Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Gore Vidal Dead:
American Intellectual, Author And Playwright Dies At 86
LOS ANGELES — Gore Vidal, the author, playwright, politician and commentator whose novels, essays, plays and opinions were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died Tuesday, his nephew said.
Vidal died at his home in the Hollywood Hills at about 6:45 p.m. of complications from pneumonia, Burr Steers said. Vidal had been living alone in the home and had been sick for "quite a while," he said.
Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Vidal was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities – fixtures on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn't read their books knew who they were.
His works included hundreds of essays; the best-selling novels "Lincoln" and "Myra Breckenridge"; the groundbreaking "The City and the Pillar," among the first novels about openly gay characters; and the Tony-nominated play "The Best Man," revived on Broadway in 2012.
Tall and distinguished looking, with a haughty baritone not unlike that of his conservative arch-enemy William F. Buckley, Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for the primacy of the written word, for "the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action."
Vidal was uncomfortable with the literary and political establishment, and the feeling was mutual. Beyond an honorary National Book Award in 2009, he won few major writing prizes, lost both times he ran for office and initially declined membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joking that he already belonged to the Diners Club. (He was eventually admitted, in 1999).
But he was widely admired as an independent thinker – in the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken – about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, "the birds and the bees." He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were "Joyce Carol Oates." (The happiest words: "I told you so").
The author "meant everything to me when I was learning how to write and learning how to read," Dave Eggers said at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony, when he and Vidal received honorary citations. "His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can't articulate it." Ralph Ellison labeled him a "campy patrician."
Vidal had an old-fashioned belief in honor, but a modern will to live as he pleased. He wrote in the memoir "Palimpsest" that he had more than 1,000 "sexual encounters," nothing special, he added, compared to the pursuits of such peers as John F. Kennedy and Tennessee Williams.
Vidal was fond of drink and alleged that he had sampled every major drug, once. He never married and for decades shared a scenic villa in Ravello, Italy, with companion Howard Austen.
Vidal would say that his decision to live abroad damaged his literary reputation in the United States. In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names! John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.
Vidal dined with Welles in Los Angeles, lunched with the Kennedys in Florida, clowned with the Newmans in Connecticut, drove wildly around Rome with a nearsighted Williams and escorted Jagger on a sightseeing tour along the Italian coast. He campaigned with Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He butted heads, literally, with Mailer. He helped director William Wyler with the script for "Ben-Hur." He made guest appearances on everything from "The Simpsons" to "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."
Vidal formed his most unusual bond with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The two exchanged letters after Vidal's 1998 article in Vanity Fair on "the shredding" of the Bill of Rights and their friendship inspired Edmund White's play "Terre Haute."
"He's very intelligent. He's not insane," Vidal said of McVeigh in a 2001 interview.
Vidal also bewildered his fans by saying the Bush administration likely had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks; that McVeigh was no more a killer than Dwight Eisenhower and that the U.S. would eventually be subservient to China, "The Yellow Man's Burden."
Christopher Hitchens, who once regarded Vidal as a modern Oscar Wilde, lamented in a 2010 Vanity Fair essay that Vidal's recent comments suffered from an "utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity." Years earlier, Saul Bellow stated that "a dune of salt has grown up to season the preposterous things Gore says."
A longtime critic of American militarism, Vidal was, ironically, born at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., his father's alma mater. Vidal grew up in a political family. His grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. His father, Gene Vidal, served briefly in President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and was an early expert on aviation. Amelia Earhart was a family friend and reported lover of Gene Vidal.
Vidal was a learned, but primarily self-educated man. Classrooms bored him. He graduated from the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, but then enlisted in the Army and never went to college. His first book, the war novel "Williwaw," was written while he was in the service and published when he was just 20.
The New York Times' Orville Prescott praised Vidal as a "canny observer" and "Williwaw" as a "good start toward more substantial accomplishments." But "The City and the Pillar," his third book, apparently changed Prescott's mind. Published in 1948, the novel's straightforward story about two male lovers was virtually unheard of at the time and Vidal claimed that Prescott swore he would never review his books again. (The critic relented in 1964, calling Vidal's "Julian" a novel "disgusting enough to sicken many of his readers"). "City and the Pillar" was dedicated to "J.T.," Jimmie Trimble, a boarding school classmate killed during the war whom Vidal would cite as the great love of his life.
Unable to make a living from fiction, at least when identified as "Gore Vidal," he wrote a trio of mystery novels in the 1950s under the pen name "Edgar Box" and also wrote fiction as "Katherine Everard" and "Cameron Kay." He became a playwright, too, writing for the theater and television. The political drama "The Best Man" was later made into a movie, starring Henry Fonda, was revived on Broadway in 2000 and again in 2012. Paul Newman starred in "The Left-Handed Gun," a film adaptation of Vidal's "The Death of Billy the Kid."
Vidal also worked in Hollywood, writing the script for "Suddenly Last Summer" and adding a subtle homoerotic context to "Ben-Hur." The author himself later appeared in a documentary about gays in Hollywood, "The Celluloid Closet." His acting credits included "Gattaca," "With Honors" and Tim Robbins' political satire, "Bob Roberts."
Although happy to see and be seen, Vidal saw himself foremost as a man of letters. He wrote a series of acclaimed and provocative historical novels, including "Julian," "Burr" and "Lincoln." His 1948 novel "The City and the Pillar" was among the first to feature an openly gay relationship. His 1974 essay on Italo Calvino in The New York Review of Books helped introduce the Italian writer to American audiences. A 1987 essay on Dawn Powell helped restore the then-forgotten author's reputation and bring her books back in print. Fans welcomed his polished, conversational essays or his annual "State of the Union" reports for the liberal weekly "The Nation."
He adored the wisdom of Montaigne, the imagination of Calvino, the erudition and insight of Henry James and Edith Wharton. He detested Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and other authors of "teachers' novels." He once likened Mailer's views on women to those of Charles Manson's. (From this the head-butting incident ensued, backstage at "The Dick Cavett Show.") He derided Buckley, on television, as a "crypto Nazi." He called The New York Times the "Typhoid Mary of American journalism," labeled Ronald Reagan "The Acting President" and identified Reagan's wife, Nancy, as a social climber "born with a silver ladder in her hand."
In the 1960s, Vidal increased his involvement in politics. In 1960, he was the Democratic candidate for Congress in an upstate New York district, but was defeated despite Ms. Roosevelt's active support and a campaign appearance by Truman. (In 1982, Vidal came in second in the California Democratic senatorial primary). In consolation, he noted that he did receive more votes in his district in 1960 than did the man at the top of the Democratic ticket, John F. Kennedy.
Thanks to his friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy, with whom he shared a stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, he became a supporter and associate of President Kennedy, and wrote a newspaper profile on him soon after his election. With tragic foresight, Vidal called the job of the presidency "literally killing" and worried that "Kennedy may very well not survive."
Before long, however, he and the Kennedys were estranged, touched off by a personal feud between Vidal and Robert Kennedy apparently sparked by a few too many drinks at a White House party. By 1967, the author was an open critic, portraying the Kennedys as cold and manipulative in the essay "The Holy Family." Vidal's politics moved ever to the left and he eventually disdained both major parties as "property" parties – even as he couldn't help noting that Hillary Clinton had visited him in Ravello.
Meanwhile, he was again writing fiction. In 1968, he published his most inventive novel, "Myra Breckenridge," a comic best seller about a transsexual movie star. The year before, with "Washington, D.C.," Vidal began the cycle of historical works that peaked in 1984 with "Lincoln."
The novel was not universally praised, with some scholars objecting to Vidal's unawed portrayal of the president. The author defended his research, including suggestions that the president had syphilis, and called his critics "scholar-squirrels," more interested in academic status than in serious history. But "Lincoln" stands as his most notable and sympathetic work of historical fiction, vetted and admired by a leading Lincoln biographer, David Herbert Donald, and even cited by the conservative Newt Gingrich as a favorite book. Gingrich's praise was contrasted by fellow conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, who alleged she was so put off by Vidal's "Burr" that she switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.
In recent years, Vidal wrote the novel "The Smithsonian Institution" and the nonfiction best sellers "Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace" and "Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta." A second memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," came out in 2006. In 2009, "Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare" featured pictures of Vidal with Newman, Jagger, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Springsteen.
Vidal and Austen chose cemetery plots in Washington, D.C., between Jimmie Trimble and one of Vidal's literary heroes, Henry Adams. But age and illness did not bring Vidal closer to God. Wheelchair-bound in his 80s and saddened by the death of Austen and many peers and close friends, the impious author still looked to no existence beyond this one.
"Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy's edge," he once wrote, "all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. "Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all."
Vidal is survived by his half-sister Nina Straight and half-brother Tommy Auchincloss.
San Francisco, CA 94104
I was referred to the "Office of Executive Complaints" in the Midwest. My plea to Mr. Heid, therefore, was viewed by Wells Fargo management as a "complaint." Everyone who writes to Wells Fargo senior management regarding a mortgage payment or other problem ends up here. All the folks in the Office of Executive Complaints are "Home Preservation Specialists." In fact, as I found out, virtually everyone who deals with failed mortgage customers, from debt collectors to underwriters, is called a Home Preservation Specialist. From this point on my experience is like something out of Kafka: absurd and hopeless.
TO BE CONTINUED
George Takei Calls For Star Peace, Wants ‘Star Trek’ And ‘Star Wars’ Fans To Rally Against ‘Twilight’
Coming to our rescue is the dashing and incomparable Mr. George Takei. In the video, Takei summarizes the events that have prompted him to make a plea for peace. Takei calls for “star peace” between all fans. He says that ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ are great in their own ways. He asks fans to put aside the animosity and turn our attention to stopping the ‘Twilight’ threat because ‘Twilight’ has no heroes and is about a girl hoping her boyfriend still likes her.
Can George Takei bring peace? He has worked in both franchises. He played Sulu on ‘Star Trek,’ and he was the voice of Lok Durd on ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars.’ If anyone can bring peace among all the “star friends,” it is him.
In the spirit of peace – May the force by with you as you live long and prosper. And remember, “It’s OK to be Takei!”
Here is George Takei’s call for peace:
Apollo Moon flags still standing, images show
Images taken by a Nasa spacecraft show that the American flags planted in the Moon's soil by Apollo astronauts are mostly still standing.
The photos from Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter (LRO) show the flags are still casting shadows - except the one planted during the Apollo 11 mission.
This matches Buzz Aldrin's account of the flag being knocked over by engine exhaust as Apollo 11 lifted off.
LRO was designed to produce the most detailed maps yet of the lunar surface.
Each of the Apollo missions that touched down on the Moon planted an American flag in the soil.
Scientists had previously examined photos of the landing sites for these flags, and had seen what looked like shadows cast by them on the lunar surface. But this was not considered conclusive.
Now, researchers have studied photos of the same areas taken at different points during the day and have observed shadows circling the points where the flags are thought to be.
Prof Mark Robinson, the chief scientist for the spacecraft's camera instrument, LROC, said in a blog entry: "From the LROC images it is now certain that the American flags are still standing and casting shadows at all of the sites, except Apollo 11."
The Arizona State University scientist added: "The most convincing way to see that the flags are still there, is to view a time series of LROC images taken at different times of day, and watch the shadow circle the flag."
"Personally I was a bit surprised that the flags survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface, but they did. What they look like is another question (badly faded?)"
LRO began its mission in lunar orbit in September 2009, to identify mineral and other resources on the Moon as well as scout promising landing sites for future missions.
How Americans are efficiently trained to acquiesce to ideas once deemed so radical as to be unthinkable
(updated below – Update II)
Remember when, in the wake of the 9/11 attack, the Patriot Act was controversial, held up as the symbolic face of Bush/Cheney radicalism and widely lamented as a threat to core American liberties and restraints on federal surveillance and detention powers? Yet now, the Patriot Act is quietly renewed every four years by overwhelming majorities in both parties (despite substantial evidence of serious abuse), and almost nobody is bothered by it any longer. That’s how extremist powers become normalized: they just become such a fixture in our political culture that we are trained to take them for granted, to view the warped as normal. Here are several examples from the last couple of days illustrating that same dynamic; none seems overwhelmingly significant on its own, but that’s the point:
Look, I respect the vice president. He and I had strong disagreements as to whether we should torture people or not. I don’t think we should have.
Isn’t it amazing that the first sentence there (“I respect the vice president”) can precede the next one (“He and I had strong disagreements as to whether we should torture people or not”) without any notice or controversy? I realize insincere expressions of respect are rote ritualism among American political elites, but still, McCain’s statement amounts to this pronouncement: Dick Cheney authorized torture — he is a torturer — and I respect him. How can that be an acceptable sentiment to express? Of course, it’s even more notable that political officials whom everyone knows authorized torture are walking around free, respected and prosperous, completely shielded from all criminal accountability. “Torture” has been permanently transformed from an unspeakable taboo into a garden-variety political controversy, where it shall long remain.
Equally remarkable is this Op-Ed from The Los Angeles Times over the weekend, condemning President Obama’s kill lists and secret assassinations:
Allowing the president of the United States to act as judge, jury and executioner for suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, on the basis of secret evidence is impossible to reconcile with the Constitution’s guarantee that a life will not be taken without due process of law.
Under the law, the government must obtain a court order if it seeks to target a U.S. citizen for electronic surveillance, yet there is no comparable judicial review of a decision to kill a citizen. No court is even able to review the general policies for such assassinations. . . .
But if the United States is going to continue down the troubling road of state-sponsored assassination, Congress should, at the very least, require that a court play some role, as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court does with the electronic surveillance of suspected foreign terrorists. Even minimal judicial oversight might make the president and his advisors think twice about whether an American citizen poses such an “imminent” danger that he must be executed without a trial.
Isn’t it amazing that a newspaper editorial even has to say: you know, the President isn’t really supposed to have the power to act as judge, jury and executioner and order American citizens assassinated with no transparency or due process? And isn’t it even more amazing that the current President has actually seized and exercised this power with very little controversy? Recall that when The New York Times first confirmed Obama’s targeting of citizens for assassinations in 2010, it noted, citing “officials,” that “it is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” No longer. That presidential power — literally the most tyrannical power a political leader can seize — is also now a barely noticed fixture of our political culture.
Meanwhile, we have this, from the Associated Press yesterday:
Remember when John Poindexter’s “Total Information Awareness” program – which was “to use data mining technologies to sift through personal transactions in electronic data to find patterns and associations connected to terrorist threats and activities”: basically create real-time surveillance of everyone – was too extreme and menacing even for an America still at its peak of post-9/11 hysteria? Yet here we have the NYPD — more than a decade removed from 9/11 — announcing a very similar program in very similar terms, and it’s almost impossible to envision any real controversy.
Similarly, in the AP’s sentence above describing the supposed targets of this new NYPD surveillance program: what, exactly, is a “potential terrorist”? Isn’t that an incredibly Orwellian term given that, by definition, it can include anyone and everyone? In practice, it will almost certainly mean: all Muslims, plus anyone who engages in any activism that opposes prevailing power factions. That’s how the American Surveillance State is always used. Still, the undesirability of mass, “all-seeing,” indiscriminate surveillance regime was a given — a view, in sum, that the East German Stasi was a bad idea that we would not want to replicate on American soil — yet now, there is almost no limit on the level of state surveillance we tolerate.
In The New York Times yesterday, Elisabeth Bumiller wrote about the very moving and burdensome plight of America’s drone pilots who, sitting in front of a “computer console  in the Syracuse suburbs,” extinguish people’s lives thousands of miles away by launching missiles at them. The bulk of the article is devoted to eliciting sympathy and admiration for these noble warriors, but when doing so, she unwittingly describes America’s future with domestic surveillance drones:
Among the toughest psychological tasks is the close surveillance for aerial sniper missions, reminiscent of the East German Stasi officer absorbed by the people he spies on in the movie “The Lives of Others.” A drone pilot and his partner, a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera, observe the habits of a militant as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits his neighbors. They then try to time their strike when, for example, his family is out at the market.
“They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone pilots. . . . ”You see them wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night,” said Dave, an Air Force major who flew drones from 2007 to 2009 at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and now trains drone pilots at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
That’s the level of detailed monitoring that drone surveillance enables. Numerous attributes of surveillance drones — their ability to hover in the same place for long periods of time, their ability to remain stealthy, their increasingly cheap cost and tiny size — enable surveillance of a breadth, duration and invasiveness unlike other types of surveillance instruments, such as police helicopters or satellites. Recall that one new type of drone already in use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan — the Gorgon Stare, named after the “mythical Greek creature whose unblinking eyes turned to stone those who beheld them” — is “able to scan an area the size of a small town” and “the most sophisticated robotics use artificial intelligence that [can] seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity”; boasted one U.S. General: “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.”
There is zero question that this drone surveillance is coming to American soil. It already has spawned a vast industry that is quickly securing formal approval for the proliferation of these surveillance weapons. There’s some growing though still marginal opposition among both the independent left and the more libertarian-leaning precincts on the right, but at the moment, that trans-ideological coalition is easily outgunned by the combination of drone industry lobbyists and Surveillance State fanatics. The idea of flying robots hovering over American soil monitoring what citizens do en masse is yet another one of those ideas that, in the very recent past, seemed too radical and dystopian to entertain, yet is on the road to being quickly mainstreamed. When that happens, it is no longer deemed radical to advocate such things; radicalism is evinced by opposition to them.
* * * * *
Whatever one thinks of the RT network, Alyona Minkovski, a host of a show on that network, is an excellent journalist and interviewer. Last night was her last show — she’s leaving to work on a Huffington Post video show — and I was on last night, along with Jane Hamsher, discussing several domestic police state issues related to the topics discussed here:
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Over the weekend, in the column I wrote hailing the Internet’s capacity to detect falsehoods and myths better than traditional journalism, I made reference to the “mass panic” caused by Orson Wells’ 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” Numerous people — in comments, via email and elsewhere — objected by arguing that no such panic was ever documented. Journalism Professor W. Joseph Campbell makes the case here that this is nothing more than urban myth. He suggests that the widespread propagation of this myth on the Internet undermines my argument because it shows how the Internet can spread rather than combat falsehoods (Dan Drezner makes a related argument here), but (at least with regard to Campbell’s argument) I’d say the opposite is true. Leaving aside that this “mass panic” myth was widely believed long before the Internet was widely used, I was quickly exposed to, and persuaded by, the likely mythical nature of my claim as a result of the interactive process of Internet journalism which I praised.
UPDATE: In Mother Jones, Adam Serwer argues that “Congress is finally standing up to President Barack Obama on targeted killing” — specifically that they “are pushing the administration to explain why it believes it’s legal to kill American terror suspects overseas.” Notably, this push is coming from Republican Senators, while leading Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein are attempting to impede these efforts to bring basic accountability and transparency to this most radical power. Note the debate here: not whether the President should have the power to order Americans executed without due process, but simply whether he should have to account to Congress for what he does and what the legal framework is that he believes authorizes this.
Ex-TARP overseer denounces US government cover-up of Wall Street crimes
In interviews prompted by the publication of his new book (Bailout) on the $700 billion US bank bailout scheme—the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)—the former special inspector general for the program, Neil Barofsky, has denounced bank regulators and top officials in the Bush and Obama administrations for covering up Wall Street criminality both before and after the financial crash of September 2008.
In an interview last Thursday with the Daily Ticker blog, Barofsky accused Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner of facilitating the banks’ manipulation of Libor, the global benchmark interest rate, when he was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2007-2008, prior to his joining the Obama administration. Recently published documents show that as early as 2007, Geithner knew that London-based Barclays Bank was submitting false information to the Libor board to conceal its financial weakness.
Geithner merely wrote to the Bank of England suggesting certain changes in the Libor rate-setting mechanism, but made no public statement and failed to notify regulators at the US Justice Department, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, even though major US banks were alleged to be involved in the rate-rigging fraud.
In his interview, Barofsky rejected Geithner’s claims to have acted appropriately. Calling the Libor scandal a “global conspiracy to fix one of the most important interest rates in the world,” the former TARP inspector general said, “[Geithner] heard this information and looked the other way. Geithner and other regulators should be held accountable, they should be fired across the board. If they knew about an ongoing fraud, and they didn’t do anything about it, they don’t deserve to have their jobs. I hope to see people in handcuffs.”
In the same interview and others given over the past week, Barofsky has spoken in scathing terms of the domination of Washington by Wall Street and the subservience of both major parties to the financial elite. “It was shocking,” he told the Daily Ticker, “how much control the big banks had over their own bailout and how they often would dictate terms of some of the TARP programs and the overwhelming deference shown by Treasury officials to the banks. I saw no differences in these core issues between the Bush and Obama administrations.”
In an interview with CBS News’ Charlie Rose on July 23, Barofsky referred to key elements of his account of TARP, including the lack of any restrictions on the banks’ use of bailout funds and the fact that they were not even required to tell the government what they were doing with the taxpayer money that had been handed to them.
“When I got to Washington,” he said, “I saw that it had been hijacked by a small group of very powerful Wall Street banks... It’s not Democratic, it’s not Republican, it’s across political barriers… [Geithner] oversaw a policy that saw our largest banks, the too-big-to-fail institutions, get bigger than ever and more powerful, more politically connected.”
In his book, Barofsky derides the cynicism of the claims made when President Bush, candidate Obama and congressional leaders of both parties were seeking to ram through the TARP law over massive popular opposition that the bailout would benefit Main Street as well as Wall Street. He notes, for instance, that the government’s mortgage modification program—billed as a means to help millions of homeowners—has disbursed only $3 billion out of the $50 billion set aside for it.
Barofsky, who served as the Treasury Department’s special inspector general for TARP until his resignation last February, is well placed to document the collusion of the government with the banks. He issued numerous reports while in his TARP post exposing the lack of any real government oversight over the taxpayer money funneled to the banks, as well as decisions ensuring that Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs recouped tens of billions of dollars in potential losses at the public’s expense.
Deprived of any enforcement powers under the TARP law drafted by Wall Street lawyers and ratified by Congress, Barofsky was simply ignored by Geithner and the Obama administration and his reports were largely buried by the media.
Barofsky’s book has received a similar response from the media, as did reports issued last year by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations documenting in detail fraudulent and illegal activities by the banks in the lead-up to the financial crash of 2008.
Four years after the crisis precipitated by the banks, not a single top banker has been prosecuted, let alone convicted. Meanwhile, the same bankers, and the government officials who shielded them and ensured that they grew even richer, are demanding that American workers accept the “new normal” of wages at $13 or less, along with the destruction of pensions, health care and working conditions.
For all of his exposures, Barofsky, a Democrat, fails to draw the requisite conclusions, suggesting that popular rage can “sow the seeds for the types of reform that will one day break our system free from the corrupting grasp of the megabucks.”
The criminality of the financial system and the complicity of all of the official institutions are not, however, mere aberrations or blemishes on an otherwise healthy system. They are expressions of the putrefaction and failure of the capitalist system itself. Its mortal crisis is reflected above all in the ever-greater scale of social inequality.
There is no way to break the power of the financial oligarchy outside of a mass working class movement armed with a socialist program, including the seizure of the ill-gotten wealth of the financial mafia and the nationalization of the banks and major corporations under the democratic control of the working population.
Andre Damon and Barry Grey
The authors also recommend:
JPMorgan scandal: The tip of the iceberg
[17 July 2012]
Libor scandal exposes banks’ rigging of global rates
[6 July 2012]
Monday, July 30, 2012
Four sentenced to death over $2.6bn Iran bank fraud
30 July 2012 Last updated at 14:42
Four people have been sentenced to death for their roles in Iran's biggest-ever bank fraud scandal.
Two other defendants received life sentences, while 33 more will spend up to 25 years in jail, the chief prosecutor was quoted as saying.
The scandal involved forged documents reportedly used by an investment company to secure loans worth $2.6bn.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year denied allegations that his government was involved.
The identities of the defendants have not been made public.
The case broke in September 2011 when an investment firm was accused of forging documents to obtain credit from at least seven Iranian banks over a four-year period.
The money was reportedly used to buy state-owned companies under the government's privatisation scheme.
As part of their probe, authorities froze the assets of an Iranian businessman thought to be the mastermind behind the scam.
The BBC's Sebastian Usher said the firm at the heart of the scandal had moved from a small start-up capital to being worth billions of dollars.
The affair fuelled weeks of political infighting between Mr Ahmadinejad and Iran's ruling hierarchy of clerics.
Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini scraped through an impeachment vote in November after conservative hardliners accused him of failing to take action over the fraud.
Punks vs. Putin:
How Pussy Riot Managed to Give Russia's Leader His Biggest Political Headache Yet
Photo Credit: Evgeniy Isaev via Flickr
For two very full, very long days in Moscow, I have talked constantly to people about Pussy Riot. About how, back in February, three young women from a feminist punk-rock band sang a song in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. How they were arrested, imprisoned, refused bail, and now face up to seven years in jail. How the orders for this seem to have come right from the very top of the Russian government. And how their trial – starting tomorrow – seems certain to become a defining moment in Putin's political career.
It is, many people say (practically everybody, in fact), a moment when Russia's future is, in some as yet undetermined way, being decided.
At 9pm on Thursday night, I'm at a rally of a couple of thousand anti-government protesters, hearing Pussy Riot's name being chanted in the crowd, and I think I have a grasp of the story. It's an astonishing tale of how three young women have brought Putin his biggest political headache yet. A story about art versus power. Of civil society versus church and state. Or as one film-maker who's documenting it says, "punks versus Putin". (He goes on to say, "It's Crime and Punishment, basically, but there's also a band in jail so it's a bit like The Monkees. Or a really warped Beatles film.")
I think I have it sort-of clear, and then three hours later, I'm led into a basement in an industrial art space and the story untangles. It becomes not just astonishing but absurd. Because here are Pussy Riot: in their balaclavas and brightly coloured dresses and tights, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a tiny, hot, brightly lit rehearsal room.
They're not the three young women in jail: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 – or Nadia, Masha and Katya, as they're known. Nobody has been allowed to see them. Not their husbands, families or friends. But Pussy Riot is not just three women. It's a collective of "more than 10" women, including two others who performed in the cathedral and are still at large. And all of them have vanished since the arrests. They've all gone to ground. This isn't surprising given the danger they're in. They've spent five months in hiding, waiting to see if they'll be arrested too. And this is their first interview for western media.
Although they're not the imprisoned women, they don't have to be. That's the intention of the balaclavas – they're meant to be anonymous, indivisible, representative. It doesn't matter which of them got arrested. That's the point – that they're not individuals, they're an idea. And that's the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven't before seen. An idea perpetrated by three young, educated, middle-class women, or devushki (girls), as the Russians call them.
And it's this that's the shock walking into the room. They're so young. So smiley. So nervous and bashful and embarrassed at the attention and not sure how to sit, or quite what they should and shouldn't say.
Pussy Riot aren't just the coolest revolutionaries you're ever likely to meet. They're also the nicest. They're the daughters that any parent would be proud to have. Smart, funny, sensitive, not afraid to stand up for their beliefs. One of them makes a point of telling me how "kindness" is an important part of their ideology. They have also done more to expose the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime than probably anybody else. No politician, nor journalist, nor opposition figure, nor public personality has created quite this much fuss. Nor sparked such potentially significant debate. The most amazing thing of all, perhaps – more amazing even than calling themselves feminists in the land women's rights forgot – is that they've done it with art.
How does that feel? "It feels like a unique position to be in, but at the same time it's really scary. Because it's a great responsibility. Because we are not only doing it for us, we're doing it for society," says the one called Squirrel.
Most amazingly of all, perhaps, they've done it with art and rock music. The sledgehammer that they've used to take on the great might of the Russian state? That would be the colourful clothes they dressed up in. The jumping up and down they did. The funny lyrics they wrote. The loud songs they sang. That brilliant, witty, killer name.
The outfits are cartoonish, with bright, primary colours, but the masks aren't just there to shield their faces from recognition – their anonymity is both symbolic and integral to their entire artistic vision. They all have nicknames which, they say, they swap at random: Sparrow, who is 22, Balaclava, who is by some way the eldest at 33, and Squirrel, who is just 20 years old.
"It means that really everybody can be Pussy Riot… we just show people what the people can do," says Sparrow.
"We show the brutal and cruel side of the government," says Squirrel. "We don't do something illegal. It's not illegal, singing and saying what you think."
Sparrow is painfully shy and self-conscious at first. She is worried, especially that her English isn't good enough – that she won't be able to express herself properly – and she explains how she feels when she puts on the balaclava.
"When I'm in a mask I feel a little bit like a superhero and maybe feel more power. I feel really brave, I believe that I can do everything and I believe that I can change the situation."
Balaclava interrupts. "I disagree. We are not superwomen – we are pretty ordinary women and our goal is that all women in Russia can become like this without masks."
The film battery goes at that moment. And as Khristina Narizhnaya, the Moscow-based journalist who's filming the interview, changes the battery, they collapse theatrically on the floor, laughing and breathing heavy sighs of relief. "It's so strange," says Sparrow. "Seeing Pussy Riot in the papers, and on the news and the internet. You have friends saying, 'Did you see the last action?' And you have to say, 'Yes I saw it on TV'."
Do your parents know?
"No!" says Squirrel. "My dad would kill me!"
The details are so brilliant. Do you get a call, I ask, when you're out shopping and you have to dash home and put on your balaclava?
"No," says Sparrow. "It's like Batman: you always have it with you, just in case."
Just before I went to meet Pussy Riot, I'd been listening to an interview I'd done with Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, the co-founder of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, a cultured and sophisticated man who's worked with Rem Koolhaas to devise a programme to train a generation of young people to change the physical and social landscape of the city, and whose conversation is steeped in Russian history.
It's an anxious time, he was saying. "I cannot think about anything else. I am literally thinking about it all the time. It's interesting that in a country that is so full of horrible things – bad and unjust and unfair things – the symbolism of this really stands out.
"Because they are so young. Because they have children. Because what they have done is so unimportant and silly and has all of a sudden become so huge because of this disproportionate reaction. Because it touches so strangely on so many things, and this is where it becomes an event of almost historic proportions. It touches everything: the church and the state, believers and non-believers, the judge and the tsar, and this Russian thing that never ever ends."
There's so much history in Moscow. The streets are named after writers, the metro stations revolutionaries. On practically every corner, there's a statue. Earlier in the day, I'd met Pyotr Verzilov, Nadia's husband, at a statue of Engels, near the metro station named after Kropotkin – the anarchist. The day before, the country's most influential art critic, under a bronze Pushkin. Hanging about outside the metro station Kurskaya on the way to meet the women, I glance up and notice its old name still chiselled on the roof: Metropolitan Station VI Lenin. It's a city of ghosts and echoes, where a mummified body of a revolutionary lies in a windowless bunker next to a curlicued palace built by the tsars he had plotted to overthrow. And which is now inhabited by a man who once worked for the KGB.
Russia's leaders have always understood the potency of the visual imagery of power. Of hammers and sickles. Of nuclear warheads and a well-muscled man doing manly, bare-chested outdoor pursuits. And, in the latest instance: of five young women in brightly coloured balaclavas jumping up and down in the symbolic heart of the Russian state: Red Square.
It was this "action" in January – the fourth of the five they've done so far – that first brought them to the world's attention. They formed just after Medvedev had announced that Putin would return once again as president in November. And people realised that Russia was becoming, quite simply, a dictatorship.
Miriam Elder, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, who has covered the case assiduously, met a group of them shortly afterwards, one of the very few journalists to have interviewed them. "They were just very determined. Very purposeful. Everybody was so angry at that time. But what came across was just how educated they were. How well thought out their ideas were. They quoted everybody from Simone de Beauvoir to the Ramones. It wasn't just a silly prank. There was a real message behind it."
Their concert in Red Square, which happened amid the huge public demonstrations that rocked Moscow last winter in the lead up to the elections, was so brilliant, so visually striking, so blatantly cheeky. But it was carried out at such great personal risk. A risk that became even more acute after they performed inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. A performance that led to three imprisoned women who could be jailed for up to seven years. Two of them – Nadia and Masha – have young children who they may not see grow up.
Did they have any idea of how much trouble they might get themselves in, I ask Elder.
"No, I don't think so," she says. "Though some of the things that they said slightly haunt me. Almost the last thing I said was something like, 'Aren't you scared of being arrested?' It was at the time when hundreds of people were being arrested. And one of them said, 'No, they're nicer to women, and when they throw you in the police van, you meet really cool people'.
"With hindsight, it seems obvious that something would happen to them." What do you mean? "It wasn't just performance art. It's taken things to a whole different level."
And it's that level that is so scary, that has scared so many people across Russia. "The Khodorkovsky trial [former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is now in jail] demonstrated that Putin would go after the oligarchs," says Pyotr Verzilov. It sent a very clear, unmistakable message to the oligarchs. And what the Pussy Riot trial is showing is that they'll go after anybody. Nobody is safe."
He's become the group's de facto spokesman, a slightly difficult position, given that they very carefully choose not "to assign roles" and that a strong feminist (and in Russia, utterly alien) message is at the heart of their work. He's also a key part of the creative team. He told me about the morning that he and Nadia, his wife, were arrested. "These men in suits with guns came running towards us shouting. There were around 25-30 of them shouting 'This is the FSB' and we were thrown to the floor.
"They were all wearing these expensive suits. You never see police officers looking as sophisticated as this. And then they transferred us to an expensive-looking SUV and we were taken to a police station and separated. Eight investigators arrived and we waited hours and then, from around 3-8am, I was interrogated."
Pyotr – or Peter as he calls himself to foreigners – was released. Nadia wasn't. A lot of people have suggested it's because Verzilov, who went to high school in Canada and holds dual Russian-Canadian citizenship, would pose an international problem that the Russian government doesn't want to face. "But I don't think it's that," he says. "It's just 'where do you stop?' If they try the other girls, if they try me, how many people would they try? The camera operator who was there? The AFP journalist? Where do you stop? Once you start arresting innocent people – and the police came to the church right after it happened and found no crime had been committed – where do you draw the line? Do you just start arresting everybody?"
The crime in question occurred on 21 February and took precisely 51 seconds. The five women and a film team, plus various supporters and a couple of journalists, entered the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, jumped over a gold rail, stood on the steps of the pulpit (a place where only men may stand) and performed the opening bars of a punk song. You can watch it on YouTube. It starts out as a religious hymn, then mutates into something Sex Pistols-esque, the women kneeling, genuflecting, crossing themselves, jumping up and down and, after a few seconds, being intercepted by security guards and led away.
It's not hard to see why religious believers would be shocked and offended. There's an elderly startled nun clearly visible in the video, and even if you're not a believer, the lack of respect accorded a place of worship is still pretty shocking.
After being ejected by cathedral guards, "the police came and they didn't even open a case," says Verzilov. "It was only after it appeared on YouTube under the name 'Virgin Mary Chuck Out Putin' and got all this attention – Patriarch Kirill watched it and, so the investigators told us, rang Putin and the head of the Moscow police – that it became this great big deal, that they decided that it was some sort of crime."
In the press, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called it "blasphemous", saying that the church was "under attack" and that "the devil has laughed at us".
The church's spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, said: "God condemns what they've done. I'm convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next, God revealed this to me just like he revealed the gospels to the church. There's only one way out: repentance."
A warrant was issued for "hooliganism" and, two weeks later, the three women and Verzilov were arrested. Nothing has been usual about the case. Nikolai Polozov, one of their lawyers, says that there's been a blatant disregard for due process: the imprisonment without trial; the refusal of bail; the lack of time they have to prepare the case.
Amnesty International has declared them Prisoners of Conscience. And Polozov says that "several key events point to the fact that the Kremlin is involved", not least blanket coverage on federal TV channels designed "to ruin the reputation of my defendants. Only one person, or people close to him, can do that."
In another extreme step, the trial, which starts tomorrow, will be streamed live on the internet. It's a move designed to give the appearance of transparency, Polozov says, but will actually have the reverse effect, allowing them to exclude press from the very small courtroom, and at contentious moments to simply "lose the feed".
What's not in dispute is that Pussy Riot did cause offence. But that was the point. "The church of Christ the Saviour was chosen for very specific, symbolic reasons," says Verzilov. "It was blown up by Stalin to show his power against the church and in the 60s was turned into a swimming pool."
And then the Soviet Union collapsed. "And Moscow's first post-Soviet mayor, Luzhkov, decided to rebuild the cathedral. At that time, in the early 90s, the most successful commercial enterprise in the country was organised crime, and he said I need $1bn and whoever doesn't pay is going to jail.
"It became a very important governmental symbol. And it's supposed to be the most sacred place in Russia. But it's very commercialised: there's a massive parking garage under it, and banqueting halls you can hire out for $10,000 a day.
"More than this, though, is how the church has started to act as if it is the propaganda wing of the government. Before the election, Patriarch Kirill said that it was 'un-Christian' to demonstrate. And then he said that Putin had been placed at the head of the government 'by God'. No one was talking about this before. And now everybody is."
Everybody is talking about it. Andrei Yerofeyev, one of the most respected curators of modern art in Russia, who in 2010 was himself tried (and found guilty) on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred by staging a show called Forbidden Art, compares it to Iran. To Saudi Arabia. He sees it, as many do, as the beginnings of a Christian fundamentalism. "They want to control culture. They want to control everything. People have great respect for the church. They fought the communists. The priests were persecuted. But this trial? It shows that the church is untouchable."
Others have called it Russia's Dreyfus affair. The anti-Pussy Riot propaganda on the main government-run TV channels (ie all of them) has been relentless. The opinion voiced by one of the prosecution lawyers a telling illustration of how they've been portrayed. The women are being controlled by "the global government", they say, who ultimately are themselves controlled "by Satan".
But the tide is turning. It's the severity of the penalty that has shocked most Russians. Even conservative, religious Russians who thought their act was silly or offensive. Very few defendants are imprisoned pre-trial. Certainly not ones with young children accused of non-violent crimes. More than 200 well-known public people signed an open letter condemning the trial, including many Putin supporters, and another 41,000 rank-and-file Russians have added their signatures.
And when I go to take a look around the cathedral and speak to some middle-aged women in headscarves leaving after prayers, they all think it was awful, disrespectful, inappropriate and deserving of punishment. But even the most hardline of them, who thinks they should be punished for their other "crimes" (their previous performances), turns down the corner of her mouth and shakes her head when Khristina translates my question about the possible seven-year sentence. And even I, with my odd scrags of Russian, understand her reply. "Trudna," she keeps on saying. "Ne znayo." It's difficult. I don't know.
Just a few hours before meeting Pussy Riot, I'd seen a very small example of the Russian state's apparatus of repression. The massed police vans and armoured vehicles that were parked in streets around where the demo was scheduled to take place. The phalanxes of officers marching through a neighbouring square.
Earlier that day, I'd arranged to meet Pyotr Verzilov at a cafe. He doesn't show up. I text. I call. He carries two mobiles with him at all times and is constantly taking calls from TV stations, journalists and campaigners. "We're trying to get Sting to wear a Pussy Riot T-shirt at his concert tonight," he'd told me the day before. (Sting did not wear the T-shirt but he did call for the band's release). Franz Ferdinand and Red Hot Chili Peppers had both already come out in support.
And they were "reaching out to Madonna", who's due to play in Moscow next month. He's engaged in all aspects of a modern political campaign: monitoring Twitter streams, tweeting news, updating the Facebook site. I assume something has come up. Before I arrive in Moscow, I talk at length to two British documentary makers who have been filming the trial, and one of them warns me to "be prepared to do a lot of waiting. They're just under so much pressure".
He'd also told me that Verzilov "will blow your head off. It's phenomenal that he's only 25. It's just the most incredible story. It's just so rock'n'roll. It really is punk. What they did was as shocking as what the Sex Pistols did. Maybe more so. Because it was against this dictator. It's punks against Putin."
It is also so incredibly visual: the women sit in a cage in the middle of the court. They're all attractive, "but Nadia, she looks like she's in a perfume ad or something. They're all so cool, but you should see Nadia walk into court in her handcuffs. It's an incredible sight. She's like Simone de Beauvoir. I'm romanticising a bit, but she's Simone de Beauvoir. And Peter is Russia's Sartre."
And there's a reason Verzilov misses my appointment, it transpires. An hour or so later, I get a text. "Carole! I was suddenly taken today at 8.30am to the investigative committee by a team of officers and they took my phone and all my personal things."
When we finally meet, he shrugs it off, though when I take him to a cafe, he eats like a horse. "You look tired," I say. "Well, you know, four hours of interrogation…" What sort of questions do they ask. "You know. When did you meet with foreign governments?" Do they really believe that? "They try very hard to make the Russian public believe that."
He wants to know what everyone has been saying to me. What did Ekaterina Degot say, he asks? She's probably Russia's most influential art critic. "She said what you were doing was incredible. That it's going to change Russian history. That there is no question that what you are doing is art and that no Russian artist has brought about this much change, ever," I say.
And Artemy Troitsky, Russia's foremost rock critic? "That three girls might be the ones to break the spine of a tyrant." He looks pleased. But then, Pussy Riot are musicians and artists, and some are members of a group called Voina, Russia's most outrageous performance artists, whose work included painting a massive penis on a bridge opposite the FSB headquarters in St Petersburg ("Dick Captured by FSB"), and staging an orgy in a museum on the eve of Medvedev's election in 2008 ("Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear"), and who captured the imagination of Banksy among others – he sent £80,000 to support them when two of their members were arrested and imprisoned. But they're activists first and foremost.
"How is Peter?" Ekaterina Degot asks me. Worried for Nadia, I say, and their four-year-old daughter, Gera. But not displeased about the situation. "I understand this well. They have the mentality of activists. The more attention they get the better it is. The more effective they are being."
Degot was on the jury that awarded Voina the biggest prize in Russian art. And Katya, one of the imprisoned women, is a student of hers. What will happen next, I ask her? "I don't know. But it can't continue. Putin can't continue. In a year, I am sure we will see a different country, though I'm not sure it will be a better country."
But it's the words of Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, the co-founder of the Strelka, that echo most in my ears. In Russian history, he says, there's an old tradition of mad, half-witted saints. "This idea that it's only the crazy, half-witted fool who can tell the truth to the nation and to power. There is something that all Russians know even if they're not aware of it. In Russia, you never call it St Basil's Cathedral, it's Vasily Blazhenny, Vassily the Mad. And this is what these girls are. The truth-tellers to the Russian nation."
We're sitting at a table in Strelka while he tells me this, a beautifully designed space right opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, scene of the crime. "I remember swimming in that pool as a child. And sometimes, I have a feeling that in another 70 years the pool will have to be restored. And we will live through this endless cycle of destroying the churches and then rebuilding them."
It's extraordinary what Pussy Riot have done. How they have taken feminism to one of the most macho countries on Earth. How they have revealed the faultlines at the heart of the Russian state, the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime. It's hard to reconcile that with the women I met, with their skinny shoulders and thin wrists and lack of any weaponry bar guts and wit. The word absurd has been worn thin with use, but there's no other way to describe what is happening in Russia today.
"Putin is scared of us, can you imagine?" says Squirrel. "Scared of girls."
"It was just a prayer. A very special prayer," says Sparrow.
"The most important dictator, Putin, is really afraid of people," says Squirrel. More specifically, he's afraid of Pussy Riot. Afraid of a bunch of young, positive, optimistic women unafraid to speak their minds."
Carole Cadwalladr grew up in Wales and is now a features writer for the Observer. Her first novel, The Family Tree, was published in 2006.