“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, July 07, 2006

the politics of liberal trivilization -- LI gets the inside stories on the celebrities YOU want to know about!

Steven Pearlstein is the smart WAPO economics columnist (Robert Samuelson is the dumb one. Fair and balanced reporting means hearing from both sides). Pearlstein is a defender of the traditional Keynesian line, for which LI has enormous sympathy. In that vision, two coordinate policy goals are set. On the one hand, free trade, that mainstay of economic orthodoxy since Adam Smith, retains its sacred place. The Keynesians call for its furthest extension, including overthrowing national barriers in the labor market as well as in commodities. On the other hand, Pearlstein supports heavy public investment in things like transportation, education, health and environmental protection. He believes that the latter is the necessary political concomitant to the former, since the market can be assumed to disadvantage, at any one time, some sector of the national economy – this is the iron logic of comparative advantage, which is never stable. Like a good Keynesian, he bemoans the blindness of the business community in not seeing the need for public investment:

“Globalization has been a big plus for the United States and many of its citizens. The gains from it,and the costs, however, have been distributed somewhat unevenly, and we have resisted mechanisms for making those more fair because of the ideological bias against government interference with the economy. So it comes down to this; as long as the Republican loving business community continues to push for more tax cuts and prevents improvement and expansion of necessary public services, like day care and good public schools and excellent public transportation and great parks and universal health care and better retirement programs -- until then, they won't get the next liberalization in trade and investment rules. Its really just that simple. Maybe that is a fine choice for them at this point -- after all, they are doing very well at the moment. But it IS the choice. They like to believe that if they can just get their message out, about how globalization benefit everyone, they can succeed. But they won't, because the facts and the feelings to support it just aren't there. People have plenty of experience with globalization in the United States, and they just aren't fully satisfied they want to go any further down that road without the kinds of things I just mentioned. So the business community is going to have to remember what it is like to operate from the political center and deal with Republicans and Democrats.”

It is at this point that one feels an ever so slight but still perceptible ‘skip’ in Pearlstein’s position, like a needle meeting a scratched groove. For the fact is that, from the rational choice perspective – the same perspective that legitimizes the expansion of free trade - the business community shouldn’t prefer to ‘operate’ from the center. To remain competitive and avoid what rational choice theory abhors – rent seeking – businesses should, on the contrary, pursue every short term advantage. Part of that pursuit is spending money that will bring a high return on investment. And that is where politics comes in – because it is relatively cheap to spend money spent to ‘buy’ politicians to create policies that produce huge advantages for businesses. Those advantages are often tax advantages. So that the public investment Pearlstein advocates cannot be funded, unless one funds them by massive government borrowing. The system we have now – tax cuts for the rich and massive borrowing for public investment – is the direct result of a uniformly rational choice economy. In such economy, the requirement that businesses make money in a competitive way – the selection pressure on ROI – inevitably tends towards exploiting any niche that lends itself to free riding, and to support of public disinvestments insofar as that removes a cost from businesses. This is why the business cycle is inevitable in capitalism – the more homogenous capitalism is, the more the real structural conflicts that it encodes will emerge in unpredictable intervals to create downturns of indeterminate depth.

There is no area within the economy that is exempt from the same economic laws that justify unlimited free trade – politics is as much of a market in the market economy as automobiles, or marriage.

All of which means that, from the neo-orthodox viewpoint, Pearlstein is simply being unacceptably finicky. However, from a more (oh, hateful term) post-Keynesian viewpoint, we can see that the terms themselves – the cards the economists are dealing each other – are marked. In actuality, and let me italicize this – "all institutional structures are rent seeking by definition.” By which I mean that institutions don't directly respond to human needs, like products or services. They require upkeep. In the course of that upkeep, they constitute themselves as attractors -- that is, they constitute themselves as independent entities with their own interests. To abolish all rent seeking is to abolish society. There’s no other way to put it. To allow rent seeking simply to flourish is to corrupt the base of society. To tow the middle line, one must not suffer from the conceptual delusion that strikes the neo-classical economist when he advises about public policy – that policymakers – unlike any other members of the genus homo oeconomicus – seek or even can seek a completely altruistic goal. Assimilation into an institution, which is how institution’s work, means identifying one’s interests, to a certain extent, with the institution.

We are living in the era of the revival of neo-classical models. These models see no good in rentseeking, and they see every good in efficiency – the golden calf the University of Chicago professors dance around. In response to the world wide collapse of labor’s bargaining power (both in the business world and in the political world), the default liberal position has become very like that outlined by Pearlstein: the state will, in essence, perform the function that unions used to perform, using taxation, education, and its other numerous instruments to put the worker on the social escalator. But one has to ask: in the absence of the power of organized labor, how do liberals expect the state to have the political credit to do this? Why should the state be expected to play this countervailing role? In a society dominated by businesses pursuing their rational choices, you get exactly the Bush culture we have now. It was a little alien embryo in the 90s, and then it burst out of its carrier body, Aliens fashion. The liberal assumption is that the part of the society with the most money will refrain from using it to exert political power – and if not, the liberal will create reforms in the process to restrain that power. However, there is nothing more porous than campaign finance regulation, for the simple reason that it is in nobody’s short term interest to obey the spirit of it.

Without abiding extra state and party pressures, liberalism becomes a matter of infinitely conferring about political processes, or it becomes a matter of trivialization. The politics of liberal trivialization, in which more attention is paid to violent teenage computer games than, say, the violence effected by a grossly unequal healthcare system on teenage health, is the current system we live under. I could complain about Hilary or complain about Senator X, and will probably do so in future posts as I’ve done in the past, but both are responding to the logic of the system – neither Hilary nor X deflated labor’s position in the modern system.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

mexico's election - and fairy tales from Jorge Castañeda

Jorge Castañeda has turned into the teller of the Mexican establishment’s favorite fairy tale, which begins like this (I take this from his current essay in Foreign Affairs, Latin America’s Left Turn):

“JUST OVER a decade ago, Latin America seemed poised to begin a virtuous cycle of economic progress and improved democratic governance, overseen by a growing number of centrist technocratic governments. In Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, buttressed by the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, was ready for his handpicked successor to win the next presidential election. Former Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso was about to beat out the radical labor leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for the presidency of Brazil. Argentine President Carlos Menem had pegged the peso to the dollar and put his populist Peronist legacy behind him. And at the invitation of President Bill Clinton, Latin American leaders were preparing to gather in Miami for the Summit of the Americas, signaling an almost unprecedented convergence between the southern and northern halves of the Western Hemisphere.

"What a difference ten years can make. Although the region has just enjoyed its best two years of economic growth in a long time and real threats to democratic rule are few and far between, the landscape today is transformed. Latin America is swerving left, and distinct backlashes are under way against the predominant trends of the last 15 years: free-market reforms, agreement with the United States on a number of issues, and the consolidation of representative democracy. This reaction is more politics than policy, and more nuanced than it may appear. But it is real.”

The fairy tale dimension of this – for instance, that Salinas, a man 'elected' by massive vote fraud, whose delivery of the presidency was not to a hand picked successor (oops, that guy was gunned down) but to a man who had barely begun ruling when the Mexican economy cracked up – casts a blot over Castañeda’s reputation for astuteness. Perhaps he is suffering from long term memory loss. The article is, nevertheless, important. The pathological hatred that Obrador evokes among a cadre of formerly leftist intellectuals (who view themselves as a Latin American form of New Labour – strong on free trade, strong on public investment in human capital – or not so strong on the latter if there is a banking collapse that requires looting the treasury to float various private fortunes) is not interpreted, here, but radiates from such paragraphs as:

“THE LEFTIST leaders who have arisen from a populist, nationalist past with few ideological underpinnings--Chávez with his military background, Kirchner with his Peronist roots, Morales with his coca-leaf growers' militancy and agitprop, López Obrador with his origins in the PRI--have proved much less responsive to modernizing influences. For them, rhetoric is more important than substance, and the fact of power is more important than its responsible exercise. The despair of poor constituencies is a tool rather than a challenge, and taunting the United States trumps promoting their countries' real interests in the world. The difference is obvious: Chávez is not Castro; he is Perón with oil. Morales is not an indigenous Che; he is a skillful and irresponsible populist. López Obrador is neither Lula nor Chávez; he comes straight from the PRI of Luis Echeverría, Mexico's president from 1970 to 1976, from which he learned how to be a cash-dispensing, authoritarian-inclined populist. Kirchner is a true-blue Peronist, and proud of it.”

In Castañeda’s fairy tale, the populist leftists – the devil’s seed – contrast with good leftists who – unsurprisingly – are just like himself. They came from the hard left – the Communist parties of yore – but as the cold war ended, embraced the idea of reform with enthusiasm. Reform, of course, means neo-liberalism on steroids. Castañeda does some bogus comparison work to show how bad populist leftists – like Chavez – are leading their countries into the financial abyss, while good leftists – former communists pursuing Chairman Milton Friedman’s revolutionary line – have been happy homemakers.

To do this, Castañeda does things like comparing Mexico’s growth – from 1999 to 2004 – to Venezuela’s. Disingenuous is no word for it. He is so set on discrediting Chavez that he gets his dates confused:

“A simple comparison with Mexico--which has not exactly thrived in recent years--shows how badly Venezuela is faring. Over the past seven years, Mexico's economy grew by 17.5 percent, while Venezuela's failed to grow at all. From 1997 to 2003, Mexico's per capita GDP rose by 9.5 percent, while Venezuela's shrank by 45 percent. From 1998 to 2005, the Mexican peso lost 16 percent of its value, while the value of the Venezuelan bolivar dropped by 292 percent. Between 1998 and 2004, the number of Mexican households living in extreme poverty decreased by 49 percent, while the number of Venezuelan households in extreme poverty rose by 4.5 percent. In 2005, Mexico's inflation rate was estimated at 3.3 percent, the lowest in years, while Venezuela's was 16 percent.”

If Chavez came in in 1999, why are we dealing with Mexico in 1997? And where are those GDP growth figures for 2004? 2005? Argentina and Venezuela, devil states according to Castañeda, posted the best GDP figures for 2005 in Latin America. And Venezuela's inflatin problem, in 2005, surely stems from GDP growth of 17 percent in 2004 -- sorta missing from the article, eh? Since 2005 does seem to interest Castañda when it comes to inflation, surely that is a relevant statistic. Unless, of course, he is making a crooked case before a packed jury. In fact, Castañeda has been making crooked cases for a long time, now. It is his version of Foxismo.

One can agree with part of Castañeda’s fairy tale, at least. Among the many reasons that the communist party was a complete disaster in the 20th century was its inculcation of a power mad mindset among the intelligentsia. In Latin America, this meant that communists could easily move from the far left to the far right in the social and economic policies they pursued – or rather, that they allied with the powerful to pursue. J. Edgar Hoover was right – never trust a communist. He was simply wrong about the reason – Hoover thought you could always trust a communist to be communist – showing that he should have gotten out of the house and snuck away from the horsetrack set a little more often. Actually, you can never trust a communist to be communist.

Mexico is, at present, the house that Salinas built. (And speaking of houses, since Salinas has once again settled in Mexico City, it seems Castañeda has been his guest at various parties. Both men share an astonishing lack of shame.) Zedillo and Fox have both basically followed Salinas’ path of trade liberalization and an absence of state policies to either invest in human capital (in spite of the Blairist rhetoric) or to leverage the Mexican place in the global system to once again jump start wages. The state organizations that desperately did need reform in order to create strong instruments to countervail corporate interests – notably, the interface between the state and the labor unions, and the regulatory regime that should oversee environment, health, finance, etc. – have never been reformed – they have been undermined. The Salinas economy has aggravated the perennial Mexican problem of cumulative advantage and the elite, people such as Castañda, have become even harder in their attitudes. New Labour is impossible in a place where there exists no compact at all between the elite and the working class. In England, no working man would chuckle at the kidnapping and torture of some rich City banker. In DEF, however, there is a distinct schadenfreude whenever a doctor's family has to pay a ransom for the son or daughter. That's a sign that things are bad. Very bad.

It may be that this election is the end of the line for Salinas’ vision. As the more astute financial papers have perceived, the PRD has emerged as at least the second party in Mexico, displacing the PRI. In the 50/50 state, Obrador – who is not going to go away and sulk, like Cardenas did after 1988 – has the pieces to block “reform”. The PAN, at the moment, has the pieces to block Obrador’ s New Deal. This election shows the marshalling of forces, but far be it from LI to predict the next moves in the game.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

x ray of a news story - the mexican election

The Mexican election is proving to be an x ray of the news business.

The so called “preliminary result” showed that PAN’s candidate, and the candidate of emerging market investors, Felipe Calderon, had pulled ahead by 400,000 some votes. The number remaining to count was 800.000 votes. Hence, it looked like Calderon had an insurmountable lead.

This, at least, is what the NYT reported. And it was reported internationally. Here, for example, is the Globe and Mail (a Canadian paper for which LI has written), today:

“The party of leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador challenged preliminary results of Sunday's presidential election, accusing Mexican election authorities of failing to count more than three million votes.
Mr. Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, has claimed victory in the divisive election even though he trailed his conservative rival, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, by slightly more than 400,000 votes, or one percentage point, after the Federal Election Institute (IFE) completed a preliminary count on Monday.
The official count is due to start today, but an announcement of the result is not expected until Sunday.

"Preliminary figures showed Mr. Calderon with 36.4 per cent of the vote, Mr. Lopez Obrador with 35.3 per cent and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) with 21.6 per cent.”


This is the Financial Times story, today:

“Manuel Camacho, a congressman for Mr Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution party (PRD) and a key strategist in the leftwing candidate's campaign, told the FT yesterday: "We are almost certainly going to contest this election . . . but we are not going to generate a dispute unless we are sure of our arguments."

"His remarks were made as Felipe Calderon, the centre-right candidate for the ruling National Action party (PAN), appeared to have taken a small but decisive lead in what is turning out to have been the closest election in Mexico's history.
A preliminary count by the country's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) showed Mr Calderon with an advantage of 400,000 votes - about 1 per cent of the total cast - over Mr Lopez Obrador.”


These stories repeat the AP and NYT accounts from July 3. The problem is, of course, that they are false. The notion that, for instance, there is a preliminary count is a newspaper event – as we learned in today’s stories in WAPO, the NYT, and the LATimes.

From today’s LATimes“Ugalde [the head of the commission counting the votes] reminded Mexicans in a television interview Tuesday that the preliminary count issued by the institute had no legal standing. The official winner will be determined after a recount of the polling reports begins today. It remains unclear when that count will be complete.

"We still do not have a winner," Ugalde said, adding that there was never any intent to hide the vote result from the public.”

And further:

“An initial count of the ballots gave a slim but apparently insurmountable lead to Calderon. On Monday evening, Calderon was leading Lopez Obrador by 402,708 votes, with 98.45% of polling stations "processed," according to official reports.

But election authorities acknowledged Tuesday that the preliminary count did not include vote totals from more than 11,000 stations where "irregularities" were noted in official paperwork. Those stations were listed as "processed" in the official reports, but their votes were not included in the tally.

Late Tuesday, election officials added the 2.5 million votes to the public count. Lopez Obrador outpolled Calderon on these ballots by more than 145,000 votes, narrowing Calderon's lead to slightly more than 257,000 ballots, or 0.6 percentage point.”

Now, when LI first scribbled this down, we were sure that something odd was going on with the very notion of preliminary results. Apparently, the oddity stems from an agreement between the parties and the election commission. This is from a site entitled Mexdata:

"As a matter of fact, Mexico’s electoral law does not include the PREP mechanism, nor is the chairman of the board of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) given the option to release the preliminary results publicly on the same day as the election. The decision to allow this was the result of an agreement reached with the political parties, which said four hours after the polls close each could have their data transmitted to the IFE, so that it could then release trusted preliminary result data on election night.

The PREP results do not take into consideration any challenges made by poll representatives, nor the possibility of ballots from some of those polls being annulled. However, besides the dependable information each political party knows this, through their polling place representatives, as they too have the information that supposedly corresponds with that of the IFE. Thus the PREP results are trustworthy, although not definitive."

So it is going to far to say that the newspapers were wholly inventing the preliminary results -- rather, they were giving them a false finality. The word to watch for – the word that went around the world – is “insurmountable.” As LI noted a couple of days ago, the news – especially when these kinds of coups occur – operates in a special temporal mode. Just like in your favorite fascoid action movie, the hero moves in slo-mo. This isn’t just one way of showing an event –it is an essential constituent of the event. What is otherwise unbelievable happens right before your baby blues. How can you doubt your vision? How can you doubt that ‘insurmountable’ lead – which seems, indeed, to have been cut in half, now, with 900,000 votes still waiting to be counted?

In this way, the Obrador’s complaint can be made to seem like sour grapes. Which is how the headlines, then, will cast the issue – for after the hero, some stunning Aryan, has taken care of the villain, the film jumps back to normal speed. Is the villain going to start complaining? Why, this is the way films are made. You can't turn against the very condition of your representation. That condition is inevitable. To complain about it shows a lack of the sportif! So many poor people do that. They sit around and bitch. Life’s unfair. Like, get a job is the only answer to that one.

As for the news role in making sure that there are no surprises in these elections, the end of the LATimes piece has a nice and telling detail:

“Suspicion among Lopez Obrador's supporters was heightened Monday when the investigative magazine Proceso, citing police intelligence sources, reported that senior Interior Ministry officials had attempted to shape media coverage on election night.

"Ministry officials called the news directors at Mexico's two leading television networks and requested that they not broadcast the results of their exit polls, Proceso reported.

"Interior Minister Carlos Abascal did not deny making such calls, though he said Mexico's media were free of the government controls of the recent past. The networks did not report the specific figures from their exit poll results out of a sense of responsibility, he said.

"Abascal made several oblique references to Lopez Obrador, without naming him, and insisted on the need for all parties to respect the official count. He noted that during the campaign, all parties signed an accord pledging to honor the results.

"We insist that the electoral process has to be absolutely respected, because it was transparent," Abascal said. "It is characteristic of democracy to have argument and passionate rivalry, but it is also characteristic of democracy to submit unconditionally to the referee and the result."”

The sham, here, is paper thin. As PAN already showed when they tried to impeach Obrador, the party still has not got down the PRI talent for suppressing the opposition.

LI, of course, hopes that Obrador’s share of the 900.000 still to count might just overcome the insurmountable lead of … what is it now? 257,000 votes. But the iconic 400,000 that gave Calderon his ‘insurmountable’ lead is what will stick with the media. The outlines of the story are in place, just as they were in Florida. It isn’t enough just to steal elections with the ridiculous array of problems that we saw in Ohio in 2004, say – the press – which often chuckles and tut tuts itself about being so concerned with the horse race, the scoop - is critical in shaping the story.

The horse race is fixed. The mounts are doped. And we will definitely not be listening to complaints by the 2 dollar bettors, who obviously don’t know what the meaning of ‘insurmountable’ is.

ps -- for the other side of these numbers, making the case that the votes are already counted from the 11,000 supposedly tossed out precincts, LI readers can check out Markinmexico Blog. We looked around to find some conservative commentary on Mexico, but it is all so depressingly the same hamburger. But Mark, who is pro-PAN, is actually (mirabile dictu!) an intellectually respectable source of information.

pps -- it looks like Mexico might get something that the U.S. was denied in 2000 - an open election. The turnabout for Obrador is astonishing the Mexican electorate, who are seeing a thing never seen in Mexico -- the way the election results are made. Mexico has been haunted, since 1988, by stolen elections, and by the never explained events at the end of the Salinas era. This election is going to cripple, we think, Foxismo -- that most dubious of macro-economic strategies -- even if Calderon turns out, in the end, to be the winner. Calderon is a remarkable blank in his own election -- Obrador, as either a hate figure or an adored figure, is the only politician, at the moment, who counts. Calderon's proclamation that he slept late this morning (who, me worry?) was pathetic in every way. The PAN has not had time to absorb the whole disgusting infrastrucutre of the Salinas era PRI yet - though, of course, they are financed by the same people.

Obrador, it seems to me, did the right thing in the final weeks of the campaign by bringing in, of all people, FDR to drive out the voodoo doll of Chavez that the PAN was trying to hang around his neck. In fact, Mexico does need a heavily Keynesian policy -- it cannot continue the cheap labor policy to find its niche in the world economy. That made some sense twenty years ago, but only if combined with policies that would, in effect, accumulate capital -- both private and public. This never happened. Mexico can't compete with China on the road to the bottom, and it is gong to have massive problems in those industrial areas, like Juarez, in which the working wage, if you aren't lucky enough to find a job with a drug mafia, has remained unchanged for twenty years. And along with the wage stagnation comes the stagnation in the state of manufacturing: what they are doing in Juarez is what they were doing 20 years ago. That is the failure of Salinas style neo-liberalism, a sort of wax museum of the old blue book days in the U.K., circa 1850. It is a dead end, and whether the symbolic corpse at the end of it is the 1 day wonder of Calderon, or whether the symbolic corpses are more plentiful, and composed of the butchered women of Juarez -- the fact is, that road doesn't go anywhere anymore.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

happy 4th!

Happy fourth, sons and daughters of liberty!

Resolutions are made on New Year's day, so why not on the 4th? Patriotic resolutions. LI's are:
a. to keep shooting peas at the imperial nightmare we now struggle under;
b. to choke the army, overthrow illegal executive power, and end the occupation of Iraq;
c. to advance the cause of transforming the treadmill of production into an earth friendly system, so help me God;
d. to thread the narrow passages, make the crossings over the howling deserts, and water the horses of the grand old American language, my lovely tongue.

And here's some Blake from America: a prophecy:

The bones of death, the cov'ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry'd.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;


Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Cobblestone, the magazine of pre-teen warmongering

Here’s a story that made LI’s blood pressure shoot up.


“Parents and teachers are complaining that the latest issue of a popular magazine for preteens amounts to little more than an early recruitment pitch for the Army.
Cobblestone magazine, which is put out by Carus Publishing in Peterborough, is aimed at children ages 9-14 and is distributed nationwide to schools and libraries. Its latest issue features a cover photo of a soldier in Iraq clutching a machine gun and articles on what it's like to go through boot camp, a rundown of the Army's ''awesome arsenal'' and a detailed description of Army career opportunities.”

Stories like this show pretty much what the struggle in this country is all about. On one side is a war culture proposing to grind our children into Gainsbugers. On the other side is pure goodness. Hey, it is an easy choice!

“Most controversial has been a set of classroom guides that accompany the magazine, which suggest teachers invite a soldier, Army recruiter or veteran to speak to their classes and ask students whether they might want to join the Army someday.

One of the teaching guides -- written by Mary Lawson, a teacher in Saint Cloud., Fla. -- suggests having students write essays pretending they are going to join the Army: ''Have them decide which career they feel they would qualify for and write a paper to persuade a recruiter why that should be the career.''”

Here’s a counter suggestion from LI. Invite a peace activist to the classroom. Ask students how they might react to attacks on the Constitution by their own government. Explain concepts like “mercenary,” “tyranny,” "aggressive war." Have students write essays about how they would react to having their country occupied for three or four years. Show pictures of the dead and wounded of Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad, Samara and other Iraqi cities. Take students on a field trip to the local recruiting station. Supply them with picket signs saying, Hell no, we won’t go. Explain hell and devils (Hint: Use photograph of Vice President as an illustration).

Seriously, there are anti-recruitment groups who are doing high school visits. This is a link to a directory of ‘opt out’ organizations (one of which is located in LI’s town – Austin, Texas).

Sunday, July 02, 2006

the curious case of the terrorist who barked in the night

One of the truly astonishing things about the past five years, all things considered, is the de-emphasis on crimes that make the Bush administration feel threatened. So, once it was apparent that the FBI was too disorganized to solve the anthrax case, the case disappeared from the news, generating less stories in all, than, say, the prosecution of Michael Jackson. And once it became apparent that the Bush administration strategy in Afghanistan was not aimed at destroying Al Qaeda, but preserving a remnant of it (terrorism-on-tap, a cynical and criminal tactic), the press fell into line, invariably describing Osama bin Laden as ‘on the run,’ and pretending that his whereabouts are a deep dark mystery. It is less deep and dark a mystery than what VP Cheney was doing at that ranch in Texas last autumn. And Osama bin Laden seems far less on the run than your average Hollywood starlet, always having to jet off to some new location. Al Qaeda’s structures are alive and vigorous in Pakistan, and have aligned with a whole network of Islamicist parties there. In the rural areas, they provide what little governance there is, if Stephen Coll’s articles in the New Yorker are to be believed.

However, delusions must be maintained. And so, for example, for the last two years, the London bombings were routinely described as home grown stunts – al Qaeda merely providing a distant, media accessed model. Within a week after the bombings it was apparent that this was nonsense, but only now is it starting to be acknowledged as nonsense in the press – hence this Peter Bergen article.

Of course, the governments that intentionally aborted military action against al Qaeda in the winter of 2001 and spring of 2002, preserving a manipulable threat to accomplish their other, unspeakably shabby foreign policy goals are playing a difficult game – on the one hand, periodically hyping the threat to garner support, and on the other hand, playing down the history of their non-response to the threat, in order to cover up their practical collusion in terrorism. The trick is as old as the bribed cop -- in order to maintain a lucrative beat, one needs a certain quota of arrests and a lot of bluff about law and order, while at the same time one is quietly bribed by the more prosperous criminal. The Blair government, which foolishly pitched in to help the U.S. in Iraq – unlike, say, the cleverer Labour government under Harold Wilson, which managed to avoid sending troops to Vietnam – recklessly made itself a target. In order to avoid the obvious – if British troops weren’t in Basra, there would have been no London bombing – we are fed ridiculous stories of self-administered teen mesmerism in today's version of the Victorian opium den -- the radical mosque (gasp) in which the fiends gather to denounce Israel and such. Issuing from these palaces of wickedness, we are then supposed to believe that boys who can 't get it together enough to hold down jobs as pizza delivery men are suddenly Hollywood like in their coordinated activity, coming up with arms and tactics themselves. Of course, as in the Miami case, sometimes you have to actually create the home grown radicals out of home room dropouts – but you have to produce your quota of threats from the materials on hand, no?

….

The pattern here is evident – when an event occurs in the “war on terrorism’ world, the first instincts of the press are to transmit the official line, no matter how cockeyed and contradictory that line is. Slowly, page A19 stories eat away at that line. Finally, two to three years later, we read some revelation that the official line was self serving bullshit. Luckily for the power structure, by that time, the majority of people have turned off. We live in the era of time lapse schizophrenia – the hottest news is always two years out of date.

This is the opposite of what we are usually told by the media theorists, who love to go on about the cultural meaning of reality shows and how the media has invaded reality and blah blah blah. Rather, it is a retreat to a pre-Vietnam mindset in which the interests of the state, or the pirate crew that roosts, at the moment, in the executive branch, is abjectly colluded in by media companies. Actually, the media era has passed – the era of independent media. The summit of that was in the sixties and seventies. The era in which the media organizations and their technostructure exerted such a monopolistic pull in the market that they were relatively insulated from the economic pressure that could be brought against them by the government. Instead of media taking over reality, reality has taken over the media. The absurd ROI expectations of investors and the fragility of once secure demographics, the new competition posed by international groups, like Murdoch’s News Corp, combine to exert an effect on the media corporations similar to the effect of Japanese car companies on Detroit. The NYT, the Washington Post, the network TV news programs really have, actually, no immediate need to fear the usual mob of angry rightwingers – that market demo is already wrapped up by Fox, Hustler, Guns and Ammo and the Southern Baptist Messenger. Guntoters in Valdosta Georgia aren’t going to stop buying those beautiful diamond necklaces advertised in the NYT Sunday Style section if the Times doesn’t apologize for revealing that the government is looking into our bank accounts. No, their fear is all about the extended well being of the corporation. Surely some Valdosta tv station is owned by a corporation with ties to the NYT. Michael Wolff, the New York media critic, has long contended that we are looking in the wrong places for answers to the curious paralysis of the media in the last five years, its compliance with the transparent lies of the current administration. The answer isn’t in this or that ‘wanker’ – the answer is in the holdings of the media corporations and their constant need for positive interaction with the government in licensing, in preventing competition from gaining entry to various markets in which they hold quasi-monopoly power, in the need, eventually, to get lucrative slices of the internet. In, another words, a dimension that is not filmed and is barely reported on, and that filters into the pre-emptive censorship of everything written in the press or put on tv. I know this first hand – I have often written reviews for conservative leaning newspapers, and I confine those reviews, mostly, to non-political topics. Or, stumbling onto politics, I liberally water down any smart ass crack I may want to make. And then the editor waters down any further remarks that have escaped me.

All the more reason, then, to fight tooth and nail against the executive usurpation of foreign policy. The executive prefers to act in a time frame in which the people are deprived of the information necessary to judge their actions. This is the temptation to which executive power invariably succumbs. Take away that power, reinvigorate the Congressional role as a balance on the executive, paralyze the ability of the War Department to shape U.S. policy, and we would have a more peaceful and prosperous country.

PS - there's a story in the Nouvelle Obs that will get no airplay in the US. Here is the first graf.

The death of Abu Mousab al Zarqawi, the former head of Al Qaeda, Iraq, which the American army has been congratulating itself upon, may owe nothing to the GI search. One of Zarqawi's wives, Oum Mahammed, told an italian magazine on July 2 that her huasband was 'sold to the Americans in exchange for a pause in the hunt for OBL, for he had become 'too powerful' in the eyes of Al Qaeda."

Myself, I don't believe her. I have doubts that OBL is really being 'tracked' that severely. But it is one voice heard from -- and of course this will not ever turn up on the American radar, although many a bogus D.C. expert, knowing nothing about the case, will be gravely quoted.