The other side of the dream

Over the years I have avoided wading into politics too deeply. History, my favorite topic, is long and painstaking, but it is a patient art in many ways. Looking back on events gives some perspectives on the present, it tends to relativize things, and it also, ironically, takes time. Daily events may seem new and exciting when pundits are rudely and crudely hollering at each other on-screen, but given a different f-stop, they often lose their edge or even relevance. Hence, one of my favorite quotes has always been “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” uttered by French diplomat and temporary Napoleon adviser Talleyrand.

The hyper-reality show.

Seeing events as part of a continuum is also curiously satisfying. For years now, I have been writing down my thoughts about politics in a kind of running private political diary. Occasionally, I uploaded (what a word!) a piece or two to a blog platform that no longer exists, so I will have to put them back up on Journos-Blotter… At any rate, whenever a clip or quote or article seemed particularly relevant, I took note. For instance, as the Trump campaign gathered steam last year, I jotted down thoughts that appeared pertinent, like his continuous attacks on the press, on the judiciary, on rivals, and his strange rhetorical assemblies, which are reminiscent of preachers in terms of content and syntax, with unfinished, suggestive sentences, extreme imagery (shooting someone on 5th Avenue), rawness and, most notably, trading of substance for a lot of conspiratorial nonsense. These notes, by the way, are a continuation of notes from earlier election campaigns…

What made the Trump run and makes his subsequent presidency special is the dizzying level and frequency of windy swagger, fake news stories, and pure baloney. In fact, the bullshit (please forgive the rude term: I am using the Harry Frankfurt definition, in short: indifference to truth) came and comes at such a rate that there was and is simply no real time to debunk the stuff, before the next wave starts cresting, leaving the nation as a whole exhausted but deeply unsatisfied, much in the way binge-watching series can leave one titillated, but with the sense of having learned strictly nothing of any importance for your life or the future of the planet.

Something to talk about other than serious news….

Some are happy. The MSM always has stuff to report, especially since the White House seems to be very leaky, perhaps by design. Furthermore, these days full-grown adults associated with the administration either as members or surrogates are earning huge salaries to go on television and brazenly lie, obfuscate and invent stuff, and to defend the president’s own lies… It gets very confusing up top. At the other end of the social ladder, during the campaign, you had Trump supporters who were either on the extreme right of the political spectrum (including many Holocaust deniers), dyed-in-the-wool racists, religious extremists, or card-carrying members of the lunatic fringe. I cannot say how many were bots, as I was not that savvy at the time. But one thing is sure: Those people who were “really suffering,” as some condescending journalists like to say, are not feeling any upwind these days, whether they voted for Trump, or not.

Society has a deep neophile streak, of course, and so the general consensus from the talking heads was, and still is, that Trump is something new. And that is what his supporters like. New stuff, disruptive stuff, different stuff. Amazing for people who can go to one Hollywood movie after another and still believe each one is new. Trump is new at the presidential level, true. But as a political and societal phenomenon, he is a standard-issue American wind machine, a blusterous snake-oil salesman, freely mixing Babbitt with Elmer Gantry, some Coughlin with McCarthy. The GOP could have, should have, probably stopped him, but preferred expedience and party first. A wing of the party already tried the lunatic playbook in 2008 with Sarah Palin, who can only be described as a light, female version of Trump. At least she was a genuine provincial, and not such an obvious city-slicker conman. He’s a New Yorker, for crying out loud. In letting Trump through, the GOP played a risky game. The election could have been lost, which would have lt the party dodge a very dangerous bullet. With Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016, the GOP backed itself into a corner they seemed to be trying to escape.

And then came Roy Moore.

What is forcing me in some ways to come out of my opinion closet is the Alabama election. The victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore has been touted as a major upset for Trump and the GOP and especially for Steve Bannon, a swamp creature in his own right. Much of the GOP started moping because of their loss of a Senate seat, but I’d guess a good number of them are breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Having saddled the country with Donald J. Trump (I’ll get to him in a few weeks), they would have had to contend with another loose cannon and publicity hound extraordinaire, this time in the Senate.

Nothing about Roy Moore qualified him for being a senator, really, for almost the same reasons Trump has little business being in the White House. It’s not even his creepy sexual obsessions. “Senator” etymologically suggests age and wisdom combined. Moore is more Disney than Tacitus, a typical fraud who, after years of building up and polishing an image as a kind of latter day Billy Sunday, now actually seems to believe his mind’s eye. He mixes 19th-century Wild West iconography – the horse, the pistol, that corny cowboy hat– and ideas that are fundamentally anti-Enlightenment irrationalism of pre-Revolutionary times.  Those are the physical and intellectual (can one use that word here?) props. And they definitely resonate with people for reasons that would require a lot of copy to explain.

Top: Real fraud.                                                                                                              Bottom: Real cowboy.

 

Suffice to say, his catechumens have been convinced by radio and TV barkers that they are victims, poor, stigmatized members of a class reviled and mocked by a nasty elite. And there is some truth to that. Comedians from Jon Stewart to Bill Maher have enthusiastically strip-mined what Mencken once called the “Sahara of the Bozart” for material. Ridicule is fun, when you’re not the butt of the joke, but it’s not the best way to engage in a dialog, since the victims will prefer to double down on their core beliefs rather than question and revise them when someone outside their bubble points out the absurdity of their world view (we all know that feeling, I suspect).

Assisting them in that doubling down effort  has been the bizarre idea that the Moore-Trump-Bannon-Pence crowd are their liberators from what amounts to a self-imposed plight. The GOP and media outlets like Fox, Breitbart and Co. have been playing to this crowd, feeding it an enormous amount of fake rage and outrage, like the fictitious “War on Christmas.” We’ve all watched that nonsense become mainstream, and suddenly the talking heads (this, by the way is really on both sides of the divide) are saying: “People think,” or “People say…” Naturally, then, when Trump starts ranting about “voter fraud,” or his mouthpiece Conway launches a collective hallucination about microwaves spying on you, a huge group of people is willing to simply disconnect their grey cells and start nodding. The most recent excuse for Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama is that Doug Jones was aided by “Muslims and Marxists.” Moore, at the time of writing, is still fundraising. I.e.: the marks still have some juice in them….

Read that again: Moore is still campaigning. For funds.

The reason why people let themselves be bamboozled like this is complicated. One thread can be found in Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland, an excerpt of which was published in The Atlantic. The ability to think outside the box, to dream stuff up and then live it, is a quality that many associate with the USA. It’s why one occasionally finds people mocking gloom-and-doom Europeans, whose dialectical thinking tends to put a damper on American hyper-enthusiasm … But when imagination becomes fantasy, it can turn into a weakness. The idea that you can be whatever you want is what drives a lot of genuine innovation, but there is a delicate and permeable border between imagination and illusion or delusion.

What you can do for your country.
Breaking news: Jesus hates everyone except white Evangelicals.

 

John F. Kennedy fostered a positive imagination, it was forward-looking, exciting for the huge baby-boomer youth, and let young and old dream of great things. In spite of all his foibles, his uncontrolled gonads, his bellicosity, he made people want to go out, get an education and do great things. His dialectical opposite is Donald J. Trump and men like Roy Moore, who are, alas, increasingly becoming mainstream. They revile education, science, rationalism. They generate that exhausting energy of hatred in people. They divide and try to conquer at least enough rhetorical territory to make some difference, and bring nothing to the communities they rule over, except some feeling of belonging. They lead to ruin.

The Moore candidacy revealed again a society torn apart between the future and the past, between urban progressivism and rural regressivism – what else can one call it? – between multiculturalism and aggressive and proud know-nothingism. America is, let’s face it, fighting the civil war again by other means, with other issues, and the media have their role to play as contributors to the dysfunctional dialogue and perpetrators of the hysteria. Whataboutism and its equally evil twin, false equivalencies, have led to some strange fallacies: Apparently, you have to equivocate the conviction that the earth is flat with the hard work of explorers, astronomers and other scientists since the days of Ptolemy and before. Of course, with the Trump presidency, there are some serious threats to democracy in the USA. Let us not kid ourselves, the man and his tribe, including Moore and the like, are not interested in having a viable and corrective opposition around.

Birmingham Alabama, a modern city these days, but it ain’t Alabama.

The Democratic victory in Alabama did boost the morale of what is called “the left” in the USA. The hope from the broad swath of Americans who’ve joined the #Resistance is that it might signal a return to a more mainstream and less risky track by providing another necessary opposition voice in the Senate to counter some of the egregious economic goals of the GOP under Trump – let’s leave it at that for the moment. There is also some hope that the Trumpian rhetoric can be toned down, that US foreign policy can be once again.

There is a big caveat, however. First: Jones won by a very narrow margin and thanks to the investigative work of the Washington Post. Moore, in any “normal” or healthy society, should have lost by a massive landslide even without the uncovering of his liking for very young girls*. Norms these days are not what they used to be. This leads to the second point: expectations management. By positioning themselves as more reasonable versions of Trump and downplaying the real impact of the president, GOP candidates still have a good chance going into 2018, which is why they don’t appear terribly worried. The Democrats should note as well, that the GOP has no scruples when it comes to political fights, they will risk the security of the nation if it has to to win. The Democrats must avoid complacency.

Third, the tax bill is being demonized as a gift to the superrich. And it is. But the real scandal there is how it was passed, the process, the fact that the Democrats were shut out. This could become a lose-lose either party, but the Republicans, together with Fox and radio agitprop, have shown they  are willing to take serious risks. They’re good at the game and bank heavily on the electorate’s notorious fickleness and inability to remember stuff that happened just a few weeks ago. They are already playing the song “They didn’t want it,” leaving the Democrats very vulnerable to any positive effects from the bill. Moral of the story: Never underestimate an opponent without scruples.

*I’d like to add at this point, that I teach kids in the age range that Moore seems to like them. I try to imagine some thirty-plus religious flake trying to seduce them, and it makes me simply furious. They are CHILDREN, no matter what nature has given them in terms of physical maturity. The idea that one go after them sexually is absolutely shocking and the sign that the man is deeply disturbed and extremely immature. This is corroborated by the fantasies about himself he exhibits publicly.

 

 

Thorny delight

A look at a specialty on Geneva’s Yuletide tables.

One cannot help but think that if the Latin influence were not so strong in Geneva, Christmas might not be such a jolly affair in the city. Indeed, when dour and sour Calvin turned the place into a theocracy from about 1541 onward, with his rigid laws and set punishments running all the way to death by burning or drowning, he set a course still felt to this day. Among other things, he made fun and games anathema, and so Genevans had had to find ways to make merry without irritating already naturally irritable ghosts and deities. And his staunch hatred of bling meant that the local jewelers had to find a new way to practice their art: clock-making… But that is not the subject of this post…

From right to left, W. Farel (l.), Jean Calvin (m.), Theo. de Bèze (r.)… The reformers: “Don’t be happy, worry!”

Calvin prohibited anything and everything that could be remotely fun. Carnival is not celebrated in Geneva, for example. Calvin even went as far as prohibiting Christmas as a feast of idolatry and for a few hundred years after, the Genevans did not celebrate the Birth of Christ, Prince of Peace…Tell that to the wind machines ranting on about the fake “War-On-Christmas. What the city does have is the somewhat extreme and boisterous annual celebration called “Escalade,” the commemoration of a skirmish between the (Catholic) troops of the Duke of Savoy and the (Protestant) Genevans came right before Christmas 1602 on the Gregorian calendar. It comes along with fancy dress parties and general rejoicing and chocolate cauldron consumption. I have described this otherwise insignificant event outside Geneva in an earlier post.

All this to say: the influence of Calvin is still felt in Geneva. Ultimately, however, the Genevans did goback to celebrating Christmas. The city gears up in November already with wonderful lighting arrangements in the leafless trees, and shopping becomes more frenetic. But on Christmas Eve or Day, on the festive tables, amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines, you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards, like Calvinistic grace, are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.

Image result for the Cardoon
Cardoons prior to preparation

The item in question is the cardon, in English cardoon, in Latin Cynara cardunculus, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke found occasionally in the wild in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere.

Cardoon character
At first glance, it looks like some irksome and resilient weed requiring immediate annihilation. So, as with the olive and several other labor-intensive foods, one must marvel at the first people who figured out that the cardoon is edible and that it has a wonderful artichoke-like flavor with just a hint of bitterness and a fine texture.

It also has history. The Mediterranean people already cultivated it in antiquity. According to lore, it was Protestants from the south of France who brought it to Geneva following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that deprived France’s Huguenots of their religious and civil rights. These families settled in the so-called Plaine de Palais (where the Bastions and National Theater is today) and continued cultivating their cardon, refining over the centuries to make it – guess what – even more thorny (épineux). Today, the “Cardon genevois épineux” is actually the only Swiss vegetable with a protected designation of origin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The slothful – Catholics, perhaps… no offense – will buy the vegetable already prepared, cut into short segments, and packed into large jars or in vacuum packed bags for up to CHF 15 the kilo. The self-respecting Genevan will purchase it fresh for about CHF 5 per kilo from one of the famed local market-gardeners (maraîchers) at any outdoor market.

The easy way to get cardons… buy it at the supermarket for about CHF 14,95…

You can’t miss it there: imagine a pale yellowish, oversized celery with a thick root. Occasionally they come stuffed in a plastic bag, not very ecological, but it will protect your hands from the thorns.

Taming the wild cardoon
From seed to table, the cardoon is all about the sweat on your brow.

A few years ago, Pierre Gallay, a gardener, explained the cultivation procedure to me. It’s sown in May and grows quickly in summer. In autumn, the leaves on each plant are folded up to promote natural bleaching. In November each cardon is then uprooted by hand along with some earth and put into cool cellars where it continues to grow and bleach out without risking frosts.

Geneva produces about 130 tons of cardons per year, according to the Association of Plainpalais Interests. These Genevan heritage enthusiasts also point out in traditional Calvinist style, that with its fibers and low calories, it is the perfect counterpart to the prandial “abuses” of year’s end.

To prepare it, shave off the thorny edges. Then peal the stalks as you would rhubarb or celery, pulling off the stringy ridges and skin. Cut up into inch-size pieces and tenderise overnight in a milk-water mixture. Then boil in salty water (about 30 minutes) with a dash of milk. Dress with cream (yes, but double cream from Gruyère) and pepper, or use the liquid for a béchamel to cover the cardons, sprinkle with Parmesan or Gruyère and bake till the cheese is a little crispy. You are now a step closer to being Genevan.

 

 

 

Geneva by night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hype and nonsense: the Osama error

MAY 25, 2011 11:14AM

The death of Osama  bin Laden, like his life, was a noisy affair. Throughout the world, the media finally had something really big to report, because after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the meltdowns at Fukushima and the ongoing “Arab spring,” now brought to us from Libya and Syria, consumers were getting restless for something new, something spicy, something with some extra-strength pizzazz to enliven the daily news. After all, how much leading-bleeding reporting from Misrata can one take before it gets a little repetitive?  Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s adventures wear thin after a short while.

So Obama was the one who got Osama, dead, not alive, and that event, carried out was carried out by yet another gang of heroes, accompanied by a cute heroic dog. A delightful picture that sent shock waves throughout the world and generated inordinate amounts of whatever passes for column inches these days. In Washington, New York and other points on the globe, large crowds came out to jubilate, to express their unbounded joy at the demise of one of the most effective bugaboos since Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega – who, like Osama  bin Laden, shared the distinction of having been a good friends of the US at some time, and recipients of our tax dollars and military aid in exchange for proxy work. And the media joined in and heated up the frenzy.

Encores and more

Unlike with the handling of budget talks with the GOP, the health insurance debate, or even the bailouts, this time the Obama administration put on a fairly good show, dragging it out with a surprise, gravitas-filled presidential visit to ground zero, keeping everyone on their toes with talk of violent pictures, dumping the body in the sea, lots of praise for the anonymous wet-ops group of Navy SEALs, keeping the mystery going just enough to draw the hype. To this day the information is dripping out in homeopathic doses, mostly silly stuff that feeds the ghoulish need to know what Osama’s personal life was like as he holed up in Pakistan, delighting all the while in the ravages he caused.  It’s all picture perfect, Hollywood and Marvel Comics live and wrapped in one. The message says: “Osama bin Laden, author of the senseless and mindless 9/11 act has now been killed, good triumphs, evil is defeated.” Or in the words of the President “Justice has been done, the world is safer.”

Quick solutions, perhaps too quick 

Has justice been done? Is the world safer? Did the execution of  Osama bin Laden really bring closure, as so many pundits would like to convince themselves it seems? Perhaps at one level yes, because tracking terrorists will undoubtedly be a little easier now with the information from Osama bin Laden’s files. But how that is managed is or should be cloak and dagger stuff. Suffice to say:  any well-organized terrorist network will have set up contingencies.

Closure or safety are another matter.  Osama bin Laden did not exist in a vacuum, nor for a period lasting from  9/11 to 1/5.  It would be naïve to think that ending the Osama episode also concluded the “war on terror” series.

The administration and the media seem to revel in the images of Osama bin Laden as a dumpy old man, like Saddam Hussein in his mole hole. One can seriously doubt whether this will be of any relief to the families and friends of 9/11 victims. To get true justice, to understand and integrate the lessons of the past 10 or more years, to finally close the book on Osama  bin Laden would have most probably required at least a proper trial. A trial, though, would have spawned terrorist acts, the officials all said, a flimsy excuse at best, but one that remained unquestioned. If anything, going through the judicial ritual, as was done with the Nazis at Nuremberg, or even Manuel Noriega, would have proven that our democratic rule of law is still strong and functional. Alas, it is not that functional anymore, and thus by getting himself killed, Osama bin Laden once again managed to triumph in a bizarre way.

Whether the killing was an operational necessity or an expedient decision is an open question. The inexorable momentum of the news will allow for no real reflection, just the creation of a kind of consensus that the act was logical and good, and anything else would have been unacceptable. By allowing the publication of a picture depicting the entire cabinet watching the operation unfold, the Obama administration managed to both identify those in charge and hence responsible for the act, while at the same time spreading out the guilt, should anyone dare doubt the legality of it.

Nuremberg did it

In the absence of reality, though, we the observers have to contend with appearance, which has become our reality in a world dominated by advertising, self-promotion and public relations. As long as the message is well crafted and acceptable and fills some emotional gap or desire, it is taken as evidence. Popularity then serves as the yardstick for judgment, doubting the majority is not an option. Democratic processes are governed by mob rule. It would behoove the nation as a whole to stop and think for once, because even though “we got Osama bin Laden,” his strategy and legacy may well have been a degree more subtle and effective than the simpletons cackling away on TV would have us believe.

One challenge would have been to understand why someone would organize such a fiendish attack as 9/11. Was it really “senseless” in Osama bin Laden’s mind (or in the mind of whoever organized the attack, which is now beyond our intelligence)? Was it just to kill Americans for some private reason?

Looking back

Suffice to say, the phenomenal noise those planes made crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and a remote area of Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, is still echoing in everybody’s ear. In the immediate aftermath, the world was treated to a drumfire of slogan-like platitudes, dead-or-alive, smoke’em-out, terrorists all over the place, our liberties, their hatred, them and us. It was all in convenient bite-sized black and white portions, no fuss, no muss. Anyone who did not agree with the president and his cohorts, like peaceniks and some Democrats, was “them.” Period. No discussions accepted, no cool heads could prevail. Truth and individual liberties, be damned. To say a word against the George Bush strategy was tantamount to treason. Any opposition, as always happens in such cases, was pushed into a rhetorical corner.  Fear and hysteria gripped the nation.

At one level, the noise helped disguise the fact that George Walker Bush had been asleep at the helm in spite of warnings of a serious threat to the nation. So all eyes were immediately refocused on this strange bird,  Osama  bin Laden, now indelibly associated with 9/11, but whom an American Grand Jury had already found guilty of conspiring to attack  US military installations in 1998.  That was during the Clinton years, however, when the World Trade Center was attacked the first time (very soon after George Bush Senior handed over the presidency to Bill Clinton). Clinton was not very successful in convincing the GOP of the need to shore up the national defenses against terrorist attacks. Republican Congressmen were more interested in spreading the president’s dalliances around the globe and making a fool of him and the nation.

Dissembling

The Patriot Act was thus rammed down everyone’s throats. In the Senate, only one lone figure voted No, Russ Feingold:

The first caution was that we must continue to respect our Constitution and protect our civil liberties in the wake of the attacks. As the chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, I recognize that this is a different world with different technologies, different issues, and different threats. Yet we must examine every item that is proposed in response to these events to be sure we are not rewarding these terrorists and weakening ourselves by giving up the cherished freedoms that they seek to destroy.

That took courage. The Act, which is scheduled to end on May 29, 2011, was voted in. What followed was deafening cacophony freely mixed with imagery as crazy and perplexing as an Erró, and accompanied by the nightly swatch of color-coded alerts that went up and down, haphazardly, for all intents and purposes, or whenever the Bush people needed some distraction.  The willing accomplices in this grand guignol were the nation’s newsmen and –women, and the astute businesspersons peddling security gadgets. It was like the Fifties all over again, simple stuff in 4/4 and C major, when the USSR was The Enemy and all one needed to do was hide under a desk if an A-bomb went off.

Lots of fearmongering, no substance

(Note to self:  Vociferous patriotism should always get alarm bells ringing, because it usually means that someone in power wants to do something unpopular.) Indeed, the public was served the usual bread and circus and remained thoroughly confused as to what was real and fake. Self-inflating evangelists added the screeching sound of their axes grinding. And in the strange audio-visual haze, the media gave scant attention to the steady chiseling away at civil rights, to the unwieldy and ineffective policies of a government stocked with ideologues and cronies, to the pernicious mixing up of the private sector and government, or even the one-sided economic boom that was heading for bust.

In the months and then years following 9/11, fundamental rights were eroded in the name of national security. The tide of violent rhetoric and unadulterated bilge also generated a mobocracy of superpatriots who began randomly attacking anyone of Muslim faith or suspected thereof, like Sikhs who wear turbans.* (Even today, there is a class of con artists and other frauds willing to sacrifice their self-respect, like pastor Jones, or all those bizarre birthers, to heave themselves into prominence and profit from riding anti-Muslim sentiment.) Wiretapping became commonplace (still is most probably), arrests arbitrary, peace groups were harassed by the FBI, private rights started bending to the point of breaking in the face of alleged national security needs.  A survey showed at one point that a majority felt that free speech had its limits, and reading a book about Islam in a public library could get you flagged. The Valery Plame affair stands out as a notoriously dangerous encroachment on someone’s life by government. It looked like the salami tactic of the Communist parties in Eastern Europe in the post-war era.

Torture(d) logic

The country even engaged in a spurious debate on the whether torture (waterboarding) was effective and whether it was even allowed. A moot debate, since it is notoriously ineffective and no one in their right mind can deny that waterboarding is torture and was always considered such, no matter how much it is called “enhanced interrogation.”* Moreover, waterboarding was not the only means of torture used, notably in Afghanistan and in the countries involved in the extraordinary rendition scheme.  To this came prisoner abuse in many forms (see Abu Ghraib) obviously enabled and supported by ignorant, brutish commanders and sanctioned from farther up the hierarchy. But the US population could not put aside its fear and its differences to unite on upholding the law, and since any reading is for left-wing-elitist-college types, the debate ground on within a cocoon of total ignorance.

Waterboarding, it’s torture and a war crime

At any rate, the disgraceful trampling of human and civil rights culminated in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which might have shocked Americans into a new revolution 40 years prior. But in 2006, after decades of television news, confusing and equivocating punditism, and a five-year diet of hyper-news, fear-mongering, and sheer propaganda from Washington trickling down through a 24-hour news cycle starving for content, We The People were ready to surrender habeas corpus with barely a whimper. Guantanamo and permanent detention without trial were thus justified, arrests on suspicion as well, and torture under whatever name with it. And whenever anyone complained, they were literally accused of treason (New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersch, for example, who was more or less called a terrorist for reporting on Richard Perle’s wheeling and dealing in the private sector). A majority in both houses voted for the Act. Amazingly, one of the pro crowd, Republican Arlen Specter, pointed out that 900 years of habeas corpus were being undone. Two years later, the Supreme Court came to the rescue and voted (5-4) to restore habeas corpus at least.

Spreading the news

What the USA does within its own borders is its own business. But George Walker Bush and his people (Cheney, Rice, and less visible figures like the old desk-bound Cold Warriors Perle and Wolfowitz) were also hell bent on getting boots on the ground to defend US exceptionalism and spread the neo-conservative tripe. And, one can only suspect, keep the country whipped into shape.

It was all in response to the hysteria they were themselves creating. Oil may also have played a role in the decision-making, but it’s not as relevant as some would believe.  The casus belli: Terror. The Bush administration managed to trigger a permanent war like that in Orwell’s 1984, a war to justify any act no matter how brutal, no matter how un-democratic. The absurdity of the “war on terror” (like the “war on drugs”) is worthy of Kafka. It was never defined, there are no benchmarks, no milestones, no road maps, no goals, no exit strategies, no rules. To this end, however, we lowered the bar even further on democratic ideals and ethics: Alberto Gonzalez, as the White House chief legal advisor, went so far as to call some of the Geneva Convention provisions “quaint and obsolete.” Only one person in the administration, Colin Powell, one of the very tragic, almost Shakespearean, figures on the American political scene, protested. He saw, no doubt, that the nation was lowering it’s standards to those of the “other side.” But the “other side” was indefinable, so in the end, the task of creating the enemy was left up to the noise machine in the USA, which proved short on info and rich in easily swallowed stereotypes. The snake started eating its own tail.

Fighting shadows

In fact the only thing that can be said of the “war on terror” is that it is an admission of defeat. Terrorism has always existed as a form of violent expression of the downtrodden. Even Russia under the Czars was beset by terror, for instance. But in the USA, every pundit, every pol and every fraud with a pulpit compared Osama bin Laden to Hitler or Stalin, probably for no other reason than these are perhaps the only really Big Names in Monstrosity known to the general public. The comparison was totally false. Gavrilo Princip, today considered  something of a hero by the formerly allied powers of World War One, also committed an act of terror and was the member of a secret, terrorist society. His act set off  World War One, we all learn in school. But the real reason for the outbreak of World War One, was the sheer hubris and aggressiveness of the Habsburg government in Austro-Hungary, which was, like the Bush administration, determined to go to war come hell or high water. Twelve million dead later, plus countless casualties including millions of acres of land, the Habsburg Empire was dismantled. And the social and political seed was sewn for the next war. Osama  bin Laden was, I fear, closer to Gavrilo Princip than  Hitler. He understood that the fundamental aim of terrorism is to push a dominant power into destroying itself.

Hitting the neural point: Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 1914

All those allegedly sharp heads in the Bush White House couldn’t figure that out because they were pursuing their own ideological hallucinations and a completely flawed policy of applying military force to police action. Combating terrorism is asymmetrical, and sending a huge and high-tech army to hunt down a few fellows is like trying to swat a fly in a porcelain store with a two-by-four. It does not take a genius to figure this out, and in fact at least one journalist, Robert Fisk, who knew bin Laden, wrote a few days after 9/11:

“[W]hat happened in New York was a crime against humanity. And that means policemen, arrests, justice, a whole new international court at The Hague if necessary. Not cruise missiles and “precision” bombs and Muslim lives lost in revenge for Western lives. But the trap has been sprung. Mr Bush – perhaps we, too – are now walking into it.”

Prophetic words before the wars began. Afghanistan was first, the easiest sell, though it was of questionable legality as well, as Kate Hudson, General  Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rightly points out

“To wage war against a whole nation for the crimes of a few was not only wrong but illegal under international law: collective punishment of a people is outlawed. Even assuming bin Laden was guilty and was hiding in Afghanistan — and even if the Taliban government harbored him and his al Qaeda network — that would not make it right or legal to bomb innocent civilians.”

The wave of compassion for New York and the USA, however, drove many countries to join in this coalition of the more-or-less willing. Germany did felt queasy about invading Afghanistan, even though the country finally acquiesced and sent in support. But there was some hemming and hawing about it in the media at the time that Americans may not have understood.

Here is a hint: Ever since the country’s twelve-year psychotic episode under Hitler, Germans take war very seriously, since every village has a cenotaph to the kids the country lost in perfectly senseless wars. And Germans take laws and constitutionality very seriously as well. Hence, the execution of Osama bin Laden has been taken with a feeling of discomfort. Chancellor Angela Merkel did approve, perhaps too quickly even for her own party of Christian Democrats (my emphasis).  While the BBC correspondent Stephen Evans notes this “carping” in Germany, he wrongly attributes it to anti-Americanism. (It is strange, that whenever anyone criticizes Germany, they inevitably make some Nazi reference. But when Germany maintains a staunchly legal argument, the critics suddenly throw a hissy fit.)

Anything goes

In the shadow of Afghanistan, the Bush administration also tried to overthrow Hugo Chavez, but failed – apparently heads of state in Latin America have actually learned to be more careful of their North American neighbors. The issue there was oil. But the real focus of the administration was not Latin America, but rather Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. As a target, though, one couldn’t have asked for better: Saddam Hussein was a larger than life dictator, a repulsive man, who dared use the weapons the US sold him on his own people and on Iran.  G.W. Bush, having failed to smoke out Osama bin Laden, was ready to conduct “une bonne petite guerre” to rally the country and keep up the hype.

The war in Iraq was launched following a campaign mixing stupefying theatrics and transparent disinformation. The administration also powered up a massive expectations management campaign, during which the coming conflict and the armies of Saddam Hussein were depicted as invincible killing machines. This made the “victory” seem all the greater, and G. W. Bush made his farcical appearance on an aircraft carrier to the delight of the nodding TV crowd. All pure nonsense, of course.

It was a repeat of the 1991 bull sessions, when the same information management system was in place, a system that simply ignored the fact that Iraq had been engaged in a horrible war of attrition with Iran for eight years, thanks in part to arms sold to both sides. And since 1991, Iraq had been the subject of a brutal embargo and occasional bombings and had no way of resisting. Its airspace was, as far as anyone could see, open for foreign business. .

Iraq was still in the process of exploding and imploding, when the Bush administration turned the heat up on Iran. Another convenient target, too, with a very shoddy human rights record. Iranians, like Iraqis, lived through in a dictatorship. Yet we were willing to bomb them as well, apparently, and if “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran” McCain had won the 2008 elections, thousands of families there, too, would be grieving because of the president we might have voted into power. That is the difference between democracy and dictatorship: we are clearly responsible for the harm our leaders do. Failing to understand that means failing to understand the responsibility we have in a democracy to elect leaders who will uphold the law and the national standards of humanity. We might not expect decency from a Kim Il-Jong, but we should expect it from our government and from our allies.

The balance sheet

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and remain brutal. In spite of sexy videos and lots of hi-tech gadgetry, the fact is that only a minority of bombs delivered were smart bombs, and some of those were quite stupid. In the end, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the lives of untold numbers of innocent people, so many in fact that there is no clear tally. How many wedding parties in Afghanistan and Iraq became targets? How many children killed by our heroes? How many drones dispatched innocents going about their business to the next world? How many American soldiers dead, how many wounded or now debilitated by PTSD?

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, billions upon billions poured into what became a ghastly civil war that the news media refused to recognize as such, because whenever the term was used, a coterie of double-speak specialists and the entire Bush cabinet said it was not so. The issue of proportionality, another of the quaint provisions of the Geneva Conventions, was never even considered apparently, except on the part of real bleeding hearts. The result: When we started in Iraq, there was no Al Qaeda there. Now there is. And there are thousands upon thousands of grieving families, some who probably never heard of the World Trade Center. The country is a mess. Afghanistan is still a war zone, and heroin is still a major export (the big taker is Russia). Do the civilians in these countries not have a right to hear why Osama  bin Laden was pursued with such vigor? And perhaps the American taxpayers should start demanding where all the money they throw at the Pentagon is really going. In the 80s, there were 7000-dollar toilet seats in aircraft carriers and hammers worth more than Maxwell’s. Today no one even bothers asking. The hawks should be wondering how, with a military budget that is way beyond anything anyone spends in the world, we are still incapable of pacifying Afghanistan. As with Vietnam, surely, they will blame the “left-wing media” and “Jane Fonda types.”

Collateral damage

Pressure to react to 9/11 prompted the invasion of Afghanistan, though the results have been fairly disastrous. On the other hand, Iraq was, to paraphrase Talleyrand, “worse than a crime, it was an error.” Besides the pain inflicted on the country, it estranged strong allies. The Europeans for the most part were naturally reluctant to go along with the Bush adventure, especially with extremely flimsy evidence, though it was enough to convince the two houses of Congress.

Tony Blair should have known better, though he is still defending the decision, now as a Catholic, which allows for the cleansing of crimes by confession.  Rather than respect the sovereignty of European countries and their freedom of choice, the American government, backed by Fox News, trash radio and a mainstream media too timorous to uncover the nonsense and educate its consumers, went on an infantile rampage against them. Remember the Liberty Fries, and the demonstrative decanting of French wines in the streets? Such silliness, hardly worthy of a great nation still goes on to this day, because Obama has not felt any real need to cash in his popularity in Europe for support. Did anyone explain to Americans, for example, that European armies are often conscripted and hence using them particularly for illegal wars of aggression is not exactly good marketing?  How about asking the French about their experience with an Arab nation? That might have been very instructive. In fact, once the civil war (insurgency) got going in Iraq, the Pentagon apparently offered itself a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful and highly instructive docudrama The Battle Of Algiers.  Perhaps if Americans would have seen it instead of watching inane, repetitive soaps and reality shows, they might have had a more differentiated view of the war, of the Middle East, of the moral dangers of torture, even of terrorism and how it functions.

In the final analysis, any basic performance review of the handling of the whole sorry Osama bin Laden affair should put paid to any idea that in killing him “we won”. It was a Pyrrhic victory at the very best. We won nothing at all. We got distracted, we refused to take a step back and look at the broader picture. The nation fell into paroxysms of fear and hence became malleable as wax in the sun. That is probably why Osama bin Laden could kick back, relax, watch home movies of himself and make a baby or two in the past seven years or so. By touting itself as the sole defender of the free world against a faceless threat, the USA also became an open wallet for any foreign power seeking a little cash for real or imagined services, which is why the sudden dismay at Pakistan’s dubious role seems so silly. The USA simply dissembled of its own accord, becoming more and more obsessed by another attack, by Muslims, by anything that went bump in the night. It sent soldiers to do a policeman’s job, regardless of the collateral damage that may well come back to haunt the nation. In the process, the country lost allies and lost much of its relevance.

Powerful nations, like powerful people, are often offensively narcissistic. They strut about, fascinated by their own glow, oblivious of other nations, other peoples and their desires, needs and customs. The USA, with its doctrinal variations on the theme of manifest destiny, suffers from this obsession of the self.  How is it that the government and the people cannot see that by trampling over the whole planet without the slightest regard for, or curiosity about, other people, other lifestyles, other cultures, most of them far older than theirs, they are making enemies?  Where is the attempt to walk a mile in other’s shoes?  In its quest to hunt  bin Laden the USA has raged around the globe, wiping out innocent people left, right and centre, destroying millions of livelihoods for no better reason than it has the means to do it and seems to believe firmly that something in the eight letters spelling American gives them the right to do so. And then they wonder out loud in all innocence why people “hate them.”

Tough self-love

With all the excitement, Osama bin Laden also became irrelevant, a victim of his own hubris. The world’s great monster, as we now know, sat in a dumpy “mansion,” tanking up on Pakistani Viagra and scribbling his thoughts in his diary. Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Business News got it partly right when he said in a commentary that Osama bin Laden’s popularity was dwindling in the Arab world simply because he was acting like a rock star and had failed to address the issue of poverty and the lack of opportunity in the Arab world. That was obvious, he was a very rich man who never had to really work in his life. Plus he wanted to turn the clock back to a time when the rich really ruled without any challenges and without even letting the Great Unwashed have fun, say, with the Internet and other cheap techno-distractions. The street, as it were, realized fast enough that this man was not really behind them.

It should be a lesson for the West and especially the USA. The spread of pure capitalism is not putting Lexuses and olive trees all over the place, rather it is reinforcing existing economic structures and hence sealing in poverty. Poverty and lack of opportunity will breed violence. Violence will always breed violence. So powerful nations and powerful organizations will at some point have to decide if short-term profits are really sustainable politically and socially. Kate Hudson secretary general of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, expressed this sentiment in a CNN editorial: “It is our hope that the rule of law, underpinned by our Constitution that was so terribly strained in the name of September 11th will again become the guiding light of our policies at home and abroad.”

And the rule of law must be for all and has an economic component as well. William O’Connor over at Counterpunch, a former firefighter and Vietnam vet put it differently, but just as pointedly: “This is no game, no time to rejoice, and no time for partisanship. I encourage you to demonstrate the angels of our better nature, expose America’s compassion.”

Terrorist acts cannot be prevented. The clockwork model of the world is an illusion we have carried since the 18th century, along with the delusion of the invisible hand of the market.  By the same token, Osama bin Laden was not a cause, he was a symptom and the support he received at least for a time, was born of despair, of a sense of injustice, nurtured by frustration and led by individuals seeking power.  To see terror in the Middle East as being a mere product of psychotic imams and ill-tempered Palestinians is stupid at best and grossly negligent at worst. In the article mentioned above, Robert Fisk reminded readers of the obvious fact that “America’s name is literally stamped on to the missiles fired by Israel into Palestinian buildings in Gaza and the West Bank.”  Would that not generate a modicum of frustration and anger, especially since the USA is the most prominent peace broker in the region? Osama bin Laden was just one in a long line of men who tried to channel that despair and he will by no means the last one. The world cannot stop such people, but by dint of teamwork, by sharing resources rather than hoarding them, by shedding racism, xenophobia, and the nationalist impulse to feel superior, we as global citizens, can dry out the abscess of hatred and despair that keeps rejecting peace.

*Waterboarding is plain and simply torture, describing it otherwise is disingenuous at best. Amongst others, it was a technique used against a Jewish editor of the Alger Républicain newspaper named Henri Alleg by the French parachutists in Algiers in 1957, who were trying to put down the insurgency in the city of Algiers. Alleg managed to survive and then escape and publish a book about his experience called La Question (in the Editions de Minuit). He was helped by Jean-Paul Sartre. Though the French government tried to suppress the book, enough copies circulated to begin turning public opinion in France against the Algerian war. Alleg describes how keeping his mouth shut became his only means of resistance. The book also makes the point that using torture reflects darkly upon the whole of a democratic society.

And here is what Françoise Sironi has to say about torture (from an interview with the Swiss newspaper La Liberté). She is co-founder of the Centre Primo Levi in Paris, which cares for victims of torture):

The efficiency of torture is a political lie. It is disinformation, and I can say that as a doctor. First of all it creates confusion: the victims no longer know what they are saying, they will say anything just to get it to stop. We also know that all the movements of organized struggle – secret services, resistance movements – prepare their members to give false information under torture. Finally, the opening of the archives of the French Army showed that at the time of the war in Algeria, already, where torture was frequently used, the army itself considered it that least effective means to obtain accurate information. The most effective means was infiltration.”

Baselworld 2010, Part 2

Old time in a new bottle

(Part 2-for Part 1, see older post below!)

Getting rid of excess metal

 

 

 

 

 Some novelties at Baselworld 2010 and a winner

Like every industry, the watch industry likes to speak of innovations. The definition of that word is really in  the eye of the beholder.Some are business moves that could shift the general manufacturing paradigm. Because the industry itself has

The One Week “Water” featuring the Strom’s new movement

its own special entropy, where the chaos side of the graph is represented by diversity and this is leading to some genuine innovation. I am referring to the creation of in-house movements. The smallest company with a movement is Armin Strom. The master himself has passed the 70 mark and just powers away without need for external inspiration.  The company’s  brand new ARM09 movement has been used for the One Week collection. Its modern design is in sharp contrast to Armin Strom’s legendary skeletonized watches, which suggest  the voluble baroque decor of Bavarian Catholic churches.

Armin Strom still does the skeletonizing himself.

 

 

 

 

 

The “Clef du Temps” by the Confrérie des Horlogers, just to prove it can be done

Hublot, too, opened a manufacture in the industrial zone of Nyon last year, which is now producing the Unico movement. Like them or not, the muscular Bangs and the playful Tutti Fruttis are instantly identifiable timepieces and have their very committed fans. CEO Jean-Claude Biver has steered the brand to glory, navigating a bold course straight through the reefs of the Great Recession.  A rugged and outspoken warrior of the industry, he wisely gave space to members of the former BNB movement company and brought its select Confrérie des Horlogers on board. So Hublot’s new collection includes the Confrérie’s bullet-shaped “Liberty” watches and the Hublotized “Clef du Temps,” that outlandish confection of diamonds, with a vertical tourbillon visible on the side and an impish complication allowing the user to slow down time for a while. Perhaps a sly comment on the absurdly frenetic pace of our contemporary life.

The techno-vations

TAGHeuer’s unfinished Pendelum Concept could become a pit…

The other approach to innovation is to go right to the heart of the matter and change something in the fundamental technology of the watch. This can be quite radical. Let’s mention first of all TAGHeuer, which has been working on replacing the “spring thing” with an engine driven by a permanent magnet of sorts. The “Pendulum Concept” is still being tinkered with, but should it become viable, I am assured, it will remain a sort of niche product and not invade the industry the way quartz did. But the mere idea of electricity inside a mechanical watch (even in the form of magnetism)  could raise a few hackles. TAGHeuer  has called this little beast a “harmonious oscillator.”

Rudis Sylva’s Harmonious Oscillator, like playing the Minute waltz with one hand

   But the TAGHeuer invention is not the only one on the market with that name: After lots of timetable shifting, I met Jacky Epitaux from Rudis Sylva at the Ramada’s third-story bar for an almost conspiratorial look at a mechanism also known as a “harmonious oscillator.” One could almost imagine the ghost of Sidney Greenstreet there looking over our shoulder trying to steel a small but valuable industrial secret. Rather than no spring, this oscillator has two! They are mounted on meshing wheels and mirror each other, so they open and close alternatively and in opposite directions. The point is to cancel the effect of gravity, not just compensate for it as with the regular tourbillon. The system is intriguing, and looking at the oscillator through the loupe feels like trying to play Chopin’s “Minute” waltz with one hand.

Hamilton Pulsomatic, an ingenious hybrid
Finally, with the 70s booming again, one wonders how could a mechanical watch avoid the curse of digital. No, I am not referring to de Grisogono’s somewhat meretricious mechanical digital dial, but rather to Hamilton‘s rebuilt version of the first solid-state wristwatch ever, the Pulsar. Forty years later, it is back again in bigger and bolder as the Pulsomatic, but it uses an automatic movement to drive a generator delivering an astounding 120 days power reserve. A hybrid for Toyota owners, perhaps?
De Grisogono — for the 21st-century technoid man

 

 

 Unique means one of a kind

In the end, Baselworld is heaven, and it is hell. On just a few acres there are a sea of watches to be seen — and I have not even touched the jewelry section — and far too little time to explore them properly. Every stylistic idea is represented, the classics and crazies, the sporty and sportive, the cool and the hot, the dressy and the glitzy, the sober and the off-the-perch, the vanilla and jalapeño. There are entire lines of ladies watches, whereby thanks perhaps to the weakening of the Schwarzenegger gene, many men’s watches have become a little more androgynous and are drawing female buyers – but this is another story altogether. The market for diamond encrustations that make some timepieces look as if they could be used to grate a 36-month old Parmesan is going strong, obviously, but there is something to say for a masculine watch arousing latent male personality aspects. (Perhaps if men would wear some made-for-women watches, the world would be a little less violent.  Just a thought.)

Of course, luxury is still high on the agenda, but it seems to have become more introspective rather than self-conscious. The owner knows the value, maybe a coterie of family and friends will be in on the secret, and maybe the fan with a quick eye might realize he or she has just seen a Vianney Halter or van der Klaauw flashing by. Yes, a new sense of modesty might be an excellent opportunity for the independent watchmakers, who were especially hard hit by the cash drain. In some ways, these are the industry’s genuine visionaries and artists, whose pieces not only reflect the paradigm, but do a great deal to push its fulcrum into new and as-of-yet undiscovered territory. Twelve of these masters have been beautifully portrayed in a brand new book by top horological journalist Elisabeth Doerr and photographer Ralf Baumgarten, a must have for any watch collector or connoisseur (Twelve Faces of Time, available at teNeues ).

In the machine room of the Jean Dunand Palace

At any rate, it is among this particular — and at times peculiar — brood of out-of-the -boxers, autodidacts or ultimate purists that one can find works of genius, works that leap off the wrist, as it were, especially to the discerning watchista. It may be the colorful, laughing pieces of Alain Silberstein, or the mighty Horological Machines by Max Büsser and his friends, where the steam-punk meets sci-fi.  Another piece of gentrified steampunk – combining Charlie Chaplin, Henri Ford and Fritz Lang, to the tune of Honegger’s Pacific 231 – is the “Palace” from Jean Dunand Pièces Uniques, an unabashed celebration of the industrial age, with little chains, cogs, dials and subdials reminiscent of the meters on a locomotive,the nameplate suggesting a fishplate.

Itay Noy’s CIty Squares: Wear your hometown on your wrist

A soft-spoken philosopher of time is the Israeli Itay Noy, who customizes very affordable watches by putting famous city squares on the dials, or working with hallucinogenic fractals. He was not the only self-taught craftsman there: Konstantin Chaykin from St. Petersburg had a stupendous clock displaying the Jewish calendar day, a Jewish watch, the Decalogue, that displays specifically Jewish time units – helek and regaim – on the rear. Chaykin also created a Moslem clock, but the work he seems especially proud of is a unique clock that manages to display the Orthodox Easter. How different from the his booth neighbor Rainer Nienaber,a genius of the retrograde, who had a watch on display that doesn’t really tell the time, unless you wish to live in a purely decimal world.

Konstantin Chaykin putting the spiritual into time

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prima inter pares – counter-entropy

Applying the KISS Principle to horology in Prescher’s (very) mysterious tourbillon

In our age of neue Sachlichkeit, of reductio ad sanem at least, it may seem difficult to find a real show stopper. But maybe we will have to get used to doing without the type of Hollywoodesque hype that has marked the past decades and discover the value of simplicity, of unplugged, of focus. Peace may be more boring than high jinx and wars, but it opens many more possibilities. And so, on day four, while dragging my suitcase full of brochures and electronics through Hall five, between Nienaber and Chaykin (see above),  I stumbled across a  watch that made me loosen my tie, take a deep breath and rub my eyes. It  was a delicate, completely transparent creation with a double axis tourbillon seemingly floating in space right in the middle of the almost square “picture.” The hours and minutes appear on two barrels at the top of the watch separated by a mesmerizing three-dimensional moon, shiny on one side and mat on the other.  The watch is reversible. The date is read at 6 o’clock, as it were, on a semicircular barrel that also serves as an oscillating weight for the automatic.So where is the movement? Tucked laterally under the bezel in the side. The author of this phenomenal piece of equipment, the Mysterious Double Axis Automatic Tourbillon is the German watchmaker Thomas Prescher, whose atelier is in Twann close to Biel, Switzerland.  If any timepiece at the fair reflected a new sense of concentration on the essentials and a return to sobriety and pure art, it was this one.  It should be a pleasure for anyone to be on that wagon.

(This concludes the very personal overview of Baselworld 2010. I tried here to find themes and patterns, not to describe a maximum of brands. So apologies are due for the absence of many eminent watches and brands, and for not mentioning all the extraordinary watchmakers whose work was displayed at the fair. In months to come, I hope to correct that problem through articles and reports).