Friday, May 07, 2004

Mission of Burma are back, in all their dissonant glory. They've released their second album twenty years after calling it quits, due to Roger Miller's ear damage, after too few people understood the first. (But, like with the Velvet Underground, it seems like just about everyone who did went off and started a band).

You and I return to the scene of the crime
Let's go out and wash our sins away
Everyone's an actor in this play
Trading lines with roving phantoms.

It says something about the band that even reviewers who like the new record can't agree whether it sounds like the old stuff or not. They're still experimenting, and some of the experiments are new, including a lovely acoustic track that trades the feedback and drums for a violin and a cello, leaving at least one reviewer wondering what it's doing on a Burma record in the first place.

There is one more or less topical song -- Wounded World, which was written when George Bush was attacking our former proxy in Iraq, stayed on the shelf for years while Dick Cheney's Halliburton sold drilling equipment to Saddam's Iraq, and was finally recorded a decade later when George Bush was attacking Iraq:

Another year, another friend or foe
Burn their cities, scorch the earth below
The times have changed and so too have our needs
This time it's you on which the fire feeds
Fire feeds...

But that's a bit heavy handed. As lyrics go, I'm more fond of, say, What We Really Were -- a tuneful ode to lost loves and lost innocence:

Of course, you must know that it did all end.
How then to recall what we really were?
Of course, you must know that it did all end.
Nothing that perfect or simple ever lasts
For long...

Which reminds me a bit of the one science fiction character I know of to have me on her blogroll. (As distinct from, say, science fiction editors, which is really a different sort of thing -- though not, to be sure, any less important). But I'm not sure Mission of Burma would really be her cup of tea...

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Colin Powell on Larry King Live:

I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they're still to be deplored.

He neglects to mention that while at that unit, bearing the grandiloquent title "deputy assistant chief of staff", he was asked to investigate a letter home from a soldier which referred to the massacre at My Lai, and produced a report which brushed it off as a blown-up account of "isolated instances" of trouble, despite which "relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese are excellent."

On Larry King, discussing recent events, he goes on:

It seems to be a limited number of soldiers who may have been involved in this, and they will be subject to the justice of the United States Army, and I'm confident that all the investigations that are now underway will find out who was responsible for what and justice will be served. So it's a fairly small number of soldiers.

Let's not let that take away from the magnificent contributions being made by most of our soldiers, the vast majority of our soldiers, who are building schools, repairing hospitals, who are defending themselves, going after the bad guys, but also putting in sewer systems for the people of Iraq.

And so while we deplore this, and while we are all stunned and shocked that our young people could do this, let's not forget what most of our young people are doing in service to the nation and in service to the Iraqi people.

Looks like the deputy assistant chief of staff was father to the Secretary of State.

One other Iraq-related item; I'll keep it brief since Avedon thinks I'm getting obsessed. The endless stream of stories about American troops using helpless captive Iraqis as playthings and worse is actually burying yet another scandal -- this one concerning Indian citizens who say they were held in forced servitude in Iraq, either by the army or its contractors...

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

A little news from Boston. There seems to be some sort of major terror alert active for the subways here. During daylight hours, their PA has announcements in heavy rotation asking people to report unattended packages, locate nearby exits, report unattended packages, and follow orders of uniformed personnel in an emergency. And then there's the one from the transit agency's chief of police, who identifies himself, says that "if something's not right, we want to make it right", and then asks people to report anything odd or out of place, including suspicious activity and above all, unattended packages.

When I was in school, one of the horrors of communism was supposed to be the pervasive use of informants, turning citizens against each other, even within families. (This was, of course, before DARE.) But now, if there's a real danger of bombings, I suppose the warnings are legitimate. And compared to some of the other stuff that's going on, hardly much of a threat to civil liberties.

But while it's less significant than, say, new federal powers to snoop through business records without a warrant, it's more in your face. And so, it's at least a short slide further down a slippery slope toward getting the population at large to accept pervasive surveillance of the people, by the people, for the guys in law enforcement -- which despite our victory in the cold war, has not yet perished from the earth.

Some people are worried that media consolidation might cause the films and TV that people see to be systematically skewed to fit a political agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider the Walt Disney corporation. Now, it's true that they're refusing to distribute Micahel Moore's new documentary on Dubya's connections to the Saudis, which will probably keep it out of theaters throughout most of the country. But look at their reasons:

A senior Disney executive elaborated that the company had the right to quash Miramax's distribution of films if it deemed their distribution to be against the interests of the company. The executive said Mr. Moore's film is deemed to be against Disney's interests not because of the company's business dealings with the government but because Disney caters to families of all political stripes and believes Mr. Moore's film, which does not have a release date, could alienate many.

"It's not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle," this executive said.

See? They're trying to avoid politics!

Besides, there are other political documentaries coming out. NPR this morning had a story on them -- which didn't mention Moore's troubles at all. It did, however, feature John Podhoretz saying that the reasons a lot of these films are coming out right now is that liberal foundations were funding them all. The reporter briefly mumbled afterwards something to the effect that Podhoretz was wrong about the funding for most of the particular films discussed in the report. But even though the reporter knew Podhoretz was basically lying, he subscribes to the code of the American journalistic profession. A code which demands that even when people with a prominent enough role in the establishment are flat-out-lying, they deserve a forum anyway in which to present their lies. In the name of balance and objectivity.

More: Well, that's what Disney say their motive is. But they're also rumored to have an eye on the Florida tax breaks under the purview of Dubya's brother Jeb... a bit that I'd missed in reading through the same New York Times article. It didn't get past Floridian Michael Froomkin...

A tad more news from Boston. Governor Romney was trying, for a while, to demand that people seeking gay marriage here present ironclad proof of residency. Now he's backing off. Maybe someone reminded him that a similar insistence on strict, punctilious enforcement of residency requirements a year ago, would have cost him his current job...
One last bit of news from Boston. The annual WBCN battle of the bands is happening again. Prelims are upstairs at the Middle East, which has grown a bit. Which meant last night that if some metalhead contestants had played the same chord a couple times too often for you, you had your choice of listening to a Mexican folk duo, or watching an electronic dance combo leave the sequencers at home and transform themselves into an Edith Piaf tribute band.

I went with Piaf... but it seems I'm not done with the metalheads. They won this round. Rosenberg got robbed, I tell you. Robbed.

These are things that keep me sane...

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The daily word on the Falluja follies: Myers was right about one thing -- General Saleh has been replaced in Falluja, by someone rather more to the liking of the Americans. As to how that plays to the Arab audience, it's interesting to see how a Reuters report on the new guy's credentials is literally colored in by al-Jazeerah. The words "was exiled" are in red.

By all reports, though, the new guy has far fewer local ties than the old. In this particularly clannish part of Iraq, that will not serve him well...

Update: ... which the new guy has wisely dealt with, it seems, by hiring the old guy right back.

A thought on recent developments:

The invasion of Iraq was, as some foresaw, somewhat helpful to al-Qaeda, eliminating one of their enemies within the Arab world, and playing into their own "clash of civilizations" rhetoric. More recent news has been a boon that bin Laden, in his wildest dreams, would scarcely have dared to imagine. The torture photographs could not have been calculated to make us look more like brutal conquerors. (I might have said barbarians, but you have to think a bit about who you slap that label on. The Romans did this sort of thing, too -- they just weren't hypocrites about it). And between that, the blatant corruption of the omnipresent contractors like Halliburton, our steady opposition to Sistani's call for elections, and our attempts to make the "sovereign government" which we create on June 30th a powerless shell, the old Iraqi democratic opposition itself is saying that "democracy is dead in the United States, but its facade is being kept in place by the American administration." Can anyone doubt that when bin Laden looks at this, he sees the hand of divine providence?

And on the other side of this conflict, Dubya also believes that divine providence had a hand in his... selection. He's said so more than once. And between his views and bin Laden's, Westerners might perceive a contradiction. But bin Laden might not. To him, all things happen according to the will of Allah, and it is the will of Allah that this man, at this time, be the resident in the oval office. It is a sign of the arrogance of the West, he might say, that we think we can compass the purposes of the divine will in making that choice.

Perhaps the divine will he purports to serve is having a little joke at our expense...

Monday, May 03, 2004

It's sometimes the little details that tell the most:

The grinning fellow with the thumbs up is wearing nitrile gloves.

Those are used for much the same set of purposes as latex gloves, only they're physically much sturdier, and less likely to cause skin sensitivities in the wearer with prolonged use.

So they're used in surgical applications to avoid the risk of sterility punctures from surgical instruments, or for a number of kinds of solvent based materials handling.

That fellow is wearing the lined, long-wearing kind; the cotton liners are flipped down over much of the glove cuff. He's wearing them with the same degree of disregard wood finishers who wear them all day, most days, do, and with absolutely no regard for their sterility.

Anybody who wants to argue for it all being passive -- for values of "passive" as would shame the devil to utter -- psychological coercion is advised to think very carefully about those gloves.

Seen in Boston, on a work car from the Boston Sewer and Water Commission: "Customer service is our #1 priority."

Speaking as a customer, I'd rather their #1 priority was safe, clean, reliable drinking water...

I once had someone describe to me what it's like to go insane -- not just to get angry, or drunk, or do something rash, but to completely lose touch with reality. I asked a bunch of dumb questions about support systems and external checks. None of which work, because it's your capacity to remember that you ought to rely on these things that itself goes awry. You're so captivated by the world inside your own head that you literally no longer believe your eyes. And the same thing can happen at the level of societies.

Might it be happening to us?

I'm not talking so much about the folks who sent hate mail to CBS, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations, saying in effect that if people would not talk about this stuff, then it wouldn't matter because no one would be worrying about it. Nor even the Pentagon's attempts to pin the problem on a "few bad apples", which Sy Hersh destroys in the current New Yorker -- he's got Pentagon's own internal report, which says the abuse was widespread and systematic.

Instead, I'm talking about Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was on the Sunday Morning Follies talking about, among other things, that very Sy Hersh article: Or rather, not:

WALLACE: All right. Let's talk about something a lot less happy, and those are those terrible pictures that we all saw this week of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. We have some of the pictures on the screen.

The U.S. military brought charges in March against six soldiers, but there are press accounts today of an internal Army report that alleges that it went a lot higher than just six Army Reservists, that military intelligence officers and CIA agents urged the troops of the prison, quote, "set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses."

General, that Army report was completed back in February. Is it true?

MYERS: It's working its way to me. I have not seen it yet. Setting physical and mental conditions for interrogation, by itself, obviously that's something you do. But one thing we don't do is we don't torture.

The report says we do. But never mind that. What's this about the report, which had already reached Sy Hersh, still "working its way" to Myers? Its existence, and Hersh's quotes, were already public knowledge -- Chris Wallace was, after all, asking the obvious questions about it. You'd think that Myers would want to know about it, if only so he could avoid being caught, say, making obviously false statements about it on national TV. This is the Army. He's a general. Can't he just order someone to send him a copy?

But then again, maybe Myers just doesn't have a problem making transparently false statements. On other shows, Myers had some truly remarkable things to say about action in Falluja. He said that important events which have been widely covered in the American and world press simply hadn't occured.

The accession of the old Iraqi general, Jasem Salih, to command of the new Iraqi Falluja force? As on Fox, Myers said that was not decided yet, despite the widely reproduced snapshots of his triumphant entry to the city.

More importantly, withdrawal of American troops from the city of Falluja itself? Never happened, despite images on CNN. He was harshly critical of the press who said otherwise, in the mistaken belief that merely being on the scene gave them a better view than his. And in this, he was echoed by his own guy on the scene:

Speaking to reporters for the first time since the decision to forgo an all-out attack and install the proxy force, the Marine in charge of U.S. operations in western Iraq bristled at characterizations that the Marines had "retreated" or "withdrawn" from the city.

"Both of those are dirty words in the vocabulary of a Marine," said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He described a realignment of forces that should allow Marines to go inside with convoys and to spend millions of dollars on reconstruction projects.

He has a captivating vision in his mind of a glorious occupation, where we rain down benefits onto a grateful populace. What would be better for him to believe -- that or his lying eyes?

Further reflection: Or maybe he's just lying, either to provide rhetorical cover to cock-eyed superiors, or just to try to keep them out of his way. Which leaves Myers... if he was going to choose to tell a lie about that report, why choose one so transparently ridiculous?

By the way, people who wanted courts martial for even the half dozen soldiers on film torturing prisoners apparently won't get them. But the army has a nifty consolation prize -- stern written reprimands. In writing, even!

Meanwhile, another pole star of the American establishment, Tom Friedman, considers grand global strategy. Iraq isn't necessarily going so well at the moment, but that is not the only thing in the world within the scope of his magisterial vision. Other world arenas must also get their due. So it is that, as an occupation he advocated on more or less humanitarian grounds spirals out of control, he is writing up a column which says that we ought to just stop whining about China's abysmal human rights record...