Currently reading…

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikotter. This is not the first time I’ve read about the effects of China’s Great Leap Forward in the late 50s and early 60s, but this certainly has highlighted not only the direct effects of the famine itself but also its origins and also the secondary effects by which the GLF had such a devastating impact on the Chinese countryside.

The Bin Laden Farce

Unless you’ve been living in some cave in Afghanistan for the past 10 years (harharhar) you’ve no doubt heard the news that on Sunday night Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted fugitive(tm) was caught and killed by US forces secretly working in Pakistan. Without a doubt it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in the sleepy hamlet of Abbotabad, about an hour north of Islamabad, and it’s more than likely that the place will now go back to the obscurity and quiet charm that used to make it the ideal location for a world supervillain seeking to escape the attention of the world police.

Now some people will say that they’ll always remember what they were doing when they heard that news, and I do as well. I was sitting in front of my computer doing something or other, which is terribly indistinct from what I regularly do for up to 14 hours a day TBH so for me that’s not much of a marker. And of course being in Canada I found the news to be of relatively little interest as we had a national election scheduled the first day (which turned out to be pretty fucking disappointing). So I didn’t really get into the whole “bin Laden dead” thing until Monday night after having ascertained that my country was indeed going down faster than a $5 whore, largely out of hope that the news would cheer me up a bit.

Now those of you who have known me for a while will know that I was living in Hoboken, NJ on September 11th 2001, and that’s a short skip across the Hudson river to Manhattan. You may probably know that the office I worked at in that time was located in the Pavonia section of Jersey City and had a great view of the WTC. We were pretty much as close as you could get on the Jersey side. I wasn’t at the office when the planes hit the towers, however; I’ve never been an early morning guy and I was probably heading for my bus when the second plane hit the south tower. To top it off, if I’d been more aggressive with my personal contacts while looking for a job in the previous year I could have stood a fair chance of being employed *in* the WTC north tower (a former boss’s former boss worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, fortunately he was out on business on that day).

So when I heard that Navy SEALs had killed the man I felt… oddly indifferent. Truth be told, the Osama bin Laden whose death Americans were shown celebrating on TV, the bogeyman from Saudi Arabia, had already ceased existing quite some time ago. Be honest, when was the last time people talked about the guy as being terribly important? His very survival was a subject of much speculation since 2001, and for many (including myself) the guy was almost as good as dead for some time. In fact I rather cynically thought that if the Americans had waited even just a couple more years to kill the guy they’d have to start reminding their people of who the guy was. There was a time at which he seemed very keen on getting a message out, but as time went on these messages became more infrequent and seemed to undergo somewhat of a regression technologically speaking, going from videos to audio tapes. The message itself seemed to step further and further away from that of a guy who could tell 20 of his followers to get into planes and crash those planes into buildings full of people, too. I think his last one started talking about the environment. Which is pretty ballsy for a guy whose most famous attributed act was so dependent on the aviation industry. However I digress, I certainly won’t be growing wistful of any “good old days” when the guy was at his peak preaching terror war against America. It’s certainly not something that one may seriously doubt he had done, though, and no amount of mellowing out in his old age can change that.

As this week went on, I must say that I grew increasingly annoyed at the story. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the guy deserved it, but frankly I can’t stand the way the Obama administration is handling the whole thing. I’ve never seen such sloppy work from a team that one must hope is made up of the best of the best. It’s practically like they’re encouraging people to cast doubts on the story and come up with conspiracy theories.

Frankly anyone with a moderately healthy sense of skepticism would be a bit troubled. First there was the story of what happened to bin Laden’s body after he was killed — it was taken to the USS Carl Vinson, washed, given Islamic burial rites and then buried at sea. So, there’s no body. You can kind of understand why they did it, but that all seems a bit… convenient.

Then on Tuesday came revelations that did indeed directly contravene parts of the story that we all had been given on Sunday. The first was that bin Laden died in a firefight against the SEALs — well, actually he did, but that firefight was pretty one-sided because as it turns out the guy wasn’t armed in the first place. The latest word out is that the SEALs feared that he would reach for a weapon. We also found out that the woman killed in the firefight was not in fact used by bin Laden as a human shield — when that seemed to be a “fact” strongly established enough for John Brennan, the chief US counter-terrorism advisor, to affirm “living in this million-dollar-plus compound, in an area that is far away from the front, hiding behind a woman: it really speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.” Well, it goes some way to cast aspersions on what we hear from Mr. Brennan, who himself seemed to have heard only what he wanted to hear.

But then there is video of the raid and surely photos were taken of bin Laden’s body after his death?.. and making those public would in an instant erase any possible doubt that may have arisen from the White House’s previous mishandling of the situation. Well, in a 60 Minutes interview taped today Obama has made clear his decision not to release those photos.

So we have no body, a narrative which is known to have been “enhanced” in at least two substantial ways already, and now we’ve been told that there is absolute, incontrovertible truth but it’s not going to be shown to the public.

You’ve got to be kidding. What the fuck is going on at the White House? This is absolutely bizarre. Already people are trying to fill the void by combining images of other people who’ve been shot in the head with live photos of bin Laden using Photoshop. The one I’ve seen was a pretty obvious edit which anyone could spot easily, but I’m sure more forgeries will come forward if the real pictures aren’t released. And if Obama is going to stand by his opinion that the lack of official pictures will prevent “trophy pictures” from appearing, well that’s just silly. I’m sure Fark or some other site will make a photoshop contest out of it, if they haven’t done so already. You’ll get loads of “trophy pictures” out of that… and they’ll probably be thought to be real by many people, just like the old “Bert is evil” Osama pic.

Hopefully the President will come to his senses soon. At some point he’s got to put up some solid evidence of what went on, something to redeem a narrative which has been tarnished by the people on his staff who delivered it, because otherwise the GOP will soon start casting doubts that this raid killed the guy who’s said to have been killed. Frankly this reluctance to provide that solid evidence is all too reminescent of the sort of the stonewalling which I remember from Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. And I never felt that I could trust what Bush was saying for so much as a second. I hope that President Obama is someone credible, but at this point I’m getting too old to take it on faith.

I want to believe, but I’ve been burnt too often to do so.

Interesting times

2011 has so far been a rife year for change — if anything that’s quite the understatement. So far this year two long-standing regimes have fallen in North Africa, and this seems to be fanning local flames of discontent over large parts of the middle east and northern Africa.

It’s enough to drive some people mad with fear about some kind of greater Islamic Caliphate. American entertainer (and nothing else) Glenn Beck has made it the cornerstone of his show, which has recently become a sort of festival of ranting paranoia that’s led many to question whether Beck is still sane at all — although his general message differs little from what’s coming from the American right wing (i.e. Fox News) generally. Fox News doesn’t care for brown people, that’s hardly news to anyone.

That’s one way to see things. It’s also the wrong way to see things. When you look at these uprisings more closely you find that in each country in which protests have occurred so far, the causes for the protests are pretty much purely local to the place in which they are happening, and that beyond the demands for change there is little in common between them. To claim otherwise is either foolish or dishonest.

This is not to say that each national protest occurs in a vacuum, of course. Tunisia, as the first country to revolt, has undeniably inspired protesters in the other locales by showing them the power behind non-violent resistance. When President Ben Ali resigned he had been in power for 24 years and had built a strongly repressive regime that for most of the protesters had existed for as long as they were alive. That this regime could be toppled with relatively little bloodshed has without a doubt bolstered the spirits of protesters across the region and made them realize that no matter how long a regime has been in charge of their country, it’s just not going to last forever. In fact as soon as Ben Ali’s resignation was announced I had a strong feeling that Egypt would be next to see protests.

Tunisia’s revolt came as a result of two factors: resentment against Ben Ali and his internal security forces, but especially changing government policies that caused the price of food to skyrocket in a very short timeframe. Additionally young Tunisians are a well-educated middle-class people, so long-term unemployment for many of them — it is said to have been running around 15% — was the spark by which the revolution started.

The situation was very different in Egypt, which did not see an economic downturn or sharp price reforms like Tunisia. Rather in this case the impetus was provided by simmering resentment over Hosni Mubarak’s (almost) 30-year rule of the country, particularly the complete lack of political reforms and the authorities’ reliance on brutal gangs of thugs to “maintain order” whenever there were political protests. I’m actually struck at how similar Mubarak’s Egypt was to the Iranian Mullahs regime in that respect — whether you call them “Egyptian secret security forces” or “basiji”, in both cases a brutal repressive regime used uneducated, unemployed people from the country in order to crack heads in the cities whenever the regime feels a threat. But Mubarak was not able to make much of a difference through his thugs, and it’s since transpired that he had initially ordered the army to have a Tiananmen-square style crackdown on Tahrir square and even wanted armoured batallions to just run over the protesters and retake the square by force. Fortunately the army point-blank refused to listen, and from that point on the dictator was finished.

This was just the beginning. Protests have broken out since in Bahrain against the Khalifa family, who control all aspects of political life in the tiny island nation; the biggest grievance there is that there is (apparently) widespread discrimination against the majority Shiite population by the Sunni Khalifas, as well as the (sadly usual) accusations of corruption. One especially salient point made by the protesters is that the police force of Bahrain is being supplemented with Sunni foreigners who are fast-tracked for Bahraini citizenship even if some of them do not even speak Arabic (the local language). The protests there, ongoing as we speak, materialized very quickly; they are not as big as in Egypt, but then Bahrain is a lot smaller and less populated. As an additional factor the protesters are vowing to cause disruptions during the Grand Prix of Bahrain, a Formula One race scheduled to take place in Sakhir on March 14th. Americans will also be particularly interested in the situation there as Bahrain is the home of the US Fifth Fleet.

Protests have also flared up in Iran, in a sort of “round 2” to the green protests which took place last year. There is also some unrest occurring in Algeria, Lybia, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen. In each case the protests have a distinctly nationalist nature and belie the very idea of some sort of pan-muslim uprising.

Personally it’s always been my position that repressive regimes tend to foster and stoke the flames of extremism. It’s not surprising that the bulk of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 operation generally came from places where dissent is not tolerated and political freedoms are few (ya, Saudi Arabia, I am looking at you). In that sense I can’t help but see the toppling of dictatorial regimes by democratic forces to be a fundamentally good thing and conducive to long-term stability in the region.

In that the US find themselves squarely on the wrong side of history by their long-standing habit of backing dictators who could either a)give them what they want in terms of oil and soil to build military bases on, or b)be a hired friend of Israel. Those two factors are still the cornerstone of American policy in the region, so America is clearly on the back foot and really can’t get involved much. Obama pretty much took the best line he could in Egypt, everything considered, but the point has been driven home that these uprisings are not about America or (at least so far) Israel, they are the shouts of peoples who have had enough from local despots.

Interestingly enough these local despots seem so far to have quite a bit in common. The fallen ones are both older (75 for Ben Ali and 80 for Mubarak), largely secular autocrats who have been in power for decades and seem to share a taste for black hair dye. Even in the countries which are currently experiencing protests the trend seems to be largely borne out, with exceptions of course — Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is still a youngster at 45, but Khalifa (Bahrain) is 60, Gadaffi is 68 and in power for 41 years, Saleh of Yemen is 64 and Bouteflika (Algeria) is 73.

What we’ve seen so far is only the beginning.

If you’re as interested in these things as I am, I recommend watching Al-Jazeera, either through their web site ( or via the Livestation desktop application ( AJ is the authoritative television station in the area and their coverage blows away all competition.

Stalwart defenders of liberty

Given the events transpiring in Egypt one may be tempted to think that Americans are united behind the Egyptian people’s desire for freedom and democracy — after all Americans can’t stop shouting slogans about liberty. But the truth of the matter is, that Hosni Mubarak has a sizeable and influential fan club in the United States and particularly in the Republican party.

Quitting Facebook (again) and, to a certain extent America…

In light of recent developments in the Wikileaks saga — mostly the recent decision by the United States government to subpoena all information related to twitter users who follow #wikileaks, of which I am one — I have decided to curtail my activity on American social networks. Sadly, the United States government does have sway over American companies and can effectively put a gun to their heads in order to force them to reveal information on their users regardless of said companies’ privacy policy.

Frankly, this isn’t acceptable. If one wants to protect one’s information one is left with little choice but to try and abandon US sites and companies as much as possible and opt instead for other sites and companies that are at least at arm’s length distance from the American behemoth. Not that the USG won’t overreach and encroach on foreign sovereignty to the extent to which they can get away with, but at least I won’t make things easy for them. My domain name registrars and web server ISP are already fully Canadian, and I’ll try and examine ways to put more distance between myself and the USA in the coming weeks.

Yeah, I’ve deleted my Facebook account before, and stupidly came back because someone I know seemed to have problems getting in touch with me. That turned out to be pretty dumb and pointless for a number of reasons I shan’t bore you with, and I keep almost no data on Facebook as it is, but a step’s a step.

Am I giving up Twitter? There doesn’t seem to be much of a point in doing that now. You can’t delete a Twitter account anyway, you can only deactivate it; and one has to give kudos to Twitter for getting the formerly-secret subpoenas unsealed so that they can notify the users directly concerned, that took balls on their part. Can you imagine Mark Zuckerberg doing such a thing? I can’t. The guy has no scruples or moral compass. He’d hand over your info before even reading the subpoena. Probably already has, to be frank, and that’s why Facebook is the first to go, and I won’t be back this time.

Whatever happened to Obama? I railed as much as anyone against Bush’s secret warrantless wiretapping for the Orwellian nightmare that it was, and back when he was just a candidate Obama was saying the right things, such as:

“Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.” -Candidate Obama, 2008

But once in the White House he wasted little time in showing us that this display of principle was nothing but bullshit and marketing (but I repeat myself). All in all Obama is no different than his predecessor, but he does prove in his own disappointing-the-supporters way that there is indeed no difference between black and white. I can’t remember a time when an individual has disappointed me more than Mr. Obama. People like me thought he would be the man to bring “change you can believe in”. But as with everything said for a purpose (in this case, to win votes), ultimately one is disappointed at the sheer hypocrisy of it all.

On second thought let’s forget that trip to Stockholm…

Dilbert creator Scott Adams: “Apparently Swedish laws are unique.  If you have a penis, you’re half a rapist before you even get through customs. And if your condom breaks, that’s jail time. What I’m saying is that the Club Med in Sweden is a nervous place.

Also Swedish condoms apparently break all the time, so I think I’m going to vacation somewhere else!

Something fans of irony can appreciate

After spending the last couple of weeks twisting foreign and corporate arms (successfully) to take down Julian Assange, the United States takes a break in order to celebrate “World Press Freedom Day”. Clearly the US State Department would be unable to detect irony even if “irony” was a baseball bat that was used to repeatedly smash the limbs and skulls of whistleblowers.

Clearly this is double-plus-ungood. Really, Americans, do you think anyone’s taking you seriously on that one?

Plus ça change…

Daniel Ellsberg: “EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.” Ultimately things haven’t changed very much in American government in the past 40 years, and embarrassing the USG will lead to them leaning on their international partners (Sweden, the UK, Paypal, Visa, MC) to make your life hell. It’s a sorry spectacle, and exposes shortcomings in Obama’s so-called opposition to censorship and desire for an open and transparent society. Principles, it would seem, do not stand any sort of test, and should be abandoned the moment they become difficult to keep.

Obama also said he wouldn’t extend the Bush “top 2%” tax cuts, and he did. Frankly I can’t think of a politician who’s been more of a disappointment in recent memory, largely I suppose because the expectations were so low for everyone else (I always knew Harper would be an authoritarian right-winger, for example). But at this point I have to wonder where Obama thinks he’ll get votes in 2012. He’s been a huge disappointment to the left by being about the equivalent of a George W. Bush with a triple-digit IQ, and the right wing is always going to hate him. His strategy right now is probably to hope that the Republicans will nominate a lazy, attention-whoring, unqualified, monumental moron, which should bring a good cross-section of the population into the Democratic fold, but what if the GOP doesn’t nominate Sarah Palin? What then?