taste, picture this No.4

November 28, 2010

Piesporter Goldtröpfchen. Mosel Valley, Germany. -- photo by Peter Ruhrberg


Spades are Tiddly-Winks

November 25, 2010

“…bland bureaucratic euphemisms [may] conceal great crimes. As their meanings become clear, these collocations gain an aura of horror. In the past century, the Final Solution and Ethnic Cleansing were phrases that sent a chill through our lexicon.”
James Saffire
(quoted in Jane Mayer: “The Dark Side”)

precision bombing (bombing… a term in use since since, at least, WW2)
pacification (Vietnam: driving away and/or obliterating of all potential resistance)
strategic hamlet (Vietnam: camp for the detention of civilians)
enhanced interrogation (interrogation under torture)
robust interrogation (same)
special interrogation (same)
targeted killing (political murder)
assassination (political murder)
elimination (killed)
high value target (human being)
neutralize (kill)
rendition (abduction and transfer of someone to facilitate interrogation under torture)
fallen soldier (dead combatant)
passed away (died)
terrorist (militants we oppose)
militant (a combatant that we do not like)
freedomfighter (a combatant that we like)
contractor (mercenary)
mercenary (combatant hired by someone we do not like)
boot camp (privatized prision, featuring rehabilitation by harsh treatment)
concentration camp (WW2 and beyond: many were death facilities, not holding pens)
internment camp (a concentration camp run by ourselves or our friends)
detention facility/center (variously prision, or concentration camp)
refugee (someone fleeing dangers we ackowledge)
migrant (birds, or someone leaving conditioins we do not acknowledge as troubled)
economic migrants (someone hoping to escape poverty abroad)
asylum seekers (refugees we are not ready, or willing, to recognize as such)
idps (refugees who do not managed to cross a border)
improvised explosive device (bomb… ied helps make the enemy seem like rouge militants, amateurs and terrorists)
soften up (abuse in preparation for, or in the process of, interrogation. In the case of at least one detainee in Afghanistan — admitted by US military coroner’s report — beat his legs until they are, and this is not a paraphrase: “pulpified”).

Euphemisms can also be inverted.

When looking at regimes we dislike, it is not uncommon for the fatal shooting or beating (killing) of an unarmed protester to be referred to as “murder”.  Besides disapproving vague connotations of evil, “murder” more precisely refers an act of violence which deliberately kills a specific individual.
Along the same lines, Chomsky points out that a solider can not be “kidnapped”. The use of the term this way is especially familiar from Israeli conflicts with Lebanon and Palenstian Gaza.  Enemies capture soldiers.





November 21, 2010


Les Caves No2 -- Robert Motherwell


Baraka (1994)

I’m not interested in fingering Baraka as my most favourite film, but there is one piece of evidence which is hard to otherwise explain: I have been out to see Baraka, played on the big screen of a cinema, over a dozen times.

One factor is that a viewing of Baraka – leagues above all other films, of which I would advise the same – is enriched by the cinema.  The large format provided by the dvd played on a big-screen-TV is nothing to sneeze at… but it’s missing a bit of collective magic.

Baraka – cousin to the Koyanistsika-Poyoniscasti-Nacognicasti trilogy and (later) films such as Kronos(?), under-sea(?) – rolls without any dialogue. Sound from a few scenes filter through; very occasionally such sounds emerge to the very surface. But shots pass silently beneath a musical soundtrack.

The musical soundtrack is point upon which I grumble a little. The score (by Michael Stearns) teeters near the brink of new-age-style slock. The “official soundtrack” cd released – by selecting too much of the most lyrical passages – falls beyond this threshold.  The film’s complete audio is not bad enough to cause my grumbling to interrupt my viewings. But from a distance – especially compared to Philip Glass’ score for Koyaniskaski (one of the greatest works by one of the late-20th century’s greatest composers) – I’ve always considered Baraka’s score regrettable.

I find watching Baraka to be like dreaming. (If it weren’t such a terrible cliché, I might use the word experience).  Baraka can be described as a long series of shots – of astonishing variety, without being disjointed. Watching minds alternate between wandering and being riveted, struggling to make sense of the flow and forgetting to bother. I think that I dream the same way: when I wake, my mind has sometimes strung together fragments into a (somewhat) coherent narrative, other times it has only confusion, yet others it has forgotten everything.

I find watching Baraka in a cinema to be an extraordinary experience of collective-dreaming.

Besides dreaming, Baraka also has the feeling of a Keith Jarett solo-piano improvisation. During these improvised performances (especially the Vienna Concert, La Scala), a theme emerges from near-incoherence, drifts and at some (not-quite-pinpoint-able) moment shows itself as a new theme. A sequence flows like this: a Sanskrit book in the lap of a chanting Hindu aesthetic (Sandu) cuts to an a book of Hebrew prayers open in the hands of a Hasidim… the bowing-like gestures of Hasidim at the Western Wall cuts to the bowing of Sufi dervishes… each bowed dervish receiving his teacher’s/leader’s(?) kiss cuts to the ritual kissing a shrine’s padlock by a Shiite pilgrim… and so on.

The cuts suggest dividing Baraka into sections, chapters or passages. Like our dreams, the lines between these are occasionally abrupt, but more often uncertain.  Once I began to watch the film this way, I spent some of my energy trying define each the bounds of each passage, and then to wonder if it had its own theme.  I have now – at the risk of ruining the mystery by looking too closely – have meticulously collected, and looked at, images snapped from each of the film’s shots… I can still say that Baraka seems to be in the process of dividing itself into chapters… the lines between each remain uncertain, and themes seem present but – dreamlike, again – nebulous.

With curiosity, I divided Baraka into 15 chapters; a rather anal-retentive exercise to be sure. The dvd itself divides the film two ways: the menu offers five chapters and sixteen imbedded chapter-points (which you advance through via the skip button on the remote control).  Despite feeling uncertain about the points which I identified, changing my choices a few times, these three lists mostly agree.

The photography, shot on six continents, is wonderful. (However, it is not as universal as this might suggest… sub-Saharan Africa is missing). The image quality – captured using 70mm cameras (rather than the traditional 35mm, or the new norm of digital) – is spectacular (provided the reels being shown are in good condition).

Baraka plays terrific games with both time and movement.  The camera variously stands still and floats, pans or zooms.  There are aerial shots slowed down to a graceful glide.  A shot begins by looking as if it has been slowed down, but then you find yourself watching sky full of stars race across the background. Cityscapes – wildly accelerated – pulse with frenetic exuberance/madness. Some of these sequences are familiar from earlier films, especially Koyonaskasi, but improved filming technology offers an enriched portrait of pace spun out-of-control. Figures stand motionless, looking directly into the camera as life goes on – rushing or inching – in the background.

The pace and structure of Baraka is unusual. We are very accustomed to films raising and lowering their tension, but rising to a single major climax. Baraka seems to pass like a series of waves. The first wave crests a about fifteen minutes in. Thinking carefully about these crests, I realized that their mood varies. Intensity rises to make the heart speed, but other times it rises to grip us in mourning.

Finally, as I watch Baraka, my dreaming position shifts. I am watching people who are completely unaware of my gaze. Sometimes this divide seems natural, other times it feels odd. Other times I am gazing into somebody who’s gaze is fixed on mine… lucid and intense.  Dreaming, I suppose, is the same: a path of lucidity dissolving and then returning – gradually or with startling abruptness.

Sense can not always be made

November 17, 2010

“There is a constant temptation, when rendering an account of history, to distort reality by making too much sense of itself. This temptation is greatest when history is fresh and deals with crises that are ongoing – crises that mold our understanding of the world and ourselves”.


Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Yoo’s Swiss Cheese

November 16, 2010


Thoughts on the smell of Yoo’s Swiss Cheese

I am no lawyer.

But having slogged my way through what is – since its leaking – known as the “Torture Memo”, I feel no need to be silent.  I may not have the training and knowledge to build a contrary memo of my own, but I am confident that I can highlight errors throughout the memo.

(Maybe this is a measure of how easy it is to find fault with that which we already disagree with.  Maybe its a measure of how incredibly faulty the memo is).

In case you want to read it for yourself – hours of slogging, but certainly not impossible for anyone literate, curious and determined – this document was official titled “Memorandum for William J. Haynes IT, General Counsel of the Department of Defence. Re: Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States”.

(Granted, my academic training – for whatever its worth – was in International Relations, which naturally included discussion of International Law).

The memo is bulky: 80 pages. It was written (2003) by the top lawyers at the US Department of Justice to help out the folks at another government department (Defence).  The wording here is deliberate: it is debatable whether the memo was intended to help the Department of Defence understand their obligations under the law, or if and how they could (legally) justify their actions. Skipping over, for the moment, this debate… what follows are a number of opinionated reflections:


It can be assumed that no-one at the top of the US government ever read the Torture Memo.

President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld (Dept.of Defence) – in particular – certainly spoke as if they understood the legality of their interrogation methods.

As has been pointed out elsewhere (journalist Jayne Mayer), the top of the Bush administration was exceptional: against the norm, not one of them was a lawyer. Even if they did read the memo, their understanding of it would be at least as limited as my own.

In any case, folks like the President, Vice-President, and head of the Department of Defence, are too busy to spend hours reading through any single memo. What they would have heard is a summary prepared by an aid. Any summary highlights the conclusion over the contents… and Yoo summed up his conclusion this way:

“Finally, even if the criminal prohibitions outlined above applied, and an interrogation method might violate those prohibitions, necessity or self-defence could provide justifications for any criminal liability. “  The aid would have supplied a translation for this legalistic wrap-up. Here’s mine: even if the treatment of a prisoner breaks a law, it doesn’t matter. It can always be said to be necessary or in self-defence.

This could mean that the top of the White House is not culpable for any treatment (up to and including abuse and even homicide).  Their power was exercised, it should be admitted, with the benefit (handicap) of a summary of legal advice… advice which was (it is now widely agreed) as faulty.

But… doesn’t it matter that the advice told them what they – almost without a doubt – wanted to hear? (Cheney, in particular, had already made plenty of public statements about it being “necessary” to act “on the dark side”). Aren’t we responsible for the things which we want to hear? If someone tells us (in a position of power) what we want to hear, aren’t we partly responsible for what is said?

But… Imagine that, on the basis of faulty legal advice, you smack me over the head with a hammer. I hope that you would still be arrested. The legal advice may be a reason for a little empathy, but it does not completely excuse anything.

But… Even with no legal advice, aren’t we are still held to the law?… whether we understand it, or even know about it.

But… what kind of idiot thinks that its legally permissible to waterboard (a frightening ordeal intended to feel like drowning), chain with arms stretched upwards behind the back (a “stress position” called a “Palestinian Hanging”), confusion by days of sleep deprivation.
… no matter what some lawyer says.

–Doing publicity for his memoir (published 2010), former president George W.Bush was still insisting that waterboarding was legal. How d

demonstration of Waterboarding

id he know? Because, he explained, the lawyers told him so.


We have the memo, but we do not have the request for its production.

an only slightly different version was used by the Spanish Inquisition

It is, however, obvious that it was written assuming (correctly, or incorrectly) that the Department of Defence wanted to know (a) how far it could take “coercive” interrogation, based on (b) the limits of what could be (legally) defended.

The memo does not read like advice to a client wanting to understand their obligations under the law.  The overwhelming emphasis is on (a) arguing that the US is not obliged to obey international treaty x,y,z, and (b) pointing the reader towards ways in which various acts, in the event of prosecution in an American court, could be defended. (It also refers to, and leans on, an argument made elsewhere that “unlawful combatants” are not protected by the laws of war).

The memo works its way through long, escalating list of possible acts: shouting, slapping, hitting, beating… humiliating, creating discomfort, d

eprivation of sleep, drugging…  As it goes through these acts, it suggested defences. These stretch along a spectrum of styles: from meticulously detailed and convoluted, to the broadest of brushes.

Many defences hinge on matters of definition. Most (in)famously, Yoo makes a great deal of hay from puzzling over the meaning of “severe” pain or suffering. He puzzles over the meaning of “assault” (especially, do you need to touch the victim?), the difference between “substantial” and “serious” (bodily injury),  “specific intent” vs “general intent”,

I am all for semantics. They may be tedious, but unless everyone is speaking the same language (defining terms in the same way), or at least understands each other’s language (knows what the other means by x,y,z), there is no point having a conversation.

There are, however, problems.

First, the inevitable difficulty of precisely defining terms can be used to dismiss the entire question. (We can not define “Art”, so there is nothing to be gained by asking “what is art?”)

Second, an unchallenged author (like one preaching an 80 page sermon to the converted) is able to improve his position by defining terms to suit his needs. Most obviously (and infamously) Yoo takes defining “severe pain” as an opportunity to set the bar impossibly high. It must, he reasons, “must rise to a similarly high level that would ordinarily be associated with a physical condition or injury sufficiently serious that it would result in death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions”.

Third, maybe legal arguments make frequent references to dictionaries… but even as an undergraduate, I was taught that the practice was embarrassingly amateur.

In a number of cases, Yoo proposes defences based on tiny details within the wording of legislation and treaties.  For example, the law sometimes specifically lists sub-types of an offence. The law prohibiting “maiming”, he points out, lists a finite list of types. Since it fails to preface this list with the phrase “such as”, he reasons that anything not specifically mentioned is not forbidden. You may not cut off a nose or ear, but (he implies) you may cut off a toe.

Now he starts to sweep his brush in wonderfully broad strokes.

Yoo repeatedly resorts to insisting upon intent. He points to wordings which do exist in legislation and treaties which demand that, for an act to be torture, an interrogator must “intend” to inflict severe pain.  He takes this so far as to argue that as long as it can’t be proved that an interrogator intended to inflict severe pain, even “maiming” a detainee (which he agrees includes burning with acid) would not qualify as torture. It is, conviently, very difficult to prove intent.

Yoo sweeps in enormous strokes to argue that anything is permissible… as long as harm to the detainee is outweighed by the harm (a major terrorist attack) which can be avoided by extracting information the detainee is concealing.

My knowledge of US law is limited, but if it is really so extremist its Utilitarianism, I fear it even more today that I did yesterday.

Ultimately, this is bettered by one more.  It does not matter if interrogators are incorrect and detainee turns out to be innocent, or at least know nothing of any use.  Anything is permissible as long as the interrogator believes, in good faith, that the detainee is concealing information which could stop a major terrorist attack.


Spotting holes in Yoo’s memo could be assigned as a good exercise in critical thinking.  A student should be able to spot faults in a paper in any subject, provided it is written in a sufficiently straightforward manner.

(This is not a criticism of the Torture Memo. Undecipherable, jargon encumbered prose too common… it should diminish our respect for the author and increase our suspicious of his ideas).


If you read the testimony of the lowly prison guards at Abu Ghraib, you can hear an eerie echo of an important part of the Torture Memo.

Yoo makes a great deal of puzzling over the meaning of “assault” and trying to lay out distinctions between its different types.  While he does not end up advising against all physical contact, he does emphasize his opinion that any treatment which does not involve touching a detainee can not be “assault”.

At Abu Ghraib, a detainee was hooded and told to stand on a box. Wires were attached to his fingers. He was told to keep his arms outstretched and not to fall off the box, lest he be electrocuted. Photographs were taken; these would become the most infamous when a collection of such photos were later leaked to the media.

One of the soldiers – the same one that told the detainee that falling would cause him to be electrocuted – explained later: “I knew he wouldn’t be electrocuted… it was just words.  It would have been meaner if there really was electricity coming out, and he could really be electrocuted.  No physical harm was ever done to him.”
Maybe this is the coincidence of two people with matching views of right and wrong.  Maybe this is the result of Yoo’s argument filtering down to the very the bottom. It is not – to be fair – completely faithful to the memo’s advice. Yoo advises that threatening a detainee with death (as long as that death is imminent) is illegal. The threat in this case (electrocution if he falls) is obviously imminent, and therefore illegal. By the time Yoo’s advice filtered down to the soldiers it, not surprisingly, had lost its coherence.  Understanding Yoo’s advice – in case one finds oneself attaching wires to a detainee who is  standing on a box – requires piecing together two portions of the memo (one explaining that assault, without contact, is not assault, the other explaining that a detainee must not be lead to believe that his death is imminent).

This supports the idea that soldiers – who could not be expected to understand the law – lacked proper supervision.  There’s more than a grain of truth here, but it distracts from the more important points.

(a) Authority is ultimately responsible for any action taken by any and all of its soldiers. From the comfort of their offices, they have put guns into the hands of kids and sent them into danger. Do not believe that authority is stupid enough to be unable to see the inevitability of the unpredictable.

(b) The upper reaches of authority had procured legal advice on the legal defensibility of various types of “coercion”.  Authority may claim that perpetrators (soldiers and interrogators) were acting without orders. Rumsfeld (head of Defence Department) jeered: “Did I authorize soldiers to put underwear on that guy’s head? Of course not.”

The creativity of the soldiers at Abu Grahib (and elsewhere to be sure) was impressive. Just as the Torture Memo advised, they were – while avoiding doing x,y or z – doing whatever came into their heads.

(c) Imaginative, yes, but I can’t believe that soldiers weren’t guided in the types of coercion would be particularly suitable.

The military employs cultural advisors who advise it on how to avoid accidentally offending the locals. No one asked of them the inverse question?

The creativity of soldiers may have been impressive, but did they just happen to focus on  nudity, homosexuality, gender bending, submission to women and sexual exposure? In the case of Omar Khadr, it was admitted that interrogators had threated to arrange to have him gang raped. We know from elsewhere that dogs were brought in with the advice of culture wonks that Arabs (more correctly, Muslims) are taught that they are taboo, and are often very fearful of them.

There is an absurd limit to this line of argument. Its odd to imagine that even a Dutch combatant wouldn’t be bothered by being held naked with woman’s underwear on his head, simulating oral sex for the amusement of his captors, being threatened with rape by a dog.  But if US soldiers were interrogating Dutch detainees, I would not be surprised to see them following advice to mock their shoes, and the foul taste of Heineken.


As has been noted elsewhere, notice that the memo is dated March of 2003… well after the “enhanced interrogation” methods were already in use.

(6) “Why don’t we read history?”   (Robert Fisk)

detainee in a stress position known as a "Palestinian Hanging"

the same technique, used here by the S.S. at Buchenwald

Tender Comrade

November 12, 2010

What will you do when the war is over
tender comrade
When we lay down our weary guns
When we return home to our wives and families
and look into the eyes of our sons.

What will you say of the bond we had
tender comrade
Will you say that we were brave
as the shells fell all around us
or that we wept and cried for our mothers
and cursed our fathers…

(Billy Bragg)

I do not wear a poppy

November 11, 2010

This week she’s taken the word “remember” as a new favourite. It’s on your lips, unprompted. You seem satisfied to coax me into saying it too… and then it’s there again a little later.

I don’t think I’ve read her the word from any book.
Where did it come from?
Did she notice the old man offering plastic poppies from a donation-box?

To my delight, she’s chosen such a word which is a bit abstract, certainly mysterious…   and at this time of year, impressively ambiguous.

She will notice, someday, that I do not wear a poppy.
Don’t think that I consider memory as unimportant. Rather I’ve lost the ability to remember what, and the way, I was taught.

The somber mood of Remembrance Day has always been a veneer, glossing — but never really concealing — an occasion to pay homage to the military dead, to look up to the flag, to reinforce a distorted version of the past.  I wasn’t always bothered by the rhetoric at the cenotaph… I can’t stomach it any more.

Remember that November 11th was created to commemorate the ending of the First World War (1914-1918). Most of our Cenotaphs — at which we are urged to gather — were erected in mark the same conflict.  At the time, it known as the “Great War”. It may have been great — in sense of enormous or  astounding) but was nothing to be proud of.

In that horrible decade, the “world” (essentially Europe and its colonial possessions) stumbled -perhaps hurled- themselves into a pointless bloodbath. You can spend an eon studying and you will learn about causes, but there is no purpose to be found.
The fighting was lead by officers who were incompetent and horrifyingly callous. Befuddled by the newly invented machine-gun, officers sent wide lines of men marching to their deaths. Enemies (especially on the Western Front) spent most of those four years in a muddy stalemate… terrorizing each other with ceaseless artillery barrage and trying to figure out innovative tactics of slaughter.
Conscripts were supplemented with hundreds of thousands of volunteers. These men were whipped up with a suite of lies.  Millions of men temporarily emboldened with blind patriotism, tragic gullibility and naivety marched obediently off to hell.

There were 10,000,000 military deaths during the “Great War”… (including 65,000 Canadians)

When the war ended, almost nothing had been accomplished. A few colonies changed hands — one pair of greedy hands for another and similarly, the maps of the Balkans and the Middle East were redrawn with lines which are still causing conflict. The equally guilty forced Germany to accept the blame for starting the war… and punished it by slicing into its territory and imposing reparations and restrictions. This settlement lead to the war resuming about twenty years later… this time called “the Second World War”, even more bloody than the first.

Now look at the inscriptions of the average cenotaph. A small handful of quite typical examples:

“The Glorious Dead”  (London, England — 1920)

“Erected in commemoration of the men and women of this city who died on the field of honour in war that Canada might maintain her heritage of freedom”.   (Port Arthur, Ontario — 1925)

“In glorious memory of those of this City and District, who, at the call of King and Country, adventured forth and gave their all for the cause of Right and Freedom, 1914-1918.”   (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan — 1929)

These are monuments of which we should be embarassed.

Additional wars — and their own mythologies — have been added to the cenotaphs since they were built.  Each of these — WW2, Korea and (now) Afghanistan — should not be times to be remembered without their own shame. Offense left for another day.

The ceremonial rhetoric with which I grew up (I hope, but doubt, that you’ll be any more fortunate) was in tune. From the webpage of the Royal Canadian Legion (the veteran’s organization which dominates what is said on Nov 11th) explains that Remembrance Day should be  “the one distinct observance that the nation pay tribute to those “who gave their lives that freedom might prevail”.

Let’s leave the crap of glory and freedom behind.
Remember that Nov11th is dedicated to the memory of only the military dead, and further, only those who died wearing the right uniform. Somber reflection is not offered to those — conscripts and fools — who were killed fighting for the other side.  Neither is it offered to the millions of civilians who were killed… by “accident”, out of negligence, or entirely deliberately.

4,000,000 died fighting on the other side of WW1.
WW1 caused the death of at least 7,000,000 civilians.
WW2 caused the deaths of about 50,000,000 civilians
Korea caused the deaths of at least 2,000,000 civilians
So far, an estimated 15,000 to 35,000 civilians have died as a result of the (latest) Afghan war.

I must stop myself from going on and on… but just one last point:

I bristle at occasions which push us towards prescribed ritual, attitude and perspective. Dissent is never simple, but on days like Nov11th it is cast as the height of disrespect.
There is no place for me at a cenotaph. Their words make my angry.
I know that I am likely to offend… especially those of my Grandmother’s generation (I can’t rid my memory of  her facial expression). Those who lived through something like the world wars do not want to be confronted with someone who is not grateful for their sacrifice.
I can be somber while wondering why so many went to their deaths believing the lies they were fed.
I can be somber while wondering what foolish policies led to conflict beginning in the first place.
I can be somber while struggling to imagine how terrible war is.
I can be somber thinking about occasions when violence is right… and regretting that it’s so difficult to find any such thing in Canada’s history.


Finally, to be fair… there do exist cenotaph inscriptions which do not make me cringe.  The words on the cenotaph in Brantford Ontario (1923)  reads:

“Let those who come after
see to it that their names
be not forgotten”.

Sometimes vagueness is the best we can do.

taste, picture this -No.3

November 10, 2010

Hermitage. Northern Rhone, France......... ---photo by Brian Freedman? (reliable source lost)

for fear of dissent

November 6, 2010

Never forget that it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write.