It’s not just Darwin’s nightmare – it’s ours

March 13, 2009

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I posted the following today in response to a thoughtful article in the Guardian on the Madoff story:

I would say one thing for Madoff and that is that he had the balls to fess up and do the time. There are plenty who haven’t and won’t. We all have our inner capitalists, greed overcoming our inherent decency, that great deal that draws us in. We shouldn’t laugh too loud at either Madoff or his hapless clients.

Last night I watched a DVD called Darwin’s Nightmare, a film about the life of the Tanzanian fishing communities that survive in a society based around the Nile perch, an alien invasive species that has screwed Lake Victoria’s ecology. I’m getting to the point, I promise. The film featured prostitutes paid $10/night for the sometimes deadly job of satisfying the air crews freighting out the processed fish. It featured a security guard paid $1/night to watch over a fish research compound, carrying poison-tipped spears that he’d use to repel anyone trying to raid the place. it had street kids sniffing high from melted polystyrene, scrapping over what food they could get, dodging paedophiles. A real comedy, I tell you. It was, however, a very sympathethically piece which showed great respect and unusual empathy with its subjects. My point is this – the same driver was all pervasive in that film as is evident in the Madoff scandal. That driver is our money-driven global society.

We need to get to the heart of this issue because that’s where our problems are coming from. The way we allow money to be created, and by whom, defines who holds all power over our lives. From there grow our lack of liberty, democracy and justice and the apparent hopelessness of our planet.

These are all useful links talking about money:
http://www.moneyasdebt.net/

Here is a link to a whole series of explainers on the financial crisis:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb_R1-PqRrw

http://www.chrismartenson.com/crashcourse

My own, pathetic response to the mayhem we face is to read, watch, talk, and share this stuff. I am staging a free screening of the Darwin’s Nightmare film tonight where I live in SW France. The screenings are a monthly event to which people bring food, eat together, watch and discuss political stuff without killing each other. It’s a great way to understand stuff better, to meet people around about who are as confused and bewildered by it all as I am. And it’s hopeful. We can’t wait for Dan Roberts or anyone else to do it for us.

Details of the screening can be found here

Ooopps, adendum post here:

Object lesson in engaging thoughtful brain before acting withless-than-thoughful fingers on keyboard.

There are some very damning criticisms around the film Darwin’s Nightmare, in French for example here and an English one here. I was going to look them up before tonight’s screening. I should have done so before posting here. Oops, my apologies. What I thought was a searing example of global capitalism is probably more like a rather tawdry example of dishonest film making – not quite such a momentous subject.

The points about money, I would still recommend.

Complicated Castro

February 19, 2008

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 “I’m outta here”

So the relentless leveller – time itself – has concluded the decades-long game of cat and mouse between President Fidel Castro and a series of U.S. administrations. Castro has admitted to the inevitable – he’s no longer physically able to lead his country – opening the way for change. A victory of sorts, he could have died in a U.S.-inspired assassination attempt or coup rather than to step down while still alive, but a pretty hollow one in the end.

This comment piece by the Guardian captures nicely the ambivalence we should all feel at his departure.

My favourite moment in journalism to date came about when I managed to put a series of questions to Castro during a trip he made to Malaysia. I had listened to him speak for a couple of hours about globalisation issues and grabbed a chance to “doorstep” him as he left the auditorium. The professional challenge was to suppress my personal nervousness, awe even, in the face of such a larger-than-life icon and historical figure (for good or bad) and stick to the job at hand.

I asked him a series of questions about democracy and whether his alternative to the free-trade-cures-all approach to world governance required the state repressions witnessed in Cuba.

He was in a good mood and so stopped to answer my questions via his interpreter, prodding me in the chest with his finger to punctuate his points. Though I did my best to scribble down his replies, I couldn’t help conclude that he was like many other politicians I’d attempted to question before and since – wholly evasive and unprepared to answer the questions.

I didn’t use his replies in the news story I did for Reuters though I drew on them a couple of days later to write the piece attached below.

I’m glad he got to chose the moment of his leaving and hope it gives ordinary Cubans more chance to have their say in their lives.

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Big media screws small nobody?

December 26, 2007

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Photo:Emad Bornat, Foix, France, November 2007./Patrick Chalmers

I thought that headline might be the best angle for a hard news story to capture the tale of Emad Bornat, a Palestinian cameraman I met the other day near where I live in France. Emad was the story’s sometime stringer and “nobody” while Reuters was to play the part of big bad media. But then I hesitated for reasons some people, not least fellow journalists, might criticise.

Emad has been hit by rubber bullets, arrested and beaten while covering protests against Israel’s illegal land seizures in the West Bank. Last year he spent 60 days in jail and under house arrest awaiting charge for alleged violent acts against Israeli border guard. Since then, he says, Reuters has put him on hold, failed to renew his press card and denied him any form of compensation for the time of his detention.

I checked out what he said informally with Reuters but stopped short of going straight off for an on-the-record response from my former employers. Time will tell whether I was right to tackle the issue directly with them instead of trumpeting it via other media.

The reason I met Emad in the first place was that he was being interviewed on Radio Transparence about his film Bil’in against the Wall, which tells of his village’s non-violent campaign to reclaim its land. I went along as the programme’s English/French interpreter.

Emad impressed me deeply with his commitment to journalism and his faith in the power of video pictures to present the truth and to prevent injustices against the innocent. He became a cameraman only in 2001, after losing his gardening job in the second intifada, when he could no longer cross the border to work in Israel. By 2005 he was stringing for Reuters, feeding them footage as Bil’in came to symbolise Palestinian protests about the Israeli separation wall.

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Photo:Four maps show (L to R) Palestinians’ loss of land to Israel from 1946 to 2006./Patrick Chalmers

The 36-year-old was arrested in November 2006, accused of throwing stones at a border guard with one hand while filming him with the other. Emad had a head wound that needed several stitches by the time he arrived under army escort at the nearest police station. Officers escorting him in a jeep said a radio set fell on him.
He was held in prison for 20 days and under house arrest for a further 40 before being freed on bail of nearly $4,000. His case remains pending. He told me Israeli soldiers had beaten him while he was under arrest, pointing to a scar under his left eye. “They took my camera and they beat me, the Israeli border guards,” he said.

I’d watched Emad’s film on the net before meeting him. I began by wondering at the futility of wave after wave of demonstrations over a series of weeks. As a political activist myself, a claim I’m almost embarrassed to make when I see the commitment of those in the film, it made me chew over the eternal “what’s-the-point?” question. Yet the imagination, passion and sheer persistence of demonstrators’ non-violence, just by themselves, taught me a real lesson about taking action in the face of apparent hopelessness.

Again and again they approach the barrier cutting them off from their land only to be repulsed by soldiers firing rubber bullets and percussion grenades. Particularly striking was the image of one man’s impassive face, shown in close up as he lay prone in the dirt with Israeli soldiers pinioning his arms behind his back.

Emad, the father of four boys aged between three and 12, is an able ambassador both for his village and his chosen craft as a journalist. He doesn’t stop his children going to the regular protests after Friday prayers, where he often films.

“It’s dangerous for them but they want to go. All the kids from Bil’in they want to go,” he told me after the radio interview.

“I film my kids, I film my brothers in the protests. Many times they beat my brothers. My brothers were arrested by the Israeli army and I kept filming [knowing] I cannot do anything for them. With my camera I can protect them, to show the reality of what’s happening.

“In the Israeli court, the soldiers can lie, they say they threw stones. With my filming, I can show the truth.”

A genuine example of good journalism’s power to influence, something beyond the celebrity fests and PR puffs that pack out most media space.

Yet Emad has barely worked since his arrest more than a year ago. He says Reuters backed away from him – saying they said they didn’t want more trouble with Israeli authorities.

He still posts stuff on YouTube, so it gets a limited airing, but he can’t feed his family or buy equipment with page views.

His position, as a stringer rather than salaried staff, puts him in the shaky employment world of those doing most of the dangerous work for international media companies such as Reuters. These people, usually low-paid locals, not only pass where their generally white, male employers cannot, they’re often far more knowledgeable about the story and all its subtleties.

I had thought to write about Emad’s plight for a UK publication such as the Guardian or at least a trade publication such as the UK Press Gazette or the NUJ’s in-house magazine The Journalist.

I haven’t done yet for various reasons, not least of which is that one of the Reuters staff involved is a very good friend. I am also reluctant to profit from the story of someone I may or may not help by writing it. More fundamentally though, which surprises me given my usual conviction about journalism’s potential to influence, I’m not sure if a journalistic approach would be in Emad’s best interests.

“Big media screws small nobody” might make a decent enough, if fairly predictable, story. But it would also distract from the main story affecting Emad and his fellow villagers, which is Bil’in’s loss of territory and the bigger picture of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My dilemma begs the question of whether journalists should always publish and be damned or sometimes hold their tongues and allow calmer reflection in private. I hope my instinct proves right.

So I’ve written this blog entry as a public record and passed an email with Emad’s detailed comments to Reuters bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Alastair MacDonald. I hope that they can sort something out between themselves, so that Emad can keep on doing his work. We’ll see.

A quiet revolution

November 14, 2007

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There is progress on globalisation issues if you look for it, though how fast it comes and how far it takes us is a moot point.

Think back to Seattle 1999, and the anti-WTO riots, a landmark moment for global justice campaigners seeking fairer economic treatment for the world’s poor. The power of the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, controlled by richer countries to the great advantage of their larger corporations, appeared massive and unchallengeable at the time. Capitalism claimed to have triumphed over all alternatives, the doctrine of “free” markets held sway. Much less so now.

As the writer Naomi Klein craftfully points out in this Alternet article, it is in Latin America that this change is most evident. These were the countries that most suffered under the hyper-capitalism of Milton Friedman and his Chicago School economics but they are now finding their feet. Though the trend has been clear for some time, Klein’s piece offers a useful synopsis.

Witness, first, the International Monetary Fund’s loss of influence in the region:

In 2005 Latin America made up 80 percent of the IMF’s total lending portfolio; the continent now represents just 1 percent–a sea change in only two years.

And marvel at the fate of its twins during the same short space of time:

When Paul Wolfowitz was forced to resign as president of the World Bank in May, it was clear that the institution needed to take desperate measures to rescue itself from its profound crisis of credibility. In the midst of the Wolfowitz affair, the Financial Times reported that when World Bank managers dispensed advice in the developing world, “they were now laughed at.” Add the collapse of the World Trade Organization talks in 2006 (prompting declarations that “globalization is dead”), and it appears that the three main institutions responsible for imposing the Chicago School ideology under the guise of economic inevitability are at risk of extinction.

My only gripe would be with Klein’s unquestioning trust in the good faith of all the Latin American leaders she names in her piece. While I would give Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez many more marks for democracy than I would his U.S. counterpart, he still makes me nervous. The piece should also have made reference to the zapatistas and their influence not only on the region but also on the entire global justice movement.

Things can’t only get better

October 31, 2007

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"Help me, I can't breathe"

I have spent the best part of the last two months (total blog posts = 2, including this one) renovating my house, a project that is likely to continue into mid next year. In the meantime, writing my book and doing the journalism necessary to support its creation are among the activities that are suffering. I don’t fool myself that that is in the least bit consequential to anything beyond the immediate arena of my family, friends and bank balance but it is personally and professionally frustrating.

From the furtive moments spent browsing the news in its various internet-based forms, I can’t see much in the way of hopeful signs of solutions to our growing global mess.

The coronation of Gordon Brown in place of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister can be fairly encapsulated in this piece from the Observer’s Henry Porter, a neat dissection of Brown’s sleight of hand when it comes to Britons’ rights. Brown’s will-he-won’t-he election shoe shuffle was also illuminating both for its cynicism and for the voluminous media coverage it engendered at the expense of more pressing subjects.

Those subjects would include the global rate of species loss and a welter of other measures of planetary health.

They would also include our near-total immersion in commercial messages, a process identified and attacked by the doughty warriors at adbusters. I at least managed to find the short amount of time required to sign up to their media carta.

Alternet’s summary of some things being done worldwide to try to reverse our environmental self destruction process was also worth the read.

From my rooftop slinging tiles, hunched under a stairwell hacking out old wood or emptying the site’s composting bog, these glints of light are encouraging.

Very poor journalism

September 3, 2007

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The fearless Guardian, in a “special report” for its online unlimited edition, managed the following piece of spineless garbage to describe the latest stage of British troops’ retreat from frontline action in Iraq.

Its slavish parroting of the government line gives Gordon Brown full reign from the start to pitch the news as nothing but the most well-thought out and orderly relocation of military assets.

It saves until paragraph 12, the following lame background on the dire situation in which British troops have found themselves:

The Basra palace had come under near daily rocket and mortar fire from Shia militias until the British troops released about 30 gunmen a few months ago and spread the word that they would soon withdraw.

The British forces’ ability to control events in Basra waned in recent years as the militias rose in power.

And that’s from one of the newspapers people describe as progressive and establishment shaking.

Once again, I give you Brian Haw., the change of British prime minister nothwitstanding.

Talking sh**te

August 31, 2007

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Talking about politics is arguably easier than blogging, while both are much easier than doing something concrete. Shame that really. So it proved with Sabbar 2007, the second edition of a political festival of resistance organised in my local village of Montbrun-Bocage here in southwest France.

I have spent quite a bit of time this last year helping with the organisation of this event, going to meetings when I could have been with my family and friends, setting up the site and taking part in the event itself. My hope was that it would help to give concrete form to my thoughts about democracy and journalism and allow me to be involved in something local dealing with those issues. The result? Mixed at best.

On the downside, there weren’t that many people who came, the debates were a bit all over the place and their timing and organisation were pretty messy, many people who took part couldn’t do much more than the jobs they were assigned or chose and so got little out of the event. Given how much I’d hoped would come out of it, the outcome was disappointing.

I say that and then the optimist in me kicks in, I see the couple of debates which did seem to go well, one on alternative media another on alternatives to capitalism, I see the few people that I met that I would hope to work with and stay in touch with over the next year, I see my first internet-generated meeting, with a musical group who contacted me having watched my YouTube films. I hear and see a fantastic rap group from the “Mirail”, one of Toulouse’s rougher suburbs which gets plenty of predictablly negative media coverage. I see these things and think Sabbar wasn’t as rubbish as all that. As a novice activist, I have yet to get used to the ups and downs of all this.

One, small success, hence the headline of this piece – the composting toilets. Last year, the Sabbar bogs were a disaster, a septic tank designed for a village of three inhabitants and their chickens swept away in a sea of crap. This year, composting toilets, the inspiration of a militant plumber friend of mind – the Didier mentioned in the photo above – which worked well, which didn’t smell nearly as bad as I feared and which meant that while we might have been talking some unrecyclable stuff at times… well, you get the idea. Composting bogs as militancy – you be surprised.

Deeds not words, alas for “talking about a revolution”

July 27, 2007

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Stills from “Our daily bread” by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

You might think from the lack of recent entries that my book on democracy and journalism has ground to a halt or certainly slowed to sleepwalking pace. It’s true, if measured by new words on the page but not if, charitably perhaps, you include the evolution of ideas and experiences on the ground. For the latter, that entails my involvement in helping to organise regular film/debate nights and with Sabbar, a festival of political resistance.

The film nights, held on the second Friday of every month in Montbrun-Bocage, have been running for about a year now. Setting a regular date and place, an idea robbed shamelessly from the internet heads and their First Tuesdays, is to get people used to coming out regularly to watch political films, to discuss them and to have a drink together. I have enjoyed the events for the variety of films I’ve been able to watch, for what I’ve learnt politically and for the human contacts and relationships I’ve made and built with the people who live around me. It is a real part of answering the questions: “What do we want and how/when/where do we want it?”

July marked a rough first anniversary of these “deuxième vendredis du mois”, so we killed the fatted calf, which was in fact a goat, and talked about how it had all been going. People brought films to watch, ones on factory-farmed food, on mobile phones and about scratching out a life on the margins of modern society.
Among the 30 or so people there, we decided to watch extracts of each rather than entire works, and to talk about each one in between. It was messy and initially unsatisfying for people like me who wanted to see whole works but also surprisingly fun and instructive in the end.

For the curious, the films were Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Our daily bread”, “Les glaneurs et la glaneuse” by Agnès Varda and “Téléphonie mobile, sommes-nous tous des cobayes?” by Joaquina Ferreira. What I like particularly about the third one is that it is offered for free download.

Practically, finding the films through the year and making sure something took place was a challenge, not least for the promised films that then never materialised and the need for French subtitling. Get-out-of-jails have included my own YouTube contributions and a seven-part YouTube hack of the film “Surplus” about the derangement of mass consumerism.

Faced with bad news all around and our powerlessness in the face of it, we naturally ask: “What can I do?” I think regular film screenings and debate are one small part of the answer, with carte blanche for organisers to beg, borrow and steal whatever it takes to get the events going. What helps here is that Montbrun has a small, free venue, run by the village association, allowing screenings at zero cost. The process will continue in some form in September, after the traditional French shutdown for August, though exactly how may depend on discussions at the Sabbar festival.

This takes place for the second year on August 3/4/5 after a relatively anarchic planning process since the last one. There will be films, debates, information tables and music all around the theme of resistance and struggle, where we live and elsewhere around the world. From my perspective, it is a chance to talk about alternative or free media and about the zapatista’s “other campaign”. I have helped cobble together a list of local media activists to come and talk about what they are doing and would like to do, which will gather on August 3 to plan how to cover the event and to take part. This, like the film nights, is a minute part of the process of answering the question of what sort of journalism and politics might help our societies improve.

Some useful climate change material

June 22, 2007

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I was surprised the other day by a good friend who expressed his doubts about carbon dioxide being the cause of climate change, a phenomenon which he accepted as happening but only because of variations in the Earth’s orbit in relation to the Sun.

He believed humankind should plan for climate change but without bothering overmuch about CO2 as such. He’s a smart fellow so I bit my customarily active lip and directed my energy into some web research instead.

This New Scientist piece did for the solar wobble phenomenon, saying it is an influence but not always and never to the extent that would explain global temperature changes through history.

On the subject of climate change, and whether taxes, technology or individual actions will sort things out, this article, from the excellent openDemocracy, explained why none of the above might be our escape route. The solutions themselves, on their own or together, are too entrenched in liberal capitalism and its emphasis on markets and individual choices.

So what might work? As the article says:

More social-science research suggests that collectivist, social-welfare societies are a better incubator of pro-environmental behaviour than individualist ones where welfare is looked on with suspicion.

It suggests a sense of community with others may be as important as concern over the biosphere in generating environmentalism, and adds:

If this is true, then any community that is subjected to a near-thirty-year experiment designed to prove that “there is no such thing as society” – as Britain under successive prime ministers has effectively been since 1979 – will be in poor shape to deal with the pro-social policy demands of a problem like climate change.

Can’t disagree with that.

All that being said, we have to deal with what we’ve got, which is why, as hotairhead, I posted a couple of times on the Guardian’s Comment is free site the other day on the subject of whether Al Gore should run again for the U.S. presidency. I reckon he should.

Parts of the U.S. political world are moving, as evidenced by this week’s Economist.

Finally, while on the subject of climate change, I can’t recommend enough the work of George Monbiot and his latest book “Heat”.

Sabbar – a festival of resistance

June 6, 2007

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Photo credit: Thomas

The following file, sabbar1.pdf, contains an invitation, in French, for political and social activists from anywhere in the world to come to a festival of resistance in SW France on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of August 2007 in Montbrun-Bocage 31, about 45 minutes south of Toulouse.

It’s the second appearance of what we organisers hope will become an annual event intended to bring together people involved in resistance, solidarity or global justice movements in France and from elsewhere around the planet. The intention is to build a network of links between different groups and to explore the need for such movements locally and globally. Each one on its own is unlikely to have much success in calling into question the problems created by the dominant system of economic management and consumption, which is to say capitalism itself and the mirage that is “free” markets.

The problem is too vast, too well rooted globally and too well funded to be manageable by any single movement working on any one small part of it. That is why we think it is essential to work at building links between movements, to share our experiences, good and bad, and to contribute in any way we can to a global vision of what’s at stake and what to do about it.

If you have any doubts about what is at stake, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of “The Corporation”, in book or DVD form, or watch what this man, John Perkins, has to say on Democracy Now! or read this G8 article by the author and activist George Monbiot.

See you in Montbrun maybe, where I hope to be part of a workshop on alternative media.

Footnote: the name “sabbar” comes from the prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica; O. tuna-blanca), found throughout the Mediterranean region. Itself a powerful symbol, the plant is also used to mark the boundaries around people’s land or fields. For the Palestinians who fled or were thrown from their homes in 1948, when their houses and villages were also destroyed, the cactus plants often stand as the sole reminder of their place there, a sign the Israel Defense Forces have found impossible to eradicate completely. Even today cactus stands reappear, signalling lands lost.


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