Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brown out on the Economy

Ian Williams: With an almighty boom, neo-liberalism goes bust

September 29, 2008 1:05 pm admin cartoons

THE group of conspirators who caused the major implosion in Wall Street damaged the economy more than Osama bin Laden and al Qaida did when they caused an explosion in the same district. In the latter case, the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, pledged to root out terrorism. In this latest incident, the US government has rushed to give the conspirators $1 trillion as a down payment so they can return and do it all over again.

It is almost 30 years since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher persuaded gullible governments that they should get out of the way of business and leave everything to the “market”. That caused deep economic recessions in both countries and the wave of deregulation that set in is still leaving aftershocks.

In the 1960s, confronted with international financiers, Harold Wilson had castigated the “Gnomes of Zurich” who, with assistance from the City of London and their representatives in the Treasury, spent a decade undermining him and his successor, James Callaghan. Gordon Brown’s lesson from this was that the financial institutions needed to be stroked and massaged rather than confronted. In a country left even more vulnerable since the Tories stripped what few defences the economy had, this was understandable.

But just as the “masters of the universe” in Wall Street fell victim to their own Ponzi schemes, Brown seems to have given them a lot more credit for their sagacity and honesty than they merited. It is one thing to stroke them, but quite another to believe them. Sadly, he has shown signs of that. Just think of the Private Finance Initiative, which began as a super wheeze to build infrastructure without the money appearing on the Government’s books, but which Brown ended up defending even when it became clear it was now a channel for shifting the public money to the financiers and their advisors.

Northern Rock and Halifax were thriving, efficient mutually-owned building societies until the tide of neo-liberal opinion drove them to the stock markets – and disaster. Think of the enterprises, the gas, water and electricity providers, British Airways and British Petroleum built up, despite the Treasury, into efficient and profitable companies.

A Tory Government with a very dubious title to them sold the former water authorities, the fruit of a century of social investment and entrepreneurship by the cities of Britain, to companies whose short-term pumping of their stocks to enhance executive earnings is in direct contradiction to the long-term needs of heavily capitalised infrastructure.

What is different about this latest lesson is how pervasively the cancer of bad debts has spread through the global economy, but the results of keeping government out of business were already apparent to all but the most mesmerised followers of finance. In the US, we had the Savings & Loans scandal, with which John McCain was intimately involved. Almost two decades ago, that cost the federal government as much as $400 billion. Then there was the tech stocks bubble, followed by the energy companies debacle and the airlines’ leaden landing, in each of which deregulation played a starring role. There was the Asian currency crisis and the bailout of Mexican bondholders, all culminating in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

Now Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a former Goldman Sachs chief executive, is trying to stampede the US Congress into giving him unlimited powers to buy the dead assets his former peers were peddling. He wants a minimum of $700 billion to buy up the dubiously-valued assets that his peers in the banks had been peddling furiously to one another. Now no one wants them.

Paulson is trying to avoid conditions, such as requirement that the government get shares in the company in return for taking on toxic debt, or limits on executive pay at companies helped. Deadpan, the Wall Street Journal explains: “He fears that provision would render the programme moot, since many firms might choose not to participate.” They would rather the companies went under than that they forfeited any of the bonuses, options, deferred pensions or golden parachutes. This is about free-for-alls, not free markets.

At the risk of sounding Clintonesque, a paradigm shift is called for. Just because the US government is now nationalising the miasmic swamps of the economy is no reason to rush to take over the commanding heights. However, there is every reason to reconsider the neo-liberal shibboleths that became part of the mantra of “new” Labour.

While the bankers, the gnomes of Zurich and the masters of the universe are all mesmerised with their impending bankruptcy, Gordon Brown can unashamedly return to the roots he had when he wrote ILP leader Jimmy Maxton’s biography. It is time to turn the intellectual tide, abandon the rush to privatise whatever public services have been overlooked and celebrate the real potential of public enterprise. At a minimum, this means better regulation of the City, public infrastructure spending to avert the impending recession and no handouts. As we have been told for 30 years, they pose a moral hazard. Make them pay.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pulling Punches

Comment is free
Cif America
Buying into the neocon worldview
In Friday's debate, Barack Obama conceded too much to John McCain and the neocon consensus on US foreign policy

guardian.co.uk, Saturday September 27 2008 20:31 BST

Barack Obama won on points – just - in Friday's debate. It should have been a knockout, but he pulled his punches continually, particularly on foreign policy.

From the point of view of American electoral politics, Obama has a handicap, in fact several. As a pioneering black candidate, he has to avoid at all costs any hint of anger or a chip on the shoulder, and that spilled over to his relative youth as well. Americans are deferential to seniority, so it would have been counterproductive for him to be as snippy with McCain as the ornery old coot deserved.

There were many occasions when McCain deserved to be put down resoundingly. Each of his jibes about naïveté and inexperience was begging for a riposte about McCain's quarter-century as an insider in a Congress and a party that had done so much to bring the nation and the world to its present and sorry pass.

Where were the cutting references to McCain's starring role in the Keating Five and the savings and loan scandal and his panoply of advisers who have been lobbying for the earmarks that he obsessed about?

McCain's call for a League of Democracies contrasts sharply with his tolerance and praise for the military dictatorship in Pakistan and his characterisation of the country as a failed state when Pervez Musharraf took over from the democratically elected government. When he said "The Iranians have a lousy government, so therefore their economy is lousy," I was longing for Obama, to reply: "And we have a lousy economy because we have a lousy government – whose policies you have been supporting!"

McCain's outright false assertions about Obama's positions, not to mention his dissimulation about Henry Kissinger's views on meeting with foreign leaders, which does indeed match Obama's, may come back to haunt him, as indeed may his appointment of Sarah Palin if she crosses moose antlers with Joe Biden.

Obama was, on balance, probably right to restrain himself. But even so, it was disturbing to see how much he conceded to McCain, and to the neocon consensus, on foreign policy. Obama accepted shibboleths like the sacredness of the defence budget, the alleged success of the troop surge in Iraq, missile defence and Nato expansion.

There are many legitimate objections to the acceptance of Georgia and Ukraine in Nato, even from those who think Vladimir Putin has gone too far. The whole Star Wars project has been a complete boondoggle for the aerospace industry. The cost of the Iraq war may not be as high as the banker's bailout, but it is accepting the Republican recasting of the issue to confuse the defence budget with "voting against money for our troops", when so much of it, as McCain himself alluded, is pork-barrelling to Boeing and similar companies.

Obama also took as axiomatic that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, which is far from proven, and talked of an arms race in the Middle East, without mentioning the one country that has nuclear weapons there and has refused to sign any of the non-proliferation treaties.

He was sharp on McCain's bluster about Spain, but perhaps should have spelled it out for the millions of viewers who were not fully aware of the gaffe from someone who was in the fore of the Frog and Bosch bashing at the time of the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps Obama's most adroit tactic was his triangulation over Afghanistan. Far from being anti-military, he repeated that that Iraq was the wrong war, fought in the wrong way against the wrong enemy. Even if his repeated assertion that Osama bin Laden should be hunted down and "killed" sounds somewhat atavistically vindictive to people outside the US, it will not cost him many votes at home.

Obama probably restrained himself too much this time, for understandable reasons. Next time, he should go for a knockout.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bailout giveaway

The end of voodoo economics

Wall Street ideologues have been gambling our money and screwing us all. Now is a chance to correct their excesses

o guardian.co.uk,
o Friday September 26 2008 19:00 BST

As the all-too-often selectively quoted Adam Smith actually said: "All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind."

No one can say that current events are a one-off. The get-government-out-of-business brigade, the masters of the universe, have in their three decades of unbridled power produced the savings and loan bail-out, the Mexican bond bail-out, the Asian currency crisis, the Enron and other related scandals, the tech bubble, the Long-Term Capital Management collapse and rescue, a wage freeze for working Americans and now this.

And the irony is that these vile people who are now graciously agreeing to pocket a trillion dollars of taxpayers' cash have been arguing for three decades that government has no business in business, least of all in pension provision. In their famous phrase, it would pose a "moral hazard" for ordinary Americans to think that their government would look after them if in old age their income or their health failed them.

Those who have engineered these serial disasters, which have inflicted more damage on the US and world economy than Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, have not been pursued into the hills of Bora Bora. Governments have reduced their taxes as they reward themselves with more and more salary, bonuses and stock options. If the shares of the company they manage take a dive, they backdate their options. If the company fails, they take a golden parachute. And when all else fails, they come to the taxpayers, top hat in hand.

There is one small consolation. What if these guys had achieved their desire, shared with John McCain and George Bush, to privatise the social security system? Just think of the social and economic disaster they could have wrought given all those trillions of dollars to play with.

With the sudden affection for government ownership and assistance now globalising its way consensually from Washington, will we see a new, social-democratic age of government involvement in industry? Probably not soon. But as Churchill said, this surely deserves to be beginning of the end of the Washington neoliberal consensus that George Bush's father called voodoo economics. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and even Gordon Brown all succumbed to that old black magic – and looking at Barack Obama's economic advisers, there is a more than even chance that he, too, is under its spell.

Clinton introduced tough love for working people, with welfare reform and lifetime caps, since it was clear that if you had no job it was your fault, not that of the titans of industry who had offshored your job or preferred to play the tables with sliced-and-diced derivatives of derivatives rather than use the capital for industrial and infrastructural investment.

Clinton famously quibbled about what "is" meant. It is much more productive to consider what the "market" is, not least when it falls from McCain's lips. As the negative example of Soviet-style economy suggests, it is difficult to beat the market when you are talking about the free exercise of consumer choices for goods and services and the consequent allocation of capital for providing them. But in the US, no one blinks when governments ban or regulate sales of tobacco, alcohol or drugs, let alone gambling or sexual services.

The financial markets, with increasing deregulation, have become a heady combination of sex and gambling. The Wall Street ideologues have been gambling our money and screwing us all, as investors, pensioners, workers and taxpayers.

There has been some understandable chortling as the British and American governments override their free-trade platitudes to nationalise companies, whether Northern Rock or AIG, Fannie Mae or Freddy Mac. But the plan Goldman Sach's alumnus Hank Paulson is proposing now is not nationalisation. It is a strings-free handout to his former colleagues on Wall Street.

However, there are opportunities in this crisis. Don't just take over the lemons left squeezed to the pips. Take equity shares in the whole companies. Maybe the proceeds could go to a sovereign wealth fund, to invest in manufacturing and infrastructure.

Above all, if the high priests of finance invoke government assistance, then now is the time to finish the job that Roosevelt started, Truman propounded and even Nixon considered: a universal single-payer healthcare system in the US. If AIG, one of the world's biggest insurers, is effectively now nationalised by the US government without debate, then who can argue? Nationalise the health insurance companies.

At the very least, now is the time to set up a comprehensive and effective regulatory system, and to ensure that if the taxpayers pick up the tab for executive excesses, the executives pick up more of the tab for taxes. Over to you Obama – and for that matter, Gordon Brown. Are you with the vile or the victims?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Do As I Say, Not As I Do - Bush

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Cif America
Paying lip service to multilateralism
George Bush's emphasis on international cooperation in his final UN speech is totally disconnected from his actions as president

All comments (50)

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday September 23 2008 21:30 BST
Article history
George Bush's parting speech to the UN on Tuesday was a bit like a rapist deciding to whisper sweet nothings as he climbs up off his victim. Sadly, most of his victims sat sycophantically and applauded, even if they muttered behind their name placards.

Last year, Bush's UN speech script went to the press with all his phonetic spellings put in, lest he insult dear friends and allies by mispronouncing their names. For his curtain call at the world body, for someone used to autocues, he intoned a competent if uninspiring sermon to the assembled world leaders. And avoided tricky names.

Luckily, the world had low expectations of his first visit eight years ago, so it could keep its disappointment within limits when he lowered the bar. Since then Bush has started several wars, threatened several more and brought the global economy to the precipice, while leaving his ungrateful nation several trillion dollars in extra debts from the Iraq war and bailouts to financial institutions – not a mention a few extra billion to the guys who owned and ran those institutions. It was not the best of backdrops for a farewell performance.

Most of the sentiments in his speech would have been unexceptional, and the congregation would have nodded in agreement and off to doze, were it not for the total disconnect between the sentiments expressed and the behaviour of the preacher.

He preached: "As sovereign states, we have an obligation to govern responsibly and solve problems before they spill across borders. We have an obligation to prevent our territory from being used as a sanctuary for terrorism and proliferation and human trafficking and organised crime."

All true, but it would ring more so if did not come from the lips of someone whose government was "trafficking" humans in rendition flights across the globe, or even one who had not allowed bank lobbyists to craft the financial regime that now threatens to crash the global economy.

"No cause can justify the deliberate taking of innocent human life," he said, which is almost beyond comment, although I am sure some Iraqi, Afghan or Pakistani villagers could be found who would rise to the task, let alone Lebanese villagers or Gazans minced up by US-supplied munitions.

The brave talk at Annapolis has shrunk down to one terse reference to "the people of the Palestinian Territories, who deserve a free and peaceful state of their own." If the settlers backed by American money leave them any space or water for it.

Of course, one of Bush's problems is that by the time he came to realise the usefulness, and indeed the indispensability of working through the UN, he had made it difficult for anyone to take his overtures seriously. It was the road to Baghdad rather than the road to Damascus that saw his conversion. There he and his neocon advisers were, cock-a-hoop at their victory, and there was nothing they could do with it. They could not sell Iraqi oil, and any regime they installed would have zero legitimacy.

They brought in the UN, but even though the UN administration and the security council were forgiving and went along, they could not show gratitude. Sending John Bolton was the equivalent of putting King Herod in charge of Unicef, as the White House, now savaged almost weekly by Bolton's Parthian fusillades, may realise. It does not help that Bush happily echoed Bolton's flip denigrations of the institution, calling it "the wax museum", seemingly insouciant that if you want people to rally to a flag, even a blue one, it's best not to smear it with crap before and even while you are waving it.

"The objectives I've laid out for multilateral institutions - confronting terror, opposing tyranny and promoting effective development - are difficult, but they are necessary tasks," Bush said. Presumably unlike climate change, which got not a single mention, despite Ban Ki-moon, who had just spoken about it as the "defining issue of our era". Bush presumably has great expectations of a lucrative post-retirement career funded by big oil.

Even so, Bolton will now be even grumpier, since his once-unilateral president used the word "multilateral" no less than nine times in his speech. But as with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, Bush used it without the connotations of collegiality with which less powerful nations imbue it. "Do as I say, not as I do" was the constant subtext.

Above all Bush cherishes the illusion that for the billions of the world faced with climate change, pollution, mass repression and killing by governments, not to mention simple starvation, "terrorism" is the biggest threat. He returned to it over and over again – and it can't be for domestic reasons, since polls suggest that the American electorate have put it in it proper perspective.

But look on the bright side, Bolton will be peeved that the Axis of Evil is currently down to two, Syria and Iran, although Hugo Chávez and Raul Castro may feel self-righteously peeved at being left out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Janus-like Justice

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September-October 2008, pages 34-35

United Nations Report
Playing Favorites
By Ian Williams

One can see why pro-Israeli congress­persons take a regular tilt at UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Its latest report, Prolonged Crisis in the occupied Palestinian territory: Socio-Economic Developments in 2007, available online at , dispassionately outlines what the occupation is doing to the Palestinian people. “The real average unemployment rate in the oPt in 2007 remained amongst the highest in the world at 29.5 percent,” it reported. “When adjusted to account for the sharp increase in unpaid absentee workers in Gaza during the second half of the year, joblessness in Gaza between July and December 2007 reached an unprecedented high of 45.3 percent. At 46.1 percent, rates were slightly higher for refugees in Gaza.”

The reason the difference is so marginal is clear. While some refugees came to camps, for residents of Gaza the camp came to them. The Strip is one long camp—or ghetto.

In Gaza, the report continued, “the number of households below the consumption poverty line continued to grow, reaching 51.8 percent for the year as a whole.”

Take more than a million dispossessed people with justifiable historic grudges, confine them to a small space, starve them, and give them plenty of spare time to nurse their anger, with frequent raids and air attacks in case they get apathetic, and no sociologist would have much difficulty predicting the outcome.

Then persuade your international circle of useful idiots to condemn “terrorism” and give you a free pass for your own behavior. That is pretty much what has been happening with the U.S. and its allies at the U.N.

Years ago in a Liverpool dockside pub that continued serving behind closed doors after hours, a friend and I pulled off a man who was savagely beating his wife, and threw him outside. And one of his friends chipped in, “she was a bit cheeky, you know.”

This automatic identification with the perpetrator and attempt to suggest moral parity between the offender and the victim is very reminiscent of Washington’s support of Israel.

That is why, in some contexts, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad could have been the target of an AIPAC firestorm for his temerity in expressing “deep” concern over the “continuing Israeli settlement activity,” which he accused of having “a negative effect on the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations” in the region.
Israeli Abassador Dan Gillerman behaved as if the U.N. were his home court.

However, in the context of a threatened U.S. veto of the resolution sought by the Arab states to condemn Israel’s announcement of more settlement building, Ambassador Khalilzad is assured of a free pass from AIPAC. The Israel lobby behemoth knew, after all, that no resolution that isolated or singled out the perpetrator would be allowed. Nor would there be any repetition of the heroic days of James Baker and President George H.W. Bush, when Israel was told that U.S. aid could not be used to build what the White House and State Department then correctly identified as illegal settlements.

The American position has since eroded: the settlements are “unhelpful,” or have “a negative effect.” Of course, Israel pledged both to the U.S. and the Quartet as well that it would stop settlement expansion. Nevertheless, it has learned that it no longer need fear the robust response of its biggest—and indeed, almost only—unequivocal backer.

Israel can break its word with impunity; so far, the worst penalty it has had to pay has been a deepened furrow on Condoleezza Rice’s brow. It does make one wonder. Here is the world’s only superpower, the military, economic and diplomatic backstop for Israel, and Israel can thumb its nose, or worse, at will.

In 2001, Israel was the subject of international censure from the entire global community for its incursions into “self-ruled” Palestinian territory. Mesmerized by the “War on Terror,” the British, Canadians, Australians and the Europeans all now join in condoning or ignoring almost daily IDF operations that, before 9/11, each would have been the occasion for an emergency Security Council meeting.

One of those both responsible for and benefiting from this sea change in sentiment was Dan Gillerman, Israeli ambassador to the U.N. since 2003, who called former U.S. President Jimmy Carter a “bigot.” The U.S. State Department felt it had no option but to register a protest with Israel (even if the White House itself may have had some stronger epithets in mind), but in his round of farewell interviews, played up across the American and Israeli press, Gillerman said he had not heard a word directly from either the U.S. or Israeli government about it.

The adulatory press was in some measure justified on professional grounds. Previous Israeli permanent representatives to the U.N. tended to behave as if they were an uninvited guest at the party—as, of course, they were. Instead, armored with the war on terror and the tacit blessing or connivance of the major powers Gillerman behaved as if the U.N. were his home court. He certainly made it such, haunting the 38th floor, where the Secretary General works, and advising on U.N. operations in a way that even permanent members would have blushed at.
A Progressively More Foreful Ban

However, even Gillerman’s diplomatic charms could not cover for the misdeeds of the country he represents, and Ban Ki Moon’s statements on settlements and Israeli behavior have become progressively more forceful. Of course, he has little option. The body of U.N. decisions and international law dating from the 1947 partition resolution to the 2004 International Court of Justice opinion on the separation wall quite clearly shows Israel to be in violation both of specific resolutions and the general principles of international law—quite apart from its own commitment to the Quartet, which the U.N. secretary-general heads.

So, we have Ban Ki Moon, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and many others clearly and unequivocally saying that the plans for more settlement building are illegal and destructive of the (increasingly mythological) peace process. Washington says “unhelpful” and uses its veto to stop any censure of Israel, while wondering why it cannot get unanimous support to condemn Iran, or the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

Speaking of condemnation, the U.S. delegation abstained on a resolution to extend the mandate of the peacekeeping force in Darfur—ostensibly because the British had included palliative language in the preamble mentioning African concerns about the timing of the charges against Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and promising a discussion.
Mysterious Territory

We are in mysterious territory here. The U.S. abstained on the original vote calling for an ICC investigation—because it was totally opposed to the whole concept of the court. Now the U.S. delegation claims that it would not vote for the resolution because it would not countenance any suggestion that the court it did not want to exist would in any way soften its processes against Al-Bashir. Since it would take a positive vote of the Security Council to suspend the prosecution, and the U.S. not only has a veto but probably also has a majority in the Council on this issue, why would it bother to abstain? One cannot help suspecting that some residual Boltonesque feelings about the court also motivated the decision.

For the record, while the U.S. insistence that (some) Arab countries abide by every jot and tittle of U.N. decisions is indeed hypocritical when taken in conjunction with its protection of Israel, we should note that Israel is not the only beneficiary of Washington’s solicitousness. For example, it also protects, along with France and much of the Arab world, Morocco, which built the prototype of the separation wall around Western Sahara and has itself been building settlements in occupied territory in defiance of U.N. resolutions.

Russia wants its Serbian Orthodox friends, like newly arrested Radovan Karadzic, to have a free pass from international justice, while South Africa, now that Mandela has retired, has joined Russia and China in protecting Mugabe, and indeed joined the Arab world in protecting Al Bashir.

There is an American tendency to assume that any Muslim or Arab is automatically guilty of any crime, but that is the mirror image of some Arabs regarding any of their fellow Muslims as automatically innocent. Both are destructive of the growing movement to global justice, which has politicians and generals checking with their lawyers as well as their travel agents before traveling abroad.

It is true that some of those most loudly defending the rights of Darfur would not hear a word said against Israel’s behavior, not least since they never quite realized that the people of Darfur are dark-skinned Arabic-speaking Muslims—just like their so-called “Arab” Jinjaweed persecutors.

However, Israeli generals and politicians dare not go to Europe lest an arrest warrant hits them. If that is fair—and it is—then so is a prosecution of Al-Bashir.

Ian Williams, a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations, is working on a book about U.N.-Haters in the U.S., and has a blog at . His last book was Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Loss of Balance

The unbalanced media
Republicans have cowed the media with accusations of liberal bias, but the idea of objectivity is flawed to begin with

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday September 16 2008 19:30 BST

So Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews get the bullet as MSNBC news anchors because they did not pass the McCain-Palin test of balance, which is currently the ability to stare a pig in the face and declare it to be a moose with lipstick when told that's what the GOP say it is.

To a large extent, the much-derided mainstream media deserves to get in the neck for pandering to the whole shibboleth of "balance" that has disarmed its ability to show outrage at the outrageous.

Last week saw the launch of Spinspotter, a site intended to detect and objectively assess "spin" in news reports. Apart from the site's clunkiness that is the inevitable consequence of nerds using algorithms to assess political and literary attributes, the idea is fatally flawed.

Its central premise, that there is an objective standard of truth in the news, is seriously shaky. In the real world, news is the product of conscious and unconscious choices made by editors and producers, reflecting all sorts of biases and pressures.

Spin is a subtle quantum measurement, touched with subjectivity, and the major problem of modern American political discourse is outright lies, thudding down leadenly with crushing Newtonian gravity. Factcheck.org does a good job of catching those and does so impartially, flagging not only the whoppers but the economies that the campaigns make with the truth.

Some American journalists refuse to join political parties or even vote in case it affects their "objectivity". This is laughable detachment from reality. If someone who has the professional opportunity to scan the news in such detail has not formed opinions about desirable political outcomes, they were born with a poker up their rectum or a large cavity in their skull.

Spinspotter reveals some of this attitude, along with their bad grammar, in their criteria. For example, it explains that "Reporter's Voice" means: "The reporter employs language (in the form of adjectives, adverbs, verbs or superlatives) that conveys meaning beyond the supporting evidence provided in the article, and begs the question: In who's [sic] opinion and by what objective standard?"

It goes on to give as an example:

In the most hotly debated (superlative) campaign in years, Senator Obama delivered a soaring, inspirational (adjective) speech, while Senator John McCain, slowly (adverb) responded with a far less-eloquent (adjective) address, as he mightily (adverb) struggled (verb) to find a clear voice for his so-called "straight talk express".

Nevertheless, it is true. Obama's speech was all those things while McCain's did limp. It is also true that Palin's speech was a masterpiece of oratory, which actually illustrates my point. It was laden with coded phrases that worked in that universe - think of the effect of the neutral, objective, spin-free phrase "community organiser" that had the audience's tasselled loafers stamping in two minutes hate.

In the current state of American politics, there are considerable numbers of Americans who inhabit parallel universes, where the same words and phrases mean completely different things depending which dimension you live in.

Would Spinspotter see "tasselled loafers" as a liberal smear? Just think of "low taxes" or "right to life", nice neutral phrases for a computer program. For a liberal, the right to life includes prisoners on death row, Iraqi and Afghan civilians, while low taxation is complex calculation that includes the rider "for whom?" For conservatives, one means anti-abortion while the other means, well, whatever the conservative candidate wants it to mean.

For a liberal American, defending the US constitution means freedom from arbitrary arrest and cruel and unusual punishment, not to mention separation of church and state. For significant numbers of others, it has been digested down to a literalist interpretation of the second amendment and a vast expansion of the relatively new phrase "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance.

Indeed one of the problems with America's allegedly liberal mainstream media is that it hampers itself with these bean-counting criteria of objectivity, which allows Fox News to parody it with "no spin zones", and "We report, you decide."

The spurious objectivity forces balance between genocidal regimes and their victims. It assumes that creationism should balance evolution, but does not have the courage to give equal time to the Flat Earth Society or those who think that pi is three.

Journalists should have opinions, although they should back them up with facts. They should be able to look at the various candidates and decide that one is better than the other. If they find hypocrisy in any candidate - preaching one thing and then doing another - then they should unleash upon them all the superlatives, adjectives and adverbs it takes. Spinning balls hit their targets.

You can't crusade "objectively" or in a "balanced" way. Mark Twain, HL Mencken and other greats of American journalism were not afraid to take sides against the forces of darkness - as they saw them. We remember them not only because they wrote well - and intemperately with lots of modifiers - but because history has often vindicated their choice of targets for their unbalanced vituperation.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bacardi & Castro

Ian Williams for World Policy Institute

Bacardi’s Muddled Fight for “Cuba Libre”

September 19th, 2008

Ian Williams
The Bacardi family elicits strong feelings across the world. Its propensity for mythmaking, its aggressive commercial competitiveness, its long history of lobbying in Washington, its family obsession with Cuba, and its understandable grudge against Fidel Castro’s regime are all guaranteed to produce friction.

Tom Gjelten has had unprecedented cooperation from both the family and from Cuban officials in writing his book, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: the Biography of a Cause (Viking , 2008). Neither Castro supporters nor the Bacardi family have exactly trumpeted the financial, political, and logistical backing given by the family to Castro and the rebels. Both sides obviously regret the episode. Ironically, however, now that Raul Castro has succeeded his older brother, both sides are linked to the family business, since Raul married the daughter of a Bacardi executive family in a lavish Bacardi-hosted ceremony attended by Fidel, the original big brother.

Gjelten leaves nothing unrecorded in his objective, warts and all, history of an unusual company, illustrating Cuban history without the canonizations by leftist apologists for Fidel and the demonizations by conservative Cuban exiles and their friends.

He correctly questions some of the company’s mythmaking by copywriters, for example the “Cuba Libre” (rum and Coke), whose Bacardi origins were later dubiously certified by the Bacardi sales manager in New York. However, he is a little too accepting of the family tale, and indeed the Cuban view, of its innovation in rum-making. In fact, for centuries, the Spanish colonies were forbidden from making rum—not, as Gjelten suggests, to protect public morals, but to protect the brandy industry back home.

What Bacardi did was replicate the processes long used by the Jamaicans and other Anglo-Caribbeans, who had long before discovered how important aging in oak barrels was to make the product smooth and palatable. Bacardi made a lighter version of rum, filtered to take out much of the color and, in the opinion of many rum connoisseurs, much of the taste as well. But as part of its innovative marketing, the family was strong on quality control, ensuring that the brand, even if bland, was consistent.

In fact, the real innovation of the Bacardi family was its sedulous protection and cultivation of the brand name and trademarks. It was in many other ways a corporate innovator, despite being, as Gjelten says, “a closed, dynastic enterprise in an interconnected global economy.”

There is some irony in that the company has defied the capitalist consensus and does not trade on the stock markets that epitomize the modern economic age. It is still family owned, with shares being divided between the descendants of its founders and now led by a sixth-generation family member defying the old saw of family business, from muck to brass—and back again in three generations.

It became an early multinational, with plants in Puerto Rico and Mexico and its own distribution company in the United States. It was one of the first offshore corporations, taking its headquarters first to the Bahamas and then to Bermuda. (That was to avert confiscation by Fulgencia Batista, with whom the company had a long and hostile relationship, but it proved prescient when Castro repaid their support with confiscation in 1960.)

Indeed, even its off-shoring was free of the stigma of tax evasion. Bacardi was an exemplary corporate citizen: when Batista fled with the contents of the Treasury, Juan Pepin Bosch, who then headed the company, immediately took a check for $450,000 to the new revolutionary officials, in advance payment of the years’ estimated taxes.

Bacardi was also a model employer, and Gjelten’s narrative reminds us of something that Cuban dissidents have stressed in conversation. Cuba had an existing social-democratic, welfare-state tradition which included strong labor protections and which made it one of the most literate societies in the Spanish-speaking Americas.

The company had supported such reformism, to the extent that even its communist-led union had differentiated it from the general run of capitalists. It had a distinguished patriotic record, with members supporting the war against the Spanish, and attempting to build indigenous industry.

It is to the credit of the family, and its head Juan Pepin Bosch, who initially accompanied Castro on a delegation to the United States, that he was repelled by the firing squads that the rebels were so fond of. The progressive 1940 constitution had banned the death penalty. But Castro’s disavowal of the formality of elections, and his penchant for executions and imprisonment of former comrades like Huber Matos, did indeed give cause for opposition.

It was Bosch who a year later thwarted the effect of Castro’s confiscations by putting the crucial trademark certifications in the mail to New York. He realized that the value of the brand far exceeded the physical plant and the huge stockpile of rum left behind in Cuba, and astutely suspected that the crude Marxism of the rebels would not see the value in a brand.

In exile, the family picked up on old contacts. They had already started lobbying in the United States way back in 1901. They had secured a tariff preference for Cuban rums and lobbied and litigated their way past Puerto Rican opposition to build their biggest distillery in the territory, which secured tariff-free entry to the U.S. market. As an added bonus, under federal law, excise duties on Puerto Rican rum were returned to the commonwealth government, which used them to finance a big sales promotion for the “Rums of Puerto Rico.” The biggest, of course, being Bacardi.

That is one of the reasons why, for many years, Bacardi obscured its product’s Cuban origins. Yet the family still nurtured the cause. As Gjelten says: “Born of a love for Cuba and pride in their own role in its history, their patriotism was narrowed and made more spiteful as a consequence of exile.” Indeed, Pepin Bosch at one point bought a surplus bomber, intending to take out a Cuban power station. Later, as Gjelten recounts, the challenge of Pernod Ricard marketing Havana Club brought together two strands of the family lore—their ruthless competitiveness, and their desire for revenge on Castro.
Other Caribbean rum producers, including those in Puerto Rico, nurtured unkind thoughts about the company because Bacardi’s size and aggressiveness had kept them out of the U.S. market, but a combination of Havana Club’s exponential success and the familial grudge brought about an obsessive and expensive campaign—and a sudden revival of emphasis on the Bacardi brand’s Cuban origins.

The Cuban family that had owned the Havana Club brand name had not renewed their registration, which had lapsed, and the Cuban government re-registered it legally. Bacardi bought the family’s claims and litigated in the United States. It compensated for the weakness of its claim by buying political influence in Washington—just the sort of behavior they had complained about in Cuba under Batista—where legislators smuggled in clauses that retrospectively changed the law.

Jose Marti, the hero they shared with Castro, had written that the U.S. House of Representatives “is chosen by such corrupt methods that every election is falsified by the use of vast sums of money.” By then, Bacardi was pumping millions of dollars into the same sewer.

In the end, they succeeded in provoking a trade war with Europe at the World Trade Organization, to no commercial advantage whatsoever and provoking opposition from other major companies who did not want to see international trademark law impaled in the course of Bacardi’s Quixotic obsessions. In their process, the family’s association with some of the most reactionary Cuban exiles, and their support for maintaining the punitive embargo, compromised their historically progressive reputation.

Even though he wisely eschews any prophesy, Gjelten hints that even with a possible change of government in Cuba, the Bacardi family’s recent exercise of its grudges has rendered dubious any triumphant corporate return to a country where for a century nationalist opposition to the United States has substituted for ideology.

Ian Williams is the author of Rum: A Social & Sociable History (Nation Books, 2005).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Seven Years on

Back to Ground Zero
On September 11 2001, lower Manhattan became hell on earth. The images I witnessed that day are stuck in my mind

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Thursday September 11 2008 15:00 BST

The clear and sunny blue skies of September 11 2001 are on the verge of joining "It was a dark and stormy night" as a cliché. But it was true, and most mornings of the 10 days since I had moved into downtown Manhattan by South Street Seaport, I rode my bicycle briskly round through Battery Park and up the newly-opened cycle path along the West Side Highway. I would normally have been speeding past the World Trade Centre about the time the first plane hit.

That morning, however, I was on deadline to write about the impending downfall of the US dollar. I had just typed a prophetic "The" when I heard the bang. I looked out my window, assuming one of the decrepit old buildings in the neighbourhood had just lost its battle with gravity, but the porters in the fish market in the square below were staring up open-mouthed, looking like gawkers at the alien ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They were staring at the exit wound in the tower, billowing black smoke.

The phone started ringing, and I was stuck on my fire escape talking to radio stations, since all mobile phones were out. On the streets crowds of refugees - covered in soot, dishevelled - filed along South St toward the Brooklyn Bridge, where their silhouettes made it look like an LS Lowry set design for a Potemkin film.

Once the crowds had gone and the phones had stopped ringing, I headed toward the Twin Towers with recorder and notebook in hand. The police manned roadblocks around the site, but I suspected, correctly, that they would not have closed the footpath along Hudson. Trudging through the ashes around the site drifting like fallout brought the revelation that some proportion of that ash was people, leading to even deeper appreciation of the Downtown Hospital staff who had been handing out face masks. Retrospectively, the discovery that there was much more asbestos than human ash made using them seem even better.

Round by South Cove, the firefighters had levered open a convenience store as a supply depot near where their trails of hoses drew water from the Hudson. They were going in for bottles of water and snacks before returning to the site. The road was a surrealist vision of hell. Trucks and cars scattered like a kid's toys, and over all, like thick snow, the drifting ash.

I was interviewing the dazed and exhausted firemen, letting them use my cell phone to call and reassure their families since it was getting a signal from across in New Jersey when one came out, a bottle of water in one hand and a banana in the other. As he wolfed it down, he looked around, puzzled. "I was looking for a garbage can," he explained as he surveyed the ruins and - in a gesture epitomising the new rules - hurled his banana skin into the piled-up fall out.

As soon as our lease was up, a year later, we left. The memories, of the processions of refugees, the military convoys that arrived overnight down the FDR Drive, the ashes and the pervasive stench of the gates of hell as the Towers burnt for months afterwards, all lingered.

Today, downtown Manhattan seems to be booming. The fish market has closed, taking away much of the local colour – and a pervasive cloacal smell and all-night racket. People have moved in, and brought life to an area that used to close down at five – except for the fish.

It also brings a smile that the foreshore in front of the old hotel/brothel that our apartment was in was reclaimed with the blitzed rubble of my hometown Liverpool, brought over as ballast on the Atlantic convoys. But there's little else to smile about. When I wondered through Wall Street recently, I could still see the crowds fleeing, smell the acrid smoke of the world's longest-lasting funeral pyre, and when I looked at George Washington's statue outside Federal Hall, I could still see him, in my mind's eye, with a layer of white ash on his wig.

They have only just begun filling the hole where the Towers were – and they still have not found Osama bin Laden. I don't have to go into a fugue to see that seven years later, the world is pretty much debris-strewn since the current George W in the White House threw out the constitution, international law and pretty much everything else – and it's clear that their social instincts never really minded littering on a global scale anyway.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Corsi, Swift Boat Corsair

Unfit for publication
In his bestselling book about Barack Obama, Jerome Corsi provides few facts to support his outrageous claims

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday September 10 2008 19:00 BST

Jerome Corsi, PhD is the Lord High Admiral of the Swift-boat Armada now heading against Barack Obama. Still doing the hornpipe over his success sinking John Kerry, since his book Unfit for Command, plus a few million in conservative foundation dollars helped torpedo the Democratic candidate below the water-line even before he noticed, Corsi has now launched Obama Nation into the New York Times bestseller lists.

Generally only dubious scientists, quack doctors and freaky cosmologists dress themselves in a little brief acronymic authority by putting their titles after their name on the cover of books. Corsi repeats his (apparently genuine) PhD on every single verso page heading.

Nor does the bestseller list mean best read, as the far-too-discreet little dagger next to Obama Nation and several other current conservative hatchet jobs indicates. It means that there have been bulk purchases from bookshops. If a foundation wants to give away free books, it can get a bulk wholesale rate directly from the publishers. Paying retail for bulk buys is more expensive, but it's an effective way to puff them onto the bestseller list.

Even so, I do appreciate writers like Kitty Kelly, when they scrutinise the toe-jam on the clay feet of the great, good and royal, so I tried to appreciate Corsi's opus as an example of that genre. Obama is not perfect, after all, and it always helps to temper optimism with realism.

However, I almost gave up reading during the introduction, when Corsi referred to his extensive "footnoting all references so readers can determine for themselves the truth and validity of the factual claims." Truth and validity, a tautology, elides into an oxymoron: fact and claims are different animals outside the faith-based universe. He refers to Obama's "pattern of voting on the far left on a wide range of policy issues," which is only true if you consider Margaret Thatcher to be a charter member of the Weathermen.

Even more risibly, Corsi suggests that Obama would "lead the United States in a costly and self-destructive direction, both at home and abroad. … We would be a militarily weakened and economically diminished nation". Presumably, a less faith-based Corsi might note that his hypothetical state of the nation under Obama is the actual state after two terms of George Bush.

Corsi avers: "Growing numbers of largely Hispanic illegal immigrants, many of them still citizens of their home countries … live in our midst with no firm purpose or requirement to become American citizens." I suspect that most of them are unaware that US passports are on offer. This is the voice of prejudice that in one breath condemns immigrants for both taking our jobs while living on welfare!

Corsi expands his almost limitless ability to have his cake and eat it when he cites Wall Street Journal and Fox consultant John Fund, who complains that Obama beat Alan Keyes, an "unserious" GOP candidate, to get in the Senate. This is true, but Keyes and Corsi himself were recently trying to get the Constitution party nomination for the presidency. Unseriousness is clearly contagious.

On the other hand, Corsi is not always completely wrong. His analysis of Hillary Clinton's mistake in using the race card is quite accurate, even though his claim that her "campaign attacks against Barack Obama legitimised many of the lines of inquiry explored in the first two sections of this book," is a stretch. Her campaign no more justifies his "lines of inquiry" than his book retrospectively koshers her cynical use of the race card.

Occasionally Corsi asks legitimate questions, but he consistently refuses to accept legitimate answers, and it would appear that his sole purpose in examining some of the weirder myths of the blogosphere is to keep them afloat. For example, he says magnanimously: "I accept Obama's statement that he is a Christian, but take exception to the claim that Obama was not introduced to Islam as a child." But who made that claim? Obama's team said that he had never been a Muslim, not that he not been "introduced to Islam" the same way that I was "introduced to Anglicanism" when dragooned to Church for the school Founder's Day service.

With spurious academic authority he declares: "We have already established that Obama wrote the autobiography to hide key points." Oh no, we haven't. Obama's books probably do suffer from overhyping, but he was explicit that these are not autobiographical chronicles.

So when Obama says he used marijuana, it does not earn him brownie points for being unevasively un-Clintonian, or indeed un-Bushian. Rather it is a cynical political prophylactic against the chance of him being revealed.

Corsi joined in hounding Obama to disown the Rev Jeremiah Wright, then attacking his disloyalty to his old mentor when he did. McCarthy meets Kevin Bacon, as acquaintances of acquaintances are marshalled and alleged to be communist or Muslim, in that modern form of conservative colour-blindness where red and green are indistinguishable. People like Saul Alinsky (the guru of community organisers) died never meeting Obama. But some people he knew did, and so … .

Perhaps most bizarre, if you are not attuned to the conservative evangelical fixation on Kenya, is Corsi's depiction of Obama's involvement there. For the rest of the world, an authoritarian tribalist government fixed an election but was forced to compromise with the democratic winner in the face of riots. To the evangelical right, despite "credible signs of electoral fraud" Kenyan President Kibaki is a hero, not to be overthrown by the mere casting of ballots.

In Corsi's narrative, Obama's Luo tribal paternity led him to intervene on behalf of a "communist" (incidentally Anglican) Odinga, who was furthermore a Muslim stooge pledged to introduce Sharia law in an overwhelmingly Christian country. Obama "could claim to be a Kenyan citizen" – the same way, presumably that McCain could claim to a Panamian citizenship or the Clintons and Kennedys Irish, or indeed any Jewish politician could claim Israeli citizenship.

It is typical of Corsi's use of sources that he quotes Mainu Wararu, "respected international correspondent", on the fears that Kikuyu have about Obama in the White House. However he skips Waruru's conclusion: "This attitude is running counter to views of majority of Kenyans who are excited by every victory by the US democrat frontrunner and are praying day and night for more victories for this 'son of Kenya'."

Incidentally, applying his own methodology that every accusation is true unless definitively disproven, I checked with Notre Dame professor Daniel Myers, the custodian of the archives of the Lemberg Centre for the Study of Violence, which Corsi claims to have worked with. There is no record of his presence there. Of course, this does not prove that he wasn't – but he does not give his victim the same indulgence.

Corsi's smearing of fact, supposition and slander into a quantum slime really made me wish I had worn rubber gloves when reading. Nonetheless, Obama and his team should really read this book, even if it seems like turning over a stone to study the things that scurry from underneath. They do not need an enigma machine to plot the enemy fleet's manoeuvres. It's all here.

Catskill Review of Books, God, and Me

September 8th, as part of Making Waves, we launched the CROB on a waiting world, with an hour long discussion between Larry Beinhart, author of Salvation Boulevard, Ron Aronson, author of Living Without God, Mary Hall, and myself Ian Williams, on atheism and believers.

The plan is to follow up every two weeks on Monday evenings at WJFFradio.org with similar discussion on current books. Tune in! 90.5 FM. Podcasts are available at wjffradio.org

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Radio Liars

Firedoglake Book Salon Welcomes Rory O’Connor, Shock Jocks: Hate Speech & Talk Radio
By: Ian Williams Saturday September 6, 2008

check out this very lively discussion at the firedoglake book salon, still open for 34 hours and archived afterwards.

Rory O’Connor is not a conspiracy theorist. He knows the world is complicated, and there can be unintended consequences – but he also knows that there can indeed be plots. Shock Jocks traces the history of contemporary Talk Radio, which is almost invariably conservative.

The opening up of the public airwaves and the FCC’s abandonment of public service requirements, removal of restrictions on concentrated ownership and the disappearance of requirements for balance may have been the result of neoliberal pandering to sheer commercial greed as the motivating force for public good. However, since, for obvious reasons wealthy people want to stay that way and get richer, they are naturally conservative.

It may be objected that financial conservatism is not necessarily the same as social conservatism, which is a common characteristic of the right-talkers – except, as Rory points out, O’Reilly. However, it is difficult to mobilise masses for the right of a few very rich people to get even richer. Thomas Frank addressed how this works in Congress, but recently sentenced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's sidekick Scanlon gave a perfect battleplan for such campaigns.

“We plan to use three forms of communications to mobilize and win these battles. … Our mission is to get specifically selected groups of individuals to the polls to speak out AGAINST something. To that end, your money is best spent finding them and communicating with them on using the modes to which they are most likely to respond. Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information form [sic] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone trees."

Talk radio is an integral part of this mechanism for rallying the troops, and it ties closely in an incestuous loop with the conservative bloggers in a protected fact-checker free environment.

As “Shock Jocks” was published, Jim Adkisson, a Tennessee aficionado of conservative talk shows, took their hosts' invective all too literally and shot up a "liberal" Unitarian Universalist congregation, killing two and wounding six congregants watching a children's musical. Caught up in a world of conservative talk radio, he reportedly expected to be able to carry on shooting unimpeded by the spineless, gay-loving pacifists, and was surprised when they tackled him and brought him down.

In keeping with a more reality-based liberal stereotype, the Rev. William Sinkford, national president of the Unitarian Universalists Association of Congregations, provocatively turned the other cheek. "This crime was the action of one man who clearly must have lost the battle with his personal demons," he said. "When I was asked if the shooter would go to hell, I replied that he must have been living in his own private hell for years."

Limbaugh has "remade American politics", according to Karl Rove, or is a "big fat liar" as Al Franken has called him, but as Rory points out, he is a consummate performer, convincing and funny.

The distilled essence of redneck prejudice is bound to appeal to an audience. Hell, if Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest of the 1930s were around now, he would have an audience. And for many of the same reasons. There are indeed many people out there suffering financially who feel their plight is ignored and want to hit out at clear and identifiable targets.

Adkisson and other angry listeners are more often than not the victims of precisely those unregulated concentrations of capital that put Limbaugh on the air, Chinese goods on the shelves of Wal-Mart and them on welfare. With Democratic leaders too wary to bite the hands that write the contribution cheques, but also too residually honest to invent scapegoats, no wonder an incisive populism can win listeners.

Rory hints at some of the problems. “Liberal” or fact-based radio is always going to suffer from the big disadvantages of empathy and nuance. Remember Bush told his speechwriters he did not want them sneaking nuance into his speeches. It was taken as a sign of his low intellect, but in fact, it was politically very astute. There is a streak of Manichaeanism in American life that wants things in black and white, good and evil, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers.

One explanation for the relative lack of popularity of “liberal” talk radio is that it is all too often dourly earnest and humourless, inhibited by a fear offending one or other hues of the rainbow coalition. Evil-minded, fact-free and malicious as Limbaugh is, he is a good performer with sense of humour that is wicked in senses ancient and modern.

I have been on O’Reilly’s show, and quite enjoyed it. Like all these hosts, he has a monstrous ego – but so do I and was quite happy to butt heads. I was told that Fox had an inquest after my first performance to find out who had booked a wild leftist on the show – and they decided it made good television – and O’Reilly was guaranteed the last word. As Rory points out, most of the so-called balanced shows like Hannity & Colmes, or indeed cross-fire, are as fixed as the World Wrestling matches.

The solution to audience figures and commercial success is no-holds barred genuine gladiatorial combat, with cut and thrust “liberals” who, after all, actually have the majority in their favor on issue after issue. There is no need to set up conservative straw dogs, the real ones are out there, just waiting to have the stuffing knocked out of them.

Rory’s book is essential reading for those of whose stomachs are not strong enough to listen round the clock to this stuff.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Beyond the Palin
It's revealing that George Bush and Dick Cheney didn't get mentioned by the VP nominee in her big speech last night

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Thursday September 04 2008 19:00 BST

If Obama's convention speech, with the white columns in the huge stadium was grand opera, Sarah Palin's was soap opera. The message was not that we should overlook her inexperience, but rejoice in it. We should vote for her because she was a hockey mom. The content of her speech was dumbed down in a way that was exquisitely handcrafted.

In the hall, the audience was festooned with folksy placards handcrafted by the same sophisticated but ultimately stupid whiz-kids who put the Mission Accomplished banner on the USS Lincoln five long years ago. The crowd is different, however. At a Republican convention there is always an undercurrent of bitterness and anger, a readiness to boo at the mention of, for example, community organising, or Senate democratic majority leader Harry Reid, or chant "Drill baby, drill", as the crowd offers to drive their gas-guzzlers over all obstacles.

Of course, the crowd had been primed for bitterness by none other than New York's own Napoleon, the bitter and vicious Rudy Giuliani who always gives the impression of payback time for perennial bullying in his schoolboy days. However, any crowd that cheers Giuliani for celebrating McCain's response to Putin's Cossack raid into Georgia, "We are all Georgians," is not up for cerebration. Whose big talking got the Georgians into that predicament? And is McCain in a refugee camp with Russian tanks stopping him move about his own country?

Technically, Palin's speech was not a patch on Obama's. I ran it past the reading level test on the spell checker. His had come in at a reading level of fourth grade, with no passives. Hers was a reading level of over ninth grade with six per cent of passives. Strangely, although she was clearly intended to evoke the solidarity votes of small town America, her speech writers, Bush's hand-me-downs, were worried about her pronunciation, and spelt out some difficult words for her on the teleprompter: "habber-dasher" for haberdasher, "new-clear" for nuclear to avert the Bushian "noocoolear."

However, even if the style was higher than Obama's, the content was not. It was aimed at people of faith, who could believe in three impossible things before breakfast. Her speechwriter Matthew Scully wrote a book about the ethical treatment of animals, which is perhaps why his residual ethics eschewed any mention of shooting wolves from aircraft that may have sullied the hockey mum image. Nor indeed did he mention that her enthusiasm for hockey led her to increase the local sales tax – including on food – to build an ice-hockey stadium so that her son could indulge his passion closer to home.

The speech was almost certainly inspired by HL Mencken's thought: "On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron". But that is unfair. Both she and her speechwriters are very clever, and unscrupulous, and they want to make her fit that role. They are basing their campaign on the premise that the American electorate wants a president on the edge of Alzheimer's and a vice-president who is auditioning for a part in a schmaltzy soap opera.

She mentioned, to cheers that her husband was a proud member of the United Steelworkers Union, she glided over pathological Republican attempts to crush unions, and inhibit their organising efforts. But then, nor did she mention her run-in with the town librarian (surely along with the little red school house, an American icon) over censorship, her attempts to promote creationism, her belief that God wants federal funding for Alaskan pipelines, her doubts about global warming, or her pursuit of personal family feuds against public employees. This is a serious omission, and almost perplexing since it could prove that she may indeed be a worthy successor to Dick Cheney as a vice-president, and indeed a better shot, hitting wolves rather than colleagues. But then, Cheney wasn't mentioned either.

Her balancing budgets may have been helped by a $1,000 per head per annum pork-barrelling operation from federal funds for her small town, helped by Senator Ted Stevens, one of the "good ol' boys" she was supposed to have cleaned out, but who is currently campaigning for re-election even as he faces Federal corruption charges.

She complained that Obama did not mention victory. But if pressed, she might have to explain why diverting troops from the search for Bin Laden in Afghanistan to Iraq and bogging down in both places occasioned mention for victory. Almost as eloquent in the deafening sound of silence was any reference to President Bush, which is surely churlish. The USA has had eight years of the policies she was prescribing – and is teetering on the edge of an economic catastrophe, but she just ignored it.

Polls suggest that the American public oppose almost every one of Palin's concealed policies. This speech casts the forthcoming telection as an IQ test for the American electorate. If it fails, I foresee long lines outside Canadian and European consulates as the elite (anyone with an IQ over a 100) tries to get out.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Obama's Oratory

The art of speaking to 80,000 people
As a former speechwriter, I know it's not just what you say but how you say it. Barack Obama's performance walked a fine line

* Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk,
o Friday August 29 2008 17:30 BST

One of the difficulties for an orator in addressing a stadium-size audience is the loss of the rapport that a more intimate crowd can have. A speech is a joint performance with the audience. Otherwise you could just text it.

Talking to 80,000 people affects the ability to adjust pacing for when the listeners are slow to get a point, or indeed respond more enthusiastically than planned to one, and there were occasions last night when Barack Obama seemed to be playing more by the metronome than the pheromones from the crowd.

But that is minor quibble. His audience was in his hands, and it was a crowd of individuals. This was no rally of serried ranks of uniform supporters. As the camera played over the crowd, the diversity of the supporters reinforced the message of the vox pops that had introduced him. They had been working-class or middle-class people hurting, or perhaps equally worried about being hurt by a faltering economy and his populism without tub-thumping was aimed at them. There were suits and ties for the respectable, baseball caps and novelty sunglasses for the free of spirit, young, old, black, white, casual and formal, scattered indiscriminately across the stands. This was no Jesse Jackson rainbow of discreet hues. It was an integrated pointilliste picture of America.

Obama gave the bravura performance on a tightrope, balancing the hopes and fears of his audiences masterfully. There were enough references to establish his blackness, as if giving the speech on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's iconic speech were not enough in itself. But consciously or otherwise, he eschewed the preacher-like cadences that come naturally and distinctively to black American politicians who switch effortlessly between pulpit and platform.

Even so, his speech had the antiphony of genuine oratory. He was not reading out an op-ed. "This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that's not what keeps the world coming to our shores."

Without talking down to his audience, or dumbing down his message, he used plain, direct language. I ran it through the spell checker, which, fallible though it may be, gave it a fourth-grade reading level with no passives, backing up my own impression. This was not a wonkish or "elite" speech, but it addressed the issues, concretely, active without being orotund. He also adroitly addressed the criticism, open and implied of voters who are not sure why someone of his complexion has stridden from the back of the bus to the driving seat. He was rightly indignant about the plight of ordinary Americans, without being "angry" in the way that codes for "too black" in the US.

He effected a winning combination of altruism and self-interest, offering not just a dream but a plan, and a plan that addresses the hopes and fears of those white working-class voters. Even his criticisms of McCain were nuanced, substantial without being personal, and sharply witty without being snide: "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it."

"You know, John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the gates of hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives," Obama scored, putting a new wound in the Republican's achilles heel, the Iraq war. To a war-weary electorate he offered a renewed version of Teddy Roosevelt's soft talk/big stick formula, promising tough diplomacy and an efficient military.

That will not stop the attacks of course. As Obama said: "If you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from."

Perhaps most impressive was the way that Obama prophylactically anticipated the coming flood of conservative vituperation, taking the attacks and deflecting them back onto the perpetrators with commonsense and wit. "Don't tell me we can't uphold the second amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals." And the calls about lack of experience he countered neatly, suggesting, without naming McCain, that some people may have too much of it. "I realise that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don't fit the typical pedigree and I haven't spent my career in the halls of Washington."

Without dignifying the absurd accusations of elitism and arrogance from sitting politicians and wallowing plutocrats, Obama encapsulates the portmanteau populism of his speech. "History teaches us – that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington."

After the speech, it may just.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Georgia - Taiwan and the unstable world

Ian Williams: Taiwan and the Georgia Precedent

September 3rd, 2008 World Policy Journal

Ian Williams
August was a strange month, and there were times when one felt that it could have been a Sarajevo moment (1914 style), or even a Cuban crisis. There is an almost Newtonian law of diplomacy about the resulting release of belligerent energy when two roughly equal masses of foresightlessness collide.

Neither side emerges with much credit from the Ossetia debacle, whether the issue was controlling unruly surrogates, or delivering an effective solution afterwards. In this case, however, the George W. Bush White House unusually played the role of Khrushchev, and backed down in the face of a clearly irrational opponent. But even that commendable forbearance has unintended consequences across the globe, in particular, with China and Taiwan.

In the short term, Moscow tweaked the Eagle’s feather, and got away with it because, for once, this White House appreciated its own limitations. Moscow certainly weakened U.S. military prestige even as it enhanced its battered reputation for sanity, but it was a hollow triumph, reminiscent of the Russian tank column that raced to Pristina Airport in Kosovo and cocked a snook at General Rupert Smith and NATO—but then, sheepishly, had to get fuel and food from NATO since all Russia’s former allies refused over-flight permission for reinforcement.

Clearly, that memory still rankles in Moscow, and can only hope that the little brief authority that Russia’s raid into Georgia gave its generals will overcome their chronic Kosovo syndrome. However, it was dearly bought therapy, which has compounded Russian isolation. It delivered support in Prague, Warsaw, and Kiev for NATO, missiles, and bases that a month ago looked like unjustifiable provocation but which the Russian action has now made seem eminently sensible. Indeed, apart from the effect on its neighbors, one cannot but help wonder at the long-term effect on the Russian Federation itself—Chechnya and Tartarstan being but some of many potentially fissiparous components. How long before Israel recognizes the independence of the Birobidzhan “Jewish Autonomous Region” in Russia’s far eastern provinces?

Obtusely, after its recognition of the Georgian enclaves, Russia went to the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council in Dushanbe expecting full support. After all, one avatar of this shape-shifting organization is as a counterbalance to U.S. influence and interference in the area. However, while the Russians came away claiming support, they did not get it, nor, if they were fully tuned to the world, should they have expected it. Discomfort about aspects of American unilateralism does not automatically translate into support for a cruder Russian version of the same thing.

The parties concerned supported the six points negotiated with President Nicolas Sarkozy—but so did Georgia. There was no support expressed for recognition of the breakaway enclaves and indeed, in a separate statement, China expressed its concern about the move, though it stopped short of condemnation.

That is hardly surprising. Not only has Russia eaten its own words about Kosovo on the subject of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention, it has called into question the whole basis of the post-Soviet settlement, implicitly based on the preservation of former Soviet Republic boundaries. Those boundaries were indeed questionable on all sorts of grounds—ethnic, economic, and even historical—but as with the Organization of African Unity’s explicit declaration of the sanctity of former African colonial boundaries, questioning them poses far greater risks than accepting them.

The Central Asian republics, which have been dancing on a tightrope between Russia, the United States, and China (and each with varying proportions of Russian population suddenly looking like Trojan Horses) were highly unlikely to endorse a principle that gave Moscow an implicit right to interfere whenever it wanted. Not only did they not endorse the recognition, it is likely that the combination of Russian aggressiveness and American ineffectuality will drive them closer to China.

With even Belarus, which normally behaves as independently as the former Byelorussian Soviet delegation at the United Nations, treading water on the matter, Abkhazia and Georgia have a long way to go before they attain the degree of international recognition of Taiwan’s two dozen embassies, let along Kosovo’s four times that.

Russia’s foreign ministry is at least attuned to reality enough to eschew blatant arm-twisting, but more because it recognizes its inability to exert leverage world-wide for an unpopular move than because of any sense of diplomatic delicacy.

However, Taiwan symbolizes the damage the affair has done to American credibility. Clearly, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia loom large in Chinese sensitivities. The Ossetian affair blew up as the Kuomintang government in Taipei put forward its new, conciliatory application to work in the UN specialized agencies—while leaving aside the question of actual UN membership. Beijing firmly but politely rebuffed the modified bid, weakening newly elected President Ma Ying-jeou’s position at home, where first his 100 days were marked by a massive demonstration of DPP supporters condemning the failure of his “appeasement” of the mainland.

For some time, the United States has been sounding increasingly ambivalent about its legal commitment to defend Taiwan, not least as economic ties between the U.S. and mainland China have grown. Recently, the Bush White House has been even reluctant to provide defensive weaponry for Taiwan’s new government.

Washington’s failure to defend its close friend in the Caucasus may cause dangerous speculation on both sides of the Straits of Taiwan. Just as Margaret Thatcher sent the wrong signals to Argentina before the Falklands invasion, Beijing may be led to draw conclusions about Taiwan that could be disastrously wrong.

Putin and Medvedev’s blunder has made the world less stable and safe, without enhancing Russian prestige or power in any significant way.

It is bad enough for Washington to fail to deliver on an implied commitment to Georgia, but any signs of reneging on an explicit commitment to Taiwan will have repercussions throughout East Asia, from South Korea to Japan. The United States does still play the role of Globocop—and, for most countries, there is a residual feeling that a bent cop is better than none. Many countries who had assumed that there was an implied American guarantee of support will now be considering other options, notably, replacing the U.S. nuclear umbrella with one of their own.