Saturday, 31 January 2009

Slovenian Rimbaud

Recently I picked up a volume of poems by Srecko Kosovel, billed as a Slovenian Rimbaud - this on account of having died at the age of 22 and gaining notoriety only much later. (Rimbaud didn't die that young, but one could say he died a 'poetic' death inasmuch as he stopped writing at 19, although he lived another 20 years or so after that).

Here is one piece I quite liked, from The Golden Boat: Selected Poems of Srecko Kosovel.

I am

I am, and I'm not asking why;
my word is that I am here,
silently growing into this silent place
as if I were growing from peace.

Beyond the huts, the fields, beyond the gardens,
as if dreams were shining on them,
behind the narrow paths, the fences,
across the meadows stretches a restful silence.

I am, and I am not asking why,
with the huts, the fields, the gardens,
this place is like a sleeping lake
untroubled by waves.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Oh Bama, you had me going...

I didn't think it would happen this soon, but it looks like it's that time again to take up my usual cynicism with regard to US politics. Prior to the inauguration I wasn't really following the news on Obama's cabinet picks - and by God, are they disappointing, some of them.

Most disappointing of all, perhaps, is the choice of Lawrence Summers - a sexist, racist, latent conservative capitalist pig - as head of the National Economic Council. As Mark Ames put it in an article for The Nation, "hiring him to fix the economy makes as much sense as appointing Paul Wolfowitz to oversee the Iraq withdrawal." Summers is not only one of the chief architects of the current financial crisis (brought on by deregulation), but is also behind many of the financial disasters brought on by neoliberal economic policies worldwide as described in Naomi Klein's book on 'disaster capitalism', The Shock Doctrine. He was also instrumental in ousting Joseph Stiglitz - a prominent mainstream liberal (Keynesian) critic of neoliberal globalization policies - from the World Bank. Summers is, bluntly put, one of the 'shock doctors' behind it all.

As Alexander Cockburn put it in another article on Obama's cabinet picks so far ('Team Obama is a slap in the face to his own base'), "as an agent of change - we do not even mention hope - the age of Obama seems over before it begins, unless worsening economic circumstances force Obama pell-mell into uncharted territory."

Well, what more could one expect in a country where, aside from the top two posts (President and Vice-president), no member of the executive branch is required to be an elected official? Even those who do come to the cabinet from elected posts - senators, congressmen, etc - are no longer subject to direct democratic approval once in office as members of the cabinet. It goes without saying that very few, or probably none of those who were crucial to Obama's campaign at the grass roots level would have voted for or worked to get into office people like Summers (see The Nation article above for the gory details), Tom Vilsack (Monsanto's pin-up boy and lobbyist for genetically engineered biocrops who opposed Obama in the primaries, now agriculture secretary), Rahm Emanuel, or Admiral Dennis Blair, who goaded on the Indonesian generals in the Church Killings in East Timor.

Well, I should have known we were in deep shit from the moment Obama said 'God bless the United States of America' in the inaugural speech. Indeed, as Dylan put it, the USA is still "with God on our side"...

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

When the levees broke & a black man came to the white house: drunken thoughts & poems

Well it's finally sunk in. A black man is president of the United States. He may not be perfect, he may not be Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jesse Jackson or Jesus H. Christ or Coltrane or Nina Simone, he don't play no saxophone, he don't talk no deep shit about revolution - but he's damn good and he bound to set some things right in America. And I feel more empathy for this man than any white man ever been president, and it ain't just because he's black, or because he's 'liberal', or because he's a Democrat, or because he talks about hope & change, or because he's gonna close Guantanamo Bay, or because he's gonna sign into law the Employee Free Choice Act, which is all great, but just because. Yeah. Uh-hm. I'm a little drunk. But never mind. Halellujah. Amen.

Just been to another amazing gig at Cafe Oto (every gig I've been to there has been amazing), an Obama inauguration party, mostly spoken word over jazz and blues riffs (played by some excellent musicians) by John Sinclair, beat poet and former leader and co-founder of the White Panther party; it was excellent. A word from John:

Because the war on drugs
is about building a police state.
The war on drugs is about building prisons
& filling them up
with more & more people like us

& employing more guards,
employing more cops,
more special agents,
more narcotics police,
more wire-tappers,
more snitches,

more prosecutors,
more judges,
more wardens,
more jailers -
the worst elements
of our society.

Sounds just like Foucault to me. OK, Foucault on benzedrine. Here's another one, called my melancholy baby:

in the awful aftermath
of hurricane katrina,
amid the wreckage
of his city,

his neighborhood,
his home,
his painstaking work
& his life itself,

looking forward to nothing
but increasing pain
& suffering beyond measure
as far as he could see,

the relentless public indifference
to the fruits of his labors,
the bitter impossibility
of completing his allen toussaint film

already 15 years in the making,
songwriter: unknown,
pieced together in fits
& starts, when he could wheedle

enough bread for a shoot
or get a print made
or edit something together
so he could see it - money

he had to beg for
from people at arts agencies
who couldn't stand him
& tried to ruin his life,

or people who dug his work
but never gave him enough cash
to make it all happen
the way it was supposed to,

this beautiful cat
with a big heart
& huge imagination, & a mind
that never stopped working,

the creator of "piano players
rarely ever play together"
starring professor longhair
& tuts washington

& the great toussaint,
documenter of emmanuel sayles
& papa john creach
& jabbo "junebug" jones,

employer of my daughter celia
& treasured friend & accomplice
ever since that day in 1982
when me and harry duncans

banged on his front door
on banks street
& begged him
to let us see "piano players"

& he showed it to us -
& that's the way I'll re-
member him, a guy who gave
& gave of what he had,

smiling through the pain
that wracked his body
& his heart, in love
with his work

& his daughter nell
& the music we all love -
always & forever,
brother stevenson palfi,

always in love with the music

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Happy Birthday, Dr King

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's Birthday. Below is an audio medley I have made of clips from his speeches on Vietnam, nonviolence, social change, etc. (If you cannot see the player above the photo below, click here.)

Slavoj Zizek, quoting an American professor, has said 'every child knows “I Have a Dream.” Almost nobody knows what was this guy's dream. It wasn't just racial equality.' Indeed, the version of MLK sold in high school text books is a wooly, sugar-coated placebo that almost totally obliterates the radical badass that this man was. Today, on his 80th birthday, a few days before the inauguration of the first black president of the United States - but one who I fear may betray the legacy of the civil rights struggle that spawned him (not least by his silence in the face of his own party's shameful emanations concerning the brutal war waged by Israel in the middle east, in contrast to MLK's vocal opposition to Vietnam, etc) - it is worth hearing the reverend's words again. They provide, if nothing else, an index of the moral and ideological regression of a nation and a world - a world in which a black man can be president, but at what cost to his political credentials? It is worth noting how much, and yet how little the world has changed. A key victory for the civil rights struggle has been won - and yet the United States Government is still the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", despite years of concerted efforts to obscure this fact by magnifying the threat of terrorism, etc. A hollow victory indeed. As in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, it seems there isn't much meat left on the bones of the trophy shark. I dare you to prove me wrong, Mr Obama.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Moments of Gaza: Live Blog From Gaza

Click here to read Moments of Gaza, a live blog from Gaza.

One entry from yesterday reads:

'Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor in Gaza, says that the number of civilians injured and killed in Gaza proves that Israel is deliberately attacking the population. The doctor also said that the hospitals have reached capacity, all the doctors are operating around the clock and there are hundreds of people untreated. "This is an all out war against the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza" he said. "They are bombing 1.5 million people in a cage".'

In occurs to me that during the siege of Sarajevo, which I lived through with my parents, the Serb forces who pounded the city from the hills and deliberately targeted civilians (using all the same excuses, verbatim, that the Israelis now use) managed to kill 10,000 people (and wound a lot more) in three and a half years. The Israelis have now killed over 700, according to the latest BBC reports - in only two weeks. Hospitals are at full capacity, doctors are working around the clock, and the bombs keep pounding.

Nonetheless, the tide of global public opinion is hardly opposed to the massacre, owing to a long-established PR miracle - the rhetoric that they, the Palestinians, are the backward terrorists, we Israelis are a legitimate democratic sovereign state protecting our population. That the Palestinians are the ones living under an illegal occupation, behind an illegal wall, that they have families too - nothing else matters.

The argument goes, of course, that Hamas would kill more if they could; they don't because their weapons are imprecise, which is why most of those killed in the conflict are Palestinian civilians. But wouldn't less precise weapons lead to more killing? Isn't having imprecise weapons just a good excuse for indiscriminate slaughter? And if the Israelis have more sophisticated and precise weapons, shouldn't there be less civilian victims among the Palestinians, since Israel is only targeting Hamas?

It is no surprise that in 1987, in sympathy with their staunch ally, the apartheid government of South Africa, Israel and the United States were the only two countries in the United Nations who opposed a General Assembly resolution condemning terrorism. Why? Because, although resolution 42/159 condemned terrorism in the strongest terms - the resolution also, in the opinion of the General Assembly, contained nothing that "could in any way prejudice the right to self-determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of peoples, forcibly deprived of that right... particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation or other forms of colonial domination, nor...the right of these peoples to struggle to this end and to seek and receive support [in accordance with the Charter and other principles of international law]."

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Monday, 5 January 2009

Talkin' World War III Blues, #8362: Assault on Gaza/Talmud in Reverse, A Case Study in Why Human Rights Are Bad For You

The military logic that emerges from Israel's assault on Gaza the past week resembles a perverse reinscription of the well-known Talmudic proverb: 'whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.' Instead of this old wisdom we are now told, in a complex and elaborate military language, that whoever destroys one (Israeli) life, destroys the world entire, and must therefore pay back in kind. One needn't go further than the revelations in the mainstream media to catch this. According to BBC online:

"Israel says its intentions are to suppress Palestinian militant rocket attacks, which have killed five Israelis since the start of the campaign."

For five killed Israelis, all of Gaza must be brought to its knees in an all-out air assault, over 500 Palestinians must die, most of them civilians, and the logic of 'collateral damage' - a myth in any modern war - must be invoked to justify the dirty deeds. The family member of a Hamas militant, anyone who supports them, anyone who happens to live near them, their friends, neighbours, their private residence, anyone in their vicinity - all are legitimate targets, which pretty much makes any Palestinian, civilian or not, young or old, a potentially legitimate military target. In the same way in which the kidnap of 2 Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah two years ago justified an all-out war on Lebanon - with thousands of Lebanese civilian casualties, the levelling of entire neighbourhoods in Beirut, etc - five Israeli dead justify the slaughter of 500 Palestinians, and upwards.

I will be accused of taking cheap shots, but this military logic is really not all that different from strategies and tactics deployed by the Nazis in WWII. It is well known that the war broke out following Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. What is slightly less well known is that Germany's invasion was a response to supposed Polish 'border provocations'.

It is also a fact that the Nazis, at least in the Balkans, had a habit of retaliating for partisan diversions by murdering 100 civilians for every German killed, unless the perpetrators turned themselves in. (In fact I believe it was the Nazis who first used the term 'terrorist' to refer to guerrilla insurgents.) Another way of perversely rephrasing the Talmudic wisdom: whoever kills one Israeli has killed five hundred, or a thousand, or more, and must pay back in kind. An Israeli life is that much more valuable than a Palestinian one.

To be fair, it is hardly the Zionists alone who are to blame: in recent years no one has been better than the Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, at playing this double game: on one hand preaching liberty and human rights, on the other openly placing openly a premium on protecting American lives, regardless of the cost to others.

But there is no contradiction here: what this brings to light in crystal clarity is precisely the dual logic of biopolitics/thanatopolitics at its purest, as outlined by Foucault: 'liberty and human rights', the moment they are proclaimed as actualized in a concrete territorial sense (the 'free world', etc), cease to exist as universal content, but become only a relative form of dividing the world and the races and territories of the world, of valuing different lives differently. Perversely enough, it is precisely the fact that Iraqis under Saddam and post-Saddam were not formally endowed with the same rights as Americans that made them more disposable, even in the eyes of American servicemen. Being formally disempowered, they are simply not treated in the same way as Americans, or those 'naturally' endowed with rights (regardless of what 'universal human rights' might apply to them in international conventions, which for all intents and purposes are of no consequence where they are most needed). The Iraqis' formal 'rightlessness' becomes tactically useful to the occupying army, all the while it is decried in the name of 'democracy' and 'liberty'.

The occupying forces, in other words, are quite happy to give the locals no better treatment than what they are accustomed to. In the process they discover that fear is the greatest weapon - just as much as the Iraq War was ultimately a war on the Iraqi people, the ongoing assault on Gaza is an assault on the Palestinian people. Notions of 'collateral damage' and 'targeting militants' lose their meaning in modern urban warfare, where civilians will inevitably die, especially in a place like Gaza, whose extraordinarily high population density owes something to Israel's ethnic cleansing and settlement policy; and what, one wonders, do the Israelis and Americans expect their adversaries to do? Gather in one convenient spot in the desert far from any urban centre with a sign saying 'Terrorist Insurgents'?

All of which is to say that there is simply nothing 'universal' about the demagoguery of 'human rights' as preached from the pulpits of Washington, or in general; the term 'universal human rights' as phrased in various conventions can only refer to a very hollow universal; it draws political street credit at home (in the 'free world') from the persistent presence of oppressed, disenfranchised, dispossessed, and disempowered people everywhere abroad. Therefore it cannot for its own sake even stir to put an end to all forms of oppression worldwide. So long as there are dictators and ruthless monarchs in the world, Americans will trust their leaders enough to vote for them and more-less toe the party line (with or without universal healthcare, job security, pay equality, etc). We live in the 'free world' - we take 'freedom' for granted, whether actual or not, we have the form or semblance of freedom - and therefore can afford to cut back a little on the content. It is in the name of liberty that liberty is denied.

There is no contradiction here, or the contradiction is only apparent. There are at stake two senses of liberty: the universal right, denied to all in the name of the particular, given to some at the expense of others. The reason is simple: the universal right pits all nations against all states, rather than nation-states against one another. And it is nation-states who are ultimately the masters of the rhetoric.

In this sense the tragedy at hand is not only the world's but a tragedy for the Jewish people. Through Zionism the Jewish people have merely adopted the collective notional structure of the modern European nation-state, which is inherently racist, whether in a biological or a formal/territorial sense. This transaction carries with it the danger of losing a uniquely Jewish identity which, in defiance of nation-states, straddles the line between the universal and the particular - the only hope for a truly informed, cosmopolitan, authentic universal humanism.