Sunday, July 30, 2006

Citing the "War on Terror" an easy way to avoid responsibility

Terrorists are justly condemned for attacks that take innocent civilian lives. When the US Government or its allies in the "war on terrorism" inflict civilian casualties or perpetrate human rights violations, the indignation always gets muted.

This "War on Terror" that Bush warns us will go on for some time, justifies a lot of abuses. Using a culture of fear and intimidation that labels as pro-Terrorist anyone who condemns US policies, the neo-cons have effectively silenced any real opposition to the heavy-handed and many times illegal practices they've pursued.

The "loyal opposition" Democrats have for the most part played along with this, too easily cowed into silence or acquiescence. Hillary Clinton, who many see as the front-runner for the 2008 party nomination, won't take a strong anti-Iraq war position (see Israel an Iraq: Hillary's White House Ticket from CounterPunch). Progressive Democrats in Connecticut are challenging the out-of-touch party hierarchy by supporting Senator Joe Lieberman's opponent in the primary (see 'A Terrible Tug' for Democrats in the Washington Post).

The Bush government and its agents in this endless war accept no accountability for their actions. Any attempts to impose oversight or transparency on their behavior is batted aside with the usual "national security" defense. Any attempts to hold them responsible for acts that are immoral and criminal are dismissed outright or turned against the accuser.

The list of abuses is long and reasons for indignation are great, however.

1. The illegal and immoral practice of "rendition" of terror suspects to states that practice torture continues. Amnesty International just released a report documenting Jordan's use of torture and US and UK complicity in this:

Jordan seems to have become a central hub in the global complex of secret detention centres operated in coordination with foreign intelligence agencies as part of the "war on terror". At least 10 of the individuals tortured or otherwise ill-treated appear to be victims of the US-led "rendition” programme.

- From Jordan: “Your confessions are ready to sign!”
2. The continued detention of suspects in secret facilities around the world. The US has generally justified these practices with the rationale that "enemy combatants" are not protected by international law, but this argument has been rejected by the international community and ignores the fact that innocents have been picked up in the broad sweeps for terrorists.

The U.S. "should only detain persons in places in which they can enjoy the full protection of the law," the report said. "It should also grant prompt access by the International Committee of the Red Cross to any person detained in connection with an armed conflict."

- From UN panel: U.S. must shut any secret jails
3. The Guantanamo Bay detention center was allowed to operate outside of the Geneva Conventions until a recent policy change by the Bush administration in response to a US Supreme Court ruling (see U.S. Supreme Court quashes 'illegal' Guantanamo trials).

The abuses at Guantanamo are detailed in the following 150-page PDF:

The Tipton Report: Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay

This is the account of the "Tipton Three" whose story is dramatized in the new film The Road to Guantanamo (DVD image shown above).

4. Civilian deaths continue to mount as a result of US military operations in Iraq, a war in which the link to terrorism was questionable from the start. As was reported widely about an incident in Haditha, US raids against the insurgency in Iraq have sometimes gone awry ensnaring innocent victims in their net.

The media feeding frenzy around what has been referred to as "Iraq's My Lai" has become frenetic. Focus on US Marines slaughtering at least 20 civilians in Haditha last November is reminiscent of the media spasm around the "scandal" of Abu Ghraib during April and May 2004.

Yet just like Abu Ghraib, while the media spotlight shines squarely on the Haditha massacre, countless atrocities continue daily, conveniently out of the awareness of the general public. Torture did not stop simply because the media finally decided, albeit in horribly belated fashion, to cover the story, and the daily slaughter of Iraqi civilians by US forces and US-backed Iraqi "security" forces had not stopped either.

- From Countless My Lai Massacres in Iraq from TruthOut
5. There have been cases where US rockets have bombed innocent targets based on faulty intelligence. After causing the deaths of these civilian men, women and children, military and government officials express their "regret" but never accept blame or responsibility. To the victims and their families, the kiling appears indiscriminate and reckless.

Unfortunately "unintended" civilian deaths have become a "fact of war" that's extended into a new theater of conflict, the Israeli military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon. As widely reported, this operation took a particularly tragic turn yesterday with dozens of innocents killed as the result of the bombing at Qana.

An Israeli air strike killed 54 civilians, including 37 children, on Sunday, prompting Lebanon to tell U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice she was unwelcome in Beirut and fuelling world pressure for a ceasefire.

The raid on the southern village of Qana was the bloodiest single attack during Israel's 19-day-old war on Hizbollah. Rescue workers dug through the rubble with their hands for hours, lifting out the twisted, dust-caked corpses of children.

- From Israel air strike kills 54 civilians
This incident follows an earlier one in which UN peacekeepers were killed by Israeli bombs.

Israel has apologized over the four deaths and called the incident a mistake. U.N. officials said they repeatedly asked Israel to stop bombing near the post in the hours before it was destroyed.

- From UN deputy issues warning over peacekeeper deaths
How hollow do those apologies sound to the families of the victims? These incidents serve to feed the cycle of violence that's defined life in the region, fulfilling Bush's prophecy of an endless war.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Who needs pesky checks and balances?

President Bush knows so well what's best for us, let's just get it over with and disband the legislative and judicial branches of government. Since we're in a never-ending war where all matters of state involve national security, there's no point in less-informed and enemy-inclined legislators, not to mention those darned activist judges, bogging down the decision-making that is best left to good King George.

The American people aren't so good at determining policy issues either. Heck, we don't even get the chance to sit in on security briefings like our representatives, and we all know how out of the loop they are. And how else to explain the Presidents ever-dropping approval ratings. We might as well ditch the whole concept of representative democracy and sign over our collective destinies to the wisdom of the all-mighty (George W not God, although I guess he does speak for God).

One of those terrorist-loving senators actually had the nerve to seek a law that makes it possible to sue the beloved leader over his use of the practice of "signing statements." The explanation of what that means may sound a little wonkish, so read it for yourself below.

Specter crafts bill to let Congress sue Bush


WASHINGTON -- A powerful Republican committee chairman who has led the fight against President Bush's signing statements said Monday he would have a bill ready by the end of the week allowing Congress to sue him in federal court.

''We will submit legislation to the United States Senate which will . . . authorize the Congress to undertake judicial review of those signing statements with the view to having the president's acts declared unconstitutional,'' Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said on the Senate floor.

Specter's announcement came the same day that an American Bar Association task force concluded that by attaching conditions to legislation, the president has sidestepped his constitutional duty to either sign a bill, veto it, or take no action.

Bush has issued at least 750 signing statements during his presidency, reserving the right to revise, interpret or disregard laws on national security and constitutional grounds.

"That non-veto hamstrings Congress because Congress cannot respond to a signing statement," said ABA president Michael Greco. The practice, he added "is harming the separation of powers.''

Bush has challenged about 750 statutes passed by Congress, according to numbers compiled by Specter's committee.

The ABA estimated Bush has issued signing statements on more than 800 statutes, more than all other presidents combined.

Signing statements have been used by presidents, typically for such purposes as instructing agencies how to execute new laws.

Many of Bush's signing statements serve notice that he thinks parts of bills he is signing are unconstitutional or might violate national security.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Serpent, the Tree of Knowledge, and Evolution?

There is an article on about a new theory that links human evolution to an adaptation by primates to avoid snakes.

Maybe that's where the myth of Eve and the serpent came from? Some subconscious shout-out to the factor that propelled primates to evolve into humans. It was the fruit from the tree of knowledge that the serpent offered Eve, after all.

I'm posting excerpts from the article below, followed by passages from Genesis.

Study: Snake-spotting may have helped humans evolve

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Snakes may make people jump for a good reason -- human close-up vision may have evolved specifically to spot the reptiles, researchers reported on Thursday.

Humans, monkeys and other primates have good color vision, large brains, and use their vision to guide reaching and grasping.

But while some scientists believe these characteristics evolved together as early primates used their hands and eyes to pick fruit and other foods, Lynne Isbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of California Davis, believes they may have evolved to help primates evade snakes. ...

"There's an evolutionary arms race between the predators and prey. Primates get better at spotting and avoiding snakes, so the snakes get better at concealment, or more venomous, and the primates respond," Isbell said.

And there are no dangerously venomous snakes on Madagascar, and lemurs, which only live on that large island and which have poor eyesight, have not evolved much in other ways in the past 60 million years, either, Isbell added.

Genesis 3: 1-5

And the serpent was cunning above every animal of the field which Jehovah God had made. And he said to the woman, Is it true that God has said, You shall not eat from any tree of the garden? And the woman said to the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God has said, You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die. And the serpent said to the woman, Dying you shall not die, for God knows that in the day you eat of it, even your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil.

Friday, July 21, 2006

It's always easiest to attack the defenseless

Immigration reform has become quite the hot topic of political debate in the past few months, as the country's many social and economic woes get laid at the feet of those immigrants who have risked everything for a chance at the American dream. These men, women and children, mostly Latin Americans coming across the southern US border, have been villified and accused by pundits of stealing American jobs, using social services to which they aren't entitled, threatening the security of the "homeland," and undermining American culture and language.

For a nation that likes to take the moral high ground, how do we justify these sorts of attacks on the poor, desperate and defenseless. Most immigrant workers are forced to endure tremedously dangerous conditions just to enter the US, and when they get here they work extremely long hours for sub-standard wages. Employers exploit their labor and inflict innumerable indignities on them because they know that as undocumented workers at risk of deportation they won't seek government assistance. They endure all of this to try to do the very same things as the rest of us: earn a better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children.

My question is, aren't there other parties who are more deserving of criticism and righteous anger? Here's a the list that I came up with:

1. The smugglers who transport the immigrants across the border, taking all of their money and treating them like cattle.

2. The US employers who take advantage of the immigrants and skirt US law repeatedly and unabashedly.

3. The goverments of the countries from which these people emigrate, who do nothing to address the persistent poverty and unemployment that plague a huge segment of the population. The economic programs that created the wide chasm between rich and poor in these countries were often put in place based on the "recommendations" of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in a Faustian bargain for loans and foreign investment.

4. The US government that enters into "free trade" agreements with the Latin American governments while keeping in place agricultural subsidies that give American grain exports an unfair advantage, destroying the farming industry in these Latin American countries.

5. US Corporations that have hijacked our government and control its economic agenda. Our social policies do nothing to address the economic shift away from manufacturing and white collar jobs with benefits toward service sector and lower wage jobs with no benefits. Increasingly domestic workers find themselves in competition with immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, for jobs and social services. Despite the fact that executive salaries continue to soar, the rest of us are forced to fight over an increasingly smaller piece of the pie.

Here's an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. It's a story of a group of mostly Guatemalan immigrants who were abandoned in the desert by their smugglers; one of the litany of these kinds of stories.

Migrants Survive Arizona Desert
Investigators are interviewing dozens of illegal immigrants who were abandoned by smugglers in triple-digit heat without water.

By Nicholas Riccardi, Times Staff Writer
July 20, 2006

TONOPAH, Ariz. — Authorities searched this isolated desert region Wednesday after they discovered nearly 100 undocumented migrants who apparently had been left by smugglers — without drinking water — hiding in the brush.

The illegal immigrants were found Tuesday afternoon by a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department. They emerged from the brush and pleaded for water, saying they had spent three days in triple-digit heat without any supplies. ...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Torturers get a free pass

In case you haven't heard by now, we've finally gotten to see the much awaited report from special prosecutors on the systematic torture of suspects that was perpetrated under Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. They found evidence of torture, but let the offenders off the hook because of the statute of limitations.

Here's the Chicago Sun Times article on it:

Suspects tortured but it's too late for charges

Yes, Chicago Police tortured suspects, but it happened too long ago to charge the officers. ...

Those are among the findings laid out by special prosecutors in a long-awaited 300-page report released Wednesday. The document is the fruit of a four-year, $7 million investigation into accusations that former police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his men used electric shocks and fists to get confessions. In almost all cases, the officers were white and the victims black. ...

There's still the possibility that federal charges could be brought that have a longer statute of limitation, but based on the history of this case, I'm not holding my breath.

Maybe we could bring charges before the International Criminal Court for torture and crimes against humanity. Oops, the U.S. never signed that treaty. Go figure.

Here's some good background info on the case:

Torture allegations dog ex-police officer
By Leonora LaPeter, St. Petersburg Times

Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Chicago: Torture
From Human Rights Watch

The Police Torture Scandal: A Who's Who
from the Chicago Reader

Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People
The Dynamics of Torture
by John Conroy

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What's on your mind?

I found the following story on BBC News today. It describes British scientists' attempts to use virtual environments as a scientifically valid way to test telepathy.

Virtual worlds to test telepathy
A virtual world designed to test human telepathy has been demonstrated at the University of Manchester, UK.

I don't know if telepathy is real, or see the need to cultivate such an ability considering how the laying bare of my own thoughts could only lead to one of three negative outcomes: boredom, anger or depression. This is, however, another example (though an odd one) of the ways in which the advances in computer technology have enhanced scientific research.

On the subject of reading minds, I am interested in the concept of the Noosphere -- the idea of a collective human consciousness. To some, the Internet is a physical manifestation of the Noosphere, in which case the more "connected" we become, the more in tune with the collective consciousness we get, and therefore the more able to understand each other.

And this post is good proof of my earlier point that baring my thoughts will result in boredom for the "mind reader."

If you want to read more, the Wikipedia article on Noosphere includes some good links.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Zhang Yimou's "Raise The Red Lantern"

In my never-ending (and probably impossible) quest to catch up on the movies I always wanted but never managed to see, I finally watched Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern" from 1991.

It's a striking film in several ways. The visual imagery makes an immediate impression, especially the director's use of color. The music and rhythms of the film do a good job of setting the mood. One of the characters is a former opera singer, and the film has an operatic feel. The story itself is simple on the surface but has and underlying complexity that lends itself to multiple interpretations. The combination of these elements keeps the film gripping and provocative throughout.

The plot, very briefly, involves a student who, after her father's death, is forced to abandon her studies and become a concubine to a rich man. Songlian is the fourth and newest "mistress" of the household and occupies a quarter of the master's compound. The title of the film comes from the tradition of lighting red lanterns in the house of the mistress with whom the master will spend the night. Vying for that privelege embroils Songlian in the manipulations and intrigue of the other competing mistresses.

I'm not well-versed in Chinese history and culture, so I'm sure there is symbolism that was lost on me, and the lessons I take away from the film were filtered through a western sensibility. I did read some background information on the film after viewing it, which I've included links to below.

Two ideas struck me while watching the film:

The Clash of the Modern and Traditional

Songlian represents the first impulses of the modern. The film doesn't tell us much of her past, but we know she studied for a semester at university and plays the flute, so she is an educated and cultured young woman. Despite this, her circumstances trap her into a life she doesn't want. This conflict is established in the very first scene, as Songlian gives in to her step-mother's wishes and makes the only choice she feels she has. Resigning herself to her fate as a concubine Songlian says, "What more could be offered to women!" Powerfully, the camera maintains a close-up of her face as tears fall from her eyes.

At the Master's compound, this tension between the modern and the demands and superstitions of traditional culture becomes more apparent. Songlian must submit to the Chen family rules, working within a power structure that supresses and distorts her best qualities. These rules serve to uphold the prevailing social order, and those who live under them are left to fight each other for the small favors and priveleges that the master lets drop.

When she first arrives, Songlian tries to openly challenge the master and his treatment of her. She is punished for this as he takes away priveleges usually accorded to the newest mistress, and that give her an enhanced social standing within the group of wives and servants. This forces Songlian to engage in the games of deceit and manipulation that the other wives play, and ends in the deaths of her maid and the third mistress as well as her own insanity.

Considering that the film was made shortly after the Tiannament Square massacre, it's possible to view Songlian as representative of the burgeoning democracy movement in China that was dealt with in such a deadly manner.

I see a similar (but less openly destructive) struggle taking place in our current society, as the forces of modernization are being suffocated by the demands of the old and prevailing social order. Our economic realities are undergoing major shifts, and the social institutions that grew up around the old realities are starting to fragment and fall apart. Until new social instutions are put in place that correspond to the new economics, tensions will persist and those who represent the future will reap the worst of it.

Masters and Servants

It's easy to focus blame on the master for the ills portrayed, but in many ways it is the general acceptance of the "rules" that govern the house that leads to everything that happens in the film. Early on Songlian is the only one who questions and challenges these rules, but she finally acquiesces and demands their strict enforcement in order to get revenge on her maid, who has betrayed her secret of a false pregnancy to the Master. It's after becoming an active agent of the rules that she begins her final downfall into insanity.

There is plenty of culpability to be divvied up. The servants and mistresses refuse to question or resist the grip these rules have over them, and in so doing perpetuate them. Notably, to me, it is the servants who physically carry out the death sentence on the third mistress, an act that everyone but Songlian denies even happened.

My argument here is that when a society is built on rules, superstitions, and traditions that are oppressive, it's never a matter of swapping out a "good" master for a bad one. To effect real change requires fundamentally rejecting those rules and replacing them with a new social order that offers freedom and growth rather than stagnation.

Background Information

If you want to read more about the film, including a lot more insight into the cultural history behind it, here are some links to information that I found online:

Wikipedia entry on the film (including background, plot summary, cast and awards)

IMDB entry on the film (with some more details and a short review)

A biography of Zhang Yimou

The NY Times Review of the film

The “Confusion Ethics”of Raise the Red Lantern by David Neo

A Film Review by James Berardinelli

Garbage in, compost out (of worms)

Here's a story that caught my eye in today's Chicago Sun Times. It certainly won't appeal to everyone, but it's an interesting, low-tech way to convert garbage (left-over food, coffee grounds, and newspaper) into fertilizer. One little way to go "green" especially if you have a garden.

Your lunch leftovers could be worms' buffet
BY GARY WISBY Environment Reporter

... The Center for Neighborhood Technology's 50 employees have been worm-composting all their food waste for more than three years. They use a fancy, three-layer "Can of Worms" model that requires little maintenance.

But bins can be made very cheaply. Urgani took a $7.50, 14-gallon plastic storage bin, drilled holes in the top and added $10 worth of mail-order worms. No need to replenish the little workers -- they reproduce. ...

If you want to learn more about "vermicomposting," you can get the book referred to in the above story:

Worms Eat My Garbage: How to setup & maintain a vermicomposting system
By Mary Appelhof
Flower Press

And there are many more resources at

Monday, July 17, 2006

Today hate groups feel part of the mainstream

The left is always accused of making too casual a link between the Bush administration and fascism and/or Nazism. I'm careful not to throw the term Nazi around too loosely, and any fascist movement that arises in this country in this time will have its own unique characteristics, but it is worth noting the dangerous game that the Republicans are currently playing. In an attempt to mobilize their perceived "base," the republicans are staking out hate-based positions that scapegoat gays and immigrants for social problems. It's a tactic that fans the flames of bigotry, misdirects the legitimate anger of those hurting in today's economy, and shifts the political debate so far to the right that hate groups feel they've entered the mainstream.

There are a couple articles related to Hate Groups in today's Chicago Sun times:

Hate groups join military: report
BY FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter

... The Southern Poverty Law Center is reporting that Defense Department investigators recently uncovered a network of 57 neo-Nazis who are active-duty soldiers in the Army and Marines. The neo-Nazis are spread across five military bases and communicate with each other about weapons and recruiting, the report said. Several of them have been in combat in Iraq, according to the report. ...

Nazi group gets OK for Wis. rally next month

... The rally will denounce illegal immigration and the U.S. "open borders policy,'' said organizer Jeff Schoep, the commander of the Minneapolis-based National Socialist Movement. ...

'People that come to our rallies and listen to what we have to say are going to be pleasantly surprised at how much they agree with,'' said [the group's Wisconsin leader Kris] Johnson, who lives in Green Bay. ...

In regard to the military, I think the "infiltration" by hate groups could be the product of both a desperation by the military to meet recruitment goals and the general culture of brutality that's been cultivated by Bush, Rumsfeld, Gonzalez and all the rest who sanctioned torture and the abrogation of the Geneva Convention.

As far as the link between neo-Nazi groups and the Republican's anti-gay and anti-immigrant agendas, that's a pretty natural connection to make. In a country where the gap between rich and poor is getting wider, more and more folks are getting left behind and looking for reasons why. The Republicans would rather focus blame elsewhere, and have built the infrastructure to do so. Obviously it's a lot easier for the Bush administration and their minions to blame illegal immigration and gay marriage for the decreased standard of living of many Americans than to discuss the more complex economic realities behind it, which would lead back like a trail of breadcrumbs to their policies.

Unfortunately, the Democrats, so afraid of losing the "center," have done nothing to challenge the Republicans in any viable way. Any real change is going to have to come from grassroots organizers willing to do the hard work of explaining the real causes for entrenched poverty, lack of healthcare, insufficient public education, and the general decline in real wages for working Americans. The first step is to understand who wields the levers of power in both parties and what their true goals are.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

"Loyalty" in politics

There is an article in The Mercury News today (Liberals angry at Boxer for supporting Lieberman: War, Party Loyalty at Center of Debate) about the backlash Senator Barbara Boxer is experiencing from liberals and anti-war activists in California and around the country over her support of Senator Joseph Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the war, in his bid for re-election. Leiberman faces a challenge from Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, in the primary.

This debate is occurring all over the country as Democrats are searching for their identity and fighting for the future of the party. The dictates of the party leadership don't always coincide with the wishes of its grassroots activists. The debate raises some important questions for the party about where its candidates' loyalties should reside.


For Boxer, the overriding argument to support Lieberman appears to be her "loyalty" to the Democratic party or, more accurately, to what the party leadership has determined is in the best interests of the party. The primary concern for the party leadership right now is winning back control of the Congress in the November elections. Their argument tends to be, "Let's get control back first, and then we can worry about issues later."

The argument as it relates to Lieberman specifically is that he would have an easy win in November as the nominee, so party resources could be spent elsewhere. A Lamont victory will mean more work and a difficult fight, especially since Lieberman has threatened to run as an Independent if he is defeated in the primary. The irony here is that Lieberman's loyalty to the party is so thin he's willing to bolt it at the first opportunity.


In the article, Boxer lists three issues that she is particularly interested in: the war, reproductive rights, and the environment. Lieberman, she argues, has been a strong ally of hers on the last two issues so he's earned her support. This is a pretty transparently false argument, in that Lamont supports her positions on those two issues as well, and is in agreement on the war. Also, in the article, it's mentioned that Democrats in Connecticut are strongly anti-war, so Lamont's position more accurately reflects the will of the party in the state.

Some argue that a party shouldn't have a single-issue litmus test, and I think that's a fair point. But it's not a matter of a 2 or 3 issue litmus test either. I don't know anything about Ned Lamont, outside of the fact that more progressive elements within the party back him, but the evaluation of a candidate has to be on the broad range of issues, and Lieberman has not proven himself to be a positive force in the Senate.

I know that Ideals tend to die easily in the political world, but when issues become secondary to party affiliation the party quickly loses its sense of self and that's been the Democrat's problem for a few elections cycles now.


This is probably the driving factor in most political decisions. For an incumbent candidate, the primary instinct is always toward preserving your elected office. Doing that is much easier with the support of a national party. Part of this is laziness -- using the powers of incumbency and party backing to win re-election rather than taking stands and making your case before the voters. In a party where internal divisions are starting to emerge, where its very future is in contention, falling in line with leadership may prove to be less politically tenable and candidates with any vision will learn that it's actually to their advantage to buck leadership when its dictates go against the wishes of constituents.


As public servants, this is where a politician's primary loyalty should be but increasingly isn't. Right now, the organizing model of the party continues to be top-down and that's a model that will likely fail, especially with leadership that has lost touch with the grassroots. The base of the Democratic Party is shifting and that makes the ground it stands on very shaky. Unless the politicians do the hard work of going out into the communities to understand what voters want and need, this rift will worsen and the future of the party will very much be up for grabs.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Deadly Robots: Fiction and Fact

There was a short story in the June Wired on the book How to Survive a Robot Uprising by Dave Wilson. Having seen all the Terminator and Matrix flicks, the concept of a how-to guide on fighting off the inevitable robot take-over amused me.

Then I saw the story below in the Chicago Tribune. I might have watched a few too many X Files episodes in my time, but doesn't the idea of our government developing these types of technologies give you the creeps?

Even assuming that our military industrial complex is benign and altruistic, which is something I personally have severe doubts on, what's the likelihood of the technologies falling into less friendly hands? Don't we have a pretty spotty record of supplying questionable regimes with military technology that then gets used against us? And then there's the premise we started out with: What if these death robots do gain consciousness and think they can run the world better than us? Given the way things have been going, I won't be in a position to argue with them.

U.S. military is robo-savvy
Mark Jacob, Tribune staff reporter

TSUKUBA, Japan -- Robots killed at least 14 people in Pakistan last January.

The mechanical attackers were airborne Predator drones, operated by remote control by the CIA. They fired Hellfire missiles at the village of Damadola in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the No. 2 Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The U.S. military and intelligence services are on a constant lookout for such technology.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, is awarding contracts to develop mini-aircraft--about the size of birds or insects--to carry sensors or cameras to sensitive areas. Another avenue of exploration is "automated target recognition software" that would not only determine targets but might also someday make decisions to fire, based on human programming.

While some people express alarm at robotics and other technology being channeled into the military, others say the effort keeps Americans safe and provides spinoff benefits for consumers. For example, DARPA helped develop the Internet.

Many Japanese roboticists, sensitive to the disastrous effects of their nation's past warmaking, shy away from military applications. But the Japanese Defense Agency budgeted about $570,000 for robotics in fiscal 2006.

At Tsukuba University outside Tokyo, researcher Yoshiyuki Sankai said he was approached after the Sept. 11 attacks by the U.S. Defense Department and invited to participate in a military project. Sankai has developed a robot suit designed to increase the effective strength of disabled people.

DARPA's Walker could not confirm Sankai's account, noting that her agency isn't the only one conducting defense research.

But she did note that Sankai attended a November 2001 workshop in Washington related to a DARPA project called Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation, which is an effort to build wearable devices to "increase the speed, strength and endurance of soldiers in combat environments."

Sankai said he refused to get involved in Pentagon research, explaining, "In Japan, military application means evil."

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Public vs. Private Debate

The debate over who can most efficiently and effectively provide social services to the public, private business or governmental agencies, is one that spans all level of politics these days -- local, state, national and international.

Locally, everyone in Chicago is acutely aware of the corruption and patronage that bedevils the cook county board and city council. Mayor Richard Daley is under attack for a hiring system that rewards friends and political hacks. The fight to succeed County Board President John Stoger is mired in accusations of nepotism and preferential treatment. Granted, Daley has also sold off a number of public assets (as has the Governor), leasing them back in a bit of financing wizardry that will penalize future generations, and has steered city contracts to connected firms, so we're getting the worst of both worlds.

On the national level, President Bush has pushed long and hard to privatize essential services such as healthcare. The Medicare prescription drug plan that was passed is in many ways a back door attempt to privatize public health services. So far he's been unsuccessful at changing Social Security into a private investment plan. Even duties formerly reserved for the military have been handed over to private contractors, such as Haliburton and it's subsidiaries.

Internationally, there is a story in the Chicago Tribune today (Gas, oil fuel Russian drive for power: Kremlin sees vast stores as catapult back to influence) about the Russian attempt to re-build it's economy through its oil and natural gas resources. Vladimir Putin actually reversed the privatization of natural resources conducted under Boris Yeltsin and, using strong arm tactics that some would consider illegal, returned control back to the state. To a large extent, the maneuver has been successful, aided in no small part by the fact that oil prices have skyrocketed, and the Russian economy is growing steadily.

What I find interesting about this debate is that in all of the cases cited above, the common result is that a priveleged few are getting fat off the process. In the case of Privatization, it's the corporate elites who benefit the most. In the case of the Russian nationalization efforts, it is the political elite who grow rich with money and influence -- basically trading the old robber barons who controlled energy companies for a new set of oligarchs. I'm sure there are some who would argue for a "trickle down" effect, but I think we all learned how well that worked back in the Reagan years.

I personally lean toward governmental bodies as the best administrators of public resources and services, because, in an ideal world, there is much more oversight, transparency and public accountability. The problem is that we don't live in an ideal society. Putin runs the Russian "democracy" as a mini dictatorship having gutted any checks on his power. I'm sure there are folks living in Chicago who could describe the fiefdoms of the city council and county board in the same way.

How do we fix this? That's the million dollar question. Voting in public officials who pay more than lip service to the concepts of open government and accountability would be a nice first step. But I think there are some greater, structural and systemic issues that need to be addressed. Is our "representative" democracy truly representative? Who wields influence and power? What chance does the whispered voice for the public interest have in competition with the bullhorn wielded by big business and the entrenched political machines.

"Sideways" coincidence

I watched Alexander Payne's film Sideways immediately before viewing La Dolce Vita, which proved to be an interesting prelude because of the unknown-to-me coincidence of Payne having recorded an introduction to Fellini's film on the DVD. One of those synchronistic moments in life that make you want to believe in higher powers.

Sideways is a very entertaining film. There are some really lovely shots of California wine country and I liked the direction in general. It includes several very funny moments thanks in large part to the wonderful chemistry between the actors (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church) that extends to the commentaries they recorded as an extra feature on the DVD.

I can see where Payne was influenced by Fellini in some ways. There are some very superficial similarities between the two films (the two lead characters are a serial womanizer and a frustrated writer; the confusion of love and sex; the difficulties of having lasting relationships) but it obviously doesn't have the depth of La Dolce Vita.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fellini's "La Dolce Vita"

"La Dolce Vita" (The Sweet Life) is a provocative film, filled with humor and pain, joy and despair, spectacle and emptiness. It's generally regarded as one of Fellini's masterpieces, and its images will stay with me a long time.

I can't say I understand completely what Fellini was trying to convey. It was filmed in 1961, which in many ways was a completely different era, but it still has resonance 45 years later and the things that touched Fellini then echo through to today. The cult of celebrity fed by the scandal sheets is still with us, and the photographer character Paparazzo inspired the term that's used to this day for the intrusive and omnipresent media. The place of faith and spirituality in our modern society is a question with which we're all struggling in a time where religious fanaticism of all guises has captured public debate. And the search for love, connection, and meaning are universal human concerns that will always bedevil us.

Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello Rubini, a gossip journalist who in many ways is a stand-in for Fellini himself -- observer, recorder and participant in the farcical parade of events that make up modern life's rich pageant.

Morality and spirituality in modern society

I think it's easy to look at Marcello's behavior in the film and see it simply as excessive, indulgent and decadent. But there is a darkness, a despair underlying everything he does, and I think that's where the strength of the movie lies. There is a lot of discussion in the film about individual freedom and choice. In modern society where the institutions that once guided those choices have been undermined or lost relevance the burden of that freedom can become overwhelming, provoking an urge to escape the need to choose completely.

The role of religion in society is still a hot topic, with fundamentalists calling for the protection of the "institution of marriage" and a general criticism of public policy that is not guided by religious principles (interestingly enough a call that comes from Christian fanatics here and Islamic ones in the Middle East). But this is a simplistic argument that argues for a return to an idealized past where "morality" held sway. The reality is that for many, religion lost relevance because it could not or would not adapt itself to the changed social conditions. Many religious orthodoxies were organized based on a feudal past and don't speak to the dilemmas of a post-industrial, global society.

There are two scenes in the movie that specifically portray this conflict between traditional religion and modernism. The film opens with a shot of two helicopters flying through the ruins of Rome. One carries a golden statue of Jesus; his arms outstretched as if to bless the city. Their destination is the Vatican, but Marcello takes a detour to flirt with some attractive sunbathers he spots along the way. The Jesus figure attracts the attention of the passers by below not because of his religious symbolism, which has fallen into decay like the Roman forum, but because of the mere spectacle of a flying statue.

Later, Marcello travels to the country to do a story on two children who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary by a tree. Paparazzo and his gaggle of photographers are on the scene and they direct the relatives of the children in various staged poses. Radio recorders, film lights and cameras also attempt to document the events, all the while shaping them into their own fictions. A priest questions the honesty of the children, guessing it's a crass attempt to make money off the Virgin. A combination of the curious well-to-do and the faithful poor descends on the area. This tension between the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the commercial, the sacred and the profane, ends in confusion, doubt and death.

I'm not trying to say there's no place for spirituality and morality in modern society. On the contrary, I think the need is even greater and the challenge is for religions to find a way to bring hope to those who can only see despair in the choices presented by the modern world. That void is best demonstrated by the character of Steiner, Marcello's friend. At his party, we see Steiner as a loving father who fawns over his two children. Marcello envies him, his house, his family, and his friends, but these outer trappings mask the same unhappiness and restlessness. He warns Marcello away from a life "where everything is calculated, everything is perfect." He describes his fear of peace: "To me it seems that it's only an outer shell and that hell is hiding behind it." He worries about his children's future, where the end of the world can be announced with a phone call, and tragically he takes both their lives before committing suicide.

Love as sanctuary and salvation

In the absence of religion, I think the natural tendency is to seek spiritual salvation in romantic love. Marcello proclaims his love for several women in the film, and you don't get the sense that he is in anyway lying to them. Granted, his understanding of what love means may differ greatly from the women he pursues, and the end results may prove less than satisfying, but I think he genuinely feels love in some way each time; maybe it is a love of beauty in various forms or of the feminine in general; maybe it is just living in the moment. In a world where lasting, deep connections have become more difficult to find, the significance of any connection, no matter how brief or superficial, becomes heightened.

Marcello's first romantic encounter is with Maddalena played by Anouk Aimee. I think her name is no coincidence, recalling Mary Magdalene from the New Testament, a link that is reinforced by the fact that the two make love in the bed of a prostitute. She tells Marcello "only love gives me strength," but for her too the connections are fleeting and even harmful -- she wears sun glasses to conceal a black eye. Later in the film, Marcello meets her in a castle and they hold a conversation while in separate rooms, their voices traveling through the walls via a hole in the base of a statue. Maddalena wants to marry Marcello, but she also wants to be a "whore," and she can't choose between the two impulses. Marcello never characterizes himself in the same way, but his conflict is exactly that as we see in his relationship with Emma.

Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) is Marcello's failed try at a longer-term relationship. She's clinging, jealous and maternal toward Marcello, and her possessiveness drives him away. Despite this, he repeatedly returns to her -- maybe out of love, maybe out of obligation, maybe both. She attempts suicide after his night out with Maddalena. Tellingly, while she's recovering from this, he phones Maddalena from the hospital -- a call that goes unanswered. Marcello's friend Steiner advises her, "The day you understand that you love Marcello more than he does you'll be happy." The fact that she can't possess him, can't control him tears her apart, but just as Marcello keeps returning to her, she keeps waiting for him to do so. In one scene toward the end of the film, he abandons her in the middle of nowhere after a fight, driving off without her. She paces the road through the night knowing he'll come back for her, and he does at day break.

Sylvia (Anita Ekburg) is a woman purely from the realm of fantasy; a blonde, buxom Swedish movie starlet. As Marcello says, she has the beauty of a big doll. In the interview scene, she says that there are 3 things she likes most in life: "love, love and love." But for her, it's all make believe. Marcello chases her up the steps at the Vatican, a vision leading him to some false salvation. Dancing with her that night, he tells her that she is the "first woman of the first day of creation." She has a child-like innocence, as through the course of their shared night she bays at dogs along the side of a road, plays with a stray cat, and wades into the Trevi fountain. Marcello pursues her throughout, but he can't have her to himself and he gets a punch in the stomach from her jealous boyfriend as the reward for his efforts.

I think it's the hope of finding transcendence through love that drives Marcello's restless pursuit of women. It's a romanticized notion of finding salvation through love in its most innocent and spiritual form. I think the girl Paula, who he meets while trying to write at a beach-side restaurant, is symbolic of this. He describes her as an "Umbrian angel", and she appears again at the end of the film, seemingly offering him a last chance at changing the path he's on. It might be a false association, but it reminds me of Dante's Vita Nuova and the figure of Beatrice who from heaven leads him to a more spiritual life.

It's the repeated failures in his search for fulfillment through love and art that lead Marcello to the debased state we witness at the end of the film. At the final party, he's drunk, bitter and abusive. Having given up his ambition toward literature, ridiculed as an "intellectual", reduced to a publicist, he makes no pretense at finding love.

Broken conversations

A motif of cut off and obscured voices runs throughout the film. In the first scene, Marcello has difficulty communicating with the sunbathers because of the helicopter's din. Marcello's conversation with Maddalena in the castle ends with him desperately searching for her after she falls silent while in the embrace of another man. One friend describes Steiner as a Gothic Spire "so tall that you can't hear any more voices up there."

At the film's end, at the beach after a monstrous fish that "insists on looking" is brought ashore, Marcello tries to understand what the cherubic Paula, her voice drowned out by wind and waves, is trying to tell him. She appears to be asking him to walk with her, but finally, fatalistically, he gives up, waves goodbye and joins the other party goers leaving the beach. Paula's smiling face fills the final frames, and her gaze turns from Marcello to the camera, drawing us into the conversation.