Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts

July 8, 2012

after-the-arab-spring-by-john-r-bradley

 

Some guy named Kyle commented favorably on my Good Reads review of John R. Bradley’s After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts, which inspired a response from me, but perhaps more importantly also reminded me how interesting and important a book this is.

I love the hell out of John R. Bradley’s books; I think he’s the best English language writer on the Middle East currently working. The guy is also terrifyingly young, by the way — according to the Wikipedia page about him, he was born in June, 1970.

Anyway, it turns out the commenter, Kyle, aka Kyle Williams, has a bio that says he’s a Harvard-educated counterterrorism analyst, and has his own book about terrorism, available free online, and a blog by the same name that on first glance seems pretty balanced and engaging.

That also reminds me that I haven’t been keeping up with my favorite international affairs blog, The Coming Anarchy, which was inspired by Robert Kaplan‘s book of the same name (about the post-Soviet collapse). The bad news is, apparently the folks at The Coming Anarchy haven’t been keeping up with themselves; their most recent update is from last October.

I’ve never been entirely clear on whether the TCA blog is Robert Kaplan fan service for international relations nerds, or simply a thematic riff on a Kaplan-esque theme; as far as I can tell, there’s no affiliation between Kaplan and The Coming Anarchy Blog. The latter tends to run a little more conservative than my own politics are, but then, I tend to run more conservative when it comes to international affairs than I am in most other matters, so I’d frankly rather enjoy a bout of conversational fisticuffs with some well-informed Tories than a Kumbaya fest with some of my fellow peace-and-love hippies who want to talk about how great Iran and Cuba are.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my return comment to Kyle on interesting books about other regions that hint at what John R. Bradley does with the Middle East and North Africa. It’s worth saying, though, that as Bradley is probably, currently, my favorite English-language writer on the politics and culture of any international region, no other author comes close to him on such topics. I don’t find anybody as irresistibly readable as Bradley.

A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa

April 18, 2012

A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa by Dominique Lapierre is, ultimately, a good book about a great story. It is only “good,” in and of itself, rather than “great,” because while parts of it are amazing, and all of it tells an amazing story, too much of it tells an amazing story in overwrought, hand-wringing fashion….like far too much writing about South Africa.

The main problem with it is that it begins as a fairly objective, fairly reasonable and very well-told history of South African history pre-World War II (which is back when the racism that would become Apartheid was not yet formalized).

That’s good — it’s going strong. The bad news is that it turns about halfway through into a hagiography of the poor. It’s also a hagiography of Mandela, which I feel like I’ve heard a thousand times. The real messy story feels like it’s avoided in favor of pouring out overwrought prose about how hard it was to be black during the Apartheid era. I’m already fairly clear that it blew pretty seriously. That’s why I’m reading a book on South Africa in the first place. Lapierre hits too hard on the same old messages of martyrdom, which makes this book not an effective history.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t think “objective” makes a lot of sense when it comes to Apartheid, racism or Afrikaans-dominated South Africa. But I also don’t need to be beaten to death with overheated, overwrought, hand-wringing prose about the troubles of the poor. I read a LOT of books on Africa, and I see the kind of heartfelt, weepy prose engaged in here to be borderline condescending. It’s not intended that way, sure. But certainly many African writers express a deep-distaste for the hand-wringing of the West vis-a-vis Africa, and this book seems to be guilty of that. Lapierre is sort of the chief of it, having written a number of very good but very overwrought pieces of tragedy tourism (Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, for instance, and his magnum opus City of Joy). With Joy, he certainly did the right thing…spending part of the proceeds of the book to set up a foundation to help the poor of Calcutta — whom the book is about. I don’t fault his impulses, only his execution, in City of Joy as well as Rainbow in the Night. It’s not that he’s done anything wrong as that the way he does it, to some extent, dehumanizes rather than humanizes the poor of the developing world — at least to Lapierre’s Western audience.

I understand that Lapierre (and presumably his translator…not sure if this was written in English or French) are trying to communicate the agonies of being poor and black in South Africa — which are EXTREME today and were vastly more so during the Apartheid era. But I found the overdone prose in certain sections to be somewhat insulting in its obviousness.

That said, however, Lapierre’s heart is in the right place, and it’s the most accessible (and actually LEAST overwrought) thing I’ve read to-date on South Africa. The struggle the black South Africans, Mandela included, went through is amazing. I do wish there had been less hagiography and more, for instance, about the Zulu nationalist movement to the North, which opposed the African National Congress, and the criminal elements that flourished in the slums in the context of rampant soul-crushing poverty; it is in THOSE elements, it seems to me, that South Africa’s contemporary troubles have their origin.

We can attack the white Afrikaaner fascist racist murderers all we want. But as Michael Moorcock said, “All tyrants are pretty much the same, but there are many kinds of victims.” By spending the second half of this book making the racist demons as demonic as possible and the black South Africans saintly, I feel Lapierre has missed the real story in the ongoing triumph and tragedy of the struggle in post-colonial Africa overall, not just in South Africa. The result is an immensely readable book but one that’s a bit hard to take seriously as history, insofar as it concerns the Apartheid period itself (after World War II).

Speaking of which, why is this subtitled “The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa?” The author’s intention is to establish that the period from the landing of the first Dutch settlers on the Cape to the establishment of pluralist democracy is *ALL* the birth of South Africa…but out of context, it’s a little bewildering of a subtitle. It seems like it misleads the potential reader a bit.

The book still gets an honored place on my bookshelf, principally because I think it’s SO accessible that I hope it’ll be read by people who wouldn’t tackle a denser book or a more nuanced history about South Africa. The struggles the black South Africans and the Apartheid-opposing whites, Indians, those of mixed race etc. went through should be known to every person of conscience everywhere in the world.

Therefore, my nitpicks aside, if a zillion people read this book the world will be a much better place, and for that alone it gets some extra credit.

When all is said and done, it is an inspiring book and well worth reading.

Argentinian LGBT Rights PSAs

November 26, 2011

 

The above Argentinian PSA got me all verklempt. It shows a series of transgender Argentinians talking about how it feels to have the name on one’s ID not match one’s identity…With its perky, music, straightforward speech and from-the-heart feel, it celebrates trans rights beautifully…and it’s on television.

Read the rest of this post (and see 3 more Argentinian PSAs) at Tiny Nibbles.

[Night Bazaar] The Luxury of War

November 18, 2011

Today at The Night Bazaar,  I’m considering the way in which my obsession with writing about war reflects my own internal neuroses, and how that is reflected in the tragedies of war in the real world — especially the “collateral damage” visited on civilians, child soldiers and other draftees, civilian infrastructure, politics…

If war is the canvas on which “military adventure” writers like me paint our anxieties, then there’s a far more important truth underlying that fact. War is the canvas on which economic criminals paint their most shameless crimes.

Read the rest of this post at Night Bazaar.

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World

November 14, 2011

Photo by Sebastian Derungs, from Flickr via Wikipedia, under Creative Commons 2.0 Share-Alike Generic.

Because I tend to read so randomly, I just listened to the audiobook of the 2008 release of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World.

Sadly, he’s now released an updated edition.

So this is only the first dose of complaining about this book. Dedicated readers can look forward to another one.

That’s because while I found many of the ideas in the book to be relatively bland, I found enough of its underlying philosophy interesting that I will actually, oh my Heavens, now acquire the new version, and actually re-read the damned thing, in its May, 2011 revision.

How is it that such a thing occurred, with a book I feel pretty lukewarm about?

Simple. What this book is about is incredibly important. I’m all over the idea of American hegemony being re-examined in light of the post-Cold-War environment, with the “rise of the rest” as Zakaria likes to refer to it — that is, the coming shared hegemony between Europe, the U.S., and other countries. Zakaria even addresses some of the issues of global inequality — maybe not to my satisfaction, but at least he gives it some fan service.

It’s just that Zakaria is such a centrist that he comes across as namby-pamby at times. He presents good, balanced arguments, but he’s missing the passion that this stuff should evoke in a writer.

I tend to like Zakaria. He and I don’t see eye to eye on many things, but I do like his internationalist approach.

What I object to in the 2008 edition of this book is not entirely ameliorated by the simple fact that Zakaria was writing before the global financial crisis, before Occupy Wall Street, before Occupy Oakland, before the Arab Spring. The May, 2011 edition will still have been written before Occupy Wall Street — and Zakaria will have to do some fast talking in 2011 to convince me he wasn’t asleep at the wheel when writing in 2008 about developments in the Muslim world. Zakaria is a reasonable man, but like so many “establishment” policy people, he’s willing to look the other way about far too many things.

In short, Zakaria’s 2008 outlook was far too rosy, too optimistic. He comes across sometimes as an apologist for brutal dictatorship. More importantly, he seems to be completely unaware of the utter dehumanization generated by global corporatism. He writes convincingly  against inequality in places, which I appreciate. But he doesn’t go far enough in acknowledging that the entire global structure is on fire and at grievous risk of collapse. I don’t really disagree with him that the United States should be willing to play ball with dictators when it serves the development of human rights overall. I believe that human rights absolutism produces far more entrenched repression than the encouragement of reforms — and the latter often requires the U.S. to smile and shake hands with monsters. I’m not going to debate that fact. But I also don’t like it when commentators pee on my head and tell me it’s raining. Here, Zakaria could have won me over with a strongly-worded, impassioned chapter about encouraging human rights reforms.

And he could have DEFINITELY won me over more effectively if he’d written the book two years later…and dampened some of his 2008 Polyannaisms with a good hard dose of 2010 or 2011 WTF.

Hindsight’s 20/20, but Zakaria should have seen a lot of things coming…and did not.

So…onward and upward, to Zakaria’s May, 2011 revision. We’ll see what he left out this time. I can always find something to bitch about…it’s in my nature.

Photo by Sebastian Derungs, from Flickr via Wikipedia, under Creative Commons 2.0 Share-Alike Generic.

The House of Corporate Horrors Guest Post at Suvudu.com

November 8, 2011

I did a guest post over at Suvudu.com called “The House of Corporate Horrors,” about the writing of my novel The Panama Laugh and what it all means! And also how my zombie novel is one of the extraordinarily few zombie novels (some would say “the only”) directly connected to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, like, philosophically speaking.

Here’s an excerpt from “The House of Corporate Horrors”:

The important social observation that inspired The Panama Laugh is simply this, and I’m not the first one to have it: “By limiting the power of the public sector and privatizing things like the military, law enforcement and counter-terrorism, we as a globalized society offer a dangerous amount of power over to multinational corporations that are, at best, benignly amoral. At worst, they careen into soul-crushing evil.”

The premise therefore became, just how evil could they be?

This seems, in retrospect, like a straightforward premise of the sort that’s common in cyberpunk: “Heartless monolithic multinationals do awful things to the little people.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not actually 100% anti-corporate. I’m a passionate supporter of small business, and I think when small businesses get big(ish) that’s just dandy. But I believe what we have today is a grotesque conflation of the public sector and the private, where corporations have been allowed to get too big to fail, and therefore have been handed the keys to the kingdom. Public money should not be used to bail out private enterprises — certainly not unless there is some kind of accountability for providing long-term benefit to the people whose money that is, rather than simply the stockholders.

Read the rest at Suvudu.com, or buy The Panama Laugh at Amazon, or, better yet, at Biblio.

 

Naked Democracy Linked To My 10ZenMonkeys Interview

November 7, 2011

Yves Smith’s blog Naked Democracy linked to Destiny’s interview with me at 10ZenMonkeys in its links list today — and as Destiny points out, put us before links to Paul Krugman and the Washington Post. Huzzah!

 

Say Hello to the Monster: What Halloween Has to do with Occupy Oakland

October 28, 2011

Photo by AJStream, from Flickr.

When I was a kid, I never really cared what I was for Halloween, as long as it got to kill people.

More often than not, I dressed up as the characters I thought were having a way more exciting life than me: guys in the Army.

Yeah, I know (now) that guys in the Army don’t have it all that good. It’s not all ultra-cool stuff like crouching in a rice paddy eating baked beans from a can off the end of your still-bloody bayonet. It’s, like, paperwork and saluting and stuff, and trying to get your mortgage paid on a salary that dwindles every year. It probably sucked then and it probably sucks now, but I was a kid, WTF did I know? I thought it was all John Wayne in The Longest Day and Bob Crane in Hogan’s Heroes, romancing German girls and giving Gestapo guys wedgies. That’s what war is, right?

My father is a hardcore military nerd, just like me, so he helped me hugely with his vast stores of knowledge on uniforms and gear from his eight years as a mortarman in the National Guard, an early-’40s childhood spent watching newsreels from the war, and his compulsive reading in contemporary military history. He explained to me the exact shape and configuration of a white phosphorous grenade (armed forces designation AN-M14, in case you’re wondering) and helped me figure out how a Shasta Cola can could be turned into one and exactly what it would do to the interior of a tank with a crew of Hans-es and Gunther-s in it, which I thought was friggin’ awesome. Death! Murder! Mayhem! Burn those Nazis alive! Fry up some German sausage! Freedom forever! God Bless America! All enemies, foreign and domestic! Eat lead, suckers!

What’s that, you say? Didn’t I want to be an astronaut? Sure, I would have dressed up as an astronaut…as soon as those pansies in Congress started arming NASA! Seriously, they were sending people into orbit without even sidearms? Hell, you think the Russies are that stupid? I don’t think so, hippie! What happens when the space zombies come…you gonna hit ’em with algebra? Slap ’em around with your Master’s degree? Only wimps dressed up as astronauts for Halloween.

Sure, year that Star Wars came out, I was Luke Skywalker. Because my family wasn’t exactly swimming in credits, I painted a stick with fluorescent paint (badly) to serve as my lightsaber. (Don’t worry — me and my sister got lightsabers for Christmas, aka “flashlights,” leading to many spirited lightsaber battles.) But I spent about a hundred times as much effort on the lightsaber and the blaster (a tracer gun with a bunch of fruity crap glued all over it) as I did on the robe and the boots.

Actually, I just threw on a bathrobe went around shooting things, which would become a running theme in my life. The galoshes were particularly fashionable, and big enough on me that I could stuff a couple boot knives and extra blasters down there. Better safe than sorry, even if I rattled when I walked. The idea wasn’t so much to “trust your feelings” or “feel the Force flowing through you” as to hack people to death with high-energy plasma and blow holes in things while making smart-assed remarks. That, too, would become a lifelong habit.

Another year, I was a detective — not a cop, mind you, I never wanted to be a cop, just a detective. But no, I wasn’t a detective with a deerstalker cap and a pipe and a magnifying glass…I had cigarettes, a fedora and about twenty revolvers stuffed into my overcoat. I was a six-year-old kid who made Mike Hammer look like “the negotiator.” I was the nightmare of jaywalkers everywhere.

Mostly, though, I wanted to be a cigar-chomping combat fighter…an Army Man. Because what red-blooded American boy in the ’70s wouldn’t like to kill people for a living?

Simmer down, Army people, I know you don’t “kill people for a living,” you “serve your country honorably.”

Just like private detectives don’t suckerpunch litterbugs; they dig through big stacks of canceled checks and dive into file cabinets looking for for birth certificates.

And Luke Skywalker never slice-and-diced any Stormtroopers with his glo-stick, at least not until I was too old to dress up like him without looking like a choad.

And by then I’d learned about Ronald Reagan, the ultimate monster, and I’d learned about nuclear war, and jobs, and how much everything sucked. I didn’t want to kill people anymore. I didn’t want to fight in the Army and I didn’t believe that the people who ran my country had the faintest clue what they were doing, and I sure as hell knew they didn’t have my best interests in mind. When Reagan made his joke about the bombing beginning in five minutes, I yelled and screamed about impeachment; I was a precocious 13-year-old. And when Ronald McReagan floated the Star Wars plan, I was disgusted that anyone even thought about giving his boneheaded ideas a fair hearing; I knew then, as I know now, that the release of nuclear weapons is not something you can beat.

But suggesting that nuclear weapons can be shot down safely? Pretending down is up, black is white, social security is an “entitlement” and nightmares are dreamscapes?

That sounds really familiar. The monsters are still telling us all about it.

I just got into a tangle on Facebook with a friend of a friend who said about the Occupy Oakland attacks, “It happens.” He said that a woman had been killed following a Red Sox game. “It happens.” “The police tell people to disperse…they don’t disperse.” “It happens.”

It doesn’t happen. Not like this, it doesn’t. In Egypt, yes. In America…no. Not now, not ever. Not without grievous consequences.

Monsters exist because the people don’t have the guts to slay them. Monsters exist ’cause “it happens.”

And it happens ’cause the monsters come out to play, people, in an ever-building loop that starts when they come for the communists, and then they come for the trade unionists, and you don’t say anything because “it happens.”

It happens because the people see crap-ass policing like what happened in Oakland and they roll their eyes and make apologies for incompetent leadership. They don’t demand Mayor Jean Quan’s immediate resignation. They don’t hear the Oakland Police claiming no rubber bullets were use, and realize that police departments that lie in public deserve to be disbanded. The citizens don’t call bullshit on assholes saying of unconscionable police tactics, “It happens.” People who don’t know what they’re talking about, incidentally, because no, it doesn’t happen.

I lived in Oakland for years, so I know what I’m talking about. That city is brutalized by its administration. Its elected officials, in my experience, are privileged idiots who walk on air above the torments of the populace, eternally in bed with developers and selling out small business for their own gain. Its police force closes ranks around revolting behavior — yes, like police forces everywhere, partially because they feel that’s what’s necessary to keep police work safe for its workers…and I don’t always even disagree with them.

But in Oakland, it’s out of control…and it’s out of control in America.

The people have spent too many years shrugging and saying “It happens.”

This is what happens when the monsters come out to play.

Happy Halloween, everybody. May Freddie, Jason, Robert Neville and my cigar-chomping white-phosphorous-tossing homicidal Army guy get you before Wall Street does.

(This article was cross-posted to The Night Bazaar)

Herman Cain’s Chief of Staff is the New Cigarette Smoking Man

October 25, 2011

The smoking is what everyone’s getting worked up about. But there are actually several weird things about this Herman Cain campaign ad:

1) First is how confused Herman Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, seems about his lines. He seems to pause in odd places. Block is chief of staff to a guy running for President, and he can’t be bothered to learn his lines? And when he croaks them out weirdly, their obviously highly-paid videographer with an iPhone can’t say “let’s try that again, from the top?” What demographic is that appealing to? The voters who spend all their time thinking, “Whoever I end up voting for, It’ll be the guy whose chief of staff doesn’t really care that much.”

2) Then there’s the truly bizarre gay-dance-club-at-12:30-am Autotune Anthem toward the end. WTF voter demographic are they trying to reach with that? “We go out of our way to go to really shitty clubs and complain about the music…and we like it that way?”

3) Also at the end, it’s weird how hard Cain seems to be trying to look sinister there while the Autotune Anthem plays. “Okay, now smile. No, no, smile like you just eliminated Medicare. That’s it!” Maybe he’s just trying to look serious at first, then friendly. If that’s Cain’s serious-vs-friendly face, I do not want to see his “Oh shit, the Europeans already tried this!” face.

4) Going back to Block, what the hell happens to his head there at 0:22? When he says “…can put the ‘United’ back in the ‘United States of America'” it looks like he does a bit of that Doctor Who thing where everyone became The Master. It’s pretty freaky.

5) Last, but far from least, is the cigarette. That’s right. There at the end, crusty-looking Mark Block takes a HUGE DRAG OFF HIS CIGARETTE.

Then, you wanna know what he does, just in case you missed that he just slurped a cloud deep down into his small-cells? Block blows smoke at the camera, as if to say, “Yeah, fuckwads, I’m smoking a cigarette. Wanna say something about it? Go ahead. This shit will get put out in your eye.”

It’s almost as if this video were being shot in an office park right beneath a “No Smoking” sign.

What voter demographic is Cain is going after by letting his chief of staff smoke a butt on camera? The vast legions of Republican voters who were closet X-files fans when they were younger — and who always rooted FOR the Cigarette Smoking Man?

If they’re looking for smoking fetishists…well, there are much more enjoyable ways to indulge that vice…

Julie Simone for TheRedChair.net (link is NSFW)
 

 

Republican Frontrunners’ Constitution Amendment Would Outlaw Birth Control Pills

October 24, 2011

From my new article in Tiny Nibbles: Flip-flopper Mitt Romney demonstrates not only that he’s confused on the abortion issue, but on how babies are made; Rachel Maddow helps him sort it out.

But all major Republican candidates advocate a Constitutional Amendment that would eliminate all hormonal contraception, including The Pill. Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain don’t seem all that clear on this. Ron Paul, at least, understands what he’s advocating, since as a physician he’s delivered 4,000 babies. But his opposition to Federal regulation of abortion is strictly on procedural and States’ Rights grounds.

Or maybe it’s that Bachmann, Pawlenty, Huntsman, Perry and Cain understand wanting to outlaw all forms of hormonal birth control will be poison to voters once they get past the hazardous-to-their-health Republican primary. No candidate can win the American Presidency by planning to change the Constitution to outlaw The Pill. Read all about it at Tiny Nibbles.

As many of you may know, I’ve been writing articles on sexual health, science and politics for my good friend Violet Blue’s blog, Tiny Nibbles, the second most-trafficked sex-related blog on the internet. This article on the Republican frontrunners’ stance on a life-begins-at-conception Amendment to the US Constitution is my latest article for Tiny Nibbles.

As the election heats up you can probably plan on seeing me getting more worked up over sexual health politics, so…get used to it. There will also be zombies…some day. Some day there will be zombies. Some day.