Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Boulevard of Discarded Dreams

I met Duke downtown at the Sprocket, an independent coffee house owned by a couple of ex-professional cyclists. The Sprocket is a good antidote to the corporate java served by Starbucks.

I hadn’t seen Duke in more than a year. As usual, he had been out of the country, traveling with a series of female companions young enough to be his granddaughter. For a man who enjoyed fine wine, expensive Scotch, weed, and an occasional cigar, he looked ageless, as if he had every intention of living forever.

“So, what’s the haps, dude?” he asked. “What’s new in the maw of public education? Are the young ones learning anything?” Before I had a chance to respond he said, “Public education in California was doomed the day Prop 13 passed. This state used to have real vision, the best university system in the world, and political figures with courage and guts. All politicians care about now is power and graft – and landing cozy, high-paying sinecures when they leave office. The entire fucking system is rotted from within. What’s your son doing with himself?”

“Taking a gap year, working, trying to save money; he’s living with his grandparents. Given the way he feels about his mother and I, it’s better that way.”

Duke sipped his latte and nodded sagely. He had no kids of his own – at least none that he claimed.

“He’ll come around, in time, they always do. He’ll figure out that he’s not as smart, clever or self-sufficient as he thinks he is, and he’ll come to the realization that mom and dad aren’t imbeciles after all. You’ll see. You just have to outlast the kid, that’s all.”

“Easier said than done. I haven’t seen him in six weeks. He doesn’t call, text, e-mail. His mother is heartbroken. She loves that boy.”

“A mother’s love is a powerful thing.”

“What was your mother like, doc?”

“Well, she was kind, smart, and very curious. Also very practical. Died of cancer the year I turned nine. It was just me and my old man after that. Without her he was a basket case, a real lost soul, and I became a topnotch juvenile delinquent. If it was wrong, I did it, if it was forbidden, I tried it. If a kid did today what I did then he’d be locked up for the remainder of his life.”

Duke paused to watch a slender blonde woman in tight jeans walk across the shop. His eyes brightened and a smile played across his lips.

“God, I love women,” he said. “Marvelous creatures. I could never resolve to limit myself to one only because I’m far too fond of falling in love. Ah, well, why do you think the price of oil is dropping?”

I told him about an article I read that hypothesized that the Obama administration was trying to stick it to Russia by encouraging Saudi Arabia to boost production and flood the world market, lowering the price of oil, and thereby further crippling a Russian economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports and already dealing with economic sanctions. This was all part of a great global competition for control of the world’s energy resources which the US naturally felt entitled to dominate.

“Geopolitics,” Duke said, “is a vile business. Watch the alternative media on this one because as sure as I’m sitting here, the US is angling for a conflict with Russia. Imperialism and racism stride hand in hand across the backs of the poor and less fortunate, as they always have. Meanwhile, the air is foul and the water is poisoned, the oceans are croaking, and glaciers are melting. And you and I are still alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century, shuffling along the boulevard of discarded dreams.”

“What to do, doc, what to do?”

“First, people have to learn to connect the fucking dots, to understand that foreign policy and economic policy and climate policy are intertwined and play off one another. Second, accept the fact that the US is a declining empire just as Britain was at the dawn of the 20th century. The elites can read the writing on the wall and that’s why they’re panicking and willing to risk starting a war.”

I asked Duke about his Christmas plans.

“I’m bound for Nepal. I’ve got to escape all this American-style commerce and false cheer or else I’ll go mad. You should come along.”

“Tempted, believe me, but I’m grounded here.”

When we parted on the sidewalk half an hour later, Duke again told me not to worry about my son.

“Thanks,” I said, knowing there was no way I could stop worrying.

“I’ll bring you a souvenir from Nepal.”

I walked up State Street in bright sunshine, thinking about Russia and oil, the British Empire, and the back room machinations of multinational corporations, unseen hands pulling strings and watching us puppets dance, all for the purpose of securing more power or depositing more coin in their purses; wherever these unseen hands toiled, Justice lay in a pool of blood.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Exceptional Nation?

It’s always the same, isn’t it?

Our government gets caught in a lie and only reluctantly acknowledges gross wrongdoing, incompetence or criminal behavior, but in the same breath says that no one will be held accountable, prosecuted, convicted, or sent to prison because it’s all in the past and we must move on.

When Obama assumed office after the financial crash of 2008, he   immediately declined to pursue the architects of the collapse – the greedy, criminal bankers and speculators who fleeced billions of dollars from millions of Americans. No, Obama, beholden to the financial interests that helped put him in the White House, said the nation needed to move on, focus on the future, not the past.

And now the long awaited torture report is out (heavily redacted, of course) – a report Obama administration officials did everything in their power to delay, block, water down or bury – and the president once again says we must focus on the future, not the past.

The report excoriates the CIA for lying to Congress, the White House, and spreading disinformation through our lazy, co-opted corporate media establishment.  On the one hand, the Obama administration claims credit for allowing the report to be published at all (see how transparent and open we are!), but on the other says no one will be held to answer for his or her crimes (see what cowards we are!).

The higher one climbs into the echelons of power, the less accountability one finds. CEO’s lose billions of dollars of shareholder dough on fraudulent transactions, and what happens: they earn huge bonuses.

High-ranking government officials – like Dick Cheney and Condi Rice -- condone the torture of individuals who never posed a threat to the country, and what happens: the officials skip away scot-free, entitled to their pensions, free (taxpayer subsidized) health care, lucrative book deals, or cozy jobs in corporate America.

A black teenager arrested for possession of two ounces of marijuana will be convicted and sent to prison -- guaranteed.

Steal billions, no problem; torture innocent human beings, no harm, no foul; lie to Congress, no worries.

Over and over we are told that ours is a nation of laws, and that everyone stands equal before the law. What a crock of shit. Hey, Mr. President, tell the truth – we are not the indispensable, exceptional nation that you keep talking about. We are just as ruthless, brutal, secretive, and sadistic as any other nation.

We torture. We support dictators who torture. We lie and falsify, dissemble and obfuscate, start wars on false pretexts, and interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations.

Exceptional? Hardly.

Hypocritical? Definitely.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Fire This Time

Grand juries return indictments, in most locales, anyway. One exception is St. Louis County, Missouri. Darren Wilson is free, Michael Brown is dead, and justice has not been served.  

White police officers routinely use deadly force against black citizens, and are rarely, if ever, punished under the law; it simply doesn’t happen. The word of the officer, or officers, is always deemed to hold more weight than that of the victims or eyewitnesses. Every time a white-on-black shooting happens our political, civic and media leaders tell us to remain calm, be patient, allow the legal system to work.

And each time, the system protects the status quo.

This nation cannot escape the shackles of its racist past. Yes, of course, progress has been made, but the wound of our racist history lives near the surface, ready to start bleeding when the bandage is next ripped off. The state -- local and federal -- has declared war, it seems, on its black citizens, arresting them at an astounding rate, incarcerating them by the drove, and employing deadly force against them at the slightest provocation. This while enacting a neo-liberal agenda that denudes public sector spending, exports jobs to low wage countries, privatizes schools, medical care, housing, and other essentials of life.

Against the backdrop of the Ferguson travesty, the nation goes about its business, the major media merrily promoting Black Friday sales at Wal-Mart and Macy’s and Amazon. My e-mail inbox is full of offers, buy now, save big, don’t miss out on these awesome deals! 

Where do I order justice for Michael Brown, his family, his friends, his neighbors?

There will be no Black Friday extravaganza for Michael Brown, no holiday season that now stretches from Halloween to New Year’s Eve, no festive parties, family gatherings, church services, or Christmas dinner.

Darren Wilson, the unindicted officer, his conscience apparently clear, may experience any number of these events.

Is it me or is the United States a perverse, bizarre nation? There are certain areas in which we are the world’s undisputed leader: arms sales, military weaponry, income inequality, incarceration -- and let’s not forget the high marks we score when it comes to child poverty and homelessness.

We excel at spectacle; we’ve made the annual Super Bowl a worldwide must-see event; we hold concerts with A-list entertainment stars whenever a natural disaster strikes or to honor our fallen or maimed warriors. And when it comes to turning holidays into reasons for shopping, no nation is in our league -- we sit alone at the head of the table.

And what we do with money and politics is breathtaking; we’ve taken influence peddling to an entirely different level.

The fire next time, the fire next time, the fire this time.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dateline Ferguson: Justice on Hold for Another Day

Waiting for the grand jury decision out of Ferguson, Missouri. Listening to KPFK radio, a good leftist station.

The question at hand is whether or not the grand jury will indict Darren Wilson for shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.

The Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, says the authorities are on hand to protect property, people and speech.

Interesting, but hardly surprising, that the governor didn’t mention justice. Justice is rarely at issue when a white police officer kills a black man.

Justice wasn’t an issue in the days of slavery, or in the era of Jim Crow, and it sure as hell isn’t an issue in the age of Rodney King, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown.

If recent history is a guide, the smart money says Darren Wilson will not be indicted.

The grand jury will spout the standard excuses for why a white policeman should be exonerated: the white officer feared for his life, the black kid was dangerous even if unarmed, the facts are murky and defy consensus. 
The major American news media is fixated on the expected protests that will follow the announcement; will those protests turn violent? A mob of angry black people is every white person’s nightmare. Detroit. Newark. Watts. Remember those long hot summers in the 1960’s, when the veneer of racial progress and harmony exploded and the authorities deployed the National Guard to restore order?

Justice may wither and die, but property must be protected.   

The militarized Ferguson police force is at the ready, on high alert, surplus Pentagon weaponry locked and loaded.

As the daylight fades here on the west coast, I’m thinking of James Baldwin, of Amiri Baraka, of Langston Hughes, of Angela Davis and wondering how much longer American racism will endure.

Or to pose the question another way: when will black lives be worth the same as white lives?

Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown six times. How will the chief of police and the prosecutor justify this fact? Is any level of force excessive when it is directed against black people?

Switching now to a live feed on the New York Times website. No action yet, just people standing around, fiddling with cameras or iPhones.

The prosecutor reads a long statement, detailing how the grand jury went about its monumental task of separating fact from fiction, of real evidence from speculation. The credibility of many witnesses or alleged witnesses -- black folk from the neighborhood presumably -- was deemed to be questionable or contradictory.

Michael Brown was shot and killed for the petty theft of a package or two of cigars.

No indictment, no surprise. This is America and we’ve seen this film many times before.

Justice will have to wait for another day.   

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Shocking Absence of Shame

Cornel West says – and it’s hard to disagree with the good professor -- that this is the age of cowardice and cupidity in America. Think of what we have become in the years since Ronnie Reagan announced that it was morning in America.

We wage war on the poor and less fortunate, engage in wars abroad without congressional approval, spy on our own citizens, torture, allow white men to murder black men with impunity, and defile the environment in the name of profit.

The monstrous Keystone XL pipeline will be built, eventually, and it will carry some of the dirtiest oil known to man across the heart of America and down to the Gulf, and sooner or later the pipeline will spring a leak and create a disaster. By that time, the politicians who voted in favor of Keystone will be long gone, retired in luxury, with a pension and health care guaranteed by taxpayers, or sitting fat and happy in a corporate suite.

We talk a lot of shit in this once great nation about our military prowess and the power of our economy, but what we rarely talk about anymore – because we can’t without totally exposing our hypocrisy – are notions of fairness and justice, of equity and community. Forget the idea of being judged by the content of your character – no, man, the only measure that matters is the content of your bank account, your stock portfolio, your real estate holdings…ideals are for suckers, fools, and limp wristed liberals.

Any person with eyes to see, ears to hear, and a brain to think will stand dumbstruck in this cruel America; despair falls like a heavy blackout curtain.

A dozen years of continuous war and what is the message from our civilian and military leaders: that more war is needed; they can’t wait to drop more ordnance on the Middle East. It’s good business for Lockheed Martin and Raytheon and General Dynamics.

Look at the stock market, many of the same people say, not your hourly wage or the grand total of your debts; the market is up and that can only mean that the economy is sound.

Ignore the man behind the velvet curtain: focus on the lights and the fire and the smoke and the noise. How many times will we fall prey to the masters of distraction, believe them when they insist that up is down and white is black and that the American Dream is alive and well – and available to all – when in fact the Dream is DOA.

How much of this madness is enough?

Children should not go hungry in America, but they do, because we let them; children should not be homeless in America, but too many are. We have money for wars without end and tax breaks for people richer than Midas, but we can’t afford to feed and house children or pay their parents a decent wage.

Our lack of shame is as astounding as our hubris.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Feed the Beast

“Efficient democracy can only mean democracy castrated.” John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards

Another Veteran’s Day and the nation is still at war with a tactic. The US is back in Iraq, purportedly to train Iraqi soldiers so they can defend their country against the Islamic State. Train? Didn’t we spend half a dozen years and billions of dollars supplying and training Iraqi troops, only to see those troops drop their weapons and gear and flee at the first sign of combat? Who’s fooling whom here?

On this Veterans Day, like all the ones that preceded it since 9/11, everyone who has served in the military will be referred to as a “hero.” The word hero is now so overused that it has lost all currency. If every service member is a hero, none can be. I suppose a soldier can act heroically in an illegitimate conflict, a conflict based on lies and misinformation and geopolitical calculation, it’s possible. But please, don’t tell me that you fight to protect my freedom, that’s BS.

We are told that staunch allies like Somalia, Iceland, and Taiwan support the latest American foray into the Iraq civil war. I’m certain that Somalia -- well functioning and prosperous nation that it is -- is making a significant contribution to the cause, just as I’m sure that President Obama can explain the role that Taiwan is playing in the fight to contain the Islamic State…

I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating: if the US had an ongoing draft, these wars of choice would end because the American public wouldn’t stand for it. But because the War on a Tactic is largely fought out of sight, off the books, by mercenary corporations and remote control, the public can’t see the costs or even remember that we have been at war, somewhere, continuously, for more than a dozen years.

And we are no closer to winning.

The US is the bull in the china shop, blundering here and there, blinded by its own righteousness, deaf to the futility of its efforts. We keep doing the same things and expecting a different end result. When we toppled Saddam Hussein the genie popped out of the bottle, and now we can’t figure out a way to stuff it back inside. Syria is a wreck; Afghanistan is a mess; no end in sight, no way to back out of this folly of perpetual war.

This isn’t a heroic age, it’s a cowardly one, full of pipsqueak players, charlatans, idiots, fools, and power obsessed assholes. Perpetual war is a terrific moneymaker for American arms dealers and the security-intelligence complex, so it must be kept going.

The beast must be fed, even if it means starving the people of what they need.

No, this isn’t a heroic age at all. We search in vain for a white knight or a gilded lily; we dick around in the Middle East at our peril; we kill one “militant” and ten more rise up to take his place.

And so it goes.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Black Tuesday

No surprise that the Democrats got their collective ass kicked last Tuesday. It’s damn hard to win a midterm election when the small percentage of the electorate that bothers to vote has no idea what you stand for. Most Democrats ran away from President Obama, with predictable results. The Party’s big strategic thinkers will now misread the outcome and determine that the only way to be competitive with the GOP is to slide further to the right, which is why voters have no idea who Democrats are in the first place.

Democrats are simply lousy storytellers. They cannot frame issues the way Republicans can, and therefore, time and again the Democrats fail to move voters. Republicans talk about “freedom” and “security” and “personal responsibility,” and all manner of “morning in America,” Ronald Reagan claptrap, and voters in red states lap it up like starving kittens.

Of course, millions of dollars in dark campaign money from the likes of the Koch brothers doesn’t hurt.

I expected the Democrats to take a beating. Stand for nothing and you will lose everything. And now? Well, we face two long years of a Republican-controlled congress. The corporate toadies and flat out nutcases in that diseased body will dump their wish list on the steps of the capitol and dance around like drunken sailors on an extended shore leave. The Keystone XL pipeline and Trans Pacific Partnership, tax cuts for corporations, attacks on the Affordable Care Act and Social Security, more privatization of essential services, total disregard for the threats posed by climate change – the panoply of Republican wet dreams. It’s going to be ugly and amusing at the same time.

If Obama had a spine he could at least dictate the agenda for the next two years, but when push comes to shove, Obama will support the GOP wish list as if it were of his own creation.

Bipartisanship usually means somebody’s getting sold out.  

My country has become cold and callous, mean-spirited and stupid. We criminalize the poor, herd our citizens of color into for-profit prisons, abandon inner city kids to a lifetime of dead-end jobs, turn working people into minimum wage slaves, burden college students with debt, and begrudge senior citizens a dignified retirement.

Black Tuesday, brought to you by the Democratic Party.