Detroit Water Crisis – A Prelude to the Privatization of Water: activism with passion, creativity and a positive attitude

Dutch Merrick, “Detroit Water Crisis: A Prelude to the Privatization of Water” (Acronym TV, 21 August 2014)

For a major part of the 20th century, the city of Detroit was one of the richest if not the richest city in the United States thanks to its being the epicentre of US automobile manufacturing . The city was a major focus for labour union activity as a result of the dominance of car manufacturing; the famous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa was a native of Detroit. The city was a magnet for immigrants attracted by the work in car-making factories which paid well and offered great working conditions, and in time a distinctive culture of art and music arose: Motown Records was based in Detroit, the city produced many famous musicians, singers and song-writers, and techno, originally a fusion of electronic-based music, disco and African-American forms of pop music, originated in Detroit.

Since 1970, and maybe even well before then, Detroit has seen a long decline in its fortunes as the US auto industry has had to yield to competing manufacturers in Europe and Asia, and the economy of the US and in particular of the US Midwest has declined. At the same time, successive US governments have succumbed to the lure of monetarist / neoliberal economic policies which over time have gutted social and economic infrastructures across America and driven the slow death of the US middle class. As a primarily car-making town, Detroit has borne the brunt of deindustrialisation and the result is that in recent years the city has shrunk alarmingly with the consequence that its taxpayer base has also dwindled, families have been forced out of their homes by bank foreclosures in the wake of the subprime mortgage bubble bust, and neighbourhoods have become ghost towns. The city government has now commenced cutting off necessarily utilities in many suburbs and one of these is water.

The Acronym TV program focuses in the main on Dennis Trainor Jr’s interview with Atpeace Makita, an activist volunteer working with the Detroit Water Brigade alerting people to the city’s decision to cut off water supplies to areas where poor people live. Makita herself has had her water supply stopped as a result of being unable to pay her water bills (she is a single parent of five children) and faces a very real possibility of losing her children to foster care.

In the interview, after a brief video by Detroit Water Brigade is shown, Makita details what can happen to families whose water is cut off as a result of falling delinquent on their water bills. Articulate and passionate about the cause she is fighting for, Makita talks about the problems households face when they have no water and the mental stress that lack of access brings. Families also suffer discrimination and censure from other people for apparently bringing water shut-offs on themselves because they could not pay the water bills. She goes on to emphasise how access to water is a basic human right due to the nature of our biology (our bodies are 70% water) and how she counters opinions that if people don’t pay their water bills, they deserve to have their water cut off.

Makita talks about her work as a volunteer Creative Director with Detroit Water Brigade and what the organisation is doing to create public awareness of water access issues. The culture of the organisation is important in generating and maintaining a positive, vibrant attitude in a struggle that faces enormous obstacles and opposition from government and corporations. To that end, Makita discusses the way in which DWB encourages an inclusive, warm approach in recruiting activists and conducting its activities which include arts campaigns and other creative events. The message within DWB’s drive is to change people’s attitudes about how their society currently functions and how it could function, and to instill a positive, energetic outlook that inspires people to respect one another, look out and care for one another, and to create a new society based on compassion and an awareness that everyone and everything is connected.

The interview is very wide-ranging and Makita comes across as a very dynamic and fast-talking (maybe a little too fast-talking!) advocate for social justice. Interviewer Trainor is sympathetic towards Makita which in a way isn’t good in that he does not ask her very challenging questions about how DWB confronts the powers that took away people’s access to water in the first place. How does DWB deal with government and corporations, how does it help people who stand to lose their homes or even be charged with and convicted of child neglect because they have had their water cut off, what would happen if DWB activists were persecuted or jailed for their campaigning: these are some issues that Trainor might have raised. Educating people to see that access to water and other basics of life should not be dependent on their ability to pay (and attacking the neoliberal ideology that underpins such an attitude) but instead should be free or provided by communities or collective institutions is another hurdle.

After the interview ends, I come away with the belief that if Makita is representative of mainstream America, Detroit may again lead the rest of the country in a very different direction, one not based on particular technology and the culture that grew up around it but a direction based on authentic human values of care for one’s fellow humans and other creatures, and a new culture resulting from that.

The interview can be viewed at this Youtube link.

From Bread Basket to Basket Case: How All the Riches and Potential in the World Couldn’t Save Ukraine

(This is an original version of the article “From Bread Basket to Basket Case: A Survey of the Ukraine’s Economy” that appears on The Kremlin Stooge blog.)

FROM BREAD BASKET TO BASKET CASE: A SURVEY OF UKRAINE’S ECONOMY 

Overview of Ukraine since November 2013

Almost a year has passed since November 2013 when the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to postpone signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, to which decision individuals and groups favouring closer EU and Ukrainian political and economic ties (with a view to Ukraine gaining full EU membership and a visa-free travel regime allowing more or less unrestricted travel through other EU member countries) began assembling  on Independence Square (the English translation of the Ukrainian name Maidan Nezalezhnosti – from here on, the square will be referred to as the Maidan) in the capital Kyiv to protest and call for European-Ukrainian integration and Yanukovych’s resignation. Demonstrations and protests escalated on the Maidan and culminated in the shooting of Berkut police and demonstrators alike by unknown snipers on the night of 21 February 2014. Yanukovych  and several other government officials fled Ukraine and the Ukrainian parliament impeached Yanukovych’s government and replaced it with a temporary one led by Oleksandr Turchynov, the Speaker of the parliament (Verkhovna Rada), and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk.

A number of new laws passed by the interim government antagonised the ethnic Russian-speaking minority in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine (and smaller groups of Hungarians and Czechs in far western parts). In March 2014, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol held a referendum, deemed illegitimate by Kyiv and the wider world, in which voters overwhelmingly voted for accession to Russia. Russia responded to the referendum result and admitted Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation on 18 March 2014. Inspired by Crimea and Sevastopol’s actions, the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk also tried to break away from Kyiv’s control by declaring themselves People’s Republics in April and holding their own independence referendums in mid-May.  The response of Kyiv to Donetsk and Luhansk’s actions was to instigate military action against breakaway oblasts in April.

Since then, the Ukrainian military has thrown tens of thousands of soldiers against small militias of determined pro-Russian separatist rebels; in the fighting, hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have either gone missing, defected to Russia or died. The actions of the Ukrainian armed forces, starved since Ukrainian independence in 1991 of adequate funding for salaries, training and upgraded facilities and equipment, have been marked by incompetent leadership and management, and possibly bad military strategy.

What has now become a major political and existential problem for Ukraine, on which the country’s whole future as one entity depends, originally was an issue of deciding the country’s economic future so as to resolve its many and quite dire economic problems. What was the state of Ukraine’s economy when on that fateful day in November, Yanukovych nearly put pen to the dotted line on the paper? A general survey of Ukraine’s economy as of 2013, more or less, is in order as a foundation for us to get a grasp of issues involved.

A Brief History since Independence

On achieving independence in 1991, Ukraine inherited a centralised economy in which government planning was dominant from the Soviet Union and in which mining, heavy industry and agriculture were the main sectors. The country had a highly education labour force and a good education system that emphasised the acquisition of technical and scientific skills. However from the mid-1960s up until independence, industrial growth and development slowed and stagnated due in part to lack of effective economic leadership at national and regional levels as the Soviet political elite aged. The system was also corrupt in the way economic plans and goals were set by government bureaucrats and the way goals and output figures were fudged by those charged with production, and leading that production, resulting in ever more corruption (since the false figures were used as inputs for the next annual or 5-year plans) which must have reached surreal proportions in some industries.

For most of the 1990s, Ukraine’s economy languished in a deep recession marked also by hyper-inflation and the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank alarmingly as the country’s leaders struggled ineptly to change its orientation from a centrally planned economy to a market-run economy with private enterprise. Industrial, agricultural and other enterprises that hitherto not only employed and paid workers to work but also managed some aspects of their leisure and health had to adjust to a new ideology and work culture and organisation in which maximisation of profit was the chief goal. After 1999, Ukraine’s GDP began to grow and to continue growing in fits and starts at least until the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 when the economy shrank again. In 2010 the economy began to grow again but stalled in 2012 and 2013.

In 2012, Ukraine’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product which measures the market value of all final output including services produced by a nation in a calendar year) was US$176.3 million, putting the country on par with Vietnam and Romania, and lower than Egypt, Kazakhstan, Peru and the Philippines.

A Survey of Ukraine’s Economy 2012 – 2013

As of 2013, Ukraine depended in the main on mining (based mainly in the south-central and the eastern parts of the country), heavy industry and manufacturing (concentrated around Kyiv and in the east) and agriculture.

What Ukraine exported in 2012

What Ukraine exported in 2012 as a Tree Map (Source: The Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity www.atlas.cid.harvard.edu )

Mining

The Donetsk region contains large reserves of coal and Kryvy Rih has iron ore reserves. Other mineral resources in the country include manganese, bauxite, nickel, titanium (Ukraine has the world’s largest supply) and salt. As of 2012, metals accounted for about 40% of the country’s exports.

There is some production of crude oil and natural gas but not enough to supply the country’s own industrial and domestic needs. Ukraine is highly dependent on Russia for its oil and gas needs. Until June 2014, Ukraine had been receiving a 30% discount on imported gas from Russia; the discount was discontinued by the supplier Gazprom as Ukraine had an outstanding debt of $4.5 billion. Ukraine is now required to pay upfront for Russian gas. There have been ongoing disputes between Ukraine and Russia over gas supplies and gas supply negotiations and treaties, especially over price and supply issues and the linking of gas supplies with Russia’s leases of naval ports in Crimea (when the peninsula was still part of Ukraine).

Ukraine’s geographic position between Russia and much of Europe makes the country a corridor for natural gas and oil to pass from Russia and the Caspian Sea region to the European Union. There have been issues with the amounts of gas passing from Russia through Ukraine to Europe which leads this writer to believe that private companies in Ukraine, a number of which are owned by oligarch politicians, regularly siphon off gas in secret and store and use it in ways that profit the companies and their owners.

Agriculture

Almost two-thirds of Ukraine is made up of fertile chernozem (black earth) soils in the central and southern areas, and agriculture plays a large role in economic output and as an employer of labour. The country produces wheat, potatoes, sugar beets (it is the world’s largest producer), barley, maize, rye, cabbage, tomatoes and sunflower seeds, and its livestock includes pigs, cattle, goats, sheep and poultry. Beekeeping is a significant industry and Ukraine produces more honey per person than any other country in the world. During the Soviet period, Ukraine produced up to 25% of the union’s entire agricultural output, mainly in cereals, and was known as the bread basket of Europe. After 1991 though, agricultural production declined as a result of declining government and other investment in necessary capital such as tractors and combine harvesters, fertilisers and pesticides. Privatisation of agricultural land began in August 1995 and by 1996 over half the arable land being worked was in private or collective hands. As of 2012, agriculture employed 16.8% of the workforce and Ukraine was the world’s sixth largest exporter of grain. The sector still needs investment if it is to increase production and harvests.

Manufacturing and Secondary Industry

Industrial production includes iron and steel-making, mineral fertilisers, sulfuric acid, transport vehicles including passenger vehicles, aircraft including hang-gliders and para-gliders, ship-building and aerospace vehicles. Consumer goods that are an extension of iron and steel manufacture (in many countries, the same companies that make iron and steel also produce items that incorporate iron and steel) which are made in Ukraine include refrigerators and washing-machines. As of 2012, steel accounted for about 40% of total exports and manufacturing made up 14.6% of the country’s GDP and employed 13% of the Ukrainian workforce.

Tertiary / Service Industries

Ukraine has a well-developed IT sector – in part a legacy of the Soviet period during which aircraft, transport vehicle and aerospace manufacturing were developed, requiring technical and engineering knowledge and education – spread across the country with most firms concentrated in and around Kyiv and Kharkiv in the east: according to the Wikipedia article on the Ukrainian economy, the country had the fourth largest number of certified IT professionals in the world in 2013 after the US, India and Russia. In 2013, the value of the IT outsourcing industry in Ukraine was US$2 billion.

Access to the Internet in Ukraine is good, particularly in the cities, and Ukraine has one of the highest Internet access speeds in the world. Broadband services and WiFi hot-spots are available in cities and mobile data services are available in urban areas, airports, roads, railways and coastal waters.Online retail, ticketing and banking services are available and Ukraine is one of the fastest growing E-commerce markets in Europe. The popularity of online retail and trading might suggest it compensates in part for deficiencies in other sectors of Ukraine’s economy in the same way that in some Third World countries, mobile phone usage compensates for the lack of traditional telephone landline networks. The country’s largest Internet access provider, Ukrtelecom is owned by an Austrian investment company.

The country’s transport infrastructure is run-down and imposes a number of costs on the economy in terms of safety, quality, fuel usage and environmental impact. Bad roads mean longer journey times for cars and trucks (translating into more petrol use if certain roads have to be closed and vehicles need to find alternative routes) and more accidents which themselves impose a burden on medical and social services, and the infrastructure that supports these. Companies absorb the transport costs by passing them on to their customers who in turn pass these and other transport costs they accumulate on to their customers, and so on all the way down to the end users: the general public. In this way, everyone ends up paying the price for an inefficient transport network. Even so, the network is adequate for Ukraine’s basic economic needs – its problem is that it needs upgrading and for that, capital investment is required. Railway stock in particular needs to be modernised.

According to Wikipedia, Ukraine is the 8th most popular destination in Europe for tourists, and tourism accounted for 2.2% of the country’s GDP in 2012 and employed 1.7% of the workforce in the same period. Tourists are classified as shopping tourists (mainly from neighbouring countries where prices are higher than what they are in Ukraine for the same items), dental tourists (those tourists seeking dental care that is cheaper than in their home countries), and classic recreational / sightseeing tourists.

The banking industry is overseen by the National Bank of Ukraine and consists of over 180 banks, both state-run and private. Large local private banks include PrivatBank, the largest commercial bank in the country, owned by oligarch-politician Ihor Kolomoisky; Imexbank, owned by Leonid Klimov; and System Capital Management Holdings, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, another oligarch-politician. A number of foreign banks including Sberbank (Russia), Prominvestbank (Russia), PravexBank (owned by Intesa Sanpaolo Group in Italy) and BNP Paribas (France) also have offices in the country.

Other Observations

Most Ukrainians have become poor since 1991 and there are many social problems such as alcoholism and AIDS. The poverty and social stresses are reflected in life expectancy which decreased during the 1990s. Infant mortality rates increased during the same period. Infrastructure such as roads and utilities are in a poor state; the water supply and its quality in the country are a major concern and diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis are present.

Economic Issues and Problems 

The fact that a number of major commercial banks (plus other enterprises in other industries) are owned by wealthy politicians either directly or indirectly poses not just a conflict of interest for the country’s governing elite but also a threat to good governance, financial transparency and accountability, and ultimately Ukraine’s long-term development potential as local and foreign investors will view the country as hopelessly corrupt. This affects all other sectors of the Ukrainian economy: if Ukrainian business practice and government enforcement of laws that regulate business and finance are seen to be compromised because of the extreme concentration of business ownership and wealth in the hands of a few who also happen to dominate the country’s politics, much-needed foreign investment will avoid the country altogether and all major sectors of Ukraine’s economy will shrink and starve for lack of capital.

In a country that is virtually a plutocracy, the efficient collection of taxes may well be a pipe-dream and the taxation laws a laughing-stock: if the rich who pull the purse-strings as well as the puppet-strings don’t pay their share of tax or resort to tax evasion and don’t care that others will notice, ordinary people will follow their example. Essential services and infrastructure that rely heavily on taxation revenue for funding end up undeveloped and run-down, and become ripe for privatisation (which may have been the original intention all along). There’s the possibility that in some parts of the country, wealthy oligarch-politicians may spend money on services that would normally be funded by government at national, regional or local level but this means that the people who benefit from this are basically bought by their benefactor and eventually owe him (maybe her) protection money or its equivalent.

It’s true that manufacturing in Ukraine does suffer from inefficiencies which make it uncompetitive with Western manufactures; in the early 1990s, such inefficiencies could be blamed on the country’s inheritance of centralised state planning which by its nature of top-down decision-making was slow to respond to consumer and enterprise demands. However other European countries that were formerly part of the Soviet orbit, and which gained independence only a couple of years before or the same time as Ukraine, have passed through their baptism of fire faster and successfully as well, though they continue to struggle with problems arising from their transition to market economies. The issue is that in adjusting to market economics and in becoming a market economy, Ukraine was compelled to undergo the kind of neoliberal economic shock treatment (yes, I have read the Naomi Klein book “The Shock Doctrine”) that other countries like Poland and Russia had to swallow. The kind of steady transition that a Sweden or a France could afford was not an option offered to Ukraine by a West enamoured of Thatcher-Reaganite economic policies. While many eastern European countries were able to transition successfully to market economies thanks to historic links with Germany or Sweden (which meant that German and Swedish companies invested in those countries and passed on aspects of their corporate, managerial and industrial cultures), Ukraine did not have that kind of luck due in part to its peculiar origin as a patchwork nation of peoples with different cultures, religions and histories. Western Ukraine looks to the West because of its historic links to the Poland-Lithuanian Comonwealth and the Austro-Hungarian empire and Eastern Ukraine looks to Russia due to long-standing historical and ethnic links with that country. In addition, the political elites who have governed Ukraine since 1991 have often proven incompetent, corrupt, arrogant and self-serving.

The country has significant environmental issues including industrial pollution and radiation issues that are a legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion which released a huge cloud of radioactive particles that drifted as far north as Finland in the immediate aftermath and contaminated soils in and around the town of Chernobyl itself.

Conclusion

From the foregoing, we can see there is tremendous potential for Ukraine to regain its role as bread basket for Russia, much of eastern and central Europe, and even beyond; the main thing holding back the country is its political leadership which seems to be in a permanent state of crisis and chaos. This has many deep consequences that affect the country in many ways: lack of clear political and economic goals translates into lack of investor confidence in the country’s leadership which itself means desperately needed local and foreign investment is lacking. As a result, several economic sectors, all of which depend on one another, suffer stymied development. An efficient transport network is needed to transport agricultural and industrial output and the machinery and other capital needed by the relevant sectors to produce goods.

It has to be said also that cronyism is rife and is probably Ukraine’s biggest political and economic problem. While President Viktor Yanukovych (2010 – 2014) was associated with cronyism in the Western news media, other politicians in Ukraine – former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and PrivatBank owner Ihor Kolomoisky come to mind – are equally, if not more so, up to their eyeballs and beyond in corruption. Kolomoisky in particular is an unsavoury character who does not hesitate to use armed thugs in launching takeovers of companies he takes a shine to. Tymoshenko spent time in the slammer for acting without authority from the Ukrainian government as Prime Minister in negotiating a gas deal with Russia in 2009.

With the overthrow of Yanukovych in February 2014 and his government’s replacement by one led by Turchynov and Yatseniuk until mid-May of the same, when presidential elections brought Petro Poroshenko, owner of a major confectionery business, to power, the crony capitalist order seems set to continue. As of this time of writing, Poroshenko still has not divested himself of his interests in the confectionery business despite pledging during his election campaign that he would do so. As Ukraine slides deeper into all-out civil war that began in April 2014, the transformation from bread basket to basket case is almost complete.

Sources

“The Europa World Yearbook 2013″ (Volume 2: K – Z) (24th edition), Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, Oxford

Ilan Greenberg, “A Ukrainian Brain Drain”, The New Yorker, June 20 2014,  http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/a-ukrainian-brain-drain

James Nadeau, “Ukraine’s real problem: crony capitalism”, The Hill, January 15, 2014,  http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/195549-ukraines-real-problem-crony-capitalism

Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast (editors), “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies (Volume 4: Europe)”, Gale Group, Farmington Hills, 2002

Barry Turner (editor), “The Statesman Yearbook 2014: the Politics, Cultures and Economies of the World”, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013

“Ukrainian IT Market 2013: Fresh Stats and Forecasts”, Intersog.com,  http://intersog.com/blog/ukrainian-it-market-2013-fresh-stats-and-forecasts/

Andrew Wilson, “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation”, Yale University Press, London, 2000

“The World Economic Factbook 2014″ (21st edition), Euromonitor International (Australia) Pty Ltd, Sydney, 2013

Wikipedia Source Articles

Banking in Ukraine / Beekeeping in Ukraine / Economy of Ukraine / Internet in Ukraine / List of Countries by GDP / National Bank of Ukraine / PrivatBank / Transport in Ukraine / Ukrtelecom

Harvey: a gentle plea for tolerance and the desire to opt out of the rat race

Henry Koster, “Harvey” (1950)

This film about a middle-aged bachelor whose only friend and companion happens to be an invisible giant bunny rabbit could have ended up a soppy sentimental piece or one giant cringe-fest in the hands of lesser people. Under Koster’s direction and with the lead character Elwood P Dowd played by James Stewart, the movie becomes a plea for social tolerance and acceptance of people whose only crime is to be eccentric and quirky. The film also is a sly commentary on social conformity and ambition, materialism and society’s tendency to treat those who are different in some way as mentally ill and needing psychiatric treatment.

Elwood P Dowd spends his days doing little except drink too much at a bar and wandering around town conversing with his rabbit friend Harvey. His idiosyncratic habit upsets his older sister Veta (Josephine Hull) when his unexpected early return home upsets a social gathering that was supposed to introduce her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) to social contacts who might know of eligible bachelors for Myrtle Mae’s hand. Veta determines to put Dowd into a mental asylum and takes him to see Dr Chumley at his hospital. Unfortunately events there see Veta taken in as a patient and Dowd escape. Vera threatens to sue Dr Chumley and the staff at the mental institution try strenuously to hunt down Dowd and give him treatment. The plot becomes quite convoluted at times with characters racing in circles after one another and Dowd who is oblivious to all the fuss on his behalf. Eventually after some extraordinary mishaps – which have some characters other than Dowd wondering whether Harvey really does exist – Veta becomes reconciled with Dowd and his quirky friend, Myrtle Mae unexpectedly finds true love and two of the staff at Dr Chumley’s hospital also become an item.

Based on a play by Mary Chase who also co-wrote the screenplay, “Harvey” is not especially deep and doesn’t intend that it be taken very seriously. Stewart brings the right balance of credibility, warmth and child-like wonder to his character who basically is a lonely man at odds with a harsh and unforgiving world and who breaks away from it in a way that, while it risks isolating him even more from others, is nevertheless quite harmless and does not bring Dowd to the attention of police. The other characters around him are self-obsessed or caught up with social climbing and presenting a good face before society. As the plot progresses, Dowd and Harvey come to have a significant effect on those he meets: Dr Sanderson and Nurse Kelly fall in love and Myrtle Mae and a hospital orderly fall for each other as well. (This is quite significant because the orderly is below Myrtle Mae in social class.) Dr Chumley becomes less remote and somewhat humanised by his meeting with Dowd and Harvey and Veta realises that she would rather prefer her young brother to be his quirky individual self rather than a tamed and colourless everyday man.

It becomes obvious that the “normal” characters are the unstable ones on the edge of hysteria and break-down while the character needing help turns out to be the stable fulcrum around whom everyone and everything revolves. Myrtle Mae finally finds romance through Dowd as do Dr Chumley’s staff. Perhaps the film’s highlight comes in the alley scene in which Dowd explains his personal philosophy to the uncomprehending Dr Sanderson and Nurse Kelly; however the doctor and the nurse’s failure to understand and accept Dowd as he is weakens the impact of this scene. Less plausible is Veta’s sudden volte-face after a cab driver explains to her that the hospital’s drug treatment will turn Dowd into another faceless corporate zombie.

The film is well-paced without feeling rushed, the comedy in several scenes is played up in subtle ways so that the film never feels like crude slapstick and Stewart and Hull deliver fine performances as Dowd and Veta. Koster uses lighting and setting very well in some scenes. Although the film’s message is gentle, urging tolerance and a forgiving attitude towards those who don’t or can’t fit in with society’s demands, it does tend to accept the dominant narrative that life is what you make it and doesn’t question the values of a society that prizes cut-throat achievement, marrying for power, wealth and influence, and a narrowly defined conformity.

 

 

 

Flight MH-17 – What You’re Not Being Told: tragic airliner shoot-down incident being politicised by lies and disinformation

SCG News, “Flight MH-17 – What You’re Not Being Told” (StormCloudsGathering, 27 July 2014)

As the StormCloudsGathering News website says, on 17 July 2014 two significant events occurred: Israel began a ground invasion of Gaza, supposedly as revenge for the kidnappings and murders of three Jewish settler teenagers which were blamed on Hamas, the Palestinian resistance organisation; and Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The Israeli invasion initially received very little coverage in the Western mainstream media – and when finally the media began to cover it, the Israelis were and still are portrayed as restrained and only defending themselves while they carry out their frenzied genocide against the Palestinians who are demonised as terrorists. On the other hand the downing of Flight MH-17 was immediately and loudly blamed on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the government in Moscow supposedly aiding them by the US governmnt without any evidence to support its allegations. Quickly afterwards, the lies, disinformation and other propaganda noise began with the US and Ukrainian governments building up false and faked evidence in the form of videos and other materials, one after the other, blackening the separatists as thugs and looters, and the Russian government as their controller; and the Western news media uncritically swallowing the garbage and regurgitating it for its audience. The Ukrainian government continues to pound eastern Ukraine, including the area where the passenger jet was downed and crashed, and the US is using the opportunity to pass a raft of economic and other sanctions against Russia, push a bill through its Senate that purports to combat Russian aggression in eastern Europe (and which also includes sections discussing the exploration and exploitation of natural gas resources in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine by private interests, and spreading pro-US propaganda aimed at Russian-speaking audiences into those countries) and pressure European Union countries to cut all political and economic ties with Russia.

SCG News does a very good job with a 15-minute covering the recent history of Ukraine since the legitimate president Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee the country in February 2014 and the subsequent takeover of the government by the oligarch elite and fascists aided and funded by the US government. The narrator reaches back to that fateful day when snipers fired on both the Berkut police and demonstrators on the Maidan in Kyiv and reveals that the snipers, portrayed by the mainstream media as originating from Berkut, were actually from within the Maidanite factions which included various extreme fascist groups such as the political party Svoboda and Pravy Sektor (Right Sector). As proof, SCG links to an abbreviated version of the leaked telephone conversation between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and the then EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. After the Yanukovych government was overthrown by the Maidanites, a new interim government headed by interim President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk quickly rescinded laws that gave minority groups in Ukraine the right to use their own languages in public. Russian-language speakers in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol then organised a referendum to determine their status within Ukraine; the majority of voters plumped for accession to Russia and the region applied to join the Russian Federation. Russia quickly accepted Crimea and Sevastopol, to the fury of the Ukrainian government and its US backers.

The subsequent massacre of pro-federalism activists by fascists in the Odessa trade union building, which the fascists also tried to burn down to disguise their heinous crimes, and other incidents of violence in southern and eastern Ukraine led to the eastern-most regions of Donetsk and Lugansk to try to break away. The Ukrainian government, firstly under Turchinov and then under President Poroshenko, has tried to suppress the independence movement in those regions with heavy-handed violence and war crimes against civilians. In spite of the extreme firepower and brutality with which the Poroshenko regime has fought the rebels, in the weeks leading up to 17 July 2014, at least after the rebels withdrew from the town of Slavyansk in Donetsk region, the Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties, demoralisation throughout their ranks, food shortages and mass defections. The rebels had encircled a number of Ukrainian army units and were on the verge of defeating them. The Ukrainian government was running out of money, equipment and supplies to continue prosecuting the war with forces that for the past 20 or so years since 1991 had been drained of funding for training and equipment.

In this context, the decision of Malaysian Airlines to fly a plane near the war zone seems madness but Flight MH-17 was originally supposed to have flown over the Sea of Azov which is to the south of Donetsk region. However for reasons still not explained, the flight was rerouted to fly over Donetsk and the flight crew was instructed by air traffic control in Kyiv to fly at 10,000 metres, just above the war zone. So ATC in Kyiv must share part of the blame for the jet’s shoot-down and crash. The film then goes on to ask why the US has not released satellite pictures of the tragedy as it occurred in spite of having a satellite over the area, and in spite of Russia having released its own satellite imagery and challenging the Americans to come clean. Russia’s information indicate that the Ukrainian military had been moving its Buk surface-to-missile systems in an area near Donetsk close to where the missile that hit MH-17 was shot from. A radar image of an SU-25 fighter flying close to the jet was also made public. The American reaction has either been to throw up more disinformation claiming proof of Russian culpability in shooting down the airliner or to ignore the evidence provided by its own satellite.

At this point one might ask why the Americans should want to hound Russia and pin the blame for the airliner shoot-down on Moscow and the rebels. SCG suggests that the trigger event was the founding of a development bank to rival the World Bank and IMF by Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa, and Russia’s determination to remove the US dollar as the currency of international trade. However the move to demonise Russia was present even during the staging of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and during other numerous incidents in the past such as the arrest and subsequent death of Sergei Magnitsky in prison in 2009 and the trial of the so-called dissident leader Alexei Navalny for embezzling funds from a timber company in 2013.

The video ends in a bit of an odd mess comparing the MH-17 shoot-down with other incidents in which civilian airliners were also shot down by the military, notably the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by a US warship in 1988, the 1996 TWA Flight 800 downing in New York and the 2001 Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 downing by the Ukrainian military during military exercises in the Black Sea, followed by an excerpt of a bizarre speech on numerology and magic numbers by the leathery looking IMF chief Christine Lagarde.

SCG’s film insinuates that responsibility for Flight MH-17′s downing lies with the Ukrainians and the Americans; but the video is silent on whether the shoot-down was deliberate or accidental. For more information on the shoot-down and whether the shoot-down was a tragic accident due to military incompetence or a deliberate criminal act, viewers are advised to read an excellent and very detailed article “MH-17 Verdict: Real Evidence Points to US-Kiev Cover-up of Failed False Flag “posted on 25 July 2014 at the 21st Century Wire blog.

At a time when the world is hurtling recklessly to an unnecessary war that more than likely will involve the unrestrained use of nuclear weapons across nations, thanks to US and Ukrainian intransigence, stupidity, incompetence and levels of crude propaganda and disinformation in global media, the need for the truth about what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 and the 298 people aboard who died to be made public and widely known is more urgent than ever. In particular, the need to know whether the plane’s downing might be linked to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-370 in March 2014, and whether those incidents might somehow represent pressure on Malaysia itself to shut down the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal which has tried and found guilty former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President George W Bush for lying and bringing war and chaos to Iraq in 2011, and the State of Israel for genocide against Palestinians in 2013, is also imperative.

A transcript of the SCG video and the video itself can be viewed at this link.

The Pricing of Everything: a wide-ranging talk on neoliberal economics and its commodification of nature

George Monbiot, “The Pricing of Everything” (SPERI Annual Lecture , Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, University of Sheffield, 29 April 2014)

Here’s a wide-ranging talk pulling in issues and aspects of contemporary politics and economics, philosophy and the place and value of nature and natural environmental systems in a global civilisation dominated by the values of neoliberal capitalism, and delivered in impassioned style by journalist and environmental / political activist George Monbiot. Since 1996, Monbiot has been writing a column on environmental and political topics for the British newspaper The Guardian and a transcript of his lecture can be accessed at this link.

It’s a long talk, about 45 minutes in length, but clearly structured around a theme of how societies these days are so dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideology that everything, even natural ecosystems, has to be priced in monetary terms; and how this ideology now pervades nearly all social, political and economic institutions and structures. This is just as well as Monbiot does not rely at all on visual aids whereas most other people would read off a series of bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation. Monbiot’s delivery and the stage on which he strolls about might be likened to a one-man monologue drama: the audience has to focus entirely on him. Since he bangs on without notes and with very little pause, not even for a drink of water, one might think the danger Monbiot should have foreseen would be that his talk would wander off up hill and dale on pet topics; to some extent, that does happen. Fortunately he has considerable experience in public speaking and presenting his material, and his talk is much less dry than would be expected given its subject matter.

The talk begins with Monbiot’s explication of what neoliberal economics is (as he sees it), what it has done or not done, and how it has failed to deliver what its proponents claim it can do.  Free markets are held as a sacrosanct concept in being able to fulfill all social and economic needs more effectively and efficiently than any other economic system or ideology, and the role of governments is merely to ensure that markets are allowed to identify where needs are greatest and allocate resources to meet those needs without interference. Over the last 35 years or so, governments have retreated from actively regulating particular markets and economies with fiscal policies and relying instead on expanding or contracting money supply as mandated by Hayekian / Friedmanite monetarist economics. The result generally has been privatisation of the public sector, a concentration of wealth in the financial industry, the usurpation of the real economy (one that produces goods and services) with the financial economy resulting in the death of manufacturing in many First World economies, and greater socio-economic equalities leading to the shrinking of the middle classes and a rise in and spread of poverty across social classes.

Having failed to deliver what it was supposed to do, neoliberal economics through its adherents in governments, lobby groups, academia and various think-tanks has moved to the natural world to wring from it the wealth, natural and financial, to support its agenda. This trend in neoliberal capitalism to commodify, monetarise and generally shape and divide the natural world for easier consumption and devastation constitutes the bulk of Monbiot’s talk.  Had Monbiot stuck to delineating examples of how neoliberal economics preys, vampire-like, on the natural world, his talk on the whole would have been very good, even great. Out of the talk though wriggles out one issue that is at the heart of the neoliberal capitalist agenda: the drive for power and domination.

At this point, Monbiot veers away from addressing the issue of power directly and starts prattling about how progressive and social democratic parties have shot themselves in the foot by abandoning their core values and core audience in pursuit of votes and winning elections and ending up no different from the parties whose policies and programs they supposedly oppose. From there we end up in a woffle about intrinsic versus extrinsic values and Monbiot getting those rather mixed up with values that emphasise the autonomy of the individual versus values that stress collective needs over individual rights and freedoms. The talk ends in a call for people to “mobilise”.

I’m disappointed that at the moment Monbiot identifies power as the heart of the neoliberal capitalist project, he starts talking around it instead of pushing on and showing how the drive for power over resources and accumulating even more power has distorted our societies and culture and demeaned the practice and values of democracy, individualism and freedom as understood by 18th and 19th-century Enlightenment thinkers. Of course one could say that the desire for power over material resources and other people as commodities is as old as civilisation itself but only neoliberal capitalism would make a fetish and a religion out of a set of values and a mode of thinking that prefers narrow and selfish low cunning for short-term ends over thinking and feeling that consider the long-term interest and the interests of others as well as oneself. The curious detour into talking about how political parties and their interests have converged does not address the fact that all political parties now concern themselves with acquiring power and deploying it to their own selfish interests, collective and individual alike. Politics has become an industry and closed world unto itself with its own jargon, culture, particular forms of entry and access to new joiners (known in economics jargon as “barriers to entry”) and members whose careers are politics and being politicians, and who depend on sponsors (party donors, lobby groups and others with agendas of their own) for money, support and direction.

Equally Monbiot is in dangerous waters when he confuses the values of collective societies with intrinsically held values and the values of Hobbesian societies that pay lip service to individualism, freedom, egalitarianism and democracy but understand neither (or distort the concepts) with extrinsically held values. The example of Japan under shogun (especially during its Tokugawa period from 1600 to 1868) and military rule in the early 20th century alone shows how a nation based on collective structures and values can oppress its own people and the people of other nations it conquers.

The issue that remains unaddressed is that the neoliberal capitalist project serves a small wealth cabal that wields enormous influence over people’s thinking and feeling through the exercise of both hard and soft power. Hard power as in spending on large armed forces and using them to repress people or to destroy rivals rather than to defend the weak is bad enough but perhaps even more insidious is the use of soft power to mould people’s minds, emotions and thus their actions through media and media technologies, advertising, drugs and other psychological tools and methods. In this respect the call for people to “mobilise” is so useless it can be likened to rain falling on barren ground bereft of bacteria and other microbes and life-forms to turn it into soil. Oppressed people will simply be too afraid to resist the brainwashing or be unaware that what they believe and feel is natural, is not.

It seems that the work of the 21st century world is to undo the psychological harm to humankind caused by nations and corporations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bedlam Behind Bars: wringing its hands over abuses in the US prison system

Matthew Hill, “Bedlam Behind Bars” (BBC Panorama, 7 July 2014)

In a country that was founded as an ambitious social experiment in democracy, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, and which is now devolving into a severe technocratic and brutal corporate police state, the weakest and most vulnerable victims turn out to be the mentally ill. This BBC Panorama episode investigates the increasing use of the public prison system as a substitute mental asylum network.

Reporter Hilary Andersson visits state prisons in Chicago and Texas to document incidents of violence, torture and other abuses committed by prison guards and wardens against prisoners with bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. With a mix of interviews with prisoners, lawyers and mental health professionals, on-site filming and videos made by the prisons themselves, overlaid by voice-overs by Andersson and some of her interviewees, the episode reveals the dismal state of the prisons in which mentally ill people are held, bullied and beaten by guards. Prisoners’s cells are often filthy with mould growing inside or raw sewage seeping in. People may be kept in solitary confinement for hours at a time. Guards chain one man, naked, to his bed and force him to eat lying down with his wrists and ankles in chains; some days later, the man dies from heat exhaustion and dehydration in his cell. Other prisoners are punished with excessive and dangerous use of pepper spray by the guards. The irony is that earlier in the twentieth century, state hospitals established for the mentally ill were often just as bleak and brutal as the prisons today are. The asylums were later closed and community-based care institutions were established. Over decades however, as funding for such places was withdrawn by succeeding Federal, State and county governments, patients ended up on the streets or in the care of families, and many people were scooped up by public prisons through some incident involving a public disturbance or violence.

Although Hilary Andersson may be a good investigative interviewer, the program doesn’t push very far as to why the imprisonment of mentally ill people is still tolerated by Federal, State and county governments. Many interviewees who are in charge of the prisons deny that a problem exists or appear to make excuses for the prisons. Lawyers for prisoners talk of obtaining justice for their clients but no-one seems to question the situation where mentally ill people or people with hallucinations and delusions are ending up behind bars when they need medical help and treatment that prison employees deny. Curiously police officers appear as extras rather than as the shock troops of a brutal system and only one is interviewed. Another aspect of the prison system missed by the BBC Panorama program is the growth of private prisons whose operations are kept secret from governments and the public, and whose corporate owners often finance politicians’ election campaigns.

At the end of the program, Andersson and her team contact the Department of Justice with statistics on the numbers of mentally ill people who have died in the prison system but are rebuffed. While one woman interviewee is working to draw public and government attention to the plight of sick people in the prison system, the situation remains dire. No solution or set of solutions that would go some way to removing unwell prisoners from incarceration and giving them the treatments they need is suggested. American society appears helpless and at a loss for remedies.

Nowhere in the program is it ever suggested that the structure of American society and trends favouring privatisation, more social inequality, increasing social fragmentation and other pressures that encourage or aggravate mental illnesses are to blame. Political inertia exists because the prison system as it is benefits current US politics and the money links that bind politicians to corporations, some of which now own and operate private prisons. Unfortunately with the BBC becoming a propaganda front for US and UK and government and corporate interests, the program adopts a helpless approach to its subject matter: it can only shine a light into some dark areas of the US prison and justice system and wring its hands.

The Plumber: quirky character study commenting on the gulf between social classes and the sexes

Peter Weir, “The Plumber” (1979)

Originally made for television, this low-budget film combines the psychological thriller with cheerful larrikin Aussie black comedy and light commentary on the gulf between social classes in a supposedly egalitarian society. Dr Cowper (Robert Coleby) and wife Jill (Judy Morris) are renting a flat in the university administration building where Cowper lectures and does research on health issues affecting a tribe in Papua New Guinea. Jill is in the process of finishing off her thesis for her Master of Anthropology studies on PNG tribal culture. One day a cheerful plumber, Max (Ivar Kants), turns up and claims he’s required to carry out maintenance work on the plumbing in the Cowpers’ unit. A job that initially was to take no longer than half an hour to a couple of hours becomes unending toil stretching over five days, to say nothing of the torment Jill endures from Max who plays his radio too loudly, sings and strums guitar on the job, spends too long on too many breaks for morning and afternoon teas and lunch, and turns the bathroom into a cross between a wreck and a war zone. Scaffolding left in the bathroom turns it into a veritable labyrinth and nearly ruins a dinner party given by the Cowpers when one of their guests is floored by a fallen bathroom sink. But the physical damage is nothing compared to the psychological harassment from Max towards Jill: he bullies her, manipulates his way into the apartment, lies about his past (is he or isn’t he a former convict?) and convinces everyone else, Dr Cowper and Jill’s best friend included, that he is a sweet and harmless eccentric.

The entire film is driven by the contrasts between Jill and Max: Jill is a passive middle-class good girl who, despite her experiences as an anthropology student, is socially awkward and doesn’t really understand people very much. An inkling of what we can expect from Jill comes almost immediately at the start of the film when she admits that a New Guinean shaman mesmerised her almost into a trance and she threw a rock at him: in short, she’s really at a loss at understanding people from a different social background and culture from hers. Max the larrikin plumber brings with him a lot of baggage that includes working-class resentment at the education and money of upper-class people and the opportunities these head starts give them. For all his insecurities, he reads the Cowpers’ naivety very well and knows how to annoy and harass Jill to breaking point. Hubby is obsessed with work and career ambitions and fails to realise that his wife is in danger from a man who could be a serial rapist. The actors playing the Cowpers and Max give these characters just enough to make them credible and substantial in spite of plot holes and the suspension of belief the plot requires: one would think that Jill ought to check Max’s credentials with the university administration before allowing him into the flat. Kants has to juggle a role requiring equal parts creepy and malevolent pest, would-be social critic / troubadour and lovable quirky eccentric; that he pulls off such a complex portrayal with energy and fun makes the film more nuanced than what it originally called for.

After over thirty years, the film does look outdated and some of the plot scenes look very hokey and laughable indeed. The climax in which Jill finds some backbone and descends to some very amoral and despicable behaviour is very awkwardly done. We do not see how such nastiness affects the Cowpers’ relationship or Jill herself as the film ends quite abruptly and this lack of denouement weakens the plot. At the very least the resolution suggests that there’s no point at which the liberal bourgeoisie and the working class can find common ground and the two classes will continue to clash: the upper class will use their advantages to keep ahead of the lower class and the lower class endeavours with street cunning to insinuate themselves into the upper class and weaken or dilute its power.

What gives the film longevity is its theme of the clash between what we consider normal and what we consider the Other as represented by Max and his bizarre ways. Max disrupts a couple’s comfortable complacency and his destructive actions change the two people’s lives forever. Jill may think she’s got rid of him but like the New Guinean shaman, Max  or someone else like him may be a permanent fixture in her future, resurfacing time and again until eventually she must get to grips with what’s lacking in her character.

Human sexuality and the differences between men and women and how these influence the sexes’ conduct towards one another are a significant theme in the film that helps to inform the social gulf between two classes in a society that claims everyone is equal and has equal opportunities to succeed in life.

The Odessa Massacre – What REALLY Happened: more information in 11 minutes than in entire mainstream news media on Odessa massacre and arson

SCG News, “The Odessa Massacre – What REALLY Happened” (StormCloudsGathering, 12 May 2014)

It’s only 11 minutes long but this short documentary on the Odessa Trade Union Building massacre and arson (2 May 2014) is far more informative than what’s been reported so far by the Western mainstream media. A full transcript for the film can be found at the StormCloudsGathering website. Basically the documentary is a collage of videos taken by eyewitnesses and organised more or less to follow the voice-over narration. The narration is clear and easy to follow and the sequence of videos is also very clear with no jumpiness or blurriness that might be expected.

Those viewers not familiar with what happened on that day in early May and who relied on mainstream news for their information are best advised to watch the documentary straight through and then go to the SCG website to read the transcript. Along with the transcript are links to other videos uploaded to Youtube.com.

There is quite a lot in the documentary that I did not know concerning the events in Odessa that day: the fact that the city police actively colluded with fascists, did nothing to stop the fires that broke out in that structure, refrained from apprehending people making Molotov cocktails to throw at the fires and failed to assist fire emergency crews to reach the scene or put out the blaze. Add to that crowds in the Odessa city maidan blocking the fire engines’ access to the building. Also I did not know – though I should have suspected anyway from reading previous news about the horrific incident – that the provisional government in Kyiv at the time arrested those people who survived the massacre and arson.

The documentary also misses a fair amount of detail and viewers are best advised to visit other websites to see what these are. In particular I recommend the article “Bloodbath in Odessa guided by Interim Rulers of Ukraine” posted on 15 May 2014 at the Oriental Review website. This article gives details about how different groups of fascists posing as soccer fans were organised so as to attack a pro-federalism rally and drive the activists into the trade union building where other fascists were waiting to torture, kill and butcher them, and then douse their heads and hands with chemicals which were then burnt to prevent later identification.

Regardless of the fact that the documentary is not a definitive report of what happened in Odessa, I think it still does a far better job than what we have seen of the mainstream news media’s pathetic efforts to present the events of that day as having been caused by the hapless activists. The documentary then goes on to demonstrate the links between the fascist murderers in Odessa with the provisional government in Kyiv, then headed by Oleksandr Turchinov and Arseni Yatseniuk, and backed by the US State Department through its Undersecretary Victoria Nuland (who incidentally is married to Robert Kagan, one of the authors of the Project for the New American Century). The film then concludes by warning that a rebellion is starting to spread through Ukraine against the oligarch regime in Kyiv, currently headed by Petro Poroshenko, and its supporters in the US, the EU and the IMF. Kyiv is desperate to contain the uprisings in eastern Ukraine and maintain the country’s post-1990 territorial integrity (minus Crimea) so as to hang onto the nation’s taxpayer base and qualify for an IMF bailout loan of US$17 billion.

As the narrator notes, history is written by the winners. For the sake of the people who were massacred in the Odessa Trade Union Building, we must not allow the dark forces that killed them to win.

Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem: stunning revelations about ISIS connections with the US

“ISIS: The Bombshell Interview to Impeach Obama” – Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem at SyriaNews (3 July 2014)

Recommended by Moon of Alabama and The Vineyard of the Saker blogs, this interview which can be viewed over at the SyriaNews blog is a real humdinger in that all the way through the conversation the interviewee Sheikh Nabeel Naiem, a former Al Qa’ida commander and founder of the jihadi movement in Egypt, links the creation and funding of the jihadi terrorist group ISIS with the United States.  In a nutshell, Sheikh Nabeel Naiem explains that ISIS head Abu Bakr Baghdadi demands allegiance from Al Qa’ida leader Dr Ayman Zawahiri as he (Baghdadi) has funding and resources from the US government, that ISIS began in Iraq and received training from US marines in camps in Jordan, that the Americans are using ISIS and the Sunni-Shi’ite split within Islam to create continuous instability in the Middle East and keep the Arab peoples weak, and that politicians within the US and Israeli governments have been working together since 1998 to destabilise and overthrow the governments of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In particular, takfiri elements – the term refers to Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy against Islam – in Saudi Arabia are being groomed to overthrow the Saudi royal family and government.

The interview is 40 minutes long and carries on at a fairly fast clip. Everything the interviewee says about ISIS and its fighters is riveting. Those who cannot understand Arabic will be relieved to know that the SyriaNews blog carries an English-language transcript by Arabi Souri of the interview. Much of the early part of the talk revolves around where ISIS gets its funding, arms, other resources, advice and training from. The topic later switches to discussing the kind of people who join ISIS and what ISIS offers that attracts Muslim youth from across Europe. Nabeel Naiem identifies takfiri ideology as being ISIS’s main attraction but does not say why this should be so. One guesses that takfiri ideology appeals to young idealistic people because it concerns itself with sweeping away perceived corruption within Islam and Islamic societies, cleansing the religion and its principles and laws, and starting afresh with a pure and idealistic interpretation of Islam as they believe must have been practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. In this way the Islamic Caliphate will be restored throughout the Muslim world and reach out beyond. It’s not difficult to see how a simplistic paradigm appeals to naive people ignorant of Islamic history and their original cultures who see around them corruption running deeply through the world. In particular young Muslims living in Western societies who experience discrimination simply because they are Muslims or Arabic-speaking, who have grown up with limited experience of their own cultures and whose experience of Western culture has not enriched them very much because it is mediated through an infantilising Americanised filter with exploitation as its tool and financial profit as its goal, may be vulnerable to ideologies promising an alternate path to a utopia in which absolute obedience to a narrow and literalist interpretation of Islam replaces mind-numbing consumerism with its cynical treatment of people.

The most chilling parts of the interview include those passages where Nabeel Naiem admits that ISIS is fighting both Sunnis and Shi’ites and has no hesitation in killing anyone and everyone who does not or will not submit to the ISIS takfiri ideology. Absolutely no-one is safe.  The sheikh also refers to Western writings and plans such as the Project for the New American Century as providing the blueprint for ISIS actions in the Middle East which do not discriminate between governments and ordinary people: all are equally apostate and therefore kuffar (infidels) to be killed if they will not submit.

Naturally the interviewer says the phenomenon of ISIS and the takfiri ideology needs more discussion and research and Nabeel Naiem states that all Islamic countries, Sunni and Shi’ite, and others, must work together to get rid of such jihadi groups as these represent the new and brutal face of Western neo-colonialism. The sheikh emphasises that the Prophet Muhammad met similar firebrand ideologues, known as Khawarij (outlaws), and condemned them.

If what Nabeel Naiem says is accurate and not exaggerated, then the conclusion is that the US and Israeli governments are even more depraved and psychopathic in their exploitation of the Middle East and its conflicts and problems so as to maintain control over the region and get what they want out of it. In spite of many historical examples demonstrating that manipulating other people’s conflicts for the purpose of controlling them does not succeed – one would think that the US would have learned something from meddling in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and from interfering in the affairs of Latin America throughout the 20th century – the Americans and their Israeli ally blunder on ahead immersing themselves in more violence and chaos while their peoples sink further into poverty. Eventually if ISIS fails to establish a secure caliphate across the Middle East and suspects that it was betrayed by the US and Israel – and these countries are likely to betray ISIS if only because ISIS can’t be allowed to be more than a gadfly causing irritation and upset – then its fighters will turn upon their sponsors and the American and Israeli public will be victims.

 

 

 

Bastardy: sympathetic portrait of homeless actor highlighting resilience, generosity and being an outsider

Amiel Courtin-Wilson, “Bastardy” (2010)

Several years in the making due to its subject’s predilection for stealing money to feed a heroin addiction and doing long stints of jail-time as a result, this film is a labour of love by Amiel Courtin-Wilson about Jack Charles, a stage actor of Aboriginal descent. The documentary follows Jack Charles’ life from 2001 to 2008 when he was both homeless cat burglar and actor and features him as both on-screen and off-screen narrator about his life and past career. Courtin-Wilson not only followed Charles closely but formed a very close friendship with the man to the extent that he was Charles’ go-between and point of contact with the Victorian police force whenever Charles was in trouble – which he was quite often due to a heroin addiction.

The film disingenuously claims to present Charles’ life as it was during those hard years but audiences get a sense of Charles himself lapping up the attention and turning on the charisma for the film crew. Without going overboard and going all hammy, he exaggerates a little where the opportunity allows and there is a slightly unreal quality to his routine as he tramps about the streets looking for somewhere to doss down for the night.  He allows the film crew to film him injecting himself with heroin on at least three occasions and though the filming looks straightforward and matter-of-fact, one can’t help thinking that he’s looking forward to hearing of audiences’ reactions to his shooting-up episodes. What a cheeky bugger!

While he busies himself entertaining fellow homeless men with his guitar-playing and singing, meeting and greeting other folks, and stealing money from households in the wealthy Melbourne suburbs of Kew and Toorak, we are treated to insertions of snippets from old films and film-stills of Charles performing on stage and in movies from the 1960s – 1970s. Charles talks briefly about how he became a stage performer at the age of 18 years and graduated from the stage to performing before a camera. He speaks of the thrill of performing as a different character before a live audience and the creativity and skill involved in inhabiting another role and bringing it to life. At another extreme, he drops hints about his dreadful early childhood – he was separated from his family at the age of 10 weeks and brought up in a foster home for boys where he was bullied by others and given little affection – and mentions a brief romance with another man during the early 1970s which ended due to his uncertainty about his capacity for loving another human being.

The film is put together skilfully and has an easy and gentle stream-of-consciousness flow that shows off Charles’ resilience, generosity and good humour. He is not perfect of course and there is something often very child-like and naive about his approach to life. People warm to his open nature but he also attracts the odd crook or two. He regrets taking up heroin in the early 1970s but for much of the film until its last 20 minutes he is undecided about weaning himself off heroin by going on a methadone program. By following Charles about and allowing him freedom to go where he wants and to talk about aspects of his life as he sees fit, the film reveals a great deal about what it might be like at an individual level to be homeless and to live on the margins of society without moralising and condemning Charles for the choices he has made or not made. The issue of the Stolen Generations – referring to the period spanning much of the 20th century during which Aboriginal children were separated from their birth families and brought up in foster homes or institutions where many of them were abused physically and sexually – rears its ugly head as context for Charles’ early upbringing and his disinclination to form long-term love relationships.

The music soundtrack is a wonder to behold with starkly idiosyncratic singing and acoustic guitar and percussion performances from CocoRosie. The choice of CocoRosie to score much of the music was inspired as sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady themselves have indigenous American heritage and spent their childhood travelling from one part of the US to another every year with their mother.

Since the film was made, Charles made an effort to give up heroin by going on a methadone program and for a few years now has been clean. He has now revived his acting career with a one-man touring show and as of this time of writing is preparing to perform on stage in London. The film may have provided Charles the impetus to change his life. Regardless of whether it did or didn’t, “Bastardy” is still an interesting documentary about a very eccentric larrikin character who despite his age and the opportunities lost to him over the years still has much to give and whose life may really have just begun.