Corporate media find all the wrong lessons for US left in Corbyn’s defeat

January 22nd, 2020


Conservative leader Boris Johnson swept to power in the UK’s December 12 elections, winning 365 of a possible 650 seats. Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his resignation, after a bitterly disappointing night for his party.

Across the spectrum, corporate media all came to the same conclusion regarding the election: Corbyn’s loss spells the end for the US left and a “crushing defeat” (New York, 12/13/19) of the discredited policies of socialism. The press was filled with variations on the same reflexive warning to the Democrats: Don’t go left.

Indeed, CNN published three near-identical articles with that message in one 24-hour span  (12/12/19, 12/13/19, 12/13/19). The first, written even as polling stations were still open, suggested that “the Democratic Party may see a cautionary tale for the US 2020 presidential race,” as Corbyn “promised revolutionary change, a fundamental overhaul of society, heavy new taxes on the rich and a far bigger role for the state in the economy. Sound familiar?” It claimed he “took his party way to the left, leaving the more moderate ground where many voters feel most comfortable.” Going on to attack Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders specifically, it suggested that proposing a “state-run healthcare system” like Britain’s is a “vote killer,” and that Corbyn’s imminent loss implies Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg would be a better candidate.

Only a few hours later, John Avalon claimed (CNN, 12/13/19) the election was a “fierce repudiation” of leftist politics, presenting a “cautionary tale about the perils of polarization and the predictable dangers of embracing a far-left leader” who would nationalize key industries. CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza (12/13/19) offered exactly the same opinion, claiming Johnson’s victory should “make 2020 Democrats nervous,” insinuating that embracing progressive politics and Medicare for All was political suicide, and recommending a more “moderate” or “pragmatic” candidate than Warren or Sanders.

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Mirza Athar Baig’s surreal Urdu novel in translation will be the first wild ride of fiction in 2020

January 22nd, 2020


Author Mirza Athar Baig.

An excerpt from ‘Hassan’s State of Affairs’, translated from the Urdu by Haider Shahbaz.

The terrible event happened to Hassan Raza Zaheer after a lifetime of displaced sightseeing.

Taking full blame for this cumbersome formula (“displaced sightseeing”), if we try to find out when, why, and where Hassan got the habit of displaced sightseeing, then we will have to walk for a little while alongside Hassan down the path of his life…in fact, more importantly, we will have to see with Hassan, because the whole problem is that of seeing, and what needs to be seen is what kind of seeing this will be.

Hassan Raza Zaheer got the job of an accountant at a chemical factory after finishing his studies in finance at the age of twenty-four. The factory was located fifteen kilometres outside of the city. It was an accommodating and appropriate job: the pay was decent, there was the prospect of annual promotion (given compliant and industrious work), meals were free and, most importantly for Hassan, there was the benefit of a company car that picked up the employees every morning from different parts of the city and dropped them back at their houses in the evening.

Hassan always sat next to the window towards the middle of the car, which, in reality, wasn’t a car, but a large van that could seat up to twenty employees. Within a few seconds of sitting down, his neck would turn to the right and, with the van beginning to move, the displaced sightseeing would begin too. The familiar houses of the neighbourhood, shops, then other neighbourhoods, bakeries, auto-workshops, barbershops, schools, colleges, hotels, corner shops, alleys, markets, office buildings, petrol pumps, bridges, rivers, railway lines, grubby dirty neighbourhoods, farms, rural mud houses, public places for gathering, wrestling rings, streams, innumerable kinds of trees, factories… and other than these static targets: moving bodies, pedestrians, animals, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, buses, tractors, trucks… The factory’s parking lot, “Time to get off, sir.”

On the way back, the same series would repeat for the left-hand side of the predetermined route. There was nothing outwardly unusual about Hassan’s act of watching. Any person looks at the world in front of him and to the world on his right and left in much the same way when moved from one place to another. We can say that the feeling of being unconnected to the sight is a prerequisite to displaced sightseeing and is an essential component of our training in “world-watching”.

Then again, it is not at all a matter of training or learning, since we already know from the moment we begin to use our senses that if, in the process of seeing, we get stuck on something that troubles us and forces us to halt, the sensible thing to do is to forget the troublesome scene and keep moving from one sight to the next.

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The Crown, the Queen and their colonies

January 22nd, 2020


Netflix displays a costume from ‘The Crown’ series at an exhibition in Los Angeles, California, US, May 6, 2018 PHOTO/Lisa Richwine/Reuters

“Let us start with the unrest in Egypt, where anti-colonial passions continue to run high, and where our soldiers continue to come under fire from nationalist insurgents.” This is UK Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, as depicted in a scene in the first season of the widely popular Netflix original series The Crown. The reference is, of course, to the anticolonial uprising led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 that eventually led to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. 

It is both jarring and curiously entertaining to see how historical events of monumental importance for the world at large are depicted in a biopic mostly about the private life and palace intrigues of Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom.    

“It is vital that we remain and successfully defend the Suez Canal,” Churchill continues to huff and puff and report to Her Majesty the Queen, “a point that I will be making in person to the Commonwealth heads, when I host them for the weekend at Chequers”.  

Both in this episode and in the rest of the series such references to British colonialism abound. Though they are entirely tangential, almost prop-like, to the actual plot of the biopic, such references give us a clue as to how the British public at large cares to recall their colonial atrocities around the globe. The prose and politics of the series are drawn entirely to the queen’s personal and public traumas; her colonial possessions serve for a bit of narrative seasoning.

At the epicentre of the series is also the predicament of the British monarchy during Queen Elizabeth’s long and troublesome reign. Tommy Lascelles, Private Secretary to both King George VI and to Queen Elizabeth II, portrayed superbly by Pip Torrens, epitomises the radical sentiments of the British monarchists.

Monarchy is God’s sacred mission

The central theme of The Crown is the survival of British monarchy as an institution in a fast-changing world. Queen Elizabeth, played so far with astonishing versatility by Claire Foy (seasons 1–2) and Olivia Colman (season 3), is depicted as initially more interested in her “egalitarian” husband Prince Philip than her duties as queen, but eventually she grows into her role as the monarch of the United Kingdom, the head of the Church of England, the Defender of the Faith, and the head of the British Empire.

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The hunt for human nature

January 21st, 2020


Artwork from the Look and Learn series of children’s books c1970. PHOTO/© Look and Learn

We still live in the long shadow of Man-the-Hunter: a midcentury theory of human origins soaked in strife and violence

The Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz embodied the ideal of a white-maned sage. Acclaimed by readers in German and English alike for his books King Solomon’s Ring (1949) and Man Meets Dog (1949), he enjoyed worldwide renown as an expert on the behaviour of fowl, fish and beast. These delightful popular introductions to evolutionary theory and animal behaviour circulated through the publishing world accompanied by photographs that depicted Lorenz surrounded by imprinted goslings at his rural research institute at Seewiesen in Germany. At the age of 60, Lorenz published On Aggression (1963). Readers again loved it, although the stark warnings it offered differed from the cheerful tone of his earlier books.

Lorenz asked readers to imagine the perspective of an unbiased observer on another planet – perhaps Mars. He specified that the observer should possess a telescope of sufficient power so as to perceive the ‘migration of peoples, wars and similar great historical events’, but weak enough that it couldn’t identify individuals. What would this Martian naturalist think of the behaviour of humans on Earth? Lorenz insisted that his imagined observer ‘would never gain the impression that human behaviour was dictated by intelligence, still less by responsible morality’.

In the decades following the Second World War, scientific discussions about human origins took on great moral weight. Reckoning with the aftermath of the Holocaust and the popularity of eugenic theories of race around the world, many anthropologists and zoologists embraced an intellectual framework that united all human beings into a common biological order. They sought to reject theories of brutal domination, hierarchical racial taxonomies, and worse. A closer look at evolutionary origins, they argued, would affirm human commonality.

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The “collateral damage” of the U.S.’s unofficial war in Somalia

January 21st, 2020


Nurto Mohamed Nor Issak’s son, Liban, died in a 2016 U.S. air strike near Janale, Somalia ILLUSTRATION/Matt Rota

“Surgical” U.S. air strikes destabilize villages, drive displacement and fuel al-Shabab recruitment.

Nurto Mohamed Nor Issak, 59, doesn’t want to talk about the coconut trees she lost after the U.S. air strike three years ago. She wants to talk about her son who was killed. Who cares about her trees? 

Based on Issak’s recollections, the strike was likely one of two carried out April 1 and April 2, 2016, near where Issak lives, in Janale—about 60 miles southwest of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates as many as 29 people were killed by the air attacks. The Pentagon claims the April 2016 strikes were self-defense against fighters with the militant Islamist group al-Shabab who “posed imminent threats to U.S. and partner nation forces in Somalia.”

Issak is adamant that her son was not with the militants and that she told him “not to mix with al-Shabab.”

The reason I’m speaking with Issak, though, is that—regardless of her son’s alleged association with al-Shabab—her coconut trees are still decapitated and her income depleted, three years hence.

Issak says the strike hit her sugarcane and coconut tree plantation, which stretched about 7 acres. Al-Shabab bans smartphones in the villages it controls, but Issak managed to use one to take photos of the damage. “The coconut trees lost their heads,” she says. In the pictures, the tree trunks are stark against the blue sky, masts without sails.

Before the strikes, Issak had 240 coconut trees whose biweekly harvest brought her about $250—roughly $6,000 a year. Livestock and crops are the main sources of livelihood in Somalia—as they are for Issak, who says less than a quarter of her trees survived. U.S. Africa Command (Africom) generally uses precision-guided munitions—often Hellfire missiles with a 20–80 pound warhead, not large enough to cause mass destruction of a farm. But Issak says the strike set the grass under her trees on fire, causing the trees to decay (which coconut tree experts tell In These Times is plausible).

Issak has lost much with the decimation of her trees, but it’s her son she misses most. He was a strong, supportive son with business plans, she says. He could have done so much with the farm. She still has the bloody T-shirt he was wearing when he died.

The United States began its campaign of “precision” strikes against al-Shabab (and, more recently, ISIS-Somalia) in 2007. In the past three years, Africom says it has carried out 148 strikes, killing between 900 and 1,000 people. Africom long maintained that all of the deaths were targeted “terrorists.” This year, Amnesty International has investigated six U.S. air strikes and concluded they caused 17 civilian casualties. Africom has since admitted that one strike (not one covered by Amnesty) did result in two civilian deaths.

Such strikes—often referred to as “surgical”—can target a specific room in a house from thousands of feet away. But a bomb is still a bomb, and the impacts reverberate physically, psychologically and politically.

Following my own findings that U.S. air strikes were contributing to civilian displacement, along with informal reports from Somali sources and NGOs who said strikes were spurring al-Shabab recruitment, I travelled to Somalia for In These Times to investigate the strikes’ civilian impacts.

I spoke with Somalis living in territories controlled by al-Shabab whose property or villages were hit by air strikes, as well as analysts, activists and policymakers. I found that U.S. air strikes in Somalia have damaged farms, homes and livestock. Strikes have also created a climate of uncertainty and paranoia within the communities they hit, as civilians start suspecting each other of being targeted members of al-Shabab. Al-Shabab has reacted to the strikes by harassing villagers, accusing locals of being U.S. spies or forcing them to choose between fighting for al-Shabab and fleeing home.

“Our research has found that when a Somali’s farm or property is the scene of an air strike, that person is seen as suspicious and can be targeted for reprisals,” weapons investigator Brian Castner, who worked on Amnesty International’s Crisis Team to report on civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in Somalia, tells In These Times.

U.S. air strikes have driven recruitment for ISIS and the Taliban, and experts say al-Shabab is likely to use them in the same way. Roselyne Omondi, the associate director of research at the HORN Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, told Public Radio International that air strikes feed into al-Shabab’s claims that it is defending the country against foreign invaders. “If this continues, we can expect more radicalization,” she said.

“Air strikes are without a doubt used as a recruitment tool,” concurs Bill Roggio, a former soldier and senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank. He says the air strikes are a “staple” of jihadist propaganda he has seen, including al-Shabaab’s. 

Thirteen people told me they lost property, lost assets or were forced from their homes after U.S. air strikes. Some of the displaced had fled because al-Shabab tried to recruit them, sometimes cornering them for hours and returning numerous times over days or weeks. Others felt they could not return because al-Shabab would accuse them of spying, putting their lives at risk.

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The runaway train of cognitive enhancement

January 21st, 2020


PHOTO/ Getty Images

How far can we “improve” our mind before we lose our sense of identity and authenticity?

Facebook recently announced it had acquired CTRL-Labs, a U.S. start-up working on wearable tech that allows people to control digital devices with their brain. The social media company is only the latest in a long string of firms investing in what has come to be termed “neurotechnology.” Earlier this year Neuralink, a company backed by Elon Musk, announced that it hopes to begin human trials for computerized brain implants.

These projects may seem like science fiction, but this drive to get more out of our brains is nothing new—from tea, caffeine and nicotine, to amphetamines and the narcolepsy drug Modafinil, drugs have long been used as rudimentary attempts at cognitive enhancement. And in our tech-driven world, the drive to cognitively enhance is stronger than ever—and is leading us to explore new and untested methods.

In today’s hypercompetitive world, everyone is looking for an edge. Improving memory, focus or just the ability to work longer hours are all key to getting ahead, and a drug exists to improve each of them. In 2017, 30 percent of Americans said they had used “smart drug” supplements, known as nootropics, at least once that year, even if studies repeatedly demonstrate that they have a negligible effect on intellect.

For some, however, nootropics are not enough, and so they turn to medical-grade stimulants. The most famous of these is Adderall, which boosts focus and productivity far more than commercial nootropics. A well-established black market thrives on university campuses and in financial centers, supplying these drugs to people desperate to gain a competitive edge.

Scientific American for more

Elections or autonomy? Notes from a Trawün Mapuche in Chile

January 20th, 2020


Street art in Santiago, November 2019. PHOTO/Sandra Cuffe.

The first proposes participating in elections for the Constituent Assembly. But parties that signed the agreement refused to allow the possibility that Indigenous people would have their own electoral districts, with 15% of the elected, similar to the percent of Indigenous people that live in Chile. There is a lot of discussion, then, about how to proceed.

This position has been gaining ground during the uprising, though it was born nearly 20 years ago, under the name of “plurinationalism.” As the Mapuches do not want to be elected within existing parties, some participants (including some women) propose the creation of a Mapuche electoral party.

This stream of thought appears to be more common in the cities, especially in Santiago, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Mapuche people. But its nucleus of support is among those who emigrated from Wall Mapu to the city to study at university. Their discourse is powerful and well reasoned, and they argue that there is “not much time” to get started, as the process of electing constituents will begin in April. 

The second current defends self-determination and autonomy, which are the traditional positions of the Mapuche communities in the south of Chile. They are those most affected by state repression and by the militarization of their territories, as well as by displacement by forestry companies. It is their communities who resist and take back lands, and above all, who keep the flame of the Mapuche nation and identity alive. 

“We have our own government and our own parliament, we don’t need the politicians,” stated one middle aged woman. Another young man asked: “Do we really want a seat inside winka (white) politics?”

If it is true that the uprising in Chile that began in October 2019 closes a cycle that was opened on September 11, 1973 with Pinochet’s coup d’etat, it must also be true that a new cycle is opening, though we still don’t know what its key characteristics will be.

But from what we can see in the streets of Santiago, this cycle will have two key protagonists: the police state, the armed wing of the dominant classes; and the popular sectors in urban neighborhoods and in Wall Mapu. The pulse between these two forces will determine the future of Chile. 

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Trump-Pelosi trade maneuvers: USMCA, China tariffs, & Brazil-Argentina steel

January 20th, 2020



Today the Trump administration, with Democrats & AFLCIO leaders in tow, announced new final revisions and deal with Mexico on the new NAFTA 2.0 free trade agreement called the USMCA.

According to the corporate media, revisions to the USMCA demanded by Democrats since the initial agreement was reached with Mexico a year ago, have been agreed to by Trump, Pelosi, and the president of Mexico, Lopez-Obrador. The revisions reportedly mean more protections for US labor in particular. However, all we have at the moment is what’s reported in the corporate and mainstream media about the revisions. We’ll have to wait to read the final print of the actual agreement. But even the media reports are not much more than vague generalities about the terms and conditions of the revisions. The much heralded improvements to US labor interests in particular don’t appear that different from Trump’s originally negotiated deal a year ago.

The official media story line is that the new revisions provide protections for American workers now that did not exist previously during the 20+ years of NAFTA 1.0. During that period, easily 4-5 million US jobs were diverted to Mexico.

At issue during negotiations on revisions to NAFTA–now called the USMCA–was whether US inspectors would be allowed access to Mexico factories and businesses to ensure that the new labor terms of the revised USMCA trade deal were being enforced. Lopez Obrador and Mexican business have been adamantly opposed to allowing US inspectors access to Mexican factories, which suggests they had something to hide. (Mexico and AMLO both are in agreement on this issue). THey demanded that, instead of inspectors, there would be a joint US-Mexican panel to arbitrate labor disputes. But the issue is independent inspection, not a panel to rule on disputes that may never rise due to absence of inspection. What good is a panel of any kind ruling on a dispute that doesn’t get raised because there’s no independent inspection in the first place? Also important is whether the inspectors inspect unannounced, or whether they have to give a pre-notice before they inspect (that phony arrangement is how the US OSHA law has functioned with little effect for decades). Moreover, if there’s panel, how is it determined and what is its composition? If it’s equal US-Mexico representation, it might never come to a final decision.

In other words, if the final terms and conditions in print for the USMCA provide only for panels, in lieu of unannounced inspectors, then the so-called great labor protections touted by Democrats as part of a final deal are really just another fig leaf of labor protection.

While the mainstream media and Democrats talk up the labor revisions in today’s final deal, the real substance of the recent revisions–sought by Trump and US corporations and bankers–has had more to do with protecting the interests of US big pharma companies and US oil and bankers.

Big pharma has always wanted NAFTA-USMCA to include what it wanted in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal it didn’t get in 2017: i.e. protections on pricing of its drugs in Mexico at levels closer to its price gouging levels in the US. The fine print in the USMCA will tell whether it got this, or at least got a big change from Mexico’s current rules that keep the price of drugs lower in Mexico than in the US.

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’Tis the season for hangovers: What happens to your body when you drink too much

January 20th, 2020


PHOTO/SocialButterflyMMG/Pixabay [Pixabay License]

When you are sober, a shot seems like a good idea. When you are drunk, it seems even better.

Having a few drinks at Christmas is, for some people, as much a part of the festive tradition as presents, decorations or carols. So if you find yourself nursing a hangover on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, you might be interested to know what’s actually going on inside your body and why you feel so bad.

We tend to drink because in low doses alcohol is initially a euphoriant, it makes you feel happier. It does this by causing the body to release dopamine and endorphins, chemicals that stimulate the brain’s reward system. But after a while and as you drink more, it ultimately suppresses some brain activity and slows down your heart and breathing.

The effects of the initial intake of any alcohol is the first of many stages of narcosis, the last of which is death. There just happens to be a large window between an effective dose, which has you thinking you are far more witty and handsome than you actually are and, later, running down the street with a traffic cone on your head, and a lethal dose, which has you on a mortuary slab.

Effects of alcohol

Small amounts of alcohol affect the limbic system in the brain, which result in aggression and the Friday and Saturday night melees common in many town centres. Alcohol is also a vasodilator, which means it widens blood vessels, diverting blood from the body’s core to its extremities. This results in the characteristic flushed cheeks you can get from consuming alcohol and also the red nose often sported by dyed-in-the-wool drinkers.

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Weekend Edition

January 17th, 2020