Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Not satisfactorily under control


Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war. For several months during his childhood there had been confused street fighting in London itself, some of which he remembered vividly. But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible. ---From Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

I'm watching in growing disbelief as the US moves closer to war, with John McCain - McCain! - announcing that he won't support a war that's too small. He wants a big war in support of Al Qaeda.
McCain, who has long favored stepped-up U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, said he opposes the resolution crafted by fellow Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Bob Corker of Tennessee. The resolution puts a 90-day limit on action and says no American troops can be sent to Syria. The draft language also calls on the administration to submit to Congress its strategy for "achieving a political settlement" in Syria.
McCain reportedly wants more than cruise missile strikes and "limited" action; he wants to tilt the direction of the civil war.
I'm continually astonished at the American public as well, who by all appearances have the memory capacity of a dented Tandy TRS 80. In 2001, there was an attack on the US that was blamed on a CIA-created group called Al Qaeda. For twelve years, we have bombed, invaded and/or otherwise interfered with Iraq, which had nothing to do with it, Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda supposedly dwelled, Libya, Djibouti, Eritrea, Yemen, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Pakistan. As opposition coalesced, more fighters joined under the banner of 'Al Qaeda' and it became a real enemy.  There are now more dead US soldiers in Iraq than people killed in the 9/11 attacks, and another 2,229 soldiers dead in Afghanistan.

Today everybody is gung ho to attack Syria - on behalf of Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters.

When I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four I had a bit of a tough time swallowing the central concept - that a few party members employed in disinformation services like throwing old newspaper articles down the memory hole and printing new ones could really keep the Proles in the dark about whether or not we'd always been at war with Eastasia, or what the chocolate ration was last month. But Orwell was clearly more perspicacious than I was. Even with all the information still here in front of everyone, it's perfectly possible to convince people instead that we've always been at war with Eurasia.

 photo goatsdrunk_zpsa66e37cb.jpg
This is a bit wall-of-texty, so here's an amusing picture, courtesy of the interwebs, to break things up a bit.

All the logical fallacies have come into play, and I can't see many mainstream media outlets calling the administration on any of them.

More than 355 people were gassed! Wait, I mean 1,429 people were gassed! That sounds much worse!
We must do something!
Bombing the living hell out of Syria is something!
Therefore that's what we're going to do!

I'm not going to rehearse all the objections to that, but in brief:  A hundred thousand people are dead in the civil war from non-chemical weapons. Where was the outrage then?  Syria's not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so they haven't broken an international agreement.  Why Syria, why now? Out of all the shitholes that rise up and get knocked down again, why is the focus pinpointed on Syria? Why are we not allowed to take our eyes off it and see the bigger picture?

Why must we do something? If we must do something, shouldn't we 'do something' about everything else heinous in the world, like vehicular deaths, cigarettes, about a hundred other countries with shitty human rights records, and apprehending and sentencing the war criminal strongman of the regime who sent the depleted uranium shells to Fallujah, rained white phosphorous upon it and caused so much grief there (George W Bush)?

And if we 'have to' do something, why a bombardment? Why not, for instance, send every Syrian civilian $20,000 to buy a better life? Cruise missiles are a million and a half each, so it's unlikely to be more expensive and it sounds better than killing them. Or resettle the refugees. Or send them chemical warfare antidote kits (NAAKs).

And the "we must do something; this is something; therefore this is what we're going to do" line used to be a joke, but now it's foreign policy.

We've been here before, of course. In 1979, the US started funding the anti-Soviet groups in Afghanistan, despite warnings that this would provoke a Russian response.  That was how Bin Laden's organization Al Qaeda was created, and why the Russians invaded Afghanistan - and now we are about to attack Russia's ally Syria, on behalf of Al Qaeda, and provoke the Russians again. I guess that's who we've always been at war with....

Now, from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least in an attack of bathos, let me say that America is a low-information density zone in many ways. I'm always struck by the way prices are displayed in supermarkets, for instance. They are on little tickets stuck either above or below the item on sale, and are changed often. Although there are many labeling laws (state and federal), such as a requirement to put the price-per-ounce on the little ticket, so you're not fooled by larger packages with smaller contents, there doesn't seem to be any law as to what 'on sale' or 'special' means. Goods go 'on sale' every three weeks, and the little ticket is changed to say so, and quotes a 'regular' price that the sale price beats out. But since the little ticket doesn't actually have a list of historical prices, there's no way to check if it was actually offered at that price before. And there most certainly is no requirement for the good itself to have a price affixed, so there's no historical data at home. Was a can of beans $1.25 last week? Or $1.50 or $0.85? Who knows? Unless you download some sort of app to read, interpret and store the receipt, there's really no way to know, except for my memory, which like Orwell's Winston Smith's, but in the opposite direction, is not satisfactorily under control.

The receipt itself, like American bank statements, electricity bills and pretty much any other financial statement, is messy, confusing and unnecessarily complex. The price that flashes on the overhead monitor as the good is scanned is not the price that is ultimately paid, as the software calculates discounts afterwards, once it's learned whether you really did buy five for a dollar or only got four at 25c each. Deciphering the receipt means working out the abbreviations, mentally adding and subtracting the various levels of discounts and calculating the tax. The bloody tax! Unlike any civilized country I can think of, except for gasoline (why?) prices are displayed before tax is added, so you have to know which items are taxable and be prepared to calculate 7.5% or 8% of each one in your head.

In middle of an information explosion, I feel like someone with tribal knowledge, having figured out which supermarket on which week will be offering Ajax Lemon Liquid for less than $1.55

As well as not protesting phone bills that require a degree in accounting to figure out, Americans seem happy to get less and less information as time goes by.  Happy to buy eBooks, where the content is licensed, not sold, so it can be revoked by the publisher - as, ironically enough, Nineteen Eighty-Four was erased from Kindles, or indeed updated without your consent - a perfect memory hole, and all our own doing. We'd rather stream from Spotify than own a track, and never mind if it disappears one day. Our Photoshop is leased by the month, not owned on disk. Our data is in the cloud (I always want to say that in a hippy accent - It's in the cloud, man!) and most of what I use is governed by user agreements that I haven't read, and weren't printed out for me after I clicked "I agree", so I wouldn't know if it was changed after the fact. The agreements could have a clause that I will sacrifice my firstborn to Baal for all I know.  Or will have a clause stating that I will now sacrifice my firstborn to Baal, whatever.

We troll happily in the flowers, heads unencumbered by any static, immutable facts, such as whether man landed on the moon, whether 9/11 was an act of terrorism, the price of beans, or why a war on Syria is a good idea. Obama says it is. Kerry says it is. Maybe by this time next year, they won't have said that. And I can edit this blog to keep up.


Edited 11:57
Follow up article on supermarket pricing from the Guardian discussed here.  10/01/2013

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