A favourite festival

What I love about May-day is the sheer number of meanings, stacked over each other. “Police vs. Punks” has been top of the deck in Berlin since annual riots became a Mayday calendar fixture in the 1980s. Numerically larger but less prominent are the marches of trade unionists and political parties, and a free music festival attempts to divert people’s attention. Below it all are the spring festivities of Beltane, Walpurgisnacht and the like.

The interplay between those meanings isn’t a side-note; it’s what makes the festival. It’s a day for anarchists and trade unionists, hippies and organizers, [spontaneity and organization](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Luxemburg#Dialectic_of_Spontaneity_and_Organisation). Political may-day grew out of the campaign for an 8-hour day, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Organized from above as a limited political protest, it absorbed from below a tangle of quasi-religious meaning, drawn from folk customs and the unfulfilled desire for a workers’ festival. Events could take place under the dual banners “Proletarians of all lands, unite” and “Love one another”; red flags and red flowers were jointly symbols.

By the same token, the idea of a sensible protest being disrupted by a violent minority doesn’t wash. Much of what started the demonstrations was police violence: French police [killed](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourmies,_Nord) eight peaceful protesters on May 1, 1891; five years earlier many had been killed by a bomb at a protest or by the police response in Chicago. The murkiness of the latter is utterly familiar; it’s unclear who threw the bomb, but four anarchists were nonetheless executed for it. I’m no great fan of “playing chicken with pigs” as a form of protest, but it’s no strange hijacking of something otherwise calm.

This year, the German media have spent several months hyping the destructive side of the demonstrations, egging on the car-bombers with their lurid outrage, predicting that the recession will make the whole event bigger and more destructive. Maybe they’re right; hype is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Personally I’ll be avoiding the riots and letting my hippie side hang out for a day.

[the historical bits here have largely been yoinked from [Hobsbawm](http://www.ata.boun.edu.tr/asistanlar/hist551/w11/Hobsbawm_Ranger_the%20invention%20of%20tradition.pdf)]

Idioms of protest

Somebody [flings a shoe](http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7787792.stm) at George Bush. A [Cambridge](http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5643558.ece) student follows his lead, and misses Wen Jiabao. The idea catches on in [India](http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Now-a-shoe-thrown-at-Chidambaram/articleshow/4369381.cms) and [Ukraine](http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=79054&sectionid=351020606). By now activists are planning target practice (all those misses are pretty embarrassing), the paranoids have started questioning whether Zaidi was a “lone shoeman”, and [shoe-throwing](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoe_throwing) has become a recognizable idiom of protest.

It’s not a bad model for how protests take shape. A successful new idea is replicated everywhere, often with more concern for imitation than effectiveness. Over time it becomes increasingly ritualistic and ‘symbolic’, until eventually somebody comes along to cut through the crap. Protest, like the rest of politics, works through analogy and institutional momentum more than through reason.

I’m not complaining. Repetitive protests give the rest of society at least a fighting chance of figuring out what the hell is going on, and even to respect them. If you hesitate to cross a picket line, it’s because you know what a picket line is. It’s a shame when ineffective forms of protest become dominant, but that’s just the price we pay for lack of imagination.

Mainly, I’m intrigued by the history of protest techniques. South Asia, for example, clearly favours some styles which are less common in Europe. Other forms are dictated by the behaviour of the authorities. British protesters can let themselves be arrested, with only a small risk of being mistreated by the police. In Greece or Russia, only the foolhardy play chicken with the cops. Forget the causes they’re advancing; I want to read the story of how protesters make themselves heard.

In Brief

No time to write a real post today. Instead:

* something cheery: parts of the Aral Sea, which once looked as though it would be wiped out completely by water mismanagement, are [making a comeback](http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav042409.shtml)

* something bizarrely cyberpunk: [Brazilians](http://www.wired.com/politics/security/news/2009/04/fleetcom?currentPage=all) have been breaking into old US military satellites, and using them as ersatz orbital CB relays

* something thoughtful: [Eliane Glaser](http://newhumanist.org.uk/289) in the New Humanist, arguing that Snow’s ‘two cultures’ (science and the humanities, unable to talk to one another) are outmoded, and now we’re back to science vs. religion

Religion in the slums

The case for religion tends to be much more convincing than the case for belief. Mike Davis, author of _Planet of Slums_, plans to discuss Pentecostalism in his next book. Meanwhile, he [says](http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2006/05/interview-with-mike-davis-part-2.html):

>For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.

Far from being an escapist _sigh of the oppressed_, this is religion as a pragmatic way of dealing with the surrounding world. As [Eliza Griswold](http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/nigeria) writes in a piece on religion in Nigeria:

>Pentecostalism has updated Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic for the 21st century. Pentecostals do not drink, gamble, or engage in extramarital sex; so all of that formerly illicit energy can go into either business or education.

Grey as that life may sound, I can’t fault it as a route out of the slums.

It would be nice to have a secular alternative with as much force as religion gets by making up stories, but I can’t see it happening yet. Meanwhile I’ll keep on looking, forlornly, for a godless cult to join.

22 years’ jail for breaking Iraq sanctions

Life gets pretty unpleasant for people falsely accused of terrorism: once the authorities have publicised somebody as a terrorist, it becomes embarrassing to see them walk free. The lucky ones find [support from the community](http://www.sidalidonations.net/about.php) and grudging government acceptance that they have at least some rights. Others, like Rafil Dhafir, find themselves hounded for anything the authorities can pin on them

Dhafir is an Iraqi-American doctor. He is currently serving 22 years in an American jail, confined to a ‘[communications management unit](http://www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/communication-management-units-mcgowan/1747/)’ that severely restricts his contact with the outside world. The US government thinks of him as a terrorist, and ‘[counts](http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2005/December/05_opa_641.html)’ his imprisonment as a success in the War on Terror.

But Dhafir has never been so much as charged with terrorism. He was instead convicted of sending money to Iraq, in violation of sanctions. He claims the money was for charitable purposes, and nobody seems to deny this.

[Sanctions on Iraq](http://www.casi.org.uk/) were one of the most bone-headedly counter-productive policies of recent years. Variously intended to contain Iraq, force it to dismantle its WMD programs, or force Saddam from power, they in fact only managed to harm the weakest in Iraq (to the tune of several hundred thousand deaths), while strengthening the regime. But forget that breaking this law is far more honourable than obeying it, and you still bang up against the length of the sentence. 22 years?! When [other sanctions-breaking attempts](http://www.rdrop.com/~/vitwpdx/vitwpdxnews052102.html) went unpunished, and comparable fraud offence rarely carry anything like this sentence? This is a sentence that makes no sense — except on a political level.

Dai Qing

One name mentioned repeatedly, and respectfully, mentioned in China Pop is that of journalist [Dai Qing](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dai_Qing) (戴晴). Dai has written on many topics, including a book on the Three Gorges dam, which got her briefly jailed in the aftermath of Tiananmen. More recently she has criticized the Beijing Olympics, and is one of the signatories of [Charter 08](http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22210)

Trying to track down her work on the internet, I end up with:

  • A blog apparently once here, but now seemingly only available from archive.org
  • A handful of newspaper columns from the start of this decade
  • A profile of Dai from the Wall Street Journal (one of many, but mostly telling the same story so I’ll stick with listing one)

Book: Energy Flash

Simon Reynolds. [Energy Flash](http://energyflashinfohype.blogspot.com/), a journey through rave music and dance culture. 1998.

Reynolds’ history of ‘rave music and dance culture’ attracted me primarily in an anthropological way, as a loving report from an alien subculture. It’s helpful that Reynolds’ sympathies match mine. An intellectual left-liberal, and a believer in spritual and social progress through counter-culture, he drenches raveculture in his own aspirations

‘What the London pirate stations and the free parties conjured up was the sense of rave as a vision quest. Both transformed mundane Britain, its dreary metropolitan thoroughfares and placid country lanes, into a cartography of adventure and forbidden pleasures’ [xviii]

‘While rock relates an experience (autobiographical or imaginary), rave _constructs_ an experience. Bypassing interpretation, the listener is hurled into a vortex of heightened sensations, abstract emotions and artificial energies’ [xix]

Similarly, he shares the natural doubts. Coming into electronic music from years submerged in post-punk, he worries that ecstasy alone can’t save the world:

Is rave simply about the dissipation of utopian energies into the void or does the idealism it catalyses spill over into and transform ordinary life? Can the oceanic, ‘only connect!’ feelings experienced on the dancefloor be integrated into everyday struggles to be ‘better at being human’?

But the socio-political analysis doesn’t get out of hand: most of the book is filled with descriptions of the music; Reynolds somehow manages powerful and varied descriptions of music, without the ability to fall back to the crutch of describing the lyrics.

My only disappointment was how parochial Reynolds’ approach is. The cover doesn’t make it clear, but this is primarily an exploration of rave culture in the UK. Detroit and Chicago do get a chapter largely to themselves, but there is very little exploration of the european scene. Eurodisco, EBM and the like are more-or-less ignored.

The land grab of 2008

[GRAIN](http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=212) reports on what happens when a food crisis meets an economic crisis, and is given a healthy shove by government policies:

>On the one hand, “food insecure” governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated.

They’ve also been obsessively collecting [news clippings](http://farmlandgrab.blogspot.com/) to back up their case.

From the magazines

I don’t normally like human-interest articles, but occasionally journalists are skillful enough to win over even skeptics like me.

First, [Rebecca Skloot](http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/magazine/04Creatures-t.html) on ‘service animals’

>people often find it hard to believe that the United States government is considering a proposal that would force Edie and many others like her to stop using their service animals. But that’s precisely what’s happening, because a growing number of people believe the world of service animals has gotten out of control: first it was guide dogs for the blind; now it’s monkeys for quadriplegia and agoraphobia, guide miniature horses, a goat for muscular dystrophy, a parrot for psychosis and any number of animals for anxiety, including cats, ferrets, pigs, at least one iguana and a duck.

Then, two from Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post. One is a [recent tear-jerker](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701549_pf.html) on children killed by being left in cars:

>”Death by hyperthermia” is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.

>Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

Then – without much deeper meaning, just a great portrait – on children’s entertainer [The Great Zucchini](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/18/AR2006011801434.html):

>The Great Zucchini actually does magic tricks, but they are mostly dime-store novelty gags — false thumbs to hide a handkerchief, magic dust that turns water to gel — accompanied by sleight of hand so primitive your average 8-year-old would suss it out in an instant. That’s one reason he has fashioned himself a specialist in ages 2 to 6. He behaves like no adult in these preschoolers’ world, making himself the dimwitted victim of every gag. He thinks a banana is a telephone, and answers it. He can’t find the birthday boy when the birthday boy is standing right behind him. Every kid in the room is smarter than the Great Zucchini; he gives them that power over their anxieties.