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Our Record

moveon-warrecord-kerrybushThe excellent folks at MoveOn have another of their clever ads. It made me stop and think. About things that perhaps the ad makers hadn't considered.

This is surely the final major election for the Boomers. We are getting old now and newer cohorts of leaders have already taken our ground. I suspect this is one of the last elections in the U.S. when the Boomers will have a chance to vote for any of their own. From here on in the candidates just get younger than us by bigger and bigger margins. And it made me consider how my generation -- the idealistic and idealised 60's generation -- has done over the last twenty years or so when we've been in power. And frankly, it's kind of sad.

The ad itself is called "War Record" and it features lovingly portrayed images of "our man" fighting and killing in Vietnam. It contrasts the heroic Navy man with the rich man's son who bought his way out of danger, skipping out on the draft by playing the National Guard card with his Dad's connections. Remember, this time, Rambo is on our side. The fun-loving draft dodger is now the enemy.

Forgive me for not laughing out loud at the irony.

More generally, and leaving aside the personalities, it should surely appall beatniks and hippies and yippies and punks that the 2004 US Presidential election is entirely about the military and how it should be used for foreign policy purposes. Didn't we say "Fuck it!" to all that shit forty years ago? And what good did that do for us, eh?

We haven't even worked out the problems our parents left us! In the "LA Times" today I read in an important essay by Robert McNamara and Helen Caldicott that the US and Russia still have thousands of ICBMs pointed at each other, on hair-trigger alerts.

"According to a report on nuclear war planning by the National Resources Defense Council, Russia aims most of its 8,200 nuclear warheads at the U.S., and the U.S. maintains 7,000 offensive strategic warheads in its arsenal, most of which are targeted on Russian missile silos and command centers. Each of these warheads has roughly 20 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Of the 7,000 U.S. nuclear warheads, 2,500 are maintained on hair-trigger alert, ready for launching. In order to effectively retaliate, the commander of the Strategic Air Command has only three minutes to decide if a nuclear attack warning is valid. He has 10 minutes to find the president for a 30-second briefing on attack options. And the president has three minutes to decide whether to launch the warheads and at which targets, according to the Center for Defense Information. Once launched, the missiles would reach their Russian targets in 15 to 30 minutes.

A nearly identical situation prevails in Russia, except there the early warning system is decaying rapidly."

Unbelievable. This is the same nightmare I was waking up to every day in the 50s and 60s. What the hell have we been doing for forty years?

April 29, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


This piece from Eric Blumrich and the folks at BushFlash is from last year.

However, after the events of the last few weeks in Iraq, it bears watching again.

April 29, 2004 in Iraq | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More Scenes From Iraqi Life

Riverbend --

"There are two different kinds of strain. There's the physical strain of carrying 40 pails of water up and down the stairs to fill the empty water tank on the roof- after the 4th or 5th pail of water, you can literally see your muscles quivering under your skin and without the bucket of water, your arms somehow feel weightless- almost nonexistent. Then there's mental strain… that is when those forty buckets of water are being emptied in your head and there's a huge flow of thoughts and emotions that threaten to overwhelm you.

I think everyone I know is suffering from that mental strain. You can see it in the eyes and hear it in the taut voices that threaten to break with the burden of emotion. We're all watching things carefully and trying to focus on leading semi-normal lives all at once. The situation in the south seems to be deteriorating and we hear of fresh new deaths every day. Fighting has broken out in Falloojeh again and I'm not quite sure what has happened to the ceasefire. It's hard to know just what is going on. There's a sense of collective exhaustion in the air."

Jo Wilding:--
"Qusay Ali Yasseen, spokesman for the IRC, said there are a lot of kids, especially, suffering from diarrhoea, either from unclean water they had to drink on the journey or from unhygienic conditions since they arrived in Baghdad, their immune systems suppressed by trauma and shock. Chest infections are also rife among the kids because of the heat. Some of them walked for a day or two to safety. In the middle of each day, local people arrive and unload trays, boxes and pans of food. They have taken on the responsibility of feeding the increasing numbers of homeless, Qusay said. Through the day, other locals arrived in cars to offer help. A three truck convoy flying Unicef banners unloaded boxes of parts for a water tank, a 70 foot tent for a children’s area and several crates of crayons and paper and other kids’ stuff."
"Faiza: -- “Good morning. All news are depressing. Nothing is promising. Falloja is still on fire.”

April 28, 2004 in Iraq -- Daily Life | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What Does George Do When The Going Gets Tough?

Josh Marshall over at the always useful Talking Points Memo has an excellent piece today about how George Bush hides behind friends and family whenever there's trouble. I hope Josh doesn't mind me quoting most of the piece as it bears repeating:

"Yesterday the president's longtime handler and current campaign advisor Karen Hughes was on CNN attacking John Kerry's military service record and subsequent work as a Vietnam war protester ... What's the signature pattern of the president's life? When he faces a challenge or a tough scrape, he lets his family and friends bail him out, do his fighting for him. You see it again and again through failed businesses, legal scrapes, the whole matter of ducking service in Vietnam and then getting help cleaning up subsequent unfortunateness while he was serving in the Texas Air National Guard.

It's even come up again and again on the campaign trail. George W. Bush has faced three opponents (McCain, Gore and Kerry) since he came onto the national political stage -- each served in Vietnam, though each under very different circumstances. He's had his lieutenants attack the service of each one.

So here we have the same pattern again -- no different. The president wants to challenge John Kerry's military service. So he gets Karen to do it for him. You can get tripped in the chutzpah of this because this not only throws light on an earlier period when the president couldn't fight his own fights, it repeats the pattern."

That's a good observation. Of course, it is equally true that this ability to avoid one's own fights has brought Bush fils to the Presidency. We do ourselves ill to consider this man nothing more than a simple fool or a puppet. I am not suggesting that observers such as Josh Marshall are that short-sighted. But Bush the Fool is a view that I hear too often on the street or in casual conversation. The Bush opposition cannot allow itself the hubris of intellectual arrogance.

April 26, 2004 in Campaign 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Branding The Unnatural Beauty

Josephine Esther Lauter nee Mentzer was born in Queens, NY, 97 or 96 or 95 years ago. By the time she died this week, the woman she had become -- Estee Lauder -- had helped create celebrity culture and had built a cosmetics empire conservatively valued at $5 billion.

"Lauder was among the first of the great beauty titans, men and women such as Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Revlon's Charles Revson, who trafficked in hope. Lauder began her career in 1946 at a time when women spoke openly and earnestly about appearance without fearing the wrath of feminists, intellectuals and spoilsports who would accuse them of being shallow and narcissistic. Great beauties were celebrated without irony or dismissiveness back then. And Lauder tapped into the desires of the average woman to look her best and to be pampered ...

"A relentless saleswoman, Lauder was an early advocate and adopter of celebrity marketing. She envisioned her product in the hands of the world's most prestigious women, and so Lauder was profligate in sending out samples of her products to prominent women, such as the Duchess of Windsor. She wanted her goods sold in the most expensive department stores of the day, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus ... Lauder used signature models to personify the company and helped to transform the beauty business from one that was simply a blend of luxurious creams, science and hucksterism into one that also incorporated romance, sex appeal and fantasies."

The closing paragraph of the Post's obit nails it quite perfectly:
"The entire beauty business has changed significantly since Lauder began concocting skin creams in her kitchen with the help of an uncle who was a chemist. Indulging in beauty products and attempting to stave off the signs of aging have become activities fraught with negative social connotations; they have become flashpoints for social commentary. As a businesswoman, Lauder proved what determination and savvy can build, but she also helped to set the groundwork for a culture obsessed with a narrow range of beauty -- often to the detriment of the individual."
The lessons of Estee Lauder, "whom history will judge as one of the world's great entrepreneurs", are worth mining. Study capitalism's successes, understand the limitations, identify the weaknesses.

April 26, 2004 in Branding / Marketing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bush's Poodle Bitten Again

Fifty-two former British ambassadors -- many with expert knowledge of the Middle East -- have written to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The 52 diplomats urged Mr Blair to use his alliance with Mr Bush to exert

"real influence as a loyal ally... If that is unacceptable or unwelcome, there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure."
This open letter -- which one Opposition spokesman has called "a most remarkable intervention in the debate about the Middle East from a group of people who are almost certainly the most expert in Britain on the issue." -- takes aim at the US-UK policy in Iraq ...
"We do think that through lack of planning and through a misunderstanding, a misreading of the situation, we have got ourselves into an extremely difficult situation"
but is primarily concerned with the recent reversals of policy with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. They condemn Mr Bush's decision to endorse an Israeli plan to retain some settlements in the West Bank as an illegal and one-sided step - and criticise Mr Blair's public support for the move.
"Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land."
They go on to say that
"the views expressed are widely felt by officials in the Foreign Office though they are not shared by the prime minister or the foreign secretary."
Blair will of course shrug this off as the whining of a group of macontents, unaware of the situation on the ground. Blair will probably remind them that his knowledge of all possible situations is vastly superior to theirs, and that they should line up behind him and Big Brother George like loyal soldiers. However, having taken this unprecendented step of public crtiticism, I think it unlikely these diplomats will now just keel over and toe the line.

April 26, 2004 in Iraq | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Vancouver blossoms...

... as it does each Spring.

April 26, 2004 in Photographs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

American Idol Fixed?

I just haven't been watching "American Idol". Not this season. Not last season. Not ever. A karaoke gong show where the Brit dude who invented it gets 50% of the winner's checks for life just didn't fit into my viewing habits. Until last week. Last Wednesday, there was a spare half-hour between the end of one of the funniest shows on TV -- "Corner Gas" (only available in Canada, I'm sure) -- and the start of a new episode of "West Wing". Not having any urgent chores to fill the time, I chose to stay affixed to the couch and thus was subjected to a special half-hour episode of "Idol".

This particular episode has already become notorious, with the black girl who was generally agreed to be the most talented of the six finalists, being voted off the show by the telephone electorate. The surprise to the show regulars -- Ryan, Paula, Simon, et al -- was obvious even to a virgin viewer like myself. And the story is all over the media. My favourite article so far is from "MediaLife".

"First came the cries of vote fixing. Then came accusations of racism. That’s not surprising, considering the show’s history. In season one, Tamyra Gray, who is black, was voted off before the final in an upset that ranked just behind Hudson’s on the surprise scale. And last season producers booted fan favorite Frenchie Davis, also black, for posing topless for pictures for an internet site called “Daddy’s Little Girls” despite her mentioning the pictures on her application. In season one, producers let a white former stripper nonetheless stay on.

Fox’s accusers worried that the network did not want all three black women making the final, perhaps worried a fickle white audience would tune out, though again, they have no evidence. Of course, a greater percentage of black households than white actually watch “Idol.” “I knew once they let [Ruben Studdard] win the last show they will not let another black person win," a fan said on the “Idol” web site. “They are intimidated by the talent and skills of the black singers.”

Will the viewers stay if the junk gets a free pass? Has the "Idol" phenomenon reached its flood? What's next?

April 25, 2004 in Media | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Cultural Depth

Another of my enthusiasms is the paleo-anthropology of culture -- how long ago, and how, did we begin to do some of those things that we consider to inform culture. And for how long did the older forms persist. Music, dance, art, mytho-religion, all these and more are included in that remit. This has been an interesting month so far for news in these areas.

Clearly, the big news was the announcement that archeologists working the Blombos Cave in South Africa had discovered "41 shells, all with holes and wear marks in similar positions, in a layer of sediment deposited during the Middle Stone Age." It is a string of beads dated to 75,000 years ago, almost doubling the age at which we can now say for sure that humans adorned themselves. It means even more to those seeking the earliest signs of symbolism:

"The Blombos Cave beads present absolute evidence for perhaps the earliest storage of information outside the human brain," says Christopher Henshilwood, program director of the Blombos Cave Project and professor at the Centre for Development Studies of the University of Bergen in Norway ... "Agreement is widespread that personal ornaments, such as beads, incontrovertibly represent symbolically mediated modern behaviour. Until now, the oldest beads in Africa date to about 45,000 years. The discovery of 41 shell beads in sand layers at Blombos Cave accurately dated as 75,000 year old provides important new evidence for early symbolically organized behaviour in Africa" ...

The shells, found in clusters of up to 17 beads, are from a tiny mollusk scavenger, Nassarius kraussianus, which lives in estuaries. They must have been brought to the cave site from the nearest rivers, 20 kilometers east or west on the coast. The shells appear to have been selected for size and deliberately perforated, suggesting they were made into beads at the site or before transport to the cave. Traces of red ochre indicate that either the shell beads themselves or the surfaces against which they were worn were coated with this widely used iron oxide pigment."

Jumping ahead 50 or 60 thousand years, there was more evidence of the Europe-wide influence of the Magdalenian Culture. Reading a Sean Clarke article from the Guardian, we learn that
"The discovery of 13,000-year-old rock paintings in Nottinghamshire last year rewrote ice-age history in Britain. Today, archaeologists from all over Europe are in Creswell to discuss how the finds form part of a continent-wide culture known as the Magdalenian. Paul Pettitt, of Sheffield University's archaeology department, said: "The Magdalenian era was the last time that Europe was unified in a real sense and on a grand scale." According to Mr Pettitt, the artists behind the Creswell paintings would have spent summers in the area feasting on migrating reindeer, but the winters on lowlands which now form the North sea or in the Netherlands or central Rhine areas."

Of particular interest is a depiction of an ibex, an animal now only to be found in Europe in the Pyrenees. "Not one ice-age ibex bone has been found in Britain. The nearest ibex remains [from the period] were found in Belgium and mid-Germany," said Mr Pettitt. He said the most likely explanation is that Magdalenians saw ibexes elsewhere and painted them in Creswell as a reminder.

"Other shapes found at Creswell were initially thought to be long-necked birds. "Looked at another way," said Mr Pettitt, "You see a naked women in profile, with jutting out buttocks and raised arms. It appears to be a picture of women doing a dance in which they thrust out their derrières. It's stylistically very similar to continental examples, and seems to demonstrate that Creswellians are singing and dancing in the same way as on the continent."

Both of these fascinating pieces deal with that most important of times before the tyranny of agriculture and then cities ("civilization") distorted human development.

April 24, 2004 in Cultural Beginnings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wal-Mart the Great

Wal-Mart is a fascinating study of the modern Corporation, for good and ill. I wish I had more time to write about it, especially these days when there is so much good material. Here are four recent stories that are well worth the read to anyone interested in modern retailing, marketing, social engineering, capitalism, and similar stuff.

First there is an excellent piece on Wal-Mart's social impact in the "New York Times".

"[W]ith $256 billion in annual sales and 20 million shoppers visiting its stores each day, Wal-Mart has greater reach and influence than any retailer in history. "In each historical epoch a prototypical enterprise seems to embody a new and innovative set of economic structures and social relationships," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California here and the organizer of the conference. "These template businesses are emulated because they have put in place, indeed perfected for their era, the most efficient and profitable relationship between the technology of production, the organization of work and the new shape of the market."
Then there is a useful overview article at "The Economist, which concludes:
"With so many eyes watching it, Wal-Mart may have decided that it has to sacrifice a bit of its entrepreneurialism to reduce its legal risks. It recently set up a “reputation taskforce”, introduced new personnel procedures, hired extra lobbyists in Washington, DC, created an “office of diversity”, and launched new public-relations and advertising initiatives, dubbed “good jobs” and “good works”, featuring lots of beaming associates. These are not the actions of a company intending to get smaller. Wal-Mart, already huge, is preparing to get a whole lot bigger."
Opponents of Wal-Mart -- and there are many -- are obliged by the sheer bulk of the "enemy" to concentrate their energies on local battles. Guerilla News Network has an opinionated piece about the anti-Wal-Mart actions in Inglewood, California. The same article almost canonizes Costco for having 20% union membership compared to zero at the "Evil Empire".
"Costco, surprise, has a lower turnover rate and a far higher rate of productivity: it almost equaled Sam's Club's annual sales last year with one-third fewer employees. Only six percent of Costco's employees leave each year, compared to 21 percent at Sam's. And, by every financial measurement, the company does better. Its operating income was higher than Sam's Club, as was operating profit per hourly employees, sales per square foot and even its labor and overhead costs. Here's a quote to emblazon for corporate America: "Paying your employees well is not only the right thing to do but it makes for good business," says Costco CEO James D. Sinegal."
Still, other businesses look on Wal-Mart with awe and appreciation. It is always the benchmark for comparison. For example, Business Week Online has a fascinating article about German retailer Aldi:
"Aldi is Europe's stealth Wal-Mart. Like the Arkansas-based giant, Aldi boasts awesome margins, huge market clout, and seemingly unstoppable growth -- including an estimated sales increase of 8% a year since 1998. It relentlessly focuses on efficiency, matching or even beating Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) in its ability to strip out costs. Yet privately owned Aldi is also very old-school German, financing expansion with cash to avoid debt, shunning publicity, and moving quietly into new markets before the competition catches on. That has allowed the onetime local grocer in Essen to become one of the world's biggest retailers, with $37 billion in sales, a fraction of Wal-Mart's $245 billion but enough to give Aldi a 3.5% market share in Europe, vs. 6.8% for market leader Carrefour, according to Brussels-based market watcher M+M Planet Retail. Even mighty Wal-Mart has struggled against Aldi in Germany."
To close, the Times article quotes Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California here and the organizer of a recent academic conference on Wal-Mart:
Today's prototypical company, he declared in opening the conference, is Wal-Mart, which, he said, rezones American cities, sets wage standards and even conducts diplomacy with other nations. "In short, the company's management legislates for the rest of us key components of American social and industrial policy," Mr. Lichtenstein said.

April 24, 2004 in Capitalism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack