Tag Archives: Guardian

ANewDomain.net Cartoon: The NSA’s “Star Wars” Fantasy

When he was running the U.S. Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, NSA leader General Keith Alexander had architects design an “Intelligence Dominance Center” in full-on “Star Trek” geek mode, like the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Check out my cartoon about it at ANewDomain.net.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Failure of Tahrir Square 2011

Not a Revolution, Just a Useless Protest

Two years ago, when I was in the Occupy movement, my comrades and I argued about revolution. Was revolution necessary? What is it? The split that destroyed our movement — as it did the Left during the Sixties — pitted revolutionaries against reformists. The most frustrating part of the debate, however, wasn’t ideological. It was linguistic.

Even on the Left, few Americans know what revolution is: the violent overthrow of the ruling classes. In a revolution, everything — beginning with the power structure — changes.

The Tahrir Square encampments that led to the ouster of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak were a huge influence on Occupy. But we couldn’t agree about what they meant. Was Tahrir a “revolution”?

No doubt, the 2011 Arab Spring was a powerful mass movement. Everyone agreed about that. For reformists — people who want to fix the system rather than replace it — Tahrir Square was a perfect example to emulate: a peaceful people-power transition that changed things for the better without shedding blood. Cut-and-paste the same phenomenon from Cairo to the United States — convince millions of peaceful demonstrators to camp out in American cities to demand change — and you’d get similarly dramatic results, reformist Occupiers urged. “Egypt had a peaceful revolution,” they said.

Revolutionaries — people who want to get rid of the existing system and start from scratch — countered that the Arab Spring uprisings were not revolutions at all and were thus insufficent. “Tunisia and Egypt,” I said, “were merely personnel changes.” The system, the way society, politics and the economy are organized, remained unchanged.

As recent events prove, the resignation of a president does not a revolution make.

In all the ways that matter, post-Mubarak Egypt remains the same. Those who were rich before are still rich; the same-old poor are the brand-new poor. Egypt’s generals, awash in billions of barely-audited American taxdollars and high-tech military hardware, continue to call the shots.

Egypt’s military brass is a canny lot. Corrupt and autocratic, they tack left and right along with the winds on the dusty streets. When Tahrir got big, they called back their rapists of demonstrators and told Hosni it was time to take a powder. When Mohammed Morsi won the election, they golf-clapped — until Mo’s numbers fell. Then it was his turn to vanish into house arrest.

The crowds in Tahrir cheered as fighter jets streaked overhead. Applauding their own oppressors.

Fools.

The proles get their concession. The figurehead performer everyone thinks runs the show, the big star who plays Mr. President on TV, gets fired after he turns stale. Yet, no matter how chaotic the politics, regardless of how much blood flows (spilled by projectiles made in the U.S.A.), the real bosses — the military, their business cronies, the publishers and owners of state media outlets — remain in charge.

Which now is plain as day.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Morsi in a coup that dare not speak its name (in Western countries, whose quaint 20th century human rights laws would otherwise require the severing of lucrative weapons contracts that benefit major campaign donors), has apparently gotten so caught up in the serious business of slaughtering members of the Muslim Brotherhood that he’s completely forgotten to pay lip service to restoring democracy.

In the ultimate symbol of restoration (or feeling so confident they feel free to tip their hand), the military’s old friend/employee Mubarak is out of prison and may soon be released.

As two visiting U.S. senators recently witnessed firsthand, power has gone to al-Sisi’s telegenic little head. This isn’t a crackdown, but rather an attempt to grind the Muslim Brotherhood into oblivion. Al-Sisi’s soldiers have arrested the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, on brazenly trumped-up charges. And his fellow coup leaders are gearing up for a fascist-style ban of the party — another return to the Mubarak era.

As usual, Western liberals are smart enough to foresee future blowback from the Egyptian junta’s brutal campaign. “Attempts to exclude a party with the level of support recently secured by the Muslim Brotherhood will simply prolong Egypt’s agony. That is a tragic lesson from the history of Algeria in the 1990s,” Douglas Alexander writes in The Guardian.

Also as usual, Western liberals are too stupid to push for a stronger remedy than wouldn’t-it-be-nice hoping things will magically feel guilty and stop mass murdering. “The Muslim Brotherhood needs the opportunity,” Alexander continues, “to ‘get out of the streets and into the voting booth.’ Yet to do so, its supporters must believe there is a viable democratic path.”

Which of course there isn’t.

Which brings us back to Tahrir Square 2011. What should Egypt’s proto-Occupiers have done instead?

If their goal was actual change rather than new window-dressing, the protesters at Tahrir shouldn’t have settled for a personnel change at the pseudo-top. Mubarak’s departure wasn’t enough.

If you want to eliminate oppression, you must eliminate the oppressors. In Egypt, that would have meant rounding up every major official in the military as well as the government, and seizing control of the nation’s economy. Everyone who was anyone, rich and/or powerful, should have been imprisoned.

This would, of course, have required violence.

Revolution isn’t pretty. But as we’re seeing now in Egypt, neither is the alternative.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: How to Save Books

Why E-Books Need Print to Thrive

Borders and Barnes & Noble killed independent bookstores. Amazon killed Borders. Now Barnes & Noble, which sells more than 20 percent of pulp-and-ink books in the U.S., is under siege.

If B&N collapses: the death of books.

Cultural apocalypse.

Neo-feudalism.

You may remember such classics as “How the Internet Slaughtered Newspapers” and “How Napster Decimated the Music Business.” It’s always the same story: Digitalization destroys profits.

Whether it’s newspapers, magazines, CDs or books (“pBooks,” they call them now), the electronic assault on tangible media follows a familiar pattern.

First: Pricing is set too low; margins get squeezed.

I pay $43 a month to get The New York Times delivered; new digital-only subscribers get the app for $5. In the book biz per-unit net to publishers is actually a few cents higher for e-books. But that margin is deceptive. “If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies,” notes the Times. E-books also eliminate paperback editions, a big second chance for publishers to break into the black.

Second: Piracy runs rampant.

Piracy of print media was virtually unheard of. But digitalization makes piracy tough for even the most honest consumer to resist. It’s easy and it’s fast. E-book knock-offs look and feel exactly the same as the real thing. As of the end of 2011 an estimated 20 percent of all e-books downloaded onto Kindles, Nooks and iPads were pirated. That’s a 20 percent pay cut to authors, agents and publishers—a number that will only go up.

And “legal piratization” is on the horizon. On February 6th a federal court in New York City ruled that ReDigi, an online marketplace for “pre-owned” MP3 files, can continue to operate pending the outcome of a lawsuit by Capitol Records. And public libraries are already “lending” e-books to multiple “borrowers” with the click of a mouse—the same process as buying them. But free.

Third: à la carte sales whittle down revenues.

Twenty years ago if you liked a song you heard on the radio you paid $14 for a CD that had 14 songs on it—13 of which might be filler. iTunes’ 99-cent songs brought back the single—but cheaper. (45s used to cost $3.) The result: the collapse of the music biz. According to Forrester Research, total U.S. music sales and licensing revenues fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009—a decline of 57 percent in a decade. People still liked music. They just didn’t have to pay for it anymore.

There are already apps that sell e-books by the chapter. Some publishers give away free chapters as samples. Why should a college student assigned to read chapter two pay $40 for the whole thing? À la carte book sales will further depress profits.

Why should you care if traditional publishers go under? What about the democratizing effect of the Internet, which allows anyone—not just big-name authors hooked-up with fancy well-connected agents—to publish a book?

Granted, digitalization opens doors for writers who might never have been able to break through the “no unsolicited manuscripts” wall that surrounded old-media gatekeepers. Elitism was and remains a problem.

But there’s a bigger problem: removing the profit incentive from books means more titles about vampires and werewolves and fewer in the fields of history and sociology. Because lower profits make it tougher for publishers to invest in big time-intensive projects, it deprofessionalizes our highest form of popular culture. The historian Robert Caro began working on his brilliant five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in 1982. He expects to finish in 2015. Tiny digital royalties eaten away by piracy couldn’t have sustained Caro’s research for three years—much less 32.

“Inside [the Kindle’s] plastic case, other things lurk,” Sarah Lee writes in the UK Guardian. “Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls. The e-book world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliché is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.”

Goodbye, Mr. Caro. Hello, 99-cent fan fiction.

You might not care. But you should.

Fourth but not last: the loss of a product’s brick-and-mortar distribution outlets reduces consumer consciousness of a product. In New York, where I live, all the music megastores—Tower, HMV and Virgin—are gone. So are most small record stores.

I used to spend at least one day a week hopping from one CD store to the next. I probably spent $50 to $100 a week on music. Now I spend the same amount in three months. I still love music. I just don’t think about it as often. iTunes is just a list of names and titles.

Now Barnes & Noble and what’s left of the independents are all that’s standing between an uncertain present and a disastrous—music-like—future.

“Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books,” notes The New York Times. A broad, deep book industry requires retailers willing to sell midlist titles and books that don’t do well—i.e., most of them.

Publishers say they want to save B&N, which is locked in an existential fight against Amazon. Things turned ugly after Amazon urged bookbuyers to visit stores in order to use their smartphones to scan barcodes of titles so they could buy them elsewhere—online, from Amazon, at a discount. B&N retaliated by banning books directly published by Amazon from its stores.

Amazon says it doesn’t want to drive B&N and other brick-and-mortar stores out of business. Their actions belie that. But if Amazon management were smart, they would subsidize stores like B&N. Remember what happened to the music biz when record stores disappeared—the overall music business cratered. All music sales, including those of iTunes, would be higher today if Tower et al. were still around.

Sadly, Amazon doesn’t seem smart. Like most American companies, it’s looting its own future in favor of short-term, quarterly lucre.

“Shopping on Amazon is a directed experience—it works best when you know what you’re looking for,” says Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press. “But how does that help with, for instance, a first novel? When independent bookstores were in a healthier state, staff picks and hand selling could bring attention to great books people didn’t know they wanted. Now that’s much harder.”

And many of those bookstore “customers” would have eventually bought that book from Amazon.

E-books are here to stay. But there’s a way to save the overall book business for both print and electronic editions. The solution requires three parts.

Congress should join the other countries that have major book industries in passing a Fixed Book Price Agreement, in which booksellers and publishers agree on what price books may be sold nationally—i.e., no $25 books selling for $10 at Costco. In France and other nations studies have shown that FBPAs protect independent stores, increase the diversity and quality of titles sold, and support more authors.

Recognizing the unique cultural contribution of books as well as the threat to our national heritage posed by digitalization, Congress should exempt publishers from antitrust laws. This would allow publishers to collude to set prices and hold the line against predatory discounting.

Finally, publishers should flip the current arrangement, in which Amazon enjoys steeper discounts than brick-and-mortar stores. Even if Amazon gets charged a higher wholesale price they still have big advantages; many people don’t live near a store or are simply too lazy to visit one. And they carry everything.

It’s more than a question of preserving print as a fetish commodity. E-books won’t thrive if their print forebears vanish.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL