History from a high angle

June 19th, 2018


A scene from Masaki Kobayashi’s film Seppuku (1962) PHOTO/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

A Dream of Resistance: The Cinema of Kobayashi Masaki by Stephen Prince (Rutgers University Press, 323 pp., $39.95

Midway through the director Masaki Kobayashi’s film The Fossil (1975), the aging protagonist Itsuki summarizes his experience during World War II: “We should probably all have died in that war. Even so, I am still alive today.” These two statements exemplify the core concerns of Kobayashi’s films in the way they move from generational concerns to individual ones and present postwar experience as bonus time.

Born in Hokkaido in 1916, Kobayashi was part of the first class to study with the pioneering art historian Yaichi Aizu at Waseda University. Upon graduation in 1941, he joined the eminent film studio Shochiku, but his nascent career as an assistant director came to an abrupt halt when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor that December. He was drafted into the army and survived the war through what he regarded as an accident of history: his unit, which had been based in Manchuria, was redirected to the island of Miyakojima to construct an airfield, narrowly avoiding the ferocious combat in the Philippines and Okinawa (where he later spent nearly a year interned as a prisoner of war).

Few directors have been as obsessively concerned with the causes and effects of the war, which Kobayashi began addressing in his breakthrough feature, The Thick-Walled Room (1953), about the B- and C-class war criminals—“ordinary soldiers” rather than war leaders—held in Sugamo prison. The film’s release was delayed for three years until 1956 due to the controversial subject matter. Similar issues are addressed in Youth of Japan (1968) and Tokyo Saiban, a four-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Tokyo war crimes trials that he completed in 1983.

What unites these films is an interest in the tension between the fixity of official narratives and the complexities of lived experience. Kobayashi said that he “had a postwar mentality even before the war,” but felt guilty about his unwillingness to fully realize his opposition in wartime. These sentiments motivated him to make the three-part, nine-and-a-half-hour epic The Human Condition (1959–1961), an adaptation of a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa that traces the moral ascent and descent of a Japanese pacifist named Kaji who, like Kobayashi, was sent to Manchuria.

Kobayashi’s concern with the gap between events and their recording was articulated most strongly in his 1962 film Seppuku (the American title, Harakiri, employs the more familiar and vulgar term, thereby losing some of the ritual connotations central to Kobayashi’s film). Early in it, there is a shot of the official register of the Iyi clan, with a narrator reading an entry announcing that nothing of great importance happened on May 13, 1630, except that a wandering samurai from Hiroshima appeared at the gate. In the two hours that follow, Kobayashi provides the background for this historical footnote, slowly mapping out the social dynamics and political hypocrisies underlying the enforcement of the Tokugawa shogunate’s military code (it would remain in effect until 1868).

The New York Review of Books for more

Trump was right. The rest of the G7 were wrong

June 19th, 2018


German Chancellor Angela Merkel (in sky blue jacket) is facing the US President Donald Trump. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen with arms folded together across his chest and French President Emmanuel Macron is on right of Merkel with his right hand on the table. PHOTO/Business Insider

He gets almost everything wrong. But last weekend Donald Trump got something right. To the horror of the other leaders of the rich world, he defended democracy against its detractors. Perhaps predictably, he has been universally condemned for it.

His crime was to insist that the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) should have a sunset clause. In other words, it should not remain valid indefinitely, but expire after five years, allowing its members either to renegotiate it or to walk away. To howls of execration from the world’s media, his insistence has torpedoed efforts to update the treaty.

In Rights of Man, published in 1791, Thomas Paine argued that: “Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.” This is widely accepted – in theory if not in practice – as a basic democratic principle.

Even if the people of the US, Canada and Mexico had explicitly consented to Nafta in 1994, the idea that a decision made then should bind everyone in North America for all time is repulsive. So is the notion, championed by the Canadian and Mexican governments, that any slightly modified version of the deal agreed now should bind all future governments.

But the people of North America did not explicitly consent to Nafta. They were never asked to vote on the deal, and its bipartisan support ensured that there was little scope for dissent. The huge grassroots resistance in all three nations was ignored or maligned. The deal was fixed between political and commercial elites, and granted immortality.

In seeking to update the treaty, governments in the three countries have candidly sought to thwart the will of the people. Their stated intention was to finish the job before Mexico’s presidential election in July. The leading candidate, Andrés Lopez Obrador, has expressed hostility to Nafta, so it had to be done before the people cast their vote. They might wonder why so many have lost faith in democracy.

Nafta provides a perfect illustration of why all trade treaties should contain a sunset clause. Provisions that made sense to the negotiators in the early 1990s make no sense to anyone today, except fossil fuel companies and greedy lawyers. The most obvious example is the way its rules for investor-state dispute settlement have been interpreted. These clauses (chapter 11 of the treaty) were supposed to prevent states from unfairly expropriating the assets of foreign companies. But they have spawned a new industry, in which aggressive lawyers discover ever more lucrative means of overriding democracy.

The rules grant opaque panels of corporate lawyers, meeting behind closed doors, supreme authority over the courts and parliaments of its member states. A BuzzFeed investigation revealed they had been used to halt criminal cases, overturn penalties incurred by convicted fraudsters, allow companies to get away with trashing rainforests and poisoning villages, and, by placing foreign businesses above the law, intimidate governments into abandoning public protections.

Under Nafta, these provisions have become, metaphorically and literally, toxic. When Canada tried to ban a fuel additive called MMT as a potentially dangerous neurotoxin, the US manufacturer used Nafta rules to sue the government. Canada was forced to lift the ban, and award the company $13m (£10m) in compensation. After Mexican authorities refused a US corporation permission to build a hazardous waste facility, the company sued before a Nafta panel, and extracted $16.7m in compensation. Another US firm, Lone Pine Resources, is suing Canada for $119m because the government of Quebec has banned fracking under the St Lawrence River.

As the US justice department woke up to the implications of these rules in the 1990s, it began to panic: one official wrote that it “could severely undermine our system of justice” and grant foreign companies “more rights than Americans have”. Another noted: “No one thought about this when Nafta implementing law passed.”

Nor did they think about climate breakdown. Nafta obliges Canada not only to export most of its oil and half its natural gas to the US, but also to ensure that the proportion of these fuels produced from tar sands and fracking does not change. As a result, the Canadian government cannot adhere to both its commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change and its commitments under Nafta. While the Paris commitments are voluntary, Nafta’s are compulsory.

Z Communications for more

Star of Latin Quarter is Pakistani

June 19th, 2018


Ali Akbar yelling the day’s headlines in the streets of Latin Quarter of Paris. PHOTO/by author

A newspaper hawker yelling at the top of his voice the day’s headlines in the streets of Latin Quarter of Paris is as much an anomaly in the present epoch as, say a horse-driven carriage.

Undaunted by the changes of time, Ali Akbar sets aside his old bicycle every day, seven days a week, exactly at 1pm at the same spot of boulevard St Germain as he has done for the past more than forty years.

Slim and dynamic at age sixty-four, Ali says the nostalgic memories are very much alive of the times when he sold hundreds of copies of dailies like Le Monde and Libération, in addition to weeklies Charlie Hebdo or Journal du Dimanche.

Today, thanks to the internet, practically nobody buys newspapers anymore, even less so from a hawker. But, says Ali: “I came to Paris from Pakistan when I was eighteen and this is the only thing I’ve ever enjoyed doing.”

There is little doubt over his passion for the profession he has developed in his own style by often screaming fake news just for fun: former president François Hollande dismissing his government and appointing his girlfriend Julie Gaye as prime minister or the extreme-right, anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen converting to Islam. His inventiveness does not restrain him from shouting out news about his personal life as well: “What a catastrophe! My wife is back home!”

People sitting in legendary cafés like Lipp, Flore or Deux Magots frequented in ancient times by intellectuals such as Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé and later by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir laugh at Ali’s jokes and readily buy his papers even if they don’t need them.

He is also the author of a book Je fais rire le monde mais le monde me fait pleurer (I make the world laugh, but the world makes me cry), an autobiographical work recounting his poor family background in Rawalpindi and his survival struggles in Paris.

He says, “The book has turned my life in a new direction. I often end up pedaling a greater number of copies of it than those of Le Monde and Charlie Hebdo put together.”

His wild imagination knows no limits. One afternoon he made everyone roll with laughter shouting the biggest scoop of the day: “Ali Akbar invited to join the French Academy of Literature!”

A real star of Latin Quarter in his own way, Ali is frequently invited by well known politicians, often by movie celebrities like Sophie Marceau to have a cup of coffee with them.

Ali who speaks in fluent, accent-less French says the publication of his book has brought in a certain change to his family life as well. His five sons between ages twenty-three and ten used to be a bit embarrassed by the fact of his being a newspaper hawker.

“Now they are very proud to introduce me to their friends as a great writer.”

Last December, shock fell on our hero when he was told by the newspapers he sells that his services were no longer required.

Prominent Latin Quarter personalities reacted enthusiastically to this and, backed by a number of professors at the Science Po university situated in the area, a petition was circulated insisting on the presence of Ali not just as a hawker but also as an inseparable part of the Parisian culture. It gathered more than seven thousand signatures and he was eventually requested to continue.

Anne Sophie Beauvais, editor of the magazine Emile, says: “Ali is not just a newspaper salesman. He is an icon of our times. His profession represents a universe that has to be saved, especially in Latin Quarter neighborhood where luxury stores and banks have started shoving old bookshops and libraries to extinction.”

Dawn for more

Why the NYT is really wrong about Kashmir

June 18th, 2018


An Indian police officer fires a tear gas shell towards demonstrators, during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar May 8, 2018 PHOTO/Danish Ismail/Reuters

A recent editorial by the New York Times demonstrates little understanding of what is actually going on in Kashmir.

On May 18, the New York Times published an editorial entitled “A long shot in Kashmir”. The editorial completely misrepresents the nature of the Kashmir issue and reinforces the false notion of it being a “territorial dispute” between India and Pakistan.

In addition, it raises the bogey of “Islamism” to further undermine genuine mass aspirations for self-determination and freedom from India among Kashmiris. As scholars of Kashmir, we believe it is important to provide correctives to these misconceptions.

One of the primary misfortunes of the Kashmiri people has been that their struggle for self-determination continues to be framed simply as an interstate conflict, with much more importance given to Indian and Pakistani nationalist narratives on Kashmir than Kashmiri viewpoints.

For the issue to be resolved, the international community, and the media, need to move beyond these statist perspectives and foreground Kashmiri perspectives and agency. Kashmiris are not only the main victims of the conflict in the region but remain the key drivers of the long-standing self-determination movement.

As recent scholarship on Kashmir has showcased, we need to move beyond the framing of the conflict as only beginning in 1947. Despite popular perceptions in the West and elsewhere, the region was far from internally politically passive while India and Pakistan fought three wars to control it.

Instead, we need to look into Kashmiri political aspirations in the late colonial period. In 1931, Kashmiris launched their first mass agitation against the Dogras, a Hindu monarchy that ruled over the Muslim-majority region. While this historic movement became embroiled in the politics of British India’s partition in 1947, as the region was split between India and Pakistan, the Kashmiri aspiration to determine their own future not only continued but intensified.

Indeed, focusing primarily on India and Pakistan, the New York Times editorial makes no reference to why Kashmiris are protesting and why they have continued to demand their political rights.

Simplistic references to “Islamist insurgency”, and its sponsorship by Pakistan, play easily into Indian conspiracy theories that dehumanise Kashmiris and deny them any political agency and ability to rule themselves. These theories do not explain the existence of a decades-old Kashmiri self-determination movement before the 1990s, nor do they cover the entire gamut of Kashmiri opinions on the matter.

Furthermore, while Pakistan remains a party to the dispute, its role since 9/11, and especially since 2008, has been minimal. The large crowds demanding freedom in Kashmir are not instigated by Pakistan; this is an indigenous resurgence.

The editorial does not highlight the intense repression and political surveillance that Kashmiris are subject to on a daily basis. The “Islamist insurgency” is only one facet of the Kashmiri response to the occupation and is itself a result of Indian repression and curbing of dissent.

Indeed, presenting Kashmir’s historical struggle for self-determination as an “Islamist insurgency” helps India present itself as a victim of terrorism rather than as a perpetrator of state violence.

Al Jazeera for more

BRICS in Africa: “You are either at the table or on the menu”

June 18th, 2018


At a Johannesburg BRICS think tank, scholars get drunk on their own rhetoric

South African academics and think tanks met on 28-31 May 2018 for deliberations leading to the July 2018 BRICS heads of state summit to be hosted by South Africa. Most of these scholars believe that the BRICS countries offer an alternative to Western imperialism, but the author argues that they are seriously wrong.

A “think tank” is sometimes a group of people paid to think, by the people who control the tanks (as Naomi Klein once remarked). In Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s highest-profile intellectual vehicles appears to be a victim of drunken driving by scholars from whom we otherwise expect much stronger political navigation skills.

In the luxurious central business district of Sandton, a large gathering of state-funded intellectuals (staying at the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel) is conferencing in heart-warmingly hedonistic style, replete with national Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) songs and dances.

The 28-31 May BRICS Academic Forum and South Africa (SA) BRICS Think Tank meeting at the Sandton Convention Centre must be South African scholars’ most expensive event of the year, in spite of the theme, “Envisioning Inclusive Development through a Socially Responsive Economy.”

The mandate from Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandoor’s opening speech was framed with unabashed talk-left ideology, regardless of obvious walk-right realities. She asked academics to

“develop a collaborative set of interventions that advances the agenda of the bloc. The BRICS formation is one that is based on a progressive view of how the world should develop; and the world is in need of progressive ideas, of ideas that come from issues of social justice and inclusion.”

But to advance that agenda entails active avoidance of major class contradictions within and between the BRICS, and between the BRICS and Africa, especially host South Africa’s rampant corporate and state corruption. The point, according to BRICS facilitator Anil Sooklal, Deputy Director-General of Pretoria’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), is state-business-intellectual “synergy”:

“We found that the Think Tank and Academic Forum is working in one compartment, and our business [sector] was working in another compartment, and government in another compartment. So we took the initiative to bring them all together.”

As the gathering this week illustrates, being embedded within a state-corporate power and funding system – at a time South Africa’s National Research Foundation is cutting back drastically on scholars’ research subsidies – risks transmission of the worst disease intellectuals can catch: failure of analytical nerve.

Pambazuka for more

Tomgram: Making sense of America’s empire of chaos

June 18th, 2018



[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Every week Truthout chooses a book, a “progressive pick,” to highlight (and sell). This coming week, it’s my new book, A Nation Unmade by War. As part of the process, I did an interview about the book’s themes with Truthout’s Mark Karlin who was kind enough to let me post it here on this Memorial Day weekend for TomDispatch readers. So check it out, then go to their book club and buy a copy, if the mood strikes you, or should you want a signed, personalized copy of the book, donate $100 to this website ($125 if you live outside the U.S.) and it’s yours. Check out our donation page for the details, but first read my thoughts below. Tom]

A Truthout Progressive Pick Interview with Tom Engelhardt

Mark Karlin: How much money has gone to the U.S. war on terror and what has been the impact of this expenditure?

Tom Engelhardt: The best figure I’ve seen on this comes from the Watson Institute’s Costs of War Project at Brown University and it’s a staggering $5.6 trillion, including certain future costs to care for this country’s war vets. President Trump himself, with his usual sense of accuracy, has inflated that number even more, regularly speaking of $7 trillion being lost somewhere in our never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East. One of these days, he’s going to turn out to be right.

As for the impact of such an expenditure in the regions where these wars continue to be fought, largely nonstop, since they were launched against a tiny group of jihadis just after September 11, 2001, it would certainly include: the spread of terror outfits across the Middle East, parts of Asia, and Africa; the creation — in a region previously autocratic but relatively calm — of a striking range of failed or failing states, of major cities that have been turned into absolute rubble (with no money in sight for serious reconstruction), of internally displaced people and waves of refugees at levels that now match the moment after World War II, when significant parts of the planet were in ruins; and that’s just to start down a list of the true costs of our wars.

At home, in a far quieter way, the impact has been similar. Just imagine, for instance, what our American world would have been like if any significant part of the funds that went into our fruitless, still spreading, now nameless conflicts had been spent on America’s crumbling infrastructure, instead of on the rise of the national security state as the unofficial fourth branch of government. (At TomDispatch, Pentagon expert William Hartung has estimated that approximately $1 trillion annually goes into that security state and, in the age of Trump, that figure is again on the rise.)

Part of the trouble assessing the “impact” here in the U.S. is that, in this era of public demobilization in terms of our wars, people are encouraged not to think about them at all and they’ve gotten remarkably little attention. So sorting out exactly how they’ve come home — other than completely obvious developments like the militarization of the police, the flying of surveillance drones in our airspace, and so on — is hard. Most people, for instance, don’t grasp something I’ve long written about at TomDispatch: that Donald Trump would have been inconceivable as president without those disastrous wars, those trillions squandered on them and on the military that’s fought them, and that certainly qualifies as “impact” enough.

Tom Dispatch for more

Weekend Edition

June 15th, 2018

And the Nobel goes to …

June 15th, 2018


“As the two leaders walked together at the hotel, Kim’s translator was overheard saying, ‘Many people in the world will think of this as a (inaudible) form of fantasy … from a science-fiction movie.’” PHOTO/ Kevin Lim/The Straits Times/Getty Images/CNN

And the winner is …

There is no doubt Donald Trump is a hard-core racist who would like to see only white people in the United States. Trump don’t want to see colored people from “shithole countries” but instead want white people from “Norway” to immigrate to the US. He is obsessively anti-Obama: if Barack Obama had as a president built a wall on the US/Mexican border, there are good chances that Trump would have ordered a demolition of that border barrier like he tried to dismantle the Obamacare health plan. Still there are things for which he would like to follow Obama’s suit.

Trump knew from the beginning that Kim Jong Un was not going to give away its status as one of the nuclear powers but Trump, like Obama, wanted a <a href="Nobel Peace Prize“>Nobel Peace Prize and this was the best way to get one.

The success of the Kim/Trump summit was assured on March 9, 2018, when Trump was informed by South Korean envoys of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s willingness to meet Trump. Trump is a bullshitter and knew that without doing anything his name could go in the history books as a peacemaker. Why was the success of the Summit guaranteed? Because only a successful outcome of the Summit could drop a Nobel Peace Prize in Trump’s small hands.

And the winner is …

and the Nobel goes to …
US President Donald Trump
for acting out his role as a great peacemaker

one may make fun of this clownish potential fascist
dozens of defects he’s endowed with
various vulgarities are his characteristics
but one has to give him credit when its due
peace has never been so cheap – literally -
no war no battle
not a single shot was fired
if one overlooks the verbal volleys from “Rocket Man” and “dotard
only expenses involved were:
travel/hotel expenses of Trump’s/Kim’s and their entourages’
a bit of corruption was involved
(Trump has an eye on North Korea’s beaches
for opening few Trump Towers
may be he’ll succeed)

but many people are unhappy
most of them Hypocrites, sorry Democrats
they’re busy counting Kim’s human rights abuses
forgetting the violence against/and killing of blacks in the US
not talking about US crimes against humanity through its wars

B. R. Gowani can be reached at brgowani@hotmail.com

Indian slavery once thrived in New Mexico. Latinos are finding family ties to it.

June 15th, 2018


St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Abiquiú, N.M., a village settled by former Indian slaves, or Genízaros, in the 18th century PHOTO/Adria Malcolm/The New York Times

Lenny Trujillo made a startling discovery when he began researching his descent from one of New Mexico’s pioneering Hispanic families: One of his ancestors was a slave.

“I didn’t know about New Mexico’s slave trade, so I was just stunned,” said Mr. Trujillo, 66, a retired postal worker who lives in Los Angeles. “Then I discovered how slavery was a defining feature of my family’s history.”

Mr. Trujillo is one of many Latinos who are finding ancestral connections to a flourishing slave trade on the blood-soaked frontier now known as the American Southwest. Their captive forebears were Native Americans — slaves frequently known as Genízaros (pronounced heh-NEE-sah-ros) who were sold to Hispanic families when the region was under Spanish control from the 16th to 19th centuries. Many Indian slaves remained in bondage when Mexico and later the United States governed New Mexico.

The revelations have prompted some painful personal reckonings over identity and heritage. But they have also fueled a larger, politically charged debate on what it means to be Hispanic and Native American.

A growing number of Latinos who have made such discoveries are embracing their indigenous backgrounds, challenging a long tradition in New Mexico in which families prize Spanish ancestry. Some are starting to identify as Genízaros. Historians estimate that Genízaros accounted for as much as one-third of New Mexico’s population of 29,000 in the late 18th century.

“We’re discovering things that complicate the hell out of our history, demanding that we reject the myths we’ve been taught,” said Gregorio Gonzáles, 29, an anthropologist and self-described Genízaro who writes about the legacies of Indian enslavement.

Those legacies were born of a tortuous story of colonial conquest and forced assimilation.

New Mexico, which had the largest number of sedentary Indians north of central Mexico, emerged as a coveted domain for slavers almost as soon as the Spanish began settling here in the 16th century, according to Andrés Reséndez, a historian who details the trade in his 2016 book, “The Other Slavery.” Colonists initially took local Pueblo Indians as slaves, leading to an uprising in 1680 that temporarily pushed the Spanish out of New Mexico.

The trade then evolved to include not just Hispanic traffickers but horse-mounted Comanche and Ute warriors, who raided the settlements of Apache, Kiowa, Jumano, Pawnee and other peoples. They took captives, many of them children plucked from their homes, and sold them at auctions in village plazas.

The Spanish crown tried to prohibit slavery in its colonies, but traffickers often circumvented the ban by labeling their captives in parish records as criados, or servants. The trade endured even decades after the Mexican-American War, when the United States took control of much of the Southwest in the 1840s.

Seeking to strengthen the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the Peonage Act of 1867 after learning of propertied New Mexicans owning hundreds and perhaps thousands of Indian slaves, mainly Navajo women and children. But scholars say the measure, which specifically targeted New Mexico, did little for many slaves in the territory.

The New York Times for more

More than half your body is not human

June 15th, 2018


Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count. The rest are microscopic colonists.

Understanding this hidden half of ourselves – our microbiome – is rapidly transforming understanding of diseases from allergy to Parkinson’s.

The field is even asking questions of what it means to be “human” and is leading to new innovative treatments as a result.

“They are essential to your health,” says Prof Ruth Ley, the director of the department of microbiome science at the Max Planck Institute, “your body isn’t just you”.

No matter how well you wash, nearly every nook and cranny of your body is covered in microscopic creatures.

This includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea (organisms originally misclassified as bacteria). The greatest concentration of this microscopic life is in the dark murky depths of our oxygen-deprived bowels.

Prof Rob Knight, from University of California San Diego, told the BBC: “You’re more microbe than you are human.”

Originally it was thought our cells were outnumbered 10 to one.

“That’s been refined much closer to one-to-one, so the current estimate is you’re about 43% human if you’re counting up all the cells,” he says.

But genetically we’re even more outgunned.

The human genome – the full set of genetic instructions for a human being – is made up of 20,000 instructions called genes.

But add all the genes in our microbiome together and the figure comes out between two and 20 million microbial genes.

Prof Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist from Caltech, argues: “We don’t have just one genome, the genes of our microbiome present essentially a second genome which augment the activity of our own.

“What makes us human is, in my opinion, the combination of our own DNA, plus the DNA of our gut microbes.”

BBC for more