Thursday, April 07, 2005

We'll Apologise When...

Quoted from a Lenin's Tomb report of a Respect[*] townhall meeting, Tariq Ali recounted an anecdote al Jazeera's chief told him:

Al Jazeera had got footage of a US tank firing at a car filled with Iraqi civilians. It was able to do so because it has eighteen reporting teams working in Iraq, and naturally enough, it broadcast the footage. The tank firing shells, the shells hitting the car. Man, woman, children in back all disappear into a conflagration. Within hours of having shown this, the US military commander in Qatar had arrived in a car with bodyguards and backed by a row of military vehicles. He stormed into the director's office and said "you owe us an apology for showing that, you have placed our troops in danger!" So, if a news channel broadcasts evidence of US atrocities, it isn't America who should apologise, but... The director of Al Jazeera, to his credit, said he couldn't apologise for showing the news, but in fact the US army owed Al Jazeera an apology. For blowing up its headquarters in Afghanistan, and for killing its chief correspondent in Baghdad. "When you make a public apology for that, we can talk".
[*] For those not accustomed to British politics: Respect is a new British radical left/antiwar party.

On Recent Poll Numbers

In Italy, 13 of the 20 regions held elections last weekend. The right-wing coalition behind PM Berlusconi controlled eight of these, but lost all but two.

Now if we look at the detailed election results (courtesy of La Repubblica), the picture is somewhat less rosy: the united Left won over one region (Liguria) only narrowly, three (Piemont, Lazio, Puglia) with a minority of the votes cast (but the Right was split or composed of too many small parties in the present elections). In these four, victory was thanks to the communists entering the alliance (they were in it last time in 2000, and plan to stay in next's year's national elections, unlike in those of 2001 - something Lenin's Tomb lambasts them for).

While the Left dominates Umbria (63.4% for all leftist lists, including a record 9.2% for communists) and Toscana (a record 65.0% for all leftist lists, including 8.2% for the exceptionally outside-the-coalition communists), the lack of pull just in the more industrialised North and Center may highlight the Centre-Left's departure from its base.

If Prodi takes over from Berlusconi next year, his immediate job should be a new media law, undoing the laws introduced in the last four years for Berlusconi's protection, and setting up a task force to destroy his likely next competitor Fini (the slimeball post-fascist AN leader, who gained a statesmanlike aura as foreign minister). But given the precedents, fat chance.

In the USA, there is much hype about Bush's approval rating sinking to the lowest for a re-elected president two months after re-inauguration (Juan Cole is making much of it for example). But that low is still 43-49%, i.e. the solid base that votes like zombies isn't broken, and if you check Bush's favorability ratings, the further 10-15% who may be put off with something now and then but forget about it after a few weeks is also there. (In fact, Juan Cole refers to the before-last Gallup poll; the newest has Bush's approval up 3 points since.)

In Britain, Labour's lead melted away: in the last polls, Labour is in the range 34-37%, the Tories 33-39%, the nausea-empowered LibDems 19-21% (averages: 36.0%, 35.4%, 20.6%); the rest aren't tracked. Is there is hope that Labour lead would shrink down to the size of the remaining Old Left among the MPs? Phil Hunt @ Calabamat Journal not only hopes (he's LibDem) but argues otherwise: election districts favour Labour. Now, maybe Respect & co can do something about that.

Brave New Nineteen Eighty-Four

I'm sometimes so happy to have some blogs on my blogroll.

For example, Under The Same Sun, written by a leftie whose care for the Third World involved actual work there (whom earlier praised for her take on outsourcing, similar to mine), departed from the usual "hypocritical religious extremists vs. science and the husband who first tried everything" B/W script, and dug deeper into the Schiavo case, finding more issues of general importance.

Then there is Billmon, somewhere at the border of the US centre-left, who shared many mainstream-ish assumptions (was also unenthusiastically pro-Kerry) but also had independent thought. Last summer he suddenly stopped posting, then returned with posts containing only quotes. He recently explained what happened:

What happened, roughly, is this: Last summer I got off a boat after a week [...] the real trip wire was coming out of radio silence and finding both the blogosphere and what we had then not yet learned to call the “MSM” immersed to the tops of their pointy little heads in the Swift Boat Veterans for Lies campaign – last year’s version of the vegetative patient story; the patient, in that particular case, being American democracy.

Now this was only a few weeks after I had concluded, rather rashly, that it would be virtually impossible for the Rove machine to pump its usual tanker load of slime all over John Kerry’s war record, based simply on the word of a brigade of Jane Fonda haters led by a Nixon-era retread who has made destroying Kerry his lifelong personal ambition. Surely, I argued, such an absurd ploy wouldn’t get beyond the usual right-wing echo chamber pots – and would quickly be dumped in the same sewer of right-wing delusions that holds the murdered corpse of Vince Foster.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . . oh my yes. It is amusing to recall what a naive idealist I was back then. What I hadn’t learned was that the eyes of brain-dead people, like your average MSM journalist, will still track the movement of shiny objects when they are waved in front of their faces. Involuntary reflexes. Lower brain stem activity. The Rovians understood this perfectly well, even if I didn’t. So it didn’t take them long to organize a full-scale chorus of media vegetables, all making vaguely articulate grunts and other mouth noises about Cambodia, the Christmas of 1968, purple hearts, after-action reports, etc.

And that’s when it hit me – as if, to quote Col. Kurtz, I’d been shot in the forehead with a diamond – that Kerry was almost certainly going to lose the election, that the American people really were going to ratify torture and murder as instruments of state policy, and that all the facts and all the rational arguments and all the moral outrage in the world weren’t going to persuade them otherwise.

What I finally had to confront was the fact that truth alone is impotent in the face of modern propaganda techniques – as developed, field tested, refined and deployed by Madison Avenue, the Pentagon, the think tanks, the marketing departments of major corporations, the communications departments of major research universities, etc. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the peculiar vulnerability of historical truth (which means political truth) is that it isn’t inherently more plausible than outright lies, since the facts could always have been otherwise. And in a world where the airwaves are overloaded 24/7 with the mindless babbling of complete idiots, it isn’t very hard to make inconvenient facts disappear, or create new pseudofacts that reinforce whatever bias or cultural affinity you want to cultivate – particularly if the audience is already disposed to prefer your reassuring lies to discomforting truths told by strangers.

This rhymes with some of my more pessimistic thoughts. I believe progressives of different couleurs (especially liberals and socialists) often underestimate the power of propaganda, versus people's ability to recognise and enforce their own best interests.

I mean, first, some don't realise their own vulnerability. Truth is often buried under multiple layers of lies from different sources, with differing agendas - for example in the Iraq mess it is below the pre-Gulf-War Reagan & Bush I admin's, the post-war Bush admin's, the Clinton admin's, and the Bush II and Bliar admin's multiple pre- and post-invasion neo-con and StateDep etc. versions; depates on energy policy are tainted by long-running, often-opposed campaigns by the oil, coal and nuclear industries; and even among stark opponents of capitalism; and just how twisted is the usage of economic terms like productivity, GDP and its growth, etc. (and how intended that is) is lost even on many opponents of capitalism. Second, some others who did recognise and overcame their own vulnerability, deceive themselves about others' chances (chances, not ability) to come clean. There is the frequently quoted but false more that you can't deny reality forever. (You can, all you need is to replace worn-out lies with new ones.)

As referred to in my very first post already, I came to see the American Empire (its core, dominions, and also both its geographical and mental sphere of influence) as an emerging marriage of Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. A postmodern dystopia where seduction by and addiction to the superficial compete (and mix) with totalitarian control and repression and war psychosis as the means of induced self-deception.

Via histologion (another blog I'm so happy about having enrolled), I found an article [pdf] by Varda Burstyn, who had similar thoughts, and points to a lot of little-noticed developments that can further enhance this, in the author's words, Janus-faced dystopia. Some of the more phantastic-sounding stuff in both visions is already with us - and so are stuff emerging from their fusion. Have you heard about BrightHouse and CEO COM LINK? Read about what the Carlyle Goup is up to recently? Heard of ICT and militainment? Of the NanoSoldier Institute?

Burstyn's analysis also goes where neither of the two visionaries have gone, and for that matter many idealists haven't gone, beyond human society: it deals with environmental destruction.

And ends with a glimmer of hope.

UPDATE 10/04: Billmon, linking to me and histologion, also comments on Varda Burstyn's article; and I'll shamelessly put up his photoshopped illustration:

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Those Scary Female Rulers In Patriarchal Societies

After JPII's death, the Blogosphere compensated for all the media's pious saturation coverage by taking out the dirty laundry of the Papacy - for example jamie @ Blood & Treasure has quotes on the cutthroat antics of 9th-10th -century Papacy.

That era is often called the 'pornocracy', for most historians (even liberals) traditionally lay the blame at the feet of a few influential women: Theodora, the wife of a Roman patrician, and her daughter Marozia, who stand accused of sexual relations with Popes, of installing their lovers and sons as Popes, and of poisoning other Popes who stood in their way.

Now what got me thinking is not the obvious, that history was written by their enemies and unfounded accusations turned into fact, but some other things. First, there was nothing unusual about their attempts to control the Papacy (not to speak of sexual exploits) - other aristocrats of the time did the same (including the husbands of said women), some of them with much stronger effect.

The best example is Alberic II, Marozia's second son, who saw his chances for becoming King of Italy slipping when her mother married for a third time (to Hugh of Provence). So he fired up a bunch of Roman knights, with agitation about the shame of being ruled by a woman (Marozia again), stormed the palace, and imprisoned his family. He went on to use the next four Popes as mere signers of his own rulings, with his own elder half-brother (installed under Marozia) the first among them, and his son also became a scandalous Pope.

So in the memory of patriarchal societies, strong women transform into the scapegoats for decadence existing anyway. And there is a wider issue buried here. Even most strong women didn't last long enough in patriarchal societies to leave their mark on history - and lasting long enoughmakes a difference: if someone did, his/her vendettas and palace coups are remembered as wise moves to solidify power, if not, as excesses of cruelty.

When I read up on Roman emperors, what struck me was that the popular villains - Nero, Caracalla & co - were not at all worse than most of the praised ones, in fact much less bloodier: they generally fought less wars, but historians recorded levels of cruelty from the viewpoint of the capital's aristocracy. Which was decimated by other Caesars too, but not many lived to tell of it.