Saturday, December 07, 2013

Nearing the bottom of "The Atlantic" (hopefully)

"The Atlantic" and "Harper's" are both iconic magazines that are responsible for promoting the careers of many prominent writers. I have been reading them for years. They also both have a profile of John Kerry in their December issue. David Rohde did a individualist profile of Kerry, lauding him as an "activist" diplomat shaking up the stuffy old foreign policy establishment in "The Atlantic." In "Harper's," Andrew Cockburn rejects this sort on analysis completely and challenges the idea that there is such a thing as foreign policy at all. Kerry comes off as a power hungry but powerless hack who owes his position to back room politics much more than shrewd determination. Cockburn was actually communicating original thoughts and I turned each page with a new morsel of knowledge. Rohde's fluff would have fit nicely after a top ten vacation spot list on Delta's in-flight magazine. Reading the whole thing felt like choking down sugarless oatmeal. With a few notable exceptions, this is a good representation of the current trajectory of each magazine.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

May 2, 1996: An entry from "A Colossal Wreck"

The following is a passage from the late Alexander Cockburn's last book, A Colossal Wreck. It is available here.

May 2
"A loan-at-interest is the only known thing in the entire universe that does not suffer entropy. It grows with time. All other things, ourselves included, fade and die." Those of you maxed out on your credit cards but still making those monthly payments at some outrageous rate know this as well as I (who have learned by dint of bitter experience not to have credit cards at all).

Those first three sentences came from an informative letter that Stan Lusby of Otago, New Zealand, sent to one of my favorite newspapers, Catholic Worker, a while back. Lusby commenced his discussion of capitalism with some personal disclosures. He had, Lusby confided, known all his life that lending money at interest was intrinsically wrong. "I came late in life to Christianity, and it was a great source of comfort to verify my intuition through scripture, although I am now deeply enmeshed in debt, having listened to my peers and not the word of God."

Lusby then supplied a succinct history of the origins of the very word "capitalism":

The word "capitalism" come from "caput tally" or head-count of the slaves. I followed the line of word discovery further, after reading the New English Bible, for it referred to Nebuchadnezzar "investing" Jerusalem with his troops. "Vestment" means clothing that one puts on, but "in-vestment" implies that one has been cloaked-in. It was the Roman word for a military operation for the taking of slaves. Clearly, such a military operation called for a minimum physical injury to a salable commodity and what we now call siege tactics were deployed.

The Military word "captain" refers to the one who counts the heads of slaves. It is used in both the land and marine branches of military. Out of starvation, the defenders "capitulated" (Latin, caput, head). On the long march back to Rome, the captain carved the daily head-count into a horizontal component of the scaffolding of the tent in which the captives were housed at night. Even today, such a piece of scaffolding is still known as a "ledger." To prevent the slaves breaking away, they were tied with a piece of leather called a "bond" to a lone pole termed a "bank." That word survives to this day in the expression "a bank of oars," coming, as it does, from the galleys which were powered by slaves. 

Lusby should have added that the word also survives as "the bank," to which we are held captive by the long thong of debt.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Whose shutdown!

Republicans don't have the popular support to realize their antebellum era/gilded age utopia, so they exploited the silly rules of a anti-democratic and outdated Constitution in order to shut down the government in an attempt to extort something from their jellyfish rival party of capital. That's why the federal government is shut down.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The "Citizens' Council for Health Freedom" are scumbag shitheads

There are plenty of things wrong with Obamacare. Namely, it subsidizes rather than abolishes the parasitic insurance industry. That said, this campaign (I found this propaganda poster near my apartment at a bus stop off University Ave. in St. Paul) is disgusting. You don't have to be terribly clever to see the undertones of this smut. Black people, bus stop. We get it. In the generalized world of demographic based advertising, that group of "takers" are the ones who will be using the subsidies offered to lower income people, so we'd rather you not have any healthcare than participate in government supported access to private insurance.

And that's the kicker. The fucking insurance is private! Since when do these shitheads have a problem with government money going to private industry? Their ham-fisted ideology somehow tells them a market exchange for private insurance is "big government." They are lying to people with the hope they don't receive proper medical attention. How awful. On the ladder of social decency these scumbags are a step slightly above child pornographers.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Patriotism is the first refuge of idiots

There is a fairly wide swath of people who refuse to believe government (local, state, and federal) when it comes to issues where the government either has no credible incentive to lie, or it would take a magnificent conspiracy across many levels in order to fudge the truth. Issues like localized public safety, public schools, or even basic economic data have become "controversial" to many people purported to be exercising a healthy distrust of power. Yes, governments need to be kept in check regarding these issues, but most often agencies that handle this sort of stuff are made up of public servants who do great work. 

Meanwhile, when it comes to questioning US military power, where the government has lied repeatedly and been proven to do so (with the results being millions of deaths), many of these same people are the first ones to blindly cheer on every single American imperial military adventure (they usually call it "the troops") and cast self-righteous judgements on those who don't. I realize there's some interesting social undertones happening with this sort of thinking, which at first glance seems at least a bit contradictory. I'm sure there is, but I'm just going to call them idiots and be done with it.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Adam Smith on the bourgeois state

"Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it. The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days labour, civil government is not so necessary."

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter 1.45
(found via Left Business Observer, #136)

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Why I'm on the political left (in a few sentences)

Culture is a product of your material existence. If that is one of poverty, particularly on a generational scale, it would certainly influence your culture. Even if you live in the developed world and share cultural similarities with those who are relatively rich, a lack of real word resources creeps into your more abstract understanding of who you are. Despite what both liberal and conservative theorists tell us, the way to fix poverty doesn't simply lie in changing people's behaviors, and therefore their culture. It is much more simple, and complex, than that. The solution to poverty is a massive redistribution of wealth, from those who "own" the commanding heights of the economy to those who do the tasks that make our society function. You would be surprised how social pathologies fade away when you no longer have to explain to your kids why your existence is lacking key resources.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Drones are pretty much the perfect weapon

There is no anti-war movement to speak of. There is, however, a small core of activists that like to think of themselves as the movement. Understandably, they have focused their attention on drones. This will continue to isolate them. Put bluntly, your average American doesn't give a shit about drones.

Most people, myself included, aren't terribly interested in the abstract legal justification or condemnation of U.S. drone use. (Domestic law almost always takes a backseat to perceived national security threats and many Americans scoff at the very notion of international law to begin with. How dare the rest of the world tell us what to do!) Morally speaking, Americans continue to support "the troops" when they shoot kids in person so it's highly unlikely they're going to be too bothered when some nameless, faceless Pakistani boy gets blown up via a command center in Nevada. Sure, drone attacks create more "terrorists," but so does smashing down doors in the middle of the night to stick a gun in the face of a guy who pissed off his local U.S.-backed warlord. Certainly drone strikes are less invasive than an occupying force.

The Obama Administration has taken Donald Rumsfeld's "light footprint" doctrine to a qualitatively higher, much more workable, level. The drones-based arms race is the only thing I can think of that might give the State Department and Pentagon a moment's pause. But, as we've seen in the past, that moment will be quick. The trick is to stay ahead of the curve. Other countries are developing their own drones. But by the time they're up to speed, we'll have bigger and better toys.

Yes, the possibility of drone use on U.S. soil will continue to rile up some people. Paranoid anti-government folks will unite with aging hippies, but to little avail. That isn't to say some unforeseen event couldn't happen and trigger a mass movement against our growing use of drones. No one knows the future. But as of now, drones are nearly perfect for exercising imperial force. Drones don't have families to deal with. They don't come back from combat all fucked up in the head. They do exactly as they're told. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The talented and beautiful Joy Dolo...

My family plugging continues:

We finally got my wife's website up and running. Check it out:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Friday, March 08, 2013

Hugo Chavez, Rest in Peace

I have this vivid image in my mind of Hugo Chavez pushing through various handlers of assorted powerful people in order to get on stage at the UN General Assembly and recommend Noam Chomsky's latest book. I picture a boyish gaze as he famously hands Barack Obama a copy of "The Open Veins of Latin America." Chavez was drunk on ideas. I remember the feeling of radicalization. The difference being, of course, when I began to give heed to such ideas my main concerns were rent and beer money. Chavez was the leader of one of the most oil-rich nations in the world.

I met Alan Woods, who was an informal adviser of sorts to Chavez, a few years ago in Italy. I was there for a organizational congress (we were part of the same political tendency), and had a chance to hear him talk a few times about Chavez. He would mention all the achievements of course, but he'd always temper them with an aside like, "well, Chavez is no Marxist..." I took that to mean he's still learning. Not in the sense that, yes, we're all still learning and that's a good thing, but in the sense that he still believes you can somehow reconcile the thick contradictions ripe within private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. For all this talk about Chavez the strongman, which in many respects is true, he appeared to have a somewhat bizarre faith in good old enlightenment values. He seemed unaware that these once revolutionary ideas can be shaped and perverted into freedom of speech being interpreted as freedom to buy political office. Freedom, liberty- words that have long been slogans for commodities- need a rebranding. If we simply apply them to the structures of the state as is, they are often tools of manipulation.

I'm not suggesting Chavez was naive. (Certainly anyone who has been on both ends of a coup has learned to watch his back.) I'm also not suggesting he was ineffective. (Chavez was able to reduce poverty to such an extent he is assured to be remembered as one of the best leaders of our time among a large swath of the world's population.) I do, however, think he was indecisive. At least when it came to the big question. He sat on the revolution too long. There is likely a million reasons why, but you can't wait capital out. You have to, as they say, strike while the iron's hot. From the oil fields to the grocery shelves, they have fought Chavez. They will trade short-term profit for long-term power every time.They don't feel the national, or Bolivarian, pride that teemed within Chavez. They would have a million slum-dwelling children die ten times over before they would allow any fundamental change in the system that offers them so much privilege. Despite the boisterous rhetoric, deep-down Chavez seemed to believe he could appeal to them. Instead of replacing the corrupt state, he built parallel structures. This allowed much of the "old crap" to remain. 

That said, running a revolution is fucking hard. The negative obituaries by the usual suspects are proof enough of his legacy. He scared the right people. He gave power to people who never had it before. The hard part is now. We have to finish with what Chavez was unable to.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Django Unchained: Who is afraid of a Black Siegfried? "

It appears everyone and their best friend decided to write a review of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." For some bizarre reason, I felt compelled to read just about every goddamn one of them. This one, originally published by The Toronto Media Co-op, is my favorite. (Disclosure, the author is a friend of mine.) 
“A Slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains - let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!” - Leon Trotsky, ‘Their Morals and Ours’
Quentin Tarantino’s latest flick has understandably caused a lot of controversy. It has been praised by many but also invited the ire and criticism on part of many others. The most strange-comical of these critics is the renowned African-American director Spike Lee who condemned the movie while admitting he has never watched it and never will!

Once again, at the center of discussion is the grotesque portrayal of violence in the movie, a feature of virtually all Tarantino hits. Now, a lot could be said about Tarantino’s use of slap-stick gun-slinging, blood-poring violence in his movies and this is beyond the scope of the present review. But if there is one positive aspect this portrayal has is to remind us of the massive violence that has gone in our history and that goes on today in the very fabric of our society. Those well-meaning critics who bemoan the blood that splatters from every corner in Tarantino movies miss the point of what art and cinema are all about. Great works of art are those who emanate from the actual conditions of life in the world we live in and portray, in one way or another, these realities while telling a sometimes utopian story about their possible overcoming.

If many of the violence depicted in such early Tarantino masterpieces such as Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs takes place in the context of contemporary United States, that in Django is directly themed on a scorching issue at the heart of American history: Black Slavery and the fight against it. This is similar to his previous Inglourious Basterds which took the Nazi Germany, another horror of our recent past, as its background.

In these last two movies, we see a Tarantino that does an indispensable service to the contemporary audience by reminding us of the great violence that our current seemingly ‘peaceful’ conditions are built on. But he does much more by delving into that history and by empowering heroes that are ready to fight against the evils that make that violence necessary. A Tarantino movie is not there to merely and grotesquely portray violence to remind us how bad it is (or was) and to give out a cheap, shallow, moralistic and pacifist message that ‘violence is bad’. This is, in a way, what films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon does. Platoon depicts all the seemingly mindless and brutal violence of the Vietnam War but remains in the morally dubious position of pacifism. What we lack in this ‘anti-war’ movie are the stories of the real heroes of that war, the Viet Cong who fought against imperialism and for liberation of their country. For Tarantino, however, not every violent act is morally equal and this is most obvious in Django.

At the center of the movie, which takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War began, is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave that could choose an easy fleeing to the North where he could become a freeman but instead dares to delve in to the heart of Slave-holding South to emancipate Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), his wife and the love of his life. Accompanying him is a German Doctor-cum-bounty-hunter King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who tells him the story behind Broomhilda’s name: The nordic legend of Nibelungenlied in which the dragon-slaying hero Siegfried is ready to pass through a great deal of danger and trouble to free his beloved Brunhild (The princess Broomhilda is named after.)

It is right then and there that our Django aspires to be a Siegfried; to pass every fire and slay any dragon to reunite with his beloved Broomhilda. He joins Dr. Schulz and learns best how to use a gun and sets out to the estate of brutal Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio) where Broomhilda is being kept in slavery, torture and prostitution.

Unlike what some of the critics would have you believe, the violence that Django bestows on his opponents is not a meaningless, irrational bloodletting. Quite to the contrary, he proves an astute and principled fighter that is determined not only to free his beloved but bring down the whole house of oppression that she is enslaved in. That he is ruthless in this vain only makes him an equal of all the great heroes of romantic stories.

More than once in the movie the protagonists are given the choice of an easy way out. After a whole set of drama, Dr. Schulz and Django could manage to leave the Candie estate with the now-purchased Broomhilda if only Schulz would agree to shake hand with Candie. He, however, can’t bring himself to engage in this symbolic compromise with the brutal slaveholder who is not averse of giving his slaves to dogs to be eaten or to have them fight each other to death, gladiator-style. He prefers to shoot Candie and is then martyred by his associates for his courageous stance. In one of the final scenes of the movie, Django could easily run away with Broomhilda who is finally in his embrace. But he goes on to first burn down the entire Candie estate after killing off all those complicit in his order of oppression. Significantly, he frees all the blacks before burning the place down, except for the Uncle Tom character, Stephens, (Samuel L. Jackson) who has served Candie for more than 70 years and who disrupted the earlier plans to free Broomhilda. He has to burn with the order he has served for this is ‘where he belongs.’

Those familiar with the history of African-Americans would not be surprised at the indignation that a determined, valiant Black hero, this Black Siegfried, has caused in the American establishment. Nothing sows panic within the American ruling class like the idea of a Black hero who is ready to stand up and fight against injustice. ‘Angry Black’ has been at the centre of the anxieties and paranoia of this class. It is not accidental that a great fighter like Muhammad Ali could only be accepted by the ruling elite after he contracted the Parkinson’s disease and so didn’t look as threatening anymore. In a recent article for The Atlantic, titled “Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained how any strong gesture of affirmation on part of Obama, and any reiteration of his Black legacy, would be met by panic and condemnation by the American establishment. Here Django is all that the lame duck Obama has never managed to be: A courageous fighter not for his ‘race’ but for justice and freedom and a slayer of all those who stand in its way, whether white or black.

It is not for nothing that the marvelous acts of Django cause flickers of hope in the eyes of the slaves in several scenes in the movie. Here is a Siegfried that gives them ambition for what they, too, can be; That disproves the racist tales of Candie about submission having been written into the black skulls.
Those who bemoan the violence of Django need to be reminded that even the formal end of slavery didn’t come about by parliamentary intrigue and compromise as another recent movie, Spielberg’s Lincoln, claims. It was not President Lincoln’s reconciliation but his determination to fight a bloody Civil War that rooted out slavery. Even more crucial was the arming of more than 200,000 Blacks, long demanded by black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas, who proudly fought under the star-spangled Union banner and expropriated the Southern plantations; a process stymied by the later compromises of the American bourgeoise after the assassination of Lincoln.

Django Unchained is a classic romantic hero story that bases itself on such great artistic traditions as Nordic fairy tales and spaghetti Westerns. Like the bests of these genres, we have a hero, unflinching in the face of dangers and determined to fight for what is right. Those who can only show disgust by the blood that pores in Django Unchained are betraying their inhumane capacity to look the other way faced with the very violent world we live in. They are like Lady Candie in the movie who can calmly play Beethoven on a harp while surrounded by the most obscene violence of slavery and domination, just as the Nazi officers played great compositions just after filling the gas chambers. One needs to be instead inspired by the humane, loving and courageous Django to fight against the system of exploitation that demands so much violence to sustain itself. It is only in this way that we could end the violence of humans on humans, once and for all.