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.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Great Derangement & Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi


In The Great Derangement (2006) Matt Taibbi looked at several contemporary phenomenon: The War in Iraq, Fundamentalism as exemplified by a Texas Mega-church and, in his words, the great sausage-making in Washington, D.C. The 911 conspiracy buffs come under scrutiny as well.

He makes no bones about the deception in Iraq accomplished by the usual methods: jingoism, cowardly congress, compliant press. Great sympathy and respect is extended to the soldier and civilian victims of folly but none for the stupidity, ideological blindness and corruption which he sees ravaging the corpse of democracy. Senseless destruction, death and injury, obscene waste and robbery of national treasure.

Fundamentalism and 911 Truthers get lambasted for their willingness to swallow anything with no evidence required. Given an opportunity to organize to affect policy they choose instead to wallow in half-baked conspiracies, surrendering any critical faculty they might have had and having virtually zero impact. I suppose psychologically conspiracy and religious dogma offer a sense of being right, superior, that in the face of a mysterious and precarious existence, one gains comfort from the delusion of understanding it. Mega-church preachers routinely violate the agreement by which they remain tax-free, politically denouncing those who might vote for Obama or advocate abortion, gay marriage, alternatives to capitalism and whatever other prejudice the father figure embraces. They bring to their “flock” a brand of conservative republicanism hard to reconcile with certain readings of the scripture they claim to speak for... and the flock seems predisposed to bless and accept whatever nonsense is handed to them with enthusiastic ferver.

Taibbi's congressional monitoring is quite entertaining, as writing, providing relief from the depressing subject as he describes the representatives of democracy blatantly serving the interests of their campaign contributors in the most shameful, business-as-usual servitude. Sausage indeed. Those valiant few who buck the sytem expose themselves to deep-pocketed attacks, even conservatives who slightly deviate from the party line are vulnerable. There is also the revolving door of corporate hacks running the departments supposedly regulating the corporations they will return to in short order, with pay raises.

Insane Clown President is a collection of Taibbi's reporting, mostly from Rolling Stone, during the 2016 campaign. Always witty and entertaining it is never-the-less a sad spectacle. His take is that the Republicans have for years depended on a strategy of demonizing the poor, blacks, immigrants, unions, gays etc; depending on the white voter to buy into it, vote against their own interests, as Bernie pointed out regularly, on issues that really have little relevance to their lives. Once in power virtually none of the issues advertised get addressed until the next election cycle while continuing to eagerly serve the 1%, either from financial dependence or ideological zeal, or both. And this they expected to repeat ad infinitum. Something happened though. The victims of this con began to recognize that business-as-usual somehow wasn't working for them as promised. Since the propaganda system had prepped them to instinctively recoil from the stance that Bernie brought to the conversation, even though it actually would have benefitted them - plus that candidate was marginalized by a 1%-owned media that found said point of view threatening to their elite position... well, enter Trump, the master con artist. Taibbi hilariously describes the establishment figures, Romney, Bush, Perry, Cruz etc; as out of their depth in this new reality show terrain, bumbling, out-maneuvored by the celebrity oaf at every turn. In Taibbi's words, “Trump's continued success puts the onus on the field to try to out-crazy the frontrunner.” Where Bernie and Trump's platforms overlapped, as in criticism of campaign-financing and corporate control, Trump's were, in the words he aimed at Hillary, just talk.

To give a sense of Taibbi's humor and style I quote this about the GOP: The party spent 50 years preaching rich people bromides like “trickle-down economics” and “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” as solutions to the growing alienation and financial privation of the ordinary voter. In place of jobs, exported overseas by the millions by their financial backers, Republicans glibly offered the flag, Jesus and Willie Horton.

Gaffes that normally quickly eliminate a presidential candidate, in the new climate, are cheered on by the delighted new “silent majority”, now finally found a champion. The other candidates were reduced to stretching for the ridiculous to get press attention but they were up against a natural. The networks, desperate for audience in the ratings game, shamelessly hung on every outrageous speech, giving Trump far more air time than any of the others. They opportunistically participated in a farcical dismantling of our democracy and for that they shall live in infamy,... but not poverty.

The debates provide Taibbi's sense of humor an outlet as he constructs drinking games to accompany them. We are to take a drink whenever one of the candidates: uses god platitudes, promises to carpet bomb any sandy country, complains that Obama won't use the word “terrorism”, mentions a war on Christmas, derides science in favor of “common sense”. Etc; Sometimes a double shot is required if, for example referring to “star wars” a candidate uses sound effects.; then there is the good guy with a gun rule, and thoughts and prayers for the latest victims. The competition for citing ridiculous “facts” is hilarious also until you remember that one of these guys might actually be president (of course this was written before the election – one criticism of Taibbi's writing would be his characterization at one point of Hillary as one of the most esteemed politicians in the country but elsewhere as one of the most hated... and he several times predicts Trump's demise, due to the “pussy” video and supposed plunge in the polls). But back to the “facts”: Trump repeatedly claimed to have seen thousands of New Jersy Muslims dancing and celebrating across the river from the towers on 911 and this absurd claim rolled right off the backs of his followers... and his fellow candidates. Carson, returning from a “fact finding” trip to the middle east assured us that the pyramids were used for storing grain. Since they're not hollow one could be forgiven for wondering about this candidate. One reporter followed up by asking whether the Eiffel Tower was for storing French bread. No mystery why these candidates were compared to the clown car.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

More Text Addiction


So I ran across Dennis LeHane’s latest in the new book shelf at the Atlanta Ponce library. His Mystic River was first rate – so says James Lee Burke. But he wrote one where I felt so suckered I vowed not to read him again. But this one drew me in, thought I’d give it a chance. The first hundred pages read like a book club book: serious, smart writing, psychologically insightful, lot of research to make the world he’s portraying credible. A young woman grows up with an intense single Mom and, losing her in an accident, seeks out her biological father, even hiring a private detective who later becomes a major character in the story. The book suddenly becomes crime fiction, a mystery that keeps you befuddled, careening from event to event, from mental breakdown to recovery and back again in a very dark world. A good read but with one or two credibility flaws you’ll have to overlook if you want, at that point, which you will, to finish.

I’ve encountered the respectable political writer Matt Taibbi inRolling Stone Magazine and ran across his book I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street about Eric Garner, the 2014 fatal victim of police brutality in the Bronx. I wondered, how do you write a whole book about one street killing? Taibbi uses it as a means to explore the dynamic of police departments, prosecutors, judges, politicians, and the varied people they’re supposed to be serving. This was definitely Matt’s focus, sympathetically portraying the victims of racism and poverty, and not so sympathetically sketching the police perpetrators, demonstrating racism at all levels of the bureaucracy and its poisonous effect, both in elevating white fear of dark people and perpetuating it with their draconian tactics. He covers the phenomenon called “Broken Windows,” a police strategy based on the theory that aggressively attacking minor crime will reduce total crime. Not quite buying it, Matt describes it as a belief that if you go after graffiti vandals the murder rate will somehow drop. He cites an incident in 1971 Arkansas where a cop shot a black man between the eyes for the crime of requesting a receipt for a traffic fine. The cop was of course acquitted. This he ties in with the killing of Eric Garner and the police coverup (a little more difficult than usual since it was video-taped) and prosecutorial grand jury manipulation leading to no indictment. The cop who did the killing had a long history of citizen complaints and a police department/bureaucracy that seemed willing to dismiss any and all charges. Not a book with a happy ending unless you identify with villains – the prosecutor goes merrily on to a successful run for congress, the officer goes unimpeded on his violent trail to a nice retirement. Maybe karma will take care of it all, the justice system certainly didn’t.

In Kansas, 150 years earlier, the same ignorance and casual violence was at work, though, as portrayed in Tom Clavin’s book, Dodge City, there was significant, and somewhat successful, resistance in the form of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, their brothers and friends. The “good guys” weren’t exactly choir boys as the saying goes, but they had an integrity, at least in Clavin’s coverage, not evident in Taibbi’s book. They were surrounded by corrupt lawmen, politicians, cattlemen, reckless cowboys and vicious sociopathic outlaws differentiated from today’s mobsters only by horses instead of Lincoln Town Cars. Women fit into the story only peripherally, mostly as prostitutes. “Taming the west” involved colossal injustice for natives: the stealing of their land; forced removal to “reservations”, often the least habitable areas around, which were stolen again whenever precious metals were discovered; the wanton slaughter of the magnificent buffalo to near-extinction, on which the natives were dependent for food. The “good guys” Wyatt and Bat did little on this illegal front, standing on the wrong side of it in fact as their early work was killing buffalo for the hides, well, the money for the hides – ain’t it always so. Daniel Quinn, in the novel Ishmael, asks the reader to – Imagine yourself in 1930s Germany; what would you do? Extending the question to the western United States in 1870, or hell, to our 2017 world, points up the immense difficulty confronting those who would intervene in the relentless trajectory of rapacious patriarchal greed.

That brings us to another book I’ve been dipping into, Eckhart Tolle’s, The Power of Now, the book that brought him fame. It provides the hope lacking in these other books. In the form of questions from Tolle’s clients and his answers, it covers basically the same ground as his wonderful A New Earth (I like to say, the most important book ever published). In a nutshell, the hope consists in realizing that human dysfunction, at the root of all that ails our civilization… greed, conflict, war… is a mental construct he calls ego. Even the reformers, the activists who dream of and work for peace are often captured by it. The ultimate form of activism is to become the observer, of the thoughts and emotions, the mind chatter, that drifts across our field of awareness, observing rather than being them, avoiding mistaking them for us. Our real selves, in essence, is that observer which is consciousness. Bringing the light of consciousness to those thoughts and emotions, they are transposed into presence. In presence is joy of being and eventually comes an impulse to creativity, an ego-less act aligned with the intelligence, the source of being. We don’t decide to be good, to act according to some ethical creed, we get present and our behavior, aligned as said, is ethical, sensitive, caring, compassionate and respectful of the miracle of life, recognizing that the essence, consciousness, is where we all meet. I did say, “in a nutshell” – Tolle’s books and talks elaborate on these appealing ideas which are newly articulated but hardly original, having been stated, and mostly misunderstood, in many, often esoteric, forms, by rare and singular individuals throughout history.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Meandering Mind Stream


Caught without my emergency notebooks, not even a book, I found myself with 45 minutes to kill before the East Atlanta library opened. Fortunately Joe's Coffee Shop is nearby. Browsing their little book shelf I found a John Le Carre novel. With coffee I read ten or fifteen pages, marveling at his superb writing. Coincidentally the hold books I was there to pick up included a Le Carre memoir, a collection of magazine articles he published over the years, a unique form of memoir. In his 80s now, Le Carre reflects on a long life of unusual good luck and the usual share of heartache. Since writing spy novels played a way important part of his life, he refers often to trips he made for research or events that triggered certain novels or episodes. I've read all of his books, I think, except The Night Manager, which I somehow missed. Oh, and The Little Drummer Girl, which I quit, finding its glorification of the Israeli Mosaad a bit much. I may have been wrong on this because the author's politics seem to be generally respectable. Reading the memoir made me want to go back and re-read his whole catalog, a luxury I really don't think I can indulge, given the list of books I haven't gotten to yet.

The other hold book was Norman Mailer's, Armies of the Night. This latter I came to by a reference in Noam Chomsky's American Power, where he mentioned the weekend he spent in Jail, arrested with Mailer and others in a demonstration at the Pentagon. Armies of the Night is Mailer's playful account of that weekend. It's told whimsically in the third person narrative with Mailer as the central character. The writer can hardly form a sentence without revealing a broad erudition and a great confidence in his opinons and theories of human behavior, and an anthropomorphizing of America (north not south). He calls himself a conservative leftist without quite defining that and describes his fellow inmates with sometimes derision and sometimes great respect. He's sort of all over the place but fun, anyway, to witness a nimble and mind at work (or play). He makes fun of himself and his 4 marriages and multiple children and maverick reputation, using just that removed narrative to do it. He ruminates, naturally, on the Vietnam War, the reason for the demonstration, savagely attacking U.S. coporations and hysteria around communism. Critiquing the Right's justification for their war (basically the domino theory), and caricaturing a bit the “liberal” opposition, he remains vague as compared to Chomsky's persuasive take in American Power where the motivation is laid out clearly: the ruling class reflexibly strikes out at any organized resistance or alternative to capitalism, the system that provides them with their ultra privileged lives.

Just a mile or two southeast of where I live, lies a neighborhood bordering Grant Park, the setting for another book I was working on, The Big Bust at Tyronne's Boarding House by James Gallant. The casually humorous, autobiographical-seeming story is of a writer, a stay-at-home scribe who is constantly distracted from his calling by his own lack of focus and an array of neighborhood characters ranging from prostitutes to eccentric elders, an ex-green beret buddy and crack dealers. The time frame is probably the 80s when that neighborhood was just beginning its gentrification transformation. The characters rob him of his time and money with their constant visiting and borrowing. His laid back openess to them is touching even as he uses them in his stories, even paying some for their stories. I picked up the book free somewhere. It has an attached note – This book is free – enjoy! If you should be overwhelmed by an urge to remunerate the author, who is not a wealthy man, he will not object to receiving checks in any amount - Such quality writing reminds me of one of my favorite bands, The Swimming Pool Qs. Their falling just short of the combination of luck and connection, but not talent, to break into the big money, though unfortunate for them, makes it possible for a low-income person like myself to go see 'em. But things are looking up a little - Vagabondage Press is publishing Gallant's Whatever Happened to Ohio? It will be an e-book initially, distributed by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc., probably selling for about $4. - his website: www.jamesgallantwriter.com

Also in East Atlanta - The Longest US War: Korea 1950 – 2017, a presentation by Ajamu Baraka October 17 First Iconium Baptist Church: Ajamu Baraka ran on the Jill Stein Green Party ticket, spoilers some might say. My position was that Trump or Hillary, one of 'em, was going to be president. Progressives would be fighting Hillary's hawkish foreign policy. She was good more or less on some issues, race and women but an establishment figure solidly in bed with the 1%. But as compared to Trump? No contest. Subsequent events have certainly confirmed this choice – I mean, Jeff Sessions Attorney General? Pruit at EPA? Loony Tunes is far too mild a description. My first thought that awful Wednesday morning was, “We've decided, as a species, on suicide.” Later I heard Bernie's reality check, “We have no right to quit. The stakes are too high.”

But I'm not going to blame the Green Party, entirely, plenty of other factors figure in. Ajamu's talk after all was about Korea. He used incendiary words (they're incendiary because of the propaganda efforts of the 1%) like U.S. Imperialism and hegemony. He questioned the official narrative which portrays the U.S. in benevolent terms and demonizes the official enemy and attempted to humanize the situation, to acknowledge the Korean people as living persons not communists. And he emphasized that the U.S. has no right to determine what kind of society North Korea has. Even if the U.S. were sincere, not hypocritical in its criticism, the way to peace is not war. It is rather arrived at through the skills of non-violent conflict resolution. It must have been disappointing for the speaker and organizers, that despite the bellicose rhetoric coming out of both captials, there was a very light turn out for the event.

The light turn-out made it feasible for me to get to the speaker and ask about I.F. Stone's book, The Hidden History of the Korean War. The speaker was aware of it but hadn't read it. Stone was blacklisted in the late 40s – 50s, so started a weekly newsletter, which sustained him during this bleak history. The facts in his book on Korea, so he could not be accused of treason, came entirely from the congressional record. Salient items: the U.S. straffed North Korean vehicles carrying delegates to the peace talks and, at the talks, offered proposals designed to be rejected. “We” were winning, why seek peace? The Soviet Union however gave mig jets to China (which came into the war thanks to McCarthur's foolish aggression). These migs could shoot down B-29 bombers which had given an edge to the U.S. Without this edge, suddenly the U.S. was interested in peace and the armistice was finally reached, which has held precariously since.

I've been dipping, for this writing, into the books that litter my sofa and kitchen table. Re-reading Eckhart Tolle's, Power of Now, the first book of his I read and an amazing work. It offers an analysis of what is at the root of all these problems I'm complaining about, which reduces to ego, the dysfunction of our culture which we either root out or perish. Tolle doesn't say anything that hasn't been said before but no one, to my awareness, has said it with such consistency and clarity. Even Oprah agrees with me on this calling his work the most important reading she's encountered.

Another on the stack, from the library, Al Gore's sequel to An Inconvenient Truth – Truth to Power Al initiated a satellite project as vice-president to monitor climate change and provide solar disruption warnings. It was cancelled by the Bush/Cheney administration. When businesses complained because the disruption warnings would be important in protecting their electric systems, Bush proposed replacing the climate monitoring aspect with sand bags. Gore remarked, “That is real extremism.” The project was side-lined and finally accomplished under Obama.

Patricia Highsmith, wrote a short story in 1955, The Talented Mr. Ripley, followed in the 70s by Ripley Underground and Ripley's Game. Matt Damon played Ripley in the film of the first. I had been reading a streak of Martha Grimes crime fiction and got tired of her. Usually when I find a new author I greedily read everything they've written and am eagerly waiting the next new one, or mourning if the author is no longer writing. Grimes however wore me out with her productivity. I happened on a list of women novelists on line, Highsmith among them. Learning that she wrote the follow up Ripley books led me to put a hold on one that had all three. Odd to find oneself rooting for a murderer, worried as the police close in, relieved when he talks his way out. The third one is starting to portray him in a less sympathetic way and I suspect she's going to finally bust him. Nope. Though it's her last book on that character there was room for sequel. Later, Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark, took up the practice of anti-hero in his nobel criminal Parker. Then Lawrence Block did his hit-man series.

My text addiction is serious, though late in starting. I was in my early 20s before I discovered the world of intellect and I've been trying to make up for those lost years ever since. As things are winding down now I have to question whether this is the best use of my time. Shouldn't I perhaps be spending what I allocate to books (and writing for that matter) to attempt to intervene in our headlong rush toward extinction? A fair question. I'll have to get back to you on that.