Monday, August 18, 2014


Mark Twain on events in Gaza and Ferguson

Last week I watched Ken Burns' latest documentary about the great American author Mark Twain. It was a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man, although it gave short-shrift to his most radical views, which included being Vice-President of the Anti-Imperialist League which opposed the annexation of the Philippines by the United States. The film did mention Twain's stinging denunciation of King Leopold II, the man responsible for the death of 10 million Congolese in the late 1800's.

My interest in Twain awakened by the film, I picked up my copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, one of a literal handful of "classics" amidst my library of books on Marxism, socialism, and feminism. It was a book I had enjoyed enough when I read it years ago to save it from periodic purging, an enjoyment kept alive over the years by several viewings of the movie, which features the delightful Bing Crosby as the protagonist Hank Morgan.

Morgan is a man from the 19th century transported by a blow on the head back to 6th century England and King Arthur's Court. The book has Twain's trademark humor, but is also a serious indictment of organized religion, slavery, and especially of the "1%" of the day, the kings and nobles whose only credential for "leadership" was birth. But, with events in Gaza and Ferguson foremost in my mind, it was the following passage which really caught my attention. Hank has just met with a group of "freeman," the agricultural working class of the day, ostensibly free, but in reality contributing virtually all the fruits of their labor to their "lord", the owner of the land:

"Why, it was like reading about France and the French, before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood - a settlement of that hoary debt in proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There were two "Reigns of Terror," if we would be remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the "horrors" of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by the older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves."

The analogy of the French Revolution with either Gaza or Ferguson is far from perfect, of course. But in both of those, the media and Western politicians want us to focus on what they call a "Reign of Terror" (the missiles being shot at Israel in the case of Gaza, the alleged Molotov cocktails and looting in the case of Ferguson), while the real Reign of Terror is the rain of Israeli missiles and artillery on Gaza, and the rubber bullets, tear gas, and sound bombs raining down on the streets of Ferguson. And in both cases, the "horrors" of the "minor Terror" (the reaction of the oppressed) that the media and politicians dwell on are dwarfed by the "slow tortures" that have been visited on the oppressed people of Gaza and Ferguson (and so many other communities across the country) over a period of decades, if not centuries.

To close, a few more notes about Mark Twain which got left out of Burns' film. First, his comment on the French Revolution:

"When I finished Carlyle's French Revolution in 1871, I was a Girondin [a moderate]; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently — being influenced and changed, little by little, by life and environment ... and now I lay the book down once more, and recognize that I am a Sansculotte! And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat." [The Sanculottes - whose name says that they were not the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries who wore culottes (silk knee-breeches) - were the more radical, left-wing, working class arm of the revolution].
Next, this perhaps startling quote, definitely not heard in Burns' film:
"I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute."
And one final quote, this one from Connecticut Yankee:
"All gentle cant and philosophizing to the contrary notwithstanding, no people in this world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed, must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward. If history teaches anything, it teaches that."

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


"Changing everything"

A year ago, two bombs left near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed 3 people and injured 264. As a result, this year in Boston (and, I expect, all future years) was completely different in many ways, all designed ostensibly to ensure security.

But this wasn't the first time a large group of people watching an event had been bombed. Back in 1916 (see p. 3 of the link), a "Preparedness Day" parade in San Francisco was being held, the largest parade ever held in the city, with more than 50,000 marchers (!) and who knows how many people watching. A suitcase bomb, most likely placed there by anarchists objecting to the parade's clear intent to encourage U.S. entry into World War I, exploded, killing 10 people and injuring 40. A death toll much higher than that in Boston, and quite possibly just as many or more serious injuries (I suspect the criteria for who was "really injured" were stricter in 1916).

And what happened? Well, two union leaders, Thomas Mooney and Warren Billings, were railroaded into prison with life sentences, convicted by perjured testimony (finally pardoned and released after 23 years as the evidence of their false conviction became overwhelming). Other than that, nothing. Parades didn't stop in San Francisco. You didn't have to pass through security barriers and be scrutinized to watch a parade. And guess what? As far as I can tell, despite that utterly lax attitude by today's standards, no one else was ever killed while watching a parade in San Francisco.

So why the difference today? Because "security" here at home and military action abroad (also supposedly to ensure our "security") is big business. It's really just that simple. One bombing of a public event, or even the 2977 dead from 9/11 attacks, do not "change everything." What "changes everything" is the security/war industry convincing the public, through their "elected" (i.e., rented) representatives in Washington and elsewhere, as well as their media (owned by the same establishment forces if not directly by the war industries themselves), that we need to "change everything." The need for enemies is strong (witness the ongoing demonization of North Korea and Syria, and the ever-increasing demonization of Russia, and of course the now every-present demonstration of "Muslim extremists), and with the Soviet Union gone, the need to gin up crises that need the "services" of the "security" and "defense" industries is strong.

Which is why what should be events that can be taken in stride, and responded to with fairly simple measures, become the all-consuming events that they are. 9/11, and now the Boston Marathon bombing, will take their place in the "national religion," to be invoked as often as possible, and indefinitely into the future, not because the death of innocent people should be remembered and honored, but because their deaths serve the larger purpose of capitalism and imperialism.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


Book review: The Almond Tree

Two years ago I wrote a review of a novel called "Mornings in Jenin" by Palestinian Susan Abulhawa. This past week I had the opportunity to read another novel, "The Almond Tree," by Jewish-American Michelle Cohen Corasanti. Remarkably, although the plots of the two novels are completely different, and of course the authors come from very different backgrounds, the review I wrote for "Mornings in Jenin" (reproduced below) is almost word-for-word applicable to "The Almond Tree." The time period covered by the two novels is slightly different ("The Almond Tree" starts in 1955 and continues past the Israeli assault on Gaza in early 2009), and, as noted, the basic framework of the plot is very different (this one is about the life of a Palestinian mathematical genius). But the way it makes you understand in the marrow of your bones the nature of the Palestinian experience and Israeli oppression is just as powerful. As I wrote in that review two years ago, "No matter how much history you know, no matter how many facts you know, this book will deepen your understanding of that history." That a Jewish-American, whose family didn't experience that oppression first hand, can convey that feeling just as well as a Palestinian who did, is impressive. Two thumbs way up for "The Almond Tree."

Here's the review I wrote two years ago:

Book Review: Mornings in Jenin

I've just finished reading an unbelievably powerful novel entitled "Mornings in Jenin" by Susan Abulhawa. You can read all the history books and articles that you want, and completely understand the history and plight of the Palestinian people. You can be in complete intellectual support of such things as the "right of return." But nothing will make you understand that history in your bones, make you feel it in your gut, like reading this fictional, but all too real, account of one Palestinian family's history, as it spans the pages of time from 1941 through 2002.

All of the key events in modern history - the Nakba of 1948, the 1967 war, the 1973 Israeli assault on Lebanon and the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and so on through the massacre of Jenin in 2002, are here. All of them (perhaps improbably, but this is after all a novel) impacting on the lives of this one family. And really, not so improbably, because just like every Iraqi now has a family member or a close friend who was either killed or in some way affected by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so too is it likely that every Palestinian has a family member or a close friend who was affected by not just one of the key events in Palestinian history, but several of them.

The reader feels deeply, personally, the pain which is inflicted on the characters in the book; one feels deeply, personally, the different possible responses - rage and revenge on the one hand, impotence and drawing inward on the other. No matter how much history you know, no matter how many facts you know, this book will deepen your understanding of that history. And on top of all that, the book is written beautifully, with a lyrical style that makes reading every page a delight.

To sum up: read this book.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Syrian Sarin

A new report, authored by Richard Lloyd, a former United Nations weapons inspector, and Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has cast serious doubt on the claim that sarin-carrying missiles were launched from Syrian government-held positions, and thus serious doubt on the charges made at the time by the United States. You can read about the report here.

Although you might think this would be a big story, what with Syria still very much in the news, it doesn't appear to have run anywhere with the exception of McClatchy (the origin of the story, link above) and RT. Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post have mentioned it.

But back in September, these very same scientists published an earlier report on the sarin attacks. That one didn't discuss the origin of the sarin, but instead reported that the amount of sarin used in the attacks was much greater than had been previously thought. And that report was covered by the Times. Same scientists, same subject - sarin gas attacks in Syria. Their report on the quantity of sarin was newsworthy, according to the Times. But their report casting doubts on the claim that the rockets were launched by the Syrian government? Not part of "all the news that's fit to print."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Keeping "us" safe from the "terrorists"

Today in a Capitol Hill hearing, Gen. Keith Alexander was defending the NSA, justifying its extensive spying. He actually had the nerve to say the following without seeming to have the slightest idea of what he was really saying:
"In just this last month, 2,336 people were killed, 1510 injured [by terrorists] in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria. And yet there has not been a mass casualty here in the U.S. since 2001."
Alexander neglected to point out how many people were being killed per month by terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan before the U.S. invaded those countries (answer: 0). Or how many people were being killed per month in Pakistan before the U.S. started drone bombing that country (answer: 0). Or how many people were being killed by terrorists each month in Syria before the U.S.-supported "revolution" started (answer: again 0). (Not sure what's going on in Nigeria, to be honest).

And as far as this nonsense that there has not been a "mass casualty" in the U.S. since 2001, my guess is that there are hundreds of families in this country who would beg to differ. Perhaps none killed by "terrorists" as the U.S. government defines them (i.e., Muslims), but plenty killed in "mass casualty" events.

And, by the way, there were ten U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan last month, four in one "mass casualty" event. Ten people (along with thousands before them in Iraq and Afghanistan) who would all be alive were it not for the U.S. wars. The U.S. "defending" itself, via the NSA or anything else, is the main source of such deaths in the world, not the major thing preventing them.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013


The "legality" of abduction

From the latest press conference by Barack Obama:
Q: Did the capture of Mr. Libi comply with international law?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We know that Mr. al-Libi planned and helped to execute a plot that killed hundreds of people, a whole lot of Americans. And we have strong evidence of that. And he will be brought to justice.
We'll take that as a "no." Or a "who gives a shit, we're the United States." By the way, note that Obama goes from what we "know" to "we have strong evidence." "Strong evidence" is not "knowledge" (in fact, coming from the U.S. government, it's just as likely to be a complete fabrication). Just for the record.

Also, although there were plenty of follow-up questions during this press conference, this particular reporter didn't do so. Wouldn't want to press too hard on U.S. contempt for international law.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Iran at the U.N.

The media are all noting "moderate" Iranian President Rouhani's talk at the U.N., and contrasting him with former "crazy" President Ahmadinejad. Here's what Rouhani said on the major topic of interest, Iran's [non-existent] nuclear weapons program:
"Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions."
And here's what Ahmadinejad said in 2008:
"Regarding the question of the bomb. We believe, as a matter of religious teaching, that we must be against any form of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. The production and the usage of nuclear weapons is one of the most abhorrent acts to our eyes.

"In addition, we also believe that the atomic bomb has lost its use in political affairs, in fact. The time for a nuclear bomb has ended. Whoever who invests in it is going the wrong way.

"Was a nuclear bomb able to help keep the Soviet Union intact and prevent its downfall?

"Was it able to bring victory for the United States either in Afghanistan or Iraq?

"Can it be used to that end?

"Can the nuclear bomb save the Zionist regime?

"The time for bombs of that nature has ended. It is a time of thought, a time for culture and reason to prevail."

A radical change? No, a virtual word-for-word repetition, albeit with a bit more elaboration by Ahmadinejad.

But Ahmadinejad was an anti-Semite who said horrible things about Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, right? Like this:

"In Palestine, 60 years of carnage and invasion is still ongoing at the hands of some criminal and occupying Zionists...UN resolutions that have addressed the plight of the Palestinians have been relegated to the archives unnoticed."
And here's Rouhani:
"Palestine is under occupation. The basic rights of the Palestinians are tragically violated, and they are deprived of the right of return and access to their homes, birthplace and homeland."

Why stop here? There's more...

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