Sunday, 31 August 2014

Hypersonic weapons and the new global arms race

As top-secret, super-fast missile experiments go, it wasn't the most successful. This week the US tested its Advanced Hypersonic Weapons system, the Pentagon's latest attempt to create a weapon that can reach any target in the world, in just an hour. Instead it exploded within four seconds of takeoff and fell back down to earth, causing undisclosed damage to the test site. 
The crash site of the US military's hypersonic weapon
The crash site of the US military's hypersonic weapon, which exploded seconds after its launch at the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska. Photograph: Scott Wight/AP
Yet while the system failed this test, it's unlikely to cool the enthusiasm for developing such a weapon – which has already sparked a new arms race between China, Russia and the US – and which critics fear could potentially spark a nuclear war.
The need for faster conventional weapons was underlined for the US back in 1998. Osama bin Laden had been spotted in a terrorist training camp in the east of Afghanistan, but when missiles – capable of travelling at 880kph – were dispatched to kill him, from a warship in the Arabian sea, the Al-Qaida leader left before he could be hit.
The latest hypersonic prototype, which was tested in Alaska, can only travel 5,000 miles, so it is someway off from the target of reaching anywhere in the world in an hour. But it travels at several times the speed of sound, and can go faster than 3,500 mph. It also has a longer reach than any non-nuclear weapon the US currently possesses. But the development of hypersonic weapons has worried China and Russia, who have begun looking into similar programmes to avoid being left behind. China tested a similar weapon in January, while Russia warned it will start doing the same.
All the initiatives are cloaked in secrecy, with little public scrutiny of the programme in the US, and no scrutiny at all in Russia or China. Even more worrying is the fact that experts say the hypersonic weapons could be confused for a nuclear attack, sparking a nuclear war. Currently, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapons system is being tested on ballistic missiles, which can also carry nuclear war heads. The way they are launched also looks similar to the way nuclear warheads are launched – but once they leave the atmosphere, they quickly re-enter to glide along 60 miles above the ground, rather than continuing above the atmosphere.
The initial similarities, however, could be enough to frighten countries into retaliating. And even if this never happens, the prospect of the new weapons is already heating up the debate around nuclear weapons. Foreign Policy magazine reports that the anxieties around the US's new conventional weapons have led to internal discussions in China over whether it should abandon its policy not to use nuclear weapons first. And Russia is said to be no longer interested in reducing its nuclear capabilities for the same reason. On this evidence, it may be best for all of us if the prototypes keep exploding when they're not supposed to.
See also:

The military spending map of the world
Paul Fussell, ex-soldier, literary Scholar & critic

China struggles with mental health problems of 'left-behind' children

Yes, it is just a simple stuffed toy. But put it into a child's arms and watch as he pretends to feed it, talks to it, even crowns it as a monarch. First, it gives him security; then it allows him to role-play and develop social skills.
Chinese authorities hope tips like these, included in a book for parents and nursery teachers, will help to stem mental health problems among the country's young. While budgets for child and adolescent mental health services are being frozen or cut in the UK, China is seeking to expand provision, promote psychotherapeutic approaches and adopt preventative measures.
Since 2012 Beijing nurseries and schools have promoted mental health as well as physical fitness. Last year China passed its first mental health law and told paediatricians to screen patients for warning signs: Do the three-month-old baby's eyes follow moving objects? At 18 months, can she make eye contact? Officials have also enlisted foreign psychotherapists to help train specialists and increase awareness.
"The government is paying a lot of attention to psychological health," said Dr Zheng Yi, president of the Chinese Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and deputy director of Beijing Anding Hospital at Capital Medical University.
The preliminary results of research he has overseen, to be released later this year, suggest around 15% of Chinese children have mental health problems. He said that compared favourably with a rate of around 20% elsewhere, but noted that some problems, such as anxiety disorders, appear to be on the increase.
Rising living standards have allowed more parents to focus on their children's emotional wellbeing, but development has also brought new problems, including dramatic changes in family structures and increased educational and social pressure. "For a lot of children, economics are not a problem. The problem is that opportunities to play are fewer," said Zheng.
Others cite the impact of the generation gap created by China's transformation and the impact of the "one child" policy. Only children may enjoy better care but can become over-indulged "little emperors", or suffer loneliness because they lack company their own age.
Viviane Green of the department of psychosocial studies at Birkbeck College, one of the international experts developing the training programme, said cases were often similar to those in the UK, with "acting out teenagers; early attachment issues".
But she added: "What probably is slightly different is how emotions are expressed, because the culture is different and filial piety is very strong. People do have conflicts – but the sense of self is not an individualised model as we have here – [the idea] that good mental health is about separating and moving away. It's much more about duty to the family of origin and the links you keep with them."
Psychotherapy is growing fast in China, but the country's specialists must "help these new ideas to relate to other kinds of experience they have got from local culture, as well as people like psychiatrists," said Dr Wang Qian, who has organised the international training as director of the executive office of the national psychoanalytical unit.
Dr Sverre Varvin, who chairs the China committee of the International Psychoanalytical Association and has trained Chinese professionals for years, added: "China is a really metaphorical culture and you have to spend some time to discover what the metaphors are."
Serious problems remain in the provision of services. There is a dearth of child psychiatrists in China, which Zheng said would be addressed by training paediatricians and general doctors in early diagnosis and basic treatment.
Services are scarcest of all in the countryside, where they may be most needed. Many migrant workers leave their offspring at home when they move, because China's "household registration" system means they struggle to get services such as education in the cities. Most are reunited once a year at best.
Almost 50% of these "left-behind" children suffer depression and anxiety, compared with 30% of their urban peers, according to a new study funded by the Heilongjiang provincial government. They are also more likely to suffer from mood swings and stress. The lead researcher, Yang Yanjie of Harbin Medical University, said their psychological problems tended to be more complex: "Left-behind children usually have inferiority complexes, lower self-esteem and lower confidence. Many appear to lack security and are too afraid or feel too much anxiety to interact with other people," she said.
Some are effectively raised by single parents; in other cases, both parents work, and they are reared by grandparents who may lack the time and energy to nurture them. Guardians were often focused on material support and ignored children's emotional needs, said Yang.While there is little funding for programmes targeting vulnerable groups at present, the appetite for them is striking. Save The Children initially provided "psychological first aid" in emergencies such as natural disasters, offering basic support and identifying those who need further assistance. But Pia MacRae, its China director, said staff and partners then requested it extend training to workers at centres for street children.
Zheng believes attention must be focused on prevention as well as cure. Social changes need not be damaging if people adapt appropriately: making sure only children spend time with other boys and girls their own age; perhaps alternating stints as migrant workers so that there is always one parent at home.
But the first big challenge, he said, was to tackle perceptions so that mental health problems no longer carried a stigma for children. "If we can get rid of that, seeing a psychiatrist will be like seeing a doctor if you have a fever," he said.

To really combat terror, end support for Saudi Arabia // Why Does the U.S. Support Saudi Arabia, A Country Which Hosts and Finances Islamic Terrorism?

Saudi Arabia is the British arms industry’s biggest market, receiving £1.6bn of military exports. There are now more than 200 joint ventures between UK and Saudi companies worth $17.5 bn.
The so-called war on terror is nearly 13 years old, but which rational human being will be cheering its success? We’ve had crackdowns on civil liberties across the world, tabloid-fanned generalisations about Muslims and, of course, military interventions whose consequences have ranged from the disastrous to the catastrophic. And where have we ended up? Wars that Britons believe have made them less safe; jihadists too extreme even for al-Qaida’s tastes running amok in Iraq and Syria; and nations like Libya succumbing to Islamist militias. There are failures, and then there are calamities.
But as the British government ramps up the terror alert to “severe” and yet more anti-terror legislation is proposed, some reflection after 13 years of disaster is surely needed. One element has been missing, and that is the west’s relationship with Middle Eastern dictatorships that have played a pernicious role in the rise of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism. And no wonder: the west is militarily, economically and diplomatically allied with these often brutal regimes, and our media all too often reflects the foreign policy objectives of our governments.
Take Qatar. There is evidence that, as the US magazine The Atlantic puts it, “Qatar’s military and economic largesse has made its way to Jabhat al-Nusra”, an al-Qaida group operating in Syria. Less than two weeks ago, Germany’s development minister, Gerd Mueller, was slapped down after pointing the finger at Qatar for funding Islamic State (Isis). While there is no evidence to suggest Qatar’s regime is directly funding Isis, powerful private individuals within the state certainly are, and arms intended for other jihadi groups are likely to have fallen into their hands. According to a secret memo signed by Hillary Clinton, released by Wikileaks, Qatar has the worst record of counter-terrorism cooperation with the US. And yet, where are the western demands for Qatar to stop funding international terrorism or being complicit in the rise of jihadi groups? Instead, Britain arms Qatar’s dictatorship, selling it millions of pounds worth of weaponry including “crowd-control ammunition” and missile parts. There are other reasons for Britain to keep stumm, too. Qatar owns lucrative chunks of Britain such as the Shard, a big portion of Sainsbury’s and a slice of the London Stock Exchange.
Then there’s Kuwait, slammed by Amnesty International for curtailing freedom of expression, beating and torturing demonstrators and discriminating against women. Hundreds of millions have been channelled by wealthy Kuwaitis to Syria, again ending up with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. Kuwait has refused to ban the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, a supposed charity designated by the US Treasury as an al-Qaida bankroller. David Cohen, the US Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has even described Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”. As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an associate fellow at Chatham House, told me: “High profile Kuwaiti clerics were quite openly supporting groups like al-Nusra, using TV programmes in Kuwait to grandstand on it.” All of this is helped by lax laws on financing and money laundering, he says.
But don’t expect any concerted action from the British government. Kuwait is “an important British ally in the region”, as the British government officially puts it. Tony Blair has become the must-have accessory of every self-respecting dictator, ranging from Kazakhstan to Egypt; Kuwait was Tony Blair Associates’ first client in a deal worth £27m. Britain has approved hundreds of arms licences to Kuwait since 2003, recently including military software and anti-riot shields.
And then, of course, there is the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia. Much of the world was rightly repulsed when Isis beheaded the courageous journalist James Foley. Note, then, that Saudi Arabia has beheaded 22 people since 4 August. Among the “crimes” that are punished with beheading are sorcery and drug trafficking.
Around 2,000 people have been killed since 1985, their decapitated corpses often left in public squares as a warning. According to Amnesty International, the death penalty “is so far removed from any kind of legal parameters that it is almost hard to believe”, with the use of torture to extract confessions commonplace. Shia Muslims are discriminated against and women are deprived of basic rights, having to seek permission from a man before they can even travel or take up paid work.
Even talking about atheism has been made a terrorist offence and in 2012, 25-year-old Hamza Kashgari was jailed for 20 months for tweeting about the prophet Muhammad. Here are the fruits of the pact between an opulent monarchy and a fanatical clergyThis human rights abusing regime is deeply complicit in the rise of Islamist extremism too. Following the Soviet invasion, the export of the fundamentalist Saudi interpretation of Islam – Wahhabism – fused with Afghan Pashtun tribal code and helped to form the Taliban. The Saudi monarchy would end up suffering from blowback as al-Qaida eventually turned against the kingdom.
Chatham House professor Paul Stevens says: “For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement … whereby al-Qaida’s presence was tolerated in Saudi Arabia, but don’t piss inside the tent, piss outside.” Coates Ulrichsen warns that Saudi policy on Syria could be “Afghanistan on steroids”, as elements of the regime have turned a blind eye to where funding for anti-Assad rebels ends up. Although Saudi Arabia has given $100m (£60m) to the UN anti-terror programme and the country’s grand mufti has denounced Isis as “enemy number one”, radical Salafists across the Middle East receive ideological and material backing from within the kingdom. According to Clinton’s leaked memo, Saudi donors constituted “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.
But again, don’t expect Britain to act. Our alliance with the regime dates back to 1915, and Saudi Arabia is the British arms industry’s biggest market, receiving £1.6bn of military exports. There are now more than 200 joint ventures between UK and Saudi companies worth $17.5bn.
So much rhetoric about terrorism; so many calls to act. Yet Britain’s foreign policy demonstrates how empty such words are. Our allies are up to their necks in complicity with terrorism, but as long as there is money to be made and weapons to sell, our rulers’ lips will remain stubbornly sealed.
Saudi Arabia was founded with terrorism: One dominant strand to the Saudi identity pertains directly to Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism), and the use to which his radical, exclusionist puritanism was put by Ibn Saud. (The latter was then no more than a minor leader — amongst many — of continually sparring and raiding Bedouin tribes in the baking and desperately poor deserts of the Nejd.)

Abd al-Wahhab demanded conformity — a conformity that was to be demonstrated in physical and tangible ways. He argued that all Muslims must individually pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader (a Caliph, if there were one). Those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated, he wrote. The list of apostates meriting death included the Shiite, Sufis and other Muslim denominations, whom Abd al-Wahhab did not consider to be Muslim at all.

Abd al-Wahhab’s advocacy of these ultra radical views inevitably led to his expulsion from his own town — and in 1741, after some wanderings, he found refuge under the protection of Ibn Saud and his tribe. What Ibn Saud perceived in Abd al-Wahhab’s novel teaching was the means to overturn Arab tradition and convention. It was a path to seizing power.
Ibn Saud’s clan, seizing on Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine, now could do what they always did, which was raiding neighboring villages and robbing them of their possessions. Only now they were doing it not within the ambit of Arab tradition, but rather under the banner of jihad. Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab also reintroduced the idea of martyrdom in the name of jihad, as it granted those martyred immediate entry into paradise.

Their strategy — like that of ISIS today — was to bring the peoples whom they conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear. Ibn Saud’s clan, seizing on Abd al-Wahhab’s doctrine, now could do what they always did, which was raiding neighboring villages and robbing them of their possessions. Only now they were doing it not within the ambit of Arab tradition, but rather under the banner of jihad. Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab also reintroduced the idea of martyrdom in the name of jihad, as it granted those martyred immediate entry into paradiseTheir strategy — like that of ISIS today — was to bring the peoples whom they conquered into submission. They aimed to instill fear.

'Reconverting' churches and Christians: BJP's 'Hindu Samaj' strategy in UP

The Meerut case in which a young woman was allegedly gang raped and forcibly converted to Islam was obviously not the last we heard about religious conversions in the dramatically polarised state of Uttar Pradesh. Just weeks after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's 'Dharm Jagran Vibhag' or religious awakening departmentpromised a "homecoming ceremony" for youth "rescued" from conversions in western Uttar Pradesh, a church in the region's Aligarh district was overnight turned into a Shiva temple following a "purification" ceremony for 72 members of the Valmiki caste who embraced Christianity in 1995.

The ceremony took place inside a 7th Day Adventist church in Asroi, 30 km from Aligarh town, according to The Times of India.
"A cross was allegedly remove from the church and placed outside the gate and a portrait of Shiva installed," the report said.
The RSS's Khem Chandra, also chief of the Dharma Jagran Vibhag, was quoted as calling it a "ghar wapasi" event or a homecoming.
"This is called ghar wapasi, not conversion. They left by choice and today they have realized their mistake and want to come back. We welcome them. We can't let our samaj scatter, we have to hold it tight. I have told them that honour comes from within the community and not from outside," he was quoted as saying.
Even as tension spread in the village and villagers clammed up, one of those who underwent the so-called shuddhikaran or purification ceremony held inside the church told the newspaper that these families had converted to Christianity because they had been unhappy with the caste system. But religious conversion did not improve their lot and he finally agreed to return to the Hindu fold.
Expectedly, the Christians in Aligarh are not amused. A pastor was upset at the pooja being conducted inside the church, while a lawyer from the community was quoted expressing his suspicions over the sudden rise of the 'Love Jihad' trope and now the sudden focus on 'ghar wapasi'. "Is this the sign of a Hindu rashtra in the making?" he reportedly asked TOI.
Ahead of bypolls to a dozen Assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh and with Assembly elections coming up in two years' time in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, this incident of reconversion cannot be seen as a stray incident. In any case, the Dharm Jagran Vibhag has already said it will launch mass awareness campaigns across Uttar Pradesh, especially in the tinderbox that is western UP.
How closely the BJP is involved with the issue of religious conversions and reconversions could be seen in Aligarh mayor and BJP leader Shakuntala Bharati's comment to The Hindu in the aftermath of the Meerut religious conversion case, a woman described as having built her career fighting the so-called 'love jihad'. “I have lost count of the incidents. But I have faced death to rescue our girls from the clutches of Muslims,” she told The Hindu. The Dharma Jagran Vibhag representatives have also said candidly that they are "very active" in Agra, Aligarh, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar.
But there is more going on between the lines here than immediately apparent. The 'love jihad' issue is clearly a convenient and potent polarising force that will no doubt remain in the news until elections are safely past. But the 'ghar wapasi' is for Hindus -- or precisely Dalits -- who adopted Christianity as a way out of casteism.
A fragmentation of the Scheduled Caste vote is seen as one of the reasons for the complete rout of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party in the recent general elections. But Assembly constituencies are smaller and sub-caste cleavages may not suffice to defeat Dalit parties' candidates. Mayawati has said she will not fielding candidates for the bypolls, which leaves the Sangh parivar with the simple task of wooing the Chamars, Valmikis, Pasis and other sub-castes with renewed vigour, to mop up Dalit votes. Of course, Uttar Pradesh will go to polls in 2017, and the BSP will be a major contender then. Rounding up more faithfuls for the Sangh parivar now is good, early planning for a tough contest then.
The 'ghar wapasi' in Aligarh is not the only instance. In late July, a mini-riot in Kanth town in Moradabad was not any Hindu-Muslim clash -- it was a Dalit versus Muslim dispute over the use of a loudspeaker in a place of worship used by the Dalit community. As Firstpost had reported then, "The BJP's attempt to bring the Dalits into the Hindutva fold also springs from the compulsions of assembly by-elections. The assembly constituency adjoining Kanth is Thakurdwara, which will soon have to elect an MLA in place of Sarvesh Kumar, who is now a Lok Sabha member. To magnify a local dispute is likely to yield rich electoral dividends."
Moradabad MP Kunwar Sarvesh Kumar Singh in fact said this to The Hindu in the aftermath of that riot: "It is not only about Dalits but the larger Hindu identity and about Hindu samaj. The Hindus in the vicinity of the village also need to be taken along because it is a matter of larger Hindu solidarity.”
For more proof of the BJP-BSP tussle, there's the BSP MLC who BJP president Amit Shah reportedly wants to field as the BJP candidate against Mulayam Singh Yadav's grand nephew Tej Pratap Singh Yadav in the Mainpuri Lok Sabha seat that MUlayam vacated. Union Minister Rajnath Singh has also responded to Mayawati's jibes about the RSS with a quick description of the Sangh's abhorrence of casteand creed.
Dalits are a large percentage of the population of western Uttar Pradesh, and weakening the BSP's hold on them works in the favour of the BJP's apparent strategy to polarise the state sharply. No doubt, the removal of a cross from a church that a Dalit community used since the late 1990s is only the start of a new political campaign underway in the state.

Purushottam Agrawal - Response from Ministry of Home Affairs to my RTI query

Dear Friends, 
I am glad to say that, even though belatedly, I have got a response from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India on my RTI query regarding reported destruction of historically important files and documents. The details of the response, along with photographs of the original letter I have received, are up on my blog:
I would like to very sincerely thank all of you for your support and encouragement to this petition. I believe the enthusiastic support this petition received by South Asian scholars worldwide, and the consequent press attention, certainly helped put pressure on the government to respond adequately to this matter and clarify that historically important files have been sent to the National Archives of India for preservation and scholarly study. 


As some of you may know, in July I had filed an RTI query with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India regarding the reported destruction of several thousand official files and documents, ostensibly for ‘cleaning up’ of offices. As per newspaper reports, some of these files pertained to Gandhi assassination and other matters of great historical importance.
Details of my RTI and a petition circulated in this respect are available here:
I am happy to say that I have received, even though somewhat belatedly, a response from the Ministry which is attached below: (click the images to see full size)

Book review: - The Mystery of Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Reviewed by - NATHANIEL RICH

Seasoned fans of Haruki Murakami, having patiently waited three years since the gamma-ray blast of 1Q84, will have a few pressing questions about the master’s newest book, even though they may be able to anticipate the answers: Is the novel’s hero an adrift, feckless man in his mid-30s? (Yep.) Does he have a shrewd girl Friday who doubles as his romantic interest? (Of course; conveniently, she is a travel agent, adept at booking sudden international trips.) Does the story begin with the inexplicable disappearance of a person close to the narrator? (Not one person—four, and they vanish simultaneously.) Is there a metaphysical journey to an alternate plane of reality? (Sort of: the alternate reality is Finland.) Are there gratuitous references to Western novels, films, and popular culture? (Let’s see, Barry Manilow, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Pet Shop Boys, Aldous Huxley, Elvis Presley … affirmative.) Which eastern-European composer provides the soundtrack, and will enjoy skyrocketing CD sales in the months ahead—Bartók, Prokofiev, Smetana? (Liszt.) Are there ominous omens, signifying nothing; dreams that resist interpretation; cryptic mysteries that will never be resolved? (Check, check, and check.) Will this be the novel that finally delivers Murakami the Nobel Prize? (Doubtful, though Ladbrokes currently considers him the odds-on favorite, at 6 to 1.)

Murakami, who learned to speak English by reading American crime novels, begins with an opening paragraph that would make David Goodis proud. Tsukuru Tazaki, recently turned 20, is planning his suicide: “From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.” But where Goodis would write something like “All right, he told himself firmly, let’s do it and get it over with,” Murakami is balletic, evoking metaphysical realms and a fine sense of the grotesque. “Crossing that threshold between life and death,” he writes, “would have been easier than swallowing down a slick, raw egg.” It is one of the key aspects of his style, this seamless transition from noirish dread to mystical rumination; the most perfect Murakami title, which really could have been used for any of the 13 novels he has written since 1979, remains Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In Murakamiland, death means merely traveling across a “threshold” between reality and some other world. It is not necessarily the end. In fact, as we soon learn, Tsukuru’s obsession with death is only the beginning.

Tsukuru has fallen “into the bowels of death”—“lost in a dark, stagnant void”—because his four closest friends have abruptly, without explanation, stopped speaking to him and disappeared from his life. These aren’t ordinary friendships. Tsukuru belongs to a group of two girls and three boys who, since meeting in high school, have created a closed world all their own. They form a single cohesive unit, or as Murakami puts it, “a centripetal unit.” Tsukuru’s friends are a jock, an intellectual, a shy pianist, and a sarcastic joker; their surnames all contain the name of a color: red pine, black field, white foot, and blue sea. Only Tazaki is colorless.
There’s nothing special about me. I’m totally normal.
I had no such ambition … there was nothing I wanted to be.
An average … single male. A child of his times.
A guy leading a perfectly ordinary existence.
I’m just an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life.
The basic questions tugged at me: Who am I? What am I searching for? Where am I headed?
Each of these lines describes the protagonist of a previous Murakami novel, but all apply to Tsukuru, who is the only member of his quintet “without anything special about him.” He has “no particular defects to speak of” and “not one single quality … that was worth bragging about … Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.”

Nearly 20 years after his friends’ disappearing act and his subsequent depression, Tsukuru is encouraged by Sara, his new girlfriend, to figure out what happened to his former companions. She volunteers to help and soon tracks them down, using a detective tool heretofore untapped by Tsukuru: the Internet. (“I’m familiar with Google and Facebook,” he says. “But I hardly ever use them. I’m just not interested.” Even for a novelist as drawn to the fantastical as Murakami, this is a bit far-fetched.) Murakamians will, at this point, expect our hero to travel into some subterranean wonderland—perhaps through the conduit of an elevator, a subway track, or a telephone booth—to find his lost friends... read more:

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Lawrence Donegan - Joan Baez: Singer, activist, peacenik, lover, legend

"I went to jail for 11 days for disturbing the peace; I was trying to disturb the war." Joan Baez, 1967
Publicity Photo 1987
Photo by Matthew Rolston (1987)
The breeze is warm, the incense sticks are billowing out smoke and the conversation is mellow. “Clear,” Baez says when asked to describe her current state of mind. Her eyes glow with the light of a teenager. “Very clear.”
Ask a silly question.
For more than 50 years, Baez has been a central figure in the cultural and political life of the United States. A singer, an activist, a peacenik, a beauty, a lover (of some iconic men, it must be said). She is far too self-aware to utter the phrase “been there, done that”, but if she ever did, no one would take issue. Name a significant date in American politics since the early 1960s and she will either know the characters involved or have been involved in some way herself. “Oh Lou, I knew Lou,’’ she says casually when the name of the late Lou Reed comes up.
“I didn’t know him until we ended up doing a show together in Prague. I bumped into him as he was wandering around in the hotel lobby and I said to him, ‘Come for dinner with us Lou’, and so he did. He grumbled all the way to the restaurant because we decided to walk there. I knew then what we had adopted, but by then it was too late.”
Ask her about songwriting (she hasn’t written a song of her own for 25 years) and she says: “So I called Janis Ian and I said: ‘Janis, I can’t write – what shall I do?’ And she says: ‘It’s very simple. Look around the room, pick an object and then just write whatever comes into your head.’ So I did. And I wrote one of the best songs I have ever written.
“It’s called ‘Coconuts’. I wanted to start performing it, but my manager was horrified. He thought people would really love it and I would become known as the Coconut song woman.”
Then there was the time the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, a near neighbour and a former lover, called to ask if she would give him a piano lesson. “I told him I wasn’t much of a piano player, but I knew where middle C was, but he said, ‘Come on over’ so I did. When I got there it was just Steve in the big, empty rotunda of his house – there was no furniture – sitting behind a Bösendorfer (a particularly expensive make of piano). He couldn’t play a note.”
Baez doesn’t tell such anecdotes to impress but to amuse both the listener and herself. She is aware of her own status – legendaryness, she mockingly says – and finds it vaguely absurd. “I once had this Australian journalist call me and she said to me: ‘Has it ever occurred to you that you are the only woman in the world to have seen both Steve Jobs and Bob Dylan naked?’ I told her: ‘But not at the same time.’”
The mention of Dylan provokes a solitary note of reserve as Baez looks back on her life. Famously, she and Dylan were lovers in the early 1960s, when she smoothed a path for him around the folk clubs of New England and New York – a debt he later repaid by snubbing her on the UK tour famously captured in DA Pennebaker’s 1967 film documentaryDon’t Look Back. Dylan later apologised for the way he treated Baez. The nature of their relationship has been the subject of much gossip through the years.
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, 1964
 Joan with Dylan in 1964 // Photograph: The Estate of David Gahr/Getty Images
Are they still in touch? She smiles. “No one is ever in touch with Bob Dylan.”.. .
The world has never measured up to her ideas of fairness and equality, not today and not when she was a 15-year-old refusing to salute the American flag. Eight years later, her schoolgirl radicalism had moved on to the national stage. She was one of the principal performers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the day on which Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. “The influx of people into the city was remarkable, like an ocean flooding in,’’ she says when asked for her recollections of the day. Then when asked about King himself: “What people don’t realise about him was that he was a very funny man.’’
The passing of the Civil Rights Act and King’s subsequent assassination robbed the movement of much of its power, while the onset of the Vietnam war turned the attention of activists towards events on the other side of the world. Baez, again, was at the forefront of a protest movement.
In 1972 she travelled to Hanoi with a peace delegation and was caught in the middle of an American bombing campaign on the North Vietnamese capital that lasted 12 days. “We spent the whole time in the basement of our hotel,’’ she recalls. “I have never been so afraid in my life. I thought I was going to die. But I learned something – when the flames start coming towards you everyone starts praying, even the atheists and the agnostics, but when the flames start fading away we all go back to the structures and beliefs that we had before.” For Baez, the Hanoi experience made her even more determinedly radical than she had been. What kept her going? “The belief that what I was doing was right.”
We shall overcome: (clockwise from above) with Martin Luther King in Mississippi, 1966
Martin Luther King in Mississippi, 1966 Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS
For Baez, no political leader measured up to King until Barack Obama came along and ran for president. But the reality of his victory has been a disappointment. “I wish that Obama had a different enough personality that he would have stayed on the streets. If he had done that then he would have been the closest thing we ever had to King. He had the attention and support of hundreds of millions of people and now there isn’t much of anything.”... 
Read more:

Ellen Brown - Colonization by Bankruptcy: The High-stakes Chess Match for Argentina

If Argentina were in a high-stakes chess match, the country’s actions this week would be the equivalent of flipping over all the pieces on the board.
– David Dayen, Fiscal Times, August 22, 2014
Argentina is playing hardball with the vulture funds, which have been trying to force it into an involuntary bankruptcy. The vultures are demanding what amounts to a 600% return on bonds bought for pennies on the dollar, defeating a 2005 settlement in which 92% of creditors agreed to accept a 70% haircut on their bonds. A US court has backed the vulture funds; but last week, Argentina sidestepped its jurisdiction by transferring the trustee for payment from Bank of New York Mellon to its own central bank. That play, if approved by the Argentine Congress, will allow the country to continue making payments under its 2005 settlement, avoiding default on the majority of its bonds.
Argentina is already foreclosed from international capital markets, so it doesn’t have much to lose by thwarting the US court system. Similar bold moves by Ecuador and Iceland have left those countries in substantially better shape than Greece, which went along with the agendas of the international financiers.
The upside for Argentina was captured by President Fernandez in a nationwide speech on August 19th. Struggling to hold back tears, according to Bloomberg, she said:
When it comes to the sovereignty of our country and the conviction that we can no longer be extorted and that we can’t become burdened with debt again, we are emerging as Argentines.
. . . If I signed what they’re trying to make me sign, the bomb wouldn’t explode now but rather there would surely be applause, marvelous headlines in the papers. But we would enter into the infernal cycle of debt which we’ve been subject to for so long.
The Endgame: Patagonia in the Crosshairs
The deeper implications of that infernal debt cycle were explored by Argentine political analyst Adrian Salbuchi in an August 12th article titled “Sovereign Debt for Territory: A New Global Elite Swap Strategy.” Where territories were once captured by military might, he maintains that today they are being annexed by debt. The still-evolving plan is to drive destitute nations into an international bankruptcy court whose decisions would have the force of law throughout the world. The court could then do with whole countries what US bankruptcy courts do with businesses: sell off their assets, including their real estate. Sovereign territories could be acquired as the spoils of bankruptcy without a shot being fired.
Global financiers and interlocking megacorporations are increasingly supplanting governments on the international stage. An international bankruptcy court would be one more institution making that takeover legally binding and enforceable. Governments can say no to the strong-arm tactics of the global bankers’ collection agency, the IMF. An international bankruptcy court would allow creditors to force a nation into bankruptcy, where territories could be involuntarily sold off in the same way that assets of bankrupt corporations are.
For Argentina, says Salbuchi, the likely prize is its very rich Patagonia region, long a favorite settlement target for ex-pats. When Argentina suffered a massive default in 2001, the global press, including Time and The New York Times, went so far as to propose that Patagonia be ceded from the country as a defaulted debt payment mechanism.
The New York Times article followed one published in the Buenos Aires financial newspaper El Cronista Comercial called “Debt for Territory,” which described a proposal by a US consultant to then-president Eduardo Duhalde for swapping public debt for government land. It said:
[T]he idea would be to transform our public debt default into direct equity investment in which creditors can become land owners where they can develop  industrial, agricultural and real estate projects. . . . There could be surprising candidates for this idea: during the Alfonsin Administration, the Japanese studied an investment master plan in Argentine land in order to promote emigration.  The proposal was also considered in Israel.
Salbuchi notes that ceding Patagonia from Argentina was first suggested in 1896 by Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, as a second settlement for that movement.
Another article published in 2002 was one by IMF deputy manager Anne Krueger titled “Should Countries Like Argentina Be Able to Declare Themselves Bankrupt?” It was posted on the IMF website and proposed some “new and creative ideas” on what to do about Argentina. Krueger said, “the lesson is clear: we need better incentives to bring debtors and creditors together before manageable problems turn into full-blown crises,” adding that the IMF believes “this could be done by learning from corporate bankruptcy regimes like Chapter 11 in the US”.
These ideas were developed in greater detail by Ms. Krueger in an IMF essay titled “A New Approach to Debt Restructuring,” and by Harvard professor Richard N. Cooper in a 2002 article titled “Chapter 11 for Countries” published in Foreign Affairs(“mouthpiece of the powerful New York-Based Elite think-tank, Council on Foreign Relations”). Salbuchi writes:
Here, Cooper very matter-of-factly recommends that “only if the debtor nation cannot restore its financial health are its assets liquidated and the proceeds distributed to its creditors – again under the guidance of a (global) court” (!).
In Argentina’s recent tangle with the vulture funds, Ms. Krueger and the mainstream media have come out in apparent defense of Argentina, recommending restraint by the US court. But according to Salbuchi, this does not represent a change in policy. Rather, the concern is that overly heavy-handed treatment may kill the golden goose:
. . . [I] n today’s delicate post-2008 banking system, a new and less controllable sovereign debt crisis could thwart the global elite’s plans for an “orderly transition towards a new global legal architecture” that will allow orderly liquidation of financially-failed states like Argentina. Especially if such debt were to be collateralized by its national territory (what else is left!?)
Breaking Free from the Sovereign Debt Trap
Salbuchi traces Argentina’s debt crisis back to 1955, when President Juan Domingo Perón was ousted in a very bloody US/UK/mega-bank-sponsored military coup:
Perón was hated for his insistence on not indebting Argentina with the mega-bankers: in 1946 he rejected joining the International Monetary Fund (IMF); in 1953 he fully paid off all of Argentina’s sovereign debt. So, once the mega-bankers got rid of him in 1956, they shoved Argentina into the IMF and created the “Paris Club” to engineer decades-worth of sovereign debt for vanquished Argentina, something they’ve been doing until today.
Many countries have been subjected to similar treatment, as John Perkins documents in his blockbuster exposé Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. When the country cannot pay, the IMF sweeps in with refinancing agreements with strings attached, including selling off public assets and slashing public services in order to divert government revenues into foreign debt service. Even without pressure from economic hit men, however, governments routinely indebt themselves for much more than they can ever hope to repay. Why do they do it? Salbuchi writes:
Here, Western economists, bankers, traders, Ivy League academics and professors, Nobel laureates and the mainstream media have a quick and monolithic reply: because all nations need“investment and investors” if they wish to build highways, power plants, schools, airports, hospitals, raise armies, service infrastructures and a long list of et ceteras . . . .
But more and more people are starting to ask a fundamental common-sense question: why should governments indebt themselves in hard currencies, decades into the future with global mega-bankers, when they could just as well finance these projects and needs far more safely by issuing the proper amounts of their own local sovereign currency instead?
Neoliberal experts shout back that government-created money devalues the currency, inflates the money supply, and destroys economies. But does it? Or is it the debt service on money created privately by banks, along with other forms of “rent” on capital, that create inflation and destroy economies? As Prof. Michael Hudson points out:
These financial claims on wealth – bonds, mortgages and bank loans – are lent out to become somebody else’s debts in an exponentially expanding process.  . . . [E]conomies have been obliged to pay their debts by cutting back new research, development and new physical reinvestment. This is the essence of IMF austerity plans, in which the currency is “stabilized” by further international borrowing on terms that destabilize the economy at large. Such cutbacks in long-term investment also are the product of corporate raids financed by high-interest junk bonds. The debts created by businesses, consumers and national economies cutting back their long-term direct investment leaves these entities even less able to carry their mounting debt burden.
Spiraling debt also results in price inflation, since businesses have to raise their prices to cover the interest and fees on the debt.
From Sovereign Debt to Monetary Sovereignty
For governments to escape this austerity trap, they need to spend not less but more money on the tangible capital formation that increases physical productivity. But where to get the investment money without getting sucked into the debt vortex? Where can Argentina get funding if the country is shut out of international capital markets?
The common-sense response, as Salbuchi observes, is for governments to issue the money they need directly. But “printing money” raises outcries that can be difficult to overcome politically. An alternative that can have virtually the same effect is for nations to borrow money issued by their own publicly-owned banks. Public banks generate credit just as private banks do; but unlike private lenders, they return interest and profits to the economy. Their mandate is to serve the public, and that is where their profits go. Funding through their own government-issued currencies and publicly-owned banks has been successfully pursued by many countries historically, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, China, Russia, Korea and Japan. (For more on this, see The Public Bank Solution.)
Countries do need to be able to buy foreign products that they cannot acquire or produce domestically, and for that they need a form of currency or an international credit line that other nations will accept. But countries are increasingly breaking away from the oil- and weapons-backed US dollar as global reserve currency. To resolve the mutually-destructive currency wars will probably take a new Bretton Woods Accord. But that is another subject for a later article.
Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books, including the best-selling Web of Debt. In The Public Bank Solution, her latest book, she explores successful public banking models historically and globally. Her 200+ blog articles are at