31 May 2011

Subway Graffiti and DSK

The other day I saw a graffiti in the Paris metro. It said:

DSK: Satyre de la Republique.

The creativity of my fellow passenger made me smile. Satyr is the mythological lecherous half-human, half-goat character. He usually accompanies Dionysus. The term refers to a hedonistic man who is too preoccupied with sex.

Satire was derived from a strict Latin form, which had nothing to do with Satyr. But because it had no verbal, adjectival and adverbial forms, when they emerged they referred to the Greek etymology.

Which enables the double entendre.

He is both the Satyr and satire of the Republic.

The Us and Them Syndrome: The Case of France

When I read about the "dolchstosslegende" in Harper's Magazine a while ago (it is a must read for anyone) I remember seeing a large incandescent bulb appear just above my head: it made so much sense historically and illuminated so many paths in modern day politics. The legend was introduced by the vanquished German army in 1918 to attribute their defeat to the traitorous activities of "internal enemies" who stabbed Germany in the back.

As we know, within two short decades, that "internal enemy" ended up in Auschwitz and Birkenau. The Harper's article narrates the story how American conservative movement used the same legend to explain away the failure to win the Vietnam War. It was lost because, they claimed, the American liberals, intellectuals and the Democratic Party stabbed their country in the back.

It is a neat trick as it absolves one while demonizing the other. And if you pursue it systematically, it creates a sharp internal division and a highly polarized segments whose mutual hatred prevents any governance compromises.

Until I read it, I never understood the internationalist social democracy movement of the late 19th century gave way to the bloodshed of World War I and II. I have been equally puzzled about how the social movements of the 60's and 70's like the New Left, Peace Movement, Feminism and Green Movement were transformed into a sharply divided and polarized Gordon Gekko paradise, where the former parasites became the true Randian producers and the true producers were designated parasites.

As I mentioned, I have been living in France for several years now. Previously, I had lived in Europe in the late 70's and early 80's, so I have a pretty good basis for a before-and-after comparison.

25 May 2011

Arab Spring, Part 3: America's Long-Term Plans for the Middle East

When the Bush administration engaged in a year long marketing to sell the Iraq war on WMD grounds, most war opponents assumed that it was a typical neo-colonial grab for oil.

Personally, I never found that argument convincing. Iraq has reasonably large reserves but they are not important enough to warrant the kind of large scale occupation required to control those resources. If the US had neo-colonial urges, and I'll admit that they frequently do, it would be far easier to trigger a coup d'etat in Venezuela and put in charge a friendly despot to enjoy a secure supply of oil for decades.

The issue is not secure supply of oil for the US economy. Between Canada, Venezuela and their local production, they would be fine for decades to come. NAFTA engages the Canadian government to sell to all North American buyers without discrimination (as opposed to being obliged to sell to the US as some people claim) and that should be enough to ease any shortage worries Americans might have.

What the US really wanted was to control the distribution of a significant portion of the world's oil production. That would mean setting up a large military presence in the middle of Central Asian and Middle Eastern supply lines. Hence the often quoted line of a Wall Street oil analyst "“Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath. You can’t ask for better than that.”

The control of the distribution of oil is critically important because it would enable the US to check the ascendancy of China (and eventually of India). In the next fifty years or so, depending on which Peak Oil theorist you read, it is claimed that oil consumption will out-pace oil production. As China is the self-declared factory of the world, oil is very important for its economic performance and stability both as a source of energy and as the raw material of everything plastic.

Given the rising economic power of China, the huge US debt it is collecting and the manufacturing dependence of US companies on China, Americans will find it increasingly difficult to limit China's super power ambitions. Controlling a large portion of global oil distribution would enable the US to contain China, to use a quaint Cold War term.

21 May 2011

Strauss-Kahn: My Take

I have been living in Paris, for some time now.

So, I heard first hand the collective gasp that followed the news that the Managing Director of IMF, the most charismatic current French politician and, prior to that moment, quite possibly the next President of France, was arrested for forcing oral sex on a hotel maid in New York.

After that gasp, their next collective thought was that the whole thing must have been a plot and Dominique Strauss-Kahn or DSK, as he is universally known here, must have been a victim of a dirty tricks campaign. In fact, some 57 percent of French people (and 70 percent of socialists) believe that he was done in by his opponents, quite possibly by President Sarkozy. 

It is not because French people are overly paranoid or cynical. There have been a number of spectacular dirty tricks cases and scandals in the last couple of decades. Clearstream and Bettencourt cases come to mind. Consequently, people here tend to see them as regular occurrences. And I think they are.

19 May 2011

Arab Spring - Part 2: Libya

What happened in Libya?

If my previously expounded hypothesis is correct and the Arab Spring is more than a series of spontaneous revolutions which required (a) material and logistic support from outside and (b) at least an active posture of non interference on the part of the armies, then Libya is a very interesting case.

The spark was fairly innocuous in Libya as well:
Inspired by pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world, Libyan dissidents had planned a "day of rage" for Thursday, Feb. 17. On February 15, security forces arrested a prominent lawyer named Fathi Terbil, who had represented families of some of the 1,200 prisoners massacred by Libyan security forces at Abu Slim prison in 1996. Once released later that day, Terbil set up a webcam overlooking Benghazi’s main square, where some of the families had been protesting. With help from exiled Libyans in Canada and around the world, the video spread rapidly on the Internet.

Al Jazeera Arabic conducted a phone interview with Libyan novelist Idris al-Mesmari, who reported that police were shooting at protesters—and then the connection was lost. (Mesmari was reportedly arrested by Libyan authorities.) Shortly thereafter, thousands more began battling Qaddafi's troops, and hundreds are reported to have been killed.
So, in the span of a couple of days, a video being disseminated and an interrupted phone call led to full scale armed insurrection.

Unlike the Tunisian or Egyptian cases, it was not a case of the army waiting on the sidelines, trying to see where this will be going. It was more a case of large chunks of the army and the ruling classes deciding which side they were going to choose and significant numbers defecting right away. In the absence of a cohesive social order and well developed civil society, very few groups felt any allegiance to Qaddafi. So, it was not very unusual for ambassadors, ministers and army commanders to be defecting en masse. What was unusual was the timing. These people did not wait for a Rubicon moment, with a well organized rebel movement marching to Tripoli or something of that nature, they jumped ship right away.

08 May 2011

Arab Spring - Part 1: What If?

What if what took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria was not a spontaneous and romantic uprising by techno-savvy young people in search for freedom and democracy.

What if it could be better explained by good old fashioned Real Politik: powerful states triggering, sponsoring and manipulating events for their own goals and objectives.

Since there is no way of proving that states acted for a specific reason, all we can do is to look at the actions of the actors involved, attribute them motives in line with those actions and see if that line of explanation is more plausible than the romantic scenario about Arab youth overthrowing entrenched authoritarian regimes upon discovering Gene Sharp and FaceBook.

To understand who the actors are and what they aim, let's first take a look at what happened in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen).  And see if that makes sense when we add, Libya and Syria.

The role of the armies

Whether my suspicions about a single suicide being semiotically charged enough to trigger such momentous and sustained events in several countries are warranted or not, the fact remains that once the uprisings were underway, in both Tunisia and Egypt, the governments, asked their armies to suppress the revolt and in both cases, the army refused to intervene.

In fact, in both countries (the Egyptian case is better known but it happened in Tunisia as well, the army went one step further and protected the protesters from thugs sent by the supporters of the regime.

Why did they not intervene?

It is well known that Egypt's army is the second largest beneficiary of the US foreign military aid. The US provides training, material and equipment and maintains very close ties to make sure that the army does not stray from the role that was assigned to it. For instance, the peace accord signed by Anwar Sadat (later dubbed the Cold Peace) would not have survived his assassination without the Egyptian army's full support. The army sided with the US and Mubarak and kept the Gaza frontier closed despite near universal disapproval of Egyptians.

Arab Spring: Really?

Ever since I read in high school history books that the French Revolution occurred because of the subversive ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and other luminaries, I developed a healthy suspicion, not to say aversion, towards such simplistic explanations.

I never understood why people think that ideas, by themselves, are such a formidable force. Ideas are meaningless outside of a specific context which makes them intelligible to the members of that society. I could scream Marxist ideals all day long in South Bronx, where presumably poor people should be receptive to such subversive notions, and I doubt that my efforts to propagate revolutionary ideas will get me more than an occasional insult or quite possibly a nice beating.

Or to use a little less vulgar example, the idea and principles of steam engine were known in Medieval Europe but they did not lead to the Industrial Revolution. It was only when these societies were transformed profoundly from an agrarian feudal economy to capitalism that the idea of a steam engine became meaningful and people realized that it could be used literally as the engine of industrialization.

Ideas are great but they need a specific context to achieve meaning and to become operational.

Hence my all-consuming preoccupation with context and my overriding axiom that there is no meaning without context.

In that sense, I am puzzled by commentators who state as self-evident truism that Arab societies had such yearning for freedom and democracy that the tragic case of Mohamed Bouazizi provided the necessary spark to start a revolution, the so called Arab Spring.

I don't mean to take anything away from the hundreds of people who died in these movements and the limited success achieved by their sacrifice. But if we focus on the context (instead of the power of ideas) we easily see that there are several obvious questions that undermine this facile explanation.

The Demise of Bin Laden: What Does it Mean?

This is not where I would have wanted to start, but it is as good a starting point as anything.

Most of the Western reactions to Bin Laden's death can be characterized as joyous. Especially in the US, his termination with extreme prejudice (as the Pentagon-speak goes) seems to have provided a rare moment of national unity with grudging congratulations extended by Republican leaders to President Obama. I assume those spontaneous celebrations reported by most media outlets were, unlike the tea party gatherings, bi-partisan in nature.

The rest of the world seemed a lot less concerned about his passing. According to Juan Cole, the reactions in the Muslim world were very subdued. Echoing his judgement, Turkish pundits, both on the left (secular) and on the right (Islamist) agreed that Bin Laden died during the Arab Spring.

Both of these sets of reactions are not unexpected but they do not say much about what bin Laden's demise means in terms of general picture.

Minor consequences will include the reelection of President Obama and a flurry of conspiracy theories that will question the veracity of the official narrative. The reelection part is now a foregone conclusion and barring some unforeseen scandals the death of bin Laden will prevent more serious Republican candidates from entering the fray. If the Republican challengers are limited to the current candidates, including unknowns like Pawlenty and unelectable people like Gingrich and Bachmann, the GOP does not stand a chance to topple the incumbent.

Hello World

There are several million blogs out there.

Why start another one?

Or to put it differently, does the world need another vanity project?

No, it doesn't. But this is not a vanity project. Not entirely. It has more to do with the profound malaise one feels when confronted with the way reality is being reconstructed and disseminated.

In fact, it is more or less the same frustration that compelled the first wave of left wing bloggers to write about "stuff." As most people know, at the turn of the new century, i.e. roughly 2001, many American liberals were so utterly alienated by the previous "Hunting of the President" and the media's joyful participation in that blood sport, so angry that Al Gore was ridiculed into conceding an election he had won, so frustrated that Iraq war was gleefully sold to a gullible public, they began to write about how they viewed those events. It was almost as if they wanted to prove to themselves and to people who think alike that they were not crazy and the alternate reality discourses that were being disseminated by the corporate media were, in fact, not real.

Terms like "reality-based community" or "up-is-downism" originated from that rebellion. And well-known liberal bloggers like Atrios, Josh Marshall and digby began blogging as a result of that pervasive frustration.

Initially, their main focus was corporate media. As the name of a famous blog of that period indicates, they obsessively dissected lies, half-truths and blatant biases. Like post-modernity to modernity, they defined their discourse in juxtaposition to the mainstream narrative.

With Iraq war underway and dismayed by the mainstream media's (MSM) subdued reaction to the realization that the weapons of mass destruction were indeed tools of distraction used by the Bush administration to get them to sell a dubious war, liberal bloggers began to distance themselves from their initial media focus. Instead they set out to create an alternate discourse. Daily Kos was first out of the gate with diaries from hundreds of contributors covering everything under the political sun; TPM began a genuine journalistic endeavor, employing reporters and routinely scooping traditional media outlets; sites like FireDogLake, a tiny two-women effort at the outset, turned into genuine portals (before Huffington Post) and early sites like Salon.com transformed themselves into powerful online salons in the original French sense of the term.

Despite their effort to distance themselves from the MSM discourse, these liberal bloggers (and the new portals they created) remained anchored in American politics. A trouble spot in the world would get a link to one of the few bloggers covering the rest of the globe but by and large the agenda remained an American one. More problematically, many of the sites covering "foreign affairs" were not in line with the idea of creating an alternate discourse. With a few exception like TomDispatch and Juan Cole, they tended to be cautiously  conservative and dull academic sites dealing with, well, foreign affairs.

When it comes to US politics I have been happy to be a consumer of news. I made the transition to online sources early on and have been getting my "facts" from a variety of outlets. They include some traditional media, such as the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, Le Monde and McClatchy papers. I balanced their mostly factual narrative with the progressive perspectives offered by a number of blogs, such as Eschaton, TPM, Hullabaloo, Glenn Greenwald, Baloon Juice, TomDispatch and Juan Cole.

Despite reading this relatively broad array of sources, lately I found myself unsatisfied with the way they cover world events. Traditional media tend to be too close to government sources and as such their information is heavily skewed towards the official narrative. The so called "Arab Spring" and the wholehearted acceptance of a very simplistic explanation of these events was my Al Gore moment. I am quite familiar with some important trouble spots in the world -notably the Middle East- and I was really disappointed how no one seemed to "see" what I thought was almost a self-evident big picture.

It is quite possible that the reason I "see" what I see is some sort of intellectual overreach, perhaps even stupidity.  But my goal is not o uncover hidden "conspiracies" that I learned about through signals to my aluminum foil headgear. I just want to present a contrarian "what if this was the case..." thesis regarding under covered issues. If nothing else, I hope what I write will make people think and question the mainstream orthodoxy.

I stated at the outset that this is not entirely a vanity project. There are two reasons why some might view this endeavor as a vanity project. One is the fact that, despite my haughty desire to cover world events and trouble spots, knowing myself, I know that I will often veer from the sublime to the ridiculous and vent about silly daily stuff.

Secondly, I doubt that people will discover this blog and I am quite sure that my readership will hover between zero and ten, of which seven will likely be Google bots. However, despite this near certainty, I wanted to write about "stuff".  If for nothing else, for the possibility to be able to say sometime down the line "you know, I suggested that possibility several months before anyone else and here is my proof."

So, in that sense, you could say that this is a vanity project.

Before sending this out to the world, I checked the news and found out that Usama bin Laden has been found in a compound in Pakistan and killed.

And the operation was tweeted to the world by a lonesome Pakistani IT consultant who ran to that corner of the world to get away from trouble and chaos.

If this not a good omen for this kind of Sisyphean undertaking, I don't know what is.

Hello world, indeed.


Update: I wrote this right after bin Laden was terminated with extreme prejudice. But within a few days I realized the title I chose for this blog, i.e. "The Progressive Contrarian" was already taken, even though it was last used in 2008. I reversed the title right away and moved everything to this new place.  If anything I am more of a progressive than contrarian so it suits me fine.

This is the reason posting date and current events timing do not jive.