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.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Trapped Between Bad and Worse

Like most Americans, I’ve ignored the midterm elections, the ritual bashing of the party in power. As always, voters are faced with a choice between bad and worse. I have been receiving a steady stream of hysterical e-mails from Democrats and Progressive organizations, asking for money for this or that candidate or issue that is in danger of falling to the right wing money machine. None of these messages are read; I refuse to open my wallet for any candidate of any party. Let’s face it, the two political parties in this country are part of an utterly corrupt, broken system; both are held captive by corporate interests. If nothing else, Republicans are predictable – they adhere to rigid free market ideology and atavistic social policies.

I don’t know what Democrats stand for. Ever since Bill Clinton, Democrats behave like Republicans, sucking at the same corporate teats, and pushing policy prescriptions that favor the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor. Barack Obama is a staunch defender of the status quo. Even when all his political stars were aligned in 2008 and 2009, Obama pushed a tame, timid agenda, and retreated at the first sign of Republican pressure. With the notable exception of Elizabeth Warren, Democrats can’t articulate who they are with any force, conviction or emotion, and for this reason, they will most likely lose control of the Senate and face an even wider Republican majority in the House. 

There are a couple of ballot measures at the local level that are interesting. Measure P would limit hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in Santa Barbara County. Big oil has poured gobs of money into defeating this measure, raising the specter of lost jobs and tax revenue. Oh my! The horror! Any measure that aims to screw with Big Oil can’t be all bad, so even though P isn’t perfect, I’ll vote for it. Measure S would raise $288 million in bonds for upgrades at Santa Barbara City College, our local academic jewel that now draws students from all over the world, to the detriment of local students and the rental housing market. I understand why City College markets itself all over the globe – tuition dollars – but until the College is committed to making classes and programs accessible to students from SB, first and foremost, I won’t vote for its bond measure.

I was tempted to sit out this year’s elections, but on Tuesday I’ll walk over to the junior high school and cast my ballot to legitimize the political class. My choices are limited by party rules that favor known quantities over fresh faces, by a media machine that works hand-in-hand for the powers-that-be, and by a perverse campaign finance system.

My choice is between bad and worse.

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.