Thursday, March 31, 2011

Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books

London Review of Books (LRB) is a very staid, solemn, politically-middle-of-the-road publication that prints extensive reviews of books on social, political and economic issues. Perry Anderson is a professor of history and sociology at UCLA, and a committed socialist.

The online issue contains a sample of the great articles available in the print edition. Some complete articles are available for free online, but most require reader subscription to access the full contents. The LRB generally reviews books by academics who have written for a general audience, and its articles can sometimes be quite dense, yet rewarding.

Perry Anderson comes from the British, Western Marxist tradition, which has its strengths and weaknesses, like any school of thought. His writings are always packed with information, scholarly yet readable. His latest essay in the LRB is an outstanding survey of the presidency of Lula da Silva, the recently retired two-term president of Brazil. Anderson crafts his essay as a gripping political drama, which in fact, the Lula presidency was.

Can a democratically elected president leave office after two terms even more popular than when first elected? And can that politician become even more radicalised in office, taking on the corporate oligarchy successfully and emerge triumphant? Anderson argues that Lula, and the Brazilian Workers Party, did just that over the course of the first decade of the 2000s.

As Anderson states "By any criterion, Luiz Inácio da Silva is the most successful politician of his time." Quite a big call and one that is fully justified.

Anderson makes clear that Lula's terms in office were hardly peaceful - they were marred by constant attacks from the military-corporate oligarchy; political scandals tarnished his administration, Lula's popularity dropped precipitously in the mid-2000s, his social programs faced stiff resistance, and the major media were uniformly hostile. yet Lula and the Workers Party, based on strong trade union militancy, fought back with a political campaign and turned Brazil's economic fortunes around.

Anderson acknowledges that Lula's personal qualities contributed to his success, but avoids singling out his personality as the main factor in the success of the Lula presidency. He correctly observes that a correspondence of international and domestic factors contributed to the rise in the Workers Party fortunes - higher prices for Brazil's exports, increased demand for Brazil's soya and iron ore from China, and the general rise in commodity prices. Brazil's GDP increased substantially in the 2000s, as compared to the continual stagnation of the 1990s.

But Anderson also credits the Workers Party's domestic initiatives, such as helping the poor, in explaining Lula's increasing popularity. Lula launched the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash injection to mothers in the poorest strata of the population. Yes there are checks; the families must prove their children are geting the proper schooling and health checks. While the payments are small, they are made directly by the federal government, reach more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population. The financial cost of the programme is small, but its political impact is enormous, and has lifted 20 million out of dire poverty. (That figure comes from the Washington Post, not exactly a bastion of red-socialist propaganda). The Workers Party also subsidised education programmes, and the numbers of poor going to university trebled. Tight controls over the banks and financial institutions meant that the worst excesses of the 2008 global financial crisis were avoided in Brazil.

Brazil also assumed a larger role on the international stage under Lula's presidency. It has allied with Russia, China and India politically and economically, forming an alternative bloc that can challenge the power of the United States. Lula stopped consorting with the rich and powerful in the US, and moved towards greater Latin American solidarity, refusing to fall in line with the US as had previous administrations. Brazil officially recognised Palestine, and refused to join the US-sponsored blockading of Iran.

Anderson launches into a fascinating examination of the recent history of Brazil, and examines the historic subservience of Brazil to the interests of the US. While the previous civilian and military rulers of the country based themselves on the rhetoric of populism, Lula and the Workers Party on the trade union movement and democratic political structures that Vargas and Peron would never have permitted.

Anderson goes into various interpretations of 'Lulismo', and how the current regime differs historically from the prior governments. This is the more dense part of the essay, and Anderson goes into some historical detail which is beneficial for reader to understand the context of the Workers Party's rise to power. He documents how military rule suppressed political dissent, but also stifled intellectual culture, seeking to destroy any potential centre of resistance to the dictatorship. Accompanying the rise of the Workers Party is a growing intellectual ferment, with different periodicals thrashing out political ideas and debates about the way forward.

Go read the whole thing - it is a long article, but very worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Do you hear the calls for a no-fly zone over Yemen?

I am straining my hearing capacity, trying to listen to calls, any calls, for a no-fly zone over Yemen. Listen to London, Washington, Paris, Ottawa - can you hear any? If you cannot, then there is a perfectly good reason: there are no calls for a no-fly zone over Yemen.

The combined Western attack on Libya has gathered enormous media attention over, and we have all heard the calls for a no-fly zone in Libya. The stated reason is 'humanitarian' - the demonstrators in Libya need protection against the forces of the erratic tyrant Gaddafi.

There has been plenty of commentary on the geostrategic interests motivating the major capitalist powers in calling for a no-fly zone. There are commentaries on the destructive impact of such an attack on Libya, and the horrifying political and economic conditions for the Libyan people which will result from such an invasion. For instance, see here for a statement from the Socialist Alliance.

I wanted to draw attention however to another tyrant that is mercilessly killing demonstrators, locking people up to be tortured, and who has stayed in power for approximately 30 years - President Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, has been rocked by protests for the past seven weeks. President Saleh has stayed in power for the last 32 years. It is one the oldest areas of civilisation in the Near East, and its recent history has been marred by poverty, tribal rivalries and a ruthless central government since reunification in 1990. No effort was made by Saleh to improve living conditions, reduce unemployment, fight against tribalism, or move towards democratic structures. Such a regime has been strongly backed by the United States, with Yemen receiving millions of dollars in official US 'aid'. Where that money has gone is anybody's guess. Saleh quickly aligned Yemen with the foreign policy objectives of the US, joining in the so-called 'war on terror', and playing up American anxieties about al-Qa'ida in the Arabian peninsula.

The deteriorating social conditions in Yemen lead to an eruption of protests against Saleh and his American-supported regime at the beginning of this year. The Yemeni security forces launched a violent crackdown, using live bullets, teargas grenades and police-backed thugs to attack demonstrators. Basically Saleh instituted a war against his own people; similar conduct by the Gaddafi regime was cited as a reason for the Western attack on Libya. Yemen does not have any oil or natural gas, but it is strategically located at the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Millions of barrels of oil are transported through the Red sea every month. Yemen shares a long border with the oil-rich and US-backed Saudi Arabia.

Obama escalated the 'targeted killing' programme in August last year, with secretive unmanned drone attacks and US Special Forces operations in Yemen, rather than go for an all-out ground invasion which is guaranteed to generate domestic and international criticism.

Inflicting this kind of state terrorism - because that is what Obama's covert war is - will only increase misery and deprivation in Yemen. Most of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, and the population suffers from chronic hunger and shortages of electricity.

Well, given this situation of hopelessness and immiseration, is it any wonder that extremist groups find ready recruits to their particular brand of violent religious fundamentalism? It is no wonder that Yemen has a recent history of violent extremism, beginning with the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, and in October 2010 the suggested 'toner-cartridge bomb' detected on cargo planes originating in Yemen. Though on that story I remain sceptical, and urge the reader to consider the article by Professor Gary Leupp, who has analysed the 'toner-cartridge bomb' story here; the Yemeni Toner Cartridge Bomb story.

Patrick Cockburn wrote an excellent article for The Independent about recent developments in Yemen entitled A crucial US ally against Middle East terrorism or a safe haven for al-Qa'ida? Cockburn asks whether Yemen is a firm US ally, or a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalist extremism? Well, I will answer - it is both. Repressive governments in the Arab world, like Yemen's, are US allies and provide fertile soil for religious fundamentalism.

The Independent reports that a dozen of Yemen's top military commanders have deserted President Saleh, yet the latter refuses to step down, warning of an impending civil war.

As I understand it, the resignations of senior military figures was prompted by the killing of 52 unarmed protestors by government snipers. The massacre of the protestors last week did not succeed in derailing the protest movement.

The US White House issued lukewarm calls for the Yemeni president to respect the right of protestors to engage in peaceful assembly. The stench of hypocrisy is unmistakable given that the US is currently participating in a barbaric onslaught against Libya, as well as the ongoing criminal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Returning to The Independent, read the excellent article here, about how President Saleh exploited American anxieties to remain in power.

This lead article argues that Saleh has stayed in power by playing up fears of an al-Qa'ida style terrorist attack emanating from Yemen.

But that is in contrast to what Saleh himself claimed late last year, when he dismissed American assessments of the scope and scale of the terrorist threat, stating that Washington has deliberately exaggerated the threat from al-Qa'ida and the danger it poses to the security of Yemen. The Yemeni government insisted that fighting terrorism was the responsibility of the Yemeni authorities.

I think that rather than exploiting Washington's fears, the Yemeni regime has utilised the ever-expanding 'war on terror' to justify its savage crackdown on internal political opposition. Obama is contributing to the misery of the Yemenis by escalating the drone attacks and enabling hundreds of special forces operatives to kill with impunity.

So where are the calls for a no-fly zone to protect demonstrators in Yemen? If you cannot hear them, it is because they do not exist.

Lie to Me

No, that is not an exhortation for my readers to lie or try to deceive me.

That is the title of a fascinating series about how to detect whether someone is lying. We all would like to discover whether a person is being untruthful with us. It can be in our workplace, school, relationships, business - just about any arena of human social interaction. How can we read the all-important nonverbal communication to detect if we are having the wool pulled over our eyes? The TV programme Lie to Me explores that very subject.

I began watching a few episodes with a sceptical mindset. Would this be just another formulaic police-chasing-crooks story? My scepticism has given way to approval. Now I am hooked.

The basic premise of the series is the work of psychologist, Paul Ekman, who is a world leader on interpreting facial expressions (and non-verbal communication) and its role in detecting deception. From this interesting premise, a remarkable TV series is the result. Though the series presents an "open-and-shut" case every episode, Ekman is more tentative about drawing such firm conclusions from a person's facial expressions, or rather 'micro-expressions'. These are the involuntary facial movements, twitches and tics that we all perform when speaking, thus revealing our true emotions regardless of our verbal communication.

Tim Roth plays the principal character, Dr Cal Lightman, (loosely based on Ekman) the world's foremost expert on nonverbal communication and facial expression recognition. He portrays a psychologist that observes each person, usually suspects in a criminal investigation, for signs that their nonverbal communication - mainly facial expressions - indicate deep-seated emotions which contradict what the suspect has been saying. Roth's portrayal is the highlight of the programme, and his character is the pivot around which the whole series revolves. His character is urbane, witty, and clearly knows his subject inside-out.

Kenan Malik, author of Man, Beast Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell us about Human Nature has a brief summary of Ekman's research, which involved investigating whether there are universals of human emotion; facial expressions that convey emotions which are recognised regardless of the culture in which the person was reared. Ekman collected evidence that this indeed was so, proving that basic human emotions of anger, happiness, fear, are recognised across widely disparate cultures.

Lightman's company is hired by law enforcement or federal agencies who have a need to observe suspects and find any particular cues as to whether they are lying, thus shedding light on the case under investigation. Lightman uses applied psychology to determine whether a person is intentionally deceiving investigators, or is telling the truth.

This is not a run-of-the-mill cops versus robbers series. It is attempting to reflect the impact of social psychology research on our everyday lives. We all want to know when we are being lied to; this deception detection behaviour extends into our personal lives, our jobs, workplace, business dealings, friendships, schools - just about every aspect of our working and social life. How can we pick up on the telltale signals that someone is lying to us? Are there unmistakable signs that a person with whom we are dealing is lying? The series is based on the research that suggests there are 'universals'; facial expressions that indicate basic emotions, irrespective of the culture or ethnicity in which a person was raised.

Each episode presents a very definitive case for deception detection - I suspect that it is not so cut-and-dried in the real world. After all, this is Hollywood, where law enforcement agencies apprehend the culprits in the parameters of a one-hour show. However, the merit of Lie to Me is the basis of the series; the research work of social psychology, body language, facial microexpressions, and the application of this knowledge to situations where detecting deception is crucial in determining guilt or innocence.

There are always two parallel cases in each episode; Lightman working with Dr Foster, and the two junior psychologists heading up their own investigation into another case. Lightman occasionally trips up his colleagues, detecting whether or not they are being truthful with him. This inter-office dyanmic makes Lightman seem obsessed with his topic; he is always on bullshit-detection mode. The constant interplay with the other psychologist/investigators in his company can get irritating at times, but it is a device used by the show to demonstrate Lightman's ongoing commitment to his work.

The most fascinating parts of the series are the techniques Lightman employs to expose the deception of the suspects he is interviewing. In one instance, the mother of a child that has been abducted did not display significant facial expressions even when discussing the disappearance of her child. Lightman explains that the lack of forehead movement, and corresponding lines around the eyes, indicated that the mother did not experience any sorrow or emotional anguish while discussing her kidnapped child. Could she be lying? She is a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance. But then, Lightman does something interesting; while the questioners are in the room, he causes a lamp globe to explode.

The occupants of the room, including the mother under interrogation, are startled by the explosion. Lightman notices even in such an instance, there is no movement of the forehead muscles or eye lines on the mother’s face. Lightman sees the reaction of all the other occupants of the room; they register the typical startled or frightened reaction. The mother was also startled by the light-burst, but Lightman observes that she still lacks the involuntary facial muscle movement when confronted with something surprising. Could there be another explanation? Indeed there is; the mother is receiving botox treatment, which impedes facial muscle movement. Hence the reason why her face appears motionless when discussing even emotionally traumatic subjects, like the abduction of her daughter.

It is an entertaining series, with slickly produced episodes featuring intricately fascinating plotlines. Go watch it from now on.