Sunday, April 15, 2018

Testimony, Robbie Robertson & Gangster, George Anastasia


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The title of this memoir, Testimony, begs the question, where's the cross examination? My jokey reference has to do with the feud between Robertson and drummer Levon Helm. That tension is finessed in this intriquing view of one of Rock's great bands, the Americana rockers, The Band. Levon's main complaint in his book, This Wheel's on Fire, was that Robbie pretty much broke up the band by hoarding song-writing credits, and the money that brought his way. Robbie claims that he insisted on equal credits, shared royalties early on, but later in the book mentions, without explanation, that he made sure Richard and Rick got credit on one of his songs. Obviously he wouldn't have to do that if they were taking equal credit. It's an unsettled argument. I tend to come down with tradition. The songwirter gets songwriter royalties, the performers get performance royalties, so that's just standard. REM deviated perhaps by sharing equally but Stipe only did the lyrics so that makes sense. It is absolutely true that the other members of The Band gave the songs personality, contributing mightily to their success... yet, that is recognized in performance royalties. But I ain't arguing, I don't get any of that action. Besides, Levon seemed like an ornery cuss sometimes, even without the array of paranoia-inducing drugs he, and they, got into. Witness him leaving the band when they were touring with and getting boo-ed by Dylan's folk fans for going electric. Witness him pulling the scope out of his nose-throat exam in that documentary. And witness Levon, Rick and Richard all going stupid and doing heroine. So, petty stuff went on, yeah, but what music came out of that combination of personalities. They probably could have made interesting music getting lyrics out of the phone book but Robbie's lyrics hit a chord with the public.

The book covers Robertson's early life but ends after The Band's filmed finale in the venue they first played as The Band, San Francisco's Winterland. This was the acclaimed film, The Last Waltz. It is so hard to get and hold a band together, a truth echoed in Robbie's observsation when he spent time with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo and of course in his own band. This is a fun part of the book, little teasing introductions to celebs Robbie routinely ran into – Jonie Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Miles Davis, Henry Miller, David Geffen, Charles Loyd, Neil Young, Jamie James (Jimmie Hendrix), Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, SLN crew, endless musicians, apparently totally comfortable and unawed. Just as Previte the gangster found himself the smartest guy in the room, so did Robbie, often enough to insure his acceptance in those rarified circles.

At 15, Robbie's then band opened for Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto. Ronnie was impressed and invited the precocious guitarist to audition. He dropped out of high school and trained to Arkansa, was given a chance to prove himself and worked to make that happen. They had to disguise his age since they were playing clubs he was too young to enter - fake moustache etc;. Levon Helm, the only other eventual Band member at the time, became Robbie's mentor and confidant. Personnell changes and Ronnie Hawkins' eventual shift in interest whittled the group out and down to the five guys who made music history, first as Dylan's backup band, then as The Band. It was their musical mastery and Robbie's songs (and Dylan's) at the heart of their taking the country by storm. Funny, in some of Dylan's interviews he complained about getting bands together in high school and having someone come along and steal the players. He finally got his revenge by swooping in on Ronnie Hawkins, taking The Band on tour.

I watched an interview with Robbie, promoting his book, on youtube. He wasn't asked if he's still making music or much about what he's been up to. Immediately after The Last Waltz, he was in a film with Gary Busey and Jody Foster, Carny it was called. But apparently he made enough money and got enough of the spotlight that he could just do whatever quiet thing he decided to do. Which, wikipedia tells me, is a lot: producing other artists, doing film scores, solo albums, co-writing, getting awards left and right. Having a rich, princely life.

The first song Robbie got published, at 15, was stolen by a mob-infiltrated publishing company. Which brings me to another book I've been reading, Gangster by George Anastasia. This is a genre I return to periodically, that I find fascinating for some reason. One of the many despicable things mobsters do is move in on an established business, like the publishing company, and take it over, or demand a percentage of the profits for “protection/”, maybe use if also for money laundering. Ron Previte was nudged out of the Air Force when his incorrigible thievery became obvious but not proveable. With an honorable discharge he was able to join the Philadelphia police department where he took his skills to new heights. Again his behavior, not so uncommon for awhile in that department, became a liability when a reformist Chief came aboard. Nudged out again he took up security work at the new Atlantic City casinos. Now the thievery got truely imaginative, profitable and decadent. Eventually he was busted and became an informer for the New Jersey State Police. This allowed him to pursue his criminality unimpeded. Disgusted with him after some years the Staties passed him onto the FBI. His casino and street work had brought him into contact with the Philadelphia mob and since he was such an “earner” he wormed his way into their hearts. He discovered that he was pretty consistently the smartest guy in the room so didn't mind ratting these sorry guys out, feeling that it was only a matter of time before they were all in prison anyway. Over a period of years he wore a wire and got the goods for the FBI. He continued his shake-downs, extortion, drugs, receiving stolen property business (never murder he claims), making substantial money all while drawing a salary from the Feds and allowing them to fund schemes designed to lure mobsters into drug deals and various other illegal operations in order to get them off the streets.

Previte seemed to admire the old time gangsters with their Omerta and so-called “honor” but the new version, typified by New York's John Gotti, was foolishly flamboyant, way too public, courting the media, public and ostentatious spending, seeking celebrity... obviously bringing attention to themselves in ways that would advantage the authorities who wanted to bring them down. Omerta of course was the code of silence practiced by the older generation but suddenly, facing life in prison, many criminals, even high-ranking Cosa Nostra made members, did deals with prosecutors that decimated the ranks. There certainly was no lack of replacements but it was becoming more and more stressful and risky to pursue criminality for profit. The deal-making with authorities became quite contagious and, at least for awhile, the Philadelphia mob was in disarray.

The government made a deal with the highest ranking mobster in Philadelphia to testify against his former cronies, which didn't work out so well for the government. Juries returned “not proven” verdicts on all charges dependent on boss Ralph Natale's testimony. The government had Natale but gave it up for nothing, as it turned out. The big boss is handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ron Previte however, with his tapes, was more successful, putting many of the crew in for relatively long terms. They were not convicted of the murders they were surely guilty of, disappointing the prosecutors and FBI, having traded the top boss for a chance at the others, especially the real boss, Joey Merlino. They did however put top cadre away for a good many years, 14 for Merlino, not enough given his crimes, but still... and the Feds were moving in on the replacement boss, Joe Ligambi, now presiding over only about a dozen members, down from 70. And the 300 pound “fat rat”, Ron Previte? Five years probation and a million dollars for risking his life to make those recordings. Of course the vacuum created by good police work was soon filled by Russian and East European gangsters, another story.



Saturday, March 24, 2018

Readin & Writin: Atomic Accidents, One Summer, The Way of All Flesh, O. Henry, James Gallant


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Given the facts about the effects of the livestock industry on the life system, our health and the animals, meat-eaters are nudged toward vegetarianism, vegetarians towards veganism. Denial of course kicks in quickly for many. Given the facts about nuclear power and weapons, the devastating accidents, already upon us and hanging over us always potentially, with its expense, its mind-bogglingly long-term waste, its devilishly complicated design and proliferation issues, the average person shudders and takes a stand against. The average nuclear physicist or technician, enthralled with the intricate technical challenges, may acknowledge the dangers and expense but in the end, overwhelmingly, like the meat-eater, comes down in favor.

Thus comes down James Mahaffey in his book, Atomic Accidents, A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters. Despite Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima (and many others), all discussed quite objectively in the book, with just the slightest pro-nuke coloration, he jumps to a conclusion little different than the propaganda we've heard over the years. True, he is grounded in knowledge that allows him to pounce upon mis-readings and misunderstandings among the non-scientist opposition but still, we're talking about boiling water here. Well, and destroying civilization - the slow way or the fast way. But to the scientist, all this is understandably fascinating. It's a bit like religion. The first one that gets ahold of you, you usually stick to. Why isn't the challenge of intermittency for solar and wind as fascinating a challenge? Seems reasonable to assume that it could be met given the billions spent on nuclear. Some claim that it is already met. See Arjun Makhijani's, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, a free download at IEER.org (Institute for Energy & Environmental Research). Then there is the disturbing fact Harvey Wasserman points out, that every nuclear reactor is a pre-positioned nuclear device to a terrorist.

Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer. His, A Brief History of Nearly Everything starts out by explaining that the Universe as we know it is rather roomy. And he does try to cover everthing the development of science has revealed. To keep it interesting he often lingers on dramatic threats, like the fact that the whole of Yellowstone is a potential magma explosion, perhaps relieved or delayed by the effusions of Old Faithful and the like. Were the explosion to occur we would have basically the same effect as nuclear winter with a massive dust cloud blocking the sun for longer than civilization can probably stand, at least the U.S. version. And this explosion happens to be well overdue if you believe in geologic patterns. His One Summer is lighter fare. Everything in the book pivots from some event that happened in the summer of 1927. Lindberg's crossing the Atlantic, Al Capone's corrupting presence in Chicago, talking movies, broadway plays and the exodus to Hollywood of its finest actors, Henry Ford's Model T and A, the decisions that locked in the coming stock market crash, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt. And, as they say, more! A very fun read for your beach trip.

Now I had heard somehow of the book by Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh. At one time I scoured yard sales picking up paperback classics by anyone I ever heard of in the great book department. This I recently found in my collection, so yellowed and brittle that, after a few pages I decided to get a hardback copy from the library. I even wrote a song, stealing the title without having read it in 1990, The Way of the Flesh (see https://thinkspeak.bandcamp.com/track/the-way-of-the-flesh). Well I've always been impressed by people who can talk, or write and this guy, Sam Butler is one, not as witty perhaps as Sam Clemens, but still, eloquent and knowledgeable enough to impress me, and keep me reading. He is constantly meandering off his story with little asides exploring human psychology, usually ending with an indeterminate dismissal of the subject as hopelessly controversial. As I'm only a few chapters into it I have little to report other than it fits into the late 19th century oeuvre of master writers, some claiming it as standing very near the tippy top of the genre.

Speaking of eloguence and mastery of language, I seem to remember an early television series called O. Henry, based on his short stories (real name William Sidney Porter). The writer, similar approximate time-frame to Butler, interestingly spent some time in prison where he began to develop the craft of, as my friend Jim Marsh calls it, scribbling. Poor bloke had only ten years to write, dying with 23 cents in his pocket. I put one of his books on library hold and when I picked it up needed help to carry it to the car. I can only take it a short story at a time for it weighs heavily on my lap. I've developed a callous and a crink in my left hand holding it up, turning the pages with my right. So far it is situated in Central America where the author spent some time. He is noted for his kind of Rod Serling-esgue twists in the endings without the metaphysical aspect. I am going to have to renew this one more than once, coming in at 1400 pages.

I'll end this sojourn with a reference to the new James Gallant e-book I've acquired, Whatever Happened to Ohio?. It has a wonderful hot-air baloon cover image to kind of lure you into the whimsical fantasy aspect of the tale. Said tale is highly populated, shifting from character to character in a tentativly bewildering mix which I trust, knowing Gallant's skills, will evolve into some mightily interesting, clever and satisfying resolution. The proof is in his earlier book, The Big Bust at Tyrone's Rooming House, set in my Atlanta neighborhood. http://tfthinkspeak.blogspot.com/2017/10/meandering-mind-stream.html This is the first e-book I've read and I do declare, it has some appealing features. It certainly isn't heavy in my lap.


Monday, March 5, 2018

Deep State, the Fall of the Constitution and Rise of a Shadow Government by Mike Lofgren


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Mike Lofgren's Deep State does not, as I expected, delve into the secretive intelligence agencies but rather studies the mostly corporate oligarchy, their lobbyists and the bureacracy whose prime motivation is job security and advancement. Such factions are served by policies that perpetuate the status quo and resist reform. Whether these policies promote the general welfare is a matter of indifference, if not hostility to the players. The CIA, NSA etc; have their role but as servants not masters. Lofgren's very nicely written prose is embedded with intriquing and devastating tidbits on the Deep State, like these:

  • After 28 years as congressional staff member I increasingly viewed all political ideologies as mental and emotional crutches, substitute religions: for leaders, a means of manpulating attitudes and behaviors; for the rank and file, a lazy surrogate for problem solving and a way of fulfilling the craving to belong to something bigger than oneself.
  • Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich employed chaos, polarization and scapegoating to carry out a divide-and-rule strategy, destroying what bi-partisanship had existed previously.
  • A clique of neoconservative ideologues, both inside and outside the Bush administration, abetted at every step by the mainstream media, acted as carnival barkers for the most destructive and self-defeating policies since Vietnam.
  • I told whoever would listen that the “slam dunk” evidence of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was weak and that by invading Iraq the U.S. might be purchasing its very own West Bank on steroids. The total bill for Iraq summed up to a nice, round trillion dollars.
  • The U.S. economy was mutating into a casino with a tilted wheel, a Wall Street constructed heads-I-win-tails-you-lose Ponzi scheme resulting in the meltdown of 2008.
  • The twin shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession seem mentally to have unhinged a portion of the people and much of the political class. Thus followed crazy arguments about the president's birth certificate, death panels and voters shouting that the government must get its hands off their government-provided Medicare.
  • A new crop of Tea Party freshman announced that their first priority was to drive the country into a sovereign debt default. The circus was being run from the monkey cage.
  • Our venerable institutions have outwardly remained the same but they have grown more and more resistant to the popular will as they have become hardwired into a corporate and private influence network with almost unlimited cash to enforce its will.
  • The rural counties of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, large areas of Detroit, Cleveland, Camden and many other U.S. cities, qualify as third-world. At the same time, wealth beyond computation piles up in the money center of New York and the technology hub of Palo Alto, enough to purchase a $95,000 truffle, a $38 million vintage Ferrari or $179 million Picasso before the balance is parked in an off-shore hiding place.
  • These are symptoms of a shadow government that pays little heed to the plain words of the Constitution.
  • The Deep State is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, militarization of foreign policy, financialization and deindustrialization of the U.S. economy and the rise of plutocracy.
    A tidbit also from the book is that the author is a former Reaganite whose 28 years on the Hill gave him a close-up of the sausage-making, which tranformed (radicalized) the way he saw the world. The above bullet points all come from the first 5 pages of the introduction. The book is full of them. Here are a few more or less randomly selected from deeper in:
  • A Kennedy quote, “D.C. Is a town of northern charm and southern efficiency.”, injects a little humor to the discouraging list.
  • Sam Ervin the much-loved, Shakespeare-quoting chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Watergate hearings was also the author of The Southern Manifesto, a document urging defiance of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.
  • Those who bray about “family values” fail to consider that the modern U.S. economy is increasingly unable to deliver the stable, well-paid jobs, medical insurance and family leave that make such a way of life possible.
  • Politicians are too busy raising money and looking over their shoulder to do much socializing.
  • At frequent points during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the tongue-tied George W. Bush sorely needed the mellifluous double-talk of British prime minister Tony Blair, on the theory that nothing sells hideously awful policy as well as an Oxford accent.
  • If the American people did not voluntarily give informed consent to the web of unaccountable influence that radiates from Washington and permeates the country, then their passive acquiescence, aided by false appeals to patriotism and occasional doses of fear, surely played a role.
  • A lot of money is changing hands, both in campaign fund-raising and honararia to government personnel whose “distinguished” careers set them up for a payday beyond imagining for most U.S. citizens.
  • When Obama, for once, sought a negotiated solution to a problem in the Middle East rather than unilaterally employing force, Republicans presented a nearly united wall of opposition.
  • Do the citizens of the U.S. consciously decide with their votes that the safety of their drinking water is a lesser priority than delivering suitcases of off-the-books cash to a corrupt satrap running Afghanistan?
These entertaining bullet points are merely a sampling of the multitude of mixed joys you'll encounter in the writing of this career bureaucrat, before he sets down some suggestions as to what it might take to overcome the latest guilded age. The first on that 9 item list is “Eliminate private money from public elections.” The others are: sensibly downsize and redeploy the military and intelligence complex; stay out of the Middle East; redirect the peace dividend to domestic infrastructure improvement; enforce antitrust laws; reform tax policy (to get corporations paying their share); reform immigration policy; adopt a single-payer health care system; abolish corporate personhood status. He details those proposals and closes his book on an optimistic note – We are situated to where we can turn this around, despite our many institutional flaws and the accretion of ideological myths that have impaired our ability to see the world as it is and live sensibly and peacably within it.

From a conservative Reagan appointee to this list of recommendations is quite a leap and exactly the transformation needed for a critical mass of the remaining Reaganites and fellow travelers, if we are to avoid social and environmental catastrophe.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari - A Brief History of Humankind


The subject of Sapiens is a trifle broad, covering as it does, beginning at the beginning, Big Bang and what followed - being physics, chemistry, biology and finally culture, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, though it is implied.

Once evolution had produced, according to Harari, the last common Grandmother of Chimpanzees and humans, we emerged as the genus Homo, breaking into several main camps - Erectus, Rudolfensis, Neanderthalensis and Sapiens, with other short-lived (relatively speaking) members who didn't make it. Of course, neither did the main ones, except for a ferocious serial killer called Homo Sapien. Harari accuses this group, us, of virtual genocide in bringing to extinction the other members as well as hoards of other species and genera.

You can keep your left thumb marking the timeline just before the first chapter. It informs us that the Universe has been expanding for 13.5 billion years, the earth settled in around 4.5 billion, a billion years later organisms emerged, and the genus Homo appeared about 2.5 million. Homo Sapien comes in at 200,000 years and their (our) cognitive revolution at 70,000. A lot of this stuff you, as a casual reader, have to, like the Trump follower, take on faith, trust the experts, although in this case the “experts” have credibility.

The timeframe in question here is divided up into major revolutions by the author – after hunting and foraging for a few million years someone got the fateful idea, about 12,000 years back, to have an Agricultural Revolution, with its domestication of plants and animals. This was gradual, despite my wit but carried on until the Scientific Revolution of only 500 years ago. What made these revolutions possible also sealed the extinction of the other members of the Homo club, what Harari calls the Cognitive Revolution of about 70,000 years back. This DNA mutation or whatever, enabled Homo Sapien to imagine, which enabled complex social structures. Sapien was no match, one to one, for the stronger Neanderthal but the capacity to imagine, to “fictionalize”, gave us a fatal, for them, advantage. And it laid the ground for our own successor, the non-biological being we are about to create. Harari leads us to this argument but puts off the sales job to his next book, Homo Deus.

And that is an impressive feat, to have another book to follow this comprehensive, dense look at our journey. I would have thought he'd be exhausted and at most, ferreting around for the energy to begin to research his next scholarly project. The guy has already done it. But back to this one. He throws in interesting details like, it took 300,000 years for the daily use of fire to become routine. There is a persuasive description of how animals became domesticated. He credits the quirky adoption, in Western Europe, of an attitude of incomplete knowledge, curiosity, with its eventual dominance, in the form of a capitalist colonialism. That colonialism was (is) cruel with dire consequences AND he would argue, benefits. The mindset retrieved lost knowledge of India's past civilizations, for example, and united a diverse array of people into the present state of India. It also engaged in some serious drug dealing, even going to war with China for its right to sell opium there, gaining also the long-term lease of what came to be Hong Kong.

Harari likes to challenge convention, provoke a little controversy. He suggests that Homo Sapien was more content in the days of hunting/gathering, had more leisure and enjoyment whereas the agricultural life brought us tedium and long work days, extending down the long line to our own over-scheduled lives. He argues that the ability to imagine myths and religions, beliefs, enabled Sapiens to create large cities and empires, something the pre-cognitive peoples lacked. This short-coming limited the size of a band of foragers to less than 150 members. He lays out some perfectly arbitrary and ridiculous beliefs, contrasts them with contemporary thought and suggests that they serve the same function. When someone says they love their country they don't realize that the whole thing is fiction, the “country” is an arbitrary area. That the value of money or property are completely fictive, unreal. He sketches the development of money from early barley to coinage to electronic transfer of funds around the planet, all imaginary and based on trust. Despite the “truth or not” of these beliefs, they unify, provide the cohesion necessary for a society to thrive, even if it's only an elite who actually prospers.

Speaking of controversy, Harari describes Sapien as a vicious, efficient serial killer. He backs this up by showing that we had reached the far corners of the earth, spread from Africa, across Europe and Asia, to Australia, to the tip of South America by 10,000 BC. Wherever we went, vast numbers of other species went extinct. This trend continues though of course, like a virulent parasite, we insure our own demise when we kill our host. We have grown in numbers from one million 150,000 years ago to today's near 7 billion, crowding other species out, with our numbers and with our domestication and thus proliferation of certain species ie, chickens, cows, pigs. All unsustainable.

Along with two colleagues, in the late 90s, I attended a 5 day course called Living on the Edge of Evolution. We covered much of the same ground as Sapiens and there was an emphasis on values. What values brought us to this moment in time? What values do we need to adopt to survive the fate our current values are bringing us to ie, nuclear holocaust, polluted life system, over-population? The three of us returned to Atlanta and did several 7 week workshops using the template of that training in California. The workshops culminated in intensive weekends in North Georgia where we all left rejuvenated and optimistic about the future of Sapiens and the life system. Little did we know what was coming in the Bush/Cheney administrations, the disappointing Obama presidency and now, the calamity.

The author's notion of where Sapien is heading does not cheer me up either. When I think of how empires have treated their new subjects, how corporate raiders treat their acquisitions, how the patriarchy treats women, minorities, slaves... I fear for the people of my home country when the next empire rumbles into town, China perhaps, Harari's notion of AI (artificial intellegence) a non-biology critter or an advanced culture from another galaxy or dimension. We can hope, despite discouraging precedent, that they will break with the historical record and come with beneficial intentions. It could, and should, happen from within but in these discouraging times it is hard to muster the imagination in that direction.
Post-script:

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The citizen who identifies with the current leadership supposes that that leadership represents their interests. Why? Probably because the leadership seems to mouth important shared values. One way for the ordinary citizen to free themselves from this association, which I suggest is actually NOT in that citizen's interests, is to examine those supposed shared values – racism for example. The average citizen actually has more in common with workers of other races, ethnicities and nations than with the so-called leadership and those who control them, the 1%.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano



Edwardo Galeano has written a Latin American equivalent of Howard Zinn's People's History of the U.S. As difficult as it has been for the subject of Zinn's book, not your generals and presidents but the people, ordinary workers, the plight of Latin America's people has been much harsher. More akin to the victims of slavery and the land-stealing expansion and massacre of Native Americans. The ruling class in the U.S., or much of it, currently aspires to total control whereas the rulers of our southern neighbors have had it from day one. First the native population was coopted, enslaved and slaughtered. Then came that part of the population not deft, clever, well-placed or ruthless enough to insinuate themselves into the local elite. Slavery, slaughter, hunger and merciless exploitation has been the daily grind of those unfortunates.

Galeano points out that the settlers of the U.S. had to eck out a way to survive, taking cues from the natives at first who knew how to do it. Since there were no particularly desireable resources, like the gold of South Amercia, to hypnotize European royalty, North America became primarily a dumping ground for Europe's access population. The fiercest focus of exploitation was where the gold was, at first, then various natural resources. So, by a sort of distraction the colonies developed an independence not tolerated in the south. Even later, with the settlement of the west, the general population rather than an elite was given land. If they worked it successfully they prospered, or at least survived. With the southern model, workers did not own land but were viewed as disposable slaves or cheap labor, working it for the owners. The owners were sub-colonialists for the European masters. This accounts for the greater prosperity of the north, according to Galeano. This prosperity, obviously, excluded the original inhabitants and slaves, a legacy of unimaginable injustice that lives on, nurtured by white privilege and class division. The 1% profited from the scourge of slavery and continues to profit from the division caused by racism and an abysmal ignorance.

This was the situation in Latin America, colonialism. With national independence a neo-colonialism emerged where a local elite thrived serving the European manipulators, exchanging local resources and cheap labor, for luxury imports and a privileged life. The slaves and later the peasants were kept in line by the usual methods - the whip, the overseer, the police and army. One exception occurred but like the French Revolution, was soon crushed by surrounding nations, threatened by a “bad” example. Paraguay came under the dictatorship of Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who reversed the usual state of affairs. Torture, prison, police and death squads were put to work but this time against the oligarchy instead of dissidents in the general population. Land reform, locally beneficial projects, industry were all developed for a truly independent Paraguay, escaping the colonialism directed by Eurpoean business interests. These by the way, were primarily British. Even when the gold was flowing to Spain and Portugal, the lion's share ended up in Britain via their business acumen versus the royal families' aristocratic, decadent and unsustainable wars and lifestyles. These frivolous values were exported of course to Latin America, mirrored in elite rule and mass poverty. The Paraguayan experiment lasted from 1814 – 1840 under Gaspar and to about 1865 under his successors who continued and vitalized the policies. Travelers of the times remarked that Paraquay lacked beggars, thieves, hunger, illiteracy and great fortunes held by oligarchs.

Brazil and Argentina, threatened by the subversion of this “bad apple”, invaded Uruguay and from there Paraquay, putting a stop to the experiment in the most decisive and ruthless manner, returning the country to the fold of cheap labor, export economy, elite rule and a seriously outta luck peasantry. The true winner in this endeavor was neither Brazil nor Argentina but British bankers who funded the war, leaving both countries deeply in debt. Eventually Latin America left the British orbit, only to be captured by the U.S. as it became the dominant imperialist power. Remember the Monroe Doctrine?

There have been some hopeful developments since Galeano's book was published in 1971 – Chavez, Castro, Nicaragua but on the whole the oligarchy beats back any threat. The U.S. (under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the “liberal” President Obama) was quick to recognize a coup in Honduras that overthrew a democratically elected president on flimsy pretenses, paid mercenaries, terrorists really, to turn back Nicaragua's revolution under Reagan, and of course has been illegally attacking and undermining Cuba since 1959, meddling with Venezuela's attempts to extricate itself from colonialism and supported oppressive regimes and coups all over Central and South America. This is the force running through not just Latin America's history but the world's... a force that has mostly, but not always, overwhelmed the resistance that arises to its injustice. This is the cancerous force that must be subdued if our species is to have any hope of surviving. It is out there, yes, but it is also in here, and seductive. Though it is another discussion, the struggle between greed and justice can be reduced to the question of who will dominate, both personally and societal, ego or presence.

Post Script: Venezuela's President Chavez handed Obama a copy of Open Veins at a function. Obama later said, to his shame, "He can give it to me but I don't have to read it."

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein

No Is Not Enough, Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Naomi Klein 


In her book Naomi Klein refers back to her No Logo, to talk about Trump's early recognition of the business idea to, instead of selling products, objects, sell a brand. His outrageous behavior got him attention and that helped build the Trump brand. Marketing the brand brought him millions and, the cherry on top, the presidency – where he continues his same outsized strategy. He didn't have to pursue far right values but those values seem to accompany an all-that-matters-is-money logic. Given the stories about his refusing to pay contractors, coming out on top of deals with little regard for ethics or fairness, bankruptcies, it is quite astonishing that voters would expect him to suddenly display benevolent behavior toward them. He railed against the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. but his brands were all outsourced. The recent tax bill is another instance of blatant betrayal. Another consequence of, and motivation for, this bill is that increasing the national debt makes the kind of social programs the Right disapproves of unaffordable. I suppose you have to factor in the alienation, the anti-establishment to-hell-with-it attitude of frustrated working people feeling financial vulnerability bearing down on them without a clear idea that it's coming from predatory capitalism. And there's the Fox News factor. Who was it said when a Faux News figure moved to work for the Bush Administration, “The merger of the Republican party with Fox News is now complete.” The anomie is shifted, with the help of these unscrupulous zealots, to immigrants, minorities, liberals or some other scapecoat. The “smart” con man worked this field with impressive results.

Klein references her important book Shock Doctrine, to warn that the agenda now being pursued works best under cover of some crisis. They're going full bore but the resistance is always easier to overcome when some dramatic smokescreen is available. The Patriot Act was rammed through congress with hardly a dissenting voice in the aftermath of the 911 crisis, a bill that gave the executive branch grave undemocratic powers. The author hopefully postulates that it is harder to use the shock doctrine, or crisis capitalism, when the population has already been shaken down. The right wing Spanish government, for example, attempted to use a bombing in a Madrid subway to herd the population toward its agenda but that attempt backfired because, Klein claims, the populace had already been manipulated by the right such that they could see it coming. They promptly threw that government out of office and pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq. Other examples are given to encourage U.S. citizens to be prepared for the likelihood that Trump will create or use any crisis that might arise to advance those parts of his agenda that ordinarily would be strongly resisted. Like rolling back social security, something the right resisted at its creation and has been yearning to repeal ever since.

Although nuclear war, accidental or not, and over-population are very real threats to our civilization, the most urgent in Klein's view is climate change. It is disheartening in the extreme then to consider Trump's appointments to cabinet positions, climate deniers one and all. Rex Tillerson of Exxon, Secretary of State? Jeff Sessions, known racist, Attorney General? Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator, known for his cosy relations with fossil fuels industry? Rick Perry, Energy Secretary, the guy whose position, during the presidential campaign, was that the department should be eliminated? Goldman Sacks in all things financial? The fox in the hen house, as the saying goes.

And there are those deluded souls who believe that they can turn a profit from war. War also is one of those crisies behind which much profitable mischief can be carried out. It provides a nice distraction. Clinton attempted to deflect attention away from his, ah, problems, by bombing a pharmaceutical plant in Africa, pretending it was a bomb plant. Bush/Cheney were under investigation for insider trading when “patriotism” required disappearance of such investigation when the good ol' boys invaded Iraq. Hopefully we have been conned enough to meet the next one with an effective skepticism.

Naomi suggests that the aesthetics of branding is Dynasty-meets-Louis XIV.... gold and flash. Trump's brand is the ultimate boss who can do whatever he wants, as exampled by his own boasting about grabbing whoever he wants wherever he wants. What might have been scandalous in the pre-branding era, is now just proof of being a “winner” in the power/wealth game. Someone gets stepped on? More proof. Being entirely amoral, he thinks he can get away with anything. Being president is the ultimate branding tool. Mar-a-lago has doubled its membership fees to $200,000. The president meets there with world leaders. His children meet with them and cut deals. So the presidency and U.S. government are now a for-profit family business. Where can the ego go from here?

Reagan began de-regulation with a vengeance, Clinton, Bush and Obama enabled it further. Klein notes that this is a wholesale disparaging of the public sphere. Deregulation was like fertilizer for Trump and he is pushing it, if we-the-public let him, to where it will be irreversible.


Friday, December 15, 2017

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, Betty Medsger


The non-fiction on my reading list is important stuff but not exactly entertaining... and mostly depressing. It's part of my dutiful good-citizen activism. The Burglary is also but such a page-turner that two days in a row it was 3:30a.m. before I could put it down.

In 1971 eight activists decided to break into an FBI office to find proof that the agency was off the rails, blatantly violating the constitution. Their successful action confirmed this in spades. They divided the booty up into categories, setting aside criminal investigations and mailing the hot stuff to key congressional figures and media, the author of this book foremost. The politicians, noteably George McGovern, disappointedly turned the stuff over to the FBI, though one member of congress kept copies of the mailer, Representative Mitchell of Baltimore. He also publically commented that though the burglary was illegal, so were some of the FBI acts exposed.

Medsger gives a detailed account of the burglary and its planning, the media response (she was a young Washington Post reporter), the political response and the FBI's panic attempting to suppress publication and manage the fall-out. Finding the culprits became Director Hoover's obsession. Revealed is the tangled and corrupt relationship of the bureau with sympathetic individuals in congress, the press and many institutions. Universities, banks and businesses were willing to turn over confidential files and information, trusting that the bureau was what its PR department said it was, a fearless, patriotic, honest, super crime fighter. Few knew that the sunday night television show The FBI allowed the bureau to vet all scripts. It's star, Efram Zimbalist Jr. often appeared at bureau dinners and social functions. Hoover was a control freak who considered anyone who disagreed with him a subversive radical, thus a legitimate target for survelliance and even dirty tricks. A Tennessee Representative who dared to publicly criticize Hoover found himself smeared with false accusations at his next election where he lost his seat. FBI agents followed “subversive” citizens as they traveled abroad. Feliz Frankfurter, supreme court justice, was one of these. To Hoover the civil rights and anti-war movement were all communist-inspired. Read Marx? You're on the list, the hundreds of thousands to be rounded up and put in internment camps during a “national emergency”. The director fumed that he could not arrest people for embracing ideas he didn't approve of, labeling them communist after helping to stigmatize that word. Few in the congress questioned FBI methods. Hoover compiled dossiers on politicians, to blackmail and silence potential antagonists. An innocent man, Black Panther Geronimo Platt, spent 27 years in prison on a charge the FBI knew was false. Another Panther, Fred Hampton, was murdered by Chicago police in collaboration with agents. Like the Vietnam War, freedom and democracy were cited to justify their twisted opposite. Police departments and chiefs across the country seemed to emulate Hoover's methods and regard for the consitution.

Several of the activists had spent time in the deep south at Freedom Summer, being beaten and jailed for helping to register black voters. They were also involved with breaking into draft board offices to destroy records to disrupt what they considered an out of control killing machine unwilling to question its rigid ideology. In their frustrated work to stop that unjust war they happened upon the burglary idea and had a significant impact, if not on the war per se, on its bosom mate, the beast of injustice.

Speaking of justice: another group of draft burners were arrested in the act in Camden, New Jersey, betrayed by an informer. The FBI was convinced that these were the burglars they were searching for. There is a wonderfully moving description of the trial, of how the defendents convinced the jury, and even the judge, walking away with a not guilty verdict. The defendants, who fully participated in the trial as co-counsel, were so persuasive and respectful, truly peace workers, that even the prosecutors joined the group hug after the verdict was read.

The burglars, when meticulously sorting the files at a rural farmhouse, put them into categories and pointed out in the cover letter to media that 47% dealt with survelliance of legal, constitutionally-protected behavior, of students, unions, activists and especially black students. If you were black under the Hoover FBI, you were assumed to be subversive and potentially violent. Scores of informers were hired to report on lawful meetings and activity in “subversive” neighborhoods, ie, black communities. They weren't seen to have legitimate grievances but to be manipulated by the Soviet bug-a-bear. The bureau went to ridiculous lengths, all at taxpayer expense... all hidden behind the carefully crafted image of a crack FBI crime-fighting organization.

Eventual fallout for the bureau from the burglary was a stained reputation, especially as the Church Senate Committee delved into FBI and National Security Agency activities. Their reports and conclusions were watered down and certain to be resisted by, let's face it, fascist forces. The bureau factions that approved of Hoover resisted mightily the reforms that were attempted. Hoover, over his tenure, kept hidden the illegal activities from oversight, changing the name of the department when necessary while telling Congress or the Justice Department that the department had been eliminated. COINTELPRO was the current acronym in 1971. The activist burglars began a chain of events that exposed Hoover, mostly postumously. Apparently only death could stop him. He died within a year of the burglary, lacking that critical dossier on the grim reaper. A tyrant sat in the heart, well, bowels of a great nation for nearly 50 years, malevolently undermining democracy. There are many so inclined, necessitating the continual presence of the courage of those resisters.

A disturbing post-script: Robert Mueller, leading the current investigation into administration law-breaking, participated, as FBI director in the resistance to disclosing bureau malfeasance.