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Friday, December 16, 2011

Worker-Owners of America, Unite!

Gar Alperovitz chimes in on the re-evolutionary convergence of capitalism and socialism into a hybrid paradigm in a recent article in the NY TimesGar Alperovitz is a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and a founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is the author of “America Beyond Capitalism.”

THE Occupy Wall Street protests have come and mostly gone, and whether they continue to have an impact or not, they have brought an astounding fact to the public’s attention: a mere 1 percent of Americans own just under half of the country’s financial assets and other investments. America, it would seem, is less equitable than ever, thanks to our no-holds-barred capitalist system.

But at another level, something different has been quietly brewing in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing.

Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions.

And worker-owned companies make a difference. In Cleveland, for instance, an integrated group of worker-owned companies, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, has taken the lead in local solar-panel installation, “green” institutional laundry services and a commercial hydroponic greenhouse capable of producing more than three million heads of lettuce a year.

Local and state governments are likewise changing the nature of American capitalism. Almost half the states manage venture capital efforts, taking partial ownership in new businesses. Calpers, California’s public pension authority, helps finance local development projects; in Alaska, state oil revenues provide each resident with dividends from public investment strategies as a matter of right; in Alabama, public pension investing has long focused on state economic development.

Moreover, this year some 14 states began to consider legislation to create public banks similar to the longstanding Bank of North Dakota; 15 more began to consider some form of single-payer or public-option health care plan.

Some of these developments, like rural co-ops and credit unions, have their origins in the New Deal era; some go back even further, to the Grange movement of the 1880s. The most widespread form of worker ownership stems from 1970s legislation that provided tax benefits to owners of small businesses who sold to their employees when they retired. Reagan-era domestic-spending cuts spurred nonprofits to form social enterprises that used profits to help finance their missions.

Recently, growing economic pain has provided a further catalyst. The Cleveland cooperatives are an answer to urban decay that traditional job training, small-business and other development strategies simply do not touch. They also build on a 30-year history of Ohio employee-ownership experiments traceable to the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s.

Further policy changes are likely. In Indiana, the Republican state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, is using state deposits to lower interest costs to employee-owned companies, a precedent others states could easily follow. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, is developing legislation to support worker-owned strategies like that of Cleveland in other cities. And several policy analysts have proposed expanding existing government “set aside” procurement programs for small businesses to include co-ops and other democratized enterprises.

If such cooperative efforts continue to increase in number, scale and sophistication, they may suggest the outlines, however tentative, of something very different from both traditional, corporate-dominated capitalism and traditional socialism.

It’s easy to overestimate the possibilities of a new system. These efforts are minor compared with the power of Wall Street banks and the other giants of the American economy. On the other hand, it is precisely these institutions that have created enormous economic problems and fueled public anger.

During the populist and progressive eras, a decades-long buildup of public anger led to major policy shifts, many of which simply took existing ideas from local and state efforts to the national stage. Furthermore, we have already seen how, in moments of crisis, the nationalization of auto giants like General Motors and Chrysler can suddenly become a reality. When the next financial breakdown occurs, huge injections of public money may well lead to de facto takeovers of major banks.

And while the American public has long supported the capitalist model, that, too, may be changing. In 2009 a Rasmussen poll reported that Americans under 30 years old were “essentially evenly divided” as to whether they preferred “capitalism” or “socialism.”

A long era of economic stagnation could well lead to a profound national debate about an America that is dominated neither by giant corporations nor by socialist bureaucrats. It would be a fitting next direction for a troubled nation that has long styled itself as of, by and for the people.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Apocalypse Tao: Austerity Hits the Export Economies

Agence France-Presse, via MSN News, calls our attention to the typically under-stated way in which the 2nd trumpeter plays his solo*:

Ni hao ma, beeyatch?
Glossa McGonagalica:
*What--you weren't thinking you could run an export economy under an austerity-induced global demand slump, were you?

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Gift that (We) Keep(s) on Giving: Through January 2013

"Demand a property tax on idle wealth.  Demand it NOW."--Liam McGonagle

"Seriously, do you expect a better opportunity to extract concessions from your enemies than when they lay begging, bleeding at your feet?"--Liam McGonagle

In case you were in the washroom when 'Jersey Shore' was interrupted with this late-breaking newstory:  Ben Bernancke just committed the U.S. to provide the European Central Bank ("ECB") with an unlimited line of credit.

That's right, a brand new bailout.  Structurally along the lines that Business Insider had warned us about in September, but much more ambitious; that article had postulated a trifling $1 trillion, not the bottomless pit we're actually being presented with. 

The basic deal is that we hand dollars over to the ECB in exchange for Euros, the value of which, has become highly dubious to say the least.  The ECB will in turn invest those dollars in large corporate banks to bolster balance sheets they themselves ruined through reckless underwriting practices and constant pressures for tax holidays and austerity measures.

Boun Natale e felice anni nouvi, Mario!
This is being billed as a stopgap measure to compensate for the fact that the genius architects of the Eurozone couldn't be bothered to implement a fiscal coordination authority in their new currency.  Must have seemed reasonable at the time.  We'd seen the end of history, after all.  Just like American civil liberties after 9/11, all the rules had changed.  The new era of seemlessly integrated global markets had pushed the capitalism's cycle of inevitable liquidity crises into the dustbin of history, right?

But is it really stopgap?  While similarly available currency swap loans had been available for some time previous, the duration of the current arrangement (i.e., a 50% reduction in the interest rate) is through January 2013, and is unlimited in amount.  Meaning that the committment is bounded in no way by the current supply of U.S. dollars.  So, at least theoretically, the U.S. will end up printing the dollars it will be obligated to provide incompetent European bankers.

When the implications of this development had finally settled in, and I'd had a chance to change into a clean pair of trousers and shower up a bit, I settled to thinking.  Two paradoxically conflicting corollaries floated to the surface:

1.  Nobody, I mean NOBODY, seems to have learned the lesson of the previous bailout regimes or Quantitative Easing programmes, namely that the size of the money supply in-and-of-itself is of distant, secondary importance to the circulation of currency.  Or, to put it in layman's language:  BANKERS DON'T DRIVE THE ECONOMY, CONSUMERS DO.

2.  The bizarre occurence of one nation printing money to manage the fiscal problems of another demonstrates exactly the sort of international commitment and cooperation that would be necessary to curb the irresponsible corporate leeching that led to these problems in the first place.  You know what I'm talking about, that old mantra of the defeatist traitor:  "But if we try to regulate corporations effectively, they'll just pull of stakes and move the show overseas!" 

As this incident suggests, it is effective government that provides the necessary stability for corporations to exist.  If so-called "populist" Tea Baggers in the House had the brains to realise this, they'd take this opportunity to make corporate elites pay their fair share of the burden:  i.e., more historically reasonable income tax rates and a tax on idle wealth.  Seriously, do you expect a better opportunity to extract concessions from your enemies than when they lay begging, bleeding at your feet?

Sadly, neither of these realizations seems likely to amount to much.  This is the era of greasy hacks like Newt Gingrich are seen as "transformational leaders" [1] and the worthless empty suit Obama tries to slide turds like this past us whilst simultaneously telling the American people that their "moment is NOW".  To date, the most vigorous response I've seen on this issue has been Ron Paul, condemning the Fed for taking this action unilaterally

Which, quite frankly, whilst being a step in the right direction, is nowhere good enough.  Paul was asleep at the wheel on this issue in September, wasting our time with penny-ante Solyndra b*llsh*t.  And nowhere do I see him calling for greater international government cooperation to curb the unaccountable multinational banks who are the primary beneficiaries of these abuses.  No mention anywhere of any increased corporate oversight, or fair transaction or property tax on the parasitic financial sector that destroys 80 cents in GDP out of every $1 that we give them.  Overall, even after grading on a curve, I just can't give Paul any grade higher than a "D-".  Try harder.

[1] Newt's constant use of the word "transformational" is equal parts insult, comedy and tragedy.  There's one reason that dried up old carpet-bagging whore never got "born again" into the Evangelical movement he so lustily courts on the campaign trail:  He'd leave a toxic oil slick in the baptismal pool.  The only thing Gingrish ever transformed is my dinner into vomit.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Who Will Protect the Protectors?

"What bullsh*t, Liam.  If your lot really thought they [i.e., the police] were part of the "99%", you'd be doing something to protect them, too,"  Sorcha Nic Congail

Well, it has to be admitted that my cousin Sorcha has a point.  A powerful point.  Not the sort of thing that I would have been inclined to explore on my own unbidden.  But that's what friends are for, I guess.  To prod you along some paths you would never have even considered, left to your own devices.

Here's where the hole ugly mess began:

Photo, allegedly of the dog Parrot moments before being shot to death by police

I received a copy of this photo last weekend from an FB friend and as a dog lover was immediately horrified.  As a kid I grew up with dogs--lots of dogs.  Probably the best, most loving and loyal animals on earth.  I'd long ago come to see dogs as man's natural companion and most trusted comrade.  My nerves just could not handle the image of a so-called "law enforcement officer" crushing the spine of a beloved family pet.  I blanched at the nightmare of a child discovering this photo haunt the web, eternally memorializing the brutal killing of his best friend--the best friend that would have done anything to protect him, but whom he himself was powerless to help in his hour of need.

The accompanying text was spare.  It described this officer backing a frightened family pet named Parrot into a corner, pouncing on the hapless creature and applying the full weight of his body to the animal's back before it was corralled to a concrete pen where another officer executed the creature at point blank range with his service revolver.

In the context of a stream of videos and text updates on the various Occupy protests throughout the company, I assumed (though was not told) that a protester had brought the animal along, either not wanting to subject the poor beast to the intolerable neglect and lonliness that his/her long absence would create, or maybe even as some stype of service animal like a seeing eye dog.  This time the cops had gone too far, I thought.

Scott Olsen, victim of police violence
I know--this was a sick, sick notion.  The whole world had seen a participant of Occupy Oakland, 24 year-old, 2-tour Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen shot in the face by overzealous police in California.  You may well say, "What kind of pervert are you, Liam, that you care more about a mere DOG than a human being?!" 

I don't blame you or disagree with you necessarily.  That is essentially true; my reaction was indeed a reflection of the bizarre, inverted distinctions I maintain in my various relationships with humans and animals.

Like I said, I grew up considering dogs to be my closest, most loyal friends.  My father was an expert at picking family pets.  My mother nicknamed Dad "St. Francis" because of the uncanny rapport he had with all sorts of animals.  He really did radiate an almsot supernatural calm among them that could lead to the most anamolous sights you're ever likely to see outside of a Pixar(tm) animation.  At one point he had somehow trained our two Labrador Retrievers to calmly (if inquisitively) accept the unfettered prescence of a parakeet hopping about the living room floor.  Believe it or not, those dogs NEVER molested the bird.

And this is precisely where the pardoxes enter the story of the photo above.  Three paradoxes, really.

First Paradox
The first is the explanation or rationalization for my relatively greater horror at the abuse of the dog as compared to the human being.  It was my experience--and I believe the experience of many if not most Americans--that they are taught to bifurcate their relationships with animals and human beings in a sick way that ultimately does justice to neither.  I reasoned, based on more than a little personal experience, that American society teaches us, in a way very, very few others do, that animals are acceptable repositories of our altruistic impulses of kindness, loving and warmth in a way another human being never could be.

Only makes sense, after all.  We urbanites literally infantalize our domestic animals in a way that would be utterly unthinkable in societies where the animals still performed working roles, as the "Dog Whisperer" Caesar Millan discusses frequently in his book "Be the Pack Leader".  Outside of some chichi enclaves within the gated communities of Mexico's elite, I doubt you will see many dogs forced haplessly into silly halloween costumes as you regularly do in the U.S.

Humans, on the other hand, are dangerous.  They are our competitors for resources, social prestige and mates.  In the current "Ayn Rand"-ian dystopia, where social incentives are paradoxically structured to encourge the destruction and elimination of these competitors, our personal "integrity" is best pursued through a policy of indifference or even outright hostility to our fellow humans.  Much better to relegate our "vulnerabilities" like the need for affiliation and unconditional acceptance to the narrow confines of the canine world--where they can't be effectively manipulated against us.

Sick.  Sick sick sick.  A sad and heartless realpolitik calculation, but nonethelss useful in accomplishing its stated aims.  A regretable feature of the rhetorical landscape which could, provided the story got enough press, represent a significant flashpoint in the slow and dangerous alienation between protesters and the law enforcement officers who ironically are being just as brutalized by the current economic and political regime as anyone else.  I've been torn between the fear of just such a development and the hope that it might yet be avoided for some time, ever since the massive rallies in March protesting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's unprecedented and undemocratic power grab.

Second Paradox 
As further discussion of the photo with my cousin Sorcha revealed, I had jumped the gun a bit. While the investigation of the incident is still pending, there is considerably more controversy surrounding the true factual course of events than was aparent from my initial, ham-fisted reaction.  For starters, this thing happened outside a D.C. area street festival--it had nothing at all to do with Occupy Wall Street or any of the spin off protests.   It may still turn out to be a case of tragic policing excess, but it will take more than a single incomplete and out-of-context FB blurb to reach that conclusion definitively.

Had I not enjoyed the benefit of Sorcha pouring a bit of cold water onto the whole affair, I would have been sorely tempted to write, without reflection or hesitation, a scathing, probably melodramatic account of the affair which not only would have led to precisely the sort of counterproductive alienation between protesters and police that I had feared, but maybe unjustly tarnished the reputation of that officer. 

Again, this realization is NOT by way of exhonorating the man unconditionally, but simply an honest recognition of the fact that the precise sequence of events are not yet an established part of the public record.  Whatever else that man may have been that day, perhaps nasty overbearing bully, crew-cutted thug, overzealous, undertrained or frightened incompetent, he is also a human being and an American citizen with the right to due process, just like the protesters.  Glossing over or denying that central fact doesn't exactly up our own value as tribunes of the people or enlightened human beings; in fact, it would only cheapen us.

Third Paradox
The third and perhaps greatest paradox of all here is the fact that I, perhaps more than most people, should have been aware of all the above from the git-go.  I come from a law enforcement family.  My father, brother and several cousins are current or former police officers.  Most also have served some time in the military, which is relevant, as in a very important sense (and I mean this in a non-pejorative way), police departments ARE quasi-military organizations--just like the Marine Corps service of Oakland victim of police brutality, Scott Olsen.

While I myself clearly am not, was never, and never will be a candidate for membership any police department, I do have ample experience with their institutional biases, and the way they impact the psychology and behavior of individual members.  By inclination and the course of my own education I personally am given to reflection and philosophical inquiry, but I understand that police officers are not. 

That's not some casually flippant stereotype.  It's a constantly reinforced observation grounded in bedrock fact.  A fact that any honest person with even the most tangental relationship to long-term military or law enforcement personnel will admit uncontroversially. 

I will spare you the litany of minor examples illustrating the point, the continual and desultory verbal sparring endemic to relationships of fathers and sons with irreconcilably different worldviews.  Partially because they're still painful, partially because they're still boring, but mostly because you almost certainly have much more vivid examples in your personal memory banks.  The point I'm making is NOT that police are by nature vicious brutes, but that their culture doesn't foster very deep psychological reflection.

The primary reason police officers are so psychologically one-dimensional should not be controversial either.  We demand that they be so.

We demand that police do the unreasonable.  We demand that they apply the force of law to the most disruptive elements of society.  The thieves, conmen, pimps and murderers.  And we demand that they do so every day, unfailingly without question and completely by the books.  By the very books that their erstwhile adversaries utterly despise.  All without hesitation or complaint.

The stress that their social role places on them must not be trivialized.  It's not enough to rattle off some lame-*ss bullsh*t about them "volunteering for the job", etc., etc., or otherwise bringing this upon themselves.  That would be just as backward as the sad cries of the "53%" who insist on blaming the current economic collapse on the very victims of banksters' reckless speculation.  That would not only risk alienating already hard-to-reach constituencies within the "99%", but is fundamentally opposed to the revolutionarily inclusive and truly populist spirit of the Occupy movement.

As a society we cannot afford to abandon them to the lack of leadership and public indifference they have stoically suffered for decades.  The cost is already too high.  It's a well known fact that law enforcement officers, just like military personnel, suffer from our society's highest levels of marital breakup, alcoholism, and, ironically or not, general run-ins with the law.  Just this past week comes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ("MJS") an expose of how this trend is reflected within the ranks of its own police department (e.g., domestic violence rates approximately four times higher than the average among society as a whole).

As that MJS article makes clear, a significant factor in this epidemic is the unwillingness on the part of department "leadership" to tackle these problems head-on, preferring instead to sweep them under the rug.  The problem clearly is NOT that the officers themselves are irredeemable bullies or fascists--one officer highlighted was the recipient in 2010 of a meritorious service award for enduring personal danger to protect a crowd gathered to demonstrate on behalf of immigration rights.  The problem is the we, as a society, flatly demand that officers expose themselves to danger and abuse in many novel or even entirely unprecedented situations without proper leadership. 

For starters, let's consider the anamolous situation of police officers being assigned to crowd control duty before a large political demonstration, a la Occupy.  Law enforcement's raison d'etre is clearly to forcefully interdict willful illegal activities that impose an unacceptable harm to society or an individual's rights, harms which cannot be effectively remediated subsequently, like bodily injury or gross destruction of property.  Ironically, that is precisely what movements like Occupy hope to accomplish in the political arena--interdict the continual plunder of the commonwealth and its traditions of open democracy by careless, incompetent and indifferent elites.

But of course that's not how the narrative that is typically offered by our society's so-called "leaders".  They constantly put forth, undeviatingly and unquestioned, the rationalization that the presence of the police officers is to prevent inevitable criminal abuses which will be committed by the protesters.  Even if the "authorities" are relatively successful in portraying themselves as ideologically neutral and uninterested in the protest's outcome, they hand us the old chestnut that large crowds of unhappy, dissastisfied citizens will inevitably resort to physical violence if not forcefully confronted with a quasi-military force.

Should we--and by mean ALLof us, police officers especially--just buy into that?  How does that make sense?  In what way does it help to de-escalate potential violent confrontation by introducing an armed element?  An armed element whose existential justification is to identify and confront law breakers, who are ironically sitting warm and comfortable in the elegant skyscraper palaces behind them, rather than the peaceful citizens arrayed before them.  Isn't this, in fact, almost exactly what a cynical bastard would prescribe if he were asked for a formula to sew self-destructive chaos?

I don't buy that for a second.  And to tell the truth, I'm kind of indifferent as to whether this massive failure on the part of police departments' leadership is a function of active malice within their ranks or the wider political establishment.  I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor, the philosophical tenet that, "One should not ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence."  At this juncture, I'm much more interested in solutions than I am in assigning blame.

What to Do?
Well, what DO we do?  It's a pretty enormous vacuum of leadership that needs to be filled here.  And my intuition tells me that it will not be acceptable under current conditions, on anyone's part, to encourage or allow police to simply refuse deployment to these crowd control assignments.  There is simply no way in Hell that any politician hoping to be re-elected, or any law enforcement officer worthy of the name, would allow himself to abandon the proposition, phony and half-baked as it is, that these "public safety" duties can be unilaterally abandoned.  Such a course of action, in the current environment, would inevitably cause enormous personal crises of identity in sincere public servants, if not immediate and complete exclusion from their institutions.

And maybe that's where a non-orthodox and non-linear, "Occupy"-inspired approach could be the game changer.  Maybe the point isn't simply to jump to a conclusion and impose a short-sighted, draconian "solution" like the failed leadership we're trying to brush aside.  Maybe the actual point is to "go inclusive"--treat law enforcement just like the 99% we're always claiming they are.  Maybe we should be aware of their specific concerns and make a powerful statement to support them in a very real way.

Here's how I propose to do so:  Model legislation requiring do-nothing politicians to take responsibility for the mess they force police into.  If candy-*ss empty suits won't provide cops with the leadership that they need, maybe the thinkers and visionaries of the Occupy Wall Street movement can help the cops grow it on there own.  My ideal bill would contain some version of all the following elements:

1.  Requirement that all officers assigned to crowd control duty be vetted by a specially designated panel of subject matter experts and elected representatives.

2.  Provide minimum standards and sufficient and competent training in the performance of crowd control duties utilizing the least amount of physical confrontation and coercion as possible.

3.  The stated goal of reducing burdensome legal defense and settlement costs associated with violent confrontation between police and citizens, in a manner consistent with the responsible stewardship over public funds.

4.  The obligations of the oversight panel must be expressly include ALL of the following:
     a.  Ensure the public's constitutional right to effective free expression and political participation, AND
     b.  Minimize the potential for serious violent conflict often exacerbated by the presence of arms, AND
     c.  Protect the physical and mental well-being of officers by asking them to participate in such
         controversial and difficult assignments only when they have received appropriate training and guidance

5.  Allow officers to categorically opt-in or opt-out of participation in the controversial crowd control duties, subject to attainment of minimum training and vetting standards as described above, so that they may determine for themselves whether their participation, in their unique circumstances, would cause undue stress.

6.  Requirement that the department set aside sufficient funds, personnel and time for officers to implement this law in order to avoid the additional unncessary stress of unfunded mandates would place upon them.  It seems pretty logical to me that the most equitable method of funding these provisions would be a direct levy on the institutions that are increasingly the focus of public protest--large banks and other financial institutions.  Given the multi-state and even multi-national character, it might be wise to pursue some type of shared funding arrangements accross multiple jurisdictions.

So How Hopeful Am I that Such a Thing Would Be Enacted?
Not very.  Not in the near future, anyhow.  It's no secret that municipalities accross the board are being raped by Republicans' continued calls for defunding.  We can't even fund our most fundamental services needs, like bus routes, primary school education, or for that matter elementary law enforcement, much less realistically hope for such an ambitious redefinition of their missions.

Maybe there's someone or some people out there with the vision and experience to take this thing to some actually implementable stage in the foreseeable future.  It's worth a shot.

But in my mind that's not even the main point.  The point should be to move the needle in the right direction, get a constructive debate going about just what the appropriate law enforcement response should be to massive displays of citizen disaffection. 

And that debate has to start with us.  The police can't do it on their own.  For starters, it's not legal or even conceptually proper for an armed, quasi-military force to interject itself in political movements.  Just as importantly, the well-founded institutional bias against deep philosophical engagement doesn't really prepare them to play a very constructive direct role in such thorny abstract issues.  That should be our job.  We.  Us.  The people who supposedly give a sh*t about the whole 99%.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Part I: Thank You for Your Lovely Cards . . .

I'd like to start out by sincerely thanking all those friends and readers who sent cards, flowers, etc. and generally wished me a speedy convalescence from the recent unpleasantness.  The doctors advise me that I'm likely to regain complete functionality in both wrists within the next year, and I'm certain that it was your warm encouragements that are responsible for this unusually speedy recovery.  It's really touching to know that I'm never far from my readers' minds, despite my long absence from the blog.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely at liberty to discuss the precise chain of events that lead to my hospitalization.  There are certain pending legal matters to be resolved, and I've been counseled against any discussions which may prejudice their outcome.  Nevertheless, the kind interest you've displayed in my welfare and the provocative nature of the photographs appearing in the "Police Beat" column of the local Blattsburg Tattler do call for some exposition of the matter, which I will now attempt--within the limits of prudence, of course.

I've often been told, "Don't drive angry!"  Which is generally good advice, but is much more difficult in practice than it's simplistic rhetorical formulation would suggest.  I live in an isolated portion of rural Wisconsin, where it is frankly impossible to do so much as pick up the morning paper from the mail box without driving five miles from the house.  I attribute my near constant rage to living in rural Wisconsin as well.  The people here are almost without exception intolerable bigoted hicks and hayseeds.  The few locally available alternatives are not much more soothing.

"Wow.  This stuff you've written here is real sh*t, Liam.  I mean, this isn't worthy of publication on a bathroom wall."

Raj is one of the very few non-honkies resident in my small town, and his Indian-born globe trotting urbanity is generally a welcome relief from the otherwise unrelenting provinciality of the place.  He'd actually grown up in Berlin, London and Paris--cultural and literary capitals whose names I was still learning to spell when I met him at night school, a creative writing class at the regional technical college.  He'd gotten his B.A. at a big name liberal arts school on the West Coast with a serious reputation and lengthy roll call of seriously elite professors, so his opinion does bear some attention.

"Okay, Raj.  But I think you're being a little hyperbolic there, chief.  After all, it is a first draft.  And you're completely glossing over its elegant narrative exploration of the proletariat's complicity in his own alienation.  Give this thing its due."

"Give this thing its due?!  It's garbage!  Absolute, uninspired formulaic garbage! Trey Parker regularly craps out better episodes of South Park while tripping on acid than the drek you've wiped all over these pages!"

"Heyheyhey!  Let's keep this discussion productive, okay?  I can handle criticism if there's a point behind it.  Care to unbundle that landfill of a critique there and point out a single, specific instance of this so-called irredeemable "drek"?"

"Well well well . . . Where to begin?"  Raj rifled through the jam-and-butter stained manuscript, violently stabbing his thumb towards the offending page once he'd settled on one example.  "How about this?  The scene where you have Karl Marx coming home early to find his wife Jenny in bed with the economist Adam Smith.  What is this supposed to be?  An episode of "Falcon Crest" or "Rocky and Bullwinkle"?"

I really was NOT understanding Raj's point of view on this one at all.  OF COURSE it was a ridiculously melodramatic parody.  That was the intention all along.  The entire concept here was meta commentary on the "Snidely Whiplash"-esque quality behind the phony Left/Right culture wars.  Did Raj really think I'd write in a goofy todtenkampf between Adam Smith and Karl Marx on the rooftops of Victorian London without any satirical plan?  I took a deep breath and did my best to dial back my own building rage.  I started to explain as slowly and calmly as I could.

"Raj, you're missing the entire point here.  The point is exactly that--to ridicule the cartoonishly simplistic terms of the public debate.  Is that really not apparent to you?"

"Liam, how can I say this?  How can I adequately convey to you the tired, "been-there-done-that" quality of this unimaginative rubric without implying that you're a hopeless philistine? . . . Oh, that's right--I CAN'T."

I probably would have been able to endure his jealous, fairly hack-like sniping had it not been for the eruption of a snorting cackle of laughter from the horse-like co-ed sitting a few yards from us in the cafeteria.  It's one thing to receive a vigorous challenge from a reasonably informed person, but it's quite another to be subject to the abuse of the bovine cretins that haunted the halls of this technical college.  I exploded out of my chair in a fury, ripping the manuscript from Raj's hands and swinging my way about toward the exit in a near blind rage.

Which probably explains why I slammed headfirst into a pillar on the way out, showering the manuscript and the contents of my computer bag all over the floor.  Now the whole cafeteria roared with laughter.

So this is more or less where my head was just before the accident, and why it seemed like a good idea at the time to get away and just clear my head for a bit with a quiet drive through the winding country lanes.  If anyone had come up to me at that moment and insisted on that tired old aphorism, "Don't drive angry!", I probably would have head-butted them and told them to mind their own business.

But again, that was before the accident.  Before I'd encountered Abbey Small and the Buddhist Mafia.  Before everything spiralled out of control.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Do You Do with a Problem like Timmy? Results as of 6th October

Thanks to everyone who participated in the poll about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's treacherous behavior.  This was very timely, given all the excitement caused by the emerging Occupy movement.  Seems like as a species we're all embarking on a collective experiment in consensus building.

Your responses were fascinating.  The pattern of your answers demonstrated a very sophisticated rationale and complex analysis.  I can't really parse the thread of each individual's thought process -- the questionnaire format I used was far too simplistic.  But the overall pattern is pretty clear:  You don't quite believe that others have your same clarity about the wrongfulness of Geithner's actions.  For example:

I apologize for the poor legibility of this pics.  Full data and charts for all questions is available here for better viewing.

Still, 2 things probably stand out as readily to you as they did to me: 

1.) Almost complete unanimity that the failure (to date) to harshly punish Geithner's actions constituted some serious violation of moral consistency;

2.) Almost 2/3 of you believed that the public at large are indifferent to that inconsistency and its implications for American democracy.

Why do you figure that's so?  True enough, this poll's design left a lot to be desired.  This thing could be torn to shreds on any number of methodological grounds: leading questions, confusing, wordy format, inappropriate or incomplete choices offered, etc., etc.  But my real suspicion is that 2 main phenomena underly these trends:

1.)  Self-selection bias.  The forums I submitted this thing likely guaranteed that the only people taking the questionnaire were people who already outraged by Geithner and very cynical about mainstream media interpretations.

2.)  Things may not be quite as bad as you thought.  Few of us, those of us who've been paying attention, anyhow, have been willing to indulge in the "H-word" since 2009.  Even if our gloomiest, most alienated prognostications turn out to be correct about the denoument of this particular issue, there does seem to be a strong chance that there are more intelligent, vigillant and right-thinking people out there than you think.  After all, nearly 100% of you agreed that Geithner's continued presence in the administration is a moral outrage.

Maybe we just have to spend more time talking about these things out loud, demonstrate the high level of latent consensus that's already out there.

Flouncing Fathers: Tea Party Edition

"Eek!  A black man!"

From an AOL story recounting the latest trumped-up conflict in the phony culture wars.

Aside from this funny photo, I couldn't really give a rat's ass about that bullsh*t.  When I saw this I laughed so hard that I simultaneously snorted, choked, farted and spouted milk out me nose with the convulsions.  Not pleasant.  Believe me, it's not something you'd wish on your worst enemy--to fart through a milk-drenched nose.

Yes, it's a shame that Hank had to go there--I actually like a lot of his music.  But as Hunter S. Thompson once said, " Buy the ticket, take the ride."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An Undifferentiated Mass of Human Dignity

It's an anti-capitalism thing.  No, it's an anti-war thing.  No, it's a civil rights thing.  No, it's a desert topping.  No, it's a floor wax.

Occupy:  Social Supernova?
Ever since the Occupy movement began garnering mainstream media attention there has been an energetic, maybe even desperate, debate to define the significance of thousands of people from all over the nation spontaneously gathering in America's large urban centres, decrying the rapacious criminality of the establishment--all sans identifiable figureheads or fixed policy programmes.

Yes, from the start it was clear that, in its broadest outlines at least, this thing was a passionate rebuke to parasitic Wall Street types.  Whatever that may mean in actual practice, it's definitely not a formulation consistent with laissez faire economics a la the Koch brothers' Tea Party.  So not surprising that most right wing analyses approached the topic with a dismissive laziness.  They've crafted fear into a formidable electoral weapon and are well familiar with the coward's first law of dealing with Truly Scary Things:  avoid real contact.

That general approach, however, is hardly the exclusive resort of the right wing.  It is, in fact, the universal reaction of all establishment types accross the board.  Witness the White House's statement about the Occupy movement.

And that is the point most interesting to me, as a recovering Obama zombie.  Not so much that His Zero-ness is not even trying to swim with the raw, powerful populist currents churning within Occupy, but that those on the institutional left are not doing a helluva lot better.[1]

Analyses during the early, pre-mainstream exposure pretty much focused around the creeping sense of unease felt by veteran activists when confronted with the informal, unpolished and unfocused demeanor of some demonstrators. 

While I've only become really engaged with public affairs recently, I identify most closely with this group of commentators.  They may have much more extensive pedigrees of activist involvement than I, but we all share one key characteristic:  a relatively simplistic linear model of the world. Something akin to a cold, impersonal, mathematical dogma bound by a rigid series of theorems and acceptable logic that is fatally dependant upon the artificially constricted environment of 2-dimensional Euclidian space.  Just as where A+B=C and C=2A, then A=B, when social outcomes are a function of the implementation of policy programmes by formal authorities, all movements seeking to affect social change must have designated leaders and a fixed platform of specific policies.

Elegant notion, that, no?  Makes a man feel superior.  Powerful.  Easy able to comprehend the vast workings of the society around him and have a decisive impact.  'Cept it don't quite work that way in the real world.

We live in a world of at least 4 dimensions (height, depth, width and time) and certainly more, if you're able to contemplate the inescapable yet ineffable fact of human subjectivity.  Within certain specialized domains, the objective statistics of a person's height, weight, eye color and age may be crucial, but are totally inadequate to evaluating that person's tangible impact on his family and co-workers.  Is he smart or stupid?  Funny or morose?  Energetic or slothful?  Handsome or hideous?  Generous or niggardly?  We ultimately care a lot more about these questions than we do whether he's 5'10 1/2" or 6' or his eyes are most accurately described as green or hazel.

But what exactly is intelligence?  Humor?  Vitality?  Attractiveness?  Generosity?  Those are philosophical or religious questions that the mathematicians, myself included, have utterly failed to acknowledge, let alone resolve.

This is exactly what Occupy is or should be teaching us.  How to come together as people and articulate a clear consensus of values that actually work.  It is no longer acceptable to passively trust the dithering buffoons formally charged with interpreting received wisdom, quite simply because that "wisdom" does not work and has not worked for quite some time.  Occupy is about morality, not politics.  It is most definitely a type of activism, but one more concerned with developing a shared moral vision of society's priorities than in establishing yet another corruptible "leader" or co-optable policy programme.

Until Occupy, America's been kind of winging this one.  Lost in almost completely unchartered territory.  True, there are ample historical precedents for crumbling superpowers undermined by a feedback loop of dysfunctional entrenched interests and incompetent leadership.  But never in the context of a society philosophically on autopilot, almost completely indifferent to actual engagement about the moral content of its choices.

Let's not screw this one up again, America.  Let's not insist on Occupy being a closed-ended event, smashed viciously into the unforgiving mold of our stupid personal prejudices.  Let's accept this beautiful gift for what it is on it's own terms--a process, not an event.

[1]  Obama's motivation in avoiding the thing is obvious.  He's a cack-handed snake oil salesman who will say anything to avoid true conflict and achieve short-term electoral advantage.  His deal with the Devil in defunding Social Security through extended payroll tax holidays sapped, quite rightly, Democratic support for a jobs bill that contained many otherwise useful provisions such as a rebalancing of income tax policy.  Obama finds himself hoplessly cornered by Republican demands that, in exchange for bringing the bill up for consideration in the House, he submit for approval a job-killing "free trade" agreement that he negotiated with South Korea.  No where for Obama to go on this one; Old Nick's coming to collect his due now.  This jobs bill, at least its potentially helpful bits, is dead.

So it's more than a little disappointing to me that organized labor has been a little slow in seeing the light.  Earlier this year, in conjunction with the events surrounding Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's attempts to crush public workers unions, heavy hitters like Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, were making encouraging noises about a renewed vision of the labor movement independent of compromised empty suits like Obama.  Yet once again they swallowed hard when Obama handed them this sh*t sandwhich of a jobs bill too small and too reliant upon long-disproven free market tropes like the Laffer curve and regulatory disincentive hyptothesis.

I'm glad that unions have started to make solid, practical contributions toward the Occupy movement--like the New York Transit Workers Union's refusal to be co-opted into busing NYPD detainees.  But if they want to make a true difference, display some deeper understanding of Occupy's significance, they're going to have to directly confront Obama.  Either with a primary challenger, as proposed by Cornell West and Ralph Nader, or a potential third party candidacy, as Dylan Ratigan is reported to be mulling.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Poll: Why Tim Geithner Is Or Is Not A Fatal Liability

The past few weeks have not been good ones for Tim Geithner, Obama's Treasury Secretary.  On Tuesday, Ron Suskind's book, "Confidence Men:  Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President", came out detailing behavior that could be most generously interpreted as gross insubordination, if not an outright unconstitutional usurpation of executive power by a political appointee.  Nor did Geithner do himself any favors by openly proclaiming before European finance ministers:  "He [Obama] 's not in charge; I am".

Has this rendered Geithner a political "toxic asset"?  Should he be given his walking papers immediately?  Should Geithner be let free when soldiers refusing to serve 2nd, 3rd or even 4th tours of duty in Afghanistan are jailed for years?  In deciding a response, which is most important to you:  enforcement of the United States constitution, Obama's personal reputation, the Democratic Party's electoral viability for 2012 or polemical use of the issue to further Republican partisan aims?  Is there any justifiable defense for a man who has sacrificed the American economy in order to protect his personal friends on Wall Street?  Please take the linked survey and let me know your thoughts.*

Plan to publish first batch of results next week.

*As always, feel free to add a comment to discuss further if you like.  Just bear in mind that I only make a limited amount of revenue from the Victoria's Secret (tm)  banners here, so it may be awhile before I get arround to posting your comments.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Great News, Everybody: A New (Secret) Bailout!

This in from Business Insider:  Scuttlebutt that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be softening up Obama, Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner for yet another round of bailouts for the incompetent multinational financial elites.

Awesome!  I was afraid that the next round of bailouts would require "patriots" like representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) to take to the floor begging again.  I feel so relieved now, knowing that the whole thing can proceed quietly without anyone having to jeopardize their campaign funding.

The Parable of the Blind, Pieter Bruegel, 1568
But where do our other, prospective "leaders" stand on this topic?  Hard to say.  Irrelevance and opacity seem to be the primary tenets of the major candidates' PR machines.  Here's what I mean.

Ron Paul's heart may be in the right place regarding the need to end counterproductive wars and pointlessly intrusive social wedge issues, but his knack for failing to identify urgent priorities remains unequalled.  Witness the most recent update to his news page:  Paul's response to the burning issue of a vaguely worded email RECEIVED (i.e., NOT sent) by a third-tier lackey in the slave galley of Obama's PR establishment.  Yeah, I know.  $527 million is 0.05% of the $1 TRILLION in bailout money supposedly at stake in the Euro bailout, but Ron's never claimed to be more than what he clearly is:  an amateur.

Still, it was a bit of a disappointment.  Those of us who had taken heart in the earnestness of Ron's campaign do feel a little saddened by his betrayal of it's core moral theme, that public figures should take firm stands on what they believe and know to be correct, regardless of the short-term pragmatic consequences.  Ron doesn't have and never had a snowball's chance in Hell of winning anything other than honorable mention.  But his piling on here to the failure of an innovative business venture, and one pioneering a technology that could threaten the petroleum-military complex at that, just feels like he's gotten himself lost.  Hopelessly lost.

And that was the high ground, folks.  The rest of the lot could either bore you with their predictability or make you laugh at their vapidity:

A quick visit to Michele Bachmann's website yielded only her trumpeted zeal for "politicking" in Iowa.  FYI to Bachmann:  You're from Iowa.  You have home turf advantage.  You already won the straw poll there last month.  Time to move on.  There's another 49 states in the union, some of them with more than 1 electoral college vote.

Rick Perry's site wasn't a helluva lot better.  True, he seems to have left last month behind him, but devil a word you'll hear about the impending bailouts.  He also spent all his gunpowder in low-grade partisan b*llshitting.  G*ddamn it, at least Bachmann gave us a few laughs.  All Perry did was bore me to tears.

Mitt Romney's response was a little more nuanced and amusing.  Yes, no one is surprised that the much-vaunted hedge fund manager uttered not peep #1 about the use of public funds to underwrite his pals' vacation homes in St. Tropez, or that he cleared his policy platform with these same scum bags.  But did you know you could win a once-in-a-lifetime date with this Tiger Beat dreamboat?  I don't know about you, but his flat, nasal automaton speech and "Reaganesque" elder statesman-y graying temples just make me melt.  'Specially the way he says:  "Corporations are people, too, my friend!"

No, you won't hear much about Bailout III:  The Re-"Bush"-ening on any administration web site either.  Not the Fed.  Not the Treasury.  Not the president's blog.  Hardly much of a surprise.  Obama's always been an awkward, "play-behind-the-beat kind" of guy anyhow.  He seems continually caught off-guard by the way his bailouts, unconstitutional wars, plutocratic tax giveaways and civil rights violations have continued to erode the economy and the support of the people who voted for him in 2008.

But shouldn't we expect more from his "challengers"?  There should be no question of pragmatic compromises in order to achieve tactical victories, because going on the 4th year of 10%+ unemployment and simultaneously sky-rocketing unemployment claims and corporate profits, there's really nothing left to compromise any more.  Ergo a complete and overwhelming moral victory seems free for the taking.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The One Big Reason You Should Not Celebrate 9/11

Are you the kind of sick pervert that celebrates the murder of 3,000 civilians?  More than likely the answer is "yes".

"Hold on a minute, A-h*le," you may counter.  "It's not a 'celebration'.  It's a 'commemoration'.  It's one of the few things that can bring divided America together as a nation.  Mourning a shared tragedy, a loss of innocence.  Expressing gratitude for the selfless courage of the first responders.  Building community."

Ah, not so much.  In reality, it is a masterful manipulation of the complementary moral and intellectual weaknesses of the both extreme wings of the American body politic, a satanic appeal to our vanity and invitation to the destruction of our democratic institutions.  Stupid right wingers love the 9/11 narrative because it's a simple authoritarian parable providing clearly delineated foreign villains and glorifying nativist military authorities.  Spineless left wingers love it because they get to light all their coolest scented candles around the drum circle and feel each others' pain.

However, it's actual primary importance, though quite obvious to anyone who actually thinks about it, is rarely explicitly articulated: the destruction of our sense of agency.  The sense of individual and corporate empowerment and responsibility necessary to the successful conduct of affairs is decisively undermined by a morbid preoccupation with victimhood. 

Especially so when that impotent whinging becomes the sole focus of public discourse.  Remember:  The United States did NOT defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  The Soviet Union defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War--through the tragi-comic stupidity of insisting upon its vision of itself as the embattled last champion of a communal ideology beset from all sides by an insidious, corrupt capitalist enemy.  This tunnel-vision prevented a balanced, realistic interpretation of the nature and severity of the economic and political challenges facing them.  It foreclosed necessary policy options from even theoretical consideration.  And it inevitably concentrated the latent energies of its ignored population to a breaking point.  Even if those constitutents' ambitions have been imperfectly realized, and maybe even resulted in as much instability as progress, they undeniably achieved one goal--the destruction of the Soviet Union.

How ironic, then, that a nation of people professing to be can-do pioneers and innovators of the American frontier insist on painting themselves into a very Soviet-style ideological corner.  All "American" solutions must be private sector solutions.  Never mind that over-reliance upon and under-regulation of the corporate sectors recently resulted in the largest economic disaster in three generations.  Never mind the obvious fact that the single common business purpose embodied int he charters of ALL corporations worldwide, profit, is essentially anti-social and undermining of the impetus toward activity and exchange for which Americans are starving.  And never mind the fact that the most impressive and dynamic economic turnaround in our history was the result of progressive policy and vigorous governmental engagement.  We are committed to a death spiral of stupidity.

Anyone with even a single semester of Econ 101 or one year in the private sector knows that the real challenges to successful enterprise are capital and access to markets, not taxation.  If you're netting more than $250,000 per year and you can't get by on that, you are a pig.  If, however, you find that your dream of opening a corner grocery store like the one your grandfather owned is impossible due to the simple fact that you'll never be able to obtain the credit necessary to operate on the scale dictated by the Super-Walmarts of the world, you are simply being realistic.

But realistic observations like these count as heresy according to the current canon of acceptable American ideas.  Even if they accurately identify the forces thwarting individual economic freedom, they clearly run counter to the myth that America "won" the Cold War through total absence of economic regulation and the benign wisdom of the resultant corporate elites.  The true narrative isn't one of the plucky individualist overcoming adversity through enlightened self-interest; it's actually the peasant-like surrender of our rights as free-born American citizens.

9/11 is arguably the single most important feast in the liturgical calendar of America's cult of impotence.  Maybe you feel like a real patriot on the surface, tossing off a couple of cheap, content-free platitudes.  But deep down you should probably hate yourself.  Apart from displaying a disgusting indifference to the literally hundreds of thousands of lives lost and ruined in 9/11's aftermath, and utterly failing to explain the event itself in the context of American foreign policy, celebration of 9/11 reinforces a hide-bound mythology of powerlessness.  It guarantees, in fact, that America's situation will only become worse and worse in the years to come.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Paul Ryan Hands Cold War Victory to the Ruskies

Well, there it is folks.  Plain as day: Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's "Roadmap to Ruin" austerity program sh*tcanned the U.S. Spaceshuttle program and left us dependant upon the charity of ex-KGB chief Vladimir Putin.  No you wouldn't hear much about that from the Fox News(tm) Politburo.  Seems that we have to rely on our Aussie cousins to get the scoop.

It's true.  Now without an independant space program of our own, we'll be at the tender mercies of the aparatchiks in Moscow to support our telecommunications satellite infrastructure.

Now I don't have definitive proof yet that Paul Ryan is a sleeper agent for Uncle Vanya, but all signs point to yes.  In debt ceiling talks this week his lot are trying to force American-born grandmothers to give up their cat food money in order to support the vodka habits of his Wall Street buddies like Frenchman "Fabulous" Fab Torre.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Do You Smell The Chum?

Well, this past Tuesday certainly was freaky.  In case you hadn't noticed it, a massive disturbance rippled through the Force with enough power to knock the shoes off of anyone paying attention.  It's unclear to me precisely what it all adds up to, but I suspect that the universe just passed through a Paradox Inflection.  Just possibly the forces of Right Wing Corporatist Perversion have actually begun to turn on themselves.  Here's just three examples of what I mean:

1.  Rupert Murdoch retreats on his bid to monopolize Britain's largest satellite service BSkyB.  In the wake of the recent phone hacking scandal where person's in the employee of Murdoch's flagship publication News of the World was forced to close up shop for illegally eavesdropping on the survivors of terrorist attacks and bribing police officials.  Many initial reports saw that as a savvy move to divert attention from Murdoch's attempt to acquire control of a much more lucrative and influential television market, but apparently British politicians are reacting more like a shark sensing blood in the water.

2.  Mitch McConnell, leader of Republicans in the U.S. Senate publically sh*t upon himself by begging Obama to release Republicans from the responsibility of actually acting on the looming debt crisis.  Mitch did act with characteristic fascist flare, however, by structuring it as an end to the Constitutional "Separation of Powers" principle whereby Congress holds responsibility for the nation's purse strings.  Is there any principle of democracy that Republicans aren't willing to throw away?

3.  In the Wisconsin recall primaries, Real Democrats scored shattering victories (i.e., almost all 66%+) over fraudulent candidates set up by Scott Walker's black op's department.  The state Republican Party rationalized its attempt to deceive the voting public as an attempt to buy time to campaign in races they do not feel they could win honestly.  Frankly, there's no way of recapping that last bit without them outright admitting that they are in thrall to the Master of Lies.

Yeah, it's bizarre alright, folks, and the best seems yet to come.  But it calls to mind nothing so much as RNC chief Rancid Priebus diving into the Pacific waters of Shark Alley wearing a pair of chum-flavoured speedos.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Millions for Defense; Not One Cent for Tribute

Oh how the times have been a changin' since Robert Goodloe Harper coined that gem in 1798.  In the 21st century, apparently, patriotism means stealing hundreds of billions from the U.S. Treasury to bailout incompetent bankers, as "minute man"[1] Paul Ryan begged the House to do on September 29, 2008.

Okay, so as a nation we're totally cool with recasting tribute to greasy financial fatcats as "investment"--even if it doesn't exactly pay a huge return. [2]

But since "far left socialist" Barack Obama proposed cutting Social Security benefits during recent talks to increase the nation's debt ceiling (to much Republican enthusiam), making sure Granny gets her catfood money has also been redefined as "wanton profilgacy".  Ah, sure, the ol' gal only had another ten years left in her TOPS anyways, right?

America, you are a pack of perverts.[3]

[1] Not a quote from Ryan's wife, mind you, but my personal interpretation of the guy's attention span.  Not only does he seem never to have bothered considering the negative consequences of diverting billions from high multiplier government programs to line the pockets of his already bloated buddies at AIG, I'm not sure that he even knows what the term "fiscal multiplier" means. 

[2]  The Bureau of Labor Stats today showed that our nation of 300+ million managed to increase jobs by a lousy 18k.  Which I figure is about 80k short of even keeping up with the increase in the work force.  But of course the fantastically inept media will fail to report the numerous predictions that enactment of Ryan and Obama's tax cuts in December would lead to job losses not gains, so in the public mind the policy's continued failure will remain a mystery.

[3]  Feel free to let your representatives and senators know how obscene you find highjacking old age pensioners to pay for Goldman Sachs bonuses:  right them NOW.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Soul Train Hits The Big 4-0

Wow.  The popular music program Soul Train celebrated it's 40th anniversary at the Lincoln Center recently.  Funny how you only see the disparate threads of your crazyquilt life coalesce into a coherent pattern when the grave comes into sharper focus than the cradle.*

As an awkward whiteboy sporting a buzzcut in the upper Midwest during the 1970's, Soul Train was a HUGE catalyst to my way of thinking.  Maybe not in the sense of being a springboard into some lifelong commitment to Black culture and art, but definitely in terms of providing a reliable frisson of contrast and excitement. 

Sure, I would live out the '70's and '80's as an extremely awkward and conventional white kid, but watching what was for me the totally unprecedented display of unabashed sybaritic revelry and an aesthetic that could leverage bold emphasis as much as understatement really blew open doors in my mind.  As exciting as the Beatles' excursions outside of the 4-piece pop paradigm were to a boy raised on Johnny Horton's "The Battle Hymn of The Republic", the O'Jays represented an even more interesting departure.  They could be more conventional than the Beatles in terms of instrumentation, harmonic and melodic structures, but offered way more rhythmically novelty, and with a much warmer timbre.

Jacques Derrida
I truly believe that this was the subjective frame of reference that allowed me to handle Derrida.  Without the inimitable flare of Don Cornelius' glowing, mellow tones guiding me, I'm not sure how I would have been able to develop subtle enough distinctions between 'enthusiasm' and 'reserve', 'formality' and 'cultivation' to appreciate alternate ways of looking at the world, the difference between "Deconstruction" and "Destruction."  Thank you, Soul Train.

*How's THAT for a mixed metaphor?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Luntz and Counter-Luntz: The Word You're Looking for Is "Dissent"

In recent weeks I've had number of interesting discussions with friends, Facebook and otherwise, about the bizarre shift towards totalitarianism in American politics.  Of course, no political movement is possible without a corresponding cultural alignment, and the most lamentable trend in this regard seems to me to be the ascendancy of misanthropic polemical whores like Frank Luntz, who function more or less as the shock troops against the American tradition of anti-ideology, perverting our traditional inclinations into a cult of Mammon.[1]

Wisconsinites, whom I believe to be reasonably typical victims of Luntz et alia, demonstrate some pretty mixed reactions to the word "protest", judging by some friends' anecdotes surrounding pre-recall canvassing going on in this state.  One friend's story particularly resonated with me:  a man who angrily turned a canvasser away from his door saying that he was tired of all that protesting going on in Madison, and thought the "Wisconsin 14" had shown bad faith by leaving the state to forestall passage of Governor Walker's union busting bill.  In his mind, the Democratic senators should have "negotiated" with Walker.

Pretty odd interpretation of events, from any review of the factual situation.  Being minorities in both houses, and confronted by a Senate majority leader who called for extra-legal vigilante groups to physically hunt them down, there was always exactly ZERO possibility of Walker negotiating in good faith.

Yet it does make good sense when you realize that what voters have no interest whatsoever in good policy or standards of debate.  This is the key to Luntz' "success".  Our main concern is to be on the "winning" side, even if our role is largely limited to chosing the instrument of our own destruction.  It's just the American way.  The flip side to the American virtue of an open-minded lack of ideological commitment is the willingness to rationalize any horrific perversion as a victory for the forces of "Good".  In fact, the more complete the perversion, the more "virtuous" the pervert.  And vice versa.

Case in point:  the fate of the words "protest" and "protestor" after the Vietnam era.  That age of unrepented sin continues to fester in the American soul.  Memories like the Kent State shootings, Mai Lai massacre and Weather Underground violence pile miseries so thickly upon one another that, in the absence of a prolonged and thoughtful examination of the events, the only way to throw them off and move forward seemed to be to simply pick a winning side and demonize the loser. 

And with the credit of the GOP, American foreign policy and the military industrial complex on the line, what do you figure the chances of a pile of wet-behind-the-ears college kids coming out on top were?  Someone had to take the fall, and it was America's conscience.  From then on, the word "protestor" would be a pejorative, conjuring images of greasy long-hairs living off their parents' largesse and whose primary purpose in life seemed to be holding picket signs and blocking traffic for God-fearing citizens trying to get to their offices down town.

So the word has to go.  Even if the denotation is still technically correct, and still retains some romantic charm for a subset of society, in the elections and debates that ultimately make real quality of life differences in America it is a turd.

My proposed replacement?  Dissenter.  Denotatively it also depicts a factual situation where a disadvantaged minority resist the impositions of the formally constituted authorities.  But in the deepest reaches of the American soul, it evokes memories of valliant--and ultimately successful--struggle against an arrogant tyrant almost as hated as Mao or Stalin.  The term "dissenter" in American and English history refers to the 17th century people who opposed the established church on grounds of individual religious conscience but also the state's venality and corruption.[2]  The adventures and mis-adventures of those original Dissenters ultimately gave rise to the Anglophone tradition of republic and constitutional government.[3]

An observer no less acute than the reknown Alexis de Tocqueville recognized America's primary ethic as a civil religion, and analyzed it in these terms:

"The greatest part of...America was peopled by men who...brought with them into the New World a form of styling it a democratic and republican religion."

In keeping with the inherent contradiction of a populist principle establishing a governing order, it was subject to numerous, sometimes conflicting interpretations from the very start.  For example, the colony which eventually became the state of Connecticut was established by a group splintering from the original Puritan colony of Massachussets. 

The central quality is a commitment to the process of reconciling liberty with good order--not a bigotted clinging to unquestioned dogma.  There is no reason at all a true Dissenter cannot be a principled atheist or upstanding agnostic as well as a righteous believer in any of the various faith traditions.  This is borne out by the respect for the original Dissenters retained among almost all ethnic and religious or non-religious of American society to this day.

Get it?  Judges and duly constituted tribunes of the people "dissent". In the public mind, only self-centered hedonistic collections of venereal disesase "protest".

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the winner, the rhetorically and morally acceptable face of the opposition to strong-arm junta tactics of the likes of Walker and Fitzgerald.  Thanks for the template, Frank Luntz.

[1]  Yes, I think that metaphorical construction is well warranted, given the parade of ethics violations that haunt Luntz' career.  Just one example:  In 1997, the American Association for Public Opinion Research formally reprimanded Luntz for his inability to provide the standard support requested for some of his more outrageous claims.  In my mind Luntz' role in American culture is best analogized to that of an aggressive bowel cancer.  But only because I can't think of a fouler aberration.

[2]  There are plenty of though-provoking analyses of the English civil wars and the competing strands of political thought that they gave voice to.  In no way can they considered to be an unalloyed triumph of Good over Evil--the Roundhead hero Oliver Cromwell's campaign to impose his notion of a "Godly Nation" on Ireland resulted in the extermination of approximately 1 out of every 4 inhabitants of that island between 1649 and 1653.  But it clearly laid the groundwork for the predominant mode of limited government in the English speaking world.  Simon Schama passibly recounts the contemporary British view of those events in the book and television documentary, "A History of Britain".

[3]  An ironic result of Cromwellian dispensation in Ireland was the destruction of a far more ancient tradition of constitutional monarchy, Brehon Law.  This is not the place to launch into a lengthy discussion of its merits and demerits, but it is worth mentioning that this system of jurisprudence amounted to the formal accumulation of precedent and interpretation of legal principles by a class of professional scholars which even kings could not flout without suffering painful sanction.  Laws were created solely by the process of refined interpretation of precedent, much like the English Common Law tradition, rather than by executive fiat.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday, America!

June 16th is the annual celebration of Leopold Bloom's doomed wanderings through Dublin in 1904, as chronicled in James Joyce's classic novel "Ulysses".  And in the 21st century, reality finally catches up with and overtakes fiction. 

In 1921 a U.S. court banned Ulysses on the grounds that some of its graphic depictions of nudity and sexuality constituted pornography under the Postal Code.  And while that decision was reversed in 1933 by a judge who could only have failed today's more rigorous selection processes for illiteracy and cretinism, the private sector came to the rescue of public morals when Apple banned an online illustrated version from its iStore last year.

However, that victory had an even shorter half-life.  A couple months later, presumably realising that it would lose it's investment completely if it maintained the ban, and that nobody would likely access anything remotely smacking of literary merit anyway, Apple decided to give it a go after all.

Still, Ulysses can still claim numerous triumphs.  We were reminded recently that the real-life tribulations of one Henry Kahn, great-grandfather of actress Dervla Kirwan, may have inspired the nightmare courtroom episode in the book.  Kahn was forbidden by the notorious Sir Frederick Falkiner from testifying on his own behalf due to Kahn's blatent, obstinate and willful Judaism.

While the "Double Castration" sentence handed down in the clearly Ulysses-inspired digression within Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" stands as a worthy literary heir (IMHO), the book's actual legacy in the field of (juris)prudence is even greater.  Aside the from the miscarriage of justice in the conduct of the Bradley Manning affair, Wisconsin's miraculously "re-elected" supreme court justice David Prosser handed down an opinion on the controversial collective bargaining bill which, according to 50% of his colleagues, was riddled with error and faulty analysis.

And so it goes.  The more things change, they more they stay the same.  Although a court in 1921 may have affected offense by the onanistic happenings in Chapter 13 of Ulysses, "Nausicca", in fact, courts invented public masturbation.