Saturday, November 24, 2012


I'm sure I'm not alone in getting most of my exposure to music from the movies. Pop music, I got from the radio and from peers, but any of the classics that mean anything to me came from films I've watched.

I'd like to share Pavane, a piece by Gabriel Fauré written about 130 years ago. The movie is Il Divo, a biopic from Italy made in 2008 about the notoriously corrupt prime minister Giulio Andreotti. I suspect watching this sequence of the film was the first time I'd heard it, and it immediately embedded itself inside me. In the 'popular culture' section of the wikipedia entry on the music, Il Divo is the first and foremost reference. There are a couple of other references, but nothing familiar to me. How can such a beautiful piece of music go ignored by film makers for so long? Perhaps Pavane is only now gaining popular recognition. Anyhow, it's hard to believe that I've never heard Pavane before watching Il Divo; it's possible that only the vision of the film maker, Paolo Sorrentino, managed to capture the music's mood and the un-despairing, stoic loneliness of Andreotti's character. Rather odd in music that originated in a dance.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Disproportionate Gaza

With the commentary over the fighting in Israel and Gaza over the past few days, I noticed a repeat of something weird from the last round four years ago: the systematic mis-construing of the concept of proportionality in warfare. It's actually a fairly simple concept. Here I quote from the Wikipedia article on Just War Theory:
Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of proportionality. An attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).
In a military operation to seize a bridge, for example, one civilian casualty can be excused, but the deaths of a million in the seizing of the same bridge would be seen as a war crime. I've read about proportionality for some years now, and I don't think I recall ever having any trouble understanding it. Of course in applying it, things can be difficult. Just where is the line between proportionate losses and disproportionate losses? It's never clear, but the principle itself is not beyond the understanding of children.

Here is Walter Russel Mead, an American pundit, a 'centrist' I figure, giving his definition of proportionality:

One of the criteria for jus in bello (fighting nice as opposed to jus ad bellum which is about whether it is just ) is proportionality. If the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife. If he’s got a knife, you can’t pull a gun. If he burned your barn, you can’t nuke his capital. Your use of force must be proportionate to the cause and to the danger.
 Where this comes from, I have no idea. But it's not new. I saw other pundits making the exact same claim during the 2008 fighting. Proportionality has nothing to do with limiting the response to equal the provocation. It's about limiting the damage to non-combatants.

Walter Russel Mead goes on to make some dubious remarks about why Americans aren't swayed by arguments for his own version of proportionality in warfare. For whatever reason, he ignores the fairly scrupulous policies of the US Army when it came to bombing Germany. In the fire bombing of Dresden, for example, the British launched indiscriminate night raids, while the Americans tried to limit damage to German civilians by targeting industrial assets in more dangerous daylight raids. In other words, the Americans showed an intention to practice proportionality. I should note, this only applies to the European theatre, and once the action shifted to Asia, the Army abandoned proportionality, and carried on as the British. Mead actually raises the possibility of racism, and does so very weirdly:

Commentators around the world grasp at straws in seeking to explain what’s going on. Islamophobia and racism, say some. Americans just don’t care about Arab deaths and they are so blinded by their fear of Islam that they can’t see the simple realities of the conflict on the ground. Others allege that a sinister Jewish lobby controls the media and the political system through vast power of Jewish money; the poor ignorant Americans are the helpless pawns of clever Jews. Still others suggest that it is fanatical fundamentalists with their carry on flight bags packed for the Rapture who are behind American blindness to Israel’s crimes.
I have to confess I don't see much of an argument there. There's a lot of muddle and dis-ingenuousness that characterizes  much of the discussion on the conflict. Why Americans are appalled at the killing of children by primitive weapons in the hands of Gazans is never addressed. Anyhow, none of this is new, and it's all more or less a repeat of what came before.

What's new here is the perverse twist Mead gives to this line of reasoning. Again I quote:

the television pictures that drive much of the world away from Israel often have the effect of strengthening the bonds between Americans and the Jewish state
American TV viewers seeing the torn bodies of children killed by Israel actually has the effect of strengthening the ties between their country and Israel. This is perverse, as I've said. But let's say it's true. I don't see how this advances Israel's cause in any meaningful way. Sure, Israel has leave to kill a few more children the next day without fear of being blamed. However, impunity with American TV viewers in killing children is not going to win any war for Israel. Thinking otherwise is just more evidence of Israel's moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving and Taking

Thanksgiving is a time of abundance, a festival of consumption held at harvest time when food is never more plentiful and better eaten even in extravagance than allowed to spoil and go to waste. Feasts like Thanksgiving are held all over the world and are a joyful occasion.

But there is a dark side to the holiday, a side that seems to go hand in hand with all festivals of consumption - sacrifice. With Thanksgiving as its celebrated in North America the sacrifice is fairly benign. The president makes an appearance on television, metaphorical axe in hand, several days before the holiday and spares the life of a turkey. The little ceremony ends with those concerned gathered around the bird, petting and stroking it. Remarkably, it's the only routine presidential appearance I'm aware of where he exercises his power to grant mercy. Of course for every bird to receive a presidential pardon, millions more are sacrificed. And that brings me back to my point - plenty and punishment are two p's in a pod.

We live under a regime of consumption called capitalism. The imperative is to expand. This is well understood. One aspect that might need a little more attention is not expansion as embodied in economic growth, but expansion in time. Feasts of consumption like Thanksgiving and Eid last but a day. Oktoberfest lasts sixteen days. Capitalism however fills almost the entire calendar. Thanksgiving requires the sacrifice of a single bird. Capitalism requires a continuous flow of victims, many of them human.

The creation of excess these days takes many forms: it's not just limited to buying things and using them, and there's more to it than waste and unwanted by-products. It's also the creation of works of art and the construction of monuments. At its most basic, it's idleness; at its most malevolent, war.

This gets me to the point of my post here. It comes from something I've noticed in discussions of economic and social issues like pollution, global warming, and unemployment; issues that arise out of the excesses of capitalism. What I've noticed is how easily and unquestioningly sacrifice is accepted as though it is a part of the plan. Sacrifice is there in the denial of global warming or the dismissal of concerns over pollution or untested technologies. Sacrifice is there in the contempt for the poor. It's there wherever economic expediency trumps concerns over the welfare of living things.

Sacrifice has long been part of spiritual practice, a way to satisfy the gods' taste for burnt flesh. Maybe today it's the ever extending reach of the market's invisible hand we are placating. For me, these gods are too greedy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cambodian Controversy

Here's the opening paragraph in an article from the Asia Times a few days ago:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC plans a new exhibition on Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, but it is uncertain if the American secret bombing of the country, which some analysts say helped the radical Maoists come to power, will be included in the presentation.
Some analysts say? I've read quite widely on that period of Cambodian history, and I'm pretty sure I've never come across a writer claiming that the bombing played anything but a helpful role to the Khmer Rouge. Julie Masis, the author of the article, returns to this question near the end and states again that there is some controversy over the bombing and even claims that it may have postponed the eventual victory of the Khmer Rouge. Significantly, no one who espouses this is quoted or even named, though Ben Kiernan, probably the foremost expert on Cambodia in the English speaking world, at least, is mentioned saying that the bombing drove Cambodians into joining the Khmer Rouge. From '65 to '73 there were some 2.7 million tons of bombs dropped over Cambodia by the USA. This is about as much as all the bombs dropped by the Allies during WWII. It's not quite clear whether Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam can claim to be the single most bombed nation in history. One of them certainly can, and they are all in the top three. Even these days, about once or twice a week, someone in Cambodia is killed by UXO - unexploded ordnance - suddenly and lethally exploding.

So how does a massive bombing campaign help a ragtag bunch of communists sitting in the jungle?  The numbers of Khmer Rouge fighters grew under US bombing because it disrupted the lives Cambodian peasants who, unable to carry on as normal, entrusted their children to them. They fed, clothed, housed, and educated these children. They also turned them into an army, the same army that marched into Phnom Penh. Without the US bombing, the Khmer Rouge may well have remained an obscure collection of intellectuals exiled in the jungle.

An exhibition of the period in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, in America for Americans, which makes no mention of the bombing would be a travesty.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembrance of Bums Past

My memories of Remembrance Day go back to elementary school when classes were suspended and we were marched off to the gym and shown grainy film of WWI. We were also exhorted to 'remember' the sacrifice of soldiers who died decades before we were born. There was also a somber minute of silence at exactly eleven o'clock. My mania for counting can't compare to that of the Marquis de Sade, but reflecting now, my habit of taking pause to carefully note the passing of repeated numbers like May 5th, 5:55:55 PM may well date back to our observance of Remembrance Day, and is an idiosyncrasy I remain in thrall to still today.

Another memory from the same period is visiting the larger towns and cities in Southern Ontario. Compared to my home life in countryside, there were many differences of course and one that stood out was the presence of older men, dishevelled,  drunk, loitering in the streets and often panhandling for change. Bums and winos is what we called them. Years later, I came to realize there was another word for these men: 'veterans.' They undoubtedly had experienced the horrors of war, and had failed to overcome them once they returned to civilian life. Strange that we went to such trouble to remember, almost to the point of worship, men who sacrificed their lives in battle. It was all rather vague, like the graininess of old battle footage; even the dead were abstracted to the personage of the unknown soldier. All the while those who had sacrificed their sanity and their place as respected members of society went ignored, stigmatized and scorned.

With the war in Afghanistan continuing today, here's at least one venerable Canadian tradition the government seems determined to preserve.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Claiming the Mantle of Victimhood

After an election there are losers. Be on watch for those claiming the mantle of victimhood. It's never too far from the surface of things. Here's a short excerpt from a long novel of 1997, Don DeLillo's Underworld:

In the bronze tower we used the rhetoric of aggrieved minorities to prevent legislation that would hurt our business. Arthur Blessing believed, our CEO, that true feeling flows upward from the streets, fully accessible to corporate adaptation. We learned how to complain, how to appropriate the language of victimization. Arthur listened to gangsta rap on the car radio every morning. Songs about getting mad and getting laid and getting even, taking what's rightfully ours by violent means if necessary. He believed this was the only form of address that made an impact on Washington. Arthur recited lyrics to me once on the company plane and together we laughed his wacko laugh, those enunciated ha-has, clear and slow and well spaced, like laughing with words.