Media Disappointed To Learn Armed Citizen Stopped Mass Shooting – 30 Dec 2019

U.S.—The nation’s media outlets announced they were grieving today as an armed citizen stopped a mass shooting.

“We grieve that this tragedy we could have exploited for weeks on end was stopped by a good guy with a gun,” said one teary-eyed MSNBC reporter on the scene. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the shooter.”

“We are absolutely heartbroken and in shock over here,” said one New York Times journalist. “What could have given us weeks and weeks of frothing-at-the-mouth stories about gun control will now have to be suppressed since it does not align with our agenda.”

News outlets also reminded the nation that they reserve the right to immediately bury mass shooting stories that don’t help push their agenda.

Outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and ABC News confirmed that they carefully look over the facts of a given case to see if it lines up with the correct opinions before deciding to push it incessantly for weeks on end.

“While we usually would exploit a tragedy like this to push our gun control agenda, in this case, the facts don’t really help us,” said CNN reporter Bob Costanza, after a recent shooting was shut down by a citizen with a gun. “It’s tragic that it ended that way, because we really could have gotten a lot of mileage out of that bad boy.”

The media didn’t even try to find children who were present during the shooting to parade around talk shows and put on the covers of magazines for a full year this time around.

The tragedy was compounded by an attack on a Jewish gathering in New York City where the black anti-Semitic attacker used a machete and not a gun.  While the media in the UK gets a lot of mileage about ‘knife crime’ and knife control, that does not resonate with the narrative the US main stream media wants to emphasize. 

gun carry

US Warmonger Pompeo Undercuts Trumps Aim of Pulling Out of the Middle East – Israel Wants A US War With Iran – by Tom Luongo (Gold, Goats, ‘n Guns) 31 Dec 2019

Authored by Tom Luongo via Gold, Goats, ‘n Guns blog:

Trump vs Deep State

I have to wonder who Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is actually loyal to. Because, the U.S. strike of Kata’ib Hizbullah forces near the Al Qaim border crossing with Syria in Iraq is a dangerous escalation there.

And it’s completely at odds with Trump’s goals of wanting us out of the Middle East. The Al Qaim border crossing is a particular red line for Israel and their allies in the U.S. State and Defense Departments.

It represents the normalization of commerce between Syria, Iraq and Iran over time. This is the so-called Shia Crescent which is the stuff of nightmares for Benjamin Netanyahu.

And the U.S. has been hopping mad for months since now caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdel Mahdi opened the border because it undermines U.S. presence in Syria.

The entire point of U.S. occupation of the Al-Tanf border crossing into Jordan and the oil fields in Deir Ezzor province is about starving the Syrian government of any reliable energy and revenue.

When Al Qaim/Al Bukamai was opened it was only a matter of time before a major skirmish would occur over it. Israel staged a series of air attacks previously using U.S. assets and air bases to launch them back in September.

Now, we have the convenient excuse for attacking these forces which are part of the Popular Mobiliztion Units, PMU, which Pompeo despises by ‘retaliating’ for a rocket attack on the K1 base near Kirkuk where one U.S. mercenary was killed and a handful of others injured.

The response from the U.S. Air Force was completely out of line with the initial attack and occurred without any attempt by Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to justify it.

They just invoked the phrase, “Iran-backed forces” and then bombed troops over 200 miles away where they wanted to strike anyway.

And what’s important is what both Elijah Magnier and Moon of Alabama pointed out immediately, the U.S. struck member of Shia militias who were made official part of the Iraqi defense forces.

In other words the U.S. just attacked and killed dozens of Iraqi military personnel.

And the U.S. can get away with this because the Iraqi government is in a total state of flux, thanks to a President, Barham Salih, refusing to honor the constitution, obstructing the selection of a new Prime Minister.

His actions remind me of Italy’s Sergio Mattarella who inserts himself into the process of government formation there to suit his EU partners-in-crime.

In Iraq the U.S. has been officially silent on the government turmoil there but the circumstances are pretty clear that the chaos works as a cover for what was an egregious violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.

Remember, the U.S. forces there are at the invitation of the Iraqi government and with Salih keeping the Shia political forces from uniting to choose a Prime Minister, the likelihood of that invitation being rescinded now is remote.

Color me not shocked that this attack on PMU forces occurred. Pompeo has been itching for an excuse to attack them for months. He tried his version of diplomacy with Prime Minister Mahdi to rescind their official status and was unsuccessful.

Mahdi was livid after Israel’s air attack and made noises about rescinding the U.S. invitation. No shock then that protests against his government spun up quickly after that.

So at some point this attack was going to happen. Netanyahu in serious political trouble facing a third election in a year, unable to form a government.

Pompeo coming to his rescue to keep the dream of warring with Iran should be obvious to all.

The question is whether President Trump is engaged with this policy at all or did Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper go off on their own, pull this trigger and then inform Trump and get him to accept this post hoc?

Everywhere Pompeo goes one week winds up in flames the next anymore. When he visits a trouble spot which Israel and the neoconservatives he represents want destabilized, a miracle occurs the next week.

Before this it was Lebanon and Iraq. This week it’s Ukraine. There is the threat of peace breaking out there with Russia and Ukraine agreeing to terms on both a gas and oil transit contract into Europe which Pompeo is dead set against.

Will we see some attack on Ukrainian forces which break the peace and can be blamed on Russia?

Trump has to know that escalation from here ends with U.S. forces coming home in body bags as PMU forces themselves, go off the reservation during this power vacuum in Baghdad and attack U.S. troops directly.

But I think this is exactly what Bibi and Pompeo want. This attack was a clear provocation to escalate and give Israel and the neocons all the ammunition they need to force Trump into the wider conflict with Iran they’ve been angry about not getting for six months now.

They failed with the Global Hawk incident back in June. That operation got John Bolton fired as National Security Director. Now we have a clearly disproportionate strike designed to inflame passions of Iran-backed Shia forces.

And it looks like it worked.

The entirety of Iraq’s leadership seems to be of the same mind, and even rejected the US plan to strike when they were tipped off immediately before it happened, per NBC:

In a statement, [former PM] Abdul-Mahdi said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had called him about a half-hour before the U.S. strikes Sunday to tell him of U.S. intentions to hit the bases of the militia suspected of being behind Friday’s rocket attack. Abdul-Mahdi said he asked Esper to call off the U.S. plan.

One byproduct of the major US strikes on Sunday is sure to be that more and more of the Iraqi population will view the Americans, and not the Iranians, as the foreign occupiers.

This dramatic escalation by Washington is only likely to push more popular support toward the Shia PMF, and strengthen the movement in parliament to have US forces legally expelled, especially with the demise of the ISIS threat.

Any strike by the PMU here on U.S. forces will be music to Pompeo’s and Netanyhahu’s ears. And it will put Trump in a real bind with his base during an election year and an impeachment process Speaker Nancy Pelosi is purposefully dragging out to build a stronger case.

What stronger case could there be at this point if Trump were to not declare war or fire back on our troops getting attacked in Iraq or Syria? He’s derelict as Commander-in-Chief. It’s part of their stupid Ukraine narrative that Trump withheld aid weakens our national security.

I speculated in the past that Trump was getting ready to fire Pompeo.

As Secretary of State Pompeo has been nothing short of a disaster, undermining President Trump’s strong instincts to get the U.S. out of the Middle East and solve the myriad of open geopolitical wounds around the world.

Unlike his former-partner-in-neoconservatism, John Bolton, Pompeo is more adept at playing at being loyal to Trump while always seeming to move U.S. diplomacy in a more belligerent direction in the wake of any of Trump’s ‘impulses’ to act on his conscience and/or instincts.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking Iran (Pompeo’s demands of Iran are off-the-charts insane), Lebanon (outright blackmail of the Lebanese government) or North Korea (making demands in negotiations which overstep Trump’s promises to Kim Jong-un) Pompeo is always there doing his thinly-veiled Israeli loyalty dance with the subtlety of a freight-train but somehow always framing it as making it Trump’s policy.

This move by Pompeo looks like a classic pre-emptive move to bind Trump down force him into a war which will be unpopular back home. The only one who wins with this attack is Israel.

U.S. troops are now less safe, effective forces fighting ISIS have been neutered and the Iraqi government is in shambles. Good job Mike.

Mike wants his golden parachute back to the Senate where he can continue doing god’s work for the Israelis, one more voice in a U.S. Senate seemingly without a limit on its thirst for power and the blood of the world.

This won’t end well and Trump better get his Flying Monkeys under control quick or he won’t be President much longer. Because when the body bags start, he’ll be the one who gets blamed.

Future Cartoon

Korea, First Follow the Money – by Joseph Essertier – 31 Dec 2019

The “masters” of the Empire of Japan, who invaded and dominated Korea for half a century, followed the “vile maxim” that is typical of the “masters of mankind,” i.e., “all for ourselves, and nothing for other people” (Adam Smith). And while a “budding elite” of talented Koreans in fields such as “commerce, industry, publishing, academia, films, literary pursuits, urban consumption” were there in the “relative openness” of the 1920s, and while they were well-equipped to lead an independent Korea, tragedy occurred, as “global depression, war, and ever-increasing Japanese repression in the 1930s destroyed much of this progress, turned many elite Koreans into collaborators, and left few options for patriots besides armed resistance” (Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History, 2010). Many of those who chose violent resistance went to Manchuria to fight against the Japanese colonizers, and later became leaders in the North Korean army.

In Korean history there are many examples of valiant attempts by the dispossessed and dominated to force the “masters” to share, or to take back what was stolen. While many experts would agree that North Korea is a “failed Stalinist utopia,” one cannot deny that it is also a country where millions of people originally had a noble dream, one of “universal equality and affluence.” (Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, 2013). In the early days of North Korea, many were impressed with what they saw as success in the Soviet Union. Given that the dream was presented in the “‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ jargon of Marxism-Leninism,” and that the Soviet Union “made good fighter jets and had the world’s best ballet,” it is not surprising that there was often “enthusiastic response.”

On the 1st of March, 1919, leaders of the March 1st Movement had proclaimed the “independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people… to all the nations of the world in witness of human equality” (Korean Declaration of Independence). But now, one hundred years later, the Korean “is still is not free,” the life of the Korean is still sadly crippled by “the chains of discrimination,” and s/he “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” The dream of Dr. King is not so different from the dream of millions of Koreans. Northeast Asia is another ocean of material prosperity—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong… Camp Humphreys in South Korea is the largest U.S. overseas base in the world, and with amenities such as the $47 million golf course provided by Korean taxpayers, Koreans there can now get a glimpse of the vast ocean of U.S. material prosperity.

According to an internal CIA study, however, even under the oppressive government that produced the “failed utopia,” North Koreans managed to get the elites dominating their Stalinist system to share their limited national wealth in a way that millions of materially deprived Americans today would envy: “compassionate care for children in general and war orphans in particular; ‘radical change’ in the position of women; genuinely free housing, free health care, and preventive medicine; and infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the most advanced countries until the recent famine.” (Cumings’ words. He refers to the famine that resulted after the horrible floods of 1995 and 1996 and the drought of the summer of 1997. Now bad weather and sanctions may be harming an already fragile food supply.

In South Korea, too, it is not hard to find evidence of millions of people striving to redistribute wealth in a fair way. One of the goals of the candlelight protest movement (or “Candlelight Revolution”) was to “implement equitable policies and measures that could ensure a level playing field for the haves and the have-nots.” (Mi Park, South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: The Power of Plaza Democracy, 2018) Indeed, it could easily be argued that South Korean labor unions are showing the way forward for the labor movement today, demonstrating how workers can win their rights and build industrial democracy.

Considering the impact that Koreans have had and are having on the global struggle for bread, and how the “masters” with their “vile maxim” will predictably respond to that impact, readers should do a little reading and critical thinking about class struggle in Korea before accepting any claims that North Korea is endangering the lives of people in the U.S. instead of the other way around. “Following the money” when investigating such claims is the surest way to determine their reliability.

The “Threat” from North Korea

Perhaps the most important principle when considering claims of threats from North Korea is that violence is a tool of the powerful against the weak, and never vice versa. With a population 13 times larger and a defense budget 150 times larger than those of North Korea, anyone can see that the U.S. will have an unfair advantage over North Korea in any contest between the two states that is settled through violence. So for the sake of the millions in the West who are in the dark on Korea, let us “follow the money” and compare the polar opposites in the debate about North Korea—one a journalist who is well paid to write for the New York Times and the other someone who essentially writes for free, who has been punished for his writings.

In a 24 February 2010 cable from the U.S. Secretary of State to Moscow, leaked by Assange’s WikiLeaks, the words of a Russian summarizing Russian intelligence appear: “There are claims that 19 of these missiles were shipped to Iran [from North Korea] in 2005, but there is no evidence for this and concealment of such a transfer would be impossible.” Based on this cable, the New York Times’ David Sanger and his co-authors penned an article in which they wrote, “Iran obtained 19 of the missiles from North Korea, according to a cable dated Feb. 24 of this year.” (“Iran Fortifies Its Arsenal With the Aid of North Korea,” 28 Nov 2010, New York Times.)

Gareth Porter pointed out the Times’ distortions of the facts: “The New York Times and Washington Post reported only that the United States believed Iran had acquired such missiles—supposedly called the BM-25—from North Korea. Neither newspaper reported the detailed Russian refutation of the U.S. view on the issue or the lack of hard evidence for the BM-25 from the U.S. side.”  “The Russian official said there was no evidence for claims that 19 of these missiles had been shipped to Iran in 2005, and that it would have been impossible to conceal such a transfer. The Russians also said it was difficult to believe Iran would have purchased a missile system that had never even been tested.” If one reads the relevant passages in context, one sees the U.S. side being cautioned by the Russian side about its overblown fears that Iran is buying long-range missiles from North Korea. Reading Sanger, who is supposed to be informing the public about this WikiLeaks cable, it is clear that he is blowing those already-paranoid fears/claims out of proportion.

Unlike in his hawk-supporting article in the New York Times, in an interview that came out 10 days later, Sanger did mention the Russian intelligence and left open the possibility that North Korea was not selling missiles to Iran. Perhaps he did it with Porter’s criticism in mind: “Now, this missile has never been tested in North Korea or Iran so we’re not certain of its range in their hands, and the Russians pushed back and said they have some doubts about whether or not the missile had been sold or even whether it really existed.” (Terry Gross’s 8 December 2010 interview with Sanger. See also Julian Assange on this episode in his “A Cypherpunk in His Own Words,” In Defense of Julian Assange, p. 208).

Sanger is a threat-exaggerator par excellence. The journalist Julian Assange, on the other hand, has warned people to not trust Washington. Consider the following lies and propaganda from Sanger. He ridiculously claimed we have “done little” to prepare for Russia’s cyber and nuclear threats, even when our military budget dwarfs that of Russia; falsely claimed that Venezuela’s Maduro was not elected through a fair election; called the war in Afghanistan a “dumb war of occupation” and downplayed Obama’s escalation of that war, despite the fact that he tripled the number of troops from 33,000 to 98,000; covered up the reality that Obama’s cyberattacks on Iran actually constituted acts of war; and he called Iran one of the “nuclear crises” facing the US, when even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) denies that there is a nuclear weapons program in Iran. Never trust a liar.

A highly questionable claim that is often supported by journalists is that Washington’s THAAD system in South Korea is protecting South Koreans. The THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system is supposed to be able to shoot down ballistic missiles, but it has only been proven to work in idyllic conditions. This makes one wonder if it serves any purpose beyond profits to U.S. defense contractors.

One one succinct explanation is provided by Leo Chang. He reveals that THAAD does not make South Korea any safer in the event of a fight with North Korea due to the short distances involved. In the event of a return to the hot war, South Korea would be bombarded by missiles from the North, both nuclear and conventional. In April 2017 Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “We have the potential for a nuclear war that would take millions of lives.” And according to at least one expert, THAAD is also not going to knock down ICBMs.

So what can THAAD do? According to Chang, its real goal is to “detect and track as early as possible China’s ICBMs” that would be “headed for the West and East Coast of the US.” In the case of a war between Washington and Beijing, the area where THAAD has been installed (i.e., Seongju County in South Korea) would be a prime target for Beijing to hit before launching ICBMs against the US mainland, so in the end what South Koreans are doing, is to give Washington slightly sooner notice of in the case of nuclear war between China and the U.S. (i.e., the end of human civilization) by paying U.S. companies for hardware that endangers their own lives. No wonder residents of Seongju have intensely opposed THAAD and even President Moon Jae-in opposed THAAD at first.

Julian Assange has suggested that since North Korea’s nukes and missile developments led to THAAD, Washington may have intentionally provoked conflicts with Pyongyang to justify the deployment of THAAD. He has pointed out how such deployment leads to increased tension between Washington and Beijing, and to Beijing’s further military build-up. And he has criticized US military drills in the region.


There is a huge gap in wealth between the U.S. and North Korea, and that alone is sufficient to demonstrate that the U.S. is a threat to North Korea and not vice versa—one state pumped up and ready to obliterate the other at a moment’s notice, the other not even remotely considering a first strike. One side has hundreds of military bases and possibly more than one aircraft carrier surrounding the other; hundreds more nuclear missiles; and tens of thousands of troops and thermonuclear warheads on submarines nearby. It is as if Washington holds a gun pointed at Pyongyang’s head, and Pyongyang has a rock in a slingshot pocket pointed at Washington’s feet. Yet the U.S. congress recently passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that represents “complete capitulation” to Donald Trump and a “blank check for endless wars,” in the words of a joint statement from a diverse group of U.S.-based NGOs. Now, looking at the filthy rich of America and the wretched and dispossessed of Korea, whose side do you think Julian Assange is on, and whose side do you think David Sanger is on?

Joseph Essertier on Youtube

Capitalist on the Run – Ex-Nissan Boss Flees Tokyo House Detention – Leaves Japan in Disguise (Press TV) 31 Dec 2019

Nissan Boss Carlos Ghosn Flees Tokyo Detention House

“No Capitalist Can Truly Enjoy Wealth and Power As Long As A Single Capitalist Is Not Free To Enjoy Wealth and Power”

Ousted Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn has escaped Japan, where he is facing charges of financial misconduct, and arrived in Lebanon, slamming the Japanese justice system as “rigged.”

“I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied,” the 65-year-old Ghosn, who is of Lebanese origin, said in a brief statement on Tuesday.

“I have not fled justice — I have escaped injustice and political persecution. I can now finally communicate freely with the media, and look forward to starting next week,” he added.

It was unclear, at first,  how Ghosn, who was out on bail, was able to escape Japan, where he had been under strict surveillance.

In news that may read like something out of a low-budget B-movie from a bygone era, it has emerged that the disgraced former chairman of Nissan Carlos Ghosn managed to escape Japan by hiding in a musical instrument case.

The audacious escape was reportedly carried out with the help of a group who posed as musicians, who were due to perform at a function held in Ghosn’s Tokyo home, according to Lebanon’s MTV

They then left the residence after the requisite time had passed. But unbeknownst to the Japanese authorities guarding the former executive, he had slipped past the security cordon hidden a musical instrument case. He then fled the country via a local airport.  

The former executive stands accused of underreporting his income and pinning his personal financial losses on Nissan. He posted bail of $9 million in April and was kept under house arrest in Tokyo, during which time he was forbidden from communicating with his wife for seven months as part of his bail conditions.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK cited an unidentified Lebanese security official as saying that a person resembling Ghosn had entered Beirut international airport under a different name after flying in aboard a private jet.

NHK also reported that Japanese immigration authorities had no record of Ghosn departing the country.

Ghosn, who holds French, Brazilian, and Lebanese citizenship, fell from grace in Japan after his arrest last year, but he still retains more popularity in Lebanon.

One of Ghosn’s lawyers said on Tuesday that his client’s three passports were held by his lawyers as required by the terms of his bail and he could not have used any of them to escape Japan.

Junichiro Hironaka, speaking to reporters in comments broadcast live by NHK, slammed Ghosn’s escape as “inexcusable.”

Ghosn was arrested at a Tokyo airport shortly after his private jet landed there in November 2018. He faces four charges, including enriching himself through payments to dealerships in the Middle East. He denies the charges.

Nissan’s Ghosn arrested in Japan for alleged financial misconduct

Nissan dismissed him as chairman for misconduct.

Ghosn’s lawyers have asked the court to dismiss all charges, accusing prosecutors of colluding with government officials and Nissan executives to dismiss him to block any takeover by the Japanese automaker’s biggest shareholder Renault.

He was released in March on a nine-million-dollar bail, and was placed under surveillance.

By the time anyone was aware that the former head of Nissan-Renault alliance had fled house arrest in Japan Tuesday, he was already in Beirut and had reportedly met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who afforded him a security detail for his own protection. 

“I am now in Lebanon and will no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied,” Ghosn said in a statement on Tuesday.

MTV reported that Ghosn entered Lebanon using his French passport, despite his lawyer’s claims to have all three of the executive’s passports, in accordance with his bail conditions. Ghosn holds French, Lebanese and Brazilian citizenship and, while he enjoys widespread support in Lebanon, it is unclear whether he will remain there as the situation unfolds. 

Junichiro Hironaka, Ghosn’s lawyer, said his client’s actions were “inexcusable,” and questioned how and why he would do this to his own legal team.  

Questions remain about how Ghosn managed to obtain his passport and how he could slip past airport security to board a private plane to Turkey and then on to Lebanon. The unlikely nature of Ghosn’s escape brought a smile to many online commentators.

Later on Tuesday, Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security declared that Ghosn had entered the country “legally” and will not face any legal repercussions, Lebanese media reported.

“The circumstances of his departure from Japan and arrival in Beirut are unknown to us, and all talk about it is his own matter.”


Iran lashes out at French ‘interference’ over jailed academic accused of espionage – 29 Dec 2019

Fariba Adelkhah

Tehran has accused Paris of interfering in the case of an Iranian-French academic who has been arrested over accusations of spying.

France’s protests against the imprisonment of Fariba Adelkhah and another academic, Roland Marchal, constitute an “act of interference” that has “no legal basis,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in a statement on Sunday.

“Creating hype cannot stop Iran’s judiciary from handling the case, especially considering the security charges the two face,” Mousavi said.

France announced on Friday that it had summoned Iran’s ambassador in order to protest against Adelkhah and Marchal’s imprisonment, describing their detention as “intolerable.”

Adelkhah has reportedly gone on hunger strike, prompting the French foreign ministry to express its “grave concern” over her condition and demand consular access.

A specialist in Shiite Islam and a research director at Sciences Po University in Paris, Adelkhah has been detained by Tehran for carrying out “acts of espionage”. Her arrest was confirmed in July.

Marchal, a French national, was detained for “conspiring against national security”. According to his lawyer, it happened when he visited Adelkhah.

Mousavi said that he has been granted consular access “multiple times”.

Iran does not recognize dual nationality and typically denies consular access to detained defendants who have more than one passport.

Source RT

Kurt Vonnegut: Anarchist and Social Critic – by Gaither Stewart – 27 Dec 2019

After my early enthusiasm about the writer Kurt Vonnegut, I became skeptical. Was he a phony? After I met him, his lifestyle in his sumptuous Manhattan East Side town house bothered me and seemed to belie his satires of that same life. Even the adoration for him in Europe at the time sharpened my suspicions that he was perhaps not what he seemed to be. Despite my admiration for him the writer, the satirist, the anarchist, still for some time after our two meetings in the middle 1980s, I wondered if his claim that he belonged to the establishment because he was rich was not jaded. I wondered too about his “positive nihilist” role. What did that mean? It took me time to make full circle and again see him for what he was. What in the end endeared Kurt Vonnegut to me was his unwavering attack on the “American way of life”.

I’d thought Vonnegut would last forever, charming, joking, teasing, mocking, prickling, criticizing so wittily that the target of his pungent irony would think he was kidding, praising so ambiguously that those he loved thought he was criticizing, throwing mud pies in the faces of the powerful and boasting that he made lots of money being impolite.

“I most certainly am a member of the establishment,” Vonnegut told me that day in the fall of 1985 in his town house on the East Side in Manhattan. An Amsterdam magazine sent me to New York to interview the light of a “certain” American literature who so titillated Europeans by ridiculing the ridiculous sides of America.

“No one is more in its center than me though I don’t maintain contacts with the other members. Though I don’t feel solidarity with it, I admit membership and I don’t like establishment people who play at the false role of rebels. And the establishment needs people like me— however I’m a member only because I have money.”

At the appearance of his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952, in the same year that Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck brought out East of Eden, Kurt Vonnegut was thirty and still widely considered an underground writer, despite Graham Greene’s labeling him “one of the best living American writers.”

Kurt Vonnegut (b.1922 in Indianapolis, d. in New York, April 11, 2007) was a humorous man, so deceptively entertaining, marked by broad grins, soft delivery and false modesty. I wondered where the creative artist ended and the performer began. Or vice-versa. Was he a real social critic or simply a cynic?

After he became widely known in the sixties Vonnegut was identified with the revolt against realism and traditional forms of writing. Though he was a “social writer”, he was also more experimental than his contemporaries like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Barth, more fascinated by the absurd and the ridiculous. His science fiction and short stories that had appeared in the best magazines in the post-war years, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Playboy, Colliers, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, were marked by parody and ridicule. A cult grew around him, especially among youth, so that he remained “mysterious” even after he no longer belonged to the underground.

Things got underway in earnest already in that first novel. Vonnegut’s admiration for the marvels of technology had resulted in his early bent for science fiction, of which he wrote a lot. In Player Piano he was “fascinated by the wonderfully sane engineers who could process anything … do anything on their own horizontal level. Miraculous what the engineers could do. They were brilliant but didn’t seem to do anything brilliant.” Drawn on Huxley’s Brave New World and science fiction in general, Vonnegut’s concern was that these specialists would soon produce their own leaders, a caste created by a technocracy barren of leaders capable of working on a vertical level and devoid of fresh humanistic ideas.

“Precisely this scientific system created our leaders. The problem is they brought little ideology into the factories. There is so little ideology left … if we ever had any. At least we appeal to justice. On the other hand, I have found that one can behave ideologically within a small group related by profession or interests. I’m fascinated by the Paris Commune for example, especially its branch of anarchism. People tend to hang onto natural anarchy. The life of Bakunin is useful. Seen as useful people, anarchists offer a fascinating alternative to big government today. When I was a prisoner of war in Germany my small labor unit was left to fend for itself in destroyed Dresden. (Slaughterhouse-Five.) We dealt effectively with the thieves among us without being ferocious. We did that intuitively.”

That was Vonnegut.

One of his contorted Americas is controlled by one enormous corporation-state under the guidance of an ugly old girl whose weighty signature is her fingerprints (Jailbird). In this society the poor spend their time squirting chemicals into their bodies for the simple reason that “on this planet they don’t have doodley-squat.” That was the society that concerned the writer, Kurt Vonnegut, searching for a place for the individual. Like himself his characters are amusing … and rebels all.

Yet his conclusions are seldom humorous.

“Big government is like the weather, you can’t do anything about it. People are moving away from central authority and its ineffective bureaucracy, which has created too many artificial jobs in Washington to accommodate our children. Then, let’s face it, leadership is so poor.”

In fact, Vonnegut spent his later years attacking that bureaucracy, especially the George W. Bush administration.

His artistic family background and his association with painters and musicians, engendered yearnings in him for the image of the Renaissance man. The day I spent the afternoon and early evening with him he invited me along to check in at the Greenwich Village gallery that was showing fifty of his book illustrations that he called “doodles with a felt-tip pen”. At the vernissage the vain writer-illustrator was as nervous as a Broadway musical star on opening night. But not to worry! His fans snapped them up at one thousand dollars each.

That exhibit was the stuff of a typical Vonnegut literary vignette as in Breakfast of Champions in which he pokes fun at the art world, phony artists and gullible consumers. Karabekian has been paid $50,000 by the town for sticking a yellow strip of tape vertically on a piece of canvas. The whole town hates him for the swindle until he explains that it was an unwavering band of light, like each of them, like Saint Anthony. “All you had to do was explain,” say the relieved people to their cultural hero, now convinced they have acquired one of the world’s masterpieces. “If artists would explain more people would like art more.” Though Vonnegut repeats that workers simply want an explanation, the cynic suspects cynicism in him too.

“Sometimes I think the people of the world are begging to understand. And to be understood by the United States. They want to be understood more than they want to be ‘freed’ by America. Actually the US encourages not seeing other peoples. Disregard for other peoples is a matter of education. Making money is the point. Don’t waste your time. Withhold your time from people who can’t reward you. This started when Reagan came along and did away with social help using tax monies that Roosevelt’s New Deal had introduced. So the poor are now up the creek! (This was 1985, before Iraq and Afghanistan and East Africa and the war on terrorism.) “And our intellectuals didn’t react at all to his re-election,” says the self-proclaimed Socialist-anarchist. “He ran unopposed.”

In Deadeye Dick a neutron bomb being transported along the Interstate goes off, killing 100,000 people of a town but leaving everything else intact. After the dead are buried under the parking lot for sanitary reasons, the question is what to do with the contaminated area. Someone proposes moving Haitian immigrants there. The point is that Vonnegut’s technological society needs the workers but it cares even less for non-Americans than for its own citizens.

“I’m convinced that slavery will come back, and Haitians were after all once slaves. With all the automation, society needs slaves. One will perhaps have the option of selling one’s services for long periods, thirty years, or for life. There will be many takers. Like the Asians and Mexicans who work here now for less than minimum wages.”

Americans who make their lives abroad see this generalized blindness to other peoples in their fellow Americans quite clearly. Vonnegut must be right: it’s education … and the brainwash and spin, too. American Tourism to Europe and Asia and South America to photograph the natives doesn’t correct the blindness.

We’re drinking scotch and black coffee and chain smoking in the kitchen of his unpretentious but large and expensive townhouse—four stories, with garden—in a swanky area of Manhattan. A cold wind is blowing down from among new high-rise buildings. Long Vonnegut in baggy pants and wool shirt is sprawled on an iron garden chair, drawling out his witticisms, descriptions and pronouncements, having fun at the expense of everyone—himself, me, us and them—the artist and social critic and performer, too. He runs his slim delicate fingers through long reddish hair and pulls nervously at his mustache. His talk has the quality of being quiet and breath-taking simultaneously..

“I am successful,” he stresses, returning again and again to the money thing. “Privileged. When I was young and working for General Electric I was a hostage of society because I had six children. Now I’m free because I have money. I don’t like the privileged class, in the same way I will always resent the officers class. I was a private during the war and saw an infantry division wiped out its first time in combat because it was poorly led. Like America is poorly led today.”

Like many writers, Vonnegut said that writing for him was a way to rebel against his parents’ life style. He claimed he chose writing because he wrote better than he painted, and because you have to do something to make your mark. He liked writing for newspapers because of the immediate feedback. Journalists are as vain as novelists and find it rewarding to write an article in the evening and see it in print the next day.

“You can’t help but look back wistfully to the days of Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci who worked in many arts. There are so many things to do today that we don’t have the time to dedicate ourselves wholly to the arts. Still, I believe in the arts. My children say I dance well. I can shag and that’s mysterious to the young. I can jitterbug and that impresses them. And I play the clarinet lovingly. In general the arts have held up well in catastrophic situations. Yet there are preferences. It’s true that painters like to paint and writers hate to write. Putting paint on a canvas is fun and is easy. You don’t even have to finish it. After six strokes you have a painting. At that point you can frame it and hang it. Maybe that’s why writers like to paint and draw. Norman Mailer is a good drawer. Tennessee Williams does good watercolors. Henry Miller is the best writer-painter I have known. Poetry too is fast. That’s why poets have so much time to sit around cafés and talk. But the novelist is always busy, sitting at a typewriter like a stenographer, which is boring and lonely.

“My book, Breakfast of Champions, is about art. Art should be refreshing to everyone. But many artists are in league with the rich to make the poor feel dumb, like all the galleries downtown with walls covered in dots and blank whites. The rich organize art in such a way as to prove they have different souls from the poor, to give a biological justification to their status. Mystification is the secret. Ruling classes find it politically useful that workers can’t understand the pictures in the galleries. Inaccessible art grew out of industrialization. In the Renaissance art was of the people.”

Vonnegut’s heroes are outsiders, the rebels in big organizations who think the system is wrong and maybe want to change it. In a wacky and comical way he depicts the hopeless and sad human condition. His heroes care about involvement. Yet they are helpless. They have little power to decide anything.

“No man is in control,” he murmurs. “People are just born on this planet and are immediately hit over the head and yelled at. Ten per cent of the world’s children are abused. So what chance does man have? My own success is like an American dream. I’m prosperous. I can see how it worked for me. I’m convinced we’re all programmed in a certain way. Still, big bureaucracy appalls me. Gore Vidal was right that this is the only country in the world that does nothing for its citizens. Jobs don’t go around. The auto industry is laying people off. Still, I have to say that working on the assembly line is better than doing nothing at all. But the problem is we’re just not useful anymore.

“While the people lament gasoline prices and call for small cars, Detroit turns out bigger cars and lays off workers. The people eat macrobiotic foods and squirt chemicals up their assholes and swallow exotic anti-hemorrhoid salves.”

He speaks of the people! Not the people in his beloved New York. His settings are the wide expanses of America. Where the really funny, mad things happen. A world so far from Europe as to be incredible. A world that baffles Europeans.

After his wife had glanced in a couple times to check on the scotch level and after he told me he never gave interviews to the American press, only to Europeans, and pouring more scotch he said that interviews were hard work. I asked about his statement in a recent book that people and nations have their story that ends, after which it’s all epilogue. Vonnegut intimated that the US story ended after World War II.

“That was only a joke,” he said wryly, smiling sheepishly.

“It didn’t sound like a joke. It sounded quite serious.”

“Well” (reluctantly, perhaps not wanting to appear too critical of the USA to the European public), “the United States story will become epilogue unless it succeeds in renewing itself. Like a play peters out if it slows down and has nothing else to say. One must invent new themes for development. Economic justice is one such theme that would make our first two hundred years seem like only Act I. That would become Act II. If that theme is not developed, then our story peters out. Our legal justice would then become mockery. Remember the old quip: ‘It’s no disgrace to be poor but it might as well be.’

“In the Constitution there is nothing about economic justice, only the legal utopia. The Bill of Rights is a utopia. We have laws that violate the Constitution. It’s now time to start thinking about social fairness. Our superstar leaders deal with billions of dollars and we have individuals richer than the whole state of Wyoming. The military-industrial complex is robbing us blind to pay for sensitive weapons that don’t work in the dark or under 50°. We can’t possibly understand all that crap. Compare the arms manufacturers to the salesmen of snake eye in the frontier days. In the 1930s we had Eugene Debs who labeled arms manufacturers ‘merchants of death’. Then the crooks took over the labor unions and we have nothing left today so that I don’t have a banner to which I can adhere. And the same type of people are on top in our society today, selling their quack remedies, to protect us against the dread disease of Communism. And that’s what I say in my annual lectures at ten universities. I would like to see that change.

“Yet people don’t give a damn about anything. Few care what we pour into the world every day. Few care if we go to war. People are embarrassed about life and don’t care if it all ends. Humans have decided that the experiment of life is a failure.”

One of his characters speaks of being born like a disease: “I have caught life. I have come down with life.” Speaking about experiencing the destruction of Dresden, a city of beauty like Paris, Vonnegut said he was the only one there who found it remarkable that it all went up in smoke. “Not even the Germans seemed to care.”

The scotch flowed. The kitchen was blue with smoke. If I’d not been recording our talk little would have remained. At one point he said “doodley-squat.” He loved those sounds, spicing his novels liberally with skeedee wah, skeedee wo. At critical moments his heroes mumble in skat talk of the jazz era, skeedee beep, zang reepa dop, singing a few bars to chase the blues away. Then, yump-yump, tiddle-taddle, ra-a-a-a, yump-yump-boom. And abbreviations Ramjac, epicac and euphic. Onomatopeic and symbolic nonsense. Doodley-squat for the nothing at all the poor don’t have.

It all sounded OK in the smoky blue kitchen over scotch. Later I wondered what those sounds mean. Futuristic concepts? Or sounds of joy or despair? The voice of truth? Or just social chatter? Escape or mere foolishness? Is he writer or entertainer?

Any agreement on the basis of friendliness obliterates ideas and thinking. What about that?”

“Yes, I wrote that. The stupid performance of man and his degeneration are possible because no one is thinking. There has been a warm brotherhood of stupidity. What do words mean anyway? The old Hollywood joke is expressive:

Question: How do you say, ‘fuck yourself?’

Answer: ‘Trust me.’”



UPS delivery driver ‘worked to death’ dropping off 240 parcels a day – Heart Attack After 12 Hour Shift – by Siba Jackson (Daily Sun) 22 Dec 2019

Teamser Dies 1

Dad-of-two Paul Crush, 42, collapsed from a suspected heart attack at the end of a 12-hour shift – as workload ‘doubled’ over Christmas for pressure-hit staff


A UPS driver was allegedly “worked to death” after delivering up to 240 parcels a day during gruelling 12-hour shifts.
Dad-of-two Paul Crush, 42, died after suffering a suspected heart attack at his depot in Stanford-le-Hope in Essex on Wednesday.
It comes as friends claimed drivers, usually tasked with dropping off around 100 parcels, were being pushed too far.
Tragic Paul leaves behind wife Tracy, 40, who is said to be “beside herself with grief”, as well as daughter Lily, eight, and four-year-old son Harry.
A friend reportedly told the Sun how Paul had been “flat out” for about six weeks during the Christmas rush.
Paul Crush leaves behind wife Tracy (pictured) and two children

“I saw him (Paul) having coffee before he started his shift and he looked tired and said it had been a struggle for him to get out of bed– but he was cheerful as ever.
“That was his problem. He was the kind of guy who would never say no to extra work.
“He will have died of natural causes but his mates who knew him think he’s been worked to death.”
Paul, from Chelmsford, Essex, is believed to have been earning around £30,000 a year working for the delivery firm.
UPS said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our fellow UPSer.
UPS Teamsters
“Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.”

The Assault on Qatar Was Another Big Saudi Failure – by Doug Bandow (American Conservative) 19 Dec 2019

Riyadh gambled on a two-year bullying blockade, but Doha played its hand well and now the Kingdom is ready to make nice.

US President Donald Trump joins dancers with swords at a welcome ceremony ahead of a banquet at the Murabba Palace in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.

DOHA, QATAR – The small Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar put itself on display last weekend with its annual Doha Forum. The event’s broad theme was governance in a changing world.

However valuable the conference discussion, another important purpose of the gathering was to showcase the land of just 2.8 million, of whom little more than 300,000 are citizens. I was hosted by the government and treated well, if not quite like visiting royalty.

The emirate has spent more than two years under diplomatic, economic, and cultural assault by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, Qatar has survived and even prospered. Today it looks and feels normal. Even those without oil wealth feel secure. A driver, a Syrian refugee, told me that he and his family were no longer suffering from any impact of the blockade.

In June 2017, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, along with their financial and military dependents, most notably Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, expelled Qatari citizens, banned all commerce and travel, denied access to airspace and territorial waters, and punished their own citizens who sympathized with Doha. In what has been called the Second Arab Cold War (in 2014, the Saudis and Emiratis briefly cut diplomatic ties), the coalition issued a baker’s dozen demands. Their acceptance would have turned Qatar into a puppet state, effectively governed by the Saudis and Emiratis.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi hypocritically accused Qatar of funding terrorists, a practice they, as well as other Gulf States, had long tolerated, to Washington’s frustration. The more serious complaint appeared to be over Doha’s relative foreign policy contrariness, refusing to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead and backing different radical Islamist factions in regional political and military struggles. (For instance, Saudi Arabia’s taste runs to fundamentalist Wahhabists, who preach hatred against everyone other than extremist Sunnis, while Qatar prefers the Muslim Brotherhood, which promotes political activism.)

Doha also maintains civil relations with Iran, with which it shares a natural gas field. Even worse, Qatar’s state-backed Al Jazeera has publicized the crimes of other Gulfdoms, such as the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi agree that criticism is a bad thing, which is why they insisted that the emirate shut down its news service.

Whatever one thinks of the Saudi/Emirati charges, for the Qatari ruling family, compliance—the equivalent of surrender—was not an option. Said Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the Saudi group was “demanding that we have to surrender our sovereignty,” which was something that Doha would “never do.”

Qatar suggested negotiation, which was summarily rejected. That left the country isolated and endangered. There was even a threat of invasion by Saudi Arabia.

However, Doha played its weak hand well. It turned to Kuwait, a friendly Gulfdom independent of Riyadh, to act as mediator. Oman, another small Gulf state with a more balanced foreign policy, encouraged reconciliation and handled Qatar-bound maritime traffic. Doha upgraded relations with Iran, which opened its airspace—Qatar Airways now boasts that it has even more destinations than before—and became an important source of food imports. The Qataris even invited in the Turkish military to forestall any invasion.

Doha also highlighted the role of America’s Al Udeid air base, winning support from the U.S. Defense and State Departments despite President Donald Trump’s initial tweets backing the Saudis. At the Doha Forum, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Qatar’s role in combatting terrorism financing. He urged America’s allies to heal their breach.

The gathering highlighted bilateral ties that have become key to Qatar’s success. The U.S. sent a large delegation, including Mnuchin; Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser; and Zalmay Khalilzad, currently negotiating with the Taliban. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addressed the participants.

Turkey’s defense minister and foreign minister, along with a presidential adviser, spoke. The heavy Turkish representation may have been an indirect response to whispers that Doha might negotiate away Ankara’s military presence. Last weekend, Qatar’s Foreign Minister al-Thani rejected such fears: “Any country that opened up for us and helped us during our crisis, we will remain grateful for them…and we will never turn our back to them.”

The assault on Qatar is one of Riyadh’s most important failures. Rather like the invasion of Yemen, what was supposed to be a quick and simple victory has instead highlighted Saudi impotence and reinforced the crown prince’s reputation for recklessness. He appears locked in another struggle that he doesn’t know how to resolve. When confronted with the failure of his anti-Qatar campaign, MbS downplayed the effort, saying it was only of minor importance. Rather than acknowledge a mistake, Riyadh suggested that it might dig a 37-mile canal to act as a moat along the border with Qatar, essentially turning it into an island.

Still, there are glimmerings of hope. Mnuchin’s comments demonstrated that the president’s extended genuflection to the Saudi royals has not affected his administration’s approach to Qatar. Those who make and administer policy identify with Doha and desire compromise. Washington has criticized the extreme Saudi and Emirati demands.

Moreover, Gulf Cooperation Council discussions after the September attack on Riyadh’s oil facilities included Qatar. Rice University’s Kristian Coates Ulrichsen suggested that this “dialogue opened a space for diplomacy, whereas the maximalist and take-it-or-leave-it nature of the 13 demands in 2017 had represented an ultimatum rather than a basis for negotiation.”

Saudi Arabia invited Qatar’s emir to attend last week’s GCC meeting. Although there was no talk about the issues dividing GCC members, the emir’s presence suggests that the Kingdom has abandoned its earlier hopes of expelling Qatar from the GCC. Moreover, the Wall Street Journal reports that Doha had made a settlement offer, which included abandoning the Muslim Brotherhood. Foreign Minister al-Thani later stated that no concessions that “affect our sovereignty and interfere with our domestic or foreign policy” would be offered. Riyadh had apparently backed away from several of its most outlandish conditions.

As yet nothing has come from such efforts. Nevertheless, a couple weeks ago, Foreign Minister al-Thani spoke of the contacts: “We hope that these talks will lead to a process where we can see an end for this crisis.” The Saudi foreign minister also acknowledged discussions but said the content was best left in private.

Another promising sign: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE sent football (soccer) teams to the Arabian Gulf Cup in Qatar. Two years ago, the contest was moved to Kuwait, since the foregoing three refused to travel to Qatar. The Saudi ambassador to Kuwait, Sultan bin Sa’ad al-Saud, observed that “sport might repair what politics has ruined.”

The UAE may be the more important barrier, pressing Riyadh not to make concessions. Ulrichsen observed: “The leadership in Abu Dhabi remains resolutely opposed to any normalization of ties and easing of the blockade.” Last week, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that “the onus lies with the one that caused the crisis, to reconsider erroneous policies that led to its isolation.” He said Doha’s conversations with Riyadh are “a repeat at attempts to split the ranks and evade commitments.”

Even so, MbS may decide that continuing confrontation benefits Iran. Riyadh seems to be slowly moving toward the same conclusion regarding the war on Yemen, which has proved to be catastrophic for all concerned. Gulf unity would obviously be the best policy in facing Iran.

Should Doha demand more than a return to the status quo? Madawi al-Rasheed, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, warned against accepting the Saudis’ “new conditions of servitude.” She explained, “For reconciliation with Qatar to succeed, Saudi Arabia needs a new approach to foreign policy. It should realize that neither its current diplomacy nor its military aggression against other countries, for example Yemen, will crown it the king of Arab affairs. It cannot lead the Arab world by conspiracy, petrodollars or military strikes.”

Foreign Minister al-Thani emphasized, “We believe we are still at a very early stage, and what happened in the last two and a half years was a lot and there is, I think, a need for some time to rebuild trust again.” Still, the governments are talking. He observed: “We have broken the stalemate of non-communication to starting a communication with the Saudis.”

Washington should encourage the Gulf states to work through their problems. However, actions speak louder than words. The administration’s most important contribution to a negotiated settlement might have been its refusal to attack Iran for apparently targeting Saudi oil facilities. The Saudi royals decided that if they cannot count on the U.S. military to act as their bodyguards, then Riyadh has greater reason to settle ongoing disputes.

If the Kingdom truly wants peace and stability, it should abandon its reckless campaign for regional hegemony. That obviously means ending the costly military intervention in Yemen. Also necessary is stopping the failed political offensive against Qatar. Today, Washington’s supposed friends, most importantly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have become greater threats than Iran to regional peace and stability.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.


Where Are the Teamsters Going? by Joe Allen – 20 Dec 2019

UPS Teamsters

The Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) held its 44th annual convention in Chicago in early November, where it endorsed Sean O’Brien for General President and Fred Zuckerman for General Secretary-Treasurer in the 2021 Teamster election. They will run on the “Teamsters United” slate and challenge the incumbent leadership, whether it is led by the incumbent General President James P. Hoffa, Jr. or an anointed successor.

TDU’s endorsement is crucial for any candidate seeking to run as a reformer against the Teamster establishment — notorious for its bloated and corrupt officialdom and ties to organized crime. TDU has been the leading voice for reform in the Teamsters for four decades and played a major role in Zuckerman’s 2016 election challenge, when he came within a few thousands votes of toppling Hoffa from power. Now, it’s O’Brien’s turn to lead the slate.

But TDU’s endorsement of Sean O’Brien didn’t pass without controversy. O’Brien was a notorious Hoffa supporter — before he was fired by Hoffa — and has a well-deserved reputation for thuggery. Some current and former TDU supporters took to social media to criticize the endorsement, while raising serious concerns about the future of the reform movement.

Since the TDU convention, unease about O’Brien increased after he called off his local’s eighty-four day strike against Republic Services, the second-largest waste management company in the country. The strike ended in a complete defeat, raising questions about O’Brien’s leadership. As we enter the twilight years of the Hoffa era, where are the Teamsters going?

Hoffa in Twilight

Rumors of Hoffa’s impending retirement have been circulating for some time now. He was expected to announce his retirement at the October General Executive Board (GEB) meeting at the union’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. and dictate a successor. With a comfortable majority on the board, an easy transition was planned. But the meeting came and went with no announcement.

Speculation then turned to why it was taking so long. Hoffa is seventy-eight years old after all, and recent subpar performances at national Teamster conferences has led to a lot of gossip that he’s not up for the job any longer. The last national contract that he had a hand in — the 2018 national UPS contractwas voted down by the membership but “ratified” by him in a highly unpopular maneuver. Picking a successor may be more difficult than Hoffa expected.

Rumored successors such as Terry Hancock of Chicago or Kevin Moore of Detroit have serious baggage. Hancock, the president of Chicago Teamster Local 731, is embroiled in a hostile and unpopular takeover of another local union. Moore, the president of Detroit Local 299, the home local union of the Hoffa family, has proved to be an unpopular carhaul director.

Hoffa’s delayed retirement may have to do with him positioning the union to play an important role in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. For example, on December 7, the Teamsters cosponsored a Democratic presidential forum on workers rights in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, two months before the Iowa caucuses. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were the candidates who attended.

Despite having endorsed Hilary Clinton in 2016, this is something of a political pivot for Hoffa who earned a reputation as one of President Donald Trump’s most reliable union supporters on trade and infrastructure projects, including the environmentally disastrous Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines and the ongoing trade war with China. Lately, however, Hoffa has soured on Trump. He told the Huffington Post in late October:

He [Trump] made promises about how he would be [a workers’] champion. I think he can do better than what he’s done. I think he could have done more to help us with collective bargaining, more to help us with pensions…. I think he could have done more for us. I do.

Hoffa admitted in an October interview that many Teamsters voted for Trump in 2016. Hoffa also predicted that many “Teamsters are likely to vote for Trump again in 2020, regardless of who the Democratic nominee turns out to be.” Such honesty may be refreshing from the likes of Hoffa. He may have astutely judged that there is a battle on the horizon for Teamster votes, especially in Michigan, the home state of the Hoffa family with a large active and retired Teamster voting bloc. In an April 3, 2019, Detroit News column titled “Michigan Will Play Critical Role in 2020 Election,” Hoffa wrote:

Michigan finds itself at the forefront of the 2020 presidential election conversation. Thanks to the slim victory voters gave to President Trump here in 2016, those running for president this time know they need to win the Great Lakes State if they want to reach the White House.

Some Teamster votes were responsible for Trump winning in Michigan — and other states in the upper Midwest — which allowed him to eke out a victory in the Electoral College, bringing catastrophe to us all.

A Fraying Old Guard

Hoffa’s old guard has been fraying for the past two Teamster elections, with previous supporters — many of whom were pillars of his coalition — running against him. In 2011, Hoffa was challenged by longtime supporter and Wisconsin Teamster leader Fred Gegare, who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he decided to run because “James Hoffa Jr. is dismantling the union his father built, piece by piece.”

Gegare’s sudden conversion from hack to opposition candidate was greeted with mockery from TDU. In an informational bulletin about Gegare’s candidacy titledWhy He Can’t Win…and Why That’s a Good Thing,TDU asked, “Why is Gegare running against Hoffa?”:

That’s a good question. Gegare is long-time Hoffa loyalist. As a candidate, he criticizes Hoffa’s handling of the Central States Pension Fund and Hoffa’s concessions to UPS and UPS Freight. But Fred’s rhetoric doesn’t jibe with his record.

Despite the weak basis of Gegare’s campaign, Hoffa’s aides and campaign staff were unnerved by the revolt of loyalists, including Fred Zuckerman, President of Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, who also ran on Gegare’s slate. Hoffa’s inner circle was so desperate that they offered a bribe to Zuckerman. “They expected me to support the Hoffa slate and not run against him,” Zuckerman reported to the Teamster election supervisor Richard Mark.

In the end, Hoffa handily won reelection with 137,000 votes against Gegare and TDU leader Sandy Pope. Gegare won a little over 54,000 votes, while Pope also did surprisingly well: supported by a small number of dedicated volunteers but little money, she received nearly 40,000 votes. Pope was also the first woman to run for the top spot, a milestone in the U.S. labor movement.

“Teamsters United” was born out of the veterans of Gegare’s old slate and TDU supporters and members. For the 2016 Teamster election, Teamsters United first nominated Tim Sylvester, the President of Local 804 in New York City, to be candidate for General President. Sylvester, a former UPS driver, was a veteran Carey supporter and activist.

Sylvester won the race for the leadership of Local 804 in 2009 on the 804 Members United slate, beating the incumbent two to one. The local was the longtime political home of Ron Carey, the first and only reform leader of the Teamsters. Under Sylvester’s leadership, the local made important gains in contract negotiations against UPS, by far the biggest employer for Local 804 members.

While Teamsters United got off to a strong start, it was badly jolted when Sylvester narrowly lost reelection for local office after a highly factionalized and destructive campaign in 2015. As a result, Sylvester switched positions on the slate to run for General Secretary-Treasurer. Fred Zuckerman stepped forward to run for General president. He was Hoffa’s carhaul director before being fired by him. Despite this blow to the campaign, Zuckerman rose to the occasion. He was a down-to-earth person with a straight-talking style, which had a great appeal to Teamsters used to bluff and bluster.

Zuckerman made a name for himself on the campaign trail for his aggressive attacks on Hoffa’s unnecessary concessions to UPS in 2013, the lack of organizing in freight and carhaul, and — most importantly in the Midwest and South — the looming bankruptcy of the Central States Pension Fund on Hoffa’s watch. Sean O’Brien came in for a special skewering because he the coordinator of the UPS contract supplement that were repeatedly voted down but ultimately imposed by Hoffa.

When the ballots were counted Hoffa nearly lost the election, and his regional vice presidents were wiped out in the Midwest and the South, replaced by virtual unknowns from the Teamsters United slate. Chicago-area Teamsters voted for Zuckerman and Teamsters United by a slim margin, something inconceivable in previous elections. A large minority of Teamsters were prepared to vote for any credible alternative to Hoffa.

Yet apathy and cynicism was also hallmark of the 2016 election, which had the lowest turnout since the first rank and file election in 1991. It should be noted that during this time, Sean O’Brien was a menacing Hoffa loyalist.

“Old-School Values”

It’s been an open secret for many years that Sean O’Brien wants to be General President of the Teamsters. He was thirty-four years old when he was elected president of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston in 2006, making him the youngest person elected to that position in the local’s history. Local 25 has over 12,000 members in a variety of industries, but the largest employer by far is UPS, the logistics giant.

Teamsters Local 25 has never had a good reputation. Boston Magazine summed up its sordid history pretty well a few years ago:

The union had ties to Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang; one of its former presidents spent time behind bars; its rank-and-file members have been convicted of crimes ranging from armed truck robbery to embezzlement; its officers once had a reputation for shaking down movie crews. In 2011, a retired union member was found dying on a train platform carrying $180,000 in mysterious cash.

Local 25’s long time president was William J. “Billy” McCarthy, sometimes called “mad dog.” He ruled the local from 1955 to 1992. McCarthy was a longtime associate of organized crime. McCarthy’s successor was George Cashman, who styled himself a “New Teamster” and allied himself with Ron Carey, but he let the gangsters run amuck in the local’s movie division. According to Boston Magazine writer Michael Damiano:

Local 25’s movie crew, where Sean O’Brien worked and his father was a transportation coordinator, was earning a reputation for extorting Hollywood filmmakers. In 1994, a top representative of Local 25’s movie crew was convicted on federal conspiracy charges connected to a mob-related scheme to extract bribes from movie executives.

In 2003, George Cashman pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy in relation to embezzlement and extortion schemes and was sentenced to federal prison. O’Brien ran for local office in 2006 on what Damiano called a “conservative pitch.” “We needed to go back to our old-school values,” O’Brien exclaimed. “Go back to what made us successful.” “Old-school values” is a loaded phrase in Teamster politics, harkening back to the days of mob control and violence with a heavy dose of nostalgia for a “strong leader.”

O’Brien quickly allied himself with Hoffa on the national level and was rewarded by being added to Hoffa’s slate. He was elected an international vice-president for the eastern region in 2011. Hoffa rewarded O’Brien again by naming him the coordinator for the supplements and riders to 2013 national UPS contract. While the 2013 national contract passed by a slim majority, the supplements were repeatedly voted down because of membership anger at unnecessary concessions.

“O’Brien coordinated supplemental contract negotiations in 2013,” according to the Teamsters United website, “when a record 18 regional and local supplements and riders were rejected by the members.” Hoffa, prefiguring his actions in 2018, nevertheless imposed the national contract and supplements on an angry membership in 2014. O’Brien said and did nothing to oppose this.

In 2013, Rhode Island Teamsters got a taste of O’Brien’s “old-school values” when he directly intervened in the election of Local 251. Faced with a strong challenge from the TDU-aligned slate of reformers led by UPS driver Matt Taibi, the old guard incumbent Joe Bairos called in O’Brien for help. At a fundraising rally, O’Brien threatened retaliation against anyone who voted for Taibi and his United Action slate:

“I’ve got news for you, anyone who takes on my friend, Joe Bairos and his team, or Local 251, they’ve got major problems,’’ O’Brien said, according to transcripts of the union hall rally in Rhode Island during late summer. “They’ll never be our friends. They need to be punished. They need to be punished, and they need to be held accountable for their actions, trying to divide and tear down this local.’”

O’Brien was charged with intimidating members and suspended for fourteen days by the Independent Review Board, a disciplinary body created by the federal consent decree in 1989 that guaranteed rank-and-file elections free from the threat of violence and intimidation.

But by far the most notorious episode of O’Brien’s reign was the Top Cheffiasco. The popular cooking series on Bravo is hosted by former model Padma Lakshmi. On June 10, 2014, Top Chef was started filming at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton, a suburb of Boston, without union labor. A Local 25 picket line was set up and led by Secretary-Treasurer Mark Harrington.

Instead of focusing on the use of nonunion labor, an explosion of racist, sexist, and Islamophobic slurs took place, including the threat, “That’s the pretty one. We want to smash her face in.” The activities of O’Brien’s crew were almost entirely recorded by cell phone. Federal prosecutors in Boston, who have a long antiunion record, quickly jumped on the case and indicted five Local 25 member including Mark Harrington for extortion under the Hobbes Act.

Harrington was so certain he would be convicted that he pled guilty, while four others went to trial. Luckily for the labor movement, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict. A conviction would have had serious repercussions for the rights of workers to picket employers across the country. The jury’s decision doesn’t, however, absolve the racism and bigotry displayed by O’Brien’s men. Charges of racism were at first dismissed by O’Brien as “fiction at best,” but he was forced to eat his words after the recording of his men surfaced.

O’Brien once again displayed his “old-school values” by verbally assaulting reform delegates at the Teamsters convention in June 2016 in Las Vegas. His behavior and that of other Hoffa delegates was investigated by the Office of the Election Supervisor of the Teamsters, and while it wasn’t deemed to have risen to the level of preventing nominations, one investigator reported that O’Brien “lied” to them. O’Brien went on to deliver a solid block vote from his local union that endorsed Hoffa’s reelection.

For his loyalty, Hoffa appointed O’Brien director of the Teamsters Package Division in February 2017, setting him up to be the chief negotiator for the 2018 contract. “With Sean’s experience, enthusiasm and commitment I am confident that he will lead the fight for our members to achieve a strong contract,” said Hoffa

Fred Zuckerman was not so pleased, “UPS Teamsters voted for new leadership to fight for a strong contract,” he said. “Instead, Hoffa is serving up a retread who screwed up the last negotiations and imposed weak contracts and concessions.” O’Brien’s subsequent falling-out with Hoffa blocked his rise to Teamster General President, and so he has sought another route. Given O’Brien’s clear record, it is a serious mistake for TDU to endorse him for General President and bestow on him the image of a reformer.

Where Are the Teamsters Going?

James P. Hoffa Jr. has been leader of the union for twenty years. He’s won five successive elections. Despite his winning streak, Hoffa has never been a particularly popular leader. If he retires as expected, it very probable that the old-guard coalition he relied on as his power base will crack up into competing factions, possibly reflecting regional rivalries.

As past Teamster elections have shown, if the old guard is split in two or three parts, reformers have their best chance of winning; that’s what happened in the first rank-and-file election that brought Ron Carey to power in 1991. Still, with nearly two years to go before the election, it’s anyone’s guess how many candidates and slates will be campaigning for the top spots in the union and whether a reform slate stands a good chance.

All of the announced or probable candidates for General President — by far, the most powerful position in the Teamsters — carry huge political baggage with them or have potential skeletons in their closets, so it’s hard to know how many of them will make it to the finish line. For example, another ambitious Teamster leader, Rome Aloise, the Secretary-Treasurer of Local 853, whose two-year suspension from the union ends later this year, plans to run for General President. How can he possibly think he can be a candidate without being subjected to greater scrutiny?

The issues the next Teamster leadership will face — the continued rise of nonunion giant Amazon, the prospects of the next recession savaging the traditional freight industry, self-driving trucks, surveillance in the workplace, the dire issues of environmental destruction and the union’s posture towards a Green New Deal — aren’t going away. None of the announced or probable candidates running for Teamster General President are up to the task of confronting them. The Teamsters are long overdue for a fundamental change in direction after two decades of stagnation.


JOE ALLEN is the author of Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.


Saudi Arabs Really Love Americans? No Saudis Do Not – by Ronald Enzweiler – 10 Dec 2019

Pensacola Murder

(Mohammed Alshamrani Saudi Arabian airplane pilot who shot up Pensacola FL US air base)

Soon after the shooting of American citizens at the Pensacola Naval Air Station last Friday (December 6) by a Saudi national who was in the US for flight training, President Trump, speaking from the White House, read a statement from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. President Trump let us know “the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter.” He then reassured us, “this person [the perpetrator] in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.”

As an American who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East on a full-time basis for over ten years, I was astonished by this obviously untruthful and deceiving statement that President Trump was parroting on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Lest we forget, 15 of the 19 hijackers who committed the 9/11 terror attacks – and their leader Osama bin Laden – were Saudi nationals. Moreover, anti-American Saudi nationals killed twenty US soldiers and injured 500 more in a car bombing attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in June 1996. I guess the Saudi nationals who perpetrated these attacks (among others I could cite) also were “in no way, shape or form [representative] of the feelings of the Saudi people” and thus these attacks also should be excused.

Even when I worked for the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s twenty years before Al Qaeda; Americans were tolerated in the Kingdom only if we kept a low profile and adhered to the Saudis’ strict social norms – since they loathed ours. The “Saudi people” whom the King refers to are predominately devout Sunni Muslims who practice a medieval form of Islam called Wahhabism (which they taught to the Afghan Taliban). These Salafists (“true believes”) uneasily coexist with a minority pro-Iranian Shiite sect in the Eastern Province where Aramco operates. The claim these two staunchly anti-Western Islamic sects “love Americans” and condone our way of life is laughable.

Given this reality, I was astonished that no mainstream media reporters who knows the Middle East (surely some do) didn’t immediately called out the deception that King Salman and President Trump were perpetrating on the American public. I surmise a lot of “damage control” is going on. Indeed, this shooting reveals the obvious risks – given the ominous parallel to 9/11 – of having Saudi national pilots (and those of other Muslim nations) being trained on American soil on how to fly the high-performance military aircraft that US arms merchants eagerly sell these nations. These contracts include provisions for pilots from the acquiring countries to be trained at US military bases in America. It’s easy to imagine a radicalized foreign-national pilot in a single-seat jet fighter crashing his plane into a nearby city rather than landing it back on his flight-training base.

This possible scenario shows the danger to Americans back home of keeping the Middle East arms race going unchecked for the financial benefit of our burgeoning military-industrial complex. Apparently, Congress (which authorizes foreign arms sales by US firms on a case-by-case basis) is more interested in sustaining the profits of arms merchants (who are big contributors to individual members’ reelection campaigns) than they are in ensuring the safety of the American homeland.

This pilot-training risk falls into the category of an “inconvenient truth” related to the international arms business. More ominously, the Pensacola attack reveals the inevitable “blowback” inherent in our country’s current pro-Israel Middle East foreign and military policy. Like the foreign-pilot training risk, the blowback issue is never mentioned nor debated by policymakers in Washington. Indeed, it is taboo to do so.

As background on the blowback issue, I traveled through the international airport in Dubai – the crossroads of the Middle East – over 20 times on my R&R trips home from the civilian advisor jobs I held in Afghanistan over seven years (2008-14). I always browsed the airport bookstore looking for something to read on the 13-hour flight to Dulles; or to take back to Kabul or Kandahar. Throughout this period, the #1 bestseller on the non-fiction rack was always The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. This controversial work was published in book form in US in August 2007, after The London Review of Books had published it in manuscript form in June 2006.

The main thesis of this book is that America’s interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East (including starting the Iraq war; maintaining a threatening posture toward Iran; and Congress’ unconditional support of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians) is driven by a very powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Given this lobby’s influence (which includes interfering in U.S. Congressional elections on behalf of Israel’s interests), Mearsheimer and Walt argue in their dispassionate analysis that current US policies in the Middle East do not serve the best interests of the American people. In the months following the publication of their book, it was viciously discredited by the pro-Israel/pro-war US foreign policy establishment and corporate media.

Consequently, in the 12 years since his taboo-bashing book was published, it has had no effect on US foreign policy; nor did it lead to a just resolution of the long-festering Israel-Palestine conflict – as some open-minded reviewers had hoped. Thus, this timely and important work is not relevant to the current discourse on Middle East foreign-policy in our country. The only matters under discussion are (1) when to attack Iran and (2) how to further destabilize Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – both in support of Israel.

But as I observed traveling through the Dubai airport, these scholars’ fact-based expository book on the “special relationship” between Israel and the US has remained a bestseller in the Middle East. Unlike in America, this topic is discussed and is a motivating issue throughout Islamic world. I was often asked by the college educated/English speaking Muslims with whom I associated and mentored, “Why is America spending hundreds of billions to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East; yet you country allows the Israelis to treat the Palestinians so unjustly?” Most knew the real answer to this question and were just jiving me. I would tell the others, “I’ll lend you a book to read.”

Thus, I was not surprised to learn on Sunday two days after the Pensacola shooting – first exclusively reported by foreign media sources – that the Saudi pilot trainee (who would have been similarly educated and fluent in English like my Iraqi and Afghan associates) had posted on his twitter account (now suspended) a manifesto in which he confesses:

“I’m against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil. I’m not against you for just being American, I don’t hate you because your freedoms, I hate you because every day you [are] supporting, funding and committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity.” He wrote he condemned US support for Israel and included a quote from Al-Qaeda’s deceased leader, the Saudi Osama bin Laden.” (For more quotes from the shooter’s manifesto – which are now banned from the internet – see Scott Horton’s article, “Pensacola: Blowback Terrorism.”)

Regarding the shooter’s Osama bin Laden reference, The Guardian on December 3, 2007 reported Osama had declared two days earlier that: “The events of Manhattan were a response to the American-Israeli coalition’s murder of our people in Palestine and Lebanon.” Going back to the 1980s, “Palestine has featured in practically every statement and interview by Bin Laden.”

Congressman Matt Gaetz (R), whose Florida district includes Pensacola Naval Air Station, is one of the few public officials who has called this attack on Americans on US spoil what it is: “an act of terrorism.” It’s noteworthy that Rep. Gaetz is one of the few members of Congress who is highly critical of our country’s foreign interventions and endless wars in the Middle East. Thus, he has already broken with the Washington establishment.

In contrast, more than 48 hours after the attack and notwithstanding foreign media’s revelation of the shooter’s manifesto, the Pentagon and FBI still have yet not called the attack terrorism. They refer to the shooter’s tweets and manifesto as being “some concerning statements and online materials [we have] discovered.” In a Saturday morning interview on national television when the Trump administration’s spokesperson was asked about the Pensacola attack, she uttered the usual evasive non-answer babble: “we’re looking into it, we can’t get ahead of the investigation, we’ll get to the bottom of it.” (Since when has President Trump not gotten ahead of an investigation?) She also proclaimed, “President Trump always puts Americans’ safety first” – and he “won’t let this happen again!”

But if the administration doesn’t yet know yet the shooter’s motivation or his possible terror-network affiliations, how can the president assure the American people that such attacks won’t happen again? I’m suspicious. There are currently 852 Saudi nationals in the US in various military training programs along with an unreported number of nationals from other Muslim countries among the over 5,000 foreign military personnel receiving training. This flight training is conducted as part of foreign arms-sales contracts with American firms. That’s a lot of canceled contracts and loss of future business if the reality is: the only way to assure that Americans are safe is to close down the military’s foreign-pilot training program.

Spoiler Alert: Don’t expect an official account in the MSM confirming the Saudi shooter’s anti-Israel inspired animus toward America and seeing the full text of his manifesto. The Washington establishment has closed ranks to mitigate this attack’s negative effect on foreign arms sales and its pro-Israel Middle East foreign policy. In Washington’s counterfactual narrative, the American public is supposed to believe the Saudis are good guys who “love Americans” and tacitly support Israel (despite being Salafi fundamentalists). The truth is the Saudis are America’s arms merchants’ best customer. And since the US military got (mostly) kicked out of Iraq in 2011, Pentagon needs to use bases in Saudi Arabia to attack Iran and continue its interventions in other neighboring Islamic countries.

When the truth becomes known, this Pensacola attack – just like 9/11 – will fall into the category of “blowback.”

As Mearsheimer and Walt tried to warn the American public in their courageous book published twelve years ago, there is a “cause and effect” to Washington’s decidedly pro-Israel foreign policy in the Middle East. In a recent article (A Manifesto for Restrainers) that Mr. Walt published before the Pensacola attack, he presciently advocates for a less militaristic, noninterventionist foreign policy devoid of “special relationships” with allies who perceive they “deserve US support no matter what they do.”

Maybe this time our elected officials will heed Mr. Walt’s sage advice, and our country will avoid getting bogged down in a third protected, multi-trillion-dollar, unwinnable war in the Middle East.

Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the US Air Force and has lived, worked and traveled extensively in the Middle East, including working as an USAID contactor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in the Iraq and Afghan wars from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?

Deaths caused by British Empire should be condemned just like deaths under Stalin – by Tomasz Pierscionek – 5 Dec 2019

Deaths caused by British Empire should be condemned just like deaths under Stalin
Western historians who condemn the USSR for the deaths under Stalin​’s dictatorship should shed a spotlight on ​the millions who died under British rule​, including those in engineered famines across the Indian subcontinent.

The UK general election is a week away and a significant chunk of the country’s media, three-quarters of which is reportedly owned by a few billionaires, is hard at work digging up dirt on Jeremy Corbyn to prevent a Labour Party victory at all costs. However, this uphill task is becoming harder as recent polls show the frequently cited Conservative lead over Labour is rapidly decreasing. The possibility that Mr Corbyn will be Britain’s next prime minister, perhaps at the head of a minority government, is now grudgingly acknowledged.

When Corbyn launched Labour’s manifesto at the end of November, he pledged to conduct a formal enquiry into the legacy of the British Empire “to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule” and set up an organisation “to ensure historical injustice, colonialism, and role of the British Empire is taught in the national curriculum.”

The idea of teaching a population about the unsavoury aspects of its history, and in Britain’s case revealing how several of today’s geopolitical crises are rooted in the past folly and avarice-fuelled actions of its ruling class, is commendable.

UK india

It would be prudent to inform UK citizens about the British Empire’s divide and conquer tactics across the Indian subcontinent and Africa, the stirring up of Hindu-Muslim antagonism in the former, or the impact of the Sykes-Picot agreement that precipitated instability across the Middle East which continues to the present day. Doing so might enable the public to gain a better understanding of how past actions affect present realities, in turn making them more eager to hold contemporary politicians to account so past mistakes are not repeated. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Some right-wingers may be quick to dismiss Corbyn’s manifesto promise as self-indulgent politically-correct onanism. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage commented: “I don’t think I should apologise for what people did 300 years ago. It was a different world, a different time.” Yet, some of the violence perpetuated in the name of protecting the empire’s interests is not exactly ancient history, having occurred within living memory for some. The Malayan Emergency, Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, the Suez Crisis, or the deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland are a few examples.

Segments of the intelligentsia may also feel unease at Corbyn’s manifesto promise, namely those academics who still view the British Empire as the UK’s legacy and ‘gift’ to the world. This includes those who, by extension, consider modern Britain (and the West in general) as bestowed with a cultural superiority that makes it the unchallenged arbiter of global affairs and the indisputable defender of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, regardless of what these laudable terms have been corrupted into justifying. The invasion of Iraq, the destruction of Libya, and the civil wars in Syria and Ukraine are a few manifestations of Western intervention.

Some Western historians fall over themselves condemning the USSR for the millions who died under the dictatorship of Stalin, with a significant proportion of these victims perishing during famines. The people of the former Soviet Union need to come to terms with their history, just like any other country. In the meantime, Western historians should shine a spotlight closer to home. Engineered famines across the Indian subcontinent reportedly killed up to 29 million in the late 19th century and a further 3 million in 1943.

The Indian subcontinent was only one of the regions under British rule and the deaths mentioned above do not include those violently killed by occupying forces. Unlike the USSR, which kept oppression confined within its borders and those of neighbouring countries under its sphere of influence, Britain together with the American Empire (to which it handed over the baton of imperialism after WWII) has interfered on pretty much every continent except Antarctica. In modern times we see the UK, now a vassal of the US-led NATO empire, condemn nations that refuse to submit to Western hegemony.

Apologists for Empire claim it brought ‘progress’ such as railways, infrastructure, education, cricket, as well as free trade and order (i.e. Pax Britannica). Irrespective of whether such ‘gifts’ were appreciated by occupied nations, this line of reasoning opens up a dangerous precedent. For example, supporters of Stalin overlook his despotism by crediting him with rapidly industrializing an underdeveloped nation that later played a major role in defeating Nazism, bestowing upon him an honour that instead belongs to millions of rank and file soldiers, officers, and commanders of the Red Army.

During the time of the British Empire, as was the case with other European empires and many dictatorships, the majority of working people were not personally enriched by the plunder of imperialism and their descendants are not to blame for the actions of the former ruling class. Nevertheless, learning one’s history is the first step to understanding the present, ensuring today’s leaders are held to account, and preventing the same mistakes from being repeated.

Islamic Law in Indonesia – Man, Woman Fall Unconscious in Public Floggings For Sex Crimes (The Jakarta Post) 6 Dec 2019


In two separate cases, a woman and a man in Aceh passed out on Thursday after being publicly caned as a punishment for violating the province’s Qanun Jinayat (Islamic criminal code).

In East Aceh regency, a 22-year-old man found guilty of extramarital sex was beaten unconscious after a sharia officer punished him with 100 strokes in a flogging.

The authorities continued with the flogging – even after he had fainted before later awaking – and he was only rushed to the hospital for medical treatment after the punishment finished, AFP reported.

Also on Thursday, the Aceh Tamiang Prosecutor’s Office head of general crimes, Roby Syahputra, said one woman who was one among 33 people being caned in Aceh Tamiang regency fainted after she completed her sentence of 30 strokes, a punishment she received after she was allegedly caught being too close to a man.

Another woman reportedly could not stand the pain after the executioner hit her 39 times in front of hundreds of people and officials in the front yard of the Aceh Tamiang Islamic Center building.

The 35-year-old woman was found guilty of adultery with a 59-year-old man, who was also punished with 100 strokes on Thursday.

“She only received 39 strokes out of 100 strokes. The rest of the punishment will be carried out in the next process next year,” Roby said on Thursday as quoted by Antara.

Aceh Indonesia

Aceh is the only region in Muslim-majority Indonesia that implements sharia. The provincial administration has fully enforced Qanun Jinayat since 2015.

In addition to being a punishment for adultery, public flogging is also administered against those found guilty of gambling and homosexuality.

Rights group Amnesty International has once again slammed the public whippings as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” punishments that are a “shameful and vicious public spectacle”.

“The fact that two people were beaten unconscious today, in two separate incidents, is a damning indictment of the authorities who let his happen on their watch,” Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said.

“No one deserves to face this unspeakable cruelty,” he said. “The authorities in Aceh and Indonesia must immediately repeal the law that imposes these punishments, and bring them in line with international standards and Indonesia’s human rights obligations under its own Constitution.  (hol)

Camille Paglia: The Death of the Hollywood Sex Symbol – 6 Dec 2019

Warner Bros./Photofest
“Jane Fonda’s crisply efficient prostitute in ‘Klute’ (1971) reflected the chilly atmospherics of postwar European art films’ new sexual realism,” says Paglia.

The cultural critic and ‘Provocations’ author laments the end of the bombshell and asks why only drag queens and ‘Hustlers’ star Jennifer Lopez still possess “Hollywood’s most brilliant artifact.”

Who killed the sex symbol?

It’s no mystery that in the era of #MeToo, the rules of combat have changed on the sexual battlefield. Women will no longer tolerate condescending or degrading treatment that was once business as usual in the workplace or dating arena. But in this long overdue push-back against sexual coercion and exploitation, has something valuable been lost?

brie Larson

The sex symbol was arguably Hollywood’s most brilliant artifact, propelling the young movie industry to world impact from the moment that Theda Bara flashed her coiled-snake brassiere in Cleopatra (1917). Sex was great box office. With its impudent populism, Hollywood crashed through stuffy proprieties lingering from the Victorian age and stationed itself at the bold forefront of the modern liberalization of sex. Movies were in sync with the radical new spirit of American women, who won the right to vote in 1920 and kicked up their heels throughout the flapper decade of the Roaring Twenties.

Protest about the “immoral” content of movies began even before World War One and would lead to Hollywood’s adoption in 1930 of the notorious Hays Code, which plagued progressive screenwriters and directors for decades. In the late 1960s, as studio power waned, a new sexual realism arrived from postwar European art films, whose chilly atmospherics can be felt in Jane Fonda’s brilliant performance as a crisply efficient prostitute in Klute (1971).

Howard Hughes

The great sex symbols of Hollywood were manufactured beings, engineered by trial and error, with the mass audience as their ultimate judge and jury. Decade by decade, the movie industry rediscovered primal archetypes that have animated myths around the world since the Stone Age. Major male sex symbols like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Sidney Poitier have a mesmerizing natural authority onscreen, a supranormal power of personality and density of being that transcend their roles. Like their antecedents in ancient hero sagas, they inhabit and explore physical space, whose frustrations and dangers they endure but ultimately defeat.

The female sex symbol, however, commands emotional or psychological space. Her sensual beauty is an alluring mirage, hypnotizing and sometimes paralyzing. Never entirely present, she is attuned to another reality, an extrasensory dimension to which we have no access. There is an unsettling aura of the uncanny around the major female sex symbols, who channel shadowy powers above or below the social realm.

Howard hu333

In George Hurrell’s classic publicity photo for Dinner at Eight (1933), for example, Jean Harlow sits enthroned in a luxurious all-white boudoir, the secret cell of a love goddess. This is not the ditzy proletarian gal that Harlow plays in the film but the real-life Hollywood superstar, serene in her majesty. She is draped in a clinging silk negligee (designed by Adrian) that provocatively exposes a shapely high-heeled foot. Her impossibly large cuffs of white ostrich feathers match her unreal platinum-blonde hair. From her outstretched hand dangles an oval mirror that is disturbingly blank, suggesting that she can never be known, even to herself.

In Stormy Weather (1943), Lena Horne in a stunning black dress with filmy net sleeves sings of unhappy love while leaning against a nightclub wall that magically turns into a rain-lashed window. As if flowing from Lena’s own imagination, the great African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham materializes outside on a Harlem street. She scornfully rebuffs a suitor and, inspired by a lightning strike, instantly creates her own mental universe — an abstract tropical landscape for her victory dance of queenly female power. Then the shifting tableau reverts to Lena, the elegant blues sorceress.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest
Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1943).
Jean Harlow in George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933).

In A Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Lana Turner as a roadside diner owner’s unfaithful wife blazes with a white-hot light that represents the blinding power of sex as a destructive primal force. In Gilda (1946), Rita Hayworth in Jean Louis’ sumptuous strapless black sheath sashays through an impromptu strip tease as she sings of a woman accused of causing the catastrophic Chicago fire (“Put the Blame on Mame”). A strange light emanates from her, beyond any technical manipulation — a charisma arbitrarily endowed and under no one’s control. A similar magnetic effect occurs in an upscale bar in Butterfield 8 (1960), where Elizabeth Taylor as a chic Manhattan call girl poses and flirts with an admiring gaggle of clone-like businessmen, while her married lover (Laurence Harvey) writhes in rage and humiliation.

None of this complexity and grandeur was acknowledged or even perceived by early second-wave feminism, which contemptuously rejected Hollywood’s sex symbols as vulgar libels objectifying women and making them passive to the imperialistic “male gaze.” Marilyn Monroe, with her troubled emotional history, was portrayed as a classic victim of exploitation by the patriarchal movie industry, which typecast her as a cartoonish “dumb blonde.” Feminists waged open warfare on the ultra-sexy “Bond girls” as well as the pioneering ABC TV series, Charlie’s Angels, which was dismissed as a frivolous “tits and ass” show.

But the sex symbols had already prophetically changed. In 1962, four years before Betty Friedan kick-started second-wave feminism by co-founding the National Organization for Women, Ursula Andress in a white bikini as fierce conch-diver Honey Ryder in the first James Bond film, Dr. No, stepped from the sea with a knife strapped to her hip, an electrifying apparition of the modern Venus as an armed Amazon. In 1966, Raquel Welch, in her role as a Stone Age survivalist in a ragged deer-skin bikini, spontaneously struck a militantly athletic pose for a poster for One Million Years B.C. that sped around the world and remains an iconic image of the liberated woman of the twentieth century.

ABC’s Charlie’s Angels (1976-81).

The last great sex symbol performance was given nearly three decades ago by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992), where the femme fatale is a scary-smart writer of eerie omniscience. Stone’s Catherine Tramell, first seen communing with crashing waves far below her stone patio, unmans a team of police inquisitors by merely uncrossing her legs. Stone recently told Allure magazine that Basic Instinct probably couldn’t be made today.

What confluence of social trends has led to the sex symbol’s current eclipse? At the heart of ancient myths about beautiful, mysterious women was a quest pattern: The hero endured a series of perilous challenges to win the lady or merely to survive an encounter with a magically deceptive temptress. At the deepest level, the woman represented special or occult knowledge, a secret treasure that could only be won by extraordinary men.

Jump-cut to today’s humdrum office world, where men and women sit side by side, doing the same routine jobs. Turf sharing and overfamiliarity between the sexes have produced boredom and simmering resentments. Meanwhile, casual, oafish hookup culture has spread from college campuses, turning formal courtship rituals into creaky antiques. Sex has lost its mystique.

Brie Larsen

Second, in the digital era, the sex symbol as radiant Hollywood icon has been displaced by a blizzard of Instagram selfies, where increasingly young girls strike provocative poses, appropriating star-making techniques pioneered by the movie industry. Bare flesh is suffering serious overexposure. Wholesale blurring of the line between private and public is ultimately antithetical to eroticism. When everything is seen and known, there is no titillating taboo to transgress. Paradoxically, despite its relentless skin display, virtual reality dematerializes the body and has made it a locus of chronic anxiety. Body dysmorphia, from which singer Billie Eilish suffered, has gone epidemic.

Third, the female sex symbol, descended from mother goddesses like Venus and Isis, once implicitly represented the life force, nature itself. Because of overpopulation as well as career demands, today’s values have shifted. Marriage and pregnancy are often delayed or avoided by ambitious middle-class working women. Furthermore, the body is becoming mechanized, wed to technology. From cosmetic plastic surgery to fertility treatments, science rather than mother nature is in charge. The next inevitable step is AI sex robots with “faux flesh.” The sex symbol as natural wonder is fading — and with her goes the internal compass of our primeval animal instincts.

Fourth, in this current climate consumed by politics, interest in psychology has waned. Sex and gender, following academic postmodernism, are now treated as socially constructed matters of choice. Many seem to believe that all the uncertainty, turbulence and risk of sex can be remedied by passing laws and imposing after-the-fact penalties. But great art, including classic Hollywood movies, has always shown the irrational forces boiling just beneath the surface of civilization. Poets since Sappho have seen love as obsession, delusion and madness. The present over-politicized formulas about sex, with their ritual combat of villains and victims, fail to recognize the inherent complications, instabilities and delirium in attraction and desire.

Significantly, in the long gap since Basic Instinct, drag has boomed in movies and on TV. Even in its most extreme parodic form, drag has preserved the archetypal power of the sex symbol that Hollywood abandoned. A transgender tradition, parallel to the onnagata (male actor who plays female roles) of Japanese kabuki, also has surfaced: The deep liquid emotion yet cool distance of the sex symbol can be seen in the Warhol superstar Candy Darling, the female impressionist Jim Bailey and the mercurial Indya Moore of FX’s Pose. Drag and trans performers, operating artistically outside gender conventions, might help counter the current wave of reductive literalism that sees nothing in sex but a rigid binary of oppressive political power, authored by male evil.

Signs of hope for a revival of Hollywood’s pagan glory days can be seen in the smash success this year of Hustlers, written, directed and produced by women. A female caper film set in a real-life strip club, Hustlers amusingly documents the ancient sexual theater by which women have aroused, managed and profited from male desire. With her tough athleticism, steely jaw and commanding gaze, Jennifer Lopez as a virtuoso pole dancer restores the Amazonian lineage of Raquel Welch and relights the fire of Hollywood sex.

STX Financing, LLC.
Constance Wu (left) and Jennifer Lopez in September’s Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scafaria.

Dr. Saba Mahdawi – Iraqi officials silent on abduction of woman doctor who was helping protesters (The National) 6 Dec 2019

Iraq Protest

The family of a missing Iraqi doctor and activist say they have received no word from officials or security forces nearly a week after she was abducted in Baghdad.

The Iraqi Human Rights Commission said Saba Al Mahdawi, 37, was abducted on Saturday night while returning home from treating wounded anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square.

“We don’t know why she was kidnapped. The people who did it are unknown,” Dr Al Mahdawi’s brother, Yousef Hamid, told The National. “She was a normal person. She saw people and wanted to help.”

Iraq’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Her friends placed the responsibility for her disappearance on the government.

“Who would kidnap her? The enemy of the people,” said Mohamed Fadhel, a poet and activist who worked with Ms Al Mahdawi in Tahrir Square, Baghdad’s main protest site.

“Who is the enemy of the people? It’s the government. The government is responsible for her kidnapping and it’s responsible for her release.

“The corrupt people’s goal was to reduce the number of young Iraqis protesting but there are people who came here because Saba was kidnapped.

“They wanted to scare us, but our voice will be stronger than before.”

Since October, tens of thousands of people in the Iraqi capital and across the south have taken part in protests that began with demands to end corruption, improve living standards and provide employment.

The protests have since turned their anger against foreign influence in Iraq, particularly by Iran.

Security forces have killed more than 260 protesters in two waves of demonstrations since October 1.

The government says it needs time to enact the reforms and changes but the public says it is too little, too late.

Sohaila Al Assam, a women’s rights activist, said dozens of people have been coming out in central Baghdad in solidarity with the abducted doctor.

“There are no words to describe what has happened to Saba,” Ms Assam said.

“We are still waiting to hear back from the government about her situation.”

Women fall victim to threats and intimidation during difficult times, Ms Al Assam said.

Saba ‘laughed in the face of the pain we live in’

Activist Dina Al Tai, 34, said she met Dr Al Mahdawi in Tahrir Square on October 25, a day after the protests resumed.

“Saba was walking alone and we were part of a larger group of girls and we had some boys with us,” Ms Al Tai said. “So we said, ‘Why don’t you come with us?'”

Iraq’s younger generation “want to help each other out so the uprising will continue”, she said.

Ms Al Tai said she was one of the last people to see Dr Al Mahdawi before her disappearance on November 2.

They were both working all day in the square preparing food for the demonstrators.

Iraq protest 3
Saba’s friend Dina standing in Kahramana square with a poster of Saba that says ‘We want our sister, we want a state.’

Dr Al Mahdawi also collected donations for medicine and helped protesters with severe injuries to be taken away for treatment.

“Saba was severely tear gassed and had to brought back to the tent,” Ms Al Tai said.

She said that despite the difficult circumstances, Dr Al Mahdawi stayed strong.

“She laughed in the face of all of the pain that we are living in here. It’s not easy to work here as a volunteer,” Ms Al Tai said.

About 10pm, Dr Al Mahdawi’s’s friends suggested she go home to rest.

Mr Fadhel said he accompanied her to Nasser Square, near the entrance to the street leading to Tahrir Square.

The streets were full of traffic so she took a bus to get to her car, which was parked a few streets away, he said.

They were in contact with Dr Al Mahdawi until she got to her car. But about an hour later, Mr Fadhel received a phone call from her family asking about her whereabouts.

“We said she left,” he said. “They said we haven’t heard from her for more than an hour and she still hasn’t come. So we began to feel anxious.”

They went to Sheikh Zayed Hospital to check if she had gone to get treatment for tear gas inhalation but she was not there.

“I saw that her personality was beautiful, she had power and was brave,” Mr Fadhel said.

“So this of course threatened the corrupt people. Her support was the reason for her kidnapping.”


Family of Iraqi woman activist ‘abducted by masked men’ appeals for help (New Arab) 4 Nov 2019

Iraq Protest 2

The family of a female Iraqi protester allegedly abducted by masked men on Saturday has made an emotional public appeal for information to help locate her.

The mother of Saba Mahdawi, a doctor and activist who had been providing medical aid to protesters, said she has been kidnapped by “armed, masked men on pick-up trucks” as she headed home from demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square late on Saturday evening.

Mahdawi’s mother said the 35-year-old was taken at 11.20 at night from the Bayaa area in the Karkh District in Baghdad.

“We don’t know where she was taken,” she said, adding that an hour before, she had told her she was on her way home.

“She did nothing wrong, I swear to God!” said Mahdawi’s mother.

“She’s just a civil activist. She is not affiliated with any party, anywhere. It’s just that she and her friends made a group – even us at home helped them. And she got taken,” she added.

Eyewitnesses have confirmed that armed men seized Mahdawi in central Baghdad, driving her away while she screamed and called for her mother.

Authorities have been criticised for inaction, as witnesses claim to have reported the license plate of the car that drove Mahdawi away.

Fellow activists have launched a social media campaign to bring awareness to Mahdawi’s abduction, using the hashtag #وين_صبا (#Where_is_Saba).

The Iraqi Human Rights Commission confirmed on Sunday that Mahdawi had been abducted the previous evening, but did not say who had seized her.

The Commission urged security forces to investigate the matter and other “organised kidnapping operations” in recent weeks.

It called Mahdawi’s abduction “a mark of shame for the whole of Iraqi society”.

The crackdown on Iraq’s anti-government protesters has been brutal, with at least 265 protesters killed and over 11,000 injured since October 1.

This protests are fuelled by grievances around unemployment and corruption, mainly directed at the political elite, but they have also challenged Iran and its perceived out-sized influence on national politics.

Iran backs various armed groups in Iraq, including the powerful paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as the Hashed al-Shaabi.

Many activists fear violent reprisals from these heavily armed pro-Iran groups if the rallies continue to counter the Islamic republic’s influence.

Meanwhile Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dismissed the protests in both Iraq and Lebanon as US, Israeli and Saudi conspiracies.

Activists have been targeted since the beginning of the protests, with observers saying that the tactics are meant to intimidate and put pressure on activists, bloggers and media figures to stop supporting the demonstrations.

Belarus: Europe’s Last Soviet Economy Approaches Its ‘Hour of Reckoning’ As Russia Ups Gas Prices – by Marc Champion and Aliaksandr Kudrytski (Bloomberg) 26 Nov 2019

Belarus factoryMinsk Tractor Factory, Belarus

Belarus kept old factories, jobs, and social services alive after communism. Now that model is under threat from Russian gas price increases

Andrei Suslenkou, director for ideological work at the Minsk Tractor Factory, is proudly showing off the benefits his company offers, at low or no cost, to more than 30,000 workers and retirees. At the plant’s health clinic, 560 doctors and staff use sleek Western equipment to provide care from routine checkups to surgery, including laser eyesight correction. A Palace of Culture opposite the factory’s ornate, Stalin-era gates includes a plush theater wired for light and sound. It just hosted a concert in honor of the “Day of Machine Builders.” Outside the capital, a woodland sanatorium provides cures, vacations, and summer camps for 300 employees’ kids at a time. “They were smart professionals back then who set up these social services,” says Suslenkou, adding that he audited the system Soviet planners made for the factory and found little “excess” to cut.

Call it the Belarus exception. Almost 28 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this deeply cautious nation of 9.5 million—rolled over through the centuries by Moscow’s wars with other parts of Europe—has kept alive many of the industrial jobs and social ecosystems that centrally planned factory budgets once supported across the bloc.

In the West, Belarus is probably best known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Less recognized is that its transition from command to semi-market economy, delivered at the speed of a mud-bound tractor, has by some economic measures made this a better place to live than any other former Soviet republic, barring the three Baltic States that joined the European Union. Belarus scores better on inequality than any EU nation (including the likes of Denmark), and has a smaller percentage of people living on less than $5.50 per day, a World Bank measure of poverty, than any other part of what was once the Soviet Union, half of the EU’s 28 member states, or the U.S.

In place of the potholed roads, rundown buildings, and the depopulation found in some other struggling ex-Soviet nations, President Alexander Lukashenko, now 65 and in charge since 1994, has turned Minsk into something of a Soviet theme park. It’s a vision of how he believes things might have been without the communist empire’s 1991 collapse. Statues of Lenin and other Bolshevik heroes still dominate cityscapes. Stalin-era buildings and boulevards are immaculately maintained and painted; parks are manicured and pavements swept clean. After Lukashenko visited the tractor factory in 2015, managers restored communist-era friezes removed during the campaign against “architectural excesses” that followed Stalin’s death, in 1953.

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MTZ’s main building.

“I think Belarus does have a unique path,” one that has had some under-recognized benefits such as stability, says Alexander Pivovarsky, the EBRD’s country manager, in an interview at his office in central Minsk. “But we believe the economic model of Belarus is unsustainable.”

Indeed, Lukashenko’s exception is now under threat, for the same reason it would be hard for others to emulate: It was made possible by billions of dollars’ worth of de facto annual Russian energy subsidies, in the form of large quantities of crude oil which Belarus buys at a discount. Russia is withdrawing those subsidies through a so-called tax maneuver, which will eliminate an exemption that benefitted Belarus. Its refineries already pay 80% of the world price for Russian oil—up from 50% five years ago—and as a result of the tax change they will pay full price by 2025, at a cost, says the government, of $10 billion over those six years. (Belarus also pays as little as half as much as Western European countries for Russian natural gas. Negotiations to continue that discount are ongoing.)

Without compensation for these lost subsidies, Belarus may have to restructure its legacy state-owned factories, losing many of the jobs and welfare systems they sustain. “What you have to remember is that Belarus is an oil economy. It doesn’t look like an oil exporter, but it is, because all the time it has been getting cheap oil from Russia,” which it then refines for re-export to Europe, says Sergei Guriev, a former chief economist for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. “That’s about to change, and we have this hour of reckoning.”

The Kremlin is making any compensation to soften the blow contingent on a deal to integrate the two countries. That’s forcing Lukashenko to navigate a choice he has long sought to avoid: Cut a deal with Russia, at the risk of being seen to sacrifice sovereignty, or put the nation’s heavy industry on a commercial footing and turn westward for support, risking retribution from Moscow. An agreement resulting from months of intense negotiations is due to be signed on Dec. 8.

Belarus 3

Until now, Lukashenko has managed dealings with Russia in a way that other ex-Republics have been unable to achieve. In part thanks to the resulting stability, Belarus’s per capita gross domestic product is, in U.S. dollar terms, about twice as high as in fellow ex-republics Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine. Those three countries have experimented more with market economics, democracy, and a pro-European direction, which brought clashes with Moscow. Instead of cheap energy, they got Russian sanctions, political interference, and territorial dismemberment. The price Belarusians have had to pay for that stability, in terms of lost human rights protections and political freedoms, has been exorbitant. The domestic security service is still called the KGB. A 2018 United Nations report cited abuses that ranged from police torture to restrictions on the freedom of expression.

Yet a lot has changed since Belarusians voted in a referendum to keep the Soviet Union intact by a margin of 84% to 16%, shortly before it collapsed in 1991. On coming to power, Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, took advantage of that nostalgia to turn the clock back on liberal reforms made in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Among other measures, he abolished some direct local elections, limited the right to buy and sell farmland and restored Russian as an official language. He also moved Independence Day to mark the Soviet liberation of Minsk from Nazi occupation, in 1944, instead of Belarus’s 1990 declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union.

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko after a meeting of the CIS Heads of State Council, on Oct. 11, 2019.

He wasn’t shy about his views on private enterprise, either. “In 10 years, I’ll shake the hand of the last entrepreneur,” he said in 1995, according to local media reports. “Entrepreneurs are lousy fleas, there is no need for them!” Four years later, he signed a deal with Russia to merge the two countries’ political and economic institutions to form a partially reunified state that he seemed—in the days before Vladimir Putin took over in Moscow—a viable candidate to head.

Today, Lukashenko pins medals on entrepreneurs’ chests and casts himself as defender of Belarus sovereignty. About 50% of the economy is in private hands. In downtown Minsk, numerous bars, restaurants, and private shops have sprung up among the city’s Stalin-era buildings and the sprinkling of stores that still advertise their wares, Soviet-style, as just “Shoes,” “Books,” or “Groceries.” And for all his reluctance to privatize big, state-owned employers, Lukashenko has used targeted tax breaks and regulatory dispensations to encourage the growth of a vibrant private tech sector. This has helped produce the makers of the global hit video game World of Tanks, as well as IT outsourcing company Epam Systems Inc., listed on the New York Stock Exchange with a market cap of more than $11 billion.

“These are real success stories,’’ says Guriev, now a professor of economics at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Still, both tech companies moved their headquarters out of the country as soon as they grew big—Epam to New York and Wargaming Group Ltd. to Cyprus. “Entrepreneurs are not protected from the KGB,” Guriev says.

What made Belarus different from its neighbors was Lukashenko’s refusal to privatize the economy in the 1990s, preventing the emergence of the powerful so-called oligarchs who snapped up vast state assets in Ukraine and Russia, according to Pavel Daneyko, director general of the IPM Business School in Minsk. Rather than acquire Soviet-rooted companies like the Minsk tractor factory, known as MTZ, would-be entrepreneurs in Belarus had to build businesses from scratch in greenfield sectors such as IT and retail. The owner of a chain of supermarkets, Eurotorg LLC, now claims to be the nation’s largest private company by number of employees.

relates to Europe’s Last Soviet Economy Approaches Its ‘Hour of Reckoning’
Inside the MTZ tractor factory.

For a long time, Lukashenko’s hostility to private enterprise made that development difficult. “In 2005, the KGB told me to leave the country for a couple of years,” says Daneyko. The business school he ran at the time was being forced to close. “I went to Moscow, and I thought Russia was a kind of paradise for business, compared to Belarus,” he says. With the emergence of a relatively benign, oligarch-free, if limited form of capitalism, Belarus has, according to Daneyko, turned the tables.

Belarusians are no longer as keen as they once were to be ruled from Moscow. A recent opinion survey by the non-government polling agency BAW found that 75.6% of respondents wanted Belarus and Russia to remain independent, friendly states. Even as it tries to limit the coming deal with the Kremlin to economic integration, the government is also trying to sign a trade agreement with the EU and to boost trade and investment ties with China. “Belarus has always acutely sensed the breath of the geopolitical wind,” Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said, during an October conference in Minsk. “Recently, we have been living under constant storm alert.”

The problem for Belarus is that “while they have achieved the impossible—preserving all the advantages they had—so that they now have a future,” that strategy has left the country dependent on Russia to an extent that trade data underestimate, says Vasily Kashin, a defense specialist and senior research fellow in Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

For example, MTZ exports more than 90% of the 32,000 tractors it makes every year, with Russia—by far the largest market—buying about a third of them. Belarus’s other big machinery plants are at least as dependent. A quarter of exports to Europe, meanwhile, are petroleum products, dependent on discounted crude coming from Moscow. “Russia could shut them all down within months; the economy would collapse,” says Kashin.

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Assembly line at MTZ.

Belarus’s burgeoning tech sector, in part a legacy of the country’s specialization in producing the electronics at the smart end of the Soviet military machine, is far less Russia-dependent. The government offers tax and regulatory relief to companies accepted into a virtual Hi-Tech Park; that help is essential precisely because the competition is global and comes from the likes of India, as well as Russia, Europe, and the U.S., says Yury Pliashkou, founder and chief executive of IdeaSoft, a small IT outsourcing company in Minsk.

Tech, however, isn’t enough. The economy as a whole has grown at a snail’s pace since the global financial crisis (an average 1.7% per annum since 2009, compared to 7.5% over the previous decade). According to one estimate, that slide has coincided with a drop in Russian energy subsidies to between 5% and 10% of Belarus’s GDP, from a pre-crisis high of 20% of GDP. A top official at state oil company Belneftekhim said at the end of October that Belarus refineries lost $250 million over the first nine months of this year, a result of the latest changes to Russia’s tax code.

The government has been racking up debt to keep its economic model afloat. The economy has also begun to look less egalitarian, with wealth concentrating in tech-heavy Minsk as most other regions fall behind. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that unless Lukashenko can secure compensation from Moscow, the change to Russia’s tax rules for its energy companies will cost the country a further 5.2% of its annual $60 billion GDP by 2023. The solution, according to the fund: Either restructure, privatize, or close those big, legacy Soviet factories to cut government spending on subsidies, much as was done elsewhere during the 1990s.

“We are moving to liberalize, but gradually, we are not going to do it in a shock manner,” says Anatoly Glaz, spokesman for the foreign ministry. “You see the situation in a number of countries, including those near us; social stability is important to us.” Glaz also pushed back against the whole concept of Russian subsidies, arguing that Moscow is obliged to sell energy to Belarusian companies at the same price as to Russian ones under the integrated market rules of the Eurasian Economic Union, to which both countries belong. “It is not a subsidy, it is a question of equality, of equal prices. They can even be world prices, but they must be the same, otherwise we cannot compete in the same market.”

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A sign for Minsk Tractor Works in Belarus.

On the production line back at MTZ, workers currently assemble 120 models and modifications of tractors, up from four in the Soviet days, from tiny 8-horsepower machines to 350-horsepower, computer aided monsters that can cost upward of $120,000. Computers allocate the required parts and operate the 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) of conveyor belts that supply production lines. It’s a commercial operation now, says Suslenkou, as paying tourists file into the main production hall before moving on to a gut-wrenching, strap-in tractor race simulator and finally, a gift shop selling everything from toy tractors to a branded ax. As for worker benefits, “we’ve noticed that the companies that closed their social services are the ones that are now having trouble retaining workers,” he says. The medical clinic alone costs MTZ $4 million a year to run, according to its chief doctor.

Published annual accounts suggest MTZ turns a profit. If that’s accurate, it’s likely thanks to a basic $12,000$14,000 tractor model that remains popular across the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Asia because it’s inexpensive and simple enough for farmers to fix themselves. Others among Belarus’s legacy industries have struggled harder to keep markets or find new ones.

Daneyko, the business school director, was recently hired to advise on a turnaround plan for one of these, the state-owned combine harvester maker OSJC Gomselmash. Restructuring such ex-Soviet behemoths, he says, will inevitably lead to privatization. And with that could come the end of Lukashenko’s post-Soviet dream.



Iraq’s communists given new life by protests – By Alex MacDonald (Middle East Eye) 1 Dec 2019

Struggling for decades to find its voice, the Iraqi Communist Party is helping shape the battle for the nation’s soul
Supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party chant slogans during a rally marking Labour Day in the capital Baghdad (AFP)

Compared to the ostentatiously huge buildings afforded to some of the parties in Baghdad, the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) are relatively humble.

The building comprises a shop, offices and a small function room decorated with modernist art and depictions of communist martyrs, including former executed leader Yusuf Salman Yusuf.

Iraq’s oldest continuously existing political party is no longer the mighty force it was in the mid-20th century when it was arguably the largest mass membership party in the country – and the largest communist party in the Middle East. But with the nation gripped in the kind of social upheaval that cries out for Marxist analysis, the party is in its element.

Iraqi protests: Iranian consulate torched in Najaf as death toll mounts

So far, the ICP is the only party to have fully withdrawn from the Iraqi parliament in response to the government’s fierce crackdown on protests which began last month, which has so far seen at least 355 people killed and tens of thousands injured.

Mass public anger has largely been focused on the country’s political parties, accused of cronyism, corruption and connections to violent armed groups.

According to Raid Fahmi, the ICP’s general secretary, the party is the only one which is not treated with total scorn by the protesters.

“Different communists are there as individuals, they are among different groups,” he explained, speaking to Middle East Eye.

“We respect the general rules of the protest movement – but they know who the communists are, present within them, and they accept the communists. Other parties are not accepted.”

Atheist perception

A widespread perception exists that Iraq’s political parties are largely confessionalist and clientalist – all follow a cleric or a tribal leader, or represent a religious or ethnic minority, and are basically seen as working to see that their particular interest group has access to state services, jobs and funds.

The ICP has long presented itself as the only genuinely non-sectarian party in the country – although conversely this has also coincided with a perception that its members are atheists, a drawback in a deeply religious country.

Visibly enthused about the demonstrations, Fahmi – one of the ICP MPs who resigned on 27 October – said that the authorities had “misread” the situation in Iraq and the potential scope of the protests.

“They are still betting on its fatigue or that it will dwindle down gradually,” he said. “Which is wrong, because it keeps getting new impetus and new momentum from new forces and new forms and we can see the different forms in different provinces.”

Fahmi cited the use of general strikes, which he described as “the most effective since 1921, since the creation of the Iraqi state”, and the expansion of the protests into the student population, into the middle classes, into a wide spectrum of Iraqi society, as proof of the protests’ malleability.

Controversial alliance

The ICP has, since 2018, been in political alliance with the popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – in the May elections of that year, their Sairoun alliance took the largest number of seats in parliament, off the back of a campaign based on opposing corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq.

Although formalised in 2018, there has been tacit cooperation between the two groups since at least 2015, which saw Baghdad and other regions rocked by protests against corruption – albeit not on the scale seen in 2019.

The alliance has been criticised by some on both sides, who see the secular communists’ arrangement with the religiously conservative Sadrists as a sellout to Islamism.

The ICP has defended the move on the basis that both groups seek to represent the poorest and most marginalised groups in society.

In terms of an economic programme, the ICP’s current platform may also surprise those used to equating communism with mass nationalisation.

Arguing that Iraq is still in a stage of “capitalist development”, Fahmi suggested that a mixed-economy “social market” was the most reasonable way forward, along with the building of institutions such as trade unions and social security.

“People are insisting on social justice, that means they are against ultra-liberalism – those who call for a free-market economy, in our condition that means polarisation of wealth and poverty and lack of development,” he explained.

“You may have islands of development but you will have not social and economic development.”

Protesters hold up a portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr in the centre of Tahrir square (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
Protesters hold up a portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr in the centre of Baghdad’s Tahrir Square (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Many of the protesters’ demands chime with those of the ICP – an end to corruption, an end to the distribution of government positions on a sectarian basis, and the implementation of secular governance.

The desire for social justice has also been at the forefront of protesters’ demands, even if there has been little sketched out in terms of an economic plan.

But Fahmi is critical of a number of other positions – in particular, the repeated demand by activists for the creation of a presidential system in Iraq and the reduction of the number of seats in parliament.

“We believe a presidential system in Iraq is not appropriate,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t look into how you redistribute powers between the presidency and the parliament, probably you can make some kinds of amendment, but without putting into question the parliamentary system.”

He warned against the “retreat towards more centralisation at the expense of freedom and liberties”, adding that it was important to maintain the country’s federal system in order to reflect the “diversity of Iraqi society”.

‘Symbols of the revolution’

Numerous stalls litter Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which has become the focal point for Iraq’s uprising.

Many cater for culture, medicine, communication and a whole host of other issues surrounding the months-long demonstrations.

In the centre, one stall proudly display pictures and quotes by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Nawal el-Saadawi.

This abashed display of communist heroes – and one Egyptian feminist author – was not set up by the ICP, however, but by the smaller Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI).

Followers of Mansoor Hekmat, the late Iranian Marxist, the party distinguishes itself by its assertion that neither the Soviet Union nor the People’s Republic of China were ever socialist, as well as its ultra-secularism.

Posters depict Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and other leftist figures in Tahrir Square (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
Posters depict Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and other leftist figures in Tahrir Square (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

“They are symbols of the revolution, they are symbols of the social protest,” said Aamar Sharif, a WCPI member, referring to the banners.

He said that there needed to be more than cosmetic changes to Iraqi society, which would require more than just a reform to electoral laws or the arrest of a few corrupt individuals.

“The government should be replaced by a people’s government, not another corrupt parliament,” he explained.

Sharif said that democracy did not consist of “choosing one person every four years” and then sitting at home.

“People must practice their rule everyday,” he said.

In addition, he argued, the need for secularism had become more apparent than ever.

“There is no freedom without secularism – the sectarian system in Iraq has done so many crimes against people,” he said.

“Now people actually demand that – even the religious people, they don’t want a religious government.

“That’s why we support the secular system in Iraq, so that everyone, religious or non-religious, can live equally in the country.”

New opportunity

Hekmat, one of the WCPI’s founders, is now buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London, metres away from the enormous bust atop Karl Marx’s grave.

Alongside him lie numerous other Iraqi communists, such as Saad Saadi Adi and Jamil Munir Abdul-Hamid – victims over decades of repression by various monarchists, Ba’athists and Islamists.

Once a powerful force in Iraq, the history of the left since the 1970s has largely been one of exile, arrest, murder and, worst of all, irrelevance.

The overthrow of their longtime enemy Saddam Hussein in 2003 only marginally improved their fortunes.

Iraqi Communist MP who resigned over protest violence now calls for government to step down

Gripped for so long by war and sectarianism, the space for discussion about social change and the material concerns of the people of Iraq has been severely limited.

In this sense, the latest demonstrations represent a new opportunity and, said Fahmi, make “certain things possible that were not possible before”.

“We believe that the protest movement, which has developed into some kind of uprising, needs to maintain the initiative, and in order to maintain the initiative they will gradually need some kind of leadership – and this leadership needs to come from within, not from without.”

He said that though it was unlikely the protests would subside, the question of social and economic change would eventually need to come to the fore alongside the question of political change.

“[Demonstrators] say we need social justice, we need public services, we see that education and health have been more or less not accessible to ordinary people,” he explained.

“So these are demands – what system will provide [an answer to] these demands, what is the priority, what is the role of the state? These issues are debatable.”