The Making of an Album

As my regular readers and listeners are aware, I tend to go jaggedly back and forth in these missives between discussions of geopolitics and world history, and explorations of the minutiae of the daily life of the working musician. This one belongs in the latter category.

It’s been years since I’ve had much time for watching movies — there was a brief period between children when there was a bit of time for that sort of thing, but not much. When I’m on long plane flights is when I get to catch up on a little bit of movie-watching. The noise-canceling headphones I had the good sense to buy a long time ago help a lot with the din of the airplane engine constantly in the background, but they don’t come close to getting rid of it. Despite the adverse viewing and especially listening conditions, I often watch movies about musicians.

I’ve never been a rock star and I’ve only known a couple of them, a little bit, so whether the movies about rock stars are realistic is hard for me to know. The movies about working musicians who aren’t rock stars are more the ones I can relate to, the ones that are depicting what we might call working class or middle class musicians. The movies about these musicians are often just a good vehicle for telling the story of loneliness, to explore the creative tension inherent in the contrast between the excitement of the gig and the alienation of the highway truck stop.

While they sometimes get that part right, the sort of essence of the story, they rarely get the details. You can forgive them when it’s obvious that the actors are not the ones playing the instruments. But other times it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief, if you’re a working musician watching a movie that’s supposed to be about other working musicians. There was an especially memorably cringe-worthy scene in what was an otherwise charming love story called Once, about an Irish guy and a Czech woman falling in love on the streets of Dublin.

They’re both musicians, but how this classically-trained pianist is so good at improvising is never explained or explored, it just is. For anyone who is familiar with classical music circles, that needs to be explained. But then they’re in a studio together, recording an album without a producer, and the engineer tells them to listen to the click track, but there isn’t a click track. There was so much wrong with that scene, it would be hard to know where to start.

If you’re recording an album without a producer, the engineer is unlikely to suddenly assume the role of producer and tell you to listen to the click track. And if they do this, then there will presumably be a click track to listen to. Of course, most viewers of most movies wouldn’t know this, or even know what a click track is, and they don’t need to. If you don’t know what a click track is, there’s nothing to cringe at in this scene, it’s just fine.

Of course, movies like this are not made for the tiny minority of the general population who are working musicians. Just like the articles in Forbes or on the BBC. It just so happens that I am right now in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to record an album, which I will hopefully be making with a bunch of other musicians in Ireland later in the fall. And then yesterday, listening to BBC Newshour as I often do, came another story about the death of the album.

Sure enough, Forbes agrees, album sales are a tiny fraction of what they once were — not just in physical forms, but in any form. It’s all about streaming, all about singles, or shuffle play, or playlists. The big hiphop artists, they say, are abandoning albums altogether, and just releasing singles, in more of a trickle, so each one will get a bit more attention along the way, is the idea.

Reading this music industry reporting is interesting, partly because of the assumptions that are made. For example, if albums aren’t of interest to consumers anymore, says the press, artists will naturally make the transition and start recording singles, and releasing songs one at a time every couple weeks, rather than a new album once or twice a year. And when we talk about releasing singles, it needn’t even be said that we’re not talking about recordings you made with your iPhone, we’re talking about professional-quality, produced stuff.

What they don’t mention, or don’t know, or don’t care to figure out because it doesn’t matter for the top 1% of the scene that they’re actually covering, is that this kind of transition is relevant mainly to the stars with huge budgets for recording — and for those way on the other end who are playing all the instruments themselves and recording everything on their laptops with ProTools and a USB mic. You’ll find little or no mention of the middle class of working musicians, those of us who, if we do keep on recording albums, even though there is basically no direct money to be made in recording either albums or singles in the free streaming era, we will be making them not just because it’s a wonderful, transcendent phenomenon, the album, but for very simple practical, and totally overlooked reasons.

If you’re going to record your music — and you’ll be forgiven for not knowing this if you’re not in certain niche professions — it’s much more economical to do it in bunches.

If you’ve ever made an album in a studio, you’ll be very familiar with the sight of a collection of musicians sitting around on couches with laptops, phones or other devices, quietly whiling away their time, waiting to be called on to do something. This is partly because playing music is only a small part of the process of making an album. So much of it is getting the sound right for each instrument. Just getting a drum set well miked for recording can take several hours. The drummer and the folks at the studio know this in advance, and this process is scheduled in to the whole thing. Studio musicians are usually hard-working people who put in very long days and show up early. They’re accustomed to doing exactly what they’re told to do by producers with high expectations. The good ones rarely complain.

When you’re one of the regular working musicians who used to populate the recording studios of the world that are now rapidly closing shop — when you’re one of the ones who didn’t have unlimited budgets to spend months or years working on an album, but who took a break from touring for a few weeks each year to focus on making a new album — the idea of hiring a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player, and whoever else you might be hiring for a recording project, just to record one or two songs, is completely ludicrous. It makes no economic sense. If you’re going to spend four hours just getting the drummer miked, you want to then use the rest of the day, and the next day, recording with the drummer. If you’re working hard and just getting decent takes of songs you’ve spent plenty of time rehearsing together, you might record the basic parts for two or three songs each day — after spending all the time setting up for each new instrument you’re recording.

The same is true for the mixing process, which often takes almost as long as the recording process. For many albums of other artists, I hear it takes longer. Any element of the recording or mixing processes can potentially go on forever. As with other things, it’s sometimes just a matter of stopping when you’ve got something that’s good enough, rather than aiming for perfection, which would simply take too long, it would require more time and effort than is available given your limited resources. But once you’re set up to start mixing an ensemble you’ve recorded, it will take less time to mix the second and third song than it will take to just mix one. Much of the setup you do for one song might be the same as the setup you’ll do for other songs, so again doing more songs will certainly take longer, but it will take less time per song to mix ten of them than if you just mix one.

Once you make that album, you may decide to release one song at a time on streaming platforms as they recommend these days, but there will still be basic logistical reasons why the album is likely to stick around as a phenomenon long past the time no one is buying them at all anymore. Because actually we’re already at that stage, and I’m still making another one.

For those of you listening to this in podcast form, I’ll close with a song that’s going to be among the songs to be recorded for this next album, if all goes according to plan.

The Key to a Sustainable Economy Is 5,000 Years Old

We are again reaching the point in the business cycle known as “peak debt,” when debts have compounded to the point that their cumulative total cannot be paid. Student debt, credit card debt, auto loans, business debt and sovereign debt are all higher than they have ever been. As economist Michael Hudson writes in his provocative 2018 book, “…and forgive them their debts,” debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. The question, he says, is how they won’t be paid.

Mainstream economic models leave this problem to “the invisible hand of the market,” assuming trends will self-correct over time. But while the market may indeed correct, it does so at the expense of the debtors, who become progressively poorer as the rich become richer. Borrowers go bankrupt and banks foreclose on the collateral, dispossessing the debtors of their homes and their livelihoods. The houses are bought by the rich at distress prices and are rented back at inflated prices to the debtors, who are then forced into wage peonage to survive. When the banks themselves go bankrupt, the government bails them out. Thus the market corrects, but not without government intervention. That intervention just comes at the end of the cycle to rescue the creditors, whose ability to buy politicians gives them the upper hand. According to free-market apologists, this is a natural cycle akin to the weather, which dates all the way back to the birth of modern economics in ancient Greece and Rome.

Hudson counters that those classical societies are not actually where our financial system began, and that capitalism did not evolve from bartering, as its ideologues assert. Rather, it devolved from a more functional, sophisticated, egalitarian credit system that was sustained for two millennia in ancient Mesopotamia (now parts of Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Iran). Money, banking, accounting and modern business enterprise originated not with gold and private trade, but in the public sector of Sumer’s palaces and temples in the third century B.C. Because it involved credit issued by the local government rather than private loans of gold, bad debts could be periodically forgiven rather than compounding until they took the whole system down, a critical feature that allowed for its remarkable longevity.

The True Roots of Money and Banking

Sumer was the first civilization for which we have written records. Its notable achievements included the wheel, the lunar calendar, our numerical system, law codes, an organized hierarchy of priest-kings, copper tools and weapons, irrigation, accounting and money. It also produced the first written language, which took the form of cuneiform figures impressed on clay. These tablets were largely just accounting tools, recording the flow of food and raw materials in the temple and palace workshops, as well as IOUs (mainly to these large public institutions) that had to be preserved in writing to be enforced. This temple accounting system allowed for the coordinated flow of credit to peasant farmers from planting to harvesting, and for advances to merchants to engage in foreign trade.

In fact, it was the need to manage accounts for a large labor force under bureaucratic control that is thought to have led to the development of writing. The people willingly accepted this bureaucratic control because they viewed the gods as having decreed it. According to their cuneiform writings, humans were created to work in the fields and the mines after certain lower gods tasked with that hard labor rebelled.

Usury, or the charging of interest on loans, was an accepted part of the Mesopotamian credit system. Interest rates were high and remained unchanged for two millennia. But Mesopotamian scholars were well aware of the problem of “debts that can’t be paid.” Unlike in today’s academic economic curriculum, Hudson writes:

Babylonian scribal students were trained already c. 2000 BC in the mathematics of compound interest. Their school exercises asked them to calculate how long it took a debt at interest of 1/60th per month to double. The answer is 60 months: five years. How long to quadruple? 10 years. How long to multiply 64 times? 30 years. It must’ve been obvious that no economy can grow in keeping with this rate of increase.

Sumerian kings solved the problem of “peak debt” by periodically declaring “clean slates,” in which agrarian debts were forgiven and debtors were released from servitude to work as tenants on their own plots of land. The land belonged to the gods under the stewardship of the temple and the palace and could not be sold, but farmers and their families maintained leaseholds to it in perpetuity by providing a share of their crops, service in the military and labor in building communal infrastructure. In this way, their homes and livelihoods were preserved, an arrangement that was mutually beneficial, since the kings needed their service.

Jewish scribes, who spent time in captivity in Babylon in the sixth century B.C, adapted these laws in the year or jubilee, which Hudson argues was added to Leviticus after the Babylonian captivity. According to Leviticus 25:8-13, a Jubilee Year was to be declared every 49 years, during which debts would be forgiven, slaves and prisoners freed and their property leaseholds restored. As in ancient Mesopotamia, property ownership remained with Yahweh and his earthly proxies. The Jubilee law effectively banned the outright sale of land, which could only be leased for up to 50 years (Leviticus 25:14-17). The Levitican Jubilee represented an advance over the Mesopotamian “clean slates,” Hudson says, in that it was codified into law rather than relying on the whim of the king. But its proclaimers lacked political power, and whether the law was ever enforced is unclear. It served as a moral rather than a legal prescription.

Ancient Greece and Rome adopted the Mesopotamian system of lending at interest, but without the safety valve of periodic “clean slates,” since the creditors were no longer the king or the temple, but private lenders. Unfettered usury resulted in debt bondage and forfeiture of properties, consolidation into large landholdings, a growing wedge between rich and poor, and the ultimate destruction of the Roman Empire.

As for the celebrated development of property rights and democracy in ancient Greece and Rome, Hudson argues that they did not actually serve the poor. They served the rich, who controlled elections, just as rich donors do today. Taking power away from local governments by privatizing once-communal lands allowed private creditors to pass laws by which they could legally confiscate property when their debtors could not pay. “Free markets” meant the freedom to accumulate massive wealth at the expense of the poor and the state.

Hudson maintains that when Jesus Christ preached “forgiveness of debts,” he was also talking about economic debt, not just moral transgressions. When he overturned the tables of the money changers, it was because they had turned a house of prayer into “a den of thieves.” But creditors’ rights had by then gained legal dominance, and Christian theologians lacked the power to override them. Rather than being a promise of economic redemption in this life, forgiveness of debts thus became a promise of spiritual redemption in the next.

How to Pull Off a Modern Debt Jubilee

Such has been the fate of debtors in modern Western economies. But in some modern non-Western economies, vestiges of the debt write-off solution remain. In China, for instance, nonperforming loans are often carried on the books of state-owned banks or canceled rather than putting insolvent debtors and banks into bankruptcy. As Dinny McMahon wrote in June in an article titled “China’s Bad Data Can Be a Good Thing”:

In China, the state stands behind the country’s banks. As long as authorities ensure those banks have sufficient liquidity to meet their obligations, they can trundle along with higher delinquency levels than would be regarded safe in a market economy.

China’s banking system, like that of ancient Mesopotamia, is largely in the public sector, so the state can back its banks with liquidity as needed. Interestingly, the Chinese state also preserves the ancient Near Eastern practice of retaining ownership of the land, which citizens can only lease for a period of time.

In Western economies, most banks are privately owned and heavily regulated, with high reserve and capital requirements. Bad loans mean debtors are put into foreclosure, jobs and capital infrastructure are lost, and austerity prevails. The Trump administration is now aggressively pursuing a trade war with China in an effort to level the playing field by forcing it into the same austerity regime, but a more productive and sustainable approach might be for the U.S. to engage in periodic debt jubilees itself.

The problem with that solution today is that most debts in Western economies are owed not to the government but to private creditors, who will insist on their contractual rights to payment. We need to find a way to pay the creditors while relieving the borrowers of their debt burden.

One possibility is to nationalize insolvent banks and sell their bad loans to the central bank, which can buy them with money created on its books. The loans can then be written down or voided out. Precedent for this policy was established with “QE1,” the Fed’s first round of quantitative easing, in which it bought unmarketable mortgage-backed securities from banks with liquidity problems.

Another possibility would be to use money generated by the central bank to bail out debtors directly. This could be done selectively, by buying up student debt or credit card debt or car loans bundled as “asset-backed securities,” then writing the debts down or off, for example. Alternatively, debts could be relieved collectively with a periodic national dividend or universal basic income paid to everyone, again drawn from the deep pocket of the central bank.

Critics will object that this would dangerously inflate the money supply and consumer prices, but that need not be the case. Today, virtually all money is created as bank debt, and it is extinguished when the debt is repaid. That means dividends used to pay this debt down would be extinguished, along with the debt itself, without adding to the money supply. For the 80% of the U.S. population now carrying debt, loan repayments from their national dividends could be made mandatory and automatic. The remaining 20% would be likely to save or invest the funds, so this money too would contribute little to consumer price inflation; and to the extent that it did go into the consumer market, it could help generate the demand needed to stimulate productivity and employment. (For a fuller explanation, see Ellen Brown, “Banking on the People,” 2019).

In ancient Mesopotamia, writing off debts worked brilliantly well for two millennia. As Hudson concludes:

To insist that all debts must be paid ignores the contrast between the thousands of years of successful Near Eastern clean slates and the debt bondage into which [Greco-Roman] antiquity sank. … If this policy in many cases was more successful than today’s, it is because they recognized that insisting that all debts must be paid meant foreclosures, economic polarization and impoverishment of the economy at large.

• This article was first posted on Truthdig.com

Do ratings trump accountability in journalism? Latest retracted MSNBC ‘bombshell’ suggests ‘yes’

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Lawrence O’Donnell’s walkback of a supposed “bombshell” story involving a claim that Donald Trump received loans co-signed by Russian billionaires is the latest sign that journalism has become accountability-free.

Indicating that MSNBC deliberately chose to prioritize hype over facts, O’Donnell admitted on air that the claim needed “a lot more verification before [it] can be a confirmable fact” — but he reported it anyway.

Typically, when a journalist does not have enough information to verify a claim, they wait until such time that they do. When that basic tenet of journalism is lost, the news becomes a series of “ifs,” “buts,” “maybes” and“possiblys.”

Apologizing later, Lawrence said the story didn’t go through MSNBC’s “rigorous verification and standards process.” One wonders if anyone from the ‘rigorous verification’ department has ever met Rachel Maddow — the network’s very own conspiracy queen, who has become infamous for her fact-free reporting.

Some of Lawrence’s other journalism fails include claiming Russia “attacked the British voting system” to deliverBrexit, and a suggestion that Moscow orchestrated a chemical weapons attack in Syria to provide a distraction for Trump’s domestic critics.

Russiagate made speculation journalism the norm rather than the exception. This phenomenon has been well-documented — and the curious thing is that professional repercussions are rare. The pattern has become clear: Make a wild claim without proof, apologize the next day — and simply carry on, feeling free to repeat that process over and over. 

The same accountability-free reporting is seen online with a similar pattern: Publish a story, admit a glaring error or false claim — then, a day or so later, when no one is looking, slap a “correction” or “editor’s note” on the top, knowing far fewer people are going to read the true version. 

Who cares, for example, that Russia didn’t really hack the Vermont power grid? It was a good story while it lasted. Did Russia attack American diplomats at their Cuba embassy with supersonic tech and “sophisticated microwaves”? Probably not, but let’s speculate for clicks. Did Trump campaign manager have “secret talks” with Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy? Evidence points to ‘no’, but let’s stick it on the front page anyway; no need for retractions.

No one could reasonably expect journalism to be an entirely mistake-free profession, but the rate at which demonstrably false stories percolate through the media ecosystem is alarming — and the more mistakes, it seems, the higher the reward. Maddow has been held in almost heroic regard by her network, regardless of how many false and wacky stories she promotes. 

Being rewarded for mistakes is not entirely new in media. Pundits who have been consistently wrong when it comes to their topic of “expertise” are handsomely rewarded — and many are still regarded as wise experts in their field. For instance, if most Western punditry on Russia was accurate, the country would have faced total economic collapse, the overthrow of Vladimir Putin, and general domestic implosion multiple times over by now.

Most will have heard the adage that “truth is the first casualty of war” — and from Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, journalism has thrived on lies and misinformation. Many of the pundits and columnists who were the biggest cheerleaders for the Iraq war, for example, are still regularly called upon to offer their sage advice, insights, and predictions for new military adventures.

For all these reasons, it’s no wonder public trust in the media hit an all-time low in 2016. In a survey conducted for the Columbia Journalism Review in April, more people said they had “hardly any confidence at all” in the media than they did for congress.

It’s likely no coincidence that these low trust numbers came right as a summary of the anti-climactic Mueller report was made public following two years of non-stop conspiracy theorizing.

Since much of the recent false reporting has centered around Donald Trump, the ironic thing is that journalists are helpfully providing him with endless fodder in his quest to brand all legitimate critical reporting of his presidency “fake news.” 

New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush hailed the Trump presidency as a “golden age of accountability journalism” earlier this year. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Reprinted with permission from RT.

Debunking the Drug War

This episode covers the US government’s and law enforcement’s active role in global drug trafficking.

Doug Valentine is the author of The Strength of the Wolf and The Strength of the Pack. These are two of the most important books ever written on the drug trade. Doug’s research comes mostly from first hand accounts of FBN, DEA and CIA officers who tell a tale never before heard by the world.

From Trump Tower to Dictatorial Trump Power over Law

Donald Trump is “dumb as a rock” (to use his phrase) when it comes to the programs and the policies of the federal government agencies over which he is allegedly presiding. However, when it comes to defending and expanding his own political power, Trump is shameless and profoundly cunning.

Trump turns accurate appraisals of himself into accusations that he levies at others. Earlier this month, he questioned whether Joe Biden “is mentally fit to be president.” (Read more here) Trump regularly turns appraisals of himself into accusations against others.

But Trump has found way to spread his toxicity beyond his lying tweets. He has carefully developed formidable barricades to shield himself from the gathering storm regarding his countless impeachable offenses and other serious misbehaviors.

Trump’s remarks, decisions, and asides reveal his plans to stay in office. Trump heaps praise and extra funding on the military. In his travels, Trump likewise incessantly praises the police regardless of the situations there.  Trump has openly said these constituencies are the core foundation against his adversaries that will keep him in office. His White House will keep the military and the police very well endowed.

He also makes sure that big business is happy with him. Some of the bosses are getting anxious about the uncertainty associated with Trump’s use of tariffs and his caustic remarks about leaders of the countries where U.S. companies do business. However, Trump knows that as long as he cuts corporate taxes; deregulates health, safety, and economic requirements on Wall Street; and continues the crony capitalism of subsidies, handouts, and bailouts; the corporate bosses will continue to pay obeisance to Trump.

Manipulating the mass media is child’s play for Trump. He taunts them about how they have to give him top billing because of the profitable ratings his performances brings them. Some in the mass media, nonetheless, expose his wrongdoing with thorough features. Trump, though irritated, ignores these exposés and repels them like water off a duck’s back. It’s all “fake news,” he shouts. His approval polls, though lower than previous presidents, stay firm. So far Trump has faced no real consequences from the revelations of his misdeeds.

The courts, meanwhile, are Donald’s Trump card for endless delays. Who has been sued as president more than Trump? Over two and a half years into his term, litigation against Trump grinds on. Nobody knows how long these court actions will take, what with Trump’s delay tactics and appeals. The top appeal is to the Supreme Court which he believes is 5 to 4 for him on just about everything relating to runaway presidential power and immunities. Trump has appointed 146 judges while in office, including two Supreme Court justices. Trump’s chosen Supreme Court justices are partisan actors who will suit his purposes nicely—it is as if they came from “central casting” for him. Trump has declared unlimited presidential pardon powers, musing that he could even pardon himself.

Labor unions are another big joke to Trump. As they decline, Trump reminds the pro-Democratic Party union leaders that many of their rank and file members voted for him. A troublingly large minority of union workers—over a third— defected to Trump’s camp in 2016, enough to make the union leaders skittish about seriously confronting him.

That leaves the Congress with which he toys. The Republicans are frightened chickens in a coop, peering out at the insatiable Fox. When they look back at their place in history, they’ll have to squint. Sycophants all, except for the late Rep. Walter Jones and Rep. Justin Amash.

As for the Democrats, Trump is blocking subpoenas and orders for witnesses to testify. Trump is also turning down major demands for documents from several House Congressional Committees. Exercising their constitutional authority to oversee the executive branch, the Committee Chairs are filing one law suit after another. Trump laughs and tells his attorneys to keep stonewalling and appealing—which can mean years. That’s how he operated during his sordid failed business career.

Donald Trump, selected by the Electoral College, is daring the Democrats to impeach him. He knows Democrats are divided and can use the Republican dominated Senate as an excuse for inaction. Of course impeachment is a constitutional duty for the House, not a simple political calculation. It is certainly warranted for the most impeachable president in American history.

Trump is thumbing his nose at Democrats daily, blocking oversight, allocating appropriated funds by executive dictate, brazenly freezing enforcement the laws or revoking regulations that protect the health, safety, and economic well-being of the American people, enriching himself through emoluments, and also casting aside the Constitution and the rule of law regarding his military and foreign policy aggressions.

Trump has neutralized our country’s checks and balances and separation of powers, including judicial accountability. He adds to his monarchical presidency by unleashing the Republican Party’s suppression of the vote and other electoral shenanigans.

If the law ever catches up to Trump, he has many toadies who are willing to “wag the dog” distractions. They are his war-hawk on steroids, national security advisor lawless John Bolton and the militaristic Secretary of State Michael Pompeo who travels the world threatening half of it. The new Secretary of Defense, from the Raytheon Corporation, presents no restraint in contrast to his predecessor Jim Mattis, cashiered by Trump.

If Trump wins, America loses. The outcome is up to you in November 2020. Be alert and prepared for tumultuous upheavals should Trump lose by a narrow margin.

Hollywood reboots Russophobia for the New Cold War

​It is an age-old question as to the extent art reflects the world we live in. Bertolt Brecht allegedly said to the contrary that art was “not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” The Marxist German playwright devised theatrical methods designed to distance the audience from the staged drama while drawing self-reflexive attention to the contrived nature of the spectacle itself. The idea was that by estranging the spectator and encouraging critical examination, they would come to view society’s manmade injustices as similarly unnatural and be given agency to transform them in the real world. One of the implications of Brecht’s notion was that art in its more conventional forms often functions as a tool of mass persuasion for those in power to reinforce those inequities. Marx and Engels themselves professed to have learned more about the contradictions of French society from the novels of Honoré de Balzac, which upheld the monarchy and the Church, than any historians or philosophers of their day. At its very worst, artistic mediums can be used by governments to manipulate a nation’s attitude towards other countries in order to justify war.

Brecht’s life and work coincided with the development of the film industry. However, most productions influenced by his ‘epic theatre’ were art-house and foreign films while commercial, mass-market Hollywood movies placed greater emphasis on appealing to the emotions over intellect. However, there were some exceptions such as Charlie Chaplin who not coincidentally was persecuted for his politics by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the Red Scare. In the Cold War, Tinseltown played an important role in the cultural battlefield against the USSR and anti-Soviet paranoia was an ever-present theme in American cinema for decades, from the McCarthy era until the Berlin Wall fell. Contemporaneously, a revival of geopolitical tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation — which many have dubbed a second Cold War — has seen the return of such tropes on the silver screen. Most recently, it has resurfaced in popular web television shows such as the third season of Netflix’s retro science fiction/horror series Stranger Things, as well as HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, which dramatizes the 1986 nuclear accident in Soviet Ukraine.

It was a famous cinematic work that many believe ominously foreshadowed Chernobyl in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction film, Stalker, less than a decade prior to the calamity. It is unlikely that HBO would have been as interested in green-lighting a five-part program on the disaster without the current hysteria surrounding the unproven allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and ‘collusion’ between Moscow and the Trump campaign. ‘Russiagate’ has become a national obsession and suddenly the very idea of corruption and intrigue has been made synonymous with the Kremlin. Hollywood liberal figures have been some of the hoax’s biggest proponents, including the show’s writer, Craig Mazin. It is equally as hard to imagine Americans themselves being as captivated by a re-enactment of the nuclear accident without the current political climate of fear-mongering bombarding them every day in corporate media. From the perspective of the U.S. political establishment, what better way to deflect attention away from its own sins than onto a manufactured adversary?

For instance, a recent Columbia University study found that sections of the Marshall Islands, which the U.S. acquired from Japan following WWII and conducted countless nuclear tests nearby in the Pacific, is significantly more radioactive than Chernobyl. The highest radiation levels were found on the Bikini atoll, where evacuated islanders were initially told they could return shortly after tests began in 1946 but have been waiting more than seventy years to come home. On other coral atolls in the island country such as Rogelapp, the U.S. Navy allowed the native population to return too soon knowing full well the food and water were highly contaminated, resulting in a generation with high birth defects and cancer rates. The U.S. ceded the territory in 1994 only after the Marshallese negotiated a meager $150 million in damages for their mistreatment while permitting the establishment of a U.S. ballistic missile defense test site targeting China. Unfortunately, the presstitutes are too preoccupied with sensational coverage of the recent accident at the Russian military base in Nyonoska, salivating at another prospective Chernobyl. Not to mention, the ongoing cover-up of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 in the U.S. vassal state of Japan.

Already featuring a non-native cast and in the English language spoken with British accents, HBO’s Chernobyl is loaded with historical inaccuracies. The narrative takes many liberties both for the purpose of entertainment value and to create blatant propaganda seemingly as intent on discrediting socialism as it is in demonizing Moscow. This is unsurprising considering that screenwriter Craig Mazin is not only an establishment liberal with Putin derangement syndrome but a vocal critic of Bernie Sanders who has even ludicrously attempted to tie the Senator from Vermont to Russiagate on social media. Mazin has virtue signaled about the show as a parable about global warming (“the flaws that led to Chernobyl are the same flaws shown by climate deniers”) while simultaneously denouncing the candidate in the 2020 Democratic field with arguably the most comprehensive climate plan, leaving aside whether Sanders’ New Dealism is genuine socialism. For centre-rightists, the climate crisis is not tied to capitalism which as Marx reportedly said, “tends to destroy its two sources of wealth, nature and human beings” but is merely the failure of individual corrupt leaders like Trump. Early on in the series, Mazin invents a fictional elderly Soviet official who points to a bust of Vladimir Lenin while invoking socialism to silence those urging an immediate evacuation of Pripyat in the initial days of the disaster.

Mazin takes further artistic license to assign a protagonist in the story in Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), the high-ranking chemist who led the inquiry of the disaster and testified before the International Atomic Energy Agency before committing suicide in 1987. The story deviates from factual events in order to portray the scientist as a honest official blowing the whistle on a bureaucratic government. While his sworn statement was indeed straightforward, in real life Legasov did not blame reactor design flaws and deviate from the official government account of “human error” or breach of protocol as portrayed in the series, nor was he a witness in the trial of the nuclear plant operators who were found to be at fault. This is entirely a work of fiction designed to depict an incompetent and secretive Soviet government to be the cause of the accident. One would have no idea this same state was capable of inventing human space travel or industrializing an agrarian society in a single decade, a feat which took the British more than a century to accomplish. Not to mention that the accident occurred while the USSR was undergoing market-oriented reforms, a period in which the Soviet economy was at its most de-centralized and on the verge of collapse during perestroika.

At every turn, Legasov is up against cartoonish authoritarian officials who attempt to cover-up the severity of the catastrophe, including one particularly absurd scene when a Soviet apparatchik threatens to throw him out of a helicopter to his death if he does not explain how a reactor works. The Soviet working class are not spared either, as miners are coerced at gunpoint by Soviet troops at the order of the coal minister to dig a sarcophagus underneath the reactor to prevent radioactive contamination of the country’s water supply with the promise of financial reward. However, by all accounts no such use of the military ever took place and is contradicted by Legasov’s own statements which were not nearly as critical of state management as represented. The scientist had also attempted to take his own life once before while in the hospital suffering from radiation exposure, a more likely motive for his suicide. It is also rumored that the real reason for the Kremlin’s ‘secrecy’ about Chernobyl was that Pripyat was home to more than just a reactor-grade power station but possibly an undisclosed missile launching site or a facility producing warheads, with the meltdown a case of deliberate cyber sabotage by the C.I.A..

The series even finds time to rewrite WWII history in a scene where a stubborn babushka refuses to evacuate Pripyat, claiming to have endured worse surviving the Banderite hoax of the Holodomor. There was indeed a famine (throughout the entire USSR), but using the reconstruction of the tragedy to insert Ukrainian nationalist propaganda and Nazi myths of deliberate starvation is part of the West’s ongoing whitewashing of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators whose ultra-right descendants were instrumental in the 2014 Maidan coup. It is an insult to the Soviet people who sprung to action voluntarily and heroically to prevent the disaster from worsening to what could have left much of Europe uninhabitable, killed millions and caused incalculable damage to the environment. Then again, the West has never given the Soviets credit for defeating Germany, so it is to be expected they wouldn’t truly acknowledge the sacrifices made in Chernobyl.

During the 1980s as the Cold War reached a crescendo, Hollywood was churning out anti-Soviet movies marketed at teens like Red Dawn where a group of adolescents defend their small midwestern town from a fictional Soviet invasion. The same premise has been recycled for the most recent season of Netflix’s popular Stranger Things, a sci-fi horror vehicle carrying on the genre’s legacy of association with cold war paranoia going back to the 1950s with classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers which evoked domestic fears about communist infiltration in the form of an alien invasion.Stylishly imitative of the 1980s with a synth-heavy soundtrack, the first two seasons saw its young characters living in a fictional Indiana town, some of whom possess telekinetic powers, who battle paranormal beings from another dimension called the “Upside Down” on which a nearby U.S. Department of Energy facility has been secretly performing experiments.

The third season takes a different turn, however, where the adolescents go up against “evil Russians” and “Soviet scum” infiltrating the U.S. Perhaps it was for the better that Chernobyl decided to use British actors speaking in their own tongue because the Russians in Stranger Things are cartoonish, brute thugs that resemble Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. Even more absurdly, the children discover that a new local shopping mall in the town putting mom-and-pop stores out of business has been constructed by Russian operatives (not by multinational chains as it was in real life under Reaganism) to hide an underground laboratory. The preposterous sequence can only be interpreted as an expression of the anxiety underlying the U.S. decline and fear of the ascendancy of Moscow on the international stage. Like Chernobyl, the nostalgia-driven program disparages socialism as much as it villainizes Russia, including one ludicrous scene where a 10-year old black girl agrees to help the other kids on the condition they agree to give her free ice cream from the mall shop where several of the teens work. She then proceeds to lecture them on the purported benefits of trickle-down theory, because if anyone can appreciate the alleged rewards of Reaganomics with the reduction of social programs and spending cuts, it would be an African-American child during the 1980s.

It is apparent that the caricature of the Soviet Union in both productions is really a stand-in for the present-day Russian government under Vladimir Putin. As only American exceptionalism could permit, Hollywood did not hold the same disdain for his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whose legacy of high inflation and national debt have since been eliminated. In fact, most have forgotten that the same filmdom community outraged about Russia’s supposed interference in the 2016 U.S. election made a celebratory movie back in 2003, Spinning Boris, which practically boasted about the instrumental role the West played in Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection in Russia. The highly unpopular alcoholic politician benefited from a near universal media bias as virtually all the federation’s news outlets came under the control of the ‘oligarchs’ (in America known simply as billionaires) which his economic policies of mass privatization of state industry enriched overnight. Yeltsin initially polled at less than 10% and was far behind Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov until he became the recipient of billions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) thanks to his corrupt campaign manager, Anatoly Chubais, now one of the most hated men in all of Russia. After the purging of votes and rampant ballot-box stuffing, Yeltsin successfully closed the gap between his opponent thanks to the overt U.S. meddling.

Spinning Boris was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who previously helmed an installment in the James Bond series, Tomorrow Never Dies. The 1997 entry in the franchise is one of thousands of Hollywood films and network television shows exposed by journalists Matthew Alford and Tom Secker as having been influenced or directly assisted by the Pentagon and CIA in their must-read book National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood. Based on evidence from documents revealed in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, their investigation divulges the previously unknown extent to which the national security complex has gone in exerting control over content in the film industry. While it has always been known that the military held sway over movies that required usage of its facilities and equipment to be produced, the level of impact on such films in the pre-production and editing stages, as well as the control over non-military themed flicks one wouldn’t suspect to be under supervision by Washington and Langley, is exhaustively uncovered.

As expected, Hollywood and the military-industrial complex’s intimate relationship during the Cold War is featured prominently in Alford and Secker’s investigative work. It is unclear whether HBO or Netflix sought US military assistance or were directly involved with the national security state in their respective productions, but these are just two recent examples of many where the correlated increase in geopolitical tensions with Moscow is reflected. The upcoming sequel to DC’sWonder Woman set to be released next year, Wonder Woman 1984, featuring the female superhero “coming into conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 1980s”, is yet another. Reprising her role is Israeli actress and IDF veteran Gal Gadot as the title character, ironically starring in a blockbuster that will demonize the Eurasian state which saved her ethnicity from extinction. Given the Pentagon’s involvement in the debacle surounding 2014’s The Interview which provoked very real tensions with North Korea, it is likely they are at least closely examining any entertainment with content regarding Russia, if not directly pre-approving it for review.

Ultimately, the Western panic about its imperial decline is not limited to assigning blame to Moscow. Sinophobia has manifested as well in recent films such as the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival where the extra-terrestrials who reach Earth seem more interested in communicating with Beijing as the global superpower than the U.S. However, while the West forebodes the return of Russia and China to greater standing, you can be certain its real fear lies elsewhere. The fact that Chernobyl and Stranger Things are as preoccupied with portraying socialism in a bad light as they are in rendering Moscow nefarious shows the real underlying trepidation of the ruling elite that concerns the resurgence of class consciousness. The West must learn its lesson that its state of perpetual war has caused its own downfall or it could attempt a last line of defense that would inevitably conscript all of humanity to its death as the ruling class nearly did to the world in 1914 and 1939.

Unhinged before the Fall: Boris Johnson, Parliament and Brexit

The Brexit no deal prospect is engendering an element of lunacy fast seeping into every pore of the British political establishment.  As with all steeped in such thinking, some of it made sense.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been inspired by a mild dictatorial urge, seeking to suspend the UK parliament five weeks out from October 31.  This has been described as nothing short of a coup, or, if you are the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, a “constitutional outrage”.

Legal expertise was called upon to answer the question whether Johnson’s proroguing of parliament was, in fact, constitutional.  This was itself a tricky thing, given that the UK has a “political constitution” that resists being inked into written form.  To be British is supposedly to be reasonable, and codifying such convention suggests a fear that reason might be lost.  As Professor Michael Gordon of the University of Liverpool explains, three avenues are open to evaluate the constitutionality of a government action in the system: “compatibility with the law, political convention and constitutional principle.”

On the first point, it was near impossible to challenge Johnson.  For all the matters of convention, the monarch remains the figure who ultimately holds the power to prorogue parliament.  And the argument here by the prime minister is that this is the penultimate step to announcing a fresh legislative agenda in the monarch’s speech on October 14.

As far as the second point was concerned, Gordon had to concede that the Queen would never have constituted herself as a “constitutional safeguard” to reject Johnson’s request. That would have done more than repudiate the long held convention on staying above politics and acting on the advice of the prime minister.

This only left the nebulous notion of “constitutional principles”: as the government draws support from the House of Commons, it must duly abide by the body if its wishes are out of step.  As the House of Commons rejects the idea of a no deal Brexit, Johnson should have engaged parliament on the issue.  Well, that’s the view of the pro-parliamentarians, and as the current prime minister has a very flexible set of values both personal and political, few should have been stunned by the latest antics in subverting parliamentary scrutiny.

Beyond the legal pecking, a swathe of reaction were in agreement with Bercow.  Novelist Philip Pullman went one further, suggesting that, “The ‘prime minister’ has finally come out as a dictator.”  Britain best be “rid of him and his loathsome gang as soon and as finally as possible.”  This had a certain whiff of a coup of its own, the sort of thing that Westminster systems have been vulnerable to in history.  (Australia offers an apt, if undistinguished example of the overthrow of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, ably assisted by opposition leader Malcolm Fraser and then governor general John Kerr.)

The prorogation ploy was taken so seriously by the Financial Times that a humble suggestion was made lest Britain comprise his airy position as law-abiding obsessive and exemplar of order to the world. “If Mr. Johnson’s prorogation ploy succeeds, Britain will forfeit any right to lecture other countries on their democratic shortcomings.”  (Hadn’t it already done so?)  Imperially sounding, the FT suggested that Britain’s singular disposition lay in “constitutional arrangements” long bound by “conventions.”

Momentum, the Labour faction supporting Jeremy Corbyn, the man who would be usurper, was laying the ground for a challenge, albeit tumbling into the oxymoronic. “An unelected prime minister looks set to approach an unelected monarch to ask her if he can shut down parliament to force through a disastrous no deal Brexit.”  The assessment? “Make no mistake – this is an establishment coup.”  All fine, except that monarchs are known for being humanity’s unelected specimens, and that this coup was being countered with a proposal for a counter-coup. Messy be the conventions of the land.

For those long linked to Britain’s gradual and seemingly natural integration into European affairs, the move by Johnson was near criminal.  Hugh Grant, summoning up a certain primal rage, was furious.  On Twitter, he launched a ferocious firebombing of Johnson’s position.  “You will not fuck with my children’s future.  You will not destroy the freedoms my grandfather fought two world wars to defend.  Fuck off you over-promoted rubber bath toy.  Britain is revolted by you and you little gang of masturbatory prefects.”

Comedian and all round brain box Stephen Fry could not stomach it, asking for a good cry for Britain, and deeming Johnson’s effort as those of, “Children playing with matches, but spitefully not accidentally: gleefully torching an ancient democracy and any tattered shreds of reputation or standing our poor country had left.”

Unfortunately, such comments betray an old tendency in self-referential Britishness, a Britannia-rules-the-waves smugness.  The world admires, the world respects.  But that world died some time ago, if, indeed, it ever existed.  Britain made a pact for security and wealth with a Europe often reluctant to accept its suspicions and reservations. Both are now parting ways.

Far milder assessments have also been offered to hose down the Grant ire.  Johnson’s attempt to schedule a Queen’s speech for October 14 was seen in The Spectator, a magazine he once edited with carefree indifference, as “normal” and part of the operating processes of a new government.  At the very least, it would also “bring to an end one of the longest parliamentary sessions in history”.

The Queen was hardly going to refuse, stratified by, well, convention.  Had she done so, breaking the crust, and holding forth over the prime minister, there would been howls of a different sort.  The only conclusion to arise from this latest bit of chess play by Johnson is that, come October 31, Parliament will have a minimal role to scrutinise the agreement, or non-agreement, as it might well be.

Time for Direct Action International Solidarity

How do we make people question the lies they have been told? How do we make our voices heard? Direct action democracy is required.

In order to show politicians, the media and even many progressives that some of us are hostile to Canadian foreign policy we need to raise our voices and be disruptive in the cause of international solidarity.

Last Sunday Haitian Canadian activist Jennie-Laure Sully interrupted Justin Trudeau at a press conference to ask why Canada is supporting a corrupt, repressive and illegitimate president in Haiti. As the prime minister began to address a room full of political leaders (Montréal mayor Valérie Plante, Green party leader Elizabeth May, NDP head Jagmeet Singh, etc.) Sully rose to ask her question. While Trudeau evaded the question in his response, everyone in the room and a couple thousand others online heard the question.

Sully’s intervention was part of a series of similar actions by Solidarité Québec-Haiti #Petrochallenge 2019. Since July 15 members of the Haiti solidarity group have interrupted two press conferences by Minister of La Francophonie and Tourism Mélanie Joly. The message delivered at these events was that the Liberals need to stop propping up the corrupt, repressive and illegitimate Jovenel Moïse. We also raised our voices at a barbecue in her riding — the unofficial launch of her re-election campaign — where her staff sought to dissipate the challenge by offering a meeting with the minister (while simultaneously saying the invention hurt our cause!)

Clips of the various actions have been widely shared on social media and have generated significant coverage in Haitian media as well as Montréal’s Haitian community media. They’ve also received a bit of attention in the dominant Canadian media.

Over the past six months members of two small anti-imperialist groups Mouvement Québécois pour la Paix and Palestiniens et Juifs Unis have directly challenged ministers on different aspects of the Liberals’ foreign policy. We have interrupted:

  • a Université de Montréal talk by foreign minister Christia Freeland to criticize Canada’s effort to overthrow Venezuela’s government;
  • a corporate luncheon with defence minister Harjit Sajjan to condemn increased military spending, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and NATO deployments;
  • a press conference by Justice Minister David Lametti to challenge his promotion of a Bombardier surveillance plane sale to the UAE and Canada fueling the war on Yemen;
  • an event by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to criticize spending tens of billions of dollars on heavy carbon emitting fighter jets and naval vessels amidst the climate crisis;
  • press events by Transportation Minister Marc Garneau and prime minister Trudeau on their anti-Palestinian positions.

A number of these actions garnered corporate media attention. Clips of almost all of them have been widely viewed on social media.

Raising our voices in Montreal has helped inspire similar actions in other cities. Ideally this could lead to a growing snowball of democratic engagement against pro-corporate and pro-empire foreign policy measures.

People are often reluctant to demonstrate their international solidarity because they think their voices will not be heard. In my experience these people crave signs of resistance. And acts of resistance generally beget more such acts.

There are many ways to confront a minister or politician. It’s generally best if one individual focuses on filming the challenge while others speak. Depending on the context, it’s good to have each individual make their speech one after another, which extends the disruptive impact. If there is media in the room, try to get directly in front of the camera and position any sign in a way that is easy to film. If one is uncomfortable about speaking in public write the message out or simply stand next to the politician with a placard. While better to divide tasks, it is possible (and maybe the only option if security is tight) to film oneself challenging a politician. Or after filming another’s interruption film oneself making a statement.

Smart phones make it easy to record an intervention and social media makes it relatively easy to disseminate the video clips.

With the dominant media refusing to cover critical perspectives on important international issues, we need to find other ways to put forward our message and push back against government policies. We also need to give the decision-makers a bit of a headache and inspire like-minded individuals to act. Disrupting ministers and politicians at public events can be a high impact form of international solidarity and is an example of much needed direct action democracy.

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