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Monday, May 30, 2005

Oliver Stone Interview

Marc Cooper has reprinted an interview he did with Oliver Stone for Playboy Magazine in 1988. Since most of his recent movies have been, let's be honest, not all that good, it's sometimes easy to forget just how good his work in the 1980's was. This interview was done after winning the Oscars for Platoon, at around the time that Wall Street was released. Topics covered include Stone's Vietnam experiences, his early, privileged life growing up in Manhattan, the movie industry, drugs, and much more. It's quite long, but it's a fascinating read. Have a look.

|| RPH || 11:03 PM || |

Dubai Fresh

Via the excellent Mudd Up I've learned of the latest issue of Bidoun, a magazine devoted to new art and culture from the Middle East. The current issue is devoted to Dubai, the Arab world's number one stab at Las Vegas-style unreality. A go go go hyper-capitalist paradise populated by an astoundingly diverse mix of transients from around the world, Dubai is deep into a process of transforming itself into a major world destination. Like elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula, Dubai has been rocketed into the modern world over the past century by the wider world's unslakable thirst for petroleum. Unlike others, particularly their giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, the emirate has managed to diversify its economy beyond desperately hoping that the price of oil stays high. Led by Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum Dubai has managed to get to a stage where oil revenues account for only 5% of GDP, with tourism and business promotional efforts like the Jebel Ali Free Zone and Dubai Internet City now providing the lion's share of revenue. This new confidence can be seen across the city, in projects like the now-legendary Burj Al-Arab hotel, or the the Palm Islands, a fantastical re-imagining of what a city can be, of pushing further back the point where human vision and ingenuity end and nature begins.

The most interesting article in this new issue of Bidoun is Brian Ackley's "Permanent Vacation: The Making of Someplace Out of No-Place". An excerpt:

One of the consequences of Dubai’s rapid rise is that everything is new. Postmodernism was the classical age of Dubai. Unlike the layered cities in Europe whose cores are medieval or American cities where the Industrial Age or Beaux Arts informed planning, Dubai’s early conventional wisdom was drawn from the font of postmodernism—not really in a doctrinal sort of way, just by virtue of the currents of contemporary building practice and the technology that was available. With these tools they laid the easiest path to accommodating financial growth and advanced the city toward its primary goal, namely, establishing Dubai’s credibility as a “modern city.” Air conditioned glass boxes were the accepted/expected vessel of commerce so that is what was built despite the fact that they are hardly suited for the desert environment.

Dubai in this respect reminds me somewhat of Las Vegas, a city that I have always wanted to visit. Despite being in the middle of the desert Las Vegas has been one of America's great boom cities of recent decades. Spurred by the incredible growth of the gaming industry the Las Vegas metropolitan area has attracted enormous numbers of newcomers from across the United States and, indeed, the world, to work in the progressively more fantastical casinos and in the businesses that have sprouted in the wake of local economic growth. Today, Vegas is the very epitome of American unreality, from the neon-soaked strip to oceans of suburban tract homes that in creature comforts and design bend little to the realities of a desert location. Our love affair with the conquest of nature consummated in one city.

Oil is the connecting thread that has allowed both Dubai and Las Vegas to assume their current forms. Without oil, the royal family of Dubai could never have afforded to transform their once-humble port city into the post-modern consumerist extravaganza that it has now become. Without cheap oil to power cars and energize air conditioners, the sort of explosive growth that Las Vegas has experienced would have been simply impossible. Perhaps I am being unfair in characterizing these cities as 'unreal'; perhaps they simply represent a new form of reality, a new authenticity? After all, there is nothing wrong with technology enabling new ways of living. The city I live in, New York, could never have existed in its current density and complexity with the technology of two hundred years ago. As technology advances it allows new ways of living, new angles for organizing life. The unfamiliarity and distaste such new cities can inspire may be nothing more than the shock of the new. Indeed, I think that the very strange newness of Las Vegas has always been an important reason why the original CSI has been so superior to the Miami and New York spin-offs (the superiority of the cast chemistry has also helped, of course). The show always benefits from the contrast between the contrast between its often macarbre storylines and the neon-soaked glitz of the Strip and the peculiar placelessness of its suburban locations, complete with full lawns, a beefy raised middle finger to the lack of local water sources.

There are several threads of historical continuity connecting the new Dubai to the old: its accommodating economic polices, the government of hereditary autocracy, and the longstanding status as a duty-free port. Maintaining an architectural identity is not one of them, in fact there seems to have been little interest in attempting this. Instead there is an emphasis on the waterfront and, more recently, the airport, as spaces that move people and trade through the region. Given a strong disregard for local conditions, Dubai’s desire to be a conduit, and the fact that most of the city was built in the service of investment and consumption, much of the city’s architecture seems to fall into the category of non-place. That is a building or a site that is so generalized—so much a product of a global trend—that it offers no local context and can disorient someone into thinking that they are in no place or in any place.

This is a fascinating idea for me, the idea that physical surroundings can be completely severed from any sort of tether to the past, that links to what went before can be deposited solely in ideas or people. Even in the most radical American forms of placelessness, the exurbs that have sprouted like plate-glass windowed weeds across the American landscape in the last decade, there is still, at the residential level at least, an attempt to recreate familiar aspects of the American past. It doesn't matter that these are often pastiches, where the white picket fence encloses a steroidal McMansion, the important thing is that a connection with an idea of a certain kind of Americana is sought in such places, that a premium is set on presenting these new forms as part of a national continuum. Not so in Dubai, as George Katodrytis explains:

In Dubai there is little difference between holiday accommodation and housing. Architectural programs are becoming fused and undifferentiated. The morphology of the landscape and sea-scape is becoming fabricated to the point that it may soon be difficult to differentiate between the natural and the constructed. Dubai’s natural beachfront is 45 kilometers long. Artificial islands will add another 1,500 kilometers of beachfront, turning the coastline and the city into an inexhaustible holiday resort. This constructed landscape, like a stage set, provides edited scenes of adventure and entertainment.

This is something entirely new, where residential accomodation becomes part of the fantasy world created for the benefit of the visitor. This is different from somewhere like Venice, where the resident can sometimes seem to be no more than a walk-on character to provide local color for the tourist's dream vacation. Indeed, the success of such a concept may be reliant on the transient nature of so many residents of Dubai. In a city where roots are carried only in people's minds or in small gestures, where such staggering sums of money have been committed to realizing an imagined world where the corners of the world meet and shop shop shop, it is perhaps most appropriate that the fantastic infects the mundane residential world, that the day-to-day grind is touched by the shiningly unreal and freshly new.

Finally, to return to Ackley's essay, I think that he offers an excellent conclusion:

In its compulsion to urgently and conspicuously manifest itself, Dubai is challenging the notions of what a city is. It teaches us about growth and planning mutated by hyper-consumption. It is among cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing, all of which show us the new parameters for the global city. It redefines authenticity by short-circuiting attacks on its proposed reality. We watch as the city sprouts up and the only criticism that can be attempted is one that questions to what degree Dubai has exploited its freedom from history and culture. Did they go as far as they could?

|| RPH || 5:37 AM || |

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Ripping Underworld

I was going through the archives of Wired earlier today when I came across this fascinating article on how most pirated materials (music, movies, television shows, applications, etc.) makes its way onto the internet.

It's a commonly held belief that P2P is about sharing files. It's an appealing, democratic notion: Consumers rip the movies and music they buy and post them online. But that's not quite how it works.

In reality, the number of files on the Net ripped from store-bought CDs, DVDs, and videogames is statistically negligible. People don't share what they buy; they share what is already being shared - the countless descendants of a single "Adam and Eve" file. Even this is probably stolen; pirates have infiltrated the entertainment industry and usually obtain and rip content long before the public ever has a chance to buy it.

The whole shebang - the topsites, the pyramid, and the P2P networks girding it all together - is not about trading or sharing at all. It's a broadcast system. It takes a signal, the new U2 single, say, and broadcasts it around the world. The pirate pyramid is a perfect amplifier. The signal becomes more robust at every descending level, until it gets down to the P2P networks, by which time it can be received by anyone capable of typing "U2" into a search engine.

I found this fascinating, because it filled in a lot of blanks in my mind about exactly what 'the scene' is. I'd say I know more about file-sharing than, say, the average Kazaa or Soulseek user, but beyond being on some private Bit Torrent trackers, I didn't really know where a lot of the content was coming from. To paraphrase the article (although, obviously, I'd recommend reading the whole thing) the process begins at a very deep level, where a member of a particular crew has obtained a copy of a new cd or dvd (from journalists, designers, pressing plants, and so on) and then ripped it and placed it on a secure server. From there it is transferred quickly all the way down the security chain to the point that it begins to appear on the public, mass-use peer-to-peer (p2p) services. The role of the crews in this is crucial (after all, most people who've downloaded something will notice that the file names are often tagged with a ripping crew's name, whether it's sour or RAGEMP3 or whatever).

I don't have time for a long post tonight, as I'm going out to see an old friend that I haven't seen in four years, but I'd also recommend checking out Ned Sublette's photo essay on Mardi Gras in New Orleans, as well as his interviews with authorities and participants (see here, here, and here). Have a great Saturday night, and I'll be back with a new full-length book review tomorrow night.

|| RPH || 12:54 AM || |

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Links for Wednesday

One of my favorite websites, Sobaka, has now posted in full a piece from their 2004 anthology, Mainlines, about the as yet unsolved assassination of Srdjan Knezevic, a police chief and former militia leader from Pale, the wartime capital of the Bosnian Serbs. It's a fascinating tale, and well worth a read. I'm on the Sobaka mailing list and apparently a new edition of Mainlines is coming soon, which will be well worth a couple of dollars.


Phil at Actually Existing has written a superb piece on when and how a war can be considered 'just'.

Johnathan Edelstein has posted the latest edition of his long-running series 'The Old Bailey Files' on Jewish life in 18th-century London.

Uzbekistan has been much in the news recently, but were you aware that that troubled nation is home to one of the world's greatest ecological disasters? If you weren't, you should read about the Aral Sea.

As the son of a genuine Southern Belle, a veritable Georgia Peach, (who fortunately, lives thousands of miles away, and so will no longer be irritated by me referring to her in such cliched terms the next time I actually see her) I have to mention that this week Slate's travel piece is about barbecue.

|| RPH || 6:14 PM || |

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Some More Thoughts On Communalism

Having woken up rather early on this Tuesday morning, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to my post on communalism in East London and expand on a few points and clarify a few others. For one thing, as was pointed out to me in the comments by Phil from Existing Actually and John from Shot by Both Sides, the case of Respect and its appeals to specifically Muslim sentiment is more complicated than the rather superficial account I gave. So, in fairness, I should link to this report by Meaders on a speech by the Birmingham Sparkhill candidate Salma Yacoub, where she mentioned that she had been declared an 'apostate' by some local Islamist loons, and this article on George Galloway being denounced as a 'false prophet' and threatened with death by a group of Islamists in East London. Still, though, just because these candidates angered the most extreme element of the local Muslim communities in which they stood, this doesn't acquit them of pandering to Muslim voters communally. For instance, see some of the leaflets I linked to in the previous post, particularly one produced for Mark Krantz in Stretford & Urmston, where positions on international Muslim issues are emphasized over positions on everyday things like healthcare, education, crime, and so on.

On the issue of the BNP, one of my strongest beliefs is that, in Britain as elsewhere in Europe where the far-right is on the move, the very logic of multi-culturalism guarantees the revival of white majoritarian nationalism. If you have an ideological system that says that minority cultures must be protected, respected, and preserved, that opens an enormous gap for ultra-nationalist parties to drive through screaming "we love our culture and we want it preserved!" This opportunity is enhanced by the fact that multiculturalists are often, while praising traditionalist aspects of minority religions or 'cultures', virulently opposed to the traditions of their own white/European 'cultures'. The end result of putting this cultural preservation meme out into the public mind, of telling each little sub-division of the population that their identity background is paramount, is that it racializes all the little conflicts of life, ethnicizing all aspects of life. And the result will inevitably be a larger vote for the ultra-right, because they are the absolute loudest at identifying themselves as being for the preservation of 'white culture', whatever that is or means.

Despite its identification with liberal/progressive thought, multi-culturalism is essentially a conservative idea, where people are indelibly marked by their ethnic/religious/whatever background, and these cultures are, at core, unchanging and set in stone. The ultimate logic of this is segregation in the name of 'cultural preservation' and 'sensitivity'. I don't particularly think that when groups of people migrate to another country they should abandon everything from their homeland, but the reality is that culture is not static, but dynamic, and people change over the generations, whether in outward aspects like dress or tongue, or in inward aspects like values and morals. After all, I am writing this in English, not German, as my Helms ancestors would have before my great-grandfather came to the United States. There is nothing particularly wrong with integration, as it is simply a mechanism of time, and this is one of the most dangerous aspects of multi-culturalism, the idea that integration is somehow tyrannical or genocidal, and that migrant communities should strive to turn themselves into some kind of moving history exhibit.

These ideas give succor to groups like the BNP, because it allows them to set themselves up as the champion of 'white interests' (again, what that means I couldn't say, but in the terms of multi-culturalism it is no more illogical than 'Muslim interests' or 'Chinese interests' or 'black interests' or whatever). Multi-culturalism, in itself, is essentially a form of approval for different ethnic or religious nationalisms, a goader of passions, thus it provides a very convenient language through which white ethnic chauvinists can speak. In the comments, Phil mentioned the strength of multiculturalism as political truism coinciding with the absence of economic class from today's political landscape. This is true, yet I also think that multiculturalism is itself often a form of class politics in practice. Quite often middle-class multiculturalists use it as a stick to beat the white working class, deriding them as hopelessly racist and sentimentally attached to obsolete traditions, while exalting working-class members of minority ethnic groups as 'bringing wonderful diversity'. This, unsurprisingly, breeds resentment, and provides a fertile territory for far-right recruitment.

At the moment I am reading a book called The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (great book by the way), and one of the key points he makes about fascist movements was that they marketed themselves as being a radical answer to politics-as-usual that was at the same time against the class politics of the Left. The various fascisms had a mystical belief in the necessity of creating trans-class unity among the volk or the razza. This, I do not need to remind you, is not a million miles away in logic from much multi-culturalist thought, despite the latter's origination on the Left. Now, I know that throwing around accusations of 'fascism' is bad form, and that it has been done so much that the charge has lost almost all sting, but all of the European far-right groups of today are descended, in ideology at least, from thought-strands from the ultra-nationalist and fascist movements of the 1920's and 30's. Although it is unintentional, in practice multicultural ideas about the almost mystical qualities of x people mean that the inheritors of fascist ideology have the territory on which to move marked out for them.

In the case of the BNP itself, this merely readies the ground for them, and their continuous growth over the last five years at local and national level also required them to change. Without the changes that Nick Griffin has made since becoming party chairman in 1997 I doubt they would have been able to grow so quickly. They have also been ably assisted by the race to the rhetorical bottom by the two main political parties and much of the press on the issues of immigration and asylum. These twin ideas, the multiculturalist idea that 'culture is worth preserving' and the tabloid paranoia of 'the country is being overrun', are, I believe, a central explanation for the growth of the BNP.

In and of itself, I don't think that the BNP represents a major long-term threat. They are simply too hamstrung by their own past, by the street violence and overtly neo-fascist rhetoric of the party when John Tyndall was leader, or by Griffin's own extremely dodgy past involvement in the National Front, the International Third Position, and the Political Soldier movement. Although the party has markedly moderated its rhetoric, it is still very extreme by British political standards, and it (and its senior leadership) still has caverns worth of skeletons to hide. What worries me about the BNP is that the sort of things they say at the moment are not much different from what the much more successful far-right parties on the Continent are saying. So, I believe that if there was a new ultra-nationalist party in England without the baggage of the BNP I think they could do quite well, and their presence and ideas could go a long way towards poisoning matters further in places where religious/ethnic tensions are already quite strong.

|| RPH || 11:45 AM || |

Sunday, May 22, 2005

God I Love The Internet: Napoleon and Islam

God, I love the internet. It's so easy to wander around and find all kinds of bizarre information and strange theories. On Thursday night, as I was writing the previous post on the Respect and BNP parties, I had a look at Wikipedia's list of UK Political Parties, and one of the parties I had a look at was something called the Islamic Party of Britain, a microscopic Sharia-based political party. So, I had a look at their website, and, while looking at the profile of the party founder/leader, the convert David Musa Pidcock, I noticed that it mentioned that, "He has also organised the translation from the French into English of Napoleon et l'Islam by Christian Cherfils, published in 1914, which chronicles Napoleon Bonaparte's conversion to Islam in 1798, leading to the Code Napoleon, the French civil law adaptation of Islamic law."

This, quite obviously, was new to me. I had never heard anyone suggest that Napoleon had been a convert to Islam or that the Napoleonic Code was an adaptation of the Sharia. So, I decided to investigate. Several different Google searches turned up not much more than quotes from Pidcock and unrelated stuff. One thing that I found, though, that was quite interesting, was a translation of a passage from an 1889 biography of Napoleon by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, which said:

It has been alleged that Bonaparte, when in Egypt, took part in the religious ceremonies and worship of the Mussulmans; but it cannot be said that he celebrated the festivals of the overflowing of the Nile and the anniversary of the Prophet. The Turks invited him to these merely as a spectator; and the presence of their new master was gratifying to the people. But he never committed the folly of ordering any solemnity. He neither learned nor repeated any prayer of the Koran, as many persons have asserted; neither did he advocate fatalism polygamy, or any other doctrine of the Koran. Bonaparte employed himself better than in discussing with the Imans the theology of the children of Ismael. The ceremonies, at which policy induced him to be present, were to him, and to all who accompanied him, mere matters of curiosity. He never set foot in a mosque; and only on one occasion, which I shall hereafter mention, dressed himself in the Mahometan costume. He attended the festivals to which the green turbans invited him. His religious tolerance was the natural consequence of his philosophic spirit.

Doubtless Bonaparte did, as he was bound to do, show respect for the religion of the country; and he found it necessary to act more like a Mussulman than a Catholic. A wise conqueror supports his triumphs by protecting and even elevating the religion of the conquered people. Bonaparte's principle was, as he himself has often told me, to look upon religions as the work of men, but to respect them everywhere as a powerful engine of government. However, I will not go so far as to say that he would not have changed his religion had the conquest of the East been the price of that change. All that he said about Mahomet, Islamism, and the Koran to the great men of the country he laughed at himself. He enjoyed the gratification of having all his fine sayings on the subject of religion translated into Arabic poetry, and repeated from mouth to mouth. This of course tended to conciliate the people.

I confess that Bonaparte frequently conversed with the chiefs of the Mussulman religion on the subject of his conversion; but only for the sake of amusement. The priests of the Koran, who would probably have been delighted to convert us, offered us the most ample concessions. But these conversations were merely started by way of entertainment, and never could have warranted a supposition of their leading to any serious result. If Bonaparte spoke as a Mussulman, it was merely in his character of a military and political chief in a Mussulman country. To do so was essential to his success, to the safety of his army, and, consequently, to his glory. In every country he would have drawn up proclamations and delivered addresses on the same principle. In India he would have been for Ali, at Thibet for the Dalai-lama, and in China for Confucius.

This seems more plausible to me than that Napoleon actually converted to Islam, a claim that has the ring of wishful thinking. Yet, it is not something I am altogether sure about, and I can't seem to find many good sources on Google. Do any of you know any more on the subject?

|| RPH || 9:15 PM || |

Friday, May 20, 2005

Communalism in East London

The British general election last week was, for the most part, quite predictable. It was not much of a surprise that the Labour Party squeaked back into parliament with a vastly reduced majority, set against sizeable gains for both the Tories and the Lib Dems. One of the most sensational stories was the victory of George Galloway over Labour's Oona King in the East London constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow. George Galloway, I am sure that I don't need to tell my readers, is quite the controversial character (have a look at Harry's Place to see the effect he has on some people). A staunch left-winger and a long-term supporter of the Palestinian cause, he was kicked out of the Labour Party in October 2003 due to his vitriolic statements against the Iraqi War. He has since become the public face of the Respect party, a new left(ish) political party created by (principally) the Socialist Workers Party and the Muslim Association of Britain (the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) following the enormous anti-war demonstrations that they organized in the months preceding the US-led invasion of Iraq. It is, indeed, an odd marriage of Trotskyites and Islamists. Anyways, despite lacking any real connections to Bethnal Green & Bow, Galloway stood in the constituency because he is by far the biggest name in the party and because it is an area with one of the largest Muslim populations in the entire UK. Around 40% of the registered voters in the constituency are Muslims of (primarily) Bangladeshi origin, and they were the driving force behind Galloway's upset victory.

Essentially, from what I've read, Galloway's campaign was essentially run as a local referendum on the Iraq War, and he more or less explicitly targeted his campaigning squarely at the local Bengali Muslim community, while ignoring the indigenous white working class. Galloway, a Catholic, opens his meetings with the traditional Islamic greeting salaam aleikum, has pressed much flesh with local Muslim dignitaries, and even flew to Bangladesh to do some meet-n-greets, press the flesh, and get into the local news. This is one of the things that I really dislike about Respect, that it has the tendency to adopt explicitly communalist politics and attempt to appeal to voters on the basis of their ethnic or religious identity. Anyone who has read through my archives will know how much I hate identity politics.

On quite a few occassions Respect has produced election literature specifically on international Muslim issues, appealing for votes on issues of Muslim emotion, not nuts and bolts local needs. For instance, the leaflet produced for distribution in local mosques in the Stratford constituency has no mention of local issues like education, crime, housing, health care, or anything like that, purely 'Muslim' issues (another good example is a leaflet produced for Paddy O'Keefe, who was standing in Hove, which only mentions his pro-Muslim credentials). According to the (admittedly quite right-wing and anti-Muslim) columnist Melanie Phillips, in Birmingham Sparkbrook the Respect candidate, Salma Yacoub, spent the lion's share of her time campaigning on Iraq and Kashmir (because most of the Muslims in the area are originally from the disputed state of Kashmir). It's hard to know how accurate all this is, but it's worth looking at the comments from Cheetah on this post from Harry's Place, as well as her own campaign literature (see here, here, here, and here).

In and of itself, such stuff is merely annoying, but I think it's fairly worrying for another reason. If ethnic or religious minorities are seen to be becoming increasingly radicalized and voting for candidates from a party that set this community's issues at the top of its agenda, I believe that, in the long term, this merely plays into the hands of extreme far right groups like the British National Party, who have had growing success in the last half-decade from pushing their own brand of white communalism. Starting from a much more explicitly racist and neo-Nazi position, since the election of life-long racist activist Nick Griffin to the party chairmanship in 1997 the BNP has gained a growing number of votes by moderating (relatively speaking, of course) its rhetoric and abandoning policies like compulsory repatriation for all non-whites in an effort to bring the party more into line with successful European far-right organizations like Le Front National in France, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, and the Danish People's Party in Denmark. The BNP did fairly respectably in this election, in comparison to their consistent wipeouts at previous elections, with their best result coming only a couple of miles east of Bethnal Green and Bow in the Barking constituency, where they took nearly 17% of the vote, and were only narrowly beaten out of second place by the Tories. Barking is something of a 'white flight' area on the London/Essex border that has absorbed a lot of East End whites who've left closer-in East London neighborhoods in recent decades. Areas like Barking, mostly white working or lower middle class near more multi-ethnic neighborhoods, seem to be where the BNP have had the most success in recent years. While I don't think that the BNP will ever get into government, I would not be surprised if they continue to grow (indeed they polled nearly a million votes at the last European elections). Why? Well, I think that it's the logical outcome of a multiculturalism that tells people that they have to 'preserve their culture', whatever that means. If you have the media, national and local government, academia, and armies of social workers talking about the necessity of preserving identities and endlessly talking about the importance of respecting racial, ethnic, and religious identities, you are giving enormous power to these identities, to anti-individualistic communal vagaries. When this happens, as it has, it should come as no surprise that, eventually, a certain amount of people in the white majority will then say "what about us? What about our culture/identity/whatever?" Personally, I don't really care about 'white culture' or 'white history' or white anything, but then I don't care about anyone else's silly emotional attachments to some perceived group whatever. But for those people who espouse identity politics for minority groups, who think it's a good thing, it's pretty ridiculous to then act surprised when some whites foolishly decide to get in the same game.

In this context it is not surprising (at all) that the BNP were quite pleased with Galloway's victory:

The future for British politics is the growth in support and power of the ethno-specific political parties like the BNP, the Peoples' Justice Party and Respect. As parties like Respect grow in power and influence and further radicalise the ethnic communities they represent, then the indigenous British White community of Britain will come to understand that they can no longer avoid the politics of Identity Politics for themselves. The White middle class Liberal Fascists that only ever attack the BNP for defending the interests of the indigenous White community of Britain can now no longer attack us for doing so as the Asian Muslim community is doing the exact same thing in its community. The success of Respect is the end of the
White Liberal Consensus on Multi-Culturalism. It is an irony of history that the first ethnic community to throw off the yoke of Multi-Culturalism and openly embrace Identity Politics by getting an elected representative in Parliament are the Asian Muslim immigrants themselves and their white, self hating, communist collaborators.


The growth of Identity Politics amongst the Asian Muslim community is a welcome sign of the disintegration of the Liberal Consensus on Multi-Culturalism. When the Asian Muslims themselves reject the multi-cultural social model and embrace political parties that link politics with ethnicity then it becomes increasingly ridiculous and hypocritical for the media to attack the BNP for defending the interests of our community; the White indigenous British National Community. The fact that the BNP is called 'racist' for politically representing the interests of the indigenous White community whilst Respect is not is a sign of the inherent anti-white racism of the
media against indigenous whites. The next time the media call the BNP racist we will respond by calling them the real racists. Why should the indigenous white people of Britain be the only ethnic group denied a political party to represent their specific ethnic interests as a community? To do so is racist. This election is a triumph for the BNP. Even the mainstream media have to report that this election has shown the growing power of the BNP, as is seen here on the BBC website and in the Guardian.

Grim tidings, eh?

Speaking personally, I don't like exclusivist identity politics in any shape or form, but I particularly loathe the sort of 'white nationalism' espoused by groups like the BNP in Britain or on websites like Stormfront here in the US. Why? Well, it's quite simple. Islamist groups aren't speaking for me. I think they are monsters, but they aren't claiming to speak for me. Black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam aren't speaking for me. But I'm white, and Christian, so the idea that dickheads like the BNP or David Duke or whoever else of that ilk could claim to speak for me and represent me because we share skin tones and similar (more or less) ethno-religious backgrounds really makes my blood boil. Yet that is a personal, emotional response. Looking at it from a more detached perspective, on a philosophical level all of these kinds of exclusivist politics based around an emotional appeal to irrational commitments to blood and/or faith are all equally monstrous. It is not healthy for such ideas, of militant difference based around unchangeable characteristics, to gain a foothold in societies that are growing more heterogenous. It's not like the track record for diverse societies where communalism plays a major role in politics has been all that good in recent history. A brief look at Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, or Nigeria (amongst others) shows the dangers of entrenching communal divisions as a normal part of the political process. Obviously, it would be a reach to say that fifty years down the line England will experience something similar to the convulsions that hit those states, but nevertheless these scattered results, to me, represent what perhaps may be the beginnings of something nastier in the future. Hopefully I am wildly wrong, and when I am old I can look back at this as so much silliness. Diverse societies can work, but they require effort and they almost never succeed when these divisions are played up.

|| RPH || 6:20 AM || |

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Three Essays In Search Of A Book

Eric Schlosser Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market

This, the follow-up to the bestselling Fast Food Nation, is Eric Schlosser's exploration into America's underground economy, in which he looks, specifically, at the drug trade, illegal immigration, and pornography. The shadow economy is enormous, so large that no one is sure exactly how big it is, although, as Schlosser points out in the introduction, the Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider calculated in 1997 that by 1994 it made up 9.4% of national GDP, some $650 billion. The explosive growth of illegal activity, and its very profitability, has permeated American society at every level, from the street corner drug dealer in a city slum to the massive agricultural conglomerates driving profits up by employing legions of impoverished Latin American migrants.

The book is set out as a set of three essays on specific events and places, with introductory and concluding chapters anchoring on either side. The first part is on the drug business, where Schlosser looks at marijuana, by far the nation's favorite illegal intoxicant. Schlosser concentrates on the case of Mark Young, an Indianapolis man sentenced to life without parole in 1992 for introducing a buyer and a seller of seven hundred pounds of marijuana grown on a nearby farm. Government prohibition has acted like a tariff on marijuana, allowing American farmers to compete successfully with foreign growers in major marijuana-producing nations like Mexico and Jamaica. Indeed, the huge potential profits that the drug offers, as well as how easily it is cultivated, has meant that marijuana cultivation within the continental United States has exploded over the last several decades, despite the enormous governmental resources devoted to attacking the drug trade ever since President Reagan declared his war on drugs.

Despite the image of domestic marijuana cultivators as being laid-back hippies in Northern California, most of the cannabis grown in the continental United States is produced in the 'heartland', in a band from Kentucky to Michigan and west to Nebraska and Iowa, with particular centers of cultivation in Illinois and Indiana. At the same time as Ronald Reagan was expanding anti-importation efforts at the border, the rural Midwest was experiencing a major crisis, as land values and foreign demand for American produce imploded. Thus, many Midwestern farmers turned to marijuana cultivation to make ends meet, exactly the same motivation that drives farmers in countries like Bolivia and Afghanistan to grow coca and opium. Schlosser talks to growers and the DEA agents that pursue them, shining a light into a world that is mostly ignored by the media and the average American, because when most Americans think of the illegal drug trade they think of young black crack dealers in housing project hallways, not middle-aged white farmers in the Midwest.

What Schlosser is really good at as a writer is being able to talk about specific events involving specific people in specific places, maintaining a narrative about them, and then easily moving out into a consideration of the wider social, economic, and political trends that influence the events under discussion. On this level, each of the three parts of the book work brilliantly. As self-contained discussions of the issues at hand, Schlosser does an excellent job of providing not just an engaging narrative of the particular tale he is telling, but also filling in for the reader the necessary background of the stories, the historical, economic, social, and scientific facts at work within the different sectors of the underground economy.

The second main section of the book has Schlosser considering illegal immigration by visiting the strawberry fields of California's Santa Maria Valley. Here, the job of picking strawberries is done by Mixtec Indians from Mexico's Oaxaca state. Strawberry harvesting is labor intensive work, because the fragility of the fruit has made mechanization difficult, entire crops can be lost overnight, and prices can vary tremendously from year to year; these three factors help ensure that the strawberry industry is one of the most heavily reliant on illegal migrant labor within the whole Californian agricultural sector. Unlike other parts of the United States, in California agriculture has never been dominated by small family farms. Almost from the earliest days of its annexation from Mexico, Californian agriculture has been characterized by the industrial scale of operations, and this phenomenon has always been reliant on migrant labor (at various points Japanese, Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, and Mexican). Yet by the post-war period the era of enormous migratory labor movements seemed to be ending, with the number of migrant agricultural workers in the United States dropping from an estimated 2 million in the 1920's to a low point of around 200,000 during the height of Cesar Chavez's organizing for the United Farm Workers union in the 1970's. With mechanization spreading throughout the industry and decent wages, working conditions, and benefits on offer to workers, the era of Steinbeckian exploitation seemed to be drawing to a close. Then, union-busting legislation enacted by the Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson in the 1980's and 90's shredded much of the progress made and, under the guise of allowing employers access to the 'magic of the market', revived wide-spread agricultural migration. With the enormous savings in wages, payroll taxes, and benefits that employers could make through employing illegal migrants, it became a race to the bottom. As ever, many of the Republican politicians who could be counted on to hit the nativist heart strings in speeches were instrumental, in the real world, in creating the conditions through which demand for illegal labor could soar.

Today, California's agricultural economy is locked into place. The markets have worked their magic to the degree that, in a fiercely competitive industry where key players are more likely to be branches of vast publicly-owned conglomerates than local operators, the wages and benefits on offer are simply too low to attract anyone besides the most desperate. And in California the most desperate workers are virtually all illegal immigrants from Latin America. The success, at least from a business perspective, of this model in agriculture has seen it spread throughout the low end of the American economy. With over ten million illegal immigrants in the United States, why pay Americans a reasonable wage and benefits in construction, domestic work, or many other service industries when there are literally millions of desperate people in the country who will do it for much less money and are far less likely to cause a fuss over conditions? This is why I find it so perplexing that many liberal/progressive voices, when asked about illegal immigration, fall back on "jobs Americans won't do/bringing wonderful diversity" arguments. The wages on offer simply won't provide for an American family, and surely progressivism should be devoted to ending economic exploitation within our borders, a task made virtually impossible by our unwillingness to effectively control illegal migration by going after the employers who use it to enrich themselves. Furthermore, at the local level uncontrolled illegal migration puts tremendous strain on communities, with local taxpayers picking up the education and health bills for the workers who are driving down the bottom line for Wall Street. Ah, multiculturalism and the Democratic Party's cynical hunt for votes within the Latino community (to say nothing of the Republicans bowed knee before the economic imperatives of Corporate America, their constituents' opinions be damned).

This is, for me, the best part of the book. Tightly constructed around a core of important historical and economic information, with an excellent range of interviews and local narrative details, it is the stand-out section of the book. Unfortunately, it is only thirty-five pages long, somewhat perverse when the final section of the book, on pornography, is over a hundred pages long. This is where, I feel, Schlosser failed with this project. For me, the three parts do not really hang together into a comfortable whole. This is especially true of the third part, "An Empire of the Obscene", which I personally would have radically cut. Clearly, given the amount of space devoted to it, and the lingering, loving detail into which Schlosser goes, this was the section of the book that he most enjoyed writing. Fair enough. Yet it does not seem to sit that easily with the other two sections for the simple fact that, today, pornography is, except for the most extreme stuff like child porn and bestiality, not part of the illegal economy, but a legal if often shadowy industry. Yet I suppose that Schlosser's idea for including it is to show how an entire sector of illegal economic activity can draw itself aboveground, blinking in the light.

The third section looks at the life and career of a man named Reuben Sturman from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Who? Precisely. Reuben Sturman was the man who, virtually single-handedly, turned pornography into a semi-mainstream business.

"Reuben Sturman was a former comic book salesman who'd turned a small Cleveland magazine business into an international media conglomerate boasting hundreds of companies in North America, Asia, and Western Europe - a virtually integrated enterprise that produced films, videos, and magazines, that manufactured peep shows and sexual devices, that operated wholesale warehouses and retail stores. A business rival once complained that Reuben Sturman did not simply control the adult entertainment industry; he was the industry." (p. 112)

This third part was definitely the weakest link of the book for me. The case of Reuben Sturman, and how he built his empire through vertically integrating his operations to maximize profits while continually beating off all obscenity charges before being taken down in an income tax sting, is certainly pretty interesting, yet it was probably better as a stand-alone article in the New Yorker. In contrast to the two previous parts this section seems a bit flat, lacking in the on-the-ground reportage that gives so much flavor to the sections on drugs and illegal immigration, consisting as it does mostly of a reconstructed narrative of Sturman's rise and fall. Although Schlosser does, as in the other articles, still pull back to describe the wider historical, cultural, and economic trends at work, it suffers from what seems, after the two previous sections, to be an overly extensive focus on Sturman. Perhaps it is the length of the piece, and perhaps it is because it is the topic that interests me least, but I feel that this section simply does not work as well as the other two. It is too long, and the writing lacks some of the vibrancy and immediacy of the two previous pieces.

Overall, I would say that, while I enjoyed this book, it is hardly an essential read. Worth getting from the library.

|| RPH || 6:02 AM || |

Friday, May 13, 2005

Btefnet Down

From Cnet News:

Continuing its war on Internet file-swapping sites, the Motion Picture Association of America said Thursday that it has filed lawsuits against a half-dozen hubs for TV show trading.

The trade association said that piracy of TV programming is growing quickly online, and that shows are as important to protect as big-budget films. This is the first legal action from the group that has focused most heavily on TV content.

"Every television series depends on other markets (such as) syndication and international sales to earn back the enormous investment required to produce the comedies and dramas we all enjoy," MPAA Chief Executive Officer Dan Glickman said in a statement. "Those markets are substantially hurt when that content is stolen."

The latest round of suits retains a focus on BitTorrent technology, which has been widely used online to distribute movies and films.

The suits are focused on the sites that serve as traffic directors for BitTorrent swaps, rather than on individual computer users uploading and downloading content. The MPAA also has sued individuals, but has not said how many people have been targeted.

The six sites sued Thursday include ShunTV, Zonatracker, Btefnet, Scifi-Classics, CDDVDHeaven and Bragginrights.

I find this quite amusing. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle as far as data transfer goes, and the MPAA seems to be content to repeat all of the RIAA's mistakes. With the spread of broadband connections throughout the United States and, indeed, the world, it is simply inevitable that a sizeable number of people are going to change their media consumption habits to better take advantage of the new opportunities that the internet offers.

For those who don't know, Bit Torrent is, to date, the best and most efficient peer-to-peer (p2p) system. Unlike other p2p programs, from Napster (in its original form) to Audiogalaxy to Soulseek to all of the others, Bit Torrent does not simply connect you one-to-one. It hooks you into a network of people who are after the same file and has you uploading and downloading simultaneously, thus allowing very fast download speeds, so that entire hour-long tv shows (well, 42 minutes, as the ads are shorn out) can be downloaded at very high speeds. It is a remarkably efficient system, and the problem for the MPAA is that it is too efficient to be smacked down. Over the last year an increasing number of BT sites have been shut, yet, because it is so decentralized, it has never made anything more than a temporary dent in the overall health of torrent-related file-swapping.

With this highly efficient technology there is no longer any particular reason for people to sit down at an arbitrarily decided time of the week to watch a television show. If I miss a show that I want to watch, and I have the technology, why can't I download it and view it at my convenience? Saying, "that's not how it works!" is a cop-out, because these major media conglomerates have been pushing broadband and the internet for years (plus their shows are already paid for by advertising)...they shouldn't be shocked that people choose to make the best use of it.

If they were really smart, instead of going after Bit Torrent sites, they would simply set up their own subscription services, with guaranteed high speeds. I'd happily pay a dollar or two a week to get a high quality version of new episodes of, say, Lost, and judging by the success of iTunes, there are lots of other people out there who are happy to pay for digital content if it is guaranteed quality.

|| RPH || 6:27 PM || |

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

South Korea's Triumph

Perhaps no nation in the past fifty years has travelled so far as South Korea. In the aftermath of the Korean War that divided the peninsula and cleaved the Korean people in twain, South Korea was one of the poorest nations on earth. Devastated by the war, and by decades of brutal Japanese occupation up until the end of World War One, South Korea was in a sorry state. No outsider, thinking objectively, could possibly have imagined that a child born in South Korea in 1955 would reach their half-century in one of the world's wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations. Yet that is what happened. And it is a remarkable tale.

In the aftermath of the Korean War the South Korean government pursued a policy of import substitution industrialization, with high tariffs on imported manufactures set in order to encourage the development of local industry. The main beneficiaries of this policy were what came to be known as the chaebol. The chaebol were, by the 1990's, vast conglomerates with tentacles extending through virtually every level of the South Korean economy. They were feted, right up until the Asian financial crisis of 1997, as the engine that had driven South Korea to prosperity. Yet their beginnings were often humble. Daewoo, for instance, began when its founder, Kim Woo Choong, told some potential Singaporean clients that textile samples he had bought in Hong Kong and Vietnam were Korean products, thus securing his first order.

Another of the chaebol, Samsung, began as a trucking business, before diversifying into sugar and textiles, and from there into a vast range of businesses, culminating in the founder Lee Byung Chull's decision, in the late 1960's, to start moving Samsung into electronics. Today, Samsung is one of the world's most profitable and innovative electronics corporations, having long since put to rest the image of Korean products as cheap and shoddy. How Samsung has transformed itself into a global marquee brand is the subject of a fascinating recent article by Frank Rose in Wired. When the regional financial crisis hit South Korea in 1997, Samsung, like the other chaebol, was driven to the point of bankruptcy. Having recklessly borrowed for years, the conglomerates were unprepared for the skyrocketing of interest rates ordered by the IMF following a run on South Korea's currency, the won. In response, Samsung shed 30% of its workforce in a massive restructuring operation that included the elimination of dozens of businesses. With South Korean labor no longer cheap, at least in comparison to what could be obtained in China, Mexico, and elsewhere, the decision was made, as the article explains, to redirect Korean operations towards innovation, to emulating Sony and rising to a level where Samsung would no longer be involved in the dog-eat-dog world of low-end price competition. The gamble has paid off, and today Samsung is one of the world's leading electronics brands, a global power in cellular phones, video cameras, still cameras, music players, computer monitors, and high-definition TV's.

One of the things that really struck me when I read the article was the mention on page three of the fact that, in the early 1960's, South Korea "rivaled Ghana on the poverty scale". Today, the fortunes of the two nations could not, seemingly, be more different, so it is remarkable to think that only forty years ago they were on the same level. So what went so wrong in Ghana? And what went so right in South Korea? About a month ago, I posted about the failure, in Ghana, of the socialist policies adopted by President Kwame Nkrumah in the early 1960's. The economic crises that have been recurrent throughout Ghana's post-colonial history (at least until the last decade, when Ghana seems to have finally gotten on to a more even keel) are often held up by Western free-market ideologues as a prime exhibit of the failures of socialism, with South Korea being seen as a successful example of capitalism in action.

The problem, though, is that seeing South Korea as some kind of poster child for free market capitalism is a perversion of the truth (as would laying Ghana's problems purely at the doors of Nkrumah's socialism). Without rehashing my previous post (I suggest clicking on the link to read the whole thing), Ghana was hit by several serious problems that South Korea did not face, and it did not have some of South Korea's advantages. One thing that was completely out of the control of the Ghanaian government was that the British colonial regime had focused economic development on the efficient extraction of raw materials, especially gold and cocoa, with the fostering of internal trade an afterthought. So, like their South Korean counterparts, the Ghanaian government was determined to transform the nation into a producer of finished goods, because manufactures are so much more profitable than raw natural resources. The problem, though, was that in order to pay for the creation of the necessary infrastructure the government was reliant on global market prices for cocoa and gold holding up. It was a gamble that had to be made, but, unfortunately for Ghana, by the early 1960's the nation was facing vastly increased competition in the global cocoa markets from Brazil, Malaysia, and other nations who had substantially expanded their own cocoa production. With cocoa prices in free-fall, another problem, already bubbling under, began to assume increased prominence. That problem was corruption. I explored this at greater length in the essay, but, briefly, the big problem with corruption in Ghana in comparison to South Korea was that in Ghana the main industrial concerns were in the hands of the state, while in South Korea the chaebol remained in private hands, albeit with heavy state subsidy and involvement. As the state had its hands directly on far more of the national economy in Ghana, there were far greater opportunities for self-enrichment among civil servants. The wall, however flimsy, between state and business in South Korea helped the nation to avoid the worst ravages of corruption.

Additionally, there were several factors at work within South Korea that played an important role in helping that nation's economy take off. One was the enormous, and constant, infusion of American money, due to the US military's role in protecting South Korea's frontier from Kim Il-Sung's Stalinist North Korea. The presence of tens of thousands of American soldiers provided an enormous boost to the South Korean economy, creating a lot of business for construction, agricultural, and transportation firms. South Korea also had the luck of being in a booming region, with Japan leading the way, while Ghana was, in West Africa, surrounded mostly by countries that were far off than itself.

Another advantage that South Korea held over Ghana was ethnic homogeneity and a long history. Ghana was merely the Africanized name for the Gold Coast, a creation of the British that combined the conquered the Ashanti kingdom with the homelands of several other ethnic groups. In the 1960's the South Korean government embarked on a series of national mobilizations to transform the nation, and the population embraced them, because their sense of 'Korean-ness' went deep, and they were willing to work for the nation. In Ghana, nationalism was present, yet it was built on a base where old ethnic and religious considerations had not disappeared, so, in consequence, it was a lot more difficult to get people to put aside their personal considerations for the sake of something like 'the nation', a concept that was mostly an abstract consideration outside the ranks of the urban intelligentsia.

Ultimately, while the failure of Ghana's socialism was not surprising, considering the dismal long-term record of socialism throughout the world, South Korea, as a counterposed example, was hardly an out-and-out capitalist success story. South Korea's economic triumph owed far more to the adaptation of development techniques more usually seen in socialist states than to the theories of the Chicago School.

|| RPH || 5:34 AM || |

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

City Life

If you walk down Shore Boulevard by the East River in Astoria, when the river laps up against the rocks below the footpath, all the broken glass makes a sound like hundreds of miniature windchimes.

(big up scott somedisco)

|| RPH || 2:35 AM || |

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Life Kleptocratic

Michela Wrong In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo

On April 6th, 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprian Ntayamira, was shot down outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali. This was the trigger for the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide. For years, extremists within Habyarimana's own Hutu community had been carefully planning their own Final Solution for the country's minority Tutsi community (whose rule of the region predated the Belgian colonialism that would deepen the ethnic cleavages) by radicalizing their own population through propaganda and the formation of Hutu Power ethnic militias (known as the interahamwe. Within 100 days nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus lay dead, the realization of Hutu Power's vision of their nation as a vast necropolis. At the same time a Tutsi-dominated rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, was plowing across the country from their base in Uganda. Their ultimate victory sent two million Hutus over the border into Zaire, as the Hutu leaders took much of their own community with them.

The nation they arrived in, Zaire, was then in its thirty-fourth year of independence from Belgium. Its president, Mobutu Sésé Seko, had been in power for twenty-nine years at that point, a fixed constellation in the constantly shifting skies of African power. A champion of Cold War realpolitik, for decades he had been granted a free hand by outside powers to treat Congo/Zaire as his own personal piggy-bank as long as he kept his vast nation free of Communist infiltration. And there were certainly rich pickings to be had. Covering an area the size of Western Europe, encompassing vast linguistic and ethnic heterogeneity, and containing almost unimaginable natural riches, the Congo was one of the most absurdly fraudulent 'nations' to be conjured forth by the European colonial carve-up of Africa.

In the late 19th century the King of Belgium, Leopold II, was becoming increasingly concerned as his more powerful European neighbors expanded their overseas colonial empires. Despite being monarch of a small nation rent with internal divisions Leopold was a man of great ambition. Seeing the Dutch, French, Portuguese, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and, above all, British empires spread across the earth like a virus made Leopold greatly determined that the Belgians, and one Belgian in particular, himself, would not miss out on the grand feast. His eyes eventually alighted on the basin of the River Congo, the southern shore of which would ultimately form the northern boundary of his own personal colony, the Congo Free State. Through what must rank as one of history's most successful manipulations, he managed to get the other European powers to agree to him, not the Belgian state, becoming the sole owner of nearly a million square miles of land that contained around 20-30 million new 'subjects'.

What initially seemed a lunatic acquisition, a guarantee of bankrupting himself, quickly made Leopold unfathomably rich because of his ability to provide, from his new colony, enormous quantities of a substance that the industrial world was developing an insatiable appetite for: rubber. The Congo, which Leopold never personally visited, was transformed into a vast work camp by his Belgian lieutenants. With their salaries heavily weighted towards commissions these men, and their local allies in the dreaded Force Publique, unleashed a reign of terror on the land, with a final death toll from murder, starvation, disease, and over-work in the millions. Estimates on the number of Africans who died during this period range from three million up to over twenty million (Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which is the finest book I've read on the Congo Free State, puts the number of dead at ten million).

It was in this apocalyptic milieu that Joseph Conrad set his novel The Heart of Darkness, his ode to the corruption wreaked by the absolute power wielded by the colonialist. News of the horrors occurring within Leopold's private domain slowly leaked out, sparking a massive outcry in the West, particularly within Britain. This reaction was a crucial milestone in the development of the modern international human rights movement. For more information on that time period, I highly recommend reading Hochschild's book. In 1908 the Belgian state officially annexed the Congo from their King. Although the most egregiously murderous practices were discontinued the Congo remained a means for Belgium to fill its pockets, with only minimal direct development and investment occurring in the territory. For decades this system continued, more or less quietly, until events in the 1950's overtook the Belgians. The 1950's saw the great flowering of African anti-imperialist movements, as Africans started to rise against European colonialism and win their independence, led by Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, which, in 1956, became the first black African state to gain its independence from European colonialism (Ethiopia and Liberia had never been colonized).

Rioting and mass protests hit the previously quiescent Congo. The Belgians, non-plussed, decided to pull the plug and get out as quickly as possible. The country they left contained, astonishingly, a mere 14 Africans with university degrees. Chaos soon engulfed the country. The black soldiers of the Force Publique rebelled against their white officers, who had stayed on after independence. With the support of Belgian mining interests the mineral-rich southern province of Katanga seceded. The Kasai province then followed their lead. UN peacekeepers and white mercenaries (hired by the mining concerns) began to pour into the country. The Congo was collapsing. The first Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, a spellbinding orator and principal hero of the independence movement, was simply overwhelmed and began casting about for help. One of the places he turned was the Soviet Union, an action that, in all likelihood, sealed his fate. The government was seized by Mobutu, head of the army, in a coup d'état and Lumumba was handed over to the Katangan rebels, who shot him, an event that, and this is a topic of great controversy, may or may not have been know about or even green lighted by the CIA.

Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, as he was known at birth, is the center of the book and, really, the center of modern Congolese history. Mercurial, brilliant, and unwaveringly venal, he relentlessly squandered the gifts given both to him and his nation. He was born in 1930 in Lisala, a river-side town in the center of the nation. A member of the Ngbandi ethnic group, who were considered sous-evolué (under-evolved) by the Belgians, he carried a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life about his humble origins. A brilliant student and athlete at the Catholic school he attended, he also showed signs of his later capacity for trouble. Kicked out of school and forced into the Force Publique, he quickly ascended the ranks, becoming the head of the army under Lumumba. Soon, though, he was in charge of the entire nation, having stabbed his increasingly erratic friend in the back.

Propped up by the United States, France, and Belgium, all with their own reasons for supporting his rule, he would be the undisputed boss for decades. During this time he would become the poster boy for the worst ills of post-colonial Africa's cult of the Big Man. The rot set in slowly, but by the time Wrong arrived as a foreign correspondent in 1993 Zaire (as Mobutu had renamed the nation) was a pariah, its people in dire straits, its economy collapsed, and all elements of normal economic life turned completely inside out by corruption. For a time though, Mobutu had been the lord of all he surveyed. For ending the civil wars and pulling the nation back from the brink of outright collapse Mobutu was considered a hero by both the Congolese people and appreciative Western business and political interests.

His star never shone brighter than in the early 1970’s, when his ‘authenticity’ campaign was in full flow. The ‘authenticity movement’, born in 1971, was, as Mobutu declared to mass rallies, an attempt to modernize the nation that was to be driven by the revival of ancestral values, not the aping of European ideas and conventions. This was when the Congo became Zaire and Leopoldville became Kinshasa, and thousands of other European-inspired place-names were Africanized. In an echo of some of the things that he had seen on his tours of North Korea and Maoist China, Mobutu declared that the Zairean people should throw off their European garments and choose more ‘authentic’ clothes. For men, this meant the ‘abacost’ (from ‘à bas le costume’ or ‘down with the suit’), a high-collared jacket that Mobutu himself created. For women, African wraps (pagnes) replaced European skirts. Quickly though, problems emerged. Without any strong voices within the government to shape authenticity into a coherent ideology, it became muddled and warped into Mobutuism, a personality cult. This is where it failed. Zaire was simply too anarchic, the government’s control of the citizenry too weak, the people themselves too cynical, to establish a personality cult on the lines of Maoism.

By the middle of the 1970’s ‘authenticity’ had failed in its goal of creating a spiritually revived Zaire, and the nation entered a period of rudderlessness and decline. This was heavily compounded by ‘Zaireanization’, as Mobutu entitled his program of nationalization of private agricultural and industrial concerns. Begun in 1973, this program promised to turn over to ‘the sons of the nation’ businesses owned and run by foreigners (mostly Belgians, Portuguese, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, and Pakistanis), while fairly compensating the owners. This was the theory. In practice, it turned into a free for all for Mobutu and his cronies in the ruling Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution party.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the situation in Zimbabwe over the last five or six years can guess what happened next. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe ordered the seizure of white-owned commercial farms, the nation’s economic mainstay and the source of most of its foreign-currency, for redistribution among the black majority. In theory, some kind of redistribution of the land was probably necessary, but in practice it turned into a spoils share-out among Mugabe’s sycophants who, being city dwellers to a man, have proved signally unable, or unwilling, to run their newly acquired properties, with the result that a nation that was once called ‘the breadbasket of Southern Africa’ has seen the return of mass hunger on an enormous scale. Thirty years before a similar drama played out to the north, in Zaire, as the MPR custodians of much of the nation’s wealth, showing no interest in anything besides lining their own pockets, thieved their way to a dramatic economic collapse. By 1977 the situation was so dire that Mobutu was forced to go back to wooing international investors and paying out compensation for the seized businesses in order to slow the precipitous decline into which he had entered the nation.

For the future of the national economy, though, the most dangerous effect of Zaireanization was that it showed the average person that corruption and theft had been endorsed at the very highest level of society.

“The president himself – in a slip made during a speech transmitted live on television – even appeared to articulate the new philosophy, telling employees: ‘Go ahead and steal, as long as you don’t take too much.’ The lesson was not lost on those lower down in the hierarchy, in far greater need of cash than their superiors.” (p. 99)

The results of instilling the hustler mentality as a societal norm were apparent to Wrong in the bleak state of Zaire when she arrived as a foreign correspondent in 1993. Like a plague of Merc-driving termites Mobutu and his cronies had hollowed out the nation’s economy, leaving standing only the barest bones of an economic structure. As perhaps the purest example in history of a kleptocracy in action, the failure of the state to efficiently do much beyond steal meant that, above all else, the average Congolese suffered deeply, and Wrong writes movingly about their struggles for survival, their hustles, their joys and their sorrows. One particularly evocative example of this is the section where Wrong meets the designer fashion obsessives known as les sapeurs. A Kinshasa phenomenon, la sape is the art of male elegance and ostentation, characterized by a deep attachment to designer labels, individualism and never, but never, going un-noticed. Born from the deep frustrations of the ‘authenticity’ era, when a highly individualistic people were expected to conform to Mobutu’s vision of what the people should wear, it grew hand-in-hand with the incredible success of Congolese music throughout Africa and the African diaspora. As Wrong discovers, the devotion of the sapeur to themselves, which can at first glance seem almost unimaginably narcissistic, is, on deeper consideration, oddly heroic, as the sapeur, usually powerless in society, can prove, through his struggle to outfit himself elegantly, that he remains the master of his own destiny in at least one way.

Of course, lurking above all of this was Mobutu himself, his fetid aura of corruption slowly poisoning the country. The asceticism of his early life in the military long forgotten, he lived a life of luxury unimaginable to the average Congolese, hustling to make ends meet. His corruption found its fullest expression in the vast palace he built for himself in Gbadolite, his tiny home village deep in the jungles of the eastern Équateur province. Over seven hundred miles northeast of Kinshasa, Gbadolite was Mobutu’s true home, where he went to be himself and to be with his family. As the years progressed it was where he increasingly retreated to. Of course, a man who had become accustomed to the high life was not going to go off to the middle of the jungle and live in the sort of simple hut in which he had been born. Thus was born his palace, a sort of Versailles in the rain forest. A monumental folly to which he’d invite Western journalists and diplomats, oblivious to their horror at the realization of just where so much Western aid had gone, it was, as Wrong explains with surgical clarity in the tenth chapter, to be where the events that would lead to his final loss of power were set into motion. By the early 1990’s he was spending increasing amounts of time at Gbadolite, far away from the roiling political scene in Kinshasa, where he felt betrayed by the way in which so many people that he had nurtured were now beginning to turn against him. By removing himself from the day to day hustle his hitherto remarkable sense of self-preservation began to dull. Surrounded by a thousand-strong entourage, all greedily sucking up to him in hope of continuing the party, and lulled into relaxation by being back on familiar territory, surrounded by his family and friends, he was lulled into a complacent drift. Living a life of excess that would make Paris Hilton blush (chartering Boeings to fly in tulips from Amsterdam or mussels from Zeebrugge or hairstylists from Los Angeles was an everyday, unremarkable occurrence), he was oblivious to the storm gathering on the horizon.

The storm finally broke with the shocking events of April 1994 in Zaire’s pint-sized neighbor, Rwanda. As millions of Hutu militiamen and peasants fled across the border to the Lake Kivu region, a massive international aid operation swung into action to feed the refugees. The end result was that the Hutu extremists who had directed the genocide, and who had brought their people with them into exile, retained their power as they acted as the intermediaries through which the aid agencies went (Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest is particularly devastating on this absurd state of affairs). Well fed and clothed, the Hutu extremists began re-organizing their militias and terrorizing local Hutus as well as leading raids over the border into Rwanda itself. The new Rwandan government, dominated as it was by Tutsi members of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, was very displeased by this turn of events, especially as neither the Zairean military nor Mobutu himself seemed to have any particular interest in restraining the refugee Hutu hardliners. So, they decided to take matters into their own hands. This meant the creation of a rebel movement under the official control of the veteran Maoist revolutionary commander, Laurent Kabila, a man of serially questionable character, but armed and driven by the RPF, one of the finest guerilla forces in all of Africa.

At first it seemed to be a ridiculous proposition: who, then, could imagine that the whole of Zaire, under Mobutu, a man who had outlasted virtually every other African strongman, could be seized by a rag-tag rebel army from one of a distant and under-developed region? Yet quite quickly it became clear just how deep the rot went. The military, once Mobutu’s pride and joy, had become little more than a rabble that folded at the first sound of shots. Amazed at their luck, the rebels followed the army as it fled across the country. All the while Mobutu, increasingly wracked by prostate cancer, dithered on any kind of action. Completely cut off from events on the grand, and lied to by his generals, he ultimately found himself in the humiliating position of having to receive updates on the military situation from an American mission sent to Kinshasa by Bill Clinton. The Americans had made the decision to abandon their old Cold War protégé, and the bluntness with which they proceeded to tell Mobutu that he must step aside shocked the old warhorse. Yet they were, of course, right. The army was in full flight, and the rebels were right behind, racing all the way to Kinshasa. There could be no miraculous snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat. For Mobutu, there could be no dignified end to his decades in power. Finally, with rebel advance parties already entering the outskirts of Kinshasa, his family managed to get the old man on a plane into exile.

This, of course, was not the end. For the Congo (as it was once again known) it was merely the beginning of a new nightmare that continues to this day and has seen millions die. But that is a story that has yet to be written…

|| RPH || 5:30 AM || |

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Man, the current season of 24 is spiralling ever further into absurdity. So far this season there has been nuclear meltdowns, Jack Bauer getting all Torturama on everyone in his way, Air Force 1 was shot down, a nuclear warhead was stolen, and last night they invaded the Chinese consulate, thus forcing America to the brink of war with China. Completely, utterly, mind-bogglingly silly. Possibly too silly, even for me.

A proper, honest-to-God post tonight. Cross my heart.

In case you haven't been keeping up, I've been posting a lot at Pearsall's Tunes because writing about music is really easy, and much less time-consuming than doing all the research and agonizing over word choice that characterizes my posts here. Have a look.

|| RPH || 5:47 PM || |