Friday, December 31, 2010

Khodorkovsky's Trip to the Slammer


Vladimir Putin summed it up best when he said, "A thief should sit in jail." Right on. It doesn't matter if he is the richest man in the country or not. If he's done the crime, he's got to do the time. It's that simple.

On Wednesday, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos Oil was sentenced to 14 years in prison for embezzling and money laundering. Heads of state, human rights organisations, business leaders, and the entire western media have all protested on Khodorkovsky's behalf, but to no avail. Khodorkovsky will stay in prison where he belongs. Justice has prevailed.

Khodorkovsky's problems began when he challenged an informal agreement with the Kremlin not to intervene in Russian politics. But the oil oligarch thought Putin was weak, so he strengthened his contacts in Washington and dumped money into parliamentary elections. He unwisely assumed that he could defy Putin and extend his tentacles into politics following the model of corporate control he saw in the United States, where the courts, the congress, the White House and the media are all in the pocket of big business. Only he misjudged Putin and ended up in the hoosegow.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

"Mr. Khodorkovsky was arrested on a rented jet in Siberia Oct. 23, 2003, flown to Moscow and jailed on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Just over a year later, Yukos's main subsidiary had been sold at auction to a little-known Russian company that later sold it to the state oil company, OAO Rosneft.

Investors, who watched the market value of Yukos plunge from $40 billion to next to nothing in a matter of months, proved to have short memories. By the summer of 2006, they were lining up to buy stock in Rosneft's initial public offering. The company's main asset had belonged to Yukos."

And, according to Wikipedia:

"Khodorkovsky was charged with acting illegally in the privatisation process of the former state-owned mining and fertiliser company Apatit......In addition, prosecutors conducted an extensive investigation into Yukos for offences that went beyond the financial and tax-related charges. Reportedly there were three cases of murder and one of attempted murder linked to Yukos, if not Khodorkovsky himself....."

When a deep-pocket Robber Barron is charged with a crime, everyone comes to their aid, including "the Italian Parliament, the German Bundestag, and the U.S. House of Representatives". But Khodorkovsky is guilty. The Russian court got it right. The rest is just propaganda.

The portrayal of Khodorkovsky as an "innocent victim of a justice system run amok" borders on the ridiculous. Take a look at this comical article in the Economist ominously titled "The Trial, Part Two". Here's an excerpt:

"The transformation of Mr Khodorkovsky from a ruthless oligarch, operating in a virtually lawless climate, into a political prisoner and freedom fighter is one of the more intriguing tales in post-communist Russia....In this narrow sense, indeed, the imprisoned Mr Khodorkovsky might be compared to the exiled Andrei Sakharov in the 1980s. Both Mr Khodorkovsky and Sakharov, an eminent nuclear physicist, chose a thorny path. And both of these one-time political prisoners then, in effect, took their persecutors and jailers hostage. Just as Mikhail Gorbachev's talk of perestroika, opening up and new thinking, rang hollow until the moment when he allowed Sakharov to come home, so any talk by the Kremlin of the rule of law or about modernisation will be puffery so long as Mr Khodorkovsky remains in jail." (The Economist)

So now the cutthroat scamster Khodorkovsky is Andrei Sakharov? One might think that the Economist would worry that such claptrap would damage its credibility, but apparently not. Apparently, nothing matters quite as much as springing their felonious friends from prison.

The Obama administration has also interceded on Khodorkovsky's behalf even before the verdict was delivered. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the US was troubled by "what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends".

"The apparent selective application of the law to these individuals undermines Russia's reputation as a country committed to deepening the rule of law."

Gibbs failed to note how many crooked CEOs or CFOs of major Wall Street firms have been investigated, indicted, prosecuted, arrested, tried, or convicted?

So far, that number is zero. So much for the Obama administration's commitment to the rule of law.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also put in her two-cents saying that a conviction would have a "negative impact on Russia's reputation."

Right. This is the same Hillary Clinton who has thrown her support behind the Patriot Act, the intrusive/illegal TSA "pat downs", the limitless detention of terror suspects, increased surveillance of US citizens, and the de facto repeal of habeas corpus.

Clinton's credibility on civil liberties is zilch.

Imagine what it would be like to live in a country where the rich had to play by the same rules as everyone else? Presumably, one would have to move to Russia. There is no expectation of justice in the US today. None.

Khodorkovsky was convicted because he's a crook and because the Russian justice system is less corrupt than the one in the US. His incarceration is a victory for the people who want to see the law applied fairly regardless of how rich someone is.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

State Lawlessness on the Rampage


The year 2011 will bring Americans a larger and more intrusive police state, more unemployment and home foreclosures, no economic recovery, more disregard by the US government of US law, international law, the Constitution, and truth, more suspicion and distrust from allies, more hostility from the rest of the world, and new heights of media sycophancy.

2011 is shaping up as a brutal year for American democracy. The Republican Party has degenerated into a party of Brownshirts, and voter frustrations with the worsening economic crisis and military occupations gone awry are likely to bring Republicans to power in 2012. With them would come their doctrines of executive primacy over Congress, the judiciary, law, and the Constitution and America’s rightful hegemony over the world.

If not already obvious, 2010 has made clear that the US government does not care a whit for the opinions of citizens. The TSA is unequivocal that it will reach no accommodation with Americans other than the violations of their persons that it imposes by its unaccountable power. As for public opposition to war, the Associated Press reported on December 16 that “Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. can’t let public opinion sway its commitment to Afghanistan.” Gates stated bluntly what has been known for some time: the idea is passe that government in a democracy serves the will of the people. If this quaint notion is still found in civics books, it will soon be edited out.

In Gag Rule, a masterful account of the suppression of dissent and the stifling of democracy, Lewis H. Lapham writes that candor is a necessary virtue if democracies are to survive their follies and crimes. But where in America today can candor be found? Certainly not in the councils of government. Attorney General John Ashcroft complained of candor-mongers to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Americans who insist on speaking their minds, Ashcroft declared, “scare people with phantoms of lost liberty,” “aid terrorists,” diminish our resolve,” and “give ammunition to America’s enemies.”

As the Department of Justice (sic) sees it, when the ACLU defends habeas corpus it is defending the ability of terrorists to blow up Americans, and when the ACLU defends the First Amendment it is defending exposures of the lies and deceptions that are the necessary scaffolding for the government’s pretense that it is doing God’s will while Satan speaks through the voices of dissent.

Neither is candor a trait in which the American media finds comfort. The neoconservative press functions as propaganda ministry for hegemonic American empire, and the “liberal” New York Times serves the same master. It was the New York Times that gave credence to the Bush regime’s lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and it was the New York Times that guaranteed Bush’s re-election by spiking the story that Bush was committing felonies by spying on Americans without obtaining warrants. Conservatives rant about the “liberal media” as if it were a vast subversive force, but they owe their beloved wars and coverups of the Bush regimes’ crimes to the New York Times.

With truth the declared enemy of the fantasy world in which the government, media, and public reside, the nation has turned on whistleblowers. Bradley Manning, who allegedly provided the media with the video made by US troops of their wanton, fun-filled slaughter of newsmen and civilians, has been abused in solitary confinement for six months. Murdering civilians is a war crime, and as General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the National Press Club on February 17, 2006, “It is the absolute responsibility of everybody in uniform to disobey an order that is either illegal or immoral” and to make such orders known. If Manning is the source of the leak, he has been wrongfully imprisoned for meeting his military responsibility. The media have yet to make the point that the person who reported the crime, not the persons who committed it, is the one who has been imprisoned, and without a trial.

The lawlessness of the US government, which has been creeping up on us for decades, broke into a full gallop in the years of the Bush/Cheney/Obama regimes. Today the government operates above the law, yet maintains that it is a democracy bringing the same to Muslims by force of arms, only briefly being sidetracked by sponsoring a military coup against democracy in Honduras and attempting to overthrow the democratic government in Venezuela.

As 2011 dawns, public discourse in America has the country primed for a fascist dictatorship.The situation will be worse by 2012. The most uncomfortable truth that emerges from the WikiLeaks saga is that American public discourse consists of cries for revenge against those who tell us truths. The vicious mendacity of the US government knows no restraint. Whether or not international law can save Julian Assange from the clutches of the Americans or death by a government black ops unit, both executive and legislative branches are working assiduously to establish the National Security State as the highest value and truth as its greatest enemy.

America’s future is the world of Winston Smith.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

U.S. Savage Imperialism

The U.S. Empire, the Mideast, and the world, part I

December 2010

By Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky's ZSpace Page

From a talk by Noam Chomsky, June 2010


It's tempting to go back to the beginning. The beginning goes pretty far back, but it is useful to think about some aspects of American history that bear directly on current U.S. policy in the Middle East. The U.S. is a pretty unusual country in many ways. It's maybe the only country in the world that was founded as an empire. It was an infant empire—as George Washington called it—and the founding fathers had broad aspirations. The most libertarian of them, Thomas Jefferson, thought that this infant empire should spread and become what he called the "nest" from which the entire continent would be colonized. That would get rid of the "Red," the Indians as they'd be driven away or exterminated. The Blacks would be sent back to Africa when we don't need them anymore and the Latins will be eliminated by a superior race.

Conquest of the National Territory

It was a very racist country all the way through its history, not just anti-black. That was Jefferson's image and the others more or less agreed with it. So it's a settler colonialist society. Settler colonialism is far and away the worst kind of imperialism, the most savage kind because it requires eliminating the indigenous population. That's not unrelated, I think, to the kind of reflexive U.S. support for Israel—which is also a settler colonial society. Its policies resonate with a sense of American history. It's kind of reliving it. It goes beyond that because the early settlers in the U.S. were religious fundamentalists who regarded themselves as the children of Israel, following the divine commandment to settle the promised land and slaughter the Amalekites and so on and so forth. That's right around here, the early settlers in Massachusetts.

All this was done with the utmost benevolence. So, for example, Massachusetts (the Mayflower and all that business) was given its Charter by the King of England in 1629. The Charter commissioned the settlers to save the native population from the misery of paganism. And, in fact, if you look at the great seal of the Bay Colony of Massachusetts, it depicts an Indian holding an arrow pointed down in a sign of peace. And out of his mouth is a scroll on which is written: "Come over and help us." That's one of the first examples of what's called humanitarian intervention today. And it's typical of other cases up to the present. The Indians were pleading with the colonists to come over and help them and the colonists were benevolently following the divine command to come over and help them. It turned out we were helping by exterminating them.

That was considered rather puzzling. Around the 1820s, one Supreme Court justice wrote about it. He says it's kind of strange that, despite all our benevolence and love for the Indians, they are withering and dispersing like the "leaves of autumn." And how could this be? He said, the divine will of providence is "beyond human comprehension." It's just God's will. We can't hope to understand it. This conception—it's called Providentialism—that we are always following God's will goes right up to the present moment. Whatever we're doing, we're following God's will. It's an extremely religious country, off the spectrum in religious belief. A very large percentage of the population—I don't remember the numbers, but it's quite high—believes in the literal word of the Bible and part of that means supporting everything that Israel does because God promised the promised land to Israel. So we have to support them.

These same people—a substantial core of solid support for anything Israel does—also happen to be the most extreme anti-Semites in the world. They make Hitler look pretty mild. They are looking forward to the near total annihilation of the Jews after Armageddon. There's a whole long story about this, which is believed, literally, in high places—probably people like Reagan, George W. Bush, and others. It ties in with the kind of settler colonial history of Christian Zionism—which long preceded Jewish Zionism and is much stronger. It provides a solid base of reflexive support for whatever Israel happens to be doing.

The conquest of the national territory was a pretty ugly affair. It was recognized by some of the more honest figures like John Quincy Adams who was the great grand strategist of expansionism—the theorist of Manifest Destiny and so on. In his later years, long after his own horrifying crimes were in the past, he did lament what he called the fate of that "hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty." He said that's one of the sins that the Lord is going to punish us for. Still waiting for that.

His doctrines are highly praised right to the present. There's a major scholarly book by John Lewis Gaddis, a leading American historian, on the roots of the Bush doctrine. Gaddis correctly, plausibly, describes the Bush doctrine as a direct descendent of John Quincy Adams's grand strategy. He says, it's a concept that runs right through American history. He praises it; thinks it's the right conception—that we have to protect our security, that expansion is the path to security and that you can't really have security until you control everything. So we have to expand, not just over the hemisphere, but over the world. That's the Bush doctrine.

By WWII, without going into the details, though the U.S. had long been by far the richest country in the world, it was playing a kind of secondary role in world affairs. The main actor in world affairs was the British—even the French had a more global reach. WWII changed all that. American planners during WWII, Roosevelt's planners, understood very well from the beginning of the war that it was going to end with the U.S. in a position of overwhelming power.

As the war went on and the Russians ground down the Germans and pretty much won the European war, it was understood that the U.S. would be even more dominant. And they laid careful plans for what the post-war world would look like. The United States would have total control over a region that would include the Western Hemisphere, the Far East, the former British Empire, and as much of Eurasia as possible, including, crucially, its commercial and industrial core—Western Europe. That's the minimum. The maximum was the whole world and, of course, we need that for security. Within this region, the U.S. would have unquestioned control and would limit any effort at sovereignty by others.

The U.S. ended the war in a position of dominance and security that had no remote counterpart in history. It had half the world's wealth, it controlled the whole hemisphere, the opposite sides of both oceans. It wasn't total. The Russians were there and some things were still not under control, but it was remarkably expansive. Right at the center of it was the Middle East.

One of President Roosevelt's long-time, high-level advisers, Adolf A. Berle, a leading liberal, pointed out that control of Middle East oil would yield substantial control of the world—and that doctrine remains. It's a doctrine that's operative right at this moment and that remains a leading theme of policy.

After World War II

For a long time during the Cold War years, policies were invariably justified by the threat of the Russians. It was mostly an invented threat. The Russians ran their own smaller empire with a similar pretext, threat of the Americans. These clouds were lifted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those who want to understand American foreign policy, an obvious place to look is what happened after the Soviet Union disappeared. That's the natural place to look and it follows almost automatically that nobody looks at it. It's scarcely discussed in the scholarly literature though it's obviously where you'd look to find out what the Cold War was about. In fact, if you actually do look, you get very clear answers. The president at the time was George Bush I. Immediately after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there was a new National Security Strategy, a defense budget, and so on. They make very interesting reading. The basic message is: nothing is going to change except pretexts. So we still need, they said, a huge military force, not to defend ourselves against the Russian hordes because they're gone, but because of what they called the "technological sophistication" of third world powers. Now, if you're a well trained, educated person who came from Harvard and so on, you're not supposed to laugh when you hear that. And nobody laughed. In fact, I don't think anybody ever reported it. So, they said, we have to protect ourselves from the technological sophistication of third world powers and we have to maintain what they called the "defense industrial base"—a euphemism for high tech industry, which mostly came out of the state sector (computers, the Internet, and so on), under the pretext of defense.

With regard to the Middle East, they said, we must maintain our intervention forces, most of them aimed at the Middle East. Then comes an interesting phrase. We have to maintain the intervention forces aimed at the Middle East where the major threats to our interests "could not be laid at the Kremlin's door." In other words, sorry folks, we've been lying to you for 50 years, but now that pretext is gone, we'll tell you the truth. The problem in the Middle East is and has been what's called radical nationalism. Radical just means independent. It's a term that means "doesn't follow orders." The radical nationalism can be of any kind. Iran's a good case.

The Threat of Radical Nationalism

So in 1953, the Iranian threat was secular nationalism. After 1978, it's religious nationalism. In 1953, it was taken care of by overthrowing the parliamentary regime and installing a dictator who was highly praised. It wasn't a secret. The New York Times, for example, had an editorial praising the overthrow of the government as an "object lesson" to small countries that "go berserk" with radical nationalism and seek to control their own resources. This will be an object lesson to them: don't try any of that nonsense, certainly not in an area we need for control of the world. That was 1953.

Since the overthrow of the U.S.-imposed tyrant in 1979, Iran has been constantly under U.S. attack—without a stop. First, Carter tried to reverse the overthrow of the Shah immediately by trying to instigate a military coup. That didn't work. The Israelis—in effect the ambassador, as there'd been close relations between Israel and Iran under the Shah, although theoretically no formal relations—advised that if we could find military officers who were willing to shoot down 10,000 people in the streets, we could restore the Shah. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security advisor, had pretty much the same advice. That didn't quite work. Right away, the U.S. turned for support to Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran—which was no small affair. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were slaughtered. The people who are now running the country are veterans of that war and deep in their consciousness is the understanding that the whole world is against them—the Russians, the Americans were all supporting Saddam Hussein and the effort to overthrow the new Islamic state.

It was no small thing. The U.S. support for Saddam Hussein was extreme. Saddam's crimes—like the Anfal genocide, the massacre of the Kurds—were just denied. The Reagan administration denied them or blamed them on Iran. Iraq was even given a very rare privilege. It's the only country other than Israel which has been granted the privilege of attacking a U.S. naval vessel and getting away with complete impunity. In the Israeli case, it was the Liberty in 1967. In Iraq's case it was the USS Stark in1987—a naval vessel which was part of the U.S. fleet protecting Iraqi shipments from Iran during the war. They attacked the ship using French missiles, killed a few dozen sailors, and got a slight tap on the wrist, but nothing beyond that.

U.S. support was so strong that they basically won the war for Iraq. After the war was over, U.S. support for Iraq continued. In 1989, George Bush I invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in nuclear weapons development. It's one of those little things that gets hushed up because a couple of months later Saddam became a bad boy. He disobeyed orders. Right after that came harsh sanctions and so on, right up till today.

The Iranian Threat

Coming up to today, in the foreign policy literature and general commentary what you commonly read is that the major policy problem for the U.S. has been and remains the threat of Iran. What exactly is the threat of Iran? Actually, we have an authoritative answer to that. It came out a couple of months ago in submissions to Congress by the DOD and US intelligence. They report to Congress every year on the global security situation. The latest reports, in April, of course have a section on Iran—the major threat. It's important reading. What they say is, whatever the Iranian threat is, it's not a military threat. They say that Iranian military spending is quite low, even by regional standards, and as compared with the U.S., of course, it's invisible—probably less than 2 percent of our military spending. Furthermore, they say that Iranian military doctrine is geared toward defense of the national territory, designed to slow down an invasion sufficiently so it will be possible for diplomacy to begin to operate. That's their military doctrine. They say it's possible that Iran is thinking about nuclear weapons. They don't go beyond that, but they say, if they were to develop nuclear weapons, it would be as part of Iran's deterrence strategy in an effort to prevent an attack, which is not a remote contingency. The most massive military power in history—namely us—which has been extremely hostile to them, is occupying two countries on their borders and is openly threatening them with attack, as is its Israeli client.

That's the military side of the Iranian threat as reported in Military Balance. Nevertheless, they say, Iran's a major threat because it's attempting to expand its influence in neighboring countries. It's called destabilization. They're carrying out destabilization in neighboring countries by trying to expand their influence and that's a problem for the U.S. because the U.S. is trying to bring about stability. When the U.S. invades another country, it's to bring about stability—a technical term in the international relations literature that means obedience to U.S. orders. So when we invade Iraq and Afghanistan, that's to create stability. If the Iranians try to extend their influence, at least to neighboring countries, that's destabilizing. This is built in to scholarly and other doctrine. It's even possible to say without ridicule, as was done by the liberal commentator and former editor of Foreign Affairs, James Chase, that the U.S. had to destabilize Chile under Allende to bring about stability, namely obedience to U.S. orders.

What's Terrorism?

The second threat of Iran is its support for terrorism. What's terrorism? Two examples of Iran's support for terrorism are offered. One is its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, the other its support for Hamas in Palestine. Whatever you think of Hezbollah and Hamas—maybe you think they're the worst thing in the world—what exactly is considered their terrorism? Well, the "terrorism" of Hezbollah is actually celebrated in Lebanon every year on May 25, Lebanon's national holiday commemorating the expulsion of Israeli invaders from Lebanese territory in 2000. Hezbollah resistance and guerilla warfare finally forced Israel to withdraw from Southern Lebanon, which Israel had been occupying for 22 years in violation of Security Council orders, with plenty of terror and violence and torture.

So Israel finally left and that's Lebanese Liberation Day. That's what's considered the main core of Hezbollah terrorism. It's the way it's described. Actually, in Israel it's even described as aggression. You can read the Israeli press these days where high level figures now argue that it was a mistake to withdraw from South Lebanon because that permits Iran to pursue its "aggression" against Israel, which it had been carrying out until 2000 by supporting the resistance to Israeli occupation. That's considered aggression against Israel. They follow U.S. principles, as we say the same thing. That's Hezbollah. There are other acts you could criticize, but that's the core of Hezbollah terrorism.

Another Hezbollah crime is that the Hezbollah-based coalition handily won the latest parliamentary vote, though because of the sectarian system of assigning seats, they did not receive the majority. That led Thomas Friedman to shed tears of joy, as he explained, over the marvels of free elections, in which U.S. President Obama defeated Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Lebanon. Others joined in this celebration. The actual voting record was never reported, to my knowledge.

What about Hamas? Hamas became a serious threat—a serious terrorist organization—in January 2006 when Palestinians committed a really serious crime. That was the date of the first free election in any country in the Arab world and the Palestinians voted the wrong way. That's unacceptable to the U.S. Immediately, without a blink of an eye, the U.S. and Israel turned very publically towards punishing the Palestinians for that crime. You can read in the New York Times, in parallel columns, right afterwards—one of them talking about our love for democracy and so on and right alongside it, our plans to punish the Palestinians for the way they voted in the January election. No sense of conflict.

There'd been plenty of punishment of the Palestinians before the election, but it escalated afterwards—Israel went so far as to cut off the flow of water to the arid Gaza Strip. By June, Israel had fired about 7,700 rockets at Gaza and all sorts of other things. All of that's called defense against terrorism. Then, the U.S. and Israel, with cooperation from the Palestinian Authority, tried to carry out a military coup to overthrow the elected government. They were beaten back and Hamas took control. After that, Hamas became one of the world's leading terrorist forces. There's plenty of criticisms you can make of them—the way they treat their own population, for example—but Hamas terrorism is a little hard to establish. The current claim is that their terrorism consists of rockets from Gaza that hit Israel's border cities. That was the justification given for Operation Cast Lead (the U.S./Israeli invasion of December 2008) and also for the Israeli attack on the flotilla last June in international waters where nine people were murdered.

It's only in a deeply indoctrinated country that you can hear that and not laugh in ridicule. Putting aside the comparison between Qassam rockets and the terrorism that the U.S. and Israel are constantly carrying out, the argument has absolutely no credibility for a simple reason: Israel and the U.S. know exactly how to stop the rockets—by peaceful means. In June 2008, Israel agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas. Israel didn't really live up to it—they were supposed to open the borders and they didn't—but Hamas did live up to it. You can look it up on the official Israeli website or listen to their official spokesperson, Mark Regev, and they agree that during the ceasefire there wasn't a single Hamas rocket fired.

Israel broke the ceasefire in November 2008 when it invaded Gaza and killed half a dozen Hamas activists. Then there was some rocket fire and far greater attacks from Israel. A number of people were killed—all Palestinians. Hamas offered to renew the ceasefire. The Israeli cabinet considered it and rejected it, preferring to use violence. A couple of days later came the U.S./Israel attack on Gaza.

In the U.S. and the West generally, it is taken for granted, even by human rights groups and the Goldstone report, that Israel had the right to force and self-defense. There were criticisms that the attack was disproportionate, but they're a secondary matter as Israel had absolutely no right to use force in the first place. You have no justification for the use of force unless you've exhausted peaceful means. In this case, the U.S. and Israel had not just not exhausted them, they had refused even to try peaceful means, which they had every reason to believe would succeed. The concession that Israel had a right to attack is just an amazing gift.

In any case, according to the DOD and U.S. intelligence, Iran's efforts to extend its influence, as well as its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, are what constitute, for the U.S. and its allies, the Iranian threat.


Noam Chomsky is Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at MIT and author of dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy.

The Victimhood of the Powerful:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How much surplus did the US have when Clinton left office?

How much surplus did the US have when Clinton left office?

U.S. National
Will the national debt push us over the falls? Find out.

Read more:

Clinton ran deficits throught all 8 years of his term, and one can go to the US Treasury Department and looking through the history of the total outstanding debt throught Clintons term. (

Every year Clinton was in office, the total national debt continued to climb.

How Clinton managed to claim a surplus was that while the general operating budgets ran deficits but Clinton borrowed from numerous off budget funds to make the on budget fund a surplus.

For example, in 2000, Clinton claimed a $230B surplus, but Clinton borrowed
$152.3B from Social Security
$30.9B from Civil Service Retirement Fund
$18.5B from Federal Supplementary Medical insurance Trust Fund
$15.0B from Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund
$9.0B from the Federal Unemployment Trust Fund
$8.2B from Military Retirement Fund
$3.8B from Transportation Trust Funds
$1.8B from Employee Life Insurance & Retirement fund
$7.0B from others

Total borrowed from off budget funds $246.5B, meaning that his $230B surplus is actually a $16.5B deficit.
($246.5B borrowed - $230B claimed surplus = $16.5B actual deficit).

If there is ever a true surplus, then the national debt will go down.

Read more:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Naked emperor hails sex by surprise

By Pepe Escobar

Information has never been so free. Even in authoritarian countries information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.
- US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2010

Julian Assange, unfortunately, got it wrong. He should have tried to make it to the Tora Bora - the rugged mountains in Afghanistan and the best place to escape the emperor's fury, as former al-Qaeda icons Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri can abundantly attest. OK, no broadband; but at least no danger of sex tricks, apart from a brush-off with a rock face.

World public opinion has not failed to notice the spectacular crossover between WikiLeaks founder Assange's bizarre Swedish sex saga charges and the emperor's (and his minion's) fury. This

is stuff to blow Monty Python's Life of Brian out of the park. To the delight of those "democrats" who want to take him down - or out - Assange, now firmly established as a global underground icon, will spend his next days at London's Wandsworth prison, which The Guardian has quaintly depicted as "a beautiful example of Victorian prison architecture". Pentagon supremo Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this is "good news". What is good for the Pentagon simply can't be good for the rest of the world.

The plot thickens. The post-arrest Assange thriller will clarify everything one needs to know about the state of Western democracy as embodied by three of its supposed icons - Britain, Sweden and the United States. Imagine if the roller-coaster narrative so far - including a manhunt merging into a Burn the Witch! (pirate) hysterics among the establishment - was taking place in China, Russia or, ayatollahs forbid, Iran.

The emperor - and his minions - can hardly wait to return to business as usual, as in an ocean of hypocrisy never contaminated by the hardcore mud-wrestling match which WikiLeaks reveals to be the real "making of diplomacy". The moment the self-satisfied Democratic West - this happy-ever-after end of history - faces a totally new, and radical, transgression, its response is to try to turn the concept of freedom of information upside down. The emperor is disgusted: Who are these "criminals" - WikiLeaks - who dare to steal what we say we are?

Sex, lies and no videotape
As Mark Stephens, Assange's London attorney, had told AOL News this past weekend, Swedish prosecutors want Assange "not for allegations of rape, as previously reported", but for something called "sex by surprise", which Stephens said "involves a fine of 5,000 kronor or about $715". Stephens added, "We don't even know what 'sex by surprise' even means, and they haven't told us."

"Sex by surprise" is legally considered an offense only in Sweden. Anywhere else - including the US and the United Kingdom - quite a few women are rushing to clarify that if it really means what the definition implies, they more than welcome it.

Four charges are involved in the Assange thriller; one "Miss A", 31, a blonde, feminist, social democrat whom once wrote a treatise on how to take revenge against men, poses as victim of "unlawful coercion"; then sex with a malfunctioning condom; then "deliberate molestation"; and finally there's "sex by surprise" with one "Miss W", 27, an art photographer and avowed Assange groupie.

"Miss A" must have enjoyed the mess around, because even after the broken condom the first time, they were seen together the day after. And it was "Miss W" herself who invited Assange to her apartment - even paying for his train ticket. During the trip, Assange seems to have preferred his computer to her company - as the dejected groupie told police. Sex ensued, anyway - with no condom.

Supposing this is the real story, Assange too could have grounds for prosecuting; the resourceful groupie should have handed him both the train ticket and the condom. One thing at least is quite clear; gone are the days of free, independent and much-envied Swedish girls, now obviously replaced by guided-missile prudes.

It gets "girlish". The two women eventually get together to gossip - and realize they had something in common; sharing a bed with Assange. That's when "Miss W" suddenly became supremely troubled regarding her "unprotected sex" and decided to go to the police with "Miss A". The first prosecutor - a woman - issued an arrest warrant for "rape and molestation". She was overruled the day after by another female prosecutor. Then the current prosecutor - also a woman - reopened the investigation, claiming she had "new information".

Top journalist John Pilger, who along with legendary filmmaker Ken Loach and others offered to stand surety for Assange in the London court for over $280,000 (bail was denied), went straight to the point; "The charges against him in Sweden are absurd and were judged as absurd by the chief prosecutor there when she threw the whole thing out until a senior political figure intervened." Outside the Westminster court, Pilger summed it all up; "Sweden should be ashamed."

Whether this "senior political figure" has some shady Central Intelligence Agency-style designs is open to speculation. But the most absurd thing is that "Miss A" herself told a Swedish tabloid that she never wanted Assange to be charged with rape. Maybe she should tell that to the new prosecutor. Moreover, Assange's lawyer Stephens has said many times that his client remained in Sweden for 40 days offering to meet the accusing prosecutor to tell his version of the events.

European-wide laws list 32 violations - rape is one of them - that authorize extradition. Britain is just executing a request from Sweden. European lawyers stress Assange's best chance is now to accept extradition and face whatever justice rolls on in Sweden.

Freedom riders
The "sex by surprise" gambit could not be more convenient for a "Western democratic" system viciously attempting to shut down WikiLeaks at all costs.

Assange begins the op-ed he penned for The Australian this Tuesday with a bang: "In 1958, a young Rupert Murdoch, then owner and editor of Adelaide's the News, wrote: 'In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win'."

Now compare with what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a Foreign Policy article in early 2010:
On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress. But the United States does. We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. This challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the first amendment to the constitution [guaranteeing freedom of speech] are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone.
What the record is actually showing is that Clinton - unlike Assange and the young Murdoch - is being buried by 50 tons of Tennessee marble. "Free exchange of ideas?" By now, the military dictatorship in Myanmar, the Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, the array of US-friendly autocrats/dictators in the Middle East, and the leadership in Beijing are all saying to themselves that it's cool to go after a website, their provider, their donation mechanism - and target foreigners without a warrant - simply because they don't like what the site is saying. The emperor has proclaimed: it's my way or the (non-information) highway.

WikiLeaks cables suggest - once again - that Saudi Arabians are the ATMs for everyone from al-Qaeda to Taliban factions. But from Amazon and eBay to PayPal, Visa and Mastercard, everyone bends over to the furious emperor who wants to shut down a website for good.

The US government doesn't even register that Spain may want to extradite George "Dubya" Bush for war crimes; but all stops will be pulled, and maybe even laws bent, to get an Assange extradition (for the record: that's impossible under current US espionage laws). And this from a government that in nine years was incapable of finding the "terrorists" who, according to the official narrative, actually killed over 3,000 people.

"Sex by surprise" and its derived dodgy charges may eventually keep Assange in jail. Yet this won't kill the messenger - not to mention the message. It's all over the net, via BitTorrent - and it's totally viral (mirrored in 748 sites already, and counting). Moreover, two, three, a million Assanges will spring up. And they will have learned their lesson: if you want to show the emperor is naked, you've got to be as careful with your sex partners as you are with your sources.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at

Monday, December 6, 2010

Happy as a Hangman

Happy as a Hangman
by Chris Hedges

Innocence, as defined by law, makes us complicit with the crimes of the state. To do nothing, to be judged by the state as an innocent, is to be guilty. It is to sanction, through passivity and obedience, the array of crimes carried out by the state.

To be innocent in America means we passively permit offshore penal colonies where we torture human beings, some of whom are children. To be innocent in America is to acquiesce to the relentless corporate destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species. To be innocent in America is to permit the continued theft of hundreds of billions of dollars from the state by Wall Street swindlers and speculators. To be innocent in America is to stand by as insurance and pharmaceutical companies, in the name of profit, condemn ill people, including children, to die. To be innocent in America is refusing to resist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are not only illegal under international law but responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. This is the odd age we live in. Innocence is complicity.

The steady impoverishment and misery inflicted by the corporate state on the working class and increasingly the middle class has a terrible logic. It consolidates corporate centers of power. It weakens us morally and politically. The fraud and violence committed by the corporate state become secondary as we scramble to feed our families, find a job and pay our bills and mortgages. Those who cling to insecure, poorly paid jobs and who struggle with crippling credit card debt, those who are mired in long-term unemployment and who know that huge medical bills would bankrupt them, those who owe more on their houses than they are worth and who fear the future, become frightened and timid. They seek only to survive. They accept the pathetic scraps tossed to them by the corporate elite. The internal and external corporate abuse accelerates as we become every day more pliant.

Our corrupt legal system, perverting the concept that “all men are created equal,” has radically redefined civic society. Citizens, regardless of their status or misfortune, are now treated with the same studied indifference by the state. They have been transformed from citizens to commodities whose worth is determined solely by the market and whose value is measured by their social and economic functions. The rich, therefore, are rewarded by the state with tax cuts because they are rich. It is their function to monopolize wealth and invest. The poor are supposed to be poor. The poor should not be a drain on the resources of the state or the oligarchic elite. Equality, in this new legal paradigm, means we are all treated alike, no matter what our circumstances. This new interpretation of equality, under which the poor are abandoned and the powerful are unchecked, has demolished the system of regulations, legal restraints and services that once protected the underclass from wealthy and corporate predators.

The creation of a permanent, insecure and frightened underclass is the most effective weapon to thwart rebellion and resistance as our economy worsens. Huge pools of unemployed and underemployed blunt labor organizing, since any job, no matter how menial, is zealously coveted. As state and federal social welfare programs, especially in education, are gutted, we create a wider and wider gulf between the resources available to the tiny elite and the deprivation and suffering visited on our permanent underclass. Access to education, for example, is now largely defined by class. The middle class, taking on huge debt, desperately flees to private institutions to make sure their children have a chance to enter the managerial ranks of the corporate elite. And this is the idea. Public education, which, when it functions, gives opportunities to all citizens, hinders a system of corporate neofeudalism. Corporations are advancing, with Barack Obama’s assistance, charter schools and educational services that are stripped down and designed to train classes for their appropriate vocations, which, if you’re poor means a future in the service sector. The eradication of teachers’ unions, under way in states such as New Jersey, is a vital component in the dismantling of public education. Corporations know that good systems of public education are a hindrance to a rigid caste system. In corporate America everyone will be kept in his or her place.

The beating down of workers, exacerbated by the prospect that unemployment benefits will not be renewed for millions of Americans and that public sector unions will soon be broken, has transformed those in the working class from full members of society, able to participate in its debates, the economy and governance, into terrified people in fragmented pools preoccupied with the struggle of private existence. Those who are economically broken usually cease to be concerned with civic virtues. They will, history has demonstrated, serve any system, no matter how evil, and do anything for a salary, job security and the protection of their families.

There will be sectors of the society that, as the situation worsens, attempt to rebel. But the state can rely on a huge number of people who, for work and meager benefits, will transform themselves into willing executioners. The reconfiguration of American society into a corporate oligarchy is conditioning tens of millions not only to passively accept state and corporate crimes, but to actively participate in the mechanisms that ensure their own enslavement.

“Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1945 essay “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” “it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman.”

Organs of state repression do not rely so much on fanatics and sadists as ordinary citizens who are desperate, who need a job, who are willing to obey. Arendt relates a story of a Jew who is released from Buchenwald. The freed Jew encountered, among the SS men who gave him certificates of release, a former schoolmate, whom he did not address but stared at. The SS guard spontaneously explained to his former friend: “You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me. They can do anything they want with me.”

Arendt also quotes an interview with a camp official at Majdanek. The camp official concedes that he has assisted in the gassing and burying of people alive. But when he is asked, “Do you know the Russians will hang you?” he bursts into tears. “Why should they? What have I done?” he says.

I can imagine, should the rule of law ever one day be applied to the insurance companies responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans denied medical care, that there will be the same confused response from insurance executives. What is frightening in collapsing societies is not only the killers, sadists, murderers and psychopaths who rise up out of the moral swamp to take power, but the huge numbers of ordinary people who become complicit in state crimes. I saw this during the war in El Salvador and the war in Bosnia. It is easy to understand a demented enemy. It is puzzling to understand a rational and normal one. True evil, as Goethe understood, is not always palpable. It is “to render invisible another human consciousness.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his book “The Gulag Archipelago” writes about a close friend who served with him in World War II. Solzhenitsyn’s defiance of the Communist regime after the war saw him sent to the Soviet gulags. His friend, loyal to the state, was sent there as an interrogator. Solzhenitsyn was forced to articulate a painful truth. The mass of those who serve systems of terrible oppression and state crime are not evil. They are weak.

“If only there were vile people ... committing evil deeds, and if it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The expansions of public and private organs of state security, from Homeland Security to the mercenary forces we are building in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the burgeoning internal intelligence organizations, exist because these “ordinary” citizens, many of whom are caring fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, have confused conformity to the state with innocence. Family values are used, especially by the Christian right, as the exclusive definition of public morality. Politicians, including President Obama, who betray the working class, wage doomed imperial wars, abandon families to home foreclosures and bank repossessions, and refuse to restore habeas corpus, are morally “good” because they are loyal husbands and fathers. Infidelity, instead of corporate murder, becomes in this absurd moral reasoning the highest and most unforgivable offense.

The bureaucrats who maintain these repressive state organs, who prosecute the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or who maintain corporate structures that perpetuate human suffering, can define themselves as good—as innocent—as long as they are seen as traditional family men and women who are compliant to the laws of the state. And this redefinition of civic engagement permits us to suspend moral judgment and finally common sense. Do your job. Do not ask questions. Do not think. If these bureaucrats were challenged for the crimes they are complicit in committing, including the steady dismantling of the democratic state, they would react with the same disbelief as the camp guard at Majdanek.

Those who serve as functionaries within corporations such as Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil and carry out crimes ask of their masters that they be exempted from personal responsibility for the acts they commit. They serve corporate structures that kill, but, as Arendt notes, the corporate employee “does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity.” At home the corporate man or woman is meek. He or she has no proclivity to violence, although the corporate systems they serve by day pollute, impoverish, maim and kill.

Those who do not carry out acts of rebellion, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, are guilty of solidifying and perpetuating these crimes. Those who do not act delude themselves into believing they are innocent. They are not.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Bumbling Terrorists

By Linh Dinh
November 28 2010

Dude wasn't too bright.
As quoted in the affidavit, Mohamud could barely stutter his way through a sentence without overdosing on "you know" and other verbal mishaps.

In one of the recorded meetings, Mohamud did state that deterrence and revenge were his two motivations.
He wanted "in general just a huge mass that will, you know like for them you know to be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holiday.

And then for later to be saying, this was them for you to refrain from killing our children, women... so when they hear all these families were killed in such a such a city they'll say you know what your actions you know they will stop you know.
And it's not fair they should do that to people and not feeling it."

Translation: Mohamud wanted us to stop killing Muslims. It's not right that we can kill people without feeling it. If our own families were killed, we would know what it's like and perhaps stop the carnage.

Our president was awarded a Nobel Peace prize, hold the laugh track and applause, please, but two years into his reign, we still have nearly 200,000 soldiers occupying two Muslim countries.

How many of those are also after revenge and deterrence?
Unlike Mohamud, however, with his pathetic, FBI-assisted duds, how many of our young men and women have exploded real bombs, shot real bullets into real bodies, destroyed countless families without remorse?

Mohamud may be a fool, even a murderous one, but he's at least correct in this observation: America can kill without feeling anything.
Our invasion and occupation of Iraq has caused over a million deaths, a fact that hardly registers here.
Like Barbara Bush and her beautiful mind, we have so much else to entertain and distract us.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Keeping Perspective on North Korea

Keeping Perspective on North Korea
by Matthew Rothschild

When the current Korean crisis emerged, I immediately contacted the wisest person I know on the subject. His name is Gene Matthews, and he spent decades in South Korea as a missionary who was active in the pro-democracy movement there.

He's a contributor to a great new book called "More Than Witnesses: How a Small Group of Missionaries Aided Korea's Democratic Revolution."

Here's what he has to say about the current standoff.

"North Korea has always felt threatened by joint military exercises of the U.S. and South Korea, and has always protested against them," he says. "This time, North Korea stated that the exercises were taking place in North Korean territory and that if shots were fired during the exercise they would retaliate. Shots were fired (not at the North, it should be pointed out but out toward the ocean) and the North retaliated."

What's saddest about this standoff, he says, is that it shows how far relations have slid in the last fifteen years.

"Let's go back to 1994 when it was discovered that North Korea might be developing nuclear weapon capability. The right wing in America had a field day. Republicans in Congress began calling for massive bombing raids to wipe out the North Korean nuclear facilities.

"Enter Jimmy Carter. Please check out Jimmy's article in the Washington Post. A strong case could be made for saying that Carter's visit to the north prevented war from breaking out. As a result of his visit The United States and North Korea finally began talking to each other and reached some remarkable agreements. The North agreed to destroy its small nuclear generator in return for enough oil supplied the United States and Japan to replace the generating capacity. Plans were even under way to open a U.S. Embassy in North Korea. I remember receiving a phone call from a friend in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul asking if I could recommend somebody sufficiently fluent in Korean to work in the Pyongyang Embassy as an interpreter. President Clinton even began to speak of a possible visit to the north.

"The situation continued to improve dramatically with the inauguration of Kim Dae Jung as president of South Korea in 1998. He developed his famous "Sunshine" policy with the north. A brief, useful description of the Sunshine Policy can be found at"

George W. Bush destroyed all this progress, Matthews says.

"Without being totally naive about the situation I cannot help but feel that North and South Korea could be thrashing out the final clauses of some kind of positive d├ętente had George W. Bush not been appointed U.S. president by the Supreme Court. You will recall that shortly after his own inauguration Bush declared North Korea part of the Axis of Evil, the terrible triumvirate of nations including Iraq and Iran which Bush declared were intent on destroying out freedom. When Bush subsequently attacked Iraq for no reasons that made any sense, North Korea would have been foolish not to assume that they were also on the list of nations to be targeted.

"In a later public statement Bush labeled North Korean President Kim Jong Il a "moral pigmy." Very few Americans can understand how insulting and devastating such talk is to a Korean leader. Americans tend to judge the rest of the world by their own cultural thought patterns. For a Korean leader to ignore such slurs would be a sign of grave weakness. I feel this goes a long way toward explaining some of the recent hostility displayed by the north.

"Bush was not through, however. Kim Dae Jung in two short years had already begun implementation of his Sunshine Policy. In 2000 he had made a historical visit to North Korea where he was warmly received. He would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at bringing peace to the Korean peninsula. Following Bush's inauguration, Kim flew to Washington to try to persuade the new American president to continue support of his efforts to engage the north. Instead, Bush used the occasion to lecture Kim about how foolish he was to trust the north. Again, very few Americans realized how harmful this was. Here was the cocky, shallow thinking, fraternity boy lecturing an elderly man whose entire life had been dedicated to achieving democracy in his own land, who was carrying on delicate negotiations with one of the most unstable regimes in the world, fully cognizant of all the pitfalls inherent in such negotiations, willing to risk his entire political future in spite of those pitfalls. The scene defies description.

"Kim returned to Korea realizing that not only could he not count on support from Bush but that he now had to expand political energy to overcome Bush's insulting behavior. Both Kim and his predecessor, Roh Moo-Hyun, moved ahead with the Sunshine Policy not only lacking support from Bush but now faced with Bush's seeming determination to counter any Korean policies developed under President Clinton.

"When I last visited Korea in 2003 I was amazed to find a railroad connection already completed between north and south. A South Korean Industrial complex had been built in Kaesong where North Korean workers were producing goods for sale in South Korea. Family visits were common and South Korean tourists were making regular visits to the beautiful Diamond Mountains of North Korea."

Things took a further turn for the worse with the election due to political changes in the South, Matthews says.

"It all began to grind to a halt with the election of Lee Myung Bak as South Korean president in 2007. This highly successful business man and former mayor of Seoul saw himself as a pragmatic, no-nonsense leader who seemed determined to rule with a firm hand, almost reminiscent of the past military dictators. He too, flew off to Washington to sit at the feet of George Bush and came back singing Bush's praises. Almost overnight the progress made under the two previous presidents was wiped out. The railroads and highways were virtually closed down, tours and family visits ceased and production at the industrial complex in Kaesong declined dramatically. This was all combined with a vigorous renewal of the "defensive" exercises some of which were now taking place in the disputed boundary waters between North and South."

Nor does Matthews spare President Obama.

"One final ingredient for the stew pot is President Obama's abysmal approach to the Korean situation. Whereas in his campaign he promised to deal with situations like Korea through negotiation, as president he has almost wholeheartedly embraced Bush's policies and has pledged full support to South Korean president Lee Myung Bak's hard-line stance.

Matthews has no illusions about North Korea, but he urges us to move beyond simplistic portrayals.

"The point of this overly long backgrounder is not to paint North Korea as blameless. By almost any measure the North is a basket case. Its leadership is terribly paranoid, and its internal human rights record is abominable. But Americans seem unable to see beyond the hasty conclusions and Hollywood-type approach to any incident such as the shelling of the island and sinking of the ship. America good. South Korea good. North Korea bad. The end."

It's just not that simple, he says.

"American still has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea 57 years after the cessation of hostilities. North Korea perceives their presence, rightly or wrongly, as a threat. This perception is only reinforced when American and South Korean forces carry out aggressive military exercises within gunshot of North Korea."

Above all, says Matthews, we need to return to the path that was showing so much progress.

"The ways of Jimmy Carter, Kim Tae Jun and No Moo Hyun were working. The current ways are not."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Why are we still in Korea?

Why Are We Still in Korea?

by Patrick J. Buchanan, November 26, 2010
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This writer was 11 years old when the shocking news came on June 25, 1950, that North Korean armies had crossed the DMZ.

Within days, Seoul had fallen. Routed U.S. and Republic of Korea troops were retreating toward an enclave in the southeast corner of the peninsula that came to be known as the Pusan perimeter.

In September came Gen. MacArthur’s masterstroke: the Marine landing at Inchon behind enemy lines, the cut-off and collapse of the North Korean Army, recapture of Seoul and the march to the Yalu.

“Home by Christmas!” we were all saying.

Then came the mass intervention of a million “volunteers” of the People’s Liberation Army that had, in October 1949, won the civil war against our Nationalist Chinese allies. Suddenly, the U.S. Army and Marines were in headlong retreat south. Seoul fell a second time.

There followed a war of attrition, the firing of MacArthur, the repudiation of Harry Truman and his “no-win war,” the election of Ike and, in June 1953, an armistice along the DMZ where the war began.

Fifty-seven years after that armistice, a U.S. carrier task force is steaming toward the Yellow Sea in a show of force after the North fired 80 shells into a South Korean village.

We will stand by our Korean allies, says President Obama. And with our security treaty and 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, many on the DMZ, we can do no other. But why, 60 years after the first Korean War, should Americans be the first to die in a second Korean War?

Unlike 1950, South Korea is not an impoverished ex-colony of Japan. She is the largest of all the “Asian tigers,” a nation with twice the population and 40 times the economy of the North.

Seoul just hosted the G-20. And there is no Maoist China or Stalinist Soviet Union equipping Pyongyang’s armies. The planes, guns, tanks, and ships of the South are far superior in quality.

Why, then, are we still in South Korea? Why is this quarrel our quarrel? Why is this war, should it come, America’s war?

High among the reasons we fought in Korea was Japan, then a nation rising from the ashes after half its cities had been reduced to rubble. But, for 50 years now, Japan has had the second largest economy and is among the most advanced nations on earth.

Why cannot Japan defend herself? Why does this remain our responsibility, 65 years after MacArthur took the surrender in Tokyo Bay?

The Soviet Empire, against which we defended Japan, no longer exists, nor does the Soviet Union. Russia holds the southern Kurils, taken as spoils from World War II, but represents no threat. Indeed, Tokyo is helping develop Russia’s resources in Siberia.

Why, when the Cold War has been over for 20 years, do all these Cold War alliances still exist?

Obama has just returned from a Lisbon summit of NATO, an alliance formed in 1949 to defend Western Europe from Soviet tank armies on the other side of the Iron Curtain that threatened to roll to the Channel. Today, that Red Army no longer exists, the captive nations are free, and Russia’s president was in Lisbon as an honored guest of NATO.

Yet we still have tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the same bases they were in when Gen. Eisenhower became supreme allied commander more than 60 years ago.

Across Europe, our NATO allies are slashing defense to maintain social safety nets. But Uncle Sam, he soldiers on.

We borrow from Europe to defend Europe. We borrow from Japan and China to defend Japan from China. We borrow from the Gulf Arabs to defend the Gulf Arabs.

To broker peace in Palestine, Obama began his presidency with a demand that Israel halt all new construction of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Today, as his price for a one-time-only 90-day freeze on new construction on the West Bank, but not East Jerusalem, “Bibi” Netanyahu is demanding 20 F-35 strike fighters, a U.S. commitment to a Security Council veto of any Palestinian declaration of independence, and assurances the U.S. will support a permanent Israeli presence on the Jordan river. And the Israelis want it all in writing.

This, from a client state upon which we have lavished a hundred billion dollars in military aid and defended diplomatically for decades.

How to explain why America behaves as she does?

From 1941 to 1989, she played a great heroic role as defender of freedom, sacrificing and serving mankind, a role of which we can be forever proud. But having won that epochal struggle against the evil empire, we found ourselves in a world for which we were unprepared. Now, like an aging athlete, we keep trying to relive the glory days when all the world looked with awe upon us.

We can’t let go, because we don’t know what else to do. We live in yesterday — and our rivals look to tomorrow.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where's Egypt headed?

By Haroon Siddiqui
November 21 2010

CAIRO—In eight days here, I took 18 taxi rides. In 15, the drivers were playing tapes or CDs of the Qur'an, or tuned to radio that were broadcasting it. Only two were listening to music and one to talk radio.

People are free to listen to what they want, especially in a state that allows them few freedoms. And the recitations were all splendid, in terms of both diction and melody.

The relevant point is that in an earlier era, the listening choices would've been the exact opposite.

Similarly, most women now wear the hijab, whereas few used to.

And an increasing number are donning the all-enveloping niqab, setting off a debate no less fierce here than in Quebec and parts of Europe.

There are also myriad signs of Muslim intolerance, dressed up in Islamic terms.

The hostility towards Coptic Christians (the largest Christian church in Egypt) we are familiar with, many having turned up in Canada seeking refugee status and also lining up at the Canadian embassy here to apply for immigration. But there's also intolerance of the Baha'is, and even of fellow Muslims of the minority Shi'ite sect.

Older Egyptians who grew up in more cosmopolitan times bemoan this new Egypt. Many speak nostalgically of how Coptic friends were part of their Muslim households, even during Islamic festivals, such as Eid.

A Canadian Muslim of Egyptian origin, returning for a short visit here the other day, related this revealing vignette:

“When I heard that family friend Nagy had died, I asked for Allah's blessings on him. I was at once admonished: ‘You can't do that for a non-Muslim.'

“I was shocked.”

This state of affairs is blamed by Islamophobes on Islam itself. More credibly, it is attributed to various factors, dating back decades:

• The influence of Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states with their strict Wahhabi theology and conservative social strictures, spread by petro-dollar funding or simply by millions of Egyptian expat workers returning home from the Arabian Gulf region;

• Built-up public frustration with Egyptian/Arab inability to free Palestinians from Israeli occupation;

• The American war on Iraq, with its massive civilian casualties of fellow-Arabs; and mostly

• The Egyptian government, which, besides being widely viewed as a client state of the U.S. and Israel, is unrepresentative, authoritarian and repressive.

The virtual one-party state has operated for decades under de facto martial law, with sweeping powers of detention without trial and suspension of fundamental liberties.

Lacking legitimacy, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak and, before him, of the late Anwar Sadat, tried to co-opt or crush the Muslim Brotherhood, the leading grassroots organization.

Failing on both counts, the regime built up its own Islamic credentials.

It was Sadat who made Sharia the principal source of law. It's Mubarak who has presided over the proliferation of religious TV.

The regime routinely obtains favourable fatwas — religious decrees — including some from Al Azhar, the historic institute of Islamic learning.

“The regime and the Brotherhood are competing on the same religious ground,” says Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

“Both need Islam. The government uses Al Azhar to give itself legitimacy. What we have here is not a police state. It's a marriage of a police state and a religious state.”

The more pro-regime fatwas, the less credible the government becomes. The greater its corruption and incompetence, the more attractive is the incorruptible Muslim Brotherhood, which provides social services often better than the government.

She is an American-educated professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. She wears the hijab and abhors the niqab.

“I'm completely against the niqab,” Abla Abdel Latif tells me. “It's not a religious requirement. It's a matter of choice. The Qur'an prescribes no specific dress.

“Some scholars, including women scholars, have spoken out against it. At Al Azhar and most universities, niqabis must show their face during exams (to weed out fraud).

“I tell my students to remove it: ‘I need to see your face to talk to you.'

“I don't tell them this during class or when men are present, but rather separately. And I don't force them to lift it.”

She also relates the story of a bearded young man “who would not look at me in class,” that being against his idea of religious modesty. “Fine. But when I asked him a question, he refused to answer.

“I said, ‘Look at me, I am not dancing here, I am teaching a class. I am writing on the blackboard. Look at me.' He left and never came back.”

Besides theology, Latif cites what amounts to the Muslim PR argument against the niqab.

“As a Muslim, you must represent your religion well, rather than offend non-Muslims. People should know you from your character. When they see you, they must respect your religion.”

Told about the anti-niqab legislation in Quebec forcing niqabi women to show their face or be denied government services, Latif reveals her esthetic prejudices:

“It's a fair request. You do feel very uncomfortable when you can't see a face — the same way I feel towards those Orthodox Jews who wear a black hat and have long locks on the side. It's strange. I don't like that and I don't like the niqab — neither this nor that.”

Just as the regime shuns Islamists but embraces Islam, or pretends to, it does a similar tap dance with Israel.

It's a partner in peace that does not want to be seen as one. Mubarak ships natural gas to Israel but won't go there himself.

He deals with the leaders of Hamas, the political cousin of the Muslim Brotherhood. But he helps maintain the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip by keeping its Rafah crossing into Egypt closed. Under American pressure and reportedly with American money, he is burying 18-metre-deep steel plates on the border to close off the tunnels used for smuggling goods and people. But he wants no public discussion of it.

“Our government refused to divulge it, but was embarrassed into it by the Israeli media that reported all the details,” says Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist. “Just like the Israeli government does not call its security wall a wall, our government does not call its steel wall a wall, but rather ‘an engineering installation.'”

Few Egyptians believe the steel walls would close off all the dozens of tunnels. “Many Egyptians, including, one presumes, police and government officials, are making lots of money from these tunnels,” a Western diplomat tells me. “But the government has to make a show of closing off the border.”

Egyptians are divided on Palestinians, even as they feel for them. They don't want to take on the Palestinian burden. And, at a deeper level, they are grappling with something else.

Ziad Abdel Tawab, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, puts it well: “For the longest time, our society was obsessed with liberating Palestine. Then, we woke up and said, ‘How can we liberate Palestine when we are not liberated ourselves?'”

Where's Egypt headed?

There are eerie parallels to Iran under the Shah in the 1970s. But experts do not see a revolution coming.

A full-fledged democracy doesn't seem in the cards, either.

That just about ensures the ongoing Islamization of society. We have seen this movie before. Amid wars and upheavals, authoritarianism and repression, Islam is used as a vehicle of protest, sometimes in the worst of ways. Conversely, the most moderate Islam is emerging in Muslim societies that are democratic — Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights, therefore, has tried to open up political space between an oppressive government and an increasingly intolerant Islamic opposition.

“We tackled the subject of Islam vs. democracy and showed that Islam is not an obstacle to human rights,” says Hassan, the director. And that the regime need not fear democracy. “The Muslim Brotherhood does not enjoy a majority. Even in a free and fair election, I doubt if it could get 25 per cent of the votes.”

The regime does not want to find out.

Abd El Menaem, editor-in-chief of the Al-Ahram group of newspapers, says the Muslim Brotherhood has lost some of its lustre, being obsessed with promiscuity and such rather than the more pressing economic issues.

Also, its leadership is divided between the conservatives and those who look to Turkey. The latter can “see that the Islamic experiment in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan has not been a good model.”

Menaem thinks change will come to Egypt only incrementally — “a geological change,” spurred by a surging economy and social evolution, including more privately owned, freer media.

“The middle class is expanding, slowly. Out of a workforce of 24 million, 18 million are in the private sector. Four million youth have started new businesses. About 19 million Egyptians have access to the Internet.”

He notes that Egyptians, “historically a river and desert people, are moving to our two coasts, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The sea people are less centralized and more open.”

Why? “The Nile River, the Delta and all the hydraulic systems around it have historically required central authority and governance. Tourism doesn't. Most of it is private enterprise. There are 13 international airports and eight ports, and millions of tourists go there directly from Europe.”

Alex Shalaby is the CEO of Orascom, the telecommunications giant that has invested $750 million in the Canadian wireless company Wind Mobile.

A Copt, he tells me how his people “are increasingly feeling uncomfortable.”

“In the last month or so, the problem has been exaggerated by harsh pronouncements by leaders of both sides. Some TV programs don't help. The power of both the mosque and the church is disproportionately strong. The (parliamentary) elections are coming (Nov. 28), so the rhetoric is particularly heated.

“But we've had a long history of harmony, for centuries.”

He is hoping for a return to it through economic and social change.

“The economy is doing well, even as the gap between the rich and poor is increasing. That must be addressed. We need to create more jobs. And that can only come from the private sector.

“What we do have is stability in a turbulent neighbourhood.

“We also have the manpower. We have enormous potential for tourism. Egypt has more than half the world's great archeological sites. It has 2,000 kilometres of shoreline.

“Egypt has enormous potential.”

But, equally, a very uncertain future.

Two Wolves

Legend has it that one evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, "My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"
The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Egypt on the Brink

CAIRO—The king is old and sick, perhaps dying. The queen is said to want their second son as successor. But the old guard in the military and intelligence circles think the young man is not ready. Until he is, they want one of their own as interim leader.

There’s much uncertainty aboard the land. There always is towards the end of autocratic one-man rule.

Hosni Mubarak, 83, has been president of Egypt for 29 years. The nation of 83 million, the most populous in the Arab world, is waiting for a new pharaoh.

Yet periodically word is sent down from the palace that Mubarak may not be ready to retire yet, having recovered from gall-bladder surgery in Germany in March. Indeed, he looked fit at a rare public appearance last week.

If he does run next year for his sixth six-year term, he would no doubt win, big. He always does. The state sees to it.

Meanwhile, a national election for parliament is underway. It, too, is a sham. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party will sweep the Nov. 28 vote.

“The outcome will be the same as it always is,” I am told by Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of Democracy Review, a political quarterly. It’s a commonly held view but it’s significant that she says it, her publication being part of the Al-Ahram newspaper conglomerate, a government entity.

The regime has even let it be known who the opposition will be. It won’t be the Muslim Brotherhood, which in the 2005 election won 88 of the 444 seats. This time a secular left-of-centre party may be anointed the opposition.

Welcome to America’s biggest ally in the Arab world, the recipient of $2 billion a year aid — a total of nearly $60 billion since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Fixing elections and running a virtual one-party state is only one of the many sins of the regime that’s routinely referred to by the North American media as a “moderate,” battling evil anti-American, anti-Israeli forces.

No one is calling for regime change, even as Egypt continues to be one of the worst violators of human rights. It presides over discrimination against religious minorities, disappearances of political opponents and widespread torture. Indeed, it has been a preferred post-9/11 destination for “extraordinary renditions,” a.k.a. American sub-contracting of torture abroad.

Since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, Egypt has been under de facto martial law. “Emergency rule” permits indefinite detentions without trials, limits on freedom of speech and assembly, restrictions on unions and NGOs, and an overly broad definition of terrorism.

The one million-strong security and intelligence apparatus is ubiquitous. No sooner do you leave Cairo airport than you see agents at street corners and government buildings. (You also see that other ingredient of dictatorships — giant billboards of The Leader, inevitably looking young and robust.)

The regime is said to employ another one million informants, who have infiltrated universities, mosques and other institutions.

“The government is controlling every aspect of our lives,” says Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist honoured in Toronto last week by Human Rights Watch for his advocacy work.

And it has incarcerated about 18,000 political prisoners.

Yet this is not a police state of the Cold War kind. There is an emerging civil society, including about 50 NGOs with an independent voice. They are byproducts of the brief Cairo spring that followed George W. Bush’s post-9/11 push for democracy.

Scores of independent newspapers and satellite TV channels were started. Social media flourished. There are ongoing sit-ins and demonstrations over high food prices, low wages, police brutality, corruption and other ills.

But dissent is only as effective as the regime allows it to be, which is not much. The security services have elevated control to an art form. They are as repressive as they need be and no more.

“They inject controlled doses of democracy as a means of acquiring legitimacy,” says Bahey el-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo institute for Human Rights Studies, in his office in a dilapidated building where the elevator takes me to the third floor and I walk up the next four.

The security services, in fact, run the state, says Mustafa.

They “secretly manipulate the entire system,” the way the army-controlled Deep State used to in Turkey but no longer does, given increasing democratization there.

“We are not just talking about police on campuses but something more sophisticated,” says Mustafa. “It’s has got worse, especially in the last five years.”

Does she worry for her own safety?

A long pause.

“No, but I am not comfortable. Being a liberal is not easy — you are targeted by the security forces as well as the religious extremists.” (More about the latter later).

Elections are a selection. Many opposition candidates are rejected, as they are in Iran, but here it’s with a twist: The mullahs in Tehran reject non-Islamists. The Mubarak regime rejects Islamists. The other day, there were 10,000 people at a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration in Alexandria, protesting that its candidates had been barred from registering.

Further, on Election Days, many voters are routinely turned away — their ID papers found wanting, or polling stations are said to be too full or busy to receive them. And, just to be sure, ballot boxes are “stuffed.” “It doesn’t matter what goes into the box but rather what comes out,” a Western diplomat tells me.

The regime has taken extra precautions for this election.

“This election is about next year’s presidential election,” says Hassan. The government faces “a crisis of legitimacy with the end of the Mubarak era. Even if he runs again next year, the question remains: Who will replace him? There is no obvious successor. And whoever emerges, what legitimacy would he have? This is a great source of fear inside the regime.”

The less legitimacy, the harder the regime prepares the ground for a trouble-free re-election of Mubarak — or a smooth transition.

In recent weeks, hundreds have been jailed, critical journalists fired.

Media have been ordered to get permits for uplinks for live coverage Nov. 28. That means no on-the-spot reporting from the electoral frontlines and, crucially, no footage of the kind seen in the 2005 election, when cameras caught much chicanery at the polling stations.

There are new Iran-like restrictions on mobile phones and text messaging. SMS aggregators must obtain new licences.

“This election is a joke,” says Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election and was marched off to jail on what were seen as trumped-up charges. He now leads a political party that is boycotting the election.

There will be no international monitors. The government does not allow them.

Judicial oversight has also been dispensed with, the responsibility transferred to the government’s Supreme Electoral Commission.

Hassan has a theory about why the Muslim Brotherhood is about to be bounced as the opposition.

It was allowed to do well in 2005 in order to “shock the international community and convince it that the sole alternative to the regime were the Islamists.”

That, along with the election of Hamas a year later in the Gaza Strip, did the trick. The Bush administration and the European Union backed off calling for political reform.

Even Barack Obama has been muted. While he refused to be photographed with Mubarak when he came here in June 2009 to deliver his famous speech to the Muslim world, he has granted the Mubarak regime a veto on American funding to Egyptian pro-democracy NGOs.

Now “the regime faces no serious pressure” from the West, only a critical statement here and there, says Hassan. “It realizes that these statements are merely attempts by American and European officials to mollify their own constituencies.”

Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak have two sons, Alaa and Gamal, whose reputations are tarnished by allegations they benefit from government contacts.

Gamal (“Jimmy”), the heir-presumptive, is 47. He studied and worked abroad as a banker. In 2002, he was made head of the ruling party’s policy wing, and has been credited with ushering in a liberalized business environment — cutting taxes and tariffs, and attracting foreign investment (mostly in real estate).

Exports are up, especially from the nine Qualified Industrial Zones, products of which get tariff-free entry to the United States if they have 11 per cent Israeli content. It’s part of the Israel-United States free trade deal, into which Egypt was brought in.

The economy, growing at 7 per cent, has thrown up a new class of super-rich. You see them partying at five-star hotels or in gated communities outside Cairo. One I visited on an 18-hole golf course, with monster homes and a lovely club house, draws millions of gallons of water from the receding Nile.

Such unconscionable deeds are resented even more when the economic pie remains relatively small — a GDP of $150 billion (a tenth of Canada’s, with two-and-a-half times our population).

The poor are getting poorer. Unemployment is around 25 per cent, inflation at 11 per cent (but double that for those who don’t access subsidized bread, fruit and vegetables — and schools).

Nearly 40 per cent of Egyptians live on $2 a day. A quarter of the population lives in shanty towns, most of them in Cairo, which has grown to at least 20 million.

The city, once a jewel, is crumbling. Paint and plaster are peeling from grand old buildings. Roads are clogged. So are public hospitals. Infrastructure is collapsing. The government has other priorities or, as most people think, politicians, civil servants and contractors are pocketing the sums allocated for public works.

Much of the public wrath is directed at Gamal for ushering in crony capitalism and not caring for ordinary Egyptians.

The old guard around Mubarak opposes Gamal partly because he is a civilian, whereas every president since the 1952 overthrow of monarchy has come from the army — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak.

The army and security establishment favours Omar Suleiman, chief of intelligence. He is also valued by Washington, for having the most detailed dossiers on Mohammed Atta, the ring leader of 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Osama bin Laden, and other al Qaeda figures.

The most credible candidate would be Mohamed ElBaradei, the retired chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. It is too early to tell whether he can rally the nation — and even if he does, whether he’d be allowed to run.

Is revolution brewing? There certainly are parallels to the Shah’s Iran in the 1970s, including growing anti-Americanism.

One view is that “the Egyptians don’t have it in them,” as one diplomat put it. The other is that there’s no charismatic leader to lead them.

“I don’t sense a revolution brewing,” says Bahgat. “But I cannot miss the rising anger of the public over economic hardship, corruption, injustice, daily harassment by police.

“Nasser had a lot to show for his years, whether you agreed or not.

“Sadat made war and he made peace.

“Mubarak’s greatest achievement is that he has maintained ‘stability.’ But in the process, he has completely destroyed all the institutions and sucked the oxygen out of the system.

“He calls it stability; we call it stagnation. The current situation is untenable.

“The public want Washington to withdraw its support of the regime. The public thinks: ‘Minus U.S. support, we can take on the regime.’”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Last Train Home


This market-oriented capitalism, coming to a socialist - or if you want to use the word, totalitarian - country, it's this weird mixture of two completely contradicting things combined together and doing a lot of crazy things to its people. Completely disrupting the traditional family relationships.

-- Lixin Fan, director Last Train Home

When I left the screening of Lixin Fan’s documentary film Last Train Home last Friday night, I stepped outside, gulped down some fresh air, and enjoyed the fact that I could simply breathe. My first reaction to this amazingly effective documentary about migrant labor in China was that it was the most depressing and claustrophobic film I have seen in a long time. Indeed, it is depressing and claustrophobic on many levels, but it is also exceptionally real, intimate, and devastatingly beautiful. The repercussions of the fierce consuming beast of global capitalism on China’s peasant class is depressing and claustrophobic, but that doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on the reality of migrant workers who are at odds with this new economic system that has left a massive class of people alienated from themselves, their families, and any chance for a better future. Last Train Home may not be a feel good movie, but it sure is a feel real movie, and it’s important that audiences see this side of real.

The documentary covers a three year period of time by following one migrant family – the Zhangs – as the parents (Zhang Changhua and his wife Cheng Suqin) try to provide economic stability for their children while living under an impossible economic regime that forces them to work in sweat factories in Guangzhou while their two children are being raised by their grandmother in the countryside. The parents first left for Guangzhou when their daughter Qing was only eight months old, and now they only see their children once a year when the factories close for the Chinese New Year. The film derives its title from the trains that transport over 130 million migrant factory workers back home once a year during the Chinese New Year. Referred to as the world’s largest human migration, this mass exodus is like a rising tidal wave of human labor waiting to burst and explode at any moment. A dense sea of factory workers surges on train platforms as millions of desperate factory workers try to catch trains home to see their families. These workers spend the entire year separated from their families simply to earn enough money to provide food, shelter and education for their children. The sight of seeing this mass of people clamber for trains to transport them out of a life of labor for one small window of time is so desperately devastating. Lixin Fan’s documentary hones in on one specific family, one set of faces within that giant tidal wave of workers, and by bringing us intimately close to the family, he shows in no uncertain terms the toll that global capitalism has taken on the Chinese peasant class.

Lixin Fan met the Zhang family while he was touring factories in Guangzhou, and he subsequently spent three years intimately shooting the family through their daily lives. Following the Zhangs through such recent history as the economic boom and glut of Chinese manufacturing and export products in the mid 2000’s to the Beijing Olympics and the economic crash of 2008, Fan’s microscopic look at this family gives us an intimate portrait of the Chinese peasant-turned-labor class under China’s present day capitalist regime. When I say intimate view, I mean that throughout the film, it is like we are in the room with the Zhang family, Fan and his camera. Fan’s presence and his camera becomes as integrated into the Zhangs’ lives as the parents’ sewing machines in the factory. The camera is so intimately placed within the family that it brings us front and center into their lives, and we are right there with them. We sit next to the mother and father as they bend over their sewing machines, talk about the importance of education for their children, and wonder why their daughter Qin hates the mother so much. We are in the room with the family when the father and daughter explode into a fist fight over the use of the word “fuck.” We are in the room with them when the mother and father lie in their small dorm bed, their jaws set tight in an emotional stew of recognition, resignation, and determination. We are in the room with them as the grandmother’s eyes tear up at the fate of her family.

Three years of filming, and there are no more barriers between the family and the camera. We pay witness to the Zhang family life in all its naked, uncompromising, and unflinching truth. Distilling 300 hours of raw footage into a profoundly dense and effective 81 minutes, Fans’s close look at this one family shows the mass conflict within the current Chinese economic landscape. We see the ghost of China’s socialist/totalitarian past in conflict with its market-driven capitalist present. We see the conflict between the now-obsolete traditional rural life and the new urbanization under capitalism. We see the conflict between the older generation who still clings to Chinese tradition and the younger generation who is seduced by the very Western products and economic system that have destroyed their families and consumed their parents’ lives. Throwing us into the claustrophobic yet excruciatingly human portrait of this family, the film throws us into the frontlines of labor in China and the largest migrant labor population in the world. Yet, by intimately focusing on the daily lives of a single family, Fan’s film resists being just a piece of political propaganda. It does not overtly politicize. It just shows the truth of existence, and in so doing the audience feels and experiences life with the Zhang family and life as a migrant worker in China. We are inside the film with them, and there is no denying life as it unfolds before our eyes.

I told [the Zhangs], “I’m not making this film just for myself; it’s not about you, as well, it’s really a film about 130 million migrants, your fellow workers, [who] are so essential, so important to this country. [With] all the frustration you have to face day today, I do feel the urgency for us to work together.”

--Lixin Fan

Claustrophobia is the dominating atmosphere in this movie. It is suffocating and all-consuming as we experience 81 minutes of a family utterly trapped by labor and class. The Zhang parents’ entire life has been consumed and defined by work. They have become labor. It is all they have, all they are, and all they can hope to be. They are alienated from their own lives as well as from the lives of their children who they only see once a year. Whether the Zhangs are hunched over their sewing machines pushing denim under the needle, washing their hands and feet in a bucket of water, or lying in their curtained bed in the tight confines of their dilapidated factory dorm, there is barely room to breathe, see, or think in the space of their life. Their destiny has been sealed inside the boxes of blue jeans being shipped to American malls, and there is not a remote chance for them to escape their circumstances. The best they can hope for is that their children will have a better life.

Everything in the Guangzhou scenes is layered with a kind of sooty haze, the inescapable grime of labor that refuses to let in any light or air. Even when the camera pulls back from its close focus on the Zhangs, we see a city skyline clotted with towering poverty – slum factories with their dilapidated slum housing, people penned together in factories, on sidewalks, or on the platforms of train stations. The workers are surrounded by stacks and stacks of the products of their labor. Bundles of blue jeans are heaped in corners like totems of alienating production. Men sit on stacks of blue jeans while they eat their lunch. Babies sleep on piles of blue jeans as their parents bend over sewing machines making even more blue jeans. Boxes and boxes are stuffed with jeans, labeled “Made In China” and hauled on the backs of young workers who look like they should be taking their high school math test instead of working in the factory slums of Guangzhou. The camera returns time and again to the Zhangs’ hands as they push denim fabric through their sewing machines and fret over the future of their children. That the movie focuses on the production of blue jeans, one of the ultimate symbols of American consumer culture, shows the role that western capitalism plays in the film’s overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. These workers are drowning in the products of their labor. As China adopted western economics and applied it on a kind of mass socialist scale, a whole population of people became slaves to capital. And we witness them on the frontlines sewing blue jeans while their children are hundreds of miles away.

Migrant workers are the cornerstone behind this Chinese “economic miracle.” In a way, they’re denied what they deserve compared to [what] their contribution [is]. They have to bear family separation, they work very long hours in poor conditions, and they get paid so little. Since they don’t have Medicare or retirement or any social support, they have to save every penny, send it back to support the family, and be prepared for an emergency. I felt this was not right.

-- Lixin Fan

The Zhangs’ life as witnessed in this documentary, and subsequently the life of all the working poor under China’s new economic policies, takes “making do” to a whole new level. The economics of global capital and how it plays out in export production in China creates massive inequality and division between modernized China and the old peasant class. In a system that plays on the socialist traditions of “working for the overall good of the country” to exploit workers and benefit global corporate interests, life for the working poor under this new economy is brutal, life-stealing, and one step removed from indentured servitude. Working round the clock seven days a week with no benefits, no unemployment insurance, and no welfare, the Zhangs have no choice but to give their lives entirely to working for the capitalist system or be left destitute and have more nothing than the nothing they already have. They desperately try to break the cycle of poverty through hard work by providing education for their children, but then they witness their daughter Qin turn her back on them and rebel against their beliefs as she buys into the very system that her parents are attempting to free her from. We watch Qin as she literally bears the burden of her family’s history by hauling crops from the field. Torn between the impossible world of the past (life in the countryside where farming has become obsolete) and the brutal world of the present (factory jobs in the city), Qin sees her only chance for liberation in the allure of the very products her parents produce in the factories. Following the path of her indoctrination into Western culture (brought to her by McDonalds, American television and the internet), Qin drops out of school and goes to work in factories so she can earn money and chase the illusion of economic freedom. Ironically, her sense of freedom comes in the form of the very products – the ones that her parents produce in the factory – that have denied her family freedom.

With her first pay check in her pocket, Qin heads to the mall with another girl who works in the factory, and they exercise their new economic freedom by engaging in Western consumerism. Stopping in a beauty parlor for a makeover, Qin gets ringlets in her hair. The stylist tells her that she “looks like a Barbie doll. All foreigners look like that.” Qin runs her fingers through her ringlets, and her body becomes a map of conflicting cultures – her Chinese face and body donning the costume of Western culture which can be bought for the right price at the mall. With their new hairdos, the girls hit the clothing aisles. Looking at a pair of jeans she wants to buy, Qin asks, “I wonder if these were made in our factory.” This is such a perfect Marxian moment in which Qin shows her relationship to the products of her labor by desiring the very products that she and her family produce and that have broken their lives and their backs.

The movie is full of little moments that illuminate the relationship (a.k.a. servitude) of Chinese workers to American consumerism and how much that relationship controls their position as laborers. For example, in another moment, one of the workers in the factory holds up a pair of blue jeans and laughs at how big they are. He says, “You could fit two Chinese in one pair of American jeans because Americans are all fat.” Of course, he means literally fat, but he is also referring to the fat in the economy of American excess. In another scene, Qin’s father states, “In China, we earn $2000 a month and save $1800 for our children. In America, they earn $2000 and spend $2000 and more.” As Fan continues to follow the Zhang family, we see the results of that American economic fat. The camera eventually ends up in a factory that has been closed down after the economic collapse of 2008. A couple of lifeless sewing machines stand like skeletons in the empty factory, now gutted of workers and jobs. No piles of blue jeans here, just a stark reminder of where American consumer excess and the capitalist culture that promoted it led the country and subsequently the world.

Qin eventually quits her job at the factory and goes to work in a high-end urban nightclub. We are introduced to the “army” of waiters and waitresses as they recite a chant of solidarity in labor to “entertain and serve” the costumers. This scene powerfully illustrates the legacy of China’s socialist totalitarian past as it manifests itself in the new economy of global capitalism. The workers all wear military-like uniforms and chant their loyalty as if they are serving under Chairman Mao rather than serving the owners of a posh nightclub. The army of workers (heirs to the peasant and laboring class) weave in and out of throngs of new money young hipsters gyrating to techno disco on the dance floor. Serving over-priced ludicrously excessive cocktails, the uniformed workers absorb this new economy in the only way they are able – by serving it. In one of the nightclub scenes, the workers stand around a television watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. This scene brilliantly shows the merging of China’s traditional past with its new fierce economy. The television broadcasts the ceremony that plays on ancient Chinese traditions while the uniformed workers who the rapidly moving train of global capital has left behind watch in wonderment and alienation.

The traditional past comes to surface in the scenes at the family home in the countryside. Though the farm life is still a tough life of labor as seen in the images of Qin hauling giant baskets of crops on her back, it is also a life that is completely separate from the smog and sweat filled congestion of Guangzhou. When Fan and his camera spend time in the countryside, it is like we step out of time and into a forgotten past. We see the traditional past when Qin goes to her dead grandfather’s shrine and talks to his ghost. We see it when the camera hones in on a blade of grass and a dragonfly. We see it when Qin and her brother sit on the edge of a wall and look out over the great expanse of green countryside. We see it in the grandmother’s eyes as she tells her stories around the dinner table. We see it in an incredibly heartbreaking moment when the mother prays to Buddha for her daughter’s future. The screen fills with ash and smoke as the mother feeds the fire under the statue of Buddha. Tears run down the mother’s face as she desperately asks Buddha to look after her girl. It is a heartbreaking moment that shows the utterly desperate situation and dislocation that has been forced on this family by China’s economic policies. Where is Buddha in this economy where parents are forced to abandon their children simply to feed, clothe and educate them? Where is Buddha in an economy where parents are completely consumed by hard labor and only see their children for a brief window of time once a year? Where is Buddha in this world where millions of migrant laborers are left on a train platform without enough trains to take them home?

The conflict between past and present, old traditions and the new Westernized economy, and parents and children comes to a boil in an enormously effective scene during one of the family’s visits in the countryside for the Chinese New Year. The scene is already ripe with tension between the daughter who has quit school and the parents who have spent their lives bent over sewing machines trying to ensure that their child gets an education and a better life. Qin harbors no shortage of resentment towards her mother for abandoning her to go work in the factories, and her resentment surfaces as she rebels against everything her parents stand for and curses at her mother by using the word “fuck.” The father is outraged at her language, and Qin and her father go fist-to-cuffs over the word fuck. The father explodes in rage, hits Qin and knocks her to the ground. She comes up fighting, and the word fuck is thrown around the room like some kind of lethal weapon that has entered and corrupted their home. The scene, an actual unscripted spontaneous moment that occurred in the Zhang family’s life, is both hilarious and tragic. Sure, we derive humor as the father repeats the word fuck, but our laughter is a Western response. The word fuck is like the language equivalent of a Big Mac, and its presence in the Zhang home is just as toxic. When Qin’s use of the word fuck causes such a violent outbreak in the Zhang home, it is like the literalization of the violence of the global economy and American influence on China’s economic landscape. The Zhangs don’t just spend their lives slaving over sewing machines for anyone. They do it to make blue jeans for the Big Mac consuming and “fuck” wielding Americans on the other side of the ocean. Qin using the word fuck to attack her mother is like throwing the whole wasteful lot of American culture and its influence on her life and her future into her mom’s face. The expressions on the mother’s face during this scene and the entire movie are heartrending and devastating to watch. So much conflict, so much determination and defeat all wrapped together. So much effort to find life remotely bearable when she lives in an unbearable economic environment. And this is not acting. This is reality. The camera just brings us there to witness it.

The train scenes for which the film is titled really bring to light the mass effect of the new economy on the working poor as a sea of laborers carrying their luggage on their shoulders surges on the train platform and pushes their way onto overcrowded, oversold trains. The trains also become the connective tissue between the traditional past of the countryside and the new cannibalistic economy of industrial urban life. Fan pulls the camera back and shows us the train working its way through the mountains that connect city and country. We look out the train windows through the eyes of the Zhangs as they head home and watch the city recede in the distance and rural landscape go by like a dream from the past. We also see through their eyes as the leave the countryside and return to the working prison of their lives in the city, and we feel their position and class close in on them like so much smog and concrete.

During the second year of filming the Zhang family, a huge snowstorm hit China, and the trains were delayed during the Chinese New Year. Lixin Fan was on the train platform with the Zhangs and a desperate mass of workers as they waited for trains that showed no sign of arriving. This scene epitomizes the claustrophobic desperation of this massive population of workers. The police line up in formation in a futile attempt to contain the desperate mass of laborers. The workers have not eaten for days as they are penned on the train platform with their luggage on their shoulders. They are trapped. There is no way out, and tears run down the workers’ faces as they try to fight their way to the front of the platform for a train that is nowhere in sight. It is a tidal wave of desperate labor, absolute chaos and the literal embodiment of a whole system that is failing – the economic system, the labor system, the law system, the train system. The camera follows the Zhangs as they miraculously work their way through the crowd and eventually get on a train home, but their victory is small and is really just a kind of symbol of their defeat. We watch them squeeze onto that train, knowing that by the time they get home, they’ll have a few hours with their family before they turn around and go back into the economic prison of hard work and blue jeans. What kind of life is this that is totally defined and consumed by labor?

This massively desperate train scene is a perfect example of how Lixin Fan’s film works to be both intimate in focus yet global in scale. The camera becomes a part of the Zhang family’s life, but as such it also becomes a window onto the lives of millions of migrant workers in China, the ones we see on that train platform. By focusing on one family within this mass sea of exploited labor, the film allows us to experience what life is like for over 130 million people who desperately hit the train platforms once a year and to feel what those train rides mean to them. That Lixin Fan (who served as director, cinematographer and editor) could so effectively distill three years of film into a powerhouse 81 minutes is a testament to his filmmaking skills. By spending three years with this family, he puts a real face on mass labor that is unforgettable and unshakable. But he also very quietly allows us to see the role that the American economy plays in defining the claustrophobic terms of these workers’ existence. In one scene, we simply see an extended shot of Maersk containers on a loading dock. We know that those containers are filled with boxes of “Made In China” merchandise being shipped overseas for American consumption. The lives and hard work of the Zhangs and the millions of migrant workers whose lives are dominated by manufacturing products to feed global capitalism and help maintain China’s position as a global economic force are also sealed inside those containers. I’ve never cared much for “Made In China” tags, but now I will never look at another “Made In China” label without seeing this family and the faces of all those other desperate workers fighting to get onto a train back home.

Lixin Fan quotes from Filmmaker Magazine Blog, September 1, 2010.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: