Monthly Archives: September 2007

Definition: “technology”

SYLLABICATION: tech·nol·o·gy

NOUN: Inflected forms: pl. tech·nol·o·gies
1. The application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives. 2. A force believed to be able to eliminate the need to choose between competing ends. 3. A minor deity of the 19th to 21st centuries AD, notable for not demanding sacrifices from its worshippers.

EXAMPLE: “There is a way forward that will enable us to grow our economies and protect the environment, and that’s called technology.”
– President George W. Bush, speaking at the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change, Sept. 28, 2007

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Our slimy aquarium

I do not want to live in the London of 2027. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which came out in the waning months of 2006, the city is presented as a drab, wire-meshed, half-empty capital that would look dour even in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe – though it might do as a modernized version of the gray brutalist London of Michael Radford’s 1984. Of course, London has a long history as the ugly backdrop to works of art; in The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad described it as looking like “a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off”. Cuarón’s London seems partly descended from Conrad’s, not least insofar as both versions of the city serve as backdrops to stories about terrorism and state repression, and both are only slight exaggerations of the real world of their times.

The premise of Children of Men, that an unknown disease has rendered all women infertile – thus condemning the human race to gradual but inevitable extinction – is the only deus ex machina to be found. Every other aspect of the film is a direct outgrowth of our own world. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and placed into camps; open-air cages filled with desperate “fugees” awaiting shipment are found at every train station. Heavily-armed soldiers and police guard public buildings and transit points. Coffee shops are blown up without warning, whether by terrorists or by the security services is difficult to tell. MI5 tortures dissident photojournalists. Meanwhile, the UK’s political system remains democratic, the press carries on broadcasting (mostly maudlin human interest stories), and the trains continue to run.

The political subtext of this movie is so much in the foreground that “subtext” seems a misnomer. The armoured police vans are labelled “Homeland Security”, and the holding cages look like they’ve been shipped over from Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray. An uprising in the refugee camp that the town of Bexhill has been turned into provokes a destructive incursion by the regular army, followed-up by air force bombardment – a scenario playing out all too frequently in today’s Gaza Strip. What Cuarón shows us, in fact, is what a Western country would look like if the awful conditions we’re used to seeing in the rest of the world, and that we’ve played our part in creating, were to find a home here. The United Kingdom of 2027 is in the throes of becoming Gaza, Mogadishu, Grozny, Baghdad. It is the savage exposure of the lie we tell ourselves, that such things can’t happen here, that we’re different and better.

In a December interview with Cinematical, Cuarón explained his purpose:

It’s not about imagining and being creative, it is about referencing reality. So — the cinematographer, he said that not a single frame of this film can go by making a comment about the state of things. So everything became about reference — and not reference about what is around, like, oh, I’m walking around, and this is what I saw on the street, but about how this has relevance in the context of the state of things, of the reality that we are living today.

The most interesting aspect of Cuarón’s vision is his insistence on portraying the British state as a democratic one, and thus its heavy-handed security regime as one chosen and legitimized by the will of the people. As he points out, in such an environment the old 20th century template of bad dictator/innocent citizens no longer applies; this new template is one in which citizens bear their own share of the guilt for the policies put in place.

I think it is something that is so important, to be very aware of the direction in which the 21st century is going with all this blind faith in democracy. And by the way, I am not against democracy — I am against the blind faith that is being put in democracy. And any tyranny now can have the makeup of a democracy, and then in a way, you can start to justify all the elements of a tyranny. And suddenly a democracy starts to lose its meaning. Democracy used to be a point of departure – to challenge these things! To challenge tyranny!

This descent into illiberal or authoritarian democracy is the great risk we all face today. Democracy was meant as a necessary method to ensure our freedom, but one which required modifications and constraints to ensure its respect for humanity and liberty. But our indefinite War on Terror takes democracy and makes it, as Cuarón says, a sufficient end in itself – while the state frees itself from all constraints (all but the democratic right of the vote) and thus turns freedom, the original goal, into little more than an expendable luxury.

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He can look you in the eye as he says it, too

Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen captured as a fifteen-year-old by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in July of 2002, has been classified an “unlawful enemy combatant” by the Court of Military Commission Review, a status which gives the much-critized military commissions system jurisdiction over his case. Khadr is now 21.

Although Canada’s Conservative government has been content to let a Canadian citizen remain imprisoned indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay, Liberal leader Stephane Dion recently called for Khadr’s release and repatriation after meeting with the young man’s lawyers.

If the U.S. is unwilling to guarantee that Khadr will be fairly tried in a court of law, Canada should demand his repatriation, Dion said, echoing an earlier statement he made in August.

“We won’t know if we don’t ask. We hope they’ll say yes,” Dion said at the news conference. “If the U.S. is not prepared to meet our requirements by transferring Mr. Khadr to American territory and trying him in legit court we will call for Mr. Khadr’s repatriation to Canada where it can be dealt with by our justice system.”

He said Australia, the United Kingdom and France have all had their citizens repatriated after filing such requests.

Dion’s stance adds further weight to an August 12th call by the Canadian Bar Association  for the Canadian government to demand the release of Khadr so that his case can be dealt with under Canadian law. “Continuing to hold Omar Khadr in Guantanamo Bay is an affront to the rule of law,” said CBA president J. Parker MacCarthy.

Adding insult to injury, President Bush today criticized the members of the United Nations General Assembly for not upholding the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Bush described these principles as “liberating people from tyranny and violence”, “liberating people from hunger and disease”, “liberating people from the chains of illiteracy and ignorance”, and “liberating people from poverty and despair”. Oddly, he failed to mention the principles enshrined in the following articles, all of which are applicable to Guantanamo Bay and the worldwide regime of secret prisons, torture, and disappearances that his administration has constructed:

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

I’m surprised the President’s tongue did not leap from his mouth for shame.

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Sweet victory

The United States over the past week has once again managed to temporarily achieve one of its key goals in Iraq, uniting the factionalized Iraqi government — against the United States. “Blackwater Shooting Crisis Rallies Baghdad” (registration req’d) is the title of a Wall Street Journal story on the fatal shooting by Blackwater military contractors of eleven Iraqi bystanders (twelve others were wounded) during a Sept. 16 security incident of a still-disputed nature:

[T]he government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has managed to galvanize broad-based opposition to an order issued in the waning days of direct American rule in Iraq that lays out broad immunity from criminal prosecution for U.S. diplomats, troops and private contractors operating in Iraq.

<snip>

The U.S. Embassy here has released few details of what happened, saying U.S. officials are continuing to investigate. But the shooting has brought together Iraq’s three biggest and mostly hostile factions — Sunni Muslim Arabs, Shiite Muslim Arabs and ethnic Kurds.

“This is a very good point on which everyone agrees,” says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Iraq’s Parliament.

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Reflections on an American convoy in Iraq

It appeared, under the circumstances rather agreeable to him to see the common people dispersed before his horses, and often barely escaping from being run down. His man drove as if he were charging an enemy, and the furious recklessness of the man brought no check into the face, or to the lips, of the master. The complaint had sometimes made itself audible, even in that deaf city and dumb age, that, in the narrow streets without footways, the fierce patrician custom of hard driving endangered and maimed the mere vulgar in a barbarous manner. But, few cared enough for that to think of it a second time, and, in this matter, as in all others, the common wretches were left to get out of their difficulties as they could.

With a wild rattle and clatter, and an inhuman abandonment of consideration not easy to be understood in these days, the carriage dashed through streets and swept round corners, with women screaming before it, and men clutching each other and clutching children out of its way. At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices, and the horses reared and plunged…

“Pardon, Monsieur the Marquis!” said a ragged and submissive man, “it is a child.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

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The spiral speeds

The ice cap on the North Pole is vanishing. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the minimum extent of Arctic sea ice during this past summer season was 4.13 million square kilometers. The previous record low, in 2005, was 5.32 million sq km.

Chorus: Alarmist! Unproven! How do you know the ice wasn’t moved to Syria?!!

Losing a million square kilometers of ice may sound like a lot, but to me the proportional loss is even more striking: the Arctic has suffered a 22% loss of sea ice in only two years. Which means there’s that much more dark sea water absorbing solar radiation during the summer, and that much more heat trapped in the system, melting next year’s ice.

I just thought I’d point this out to you, as world leaders ask their staffs to ponder how to tweak greenhouse gas emissions downward over the next forty years without significantly harming economic growth. Because the polar ice cap doesn’t seem to be waiting around for our prudent proposals to be implemented, nor, ungratefully, is it giving us any grace time for having good intentions.

Note: a fascinating and easy book to read about the impact of global warming on the Arctic ecosystem and its peoples, as well as scientific efforts to understand climate change, is Alaskan writer Charles Wohlforth‘s The Whale and the Supercomputer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), which I had the pleasure of reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle (here).

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The pope is infallible

Scott Horton’s invaluable No Comment blog directs my attention to a pleasing fact: the longstanding opposition of Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican to much of America’s present foreign policy, including its abhorrent use of torture. In a Dec. 13, 2005 address marking the Vatican’s World Day of Peace (held every New Years Day), Pope Benedict stated that “International humanitarian law ought to be considered as one of the finest and most effective expressions of the intrinsic demands of the truth of peace. Precisely for this reason, respect for that law must be considered binding on all peoples.” As Cardinal Renato Martino further explained to reporters at the time, “Torture is a humiliation of the human person, whoever it is. The Church does not allow these means to extract the truth.”

Now, why haven’t otherwise devout U.S. Republicans gotten that message? Isn’t the 11th Commandment “Thou shalt NOT waterboard nor indefinitely imprison thy neighbour”? It isn’t? Maybe God figured he didn’t need to write that one down. Surely we couldn’t be that stupid and cruel.

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