book review

Review – Radical Therapies – by Philip Challinor

Philip Challinor blogs under the name The Curmudgeon. If you have visited that site you will know that a quick wit, combined with his great mix of sometimes arcane and sometimes garbled newpoliticmanagementspeak result in some sublime moments.

Radical Therapies is one of his several advances into longer format writing and while it doesn’t really use the funny jargonese it combines insight with a dark imagination to make 3 memorable stories.

The first story, The Little Doctor, is the story of a war criminal told from the point of view of the war criminal. You might think this is somewhat unusual but if you do I would remind that Bush and Blair have recently published memoirs and talked (or in the case of one of them, tried to talk) about their roles in the imperial ventures of our time.

At first it seems like the war in question could be current or marginally in the future. As it progresses, the character’s names serve to give the story the parallel world feel that the story needs to make its point; they could all be from anywhere or from nowhere. Similarly, not putting the story in any place we can put our finger on gives the impression that it could be everywhere. The winners or losers could be any state.

Without any kind of anchor for the reader (where is it? when is it?), in the opening pages it takes a little careful reading at the start but very quickly it becomes a page-turner.

The war criminal is in prison and awaiting his execution and recounts events leading up to his current situation. This is interspersed with his dealings with the prison guards and various functionaries representing the victorious powers in the war.

“Why should you be [put on trial] ?” said the Warden. “As I told you, the position is quite clear. Everyone knows what went on in that place, the … the researches you carried out; it was all thoroughly documented, and most of the documentation has survived. There is no doubt as to your actions or the actions of your colleagues – the Anthill business, for instance, and Project Fiat. It only remains to pronounce judgement.”

“I see,” I said.

“I suppose,” he said with a slight, ironical smile, “I suppose to you that sounds like nothing more than victor’s justice.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was any other kind.”

The researches in question were various cloning and DNA experiments carried out at a facility originally designed to solve a food crisis. Originally well-intentioned (if ethically dubious) scientific work is subsumed by the events going on around it and radically altered in its scope. The scientists themselves are more perturbed by the interruption to them doing the work they want to than moral concerns about the work they must now do.

There is also a historical element in the conclusion of The Little Doctor but I will leave that for you to find out.

The second and third stories (Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs) make a good job of actually making hospital drama interesting. That said, they are unlike any other hospital dramas you are likely to read.

Both Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs are like the worst imaginings between wake and sleep. The former features a man shackled in a bizarre fashion, always unsure of whether he is being cured or tortured. The doctor that he doesn’t know whether to trust or hate flits in and out along with the “nurse-thing”. A surprising beginning finishes with a surprising end. All through it the question “should I be laughing at this?” is swimming in the background.

The final story, The House of Stairs isn’t quite so much like a horror scene as Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth but again, it is eerie and atmospheric and takes place in a fantastic imagined world. It vaguely reminded me of Lanark by Alasdair Gray and also of THX-1138 and I hope he won’t hate me for saying that. The surreality of the setting is dragged back to more corporeal concerns by the action.

An escape from a maze (or in this case a labyrinthine institution) is made much more terrifying if you don’t know how you got in there, or if an exit even exists.

You can buy it here.

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Review – The Demon Haunted World

This is a repost.

I have just finished reading The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Darkby Carl Sagan and I had some conflicting thoughts about it.

Some passages are pure gold. When he speaks about the endeavours of certain scientists and activists struggling against the prejudices of their respective ages he was absolutely at his best. In this book he does this many times but most memorably with some of the people objecting to witchcraft trials in Europe and Frederick Douglass.

Also, when Sagan tried to disprove and demystify things he did it wonderfully smoothly and in a way that didn’t seem to rub so many people up the wrong way as someone like Richard Dawkins regularly does. He could actually do it in such a beautiful way that I am sure many people didn’t realise that they were being mocked, albeit gently. When he was at his best it was really poetry.

Furthermore, his pleas for improving the standard of education in general and scientific education in particular are logical, well-evidenced and to the point. The same can be said of the reasons he thinks governments do not particularly want an educated public (if they know what you are doing then they know what you are doing wrong).

However, it was when he started to talk about US government past and present that he seemed to not be taking his own advice about looking at all the evidence. Carl Sagan was involved  with the US government in some of their better projects such as SETI and had a vested interest. Nonetheless, he did speak out against many projects such as the Star Wars Defence Initiative and others and in this book launches a brilliant sustained attack against Edward Teller who was undoubtedly one of the most bellicose scientists involved with the US.

Maybe it is only me but I just didn’t like that although he appealed for more sensible behaviour by the US government it was always in terms of “please stop spending so much on the military” instead of “stop bombing people”. Surely the evidence would suggest that governments don’t change just because you ask them nicely. And when he used examples about aggression or tyranny they were nearly always about other countries.

Maybe he didn’t have the information at hand but I doubt that. Maybe even he wasn’t completely immune to the propaganda of the time of Cold War he grew up in. Maybe he just didn’t want to rub people up the wrong way.

Finally, in one of the chapters toward the end he speaks at length about Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers and points out problems in the USA today in a “what would the founding fathers make of it?” way and it all seemed a bit like a schoolboy tract. I wondered if he had ever read what Howard Zinn had had to say about the founding fathers.

There was also a small point he made about 1984 which wasn’t exactly correct. He said The Ministry of Truth in 1984 was based on the rewriting of history in Stalin’s Russia but that wasn’t really it. The Ministry of Truth was based on a number of things including the rewriting of history Orwell had seen in relation to the Spanish Civil War in which he fought, the BBC when Orwell worked there during World War II and also the propaganda in both the fascist and communist countries of Europe.

He does put forth some very radical arguments in the book, which make a lot of sense, but that radicalism tends to desert him at a couple of points.

I really don’t want to disparage Carl Sagan and I hope I haven’t. He is a hero of mine and you really should read this – the majority of it is wonderful. It is only because he set such high standards in other things (and in this) that I was a little bit disappointed with 2 small parts of a longish book.

RADICAL THERAPIES by Philip Challinor

Philip Challinor blogs under the name The Curmudgeon. If you have visited that site you will know that a quick wit, combined with his great mix of sometimes arcane and sometimes garbled newpoliticmanagementspeak result in some sublime moments.

Radical Therapies is one of his several advances into longer format writing and while it doesn’t really use the funny jargonese it combines insight with a dark imagination to make 3 memorable stories.

The first story, The Little Doctor, is the story of a war criminal told from the point of view of the war criminal. You might think this is somewhat unusual but if you do I would remind that Bush and Blair have recently published memoirs and talked (or in the case of one of them, tried to talk) about their roles in the imperial ventures of our time.

At first it seems like the war in question could be current or marginally in the future. As it progresses, the character’s names serve to give the story the parallel world feel that the story needs to make its point; they could all be from anywhere or from nowhere. Similarly, not putting the story in any place we can put our finger on gives the impression that it could be everywhere. The winners or losers could be any state.

Without any kind of anchor for the reader (where is it? when is it?), in the opening pages it takes a little careful reading at the start but very quickly it becomes a page-turner.

The war criminal is in prison and awaiting his execution and recounts events leading up to his current situation. This is interspersed with his dealings with the prison guards and various functionaries representing the victorious powers in the war.

“Why should you be [put on trial] ?” said the Warden. “As I told you, the position is quite clear. Everyone knows what went on in that place, the … the researches you carried out; it was all thoroughly documented, and most of the documentation has survived. There is no doubt as to your actions or the actions of your colleagues – the Anthill business, for instance, and Project Fiat. It only remains to pronounce judgement.”

“I see,” I said.

“I suppose,” he said with a slight, ironical smile, “I suppose to you that sounds like nothing more than victor’s justice.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was any other kind.”

The researches in question were various cloning and DNA experiments carried out at a facility originally designed to solve a food crisis. Originally well-intentioned (if ethically dubious) scientific work is subsumed by the events going on around it and radically altered in its scope. The scientists themselves are more perturbed by the interruption to them doing the work they want to than moral concerns about the work they must now do.

There is also a historical element in the conclusion of The Little Doctor but I will leave that for you to find out.

The second and third stories (Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs) make a good job of actually making hospital drama interesting. That said, they are unlike any other hospital dramas you are likely to read.

Both Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs are like the worst imaginings between wake and sleep. The former features a man shackled in a bizarre fashion, always unsure of whether he is being cured or tortured. The doctor that he doesn’t know whether to trust or hate flits in and out along with the “nurse-thing”. A surprising beginning finishes with a surprising end. All through it the question “should I be laughing at this?” is swimming in the background.

The final story, The House of Stairs isn’t quite so much like a horror scene as Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth but again, it is eerie and atmospheric and takes place in a fantastic imagined world. It vaguely reminded me of Lanark by Alasdair Gray and also of THX-1138 and I hope he won’t hate me for saying that. The surreality of the setting is dragged back to more corporeal concerns by the action.

An escape from a maze (or in this case a labyrinthine institution) is made much more terrifying if you don’t know how you got in there, or if an exit even exists.

You can buy it here.

THE MAN WHO HELD THE QUEEN TO RANSOM AND SENT PARLIAMENT PACKING

In the summer a fellow blogger gave me a book called The Man Who  Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing [1968] by Peter Van Greenaway [not to be confused with Peter Greenaway the film director].

It is a fantastic read.

An army captain called Wyatt organises and pulls off a more or less bloodless [one person is injured] coup in the United Kingdom. He achieves this by kidnapping the royal family and imprisoning them in the tower of London with the threat that if anyone attempts to reverse the coup then they will begin executing them.

By this method the organisers of the coup manage to hold power for a short time.

The book uses a style that we are quite familiar with now – using pieces of conversations, excerpts from newspapers and trial transcripts and so on from before and after the fact and bringing it all together at the end. At the time this book was written I imagine that this style was something of a novelty.

One of the things I liked about the book is that although big alarm bells are rightly ringing about the idea of a military coup, we are constantly kept uncomfortable by the fact that Wyatt talks a lot of sense and begins to put in place policies that a lot of people would support.

For example, he asks the US army to leave the UK, withdraws UK troops from Germany and places them under the control of the UN to act as a peacekeeping force [this move also forces the UN to recognise his new government]. He starts reforms of the criminal justice system some of which people might find a little strange but he is not the stereotypical military dictator and allows the press to say whatever they wish and there are no curfews and such like. His stated intention is to prepare the country for real democracy instead of the puppet show that we have at the moment.

The best passages in the book however are not when Wyatt and the other coup leaders are putting policies in place but rather when Wyatt is speaking to those who were [nominally at least] in control before him and explaining the problems with the previous regime. Take this example from when he dismisses the parliament…

“There’s no doubt that the system has benefited property speculators, building tycoons, bookmakers and organised crime; there’s no doubt that under the system both parties have succeeded in running the country into the ground with the gay abandon of two frustrated spinsters daring their all in a cosy game of Monopoly.

“That you act with a cynical disregard for those you represent is the measure of your dishonesty. That you assume public apathy to your actions is total shows a blindness to reality suggesting outright stupidity.

“I am here to tell you that the country refuses to be led by the nose from the Right, by the hand from the Left. It is prepared to march forward in step with the times with whoever is prepared to give effective leadership. The House is no longer an effective instrument of government. Consequently it is my pleasurable duty to inform you that from this moment you no longer exist. You are free to leave.”

He also takes a great shot at some trade union leaders who are more interested in their upcoming peerages than helping their members and the leaders of both parties are made to seem like absurd cowards and puppets.

In some ways it is similar to the drama A Very British Coup that I wrote about before but in others no. In both cases there is a group of people in the shadows… the people that really pull the strings…waiting for the chance and scheming to ensure the downfall of the new regime. In this book however, unlike the drama,  we know from the first few pages that the coup is doomed to fail but that doesn’t detract from the story as it unfolds.

THE SEVEN DEADLY SPINS

“Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire

There have been quite a few pseudo-social science books out lately – effectively polemics with footnotes. A book like this, where the material has to be written in such a way as to fit the title, can’t lay claim to the sort of analysis that you (might) find in a social science textbookseven – despite the extensive referencing. Then again, why should it? The majority of people do not read textbooks. It’s a book and the only qualification should be if it’s a good book and it makes a point or not. This is a good book.

It’s written chronologically but does not begin with a particular date or war and then carry on to the next conflict. The first deadly spin is what we would expect to find official sources saying before or at the beginning of hostilities and the last deadly spin is what happens after the battle – it doesn’t really matter which conflict it is. The main thrust of the book is to illustrate that the same swindles, misrepresentations and downright lies have been used for hundreds of years. The episodic style of news reporting means that dissenting voices can also fall into this trap and would do well to try and avoid it. Napoleon said that it is not necessary to falsify the news, merely to delay to bad news until it no longer matters. If those who object to certain actions or reports are forced into a cycle of action and reaction then the bigger picture gets lost.

Too often wars, events or spins are reported as single issues. What Mickey Z is saying (correctly) is that the same spins are consistently used but given an update or changed to suit wherever the fighting is taking place. He has written this book to illustrate that governments have been crying wolf for years and yet most of us still fall for it.

If events are put in a clearer historical context issues could be better illuminated. As David Barsamian says “What the media do nationally is to create an amnesiac-like feeling – there’s no context for actions, there’s no background; there’s no history. Things just happen”.

Of all the criticisms of the mainstream media’s reporting of Iraq one of the most consistent complaints was the lack of background and context in the reports (e.g. who put Saddam in power, gave him weapons etc etc). The resources of the major media allow them to put forth viewpoints pervasively and persuasively. Objectors are then forced into reaction on minor issues. There is not always time to put things into a larger context. If the dissenters win on a particular issue then the next spin is always prepared and ready to go. First it was WMD’s and that was exposed so then it moved to WMD programmes, that didn’t work so then it was to remove Saddam and so on.

Mickey Z has put context and background into the spin surrounding these wars. In Iraq ‘Bad intelligence’ is the excuse after the fact. Compare this to the ‘bomber gap’ under Eisenhower – subsequently it was discovered that the gap was heavily in favour of the US. The excuse given a few years later was bad intelligence. A few years on and it was the missile gap under Kennedy. Roughly the same ‘problem’, exactly the same excuse. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was subsequently revealed to have rested on ‘bad intelligence’. If we analyse a single piece of spin, counter-spin or commentary about Iraq or any other war we only see one lie or misrepresentation and then the reaction to it (if we are looking).

Here are four lines from various journalists and officials that are quoted in the book. I have removed names, dates and places and it becomes almost impossible to tell which war is being discussed.

  1. The story of the crucial role of US and European business in saving and establishing the ——- dictatorship in ——- has remained relatively unknown to the general public in spite of the voluminous documentation.

  1. Behind the marines came legions of US businesses, ready not only to sell their goods but also [..]drill oil wells, and stake out mining claims.

  1. Our soldiers here and there resort to terrible measures with the natives. Captains and lieutenants are sometimes judges, sheriffs and executioners. ‘I don’t want any more prisoners sent into ——–’ was the verbal order [..] three months ago. It is now the custom to avenge the death of an American soldier by burning to the ground all the houses, and killing right and left the natives who are only suspects.

  1. The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and I worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.

Although I have picked some of these so as to be deliberately misleading it may come as a surprise that number one is referring to “establishing the Leninist dictatorship in Russia”. Two is referring to a range of conflicts in Latin America, three is about the Philippines (Manila is the missing word) and four, although it could be a look into the future when/if John Bolton gets the UN job, is referring to the massacres in East Timor.

For someone who has studied the propaganda system this book will not provide many massive new insights but it will provide some interesting examples, after all, there are so many around that one cannot possibly know them all. One such is the attempt to discredit Indonesian President Sukarno (not to be confused with General Suharto) by making a realistic mask with his features and hiring a porn actor to play him fooling around with a supposed Soviet mistress. Although this never got past the planning stage it is illustrative of the sort of full on media assault that tends to run concurrently with military and/or covert operations: there would be no point in making such a film if you didn’t already know you had a compliant media ready to publicise the propaganda and take your side.

It’s a good introduction for people who do not know too much about these issues and it’s a good refresher course with some funny bits for those who think they do. I like the idea of arguing back not on the supposed morality or otherwise of any given operation but by simply saying “they have said this before and this is what really happened”. This may be worth bearing in mind if Scott Ritter’s assertions that something is going to happen in Iran soon are correct. This is Mickey Z’s fifth book and I am going to have a look at the others.

http://www.mickeyz.net/

50 AMERICAN REVOLUTIONS YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW

50 American Revolutions You Are Not Supposed to Know – By Mickey Z




“The seventh inning stretch required fans to stand in honour of the ‘men and women in uniform’ who fight to ‘preserve our way of life.’ Fifty thousand removed their free caps, watched a digitised flag wave on the big screen, and held the [sponsors] patch over their cholesterol-laden hearts while belting out ‘God Bless America,’ collectively choosing to ignore the blood being spilled to keep the world safe for petroleum.” – Mickey Z

Billie holiday singing a song may not be what everyone has in mind when they hear the word revolution but individual acts of conscience and bravery are often at the root of major changes in social order and attitude.[1.]

This book is essentially a compendium of some of the finest moments in anti-establishment US history and some occasions when the establishment actually did something worthwhile (this was only a few of the 50). Some of the seminal moments of Feminism (probably shouldn’t use the word ‘seminal’ in relation to Feminism but if I said ‘ovulatory moments’ it could still end up in a sticky mess!) Comedy, Music, Anarchism and Socialism are included in the book and some other things besides, notably Marlon Brando and Kathleen Hepburn’s underwear. Some of these stories, like Muhammad Ali refusing the draft or the ‘ Battle in Seattle’ are familiar but there are many that most probably won’t know.

However, it is not the American History element that I find most interesting in this book (probably because I am not American). It is the personal acts of resistance and courage of the people in it, sometimes individual and sometimes collective, that is most impressive. It also shows how small acts by individuals can have huge consequences, in the US or anywhere else. Whether by laying down their lives, singing a song or even wearing and then not wearing trousers (don’t get the wrong idea – this part has nothing to do with seminal moments) the people in Mickey Z’s book challenged power and orthodoxy – which is why we are not supposed to know about them.

I like the idea of American teenagers reading this book and going to their history teachers and demanding to know why some of this stuff isn’t being studied in class. Or, in this country, demanding to know why we are brought up to learn what a marvellous hero and orator Winston Churchill was and don’t hear about his enormous military failures at Gallipoli and of him giving his authorisation to a plan to gas bomb villages of civilians or, as it was put, ‘recalcitrant Arabs’ in order to inspire a ‘lively terror.’

The same ‘memory hole’ system applies in both countries. Stories like the 50 included here, although not exactly suppressed or forgotten, are often de-emphasised as we instead learn about out glorious war leaders and statues are erected to mass murderers only for other mass murderers to come and tear them down again.

In addition to the 50 examples there is a timeline running through the book that lists many other important milestones of American resistance. It would be a good beginning for people who want to find out more about US history but can’t face reading all of the Zinn book yet (but they should do that eventually).

The author states that I guess what I’m looking for here is to reach an audience I’ve never reached before…and provoke them to think and rediscover critical analysis. I don’t claim to cover any new ground here…it’s just a refresher course/wake-up call for a heavily conditioned society (and myself, too).

The ‘heroes’ we hear about in schools are typically people who did something brave in the service of the state. This book about people doing something brave to challenge the perceived wisdom or change rather than uphold the existing order provides many interesting examples new and old of what Mickey Z puts at the beginning of his introduction…

“We have two American flags always: one for the rich and one for the poor. When the rich fly, it means that things are under control; when the poor fly, it means danger, revolution, anarchy.” – Henry Miller

There is at least one story that anyone can find inspiring in here (most likely many stories) and if you read this book and feel infused with a little revolutionary spirit but are wondering where to begin then Orwell had a good starting point…

“In times of universal deceit telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.”

PATRIOTISM

As a postscript to this review I would like to talk about patriotism and ‘national interest’ for a moment.

“Naturally the common people don’t want war… But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” – Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Trials

Different sets of people within any nation are bound to have interests and/or ideals that are in some way opposite at some point in time. That is a logical result of taking an area of land – land has no special interests – and saying that all the people in that land have similar interests from now on. Patriotism is a form of loyalty toward an artificial construction and therefore will contain artificiality within it. Like nation states, it can be created, its power transferred and its borders redefined.

The argument usually given to counter this line of questioning is that there is an agreed set of ground rules and patriotism is a form of loyalty to what those rules ‘stand for’. However, those things that there is a majority agreement on will tend to be those things that make national interest irrelevant e.g. don’t kill people. If this is true within artificial human made borders then it has to be true out with those borders also.

We must also ask, in nations that have populations that are diverse in beliefs, interests (economic and cultural) and in geography, who can accurately define what the ‘national interest’ actually is? Generally speaking, the ability to define and to alter what is ‘officially’ patriotic or what is the ‘in the national interest’ will tend to lie with those who have the power to disseminate their beliefs most pervasively.

Looking from afar, patriotism seems to be a (if not the) major theme in US political discourse and is deemed to be one of the highest of virtues. Left and Right both claim that they are the real patriots. Fox News presenters follow the President’s lead and start wearing flags on their lapels. In response to this on many progressive websites and in films of demonstrations in the US you see protestors with signs such as ‘Dissent is patriotic’ or ‘Think: its patriotic’ and so on. There is no mention of the idea that patriotism, as Dr. Johnson said, is ‘the last refuge of scoundrels.’ I t sometimes appears that the argument has been reduced to people arguing about who is more patriotic rather than about who is correct. The idea seems to be that if its right – it must be patriotic and if it’s patriotic it must be right and this is fundamentally flawed at its point of origin.

Its worth remembering that the modern nation state is an invention of the 18th century and that since then there hasn’t been one of them that doesn’t have a lot to answer for (internally and externally). That is not to say that alternatives will be better, just that a nation is an artificial, transient human construction and should be treated as such. The cave, the village and the empire have all been assumed at some point in time to be the ‘natural’ boundaries for human political activities. I don’t know if people will move to self-governing villages or some world government idea will prevail. All that is certain is that natural boundaries as they exist right now, for better or worse, will not be forever. It seems absurd to base arguments about what is right and wrong and contain them within the realms of a falsehood (the myth of a unified and everlasting nation). If we do that, all our solutions will be falsehoods.

It’s lazy to of me to continually quote Chomsky but I heard a lecture in which he raised a point about the idea of something being ‘un-American’. He explains that this is a concept you only see in totalitarian societies. Therefore you would have had terms approximating to ‘un-Soviet’ or ‘un-Nazi’ but go to Sweden and see if they are accusing each other of being ‘un-Swedish’. He suggests that they would find the concept laughable – and I hope he’s right.

Most of the heroes in this book were people who acted from a sense of injustice, mostly from something that had happened to the individual mentioned or something they have seen with their own eyes and not, to use Howard Zinn’s phrase, people acting from “[a] learned sense of moral proportion.” Their actions still have an inspirational message for the majority of people anywhere in the world because they were fighting a battle against oppression (the book mentions that when Muhammad Ali refused the draft there were demonstrations in support in Karachi, Guyana and Cairo). This is not the case for state appointed heroes, as a military hero in one country will invariably be known as a butcher in another.

The mainstream media, the schools, and the universities attempt to instill a loyalty to the state. We learn that there is room for disagreement but only within the agreed boundaries. Individual errors are criticised but the system that allows those errors to occur (and recur) is not up for discussion. I can see that the American left are being forced to argue on grounds of patriotism as they are being attacked in the way that Goering mentions but I wonder if in trying to ‘reclaim patriotism’ they are not reinvigorating one of the forces that holds them back and therefore fighting on someone else’s battleground.
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1. See a Democracy Now! Special about it here http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=05/06/14/1350253&mode=thread&tid=25