Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Log 460 Feb 24 2015: Greek effort to introduce socialism into the European Union seems doomed to failure

The legislative triangle of the European Union
The legislative triangle of the European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Robert Schuman proposed the Coal and Steel Com...
Robert Schuman proposed the Coal and Steel Community in May 1950. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
European Union
European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It has been obvious for many years that the European Community has been designed to be a citadel of capitalism. Given how capitalism has developed into frank oligarchy in so many countries in the last twenty years, this has to be accounted the major defect of the effort to unite Europe.
Almost no sensible person could object to the European countries getting together in an effort to overcome the repeated wars they have fought against and between each other up to the recent past. As we all know these wars escalated in brutality, intensity and destruction, right up to the dreadful Second World War, with its death toll of nearly 73 million people. The greatest wars have all broken out in Europe, more than 5,000,000 of whose civilians died, in the last great war, to which must be added the nearly 10 million Soviet civilians killed, out of that nation’s total deaths of an estimated 25 million. These figures are staggering, and alone provide the impetus for the effort made since the war to establish Europe as an area devoted to peace between neighboring states.
Europe has proceeded towards unification in a succession of small steps, leading up to the establishment of a European Union with an elected Parliament, voted for by the citizens of the 28 member states, and a common currency called the Eurozone to which 19 members subscribe (plus another six tiny entitles which are not members of the Community), and nine do not, including the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark.
A feature of the way these institutions have developed is that a great deal of European affairs are now run by bodies appointed by these representative bodies: that is, unelected people, officials, bureaucrats whose job is to administer the strictly capitalist rules established to guide the development of the European economy.
A major problem has been that some countries, notably France and Germany, are economically and politically powerful, while many of the other 26 are small countries with less developed economies that, thrust into this vigorous environment, are finding it difficult to keep up or adjust.  Among these are Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
Greece has been, shall we say, the basket-case among these poorer nations, sinking into a mountain of debt which, left-wing detractors say, was contracted not to aid the living standards of the Greek people, but to support banks and oligarchs with loans which were simply removed from the country into the accounts of these banks and oligarchs --- in other words, the  wealthy  segment of society.
Now, it cannot be argued that the Greeks were not, at least to a certain extent, responsible for their own plight. Former Greek governments, including the so-called leftist Pasok government headed by Andreas Papandreau (who spent many years exile in /Canada during the reign of the Greek army colonels, while talking a good case for reform while in opposition, once elected dropped the ball, as it were, and accepted holus-bolus the dictatorship of these wealthy foreign lenders, with the tough conditions imposed on them to ensure that all whisper of a left-wing solution --- such ass public investment, public ownership of resources, welfare support to the poorest, and so on, were quashed in the bud.
In the most recent example of this draconian economic dictatorship in favour of market capitalism, the Greek people have been reduced to penury by the austerity policies imposed by the European institutions, headed by Germany. Headed among their punishments have been levels of unemployment impossible for any nation that hopes to maintain its citizenry in good health.
The left-wing political party Syriza that has taken office since the last election a few weeks ago was formed originally through the merger of various small Marxist groups arguing for a root-and-branch reform that would have, at its extreme, have seen  Greece renege on these massive, unpayable debts, with the probable result that the country would be forced by the capitalist institutions governing Europe to leave the Eurozone, with unforeseeable consequences for the European economies.
The new government got busy as soon as it was elected, its new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who had been peacefully teaching economics in Texas until a month or so before the election, making the rounds of European leaders to argue their case for concessions It has to be reported that these talks brought no sense of the entrenched powers being ready to help the new government reform the institutions  reform themselves. They were given a weekend in which to produce a plan for reform, which if not accepted by all 26 member states, would never be implemented.
Sure enough, they have produced a document of some kind about which contending parties have produced very different interpretations. The new once-fire-eating Syriza government has suggested an extension of the present arrangements, which at least would give them four months to work out a viable and workable programme, but in doing so the government has undertaken “to refrain from any rollback of measures and unilateral changes to the policies and structural reforms,” while it has been charged with preparing “reform measures, based on the current arrangement” --- an arrangement that Tsipras, the Greek leader, had, in his election, promised to repudiate.
It did not take long for old-line socialists, veterans of the decades-long struggle for economic justice in Greece to denounce these agreements as a betrayal. Tyical was Manolis Glezos, an old fighter for socialist justice, who said: “Some argue that to reach an agreement, you have to retreat. First: there can be no compromise between oppressor and oppressed. Between the slave and the occupier is the only solution is Freedom. But even if we accept this absurdity, the concessions already made by the previous pro-austerity governments in terms of unemployment, austerity, poverty, suicides have gone beyond the limits.” He added that Syriza members, friends and supporters at all levels of organizations should decide in extraordinary meetings whether they accept this situation.
An even more brutal verdict was announced on the web site of  the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). They wrote:

Even in the entire squalid history of ‘left’ petty-bourgeois politics, it is difficult to find an example of deceit, cynicism and truly disgusting cowardice that quite matches that of Prime Minister Tsipras. Certainly, from the standpoint of the time that elapsed between election and betrayal, the Syriza government has probably set a new world record. In the hours following an agreement that is nothing less than a complete capitulation to the European Union, Tsipras let loose another barrage of demagogic lies in a pathetic attempt to deny the magnitude of Syriza’s prostration and to cover up his own political bankruptcy.
“ ‘We kept Greece standing and dignified,’ declared Tsipras, in a televised statement that seemed oblivious to reality. He claimed that the agreement with Eurogroup finance ministers ‘cancels austerity.’ Tsipras added: ‘In a few days we have achieved a lot, but we have a long road. We have taken a decisive step to change course within the euro zone.’ ”
James Petras, formerly director of the Centre for Mediterranean Studies in Athens, struck a more apocalyptic tone in an article under the title The Assassinaton of Greece, distributed online by the Voltaire Network:
The Greek government is currently locked in a life and death struggle with the elite which dominate the banks and political decision-making centers of the European Union. What are at stake are the livelihoods of 11 million Greek workers, employees and small business people and the viability of the European Union. If the ruling Syriza government capitulates to the demands of the EU bankers and agrees to continue the austerity programs, Greece will be condemned to decades of regression, destitution and colonial rule. If Greece decides to resist, and is forced to exit the EU, it will need to repudiate its 270 billion Euro foreign debts, sending the international financial markets crashing and causing the EU to collapse.
“The leadership of the EU is counting on Syriza leaders abandoning their commitments to the Greek electorate, which as of early February 2015, is overwhelmingly (over 70%) in favor of ending austerity and debt payments and moving forward toward state investment in national economic and social development. The choices are stark; the consequences have world-historical significance. The issues go far beyond local or even regional, time-bound, impacts. The entire global financial system will be affected.”

So, these are the choices as we wait to see how it all comes out.  At time of writing, the money would seem to be on the EU bullying their way into keeping the European Union capitalist, and no mistake.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My Log 459 Feb 15 2015:Two outstanding films, dealing with significant social issues, set in sharply contrasting landscapes that are brilliantly used by their directors to establish a starkly intense atmosphere

Kieślowski's grave
Kieślowski's grave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Short Film About Killing
A Short Film About Killing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 In the last few weeks I have seen two brilliant films which have dealt with two of the major social and political issues of our time: the first capital punishment, the second Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. But both films concentrated on establishing the social conditions within which these two issues have prospered, yet without beating their audiences over the head with their moral indignation.
Anyone who saw the 1970-1990s films of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died in 1996 at the age of 54, will not need any recommendation from me about his genius, which has been on show again at the Cinema du Parc in Montreal with the screening of his film called   A Short Film About Killing, made in 1988 when he was at the peak of his powers. The second film, Timbukto, directed by a Malian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, who has lived in Paris for many years after making his name with earlier films, is a more recent one.  In fact it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the recent Academy Awards, and all I can say is that any film that beat it must be of superlative quality.
From the very first shot of the Kieslowski film, the camerawork seemed to emphasize a certain sense of danger, certainly of a dark, urban atmosphere, in which, one had the feeling, almost anything could happen.  As the story was picked up, through various characters, the film developed a certain air of aimlessness, yet without letting go of its hold on the audience’s fascination. One after the other, the characters drifted around the town, in most cases pursuing what seemed like slightly irrelevant lives, as if they were slightly adrift in the big city.  A taxi driver washed and cleaned his car, as he did so rejecting offers to use his services made by people who seemed to be in desperate need of them.  When he had finished washing, he drove off, leaving yet another prospective client standing on the sidewalk. Then, a young man who had just taken a law exam seemed desperately anxious, doubtful as to his success, until, to his intense surprise and immense relief, he discovered he had passed. Meantime, a lanky, worthless-looking individual, with long, land hair, and a big skin,  had been drifting in and out of camera, visiting various shops for no discernible purpose, until, with the film well along on its way, he hailed a cab, and got into the cab driven by the previously seen driver. He directed the cabbie to an isolated spot beside a river, told him to stop, and then, taking him by surprise, beat the man, himself got out of the car, pulled the unconscious victim from the car, and proceeded to beat him to a horrible death, none of which was spared those of us in the audience who were still wondering what the film was going to be about.
Cut to a courtroom, where the young man is on trial for his life, defended byt he recently graduated lawyer. He is found guilty, offering virtually no defence, nor any reasonable explanation for his actions. But after he is taken away, the nervous young lawyer seeks out the judge in his chambers to apologize for what he regarded as his own inadequacies in defence, suggesting that a more experienced lawyer might have done a better job, might even have got the young man off. The judge smiled indulgently and said that he should stop worrying, because his speech against the death penalty was one of the most eloquent he had ever heard.
The last part of the film deals with the reality of capital punishment. It is not that long, but dramatic in its intensity.  The young man wants to talk to the lawyer, tells him abut his harsh upbringing and so on. On the day set for his execution he is granted a final half-hour with the lawyer, again, and when the time is up and guards arrive to tell the lawyer to leave, the lawyer says he is not leaving until physically taken out. Of course, that is what happens, and the final moments of the young man’s life are shown in excruciating detail. According to a note on the Internet, a well-known film critic named this film in his list of the ten greatest films of all time, because, he said, it was responsible for Poland abandoning capital punishment. Even if that had not happened, there is no doubt as to the superb quality of this film. Readers may have seen, among earlier Kieslowski films, the brilliant trilogy called Red, White and Blue, and another series called The Decalogue, of which, I was told this week, this film is a part.
Timbuktu is another film full of atmosphere. Some Arab families are living in isolated tents scattered around a desert not far, it seems, from the city of Timbuktu.  The daily life of a particular family, headed by a herder with eight cows, and with a wife and small daughter, is shown, and it is established that this family prefers to stay where they are, not to run away as most of their neighbours have done in face of the intruders who have taken over government. In the city itself a loudspeaker is being driven around the streets, telling women they must wear gloves, they must wear socks, they must cover themselves, and one woman in the market scoffs at them, asking, how could she handle fish while wearing gloves, and telling these men to go away, and leave them alone. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer are banned, and these enforcers roam the city, determined to suppress every sound of a song, even a religious song in favour of the Prophet, every sound of a bouncing ball, indicating children at play. Their edicts are considered absurd by the local people, but they result in harsh punishments.
Thus, the story of the film is elucidated, with the locals resisting the strong-arm tactics used by the intruders, who, I believe, are never named in the film, but who, according to a note on
Wikipedia, were supposed to represent Ansar Dine,  a militant Tuareg group that briefly occupied Timbuktu in 2012, imposing strict Sharia law during its reign.  

The further action of the film is built around the death of one of the herders cows that interfered with the nets of a fisherman. In a quarrel the fisherman was shot dead, and he hunter was convicted in a sort of kangaroo court atmosphere. Though these outlines make the film sound like a polemic, the impact of the filming is rather that one is almost overwhelmed by both the beauty of the desert and the old city, one of the oldest on earth, as well as  the beauty of the quietly dignified  rural life of the inhabitants.

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Log 458 Feb 16, 2015: Some journalists have at last discovered that what they write is more important than the speed with which they get it in: something my wife’s grandmother could have told them

Art Deco former Daily Express building, Fleet ...
Art Deco former Daily Express building, Fleet Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Winnipeg Tribune
Winnipeg Tribune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Royal Yacht Britannia, The Thames, London
Royal Yacht Britannia, The Thames, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Front page of the Daily Express, one of Northe...
Front page of the Daily Express, one of Northern & Shell's publications. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
According to Richard Gizbert, a graduate of  Ottawa’s Algonquin College,  who every weekend runs a programme on press performance on AlJazeera, (the Arab world’s TV network),  journalists are finally getting the message that it doesn't matter a damn if you are first with the news or not.
This new movement is known as “slow journalism”,  and the idea is that the content of your story counts more than the rapidity with which you can turn it in.
Well, I don’t want to sound like an “I told you so” kind of chap, but I worked in daily journalism from 1945 until 1971, and have worked on and off in it at least until the late 1990s, and I never made any secret of my contempt for the idea that I was supposed to get the story before the guys on the opposition newspaper. This being so, I can hardly regard Gizbert’s revelations as being in the nature of rocket science, as one might say. One sees this kind of thing fairly regularly, where some eager researcher will investigate a subject in detail, and come up with conclusions that, as my late wife always said, “even my grandmother would have known.”
Personally, I have never ever seen any advantage of any serious sort accruing to any person or newspaper which got the story first. But on the other side there have been many occasions on which this haste to publish has directly affected the public welfare, notably on a US presidential election in which it was revealed by a later inquiry that the haste for maximum speed had been responsible for various television channels broadcasting incorrect results.
Of course, I do remember many of the very amusing, not to say ludicrous, occasions on which practitioners of this high pressure sort of journalism scored their great (but essentially meaningless) victories. I was on the periphery in the 1950s of a great battle between the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Tribune, when Marilyn Bell was swimming across one or other of the Manitoba lakes. I watched as some senior journalists tied themselves in knots to fool their opponents into thinking they were lagging behind, so as to catch them off their guard. I thought the whole thing pointless, and in the end, of course, neither newspaper won the race: both covered the news.
Later on I watched the Toronto newspapers rush to be first with the news that the Queen had almost slipped while going up or down a ramp on to the Royal yacht Britannia. And still later, on the same Royal tour of Canada I observed  two denizens (I use this wornout cliché advisedly) of Fleet street, sit by the bar of the Royal train carrying the Queen and her consort across the country, never moving to actually cover an event, but merely watching and waiting for some silly mistake by a harassed official that they might elevate into a front-page news story. This is not quite the same thing as the haste-before-all brigade, but it arises from the same impetus, that is, to get a story that no one else has (or is likely to have, for that matter). I was astounded, and, I have to admit, amused,  as one of these, a man employed as a columnist for London’s Daily Mail at the time, seized on the Queen’s having missed one engagement to launch an attack on  “the bumbling officials and ambitious Prime Minister (Diefenbaker)” who  he alleged were making a victim of the Queen and her good health  (than what could be lower?).  Immediately from the London office came congratulatory telegrams (“heartiest congratulations your great front-pager”). Since the ambitious, but innocent Prime Minister, unaccustomed to handling this kind of journalism, rose in the House of Commons the next day to deny the report, he gave rise to a second front-pager by our correspondent beside the bar of the Royal train, making him look even sillier, followed by another warm telegram of congratulation.
All this was such a challenge to the correspondent (a boy educated in the best public schools, needless to say), of the Daily Express, a Beaverbrook newspaper known for its scant regard for the facts, that he announced his own exclusive the next day, also a front-page story, that, before the Queen visited the Woodbine racetrack in Toronto, the stalls containing the horses had been sprayed with perfume. “Great story, Tom, front-pager! Keep it up!”
This is amazing and ludicrous stuff, but it actually happened, I can swear to that.
I may have been a little unusual in the confederation of journalists, but I always found myself in revolt against some of the more appalling imperatives of the craft, such as, when someone has been killed in an accident, or, worse still, a murder, one was forced to go into the family’s home and demand if they could find a picture of their dead relative (for the delectation of the toiling masses!).  I shrank from that. As I also shrank from recording a tragedy I was called on to cover once in that unproductive farmland in soggy ground south of Lake Winnipeg, when a failing farmer went into his barn one morning and in a fit of desperation shot his teenage son, then shot himself. This seemed to me to be the sort of thing that no one else could profit much from knowing about, and I would rather not have reported it at all. My solution to that personal dilemma was to write up all the relevant facts, however libellous they might have been to neighbours, safe in the (incorrect) assumption that the office would  see fit not to publish them. When they appeared in the paper --- my strategy to keep them out having failed --- we had to publish some sort of apology the next day.
I can say without, I believe, fear of contradiction, that my most productive years as a journalist were those when, alone in our London, England office, I could confront some subject of interest and importance, take a few days to research it, and then hand in some copy which, I hoped, might enlarge readers’ interests and understanding.
Or later on, in those years of the late 1960s, when, by this time given a great deal of freedom in The Montreal Star to practise this recently-discovered entity now called “slow journalism”, I wandered the country, from one province to the other, one native community to another, talking to people who never saw a journalist before, but had valuable things to impart so long as you were asking them about things of essential interest to them. Time didn’t come into this sort of journalism: it just didn’t count.

And for my money, time still doesn’t count, and I am glad some journalists are at last coming to recognize the fact.