Friday, February 27, 2009

Harnessing the awesome power of the word "clean"

As a resident of the wonderful Commonwealth of Kentucky, where not-especially-large metro areas such as Lexington and Louisville have the largest carbon footprint in the country (#1 and #5, respectively), mainly on account of appalling sprawl and our old friend King Coal--both of the not-clean and the ... non-clean variety.

Meanwhile, not all that far from these metro areas Big Coal, with the enthusiastic cooperation of politicians of both parties, is decapitating mountains, turning precious topsoil into sludge, and destroying watersheds on a daily basis.

On the snarky side, ofI share this little ad, courtesy of the Coen Brothers:

For something more substantive on the subject, I love mountains isn't a bad place to start.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

So, what is it that we're hopeful about again?

Rights for detainees?? You're kidding, right?

I do not run around with Republicans, typically. My peer group tends to be tried and true Democrats. I was probably the only person in my county to pull the lever for Nader, and suffered all sorts of ribbing by blissed-out, high-fiving Obamamaniacs. In the wake of that, I thought I'd hold my fire for a time.

I squirmed a bit about the extrajudicial murders of Pakistanis a day into the new administration, but said nothing.

In honesty, I have pretty much written off Obama's diabolically inept efforts to slow the economy's accelerating descent into the abyss. He's a mainstream American politician. His campaign has been underwritten by the clowns who got us into this mess, and he has put some of the biggests miscreants in charge of "solving" it. So when Obama throws trillions down a hole for the bankers and some token billions for over-their-heads homeowners, I shrug. What could he do?

But, this latest abomination is a little shocking even to me. Raw Story is a little less mealy-mouthed than the wire services:
In a stunning departure from his rhetoric on Guantánamo Bay prison, President Barack Obama signaled Friday he will continue Bush Administration policy with regard to detainees held at a US airbase in Afghanistan, saying they have no right to challenge their detentions in US courts -- and denying them legal status altogether.
There was talk, and not just campaign promises, that the new administration would once more make the United States a nation ruled by laws. Alas, no.

"Yesterday's announcement that the Obama administration has not even considered departing from the very same unjust and inhumane policies of his predecessor, is an ominous sign that human rights and the rule of law are simply not a priority of this administration," the International Justice Network, who is counsel in all the cases under review, said to Raw Story in a statement. "We expected more from this President when he promised that we would not trade our fundamental values for false promises of security.
Personally, there's not a lot of ways left in which he can disappoint me. The one I'm watching:
"entitlement reform" and his "summit" of experts that will convene tomorrow.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dance Partay! Special Corner Cleaners Edition

First, the great Gainsbourg deadpans Chez les ye-ye, while his pal gets into it. Serge pulls a knife at some point, for reasons that are not apparent to me.

And here is one of my favorite (relatively) contemporary vids, the New Pornographers' "The laws have changed." Love the dance scene, and how the crowd's random thrashing suddenly becomes a choreographed number.

(Compare to the orginal dance party in Bunuel's "Simon of the Desert" (the last 3 minutes or so). Which is of course pretty great itself).

And finally. I find this vid, and this band, Sweden's Acid House Kings, strangely, hypnotically, soothing. Plus, the music is fantastically great, ever so tuneful, sweet and melancholy at the same time, like so much Scandinavian pop. I have no idea if there's some hidden context behind the twee sensibility. (Yes, she was doing the finger pistols at 1:25!)

Might they be closet deviants, like the Go-Gos, who in in their spare enjoyed a game that involved licking nasty toilet crannies?*

No idea. I don't really want to know. Just let me enjoy it.

* This is a band who, according to drummer Gina Schock in the book Rock Confidential, used to play a game called "Corner Cleaners," which involved sucking filth off the floor of rest stop bathrooms. I am not kidding. And if you think wearing a schoolgirl outfit in a video is "racy," check out this quote from lead singer Belinda Carlisle about the former L.A. club Masque, in the same book: "I had sex at the Masque; everybody had sex at the Masque. You just did. It was great. Everybody was making out with each other in the bathrooms—lots of girls with girls. Everybody was on acid. My thing was acid or MDMA."
-Note on footnote: my googling only turned this factoid up in one place on the Net, in a cached page no less, so I thought I'd better paste it in before it disappears down the memory hole.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Horshack's Prophecy

In a simpler time, a big laugh line on "Welcome Back Kotter" was that Arnold Horshack's last name means "the cattle are dying."

But how funny is it when the cattle aren't dying back in some mythic "old country" on a 70s sitcom, but in the most celebrated cow region on the planet, the Pampas of Argentina?

And how many of us know this is even happening, or wonder if it's not an isolated event?

Scour the papers as much as you like, no one has been connecting the dots between the extreme weather events from Australia to Iraq to Texas, or wondered whether this weather will be a complicating factor in the recovery that's we're constantly assured is just around the corner. Until Tom Englehardt has done us all this melancholy favor.

I find it interesting that Englehardt readily admits to having patched together his meditation, titled "Burning Questions: What Does Economic "Recovery" Mean on an Extreme Weather Planet?" from "Google University." (Previously, about a year ago, he asked another important question that no one was asking: Why don't journalists in Iraq look up?) In both cases, the guys who are paid to do it ain't stepping up.

Englehardt writes:
Now let me explain why I even bothered to write this piece. It's true that, if you're reading the mainstream press, each of the droughts mentioned above has gotten at least some attention, several of them a fair amount of attention (as well as some fine reporting), and the Australian firestorms have been headlines globally for weeks. The problem is that (the professional literature, the science magazines, and a few environmental websites and blogs aside) no one in the mainstream media seems to have thought to connect these dots or blots of aridity in any way. And yet it seems a no-brainer that mainstream reporters should be doing just that.

After all, cumulatively these drought hotspots, places now experiencing record or near-record aridity, could be thought of as representing so many burning questions for our planet. And yet you can search far and wide without stumbling across a mainstream American overview of drought in our world at this moment. This seems, politely put, puzzling, especially at a time when University College London's Global Drought Monitor claims that 104 million people are now living under "exceptional drought conditions."

What if, he wonders, this weather problem and the crisis of the world's economies dovetail in ways that are currently not being imagined?

We're now experiencing the extreme effects of economic bad "weather" in the wake of the near collapse of the global financial system. Nonetheless, from the White House to the media, speculation about "the road to recovery" is already underway. The stimulus package, for instance, had been dubbed the "recovery bill," aka the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the question of when we'll hit bottom and when -- 2010, 2011, 2012 -- a real recovery will begin is certainly in the air.

Recently, in a speech in Singapore, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, suggested that the "world's advanced economies" -- the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan -- were "already in depression," and the "worst cannot be ruled out." This got little attention here, but President Obama's comment at his first press conference that delay on his stimulus package could lead to a "lost decade," as in Japan in the 1990s (or, though it went unmentioned, the U.S. in the 1930s), made the headlines.

If, indeed, this is "the big one," and does result in a "lost decade" or more, here's what I wonder: Could the sort of "recovery" that everyone assumes lies just over a recessive or depressive horizon not be there? What if our lost decade lasts long enough to meet an environmental crisis involving extreme weather -- drought and flood, hurricanes, typhoons, and firestorms of unprecedented magnitude -- possibly in some of the breadbasket regions of the planet? What will happen if the rising fuel prices likely to come with the beginning of any economic "recovery" were to meet the soaring food prices of environmental disaster? What kind of human tsunami might that result in?

Happy Friday to y'all! Funny weather we've been having.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

They didn't use cell phones. Case closed!

Check out this image from the Guardian:

Photograph: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images

Must be a mighty fearsome threat to la Republique to bring 150 balaclava-clad, hyper-armed storm troopers out in force.

Right? Right. Well. Hm. The special forces, accompanied by an equally impressive media swarm, descended over Tarnac, a quaint village in central France, to arrest ... a group of young middle class idealists, including, according to the Guardian, "a Swiss sitcom actor, a distinguished clarinettist, [and] a student nurse."

It's not the most recent news item, and there has not been a lot of news since it happened, but, were it not for the attentions of the indefatigable Chris Floyd, I would have missed the story entirely, and have a feeling you out there might not have known about it, so here.

A summary:

From 'L'humanite in English:
They [many of the villagers] tell how a combined force of police, press and judiciary out of all proportion, had assembled in their town. 150 police, stationed as of 6h30 on the morning of 11 November, blocked all entry and departure from the village. The machine guns, helicopters, the attack dogs : "All that, to pick up a bunch of sleepy kids", adds Gérard, a businessman, his elbow on the counter of the grocery store, which had been searched that infamous day.

The event has reawakened some sombre ghosts, and the elders of the village don’t hesitate to evoke the times when the Gestapo would descend on their town. Similarity is no proof But everyone here has the same words on his lips : "They capture a guy from the ETA [the Basque separatist movement] practically with their hands in their pockets, but here they deploy an army, when four gendarmes would have sufficed ..."

The arrested, nine young people who had, among other things, revived the village's grocery and bar, to the delight of the villagers, were, in the words of the French Interior Minister, "'ultra-leftist-anarchist'" subversives, members of an 'invisible committee' plotting the violent downfall of capitalism." They may, or may not, have been involved in some acts of vandalism involved the TGV.

Regarding the train incident, the Independent asserts,
No one was hurt, or could possibly have been hurt in these escapades, except the attackers themselves. This was vandalism certainly and maybe politically motivated sabotage. The attacks caused enormous annoyance and heartache for thousands of passengers whose trains were blocked for several hours. But can such activities really be described as "terrorism"?
Floyd's running commentary on the charges brought deserves to be read in toto. It's pretty withering. Les flics could always be holding back their good evidence (sure, they always do), but from what I can tell, the slim case against the accused rests on a book the "leader," Julien Coupat, might have been involved in writing, and, (as per the Guardian), the fact that Coupat "had allegedly been seen by police near a train line that was later vandalised," and that and his girlfriend "took part in a protest outside an army recruitment centre in New York. "

Apparently, the case of the "Tarnac Nine" is the hobbyhorse of the French Interior Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who "has been warning, publicly and privately, that Europe faces a grave threat from a new generation of 'ultra-leftist' terrorists" and, as Floyd points out, is part and parcel with Sarkozky's resorting to "the same kind of draconian 'anti-terrorist' laws that have been adopted by almost all the leading 'democracies' of the West to crack down on anyone who opposes the global corporatist-militarist ethos."

In the Independent account, one of the arrested (and later released) tells of a "surreal" line of police questions, including "Do you have orgies in your commune?" and that "Leaks from the police investigation suggest, darkly, that [the accused] avoided mobile phones because they wished to remain 'undetected."'

They didn't use cell phones!??? OMFG!!

Well, that settles it!

New Post!

Central Kentucky has been smacked hard by a once-in-a-century ice storm. After two days of squatting with kind friends, we are back in our home with heat and water. Grateful for that, knowing many others are days away from either.

Digging out will be a summer-long chore--hundreds of trees destroyed or uprooted. With that workload looming, what better time to resume the blog after nearly two years?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Is this a great country or what?

In the Guardian, Terry Jones takes a look at the "billion-dollar industry" of which Blackwater has only "scratched the surface"--killing, maiming, overbilling and suing. (Our media being what it is these days, it's not that well known a fact that Blackwater has sued the families of the contractors who were killed, burned and dragged through the streets of Fallujah a few years back. For ten million dollars!)

For a more complete look at this most appalling, yet perhaps most archetypal of Bush-era crony companies, you should definitely consult the work of Jeremy Scahill (here's a video
and here's the link to his book).

But for a funny but disturbing summary of the doings of Blackwater, the outfit that perhaps more than any proves Smedley Butler right, here is Mr. Terry Jones....
First you need your father to leave you a billion dollars or so, as happened to Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder. Then use the money to set up a company that specialises in shooting people. Of course, you say the company's vision is "to support security, peace, freedom and democracy everywhere". But your brochure is full of photos of men bursting into rooms with machine guns and shooting from helicopters - and it offers five sniping courses: basic military, advanced military, situation sniper, high angle (shooting people from rooftops) and, of course, helicopter.

Making money out of this sort of violence, no matter how you dress it up in idealistic language, can look a little morally dodgy, so it would be best if - like Erik - you were a born-again Christian and you donate pots of money to the Republicans. Since 1989, the Nation reports, Erik and his wife have given $275,550 to Republican campaigns, and $0 to the Democrats. A White House internship - something Erik did in the early 90s - could also provide enough friends in the right places. The odd no-bid contract, such as the one Blackwater got to guard Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority, wouldn't go astray.

You should be comfortable with your friends making money. For example, you pay your security guards $600 a day, but bill the Kuwaiti Regency Hotel company for $815. Regency, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, bills defence services company ESS for another chunk of money. ESS sends the bill to Kellogg, Brown & Root, who add a percentage for their services and present the inflated bill to the Pentagon. Senator Henry Waxman says he's been trying in vain to find out what that bill is for two years.

We can again learn from Blackwater in how to keep expenses down. On March 12 2004, Blackwater signed a contract with Regency and ESS specifying that each security mission should have a minimum of "two armoured vehicles to support ESS movements". Blackwater had the word "armoured" deleted from the contract and saved $1.5m.

This had was an unforeseen payoff when four Blackwater operatives were sent into Falluja and both vehicles were overwhelmed by a mob. The men were killed and their mutilated bodies hung on a bridge. Now rather than damage Blackwater's reputation, this incident was to prove the company's making as the US military got behind it. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt vowed: "We will be back ... We will hunt down the criminals ... It will be precise, and it will be overwhelming." The result was that the US more or less destroyed the town.

The families of the four men decided to sue Blackwater to find out why they died - but the company can seek profit even in this situation: last Friday it was announced that Blackwater is suing the dead men's estates for $10m, according to the families' lawyers, "to silence the families and keep them out of court".

So there it is - more ways to make money out of Iraq than you or I would have dreamt of. And companies like Blackwater are showing us the way.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Pentagon's blank check

We need a trillion to fight them islamofascist bastards!

Robert Dreyfuss' Financing the Imperial Armed Forces: A Trillion Dollars and Nowhere to Go but Up on the newly redesigned Tomdispatch.com paints a shocking picture of perhaps the most distressing element of our current national dysfunction--the inability of politicians of either party to say "no" to the hordes of profiteers and bureaucrats in, and serving, the nation's "defense" monolith.

As usual, the Democrats are nose and nose with the Republicans at the trough, and the two leading candidates are "supporting manpower increases in the range of 80,000 to 100,000 troops, mostly for the Army and the Marines"--numbers even larger than those called for by Dubya himself.

How astonishing are the budgetary numbers? Consider the trajectory of U.S. defense spending over the last nearly two decades. From the end of the Cold War into the mid-1990s, defense spending actually fell significantly. In constant 1996 dollars, the Pentagon's budget dropped from a peacetime high of $376 billion, at the end of President Ronald Reagan's military buildup in 1989, to a low of $265 billion in 1996. (That compares to post-World War II wartime highs of $437 billion in 1953, during the Korean War, and $388 billion in 1968, at the peak of the War in Vietnam.) After the Soviet empire peacefully disintegrated, the 1990s decline wasn't exactly the hoped-for "peace dividend," but it wasn't peanuts either.

However, since September 12th, 2001, defense spending has simply exploded. For 2008, the Bush administration is requesting a staggering $650 billion, compared to the already staggering $400 billion the Pentagon collected in 2001. Even subtracting the costs of the ongoing "Global War on Terrorism" -- which is what the White House likes to call its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- for FY 2008, the Pentagon will still spend $510 billion. In other words, even without the President's two wars, defense spending will have nearly doubled since the mid-1990s. Given that the United States has literally no significant enemy state to fight anywhere on the planet, this represents a remarkable, if perverse, achievement. As a famous Democratic politician once asked: Where is the outrage?

Neocons, war profiteers, and hardliners of all stripes still argue that the "enemy" we face is a nonexistent bugaboo called "Islamofascism." It's easy to imagine them laughing into their sleeves while they continue to claim that the way to battle low-tech, rag-tag bands of leftover Al Qaeda crazies is by spending billions of dollars on massively expensive, massively powerful, futuristic weapons systems.

As always, a significant part of the defense bill is eaten up by these big-ticket items. According to the reputable Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, there are at least 28 pricey weapons systems that, just by themselves, will rack up a whopping $44 billion in 2008. The projected cost of these 28 systems -- which include fighter jets, the B-2 bomber, the V-22 Osprey, various advanced naval vessels, cruise-missile systems, and the ultra-expensive aircraft carriers the Navy always demands -- will, in the end, be more than $1 trillion. And that's not even including the Star Wars missile-defense system, which at the moment soaks up about $11 billion a year.

By one count, U.S. defense spending in 2008 will amount to 29 times the combined military spending of all six so-called rogue states: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The United States accounts for almost half -- approximately 48% -- of the entire world's spending on what we like to call "defense." Again, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, U.S. defense spending this year amounts to exactly twice the combined military spending of the next six biggest military powers: China, Russia, the U.K., France, Japan, and Germany.


And it's important to keep in mind that the official Pentagon budget doesn't begin to tell the full story of American "defense" spending. In addition to the $650 billion that the Pentagon will get in 2008, huge additional sums will be spent on veterans care and interest on the national debt accumulated from previous DOD spending that ballooned the deficit. In all, those two accounts add $263 billion to the Pentagon budget, for a grand total of $913 billion.

Then there are the intelligence and homeland security budgets. Back in the 1990s, when I started reporting on the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community, its entire budget was about $27 billion. Last year, although the number is supposed to be top secret, the Bush administration revealed that intelligence spending had reached $44 billion. For 2008, according to media reports, Congress is working on an authorization of $48 billion for our spies.

Again, when I first wrote about "homeland security" in the late 1990s -- it was then called "counterterrorism" -- the Clinton administration was spending $17 billion in interagency budgets in this area. For 2008, the budget of the Department of Homeland Security -- that mishmash, incompetent agency hurriedly assembled under pressure from uber-hawk Joe Lieberman (even the Bush administration was initially opposed to its creation) -- will be $46.4 billion.

To a rational observer, such spending -- totaling more than $1 trillion in 2008, according to the figures I've just cited -- seems quite literally insane. During the Cold War, hawks scared Americans into tolerating staggering but somewhat lesser sums by invoking the specter of Soviet Communism. Does anyone, anywhere, truly believe that we need to spend more than a trillion dollars a year to defend ourselves against small bands of al-Qaeda fanatics?