Between a Rock and a Hard Country

My review of Anatol Lieven’s must-read book, originally published at IPS.

It is almost obligatory these days to subtitle books on Pakistan with some conjunction of ‘failed’, ‘dangerous’, ‘lawless’, ‘deadly’, ‘frightening’ or ‘tumultuous’. Pakistan is a ‘tinderbox’, forever on the brink, in the eye of the storm, or descending into chaos. It is an ‘Insh’allah nation’ where people passively wait for Allah. In the narrow space ‘between the mosque and the military’, there is much ‘crisis’, ‘terrorism’, ‘militancy’ and ‘global jihad.’

British author and policy analyst Anatol Lieven’s refreshingly understated title Pakistan: A Hard Country eschews emotion for description, which is fitting because the book is a 519-page myth- busting exercise.

Lieven, currently a fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that some of the alarmist claims about Pakistan are indeed true – it is a corrupt, chaotic, violent, oppressive and unjust country. But it is also a remarkably resilient one. It is not nearly as unequal as India or Nigeria, or for that matter the United States. Its security is beset by multiple insurgencies but they affect a smaller proportion of its territory than the ones India faces. Its cities are violent, but no more so than those of comparable size in Latin or even North America. It has an abysmally low rate of tax collection, but, at five percent of the GDP, it also has one of the world’s highest rates of charitable donations. It is no doubt corrupt, but this is due less to the absence of values than to the enduring grip of the old ones of loyalty to family and clan.

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Asad, Shaaban and Me

I was on BBC Radio 4′s The World Tonight again last night, again talking about Syria. Boutheina Shaaban – translator of Chinua Achebe’s excellent novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ into Arabic, but someone who has clearly forgotten the value of words – comes before me. Unfortunately the dispute over Abdullah Gul at the end (I was right) made me forget what I was talking about.

SlutWalk Lands in Tegucigalpa

This video was produced by Jesse Freeston for The Real News Network. Highlights include particularly appalling logic from Francisco Murillo Lopez, head of Honduras’ National Directorate of Criminal Investigation, according to whom an alleged increase in gender equality in the country has made it “normal to see women dying”.

United States: John Pilger film and visit banned

In early June, ZCommunications received the following open letter from independent filmmaker and journalist John Pilger to Noam Chomsky and the general public. Pilger was to speak on 15 June at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe. See Patrick Lannan’s subsequent explanation for the cancellation here.

* * *

Dear Noam…

I am writing to you and a number of other friends mostly in the US to alert you to the extraordinary banning of my film on war and media, ‘The War You Don’t See’, and the abrupt cancellation of a major event at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe in which David Barsamian and I were to discuss free speech, US foreign policy and censorship in the media.

Lannan invited me and David over a year ago and welcomed my proposal that they also host the US premiere of ‘The War You Don’t See’, in which US and British broadcasters describe the often hidden part played by the media in the promotion of war, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film has been widely acclaimed in the UK and Australia; the trailer and reviews are on my website www.johnpilger.com.

The banning and cancellation, which have shocked David and me, are on the personal orders of Patrick Lannan, whose wealth funds the Lannan Foundation as a liberal centre of discussion of politics and the arts. Some of you will have been there and will know the Lannan Foundation as a valuable supporter of liberal causes. Indeed, I was invited in 2002 to present a Lannan award to the broadcaster Amy Goodman.

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The Ethical Governor

It is rather rare these days to discover art of such extraordinary creative genius that it leaves one impoverished for words. That rare moment occurred for me a couple of days back when I saw ‘The Ethical Governor,’ a short animation produced by the writer, musician and animator (or his preference: ‘electronic artist’) John Butler. It is the product of a sparkling imagination and technical virtuosity in which there are traces of Swift, Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, early Coetzee, and Philip K. Dick. Like the masters, Butler takes extant tendencies in society and brings them into sharp focus in works that combine social consciousness, perfect pitch irony, clever wordplay, subversive wit and spectacular visuals. He describes his art as ‘speculative fiction for the age of financialization’, and anyone who has delved into the world of CDOs, CDSs and SPVs will understand where he is coming from. Last year he told an interviewer:

I’m interested in human utility in the drone age.  Human redundancy in the unmanned economy.  I’m interested in the war between Finance and Humans.

I’m interested in the Universal Transaction Space we all now inhabit. […]

Speculative fiction is important because the future seems to be behind us, and nothing lies ahead. We’re just waiting for the next upgrade.

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What Next?

Steve Bell's Bashaar

Here’s today’s Guardian article in its pre-sub-edited form.

Last January Syria seemed, along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, to be amongst the least likely candidates for revolution. If President Bashaar al-Asad had run in a real election, he may well have won.

It’s difficult remembering it today: most Syrians did grudgingly credit the regime with ensuring security and prosecuting a vaguely nationalist foreign policy. It’s that keen desire for security, the overwhelming fear of Iraq-style chaos, which keeps a section of Syrians fiercely loyal to the regime even now.

To start with, although they were inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, most protestors didn’t aim for regime change. The first demonstration – in the commercial heart of Damascus – was a response to police brutality. That one ended peacefully, but when Dera’a protested over the arrest of schoolchildren the regime spilt blood. Outraged, communities all over the country took to the streets, and met greater violence, which swelled the crowds further. A vicious circle began to spin. All the intelligence, and the nationalist pretensions, peeled away from the government to reveal a dark and thuggish core.

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Don’t Look Away: The Siege of Gaza Must End

by Kathy Kelly

In late June 2011, I’m going to be a passenger on “The Audacity of Hope,” the USA boat in this summer’s international flotilla to break the illegal and deadly Israeli siege of Gaza. Organizers, supporters and passengers aim to nonviolently end the brutal collective punishment imposed on Gazan residents since 2006 when the Israeli government began a stringent air, naval and land blockade of the Gaza Strip explicitly to punish Gaza’s residents for choosing the Hamas government in a democratic election.  Both the Hamas and the Israeli governments have indiscriminately killed civilians in repeated attacks, but the vast preponderance of these outrages over the length of the conflict have been inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers on unarmed Palestinians.  I was witness to one such attack when last in Gaza two years ago, under heavy Israeli bombardment in a civilian neighborhood in Rafah.

In January 2009, I lived with a family in Rafah during the final days of the “Operation Cast Lead” bombing.  We were a few streets down from an area where there was heavy bombing. Employing its ever-replenished stockpile of U.S. weapons, the Israeli government sought to destroy tunnels beneath the Egyptian border through which food, medicine, badly-needed building supplies, and possibly a few weapons as well were evading the internationally condemned blockade and entering Gaza.

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No Room for Jello!

Jello BiafraAnarchist and punker Jello Biafra and his band, The Guantanamo School of Medicine, are coming to perform in Israel. I’m not going to get into how is it that an anarchist tries to get elected for president of the American empire, I’ll just focus on the issue at hand.

Ironically enough, about a week before Jello made a really bad public statement (we’ll get to that in a moment), PACBI issued a clear cut statement to address all kinds of excuses that we’ve been hearing since the inception of the movement, seven years ago:

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To The Point on Syria, Libya, NATO

I was interviewed on KCRW’s To the Point. The programme focuses on Syria, Libya and foreign intervention. I was in august company – Anthony Shadid, New York Times correspondent and author of the wonderfully-written book on Iraq, Night Draws Near; as well as Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy magazine.