Thursday, April 16, 2015

Life Support

Power without fear deflates like a lung without air.” Eduardo Galeano

The other morning I was listening to Democracy Now and learned an extraordinary fact – it takes 660 gallons of water to produce a quarter pound of ground beef. Why? Because water is required to grow the feed that fattens the livestock.

660 gallons according to a documentary film called Cowspiracy.

 In drought stricken California – and in many parts of the world for that matter -- beef is a food luxury we can’t afford, but because agriculture is big business in some parts of the state, and because size and money equals lobbying power in Sacramento, corporate ranchers and farmers still get their water. Short showers and drought-tolerant landscaping are necessary measures, but neither will save the amounts of water that slapping stricter controls on Big Ag would save.

That hasn’t happened yet, but it might as water agencies pushback against Governor Jerry Brown’s April 1 order mandating that they cut usage by as much as 25%.

And here I was feeling proud of myself for capturing six to eight gallons of gray water every time I do the laundry.

Let the madness begin! Now that Hillary Clinton has done what everyone assumed she would and declared herself a candidate for the presidency, let the lunatics out of the asylum. The next 500-plus days are going to be sheer misery for old-time liberals and progressives, a slow torture of misinformation and false arguments, awful TV ads filled with total lies and scripted debates designed to keep voters confused and fearful.

The GOP side is filling up with the usual field of wingnuts, the latest being Marco Rubio, who joins Rand Paul and Ted Cruz at the starting gate. If he hasn’t already, Jeb Bush will settle into the blocks next, and fat Chris Christie will follow. What a stalwart field! The GOP candidates will beat up on one another for several months to see who can move furthest to the right. This internecine battle will scare the bejesus out of GOP strategists, knowing as they do that extreme positions may sound like an aria to Tea Party faithful, but like fingernails on a chalkboard to relatively sane general election voters.

In the end, the GOP will likely get behind Jeb Bush, the family dynasty candidate, and the PR wizards will work their magic to whitewash Jeb’s connection to his Pa and dimwitted older brother. We’ll be told that Jeb is his own man, or that he is, in fact, a “self-made” man who never traded on the family name. The general election will be a contest for the center-right, with plenty of saber rattling about ISIS and Iran and Venezuela. Oh, and let’s not forget Russia.

Hillary will continue her charade to paint herself as a champion of the common people, and many voters will buy it. No one else will rise from the Democratic ranks to challenge Hillary, so her path to the nomination will be straight and relatively smooth.

Is this the best we can do in 2015? Yes, I’m afraid it is. Money drives the wheels of the system, third parties are marginalized or excluded, and the spectrum of acceptable argument is deliberately narrow. Neither party cares about the aspirations and needs of working people or what remains of the middle class.

This is democracy on life support.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

White Noise

“Well, the devil’s in the alley/mule’s in the stall
say anything you wanna/I have heard it all”   Bob Dylan

I paid my tithe to the American war machine this week, ahead of the April 15 deadline. According to a report I read, in 2014 an astonishing 27% of tax payments in this failing empire went to the military. Let that figure settle for a moment. Twelve years since the US invaded Iraq on false pretenses and set off a chain reaction of events that have led to a new enemy in the Middle East: ISIS or ISIL, the bad guys, the evil ones. Our policy – if our ad hoc actions can be called a policy – is to support Israel and Saudi Arabia and Egypt at all costs and in any context, and to find common cause with Iran, when it suits our strategic purposes, but to reserve the right to turn around and accuse Iran of being the gravest threat to world peace since Nazi Germany.


Martin Luther King warned back in 1967 that America’s militarism was a threat to the American soul. Any doubters? As our hold on world power weakens we become more belligerent, ever prepared to seek solutions by brute force – and to hell with the consequences and casualties. How many Iraqis perished during our invasion and occupation? A million people? Two million? Was an accurate count even made? How many innocent Afghans has the US killed during the past fourteen years? I know, who cares about Afghans? Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, babies, toddlers, children – their desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of peace is somehow inferior to ours, because we are the exceptional nation, the indispensible nation, the nation with the biggest stick and the means to use it. We exempt ourselves from those laws and standards we find burdensome.

Despite our dismal experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, some members of Congress agitate and advocate for a US strike against Iran. The same members of Congress allow Bibi Netanyahu to use their chamber as a bully pulpit for his political and strategic purposes; they stand and cheer, whistle and stomp, as if Bibi were the second coming of George Washington.

And the Obama Administration continues to arm the world with the latest hardware. War is good business, sales are booming, and as surely as the seasons, some of these weapons will one day be turned against us or our “partners.”

Riverside Church, 1967, the unmistakable voice of Dr. King reverberates and rolls down the canyon of decades, and our leaders and commentators and wise men pay no more attention now than they did then.  

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Burden of Dissatisfaction*

Crazy times. Politicos in Indiana must be reading George Orwell and picking up on the perverse ways language can be used to turn logic on its head. Indiana’s “Religious Freedom” act is designed to allow business owners to discriminate against same-sex couples, though what this has to do with religious freedom I don’t know. I guess it’s too upsetting for Indiana’s pious Christians to dine alongside same-sex couples.

Will this weirdness never end? Same-sex couples don’t bother me in the least. What bothers me is the fact that the United States is still mucking around in Afghanistan, fourteen years after invading the country in search of terrorists. I’m also bothered – but certainly not surprised – by the lack of media coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis. Millions of people have been displaced, uprooted from their homes and livelihoods and kin. It’s an enormous human tragedy, particularly for children. I’m bothered by the fact that the US penal colony at Guantanamo Bay is still operating, at enormous expense and dubious benefit. I’m bothered that a nitwit like Ted Cruz thinks he’s presidential material…that the man holds a seat in the US Senate is insulting enough.

My list of grievances is long. Fools and fuck-ups are at the helm and steering us straight at the iceberg. Everyday they write another tale of ordinary madness. We bleed from a thousand wounds without realizing we’ve been cut.

The thinking that landed us in an economic-environmental-political-military shithole is not up to the task of getting us out. Time to change the music.

Is there any realistic chance of this happening? Probably not. The ruling elites are very well entrenched and content with the status quo. One look at who the likely presidential candidates are in 2016, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, a pair of tarnished political retreads, is proof enough that significant change isn’t in the cards. Our political leaders keep doubling down on failed – or stupid – ideas, all in the name of maintaining their power.

Closer to home, and of more immediate impact, California’s governor has finally called for mandatory cutbacks in water consumption. Why it took Jerry Brown this long to act is curious, but late is better than never. When I was in Riverside last weekend, a waitress serving my breakfast brought a tall glass of water that I didn’t request, and while I was driving along a suburban street I saw a man washing his car in his driveway, an image that shocked me. Don’t they understand the magnitude of our situation? All anyone has to do is look at the nearest creek, river, or reservoir.

*With a nod to Allen Ginsberg

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.
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?

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


“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.