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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

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G.O.People’s Congress meets in Beijing, Minnesota

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd September 2008

Amy Goodman and Two Democracy Now! Producers Unlawfully Arrested at RNC (Democracy Now! press release via Alternet) –

Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and producers Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar have all been released from police custody in St. Paul following their illegal arrest by Minneapolis Police on Monday afternoon. All three were violently manhandled by law enforcement officers. Abdel Kouddous was slammed against a wall and the ground, leaving his arms scraped and bloodied. He sustained other injuries to his chest and back. Salazar’s violent arrest by baton-wielding officers, during which she was slammed to the ground while yelling, “I’m Press! Press!,” resulted in her nose bleeding, as well as causing facial pain. Goodman’s arm was violently yanked by police as she was arrested.

Massive police raids on suspected protestors in Minneapolis (Greenwald, Salon.com) –

Protesters here in Minneapolis have been targeted by a series of highly intimidating, sweeping police raids across the city, involving teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets. Last night, members of the St. Paul police department and the Ramsey County sheriff’s department handcuffed, photographed and detained dozens of people meeting at a public venue to plan a demonstration, charging them with no crime other than “fire code violations,” and early this morning, the Sheriff’s department sent teams of officers into at least four Minneapolis area homes where suspected protesters were staying.

Federal government involved in raids on protesters (Greenwald) –

…the raids were specifically “aided by informants planted in protest groups.” Back in May, Marcy Wheeler presciently noted that the Minneapolis Joint Terrorist Task Force — an inter-agency group of federal, state and local law enforcement led by the FBI — was actively recruiting Minneapolis residents to serve as plants, to infiltrate “vegan groups” and other left-wing activist groups and report back to the Task Force about what they were doing. There seems to be little doubt that it was this domestic spying by the Federal Government that led to the excessive and truly despicable home assaults by the police yesterday.

Some piece of paper

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [...]

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Gustav is not the story, Palin’s teenage daughter’s baby is not the story. Even Palin is not the story compared to this: jackbooted thugs are roughing up protesters and journalists at the GOP convention in St. Paul, and searching and arresting them without reasonable cause.

And this is part of a pattern — and not some dated one from the bad old days immediately after 9/11, but an ongoing one no longer excusable (if it ever was) by the fears of those days. In Maryland, in 2005-2006, the Maryland State Police infiltrated and surveilled anti-death penalty and anti-Iraq war groups with no reasonable basis for doing so. Note not just the risible “Terrorist” part of the “Minneapolis Joint Terrorist Task Force” name, but also the “inter-agency” description; recall the potential data sharing aspect of the Maryland story — “Case Explorer” — and wonder if records of the people unjustly surveilled will ever be deleted from federal, state, and local law enforcement databases.

We just got through weeks of tut-tutting about China doing this to its dissidents and journalists.  Either we’re a nation of hypocrites, a nation of sheep, or a nation of citizens with inalienable rights. Time to choose.

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UPDATE, 9/2: Ongoing RNC coverage at the Uptake.org, which has distributed video cameras to people who are recording and uploading reports to the site; reports locations are visible on a Google map of the city. (Via Jane Hamsher at “firedoglake,” whose post “The Revolution will be Twittered” lists other groups doing innovative coverage and monitoring of the RNC and local police actions.) See also Matt Stoller’s coverage at OpenLeft: “Gotham City is Safe From the Protesters.” Orin Kerr (“Volokh Conspiracy”), on the other hand, argues the police raids this weekend weren’t out of line because of the stated intentions of the “RNC Welcoming Committee.”  But National Lawyer’s Guild lawyer Bruce Nestor sees it differently:

…according to the Hennepin County Jail records they’re being held on probable cause. Which means no formal charges have been issued. No complaint has been reviewed or signed by a prosecutor or a judge. But the police have detained these people. They can be held on probable cause until Wednesday at 12 noon. In my view this is a preventive detention action by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s department. It’s designed to keep people off the streets. It’s designed to scare people from participating in protest activity . [...] Look if this raid was warranted people would be arrested on criminal complaints.

UPDATE, 9/3: See Nell Lancaster’s post “Conventional crackdown” for more. Nell:

The counter-terror targets: us. We commit conspiracy to riot by planning to assemble. Sure, you might insist it will be peaceable, but the security forces’ infiltrators have a different story to tell. And look: guys in masks smashing stuff, proving it’s just like they say.

UPDATE, 9/4: See also a guest post at “Making Light” by Elise Matthesen: “Who are these people?”

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th February 2007

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” owes at least a nod of recognition to Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The first moments of the movie make clear that things may not end well for its protagonist Ofelia, a young, dreamy girl played with extraordinary assuredness by twelve year old Spaniard Ivana Baquero.

But Pan’s Labyrinth is different from “Owl Creek Bridge” in just how the world of imagination that Ofelia inhabits coexists with the grim world beyond — in this case, Franco’s Spain not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Her fairy tale quest — complete with the archetypal three challenges, a failure, a redemption, and a final triumph — is enthralling in its own right and a wondrous, illuminating counterpoint to the real world she, her mother, and her comrades endure. As a result, Pan’s Labyrinth becomes both a spooky, gorgeous fantasy and a serious meditation on power, evil, and resistance.

[Warning: spoilers follow.]

I had not known that after the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, some people fought on against Franco, all but forgotten by the rest of the world as it descended into war as well. Centered in the mountains of northern Spain — Galicia, Asturias, the Pyrenees — that resistance was hopeless but valiant and persistent, with fighting lasting beyond the end of World War II, and flaring weakly as late as the 1950s and 1960s. (For its part, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in the summer of 1944 — hiding in a cave, guerrillas read a tattered newspaper account of the Normandy landings.) In his acclaimed history of the Spanish Civil War, “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor writes:

Those who had taken to the hills, ‘los hombres de la sierra’, having escaped from prison or labour battalions, formed small, scattered groups which could not communicate effectively. Yet the first examples of resistance to nationalist conquest had started from the very beginning of the civil war. In Galicia, where so many had escaped the brutal Falangist repression, groups had formed in the hills, especially the Sierra do Eixe. [...] Most of those in the south were annihilated in 1937, but in the north the struggle continued until the end of the war and beyond. When the Asturias front had collapsed in 1937, over 2,000 soldiers fled to the mountains and the nationalists needed to deploy fifteen tabors of regulares and eight battalions of infantry for many months hunting them down.*

This is the job — even the calling — of Vidal, the Franquist capitan in the movie. Del Toro is excellent at diagnosing him with a few economical shots (and Sergi Lopez is excellent at portraying him): Vidal impatiently glances at his watch as his new wife and stepdaughter make a late arrival; he vigorously polishes his gleaming boots; he admires himself while shaving with a straightedge razor; he meticulously repairs a shattered watch; he revels in machismo and confrontation, he forces himself to disdain pain or fear.

And he’s a monster. While it’s clear right away he’s not going to be a nice dad, he’s more fully introduced to the audience by brutally killing a peasant and his son in the mistaken belief that they’re partisans. (After he leaves the murder scene, another diagnosis: his lieutenants’ eyes meet, and one lifts an eyebrow and exhales a tiny little “puh” as in, “he’s a psychopath, but what can you do?”)

Here and elsewhere, Del Toro’s connection to the horror and comics genre provide this movie with a distinctive visual style. I lack a vocabulary for it myself, so I’ll call it the “wordless ‘reveal’ panel” I’ve seen in graphic novels like Maus — a symbolic, stylish still life or portrait that’s emblematic of the conflicts in the story: the captain slashing his reflection in a mirror, a guerilla leader appearing from nowhere in the woods after the soldiers give up their pursuit.

Del Toro has certainly created one of the most unsettling nightmare/horror sequences I’ve ever seen. Ofelia is given a piece of magic chalk to draw a door ‘anywhere she likes’; once she goes through the door, she’s warned not to partake of a sumptuous banquet she’ll see, but to simply get a treasure and return. When she opens the door she’s drawn, she finds the banquet all right — with a catatonic, pale ogre seated at the head of the table, its eyes on the table in front of him, paintings all around depicting it slaughtering and devouring babies. It is hideous, pure, blind, grasping evil — and it will not remain sightless or motionless for long.

Given that this scene is interlaced with a second one in which Vidal introduces a stuttering, terrified prisoner to the torture tools he’ll be reduced with — within the same walls that Ofelia has magically tunneled to her own confrontation with evil — one sees the outlines of Del Toro’s views. Power hoards, love spends; power torments, crushes, and discards, while innocence sacrifices; systems demand obedience and get it, for the most part; rare individuals choose freedom and honor, even at the cost of their lives.

And the allegories and fantasies of the story are important in making those points. I watched the movie The Illusionist a few months ago, and although I liked it, I still felt I liked the movie I thought I had early on better than the one I eventually got. Unlike that movie, Pan’s Labyrinth wastes no effort explaining its illusions, much less explaining them away. Rather, its fantastical, fairy tale elements just are; they explain and comment on its real world better than that world can itself.

I wonder if there’s another significance to the muddy, mossy, heathen elements of faun and fairy, Pan and labyrinth. In a story of innocence buying innocent life at the price of its own, set in Spain and told by a Mexican filmmaker, one might have expected mystic, ecstatic Christianity rather than the pagan allusions Del Toro uses. But the Catholic Church was part of the apparatus of oppression in Franco’s Spain — collaborating in censorship, monitoring who did and did not show up for Mass, and unabashedly celebrating Franco’s victory despite the many Spaniards who did not. Beevor writes:

On 31 March [1939] Franco’s armies reached their ultimate objectives. ‘Lifting our hearts to God,’ ran Pope Pius XII’s message of congratulation to Franco, ‘we give sincere thanks with your Excellency for the victory of Catholic Spain.’*

As the movie portrays, economically as ever, the Catholic Church sat at the well-laden dinner table with the Franquist captain, murmuring that one ration card per family ought to be enough. I found another item in Beevor’s book that seems germane to Del Toro’s movie. One Major Antonio Vallejo Nagera, a professor of psychiatry, concluded that

…the only way to prevent the racial dissolution of Spanishness was the removal of children from suspect parents to be schooled in nationalist values. In 1943 there were 12,043 children taken from their mothers and handed over to the Falangist Auxilio Social, to orphanages and to religious organizations. Some of these children were passed on for adoption to selected families, a pattern followed thirty years later in Argentina under the military dictatorship there.*

As viewers will see, at least this one despicable, miserable bit of history is turned on its head in Del Toro’s movie.

At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale narrator speaks of humans leaving “small traces of our time on earth — visible only to those who know where to look.” Del Toro, in remembering the valor of those who resisted Franco’s regime, has shown moviegoers where to look. For that alone, he deserves thanks. To do it so beautifully and so imaginatively, he and his collaborators deserve admiration and applause.

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* ‘Los hombres de la sierra’ — Chapter 37, “The Unfinished War,” p. 421. Pope Pius message — Chapter 34, “The Collapse of the Republic,” p. 397. Children taken — Chapter 35, “The New Spain and the Franquist Gulag,” p. 407. All page numbers from the paperback edition of “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor, 1982, 2006.

UPDATE, 2/20: Other reviews: Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post writes, “See it, and celebrate that rare occasion when a director has the audacity to commit cinema,” and Jim Emerson at RogerEbert.com calls the movie “one of the cinema’s great fantasies.”

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On fascism

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th December 2004

Nicely put by Jim Henley:

Fascism doesn’t just want ‘the people’ to shut up and do what you’re told. Fascism wants ‘the people’ to get into it, to ‘shut up and do what you’re told’ at the top of their lungs. Fascism is also about energizing the base against enemies, internal and/or external, and using the violence of the State to shut the labelled enemies the hell up. [...]

…[T]he Dixie Chick brouhaha is a useful example. The Dixie Chicks were not ‘censored.’ They were not arrested, denied work or killed by the government. But the freelance demonization campaign against them was nevertheless a fascist impulse in action.

He loses me elsewhere in the post, to be sure, by calling rescuing a kidnap victim “state violence,” but I’m told not everyone agrees with me about that incident.

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Sayyid Qutb’s French connection

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th August 2003

Sayyid Qutb is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of 20th century radical Islamism. I’ve read about him in Paul Berman’s fine book Terror and Liberalism, and in an informative series of essays* by “Ideofact” blogger Bill Allison, who has this “boilerplate” description of Qutb:

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian Islamist, an early theoretician for the Muslim Brotherhood, and has been described by some as the brains of bin Laden. He died in 1966 in an Egyptian prison.

Allison goes on to write:

[I]n Qutb’s version of the ideal Islamic society, the ruler would have absolute authority over education and legislation, over property and natural resources, who would preside over a society permanently on a war footing, even at times of peace. The legislation is dressed up with Islamic elements, but essentially what Qutb is arguing for is a fascist or totalitarian state after the 1920s and 1930s European model.

Berman makes similar points, and notes in particular what motivated Qutb — a fear that Islam was facing a battle “to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed, and to replace it with secular conceptions…” Berman then adds the provocative point that Qutb’s response actually comes from the apocalyptic tradition underlying — Berman argues — all totalitarian ideologies:

[I]n twentieth century Europe each of the totalitarian movements entertained a grand vision of modern civilization and of despeerate predicaments and utopian destines. Each of the totalitarian doctirnes of Europe expressed that vision by telling a version of the ur-myth, the myth of Armageddon. So did Qutb.

With him, too, there was a people of God. They happened to be the Muslims. The people of God had come under insidious attack from within their own society, by the forces of corruption and pollution. … There was going to be a terrible war against them, led by the Muslim vanguard. … [The reign of God] was going to create a perfect society, cleansed of its impurities and corruptions — as always in the totalitarian mythologies. (p. 98-99)*

Alexis Carrel
It turns out that Qutb had a more direct connection to a variety of European mysticism and nascent totalitarianism in the writings and philosophy of one Alexis Carrel — Nobel Prize in Medicine winner for his work on circulatory surgery and transplants, arch-conservative Catholic, Vichy regime supporter, and, in the end, apologist for Nazi euthanasia and eugenics programs.

Rudolph Walther, a historian living in Frankfurt, recently wrote a piece for the German newsweekly Die Zeit that discusses the Qutb-Carrel connection, “The strange teachings of Doctor Carrel: how a French Catholic doctor became a spiritual forefather of the radical Islamists.” Excerpts:

The superficial commonalities between Carrel and Qutb are plain: we meet the medical man’s elite in a “scientific monastery” as Qutb’s “avant garde,” and the Carrel’s “biological classes” are Qutb’s “belief classes.” Whether “civilization” (Carrel) or “barbarism” (Qutb) — neither are “worthy of us,” because they contradict “our true nature” (Carrel) or Qutb’s “good, healthy nature.” Both are quite in agreement in their goal to reconcile knowledge and belief.

The decisive affinities lie deeper, though. Qutb cites no author aside from the Koran as often and as extensively as Carrel. What fascinated Qutb about Carrel was, as Islamic Studies scholar Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi wrote in his 1996 book “Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence,” first of all his view of humanity “which he relies on more than the Koran.” Second, Qutb follows Carrel’s method. The pious doctor complains that “man, this whole,” this unique, complex being, is being subdivided and torn apart by social reality and science… The exclusive concentration on the material nature of man had the effect of repressing his spiritual side. [...]

Qutb follows Carrel in making “human nature” the condition and measure of all thought and action. Because “human nature” is simultaneously posited as God-given, both immunize “human nature” against criticism, because God answers queries as little as “nature” does objections. The core of Qutb’s supposed Middle Eastern Islamism is formed by a naturalistic logical error that is deeply rooted in European philosophy… Carrel writes: “The goal of life is to follow the laws of life. We decipher these laws from our bodies and our souls, not from philosophical systems and concepts.” Thus ethical norms (“laws of life”) are derived directly from biological facts and psychological diagnoses. Translated to Qutb’s language, human freedom and thus a free, varied society are not possible, only obedience to the law of God. [...]

What Qutb calls “the Islamic method,” the integration of education, ethics, economics and politics to a unified system of “divine uniqueness,” matches Carrel’s “unification of all capabilities and their coordination to a single belief,” the “super-science” in every detail …*** [emphasis added]

In every detail, of course, but the underlying faith, but the similiarities do seem very strong. It’s also interesting to speculate about the degree to which Carrel’s field — the “parts is parts” world of organ transplants, coupled with the tissue rejection issues that bedeviled his efforts — influenced his philosophy. At any rate, an online biography records that in 1935,

Carrel published MAN, THE UNKNOWN, a work written upon the recommendation of a loose-knit group of intellectuals that he often dined with at the Century Club. In MAN, THE UNKNOWN, Carrel posed highly philosophical questions about mankind, and theorized that mankind could reach perfection through selective reproduction and the leadership of an intellectual aristocracy. The book, a worldwide best-seller and translated into nineteen languages, brought Carrel international attention. Carrel’s speculations about the need for a council of superior individuals to guide the future of mankind was seen by many as anti-democratic. ****

From Carrel’s introduction to “Man the Unknown”:

To progress again, man must remake himself. And he cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor. In order to uncover his true visage, he must shatter his own substance with heavy blows of his hammer.

Carrel doubtless didn’t see himself in need of remaking, he saw himself as wielding the hammer. From the final chapter of the same book:

We need, therefore, an institution capable of providing for the uninterrupted pursuit for at least a century of the investigations concerning man. Modern society should be given an intellectual focus, an immortal brain, capable of conceiving and planning its future, and of promoting and pushing forward fundamental researches, in spite of the death of the individual researchers, or the bankruptcy of the research institutes. Such an organization would be the salvation of the white races in their staggering advance toward civilization. This thinking center would consist, as does the Supreme Court of the United States, of a few individuals; the latter being trained in the knowledge of man by many years of study. It should perpetuate itself automatically, in such a manner as to radiate ever young ideas. Democratic rulers, as well as dictators, could receive from this source of scientific truth the information that they need in order to develop a civilization really suitable to man.

Carrel’s ideas, conflated as they were with others about diet, nutrition, and purity, have remained attractive — or at least not disqualifying — to certain subspecies of “ecological” thinking, as evidenced by the site providing the text above, “soilandhealth.org,” and other such enterprises.

So What
In one way, I’m not sure whether any of this was worth learning. An Islamist thinker, obscure to most of us, seems to have found support for his views in the writings of a right-wing European surgeon and mystic who is equally deservedly obscure to most of us.

On the other hand: know thy enemy. Qutb was bad enough, and Bin Laden and Zawahiri have taken his writings to the next murderous level. Understanding (or at least cataloguing) Qutb’s views and motives can help make sense of (or at least predict) those of his followers.

It may also be worthwhile to see that an apparently foreign and mysterious ideology like Qutb’s has analogues and even ancestry in certain cul-de-sacs of Western thought — which were for their part considered progressive, scientific, and forward-looking at one time, and still seem to beguile some people today.

Mainly, I just mean to point out the Qutb-Carrel connection as a kind of footnote to the more extensive and informed discussions of Qutb at “Ideofact” and elsewhere. The connection is more direct than the general “apocalypticism” that Berman sees Qutb’s ideas sharing with other totalitarian world views, so it may interest those of you who have read or will read Berman’s book. At any rate, if you’ve had the patience to bear with me, thank you!

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* Mr. Allison’s posts are organized by the chapters of one of Qutb’s main works, “Social Justice In Islam”:18:1, 8:2, 8:3, 8:4, 8:5, 8:4:1, 8:6. For a complete archive of the earlier chapter reviews, see Aziz Poonawalla’s ongoing archive of Allison’s posts about Qutb.
** Berman also points out that Bin Laden and Zawahiri notwithstanding, Qutb’s version of jihad was not terror pure and simple, but bound by Islamic tradition and the Qur’an:“Do not kill women and children”“Fight for the cause of God those who fight against you, but do not commit aggression. God does not love aggressors.”
*** Spiritual forefather: “Vordenker,” lit. fore-thinker. View of humanity: Menschenbild, lit. “human image.” “Middle Eastern” translated from “orientalisch”, lit. oriental(istic), a more loaded term in English than in German, I think. “Matches in every detail” translated from “gleicht aufs Haar,” lit. “matches down to the hairs,”
**** The “loose knit group” at least overlapped with an organization called the Twilight Club, which still exists today, primarily as a vehicle for the metaphysical speculations of deceased member Walter Russell.

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