Casino Jack

A scene from the new film Casino Jack about lobbyist Jack Abramov, in which the filmmakers cleverly use a moment’s fantasizing by the title character to reveal the real corruption in government. Too bad it doesn’t happen in real life.

Kevin Spacey is a wonderful actor and although I haven’t seen the film, I hope that after a long time he has a role worthy of him. Here’s the trailer.

What we have learned, and may yet learn, from WikiLeaks

In all the fuss over WikiLeaks, what people seem to be ignoring (and this distortion has to be deliberate on the part of the mainstream media and the governments who must know better) is that (1) only a tiny fraction (about 1%) of the 251,287 cables have been released so far (the WikiLeaks website keeps a running total); (2) rather than being ‘indiscriminately dumped’ by WikiLeaks (as its critics are fond of saying), the cables are being vetted by mainstream media outlets in England (The Guardian), Germany (Der Spiegel), France (Le Monde), Spain (El Pais), and the US (The New York Times), though that last paper was not given access directly and instead had to beg The Guardian for them. As far as I can tell, the cables available on the WikiLeaks site are the ones that these publications have revealed.

So the charges that WikiLeaks is some kind of rogue organization that does things that no ‘responsible’ media (whatever that means) would do, that Assange is not a ‘real’ journalist, and that WikiLeaks is not a ‘real media organization’ are simply false. There is no reason why any charge brought against WikiLeaks should not apply equally to all these media.

The reaction of the US government and the mainstream media to the release has been incoherent, a sure sign that at least some of the speakers are lying. Some have argued that such leaks have damaged US foreign policy and put the lives of many people in danger, even though no evidence has been produced to that effect and even the Pentagon says that there is not a single documented case of a person being harmed by earlier WikiLeaks revelations, even though the same kinds of alarms were raised then. Even the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that alarmist rhetoric over the current leaks are ‘significantly overwrought’.

Other people have taken the opposite tack and tried to minimize the importance of the latest WikiLeaks release of documents, saying that they contain nothing new, even though only a tiny fraction of the cables have so far been published. Others have claimed that the leaks actually show US diplomacy in a flattering light, despite obvious facts to the contrary.

In reality, we have already learned a lot, not just about the US government’s lying but also that so many countries in the world are colluding with it in deceiving their own people, either voluntarily or under pressure. Here are some more examples, in addition to the ones I posted yesterday.

  • Barack Obama, despite his fine words, continues the torture practices of his predecessor at the Bagram base in Afghanistan under conditions so brutal that, according to one military prosecutor, it makes Guantanamo look like a ‘nice hotel’ in comparison.
  • Also, the cables reveal that US Special Forces are conducting operations within Pakistan even though both governments deny it. In other words, the US is currently engaged in yet another war, a ‘secret’ one in Pakistan, in addition to the other ‘secret’ war in Yemen, and the open ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Scott Horton reports on the WikiLeaks revelations about how the US exerted pressure on Spain’s justice system in order to obstruct torture investigations.
  • The US also interefered in the legal system in Germany, exerting pressure to not enforce arrest warrants against CIA operatives who kidnapped a German citizen Khaled el-Masri who was mistakenly identified as a terrorist and then brutally tortured.
  • The WikiLeaks cables show that there is no problem at all in getting that much ballyhooed bipartisanship when it comes to stopping any investigation of torture by US officials.

What you can be sure of is that as more of the cables get published, there will be more revelations, a lot more.

In fact, I am beginning to suspect that the reason for the hysterical response to the WikiLeaks revelations is the dread that the US government has of what might yet be revealed in the remaining 99% of cables and of any future revelations of other material. I also wonder if the hostility of the US mainstream media to WikiLeaks, when they should be defending its right to publish, is due to their suspicions that the cables might reveal their own collusion with the US government to suppress this and other information that the American people have a right to know about the secret and open wars and torture conducted by their government.

For example, you may recall that in 2004 after the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison, there were allegations of the existence of far more damaging photos and videos that showed horrific acts of rape and torture and murder of women and even children in US custody. Even Donald Rumsfeld and Lindsay Graham acknowledged that this evidence was out there and warned of the consequences if it were released.

But that story quietly disappeared. I used to wonder what happened. Maybe the cables will reveal the truth.

The letter i

As someone who grew up with English English and then came to the US, I have got used to the different spellings, especially the missing u in words like color and favor and honor. In general, American spellings make more sense, so switching to it was easy.

When it comes to the letter i, Americans also sometimes drop it, to say (for example) ‘aluminum’ instead of the English ‘aluminium’. But recently I have heard people drop the i in the word ‘verbiage’ to coin a new word ‘verbage’ which does not currently exist even in America, at least according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Also, unlike the u, which seems to be always dropped, the policy on i is not so consistent. I have heard people add i to the word mischievous to say ‘mischievious’, a word which also does not currently exist.

I am not one of those people who think that language should be unchanging. English is a rich language precisely because it grows by adding new words. But these are not new words but spelling variations on old ones and I was curious as to whether what I have heard is merely a regional idiosyncrasy or whether others have heard similar usages.

“But the Bible says…”

Jesus and Mo pick up on a peculiar way of arguing by Christians who will quote the Bible to argue why the Bible is true.

It is not only Christians who do this, though. I have heard Jews argue that their religion must be true because it is the only one in which god spoke to a huge number of people at the same time and thus they could not all be lying or deluded. Their source for this claim? The Old Testament.

I also had a discussion with two Mormon evangelists who came to my door. They claimed that the Book of Mormon must be true because it correctly predicted things. When I pointed out that the book was written after the events that it allegedly ‘predicted’, they disagreed saying that the book was written before the events but was discovered by Joseph Smith after. Their evidence? The Book of Mormon itself.

It is kind of amusing demonstration of how the desperate desire to believe can result in people abandoning their reasoning skills.

Bobby Farrell

Bobby Farrell has died at the age of 61. He was the sole male in the group of flamboyant West Indian singers called Boney M that was not well known in the US but had a string of disco hits in Europe in the 70s and 80s and were hugely popular in Sri Lanka.

Here they sing one of their biggest hits By the Rivers of Babylon.

Here is another of their big hits Brown Girl in the Ring

The double standard on WikiLeaks

Here’s a question. Suppose that a reporter for (say) the New York Times obtained top-secret documents from within North Korean government revealing its inner workings and secret deals and strategies. And let us assume (because I don’t know) that, unlike the US, that country has no equivalent of the First Amendment but does have something like the Official Secrets Act that exists in England and some other countries that makes it a crime for anyone to disclose secret government information.

Would we condemn the reporter and the newspaper for publishing the secret documents and let the reporter be extradited to North Korea to be tried by them for violating their laws?

That’s an easy one. The answer is no, and someone who merely gave such an option serious consideration would be treated with derision. Not only that, the reporter and the paper would be lauded for landing such a scoop and given all manner of awards, including the Pulitzer.

Here’s another hypothetical. Suppose there were secret documents possessed by the Chinese government that showed that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton were taking US policy actions in close consultation with the Chinese government that were advantageous to Chinese strategic goals but were telling the American people something else, and pretending to be following the will of the American people.

Wouldn’t any American want to know that? Wouldn’t Americans feel that they have a right to know if their political leaders are acting in the interests of foreign governments? That’s another easy one. Of course they would.

The reason that I pose these two hypothetical questions is to show the double standard that is operating in the US government and media in their condemnations of WikiLeaks. The reason that WikiLeaks is being treated this way in the US is because people here feel that the US and its government have privileges that no other country or people have.

If we take off our blinkers and see the WikiLeaks revelations through the eyes of people in other countries, we see what a valuable purpose they serve. The cables revealed so far show that foreign governments have been lying to their own people in order to advance American interests. The cables reveal that the leaders of a lot of these countries are acting in the interests of the US rather than of their own people.

Here are some examples:

  • Although Britain publicly said that it would no longer keep US cluster bombs, and smugly signed an international treaty to that effect, they continued to do so, a further demonstration of that country’s subservience to US.
  • The president of Yemen lied to his own people, telling them that it was his nation’s armed forces that bombed them and not the US, in order to prevent people in his country being outraged at the violation of their sovereignty.
  • We learn how the Pakistan leadership secretly assured the US that they would pardon their murderous dictator Pervez Musharraf, a staunch US ally, although they were publicly talking of bringing him to justice.
  • The cables show that the British government is training a Bangladeshi ‘police’ force that is believed to be a death squad
  • As for the Middle East, Middle, Juan Cole lists the top ten revelations from the WIkiLeaks release.

In an op-ed in The Australian, Julian Assange writes about what he have already learned from the small sample of the latest releases about what governments around the world are doing in secret:

The US diplomatic cables reveal some startling facts:

  • The US asked its diplomats to steal personal human material and information from UN officials and human rights groups, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, credit card numbers, internet passwords and ID photos, in violation of international treaties. Presumably Australian UN diplomats may be targeted, too.
  • King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia asked the US to attack Iran.
  • Officials in Jordan and Bahrain want Iran’s nuclear program stopped by any means available.
  • Britain’s Iraq inquiry was fixed to protect “US interests”.
  • Sweden is a covert member of NATO and US intelligence sharing is kept from parliament.
  • The US is playing hardball to get other countries to take freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama agreed to meet the Slovenian President only if Slovenia took a prisoner. Our Pacific neighbour Kiribati was offered millions of dollars to accept detainees.

For this reason, I suspect that WikiLeaks has far greater support among the general public in other countries than in the US. The reaction of the people in the US would be quite different if the cables revealed that Obama or Clinton were more interested in pleasing China than in advancing US goals.

In the British newspaper The Independent, Johann Hari informs us of what the leaks reveal about the conduct of the US wars and how WikiLeaks is performing an important public duty.

Every one of us owes a debt to Julian Assange. Thanks to him, we now know that our governments are pursuing policies that place you and your family in considerably greater danger. Wikileaks has informed us they have secretly launched war on yet another Muslim country, sanctioned torture, kidnapped innocent people from the streets of free countries and intimidated the police into hushing it up, and covered up the killing of 15,000 civilians – five times the number killed on 9/11. Each one of these acts has increased the number of jihadis. We can only change these policies if we know about them – and Assange has given us the black-and-white proof.

As I. F. Stone said, “Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.” The WikiLeaks revelations expose the lies of these governments. The transparency that WikiLeaks provides is essential if we are to keep governments accountable.

Film review: Clockwise (1986)

I just saw the comedy Clockwise starring John Cleese. Here’s the trailer:

Cleese is one of my favorite actors and here he is playing a role that is perfectly suited for him, that of an authority figure frustrated when things don’t go the way he wants them to, as in this scene from Life of Brian

His character Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers is another example of his manic comedic touch.

In the film Clockwise he plays a punctuality-obsessed, super-organized principal of a school invited to give the most important speech of his career to an elite organization of school principals. He starts out in the morning to take a three-hour train ride to give the speech but due to a misunderstanding he misses his train. The entire film is about his efforts to find alternative ways to get to his destination on time, with every plan ending in disaster.

This is a role that is tailor-made for Cleese and so you would think I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I found the film to be only mildly amusing. I think the problem may lie with me and not the film itself. I don’t enjoy comedies in which the premise is someone trying desperately to achieve some important goal and being thwarted every step of the way. This is why, for example, I did not like Ben Stiller’s Meet the Parents, because you knew from the beginning that the film would be about how he would fail in every effort to please his future in-laws.

There are two reasons for my lukewarm response to such comedies. One is that if the main character is sympathetic, I want the person to achieve his or her goal and be successful and having their hopes repeatedly dashed makes me feel sorry for them rather than want to laugh at their plight. The second is that I tend to plan things somewhat carefully and usually have a backup plan in case things go wrong. When things fall apart, I tend to stay calm, analyze the situation, examine the alternatives, and select the best rather than panic and grab wildly at the first option that presents itself, the way that the characters in these kinds of films do. So while I can enjoy this set up in a short sketch comedy, in full-length features I tend to get annoyed with people for repeatedly acting so stupid and that spoils the fun for me.

In an interview in the extras section of the DVD, Cleese makes an interesting observation about a difference between British and American humor audiences that may explain why Clockwise was not a success in its American release. He says that he thinks that the British find absurd situations funny in themselves (which is why farces are so popular over there) while Americans seem to require actual jokes and wisecracks to make them laugh. He may have a point.

Jeffrey Toobin tries to defend the indefensible

One of the amusing things about the WikiLeaks saga is to watch people try to wriggle around the fact that what WikiLeaks did is what journalists for the ‘respectable’ media do every day, which is get top secret leaks from their sources and publish them. In fact, this is the entirety of Bob Woodward’s career.

In this episode of CNN’s Parker/Spitzer, watch Jeffrey Toobin squirm while he tries to find the difference between WikiLeaks’ actions and Woodward’s.