Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Women And Children First

In the New Republic an ethnic Russian writes about Putin's pledge to protect them:

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has interesting ideas about what it means to protect people. On March 4th, he articulated a doctrine of hiding Russian forces, future invaders of more of Ukraine, behind women and children: “Listen carefully. I want you to understand me clearly: if we make that decision it will only be to protect Ukrainian citizens. And let’s see those troops try to shoot their own people, with us behind them – not in the front, but behind. Let them just try to shoot at women and children! I would like to see those who would give that order in Ukraine.”

I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise given what we know about Putin's character- the German intelligence agencies knew that he was a drunken wife beater back in his KGB days, he doesn't do fair fights- but that is low even for a thieving, murdering dictator like Putin.

Via Harry's Place

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Selling The Big Issues The Brits Won't Sell.

Apparently one third of Big Issue sellers are from Romania originally. Near where I work, one of those Romanian vendors got into a fight this week with someone collecting money for teenage cancer who had "stolen" her patch. This same woman has been selling the Big Issue for at least three years and tells people in the shops nearby that she makes about £40.00 a day- not bad for untaxed income for doing fuck all. Oh and she also begs aggressively and sometimes has a shit behind the shops.

All in all a charming woman. It does raise the question about why the Big Issue- which is supposed to be helping homeless people get by- is effectively enabling beggars coming over to this country to ply their wares. It makes a mockery of the idea of charity.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Tony Benn- National Treasure

There were a lot of good things to be said of Tony Benn, but because he was a "national treasure", when he behaved appalling it gets passed on as loveable character foibles. Take this anecdote for example:

That was a more fortunate experience than a [journalist] colleague. An interview he conducted did not go to the liking of Mr Benn. So much not to his liking that he suddenly drew from a cupboard a magnetic device and waved it over the reporter's machine, erasing the tape.
This seems in character for an unrepentant admirer of Chairman Mao.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

It's Not Paranoid If They're Really Out To Get You

I've recently been reading a couple of books, one about modern day Russia and the other is about political paranoia in the USA*. I was struck by the similarity between the actions of modern FSB- the rebranded KGB- and the COINTELPRO operations of the FBI in the 1970s that the two books described.

The FSB pracitice techniques developed by East Germany called Operational Psychology:
Mafia State recounts how the KGB first became interested in "operational psychology" in the 1960s. But it was the Stasi, East Germany's sinister secret police, that perfected these psychological techniques and used them extensively against dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s. These operations were given a name, Zersetzung – literally corrosion or undermining.

According to former Stasi officers the aim was to "switch off" regime opponents by disrupting their private or family lives. Tactics included removing pictures from walls, replacing one variety of tea with another, and even sending a vibrator to a target's wife. Usually victims had no idea the Stasi were responsible. Many thought they were going mad; some suffered breakdowns; a few killed themselves.

Meanwhile the FBI's programme to undermine peaceful opponents included tactics like this:

The special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego office had a plan. An antidraft activist in the area was convinced that the Bureau was watching him—he kept telling people that his phone was tapped, his home bugged, his every move observed. With “a small push in the right direction,” the agent believed, the activist would start exhibiting “obvious paranoid tendencies,” and that would “completely neutralize him in his several leadership capacities.”
So let’s make a big show of spying on the man, the investigator suggested. Maybe we could build a spooky-looking mechanism from a bicycle part and an old transistor radio, then drop it off near his front steps one night. “In the event he displayed the contraption to anyone,” the officer argued, “its crude construction would ultimately neutralize any allegation that it originated or is being utilized by the FBI.” And if the target tried to tell people it was a bugging device, they’d ridicule him.

The method used by both agencies was subtle, deniable harassment that over time could wreck someone's mental well being rather than outright thuggery. This isn't to make a facile point about the USA being no different to Russia but the important differences there are because of the strength of other institutions in reigning in the excesses of the security services and with the scale of the problem (Russia has about 20 times more FSB employees per capita than the USA has FBI agents). The difference was not in the mindset of the respective agencies themselves.

In the United States the courts, a free press and a pluralistic political system could eventually hold the FBI to account and bring it back within the norms of legal behaviour. In Russia there is no such constraints on the FSB which therefore has expanded to essentially control the country.

* The books are "The United States of Paranoia" by Jesse Walker and "Mafia State" by Luke Harding.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book Review- Comandante:Inside Hugo Chavez's Venezuela

This is my review on Amazon of Rory Carroll's book about Hugo Chavez and his "Bolivarian Revolution":

This portrait of Venezuela & it's late leader shows the disastrous nature of Chavez's misrule but also illuminates, to an extent, why Chavez was popular with the country's poor.

The opposition at least until around 2007, comes across as hypocritical, self satisfied and generally uninterested in the slum dwellers and peasants. The account given of the 2002 coup d'etat is damning. Chavez did genuinely connect with the forgotten masses of Venezuela despite his venality and could make them proud of themselves.

However it's pretty clear that Chavez's rule has been characterised by a destruction of democratic norms- with opponents being routinely jailed, opposition media shut down and massive state surveillance. Although perhaps surprisingly he never went the whole way and abolished democracy entirely- despite his links to Cuba free elections weren't abolished and dissidents were not murdered.

This has been combined with a level of incompetence that has reduced Venezuela to beggary despite a prolonged oil boom.

Chavez's style of rule- as shown in Comandante- consisted of making grandiose announcements in public, swiftly losing interest in how things developed, allowing cronies to enrich themselves and then making a new announcement a few months later that undid whatever progress had been made towards meeting his previous one.

The highly centralised nature of his rule also ensured that his ministers were focused entirely on getting access to him rather than on their actual jobs and any subject which didn't interest him- like crime- spiralled out of control. Placing short term political goals ahead of long term development has destroyed industrial development in the country.

The Chavez portrayed in this book wasn't a monster, but his faults have caused great damage to a the fabric of the nation he professed to love.

Institutional Corruption.

The report also found that one of the detectives at the heart of the investigation into Stephen's murder was corrupt and had links with the gangster father of one of his killers.
The officer allegedly reported back to his superiors with "personal evidence" about the family and "tactical intelligence" to help brief senior figures in the Metropolitan Police. 

This revelation is  scandalous but it surely undermines the conclusion that William Macpherson's infamous report made- that the police were institutionally racist. If it is the case that one of the officers investigating the murder had links to a suspect's family then there is a more direct explanation for the failures of the initial investigation. One which has nothing to do with race.

Macpherson's methodology was shoddy- he arbitrarily attributed all failings to racism despite a lack of evidence. In doing this he made little or no effort to consider other reasons- like police corruption.

Given the numerous occasions on which police cover ups and crookedness have been uncovered over the last twenty years it seems like corruption is more of an institutional issue for the police than racism.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Family Business

The government adviser who let journalists see the classified document he was carrying while walking into 10 Downing Street was Hugh Powell. He is the son of Margaret Thatcher's foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell. Charles is the older brother of Jonathan Powell- Tony Blair's chief of staff.

No doubt they are all very talented but it does seem strange that so many key people in the British government are from the same families.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Putin Love- From The Left & Right

Something which has been obvious for some time is that any newspaper that criticises Putin will be overwhelmed with comments supportive of the Kremlin. Indeed judging from newspaper comment sections you would think that far from being one of the least trusted governments on Earth, as polls suggest, that Putin was wildly popular. Part of that is paid Russian shills as could be inferred by the tone and poor English of many comments but some of them are genuine.

These appear to people on the far left- the Seamus Milnes and George Galloways of this world- and those on the paleo right. I don't mean the strict non interventionists who have been dismayed by the disastrous result of the Iraq War but those who are actually pro-Putin. While few on the right are quite as craven as Pat Buchanan who seems to think that the USA should be run from Moscow the idea does keep coming up that Putin is a conservative.

It's true to an extent, but only because conservative is a meaningless term in an international sense. If what you're conserving is state autocracy and unchecked power you aren't exactly a political descendent of Edmond Burke. Some point to his campaign for "family values" and religion, but on that basis Mullah Omar is an ally- there is a dividing line between "Culturally conservative" and "Primitive".

Others seem to like him because he is hostile to the EU. I favour leaving the EU but to find the organisation to be worse than Putin's Russia shows a complete lack of proportion. The EU passes directives that interfere in an unwarranted manner in domestic politics, Russia invades countries who refuse to let the Kremlin decide their economic alliances. Of course he is quite useful for Europhiles in any case- who thinks the British public would vote for withdrawal from an international club while a dictator is attacking isolated countries?