Friday, May 26, 2006

Understanding the State of the Real Global Economy

Recently I've been spending a lot of time looking into macroeconomics issues and investments. It seems pretty clear to me that the world economy has major economic 'imbalances' that are probably only going to be corrected after the US dollar decreases dramatically and the debt fuelled US economy has a substantial 'correction'. In the short term this would almost certainly mean an economic downturn for most other countries in the world, since the US accounts for so much of the world's economic consumption at present . However, the long term trend of rapid development in Asian countries like China and India is likely to continue.

In term of investments, all this means that US stocks and bonds are a very poor investment. Given the massive structural problems with the US economy (the ENORMOUS government, consumer, and trade debts; military overextension and worldwide hostility; MASSIVE amounts of excess liquidity in markets and real estate; rising oil prices and other commodities; continuing loss of manufacturing base), the dollar is likely to decline relative to other currencies quite dramatically in the near future. Since the dollar is the world's reserve currency and many other major economies suffer from similar economic problems, the classic safe haven of gold will continue to be an excellent investment for some time to come.

In the short term, foreign stock markets, particularly the less established markets, are probably highly vulnerable as well. However, looking at things from a longer time frame, investing in promising areas of the developing market are probably excellent investments. The best approach might be to wait for much of the economic instability to pass, and invest in these markets when most of their companies are bleeding. The rapid development of Asia also means that we are in a long term bull market in commodities such as metals, agricultural goods and oil and etc. Hundreds of millions of newly arrived 'middle-class' Asians will undoubtedly dramatically increase their consumption of basic commodities such as base metals, grains, meat, cotton, oil and etc. There's a huge leap in consumption of most of these commodities when a population moves from a traditional 'peasant' economy to an industrial one. This is also coming in a time where most commodities have been hammered for two decades by extremely low prices, which has meant that countless mines and farms have been closed down making for very low levels of supply. In my opinion, this means we're in the midst the biggest bull market in commodities the world has every seen.

But that's enough of my babbling for now. I'll throw out a few links that I think will give people an accurate sense of the state of the global economy at the moment.

To start off, if one really wants to comprehend what's going with the economy and in the capital markets today, one has to have a basic grasp of the world's current monetary system. If you have no clue what a central bank or reserve currency is than check out this audio series entitled the Wizards of Money. The first few episodes do a pretty good job of explaining some basic ideas about the present monetary system and it's importance for the novice.

To get some sense of how big of a problem the current US government deficits are at the moment check out this interview with the USA's Auditor-in-Chief David Walker on the BBC program HardTalk.

My favorite financial internet radio show to listen to at the moment is the Financial Sense Newshour hosted by Jim Puplava. The second hour where he interviews an expert guest is particularly worth listening too. Puplava's mission is to expose the structural problems with the US economy and to counteract the government spin which attempts to cover-up this situation.

For those interested in investing in gold and precious metals I recommend Jim Sinclair's Mineset blog. Also check out and for breaking news and charts.

One of my favorite market analysts is Marc Faber, a Swiss economist that has been living in East Asia for decades now. He has his own website and newsletter. You can also find his commentary on various websites. To read a detailed summary of his thoughts on the global economy you can check out one of my previous posts. If you're really looking for some insight on the global economy I highly recommend you check out his work.

Here's a couple of websites that do an excellent job of exposing the massaged and inaccurate economic statistics produced by the US government. These websites are crucial for understanding the real state of the US economy, which is at present the driving force behind much of the world's economic growth as well. The first is called Shadow Statistics and the second is Now and Futures. You will need a bit of economic savvy to navigate those websites, but they're worth effort. You can also check out this interview with John Williams of Gillespie Research on how the US government has been continually fudging economic stats on inflation, employment and other variables, painting a far rosier economic outlook than is warranted.

Another couple of very interesting websites that attempt to cut through distortions of mainstream US economists are ITulip and RGE Monitor. Some very good info to be found on both sites.

Here's a very interesting article on financial derivatives by the famed self-made billionaire investor and guru Warren Buffett. It's not an easy read but it's worth the effort. According to Buffett the MASSIVE derivatives industry is creating enormous risk throughout the world's capital markets. This is creating so much potential risk to the derivative holder that he's actually labeled derivatives as 'financial weapons of mass destruction'. He has first hand experience on just how risky and financially painful these derivative positions are from his experience of buying Gen Re and trying to get the company out of it's enormous derivatives tangle. It has been estimated by some that there are hundreds of TRILLIONS worth of derivative bets infesting the capital markets of the world. Needless to say, the unraveling of a portion of these positions could be disastrous. In short, complicated financing of vast amounts of easy money has created tremendous risks which can affect the entire world economy.

My favorite forum for discussion economic and investment issues is the Daily Reckoning Forum. A very free-wheeling and zany place- definitely plenty of 'characters' on that board. But there's also quite a few very knowledgeable and helpful people who post there regularly too. Just be prepared for the occasional extreme political thread, not much censoring of political views there ;-)

If anyone has some good financial websites/resources they'd like to share please post them in the comments. There's tones of good financial info out there, I'm always looking for more good info.

Tracking Shrubya's Crappiness

It should give Bush haters some consolation that the American public has recently been responding somewhat sanely to Shrub's disastrous presidency. Bush's approval ratings have been hovering around 30-35% for the past few weeks. If you take a look at the chart of Bush's historical approval rating the dramatic decline is pretty revealing. Following the huge increase in support following 9-11, aside from a couple of spikes surrounding the Iraq war, Bush's approval rating has been consistently and dramatically sliding downward. It's true a president's approval rating has nowhere to go but down when it's sitting at 90% as Bush's did following 9-11. However, the neverending downward slide, bolstered only temporarily by war euphoria in the lead up and start of the Iraq war, can only be attributed to his failings as president. There just doesn't seem to be a floor for how low these ratings can plunge.

For the sake of comparison, take a look at past presidents' approval ratings at the end of their terms. At present, the chimp seems to be sitting around Carter's end of term approval, but with that downward slope on his historical approval rating and 2.5 years left in his second term it looks like he'll be giving Nixon a run for his money.

In contrast, take a look at blowjob Billy's historical approval ratings.

When Shrubya entered office he vowed that his presidency would be the total opposite of Bill Clinton's. At least in one respect he appears to be well on his way to accomplishing this goal ;-)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

More on the Pro-War Propaganda

Here's an interesting post from The Galloping Beaver on the recent spurious stories over Iran being given much play by the pro-war crowd, this time written from a Canadian perspective. Apparently it was Canada's right wing paper The National Post that first gave this story the play it needed to spread. There's a lot to write about here, hopefully I'll get a chance to pull together some of these recent developments and post my own thoughts soon.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Debunking Pro-War Propaganda on Iran

Recently Professor Juan Cole over at Informed Consent posted an informative piece on the most recent pieces of misinformation being hauled out by the pro-war crowd. He debunks the Iranian dress requirement for Jews story, and points out flaws with the 'Israel should be wiped off the map' quote. Again does any hear about the factual corrections of these stories? Some certainly do, but not nearly as many who heard the misinformation in the first place. The seed is successfully planted. In the end that's all that really matters to the propagandist.

'Fun' Stories From Russia

I came across this English language website from Russia called 'Funreports' via As you might have gathered from the title, the website is dedicated to uncovering amusing and ridiculous headlines from Russia and around the world that would fall in the 'oddly enough' category. If you think you have a dark sense of humour then take a look at these stories. I suspect only a Russian could fully appreciate the humour in some of these stories. Put it this way, if one was looking for some good one liners you could probably do worse than a Russian gallows ;-) It's pretty amusing to read these absurd stories being told to you in not so perfect English. Here are some of the more interesting stories I came across while perusing their website. I'm posting the actual title of the story as they wrote it:

Cat rapes woman after performing oral sex on her

Cow and bull have animal sex in office supplies shop

Russian commando smashes bottles on his head and falls asleep on the 24th

Man carries embryo of his brother under scapula for 35 years

British spy caught on tape masturbating on a stone-like transmitter

German cannibal wants to eat all of Rammstein rockers

Black babes lose their African spirit and attraction in Moscow

Man with a bottle of vodka falls through the ice but never lets vodka drown

Kevin Costner's male organ frightens his masseuse

Actually, after looking over these titles, dark, vulgar, and sex-obsessed seems to be a more accurate description. Good stuff from Russia. I think I'm beginning to understand why the Soviet Union collapsed ;-)

Pravda also has some crazy-assed links as well. Here's an entire webpage from their features section entitled 'some people can live well with knives and nails in the heads'. My favorite is the story of Arthur Javanyan who survived having a knife plunged into his face by a drunken 'friend'. This was my favorite line from the story:
The young man is not going to file a police report against his treacherous friend. He said that he would settle scores with him later.

Talk about the 'Wild East' ;-) For obvious reasons, the 'Russian character' seems to contain a very morose and cynical streak to it. They say that humour is one of the most culturally specific aspects of a society...after reading this post some of you will no doubt agree.

P.S. A totally unrelated but interesting point about Pravda. If you think mainstream media outlets expressing vitriolic anti-American sentiment is confined to the Middle East you're sorely mistaken. Check out this section of Pravda entitled The eyes of Donald Rumsfeld are watching the world. You'll find some blisteringly negative, and even somewhat paranoid, opinion on the US here.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Was Stephen Colbert Funny?

After Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents' dinner a heated debate emerged over whether Colbert's routine was actually funny. The left tended view his performance as extremely funny and a remarkable feat considering the setting, while those on the right either ignored it or proclaimed the act to be a bomb. Radio Open Source recently gathered a panel of commentators with a variety of opinions to discuss this burning issue ;-) By the way, Radio Open Source is an excellent thought-provoking current affairs podcast and website, I definitely recommend you check it out.

I personally thought his routine was absolutely hysterical, but I can definitely see why those with a different political persuasion weren't amused. I think the panelist on the ROS program who said it was routine intended to amuse outsiders rather than the elites gathered in the room was on the mark. Colbert tore apart Shrubya and the White House Press, so it's not surprising his routine was met with stony silence by a room full of his targets. Since he was relentless and pulled no punches and didn't resort to the feel good routine that's expected in that sort of occasion, he really didn't give his 'targets' much room to find any humour in his routine. So no, to them it wasn't particularly funny, but to most of the informed public it was hysterical and definitely holding a mirror to the naked emperor. In my opinion this is satire at its finest, 'mercilessly' exposing the stupidity, incompetence, and cowardice of the powers that be. And yes, undoubtedly it took some massive cajones to pull that one off.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Iraq: The Hidden Story

Yet another example of why the BBC is arguably the best source of TV news in the 'anglosphere'. Here's a revealing documentary on how news is gathered in Iraq and disseminated in the 'Western' media. Iraq: The Hidden Story argues that 'Western' journalists have been hamstrung in terms of what they can report since they are severely limited in gathering news in person. [A poster in the comments pointed out this is actually a Channel 4 documentary and not the BBC- my bad :P Still the doc provides a fine example of why maintream British journalism actually provides a valuable service in contrast to the television news outlets in the USA]

In reality, all media outlets are completely dependent on Iraqi freelance journalists to gather information since most of the country is simply too dangerous for non-Arab journalists. Just think of it as another example of outsourcing, I'm sure they're saving quite a bit of green by relying on the 'natives' as well ;-)

What I suspect is that the US occupation forces are probably not all that much better in terms of their information gathering than the media outlets. In fact, since they are seen as the occupying force, I would imagine that in many ways they're far more limited at gathering information on the ground. Considering this fact, it doesn't exactly give one much faith that the country will be stabilized anytime soon. From the beginning the biggest problems have arisen out of 'cultural rifts' and misunderstandings. Needless to say when there's effectively no dialogue between the occupying force and population, bridging any cultural chasms is virtually impossible. This suggests that not only does the US army have very little control over the country at present, but will likely have limited ability in determining what will happen in the future as well.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More Rarely Viewed Images From Iraq

Previously I posted a link to a Salon article showing some of the graphic war photography from Iraq that are rarely viewed by the public. Here's a link to one of the largest gallery of uncensored photos on Iraq I've come across. Again, as a warning this gallery contains several extremely violent images that explicitly show the disturbing consequences of war.

I'm honestly not posting this in attempt to create more 'anti-war propaganda'. Rather I post this link to bring attention to the side of war that the US government has an interest in suppressing.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Rumsfeld's Logic

Here's an interesting email I got from a friend today.

This reminds me of one of Donald Rumsfeld's "poems",

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

Leave it to "Rummie" to clear things up, but I think we can add a category to Captain Morgan's typology. Namely, that there are things we think we know but in fact do not know. It's what some post-modernist thinkers are calling the end of history and it's easy to see why. Should the propaganda and cover ups be utterly complete, that there is no trace of what really occurred then the lies and deceit become what occurred. You can only imagine how difficult it will be for future historians, who may try to piece together any recent events, to plow through all of the propaganda, innuendo, cover-ups, lies etc and actually decide what is true and what is not. You could probably argue quite convincingly that in a lot of cases they simply won't be able to extract the truth. I have read Hersh's article. Some of the stuff the Shrubya administration believes is nuts. They appear to have become victims of their own propaganda.
America has never really had freedom of the press. If they are not subservient to their government then they are bound to make money by winning viewers. The only way they could have any good journalism would be if social and cultural conditions support consumption of it. As it stands now I find it thoroughly repugnant to watch them exploit stories of child abuse, child porn and murder just to keep their viewers watching. Not to mention the moronic "feel good" stories they intersperse in their newscasts. The evening newscast has become a nauseating emotional rollercoaster ride.
I believe Shrubya will strike Iran too and there's not a lot that will prevent it. He's had a Messiah Complex since entering office and after 9/11 he hasn't tried to hide it. If Shrubya's Presidency isn't already poised to go down in history as the worst the US has ever known, then a nuclear strike on Iran will surely cement that legacy. The US is still the only country ever to use nukes against another country and this is in a world that has seen a maniac like Josef Stalin running a country that possessed them.

Paul Schofield.

Some comments: Paul does a nice job of describing the 'unknown knowns' the Bush administration is completely oblivious too and it's consequences. However, Rumsfeld's 'poem' was actually made to highlight the existence of 'unknown unknowns', those unknown factors that are completely unpredictable. Rumsfeld took the concept of 'unknown unknowns' to its logical conclusion by failing utterly to heed the extensive advice given to him on how to stabilize Iraq. Despite repeatedly commiting stupendous blunders Rumsfeld has somehow avoided pikcing up the label he so richly deserves from the American public- criminally incompetent. Instead he gets chastised for being 'abrasive' or 'lacking in tact'. Wake up people, the man is directly responsible for creating the quagmire in Iraq. Instead of being praised by Bush the lesser, he should be hanging from his heels in the public square.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

More Dark Clouds Gathering Over Iran

By now everyone following the developing news on Iran has heard about Seymour Hersh's article claiming that the Bush administration has decided to carry out plans for a massive bombing campaign of Iran in order to destroy its nuclear capability and destabilize its theocratic regime. Despite the fact that Hersh's article was based on the statements of a variety of high-level sources within the White House, intelligence community, and congress, his article was dismissed as being 'wild speculation' and 'nuts', or 'sensationlistic' by many. However, there's been a couple of recent news items that should be something of a wake up call for those naive enough to think that Bush's belligerence is just empty bluster.

The first item was Blair's sacking of Jack Straw as Britain's Foreign Secretary last week. This piece of news came as a big surprise to many observers. The Guardian weighed in on the issue and speculated on the reasons behind Jack Straw's dismissal from the post. The article argues that Straw was likely removed for two main reasons: 1. His chummy relationship with labour rival Gordon Brown, 2. His recent comments about an attack on Iran being 'inconceivable', and the use of tactical nukes being 'nuts'. The following passage from the article elaborates on the second reason:
Mr Blair, who sees Iran as the world's biggest threat, does not agree with his former foreign secretary. The prime minister argues that, at the very least, nothing should be ruled out in order to keep Iran guessing. Downing Street phoned the Foreign Office several times to suggest Mr Straw stop going on the BBC Today programme and ruling it out so categorically.

His fate was sealed when the White House called Mr Blair and asked why the foreign secretary kept saying these things. In any case, Mr Straw had boxed himself in on Iran to the extent that he would have had to resign if a military strike became a reality.

It should come as no surprise that Blair has denied that the removal of Straw had anything to do with his previous statements on Iran.

The second news item was Bush's statement that the passenger 'revolt' on flight 93 was the 'first blow' to strike the enemy in 'World War III'. Many will likely dismiss this as idle rhetoric or a poor choice of words, but it should be noted that the administration has consciously avoided characterizing the conflict in those terms in the past and has made no attempt to back track on Bush's remark. What many may find more surprising is how welcome his words were to many on the American right. To get an idea of how the pro-Bush crowd responded to his 'World War III' remark, check out this thread on the freerepublic website ('freepers', like many other online Conservative groups, are notorious for their complete unwillingness to listen to any criticism of their glorious leader). The 'freepers' seem pretty delighted by this characterization.

These two stories give us some indication of how charged the Iranian showdown really is. The message behind both stories is the breadth and aggressiveness of Bush's foreign policy agenda. Given that there's nothing in Bush's history to suggest that he will opt for negotiations over military force despite ample evidence that aggressive action would be detrimental, the recent developments seem to point to the conclusion that the Bush administration is paving the way for an airstrike if Ahmadinejad refuses to capitulate. The case for expecting the worst scenario is convincingly laid out in this recent opinion piece by the astute New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

While the Bush administration seems poised to strike intransigent Iran, the American public and media have been 'mobilizing' for military action as well. Feeding the war frenzy has been a relatively easy task considering the deep unpopularity of the target. Of course Ahmadinejad has done much to fuel the fear and anger of the US and Israel. stifling the public's weariness towards war has also been accomplished by the spread of a number of fear-mongering attack pieces on the Iranian president Ahmadinejad. These attacks are largely based on questionable rumours floating around about Ahmadinejad, rumours designed to incite a level of hysteria necessary to get the public on a war footing. One example is the often repeated claim that Ahmadinejad was actively involved in the 1979 hostage taking 'crisis'. This 'photographic evidence' that has been used to spread the notion that the Iranian president was a hostage taker far and wide, despite the fact this 'evidence' has clearly shown to be false. Obviously, if such an accusation were shown to be true, it would greatly bolster support for military action amongst an American public still fuming over the 'national humiliation' of the hostage crisis. Despite the refutation, various war-mongerors allude to this false 'evidence' and unwittingly or maliciously spread misinformation. Professor Gary Leupp author of an article entitled accusing Ahmadinejad, describes how such misinformation, even after being refuted, effectively plants these spurious 'facts' in the minds of the public:
Even so, it serves the Bushites' interests that my morning paper, the Boston Globe, which has relegated the Downing Street memos to its back pages, put the photo in question on page A1 July 1, with the tendentious caption: IRAN ELECTION SPURS QUESTIONS ABOUT 1979. I don't expect another front-page piece any time soon entitled: QUESTION ANSWERED: IRANIAN PRESIDENT NOT INVOLVED IN EMBASSY SEIZURE. Rather, I see a three-sentence AP item in the Globe this morning (July 5) concluding: "Ahmadinejad, who won a landslide presidential election victory, has been accused of taking American hostages in 1979 when radical students seized the US Embassy in Tehran." He has been accused. I suspect many will read that to mean "He did it" and this will pass for truth in pub conversations all over Boston.

Doesn't this process sound all too familiar? Another example of pro-war hyst is evident in the reaction of war-mongering elements over a recent article from Amir Taheri an exiled Iranian journalist hysterically titled The Frightening Truth About Why Iran Wants The Bomb. This incredible report essentially paints Ahmadinejad as an apocalyptic fanatic determined to get a nuclear weapon in order to somehow facilitate the second coming of Shia Islam's 'messiah'. The article essentially says very little other than the Iranian regime is deeply religious and views itself as being in conflict with the US, it present no actual information on what will be done with this bomb. Instead of presenting concrete information and sources the article works hard at planting sinister insinuation to great affect. On top of this, the information is presented by a man exiled by the very regime he writes. Remember the last time the US government relied on an exile community for its intelligence gathering? Given the sensational tone of the article, the complete lack of source material, and the likely agenda of the author, you would think the article would be greeted by healthy skepticism. Instead the pro-war crowd continually pull out this article to bolster their argument that Ahmadinejad is an aggressively dangerous lunatic that needs to be stopped.

Overall, the recent developments seem to indicate that a variety of forces are 'mobilizing' in preparation for a military campaign against Iran. The Bush administration has given every indication that it will use military force to achieve its goals, and we have every reason to believe the threat. I personally suspect that Sy Hersh is right, and Bush has effectively decided to 'take action' if the Iranians do not capitulate. It also seems clear that Ahmadinejad's hardline regime will not yield to Washington's demands. In the final analysis, it's hard to see how a war between the US and Iran will be avoided for the remainder of Bush's second term. The consequences of such an American airstrike will most probably greatly complicate the situation in Iraq, generating tremendous conflict between US forces and the Shia population. In addition, a US airstrike will almost certainly lead to 'covert activity' by both sides in Iraq and Iran. However, these 'complicating' factors can be viewed as desirable, in the sense that they are politically destabilizing events and therefore necessary for reshaping the region as the US sees fit. A project justifiable by an administration believing itself to be engaged in 'World War III'.

Rumsfeld Gets Interrogated By Former CIA Man

Yet another sign of the changing political climate in the US. At an appearance in Atlanta on May 4th, Rumsfeld was clobbered by questions from the former senior CIA officer Ray McGovern. McGovern is a man who spent 27 years serving the US federal government, and was one of the senior intelligence briefers to both Reagan and Bush Sr. Bush Sr. actually awarded McGovern the Intelligence Commendation Medal, which he later returned in protest during the reign of Bush the lesser. McGovern has become a very outspoken critic of the Bush administration, publicly criticizing them for their manipulation and politicization of intelligence, and their use of torture and other human rights violations. McGovern is one of the founding members of a group calling itself Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group dedicated to criticizing the Bush White House for deliberately distorting the work of the American intelligence community. He's also written a number of critical articles that you can find listed here. Here's the video of Rumsfeld finally getting grilled by the former CIA officer. The hesitation and befuddlement Rumsfeld shows is understandable when you consider that this is coming from a very senior level former intelligence agent- I wouldn't be surprised at all if Rumsfeld recognized who he was. You can also find the full transcript of the exchange below.

QUESTION: So I would like to ask you to be up front with the American people, why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary, that has caused these kinds of casualties? why?

RUMSFELD: Well, first of all, I haven't lied. I did not lie then. Colin Powell didn't lie. He spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence Agency people and prepared a presentation that I know he believed was accurate, and he presented that to the United Nations. the president spent weeks and weeks with the central intelligence people and he went to the american people and made a presentation. I'm not in the intelligence business. they gave the world their honest opinion. it appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.

QUESTION: You said you knew where they were.

RUMSFELD: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were and ...

QUESTION: You said you knew where they were Tikrit, Baghdad, northeast, south, west of there. Those are your words.

RUMSFELD: My words ... my words were that ... no, no, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let him stay one second. Just a second.

QUESTION: This is America.

RUMSFELD: You're getting plenty of play, sir.

QUESTION: I'd just like an honest answer.

RUMSFELD: I'm giving it to you.

QUESTION: Well we're talking about lies and your allegation there was bulletproof evidence of ties between al Qaeda and Iraq.

RUMSFELD: Zarqawi was in Baghdad during the prewar period. That is a fact.

QUESTION: Zarqawi? He was in the north of Iraq in a place where Saddam Hussein had no rule. That's also ...

RUMSFELD: He was also in Baghdad.

QUESTION: Yes, when he needed to go to the hospital.

Come on, these people aren't idiots. They know the story.


RUMSFELD: Let me give you an example.

It's easy for you to make a charge, but why do you think that the men and women in uniform every day, when they came out of Kuwait and went into Iraq, put on chemical weapon protective suits? Because they liked the style?


They honestly believed that there were chemical weapons.


Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons on his own people previously. He'd used them on his neighbor (AUDIO GAP) the Iranians, and they believed he had those weapons.

We believed he had those weapons.

QUESTION: That's what we call a non sequitur. It doesn't matter what the troops believe; it matters what you believe.

MODERATOR: I think, Mr. Secretary, the debate is over. We have other questions, courtesy to the audience.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Documentary: Why We Fight

Here's the 2006 Academy Award nominated documentary Why We Fight. I recommend you take a look at it if you haven't seen it already. It does a nice job of exposing the militaristic nature of American society, and the ability of the government to control its citizens in spite of having a 'free and open media'. Actually there isn't too much in the documentary I found all that revealing, but it's effective in presenting its criticism of US policy in a form palatable to the American public.

You can also watch it at Google Video. You can find Eisenhower's military-industrial complex speech here.

Malaysia's Answer to Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude ain't got nothin' on Muhammad and Wook.

Muhammad: I know society is cynical but I didn’t marry Wook for her money. She is poor. Her only asset is her deep religious knowledge. Through her, I can deepen my knowledge of the religion.

Wook: I hope this marriage will last.

Methinks Wook will get her wish.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Power of Nightmares: Baby It's Cold Outside

Here is the first installment of an excellent documentary series from the BBC called The Power of Nightmares. It's split into two sections, both of which you can find below. There are two other parts to this series which I'll be posting on my blog over the next week or so. The first doc in the series, 'Baby It's Cold Outside', makes a compelling case that the present conflict between 'the West' and 'the Muslim world' has been fueled by two revolutionary anti-liberal movements: Radical/Political Islamism and American Neoconservatism.

The documentary draws interesting parallels between the two groups. It notes that both groups are elitist, focused on fear and conflict, and deeply ideological movements. These parallels are intriguing, but not altogether surprising considering both movements have a strong anti-liberal component (i.e. they both feared modern individualism and the culture it 'inevitably' produced). Both Qutb and Strauss were particularly terrified by the notion that anything seems to be permissible or possible in liberal societies.

The intellectual founders of Middle Eastern radical/political Islam and American neoconservatism are the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss. Strauss was inspired by the vision of a Platonic ruling intelligentsia keeping America safe from the inevitable nihilism that results from individualism, while Qutb envisioned a vanguard of pious Muslims keeping the spiritually devoid and selfish materialist culture of the West out of the Muslim world.

Various figures in the Bush administration are linked to Straussian thought, including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Abram Schulsky, and John Bolton. You can listen to a couple of interviews with professor Shadia Drury on Leo Strauss and the Neoconservatives. Here's another interview on Strauss with a panel of political scientists. In Strauss' view, liberal democracy contained the seeds of it's own undoing since it encouraged 'the masses' to engage in uninhibited 'free-thought' which they are inherently 'unequipped' for. This inevitably leads to dangerous experimentation that could destroy society (the Weimar republic being the classic example of this).

The radical political Islamists have direct links to Sayyid Qutb. Osama Bin Laden's 'mentor' Ayman Al-Zawahiri, often described as the brains behind Al-Qaeda was directly inspired by the thought of Qutb, and deeply involved in the political movement influenced by Qutb. The ideas of Qutb have also been one of the main inspirations for political Islamist movements across the Arab world, from Algeria to Palestine. Sayyid Qutb's ideas were formed while living in the US as a student, and were increasingly made more radical during the ten years he spent in Egyptian prisons. He believed that Western culture was creating miserable selfish individuals, completely divorced of any sense of community and the greater good. In his eyes, 'Westernized' individuals thought they were free, but actually their 'liberal freedoms' made them slaves to their 'basest' 'animal' desires.

I found the emphasis the documentary placed on torture at the hands of Nasser's regime in radicalizing the Egyptian Islamists an interesting and compelling point. It seems intuitively correct that the bloody world view of Al-Qaeda would have roots in humiliation and rage, in this case spawned by repressive governments. The most heinous means becomes acceptable when you're convinced your objectives are sublime and you believe your enemy is completely depraved.

It was fascinating and disconcerting to see in the documentary how much Egypt, and the Middle East in general, has 'dewesternized' and increasingly moved towards a politicized version of Islam over the past few decades. Some would probably rightly argue that 'westernization' only extended to a small elite in these societies, and the rise of conservative forces has coincided with the growth of democratic and anti-authoritarian notions in these societies. There is probably some truth to this, but it should be noted that radical political Islam has done great harm to itself across the Muslim world in the last couple of decades. The violent tactics, repressiveness, and incompetence of the political Islamists displayed in Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt etc. had largely discredited these movement by the late 90s. This argument has been articulated quite well in a book titled Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel. According to Kepel the events of September 11th, instead of showing the strength of the political Islamists, was actually an act of desperation by a floundering movement. I believe there's a great deal of truth to this view; political Islam was largely successfully stifled by the powers that be, failed to receive the support it expected from the 'masses', and demonstrated an inability to adequately govern where their revolution was successful. Unfortunately, the events following the September 11th attacks have breathed new life into political Islamism by reinforcing the notions of assimilative Western imperialism and an inherent hostility of Westerners towards the Muslim world.

Another intriguing and troubling theme raised by the documentary is the concept of the 'noble lie' or myth-making advocated by Straussian thought, and the use of misinformation by 'Straussians' involved in American politics. Particularly interesting was the revelation that Pipes and Wolfowitz deliberately built up an exaggerated case of a Soviet threat. Dangerous weapons were hypothesized to exist and it was argued that there existence could not be disproven despite the lack of any meaningful evidence. Even more troubling was how the documentary demonstrated distortions deliberately fabricated by the CIA were actually believed by Reaganites, and were used to justify increased aggressiveness towards the Soviets. Needless to say, this should sound eerily familiar to the reader.

While I thought the makers of the documentary did an excellent job of drawing the links between the anti-liberal roots of ideologues on both sides, it did have its limitations. Obviously with the short time frame, and the nature of the medium, the documentary could only delve into the complex subject matter it investigated in partial detail. The creators of the documentary were sometimes forced to draw facile conclusions for the sake of affect, when more detailed inquiry is occasionally called for. This gives neocons and their sympathizers far too much room to maneuver, and respond to the doc by dismissing it as a dramatic oversimplification of Straussian thought and the influence it has had on American politics. Also, there are other important factors behind radical political Islam which the documentary doesn't address. In particular, the influence of the Saudi petrodollar-funded spread of Wahhabi/Salafism isn't discussed. In my opinion, this is an influence at least as pernicious as Qutb and the Egyptian Jihadists. But as I mentioned above, I believe these important omissions by the documentary are primarily due to the limited time and lack of viewer knowledge on the subject matter. Overall, the doc did a remarkably effective job in connecting the dots and providing insight considering the constraints.

One final point that I think is important to make is that while their ideology should be condemned, there are some valid complaints that both Strauss and Qutb had about modern liberalism. Strauss' ideas were formed primarily out of the rise of Nazism from the Weimar liberal-democracy in Germany. The divisiveness and instability of the Weimar republic did enable a radical figure like Hitler to rise to power. Liberal democracy failed to provide stability to Germans in the chaotic aftermath of World War I, and the inherent divisiveness of liberalism was ruthlessly exploited by the Nazis for their own advantage. A Straussian would presumably argue that, a 'morally grounded' society with de facto constraints on democracy, would have provided the necessary stability to have avoided such disastrous consequences. Similarly, Qutb recognized that a liberal secularized society tends to degrade notions of community and greater good in the name of selfish individualistic desires. Liberalism naturally leads towards an ever-present nagging skepticism and a questioning of all tradition. To Qutb, a man raised in the pious and modest world of Egyptian village life, he could see the seeds that 'western' liberalism would plant that would undermine the aspects of his identity that he held most dear.

The point that both ideologies neglect is that while a meaningful commitment to human liberty will necessarily produce negative consequences, so does any other form of government. While liberalism does tend to diminish traditional beliefs and is inherently chaotic, the codified freedoms it provides are also what safeguards the pious from persecution and provides some means of preventing despots from accumulating too much power. While the Straussians and radical Islamists might think that a whole-hearted embrace of liberalism might inevitably lead to the enslavement of mankind, they fail to recognize that their own ideologies are much more likely to produce repressive and regressive societies.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Gender Studies: Phallic Symbolism of 9-11

Recently came across a strange article with one of the most absurd metaphors I've seen in my life. The article is entitled The Land of the Smoldering Vagina. Ridiculous, kinda stupid, but also oddly compelling.

Within five weeks of the World Trade Center incident, five different men and women said to me, "The phallic symbol of America has been cut off. " I was surprised to learn of this undercurrent of feeling among the people, especially amidst the genuine concern for the victims and their friends and families, but upon reflection, I realized the depth of their statements.

The phallic symbol of America had been cut off, and at its base was a large smoldering vagina the true symbol of the American culture for it is the western culture that represents the feminine materialistic principle, and it is at its extreme in America.

The smoldering vagina is unsatisfied, it wants more cars, more clothes, more food, more drink, more money, more stuff. I want more, more, more are the shouts coming from the land of the smoldering vagina.

This thought-provoking article is posted on the website of a group calling itself Men's Action. This is an excerpt from their mission statement:

A natural way of life is a balance between the masculine, feminine, and life principles.

Do you know the functioning of the entire universe is based upon gender? That everything created in the universe is a result of a pregnancy?

Western culture in its ignorance is attempting to create a genderless society. Pregnancies can not occur without the interplay of gender. Standards can not exist without the interplay of gender. Family can not be without the interplay of gender.

A genderless society will disintegrate because it based on an unnatural premise. Our society is disintegrating.

Yes, thank Men's Action for uncovering the REAL significance of 9-11. ;-)

One of the things I found 'interesting' about the article is that it equates material greed with femininity. Not too sure about that one. I think you could make a reasonable argument for either side being more materialistic. Perhaps women are more 'worldly', i.e. focused on people and things in their day-to-day life, I think that's probably true. While 'Men's Action' proposes to restore balance to the world through gender realignment, I'm inclined to believe that one of the defining features of maleness is precisely a lack of balance. Almost by definition women are more 'grounded', while men are more likely to be more extreme and have their 'head in the clouds'. North American society has probably become more 'feminine' in many respects, but if there is a 'dominant gender outlook' it's still probably a male one. I agree that much of what is natural male instinct has been pathologized, but so have many female instincts. The modern ideal does seem to be some sort of gender neutrality- adopt whatever characteristics are best in terms of making you a good drone. Bah, enough of this silly gender babble.