Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ant-Man #1

During the time when I was still reeling from the break-up with my last girlfriend, I found online a simple brown cotton t-shirt with the words "Ant-Man" running across the chest. I wanted to get it because it captured how I felt: miniature, minute, down below shoe level, unnoticed and obscure.

Ant-Man is sort of a running superhero joke in the present Marvel Universe. But it hasn't always been this way. The character of Dr. Henry "Hank" Pym and his incredible shrinking Pym Particles actually predate the appearance of Thor and Spider-Man in 1962, though his Ant-Man alter ego is introduced a little bit later.

Marvel, now part of the Disney global juggernaut, is reviving the character, giving Ant-Man his own title, in prelude to this summer's blockbuster release of the Ant-Man movie starring Paul Rudd.

Three different characters have been Ant-Man: the originator, founding Avenger and pillar of the Marvel Universe, Hank Pym; Scott Lang, a thief, the second Ant-Man, and now, back from the dead, the current bearer of the superhero identity; and the third, and possibly the most anti-heroic of them all, is Eric O'Grady, presently deceased, who was featured as the Irredeemable Ant-Man, a tremendous title by Phil Hester and The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. If you ever get a chance to read Irredeemable Ant-Man, do. I have never read a Marvel comic book where the hero is so morally vacant and ethically lapsed. Eric O'Grady lies, steals, cheats; he is lustful, prideful and a coward. Very true to life and uncomicbook-like.

The present Ant-Man title is a kinder, gentler version of the Irredeemable Ant-Man. Written by Nick Spencer with low-key art reminiscent of a newspaper comic strip by Ramon Rosanas (Jordan Boyd is the color artist), I thought at first that Ant-Man #1 was going to be an homage to the Bronze Age, a threadbare good guys vs. bad guys tale spiced up a little by Tony Stark's large libido and the offbeat persona of a regular loser like Scott Lang. But then I was surprised to the point of satori when it turned to be more like a 'G'-rated homage to American Splendor. So wonderful it was I actually emailed my approval to Marvel:
I loved it. Scott Lang is an anti-hero worthy of Harvey Pekar. 
For a while I was a little in doubt as to the the direction of the narrative. Was this going to be a slightly unconventional superhero yarn yoked to Stark Industries? The curve in the plot at the end was truly a delight. 
In the present age of disappearing remunerative work and rapidly proliferating digital technology we are all Ant-Men now. Miniaturization is our Zeitgeist. Often times I feel like Scott Lang, a Sad Sack who should be sleeping in a doll's house. 
Thank you, and count me in for future issues.
Below you will find nine scans from Ant-Man #1: the cover and credits page followed by the concluding seven pages:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Democrats are Doomed

For a snapshot that conjures up Jim Jones' Guyana, take a look at "House Democrats, Facing Long Odds, Take Inspiration From the Top" by Emmarie Huettemen and Michael Shear. The story describes a pep rally House Democrats held in Philadelphia yesterday. Obama made a rousing appearance. The message -- please, don't chuckle -- is that the Democratic Party is the shield of the working class, defending the little people from the predatory rich and their rapacious servants in the Republican Party.

A few discreet words were dropped to explain the horrifically poor showing in the 2014 midterms. Democrats in the House apparently forgot to stay on the economic justice message. (If you haven't got around to it yet, take the time to read Thomas Ferguson's masterful assessment of the 2014 midterm election, "Americans Are Sick to Death of Both Parties: Why Our Politics Is in Worse Shape Than We Though.") But fear not, good citizen. The Party of Jackson is going to redouble its efforts to protect me and you and make sure that we get some of that wealth that has been vacuumed up to the 1% during the Obama years:
As the Democratic lawmakers gathered here Thursday, their leaders did not shy from admitting that their postelection strategies bore a strong resemblance to the emphasis they placed on issues like wage inequality before they lost 13 seats in November’s election.
“It is the same and critically important message,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said the party did not need to find a new message. Rather, he said, lawmakers and the president need to do a better job focusing that message and motivating turnout of voters next year. “There should have been more unity behind the president’s economic agenda,” Mr. Van Hollen said.
Mr. Obama urged the Democrats in Philadelphia not to be shy in embracing the party’s values, and he promised that he would not relent in pressuring the Republicans.
“We need to stand up and go on offense and not be defensive about what we believe,” Mr. Obama said. “I promise you I’m not going out the last two years sitting on the sidelines. I’m going to be out there making the case every single day.”
This is a picture of an organization that is not in touch with reality; that, or its leaders are lying through their teeth. They must take us for a bunch of witless boobs.

An indication where the Democrats are headed at full speed can be detected in an excellent piece that appears on Naked Capitalism. Hope for Greece, and Perhaps Europe Too, by Mathew D. Rose, an independent journalist living Berlin, encapsulates the situation in Europe that led to Syriza's victory this past Sunday. Obeisance to neoliberal austerity and market fundamentalism has hollowed out Europe's socialist parties:
[Europe’s Social Democrats] are clearly on the decline, as they have lost credibility as a party of the people. Their natural replacement, ergo their most menacing opponent, will be the new parties on the left. The once predominant social democratic party in Greece, PASOK, could not even muster five percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections. The PSOE in Spain is plumbing the 20 percent barrier, things look scarcely better for Germany’s Social Democrats; while in France Hollande and his acolytes seem set on immolating their party. Even in Britain, where the Labour Party was hoping to come out of the upcoming elections as the strongest party, it has not only lost one of its heartlands, Scotland, to the Scottish National Party, but is facing a surge in England by the Greens, who are adopting an ever increasing leftist agenda and brazenly showing solidarity with Syriza and its programme.
One could add Sinn Féin to this list of authentic leftist parties rising to challenging the corrupt neoliberal hegemony.

As it stands now, I think Scott Walker wins the general election in 2016. And then woe unto us all. To prevent this from happening the Democrats will have to reinvent themselves pronto. And nothing points to this happening.

In Praise of Marshawn Lynch: Dave Zirin Contrasts Beast Mode with NFL Commissioner Goodell

I have always felt a connection to Marshawn Lynch. It probably has something to do with the fact that we both went to Berkeley. Fortunately, the year or two I was in the habit of watching college football on Saturdays (usually hung over) corresponded to the time when Lynch was running for the Golden Bears. What impressed me about Lynch in those Cal games was his speed, his power -- yes, absolutely -- but more than anything it was his ability to absorb huge hits and keep on going. Remarkable, noteworthy, unusual.

I loathed the Holmgren/Hasselbeck Seahawks. So when Pete Carroll made a trade with Buffalo to bring Lynch to town my opinion of the team did a 180. I was quickly made a believer in the franchise.

Make no mistake. Marshawn Lynch turned the franchise around, helped remake it into something entirely unique. That's why it is nice to see Beast Mode getting the superstar treatment in the run up to Super Bowl Sunday. So powerful is his starshine that it has nearly erased everything else this week -- Tom Brady, Deflategate, Bob Kraft's Patriots, you name it. It has been all Marshawn.

It will be interesting to see if the baleful brainiac Belichik will bite down on the hook and structure his defensive game plan around stopping Lynch. This is what most teams do. And this is the brier patch which Seattle loves to lead opponents; it is how Seattle wins games. With defenses keying on Lynch, Russell Wilson makes the big moves. Russell Wilson might not be your classic drop-back passer, but he is brilliant running an offense where he is not the main attraction.

Speaking of main attraction, Dave Zirin latest piece, Marshawn Lynch and Roger Goodell: Compare and Contrast, is a brilliant exploration of the relative merits to the National Football League offered by its chief executive and one of its star players. I quote it in its entirety.

 Go Seahawks! To Victory!

Marshawn Lynch and Roger Goodell: Compare and Contrast 

Dave Zirin on January 27, 2015 - 8:43 PM ET
Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have something glaringly obvious in common. They both struggle mightily speaking on camera. That, however, is where the similarities end.
Marshawn Lynch, who thousands of people pay to watch play on Sundays, earned a base salary of $6 million last year.* Roger Goodell, who no fan would put down money to do anything other than perhaps be hooked up to a lie detector, made $44 million.
Marshawn Lynch is financially forced by the league to talk to the media, ideally to mouth the same clichés every other player is hardwired to repeat. He spoke at the Super Bowl Media Day this week and twenty-nine times repeated seven words that speak the truth of a league that demands players to double as corporate pitchmen: “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” If Lynch hadn’t made an appearance, he would have faced a gobsmacking $500,000 fine.
Roger Goodell is under no obligation to talk to the public, even though he oversees a league that has received billions in corporate welfare and whose central office is designated by the federal government as a tax-free nonprofit. As Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lynch’s teammate who has never been uncomfortable in front of a microphone, said, Lynch should not be obligated to speak “any more than the commissioner is obligated to speak.”
Marshawn Lynch has also been fined $20,000 by the NFL for grabbing his crotch, which is Lynch’s customary move when he scores a particularly explosive touchdown. Roger Goodell’s league sells a framed collage that includes the very image of Lynch tugging his testicles for $149.95. While Lynch writes checks, Goodell profits on both ends, while also perhaps grabbing his junk.
Marshawn Lynch, who it’s been theorized by friends has a social anxiety disorder, is mocked mercilessly by the media for his lack of desire to speak to them and his inability to sound like Peyton Manning. Roger Goodell, whose only disorder is inordinate blushing when challenged, receives no such casual barbs. He has actually felt some media heat this year over his years of covering up cases of domestic violence. Yet despite every misstep, he was still praised by on a primetime NFL playoff broadcast by announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth for his “integrity” and making domestic violence “part of the national conversation.” (This is, as I’ve written elsewhere, like praising Goldman Sachs for making corporate greed “part of the national conversation.”)
Richard Sherman put it perfectly in a piece he wrote this week for Sports Illustrated. “Under Goodell the league continues to put players like Marshawn Lynch in a position to be mocked by the media, which seems to get a kick out of seeing people struggle on camera. As teammates we’re angry because we know what certain people do well and we know what they struggle with. Marshawn’s talking to the press is the equivalent of putting a reporter on a football field and telling him to tackle Adrian Peterson.”
Sherman also pointed out exactly why so many players—particularly black players—hold a hostility toward an older contemptuous sports media, writing, “Some of the same people slamming Marshawn for not talking are just as likely to condemn the Browns’ Andrew Hawkins and Johnson Bademosi for protesting police brutality with T-shirts. They want to hear us speak, but only if we’re saying something they want to hear.”
There is one last similarity between both men: they both generate gobs of money for the thirty-one billionaires that run the league. The difference however is that Marshawn Lynch will be thrown on the scrapheap as soon as he no longer has the ability to perform. Roger Goodell continues to be paid long after he has proven in practice that he is a liability to players, their families, and the future of the league. I would love to be able to pull off a “Lucy and Ricky” scenario and for one week, start Roger Goodell at running back for the Seahawks and put Marshawn Lynch in the Commissioner’s chair. Seattle would surely suffer. The league, however, would register an immediate improvement. If nothing else, on game day, we’d all get a whole lotta Skittles.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Syriza is For Real

I have been greatly impressed this past week as Alexis Tsipras has rolled out the new Syriza-led government. For instance, his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is an economist and blogger whose writings I have posted on this page before. Another unexpected ray of sunshine is the possibility that a Syriza-led Greece could block a new round of sanctions against Russia. Jim Yardley reported yesterday in "Greece’s New Left-Wing Cabinet Signals Willingness to Confront E.U. Over Policies" that,
Two days after he ousted Greek’s conservative government in an emphatic election victory, Mr. Tsipras, 40, assembled a new, streamlined cabinet dominated by members of his radical-left Syriza party, among them academics, labor activists and human rights advocates.
His most closely watched selection was his new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, an economist and avid blogger who has described Europe’s austerity policies as “fiscal waterboarding.”
European leaders began to send their congratulations on Tuesday after a mostly chilly initial response to the victory by Syriza, which is demanding a renegotiation of the tough terms of Europe’s 240 billion euro bailout of Greece.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany wished Mr. Tsipras “much strength and success,” if also noting that “you are taking office in a difficult time in which you face great responsibility.”
Mr. Tsipras quickly demonstrated that Europe must not treat Greece as a weak junior partner. His government on Tuesday denounced a European Council statement in which European leaders blamed Russia for the escalating violence in Ukraine and raised the prospect of new economic sanctions.
In its own statement, Mr. Tsipras’s office said the European statement had been issued “without the consent of Greece.” The prime minister also complained by telephone to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Mr. Tsipras has been a sharp critic of European sanctions against Moscow and has displayed past good will toward Russia, a sentiment common among many Greeks.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent Mr. Tsipras a congratulatory telegram on Monday, the day he was sworn into office, while that same day, Mr. Tsipras met with the Russian ambassador in Athens.
Having a Greek prime minister with a strongly dissenting view on Russian sanctions could greatly complicate European Union foreign policy, which has benefited from a German-led unanimity among heads of state on confronting Mr. Putin.
Further sanctions cannot be approved without a unanimous vote from the leaders of European Union member nations, and Mr. Tsipras might find sympathetic partners in countries like Hungary or Slovakia, which dislike sanctions but generally go along.
Political analysts in Athens interpreted Mr. Tsipras’s early warning shots as clever political positioning, given that his government will soon open negotiations with the country’s European creditors over the punishing bailout provisions. Showing that he could complicate European goals in Ukraine may give him leverage in his economic negotiations, analysts said.
In a blog post, "A question of respect (or lack thereof)… – the Greek veto over Russia that never was," Varoufakis protests that the position of the new Greek government is not one that categorically opposes a new round of economic sanctions targeting Russia, but rather one that insists on its national sovereignty:
On the first day in our ministries, the power of the media to distort hit me again. The world’s press was full of reports on how the SYRIZA government’s first foreign policy ‘move’ was to veto fresh sanctions on Russia. Now, I am not qualified to speak on foreign affairs but, nonetheless, I must share this with you at a personal level. Our Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias, briefed us that on his first day at the job he heard in the news bulletins that the EU had approved new sanctions on Russia unanimously. The problem was that he, and the new Greek government, were never asked! So, clearly, the issue was not whether our new government agrees or not with fresh sanctions on Russia. The issue is whether our view can be taken for granted without even being told of what it is! From my perspective, even though (let me state it again) I am certainly not qualified to speak on foreign affairs, this is all about a question of respect for our national sovereignty.Could journalists the world over try to draw this important distinction between protesting our being neglected from protesting the sanctions themselves? Or is this too complicated?
Regardless of how you frame it, the point has been made. Syriza represents a huge potential impediment to business as usual.

John Helmer has a piece, "Russia's and Greece's Fraught New Relationship," on Naked Capitalism that doesn't mention the new sanctions veto and cautions against great expectations. In the recent past, Russia has viewed Greece through the lens of her oligarchs, oligarchs that Tsipras has promised to go after:
Against the plots and plans of the friends who are Greece’s enemies, there is also the experience of Greek history of the 1980s (my history, too). That shows how little the friend who is the enemy of Greece’s enemy is worth when Greece’s life and death are at stake. It is already clear that Putin, on the advice of Igor Sechin, Igor Shuvalov, and many others, has cast a strategic card on Turkey. The alternative card Greece has to offer isn’t obvious [What about a veto of another round of EU sanctions?], at least not to the Kremlin, and not yet.
So when the Americans, British, Germans, and Turks revive against Tsipras – as they are certain to do — the infowar and regime-change tactics used against Andreas Papandreou between 1982 and 1989, the Kremlin cannot be counted on to support Greece’s rebalancing of power. Twenty-six years ago, it was the Politburo’s conviction – spelled out in secret in February 1989 – that Papandreou was an American puppet who could not be relied upon. The Politburo was wrong about Andreas; it proved to be right about his son, George Papandreou (below), the fool and coward who has been dismissed in Sunday’s poll with a 2.7% vote — the first time in a century that no Papandreou is judged by Greek voters worthy to represent them in parliament.
The NATO script of the 1980s can already be read in the tweeting of the enemy press in London, Berlin, and Washington. Tsipras is unlikely to rely on public relations agents or on the ambassadors of his foreign ministry to fight back. More fundamental Greek tactics are being devised, including those which are still not revealed from the 1980s. It will take more than ceremonies at Greece’s cemeteries to remember the victims of German war crimes and Turkish genocide. The modern Δροσουλίτες (Droussolites) have much to remind, but not in public.
The Greek agenda for the Kremlin is already obvious – resumption of the food trade; rouble tourismCyprus; a new gas hub for southern Europe; NATO in Ukraine and the Balkans. For these negotiations it is also clear that Russian oligarchs and Gazprom fixers, and their Greek counterparts, who have dominated the relationship with Athens in recent years, are unacceptable to Tsipras. Officials like Sechin, Shuvalov, and the circle around Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also showed themselves in their Orlov colours during the negotiations for the Cyprus bailout loan of 2013. By Athens they can be ignored.
Naked Capitalism has been consistently pessimistic (some would say realistic) about Syriza's chances to implement its agenda and roll back the neoliberal tide engulfing the planet. I remain optimistic. Granted, I have a tendency to be buoyed by any election win of a leftist party. But my optimism is fueled by the belief that the neoliberal status quo has a hit a wall. It rules by a duopoly, where both parties serve financial capital and not the overwhelming mass of voters, whose prescription, quantitative easing, to deal with the low growth and high unemployment endemic in the West doesn't work to solve those problems but works wonderfully to funnel more wealth to the super-rich.

Such a failed system can't be expected to operate unchecked indefinitely. To attempt keep it up and running is going to require extraordinary measures, such as the Koch brothers budgeting $900 million to elect Scott Walker POTUS. In the last few years in countries with a tradition of military coups (Egypt, Thailand) we have seen a return of the totalitarian police state with little protest from USG.

If one was wondering how Obama, who has consistently prodded Europe to pursue stimulus to rouse its ailing economy, would greet the new leftist government of Greece, wonder no more. Liz Alderman reports in "Tsipras’s Debt Plan Sends Athens Stock Market Sliding" that
The White House confirmed that Mr. Tsipras spoke by telephone on Wednesday with President Obama, who has generally been critical of Europe's austerity approach and supportive of more growth-oriented policies. But Mr. Obama has also recognized the need for structural reforms to accompany growth policies. 
The White House would describe the telephone conversation only in general terms. But a spokesman made clear that Mr. Obama favored a balanced strategy. 
“The United States looks forward to working closely with the new Greek government to build on recent structural reforms, which lay the groundwork for economic recovery,” Mark Stroh, a White House spokesman, said in a written statement. “We will also continue to discuss ways to boost demand and job creation with our European partners to help foster an environment that supports reforms in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.”
The structural reforms that Obama is alluding to are the social spending cuts, union busting and privatization, a.k.a., neoliberalism, the rejection of which gave Syriza its resounding victory at the polls on Sunday.

The fact that the market has responded so adversely -- "The Athens Stock Exchange, where billions of euros in value were wiped out during Greece’s election campaign, fell 9.2 percent on Wednesday after slumping around 11 percent on Tuesday. Shares in banks in Greece plummeted nearly 27 percent on Wednesday." -- is a good sign. It means that the money boys think Tsipras can deliver on his promises.

Proof of that, and an indication that Syriza is not going to kowtow to Obama administration calls for more "structural reforms," comes at the end of Alderman's story. She also provides a neat encapsulation of conventional neoliberal wisdom as voiced by a London banker:
Still, the sell-off, while drastic, was not far out of line with the kind of volatility that has characterized the Athens financial markets since the onset of the country’s crisis in 2010. Indeed, investors now tend to treat Greece more like a developing country than a member of the developed world. That volatility could die down as quickly as it arose should a suitable solution be found.
The most likely outcome, according to Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, is that “facing reality, Prime Minister Tsipras will eventually get real.”
“A patient Europe will offer face-saving compromises,” he said.
Still, Mr. Schmieding said in a research note, that in the meantime there could “be a rough ride for Greece.” And he warned that the odds of an “accidental” Greek exit from the eurozone, at 35 percent, were not insignificant.
Adding to the uncertainty was a report that Mr. Tsipras had basically frozen Greece’s privatization program, which had been a central demand of creditors in approving the country’s international bailouts. The troika had expected Greece to raise tens of billions of euros to pay its debts by privatizing state assets.
But the country’s new energy minister, Panagiotis Lafazanis, told Greek television that the government was immediately halting plans to privatize a public power company. It was also delaying the sale of a portion of Piraeus Port, one of the most strategically placed in the Mediterranean, to the Chinese state-owned company Cosco, which already owns half of Piraeus and had recently signed an agreement to start expanding cargo capacity on the other half of the port.
Mr. Tsipras said he was well aware of the high expectations for him in Greece, and the heavy responsibility his government shouldered. He suggested that the rousing messages of support he had received from leaders in numerous countries, from Russia to France to Spain, signaled that compromise was possible.
“The country is lifting up its head, assuming global significance, attracting international interest,” he added. “Greece is regaining its self-confidence and building alliances that will allow it to set its own agenda at the European table.” 
“We have no time to delay,” he added. “There is no room for mistakes.”
Tsipras has impressed me. He sees his project larger than just Greece. This bodes ill for business as usual within the European Union.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Paying Fealty to al-Saud, the Murder of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh and Obama's Al-Azhar Speech Five Years Later

Briefly yesterday a story appeared on the Gray Lady's home page about Obama's visit to kiss the ring of the new king of Saudi Arabia. Written by Michael Gordon and Peter Baker, "Top Officials Join Obama in Brief Visit to Saudi King" describes a large entourage of current and former USG officials arriving in the Kingdom as an act of fealty to the new ruler of the House of Saud:
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Obama met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, leading a bipartisan delegation of prominent current and former officials to shore up an important relationship and offer condolences for the death of King Abdullah. 
American officials said the meetings were the first official discussions the new monarch has held with a visiting foreign dignitary. 
Air Force One landed on a clear, mild afternoon with a brisk wind snapping the American and Saudi flags to attention. At the Erga Palace, the king and the president sat in gold chairs as their meeting got under way. 
Mr. Obama was in Riyadh for only a few hours, detouring from the return leg of a three-day visit to India. Still, the fact that he made the stop was significant, because he rarely travels overseas to mark the death of a foreign leader; more often, he dispatches the vice president, secretary of state or other dignitaries to represent the United States.
American relations with Saudi Arabia were strained by Mr. Obama’s decision not to mount military strikes in Syria against the government of President Bashar al-Assad over the use of chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia has been a bitter foe of Mr. Assad, who has repressed the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria and who has the backing of Iran, the Saudis’ regional rival.
The Saudis are also uneasy about the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, fearing that it will do too little to restrain the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons. And they were unhappy with American policy toward the Arab Spring uprisings, especially in Egypt, where they accused the United States of turning its back on a friend, President Hosni Mubarak.
Still, the Obama administration has worked assiduously to try to repair relations with the Saudis. After a pivotal June meeting in Jidda between Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia agreed to join the United States in carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Joining the president for the visit on Tuesday were his Republican opponent from 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and several veterans of Republican administrations, including two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice.
Ms. Rice was also one of four former national security advisers in the delegation, which also included Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley and Samuel Berger.
Senior figures from the Obama administration who joined the delegation included Mr. Kerry; Susan E. Rice, the current national security adviser and former ambassador to the United Nations; John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A.; and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees Middle East operations. Democratic members of Congress also took part, including Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Ami Bera of California and Eliot L. Engel and Joseph Crowley of New York.
What is strange about this story, besides the obvious -- leaders of the United States, the world's beacon of freedom and democracy, kowtowing to an absolute monarchy -- is that it didn't remain for long in its prominent spot on the NYT home page, and this morning it can't even be found online in the "World" section, one has to type "Saudi Arabia" in the search box and sort by "Newest."

Obviously the story is embarrassing and needs to be hidden. The fawning tweets of Kerry and Susan Rice portray a government in thrall to al-Saud, a totalitarian dictatorship that exports the jihad the lickspittle U.S. leadership is ostensibly waging a war against. It is all hogwash.

Note the conclusion to the piece:
Mr. Obama said before flying to Riyadh from India that the United States has an interest in a strong partnership with Saudi Arabia, despite its record of repression, human rights abuses and links to terrorism.
“It is important for us to take into account existing relationships, the existing alignments within a very complicated Middle East, to recognize that we have strategic interests in common with Saudi Arabia, and that even as we work on those common interests — for example, countering terrorist organizations — that we are also encouraging them to move in new directions, not just for our sake but more importantly for their sake,” he said in an interview in New Delhi with Fareed Zakaria of CNN.
Mr. Obama was asked whether he would raise the case of the Saudi blogger who was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes. He said he would not on this occasion, but that he does regularly raise human rights issues with the Saudi government, just as he does with other countries with undemocratic governments.
“What I’ve found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” Mr. Obama said. “And oftentimes, that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated. Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”
One wonders what kind of "steady, consistent pressure" is being applied to Egypt where police gunned down protesters last weekend commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring.

Robert Mackey reports today in "Egypt Condemns Western Outrage at Fatal Shooting of Protester" on the growing tumult over the murder of socialist activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh:
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry expressed dismay on Tuesday that the killing of a female activist in Cairo, which occurred as riot police used force to disperse a peaceful protest, had drawn widespread condemnation from the West.
The death of the activist, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, on Saturday sparked outrage online in large part because it was so well-documented. Wrenching images of Ms. Sabbagh bleeding in the arms of a colleague who picked her up afterher heart and lungs were pierced by shotgun pellets reverberated on social networks.
While Interior Ministry officials initially denied that the police officers who were filmed firing in her direction had played any part in her death, the state prosecutor opened an investigation a day later, in the face of widespread skepticism and the testimony of numerous witnesses.
The graphic images of Ms. Sabbagh’s last moments evoked comparisons to the fatal 2009 shooting of the Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan, who bled to death as two witnesses recorded the scene on their phones. 
That Ms. Sabbagh, 32, was engaged in a peaceful protest, with a handful of marchers carrying flowers to Tahrir Square in memory of those killed there in the Egyptian revolution four years ago, helped make her death a focus of anger at the police in a way that the death of at least 18 civilians in clashes the next day did not.
Where are the State Department tweets reminding the Egyptian government of Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Egypt is propped up by the Saudis. So don't expect any outrage from USG.

I went back to read Obama's ballyhooed Cairo address, the one he delivered in June of 2009, the full flush of his "Hope and Change" popularity, at Al-Azhar University announcing a new day in relations between the West and the Muslim world. It is a conservative speech, and knowing what we know today about Obama, that he has been a great failure as a progressive leader, it reads even more as an apologia for business-as-usual U.S. unipolarity.

Something of course that rings absolutely false today is the part of his speech devoted to democracy:
I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other. 
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere. 
There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people. 
As a full partner in the Saudi rollback of the Arab Spring, Obama couldn't make this speech in Cairo today. The blowback will be felt in the U.S. homeland in the form of reduced turnout for Democratic nominee during the next presidential election. There are consequences for such a dramatic about-face. People lose faith. Trust erodes.  Better to stay at home than be gulled into another false message of "Hope and Change."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

NFL Week 22: Super Bowl XLIX

Sunday's Super Bowl in Arizona is about as classic a match-up as anyone could hope for. On one side you have the apotheosis of the corporate machine led by the evil genius Bill Belichik and his telegenic, super-model-marrying, duplicitous matinee idol quarterback Tom Brady. On the other side you have the young, fresh, beautiful, black free men led by the sprightly Pete Carroll and his acerbic, cerebral cornerback Richard Sherman.

Sherman made news when he accused National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell of a conflict of interest. Answering a question about Deflategate (also referred to as "Ballghazi"), Sherman said don't expect any punishment to be forthcoming when Goodell is hanging out socially with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. According to ESPN's Jeff Legwold ("Carroll: Sherman expressing opinion"):
Sunday, shortly after the Seahawks' arrival in Arizona, Sherman said he didn't believe the Patriots would be punished if they were found to have adjusted the air pressure in 11 footballs prior to last Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
Sherman cited a photograph that included Goodell and Kraft from a party at Kraft's house the night before the AFC Championship Game, a photo that was then posted to the Patriots' official Twitter account: 
"Will they be punished? Probably not," Sherman said. "Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. You talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won't affect them at all. Nothing will stop them."
Dave Zirin picked up on Sherman's comment in a blog post yesterday, "Patriots Balls and Christopher Hitchens":
This conflict of interest is very real. As GQ’s Gabriel Sherman wrote in a damning long read that dropped this week about Goodell, Kraft is apparently known among NFL execs as “the assistant commissioner.” Even this description is charitable. It’s less the relationship between an assistant and a commissioner as much as it is one between a hand and the bottom aperture of a puppet. Bob Kraft, in addition to being just a “friend of Goodell,” has been the great defender of Goodell’s stunning $44 million salary. He was Goodell’s first defender during the release of information that showed that the NFL cared very little about domestic violence until tape went public of Ray Rice striking his wife Janay. He also, according to GQ, orchestrated Goodell’s disastrous defense of the NFL’s domestic violence policies, in conjunction with CBS network who was about to start airing its lucrative Thursday night NFL telecasts. Kraft ordered Goodell to speak to CBS and grant an interview to, in Kraft’s insistence “a woman,” who ended up being Norah O’Donnell. Goodell complied.
Drew Magary wrote, in analyzing the league’s deep concern with the optics of this, “[Y]ou can see that NFL higher-ups were far more concerned with LOOKING like they were handling domestic violence appropriately than actually doing so (cut to Eli Manning in a No More ad looking like you just told him that we’ve run out of cupcakes).
This relationship with Bob Kraft and the mere appearance of impropriety that marks how Goodell handles every issue that crosses his desk, tells its own story about why he must go. A reckless incompetence now defines everything he touches, whether it is his enforcing of the rules, the health and safety of players, or his dealings with the union. Instead of acting—like his predecessor Paul Tagliabue—as even the mildest of checks on the grasping of the bosses, he is their id unleashed. Instead of listening to players, Goodell is so comically distanced from the reality of his own ineptitude that he has become the sports version of Yertle the Turtle.
Zirin hopes that Deflategate proves to be Goodell's undoing. I think Sherman's comments will prove to be on the mark. Nothing will happen. Already the media has moved on to former Seahawks now Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner  and his statement that New England should go after the less-than-100%-healthy Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas and try to knock them out of the game.

And I'm sure this is what the Patriots will do. I was a die-hard 49ers fan in the Bill Walsh era. In the 1980s a premiere rivalry in the National Football League was between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Giants. Bill Parcells coached the Giants; his defensive coordinator was Bill Belichik. Belichik's tenure as chief architect of those defenses led by Lawrence Taylor, Leonard Marshall, Harry Carson and Carl Banks established him in the league. Belichik had a reputation among the 49ers for encouraging cheap shots, dirty play.

Of course I never forgot this. And subsequently I always considered Belichik teams to be the foulest and most conniving.

Who could root for a Belichik team particularly with his philosophy that all players are expendable? Isn't the point about giving your allegiance to a team is that there is something special, unique, transcendent about the players? Not according to Belichik. To Belichik players are just so many interchangeable widgets; that is why free agency bulks so large on his teams (think Randy Moss).

Consider it this way: Russell Wilson would never start on a Belichik team. Too small. Maybe, if Brady went down, Wilson might see some time in relief, but never would he be given run of the offense. Also consider Belichik's disdain for star running backs. Belichik believes running backs are a dime a dozen, easily replaced and largely indistinguishable. He never would allow a free, package-grabbing man like Marshawn Lynch the all-important role he has on the Seahawks offense.

What makes Pete Carroll the polar opposite of Bill Belichik is that rather than scheming and cheating and searching for any and every advantage in the X's and O's Carroll is sensitive to the intangibles, the spirit world. Carroll sees and knows that athletics are about the organic unity of team play, positive energy, a will to win and the human spirit. Belichik's corporate slavery is the exact opposite.

Then there is the issue of race. The Seahawks are a black team full of young black men who are incredible leaders. I speak here of Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson. Free men. Black men. The Patriots are team with more whites than most. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich.

Carroll has complained in the past that the Seahawks are singled out by the league, and that is why they are called for so many penalties. I think it is because the Seahawks represent a threat to the institutional racism of corporate America.

So for the future, for free men, for Black Lives Matter, for athleticism over trickery, for human spirit over corporate dominance, for Carroll over Belichik, for Richard Sherman over Tom Brady -- take the Seahawks!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Syriza Wins, Now Comes the Hard Part

In the end there was nothing to be worried about. Greeks were deaf to the fear-mongering of New Democracy. Syriza won big. According to Liz Alderman and Jim Yardley, "After Victory at Greek Polls, Leftist Politician Forms Coalition Government":
With nearly all the votes counted, Mr. Tsipras’s Syriza party had won 36.3 percent of votes and secured 149 seats in the Greek Parliament, short of the 151 that he needed to secure an outright majority
New Democracy, led by the defeated incumbent prime minister, Antonis Samaras, took 27.8 percent of the votes. The neo-facist Golden Dawn party, whose popularity has increased amid economic hardship, won 6.3 percent of votes, coming in third. 
Syriza has become the first anti-austerity party to take power in a eurozone country and to shatter the two-party establishment that has dominated Greek politics for four decades.
(The former governing socialist party Pasok trailed fascist Golden Dawn. What does that tell you about the health of the political status quo?)

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), promptly formed a governing coalition with Independent Greeks, a right-wing anti-austerity party that won 4.7 percent of the vote. This is a good sign, proof that Syriza has a plan and that plan is first and last based on renegotiation of the bloodsucking, murderous troika bailout agreement.

Greece in a nutshell is a laboratory of neoliberal orthodoxy. The idea being tested, that idea that austerity -- government spending cuts during a recession -- is stimulative, that the private sector will react positively (what Paul Krugman has termed the "confidence fairy") and invest more, has proven to be a spectacular failure. The Greek economy has shriveled and depression-level unemployment is now endemic. Greece requires ever-more loans to pay off the prior bailout loans when they come due. It is a sadistic fantasy to think that austerity will ever lead to a way out of this vicious circle.

Today Paul Krugman outlines all of this in "Ending Greece’s Nightmare":
The Greek government is collecting a substantially higher share of G.D.P. in taxes than it used to, but G.D.P. has fallen so quickly that the overall tax take is down. Furthermore, the plunge in G.D.P. has caused a key fiscal indicator, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., to keep rising even though debt growth has slowed and Greece received some modest debt relief in 2012.
Why were the original projections so wildly overoptimistic? As I said, because supposedly hardheaded officials were in reality engaged in fantasy economics. Both the European Commission and the European Central Bank decided to believe in the confidence fairy — that is, to claim that the direct job-destroying effects of spending cuts would be more than made up for by a surge in private-sector optimism. The I.M.F. was more cautious, but it nonetheless grossly underestimated the damage austerity would do. 
And here’s the thing: If the troika had been truly realistic, it would have acknowledged that it was demanding the impossible. Two years after the Greek program began, the I.M.F. looked for historical examples where Greek-type programs, attempts to pay down debt through austerity without major debt relief or inflation, had been successful. It didn’t find any. 
So now that Mr. Tsipras has won, and won big, European officials would be well advised to skip the lectures calling on him to act responsibly and to go along with their program. The fact is they have no credibility; the program they imposed on Greece never made sense. It had no chance of working. 
If anything, the problem with Syriza’s plans may be that they’re not radical enough. Debt relief and an easing of austerity would reduce the economic pain, but it’s doubtful whether they are sufficient to produce a strong recovery. On the other hand, it’s not clear what more any Greek government can do unless it’s prepared to abandon the euro, and the Greek public isn’t ready for that. 
Still, in calling for a major change, Mr. Tsipras is being far more realistic than officials who want the beatings to continue until morale improves. The rest of Europe should give him a chance to end his country’s nightmare.
It is good to see Krugman come down forcefully on the side of Syriza; he has shown such a pro-establishment, Russophobic fervor of late, I was a little worried.

But his feeling that Syriza's prescription will be too modest to produce the kind of recovery necessary to pull Greece out of its long-running recession is seconded over at Naked Capitalism. Yves Smith has a long post today, "How Much Success is Syriza Likely to Have in Ending Austerity?," that is a must-read if only to get a handle on the timeline Tsipras is dealing with: "The current Greek bailout expires at the end of February. Greece has €10 billion of debt repayments due over the summer and has €7 billion of aid that is on hold unless and until it negotiates a new bailout deal."

Smith goes on to explains that Finland is dead set against any extension, but that the Germans and the Eurogroup led by Jeroen Dijsselbloem will engage Syriza in lengthy negotiations, which will allow Tsipras to walk back the expectations of the Greek electorate, possibly by allowing for some increased social spending.

This sounds about right to me. The neoliberals who lead the troika are not going to budge significantly. The only thing that might get them moving in a direction away from austerity is if they believed Tsipras was sincere in moving Greece out of the eurozone. But that is not Syriza's nor Podemos' position. They want to remain part of the eurozone.

The only hope one is left with after reading Smith's piece is that Syriza's victory yesterday is the front end of anti-austerity/anti-neoliberal political train that is hurtling down the European track. In other words, a revolution in party politics:
While the election results in Greece have sent shockwaves through European technocratic elites and have rattled investors, it is not clear how successful Syriza will be in getting big enough changes implemented in Eurozone policies and its own bailout terms to end the humanitarian crisis, rather than just create the sort of bounce off the bottom growth that analysts like to depict as progress. Indeed, once you walk though the likely bargaining positions of the various parties, there is little reason to be optimistic on Syriza’s behalf. 
Bear in mind that Syriza has yet to make any official statement as to what its negotiating position with the Troika will be. Both presumed prime minister Alex Tsiprias and one of his finance minister candidates, Yanis Varoufakis, articulated bolder positions a year ago, when they were further from power. In the runup to to the election, Syriza has tried to depict itself as an anti-austerity, yet pro Eurozone party. As Jamie Galbraith described it, via Mark Thoma: 
"The Syriza program is a pro-European program. It is, and I think Europe and Europeans, people are committed to the European project, can consider it a great stroke of luck that there has arisen in Greece, and consequently, partly consequently and subsequently, in Spain, as well as in the present government of Italy, a pro-European set of parties, whose objective is change, constructive change, to make the European project viable."
The nut of that problem, as we will see, is that while may be a very estimable-sounding position, it may not be as pragmatic as it appears. Greece likely has better odds of winning concessions if it is less reasonable, since the Germans and the even more implacable Fins are convinced that the periphery countries are immoral beggars who deserve to be ground into the dust if they cannot or will not pay their debts. Greece is unlikely to be able to shake the perception in the North that they have the upper hand and can force Greece to heel, giving at most only fairly minor concessions. 
Greece’s best hope is if it there is an upsurge in popularity of other anti-austerity and anti-Eurozone parties in the rest of Europe. And they are more likely to rally support in the rest of the Eurozone if they take bold positions rather than careful, studied ones. And even then, that may not be enough for them to resolve the deep-seated problems they face. It isn’t simply that they face a very difficult challenge politically vis-a-vis the Troika, but that even if they get most of what they want, their policies do not look likely to generate enough demand to pull Greece out of its ditch.
Now comes the hard part, a message that Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's surging anti-austerity Podemos, delivered in a stirring speech to an election rally in Athens on Thursday:
Winning the elections is far from winning power. That’s why we must bring everyone who is committed to change and decency together around our shared task, which is nothing more than turning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a manual for government. Our aim today, unfortunately, is not the withering away of the state, or the disappearance of prisons, or that Earth become a paradise. But we do aspire, as I said, to make it so that all children go to public schools clean and well-fed; that all the elderly receive a pension and be taken care of in the best hospitals; that any young person—independently of who their parents are—be able to go to college; that nobody have their heat turned off in the winter because they can’t pay their bill; that no bank be allowed to leave a family in the street without alternative housing; that everyone be able to work in decent conditions without having to accept shameful wages; that the production of information in newspapers and on television not be a privilege of multi-millionaires; that a country not have to kneel down before foreign speculators. In one word: that a society be able to provide the basic material conditions that make dignity and happiness possible.
These modest objectives that today seem so radical simply represent democracy. Tomorrow is ours, brothers and sisters!
I am hopeful that we are now at the beginning of something new and transformative, if only because the dominant neoliberal paradigm is so bankrupt.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Secret Avengers #11

I heard sobbing when I got back to my desk after relieving the receptionist for her afternoon break. I poked my head up out of my cubicle and looked around for the source of the sound. It was a young coworker. I assume she had been fighting with her boyfriend again.

It was an appropriate conclusion to a horrendous Friday. Dark and rainy, everyone morose, it is days like these where one comes in close contact with hopelessness. The repetition and exhaustion make it hard to remember to be happy that one is employed.

Earlier that morning, as I was preparing to depart for work, I was thinking about the dire state of world affairs. I wondered what could the 1% and its servants in the political class do to reinvigorate the allegiance of the masses. The system is collapsing and the people know it; a pervasive sense of alienation seems to be an inherent part of present-day society. Either the power elite change things up and figure a way to rekindle hope among the plebeians or the system is going to fracture.

A solution that came to mind is a massive jobs program -- an economic boom that included plentiful employment at significantly higher wages for your average worker. That might do the trick, might cure people of their alienation and still leave the power elite in its high perch.

But then I checked myself. Chances are remote that there will be full employment at wages that wouldn't be immediately gobbled up by rising health-care coinsurance and housing costs.

So back we come to alienation and onrushing system collapse.

One hopeful sign that when the system is overturned the common folk might rise up and meet the challenge is that we seem to have advanced (when I say "we" I mean we plebeians in the capitalist industrial G8 neoliberal core) beyond a simplistic Manichaeism in our popular conceptions of order. We now see that light and dark are not strictly delimited; that they commingle, interact. There is much darkness in light and vice versa.

Case in point, most successful, compelling Hollywood drama no longer presents the United States Government as the "good guys." The films that do, like, for instance, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), are nearly unwatchable. The form is so familiar, so bereft of any mooring in reality other than through past iterations of the genre, that no amount of special effects or star power is going to rehabilitate it.

Rather, today, effective storytelling is dependent upon highlighting the conflicted nature of order. For instance, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) did a tremendous job of depicting USG as a secret criminal enterprise nested within the larger shell of government. I would say that this is a broadly accurate treatment of the U.S. deep state.

A Marvel title that explores the deep state is Secret Avengers, now in its third volume. Written by emerging star Ales Kot with consistently strong art by Michael Walsh and colors by Matthew Wilson, the current story arc juggles a number of interesting ideas: post-structuralism, post-traumatic stress disorder, a sentient black-hole bomb named Vladimir, a mysterious doomsday force called Tlön, a cyber-hallucination reconstruction of Kowloon Walled City, etc.

But the relationship at the story's foundation is longtime Super-villain M.O.D.O.K. and S.H.I.E.L.D. director and Secret Avengers boss Maria Hill.

Maria Hill is Marvel's chief character representing the U.S. deep state. She is very similar to the Jessica Chastain character Maya, the insatiable CIA agent bin Laden hunter, in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) -- a beautiful, highly-motivated elite bureaucrat bent on doing the right thing but who is part of an enormous, morally vacant high-tech machine.

Maria Hill has lured M.O.D.O.K. away from A.I.M. and given him a S.H.I.E.L.D. position to conduct research and assist the Secret Avengers team on the Helicarrier Iliad. Hill uncovers a plot by M.O.D.O.K. to sabotage the Secret Avengers. But, as revealed in Secret Avengers #11 (eight scans can be seen below), M.O.D.O.K., seeing himself in Maria Hill, falls in love with her. The issue ends with M.O.D.O.K. announcing to Agent Coulson and Hawkeye his desire to become an Avenger.

If M.O.D.O.K. can be an Avenger, we are beyond good and evil. Is this what Kot is saying? If we are beyond good and evil, and people understand this, why not discard the old order and reevaluate the system?

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Death of King Abdullah: "Change You Can Believe In"? Let's See What Happens Now in Yemen

The spate of articles in today's paper announcing the death of Saudi King Abdullah at the age of 90 might lead a reader to believe that the monarch of the United States has just passed. And this belief would not be that wide of the mark.

What makes the plethora of stories (I count four) in the Gray Lady incongruous is that for the most part Saudi Arabia receives little attention in the "newspaper of record," particularly compared with "official" adversaries like China or Russia (or Venezuela when Chavez was still alive). The rare large article usually accentuates the positive, such as Dionne Searcey's "A Conundrum for Saudis: Women at Work." The NYT sticks to a respectful tone, the theme being that the Kingdom is a rich, traditional society making gradual changes to incorporate modern values.

And this is pretty much what one gets in the anchor article by Douglas Martin and Ben Hubbard, "King Abdullah, a Shrewd Force Who Reshaped Saudi Arabia, Dies at 90," a reverential appraisal that does not obscure a legacy of mendacity and intolerance:
. . .[Abdullah] was also mindful that his family had, since the 18th century, derived its authority from an alliance with the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. He accordingly made only modest changes to the kingdom’s conservative clerical establishment. When Islamic State forces conquered vast stretches of Syria and Iraq, imposing a creed linked to Saudi Arabia’s own, the kingdom was slow to respond.
Abdullah did make changes that were seen as important in the Saudi context. He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed a woman as a deputy minister. At the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself, women study beside men.
However, he did not fulfill a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first televised interview as king in October 2005: that he would allow women to drive, a hugely contentious issue in Saudi Arabia.
Although he ordered the kingdom’s first elections for municipal councils in 2005, a promised second election, in October 2009, in which women would vote, was postponed until September 2011. Then in March of that year, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced that the question of women voting would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom’s social customs.”
Perhaps Abdullah’s most daunting challenge arrived in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The royal family at first railed at what it called a vicious smear campaign against the kingdom, then ruthlessly suppressed known militants — not least because the monarchy itself was a main target of Al Qaeda.
Striking a balance was almost always Abdullah’s preference. He strove to keep oil prices high, but not so high that they prompted consumers to abandon petroleum, then hedged his bets by investing billions in solar energy research. In 2008, he convened a meeting of world religious leaders to promote tolerance, but held it in Madrid rather than Saudi Arabia, where the public practice of religions other than Islam is outlawed.
Yet Abdullah could, and did, take strong positions. He denounced the American-led invasion of Iraq as “an illegal occupation”; proposed a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East that included recognition of Israel by Arab nations; and urged in a secret cable that the United States attack Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival. “Cut off the head off the snake,” he said. 

The three other stories have to do with the Kingdom's role as a regional hegemon paranoid about Iran (Anne Barnard and Alan Cowell, "New Saudi Ruler Pledges Continuity After Death of King Abdullah"); the impact of Abdullah's death on the Saudi-engineered oil-price drop (Stanley Reed, "King Abdullah’s Death Unlikely to Upset Saudi Oil Goals, Analysts Say") and an opaque assessment of Abdullah's successor Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud (Ben Hubbard, "Salman Ascends Throne to Become Saudi King").

Long story short, nothing is going to change as far as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia goes. Salman has been ruling as Crown Prince for some time due to Abdullah's poor health, The problem for the Saudis is next door in Yemen. The resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his cabinet is a move that could not have happened without the approval of the United States and the Saudis. Hadi's government is a fiction, window dressing for Saudi and U.S. wirepullers, but one that cannot project power even in its own capital city; the Houthis, the Hezbollah-like Shiite movement, can and have. The resignation of Hadi is a bluff by the U.S./KSA to bring the Houthis to heel. The Houthis as a Shiite sect, the thinking goes, don't have the wherewithal to keep the Sunni-majority nation of Yemen intact, and the Houthis want to keep Yemen whole. So concessions will be made to Hadi or another Hadi-like figurehead in order to maintain Yemen in its present boundaries.

If this gambit fails then the country splits, with the south already showing signs of breaking away. That the Kingdom would reprise its Bahrain performance is unlikely. The Saudis aren't dealing with young urban protesters here. The Houthis can fight. The Kingdom would just as soon ramp up its support for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Meaning down the road more Charlie Hebdo massacres.

I think "Change You Can Believe In" is indeed coming our way, and not just in the form of an election campaign slogan. The Arab Spring was rolled back but at huge ongoing yet-to-be-tallied cost. Things are about to shift.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Present-Day Politics as Seen Through the Prism of the NFL Conference Championship Games

A few quick hits this morning. First, from yesterday's Water Cooler by Lambert Strether:
From the Department of How Stupid Do They Think We Are? As Matt Stoller has shown, the growth of income inequality under Obama is greater than that under Bush. And only now, when there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of their “proposals” passing — very unlike 2008-2009, when the Democrats had the House, the Senate, the greatest orator of our time in the White House, a mandate for “hope and change,” and their boot on the thoroughly discredited Republican neck — the Democrats are 
closing the barn door after the horse is gonecoming all over populist, while simultaneously trying to fast track TPP with Republican help. Help me.
Well said. Second, from Dave Zirin's blog post yesterday, "Deflated Balls for Some, Miniature American Flags for Others!":
Contrast the faith people project onto sports with the utter absence of credulity we give politics. Why were people talking more about deflated balls than President Obama’s State of the Union address? I imagine it’s because unless you are someone who sees Beltway politics as a form of entertainment, or a DC insider consuming and analyzing every last optic, you would have to be Shirley Temple to feel like anything said by the president, no matter how artfully articulated, connects with your life. We were told the economy is booming, yet household income for the middle and working classes is still far below pre-2008 crisis levels because of stagnant wages. We were told that a tax on the 1 percent and free childcare was on the agenda, yet a hostile Congress makes those promises about as realistic as hoverboards for all. We were told that the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, yet the facts—and boots—on the ground tell a different story. We were told that it was time to come together and see both sides on questions of police violence, yet protesters were being targeted in Ferguson while the president was speaking.
Meanwhile, we saw the Patriots kick the snot out of the Colts and we saw the Seahawks have as wild a fourth-quarter comeback as I’ve ever seen to beat the Green Bay Packers. We want to believe that this—if nothing else—represents a tangible truth. Frightening as it is to consider, sports might be our last collective tether to a recognizable reality. If people feel like Bill Belichick has taken that away, it will affect his legacy and this sport, more than a thousand instances of Roger Goodell looking like he has the moral compass of a feral raccoon. It’s sad. It’s pathetic. But it’s also understandable. We can only work with the world we’re given, and it’s a place where the trust in institutions of power is more deflated that any damn balls. 

Since the return to work from the holiday weekend talk has centered on the improbable, historic NFC Championship comeback of the home-team Seahawks. Coworkers come up and tell me their experiences. I listen. One guy I work with told me the story about how he and his wife were watching the game and finally the wife had had enough; she couldn't take it anymore; Green Bay's domination seemed unbreakable; so she left to run errands. When she was out and about she heard shouts and wails of ecstasy coming from homes. Finally, she picked a random door, knocked and asked what was happening. A couple drinking Champagne told her to get inside quick. The Seahawks had just won in overtime.

The guy who heads the union where I work was back East for a conference with members of the local's executive board. They were in Atlanta waiting for a flight back to Seattle, watching the game at an airport bar when the Seahawks began their 4th quarter comeback. He said that they turned into a bunch of "little girls," crying, shrieking, jumping up and down.

A lot of different stories. One guy, a lineman, was working a call-out for a storm that was going on while the NFC Championship was being played. He ended up working a couple days straight, but he returned home for three hours to watch the game with his son, an authentic Seahawks helmet on the coffee table in front of the television.

Zirin is right, "Frightening as it is to consider, sports might be our last collective tether to a recognizable reality." It is frightening because all that collective passion that ties us together in community is part of a privately-held corporate behemoth (except for the Green Bay Packers), which, if I'm not mistaken, fits the definition of fascism.

But as another National Football League season draws to a close and Super Bowl XLIX beckons, I don't feel diminished by my part -- the many hours in front of the television being force fed wireless plans, Toyotas and Taco Bell -- because it is our primary reference, one that spans race and class and gender, in present-day society. The elemental effort of a Marshawn Lynch carrying half-a-dozen tacklers down the middle of the field or a Richard Sherman playing with one arm tucked against his ribs wiggling his fingers to try to get the sensation back while he continues to make tackles -- that seems real to me and to millions of others, a humanity that cannot be denied and buried beneath the enormous weight of a bloated, tottering, corrupt capitalist system.

As Zirin says, "We can only work with the world we’re given, and it’s a place where the trust in institutions of power is more deflated that any damn balls." U.S special forces are running black ops in over 100 countries, and the Obama administration is considering expansion of another sectarian Middle East war, which will lead to another failed state and more military expenditures. Eventually these chickens will come home to roost.

The political class is increasingly disconnected -- free floating -- from the people, the governed. The people have football, which is still honest. So your average person at least has a commitment to honesty, which is more than can be said about the political class. One can hope that when the masses decide to glance up from the television and cast their gaze upon the political class they will reject its dishonesty and bellicosity. But what is it going to take? And when is it going to happen?

I think we're going to find out in the next few years.