Monday, March 19, 2018

John Vidal - The 100 million city: is 21st century urbanisation out of control?

The 1960 street map of Lagos, Nigeria, shows a small western-style coastal city surrounded a few semi-rural African villages. Paved roads quickly turn to dirt, and fields to forest. There are few buildings over six floors high and not many cars.

No one foresaw what happened next. In just two generations Lagos grew 100-fold, from under 200,000 people to nearly 20 million. Today one of the world’s 10 largest cities, it sprawls across nearly 1,000 sq km. Vastly wealthy in parts, it is largely chaotic and impoverished. Most residents 
live in informal settlements, or slums. The great majority are not connected to piped water or a sanitation system. The city’s streets are choked with traffic, its air is full of fumes, and its main dump covers 40 hectares and receives 10,000 metric tons of waste a day.

But new research suggests that the changes Lagos has seen in the last 60 years may be nothing to what might take place in the next 60. If Nigeria’s population continues to grow and people move to cities at the same rate as now, Lagos could become the world’s largest metropolis, home to 85 or 100 million people. By 2100, it is projected to be home to more people than California or Britain today, and to stretch hundreds of miles – with enormous environmental effects… read more:

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Waging Peace: Vietnam's anti-war exhibition brings GIs and Viet Cong together. By Hannah Ellis-Petersen

Susan Schnall still remembers the shrieks of Vietnam veterans that would ring out at Oak Knell naval hospital throughout the night, as men – some not yet 20 – grappled with the agony of their injuries and the terrible flashbacks of war. It was these screams, and finding herself – a 25-year-old navy nurse – part of an “unconscionable military machine” that fixed men up only to send them straight back into bloody battle, that drove her to one of the great acts of anti-Vietnam war defiance. 

In 1968, Schnall hired a small plane with a pilot friend and showered 20,000 flyers over five army bases in San Franscisco, including the docked warship the USS Ranger, urging GIs to join an anti-war demonstration two days later. “I knew that the airforce was dropping flyers on the Vietnamese urging them to get away from the bombing and the spraying of agent orange, and I thought, ‘if the United States can do that there, why can’t we do that here?” said Schnall. Her anti-war statement, like so many that came after it, did not come without sacrifice. She was court martialled and sentenced to six months hard labour – though in the end never served her sentence.

Schnall is just one of the dozen of veterans who are visiting Vietnam for the opening of an exhibition that honours the almost-forgotten yet pivotal role that active duty servicemen men and women played in the anti-war movement. Schnall is one of many who feature in the exhibition, held at the War Remnants museum in Vietnam’s capital Ho Chi Minh City. A picture of her leading the GI anti-war march days before she was court martialled will hang in pride of place, alongside newsletters, posters and handwritten letters and photographs, most of which have never been exhibited.. 
read more, and see photos:

Mitali Saran: Changing political weather: BJP gets the chills

The weather in Delhi is finally turning, as is public opinion in India. The bluster and gloating is gone. Three and a half years into the Modi government, those who never liked the BJP are furious and openly derisive. Those who wanted to give it a chance have lost patience, and are openly derisive. Traders and shop owners, core BJP constituents, practically spit their disappointment, and are openly derisive. Social media is openly derisive. Even the shouty trolls have gone quiet. On Dussehra, Prime Minister Modi provided the perfect visual metaphor for why this is so: He raised a bow to shoot an arrow into the effigy of Ravan, failed twice, then just threw the arrow a lame couple of feet. A grand set-up for an embarrassing flop. The cartoons just draw themselves.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) seems to have squandered its massive political mandate. Rampaging all over the electoral map off a springboard of public opinion made of similar disappointment and derision aimed at the UPA, it set itself up as a soaring, decisive doer. But the perception was more PR than substance, and the government’s least controversial achievement has been to prove that. It has punctured its own overinflated image with a spectacular set of unforced errors.

Nobody forced the government to promise us Rs 15 lakh each, then snigger that that was just election gimmickry. Nobody forced Modi to wear a wildly expensive suit monogrammed with his own name. Nobody forced the BJP to use photoshop and fake images to manufacture fake credit. Nobody put a gun to its head to appoint prehistoric sexist moralists to states and certification boards and universities.

Nobody forced its silence over horrific lynchings of Muslims and Dalits, and made beef the huge livelihood-destroying issue that it now is. The government decided to drape Mohammad Akhlaq’s murderer in the tricolour. No one forced it to treat protesting students like criminals, or threaten Pakistan on national television. Nobody made it force Aadhaar down the throats of unwilling citizens. Nobody told it to jettison a competent RBI governor. Nobody forced it to start dictating citizens’ dinner plates, culture, dress, religious, and sexual habits. Nobody made it turn nationalism into a bigot’s weapon. Nobody asked it to trample science under superstition and religion, or turn institutes of learning into Hindutva finishing schools.

Nobody asked it to force digital transactions on a nation where bank access, data connectivity, and electricity are partial at best. Nobody asked it to force-feed children rewritten textbooks filled with lies. Nobody pressured it into massaging data repackaging old schemes with new names as never-before misrepresenting their impact and effect. And the Prime Minister is solely and wholly responsible for the unnecessary, cruelly incompetent bullet in India’s economic heart that was demonetisation. He is responsible for rolling out GST in the cumbersome, chaotic manner that is oppressing many businesses.

Having first successfully discredited and marginalised its critics, the government is now blaming the sour national mood on ‘panic’ spread by ‘pessimists’. It blames citizens for not creating their own jobs. It is trying to find scapegoats. But it has only itself to blame for dragging the country into an economic quagmire, poisoning social relations, infecting administration with religion, and snuffing out talent and progress with regressive orthodoxy and destructive hubris.

The truth is that this government is made of people with a talent deficit and an ego surplus, peddling a tiny-minded vision consisting of vainglorious dreams built on sand, hot air, empty gestures, and overlarge statues. It’s like a shaky, tinsel-draped billboard on poles stuck in the mud, advertising a five-star hotel.The words that stick to it are ‘jumla’ and ‘feku’. A skilled actor and clever lighting can only take a useless script so far—the play is still lousy.

Today, servile television channels masquerading as news keep huge farmers’ protests off the air and hammer at the opposition; people are working harder at fewer jobs to afford less; and people wish their daughters could grow up elsewhere. Meanwhile, crony capitalism is thriving. Is it any wonder that even those voters who ignore or approve of the BJP’s vile Hindutva agenda, are fed up with its economic incompetence? Is it a surprise that consumer confidence has crashed? People look at the endless boastful claims, then look around them, and see the disconnect.

You can, as they say, fool all of the people some of the time; and some of the people all of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. The last government was deeply flawed, smug, and infuriatingly corrupt, but on a steadily progressive path. This one inspires only international editorials warning of regressiveness and illiberality.

Yes, the weather is turning. We can all agree to blame the climate.

Debt: The first five thousand years. By DAVID GRAEBER

Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions -- whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law -- that place controls on debt's potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era, writes anthropologist David Graeber, that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors.

What follows is a fragment of a much larger project of research on debt and debt money in human history. The first and overwhelming conclusion of this project is that in studying economic history, we tend to systematically ignore the role of violence, the absolutely central role of war and slavery in creating and shaping the basic institutions of what we now call “the economy”. What’s more, origins matter. The violence may be invisible, but it remains inscribed in the very logic of our economic common sense, in the apparently self-evident nature of institutions that simply would never and could never exist outside of the monopoly of violence – but also, the systematic threat of violence – maintained by the contemporary state.

Let me start with the institution of slavery, whose role, I think, is key. In most times and places, slavery is seen as a consequence of war. Sometimes most slaves actually are war captives, sometimes they are not, but almost invariably, war is seen as the foundation and justification of the institution. If you surrender in war, what you surrender is your life; your conqueror has the right to kill you, and often will. If he chooses not to, you literally owe your life to him; a debt conceived as absolute, infinite, irredeemable. He can in principle extract anything he wants, and all debts – obligations – you may owe to others (your friends, family, former political allegiances), or that others owe you, are seen as being absolutely negated. Your debt to your owner is all that now exists.

This sort of logic has at least two very interesting consequences, though they might be said to pull in rather contrary directions. First of all, as we all know, it is another typical – perhaps defining – feature of slavery that slaves can be bought or sold. In this case, absolute debt becomes (in another context, that of the market) no longer absolute. In fact, it can be precisely quantified. There is good reason to believe that it was just this operation that made it possible to create something like our contemporary form of money to begin with, since what anthropologists used to refer to as “primitive money”, the kind that one finds in stateless societies (Solomon Island feather money, Iroquois wampum), was mostly used to arrange marriages, resolve blood feuds, and fiddle with other sorts of relations between people, rather than to buy and sell commodities. 

For instance, if slavery is debt, then debt can lead to slavery. A Babylonian peasant might have paid a handy sum in silver to his wife’s parents to officialise the marriage, but he in no sense owned her. He certainly couldn’t buy or sell the mother of his children. But all that would change if he took out a loan. Were he to default, his creditors could first remove his sheep and furniture, then his house, fields and orchards, and finally take his wife, children, and even himself as debt peons until the matter was settled (which, as his resources vanished, of course became increasingly difficult to do). Debt was the hinge that made it possible to imagine money in anything like the modern sense, and therefore, also, to produce what we like to call the market: an arena where anything can be bought and sold, because all objects are (like slaves) disembedded from their former social relations and exist only in relation to money.

But at the same time the logic of debt as conquest can, as I mentioned, pull another way. Kings, throughout history, tend to be profoundly ambivalent towards allowing the logic of debt to get completely out of hand. This is not because they are hostile to markets. On the contrary, they normally encourage them, for the simple reason that governments find it inconvenient to levy everything they need (silks, chariot wheels, flamingo tongues, lapis lazuli) directly from their subject population; it’s much easier to encourage markets and then buy them. Early markets often followed armies or royal entourages, or formed near palaces or at the fringes of military posts. This actually helps explain the rather puzzling behaviour on the part of royal courts: after all, since kings usually controlled the gold and silver mines, what exactly was the point of stamping bits of the stuff with your face on it, dumping it on the civilian population, and then demanding they give it back to you again as taxes? It only makes sense if levying taxes was really a way to force everyone to acquire coins, so as to facilitate the rise of markets, since markets were convenient to have around.

However, for our present purposes, the critical question is: how were these taxes justified? Why did subjects owe them, what debt were they discharging when they were paid? Here we return again to right of conquest. (Actually, in the ancient world, free citizens – whether in Mesopotamia, Greece, or Rome – often did not have to pay direct taxes for this very reason, but obviously I’m simplifying here.) If kings claimed to hold the power of life and death over their subjects by right of conquest, then their subjects’ debts were, also, ultimately infinite; and also, at least in that context, their relations to one another, what they owed to one another, was unimportant. All that really existed was their relation to the king. This in turn explains why kings and emperors invariably tried to regulate the powers that masters had over slaves, and creditors over debtors. At the very least they would always insist, if they had the power, that those prisoners who had already had their lives spared could no longer be killed by their masters. In fact, only rulers could have arbitrary power over life and death. One’s ultimate debt was to the state; it was the only one that was truly unlimited, that could make absolute, cosmic, claims... read more:

How to change the course of human history. By David Graeber & David Wengrow

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. 

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.
It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence... read more:

Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions – whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place controls on debt’s potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era, writes anthropologist David Graeber, that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Carole Cadwalladr & Emma Graham-Harrison - 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach // How Facebook’s destructive ethos imperils democracy

Whistleblower describes how firm linked to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon compiled user data to target American voters 

The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in the tech giant’s biggest ever data breach, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

How Facebook’s destructive ethos imperils democracy
The revelations in our lead story today are shocking not just because they reveal the extent to which Facebook’s advertising system was exploited for political purposes in the 2016 election, but also because they demonstrate the company’s inability to comprehend the responsibilities that accompany its newfound power. The revelations show that a data analytics firm was able to harvest the Facebook profiles of about a third of all US Facebook users, which were then used to construct psychological models of those individuals for campaign purposes. This was no run-of-the-mill cybercrime heist that merely stole credit card details. The information that Facebook holds on its users (at least 98 data points per user) is deeply revealing – including of their tastes, preferences, habits, sexuality, politics, hopes and fears. Academic research has shown that even knowledge of a few “Likes” can reveal an astonishing amount about an individual Facebook user. For political campaigners, this is the purest gold dust, because it enables messages to be precisely calibrated, and for this to be done at a scale that was unimaginable in the pre-internet era.

No one can pretend Facebook is just harmless fun any more

Christopher Wylie, who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on.” Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.

The New York Times is reporting that copies of the data harvested for Cambridge Analytica could still be found online; its reporting team had viewed some of the raw data. The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising. The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election... read more:

The ‘Gharwapasi’ of Padma Bhushan Father Camille Bulcke

Bulcke was invited as the main speaker on many Tulsi Jayanti events all over the country as he expounded the virtues of the Manas and Tulsi’s portrayal of human values in the characters of Ram and Sita. He did so, in his full Christian monk attire, invoking awe and adoration, not the sloganeering and hatred he would have possibly received in these times. In his book, Ramkatha: Utpatti aur Vikas, he highlighted the different traditions of the Ramayana story in parts of South and South-East Asia, much before A. K. Ramanujan wrote his influential essay on many versions of the epic. Scholars argue that this might be one of the finest works not only on Ramayana but also on the process of ‘doing’ research in the field of literature.

A different kind of ‘gharwapasi’ (homecoming) was witnessed in Jharkhand this week, which had support from all sections and was opposed by none. The remains of renowned Hindi and Sanskrit scholar, Father Camille Bulcke were finally brought from Delhi’s Nicholson cemetery and reburied on the premises of Ranchi’s St. Xavier’s College located on Camille Bulcke Path, named after him. He came to India from Belgium in 1935 to spread the teachings of Christ and not only found a spiritual inspiration in Goswami Tulsidas but became one of the best exponents of Ramkatha (the story of Ram).

After receiving a doctorate in Hindi at Allahabad University, where he lived and learnt in the company of Hindi luminaries such as Sumitranandan Pant, Maithili Sharan Gupta, Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Mahadevi Verma and Dharmavir Bharti, Father Bulcke went back to Jharkhand where he first arrived as a missionary. He started the Hindi and Sanskrit Department at St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi and transformed the adjacent residential complex of the Jesuits, the Manresa House, into a hub of intellectual activities. It is while teaching in Ranchi, that he wrote treatises on Ramkatha and Tulsidas and also translated many important Christian theological works including the Bible. For his services to Hindi literature and education, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1974.

In a state where religious conversion has always been a highly sensitive and contentious issue and anti-conversion laws have been introduced by the government; where conflict simmers between Christian and Sarna Adivasis, between Hindus and Muslims, between Christians and Hindus and between Christians and Muslims, people of all religions attended the ceremonial reburial of Father Bulcke’s remains to mark his final resting place in his karmbhoomi, Jharkhand, 35 years after his death. The reburial of his skeletal remains was announced as part of the Adivasi tradition of hadgadi, where the remains of the ancestors are carried as a blessing and reburied, as tribes move from one village to another. The exhumation of dead bodies and remains is also a known practice among Catholics, especially for beatification and canonization purposes. In several contexts and for various reasons, the family members of the dead can also make personal requests to the Church and local administration to allow them to rebury their loved ones elsewhere. It is also not uncommon to witness the exhumation of remains of a family grave at various times, when a new member is to be buried at the same site.

In the past, another Belgian priest, Father Constant Lievens (1856-1893), known to have officially ‘converted’ a large number of Chhotanagpur tribals to Catholicism, had his ashes transferred from Belgium and interred at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ranchi in 1993. The Jesuit Society of Jharkhand worked closely with their Delhi counterparts and had to cross several bureaucratic hurdles to bring back the remains of Father Camille Bulcke.. read more:

Friday, March 16, 2018

Canada Struggles as It Opens Its Arms to Yazidi Victims of ISIS. By Catherine Porter

CALGARY, Alberta — As leader of one of Canada’s largest refugee agencies, Fariborz Birjandian, a refugee himself, has years of experience welcoming the world’s most vulnerable — Kosovar Albanians fleeing ethnic cleansing, Burmese Karens evicted from Thai refugee camps and Syrians escaping the civil war. Nothing prepared him for the Yazidis.

Recently, he entered an English-language classroom in his agency’s building near downtown Calgary, just after a 28-year-old woman had finished describing the screams of a young girl being raped by an Islamic State soldier. Suddenly, the woman fell unconscious. Her eyes rolled into the back of their sockets, her back arched on the floor and she began to hyperventilate, her voice a rising octave until it emerged as a yelp. She grabbed fistfuls of her hair and snapped her teeth at her forearms.

“Don’t let her bite herself,” said Kheriya Khidir, an interpreter, settling down to hold one of the woman’s arms and stroke her face lovingly. Mr. Birjandian raced off to call an ambulance. Then, he slipped into a stairwell to collect his shaken emotions. The woman, Jihan, is one of almost 1,200, mostly women and children, victims of the Islamic State who have been brought to Canada as part of a special refugee program set up particularly for Yazidis, members of a tiny religious minority from Northern Iraq that the militants set out to decimate in August 2014.

Canada’s immigration minister — who is also a former refugee — assured Canadians the program would address the “unimaginable trauma, both physical and emotional” that most of the victims carried with them. But a little over a year later, the Yazidis have proved a steep challenge to the country’s celebrated refugee settlement system, and to those who work in it like Mr. Birjandian.

Evelyn Theiss - The Photos That Caused Americans To Ask ‘What Are We Doing In Vietnam?’ The My Lai Massacre 50 years later

Photographs of My Lai by Ron Haeberle
This story originally appeared on FOTO

Ron Haeberle was a combat photographer in Vietnam when he and the Army unit he was riding with - Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment - landed near the hamlet of My Lai on the morning of March 16, 1968. Villagers weren’t alarmed; American GIs had visited the region near the central Vietnamese coast before, without incident. But within minutes, the troops opened fire. Over the course of the next few hours, they killed old men, women, and children. They raped and tortured. They razed the village. And when Haeberle’s shocking photographs of their atrocities were published — more than a year later — the pictures laid bare an appalling truth: American “boys” were as capable of unbridled savagery as any soldiers, anywhere.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre, I spoke with Haeberle — in an exclusive interview, at his home in Ohio — about that March morning; the routine Army operation that devolved into a waking nightmare; and how his photos changed the course of the war in Vietnam. I first met Ron Haeberle in 2009 when I was a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer — the newspaper that, in November 1969, first published his My Lai photos. I was assigned to write a story on the 40th anniversary of that landmark exposé, and while much had previously been written about the Plain Dealer reporter who wrote the article that ran alongside Haeberle’s photos — Joe Eszterhas, later the screenwriter of “Basic Instinct” and other controversial films — I found almost nothing about the man who took the grisly, iconic pictures at My Lai. Was he still alive? Did he still live in Ohio?

I found a name, address, and phone number, but wasn’t sure if it was the Ron Haeberle. Knowing that a reticent Haeberle might hang up if I called, I drove to the address, knocked on the door, and introduced myself. It was Ron, all right, and he graciously asked me in. I stayed at his house for two hours, as he told me about My Lai and his own life since 1968. It was his first major interview since the story broke four decades earlier. (He gave the BBC a couple of quotes in 1989, he said, and that was the extent of his contact with the press.)

Recently, FOTO asked me to approach Haeberle and ask if he would revisit the story for the 50th anniversary of the massacre. He agreed, and he and I returned to one of the darkest chapters in American history, and his role in bringing it to light. Ron Haeberle was drafted in 1966, after attending Ohio University, where he was a photographer for the school paper. He ended up in Hawaii with the Army’s Public Information Office. By the end of 1967, it was beginning to look like his “tour” would end there - a disappointing prospect. 

“As a photographer, I wanted to see what was happening in Vietnam for myself,” he told me. He requested a transfer, and was sent to Vietnam. At 26 years old, he was older than most members of Charlie Company, where the average age was just 20. Charlie Company had been together for about a year before Haeberle joined it in March 1968. The unit had been in no firefights, but had lost men to booby traps and land mines. When they landed at My Lai, they were primed for action; Viet Cong troops were reported to be hiding in the hamlet. That information was wrong. But in the end, it didn’t matter: My Lai was doomed. Within four hours of Charlie Company’s arrival, the village’s huts were burned to the ground and hundreds of civilians were dead. (The exact number of those murdered is disputed to this day, with the official American estimate running to around 350; the Vietnamese say more than 500 were killed.).. read more:

Tribune Editor Harish Khare Puts in His Papers. Departure comes weeks after Aadhaar exposé that embarrassed Modi government

Harish Khare, editor-in-chief of The Tribune, the independent, Chandigarh-based newspaper known for punching above its weight on the national media scene, is on his way out, The Wire has learned.
Word of his departure comes weeks after The Tribune‘s exposé of a security flaw in the Aadhaar database that allowed middlemen to access key personal information about all those enrolled in the government’s ‘voluntary’ universal ID scheme database. The story won Khare and his team plaudits from privacy advocates and the media fraternity but also led to the filing of criminal charges against the reporter, Rachna Khaira, as the UIDAI scrambled to limit the damage.

The FIR filed was not the only form of offensive intervention the newspaper attracted in the aftermath of the story. The Tribune‘s exposé, which came bang in the middle of the Supreme Court’s hearings on the privacy and security aspects of Aadhaar, proved deeply embarrassing to the Modi government. The Wire has learned that the government’s unhappiness at the story – and Khare’s editorial leadership of the newspaper – was made known to members of the trust which owns and runs The Tribune.

The trust is currently headed by N.N. Vohra, governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Vohra took charge after the former head, Justice S.S. Sodhi quit in the face of a revolt within the staff at the manner in which he forced The Tribune to publish an apology to a senior Akali politician, Bikram Singh Majithia, for running a series of stories on his alleged involvement in the drug trade in the state. The apology was carried, but when Khare and the employees’ union pushed back, Sodhi resigned and was replaced by Vohra as president of the trust.

Timothy Snyder: Vladimir Putin’s politics of eternity // Mark Galeotti: A tale of two Putins

Americans and Europeans have been guided through our new century by what I will call the politics of inevitability – a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done. In the American, capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communism had its own politics of inevitability: nature permits technology; technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia. When this turned out not to be true, the European and American politicians of inevitability were triumphant. Europeans busied themselves completing the creation of the European Union in 1992. Americans reasoned that the failure of the communist story confirmed the truth of the capitalist one. Americans and Europeans kept telling themselves their tales of inevitability for a quarter-century after the end of communism, and so raised a millennial generation without history.

The American politics of inevitability, like all such stories, resisted facts.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Luke Harding: Five books that expose the secret world of spies

A man’s agonising scream is filmed. He is tied to a metal stretcher and is fed, alive, into the crematorium of the GRU, Russia’s military spy agency. His crime? Betrayal of the motherland. The victim? A colonel who “deceived us”. The video – shown to new recruits – features in the opening chapter of Aquarium, a novel by the Russian writer Viktor Suvorov. Suvorov was himself a GRU operative. He defected in the 1970s and lives in the UK. Another GRU officer was Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned last week with his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury. Aquarium is a classic of spy literature, part bildingsroman and part insider account of an organisation famed for its brutishness and fanatical secrecy.

None of Putin’s spy chiefs have written memoirs. One imagines it will be several decades before they do. In the meantime there is Pavel Sudoplatov, Stalin’s assassinations director, who gives a candid account of his profession in Special Tasks, published in 1994. Sudoplatov explains how he organised the murder of the state’s enemies, including a Ukrainian nationalist (done personally with exploding chocolates) and Trotsky (killed with that ice-pick). Sudoplatov justified these exotic crimes on the grounds of Leninist ethics: morality was what served the party. Later he regretted that communism chewed up so many innocents, observing: “Victorious Russian rulers have always combined the qualities of statesmen and criminals.”

Putin spent the late 1980s in the GDR in Dresden. His more talented foreign intelligence co-worker, Yuri Shvets, was sent to the US. Shvets’s memoir, Washington Station, is a disillusioning account of his life as a KGB spy abroad and his attempts to recruit a US mole. His cover job as a correspondent for the Russian news agency Tass is more enjoyable than his espionage work. Meanwhile, his bosses back home are gerontocratic fools. Recalled to Moscow, Shvets visits the KGB’s legendary poisons factory, from where novichok, the deadly nerve agent used on Skripal, may have come. Tellingly, the KGB plotters who tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 met in the secret lab.

When it came to surveillance, one friendly Warsaw Pact agency outdid even the KGB: the Stasi. The world of East Germany’s secret police is vividly evoked in Anna Funder’s Stasiland, written more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She meets elderly unrepentant former Stasi officers, and their victims. Why did so many in the GDR became informers? The answer, one Stasi man tells her, was because they enjoyed being “somebody”.

In The File, Timothy Garton Ash tracks down those who spied on him as a student in early 1980s East Berlin. It’s a meditation on the cold war, European history, unreliable memory and our mutable younger versus older selves. Garton Ash casts himself as a “spy for the reader”. Imagine his delight when he discovers his Stasi watchers gave him the code-name “Romeo”. Somewhere in the KGB’s Lubyanka HQ are similar files compiled over decades on prominent western figures (such as Trump). Fodder for future memoirs, should the Putin regime ever go the way of the USSR.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Stephen Hawking (RIP) Explains His Revolutionary Theory of Black Holes with the Help of Chalkboard Animations

Stephen Hawking died last night at age of 76. I can think of no better, brief social media tribute than that from the @thetweetofgod: “It’s only been a few hours and Stephen Hawking already mathematically proved, to My face, that I don’t exist.” Hawking was an atheist, but he didn’t claim to have eliminated the idea with pure mathematics. But if he had, it would have been brilliantly elegant, even—as he  used the phrase in his popular 1988 cosmology A Brief History of Time—to a theoretical "mind of God."

Commemorative video by Cambridge University
The Old Astronomer to His Pupil: Sarah Williams

Hawking himself used the word “elegant,” with modesty, to describe his discovery that “general relativity can be combined with quantum theory,” that is, “if one replaces ordinary time with so-called imaginary time.” In the bestselling A Brief History of Time,he described how one might possibly reconcile the two. His search for this “Grand Unified Theory of Everything,” writes his editor Peter Guzzardi, represented “the quest for the holy grail of science - one theory that could unite two separate fields that worked individually but wholly independently of each other.”

The physicist had to help Guzzardi translate rarified concepts into readable prose for bookbuyers at “drugstores, supermarkets, and airport shops.” But this is not to say A Brief History of Time is an easy read. (In the midst of that process, Hawking also had to learn how to translate his own thoughts again, as a tracheotomy ended his speech, and he transitioned to the computer devices we came to know as his only voice.) Most who read Hawking’s book, or just skimmed it, might remember it for its take on the big bang. It’s an aspect of his theory that piqued the usual creationist suspects, and thus generated innumerable headlines.

But it was the other term in Hawking’s subtitle, “from the Big Bang to Black Holes,” that really occupied the central place in his extensive body of less accessible scientific work. He wrote his thesis on the expanding universe, but gave his final lectures on black holes. The discoveries in Hawking's cosmology came from his intensive focus on black holes, beginning in 1970 with his innovation of the second law of black hole dynamics and continuing through groundbreaking work in the mid-70s that his former dissertation advisor, eminent physicist Dennis Sciama, pronounced “a new revolution in our understanding.”.. read more:

The Entire Archives of Radical Philosophy Go Online: Read Essays by Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou, Judith Butler & More (1972-2018)

Were non-academic critics to take academic work seriously, they might notice that debates over “political correctness,” "thought policing," "identity politics," etc. have been going on for thirty years now, and among left intellectuals themselves. Contrary to what many seem to think, criticism of liberal ideology has not been banned in the academy. It is absolutely the case that the humanities have become increasingly hostile to irresponsible opinions that dehumanize people, like emergency room doctors become hostile to drunk driving. But it does not follow therefore that one cannot disagree with the establishment, as though the University system were still beholden to the Vatican.

Understanding this requires work many people are unwilling to do, either because they’re busy and distracted or, perhaps more often, because they have other, bad faith agendas. Should one decide to survey the philosophical debates on the left, however, an excellent place to start would be Radical Philosophy, which describes itself as a “UK-based journal of socialist and feminist philosophy.” Founded in 1972, in response to “the widely-felt discontent with the sterility of academic philosophy at the time,” the journal was itself an act of protest against the culture of academia.

Radical Philosophy has published essays and interviews with nearly all of the big names in academic philosophy on the left—from Marxists, to post-structuralists, to post-colonialists, to phenomeno-logists, to critical theorists, to Lacanians, to queer theorists, to radical theologians, to the pragmatist Richard Rorty, who made arguments for national pride and made several critiques of critical theory as an illiberal enterprise. The full range of radical critical theory over the past 45 years appears here, as well as contrarian responses from philosophers on the left.

Bharat Bhushan: What the Opposition can learn from Maharashtra's farmers

The Opposition parties had failed to counter Narendra Modi’s political narrative in the 2014 general election campaign. That story was based on creating jobs, curbing black money and economic development in the mirror-image of Mr Modi’s “Gujarat model”. Those unrealised dreams have since been consigned to the dustbin with Mr Modi now being described by wags as “India’s biggest non-performing asset”.

Mr Modi may well have a newer narrative for the next general election — possibly an emotive and communally divisive one. However, the Opposition parties have yet to find a counter- narrative.
In this bleak political landscape, the success of the farmers’ movement in Maharashtra points to a way forward. The surrender of the Devendra Fadnavis government before the 40,000-strong farmers who marched to Mumbai holds several important lessons for the Opposition.

After a long time, political parties across the ideological spectrum supported the farmers’ demands — ranging from the All India Kisan Sabha of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which had organised the march, to the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Aam Aadmi Party. Even the Shiv Sena, an estranged ally of the ruling BJP, argued against judging the farmers’ movement by its ideological colour.

The support of ordinary folk was overwhelming as they greeted the farmers with open arms. Across Mumbai, civil society groups, residents’ welfare associations, religious organisations and ordinary individuals greeted the marching farmers with packets of food, water, free medical care and even footwear, moved by the media pictures of their calloused, blistered and bleeding feet.

Florida shooting: US high school students stage mass walkout

NB: Well done, students! I wish you solidarity from the entire world! Its soon going to be the 50th anniversary of May 1968, another time students movements shook the world. Keep it up! DS 
Students and school staff across the US are commemorating the Florida school shootings with a walkout, exactly one month after the killings. They are stopping lessons for 17 minutes in memory of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Pupils at the school, which was targeted by a former student, hugged each other on the football field. 

Protest organisers accuse Congress of failing to tackle gun violence. The White House revealed a plan this week to deter school shootings which does not include President Donald Trump's repeated calls to raise the age for buying semi-automatic rifles to 21. Instead, it moves ahead with his controversial proposal to provide firearms training to school employees.

How is the protest unfolding? The walkouts began at 10:00 (10:00 EST is 14:00 GMT) across America's time zones. Organisers of the National School Walkout, who were also behind the Women's March in January 2017 against Mr Trump's inauguration, called on "students, teachers, school administrators, parents and allies" to take part.

In Parkland, families and supporters applauded as thousands of students slowly marched on to the Stoneman Douglas school football field. School principal Ty Thompson called on them to stage the "biggest group hug". A large crowd of students from the Washington area gathered outside the White House holding signs reading "Protect People Not Guns" and chanting "Never again" and "Enough is enough". Some students also gathered at Capitol Hill where they were addressed by the Senate and House Democratic leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

"We're all moved by your eloquence and your fearless insistence on action to prevent gun violence," Ms Pelosi told them. "Thank you for bringing your urgency to this fight, to the doorstep of America, the doorstep of the Capitol of the United States." Students in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, stood in a heart formation to pay tribute to the Parkland victims.

In New York, hundreds of students from Fiorello H LaGuardia High School - many dressed in orange, the colour of the gun-control movement - took to the streets of Manhattan. "Thoughts and prayers are not enough," read one sign. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also joined protesters for a symbolic "die-in" - lying down in a street in Lower Manhattan... read more:

Sabotage of Indian criminal justice continues unchecked: Aseemanand’s ‘disclosure’ missing from court

NB: The blatant sabotage of Indian justice is unfolding before our eyes, as a section of the official establishment connives at the Sangh Parivar's scheme to destroy Indian democracy. In the face of their undisguised contempt for the Constitution, all honest judges, bureaucrats, police officers - indeed all Indians who respect the rule of law must beware of the subterfuges of this cabal, that hides their political ambitions with the cloak of patriotism. The document that has gone missing reportedly implicates senior RSS leaders. Let someone explain how these files have disappeared; and let our judges reflect on what the RSS is doing to our country. DS

We are coming in even in 2019 … then we will see: Fadnavis’s cousin threatens lawyer gathering information on Loya case NB: Please read the transcript of the conversation. Thanks to The Caravan for facing off this hooligan. Down with tyranny - DS

HYDERABAD: A key document in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case containing a disclosure by Hindu right-wing member Swami Aseemanand, which could seal the fate of the trial, has gone mysteriously missing from a lower court’s custody. The revelation came after chief investigating officer and CBI SP T Rajah Balaji on Tuesday began recording his evidence. Balaji filed the first chargesheet before the case was transferred to the NIA.

On May 18, 2007, a bomb blast inside the Mecca Masjid during Friday prayers killed nine people and injured 58 others. Later, more people were killed when the police opened fire on protesters. As part of the trial, more than 160 witnesses were examined by the court that includes victim, RSS pracharaks and several others. Aseemanand was granted bail in April 2017 on the condition that he can’t leave Hyderabad and Secunderabad. 

On Tuesday, K Ravinder Reddy, the fourth Additional Metropolitan Sessions Judge cum special court for NIA cases, came down heavily on court officials after several documents pertaining to the case couldn’t be traced. The proceedings of the case had to be stalled by more than one and half hours before officials could trace some of the documents that were exhibited before the court.

Balaji was taken by surprise after a key two-page document relating to the reported disclosure made by Naba Kumar Sarkar aka Swamy Aseemanand before CBI, explaining the alleged conspiracy, was not traceable. The document, marked as “Memo of Disclosure” No 88 in NIA chargesheet, reportedly contains names of senior RSS leaders. The missing document is believed to be of much importance and can seal the fate of Aseemanand in the case, investigators said. During investigation, the CBI officer examined 68 witnesses in the case, out of which 54 have turned hostile, including DRDO scientist Vadlamani Venkat Rao, who is the prosecution witness No 151 in the case.

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It is no secret that the unstated reason for the government’s opposition was that Mr. Subramanium was the amicus curiae in the Sohrabuddin encounter case (Sohrabuddin Sheikh was prosecuted by the same CBI) and in other cases, where senior figures of the current government are allegedly complicit... In a country where the Judiciary is in charge of its own appointments, something more substantial than an IB report based on innuendo and hearsay is required before impugning the integrity of the candidate and the appointment process.
"The masterminds of the 26/11 attacks are treated like heroes in Pakistan. We are not there yet, but if hidden hands nudge the judicial system to free murderers of the saffron variety, we will be soon"
The Broken Middle (on the 30th anniversary of 1984)

More on justice in India, the death penalty, etc.

NB: I am adding a citation from an important book on Nazism written in the 1930’s: Behemoth, The Structure and Practice of National Socialism; by Franz Neumann. (New York, republished 1963, p 27). A pdf file may be read here: <> DS
(The counter revolution) ‘…tried many forms and devices, but soon learned that it could come to power only with the help of the state machine and never against it… the Kapp Putsch of 1920 and the Hitler Pustch of 1923 had proved this.. In the centre of the counter revolution stood the judiciary. Unlike administrative acts, which rest on considerations of convenience and expediency, judicial decisions rest on law, that is on right and wrong, and they always enjoy the limelight of publicity. 
Law is perhaps the most pernicious of all weapons in political struggles, precisely because of the halo that surrounds the concepts of right and justice… 

‘Right’, Hocking has said, ‘is psychologically a claim whose infringement is met with a resentment deeper than the injury would satisfy, a resentment that may amount to passion for which men will risk life and property as they would never do for an expediency’. When it becomes ‘political’, justice breeds hatred and despair among those it singles out for attack. Those whom it favours, on the other hand, develop a profound contempt for the very value of justice, they know that it can be purchased by the powerful. As a device for strengthening one political group at the expense of others, for eliminating enemies and assisting political allies, law then threatens the fundamental convictions upon which the tradition of our civilization rests…