Saturday, January 24, 2015

Playing Both Sides of the Table

A politics of dumbed-down public discourse and low voter turnout combines with a dynamic economy of stubborn inequalities to produce the paradox of a powerful state and a failing democracy.”  Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Inc.

I didn’t watch the State of the Union speech this week. I couldn’t bring myself to do it; figured it would just tick me off. I’ve since read, on Truthdig and Truthout and the New York Times and the BBC and Al Jazeera, accounts of what the speech contained, and how Obama’s rhetoric soared and how John Boehner sneered or that despicable blowhard Mitch McConnell looked bored.

None of the faintly progressive ideas Obama put forth stand a chance of being enacted by a Republican-dominated Congress.

Obama’s time is winding down and he had nothing to lose by calling for taxes on the rich to aid the middle class. Too little too late, the class war has been waged and the rich won. Obama can claim all he wants that the bad old days of the 2008 financial meltdown are behind us, but average citizens who work for wages and struggle to put food on the table, pay the rent, the medical bills, the college tuition, know better. The economy recovered for the banks and Wall Street hucksters, the insurance companies, not for us.

The political and financial elites who run this country are insulated from the day-to-day realities faced by the masses. Make no mistake; this is the way it has been for most of American history. The white men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution harbored no love for the great-unwashed masses or for democracy; they distrusted the masses, so they constructed legislative firewalls to constrain the democratic impulse.

The State of the Union is political theater, and more often than not a theater of the absurd. From what I’ve read, Obama bounced like a pinball between populist themes and cheerleading for trade deals that will further ruin the fortunes of working people and exacerbate income inequality; he praised hydraulic fracking and warned of the perils of climate change.

That’s how you play both ends of the table.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Face Off in the Plaza

We heard the noise from the rally in De La Guerra plaza before we saw the people gathered in front of the News-Press building. A white man was speaking into a bullhorn about freedom of the press; next to him a white woman was shouting for illegal aliens to go back where they came from. Officers from the SBPD had rigged green plastic netting in front of the 50 or so protestors. There were American flags and placards.

My wife and I stopped on the grass and watched. I gathered that the protestors were supporting the News-Press’s recent use of the term “illegal alien” in a headline. I didn’t see the edition in which this term appeared because I never read the News-Press.

“Did you hear what that woman just said?” my wife asked. I shook my head. “She just compared Mexicans to cockroaches.”

“Does she know where she’s standing?” I asked. “This is De La Guerra plaza, named after a Spanish man, who lived in what was then a Spanish colonial possession. She’s in a state that was part of Mexico until it was taken by armed force by the United States.”

On the other end of the plaza, a larger crowd had gathered, this one calling for a boycott of the News-Press. Half a dozen people in Aztec garb crossed the plaza and were immediately heckled by the News-Press supporters. The man with the bullhorn shouted, “If you are in this country illegally, you’re breaking the law. You’re criminals!”

“Racist asshole,” my wife said.

People who insist that illegal immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are overrunning California, usually argue that these immigrants are living large at taxpayer expense, receiving for free what decent white folks earn by the sweat of their labors. Rarely, if ever, do these doomsayers consider why so many men, women and children risk everything to make the often perilous journey north to the United States. For many the choice is stark – death or survival. Mexico is a mess, decimated by NAFTA and the drug cartels, whose key market, let’s not forget, is right here on Rush Limbaugh’s fruited plain. Not only do we buy the cartel’s drugs, we also launder its money.

The US has a long, long history of interfering in the internal affairs of Latin American countries: Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Panama, and Venezuela to name a few. Along with the World Bank and the IMF, the US has done plenty to flip Latin American economies on their heads, causing major social disruptions, loss of traditional industries, family farms. Like North Africans who for any number of reasons find themselves living on the knife edge, and make the trek to France or Germany or Denmark in order to better themselves, Mexicans and Latin Americans weigh their limited options on their home turf, pack their belongings, and head north for what they hope will be a more promising future for themselves and their children.

And when they arrive here, what kind of employment do they find? The most menial, of course, the dregs and the dreck. They wash our dishes and mow our lawns and trim our hedges and bathe our elderly and pick our vegetables and fruit and nuts and polish our cars and scrub our toilets and take care of our infants. That’s all.

My wife and I moved on. The News-Press boycotters clapped their hands rhythmically. The News-Press supporters answered back -- the white guy with the bullhorn began reciting the Bill of Rights.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Justice is Indivisible": A Few Thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke often near the end of his life about the twin evils of racism and poverty. In 1967 he wrote, “Racism is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries. In fact, racism and its perennial ally – economic exploitation – provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation.”

And our own.

I often wonder what King would say if he were alive today and able to survey the American political, social and economic landscape. What would he make of our for-profit prison complex that preys disproportionately on people of color? Or an economy rigged to work tirelessly to enrich the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the many?

King would see systematic political corruption buoyed by the highest court in the land, and a two-party system that utterly fails to address the needs of the citizenry.

He would see democracy deliberately organized as a crass game of money and influence buying; frontal assaults on the Voting Rights Act; endless foreign wars that drain the nation’s resources.  

I think King would be profoundly disappointed in President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder and the opportunities they have squandered to recalibrate the scales of fairness and justice.

King might wonder about the whiteness of Hollywood, though I doubt the narrow commercial calculations of the studio chieftains would surprise him.

King spoke of dreams but he was also a pragmatist, under no illusions about the difficulty of prying privilege from the grip of the powerful. King spent his too-short life pushing a boulder up a slippery slope. He was only 39 years old when an assassin’s bullet found him in Memphis; the man who preached peace and non-violence died a violent death.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Poem: 1-11-15

here we are,
new year,
same violent, intolerant, unruly

Cartoonists murdered in Paris
Republicans control the US Congress
Oh boy!
I’m not saying these events are comparable
because they’re not
both are depressing symbols
of our time

Hypocrisy is a requisite of Empire
you will do as we say
and forget what we do

Shut the door, lower the blinds, pop the cap
off another Guinness
call for solace upon the ghosts of Charlie Bukowski
and Henry Miller
long dead poets

Heart beating, head reeling
optimism leaning on one knee
on the canvas
wobbly faith

Holidays in the rearview mirror
back to the tried and true routine
Monday, 5:30 a.m. standing outside the gym
moon shining above a barren tree
sun not yet on the rise
blue mountains to the east
garbage truck lumbers down Gutierrez
can and bottle hunter pushes his cart
along an uneven sidewalk
head down, cigarette glowing
harvest clinking

Look ahead, look behind
what will this year bring?
rain, I hope
California is parched from north to south
and Mission creek is dry as dust

I resolve only to meditate more
not for any enlightenment I might gain
but to find some silence within myself
a refuge from the constant noise

And if I can do nothing else
I must appreciate my wife
love my children
do my work and scribble
my silly lines

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Walking in the Darwinian Present

I take a walk from our place on Milpas to State Street to buy some bows so my wife can finish up the Christmas wrapping. Evening is coming and the mountains wear a rosy shawl and the sky is a lovely dark blue. I am wearing a t-shirt and shorts. The day has been warm, nearly 80 degrees – so much for winter and a white Christmas. In front of the museum of art a phalanx of homeless people are camped on stone benches; one guy strums a guitar. Across the street in front of Old Navy a woman has commandeered a wooden bench and piled it with her belongings and covered herself with blankets. Shoppers avert their eyes from her as they pass.

Earlier in the day I read a report that the Dow Jones topped 18,000 for the first time in history. Investors were said to be giddy, and the business media, as always, conflated the rise of the stock market with the health of the American economy, a false claim, but who’s checking? For ordinary people who work for wages, the economy hasn’t recovered from where it was in 2008, but we don’t talk much about this now, just like we don’t talk about the threat of climate change or the Ebola outbreak. Our media machine is brilliant at selecting what to report and what to leave out, what to tell us, what to keep from us; the machine frames every story within acceptable dimensions: the US only deploys military force in righteous causes; the free market economy equals personal freedom; capitalism is essential to democracy – myths and lies to whitewash the brutality of our Darwinian present. Damn fine time to be a robber baron in this age of inequality, where wholesale larceny goes unpunished.

I go into CVS, find a box of bows, and get in the checkout line behind a woman wearing saggy sweatpants and funky shoes; her ankles are swollen. The carpet is soiled and stained. The female checker is chubby and looks bored. Back out on the sidewalk a kid tries to slip a card in my hand advertising a Christmas concert sponsored by a church. I pass. The woman on the bench has been joined by another woman and a man in a wheelchair, and she is telling them about something that cost $500 a night, but the man is arguing that she has it wrong, that it is $500 a month not a night. The woman holds her ground. “Martin,” she says, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The new woman is barefoot and her feet are grimy.

Despair in a happy time, want and plenty side by side, light and shadow, storefronts aglow, voices from the restaurant on the corner; a homeless troubadour naps on a bed of white stone. Is this the life he chose to live, or did forces beyond his control overwhelm him? What mistakes or missteps led him here? His guitar case is scuffed and dented. I walk on, turn east on Anapamu, and head home in the deepening twilight.