Friday, February 28, 2014

Vlad Speaks, the Putschists Freak

The situation in Ukraine grows more complex. For days the Western press has been keening over Vlad Putin's silence, interpreting it as a sign that the Kremlin was caught flatfooted and overrun by the U.S.-backed Banderist-led putsch last week. But now Putin has spoken, and it is a masterpiece of ambiguity. Here is the statement as it appears on the President of Russia's web site:
Vladimir Putin instructed the Government to continue contacts with partners in Kiev on developing Russian-Ukrainian trade and economic ties.
Mr Putin also gave the instruction to hold consultations with foreign partners, including the IMF and the G8 countries, on organising financial assistance for Ukraine.
Also, following an appeal from Crimean regional authorities for humanitarian aid, Mr Putin instructed the Government to examine this matter, including possibilities for the Russian regions to provide assistance.
It is an "all options are on the table" statement which, while holding open the possibility of negotiations with the putsch government in Kiev, reserves the right to intervene in the Crimea, based on the preferred Western rationale for the use of force, "humanitarian aid."

The vaunted multi-dimensional chessmaster Obama is feeling queasy about now. His poll numbers are steadily heading south. The politician who successfully sold himself as an agent of hope and change will very shortly find his approval ratings in the thirty-percent range, a purgatory from which there is no return. The Democratic rank and file are deserting him. No small number of these deserters are motivated primarily by the Nobel Peace Prize winner's covert war against Syria, and now, his backing of a fascist putsch in Ukraine.

It is with this in mind that Obama steps into the ring with Putin, a leader who has bested him toe-to-toe in the last two "title fights" -- Edward Snowden and the response to the Ghouta sarin attack. Granted, a well-orchestrated information war (which clearly illustrated the totalitarian nature of the Western corporate media), adversely affected  the Sochi Winter Olympics. But the games, despite some warm weather, received high marks. Now it is once again Vlad's time to shine.

And that is what is important to realize here. Time is on Russia's side. Once the putsch parliament accepts the IMF austerity mandates any tenuous grasp on power will quickly come undone. That's why the latest news, weapon-toting men in fatigues without insignia stationed in front of two airports in the Crimea following a move by the pro-Russian parliament in the Crimean capital of Simferopol to pursue greater autonomy from Kiev, might bring events to a climax faster than Putin would prefer.

The putschists are freaking out. This from Andrew Higgins and Patrick Reevell, "Armed Men Take Position at Two Airports in Crimea":
“Tension is building,” Mr. Avakov [putsch interior minister] wrote on Facebook, adding: “I regard what is happening as an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international treaties and norms. This is a direct provoking of armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state.” 
Igor K. Tresilaty, who identified himself as assistant to the general director at the international airport, said Friday that the soldiers were remaining in common areas outside the airport, in the restaurant and in parking lots. 
He added that he did not know who they were and expressed no curiosity about them, saying only that they looked professional. 
“They’re walking around, but we, nor the police, can’t have any complaint against them because they’re not violating anything, they’re not touching anyone,” Mr. Tresilaty said. 
He said that some of the soldiers had tried to occupy the working areas of the airport overnight but that the authorities there had not allowed it. 
When a reporter suggested removing the soldiers, he invited journalists to attempt ejecting them if they felt up to the task. He said the airport was functioning normally, with no delays or cancellations. 
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Crimea, denied that its forces were involved in the deployment at one of the airports. But the national Parliament in Kiev issued an appeal for Russia to “stop moves that show signs of undermining national sovereignty” in Ukraine, Reuters reported, and it urged the United States and Britain to honor commitments made in the early 1990s to protect the country’s territorial integrity
Parliament also called on the United Nations Security Council to debate the issue, apparently seeking to broaden the dispute.
This reaction for a few guys with guns in front of a couple of airports? Compared to what happened in Kiev since last November, the violent occupation of many government buildings by well-armed Banderists? Really? It makes Yanukovych look fearless in comparison.

This moaning for "big daddy" Uncle Sam and his poodle Tommy shows that the putschists don't command popular support to prevent a Russian-speaking region from going its own way. That's important because there is no lever, popular or otherwise, for the West to intervene.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

U.S. Support of Ukraine Putsch Payback for Syria?

As tens of thousands of Russian troops mass on Ukraine's border and secessionist unrest flares in the Russian-majority Crimea, now is a good time to stand back and consider the possibility that this ham-handed putsch, almost one-week old and rapidly fraying, that was implemented with fulsome U.S. support, is part of an effort to punish Russia for its defense of Syria, in general, and its "checkmate" of the Obama administration's rush to Tomahawk Damascus last summer, in particular.

Toward that end, allow me to quote a piece -- "Was the Ukraine Coup America’s Main Event at the Sochi Olympics?" -- written by Peter Lee that appeared yesterday on the Counterpunch web site:
[A]n alternate possibility is that the United States did it [back the putsch] for revenge, to punish Putin for not going along with the US program on Syria. 
That’s not great because, if so, the decision might have been made out of short-sighted spite, and the West might have taken sole custody of the Ukrainian tar baby just as its finances are teetering to collapse and the split between eastern and western Ukrainians threatens to turn into a permanent rift. 
It would be…ironic! There’s that word again!—if punishing Putin over Syria turned Ukraine into another Syria. 
I don’t think this revenge scenario is too outlandish. President Obama seems to be a man who likes his revenge served cold—icy cold—and maybe underneath that controlled façade he was itching to show Putin that Russia could not lightly defy US demands to withdraw support from Assad and collapse the Syrian government. I believe personal disdain and the need to assert his credentials as world’s numero uno big boss drives President Obama’s foreign policy with regard to Putin, with the Chinese leadership (ever since he was subjected to a finger-wagging tirade by China’s chief climate negotiator for America’s botched outing at the Copenhagen summit in 2010), and of course, his counterproductive crusade—now in its third dismal year with a promise of further escalation– to destroy Syria and further destabilize the Middle East in order to punish Bashar Assad for refusing to go when Obama told him to go. 
One hopes that twelve-dimensional chess is guiding US moves in the Ukraine. But if that policy is in the hands of a crude neo-con like “Fuck the EU” Victoria Nuland, maybe we’re looking at another one of those “nobody could have foreseen” bloody foreign policy botches that the US seems to specialize in nowadays
And Putin might have the last laugh, withholding Russia’s promised contribution of $15 billion while the EU scrambles to come up with the $30 billion Ukraine needs to get through the year (amazingly, the US has to date made no commitment to provide financial aid, something the EU is probably noticing; and thinking Thanks a Billion! Not! Vicky Nuland, since the aggressive US strategy blew up the transitional government negotiated by the EU that might have kept Russia in the game and on the hook).
With the putsch parliament clearing its choices for an interim government in a faux-Occupy consensus charade on the Maidan, the machinery is clunking into place to accept an IMF bailout along with its destabilizing, dehumanizing grab bag of austerity mandates.

The IMF needs the fiction of a "legal" government in place in order to begin negotiations on terms of the bailout. Yanukovych, now apparently in Russia, made a statement denying the legality of his removal. The U.S./EU, based on statements made yesterday by John Kerry, is standing behind the putschists.

Regardless of the legality of the yet-to-be seated interim government, and assuming that Russia does not intervene militarily to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians, whose language is no longer officially recognized by the putsch parliament, the one insurmountable roadblock for the putschists is the IMF bailout.

This is from a story today by Annie Lowrey and Michael Gordon, "Policy Makers Devise Plans to Provide Money to Kiev":
Policy makers are already hotly debating a rescue package for Ukraine, with conversations about the economy dominating discussions on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting of economic officials in Sydney. 
The country’s finances are now “on the verge of collapse,” the Washington-based Institute of International Finance, which represents major banks around the world, warned in a report released this week.
“With the authorities mostly preoccupied with handling the political upheaval, economic policies have remained in limbo,” said Ondrej Schneider and Lubomir Mitov of the finance institute. “Risks of prolonged political uncertainty still remain substantial, however, raising odds of delays in implementing reforms with potentially disastrous consequences for financial stability and growth.”

“We will be ready to engage, ready to help,” Ms. Lagarde said this weekend. “We, of course, try to go further and play the catalytic role that the I.M.F. typically plays in such situations.” 
The I.M.F. is expected to insist that Ukraine raise domestic gas prices, cut government spending, tackle corruption and allow the country’s currency to float on the international markets.
What the IMF will catalyze is more street protests. But this time dopey Yanukovych will not be the target; it will be the putschists themselves. Then the reviled police or the Right Sector "self-defense" forces will be mustered to beat down the crowds in the Maidan. And this time there will be no complaints from John Kerry or William Hague about the rights of peaceful protesters.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hard Times Ahead for Ukraine's Putsch

Things are only going to get worse in Ukraine. As long as the story stays focused on the predations of the disgraced President Viktor Yanukovych, who is currently on the run from the putschists, the depressing reality of the country post-putsch can remain somewhat obscured to both the casual news consumer in the West and the Ukrainian citizen enjoying a revolutionary high.

But as Hegel once remarked, "What is real is rational, and what is rational is real," or something along those lines. While the Gray Lady dutifully does her part as a member of the United States foreign affairs team, posting video of Ukrainians gape-mouthed wandering the grounds of Yanukovych's presidential palace, as well as soaring images of the victorious protesters massed on the Maidan, the truth finds its way to the surface in the reports filed by her staff.

Take for instance today's effective hit piece by Andrew Higgins, "An Unfinished Ukraine Palace and a Fugitive Leader’s Folly"; effective because it keeps the narrative squarely focused where the U.S./EU wants it, not on the machinations of the putsch government but on the illegal greed and corruption of President Yanukovych (who, by Western druthers, is to be considered a present-day Nicolae Ceaușescu).

Higgins describes workers walking off the construction site of a mansion Yanukovych was building for himself in an old-growth forest along the Crimean coast. Who can defend a plutocrat who illegally erects yet another mansion for himself, this time in an old-growth forest that had been used by regular folks as a place to hike? Certainly not your average reader of the New York Times.

But like many a reporter under the Gray Lady's yoke (for example, Beirut bureau chief, Anne Barnard), Higgins finds a way to subvert the narrative (venal, Ceaușescu-like despot as the personification of evil) at the story's end:
“Why does he need a palace every few kilometers? He thought he was a czar,” said Mr. Pilti, who was in Kiev on business during Saturday’s takeover by protesters and was staggered to see the size of Mr. Yanukovych’s captured spread outside the capital. 
Sergei, the contractor, said he did not like the new government in Kiev at all but was “still happy about what has happened — it had to happen sooner or later.” Ukraine, he added, desperately needs a more open system so the people can clearly know what is going on when a valued public forest suddenly gets fenced off and cut down to make way for a private mansion. 
His chief quarrel with Mr. Yanukovych’s opponents, he added, is not that they ousted a good leader, but that they, too, are deeply corrupt and will soon be building villas of their own if they manage to hang on to power. 
“Everyone knew what was happening here,” he said, gesturing at the concrete extravaganza he helped to build, “but they didn’t say anything because they were doing the same thing, only smaller.”
"Why does he need a palace every few kilometers?" is of course a question those of us who reside in "The greatest nation on Earth"™ ask ourselves. You see, we have oligarchs of our own.

And this is what will be the undoing of the putsch: getting rid of Yanukovych is not going to rid the country of its predatory oligarchs; aligning itself with the U.S./EU will not reopen shuttered hospitals and put the unemployed back to work and lessen corruption.

First off, member states of the European Union are loath to float a financial rescue because of prevalence of corruption in Ukraine regardless of party. This is from a story today by Steven Erlanger and David Herzsenhorn, "Tentatively, European Union Weighs Its Options on Support for a New Ukraine":
The European Investment Bank can also help with quick money but, Mr. Rehn [European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro] noted, “E.U. resources lie predominantly with member states” — hence the idea of a donors’ conference. But there is little obvious enthusiasm among member states, many of them still in recession or just emerging from it, to pump large amounts of money into an unreformed Ukraine that has been famous for crony capitalism and corruption. 
Poland, for example, which has been a key interlocutor on Ukraine, has said that it wants to see significant structural change in the country first. On Monday, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that a stable Ukraine was in Poland’s interest. As for foreign aid, he said, “Poland will not sweat its guts out.” 
Ukraine needs to show that it can absorb foreign aid and not waste it, Mr. Tusk said. “It cannot be that we will organize huge funds for Ukraine and Ukraine will continue to waste this money by, for example, corrupt governments or oligarchs,” he said.
Ukraine needs $35 billion to keep from going bankrupt. Since the money is not likely to come from the EU, this means that the bailout has to come from the International Monetary Fund. And we know what that means. Brutal austerity. Hence the delay by the putsch parliament in forming an interim government. No one wants to sign off on IMF austerity because he/she will be ending his/her political career. Rada members are attempting to avoid this outcome by making it appear that they are consulting the EuroMaidan protesters and getting their consent. This is from an illuminating piece by David Herzsenhorn, "Infighting Poses Hurdle to Formation of New Coalition in Ukraine":
“This government will be legitimate not when it is voted in the Parliament but when it receives support of the people who stood on Maidan,” said Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, a lawmaker in the party Fatherland who is a leading contender to serve as acting prime minister. 
Mr. Yatsenyuk also pleaded with colleagues to end their infighting and swiftly reach an agreement on the designation of an interim government, which is needed to formally request emergency economic assistance from the International Monetary Fund. 
“The deadline is Thursday,” he told reporters outside the Parliament chamber. “This government will face tremendous challenge. And we have to say absolutely openly that those who go into this government are rescuing the country on one hand, but on the other hand they should be aware that they are committing political suicide.
Originally, the agreement brokered with Yanukovych last Friday by France, Germany and Poland would have avoided all this. Yanukovych would have appointed a new, "technical government" to oversee the U.S./EU/IMF austerity mandates. After this, Yanukovych's political career would have been terminated. Not to worry though, he would have had that mansion in the old-growth forest on the Crimean coast in which to comfortably enjoy his retirement. But this was upended by the putsch, a foolish move. Now the putschists are on the hook for the onrushing austerity.

Russia still holds all the cards. Russia is Ukraine's largest trading partner and supplies the country with its fuel. Russia's bear claws are resting on Ukraine's jugular. Additionally, Europe has to remain respectful of Russian interests since Germany receives a significant amount of natural gas from Gazprom.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bill for Ukraine's Putsch Comes Due

Now the bill for the putsch in Ukraine comes due: Austerity by International Monetary Fund mandate. I always wondered why anti-government Ukrainians were so fervent about aligning with the European Union when the price of membership was obvious for all to see. All one need do is look to Greece, a country being dismantled by the IMF and European Central Bank according to the usual neoliberal prescriptions: privatize public assets, reduce social benefits and slash public sector employment. This is what is in store for Ukraine and her citizens, and this is why President Viktor Yanukovych balked at the the trade deal with the EU last November: It would have been political suicide if he would have signed it. David Herszenhorn outlines the precarious nature of Ukrainian finances in an offering today, "Regional Rifts Pose Hurdle to New Coalition in Ukraine":
The I.M.F. has made clear it is unwilling to help Ukraine without a commitment from the country to undertake painful austerity measures and other restructuring. Mr. Yanukovych’s resistance to those demands was a principal reason he backed away from a trade deal with Europe and sought help from Russia instead.

In a statement on Monday, the acting finance minister, Yuriy Kolobov, said Ukraine would need a staggering $35 billion in assistance between now and the end of next year, as well as an emergency loan within the next two weeks that he said was expected from Poland or the United States
In his statement, Mr. Kolobov said he hoped to organize a conference with international donors. “The situation in the financial sector as a whole is complex but controlled,” he said. 
That could change at any moment, however, should Russia decide to follow through on previous threats of devastating trade sanctions if Ukraine moves closer to Europe.
Given the animosity of the new Ukrainian government toward Russia, Ivan Tchakarov, an analyst with Citibank, said that Ukraine could turn only to the West for help, and would inevitably face demands for tough reforms and a near-certain recession as a result.
“Assuming that Russia will pass, it will be up to the I.M.F. and E.U. to pick up the tab,” Mr. Tchakarov said. “The I.M.F. will impose hard constraints on the economy, and these will most probably mean a recession in 2014.”
Still, Mr. Tchakarov noted that there would be long-term benefits to Ukraine’s undertaking desperately needed measures, like ending subsidies of gas prices and cutting the thickets of business regulations that weigh down the economy. These actions could potentially allow it to emerge far stronger, like its neighbors Poland and the Baltic countries, he said.
To gauge the economic strength of a Baltic neighbor, let's take a look at Latvia, care of an article, "Ukraine's Sickness," by Eric Draitser:
The Ukrainian people however would do well to examine the precedent of Latvia to understand what lies in store for them. As renowned economists Michael Hudson and Jeffrey Sommers wrote in 2012:
What enabled Latvia to survive the crisis were EU and IMF bailouts…Elites aside, many emigrated…Demographers estimate that 200,000 have departed the past decade – roughly 10 per cent of the population…Latvia experienced the full effects of austerity and neoliberalism. Birth rates fell during the crisis – as is the case almost everywhere austerity programs are imposed. It continues having among Europe’s highest rates of suicide and of road deaths caused by drunk driving. Violent crime is high, arguably, because of prolonged unemployment and police budget cuts. Moreover, a soaring brain drain moves in tandem with blue-collar emigration.
The myth of prosperity to follow EU integration and bailouts is just that, a myth. The reality is pain and suffering on a scale far greater than the poverty and unemployment Ukraine, especially the western portion of the country, have already experienced. The most highly educated, those most equipped to take up the mantle of leadership, will flee en masse. Those leaders who remain will do so while lining their pockets and ingratiating themselves to the European and American financiers who will flock to Ukraine like vultures to carrion. In short, the corruption and mismanagement of the Yanukovich government will seem like a pleasant memory. 
The “liberalization” that Europe demands will create massive profits for speculators, but very few jobs for working people. The best land will be sold to foreign corporations and land-grabbers, while the resources, including the highly regarded agricultural sector, will be stripped and sold on the world market, leaving farmers and city dwellers alike in grinding poverty, their children going to bed hungry. This will be the “success” of Ukraine. One shudders to think what failure would look like.
Herein lies the rub. Western governments (at least for public consumption) have labeled events in Ukraine a people-power uprising by pro-democracy activists, rather than a putsch by armed, back-mask-wearing hooligans, as Russia sees it. So what happens when the Ukrainian citizenry rises up and rebels against the austerity that is shooting down the pike? According to Andrew Higgins' story, "Ukrainian Protesters See Too Many Familiar Faces in Parliament After Revolution," a rumbling is already audible:
[T]he prospect of a new order dominated by established opposition parties, almost as discredited in the eyes of many Ukrainians as Mr. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, has left a bitter feeling that what comes next could end up disappointing as much as the government that followed the 2004 Orange Revolution.
“We need new people who can say no to the oligarchs, not just the old faces,” said Ms. Nikanchuk, referring to the wealthy billionaires who control blocks of votes in the Parliament but who, with a few exceptions, hedged their bets until the end about which side to support in a violent struggle that left more than 80 protesters dead between Mr. Yanukovych and his opponents. 
“The problem is that the old forces are trying to come back to take their old chairs,” said Vasily Kuak, a shipping broker who stood outside parliament waving a sign that read: “Revolution, Not a Court Coup!”

All the same, the sight of luxury cars dropping off members of Parliament at the colonnaded legislature building, is now guarded by “self-defense” units that previously battled government forces, has stirred dismay and anger.

“Again we see Mercedes and BMWs bringing deputies who are supposed to represent the people,” said Mr. Kuak, “We don’t want to see these people again. We want to see people from the square, from the revolution.”
“We need people from Maidan, not people like you,” screamed an angry woman as Volodymyr Lytvyn, a former speaker of the Parliament known for shifting with the wind, left the legislature building. As he tried to answer questions from the crowd, protected by two bodyguards and a solid wrought iron fence, a cry went up clamoring for “lustration of everybody,” a term usually associated with the purge of officials and politicians suspected of serving Communist regimes before the revolutions of 1989 across Eastern and Central Europe. 
Peppered with angry demands that the Parliament raise pensions, reopen closed hospitals and find work for the jobless, Mr. Lytvyn struggled to respond but basically called for patience, a virtue that is likely to be in short supply if the interim government does not manage to convince people it is working to improve their lives, not line its own pockets.
Will Obama publicly demand restraint when violence is directed at the Ukrainians demonstrating to reopen hospitals and restore slashed pensions? Of course not.

But first things first. The putschists have to actually form a government that can accept the U.S./Poland financial lifeline and the bailout package from the IMF. Putting aside the question of whether this government will actually be legal -- remember, just like the United States, Ukraine has a constitutional process for removal of a president; it's called impeachment; and nothing I have read has said impeachment proceedings are underway in the Rada -- Oleksandr Turchynov, new speaker of the Rada, has said he will form a government by Thursday.

There are two things it would be wise to keep our eyes on here. First, Russia. Russia holds all the cards, as the Gray Lady makes clear in her pathetic editorial this morning, "Ukraine's Uncertain Future": "Ukraine is broke, and a vindictive Russia could easily make things more miserable by closing the border or raising gas prices." Second, by now it should be apparent that like his predecessor, W., everything that Obama touches turns to shit. Run down the list: NATO intervention in Libya, the roll-out of his signature healthcare law, his kowtowing to the Gulf sheikhdoms on Syria, his inability to get any pro-worker legislation through Congress, and on and on. There is no reason to believe that Ukraine will be any different. In other words, we can expect an outcome that is not the one intended by the West.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Putsch in Ukraine: a Clearer Picture Emerges

Since last Friday, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed off on a deal brokered by Poland, Germany and France to step down this December (Russia ended up refusing to sign the agreement, saying it was nothing more than an opposition diktat), the situation has deteriorated precipitously. The security forces abandoned Yanukovych, as did a large number of Members of Parliament from Yanulovych's Party of Regions, and Yanukovych fled the capital. He is now apparently holed up incognito in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. All this happened by Saturday, not to mention that Yanukovych's archrival Yulia Tymoshenko was released from her prison hospital room.

If there is any doubt that what transpired in Kiev last week was a putsch, that is put to rest today in a story, "As His Fortunes Fell in Ukraine, a President Clung to Illusions," reported by Andrew Higgins, Andrew Kramer and Steven Erlanger. Fearing that they would be used for target practice by Obama's "peaceful protesters," who were rushing the weapons from a looted armory in Lviv to the capital, the security forces quietly negotiated their surrender with the putschists occupying Independence Square:
On Tuesday, empowered by a new aid package from Russia announced the day before, Mr. Yanukovych pressed to remove an encampment of antigovernment activists from Independence Square, where they had been cursing his government since November. 
Squads of riot police overpowered the outer ring of defenses protesters had set up and advanced to within 25 yards of a stage in the center of the square, called the Maidan.
Running out of options, the protesters mounted a final, desperate defense, a so-called ring of fire stoked with tires, firewood and even their own sleeping bags and pads. 
But Andrei Levus, deputy head of the Maidan “self-defense” forces, the umbrella organization of militant activists fighting the government, knew he had reinforcements on the way. Protesters in Lviv had overrun an Interior Ministry garrison and were en route to Kiev with the captured military weapons. 
“I’m reluctant to talk about this because we are protesters and not illegal armed groups,” Mr. Levus said. “But the square was about to look different. There would be more people, and they would not have had empty hands.” 
Despite the dwindling of the protective fires, the protesters decided to hold on to the square long enough for both sides to consider the significance of the arrival of the weapons in the capital.
Using a member of Parliament as an intermediary, Mr. Levus opened a line of communication with a deputy interior minister, whom he declined to name. It appeared that Mr. Yanukovych, perhaps sensing that his security forces were reluctant to press the crackdown, was inclined to turn to the army for help. He had fired the armed forces chief of staff, Col. Gen. Volodymyr Zamana, on Monday.
“We understood they had a few hundred fanatical riot police, but the rest of the police would not fight,” Mr. Levus said. 
Several street fighters who were on the barricades early Thursday morning said that they saw police officers walking away from their positions, and that this emboldened them. Some protesters fired hunting rifles and shotguns. Police lines crumpled. 
“Our people are ideologically motivated, and on the contrary, they were demoralized,” Mr. Levus said. “They did not want this fight. And he understood that our people were ready to run against gunfire.” 
Mr. Levus said he received a call on his cellphone around noon on Thursday from the deputy interior minister. “I told him, ‘We will guarantee the safety of the police if they leave the city,’ ” he said. 
The deputy minister agreed first to a cease-fire until 3 p.m., when Parliament was set to meet. With support from some members of Mr. Yanukovych’s quickly disintegrating Party of Regions, Parliament voted to support the protesters’ demand that the police demobilize.
This reporting makes for some discordant passages in the Gray Lady today. On the one hand putschists are described as pro-democracy advocates, while those defending the duly elected government are depicted as drunken hooligans. This is from Alison Smale, "Power Shift Inspires Joy in Kiev, Fury in East," reporting from the anti-putschist (and hence, pro-democracy) eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk:
DONETSK, Ukraine — Red Communist flags flew on Sunday in front of a massive bust of Lenin in this hardscrabble coal-mining city, a stronghold of pro-Russia sentiment in Ukraine. About 500 yards away, a few hundred pro-democracy activists, harangued by hundreds of counterdemonstrators, laid wreaths for the victims of last week’s bedlam in Kiev at a memorial to one of Ukraine’s most revered figures, the 19th-century poet Taras Shevchenko.
Earlier, activists at the wreath-laying ceremony emphasized in a statement that they would neither storm administrative offices, as protesters did in Kiev, nor tear down memorials, as protesters have done with 16 statues of Lenin across the central and eastern parts of the country in recent days, according to the Ukrainian news media. About 300 people turned out for the ceremony at noon. 
Just an hour later, the second scene unfolded. Hundreds of loud citizens — mostly young men, many of them masked and carrying wooden or metal clubs — gathered on a sidewalk, separated from the memorial crowd by various police units, including black-clad riot units and militia in navy uniforms. The crowd chanted “glory,” not to honor the protesters in Kiev but to praise the Berkut, the elite police units widely held responsible for the violence against the demonstrators.
The fact is the New York Times for the most part in its foreign affairs coverage mirrors the position of the U.S. State Department. This means that the Gray Lady must sculpt its reporting to obscure the violent nature of the putsch, and this she has done. But now that it appears that Yanukovych is well beyond the point of no return, it is safe to let the truth shine in. (We saw this in the invasion of Iraq.) The problem is that the story is still developing and not all the Gray Lady's staff got the memo.

What lies ahead?

Russia does not seem ready to acknowledge the new situation in Kiev, though National Security Advisor Susan Rice is foursquare behind the putschistsMoon of Alabama blog makes the good point that Yanukovych's removal by the Ukrainian Parliament is illegal because it does not follow the process outlined in the constitution. Like in the United States, a president's removal has to be made by means of a formal process of impeachment. The Ukrainian Parliament has not impeached Yanukovych; rather, it has merely transferred presidential power to newly elected Speaker of the Parliament, Oleksandr Turchynov. Now, acting interior minister Arsen Avakov has issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovych. Additionally, in an indication that the current Parliament is not broadly representative but tilted toward the western part of the country, the official status of the Russian language in Ukraine was terminated.

Also, the police are not back to work in Kiev. How long can that last before we see a situation like the one that happened in Libya where militias started battling each other in the streets?

Time is on Russia's side. The U.S./EU has created a mess. The Ukraine is nearly insolvent. Will the International Monetary Fund step up with a generous bailout? If so, the putschists will have to deliver a pound of flesh. This is from David Herszenhorn's frontpage story, "Ukraine’s Acting Government Issues Warrant for Yanukovych’s Arrest":
On Sunday, the fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, said that there was concern about the political instability in Ukraine and that the fund could provide assistance only in response to a formal request. But she added that an economic program to help Ukraine had to be “owned by the authorities, by the people, because at the end of the day it will be the future of the Ukrainian economy.”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Infinity #6

Recently another blockbuster Marvel Comics crossover event came to an end. Infinity was a sprawling (spanning a dozen different titles) and ambitious (I think too much so) saga of inter-galactic creation, destruction and warfare between superheroes and supervillains. Penned principally by Jonathan Hickman, it factored in Thanos, the mad Titan butcher, in a way that never seemed organic to the main narrative (which was interesting and had do do with the Builders, the primary originators of the universe).

Hickman introduces new characters, both heroes and villains, along the way; Thane, son of Thanos, for instance, whose special powers are unleashed with the detonation of a Terrigen Bomb by Black Bolt and who will likely figure in the present Marvel blockbuster crossover event, Inhumanity. You see, one crossover event gives way to another.

The point of these crossover events is to make money for the parent corporation. The reader is sent on a spending spree in a largely vain attempt to keep abreast of the narrative, scattered as it is over many different comic books. A feeling of immersion in or presence with the story is almost never achieved. The feeling is rather always one of deferral or difference. But in this I guess you could say, in true Derridean fashion, that Marvel is treating its readers to the essence of writing.

Below are ten scans from Infinity #6 covering the climactic final battle between the Avengers -- Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Thor -- and Thanos. But it is Thanos' son Thane that ends up conquering the evil Titan, freezing him in a cube of "living death" that conjures up images of Thanos' demise in his original appearance in  the Captain Marvel of the Watergate-era 1970s. Jim Cheung is the penciler.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Colt 45 Chronicle #56

This letter provides what is probably a fairly representative snapshot of a college-educated man in his early twenties -- alcoholic, addicted to watching professional sports on television, drunk with buddy love and spouting on about Plato. 

Well, maybe it is not fairly representative.

In any event, it is who I was when I was newly disgorged from the Groves of Academe, now approaching thirty-years yore.

The opening paragraph elliptically recounts some of my escapades in Los Angeles, where I stayed for a few days at my friend Shale's house after driving across the North American continent during a cold December. This is briefly recounted in "The Colt 45 Chronicle #14." I was on my way north up I-5 to see my girlfriend, Stacy; and then after that on up into Oregon to spend the Christmas holiday with my wife and her family.

My life used to be much more action-packed and complex than it is now.

Spring 1989
Man, those were two solid pages of chicken-scratched magic. Thank you. Yeah, and you're right, that last letter was kinda of forlorn; but it wasn't meant to be. I wrote it around 2:30 AM one night (Neil Young on the turntable) after about ten beers. It was supposed to be about 19, nineteen-years old, as plain and pure as I could remember it; about what it was -- for us; about what it must have been like to feel what we felt then. I gave it a shot; and I guess it's that -- my need to take the shot -- that gives it its forlornness. I never intended making a comparison of that "nineteen time" to my last visit to LA. Man, my last visit to you -- two days or not -- was fucking fantastic. I repeat the stories of our pounding the pot on the white circular kitchen table, and me puking in the spaghetti strainer in the sink after the hefty gulp of JD, and you putting your fist through my makeshift wooden sidedoor VW bus window. I repeat these stories (including the ping pong game in your new and waiting-to-be-painted rental unit, the trip to Oki-Dog in the sister's Capri and the shitdrip geek who came over the morning I left for SF and looked at the new place and acted like he was Marcus Aurelius), I repeat them all the time to myself, in my mind's eye (you see, they were holy experiences).
Listen, man, fuck everything else: WE ARE BLOOD BROTHERS. we're gonna be there at the end together, just like in the "Myth of Er" at the end of Plato's REPUBLIC. We're gonna be waiting for our just desserts together; we might end up as mockingbirds or elephants or turd pebbles or men, but we'll be there together.
LA's playing Detroit; I got it going on the TV in the bedroom; but for some reason I'm not into it. After the third game of the Chicago-Detroit series I lost all interest; I turned it off before the end of the third quarter, only to find out later that Jordan & Co. had made a spectacular fourth quarter comeback to go up two games to one. Everybody said they were going to pull off an upset, beat the Pistons in seven, but I had seen something in that game three to make me think otherwise, something to make me turn it off: Michael Jordan had lost his luster. It was the first Bulls game were the guy didn't have that amazing energy dribble, the one that makes it appear as if he is swimming in the interstices of reality. I had been following the playoffs passionately, watching every game televised by the networks, reading the paper every day, even jotting down lineups and scoring averages during my slow and private moments at work (which made me feel like I was back in 6th grade memorizing NFL running backs: Greg Pruitt, Cleveland Browns; Lawrence McCutcheon, LA Rams; Otis Armstrong, Denver Bronco ). But right then and there my passion died; I could watch no more. Michael Jordan was the only interesting thing in the playoffs (after it was apparent that Phoenix would be eliminated by the Lakers). When he lost the luster, so did I. And sure enough, my lost passion turned out to be pretty damn prescient. Detroit won three in a row after that and put Chicago away in six, shutting Jordan down emphatically. As for LA and Detroit, their act is old, Rough and stingy versus glittery and smooth. Not as old as LA and Boston, sure, but old enough.
I'm still a freelance temporary proofreader, working off and on and reading in the interim; drinking Coors and Colt, and, subsequently, having a prolific girth of shock-white lard to show for it. I do an occasional set of push-ups, run about once a week, read very little philosophy but a lot of Mark Twain. I am basically a pale shadow of my formerness (the person you knew and associated with). But in a lot of ways I'm better off -- you know, being out of Berkeley and academia and being in the big shit-hole city, at least for a while.
I can really appreciate New York sometimes. Like when I finish work and walk west along 42nd to the 8th Avenue subway. Forty-second is always packed and moving upstream. I treat the whole thing like a football drill. I weave and pop and high step in and out of all junkies smoking their crack and the career-track cadavers toting their briefcases. One morning (in the morning I'm more mellow; I just scoot straight along -- no promise of soon-to-be-smoked cigars and soon-to-be-gulped beers means less gridiron prowess is called for) this junkie black woman rushed right up and started beating me with her fists. But I was moving too fast and she was far too weak. So I tossed her a sweet smile . . . . It did indeed trouble though all the finely clothed office-bound employees to my rear.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ukraine: a Fascist Putsch?

tentative agreement has been announced, an agreement that was apparently brokered with assistance from Russia, Poland, France and Germany. The U.S., EU and the opposition apparently have secured what they want -- new elections and a commitment to curtail presidential power. But will now everyone pack up and go home?

What is a putsch? It is an attempt to violently overthrow a government by a small group. When we think of "putsch" we usually think of the Beer Hall of Putsch of Hitler and Ludendorff. A putsch is like a coup d'état with the difference being that we usually associate a coup d'état with the capture of the state by the military or a branch of the military.

What we saw last July in Cairo was a coup d'état. Chairman of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces Abdul Fatah el-Sisi ousted the elected President Mohamed Morsi, abolished Morsi's government and installed a new one. What we are seeing in Kiev is a putsch. Street fighters from the western part of Ukraine are attempting to topple the elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

In both Egypt and Ukraine the popular element in opposition to the elected presidents cannot be discounted. At the same time it is important to recognize that without the intervention of the military in Egypt or the mobilization of far-right, pro-fascist goon squads in Ukraine the people-power uprisings would have amounted to nothing more than another "Occupy Wall Street"-type non-violent protest.

The role of the media in the West is to do all it can to obscure the fact that what we are witnessing in Kiev is a putsch. To achieve this goal the Gray Lady's two reporters, Andrew Kramer and Andrew Higgins, aided by their editors, have mustered all their talents to obscure the fact that the escalation of the violence this week in Kiev is due to the actions of the organized street fighters of the far right.

First, on Tuesday, street fighters attacked security forces in front of Parliament after opposition members were unsuccessful in passing measures to limit presidential power. This caused a spike in violence and many fatalities. Then, after a truce had been struck, street fighters broke the truce and attacked police lines, which led to another spike in violence and even more fatalities.

In neither case has the New York Times been honest in its reporting. In both instances, the Yanukovych government is blamed for a lack of restraint and for the use of excessive force. The esteemed Gray Lady is indistinguishable from any run-of-the-mill administration press secretary who must sing for her supper.

Sensing that their credibility might be tarnished, Higgins and Kramer publish a piece today where they acknowledge the role played by the far right in the uprising. Titled "Converts Join With Militants in Kiev Clash," it is, as one would expect, a mostly tendentious portrayal of right-wing Ukrainian nationalism that airbrushes away its roots in the fascism of ultra-nationalist Stepan Bandera.

Higgins and Kramer fail to mention the Nazi connection, something odd since comparisons to Hitler and Nazi crimes are a favorite theme in the Western media, but they do allow a small window on a reality they are struggling to obscure:
Many Ukrainians, who doggedly oppose the government, look with horror at the use of firebombs, rocks and, on occasion, guns to oust the president, who was democratically elected in 2010 and whose future is scheduled to be decided at the ballot box in 2015. 
Revulsion is particularly strong in the east of the country, where Mr. Yanukovych first made his career in politics, where most people speak Russian rather than Ukrainian, and where Ukrainian nationalist heroes like Stepan Bandera are viewed as fascist traitors. 
“We have a genetic memory of fascism here,” said Anatoly Skripnik, a businessman in the eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

U.S. Credibility Gap on Ukraine Vis-a-Vis Egypt and Seattle WTO

A full scale civil war is unfolding in Ukraine. Live fire is now the norm in Kiev as rebels broke the short-lived truce and recaptured Independence Square. In the country's west rebels have captured an Interior Ministry arsenal in Lviv, as well as police stations and government administration buildings. Andrew Higgins and Andrew Kramer, who have given up nearly all pretense of neutrality at this point and have become purely a conduit of the U.S. State Department, have the story, "Kiev’s Brief Truce Shatters in Bursts of Gunfire":
Beyond Lviv, antigovernment activists besieged or seized police stations and administrative buildings in the western cities of Uzhgorod, Lutsk and Khmelnitsky and the eastern city of Poltava. 
In Lutsk, protesters attacked the regional police department, which responded with stun grenades and other fire. The building was then set on fire by protesters throwing gasoline bombs.
This is an insurrection, a rebellion. What else could it be called? Yet Obama is threatening the Ukrainian government not to declare a state of emergency: This is from Steven Lee Myers, useful piece "Violence in Ukraine Creates Deepening Clash Between East and West":
President Obama, on a visit to Mexico, interrupted his opening meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto to tell reporters that “the United States condemns in the strongest terms” the violence that has claimed lives in the last two days. He pointedly warned the Ukrainian military on Wednesday to stay out of the political crisis that has already ravaged the streets of Kiev and said the United States would hold the government responsible for further violence. 
The president’s decision to address the Ukrainian situation without being asked reflected the growing concern by the White House that the standoff between the government and demonstrators in the street had spiraled out of control. 
“We have been watching very carefully, and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Mr. Obama said. “There will be consequences if people step over the line.” 
The substance of that threat became clear on Wednesday evening, when the Obama administration said it had imposed a visa ban on 20 senior Ukrainian officials whom it accused of playing a role in the government’s crackdown on Tuesday. The State Department declined to say which officials were on the list, but a senior State Department official said it included “the full chain of command responsible for ordering the violence last night.”
Such perversity -- "peaceful protesters"!?! -- is mind-boggling. Bear in mind that Obama's Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, when he was Governor of Washington State, mustered the National Guard during the 1999 WTO ministerial in Seattle after one small Starbucks and the facade of Niketown were vandalized and some storefront plate glass was broken. A "No Protest Zone" was even declared. And here is Obama threatening sanctions against the government of Viktor Yanukovych if force is used to respond to the death of its security personnel, not to mention the country's capital being set ablaze or its armories seized.

Where are the sanctions on members of the Sisi military junta? Remember it was security forces under the command of the Egyptian coup government of Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi that slaughtered hundreds of peaceful sit-in protesters in what amounted to a "fish-in-the-barrel" shoot last August. Obama won't even call what happened in Egypt a coup.

Such mendacity cannot go without some form of blowback. And that blowback is already underway. It is an erosion of credibility all Western governments are experiencing, what at earlier time of political tumult was known as "the credibility gap."

There is a pattern to the collapse in Obama's public approval. Conventional wisdom points to the continuing aftereffects of the Great Recession and an economy that produces few new jobs and those that it does produce are for low wages. But I think, equally important, is Obama's steadfast advocacy for the U.S. national security state -- for the unconstitutional prerogatives of NSA spying, for hounding Snowden and Assange, for trumpeting the dawn of a democratic age in the Middle East and then backing an anachronistic military coup in Egypt and facilitating the rise of jihad in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Now Obama is recreating the Cold War. Amazing. Like his Oval Office predecessor, W., everything Obama touches turns to shit. After five years, this should be obvious to everyone except for the most blinded of partisans.

But the United States should proceed with caution when it comes to throwing down the gauntlet to Russia. Russia is not some tribe of Sunni fundamentalists. Russia is a great state. And while the West too is a bloc of great states, they are states that daily grow farther removed from the populations they govern. Rebellion cannot be far off.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Gray Lady Obscures Cause of Deadly Kiev Clashes

Having suckled at the Gray Lady's teat for many a year, one grows sensitive to her wiles and her ways. Today's frontpage story, "Clashes in Kiev Kill Dozens as Protesters Cling to Square," by Andrew Higgins and Andrew Kramer is case in point. Usually in describing an event like the deadly clashes roiling Kiev's Independence Square reporters begin at the beginning, when hostilities were actually initiated. But to get that information the reader has to wade through many column inches before finally, near the story's end, arriving at a vague idea that violence began near the Ukrainian Parliament when street toughs attacked security forces after the opposition failed to pass constitutional amendments designed to curtail presidential powers:
Some protesters acknowledged that they had contributed to the violent spiral of events by attacking police officers during street battles early in the day near the Ukrainian Parliament, which the opposition had hoped would approve constitutional amendments curbing President Yanukovych’s powers.

“We have no other way,” said Lena Melniko, a 33-year-old accountant who joined a team of protesters digging up paving stones and passing them on to fighters to throw at the police, “We have been protesting for three months but are stuck in a dead end.”
Instead of opening their story in a way that would allow for readers to piece together the logic of the violence, Higgins and Kramer go out of their way to obscure and distract by beginning their report at the end of the action, like a sophisticated Coen brothers film noir:
KIEV, Ukraine — Protesters in Kiev stoked what they are calling a “ring of fire” separating themselves from the riot police in a desperate final effort on Wednesday to defend a stage on Independence Square that has been a focal point of their protests and keep their three-month-old movement alive. 
Men staggering with exhaustion dismantled the tents and field kitchens from the movement’s earlier and more peaceful phase and hauled their remnants onto the fires. They piled on mattresses, sleeping bags, tent frames, foam pads and whatever else looked flammable, burning their own encampment in a final act of defiance. 
Ukraine’s Health Ministry said on Wednesday that 25 people, including police officers, protesters and a journalist found dead on a side street near the square, had been killed after hundreds of riot police officers advanced on the antigovernment demonstrators Tuesday and in subsequent fighting on streets in the government district of the Ukrainian capital.
From there on out until almost the end of the piece you can get mostly sports reporting, the ebb and flow of the street battle, though Higgins and Kramer do find space in the middle of their story for the pro forma statements from Western officials warning Ukrainian officials against using force to take control of their burning capital:
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. telephoned Mr. Yanukovych to “express grave concern regarding the crisis on the streets” of Kiev and urged him “to pull back government forces and to exercise maximum restraint,” the vice president’s office said in a statement on Tuesday. 
Secretary of State John Kerry urged Mr. Yanukovych to stop the bloodshed. “We call on President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government to de-escalate the situation immediately, and resume dialogue with the opposition on a peaceful path forward. Ukraine’s deep divisions will not be healed by spilling more innocent blood,” he said in a statement. 
The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warned the Ukrainian government that it could face sanctions. 
“Whoever is responsible for the decisions which have led to the bloodshed in Kiev and other parts of Ukraine should expect Europe to reconsider its position on imposing sanctions on individuals,” Mr. Steinmeier said in a statement on Tuesday night. The bloodshed erupted only hours after Mr. Steinmeier had received the two main opposition leaders, Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, in Berlin, where they also met Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This morning there is a story about another lethal terror bombing in southern Beirut by Al Qaeda affiliate Abdullah Azzam Brigades; five dead and dozens wounded. Can we expect a call from Joe Biden warning Lebanese President Michel Suleiman against responding with violence?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Get Ready for Blowback

At the start of this past three-day holiday weekend I was feeling good. I awoke early, did a few loads of laundry, and then got in a four-mile run. All that before 10 AM. I then checked in on Moon of Alabama and the blog entry "Real Or Propaganda? New Weapons To Syrian Mercenaries."

A shift is underway among the "Friends of Syria," a.k.a., Al Qaeda steering committee, to increase military pressure on the Syrian government. With the total collapse of the latest round of peace talks in Geneva, the "Friends of Syria" are staring down at a large plate of crow. Their strategy so far has been a failure. Syria has not collapsed. She is being cracked, but she still stands. And militarily, thanks to Russian-supplied helicopters, she is gaining momentum and regaining territory. Also, and perhaps equally important, Syria is winning the propaganda war. Voters within the Western bloc of the "Friends of Syria," despite a daily pummeling of images of broken children pulled from bomb rubble and words descrying Assad's use of barrel bombs against civilians, are clearly opposed to any military aid for the opposition, which at this point appears to be entirely composed of radical Sunni fundamentalist jihadis.

But after reading the comments on Moon of Alabama, I started to feel ill. "Here we go again," I thought. Rather than accept the fact that its plans have been a failure, the United States and its allies appear to be committed to expanding the violence: manpads to the rebels in a vain hope to neutralize Syrian air power. Here is how Michael Gordon, David Sanger and Eric Schmitt put it this morning in "U.S. Scolds Russia as It Weighs Options on Syrian War":
Mr. Assad’s hold on power has grown over the past year, according to the head of American intelligence. Recognizing that a political settlement is unlikely if he keeps the advantage, administration officials said that Mr. Obama and other Western leaders had dropped their objections to proposals by Saudi Arabia and other countries to funnel more advanced weapons to vetted rebel groups, including portable antiaircraft weapons, often called manpads. 
A secret meeting in Washington last week among the intelligence chiefs from almost all of the countries attempting to oust the Assad government included extensive discussion about how to best provide that new lethal aid to rebel groups, the officials said. The gathering of the top intelligence officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France and the United Arab Emirates, and several others from the 11-nation group known as the Friends of Syria, reflected a belief that the diplomatic track has been exhausted unless Mr. Assad sustains significant military setbacks.
As Gordon et al. note in their story the Saudis have already been supplying manpads:
A fighter from the Damascus suburbs who fled to Beirut, Lebanon, said one of the reasons he left was that the Army of Islam, the rebel group led by Zahran Alloush, had surface-to-air missiles, which he said were a Syrian Army model taken from antiaircraft bases a year ago. But the Army of Islam, which is supported by Saudi private donors, has declined to share its plentiful arms and its cash with other rebel groups, particularly non-Islamist ones. That has complicated efforts to counter Mr. Assad’s forces around Damascus. 
Mr. Obama’s apparent willingness to drop objections to supplying the rebel groups with heavier weapons may simply be an acknowledgment that Saudi Arabia and gulf states that are frustrated with American policy are now prepared to do so anyway, without Washington’s blessing. American officials say they also now have a better sense than they did last year about which groups they can trust to use and secure the weapons.
Like Afghanistan more than thirty years ago, the United States plans on saturating the Levant with portable missiles. Expect to see some of those manpads used in the Sinai and in Iraq. It is all so predictable and stupid. But it does guarantee war, perpetual war.

The U.S. decision to blame Russia for the impasse on Syria seems particularly stupid. Russia will not be hectored to the bargaining table to negotiate away the Syrian state, particularly after Victoria Nuland's performance in Kiev.

And what makes the present course of the Obama administration so dicey is that it is in opposition to its putative base of popular support. If Obama, already listing dangerously in the polls, continues to proceed down this bellicose path he will find the Democratic Party split and vulnerable come November, with the Senate likely returning to Republican control.

The fourth estate is doing its part, banging the war drum by focusing its coverage of the Syrian war primarily on the government's use of barrel bombs against rebel-controlled neighborhoods in Homs and Aleppo. But it will not compel any popular support for greater U.S. involvement. After the disaster of Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the devastating impact of the ongoing Great Recession, one would have to be entirely insane to back another belligerent escapade in the Middle East. And while the masses might be confused and uninformed, they are not insane. It is the governing elites, seemingly disconnected from everyday reality, who are insane.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Kingdome Before Demolition

Fourteen-years ago next month the Kingdome -- major flash point in state politics -- came down in a spectacular demolition. A buddy and I were there that chilly, clear Sunday morning in March, along with a lot (thousands) of other people. When he took this photo he must have been standing in the middle of Second Avenue directly across from the front entrance to the Seattle Fire Department. Note the explosive charges visible on the arches of the dome.

The hardball politics played by the owners and management of the Mariners and Seahawks in getting out of their Kingdome leases, and then finagling to have new, separate facilities built at tax-payer expense (all the while aided and abetted by captive politicians) offered the citizenry an excellent education in our flawed money-driven system of electoral politics.

King County is monolithic in the politics of Washington State. You can't win a statewide election if you lose King County by a significant margin; conversely, you can carry the state if you win big in King County. King County was the epicenter of stadium politics, and at the epicenter of stadium politics was the Kingdome.

From the rubble of the Kingdome rose not only a new stadium for the Seahawks, but sophisticated, tough, engaged voters, the kind who would elect a socialist over a corporate democrat.

At Work, People Despise Each Other

I think it is worth mentioning -- actually, it is something that I wanted to note last week when I relaunched these posts on work, with the intention of sticking to it this time and recording my observations at least once a week -- that my coworkers despise each other.

It makes for parlous moments. I'll be discussing something with one coworker when another coworker approaches. Suddenly there is the cold electric current of hatred and hostility and I'm stuck right in the middle, absorbing it. Generally, I try to tie up the conversation quickly and be on my way.

The situation is the result of people working together for many, many years. Most of the people are women. And while it would be convenient to make it a gender thing and dismiss it as women being catty, it is not. Men -- some of the business agents -- practice the chilly burn and malevolent stare as well; they are just more low-key about it.

People work together for years, decades, and wrongs, perceived and real, accumulate. Finally a decision is made to cease all but the most necessary and perfunctory communication.

For me, since I have been at this particular work site for less than three years now, I have not accumulated a reservoir of ill will similar to my coworkers, many of whom have been working together for 15 years or more. I only have the unfortunate situation of the one woman, who tends to the bipolar, with whom I have fell afoul. So for the most part I have the luxury of moving comfortably between and communicating freely with everyone on the job.

This is not without its burdens since I am often used as a tacit go-between for coworkers who are so nauseated at the prospect of dealing with one another they would rather angle a third party into doing it for them.

From the prologue to Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All or None (1883–1885):
Then something happened that made every mouth dumb and every eye rigid. For meanwhile the tightrope walker had begun his performance: he had stepped out of a small door and was walking over the rope, stretched between two towers and suspended over the market place and the people. When he had reached the exact middle of his course the small door opened once more and a fellow in motley clothes, looking like a jester, jumped out and followed the first one with quick steps. 
"Forward, lamefoot!" he shouted in an awe-inspiring voice. "Forward, lazybones, smuggler, pale-face, or I shall tickle you with my heel! What are you doing here between towers? The tower is where you belong. You ought to be locked up; you block the way for one better than yourself." And with every word he came closer and closer; but when he was but one step behind, the dreadful thing happened which made every mouth dumb and every eye rigid: he uttered a devilish cry and jumped over the man who stood in his way. 
This man, however, seeing his rival win, lost his head and the rope, tossed away his pole, and plunged into the depth even faster, a whirlpool of arms and legs. The market place became as the sea when a tempest pierces it: the people rushed apart and over one another, especially at the place where the body must hit the ground. 
Zarathustra, however, did not move; and it was right next to him that the body fell, badly maimed and disfigured, but not yet dead. After a while the shattered man recovered consciousness and saw Zarathustra kneeling beside him. "What are you doing here?" he asked at last. 'I have long known that the devil would trip me. Now he will drag me to hell. Would you prevent him?" 
"By my honor, friend," answered Zarathustra, "all that of which you speak does not exist: there is no devil and no hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body: fear nothing further."
The man looked up suspiciously. "If you speak the truth," he said, "I lose nothing when I lose my life. I am not much more than a beast that has been taught to dance by blows and a few meager morsels." 
"By no means," said Zarathustra. "You have made danger your vocation; there is nothing contemptible in that. Now you perish of your vocation: for that I will bury you with my own hands." 
When Zarathustra had said this, the dying man answered no more; but he moved his hand as if he sought Zarathustra's hand in thanks.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Colt 45 Chronicle #55

This, I believe, is one of the first letters I wrote from New York City, where my wife and I had moved the summer of 1988 so she could attend medical school. While it is the fifty-fifth in a stack of old letters in a string-tied folder that I retrieved from storage last year during halftime of the Seahawks playoff elimination in Atlanta (now, a year later, the Seahawks are world champions), the letter is actually number one or close to number one based on chronology.

Addressed to two good college buddies who had moved into an apartment on Oak Street in San Francisco across from the Panhandle, this epistle specializes in that cocky, macho, tongue-in-cheek bluster that only youth truly believes in.
Autumn 1988

Mark and Niall,

I hope this gets to you, you fuckers. What if Sherry/Sherri steams it open? Then you'd owe her one from me. You'd have to strap her to Niall's back and smear her with honey -- humm baby. New York gets more and more like home every day. Mark, I was sick for a solid week after you left. Had some throat & fever combination. Ashley took me down to the in-house nurse who felt me up and down and made me think of the two of you and what that first night in your new home must have been like. Wow! But seriously, all sarcasm aside, I bet you guys really care for each other, huh? Well this illness abated and then Lyn and Oliver appeared, stayed a week, and just left today, Sunday. During their sojourn we cracked open the bottle of sour mash from Dinosaur, CO, the bottle I bought from the Good Samaritan with a sledge hammer -- and I helped myself to a fine cigar. All of sudden I was back on Easy Street. Saw the Lady. We were on the Staten Island Ferry. Boy o boy. 
I'll tell you guys when I get work. How is law school, Piall? Ashley has started her studies -- biochemistry and CPR. I met a few of the physicians-to-be. After a little thought I dubbed them the Cotton Nazis. All goose down and dew drops they are, new underwear and Ivory soap. Quite a contrast to the Mexico City suburb we live in. One student caught my fancy, a Berkeley grad no less. Her name is Nancy -- a big healthy Leviathan of a woman. And I blush when I say that there is undoubtedly a reciprocal interest. But no, I am now a married man. The days of sowing oats are behind me. I look forward to a life of study and even-keeled contemplation.
I read Exley's A FAN'S NOTES. Some good shit. I ate it up. My only problem with it was that I didn't feel we were getting the whole story. Too many aporias, thematically, and too many five-dollar words, stylistically, mean the guy still has got something to hide -- he never gave up beating the popularity pony. My favorite scenes: the confrontation/non-confrontation with Gifford in the coffee shop; buying everybody in the dining car a round of drinks; flopping at the counselor's pad, on the sofa with LOLITA. The guy's got a real touch for tragicomedy.
You fuckers gotta write me, otherwise your souls are gonna die. At least get me your new address and phone number. Adieu, adieu.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Hippies vs. Punks: Zephyr, Pt. 1, the ABC/Probe Records Eponymous Debut

The only evidence that I can find that Zephyr, the Boulder, Colorado psychedelic jazz-blues-rock'n'roll fusion band, performed at the Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival in 1970 is from the handbill:

That, and bass player David Givens, in listing the bands that Zephyr performed with, mentions a number of groups -- Alice Cooper, Ten Years After, Traffic -- that appeared that June day at Crosley Field. My conclusion is that Zephyr was there. The video tape that recorded the entire event was probably recycled. So we are left with the 90 minutes of Grand Funk Rail Road, Mountain, The Stooges, Alice Cooper and Traffic that was broadcast nationally as Midsummer Rock August 1970. But maybe some day additional footage will turn up

In listening to and reading about Zephyr the last two weeks I have been captivated by the extent to which Zephyr's particular hard-luck story is the story of the Hippies as a whole -- huge potential powered by a supercharged creativity that was short-circuited by a combination of run-of-the-mill predatory greed, naivete, narcissism and drugs.

There is an amazing source document for Zephyr's tale of woe, Allan Vorda's lengthy interview with David Givens, which is available on the superb Tommy Bolin Archives. Of all the material I've read since I've been doing these Hippies vs. Punks posts (today marks one year), the David Givens interview is the best, better even than David Aguilar's history of Chocolate Watchband.

Zephyr came together in early 1969 as Candy and David Givens left their band, Brown Sugar, and joined Tommy Bolin's and John Faris' Ethereal Zephyr, adding drummer Robbie Chamberlin and dropping "Ethereal" from the band's name.

They were quickly gobbled up by the odious Barry Fey and sold to ABC Records, which was starting up a specialty Hippie label, Probe Records. ABC offered the most money up front; and even though Zephyr received bids from Atlantic and Columbia, that is what Fey wanted. Here is how David Givens describes it:
Our first away-from-home performance was at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco with a soon-to-disband Moby Grape and an equally unhappy Love. It was the first time we got nervous. We tried too hard and the magic didn’t happen. Candy carried the rest of us, but she blew her voice out in the process. She only had two days to recover before we were to play for the Music Industry Biggies at the Whiskey in L.A. She didn’t make it. She managed one early set but couldn’t answer the bell for the second one. In spite of this, Atlantic, Columbia, ABC, and possibly some other companies, made bids for us on the strength of this performance and a demo tape we had recorded in a little studio in Denver. Atlantic’s bid was $40,000 in advance, Columbia’s was similar and ABC, who was organizing a new label Probe, made an offer of $110,000 for a shorter term contract. Barry didn’t know beans about record companies, but he could count and he took the ABC offer. ABC/Probe gave us tacky promotion, no guidance, no nothing. The deal was made, it turned out later, because our new “Business Manager” was in bed with the President of ABC’s new little label Probe. The Pres was getting a kickback from our management. Cute. Meanwhile Barry turned down the labels whose rosters included a large share of everybody who was anything to anybody, because the advances weren’t high enough. Remember that one dollar in 1969 was worth almost four 1988 dollars. Hmmmm.
Fey lined up a few producers for the band to interview. They decided on the (now legendary) Bill Halverson  based on his work recording Cream's Goodbye (1969) as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), both seminal Hippie documents. Halverson sold himself as a producer of those albums when he was just a Wally Heider Studios engineer; he proceeded to fuck everything up according to David Givens:
Anyway, Barry brought in a couple of producers from L.A. for us to interview. The first one was a nice guy, but he stuttered so badly that we couldn’t take him seriously. For years, Candy and I could make each other laugh by calling a studio a “stoo-oo-ooooo-di-o’’ in honor of this unfortunate man. I recall John Faris remarking that the studio bills would be seriously inflated because we’d be waiting while the man tried to talk to us. The second one was a guy by the name of Bill Halverson. He’d been the engineer on some of Cream’s stuff and on the Crosby, Stills and Nash first album. He presented himself to us as the producer of those sessions, but in truth he was just an engineer. We didn’t know that, though, and we were impressed. He seemed so sincere. He had no idea of how to deal with us. Later, after he had thoroughly messed us up and I was having an argument with him I asked him why he had wanted to work with us. He said he thought we’d be “another Cream.” Great, as if being another anything was a good idea. This idiot’s idea of production was to play tapes he’d recorded of Tom Jones jamming with some L.A. studio musicians for us, hoping we’d catch on. He was a fat slob ex-trombone player who hated Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, two of our unqualified heroes. When we went to L.A. to record, we had a guy with us whose job was to watch out for us. Tommy was 18, Robbie was 19, I was 20, John was 21, and Candy was 22. None of us had any experience recording. We were at the mercy of this “producer” except for Bernard Heidtman, who at 28 was a smart guy who had been around and it was his job to watch out for us. Bernard had been the drummer in our first little band in Aspen, and Candy and I trusted him completely. 
We were a live band. We didn’t work things out note for note except in a few parts. Our concept was to use worked out pieces as mileposts during any given song. Between the mileposts, we’d invent the music as we went along while remaining sensitive to the singer or the one playing lead. People who liked our music liked this concept. It was like sport — you never knew how it was going to turn out and you could take risks or not, you could work as a team or as a faction or as an individual, and it was very interesting and challenging and a lot of fun to watch if you liked that sort of thing. We had taken the real essence of jazz and put it in a new context. Unlike the jazz fusion bands that were to follow, we didn’t simply put rock beats to jazz “songs,” we took the idea of jazz and played it BIG. Bill Halverson, the trombonist, could no more understand this than he could force his fat slug-like physique to run a three minute mile. 
During the two days following our arrival in L.A, we recorded good versions of everything we knew. Halverson was an employee of Wally Heider Studio where we were recording and was about to disappoint his boss, Wally, to whom he had promised a fat recording bill. A couple of months earlier, we had recorded a three song demo tape for the record companies. We had taken first or second takes of each song. I think we spent maybe $250 on it. The local “underground” station in Denver had played the tape on the air. It was the most requested piece of music they had ever had at the station. Bernard knew this and was determined not to let Halverson destroy the music by taking it apart in the studio. Unfortunately for us, Bernard came down with hepatitis and was confined to his room for three weeks while we worked at Bill Halverson’s mercy. We trusted old Bill and so we threw out what we had recorded and started the harrowing experience of destroying ourselves. 
Halverson was working all day from eight or nine in the morning with studio customers, then bringing us in during the evenings, subject to the whims of Steve Stills or whatever other rock-god wanted to push us out. When he wasn’t speeding, he was so tired that on occasion he fell asleep at the console. One night he was so soundly asleep that Candy, Tommy, and I wheeled him up and down the hallways in his chair. We banged him into walls and he still never woke up. He was about 84” and about 250 pounds. We laughed so hard, we thought we were going to blow up. Little did we know the joke was on us... this album was not going to be good. We wanted to adapt our music to the studio environment, but we didn’t know how and neither did Halverson. For years, Bernard has said that if we had kept those first takes, the ones Halverson threw away, we’d have had it made. We were not competent studio musicians nor was Candy a studio singer. We could create magic, though, and we had proved it again and again in front of people and even once on tape, but not much got on our first album. 
To prove Givens' point, compare the demo versions of "Hard Chargin' Woman," "St. James Infirmary" and "Cross the River" to what appears on the eponymous Zephyr (1969). You will find that David Givens is right. The demos are superior.

Bill Halverson definitely botched Candy Givens' vocals. In the demos, her voice is rich, earthy and nowhere near as shrill. The biggest failing of Zephyr is the lead vocal performance; at points, Givens' screeching distracts the listener. Another failing, compared to the demos, is Zephyr doesn't really capture any of the cutting-edge inventiveness of Tommy Bolin's lead guitar. Where are all the cool, way-ahead-of-its-time Echoplex effects? (Definitely check out the demo of "Hard Chargin' Woman.")

Zephyr, nonetheless, is an amazing record (note Candy Givens' harmonica playing). David Givens says it was a Top 30 album.

Zephyr is built on a strong blues foundation; it taps into the San Francisco Sound alchemy of the jam where the ordinary suddenly reveals itself as sublime. I think it is a must-have.

Though it is hard to nail down exactly when Zephyr was recorded in Los Angeles, it must have been the summer of 1969, a time when the band might have crossed paths with a primed-to-launch-"Helter Skelter" Manson Family at a Hippie party or eatery or just traveling the LA freeways.

Ah, the tragedy of the Hippies.