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  • Saturday, December 27, 2008


    Recent Documentaries

    I'm a bit of a documentary lover so a fair number of docs make their way into my DVD player. Here are a few I've seen recently.

    A series called "Speaking Freely" has five volumes so far. Some may find them boring because the format has the subject talking for fifty minutes at a pop. There are a few edits to break it up into subject sections but that's it. No questions, no on-screen interviewer. At least, not in the two I've seen.

    Speaking Freely Volume 4: Chalmers Johnson is excellent. Mr. Chalmers has a fascinating history including a stint as a CIA analyst. During the Cold War, he was a hawkish Cold Warrior. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the US to draw down their military in the aftermath led him to view the US as an imperialist power. Quite a change in perspective. He's an engaging speaker (he's a professor) and his analysis is clear and understandable. Five out of five spies in from the cold.

    Speaking Freely Volume 3: Ray McGovern is a little less engaging but still very educational. Mr. McGovern was a CIA analyst for a long time but became disillusioned by the politicization of the agency. His familiarity with the intelligence community give added weight to his perspective. 4 out of 5 spies.

    I had high expectations for Standard Operating Procedure (IMDb listing) by Errol Morris. While I enjoyed it, I was a little underwhelmed. I was particularly interested in seeing the uncensored photos and videos from Abu Ghraib. I'm sure these can be found online but I've never looked. The doc puts them into context and perspective and give a bit of a timeline for them. Memorable appalling moment: Lynndie England speaking about the infamous image of the hooded detainee on a box with his arms spread and wires attached to him. The detainee was told that if he fell off the box, he would be electrocuted. (The wires were not hooked up to any power source.) Ms. England says it was just words, not torture. How can only words be torture? Overall, though, it was a rather narrow perspective, rarely surfacing beyond the immediate group of MPs blamed for the events. 2.5 out of 5.

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    Thursday, December 25, 2008


    The Mirage of the American Dream

    The week between Christmas and the turning of the calendar on New Year's Day is often a time of reflection, of gathering the strands of the past year, of planning for the future. It is a time of resolutions, a time of renewed determination, a time to envision change.

    The inexorable collapse of the US financial system is perhaps a sign for us, all Americans, to rethink our priorities on a personal basis. As a society, we're used to consuming impulsively, to reflexive pleasure-seeking.

    Our economy is not predicated on the well-being and health of the citizens or meaningful security of food and shelter. Instead, our capitalism consumes us, selling us fantasies on TV, entrancing us with empty celebrity news. We live other people's lives on "unscripted dramas" and we give little thought to creating a sustainable way of life. The captains of industry grow rich and use us, discarding the vast majority of Americans in the name of profit.

    One report I saw recently estimated that half of the US bailout dispensed to banks so far went to shareholders of the banks, not to increase reserves or loans. Of course it's difficult to know because there is no way to check how the money is used. No requirement for the institutions to report how they are using the bailout money. Now the banks are saying they have no way of tracking how the money is used. Banks that don't have a way of tracking money that comes in and goes out? Now there's a fable for modern America.

    Qui bono? Who benefits? It doesn't take a brilliant flash of "Eureka!" to see that the wealthy benefit. The system is set up that way. The poor-but-patriotic go off to fight a war and the majority of workers live in fear of job loss in an instant.

    As usual, the supporters of the financial bailout say the benefits will trickle down to the workers, to "Main Street," eventually. I've heard this before. Actually, it is the continual refrain of American capitalism to the vast majority of workers: "You'll get yours in the sweet by-and-by."

    So we are learning to watch the scrambling, the sliding of wealth down the drain. We are waking up to a new vision, a new awareness of where our money comes from, who our work benefits.

    There's a bumper sticker that reads "Think Globally, Act Locally." There is a wisdom in that epigraph.


    Friday, December 12, 2008


    Winter Soldiers and War Machines

    Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) sponsored Winter Soldier in March, 2008, an eyewitness indictment of atrocities committed by US troops during the ongoing occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the most part, this event and the testimony offered has been ignored by the mainstream press. The story was #9 in the Top 25 Censored Stories for 2009.

    The myth of the "clean" war and the uniformly honorable behavior of US soldiers in times of war is a persistent one. War is never waged honorably. Perhaps it has never been so. Civilians are always killed and those viewed as the enemy are regularly brutalized, maimed, and killed even when weaponless and in custody. Their status as the "enemy" makes them subhuman or non-human.

    For soldiers, war is often a maelstrom of situational ethics and mission orders, of tribal oaths against evil outsiders, of hate and fear.

    Because of the intimate intertwining of individual soldiers with a fantastically strong and monolithic command structure, it becomes difficult to separate opposition to a war from so-called support for the troops.

    That there is a strong sense of honor and patriotism among most individual US soldiers is a given. The bonds of loyalty squad or platoon members have for each other are strong. Tests of courage, of life and death under fire, reach deep. This is the special domain of the warrior's experience and it is difficult for most civilians to really grasp what it is like.

    If this seems like I'm contradicting what I've written further up, the relevant factor is the command structure itself. While soldiers and field commanders have some latitude on how to accomplish "objectives" logistically on the ground, often they are constrained by other standing commands or lack of particular resources.

    For example, lack of adequate translators leads to an inability of troops to communicate with civilians or prisoners. When compounded by opposition forces without readily visible uniforms to identify them using unconventional tactics like IEDs, this leads to a self-protective attitude of universal suspicion.

    Questioning the War in Iraq is not remotely like questioning the integrity or courage of individual soldiers. Yet the proponents of the war consistently accuse those against the war of doing just that. This is a classic instance of misdirection, false blame, and the use of a straw man argument.

    Yet here we are, many years into the war, still hearing these calumnies and "Why do you hate America?"

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    Sunday, December 07, 2008


    Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

    As Prez-Elect Obama fills out his cabinet and administration positions I'm reminded of the inevitable strength of the "establishment" in maintaining consistency of policy.

    Many people are (justly) dazzled and proud of the achievement of electing Obama President. Cynical me, I try to look beyond symbolism and appearance. National politics is more about advertising than substance, collective vision/illusion more than policy, about aspirational hopes more than reality.

    Despite Obama's claim that he will set the tone and agenda of his administration, the number of conservatives praising his cabinet choices seems curious and discouraging to me.

    We seem to be a nation easily impressed by surface appearances and symbolic narratives. The strong celebrity worship nurtured by Hollywood and TV is part of it but it's more than that. We are prone to collective self-delusion when it comes to political leaders.

    Already the signs are there from Obama: Reneging on campaign promises, compromise on US troop withdrawal from Iraq, a weaker approach to economic problems, and the list goes on.

    Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, our political process has basically been a very conservative one. We do not like big changes despite the slogan of the past election. Obama was the face of change, but actual change? Not so much by the indications so far.

    Radicals do not get to be party nominees. Hell, Liberals can barely be heard in the debates. The winnowing process starts long before it ever get to the conventions, by the media and by the party brokers. Candidates who really desire to change things do not get to the end of the process.

    I hope I'm wrong. I see the small telltale signs and my heart begins to sink. Symbolism is not policy.

    This is all preliminary impressions, though, and from indirect signs. Obama is not yet in office. We haven't seen what he'll do in the first 100 days.

    So we wait and we watch.

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    Monday, December 01, 2008


    Debtor Suicides

    With foreclosures and overwhelming personal debt ravaging American society, I was surprised that I had not come across more about rising suicide rates. Apparently this is because few people want to know about it. "The Rising Body Count on Main Street: The Human Fallout from the Financial Crisis" By Nick Turse examines some of these stories that peek out behind the better-covered macro view.

    I've personally experienced the depths of desperation evoked by rising debt. It is an ugly, dead-end feeling, hopeless and bottomless. It's not like I'm an extravagant spender. I'm childless and my vices are few: used books (not rare books), magazines, and used CDs (yes, I still buy music CDs; is my age showing?) I don't buy gadgets or console/computer games. My cell phone is 7 years old. So here are some excerpts from the article.
    In February, when a sheriff's deputy went to serve an eviction notice on a home owner in Greeley, Colorado, he found the man had slashed his wrists and was lying in a pool of blood. Rushed to a nearby hospital, the man survived, while the Sheriff's office tried to downplay economic reasons for the incident, saying, according to the Denver Post, that "it wasn't linking the suicide attempt to the eviction because the man had known for a week that he was to be kicked out."

    In March, Ocala, Florida resident Roland Gore killed his dog and his wife, set fire to his home which was in foreclosure, and then killed himself.

    In April, Robert McGuinness, a 24-year-old process server, arrived at the Marion County, Florida doorstep of Frank W. Conrad. According to an article in the local Star Banner, the 82-year-old Conrad was reportedly "cordial" at first. When McGuinness produced the foreclosure notice, however, Conrad got angry and left the room. He returned with a .38 caliber pistol and announced, "You have two seconds to get off my property or you will go to the hospital." Marion County sheriff's deputies later arrested Conrad....

    Pinellas Park, Florida resident Dallas Dwayne Carter was a 44-year-old disabled, single dad who lost his job, fell into debt, and was faced with eviction. "He always talked about needing help -- financially and help with the kids," neighbor Kevin Luster told the St. Petersburg Times. On July 19th, Carter apparently called the police to say he was armed and disturbed. When they arrived, Carter fired his pistol and rifle inside the apartment, before emerging and pointing his weapons at the officers on the scene. Police say they ordered him to drop them. When he didn't, they killed him in a 10-round fusillade.

    On July 23d, about 90 minutes before her foreclosed Taunton, Massachusetts home was scheduled to be sold at auction, Carlene Balderrama faxed a letter to her mortgage company, letting them know that "by the time they foreclosed on the house today she'd be dead." She continued, "I hope you're more compassionate with my husband and son than you were with me." After that, she took a high-powered rifle and, according to the Boston Globe, shot herself. In an interview with the Associated Press, Balderrama's husband John said, "I had no clue." His wife handled the finances and had been intercepting letters from the mortgage company for months. "She put in her suicide note that it got overwhelming for her," he said. In the letter, she wrote, "take the [life] insurance money and pay for the house."

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    Self-Reflective Tautology

    I'm once again entering one of my periodic phases of wondering what point or goal I'm pursuing with this blog. While I'm moderately entertained by crafting some of my individual posts, it remains rather random in scope and intent. One post will be relatively serious analysis with original synthesis of sources and the next might be a complete piece of fluff.

    I've never really defined DemiOrator other than orienting it generally toward political subjects with some social commentary. Even that has often gone by the wayside in the last couple of years, with long stretches of very shallow content or no content at all.

    My participation in the wider blogging community has also been completely non-existent for many months, leading to a reduction in my site traffic from other forums. While fame or a wide readership has never been my primary reason for blogging, I admit that my current traffic stats are a discouraging factor in continuing the project.

    So I'm thinking of either abandoning this blog entirely in favor of one of my other online venues or seriously focusing and retooling it. The effort of such an overhaul seems daunting to me. I'm not that thrilled with Blogger anymore but I'm really not skilled enough at HTML to easily redesign it for another blogging site.

    Truthfully, the name "DemiOrator" has begun to feel like a drag on me. It's a created word that feels awkward and difficult to use. I long to have some easily understandable blog name like "The Culture Ghost" or "Dark Wraith". OK, maybe those aren't the best examples but you probably get what I'm saying.

    So I'm wondering and thinking about these things.

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