A. Loewenstein Online Newsletter


Lessons of Keystone XL for #Occupy

Posted: 21 Nov 2011


How to mobilise people power against corporate power is a key task of the 21st century, as disaster capitalists attempt to swarm around energy resources. Interesting piece by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker:

Last spring, months before Wall Street was Occupied, civil disobedience of the kind sweeping the Arab world was hard to imagine happening here. But at Middlebury College, in Vermont, Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence, was leading a class discussion about Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr., and he began to wonder if the tactics that had won the civil-rights battle could work in this country again. McKibben, who is an author and an environmental activist (and a former New Yorker staff writer), had been alarmed by a conversation he had had about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline with James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and one of the country’s foremost climate scientists. If the pipeline was built, it would hasten the extraction of exceptionally dirty crude oil, using huge amounts of water and heat, from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, which would then be piped across the United States, where it would be refined and burned as fuel, releasing a vast new volume of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. “What would the effect be on the climate?” McKibben asked. Hansen replied, “Essentially, it’s game over for the planet.”

It seemed a moment when, literally, a line had to be drawn in the sand. Crossing it, environmentalists believed, meant entering a more perilous phase of “extreme energy.” The tar sands’ oil deposits may be a treasure trove second in value only to Saudi Arabia’s, and the pipeline, as McKibben saw it, posed a powerful test of America’s resolve to develop cleaner sources of energy, as Barack Obama had promised to do in the 2008 campaign.

McKibben concluded that the pipeline couldn’t be stopped by conventional political means. So, in June, he and ten other activists sent an open letter to the environmental community saying, “It’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces. We don’t have the money to compete . . . but we do have our bodies.” Beginning in August, the letter said, volunteers would be needed to help provoke mass, nonviolent arrests at the White House. The activists called for civil disobedience, with the emphasis on the “civil”: “Come dressed as if for a business meeting—this is, in fact, serious business.” Waves of neatly outfitted people started showing up at the White House, and by the time the action ended, on September 2nd, more than a thousand had been arrested at the front gate for trespassing.

Still, the protesters didn’t feel that they were being taken seriously, so, as the last of them were being handcuffed and led away, McKibben met across the street with a senior White House official. He said that although the environmental movement had supported the President, wherever he went now demonstrators would be there, too. “We’re not going to do you the favor of attacking you,” he said. “We’re going to do the much more dangerous thing of saying we need to hear from the Obama who said those beautiful things in the campaign. We expect him to do what he promised.” In other words, where the Tea Party took inspiration from the Revolution, the anti-pipeline activists would draw from “Lysistrata”; instead of going to war against the President, they threatened to get out of bed with him unless he shaped up. Knowing that Obama wanted their support in 2012, they would attract his attention by playing hard to get.

NGOs and engaging “terrorists”

Posted: 21 Nov 2011


Now this is interesting. Since September 11, 2001, we’ve heard constant bleating from many conservatives and keyboard warriors that we shouldn’t “deal with terrorists” (er, apart from our friends who practice terrorism, of course).

The Guardian on reality in the real world:

A controversial new book produced by one of the world’s best-known aid agencies, Médecins sans Frontières, lifts the lid on the often deeply uncomfortable compromises aid organisations are forced to make while working in conflicts.

How humanitarian aid organisations work – and the sometimes unintended consequences of their actions – has been brutally cross-examined in recent years, not least by the critical Dutch author Linda Polman.

MSF’s collection of essays, Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed, has provided the most detailed and self-critical inside account of the deals aid agencies are forced to negotiate, often with groups and regimes which abuse human rights, to continue their work.

Launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the medical aid agency, the book offers a rare and unflinching portrait of some of MSF’s most difficult recent operations, including in Sri LankaSomaliaBurma, Pakistan and Gaza.

Amid the criticism that has been levelled at aid organisations – including the charge that humanitarian operations have sometimes prolonged conflict through imposed alliances with warring parties – the book asks: what constitutes an acceptable compromise with political and military figures?

Known for often being the last group on the ground offering assistance when others have pulled out, MSF decided that a candid examination of these operations was in keeping with its best tradition.

MSF found itself in an unenviable position in Sri Lanka. Suspected by the government of being pro-Tamil Tiger, MSF found itself co-opted to working within a government “pacification policy that had settled the ethnic question in Sri Lanka by bombings and military surveillance”.

In Somalia, MSF was forced to run many operations by “remote control” because of the risk from Islamist fighters. In 2009, MSF was subjected to a 5% tax on the salary of all MSF employees by the al-Qaida linked al-Shabaab militia, not to mention “registration” costs of $10,000 (£6,300) per project, a $20,000 tax every six months and was told to dismiss all female employees.

Benoit Leduc, head of mission for MSF, France, told the Guardian: “Each al-Shabaab demand leads to more discussions on the restrictions we are prepared to accept or that it is reasonable to accept in such a complex situation …

“[But] insofar as al-Shabaab controls the majority of the country and Mogadishu in particular [at the time Leduc is speaking of], all we can do is accept reality. It is crucial that our patients are not selected on the basis of their allegiance or membership of certain groups, and that we don’t choose whom we talk to – including those claiming to be from al-Qaida.”

Marie Noelle Rodrigue, operations director of MSF in Paris, said: “The time has come to explain the fragile equilibrium between the price it is necessary for an organisation to pay so that you are helping the victims.

“Often that means making a compromise to a degree where you are helping the authorities. This is a question that no-one has wanted to examine and it is good that MSF have looked into it and I think we are happy that we’ve done it honestly.”

She added: “I think too often there is a mystery about what goes on in the humanitarian world behind closed doors, despite the fact that people know there is often a price to pay to help the victims.

“What is crucial is the examination of how you make these kinds of difficult decisions.”

Working hard on an ethnically pure Jerusalem

Posted: 20 Nov 2011


Israel 2011 (via Haaretz):

About 10 days ago, a fish merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda outdoor market noticed a young man with sidelocks and a skullcap trying to determine which of the stalls employ Arabs. The merchant, Saleh, called the police, who detained the man for questioning on suspicion that he was planning a terror attack.

But the interrogation revealed that Meir Ettinger, 19, had a completely different goal in mind. Ettinger, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar and a grandson of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, said he was investigating on behalf of a project called Hebrew Labor, whose goal is “to warn the public” against buying from businesses that employ Arabs.

Ettinger was released and ordered to keep away from Mahane Yehuda for two weeks. But last Thursday night, police detained four other young men from Yitzhar who were on the same mission.

Conversations with right-wing activists this week revealed that Ettinger and his comrades have been working on this project for several weeks now. Their goal is to map all of the businesses in Jerusalem that use Arab labor. They began in the northern neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Yaakov, then moved to the western neighborhoods of Kiryat Moshe and Givat Shaul, and are now working on the downtown area, which includes Mahane Yehuda.

“They came to my boss and asked him if he has Arabs working for him,” related Yaakov Azaria, an electrician from Pisgat Ze’ev. “He said no, but I know they also went to others and asked them.”

About 20 people are working on the mapping project. Most are Yitzhar residents who were recently served with administrative orders requiring them to stay out of the West Bank, for fear that they might carry out attacks on Palestinians or soldiers, and are therefore living temporarily in Jerusalem. Their goal is to prevent people from patronizing businesses that employ Arabs.

“A booklet with a list of places that employ Arabs will be published soon,” said Moshe Ben Zikri, an extreme right-wing activist from Jerusalem. “That will be followed by hanging up posters and signs with these lists in the streets – just so that the public will know and be cautious.”

Hello terror, we can make money from you

Posted: 20 Nov 2011


Post 9/11, countless companies saw an opportunity to make a killing on the desperate desire of both democracies and repressive states to monitor citizens. And when the US government, supposedly the freest nation on Earth, brazenly spied on people in the name of “security”, the path was set. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Documents obtained by The Wall Street Journalopen a rare window into a new global market for the off-the-shelf surveillance technology that has arisen in the decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The techniques described in the trove of 200-plus marketing documents, spanning 36 companies, include hacking tools that enable governments to break into people’s computers and cellphones, and “massive intercept” gear that can gather all Internet communications in a country. The papers were obtained from attendees of a secretive surveillance conference held near Washington, D.C., last month.

ntelligence agencies in the U.S. and abroad have long conducted their own surveillance. But in recent years, a retail market for surveillance tools has sprung up from “nearly zero” in 2001 to about $5 billion a year, said Jerry Lucas, president of TeleStrategies Inc., the show’s operator.Critics say the market represents a new sort of arms trade supplying Western governments and repressive nations alike. “The Arab Spring countries all had more sophisticated surveillance capabilities than I would have guessed,” said Andrew McLaughlin, who recently left his post as deputy chief technology officer in the White House, referring to the Middle Eastern and African nations racked by violent crackdowns on dissent.

Getting inside the head of Julian Assange

Posted: 20 Nov 2011


My following book review appeared in yesterday’s Sydney Sun Herald:

Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography
Julian Assange (Text, $29.95)

This is unlike any book you’ve ever read. Take one of the most recognisable figures in the world, sit him down for hours of interviews and sign a multimillion-dollar contract to publish an authorised autobiography. Talk about government secrets, challenging American hegemony, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and unlock the motivations behind a truly revolutionary spirit.

The founder of WikiLeaks, Australian Julian Assange, is the subject of this curious release, a book that has been rejected as dishonest and incomplete by the man himself. The original publisher, Canongate, calls it an “unauthorised first draft” while Assange has stated that neither he nor the ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan knew what would appear in the public domain when the title appeared. “Canongate is profiteering from an unfinished and erroneous draft,” Assange wrote.

Despite these hesitations, this book is a fascinating read. Most of the titillating media coverage so far has focused on the alleged sexual assaults by Assange on two Swedish women – he vehemently denies doing anything wrong and says “it has already turned out to be the most expensive phone call I didn’t make” – but the interest actually lies elsewhere. His likely extradition to Sweden is a sideshow.

Assange says his nomadism (“it suits some people’s situations”) was due to his mother’s destructive relationship with The Family cult in Australia and her abusive partner. Computers became a refuge, as he explains poetically: “Computers provided a positive space in a negative field; they showed us we could start again, against ‘selfhood’, against ‘society’, building something less flawed and less corrupt in these fresh pastures of code.”

Assange offers pithy social commentary on Australian society when his hacking began, a strong sense of rejecting the parochialism that this country then offered. “We felt we were the dead centre of the turning world,” he argues, “no less significant than cutting-edge computer guys in Berlin or San Francisco … We felt we could lead the world, which is a nice thing to feel at the bottom of the planet.”

The evolution of WikiLeaks, launched in 2006, was at once radical and simple. Assange believed in remaking the world in a transparent way that was guaranteed to upset the powerful.

“I was, always will be, more concerned with the wars going on around the world than with making things easier for myself.”

Assange has little time for most journalists, who he sees as lazy and unwilling to spend the required time to investigate documents dropped in their lap by WikiLeaks. This attitude undeniably contributed to the breakdown in relationships with The New York Times and The Guardian, two outlets Assange believes treated his integrity and independence with contempt.

In one curious aside, Assange notes, after the WikiLeaks release of documents relating to the American war effort, the material gained a steadily increasing amount of respect: “Some military personnel themselves began visiting our site, to see what kind of replacement parts they might need for their vehicles,” he writes. “Irony of ironies; some NATO military contractor would appear in a chatroom saying can you help me find a wheel for my armoured vehicle.”

Assange is portrayed as a man dedicated to exposing the secrets of lying governments in the service of war. He’s impatient, harsh on his own foibles and doesn’t suffer fools. He dismisses the excessive secrecy and collusion between journalists and officials during the prosecution of battle. “Open government is only worthy of the name when it is a real, lived value, not an empty branding exercise,” he argues.

The grand legacy of WikiLeaks, away from the petty personality politics, is undeniably positive.

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