Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Gilded Spring


I’m wondering today how Venezuela, with a population of about 28 million people, can be considered a “threat” to the United States, as was recently announced by the State Department. This strikes me as utterly bizarre, and I can only assume that Washington is rankled because Venezuela refuses to dance to the neoliberal tune called out by Uncle Sam. Nothing annoys the US as much as when other countries refuse to play by our rules. We brand such countries as enemies and do whatever we can to undermine them.

The US has a long, dubious, and bloody rap sheet when it comes to meddling in the internal affairs of Central and South American nations. What’s interesting about this latest fixation on Venezuela is that it comes hard on the heels of our softening toward Cuba.
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Those with any understanding and appreciation of American history have called these times the Second Gilded Age. It’s an era of stunning, staggering inequality of wealth and ostentatious displays of consumption. Steve Lopez, veteran columnist with the LA Times, recently did a piece about LA real estate of the highest end variety – the sort of “properties” that sell for $35, $50, and even upwards of $100 million bucks. Apparently, the global rich are pouring money into LA real estate, buying and tearing down and building bigger, grander palaces. The real estate peddler who took Lopez on a tour through Beverly Hills claimed the boom was good for the city’s coffers, meaning, I suppose, that his conscience was clear because he was just giving people what they want. Besides, Skid Row isn’t visible from the Hills.

The same thing happens here on the Platinum Coast, albeit on a smaller scale. Even during the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, houses in SB were being remodeled and renovated, and the market never dived as it did elsewhere, proving, as if such proof were needed, that owning a piece of the American Riviera is as good as owning gold; this  helps to explain why new buildings around town are shoehorned into tiny lots. Every foot of gilded ground must be exploited.

Which isn’t good news for those of us with normal jobs and incomes. This wasn’t a great week for my wife and I as we discovered that we owe the IRS and the Franchise Tax board some money. Frankly, this sent me into a mental tailspin for a couple of days, but I eventually stopped feeling sorry for myself. We’ll pay what we owe, we always do. The tax bill did get me thinking about SB and how people crack the nut every month in order to live here. Are they cheating on their taxes, working off the books, selling drugs, trafficking in contraband?
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It’s officially spring, or so says the calendar, time of renewal and growth, though growth – at least in the sense of vines and flowers and grass – may be hard to come by with the ongoing drought. We have a year’s supply of water, maybe less. I can’t understand why the authorities haven’t instituted mandatory rationing. Perhaps they fear scaring tourists away. I fear the day when I turn on the tap and nothing comes out.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Forever Lost or Waiting to be Discovered?

“They used their wealth to seduce and demoralize institutions of popular government until those instruments were weakened beyond repair – or even worse, until those instruments became the means of disinheriting and disempowering the people…” Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence

As usual, the news of the world is bad and getting worse. The legislature of the state of Wisconsin is full of nut-jobs, and it looks like Wisconsin will be joining the ranks of right-to-work-for-less states. Thanks largely to John Boehner, the US Congress was recently turned into a mega-stage for the re-election campaign of Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi is Israel’s Dick Cheney. Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb. I will give Bibi this much – he has enormous balls. To thumb your nose at the benefactor without which Israel can’t survive takes a big, hefty pair.

Crazy shit.

Reading the news depresses me, so I counter with Alice Walker, a writer, and activist, who manages to see the world for the weeping sore that it is and still remain optimistic about the future. When it all becomes too much and my brain is overloaded with doom and gloom, Walker shines a light and gives me hope. When my son is acting the fool and making impulsive choices, Walker reminds me to be patient, to pause, to withhold judgment.

I’m reading Steve Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence, a fantastic history of protest in these United States. I was eager to read this book after seeing Fraser interviewed by Bill Moyers. Neoliberal class warfare may seem like a new thing, but Fraser reminds us that it has been a part of America since Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton offered competing visions of what this country should become. Since the opening of this republic, the wealthy have sought to rig the game in their favor, to tilt the playing field, purchase the loyalty of legislators and judges, and use the power of the state to protect their property and privilege from the lower classes. The rich and powerful want a government robust enough to protect their interests, but not so robust as to interfere in their business.

We forget the impassioned debates, the marches and strikes, the violence, and bloodshed that animated the masses in Chicago and New York City and Cleveland and Detroit. Lacking a natural aristocracy like so many countries of the Old World, the masses in this country didn’t know their place in the scheme of things, and so the poor and the working poor frequently rose up and filled the streets and rattled the gilded gates of the ruling class. Capitalism itself was a frequent target, the system that by its very nature created stupendous wealth for a select few and widespread misery for the unfortunate majority.

The urge to pick up a rock or a paving stone or a torch or a loaded rifle in order to seek redress was more powerful in those bygone days; workers are cowed now, defeated by decades of trade, monetary, and government policy that has once again tilted the field in favor of those who have the most. Organized labor is impotent, and, in many cases, incompetent. Distracted by our cell phones and the faux dramas playing on our flat screen TV’s, most of us have accepted, with nary a whimper of protest, the reality of working harder for less, of doing worse than our parents and leaving our children with diminished choices.

Is the outrage we once felt and reacted to when confronted with gross social injustice forever lost? 


You tell me.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

MUNI

“Those of us who still cling, however desperately, to the vestiges of the enlightenment belief that truth and falsity exist, are aghast at the extent and depth of the US government and media’s willingness to lie, deceive, distort, falsify and exaggerate evidence to serve their geo-political goal of ruling the world.” Dr. Michael Welton

Tonight I’m thinking about Charlie Sifford, one of the first African-American professional golfers. Long before Tiger Woods, there was Charlie Sifford, a black man playing the whitest of sports. Charlie Sifford died recently. I remember him, in particular because he smoked cigars, which, to my very young self, was as unusual as the fact of his skin color.

My father, a butcher by trade and gambler by inclination, took up golf either shortly before or soon after my brother was born in 1957, and by dint of determination and practice, made himself a decent amateur player. His home course was Muni – the Municipal Golf Course on McCaw Avenue here in Santa Barbara. My father spent his every free moment at Muni, working on his game, or – when he wasn’t – playing gin rummy for money on the wooden picnic tables under the pine trees. A man could do that back then, in the early and mid 60’s; try it now and a SWAT team would descend and arrest every man within a hundred feet of the tables. 

Progress, I suppose.

Anyway, my father took to golf like a redneck to NASCAR, and he taught my brother and I the game. From the age of six to twelve or thirteen, my summers were spent at Muni, playing golf, working on the driving range, caddying. I spent so much time at Muni that I knew the greens keepers by name. My brother went on to become a fine amateur golfer, captain of the San Marcos High School golf team that captured the state title in1975. I was never better than an 8 or 9 handicap player; I liked golf, but when football, basketball, or baseball season came along, I ditched my clubs for those sports. Not that I didn’t work hard to make myself an accomplished golfer. I remember summer days when we played 36 or even 54 holes, and then spent another hour or two on the driving range or putting green. Looking back, I think the only reason I practiced so much for no reason other than to win my father’s approval. This was also the reason I threw outrageous temper tantrums when I shanked a shot or missed a short putt.

I don’t play golf now and have no desire to do so. Muni has become a fiscal albatross around the City of Santa Barbara’s neck (not enough players), and there has been talk of turning the course over to a private entity. I have a set of clubs in our garage, classic old Power Built irons that my brother gave me years ago. While I have no desire to use them, I also cannot bring myself to give them away; they remind me of my youth, my father, they bring back summer afternoons after my father got off work and would take my brother and I out to play 9 holes. That was a treat.

And the clubs remind me of Charlie Sifford, the black PGA pro who smoked cigars, though I never had any clue about the racism Sifford endured, the insults, heckling and death threats from white people outraged that a black man had the temerity to walk on their green fairways. White people made Charlie’s life on the tour hell, but he kept playing. How good might Charlie Sifford have been without all that racist noise? We will never know.


My father has been dead for a quarter of a century, my brother lives in Oregon and hasn’t touched a golf club in years, but I every time I drive past Muni, I think of long summer days, and see my father standing over a putt with a cigarette dangling between his lips.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Questions of Truth & Justice

“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Technically speaking, it’s winter here on the Platinum Coast of California, but this morning the sun is shining and it appears we are in store for another unseasonably warm, summer-like day. We’re desperate for rain. The fig tree in our yard is budding, at least a month ahead of schedule.

February is Black History Month, when Americans take a moment to appreciate the contributions made by African-Americans to our society and culture. Take away these contributions and America is a desolate and soulless place.

In the sphere of music I think of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few.

In the world of sports, I think about the impact made by Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, and Muhammad Ali. 

I’m glad Spike Lee makes the films he does.

How sad would our literature be without the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Alice Walker and Edward P. Jones?

After Ferguson we heard that black lives matter, but African-American writers and artists and intellectuals have said that for more than a century.  Blacks have always been at the center of our history – no matter how we try to deny, or ignore, the fact. Blacks have held the mirror in which we see our reflected image, the image of a people who claimed to champion freedom and justice for all, but relegated black people to the back of the bus, the separate bathroom and drinking fountain, the segregated hotel, and, far too often, the end of a rope.

I happen to think that Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the greatest people ever born on American soil. What I admire about King is his intellectual ferocity, the way he wrestled with fundamental questions of truth and justice, and his courage to follow his convictions. As author Tavis Smiley points out in a new book, King, in the last year of his life, risked losing political capital by speaking out against the Vietnam War and American militarism. Against the advice of his inner circle, King took that risk.

I am also reminded that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots – or Watts Rebellion – when thirty-four people were killed and hundreds injured. King arrived in Los Angeles a few days after the riots erupted, and remarked that the environment – poverty, lack of opportunity, racism – was the root cause of the rage in Watts. That rage was still present in Los Angeles in 1992, and again in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. What city will be next?


We’re still waiting for King’s battering ram, even with an African-American man sitting in the Oval Office. When it comes to race and justice, America has a long way to go. Sitting on death row in 1993 for a crime he didn’t commit, Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote, “The police, tools of white state capitalist power, are a force creating chaos in the community, not peace.”

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Flyover


Didn’t watch the Super Bowl last Sunday. Didn’t care about it one way or another. The way the NFL and the American military are in bed together makes me nervous. We can’t have a major NFL matchup without an Air Force flyover prior to kick off. It’s obligatory that we show our brave troops all the love we can, every chance we get. Watching F-14 fighter planes scream over the stadium makes us feel good about our country.

God bless America and all that.

It wasn’t always so. Back in 1977 when I was an 18-year-old airman in the United States Air Force, I was dispatched for twelve weeks of technical training to one of the cesspools of the great state of Texas, Wichita Falls. One of the first things newbies were told was to avoid wandering around certain streets downtown because the local cowboys liked nothing better than to kick the holy crap out of airmen from the base. I can’t imagine the same thing happening in 2015, not when every service member is a full-fledged hero.

The military budget is bloated and obscene. Our wars never end. At this very moment the United States is arming its future enemies. Stick your heads back in the sand, good people, and tell yourself that all is grand on the fruited plain. Ignore the facts, the science – ignore what is happening right in front of you. Where’s your food going to come from in the years ahead? Do you really think that Carl’s Jr. is using grass fed beef in some of its burgers? Are you a climate change denier? Are you one of those people who think we can burn fossil fuels forever with no consequences to Mother Earth? Fool. Make no mistake, we’re punishing the old gal, and you can take it to the bank that the suffering lady will have the last laugh. The uber rich are building fortified compounds and hiring private armies against the day when the angry, hungry and desperate masses come calling. 

I hope I’m dead and cremated by then. It’s going to be ugly and the gutters will run with blood. All over the world, the plutocrats and oligarchs are squeezing the common people, making survival ever more tenuous and dire; the common folks won’t forget those who made their lives miserable.

They’ve got the money, we’ve got the numbers. You know what old Neil Young said, right? “Starve the takers/feed the givers.”

For some reason, Jimmy Baldwin is skipping across the back of my mind with a broad smile on his face. Jimmy tried to sound a warning many times, but like all prophets, he was ignored. Damn, humankind never learn. Century after century, decade after decade, year after year, the same hubris, the same mistakes, the same lies, the same myths, the same fables, and the same empty promises.

Snow in the east, drought in the west.

Night falls heavily and with finality.