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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 9 December 2005

Topic: Photos

Christmas 2005 in the Land of the Obscenely Wealthy

Thursday, December 8, was a trek to the land of the obscenely wealthy - Rodeo Drive and the center of Beverly Hills - for Christmas photos of what's on display in the windows of Saxs Fifth Avenue and Barney's and Neiman-Marcus - and what's on the streets.

You will find those photographs in an album of thirty-eight shots here.

Posted by Alan at 17:06 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Couldn't be so...

The Hits Keep Coming

In these pages, on November 13 here and November 20 here, there was some discussion of the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. This is the fellow who was the source of all the lies about Iraq training al-Qaeda operatives, even though the Defense Intelligence Agency and other high-level intelligence operatives had already dismissed this information as unreliable. Well, as Newsweek reported in June, this was a test case to see what we could get from torture - the fellow spent some time with our friends in Cairo.

There was some follow-up by Douglas Jehl, in the New York Times on Sunday, November 6 here - this al-Libi provided us with false information suggesting that Iraq had trained al-Qaeda to use al kinds of very nasty weapons of mass destruction of all sorts, but a whole lot of our intelligence agencies pretty much knew the information was bogus as early as 2002 - and Colin Powell presented this crap to the UN in February 2003 anyway, as "credible evidence of Iraqi WMD programs" - just before we told the rest of the world to buzz off and invaded Iraq. We knew the threat. Yep.

In these pages there were links to all sorts of folks being a bit amazed by this news - from Middle East scholars to the people at Editor and Publisher to the usual anti-war crowd. But the buzz about this passed, until Friday, December 9, when Douglas Jehl, in the New York Times, hammered home the obvious with this - "The Bush administration based a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda on detailed statements made by a prisoner while in Egyptian custody who later said he had fabricated them to escape harsh treatment..."

Yes, he already said that. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was finishing up her diplomatic mission to Europe to lay down the law to them, and defend whatever the heck it is we're doing with "disappearing" people to secret prisons and practicing what some call torture, and we call "enhanced interrogation." It seems the Times just wanted to point out this particular instance of when we used we call "enhanced interrogation" didn't work out so well -
Mr. Libi was indeed initially held by the United States military in Afghanistan, and was debriefed there by C.I.A. officers, according to the new account provided by the current and former government officials. But... it was not until after he was handed over to Egypt that he made the most specific assertions, which were later used by the Bush administration as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons.

... American officials including [Condoleezza] Rice have defended the practice, saying it draws on language and cultural expertise of American allies, particularly in the Middle East, and provides an important tool for interrogation. They have said that the United States carries out the renditions only after obtaining explicit assurances from the receiving countries that the prisoners will not be tortured.
Well, as many have pointed out, this is a bit disingenuous. We obtain these "explicit assurances" which, of course, leaves us with clean hands, but we leave it at that, and we use whatever information we get. Think of it like buying a hot Rolex watch from a seedy man in lower Manhattan - you were told it wasn't stolen so you're not guilty of any illegal transaction, the seedy fellow who sold you the watch is.

Putting all the moral and ethical issues aside, and all the diplomatic issues too, the "new account" of these details that Jehl has uncovered and reported, shows what we call "enhanced interrogation" produces not only useless information, but this particular array of useless information took us to war, or at least was used to sell the war to the American public, and to intimidate reluctant American senators and congressmen in granting the president unlimited authority to do "whatever was necessary" to keep us safe. How could these folks vote otherwise?

But as a test case for what Cheney characterized as "taking the gloves off" - doing the previously unthinkable because everything changed on September 11, 2001, and that's just how it is now - this test case showed, well, "taking the gloves off" got us burned.

Of course, traditionally one actually uses torture to obtain "false confessions" you can use to justify this or that. The whole idea, from the Catholic Church's rather effective Inquisition to the Soviet gulags, was to get folks, in the first case, to admit they were witches or agents of the devil or whatever, and in the second case, to get them to admit this plot or that against Stalin or his subordinates. You were trying to get quite useful bogus information. It was a power thing. Think of the Salem witch trials - submerge the woman and if she drowns she was telling the truth and she's no witch, but if she oddly doesn't, well she must be one. That is hardly seeking information. It's just a statement of power, and a way to keep it. Torquemada wasn't really looking for information.

But we thought we'd get the "real story." What were we thinking?

Here's one thought. It was just laziness -
Torture is the tool of the slothful. The main attraction to those who defend the use of torture is how easily and quickly a suspect can be broken. Unlike other forms of interrogation, torture requires only a small amount of training, no particular understanding of the suspect, and scant concern for the veracity of what is revealed. It requires only the willingness to do to another human being what one would not do to an animal. Understanding torture as the lazy person's tool makes it a bit more comprehensible why the Bush Administration would be the first in American history to defend the practice.
Ah well, we got our war.

And what else are we now admitting. Well, there's this -
The state department's top legal adviser, John Bellinger... stated that the group International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had access to "absolutely everybody" at the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which holds suspects detained during the US war on terror.

When asked by journalists if the organization had access to everybody held in similar circumstances elsewhere, he said: "No".

He declined to explain further.
There are no "black sites" where we have "disappeared" people? No comment. We're just not saying. Draw your own conclusions.

But surely our allies the Brits are okay with what we do.

No, as you see here - Britain's highest court has ruled that intelligence extracted by torture is not admissible in any British court. It never has been, but the Blair government argued when someone else does it, not the British, there should be an exception. There may be really useful stuff in what was "extracted." Tony got slapped down, and he's not happy.

Andrew Sullivan, the expatriate British conservative commentator out at the end of Cape Cod, as been on fire about this, as you can explore here -
The ruling by the House of Lords this week, barring any legal testimony extracted by torture, makes for inspiring reading. It provides a long history of how English common law banned torture for any reason from as far back as Magna Carta. Torture was indeed introduced in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century by the Crown, but was revoked in 1640, which was the year the last torture warrant was issued in Britain. After that, the use of torture was unthinkable in English jurisprudence. Nineteenth century legal historians deemed the practice "totally repugnant to the fundamental principles of English law" and "repugnant to reason, justice and humanity."

In the words of one scholar, writing in 1837, "Once torture has become acclimatized in a legal system it spreads like an infectious disease. It saves the labor of investigation. It hardens and brutalizes those who have become accustomed to use it."
Basically, there can be no weighing of any evidence procured by torture. Case closed.

And Sullivan quotes Lord Hoffmann in his concurring judgment, invoking Blackstone -
That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride ... Just as the writ of habeas corpus is not only a special remedy for challenging unlawful detention but also carries significance as a touchstone of English liberty which influences the rest of our law, so the rejection of torture by the common law has a special iconic importance as the touchstone of a humane and civilised legal system. Not only that: the abolition of torture ... was achieved as part of the great constitutional struggle and civil war which made the government subject to the law. Its rejection has a constitutional resonance for the English people which cannot be over-estimated.
So the Brits have this honor thing, and don't want to go back to the days before 1640. We do? It seems so, and we're working hard on tossing out this writ of habeas corpus thing, as well documented here.

What is so appealing about the sixteenth and early seventeenth century? Conservatives venerate the past, but seriously, those were dark days. There was that plague and all.

But we're arguing about torture. See Charles Krauthammer, one of the most respected conservative intellectuals in Washington, offering this, his cover story for The Weekly Standard endorsing the legalization of full-fledged torture by the United States under strictly curtailed conditions. The supporters of the administration are all swooning over this. The man is a psychiatrist who gave that up for the world of conservative political theory. He knows things. Yeah well, the counterargument is here in The New Republic. Both are quite detailed. And CNN's everyman, Lou Dobbs, just out and said on his show on the 8th that he just cannot believe we're even discussing this in America.

Ah well, we are.

At least Charles Krauthammer is right on one big hit the United States is taking right now. In the Washington Post he writes this - "Of all the mistakes that the Bush administration has committed in Iraq, none is as gratuitous and self-inflicted as the bungling of the trial of Saddam Hussein. Although Hussein deserves to be shot like a dog - or, same thing, like the Ceausescus - we nonetheless decided to give him a trial."

Leaving aside what the man deserves, it's pretty obvious Saddam Hussein is in control of the "theater" of this thing - berating the judge as not a real Iraqi when the judge says he'll have to ask the Americans about this or that, and just walking out. He's playing it for all it's worth, and dividing the new and improved Iraq, playing on their resentment at being occupied. In an odd way he's winning the thing. And an open trial seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Hits? Well, there's Sweden at the moment.

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has been following the Nobel Prize acceptance speeches. Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for literature, and Ric notes this from Pinter's acceptance speech -
The United States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn't give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain.

The whole speech is here, and contains nuggets like these -
... Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

...Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speechwriters but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man's man.

'God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it.'
Well the man is not happy. But he's a playwright, right? What does he know?

Does Pinter know anything about the quantum nature of light, and has he worked out ideas that resulted in more precise optical clocks and measuring systems, ideas now used in today's satellite positioning systems? Americans Roy J. Glauber and John L. Hall know such things. They won the prize for physics, along with one German fellow.

And the hits keep coming -
Two American Nobel Prize winners said Thursday they are worried about President Bush's attitude toward science and accused his administration of ignoring important research findings.

"There is a measure of denial of scientific evidence going on within our administration, and there are many scientists who are not happy about that," said Roy J. Glauber, who shared this year's physics prize with fellow American John L. Hall and Germany's Theodor W. Haensch. Their research on the quantum nature of light has resulted in more precise optical clocks and measuring systems, and is used in today's satellite positioning systems.

Glauber also said some U.S. Congress members are more concerned about the political consequence of research projects than their scientific importance when they decide where to allocate money.

"(The projects) are not evaluated scientifically, they are only evaluated politically," Glauber said, but did not give details on specific projects. He spoke at a news conference after the three physics laureates gave a lecture to students and fellow researchers at Stockholm University.

Hall agreed that the attitude toward science in the Bush administration "does not go in the right direction."
Just more folks who don't have any respect for the sixteenth and early seventeenth century.

In the meantime, the Fox News response to the "War on Christmas" no one else quite sees rages on. That's what we need to consider. It's a worry.

And Bill O'Reilly is the hero in this real war, as he says here -
I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday and the celebration. I am not going to let it happen. I'm gonna use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that. And we have succeeded. You know we've succeeded. They are on the run in corporations, in the media, everywhere. They are on the run, because I will put their face and their name on television, and I will talk about them on the radio if they do it. There is no reason on this earth that all of us cannot celebrate a public holiday devoted to generosity, peace, and love together. There is no reason on the earth that we can't do that. So we are going to do it. And anyone who tries to stop us from doing it is gonna face me.
But will Bill bring horror (torture, perhaps?) to this fellow in Rhode Island? What has he done?

Man Creates Paris Hilton Christmas Shrine

Say what?
See Paris Hilton in all her seductive splendor, striking a provocative pose for passing motorists and spreading hot Christmas cheer in a chilly Rhode Island winter.

Blown-up images of Hilton and strings of pink Christmas lights adorn the front lawn of a home in a middle-class neighborhood of this city, part of a head-turning holiday display that pays homage to the famed hotel heiress.

The over-the-top pictorial is the work of Joe Moretti, a 38-year-old designer who was arrested last year for trespassing on Martha Stewart's property in Maine.

Passersby get an eyeful of Hilton sporting a tiny pink top hiding little of her chest, or wearing knee-high boots and a sultry pout or holding a finger to her lips. Even Hilton's faithful Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, is celebrated in a colorful portrait.

"If it's offending anyone, I apologize," Moretti said in a telephone interview Thursday.
O'Reilly has not yet commented on this, but Moretti says he was just trying to be different and "to be creative and let them see a little bit of Hollywood or New York - bring it to Cranston."

Hollywood to Moretti - why would you do THAT? It says you have a life-sized shot of Hilton with high boots, legs spread and eyes partly closed. This is just too odd.

But the AP story adds this detail -
This is the latest in a series of artistic lawn displays decorating Moretti's lawn. Last year, he paid tribute to Martha Stewart even as he and another man faced charges for sneaking on to the domestic maven's property. The charges were later dismissed, and the men donated money to public libraries near the property. Moretti calls the incident a "big misunderstanding."
Okay then, this man has an odd concept of Christmas, and of trespassing law. What would O'Reilly do? Moretti, it seems, has, in the past, built Christmas tributes to Madonna, Princess Diana and Liberace.

The question for America is crucial. What should be done about this man?

The other questions above? We'll see what Fox News covers.

Posted by Alan at 13:18 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 9 December 2005 14:21 PST home

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Topic: Photos

A Pause…

Political commentary will follow in a bit. Thursdays are devoted to the "photo shoot" for the upcoming issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-style parent to this daily web log.

Today was a trek to the land of the obscenely wealthy - Rodeo Drive and the center of Beverly Hills.

These will be the Christmas photos - what's on display in the windows of Saxs Fifth Avenue and Barney's and Neiman-Marcus - and what's on the streets. The one hundred and thirty-four photos have been winnowed down to the sixty-two that are pretty cool, and those need further work, editing them to web format from their original gigantic size, so no one's computer seizes.

That is in progress. And here's one of the shots - what you see in the window of one of the major stores this holiday season -

The venue -

Posted by Alan at 18:09 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 8 December 2005 18:13 PST home

Wednesday, 7 December 2005

Topic: Breaking News

Midweek News Explosion: More Grist for the Mill

Big news stories come in fits and starts. Important stories break in flurries of "We did what?" and "He (or she) claimed that?" Then there's a lull as the cable television "talking-heads" shows, and the print and web media, are filled with grave or sarcastic voices of reason, or emotion, explaining "what it all means." A day later the comics jump in, from the pedestrian Jay Leno to the sly and multi-leveled satire pieces from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Then we begin again.

Some of the previous "big stories" do, of course, get a bit of filigree. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the middle of her diplomatic mission to Europe to lay down the law to them, and defend whatever the heck it is we're doing with "disappearing" people to secret prisons and practicing what some call torture, and we call "enhanced interrogation." Rice met with the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and they had a nice chat, then Merkel said Rice admitted we made a mistake in detaining and doing some very nasty things to a German citizen who turned out to be a nobody - and then our government said Angela had it all wrong and Rice said no such thing. Our official comment on Angela was - "We are not quite sure what was in her head." We don't make mistakes, it seems.

Merkel was supposed to make nice with the Americans and fix everything in our mutual diplomatic relations, but she ran into the Bush team. Now she knows better. The basic story is here, just one of many accounts. Well, the fellow is suing us, so it will all be sorted out.

Then Howard Dean went and said this Iraq thing was a lot like Vietnam and we were NOT going to be "victorious" in any meaningful way - we should just do what we can by getting out and setting up strike teams to take care of acute situations there, not the chronic ones. The president quickly said we would be totally victorious, and we were staying, but he still doesn't have a good definition of exactly what total victory would look like. There are thousands of comments, and the basic story is here. One of Reagan's sons, Michael, the conservative one, said Dean should be hung for treason. Whatever.

Of course there's this new poll - forty percent of Americans want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, another four percent want us out in six months, and ten percent want out within a year. That adds up to fifty-four percent. Then there's five percent who want us out within two or three years. Thirty-four percent agree with the president.

Don't get all excited. We're arguing the best way to back out without the region exploding. The concept is a given, the details are not. Sooner or later someone will clue in the president.

The big mid-week event was, of course, the president's second of four speeches telling is we really do have a plan for total victory in Iraq - we have SVIC ("The Strategy for Victory in Iraq," in thirty-five nicely bound pages of bullet points).

As you recall, the first speech, the one in front of the midshipmen at Annapolis, was about nation building - when they stand up we stand down - and posited that victory was when everyone can see they don't need us any more, and all the mayhem stops.

There's a Boolean disconnect here. Which Boolean operator is he using? Is "total victory" when we get the first (self-sufficiency) AND the second (all the bad guys dead or turned nice), or is it the first OR the second? In either case it's our duty to get them "there." The "there" is a bit ambiguous. But we're staying - and we're training them - and that's going well, so the president said - and others said not so.

The venue for the Wednesday, December 7th speech, on the sixty-fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, was the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington (the dudes in pinstripes), and as mentioned, these folks broke their tradition and granted the White House's special request - no questions. The president speaks and the president leaves - a first for any speaker at the Council on Foreign Relations. Make of that what you will.

The second speech had a new theme, the economy and infrastructure in Iraq. All these folks say the place is a mess, but not so - it's getting better all the time, and we cannot pull now that we've "turned the corner." There's a light at the end of the tunnel? That was the idea. (Don't you wish the sixties wouldn't repeat on you like last night's pepperoni pizza on a bad morning?)

The text of the speech is here and you'll find an interesting analysis from Fred Kaplan here.

As Kaplan notes, and many can see, the administration is walking a fine line here. You have to establish that we're making real progress on getting Iraq up and running again, when the news is pretty dismal, while letting everyone know it's really not going that well. If it were, we could leave. So it's going well but we can't leave because it's not going that well. But is really is going well. No questions, please.

Yes, we got good statistics. There's that twenty-one billion in loans to thirty thousand new small businesses (way better than the Small Business Administration has done in New Orleans, by the way, but unsaid). There are those three thousand new schools (no mention of FEMA and the New Orleans schools). You have your new sewage lines and new electrical substations. Not bad.

But what about the big picture? Of course, critic Kaplan won't cut Bush any slack on this and turns to the State Department's November 30th "Iraq Weekly Status Report" (here).

What's there? Try this -
Iraq's electrical power grid appears as dim as ever, or dimmer. Average daily supply - about 80,000 megawatts - falls 55,000 megawatts short of daily demand. It's 30,000 megawatts below the target that planners tried to hit last summer. And it's 15,000 megawatts below the average pre-war level. (A new power plant turbine in Kirkuk, which is about to fire up, will add just 260 megawatts to this total, according to the report. Two new substations, which Bush heralded in his speech, will service a mere 2,500 - out of roughly 1 million - homes in Baghdad.)

Baghdad, a capital city of roughly 6 million people, has only 6.1 hours of electrical power a day; nationwide, the average is 11.9 hours a day. The situation is, if anything, worsening; in the previous week's report, the respective figures were 8.7 and 12.6 hours.

Crude oil output - which Paul Wolfowitz once told us would pay for the war within months of Saddam's toppling - is stagnant, at 2 million barrels a day, well below the official goal of 2.5 million.
One more instance where the facts are biased?

Kaplan also points out that the president pointed to Najaf and Mosul as model cities - "sites of intense, chaotic violence not long ago, now bastions of relative calm with Iraqi security forces in charge." Yep, they are calm, "but many, if not most, security forces in Najaf are avowed members of Muqtada Sadr's militia." And that was where, a few days ago, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's campaign office was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, the province's ex-governor kidnapped, and the provincial council threaten to break ties with Americans after reports that one of our soldier stabbed a young fellow during a house raid. Kaplan links to the news wires on that, as he doesn't seem to want to be accused of making up things.

And there's the daily news of bombings and kidnappings.

Kaplan concludes -
Bush might argue, in the face of all this, that the strategy needs more time; improvements will build on improvements, successes will generate popular support, which will yield more successes. Missing from this assurance, though, is any recognition of the dynamics set in motion by America's occupation - that the large-scale presence of U.S. troops bolsters security and stability, but it also foments resentment and hatred and swells the ranks of the insurgency, which wreaks further fear and chaos. Simply keeping the troops there longer won't necessarily improve the situation.

The president still hasn't painted a complete picture; he still hasn't spelled out a strategy.
Well, it's a work in progress. Sometimes that's known as making it up as you go along.

That's getting harder to sell all the time, as you see in this exchange.

First up, Senator Joe Lieberman, just back from Iraq and having just written in the Wall Street Journal things are fine there and the news was all wrong and people had cell phones and were safe and happy and all the rest, now saying this: "It is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

Next up, Jack Murtha, the congressman and ex-Marine who said it was time to wind this down and caused all that fuss a few Friday nights ago on the hill, with all that name-calling, saying this: "Undermining his credibility? What has he said that would give him credibility?"

No one is budging an inch here. Speeches aren't policy and they aren't action. They've just spin.

Well, two speeches down, and two to go for the president.

In any event, in other news, the cost of all this is going way up if this is so - 270 billion spent, a 50 billion supplemental pending, and a request coming next year for another 100 billion supplemental. These "supplementals" are not part of any part of the federal budget. They are funds we spend outside what we planned to spend. Where we get the money? We're talking more than a few bake sales and car washes here. More major debt. No one discusses this much.

Other news floating around midweek?

There's this -
Israel told the United States it fears the outcome of regime change in Syria.

At a strategic-dialogue meeting this week among senior officials, Israel laid out for the United States three scenarios if Bashar Assad is toppled: chaos, an Islamist regime or another strongman from Assad's minority Alawite sect. Israel fears all those options, saying Assad provides a measure of stability.

U.S. officials told their Israeli counterparts that toppling Assad could be "transformative" and dismissed concerns about an Islamist regime taking his place.
Okay, our foreign policy is transformation. Whack the hornet's nest and see what happens. Who knows, something good might happen. Hey, something good could come of the Iraq war. You never know. It might. Shake things up and see.

Even our good friends the Israelis think we're crazy.

Also recommended, and somewhat related, is Jacob Weisberg's Beyond Spin, a discussion of the "propaganda presidency of George W. Bush."

The difference? This -
Though propaganda and spin exist on a continuum, they are different in essence. To spin is to offer a contention, usually specious, in response to a critical argument or a negative news story. It does not necessarily involve lying or misleading anyone about factual matters. Habitual spin is irksome, especially to the journalists upon whom it is practiced, but it does not threaten democracy. Propaganda is far more malignant. A calculated and systematic effort to manage public opinion, it transcends mere lying and routine political dishonesty. When the Bush administration manufactures fake "news," suppresses real news, disguises the former as the latter, and challenges the legitimacy of the independent press, it corrodes trust in leaders, institutions, and, to the rest of the world, the United States as a whole.
And Christopher Hitchens ? who thinks this war is fine and has publicly said we should never leave (establish bases and make Iraq ours) - who often argues George Bush is a wonderful man who is subtle, insightful and even visionary - is on fire about that here.

Weisberg is saying this -
Propaganda is the only word for the Pentagon's recently exposed secret efforts to plant positive stories in the Iraqi press. There is, to be sure, precedent for the U.S. funding democratically-minded foreign journalists, both clandestinely through the CIA and openly through agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Covert funding is both ethically indefensible and, in most cases, practically counterproductive. In the Cold War context, however, such efforts were often aboveboard and directed toward supporting courageous independent media and opposition voices in repressive countries.

In the Iraq cash-for-flacks scheme, on the other hand, the Pentagon did something simply stupid and wrong by hiring a propaganda-making firm called the Lincoln Group to cultivate an impression of grass-roots support for the American occupation. In this greenhouse, the gardeners did not just water and fertilize the seedlings; they handed out plastic flowers and hoped no one would notice they weren't real. American operatives paid Iraqi journalistic mercenaries to publish a farrago of puffery and outright misrepresentation. Here's my favorite quote from the Nov. 30 Los Angeles Times piece that exposed this operation: "Zaki [an Iraqi newspaper editor] said that if his cash-strapped paper had known that these stories were from the U.S. government, he would have 'charged much, much more' to publish them."
Well, that story has legs.

And there's this -
The administration's need to outsource its propaganda work - for reasons of deniability, not efficiency - has promoted the emergence of a new kind of PR-industrial complex in the nation's capital. Outfits like the Ketchum's Washington Group, the shadowy Lincoln Group, and the even more flourishing, even more shadowy Rendon Group are the parasitic fruit not just of unchecked self-puffery but of a lucrative new patronage network.

In a way, what's most troubling about the Bush's administration's information war is not its cynicism but its naiveté. At phony town hall meetings, Bush's audiences are hand-picked to prevent any possibility of spontaneous challenge. At fake forums, invited guests ask the president to pursue his previously announced policies. New initiatives are unveiled on platforms festooned with meaningless slogans, mindlessly repeated ("Plan for Victory"). Anyone on the inside who doubts the party line is shown the door. In this environment, where the truth is not spoken privately or publicly, the suspicion grows that Bush, in his righteous cocoon, has committed the final, fatal sin of the propagandist. He is not just spreading BS but has come to believe it himself.
Ah, that explains the Wednesday speech.

This shadowy Rendon Group, as explained in the Rolling Stone article, has been mentioned before in these pages - Bob Patterson last weekend here and in the editor's The Sunday Funnies Featuring Curveball on November 27th - but the best explanation of such outfits is in Newsweek from Jonathan Alter here -
We got into the war with the help of something called the Rendon Group, a secretive firm that won a huge government contract to "create the conditions for the removal of [Saddam] Hussein from power." (According to an article by James Bamford in last week's Rolling Stone, Rendon invented the "Iraqi National Congress" and put Judith Miller and other reporters in touch with their bum sources on WMD.) Now the PR pork scandal is moving to a different level. This year, the Pentagon granted three contractors $300 million over five years to offer "creative ideas" for psychological operations aimed at what the PR experts call "international perception management." That $300 million will buy a lot of Arabic press releases, but it's unavailable for, say, body armor.

The contractor implicated in the planted Iraqi press story is the Lincoln Group, formerly Iraqex, which boasts to prospective clients that it provides services ranging from "political campaign intelligence" (dirt on your opponents in American elections) to "commercial real estate in Iraq" (so you can buy the choicest properties and tick off the Iraqis even more). It's run by one Christian Bailey, a 30-year-old Oxford-educated fop who helped run the 2004 Republican National Convention, and once cohosted parties in New York limited to those who had graduated from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale (Princeton was apparently beneath them). I tried to learn whether Bailey's British accent reflected British citizenship or more "perception management," but no one from the Lincoln Group would call me back. Other reporters were told that everything about the firm's operations was "classified." Bailey has put a bunch of Bush campaign hacks on the gravy train, finagled security clearances, then assigned them to corrupt the Iraqi media. Democracy in action!
So now you know.

The president has famously said he doesn't read newspapers, or watch the news. And he explained why - those around him, who are the players in the big game, tell him what's really going on, not those who kibbutz from the bleachers. Well, not his exact words, but that was the substance of what he said.

Could it be the PR firm that "invented" the Iraqi National Congress - Chalabi and his noble compatriots in exile who wanted "their Iraq" back ? and these other firms creating "good news," are the players in the big game who inform the president? That'd be a hoot, except for all the dead American soldiers. But that would explain the mid-week speech.


Local Note:

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the very odd governor of this state, has ticked off everyone. There was that special election last month with all its referendums. After months of telling us the police, nurses and firefighters were greedy bastards and he needed this new power or that to override the legislature (he called them girly-men) and the courts to get things done, every item he proposed was defeated. Now he's named a left-wing Democrat and a woman as his Chief of Staff. He's a strange man.

Mid-week the dam burst -
With segments of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political base rising in revolt, directors of the California Republican Party have demanded a private meeting with the governor to complain about the hiring of a Democratic operative as his chief of staff.

The request comes as Schwarzenegger faces a sustained wave of opposition from both moderate and conservative Republicans over the choice of Susan P. Kennedy. Before serving as a state public utility commissioner, Kennedy was Cabinet secretary to former Gov. Gray Davis. She also was an abortion-rights activist and former Democratic Party executive.

In appointing Kennedy last week, the governor praised her as an effective administrator who could "implement my vision" and work cooperatively with Democrats who control the Legislature.

But Republican operatives said grass-roots volunteers are so disturbed by the appointment that they are threatening to abandon Schwarzenegger during his re-election bid next year. Others said Schwarzenegger is risking a nasty fight that could cause the party to rescind its endorsement during February's convention in San Jose.
The man is mad.

And of course this has led to a campaign to draft Mel Gibson to run against Schwarzenegger in the Republican primary next year. The idea is the success of Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," could help his chances among religious conservatives. And sadists? And anti-Semites?

California is a crazy place. Some Democrats wanted Rob Reiner - "When Harry Met Sally" and such films - to run against Arnold. But Meathead from "All in the Family" said no. They're still working on talking Warren Beatty - "Shampoo" and "Reds" and "Dick Tracey" - into running.


Of course Gibson has a new movie in the works, about the holocaust. He and his father belong to a splinter Catholic sect that claims the holocaust was no big deal - not that it didn't happen, just that it wasn't so bad and not that many people died. Should be an interesting film. It's somewhere between concept and pre-production at the moment.

Of course readers outside California will think all this is something invented for these pages. This site comes to you from the center of Hollywood, where the "dream factories" are, where nothing is what it seems. It couldn't be so.

But you can use Google or Yahoo or whatever and see that it's all true - it's really, really true.

There are dream factories on each coast, DC and Hollywood, where what is real and what isn't gets all mixed up.

Posted by Alan at 21:54 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2005 21:59 PST home

Topic: World View

Our Man in Paris: Howling Sirens
If it's Wednesday it must be Paris, and here, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, reports on the scene, politically (fallout from the riots, which we're really riots) and culturally (cool photos).

Howling Sirens

PARIS - Wednesday, December 7 -

I could tell it was the first Wednesday in the month and it was noon because the air raid sirens were howling. Twelve months a year, and next spring will make 30 years, which adds up to 720 times - because they hoot them twice to make sure. In my next life I will live through the Blitz to get it over with quickly.

Then radio France-Info polluted my breakfast air with updates to old news. It told me that Nicolas Sarkozy, France's short minister of civic troubles, had canceled a trip to Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Another bulletin, somewhat related, said that France's spooks of the interior have composed a confidential report that concluded the urban riots that Sarkozy set off were not caused by nefarious troublemakers, organized bad guys, the CIA, or religious fanatics trying to start a holy war. The kids were insulted by Sarkozy, although the report does not say so - Sarkozy is not a foreign terrorist group after all - they simply rioted for three weeks on their own steam until they got tired.

Then there was another report which I probably garbled on account of eating too loudly, about the CIA flights that landed at Bourget and some other airfield, flights from Iceland and Oslo - both unnotorious Islamic terrorist hotbeds. France denies these happened, or if it does not, wants to ask the CIA a couple of questions.

After breakfast I felt much better. So much so that it occurred to me that nobody wants to read about our exceptional riots or read one more word about Sarkozy, and it's all old news anyway.
Naw! Instead I decided to take myself out and trot down to Sèvres-Babylon to the Bon Marché, the Left Bank's only department store, and capture its Christmas lights. On the way, after stopping in Montparnasse to watch them smooth the ice on the rink for the fast kids on blades, it occurred to me that the Bon March?'s lights are never lit when I go there.

They weren't for the past two years, and both times it was really cold. Today it was not, so I kept on my guided path. And for those of little faith, let me say that perseverance pays off - with just enough skylight to mix with the store's lights, and enough sunset to give the camera problems.

With that little chore in the digital film can I took up my customary position in front of the TV for tonight's news, first on France-3, and who do I see immediately, but Sarkozy. Looking in the camera lens so sincerely, with so much white below his ball-bearing eyeballs that they looked like gull's eggs with black yolks.

He says he's not going to Guadeloupe and Martinique and it has noting to do with the stink he caused by saying Napoléon is wonderful - last week on the anniversary of Austerlitz, but also the anniversary of Napoléon reintroducing slavery. "Which 'official' history does France want to have?" he wants to know.

Well, in the islands, they are the descendants of the free people Napoléon decided were slaves, so there are all on strike and they are organized and waiting for the minister of the interior to show up, and now he's decided not to go, but that's not the reason. He did go to Corsica, didn't he? "I don't want to give the extreme left a reason to protest," he says on TV. The last French politician the folks in the Antilles didn't want to see was Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Then the very brown newslady went on to the 'confidential' report put together by the Renseignements généraux - spooks of the interior - which concluded that the disturbances were a form of 'unorganized insurrection, a kind of popular revolt, without a leader or a program.'

She didn't get a chance to say all this because Sarkozy persisted - and 'signed' - with his own interpretation. "I call hooligans hooligans when they are hooligans," with the whites under his eyeballs increasing, "we were facing organized bands - what about the 800 we arrested? Hooligans and delinquents create terror," he added, running on about domination of the suburbs by 'mafias' and 'drug dealers.' But never saying why his guys don't catch them, because nobody asks.

Besides being uninvited to the Antilles the short minister took another blow today when a court commission in Pontoise recommended against deporting a young rioter. He has lived in France since he was three, has correct papers, and no previous offenses on record. The commission was also skeptical about the facts of the case. Another court at Bobigny, at the very center of the disturbances, noted that few of the arrested had police records. Hardly the stuff mafias are made of.

It must not be forgotten that the minister of the interior is a busy man, as president of the wealthy Hauts-de-Seine department and president of the UMP, as well as self-proclaimed candidate for president of France. The UMP had a congress or meeting of some sort last week, when they gathered to decide to either hold a primary to chose a candidate, or decided not to.

As it is, Sarkozy is high in the polls, but Jacques Chirac's man, the prime minister Dominique de Villepin, is rising fast. Nobody can figure out who the polling people talk to, giving Sarkozy high scores. Socialists don't like him, the right wing UDFs don't trust him, the Communists, Verts and Anarchists can't stand him, he's got no friends in the Radical Left, and even some members of the UMP think he's a bit hairy.

It leaves a core of support within the right-right of the UMP, and the usual 10 percent of the ultra retros in the Front National. Does Nicolas Sarkozy want Jean-Marie Le Pen's job? The other way around is hardly credible.



Down by Sèvres-Babylon, the Bon Marché - one of the Hollywood editor's favorite places to buy stuffed toys at Christmas to haul back to the tykes out here in Southern California -

Shall we meet "At the Smoking Dog" with its cool neon sign? Note in the lower right, a Mini Cooper twin of the white Just Above Sunset staff car out here in Hollywood, next to a svelte Twingo (none of those out here) -

A classic Paris dive -

In lieu of a Los Angeles 7-11, this Paris "Superette" -

Text and Photos, Copyright © 2005 - Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

Posted by Alan at 17:40 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2005 17:51 PST home

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