Archive for August, 2013

Chomsky, Cockburn, and Blix on Syria

Given the recent US saber-rattling, I went looking for a second opinion, and was not disappointed by this July 2013 interview between Noam Chomsky and a Syrian playwright named Mohammed Attar.

My response would be not dissimilar to the answers given by other observers who are closely following the situation in Syria, such as Patrick Cockburn, who said that such a step [military aid] would only escalate the military confrontation while maintaining the same military balance, since the regime’s allies—Russia, Iran and Iraq—will continue to do what they have always done and supply the regime with more advanced weaponry.


We all want to force Assad to the negotiating table and from there, to resign, but the question is how to achieve this? The first way to do this is to supply the opposition with arms. This step would most likely produce an escalation of the military conflict and open the door to further military upgrading and expansion on the part of the regime, leading to increased destruction and the regime staying in place for longer. The second approach is to go to Geneva with the cooperation of the major powers, including Russia, and force the regime to accept a truce. These are the options we have.

I had not read Cockburn on Syria, so I went looking. Yesterday he published a piece entitled Only a peace conference, not airstrikes, can stop further bloodshed. It’s a must-read.

While the world has been focusing on the horrors in Damascus over the past week, anti-government rebels have been carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Syrian Kurds in the north-east of the country, forcing 40,000 of them to flee across the Tigris into northern Iraq in less than a week.


A ceasefire is the greatest need, in which  power-sharing would be geographical with each side holding the territory it controls. Such a truce should put in place and monitored by UN teams. It might not cover all the country and would no doubt be frequently breached, but it would be better than the present bloody anarchy.


One of the dangers of the air strikes now being considered by the US is that, unless they are accompanied by a fresh drive towards a peace conference, the opposition thinks it is half way to getting the Western powers to win the war for it.

Edit: Also check out this interview with Hans Blix.

Gardels: But the Russians and Chinese will never agree to take military action against Syria, so why even try the UN route?

Blix: The Russians and Chinese have said they want “fair and professional inspections” in Syria. The Iranians have also agreed. In this matter they have a serious interest; the Iranians have suffered most in the world from the use of chemical weapons in their war with Iraq during Saddam’s time.

They are not condoning the use of chemical weapons by their friends in Damascus.

In my view, it is certainly a possibility that you can achieve world condemnation of Syria in the Security Council — including from Russia, China and Iran — if inspections prove the suspicions.

Gardels: But they will never go along with military action?

Blix: China and Russia will not accept military action. That is true. But let us ask:
“What kind of military action is really possible, and what will it really do?” A cruise missile attack on suspected weapons depots in Syria will mean little, and perhaps nothing.

Remember President Clinton’s punitive cruise missile attacks in 1998 on reputed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a supposed nerve agent factory in Khartoum in Sudan. The pinpricks in Afghanistan did nothing to stop Al Qaeda. Khartoum turned out to be a total error. It was a pharmaceutical plant.

If military action is all about “punishing” Assad to satisfy public and media opinion without even hearing the UN inspectors report, it will be a sad day for international legality.

What You Got Ain’t Nothin New

I can’t stop thinking about the horror and sadness in this story about three kids who killed a guy because they “were bored and didn’t have anything to do”. Obviously my heart goes out to his family, and I simply cannot imagine the grief and pain they’re going through.

And I also feel horrible for the kids who did this terrible thing, and what their families must be going through. They more or less ended their own lives on that day as well. As Wackle says in Rudy Rucker’s novel Spaceland, “Killing kills the killer.” (Of course their lives were probably pretty horrible before that fateful moment.)

It’s tempting to think about all of this as a post-modern phenomenon, something totally new and unique to our decrepit age. But I’m pretty certain that it’s not. There’s an important scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in which Bell and his Uncle Ellis discuss when Bell’s father was killed in a savage and horrible way. Ellis says:

What you got ain’t nothin new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account.

(The conversation is a bit different in the novel, and contains an important story about Bell’s actions in the war.)

I’m also reminded of this comment made by the Chicago writer Nelson Algren, in an interview from 1963:

I think the trouble with American literature is it doesn’t know who it is. […] American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, “Isn’t anybody on my side?” It’s also the phrase I used that was once used in a court of a kid who, on being sentenced to death, said, “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.”

More recently I think American literature is also the fifteen-year-old who, after he had stabbed somebody, said, ‘Put me in the electric chair — my mother can watch me burn.’

Even more recently, American literature is a seventeen-year-old kid picked up on a double murder charge, two killings in a boat, in a ship off Miami, who said he was very glad it happened, he had absolutely no regrets, his only fear was that he might not get the electric chair. He had no vindictiveness toward those two people he killed. He said they were pretty good about it. They didn’t know, they had no idea, that he was going to come up with a knife. He had, in fact, a little bit of admiration for their coolness.

One of them, finding himself stabbed, said, “Why?” He wanted to know. He said, “I can’t tell them why.” But I know he’s been trying to get out of it since he’s six years old. This is an honors student, you understand, this is a bright boy from a respectable home. He never remembers a time when he wasn’t fully convinced that death was better than life. And now he was very contented, his only worry being that he might not get the electric chair. He’s afraid of that. That’s the only fear he has, that he might have to continue to live. I think that’s American literature.

American literature is The King and Duke selling Jim out in Huck Finn. It’s Cholly doing horrible things to his daughter in The Bluest Eye. It’s Bob Ewell doing horrible things to his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s Lenny killing things in Of Mice and Men. It’s the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.

I want to turn away from this sadness and horror, but I can’t. And I guess it’s a good thing. As Franz Kafka supposedly said:

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.

Now I’m going to go do something for someone else, because that’s usually the best way to deal with this sort of thing.

Four Things I Liked About The Waterboy

As insubstantial as they are, I really like Adam Sandler’s first two movies, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. They have an idiotic charm to them, and don’t take themselves too seriously.

I’ve still not bothered with The Wedding Singer, and it’s clear that by 1998 he was both out of ideas and getting stale with his sudden-anger shtick. So when I found The Waterboy on YouTube, I didn’t expect much.

In general, I was right. It has the same trite plot of every sports comedy ever (including Happy Gilmore), but his goofy-guy guffawing is just painful. However, four things did intrigue me, and fortunately there are just enough silly fun bits to keep it worthwhile. The unexpected highlights are:

1. D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire

Where’s Wallace at? Apparently he’s in The Waterboy. Not only is the part of Bobby’s football buddy Derek played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr., but his last name is Wallace! How amusing is that?

2. Ed Norton’s girlfriend from American History X

This was a case of staring at the person for several minutes, gnashing my teeth, asking “Where do I know her from!?” Then it hit me: Bobby’s love interest Vicki is played by Fairuza Balk, who delivered a chillingly convincing performance as a neo-nazi around the same time The Waterboy came out.

3. “Tom Sawyer” by Rush

I was amused and confused when one of the many football montages was accompanied by Rush’s classic song Tom Sawyer. If they’re trying to make a cogent point about Bobby’s status as a person, I don’t get it.

4. “Block Rockin’ Beats” by The Chemical Brothers

But the award for Best Song in the Movie must go to the early appearance of the smash hit Block Rockin’ Beats by The Chemical Brothers. It’s so excellent — and works so well in the movie — that I’ll end with it (the song starts around 1:00):

A sad article from Australia, about Tyler the “Creator”, about whom I have written before. Here’s the new outrage:

I’m a 23-year-old psychology student from Sydney and in June this year, I was subjected to a horrific torrent of abusive tweets from fans of touring American rapper Tyler Okonma. I challenged Okonma’s lyrics which encourage rape and violence against women by vocally supporting a petition on that suggested he shouldn’t be playing all-age shows.

At Tyler’s concert in Sydney the next day, he told his fans he hoped my children got STDs, and “dedicated” songs to me that included lyrics like “punch a b—h in her mouth just for talkin’ s—t”.

The abuse started almost instantly. First a drip, then a rush, then a flood.  I felt physically sick. He had 1.7 million fans, and it felt like every single one of them had some violence stored up for me – a promise to assault me, the threat that they would rape me, an expression of hatred for my life and my freedom.

It was terrifying at first, and then I started to feel totally disconnected from myself. When one of them said he was going to mutilate my body, I couldn’t comprehend that he could be talking about me.

Obviously Tyler can’t be blamed for what his fans do. But — like the Dr. Dre / Dee Barnes incident — this shows the horrible crossover potential of misogynistic lyrics into real-life threats and even assault. (And let’s not forget that written violence directed at an individual can be extremely assault-like.)

As always, this is not to attack vulgar lyrics, because they can provide catharsis and insight into twisted minds. (Just like Poe and Lovecraft did.) But as a lifelong lover of hip-hop, I’m tired of seeing it used as a weapon against women, and I’m sick of hearing people say “it’s just an act”. We choose our personas, and Tyler has chosen one that is horrible.