Archive for February, 2016

Trail’s End

February 25, 2016

When will we know that the end is near for Putin’s Russia?  When his underlings repeatedly take their tactical cues from Waking the Dragon, that’s when.  Almost two years ago I urged Europe’s fractious peoples to “Make Art, Not War” as the preferred approach to resolving social conflicts (and we know how that worked out).  But somebody somewhere was listening, because Russia soon embarked on an intensified soft power cultural offensive by deploying its vast strategic reserves of artistic capital –the museum collections of the Hermitage, Tretyakov Gallery, Savitsky Museum and so on.  Art exchange programs with England’s British Museum and National Portrait Gallery ensued, as did a major exhibition deal with the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris; just a few prongs of a multi-tined salient that appears intended to insert the tips of several wedges between the United States and its allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf.

Russia Today

What’s the goal?  Mainly, reducing support among NATO member states for economic sanctions against Russia.  And this strategy appears to be enjoying partial success.  Britain, France and Germany have all been making muted murmured remarks looking ahead to the expiration of sanctions.

But hey, all that’s just ice floes under the Bolshoi Kamenni Bridge.  What really matters, what’s truly disturbing, is the impact my recent blogposts have had in Russian domestic politics.  At the end of January, I blogged about Werner Herzog‘s visit to the mountain ranges of Colorado, and his impromptu diatribe against the stupidity of the netizen masses. And I closed the post with an image culled from the extensive lowbrow oeuvre of Messrs. Howard, Howard and Fine which illustrated Hollywood’s Depression-era riposte to Marie Antoinette’s famous 18me siecle quip “Let them eat cake.”  In short, a riff on the classic Stooges pie-fight that featured escalation to layer cake.  Unfortunately, some nameless Moscow apparatchik took this as a literal suggestion for enhancing political discourse.

  • Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov said he was sitting in a central Moscow restaurant [February 9] when around 10 men of “non-Slavic appearance” entered, threatened him and rammed a cake into his face. The incident came several days after Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s Chechnya republic, posted a threatening video on Instagram that showed Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle.  The Kremlin called the cake attack an act of “hooliganism” and rebuffed the idea that it was related to Chechnya’s leadership.
  • Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny on Thursday [February 25] said attackers threw two cakes in his face in Moscow, adding that the assault was linked to the Kremlin.  Navalny said the attack outside his office was carried out by “some jokers” who “chucked two cakes at me and legged it.”  “Putin and Medvedev see hurling cakes as the only way to respond to the challenges of the opposition,” he wrote on Facebook.


Okay, if this is how it’s gonna be, two things are clear:  Russia is gonna need tremendous bumper crops of soft white wheat and sugar beets to meet its booming demand for cake flour and frosting, and Moscow’s bakeries are gonna have to work double shifts around the clock to finish all their orders scheduled for delivery this coming Saturday.  Why?  Because …

Opposition supporters are preparing to mark Saturday’s one-year anniversary of the shooting of politician Boris Nemtsov close to the Kremlin with a march through central Moscow.



Swimming From Cambodia

February 13, 2016

I’m not sure what they’re smoking in the editorial offices at the New York Times, but it can’t yet be legal in the Empire State.  And it probably never should be.  How might we best describe the decision to publish this particular vacation travel article at this particular time?

  • tone-deaf
  • callously insensitive
  • completely clueless
  • just totally fucking oblivious

I didn’t think our Mediterranean vacation could get much better.  [We] had already swum several miles a day through astonishing turquoise waters off Kas, a remote village on Turkey’s southwest coast, where cliffs soar up from the sea, the soft air is scented with jasmine and views of the glimmering bay are downright therapeutic.

Amid a ring of seven islands, our group of open-water swimmers glided alongside limestone coastlines, the sunlight spangling the underwater landscape of smooth boulders and serrated pillars.  We swam over marine forests swaying in the current.  We crossed into the open sea, pulling rhythmically through a panorama of royal blue, a laser show of sunbeams funneling into a gleaming ring in the depth.

“It’s like swimming in the sky.”

That’s right, at a time when hundreds of Syrian refugees have been drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt the ocean crossing into Greece, the Times decides to publish a puff-piece celebrating an American family’s weeklong swim vacation idyll in Turkey amid “translucent waters under mighty peaks … arcing our cupped hands into the water in unison, catching views of one another with each breath.  It was bliss.


Out of thirty-seven paragraphs, only one sentence buried halfway through the article acknowledges the elephant in the room:

The captain of the daily ferry between Kas (Turkey) and Meis (Greece) said that of the roughly 400 refugees crossing the water into Greece each month, most of them from Syria, 10 to 20 brave the [ 5 kilometer ] swim, waiting for nights with no moonlight so they would be undetected.

But quick, let’s change the subject, avert our eyes, and return to fantasies of paradise:

We swam a foot or two above the cragged shelves of submerged rock, as if soaring over canyons.  We would swim about 20 minutes and stop to rest and drink from water bottles or to check out a turtle floating below, some passing trumpet fish or another otherworldly seascape.  One minute we were peering underwater at the waves plowing fizzily into an island’s limestone bank; the next, we were in open sea more than 100 feet deep, as if drifting through an indigo dome, with no bottom in sight.

This sudden queasiness I feel isn’t seasickness, it’s utter disgust.  I can (resignedly) accept the fact that wealthy Americans are willing to blithely disport themselves in exotic Third World locales while the locals quietly starve within their quaint hovels.  I can (somewhat) sympathize with the staff of the Times travel section, who’ve seen their usually-reliable winter season ‘escape’ destinations suddenly rendered off-limits, ravaged by Zika virus.  But this is too much.  America’s haste to aid the Saudis in their Sunni reconquista has blown back in a big, big way and Syria’s little people are paying the price.  If you’ve already forgotten little Aylan, there are plenty more just like him washing ashore on those craggy limestone beaches.  For them, another kind of paradise awaits.



Burning Questions

February 6, 2016

Wouldn’t you say that Sakurajima is just about as far to the west-southwest as it’s possible to travel in the Home Islands of Japan?  It sure looks that way to me.


So from a feng-shui perspective, it appears that Tai Sui has stirred in his celestial throne just as the Year of the Monkey is about to “officially” commence.  Should we interpret this as an indication that Shinzo Abe, the Diet and the Bank of Japan are pursuing policies that are in conflict with the mandate of heaven?  Probably just a coincidence…


Just to be safe, though, Koreans should probably steer clear of Mokpo for the next few weeks.  Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un are both playing with Fire these days.



February 2, 2016

Last week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon created a modest ripple in the world of international diplomacy by using his pint-sized “bully pulpit” to chastise Israeli occupation and colonization policies as an egregious obstacle to that elusive concept fantasy known as peace in the Middle East.  Initially, in remarks to the Security Council, Secretary Ban limited himself to stating the obvious:

Progress towards peace requires a freeze of Israel’s settlement enterprise.  I am deeply troubled by reports that the Israeli Government has approved plans for over 150 new homes in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank … [and has declared] 370 acres in the West Bank, south of Jericho, as so-called “state land.”  … The Bedouin community, in particular, is paying a heavy price.  I call for an immediate end to Israeli plans to forcibly transfer Bedouin communities currently living within the occupied Palestinian territory in the Jerusalem area.

Predictably, Bibi Yahu and his minions rose to the bait, unleashing a torrent of furious invective that (among other things) accused Ban of inciting Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens.  Undeterred, SG Ban remained on the high road, and chose to respond through an op-ed essay in the New Jork Times –thus directly addressing Israel’s supporters in the United States through their propaganda vehicle of choice.  The medium itself was part of the message :

Polarization showed itself in the halls of the United Nations last week when I pointed out a simple truth: History proves that people will always resist occupation.  Some sought to shoot the messenger — twisting my words into a misguided justification for violence.  But when heartfelt concerns about shortsighted or morally damaging policies emanate from so many sources, including Israel’s closest friends, it cannot be sustainable to keep lashing out at every well-intentioned critic. … The time has come for Israelis, Palestinians and the international community to read the writing on the wall: The status quo is untenable.  Keeping another people under indefinite occupation undermines the security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Et cetera, so forth, and so on.  On the surface, these statements from SG Ban might well be cynically read as yet another instance of empty words from someone with no real power to actually effect meaningful change in an increasingly dire situation. As long as the United States is obliged to back up Israel during a presidential election year, zionist zealots cannot be restrained and Palestinians are doomed to suffer ever-intensifying oppression.  But there are two aspects of Ban’s remarks that I find interesting and worthy of further reflection.

First, the NYT op-ed piece reads as though it was written by (United States Ambassador to the United Nations) Samantha Power rather than by Ban himself.  It has the flavor, tone, rhythm and style of an American writer of English addressing an American readership –more so than would an essay composed by a Korean yangban fluent in the English language as well as his own.  Sure, there are plenty of Americans working in the UN Secretariat as Ban’s subordinates who could have done the job, but I like the idea that Ambassador Power wrote it herself –to send a message– and that the Israelis know it.  Speaking truth to power, so to speak.


Second, let’s reflect on why SG Ban might have been willing to pick a fight with Israel at this particular juncture.  Let’s recall that Ban’s second term as UN Secretary General expires at the end of this year … and that the Republic of Korea will be electing its next president in 2017.  The Saenuri (New Frontier) Party currently holds the presidency and legislative majority in Korea, and last year floated Ban’s name as a potential presidential candidate for 2017.

In order to win a presidential election in Korea (or anywhere else), enormous amounts of money must be spent to “rent” the local and regional powerbrokers who get out the vote on election day.  In Korea (as in the United States) that money comes from the wealthy –the giant family-owned industrial conglomerates (chaebol) that dominate the Korean economy (Hyundai, Samsung, LG, etc.).  The chaebol essentially own Saenuri, much as the Koch brothers own the GOP in the United States.  And where do the chaebol get a significant proportion of their revenue?  I’m glad you asked.


Although China, the United States and Europe are important markets for Korean automobiles and electronics, chaebol subsidiaries in the shipbuilding and heavy construction industries are deeply dependent on customers in the Middle East: specifically, the Gulf states and Arabian peninsula.  Kuwait. Iraq. Qatar. Saudi Arabia. Bahrain. United Arab Emirates.  And now, Iran too.  In Korea, as elsewhere, the customer is always right.  So maybe, just maybe, Candidate Ban is lining up future campaign contributors for a run at the Cheong Wa Dae next year.  After all, if the Saudis are willing to give a $681 million “gift” to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, surely a future President of Korea deserves a little something for his retirement years.


However …

None of this imaginative and fanciful speculation should detract from the fundamental truth of Secretary Ban’s stern admonishment:  Israel’s apartheid colonization policies must cease.  Of course, without regime change this is impossible: these are policies which function primarily to enrich Netanyahu’s cronies while securing his political base.  Thus Israelis have inexorably condemned themselves to close confinement in a ghetto of their own making.  Next year, in Jerusalem (and elsewhere).