Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve

The Sun Sets on 2007
from my back porch. 
(Squint and you can see the Golden Gate Bridge)
From my bedroom window.

Happy New Year everyone. More posts in 2008.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bah Humbug

Christmas itself being inescapable, I decided to at least flee the city.
I drove down to the Central Valley with a friend from the Documentary Film program.  As a shooting day, it was a bit of a disaster. He was hoping for footage of the state mental hospital in Atascadero, but, as it turned out, we couldn't film on site and couldn't get a decent angle from off site.

Not exactly worth eight hours in the car.  For me though, it was a nice little escape and a chance to see some parts of California I've never seen before. 

I've also gained a new appreciation for the difficulty of working with film. It's a powerful, accessible medium, but having to work with an enormous camera creates a set of difficulties that people working with print never have to deal with.  I can work just by looking around and writing things down later. At most, I need a small recorder and a still camera. It's easy to be discreet in a way that's completely impossible for film, and the quality of your work depends completely on your skill as a reporter and storyteller, and not at all on your equipment.  

I love watching other people's films. But I think I'm too attached to traveling light, being mobile and fast, to ever make them myself.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


People keep asking me if I’m going home for Christmas, and I never know exactly what to say. The simple answer is that my family isn’t Christian, which is generally enough to stop that particular line of inquiry dead in its tracks. But the more complicated answer is that, really, I don’t even have any idea where “home” would be.

If I close my eyes and think about the concept, the first image that comes to mind is a wooden gate my parents installed at the top of the stairs when I was little to keep my brother, sister and I from tumbling down in the dark.

That house is still there, but the gate is not, the people who live at the top of those stairs are strangers, and the neighborhood outside has changed beyond recognition. I’ve been back there a few times in the past years, and felt nothing but disorientation.

I would love to visit my parents, but it would be just that – a visit, to see them, in an unfamiliar city that holds no other attractions.  The rest of the people I love, friends and family both, are scattered throughout the various cities, countries, continents I’ve lived in over the years.

There’s a freedom in rootlessness, I suppose. I have no home-baggage tied around my neck, no particular place I’m bound to more than any other by love or by obligation. I remember years when I would happily call any city home if somewhere in it, I had a bed with sheets on it, a key to get to that bed any time I wanted, and a bicycle of my own. My material needs might have increased a bit (it’s hard to imagine being separated from my books, for example) but nothing fundamental has changed. I’m free to go anywhere I please and make a life for myself, follow my work and my desires anywhere they lead me.

But there’s something about this time of year that makes me a little jealous of those who have the security of a home and a neighborhood they will always belong in.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Head, Body and Feet; or, what I've been doing with my life

I'm pretty sure only one person will really appreciate this (and you will very quickly know who you are, my friend) but since I've been too busy and burned out to do any extra-curricular writing these last few days, I figured I'd post this:

One of the most common critiques of Rizal’s narrative of nationalism comes from left-leaning academics, who charge Rizal with elitism. Renato Constantino, for example, argues that while Rizal spoke in good faith about human rights and human dignity and used the language of universal ideals, he was essentially “voicing the goals of his class.”[1] He may have condemned the exploitation of peasants at the hands of encomenderos and friars, the argument goes, but did not question the underlying morality of social stratification.  A close reading of Rizal’s annotations in the Morga supports this analysis.  He seems genuinely outraged by the exploitation of peasants at hands of encomenderos and friars; yet while he decries the “tyranny of the oppressor” against the “poor class,” he does not question the existence of class itself. [2] Most tellingly, when de Morga explains the traditional constellation of Philippine classes as principales, plebians and slaves, Rizal simply concurs. “This is the eternal division one finds, and will find (in the future) everywhere, in all kingdoms and republics: ruling class, productive class, and servant class: head, body and feet.”[3]  It is, to say the least, difficult to imagine Rizal aspired to a sense of deep horizontal comradeship with someone he describes as being, eternally, a foot.

[1] Renato Constantino, Dissent and Counter-Consciousness (Quezon City: Malaya Books, Inc., 1970) p.135.

[2] Rizal-Morga, p. 300, referring here to Catholicism’s failure to liberate the poor.

[3] Ibid, 297, n. 2. “Esta es la division eterna que se encuentra y se encontrara en todas partes, en todos los reinos y republicas: clase dominadora, clase productora y clase servil: cabeza, cuerpo y pies.” In other notes, Rizal gives considerable attention to the question of slavery, generally condemning the practice, but noting that slavery in the Philippines was benign compared to European systems, and could more accutately be described as debt-bondage. (see footnotes p. 294.295)


I should note, also, that I got a chance to slag off Ileto, although I had to confine it to a footnote.  Let's just say I have convincing evidence that he never read the Morga. 

Did we ever have lives?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Death Squads and International Norms

I've been thinking quite a bit about death squads today -- mostly because of an interesting article by Greg Grandin I read this morning, but also partly because of correspondence with friends from Davao, partly because it's a change from working on papers, and partly because I am clearly a somewhat disturbed person.

In the article I've linked to above, Grandin does a good job of explaining the role that death squads, which he defines as "[c]landestine paramilitary units, nominally independent from established security agencies yet able to draw on the intelligence and logistical capabilities of those agencies," play in state terror campaigns to suppress dissidence.

I think, though, that he misses a key point about death squads: the role that international norms play in creating them. I've only ever come across one book that seriously engages this question, Bruce Campbell and Arthur Brennar's Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability. With apologies for academic-ese, the book's central argument can be summed up as follows:
Bruce Campbell poses one central question regarding the global phenomenon of death squads and vigilantism: following a Weberian conception, statehood is defined by the monopolization of the legitimate use of coercive force within a given territory. Why then, have so many states compromised this monopoly on force, devolving coercive power to private, extra-state forces by offering formal or tacit support to death squads and vigilante groups?

Drawing on literature on state violence, Campbell attempts to situate this devolution of force within the bounds of rational, conventional state behavior, arguing that subcontracting violence may be a state’s best, or only, available means of dealing with an internal threat.

As Ted Robert Gurr suggests, state violence is a response to “the existence of a class, group, or party that the ruling elite sees as a threat to its continued rule.” However, most modern states are constrained by both international and domestic laws and organizations, rendering full-scale, overt state repression a political impossibility. Death squads and vigilante groups, then, fill this gap, allowing states to orchestrate the violent suppression of dissident groups while retaining plausible deniability nationally and globally.
(from a paper I wrote last Spring, which then challenges aspects of this theory, at least as it applies to the Philippines, by introducing the element of personalistic politics, but that's more than I care to get into at the moment)
Essentially, death squads exist where external pressure makes overt state repression politically impracticable. In this sense, they represent one of the greatest failures of the "international community," which has a history of making an enormous fuss about state sponsored violence, while quietly tolerating extra- or quasi- state violence.

A case in point would be the Philippines during the Marcos era. The early period of the Marcos dictatorship was marked by mass arrests of Marcos' political opponents. These arrests were conducted overtly, generated paperwork, and were undeniably tied to the central state's policies. Consequently, foreign governments who cooperated with Marcos were compelled to censure him for his excesses.

In response, Marcos made a tactical shift to quasi-state repression. Instead of having dissidents arrested by the police and put in prison, he had them kidnapped by death squads, and disappeared or salvaged [tortured to death and left for public display]. This was clearly not a move that improved the human rights situation in the country, but it allowed Marcos to deny responsibility for abuses, a contention those who wished to collaborate with him -- including, let's not forget, Jimmy "
the Carter Doctrine" Carter -- were happy to accept.

The Arroyo administration is, of course, another example. At the same time Arroyo is (to say the very least) tolerating hundreds of murders by death squads, she is being celebrated, in some quarters, for official policies she claims seek to curtail such violence.
By pressuring states to distance themselves from abuse while failing to combat the underlying political and social conditions that create it, the "international community" creates the conditions in which death squads thrive.

So fine, condemn death squads. Of course they should be condemned. Just... don't get too comfortable about it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Winter 2001: Minnehaha falls, frozen. Me, so acclimated I'm not even wearing gloves.
I'm not going to pretend there aren't things about California that make me want to spit nails. People, for example, who actually think talking about chakras is a reasonable way to chat me up. Or endless discussions about feelings that never actually seem to result in people saying what they're feeling. Or being asked what my spirit animal is (actually, that happened in Washington, but you get the idea).

Numerous other things reconfirm that, at least when it comes to interpersonal communication, I'm East Coast to the core.

But then I read about the crazy ice storms gripping the Midwest, and remember the terrible things Midwestern winters did to my head, and realize how much worse I could have it. Which, come to think of it, is one of the few things the Midwest is consistently good for.

I'm trying to make a point of spending some time everyday barefoot on my backporch, looking at the hills across the bay, and appreciating civilized weather.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bloke Metges update

More details about the Bloke Metges eviction:
(via old friends from Euskadi and Catalunya who I ran into on the street in Berkeley, proving that this is, indeed, a small world.)
Cooking up free pizza in the wood-burning oven at Metges, 2002

I was pleased to hear that it took hours for the police to get into the building, partly because the door was well barricaded, and partly because a crowd of neighbors gathered in the street and tried to prevent the police from approaching the building.

When the police finally did break their way in, they blocked the windows so people outside couldn't see what was happening, then beat up everyone who was inside.  On a slightly better note, nobody was hospitalized, or arrested. 

Two days later, the building was temporarily reoccupied to host a farewell party in the pizzeria and cafe located on the ground floor.  

Friday, December 07, 2007

Arroyo receives human rights award. Seriously.

President Arroyo was just awarded the "Medalla de Oro" from Universidad de Alcala in Spain, in recognition of her work to improve the human rights situation in the Philippines.
This makes me, quite literally, feel sick.
Yes, she abolished the death penalty. But to me, that seems a little irrelevant when she has condoned hundreds of extrajudicial executions.
This is the woman who has presided over the worst resurgence of torture, illegal detainment and extrajudicial murder the Philippines has seen since the Marcos dictatorship. The woman who is so bad she almost makes you miss Estrada, who was disgusting and corrupt but at least not on a campaign to murder the entire left.  The woman who is currently facing censure from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN SR on extrajudicial executions for her absolutely appalling human rights record. The woman whose regime is so obviously complicit in human rights abuses that even the US Senate has felt the need to make (a little tiny portion of) aid contingent on her cleaning up her act. 
As for Arroyo's claim that there are 100 cases involving extrajudicial killings being prosecuted, that is, to the best of my knowledge which is pretty damned good on this subject, a bald-faced lie.
And I can't believe she had the nerve to take credit for constituting the Melo Comission and "following its recommendations" when she has absolutely failed to take responsibility for the fairly damning conclusions of the Commission's initial report, and continues to block release of the final version.
I have yet to read anything that gives any clue as to what the people who chose to give Arroyo this award were thinking. It is either shockingly ignorant or shockingly sinister. I'm not sure which is worse.

This would make me absolutely livid on any day. The fact that it comes just as I've finished revisions on my paper on impunity in the post-Marcos Philippines -- a process in which  I've been consumed with rereading my own work, interviews I conducted over the last 2 years, and countless reports like the ones I've provided links for above -- is pushing me over the edge.

Did I mention that this makes me sick?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

It's that time of the semester again...

Continuing my series of desk portraits, here is the wreckage of my desk as I near the home stretch of a marathon last-minute paper revising session:

It may not be a system of organization that works for anyone else, but I seem to have done alright for myself with it so far.
Now, if I can just stop procrastinating and find 2000 more words I can get rid of without undermining my thesis before my eyes totally give out, I may just be through with writing about impunity in the Philippines forever. 
Well, probably not forever, but I feel like a nice long break is in order.
I am so ready for the semester to be over.

UPDATE @ 2:30: Oh, it hurts, it hurts! Every line in this paper represents hours of research and writing. The fat's trimmed off, so is a lot of the meat. I'm starting to hit bone.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Bloke Metges evicted

Free community bicycle shop in CSO Metges, 2003

CSO (Squatted Social Center) Metges  in el Forat de la Vergonya in Barcelona was evicted after 6 years. 4 people (and I don't yet know who) were beaten up in the process.

The eviction happened Tuesday morning, though I've only now gotten the news. 
This house was one of my most beloved homes, and an amazing center for resistance and organizing for the whole neighborhood.

My heart is truly broken.

Breakfast at Metges, 2003
More images
Spanish language story on the eviction. Sorry, best I could do. At least it's not Catalan.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


I'm experimenting with some new features here.
A account makes sense for me because I switch so frequently between computers and browsers that it's nice to store bookmarks in a centralized location. It also gives the option of sharing links publicly -- which I've done here, in hopes that even when I don't have time or energy, (or anything of particular  interest) to write, I can still have some new content, and offer links (sometimes with comments if you actually go the the page for my account) to things I find useful, interesting or disturbing.
(Plus, it offers a fun, slightly creepy element of voyeurism for you all)
There's also a the new flickr badge, which shows the most recent pictures I've posted.  And probably more to come. The point in the semester has arrived where I have more and more work to do, and less and less will to do it, so devoting attention to extracurricular projects has been quite appealing lately.