Cuban soil wasn’t a hint: Take them into the United States. Pay them back for the years you’ve taken away from them, illegally and wantonly (those five Chinese Muslims, incidentally, had escaped China and had holed up in Afghanistan, waiting for a chance to move to Turkey, and were turned over to U.S. troops by bounty hunters in 2001). Set them up on a Nebraska farm, in a Florida suburb, in one of umpteen chinatowns across the country, give them a life-long pension, show a dime’s remorse and apology. But no. The United States won’t take “the chance,” even though there is no chance being taken. They’re imprisoned in Guantanamo, land of a million Cuban refugees who’ve made it to the United States, no questions asked (ex-prisoners included), there’s just a few of them, they’ve been wronged, outwardly stigmatized and inwardly scarred for the rest of their life, but the United States, in its shabby for-God-and-Country wisdom, won’t have them. Albanian, whoring itself in every way to win acceptance into NATO, agreed to take them, though the five have never been there and don’t speak the language. Here’s one final insult the United States couldn’t resist: when the five were put on a plane to Albania, they were shackled to the floor of the plane. And in Albania, their windows’ sights are onto barbed wire. Freedom, one of the five tells the Journal, “is not what we expected.” And we wonder why eighty-nine Guantanamo inmates are staging a hunger strike. Or who barely a media in the United States gives a shit. Not to worry. Katie Couric is sure to jump on the story as soon as she returns from her botox vacation.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Immoral Equivalencies: A Massacre. A President "Troubled"

President Bush, then, is “troubled” by the Marines’ massacre at Haditha. He is “troubled.” That’s how he summed up his reaction to the massacre while he was welcoming the president of Rwanda, no stranger to massacres, to the White House just before lunch this morning. A reporter asked him what he’d been told about the killings, and whether he was worried about the impact it could have in Iraq. “I am troubled by the initial news stories,” the president replied. “I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment.” He then went on to chatter tamely and predictably about the Marine Corps without answering a pointed part of the question. Why should he be worried about the effects the massacre could have on Iraq, if he’s not worried about what he’s unleashed there himself for the last three years? But his use of the word troubled, as his choice of describing what he knows of the Haditha massacre, is itself troubling, and revealing: “Troubled” is an all-purpose word for Bush, a throw-away adjective that he’s used in any and every circumstance for lack of an original response that actually connects with the reality he’s asked to describe. His use of the word in so many instances—grave, not so grave, general, vague—renders it meaningless, as if it weren;t so from the start. What, exactly, does being “troubled” mean, other than to suggest non-committal concern designed to seem weighty without having to be meaningful? Don’t take my word for it. Here’s just a quick sampling, with links back to the original documents, of Bush’s uses of the word since he came to office (keeping in mind that it’s a very quick and cursory sampling: the uses go on and on and on in the same vein). What this means is that in Bush’s eyes, the massacre at Haditha is on par with “troubling” job numbers, with reading gaps for white and black children, with gay marriage, with bankrupt pensions, and so on:

A couple of weeks back, on May 18, the White House called itself, “deeply troubled by the continued prosecution and imprisonment of Egyptian politician Ayman Nour.”
On March 23, 2004, he was asked about the Israeli assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassim: “As far as the Middle East , it’s a troubled region, and the attacks were troubling.” Read the rest...

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Monuments of Defeat: 9/11's Hole, Baghdad's Fill

Two monuments, two related meanings, two slurs on their surroundings-one from its absence in Lower Manhattan, the other from its overbearing presence on the Baghdad skyline. When has architecture spoken louder of the promise and failure of the American example, half-way through the “war on terror’s” first decade?

First, take ground zero in Manhattan. In four months, it’ll be five years since the attacks of Sept. 11. Back then, the rebuilding of ground zero appeared fated to be a reflex of American resilience. It wasn’t a matter of what would be built or how it would commemorate that day, but of how fast the 16-acre site and its hole would become a living part of New York again.

It took six years to get all seven buildings of the original World Trade Center built between 1966 and 1972, including the two signature towers, each rising more than 1,300 feet and 110 stories. We’ll be lucky if Freedom Tower’s 1,776-foot spire rises high enough to make a dent on the skyline before decade’s end. Politics, cronyism, bickering and a pile-on effect of what should be there (and what shouldn’t) have kept the hole what it has been since the last truckload of 1.2 million tons of debris was removed-a bedraggled construction site with nothing more than fits and starts to justify it. Read the full column...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Memorial Daze, III: The Danger of Forgetting What War Is

Claudio Magris/Candide’s Notebooks

One of the catastrophes that no one succeeds in predicting or wants to predict, until it strikes, is war. Apart from a few hotheads no one wants it, but many consider themselves capable of playing with the eventuality, keeping it under control, to pick and poke at it with the certainty of being able to stop in time. Arrigo Levi recently recalled how, at the start of this century, Winston Churchill, who certainly wasn’t slow to understand things, was convinced, when he was a soldier, that he was dedicated to a profession overtaken by the times, that they would never again know war - and this just a few years before the terrible massacre of 1914-18.

Even today we have managed to convince ourselves arrogantly that flashpoints and geographically limited conflicts couldn’t get away from us and are always under control. This blithe supposition shows that perhaps we are coming to the end of a long era in which the world - still physically aware of the frightful bloodbath of the Second World War - feared war, knew at first hand what it meant, had antennas to capture the signs of its arrival and did everything possible to avoid it - even in the moments of maximum tension between East and West. You get the impression that this sensitivity to the dangers of war has weakened, and along with it the concern to avoid such a peril. We are starting to play with fire, often with arrogance. The complacent tone with which some political war commentators pronounce reassuring and optimistic explanations is a reminder of the comic satisfaction with which the cuckolded husbands in comedy sketches boast about their marital harmony. Read the rest...

Memorial Daze, II: From Vietnam to Iraq

[Here for the first time in electronic form are the unabridged original dispatches by Seymour Hersh on the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The articles are relevant again in light of the revelations of the Marines massacre of twenty-four Iraqi civilians at Haditha last November (as detailed in today’s New York Times account) for several reasons, among them the parallels between the two massacres in terms of methods, motives and the U.S. military and government cover-up—until the press got a hold of the story. At My Lai as at Haditha, the killings were planned, deliberate and executed with leisurly cold-bloodedness. At My Lai as at Haditha, revenge was the motive. At My Lai as at Haditha, the military had the evidence early on, lied about it, covered it up, and, in the My Lai case, may have been involved in murdering a helicopter pilot who threatened to go public with the story. Hersh’s pieces were originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on November 13, 20 and 25, 1969. Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 “For his exclusive disclosure of the Vietnam War tragedy at the hamlet of My Lai.”—pt.]

An Atrocity Is Uncovered: The My Lai Massacre, March 1968
Seymour M. Hersh/St. Louis Post Dispatch

Memorial Daze, I: The Wrong Way to Support the Troops

In a climate as militarized and lusty for anything in a uniform as our hothouse imperium has become, elegies to the madness have to be taken for granted, even when they appear on Memorial Day, when one assumes that humble mourning rather than jingo celebrations of death are called for, and especially when they appear in the New York Times, second only to the Washington Post as parlor apologist of American boots on other people’s grounds (when they take a break from leaving imprints on other people’s necks). The Times today publishes one such elegy, entitled “The Troops Have Moved On,” by Owen West, “a reserve Marine major who served in Iraq,” the Times tells us, and “the founder of Vets for Freedom.” Vets for Freedom is the sort of web site that, like its Pentagon counterparts, cribs the same camouflage colors and PR hues of soldiers posing with Arab children, though among the 40,000-some Iraqis killed for far, compliments of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s a mathematical certainty that more Iraqi children have had the pleasure of dying from American ordnance than have had the honor of posing with GIs to garland the fabrications of Stateside web sites. Knowing of course how the Pentagon’s contractors of deceit, like the Rendon Group, operate, it’s perfectly likely that even those pictures of smiling Iraqi children (which have odd similarities with those rightfully lambasted images of pre-invasion, kite-flying children in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911”) are as staged, posed, touched up, and faked as every other report of American success that steals its way out of Iraq. So “The Troops Have Moved On.” The headline is news, though it appears on the Op-Ed page of the Times. Moved on from what? Read the rest...

Monday, May 29, 2006

An Immigrant's Memorial Day: How "American Impressions: Came to Be

By way of commemorating this Memorial Day (the Jasper Johns to the left is commemoration and celebration aplenty, but as always, all is vanity, so...) I’ve finally managed to collect and make available on this site all 52 chapters of my book-length journey across the United States. First, a brief explanation.

In 1998 the Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., where I was a member of the editorial board, was looking for ideas to commemorate the millennium. I pitched a project I’d had in mind since landing in the United States in 1979: Send me across the country for a year and let me write from every state. The paper went for it, and “American Impressions: An Immigrant’s Journey” went from concept to a Chevy Venture, a couple of company credit cards, a Nikon camera and a cell phone. The rest was up to me. Beginning in September 1998 I spent most of the next sixteen months on the road, logging 60,000 miles, two kidney stones and 130,000 words, most of those produced on deadline as I went from state to state — a 52-chapter odyssey that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world even though it had me away from my family most of those months and depressed out of my mind from the separation and the usual solitudes of the road. My intention was not to write a travelogue. None of that best-places-to-see or best-places-to-eat business. Read the rest, and see the table of contents...