Undercurrents (06/19/2017)

Undercurrents (06/19/2017)

(music for reading)

 

Hello and welcome back to Undercurrents. Having taken a week off for various reasons, I am back to provide you with the necessary materials to fully convert you into cynical bastards. This week, we turn our eye to the Middle East, a land known for its food, culture and intractable political, economic and religious conflicts that will in all likelihood last for centuries to come. As with anything dealing with the Mideast, this article’s going to be a long one.

If you get your news solely from American news sources (a terrible idea really), then you are perhaps not fully aware of the ongoing Qatar Crisis. Like many Middle East crises, this Qatari variant is remarkably complex, possibly explosive and all around dumb (coincidently, that’s the description on my Tinder account). To fully understand what is currently happening in the Persian Gulf, you would need 600 pages, fluency in several languages, a degree in political science, and a high tolerance for bullshit. As I only have the poly sci degree, I’ll only be able to give you a brief, incomplete and all around useless background.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (as I call them The Three Dick-migos) suddenly and unexpectedly cut off all ties with the peninsular nation, accusing it of supporting terrorism, having too-friendly ties with regional Shia power/Satanic Puppet State (take your pick) Iran and letting Al-Jazeera say mean things about other Arab states behind their back. In the following days, several more Sunni majority nations in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Indian Ocean joined the boycott, which is quickly devolving into a siege. Despite overtures by Kuwait, Pakistan and the United States to mediate, the crisis continues, involving ever more regional powers and ensuring that the Middle East will continue to not get a break.

Now, the reasons for this fuckery are complex and interconnected with the many other intractable conflicts which swarm the region like malaria-carrying flies. Historical Saudi-Qatari rivalry, the Shia-Sunni division (and its real world surrogate, the Saudi-Iran rivalry), Islamic fundamentalism, arguments over oil resources, the civil war in Yemen, nationalism, the Syrian conflict, and probably Israel-Palestine (because why not) all play a part in continuing what is essentially a bitchy spat between two oil rich autocracies with no accountability and little to no long-term thinking ability. Add in Trump’s ignorance (his reverential visit to Saudi Arabia in May no doubt led the Saudis to conclude they could get away with this) as well as a new Saudi leader who has taken his brothers’ and father’s cautious foreign policy and tossed it into the Indian Ocean, and you have the ingredients for ever greater escalation.

Of course, anyone with even a little bit of Middle Eastern knowledge will know that this spat is heavily hypocritical. Saudi Arabia’s claims that Qatar is supporting terrorism in the Middle East is probably on point, but seeing as that Saudi Arabia is one of the top exporters of terror in the region, that argument comes off less chivalric and more as some actualization of guilt and self-hatred (or more likely, naked hypocrisy built out of political opportunism). The Saudi supported branch of Islam known as Wahhabism is an extreme form of dogmatic fundamentalism, providing fanatical recruits to the regions many extremist organizations, including ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda. By Saudi Arabia’s logic, we should be walling off the Arabian Peninsula as a whole until the Saudi government stops its whole “let’s fuck up the Middle East so bad that our anachronistic monarchy can continue to resist any kind of reforms in the name of ‘security’”.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to the main story this week (a dumb story within the broader dumb story: a nesting doll of idiocy if you will). Last week, as the siege wore on, Turkey, a country which really has no place in interfering in the spats of Arab dictators, decided it needed attention and thus promised to send 3000-5000 troops into Qatar to help with internal security. Because what is more useful in defusing a tense situation than sending in a bunch of armed dudes with little knowledge of the local language or political situation? Probably not sending in a bunch of armed dudes with little knowledge of the local language or political situation actually. On a side note, these will be the first Turkish troops to enter the Gulf since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago, so congrats Saudi Arabia, at least something historic is coming out of all this.

 

Turkish Muster at Suez

Guess whose back, back again. Turkey’s back, tell T.E. Lawrence or a friend. 

 

The reasons for why Turkey decided it needs to interfere are not completely certain. The Turks had previously offered to mediate on behalf of both sides but that was met with a silence equivalent to the sound of one hand clapping, so it was pretty clear their presence wasn’t needed. Economically, Arab investments in Turkey are small, at least compared to European investments. And when one breaks down those limited Arab investments, one finds that Turkey’s ties to Qatar’s opponents are just as important as its ties to Qatar. So money-wise, taking a side in this conflict is foolish. Politically, Turkey has ties to the Qatari regime, but they are not deeply established outside of the relationship between Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Turkish President/Putin-lite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It makes more sense politically for Turkey (which since the Syrian crisis has increasingly turned its eye southward) to remain neutral and let the plutocracies hang themselves.

This irrationality and uncertainty of Turkey’s position in this mess appears to be at least partly reflected by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). During an AKP-sanctioned protest in support of Qatar, Turkish citizens accidentally flew the Bahraini flag instead of the Qatari flag (extra hilarious, because Bahrain is supporting Saudi Arabia). Online, where AKP-backed trolls dominate social media websites like Twitter, the blame for the crisis has not been, as one would suspect, on the Saudis, but instead on the Americans, and specifically President Trump. Now, I for one am totally fine with blaming most things on Trump, especially since he walked into the Middle East with the grace of a drunken bull. But America does not have much do with this crisis (at least directly); in fact, the United States has a large military base situated in Qatar and is anxious to not let the conflict escalate between its two allies. Commentators suspect that this anti-Americanism is really just a cover so that Erdoğan can switch sides at his convenience, which I believe, though there would be no need for this nonsense if Turkey hadn’t gotten involved in the first place.

 

turkish protesters wave bahrain flag instead of qatar

Always google the flag of the country you are arbitrarily supporting before going out on your party-appointed protest, or you’ll end up with egg on your face bigger than this dude’s mustache.

 

Turkey is not the only outsider involved in the Qatar crisis. Iran has pledged support for Qatar and is leveraging the crisis to its advantage in Syria. Trump tweeted support of Saudi Arabia (this crisis is gonna end terrorism forever guys!!) despite the almost certain scolding he received from his intelligence and military advisers. Israel made the conflict about itself. I focused on Turkey’s interference because it seems to me that its actions were the most nonsensical in both what it sought to achieve and in its all-around making things worse. In such a complex crisis, every action taken has unforeseen results elsewhere. For example, when Qatari peacekeepers pulled out of a disputed corridor along the Djibouti-Eritrean border over East African support of Saudi Arabia, Eritrea immediately sent troops in to fill the vacuum. Now, as a result of diplomatic squabbling across the Red Sea, renewed fighting between the two nations is a real possibility. In the modern age, dick-swinging contests between autocratic leaders have consequences far beyond the suffering of their own citizens.

The lesson from all of this is that humanity remains stubbornly consistent in its short-term thinking, astonishing pettiness and love of pointless drama. The Qatar crisis is, as Bruce Riedel terms it, an utter farce “combin(ing) American incompetence, Saudi bullying and Qatari game-playing with Iranian meddling and subversion.” It is a cornucopia of bullshit, surrounding important issues of security and regional stability. Unfortunately, like most things today, that bullshit is seriously hurting people, and raising the prospects of even greater instability and whole new constellations of war. It is times like these that patient, nuanced and capable adults need to come together and resolve things in a peaceful manner. In 2017, the adults have vanished, and instead we are stuck with a bunch of man-children skipping absentmindedly towards Armageddon. Isn’t politics fun?

Well, on that bleak note, it’s time to wrap up this overlong edition of Undercurrents. Maybe next week I’ll do something simple, something involving puppies. Puppies are fun. Come back Wednesday for a new poem and Friday for a new edition of Specters.

 

The header photo is “Turkish Calvary, Wady Guzzeh, 1917” and can be found here. The other old photo is “Muster on the Plain of Esdraelon, preparatory to the attack on the (Suez) Canal, 1914” and can be found here. The Library of Congress is an excellent source for World War I era photos of the Ottomans, though finding pictures from Ottoman Arabia is surprisingly tough. The Twitter screenshot of pro-AKP protesters waving the Bahraini flag is from here

Undercurrents (06/05/2017)

Undercurrents (06/05/2017)

(music for reading)

            Hello and welcome to Undercurrents, a bastion of nonsense in a sea of abject mediocrity. This week, we turn our eyes to Morocco, the one country in North Africa that your mom is sort of okay letting you visit. You know, because she saw Casablanca that one time.

When it comes to MENA (Middle East/North Africa) monarchies, Morocco is very much the exception. Whereas the current kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia can only trace their monarchal lineage to the early twentieth century (that was back when the British were literal kingmakers), the current monarch of Morocco, King Mohammad VI can trace his heritage back to the mid-seventeenth century. Whereas the various boy-kings of the Arabian Peninsula use institutional misogyny and religious fundamentalism to reinforce their oil-propped dictatorships, Morocco has taken a more moderate approach, granting significant rights to women and children in 2004 (known as the Moudawana) and allowing a vibrant if somewhat restrained civil society. And while Saudi Arabia and Bahrain responded to the peaceful protests of the Arab Spring with murder and imprisonment, Morocco responded with moderate constitutional reforms. Of course, this is all relative (one cannot call Morocco a free state), but get the MENA states into a room for a family reunion and Morocco comes across as the new age tree-hugging uncle who donates a significant amount of his limited income to NPR.

Given this moderation, as well as the almost cartoonish levels of violence in Libya, Egypt and Syria, Morocco often gets ignored by Western observers trying to comprehend contemporary politics in the Arab world. This is a shame, as it is the everyday workings of more moderate MENA regimes like Morocco and Tunisia that tell us of the future of the region, not the humanitarian basket-cases which dominate apocalypse-loving news organizations. To jump back to the earlier metaphor, the general state of your family should be determined by the quiet desperation of your siblings, not your cousin Steve who lost two fingers while dynamite fishing at the public pool.

This week saw an escalation of protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region, where grassroots movements have been arguing for economic improvement, an end to corruption and greater access to jobs, health services and infrastructure for Moroccan women. Significantly, these protests (staged by the Hirak Movement) are largely led by women, pushing against Western stereotypes of the silent, victimized Muslim woman (women played a key role throughout the Arab Spring, but that wouldn’t really fit into Fox News’ narrative of the evil of Islam (also, I’m pretty sure Morocco has a far better record on women’s rights than that coterie of misogynists and creeps)).

The protest movement has been going strong since last October, when fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was horrifically crushed to death in a garbage compactor, after trying to retrieve swordfish which had been confiscated by the police. It shares quite a bit in common with the earlier Arab Spring movement, which was set off by the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi and (perhaps more to the point) decades of incompetence and corruption by an arbitrary elite. Also mirroring the 2011 protests, the Moroccan protesters have only called for constitutional reforms, and have not reproached the monarchy (as far as platitudes go, at least “history repeats itself” has weight).

Worryingly, after months of peaceful tolerance, the Moroccan police have begun to crack down on protesters, arresting Hirak leader Nasser Zefzazi for “undermining the security of the state” (because peaceful activists calling out bullshit make authoritarian regimes as insecure as any teen going through puberty) and stifling Saturday’s women’s protest in the coastal city of Al-Hoceima. Many protesters are fearful for their safety, even as government officials have acknowledged their demands as legitimate and in need of being addressed.

Now, as far as Middle East politics go, I am the first to say that this story is not particularly “sexy”. Like the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, the Moroccan protests have not led to civil war, regime change or new venues for international rivalries. International readers (or at least international news organizations who sell to them) love these broader narratives of chaos. For some people, safe in their quiet democracies, visions of war from “over there” provide a certain form of entertainment, satiating a bloodlust unmet by Call of Duty or History Channel documentaries while also confirming their own biases that “the rest of the world” is a savage (and thus lesser) place. When the majority of the Arab Spring protests failed to bring true democracy or devolved into violence, many news outlets focused not on structural impediments to democratization like economic inequality or the lack of a strong civil society, but instead on the “anti-democratic nature” of Arabs and/or Islam (“In most Arab countries, the authoritarian leadership is in some ways more liberal than the majority of the citizenry” claims the Federalist’s David Harsanyi, because apparently someone asked for his opinion for some reason (I of course recognize the brutal irony that nobody asked for my opinion also)).

The Morocco protests, complex and uncertain as they are, show that argument to be complete and utter bullshit. Liberty and democracy are fluid concepts, but the citizens of Morocco have shown that they are important enough to upend their lives. As the world grows more chaotic, it is important to remember that the vast majority of people desire peace and a better life. Dismissing a population as undeserving of those opportunities because of their “nature” is not only bigoted, but also not helpful in the least. (“Not helpful in the least” is a nice epitaph for the current media climate actually.)

And with that call for decency (or at the least to not be a dick), Undercurrents is done for the week. See you next time.

 

Header from here.

Undercurrents (05/29/2017)

Undercurrents (05/29/2017)

(music for reading)

 

Hello and welcome to Undercurrents, a weekly reminder that the rest of the world is just as miserable as we are. This week, we sidestep the racially charged “oriental” music cues many Western news organizations use when reporting on East Asia and turn our eye on Japan.

This past week, the Japanese House of Representatives passed a contentious “anti-conspiracy” bill which would make “conspiring to commit terrorism” a crime. Now, on the surface, this seems a non-issue. After all, terrorists suck and as television has taught me, it’s the job of attractive national security agents with fancy guns and well-written quips to stop them at all costs.

Unfortunately, no matter how much I wish it otherwise, this is the real world and here, “security” is not so much the macguffin that drives the plot as it is a slippery word used to justify violence, intimidation and mass invasion of privacy. Like a book report on The Grapes of Wrath written by a sophomore who never bothered getting around to actually reading it, this new anti-conspiracy bill was written so broadly it isn’t clear what it actually means. According to the index of the bill, terroristic acts which would call for surveillance include among other things, “unlicensed bike racing, copyright infringement and stealing plants from forest preserves”. So all that underground street racing and Hello Kitty fan art that al-Qaeda has been undertaking to destabilize the peaceful democracy of Japan will finally be put to a halt.

The ambiguity of the bill as well as the fact that there hasn’t been a significant terrorist attack since the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack in 1995 has left many Japanese and outside observers wondering just what is the point of passing this bill at this moment. Recent public opinion polls show that while split evenly over the value of the bill, “three-quarters (of voters) said the government had not sufficiently explained why it needed to pass the legislation”. Meanwhile, Joseph Cannataci, the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy of the United Nations (what a title) sent an open letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe essentially saying that the bill as written was a confusing mess which probably violates the United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (“questions were raised on the pertinence and necessity of this additional legislation” is essentially UN-speak for “why the fuck are you doing this?”). Furthermore, the bill provides no direct oversight to prevent abuse of the surveillance aspect of the bill, and doesn’t clearly draw the line between arbitrary and necessary snooping. All in all, the bill sucks.

The Abe administration has stood by the bill, stating that it only targets “organized crime groups,” though they have failed to clearly delineate who is included in such a definition. Meanwhile, the Japanese press (whose penchant for fact-finding and accountability inevitably makes them enemies of Orwellian surveillance states) has spoken out against the bill, reminding the Japanese public of Imperial-era anti-conspiracy legislation which was used to torture or intimidate anyone opposing the state. As it turns out, when you write a law using purposefully vague terms it becomes a hell of a lot easier to make politically annoying people enemies of the state. Who woulda guessed?!! (George Orwell did, Orwell guessed.)

The exact reason for why this legislation is being passed now is uncertain, but the approaching 2020 Tokyo Olympics, corruption scandals involving the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Abe’s nostalgia for Japan’s militaristic past and good old political calculation probably all play a part. Japan is certainly not the first democracy to pass vague anti-democratic privacy laws. The United States passed the Patriot Act in 2001, and as the Snowden leaks have revealed, has spent the past sixteen years sucking up all the information they possibly can from the Americans they are supposed to be protecting. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom passed the Snooper’s Charter (originally developed by Theresa May in 2015 when she was Home Secretary) in 2016, creating one of the most invasive surveillance states in the West. In fact, the initial draft was so extreme, the Chinese government used it to justify their own new surveillance laws. When China cites you as an inspiration, you have a problem.

As the global economy continues to flounder, terrorists continue to be jerks and right wing governments continue to reshape democratic institutions to their own liking, privacy will continue to take a beating. Security, that vague meaningless word beloved by tyrants, will continue to trump liberty, a similarly vague yet much more pleasurable word beloved by idealists and white guys on the internet. But I’m sure, by this point, you know the drill. Stand up, speak out, etc, etc, etc. If there is one thing I’ve learned about politicians, it’s that nothing terrifies them more than angry voters. In movies, the bad guys pass bad legislation and then go laughing to exquisite clubs with extensive wood paneling. In real life, when bad guys pass bad legislation, they hide in bushes. If nothing else, that should give you strength.

Well, having finished my half-ironic Bill Murray speech, I’m off. Stay tuned this week for another poem and an essay on a film (yay!). See you next week.

Header image from here.

Undercurrents (05/22/2017)

Undercurrents (05/22/2017)

(music for reading)

 

Hello and welcome to Undercurrents, a weekly jaunt into that region of the world known by Americans as “Not-America”. This week, we’re talking about press freedom and in order to do that, we need to finish our junior year of college, pack our knapsacks full of sweaters and beat poetry, and board the next cheap flight to the Czech Republic. In the process, we’ll find ourselves, or at the very least, get hammered and write a post about it for a food blog.

At a conference in Beijing this week centered around China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan (essentially China’s plan to rebuild the Silk Road and thus casually toss off the old Western world order that Donald Trump is trying so hard to destroy), Czech President and sentient potato Milos Zeman was caught on tape saying to noted hockey enthusiast Vladimir Putin “there are too many journalists” and thus, there is a “need to liquidate” them. Following an uproar from humanity, Zeman’s spokesperson shrugged off the whole conversation as a joke being taken far too seriously by journalists and opposition. You know, because what’s more hilarious than the political leader of your country saying you deserve liquidation, a term which definitely doesn’t have genocidal connotations, amirite?

If we take Zeman’s spokesperson at their word, then this was all just a goof between world leaders and really don’t we all have better things to do? Well, not quite. To begin with, no joke featuring the term “liquidate” was ever funny. Not even Patton Oswalt would be able to pull that off, and he is actually good at jokes.

Secondly, everything about this situation makes it seem like Zeman was not so much joking as stating a fact. His confidant and apparent BFF, Vladimir Putin, is the leader of a Russian government which has increasingly cracked down on independent media, using intimidation and murder to cow any news outlet which dares to go against Putin’s message of “boy, Tsarism sure was great, huh”. Things have only gotten worse as sanctions surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and falling oil prices (which have devastated the petro-centric economy) have led authorities to crack down even harder on dissent, because why solve problems when you can bully writers into pretending everything’s just swell?

Furthermore, Zeman made his jokey jokes in Beijing, a world capital noted for its gentle acceptance of all forms of free expression. The limits on the free press are so terrible in the People’s Republic of China that many talented Chinese writers have given up completely on the profession of journalism. The digital revolution has made things hard enough as it is for quality journalism; add on censorship, prison sentences and the absurdity of public “confessions” and really why bother? And while Chinese journalists have not been subject to murder like their Russian colleagues, an increasing ideological personality cult surrounding Xi Jinping has made it all but impossible to operate in the realm of fact.

Zeman is a noted buffoon whose Islamophobia and deep love of Russia (as well as a penchant for saying stupid bullshit like “vegetarians should be put death”) is so similar to Nigel Farage and Donald Trump that I have to wonder whether all of these men were created in a lab somewhere in the hinterlands of Siberia. And while it’s easy to brush off his “joke” as tasteless and dumb, it’s essential to remember that even in functioning democracies like the Czech Republic, all is not well. The Czech press is largely concentrated in the hands of a few elites, a group which includes many of the very politicians which the press should be keeping an eye on. Meanwhile, the government has been the subject of several corruption scandals and its response to the Syrian refugee crisis (which, unlike its neighbors, has largely bypassed Czech lands) has been atrocious.

As Zeman prepares to run for re-election next January, there can be no doubt his propensity for speaking bullshit will only grow worse. Like Trump, such unapologetic fuckery has kept him popular with rural voters while alienating urban ones, but it is not yet clear if any strong opposition would be able to take away his largely symbolic position. Regardless, we can be assured that in this new wave of malevolently buffoonish far-right populist leaders, Zeman will always be eighth in my heart after Putin, Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Rodrigo Duterte, a frozen ham, Marine Le Penn and Dr. Doom.

Undercurrents (05/15/2017)

Undercurrents (05/15/2017)

(some reading music)

Hello and welcome back to Undercurrents, a weekly examination of the world news stories which may have slipped through the cracks like a prisoner with access to several tubs of butter. This week, we examine your lovable African grandfather who is also responsible for crimes against humanity, Robert Mugabe. I previously wrote about the three-time runner-up to Despot Magazine’s “Dictator of the Year” last July, when Zimbabwe’s formerly loyalist military veterans joined protests against the corruption of the Mugabe regime. I ended that post by considering whether the loss of such a crucial section of supporters would lead to political reforms, or even revolution. Now, ten months later, I can effectively state: nope!

In an increasingly chaotic world, Zimbabwe has remained remarkably stable in its state of permanent instability, with Mr. Mugabe somehow remaining balanced on a fraying tightrope overlooking a pool of agitated and somewhat famished crocodiles. In November, while the rest of the world was busy figuring out the most efficient way to fly the planet into the sun following the American election, Mugabe launched a new currency in the hopes of injecting cash into Zimbabwe’s flatlining economy. This, of course, led to a run on Zimbabwean banks and “the largest protests in a decade”, which were, also of course, accompanied by arbitrary arrests and violence. Since then the economic crisis has only deepened, resulting in even more company closures, hyperinflation and an unemployment rate hovering around 90%.

So what has the Aged Absolutist been up to all this time while his country flails? Napping, apparently. Mugabe has been spotted several times these last few months napping at official events, most recently at a World Economic Forum meeting in South Africa. Now, I am sure WEF meetings are not quite as exciting as a Beyoncé concert, but one would expect the leader of an economically floundering nation to be at the very least slightly interested in a conference whose sole purpose is to connect states with possible investors and international businesses eager to expand.

Mugabe Nap Time

Mr. Mugabe’s spokesperson, whose job is only slightly more exhausting than Sean Spicer’s, claimed the Ancient Authoritarian was not sleeping, but merely “resting his eyes”, which are strained by bright light. Why he was also slouching in his chair like a discarded rag doll was not addressed. Maybe that is the position in which his ears pick up the most soundwaves, thus ensuring he will be able to engage with every economically-crucial word that comes his way. If this be the case, bully for you, M-dog!

In other Mugabe news, the 92-year-old announced that he would once again be running for president in next year’s national election, representing a Zanu-PF party that has become increasingly fractured these past few years. This, in itself, is not particularly surprising; however, I thought it my duty to report on this story because the announcement was accompanied by the following bit of pun wizardry by Cabinet minister and Clark Kent enthusiast, Supa Mandiwanzira: “I am not super, Mr. President. It is you who are super.” Oh puns, you really are the one bright spot in this cruel world of incompetent dictatorships and undeserved personality cults.

The upcoming Zimbabwean election will be something to watch, not only because the ever-growing opposition plans to lead an anti-Mugabe coalition, but also because Mugabe’s wife Grace declared that, if her husband were to die prior to the election, his party should still run him as a “corpse” candidate. This is a particularly exciting possibility, since the world hasn’t seen a true corpse candidate since Zombie James K. Polk lost to Chester A. Arthur in the US presidential election of 1880.

No matter what happens, it is clear Mr. Mugabe is losing influence in both his party and his country. Just last week, the Zimbabwean prophet Madzibaba Wimbo (who previously descried Mugabe’s rise to the throne in 1957) predicted that the next person to lead Zimbabwe would not be any member of the ruling party but instead an individual with “a foreign name”, and that their rise would be accompanied by much suffering and a military coup. Perhaps by this time next year, I will be writing of the rapid rise of Steve the Great.

Well, that’s the end of Undercurrents for this week. Come back next week for more nonsense. Also, later this week for a poem and an essay! Boy am I productive now.

Undercurrents Update

Hey all.

So it turns out, writing about world news every week is actually a bit hard when the news climate you are relying on is pretty slow or repetitive. Even as the world seems to be imploding, not much is actually happening, and of that, even less is really worth writing about (which thus raises the question, why feel the need to write about it?) After a month of intense news-reading scrutiny, I have also come to the conclusion that most modern news actually tells you very little. It makes one truly wonder how they are supposed to remain informed. Perhaps memes? I don’t know.

So, for the immediate future, I’m going to back off of Undercurrents unless I get some meaty stories worth exploring. As I don’t actually have regular readers, it isn’t much of a problem. The fact I’m even writing this is for a self-imposed professionalism.

I’m considering other features which are 1. not as time-consuming and 2. not reliant on outside factors and the work of others. If you care, then keep paying attention to the site or my social media. I’ll let you know.

Anywho, I will still keep updating every Friday as long as I don’t exhaust all of my saved-up scribblings.

Cheers.

Undercurrents (8/24/2016)

Undercurrents (8/24/2016)

The “America is on Double Secret Probation” Edition.

Hello and welcome to Undercurrents. I was lazy this week as well as a bit exhausted by the news, so this week’s Undercurrents is shorter than usual. I swear it won’t happen again, boss. Please don’t fire me!

On an unrelated note, look at you, newly-promoted Hull City, winning two games in a row. I’m not being hyperbolic in any way in saying that the manager-less football team with barely enough fit players is going into next year’s Champions League. Not hyperbolic at all.

Joking aside, this coming week, they’re up against Manchester United so while I will be baying for their destruction on Saturday, a part of me will be interested in whether they can keep themselves focused as a team.

Enough football/soccer. On to this week’s stories:

 

Bolivian ’80s Campus Sex Comedy

With the death of Hugo Chavez way back in 2013, Latin America has seemed a tad bit emptier. Chavez was a larger than life figure: a failed coup leader turned democratically elected president of Venezuela who steadily chipped away at his country’s civil liberties while embracing a socialist ideology oh-so-humbly called “Chavismo”,  which centered his domestic policy around vague goals of socialist equality and his foreign policy on having lots and lots of oil.  His legacy though has not been in any of these things: chavismo has not been terribly influential abroad, the reliance on oil has devastated a once vibrant economy and his tendency to align himself with authoritarian pariah states like Cuba and Belarus hasn’t exactly made Venezuela a global leader.

But there is one place where Chavez had excelled: blaming the United States for everything wrong in the Western Hemisphere. Boy was he good at that. Now, to be fair, the US has often interfered in Latin American affairs ever since James Monroe got all jealous at Europe for messing around in his hood, but Chavez was able to take a legitimate concern about sovereignty and make it bat-shit bonkers.

Since his passing, it’s been unclear who will take up the slogan of “Die American Imperialist Dogs Die”. Chavez’ authoritarian successor Nicolas Maduro has been largely hapless in dealing with the gift-wrapped time-bomb of an economy his comrade left him and boogeyman favorite Fidel Castro may or may not be in the same cryogenic chamber as Walt Disney.

One man is trying quite hard to step into The Hugo’s shoes: Bolivian President and Eric Estrada body-double Evo Morales. This week, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader opened an “anti-imperialist military school” to counter US policies in the region and bind the military closer to social movements. In particular, Morales wants the “Anti-Imperialist Commando School” to counteract the US based “School of the Americas” (now the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation“), a military academy which has trained several Latin American dictators and for a time included torture on its curriculum, in between English Lit and shop class. Somehow, the school still exists, though the Democrats have added its closure to their 2016 platform.

It’s unclear how exactly Morales’ new school will defeat a better funded academy of violent wannabe Contras. I personally think the best way is a coordinated project of hi-jinks and toga parties. If it worked for John Belushi, it’ll work for Bolivia.

President Morales is working hard to take up Hugo’s beret; a few weeks back he lashed out at US Secretary of State/Sentient Can of Eggshell-colored Paint Primer John Kerry for supporting a recall vote on Nicolas Maduro, stating in his best Chavez impression “John Kerry continues to believe that Latin America is its backyard…Kerry should know we are not anyone’s colony. We are sovereign states of the Great Motherland that fights for life and liberation.”  You’re getting there, Evo, but you’ll need to go further if you want to be truly worthy of chavismo. Perhaps suggest that the US has found a way to give Latin American leaders cancer. Now that’s a classic. Why not use it? Hell, even the Beatles played covers when they were starting out.

I’m not going to give up on Morales. I’m sure his brand of paranoia and anti-Americanism can prove entertaining in the future. Earlier this year, Morales lost a referendum which would have allowed him to run for a fourth term when his current one is up in 2020 and he of course blamed an “external conspiracy“. But what was really interesting was the scandal which overshadowed the whole vote, a complex story of infidelity, influence peddling and fake children. It’s too confusing to explain here, but I recommend you check out this article. Morales has used the scandal to crack down on the media, so at least we know he cares as much for the rule of law and freedom of the press as Hugo did (not much).

In this violent world of extremists and warmongers, one almost feels nostalgic for the old days of leaders saying crazy word-farts but not really threatening global order; times when UN General Assemblies brought out the best/worst of the world like a World Cup of Nonsense. Chavez (Venezuela) is dead, as is AIDs expert Muammar Gaddafi (Libya). Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iran) is out of power (but rumors suggest a return?), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) is a doddering old man and horn-dog lover of ‘bunga bunga‘ parties Silvio Berlusconi (Italy) is off somewhere probably ruining a 20 year coed for life. With Putin (Russia), Assad (Syria), Duterte (Philippines), Sisi (Egypt) and Trump (US) the crazy is much more violent and calculated- less nonsensical more cruel hate. It leaves the satirist to wonder just how they are supposed to engage…

 

Manbang and Chill

I don’t believe I’m being too controversial when I say that living in North Korea seems like it would not be much fun. After a long day of toiling in a field, marching back and forth before your Pillsbury Doughboy leader or awkwardly pretending to be happy in front of foreign dignitaries, what can one do to relax? Sure, you can listen to the radio that is always playing and cannot be turned off, but there are only so many times you can hear “Patriotic March #46” before you start to go insane. And how many times can you watch that mid-season episode of the latest K-Drama which you had smuggled across the Chinese border on a thumb drive before the dialogue begins to seem too stagy?

Well, worry not, citizens (actually do worry, your country is in desperate straits). This week, government-owned media conglomerate KCTV announced the creation of a Netflix-style streaming platform hilariously called “Manbang” (I’m forever 12). Available on the country’s intranet (North Koreans are not allowed to interact digitally with the outside world), the streaming service will feature documentaries and five television channels.

According to a spokesman who has perhaps never engaged with the internet before (a possibility), “If a viewer wants to watch, for instance, an animal movie and sends a request to the equipment, it will show the relevant video to the viewer…this is two-way communications.” Animal movies, you say? What fun! No better way to forget the growing economic disparity between rich and poor (doubly infuriating in a socialist state) or your government’s endless nuclear fear-baiting than to sit back with a bowl of smuggled popcorn and watch zebras carouse around the Serengeti.

Of course, access to Manbang (ha) is all dependent on your access to the intranet, which is probably, uh, nil. So, at best this new site is practically useless and at worse it widens the economic and social gulf between the privileged and the growing underclass in North Korea. Yay?

Hello, Goodbye

Well, that’s it for this week’s abbreviated Undercurrents. I’m trying something a bit different with the fiction for this Friday, so check that out. I’ll be much more on target for next week. Maybe a nap will help.

The header image featuring Gabriela Zapata (the woman involved in Morales’ sex scandal) and a creepy whatever the hell that thing is sitting on the back wall is from here.