Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Twelve Days of Revolution

Seasons greetings to you all, and to all a good..... arbitrary period of time. One thing I've noticed is that most groups usually celebrate a day with a song, so let me share with you all a song in keeping with the Revolutionary spirit. (No it isn't the one with the Communist cats I've already posted that)

The Twelve Days of Revolution

Did Santamarx visit you this Revolutionmas? If not enjoy a picture of a fist I'm afraid I ran out of copies of Combat Liberalism.

Solidarity and mittens for all!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Darker Side of Social Media

As previously established social media isn't all about liking a fan page or tweeting about a delicious meal or uploading a funny looking cat to flickr. The video above is of course satire, but the best satire has more then a few grains of truth in it. I wrote in the London Progressive Journal a view months ago, there I argued that whilst social media has enabled political opposition to get around censorship and outright suppression, the fact that these services (including blogger) were made and more importantly run by private companies means that the ones with the real power have different interests and priorities then there user base. They often build services like facebook and twitter too make some money from advertising off the back of the web traffic all those connections and messages people send back and forth. Throw in a little (or a lot) information selling and you've got quite a big earner for you so long as it remains popular. The fact that these sharing networks were and are so useful to dissidents must of come as a surprise, though no doubt a welcome one.

Not only has interest from political activists increased the use of their services (often in foreign markets that would be difficult to penetrate otherwise) the fact that they were using the services for serious and laudable aims (like exposing brutality and corruption) also had a nice side effect of improving the companies image. Facebook twitter and the blog sites went from hobby dens and narcissistic cries for attention to defenders of truth and freedom. For the activists themselves the deal is pretty good too. The problem with the "Old" media is its actually quite easy to control if you already have power.

Lets say the police or military had launched an unprovoked assault on a strike or environmental protest, and the official line was either the police/military/party militia had acted defensively or the event never actually happened. Now you come into possession of photo's or a video showing that to be a lie, the problem is how to you prove that? You can't give it to a newspaper or a radio station or the six o'clock news. The government either control all the networks outright or the companies won't want to take the risk of provoking the government. But if you were to upload to a website "anonymously" it can be copied, downloaded and share throughout the world and expose the lie.

But of course that's just applicable for those living in nasty dictatorships. Surely we whom are privileged to live in the Liberal West were it is the market not the political party that makes the decisions should be ok right? Of course not, what we call the "free press and media" is more accurately called the privately owned press and media. Its simply naive to believe that a private newspaper (for example) would be any freer from a strict Editorial line then a state owned one. They both have interests beyond there idealistic commitments to integrity and accuracy.

In addition to being susceptible to political arm twisting of either the "Retract this story or face a fine" variety or the much more insidious "help us get in power and we'll return the favour" that appears to be endemic in both the UK and USA; private media is heavily reliant on advertising revenue and keen to avoid lengthy and costly litigation. That means that going to them to expose the bad behaviour of wealthy groups can result in stonewalling. For example its a very old joke that British Newspapers will quite strongly condemn companies or business practices whilst their own paper or the company that owns them either does the same practice or is a client of the very same company. Private Eye's Street of Shame segment (about News paper hypocrisy) is often full of this.

Police protection
While the paper has never mentioned the “fury” aroused by her reward for failure, an editorial made it very clear what it feels about Entwistle. “There was no way BBC Director General George Entwistle could have survived after the Newsnight paedophile scandal.”
In fact there is a precedent Entwistle could have cited had he chosen to hang on. Back in March 2003, the Sun printed a photograph of a man it claimed had been convicted of sex offences against children, under the enormous headline “FACE OF KID BAN PERVERT” – only to find that he was an unrelated and innocent man who had to leave his home and was put under police protection.

With all these hurdles and very high stakes if caught (blacklisting, harassment, imprisonment,torture,death or a combination of) its no wonder most turned to web to get their message out. And here lies the problem, social media has become so large and so effective at leaking information and embarrassing the powerful that increasingly the powerful believe its more effective to buy them out. Previously most repressive governments like Iran and China tried to compete with global social media by setting up there own versions which complied fully with their much stricter laws on content and anonymity (or rather the lack of anonymity) and perhaps more importantly the servers are based within their own borders making them available for searching by the authorities when ever the fancy takes them.

This hasn't been totally successful stories of abuse and corruption continue to leak out of all those nations regardless though I am sure it has help authorities catch a couple of "snitches" and limit information spread. It also had a fundamental flaw in that ironically these efforts to make the internet more opaque were transparent in there intent. The phrase "Great Firewall of China" itself went viral and I'm certain everyone online today has heard of at least one story of online censorship from the People's Republic. So instead what these regimes are doing is trying to buy the cooperation of those companies, and while it isn't guaranteed that every media network mogul will be as callous as the guy in the Onion video, should they decide to take those deals then their isn't a lot anyone can do. Which is why I feel quite strongly that it is important to be aware of this danger and if at all possible (I should point out I have absolutely no programming experience so will be zero help here) develop truly independent alternatives to networking.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Walking the Line

Since its coming close to Christmas things have slowed down for me as the year is wrapped up. So I decided since I had a few hours spare I'd play Spec Ops: The Line, a game I'd heard a some very interesting things about. The next thing I know, I've finished the game, my body aches from lack of movement, its three in the morning and I have a bunch of unanswered messages that I promised I would get to in a minute.

I also went absolutely nuts with Steams screen shot feature as you'll see shortly. A few years ago like most teens was mad about first person shooters (FPS) and war games in general. Well I've kind of grown weary of the genre, I wasn't sure why at first, the simplistic flag waving patriotism and the obligatory D-Day landing levels were annoying but they've always been there. In fact the games I found least appealing where the "Modern Warfare" set games with their promises of "Ultra realism". I've finally figured it out playing Far Cry 2 and Spec Ops helpfully confirmed my suspicions. Its a conflict with setting and tone. In most modern FPS especially the ones whom market and style themselves as stone faced  and gritty, you're usually a member of that nations (usually western, and usually America) special forces, Delta Squad, SAS, or something along those lines. This is clever from a design point of view as it justifies some outlandish missions, the squad vs an entire army conflict and how and why your getting every fancy piece of hardware your nations defence budget can afford to cook up.

But there's a inherent drawback to this approach too, it means the threat psychologically speaking anyway is lessened by your opponents. You're the hero, in these games, the one guy (well your squad mates help) whom defeats the bad guys, and saves America, problem is there aren't many credible threats to the West nowadays. The Taliban simply isn't in the same league as the Wehrmacht or Red army. Which in the 90's wouldn't be a problem just have a war between fictional nations, or have Albert Einstein travel to the past to kill Hitler before he rose to power and thus allow Stalin's military build up to take on Europe. But both those tricks are to silly for this generation of "combat realism" shooters. So it looks like were stuck with macho super soldiers gunning down wave after wave of peasants whom we outclass in every way imaginable. Or ridiculous beware the Russian Bear scenario's where Russia despite decades of decline somehow manages to take on its Cold War nemesis.

 In Modern Warfare 2 for example you have both until the Russian's invade you spend your early levels taking on third world rabble. In one level your fighting a Brazilian gang in a favela, Kevlar and precision assault rifles against football shirts and AK's. Oh and you have loads of ammo to carry out your demographic reforms. Then the Russians somehow get across the Atlantic (yes I know they use that Satellite's codes to trick the yanks radar that isn't the only problem here) even though there fleet isn't up to it and the only way to get to America would be noticed by Europe, and you finally get to go toe to toe with a foe that looks to be close (but not quite) to your level of capabilities.

The good guys

Brazilian                                Russians

Spec Ops doesn't have that problem, ok you are still a Delta team (the name of the series is Special Forces after all) but here it makes sense, your orders are to Scout out the area and try to make contact with friendly forces. Your ammunition is limited because you can't carry that much which makes scavenging clips and guns essential, and a lot of the enemies you face are rogue US Soldiers. It also explains why they've gone rogue in a way that seems plausible if not realistic. So Spec Ops fixes some prominent flaws right from the off. Also instead of saving the world, your supposed to meet the guys who are saving Dubai. A bit of background the United Arab Emirates, experiences a lengthy period of sandstorms (lasting over six months) which effectively cut off Dubai, Colonel Konrad Commanding officer of the "Dammed" 33rd the most highly decorated Division to operate in Afghanistan defies orders to leave the city in order to help the civilian population evacuate. That was six months ago, the storms cut the city off soon after. No contact has been received since that time, until recently when Konrad broadcasts a grim request for support.

That's why you (Captain Walker) are sent in, to find the 33rd and some information regarding the situation. However its not long before things go awry. You meet a strange band of "insurgents" whom are instantly suspicious and hostile of you and your American accents and army fatigues. It's not long after, that the team finds evidence of the 33rd going off the rails, and the CIA seems to be involved in some way. Thematically Spec Ops is very similar to Heart of Darkness (Colonel Konrad is named after its author) and like most works inspired by that Novella it is also quite reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, at one point early in the game your chased by a helicopter whilst music blares from a sound system.

The ruins of Dubai
It also looks beautiful in that strange dystopian way. Dubai after months of unrelenting sandstorms has been covered in sand dunes. Most of the early levels involve fire fights on top of the cities many glittering skyscrapers, though often it appears to be round level given how many levels have been buried. The interiors are also pretty unique, in a genre now dominated by grey concrete walls for military bunkers or ruined Western landmarks looting ammunition in between fire fights in an abandoned carcass of Dubai's decadence is really intriquing and adds to the sense that something significant has been lost here.

The game does something most games fail to even try, the contrast. Living in the ruins of these golden palaces and dried up swimming pools and artificially grassed Tennis courts are the thousands of poor citizens left behind by the rich and powerful surrounded by the discarded jewels and expensive electronics which have now become completely worthless. In some optional dialogue (the game does that telling back story through collectibles gimmick, only here its designed like an investigation with Captain Walker using the collectibles as clues)  its revealed that the UAE government had delayed reporting of the Sand storms and there severity for several days whilst they evacuated the government and wealthy citizenry. They also refused aid until the last minute in an effort to cover up the affluent exodus.

This abandonment by their leaders is what spurs Colonel Konrad to disobey orders and stay behind to try and organise a full evacuation. Unfortunately as the civil war and the proliferation of bodies hanging from lamp posts attests it seems things quickly got out of hand. Oh and its made abundantly clear that the failure of the war in Afghanistan in which Konrad was the most praised and distinguished commander in that theatre has left him with some serious self worth issues. Not exactly your standard bad guy, even though he certainly acts like one.

Another era that sets Spec Ops apart from all the other kill the foreigner shooters out there is you character. In most shooters you and your squad are tough warriors from a forgotten age clad in Kevlar. One of the team will be Stoic the other Flippant, with you if your character gets any dialogue being on the middle ground. Spec Ops starts out this way, one of the guys Lugo makes jokes while Adams keeps insisting on completing the mission, with Walker doing a balancing act between the two. That's how it starts, but it certainly isn't how it ends. The things they see shake them up, the atrocities that were committed sicken these men, the fact they have to fire on fellow servicemen is a sore point for them from the beginning to the very end, and a couple of accidents along the way almost break up the squad. They start the game as sort of friends with a clear mutual respect, by the end they're clearly unstable and on the verge of turning on each other.

You really don't want to see what he's staring at
The game also tackles something that's never touched upon in war games and even very rarely discussed in military fiction in general. Playing this game involves a very graphic illustration of some of the destructive effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD or shell shock is perhaps the dirty little secret of soldiering that polictical leaders and Generals would like to surpress the most. Since 1918 the idea that War is great and glorious has been thoroughly discredited and most of the really awful things that happen during war time, (civilian deaths, torture, rape, use of incendiaries and chemical weapons) have been exposed and condemned but the Defence departments and Arms company PR teams have done a very good job at if not justifying those acts then at least "contextualising" them in a way that diminishes the horror they elicit. Civilian deaths? Well that's either an unfortunate accident (Collateral damage) or a rare and tragic collapse of discipline and an isolated incident (when a unit destroys settlements or guns down obvious non-combatants). Chemical weapons are a sad but necessary addition to overall arsenal to keep the nation safe from more untrustworthy regimes whom don't hold human life to be quite as valuable as we do.

PTSD on the other hand is different, it can strike anyone involved in a conflict even if physically speaking they and their entire unit came out of the conflict unscathed. And despite a lot of time and money being put into psychiatric evaluations to date there is no reliable way to identify vulnerable individuals and take proactive steps to prevent a case developing. A soldier or Officer may be judged to be sound in mind and body prior to deployment but a few tours of action could easily change that.

 Regardless of which war or conflict you look at, high rates of PTSD in veterans have been found. Throughout history, people have recognized that exposure to combat situations can negatively impact the mental health of those involved in these situations. In fact, the diagnosis of PTSD historically originates from observations of the effect of combat on soldiers. The grouping of symptoms that we now refer to as PTSD has been described in the past as "combat fatigue," "shell shock," or "war neurosis."

The simple fact is killing isn't nice (obviously) and combat adrenaline only gets you so far, its the lack of interest in showing this part of a soldiers life that I think video games are most guilty of being negligent. Time and again playing anything with "War" in the title has you clocking up a kill tally in the hundreds with your character and his squad mates and allies suffering no psychological consequences. Now fortunately not every soldier does succumb to PTSD and amongst veterans whom were experiencing some issues there are coping strategies, but its total absence in modern video games just shows up how empty the marketing departments promises of "realism" is. Off the top of my head the only other games I can think of that deal with this side of conflict were Far Cry 2 where your character and his friends are all callous mercenaries whom live moving from one war zone to the next with no ties or friends outside a few "colleagues" and the Jackal the villain (on the surface anyway) is clearly working through some issues if his speeches and audio diaries are anything to go by. And Iji a fun independent game about a young girl turned cyborg whom fights an alien invasion. You see you can play the game without killing an enemy (turrets don't count) doing this makes the game easier and gives you a more positive ending. Killing everything in sight however makes it much harder and contributes to Iji's mental instability making her more crazy and miserable.

I'm serious this game is more intelligent then MW
So, in conclusion Spec Ops: the Line is a refreshing if extremely brutal addition to the FPS genre and a glowing example of how a game can be used to explore complex issues whilst still being an enjoyable why to spend a few hours.

Friday, 23 November 2012

It Can't Happen Here! (Oh Yes it Can)


“Bring out the old-time musket,
Rouse up the old-time fire!
See, all the world is crumbling,
Dreadful and dark and dire,
America! Rise and conquer
Rise world to our heart’s desire!”

Recently I finally found the time to read Sinclair Lewis's warning about the rise of Fascism in America It Can't Happen Here. Its been on my to read list for quite awhile so its good to finally cross it off. Its also a pretty good read on its own merits too, so time well spent as far as I'm concerned.

A bit of background It Can't Happen Here was both set and published in 1935 as a rebuttal to the often repeated response to the rise of Fascism and Communism in Europe, "Don't worry dear it can't happen here" to show that actually Dictatorship can easily happen in America and if it did this is how it'd probably go down, and spoiler warning it isn't a pleasant ride.

Since the original Red Scare of the 1920's had effectively broke the back of Left wing radicalism it was much more likely that the threat to American democracy would come from the right, which is why the Dictatorship is very similar to the Fascists of Europe. Reading the book two things struck me, first its fascinating to see a contemporary audience grappling with the then unprecedented rise of Totalitarianism and an awful lot of the events, characters and themes are eerily similar to the world of today.

Of course being set in the Great Depression the economic woes will be familiar to us, but going a bit beyond that, we see media manipulation, an alliance or merger of government and corporations, and idolisation of the nation and military, blaming any and all problems on subversive elements, and quite a bit more.

Its told mostly from the point of view of Doremus Jessup an editor of a Vermont newspaper, whom has politically views suspiciously similar to Sinclair Lewis's own. Through Jessup's we see America's quite quick transformation into a Dictatorship and the rise of its nasty side. Jessup is one of the few to perceive how close the threat of jackboots actually is and early chapters often have him getting fed up with the complacency of his peers, in short he's sick of hearing "It can't happen here".

The "coup" occurs during the Presidential elections, in effect America votes for a Dictatorship. On one level this is a refference to Hitler's rise, not only becoming leader of the largest party in the Reichstag but also becoming Chancellor by entering a coalition with Conservative parties. There is also another argument that America despite its constantly stated love of freedom has a very long history of supporting and voting for very restrictive measures, like Prohibition which was a nationwide restriction on a very popular recreation, and was only ended in 1933 so still in recent memory. Prohibition is rightly regarded as a failure but its often forgotten that much like the War on Drugs it enjoyed a lot of support at first and took years of failure before it was repealed.

Jessup's political views are extreme left Liberal, he hates all the isms though his main criticism of the Communists some of whom he befriends is that there dominated by Russia. In the thirties this was quite true Cominterm the Communist International had quickly been dominated by the Soviet Union to the point where they could order parties to merge with others and dictate their own political programs. And funnily enough the anti Communist laws and measures in the West that were brought in because they feared Moscow's influence actually made the problem worse, because most independent Communist, Socialist and Anarchist groups like the Communist Labour Party didn't survive the crackdowns whereas those enjoying the support of the Soviet Union could better weather the storm and then dominate the political space.

So he has a bit of a reputation for being a radical in his social circles, however he believes in one man one vote and normally votes Democratic at least until this election where he switches to Towbridge a moderately progressive Republican. Since Jessup spends most of the novel as "the one lone Liberal" it means the book is saved from becoming a party election broadcast (The Iron Heel I feel is damaged since the Socialist Party it champions so much effectively fell apart a few years after) whilst still maintaining a concious political line beyond the trite "freedom good, Dictator bad" you could get from a children's book. Him being alone in his thinking also helps prevent the Liberal politics from becoming overbearing.If you don't agree with him (and I don't but more on that later) it shouldn't detract from the experience too much.

Also it scores some points by not having its Hitler character be much like Hitler. The problem with Adolph Hitler in fiction (you know beyond his monstrous policies) is that he quite easily comes of very clownish. A loud often shrill voice, quick to anger, a moustache made famous by not one but two comedians. And a burning passion for things which don't translate well to a non German non Nazi audience. So its quite difficult to get him the person to be menacing, also given that America is not Germany its very unlikely they'd have such a love affair with an American version, and even if they did the rise of NSDAP meant they wouldn't be so prosaic about letting him get high office.

No Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip -the Chief- is no Hitler, he's an American folk hero with the common touch. Instead of the SA he uses an unemployed association numbering in the millions to propel him to power, and then when he does get round to establishing his own SA the Minute Men (M.M.) rather then saunter about with naked threat he covers them up as a sort of patriotic marching society, well until his regime cements control anyway, after that the concentration camps and military judges come out in force.

The Image                        The Reality

The book has a very clever way of establishing Buzz and his ideas early on whilst establishing Jessup's America. Jessup never actually meets Buzz, the closest he gets is attending a few speeches during the election campaign, in fact he doesn't meet or interact with any of the key players  of the regime, instead he has to deal with and suffer the cruelty of the local regime big fish. I like that, it gives the book a national scope and shows that this is indeed a transformation of the whole of America requiring the action of millions.

So to establish the Buzz as the linchpin of  all the changes that Jessup and his family and friends suffer the beginning of most early chapters have a short extract from Buzz's own Mein Kampf, called Zero Hour, in this way we get little titbits about the man and his radical new ideology that has both Tycoon and beggar supporting him. I've read Mein Kampf and I guess so did Sinclair Lewis because Zero Hour is a very similar book. Both are a combination of biography and political manifesto, and both are extremely disjointed, in fact I think breaking Zero Hour up with chapters of It Can't Happen actually makes it seem the more coherent of the two because you forget some of the contradictions in the mean time.

Zero Hour is full of tales of Buzz's humble upbringing, and peppered with a distrust of intellectuals -whilst presenting a blueprint for a new society- some praise for left wing theorists and politicians for their empathy for the working man and criticism for the big city industrialists -even though his policy would entrench the system that makes poverty so cruel and reward the industrialists with even greater power- its through reading Zero Hour that first makes it clear, even clearer then the M.M. and self appointed title of Chief that Buzz is indeed a Fascist. Fascist philosophy holds that the most important aspect of society is the Nation, it does at least acknowledge that there are differences between citizens and that there is a Class conflict, but its "solution" was to get both capital and labour to come together under the guidance of the Fascists who would mediate for both and get them to achieve a compromise for the benefit of the nation. They called it the Corporate state, and guess what Buzz changes America's name to? That's right he turns it into the Corporate state, and his official Ideology is Corpoism.

You may wonder why if Buzz is so explicitly Fascistic why he doesn't just you know embrace the label. Well there are two main reasons one the Fascists are well known to America at this point, news of black shirted thugs brawling in the streets of Rome and Brown shirted SA smashing up the Jewish quarter were well known, the main explanation for all the odd style choices and wordplay from Buzz's regime is a deliberate attempt to avoid parallels with Hitler and Mussolini. The M.M. for example were Civil war era uniforms and there symbol is a simple American five pointed star.

Upton Sinclair the famous American Socialist (whom is mentioned occasionally in It Can't Happen Here) did something similar with his Eradicate Poverty In California bid for Congress he publicly admitted after failing to win that EPIC's platform was exactly the same as he earlier bid for Congress as the Socialist Party Candidate (no prizes for guessing which campaign got the higher vote share). The point is you should never take a political party or movement at face value, just like you should never judge a book by its cover.

So in essence Buzz with the help of Sarason his Secretary and personal Goebbels, trick America into putting Fascist in power. Sarason's main job is to keep the media image of Buzz and Corpoism positive and he does so using every trick from forging stories of Red Terror and Mexican incursions. However its important to note he doesn't do this through some monolithic Fascistic BBC, his control of media is made easy since most of the big media Barons throw their support behind Buzz, especially William Randolph Hearst's. Its only the papers of annoying thorns like Jessup that are taken over. Sinclair remembers what a lot of American right wingers wish to forget, in there desperate attempt to lump it in with the left. It is an indisputable fact that Fascism in every nation it took root in always found friends in the established Conservative movements and Capitalists, and always persecuted the Liberals, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists and Social Democrats, and sought to curtail all independent organisations of the Labour movement.

Oh and did I mention that Buzz stands as the Democratic candidate, after FDR and his supporters split to form the "Jeffersonian Party". That seems a little odd but you have to remember two things, first in the 1930's the Democratic Party was far more willing to accept large scale government spending and intervention thanks to FDR's New Deal programs. And of course the Republicans where the party of the establishment and strangely often had the majority of black votes (since Southern Racists where staunchly Democratic, right up until the Civil Rights acts of the 60's) Buzz Windrip is an political outsider in appearance, draws a vast amount of support from the unemployed whom support the principle of government intervention, and some of his policies specifically single out Blacks (and Jews) for even further discrimination nationally by capping the amount of money a Black family can earn in a year (with some ridiculous requirements to be eligible for the full amount)  and barring them from most jobs beyond unskilled labour.  Add all that together and it makes sense, though it should be stressed apart from the anti Jew and anti Black policies (which sadly weren't as unpopular at the time as we'd like to believe) he does a good job of hiding the "teeth" of his policies. His most popular and most oft quoted policy is he commitment to ensure full employment and a minimum of $5,000 per White American family annually.

This is still absurd and offensive but it is a good illustration of my above point

But as the saying goes "be careful what you wish for" copying Hitler's "economic miracle" Buzz Windrip solves unemployment by putting the poor in Labour camps were room and board are deducted from there already low wages. M.M. Officers stop the confiscated businesses of prisoners and dissidents from stagnating by taken them over for themselves. Schools are radically reorganised into super universities dedicated to physical training and the "Practical sciences" like engineering and aeronautics. Most unemployed not to be put in camps find work either in the M.M. or the regular Army which within a year has been overtaken by M.M. much like how the S.S. grew from a guard unit into an army within an army superior to the Wehrmacht, and Mussolini's "elite" Blackshirt divisions. Somehow despite placing caps on maximum earnings the wealthy businesses don't seem to be hurting much or at all under Windrip, funny that.

So within the year things are looking pretty bleak for Jessup, with acquaintances being sent to camps, others fleeing across the border to Canada, and all local important government positions being taken by those New Englanders that leapt at the chance for advancement by putting on uniform and filling up there arrest quota's. In fact the State of Vermont no longer exists anymore, as Buzz took Gerrymandering to the logical extreme of abolishing the States and merging them into Districts.  

But all is not lost, the real Reds are used to state oppression, police raids arbitrary trails and mass arrests (a fact that is at least acknowledged if dismissed immediately after being brought up) and have gone underground surfacing sporadically to give the M.M. a headache or two. And in Canada the Yankee diaspora has established its own resistance networks and begun re infiltrating America. If that wasn't bad enough the key players in the regime have begun to fall out with one another as the contradictions in there power base (mostly between Nationalist puritans and decadent Capital) flare up in a way that's similar to the Nacht der Langen Messer (Night of Long Knives) in 1934. That event saw not only the Ernst Rohm and the SA crushed, but also the entirety of the Nazi parties "Left" or "Socialistic" wing annihilated. How does this toxic mess of political blood letting end? Well you'll have to find out by reading it for yourself I don't feel comfortable spoiling the very end of a book, even one as old and well known as this.

So that's the plot and its grounding in the reality of the day established, how about its relevance today beyond a way to spend an evening or two? Well as is well known on the internet the prospect of a Fascist Democratic candidate isn't so far fetched to some people out there, thought it has to be said if Obama really is a Fascist, or a Communist, or a Islamist or some nightmarish amalgamation of the lot then he is without a doubt the most inept political leader in world history. Because in the past four years he's done so little for any of those groups that he wouldn't even complete page one of any of there manifesto's.

But the underlying theme/threat of a merging of Corporate entities and the Government isn't quite so far-fetched. Left and Right wing thinkers have been warning about the rise of the Military Industrial Complex, the alliance between Foreign Offices and financial institutions and the lack of interest from governments in curbing the worst effects of globalisation such as outsourcing.  The whole point of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots is to challenge the power of finance capital over the political process.  The whole point of the famous 99% image was to expose the inherent unfairness that 1% a minuscule segment of the population receive all the attention from politicians and are the prime concern when it comes to government policy. 

And as far as Red Scares go, there have been some big attempts to kick start another one but it largely hasn't taken hold. The only people I've ever heard mention the big C word fall into one of three categories, the group who already hated it but don't know what it is, the group whom love the idea but also don't know what it is, and the old guard of true believers. But the intent is there and it is conceivable that the media might be able to cook up another image of an Agent Provocateur  (no not the lingerie line) haunting ever rally and march.

I'd like to say the old trick of gaining popularity by kicking Blacks and Jews has gone, truth is the "Jews are behind everything bad" sentiment is still alive. It has dissipated as a viable tactic for a political movement though so we've made some progress. Unfortunately as the constant rumours and conspiracy theories about both Obama's place of birth and parentage show coupled with some rather ugly comments by some Republican affiliates about mass "coloured voting" resentment toward the Americans of African descent hasn't been put to rest either. But again the opportunity to gain politically has diminished too. Unfortunately since 9/11 and NAFTA it looks like Blacks and Jews have been replaced by Latino's and Muslims, but as the recent elections have shown at best that doesn't translate well nationally only locally in some regions.

So overall despite the "Updates" from the march of history It Can't Happen Here still has a lot of wisdom that's worth chewing over if you have the opportunity.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Two Seafarers Tales

Modern Piracy has really lost the romanticism

Avast ye landlubbers  listen to an old sea dogs tales, and learn yerself some respect for the mistress of the deep blue, YARRRR!

Ok I'll stop, but I do have a couple of stories about modern day sea faring and for some reason both involve Banana boats. As in ships that transport banana's not those yellow inflatable things you ride on.

 First up is a cartoon made in 1998 by the International Transport Federation (ITF) that's the international association for Transport Unions. Lets take a look shall we?

Well that was interesting, as a piece of animation I think it was pretty well done, certainly it matched the quality of the cartoons I watched in 1998 as a kid. As a piece of propaganda (inform through art) though its a bit spotty. It does a very good job of showing the modern Seaman's life at its very worst. As a man grown up between Immingham and Grimsby docks and coming from a Navy family I've heard all of those practices being in use just not all at the same time. Still quite a few of them are quite devious, if your wondering about the buying of a flag at the start, its a bit complicated. Basically flying a nations flag extends its protections to the vessel, but the flag doesn't necessarily have to correspond to nationality of the crew, the company that owns it, or even the sea's it operates in. Its called flag of convenience, officially speaking you are supposed to be bound to the laws of the nation the ship sails under. It is basically a form of legalised corruption, technically speaking the practice is illegal in most countries but its hard to police as it would require a full search of the vessel and its shipping records to prove. The only real draw back from the point of view of the ships owner is if you fly the flag of a Nation that's hostile to the nation whose waters your using. A common tactic in economic disputes is to deny access or seize ships with an hostile nations flag.

It's just that most dockworkers and Seaman are probably all familiar with those practices so this is a case of telling them something they already know, and in a patronising way. Though it is good to see that the resolution to the conflict did acknowledge the darker side of port labour relations. Since ports are often separated from settlements and most of the people there are foreigners with no ties to the nearby community it is easier to get away with illegal acts of every kind due to lack of attention, and that includes violent strikebreaking.  I was a little worried that the cartoon would just have the Union organiser Seagull (that's a weird combination) just solve everything by making a speech and having the boss Shark and/or the hiring agent rat see the light. That kind of thinking isn't helpful.

However if used to educate children or very new crew and dockers of what to expect it and how exploitation works in practice, I think cartoons like this could be very helpful. When I was "taught" about exploitation and ethics it was pretty poor. It was about third world labour, unfortunately the curriculum was saddled with a need to draw a middle ground because apparently condemning child labour and sweatshops is to controversial. At least here we have an explanation of the problem, a demonstration of why it is in fact a problem and a solution offered.

Anyway next up is an autobiography of an Irish sailors experiences at Sea as part of an international crew (actually most ships nowadays are multinational) shipping Banana's from South America to Europe. It mainly concerns the attitudes of the crew, the retention of the old Hierarchy of ranks and some of the abuses common in shipping as a whole.

High seas adventures: ocean crossings in search of the revolutionary Atlantic

I had been at sea for only two months, and already I was sick of the sailor’s life to the bottom of my heart. Not the seaman’s life as such, but the seafaring environment, the regimen on board the banana boats, the slave-like labor at the ports, and the immorality of the global banana trade that is pure naked exploitation, a pillaging of the South. My daytime activities painting or chipping rust and nighttime shift on watch are populated by fantastical notions of violent mutiny, hoisting the black flag, and setting sail with my fellow newly initiated pirate crew.

Such musings fall on absolutely uninterested ears. As we share a few beers in his cabin, I ask one of the Filipino deck hands, the most disgruntled of the lot, why, if life on the ship was so fucking miserable, didn’t the crew organize to change things. “You know,” I suggested jokingly, “like an old-school mutiny!”

Manuel, in his early twenties like me, laughed so hard that beer foam came out his nostrils. “Why would any of us think such a thing!? In 254 days I will be finished all this hell and I will return to Manila, buy my land, and farm with my wife and children. For us Filipinos this is the best job possible. Two years’ labor at sea and then we are set up almost for life. There are many who would do anything for this job.” He changes the subject, pressing a photo of a young woman into my hand. “She’s pretty, isn’t she? That’s my sister. You could marry her, take her with you to Europe. She’s a good cook, tidy.”
I’m not making any progress here at all, so I take my leave.

The rest of the text is well worth a read, also available as a PDF.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Think Before you Intern!

Internships, on the surface they're a wonderful way for first timers to gain experience in there chosen career field. It makes sense doesn't it, your fresh out of University (or other place of training) with a flash Degree (or equivalent qualification in your chosen field) and your ready to start earning. Only problem is there are hundreds just like you competing for limited numbers of placement and since you all have zero real world experience it can be hard to get your C.V. (or Resume as the Yanks call it) to stand out from the crowd making job hunting a bit of gamble.

But don't worry though the corporate world (famed for its conscientious policies and operational propriety) has seen the problem and come up with an ingenious solution. Work for free and or a fraction of the wage for a year or more and maybe just maybe you'll get a permanent position.

If you think I'm being my typical cynical self and the cute singing puppies above didn't convince you then don't worry read on I have another fancy Infographic for reference if you find my rambling a bit hard to navigate.

 Internships Infographic
There are of course a number of serious structural problems with internship programs, from the point of view of the internee I mean. From the accountancy department and recruitment office Intern standard procedure must look very rosy.

Leaving aside the fact that in most cases interns aren't paid.... Actually no lets not leave that aside that's a very important criticism. Not paying an employee -which is what an intern is an employee calling them something else and denying them benefits like wages and some job security doesn't change that fact- is bad news for everyone except senior management.

Its bad for the actual Intern, obviously since they are giving their time and labour freely for an extended period. By becoming an intern you are making a commitment to that company which while not cast iron does tie you down for awhile which can make it more difficult to take advantage of other better opportunities (like a position with an actual wage) in the jobs market. Also living expenses and personal finances will be quite tight and any student will tell you the winter months can be quite gruelling especially when living off rice and noodles.

Its bad for the already qualified job seekers as the more positions filled by interns means less openings for them and the "Fantastic training opportunities" and "on the job experience" is of no use to them contributing to unemployment amongst qualified personnel.

Its bad for the staff already on the job as the more work farmed out to interns the less "valuable" their roles are creating a negative influence on their wages and chipping away at there own job security. Admittedly this is true even if the position is paid but in that case the negative aspects are at least lessened.

Of course the sacrifice would be worth it if it was guaranteed or at least nine times out of ten lead to employment afterwards. Nut the sad fact is it often doesn't. In most cases the Intern finishes their period no better off then when they started. In fact given the financial stresses it often puts on the Intern it actually leaves them worse off.

In fact given the material negatives it means intern programs also undermine social mobility and the meritocratic ideals such schemes are based on. In spite of all the bad things we can say about intern opportunities they do still offer a chance of employment, if they didn't the entire scheme would fail. But since we've already established that in many cases they are unpaid and often involve busywork those from poorer backgrounds will be very unlikely to be able to take the risk.

Which means only those from more affluent families will be able to give them ago and thus get all the benefits these programs do actually have. And since more and more careers are making use of interns and often unpaid this could easily end up closing off entire industries to working class applicants regardless of educational qualifications because they simply can't afford to take the risk.

But enough words from me, lets have a look at the nice picture, the data seems ok at first it seems logical that younger workers would have higher unemployment rates its the old catch twenty two, companies prefer to hire experienced workers and you can't get experience until you get a job. However once again if we read on the data gets alot more sinister. Internships have soared for students since the 90's as have qualification attainment and yet most of them are still unpaid. In fact it seems even worse for American students as there appears to have been some mutual arrangement between Universities (whose tuition fee's far outstrip anything we in the UK and Europe have to bear) and graduate companies.

In my University there were opportunities for intern programs (often unpaid) too however you traded your year long modules for them meaning your yearly credits total remained unchanged. And accommodation was always provided, when off campus. It certainly wasn't a perfect arrangement, the fact that most of these opportunities where just clerical posts and unpaid and often located far away in London -which is so expensive it has its own minimum and living wage recommendations- being common complaints. But it's certainly better then what the picture describes.

Its good to see our old friends in Foxconn finally cut out a couple of its exploitative practices. Shame it hasn't bothered to cut out its really exploitative practices, the phrase arranging deckchairs on the Titanic comes to mind. Nevertheless the fact that they've had to do something to try and please the press and public opinion shows that this deplorable state of affairs is reversible.

The TUC has been running a campaign to stop intern abuse and to get at least a living wage for interns. And there are groups fighting against workfare basically unpaid internships for the unemployed. They combine most of the negatives of interning with the added bonus of maintaining unemployment since companies are using free labour which is constantly renewed rather then hiring staff to fill those positions.

Graphic courtesy of onlinecollegecourses.com source

Friday, 16 November 2012

Israel V Gaza (Again)

I'm sure you've all heard the news (partly because the IDF have been bragging) that Israel and Hamas have been trading blows recently. And it looks like another operation Cast Lead style ground invasion might be on the cards. This time it'll be called Operation Pillar of Cloud a biblical reference

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.
And as you can see from the above photo Gaza city has a few pillars of fire to guide the IDF Air force for follow up strikes. As an aside given that both Israel and Palestine have quite large fundamentalist populations including apocalypse cults is it really wise to use explicit religious language in an armed operation? regardless of legality or intent that just seems to be asking for more trouble.

Despite an agreement mediated by Egypt to stop the violence, the Israeli military launched a barrage of strikes on Gaza today, assassinating a top Hamas military leader and killing civilians, including children. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in a televised address.

"Today, in a very accurate way, we hit the Hamas targets and also the rockets which are attacking Israel, we have hit."

Translation from Al Jazeera. Israeli officials say their offensive is a "widespread campaign" called Operation Pillar of Defense and published a video of the strike that killed Hamas military chief Ahmed Al-Jabari. Israeli military spokesperson Avital Leibovich said the attack is justified because of Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

"We went on offensive Operation Pillar of Defense in order to first and foremost defend the people of Israel. I'm speaking of one million Israelis that are currently living within the range of the rockets and this must be stopped. Ahmed Jabari is a terrorist that has Israeli blood on his hands, was involved in many terrorist activities against Israelis and this is why he was targeted in the car this afternoon. We will continue this operation as long as we need in order to defend the people of Israel."

Gazans reported multiple strikes throughout the evening following the attack on Al-Jabari's car and many injuries. Residents posting to social media described warships firing from the water and drones flying overhead. Photos posted online allegedly show a one and four year old killed in the attacks. For more we're joined by FSRN's Rami Almeghari from Gaza.

Now the justification for the initial strike on Mr Ahmed Jabari is his position as a military leader in Hamas and the launching of rockets into Israel from Gaza. And both those claims are true Jabari was a military commander or terrorist if you prefer* and rockets were being launched in increasing numbers from Gaza.

However call me old fashioned but I'm of the opinion that you lose the right to complain about something like the launching of rockets and killing civilians if you yourself do the exact same thing in response. This is especially true in Israel's case since they've killed far more civilians then the whole PLO put together.

For example using Israel's own statistics we see that from 2000 to 2012 that the number of Israeli civilians killed was 654 including occupied territories. Whereas Palestinians (funny the table doesn't separate civilians from terrorists or militants) lost 6553 including deaths from the hands of Israeli civilians.

With that in mind you can't really hold onto the moral high ground when your talking about civilian deaths. The only way you could even attempt to cling onto the high ground is if you were racist and viewed Israeli's to be more valuable then Palestinians and that doesn't fly with me either.

Another issue with this favoured argument of the Israeli foreign office is the severe armament disparity between the two. The vast majority of the rockets being launched from Gaza are Qassams, a Qassam is basically the IED of the surface to air missile system.

No those aren't fireworks and this isn't a celebration

Whereas the IDF has the most modern military in the region with generous arms and technology deals with the United States and many European states.

Now to be fair here, despite the comical appearance of the Qassam they do have an effective range (in theory since aiming them accurately isn't possible) that covers a large part of Israel.... Ok not really its at about 10Km and every "successful" strike by Qassam's where in settlements very close to the Gaza and West Bank borders.

Notice the Red, that's the Qassam range
Now Hamas has been able to acquire small stockpiles of more effective rockets as you can see above, in fact they have managed to acquire a few missiles that could reach Tel Aviv. However the majority of its stockpile is the Qassam and thus is the main threat that Hamas can bring to bear on Israel.

Of course a threat isn't ignorable because its small or not likely and I could see why Israeli's would be worried about that rare Fajr falling out of the sky and all but then if I were Israeli I take comfort in the defence system Iron Dome.

Of course this is just an advertisement how does Iron Dome work in reality? Pretty damn good actually.

The Iron Dome system intercepted about 90 percent of the rockets fired at Be’er Sheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon, including three on Sunday morning.
Despite the rocket barrage, Israel kept open the Erez Crossing for passengers and employees of international organizations operating in Gaza. Kerem Shalom was open for the delivery of 200 truckloads to Gaza residents.
Its deployment this past weekend appears to have defeated Hamas, at least for the time being. The terrorist organization has been talking with the new regime in Egypt for another ceasefire after failing to inflict mass casualties or property damage on Israel.

Its important to note that this is the recent exchange of fire which due to Israel's continued "targeted" strikes provoked a response from the military wing of Hamas, so an above average deployment from Gaza. Despite this effective display of Israeli military supremacy it looks like this may escalate into a ground offensive like Cast Lead.

But maybe both sides will just confine themselves to internet flame wars.

I'm surprised they resisted the use of lol and neither of them called the other Teh gay!!!

If your wondering why I keep mentioning Cast Lead (watch the videos) its because that operation left a lot of scars on Gaza and according to people on the ground in Gaza the biggest fear of Palestinian civilians is that another operation like it that effectively destroyed the already fragile economy is on the horizon.

*As I've explained repeatedly there actually is no internationally recognised definition of Terrorism, and looking at how the word is used throughout the world the only universal qualifier is that the group being called terrorist is an enemy of the people using the label. As a result I try to keep my usage of that term neutral as possible to avoid implications of support or opposition.

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