Archive for August, 2009

There is a fascinating paper here on how people believed that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qa’ida. Essentially, if you give people enough free-floating emotional energy, they are likely to decide that if you care so much, then there must be an explanation for the holes in your logic. It’s called inferred justification, and it surely explains why the global Right are so keen on content-free mobilisation. Keep’em teabagging, in short, it stops them thinking.

Something similar is at work in this quote in a Conor Foley post at Crooked Timber:

Crime offers the imagery with which to express feelings of loss and social decay generated by these other processes and to legitimate the reaction adopted by many residents: private security to ensure isolation, enclosure and distancing from those considered dangerous

Strategies of neuro-politics; how do you keep other people from thinking, and indeed keep yourself from thinking? In the first study I mentioned, only 2 per cent of the people interviewed altered their beliefs based on new information, and 14 per cent of those who said they believed in a link between Al-Qa’ida and pre-war Iraq in the survey later denied it.

So what are we going to do about it? If the best idea anyone has on the Left is a High Pay Commission, we’re not getting anywhere. I’m against this for a couple of reasons: first, the obvious work-around is to stick to the money as profits, and if necessary, to reorganise at least part of the company so the super-high earners are shareholders or partners. It wasn’t many years ago that Goldman Sachs was still a partnership, after all.

Second, it doesn’t do very much for the office cleaners, even if it manages to offend the investment bankers. It doesn’t even bring in any tax revenue, nor does it hold out any hope of higher wages for the poor rather than marginally lower ones for the rich.

But what it does do is provide a focus for indignation; something to get worked up about, or in other words, a piece of politics-without-thinking.

If that’s no good, neither is the guy who’s trying to bill companies for the time he spent consuming their products; a clever conceit, and probably fun, but tragically art-knobber at bottom. (But then, as the inventor of ContentFree Comment, who am I to talk?) As Owen Hatherley remarks in a cracking interview:

Criticising consumerism is what people do when they can’t quite stomach criticising capitalism.

So, what to do? I was impressed by this guy‘s style – as well as the .38 and the giant TEABAGGERS = FAIL sign, check out all those neat data visualisations on his banner! If Habermas and Hunter S. Thompson had collaborated, wouldn’t it have looked a little like that – the gonzo public sphere…but clearly this isn’t practical or even desirable on a large scale.

The big question, I think, is how to define the Left as the side that’s fighting for positive liberty, and to work out how we operationalise that. Chris Dillow is right that stronger unions, not high pay commissions, are the answer to that particular problem. But I’m also interested in things like this – politicised DIY, basically and this, and of course neurogenesis.

We won’t get anywhere, however, as long as the incredible revolution in our understanding of cognition is reduced to a set of buzzwords (nudge, Taleb, etc) used by the Tories to misdirect attention anyway from the ugly truth.


US security agents indulge in street theatre, frequently accidentally involving members of the public:

As a presidential limousine rolls closer, an instructor cues, “How about a little homicide bomb?” Bracaglia throws himself at the limousine and detonates…..Mike “The Horse” Dutch, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 280 pounds, has been playing villains for five years. He’s been hit by so many training bullets that he has “black-and-blue dots all over . . . the size of a dime.” When Dutch sunbathes at the beach, people stare, “like I have leprosy.”

“I hate getting shot in the rear end,” says Bill Embrey, who wears shorts under his pants to soften the impact. “I’m stiff, for goodness sakes. When did we have our last ‘force on force?’ ”

“Tuesday,” says Dennis O’Toole, his role-playing partner. They ambushed President Obama’s security detail during in-service training, firing simulated AK-47s.

O’Toole rolls up his sleeve, revealing a pocked arm. “Sister Mary Margaret is in these FX [special-effects bullets]. They will help you learn your lesson.”

Embrey and O’Toole play “op-4s,” opposition forces, and “tangos,” terrorists. They specialize in assassinations. Embery’s wife, a kindergarten teacher, describes Embrey’s job as “playing all day.” Some days the men hide out for hours in the woods at a secluded Maryland site, waiting for a motorcade to prey on. Once, after a snowfall, they wore white camouflage and lay so still, O’Toole says, that an agent “stepped on me.”

How many times has he assassinated the president? I suspect he must have some very strange dreams. The bulk of the trainers are out-of-work actors, who volunteer because it beats the usual round of restaurant and bar jobs, but they also include a clinical psychologist who specialises in portraying the maniacs of today. Since the Reagan administration, he’s changed the style but not the content.

When Spodak first played a character named Jeffrey Barry, he was “a mentally ill person, picking up trash and babbling about killing Reagan.” During the 1990s, Jeffrey Barry believed Joan of Arc wanted him to kill Bill Clinton. Today Barry, still mentally ill, wears a Muslim prayer cap, receives messages from the 12th-century sultan Saladin and tells trainees he has incinerated a kitten as “a sacrifice to Allah.”

Characters also change with presidencies. “I just had to dump 18 roles from the Bush administration,” Spodak says.

For Obama, Spodak created a new character, Gideon Caine, a white supremacist who works as a data-entry clerk at Wachovia…

I really, really want to know what the acts whose run in this very special repertory company ended with the Bush years were; wasn’t a Muslim kitten-torcher Cheneyesque enough? You can’t fault the cultural observation, though; where else would a berserk racist teabagger work but at a huge, semi-bankrupt, South Carolinan mortgage lender kept alive by transfusions of public funds?

More to the point, in a real sense, nothing has changed – whatever their props and verbal furnishings, Spodak’s character remains the same, the archetypal crazy gunman. Stephen Sondheim, come to think of it, dedicated a whole drama to the notion that this is a fundamental American character type, and it looks like these guys agree. However, the style is very different. Both highly formalised – motorcade, escorts, crazies – and formless, it can be staged anywhere in the public space, literally shooting holes in the fourth wall and recruiting random civilians into the action. Brecht would approve. Like this:

Five minutes before his job interview, John Fisher parks at Ace Fire Extinguisher Services in College Park, his window open and his stomach jumpy. He is nibbling on spoonfuls of cottage cheese when shouts erupt from the car next to his.

Fisher believes what he is seeing is real.

“Gun! He has a gun!” a man with a Secret Service earpiece yells, riffling through the glove compartment.

Actually, it’s not Fisher who’s pulled a gun, but how long before that happens, and someone who was a spectator a few moments ago gets to become the Crazy Assassin? Until then, of course, the main message the lucky participant/spectators will take away is that they should remain terrified, as David Kilcullen said about airport security. (Come to think of it, that’s another theatrical exercise where you are both a spectator, and also get to play the role of Suspect.)

And this is no surprise; the impresario behind what you might call the Unmarked Gulfstream Ensemble is Military Professional Resources International, Inc, a company better known for hiring ex-servicemen as instructors for armies the US wishes to support.

What about some rugby league, then? First of all, I’m delighted that we had another Challenge Cup that’s gone to an upset; even if Warrington taking it wasn’t quite as cool as the Catalans, it’s still a hell of a long time since they won anything. It’s getting on for a while since their agonising near thing in 1993-1994, when they missed out on the championship on points difference, after losing a game 8-6 to Wigan – had they saved the point, they’d have pipped both Wigan and Bradford Northern. But it didn’t happen; Keighley nearly knocked them out of the Regal Trophy the year after, Jonathan Davies went back to union, Iestyn Harris went on to bigger things.

I was pleased to see regularly underrated Lee Briers have a spectacular match – he’s always been held back by playing for Warrington (among other things). The kick ahead on the second tackle for Chris Hicks’ try should certainly go in the file of great Wembley moments in the game; and wasn’t it good to be back, as well? I always rather suspected that the longer it took to build the damn thing, the less likely it was that Rugby League would ever be allowed back inside it…

In related news, I’m beginning to worry about the future of London RL. History suggests this is one of those things, like Pakistan, that must be more stable than it looks because it’s still here. But some people are suggesting that the union half of Harlequins might be relegated or even banned from their competition over the great fake blood scandal; and what happens to the London club then, now it’s been integrated with them?* It doesn’t look good, even if they are now just another institution I dislike that’s proved me right since about 2001.

*(Did anyone else notice that apparently, Dean Richards was in the habit of threatening players with a spell in the league squad?

This is right, as is this. But what’s this? I essentially joined the Liberal Democrats back in 2004 in order to escape the – ah, thanks, flyingrodent – belligerent content-free woofing blaring out of every other political entity, and here’s the party’s leader in Scotland, whining because they let a guy out of jail to die in a rather less awful fashion than the jail doctors would offer.


Tavish Scott, the Scottish leader of the Lib Dems, said the justice secretary needed to explain his actions to parliament. “The eyes of the world are on the Scottish government and they are being found wanting,” he said. “MSPs need to come back to Holyrood to debate this issue. Parliament must be recalled.”

Oh, of course, it’s all serious and chin stroking David Broder bollocks about recalling parliament and the eyes of the world, but as they say, you’ve got to choose your camp, and Tavish Scott seems to have chosen the belligerent content-free woofers. This is especially worrying, as the Lib Dems’ only people with government experience are the ones who served their time in Cardiff or Holyrood.

Meanwhile, you’ve got a choice between Britain’s Bill Frist (doctor/politicians pretending to diagnose someone by remote control for partisan ends? Just what we needed, Richard Simpson MSP!) and this lot – ever wondered why Squealer in Animal Farm was a pig?

I’m feeling a bit Toyama today, frankly. What worries me is that I don’t seem to be getting angry, just sarcastic, which is less productive.

From the Viktorfeed: Phoenix Aviation/AVE, a company banned from the EU and which has a long history of dubious activities, sent off a flight (number 2E501 – note this as it’s important later) from Dubai at 1539 with destination Bristol (Lulsgate). DXB’s Web site lists it as “passenger charter” (click “more”). AVE is the UAE-based subsidiary of Phoenix set up to operate its Boeing 737s around the worse parts of South-West Asia; we can see that it is indeed part of Phoenix because it tends to use either their ICAO codes (PHW and PHG) or else 2E, which is assigned to a Sri Lankan operator that ceased to exist in 2000.

The aircraft is a B737 Classic; therefore its cruising speed is 485 mph. The ever-handy Great Circle Mapper lets us make a handy map. It’s 3,516 nm from Dubai to Bristol; so that’s a planned flight time of 7 hours 15 minutes. The B737 doesn’t have the range to do it in one jump, however, having a maximum ferry range of 2,240 nm. I’ve plotted that distance from both airports on the map; there will have to be a stop somewhere in the intersection of the two areas.

This gives quite a lot of scope – Istanbul or Bucharest would be the most direct. (Checking, the great circle route goes directly over Bucharest.) Allowing 45 minutes for the tech stop, that’s an eight hour flight, which gives an ETA of 2339 in Bristol. Bucharest, and the EU, would come up after four and a half hours, just after eight o’clock.

obligatory NHS post

Something worth remembering, from comments at Making Light:

Back before she became a vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin proclaimed a “Healthcare Decisions Day” in Alaska, when Alaskans would be encouraged to discuss end-of-life care with their physicians. Just last month Newt Gingrich wrote an editorial for the Washington Post praising “community-wide advance care planning”.

They’re faking it, of course. It’s just another alternative truth; the post-modern politics package is what they do.

But I wondered: what is the special impact of maintaining a system that wastes about a trillion a year, compared to the cost of the same performance elsewhere? Even if there’s $80bn of profit in there, surely any system or elite that was even minimally sane couldn’t accept something the size of the war-swollen budget deficit going down the toilet every year.

As far as I can see, there are a couple of ideological/aesthetic effects of the healthcare system that may explain (or expalin – freudian!) it. The first one is something which I’ve noticed thanks to the blogosphere: Americans talk about health insurance the way drug people talk about drugs. Indeed, it’s the drugs that vary. It’s all about waiting for this, trying to get that, coming up with schemes to get hold of that despite not having such-and-such – a combination of dependency and fascination, on the one hand, and bitter, whining resentment on the other. The system is so complex, and its motivations so mean, that the good ol’ fundamental attribution error makes it impossible to avoid imputing will and whim to it; I’m waiting for my man, indeed.

British conservatives tend not to get this bit, the degree of insecurity it provides; they imagine that you pay a bill every month and it just works. This is of course because of the NHS; if your employer stuck to the premiums, you’re still covered anyway, and the private healthcare biz is limited in how far it can go in “medical loss management” because of the system’s existence.

And insecurity is deeply political – whilst you’re desperately trying to score the next month, what aren’t you thinking about?

The second: The desperate insufficiency of negative liberty. Another thing which always comes up – sticking to some crappy job to get health insurance. This raises an interesting point. What kind of a huge X-inefficiency must that be? Further, if you believe in liberty, what kind of an infringement of it is this? One of the great achievements of the NHS is that you never need to think about it, or rather, that you can think about it in rational, public terms rather than under constant personal and private insecurity.

This is a crucial point about libertarian ideas of liberty – if, as they usually maintain, we need freedom in order to be creative, innovative, and enterprising, why does this usually get delivered in the form of making it as dangerous as possible to be any of those things? It’s almost as if…there was a complete disjuncture between the top layer of ideology and the operational code that makes it all happen!

And thirdly, the flip side of being obsessed with health insurance is being obsessed with health (self, quackery, etc).

No wonder they’re so keen.

Which reminds me; while the transatlantic bit of the whole palaver played out, my grandfather was waiting for the results of an NHS case conference as to whether they could carry out a procedure to place a rather special stent at the very top of his throat, in order to re-open it, without the tumour interfering with his breathing. He’s over eighty, he’s been ill for some time, he’s already had several rounds of radiotherapy. And, of course, he’s not Stephen Hawking, but an old sailor and former GEC Marconi electronics engineer, an orphan who was a communist from the Depression until he got to know Yugoslavia in 1945. The procedure is complicated; they need the respiratory specialist to be present at the same time.

They provisionally scheduled it for Friday after next.

The NHS is perhaps the definitive creation of democratic socialism in Britain…


Well, well; the interesting bit in this story about Blackwater involvement in a CIA assassination program (which didn’t actually happen) is this.

It was never fully operational, and has been canceled twice: once by then-CIA Director George Tenet, restarted by Porter Goss, and finally by CIA Director Leon Panetta in June.

This is crucial; Goss was the leader of the whole Republican/spook intersection, and the patron of the various characters whose corruption landed Randy Cunningham and Dusty Foggo in jail. That he resumed this slightly unlikely project (what good would a bunch of berserkers like that have been for anything discreet? the CIA already has a paramilitary arm anyway…) argues strongly for its being yet more political manipulation or corruption.

Here’s some interesting detail about another angle of the whole thing. Foggo’s old job had been as the head of logistics in Frankfurt, where he behaved like James Bond would have done had he been a real spy – i.e. inefficiently, and surrounded by unwelcome publicity. It seems he was also responsible for setting up the “black site” prisons; which raises another question.

Within days of the attacks, Mr. Foggo had a budget of $7 million, which quickly tripled.

He managed dozens of employees, directing nearly daily flights of cargo planes loaded with pallets of supplies, including saddles, bridles and horse feed for the mounted tribal forces that the spy agency recruited. Within weeks, he emptied the C.I.A.’s stockpile of AK-47s and ammunition at a Midwest depot.

Whose cargo planes? The fateful contract with Brent Wilkes’ Archer Logistics that landed Foggo in jail referred to a “secret plane network”. As far as I know, no-one has ever explained this reference, which presumably meant something beyond the well-known handful of business jets. Out of the original three Viktor Bout-related fuel contracts, two of them (BGIA and Air Bas) were clearly associated with general transport into Iraq. We never did identify what was happening with No.3 (Sky Traffic Facilitators)….

Perhaps the Americans should ask Thailand to extradite him on charges related to his activities on their account? However, if the FARC is considered a protected political entity in Thai law, I suspect the CIA would be as well.

There’s an interesting interview with the Abu Dhabi National here, about some of the founding generation of dodgy Russian businessmen in the UAE, specifically the man who originally registered San Air General Trading. He’s not doing too well. The Bangkok Post has an interview with the man himself, in which you can also see some of his notes from the fateful meeting (to be fair, he denies their authenticity).

And there’s a good story by Dmitri Sidorov of Kommersant which names Igor Sechin, a top official in the Presidential Administration (crazy guys – the same building and the same people as the old Central Committee Secretariat) and now a deputy prime minister, as an old comrade of Bout’s from Mozambique in the 1980s. Which is interesting if true.

As you can probably guess, I’m back; and if anyone can identify any of the songs here, I’d be grateful. Do we have a fado expert in the readership? (Actually, don’t answer that. I encountered a British wannabe expert at this gig and within five minutes I wanted to chuck him in the harbour.)

As a genre, how does this differ from She Was Poor But She Was Honest? Justify your actions.

So what is wrong with Daniel Hannan? To understand this Tory of the Week, it’s worth looking back to this post on the role of the Daily Telegraph in the world media ecosystem. Specifically, it acts as a sort of reflector attack for nonsense, picking up propaganda that can’t be released directly into the US press and rebroadcasting it straight back. Once published by a newspaper of record, no-one has any problem printing it again.

There are two things here; one is the continued attraction of the US’s well funded rightwing infrastructure. Dan Hannan, being an MEP, doesn’t have to publish very much in the way of a declaration of interest – in fact, in the past he’s been pretty strident about this. At the same time, hard-right politicians throughout Europe are well known for funding their party organisations out of EP expenses, and Hannan is doing the reverse; rather than using EP funds for party purposes, he’s using his status as an MEP to go on the speaking circuit in the States and bask in wingnut welfare.

The second is that the US political circuit is being used as a sort of substitute for British politics here. Hannan at least thought he could say things in the States that would get him in a good deal of trouble in either Westminster or Brussels; intervening in US politics is a way of positioning yourself in Tory internal politics, without showing your hand too much. To be publicly rightwing enough that you want to abolish the NHS is not career positive if it gets into the papers; he seems to have thought that the public wouldn’t notice as long as it happened beyond the seas, but that the sort of Tory constituency associations that could get him a Michael Gove-like seat for life would notice.

Interestingly, it seems to be the case that Conservative Party politics operates in a trans-atlantic world akin to “the isles” in recent British historiography – up until the 18th century or thereabouts, it was possible to play off Scotland or Ireland against London effectively, Scottish and Irish armies were deployed to England during the civil war as (mostly) English ones went the other way. Similarly, Conrad Black imagined himself kingmaker from Toronto. It’s happened before, too – here’s a fascinating letter about Saskatchewan’s NHS-like system, which faced a barrage of redbaiting and was eventually set up with the assistance of volunteers from the UK.

It goes beyond the mere intergovernmental alliance; tellingly, Atlantic Bridge in its current form was set up in 2003 to drum up support for the Iraq war, and it is chaired by Dr Liam Fox MP, one of the Tories who spent 2002-2003 arguing that the Blair government was not sucking up to the Americans enough. I’ve argued before that the Decent Left movement has succeeded, in that it’s found a home in the Conservative Party through figures like Michael Gove; Hannan is probably too much of a tribal Tory to be considered Decent, despite being close to Gove and wired up to the Iraq noise machine.

However, all this relies on the Atlantic as a semi-permeable membrane. It is crucially important that only the bits of your westward enterprise that you want arrive back in London. Access to the bridge must be strictly controlled. This appears to be what went wrong with Hannan’s propaganda tour; when the Guardian is one of the most read newspapers in the US, it’s much harder to achieve compartmentalisation, and the instigators of the #welovethenhs Twitter drive blew the seal so comprehensively that they forced David Cameron to join up and very publicly disown Hannan.

Marked out as a loose cannon, his chances of being parachuted into the Commons must now be considered poor. So you can expect a lot more wingnut chum from him, as he steps up his campaign for a sinecure at the Heritage Foundation.

Chris Dillow points out that perhaps, if we were to do it all over again, we might not design the NHS the same way. Well, maybe not. The really interesting bit, however, and the conclusive evidence that this was a content-free piece of Tory internal politics is that Hannan and Gove’s own proposals are essentially identical to Obama’s.

Both books call for the NHS to be replaced by a new system of health provision in which people would pay money into personal health accounts, which they could then use to shop around for care from public and private providers. Those who could not afford to save enough would be funded by the state.

So, personal insurance, with a public sector option, and Medicare/Medicaid benefits. West of 30 degrees, he agrees with people who think this is equivalent to Nazism; east of 30 degrees, he thinks it’s genius. The real content here is that Hannan wants to be considered a maximum rightist in two different political systems, and doesn’t give a damn for the actual content of anything he says.