Thursday, 29th May, 2003

Video games boost visual skills

19:00 28 May 03

Computer game players score off the charts in several standard vision tests, a new study has revealed, suggesting the games are not the utter waste of time some think. Furthermore, the visual skills of non-gamers improve dramatically after just 10 hours of playing action games.

These visual skills do translate into real-life activities, not just gaming, believes Daphne Bavelier of the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester in New York state, who carried out the research. They might help visual performance in sports, for example, and one other study suggests the skills are linked to driving ability in the elderly.

But kids will not be able to use the findings as an excuse for gaming instead of doing their homework. "This certainly doesn't mean children can learn by playing video games all day long," says Bavelier. She doubts the games cultivate the sustained attention needed for tasks such as reading, for example.

"Bavelier is really onto something - it merits serious attention," says Michael Stryker at the University of California, San Francisco. But he points out that the particular skills gamers acquire could even cause problems. "They are so attentive to peripheral details that I bet it impairs their ability to focus on one thing."

Daily dose

Bavelier became intrigued by the effects of games after her student Shawn Green, a keen gamer, discovered he was extremely adept at the standard vision tests they used in the lab. And it was not just Green. The pair found that, compared with nonplayers, students who had played action games such as Grand Theft Auto3, Spiderman and 007 almost daily for at least six months performed far better in certain visual tasks.

These included identifying the location of a target object on a cluttered computer screen, counting the number of quickly flashed objects and correctly identifying two objects flashed in quick succession. "These tests are nothing like the video games they were playing," says Bavelier.

Of course, there was a possibility that all these stereotypical male gamers were more visually skilled to start with. To prove that action games really do improve visual abilities, Bavelier and Green tested the visual skills of male and female nongamers before and after gaming one hour per day for 10 days.

Nine students who played an action game called Medal of Honor more than doubled their skills at some tasks. Eight others played Tetris, a game that requires players to concentrate on one object at a time, rather than distributing and switching attention around the visual field like action games. These students did not get any better at the visual tasks.

Sense of danger

Bavelier suspects that it is the complex demands placed on the visual system by action games that leads to the improvements. But other aspects of gaming might also play a role: the heightened awareness created by a sense of danger, the sensory overload of sounds, colours and action, or the challenge of beating other players.

She would like to tease apart those effects, so that she can create programs that improve visual performance without exposing patients to the violent images that dominate many of the games. Such programs might help stroke victims and other patients with damaged visual systems.

"The sheer magnitude of the effect of these games and that the skills generalised to a broad array of tasks is very exciting, " says vision expert Marvin Chun of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Journal reference: Nature (vol 423, p 534)

Video games boost visual skills
logged by alf at 14:57, Thursday, 29th May, 2003

Tuesday, 27th May, 2003


GAME: Frogger
Format: Coin-Op Arcade Machine
Manufacturer: Konami
Year 1981

In "Frogger," you must try to get your frog safely across a road, median strip and river while dodging various dangers, into a frog haven on the top of the screen. When you fill up all five frog havens, they empty out, you start over, and the game gets markedly more difficult, with more dangers introduced. That is all.

Everyone loves "Frogger." Boys and girls, women and men, rich and poor, high and low. Who doesn't love "Frogger"? It draws its power from our shared memories of powerlessness. Wherever we are now, at one time or another we have all felt the poor frog's anxiety in the face of the world's intransigence, its blind and callous disregard for our happiness or well-being. We are not killing anything in "Frogger," except the occasional fly. It is all we can do to stay alive, avoid the fast cars, snakes, gators and weasels long enough to get a lady frog and make it to the top of the screen for our moment of rest. More than anything else, we'd love to stay in that Frog Haven forever, existing in a state of amphibian bliss -- but we are forcibly dislodged, and have to repeat the whole ordeal. Most of our antagonists do not even know we exist. They are not "after" us. We are not a target. We are just in the way.

Format: Coin-Op Arcade Machine
Manufacturer: Taito
Year: 1987

Technically, "Double Dragon" lies outside the chronological confines of the "Catalogue" -- yet it was the author's personal point of departure from the world of video games, and showcases as well as any game the features and trends that mark the end of the Classical period.

With his blond high-piled hair, the avatar we are asked to play in "Double Dragon" resembles no one so much as William Zabka of "Karate Kid" and "Back to School" fame. Write it off to idiosyncrasy, but the notion that this ür-bully is supposed to be both the hero of the story and our on-screen representative strikes the author as preposterous, all past identification with "Donkey Kong" and "Pac-Man" ghosts aside.

More important -- and this speaks to the central problem with "Double Dragon" -- are the issues of surface versus structure, and inclusion versus exclusion. "Double Dragon" is the first major step down the road to a high-gloss realism that masks a shift from what Marshall McLuhan would call a "cool" medium to a "hot" one: "Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one ... the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes." Strip away this realism and the game boils down to beating the hell out of people, a fair-enough fantasy pastime...

But in cool games ("Tempest," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Lucky Wander Boy"), graphic minimalism goes hand-in-hand with the absorptive World Unto Itself quality that makes these games special, and indeed, a measure of this quality extends to all the Classic games, however basic in conception. When we play these games, the sketchy visual detail forces us to fill in the blanks, and in so doing we bind ourselves to the game world. Even more, we participate in its creation, we are a linchpin, a cocreator, crucial to the existence of the game world as it is meant to be experienced. Without our participation the Classic game is nothing, it devolves into exactly what the gloss-junky detractors see -- and they see it precisely because they refuse to put forth the mental effort required to round out the vision.

They prefer games like "Double Dragon," games that do all the work, premasticating the images, chopping them fine -- but in allowing this to be done for them, they go from being to watching, as the degree of detail starts to make identification with the character impossible. In his McLuhan-inspired book "Understanding Comics," comic artist and theorist Scott McCloud makes a deceptively simple observation: "The more cartoony a face is ... the more people it could be said to describe."

In "Double Dragon," I cannot be the ass-kicking Zabka; he has big biceps, and I do not; he wears a sleeveless blue track suit, and I will not. I am left out, and I feel left out enough as it is, thanks.

A Pac-Man, however, is just a mouth.

I have a mouth. You have a mouth. We all have a mouth.

And the world of "Double Dragon" is a world of car ads and wanted posters and brick buildings, not the iconic idea of a building we see in "Donkey Kong," but recognizable individuated buildings. The Classic games were Classic because, like classical music or architecture, they strove to give life and weight to ideals of order and proportion, to provide a vision of timelessness. In "Double Dragon," we can see the cracks in the brick, the mold growing on the drainage pipes, the unmistakable deterioration of the world we live in. We are thrust rudely back into time. When I put a quarter into an arcade machine or call up an emulated game on my computer, I do it to escape the world that is a slave to the time that makes things fall apart. I have never played these games to occupy my world.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Salon excerpt from "Lucky Wander Boy." By D. B. Weiss

logged by alf at 14:16, Tuesday, 27th May, 2003

Thursday, 22nd May, 2003

The theatre of memory


In the first of two extracts from an essay in progress, Milan Kundera explains his thoughts on novel-writing and says humour glows over the vast landscape of life.

Milan Kundera
Saturday May 17, 2003
The Guardian


"The affectation of gravity" is all around him, but Parson Yorick, a character in Lawrence Sterne's 1760 novel Tristram Shandy , sees it as just a cloak for ignorance or for folly. Whenever possible, he badgers it by humour of expression. This habit of unwary pleasantry becomes dangerous; "every ten jokes got him a hundred enemies", so that, worn out at length by the vengeance of the agelasts, he threw down the sword and died broken-hearted. Yes, he uses the term agelasts, which is a neologism Rabelais coined from Greek to describe people incapable of laughing. Rabelais detested agelasts, because of whom he came close to never writing another jot. Yorick's story is Sterne's salute to his master Rabelais.

There are people whose intelligence I admire, whose decency I respect, but with whom I feel ill at ease: I censor my remarks to avoid being misunderstood, to avoid seeming cynical, to avoid wounding them by some frivolous word. They do not live at peace with the comical. I do not blame them for it; their agelasty is deeply rooted in them and they cannot help it. But neither can I help it and, while I do not detest them, I give them a wide berth. I do not want to end up like Parson Yorick.

Any aesthetic concept (and agelasty is one) causes deep problems. People who at the time cast ideological (that is, theological) anathema upon Rabelais were driven to do so by something deeper than loyalty to an abstract dogma. What drove them was an aesthetic discordance; a visceral discordance with the non-serious; anger at the scandal of a misplaced laugh. If the agelasts tend to see sacrilege in every joke, that's because every joke is a sacrilege. There is an irreconcilable incompatibility between the comical and the sacred, and we can only ask where the sacred begins and ends. Is it confined just to the temple? Or does its domain reach further, does it also annex the great secular values: maternity, love, patriotism, human dignity? People for whom life is sacred, wholly and unrestrictedly, react with irritation, overt or hidden, to any jest at all, for any jest at all contains the comical, which is an affront to the sacred nature of life.

Unless we understand the agelasts we cannot understand the comical. Their existence gives the comical its full dimension, shows it to be a wager, a risk-taking, and reveals its dramatic essence.


In Don Quixote, we hear a kind of laughter that comes from medieval farces: we laugh at the knight wearing a barber's basin for a helmet, we laugh at his valet when he gets smacked. But alongside that humour, often stereotyped, often cruel, Cervantes gives us the flavour of a very different, more subtle sort of comedy: a good-natured country squire invites Don Quixote to his home, where he lives with his poet son. The son, more lucid than his father, instantly recognises the guest as a madman, and makes an ostentatious point of keeping his distance. Then Don Quixote asks the young man to recite his poetry; eagerly, the fellow acquiesces, and Don Quixote praises his talent to the skies; pleased and flattered, the son is dazzled by the guest's intelligence and promptly forgets his madness. So who is madder, the madman praising the lucid one, or the lucid man who believes the madman's praise? We have moved into another sort of comedy, more delicate and infinitely precious. We are laughing not because someone is being ridiculed, mocked, or humiliated, but because a reality is abruptly revealed as ambiguous, things lose their apparent meaning, people turn out to be different from what they themselves thought they were.

That is humour; the humour that Octavio Paz saw as modernity's great inven tion, due to Cervantes and the birth of the novel. I shall never cease to wonder at that enormous idea of Paz: that humour is not innate in man, but is an acquisition of the culture of the modern era (which means that even today it is far from being accessible to everyone, and that no one can foresee how much longer that great invention will be with us).

Humour is not a spark that leaps up for a brief moment at the comical dénouement of some situation or story. Its unobtrusive light glows over the whole vast landscape of life. Let us try looking again at the scene I just recounted, as if it were a film: the kindly gentleman brings Don Quixote to his manor house and presents his son, who is quick to show the eccentric guest his cool superiority. But this time, we are ready: we have already seen the young man's narcissistic delight when Don Quixote praises his poetry; now as we watch the start of the scene again, we immediately see the son's behaviour as pretentious, inappropriate for his age: comical from the outset. This is how the world looks to a grown man with long experience of human nature behind him (who sees life as if he were watching films he has seen before) and who has long since stopped taking seriously the seriousness of mankind.

Suppose the tragic has deserted us?

After painful experiences, Creon, a ruler of a Greek city, understood that personal passions not brought under control pose a mortal danger to that city; convinced of this, he confronts Antigone, who wishes to bury her brother and who is protecting the no less legitimate rights of the individual. She dies, and Creon, shattered by his guilt, determines "never to see another day". The story of Antigone inspired Hegel to his magisterial meditation on tragedy: two antagonists face to face, each of them inseparably bound to a truth that is partial, relative, but, considered in itself, entirely justified. Each is prepared to sacrifice his life for it, but can only make it prevail at the price of total ruin for the adversary. Both are at once right and guilty. Being guilty is to the credit of great tragic characters, Hegel says. Only a profound sense of guilt can make possible an eventual reconciliation.

Freeing the great human conflicts from the naive interpretation of a battle between good and evil, understanding them in the light of tragedy, was an enormous feat of mind; it brought forward the unavoidable relativism of human truths; it made clear the need to do justice to the enemy. But moral manicheism has an indestructible vitality. I remember an adaptation of Antigone I saw in Prague shortly after the second world war; killing the tragic in the tragedy, its author made Creon a wicked fascist confronted by a young heroine of liberty.

Such political productions of Antigone were much in fashion then. Hitler had not only brought horrors upon Europe but also stripped it of its sense of the tragic. Like the struggle against nazism, all of contemporary political history was thenceforth to be seen and experienced as a struggle of good against evil. Wars, civil wars, revolutions, counter-revolutions, nationalist struggles, uprisings and their repression have been ousted from the realm of tragedy and given over to the authority of judges avid to punish. Is this a regression? A relapse into the pre-tragical stage of humankind? But if so, who has regressed? Is it history itself? Or is it our mode of understanding history? Often I think: tragedy has deserted us; and that may be the true punishment.

© Milan Kundera 2003.Translated from the French by Linda Asher. First published in the May edition of Le Monde Diplomatique,

The theatre of memory
logged by alf at 10:27, Thursday, 22nd May, 2003

Monday, 19th May, 2003

Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free)

Arundhati Roy

Presented in New York City at The Riverside Church
May 13, 2003

In these times, when we have to race to keep abreast of the speed at which our freedoms are being snatched from us, and when few can afford the luxury of retreating from the streets for a while in order to return with an exquisite, fully formed political thesis replete with footnotes and references, what profound gift can I offer you tonight?

As we lurch from crisis to crisis, beamed directly into our brains by satellite TV, we have to think on our feet. On the move. We enter histories through the rubble of war. Ruined cities, parched fields, shrinking forests, and dying rivers are our archives. Craters left by daisy cutters, our libraries.

So what can I offer you tonight? Some uncomfortable thoughts about money, war, empire, racism, and democracy. Some worries that flit around my brain like a family of persistent moths that keep me awake at night.

Some of you will think it bad manners for a person like me, officially entered in the Big Book of Modern Nations as an "Indian citizen," to come here and criticize the U.S. government. Speaking for myself, I'm no flag-waver, no patriot, and am fully aware that venality, brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of every state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically. So may I clarify that tonight I speak as a subject of the American Empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to criticize her king.

Since lectures must be called something, mine tonight is called: Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free).

Way back in 1988, on the 3rd of July, the U.S.S. Vincennes, a missile cruiser stationed in the Persian Gulf, accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner and killed 290 civilian passengers. George Bush the First, who was at the time on his presidential campaign, was asked to comment on the incident. He said quite subtly, "I will never apologize for the United States. I don't care what the facts are."

I don't care what the facts are. What a perfect maxim for the New American Empire. Perhaps a slight variation on the theme would be more apposite: The facts can be whatever we want them to be.

When the United States invaded Iraq, a New York Times/CBS News survey estimated that 42 percent of the American public believed that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And an ABC News poll said that 55 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein directly supported Al Qaida. None of this opinion is based on evidence (because there isn't any). All of it is based on insinuation, auto-suggestion, and outright lies circulated by the U.S. corporate media, otherwise known as the "Free Press," that hollow pillar on which contemporary American democracy rests.

Public support in the U.S. for the war against Iraq was founded on a multi-tiered edifice of falsehood and deceit, coordinated by the U.S. government and faithfully amplified by the corporate media.

Apart from the invented links between Iraq and Al Qaida, we had the manufactured frenzy about Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction. George Bush the Lesser went to the extent of saying it would be "suicidal" for the U.S. not to attack Iraq. We once again witnessed the paranoia that a starved, bombed, besieged country was about to annihilate almighty America. (Iraq was only the latest in a succession of countries - earlier there was Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya, Grenada, and Panama.) But this time it wasn't just your ordinary brand of friendly neighborhood frenzy. It was Frenzy with a Purpose. It ushered in an old doctrine in a new bottle: the Doctrine of Pre-emptive Strike, a.k.a. The United States Can Do Whatever The Hell It Wants, And That's Official.

The war against Iraq has been fought and won and no Weapons of Mass Destruction have been found. Not even a little one. Perhaps they'll have to be planted before they're discovered. And then, the more troublesome amongst us will need an explanation for why Saddam Hussein didn't use them when his country was being invaded.

Of course, there'll be no answers. True Believers will make do with those fuzzy TV reports about the discovery of a few barrels of banned chemicals in an old shed. There seems to be no consensus yet about whether they're really chemicals, whether they're actually banned and whether the vessels they're contained in can technically be called barrels. (There were unconfirmed rumours that a teaspoonful of potassium permanganate and an old harmonica were found there too.)

Meanwhile, in passing, an ancient civilization has been casually decimated by a very recent, casually brutal nation.

Then there are those who say, so what if Iraq had no chemical and nuclear weapons? So what if there is no Al Qaida connection? So what if Osama bin Laden hates Saddam Hussein as much as he hates the United States? Bush the Lesser has said Saddam Hussein was a "Homicidal Dictator." And so, the reasoning goes, Iraq needed a "regime change."

Never mind that forty years ago, the CIA, under President John F. Kennedy, orchestrated a regime change in Baghdad. In 1963, after a successful coup, the Ba'ath party came to power in Iraq. Using lists provided by the CIA, the new Ba'ath regime systematically eliminated hundreds of doctors, teachers, lawyers, and political figures known to be leftists. An entire intellectual community was slaughtered. (The same technique was used to massacre hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia and East Timor.) The young Saddam Hussein was said to have had a hand in supervising the bloodbath. In 1979, after factional infighting within the Ba'ath Party, Saddam Hussein became the President of Iraq. In April 1980, while he was massacring Shias, the U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinksi declared, "We see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq." Washington and London overtly and covertly supported Saddam Hussein. They financed him, equipped him, armed him, and provided him with dual-use materials to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. They supported his worst excesses financially, materially, and morally. They supported the eight-year war against Iran and the 1988 gassing of Kurdish people in Halabja, crimes which 14 years later were re-heated and served up as reasons to justify invading Iraq. After the first Gulf War, the "Allies" fomented an uprising of Shias in Basra and then looked away while Saddam Hussein crushed the revolt and slaughtered thousands in an act of vengeful reprisal.

The point is, if Saddam Hussein was evil enough to merit the most elaborate, openly declared assassination attempt in history (the opening move of Operation Shock and Awe), then surely those who supported him ought at least to be tried for war crimes? Why aren't the faces of U.S. and U.K. government officials on the infamous pack of cards of wanted men and women?

Because when it comes to Empire, facts don't matter.

Yes, but all that's in the past we're told. Saddam Hussein is a monster who must be stopped now. And only the U.S. can stop him. It's an effective technique, this use of the urgent morality of the present to obscure the diabolical sins of the past and the malevolent plans for the future. Indonesia, Panama, Nicaragua, Iraq, Afghanistan - the list goes on and on. Right now there are brutal regimes being groomed for the future - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, the Central Asian Republics.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently declared that U.S. freedoms are "not the grant of any government or document, but...our endowment from God." (Why bother with the United Nations when God himself is on hand?)

So here we are, the people of the world, confronted with an Empire armed with a mandate from heaven (and, as added insurance, the most formidable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in history). Here we are, confronted with an Empire that has conferred upon itself the right to go to war at will, and the right to deliver people from corrupting ideologies, from religious fundamentalists, dictators, sexism, and poverty by the age-old, tried-and-tested practice of extermination. Empire is on the move, and Democracy is its sly new war cry. Democracy, home-delivered to your doorstep by daisy cutters. Death is a small price for people to pay for the privilege of sampling this new product: Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (bring to a boil, add oil, then bomb).

But then perhaps chinks, negroes, dinks, gooks, and wogs don't really qualify as real people. Perhaps our deaths don't qualify as real deaths. Our histories don't qualify as history. They never have.

Speaking of history, in these past months, while the world watched, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was broadcast on live TV. Like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the regime of Saddam Hussein simply disappeared. This was followed by what analysts called a "power vacuum." Cities that had been under siege, without food, water, and electricity for days, cities that had been bombed relentlessly, people who had been starved and systematically impoverished by the UN sanctions regime for more than a decade, were suddenly left with no semblance of urban administration. A seven-thousand-year-old civilization slid into anarchy. On live TV.

Vandals plundered shops, offices, hotels, and hospitals. American and British soldiers stood by and watched. They said they had no orders to act. In effect, they had orders to kill people, but not to protect them. Their priorities were clear. The safety and security of Iraqi people was not their business. The security of whatever little remained of Iraq's infrastructure was not their business. But the security and safety of Iraq's oil fields were. Of course they were. The oil fields were "secured" almost before the invasion began.

On CNN and BBC the scenes of the rampage were played and replayed. TV commentators, army and government spokespersons portrayed it as a "liberated people" venting their rage at a despotic regime. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "It's untidy. Freedom's untidy and free people are free to commit crimes and make mistakes and do bad things." Did anybody know that Donald Rumsfeld was an anarchist? I wonder - did he hold the same view during the riots in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King? Would he care to share his thesis about the Untidiness of Freedom with the two million people being held in U.S. prisons right now? (The world's "freest" country has the highest number of prisoners in the
world.) Would he discuss its merits with young African American men, 28 percent of whom will spend some part of their adult lives in jail? Could he explain why he serves under a president who oversaw 152 executions when he was governor of Texas?

Before the war on Iraq began, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) sent the Pentagon a list of 16 crucial sites to protect. The National Museum was second on that list. Yet the Museum was not just looted, it was desecrated. It was a repository of an ancient cultural heritage. Iraq as we know it today was part of the river valley of Mesopotamia. The civilization that grew along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates produced the world's first writing, first calendar, first library, first city, and, yes, the world's first democracy. King Hammurabi of Babylon was the first to codify laws governing the social life of citizens. It was a code in which abandoned women, prostitutes, slaves, and even animals had rights. The Hammurabi code is acknowledged not just as the birth of legality, but the beginning of an understanding of the concept of social justice. The U.S. government could not have chosen a more inappropriate land in which to stage its illegal war and display its grotesque disregard for justice.

At a Pentagon briefing during the days of looting, Secretary Rumsfeld, Prince of Darkness, turned on his media cohorts who had served him so loyally through the war. "The images you are seeing on television, you are seeing over and over and over, and it's the same picture, of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times and you say, 'My god, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?'"

Laughter rippled through the press room. Would it be alright for the poor of Harlem to loot the Metropolitan Museum? Would it be greeted with similar mirth?

The last building on the ORHA list of 16 sites to be protected was the Ministry of Oil. It was the only one that was given protection. Perhaps the occupying army thought that in Muslim countries lists are read upside down?

Television tells us that Iraq has been "liberated" and that Afghanistan is well on its way to becoming a paradise for women-thanks to Bush and Blair, the 21st century's leading feminists. In reality, Iraq's infrastructure has been destroyed. Its people brought to the brink of starvation. Its food stocks depleted. And its cities devastated by a complete administrative breakdown. Iraq is being ushered in the direction of a civil war between Shias and Sunnis. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has lapsed back into the pre-Taliban era of anarchy, and its territory has been carved up into fiefdoms by hostile warlords.

Undaunted by all this, on the 2nd of May Bush the Lesser launched his 2004 campaign hoping to be finally elected U.S. President. In what probably constitutes the shortest flight in history, a military jet landed on an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, which was so close to shore that, according to the Associated Press, administration officials acknowledged "positioning the massive ship to provide the best TV angle for Bush's speech, with the sea as his background instead of the San Diego coastline." President Bush, who never served his term in the military, emerged from the cockpit in fancy dress - a U.S. military bomber jacket, combat boots, flying goggles, helmet. Waving to his cheering troops, he officially proclaimed victory over Iraq. He was careful to say that it was "just one victory in a war on terror ... [which] still goes on."

It was important to avoid making a straightforward victory announcement, because under the Geneva Convention a victorious army is bound by the legal obligations of an occupying force, a responsibility that the Bush administration does not want to burden itself with. Also, closer to the 2004 elections, in order to woo wavering voters, another victory in the "War on Terror" might become necessary. Syria is being fattened for the kill.

It was Herman Goering, that old Nazi, who said, "People can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders... All you have to do is tell them they're being attacked and denounce the pacifists for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

He's right. It's dead easy. That's what the Bush regime banks on. The distinction between election campaigns and war, between democracy and oligarchy, seems to be closing fast.

The only caveat in these campaign wars is that U.S. lives must not be lost. It shakes voter confidence. But the problem of U.S. soldiers being killed in combat has been licked. More or less.

At a media briefing before Operation Shock and Awe was unleashed, General Tommy Franks announced, "This campaign will be like no other in history." Maybe he's right.

I'm no military historian, but when was the last time a war was fought like this?

After using the "good offices" of UN diplomacy (economic sanctions and weapons inspections) to ensure that Iraq was brought to its knees, its people starved, half a million children dead, its infrastructure severely damaged, after making sure that most of its weapons had been destroyed, in an act of cowardice that must surely be unrivalled in history, the "Coalition of the Willing" (better known as the Coalition of the Bullied and Bought) - sent in an invading army!

Operation Iraqi Freedom? I don't think so. It was more like Operation Let's Run a Race, but First Let Me Break Your Knees.

As soon as the war began, the governments of France, Germany, and Russia, which refused to allow a final resolution legitimizing the war to be passed in the UN Security Council, fell over each other to say how much they wanted the United States to win. President Jacques Chirac offered French airspace to the Anglo-American air force. U.S. military bases in Germany were open for business. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer publicly hoped for the "rapid collapse" of the Saddam Hussein regime. Vladimir Putin publicly hoped for the same. These are governments that colluded in the enforced disarming of Iraq before their dastardly rush to take the side of those who attacked it. Apart from hoping to share the spoils, they hoped Empire would honor their pre-war oil contracts with Iraq. Only the very naïve could expect old Imperialists to behave otherwise.

Leaving aside the cheap thrills and the lofty moral speeches made in the UN during the run up to the war, eventually, at the moment of crisis, the unity of Western governments - despite the opposition from the majority of their people - was overwhelming.

When the Turkish government temporarily bowed to the views of 90 percent of its population, and turned down the U.S. government's offer of billions of dollars of blood money for the use of Turkish soil, it was accused of lacking "democratic principles." According to a Gallup International poll, in no European country was support for a war carried out "unilaterally by America and its allies" higher than 11 percent. But the governments of England, Italy, Spain, Hungary, and other countries of Eastern Europe were praised for disregarding the views of the majority of their people and supporting the illegal invasion. That, presumably, was fully in keeping with democratic principles. What's it called? New Democracy? (Like Britain's New Labour?)

In stark contrast to the venality displayed by their governments, on the 15th of February, weeks before the invasion, in the most spectacular display of public morality the world has ever seen, more than 10 million people marched against the war on 5 continents. Many of you, I'm sure, were among them. They - we - were disregarded with utter disdain. When asked to react to the anti-war demonstrations, President Bush said, "It's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group. The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security, in this case the security of the people."

Democracy, the modern world's holy cow, is in crisis. And the crisis is a profound one. Every kind of outrage is being committed in the name of democracy. It has become little more than a hollow word, a pretty shell, emptied of all content or meaning. It can be whatever you want it to be. Democracy is the Free World's whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing to satisfy a whole range of taste, available to be used and abused at will.

Until quite recently, right up to the 1980's, democracy did seem as though it might actually succeed in delivering a degree of real social justice.

But modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy - the "independent" judiciary, the "free" press, the parliament - and molding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder.

To fully comprehend the extent to which Democracy is under siege, it might be an idea to look at what goes on in some of our contemporary democracies. The World's Largest: India, (which I have written about at some length and therefore will not speak about tonight). The World's Most Interesting: South Africa. The world's most powerful: the U.S.A. And, most instructive of all, the plans that are being made to usher in the world's newest: Iraq.

In South Africa, after 300 years of brutal domination of the black majority by a white minority through colonialism and apartheid, a non-racial, multi-party democracy came to power in 1994. It was a phenomenal achievement. Within two years of coming to power, the African National Congress had genuflected with no caveats to the Market God. Its massive program of structural adjustment, privatization, and liberalization has only increased the hideous disparities between the rich and the poor. More than a million people have lost their jobs. The corporatization of basic services - electricity, water, and housing-has meant that 10 million South Africans, almost a quarter of the population, have been disconnected from water and electricity. 2 million have been evicted from their homes.

Meanwhile, a small white minority that has been historically privileged by centuries of brutal exploitation is more secure than ever before. They continue to control the land, the farms, the factories, and the abundant natural resources of that country. For them the transition from apartheid to neo-liberalism barely disturbed the grass. It's apartheid with a clean conscience. And it goes by the name of Democracy.

Democracy has become Empire's euphemism for neo-liberal capitalism.

In countries of the first world, too, the machinery of democracy has been effectively subverted. Politicians, media barons, judges, powerful corporate lobbies, and government officials are imbricated in an elaborate underhand configuration that completely undermines the lateral arrangement of checks and balances between the constitution, courts of law, parliament, the administration and, perhaps most important of all, the independent media that form the structural basis of a parliamentary democracy. Increasingly, the imbrication is neither subtle nor elaborate.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, has a controlling interest in major Italian newspapers, magazines, television channels, and publishing houses. The Financial Times reported that he controls about 90 percent of Italy's TV viewership. Recently, during a trial on bribery charges, while insisting he was the only person who could save Italy from the left, he said, "How much longer do I have to keep living this life of sacrifices?" That bodes ill for the remaining 10 percent of Italy's TV viewership. What price Free Speech? Free Speech for whom?

In the United States, the arrangement is more complex. Clear Channel Worldwide Incorporated is the largest radio station owner in the country. It runs more than 1,200 channels, which together account for 9 percent of the market. Its CEO contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bush's election campaign. When hundreds of thousands of American citizens took to the streets to protest against the war on Iraq, Clear Channel organized pro-war patriotic "Rallies for America" across the country. It used its radio stations to advertise the events and then sent correspondents to cover them as though they were breaking news. The era of manufacturing consent has given way to the era of manufacturing news. Soon media newsrooms will drop the pretense, and start hiring theatre directors instead of journalists.

As America's show business gets more and more violent and war-like, and America's wars get more and more like show business, some interesting cross-overs are taking place. The designer who built the 250,000 dollar set in Qatar from which General Tommy Franks stage-managed news coverage of Operation Shock and Awe also built sets for Disney, MGM, and "Good Morning America."

It is a cruel irony that the U.S., which has the most ardent, vociferous defenders of the idea of Free Speech, and (until recently) the most elaborate legislation to protect it, has so circumscribed the space in which that freedom can be expressed. In a strange, convoluted way, the sound and fury that accompanies the legal and conceptual defense of Free Speech in America serves to mask the process of the rapid erosion of the possibilities of actually exercising that freedom.

The news and entertainment industry in the U.S. is for the most part controlled by a few major corporations - AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation. Each of these corporations owns and controls TV stations, film studios, record companies, and publishing ventures. Effectively, the exits are sealed.

America's media empire is controlled by a tiny coterie of people. Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has proposed even further deregulation of the communication industry, which will lead to even greater consolidation.

So here it is - the World's Greatest Democracy, led by a man who was not legally elected. America's Supreme Court gifted him his job. What price have American people paid for this spurious presidency?

In the three years of George Bush the Lesser's term, the American economy has lost more than two million jobs. Outlandish military expenses, corporate welfare, and tax giveaways to the rich have created a financial crisis for the U.S. educational system. According to a survey by the National Council of State Legislatures, U.S. states cut 49 billion dollars in public services, health, welfare benefits, and education in 2002. They plan to cut another 25.7 billion dollars this year. That makes a total of 75 billion dollars. Bush's initial budget request to Congress to finance the war in Iraq was 80 billion dollars.

So who's paying for the war? America's poor. Its students, its unemployed, its single mothers, its hospital and home-care patients, its teachers, and health workers.

And who's actually fighting the war?

Once again, America's poor. The soldiers who are baking in Iraq's desert sun are not the children of the rich. Only one of all the representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate has a child fighting in Iraq. America's "volunteer" army in fact depends on a poverty draft of poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians looking for a way to earn a living and get an education. Federal statistics show that African Americans make up 21 percent of the total armed forces and 29 percent of the U.S. army. They count for only 12 percent of the general population. It's ironic, isn't it - the disproportionately high representation of African Americans in the army and prison? Perhaps we should take a positive view, and look at this as affirmative action at its most effective. Nearly 4 million Americans (2 percent of the population) have lost the right to vote because of felony convictions. Of that number, 1.4 million are African Americans, which means that 13 percent of all voting-age Black people have been disenfranchised.

For African Americans there's also affirmative action in death. A study by the economist Amartya Sen shows that African Americans as a group have a lower life expectancy than people born in China, in the Indian State of Kerala (where I come from), Sri Lanka, or Costa Rica. Bangladeshi men have a better chance of making it to the age of forty than African American men from here in Harlem.

This year, on what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 74th birthday, President Bush denounced the University of Michigan's affirmative action program favouring Blacks and Latinos. He called it "divisive," "unfair," and "unconstitutional." The successful effort to keep Blacks off the voting rolls in the State of Florida in order that George Bush be elected was of course neither unfair nor unconstitutional. I don't suppose affirmative action for White Boys From Yale ever is.

So we know who's paying for the war. We know who's fighting it. But who will benefit from it? Who is homing in on the reconstruction contracts estimated to be worth up to one hundred billon dollars? Could it be America's poor and unemployed and sick? Could it be America's single mothers? Or America's Black and Latino minorities?

Operation Iraqi Freedom, George Bush assures us, is about returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people. That is, returning Iraqi oil to the Iraqi people via Corporate Multinationals. Like Bechtel, like Chevron, like Halliburton.

Once again, it is a small, tight circle that connects corporate, military, and government leadership to one another. The promiscuousness, the cross-pollination is outrageous.

Consider this: the Defense Policy Board is a government-appointed group that advises the Pentagon. Its members are appointed by the under secretary of defense and approved by Donald Rumsfeld. Its meetings are classified. No information is available for public scrutiny.

The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity found that 9 out of the 30 members of the Defense Policy Board are connected to companies that were awarded defense contracts worth 76 billion dollars between the years 2001 and 2002. One of them, Jack Sheehan, a retired Marine Corps general, is a senior vice president at Bechtel, the giant international engineering outfit. Riley Bechtel, the company chairman, is on the President's Export Council. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who is also on the Board of Directors of the Bechtel Group, is the chairman of the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. When asked by the New York Times whether he was concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, he said, "I don't know that Bechtel would particularly benefit from it. But if there's work to be done, Bechtel is the type of company that could do it."

Bechtel has been awarded a 680 million dollar reconstruction contract in Iraq. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bechtel contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaign efforts.

Arcing across this subterfuge, dwarfing it by the sheer magnitude of its malevolence, is America's anti-terrorism legislation. The U.S.A. Patriot Act, passed in October 2001, has become the blueprint for similar anti-terrorism bills in countries across the world. It was passed in the House of Representatives by a majority vote of 337 to 79. According to the New York Times, "Many lawmakers said it had been impossible to truly debate or even read the legislation."

The Patriot Act ushers in an era of systemic automated surveillance. It gives the government the authority to monitor phones and computers and spy on people in ways that would have seemed completely unacceptable a few years ago. It gives the FBI the power to seize all of the circulation, purchasing, and other records of library users and bookstore customers on the suspicion that they are part of a terrorist network. It blurs the boundaries between speech and criminal activity creating the space to construe acts of civil disobedience as violating the law.

Already hundreds of people are being held indefinitely as "unlawful combatants." (In India, the number is in the thousands. In Israel, 5,000 Palestinians are now being detained.) Non-citizens, of course, have no rights at all. They can simply be "disappeared" like the people of Chile under Washington's old ally, General Pinochet. More than 1,000 people, many of them Muslim or of Middle Eastern origin, have been detained, some without access to legal representatives.

Apart from paying the actual economic costs of war, American people are paying for these wars of "liberation" with their own freedoms. For the ordinary American, the price of "New Democracy" in other countries is the death of real democracy at home.

Meanwhile, Iraq is being groomed for "liberation." (Or did they mean "liberalization" all along?) The Wall Street Journal reports that "the Bush administration has drafted sweeping plans to remake Iraq's economy in the U.S. image."

Iraq's constitution is being redrafted. Its trade laws, tax laws, and intellectual property laws rewritten in order to turn it into an American-style capitalist economy.

The United States Agency for International Development has invited U.S. companies to bid for contracts that range between road building, water systems, text book distribution, and cell phone networks.

Soon after Bush the Second announced that he wanted American farmers to feed the world, Dan Amstutz, a former senior executive of Cargill, the biggest grain exporter in the world, was put in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq. Kevin Watkins, Oxfam's policy director, said, "Putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in the chair of a human rights commission."

The two men who have been short-listed to run operations for managing Iraqi oil have worked with Shell, BP, and Fluor. Fluor is embroiled in a lawsuit by black South African workers who have accused the company of exploiting and brutalizing them during the apartheid era. Shell, of course, is well known for its devastation of the Ogoni tribal lands in Nigeria.

Tom Brokaw (one of America's best-known TV anchors) was inadvertently succinct about the process. "One of the things we don't want to do," he said, "is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we're going to own that country."

Now that the ownership deeds are being settled, Iraq is ready for New Democracy.

So, as Lenin used to ask: What Is To Be Done?


We might as well accept the fact that there is no conventional military force that can successfully challenge the American war machine. Terrorist strikes only give the U.S. Government an opportunity that it is eagerly awaiting to further tighten its stranglehold. Within days of an attack you can bet that Patriot II would be passed. To argue against U.S. military aggression by saying that it will increase the possibilities of terrorist strikes is futile. It's like threatening Brer Rabbit that you'll throw him into the bramble bush. Any one who has read the documents written by The Project for the New American Century can attest to that. The government's suppression of the Congressional committee report on September 11th, which found that there was intelligence warning of the strikes that was ignored, also attests to the fact that, for all their posturing, the terrorists and the Bush regime might as well be working as a team. They both hold people responsible for the actions of their governments. They both believe in the doctrine of collective guilt and collective punishment. Their actions benefit each other greatly.

The U.S. government has already displayed in no uncertain terms the range and extent of its capability for paranoid aggression. In human psychology, paranoid aggression is usually an indicator of nervous insecurity. It could be argued that it's no different in the case of the psychology of nations. Empire is paranoid because it has a soft underbelly.

Its "homeland" may be defended by border patrols and nuclear weapons, but its economy is strung out across the globe. Its economic outposts are exposed and vulnerable. Already the Internet is buzzing with elaborate lists of American and British government products and companies that should be boycotted. Apart from the usual targets - Coke, Pepsi, McDonalds - government agencies like USAID, the British DFID, British and American banks, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch, and American Express could find themselves under siege. These lists are being honed and refined by activists across the world. They could become a practical guide that directs the amorphous but growing fury in the world. Suddenly, the "inevitability" of the project of Corporate Globalization is beginning to seem more than a little evitable.

It would be naïve to imagine that we can directly confront Empire. Our strategy must be to isolate Empire's working parts and disable them one by one. No target is too small. No victory too insignificant. We could reverse the idea of the economic sanctions imposed on poor countries by Empire and its Allies. We could impose a regime of Peoples' Sanctions on every corporate house that has been awarded with a contract in postwar Iraq, just as activists in this country and around the world targeted institutions of apartheid. Each one of them should be named, exposed, and boycotted. Forced out of business. That could be our response to the Shock and Awe campaign. It would be a great beginning.

Another urgent challenge is to expose the corporate media for the boardroom bulletin that it really is. We need to create a universe of alternative information. We need to support independent media like Democracy Now!, Alternative Radio, and South End Press.

The battle to reclaim democracy is going to be a difficult one. Our freedoms were not granted to us by any governments. They were wrested from them by us. And once we surrender them, the battle to retrieve them is called a revolution. It is a battle that must range across continents and countries. It must not acknowledge national boundaries but, if it is to succeed, it has to begin here. In America. The only institution more powerful than the U.S. government is American civil society. The rest of us are subjects of slave nations. We are by no means powerless, but you have the power of proximity. You have access to the Imperial Palace and the Emperor's chambers. Empire's conquests are being carried out in your name, and you have the right to refuse. You could refuse to fight. Refuse to move those missiles from the warehouse to the dock. Refuse to wave that flag. Refuse the victory parade.

You have a rich tradition of resistance. You need only read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to remind yourself of this.

Hundreds of thousands of you have survived the relentless propaganda you have been subjected to, and are actively fighting your own government. In the ultra-patriotic climate that prevails in the United States, that's as brave as any Iraqi or Afghan or Palestinian fighting for his or her homeland.

If you join the battle, not in your hundreds of thousands, but in your millions, you will be greeted joyously by the rest of the world. And you will see how beautiful it is to be gentle instead of brutal, safe instead of scared. Befriended instead of isolated. Loved instead of hated.

I hate to disagree with your president. Yours is by no means a great nation. But you could be a great people.

History is giving you the chance.

Seize the time.

Presented in New York City at The Riverside Church
May 13, 2003
Copyright 2003
Sponsored by the
Center for Economic and Social Rights

Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free)
logged by alf at 10:03, Monday, 19th May, 2003

Tuesday, 13th May, 2003

Pax Romana versus Pax Americana: Contrasting Strategies of Imperial Management

by Walden Bello
May 12 2003
Foreign Policy in Focus

After its successful invasion of Iraq, the U.S. appears to be at the height of its power. One can understand why many feel the U.S. is supreme and omnipotent. Indeed, this is precisely what Washington wants the world to think.

No doubt, the U.S. is very powerful militarily. There is good reason to think, however, that it is overextended. In fact, the main strategic result of the occupation of Iraq is to worsen this condition of overextension.


Overextension refers to a mismatch between goals and means, with means referring not only to military resources but to political and ideological ones as well. Under the reigning neoconservatives, Washington's goal is to achieve overwhelming military dominance over any rival or coalition of rivals. This quest for even greater global dominance, however, inevitably generates opposition, and it is in this resistance that we see the roots of overextension. Overextension is relative--an overextended power may in fact be in a worse condition even with a significant increase in its military power if resistance to its power increases by an even greater degree.

This point may sound surreal after the massive firepower we witnessed on television night after night over the past month. But consider the following and ask whether they are not signs of overreach: the failure to consolidate a pro-U.S. regime in Afghanistan outside of Kabul; the inability of a key ally, Israel, to quell, even with Washington's unrestricted support, the Palestinian people's uprising; the inflaming of Arab and Muslim sentiment in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, resulting in massive ideological gains for Islamic fundamentalists--which was what Osama bin Laden had been hoping for in the first place; the collapse of the cold war "Atlantic Alliance" and the emergence of a new countervailing alliance, with Germany and France at the center of it; the forging of a powerful global civil society movement against U.S. unilateralism, militarism, and economic hegemony, the most recent significant expression of which is the anti-war movement; the loss of legitimacy of Washington's foreign policy and global military presence, with its global leadership now widely viewed, even among its allies, as imperial domination; the emergence of a powerful anti-American movement in South Korea, which is the forward point of the U.S. military presence in East Asia; the coming to power of anti-neoliberal, anti-U.S. movements in Washington's own backyard--Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador--as the Bush administration is preoccupied with the Middle East; an increasingly negative impact of militarism on the economy, as U.S. military spending becomes dependent on deficit spending, and deficit spending becomes more and more dependent on financing from foreign sources, creating more stresses and strains within an economy that is already in the grip of deflation.

Just a few days after its military victory over a fourth-rate power, we are already witnessing the political quicksand that the Americans have stepped into in Iraq, as fundamentalist Islamic political currents among the majority Shiites appear to be the political inheritors of the deposing of Saddam Hussein. If a stable, pro-U.S. order in the Middle East is Washington's goal, then that is nowhere in sight. What is likely instead is greater instability that will tempt Washington to employ more military power and deploy more military units, leading to a spiral of violence from which there is no easy exit.

Pax Romana versus Pax Americana

Nearly three millennia ago, another empire confronted the same problem of overextension. Its solution enabled it to last 700 years. The Roman solution was not just or even principally military in character. The Romans realized that an important component of successful imperial domination was consensus among the dominated of the "rightness" of the Roman order. As sociologist Michael Mann notes in his classic, Sources of Social Power, the extension of Roman citizenship to ruling groups and non-slave peoples throughout the empire was the political breakthrough that won the mass allegiance among the nations dominated by the Romans. Political citizenship combined with the vision of the empire providing peace and prosperity for all to create that intangible but essential moral element called legitimacy.

Needless to say, extension of citizenship plays no role in the U.S. imperial order. In fact, U.S. citizenship is jealously reserved for a very tiny minority of the world's population, entry into whose territory is tightly controlled. Subordinate populations are not to be integrated but kept in check either by force, or the threat of the use of force, or by a system of global or regional rules and institutions--the World Trade Organization, the Bretton Woods system, NATO--that are increasingly blatantly manipulated to serve the interests of the imperial center.

Though extension of universal citizenship was never a tool in the American imperial arsenal, during its struggle with communism in the post-World War II period Washington did come up with a political formula to legitimize its global reach. The two elements of this formula were multilateralism as a system of global governance and liberal democracy.

In the immediate aftermath of the cold war, there were, in fact, widespread expectations of a modern-day version of Pax Romana. There was hope in liberal circles that the U.S. would use its sole superpower status to undergird a multilateral order that would institutionalize its hegemony but assure an Augustan peace globally. That was the path of economic globalization and multilateral governance. That was the path eliminated by George W. Bush's unilateralism.

As Frances Fitzgerald observed in Fire in the Lake, the promise of extending liberal democracy was a very powerful ideal that accompanied American arms during the cold war. Today, however, Washington or Westminster-type liberal democracy is in trouble throughout the developing world, where it has been reduced to providing a façade for oligarchic rule, as in the Philippines, pre-Musharraf Pakistan, and throughout Latin America. In fact, liberal democracy in America has become both less democratic and less liberal. Certainly, few in the developing world see a system fueled and corrupted by corporate money as a model.

Recovery of the moral vision needed to create consensus for U.S. hegemony will be extremely difficult. Indeed, the thinking in Washington these days is that the most effective consensus builder is the threat of the use of force. Moreover, despite their talk about imposing democracy in the Arab world, the main aim of influential neoconservative writers like Robert Kaplan, Robert Kagan, and Charles Krauthammer is transparent: the manipulation of liberal democratic mechanisms to create pluralistic competition that would destroy Arab unity. Bringing democracy to the Arabs is not even an afterthought as a slogan that is uttered tongue in cheek.

The Bush people are not interested in creating a new Pax Romana. What they want is a Pax Americana, where most of the subordinate populations--like the Arabs--are kept in check by a healthy respect for lethal American power, while the loyalty of other groups--such as the Philippine government--is purchased with the promise of cash. With no moral vision to bind the global majority to the imperial center, this mode of imperial management can only inspire one thing: resistance.

Challenges to the Empire

The present in Afghanistan is likely to be the future in Iraq--that is, an inability to consolidate a stable political order, much less a truly representative and democratic one.

The combination of their policies of internal repression and their failure to come to the aid of the Palestinians and the Iraqis is likely to put the Arab regimes allied to the U.S.--the most noteworthy of which are the governments in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt--in an even more precarious position with respect to the Arab masses. A strengthening of political Islam is a likely result, and Islamic groups are likely to either come to power or be serious contenders for power in many of these countries. Ironically, a democratic opening up of the political systems in these countries--which Washington is said to be desirous of--is likely to lead to this outcome, even in Iraq, where the radical stream of Shiite Islamic politics is dominant. The same boost to Islamic groups is likely to be the result in the rest of the Muslim world, especially in two places considered extremely strategic by the U.S.: Pakistan and Indonesia.

Like Washington's security, Israel's security, the enhancement of which has been a primordial objective of neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol, will be compromised even further. This, as well as the bigger frustration of failing to create a stable political base for American hegemony via formal democratic mechanisms, will lead the U.S. to contemplate an unpalatable choice: withdraw or impose direct colonial rule. It will, however, try not to face this choice as long as possible and continue to pour more money and resources to unworkable political arrangements.

At the same time, local variants of the new global civil society movement for peace and against corporate-driven globalization will achieve power or threaten to come to power in other parts of the world, particularly in Latin America. The examples of Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela will become more attractive as neoliberal economics becomes even more discredited in the context of prolonged economic stagnation at the national, regional, and global levels.

With the U.S. increasingly seen as a universal threat and with their economic interests increasingly at odds with Washington, France, Germany, Russia, and China will consolidate the balancing coalition that emerged during the Iraq crisis. Some of the more weighty developing countries, like Brazil, India, and South Korea, might eventually join this formation. This balancing coalition is likely to be a permanent fixture, though its members may change.

One consequence of this diplomatic alliance will be closer coordination in military matters. Indeed, the formation of a European Defense Force distinct from NATO is likely. Another will be increased military spending, arms buildups, and arms research by members of the balancing coalition, whether separately or in cooperation with one another. Still another will be greater economic and technological cooperation to create the economic infrastructure for protracted military competition. Ironically, Washington's crusade to monopolize weapons of mass destruction will lead to greater investment in the development of such weapons among its big country rivals, while not stopping their development by smaller countries or by non-state actors.

Global economic stagnation and U.S. unilateralism will lead to a further weakening of the IMF and WTO and a strengthening of trends toward protectionism and regionalism. Regional economic arrangements, combining trade preferences, capital controls, and technological cooperation will become even more attractive in opposition to both multilateral free trade arrangements and bilateral trade deals with the U.S. and the EU. Trade wars will become more frequent and more destabilizing.

One actor will be central in all this: China. As the American economy is mired in stagnation and Washington is overextended militarily and politically, China will grow in relative strength. The unilateralists will grow more and more preoccupied with China's growing strength and will sharpen their political and ideological competition with Beijing. At the same time, their options will continue to be limited given Wall Street's increasing financial stakes in China, American corporations' increasing dependence on investment in that country, and the U.S. consumers' escalating reliance on imports from China, from low-tech commodities to high-tech goods. Washington will not find an easy exit from its Chinese conundrum.

Finally--and ironically, given recent events--the UN will enjoy a new lease on life, as countries realize that its ability to grant or withhold legitimacy remains an important tool in international realpolitik. The role of the UN as a mechanism for isolating the U.S. will be enhanced, and Washington is likely to respond with even more vituperation and threats to cut off funding, though it will not be able to boycott the organization.

Like Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy prior to the Second World War, the U.S. is likely to be more and more isolated in the community of nations while retaining the immense power to plunge that community into disorder.

One thing is certain: if the Romans were around today, they would come up with one conclusion: this is no way to manage an empire.

(Walden Bello is a professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines and executive director of Focus on the Global South (online at where this first appeared and is reprinted by Foreign Policy in Focus (online at

Tactical nukes and nonproliferation

Use of force alone cannot guarantee that the US will always be able to prevent non-nuclear states desirous of acquiring nuclear-weapon capability from acquiring that capability, especially when Washington itself has shown utter disregard - bordering on contempt - for nonproliferation.

The multilateral framework on nonproliferation has held nicely despite occasional hiccups and the rejectionist states. It makes no sense for the US to take the lead in unravelling that regime instead of cementing it. But strengthening the regime required the five nuclear-weapon states to take the 2000 NPT RevCon (Review Conference) seriously. At the conference, the five reiterated once again that they would begin to move towards the goal of disarmament seriously as stipulated by Article VI of the treaty. That pledge has again fallen by the wayside. Events since Sept 11, 2001, have given further fillip to efforts by the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration to push use of force as the only credible response to security threats. This is likely to backfire in a major way. The cases of North Korea and, possibly, Iran are important in this regard. As per the administration's own strategy of a pre-emptive strike it should have tackled North Korea first rather than going after Iraq, a much softer target and where the US troops after the victory have been unable to find any WMD. Yet, Washington could not act so brazenly with the North precisely because Pyongyang is reported to have a couple of bombs in the basement. The lesson will not be lost on states trying to acquire WMD. The only way to keep the US at bay is to get the bomb before the US gets them.

The use of force per se cannot be faulted and there will always be threats that can only be countered through use of force. But force can be useful only, and until such time, that it can safeguard the norm begotten of cooperation. The cart cannot be put before the horse.

May 13 2003
The Daily Times (Pakistan)

Tactical nukes and nonproliferation
logged by alf at 10:20, Tuesday, 13th May, 2003

Friday, 9th May, 2003

I loathe America, and what it has done to the rest of the world

By Margaret Drabble
May 8 2003
The Daily Telegraph

I knew that the wave of anti-Americanism that would swell up after the Iraq war would make me feel ill. And it has. It has made me much, much more ill than I had expected.

My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness. I now loathe the United States and what it has done to Iraq and the rest of the helpless world.

I can hardly bear to see the faces of Bush and Rumsfeld, or to watch their posturing body language, or to hear their self-satisfied and incoherent platitudes. The liberal press here has done its best to make them appear ridiculous, but these two men are not funny.

I was tipped into uncontainable rage by a report on Channel 4 News about "friendly fire", which included footage of what must have been one of the most horrific bombardments ever filmed. But what struck home hardest was the subsequent image, of a row of American warplanes, with grinning cartoon faces painted on their noses. Cartoon faces, with big sharp teeth.

It is grotesque. It is hideous. This great and powerful nation bombs foreign cities and the people in those cities from Disneyland cartoon planes out of comic strips. This is simply not possible. And yet, there they were.

Others have written eloquently about the euphemistic and affectionate names that the Americans give to their weapons of mass destruction: Big Boy, Little Boy, Daisy Cutter, and so forth.

We are accustomed to these sobriquets; to phrases such as "collateral damage" and "friendly fire" and "pre-emptive strikes". We have almost ceased to notice when suicide bombers are described as "cowards". The abuse of language is part of warfare. Long ago, Voltaire told us that we invent words to conceal truths. More recently, Orwell pointed out to us the dangers of Newspeak.

But there was something about those playfully grinning warplane faces that went beyond deception and distortion into the land of madness. A nation that can allow those faces to be painted as an image on its national aeroplanes has regressed into unimaginable irresponsibility. A nation that can paint those faces on death machines must be insane.

There, I have said it. I have tried to control my anti-Americanism, remembering the many Americans that I know and respect, but I can't keep it down any longer. I detest Disneyfication, I detest Coca-Cola, I detest burgers, I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history.

I detest American imperialism, American infantilism, and American triumphalism about victories it didn't even win.

On April 29, 2000, I switched on CNN in my hotel room and, by chance, saw an item designed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. The camera showed us a street scene in which a shabby elderly Vietnamese man was seen speaking English and bartering in dollars in a city that I took to be Ho Chi Minh City, still familiarly known in America by its old French colonial name of Saigon.

"The language of Shakespeare," the commentator intoned, "has conquered Vietnam." I did not note down the dialogue, though I can vouch for that sentence about the language of Shakespeare. But the word "dollar" was certainly repeated several times, and the implications of what the camera showed were clear enough.

The elderly Vietnamese man was impoverished, and he wanted hard currency. The Vietnamese had won the war, but had lost the peace.

Just leave Shakespeare and Shakespeare's homeland out of this squalid bit of revisionism, I thought at the time. Little did I then think that now, three years on, Shakespeare's country would have been dragged by our leader into this illegal, unjustifiable, aggressive war. We are all contaminated by it. Not in my name, I want to keep repeating, though I don't suppose anybody will listen.

America uses the word "democracy" as its battle cry, and its nervous soldiers gun down Iraqi civilians when they try to hold street demonstrations to protest against the invasion of their country. So much for democracy. (At least the British Army is better trained.) America is one of the few countries in the world that executes minors. Well, it doesn't really execute them - it just keeps them in jail for years and years until they are old enough to execute, and then it executes them. It administers drugs to mentally disturbed prisoners on Death Row until they are back in their right mind, and then it executes them, too.

They call this justice and the rule of law. America is holding more than 600 people in detention in Guantánamo Bay, indefinitely, and it may well hold them there for ever. Guantánamo Bay has become the Bastille of America. They call this serving the cause of democracy and freedom.

I keep writing to Jack Straw about the so-called "illegal combatants", including minors, who are detained there without charge or trial or access to lawyers, and I shall go on writing to him and his successors until something happens. This one-way correspondence may last my lifetime. I suppose the minors won't be minors for long, although the youngest of them is only 13, so in time I shall have to drop that part of my objection, but I shall continue to protest.

A great democratic nation cannot behave in this manner. But it does. I keep remembering those words from Nineteen Eighty-Four, on the dynamics of history at the end of history, when O'Brien tells Winston: "Always there will be the intoxication of power? Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever."

We have seen enough boots in the past few months to last us a lifetime. Iraqi boots, American boots, British boots. Enough of boots.

I hate feeling this hatred. I have to keep reminding myself that if Bush hadn't been (so narrowly) elected, we wouldn't be here, and none of this would have happened. There is another America. Long live the other America, and may this one pass away soon.

Thursday, 8th May, 2003

'Digital organisms' evolve complex functions in short steps

19:00 07 May 03
Will Knight
New Scientist

Computer programs designed to "evolve" solutions to mathematical problems support the idea that complexity in nature emerges in small, often apparently unremarkable, steps.

Complex biological organisms are thought to develop through a series of intermediary evolutionary adaptations, rather than in single giant evolutionary leaps.

Researchers at Michigan State University and California Institute of Technology in the US have now found that computer programs that use an evolutionary approach to tackle complex problems must follow the same rules if they are to evolve from simple beginnings.

"Our work allowed us to see how the most complex functions are built up from simpler and simpler functions," says Richard Lenski, a biologist at Michigan State University.

Charles Ofria, a computer scientist at Michigan State University, who was involved with the research, says it may help computer programmers make more efficient evolutionary algorithms.

"One of the beautiful aspects of this work is that it allows us to better understand how nature overcomes difficulties inherent in solving complex problems," he says. "We can then apply these concepts when trying to decide how best to solve computational problems we are faced with."

The researchers created populations of identical "digital organisms", using a computer modeling application called Avida.

At the start, each digital organism is incapable of performing a logical operation on input data. But with each replication, there was a 20 per cent chance of a random mutation in "offspring". This mutation altered the nature of the digital organism and in some cases resulted in one that could perform a logical operation.

Studies of more than 15,000 generations showed it was impossible for a digital organism to randomly evolve in a single step to be capable of performing a series of logical operations to turn a specified input into a specified output.

But the team then modified the experiment so that those digital organisms that randomly mutated to perform basic logical operations had a better chance of replicating further. Over time, as mutations built up, some eventually mutated to be capable of performing the multiple logical operations desired.

Evidence of a gradual biological evolutionary process is found in complex structures that retain features related to earlier evolutionary steps. The human eye, for example, contains crystalline proteins that are related to those that perform enzymatic functions unrelated to vision.

The researchers say their computer model will let biologists study individual evolutionary steps for the first time. "Darwinian evolution affects DNA and computer code in much the same way," says Christoph Adami, who leads the Digital Life Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. "This allows us to study evolution in this electronic medium."

Lenski adds that some mutations, which initially looked as if they would not be advantageous to an organism, turned out to be crucial stepping stones in the long run.

Journal Reference: Nature (vol 423, p 139)

'Digital organisms' evolve complex functions in short steps
logged by alf at 13:56, Thursday, 8th May, 2003

It's not in our nature to nurture

By Cary Tennis
May 9, 2003


To begin thinking about having kids I first asked myself, "Do you want kids?"

"No, not especially," I answered. "Do you?"

"No," I answered myself. "Me neither."

Being in agreement, we wrapped our arms around our knees in a Thorazine squat and rocked into a state of relative calm.

But what does that mean exactly, not to want kids? What does it feel like when I run my mind over the contour of an absence? Where is that place in the body where most people have a desire for children? I can't describe the absence; I only know what it feels like to really want something. I only know the things that on my deathbed I might regret not doing.

The novel. The book of poetry. The songs. The playing of music. The marrying of my wife. If I had not tried to do those things, I would wonder if I had missed out. They are small things, perhaps, when weighed against having children, but they are as dear to me as my own heartbeat, my own eyesight. There was no defining moment when my wife and I decided not to have kids. In fact, we have not ruled it out completely. What is notable, though, is the absence of that storied urgency. Each time we circled around the question, poked at it, tried to see honestly what we felt, each time, and there have been many, we came up strangely empty. That might sound uncomfortably literal, but what I mean is that there does seem to be a powerful wish, a yearning, for children, that most people who have them will tell you they have felt, and we don't have it. I know what it feels like to have a lifelong yearning for something. I have plenty of lifelong yearnings. But not for children.

We don't know what it means about us, but we accept it as true, and we trust it to mean that we should not avidly pursue parenthood. Perhaps it's a little like being gay: You're just this certain way and it doesn't feel strange to you but it's different from the way most people are. And you might be curious to have what they have, but you're not driven to strive for it. I can say only that it feels completely normal, except when we become small-minded and start comparing, when we weigh what we've got in our hearts against what they've got in their strollers.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

When I met her, my wife was on the pill, but her doctor told her she should discontinue it because she suffers from migraines. I came of age sexually before the advent of AIDS and had never become accustomed to using condoms. So my wife used the diaphragm, but after several years of the habitual pause in the proceedings that their use requires, we noticed that there was more going on in that moment than simply the mechanical preparation; something troubled us about our refusal to accept the possibilities nature offered; our practice of prophylaxis seemed, in a word, sterile. Although we didn't crave kids, we weren't terrified of the possibility either, and we began to feel that we were rather rigidly standing in the way of one of life's natural outcomes. We had never categorically and utterly ruled out becoming parents. And there was something else, some whiff of the mystical, in our decision to stop using birth control; it wasn't entirely rational or absolute. In a sense, it was mischievous, the way two kids will explore a vacant house, not because there's something in it that they want, but because it's just there and they're curious about what it would be like to walk around inside it.

We wanted not necessarily to try to have a child but to be open to the idea, to stop foreclosing on this potential within us. We became willing, at that point, to have a baby if that should occur. We knew, if it should happen, that we would respond to it as humans have for ages. But we were not attracted to the notion of trying to have a child. It was not something that, as though running a small manufacturing concern, we wanted to produce.

Nevertheless, with a certain giddy sense of revolution we opened ourselves to possibility. It felt virtuous. It felt like facing reality. It felt like we were in tune with some larger force.

But that excitement and sense of rightness soon faded for me. In its place came a subtle kind of dread. And into the previously carefree ritual of lovemaking crept a grave discipline of acceptance of the possible consequences. I have begun to wonder how I could summon a lifetime of daily parenting to sustain a moment's philosophical inspiration. Since deciding, in a sense, to perform without a net, we live with its lifelong consequences, even though they are as yet only hypothetical.

And this has begun to weigh on me; at least it was weighing on me until I found myself sobbing with grief and joy at the end of the film "25th Hour."

In "25th Hour" a young man has pushed his luck too far and is about to go to prison. But the movie shows us what it might be like if he got a chance to start over. His father, who has come to drive him to prison, could instead drive him out of the city and just keep driving. It would mean exile and a secretive life; he would have to resist contacting anyone from his past for years to come. But it at least would be a chance at freedom and a chance at a life. And someday in the future, his beautiful lover would join him, and they would raise a gaggle of children, and life would be beautiful.

And there I was, sobbing in the dark, because those children represented salvation, and the father's action represented mercy. It would be the ultimate act of fatherly devotion, of rescue and protection, for this father to rescue his son from complexity and fate and consequence, from all his sins, to put him in his car and drive him down highway after highway, past city and town, past corruption and temptation, past fate and irony and money and identity, past justice, beyond the system and the harsh hand of law, to say goodbye and good luck in a tiny anonymous town where maybe his son could get a job as a bartender and nobody would know his name. I found it deeply moving that the father, traditionally the upholder of laws, would defy his caste and side with his son against the state, that he would take him out of that world rather than see him suffer at the hands of a vengeful system. I came home shaken, thinking maybe we ought to make some kids, but my wife was asleep and the poodle was on my side of the bed.

What was it that had me sobbing in the dark? The crushing sense of so much sin, so many mistakes, so much guilt and regret, and the desire to start over, to be reborn. And who has not feared that he could not control or protect or rescue his progeny from their own foolish appetites and conceits but would have to stand mute in the convict-loud hallway of a penitentiary as the electric gate slammed shut between them?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

As I write, it is Easter morning before sunrise on the western edge of San Francisco and it is still dark outside. I awoke anxious about finishing this essay -- or was it my dream that woke me, or the dog at the foot of the stairs, barking because she was out of water? I filled her water bowl and looked out the window to the east and there was that big cross on Mount Davidson all lit up, another reminder of colored eggs and pastel dresses and Christian rebirth. Much as I disavow it, on this Easter morning 14 years and three days since my last drunken binge, that old demon of Christian longing is again at war with the mind's conceits and the body's doggy appetites; it's hard at work as always, tearing me apart. And as I write, the two dogs are scratching and licking, making that pornographic slurping sound. I am not filled with love for them at this moment, but annoyance. I think: If this is what it's like with dogs, just think...

Word has reached me that my father is unhappy that none of his four genetic children has produced an heir. He has never told me this. My wife says it's not something a parent says, that it's just something a child knows. To hear that he might have been silently hoping all this time while saying nothing is a little unnerving and a little sad. My dad always said, Be independent, do your own thing. I took him at his word and put 3,000 miles between us. And now that he is 80 the terms of our pact of protection have been reversed. It is my turn to look after him. But from this distance I cannot look after him. That makes it all the more troubling that I may have let him down by doing what he suggested.

But absent any strong prodding from my family, I simply have not been driven to have kids. And again I find myself asking, Why is that? Why am I not drawn to become a nuclear chieftain, king of some clapboard castle, happy monarch over a freckled brood? Why can't I picture myself as a father? Is it because the picture I have of a father is an unhappy one? Is it because of lingering resentment, a desire to refuse my own father's most secret but deepest of wishes? Is it my own wish not to repeat the strange, unaccountable bleakness of my childhood? A self-protectiveness toward unhealed wounds? Or am I concerned that a child of mine just might treat me as badly as I have treated my own father, wavering in my fund of genuine affection, accepting his generosity with thin gratitude, abandoning him in his old age?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

In a recent e-mail exchange, a letter writer pointed out that the reason genetic paternity matters to many men is that fathering a child represents a bid for immortality. While I don't thirst for immortality through reproduction, I do thirst for it through creative acts. Still, it's all rather silly. Once you're dead, you won't care whether a curious reader fingers a volume of your poetry or a great-great-grandchild stares at your portrait and wonders who you were.

When you think about where you come from it's really quite amazing: Some knobby fish-eating proto-Welshman sharpening a crab spear on the pebbly shore of Cardigan Bay spies a budding weaver girl cracking open clams for her father in a stone hut's shady lee and takes her in the nearby heath. That happens a thousand times and then it's your turn.

At any rate, it looks like the buck stops here, with me and my siblings. I have an older half-brother, who has reproduced prodigiously, but we other four, by my father, remain childless and getting on in years. So my father's ancient line, thousands upon thousands of years of apelike Homo erectus finally getting it right as Homo sapiens, begotten in all manner of coupling both foul and sweet, in tender love and brutal rape, in the most casual of dalliances and the most devoted of lives lived together, it looks as if that whole genetic "Rashomon" movie is coming to a halt.

But do I hear a cosmic voice saying, "Accept the compliment and pay it forward"? No, all I hear is a little voice that says, Finish the novel. And for all I know, that's my agent's voice.

I have so much to do, so much to learn, and so little time. I am far from knowing how to live. I take comfort only in knowing that if a child should ask me, "How shall I live?" I can always reply, "I don't know. Go ask your parents."

Cary Tennis is the copy chief and a staff writer at Salon, and he gives interesting advice.

It's not in our nature to nurture
logged by alf at 11:41, Thursday, 8th May, 2003

The Unconquerable World

by Jonathan Schell
6 May 2003
The Nation

Violence, Hannah Arendt said, destroys power. The United States is moving quickly down this path. Does the American leadership today imagine that the people of the world, having overthrown the great territorial empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are ready to bend the knee to an American overlord in the twenty-first? Do they imagine that allies are willing to become subordinates? Have they forgotten that people hate to be dominated by force? History is packed with surprises, some of them appalling. The leaders of the totalitarian Soviet empire somehow had the good sense in the late twentieth century to yield up their power without unleashing the tremendous violence that was at their fingertips. Could it be the destiny of the American republic, unable to resist the allure of an imperial delusion, to flare out in the twenty-first in a blaze of pointless mass destruction?

Violence is the means, as all dictators have known, whereby the few dominate and exploit the many. Nonviolence is the means by which the many can reclaim their rights and advance their interests. Peace begins, someone has said, when the hungry are fed. It is equally true
that the hungry will be fed when peace begins. Equality and nonviolence--peace and justice--are inextricably linked, and neither can flourish in the absence of the other. Peace, social justice and defense of the environment are a triad to pit against the imperial triad of war, economic exploitation and environmental exploitation.

The idea that power is born out of action in concert had not gone unnoticed in political thought. Burke summed it up in a sentence when he said, "Freedom, when men act in concert, is power." Tocqueville said much the same in his analysis of the vibrant civil society he witnessed in the United States in the 1830s. "There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining," he asserted, "through the combined power of individuals united into a society." Referring to the "power of meeting," he remarked, "Democracy does not confer the most skillful kind of government upon the people, but it produces that which the most skillful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits."

The twentieth century produced the most extreme violence that the human species has ever visited upon itself. It was natural--indeed, it was a necessity--that, in different ways, people would react against it, would seek ways to overcome it, to escape it, to go around it, to replace it. In earlier times, violence had been seen as the last resort, when all else had failed. "Hallowed are those arms where no hope exists but in them," Livy had written. But in the twentieth century, a new problem forced itself on the human mind: What was the resort when that last resort had bankrupted itself? Was there a resort beyond the "final" resort? Nuclear deterrence and people's war were two groping, improvised, incomplete attempts to find answers to this question.

Rejecting a choice between accommodation and violent, all-or-nothing revolution, the Eastern Europeans decided upon the incremental pursuit of revolutionary ends with peaceful, reformist means. Acting on the basis of common principles yet without any blueprint--"in cooperation without unification," in the phrase of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu--they pooled the variegated forces of society to achieve a radical renewal of their political lives. A revolution against violence in the world at large would, in imitation of this procedure, not be the realization of any single plan drawn up by any one person or council but would develop, like open software, as the common creation of any and all comers, acting at every political level, within as well as outside of government, on the basis of common principles.

The larger question, facing not just the United States but any country that might be eager to establish an empire, is whether the connection between military and political power--snapped by the world revolt of the twentieth century--can be restored. Does power still flow from the barrel of a gun or a B-2 bomber? Can the world in the twenty-first century really be ruled from 35,000 feet? Can cruise missiles build nations? Modern peoples have the will to resist and the means to do so. Force can confer a temporary advantage, but politics is destiny.

Jonathan Schell, The Nation's peace and disarmament correspondent, is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute and the author, most recently, of the just-published The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (Metropolitan).

The Unconquerable World
logged by alf at 11:04, Thursday, 8th May, 2003

Wednesday, 7th May, 2003

War, oligarchy and the political lie

by David North, 7 May 2003

The mass media was enthralled by Powell's UN performance, proclaiming unanimously that he had presented an irrefutable indictment of the Iraqi regime. The most politically significant response came from its liberal segment, which seized upon the opportunity provided by Powell to fall completely in line with the war plans of the Bush administration.

It must be stressed that the mass media was not duped by the Bush administration, but functioned as its willing accomplice in the deliberate deception of the American people. There was nothing that was particularly sophisticated in the government's propaganda campaign. Much of what it said was contradicted by both established facts and elementary logic. Even when it was established that the administration's claim that Iraq had sought to obtain nuclear material was based on crudely forged documents, the media chose not to make a major issue of this devastating exposure.


There has never been a golden age in American politics. The last genuinely and indisputably honorable administration in the history of the United States, wholly and unequivocally devoted to the highest democratic ideals, was that of Abraham Lincoln. And yet, a portrayal of modern American history as one vast and unending reactionary saga would be caricature of reality.

Even within the framework of bourgeois politics, there have been not a few periods of momentous social struggles, in which democratic and egalitarian sentiments reverberated throughout broad strata of society. These sentiments found reflection even within the media, whose owners were still obliged to recruit at least some of their writers, broadcasters and editors from sections of the middle class who were sincere in their commitment to democratic principles.

A generation ago it was still possible to find reporters and editors who actually believed that government lying should be exposed and condemned. The term "credibility gap" - referring to the chasm between the claims made by the Johnson administration to justify American involvement in Vietnam and the historical, political and social truths of that conflict - was so widely popularized by the media in the 1960s that it became a household phrase. A decade later, the lies of the Nixon administration = already shaken by the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times - culminated in the eruption of the Watergate scandal that forced the resignation of a criminal president.

Now, it is apparent that the administration has lied grossly and openly to the American people and the entire world to justify the launching of a war that was, in any event, in violation of international law.

But the exposure of this massive political lie does not produce condemnation, but new and even more insolent justifications in the media.

We are dealing here with a serious political and social phenomenon that needs to be analyzed and explained. This situation is telling the American people something important and very disturbing about the nature of the society in which they are living.

First, let us consider the objective significance of the political lie. It must be considered not as a moral problem, but rather as a social phenomenon. The lie is a manifestation of contradictions within society. When an individual lies, he does so to bridge or cover over the chasm between his personal interests and accepted social norms. The lie, in this sense, arises out of the inherent conflict between the individual and society. The extent, depth and acuteness of that conflict will determine the scope and severity of the lie?whether it assumes the form of a relatively benign and good-humored "white lie" or the more distressing form of perjured testimony.

The lies told by a government are also the manifestations of contradictions - not those between the individual and society, but between social classes. In the final analysis, the state is an instrument of coercion that serves and protects the interests of the dominant class within society - that is, the capitalist class. But in a bourgeois democracy, that coercive role is mediated and to some considerable extent concealed by the elaborate political and legal superstructure that allows the state to appear as a more or less impartial arbiter of diverse class and social interests - serving the nation as a whole. The legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the broad mass of the population depends upon it being viewed in precisely this way - as the democratically elected representative of the people as a whole.

As long as economic and political conditions permit and even favor a policy of class compromise, the democratic illusion is preserved - and the political lies of the state are kept within certain acceptable bounds. But in periods of increasingly acute social tensions, when the interests of social classes diverge ever more dramatically, the essential role of the state as an instrument of class rule tends more and more to erode the democratic veneer. It is precisely in such periods that the lies of the state assume an ever more blatant and odious character. That is, the function of the lie is to cover over the widening chasm between the interests of the ruling elite that controls the state and the broad mass of the population.

The weapons of mass destruction campaign rose organically out of the need of the ruling elite to conceal from the broad mass of the American people the rapacious class interests that underlay the drive for war.


As the coincidence between the interests of the oligarchy that controls the state and the broad mass of the people becomes increasingly tenuous, lies play a critical role in the daily manipulation of popular consciousness and the concoction of what is palmed off in the media as "public opinion." Temporary and short-term successes may be achieved on this basis. But the longer-term result of this daily process of manipulation and deception is the irreparable alienation of the people from official politics.

This alienation initially assumes a form that the superficial observer mistakes for indifference and apathy. But beneath the surface of official politics a complex social and intellectual process is at work. The pressures of everyday life are slowly but surely having their impact on mass consciousness.

War, oligarchy and the political lie
logged by alf at 19:07, Wednesday, 7th May, 2003

Tuesday, 6th May, 2003

My Country: The World

by Howard Zinn
Monday May 5 2003

Our government has declared a military victory in Iraq. As a patriot, I will not celebrate. I will mourn the dead -- the American GIs, and also the Iraqi dead, of which there have been many, many more.

I will mourn the Iraqi children, not just those who are dead, but those who have been be blinded, crippled, disfigured, or traumatized, like the bombed children of Afghanistan who, as reported by American visitors, lost their power of speech. The American media has not given us a full picture of the human suffering caused by our bombing; for that, we need to read the foreign press.

We will get precise figures for the American dead, but not for the Iraqis. Recall Colin Powell after the first Gulf War, when he reported the "small" number of U.S. dead, and when asked about the Iraqi dead, Powell replied: "That is really not a matter I am terribly interested in."

As a patriot, contemplating the dead GIs, should I comfort myself (as, understandably, their families do) with the thought: "They died for their country." If so, I would be lying to myself. Those who die in this war will not die for their country. They will die for their government. They will die for Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. And yes, they will die for the greed of the oil cartels, for the expansion of the American empire, for the political ambitions of the President. They will die to cover up the theft of the nation's wealth to pay for the machines of death.

The distinction between dying for our country and dying for your government is crucial in understanding what I believe to be the definition of patriotism in a democracy.

According to the Declaration of Independence -- the fundamental document of democracy -- governments are artificial creations, established by the people, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed", and charged by the people to ensure the equal right of all to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Furthermore, as the Declaration says, "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."

When a government recklessly expends the lives of its young for crass motives of profit and power (always claiming that its motives are pure and moral ("Operation Just Cause" was the invasion of Panama and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" in the present instance) it is violating its promise to the country. It is the country that is primary -- the people, the ideals of the sanctity of human life and the promotion of liberty. War is almost always a breaking of those promises (although one might find rare instances of true self defense). It does not enable the pursuit of happiness, but brings despair and grief.

With the war in Iraq won, shall we revel in American military power and, against the history of modern empires, insist that the American empire will be beneficent?

The American record does not justify confidence in its boast that it will bring democracy to Iraq. Should Americans welcome the expansion of the nation's power, with the anger this has generated among so many people in the world? Should we welcome the huge growth of the military budget at the expense of health, education, the needs of children, one fifth of whom grow up in poverty?

I suggest that a patriotic American who cares for his country might act on behalf of a different vision. Instead of being feared for our military prowess, we should want to be respected for our dedication to human rights.

Should we not begin to redefine patriotism? We need to expand it beyond that narrow nationalism which has caused so much death and suffering. If national boundaries should not be obstacles to trade -- we call it globalization -- should they also not be obstacles to compassion and generosity?

Should we not begin to consider all children, everywhere, as our own? In that case, war, which in our time is always an assault on children, would be unacceptable as a solution to the problems of the world. Human ingenuity would have to search for other ways.

Tom Paine used the word "patriot" to describe the rebels resisting imperial rule. He also enlarged the idea of patriotism when he said: "My country is the world. My countrymen are mankind."

(Howard Zinn is an historian and author of A People's History of the United States.)

My Country: The World
logged by alf at 14:58, Tuesday, 6th May, 2003


Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why then should we desire to be deceived?

- Bishop Joseph Butler, Sermon VII--On the Character of Balaam

logged by alf at 11:56, Tuesday, 6th May, 2003

Friday, 2nd May, 2003

Weapons of mass distortion

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Friday May 2, 2003
The Guardian

If the first casualty of war is truth, then language itself sustains the heaviest collateral damage, as Orwell used to point out (before "collateral damage" proved his point by entering the vocabulary of poisonous euphemism). The Iraq war has produced its own rich crop of Newspeak, but the choicest of all is the phrase "weapons of mass destruction".
Even the most credulous supporters of Tony Blair's war are beginning to see they were sold a pup. MPs angrily demand evidence of the WMDs, which they, in their innocence, believed were the reason for the war, rather than its flimsy pretext, while the prime minister insists that WMDs will be found.

But what are they anyway? The very phrase "weapons of mass destruction" is of recent coinage, and a specious one. It replaced "ABC weapons", for atomic, biological and chemical, which was neater, although already misleading as it conflated types of weaponry quite different in kind and in destructive capacity. WMD is even more empty and dishonest as a concept.

By definition atomic and hydrogen bombs cause mass destruction. Ever since they were first built and used in war (by the US, in case anyone has forgotten), they have cast a peculiar thrall of horror, although this is not entirely logical. The quarter-million dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been preceded by nearly a million German and Japanese civilians killed by "conventional" bombing, whose conventionality was small consolation for the victims.

Even supposing that nuclear weapons are uniquely horrible, the Iraq war and its aftermath have only served to confirm what Hans Blix learned, and what the International Institute for Strategic Studies said last summer: that Saddam had no fissile material to build atomic warheads. Nor did he have (for all the shockingly mendacious propaganda) the wherewithal for acquiring such material. Had he possessed warheads, he never had the means of striking London, let alone New York. And if he had ever been tempted to lob one at Israel, he would have been constrained by the certain knowledge that Baghdad would have been nuked minutes later.

Certainly he possessed the biological and chemical material in ABC, although here again the "W" in WMD is notably misleading: "weaponised" was just what this material was not, a fact which makes the pretext for war even more phoney. And certainly Saddam had used biological and chemical weapons against Iran as well as the Kurds. Very nasty they are, but that does not make them mass-destructive in the same sense as nuclear warheads.

A height of absurdity was reached with the claim that one of Saddam's WMDs was mustard gas - a weapon we were using in 1917, and which British politicians at the time defended as comparatively humane beside high-explosive artillery and machine-gun fire.

Even terrorism isn't always more dangerous because of access to toxic substances, and doesn't need a dictator like Saddam to provide them anyway. Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman have written about biological and chemical weapons in their book, A Higher Form of Killing. Harris has pointed out that "a reasonably competent chemist could produce nerve agent on a kitchen table".

In 1995, a terrorist religious cult in Japan did just that, thereby providing an illuminating comparison. Those cultists released sarin nerve gas - another of Saddam's alleged WMDs - into the Tokyo metro during rush hour. Last February in the South Korean city of Daegu, an underground train was attacked, with a milk carton containing inflammable liquid. Twelve people died in the "WMD" attack; old-fashioned arson killed 120.

Soon after September 11, a number of letters containing anthrax spores were posted in America. In the overwrought climate of the moment, it was claimed that this batch of "WMD" could kill the American population many times over, and that may have been true according to some abstract calculation. In the event, five people died.

While terrorism is murderous, it mostly remains technologically primitive. Three people were killed in Tel Aviv on Tuesday by a suicide bomber's belt of explosive and metal scraps, and the IRA have shown how bloodthirsty "spectaculars" can be mounted with nothing more than fertiliser, sugar, and condoms for the timers.

As for the greatest spectacular of all, Blair has repeatedly linked September 11 with the threat of WMDs. But the 3,000 victims in New York weren't killed by WMDs of any kind, they were murdered by a dozen fanatics armed with box cutters. Although it has been irritating subsequently to have the contents of one's sponge bag confiscated at the airport in the name of security, that scarcely makes a pair of nail scissors a WMD.

The truth is that "weapons of mass destruction" is a concept defined by the person using it. "I like a drink, you are a drunk, he is an alcoholic," runs the old conjugation. Now there's another: "We have defence forces, you have dangerous arms, he has weapons of mass destruction." As usual, it depends who you are.

Weapons of mass distortion
logged by alf at 15:06, Friday, 2nd May, 2003

Life after Man: Interview with M. Atwood

Blue penises and plague, "pigoons" harvested for organs and armed guards at the gates of privileged scientists. This is the near future conjured up by novelist Margaret Atwood in her new book Oryx and Crake. All of this is already possible, she says, in our world where the biosphere is degraded and wars are fought over resources. But what if we used our knowledge to break the cycle by re-engineering humanity? Would the price of a hard-wired, gentler culture be too high? In London for the premiere of the opera of her book The Handmaid's Tale, she spoke to Eleanor Case and Maggie McDonald

You taught Kafka to engineers in British Columbia. Why?

Kafka's parables often have a conundrum embedded in them. The engineers liked the puzzle aspect. Also the parables are often just a couple of paragraphs long, so I got them to write down conundrums. It was something that interested them and that they could do, whereas if I had asked them to write a Shakespearean sonnet we would have been in a lot more trouble. Conundrums appeal to the problem-solving mind. A lot of them are insoluble, of course, but they could then express their own insoluble problems or their own recombination of the world. Because what is engineering, anyway? It is putting together elements to make a construction that works.

How rich a field is science for novelists?

A lot of writers don't know anything about science and they don't really care about it. It is more common to find biologists who are literate than it is to find literary people who are biologically inclined. It's not that scientists don't read books, it is often that writers cannot speak or read the language of science at all.

People are a lot more aware of science than they once were. It used to be considered really weird, and all those mad scientist stories stem from that. And it's partly the fear of the unknown. What drives our choices and our decisions is not cold, hard reason: it is the emotional predilections of the human being. We ought to pay attention to those because it is fear and desire that drive the world. Knowledge is just something that helps us do it.

What do you make of science fiction?

A lot of science fiction is fantasy. It's people flying around on dragons, other worlds of strange life forms. Some of them are quite well thought through, they know what the strange creatures eat, they know that life could be sustainable. Others are just having fun.

Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do it. We've taken a path that is already visible to us. In 1984 and Brave New World, you could see all the elements that were farther down that particular path. I don't like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom.

It's clear you keep a close eye on science. Where do you get your information from?

I've accumulated it. I also have something called "the brown box". Once I had started writing this book I clipped everything that took my fancy and put it in the brown box. But all you have to do is look at an atlas. The sea level, the melting glaciers, how far the sea will rise - that's all over the place. None of this information is hidden in some vault somewhere. Also my brother is a biologist and his son is a physicist and the other son is a materials engineer specialising in crystal-modelling computers. My father was an entomologist. My sister-in-law also trained as a biologist but is currently a ceramicist. I have to keep up my end at the Christmas family dinner party - recently we've been doing intestinal parasites, much to the distress of other members of our family.

Why did you write Oryx and Crake now?

I was sitting on the balcony of Cassowary House in a nature reserve in northern Queensland, Australia, watching the red-necked crake, a species which is not very numerous. Australia is a place of mini systems. If you destroy that little bit of habitat then the species dies. That's when I started writing it but I had years of background information. Oryx and Crake, like The Handmaid's Tale, is based on certain axioms. One axiom is that the glaciers are indeed melting, the North is indeed getting warmer. Nobody really knows what is going on up there, but I can tell you from first-hand observation that the glaciers are receding and that people are very worried because the polar bear is threatened. I postulate global warming. I postulate that unless North America does something about its environmental laws, the aquifers will be depleted, groundwater will seep in and they'll become contaminated. And if you over-irrigate, you salinate the land - that's happening in California now. That's why everybody in this book is eating soya. We don't even know whether it's real soya.

People may think that these developments are not going to affect them but we saw the collapse of the cod fishery within the past 20 years. Bang. Gone. The model before that was the passenger pigeon. Everyone thought that they were so numerous, they would never run out. You can't think that about anything anymore, except possibly viruses. Speaking of which, people have asked me if SARS is my fictional killer disease made real. I say no, this is not it.

How close is your speculative fiction to today's science?

The goat spider is real, the multiple-organ pig is real. They haven't, as far as I know, yet implanted cortical tissue in a pig, as I have scientists do in the novel, but I am sure that will come. And the question is whether that is intrinsically bad. The answer is, of course not. I would say 80 per cent of inventions are beneficial. We're going to have to depend on a lot of them before we can get out of this.

Privatisation and ownership are key issues in the book, too?

Yes. I also postulate what is already happening: public space has been more or less given up for lost. Security is now a matter of gated communities. Instead of having people living in one place and commuting, which has now become too unsafe, in the book they've got the mall within the walls, like castles. Corporations want to prevent knowledge theft and raiding, because everything is now completely commercialised. That means the profit motive is the only motive. There is no more pure science, but if you've looked at a university recently you know that the people who get the grants are the people that large corporations think might be doing something useful for them. What you have mostly is people thieving from graduate students, as it were. The students do the work, the guy puts his name on it and collects the rewards, but not in my book. Things are better in some respects: if the students invent something, they get to collect on it, which makes them very inventive.

Your engineered species, the Crakers, think in the short term, just like humans.

We're hard-wired for short-termism, like any species, because if you don't solve any short-term problem, you're not going to be alive. Shall I cross the street? Maybe not, maybe I'll wait until I won't get run over. That's short-term thinking. It's fast.

Are we humans capable of taking long-term decisions?

I think that we're still quite capable of doing that. But where is the political will? Who's going to run a campaign on it? Is it sexy enough? It will shortly become so, in my view. E. O. Wilson has been saying this. Between the times he started saying these things and campaigning, and now there has been a seismic shift. When he first started people were ignoring him or laughing at him. Now they're saying, wait a minute, we've got to do something. There was a huge palaver in Canada about whether global warming was true or not. Well, all the people who said it wasn't have now been disproved. Nobody is now saying there isn't any warming. They are saying they don't know whether it's due to people or not, maybe it's just part of a natural cycle. In tens of thousands of years, if we keep going the way we're going, we're not going to be here, certainly not in the form we're in now. Nature will be here. It's just a question of whether we want people to be around to observe it, and whether we want nature to be all cockroaches, dandelions and rats, or maybe a bit more variety.

What can be done?

Major desalinators are needed now. Some cookie needs to invent that, do everybody a favour. Is it intrinsically wrong to want a new scheme? No, it has been part of humankind's dream since the year dot to find out what we really want. You just go back and look at mythology because it's all there: eternal youth, lots of money, beauty and power.

The Crakers barely seem to have a language. Is language important?

They don't have a lot of language: there are things that they don't need language for.

Are they poorer or richer for that?

We don't know. We don't know how they feel.

If some cultural traits were hard-wired, can you have things like free will?

The Crakers are starting to have free will by the end of the book. They are already doing art, which they aren't supposed to have been able to do, and developing a religion. Not the type that the designer of this world, Crake, or his best friend, Jimmy, may have wished, but nonetheless a religion it is.

So no matter how intelligent the designer is, the design escapes the designer?

I think so. And there are some things Crake couldn't design out. He couldn't get rid of music and he couldn't get rid of dreams. The Crakers are not idiots, by the way. I'd call them clever primates. But they're more than that, they have no need for things that take up quite a bit of our time. When you remove those needs you also remove the cultural forms that supply those needs. For instance, they don't need textiles so no big fields of cotton, no slaves. They don't need to grow clothing and they don't need to kill animals for skins. They're vegetarian. They are more vegetarian than anybody because they eat leaves so they don't have to have agriculture, which causes work, and that causes accumulation of goods and therefore social inequality because some people accumulate more than others and some people get to be bosses over others. My model is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, brilliant book. Of course, you have to have a digestive system that could handle eating leaves, and I added a rabbit-like function - they can eat their own dung.

What about sex?

The Crakers are not monogamous and they're not sexually active all the time. They come into season just like other primates. There was a very nice piece about the gelada monkeys of Ethiopia in National Geographic that I came upon after I'd finished Oryx and Crake. The males have a pink patch on their chest. When they acquire a harem of four females, who choose them, not the other way around, the pink patch becomes red. So a number of primates have these patches on them, these little bits that show you what is going on. I think that would be very useful.

What is the one thing that you'd like scientists to take with them from your book?

I'm not so worried about the scientists as everybody else. The scientists, if they're life scientists, already know all of this. They may not know what to do because they may not have the money, but they certainly know the area. The physicists may not have focused on it or been very interested in it. But it would be the general voting public that I would be more concerned about, more particularly that they should start paying attention to preserving their biosphere. If I lived in Britain, I would be a big fan of the Hedgerow Society. If you want to plough right out to the edge, you shouldn't do it. We've just got a little field on an island in the middle of Lake Erie in Canada. We're donating it to become an experimental organic farm. The big wave of the future is back to organics. It has to go that way.

Life after Man: Interview with M. Atwood
logged by alf at 12:51, Friday, 2nd May, 2003

the language of angels

Eloquence may well be the most misunderstand characteristic of leadership. It is not, as many believe, a talent that can be mastered by good coaching, nor is it something that comes naturally to some people while resisting the best efforts of others. Eloquent presidents, rather, are those who perceive a need the public does not even know it has and find the right words to address it. Eloquence is the opposite of both manipulation and demagoguery. The manipulative leader perceives correctly what people really need and then tries to persuade them that they need something else. And the demagogue takes the needs people are persuaded they have and reinforces them, even when people's perceptions of their own needs are incorrect; demagoguery flatters, while eloquence elevates. Presidents who manifest eloquence intuitively understand what people would choose when they are guided by what our most eloquent (and without doubt our greatest) president, Abraham Lincoln, called the "better angels of our nature."


President Bush's neglect of the tutorial function of the presidency helps explain his much-noted lack of eloquence. Mispronunciations and Texas speech patterns have nothing to do with Bush's failings in the realm of words. The president cannot speak to a deeper need unrecognized by his fellow Americans because the only need recognized by his political philosophy is self-interest narrowly understood. Fully cognizant of how ignoble his objectives would appear if stated in truthful terms, he therefore has little choice but to obfuscate, and obfuscation can never be transformed into eloquence. If the president's speeches so often fail to move, it is because he has not offered anything worth moving for; you simply do not rise to the heights of greatness by calling for the elimination of taxes on dividends. The wealthy he wishes to reward are too interested in lining their pockets to care whether angels, better or otherwise, are watching what they do.


the language of angels
logged by alf at 11:54, Friday, 2nd May, 2003