Friday Quick Hits and Good Reads: A Divided Yemen, Water in South Africa, Automation, and more



What’s this week been up to? 


Happy Friday! Let’s get to the readings…

“The South will never be governed by Sanaa.”


Image result for british yemen map

This map actually sort of makes sense


Some fine reporting by al-Jazeera on how the UAE is funding, and often literally fighting for, independence in south Yemen. Their motives seem to be a mix of regional power displays (Saudi Arabia is obviously against this move, violently supporting the Hadi government) and geopolitics, as their influence in a newly independent state will give them primary control over the region’s shipping lanes.

But, like, is this a good idea? In theory, the concept of splitting up a country is anathema to us, but it isn’t like the modern country of Yemen has a long history of unity from the sands of Saudi Arabia to the sea. It was originally unified in 1990 after the rapid decline of the Soviet Union made socialist South Yemen untenable, but then split again into civil war in 1994, only to be forcibly reunified by then-President Saleh and cadres of returning jihadis, who started to impose their concrete-grey vision of Islam on a more liberal area.

Looking at 20th-century history, one could argue that Yemen was split due to colonialism, with the Brits ruling southern Yemen out of Aden, but as cruel as their colonialism is, it was basically a concession to reality. The south was essentially never ruled by Aden.

Hell, most of the north was rarely unified. Even Yahya Muhammed and Ahmed bin-Yahya ran a “kingdom” based on constant negotiations and deal-makings, not absolute control. And never over the “south”.

None of this is to say that Yemen is a made-up land like Iraq, which is violently fraying again. It’s the idea of a modern nation-state ruled by a city in the north is essentially foreign, and against the way that Yemen has been governed for most of history.

To say that the south will never be governed by Sanaa doesn’t strike me as particularly defiant. It’s just saying what has been true for all but less than thirty of Yemen’s thousands of years.

“Could this be a sly plot to economize water in a third world country?”

Image result for cape town drought

Very excited about a new blog by ThatCapeTownGirl, who has as one of her initial posts an in-depth look at water in South Africa, and how it appears to be used as a political cudgel against the poor (which in South Africa of course is unmistakeable racialized).

While there has been a heavy drought in Cape Town for much of the year, this blog looks at how it is disproportionately being politicized, and how slow the recovery has been. She fears this may be an attempt to “economize water”, a great turn of phrase. There will always be people who capitalize on disaster, and water is one of the last great frontiers in commodification. It’s the one we have to fight the hardest. Once water becomes a tool of commodity, there really isn’t anything left. We’re all bought and sold.

Looking forward to reading this blog and learning more about South Africa!

What Bowe Bergdahl Comments Say About Trump



Hell yeah! This picture again! 


Easily-lost Army Sargent Bowe Bergdahl, who pled guilty and is currently awaiting sentencing, has used in his defense wildly-inflammatory and prejudicial comments made about him by then-candidate and now-President Donald John Trump (just to remind you that yeah, this really happened).

“We’re tired of Sgt. Bergdahl, who’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed,” Trump said at a Las Vegas rally in 2015. “You know in the old days — Bing. Bong,” Trump said while mimicking firing a rifle. “When we were strong.”

He also added: “thirty years ago, he would have been shot.”

A few thoughts on this and what it says about the Current Occupant:

  1. Guns go neither “bing” nor “bong”. He can’t even be a doofus right.
  2. Desertion isn’t really being a traitor. Trump obviously didn’t know this, nor does he now, I’m sure. Just another reminder that he knows nothing about anything.
  3. These are clearly inflammatory lynch-mob type statements about a confused young man who probably never should have been in Afghanistan to begin with. As Hollywood Mark Perrone points out, he was in the army because he was considered too mentally unstable to be in the Coast Guard. But that’s Trump: a braying carny with the instincts of an arsonist. He doesn’t know anything, but he knows how to incite the basest passions of the mob.
  4. The “thirty years ago” is my favorite part, because at the time, 30 years ago was 1985. I’m pretty sure we weren’t lining up people against the wall in 1985. But Trump lives in an endless “the past was better”, even when the past has to move up to horrible times like the 80s, when the country was cheap and tacky and vulgar and idiots like Donald Trump were considered avatars of success. It shows the essential emptiness of his psuedo-nostalgia, but also its powerful pull: “the past”, as a concept instead of reality, is always better. In Back to the Future, 1955 was a time of innocence and cool, far more than 1985. Now 1985 is that past. For people whose lives are grim, that’s a powerful concept. Someone has to kick modernity in the pants, and that someone is somehow Donald Trump. That’s the rotten and phony core of his rotten and phony appeal, and that it doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense somehow only makes it stronger.

OK, I actually gotta run. I’ll do a full post on the New Yorker automation article in a bit, because there is a lot of irritating stuff I want to yell about.


George Saunders is the Man (Booker)

Image result for lincoln in the bardo

Congrats to George Saunders, winner of the Man Booker prize! In the 4th-year that the prestigious literary award has become even more prestigious by allowing any English-language author to win, Saunders is the second American to do so, winning for the brilliant Lincoln in the Bardo. Needless to say, this is already causing gnashing of British teeth.

As an internationalist, and someone who loves many English writers, I understand. As an American though, I say go pound sand, John Bull! U-S-A! U-S-A!

As of now, the POTUS has no comment on the book or the prize.

Actually, I shouldn’t be so glib. This is the first time, I think, that I’ve actually read a Man Booker winner before it won the prize, so this puts me only one ahead of Trump. However, I also have a review of it, so if you haven’t read this masterpiece of horror and of American history, you should do so. And read my review.

The novel might not be of the moment, but it speaks to us, as a country, and as individuals. It’s about acceptance, but that acceptance isn’t a call for passivity: it is a call to arms. It’s about taking up the mantle of what it means to be a free and engaged people, with all the burdens of history we carry, and all our individual weaknesses, and doing something with them. It’s a ghost story about love, which, really, is all that the mythology of a country really is.


The Unraveling: San Juan, Kirkuk, Bishkek, and the End of the 20th Century

One of the more grotesque manifestations of Donald Trump’s attitude toward the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is that he insists on referring to the island as a collection of “thems”, as opposed to “us”, or rather, the US. We can’t leave “our” first responders there forever; “they” have to help “themselves”; “they” should be grateful.

Obviously, there is surface-level racism at play here, but there is also a bone-deep ignorance of Puerto Rico’s status. Its people are Americans, but not “Americans”- they can’t vote in our national elections and don’t have any full members of Congress. And clearly, the bulk of American sympathies toward them have a paternalistic remove.

That’s because Puerto Rico exists in a kind of hazy borderland we want to ignore: the one between the present and a bloody past. Our occupation of Puerto Rico is part of the same colonizing energy that saw us wipe out nations to expand across a continent. Our ginned-up war with Spain was of the same era that the west was finally “won”. Indeed, while the “Frontier theory” of Frederick Jackson Turner isn’t much-regarded, his point that once America reached the Pacific it needed new areas to occupy is pretty much spot-on.

You’re welcome, Puerto Rico!

Continue reading

Programming Note!


Image result for stop the presses gif

Stop the presses! 


Hey all- I know it has been a bit of a spell since I posted. Started a new job, in an office, and am working out when I am going to write. Somehow haven’t been able to get up early enough to do so, but am working on it. Will start posting more before and after work, starting next week.

At least that’s the plan, but as they say, when man makes a plan, God laughs and laughs and laughs. Honestly, it kills him. He just doesn’t stop. It’s really weird.

Back to regular posting soon.

Roy Moore is the Establishment: A Takeaway From Last Night’s Victory


Yes, this nightmare man believes the 10 Commandments are the basis of our law, but you could probably get 40-45 Republican Senators to argue the same thing.

The NYTimes has an important passage regarding Roy Moore, the slavering Christianist and theocratic bigot, and his victory last night in the Alabama senatorial primary to replace Jeff Sessions.

In a race that began as something of a political afterthought and ended up showcasing the right’s enduring divisions, the victory by Mr. Moore, one of the most tenacious figures in Alabama politics, will likely embolden other anti-establishment conservatives to challenge incumbent Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.

Now, you might say: oh jeez. This really could get a whole bunch of red-meat coal-rolling Bible-thumpers into the hallowed halls of the Senate, and really mess up the Establishment. We’re entering dark times!

And you’d be right, except for one this: The Republican establishment is already really fucking terrible. It hasn’t been Mitch McConnell attempting to save or fix Obamacare! He’s done everything he could to repeal it, no matter what the bill.

‘Ol Luther Strange was part of that. He was a reliable vote, in his interim position, when it came to repealing Obamacare. There wasn’t a single instance when a political reporter tried to game out the votes and asked “Where will Luther Strange go?” Remember, he was filling in for Jeff Sessions. Jeff Sessions is awful!

Yes, Roy Moore will bring more bombast, and will suck up a ton of media oxygen, and as my friend Dustin said, will make Ted Cruz look reasonable. Yes, he has no business being in public life, and his election to the Senate will continue making a mockery of our institutions and further shatter the illusion that we live in some kind of mature, well-functioning democracy.

But really: did you still believe that? Donald Trump is the President! The doltish flim-flam man from the TV! Roy Moore is just another example of how wild and ultimately ungovernable this country is, and how mean-spirited and bigoted and narrow-minded today’s right wing is, and with that, with his comic-opera cruelty and sneering, gun-blasted piety, he’ll fit right into Mitch McConnell’s Senate.

(If you want a good discussion of what Trump’s failed endorsement of Big Luther means, I recommend this Suzanne Monyak piece from The New Republic: basically, Trumpism, the “screw you, libs!” branch of the GOP, doesn’t even need Trump. It’s pretty scary stuff.)

More Evidence In the Death of Dag Hammarskjöld



Last August, we talked about the UN reopening an investigation into the 1961 death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, whose plane crashed in the Congo while he was trying to broker peace between the new post-colonial government and Western-backed Katanga separatist factions.

The reason it was re-opened is that it was always suspected that the plane was deliberately brought down. Remember, it had only a few months since the CIA worked with Katangese separatists to murder the left-leaning Congolese liberation leader, Patrice Lumumba. And now Hammarskjöld was attempting to get the rebels to be part of a the newly independent Congo, instead of another white-dominate vassal state. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he was marked for death.

However, weirdly, it looks like the new evidence points somewhat away from the US, and toward the French. Here is the summary of the new findings from The Guardian

  • In February 1961, the French secretly supplied three Fouga warplanes to the Katanga rebels, “against the objections of the US government”. Contrary to previous findings, they were used in air-to-air attacks, flown at night and from unpaved airstrips in Katanga.

  • Fresh evidence bolsters an account by a French diplomat, Claude de Kemoularia, that he had been told in 1967 by a Belgian pilot known as Beukels, who had been flying for the rebels as a mercenary, that he had fired warning shots to try to divert the plane away from Ndola and accidentally clipped its wing. Othman said he was unable to establish Beukels’ identity in the time available for his inquiry.

  •  The UK and Rhodesian authorities were intercepting UN communications at the time of the crash and had intelligence operatives in the area. The UK should therefore have potentially crucial evidence in its classified archives

  • The US had sophisticated electronic surveillance aircraft “in and around Ndola” as well as spies, and defence officials, on the night of the crash, and Washington should be able to provide more detailed information.

The report’s author, Mohamed Chande Othman, says that member states (namely the US, UK, and France) should have the information that proves Western involvement. But maybe not murder! It might have been an accident during an attempt to send a “message”.

But, to make it clear, the West was involved in arming rebel groups in order to splinter the sovereignty of a newly-independent nation, going so far as to murder the leader of the country, and harass the Secretary-General of the United Nations because he was attempting to preserve Congolese nationhood. And, when things went pear-shaped, covered it up for more than 50 years.

Even if this wasn’t murder, it was pretty damn close to manslaughter. And it was covered up because, man, that’s how did things. It wasn’t for the Congolese to know what was happening in their country, and it wasn’t for the rest of the world to know what the Western powers were up to. A UN head gets iced? That’s the price of doing business.

As I wrote then, this isn’t the distant past.

 This isn’t ancient history, and what’s interesting is the way that the old blended with the new. Leopoldville and Congolese slavery seem like a throwback (admittedly, just to the early 20th-century), but they mix with the post-WWII attempts to crush independence, with South African mercenaries and the rise of the apartheid state. And in that you really see the apotheosis of the CIA, grim crew-cuts sweating through the necessary work of protecting “interests” for the US or its racist allies, amoral moralists in short-sleeves deciding the fate of millions.

There’s a through-line between those jungle days and our era’s black sites and other assorted lawlessness.

Since its inception, the CIA has been on the wrong side of the law, an institution dedicated to operating without the hard work of participating in our self-governing experiment. It has perverted that, and in doing so, distorted our image around the world.

When you wonder why people in hotter, angrier countries blame the west for everything, it is because they have reason. A true reckoning with the death of Dag Hammarskjöld could be the purgative we need.

Kurdish Independence Referendum Key Moment in Modern Eurasian History


Image from Al Jazerra


What can bring together the governments of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the United States?

Voting stations set up for the referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq have closed their doors and counting of ballots has begun, according to the official supervising body.

Voting closed at 6pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Monday, and the final results were expected to be announced within 72 hours.

Erbil-based Rudaw TV, citing the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, said 78 percent of the more than five million eligible voters turned out to vote.

In Kirkuk, authorities declared a curfew an hour and a half before polls closed as jubilant Kurds started to celebrate.

Yup. After 13 years of virtual autonomy, decades of Baathist repression, nearly 100 of being yoked into an imperial etching of a country, and centuries of repression, the Kurds of Iraq have taken a huge step toward having the first independent Kurdish state. That’s uh…not going over great in the rest of the region.

Needless to say, the government in Baghdad isn’t happy, but neither are their neighbors. Iran, Syria, and most of all Turkey have large Kurdish populations which could see this (non-binding) referendum as an incentive to start their own state.

Turkey has spent its entire post-WWI history defining being Turkish as being “not-Kurdish”, and has fought a long-running civil war to maintain that identity. Its intervention in Syria was more to prevent Kurdish power than to stop ISIS. Kurdish oppression has long been a key part of Asad rule in Syria, and Kurdish fighters (allied with the US) have been using the chaos to create autonomous zones, much like they did in Iraq.

So this is a hinge time, but it has been a long time coming. In the post-Ottoman scramble after WWI, England and France divvied up the Middle East, creating what seemed to be manageable states for the purpose of exploitation. The Kurds were left stateless, divided between these new countries and a newly Kemalist Turkey, fighting to consolidate power in the rump of empire.

It isn’t that there was no sympathy for the Kurds; it is just that, well, the whole thing was too damned difficult.  Better to have a few pliant countries than actually care about national ambition, no matter the noble mummerings of Versaille.

(Fun counterfactual history for HBO: imagine if both Kurdish representatives and Ho Chi Min were listened to at Versaille. You probably can’t, because history would be more boring).

To be fair, though, it isn’t like oppression was new to the Kurds. A regional minority, they had fought against Arabs and Persians and Turks and Russians and everyone else since forever, honing skills in their mountain fastness. There is a reason the US has cultivated them as allies: the peshmerga have a reputation as ferocious fighters, and unlike when we cultivate allies in other parts of the world, seem to have developed excellent democratic instincts.

Indeed, in many ways, the Kurdish indepenence movements are some of the last bastions of true radicalism in the world, which is why so many American leftists have gone to fight with them. They have a reputation of being egalitarian in terms of gender. We all love praising female peshmerga, with a frisson of excitement, but they are no less progressive in their politics.  If you want to hear a very weird but cool story, read how Abdullah Ocalan was influenced by the ecological radicalism of Murray Bookchin.

Indeed, the Kurds might be too liberal for the US, but that isn’t why America opposes the referendum. We support Kurdish independence in theory, but would like it to remain in theory until the right time, which is when the Middle East is stable, peaceful, and able to absorb a political shock, which is to say: never.

But never seems too long for people who have successfully set up a government and who are far more capable of governing themselves than the kelpto-theo-crats in Baghdad. The US, though, has no one to blame but itself. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the catastrophic jolt that set history back in motion after the colonial/post-colonial interregnum.

We’ve argued in this joint that the 100 years after WWI have been just a post-Ottoman shakedown, stilted and perverted by the the colonial period and the distortions of the post-colonial reactions, which took place in the context of the nation-state. But the invasion of Iraq broke apart that status quo, leading as it did to:

  • A split Iraq
  • Growing Persian strength (played out all around the region)
  • The rise of ISIS
  • Civil war in Syria (or at least, made worse by the factionalism unleashed in Iraq and the refugee crisis)
  • Kurdish autonomy and strength

All of these are essentially post-state, post-Sykes/Picot, post-Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchhill and Nasser and the Shah and Saddam. The war was the preciptiating factor int he great Near East dissolve, unleashing as it did forces which had been shifting around under the surface of a phony, ahistoric map.

To say we’re entering a new historic era is wrong. We’re just entering the next phase of an era that began as the Ottoman Empire fell and Europe rushed into the void. The Kurdish referendum won’t solve anything, and on the surface won’t change anything, but will set the tenor for the next step. The US can’t stop the forces that the invasion set loose. Nor, I think, should it try. More than one empire has been wrecked on the shoals of that sort of hubris.