Bush’s Crumbling Power–Saruman takes on Blumenthal

First of all, there was this piece in Salon yesterday about Bush’s Euro summit, written by Sidney Blumenthal. The gist was this:

President Bush has reached a dead end in his foreign policy, but even though he has posed this quandary himself, he has failed to recognize it. His belief that the polite reception to him on his European trip is a vindication of his previous adventures is a vestige of fantasy.

Then further down:

On his trip, Bush hummed a few bars of rapprochement. By their applause the Europeans began to angle him into a corner on Iran. In time Bush must either join the negotiations or regress to neoconservatism, which would wreck the European relationship for the rest of his presidency. If he chooses a course that is not “simply ridiculous,” on his next visit the Europeans might be willing to play Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.”

I call this wishful thinking. I still think those Rapture-ready loonballs would have no problem attacking Iran.
Our sometimes poster Saruman has replied with this:
I don’t think it’s wishful thinking so much as I think it’s an incomplete analysis of geopolitics and the acknowledgement that Bush is being given a last chance by the Europeans. Blumenthal does not assert that Bush will not choose ‘the ridiculous’ option of military action, simply that should Bush ‘regress to neo-conservatism’ he would ‘wreck the European relationship for the remainder of his presidency.’
Blumenthal, here, does see the ‘ridiculous’ as a truly frightening option, as he should. A direct American military operation in Iran might trigger a global war, and no one can envision the consequences of such a confrontation. Rice is playing a stupid, and obvious, game. She and her minions at the NSA disliked Putin, and were unhappy when Bush ‘looked into his soul’ and decided to play footsie with the former KGB officer. For Rice, the real goal of stirring the pot with references to ‘totalitarianism’ in Iran could easily be that she hopes to inflame tension with Russia. While the Americans ‘won’ the Cold War to the extent that the Soviet Union’s hold on eastern Europe and the central non-Rus republics (Georgia, Ukraine), Russia remains a world power. Perhaps not yet its own superpower, but it never was such.
There’s pretty good evidence (see the issue of the Nation, e.g., ‘The Harvard Boys Do Russia,’ from the late 1990s) that the IMF/austerity planning done TO Russia under Yeltsin was an attempt to relegate Russia to Third World status. This strategy has failed. Note how aggressively Washington attempted to derail the seizure of Yukos, and the renationalization of Russia’s natural gas fields. So, Rice and other ex-Cold Warriors have both a problem and an opportunity: a problem, in that the current leadership (Bush, Cheney) are comfortable with Putin and his ‘strong hand,’ and an opportunity, if they can re-cast Russia as a global villain. This role would then allow all the Cold War military-industrial infrastructure to crank back up, and the ‘outmoded’ skills of Rice and Co. would be back in high market demand.
Since Rice, Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and their various adherents, never gave up on Russia as a threat, the role of Iran may well soon become pivotal. Syria and Iran have made some sort of loose anti-US agreement (just what this understanding is remains murky to me) and Russia is about to ink some sort of deal with Iran on nuclear power-plant enhancement. One possible view: Putin is playing open footsie with Iran so as to ensure that Russia is a broker in any IAEA negotiations that take place under the auspices of the U.N. Could be. Could also be that Putin et. al. and sending Rice a message: ‘this is still our sphere of influence.’ That Russia has forgiven Syria’s Cold War debt and pro-rated the interest, allowing Syria to pay 3 billions on 15 billions, is very clearly a sign that Russia is not a ‘junior partner’ to the US in the Middle East.
There are many ways to interpret this series of actions on Russia’s part, and I suspect that Rice’s chosen formulation in the speech she made at Sciences Po’ is a hint as to her line of thinking: ‘totalitarian’ indeed. The French interlocutor was not willing to be serious with Blumenthal, in my reading of his piece. The folks at Sciences Po’ knew what Rice was getting at: it takes a totalitarian mindset to ink deals with totalitarians. In a sense, she and her crew were outflanked by the wingnuts in using the term ‘Islamofascism’ rather than ‘Islamo-Stalinism,’ a formulation that is ridiculous, but that would have given Rice a better meme.
The maneuvering going on right now, however, as Blumenthal rightly points out, is qualitatively different than the period leading up to March 2003. Bush has no resolution from Congress and no platform in the UN. He might be able to get one, but every single Democrat in the Senate except Lieberman (and maybe that freak Biden) would vote Nay, as would the majority of Dems in the House. In addition, I think we might see a significant breakdown in party discipline in the GOP caucus.
The only way Bush could achieve a strong UN resolution would be for Iran do commit an egregious act, such as an actual nuclear weapons test, and they can’t: they’re years away. What they are not, however, years away from, is fission power plants. This reality in some ways scares Israel and the U.S. more than North Korea’s probable but primitive and barely deliverable actual weapons. Why?
Workable, sustainable fission power-plants in Iran will greatly and permanently change Iran’s place on the world stage, something that is slowly happening anyway. If Russia and Iran do in fact become partners, I suspect that there may be what amounts to a ‘Persian Renaissance,’ a flowering of a certain kind of strange new society in the Empire of the Peacock. Real modernization of Iran’s infrastructure, and lucrative trade with Russia and India, will actually create a true center of gravity in the Middle East that has nothing to do with the West.
My suspicion is that if this flowering were to go forward unhindered that in a generation, maybe two, the theological basis for Iranian government would be essentially a shell, with a scientific and technical powerhouse underneath: think of an Shi’a Islamic Singapore, in a sense. That to me seems the goal that could unify all Persians, and all Shi’a Arabs, into a realistic coalition, which has obvious implications for Iraq. With the victory of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister in the interim Iraqi National Assembly, the likelihood of a refoundation of a serious bi-national Persian/Shi’a super state just took a big step towards reality.
Technological improvements cascade. The U.S. has created, in the invasion of Iraq, an historical moment that would otherwise have passed: the possibility of a non-democratic, non-Communist, non-totalitarian, but still restrictive and repressive, Shi’a Islamic pole in Iraq/Iran that will pull geo-politics towards itself as the stability and technology of the region expands. Personally, on one level, I think Blumenthal is right: it’s too late for the Neoconservatives to carry out their plans with Iran. The U.S. is weakened. Russia is on the ascension in the Caucasus. India has even stopped allowing Westerners to adopt Indian children, a clear move to limit population shifts that India cannot control. These factors represent a kind of slow earthquake, and behind them is the shape of a very different global ordering.
Therefore, at present, what can Rice do? She’s rattling the saber, but here I agree with Blumenthal: the moment is passed for an invasion of Iran, unless the Neocons are willing to risk World War III. They may be so willing, and of course the wild card is Ariel Sharon. If he orders massive, unilateral air-strikes on Iran’s fission plants, he may well be acting in the role of Gavrillo Princip, and those bombs may be the ‘blasts heard round the world’ for our generation. As always, speculation is bootless, but it is entertaining.

River of Shadows – Rebecca Solnit


I came to this book for two reasons
–one that I am interested in Eadweard Muybridge, as he is considered the grandfather of motion pictures (and a character in a story I am/was writing), two that I’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s writing on Tom Dispatch, where she usually writes hopeful essays of an ecological nature. So when I heard that she had written this book on Muybridge and the birth of the modern world, I needed to check it out. And damn, can this woman write! This is the kind of history book I love, one that takes in disparate elements and demonstrates how they all snap together. The previous history of Muybridge I have read was straight hagiography and focused on his motion studies and his time in Stanford and Philadelphia. But Solnit is more interested in the years that went into creating a man who would change history–stopping time, in essence; making people aware of themselves as an image–and the society that surrounded him. Solnit brings in the railroads, San Francisco history, the emancipation of women, the last stands of the Native Americans, the birthing of educational and artistic institutions, and much more. Here is a sample paragraph which demonstrates Solnit’s command of the language and of juggling several ideas:

Those great landscapists Russel, Hart, and Savage photographed the physical process of the building of the railroads, and when the line was open, Mybridge and Watkins both made extensive stereoscope series of the scenery along the route. Most accounts of the building of the railroad concentrate on just that: the heroic and unprecedented toils of the laborers and engineers that drew a line in wood and iron across the continent. But less visible webs were being spun. The transcontinental railroad was far vaster than any of the manufactorites of the East. It required unprecedented strata of bureaucracy, unprecedented degrees of managerial coordination, and it reached as far into the political and economic systems of the United States as it did into the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were the biggest corporations of their time and the first to have such extensive dealing with the federal, state, and local governments. The modern corporation’s complex synchronizations first appeared there, and so did the penetration into the world on such a scale. First the railroads, then the networks for distributing energy, food, and basic goods, drew people further and further into a system; and more and more of them became employees of such systems. The independence of the frontier and the subsistence farmer retreated further and further. This was the moment in which many Americans first began to feel like cogs in the machine.

And so here we are today. One of Solnit’s points is that the “Wild West” was the last gasp of a mythologized frontier that was about to become less wild and more regimented, just as authors were romanticizing the Native Americans while the Feds were busy killing the last “insurgents” off.
Muybridge comes across and driven, but private, only partly aware of the changes he is making to the world, and maybe not as honored in his time as he should be. The ultimate American success story, he retired to England where he was born, and died ten years later in 1904, the graveyard slab misspelling his name as Maybridge. Whoops.

No, We’re Big Brother

I don’t know if there’s a real point to these series of satellite images of the rightwing’s favorite places to hang out, but the Eyeball Series is fascinating nonetheless. Gazing at Bush’s Crawford ranch, you have to wonder, where is all this “brush” that he is always reportedly “clearing”? I mean, there’s nothing for miles. Why is he clearing it? Doesn’t he have a groundskeeper? Unless of course “clearing brush” is code for something else…

Don’t Let Me Hear You Say Life’s Taking You Nowhere

Most excellent chronology of Bowie’s most productive period: 1974-1980. And here’s a great quote:

PM: You seem to be fascinated by cities like Berlin…
DB: Berlin, because of the friction. I’ve written songs in all the Western capitals, and I’ve always got to the stage where there isn’t any friction between a city and me. That became nostalgic, vaguely decadent, and I left for another city. At the moment I’m incapable of composing in Los Angeles, New York or in London or Paris. There’s something missing. Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things – anything else you don’t mention, you remain silent, and write nothing … and in the end you produce Low.

Just released from Guantanamo, he tells his story…

No real surprises here, just awful awful awful…

I entered the hellish world of Guantanamo Bay

Martin Mubanga can date the low point of his 33 months at Guantanamo
Bay: 15 June, 2004. That sweltering Cuban morning, he was taken from
the cellblock he was sharing with speakers of the Afghan language
Pashto, none of whom knew English, for what had become his almost
daily interrogation. As usual, his hands were shackled in rigid, metal
cuffs attached to a body belt; another set of chains ran to his
ankles, severely restricting his ability to move his legs. Trussed in
this fashion, he was lying on the interrogation booth

My name is Monsanto, and I can’t stop being evil!

More proof that the great battles of the 21st century will be about copyright, and I’m not talking mp3s.

Iraq Farmers are not Celebrating World Food Day
As part of sweeping ‘economic restructuring’ implemented by the Bush Administration in Iraq, Iraqi farmers will no longer be permitted to save their seeds. Instead, they will be forced to buy seeds from US corporations — which can include seeds the Iraqis themselves developed over hundreds of years. That is because in recent years, transnational corporations have patented and now own many seed varieties originated or developed by indigenous peoples. In a short time, Iraq will be living under the new American credo: Pay Monsanto, or starve.

On the other hand, who’s going to enfore this? Our already stretched and bunkerized military? Monsanto representatives? The village cop?

Cutie Honey

Dir: Hideaki Anno
Eriko Sato started off her life as cute bikini model in Japan,
but has now jumped to film by grabbing the lead role in “Cutie Honey,” a purple and pink psychedelic blast of live-action anime based on the ’70s manga by Go Nagai. As her theme tune tells us, she has “perfect boobs”, kitten-like lips, a fine behind, and generally just lives up to her name. She’s also perched somewhere between human and post-human, being as she is a recreation of her scientist father’s dead daughter, a reanimation. This also makes her a perfect heroine as well as sex object: innocent but sexual, loving but unobtainable. The film rightfully indulges in its star’s good looks and body, giving us more cheesecake than a California factory. Compare this to the huffing and puffin over nuthin’ that was “Catwoman”–Cutie Honey’s post-feminism is more honest than the bait and switch of American attempts.
Even after the CG explosion of “Kung Fu Hustle”, this film’s low-rent effects are still bracing and inventive, though after a head-spinning opening sequence, the film settles down for character building and humor before building up to a series of climactic battles between members of the Panther Claw gang and the asexual immortal called Sister Jill. The film is slow in places like many Takashi Miike films. However, we wouldn’t want to cut out such moments as a drunken karaoke evening between the three leads, including Jun Murakami as a be-capped journalist with groovy flared hair, and the button-down (but very very hot) police officer Aki (Mikako Ichikawa). Or a very silly moment when Black Claw sings a song all about himself, backed up by violin-playing henchmen.
This was the third film I’ve seen at the festival, and I was glad to see the crowd ate it up. The festival staffers all loved it as well, introducing the screening with a group call out of Cutie’s power-up magic words: “Honey! FLASH!”

Kung Fu Hustle

Dir: Stephen Chow
I just missed Kung Fu Hustle when I was in Taiwan last November
–it was set to open two weeks after I left, but what a pleasure to see that it was in the line-up at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Apparently, S.B. marked the second American screening outside of Sundance (not counting those who have found a bootleg copy in Chinatown). Director, star, and comic genius Stephen Chow has been working on this since 2002, which is a long time compared to his productive height in the early ’90s, where they would knock off four Chow vehicles a year (and nearly all good).
“Kung Fu Hustle” makes Chow’s previous film “Shaolin Soccer” feel like a transitional piece. There was plenty of CG in that film, but now we see that Chow was working towards realizing a sort of human cartoon, where live action meets Tex Avery. Of course, The Mask also attempted this, but the boundaries between the Avery-like Mask character and the “real” world were set. The world of “Kung Fu Hustle” is completely different.
What fans of Chow might have a problem with is the lack of him for great chunks of the picture–his character appears off and on in the first half. He plays a useless street “tough” trying to get into the infamous Ax Gang, while the gang itself tries to put the heat on a innocent looking neigborhood/tenement which is secretly home to a group of kung fu masters. The centerpiece here is the landlord/landlady couple who run the tenement: the landlady (Yuen Qiu) has superspeed and the “Lion’s Roar” and the husband (once Chow regular Wah Yuen, who hasn’t been in one of his films since “Fists of Fury II”) who knows a very bendy style of kung fu. Apart from Wah and Chi Chung Lam (the fat guy from Shaolin Soccer), there’s very few familiar faces, and a great many are first time actors, a method Chow employed in his previous film.
Chow’s character makes a transition from being a wannabe gangster with blocked chi to a superhuman good-guy with chi a’plenty, and this comes later in the proceedings. The feeling is somewhat like when a stand-up comedian goes from his regular job to be an announcer for other, younger comedians under his mantle.
Is the film good, though? Oh yes, very much, with plenty of eye candy, deft camerawork (Chow knows how to shoot a fight scene), and effects that don’t drown out the rest of the film, making sure to keep the human element centered. Is the film one of his bests? No way, for there’s very little of him. But is this film unlike anything Chow has ever made, and is this film unlike anything most audiences have ever seen? Undoubtedly.