Archive for the ‘USA’ Category

12 Years a Slave


[updates below]

I’m presently in the US on holiday. Seeing a movie a day. And since I don’t feel like writing about politics at the present time, I’ll write about movies. This one I saw last week, catching it at the very last theater in the area where it’s still showing. As it’s at the end of its US run—sortie en France le 22 janvier—presumably everyone who has had any interest in seeing it has done so by now. I don’t have anything original to add to what’s already been said about it. It is quite simply the most powerful film ever made on slavery in the American South. It entirely merits its 97 score on Metacritic—and is the best American movie of the year IMO.

Two things that went through my mind during the film and thinking about and discussing it after. One was the terrorist regime in the American South—where I happen to be at the moment (in a civilized part)—and that persisted for a century after the end of the Civil War. The American South was the most politically reactionary, violent, quasi feudal, and least democratic part of the Western world into the mid 20th century. And the entire white population was complicit. There may have been a few relatively kindly or benign slave owners—and one sees two in the film—but they were still slave owners. During the post Civil War century of Jim Crow, no sector of white society, not even a small minority, challenged the existing order. Practically no Southern whites participated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s or openly supported it. Cf. South Africa, where a minority of whites did oppose apartheid (some even joining the ANC). And also unlike South Africa, there was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the post-Jim Crow South. The federal government imposed the change on the South via legislation, court rulings, and even troops, and that was that. The South had no choice but to acquiesce. Of course there’s been accommodation, some at least, and life for black Americans in the South today bears little resemblance to what it was sixty years ago, but there’s still a direct line between the white Weltanschauung depicted in the film and that of the current Tea Party GOP, which dominates (white) Southern politics. How else to comprehend the GOP’s determination to restrict the suffrage via undermining the Voting Rights Act (America being the only country in the Western world—or even among non-Western democracies—where there is a concerted effort by one of the parties of government to effectively deny eligible citizens the right to vote, or to render it as difficult as possible)?

Second thought. In the scene in the film where the slaves are chopping trees with axes, one can almost feel how tempted they are—and particularly Solomon Northup/Platt—to swing around with those axes and use them on the slave owner and his overseers. White Southerners lived in permanent dread fear of slave revolts, which is one reason the violence meted out to the slaves was so extreme. If one was whipped for not meeting the quota for picked cotton, then the penalty for killing a white man could only be a slow, hideous death following torture and mutilation, and which the slaves knew well (and not even the slave owners had law on their side if they tried to shield their slaves from the wrath of whites of lesser standing; e.g. the scene of Solomon Northup/Platt being told by his first owner that he couldn’t protect him after the altercation with the overseer and the latter’s lynching posse). Thus the Second Amendment and the “right to bear arms,” here the white population forming armed militias to control the slaves. The Second Amendment was demanded by the Southern states to this end, so explicates law professor Carl T. Bogus in his 1998 article “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” published in the University of California at Davis Law Review. America and guns: it was all about controlling slaves. Yes, it was.

UPDATE: The Guardian has an interesting and informative article on the film’s director, “Steve McQueen: my hidden shame.” The lede: “His new film 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching look at human brutality. But director Steve McQueen’s childhood contains a painful secret he has never confronted.” (January 4, 2014)

2nd UPDATE: Jonathan Chait has a quite good essay, dated December 4th, “12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era,” on the New York magazine website.

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The New Deal we didn’t know


For those who missed it, the September 26th NYRB—which I read a couple of months late—had a very interesting review essay by Nicholas Lemann, of Columbia University political scientist Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Here’s a description of the book via the publisher’s website

A work that “deeply reconceptualizes the New Deal and raises countless provocative questions” (David Kennedy), Fear Itself changes the ground rules for our understanding of this pivotal era in American history. Ira Katznelson examines the New Deal through the lens of a pervasive, almost existential fear that gripped a world defined by the collapse of capitalism and the rise of competing dictatorships, as well as a fear created by the ruinous racial divisions in American society. Katznelson argues that American democracy was both saved and distorted by a Faustian collaboration that guarded racial segregation as it built a new national state to manage capitalism and assert global power. Fear Itself charts the creation of the modern American state and “how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security”

A Faustian collaboration with the Jim Crow South, which saw its national political power increase during the Roosevelt administration. The South was, of course, not a democracy: it was a reactionary authoritarian order—and that ruled by terror over a sizable portion of its population. But there were also authoritarian impulses among members of northern elites, as Lemann writes: an attraction to Mussolini and, with WWII, an indulgence toward Stalin and the Soviet Union (and to which one may add a certain benevolence toward Hitler and Nazism during the 1930s; on the American romance, as it were, with Mussolini, see also John Patrick Diggins’s Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America). The 1930s and ’40s were lousy decades in the history of the world. At least democracy was saved in America and (northern) Europe.

Reading Lemann’s essay on Katznelson’s book reminded me of the latter’s When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, which was the subject of a review essay by George Fredrickson in the November 17 2005 NYRB, “Still separate & unequal” (which may be viewed by non-NYRB subscribers here). Katznelson is a brilliant social scientist. I took a course with him at Chicago back in ’81, in which I read his City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States; a book that changed the way I thought about American politics. In other words, I learned something from it.

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JFK assassination + 50


Everyone of my general age and older will be recalling today where they were when they heard the news. I was seven-years-old and in Bombay, with my mother, sister, and grandfather (my father was Mogadishu, Somalia, awaiting our arrival there several days later). We were staying in a hotel (which was off Marine Drive, so my mother informs me). My grandfather came into our room—it would have been the morning of the 23rd—and broke the news to my mother, who burst into tears. That’s my memory.

All sorts of people today will also be raking over the eternal conspiracy theories regarding the assassination. But there was no conspiracy. There was no second gunman. I repeat: There was no conspiracy. There was no second gunman. On this, one may consult Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive, case-closing 1,600 page (plus 1,000 pages of endnotes on CD-ROM) Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Bugliosi settled the matter once and for all in his magnum opus. If one does not read the book—which, given the length, would not be surprising—, one may read his interview on the History News Network, “Why Vincent Bugliosi is so sure Oswald alone killed JFK.” He also lays out his arguments in this two-part video. Among the many reviews of the book—which, in serious publications, were all positive—is this one in the L.A. Times. And Fred Kaplan in Slate had a piece last week—driven by Bugliosi’s book—on “Why the best conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination don’t stand up to scrutiny.”

I’m sure various persons will wish to dispute me on this but they’ll be wasting their time, as I will simply refer them to Bugliosi’s arguments in the above links. Sorry, case closed.

ADDENDUM: A remark: Conspiracies do happen, of course, but in polities with a semblance of democracy, a free press, and the rule of law, they are eventually uncovered. Conspiracies necessarily involve numerous persons and sooner or later—and usually sooner—one of them is caught or spills the beans. It’s hard to keep a secret even among two or three people, but if lots are in on it, it’s nigh impossible: unless one believes that agencies of the US government—which is the direction most JFK conspiracy theorists gaze in—function like a Sicilian village, with dozens of people respecting some kind of omertà (and enforced, as omertà is, with the fear of certain violent death if one talks). If one believes that this is a reality inside the US government, one will believe anything. To believe that the US government functions this way this signifies that one lives in la la land. Personally speaking, I won’t go there (there are, of course, contractual obligations for secrecy in spy agencies—though with the inevitable whistle blowers and bean spillers, e.g. Edward Snowden—but not for manifestly criminal conspiracies, let alone murdering a president!).

If there had been a conspiracy to kill JFK, we would know about it by now. The identities of the top conspirators would have been revealed, if not through regular law enforcement, then in the hundreds of thousands—probably even millions—of pages written on the assassination. But if the supertankers of ink that have been spilled on it over the past five decades have not uncovered the mystery, this is rather strong prima facie evidence that there is no mystery, at least not on the question of conspiracy.

As for the famous second gunman on the grassy knoll, there would have been all sorts of immediate eyewitnesses, and even more if he had fled the scene carrying his rifle (rifles being kind of conspicuous). And if he had dumped the rifle, well, it would have been found pretty quickly. Soyons sérieux.

This is not to say that the entire matter has been settled and that there are no mysteries left. There are still mysteries, or unanswered questions, as smart political scientist Larry Sabato said yesterday in this too short video on the WSJ website. There are over a thousand CIA and other documents on the affair that remain classified and could shed light on a number of questions, e.g. on how much the CIA knew about Oswald, which was possibly more than has been admitted. Who knows what’s in those documents. Probably Cold War spy stuff, names of double agents, that sort of thing. But seriously, if those classified CIA documents contained the smoking guns in a conspiracy at the highest levels of the US government, it stands to reason that the conspirators—presumably including the CIA itself—would have scrubbed those document files clean. Destroyed the evidence. Shredded, pulped, and incinerated it. Duh.


reclaiming history

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Wealth inequality in America


I just came across this YouTube, which was published a year ago. It’s 6½ minutes long. Please watch it.

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In a 7-minute video here.

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Video blogger John Green explains in this great 8-minute video that has been circulating over the past month. Green is very smart and offers the best, most succinct—and entertaining—explanation one is likely to find on the subject.

In a follow up video, Green presents a 5½-minute “capitalist case for health care reform,” which is also on the mark. I’ve been making much the same argument for years now but he says it better (and is more entertaining than I could ever be).

His video website (with brother Hank), VlogBrothers, is here.

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Brooklyn, September 4 2013 (photo credit: Shimon Gifter/AP)

Brooklyn, September 4 2013 (photo credit: Shimon Gifter/AP)

The video of Anthony Weiner’s shouting match with the voter—whom he called a “jackass”—in the Borough Park bakery yesterday has gone viral (here; watch the long version). I sort of agree with TNR’s Marc Tracy that it renders the Weiner kind of endearing, or at least sympathetic (somewhat). I’m reminded of Nicolas Sarkozy’s publicly blowing his fuses on at least three occasions during his first year as president: e.g. going ballistic at the photographers on his New Hampshire vacation in August ’07, or trash talking the fishermen at Guilvinec in November of that year. And then there was his (in)famous “Casse-toi pauvre con” (Beat it, asshole) at the Salon d’Agriculture in Feb. ’08. So who’s the better trash talker: the Weiner or Sarkozy? One thing is certain: Sarkozy is definitely the less endearing.


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[update below]

Steven Salaita, a prof at Virginia Tech, has a nice piece in Salon in which he rails on against the inane rhetoric in America about “supporting the troops.” He says that in America

we are repeatedly impelled to “support our troops” or to “thank our troops.” God constantly blesses them. Politicians exalt them. We are warned, “If you can’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.” One wonders if our troops are the ass-kicking force of P.R. lore or an agglomeration of oversensitive duds and beggars.

Such troop worship is trite and tiresome, but that’s not its primary danger. A nation that continuously publicizes appeals to “support our troops” is explicitly asking its citizens not to think. It is the ideal slogan for suppressing the practice of democracy, presented to us in the guise of democratic preservation.

Democracy may perhaps not be suppressed as a result of this nationalistic rhetoric but the latter is certainly a prerequisite in bringing about this eventuality.

Salaita continues

“Support the troops” is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation. The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.

Clichés aren’t usually meant to be analyzed, but this one illuminates imperialism so succinctly that to think seriously about it is to necessarily assess jingoism, foreign policy, and national identity. The sheer vacuity and inexplicability of the phrase, despite its ubiquity, indicates just how incoherent patriotism is these days.

Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq? The ones I’ve seen many times in the Arab world acting like an Adam Sandler character? “The troops” traverse vast sociological, geographical, economic and ideological categories. It does neither military personnel nor their fans any good to romanticize them as a singular organism.

And what, exactly, constitutes “support”? Is it financial giving? Affixing a declarative sticker to a car bumper? Posting banalities to Facebook? Clapping when the flight attendant requests applause?

Ultimately, the support we’re meant to proffer is ideological. The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical. To support the troops is to accept a particular idea of the American role in the world. It also forces us to pretend that it is a country legitimately interested in equality for all its citizens. Too much evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to accept such an assumption.

In reality, the troops are not actually recipients of any meaningful support. That honor is reserved for the government and its elite constituencies. “Support our troops” entails a tacit injunction that we also support whatever politicians in any given moment deem the national interest. If we understand that “the national interest” is but a metonym for the aspirations of the ruling class, then supporting the troops becomes a counterintuitive, even harmful, gesture.

The government’s many appeals to support the troops represent an outsourcing of its responsibility (as with healthcare, education and incarceration). Numerous veterans have returned home to inadequate medical coverage, psychological afflictions, unemployment and increased risk of cancer. The free market and corporate magnanimity are supposed to address these matters, but neither has ever been a viable substitute for the dynamic practices of communal policymaking. A different sort of combat ensues: class warfare, without the consciousness.

As in most areas of the American polity, we pay taxes that favor the private sector, which then refuses to contribute to any sustainable vision of the public good. The only serious welfare programs in the United States benefit the most powerful among us. Individual troops, who are made to preserve and perpetuate this system, rarely enjoy the spoils. The bonanza is reserved for those who exploit the profitability of warfare through the acquisition of foreign resources and the manufacture of weapons.

Supporting the troops is a cheerful surrogate for enabling the friendly dictators, secret operations, torture practices and spying programs that sustain this terrible economy.

Très bien. Read the whole thing here.

UPDATE: A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog has a valid response to Steven Salaita’s essay.

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Thomas Friedman's McMansion, 7117 Bradley Blvd, Bethesda, MD

Thomas Friedman’s McMansion, 7117 Bradley Blvd, Bethesda, MD

That’s the assertion of writer and former Wall Street executive Richard Eskow, who has a brilliant takedown of NYT Über-pundit Thomas Friedman—whom I essentially ceased reading years ago—on the Campaign for America’s Future blog. Money quote

Friedman occupies a unique place in the pundit ecosystem. From his perch at The New York Times, he idealizes the unregulated, winner-take-all economy of the Internet and while overlooking human, real-world concerns. His misplaced faith in a digitized “free” market reflects the solipsistic libertarianism of a technological über-class which stares into the rich diversity of human experience and sees only its own reflection staring back.

Friedman is a closet Ayn Rand in many ways, but he gives Rand’s ugly and exploitative philosophy a pseudo-intellectual, liberal-friendly feel-good gloss. He turns her harsh industrial metal music into melodious easy listening: John Galt meets John Denver…

Great stuff. Read the whole thing here.

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Conservative hypocrisy on race


In my previous post, on Americans and (in)curiosity, I cast some aspersions on right-wingers (one of my preferred pastimes). Continuing in this vein, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic had a pertinent commentary the other day on “Conservative hypocrisy on racial profiling and affirmative action,” in which he pointed out a glaring contradiction in the argument of the ghastly right-wing pundit Victor Davis Hanson, who, like many conservatives, has used the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman verdict to let loose on the question of race in America. Conservatives have a hard time talking about race. The American right had no problem with the pre-1960s racial status quo in America, had nothing to do with the civil rights movement—when it didn’t oppose it—, and built its post 1960s base on white Southerners who defected to the GOP as the Democrats became the party of civil rights and political home to the vast majority of newly enfranchised black voters (Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy’, etc). Since the 1960s conservatives—such as Victor Davis Hanson—have adopted a color blind discourse and systematically opposed policies that hint at racial preference. But, as Friedersdorf observes, VDH and other conservatives suddenly cease to be color blind when it comes to racial profiling. For VDH & Co., it is not okay to see blacks as blacks, except when it is.

In a recent National Review column on “Facing facts [sic] about race,” that Friedersdorf links to, VDH writes the following

In middle age, [my father] and my mother once were parking their car on a visit to San Francisco when they were suddenly surrounded by several African-American teens. When confronted with their demands, he offered to give the thieves all his cash if they would leave him and my mother alone. Thankfully they took his cash and left. I think that experience — and others — is why he once advised me, “When you go to San Francisco, be careful if a group of black youths approaches you.” Note what he did not say to me. He did not employ language like “typical black person.” He did not advise extra caution about black women, the elderly, or the very young — or about young Asian Punjabi, or Native American males.  In other words, the advice was not about race per se, but instead about the tendency of males of one particular age and race to commit an inordinate amount of violent crime. It was after some first-hand episodes with young African-American males that I offered a similar lecture to my own son. The advice was born out of experience rather than subjective stereotyping.

What dickheads, both father and son, to give such advice to their kids. As a generally white-looking person who lived for most of his youth and early adulthood in urban America, I could recount plenty of personal stories myself on this subject—of aggressions but more non-aggressions—but will resist that temptation (and which would take up a few hours of my time; I am utterly certain that I have had far more personal experience on this matter than has VDH or any of his politically kindred spirits who may be reading this).

Let me just recount one story here, a discussion with my 19-year-old daughter that happened precisely yesterday evening. Now my daughter has lived her entire life in Paris and (since age five) in our urban inner banlieue. She’s a city kid and has been out and about, navigating on public transportation, and going into Paris with friends or on her own since age 13. And as she entered her late teens, she started going out on weekend nights and coming home very late. As one knows, there is a certain level of criminality in Paris—crime rates in France and elsewhere in Europe are about the same as the US (with the singular exception of homicide)—, and with incivilities and street crime disproportionately committed by young males belonging to what Americans would refer to as racial or ethnic minorities. Now we—my wife and I—have never offered any advice to our daughter—not once, ever—about being wary of males of particular racial or ethnic groups. Not only did such never occur to us but she, as with any minimally street smart kid and with sources of information apart from her parents, was perfectly capable of figuring this kind of thing out for herself. So in the discussion yesterday, my daughter, as she was getting ready to go out on the town with friends, started to talk about—in a specific context—the incessant, daily harassment—sometimes threatening—that she and her girlfriends are subjected to on the street by young males. It was by no means the first time we’ve had this discussion but it’s always interesting to hear about it again. I rhetorically asked her—not for the first time—if the guys who bothered and said stuff to her were mostly renois and rebeus, i.e. blacks and Maghrebis/Arabs. She said of course, that it’s only them, that no blanc—white guy—or Jew would ever harass her, come on to her in public, or make unpleasant comments. C’est toujours les mêmes. But in pushing the discussion further, she specified that it’s not all the blacks or Arabs who may be hanging out on the street or on the train, or even most. She instinctively knows which ones are okay and which are not by their look—by the way they’re dressed and carry themselves—and how they behave. There are a number of cues, not just skin color. And it mainly comes down to social class. The assholes are the lumpenproletariat layabouts from the cités. My daughter and her copines do not racially profile. They read each situation as it develops—or does not develop—and react accordingly. They do not preemptively avoid young men of color. Their default posture is, in fact, not to do so. And they are not going to be wary of guys who are manifestly minding their own business. As my daughter has grown up in an urban multicultural and multiracial environment—and which has been reflected in her friendship circles—, her attitude on this is only normal. And is rather more sophisticated than that of VDH and his conservative crew.

On the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman verdict—of which I have read much—, let me link to just one commentary, by UC-Riverside English lit prof Vorris L. Nunley, “George Zimmerman never saw Trayvon Martin.” The lede: “Instead he encountered a black trope, a figure occupying the anxiety-ridden terrain of the white imagination.” And that imagination includes Victor Davis Hanson’s too.

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Last December I had a post on Robert Kagan’s article, “The Myth of American Decline,” that, as I noted, President Obama was quite taken with. I thought it was good too. In this vein—of America continuing to be Nº1—, here’s something from the not bad website Business Insider, on the “10 reasons why America will continue to dominate the global economy for years” to come. Every bit on the list is correct. I have never believed for a nanosecond that China will overtake the US in any of the domains essential to being a superpower: economic, military, and cultural global reach. In the latter two China cannot hold a candle to the US and never will (never meaning in the lifetime of anyone reading this). Economically there are too many structural impediments to China overtaking the US in the foreseeable future (not the least of which is that its nominal per capita GDP is less than one-eighth that of the US; and closing that gap before the end of the century is realistically not in the cards). As for the EU overtaking the US, no comment.

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1960s activist Steve Wasserman has a most interesting review essay in The Nation on the recently published Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., academic historians both. Wasserman, who knows the subject rather well, is critical of the book, which he says is “about as close to an official history as can be imagined.” Reading the essay brought back memories from my early ’70s gauchiste teen years, when I thought the Black Panthers were cool. I subscribed to the Black Panther Party’s official newspaper for a stretch—and remember well its exalting The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung—and, of course, read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (didn’t everyone?). My main memory from that is Cleaver recounting his pre-revolutionary youth, when he would rape black women as practice for raping white women. Nice.

On Cleaver, who was the BPP’s “minister of information,” Wasserman writes

Cleaver was regarded by many of the younger recruits within the party as their Malcolm X. A strong advocate of working with progressive whites, Cleaver was a man of large appetites, an anarchic and ribald spirit who relished his outlaw status. After years in prison, he was hellbent on making up for lost time and wasn’t about to kowtow to anyone—neither to Ronald Reagan, whom he mocked mercilessly, nor, as it would turn out, to Huey Newton. He was the joker in the Panther deck and a hard act to follow. Like so many of the Panthers’ leaders, he had killer looks, inhabiting his own skin with enviable ease. (The erotic aura that the Panthers presented was a not inconsiderable part of their appeal, as any of the many photographs that were taken of them show. And in this department, Huey was the Supreme Leader, and he never let you forget it.) Eldridge was the biggest mouth in a party of big mouths. He especially loved invective and adored the sound of his own voice, delivered in a sly baritone drawl. He was a gifted practitioner of the rhetoric of denunciation, favoring such gems as “fascist mafioso” and given to vilifying the United States, at every turn, as “Babylon.” He was a master of misogynist pith, uttering the imperishable “revolutionary power grows out of the lips of a pussy.” He was fond of repeating, as if it were a personal mantra: “He could look his momma in the eye and lie.” He was notorious in elite Bay Area movement circles for his many and persistent infidelities and for his physical abuse of his equally tough-talking and beautiful wife, Kathleen. About these failures, however, a curtain of silence was drawn. He was, all in all, a hustler who exuded charm and menace in equal measure.

I wasn’t too crazy about Cleaver—who, pour mémoire, converted to Mormonism in the 1980s and became a conservative Republican—but thought Huey Newton was pretty good, particularly after watching him on William Buckley’s Firing Line in 1973 (YouTube excerpt here). But Newton was as much a thug as Cleaver and which Wasserman reminds us of in quoting later published accounts of BPP members—but which Bloom and Martin leave out of their book. They leave a lot out, it seems

You won’t learn from Bloom and Martin the hard truth about Flores Forbes, a trusted enforcer for Newton, a stalwart of the party’s Orwellian “Board of Methods and Corrections,” and a member of what Newton called his “Buddha Samurai,” a praetorian guard made up of men willing to follow orders unquestioningly and do the “stern stuff.” Forbes joined the party at 15 and wasted no time becoming a zombie for Huey. Forbes was bright and didn’t have to be told; he knew when to keep his mouth shut. He well understood the “right to initiative,” a term Forbes tells us “was derived from our reading and interpretation of Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.” What Forbes took Fanon to mean was “that it is the oppressed people’s right to believe that they should kill their oppressor in order to obtain their freedom. We just modified it somewhat to mean anyone who’s in our way,” like inconvenient witnesses who might testify against Newton, or Panthers who’d run afoul of Newton and needed to be “mud-holed”—battered and beaten to a bloody pulp. Newton no longer favored Mao’s Little Red Book, preferring Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which he extolled for its protagonists’ Machiavellian cunning and ruthlessness. Nor will you learn from Bloom and Martin how Newton admired Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the tale of a hustler who becomes a revolutionary. Military regalia was out, swagger sticks were in. Newton dropped the rank of minister of defense. Some days he wanted to be called “Supreme Commander,” other days “Servant of the People” or, usually, just “Servant.” But to fully understand Huey’s devolution, you’d have to run Peebles’s picture backward, as the story of a revolutionary who becomes a hustler.

The political consciousness of the BPP cadres was clearly not raised during their period in Algiers, the world capital of tiersmondisme back then. For the anecdote, an Algerian-in-the-know told me stories some two decades ago about the BPP’s Algiers years (1969 to ’71 or thereabouts). The Algerians were initially thrilled to receive Cleaver and other Panthers (Algeria and the US did not have diplomatic relations at the time), who were set up in a villa in a nice neighborhood (probably Hydra) and supplied with resources, including women (i.e. prostitutes on the state payroll). But the Panthers quickly became a problem for the Algerians, with their loud parties—Algiers is a sleepy city after dark—, doing drugs, trying to pick up women in public… Instead of getting bona fide American revolutionaries, the Algerians got American urban voyous. The 1954-62 FLN had its share of voyous but also advanced political leadership. The BPP had a lot of the former but little of the latter. So the Algerian authorities quietly encouraged the Panthers to move on—and which they did (as they must have been bored out of their minds in Algiers; if one doesn’t speak French or Arabic and has little interest in Algeria, it would be a deadly dull place to live in).


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The Boston bombers – V

bruce beattie

John Cassidy of The New Yorker has a must read counterfactual reflection on what the fallout from the Boston bombing would have been had

the Tsarnaev brothers, instead of packing a couple of pressure cookers loaded with nails and explosives into their backpacks a week ago Monday, had stuffed inside their coats two assault rifles—Bushmaster AR-15s, say, of the type that Adam Lanza used in Newtown. What would have been different?

For starters, a lot more people would have been killed. But would the Tsarnaevs have been labeled “terrorists” (as Adam Lanza and Aurora shooter James Eagan Holmes were not)? Would their AR-15s have been designated as “weapons of mass destruction” (as the Tsarnaevs’ IED has been)? And what would have happened to the gun control bill in Congress? Read Cassidy’s examination here. And marvel once again at what a crazy country America is when it comes to guns.

Nate Silver had a post the other day on his FiveThirtyEight blog with poll data showing that Americans have a growing resolve to live with the threat of terrorism. In other words, Americans are, in fact, less hysterical over incidents of terrorism than the media makes them out to be. And they are certainly less so than politicians.

John Avlon of TDB has a column that is not really related to Boston—but is to the subject of my previous post, of politicians being idiots—, in which he expresses concern over adherence to conspiracy theories by growing numbers of GOP elected officials. “GOP lawmakers embrace the crazy.” I think we’ve known that for a while now.

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Boston Bombing Idiot Watch


I’ve been stocking links over the past week of particularly idiotic, asinine statements made by American commentators and politicians over the April 15th Boston bombing and the identification of the Tsarnaev brothers as the perpetrators. The bombing was certainly horrible but in terms of casualties was not quite on the same level as what happens on an ordinary day in Syria or Iraq. And it was not comparable to the wave of terrorist bombings in France in 1986 or 1995—or even of Mohamed Merah last year—, though which did not provoke in France anything approaching the unhinged reactions of high-profile US pundits and pols in the wake of Boston.

Of all the idiocies mouthed over the past week, the one whose author most deserves to be punched in the face—figuratively if not literally—is Bill Maher. Maher—whom I will admit to having found amusing and on target on occasion over the years—is apparently considered a liberal, but what he says here about the “dangerous doctrines” of Islam—as if “Islam” is some organic being that thinks for itself and above and beyond its 1.5 billion or whatever believers—is proof in the pudding that liberals can be as idiotic as conservatives. Anyone who can mouth such essentialist bullshit—and on national television no less—is not only an idiot but a raving idiot, and who is forever discredited in my intellectual book.

Another liberal idiot is Bob Beckel, Fox News talking head and onetime Dem politico, who says that the US should suspend the granting of visas for a period of time to foreign Muslim students wishing to study at US universities. So US visa forms will henceforth ask applicants to state their religion—as do a handful of countries in the world, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran—and with consular officials no doubt posing the question orally… Sure. I’m sorry but anyone who can seriously advance this proposition—and again, on national television no less—is an idiot. And a bigot too. End of discussion.

Despite these two nominally liberal nitwits—and I’m sure there are more—the great majority of idiotic statements have, of course, come from the right. E.g. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is considered a hot prospect for ’16, also evoked a visa suspension. If Rubio is indeed elected POTUS down the road, how much would one like to bet that he implements this? My personal assets are not considerable but I will lay them all on the line that he will have no memory of having made such a statement back in ’13. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for his part, was the first off the bat last week, with his batty statement about 19 year-old American citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s “ties to radical Islamic thought” justifying him being tried as an “enemy combatant.” Likewise with Sen. Dan Coates (R-IN), which prompted IR prof and blogger Daniel Drezner to ask “Will the Senator from the state of half-assed thinking please go sit in a corner?

Um, whatever happened to the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights? I thought these people considered it to be a quasi sacred document.

And then there were the digs at Boston liberals, notably by Arkansas state rep. Nate Bell, who tweeted that they were probably cowering at home wishing they had AR-15s with high-capacity magazines. When I read stuff like this my visceral view that the wrong side won the Civil War—that America would be a much better country without the South and Southerners—is reinforced.

But there are plenty of boneheaded idiots in the North as well, e.g. NY state senator Greg Ball—a GOPer, of course—, who asserted that not only should torture be applied to Dzhokhar T. but that he (Ball) would administer it personally. I would submit that Sen. Ball should be strapped up to the gégène himself. Pourquoi pas?

Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have also said crazy ass stuff but that’s normal for them and requires no mention, let alone links.

On the overall Weltanschauung of the right on the Boston bombing, Jon Stewart summed it up here. Touché!

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Donetsk 15 juin 2012

Conservative commentator Rod Dreher explains (via The Dish) why so many American conservatives have a problem with France. In short: France has a great culture and which makes some Americans insecure. The French also know how to live the good life and Americans are suspicious of that. Watch here.

The Dish post also links to a piece Dreher wrote for NRO in 2003, “I like France: A defense of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” in which, while denouncing France’s Iraq policy, he defends the country’s culture. I will wager that Dreher would probably want to take back his criticism of the French on Iraq (which France was of course right about), as well as his line about them “find[ing] it difficult to stand up to Islamic terrorism,” a domain in which the French have won kudos even from American conservatives.

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The Boston bombers – IV


A couple of links. Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Carola Suárez-Orozco, dean and professor respectively at UCLA, have an op-ed in the NYT on “Immigrant kids, adrift,” in which they discuss a study of theirs that finds

that the second generation — American-born kids of immigrant parents — assimilate, and even excel, to a greater extent than the “1.5 generation” (children who immigrate in or before their early teens).

This seems true from my own observations over the decades. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were members of the 1½ generation.

And the WSJ has a most interesting reportage on how Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s “Turn to religion split [his] home.” After converting to radical jihadism Tamerlan succeeding in convincing his mother to don the hijab but his father sharply opposed his new posture, and which, it seems, led to the parents’ divorce. This dynamic is not infrequent in Muslim immigrant families in North America and Europe.

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The Boston bombers – III


Just links today, no commentary. Except for one little bit on this FBI wanted poster, where one notes the DOB of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: July 22 1993. My daughter was born in 1993, as were most of her childhood friends. My daughter is a kid—for me at least—, as are her childhood friends. Now I can accept that someone born in 1993 could possibly be a terrorist. But a sufficiently dangerous terrorist to lock down a major US metropolitan area? This I cannot accept. It is thoroughly nonsensical.

On the lockdown, Harvard prof and Über-IR specialist Stephen Walt has an understated blog post on “America the skittish.”

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading commentators, has a column on Ynet in which he says that Americans act “As if they caught another bin Laden.” The lede: “Americans’ reaction to capture of teenage Boston terrorist [is] exaggerated, sends dangerous message.”

In TNR John Judis interviews the always interesting French Islamologue Olivier Roy on the Boston bombings.

The NYT has a reportage datelined Dagestan on how “Search for home led suspect to land marred by strife.”

The suspect, of course, is Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The Boston Globe reports on how he disrupted services at the Cambridge mosque. He was a bit of a hothead. An outlier.

In a somewhat of a correction to what I wrote yesterday about America possibly being a nation of p**sies, WaPo has an article on how “Americans [are] react[ing] to Boston bombings with confidence and resilience.” C’est bien.

And finally, Richard Falk, Princeton emeritus professor and current UNHRC Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, has “A commentary on the marathon murders” in Foreign Policy Journal, in which just about everything he has to say is irrelevant and has nothing to do with anything. Richard Falk is a broken record who has been droning on about the same goddamned thing for decades. He is also a nutbag and a whack job whose UNHRC position only further discredits the already discredited UNHRC. Ban Ki-moon would do well to terminate his UN employment. Immediately.

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The Boston bombers – II

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Having been tweaked all day by a critic on FB for yesterday’s post on the Boston bombers, I am going to refrain from offering my own commentary for the next 48 hours, until the dust has settled a bit. So in lieu of my pertinent observations here are a few good articles I’ve read today.

The most ‘must read’ one is John Cassidy’s commentary in The New Yorker on the Boston lockdown, on how the “Terrorist hunt [sent] America over the edge.” Money quote

From one perspective, I suppose, [the lockdown] was just a sensible precaution. During the overnight shootout, many details of which remain unclear, one police officer had been killed and another one had been injured. The police believed Dzhokhar to be armed and dangerous. But does that justify locking down an entire city? America is a violent place. Practically every day, somewhere in the country, cops are looking for armed and dangerous men who have just killed one or more innocent members of the public. But when a gunman runs amok in East L.A., say, they don’t close down Brentwood or Santa Monica. The very thought is absurd.

Ah, you may say, Tsarnaev wasn’t just an ordinary criminal or lunatic; he was a terrorist, and, according to some reports, he had one or more explosive devices, possibly including a bomb vest. Now we are getting to the crux of things. Whenever the word “terrorist” is mentioned in this country, reason tends to go out the window, and many other things go with it, too, such as intellectual consistency, a respect for civil liberties, and a sense of proportion.

The Boston lockdown was insane. Totally unhinged. Even America’s Israeli friends are shaking their heads in dismay, wondering if the great hyperpower is a nation of p**sies. Whether Americans are this or not, terrorists the world over have now been informed: if you want to bring the United States of America to its heels, to sow mass hysteria and chaos and inflict tens of billions of dollars of economic losses subsequent to mass lockdowns, just plant a few simultaneously exploding homemade bombs across the country (in shopping malls, high school sporting events, wherever) that can be labeled “terrorist” (and better yet, Islamic jihadist terrorist). Could this possibly happen in the coming years? What do you think?

If such a scenario does come to pass—and particularly if there are a few of them in rapid succession—America could indeed witness a suspension of constitutionally guaranteed liberties, or at least intense pressure in this direction. And on this, I have no confidence whatever in the American political class, and particularly on the right side of the political spectrum.

In the wake of the Boston bombing and attendant hysteria, Emily Bazelon in Slate asks “How much civil liberty should we give up?” The lede: “Not much. The truth is it doesn’t appear that greater powers would have helped the authorities stop the Boston bombing.”

On the lockdown, Sandy Tolan has a post on his blog asking some questions about martial law in Boston. And a former student of mine, who will be graduating from Harvard next month, posted this FB status update today in regard to the Saudi marathon man who was briefly detained last week

It was startling to see how few people (on campus) raised objections to the treatment of this man. When the stakes of catching the “bad guy” were so painfully evident and when violence touched close to home, people seemed to care a LOT less about racial profiling…


David Cay Johnston has a timely article in The National Memo on “How the NRA impeded the Boston bomber investigation.” And retired FBI agent Coleen Rowley has a not uninteresting piece in Consortiumnews.com on “Chechen terrorists and the neocons.”

And as a useful reminder, an Atlantic piece from last June has been circulating on how “Americans are as likely to be killed by their own furniture as by terrorism.”

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The Boston bombers

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev  (Photos: Julia Malakie/The Lowell Sun via AP; FBI via AFP/Getty Images)

Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
(Photos: Julia Malakie/The Lowell Sun via AP; FBI via AFP/Getty Images)

So they turned out to be Chechens. Or, more specifically, ethnic Chechens from Kyrgyzstan. Of all the ridiculous speculation since Monday as to the identity of the bomber(s)—if he/they were Arabs, Muslims, homegrown American extremists (à la Timothy McVeigh), whatever—I doubt anyone thought they’d be this (the only thing that was clear from the outset was that the perpetrators had to be from the Boston area). Okay, so they’re Muslims—which will warm the hearts of Pamela Geller, Steven Emerson, Daniel Pipes, and certain persons I know personally—but so what? If the alienated, angry Tamerlan hadn’t been a radicalized Muslim with access to jihadist websites, he would have likely committed his massacre the all-American way, by acquiring assault rifles and mowing people down à la Sandy Hook or Columbine.

In respect to the Columbine killers (today is the anniversary of that massacre, BTW), they were such outliers—so statistically insignificant in terms of what they did—that no lessons could be drawn from it (except in regard to the ease with which Americans can acquire an arsenal of weapons). Their motivations were psychological (and with one of the killers being the psychopath who hatched the plan). It looks to be likewise with the Boston bombers. One does learn that Tamerlan didn’t have American friends and that he felt alienated from America. This sometimes happens with immigrants who arrive in their mid teens. It’s a delicate age and fitting into the American teen life is not easy if one comes from a different culture, particularly one from Asia. But Tamerlan was doubly deracinated, as even back “home”—in Kyrgyzstan and Daghestan—he was, as an ethnic Chechen, an outsider. So he had some psychological issues and, unlike the Columbine killers—whose massacre was rendered possible by America’s gun culture—, not much could have been done to prevent him from making and planting his homemade bomb once he decided to do so.

I’ve read a few worthy articles on the subject today, one being the NYT’s reportage on the “Boy [Dzhokhar] at home in the U.S. [being] swayed by the one who wasn’t [Tamerlan].” And on the NYT opinion page is an op-ed by journalist Oliver Bullough, who has covered the Chechen conflict, “Beslan meets Columbine.”

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a comment, “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, lost and found,” in which he makes this observation

And it was an American story, too, in what could only be called a hysterical and insular overreaction that allowed it to become the sole national narrative. I happened to be in London on 7/7—a far more deadly and frightening terrorist attack—and by 7 P.M. on that horrible day, with the terrorists still at large (they were dead already, but no one knew that) the red double-decker buses were rolling and the traffic was turning and life, though hardly normal, was determinedly going on. The decision to shut down Boston, though doubtless made in good faith and from honest anxiety, seemed like an undue surrender to the power of the terrorist act—as did, indeed, the readiness to turn over the entire attention of the nation to a violent, scary, tragic, lurid but, in the larger scheme of things, ultimately small threat to the public peace.

Yes, America’s wild, hysterical overreaction to terrorist attacks, however few people end up being killed. The lockdown in Boston was insane. No such lockdown is conceivable in any other country in the world—or even in the US if it were just an ordinary killer on the loose. Or even a serial killer.

À propos, I am reminded today by DC friend Dan Brumberg of the October 2002 sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area. Quoting Dan on FB

The Boston story and the fate of the 19 year old arrested last night reminds me of Lee Boyd Malvo, 17 years old when he teamed up with his murderous “father figure” [John Allen Muhammad] to terrorize DC for weeks. I remember sitting at an outdoor cafe wondering if we would be shot…the entire thing was surreal more than scary…Places we normally passed through or shot at were scenes of death.

Yet there was no lockdown in DC at the time. Nor, needless to say, was there a stigmatizing of blacks or Caribbean immigrants on account of the killer’s race and racial motives in committing his crimes.

Also in The New Yorker are comments by Jeffrey Toobin, “Could we have foreseen the Boston attack?” (answer: no) and David Remnick, “The Brothers Tsarnaev,” in which he focuses on the Chechen angle.

Writer Alyssa Lindley Kilzer, who knew the Tsarnaev family, has an account on her blog, “I’ve met the Boston bombers,” and which has some interesting information.

And if anyone hasn’t seen it by now, here’s the must watch interview with Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar.

More to follow.

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Ezra Klein has republished a post on his WaPo Wonkblog from a year ago on “Why an MRI costs $1,080 in America and $280 in France.” He thinks it’s worth rereading now and it is. Americans don’t pay more because they receive superior care, are sicker, or visit the doctor more often. They pay more because the predatory American health care system is rigged to cheat them. Americans get shafted at the hospital and they’re powerless as individuals to do anything about it. So much for the free market. Klein mentions and links to Time magazine’s mega 24,000 word investigative report “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” which is a must read if anyone hasn’t seen it by now.

Re my own out-of-pocket health care costs over the past two months—related to my recent mishap—, they so far add up to €470. This is the total amount I’ve had to write checks for. A good part of it will be reimbursed by the Sécurité Sociale and mutuelle (if it hasn’t already; I’ll have to check). The other day I received a bill for €44 from the ER for services rendered when I was taken in on Jan. 18th. I should be reimbursed for that.

À propos, I received an email yesterday from a friend in the US, age 87, who wrote about receiving her medical bills from France after  a sudden week-long hospitalization at the Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris while visiting in 2011, during which time her condition was quite serious. The amount she owed was $32,000 (fortunately covered by her US insurance). She said the bill at her hospital in the US would have easily been half a million dollars.

How anyone can defend the present financing of the American health care system is beyond me. In fact, they shouldn’t even try, because they can’t.


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