Notes On The News
By Gwydion M Williams
Lebanon: “people power” annoys the people
Join the army and be loathed by all the world!
Star Trek: Ending With A Whimper
The Sistani Tsunami [Iraq elections]
In the recent election, one voter in seven voted for parties that shared the USA’s vision for Iraq. And that’s just those who voted: the Sunni-Arab fifth of Iraq kept out of it and is still fighting.
The US created a peculiar system whereby the whole country was treated as a single gigantic constituency that then elects ‘party lists’. This meant that every vote has to be counted and confirmed before any result is valid. (Interestingly, I know of just one other country that uses this peculiar system – Israel.)
It was a system wide open to abuse, and I doubt that was accidental. In Florida in the 2000 election, it was improbably high votes in a mostly-Jewish district for an eccentric right-winger that alerted people to the infamous ‘butterfly ballot’ that gave Bush victory on the basis of voter error. Without regional results, fraud is much harder to prove.
It was also horribly unsuited to the region. You can find more diversity in 10 square miles of Iraq than in all of the USA, but the election system treated them as a single mass. As it happened, the ‘Sistani tsunami’ was to big to magic away. But I’m sure the intent was there when the peculiar system was designed.
Democracy needs a demos, a body of people who think alike. Iraq has several rival systems, all overlapping with each other. The Shia are a big enough mass to impose their will on the rest, or to make Iraq utterly ungovernable if they are blocked.
At the time of writing, it remains uncertain just what the new government will be like. It is likely to be a government by people who’ve never had power before, and that will be a big event in itself. It will be dominated by Islamist values, but maybe Islamism applied with some moderation. Maybe they’ll be something like the Nigerian system, whereby Islamic Law applies or does not apply at the level of the 18 provinces. And if any province could be autonomous, that would make three little Kurdistans and one mixed region. The Kurds are anyway split between two party/tribal groupings, one of which dominates two provinces and the other the third.
Kurds and Religious Shia have a common interest in easing the US out and running bits and pieces of Iraq in their own distinctive way. I think that’s the way it will go. The voters were expecting change and there will be trouble if they don’t get it.
[What actually happened was sectarian fighting and the separation into ethnic blocks of what had been mixed communities of Shia and Sunni Arabs. Followed more recently by the rise of the so-called Islamic State among Sunni Arabs The elected government is Shia-Religious and a close ally of Iran.]
Flight Of The Vulture [Ambassador Negroponte and Iraq]
I found it significant that as it was becoming clear how the election had gone in Iraq, Ambassador Negroponte suddenly got a new job as the first director of national intelligence
“Bush said that Negroponte would be his principal adviser on intelligence issues and would have authority over the budgets of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies…
“The day before, [Senator Jay] Rockefeller had criticized Bush for taking so long to name a director.
“’Two months have now passed since the bill signing ceremony, and the position of director of national intelligence remains vacant, not even a person nominated. To me, this is unacceptable,’” he said Wednesday at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.” ([http://edition.cnn.com/2005/ALLPOLITICS/02/17/intelligence.chief/index.html])
It would very foolish move if the US had a real prospect of keeping control. I suspect that Bush knows that there is no such prospect. Maybe even Negroponte told him; realised that there was no possibility of usefully repeating in Iraq what was done in Central America. Death Squads don’t work very well against Suicide Bombers, especially when your only local ‘friends’ are hiding behind you and not really in control of anything.
Such a situation would be a good reason to give Negroponte a top job that Bush had been mysteriously leaving open up until now. And it also gets him out of a losing situation, when a serious Iraqi government would be bound to ask for his removal.
Lebanon: “people power” annoys the people
“Syria’s supporters in Lebanon struck back against the “cedar revolution” yesterday with a show of strength which easily dwarfed anything their opponents have been able muster.
“They drove into Beirut throughout the morning in cars waving Lebanese flags and battered buses decorated with pictures of the Syrian-backed president.” (Financial Times, 7th March).
“Trying to estimate the number was futile, but half a million would be plausible and a million not unbelievable…
“The anti-Syrian protesters who have attracted worldwide attention are mostly Christians, plus Sunni Muslims and Druze, and they are generally from the better-off sections of Lebanese society. Yesterday’s masses were overwhelmingly the poorer – and historically downtrodden – Shia, who form 40% of the population. (Guardian, March 9th)
The US attempted to use “Ready-mix People Power”, in a way that worked in Serbia and Ukraine. The assassination of a man that the Syrians had no particular reason to kill was the excuse. But the US ignored the Lebanese majority, religious-minded people for whom the USA and Israel are the big foes, Syria a useful neighbour which stopped the destructive Civil War of 1976-1990. And it is not as if the situation was static:
“Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has addressed parliament and said his country’s troops will first withdraw to the Bekkaa Valley before redeploying along the border with Lebanon… “We started the withdrawal in 2000, and pulled back almost 60% of our troops. The number was 40,000 and at present there are only 14,000,” he said.” (Aljazeera, 05 March)
The USA has also been calling for ‘free elections’. Which Lebanon has always had, and which never did anything more than re-enforce communal divisions. Lebanon exists, only because the French wanted an enclave that the Maronite Christians could dominate. But they included too much that was not Christian, so that the state fell into chaos until Syria restored some sort of order.
Join the army and be loathed by all the world! [Britain in Iraq]
Britain doesn’t actually need an army: no one would invade us regardless. The excuse has been that they are needed for ‘humanitarian intervention’. An excuse that has now been busted by the mess-up in Iraq.
Things are maybe worse for the military in the USA. The British military has not yet lost its roots among the British working class, but in the US it become a career for the ‘underclass’, mostly people who were not expecting to fight. The military has also been pulling back people who thought they’d retired and made new lives for themselves.
I’m sure the US would like to invade Iran, and Syria also. But they are already badly overstretched in Iraq. Fortunately for the world, dreams of empire cannot be pursued without a mass of people willing to ‘give their bodies as a weapon to the war’. And even in the ‘underclass’, most US citizens value their bodies more highly than that.
A few weeks back, we had reports of ” tests on cocaine on the toilet seats of various clubs”
Just what have the cokeheads been up to? Regardless, it was a call for the police to do more about drugs, not just among poor weak people but also among prosperous ‘clubbers’ with important well-paid jobs.
We also had someone called Garry Sutton saying that drugs are “something which has become normal for many people”. True enough, but they also remain abnormal for rather more people. One or other opinion will collapse in the long run—and I’d take no bets on ‘prohibition’ failing, not if ordinary users are targeted. There will always be an unlimited supply of minor crooks and semi-crooks who will expand into the drugs market if existing dealers are removed. Ordinary customers, though, they can be pressured into consuming less, or even giving up.
Another restriction on liberty? I don’t see it so. Most people on drugs don’t actually have the liberty to come off them. The creative surge of the 1960s began without much drug-use, and it may have been ideas of ‘expanded consciousness’ that helped cut the process short. Myself, I knew enough biology to feel respectful towards my own brain chemistry. I know roughly what alcohol will do to my system—among other things, you sound stupid when you are being stupid. When you sober up you know you’d switched off the critical judgemental part of yourself, not expanded to anything bigger. That’s alcohol: other sorts of drugs have a much greater potential to deceive, to offer a chemical short-cut to something you ought to be developing by long and hard cultivation of your own mind. And I always had a feeling the drugs had a lot to do with the rise of the New Right.
Star Trek: Ending With A Whimper
Star Trek helped define the 1960s. It looks quaint and silly now, but there was the classic episode with two alien enemies who were each black on one side and white on the other. (White or black on opposite sides, which is why they were enemies.) It got rather closer to US reality when it ventured the first inter-racial kiss on US television (in an otherwise dull episode called Plato’s Stepchildren, in which none of the characters had the same interests as the actual historical Plato).
It was radical for its time, but that time has past. Lieutenant Uhura – one half along with Kirk of the famous inter-racial kiss – was called ‘communications officer’. What she did mostly was sit around in a miniskirt and act as Kirk’s receptionist. Nichelle Nicoles could have done much better, given the sort of part actresses get nowadays; her book Beyond Uhura is well worth reading. But where she went, others have since gone beyond, and she was an inspiration.
Star Trek had two good seasons, and then a third season of tatty plots after a fan protest saved them from being scrapped. In 1969, it deservedly died.
(There was also a cartoon series that apparently had some quite good plots. But even most die-hard fans ignore it.)
Star Trek was unexpectedly revived in 1987 with Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had seven good seasons and spun off one good film, First Contract, along with three more that were not so good. It also generated two parallel series, set in the same era of future-history. Voyager was as good as Next Generation and Deep Space Nine maybe better; but suffered from the fact that they didn’t flatter US prejudices quite as much, and so never got a big enough audience.
And then came Enterprise, later repackaged as Star Trek: Enterprise. This began with a good idea, a much more primitive spacecraft set in the era before the original series. But it was always rather gloomy, with none of the brightness and confidence of the original. It was as if US consciousness had split between gloomy ‘post-Liberals’ and the bright colours and sleazy values of the Simpsons. Which I’ve tried watching a few times, and been repelled each time. Most people are not such rubbish: and if the USA is following the USSR into disintegration, that’s no bad thing.
Season Four of Enterprise, I’ve just begun to watch on the UK’s Sky One. It is expected to be the end of the show, which kept only half of the audience it began with. Plots have seldom been clever, and there were few cases of interesting ethical conflicts. The main one was a continuing tension between pioneering humans and the logical self-controlled Vulcans – but the scriptwriters clearly decided that the Vulcans would always be wrong. On no occasion would the humans actually need to learn anything from them regarding restraint, good conduct or understanding of alien cultures. What might have been an interesting dramatic tension becomes a bore.
In each of the previous series, there was at least one non-human who was a better fighter than any of the humans. Not in Star Trek: Enterprise. A Vulcan female should be stronger than a human male but was not allowed to be.
Season Three—which you can see Sunday afternoons on Channel 4—had a ‘story arc’ but not a very clever one. A series that had once been the cutting edge of liberalism seemed to be tapping into the mentality of the Iraq invasion and fears of ‘weapons of mass destruction. I’ve seen the entire season and was disappointed: the ‘mysteries’ had dull, vague solutions.
When dreams die, the rest of the society is likely to follow. As Spock once put it: “it is irrational – but never the less often true”.
[The franchise has since been revived with two excellent films based on the original series.]
Global Slum [e-mail spam]
I like to book my holidays through travel agencies, where it gets done very nicely and efficiently. But always through ‘snail mail’. This year I mentioned e-mails, and the lady explained that with so much junk they don’t bother.
It’s part of a much bigger pattern. The ‘Electronic Frontier’ has turned into a Global Slum. Slums are indeed a nice example of the ‘human self-organisation’ that people had such hopes for. It would replace existing hierarchical organisations, and bring down repressive states. It was also supposed, for some reason, that existing repressive states would be too polite to simply jail people with suspicious software or close ‘cyber-cafés’ whose misbehaviour would be reported by spies or even agents provocateur. It was also assumed that everyone would be delighted to be ‘Californicated’ via the new media. (‘Californicate’ is a real word, used since at least the 1980s by neighbouring US states who resent the influence.)
Had e-mails begun with a small ‘electronic stamp’ – five cents, four euros, three pence or whatever –then they’d have stayed a nice and liberating means of communication. But that was condemned as AGAINST LIBERTY, and still is. The advocates of LIBERTY show no sign of learning anything or forgetting anything. The ‘Electronic Frontier’ is the future, and always will be.
Of course the real US Frontier became a slum very quickly, and was always much cruder and less romantic than the tales sold to bored and comfortable Easterners. California was stolen from Mexico by an ambitious US government. Gold was discovered the following year—had it been found earlier, it might have been the British Empire that grabbed a territory that was then mostly inhabited by Native Americans. History would have gone differently, and been rather less tough for California’s Native Americans. Most of those unfortunates suffered a ‘privatised genocide’ by settlers whose vision of a Better Tomorrow did not include harmless tribal people living quietly on valuable lands that white people wanted.
To get anything useful done on the web, you have to rely on commercial outfits. Perfectly predictable, and a big lost opportunity. Because the new media are very suitable for something completely different; gift-exchange and the free distribution of goods.
A slum is usually a vast accumulation of ‘urbanised peasants’. People who could self-organise very nicely if they were living in a village. Not truly spontaneously, even there, but with a culture that is village-orientated. Put them in a city, and they may take several generations to adapt.
In the case of the Internet, there was no culture other than commerce that could control the system when it got big. It could have been very different, and still might, a non-commercial way to distribute human knowledge. But for now, libertarian ideology dominates in theory. Hard cash dominates in fact.
Fly pigs with me
Michael Howard, Romania’s gift to Britain, was making one of his better moves when he decided to beat the anti-immigrant drum. Not that he has any ideas for anything Labour isn’t doing already. But it lets Britons blame outsiders for their own mess.
Back in the 1980s, a Thatcherite movement that included a disproportionate number of the children of recent immigrants decided that Britain’s traditional moderation and limits were wicked intrusion on The Freedom of The Individual. They did successfully tap into the selfish ‘do your own thing’ aspect of 1960s culture. Gave the kiss of death to the traditional values that many of them genuinely thought they were defending.
Who else can tap in? The ‘United Kingdom Independence Party’ is now the ‘Kilroy Was Hear’ party, people who miss every chance they get. But with Blair increasingly disliked and distrusted, who knows?
[This was after Robert Kilroy-Silk quit as UKIP leader. Unexpectedly they found a much more popular leader in Nigel Farage. He successfully tapped into the 2008 financial crisis, despite having all the wrong answers.]
Make Panic, Not Law [War on Terror]
How many Britons have actually died in the ‘war on terror’. Since September 11th, the only British casualties have been the troops sent to help with Bush’s mad crusade. Within the UK, there have been zero deaths in 2001, zero in 2002, zero in 2003, zero in 2004 and so far zero in 2005. Clearly we have less than 45 minutes to save England!
Seriously, a terrorist is dangerous only when you don’t know about them. Or know but don’t take them seriously, as was true of the September 11th bombers. If you know where they are and take them seriously, they become an asset, giving you a lead to the much more dangerous people you don’t know about.
Not that even those unknowns will necessarily act. The massive anti-war protests must have done more than all of the government’s panic-measures and grand postures. Would-be terrorists must know that there are no ‘soft targets’ where they wouldn’t be hitting a very mixed population.
Do you remember A Beautiful Mind, in which actor Russell Crowe played the mad mathematician John Nash, a man haunted by imaginary US secret agents?
We are now told that on this and some of his other films, he was also being shadowed by entirely genuine FBI agents, acting in the belief that al-Qaeda was plotting to kidnap Crowe. It was supposed to be “a sort of cultural destabilisation plan” to take iconographic Americans out of the picture. (Guardian, March 9th).
Does Bin Laden have a sense of humour? I’m quite sure he has any number of double-agents happy to feed the USA all sorts of rubbish. Maybe he also told them that he was plotting to murder Spiderman!
Crowe was born in New Zealand and grew up in Australia. That’s quite common among US celebrities: outside of business and politics, your first best move for US success is to arrange to be born somewhere else. You also need to be born white and able to look at least vaguely Anglo-Saxon. But after that you can do much better than the non-Afro and non-Jewish home-grown products.
As I’ve said before, A Beautiful Mind was a nicely-crafted pack of lies. The real John Nash went round claiming to be Emperor of Antarctica. He also tried to renounce his US citizenship and to seek refuge in East Germany, in the belief that he was in danger of being drafted. But simple un-American truths never did ‘play well in Peoria’.
Better Embedded Than Dead
The US military has an unhappy habit of shooting the wrong targets. But when it comes to journalists, it seems like more than simple incompetence.
There has been systematic manipulation of the news, including too many ‘accidents’ to reporters who were not safely ‘embedded’ among Western forces. A CNN executive was hounded into resignation for daring to mention it. But the unfolding drama of the Italian hostage is bringing it to public attention.