Friday, December 31, 2010

"The Cloud" is all about "ka-ching!"

Notice Microsoft's TV commercial trying to push "the cloud"? Notice Google pushing a new netbook that has a minimalist "operating system" that is little more than a glorified Web browser? Notice the barrage of e-mails about "net neutrality"?

We are on the frontier of the corporativization of the Internet, indeed of all of the cyberworld, which is not unlike the coming of "civilization" to the Wild West. Up to now the Internet has been a multinational, geeky environment of minimal restraint and increasingly affordable access: my Web site has gotten more or less the same shot as The New York Times, my voice and Paul Krugman's are out there as cybernetic equals.

Don't call me paranoid just because they're after us, but ...

There is a longstanding commercial reason why powerful corporations want you to go to "the cloud" and want to be able to control bandwidth allocation: there's more money in it.

In the cloud, corporations can hold your data hostage in private storage spaces that belong to them and impose whatever recurrent fees they want to use programs and access your own information. The potential for mischief and price gouging are enormous!

Credit card companies and PayPal have banded to make a financial pariah of Wikileaks, declining to process donations to the group that has aired a great deal of horse manure in the U.S. government's Augean stables.

You think they couldn't or wouldn't do the same to you, if you crossed them?

And think about it: the cloud is a giant leap away from the PC.

The personal computer, or microcomputer to be precise, is a machine you can own, like a car. You can buy or download programs to use whenever you want. You can store whatever data you want, including those naughty pictures you'd rather no one else see.

And it's all physically located in your own study or kitchen table or office that no one else has the right to interfere with, provided you don't use them to harm others.

It used to be that computers were giant machines with tapes, guarded jealously by guys (they were all guys) in lab coats. You could use a dumb terminal, essentially a keyboard and screen without storage or memory of processor. Your terminal was attached by wires, phone lines, whatever, to the big machines. You, or more likely your employer or research facility, had to pay per minute of computer time: 2+2=4, that's X microseconds, add 8 thousandths of a penny to the bill.

That's the model that networks and networking are going back to under the metaphoric "cloud" -- which is a dumb, cheap machine attached to a mainframe belonging to Microsoft or Google or whomever.

Instead of opening WordPerfect or Open Office to write your Great American Novel essentially for no more than the original fixed, one-time cost of getting software and hardware, suddenly every tool you use to write belongs to Big Brother, Inc. Big Brother USG (US govt. or in Iran, Ahmadinejad) can come with a warrant, or just say "pretty please," and start a file on every intimate thought you ever commit to cyberstorage.

If you run out of money or if some Poobah decides your thoughts are undesirable, you can get locked out of your own stuff.

Won't happen? Tell that to the millions who were evicted out of their own homes in the last two years because they were conned into signing away rights in humongously unequal and predatory transactions.

The same thing goes for Net Neutrality, the notion that you and The New York Times have equal rights to access the wonders of the Internet -- in fact you have more rights because you are (Supreme Court decision notwithstanding) a real, flesh and blood person.

You've been warned.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Blessed are the Holbrookes

Usually I speak ill of famous people who die and get lionized in print and puffland. Richard Holbrooke will serve as the first exception to the rule that celebrity dead old farts smell as bad as the living, the obscure and even the young.

"When I graduated from Brown," he told an interviewer, "John F. Kennedy was president and we all thought that public service in government was the highest thing we could do, a noble calling."

How often have you recently heard anyone say that out loud, with meaning, without winks and nods suggesting that, of course, making money is better? Working in government can be just as dull and idiotic as working in the private sector, no doubt.

Holbrooke embodied that idea of noblesse oblige, that privileges carry with them obligations, an idea once common to anyone with a university education.

The man who brought peace to the Balkans after the bloody break up of Yugoslavia could be very gruff (how else do you get a Slobodan Milošević to deal?). He was not a saint (pace, Diana Johnstone).

Yet Holbrooke represented the best instincts of the nonideological pre-boomers and he stands as someone with a remarkably more solid character than his peers. A young man graduating from any university today could certainly do worse than to emulate him.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Opera 11 bats it out of the park!

I'm in love! Yesterday I downloaded Opera 11. Once again I  experienced the thrill of the original Firefox, which was the Roadrunner to the slow moving, poky Internet Explorer's Wile E. Coyote. Now Opera 11 does it to the arthritic Firefox.

Opera 11 is a free (as in "free beer") web browser with e-mail and lots of other functions. It is fast and the install file is little more than 8 mb. (Get it here.)

All right, so I have to learn a few things about Opera. In two minutes I got the essential functionality I crave thanks to extensions and "widgets." There's much tweaking to come, of course. I'm a perennial tweaker.

But later, dude. Right now I just want to zip around the 'net like I did in the old Firefox hotrod. This is a new start. I'm not even importing my literally thousands of bookmarks.

Thanks, Opera!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What If Obama Knows What He's Doing?

The taxi driver called me one of those "far left liberals who are disgruntled" when he defended the president out of long overdue ethnic pride, but little else. What if, a nagging thought argued quietly, Barack Obama has a benign overarching plan hidden in plain sight for strategic reasons?

It's a crone of a thought: the mother of all doubts.

Over and over during the 2008 campaign, my heart sank at some apparent stumble. "There goes Obama," I'd muse sadly. I believed, oh how I believed! It was 1960 again (some folks got Kennedy-Johnson bumper stickers to prove it) and this time ... this time there would be no assassinations, no Vietnam.

It took me until the nomination to figure out Obama's strategy. Obviously, he can't do it again the same way; he doesn't need to, in fact. There's also no reason why the president should share his grand plan with, of all things, a blogger.

Still, I'm bitterly disappointed. Let me pluck the health care petal, the finance reform petal and the peace petal to begin counting the ways. Yes, Obama's "deal" keeps millions out of the cold ... for now.

It all comes down to the man: Is Obama merely a more skillful liar than Bush or is he one of those once-in-a-lifetime statesmen with a plan? In the fog of the moment, I can't tell.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Today Is as Good as It Gets

A diaphanously sunny day as seen from the cozy comfort indoors, today is actually cold and a wind slices through anyone out on the street. My mother would pretend the weather was a sudden break in a midsummer heatwave: cool air, at last! But that's still fighting it.

What if I became one with approaching winter, surrendering to its chill as a snowman might, with pleasure? What if I undertook to receive "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" -- which are, after all, merely random, irrational instruments designed to deliver pain -- and embrace them?

What if I accepted that I am small, that the forces of nature and fortune, that what sets in motion almost everything I face, pleasant or unpleasant, is beyond my control?

In truth, the past is gone, the future is not yet here. There is only today. There is only me with my limitations. All in all, today I suffer less than many, more than a few. Tomorrow, who knows? Yesterday, did all my troubles really seem so far away, or did I simply not know today?

I shall go out to meet the day that awaits me. It is the best today I shall ever have.

Friday, December 03, 2010

I can't handle more sellouts

Some time ago I wrote (here) that the Democratic Socialists of America "has embodied to me ...  the only kind of U.S. socialism I could abide." No more.They are so completely sold out to the union demagogues and thugs that they might as well not be socialist, because they aren't.

In the most recent election, the local to which I belonged, and in which I was in the "steering committee," preferred to endorse the incompetent with the union stamp of approval, even though I pointed out that neither candidate was really socialist. Winning by a hair's breadth, the bolsheviki-style majority decided to ram down everyone's throat an outrageous and triumphalistic statement that had no relation to reality.

Meanwhile, the one chance in a generation for genuine school reform and cleanup has gone up in smoke and the toadies are back, pushing employment security for the underworked and overpaid deadwood.

This is not socialism, ladies and gentlemen.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Familial Love

Much as my upbringing and the "family values" people made me despise the word "family," the celebration of my son's marriage this weekend culminated in an experience of familial love such as I probably never felt before. The tribal, invidious elements were absent and instead I felt bathed in the love that others felt for one whom I love.

Loving one's child is, at its root, narcissistic. One's offspring begin life as repositories of wish-fulfillment impulses: he will fly where I merely jump up, she will be the beautiful person I have never been. And so on.

Yet a child, of one's blood or of another's, in one's home or in one's classroom or in any of the contexts in which children find themselves relying on adults, with all the unreasonable and one-sided demands that children unwittingly make, is the first lesson in truly loving, truly letting go of self for another, not merely out of duty, but with pleasure.

What adult does not die to save a child with a smile on his or her face? This is at the core of the sometimes harsh and fierce human species.

We kill many other species for food, to gain room for ourselves, even for sport. (Don't fool yourselves, self-righteous vegetarians: vegetables and fruits are also living species we kill.) From there we take it to tribalism, totemism, group selfishness and war: my people are better than yours, my family deserves more than yours.

Even if at the core of all the human family lies the strife deemed necessary to survive, there's no question that the good feeling of being nurtured and protected by one's family, clan, nation and planetary unions can be expansive and peaceful. This is what I gained this weekend.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

But She's a Commoner!

William, William, William! What's gone wrong with that boy? The Prince of Wales marrying a commoner ... why it's the end of the British Empire!

Did the heroes of the RAF fight the Battle of Britain in those dark years when the Empire's future seemed measured in months rather than a thousand years, just so some rapscallion prince could go run off with the first lass who held his hand in college?

No offense to Kate Middleton, but it's not done. William's great-uncle had to abdicate the crown when he got similar ideas.

Before Kate considers lying in the royal matrimonial bed, she should think of England, as Queen Victoria's contemporaries were so fond of advising.

As to Prince William, he should heed my advice and consider a marriageable royal. I have assembled a suitable list from among the 44 nations that still have a monarchy.

Consider one of the following:
Princess Maria Laura
  • Princess Maria Laura of Belgium, six years William's junior, the oldest daughter of Prince Lorenz, Archduke of Austria-Este and Princess Astrid of Belgium. She is currently eighth in line to the Belgian throne. Just look at her, her face is made for one of the classic old royal paintings -- or the coinage of a country or two. Do I see a new dominion for the King of England, Scotland and France?

Princess Alexandra
  • Princess Alexandra of Luxembourg is the fourth child and only daughter of Grand Duke Henri and Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg. Her given names would be a mouthful: Alexandra Joséphine Teresa Charlotte Marie Wilhelmine. But then, but imagine those petite and pouty lips saying them --  breathy and slow. She seems to hide passion behind a demure exterior. But granted, at 19, she may be a bit immature for William.


    Princess Madeleine

  • Princess Madeleine of Sweden, Duchess of Hälsingland and Gästrikland, has the distinguishing characteristic of having been born only 11 days before William. She is the second daughter of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia and was featured by Forbes Magazine as one of the "20 Hottest Young Royals" in 2008. A keeper. 





    Princess Iman
    • Princess Iman bint Al Hussein of Jordan, the daughter of the late King Hussein and reigning Queen Noor, comes with a crown already. Plus William and Iman would have loads to talk about: the princess attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2002 and served in the Jordanian army soon after.






    • HRH Princess 'Azemah or HRH Princess Fadzillah of Brunei, just a few years younger than William are daughters of the famed Sultan, so imagine the dowry! And they seem to be party girls, too. Not to worry, those guys are their brothers.

    My matchmaking research is done. All William has to do is heed the call of the Empire.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    What If We Don't Need the Unemployed?

    Here's a thought: what if the 10 percent who aren't working on a paid job, just aren't necessary to the economy. Sure, we need their consumption. But we're all so productive that fewer people need actually work.

    Not proposing this as a final conclusion, but as the theory of an economics layman.

    Insofar as this employed — knock on wood! —observer is concerned, right now the problem is that there are lots of things being made on which fewer and fewer people feel comfortable spending money. That’s why savvy people, such as Economics Nobelist Paul Krugman and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, are worried about deflation rather than the government's deficit.

    But suppose, just suppose, that the 10 percent of the workforce that's been on the bench for about a year is never going to work again. There are certainly many jobs that are never coming back, ask a linotypist, if you know what that is or someone who still calls himself that.

    What then? Are we just going to go up to them, hand them a Luger like in the World War II movies, and walk away secure that they understand they’re supposed to do the "honorable" thing and shoot themselves?

    Wait! Don't shoot yourselves yet. We need your consumption. Wouldn't it make sense to accept a high structural unemployment and instead fund a portion of the population as consumers?

    As someone on the hiring side of the table employer, I remember the high-employment 1990s as a nightmare in which anyone who had a pulse could get a job. If you weren't in a Fortune 500 company with gazillions, you had to hire from the bottom of the barrel, as I realized when a candidate's reference suggested I call her parole officer.

    Notice how courteous customer service folks have become since the recession started? They're the motivated folks who want to do a good job, or who understand the connection between treating customers well and holding onto one's job.

    Why not subsidize the grumpy folks who really hated their job to stay home and shop online, pumping money into the economy and keeping the rest of us chugging along? Or am I missing something?

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    War is the fault of all the soldiers who wage it

    What's so great about military veterans, particularly those who weren't drafted? They chose that line of work. They got paid. They got and will continue to get benefits at our expense. And they gave us, the United States, a terrible reputation all over the world. 

    Why not honor teaching veterans or medical veterans or veteran bus drivers? How come these folks don't get subsidized housing and medicine for life, like the killers in uniform?

    Why just honor people who trained in how to kill and (many of them) went ahead and killed? How did actions that led to deaths of many, many people living in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan "serve" the United States?

    Buffy Sainte-Marie was right when she wrote,

    He's the universal soldier 
    And he really is to blame. 
    His orders come from 
    far away no more. 

    They come from him. 
    And you and me. 
    And brothers can't you see.
    This is not the way we put an end to war.

    Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    The problem with the Tea Party are the winks and nods of impunity to vent every insane, ugly, unedited and unspeakable brain fart

    Living lo these many years as a white person in a majority black city, I witnessed the word "busboy" disappear after riots and the "n-word" reassert itself in full ugliness after Ronald Reagan became president. The problem with electoral swings to the right is the nods and winks that implicitly validate hateful speech.

    Since the alleged conservative "Reagan revolution," the Republicans have proven themselves far bigger spenders (on useless things like war) than the Democratic Party ever dreamed of (on useful things such a social insurance and education). The Republicans have not banned abortion, despite all their bellyaching and they really don't want to: they'll lose the base once they do.

    George W. Bush's government intervention in the economy was a far larger and swifter infusion than anything Barack Obama eeked out of a (Democratic?) Congress.

    So, I'm not really worried about the Tea Party.

    Governing is much, much tougher than speaking out against the horror of masturbation out in the hustings. By the time these so-called rebels land in Washington, they'll be bought and paid for, and if they aren't they won't get anywhere. We've always had the best Congress money can buy. That's not changing.

    The real difference between Republicans and Democrats at the street level. The Democrats use put downs so clever that most of their targets don't even get; and, sure, they really should cut that out. But the Republicans are the perennial schoolyard bullies and when they reign out comes all the silly and not so silly name calling.

    How far, really, is shouting to the first black president "you lie" from calling him a "n-----"?

    So out comes the rumor mongering. In 2009 it was "death panels," most recently it's the absurd claim that President Obama's trip to India costs $200 million a day (brought to you, no surprise, by Rupert Murdock's New York Daily "News").

    That's what gets me.

    Thursday, November 04, 2010

    The Pew Uncharitable Mistrust-sowing anti-Hispanic Center Is at it Again

    The Pew Charitable Trust's "Hispanic Center" is at it again, spreading venomous misinformation about Hispanics in the name of high-minded "research," in a report titled After the Great Recession: Foreign Born Gain Jobs; Native Born Lose Jobs. In fact, the title is wrong and most economists would disagree with it.

    Consider the comment from the Immigration Policy Center, whose research, along with that of others, shows the very different reality that "immigrant and native-born workers are not interchangeable, nor do they compete with each other for some fixed number of jobs in the U.S. economy." There is a mountain of research to show this.

    This is not a first offense for Pew, either.

    In early October, they published a report titled Latinos and the 2010 Elections: Strong Support for Democrats; Weak Voter Motivation. Yet Pew's own data show that 66 percent of Latino registered voters talked about the immigration policy and six-in-ten (58 percent) of them said they were absolutely certain they would vote. Where's the weak motivation?

    Then they followed up with this one: Illegal Immigration Backlash Worries, Divides Latinos. What's their "division"? Some Hispanics would like the immigrants to pay a fine. Still, they all agree on helping them stay in the United States. To which I'm sure Pew would say: Don't bother me with the facts, Cuate.

    If I had a dime for every newspaper editor since 1980 who wanted me and other Hispanics I've known to write the "Hispanics are Divided" story, I'd be rich! Even better is the one about Hispanics and African-Americans at each others' throats: another story that has no evidence behind it.

    Pew, like Anglo newspaper editors, loves to hire some pliant "Chico" to get ethnic cover for their anti-Hispanic bull.


    Pew's reports, including these, almost always have a Spic Hispanic name in the byline. In one, they were so desperate they credited "C. Soledad Espinoza, Intern." We're publicizing high-falutin' research by interns now, Pew?

    Somewhat more credible is the repeated credit given to Mark Hugo Lopez, the associate director of the anti-Hispanic Center. His boss, the center's director, has -- oh, surprise! -- an Anglo name.

    So what's "Hispanic" about this center other than its target? (And I say "target" as in bull's eye on our backs.) And what is "charitable" or has anything to do with "trust" about what is little more than a classic inheritance tax dodge set up by the heirs of oilman Joseph N. Pew, Jr.?

    Wednesday, November 03, 2010

    Could we do worse if we had a public service lottery?

    Imagine no more congressional elections. No more donations to cover campaign expenditures and buy congressional votes. No more whining and name calling; no more oversimplified debates calibrated for the lowest common denominator.

    Instead, a national lottery would select, district by district, citizens obligated to serve in the House for two years and in the Senate for six. This would be a service combining elements of jury duty and the military draft.

    If you got picked, it would be mandatory to serve. Barring serious illness or distress, you would have to leave your job and take on the work of the congressional seat for which you were selected.


    Citizen lawmakers would be paid the same salary they were making before being selected, with cost of living adjustments. They and their families would be housed at public expense, like the military, while in Washington. There would also be a fund for travel home and expenses of office. There would be no gain, and their should be no loss.

    Their obligation would be to study the issues before the nation, propose solutions and vote, the same as members of Congress today. They could pick and hire advisers, just like members of Congress today.

    Sure, there would be some crazy ideas (aren't there many today?). Yet if we couldn't trust 500 or so citizens chosen at random to collectively come up with something more or less workable, then forget the idea of democracy. Yes, democracy, because representatives of the people would be in charge, with fewer blandishments and pressures than they face today.

    Given the fact that Congress has been essentially a club of primarily white, male millionaires from the very beginning, this would be a significant step toward democratization. A Congress of people like you and me, chosen at random.

    Tuesday, November 02, 2010

    Write in Adrian Fenty for mayor of Washington, D.C.

    if you don't want Josh Williams to puppeteer Vincent Gray.

    Monday, November 01, 2010

    Before You Vote 3

    The Grand Old Party wasn't Lincoln's creation for nothing: it was and remains the stronghold of the financiers of major industry of the North. Reagan was really from Illinois, The Bushes were really Connecticut Yankees, put-on Texas drawl notwithstanding.

    Nixon was actually from a part of southern California where I'm told that folks have not heard a new idea they like since indoor plumbing. But he couldn't become president without a sojourn as a Wall Street lawyer.

    Let's face it: the Republican Party is and has always been at the service of the top 5 percent of income earners who own 60 percent of the wealth in this country.

    Family values? Ask divorced Reagan and Gingrich (who brought the papers to his cancer-ridden wife). Ask former congressmen Henry ("Pro-life constitutional amendment") Hyde about his "youthful indiscretions" in his forties.

    Heterosexual? Oh, where do we start? In the men's bathrooms of the Minneapolis airport or in the texting to young male interns?

    Pro-life? The Republicans promised to end legal abortion in 1980. It's still with us after Reagan and two Bushes and congresses with Republican majorities in both Houses.

    So please, no more saying that the Republicans are about anything else than making sure those at the top pay far less than their share and burden us with far more of the work and cost of keeping our society running.

    The GOP is the party of naked, opportunistic greed at our expense.

    Sunday, October 31, 2010

    Before You Vote 2

    A community organizer was reminding grassroots folks about how they learned to vote for the party of Thomas Jefferson, founding father, Franklin Roosevelt, friend of the working man, and John F. Kennedy, "the saint." The Democrats, he said, come to pick our fresh votes like ripe tomatoes every election season, then they go away and everything stays the same.

    That was how the late William Velázquez spoke last I heard him several decades ago. The founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Project liked to shock his mostly liberal, Hispanic audiences in hopes of spurring the realization that voting was not necessarily about voting Democratic.

    White liberals have had a way of overpromising and underdelivering. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are the poster children of this bad habit. President Obama should have taken both to the woodshed a year ago.

    I think, I still want to believe, that Barack Obama is just about as genuinely well-intentioned a politician as we're likely to see. But, OK, he does appear bought and sold.

    Still, we don't have a choice between Obama and anything else. It doesn't matter that he's only offered too small a stimulus, piecemeal health insurance reform and minor tweaks to the finance industry, when government intervention in the economy and major overhauls are needed.

    We can protest and cajole and feel a bit silly.

    The Democrats may well pick the field clean of our juicy grassroots votes. But the other guys, they want to set the field ablaze.

    Saturday, October 30, 2010

    Before You Vote

    Explaining the U.S. mid-term elections to a foreigner taught me that we may not know what the powerful are up to, but we can gauge the Tea Party, the Dems and GOP.

    We know (don't we?) that the so-called Tea Party movement was puppeteered into existence by right-wing Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch's Fox network in the spring of 2009.

    There were no, or very few, actual "tea party" gatherings when Fox set the buzz off. At best, there were a few disgruntled, die-hard Republicans who couldn't accept the 2008 electoral verdict that John McCain accepted with elan.

    The whole thing was a media-created event right out of the 1976 movie "Network," including the slogan "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more."

    Anger and just plain being mad doesn't make up for an ideology or a plan. Aside from misspelling and complete ignorance of the U.S. Constitution and government, what does this alleged movement stand for?

    They're against taxes, homosexuals, aid to the poor and any effort to reverse centuries of racism. They're in favor of a new form of racism against immigrant-looking people (absurdity not mine), chastity before marriage and "life" so long as it's not found in war or poor neighborhoods.

    Insofar as economic policy is concerned, they essentially want to square the circle: they want to fight the war on "terror," keep government's hands off their Medicare and halt all deficits and debts instantly.

    What if every last Tea Party candidate, or a weighty number, wins? It will be fun to watch until we begin to experience the consequences.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    Hail the Universal Echo ... Echo ... Echo ...

    Now that others have taken up my non-theistic ethics1, it seems possible to propose a replacement for the deity: the Universal Echo, or the foil somewhere out in the heavens for our projected hopes, aspirations, imagined superlatives and magical thinking, from which all religions and philosophical systems boomerang.

    The idea is vaguely drawn on Feuerbach's idea that “The consciousness of God is the self-consciousness of man; the knowledge of God is the self-knowledge of man.”2 Put simply: God is our own projection, an imaginary friend, if you will.

    God has uses. The God of conservatives validates “family values” and war. The God of liberals is herself a liberal, pacifist, blessed-are-the-poor kind of deity.

    The Universal Echo is not another god, but a reasonable proposal of which science can probably find evidence. Listening to the Echo is us truly hearing ourselves. Sending thoughts to the Echo, an equivalent of prayer, is allowing our thoughts to go off into the ether, then bounce back from the cosmos and hit us as if new and improved.

    In this proposal, I am not offering yet another anthropomorphic magical being. The UE is not someone separate from ourselves, but ourselves extended and truly mirrored back. Visually, we could speak of the Universal Reflection. In sound, we could speak of the Universal Wave. Sensorily, we could speak of the Universal Touch.

    We think, speak, look, reach out and come across a universe that bounces back our thoughts, sounds, our search light receptors and our fingers.

    Traditionally, religion says that God created the world. We would say that in discovering our boundaries against which all our impulses bounce back to us, our Echo has created a sensory world seemingly out of nothing.

    Indeed, we first became human when we became self-aware.


    Notes
    1. Morals Without God, The New York Times
    2. Ludwig Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    Juan Williams, the Noose Media
    and the Stupidification of America

    Never mind that Congress went off to campaign after cutting off aid to the poorest Americans and leaving the unemployed in limbo. Since last night, Washington is abuzz with the lynch mob firing of Juan Williams from National Public Radio, or the (drunken?) calls of Ginni Thomas, wife of the laziest justice on the Supreme Court, to sexual-harrassment whistleblower Anita Hill, or the latest nonsense by candidates for Congress who have not read the Constitution.

    I have a brief memo, drawing on my 35 years in journalism, as a reporter, editor and publisher, for NPR Chief Executive Officer Vivian Schiller, who claims that "it is the ideal of journalism that we strive for objectivity":
    Re: Juan Williams
    There's no such thing as objectivity in journalism. We should try, however, to be fair.
    Fox presents the world as seen from a right-wing prism, NPR does so with the lens of liberalish cultural sensitivity and MSNBC offers what passes for a "leftist" view in these United States.

    The Washington Post lobbied hard for the construction of bridges that meant an economic boon to its parent company; its editorial staff preens as journalists, instead of gossipmongers and cheerleaders for whoever has power (in its majority black city), if white. The Washington Times lives in a Moonie world all its own (I double-dare you: juxtapose their front page with that of any two or three other newspapers for a week).

    The question goes beyond political freedom of the press. There is a variety of opinions within the permissible range disseminated in this country.

    Ever hear that the Soviet Union had no inflation in prices for basic necessities from 1927 to 1991? Or that Israel gets more U.S. foreign aid than all of Africa? Or that General Motors purposely destroyed once viable non-polluting mass transit systems in the United States?

    No? Well, think about it: who owns the mass media? Even "free" blogs, like this one, exist at the pleasure of Mr. Google. Never mind the broadcast and cable networks, the newspapers, the wire services, held by a few neo-feudal newspaper families or by gigantic corporations or by modern-day robber barons.

    This is why, when Congress left town at the end of September with a continuing resolution to fund the government -- except for a few billion in the TANF Emergency Fund and except for a permanent extension of unemployment insurance for the throngs that have been out of work for more than 99 weeks -- no one said anything.

    The owners of the media don't give a damn about the depredation of our society, the fruits of which they partake of generously, if it doesn't sell advertising or air time. And the uneducated don't read and don't watch news.

    I have waited and waited for someone to lift up their cry to the empty heavens. How can we sit by as the poverty rate rises, welfare is cut, and people are abandoned to live in cardboard "homes" without saying a word?

    I kept my counsel precisely because I cover these things professionally in journalism. I'm not supposed to vent opinions. Or as one grizzled editor used to say (in my cleaned up version): if you cover the circus, don't make love to the elephants.

    Enough! The words of Allen Ginsburg come to mind: "America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?"

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Notes from a Bisexual Ax Murderer

    A woman I've been spared meeting face to face began an e-mail exchange by interrogating a male acquaintance of a friend of hers as if the man was guilty until proven innocent. This began with whether he was "bisexual" and cascaded downwards. A woman who hates men that much should try women.

    Indeed, an increasing number of women could use some finesse in the way they approach men in whom they might have an interest. Especially when the person in question is not a total, absolute stranger, but someone who comes recommended or is in some way a known quantity.

    Women seem to feel that their negative past experiences with men entitle them to be rude.

    One woman I know asks men she might date whether they have ever declared bankruptcy. Another asked whether the Mercedes in which she was being driven had been bought new or used.

    Honey, if you're that interested in my bank account, good-bye.

    Sure, some women are preternaturally stupid about money in a romantic context. One story of woe included moving in with and co-signing the purchase of a house with a man she'd known only three months: yes, he was interested in her money.

    Still, not all men are cads, prefer men and have the law after them. Indeed, men weed out women by observing discreetly; a little discretion in sizing up other people would go a long way. Espy subtly, without implying the man is a criminal before you've met him (even as a "joke").

    Besides, in all my ax murdering I have always had to catch the victim unaware. For some reason, women don't want a date once I tell them I am an ax murderer. Women!

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Europe's Columbus Day

    Some 518 years ago today, Luis Torres, a Spanish Jew, became the first European on record to set foot in the New World. While we still debate the fateful consequences, I am struck by the comments of a contemporary European, to whom Christopher Columbus is a minor 15th century figure.

    Indeed, in modern Europe, only Spain celebrates October 12 as a national holiday. In the Iberian peninsula, it is the "Día de la Hispanidad." The holiday that celebrates the common language and culture of the roughly half-billion people worldwide touched in a fundamental way by Spain, starting October 12, 1492.

    Why would the other countries celebrate the day? Italians in the New World claim the Genoa-born Columbus as their own, but apart from a few historians Italians in Italy largely ignore the explorer.

    Otherwise, the other Europeans associate the New World with the Spanish plunder and enslavement of which Eduardo Galeano memorably wrote.

    Of course, the French forget about Haiti and Quebec, conquered just as savagely as were the francophone countries of Africa. The British forget their fateful invention of biological warfare against the natives of New England, just as they forget their invention of the concentration camp in Africa.

    The Europeans just didn't have much of a chance to despoil in America. They had to wait to do so in Africa and Asia.

    Moreover, Europeans think in centuries, so anything less than half-a-millenium old  is "new" — as are nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and the United States.

    Across the Atlantic, the dominant narrative is still one about plucky European emigrants who somehow chucked their Europeanness and became American.

    And Columbus? My unscientific sample said Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press in 1450, or polymath Leonardo DaVinci, born in 1452, were far more significant.

    To Europeans, that is.

    Tuesday, October 05, 2010

    The Revolution Will Not Be

    In 1971, Gil Scott-Heron composed one of the poem-songs that in many ways  represents that era, called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It looks as if in 2011 the revolution will not be; the Republicans will put the last few nails into the coffin of "change we can believe in" and it will be back to "no, we can't."

    Scott-Heron's song, which has the elements of what later came to be rap, hip-hop and the myriad of related genres of which I know very little, had a point, which he made in his last stanza:
    The revolution will not
    The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
    will not be televised, will not be televised.
    The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
    The revolution will be live.
    To read the whole lyric, which is a beauty, click here.

    Scott-Heron was cognizant, as I wasn't, that even in 1971 we were already in George Orwell's 1984 (a date with the reversed last two digits of the year in which the novel was published, 1948). In the USA, Big Brother did not need to force anyone to watch television; everyone had been addicted to it, worse than they were to become addicted to crack. I should know: I was a recovering TV addict. Television tells us what to think.

    To some, George Orwell is the man of the Left who unmasked Stalinism. He was a reverse "useful idiot," to use Lenin's fateful phrase: his writings were put to use to serve the interests of the capitalist elite he detested.

    Just as to others, Karl Marx is the man whose ideas led inevitably to 1917. Yet, despite Lenin's clever dialectical word games (such as calling his own minority a majority, bolsheviki), Marx expected socialism to arise first in advanced Germany, not in backward autocratic Russia, much less in China, one of the societies Marx had in mind when he coined the phrase "the Asiatic mode of production," in his view a deviation.

    For my part, I expected socialism in the United States. Not through a revolution, nor through an evolution à la Eduard Bernstein, but through the very Marxian process of the internal contradictions of capitalism. So far, I have not been disappointed: capitalist society is in a very advanced state of decomposition.

    Obama has failed to rescue capitalism, as have the social democrats of Europe. Once President Palin is inaugurated, the system will be allowed to run wild again.

    The revolution will not be.

    Monday, October 04, 2010

    How to Buy "Honor"

    Apparently a group called Shirat HaNefesh, associated with another group called Jews United for Justice is going to honor David and Carla Cohen on October 24. Last time I met Carla Cohen, owner of Politics and Prose, she was up there on the podium race-bating with the best of 'em, self-hating Hispanic Linda Chávez.

    I called to Cohen's attention that Chávez, a thank-God-she-wasn't secretary of labor nominated by George W. Bush and a woman who has done everything possible to gut the very affirmative action that allowed her to ascend socioeconomically, is hardly a good and representative Hispanic author.

    When I asked her what Hispanic authors she had had in her store, she mentioned Carlos Fuentes. Now Fuentes is a major Latin American novelist, but he is a Mexican from Mexico, not a U.S. Hispanic. I realize that to a lot of Anglos, including Carla Cohen apparently, we're all "Mexican," but really we're not.

    I pointed this out to her. Any U.S. Hispanic writers at P&P?

    "Are there any?" she asked. I could have given her a list, but what would have been the point. Anyone wishing to find out who they are, click to find a list here.

    These groups I have never heard of are obviously rewarding Cohen for donations, as her store is quite successful.

    Otherwise, I can't imagine what kind of good work is worth honoring from someone who has given a platform to self-hating racists like Chávez (who is also a gay-baiter, but that's for another time, perhaps) and who doesn't even know there are Hispanic (or Latino if you like) writers.

    Some "justice," JUJ.

    Friday, October 01, 2010

    A Plan for the Pope

    A heated post-mortem on Ratzinger's trip to Britain prompted me to come up with some way that the pope could allay all the criticism of his papacy. The problem is that Ratzinger has yet to apologize for many things personally, so that his mealy mouth mumblings about the faults of others in countries in which he has never set foot are meaningless.

    Here are three steps that would silence, or at least subdue, critics:
    1. Release Archbishop Bernard Law (emeritus of Boston and now a Vatican official), and all others like him, who are hiding from prosecutors, investigators and lawsuits behind the sovereign immunity of the Vatican, from charges arising out of their conspiracy to hide or protect the rape of children, as well as to aid Nazis in exile and other criminal elements, and extradite them to countries with jurisdiction over their crimes.
    2. Depose, without retirement pay or any benefits, and hand over to secular authorities every single bishop worldwide who headed or in some way administered a diocese at the time of a rape of even one child by a cleric or employee of the diocese and its associated organizations.
    3. Release all capital of the "Institute for Religious Works" (aka Vatican Bank, aka Mafia and CIA money laundering machine) to pay for the treatment, rehabilitation of, and restitution to victims of conspiracies in which church officials engaged worldwide, ordering all dioceses in the world to do the same, without demanding onerous court processes from claimants (perhaps a simple process of claim arbitration would do).
    If Ratzinger did all this without reservations and clever loopholes for friends, a papal apology for the actions of others would not even be necessary. Of course, by the logic of these steps, Ratzinger himself would have to resign from the papacy without retirement benefits, given his tenure as archbishop in Munich.

    This would still not allay personal charges against him.

    To do that, Ratzinger has to come clean concerning his own personal complicity (albeit minor) for the deeds of the Hitler regime he supported. He has to reconsider the authoritarian, Germany-first worldview he suckled at the Nazi teat as a teenager. He must reject the ill-advised ideas of those German-bishop mentors who had publicly prayed for the success of the Führer and attempted a postwar whitewash of Germany.

    Finally, he ought to apologize and seek to make restitution for his violation of the human rights of those he judged guilty of theological error, without due process, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    In brief, the only just and fair outcome for Ratzinger is to be stripped of all status and possessions, to recant and acknowledge his errors and wrongdoing publicly, then live the rest of his natural life in a small cell on bread and water. Perhaps with piped-in recordings of his recanting played in a loop.

    Friday, September 24, 2010

    Real Natural Law

    What we know about life, liberty and property from nature today is quite different from what most natural law advocates think.

    Life is a complex set of chemical reactions scientists can explain better than I can. The place of our species at the top of all sentient, self-propelling animals is questionable, particularly as we are about to destroy the planet's ability to sustain life. Judging by behavior of all species, life is pretty cheap and that of an individual animal, human or otherwise, is not particularly valuable.

    Natural law is the law of the jungle.

    Liberty is, in natural terms, nonexistent. The combination of our genes, environment and nurture determine our behavior and the terms of our life.

    Property is, similarly, an entirely unnatural concept. At most, we can say that possession is a temporary characteristic of any thing around any animal, plant or mineral, to the extent that power can be exerted to control it.

    Thus, here is natural law as it really is:

    1. Fight tooth and nail to survive, because if you don't some other
    human or animal or plant or even mineral will take it.

    2. You are inexorably and ultimately subject to fate, even though your senses will fool you otherwise.

    3. Hang on to whatever people, animals, plants and minerals you
    control, knowing that you must relinquish them when you lose control.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    My pal Friedrich Nietzche

    Reluctantly, I come to the conclusion that the exploration of ethics, politicas or philosophy is pointless since we are incapable of free moral acts, are only goaded by what we are taught and are kept in line only by coercion.

    The existence of freedom is much exaggerated. From the moment of our conception, our potential to decide and act is severely constrained by inherited biochemical traits.

    Once we are born, we enter society in a social and economic context that is entirely not of our own choosing and very rarely changed in any substantive way by a free act, thought or deed. By the time we go to school, the course of our life is not known, but it is more or less set. The arena left to moral choice is absurdly minute, if it is exists at all.

    Conscience, in the personal and moral sense understood in Western societies, is little more than a set of biochemical reactions in the brain to the challenges of the interaction of ingrained habit, social custom and individual tendencies. Shame and pride, in normal doses, are socially ingrained. There is nothing magical or "supernatural" about this.

    In this context, the only purpose of institutions such as the churches or government) is to attempt to enforce socially mandated behavior; those that have failed to do this have either disappeared (the Shakers) or gone woefully astray (Stalinist Russia).

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Sam Munson's Hieroglyphs

    The first noteworthy element to strike me in Sam Munson's first novel, November Criminals, was not any similarity between the narrator and Holden Caulfield.


    Now, I have reviewed economics books for pay for a magazine that is well known to its devotees — but never novels. Writers, actual novelists in fact, who are presumably begged to review new books by august editors at even more august publications such as The New York Times, took a gander at Sam's novel and they all had to make the obligatory Caulfield reference, as if to say, "See, I spent whole summers in Iowa literary seminars discussing things like this."

    Not me. I was struck by what I thought was an unusual code to identify the pages. Instead of the usual numbers I saw, at the bottom of each page, not in the center as is traditional, but somewhat edging toward the outer edge of the paper, three discrete black hieroglyphs that looked more or less like the ones I have reproduced below. They looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but they were not numbers.

    The one on the left, for example, seemed to me an F with a fat middle stroke. The middle one was more classical a jigsaw piece ... but what was that semicircle doing? The left one looked like a missshapen B and I.


    I turned the page. More of them! Different shapes. It was almost like going back to the 1980s, when I didn't have a television, to see the all-lowercase thirtysomething across the screen, so cool, so typographically hip. I knew about it because production people were always telling me we should do this in my very serious, dull as wheat toast, economic weekly.

    I figured this had to be some creative stroke of Sam's. Young people these days! [intone as an emphatic, cranky sigh]

    I was still left with the problem of how to remember where I was in case the bookmark fell out. Until ... eureka! I suddenly looked at page 19 again and saw:


    It wasn't three hieroglyphs! It was color-reversed white numbers on a black background. Kids!

    I am not the only one to have experienced this problem. In an informal poll of about two or three people my age and socioeconomic status, the numbering was a puzzle at first.

    Let this be a lesson to Sam Munson, who has written a fine novel, superbly sharp at dissecting the white middle class hypocrisies of parents and teachers (I found myself nodding and thinking, "At last someone has said this in print!") in the neighborhood where I watched him — and his friends — grow up.

    Ah, yes, the lesson: don't listen to geezers like me.

    Saturday, September 18, 2010

    Are We In Crisis?

    The gloom and doom projected by a young man I know, despite his own personal good fortune, makes me revisit a question I have been nursing since about 1968: Are our own times more fraught with high risks, shocking inequality and challenges that defy solution than any other?

    Yes and no.

    In a solipsistic sense, we always live times of crisis, a moment of decisive change; we are changing, therefore the world is. Moreover, historical change appears to have accelerated, perhaps since 1914. Finally, economic trendlines that tell us that, yes, the recession experienced by millions involves peaks in joblessness and poverty.

    However, although my stomach says the world exists to feed me, my eyes and ears do an even better job of convincing me that people and things exist beyond my control, in most cases untroubled by my particular worries.

    Change, similarly, it is arguably slowing down. One of my grandfathers was born in the day of the buggy and the oil lamp and died during the decade of the first computers and atomic bombs. My parents were born before radio, penicillin and nylon, but were gone before the World Wide Web. A once-print journalist, I may see the demise of newspapers written on the wall, yet little will exist the day I die that wasn't already a gadget in the Dick Tracy comic strip when I was a child.

    Oh, and specialists have been saying for about a year that the recession is technically over.

    Therefore, I commend you to the words of Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on June 16, 1940, when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany and its impending bombing blitz.
    Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.
    The British Empire did not outlive Churchill, who died in 1965. Yet who today doubts that 1940 was the Brits' finest hour?

    Tuesday, September 07, 2010

    Anthem

    Stand up. Put your hand on your heart. Play.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    How hot is it in the hustings?

    It's not what Robin Sparkles (Scherbatsky) had in mind when she was a teeny-bopper rock queen (see here), but in some places it's hot enough that one local newspaper feature on the heat had a doctor recommending that people without air-conditioning go to the mall (see here). Not the summer I would like to spend on the campaign trail.

    We here in Washington have no lack of hot air, despite the congressional recess, but I shudder to think of the diabetic guy in that story who lives on disability aid, which turns out not to be enough to have A/C.

    Some of us who grew up without A/C everywhere are tempted to scream: Stop whining, you Southern, do-nothing slobs! (You do know that Southern states are net takers of the federal aid your lawmakers are constantly trying to shrink, dontcha?) Most of humanity did fine without A/C for millions of years.

    Yet the story's not the heat. It's the poverty—in the richest country in the world.

    Nobody, not even bigoted, lazy Southern slobs who hate the hand that feeds them, deserves poverty. We're forgetting, aren't we, that as we lick our portfolio's chops in expectation of GM's IPO, there's a lot of poverty out there.

    The rising new wave of home foreclosures is almost all caused by unemployment—not Wall Street shenanigans (although those are coming back, too). Just think: the government is giving up its share of GM, after reviving it, now that there's real profit to be made.

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    All Unhappy People

    “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy memorably in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina. He may have been wrong. It's the unhappy who are, in general, quite common and ordinary, the happy rare and uncommon.

    In "My Life in Therapy" by Diana Merkin, the author discloses a tidbit about Freud that I had never heard before and struck me with the simplicity of a classic truth:
    Therapy, as Freud himself made clear, is never about finding a cure for what ails you. Its aim, despite the lyrical moniker it is known by (“the talking cure” was not actually Freud’s phrase but rather that of Dr. Josef Breuer’s patient Bertha Pappenheim, whom Freud wrote about as Anna O.), was always more modest. Freud described it as an effort to convert “hysterical misery” into “common unhappiness,” which suggests a rather minimalist framework against which to judge progress.
    Common unhappiness. I haven't spent nearly a tenth of the fortune or time the author devoted to psychiatrists, but I am just as convinced that therapists are a colossal waste of time, not to mention money. It may not be their fault.

    Maybe the problem is that there is a common unhappiness that, like the common cold, cannot be cured.

    Most of us are in some respects garden variety neurotics. We have the hangnails of mental illness. Our parents were not perfect—nor did we understand them perfectly as children. Our spouses fail us—just about as much as we fail them. We are afraid of the dark, of being alone, of being poor—and of living alone and poor in a dark room, most of all. We suffer the wouldacouldashouldas of life.

    Our mental hangnails are, to be sure, elaborately shaped, worthy of an exhibit at one of the more bizarre of modern art galleries. But they are still hangnails.

    Most of our families are not “dysfunctional.”

    Most of us are all fed, clothed, housed, schooled, eventually employed for some of our lives. Sure some are fed and clothed better, schooled in name schools and end up with corner offices overlooking a famous avenue. But the rest of us muddle through just fine.

    Families exist mainly to help us muddle through, regardless of the members emotional quirks.

    So, perhaps, Tolstoy bears rewriting. All people are alike in their common unhappiness; a few are happy, for a while. All happy families don't stay that way; all unhappy families, welcome to the club.

    Thursday, August 05, 2010

    Where's the Reform in Health Reform?

    Having lived in Canada and the United Kingdom, I would have happily had single-payer socialized medicine in the United States, just as President Truman proposed in 1947. But I am mad as hell as I see President Obama's "reform" kick in.

    My company got no increase last year for health care (note: it's two words!). That's when the whole medical gouging system was afraid of reform. Now they got the reform they want and rates have jacked up: 29 % for us in no-inflation times!

    That's not the worst case.

    An acquaintance, I'll call him Bob, lost health insurance because he is unemployed. United Healthcare and Kaiser Permanente rejected him because he suffers from depression -- I'm talking serious, clinical depression. As always, you have to be healthy to sign up for medical care, right?

    Bob is on disability. He could work with medication, but he can't get any prescribed.

    OK, "reform" kicked in during July. Everyone has to be insured. But if commercial firms won't insure you, Bob learned, you have to have been uninsured 6 months to qualify for "high risk" pool. Then he gets to pay more than $600 a month for insurance that has a $6,000 deductible.

    So if you're unemployed, you have to have spent about $13,000 out of pocket. Where, pray tell does someone uninsured (because he is unemployed), get $13,000 in the first place? Get it, unemployed? Meaning little or no income?

    This is not the "change" I voted for, Mr. Obama.

    Tuesday, August 03, 2010

    Death Month

    (This is a repost for the benefit of the people involved.)

    For two sisters I know who live together, and their third sibling far away, today is what they regard as the second "Death Day" in less than a month. August brings anniversaries of the death of both their parents.

    Other people they know have died this month, but nothing quite tops the loss of a father in childhood. A father who by all accounts was an older man besotted with the daughters of his senectitude, yet a strong-willed pater familias with ideas of yesteryear that would have clashed with these children's in a matter of a few years.

    The young woman he'd met as a spy in World War II -- true story! -- was left to spend nearly half a century on her own; well provided, yet surely bereft as she raised three daughters. Decades later she still referred to herself as Mrs. X, rather than by her own given first and family names.

    He died what must have been an excruciating struggle with cancer a few decades earlier than the actuarial expectations would have led anyone to expect. She died at a ripe old age, in her sleep.

    They were both individuals whose lives, and the artifacts of their lives, with which I became acquainted long after the heyday of either one, bespoke a manner of abiding seemingly now gone. People of few spoken emotions, of thorough learning received and augmented as a given, lucky enough to be born to see the fruits of their labors pay off handsomely.

    They were people of distinction, yet also rebels. She was a mother and housewife with a then-rare graduate degree designed to fulfill her unrealized ambition to run worldwide cartels. (I recounted her interment here.) He was that unusual businessman with a love of Dante Alighieri.

    After people have lived long enough, there are always death days throughout the year; dates that remind us of people long gone.

    In my mother's childhood it had been December, for her older sister, whose teenage death had put an entire household in mourning. For me it was November for years, the month my father died; that is, until my mother died on a date that was, only a few years after her passing, destined to become famous -- September 11.

    Now I have photographs in which everyone portrayed is now dead. People I knew, people whose jokes still resonate from the picture as if they were still speaking.

    I suspect that is what the two sisters will recall: their parents in their light summer clothes having evening drinks by the lake beside their home; he tossing witticisms, she laughing gently and her laughter rippling across the water.

    Monday, August 02, 2010

    Why Congresscritters (and "Outsider" opponents) Don't Care About You

    Congress and the self-dubbed "outsiders" who are vying to win their seat this November ultimately don't give a damn about the likes of you and me (assuming you're not a billionaire) -- nor much, much less the unemployed and the poor. The question is: How come?

    Aren't these supposed to be the people's spokesmen and women defending "the little guy" (and gal)? No. Here are three reasons why:
    1. They are not like you and me. Almost anyone who runs for Congress, certainly almost everybody in Congress, is a multimillionaire. They went to the best (read: most expensive, private) schools and played ... what's that Iroquois game called, again? ... ah, yes, lacrosse.
    2. You and me can't finance electoral campaigns. Didn't the last presidential candidates spend about $100 million apiece? You can frisk me all you want, but I don't have that kind of money. If I did, why would I throw it away on someone else's political campaign? The only reason would be to get laws that apply to everybody else, but not me.
    3. You and me don't have the necessary votes. Who votes the most? The elderly, who are as a whole well off and want their well-being protected. The rich and most educated, ditto. Some of the middle class (including those people who can't tell Jay Leno what the candidate they voted for looks like) -- most against their best interests. Not enough people who depend on public services and help ever vote.
    All right, there probably are some exceptions to no. 1; some hard luck cases, including the president, get elected. They're still the tiniest of minorities and they haven't been called late for supper in decades -- after being elected, they will never be poor ever again.


    So, if they're not average folk, they don't need our campaign money and can do just fine without our votes -- why in hell would they care?

    Sunday, July 25, 2010

    It's Still Legal to Be Racist

    The lesson no one seems to be taking away from l'affaire Shirley Sherrod is that in the United States it's still legal to be racist. The Constitution protects the right to think racist thoughts and express racist ideas; the only thing legislation since 1964 bars is acting on these thoughts or ideas.

    Even in the so-called Fox News network's truncated and out-of-context video of Sherrod's statements, she was perfectly within her rights to express a dislike of whites. That's not what she was expressing in the full unexpurgated version, but if she had been, it would have been legal.

    No civil servant, employer, supervisor, renter or seller, and so forth, may legally refuse goods, services or opportunities or rights to anyone merely on the basis that the individual is white, Christian, British, male or (in some states) heterosexual. That's the law.

    However, you can caricature and even express a hostile disposition in your mind and in your speech against any legally protected group. Neither the civil rights movement, nor much less Congress, ever thought the government could ever actually change minds by law -- only actual external behavior.

    The psychologist William James was fond of this approach: force yourself smile and you'll feel more lighthearted. It's a very American approach to social problems such as racism.

    Thursday, July 22, 2010

    Some Blogging Changes

    I don't have it in me to keep my day job and write my little essays with great frequency. Therefore, I have started a separate blog, Headline du Jour, for pithy daily commentary. This blog, Antipodes (formerly Shavings Off My Mind), will become my weekly "editorial" or "sermonette." Spanish readers may also try Desde Yanquilandia, my effort to comment on life here in the First World, with some perspectives borrowed from the Third.

    Friday, July 16, 2010

    45 Days without Money

    If you have ever gone without any income or benefits for 45 days, welcome to the world of roughly 2,138,000 Americans this week. What crime did they commit? They had the effrontery of not being able to find a job before June 2, 2010, when Congress allowed extended unemployment benefits to expire.

    "Oh, extended" you say? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.8 million unemployed Americans have lacked a job for more than six months. That's 46% of out-of-work Americans, which is an all-time historical high (a detailed study on this is available from the National Employment Law Project here).

    Now, of course, not all of them will lose benefits right now. But keep in mind that federal extended benefits had provided up 99 weeks (close to two years) of benefits in some states.

    That sound too long? Republicans thinks so: they say the benefits are keeping people from looking for a job, which is ridiculous since the last national unemployment figure shrank to 9.5 percent only because people left the workforce in huge numbers. They were discouraged just before Congress cut them off.

    Now they're just plain desperate.

    Friday, July 09, 2010

    Goodbye, Uptown Cathay

    Incredible! After so many years I don't know where to write or call Peter, the man I have known as the proprietor of the Uptown Cathay since 1991.

    Uptown Cathay Restaurant, Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C.
    I'd like to tell him that I will miss him and his food.  For years, it seems, this cozy little neighborhood place was where I went with my younger son every Saturday around lunch time.

    We had a prandial ritual that the waitress, Grace, knew by heart: pan-fried pork rolls and a half-Peking duck. Enough to feed an entire Chinese family. She didn't know, of course, about our rip-roaring game of 20 Questions.

    You know the game: I think of someone famous and you have 20 chances to ask me for clues to the identity of this person. You can only ask questions that can be answered "yes" or "no." Female? American? 20th century? (It was the 20th century, then.)

    We began playing traditional 20 Questions, although I gave my son a handicap appropriate for his age (6? 7?). When it was time for him to guess, I once chose the educator after whom his school was named. Later came the grand figures of history; of course, never Hitler or Napoleon, because they were too easy.

    Later still, came Reverse 20 Questions, in which the guesser would ask directly "Are you thinking of Napoleon?" If you were, he'd have to continue guessing. The object was for the guesser to ask a name you weren't thinking of, so you had to keep thinking of new historical figures every second.

    Then came Anything Goes 20 Questions, a variant of the traditional game in which you didn't have to think of a person: it could be a thing or an idea. I was finally defeated with my son's thinking of "nothingness." He was then about 11 and about to graduate from going anywhere with his father, even if it was just half a block from home.

    Of course, the restaurant evolved, just like our game.

    The enclosed open-air table area on the sidewalk (lower left, by the date imprint), wasn't there originally. Nor did the menu include Japanese sushi, nor Thai food (added after the Thai Room, once across the street, closed its doors). Before the Cathay, there'd been a deli that was never quite to my taste -- or wallet.

    In later years, after my family moved away and I remained. I kept going to the Cathay because I knew the menu by heart. When I didn't know what to order, Grace, who has just had her second child, could pretty much guess something I'd like. One could call that Food 20 Questions, except that the idea would be lost in translation.

    Once, Peter gave me a formal Chinese dress shirt similar to one of his that I had admired. It was an Asian version of the guayabera. The one he gave me was too tight around the abdomen. I still have it, always hoping to slim into it next year.

    Finally, there came on June 19 the occasion of a friendly postmortem of reading by Sam Munson from his new novel "November Criminals" across the street -- at the bookstore that is (sigh!) on the block to be sold.

    That night, I had longtime friends with me, along with my younger son. I had had lunch there and Peter had told me his troubles. This was why I'd brought my entourage after the reading; I was set on spending my way into saving the place.

    Peter's wife came over and remarked that she had seen me earlier, so I told her of my "plan." She hugged me.

    Next Saturday, the place was shut.

    Tuesday, July 06, 2010

    To love is to bug

    This is a new insight that comes courtesy of my special friend, who is prone to flashes of affection, followed by retreats assuring me she won't “bug” me any more. I've come to realize I like being “bugged” that way.

    My mother was very affectionate and no one has, or likely will, ever quite match that warmth that comes from the one person to whom you are perfectly beloved, no matter what, for as long as she lives. I lost that when I was 17 and moved away, later irretrievably when she died.

    Yet I was not a mama's child. I even complained to her about the sheer arrogance of mothers on Mother's Day.

    This was a variation on the critique raised by a classmate to baffle our religion teacher. My classmate had argued that, given all the insistence on worship and obedience attributed to the Supreme Being, God must surely be a preening narcissist.

    And, hey, weren't mothers next to God in authority, pomp and circumstance on their day — as well as in and sheer guilt-inducing power if their desires were somehow ignored? And, boy! Mothers could surely bug you with embarrassing displays of affection in front of your peers!

    Some people — especially North Americans — react to affection with the horror reserved for strangers' accidental brushes with one's shoulder or arm on the subway or bus. All right, so the Parisian lovers — I have seen this with my own eyes — go to the other extreme with their ... um ... French kissing and embracing on busy corners.

    In the end, though, love involves a bit of “bugging” the loved one who is reading The New York Times' book review. You might get carried away by your affection to kiss and caress the reader's arm. For no reason. Even if no one sees.

    Saturday, July 03, 2010

    The Will to Be Blond

    In a discussion of whether we have free will — we don't —I suddenly became fascinated with the imaginary possibility that we could decide our physical beings, pretty much the way we can design an avatar.

    I would give myself my overall body as it was when I was somewhere between 17 to 23: thinner, more limber, more easily renewed of energy and vitality.

    Then, what if I had the ability to change coloring? I could literally make my skin green with envy or red with anger, look a reflective albino pale if I was crossing a street at night or greenish if I was trying to surprise someone (for something like a birthday, at a picnic.

    The color toggle could apply also to hair and eyes. I could be blond or redheaded and have those blue-green-gray irises that change with the mood.

    To improve on the present body, I'd make myself permanently and invincibly immune to the common cold and STDs.

    And, hey, while I'm playing, maybe I could design some “template” appearances that I could change in and out of, like a suit.

    Just imagine what you could do ...

    Thursday, July 01, 2010

    Socialism isn't ... and is ...

    Since forever and a day the Democratic Socialists of America has embodied to me, largely because of my admiration for founder Michael Harrington for picking up from the ruins of the old Socialist Party, the only kind of U.S. socialism I could abide.

    Like Harrington, I chucked Catholicism, but not its social teachings, on which I grew up. Of course, I was growing up in Latin America, with a foot in the USA, and liberation theology blowing through the Catholic schools and seminaries just as U.S. soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam.

    The singular “Other American,” as a biographer dubbed Harrington, wrote a book that set off the spark that led to the War on Poverty, in which — despite Ronald Reagan's cynical quip — poverty was rolled back, from 19% to 11% in less than a decade, a feat never repeated. Poverty today in the USA hovers at a little more than 12%.

    Yet socialism isn't really about poverty, but the economic order. In all socioeconomic systems conceivable, there will always be those who have less than everyone else — although not necessarily in as abject and degrading a manner as we know poverty today — and those who have more than everyone else — albeit not the stratospheric wealth we know today.

    Socialism aims to reorganize the way society goes about waging the human struggle for survival, so that everyone participates, as an owner, in deciding how all the available resources are used. We can, of course, all be as stupid together as the present elite.

    Wouldn't you rather make your own mistakes than suffer those of Wall Street or the Pentagon?

    Socialism is not — Lenin be damned — about setting up a police state. Nor is socialism about setting up a comfortable bureaucracy for some to claim to represent workers as they play golf with the bosses, nor much less about championing the issues raised by our particular sexual or ethnic identity, nor even about “reforming” anything, be it the money-clogged electoral system or the inequitable and wasteful medical system.

    In a real socialist society democracy we would all get a chance to make sure there was more butter than guns, for all enough butter and bread, and — as the women of Lawrence, Massachusetts, sang nearly a century ago — roses, too.