Saturday, December 31, 2011


Few writers combine literary power and level-headed fury better than than Chris Floyd at Empire Burlesque:
In March 2003, the United States of America launched an entirely unprovoked act of military aggression against a nation which had not attacked it and posed no threat to it. This act led directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. It drove millions more from their homes, and plunged the entire conquered nation into suffering, fear, hatred and deprivation.

This is the reality of what actually happened in Iraq: aggression, slaughter, atrocity, ruin. It is the only reality; there is no other. And it was done deliberately, knowingly, willingly. Indeed, the bipartisan American power structure spent more than $1 trillion to make it happen. It is a record of unspeakable savagery, an abomination, an outpouring of the most profound and filthy moral evil.

Line up the bodies of the children, the thousands of children - the infants, the toddlers, the schoolkids - whose bodies were torn to pieces, burned alive or riddled with bullets during the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Line them up in the desert sand, walk past them, mile after mile, all those twisted corpses, those scraps of torn flesh and seeping viscera, those blank faces, those staring eyes fixed forever on nothingness.

This is the reality of what happened in Iraq; there is no other reality.

These children - these thousands of children - are dead, and will always be dead, as a direct result of the unprovoked act of military aggression launched and sustained by the American power structure. Killing these children, creating and maintaining the conditions that led to the slaughter of these children, was precisely what the armed forces of the United States were doing in Iraq. Without the invasion, without the occupation, without the 1.5 million members of the American volunteer army who surrendered their moral agency to "just follow orders" and carry out their leaders' agenda of aggression, those children would not have died - would not have been torn, eviscerated, shot, burned and destroyed. ...

And so Barack Obama, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the self-proclaimed inheritor of the mantle of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, went to North Carolina this week to declare the act of aggression in Iraq "an extraordinary achievement." ...

He did not say a single word - not one - about the thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of Iraqis killed by this "fulfilled mission," this "extraordinary achievement," this "success." These human beings - these sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, kinfolk, lovers, friends - cannot be acknowledged. They cannot be perceived. It must be as if they had never existed. It must be as if they are not dead now.

The divorce from reality here is beyond description. ...
My other favourite US blogger is Glenn Greenwald, who has two excellent post-Xmas posts: one on Bradley Manning's show-trial and one on Greg Miller's Washington Post report about Barack Obama's murder-by-drone program.

WaPo (my emphasis):
In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents. ... [N]o president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation's security goals. ...

Senior Democrats barely blink at the idea that a president from their party has assembled such a highly efficient machine for the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is a measure of the extent to which the drone campaign has become an awkward open secret in Washington that even those inclined to express misgivings can only allude to a program that, officially, they are not allowed to discuss. ...

When Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation's clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled. ...

Key members of Obama's national security team came into office more inclined to endorse drone strikes than were their counterparts under Bush, current and former officials said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA director and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator, said a former official who served in both administrations and was supportive of the program. Current administration officials did not dispute the former official's characterization of the internal dynamics. ...

The only member of Obama's team known to have formally raised objections to the expanding drone campaign is Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence. ... His opinion contributed to his isolation from Obama’s inner circle, and he was fired last year.
In sum: the President can kill whomever he wants anywhere in the world (including U.S. citizens) without a shred of check or oversight, and has massively escalated these killings since taking office (...these attacks have occurred in at least six Muslim countries). Because it's a Democrat (rather than big, bad George W. Bush) doing this, virtually no members of that Party utter a peep of objection ... And even though these systematic, covert killings are widely known and discussed in newspapers all over the world - particularly in the places where they continue to extinguish the lives of innocent people by the dozens, including children - Obama designates even the existence of the program a secret, which means our democratic representatives and all of official Washington are barred by the force of law from commenting on it or even acknowledging that a CIA drone program exists (a prohibition enforced by an administration that has prosecuted leaks it dislikes more harshly than any other prior administration).
By whole-heartedly embracing and extending the inhumane and criminal policies of the Bush/Cheney administration, Obama has effectively cut off all debate and all protest. Democrats who raised hell when Bush did X now refuse to utter one peep when Obama does X. Indeed, they now praise Obama for X, showing that their initial condemnation was not based on principles of person or party, it was pure theater. These policies - blatant war crimes - have quietly become the new normal in the United States, fully accepted by both parties, embraced so completely that they are not even worth mentioning anymore.

This is one reason why I believe Barack Obama is a worse president than George W. Bush.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pentagon Giving Billions In Military Equipment To Local Police Forces

The militarization of the United States has taken a huge step forward in recent years as the Pentagon has been supplying local police forces (free of charge) with a wide array of military equipment - M-16 assault rifles, surveillance drones, helicopters, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers.

The recent designation by the Obama administration of the entire country as a battlefield in TWAT* was not a symbolic or procedural matter. The US government has declared war on its own people. And having seen the anger and potential power of the Occupy movement, it is busy making battle plans.

* - The War Against Terror

According to both the Justice Technology Information Network and the Virginia State Police website,
The 1033 Program (formerly the 1208 Program) permits the Secretary of Defense to transfer, without charge, excess U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) personal property (supplies and equipment) to state and local law enforcement agencies (LEAs).

The 1033 Program has allowed law enforcement agencies to acquire vehicles (land, air and sea), weapons, computer equipment, body armor, fingerprint equipment, night vision equipment, radios and televisions, first aid equipment, tents and sleeping bags, photographic equipment and more.
Dallas, Texas, SWAT team

Robert Johnson, Business Insider:
1033 was passed by Congress in 1997 [streamlining a law passed in 1994] to help law-enforcement fight terrorism and drugs, but despite a 40-year low in violent crime, police are snapping up hardware like never before. While this year's staggering take topped the charts, next year's orders are up 400 percent over the same period.

This upswing coincides with an increasingly military-like style of law enforcement most recently seen in the Occupy Wall Street crackdowns.
According to Benjamin Carlson, a reporter for The Daily:
Thanks to [1033], cops in Cobb County, Ga. - one of the wealthiest and most educated counties in the U.S. - now have an amphibious tank. The sheriff of Richland County, S.C., proudly acquired a machine-gun-equipped armored personnel carrier that he nicknamed "The Peacemaker."

This comes on top of grants from the Department of Homeland Security that enable police departments to buy vehicles such as "BearCats" — 16,000-pound bulletproof trucks equipped with battering rams, gun ports, tear-gas dispensers and radiation detectors. To date, more than 500 of these tanklike vehicles have been sold by Lenco, its Massachusetts-based manufacturer, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel.

When asked why they need equipment that might seem better suited to Fallujah than Florida, many police point to safety concerns, even as violent crime nationwide has fallen to 40-year lows.

Sheriff Bill Hutton's department in Washington County, Minn., purchased a $237,000 BearCat four weeks ago using a federal grant. Hutton said it has already come in handy during a kidnapping. ... His department also received grants to buy a 3-foot-tall, $70,000 robot and a $75,000 riverboat, he said.
Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz, Center for Investigative Reporting:
North Dakota's largest city [Fargo] has averaged fewer than two homicides a year since 2005, and there's not been a single international terrorism prosecution in the last decade.

But that hasn't stopped authorities in Fargo and its surrounding county from going on an $8 million buying spree to arm police officers with the sort of gear once reserved only for soldiers fighting foreign wars.

Every city squad car is equipped today with a military-style assault rifle, and officers can don Kevlar helmets able to withstand incoming fire from battlefield-grade ammunition. And for that epic confrontation - if it ever occurs - officers can now summon a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret. ...

Like Fargo, thousands of other local police departments nationwide have been amassing stockpiles of military-style equipment in the name of homeland security, aided by more than $34 billion in federal grants since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a Daily Beast investigation conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting has found. ...

The buying spree has transformed local police departments into small, army-like forces, and put intimidating equipment into the hands of civilian officers. ...

"The argument for up-armoring is always based on the least likely of terrorist scenarios," says Mark Randol, a former terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress. "Anyone can get a gun and shoot up stuff. No amount of SWAT equipment can stop that." ...

"I don't see us as militarizing police; I see us as keeping abreast with society," former Los Angeles Police chief William Bratton says. "And we are a gun-crazy society." ...

In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff's department owns a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone, like those used to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Augusta, Maine, with fewer than 20,000 people and where an officer hasn't died from gunfire in the line of duty in more than 125 years, police bought eight $1,500 tactical vests. Police in Des Moines, Iowa, bought two $180,000 bomb-disarming robots, while an Arizona sheriff is now the proud owner of a surplus Army tank. ...

[T]he Department of Homeland Security awarded more than $2 billion in grants to local police in 2011, and President Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contributed an additional half-billion dollars. ...

Many of America's newly armed officers are ex-military veterans from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. Charles Ramsey, who was police chief in Washington, D.C., on 9/11, upgraded the weaponry when he moved to Philadelphia in 2008. Today, some 1,500 Philly beat cops are trained to use AR-15 assault rifles.

"We have a lot of people here, like most departments, who are ex-military," Ramsey says. "Some people are very much into guns and so forth." ...

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Stephen Graham, professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University in the U.K., and author of Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism:
There's been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe towards paramilitarized policing, using helicopter-style systems, using infrared sensing, using really, really heavy militarized weaponry. That's been longstanding, fueled by the war on drugs and other sort of explicit campaigns. But more recently, there's been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and IT companies to sell things like video surveillance systems, things like geographic mapping systems, and even more recently, drone systems, that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and elsewhere, as sort of a domestic policing technology. ...

[S]urveillance is being used to try and track activist groups, permanently sort of monitoring them, using video systems, using database systems, and to allow infiltration. These are very much seen as movements that need to be infiltrated. ...

[W]hat the Occupy movement is so powerful at is demonstrating that by occupying public spaces around the world, and particularly these extremely symbolic public spaces, it's reasserting that the city is the foundation space for democracy. ...

[L]ast year, we moved past the moment where 50 percent of the world was living in cities. By 2050, 75 percent of the world's population will be living in cities. But too often, political and military power is controlled by people who see cities purely as threats, purely as sites of unrest, sites that need strong military and security control. And what's so wonderful about the Occupy protests is that there's a different, a much more hopeful idea of cities being pushed there, in a world where we have a really radical crisis and a radical sense of illegitimacy for the social model that we're all still having to live under.
The right of peaceful assembly, Toronto, June 2010

Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute's project on criminal justice:
The trend toward militarization was well under way before 9/11, but it's the federal policy of making surplus military equipment available almost for free that has poured fuel on this fire. ...

It's kind of had a corrupting influence on the culture of policing in America. The dynamic is that you have some officer go to the chief and say, people in next county have [military hardware], if we don't take it some other city will. Then they acquire the equipment, they create a paramilitary unit, and everything seems fine. But then one or two years pass. They say, look we've got this equipment, this training and we haven't been using it. That's where it starts to creep into routine policing.
Pecan Group:
Peter Kraska, a criminologist at the University of Eastern Kentucky ... found that by 1997, 90 percent of cities with populations of 50,000 or more had at least one SWAT team, twice as many as in the mid-1980s. The number of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 with a SWAT team increased 157 percent between 1985 and 1996.

As the number of SWAT teams multiplied, their use expanded as well. ... According to Kraska, by the early 1980s there were 3,000 annual SWAT deployments, by 1996 there were 30,000 and by 2001 there were 40,000. The average police department deployed its SWAT team about once a month in the early 1980s. By 1995, it was seven times a month.
The Daily Bell:
The militarization of American society is a long-term project in our opinion. It began shortly after Vietnam when the Pentagon, confronting the wreckage of failed military policies, began a rehabilitation campaign that resulted in the formation of a private, volunteer army. In retrospect, this approach was wildly successful. The all-volunteer army provided a way for the military-industrial complex to separate itself from the larger society and build its own power-base and expand funding sources unconstrained by negative public perceptions.

It is almost a truism by now that those in the U.S. military are in some sense contemptuous of their civilian counterparts. They are in fact taught (in a sense) to be contemptuous because it is part of the process of breaking down a potential soldier's personality in order to remove the social, ethical and biological barriers to killing. The soldier during this process becomes profoundly "other" – which is one reason why so many have trouble reintegrating when they return to civilian life. The U.S. suicide rate among young military veterans is tragically high.

What is also true about the modern American military is that those who have a military background have been increasingly welcomed into the standing power structure of the United States. The CIA, FBI and myriad intelligence agencies recruit from a military pool and thus military attitudes increasingly pervade these government entities.

The militarization of America's leadership has numerous ramifications, among them the assumption that military activity itself can trump culture, economics and of course individual human action. ...

For the past decades, especially under the Bush administration, the trends seemed to run against civil society. Habeas corpus was attacked, torture was legitimized along with anonymous "rendition." Most recently, the Obama administration has claimed the right to shoot American citizens on sight (and without any form of "due process") if it considered them a "terrorist" threat, or aiding and abetting a terrorist war effort. ... [H]istory shows us that the battle to restore the liniments of civil society to a culture that has abandoned them is difficult and often unsuccessful.
Other Reading:
Rania Khalek, AlterNet: "Why Are Police Attacking Peaceful Protesters? How OWS Has Exposed the Militarization of US Law Enforcement"

George Washington's Blog: "The Militarization of American Police – and Shredding of Our Constitutional Rights – Started At Least 30 Years Ago"
"If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."
George Orwell

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Boston Anticks: "Occupy Christmas"

I demand a return to the traditional Christmas of the 18th and 19th centuries - the kind of Christmas that had led the Puritans to suppress and then outlaw the holiday: rowdy public displays brought on by excessive drinking, the mocking of established authority, the invasion of private, wealthy homes, and aggressive forms of begging (to the point of physical harm).

The rest of this post is taken from Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday (pp. 5-11, 38, 42-43, 53-55, 94, and 96-99; published in 1996 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize):
In early modern Europe, roughly the years between 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season was a time to let off steam - and to gorge. ... Animals could not be slaughtered until the weather was cold enough to ensure that the meat would not go bad ... December was also the month when the year's supply of beer or wine was ready to drink. And for farmers, too, this period marked the start of a season of leisure. ...

Excess took many forms. Reveling could easily become rowdiness; lubricated by alcohol, making merry could edge into making trouble. Christmas was a season of "misrule," a time when ordinary behavioral restraints could be violated with impunity. It was part of what one historian has called "the world of carnival." ... Christmas "misrule" meant that not only hunger but also anger and lust could be expressed in public. ... Often people blackened their faces or disguised themselves as animals or cross-dressed, thus operating under a protective cloak of anonymity. ...

Here is how the Reverend Increase Mather of Boston put it in 1687:
The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth...
[Reverand Henry] Bourne singled out two particularly dangerous seasonal practices, mumming and (strange to modern readers) the singing of Christmas carols. Mumming usually involved "a changing of Clothes between Men and Women; who when dressed in each other's habits, go from one Neighbor's house to another ... and make merry with them in disguise." ... As for singing Christmas carols, that practice was a "disgrace," since it was "generally done, in the midst of Rioting and Chambering, and Wantonness." ("Chambering" was a common euphemism for fornication.) It was another Anglican cleric, the sixteenth-century bishop Hugh Latimer, who put the matter most succinctly: "Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides."

The Puritans knew what subsequent generations would forget: that when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the Church paid a high price. ... From the beginning, the Church's hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize. Little wonder that the Puritans were willing to save themselves the trouble.

The Puritans understood another thing, too: Much of the seasonal excess that took place at Christmas was not merely chaotic "disorder" but behavior that took a profoundly ritualized form. Most fundamentally, Christmas was an occasion when the social hierarchy itself was symbolically turned upside down, in a gesture that inverted designated roles of gender, age, and class. During the Christmas season those near the bottom of the social order acted high and mighty. Men might dress like women, and women might dress (and act) like men. Young people might imitate and mock their elders ... A peasant or an apprentice might become "Lord of Misrule" and mimic the authority of a real "gentleman." ...

The most common ritual of social inversion during the Christmas season involved something that is associated with Christmas in our own day - we would call it charity. Prosperous and powerful people were expected to offer the fruits of their harvest bounty to their poorer neighbors and dependents. ... But the modern notion of charity does not really convey a picture of how this transaction worked. For it was usually the poor themselves who initiated the exchange, and it was enacted face-to-face, in rituals that would strike many of us today as an intolerable invasion of privacy. ...

The poor - most often bands of boys and young men - claimed the right to march to the houses of the well-to-do, enter their halls and receive gifts of food, drink, and sometimes money as well. And the rich had to let them in - essentially, to hold "open house." Christmas was a time when peasants, servants, and apprentices exercised the right to demand that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them as if they were wealthy and powerful. ...

It was not enough for the landlord to let the peasants in and feed them. On this one occasion he had to share with them his choicest food and drink, his private stock. ... The historian E.P. Thompson has noted that landed gentlemen could always try to use a generous handout at Christmas as a way of making up for a year's accumulation of small injustices, regaining in the process their tenants' goodwill. In fact, episodes of misrule were widely tolerated by the elite. Some historians argue that role inversions actually functioned as a kind of safety valve that contained class resentments within clearly defined limits ...

Nowhere is the variety of forms in which New Englanders celebrated Christmas, and their occasional intersection or even conflict, better revealed than in the region's major urban center, the town of Boston. ...

Several sources, taken together, make it clear that a tradition of aggressive Christmas mumming (a variety of wassail) was practiced by some of Boston's poorer inhabitants over a period of at least thirty years, beginning no later than the early 1760s and continuing at least into the mid-1790s. These groups called themselves the Anticks, masked troupes who demanded (or forced) entry into the houses of respectable Bostonians at Christmas. Once inside, they engaged in a dramatic "performance" and demanded gifts of money in return.

The first piece of evidence of the existence of the Anticks is sketchy, taking the form of an oral report given to a folklorist late in the nineteenth century by a man whose mother - born in about 1752 - had told it to him. ... The man, Samuel Breck, belonged to a very wealthy family. He was born in 1770 and lived in a mansion in central Boston during the years when the Anticks paid their holiday visits (his recollections presumably date from the years around 1780). Breck recalled the Anticks as "a set of the lowest blackguards" who were "disguised in filthy clothes and ofttimes with masked faces." They "went from house to house in large companies, and bon gre, mal gre, obtruding themselves everywhere, particularly into the rooms that were occupied by parties of ladies and gentlemen." There they "would demean themselves with great insolence." ...

This often went on for half an hour. Breck remembered that even after the men finally left, "the house would be filled with another gang." (Apparently there were multiple bands of Anticks.) Breck concluded by recalling an especially significant cultural point, that the victims of such visitations did not feel entitled to expel the Anticks from their houses: "Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose." ...

As early as 1772, a New York newspaper complained that the absence of "decency, temperance, and sobriety" at Christmas was so serious a matter that it belonged in the courts. The problem was caused by "[t]he assembling of Negroes, servants, boys and other disorderly persons, in noisy companies in the streets, where they spend the time in gaming, drunkenness, quarreling, swearing, etc., to the great disturbance of the neighborhood." The behavior of these rowdies was "so highly scandalous both to religion and civil government, that it is hoped the Magistrates will interpose to suppress the enormity."

By 1820 Christmas misrule had become such an acute social threat that respectable New Yorkers could no longer ignore it or take it lightly. ... [B]ands of roaming young street toughs, members of the emerging urban proletariat, were no longer restricting their seasonal reveling to their own neighborhoods; they had begun to travel freely, and menacingly, wherever they pleased. Often carousing in disguise (a holdover from the old tradition of mumming), these street gangs marauded through the city's wealthy neighborhoods, especially on New Year's Eve, in the form of callithumpian bands, which resembled (and may have overlapped with) the street gangs that were now vying for control of the city's poorer neighborhoods. Throughout the night these bands made as much noise as they could, sometimes stopping deliberately at the houses of the rich and powerful. In 1826, for example, such a gang stopped in front of the Broadway house of the city's mayor; there they "enacted" what a local newspaper termed "a scene of disgraceful rage." ...

In 1828 there occurred an extensive and especially violent callithumpian parade, complete with the standard array of "drums, tin kettles, rattles, horns, whistles, and a variety of other instruments." This parade began along the working-class Bowery, where the band pelted a tavern with lime; then it marched to Broadway, where a fancy upper-class ball was being held at the City Hotel; then to a black neighborhood, stopping at a church where the callithumpians "demolished all the windows, broke the doors [and] seats," and beat with sticks and ropes the African-American congregants who were holding a "watch" service; next, the band headed to the city's main commercial district, where they smashed crates and barrels and looted at least one shop; still unsatisfied, they headed to the Battery (at the southern tip of the city), where they broke the windows of several of the city's wealthiest residences and tried to remove the iron fence that surrounded Battery Park; finally they headed back to Broadway for a second visit. This time a group of hired watchmen were waiting for the callithumpians; but the band stood down the watch force, and, in the words of a local newspaper, "the multitude passed noisily and triumphantly up Broadway."

What are we to make of scenes like these? Once again, E. P. Thompson makes a convincing case that it would be misleading to interpret them either as wholly conscious political protest or as mere revelry that got out of hand, a kind of nineteenth-century frat party. Historians of American cities have agreed with that assessment. One of them puts it like this: "Riotous disorder, racial violence, and jolly foolery for neighbors and audiences existed side by side ... for decades. ... Customary Christmas license combined with seasonal unemployment made the winter holiday a noisy, drunken, threatening period in the eyes of the respectable." ...

[In 1828, there occured in New York a] New Year's Eve parade in which more than a thousand "persons of all ages" marched down "many of the principal streets of the city" committing "outrageous" acts. The mob
moved from one end of the city to the other, making the most hideous noises, committing many excesses, and for several hours in succession, disturbing neighborhoods where they thought proper to become in some measure stationary, to such a degree that sleep and rest, for the sick or for the well, were entirely destroyed. No nocturnal tumult or disturbance that we have ever witnessed, was in any measure equal to this. We understand that wherever the watch offered to interfere for the purpose of preventing mischief; they were either overpowered, or intimidated by numbers, and the mob had undisputed possession of the streets until a very late hour in the night. ...
To read the city's newspapers at mid-century is to encounter upbeat editorials about Christmas shopping and the joyous expectations of children juxtaposed with unsettling reports of holiday drunkenness and rioting. ... On December 26, 1840, a party of German-Americans (they were "engaged in fiddling, dancing, and making night hideous with their discordant din") engaged in a serious street battle with the police in which twenty-five people were arrested. But on the same day, the paper announced that "the holidays are at hand - the merry days to which childhood and youth look forward throughout the year with such anticipation and delight" ...

In 1848 George Templeton Strong was able to note casually that Christmas was "essentially an indoor and domestic festival," but when he took an omnibus to go shopping that same day, he noted that "[t]he driver was drunk and the progress of the vehicle was like that of a hippopotamus." Two years later, with accounts of Santa Claus and Christmas shopping plastered lavishly throughout the pages of the Tribune, gangs of youths were still roaming the streets at Christmas, making trouble wherever they went. By this time the gangs even had names, such as "[t]he Short Boys, Swill Boys, Rock Boys, Old Maid Boys, Holy Ch—s, and other bands of midnight prowlers [who] should have been in state prison long ago." New Year's Eve, 1851-52, was ushered into the city by what the Tribune termed "a Saturnalia of discord, by Callithumpian and Cowbellian bands, by musketry and fire-crackers, by bacchanal songs and noisy revels, which for two hours after midnight made sleep not a thing to be dreamed of." One man was arrested "for entering, uninvited, the house of Philip Herring, during his absence, and insulting his wife." And a group of about 150 men (most of them apparently Irish, and all of them drunk) invaded a fashionable Broadway restaurant and systematically destroyed the furniture, threw food and dishes around the place, and finally (before the police arrived) assaulted the owner, his wife, and their staff. All in all, upwards of one hundred men were arrested that night "for entering residences in which they never were before, and where they knew not a soul, and after eating and drinking without molestation to their hearts' content, maliciously breaking decanters, dishes, scattering the provisions about the premises, and not content with that, in many instances breaking windows, doors, and behaving more like fiends than like men."

At the heart of all this disorder, the Tribune reiterated, was the prevalence of alcohol during the Christmas season: "In the Eleventh Ward an unusual number of men were arrested for drunkenness, creating a mob, exciting a riot, insulting females, and other offenses to which men of low breeding, when intoxicated, are addicted." Such behavior was abetted by certain business establishments; local bars actually served drinks gratis on Christmas Day, in a holdover from the old English custom demanded of innkeepers ... The results, Horace Greeley reported, were obnoxious:
The first flash of morning discovered the liquor shops in full operation, with wassail bowls of smoking punch, and "medicine" of all sorts, free as water. This dangerous and wicked temptation was the means of setting a great many young men and boys in a state of crazy intoxication long before noon. As early as 10 o'clock we saw, in Broadway, between the Park and Broome-st., about a dozen parties of boys, each numbering from four to ten persons, nearly every one grossly drunk, and four fellows, in as many parties, entirely helpless, and being dragged along by neck and heels by their hardly less drunk companions.
What had changed, then, was not that the rowdier ways of celebrating Christmas had disappeared, or even that they had diminished, but that a new kind of holiday celebration, domestic and child-centered, had been fashioned and was now being claimed as the "real" Christmas. The rest of it - public drunkenness and threats or acts of violence, "rough music" - had been redefined as crime, "making night hideous." In part, this was accomplished through institutional means (in 1828 New York introduced a professional police force to replace the private "watch" that had failed to control the previous year's callithumpian riot). And in part it was accomplished through the manipulation of language itself. Henceforth, newspaper stories about Santa Claus would appear under the heading "Christmas," while stories about callithumpian activities would be relegated to the police column. In the terminology of a later age, those activities would be marginalized.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

They Wrote A Book About It, Said It Was Like Ancient Rome

Income inequality in the United States is higher than at any other time in modern history since the Great Depression.

Travis Waldron, Think Progress:
[The U.S. is] now more unequal than countries like Ivory Coast and Pakistan. While those numbers are startling, a study from two historians suggests that American wealth inequality may actually be worse than it was in Ancient Rome - a society built on slave labor, a defined class structure, and centuries of warfare and conquest.
Historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen state that the top 1% of Americans control 40% of the country's wealth. In Rome, when the empire was at its population zenith (around 150 C.E.), that number was approximately 16%.

Income inequality is not only a problem in the U.S. The distance between the ultra-rich and everyone else has increased in 17 of the 22 countries for which the Organisation of Economic Development and Cooperation has long-term data. Those 17 countries include the United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, Israel, Sweden, New Zealand, Mexico, Italy, Japan, Australia, and Canada.

Here are some pie charts and some facts:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 1% saw their incomes rise by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, while the incomes of the bottom 20% of earners grew by only 20 percent.

The total net worth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans is more than that of the bottom 60% of Americans.

The six heirs to the Walmart fortune had the same net worth in 2007 as the bottom 30% of Americans.

The richest 1% of Americans now earn almost 24 percent of the country's income. In 1976, that figure was 9 percent.

As noted above, the U.S.'s income equality is worse than in Pakistan, the Ivory Coast, and Ethiopia. It is roughly on par with Uganda.
And while the situation in Canada is not nearly as dire, it is drifting in the wrong direction.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that the richest 1% of Canadians saw their share of total income increase from slightly more than 8 percent in 1980 to more than 13 percent in 2007. A big reason for that is the top marginal tax rate has dropped from 43% to 29% in that time period.
Recent census data shows nearly 50% of all Americans are either living in poverty or classified as "low income" (defined as less than $45,000 annual earnings for a family of four). The U.S. poverty threshold in 2009 for a single person under 65 years of age was $11,161; the threshold for a family of four (two adults, two children) was $21,756. In 2010, the U.S.'s poverty rate rose to 15.1%.

If two parents work 40 hours week for 52 weeks and earn minimum wage ($7.25/hour), they would bring home approximately $27,500. Even if three of the four family members worked full-time at minimum wage, they would not crack the "low income" threshold, coming in at only $41,350. If both parents earned $12/hour, the family would still be "low income" ($43,264).

Many families who you and I would consider poor - $55,000 for a family of four, for example - are "too rich" to qualify for numerous U.S. tax credits and social programs. As the number of poor people rises, I await Barack Obama's (or his successor's) lowering of the poverty line, which would magically mean a much lower number of poor people. It worked for Ronald Reagan. Prosperity! Yay!

(Speaking of Reagan, during his two terms, he lowered the tax rate for the top 1% of income earners by 14.4% and raised the tax burden of the lowest 25% of workers by 16.1%. The U.S.'s current transformation into a third-world country began with Reagan and accelerated under Bill Clinton's administrations.)

Associated Press:
Mayors in 29 cities say more than 1 in 4 people needing emergency food assistance did not receive it. Many middle-class Americans are dropping below the low-income threshold ... because of pay cuts, a forced reduction of work hours or a spouse losing a job. Housing and child-care costs are consuming up to half of a family's income.
Think Progress, December 20, 2011:
The Occupy Wall Street movement has put America's staggering wealth gap front and center in the national debate. Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281 percent while middle class wages stagnated. The top 1 percent controls roughly 40 percent of the nation's wealth. At the very top of the income scale, the 400 richest Americans have seen their share of income quadruple in the last 12 years, while their effective tax rates were halved.
In the 2010-11 school year, more than 31,000 homeless students attended school in Michigan - a 37% increase over the previous year. According to Jeff Seidel, an investigative reporter for the Detroit Free Press:
Overall, the number of homeless students in Michigan has jumped more than 300% in the last four years. Most experts say those numbers are low because many parents are embarrassed to admit they are homeless. And many school districts lack the resources to identify these kids, as required by federal law.

Advocates say there's also a disincentive to find homeless children. Once a district finds them, it has to pay to transport them to school and provide other services - a tough job for many cash-strapped districts.
In other Michigan news, Governor Rick Snyder on Monday signed into law bills lowering unemployment insurance and worker's compensation benefits - and regulations making it harder for workers to qualify for those ever-meager benefits.
Finally, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, on the people of Occupy Wall Street:
Who gives a crap about some imbecile? Are you kidding me?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Not From Concentrate

Nicholas Carr:
I'd sit down with a book, or a long article, and after a couple of pages my brain wanted to do what it does when I'm online: check e-mail, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page.
Carr's inability to concentrate led him to do some research and his subsequent article in The Atlantic - "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" - was expanded into a book: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr's problems resonated strongly with me, as my own battles to focus have grown worse in recent years. Near the beginning of The Shallows, he writes:
I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Two of Carr's friends admit to similar troubles. Bruce Friedman says his thinking has taken on a "staccato" quality:
I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print. I can't read War and Peace anymore. I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.
Scott Karp was a lit major and a voracious reader in college, but he confesses that he has stopped reading books of any kind:
What happened? What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read had changed, i.e., I'm just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?
Carr believes that the Internet has changed the way we read and process information. He cites studies that show the constant (and seemingly natural) interruptions of being online - of checking email, of doing a web search, clicking from hyperlink to hyperlink - has actually led to a re-wiring of our brains, making it maddeningly hard to, for example, lose ourselves in a book.

Recently, I was sitting outside with the dogs. It was a sunny day, and I had several hours of free time. I took a book outside, set up a chair on the patio and began reading. But every quarter-page or so, I would stop reading and look around the yard. I could not concentrate for an extended period of time. I had to actively resist getting up and going back inside to my desk/computer. There was no reason to do so; I wasn't waiting for any mail. And when I was reading, my eyes were often trying to skip ahead to the next paragraph. [This is in addition to my general fatigue when reading, the almost immediate watery eyes and long strings of yawns. But that is other subject for another day.]
Carr, to NPR:
Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are ... very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning ... the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.
And presumably, that means we get worse at concentrating. The Shallows cites studies indicating that online reading yields lower comprehension than reading from a printed page.

Carr argues that as we hop from webpage to webpage, we lose our ability to employ a "slower, more contemplative mode of thought".

Chapter Four of The Shallows is both a short (but extraordinary) history, and a love letter to the act, of reading. Carr notes that developing the mental discipline to concentrate intently on a book was not easy.
The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible. ... Our fast-paced, reflexive skills in focus were once crucial to our survival. ...

To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought ... [Readers] had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus sip from one sensory cue to another. ... "The ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted," writes Vaughan Bell, a research psychologist at King's College London, represents a "strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development."
If the internet is returning us to our "natural state of distractedness"*, if prolonged, solitary thought - the act of "deep reading" - is merely an odd behavioural blip on the evolutionary timeline, then why is our inability to read more than two pages in a book so alarming? If the brain can forge new connections and adapt to new circumstances nearly on instantaneously - and the examples Carr gives of this are fascinating - is it simply a matter of retraining our brains to concentrate? Or does the ubiquity of computers in our life now make that an unconquerable hurdle?

* - A 2009 article in Discover magazine reported that the average mind wanders roughly 13% of the time, "which would be a substantial failure of control if not necessary".

I look forward to seeing if and how Carr answers these questions.

The distractions of the modern age are a popular topic. In addition to Carr's book, I have seen references to Maggie Jackson's Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2008) and Winifred Gallagher's Rapt: Attention of the Focused Life (2009).

And there must be a connection between these ideas/thoughts/books and David Foster Wallace's theme of boredom and the hard and constant work involved in paying attention, which I hope to see more clearly as I read on.

Canada-US Border Deal A Threat To Rights And Freedoms

The "Beyond the Border Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan" agreement between Canada and the United States for 2012 means that Canada will adopt the draconian (and often unconstitutional) Bush-Obama positions on privacy, security, immigration, and surveillance.

For the first time in its history, the Canadian government will track each time anyone leaves or enters the country. In addition, all airlines will be obligated to divulge personal information on anyone flying out of a Canadian airport - regardless of destination - to Canadian authorities, and the US can receive this information simply by asking for it.

One of the stated goals of the agreements (which were announced on December 7) is to reduce traveler delays at the border. But the increased security measures will likely result in longer waits and harassment, especially for immigrants, refugees and racialized groups. The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations has denounced the legislation for its failure to protect civil liberties.

Changes to border infrastructure will cost at least $200 million annually. What will move faster across the border is corporate trade. The border deal is not about surrendering Canadian sovereignty to the US, but enhancing the joint ability of both the Canadian and the US state to crack down on the civil liberties of citizens, immigrants and refugees, while promoting the flow of capital. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives enthusiastically supports the legislation for its "impressive range of practical, targeted measures" - which target people, not corporations.

As Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow noted, "the business community was the only sector at the table with government and guided the process from the beginning". Groups concerned about health and safety, security and privacy issues, labour rights, and environmental protection were not consulted.

(Socialist Worker Canada)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mission Accomplished Jr.

Different president, same bullshit.

George W. Bush, May 1, 2003:
Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. ... [T]he tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free. ... America is grateful for a job well done.
Barack Obama, December 14, 2011:
I've come to speak to you about the end of the war in Iraq. Over the last few months the final work of leaving Iraq has been done. ... [O]ver the next few days a small group of American soldiers will begin the final march out of that country. ... America's war in Iraq will be over. ... So today, as we mark the end of the war ... [T]he United States military is the most respected institution in our land ... [Y]ou, the 9/11 Generation, have earned your place in history.
Is the U.S.'s murderous occupation of Iraq and the emotional and physical torture of its people actually over?




Monday, December 12, 2011

2014 Afghanistan Deadline "Not Absolute"

In perhaps the least surprising news story of 2011, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker, said that U.S. troops would stay in that country beyond the White House's 2014 withdrawal deadline if the Afghan government asked them to.

U.S. embassy spokeswoman Eileen O'Connor said Crocker's comment was consistent with President Barack Obama's previous statements. "[T]he possibility of some troops still being here post-2014 is not a change in policy." However, Crocker's comments on December 10 referred to combat troops, a topic Obama has not previously acknowledged.

Crocker said 10,000 troops would be pulled out by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 by September 2012. However, that simply reduces the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan back down to the number before Obama's 2009 "surge". Crocker said that beyond 2012, "there are no decisions. I don't know what we're going to be doing in 2014."

The reduced number of troops has no effect on the ever-growing shadow army of military contractors. In August 2010, the Department of Defense stated there were roughly 112,000 contractors in Afghanistan. That number has likely increased in the last year.

In Canada, Steven Harper recently pledged $100 million of taxpayer money to Afghanistan each year for the next three years. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird could not say how much money would be sent to Afghanistan after 2014.

Canadian forces also view the 2014 deadline as written in pencil. Col. Peter Dawe, deputy commander of the Canadian contribution to the NATO training mission, told Postmedia News in August 2011, "You can't view 2014 as an absolute deadline."

Friday, December 09, 2011

US Air Force Admits Tossing Remains Of Dead Soliders In Garbage

Washington Post, December 7, 2011:
The Air Force dumped the incinerated partial remains of at least 274 American troops in a Virginia landfill ... before halting the secretive practice three years ago, records show.

The landfill dumping was concealed from families who had authorized the military to dispose of the remains in a dignified and respectful manner, Air Force officials said. ...

The Air Force had maintained that it could not estimate how many troops might have had their remains sent to a landfill [claiming it would take too much time and effort]. ...

The landfill disposals were never formally authorized under military policies or regulations. They also were not disclosed to senior Pentagon officials who conducted a high-level review of cremation policies at the Dover mortuary in 2008 ...

Senior Air Force leaders said there was no intent to deceive. "Absolutely not," said Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. ...

The total number of incinerated fragments dumped in the landfill exceeded 2,700.
I'd call the Air Force officials little more than pieces of shit, but that would disrespect shit, which can be used as fertilizer to help living things grow. I assume that the conservatives who cannot abide any criticism of the US military support the landfill burials, right? What's the saying - if you don't stand behind the military, then go stand in front of them?

Back in April 2008, current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said the US should allow a terrorist attack to happen every so often to remind the American people how important the government's security measures are.
It's almost like they should every once in a while have allowed an attack to get through just to remind us - I mean, think about, think about, think about the psychology.
And the crowd laughs.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Little Richard - 1966 - Paris

Pure sexual energy and some ferocious rock and roll - from one of the original masters. A revelation.

Willard (one of my favourite music bloggers) posted some studio material from 1957 and 1958 awhile back, subtitling it (wonderfully, and accurately) "So Much Rock, God Was Forced To Step In". The albums are
Little Richard's remarkable debut rock 'n' roll LPs, Here's Little Richard and Little Richard, practically greatest hits albums on their own. Recorded in 1957/58 for Specialty Records, just before Richard Penniman gave up rock 'n' roll to preach and sing the gospel around 1958. This music isn't the stripped down stuff that Elvis was exploring at the same time. Richard's madness was a direct out-growth of late 40s/early 50s group R&B, as evidenced by the full band's horn arrangements. Richard's voice, jamming needles into the red whenever he charges into the choruses, was clearly too much for 50s studio microphones. His screaming flamboyance was too much for TV & Top 40 radio, too. And to think 50s parents were afraid of Elvis. There are some non-essentials here, but Little Richard could turn any nonsense – from "A-Wop-Bop-A-Loo-Bop-A-Lop-Bam-Boom" to the old-timey "Baby Face" - into something unique. It was all so rockin' and so decadent that God himself was forced to step in and handle matters. After a lengthy, soul-searching stint with evangelicalism, Penniman would eventually come back to the dark side in the early 60s... but these albums are where the devil got his due.

Monday, December 05, 2011

touching the third rail - the beginnings of a second civil war?

Down in the land of the free and the home of the brave, there is some scary shit going on.

Not the five (or six? or seven?) countries the United States is currently bombing - or the 120 countries in which it is conducting military operations.

Not the more than $8,000,000,000,000 the government has happily stuffed into the already bulging wallets of the nation's bankers, whose illegal business practices will lead to the repossession of more than 6 million homes by 2013.

This something that would effectively destroy even the lingering pretense that the United States is a democratic country.

The US Senate will cast a final vote this week on a bill that, if passed, would designate the entire nation (including your back yard) as a "battlefield" in the War of Terror™ and grant the president the unquestioned power to use the military to detain indefinitely anyone he chooses - without evidence, without charge, and without trial. In an initial vote, the Senate supported the bill 93-7.

The National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1867) was drafted by both parties and passed in secret, without any public debate. The bill would necessitate the need for permanent concentration camps, like the ones in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (A collection of news articles and discussion is here.)

Barack Obama has said he will veto the bill if it passes, but I have my doubts. Since taking office, Obama has "affirmed, continued and expanded almost all of the draconian domestic civil liberties intrusions pioneered under the Bush administration" – while casually authorizing the murder of American citizens. And being awarded - and accepting - the Nobel Peace Prize, of course.

Why is the government doing this? One reason is the Occupy movement.

This anti-capitalism movement has been articulate, despite media reports to the contrary, listing its concerns in a way that nearly all Americans can understand. The powers that be know that ignoring the movement and allow it to grow would invite a host of problems. The movement may wane in parts of the country during the winter months, but it will likely roar back to life in the spring. Writer Ted Rall says "2012 is shaping up to be our Year of Revolution."
Naomi Wolf, the author of The End of America (a short book; essential reading) recently recounted a number of assaults by police against the Occupy movement and came to a conclusion that echoes what I have been thinking. The Occupy movement, the crackdowns against it, and S. 1867 could be the opening salvos in a second US Civil War.
US citizens of all political persuasions are still reeling from images of unparallelled police brutality in a coordinated crackdown against peaceful OWS protesters in cities across the nation this past week. An elderly woman was pepper-sprayed in the face; the scene of unresisting, supine students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed by phalanxes of riot police went viral online; images proliferated of young women – targeted seemingly for their gender – screaming, dragged by the hair by police in riot gear; and the pictures of a young man, stunned and bleeding profusely from the head, emerged in the record of the middle-of-the-night clearing of Zuccotti Park.

But just when Americans thought we had the picture – was this crazy police and mayoral overkill, on a municipal level, in many different cities? – the picture darkened. The National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a Freedom of Information Act request to investigate possible federal involvement with law enforcement practices that appeared to target journalists. The New York Times reported that "New York cops have arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground and tossed a barrier at reporters and photographers" covering protests. Reporters were asked by NYPD to raise their hands to prove they had credentials: when many dutifully did so, they were taken, upon threat of arrest, away from the story they were covering, and penned far from the site in which the news was unfolding. Other reporters wearing press passes were arrested and roughed up by cops, after being – falsely – informed by police that "It is illegal to take pictures on the sidewalk." ...

[T]he Mayor of Oakland acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security had participated in an 18-city mayor conference call advising mayors on "how to suppress" Occupy protests. ...

Why this massive mobilization against these not-yet-fully-articulated, unarmed, inchoate people? After all, protesters against the war in Iraq, Tea Party rallies and others have all proceeded without this coordinated crackdown. ... I was still deeply puzzled as to why OWS, this hapless, hopeful band, would call out a violent federal response.

That is, until I found out what it was that OWS actually wanted. ...

So, when you connect the dots, properly understood, what happened this week is the first battle in a civil war; a civil war in which, for now, only one side is choosing violence. It is a battle in which members of Congress, with the collusion of the American president, sent violent, organized suppression against the people they are supposed to represent. Occupy has touched the third rail: personal congressional profits streams. Even though they are, as yet, unaware of what the implications of their movement are, those threatened by the stirrings of their dreams of reform are not.

Sadly, Americans this week have come one step closer to being true brothers and sisters of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like them, our own national leaders, who likely see their own personal wealth under threat from transparency and reform, are now making war upon us.
The political and corporate class is taking no chances, and is attempting to pass legislation under the guise of fighting terrorism - but can also be used against any political movement that threatens the status quo.

Some people have insisted the bill would not apply to Americans, but John McCain was quite clear that it applies to anyone: "An individual, no matter who they are, if they pose a threat to the security of the United States of America, should not be allowed to continue that threat."

The bill, if passed, would allow the president to detain such persons indefinitely without trial, or try them before a military court, or transfer them "to the custody or control of the person's country of origin, any other foreign country, or any other foreign entity".

Please note that last "or" clause. My reading of that - and Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive, agrees - is that any American citizen could be taken into custody from anywhere in the United Battlefield of America and transferred to any foreign entity in the world, presumably to be "disappeared".

The system is crumbling and the owners of that system are doing whatever they can to keep it standing as long as possible. But, as William I. Robinson writes that:
the immense structural inequalities of the global political economy can no longer be contained through consensual mechanisms of social control. The ruling classes have lost legitimacy; we are witnessing a breakdown of ruling-class hegemony on a world scale.
And things are going to get much, much worse before they get better.

Chris Hedges reports that the Arab Spring uprisings had a lot to do with increased food prices. Wheat prices had risen 100% over an eight-month period, making it next to impossible for Egyptians to feed their families. That same concern could spark more unrest in the US in 2012. On the day before thanksgiving, the Financial Times reported that more than 40% of food producers plan on increasing prices in the next few months. A week before that, it was reported that 100 million Americans - one-third of the country - is considered poor or near poor. If there is not already an agreed-upon definition of "third world country", that level of poverty, while the net worth of the richest citizens is skyrocketing - might serve as one.

Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, has studied the collapse of societies once thought to be indestructible. In 2005 he wrote:
I drive by gated communities guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the rioters out.
Ted Rall, on the US's "Fuck You System of Government":
Governments are supposed to fulfill the basic needs of their citizens. Ours doesn't pretend to try.

Sick? Too bad.

Can’t find a job? Tough.

Broke? Can't afford rent? We don't give a crap.

Forget "e pluribus unum." We need a more accurate motto.

We live under a f— you system.

Got a problem? The U.S. government has an all-purpose response to whatever ails you: f— you. ...

Doctors [have] noted a new phenomenon called "Zuccotti cough." Symptoms are similar to those of "Ground Zero cough" suffered by 9/11 first responders.

Zuccotti is 450 feet away from Ground Zero.

Which brings to mind the fact that the collapse of the World Trade Center towers released 400 tons of asbestos into the air. It was never cleaned up properly. Could Occupiers be suffering the results of sleeping in a should-have-been-Superfund site for two months?

We'll never know. As under Bush, Obama's EPA still won't conduct a 9/11 environmental impact study.

Sick? Wanna know why? F— you. ...

When people who lost their homes because their government said "f— you" to them rather than help turn to the same government to look for safe shelter, again they are told: "f— you."

And then, after days and years and decades of shirking their responsibility ... our "f— you" government has the amazing audacity to blame us, victims of their negligence and corruption and violence, for messing things up.

Which is why we are finally, at long last, starting to say "f— you" to them.
Frank Luntz, a leading GOP Strategist:
I'm so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death. They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.

Friday, December 02, 2011

fighting perfectionism and turning off kfkd

[B]ooks are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life – wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded ...

Anne Lamott says Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life contains "almost every single thing I know about writing". Some snippets from the book (her stuff is indented):
[How do you do it?] You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. ...

It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started. ... One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do - you can either type or kill yourself." ...

E.L. Doctorow: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard. ...

[T]hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." ...

I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph ...

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.

Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness ... Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles ... Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it's going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
Thinking that you have to write an entire book can be a paralyzing thought. While writing 1918, I often felt like I had to write it all out in finished form. Which, of course, is completely impossible – and was guaranteed to make me feel like crap when it didn't happen.

In On Writing, Stephen King recalls being asked, "How do you write?" He answers, "One word at a time." He wasn't being a smart-ass. That is literally how it's done. It's a variation on the saying, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." There is that first step. And then a second step. And a third step. You cannot take 40 steps at once and get to your destination quicker. There are no shortcuts. Left foot, right foot, left foot ... One thought, one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page. Do that, over and over – write enough words, take enough steps – and you will reach your destination.

The curse of perfectionism: somewhere in the back corner of your brain, you know how you want the sentence to read. (I have had dreams where I was writing entire articles or reading a finished article. More than a few times they were what I was currently working on. However, once awake, I had no idea what the dream article said.) But I felt that it was in my head somewhere and so it must be possible to get it out. I don't think I believe that anymore.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. The third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy. ... Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can't – and, in fact, you're not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.
For some of us, three drafts is what it takes even before we show it to someone. Then we get some feedback and push ourselves through another draft or three. King also implied that three drafts is the standard amount, though obviously, there is no set number. David Foster Wallace was a "five draft man" – his first hand-written draft, two hand-written rewrites, and two more typed drafts.

Perfectionism goes hand in hand with what Lamott calls "shitty first drafts" (she meant it as a good thing in the quote, above). Getting something down on paper should make you feel good, but, for me, it often reinforces whatever negative feelings I have of not being able to write. My first draft of anything more extensive than addressing an envelope is a mess. Half-finished, simplistic sentences – which "proves" to me that I have no business calling myself a writer, and I should quit now before I waste any more time.

But I have finally learned to tell myself – okay, this is the part where I type a bunch of crap. No one will see it and the second run-through will be immeasurably better – because there is likely a germ or grain of something worthwhile in there, some phrase or sentence that can be built upon. Or I realize the draft is not really writing at all, it's more like evidence of thinking.
If you are not careful, station KFKD [K-Fucked] will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.

The best way to get quiet, other than the combination of extensive therapy, Prozac, and a lobotomy, is first to notice that the station is on. KFKD is on every single morning when I sit down at my desk. So I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer - please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to he written. Sometimes ritual quiets the racket. Try it. Any number of things may work for you ... Rituals are a good signal to your unconscious that it is time to kick in.
It is very comforting to know that these feelings are universal. Every book on writing addresses them in some way. Now I have to go re-read Art & Fear.