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The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: A Critical Review in Three Parts: Part One

December 2, 2014
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Enslaved Amazonian Rubber Workers, Putumayo District of Peru – early 1900s. W. Hardenburg, who snapped this photo, was one of the American journalists who uncovered the inhumane conditions of Amazonian rubber collectors. It nearly cost him his life

Mario Vargas Llosa – Dream of the Celt

Rummaging through a pile of books at home I came across one I had not read, the title of which meant as little to me as did the author – The Dream of the Celt - by Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author, Mario Vargas Llosa.  While I have learned some about Vargas Llosa since, at the time I rediscovered the book, I knew little about him other than he had won “the prize.” Wondering why it was I had bought it in the first place I was about to put it in my “give away” pile when I noticed the portrait on the dust jacket which caused me to pause. Wasn’t that Roger Casement’s photo, which by now I have become familiar with? Yes it was! If I couldn’t remember where or when I had purchased the book, I certainly knew why. Casement is the author of the 1904 Report on the Congo, which played large, along with the work of E. D. Morel in the discrediting and ultimate downfall of Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State a few years afterwards.

Neither free nor a state, the Congo Free State was little more than a horrific economic system of slave labor organized for the collection and extraction of Congolese rubber and ivory. It made Leopold II, a cunning bastard, one of the wealthiest men in Europe and probably the world at the time. It reduced the population of the Congo from an estimated twenty million in the early 1880s, when the help of Henry Morton Stanley he was able to gain control of the region, to less than ten million people a quarter of century later. Driven by unabashed greed hiding for a short time behind a veil of humanitarian interventionalism, the white man’s burden to help the people of the Third World Leopold’s Congo organization committed unspeakable crimes against humanity, in an unending orgy of economic exploitation, rape, and murder. Read more…

Tunisia’s Presidential Elections: Washington Wins Either Way

November 25, 2014
Amilcar, Tunisia - Ennahdha  stronghold

Amilcar, Tunisia – 2011

(Note: Also published at Foreign Policy In Focus  and Blog Africa)

(Washington needs the support of both Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes to push through its structural adjustment policies pressed on Tunisia in exchange for IMF loans these past few yearsThe main goals, the legal basis for which was apparently achieved in the last days of the country’s constituent assembly, have been to open up Tunisia’s soon to be developed energy sector to foreign investment, as usual on terms unfavorable to Tunisia, and to lift the subsidies on gasoline and electricity. As long as the two parties, that will dominate Tunisian politics in the coming period, cooperate on this, it is not important to Washington which one wins the presidency or dominates the Tunisian political landscape.)

First Round Results: Tunisia’s Presidential Elections

The first round of the Tunisian elections took place this past Sunday. Two of the candidates, Beji Caid Essebsi, leading figure of the Nidaa Tounes Party, won a plurality 39.46% percent of the vote. Not far behind him the incumbent president of Tunisia’s transitional government, Moncef Marzouki, came in second with a strong showing as well – drawing 33.4% of the vote. Hamma Hammami, the leader of Tunisia’s Popular Front, came in third with 7.82%. Businessman Hechmi Hamdi secured 5.75 percent; and the tycoon Slim Riahi received 5.55 percent.

Although “a secular” candidate, Marzouki, the incumbent president, owes his political prominence to his relationship with the Ennahdha Party, the Islamic political party that has dominated the Tunisian political scene since the 2011 overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship and who has managed to mismanage the country’s economic and political affairs to an impressive and factional degree. Although Ennadha, recognizing is current unpopularity, and most probably with a little help from friends in Washington DC, decided not to field a candidate for the presidency, it is not a very radical supposition that they stand behind Marzouki, whose own political base has been close to non-existent. Read more…

Ninety Percent of Everything…A Commentary-Book Review – Part Two

November 20, 2014
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A 17th Century Dutch Fluyt designed specifically to carry more cargo without adding additional crew.

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Part One

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Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. by Rose George. Picador: 2013

4.

As with many modern industries, if maritime shipping has become more productive and profitable, this has not translated into a more prosperous work force either on the ships or in the ports. Although life has long been hard and dangerous for seafarers and dock workers, the container revolution has had an especially destabilizing impact on their wages and working conditions. Before launching into the salaries and working conditions of seafarers, by way of example – there are many to choose from – I would like to relate another “industrial modernization” episode. Another situation comparable to that of seafarers comes to mind in reading George’s narrative: that of the Tunisian phosphate industry, which like the global merchant marine, went “hi-tech.” This mining sector was modernized over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. Productivity and profits in the industry rose, but a 25,000 man work force of miners was cut to less than 8,000 with no alternative sources of employment for those laid off; no Tunisian state investment of the profits gained thereby targeted the Gafsa mining region. It should be no surprise that the rebellion which toppled the Ben Ali government in January, 2011 started several years prior in the Gafsa region.

This is the way of modernization: greater productivity, more profits in a system that is constantly throwing people out of work with either less remunerative possibilities or none at all. Labor, the work force, again and again, gets the raw end of the deal. Such has been the case with the global merchant marine which frankly is little more than an extreme example of the global trends. On the one hand it has led to an explosion and re-organization of world trade that continues until present. Standardizing container shipments to move easily and interchangeably from ships to trains to trucks was a brilliant coup, as was the computerization of the industry, including satellite tracking. But if containers are one of the driving forces behind the  maritime success equation, revolutionizing labor relations, the radical reorganization of the work force, is the other.  There is a simple but stubbornly pursued goal here: extract more labor out of a smaller work force working for lower pay: greater productivity, fewer seafarers, lower salaries. Nowhere in commercial shipping are these changes more apparent than in container shipping where merchant marine crews and dock workers have been cut to a bare minimum and the loads they manage have grown to herculean proportions….a 20 man crew on a ship with 6200 20 ‘by 8’by 8′ containers. Read more…

Ninety Percent of Everything…A Commentary-Book Review – Part One

November 19, 2014
an APM-Maersk merchant container ship. It has the capacity to carry 4500 containers - 20' by 8' by 8'

an APM-Maersk merchant container ship. It has the capacity to carry 4500 containers – 20′ by 8′ by 8′. There is one being built right now that can hold 18,000 containers…a lot of stuff, no?

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. by Rose George. Picador: 2013

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I can’t say that either the title or the subject were particularly enticing. “Ninety Percent Of Everything”…hmm, what does that mean? The notes on the cover give more clarity: it is a non-fiction work on the world shipping industry which carries ninety percent of everything from one part of the world to another. Air freight might be faster, but the overwhelming bulk of everything from raw materials to finished products are transported by ship, and a full 60% of that 90% on container transport ships which seem to grow in size with each decade.

Why read it at all?

Well frankly I hesitated and it sat around for more than six months before I finally decided the time had come. I teach more and more in my Global Political Economy class about commodity chains – everything from how a material – mineral, food, water – is mined, stolen from the earth – to how the product is transported, refined, manufactured, retailed and then recycled, or more likely simply turned into garbage. I have long been interested especially into the labor that goes into each step, how much (or how little) it is paid, the working conditions that exist a long the way. Shipping has long been a gap in my understanding of the process, and so…it was time. I figured that Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate (Picador: 2013) might  sugar-coat what I suspected to be a generally boring subject, and so I started there. A fortuitous accident. It wasn’t boring at all. George writes extremely well, is a careful and detailed researcher and I dare say, a humanist. Her exploration of container shipping done by taking a trip from Rotterdam to Singapore on APM-Maersk’s Kendal, a container ship with a capacity to embrace some 6200 containers on board was not just a bird’s-eye view of today’s shipping industry, it was also very much of probe of the human dimension of the industry: what it means to be what the British refer to as “a seafarer”, what we Americans more likely to call a merchant marine sailor. Read more…

The Death of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News…

November 16, 2014
The publisher and associate publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News

The publisher and associate publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News

Nobody even noticed – not even me – the editor/publisher/main article-special feature writer. Sad but true.

Actually, it is not that sad, not at all. It died a natural death and had a short but vibrant life.

It all started in 2006-7. I was trying to read an edition of The Intermountain Jewish News, but I couldn’t get past the first page. It was so much pro-Israel happy talk, so little content. By the way – I come across it today – and while the Zionist slant is still as potent as ever – its reporting on local, Colorado issues has improved. Still, I could never and will never bring myself to subscribe, it being, like me, little more than a cultural dinosaur, a relic of another age – the Cold War.

Anyhow, at the time, I complained to my wife about how thoroughly bankrupt was the publication and she, in classic form, threw a psychological dart at me: “Stop Kvetching – Do something.”  Hmmm I thought, that is good advice, and thus was born, the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. For the first few years of its life, it was a printed newsletter, usually of 6-8 pages, in which I wrote virtually all the articles, although on rare occasions there was a guest writer. I paid for the first edition myself. It cost me $250 as I recall. After that, I was able, believe it or not, to raise contributions for each issue. I came out four, five times a year, usually a run of 500-700 copies, hand delivered here and there. A number of friends helped with the distribution, some Jewish, some not. One column in every printed issue which seemed to strike a chord was “Goy Of The Month”. I’d like to find a way to continue with that tradition but haven’t figure out exactly how… Read more…

Rob Prince at Seventy (November 6, 2014) – Ten Books (well actually eleven, maybe twelve) That Have Influenced Me

November 6, 2014
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St Bartholomew Day Massacre -Featured in Vol 3 of Merle's Fortune de France "Paris ma bonne ville."

St Bartholomew Day Massacre, August 24, 1572  -Featured in Vol 3 of Merle’s Fortune de France “Paris ma bonne ville.”

(note: This blog entry is lifted from an exchange on Facebook…)

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I have been thinking about this entry, done yesterday…something I want to make clear – the purpose of putting these books out with short descriptions is NOT to impress people. Screw that. Who needs it? It is more of a list of recommended readings, minus the first title which is more personal, books that I consider shed some light on the world in which we all live and that I think others – everyone – might benefit from reading. No doubt if it were me who made up the required freshman reading list for my or any other university – Pfeiffer’s Creative Explosion would easily, easily top the list. Screw showing off, screw trying to impress people, which has not been very important to me much of my life anyhow – this is shared information, at least that is the spirit in which it is offered).
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Taking Up Brandee Hayle‘s challenge to name ten books that have stayed with me over the course of my life (and being bored with my usual bout of middle-of-the-night insomnia which strikes for no particular reason) I’ll name ten books that come to mind.

Philip Roth’s Letting Go – The only book I ever read that seemed to be about ME, the world I grew up in and moving out West, one of his early works although his ending in Iowa is far more depressing than mine in Colorado

John Pfeiffer’s The Creative Explosion. To my mind although now 20 odd years old – the most engaging analysis of human evolution I have come across, especially the chapters on Cro-Magnon (early humanity 50-10 thousand years ago) and the incredible chapter on how the Australian aborignes learn geography

Karl Marx’s Capital (of course!!) – at least the part of that I understood in our little study group 40 years ago with Nancy, Saleh, Jack and Patty, Scott K (when he didn’t show up stoned), Dick Ayre (who actually understood it all and tried, with little success to explain it). We got through Vol 1 and half of Vol 2

Braudel’s three volume – Civilization and Capitalism, that I keep coming back to again and again and again. To my utter surprise, I found it on a shelf in my father’s home in Florida. He’d read it, understood it, loved it…perhaps the only time I ever discussed a book (or books) with him. That was nice.

Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle – still as good an explanation of U.S. Middle East politics (the USA, Israel, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, etc) as one can find around

Robert Merle’s breathtaking 13 volume epic historical novel of 16th, 17th century France , Fortune de France,  in French- about the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, a kind of proto-type of modern day political and racial bigotry. Am only through the first three volumes but am pretty sure I’ll be impressed with the next ten

Henning Mankel’s “Wallender series” – drunken, slovenly, essentially permanently depressed detective on the edge (and sometimes over the edge) of senility probing the seamy side of post Cold War Sweden.

Eduardo Galeano‘s “Open Veins In Latin America” – best regional history along with his more recent trilogy. There is a guy in the trilogy who is always getting the shit kicked out of him by higher powers but keeps bouncing back and never gives up.

Mohammed Samroui’s Chroniques des annees de sang (in French); former high level Algerian intelligence agent who details in a systematically riveting fashion crimes of state in Algeria during that country’s horrific civil war of the 1990s.

Colette Braeckman’s “Le Dinosaure” (in French) – the penetrating history of “our man in Kinshasa” for so many years, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (his full name which translates as “The warrior who knows no defeat because of his endurance and inflexible will and is all powerful, leaving fire in his wake as he goes from conquest to conquest”) – skunk extraordinaire – of the Congolese people, but OUR skunk – Congolese ally in the Cold War in Africa.

Oh yeah…some people read the Bible once a year – I read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species or some other works by the master or by Alfred  Russell Wallace who is just as good

This was fun, now I’ll go back to sleep

‘A Founding Amnesia’

November 4, 2014

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DU Report: John Evans, University founder and Colorado’s former governor, ‘culpable’ for state’s most notorious massacre.

Anyone with a basic knowledge about Colorado history knows the shame surrounding the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.

But what hasn’t been recognized is the culpability of one of the central figures behind the attack – Colorado’s own governor at the time, John Evans.

A scathing report released Monday by the University of Denver – which Evans founded – finds he created the conditions that led to the killing of members of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes who were living under the protection of the U.S. Army on the eastern plains.

The massacre at Fort Lyon 150 years ago this month killed what scholars say were 73 to 200 women, children, elderly and infirmed tribal members. Sand Creek is one of the most infamous events in the Indian Wars and perhaps the deepest scar in Colorado’s history.

Historians long have condemned U.S. Colonel John Chivington as a “monster in human form” for launching the attack. And rightly so. Chivington was the killer on the spot. He and his men slaughtered tribal members, mutilated their bodies – some sexually – and then brought heads and other body parts back to Denver as battle trophies. Read more…

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