Archive | Book reviews

Ordinary World – DJ Mitchell

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Polizeros contributor DJ Mitchell has a new book, Ordinary World, on Amazon. I’ve read part of an earlier version and it’s excellent. Review coming soon.

As the financial system crumbles around them, a family learns how to survive the challenges of an unfamiliar new world. Bill, Gracie, and their son Joe learn new ways to live as their reality changes. Bread, gasoline, and even toilet paper all become scarce when the trucks stop rolling. When a ghost from the past threatens their lives, there are no police to call. And even greater, unexpected trials lie ahead. Faced with a new and unfamiliar economy, they find new friends and learn to cherish the community around them. From food to self defense, there is no one to rely on but their neighbors and themselves.

Posted in Book reviews

BOOK REVIEW. The Age of Context. Robert Scoble, Shel Israel

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We are taking our first baby steps into The Age of Context. Ten years ago cell phones were used for making phone calls and not much else. Now they are control centers for many of us. Similarly, in ten years sensors embedded everywhere, including on us, will feed us steady streams of information, increasingly make decisions for us, and enhance our lives in ways we’ve not thought of yet.

From the book (emphasis added)

In The Perfect Storm, author Sebastian Junger described a rare but fierce weather phenomenon caused by the convergence of three meteorological forces: warm air, cool air, and tropical moisture. Such natural occurrences cause 100-foot waves, 100-mph winds and—at least until recently—occur about once every 50-100 years.

Our perfect storm is composed not of three forces, but five, and they are technological rather than meteorological: mobile devices, social media, big data, sensors and location-based services.

The tsunami of the Internet of Things is coming and cannot be escaped from. Much of it is good, too.

Pills with tiny embedded sensors that notify a temporary skin patch that the pills has been ingested will certainly save lives. Front, side, and rear detectors in cars will sense oncoming potential collisions and the car will take emergency action. Wearable health monitors will alert us to health problems before we know we have them.

A friend died a few years back because he got his meds mixed up. He was taking them once a week not once a day and insisted he was taking them correctly. By the time doctors figured out what happened, it was too late. Pills with sensors probably would have saved his life.

Based on what Age of Context says, I doubt driverless cars will ever be used much more than on city streets in carefully controlled conditions. Apparently the Google Car has trouble in fog and has difficulty spotting ice. This makes it dangerous for driving in bad weather or icy conditions.

The Age of Context discusses this and much more, focusing on the multiplicity of ways the Internet of Things will change our lives. The authors believe these changes will be hugely positive but do not ignore the downside of being watched and monitored 24/7. The systems must be opt-in, you must be able to easily turn them off, and privacy must be respected.

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The authors are unabashed tech enthusiasts, but as they write, an elephant sits in the living room of our book and it is called privacy. We are entering a time when our technology serves us best because it watches us; collecting data on what we do, who we speak with, what we look at. There is no doubt about it: Big Data is watching you. The time to lament the loss of privacy is over. The authors argue that the time is right to demand options that enable people to reclaim some portions of that privacy.

There is an overwhelming amount of information in Age of Context. Perhaps that was their point! The next ten years will be dizzying indeed.

Posted in Book reviews

Dreams That Die: Misadventures In Hollywood, by John Wight

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In Dreams That Die, John Wight describes his move from Scotland to Hollywood in 2000 hoping to make it as a screenwriter, working as an extra, double, and security to pay the rent. He soon crashed up against the vicious Hollywood caste system and its often ritualized and systematic abuse. Those at the top demand to be treated as deities, and are surrounded by sycophants. People on movie sets scream abuse at those of lesser rank and think themselves clever for making the lives of others miserable. Much of what they do wouldn’t be tolerated in the business world. Wight didn’t take it and got fired more than once for punching out particularly repellent individuals.

Do you take abuse, sometimes for years, in hopes of someday making it big in the very same system that is abusing you now? And if you do make it big, will you turn into just another asshole like the ones who abuse you now? That’s the quandary Wight faced as he worked security at big clubs, mansions, and continued working as an extra, then a double. He chronicles it well, with stories and vignettes about life scuffling in LA, Even when he was doing elite security, he was still just the hired help, subject to insults and abuse from self-important jerks, legends in their own minds, because Wight barred them from entry to something.

Then 9/11 happened, and everything changed, including Wight’s direction. He joined the ANSWER Coalition, immersed himself in the antiwar movement in Los Angeles, found kindred souls, camaraderie, and the satisfaction of working hard to make something meaningful happen. I was a member of ANSWER too and worked with Wight. For a while it was heady times and downright inspirational. A hard core of about forty of us, gay and straight, widely varied in age, race and class, organized multiple anti-war protests that sometimes drew 50,000-100,000. Palestinians worked next to Jews, 18 year olds worked with organizers old enough to be their grandfathers. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when everyone works together.

The more Wight got involved in radical politics, the emptier Hollywood seemed. He describes the process well, using narrative and events to show how he changed. At a critical point, when a script he wrote finally got serious attention, he went to NYC for two weeks to organize for ANSWER. He made his choice. Dreams do die. Maybe that’s so new ones can be born. Maybe the dreams needed to die.

(In the end, we both left ANSWER for the same reason, the leadership wasn’t interested in democracy. However, what ANSWER and all of us  accomplished during that time was truly amazing indeed.)

Posted in Anti-war, Book reviews

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn

Manson -Jeff Guinn

This is the definitive bio of Charles Manson. Jeff Guinn explains probable motives for the Manson Family Tate-La Bianca murders, and how Manson controlled his zombies.

Manson studied Dale Carnegie and Scientology in prison and used their techniques to gather, influence, and control his followers. The Dale Carnegie trick of letting the other fellow think the idea was his was a favorite Manson ploy. This includes letting Tex Watson think the idea for slaughtering innocents was his. Scientology taught him how to manipulate, although he was careful to hide this behind a hippyish exterior. Manson also learned from pimps in prison that the best prostitutes were troubled, confused women who were damaged but not broken. Manson Family women essentially were prostitutes. They would do what ever Charlie said and have sex with anyone at any time. He used them as party favors to lure in bikers, music people, and prospective male Family members.

Crucial to understanding what happened is Manson’s delusion he was a gifted musician, that if music business people in Los Angeles would release his music, then he’d be bigger than the Beatles. But his music was mundane. He tried desperately to convince Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, talent scout Terry Jakobson and mega-producer Terry Melcher of his musical wonderfulness. The three were close friends and thought, at least in the beginning, that Manson was an interesting curiosity. They were certainly happy to frolic with Family women but never gave him the record deal he wanted.

This increasingly enraged Manson, who grew to resent them. If money wouldn’t be forthcoming from music, then it would have to come from stealing food, cars, and dealing drugs. Money began to run out. Manson decided to burn an enormous black drug dealer named Lottsapoppa. The deal went bad. Manson shot Lottsapoppa and left him for dead. (He lived to testify.) Shortly after that, Family member Bobby Beausoleil butchered musician / dealer Gary Hinman, also over a drug deal, and wrote “Political Piggy” in blood on the walls. This was done in a deranged attempt to blame the murder on the Black Panthers and thus incite a race war which would eventually end in the Manson Family being rulers of the planet (after hiding out in a magical hole in the earth.) Whites would all be killed by blacks, who were were too stupid to run the planet on their own so they would ask the Family to rule them. Why the viciously racist Manson would want to rule over blacks remains to be explained.

Apparently Manson was so clueless he didn’t know white radicals then also called cops “pigs.” Writing about pigs on walls in blood didn’t incriminate the Panthers at all, especially since no radical then, black or white, ever used the phrase “political piggy.” (“Off the pigs” would have been a much better choice.) The only one who thought this derangement would incite a race war was Manson.

Now we get to motive. Beausoleil was arrested for the Hinman murder and was in jail. Manson was afraid Beausoleil would blab. So in two successive nights the Family murdered seven people, including Sharon Tate and the La Biancas, and wrote more bloody slogans on the walls. This was supposed to provide cover for Beausoleil, since the slaughters were similar yet he was in jail and couldn’t have done them,  so therefore must be innocent of the Hinman killing too. Not exactly the sharpest tacks in the box, were they?

Family members soon began to tell others about the murders. Word got out. The repellent Susan Atkins boasted about participating in murders to another inmate in  LA County jail who went to the authorities. Soon thereafter it was game over for all of them.

I’d previously thought some Manson women had been in prison so long that release might be justified, until I read about Atkins, who died in prison in 2009. Some Family members were genuinely horrified by her description of killing Hinman and left the Family. She giggled when asked about Hinman being stabbed, saying “It was really weird and he made funny noises.”

Her description of butchering Sharon Tate is even more sickening. “I don’t know how many times I stabbed (Sharon Tate), and I don’t know why I stabbed her. She kept begging and pleading, and begging and pleading, and I got sick of listening to it, so I stabbed her,” said Atkins, who then tasted Tate’s blood on her hand. Some people should never be allowed out of prison. Susan Atkins was one of them (and Manson too, of course.)

Having said that, I know more than a few men, clean and sober many years now, who led seriously violent lives and if you met them now you’d not have a clue who they used to be. Atkins apparently found Christ, was a model prisoner for decades, and seemed genuinely to understand the horrific nature what she did. Maybe she found some kind of peace.

The photo of an apparently angelic Manson on the book cover was was taken on the day he was sentenced to Boys Town. He lied to the judge, ran away four days later, and was doing armed robberies shortly thereafter at age 13. When his sister, who hadn’t seen him in years, first learned of his arrest for the murders, she said she wasn’t surprised, that anyone who knew him well knew what he was capable of.

Posted in Book reviews

Eclectics or Dialectics? Unpacking PSL’s Defense of Racist, Collaborationist Tyrannies

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Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends published by Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is as thin politically as it page-wise. Clocking in at 46 pages, most of the book consists of freely available published material: a reprint from PSL’s newspaper, a Dissident Voice interview with Brian Becker who is the national director of PSL’s front group ANSWER Coalition, and a historical document, the Basel Manifesto. The only original work is Becker’s essay, “Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends,” which claims that socialist debates over imperialist intervention into the Arab Spring are the modern analog to the split within the socialist movement over World War One with myself as Plekhanov and PSL as – who else? – the Bolsheviks. (Whether Becker gets to play Lenin and Mazda Majidi Trotsky or vice versa in their 1914-1917 reenactment is unclear.)

The book is a reminder that seven dollars doesn’t buy much of anything these days.

Majidi’s article, “When Justifying Imperialist Intervention ‘Goes Wrong’” is a Revleft-style response to my essay, “Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong.” Majidi’s strawmen speak for themselves and need not be enumerated here. However, his underlying method is of interest. He begins by asserting that, “All demonstrations and opposition movements [are] not progressive.” Undoubtedly this is true, and Majidi cites the Nazis and the Tea Party as examples. So far, so good. He then adds what he calls “color revolutions” to this list:

“Most color revolutions occurred in the former Soviet Republics, such as Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution. But there have also been (successful or attempted) color revolutions in other countries, such as Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005 and Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009.”

What is a “color revolution” according to Majidi?

“Color revolutions usually include the formation of coherent and unified pro-imperialist political forces, which draw upon public discontent with economic distress, corruption and political coercion. They involve several operations, including the creation of division and disunity in the military and an intense propaganda campaign. … Elements who participate in such street protests are often a small part of the population and do not represent the sentiments of the majority of the people, much less the interests of the working class. In fact, many participants in the protests may not support the agenda of the right-wing leadership and its imperialist sponsors. Still, the imperialist propaganda campaign utilizes the protests, however large or small, to promote regime change and the ascension of a client state. The imperialists are not fools to do so; this is precisely what such ‘democratic’ movements produce absent an alternative working-class and anti-imperialist opposition.”

This is a description of associated features, not a rigorous definition.

Many of these features were present in the Egyptian revolution. The “coherent and unified pro-imperialist political force” known as the Muslim Brotherhood rode to power drawing “upon public discontent with economic distress, corruption and political coercion.” Their regime enjoys a much larger and firmer popular base than Mubarak’s decrepit dictatorship and in that narrow sense U.S. imperialism was strengthened rather than weakened by the January 25, 2011 revolution.

Does PSL consider the Egyptian case to be a “color revolution”? Of course not. Thus, the only consistency to PSL’s method is its inconsistency. Eclecticism is inevitable because PSL continually substitutes description for definition.

The next step in Majidi’s counter-argument is to ask, “What is the political character of the Syrian and Libyan rebels?” Earlier in the article, he poses questions of fundamental importance for approaching this issue:

“In his entire article, Binh conveniently assumes the very thing that needs to be proven—that the Libyan rebels and the Syrian opposition are revolutionary. This false premise, once accepted, leads to all sorts of false conclusions. What is the political character of the NTC-led rebels in Libya? What qualified them as revolutionaries? How does Binh determine that the Syrian opposition is revolutionary and the government counter-revolutionary? When analyzing an opposition movement anywhere in the world, this is the first question that needs to be asked.”

Wrong.

The first question that needs to be asked in assessing an opposition movement is: what is it a movement in opposition to? What is the class character of the regime it is coming into conflict with and why? Imagine trying to analyze the political character Occupy Wall Street without knowing the first thing about Wall Street! Majidi makes this exact mistake by assessing the Libyan edition of the Arab Spring without first examining the Ghadafi regime in any detail. Doing this would make defending the regime from the protest movement as PSL does impossible because the regime was guilty of the very things Majidi claims define the rebellion as reactionary and right-wing: racism, collaboration with imperialism, and pro-neoliberalism.

hanging4.7. 77

April 4, 1977, Bengazi. PSL’s “progressive” regime lynched students (without trial) every year on April 4 to “commemorate” the anniversary of a 1976 student uprising.

Racism: Much like the Polish, Ukranian, and other national minorities of Tsarist Russia, Libya’s Amazigh were forbidden from learning, speaking, or celebrating their language and culture by Ghadafi’s regime. Those that dared risked arrest and persecution.

Becker claims “Gaddafi had a lot of support from black Libyans who considered [his] Africa-centric foreign policy to be positive” (33). Does Becker believe Black Libyans supported Ghadafi when he made a racist deal with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to keep Italy free of Black immigrants, saying, “We should stop this illegal immigration. If we don’t, Europe will become Black, it will be overcome by people with different religions”?

Collaboration with Imperialism: Socialists and War: Two Opposing Trends says not a word about how Ghadafi’s regime tortured people on behalf of the CIA and its British counterpart, MI6. Nor does it mention Ghadafi’s mass expulsion of thousands of Palestinian refugees in 1995 and his call on other Arab states to follow suit.

Neoliberalism: Majidi never discusses the Ghadafi regime’s embrace of neoliberalism, so comrade Becker’s words on page 27 may come as a shock:

“Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi’s government saw the handwriting on the wall and sought its own accommodation with the West. It adopted a set of neoliberal policies and invited major western oil companies to do business again, once sanctions had been lifted by Britain and the United States.”

So for PSL, it is acceptable for a racist, tyrannical regime to collaborate with U.S. imperialism and institute neoliberal policies but unacceptable for a revolt against this same regime to have racist, collaborationist, and neoliberal elements or characteristics. What is good for the goose is absolutely impermissible for the gander. When Ghadafi made deals with British Petroleum and other western oil companies, PSL said this was understandable and justified; when the post-Ghadafi government honored those same deals, PSL labeled it a pawn of imperialism.

This is doublethink masquerading as Marxist analysis.

Still, the question remains: was it correct to assume (as I did) that the Libyan edition of the Arab Spring was revolutionary and not reactionary, progressive and not regressive? If so, how do we make sense of PSL’s charges of racism, collaborationism, and neoliberalism on the part of the Libyan opposition?

The answer to the first question goes to the very heart of what the Arab Spring is – a series of bourgeois-democratic revolutions. Unlike socialist revolutions and national liberation movements, democratic revolutions are not necessarily anti-imperialist; the pro-imperialist post-revolutionary governments in Egypt and Tunisia prove this. While the socialist revolution is principally a struggle by and for the proletariat (in conjunction with other classes and oppressed groups to be sure) against the bourgeoisie as a whole, modern democratic revolutions pit oppositional sections of the bourgeoisie against ruling sections of the bourgeoisie. PSL points to the defection of neoliberal figures like Mahmoud Jibril from Ghadafi’s regime to the side of the rebellion as proof that it was reactionary while remaining oblivious to analogous neoliberal figures like Mohammad Morsi and Amr Moussa in the Egyptian revolution and Hamadi Jebali in the Tunisian revolution. PSL does not label these latter revolutions right-wing, reactionary, or “colored.”

Again, PSL’s consistent inconsistency is blindly obvious.

Having exposed PSL’s inability to grasp that bourgeois and neoliberal forces inevitably play a prominent role in modern democratic revolutions, what of their charges that the Libyan opposition was racist against Blacks and collaborated with imperialism? Does this not invalidate the claim that the Libyan opposition was democratic in character?

Historically speaking, democratic revolutions were not anti-racist nor even consistently democratic, the American revolution in which white slaveholders and racists played a dominant role being a prime example. The fact that bourgeois-democratic rights were not accorded to Blacks in 1776 and that America’s post-revolutionary government ruthlessly exterminated the continent’s indigenous peoples does not change the revolution’s democratic character. Libya’s democratic revolution in 2011 is no different in this respect.

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Salem Al-Shoushan

Libya’s Black Revolutionary Democrats

The problem for PSL and all those like Richard Seymour who saw Libya’s revolutionary democrats as little more than an anti-Black lynch mob is that they either deliberately ignored or were blissfully unaware of the significant number of Black Libyans fighting Ghadafi’s forces. This would have been impossible if anti-Black racism was the rule rather than the exception among the rebels. Southern rebel brigades made up of the Tuareg and Tebo peoples were almost all Black.

Libya’s rebels had more Black commanding officers than the Union did during the Civil War and they commanded non-Black and mixed race units.

Right: Rebel commander Wanis Abu-Khmada berates a group of rebels in the first days of the revolution for their lack of discipline.

Right: Rebel commander Abdul-Wahab Qayed. After the revolution, he was put in command of Libya’s border protection forces.

 

Thus, PSL’s depiction of Libyan rebels as Klansmen is counterfactual slander.

As for the charge of collaborating or allying with imperialism, undoubtedly this is true. The problem for PSL is that democratic revolutions – unlike socialist revolutions – are not anti-imperialist by definition, and there is no socialist equivalent of the 10 Commandments that forbids such collaboration on a temporary or limited basis. Majidi concedes this, writing:

“It is possible for one imperialist country, or a grouping of imperialist countries, to temporarily aid independence movements in the oppressed world in order to weaken the hold of their imperialist rivals in a different country.”

By the same token, it is possible for one imperialist country, or a grouping of imperialist countries, to temporarily aid democratic revolutions in rival states just as monarchist France aided America’s democratic revolution against British colonialism. Only a fool would conclude that independence movements and democratic revolutions in the oppressed world are reactionary because they receive temporary or limited aid from a reactionary power.

At the root of PSL’s litany of errors is their utter failure to understand democratic revolutions as Lenin and Marx did. This failure leads them to invent a distinction between the “good” Arab Spring (against pro-U.S. dictatorships) and the “bad” Arab Spring (against anti-U.S. dictatorships) instead of realizing that the Arab Spring is an internationalist struggle against all dictatorships. Every country affected by the Arab Spring saw a fight between bourgeois anti-democratic states on the one hand and bourgeois-democratic mass movements on the other; every one of these struggles and movements had and has progressive, democratic political content compared to the tyrannical governments they struggled to reform or remove.

Supporting one freedom struggle and not another is an exercise in the kind of selective hypocrisy characteristic of liberalism, as is the inability to recognize the difference between revolution and counter-revolution; PSL does both while claiming to be a Marxist organization.

PSL’s attempt to pass off eclecticism as Marxism is even more apparent in its internal documents. Richard Becker’s “A Class Analysis of the Revolutionary Upsurge in the Arab World” is a 6-page chronological summary that is as broad as it is superficial. It reads more like a Wikipedia entry than a thoroughgoing study of Libya’s development since 1969 when a bourgeois nationalist military coup ended the monarchy and inaugurated Ghadafi’s 42-year tyranny from the standpoint of historical materialism. Becker’s 277 words “analyzing” (read: describing) Libya contain no discussion of how Ghadafi imported right-less migrant labor to staff the oil industry, creating an unemployed lumpenproletariat among native Libyans, no discussion of the country’s changing class and state structures, and no recognition of Ghadafi’s impoverishment of the standing army in favor of irregular armies of snitches, spies, and enforcers dressed up as “revolutionary committees.” The national oppression of the Amazigh is invisible to Becker, mirroring Ghadafi’s racist insistence that the Amazigh people and culture simply did not exist.

Having failed to properly examine the context and the regime that gave rise to protests in Libya, Majidi moves on to sketch an alternate history of the revolution that conforms all too perfectly with his description of “color revolutions.” He uses the fact that the Libyan revolt could not beat the regime militarily in spring of 2011 as proof that it was not popular, not progressive, nor a genuine revolution; perhaps he has never heard of the Paris Commune of 1871 that was also unable to triumph militarily, or perhaps he believes the Commune to be the very first “color revolution” (orchestrated by German and British imperialists, no doubt). Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that Libya was the first instance in the Arab Spring where a capitalist state used lethal force against peaceful protests on a mass scale – the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were fortunately never tested by this kind of wanton bloodshed. Ghadafi was the bloody vanguard of the Arab Spring’s counter-revolution, and his violent escalation prompted the democratic opposition led by the National Transition Council to seek military aid from imperialist powers that previously they rejected as unwanted and unnecessary.

If anyone is to blame for NATO’s intervention in Libya, it is Ghadafi. He chose to shoot unarmed protesters en masse, handing NATO the political capital it needed to step into what began as a peaceful struggle.

Majidi goes on to argue that because the NTC did not have the “support of the entire population,” it was a fake, reactionary, unpopular “color revolution,” as if there has ever been a revolution in world history that was an exercise in unanimity! As evidence of popular support for Ghadafi, he points to a single state-sponsored rally of hundreds of thousands held in Tripoli “in the midst of the massive NATO bombing” (never mind the fact that NATO attacked only a handful of targets in Tripoli’s vicinity that day). What he omits is that Ghadafi was an unelected autocrat with an entire state apparatus (including a secret police) at his disposal to coerce people to show up, and, most damningly, that there has been not one pro-Ghadafi rally in all of Libya in the almost two years since the regime’s demise. If Ghadafi’s support emanated organically from the grassroots and not from the networks of patronage created by his regime’s oil money, this would not be the case.

Regardless of what position one took on the character of the Libyan opposition back in 2011, what is indisputable today in 2013 is that Ghadafi’s repressive bourgeois state machine was smashed and razed to the ground by the self-armed population organized in militias, that there is no secret police to terrorize the masses, that strikes, protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins are now regular occurrences, that freedom of the press and expression exist, that victims of racist oppression like the Amazigh have made advances, that unlike Kosovo NATO has no bases there, and that free and fair elections for a legislature were held to inaugurate a democratic republic. All of this is a great leap forward, a tremendous democratic gain for Libya’s oppressed and exploited that vindicates those who understood the Libyan opposition to be progressive, revolutionary, and democratic in character and serves as an irrefutable rebuke to those like PSL who slandered the opposition as monarchist(!), racist, unpopular, and reactionary.

Even stranger than PSL’s defense of racist, collaborationist tyrannies in Libya and Syria from the Arab Spring’s democratic revolutions is their assertion that today’s imperialism and the tasks it poses for socialists remain almost totally unchanged from Lenin’s time. In the face of wars like Libya and Mali where Iraq-style colonization is not the name of the game, PSL can evidently only repeat 100-year-old formulas about anti-colonial wars and revolutionary defeatism.

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Standing with independent bourgeois nationalist governments as they slaughter their own peoples by the tens of thousands because said governments have conflicts of interest with imperialist powers is altogether different from standing with national liberation movements like the Vietnamese NLF who battled the slaughter wrought by French and American occupiers. The first is criminal stupidity, the second is anti-imperialism.

Two opposing trends indeed.

Posted in Anti-war, Book reviews

Localism – small scale alternatives can’t change the world

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No Local says the well-meaning localism movement can’t work because it will still be dependent on the market and thus to large-scale capitalism and its exploits. A friend in rural Utah believes firmly in localism as a way to free oneself from the grasp of the system. I don’t quite see how it would work. Sure, you could grow your own food, barter for services, and the like. But you will still need vehicles, gasoline, and guns, and tractors, things that can’t be made on a local basis. The local bank may well be sane, solvent, and invest in local real estate. yet it probably has lines of credits with bigger banks elsewhere and may well sell its mortgages to them.

Climate and Capitalism sums up the main points of No Local in their review:

Localism is incapable of displacing capitalism or even effectively challenging it because it fails to understand how capitalism works. “It sees the effect of unbridled competition, but not its cause.” By failing to understand how profit drives production, localism is blind to the pressures capitalism applies to its proposed remedies, which rely on the market or involve time and money that most working-class people don’t have. More utopian ideology than political framework, and too often served with a dose of moral superiority, localism never adequately explains by what magic small businesses or collectives can eclipse giant corporations.

Posted in Book reviews

El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. (The drug cartels)

Author Ioan Grillo wrote El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency after spending years researching the drug cartels in Mexico, often at great risk to himself. He traveled to opium-growing areas in the Sierra Madres, talked with assassins and smugglers, and explains how the various cartels grew. His central point is that the drug cartels are no longer just traditional crime organizations (like the Mafia) but instead are criminal insurgencies that threaten the entire legal and economic structure of Mexico.

Here in the States we occasionally have criminal gangs shooting at police. But in Mexico, drug cartels sometimes have six-hour battles with police using machine guns, grenade launchers, and AKs with 100 round clips. The cartels, especially the Zetas, are well-trained in military tactics. Indeed, the original Zetas were Mexican soldiers trained in special forces tactics. (Their training was in Mexico and in the US.) This is not some rag-tag street gang that can’t shoot straight but something more like professional soldiers.

The cartels had their start decades ago in the lawless Sierra Madres. The area is good for growing opium poppies, remote, and hostile to outsiders. From there the cartels grew. The PRI, the Mexican ruling party for decades, basically kept them in line with show trial arrests and the bribe money kept everyone happy, at least for a while. But when the PRI lost power in 2000, everything changed. The existing relationships, the institutionalized corruption, was no longer valid. The new president Vicente Fox, went after the cartels with a vengeance. But this didn’t wipe them out. Instead, they morphed, grew more powerful, and now threaten to become a shadow government.

In some areas the shakedown money extorted from innocent local businesses is sent to the drug cartels first who then dole it out to those in police departments and the government. Police officers often are working for a drug cartel. The level of corruption is far worse than anything in the US, where sure, we may have some dirty cops, but we don’t have entire police forces that are corrupt.

The level of violence is of course horrific. The blameless are just as likely to be brutally tortured and murdered as anyone else. Kidnapping is a growing source of income. The author recounts watching a video sent to the parent’s of a kidnapped 13 year old boy. It showed him being brutally beaten for a long time, this as a warning to the parents to get the ransom money quickly.

In God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, author Richard Grant chronicles his travels through the Sierra Madre in the 1990′s. He predicted the current violence based on the hyper-machismo he found there.

At one point, a guide remarks that Mexico seems to be moving towards democracy. In a prescient comment, Grant said he thought Mexico was moving the other way, towards the lawlessness and blood feuds of the Sierra Madre. If you want to know where the insane and escalating violence in Mexico border towns now comes from, look to the code of machismo of the Sierra Madre.

Where does all this end? Mexico is in genuine danger of becoming a hollowed-out state. The only solution, it seems to me, is complete legalization of all drugs.

Posted in Book reviews

El Sicario. Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin

El Sicario killed and tortured hundreds of people for a Mexican drug cartel. After years of debauchery, violence, and unquestioned obedience to the cartel bosses he finally couldn’t do it any more, became a Christian, and left the life knowing one false move means he will be their prey and that he and his family will be horribly tortured then killed.

Respected crime writers Molly Molly and Charled Bowden edited El Sicario. Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin. It consists of interviews with El Sicario (who is never named, “El Sicario” is Spanish for “the assassin.”) They let him speak in his own voice. He was a mid-level killer for a cartel.  The book is difficult to read for many reasons. The violence is appalling. But what is much worse is his matter-of-fact documenting of corruption at all levels of Mexican government and military.

One reason the cartels are so good at tracking and killing people is because their members were often trained at military and police academies in Mexico and the US. When they graduate, many go directly to work for cartels while others stay in law enforcement to act as eyes and ears for the cartels. El Sicario did most of his killing and torturing while a member of law enforcement.

More recently though, the cartels been recruiting from gangs like Mara Salvatrucha since fewer in Mexico go to police academies because they know they will be offered “our silver or our lead” by the cartels. Take our money or we kill you. That police academies have been almostly completely infiltrated by the cartels indicates a complete breakdown of law and order.

I lived in Los Angeles for a while and have no love of LAPD. But if a dead body appeared on my doorstep there I could call LAPD and know they’d handle it in a professional manner. In Juarez most people in a similar situation probably wouldn’t call the police for fear the police might well be the killers.

The corruption reaches the highest levels of governments and the cartels start corrupting children barely in their teens. By the time the children are 20, the cartel is their family, it’s all they know.

The turning point for El Sicario came when cartels began using women to carry drugs and kill. Up until then, women and children were off limit. But no more. Once women started being in the game then they also became targets to be kidnapped, tortured, raped, and killed. He says torturing men is bad enough but torturing women is far far worse. At about this time he stopped drinking and using drugs, found a church and Christians who helped him,and walked away from it all.

Now he lives in the United States as a fugitive. One cartel has a quarter million dollar contract on his head. Another cartel is trying to recruit him. He speaks as a free man and of his own free will – there are no charges against him. He is a lonely voice – no one with his background has ever come forward and talked. He is the future – there are thousands of men like him in Mexico and there will be more in other places. He is the truth no one wants to hear.

Posted in Book reviews

Is polygamy harmful?

Even when the mariages are between adults, if the community if polygamist, then the girls tend to be traded like cattle and low-status young men create problems for all. This is true across time and culture.

History suggests that it is. A new study out of the University of British Columbia documents how societies have systematically evolved away from polygamy because of the social problems it causes. Women are usually thought of as the primary victims of polygynous marriages, but as cultural anthropologist Joe Henrich documents, the institution also causes problems for the young, low-status males denied wives by older, wealthy men who have hoarded all the women. And those young men create problems for everybody.

For more on this, read my review of

God’s Brothel: The extortion of sex for salvation in contemporary Mormon and Christian fundamentalist polygamy and the stories of 18 women who escaped

Posted in Book reviews

Slots: Praying to the God of Chance. David V. Forrest

I’m not who casinos want walking in the door since I don’t drink, smoke, use, or gamble. (Those first three I learned the hard way and decided long ago to never give gambling a chance.) But I will go into Vegas casinos to eat their great, cheap food, marvel at the gaudiness of it all, and to ponder the slots.

To get to the restaurants in a big casino you have to wander through deliberately roundabout paths with hundreds of slot machines to catch your eye. Casinos have no windows or clocks and the exits usually aren’t obvious. They want you to stay. And to play the slots.

David Forrest is a psychiatrist and recreational slots player. His book, Slots: Praying to the God of Chance, confirms what I’ve long suspected. Slots can put a spell on you. The fervor with which people play induces states of mind like religious and spiritual mysticism. ‘I am at one with the universe communing with the Goddess of Chance in hopes of a big progressive payoff.’ He says the rhythm at which people play slots often matches physiological rhythms of the body. Truly, slot players are in The Zone. Brain studies show the high they get can be similar to cocaine.

If the casino is the cathedral then slot players are the worshippers. They are, of course, required to tithe. Vegas slots must pay out at least 80% and most casinos pay out 90-95%. How profitable are slots for casinos? A casino developer spent $200 million in Palm Springs building a posh hotel next to his casino so he could comp his whales (big gamblers) there and not at another hotel. Slots account for 85% of his profit. In other words, he spent $200 million so people would be more likely to use his slots. Sure the table games can be much higher stakes, but it’s slots that pay for everything.

Even at a 95% payoff, you will lose in the long run, the author explains. Slots use truly random number generators to decide the spin, but the payoffs are predetermined. A slot machine is controlled by a computer chip inside it that is not connected to anything and which can only be changed or reprogrammed in the presence of a gaming commission official. A slot machine can not get hot and the length of time from the last big payoff has no influence on when the next big one will occur. This may be obvious to mathematicians and computer programmers like myself but apparently isn’t to most slot players. If the machine pays off at 95% you will lose in the long run.

Sometimes the religious mania gets too extreme and flips into addiction. The author has suggestions for how to know when you have a problem. But they are clearly from the view of a recreational user who has never been addicted.Once addiction starts, it feeds on itself.

Slots is a fascinating book, almost philosophy at times. Give it a read.

Posted in Book reviews

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