Friday, July 31, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: James Brandon Lewis' Days of FreeMan

James Brandon Lewis' new album Days of FreeMan was released last week. I've been listening to it non-stop. A smorgasbord of bass (Jamaaladeen Tacuma) and drums (Rudy Royston) led by Lewis' tenor sax, Days of FreeMan is an homage to Hip Hop of the 1980s and 1990s.

A good review by Jeff Simon of The Buffalo News just appeared:
“I didn’t grow up a hip-hop head,” says James Brandon Lewis, “but where I grew up in Buffalo, New York, on Freeman Street, the sound of hip-hop was ubiquitous. I decided to go back and explore that time through music.”
Don’t look now but the most spectacular marriage of jazz and hip-hop yet just came from an utterly extraordinary young tenor saxophonist from Buffalo who, quite frankly, makes Robert Glasper seem anemic and academic.
He’s been living and working in New York for years but “Days of Freeman” is an extraordinary musical autobiography of growing up in Buffalo where Lewis remembers “times being filled with nicknames, block parties, street football and my older brother being the ‘deejay’ of the household while my mom would be yelling ‘turn that crap down.’ ”
Here is a musical memoir in four chapters, whose first chapter is called “Buffalo Braves.” It’s a formidable musical memoir in which we hear, all through it, tiny snippets of Lewis’ grandmother philosophizing and reminiscing about hearing Mahalia Jackson in her church and being free in her life because she was taught how to love by her parents.
There are references to Wilson, N.Y., where “my family would fish and have fun times there.” We’re told in the publicity for “Days of Freeman” that the saxophonist poured over “hip-hop documentaries for up to eight hours a day” and dissected “albums by KRS-One, Digable Planets, Pete Rock and CL Smmoth, a Tribe Called Quest, Medeski, Martin and Wood, along with fearless jazz trumpeter Don Cherry’s 1985 album ‘Home Boy’ and Lauren Hill’s 1998 Masterpiece ‘Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.’ ” 
This is an utterly extraordinary disc – magnificently ambitious and completely achieved because of Lewis’ most important musical partners – drummer Rudy Royston and, most important of all, the late Ornette Coleman’s phenomenal bassist in his prime time band Jamaaladeen Tacuma. 
Even if it’s semantic news to listeners that, as Lewis says, “ ‘You know my steez’ is a common phrase in hip-hop referring to style, to be, to be yourself, your swag, your person, your vibe, your flow, the way you operate and function,” Lewis’ formidable playing in a pianoless trio over Tacuma and Royston seems, as does the whole disc, to take off from Sonny Rollins and edge out into the nearer regions of the two ferocious Davids, Murray and Ware. 
In his liner notes, Lewis’ co-leader of a group called “Heroes Are Gang Leaders,” Thomas Sayers Ellis, tells us, “The title of this recording could easily have been ‘Every Good Grandma Deserves a Jam Session or There’s a Riot-Horn Going On.” 
No small achievement by Lewis in this absolutely remarkable achievement is Lewis’ ability to get SONY’s newly re-awakened Okeh label to understand that such a vehemently personal excursion into sound and memory and tenor saxophone line was a good idea in an era where “the music business” and “jazz” are routinely thought to be at war.

Here, the product of a childhood in Buffalo he wants to tell the world about, is an authentic and brilliant new hero of 21st century jazz.
At times -- like on "Of Dark Matter," "Black Ark," and "Lament for JLew" -- you think you're listening to Funk Punk.

I wanted to make this post about "Blackness," how white America's inability to comprehend, make peace with, Blackness has been its undoing. We've been fighting the Civil War since before the Civil War. "Blackness" has dominated the politics of the United States since before the states were united. Our present political dispensation, neoliberalism, was locked in by a maestro of white backlash, Ronald Reagan, who went from being a washed-up Hollywood B-lister to Governor of California -- and then POTUS -- based on his ability to paint a malign picture of Blackness.

But now something seems to be finally changing. White supremacy is being exposed.

Blackness also played an important role in the undoing of the Hippie. The Manson Family, like Dylann Roof, was bent on fomenting a race war with Charlie's Helter Skelter plan. The murder of a black man, Meredith Hunter, by a Hells Angels biker crowned the anti-Woodstock of Altamont. The Weathermen went underground after the police murder of Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton.

If white supremacy can be exposed and the backlash blunted, the revolution is here!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Seattle District Elections: Money Tries to Beat Back Kshama Sawant's Progressive Movement

On the job I will have conversations with the few coworkers who are able to conceive of a big picture. Where are we headed? Who is going to win it all in 2016? Can we imagine a future that isn't bleak and apocalyptic?

My usual contribution to the dialogue is to locate the nexus of our collective ills in the concentration of wealth and power in a tiny elite who are driven by insatiable greed and who feel themselves somehow invulnerable to the onrushing societal and ecological collapse.

Yesterday I was telling a coworker that if you are a Saudi royal who owns opulent estates on more than one continent, the possibility of genocide in Yemen or igniting a war with Iran must not mean what it does to your average person. The super-rich I believe always expect to be able to parachute somewhere to safety.

Another one of my mantras is that we -- "we" meaning the 99% -- can't win the money game; the super-rich have far more of it. If we try to compete by pooling our dollars and cents -- and try we must -- we almost always end up being buried.

The story of our present history -- Citizens United v. FEC -- is a story of a 1% who, freaked out by the success of Obama 2008 in raising millions online in small donations, rushed to equate money with free speech, clearing the way for unlimited independent expenditure campaigns and creating a brave new world of electioneering in the United States.

In the City of Seattle a law was passed in 2013 to create a district system for the city council. Of the nine council seats, seven would represent individual districts and two would be at-large.

The idea is that it takes a lot less money for yard signs and mailings to campaign in a couple of neighborhoods than it does citywide. I don't think that can be denied.

But what we are seeing in the midst of primary voting (election day is August 4) for the first district elections is that money in the form of independent expenditures is saturating the process as never before.

I am at ground zero, District 3, where superstar socialist Kshama Sawant is running for reelection. The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) has backed a shill, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle President Pamela Banks, in an attempt to oust Sawant.

Banks' yard signs and hip, colorful, almost Avalon Ballroomesque posters are, if not everywhere, highly visible. It is a cynical effort made possible by developer deep-pockets that repackages the Urban League corporate toady as a multiracial, multicultural Hippie goddess. As Sawant wrote in a recent email, "So far over $70,000 from 160 top corporate executives, bankers, private equity managers, and developers have poured into our race."

Local captains of industry are banking that Banks can hoodwink enough voters, the ones who are obviously not paying attention, to fill in her bubble on the ballot.

The same thing is happening in other districts. In District 1 $74,000 has been dropped by a business PAC to make sure Lisa Herbold, a longtime legislative aide to Nick Licata, will not join Kshama on the council to push for rent control in the city.

What we are witnessing is the Democratic Party, which is terrified of a socialist rebirth at the local level thanks to the celebrity of Sawant, joined at the hip with the downtown power structure of the Seattle Times, developers and sundry capitalists drenching the primary election in gobs of cash in an effort to beat back a truly progressive uprising.

The issues are income inequality and exorbitant rents in a city that is rapidly, chiefly due to Amazon's ascent, becoming a San Francisco on the Sound. Kshama has proven herself time after time a fighter who will not go down, a rare almost unique politician who walks her radical talk and who cannot be bought. She is concatenating allies around her; and the fear of the power elite is that these allies will join her on city council. Hence, the gobs of cash.

We'll see what happens. I don't think Kshama can be beat. And as for the important District 1 race, the large independent expenditures will hopefully go the way of Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS effort in 2012: Lots of money which in the end bought next to nothing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Tipping Point Near in Afghanistan

As a grade-school kid I don't recall paying a lot of attention to the news. I remember my mother watching the Senate Watergate hearings; I remember when Nixon resigned -- it was almost time to go back to school after summer vacation. But I don't have any recollection of the Fall of Saigon. I was in the fifth grade.

I think to most people who don't pay much mind to national and international events -- which is to say most people -- the capture of the capital of South Vietnam by the NLF seemed like an afterthought, something along the lines of, "Oh, that hasn't already happened?"

I mention all this because that is basically where we are at with Afghanistan these days. Kabul is at no risk of falling to the Taliban anytime soon. But the news of the last several months has gone from bad to worse. This morning Joseph Goldstein files another dire report, "Taliban Make Gains Across 3 Provinces in Afghanistan."

Bear in mind that the Taliban gains in the north are in the old stomping ground of the Northern Alliance, the United Front of warlords that beat back the Taliban post-9/11 with the aid of U.S. air power and the CIA. As Goldstein points out, the government of Ashraf Ghani is on the verge of losing control of its first major city, Kunduz, on the border of Tajikistan, to the Taliban:
A renewed Taliban push has also imperiled Kunduz, the second most important city in the north, which sits near the border with Tajikistan. On Monday, the Taliban seized towns on the outskirts of the city and took control of scores of villages in a district to its southeast, a leading pro-government militia commander in Kunduz Province, Mir Alam, said by telephone.
The Taliban’s advance occurred amid a retreat by local militias that are allied with the government, said local officials and militia commanders. On Tuesday, militia commanders and their fighters were blaming the government for providing them with little in the way of support or ammunition. “During the fighting, I ran out of mortar rounds — to buy one mortar round would cost me 2,000 afghanis,” or about $33, said a local militia commander, Mohammad Omar Pakhsa Paran. “Where would I get the money to buy rounds?”
Mr. Pakhsa Paran said that he commanded 700 men and that, until Monday, he had managed to hold off the Taliban for two years from the area he controlled in Khanabad, a district to the south and east of the city of Kunduz. “When I called the police chief and the commander of the second army brigade to ask for the support needed to defeat the Taliban, they did not answer,” he said, adding that two of his men had been killed, 16 wounded and seven captured before a number of militias, his included, retreated. He said that, all told, about 2,000 armed pro-government fighters had retreated.
The city has been under threat since April, with the Taliban forces in the area bolstered by militants from Central Asia.
Government security officials believe the Taliban see Kunduz as a major prize: If it falls, it will be the first city they have managed to seize since their government was toppled in late 2001. In recent months, the insurgents have pushed into the city’s outskirts and seized control of neighboring districts, only to disperse before government forces managed to counterattack. Whether insurgent forces will make an all-out push for the city this time remains to be seen.
But already, there is mounting anger at the government’s inability to keep the Taliban at bay, as civilians fear being killed as the front lines have shifted.
“Is Kunduz a part of the government or does it have no importance?” Amruddin Wali, the deputy head of the Kunduz provincial council, asked in an interview. “The government came here once and made a show of pushing back the Taliban, but they are drowning in their own negligence, and they have let the Taliban come back.”
A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense is quoted by Goldstein saying don't worry; the government has a plan to recapture territory lost to the Taliban. This is becoming a common refrain. Eventually a tipping point is going to be reached. And we seem to be getting nearer that point as local militia flee and the Afghan National Police surrender:
The Taliban’s latest territorial gains were preceded by a demoralizing blow to the nation’s security forces on Saturday, when nearly 110 policemen surrendered to the Taliban after their base in the northeast came under attack. The episode, which is being described as the largest surrender by Afghan forces in years, illustrates a weakness in the government’s war strategy.
In trying to hold all the territory the American-led coalition turned over to Afghan forces in recent years, the military has spread itself thin across an isolated patchwork of bases that are often beyond the reach of reinforcements. Without the benefit of American air power, the military now finds that its units are often cut off and are being overrun by Taliban forces, which can total over 100 men at a time.
The police base that was attacked last week, in a lawless region of Badakhshan Province, was reportedly well-supplied and heavily staffed. In an interview, Badakhshan’s deputy governor, Gul Mohammad Baidar, said it had supplies for 200 men “that could last for at least three months.”
But when the police on the base found themselves surrounded by a larger Taliban force, the battle lasted for just over two days before the police retreated to a nearby mountain. There, they negotiated a surrender.
“They claimed that lack of on-time reinforcements and air support left them no other choice,” Mr. Baidar said. Most of the police officers came from the surrounding areas and were allowed to return home once they handed over their weapons and swore not to rejoin the government, officials said. An additional 50 or 60 men from elsewhere in Badakhshan are believed to have fled while the surrender was being negotiated.
Afghanistan is increasingly going the way of Syria. Ghani like Assad governs a nation in name only. Territory is carved off on a regular basis. The U.S. will prevent Kabul from falling. But the more territory the Taliban is able to clear and hold, the more untenable Ghani's position at the negotiating table becomes. The end game here is some sort of settlement by the U.S. with the Taliban.

This should not be a problem for the realpolitik Obama administration, which is supporting genocide in Yemen alongside its Wahhabi partner Saudi Arabia at the same time it performed a recent somersault in northern Syria by embracing Turkey's war on the Kurds.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hillary Embraces Renewable Energy: The Democratic Base is Progressive; the Candidate, Not So Much

Analogies for the Clinton campaign are legion. All tend to accentuate hugeness and torpidity. The image that leaps to mind is a retired ocean liner like the RMS Queen Mary. Blogger Lambert Strether frequently refers to Hillary's presidential run as the "S.S. Clinton."

But as Clinton tacks to and fro to catch the fancy of the Democratic electorate, her campaign illuminates just how progressive the base of the party has become.

The problem for Hillary is that she suffers from what was referred to in LBJ's day as the "credibility gap." Democrats don't believe 1) that her policy prescriptions go far enough in a left direction to substantively address issues like income inequality (Hillary has talked about changing corporate culture by adjusting the capital gains tax based on how long you have held a stock); and 2) that she will even attempt to implement them if she wins the presidency.

A fine example is this morning's topnotch story by Trip Gabriel and Coral Davenport, "Hillary Clinton Lays Out Climate Change Plan." Hillary has
. . . set a goal to produce 33 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources by 2027, up from 7 percent today — a higher goal than the 20 percent that President Obama has called for by 2030.
Mrs. Clinton’s strategists see climate change as a winning issue for 2016. They believe it is a cause she can advance to win over deep-pocketed donors and liberal activists in the nominating campaign, where she is facing Democratic challengers to her left on the issue. It is also one that can be a weapon against Republicans in a general election. Polls show that a majority of voters support candidates who pledge policy action on the warming climate.
Mrs. Clinton called for installing a half-billion solar panels by 2020, a sevenfold increase from today, and to generate enough energy from carbon-free sources within 10 years of her inauguration to power every home in America.
All good stuff. And, coming from the S.S. Clinton, no doubt poll tested and vetted carefully by focus group.

Then Gabriel and Davenport set to work exposing the plan's limitations. Congressional green-energy mandates will be required to hit Clinton's targets; and since Congress will continue in GOP control for the foreseeable future, the chances of this happening are minuscule. Also, apparently Hillary's plan is as much about tapping into hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer's deep pockets as it is about climate change. And, finally, to add to this common Hillary theme of insincerity, the Clinton Campaign won't even distance itself from the rotting cadaver of Keystone XL:
While Mr. Obama’s climate change goals, driven by regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, would lift the nation’s renewable power to about 20 to 25 percent, according to E.P.A. estimates, the rest of the increase, experts said, will be impossible without new laws requiring renewable power. Congress has failed over the past decade to pass such laws. 
The Clinton campaign emphasized that her targets cleared a bar set last week by the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who spent $74 million on political races in 2014. He announced that for candidates to receive his support in 2016, they must offer policies that would lead the nation to generate half its electricity from clean sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. 
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who has made climate change the center of his Democratic presidential campaign, laid out a plan last month that meets the criteria, winning Mr. Steyer’s blessing. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has called for a tax on carbon emissions, draws thunderous applause at rallies by promising bold action to combat climate change. 
Although Mrs. Clinton has emphasized fighting global warming as a priority in earlier speeches, the role of a single large donor, Mr. Steyer, in apparently influencing the details of her proposal was suggested by her press secretary, Brian Fallon. On Twitter he said, “Counting nuclear, as Steyer does, she exceeds his 50 percent goal” for 2030.
But Mrs. Clinton showed some limits to how far she would go to address climate change by refusing to say, once again, if she opposed the Keystone XL pipeline — a litmus test for grass-roots environmentalists. The pipeline would deliver oil from the oil sands of northern Alberta in Canada to Texas. 
Recusing herself because she had played a role as secretary of state in evaluating the pipeline, Mrs. Clinton said the decision was in the hands of the Obama administration. Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Malley oppose the pipeline. 
Just as liberal Democrats have tried to pull Mrs. Clinton to the left on economic issues, environmental groups have sought stronger statements from her opposing hydraulic fracturing, oil trains and drilling in the Arctic.
Anti-Keystone protesters have greeted Mrs. Clinton on the campaign trail in New Hampshire and even outside a May fund-raiser for her at Mr. Steyer’s home in San Francisco overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
Hillary Clinton is just half the way there,” said Bill McKibben, head of the group, which has led the grass-roots movement calling for Mr. Obama to reject the Keystone pipeline. “This is a credible commitment to renewable energy, and a recognition that the economics of electricity are changing fast. Now, we need Clinton to show she understands the other half of the climate change equation — and prove she has the courage to stand up against fossil fuel projects like offshore and Arctic drilling, coal leasing in the Powder River basin, and the Keystone XL pipeline.”
What is interesting is that Hillary has a winner here. We're back to where we were when An Inconvenient Truth (2006) gained attention. The polling has shifted on green energy and climate change to the point now where it is a huge advantage for Democrats against Republicans.
While running for re-election in the 2012 campaign, Mr. Obama almost never mentioned climate change. But Democratic strategists say they now see it as a resonant campaign issue. 
A January poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future found that two-thirds of Americans said they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change.
“This issue now polls better than any other issue for Democrats,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former top climate change official in the Clinton administration. “It’s in Clinton’s interest to talk about the issue, both for primary voters and to highlight Republican vulnerabilities in the general election.”
The problem for the Clinton campaign is that people don't believe that Hillary is anything but what she actually is -- a member of the ruling elite, a figurehead of the Deep State, the 1% of the 1% -- and that she will bring no change but only more of the same. The continuing investigation of Clinton's use of a personal email account for classified data (which she denied) will continue to bleed Hillary. I still don't see how she can win a general election.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Turkey Finally Gets Its No-Fly Zone in Syria

A good argument can be made that the Ghouta sarin gas attack of two years ago was a false-flag job launched by Turkey with the goal of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria which would then lead to the collapse of Bashar al-Assad's government. Sy Hersh made such an argument last year in "The Red Line and the Rat Line."

Now, with this morning's announcement, "Turkey and U.S. Agree on Plan to Clear ISIS From Strip of Syria’s North," despite official U.S. denials, it looks like Turkey is finally getting its wish. The story is written by trusted USG mouthpieces Anne Barnard, Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt:
BAGHDAD — Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say. 
The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.
In another complication, gains for such insurgents would come at the expense of Syrian Kurdish militias that are already fighting the Islamic State farther east with American air support and that have been eyeing the same territory.
Turkish officials and Syrian opposition leaders are describing the agreement as something just short of a prize they have long sought as a tool against Mr. Assad: a no-fly zone in Syria near the Turkish border. They want such a zone in order to curb devastating Syrian government airstrikes on opposition areas, to allow refugees in Turkey to go home and to insulate Turkey from the war, and they call the new plan a “safe zone” that could achieve some of those goals.
But American officials say that this plan is not directed against Mr. Assad. They also say that while a de facto safe zone could indeed be a byproduct of the plan, a formal no-fly zone is not part of the deal. They said it was not included in the surprise agreement reached last week to let American warplanes take off from Turkish air bases to attack Islamic State fighters in Syria, even though Turkey had long said it would give that permission only in exchange for a no-fly zone.
Instead, United States officials said Turks and Americans were working toward an agreement on the details of an operation to clear Islamic State militants from a heavily contested area roughly between the eastern outskirts of the city of Aleppo and the Euphrates River.
That is an ambitious military goal, because it appears to include areas of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Islamic State, and it could encompass areas that Syrian helicopters regularly bomb. If the zone goes 25 miles deep into Syria, as Turkish news outlets have reported, it could encompass the town of Dabiq, a significant place in the group’s apocalyptic theology, and Manbij, another stronghold. It could also include the Islamic State-held town of Al Bab, where barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft have killed scores, including civilians, in recent weeks.
American officials emphasized that the depth of the buffer zone to be established was one of the important operational details that had yet to be decided. But one senior official said, “You can be assured many of the principal population centers will be covered.”
The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.
Inside Syria, the plan calls for relatively moderate Syrian insurgents to take the territory, with the help of American and possibly Turkish air support.
That would entail a far higher degree of coordination with Syrian insurgents than the United States has yet undertaken. American officials said they would need to arrange the same kind of system for calling in airstrikes that American Special Operations forces have worked out successfully with Kurdish fighters to the east in Syria.
Insurgents, as well as their supporters in the Syrian opposition and the Turkish government, are already envisioning the plan as a step toward establishing an area where alternative governance could be set up without fear of attack by Islamic State or government forces.
Once the plan is put in place, “safe zones will be formed naturally,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a recent news conference, adding that displaced Syrians could return there.
American officials in recent months have argued to Turkish counterparts that a formal no-fly zone is not necessary, noting that during hundreds of American-led strike missions against Islamic State in Syria, forces loyal to Mr. Assad have steered clear of areas under concerted allied attack.
But until now, those missions been mostly farther east, in areas that are not seen as priorities for Mr. Assad, and where there are few non-Islamic State insurgents to benefit, except for Kurdish militias that the government views as less of a threat.
By contrast, the new plan directly benefits Syrian Arab insurgents. Islamic State attacks on them east of Aleppo have complicated their efforts to take the half of that city, Syria’s largest, that remains in government hands.
“Any weakening of ISIS will be a privilege for us on the battlefield,” Ahmad Qara Ali, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, an insurgent group that often allies with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate. “As for our role, we are already in an open battle against I.S.”
Such Syrian Arab insurgents would gain at the expense of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known by the initials Y.P.G. that is seeking to take the same territory from the east. While the United States views the group as one of its best partners on the ground, Turkey sees it as a threat; it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group whose longstanding conflict with Turkey has flared anew in recent days.
The area has become more crucial to the Islamic State since the Kurds recently drove the group from a border crossing farther east at Tal Abyad, denying it supply routes and revenues. The operation seeks to stop the Islamic State from establishing new routes anywhere between the Kilis border crossing and Jarabulus on the Euphrates.
Make no mistake, this new agreement is all about Turkey keeping the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) at bay; in particular, the militia of the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which as Barnard et al. note above was making gains against ISIS from the east. Moon of Alabama reported in a post yesterday, "Turkey's War On Kurds Realigns Syrian Kurds With Their Government," that Syrian Kurds were ready to cut a deal with Assad and join the Syrian Arab Army:
The Kurds in Syria and their leader Salih Muslim are under attack from the Islamic State and now also from Turkey. They have now offered to reconcile with their only reliable partner, the Syrian government. Salih Muslim said that the Kurds would join the Syrian army if that army would show a "new mentality". He spoke favorably of the father of Bashar al Assad and his relations with the Kurds and discussed various forms of federalism.
Should the Syrian government take up this offer for talks (likely!) and guarantee some kind of Kurdish autonomy within some federal Syrian structure the Syrian army would regain the manpower to again go on the offense. Supported by Iran and Russia and united with the Kurds the Syrian army would again be dominant power in the country and likely be able to retake the insurgency and islamist occupied areas.
Clearly, the U.S.-Turkey buffer zone announcement is designed to prevent this from happening.

An excellent story by Ceylan Yeginsu, "Strikes on Kurd Militias Elevate Tensions in Turkey," lends credence to the notion that the lightning rapprochement between Turkey and the United States over joint operations targeting Islamic State, a rapprochement that was spurred by a suicide bombing targeting pro-Kurdish activists in the Turkish town of Suruc which was then used by Erdogan's government to attack PKK camps, was likely a false-flag operation:
Although Turkish officials said that large-scale counterterrorism operations had been planned for some time, the measures put into place last week were prompted by a suicide bombing at a cultural center in the border town of Suruc last Monday that killed 32 people and wounded more than 100. 
The attack, which targeted a group of pro-Kurdish activists and was carried out by a Turkish citizen with suspected ties to the Islamic State, laid bare a sociopolitical fault line in Turkey, as Kurds accused the government of allowing the Islamic State to operate in the country.
“The conflict in Syria has spilled across the border into Turkey, and the Turkish state has a big part to play in that reality,” said Fatma Edemen, a journalism student at Ankara University who survived the attack. “The government has let ISIS roam freely in Turkey for years.”
Ms. Edemen, 22, is a member of a pro-Kurdish socialist youth group that had gathered at the Amara Culture Center on Monday to discuss rebuilding the war-ravaged Syrian border town of Kobani, which was besieged by Islamic State militants last year in a battle that drew crucial support from the American-led coalition.
The Turkish government’s reluctance to take part in the Kobani campaign inspired violent protests across Turkey, with Kurdish nationalists accusing Ankara of aiding the Islamic State. At least 30 people died in the demonstrations.
Turkey’s lack of response over Kobani also bolstered the Kurdish election campaign in June, after conservative nationalist Kurds, who had previously voted for Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, defected to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., which won representation in Parliament for the first time by passing a 10 percent threshold in the June 7 election.
The success of the pro-Kurdish party stripped Mr. Erdogan’s party of its majority in Parliament, opening the possibility of a coalition government for the first time in more than a decade.
Earlier this month, Mr. Erdogan gave Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu amandate to form a government. If the prime minister fails to establish a coalition within 45 days, Mr. Erdogan is likely to call for another election in November.
Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of the H.D.P., has accused the government of supporting the attack in Suruc as part of a larger strategy to drag the country into a war — and improve the Justice and Development Party’s election prospects.
Analysts say that Turkey’s campaign to bundle the crackdown on the Islamic State with the P.K.K. could help Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu regain the disaffected nationalist voters that they lost in the last election (though probably not the conservative Kurdish voters).
“Erdogan’s strongman image is being restored with the strikes,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. 
“His persona of someone that gets things done at home and abroad has been shattered by Turkey’s failure in Syria and against the rise of the P.K.K.,” he added. “These strikes have revived that image.” 
The greatest risk of Turkey’s new counterterrorism policy, according to analysts, is that it could reignite unrest in the Kurdish southeast.
Time and again we see this neocon logic at work with large state powers, principally the United States: "If first you don't succeed, if things aren't going your way, try again -- by making things worse." That is why there are so many failed states and war is on the rise.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Low-Growth/Low-Wage Horizon of Nasty, Brutish "New Imperialism of Globalized Monopoly-Finance Capital"

Binyamin Appelbaum had a story in yesterday's paper, "Leaked Fed Staff Forecast Reflects Gloomier Expectations for U.S. Economy," about a dour assessment of the U.S. economy by Federal Reserve analysts that was inadvertently posted online. This is a newsworthy item since the Fed is signalling a rate increase in the near future; yet the Fed's own economists are telling Fed leadership that growth will remain low as will inflation:
The Fed published the minutes of its June meeting on July 8, in keeping with its normal procedures, including a summary of the staff forecast. 
The minutes said the staff moved its forecast for 2015 growth “a little lower.” The detailed data showed the staff predicted the economy would expand by 1.55 percent in 2015. 
The minutes also described the staff forecast as predicting that inflation will return to a 2 percent annual pace by 2018. The staff actually forecast that inflation would average 1.92 percent in 2018, and that it would not reach the Fed’s 2 percent target in the next five years, rising to 1.97 in 2020. 
Fed officials serving on the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee have said that they plan to raise interest rates later this year, and investors are eager for information about the exact timing. Analysts cautioned that the new disclosures reflected the views of staff members, and that the forecasts of Fed officials, published in June, were more optimistic.
The super-rich are doing smashingly well in this low-growth/low-inflation economy. To get a feel for how it all works, consult John Bellamy Foster's "The New Imperialism of Globalized Monopoly-Finance Capital" in the current July-August issue of the Monthly Review.

It is a depressing picture of global labor arbitrage where cost savings are vacuumed up by corporate monopolies in the capitalist industrial core creating "dynastic" wealth for a fraction of the 1%. This imperial system is precariously enforced by five monopolies enumerated by Samir Amin (see below): technology, financialized markets, resource extraction, media, and weapons of mass destruction:
Economically, the outward movement of generalized-monopoly capitalism is propelled primarily by the competitive struggle for low cost position via global sourcing of labor and increasingly scarce raw materials, and the monopoly rents that all of this generates. The result, as we have seen, is enormous cost savings in production for individual monopolistic enterprises, generating widening profit margins, which, coupled with more traditional forms of tribute, leads to a continual inflow of imperial rent to the center of the system. The full extent of extracted surplus is disguised by the enormous complexity of global value chains, exchange ratios, hidden accounts, and above all by the nature of capitalist GDP accounting itself.46 A part of the imperialist rent remains in the peripheral country and is not transferred to the center, but constitutes rather a payment to local ruling classes for their roles in the globalization game. About $21 trillion of this global tribute, meanwhile, is currently parked abroad in tax-haven islands, “the fortified refuge of Big Finance.”47
At the center of the capitalist economy the tendency to economic stagnation has been increasingly asserting itself since the mid-1970s. This induced repeated attempts to stimulate the system through military spending, with the United States as the engine.48 This strategy proved to be limited, however, since a big enough boost to the capitalist economy by these means in today’s environment would need to assume the dimension of a world war. 
Under these circumstances, as corporations in the 1970s and ’80s sought to hold onto and expand their growing economic surplus in the face of diminishing investment opportunities, they poured their massive surpluses into the financial structure, seeking and obtaining rapid returns from the securitization of all conceivably ascertainable future income streams. Increased concentration (“mergers and acquisitions”) and its attendant new debt, securitizations representing the income stream of already-existing mortgages and consumer debt that piled new debt on old, and new issues of debt and equity that capitalized the potential future monopoly income of patent, copyright, and other intellectual property rights, all followed one another. The financial sector provided every sort of financial instrument that could arguably be serviced by a putative income stream, including from the trading in financial instruments themselves. The result, as Magdoff and Sweezy already documented in the early stages of the process from the late 1970s to the ’90s, was a vast increase in the financial superstructure of the capitalist economy. 
This financialization of the economy had three major effects. First, it served to further uncouple in space and time—though a complete uncoupling is impossible—the amassing of financial claims of wealth or “asset accumulation” from actual investment, i.e., capital accumulation. This meant that the leading capitalist economies became characterized by a long-term amassing of financial wealth that exceeded the growth of the underlying economy (a phenomenon recently emphasized in a neoclassical vein by Thomas Piketty)—creating a more destabilized capitalist order in the center, manifested in the dramatic rise of debt as a share of GDP. Second, the financialization process became the major basis (together with the revolution in communications and digitalized technology) for a deepening and broadening of commodification throughout the globe, with the center economies no longer constituting to the same extent as before the global centers of industrial production and capital accumulation, but rather relying more and more on their role as the centers of financial control and asset accumulation. This was dependent on the capture of streams of commodity income throughout the world economy, including the increased commodification of other sectors—primarily services that were only partially commodified previously, such as communications, education, and health services. Third, “the financialization of the capital accumulation process,” as Sweezy called it, led to an enormous increase in the fragility of the entire capitalist world economy, which became dependent on the growth of the financial superstructure relative to its productive base, with the result that the system was increasingly prone to asset bubbles that periodically burst, threatening the stability of global capitalism as a whole—most recently in the Great Financial Crisis of 2007–2009. Given its financial ascendancy, the United States is uniquely able to externalize its economic crises on other economies, particularly those of the global South. As Yanis Varoufakis notes in The Global Minotaur, “To this day, whenever a crisis looms, capital flees to the greenback. This is exactly why the Crash of 2008 led to a mass inflow of foreign capital to the dollar, even though the crisis had begun on Wall Street.”49 
The phase of global monopoly-finance capital, tied to the globalization of production and the systematization of imperial rent, has generated a financial oligarchy and a return to dynastic wealth, mostly in the core nations, confronting an increasingly generalized (but also highly segmented) working class worldwide. The leading section of the capitalist class in the core countries now consists of what could be called global rentiers, dependent on the growth of global monopoly-finance capital, and its increasing concentration and centralization.50 The reproduction of this new imperialist system, as Amin explains in Capitalism in the Age of Globalization, rests on the perpetuation of five monopolies: (1) technological monopoly; (2) financial control of worldwide markets; (3) monopolistic access to the planet’s natural resources; (4) media and communication monopolies; and (5) monopolies over weapons of mass destruction.51 Behind all of this lie the giant monopolistic firms themselves, with the revenue of the top 500 global private firms currently equal to about 30 percent of world revenue, funneled primarily through the centers of the capitalist system and the core financial markets.52 As Boron points out with respect to the world’s 200 largest multinational corporations, “96 percenthave their headquarters in only eight countries, are legally registered as incorporated companies of eight countries; and their boards of directors sit in eight countries of metropolitan capital. Less than 2 percent of their boards of directors’ members are non-nationals. Their reach is global, but their property and their owners have a clear national base.”53
The internationalization of production under the regime of giant, multinational corporations thus follows a pattern first explained by Stephen Hymer, and recently underscored by Ernesto Screpatini, who writes that “the great multinational companies” are characterized by “decentralized production but centralized control. As a consequence the process of expansion of foreign direct investments involves a constant flow of profits from the South to the North, that is, from the Periphery to the Center of the imperial power of multinational capital.”54
Today the threatened implosion of this system is everywhere apparent. U.S. hegemony in the military sphere—in which it retains the power to unleash untold destruction but has a diminishing power to control geopolitical events—is receding along with its economic hegemony. This is so well understood today within U.S. foreign policy circles that some of the sharpest establishment thinkers emphasize that U.S. global preeminence is giving way to an imperium based on the combined force (military, economic, and political) of the triad of the United States/Canada, Western Europe, and Japan. The United States, although still retaining global preeminence, is increasingly able to exercise its power as a “sheriff” only when backed up by the “posse” (represented by Western Europe and Japan)—as famously articulated by Haass in The Reluctant Sheriff and subsequent works.55 It is thus the U.S.-led triad, and not Washington itself directly, which increasingly seeks to establish itself as the new governing power, through such institutions as the G7 and NATO. The goal is to promote the interests of the old imperial powers of the capitalist core through political, economic, and military means, while containing threats to its rule by a rising China, a recovering Russia, emerging economies generally, and the global anti-neoliberal revolt based in Latin America’s movement toward socialism.
Haass describes the current world situation as “The Unraveling.” As evidence he points to the U.S. role in destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the growing conflicts of the United States with China over the South China Sea and Africa, the return of Russia as a world power (manifested in the dispute over the Crimea and the Ukraine), the misdirection (in his terms) of states such as “Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela,” as well as a whole failed set of regime changes initiated by Washington. He concludes: “The question is not whether the world will continue to unravel but how fast and how far.”56
All of this highlights, as István Mészáros tells us, “the potentially deadliest phase of imperialism.”57 It is perhaps a reminder of the seriousness of the world situation today that Soviet and U.S. climatologists alerted the world in the 1980s to the fact that a full-scale nuclear war would generate a nuclear winter, reducing the temperatures of whole continents by several degrees and possibly several tens of degrees, destroying much of the biosphere itself and with it humanity. It was this type of scenario that E.P. Thompson had in mind in his “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization.”58 A war between the great powers does not appear to be an imminent danger at present. However, the instability generated by the hyper-exploitative and expansionist imperialist world system of today, led by the United States, which is now engaged in simultaneous military interventions and drone warfare in a half dozen countries (and which is planning to spend $200 billion dollars in the next decade modernizing its massive nuclear arsenal), suggests any number of ways in which a deadly confrontation could emerge. Climate change itself, with the continuation of business as usual, is expected to destabilize civilization, heightening the threat of a world war, which would quickly lead to a planetary level of destruction.59
The responsibility of the left under these circumstances is to confront, in Lenin’s terms, the “contradictions, conflicts, and convulsions—not only economical, but also political, national, etc.”—that increasingly characterize our era. This means fostering a more “audacious” global movement from below in which the key challenge will be the dismantling of imperialism, understood as the entire basis of capitalism in our time—with the object of creating a more horizontal, egalitarian, peaceful, and sustainable social-metabolic order controlled by the associated producers.60 
Our future is not bright. Electoral politics -- democracy -- has not been able to right the ship. Syriza's Alexis Tsipras proved to be another Barack Obama: in the end, one more glib salesman of the status quo.

We could very well hit the Hobbesian trifecta of "nasty, brutish and short." We've already realized the first two; whether our present savagery is going to be a drawn out or brief is still up in the air.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Ravi Shankar

It has been a strange week. The sizable crew of painters who have been working on the exterior of the apartment building for weeks finally arrived to the north side where my studio is located. They use diesel telescopic booms. From Monday on my windows have been masked with milky polyethylene plastic sheeting and brown paper. So when I arrive home after work it has been like stepping into a spider's cocoon, dark and stuffy.

At the same time I have been preparing for a job interview, actually interviewing, and then waiting to hear if I would receive a job offer. I did, which then created another cycle of adrenaline as I submitted two-week's notice to the office manager at the local.

Waking up every morning in the midst of this I needed something sonically different, something calming but nutritious. By happenstance I lighted on my collection of Ravi Shankar records.

Listening to Hindustani classical Indian music turned out to be just the thing I needed.

Of course Ravi Shankar played an enormous role in the definition of Hippie culture. He was present at the creation when the Summer of Love kicked off at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967.

And he and George Harrison pioneered the superstar blow-out benefit rock concert with The Concert for Bangladesh the summer of 1971.

But critical for Hippies vs. Punks is his role in the Dark Horse Tour with Harrison in November and December of 1974. The concerts were savaged in the music press. Shankar suffered a heart attack and Harrison lost his voice. To me it is a critical moment in the expiration of the Hippie. If the Manson Family and Altamont hadn't killed off the Hippie at the end of 1969, since the massification of bohemia along Hippie lines proceeded apace all during the early 1970s, by the beginning of 1975, given the stillbirth of the first tour of the U.S. by a Beatle since 1966, it was clear the Hippie had run out of juice.

This photo from the Dark Horse Tour of Harrison and Shankar in the White House with Gerald Ford (Billy Preston to the left of Harrison) sums it all up. The president who pardoned Nixon (thereby preventing a necessary airing of a dangerously corrupt system) and who presided over the fall of Saigon yuks it up with the coked out peddler of "Krishna Consciousness." Is there a more fitting bon voyage to the Hippie?

Nonetheless Ravi Shankar's recordings are a goldmine. The ragas are particularly rejuvenating:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

War Criminal Compares Trump to Bearded Lady

I don't normally read Frank Bruni's column. His opinions are usually superficial. I'll read the disingenuous, bilious David Brooks before Bruni. But Bruni's column yesterday I did read.

"To Trump or Not to Trump?" is a description of a telephone conversation Bruni had with corporate Democrat Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam war criminal and discredited president of the New School. The goal of the column is to deride the presidential campaign of surging Donald Trump:
Bob Kerrey served in the Senate with John McCain, is also a Vietnam veteran and has run for president, so he has been asked incessantly over recent days to appear on television and weigh in on Donald Trump’s vile besmirching of McCain’s military record.
He accepted only one of those invitations, from a friend. Otherwise he mostly stayed mum, lest he abet Trump’s ultimate goal, which is to turn his name into a news media mantra: Trump, Trump, Trump.
But on the phone on Tuesday, Kerrey’s frustration — no, let’s call it disgust — boiled over, and he, too, talked about Trump, Trump, Trump. I recount our conversation because I think Kerrey speaks for most Americans and because his comments capture what a conundrum many of us face.
If we discuss Trump, as I’ve done in several columns, we reward his bad and transcendently self-serving behavior, no matter how negative our assessments of him or how many larger truths we engage.If we don’t discuss him, we ignore something real, in a fashion that’s irresponsible.
By something real, I mean the fact that Trump has measurable support, at least for now. In a nationwide ABC News/Washington Post poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents that was released Monday, he was in the lead for the party’s presidential nomination, the favorite of 24 percent of respondents. The next closest contenders were Scott Walker (13 percent) and Jeb Bush (12).
Why not discuss the fact, reported in Bruni's own paper, that Bob Kerrey, as a former Navy SEAL in Vietnam, stands accused of mass murder and mutilation, including children and pregnant women, in the village of Thanh Phong? According to a display devoted to the incident at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City:
From 8PM to 9PM February 25th, 1969, a group of Seal Rangers [sic] (one of the most selective rangers of U.S. Army) led by Lieutenant Bob Kerry [sic] reached for Hamlet 5, Thanh Phong Village, Thanh Phu District, Ben Tre Province. They cut 66 year-old Bui Van Vat and 62 year-old Luu Thi Canh's necks and pulled their three grandchildren out from their hiding place in a drain and killed two, disembowelled one. Then, these rangers moved to dug-outs of other families, shot dead 15 civilians (including three pregnant women), disembowelled a girl. The only survivor was a 12-year-old girl named Bui Thi Luom who suffered a foot injury. It was not until April 2001 that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crime to the international public.
Instead we get Kerrey delivered up as some sort of sage of what passes for permissible political discourse in the United States:
“This is not a national primary,” Kerrey said, noting that Trump’s 24 percent has dubious predictive power for a consequential handful of individual contests in early states that aren’t exactly mirrors of America. “So who the hell cares what his numbers are nationally?”
“He’s not going to do that well in Iowa,” Kerrey continued. “There’s nothing about Trump that indicates that the evangelical community there is going to embrace him. And does anyone seriously think he has the kind of ground organization in New Hampshire to turn people out to vote?”
“He’s got no ground game,” Kerrey continued. “It’s all up in Donald’s head! Everything’s in Donald’s head. It’s the political version of ‘Being John Malkovich.’ ”
I'm sure Trump will do better in Iowa than Kerrey did in his home state of Nebraska. In 2012, he lost the election to the U.S. Senate to state senator Deb Fisher. Kerrey squeaked by in the two largest counties, but he lost all the rest except for three. I guess he didn't have a ground game either.

What we are witnessing now, and Bruni's column is an example, is the media's attempt to deflate or harness the Trump boom that it has helped create. Trotting out stale, past-the-sale-date corporate politicos like Bob Kerrey to take pot shots at The Donald is weak stuff:
But for all Trump’s antics and nonsense, he placed second to Bush in a New Hampshire poll late last month. In a more recent Iowa poll, he trailed only Walker. 
Kerrey conceded: “I don’t think you can really ignore it. But you have to evaluate, with some expertise, what his odds of being the Republican nominee are. And they’re practically zero.” 
“Yeah, 5,000 people showed up at your event,” he said. “I could get 5,000 people to show up at the bearded lady. He is, in his way, a freak show.”
The obvious that goes unmentioned is that Trumps' popularity tracks back to a large segment of voters who have lost all trust in politicians like Bob Kerrey (who voted for the repeal of Glass-Steagal when he was in the U.S. Senate). People would sooner burn the whole motherfucking political charade to the ground than back a Bush or Clinton yet again.

People are angry. Trump is a vehicle for that anger. That is why his popularity spiked when he went after Mexican immigrants.

People want to hate. When a leader arrives on the scene and says, "Yes, it is okay to hate. Go grab your pitchforks and your torches." Of course people will take note. It worked for Hitler and Mussolini, and it worked for Ronald Reagan when he played up black welfare mooches.

The Fourth Estate is going to continue to hack away at Trump. But at this point The Donald's candidacy might have achieved critical mass and is beyond the control of the Fourth Estate. One thing is for sure: A cadaver like Bob Kerrey will not harm Trump at all.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

David M. Raup, an Originator of the Idea that Mass Extinction Events are Periodic, Died July 9

David M. Raup, one of the founding fathers of the hypothesis that mass extinctions are periodic, died earlier this month. The New York Times ran a decent obit last week by Bruce Weber, "David M. Raup, Who Transformed Field of Paleontology, Dies at 82":
Dr. Raup’s most famous contribution to the field may have been the revelation in 1983, after a six-year study of marine organisms he conducted with J. John Sepkoski Jr., that over the last 250 million years, extinctions of species spiked at regular intervals of about 26 million years
Extinction periodicity, as it is known, enlivened the study of huge volcanic eruptions and of changes in the earth’s magnetic field that may have coincided with periods of mass extinction. It has also given rise to numerous theories regarding the history of life, including that the evolution of myriad species has been interrupted by nonterrestrial agents from the solar system or the galaxy. 
One prominent hypothesis involved an undiscovered companion to the sun — it was christened Nemesis — that every so often swung close enough to the solar system that it redirected comets toward the earth. 
Extinction periodicity remains unproven — further published analyses of the Raup-Sepkoski data have been divided on their original conclusions — and Dr. Raup was open about the fact that the data could lead him only so far. (“I believe they really are periodic,” he said of mass extinctions in a 1997 interview published online, “but I can’t prove it.”) But throughout his career, it was the questions that arose because of his work that established him as among paleontology’s most creative thinkers.
Twenty years ago, in my late twenties and into my early thirties, I was fascinated by periodic mass extinctions. I read most of the books on the subject, which at the time were numerous, including Raup's The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science, as well as Richard Muller's Nemesis: The Death Star.

Here is a short book review of The Nemesis Affair by Jonathan Weiner published by NYT in 1986:
THE NEMESIS AFFAIR: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science. By David M. Raup. (Norton, $14.95.) 
In 1984 David M. Raup and his colleague Jack Sepkoski published a theory of periodic mass extinctions. Statistical analyses of fossil data suggested that the world has endured a Great Dying roughly every 26 million years. This theory added fresh fuel to the controversial hypothesis of Luis and Walter Alvarez, a physicist and geologist, and father and son, who in 1980 had suggested that the dinosaurs were killed when a big chunk of rock or ice fell from outer space. The astrophysicist Richard Muller, a protege of Luis Alvarez, soon linked both extinction theories in a long-shot, third hypothesis: the Sun has an obscure companion, Nemesis, the Death Star. Sweeping close every 26 million years, Nemesis is said to dislodge comets from their orbits and send them falling through the solar system like cannonballs. In ''The Nemesis Affair,'' Mr. Raup, Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, tells how each one of these theories, and some of their rivals, was born and how they were seized on by the news media - sometimes before the theories were ready. He stresses the social side of science - the roles of collegial advice, rumor, preprints, editors, editorials, peer review and especially the news media. A hot topic short-circuits the system, he argues - for better and worse. Mr. Raup is clear, low-key and good-humored. ''The Nemesis theory,'' he says, ''may turn out to be a major step forward in our understanding of the natural world or an embarrassing period of near-insanity in scholarship.''
I was intrigued by the idea that mass extinction might be linked to magnetic reversals on the planet. I read Alvarez's book too.

Somehow I was going to link this up with E.O. Lawrence and color television. One of the hypotheses I was working on is if Lawrence's version of the technology would have taken off a decade or more before color TV's wide introduction in the middle- to late-1960s, the American cultural revolution would have happened sooner; the idea being that part of the freak-out of the 1960s was due to the introduction of color television. It was just too powerful a new medium for people to absorb at first.

Now that mass extinction is a popular topic once again, it would interesting to see how the Sixth Extinction fits in with Raup's periodicity hypothesis.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

NYT on ISIS: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Caliphate"

Daily newspapers love deadlines. Deadlines provide an organizing principle, a dividing line, for coverage. There is the build up to the deadline, the result, and then the post-mortem. Elections provide good deadlines, as do high-stakes negotiations.

There has been a bounty of non-election deadlines of late what with the P5+1 countries signing a deal with Iran on its nuclear program (approved yesterday by the United Nations Security Council) and Greece's Syriza-led government capitulating to the Eurogroup demands for even greater austerity.

For the time being no red-flashing deadlines offer themselves up to provide the backbone, the central nervous system, of the daily news. There are the shootings and the rapes, as always, and, in the United States, the perpetual presidential campaign; and then on the distant horizon in September, a juicy deadline convergence is taking shape when Pope Francis brings his anti-capitalist message to the belly of the beast, the U.S. Capitol, where he will address Congress around the same time that its 60-day review of the Iran nuclear deal is up and yet another government shutdown looms over the federal budget.

In days like these when there are no deadlines flashing it is interesting to take note of what stories are being pushed to the top. The top story on the New York Times homepage this morning is Tim Arango's "ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool."

Since ISIS took Ramadi and Palmyra in May, the takfiri jihadi group has not dominated daily news coverage. There are stories about Lone Wolf attacks that are ISIS inspired or a piece about an ISIS commander being blown up in a drone strike, but nothing of the sort that fills the front pages day in and day out.

Today though there is Arango's story, sculpted principally out of quotes from liberal realpolitik academic Stephen Walt and former high-ranking CIA official John McLaughlin, which joins a report by Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt, "ISIS Leader Takes Steps to Ensure Group’s Survival," about the command structure of ISIS.

The shortcoming of both stories, the 900-lb. gorilla in the room that the reporters attempt to ignore, is the extent to which ISIS is a foreign-led proxy force in the sectarian war against Iranian influence in the Greater Middle East.

In the Arango report, the reader is provided, this time from a neorealist perspective, with another explanation of why we might be able to live with ISIS after all. Like the Taliban, the takfiri jihadis are providing honest government. If it is built on a foundation of savage terror -- decapitations, sexual slavery, lashings, dismemberment -- at least the boys from Islamic State don't ask for bribes. Bashar al-Assad created the mess to begin with by fighting a civil war. Here is a sample:
Sunnis in Iraq remain broadly hostile to the Shiite-controlled central government. As for Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has presided over a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and basically dislocated half the population.
“Honestly, both are dirty, the regime and Daesh,” said Ahmed, the owner of an antiques shop who recently fled to Raqqa to avoid airstrikes in outlying areas. But the Islamic State, he said, “is more acceptable here in Raqqa.”
Ahmed, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, has also lived under rule by the Free Syrian Army, or F.S.A., the rebel group that rose up in 2011 to fight the Syrian government. The F.S.A., he said, is “like the regime. They are thieves.”
Under the Islamic State, he said, life can be brutal, but at least it seems more stable for those who can avoid crossing the group’s leaders. “Here they are implementing God’s regulations,” he said. “The killer is killed. The adulterer is stoned. The thief’s hands are cut.”
A similar sentiment helped the Taliban consolidate power two decades ago in Afghanistan: While the Taliban were feared, and their justice was often brutal, they were also respected by many Afghans for standing against corruption and chaos — and they remained firmly in control until the American invasion in 2001.
John E. McLaughlin, who was deputy director of the C.I.A. from 2000 to 2004, said he was recently at a dinner party in Washington at the home of an Australian diplomat when the discussion turned to the threat of the Islamic State.
“It suddenly just occurred to me, if you add everything up, that these guys could win,” he said. It was a controversial notion, he explained, because the group’s graphic brutality, which it showcases to the world in gory videos released through social media, has fed a sense that its demise is inevitable because it is so evil.
“Evil isn’t always defeated,” he said.
What goes unmentioned in this ludicrous retelling is that foreign jihadis funneling into Syria via Turkey (with U.S. knowledge) turned the Arab Spring uprising quickly into a war of occupation. It is similar to Obama's roll out of the P5+1 deal on Iran's nuclear program where, based on his telling, one would think that all terrorism in the region had an Iranian origin. It is an upside down picture of the world.

In the Hubbard and Schmitt story on the command and control structure of ISIS under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi it is clear that, though the reporters seek to emphasize the indigenous nature of ISIS, it is in fact run by foreign fighters. Al-Baghdadi is a religious figurehead:
WASHINGTON — The Islamic State’s reclusive leader has empowered his inner circle of deputies as well as regional commanders in Syria and Iraq with wide-ranging authority, a plan to ensure that if he or other top figures are killed, the organization will quickly adapt and continue fighting, American and Iraqi intelligence officials say.
The officials say the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delegates authority to his cabinet, or shura council, which includes ministers of war, finance, religious affairs and others. 
The Islamic State’s leadership under Mr. Baghdadi has drawn mainly from two pools: veterans of Al Qaeda in Iraq who survived the insurgency against American forces with battle-tested militant skills, and former Baathist officers under Saddam Hussein with expertise in organization, intelligence and internal security. It is the merger of these two skill sets that has made the organization such a potent force, the officials say.

But equally important to the group’s flexibility has been the power given to Islamic State military commanders, who receive general operating guidelines but have significant autonomy to run their own operations in Iraq and Syria, according to American and Kurdish officials. This means that fighters have limited information about the inner workings of the Islamic State to give up if captured, and that local commanders can be killed and replaced without disrupting the wider organization. Within this hierarchy, Iraqis still hold the top positions, while Tunisians and Saudis hold many religious posts. 
A senior Kurdish security official in northern Iraq and several American officials said that Mr. Baghdadi was very much the top leader and that he was involved in issuing orders across the group’s territories. “While many other group leaders also oversee and manage operations, Baghdadi asserts his role through providing guidance and holding meetings with leadership,” said a senior United States military official with access to classified briefings on the Islamic State. 
But other analysts said Mr. Baghdadi’s religious credibility was more significant than any operational prowess. 
“Baghdadi is to a certain extent a religious figurehead designed to grant an aura of religious legitimacy and respectability to the group’s operations, while the real power brokers are a core of former military and intelligence officials,” said Matthew Henman, managing editor of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
Kurdish commanders fighting the Islamic State on the ground say certain groups of foreign fighters appear to move like shock troops around territory controlled by the group. 
Before a major Islamic State offensive on the city of Kirkuk early this year, the Kurds began getting reports that a Russian commander had gone there with his own group of fighters, said Polad Talabani, the head of the counterterrorism unit of the Kurdistan regional government.
We could be getting daily coverage of the ongoing Iraqi campaign to retake Anbar Province from ISIS; instead we get more brand-building for ISIS which simultaneously elides the most salient feature of ISIS -- that it depends for its survival on a network of foreign aid and management from Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf monarchies.