29 February 2008

Country Music & Progressive Politics

You can find a typically smart and provocative essay by Rebecca Solnit - this time on intersections (yes that is the correct word) between country music and progressive politics - here. Among the things that drives me a bit nuts are common complaints that country music is somehow right-wing. To the list of Solnit's examples I would add contemporary musicians like Buddy Miller whose version of "With God on Our Side" appears on his most recent record Universal United House of Prayer and who on a terrific earlier record Poison Love performed his wife Julie's "100 Million Little Bombs" a song about the scourge of land mines. And, of course, there are lyrics like this too:
Man in Black
Johnny Cash

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black

P.S.: The wonderful photography on Buddy's CD is by Michael Wilson, who I posted on some time ago.

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28 February 2008

Looking Back?

This is a now iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at Men's 200 meter Medal Ceremony the 1968 Olympics. Smith won the Gold Medal and Carlos the Bronze. Australian Peter Norman won the Silver Medal and wore a human rights badge in solidarity with the two Americans. Smith and Carlos have been in the news several times recently here and here. Forty years later the pervasive racism these athletes were protesting persists in the United States.
P.S.: A comment from Stan Banos prompts me to add this afterthought. I mostly grew up in a small, quiet, insulated, mostly white working class city in Western Massachusetts that was dominated by a single employer. I was barely a teenager when this picture was taken. I recall seeing it and thinking that Smith and Carlos were acting outrageously, not in the sense that their protest was despicable or inappropriate, but rather in the sense that it was extra-ordinary. I no more knew what to make of this than I knew what to make of Rosa Parks or Muhammad Ali or Ella Baker or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. It is a shame that Smith and Carlos have not been recognized as American heroes in the way these other men and women have been.

I look back on this photograph now and think Smith and Carlos were incredibly courageous and, indeed, patriotic. Their protest called attention to the outrage of racism in the U.S. and, by doing so in a venue suffused with nationalism, they called attention to the massive discrepancy between American ideals and American reality, a discrepancy that rendered the former mere platitudes. That discrepancy remains and our ideals remain platitudes. We needn't look back, we only need to look around.

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26 February 2008

“I’ve got the best protection in the world, ... So stop worrying.”

A Secret Service agent watched Mr. Obama's back -- literally.
Photograph © Damon Winter/The New York Times

I've lifted this picture from this slide show that accompanies a story in The New York Times on the Secret Service Agents surrounding Barack Obama as he campaigns. Unfortunately, the angle of this shot makes the Agent look quite shrimpy and less than confidence inspiring.


25 February 2008

Too Bad This Film Had to Be Made in the First Place

"Wow. Thank you very much, Academy. Here's to all doc filmmakers. And, truth is, I think my dear wife Anne was kind of hoping I'd make a romantic comedy, but honestly, after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition that simply wasn't possible. This is dedicated to two people who are no longer with us, Dilawar, the young Afghan taxi driver, and my father, a Navy interrogator who urged me to make this film because of his fury about what was being done to the rule of law. Let's hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and back to the light. Thank you very much. "~ Alex Gibney
There you have the comments Gibney gave last night when he accepted the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his film Taxi to the Dark Side. I've posted here and here about some of the film's post-production travails. Perhaps now the various guardians of public sensibilities will stand aside and let American audiences become familiar with how our forces have tortured detainees to death. You can find a pre-Oscars interview with Gibney here.

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A New Low in the 2008 Campaign

Barack Obama, right, is dressed as a Somali elder by Sheikh
Mahmed Hassan, left, during his visit to Wajir in northeastern
Kenya, near the borders with Somalia and Ethiopia.

Well, here is the mystery. Who dug up this Associated Press photograph and decided to circulate it? The Obama and Clinton campaign staffs are trading accusations more or less furiously. According to the story in The Guardian Obama is running as fast as he can from suspiscions that he might be Muslim - as though somehow that is something about which to be ashamed. Just ike virtually every other viable political candidate, he, of course, is Christian. That should make him safe from American bigotry if only he can prove it!

This really makes me want to spit. I find it disgusting not beause I worry that it will make any difference to the campaign (frankly neither the Obama nor the Clinton "team" looks terribly good here), but because it confirms that Americans really are as intolerant and closed-minded as people all around the world suspect.


Enough of exposé ~ Thoughts on the Need for Political Writing

"There are battles in the streets and then there are battles
over which metaphors and images will be used to tell those
stories and, ultimately, which version of history will shape
the memories and imaginations that guide and limit the future."
~ Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit and her brother David have a book forthcoming on the conflicts of interpretation surrounding the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. The book is scheduled to appear in April, although that may be a stretch, since as far as I can tell the publishers - AK Press - do not even mention it on their web site. From what I can tell from on-line sources, the book will contain essays by the editors as well as primary documents that bear on the organizing and strategies of the anti-WTO protesters. The aim is to offer counterpoint to the standard depictions offered by mainstream media and political sources.

Later in the essay from which I lifted the epigram to this post, Solnit poses a question and offers us her reply:
What does it mean to be radical, to tell radical stories in our time, to win the battle of the story? The North American tradition seems to focus its activity on the exposé, the telling of the grim underside of what we know: the food is poison, the system is corrupt, the leaders are lying, the war is failing. There is a place for this, but you cannot base a revolution on the bad things the status quo forgot to mention. You need to tell the stories they are not telling, to learn to see where they are blind, to look at how the great changes of the world come from the shadows and the margins, not center stage, to see where we’re winning and that we can win something that matters, if not everything all the time.
Once again, I agree with her. I recently had a long conversation with my friend Susan Orr about the ways that "investigative journalism" promotes cynicism and skepticism precisely by clinging to the model of the exposé without offering a vision for the sort of political change needed to alter anything. We had just heard a local journalist talk about his latest book. In the follow-up Q&A several of those present stood to announce actions they and their groups were taking (e.g., fair election coalitions, and so forth) and the journalist recommended contacting one's elected officials. (This in a community where the Republican majority on county legislature acts as though citizen participation in public meetings is a threat to their physical safety. See story here.) To be fair, he also suggested a more modest but also more radical step, namely that people actually talk to their neighbors and friends and co-workers about politics. Perish the thought! But my sense, unfair perhaps, is that most people left the room tisk-tisking about the bad things that the journalist had revealed. His work became yet another confirmation that the ways of the world in business and politics suck. Full stop.

The point is not that we need a vision of revolution; instead we need a vision of things - of demands that can be articulated, reforms proposed, and aims presented - that might or might not be attained. No guarantee. Just some vision. I have been reading one of the long hybrid texts that Václav Havel produced prior to the overthrow of communism in Czechoslovakia.* He has produced others before and since. At the time, Havel seems to have been animated by a diffuse spirituality that I find foreign. But this particular text is useful because it offers a provocative series of examples of how, in circumstances more dire than those currently existing in the U.S., citizens undertook various initiatives to effect quite dramatic, radical political and social change. The book is laced with a political vocabulary of hope and solidarity that (the fashionable lip-service of current electoral campaigns notwithstanding) is nearly lost in the contemporary United States. And, like Solnit's own writings, it helps us recognize the indirect, open-ended, often surprising course that history and politics can take. Yet another exposé can provide neither the conceptual rehabilitation nor the historical perspective that our times demand.
* The book, Disturbing the Peace (Vintage 1990), is an extended, long-distance "interview" conducted with Havel by Karel Hvíždala. They exchanged questions and answers and revisions and clarifications over the better part of a year via illicit communication channels between Czechoslovakia and West Germany where they respectively resided. The text was first published as samizdat in Prague in 1986 and addresses events prior to that time. Paul Wilson subsequently translated it into English.

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24 February 2008

Find Another Hobby, Ralph

“Dissent is the mother of ascent,” Ralph Nader said on “Meet the Press” this morning. “And in that context, I have decided to run for president.” [. . .] and accusing people opposed to his candidacy of “political bigotry.” [. . .] he said, “Let’s get over it and try to have a diverse, multiple votes, multiple choice ballot like they do in Europe.”*
The problem, Ralph, is that we don't have that kind of electoral system. Regretable as that might be, in the actual context of American politics, the only plausible reason why you'd run for President is an unattractive combination of moralism and ignorance. Let's state the obvious.

In the U.S. the electoral system is single-member, plurality rule, winner-take-all.. The means that the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he (note gender of pronoun) does not attain an actual majority of votes cast. Among the very, very few well established empirical generalizations in political science is that (with few specifiable exceptions) such an electoral system sustains a two-party system and accounting for the dismal perfomance of third party candidates. You can find a gallery of these crackpots here.

The underlying causal story is pretty clear. In such a setting, a voter confronting a list of candidates, has no reason to stick with her ideologically most preferred candidate unless she thinks her candidate can, with some reasonable probability, actually win. Otherwise she will switch to her second or third or whatever choice. This is called strategic voting. You simply vote for the candidate you like best conditional on a reasonable expectation that that candidate might actually prevail over his opponents. After all, there is no chance of having one's ideological or policy views implemented absent a representative to advocate for them in the halls of government. Getting elected, in other words, is important. (Obviously, getting elected is not sufficient, but it is necessary.) In showing that this is the case, political scientists have placed what your Grandmother knows on a firm social scientific footing. Quite an accomplishment.

This does not mean that no one ever supports lost causes. Although any sensible assessment shows them to be doomed to defeat, third party candidates regularly attract small (usually miniscule) numbers of voters. Indeed, I myself have regularly voted for lost causes, mostly because I think my indivdual vote has no chance of altering the outcome in any election. I figure I might as well stake out an improbable position on the ideological spectrum. But that does not account for why the candidates I've voted for put themselves forward as lost causes in the first place. There has got to be more politically useful things to do.

I recommend that Ralph find a less irritating hobby. He has zero chance of doing anything other than siphoning a smallish percentage of left-leaning independents away from whomever is the Democratic candidate. I already have made it clear [1] [2] [3] that I don't much like either of the Democratic options. But I like McCain - he of the commitment to endless war and a litle noticed, newly found tolerance for torture - considerably less. Anything Nader does to increase the chance that McCain might beat Clinton or Obama directly undermines the "principles" Ralph so rigidly proclaims. This is a situation where having fewer choices is strictly better. Only Nader's overly inflated self-regard stands in the way of his seeing that.
* From The New York Times here.


Youthful Influences

French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet died last Monday. I recall reading the Grove Press translations of his novels and his essay "Toward a New Novel" during my last year in College. I don't remember the writings themselves so much as the intensity and sense of seriousness I experienced. For a first-generation college kid it was mind-opening. Again, the doorway to this was my advisor Jim Fratto who had gotten me to read Roland Barthes who, in turn, was a promoter and patron of sorts to Robbe-Grillet. The New York Times has run this obituary and this appreciative essay on Robbe-Grillet.


23 February 2008

Art & Propaganda

"Beliefs must be held lightly, because certainty is frequently
the enemy of truth."

"Art is a survival mechanism for the human species. Otherwise,
it never would have lasted so long. [ . . . ] But how does it work?
How does it affect us? Primarily, it makes us attentive to
the reality of our own life."

I have lifted both of these astute observations from this essay in The Nation by graphic designer Milton Glaser (pictured here in an unattributed photograph). While I think Glaser's effort to differentiate art and propaganda is conceptually important, I am not persuaded (pun, as will hopefully soon be clear, intended) by his analysis. Following the Roman philosopher Horace, Glaser suggests "The purpose of art is to inform and delight." He contrasts "inform" with "persuade" and ascribes the latter aim to propaganda. That is where we part company. Where Glaser is distrustful of persuasion per se, I think a more careful assessment suggests his concern is misguided.

When I persuade someone, or seek to do so, I communicate with her. I am attempting to get her to see things my way or agree with me. And she, arguing back, would no doubt try to persuade me that I ought to see things her way. We would try to convince one another by, for instance, offering reasons, calling attention to implications or factors or evidence that our interlocutor seems to have neglected, focusing on what we consider inconsistency or incoherence in the other's views, and so forth. I need not dissemble, nor invoke authority, nor deploy ambiguous phrases or symbolism, nor, for that matter, engage in any sort of suspect speech act. Nor need she do any of those things. So, while I am sympathetic with Glaser's view that art does not seek to persuade (even if artist typically do seek to get us to see things differently than we might now do), I do not see persuasion itself as a nefarious activity.

Of course one might try to persuade another in a manipulative manner by, say, playing on her fears, directing her attention away from germane factors or evidence and toward irrelevancies, remaining impervious ot counter-arguments or disconfirming evidence, and so forth; that is how propaganda operates. Glaser rightly notes that a propagandist need not actually lie (according to David Levi Strauss, she will never actually risk being caught trafficking in outright falsehoods). But they can just as well be wholly indifferent to the truth too. In that respect, they peddle bullshit in the ways I've discussed in many previous posts [1] [2]. So, I can mislead you without lying to you.

I do not see how artists, by contrast, can be indifferent to truth and the sort of reflexivity that helps reveal it. In that sense they, unlike propagandists, ought to be attuned to the diversity of views, the openness with which they can be expressed, the general reciprocity of communication, and so forth available to us at any given time. Likewise, my efforts to persuade or convince you are parasitic on just such facors - diversity, reciprocity, openness; and these subvert to the efforts of a propgandist to indoctrinate or manipulate you.

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Two Things I Really Don't Get

[1] The interest some folks show in polaroids.
[2] The interest some folks show in "found" photographs.
So that means I really don't get this essay in The Guardian by Geoff Dyer - "Gone in an Instant" - discussing lost/discarded polaroids that have been found and collected together. You can see some of the images, including the one I've lifted for this post, in the accompanying slide show. I know a number of famous, accomplished photographers (e.g., Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, etc.) have monkeyed around with polaroids. The difference between any of that work and the photographs they made using other technologies seems to me massive. Although I wouldn''t go so far as to to say I welcome the impending extinction of polaroid technology, I surely do not regret it.


22 February 2008

What Digital Technology is Good For

Five Dollars with Che © Pedro Meyer

I at first simply posted this image. I came across it while searching for something else. I do not know anything about Meyer, really. But it seems to me that the image suggests both how commerce can absorb anything no matter how seemingly oppositional and how entrepreneurs are willing to sell anything, even things that they might find anathema in political terms. This image also reminded me of the venom that has been unleashed by some and the idolatry revealed among others this past week in the wake of Castro's decision to resign as President in Cuba. Che, of course, has become an icon, his image packaged in different contexts for commercial and political purposes. Here he is with his comrade, before being killed and plastered across fashionable tee-shirts and posters in college dorm rooms.

Picture taken in the early 60s of the Cuban Revolution
leaders, Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.
Photograph: OFF/AFP/Getty Images

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Best Shots (14)

(32) Sølve Sundsbø Mim/Coldplay (14 February 08)


I cannot find the portrait Glanville has chosen on-line in a liftable form.** You can find it on the photographer's web page in the "portraits" gallery. Here, though, is what Glanville says about it:
People I've photographed don't always take much interest, but he was quite chuffed by it, I think. I think it treads an incredibly fine line between showing him as a person and as a victim. But it is not a picture of a man's nose. It is a picture of a man.
(33) Toby Glanville Butler, Oxford, 1988 (21 February 08)
** Updated 10 March 08. I located this copy of Glanville's shot and added it today.


21 February 2008

Quite Depressing

The publishers of No Depression, an award winning magazine devoted (literally) to alt-country music, have announced that they will cease producing their print edition this spring. (Here too.) They hope to maintain a web presence. Despite its loyal, relatively stable readership base, a number of factors conspired to prompted the publishers to take this step:

[1] A precipitous decline in advertising revenue from Record Labels which, politely, are themselves experiencing uncertain times;

[2] A sharp increase in the costs for paper produced by companies that, also politely, face an uncertain economic future;

[3] Rising costs for postage resulting from new postal regulations designed (see sidebar) to favor media conglomerates;

[4] The demise of small independent record and book stores which might sell the magazine.

These broader political-economic forces have subverted more than the viability of one magazine. They threaten the sort of independent media necessary for a robust democratic culture. As the publishers explain:
The cumulative toll of those forces makes it increasingly difficult for all small magazines to survive. Whatever the potentials of the web, it cannot be good for our democracy to see independent voices further marginalized. But that's what's happening. The big money on the web is being made, not surprisingly, primarily by big businesses.

So, here is a magazine, devoted to covering and promoting a vibrant sort of American music you are unlikely to hear on any radio station, let alone on any commerical station that essentially will no longer exist. One more extinction in our cultural ecology. One fewer avenue for artists to find an audience and vice versa. One fewer outlet for writers seeking a chance and the space to stretch out and say something. While the magazine takes its name from an old Carter Family song referring to the Great Depression, the demise of the magazine is depressing in a more mundane way.

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Langston Hughes ~ 3 Poems

Langston Hughes

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.

Is a strong seed
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
Langston Hughes

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Still Here
Langston Hughes

I been scared and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
Snow has friz me,
Sun has baked me,

Looks like between 'em they done
Tried to make me

Stop laughin', stop lovin', stop livin'--
But I don't care!
I'm still here!

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20 February 2008

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, circa 1866

Surprisingly enough, prior to becoming a culturally and politically placid city, unrelentingly conformist in virtually every way, Rochester was a center of radical dissent, in particular of women's suffrage and anti-slavery agitation. It was home to both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Theirs is a legacy to which the University here pays lip service. Frederick Douglass died 20 February 1895.

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John Bolton as Right-Wing Jester

John Bolton, 2005 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

You might think that John Bolton, former American Ambassador to the United Nations and holder of various other foreign policy posts in Republican administrations, is a pretty smart fellow. And you would be right. After all, he attended Yale (graduating Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa) and then (rather than serving in Viet Nam) went straight to Yale Law School where he purportedly chummed around with Clarence Thomas. From what I can tell Bolton and Thomas seem to be similarly belligerent, resentful, angry characters. But surely one should not take being perpetually cranky and avoiding military service as indicators that the man is not smart.

In the NYRB this week there is a review of Bolton's recent book suggesting that however smart he may be, he is more or less wholly unreliable when it comes to providing credible evidence or offering reasoned argument.* Indeed, Bolton apparently is so ideologically driven that there is little reason to take him seriously, except, that is, for the tendency of his right-wing patrons to keep appointing him to government posts. In that respect, though, we would be taking him seriously not as a smart, capable fellow but as a potentially dangerous embarrassment. Fortunately, Bolton has found a post at the American Enterprise Institute where he can take pot shots at the Bush Administration for being insufficiently unilateralist and bellicose. Bolton may not be self-reflective enough to see how laughable such views are, but the folks at AEI should be embarrassed. At a minimum they should stop using the noun "research" to refer to the stuff Bolton is producing for them.
* I admit that I've neither read Bolton's book nor intend to do so. I hardly see this as a problem given the proliferation of right-wing tripe being published these days. Authors like Bolton simply give us no reason to read what they produce, at least unless someone is paying us to review the book. They are preaching to the converted. Unless I were being paid I would no more spend time reading John Bolton's rants than I would cue up a Michael Bolton record on the CD player.


19 February 2008

Our Criminals (3)

This is a follow-up on these two posts I made last December and on this one from much further back. Thanks to Jörg Colberg for bringing this to my attention. "Staff at the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office discovered arrest logs and photographs from the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56) and the Freedom Rides (1961). Selected pages from those volumes have been scanned by ADAH (Alabama Department of Archives & History) staff and are available" here. It seems to me to be a genre of portrait worth attending to, in large part as a reminder of how shifting and partial, in short, how political our notions of "criminal" tend to be. The "ordinary" people pictured here, in these 'mug shots', are heroes.

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Fidel Castro has resigned as President of Cuba; he will surely not disappear completely, nor lose influence since his brother Raul has taken his place. My attitude toward Castro is deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, he came to power by toppling a dictator and U.S. client. He worked with reasonable success, and despite the persistent and focused hostility of the U.S., to improve the education and health care systems in Cuba. And while Cuba remains poor, it is arguably no more so than most of the neighboring countries in the Carribean and Latin America, many of which have enjoyed the 'good graces' of successive U.S. administrations. On the other hand, Castro has been a dictator with scant respect for civil and political rights. He has not managed to bring economic prosperity to Cuba. We can offer all sorts of counterfactuals about what might've happened absent the U.S. led embargo, or about how things might've gone if Batista had retained power, etc., but the actual case on the ground remains unimpressive.

I came across this unattributed photograph* in The Guardian today and it captures the enigmatic character of Castro. Most Americans have, I think, at best a silhouetted image of Castro. But The Guardian also ran this slide show of images** of Castro and the political company he has kept over the years. And those images too leave one ambivalent. On the one hand, Nelson Mandela, Gabrial Garcia-Marquez, Salvador Allende, and Daniel Ortega. On the other hand, Pope John Paul II, Jimmy Carter, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales. On the third hand, a motley crew of Soviet dictators on whom he relied for economic and political support.

There seems to me little to be gained by either vilifying or canonizing Castro. There are many in the U.S. who find him loathsome. Would those people have preferred the dictator Batista or his political progeny? There are those who consider Castro a hero. Can they do more than rationalize his dictatorial ways? I am not sure what criteria we should use to assess the Cuban experience. Consider this passage from The New York Times today:

His record has been a mix of great social achievements, but a dismal economic performance that has mired most Cubans in poverty. He succeeded in establishing universal health care, providing free education through college and largely rooting out racism.

But he never broke the island’s dependence on commodities like sugar, tobacco and nickel, nor did he succeed in industrializing the nation so that Cuba could compete in the world market with durable goods. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its aid to the island, Cuba has limped along economically, relying mostly on tourism and money sent home from exiles to get hard currency.

The first paragraph seems fair enough. Not effusive, but accurate. The second paragraph raiases some obvious questions - perhaps questions that might illuminate the first paragraph too. Which Carribean economy does the author have in mind that has industrialized, freed itself from economic dependence on agricultural exports and tourism, and so forth? Is Cuba more or less dependent on remittances from abroad than other developing countries? Can we be more specific?

I guess my question is whether it is possible to have anything like a reasonable conversation about Cuba and Castro.
* The photo credit is: "February 2003: Castro addresses a crowd in Havana." Photograph: STR/Reuters.

** (22 February) The Guardian has changed the slideshow to which I referred; they now have two others up here and here. These contain some but not all of the images they originally posted as well as many others.

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Local Events ~ Negativland

I'd like to call your attention to two events taking place later this month at the University of Rochester:


Thursday, February 28th at 7:30 PM.
Hoyt Auditorium, River Campus.
University of Rochester
Free and open to all.

A 90-minute film and storytelling presentation by Mark Hosler,
founding member of Negativland, with Q and A to follow.
No lawyers were harmed in the making of this event!

Pranks, media hoaxes, media literacy, the art of collage, creative activism in a media saturated multi-national world, file sharing, intellectual property issues, evolving notions of art and ownership and law in a digital age, artistic and funny critiques of mass media and culture, so-called "culture jamming" (a term coined by Negativland way back in 1984).... even if you've never heard of Negativland, if you are interested in any of these issues you're sure to find this funny and inspiring presentation worth your time and attention.

Is Negativland a "band"? Media hoaxers? Activists? Musicians? Filmmakers? Culture jammers? An inspiration for the unwashed many? A nuisance for the corporate few? Decide for yourself in this presentation that uses films and stories to illustrate the many creative projects, hoaxes, pranks and "culture jamming" that Negativland has been doing since 1980.

Most famous for getting sued for their "U2" single, Negativland have had many years of fun being a thorn in the side of the corporate media and entertainment biz. They've released a gazillion CDs, do occasional tours, make little movies, and were the subject of San Francisco filmmaker Craig Baldwin's 1995 feature film Sonic Outlaws.
"Negativland isn't just some group of merry pranksters; its
art is about tearing apart and reassembling found images to
create new ones, in an attempt to make social, political and
artistic statements. Hilarious and chilling." - THE ONION

Making A Cultural Public Domain

Lattimore Hall 540 Friday, February 29, 2008 Starts at 3:00 pm Free and open to the public.

Mark Hosler, founding member of Negativland, leads this seminar.

These events are co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology; the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies; the Office of the Provost; the Departments of Humanities and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music; the River Campus Libraries; the University Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies Cluster (UCIS) in Global Studies; and the Mellon Foundation's Central New York Humanities Corridor.

For further information please contact the Department of Anthropology, 585-275-8614 or anthro@mail.rochester.edu

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18 February 2008

Atlas of Radical Cartography

Mapping Ghosts ~ Rendition Fights, 2001-2006
© Trevor Paglen & John Emerson

Some time ago I posted on a Los Angeles based artist Lize Mogel who'd collaborated on a terrific data map that documented the costs and distribution of mercenaries (euphemistically known as 'private security contractors'). Mogel has pursued a related collaborative project, co-edited with Alexis Bhagat, entitled An Atlas of Radical Cartography (Aesthetics & Protest Press). The book, just out, "pairs artists, architects, designers, and collectives with writers to explore the map’s role as political agent. These (10) ten mapping projects and critical essays take on social and political issues from globalization to garbage." I look forward to getting a copy of the book and maps. It seems to me that this sort of project can provide invaluable resources for helping people visualize large-scale processes that often, by design or otherwise, go undetected.

Interestingly, the Atlas is not just a book, but also an exhibition and it will be making a stop nearby. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, not Rochester, but in what seems like an interesting new performance space called Redhouse Arts Center in Syracuse. The exhibition is up now and will show through March 12th. There will be an artists's reception this Thursday (21 February, 5-8 pm) and a Round-table Discussion this Friday (22 February, 6-8 pm); the scheduled participants in the latter are Alexis Bhagat, Lize Mogel, Daniel Tucker, Nadxi Mannello, Jonnell Allen.

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Not Speaking of Torture ~ A Warning from Toni Morrison on the Importance of "Unmolested Language"

Portrait of Toni Morrison © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
I have taken this passage from "The Bird is in Your Hands," the parable Toni Morrison offered when she received the Nobel Prize for Literature a decade and a half ago. This passage , indeed her lecture as a whole, come to mind whenever I encounter on npr, or in The New York Times or The Guardian, or in even less reliable outlets, euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" or "harsh interrogation." The proper phrase, the truthful one, the one that accurately conveys what purveyors of euphemisms work so diligently to keep obscure - thereby abetting the outrageous criminal policies of our government - is torture.

If ever you wonder about the value of writers and artists, imagine the consequences of not having them around. Imagine where we might be without those who, like Morrison, warn us of the dangers of allowing our language to drink blood. Toni Morrison was born this day in 1931. That makes her 77 years old. Happy Birthday! And thanks for the warning.

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Speaking of Torture

A few months ago I recommended several books that might prove helpful in the event you feel yourself in danger of succumbing to the common, but false, view that torture has only recently become standard policy for U.S. intelligence agencies. Among these was Darius Rejali's monumental (really) Torture & Democracy (Princeton UP, 2007). You can find this short, recent interview (just '6 questions') with Rejali over at Harpers. And you can find an Op-Ed of his - "Five Myths About Torture & Truth" - online here at The Washington Post.


17 February 2008

Larry Clark

In The Guardian today you can find this appreciative story by Sean O'Hagan on photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark (right) at 65. Clark is notorious for his preoccupation with the struggles of teenage boys to forge identities from the meager reourses afforded by cultures premeated with testosterone, drugs, sex, alcohol, and violence all situated inauspiciously in the context of family lives that are typically uncomprehending, often neglectful, and regularly abusive. Most of what little I know about Clark comes in response to what might fairly enough be called the obsession that one of my smart students has developed with his work.

The article in The Guardian is prompted by a new London exhibition of Clark's work. Entitled "Los Angeles 2003-2006" according to O'Hagan it consist of "new photographs, which are saturated in colour but oddly drained of meaning." As always, Clark seems actively to defy categorization; the images that make up this new work "are not reportage or photojournalism, but sit somewhere between a street fashion shoot and a series of well-taken snapshots." O'Hagan continues:
"There is something about Clarke (sic) that defies cynicism. He seems both street tough and oddly vulnerable, and seems obsessed for reasons he has no interest in exploring - except through photography - with the ever-shifting iconography of adolescence: the slang, the dress codes, the haircuts. It's anthropology of a kind, but it's all surface."
But perhaps the lack of depth, at least of the sort adult audiences want to see, is due not to Clark's images but to the lives of the kids he is revealing. That may seem like an invitation to despair. But O'Hagan warns against so bleak an assessment: "To Larry Clark's credit, there is always a glimmer of hope in his work, the fleeting chance of redemption." To locate - and, more importantly, to afford us old folks a glimpse of - such fugitive possibilities in the otherwise more or less undirected meanderings of teenage existence is an important legacy.

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Aral Sea (again)

"Two views of the Aral Sea: Above, a satellite image of the Aral
Sea, on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in 1964. In
the middle of the image is Vozrozhdeniya Island, which was isolated
from the mainland. Below, the Aral Sea in 2006. By that year, the
Aral's water level had fallen more than 20 meters, and Vozrozhdeniya
Island had become a large peninsula. The former borders of the
Aral Sea are outlined in red."

Last spring I posted on the convergences between two photographers - Dieter Telemans and Radek Skrivanek - who had independently undertaken projects documenting the changed boundaries of the Aral Sea. This morning npr broadcast this interesting story on what sounds like an amazing project using satelite images to reveal a variety of changes and patterns due to human practices and movements. As I have noted a couple times before [1] [2] aerial photos sometimes afford an extremely useful vantage point. But space sometimes makes the view even sharper.

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16 February 2008

Can You Use 'Controversial' in a Sentence?

Ales Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side has won awards at various film fests and has been nominated for an academy award for Best Documentary. The film has recently opened in theaters. You can find a preview from Bill Moyers here (8 February 08). I have not seen the film yet. All of that said, this is the second time I've written about it. The first time I called attention to the deplorably idiotic treatment the MPAA accorded to the posters for the film. Unfortunately, the MPAA is not the only self-appointed agent of misguided paternialism trying to protect us (can you say censorship?). The TV rights to the film had been acquired by the Discovery Channel. But, as Moyers reports here (15 Febriary 08), it now turns out that the Discovery Channel folks have changed their corporate mind. They have decided the film is "too controversial" and so dropped plans to air it.

Disturbing, surely. Outrageous, just as surely. But controversial? Hardly. It has been U.S. policy to torture detainees. Many, perhaps the vast majority of those people, like the Taxi driver Dilawar referred to in the title of this film, have turned out to be wholly innocent. And some of thoses people, also like Dilawar, have died in custody. Actually, let's avoid the passive voice and the way it lets us gloss over issues of criminal responsibility. Let's say instead " ... some of whom have been murdered while in custody." There could be controversy about that only if there were some indication that the charges are false or overstated or one-sidedly partisan. I believe torture has been U.S. policy under prior administrations, Democratic and Republican alike; the Bush administration is simply more blatant about what they are up to. So, I just do not see where the controversy arises. The Discovery Channel, like the MPAA, is more concerned with the supposedly delicate sensibilities of some anticipated audience than they are with the truth. No controversy about that either.
P.S.: (Added 17 February) Today The New York Times ran an astringent Op-Ed by Col. Morris Davis (U.S. Army) about the extreme difficulty and absolute necessity of getting the horse of torture back in the barn. He writes from the point of view of the consequences our deserved reputation as torturers for military stategy and the rule of law. The place were I disagree with Davis is in his claim that the torture policy is new with the Bush Administration. I will say though that an unavoidable first step in the task that Davis rightly sees as crucial - namely, reapturing something like a reputation for decency - requires that we face facts like those Gibney presents. Unfortunately, the overly concentrated, minimally acountable and profit-driven mainstream media have little reason to contribute to that enterprise.

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Campaign Posters

Ben Sahn (1968)

Andy Warhol (1972)

In The New York Times Today is this interesting lament by Steven Heller about the clichéd campaign posters. The two posters above are among the exemplars that Heller offers of graphics that avoid banal flag waving (he offers a couple more that I find significantly less compelling); and the essay itself is inspired by this poster.

Here is another recent, and unfortunately unsuccessful, campaign poster that I have mentioned here several times before.

Richard Serra (2004)

The question is whether such graphics have much effect on perceptions or attention. I do know that the ones I like (nos. 1,2,4) are dissenting and oppositional, while the Obama poster is not just "affirmative" but suspiciously diffuse (as are the others that Heller offers as examples - in my view they each fall flat). I know what the other three are after, This mantra of hope makes me want to put my hand over my wallet to make sure my pocket is not being picked.

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The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1967

327,329 & 331 Washington Street © Danny Lyon

Read and West Street © Danny Lyon

258 Washington Street © Danny Lyon

"The pictures presented here were all made on the west side
of Lower Manhattan, on or near the site of the WTC. They are
presented here out of love for the city. They are also presented
out of respect for the practice of photography, and the warning
that now especially, in these perilous times, photographers must
exhibit integrity in the use and control of their work."
~ Danny Lyon

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15 February 2008

Henry Threadgill

Henry Threadgill, composer, musician, founding member of the AACM was born 15 February 1944. Threadgll was a member of the great trio Air along with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, both now deceased.

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This Day in History?

"With between eleven and thirty million participants around the
globe it was the biggest and most widespread collective protest
the world has eveer seen, and if you count the small demonstration
at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the first to reach all seven
continents. [. . .] It bore witness to a usually unspoken desire for
something other than ordinary private life, for something more risky,
more involved, more idealistic. Perhaps many - or most - are not really
ready to live up to that desire but it is there, an aquifer of pure passion.
[. . . ] The millions marching on February 15 represented something
is not yet fully realized, an extraodinary potential waiting,
waiting for
some catalyst to bring it to full flower. A new imagination
of politics and
change is already here . . ."
~ Rebecca Solnit

The Stop the War protest in London, February 2003.
Photographs © Dan Chung

I found these images in The Guardian, accompanying a set of somewhat dispirited stories today looking back on the massive - and prescient - anti-war demonstrations that occurred in cities around the world five years ago today. I have not been able to find the events marked in other media outlets. The New York Times (unsurprisingly) takes no notice, but nor do The Nation, Alternet, openDemocracy, In These Times, Common Dreams News Center . . . What Gives?

These images are of London, but might well have been of NYC or San Francisco or elsewhere in the U.S.; opposition to the administration and its war is not new. It is important to remember that large numbers of Americans have opposed the Bush disaster from the start - and before, as these protests appropriately enough, were preemptive.

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Offensive Art

"Millions of people travel on the London Underground
each day and they have no choice but to view whatever ads
are posted there. We have to take into account the full
range of travellers and endeavour not to cause offence in
the adverts we display." ~ Transport for London Spokesman

At the risk of piling on, I want to call attention to the decision by officials at the Transportation Authority in London to ban fthis poster rom the London Underground. The poster advertises an upcoming exhibition of work by 16th-century German painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach at the Royal Academy of Arts. Are you kidding?


14 February 2008

Deutsche Börse Prize 2008 (2)

A few days back I posted on the finalists for this year's Deutsche Börse Prize. I have been thinking about the nominees (who, for the plethora of prizes they distribute for this or that, the Brits refer to as those "short listed" for the Prize) and oddly enough have arrived at my "pick" - John Davies. I say "oddly" because I recently read this essay in The Guardian in which the author, Adrian Searle, also picked Davies but for reasons that are contrary to those I would adduce. I want to see if I can say what I think is at stake in our disagreement.

Agecroft Power Station, Salford (1983) © John Davies

I focus on this particular image both because I have posted on it here before and because, as you will see, Searle himself suggests it is perhaps Davies' single best-known work. Before getting to the image itself let's see what Searle has to say about Davies.

John Davies' photographs have been in my mind for a long time. His best known is probably a 1983 view of Agecroft Power Station in Salford. Photographed in black and white on a bright winter day, the four cooling towers of the coal-fired power station dominate the landscape. On the reclaimed land between the river and canal, two games of amateur football are being played. In the scrappy woodland beneath where Davies has set up his large-format camera, a few cars are parked, next to a scattered pile of fly-tipped rubbish. In the haze to the south looms the enclosed winding gear of the last surviving colliery in the Lancashire coalfield. (The pit closed in 1990, the power station three years later. It has now been demolished; a prison stands on the site today.) Davies's photographs keep you looking for a long time.

Time, in fact, is what they dwell on most. Davies' black-and-white work, with its slow, studied positioning and panoramic depth of field and focus, is a kind of social document. This, in any case, is a role that photography can hardly avoid.
Here is a sketch of what Searle says about the other nominees. He criticizes Jacob Holdt for presenting a "deeply disturbing and unpalatable" view of America as (in Holdt's words) a "therapeutically healing journey through the deep racist subconsciousness of the spectator." Searle finds that claim offensive even if he also (rightly to my mind) finds Holdt's work sophomoric. He criticizes Fazal Sheikh in parallel terms. Here, though, it is not the quality of the photography but the problematic match between highly professional images and highly disturbing subject matter that leaves Searle feeling squeamish. He considers Sheikh's work highly compromised not simply because he makes "beautiful" images of troubling subjects, but because along with the images Sheikh offers accompanying text in which he "ruminates on social injustice." By contrast, Searle appreciates the remaining nominee Esko Männikkö precisely because in his work "he takes no moral position." In this, according to Searle, Männikkö differs from Holdt and Sheikh and resembles Davies. Here is how Searle concludes:
In the end, one has to ask who should win the Deutsche Börse prize, and it is Davies' photographs that won't leave me alone. They are dispassionate and compelling. In them, we see geology overlain with the social; the landscape quartered by roads and railways, viaducts and canals; back-to-back housing giving way to high-rise tower blocks that themselves are flattened. There is history in them, as well as light. They tell us things about cities and our relationship to the landscapes on which they are built, about human endeavour and folly. The slag heaps of the closed mines are forested; slate quarries become tourist attractions; trains wind between the houses on a Welsh hillside, carting containers of spent nuclear fuel. Racing pigeons wheel across a mild sky over Sheffield lofts that are about to be cleared for another round of urban expansion and renewal. There is no nostalgia here, only a kind of resignation. Neither Davies' photographs nor his accompanying commentaries tell you what to think or feel, for which I am hugely grateful. He deserves to win.
Where to begin? First, the claim that Männikkö has no moral position is unpersuasive - as though his ironism is not a moral stance. Indeed, irony establishes a distance and a judgement (a sly wink to the sophisticated art world audience) that plays off of the explicit gesture toward the authenticity of man and nature. Second, Searle and I largely agree about Holdt although I find his self-righteous pronouncements less troubling than the banality and haphazardness of the photographs themselves. Third, Sheikh makes beautiful images of disturbing subjects. As I have argued here repeatedly (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] ... ) that hardly is an indictment. And might it not be that the beauty of Sheikh's images and his ruminations conspire to trouble Searle precisely because they challenge the sort of ironic distancing he finds so attractve in Männikkö?

Having said all that, I think Davies' work is deeply political. If we focus, for example, on the photo of Agecroft we can recall that 1983 was the year prior to the massive, disastrous miner's strike in Britian. The colliery Searle refers to didn't just close, it was closed by the Thatcher government. Part of what I find irritating about Searle's assessment is the passivity he projects. No one is doing anything, things just happen. And that is why - by projection - he sees Davies' landscapes so naively. I think Searle is correct, there is no nostalgia in the images. But there is nevertheless a sense of loss. There is no resignation either but recognition that what we are seeing is a political landscape on which not just labor, but conflict and loss have been (and still are) intimately inscribed by contending parties.

In short, Davies is not just trying to reveal the human condition in its inevitablity; he is showing us how the landscape reveals (if we look and inquire) the ways some folks lose in the course of history. Instead of seeing forested (hence "renewed' or 'recovered') slagheaps, as does Searle, we might ask what lays under that forest, and from whence did it come, and what has happened that it its become overgrown? And we might ask too about the eradicaiton of memory involved in the reccovery of land previously used for industrial purposes. The answers to those questions would be political; they would take us into the conflicts and decisions and actions that fashion and shape the political landscape. Unfortunately, those are quesitons Searle never bothers to ask.

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Secretary Rice & Her "Integrity"

Photograph © Doug Mills/The New York Times

Today on npr I heard this story about testimony given yesderday by Condolezza Rice before Congress. The story mentioned this exchange:

Florida Rep. Robert Wexler used Wednesday's hearing to bring up a report by the Center for Public Integrity that said Rice made 56 false statements to "pump up the case" for war.

"Congressman, I take my integrity very seriously," Rice responded. "And I did not at any time make a statement that I knew to be false or that I thought to be false in order to 'pump up' anything."

I have posted on the report to which Wexler refers here and the evidence it contains is damning. The report from the Center of Public Integrity confirms what everyone's Grandmother knows, namely that Bush and various of his minions - including Rice - assiduously peddled falsehoods in an effort to sell war with Iraq. Of course, it may be true that Rice did not knowingly "lie" when making false statements. There is, however, no doubt that Rice did in fact make statements that were false. And she did so not only repeatedly, but many, many, many times.

So, let's presume that Rice did not know that her repeated statements were false. And let's presume too that she did not think they were false. It is important, after all to be charitable! We are left with a difficult task. How do we account for the wide discrepancy between the fact that Rice repeatedly made false statements and her claim yesterday that she neither knew nor thought those statements were false?

A couple of possibilities come to mind. It could be that she was irresponsible in the sense that she made statements that were false even though she did not know they were false. But starting a war takes great certainty. It is, after all, perhaps the most momentous decision any politician can make and the good Secretary ought to have exercised due diligence in making certain that her statements (her reasons for advocating war) were correct. Lack of due diligence on a matter of such importance is, to put it mildly, irresponsible.

Another possibility is that Rice simply is an ideologue. Here what is at issue is whether she thought her statements were false. She may have been deluded by preconceptions and prior political commitments that prevented her from seeing the falsehood of what she was saying. This possibility, like the first, would leave the Secretary's integrity intact. But the price of salvaging the Secretary's inegrity is quite high. The first possibility would raise serious questions about her competence, while the second would raise equally serious questions about her trustworthiness. Neither possibility eliminates her culpability for the fiasco the administration created in Iraq. I'll leave it for you to decide whether Rice is incompetent or untrustworthy with the caveat, of course, that the two possibilities are not mutuallly exclusive.

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12 February 2008

Can We?

You may well by now have seen this way too sappy, but now very famous Obama video. Here is the the very funny take-off McCain video:

I have to say, watching the the second one makes having been subjected to the first worthwhile. (You can find another, to my mind less effective, anti-McCain advert here.) My standard complaint about Democrats is that the typically deserve to lose to Republicans because while the latter play hard-ball the former are weenies. I really hope the Democrats play this sort of funny ha! ha!, hardball through November.


Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)

"On the Origin of Species . . . introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion" ~ John Dewey (1909)

Portrait of Charles Darwin (1881)
Photograph: Julia Margaret Cameron

Ever the optimist, Dewey made his comment on the 50th anniversary of the publication Darwin's On The Origin of Species. Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of that event. Although I surely would not wish 2009 to be "the end," I would hope that some of the dimmer souls among my fellow Americans would get the message.

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Are We Suprised? Terrorists to Go on Trial

As this column in The New York Times suggests, the news yesterday that a half dozen of the Guantanamo detainees will be brought to trial is no shocker. At least the timing of the move is no shocker. This sort of falls in the 'Be Careful What You Wish For' category. Opponents of the Bush fiascos (note the plural) have been asking for something like the rule of law. And now we seemingly are going to get something like it. Gee whiz, the defendants will even be able to see (most) of the evidence raised against them! According to the news report yesterday, the charges against the men are being translated into their native languages. I wonder if the transcripts of the interrogaiton sessions will be available too? That would be useful, since there will presumably be a public record and press coverage.

Obviously, though, an ongoing trial of bad guys will keep attention focused precisely where BushCo wants it to be. After all, not only will the trials put on display the "value added" they calim is generated by their repressive policies (torture, domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens, and who knows what other sorts of disregard for international and domestic law), but it is, after all, an election year and this will place the "GWOT" at the center of the political agenda. Never mind that there is no evidence at all that the men who will be on trial can so much as spell Iraq. Never mind that the presumptive Republican candidate knows virtually nothing about say, the economy. Never mind that much of what passes for evidence will have been elicited via methods perfected under the Spanish Inquisition (yes, I refer to 'the comfy chair'!) and so be just about as reliable as the confessions of heretics. A good show trial should work well to dispel any popular doubts about such matters.

Of course, the President has no say in the timing of this decision. It says so right there in the newspaper. I actually don't think there is or will be evidence to the contrary. But John McCain sure must be wondering how fortune has smiled so sweetly on him.

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