Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Fein Idea

Say we've Had it. Ha! Send them Du Jail!

Two things are infinite -- the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe. --Albert Einstein

Time moves at a less frenetic pace on C-SPAN than elsewhere on television. Yesterday they were showing four law professors appearing before the House Judiciary Committee testifying about the FBI raid on Capitol Hill. Bruce Fein, Deputy Attorney General under Ronald Reagan was, as usual, brilliant. Putting his finger on a central weakness of our style of discourse, cause of many a derailed public discussion after 9-11, he pointed out the perils of forgetting the essential in pursuit of the incidental. Fein emphasized that the principle was key. If you let a (bad) principle stand and challenge only the incident, it is like ignoring a loaded weapon which can be brought out and used later.

Fein was talking about the principle of separation of powers, admonishing the committee to be firm in addressing the violation of this 'principle', instead of getting caught up in whether, in this instance, Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA) hid money in his refrigerator, etc.

His advice is more widely applicable. A few months ago, I had pointed out in an article, "Gonzales Channels Mark Twain how, in answer to a question by Chuck Schumer whether the Executive had the authority to tap the phones of its political opponents, Alberto Gonzales gave this answer, "We're not going to do that". Schumer and the other members simply moved on, apparently satisfied. Gonzales did not reject such a course on principle, only on the specifics as they existed at that point.

Everyone is now talking about Haditha. It is the Abu Ghraib of 2006. We've progressed from reports of systematic torture to stories of systematic murder. A perennial stock-in-trade here is 'innocent civilians' (see also Civilians and Combatants), which leads one to ask, if these were innocent civilians, what crime did the other 100000 Iraqis, who have been killed, maimed and displaced by Bush and Blair's war, commit? Or the half-million children estimated to have died during the sanctions preceding the invasion?

Here too Fein's point is valid: if we were not in Iraq, there would be no Hadithas and no Abu Ghraibs. It is the principle of the thing. In all the millions of words expended on Iraq War by Senators and Congressmen, commentators and journalists, a basic question seldom finds a place: How was it correct to invade a country that had not attacked us? If only we had persisted with this simple point of principle...It never featured in the Senate or any other debate.

Similar is the answer to charges of warrantless wiretapping: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. That this does not trouble most Senators is bad enough; that this point is actually advanced by some of them is astonishing. It is unnecessary to stress that if this is acceptable, so is the prospect of the local cops breaking into your home or car and searching it. Once you give up the principle of due process the road downhill beckons.

The administration is not averse to principle when convenient, pointing to Saddam Hussein's trial as upholding the principle of "no one is above the Law". Saddam Hussein and his colleagues are being prosecuted for deaths of people in Dujail. No one alleges that Saddam Hussein personally executed anyone. One more principle is then invoked, executive accountability. If these principles are applicable and celebrated by America and Britain, when will Bush and Blair be put in the dock for Haditha?

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at at His blog is at

Friday, May 26, 2006

Bush and Blair despondent

In their press conference yesterday, Bush and Blair are reported to have been less gung-ho than previously. I was reminded of the old Irish joke: An Englishman laughs at a joke three times -- first when he hears it, second when it is explained to him, and finally, when he understands it. Yesterday, they seemed to have got it. Not all of it, and neither is it a joke. But their own defeat and three years of waste are finally sinking in. I don't think they still are able to see the tragedy of thousands of people dead, lives broken, families ruined, children maimed, soldiers warped, all the things that war brings. WW1 and WW2 and Vietnam should have provided ample understanding of that. Paul Krugman has written an op-ed in the NYT about Gore's new film, and the loss of not having a thinking person as president at this crucial time. That's ok for Bush. But Blair is a thinking person? What explains his enthusiasm for the Iraq project? Tariq Ali said in an interview about a year ago on NPR that it was his evangelistic predeliction. Blair is a staunch evangelical.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Democrats and the flight from 9-11

Making Hay(den) While They Shun Signs

by Niranjan Ramakrishnan
Bertie Wooster: Were you frightfully bright as a kid, Jeeves?
Jeeves: My mother thought me intelligent, sir.
Bertie Wooster: You can't go by that. My mother thought me intelligent!
(from a PG Wodehouse novel, a rough recollection)
If I am one of the 200 million whose phone records have been tracked by the government, General Michael Hayden has probably heard of me, but I am unable to say I reciprocated his interest. He only came up on my radar screen when he made his strident and unapologetic defense a few months ago of the warrant less phone tapping program.

It says something about a country when a president at 34% approval can nominate a confessed lawbreaker to one of the most powerful offices in the nation. (Hayden's assertions that he didn't think he broke the law is rather like Wooster's mom marveling at her child's intellect). It says even more when he encounters anything other than scornful indignation at his hearings. That he should be acclaimed and endorsed by the Senate panel speaks volumes about the Senate's own self-confidence. There was a time when Congress would bristle at the merest presumption upon its powers of oversight. Now it overlooks the most brazen usurpation's with a practiced acquiescence honed by five years of cowering.

The law be damned, the hell with freedoms, what we we need is "competence" in this age of terrorism, you say. And this is the standard Bush argument too, for anything and everything after 9-11.

So let's talk competence. Didn't Gen. Hayden lead the NSA before and during 9-11? How could anyone who held a high position in national security on that day be even considered for further office? Richard Reeves wrote that if 9-11 had happened in Japan, there would be no one left in the government to turn off the lights.

Let us accept that shame is not in our DNA. Corporate executives layoff poeple, export jobs, make losses, all while raising their own salaries and pensions. A leader who presided over two national disasters continues along as if he has invented sunlight. A Congress which signed on to starting an uprovoked war cannot bring itself to do anything to end the catastrophe it has wrought. We are all-forgiving. We are, after all, a compassionate people.

Democrats, particularly, pride themselves as the keepers of compassion. Nowhere is their claim more evident than with their deference to people like Hayden, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld, and others, all of whom were in charge when the greatest disaster in American history (per the administration's repeated assertion) struck. Perhaps a need to demonstrate bipartisanship might explain their reticence to seek prosecution of these officials for incompetence and criminal negligence. But why lionize them, vote to keep them in their posts, give them promotions, or participate in ceremonies to pin medals of honor on them?

Julius Caesar spoke of the brave dying but once and the cowardly dying repeatedly. One always assumed suicide was a one time affair, but the Democrats have long exploded that canard, elevating suicide to an art form. They refused to raise 9-11 as a Republican failure in 2002, and lost. Kerry refused to touch the issue in 2004, and lost. The Democrats still run from it in 2006...

What credibility can they have on national security when they bolster the same individuals and teams that were in charge on 9-11? And with what voice could they challenge the administration's precept and practice of obedience to the law being optional, a mere courtesy, dependent entirely upon the pleasure of the executive, when they praise and vote for those who take pride in such an attitude?

As a purely political act, every opposition normally attempts to distinguish itself in the public mind by positioning itself against the ruling party. Even an opposition without principle would instinctively seek to challenge any senior appointee, just to increase the administration's discomfiture. That's politics. In this case, a proven incompetent and confessed lawbreaker should have received no votes, from either party. That's principle. In fact, principle should dictate that everything that Bush does should be opposed, with assent being the rare exception. A look at the polls would suggest that's the conclusion the country has reached.

When the Democrats voted 4-3 in favor of such a nominee, it shows not just their complete bankruptcy of both political instinct and moral principle. Even more, it shows that they are ignoring the signs from their own constituents, who are way ahead in their unbelief in the very bona fides of this administration.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at His blog is at

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Miasma of Progress

What Exactly is "Development"?

India's development debate has actually regressed this past decade. For one thing, a single, homogenised view of development is being shoved down from above. Whether it works or does not work is not the issue. Any departure from it is heresy. If you oppose the draining of people's water by Coca Cola and the poisoning of their wells, that's anti-development.

Until ousted in the recent elections Kerala's Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy used to correctly assert that his State has very serious problems like joblessness. But then he suggested the United Democratic Front wants to make Kerala like Bangalore, [prime city of the neighboring state of Karnataka, endlessly feted by such touts of neoliberalism as Flat Earther, Thomas Friedman. Editors] That was his vision. That's development. Fact: there is no major indicator of human well being on which Kerala does not outrank Karnataka by miles. Life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality ratio, sex ratio or schooling. Or even nutrition, health, equity, and the ending of child labor. But Mr. Chandy's view revolved around express highways, flyovers, enclave smart cities, and the rest of it. Kerala has few of those.

Kerala has a good network of village roads, though. When you drive from Mysore to Wayanad and back, it's easy to tell when you've crossed the border. If the roads are awful, that's Karnataka. But good village roads are not a sign of development. Massive traffic jams are. Bangalore's techno triumphs are undermined by the chaos of its traffic, poor public transport, and gross private "cities" High tech cohabits with low efficiency in a deepening urban nightmare.

Kerala's people have had the best access to education and health. This is one State in the country that turns out more nurses than doctors. Kerala nurses are everywhere. Highly educated, efficient, and indispensable. The products of a once-fine schooling system. This might well break down as the poor lose access to such training. For some time, Kerala has mimicked Karnataka by trying to commercialize education. The case that Mr. Chandy makes was clear. Our students are going to Karnataka for such costly courses. Why should Kerala lose this money? Let's mop it up right here.
There are saner options. Expand and improve the public systems that made Kerala a success in the first place. But that would be anti-development. Meanwhile, the farm crisis has seen hundreds of suicides in Kerala. The children of these and other bankrupt households now find themselves forced out of Karnataka's educational sweatshops. They can no longer pay the fees and must leave, their deposits forfeit, studies unfinished. Many cannot even retrieve their school certificates. The colleges hold on to those to extort more money from already shattered families.

There's nowhere to go. They cannot afford the new private colleges at home either. The nation's finest pool of nursing graduates shrinks this way.

Bangalore, once the `Garden City,' `developed' rapidly. It drained many of its vital lakes and ponds to exploit the real estate beneath. And did that with breathtaking speed. Call it accelerated development. Now you have areas that suffer water shortages much of the year because you've drained the lakes. And flooding during the rains because you've built houses on those lakes. It is as simple as it is stupid. But we crave for more of the same development.

In the media, development is about engineering and technology. Not about improvement of the human condition. Nor about trying to be non-destructive. It is not important that the engineering and technology work. We don't even scrutinize that. But without them, it's not development. So if you have localized water systems that meet people's needs, that's not development. But if you plan to spend a quarter of your GDP on a brainless interlinking of rivers, that's development. Never mind that no one knows what its fallout will be.

The giant corporate hospitals are development. Networks of small dispensaries that are far more vital to public health are not. Why treat a scratch with a band-aid when you can do an organ transplant? We have the know-how, after all. We're at the point where medical tourism is going to earn someone a lot of money. And why fight malaria through preventive measures, good sanitation, better public health or anything as dumb as that? Better to distribute - as the touts advize - bed nets "impregnated with anti-mosquito repellent." That way, there's technology, contracts, and rewards for corporates, consultants, and corrupt bureaucrats.

Never mind that you will distribute millions of nets to people who have no beds. Nor does it matter that malaria parasites are remarkably uncooperative. They refuse to sign the roster when you're asleep and insist on being more active when you're not. That is, at dawn and dusk. When millions of people make their way to or from the fields in this country. Of course, you could make a bold new fashion statement by wearing your mosquito net to work, but it might cramp your style if you're a cane cutter.

Central to the regressive debate is the faith that there is only one way of doing anything. The big-budget, super-scaled, privatized way. Also, with major names. Dabhol in the Enron era was a fine example of this. So now we go back to it. Had Maharashtra spent a small amount each year strengthening its once profit-making State Electricity Board, we would not have such enormous sums of money. Losses that showed up in welfare budget cuts. But why be deterred by some of the highest power rates on the planet? Look Mama, we're world class.

The `debate' sparked off by the Narmada-linked fasts in Delhi took the same route. The dams are the only way. All that matters is we show some concern over `rehabilitation.' (Even if we do little about it in practice.) That this scheme will never work is irrelevant. People are incidental, the project is the thing. That even the pathetic share of water for Kutch and Saurashtra is being diverted to better-off destinations barely merits mention. That the power produced will be precious little - well, what does that have to do with development, anyway?

As for consent and humane conduct, how can these stand in the path of progress? The Orissa police shot dead 13 Adivasis in Kalinga Nagar. A crime dismissed with token tongue-clicking. A big daily put it simply in an editorial the next day. Let's face it. People will be displaced by projects. The question is how to re-settle them.

Yet, Orissa is a State where thousands of acres of land were taken by force from people for projects that never came up. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is just one instance from the 1960s. Some of its giant units for which the land was then grabbed finally sprang up in Bangalore and elsewhere. But the surplus acres never went back to the shattered owners. This is also the State where the same village has been displaced three times for different projects. And where the dams of the 1960s still bear plaques boasting of how many villages they submerged. That, after all, proved how massive they were. Events of a kind that will never affect the rich residents of Malabar Hill in Mumbai. Though this city razed 84,000 homes of poor people in the same week the tsunami wiped out 30,300 in Nagapattinam. Mumbai, though, did it in the cause of development.

The regression shows in other ways, too. For instance, in the way some of the most vapid concepts are now romanced. It's at the point where malls are seen as the finest `public spaces.' An English daily ran a piece this week titled: "Hanging out at the friendly, neighborhood mall." Ultimately, says the piece, "a mall is seen as a place that is non-corrupt, safe and accessible. A public utility that functions and does not favour any class of user." What's more "all the amenities are free." No charge for the bathrooms, folks. Never mind the claim that shops, some of which sell exotic jewelled pens, do not `favor any class of user.' And never mind too, what the lesser shops and chains do to small retailers and the jobs of countless thousands. This notion of progress sits well with the one-way-only view of development.

Of course engineering and technology can play a vital role in development. They should. They must. The questions that have in every case to be answered are: For whose benefit? At whose cost? Do you do something because it is a good thing to do? Or simply because you can? Are there different ways of doing it? Which is the best of them? Do people have a right to say no even if they're poor? Have they a right to resist?

It's odd the more primitive debate on this now comes out of Kerala. Accept that framework, and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are way ahead of it. Countless big-budget `development' projects have been on forever. With little improvement in the living standards of the people in those States. Meanwhile, it might make sense to test one more indicator. Check how the bottom 30 per cent in each of our States is doing or has done over a period of time. It might give you a very different view of development.

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This piece initially ran in the Indian weekly Frontline. He can be reached at:

From Counterpunch, May 20-21, 2006

Thursday, May 11, 2006

From Republic to Imperium

Three independent incidents:
  1. USA Today revealed today that the NSA had been tracking the phone calls of millions of American customers of AT&T, Verizon and one other provider.
  2. Several websites published the letter from President Ahmedinijad of Iran written to President George W. Bush of the US. Contrary to the dismissals, the letter, as Justin Raimondo of pointed out in his article, made several important points.
  3. Featured on Tech Horizons, a public access channel from the George Mason University, was a review of Face Recognition techniques. Appearing as a panelist, a former general indicated without any disquiet that in the future, technology would ensure that all our movements anywhere would be tracked because we would be recognized.
Reading an article in the American Conservative by Michael Vlahos the same evening, I realized that he had brought these three, and so many other disjoint and disparate items of news and confusion together. His article, "The Weakness of Empire", identifies how 9-11 transformed America from a Republic to an Empire. He points a key fact that an empire consists of the people trading their voice for their putative security. He also points out that an empire needs constant military engagement. Hence, no talking to Iran. A vital article. A must read.