Sunday, March 22, 2009

Quote of the day: Orhan Pamuk - "Snow"

Just finished Snow (2001), by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, and it's a suitable read for our gloomy winter nights here in Oregon in fact, very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky at his darkest and most philosophical. In one chapter, set in the remote border town of Kars, the narrator invites a group of young people to give Westerners a message. One of them responds:
"Mankind's greatest error," continued the young Kurd, "the biggest deception in the past thousand years is this: to confuse poverty with stupidity...People might feel sorry for a man who's fallen on hard times, but when the entire nation is poor, the rest of the world assumes all of its people must be brainless, lazy, dirty, clumsy fools. Instead of pity, the people provoke laughter. It's all a joke: their culture, their customs, their practices."

PHOTO: Orhan Pamuk (Wikipedia Commons)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Blues Break: Cohen & Robinson - "Boogie Street"

Boogie Street - Lyrics

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we'd meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it's done:
I'm back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it's time to go.
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
I'm wanted at the traffic-jam.
They're saving me a seat.
I'm what I am, and what I am,
Is back on Boogie Street.

And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I'd kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One...

So come, my friends, be not afraid.
We are so lightly here.
It is in love that we are made;
In love we disappear.
Tho' all the maps of blood and flesh
Are posted on the door,
There's no one who has told us yet
What Boogie Street is for.

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we'd meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it's done:
I'm back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it's time to go . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

An animation backs up this fine performance of "Boogie Street" by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, who co-wrote the lyrics.

"Boogie Street" was composed for the "Ten New Songs" album, released in 2001. Another song from the album, "A Thousand Kisses Deep," picks up the Boogie Street motif.

"Ten New Songs" contains some of Cohen's best work and reflects his emergence from a deep depression. For years he lived in a zen monastery with Roshi, his master, on Mt. Baldy in California. During that time his business manager embezzled nearly all his savings . The whole sad story is revealed in interviews with Cohen in the 2006 film "I'm Your Man" (which includes a musical tribute performed in Australia by Nick Cave, U2 and various other musicians). He admits, at one point, that all those years in a zen monastery contributed little to his mental health. He says that other people commented on how calm and "centered" he seemed, yet it was all a facade devised to conceal a prolonged rage that he couldn't escape.

Even though he's now 74, Cohen has been touring in Europe, North America and Australia so he can recover his financial footing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

2,192 days later

On the sad occasion of the 6th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, this observation by Fareed Zacharia in Newsweek is worth repeating:
"The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own—Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world."
To date, at least 4,260 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, and another 31,103 wounded. Estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties vary wildly, from a conservative estimate of 44,645 deaths to the high six figures. (The meticulous compilers of this data at note the following: "This is simply a compilation of deaths reported by news agencies. Actual totals for Iraqi deaths are much higher than the numbers recorded on this site.") An estimated 8,958 members of the Iraqi security forces have also been killed since the beginning of the Bush/Cheney war of aggression.

The situation for most Iraqis remains appalling despite recent improvements in security. AFP reports:
"Millions of civilians are still facing hardship every day," ICRC [Red Cross] president Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement after a five-day visit to the country.

"Indiscriminate attacks continue to leave dozens of people killed or injured on a daily basis despite improvements in the security situation in many parts of Iraq."

In 2007, 17,430 Iraqis died in violence. In 2008, 6,772 people were killed and the first two months of 2009 saw 449 die, the lowest official death toll since the invasion on March 20, 2003.

Basic services like public water supplies are still deficient, as described by Matthew Schofield of McClatchy Newspapers:
The stench of human waste is enough to tell Falah abu Hasan that his drinking water is bad. His infant daughter Fatma's continuous illnesses and his own constant nausea confirm it.

"We are the poor. No one cares if we get sick and die," he said. "But someone should do something about the water. It is dirty. It brings disease."

Everybody complains about the water in Baghdad , and few are willing to risk drinking it from the tap. Six years after the U.S. invaded Iraq , 36 percent of Baghdad's drinking water is unsafe, according to the Iraqi Environment Ministry — in a good month. In a bad month, it's 90 percent. Cholera broke out last summer, and officials fear another outbreak this year.

"Even if the water is good today, no one would trust it," grocer Hussein Jawad said. He said that about 40 percent of his business was selling bottled drinking water, crates of which he's stacked 7 feet high on the sidewalk. "We've learned to be afraid."

The irony of bad water is lost on few here. When the city was founded 1,200 years ago, it was named Baghdad al Zawhaa, " Baghdad the Garden," because water was plentiful. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers formed the boundaries of Mesopotamia and fed the fields in the cradle of civilization.

Meanwhile, George Bush, during a speaking engagement in Calgary, is already plugging his memoirs, tentatively entitled "Decision Points." On CNN, Dick Cheney declares that "stuff happens" — and we "ended up" with two of the longest wars in U.S. history. For Cheney, it's as if the illegal invasion of Iraq was the result of irresistible natural forces rather than a deliberate policy choice. So far there are no indications that either Bush or Cheney will ever be held accountable for that choice, except by historians.

PHOTO: Antiwar demonstrator in Portland, Oregon - March 19, 2006 [M.J. O'Brien]

[H/T to Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings.]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Werewolves and zombies

The AIG fiasco leads to a few unavoidable conclusions:

1) Tim Geithner and Larry Summers need to join the growing ranks of the unemployed, who already number 10.8% of the workforce here in Oregon. Joblessness would only be temporary for them, no doubt. They're old-school crony capitalists who fundamentally don't get it because they're too embedded in the culture of Wall Street. They should be replaced by advisors who aren't totally clueless — people like Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, for example.

2) The behavior of the werewolves who occupy the AIG corporate leadership may be politically tone-deaf, but it was absolutely predictable. The rage is more suitably directed at politicians: the very people who either saw this coming and accepted it, or should've seen it coming and acted to prevent it. The feigned naïveté of politicians who are "shocked" by the AIG bonuses is a nauseating sight to behold.

3) If U.S. taxpayers own AIG (nearly 80%) and the zombie banks, they should exercise a proportionate amount of control over their management.

4) Legal platitudes about the sanctity of contracts were notably absent when the Big Three abrogated agreements with the United Auto Workers and other unions. Worst case: unilaterally rescind the contracts and let the executives make their arguments to a jury.

5) Scary as it sounds, bankruptcy is a better alternative for AIG and the zombie banks than endless bailouts with no transparency. For one thing, Chapter 11 filings would allow these corporations to avoid pre-existing contractual obligations to provide bonuses and golden parachutes. It would also allow them to dump their most toxic assets.

6) Barack Obama's adaptive skills are impressive enough that he can quickly clean house, learn the necessary lessons and move on to a more populist model for economic recovery (with a little help from Reich and Krugman, among many others).

And not least:

7) The whole cultural obsession with short-term gain needs to be examined at the deepest levels, from politics (with its focus on "short-term outcomes dictated by the electoral cycle") to the economy. Short-term gain often produces long-term pain, as the AIG fiasco again demonstrates. [To start, here's a minor suggestion: amend the Constitution to allow for 4-year terms in the House of Representatives to promote long-term thinking and reduce nonstop campaigning and fundraising.]

GRAPHIC: The werewolves at AIG (Wikimedia).

[Note: versions of this entry were cross-posted at Obsidian Wings and Lawyers, Guns and Money.]

Saturday, March 07, 2009

One planet. One people.

As a compulsive collector of quotations, I hereby add the following to the bulging shelves of my archives:
All the world’s stories are America’s stories now, and this is the current glory of our literature; as never before in our lifetimes, so many histories are flooding into America, and so many Americans going out to claim the world as an extension of their homes, that our imaginations are being stretched (one hopes), along with the words we use, the wisdoms we inhabit, the sounds and philosophies we can begin to reinvent. What Barack Obama represents on the global stage, those of his generation and younger (from Ken­ya, from the Dominican Republic, from Korea) are bringing to life on the planetary page.

—Pico Iyer (from a review of Yiyun Li's The Vagrants in the March 6th edition of the New York Times Book Review)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Disobeying a traffic control device, Oregon-style

Deschutes National Forest - Oregon Cascades
[Photo by M.J. O'Brien, 2002]