Monday, August 15, 2016

Dark Money, Jane Mayer, a review

The Billionaire’s Club is a 28-page political cartoon that is my take on how power works in the U.S. The book portrays billionaires getting together at the club and initiating a new member into the fold. It was a device I used to talk about how the 1% have disproportionate influence on our democracy and so are obstacles to addressing the crisis we face. I didn’t think that the 1% conspiratorially met, save socially – they do run in the same circles – it’s just that their interests overlap and acting separately, supporting similar causes, political candidates etc; it is as-if they acted jointly. This is true.

Jane Mayer also shows in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right that they actually have met and organized in significant numbers of rich guys, and even more significant numbers of dollars, to combat what they see as limitations on their “freedom.” They equate the word with less government and less taxes. The current leadership, the Koch brothers Charles and David, hold an annual gathering – a secretive conference aimed to gauge their success to-date and to plot further depradation. The first conference in the ’80s was lightly attended though it still jingled with heavy currency, but it didn’t take long to grow into a formidable gathering of old and new money.
The Koch’s come out of a John Birch Society-type ideology and their goal from the beginning was to shift the country to their fringe views. These include the libertarian mantra “less government” to such an extreme that in their utopia there would be no taxes, no government regulations, and the only survivor of the bill of rights would be the right to and protection of property. This I would venture is a politics of sociopathology. We haven’t gotten completely there yet, but they have created a significant shift that significantly erodes democracy. In one of the many prosecutions brought against the Kochs for their polluting, one worker testified that he was told not to worry about contamination, it’s cheaper to pay off a few cancer victims than to observe regulations. One of the biggest cases was scuttled by the Bush Administration’s replacing the chief prosecutor with someone more business friendly.
Mayer traces this anti-movement back through the Koch dynasty allied with other wealth including the Mellon-Scaife family in Pittsburgh, and even the early Rockefellers. It seems that when one accumulates a certain standing as measured by wealth, there comes an addiction commonly known as greed. Of course, the Koch conference attendees represent those who have been taken by this force. There may be others of this class who escape and spend their time in other pursuits. But these folks are serious sociopaths and given their resources, are a real threat to democracy.
I have wondered in print before, just what is so fearful to them about democracy? Is it the three Ps they might have to sacrifice – profits, privilege and power? Do they imagine themselves hung from the nearest telephone pole, pursued with pitchforks? One of the Mellons commented that when he had trouble sleeping he would count the rooms in his modest 60 room weekend retreat, instead of counting sheep as we lower elements have to content ourselves with. You can get used to that kind of privilege and convince yourself that you deserve it, are “entitled,” as Mitt Romney would have it about a different demographic.
It is worth noting that the Koch patriarch Fred Koch, traded with the Nazis, provided much-needed expertise on fueling Hitler’s diabolical war machine, and admired their system and that of Mussolini. He also provided similar service to Stalin though this he came to regret as he later embraced the religion of anti-communism. He wasn’t alone: the patriarch Prescott Bush also served the Nazis and came very close to prosecution for trading with the enemy. According to Michael Parenti some U.S.-owned corporate factories in Germany during WW II were on a no-bomb list, and those that were inadvertently bombed were given restitution after the war – not information we are likely to encounter in our mainstream media nor standard academic history.
Odd that these extremists were so alarmed about paying taxes, government regulations, and assistance to the needy. I suppose they longed for the good old days before the 1929 crash that caused great suffering to millions and eventually brought us Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The greed-force cannot envision “enough,” neither of money nor of control. This is a psychosis. One of the founding members of the Carthage Group, Andrew Mellon, was Treasury Secretary through the three administrations preceding Roosevelt. He worked diligently to cut taxes on the wealthy and roll back what meager progressive legislation existed in the ’20s. It wasn’t until 1913 that the U.S. instituted an income tax, and though he wasn’t successful in rolling that back, he was able to cut taxes for the 1%, both income and capital gains.
Roll-back, motivated by greed, is always justified by tame economists with lofty sounding theories, like trickle-down economics, where it is claimed, falsely, that cutting taxes on the rich will actually increase taxes collected, benefiting everyone. This errant argument gets rolled out periodically, with different names but the same old beneficiaries, promoted by for and of, the wealthy. The theory is bosom buddies with the NRA (National Rifle Association – appendage of the gun industry) adage that more guns make us safer.
A particular villain in this sad story creating a lot of damage is David Weyrich who made himself enthusiastically available in this lucrative endeavor to the boss men. He co-created the right wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation with Mellon providing much of the funding, buying them a nice ten story building across the street from the Supreme Court conveniently located near Senate office buildings and the capital.
Heritage is ostensibly a research center but the name hints at its values: I think a priori is a phrase describing research where you start with the desired conclusions and gather evidence to support it and ignore evidence that doesn’t. It is an indictment of mainstream media, which includes public TV and radio, that these propagandists were and are routinely consulted as “experts.”
Weyrich also co-founded with the repugnant Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority. Another creation on his resume is ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) whose function is to write legislation favorable to business and get it passed by state legislators. One of their projects is to block or slow the development of solar. This effort is supplemented by the bribery system known as campaign contributions.
Part of the aim and effect of Weyrich’s work was to push already existing think tanks, such as Rand and Brookings who did actual research, to the Right by accusing them of the sin of “liberality.” Ever sensitive to funder perception these think tanks then hired conservatives for “balance.” Funny that in the “search for “truth,” balance requires that you bring in some liars.
Part I of Mayer’s book is titled, “Weaponizing Philanthropy: The War of Ideas, 1970 – 2008.” Future reviews will cover part 2, “Secret Sponsors: Covert Operations, 2009 – 2010,” and part 3, “Privatizing Politics: Total Combat, 2011 – 2014.” Part 1 covers billionaires extending their narrow, self-serving influence. People like the Kochs, Mellen-Scaife, Olin and the Bradleys, touching on the earlier wealthy conservatives Rockefeller, Bush and others.
Beach Head: John Olin noted industrial polluter created the Olin Foundation and used his money for several insidious but influential endeavors. His strategy evolved into stealth, where he created what he called beach heads in the law schools. He had his minions create a course innocuously called, Law and Economy, endowing Law Schools including Harvard, Yale and Cornel to incorporate it into their curriculum – the only important school to decline the money based on ethical concerns was the Law School of the UCLA. The course was based on the Libertarian theory that law and regulations should be subject not just to fairness but to considerations of their economic impact. Gee, if we quit polluting the river it will affect our bottom line.
Another project was the Federalist Society, eventually a 40,000-member association of right-leaning lawyers including Ed Meese, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney and all four conservative supreme court justices. Olin also sponsored all expense-paid “seminars” for judges, junkets really to exotic locales where a morning indoctrination lecture left the day free for swimming, golf, etc. Not satisfied with merely attacking democracy while he was alive, Olin left $100 million to his foundation with the caveat that it must spend all the money before its trustees died to insure that liberals could never hijack it as he thought had happened to the Ford Foundation (Henry being that famous anti-semitic, Hitler admirer).
So these guys, truly the 1%, its activist wing anyway, set about to systematically and disproportionately impact our government and institutions in a way that favored them and went a long way toward dismantling democracy. They have always been about this project – especially so since The New Deal, but the last 40 years marks an acceleration and attempt to more fully consolidate their position as, what Chomsky calls, the Masters. The decimation of unions, the trade agreements and “globalization” that moved U.S. production and jobs overseas and largely account for the immigration crisis, and the massive transfer of wealth to them from the rest of us is testament to their success. The TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) trade agreement down the pike offers us more of the same, including a transfer of national sovereignty to unelected and unaccountable corporate panels. A conservative Michigan legislature gave its governor the power to appoint overseers for troubled cities – overseers who can ignore and override elected officials and democracy. Flint is one result of that bargain and that is a model of what they seek for the whole planet. If we don’t resist we become Flint.
  • Image: The feature illustration, The Spoils of War, is by the author © Tom Ferguson

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Pipe Dream: CIA as 1980s Crack Dealer

Gary Webb’s book, Dark Alliance, casts dark aspersions on the United States. In its historical and hysterical opposition to “leftist” thought it has routinely allied itself with criminals. Obvious examples are the regimes it supported in Cuba prior to the revolution, the Somoza regime in Nicaragua prior to “its” revolution, dictatorships in the Philippines, Vietnam and… it goes on and on (just read some Chomsky).
Politics of Heroin in Southeast AsiaAlfred McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, documents U.S. alignment with heroine smuggling mafiosa where said mafia were allowed to import their product to the U.S. in exchange for union-busting and other undemocratic “services” by said thugs.
The U.S. brands third world resistance to oppressive and corrupt right wing governments as “left” to justify support of what they brazenly call “democratic forces”, even “freedom fighters” as Reagan called the Contras attacking Nicaragua, “Equivalent to our Founding Fathers” he said. The World Court disagreed, convicting the U.S. of terrorist acts against the country. Reagan also stated that the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, made up of U.S. citizens fighting the fascist takeover of democratic Spain in the 30s, “fought on the wrong side.”
The resistance is portrayed as violent and “godless” communism, a tried and true demonizing formula. In fact, what is usually going on is that ordinary citizens attempt to organize opposition to oppressive elite rule. The tiny minority of privileged landowners hire thugs, even death squads, to squelch this movement with terror. Lynchings in the U.S. south were no less terroristic than the death squads in El Salvador, both aimed to suppress dissent, to terrorize the population into silence, to maintain the status quo, rule of the elite.
Occupy has ingeniously given us a valuable, accessible term for that elite, the 1%. The U.S. government, representing that 1%, fears any society that might demonstrate a successful alternative to capitalism, all the more urgently if it’s a democratic one. People elsewhere, even here, might get ideas.
Henry Kissinger famously remarked that the issues in Chile were too important to be left to the people to decide. That is, democracy is fine rhetoric but when it threatens corporate/elite control the dogs must be unleashed. Thus the U.S. supported a vicious 1973 coup, replacing a vibrant democracy with a ruthless dictatorship. The result for Chilean society was thousands of murder victims and the economy sacrificed to the gods of the “free market.”
Shock Doctrine by Naomi KleinNaomi Klein nicely elucidates this pogrom, among others, in her book, Shock Doctrine. A footnote: one has to disassociate with the U.S., as in “The U.S. supports terrorist Contras.” since it is not the people carrying out these acts but the elite-captured government.
So with this background it is no surprise to find that CIA planes delivered weaponry to Central America “Freedom Fighters” – in the propaganda version of the phrase – and returned with drugs, the sales of which, some of which, went back into the terrorist project. Attendant protection of the dealers, some of whom considered themselves “patriots” doing their bit to return Nicaragua to elite rule, ensued, in the form of those arrested being let off for “national security” reasons, and investigations being dropped for the same reasons.
The fact that one hit of this product, crack, left its victims temporarily elated and, in short order, so depressed that they could think of nothing but getting more, mattered to the traffickers, the Contras, their right wing supporters in congress, the administration and CIA about as much as the innocent Contra victims in Nicaragua, and the death squad targets in El Salvador and elsewhere. In a word, none.
Even when a figure like Archbishop Romero was killed in El Salvador it seemed like the government saw it as a PR problem. The human rights president Carter continued arms shipments even as Romero pleaded with him to stop, just before he was permanently stopped. He was killed during a church service, a very public message delivered: question elite rule and you die. Jeanne Kilpatrick, Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador reminded us, falsely, that the church women, U.S. citizens, murdered by death squads, were “political activists,” as if that excused their execution and rape. Their “activism” consisted of attempting to help the poor.
Gary Webb was known for his dogged research and his editors at first supported him. Once they began breaking the story and were vilified by the rest of the major media they had second thoughts. Gary is quoted in one of his essays to say that he thought he lived in the land of the free press but realized that this illusion was maintained for him only because he had never done a story that exposed the workings behind the curtain until his Contra/CIA/Crack article.
Webb’s newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, more or less retracted its story, caving to the mainstream smear. Webb was let go, published this book which shows substantiation of his charges in official sources such as Senate hearings, did investigative work in Sacramento until political shifts there left him jobless and in debt. His death was ruled a suicide, shot himself in the head – twice! Kind of unusual and certainly suspicious.
Wikipedia sums up his career claiming that his articles were well researched but peppered with errors, that his wife accepted that his death was suicide, a film was made of his life, also peppered with errors but well-received… hard to really know what happened, where this “peppering” comes from, but the preponderance of evidence, I suggest, based on the history mentioned in the first paragraphs above, would vindicate Gary’s work. He was treated like most whistle-blowers, since the rulers do not want their little projects, their anti-democratic endeavors revealed, with an organized, focused and pointed smear job.
This outlines the major thrust of the book and Webb’s subsequent fate but there are many interesting diversions and personalities in the text such as the “rags to riches” (to prison) story of a young, highly effective entrepreneur who served as the chief distributor for Contra cocaine smuggling. It is also intriguing to witness the massive documentation Webb gathered to support his thesis, the numerous interviews and cross-checking that built his case, a superstructure that unfortunately was then used as the scaffolding for his demise.
The writer was warned by several other writers who naively thought they could expose this kind of story and found, the very hard way, that in the land of the free, home of the brave, certain behavior, conflicting as it does with the pretty rhetoric in our “mission statement,” must remain hidden.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Democracy Now, Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman hosts a groundbreaking radio news show out of New York City, which is also videocast. She covers news from a non-corporate perspective, extolling what she calls Independent Media. She titled her latest book, Democracy Now, because she says it is the only way she can get her show’s name in the New York Times. If it becomes a best seller (which it has) they sort of have to list it. Otherwise, cover non-corporate news and you’re excluded from the corporate media. You’re not quite respectable. That’s a major part of her work, presenting stuff that is hidden, distorted or underplayed by the mainstream establishment.

The book documents the history of the show, co-hosted by Juan Gonzalez, a New York Post columnist and activist. It is co-written by her brother David and Denis Moynihan who she credits with getting the show videocast and distributed widely, now at 1400 TV and radio stations worldwide. I was very surprised to find it on my screen one morning in a small town motel in Ohio a few years back. Since the show is a news outlet its history is of the main stories happening since its inception in the mid 90s. The book gives a brief history also of the Pacifica Radio Network, on which it airs, and ventures beyond the timeline as in outlining the 1969 Stonewall Uprising when covering LGBTQ issues. And you can hardly discuss U.S. foreign policy without touching on Vietnam, Central America under Reagan and other samples of rogue Empire. Had Democracy Now been around in 1984 when the world court convicted the U.S. of terrorism for its attack on Nicaragua, more citizens might have known. The mainstream certainly didn’t deign to inform us.
Democracy Now by Amy Goodman with Contributors David Goodman and Denis Moynihan
Amy doesn’t always broadcast from her New York City studio. She was on-the-scene at the 1999 Battle of Seattle where elite World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings were disrupted. And in Minneopolis for the Republican convention where she was arrested, despite being press. Outrageous to learn that the city was indemnified from lawsuits for its illegal suppression of dissent by insurance paid for by Republican fat cats. She was there on the streets when a million people marched opposing the pending invasion of Iraq which you can be forgiven for not knowing about if you depend on the mainstream for information. She was knocked to the ground by U.S. supported Indonesian soldier’s rifle butts in East Timor, trying to protect demonstrators from lethal response and in Ferguson Missouri for the police riots. She was in Paris recently at the Climate Conference, reporting on police assaulting peaceful demonstrators and interviewing those excluded from the talks.
This is the critical issue of our time, climate change. The accord reached in Paris was so superior to past failures that it seemed like a triumph, that we’re finally addressing the issue. But a close look shows little enforcement mechanism for the voluntary carbon reduction goals and the numbers involved, even if achieved, still doom great masses to rising seas. Islanders and poverty-stricken areas of the world are gravely threatened but also any coastal city – think New York City, Miami, Houston… can a disturbance this great be accomodated by our civilization? Given the reluctance to act now when something can be done, one would be tempted to predict chaos when the consequences arrive – an event not as far into the future as we might wish. Scientists keep shortening that time-frame as they uncover ever more disturbing data. As Amy says, in media coverage in the U.S. climate deniers are given equal time. It is as if the flat earth society were given equal time in discussions of the planet’s form, for balance. Even Sarah Palin recognizes that 97% of scientists agree that climate change is real and homosapien plays a key causal role… she just doesn’t know what to do with that info since she is unwilling to give up her denial. Hey, 97%? that’s not significant!
Other issues covered by this inspiring history (the show is subtitled the War and Peace Report), is the hypocritical treatment of whistle blowers, contrasting the slap on the wrist given General Petraeus’ self-serving disclosures of classified information with the career and financial ruination, and criminalization directed at CIA agents who released damning information to fulfill their oath to defend the constitution. Then of course there’s the rabid hunt for Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning. These are particularly enlightening: the perpetrators of murder are immune while the soldier with the courage to reveal the slaughter is imprisoned; the Constitution violators are honored (think Bush/Cheney/Wolfowitz etc;) while the whistle-blowers are smeared, hounded, fired or transferred to meaningless assignments. Similar to the condemnation of those who initially revealed U.S. torture while the torturer masters were protected. Something’s topsy-turvy here and that’s Democracy Now‘s job, to expose hypocrisy and corruption. Other issues include the prison industrial complex, the arms industry, gun safety, the death penalty debacle, unconscionable police killings, the confederate flag, the American Psychological Association’s enabling torture policies and more.
The Occupy Movement began (aside from its inspiration in Egypt) in lower Manhattan only blocks from theDemocracy Now studios. Democracy Now was there when the police, acting as protectors and defenders of the rulers rather than the people, shut it down – just as in the early union movement when the government sent troops to suppress striking workers, siding always with the Boss. Later Homeland Security coordinated, and Mayors cooperated, with nation-wide suppression of Occupy as it spread across the country. Democracy Nowconducted many interviews with figures routinely barred from the mainstream, substantial interviews with brilliant dissidents like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Cornel West and Arhundati Roy, interviews which demonstrate just why they’re banned from the mainstream. The 1% are obsessed with protecting their privilege and given their extreme wealth they can summon the apparatus of media and government to their service. They are fully aware and terrified of, so careful to obscure the fact that, as Arhundati Roy has said, “They are few, we are many.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nukes Gone Away (we wish)

The Beyond War movement in the 80s used to cite several “illusions” that perpetuate our drift toward what Einstein called, unparalleled catastrophe – a nuclear war. The illusion I have in mind is the belief that we can continue to war and survive. If we in fact do continue to war we will, sooner or later, have a nuclear war. The nuclear winter, radiation poisoning, and physical damage that would follow such an event would make the survivors envy those tens of millions killed in the immediate explosions. At minimum our civilization would be destroyed and quite possibly our species would be brought to extinction. The earth might well be uninhabitable. There is ample data to support this contention. So what are we, as a species, doing about it? Focusing mainly on the U.S., a recent Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) webinar discussed the issue by looking at what was so promising in Obama’s early rhetoric compared to what was accomplished and what is planned for the future… not reassuring.
There are about 15,000 nuclear warheads on the planet, most in the hands of the U.S. and Russia. Israel, Pakistan, India, Britain, France, China and North Korea have the rest. Negotiations between the U.S. and Russia have led to significant dismantling but that program has slowed due to strained relations around Syria and the Ukraine. One virtually unmentionable but highly relevant aspect of that conflict is U.S. reneging on its promise to Russia that it would not extend NATO up to its boarders. One can sympathize with Russia’s concern when considering the terrible invasions the country has endured from the west – the one from Germany in World War II costing millions in lives.
The U.S. arsenal is configured as a triad of “delivery” vehicles: bombers, land-based ICBM missiles and submarines. The arguments for this system are akin to the NRA’s (National Rifle Association) fanciful arguments in support of arming every kindergartner in the country, and at root there is a similar incentive… money of course. The “triad” is put forth as if it were a 3-legged stool which cannot stand without all three legs. Even if you thought we needed the capacity to destroy the earth, one of our trident submarines would probably do the job. And we’ve got way more than one of these dangerous and expensive items. This arsenal, by the way, is on a launch-on-warning, hair trigger status. There are certainly many instances of folly in human history but it’d be hard to find one to match this insanity.
One of the numerous problems with nuclear energy is that if you have a reactor for energy you have a reactor for weapons. The agreement with Iran is a positive accomplishment that slows proliferation and gives us time to pursue a commitment to non-violent conflict resolution, necessary if we are to end war. There is very little indication that the time will be so used. Dennis Kucinich’s proposal for a department of peace has gone nowhere in the Trump/Tea Party/Hillary Hawk atmosphere pervading U.S. politics. To emphasize this point: if we fail to develop non-violent resolution skills we will sooner or later have an extinction-inducing nuclear war. When I say this to certain right-leaning types they scoff and ask, “How you gonna negotiate with terrorists?” Well, no one said it was easy but if the choice is extinction or learn to resolve conflict non-violently, which it is, ah, I’d choose conflict resolution. So, let’s get crackin! Is there really no way to talk with North Korea? With terrorists? Conflict resolution experts would be eager to take on this difficult challenge. The problem is the U.S., or any dominating power, would prefer to “win”, to have it all. And when it has overwhelming military power then it is tempting to use it. Why take the trouble to get to win-win when you can have it all? Or so the thinking goes… which supports Einstein’s statement, “With the splitting of the atom everything has changed except the way we think. And so we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
There’s a photograph of Obama addressing a gargantuan crowd in Prague, where he talked about ridding the earth of nuclear weapons. Maybe someone got to him for he has introduced plans for a trillion dollar nuclear weapons “modernization” program that utterly fails to acknowledge the previous paragraph’s contention. It also fails to align with public priorities and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Now, as Goring said, you can use fear to manipulate the public and justify war quite easily. I knew people who voted for George W because of fears of terrorism. How they thought they’d be safer under Bush mystifies me but their vote confirms Goring’s assertion.
WAND has done an interesting experiment at Earth Day and other kinds of gatherings. They ask people to put pennies in containers representing categories of government spending, expressing their preferences… so many of 100 for the military, so many for social needs etc; showing percentages each category should get. The results differ glaringly from actual spending priorities in a predictable direction. The military would not receive the gluttonous shares of the national treasury it currently gets if it were put to this kind of popular vote – without the usual fear mongering.
The Pentagon has taken the position that the U.S. arsenal could be safely reduced to 1/3 of its present size, down to about 1,000 warheads when factoring in retired and non-deployed status. It is not true that this is “safe” but it certainly would be safer. We can’t expect the military to lead the way on conflict resolution since their whole raison d’etre is violence. The Pentagon is also worried about servicing its conventional forces with this huge allocation going to nukes. Their choice is between nukes and other violent tools. Our choice is between guns and butter. If we put a significant portion of our energy, as Kucinich’s Department of Peace would have it, into resolving conflict instead of waging war we would have that much less need for military expenditures. No reason we couldn’t get it down to near zero. We don’t use armies to expedite relations between the states, no reason this model couldn’t be extended to the whole planet. It would require giving up the notion that we have to dominate. It requires a measure of maturity, that we see ourselves as in this together, a notion not compatible apparently with capitalism since the U.S. armed forces and international relations seem to be pretty much exclusively in the service of that planet-devouring ideology.
There are a few senators and representatives promoting alternatives to national suicide but on the whole, despite much of the congress hell-bent on denying Obama in every other way, they tend to be behind this monumental macho. A few cracks in the support are evident in some questioning of a new cruise missile and in meager recognition that monies spent on these projects mean other more worthy projects go begging. The MOX boondoggle has suffered some defunding and seems destined for cancellation (an unworkable project allegedly intended to keep plutonium out of the hands of terrorists), now vastly over budget and behind schedule. But there has been a slow-down in the dismantling of certain numbers of nukes agreed upon in the START treaty. And obviously a trillion dollars committed to nukes not only represents a disastrous turn away from Obama’s early tantalizing rhetoric but would be that much harder to stop when influential parties start getting their grimy hands on those kinds of lucrative contracts. I like that line of Dylan’s, “His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean.” We need a lot more of that if we’re to successfully address this one.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Power Systems, Noam Chomsky

Many of Chomsky’s recent books are more or less transcriptions of interviews by David Barsamian. They explore questions such as, Why does the radical right oppose social security, both today and at its birth?, and public education, the most recent strategy being charter schools? Chomsky’s take is that these social functions create solidarity, they contribute to community and so undermine the notion, favored by the right, that we’re on our own, isolated individuals looking out for number one! Solidarity, working together, threatens elite-rule. The Egyptian Spring and other uprisings worry the elite and when they’re worried they double down on the propaganda machine.
Aristotle, according to Chomsky, concluded, after studying governing options, that democracy was probably the best one. A problem though is that since the poor vastly outnumber the rich, under democracy the poor may decide to confiscate wealth. His solution to that problem was… LESS INEQUALITY. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founders of the United States offered, and he was not alone, a quite different solution to that problem… LESS DEMOCRACY. This polarity weaves throughout our history, the Hamilton faction all too often prevailing. The scapecoating and obsequious service to the 1% by republicans and democrats with expensive campaigns to run, scrutiny of that same class by the Bernie Sanders campaign are a current manifestation. The “middle ground” is occupied by the current frontrunner. The likely choice this Fall will, once again, be between the one who wants to break both of your legs and arms and the one who will only break the legs.
Among the elite there is a range of opinion that you can see reflected in the elite-owned mainstream media, presented as if that were the whole picture. The range is pretty much an argument on how big the middle class buffer between the rulers and the rabble need be. The faction that thinks it should be very small indeed has come to dominate since Reagan, forcing democrats into becoming “new democrats”, that is, republican-lite, what used to be moderate republicans, an extinct species.
An interesting diversion from the political, Barsamian inquires about language, the field where Chomsky made his professional reputation. He explains that language, unique to humans, has only been around about 100,000 years. This is too short a period to be explained by evolution. There must be some minor genetic variant accounting for it, just as in biology the difference between an elephant and a gnat reduces to that kind of slight genetic shift. Chomsky is 87 now and still going strong. In response to Barsamian’s question about how long he intends to maintain his activism he said he’d just keep going until he can’t anymore. The man flies all over the place giving talks, not hesitating to take the grueling flight to Turkey or South America. You’d think the guy often referred to as the greatest intellectual alive, the 8th most quoted author on the planet, might get a little mainstream media air-time but the the NO on this is predicted by Chomsky’s own analysis of the range of “respectable” opinion, being that range among the rulers, all else pretty much excluded.
But back to the political: part of how education is under attack, aside from the teach-to-test strategy that kills both love of learning and teaching, is in its approach. The pour water (information) into a bucket method is the current emphasis because it encourages obediance. The other method encourages learning to learn, creativity, questioning authority, obviously not supported by elite power. On top of this we have large increases in tuition that make higher education ever more elitist, limiting it to the wealthy or creating a sort of indentured debt that will channel behavior into repayment, leaving little time or energy for examining or questioning the 1% dominated system. There is no reason that the richest country on the planet cannot offer free education, K through college. It is done by Finland and most of Western Europe (although segments of elite forces there would very much like to emulate the United States – witness EU, German banks really, insistence on brutal austerity for Greece and Spain).
On the current presidential race Chomsky describes Sanders as a decent new-deal democrat, not a socialist as he claims. Clinton of course is republican-lite, a corporate business-as-usual candidate. Trump/Cruz, the whole remaining republican slate, represent blowback from years of vicious republican exploitation of basic fears and prejudices. After being manipulated into voting against their own interests in election after election citizens have begun to notice that something is wrong, things haven’t gotten better, quite the reverse. Trump is tapping into that malaise, offering up the usual targets/scapegoats but in a way that bombastically amplifies the previous more subtle manipulation. Ironically one of the biggest practitioners of what has created the malaise has convinced many that he is the solution. Kind of like Obama appointing Larry Summers and other designers of the financial disaster to administer the economy. Bernie Sanders also is tapping into that alienated demographic but in a way that actually addresses the causes of the insecurities and abandonment of large segments of the population. A serious transfer of wealth from workers to the already wealthy cannot be sustained without some kind of reaction. 1930s Germany demonstrated the kind of forces that can be unleashed when the masses of citizens are alienated and highly insecure economically.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Yew Nawk City, quick trip

Gotta set aside climate change guilt sometimes, do some rationalization. I figure the airplane’s going there anyway, with or without me… and my credit card points make it almost free… so we fly. Got the very last seats, no window but plenty of avant garde audio from the engine just on the other side of that thin skin. We navigate our way to the East Village and though we enjoy a very pleasant visit with daughter and son-in-law, this is about three days of museum-hopping in Yew Nawk.
Day 1. MOMA (Museum of Modern Art): We use my time-tested strategy – zip through the whole shebang, go get a coffee, decide what to go back to for a closer look. Except coffee is rip-off expensive and my companions have had enough so it is only me re-visiting the exquisite Picasso, Cezanne, Mondrian, DeKooning, Van Gogh (always a crowd around that guy)… that whole history they have there, thanks largely to Alfred Barr their early genius curator. There are newer works scattered outside the exhibition area proper, like a fine large Basquiat and a Jaspar Johns, his cross-hatch period.
Basquiat reminds me of a student I had in grad school. I asked folks to go up to the chalk board, one at a time, and draw something. Most folks had a little stage fright, like being asked to give an impromptu speech. One student though was nonplussed, improvising freely with the most delightful imagery just flowing out of his chalk. I hated later to see it erased. That’s what Basquiat seemed to possess, that uninhibited ability to freely draw. Picasso remarked that it took him forty years to learn to draw like a child. I think I know what he meant.
Johns’ painting was large-ish too, maybe 8′ square, consisting of parallel lines in bundles, “cross-hatching” but the line bundles stood alone, they didn’t cross each other. Where Basquiat was primarily about spontaneous imagery, Johns was about paint. The “cross-hatching” merely provided a place to put oozing, rich layers of color which sometimes splendidly dripped. Speaking of drips, a mini Jackson Pollock retrospective exhibit traced how he gradually evolved toward the later drips and splatters.
A room of large electronic screens, perhaps a dozen, each depicted maps and a hand marking a journey, while a voice-over described the trip. Conceptual Art, if that is what this was,… I get it but I’m also sort of over it. Some pieces, like one I saw at the Whitney the following day, hit me but mostly, he sheepishly confesses, that genre tries my patience. My painting addiction will not be diverted by that stuff much anymore, even though I’ve quit painting myself.
Day 2. The Whitney Museum of American Art, the new one. Interesting to discover that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken over the old Whitney on Madison Ave for their more adventuresome shows. We walked from the East Village, crossed the chilly Williamsburg Bridge, for the view, caught the subway back to 14th Street and walked then east to the Whitney. These museums ya know are expensive. And two floors being closed ought to warrant a discount. The new joint provides a view of the Hudson River and Manhattan from it’s balconies that stretch ever further east as you descend floor to floor. Like the Guggenheim, they recommend starting at the top.
Speaking of Conceptual Art, the top floor is occupied by Laura Poitras, the very same who documented whistleblower supreme Edward Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong then Russia. Laura herself had to sort of hide out until the dust settled, feeling justifiably, that the Patriot Act etc; made her freedom questionable, daring to question authority as she had. She was put on a watch list resulting in over 50 interrogations. So, the whistle blowers get hunted like criminals and the criminality they reveal gets hidden behind that famous last refuge of a scoundrel, the flag. This exhibit offers, aside from its own message, one that suggests the 1%, who fund these kind of museums, aren’t across the board right wing crazies like some I could mention (initials are Koch), for they would freak out by the exhibit if they were. There are slots in a darkened corridor in which are brightly lit memos, presumably obtained through the FOIA (freedom of information act), from CIA to NSA. The memos are not particularly damning in themselves, the ones I read, but generally raise the sinister issue of spying and manipulation. Another dark room allows you to ly down on a carpeted platform and observe a view of the nightly heavens, speeded up so you can see the zodiacs pass, along with clouds and occasional tracers or drones, muffled radio transmissions – as seen from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The vast cosmos shrinks the importance we mortals place on the most trivial of endeavors. Its indifference falls on the just and the unjust. Moving into the next room you see infra red video of yourself arriving and lying on the platform and you feel the shadow of the presence of the National Security Agency. A nearby wall is hung with FOIA memos, heavily redacted, to the point of absurdity.
On the next floor down is a show of portraits by artists of artists or self-portraits, a fine Alfred Leslie in gray, a Warhol by Alice Neel, a selfie by the sadly late Hanna Wilke. Her use of her own body as subject at first was indistinguishable from cheesecakebut as time passed and she aged, then contracted cancer, the difference became jarringly obvious. A few warhols remind me that he is an artist one can’t dismiss. His soup cans at MOMA were stand out, and immensely popular – people were contantly posing in front of them for photos. In the far end of that space, facing a mirror which reflects the view out onto that floor’s balcony, and doubles his already large self, is a wax sculpture of Julian Schnabel. “He” towers above the spectators in the round as he does in life, and ego rumor has it. There’s one of his broken plate paintings in the show also, the plates providing “canvas” for the portrait.
There were several other exhibitions that didn’t move me enough to mention. But a Michael Heizer conceptual piece is worth a word: the artist dug (or had dug) a 32′ deep hole in Germany then photographed the side and top edge from below before filling the hole back in. The exhibition which the Whitney proudly “owns”, consists of huge blowups of those photos, probably size-determined by the room which boasts of being the largest column-less space in Manhattan, something like that. That I can describe this and you needn’t actually experience it yourself is characteristic of Conceptual Art. I used to love this kind of stuff but lately I’m hopelessly, anachronistically enthralled by paintings of a previous era.
The High Line was too chilly for more than a brief foray so we walked back, through Greenwich Village, to the east side. New York is like that, unique neighborhoods, just walking the streets is a treat as fascinating as the museums, to a visitor at least. The homeless no doubt see it differently, but from that POV most places look pretty dismal.
Day 3. The MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The last time I was in town there was a construction fence blocking off the northeast side with a sign thanking David Koch for funding the renovation. So apparently he’s not all bad… or has too much money, or too many fingers in our culture. A guy who doesn’t accept climate change on the board of the Smithsonian. How does that work?
I used a different approach to the MET. I went straight to Washington Crossing the Deleware, that grand, if not grandiose, depiction from our founding mythology. It’s an impressive work. In the same room is a Bierdstadt illustrating an eight wigwam Indian village, with fascinating detail of daily life, next to a placid lake below impossibly huge mountains. An early Inness Italian landscape hangs nearby. I more or less rushed, from there, past Sargent, Eakins, the Ash Can school, some fine Mary Cassette and on to the Rembrandts, passing incredible paintings with only a glance. I did pause at a small but superbly detailed Joachim Wtewael and just couldn’t not pause at Vermeer… but the Rembrandts… I’ve been thinking lately these are the greatest paintings ever made. The Frans Hals aren’t bad either, though more extroverted, and further along is Bruegel’s Harvest painting, one of five, according to a tour guide who happened to be there, depicting the seasons… why five? Dunno.
Next, the Picassos and Cezannes and Matisses mainly. But who can ignore Gauguin, Van Gogh (crowded as ever), Pissaro, Monet… then dashing to the more recent stuff, Dubuffet, Jackson Pollack (whom I’m apparently finally ready for) Pat Steir, Chuck Close,… and Klee, Kandinsky, Stuart Davis, and Norman Rockwell – an exquisite painting by someone often dismissed as cornball… for all this work I need synonyms for the word exqusite. A Thomas Hart Benton mural reassembled from somewhere (?) in a large room is pretty impressive. The powerful painting touches on about every social theme you can think of, workers, drinkers, travelers, children, prostitutes, partyers, businessers, farmers… I guess that’s why they call it Americana. I’ve been reading a biography of DeKooning and find that DeKooning, Arshille Gorky and John Graham were the big guns of 30s New York. Here they all had paintings in the same room and of the same year, 1944, year of my birth… is that an omen or what?
The MET has a nice admission policy. They don’t promote it much but it’s whatever you want to donate, making it very affordable if you’ve got the nerve. They’ll get you back though at the cafeteria, watch those calories. Down the elegant MET steps on Fifth Avenue, over in a light rain to Lexington, south to find a subway entrance, down into the bowels again, south to Astor and that walk to home base and dinner, past Cooper Union, the Village Voice, busy busy streets, full of vitality and character, sky-high rent for postage stamp-sized apartments. One last night in that heady city before tripping back here, to the land of neanderthal politician-philosophers.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Budgets Three, One for Thee

There are three budget proposals up for a vote soon, the President’s, the House of Representative’s and the Progressive Caucus’. The Progressive proposal is aligned with what polls say the general public wants so naturally this one doesn’t have a chance. The other two go to different lengths to cut services for the general public and increase breaks for the wealthy, corporations and spending for the military. The fiscal year for this budget kicks off October 1.
The annual budget to-do follows this order: the president submits his to congress (dead in the water, given the hostility of this Congress to anything the president proposes), lawmakers submit theirs, the Senate and House resolve the differences among the three, the president signs it. It’s almost never done on time so temporary funding resolutions are passed to keep the government going until the new budget is passed.
Enough hustlers run for Congress because that seat brings their greedy hands within proximity of the national treasury, so that insures that a lot of wrangling will go on this time of year. It’s not an attractive process. Say a corporation spends one million dollars to bribe, excuse me, to help key senators with their reelection campaigns. A pretty good investment if the budget process channels a couple billion their way.
President Obama’s budget adheres to the numbers from last year’s. Sequestration is the law that requires all budget items to be cut by a fixed percentage if the various factions can’t come to agreement. Of course they will always find a way to exclude the military from this meat cleaver. The President calls for an end to sequestration, a Reagan-era idea and part of the anti-government trappings of that reactionary regime.
The military gets a $2 billion increase with an extra “slush fund” of $59 billion – so named because it doesn’t have to justify itself. An interesting factoid: the Pentagon is excluded from the necessity that all other departments are subject to, the annual audit. Doesn’t that make the whole thing a slush fund? By the way, the U.S. spends more on the military than most of the rest of the world combined. Billions have literally disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one knows where those dollars went or in whose pockets it now resides. Imagine the scandal if the food stamp program or Planned Parenthood couldn’t account for billions of taxpayer dollars.
There is also a capital gains tax increase in Obama’s budget, sure to fall on deaf GOP ears.
The House proposal is light on detail but prioritizes deficit reduction and claims to create jobs – as usual by cutting taxes for the wealthy using the same old same old discredited trickle-down theory. The $59 billion military slush fund is in the House version, as well as the over $550 billion “defense” budget.
I remember complaining about the $250 billion spent annually on the military but 911 apparently gave the Pentagon a license to print money. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine discloses how sordid politicians habitually lie in wait for a crisis under the cover of which they can loot the treasury and pass unpopular measures. 911 was an answer to their prayers.
This budget calls for $30 billion in cuts to discretionary funding, like Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps… programs that serve the general public as opposed to those citizens, the important ones, with the tax cuts. Over ten years this budget would slash $887 billion affecting domestic initiatives. There is also a shift to the states of the cost to administer programs, another funding burden that makes for an indirect tax increase on ordinary workers. Or maybe this provision is just another way of sabotaging the services. Or, likely, it’s both.
The Progressive Caucus (75 representatives and 1 senator – Bernie Sanders of course) proposal repeals sequestration and invests in domestic initiatives, job creation, education and other popular programs. The job-creation, unlike the House proposal, is specific, diverting (presumably from the Pentagon) $1 trillion over ten years to invest in the nation’s infrastructure and creation of 3.6 million jobs by 2016.
The Progressive Caucus budget would eliminate the Pentagon slush fund, moving it into the main budget which is slightly more accountable, and requires defense department auditing for the first time. There are cute little items in the military budget, not subject to sequestration caps, like the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund. It would cut the new-but-doesn’t-work-yet-but-trust-us F35 jet fighter and reduce nuclear weapons funding.
Obama's budget proposes $10 trillion over 30 years in nuclear arms spending... and this guy’s a liberal? We should spend trillions to increase the dangers to civilization? Who are his advisors on this, the NRA?
The Progressive Caucus budget foresees savings when troops are finally withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq and increases funding for diplomacy over war (gee, isn't that unAmerican?). It would also raise taxes by closing the capital gains loophole which taxes wealthy income at a lower rate than working people. Not that the rich don’t work – they work, some of ’em, very hard, at maintaining and expanding their privileges. There is only so much privilege and money so how it is distributed affects us all and our system is set up to favor, you might have anticipated this, the elite. This same elite would be stopped, under this plan, from avoiding taxes using off-shore trickery.
Polls show that Medicare and Medicaid are considered very important programs by 63% of our citizenry. Similar numbers support national health care and most of the Progressive Caucus budget.
The House budget is most likely to reach the President’s desk. It reflects how the general public goes woefully underrepresented in our theoretically representative government, which for various reasons, not least the lack of public financing of elections, ends up representing, above all, the interests of that infamous 1% – the ones whose tactics of domination, of divide and conquer, have overstepped, creating odious blowback in the form of Donald Trump.
Author’s Note: This article draws heavily from a recent webinar sponsored by Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).
  • Image: The illustration is by the author, Tom Ferguson.