Rat Purifiers of Libya

June 14th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

In Foreign Policy, Sean Kane argues that the situation in Libya isn’t as fractius as it seems. Yes, there are plenty of disputes. But they tend to be local, continuations of long-standing rivalries. Generally, the mood is oddly content:

Eight months after the brutal death of Qaddafi marked the end of the civil conflict that followed Libya’s popular uprising, support for the regime change appears to have if anything grown. Even if some of this backing falls into the “everyone loves a winner” category, a full 97 percent of Libyans surveyed by Oxford Research International in January thought the revolution was absolutely or somewhat right.

Kane also tells the sotry of the “Rat Purifiers”, as a demonstration of Libyan unpleasantness without national consequences:

The central actor in the drama was a memorably named revolutionary militia called Purifying the Tyrant’s Rats Brigade that attempted to “liberate” 300 cars from a farm outside of the city….

A rolling car chase around town ensued between the Rat Purifiers and other revolutionary brigades that now make up Benghazi police. The show lasted from late afternoon until the early morning hours and was punctuated by frequent and escalating salvos of shooting, including the use of heavy caliber anti-aircraft guns. The net result of all this sturm und drang was exactly two persons injured…by stab wounds. Benghazi’s revolutionaries either have preposterous aim or were not actually trying to hit each other.

But, howeve you spin it, you can’t ignore the way in which Libyan cities are turning against the centre.

Benghazi has recently birthed a proto-federalism movement advocating for its own autonomous region. Misrata meanwhile holds the ministry of interior. It is sometimes characterized by its critics as a virtual city-state and its brigades police large swathes of the center of the country. Zintan’s revolutionary prize was the ministry of defense. Its fighters are deployed around the country at key infrastructure sites

Raids on Russian activists

June 13th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Reuters reports on government raids on opposition activists. They focus on Ksenia Sobchak:

Putin’s critics say he is doing his best to follow tradition.

“I never thought we would return to such repression in this country,” [said socialite-turned-activist] Sobchak, whose late father, a mayor of St. Petersburg, gave Putin a start in politics two decades ago and was one of the liberal politicians credited with advancing democracy in Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

She said investigators forced her to read intimate letters out loud and “didn’t even let me get dressed for some time” after she was roused from sleep and answered the door.

“They would not let me go to the bathroom alone,” Sobchak said on Ekho Moskvy radio. “There was not even a woman there, I had to do this in front of man in a mask with machinegun.”

Sobchak is a rough Russian equivalent of Paris Hilton — reality TV host, fashion designer, target of lust and envy. So there’s a sheen of titillation helping the news to spread, but below that is pretty transparent intimidation of activists. According to the Moscow Times:

The round of questioning began with surprise raids Monday morning at the homes of several leading opposition figures and their relatives. They were all summoned to appear for questioning early Tuesday, forcing them to miss a highly anticipated, large-scale rally in Moscow.

It’s not the worst treatment of politicians in Russia, and there doubtless exist respectable-sounding legal justifications. Still, not particulaly cheery news.

Micro-credit suicides

June 12th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Until today, I hadn’t heard of the supporting role which micro-credit played in the revolution in Tunisia. But one of the suicides which sparked the revolution was of a certain Rami Al-Abboudi, under the burden of debt from a micro-credit progamme.

An article in Le Monde Diplomatique, trying too hard to prove a point, even argues that:

The wave of suicides that led up to the rebellion was not symbolic politics, as is often implied in western media, but the desperate actions of young men in bottomless debt.

I wouldn’t go that far. Al-Abboudi’s suicide was a tragic footnote, mostly ignored, and debt figured only trivially in public discourse.

Still, the boundary between micro-credit providers and loan sharks is delimited in goodwill and spin. Debtors’ suicide is a classic theme; why should micro-debtors be any different?

Micro-credit suicides have been reported in Bangladesh, while in India it’s been described as an epidemic:

More than 80 people have taken their own lives in the last few months after defaulting on micro-loans, according to the government.

Mylaram Kallava, 45, hanged herself from the ceiling of her mud hut in the neighbouring village of Ghanapur after she defaulted on four micro-loans amounting to $840.

The loans were taken to pay for medical treatment for her 17-year-old daughter’s appendicitis and her eldest daughter’s pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage.

The nearest government hospitals were more than 70km (45 miles) away, forcing Mrs Kallava to seek private treatment which was well beyond her means.

Libyan elections

June 11th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Until yesterday, the Libyan government had maintained the fiction that a national election was scheduled for next Tuesday. They have finally admitted the obvious: having not yet even arranged a list of candidates, it will have to be postponed. Officially only by a fortnight, though the odds of meeting the new July 7th date seem low.

Yesterday’s Observer carried a long article on Libya, before the postponement had been admitted. For them, the problems result from the incompetence of the NTC, in contrast to regional power centres which are getting on with things by themselves:

Misrata held its own city elections in February, the first anywhere in Libya for four decades, and the new council is now busy organising the police, army, education and health services.

And that is the problem. The price of this success has been a divorce from a central government. “We don’t want to be independent, we want Libya to be like us,”

In MERIP, Nicolas Pelham has a different perspective. It is the thuwwars, the armed rebels, who are clinging to military force and the power of patronage, resenting any democratic encroachment on that:

While the militiamen flaunt their might, they seem less confident of public support. No one at the swashbucklers’ Congress mentioned the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 19, as the means of being catapulted to power. Rather, for many the new assembly threatens to transfer authority away from those who “paid the price of the revolution” to elected representatives. “They are afraid that an elected government will limit their voice,” says Milad al-Hawti, a recruit to the Benghazi branch of the Supreme Security Commission. If the thuwwar are to make a bid for power, their window of opportunity is now, while the NTC — with its less than solid legitimacy — still holds the constitutional reins.

Storm Chair

June 10th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Today I went to the V&A, one of those obvious London tourist attractions that, living here, I’ve never before got round to visiting. Their current exhibition on British design is pleasant enough, if a bit too broadly themed to be really captivating.

All is forgiven, though, because it contained this wonderful chair:

It’s hand-made by Stephen Richards. He calls it the ‘Storm Chair’, for obvious reason. It feels like some scrapyard miracle, as though wooden offcuts of wood have somehow found coherent form.

It’s a shame, though, for this to be a one-off. This should be the product of a genetic algorithm crossed with a CAD program. Tell it to evolve a chair, made from notched sticks of varying lengths, with the requirement to avoid regularity and parallel lines. You’d get not one chair but thousands, evolving towards the chaotic perfection of the storm chair. Tool up a workshop to turn the designs into reality. The carpenter arrives one morning to find a pile of numbered, notched, pieces of wood, and beside it a printout with instructions. She finishes it, only to find the process repeated with a slightly different chair. Lather, rinse, repeat.


June 9th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve not been paying enough attention to the student protests in Quebec. There’s an overview at The Disorder of Things. It’s about tuition fees, the right to protest and an attempt to bring down the traditionally-strong student unions:

downtown Montreal has been plunged into an actual state of exception, warranting the full force of the law (send the tape to Agamben). Very worryingly, the authorities had recourse to anti-terror legislation to prosecute four students who detonated smoke bombs in the Montreal Subway a few weeks ago and the police used their newly-found discretionary power in the application of an ancient municipal rule last night, which resulted in the arrest of over 500 people, who were fined 600 bucks each (somebody’s got to pay for all that overtime).

The author insists that most of the politics here is specific to Quebec, though some of his commentary is much more generally applicable:

The strike has also sparked a wave of left romanticism, which, for someone steeped in the tradition of radical doubt, sits somewhere in between the comical and the genuinely inspirational. I admit I’ve been forced to reconsider the power of an ironic moustache versus good old street protest. I think that the current generation of students, equipped as it is with a more sophisticated understanding of power, will nonetheless try and reclaim the terms of political discourse instead of spending its time deconstructing them. Words like democracy, equality, rights and freedom seem to have a less hollow ring than before in various parts of the world. Amongst the Quebecois urban youth, there is a genuine sense that signifiers like “democracy” and “fairness” have been totality baffled by the current elite and by several decades of persistent neoliberal admonishing.

Princelings behaving badly

June 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

One fairly certain prediction for the future, is that in the next couple of decades we’ll see many more stories of princelings behaving badly.

China’s elite have money, and a reasonable number are sending their sons and daughters abroad. Even at home, the puritan work ethic of the parents must produce a rebellion of some kind. Whether that emerges as culture, gambling or boozing depends on the child.

B&T picks out a mid-level case of this from a report in Le Monde Diplomatique. Children of Chinese officials go on gambling jaunts to Kaichin, a breakaway province of Burma making a bid for independence. Apparently Laiza, its main town, is filled with casinos targetting Chinese:

“Children of Chinese officials became a problem,” said a [Kachin Independence Organization] official. “They borrow money from the [casino] owner to gamble, pay after a phone call to their parents. When parents stop sending money, we keep them in the hotel until parents pay up.” Keeping them is not kidnapping: “They get food and housing, they just can’t leave. We make a lot of money.”

The full story is interesting, showing China’s policy of non-interference being put to the test:

Chinese infrastructure projects in Burma — pipeline, railway line and dam construction projects — depend on peace in Kachin State. Two pipelines are expected to transport 12bn cubic metres of gas and 22m tons of oil a year from two Chinese-built ports near Kyaupkyu in the Bay of Bengal to China’s energy-hungry central provinces.


June 7th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

From Sheila O’Malley, a depressing picture of Marilyn Monroe — or rather, of her position in the world:

Many of these movies were interested in demeaning or humiliating her, punishing her for the fact that she elicited desirous feelings in men. The Seven Year Itch, while mostly famous today for the skirt-blowing-up scene, is a nasty piece of work which puts Monroe in the unenviable position of being portrayed as a circus freak of sex appeal. Tom Ewell plays her ogling downstairs neighbor, and the way he views her shows the attempt to turn her sexiness into something dirty and lewd. She is so “hot” that she has to keep her underwear in the freezer.

O’Malley, though, has her usual admiration for actors who bury their problems under fanatically workaholic commitment to getting the job done:

It is commonly known that Monroe was victimized and abandoned as a child, leaving her with an abyss of need inside of her, but she took that victimization and turned it into a weapon and a strength. As an actress, she did not hide her need for love; instead she willingly let it flood out of her eyes into the camera and into the eyes of her co-stars in a way that is still startling to witness today

Facebok privacy in a picture

June 7th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Who can see your Facebook content, if you keep to the default privacy settings? In 2010, visualization expert Matt McKeon tried to display this, showing how the privacy settings had loosened over time, and exposed your life to ever-wider groups of people.

He plotted groups of people as concentric circles, from the most intimate (you) in the centre, out to the whole world at the end. Spokes represented types of content (name, photos…), and a segment was colored blue when a group of people could see that content by default.
Thus as Facebook loosens its privacy settings, the circle turns blue and your life becomes open to the world.

All this is now two years out of date. I hate to think how much bluer the circle has become in the intervening time.

Olympic branding police

June 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I always enjoy seeing specialist, professional media outflank the mainstream, and agree with the angry ranters. Much of my joy in reading the Financial Times, for example, comes from seeing them offer critiques of markets and capitalism which the Guardian would flinch from publishing.

Case in point: Australian marketing magainz B&T rips into the Olympics. They describe a photoshoot with Sally Gunnell, interrupted by fanatical brand policing by the Olympic organizing committee:

Raising the national flag over her shoulders was deemed to be too reminiscent of Gunnell’s triumphant gesture after winning the 1992 400m Hurdles Olympic Gold for Great Britain in Barcelona. The photoshoot was halted, the Union Jack removed and Gunnell forced to change from her white tracksuit deemed too reminiscent of the British national strip and into a more acceptable orange T-shirt.

Alan Rusbridger as anti-politics

June 5th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The New Statesman profiles Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. Among other things, it paints him as embodiment of the shift away from economic politics, towards London-centric cultural and arts:

“what happened in the late 1980s was a changing of the guard from people interested in politics to people interested in culture. Rusbridger’s not politically engaged, but nobody else is, since it doesn’t make any difference who’s running the country. He has been very successful at retaining a Guardian persona that keeps in touch with the zeitgeist”

It’s true, and it’s possibly what has kept the Guardian doing so well. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.

‘Volunteers’ for the Jubilee

June 4th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Shiv Malik in the Guardian:

A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations and told to sleep under London Bridge before working on the river pageant.

A particularly horrendous case, this, but not an aberration. It’s mindblowing how much of the grunt-work of running big occasions is now turfed over to the exploited unemployed. The government and private sector have figured out how to get work at only the cost of unemployment benefits. And however much they are described as ‘volunteers’, there’s a strong element of coercion:

Both stewards said they were originally told they would be paid. But when they got to the coach on Saturday night, they said, they were told that the work would be unpaid and that if they did not accept it they would not be considered for well-paid work at the Olympics.

That promised paid work is hardly utopian, by the way:

Close Protection UK confirmed that it was using up to 30 unpaid staff and 50 apprentices, who were paid £2.80 an hour, for the three-day event in London. A spokesman said the unpaid work was a trial for paid roles at the Olympics, which it had also won a contract to staff. Unpaid staff were expected to work two days out of the three-day holiday.

Gay Pride Moscow

June 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The Moscow gay pride parade happened a week ago, as usual. Or rather, didn’t happen as usual. LGBT demonstrations, Described as ‘satanic’ by one former mayor, have never been allowed in Moscow.

Drugoi (Rustem Adagamov), one of Russia’s most popular bloggers, was there this time, and reports that everything followed the pattern established over the past 7 years of abortive parades. The organizers apply for a permit. They are denied, on dubious grounds (“a provocation, causing moral harm”). A few of the brave and foolhardy turn up anyway, ready to be either arrested or attacked by counter-demonstrators.

A few dozen journalists waited at the city council building and opposite the mayor’s office on Tverskaya Square, waiting for the appearance of LGBT activists…What happened today couldn’t be called a parade nor even an action — a dozen people with assorted rainbow logos, or without them, turned up to the city council. One one ground or another they were all arrested and taken away by the police.

And if you think wearing the rainbow flag is shaky grounds for arrest, you should look at St. Petersburg. There, “homosexual propaganda” has been banned since March, by a law which forbids “propagandising sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism, and transgenderism among minors“. There are moves in progress introduce a similar law on a national level. So all in all, gay rights in Russia are growing weaker, rather than stronger.

ETA: after writing it I discovered that, wonder of wonders, an LGBT demonstration has been allowed in Moscow. Maybe my pessimism was unjustified — or perhaps this is a one-off, because assorted EU politicians are in town

June 2nd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

What’s strange about guitarist Erik Mongrain isn’t his skill or the beauty of his music. It’s the novelty of his style — something I thought would be impossible by now. The guitar is the most ubiquitous of instruments — how could there exist a technique which hasn’t been explored a thousand times before?

Mongrain calls it ‘lap tapping’, reasonably enough. A few other people play percussive guitar — Dominic Frasca, Andy McKee — but with a far more traditional guitar sound. And there doesn’t seem to be any tradition of this, though presumably history has some lone virtuosos. So Mongrain is all alone in innovation.

Lin Zhao

June 1st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Chinese poet Lin Zhao is gradually making a posthumous name for herself, mainly among the cliques of dissidents and intellectuals.

She was executed in 1968, after spending the last 8 years of her life in jail for publishing critical articles. Over that period she managed a stunning output, even by the standards of people committed enough to choose jail and death on the basis of principle. 200,000 words. Written in blood. On the paper provided so she could free herself by writing a confession.

I’ve not managed to track down much of her poetry — there are a couple of pieces here and here. Neither is particularly memorable in English, but then I doubt they are easy to translate.

It does, of course, fit uncomfortably well into tropes of martyrdom, religious or political. You could doubtless find a direct counterpart of Lin in the lives of the Catholic saints. And it doesn’t make complete sense: why would the jailors would provide paper but no ink?

For all that, it’s a story that brings you up short. And, apparently, it’s becoming easier to talk about Lin in China:

In 2004, the Beijing Youth Daily published a feature about Lin while Southern Weekly has also run several articles about her.

Lin’s poems are also becoming more widely circulated. People are starting to see the value in her writings as a complement to Cultural Revolution literature, which is virtually non-existent.

“So many people kept silent during those years, but she was still speaking up,” said Hu. “She represented the most beautiful quality of mankind, its conscience.”

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