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 fact-index.com."

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.

hsiddiqui@thestar.ca

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

By KIM NICOLINI

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: knicolini@gmail.com.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thank a Vet?

by Laurence M. Vance

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers: "My son is in the Air Force," "If You Can Read This in English, Thank a Marine," "Proud Vietnam Veteran," "Fly Navy," and of course, "Thank a Vet."

Why should we?

Why should we call them heroes, give them military discounts, grant them veterans preference, express our support for them with ribbons on our cars, honor them with a holiday, hold military appreciation church services for them, and thank them for their "service"?

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day to commemorate the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. It had nothing to do with honoring current and former members of the military like Veterans Day is celebrated today. And if the sole purpose of Armistice Day was to honor World War I veterans, it should never have been celebrated since no American soldier did anything honorable by intervening in a European foreign war. And it doesn’t matter if he was drafted or not.

Britain’s last World War I combat veteran, Harry Patch, died last year at the age of 111. He boasted that he hadn’t killed anyone in combat. "War isn’t worth one life," Patch said, it is "calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings." In his autobiography The Last Fighting Tommy, Patch wrote that "politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder." In the last years of his life, Patch warned some young naval recruits that they shouldn’t join.


Frank Buckles, age 109, is the only American veteran of World War I still living. When asked while being honored for his service at a 2007 Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery what he thought about being there while the United States was at war, he replied: "I’m no authority, but I’m not in favor of war unless it’s an emergency." I think that Buckles is more of an authority on the horrors of war and the folly and wickedness of war than the current members of the Joint Chiefs.

It is only because World War I did not turn out to be the "war to end all wars" that the holiday was changed to Veterans Day as a tribute to all soldiers who fought for their country.


Although I believe World War II to be neither necessary nor good, I come not on this Veterans Day to criticize the "greatest generation," who, it turns out, were also great at pillaging and carousing.

For reasons I explained in "U.S. Presidents and Those Who Kill for Them," World War II marks the permanent establishment of the American military as the president’s personal attack force to kill by his decree Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Grenadians, Panamanians, Yugoslavs, Serbians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Yemenis, and Pakistanis. Next on the list is Iranians. Sometimes these presidential decrees are rubberstamped by a congressional authorization to use force, but they are always preceded by presidential lies and warmonger propaganda.

So why should a Vietnam veteran be proud? He was typically young, ignorant, deceived, and drafted. He may have fought obediently, valiantly, selflessly, and fearlessly, but since he had no business fighting in Vietnam in the first place, I have nothing to thank him for. And I certainly can’t thank him for preventing the Viet Cong from turning America into a socialist republic. Besides, LBJ beat Ho Chi Minh to that anyway. Many Vietnam veterans have written me and expressed shame, remorse, anger, and resentment – not pride – for having been duped into going thousands of miles away from American soil to intervene in another country’s civil war. In fact, I have found that it is those who are not Vietnam veterans who are the most vociferous defenders of the war in Vietnam.

The most undeserved and oftentimes disgusting outpouring of thankfulness I have ever seen is over those who have fought or are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The praise and adoration of those fighting in "the front lines in the war on terror" reaches its apex on Veterans Day, which has become a day to defend U.S. wars and recognize all things military. These soldiers certainly have done nothing worthy of thanks. Sure, they have rebuilt infrastructure – after bombing it to smithereens. They no doubt removed a brutal dictator – and unleashed American brutality in the process. And yes, they have rescued orphan children – after blowing their parents and brothers and sisters to kingdom come.

What is there to thank our soldiers for? They are not defending our freedoms. They are not keeping us safe from our enemies. They are not protecting us from terrorists. They are not guaranteeing our First Amendment rights. They are not defending U.S. borders. They are not guarding U.S. shores. They are not patrolling U.S. coasts. They are not enforcing no-fly zones over U.S. skies. They are not fighting "over there" so we don’t have to fight "over here." They are not avenging 9/11. They are not safeguarding the American way of life. Oh, and they are not ensuring that I have the liberty to write what I do about the military.


What, then, should we thank our soldiers for? Should we thank them for fighting an unconstitutional war, an unscriptural war, an immoral war, an offensive war, an unjust war, or a senseless war? Should we thank our veterans for helping to carry out an aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and interventionist foreign policy? Should we thank the military for sucking $1 trillion out of the federal budget?

But, some will say, these soldiers are just doing their jobs. They can’t help it if the U.S. military sends them to fight in an unjust war in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are just following orders. They didn’t enlist in the military to kill people.

What would any sane man think about a doctor who takes a job at a hospital knowing that the hospital instructs its doctors to euthanize old and sickly patients – and then says he was just doing his job, following orders, and didn’t take the job to kill people?


Why are soldiers treated so differently? Why do they get a pass on committing or supporting those who commit murder and mayhem?

But, someone else says, the military has lowered its recruiting standards and is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Many soldiers are ignorant about the true nature of the military and U.S. foreign policy. Why should we fault them for their ignorance? Why should they be criticized for unjustly killing Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis? They are just following orders.

Let’s go back to the doctor I mentioned. Suppose that after he takes a job in ignorance at what he thinks is a reputable hospital he is instructed to euthanize old and sickly patients? What should he do? I don’t know of anyone who would say anything else but that he should quit his job or at least refuse to euthanize anyone.

Again, why are soldiers treated so differently? Why do they get a pass on committing or supporting those who commit murder and mayhem?

But, comes another reply, soldiers have a term of enlistment. They can’t just quit their jobs. Doctors can walk away from their jobs at any time. Then I guess it all comes down to morality: Be a mercenary and kill for the state or refuse to do so and suffer the consequences of dishonorable discharge and/or imprisonment.

It is high time that Americans stop holding veterans and current members of the military in such high esteem. It is scientists, engineers, inventors, businessmen, industrialists, software developers, and entrepreneurs that made America great – not veterans of foreign wars. It is doctors, iron workers, taxi drivers, bricklayers, writers, electricians, and cooks that positively contribute to society – not soldiers.

I would like to be able to thank a vet – on Veterans Day and every other day of the year – but I’m still searching for a reason.

November 11, 2010

Friday, November 5, 2010

Feingold: No political constituency for his idealogy in US

MIDDLETON, Wis. — The irony was lost on no one. Senator Russ Feingold, a liberal with a fierce streak of independence who crusaded against the influence of money in politics, was toppled Tuesday in a campaign awash in the kind of unregulated cash he had struggled to keep out of the system.

And in a poignant twist, the loss came, in part, because independents flocked to his opponent, despite Mr. Feingold’s record of one maverick vote after another.

He was the sole senator to oppose the USA Patriot Act after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He also broke with President Obama on several occasions, opposing the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, the bailing out of financial institutions in 2008 and the regulation of Wall Street this year, saying the restrictions did not go far enough.

Most prominently, he battled his colleagues to overhaul the campaign finance system; the resulting law, passed in 2002, bore his name and that of Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican (who won re-election Tuesday).

After being eroded for years, the McCain-Feingold Act was gutted this year by the Supreme Court, helping to pave the way for millions of dollars to gush into campaigns from outside groups, most of whom do not have to reveal their donors — including at least $4 million in Wisconsin this year, virtually all of it against Mr. Feingold, 57, or for his opponent, Ron Johnson, 55, a wealthy Republican businessman.

Mr. Feingold rejected such money, as he had his entire career, but analysts said that probably had little to do with his loss.

“Independents deserted Democrats, period,” said Ken Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “This was not about Feingold’s record or the money or the advertising. It was about the anger of independents at the status quo.”

Still, others saw the flow of unregulated money as an added dimension to the narrative, in which Mr. Feingold was “hoist on his own petard,” said Mordecai Lee, who was first elected to the State Senate with Mr. Feingold in 1982 and is now a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

“Because his good-government streak and his push for changes in the campaign finance system had no political constituency,” Mr. Lee said, “they led to the lawsuit that opened up the floodgates.”

As it happens, Mr. Feingold raised and spent more money than Mr. Johnson, at least as of mid-October. In fact, their arms race led to what appeared to be the most expensive Senate race in Wisconsin history, topping out at more than $35 million.

Mr. Feingold had raised $18.2 million and spent $16.2 million by the middle of last month, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Johnson raised $12.8 million, and spent $10.5 million, pumping in more than $8.2 million of his own money.

Mr. Feingold has served in the Senate for 18 years and was seeking his fourth term. Mr. Johnson, a plastics manufacturer who had never run for office, won with 52 percent of the vote, to Mr. Feingold’s 47 percent.

Mr. Feingold was caught in an avalanche that crushed Democrats nationwide. Apart from capturing Mr. Feingold’s seat, Republicans here made a clean sweep of state government, winning the governor’s office and control of both houses of the State Legislature. One poll found that Mr. Obama’s approval rating here had declined at a faster rate than in any other state.

Despite his independence, Mr. Feingold allied himself strongly with certain Obama policies, including the health care bill, for which Mr. Johnson repeatedly bashed him.

Mike Wittenwyler, a Madison lawyer who had worked for Mr. Feingold in previous elections, said that the desire for “change” this year had overwhelmed everything else.

“This is the kind of climate where you would vote your mother out of office,” he said. “If you had a ‘D’ after your name, it was a liability.”

Mr. Feingold has spent his life in government. After winning a Rhodes Scholarship and graduating from Harvard Law School, he worked for a few years in private practice, then ran for the Wisconsin State Senate and has served in public office for nearly three decades.

It is not clear what he will do next. In a brief speech Tuesday night, he told the 300 supporters gathered in a hotel here in his hometown, “It’s on to the next fight, it’s on to the next battle, it’s on to 2012 and it is on to our next adventure. Forward.”

He then raised his fist in the air and left the stage.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 5, 2010, on page A21 of the New York edition.