Saturday, January 20, 2007

Benevolent despotism believed in

The Venezuelan legislature yesterday gave their President Hugo Chavez the power to rule by decree.

As far as can be determined, the Venezuelan people are going with it with their eyes wide open. As suggested by J.F. Beck, such an act of collective faith has rarely been seen since 1933 – in Germany, I believe.

One sincerely wishes the Venezuelan people all the luck in the world. And then some.

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Market correction imposed

It seems that global market forces – so often touted as the great uplifter and liberator of the world’s poor – have of late rather let down Mexico’s poor.

Tortilla prices rose by 14 per cent last year, more than three times the inflation rate, and they have continued to surge in the first weeks of this year. The rise is partly due to US ethanol plants gobbling corn supplies and pushing prices as high as $US3.40 ($4.30) a bushel, the highest in more than a decade.

The main problem with this being that “the corn tortilla is the staple of the Mexican diet and is crucial for the poor.”

Enter the regulators. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon yesterday signed an accord with businesses to limit the soaring tortilla prices.

The accord limits tortilla prices to 8.50 pesos ($1) per kilogram and threatens jail terms of up to 10 years for company officials found hoarding corn. ... The accord also raises quotas for duty-free corn imports to 750,000 tonnes, most of which will come from the US.

President Calderon announced these measures with righteous thunder:

The unjustifiable price rise of this product threatens the economy of millions of families. We won’t tolerate speculators or monopolists. We’ll apply the law with firmness and punish those who take advantage of people’s need.

A decidedly unorthodox form of market correction, to be sure, and from a nominally ‘conservative’ government. But sometimes one just has to help those market forces along in their uplifting and liberating.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Cake taken

Yesterday the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. Their press release explains:

By moving the hand of the Clock closer to midnight — the figurative end of civilization — the BAS Board of Directors is drawing attention to the increasing dangers from the spread of nuclear weapons in a world of violent conflict, and to the catastrophic harm from climate change that is unfolding.

By way of response, the editorial in The Australian today takes the cake for sheer ideological blather.

With the hysterical headline “Scientists turn back clock on progress”, the editorial opens with the oh-so-clever one-liner:

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is now five minutes to midnight and any moment now the planet will turn into a pumpkin.

Tee hee, that one’s worthy of Tim Blair. Those Oz editorialists clearly must have a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. (Lips pressed to the Prime Minister’s bum, more like ... but I digress...)

The writer goes on to declare that “speaking truth to power”

... is the last thing scientists should be doing. Rather than complaining to politicians or hectoring the public, if the scientific community sees threats to humanity it should lock itself up in a lab and come up with solutions. High-profile scientists have no more credibility when it comes to politics and sociology than other celebrities who think that success in one field of endeavour equates to expertise in others.

So, it seems that scientists have no business engaging in civil discourse. Period. Their voices are to be banished from the social sphere, and their brains relegated to the lab where they might stand a chance of doing some good. Oh alright, perhaps if they behave themselves we might let them out to vote every 3 or 4 years.

Can that writer really be serious about equating “high-profile scientists” with “other celebrities”? Astonishingly, the writer then goes on to assert that “the resetting of the doomsday clock is symptomatic of a broader rejection of science and reason that is taking place across Western society.”

As if shutting out the voices of distinguished authorities in their fields represents a fervent embrace of science and reason?

One wonders just whom this writer believes should have the function of “speaking truth to power”. Presumably the Oz editorialists would shunt themselves to the top of the list.

The hubris and arrogance of these Gatekeepers knows no bounds.

Prolix teeshirt

click to enlarge

I find annotated clothing to be generally unattractive, sometimes distasteful.

But if one must, why not wear an essay? It gives the guy standing next to you on the Punt Road bus something to read while freeing his hands to hang on for dear life.

(via email)

Goat Friday

image source

Jamaica’s “oldest and best loved radio station”, RJR 94FM, reports that “a Clarendon gun toting man who is accused of being a goat thief is now in police custody on multiple charges.”

The police were on patrol after midnight and “intercepted a parked car” – a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it.

Read on, if you’re having a slow day...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Commentary runs amok

Further to a post by Ken Lovell at Road to Surfdom, it’s worth considering where the various examples of suicide and sacrifice — the GI selflessly throwing himself on a grenade, high-school rampagers, suicide bombers — fit in the continuum of suicidal/homicidal behaviour.

Perhaps I am subject to ‘cognitive dissonance’, but I can’t help leaning to the view that the malevolent ‘lashing out’ aspect of suicide-bombers’ motivation is more akin to high-school gun rampagers.

Or, for a more elemental form of the phenomenon, consider the pengamok:

Amok, or mata galap

Origin: Malaysia

The phrase “running amok” comes from this syndrome. The victim, known as a pengamok, suddenly withdraws from family and friends, then bursts into a murderous rage, attacking the people around him with whatever weapon is available. He does not stop until he is overpowered or killed; if the former, he falls into a sleep or stupor, often awakening with no knowledge of his violent acts. The pengamok is almost always a man between the ages of 20 and 45; there is only one female pengamok on record.

There’s not much material on the pengamok phenomenon that I’ve been able to find on the web; however, some may recall reading the following in a newspaper article in 1996, in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre:

In 19th-century Malaya young men ran amok, butchering strangers with a sword, usually after suffering a massive blow to their self-esteem or prestige. At the turn of the century the British colonial government passed legislation ordering that the men (called pengamoks) not be killed but put in insane asylums.

That decision caused a dramatic decrease in the number of pengamoks, says Paul Mullen, a forensic psychiatrist at Monash University. Instead of finding glory in death, the man was humiliated by incarceration, and the popularity of the practice is said to have dwindled.

Despite great cultural differences, what the pengamoks and modern mass killers have in common is a desire to discharge some colossal grievance, and belief in a heroic death. …

  • James Button, “Mass Destruction”
    The Age, 30 April 1996
    (No link available)

Note the words “the popularity of the practice is said to have dwindled”. I don’t know whether it was intended, but the implication seems to be that the pengamok-style of rampage was in some sense a cultural ‘norm’, by virtue of which the behaviour at some level received validation.

How all this informs our view of jihadist suicide-bombers may or may not become clearer.

As a footnote, however, I recall that the Antonio Banderas vehicle Desperado was released on video around the time Martin Bryant went amok at Port Arthur. I regarded with alarm the tag-line on the promotional posters:

He came back to settle the score with someone.

I never saw the film, but a user comment at the IMDB page for the film kind of confirms my impression:

Allow me to summarise the plot. A drifter (played by the impeccably sculptured [sic] Antonio Banderas) arrives in town in search of his girlfriend’s murderer and kills everyone he meets. Roll credits.

Interestingly, that commenter concludes that “in the end you leave the theatre feeling satisfied without really knowing why.”

Like I said, I never saw the film, but if anyone did, I’d be interested to know whether the Banderas character went out in a blaze of glory, like a good pengamok should.

Like the pengamok that’s latent in all of us???

Nicolae Ceauşescu, how we’re missing you

Yep, I’ve again reached the sad pass where, in order to pad out my content, I’m regurgitating casual comments made on other blogs. The following is from a comment submitted and (mercifully) published at Webdiary.

Does anyone remember Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu?

Nicolae was President of the ‘socialist’ republic of Romania from 1967, and his wife Elena was Vice Prime Minister from 1980, until they were together summarily tried and executed immediately following the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Among the charges were misappropriation of Romania’s wealth, and genocide.

The genocide charge apparently related to President Ceauşescu’s ordering security forces to fire on unarmed protestors. This was perhaps one of the more broad interpretations of the term ‘genocide’ ever to be brought before any court. But then, to call the military tribunal that condemned the pair a ‘court’ itself requires a fairly broad definition of that concept. (See ‘trial’ transcript here.)

And does anyone remember the day they were tried and shot?

That’s right, it was Christmas Day, 1989. Hmm, perhaps the second holiest holiday in the Christian calendar was not recognised in Communist Romania.

I wonder if there was, at the time, any handwringing among ‘the left’, say in Green Left Weekly, over the manner of the Ceauşescus’ demise. I personally don’t recall. (But then I would say that.)

Anyway, remembering the Ceauşescus, it did occur to me that Saddam Hussein could easily have been treated far worse than he was. And perhaps he can thank both Allah and the good ol’ USA that he wasn’t.