Monday, March 31, 2008

Warts and All


One of my favorite political commentators is Tom Tomorrow. My apologies if I already linked to this cartoon.

After criticizing both Democratic candidates, because quite frankly there are lots of flies on both of them, he lets us know that he prefers either of them to McCain. A man after mine own heart is Senor Manana.

He also advises us to grow up, and stop conducting our elections in the manner of a junior high school student body election:

Honestly, I don't understand why people think the candidate they prefer should be treated with blind adulation...they're not messiahs, they're job applicants -- and it's our responsibilites as citizens to look seriously at their strengths AND their flaws.

He goes on to cite Spitzer's crash-and-burn act as evidence of why we need to do that.

He couldn't have made it any clearer.

Friday, March 28, 2008

63 Years of Sociopathy


I'm not usually fond of serving as a conduit for other people's brilliant observations, but Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution" recently uncorked an old quote from the late Hunter S. Thompson that seemed so fitting for our present circumstances I can't help but pass it along.

Thompson, by the way, besides being a self-styled "Gonzo" journalist, was a world class drunk, druggie, gun nut, and raving psychopath. He once threatened to shoot my friend Art Kunkin, the founder of the Los Angeles Free Press, and a mild and harmless person.

But he was also a brilliant chronicler of the pathology of postwar America, and in 1972 was following presidential candidates of both parties around the country, pestering them for interviews and harassing them from the press sections of their buses. The result was "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail," which contains this memorable passage:

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

The tragedy is not that Thomposn's diagnosis was devastatingly accurate, but that it's just as true today as it was 36 years ago.

Actually, that's been our story, our mentality, and our M.O. since the end of World War II. I only disagree with Barack Obama about one thing: it's not time for a change, it's way past time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fecalia


Paris Hilton stars in a newly-released feature film, "The Hottie and the Nottie." Now people will no longer be able to say, "Why's she famous? She never did nothing."

People will, however, be asking once more which was the worst movie ever made. Ed Woods's "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is always kind of the default winner in the Fecalia category, partly because it's not just horrible, but old and well established, being as how it's very well known. But it faces serious competition from "Showgirls," "Heaven's Gate," The Kevin Kostner extravaganzas "Waterworld" and "The Postman," and most recently, the Jennifer Lopez -- Ben Affleck disaster, "Gigli." It also is up against unserious competition from low-budget, tongue-in-cheek efforts like "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

Paris's little fleck of drek is apparently a formidable contender, and opened to some of the worst box-office receipts in the history of the movies.

However, for my money, the worst movie ever released was a dreadful 1969 morality play by Andy Griffith, "Angel in My Pocket," which is poorly scripted, poorly directed, poorly lit, badly acted, and overly sentimental, precious, and cute. Its plot and forced confrontations are ridiculous to the point of being embarrassing.

Because it's such a wreck, this movie is not well known, and has never been released to home video in any format, so I can't prove how bad it is. You'll have to take my word for it.

I sometimes wonder how many other really monumentally bad old films are out there somewhere, mercifully languishing in utter obscruity.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

None Dare Call it Frisco



It's springtime everywhere, including in San Francisco, but standing anywhere between the Golden Gate and Daly City you'd never know it.

It's about 50 degrees and overcast, with a cold breeze blowing off the ocean. Mark Twain famously said that the coldest winter he'd ever known was a summer in San Francisco.

But it's a lovely city just the same. Unlike most of the rest of America, there's real architecture here, and you can buy a decent loaf of bread.

Traffic is terrible, but you don't need to own a car. In most parts of the city, you can walk to the store. For other needs, public transportation is...let's say, doable.

Rent is sky high, but eliminating the automobile from one's life gives enough money back to make the rent...doable?

We'll see. Life would be peaches if I could live here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Depression



My mind capsized;
I'm hangin' to the hull...

The Holy Modal Rounders
"My Mind Capsized"


I'm stuck in the grip of a depression I just can't shake off. It seems to come and go without any letup in intensity.

I'm afraid I won't be posting here very much for the time being, as I've sort of lost interest in it all.

But I'll be back.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sat Ire


This is old, but it's hot.

The Mighty Reason Man, holding forth on his blog VeryVeryHappy, gives us a comprehensive deconstruction and shellacking of the constituent parts of the current political landscape, and ends up coming down as vaguely pro-Obama.

It's long and dense and powerful, and essential reading for all political junkies, even though it's outdated, having been written before the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas. Non-junkies might want to munch on just a few lines of it.

This came to my attention via the efforts of the below-mentioned Grace Nearing.

Mr. Wright


As anybody who reads the papers or watches the news on TV now knows, Obama is in trouble for something the pastor of his church said, and the corporate-controlled media is forcing him to crawl, cringe, and apologize profusely, not for anything he said or did, but for someone else's words. You know the drill -- "Responsible people are shocked and appalled..." etc.

Five days after 9/11, Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright delivered a sermon in which he said, "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye....We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost..."

That last line, of course, refers to Malcolm X's identical verdict on the assassination of President Kennedy. And the general trend of Wright's remarks is dead-on. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out innumerable times, if they do to us what we've done to them, we call it "terrorism."

But unfortunately, Reverend Wright's words in this case and others have overwhelmed the delicate petit bourgeois nervous systems of corporate-fed media pundits everywhere. Gerald Posner, holding forth here at HuffPo, typefies all of them with his characterization of Wright's remarks as "radical" and "vitriol."

Radical truth is more like it. The 9/11 attacks were a classic example of "blowback." Bin Laden himself has described how the idea for attacking the Twin Towers came to him. In a 2004 interview with al-Jazeera, he said, "God knows it did not cross our minds to attack the towers but after the situation became unbearable and we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were that of 1982 and the events that followed -- when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way (and) to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women."

This is the insoluble quandry our political system faces: the only way to deal with real problems is to start by assessing them accurately. Unfortunately, the one thing you absolutely cannot do in American politics today is tell the truth.

"I want to know the truth," Tom Cruise's Lt. Daniel Kaffee earnestly declares. "You can't handle the truth," Jack Nicholson's Col. Jessup explodes back at him.

Jonathan Schwartz issues a few pointed words on this media kerfluffle which has the corporate-fed flock of pundits milling about, puffing out their feathers and gobbling frantically.

So does Grace Nearing at her excellent and newly-discovered blog, "Scriptoids."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Ideology of Piracy


Leaving aside the fantastical economic predictions issuing from the Land of Cockaigne (a.k.a the Oval Office) these days and turning instead to the real world, we find that this country is most likely entering the initial phases of a second Great Depression.

While he doesn't actually use the "D" word, Martin Feldstein, who is in a position to know about such things, anticipates a major and protracted downturn, which he describes as a "situation" which "is getting worse, and the risks are that it could get very bad."

Feldstein is a former president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private sector group which many economists and investors consider the ultimate authority on U.S. business cycles, and he made these remarks in a speech to the Futures Industry Association in Boca Raton, Florida.

"There isn't much traction in monetary policy these days, I'm afraid, because of a lack of liquidity in the credit markets," Feldstein added, which is another way of saying the banks are broke. They are the final victims of their own foolish lending policies from 2001 to 2006, and have succumbed to the bad juju of the paper hocus-pocus they invented.

At times like this, it's good to frequently review fundamentals, and here are just a couple of them I find pertinent.

1. Mark Twain said, "Show me where a man gets his cornbread and I'll show you where he gets his politics," and politics is generally powered by economics. I like to employ a Buddhist analogy: politics is the cart which follows the ox (economics) which pulls it. Every Limbaugh dittohead and Iraq War cheerleader is, at bottom, a born-again laissez-faire fanatic who believes that unrestrained, unregulated free enterprise will provide the magic solution to all our problems.

2. Unrestrained, unregulated free enterprise is the cause of all our problems, and the solution to none of them. It has now given us, besides a second Great Depression, an Endless War with which to supply our defense contractors and war profiteers the ill-gotten gains their lobbyists have secured for them by bribing and otherwise influencing the elected officials owned by our corporate power structure.

Our response to the first Great Depression was to elect a reformer, Franklin D. Roosevelt, rather than a revolutionary. The capitalist buccaneers who hated Roosevelt, and have worked tirelessly, and ultimately successfully, to undo everything he did in the thirties, and all that the New Dealers who followed him accomplished in subsequent decades, never realized that everything he and they did was done as much to save them as to help us.

But -- and this is the all-important principle number three -- the born-again free enterprisers are delusional and crazy, and in the end, if we don't get them permanently under control, they'll destroy everything including themselves.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Abusing Her Bathroom Privileges


Tom Tomorrow steered his readers toward this story about a guy who began to be concerned after his girlfriend stayed in the bathroom for two years, until she was literally stuck to the toilet seat.

He said she was too scared to come out.

This may seem funny at first, but it's actually a cautionary tale about what can happen when people with diminished mental capacities are allowed to live independently.

Racial Profiling


Which one of these guys is a cheerleader for the Iraq War and which one is against it?

I've noted that one of them is sort of Middle Eastern-looking, and the other is an overweight white guy who's smiling idiotically, as if he has shit running out his ears.

See Jonathan Schwartz's A Tiny Revolution, where this first appeared, for the answer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Politricks


"This is an object lesson into why you should not invest yourself so heavily into politicians," says dday at Digby's blog.

I've said it here before many times: when it comes to politics and politicians, you can't be too cynical. The minute you find yourself believing one of these bastards, pinch yourself and wake up, or you'll soon find yourself holding the shitty end of the stick. Or, if it's a pol like Spitzer, the working end.

"How difficult is it not to hire four thousand dollar prostitutes?" asks the king of cartoonists, Tom Tomorrow. "I know a lot of people who manage to make it through their daily lives without even hiring a two thousand dollar prostitute."

Then he adds, "Not to suggest that Hillary or Barack have been sneaking off to brothels, but a lot of people really want to believe that one or the other of them walks on water. Every time one of them is mentioned in a less than favorable light on this blog or in the cartoon, I inevitably receive a flood of angry email from supporters castigating me for my apparent support for the other candidate..."

As Mr. T might say, I pity the fool who has any faith left in this political system or any of the opportunists who are drawn to it, after what it's done to us.

The evidence is all around us; we're a nation of collapsing retail outlets and unlivable suburban slums, dependent in our daily lives on gas-powered chariots we can't afford run, facing national insolvency, and stuck in an endless, pointless, expensive, and criminal war on the other side of the world.

Thanks, politicians.

Tomorrow ends by quoting Kurt Vonnegut, I believe from his last book "A Man Without a Country: "There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done...This is it: Only nut cases want to be president."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

War, Inc.


I've already referred below to Bob Herbert's March 4 column in the New York Times, in which he discusses the true costs of the Iraq War. His analysis was so good that I believe it merits a second look.

A DailyKos correspondent called "Forgiven" provides that second look, reminding us that "The truth is that the cost of a war is more than the money spent on men and material, as if it were some business venture that can be tallied with a nice spreadsheet and budget. In today’s world, war is packaged like a corporate enterprise complete with sanitized videos and reporting to make it more palatable to the disinterested masses."

I'm sure everyone remembers the sophisticated advertising campaign that preceded the war and how it was carried gratis and enthusiastically by the broadcast networks and major newspapers, and the many appearances of Cheney and Rumsfeld and Kindaloser Ricepuffs on "Meet the Press" and the other bobblehead interview shows, softening up the wide-eyed, innocent masses with their well-calibrated propaganda about "mushroom clouds" and WMD. What we saw then was actually phase I of the Iraq War -- that preliminary campaign in which the public is manipulated and bullied into accepting the murderous plans of our biggest and most blatantly evil corporation: War, Inc., mostly through the efforts of our servile and sycophantic mass media.

We've seen the nefarious operations of War, Inc. many times before, most notably in Vietnam and Central America during the '80's, but they've never marketed such a blatantly destructive product as this Iraq War, involving as it does brazen violations of international law. In addition, as Herbert's column emphasized with a quote from Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, "Because the administration actually cut taxes as we went to war, when we were already running huge deficits, this war has, effectively, been entirely financed by deficits. The national debt has increased by some $2.5 trillion since the beginning of the war, and of this, almost $1 trillion is due directly to the war itself ... By 2017, we estimate that the national debt will have increased, just because of the war, by some $2 trillion."

War, Inc. has now taken this country perilously close to insolvency, and transformed Iraq into a smoking, stinking ruin in the process. It has gutted the future of our Social Security, formerly one of the most reliable bases of our prosperity, as well as sabotaging the possibility of rational, universal health care for all U.S. citizens. In doing so, War, Inc. has made war not just against "the terrorists," but against us as well.

At the beginning of this war, most of us swallowed the Kool-Aid, internalized War, Inc.'s lies, and cheered on our plucky commander-in-chief as he strode the carrier deck with his codpiece leading the way. How many would still be willing to do so today, as we gaze on the shattered ruins of what were just a few short years ago our glittering prospects for the future? How many of us still think war is good?

As Forgiven explains, "Why is war good? It is good because it fuels the transfer of wealth from the middle-class to the wealthiest. It fuels the military-industrial complex and the war profiteers who in turn feed the lobbyists, who in turn purchase the politicians. You can’t spend all that money on war material and preparation and not use it."

Hence, Vietnam. Hence, Iraq. And I'm telling you, this is going to change. War, Inc. must die. It's economically non-negotiable, for starters. The money is gone, and our credit is blown. Have you ever seen a war foreclosed upon? You're about to see it.

Obama says change is coming. He doesn't know the half of it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Autobio


(By request; part one of three.)

I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska during the Great War, but I don’t remember ever being there. The first place I remember is Youngstown, where I was a small kid.

Youngstown was a big deal once. Heavy industry was there, and it was a dirty, sweaty place full of dirty, sweaty people who made big steel slabs and tubes. It had a big, brown, dirty, steaming river running through it, and big black steel mills, lit up all night with orange fire and sparks. Nowadays it’s just kind of an archeological remain; grass is growing and birds are nesting in what’s left of those mills.

So I’ve lived a long time.

I learned how to read in a week or two. That was 1950. We lived at 150 West Glenaven. I sat on the porch and read comic books.

I was good in school, but only in the subjects I didn’t have to work at. The fun stuff was anything involving words and stories. The ugly stuff always had numbers in it, and you had to work like hell sometimes to keep all those damn numbers straight. So you could say I had a problem of being lazy from the start.

I didn’t like my third-grade teacher, Miss Speck, and my mom didn’t like her much either, and also my sisters were moving from being babyish to kidlets about to start school, so Don and Dotty made the jump to the suburbs, and we moved to Boardman. So Meadowbrook Ave was the second place I lived.

Don and Dotty, incidentally, were country mice who became city mice, children of the Great Depression and refugees from the Western Kansas Dust Bowl. They left that barbaric region of cornfields and tent revivals behind and became urban sophisticates and atheistic Unitarians, subscribed to The New Yorker, and learned to tell a fine Chardonnay from a Ripple.

Sex came for me and ended my childhood one night when I was 12. It was traumatic and scary and very pleasurable at the same time. Suddenly, women and girls were the most endlessly interesting life forms on the planet, but even then I had a preference for women. I never did like girls as much.

We never know at that critical time what nearly all of us find out later -- that love is one of the two things in our external lives (as opposed to our internal, mental and spiritual lives) that makes the world go around. The other is money.

Just four years after moving to Meadowbrook Ave we picked up and transplanted to the Pacific Northwest, landing first in Bellingham. There was blue water, purple-and-white mountains, rain and fog, salmon and codfish, Christmas trees, and air with no soot in it. It was a new and intoxicating world, and we settled permanently in the north Seattle slurbs.

Life in the slurbs is boring and a drag, and don’t let anyone tell you different. The high schools are little concentration camps, and there’s nothing to do but watch TV and smoke cigarettes,* which I learned to do in 1958. So there it is -- I smoked for 50 years, and that’s why I have emphysema.

The thing is, some terrible behaviors are actually cultivated, and smoking used to be a practically universal one. All the adults in my life except my grandmothers smoked. Everybody on TV and in the movies smoked. The Marlboro man, with his rippling, tattooed biceps, appealed to my skinny, sex-starved, physically immature, 75-pound male ego. It was a culturally-imposed drug addiction, and nearly fatal. However, in this case as well as at least a couple others, I dodged the reaper.

The other important change in 1958 was the coming of the drums. I thought guys who beat on that African-European hybrid instrument looked real macho, and that if I could play well enough to be in a band, a girl or two might find me irresistible. However, being self-taught, it took a long time to develop adequate proficiency to play in front of people. So by the time my ulterior and sort of secret seduction plan paid off, we had left the rainy country and gone to the fabled and enchanted metropolis of San Francisco Bay.

It was a relief to be in a new place. I’d done a year of college up in Bellingham, and made a mess of it, drinking too much, sliding by academically, and otherwise acting childish and stupid. Naïve, immature, and utterly virginal, having learned nothing at home or in school except how to read, write, and play a decent 4/4 time, I was a mess.

I hitchhiked out of Seattle on a sunny day in June, and ended part I of my life as I crossed over into California -- the promised land -- for the first time.

*True, kids nowadays can also go online and dial up Myspace.com, or text message each other, and smoke marijuana cigarettes. But nothing in the slurbs has fundamentally changed, except now the houses are bigger and there are more foreclosures.

Watercolor of Youngstown Sheet and Tube mill by Howard Fogg, 1956.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Answer is Blowin' in the Wind


In an appearance on NPR's "All Things Considered" yesterday, the Earth Policy Institute's founder and president, Lester Brown, was talking about how the much-heralded hydrogen fuel cell car keeps receding into the distance, like a mirage in the desert. Detroit's auto makers recently moved the much-anticipated arrival of this automotive unicorn back another five years, Brown observed.

But he also noted that the solution to America's petroleum dependency and the myriad problems arising from it is at hand. There is no energy question that can't be answered by electricity, and the cleanest, safest, and cheapest way to produce abundant electrical power has been with us for some time; we simply haven't recognized it.

Back in 2004, Brown described the two steps to energy independence: 1) replacing gasoline-powered passenger vehicles with gas-electric hybrids, and 2)generating the electricity to power this new generation of cars with wind turbines. This would cut our oil consumption in half, freeing us from the tyranny of our addiction to foreign oil. That, article is as timely and pertinent today as it was then, since it chronicles the new, radically lower costs of wind-generated electricity as well as describing the benefits of combining wind power with hybrid technology.

In addition, Brown now reports that all of Europe and North America, whose populations use the lion's share of all energy produced in the world, are finally, slowly waking up to this new reality.

In an article published on the Earth Policy Institute's website on Tuesday, Brown reports that "At its current growth rate, global installed wind power capacity will top 100,000 megawatts in March 2008. In 2007, wind power capacity increased by a record-breaking 20,000 megawatts, bringing the world total to 94,100 megawatts—enough to satisfy the residential electricity needs of 150 million people."

Clearly, the world is discovering "the life that maketh all things new" (Longfellow) in spite of resistance from corporate giants such as the oil companies and auto makers, who remain heavily invested in the old, dirty, destructive, and inefficient methods of energy conversion and application. But there's good news even in the corporate-dominated United States. While Germany still leads the world in wind-generated electricity production, Brown notes that "For the third consecutive year, the United States led the world in new installations, with its 5,240 megawatts accounting for one-quarter of global installations in 2007. Installations in the fourth quarter of 2007 alone exceeded the figure for all of 2006, and the United States is on track to overtake Germany as the leader in installed wind power by the end of 2009. Wind farms are now found in 34 states and total 16,800 megawatts. The electrical output from these farms is equivalent to that from 16 coal-fired power plants and is enough to power 4.5 million U.S. homes. The recent exceptional growth in the United States is largely due to an extension of the wind production tax credit under the 2005 Energy Policy Act."

The whole article makes great reading, and it's nice to share some good news for a change.

I'm still wondering how Congress managed to slip that wind production tax credit past Dubya. He must not have known what he was signing.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Squeaker


Senator Clinton eked out victories in Texas and Ohio yesterday, or maybe I should say, she eeked them out.

The tireless Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, aka "Great Orange Satan," sleeplessly did the math at his famous site, and the results, while tentative, are revealing; the candidates fought a Battle of Antietam -- much blood and treasure expended, zero result, except both combatants are still standing.

So when, assuming we're permitted to ask, is this TV miniseries going to end? Or will it just go on forever, sort of like "All My Children?" People are saying the Pennyslvania primary is, like, seven weeks away.

Ugh!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Looters' Legacy


The illegal and immoral Iraq War now threatens the well-being not only of the majority of Iraqis but the overwhelming majority of Americans as well. It is, in the final analysis, as much a war on us as it is a war on them. Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times this morning reports:

The war in Iraq will ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers not hundreds of billions of dollars, but an astonishing $2 trillion, and perhaps more. There has been very little in the way of public conversation, even in the presidential campaigns, about the consequences of these costs, which are like a cancer inside the American economy.

On Thursday, the Joint Economic Committee, chaired by Senator Chuck Schumer, conducted a public examination of the costs of the war. The witnesses included the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz (who believes the overall costs of the war - not just the cost to taxpayers - will reach $3 trillion), and Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International.

Both men talked about large opportunities lost because of the money poured into the war. "For a fraction of the cost of this war," said Mr. Stiglitz, "we could have put Social Security on a sound footing for the next half-century or more."


Since the Iraq War now threatens to spill over past the end of the terms of office of those who hatched it, Stiglitz's observation about Social Security strikes at the heart of this administration's master plan from the beginning: because perpetual and intense warfare drains resources to an extent that causes the nation to constantly teeter on the precipice of insolvency (especially when combined with massive tax cuts for the richest members of the oligarchy), it precludes any spending on social programs. This illustrates perfectly Orwell's theory of perpetual warfare, whose dual purpose is to punish the foreign enemy while impoverishing one's own civilian population.

A quick look at Bush's proposed FY 2009 budget proves the point.

"Sorry," the dictatorship tells us, "we'd like to help you, but we just don't have the money." What they don't tell us is that they planned it this way.

Yoga Blogging


A critical facet of the practice at this point is taking note of the effects that small changes in the physical regime, such as adding lemon to one's water, have on the mind and soul, as well as gauguing their impacts on the body.

As physical well-being gradually increases with each individual, small, and easy adjustment, there's a corresponding increase in one's ability to maintain a positive attitude, even when things aren't going particularly well.

The ultimate objective: to quiet the mind until the apprehension becomes like a reflecting pool.

Push Back


Robert Reich says the best way for us working Americans to counterract falling wages is to push back by joining and forming labor unions.

Clinton's Secretary of Labor wrote in the Chron yesterday: There's no magic bullet for reversing the trend toward widening inequality. Surely, better schools for children from poor and lower-middle class communities are part of the answer. So is a bigger refundable tax credit - in effect, a cash supplement - for working families. Both should be financed by a higher marginal tax rate on the rich.

But an additional part of the solution - rarely talked about these days - is stronger labor unions. This is especially true for low-paid workers in local service occupations, such as retail workers, hotel and restaurant employees, and people who work in hospitals. If they were unionized, they'd have the bargaining leverage they need to get better wages.


The right to organize and bargain collectively, which is nothing less than the right of workers to deal with those who hire them from a position of equality, was won in this country over the sixty years from 1870 to 1930. Workers bled and died to establish the right to an eight-hour day and a living wage.

The Great Depression, a direct consequence of the excesses of unrestrained capital tyranny over the economy, finally saw these rights written into law, and owners were forced to deal more or less equitably with workers for the next 50 years. Then came Reagan, the ill-advised air traffic controllers' strike of 1981, and the Great Communicator's systematic demolition not just of the controllers' union, but of the entire union movement in the U.S.

It's past time to bring it back. Once more we're looking at a monumental case of economic indigestion brought on by the unrestrained appetites of our porcine corporate masters, who have so little capacity for insight that their behavior threatens to destroy everyone's lives, including their own.

Monday, March 03, 2008

It's What They Do


Gaza is the world's largest-ever open-air concentration camp, thanks to the efforts of the Cheney-Bush regime.

It would be unfair to say the situation in Gaza is entirely Cheney-Bush's fault. But they've done everything they could to make a bad situation worse, according to an article by David Rose in this month's Vanity Fair (via Atrios). The magazine's intro to the piece tells us that:

After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, David Rose reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.

Screwing things up. That's their job. It's what they do.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

As Seen on TV


"It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep," begins Hillary Clinton's latest television campaign ad. "But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call," the narrator ominously concludes as the camera pans in on the ringing phone. The ringing red phone.

That's the money shot. It graphically portrays the gravity of the situation in that singularly emotionally-charged way only television, with its reliance on images, can provide. It would be supremely difficult, no, impossible, to achieve the same effect with, say, a position statement printed in a local newspaper.

So what exactly has TV done to our political system?

To know why new and how new technologies change old cultures, you have to study history -- something that's in short supply on TV except for trivialized versions. For example, the advent of literacy and alphabets ended the cultural dominance of the epic poem as the primary vehicle of both myth and, history. The sudden appearance of the printing press in Western Europe in the 15th century set off a second revolution in literacy, undermined prevailing and popular supersition, and energized a flowering of rational and scientific thought. And the advent of television? People write books on such subjects, and in 1985 an NYU sociology professor, Neil Postman wrote the definitive study of TV's cultural impact, "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

With regard to television's effect on politics, Postman asserts that "By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emtional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decisions...One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it."*

The Obama team hurried out its own counter-spot in response to Clinton's attack, which had contained no charges, only implications and innuendo. The response touted Obama's "judgment and courage" in opposing the Iraq War in 2002, and its narrator tells us solemnly that "In a dangerous world, it's judgment that matters," which perfectly reproduces the content of the Clinton ad.

Is it really TV and TV alone that has reduced our elections process to the trading of 8th-grade-level insults? ("You're stupid." "No, you are.") The short (and accurate) answer is "yes."

But how could that be? some will ask. Don't the candidates still debate? Don't they argue over the issues?

Yes, but when those debates and arguments are transferred from presentation in print to the TV format, their content changes also. TV relies primarily on images rather than language, and thus trades in emotional appeals rather than arguments. What verbal content there is generally takes the form of zingers and snappy comebacks rather than carefully constucted policy positions and arguments.

Postman concluded over 20 years ago that "to be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple...Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence."*

That's not 100 percent accurate. Words are not entirely absent from our elections, but they come in the form of sound bites rather than 45-minute speeches detailing a candidate's position on the issues. And the candidates still appear in person in front of the public, but these little TV shows, designed more to appeal to the cameras than whatever voters are present, conform more to a description of "celebrity appearances" than to serious presentations of serious matters using serious rhetoric. In the debates themselves, ever since the days of Reagan's "There you go again," the one-liner trumps the carefully articulated position. Our serious political discourse, to borrow from Postman again, has "dissolved in giggles."

Looking at the three viable political candidates still remaining, I'm reminded of that seventies' TV series, "Mod Squad," and there's a real question in my mind as to which has done more to undermine and overthrow democracy in this country, television or the Bush-Cheney regime.

*Quotes are from Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" (Penguin, 1985) pps. 127-28 and 157-58 (paperback ed.).

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Eye of the Beholder


Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the U.S. naval officer who "opened" Japan to trade with America and Europe, is portrayed in our children's history books as the idealized diplomat and ambassador we see in this heroic bust at Shimoda. He arrived unexpectedly and unannounced in Tokyo Bay under a blazing July sun in 1853, and reassured his shy and apprehensive hosts by setting up and running a miniature-guage railroad. Then he won their hearts by accepting a breeding pair of their prized Japanese Chin dogs, miniature fuzzy treasures only aristocrats were permitted to own. And of course the Japanese, who until Perry's visit fearfully insulated themselves from the rest of the world, accepted his proposed treaty. Who could turn down an offer from such a dashing, courteous and accommodating seaman, who coincidentally happened to be the younger brother of the famed Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812?

The cheerful, chirpy tone of the official American version of Commodore Perry's visit is absent from the Japanese version of these events, however, and the differences between the two are dramatically and graphically summarized if we contrast a Japanese portrait of Perry with the idealized American likenesses of the great man. The Japanese version snarls at us from the pages of a contemporary account of these events, showing the cruel and angry face of a long-nosed, hairy anthropoid, more demon than human. The accompanying text tells how Perry's ominous fleet of black steamships suddenly appeared in Tokyo harbor one day, belching black smoke, which caused the Japanese to believe the vessels were on fire.

Representatives of the Shogun met with Perry and politely requested that he steam on to the southern port of Nagasaki, which was already open to very limited trade with Portuguese vessels. But the American refused to leave, and threatened to bombard the city unless his demands were met. His overawed hosts capitulated, and ended the affair by signing the treaty Perry thrust upon them, although they slyly managed to convince him that he had dealt successfully with the emperor himself, rather than the country's de facto ruler, the shogun.

These two versions of the man and his legacy are subjective, of course, and the impersonal, completely objective eye of the camera provides a third point of view of the Commodore, and one which goes beyond the part he played in history, since it penetrates his tissues and reveals personal details the merely historical record cannot divine. An 1852 photograph of Perry shows the sagging flesh, morose, hangdog expression, and bleary gaze of one afflicted with the alcohol illness, from which Commodore Perry suffered bitterly. It darkened his experience of the world, infusing it with pain and nightmares.

Upon leaving Japan, Perry sailed to Formosa, and the report of his voyage suggested to President Fillmore that America should take possession of that island, since it has coal resources and is easily defensible. The world belonged to white Protestant men in those days; everybody else just lived in it. Much of the trouble that afflicts the globe today stems from the fact that a few important men in critical places cling to the belief that nothing has changed. They might benefit by trying to see the world from someone else's point of view.