Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Royal Stutter

Last night the British movie The King’s Speech won big at the Oscars.  I didn’t watch the ceremonies, but I wonder whether the irony was apparent in the festivities: while dictators are toppled, often at the cost of many lives, throughout the Middle East, the Angl0-American establishment is engaged in full-throated celebration of monarchy.

Of course, King George VI, the stuttering protagonist of The King’s Speech, was no Louis XIV.  The film demonstrates his human qualities; indeed, his battle to overcome a speech impediment in order to rally Britain in the face of Hitler’s onslaught makes his body into a metaphor of the British body politic in general.  This is a trope that goes back to Shakespeare’s time, and that evidently continues to resonate.

And part of the drama of the film derives from the King’s need to overcome his inherited superciliousness enough to trust the Aussie speech therapist who “cures” him of his stuttering.

In depicting George VI’s struggles, The King’s Speech participates in a trend evident since the days of Princess Diana towards humanizing the British monarchy (and aristocracy more broadly).  Stephen Frears’s film The Queen managed to perform similar work for Queen Elizabeth, who had previously been famous to cold-shouldering Diana into her grave.

Of course the king’s struggle to overcome fears he seemingly inherited from the tyrannical atmosphere created by his father is powerful.  But I think there’s something deeply pernicious about the film, nonetheless.  Of course, if you’re going to be ruled by a monarch, it’s best that that they identify with the people and have their powers limited constitutionally.  However, there’s nothing particularly benign about the British monarchy.  They absorb millions of pounds worth of public funds every year, at a time when budgets for education, libraries, and all sorts of other public institutions are being slashed. As Tom Nairn demonstrates powerfully in Enchanted Glass, Britain’s enduring infatuation with the monarchy prevents it from constructing many of the significant democratic institutions of a true republic.

In addition, we shouldn’t forget the history surrounding World War II, upon which The King’s Speech turns.  The British monarchy never explicitly sided with the Nazis, but there was much pro-fascist sentiment among the British aristocracy in the 1930s.  Britain refused to side with democracy in Spain when Franco’s fascist forces began their campaign.  Moreover, during this period, Britain helped establish some of the more pernicious dictatorships of world history, including the House of Saud (pictured above).

The King’s Speech is a symptom of the enduring appeal of imperial/royal nostalgia today.  In a moment in which there is so much visceral public anger against the democratic welfare state, our culture industries nonetheless churn out paeans to national unity in the solitary figure of the “good” monarch.  What about a film about what happened to the working class kids who were displaced by the Blitz, and whom middle class Britons often turned out of their homes?  Enough with the sordid heritage industry already!

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Justice, Deferred but not Denied

Big oil largely does whatever it wants around the world.  In country after country, corrupt plutocrats shill for oil companies that pollute the land, poison the citizens, and spirit away natural resources to benefit the gas guzzling denizens of the overdeveloped world.

Ecuador is a perfect example of this sad chain of events.  Since the 1970s, the US-based corporation Texaco has been drilling wells in the Amazonian jungle in Ecuador.  According to Sweden’s Umeå International School of Public Health, during this drilling, Texaco spilled more than 30bn gallons of toxic wastes and crude oil into the land and waterways of Ecuador’s Amazon basin.  Compare this with the 10.8m gallons of crude spilled into the waters of Alaska by the Exxon Valdez to gain a sense of the magnitude of this disaster.

But Texaco largely got away with this massive act of pollution.  One reason for this may lie in what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” the distended temporality through which environmental destruction plays itself out.  Unlike human rights atrocities committed with traditional weapons of mass destruction, environmental contamination often makes itself felt across generations and in ways that are not always easy to tie to the original contamination.

How then to hold polluting corporations responsible for their polluting ways?  Texaco paid $40m in the 1990s for clean-up, but then claimed that it had exhausted its obligations to the people of Ecuador.  Conveniently, the company was bought by Chevron in the 1990s, meaning that the original perpetrator disappeared in legal terms.  Similar acts of absorption have occurred in other toxic waste spills.  One thinks of the case of Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, India; the company responsible for the disaster was bought by Dow Chemical and still has not paid out substantial damages to the people of Bhopal.

This makes the decision by an Ecuadorian judge to hold Texaco responsible for $8bn worth of damages in the Amazon particularly significant.  It took eighteen years for justice to be delivered in this case.  Joe Berlinguer’s movie Crude offers a powerful account of this epic battle for justice.  This victory sets an important precedent, but it is already embattled.  Supported by the U.S. government, Chevron has already taken steps to bar enforcement of the ruling in international courts.  Nevertheless, the decision is a real milestone in holding polluting corporations responsible for their damage to the Earth and its fragile inhabitants.

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Pan-Arabism, Take Two

Mubarak is gone!

Lost in the incredibly gripping stories emerging from Egypt in recent weeks has been any discussion of links between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.  This lack of analysis also marginalizes discussion of which countries – in North Africa and elsewhere – might be next.

Issandr El Amrani’s article goes some way to addressing the linked questions of “why Tunisia – why Egypt?”

We’ll see where the revolutionary baton will be taken up next.  The great danger here is that these uprisings for democracy will go the way of those that came at the end of the Cold War in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere: popular revolts will lead to the establishment of formal democracy, but in tandem with augmented neo-liberal economic policies.  If this is the result of the present uprisings, there will truly be reasons for bitterness.

But it’s better not to indulge such gloomy thoughts.  For now, the people of Tunisia and Egypt and their supporters all around the world have just cause for feeling triumphant.

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A Walk on the Wilde Side

My friend Nick Frankel has just brought out a new edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It’s creating quite a buzz since Nick’s new edition restores quite a few sexually charged passages that were suppressed by Wilde’s Victorian editors.

Surprising that it’s taken this long to restore this material.  Check out this interview in which Nick, Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains why Wilde’s original editors cut out the homoerotic material that he’s now restored, and offers a fascinating discussion of the social and political context that legitimated the persecution of Wilde and other queers in late Victorian Britain.

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Running Dry

Oil prices are beginning to climb back towards the historical highs they’d reached before the economic collapse of 2008.  They’re not yet in nose-bleed territory, but there are indications that prices are likely to keep rising.

According to an article in The Guardian, cables from the U.S. consul general released by Wikileaks reveal that the Saudis have overstated their oil reserves by as much as 40% in order to stimulate foreign investment.

U.S. diplomats were apparently told by Sadad al-Husseini, former head of oil exploration at the Saudi oil corporation Aramco, that the country would not be able to boost its production to the level necessary in order to keep global oil prices down as the world emerges from the financial crisis of the last several years.

Of course, peak oil theorists (myself included) have been all over this argument for years.  But there’s been little recognition of the urgency of the peak oil scenario in official circles.  In fact, the economic downturn has all but silenced discussion of renewable energy since economic recession has provoked lower commodity prices.  Yet the leaked cables suggest that U.S. diplomats are taking al-Husseini very seriously rather than viewing him as an apocalyptic ranter: “While al-Husseini fundamentally contradicts the Aramco company line, he is no doomsday theorist. His pedigree, experience and outlook demand that his predictions be thoughtfully considered.”

This is the first time fears about peak oil have been aired by a highly placed U.S. official, even if they were not intended for public consumption.

So, are we ready to start talking seriously about a massive, coordinated, just transition to sustainable energy production now?  Probably not.  I suspect that we’ll have to go over the precipice of cripplingly high prices for petroleum before enough political willpower will be mustered to broach these issues seriously in U.S. political discourse.  We’re cursed with living in increasingly wild times.

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Parched Lungs

The Amazon rainforest is often analogized to the lungs of planet Earth.  If this analogy holds true, these lungs are increasingly parched, dessicated by two supposedly hundred-year droughts that have occurred within a five-year span.

According to a report recently published in Science, the Amazon rainforest saw two severe droughts, bad enough that scientists referred to the first as a 100-year drought.  The first of these droughts occurred in 2005.  Alarmingly, the second occurred in 2010.

What are the implications of these droughts in such quick succession?  The authors of the report state the following: “By using relationships between drying and forest biomass responses measured for 2005, we predict the impact of the 2010 drought as 2.2 × 1015 grams of carbon [95% confidence intervals (CIs) are 1.2 and 3.4], largely longer-term committed emissions from drought-induced tree deaths, compared with 1.6 ×1015 grams of carbon (CIs 0.8 and 2.6) for the 2005 event.”

Put in plain English, what this means is that, during the second drought, the Amazon emitted a significantly higher quantity of carbon dioxide than it did during the first.  The Amazon, in other words, is drying out, and, with this drying, switching from being a net absorber of the planet’s carbon dioxide output to a net emitter.

This is the granddaddy of all tipping points.  If and when the Amazon dries up, the huge quantities of carbon locked away in the rainforest vegetation are likely to be vomited up into the atmosphere.  Processes of climate change would be massively accelerated as a result.

It’s perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that we’ve just discovered that the planet may have lung cancer.

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Revolutionary Roots

Commodity prices are sky high for the third time in as many years.  While the resulting high prices for food may not be particularly apparent to most Americans, in the global South, this inflation of commodity prices is a life and death issue.

There are many reasons for the recent rise in food prices. Speculation by unscrupulous financiers is one of the more unseemly ones. However, the most significant cause of the high prices is the extreme forms of weather over the last year. There’s little mention of this in mainstream news sources, but Paul Krugman recently wrote a very brave editorial that acknowledges the link between high food prices and climate change.

In a throw away line, Krugman links high food prices to the revolutionary movements sweeping North Africa at the moment.  Surprising to find such a frank admission of the role of food riots in making broader social transformations.  Given the unsustainable nature of our current global food system, we’re likely to see far more political instability and uprising in the future.

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The New York Times reports today that the Obama administration and leading European nations are backing the plan laid out by the newly appointed Egyptian VP, former head of security services and torture maven, for a “gradual transition.”  As even the Times admits, this means a betrayal of the demands of the protesters for democracy.  When the chips are down, it seems that the U.S. picks “stability” over democracy every time.

Shame, shame on this country!

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Egypt Unveiled

Check out this great collection of images of Egyptian women involved in the uprising.  It’s a really important alternative to the male-dominated images of the uprising emanating from mainstream media sources.  Egyptian women are evidently taking a leading role in challenging the Mubarak regime.

This revolutionary activism on the part of women resonates with Frantz Fanon’s pioneering but problematic analysis of the transformation of gender roles during the Algerian revolution in “Algeria Unveiled” (in his book A Dying Colonialism).  Fanon argued that the veil became an important symbol of resistant Algerian identity in the context of French colonial oppression.  It also served as a strategic weapon since Algerian women could transport weapons and explosives to support the resistance movement underneath their veils.  When necessary, women activists doffed the veil in order to appear “European” and move freely about the colonial precincts of cities such as Algiers.  This experience, Fanon argued, catalyzed a radical mutation in gender roles that spelled the end of centuries of Algerian patriarchy.

As feminist analysts have since pointed out, Fanon failed to consider both the depth of patriarchy in Algeria and the limitation of the roles accorded women in revolutionary times. After the departure of the French, the institutional revolutionary party, the FLN, quickly erased women activists from historical memory as part of a reassertion of patriarchal normalcy.

It is obviously very important to watch Egypt to see the impact on gender roles of the current uprising, and to see whether Algerian history will be replayed forty years later. Circumstances may make the denouement of this revolution significantly different. Women in the Maghreb today (and in Egypt in particular) are far more educated and more engaged in the public world than they were during the revolutions of the last century. In addition, poverty has been feminized over the last twenty years or so in ways that are likely to continue to spur women to challenge the status quo, even after this revolutionary wave recedes.

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A pithy translation

Watch this absolutely brilliant satire of U.S. diplomatic language:

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