Saturday, October 25, 2014

An Eggshell Filled with Dynamite

“One of the characteristics of a civilization which promotes form over content is that memory evaporates.” John Ralston Saul
The other day I asked my wife, “Do you remember when it was just you, me and the dog? Life was simple then. Remind me why we rolled the dice and produced children?
Our 18-year-old son who didn’t go off to college as planned is miserable, a tortured soul who blames us for his unhappiness. When he’s not outright hostile, the boy is morose and withdrawn; he’s also completely solipsistic. What bothers me most about my son is his utter lack of concern for other people – his sister, his grandparents, his aunts – all people who love him, care about him, and are willing to do almost anything for him. Why this isn’t good enough for the boy is a mystery to me.
Our 13-year-old daughter is, well, 13, and riding the hormone rollercoaster. The slightest provocation sets her off. She’s like an eggshell loaded with dynamite. She spends a lot of time in her room, behind a closed door, and woe to him or her who enters without knocking and being granted permission to enter. In addition to being mercurial, my dear daughter is also an accomplished procrastinator. Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow? 13, the awkward age, filled with acute self-consciousness and a burning need to simultaneously fit in and stand out. The junior high drama never ends; today’s best friend and confidant easily becomes tomorrow’s betrayer and archenemy.
Raising children is a contact sport, emotionally speaking, and a lot of the time I feel like a failure as a parent. I frequently remind myself that my offspring are beyond my control. The dog was easier. Oh sure, he destroyed a few pairs of shoes, pissed on the rug and got us evicted from one apartment, but compared to my kids, meeting his needs was easy. All he needed was food, water and attention. I miss him.
There’s no end in sight to the War on Terror, is there? Like the War on Drugs, the War on Terror will be with us for many years to come, sucking national resources that could be put to better purposes, enriching defense contractors and keeping the budgets of the security-intelligence apparatus robust. A political constituency now exists for the War on Terror, large sums of money are at stake, and this means it won’t end; new enemies will be identified as soon as old ones are vanquished. This “system” generates perverse momentum: the more terrorists the US kills, the more terrorists it creates. 
I have the sense that some economic birdies will soon come home to roost. Since the meltdown of 2008 and the taxpayer-funded bailouts of the big banks and our nation’s casino economy, pundits and mainstream media mouthpieces have assured us that the economy has been stabilized and, in fact, has recovered. The evidence offered for this is the all-important stock market, the share prices of Fortune 500 companies. The shills don’t talk about the massive stock buybacks that corporations are making with money borrowed at zero or nominal interest from the Federal Reserve. Nothing all that productive is being accomplished here, mind you, the corporations are simply boosting their own stock prices to keep shareholders happy and pacified. Those of us who live in the real world and work for wages know that the economy has not recovered. College students in need of money for school don’t have the luxury of borrowing at zero or very low interest rates…only big banks get to dine at that trough.
A memorial service for our very good friend Richard Teraoka was held today at Trinity Church. A few hundred people turned out to say goodbye to Richard, a sure sign of how well loved this slight, gentle and unassuming man was. Richard was a person of uncommon courage and integrity. He loved his work at UCSB, loved helping students succeed. When a good human being like Richard Teraoka passes on, the world becomes a lesser place.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Work and the Myth of Corporate Efficiency

The other day I was ruminating on how much the US economy has changed in my lifetime. I thought of my father, who never graduated from high school; in the early 1950’s he somehow lied about his age and joined the Army. There he learned a trade: meat cutting. My old man was a supremely skilled butcher, an artist with a blade; he worked at every level of the trade: wholesale, retail, specialty shops. Wherever he worked, my dad made cutting meat look effortless. One of my earliest memories is accompanying my dad to work on a Saturday morning, standing by his side as he cut and sliced and fileted, his knives flashing. He let me scrape fat off the tables and sweep the floors. When he was working at his trade, my dad seemed happy. Work was important, meaningful, something a man needed to take pride in and do well.

The other day Bill Moyers interviewed former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Herbert has a new book out called “Losing our Way,” a chronicle of his recent travels around the United States. Out on the fruited plain Herbert found an economy that brutally punishes working people rather than raise them up; raising people up no longer being a consideration or goal of our economy. Profit is the American religion now, and the best way to maximize profit is to depress wages. The plutocrats and fat cats who run our country believe it’s perfectly acceptable, even salutary, for a person to work two or three part-time, low-wage service jobs in order to make ends meet; or to work a job where shift assignments are constantly changing, three hours in the morning here, four in the evening there, making it next to impossible for the worker to plan child or elder care or to be home to assist his or her children with their homework, or to volunteer to coach the local little league team, or to attend back-to-school night, or the 6th grade play, or to take any interest at all in civic affairs.

The American work ethic is still alive, but the difference now is that the work ethic is infused and driven by desperation and naked need. There’s a reason American workers take fewer vacation days than workers in other industrialized countries; it’s not by choice, it’s by necessity. The free- market racketeers broke labor unions and shipped our manufacturing base overseas, to Mexico, China, India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, wherever labor was dirt-cheap and the supply of exploitable workers vast; no annoying unions to contend with, few environmental regulations, business friendly laws – capitalist paradise. Fuck Karl Marx and John Kenneth Galbraith, hail Milton Friedman and, years later, a weasel named Alan Greenspan.

It’s been a long, strange and painful trip for American workers. The “new” economy hawked by Bill Clinton and other neoliberals has transformed workers into serfs, and almost every facet of American life boils down – not to right or wrong, moral or amoral – but profitable or unprofitable.

Ironically, the “free” market is almost as tyrannical as a totalitarian state.

The neoliberal cheerleaders for corporate efficiency tell us that an excessive focus on profit is actually beneficial to workers and consumers. Anyone who has called the local cable company for service knows that corporate efficiency is a cruel myth. I had this experience a few days ago when I bought a new cable modem and had to contact Cox Cable (our local monopoly) to register the device with them. The first three customer service or technical support numbers I found on Cox’s website were disconnected. When I finally found a working number I was on the line for fifteen minutes with a synthesized female voice, answering inane questions, unplugging the modem and plugging it back in, all to no avail. A human being on the other end of the line would have had me squared away in less than five minutes, but that’s not how the contemporary model of corporate efficiency works. First the customer must be tortured by voice mail menus and disembodied voices, asked for passwords, phone numbers, dates of birth, and the last four digits of one’s social security number. Only after the customer is seething with frustration does a human being with a beating heart and a brain come on the line: “Thank you for choosing Cox Communications, how can I help you!”

The fewer people it employs the more profit Cox makes. As a monopoly, Cox has no incentive to provide decent customer service; its rates increase with regularity while the quality of service stays the same or deteriorates. The corporation wins, the consumer loses, always.

No question about it, contemporary American-style capitalism is adept at providing staggering rewards to a relative few. But as an engine for improving the security and well being of the unwashed masses, American capitalism is a failure; it hurts workers, families, entire communities and the planet we all depend on for life. Moderation and capitalism are antithetical – the goal of capitalism is more, always more.

The quest for more is killing us.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fat, Dumb and Clueless at the End of the American Century

A quick glimpse of any day’s news headlines leads me to believe that the world is about to tip off its axis. Every day, another threat to the American way of life: Ebola, ISIS, fire, flood, earthquake, tornado, the Chinese, the Taliban, a nut with a rifle (or a cop with a pistol and a black kid in his sights), General Motors, the airlines, you name it and it wants to fuck us up. Still, we remain fat, dumb and clueless – provided, of course, we have Happy Meals and plenty of TV channels to choose from. Every dying empire needs a robust entertainment industry to distract its citizens from creeping decay and decline. Our leaders insist that all is well, that America is still the biggest badass in the world. Facts on the ground suggest otherwise. The world’s greatest military force has been fighting, somewhere, continuously for a dozen years and is no closer to victory today than it was when George W. Bush got a hard-on for Osama bin Laden. With a prayer on his idiot lips and retribution in his heart, Bush fell right into the arch terrorist’s trap – an endless war against a shape-shifting foe. We enthusiastically adopted the terrorist’s methods and went on a murderous rampage through Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all the while turning a blind eye and deaf ear to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most energetic sponsors of jihad. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia always receives a pass from generous Uncle Sam. It’s all very fraudulent and deceitful, immoral, and our double-dealing will ultimately contribute to our demise. America is sinking, not rising, in case you haven’t noticed. This doesn’t have to be, but the people are too willing to surrender their liberty for the illusion of security. Our political leaders and national media superstars, like the venerable Bob Schieffer over at CBS, insist that there isn’t a war the U.S. cannot wage and win. Our brave men and women, our technological superiority, our will and grit and resolve, these must carry the day. Raise the red, white, and blue, thump the drum, blow the horn… Defeat will not come in one epic battle but in hundreds of small skirmishes over many years. Didn’t the Romans spend 300 years trying to tame the Middle East, only to fail? But who cares about history, particularly if it doesn’t agree with the prevailing narrative, the story line, the talking points handed out by PR flacks and party dickheads? But what do I know, me, one unarmed American living on the parched central coast of California? Life is still grand here, the sun shines every day, the rich are happy and the poor are marginalized, and most of us rent and wait for the knock on the door or the envelope in the mailbox; and a good man I know lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room – another victim of cancer. I can’t pray for him because I don’t believe in that sort of thing. If there were a place like heaven, this man would already have his ticket in hand, his first-class seat reserved, a bottle of fine champagne chilling in a bucket of ice. Life isn’t fair, never was, never will be; the good die young, the evil live to grand old age, and no great man was ever good.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When in Doubt, Start Bombing

The US of A is bombing…again.

I saw President Obama’s brief remarks about the bombing campaign in Syria – the latest American-led assault on Arab territory. We never learn. Having created through hubris the conditions that spawned ISIS, the US is now obligated to bomb the shit out of ISIS. The irony is that for the time being at least, the Assad regime in Syria – against which the US considered a bombing campaign a year or so ago -- is sort of, kind of, our ally.

Or instead of ally should I say “partner,” as in “partner nation”? The US no longer has allies, we have partners, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The extent to which the language of the corporate boardroom has insinuated itself into civic discourse amazes me. “I’d like to introduce our glorious partners in this dubious venture…” The US seems to believe that having such committed partners as the aforementioned monarchies will convince the world that this truly is a joint operation.

Try not to laugh.

When viewed through the US’s schizophrenic lens the Middle East is a confusing mess; the friend we embrace and arm to the teeth today turns foe tomorrow and jams a sword in our neck. We create these monsters and then find that we can’t control them.

There is, however, one constant that governs US policy in the region: oil and Israel. Never take your eye off oil and Israel and you have a fair chance of understanding what the hell is going on, why the US supports one despotic regime and calls another the equivalent of Nazi Germany.  

Obama – who more and more looks a pathetic and empty figure, more than ready to trot off to pen his memoirs, open his presidential library, and reap rich rewards from corporate America – offered the obligatory praise for America’s warriors, the brave men and women of the world’s greatest fighting force, engaged, yet again, in a noble struggle against Evil. We prefer our enemies to be easily recognizable as bad people, and the file footage the US media plays over and over of ISIS forces brandishing AK-47’s is designed to reinforce this idea. Watch any major network news broadcast for longer than thirty seconds and you’d think ISIS is five miles outside of Washington D.C., bearing down on the White House in a fleet of Toyota pickup trucks.

In many ways the US is a dumb nation. Whatever mojo we once had evaporated years ago. This Syria chapter in the War on Terror will add at least another six years to our doomed quest to rid the world of whacky Islamic fundamentalists. We will keep bombing bad guys in order to destabilize and degrade them, and they will keep popping up in new locations, under new names and new banners.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Daddy Dumb Ass

I hit the August doldrums and haven’t recovered yet. When was my last blog post? Can’t remember and I don’t feel like looking it up. I’ve got plenty of thoughts running around the track in my brain, none of them sublime or beautiful or remotely insightful. Typical human ponderings, such as this: why can’t my son rinse his dishes? Is it so much to ask that he rinse the food from his plate or bowl, clean out the fucking sink and throw the refuse in the compost bucket? The kid’s smart but this simple task is beyond his capability. This is the kid, who recently turned 18 and celebrated his birthday by getting a tattoo on the inside of his right bicep, a quote from Emily Dickinson, rejecting sage advice from his old man to wait and think about what those words will look like in 20 years. Might as well have been pissing into a tornado – the kid is smarter than me, more worldly and in touch with what’s real. I don’t know shit.

The boy isn’t going to Southern Oregon University after all. We drove to Ashland in June for orientation, rubbed elbows and backsides with nervous incoming freshmen and their neurotic helicopter parents, got the kid registered for classes and waded deep into the cesspool that is financial aid; this last bit put the Fear in me, big time. The idea of taking out a parent loan that we would be paying off for the next decade or so made my stomach clench. Loading up with education debt is the American way, part and parcel of the racket of higher education in this wayward capitalist nation. We stood at the precipice, ready to sign, ready to pack the Honda CRV and drive the kid back to Ashland, help him move into his dorm room.

And then the boy announces that Southern Oregon was sending him the wrong vibe, telling him to back off, stay away, retreat and regroup. I admit – it was hard to accept and I was ticked off. I liked SOU because it was a liberal arts school with only 7,000 students in the beautiful Rogue Valley, with downtown Ashland less than a mile away, and I made the mistake of thinking that my kid could attend this school and avoid getting lost in the crowd, that he might – in spite of his propensity for self-sabotage – have a college experience that would buoy him for the rest of his life.

Joke’s on me, the idiot daddy, although all along I wanted the boy to attend Santa Barbara City College for two years and then transfer to Southern Oregon or the American University of Paris or Bennington or wherever, saving a boatload of money in the process. Shit, kids flock to the American Riviera from Japan and China and Taiwan and Norway for the sole purpose of attending the esteemed Santa Barbara City College, and my son is here, with a place to live, a room of his own, and he looks this gift horse in the mouth and says, no way, man, I ain’t going. 

He found gainful employment at a local coffee house, but of course he hates the work, his supervisor, rising at 4:30 a.m. in order to open the joint at 5:00, when only the homeless and Mexican day laborers are stirring on the streets of SB. He grinds beans and cleans equipment, sweeps the floor, wipes down the counters, then returns home and sleeps for 14 hours.