Friday, October 29, 2010

My Log 232: The book on the Swedish justice system, built around the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: an enthralling and inspiring read

During a visit to Dubrovnik, Croatia (about which, more later) I have spent most of my spare time lying on a hotel bed absorbed in books two and three of this international sensation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Of course, the second and third books have different names, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

I had been told by people who had read all of these that the second and third books were not as good as the first; but I beg to differ.In fact, I have found that the entire series, read consecutively, is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read (and I recommend anyone who hasn’t read them to do so immediately.)

Stieg Larsson, the author, was a Swedish leftist who had spent his life involved in left-wing causes which earned him the enmity of the European right. Being in Europe, I have come to appreciate how active this right-wing is, how serious are its threats, how people like Larsson have had to watch their step if they do not want to be victims of assassination by these lunatic right-wing groups.

When I read the first book I thought it exciting, and intriguing, because of the improbable girl who lay at the centre of the book, this wafer-thin, tiny girl with the computer brain, the photographic memory, the immense skill as a hacker into other people’s computers, and this unlikely physical brilliance which enabled her to overcome attacks by even the most brutal of male attackers.

I thought her intriguing, but unlikely, a figment of the author’s imagination, of course, but not someone we would ever be likely to meet in real life.

The second and third books fill out this character, provide a different perspective on her, and finally get us all on her side, as her victimhood is established. She has, from the first, been the victim of the State, of men in positions of authority who have taken advantage of her, and, because they wanted to keep secret the identity of her brutal father (a defector from the Soviet Union, later a major criminal in Sweden) a child who was regarded as an inconvenience to be dispatched to whatever holding cell was available. So, as a child, she was strapped down to a table for 380 days out of her two year confinement, declared to be incompetent, declared to be mentally ill, psychotic and violent, and given up as a hopeless case,

Eventually, freed, she showed herself in Book I to have remarkable talents as a researcher, to be a person of high morality, but with certain built-in phobias that prevented her from reacting to any persons of authority.

The third book, by far the best, in my estimation, described a sort of denouement to her life: her father, and his son, a brutal person who does not feel pain immediately, pursue her with the intention of killing her. She gets the better of them temporarily, but then her brother fells her, apparently kills her, buries her, and only gradually, as she begins to breathe again, she digs her way out and resumes her quest in life. Meantime, the journalist who has supported her in the earlier works, but whom she does not want to have anything more to do with, continues his research into the people who have persecuted her throughout her life, and uncovers this secret agency within the secret service.

This is another superb aspect of the book. I spent more than half my life as a working journalist, and I have always been cynical about the position that journalists think they occupy within society. I never felt at ease working for a private company, and I found that the newspapers, most of them at least, were run by incompetents, and were kept afloat simply by the continuing inflow of advertising that scarcely needed any management to keep going.

Claims by journalists to virtues of various kinds I have always discounted and sneered at. But in this book the workings of at least two, and quite a few more actually, honest journalists, not intent only on getting the story, but on getting a story that will clean up the underbelly of Swedish life, these are portrayed in minute detail, and I found the description utterly inspiring and absorbing. I have never struck anything like it in literature (or in life) before, and it has almost caused a revision in my prejudices about journalists. These people protected their sources, as so many journalists do in our society from time to time; but they did it in a context informed by the overall societal effect on what they were doing.

Finally, there is a longish description of a court case in which the girl is accused of many things, and her lawyer lays bare, one strand after another, the lies and prevarications and misjudgments, and incorrect decisions, and brutal misogynism of so many experts, and civil servants: an enthralling scene almost enough to give me faith (for the first time) in the possibility of a justice system).

I urge any of you who have not read these books to undertake them: they are of 800 to 500 pages in length, but are worth every moment you spend on them.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Link of the Day: A terrible article about the appalling condition of Haitians: Nine monhts after the quake a million Haitians slowly dying

“The Associated Press reports only 2 percent of the rubble has been removed and only 13,000 temporary shelters have been constructed. Not a single cent of the US aid pledged for rebuilding has arrived in Haiti. In the last few days the US pledged it would put up 10 percent of the billion dollars in reconstruction aid promised. Only 15 percent of the aid pledged by countries and organizations around the world has reached the country so far.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Link of the day: Johan Galtung, the remarkable Norwegian environmentalist, ruminates on routes to peace in a fascinating recent article

“…the four most belligerent countries in the last centuries, measured by participation in wars divided by number of years of existence, are the United States of America, Israel, the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom (England). Their democracies and human rights have not impeded enormous aggression, including, indeed, in the void left behind after the Ottomans.”

“…China has made giant steps forward…lifting 1991-2004 400 million from misery into lower middle class living. They follow the East Asian development theory and practice of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea: first distribution and infrastructure under authoritarian conditions, then economic growth and “opening up”. That is where civil and political human rights enter. China has long been in that phase as evidenced by 30 million traveling abroad annually, and returning. And annually, say, 80 000 open revolts about deficits of many kinds in an incredibly dynamic country.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Log 231: Guitar virtuoso virtually unknown in his native Canada: “Who he?” asks Redd Volkert

Quite possibly Redd Volkert is the greatest guitarist Canada has ever produced. I suggested that to him on Saturday, when I again had the privilege of hearing his astonishing virtuosity on his instrument during a quick visit to Austin, Texas, the self-styled music capital of America. “Oh, no,” he said in his self-deprecating way. But when I added that he is virtually unknown to Canadians, he laughed heartily and said, “Who he?”

Volkert was just back from yet another trip to Australia, where they seem to appreciate him more than does his native country, and if ever I saw a man comfortable in his art, master of his instrument, totally at peace with and enjoying what he was doing, it was Volkert in this performance.

He plays most Saturday afternoons in the Continental club, that dark grungy hole that I always call “the world’s greatest night club,” with a group of young musicians to whom he gives plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff, notably a remarkable keyboardist called Rick Harnett, whom I have heard playing behind all manner of artists in Austin over the years, always finding the perfect way to pick up whatever genre of music is on the programme.

Redd is also a regular member of Hey Bale!, a sort of country group (in fact, most critics say they are the last exponents of the old, real country music) whose gig at the same club every Sunday night always pulls in a packed house of aficionados who love the music and are keen to show off their dancing expertise.

It’s when I hear stuff like this that my anti-Americanism takes a rest. As someone remarked in an article recently, being critical of American politics, as well as many aspects of the American way of life, doesn’t mean that you don’t like jazz, aren’t enraptured by Nina Simone, or astonished by Ben Shahn or Jackson Pollock. The United States is a country that encapsulates the best and worst of life. How could a nation that was capable of producing Louis Armstrong have lived so long with a social system that stopped non-white people from drinking from the same tap as whites, or sitting at the same restaurant, or staying in the same hotels, or living in the same part of town, or a million other like barbarities.….

Indeed, how could a nation that has produced such great writers and artists as Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Hemingway, and countess others, have elected George W. Bush as president, or Ronald Reagan? And how could a nation that, setting all that history behind it, has managed to elect a black president, have so consumed itself in bitterness that there seems to be a very real possibility that pretty soon the crazies will be running the asylum?

The trouble with the United States social system is that the people of wealth not only are running things, as they have always done, but that nowadays they have begun to use that wealth in such a fashion as to exclude the interests of the majority of people who are not wealth-owners. The evidence is mounting: a terrible disaster seems to be in the offing. The wealth-owners control everything, media, opinion, universities, research, culture, the political process, and, once again, opinion, opinion, opinion. They are in such a position of power that they have begun to brainwash the entire population, which has apparently fallen only too easily for their ceaselessly repeated homilies masquerading as politically unchallengable facts. To get sensible government back out of their grasp is not proving to be easy. No one with wealth is ever ready to give it up voluntarily, or the privileges that go with it.

No, it’s not the entire population that’s been brainwashed: my nervousness about what seems to be building in the United States, momentarily got the better of me there. There remain many, many people, as there have always been, who resist the power of money. It has always been a nation of heroic dissenters. But the mainstream media these days is able to ensure that expressions of this dissent do not reach the majority of people in such a way as to rouse them to action. It seems that even the tradition of dissent is gradually sinking into irrelevance as the crazies begin to take over.

Austin in an interesting anomaly in the United States, capital of a raw-boned Republican state whose citizens seem to value their iconoclasm, their guns, their macho myths to such a degree that they are normally classified by outsiders as rednecks. Yet Austin is a town of liberal instincts exercising most of those good American qualities referred to above. Not only the superb musicians give the town its quality, but it is also a centre of high-quality research in its several universities; the city seems to be ahead of the game in such essential items as acknowledgement of climate change and the need to get our technologies under control, and it is a centre of high-tech industry.

In addition to taking in the Continental club during my five-day visit, I made another visit to the splendid Blanton museum of fine arts kept by the University of Texas, where works by many of the greatest artists of the United States and Latin America are to be found alongside an extensive exhibition of ancient masters from Europe.

Particularly I wanted another look at the large exhibit from 1987 by Cildo Meireles, a Brazilian artist, called Mission (How to Build a Cathedral). Since it is such a direct critique of the Catholic Church and its work in Latin America, I thought it might have been removed since I saw it a few years ago, in the current white-hot drive by the crazy right-wingers for power. But it is still there. Meireles has erected a sort of city square on the floor of one exhibit room, filled the square with 600,000 pennies, representing the economic forces behind the missions, overhung by a ceiling containing 2,000 hanging cattle bones (representing destruction of agriculture, and perhaps other things as well?), the two forces joined by a long, thin layer of altar wafers (800 of them, one on top of the other), the ensemble representing a direct piece of socially conscious art that one would not think popular in the current climate.

Other major works by Meireles includeThrough (1983-9), a labyrinthine structure which invites the visitor to walk across plates of broken glass; and Babel (2001), which is a tower of radios, each just audible and tuned to a different station to evoke resonances of the Tower of Babel in the Bible.Following the military coup in Brazil, Mereiles in 1970 developed a political art project which aimed to reach a wide audience while avoiding censorship called Insertions Into Ideological Circuits. This was achieved by printing images and messages onto various items that were already widely circulated and which had value discouraging them being destroyed, such as banknotes and Coca-Cola bottles (which were recycled by way of a deposit scheme).

There was one peculiar thing about this museum: they apparently can’t count. Not years, anyway. They charged me the full adult price of $7 entry, ignoring the evidence of my advancing years, which should have earned me a $2 remission. Are these guys just trying to flatter?

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Friday, October 1, 2010

My Log 230: A statement I totally agree with: the Canadian government has an aggressive policy to assimilate Indians

Honourable David Laird explaining terms of Tre...Image via Wikipedia

Here is a statement about relations between the Canadian governments and the indigenous people, with which I wholeheartedly agree. It comes from a group called Defenders of the Land, who encourage and organize First Nations to base their policies on Aboriginal rights (which are recognized in the Constitution) and title.

Here it is:

Canada's Indian policy in 2010

This year, the Canadian government has renewed an aggressive policy of assimilation of Indians. Despite all the apologies and high-minded words from elected officials over the last few years, this policy is the same Indian policy the government has pursued since the 1850s. From Tom Flanagan and the Fraser Institute, there is a push for privatization of reserve lands and conversion of Aboriginal title into fee simple on a small percentage of traditional territories. The comprehensive claims process and the regional treaty tables continue to push First Nations towards extinguishment of title using a range of carrot and stick tactics. Indigenous Peoples who fight back too hard against the assimilation agenda, like the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, are targeted for special repression.

It is important that the threats to the rights of the indigenous so clearly described in this one paragraph should be absorbed and thoroughly understood by Canadians.

As the Defenders say, assimilation policies have been pursued since at least the 1850s, a fact that makes nonsense of most non-indigenous commentators in the mainstream media who, when they rediscovered Aboriginal people in the last few years, almost unanimously came to the conclusion that as a nation we had a miraculous new policy available: namely, assimilation.

These people seemed not to know that this policy had ever been tried before, whereas the fact is, assimilation forced on indigenous people through countless Acts of Parliament, thousands of Orders-in-Council, and untold ad hoc regulations, was precisely what had brought the native people to their state of endemic poverty.

These so-called right-wing “experts” appeared never to have heard of the 1850 Acts, ostensibly designed for the protection of Indian lands, which nevertheless allowed the Crown to lease Indian lands, collect rents, license logging, and put the money into a fund that was spent, but over which, in spite of their protest, the Indians had no say whatever. This policy survived so long that when David Crombie became minister in 1984, he asked his bureaucrats “if it was still existing practice to use Indian funds to pay the cost of programmes which are regularly available to the Canadian public?” Of course, this question was never answered, like the 63 others Crombie put to his civil servants before being summarily removed from office.

These “experts” appear to have never heard of the 1857 “Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes of the Canadas,” which spelled out in detail how Aboriginal people could be detached from their community, their nation and even their race, and become honorary whites. Have they never heard of the Establishment Acts of 1859 and 1869, which replaced traditional chiefs with elected chiefs, encouraged Indians to take private ownership in their lands (two policies actively being pursued by these modern-day Rip Van Winkles), and which led to the absurdity of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people being defined as non-Indian although they lived as Indians, spoke Indian languages, and held to Indian beliefs and values, while thousands of European women who married Indians were defined as status Indians? To protests made against these policies (which continued until 1985) one bureaucrat responded that these measures were “designed to lead the Indian people by degrees to mingle with the white race in the ordinary avocations of life.”

Finally, did they never read the Indian Act, passed in 1876 with 100 sections, most of them at the discretion of the Minister, the purpose being to exercise full control over every aspect of Indian life in Canada? Within 30 years, the Act had 195 sections, formalizing the inferior status of Indians, so that an Indian could scarcely sneeze without authority of the Minister.

Land, assembly, movement, speech, government, production, education, health, inheritance, ceremonies, rituals, and even amusements were brought under government control. And these so-called modern experts have just declared for assimilation as a bold new policy?

I have emphasized the controls exercised through legislation because they represent a measured, considered response by Euro-Canadians to the indigenous people they found here when the European invasions occurred. Nothing slapdash about them, nothing spontaneous, simply a measured expression of the racism and arrogance of the government society towards their indigenous neighbours.

The above summary of an acceptable native policy, depending on an affirmation of Aboriginal rights and title, was issued in the context of arrangements for Native Sovereignty Week, an observance launched successfully last year, and to be repeated this year in the week of November 21-27.

..Indigenous Peoples across Canada are not backing down in their demand for respect for Aboriginal title and rights. Increasingly, bands are dissatisfied with the comprehensive claims process, which results in permanent extinguishment of title in exchange for a small amount of cash and a fraction of the land rights. Communities from coast to coast are continuing to assert their rights to self-determination, and choosing to chart their own destiny, insisting on consent for resource extraction and industrial activity on their lands, and insisting on their right to choose how they will govern themselves. The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is calling for the elimination of the Indian Act and the refounding of the relationship between First Nations and Canada on a basis of Aboriginal and treaty rights.

Defenders of the Land is calling on communities across Canada to explore the themes of resistance and revival in the face of the government's assimilation agenda. We are suggesting education and exploration of the following themes:

· Understanding and exposing the government's fundamental strategy of assimilation and extinguishment, and the ways in which this is implemented: through the comprehensive claims process, through the Indian Act, and through Indian Affairs. How does Indian Affairs work to pressure, shape, and control the choices of individual Indians and First Nations? What are some practical case studies of Indian Affairs' actions? How do we expose the very colonial character of Indian Affairs to a broader public?

· Exploring alternatives to the present colonial infrastructure. Shawn Atleo has called for abolition of the Indian Act, but right wingers will also seize on this to replace the Indian Act with fee simple and assimilation policies. What is a viable, concrete alternative that respects Aboriginal and Treaty rights? These questions could be explored through the presentation of a range of concrete alternatives and concrete strategies for achieving them.

· Exposing the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement signed this past year - a deal between ENGOs and industry without involvement of First Nations on the excuse that there are "too many of them to consult". The deal has serious implications for Indigenous Title and Rights but does not even mention the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and its language on Indigenous rights is very weak.

· Understanding the importance of language and cultural renewal, and traditional governance, to Indigenous resistance and self-determination.

What does it mean for supporters to act in solidarity? What are the dangers of people getting engaged to get something out of it for themselves? How do we recognize and talk openly about the challenges of building relationships of solidarity? What do people need to know to enter into constructive relationships of solidarity, and not impose a further burden, or their own ideological agenda, on First Nations?

The Defenders' statement says that some of these themes might be explored in private, Native-only or mixed workshops leading up to the week of educationals. The question of solidarity and relationship building with non-Natives could be tackled through one or two-day symposia involving Native and non-Native organizers.

It adds that: “Defenders of the Land is a network of First Nations in land struggle working with urbanized Indigenous people and non-Native supporters in defense of Indigenous lands and rights.”

I support them.
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