Tuesday, February 28, 2006


The latest CBS News poll shows that Bush's approval rating among American voters has sunk to a new all-time low of 34 percent. His numbers rebounded a little after the first of the year, but have dropped eight points since February first.

The Dubai Ports deal is the immediate cause of this sudden plunge in Bush's numbers, but the continuing Katrina clusterfuck and the Iraq War news have hurt him as well. The CBS poll shows that now only 30 percent of us approve of the way Bush is handling the war.

Ana Nicole Smith is now more popular than Bush.

The dictator's response to his sinking fortunes, as Joe Klein comments in Time Magazine, is to remain stuck on stupid, repeating the exact same talking points and mindless assertions that got him where he is, like a parrot with a small vocabulary.

The president, Klein reports "has spent most of the past few weeks traveling the country, selling the vaporous 'policies' he proposed in his State of the Union address...three days after the terrorist attack on Iraq's Golden Mosque, Bush gave another of his 'freedom's on the march in the Middle East' speeches to a subdued American Legion audience in Washington."

In the meantime, Cheney's approval rating, according to the same poll, is now 18 percent, or slightly less popular than Herpes Simplex Virus II.

The leaky vessel of the second neocon administration simply sails on, however, seemingly unaware of its own misfortune -- and ours. As the inimitable James Wolcott observes, "Bush is on Fox News delivering a speech in Indiana, looking jaunty and relaxed, repeating soundbites such as 'As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down' and working that Determined Jaw as if he were personally going to grind terrorists between his back molars. He has to repeat himself ad nauseum because if he paused to reflect on the harm he's done and the horror he's unleashed he'd collapse like a paper cup crushed beneath a boot."

Saturday, February 25, 2006


This space is usually devoted to blogs reviews, but I don't know whether Banksy's site could be considered a blog or not. This cutting-edge (no pun intended) stencil artist who singlehandedly changed the look and technique of the international graffiti movement is certainly a commentator, and he's found a high-impact, high-profile way to spread his exuberantly subversive message about all things political and social.

Imagine an adult leopard, stalking angrily away from the cage he has just escaped. A second look at the cage reveals that it's actually a giant IPC (international pricing code) on wheels, with half a dozen bars bent open far enough to provide the getaway. The free and independent spirit escapes the confines of McWorld and the spiritual prison of global capitalism/militarism. And all this is conveyed with an apparently simple (but appearances can be deceiving) cut stencil.

Even with his fame and a string of books, the public still doesn't know the Bristol, U.K.'s native's real name, despite its familiarity with his sophisticated technique and politically aggressive style.

In 1999 his spray-paint and stencil work began appearing on London walls and supplanting the freestyle work that had always been the graffiti artists' exclusive method. Thanks to his extensive travels during which his work has showed up on urban walls spread over several continents, Banksy is now internationally recognized as a consummate and serious technician as well as a political gadfly.

This is no unschooled wall dauber. A careful look at images like his life-size rendition of Two Bobbies (male and female) Kissing reveals a flawless and careful mastery of the pictorial medium, probably bolstered with no negligible amount of formal education and training.

The driving force of Banksy's work is often generated by his incorporation of conflicting and disharmonious elements, as with the stenciled, black-and-white figure of the masked urban terrorist poised to throw a bouquet of carefully hand-painted wildflowers, which serves as the front page of the artist's website.

He doesn't limit himself to outdoor public graffiti, however. He's also an exhibiting studio artist and inveterate prankster. His easel paintings feature the same jarring, contradictory content as some of his best stencil graffiti, making him seem like Thomas Kincaid wielding a straight razor. One canvas, for example, shows an immaculately rendered tranquil woodland pastorale with a buccolic footpath, beside it an ominous aluminum tower topped with four security cameras. Some of these pictures have shown up in the world's most prestigious museums -- sneaked in by the artist and mounted to the wall with adhesive. London's Tate Museum, the Louvre, and New York's Museum of Modern Art have all been unappreciative recipients of Banksy's art, as was New York's Metropolitan Museum where curators were surprised to discover they'd been selected by the outlaw artist to receive his gold-framed portrait of a woman wearing a gas mask.

Banksy's street work remains his most dynamic and politically relevant work, however. His pictures on the segregation wall dividing Israel from the Palestinian territories, which combine stenciling with paintings of beautiful landscapes seen through trompe l'oiel holes and windows, are among his best, and his ubiquitous London rats, such as those clambering over an official sign reading "Warning: Anti-Climb Paint" combine artistic sophistication with good-humored anti-authoritarianism.

Despite his prodigious abiities, Banksy doesn't take himself all that seriously. When an admirer mused that his rat motif was really clever because "rat" is an anagram of "art," Banksy mused, "I had to pretend I'd known that for three years."

Fortune and celebrity mean nothing to him. "The time of getting fame for your name on its own is over," he truculently declares, adding, "Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a by-product of making something that means something. You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit."

All of the images discussed in this piece can be viewed at Banksy's website.

His books include "Wall and Piece," "Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall," "Existencilism," and "Cut It Out." All are available at Amazon.com.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

History of the Peace Sign

It's known and immediately recognized all over the world. Little kids are as familiar with it as they are with the red heart -- the universal symbol for "love," and draw both in the margins of their schoolwork. So it's surprising to realize that the beloved "peace" symbol, still sometimes known in Great Britain by its original name, "the CND logo," is less than fifty years old.

In 1958, as the anti-war, anti-nuclear movement was gathering momentum in England, the Direct Action Committee to End Nuclear War, one of several smaller groups that coalesced to form the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, was looking for a symbol or slogan it could use to encapsulate the movement's message in a planned Easter weekend march and rally. Working independently, Gerald Holtom, a pacifist activist, professional designer, and a graduate of the Royal College of Arts designed the symbol and showed it to a few people in the office of the newspaper "Peace News."

To many, Holtom's peace sign looks like a sweptwing bomber seen from above. But the artist wanted a symbol that would incorporate the letters N(uclear) and D(isarmament), combined with a symbol of despair.

Holtom said at the time, "I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it." (Actually, in the painting Holtman references, "The Third of May, 1808," the man's hands are stretched upward, not downward, but the artist's mind's eye reversed the gesture.)

From the offices of "Peace News" the symbol was introduced to the Direct Action Committee, which produced five hundred large stick-mounted lollipops of it. When marchers carried these in the CND pilgrimage from London to Aldermaston, where nuclear weapons were and still are fabricated, it was the first public appearance of the "peace" sign, and appropriately an integral part of the first mass march and rally against nuclear proliferation.

Shortly after the Aldermaston march, the first buttons were produced by Eric Austin of the Kensington CND. He made these of white ceramic, with the symbol printed in black, and distributed them with a note explaining that in the event of nuclear holocaust, the CND badges would be one of the few surviving human artifacts.

The "peace" sign crossed the Atlantic to the U.S. within a few weeks, carried by Martin Luther King's associate Bayard Rustin, who had participated in the Aldermaston march. Some of King's followers began wearing it, and by the early sixties it was frequently seen in the form of lapel buttons at leftist rallies and demonstrations in places like San Francisco and Greenwich Village, where its meaning quickly broadened from the specific plea for nuclear disarmament to the more general sentiment of promoting world peace.

Knowledge and use of the symbol spread very quickly. Many G.I.'s even painted it on their helmets during the Vietnam War. Today there is scarcely an urban dweller in the world over the age of five who would fail to recognize this universal and beloved sign which encapsulates the human longing for an end to war, and the establishment of the permanent regime of peace.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Slippery Slope

Americans seem to be blissfully unaware of how precarious our oil and gasoline supplies are, especially considering that our economic well-being depends on political stability in countries like Nigeria, or the forbearance of foreign leaders who essentially don't like us, such as Hugo Chavez, or the maintenance of a friendly regime in Saudi Arabia.

Today the price of crude oil, which had been hovering in the mid-to-high fifty dollar range for the past month or so, spiked up to over $61 a barrel, mainly due to guerilla attacks on production facilities in Nigeria which have caused a ten percent drop in output.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, one of those rag-tag private armies for which West Africa is famous, earlier this week attacked a Royal Dutch Shell pumping station, forcing evacuation of its 330 workers.

MEND, along with another shadowy militia, the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, said they are fighting to give the local Ijaw people a greater share of oil revenues and vowed "to stop the capacity of Nigeria to export oil."

Foreign pressure on the Nigerian government to deal with these soldiers (or bandits) is mounting, since they're demanding $1.5 billion from Shell oil, supposedly as compensation for pollution in the Niger Delta.

It's this local African shakedown which is causing upward pressure on world petroleum prices. Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at Alaron Trading in Chicago explains, "The constant political upheavals in oil-producing countries continue to overshadow the current state of abundant supply. The line between oversupply and under-supply has never been thinner. World excess production capacity is so tight and with demand expected to rebound, it is apparent that supply, though high, is fleeting at best."

We've been lucky this winter, but our luck is going to run out sooner or later, especially considering that our supply of the life's blood of our energy-dependent society depends on the political situation in unstable places like Nigeria, and the maintenance of friendly rulers in places which are hostile to us such as Saudi Arabia.

What are the chances that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez will become so annoyed with the whining of Condoleeza Rice that he'll embargo oil shipments to the U.S. and go looking for other customers, and find them?

We're walking the razor's edge with regard to our oil supply. The razor is tilted uphill and it's greasy to boot.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Root of All Evil

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imaginations?
...Moloch whose blood is running money!
--Alan Ginsburg, "Howl"

On February 19, CBS became the second major broadcast network to air a bleak and alarming in-depth report on the consequences of global warming, and the undeniable human agency in this disastrous phenomenon. Traveling to the arctic to look at disappearing glaciers and endangered polar bears, "60 Minutes" reporter Scott Pelley also interviewed several leading climatologists who drew inescapable conclusions concerning the culpability of the current American lifestyle in the unfolding crisis.

Standing on an iceberg that used to be a glacier, Pelley interviewed the University of Maine's Paul Mayewski, who said his research "has proven that the ice and the atmosphere have man's fingerprints all over them."

Noting that the world hasn't seen seen temperature increases at the present level for at least 2,000 years, and probably several thousand years longer than that, Mayewski identified the heating agent as carbon dioxide, adding "we haven't seen CO2 levels like this in hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions of years."

"It all points to something that has changed and something that has impacted the system which wasn't doing it more than 100 years ago. And we know exactly what it is. It's human activity," he said.

"It's activity like burning fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases," Pelley added, noting almost as an afterhought, "The U.S. is by far the largest polluter."

What the otherwise excellent "60 Minutes" segment didn't identify was those specific activities this "largest polluter" engages in to produce such disastrous amounts of CO2. It would be easy to name ten or a dozen without much effort, but the worst offender is the endless building of new suburbs.

James Kunstler introduces his article "Atlanta: Does Edge City Have a Future?" with a quote from an Atlanta-area real estate developer: "They ran the environmental people out of here a long time ago. You've got no trees. You've got no streams. You've got no mountains. It's a developer's paradise."

You could say the same for the entire country, whose only prospering industry at the moment is constructing and financing ever newer, ever larger, ever more far-flung suburbs and exurbs, so that suburb dwellers -- who now account for more than half the population -- can drive ever greater distances to work, to drop the kids off at school, to shuttle over to Wal-Mart, to Winn-Dixie, to pick the kids up from school and drive them to soccer practice, and on and on.

In other words, the United States today is doing nothing to alleviate the global warming crisis. On the contrary, through both habit and policy, we're doing everything we can to make the situation worse.

It isn't just Atlanta, although that city is the worst offender, having added over 700 square miles of urban sprawl in the 20 years between 1970 and 1990 (the latest census year for which complete urban expansion data is available) and having shown no sign of slowing in the 16 years since. Los Angeles and San Diego are both among the top eleven offenders for the same period, resulting in the spread of a monster megalopolis of freeways, gas stations, strip malls, subdivisions, fry pits, muffler shops, and Starbucks that stretches along the Pacific coast from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. Even older, long-established cities such as Philadelphia (fifth on the list) are not immune to this plague, and you would have to look to West Africa to find an uglier, more offensive urban disaster than Phoenix, Arizona.

Government policy aids and abets rather than discourages this catastrophe in the making, since our land use and energy policies are not set by the office holders ostensibly guiding our destiny, but by the capitalist high rollers and their lobbying organizations that grease the skids and pay the bills. Whether it's the powerful National Association of Realtors buttonholing your local district representative to pressure the city council back home to grant the permit for that new subdivision, or the czars of the petroleum and electrical power industries sitting secretly in convocation with Vice-President Cheny in 2001, writing the self-interested, carbon-rich legislation that Congress would later supinely approve, we have no recourse in the halls of government when it comes to changing the course of global warming.

But it's not just structural corruption at the heart of this problem. Very few Americans, from the current occupant of the White House to the humble CPA paying the mortgage on a tract unit in Bumfuk, Georgia, 38 miles outside Atlanta and driving the freeway-cum-parking lot to work every day in his Ford Expedition, want to think about what we're doing to the world we live on. Last year Bush was visited in the Oval Office by Michael Crichton, whose 2004 book "State of Fear" maintains that global warming is "just a theory" and an overstated threat. The author, who is smart enough and educated enough to know better, left the President comfortable with his doubts about this global warmin' thing. Like most of us, Bush believes what he wishes were true and thinks it's true if he believes it.

We'll have to take matters into our own hands. Our only way out of this mess is for us, on our own volition, to change the way we're living, and I have no doubt we will. The only question is whether we'll do so by choice or out of necessity.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Let's Barbecue Mom

On its February 18 edition of "World News Tonight," ABC ran one of the best ever mainstream media reports on the pace and effects of global warming.

Using effective computer graphics and a simple, jargon-free approach to the facts, reporter Bill Blakemore explained the workings of climatic "feedback loops," i.e., the process by which the warming of the atmosphere and oceans has accelerated and gathered irresistable momentum.

In a feeback loop, the rising temperature on the Earth changes the environment in ways that then create even more heat. Scientists consider feedback loops the single biggest threat to civilization from global warming.

Past a certain point — the tipping point, they say — there may be no stopping the changes.

Scientists working in the Arctic report that feedback loops are already underway. As the frozen sea surface of the Arctic Ocean melts back, there's less white to reflect the sun's heat back into space — and more dark open water to absorb that heat, which then melts the floating sea ice even faster. More than a third of summer sea ice disappeared in the past 30 years.

The biggest culprit in this scenario, of course, is fossil fuels consumption, and the biggest consumer of fossil fuels by far is the United States, weighing in with over 20 million barrels of oil products burned each day, or more than a billion barrels every fifty days. That's a quarter of the world's total fossil fuels consumption.

Although The U.S. population is only five percent of the world's total, we manage to produce 22 percent of the greenhouse gases that are now roasting our mother earth to death as well as producing secondary effects like the 2004-05 hurricane season. How do we do it? On average, one American consumes as much energy as 2 Japanese, 6 Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, 307 Tanzanians, or 370 Ethiopians (1995 U.S. Statistical Abstract, p. 868).

Saving the earth, keeping it livable, is going to require massive changes in the world's consumption and living habits, and nowhere is immediate wholesale change a more urgent necessity than in the U.S. Are the government and people of this country up to the challenge?

Not a chance.

The big question, of course, is why? We've known about these problems, and about the looming cheap oil crunch for decades. What's behind our seeming inability to make even the simplest, essentially painless changes, such as demanding smaller vehicles with dramatically better gas mileage, which would stave off the most disastrous aspects of the scenario now at hand.

The answer is that it's not inability, it's unwillingness, and that behind the unwillingness is money. Politics, including the politics of global warming, is inextricably linked to money. "Show me where a man gets his cornbread," said Mark Twain, "and I'll show you where he gets his politics."

These twin crimes -- betraying of the earth and whatever future generations might live on it, and frivolously draining the last of the world's cheap, light, sweet crude are being perpetrated because lots of capitalist buccaneers are making lots of loot perpretrating them. It's no mistake and no accident that Exxon-Mobil showed 25 billions in profit last year.

And while there is no behemoth real estate developing corporation analogous to Exxon-Mobil or Chevron-Texaco, the multitude of subdivision builders and strip mall developers infesting the regions which used to be countryside are reaping ill-gotten gains comparable to those enjoyed by big oil, and barbecuing their mother (and ours) in the process.

Tomorrow we'll examine in some detail the uses for which our foreclosed future, in the form of the world's last cheap oil, much of the U.S.'s best land, and the very solvency of the U.S. as a viable economic entity, has been squandered.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Dinosaurs Locked in Combat

There's a lot more going on in the anti-Danish cartoon riots than meets the eye.

These anti-European melees are not isolated disturbances, but the latest battles in a war; it's the world-wide struggle academic author Benjamin Barber called "Jihad vs. McWorld."

What's interesting is that this series of outbreaks, which are really attacks on the economic and cultural domination of North America and Europe, are being played out over purely symbolic issues.

But make no mistake, the forces of conservative, fundamentalist Islam (what American right-wingers call "Islamofascism") are in an implacable war against western corporate gobalism ("McWorld") and its economic, cultural, and political regime of world domination.

Most interesting of all, as Barber rather timidly and equivocally points out in the introduction to his book: "The two axial principles of our age — (jihadi) tribalism and globalism — clash at every point except one: they may both be threatening to democracy."

"May be?" Barber, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, refuses to be pinned down, even though his thesis is that both corporate globalism and jihadism are completely inimical to democracy.

Transnational corporations, in their top-down structures of authority, their intolerance of dissent, and their willingness to use force are fascist enterprises by nature. Nothing could be less democratic, or less tolerant of democracy.

Unless it's Islamic fundamentalism.

I'm no authority on Islam, but it's my understanding that the Koran contains no authorization of a professional priesthood, and that the Prophet Muhammad, blessed be his name, regarded the establisment of any kind of clerical class with deep suspicion. Why then is the Islamic world, from Afghanistan to the tip of Saharan Africa, overrun with imams and ayatollahs? They brainwash the male young in schools devoted to the cult of Wahabbism, serve as thought police in countries where they are encouraged or tolerated by the government, and solemnly condemn democratic government as the fruit of the sin called "shirk."

Voltaire needs updating. A convinced democrat and semi-anarchist, he declared that mankind would never be free until the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

In today's terms, humankind will never be free to pursue real democracy until the last corporate CEO is strangled with the guts of the last imam.

Friday, February 17, 2006


I think I would rather deal with Satan himself than deal with Wal-Mart. In fact, I sometimes suspect Wal-Mart is Satan. He got bored one day. All the sinners were roasting, and what with all the degeneracy and violence in our 21st-century world, God was scared. So the Evil One decided to come to earth and start the company that would become the number-one high-volume corporation in the U.S., a giant among giants.

I'll admit, I'm sometimes tempted to go there and make a deal with the devil, and buy that large can of coffee for less than half of what I pay elsewhere. Then I remind myself of what Wal-Mart is doing to the wholesalers who supply that product, and what the wholesalers have to be doing to the Latin American growers who supply them.

It's a harsh fact of the global economy: the prosperity of the core depends on the impoverishment of the periphery. Actually, it's worse than harsh. Criminal is more like it.

As a non-violent revolutionary, I've established a few rules for myself, and the first is, don't deal with humungous, predatory corporations. The second is, don't drive, because the large, fat, imperialistic oil companies are among the largest corporations and the worst offenders.

Want to bring down the Republicrat and Demolican pirates who are attempting to ravage the Middle East for its oil (none too successfully, one might add) and have shipped all our good-paying jobs to places where they've found more pliable victims? Then stop supporting the corporations that make their style of politicking possible, by laying on the bribes which we are pleased to call "campaign contributions."

Don't cooperate. Don't buy their stuff. I call it "the soft revolution."

How much does a person, or a family, really need to live decently, gracefully, intelligently, and responsibly? Keep in mind that Exxon-Mobil stowed away 25 billion in profits last year. That's a lot of campaign contributions.

Wal-Mart is the number one offender. It harms more people world-wide than anyone else, with the possible exception of the petroleum giants.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

How Carless of Me

Today I cut my finger with the bread knife, so I put a tissue on it and applied as much pressure as I could with my thumb and waited for it to stop bleeding. Three hours later I was still waiting.

I realized I had to make a trip to the emergency room, and there happens to be one just a ten minutes walk from where I'm staying right now. If I'd been home, I would have had to drive 12 miles.

It would have been impossible for me to drive to the ER today because I don't have access to a car at the moment.

I also walked to the store and the laundromat this morning. It's true that there are a few things, like high-quality photo processing, for which I'll have to take the bus, but for the most part everything I need is in the neighborhood. That's how a neighborhood should be.

In Southern California, where I supposedly live (if you can call that living) there's no access to any kind of retail activity in the neighborhood. It's zoned residential -- single use zoning. No matter what you want, you have to climb into the petro-powered conveyance and drive to get it.

So right off the top of my head, I'd say the main difference between San Francisco and the rest of California (including the rest of the Bay Area) is that San Francisco is sane and rational, and the rest of the state, and most of the United States for that matter, is insane and irrational.

One sure sign of what I'm talking about is when you do see cars in this city, only rarely do they have those stupid ribbon magnets stuck to them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Slow Dissolve

The Twilight of American Culture, by Morris Berman (New York: Norton, 2000).

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, by James Howard Kunstler (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2005).

Morris Berman's analysis of the death of American political, economic, and civic culture is well-argued and aims to be comprehensive. It draws on the work of an extemely wide range of relevant scholars and artists (i.e., fiction writers, script writers, and film directors), and unlike many such analyses offers practical solutions for dealing with the cultural and economic collapse that is already in progress.

Berman's work suffers from one glaring weakness: the word "oil" doesn't appear anywhere in his analysis, and he pays scant attention to the vital, physical infrastructures of daily life which the dying culture he so capably dissects is meant to animate.

Jim Kunstler, on the other hand, is concerned with only two aspects of our dying civilization: first and foremost, the elementary observation that the age of cheap oil and cheap gasoline is now over, a fact that American politicians and the American public so far refuse to acknowledge; and secondly, the destructive impact of the onoing, almost carcinogenic suburban expansion on the infrastructure and the economy. The two are linked, because suburban expansion is gasoline-and-automobile dependent, at a time when the cheap resources that would make such expansion practical or even doable are vanishing.

In fairness, Berman's book was published in 2000 and written earlier, at a time when the words "peak oil" had barely entered the informed American consciousness. Only Kunstler and a few other John the Baptist types were painfully aware of what was coming down the road at us at the time, and when we look at the topics Berman covers (rather than what he doesn't), his work is impressive, and dovetails with Kunstler's.

Berman's thesis is built around four facets of cultural collapse which he identifies as: 1) "Accelerating social and economic inequality," both within the U.S. and all over the world; 2) "Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems" (an example of this would be the increasingly expensive bureaucratic apparatus of FEMA/Homeland Security and the shocking lack of results this costly behemoth achieved in the wake of Hurricane Katrina); "Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness;" and 4) "Spiritual death...the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing...of it in formulas--kitsch, in short."

Berman ties these four elements together with the fact-heavy observations of authors such as Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) who have documented the accelerating and smothering monopoly of global corporations on both our economic and cultural lives. Theme parks and commercials have become substitutes for real experience and real thought, and this ties in with Kunstler's observation that beige-colored suburban tracts with their auxiliary strip mall shopping centers, all full of the same franchise fast-food joints, muffler shops, and furniture outlets, have replaced real communities.

Both authors offer real solutions to the current depressing state of affairs. For Berman, the answer lies in the "monastic opition," i.e. pursuing genuine learning, real art, philosophy free of commercialism, and generally embracing the ideals of the now dead and departed Enlightenment, not for purposes of achieving fame or reward, but for their own sakes, because these things are worth doing, and because as we enter the new dark ages, someone is going to have to preserve genuine knowledge and genuine art. This is what Berman calls the "new monasticism," comparing it to the European monasticism that preserved classical learning during the centuries-long dark age that enveloped Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Kunstler is less sanguine, and maintains that we're all going to suffer greivously, and within a few years. But he also recommends some steps everyone can take to deal with the imminent collapse of infrastructure, starting with getting out of our cars and moving to places where we can live as pedestrians--San Francisco, say, as opposed to San Bernardino.

Berman's new book, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, is coming out in April, and I'm hoping he has compensated for Twilight's shortcomings and will have something to say about the end of cheap oil and infrastructural collapse this time. Apparently we have now moved past twilight, since the Bush dictatorship has provided the historian with the example of decline on steroids. Berman's earlier prognosis of our final cultural watershed being "at least forty or fifty years down the road" (page 8), or the American political and economic system being "adaptive, at least for another fifty or one hundred years" has hopefully been radically foreshortened in the new work.

Kunstler's gloomy jeremiad, on the other hand, which was shocking in its prediction of imminent and immediate collapse, may have to be revised also. Kunstler is absolutely right in his observation that cheap oil is gone; it's already a fait accompli. But there is still plenty of oil in places like the Alberta tar sands, although delivery at the pump will be in the three-to-four dollar per gallon range, and that's going to change everything. Most especially, it will put a sudden end to the metastisizing of suburbia.

But the petroleum-based life will go on another few years, as even Kunstler admits in the latest post (2/13/06) on his blog, "Clusterfuck Nation" (http://jameshowardkunstler.typepad.com/):

"Where are the scientists who will inform the public and its political leaders that we really are in trouble with oil and natural gas, that markets do not magically deliver rescue remedies on demand, that technology and energy are not interchangeable and mutually substitutable, and that our nation is about five years from falling into a condition of energy starvation that will bring down all our complex systems of daily life?"

Where indeed? The weak but possibly accurate answer is that as Morris Berman points out in Twilight, Americans seem to have a talent for solving serious problems at the eleventh hour, and as even Kunstler admits, it's only 10:45.

I'd recommend both these books to everybody who likes to think of himself or herself as informed, and I'd recommend that you read one right after the other, but in no particular order.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cheney Takes Trip, Resigns

(GALVESTON, TX) Watching a brilliant sunrise over Galveston Bay after a night spent ingesting psilocybin mushrooms under the direction and care of an Apache shaman, Vice-President Dick Cheney announced this morning that he is resigning his office immediately.

Tearfully referring to his role in helping to convince President Bush to invade Iraq as "the deranged work of a madman," Cheney said he now looks back on his career in politics and private enterprise "with deep regret."

The vice-president served as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush from 1989 until Clinton took office in 1993. He directed U.S. military operations in Panama and Operation Desert Storm during that time.

From 1995 until 2000, Cheney left public service and was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Halliburton Corporation, a big energy sector infrastructure player. Under Cheney's leadership, the number of Halliburton subsidiaries in offshore tax havens increased from 9 to 44. Meanwhile the company, went from paying over $300 a year in corporate income taxes to receiving a tax refund in 1999. Cheney still receives a large annual retirement income package from the company.

In 1997, along with Donald Rumsfeld and others, Cheney founded the "Project for the New American Century," a think tank whose self-stated goal is to "promote American global leadership". In 2000 he successfully campaigned for Vice-President on the Republican ticket.

Cheney suffers from extensive cardio-vascular problems, but he assured reporters this morning that his resignation is unrelated to any health concerns. He said he plans henceforth to donate half his income to the charity Childreach, with the funds earmarked to help African orphans whose parents have died of AIDS.

He also announced that he is leaving his wife, Lynne Cheney, and will enter a Dominican monastery in Mt. Angel, Oregon, where he plans to spend the remainder of his life learning to copy illuminated manuscripts.

"I have a lot of regrets," Cheney said soberly in his final words to reporters, "but at this point there's nothing to do but turn them over to God and ask for forgiveness."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Wholly Romaine Empire (Yoosta Be USA)

Echoing the words of Richard M. Nixon, Senator Pat Roberts of the Great State of Kansas solemnly assured Tim Russert today that the president has the power to do anything he wants as long as he does it "very, very carefully."

It used to be that the government of the United States consisted of three branches whose respective powers were carefully distributed and balanced. That was until the legislative branch spinelessly handed its powers over to the executive.

It's happened before. When the sage and prudent Emperor Tiberius (he's gotten a bad rap in the history books) ascended to the newly-minted throne of the Roman Empire, so carefully crafted by his predecessor, the first emperor Augustus, he soon received a letter from the Senate telling him they would gladly draft any legislation he wanted them to.

Tiberious wrote back to them that their request was outrageous. "Suppose the emperor is ill or mad or incompetent?" He asked (his successor, Caligula, was all three). But when they sent the same message a second time, the Emperor simply observed, "How eager you are to be slaves." Not long thereafter he left Rome in disgust and took up permanent residence on the island of Capri.

The entire exchange today on "Press the Meat" went like this:

TIM RUSSERT: Senator Roberts, let me ask you a very serious question. Do you believe that the Constitution gives the President of the United States the authority to do anything he believes is necessary to protect the country?

ROBERTS: Yes, but I wouldn’t say anything he believes. I think you go at it very, very carefully. And that’s been done by every president that I know of.

As the pundits at "Think Progress" observed, this faux-legislator Roberts should stick to Nixon's version, ("If the president does it it's not illegal.") because it's much simpler

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Rufous, the Alano Club cat, is skinny, nervous, and always complaining. She attends every meeting at the facility, sits in people's laps with her tail constantly twitching, cries to be fed or have a door opened, and is enjoyed by some and tolerated by others only because Don wants her there.

Don N. died last Friday, alone at home with his own cat as he was changing his shoes. That was how he wanted to go.

People had a lot to say about him at the memorial service today, but there's really no way to describe him because he was a bundle of contradictions.

He wasn't in on the beginnings of the Palm Springs Alano Club fifty years ago, but is solely responsible for the present state of the club in its current incarnation. Thirty years ago he scraped together the donations to buy the property, erected the building, fought the bureaucrats at city hall until they approved the facility and provided a parking lot, fought the neighbors, and until a couple of years ago made every repair, planted every tree and bush, and welcomed every degraded and burnt-out street bum with no place else to go.

He patiently heard the most tedious details of everyone else's problems and never talked about his own. He'd listen attentively, offer a few words of advice, and then tell the filthiest joke he could think of.

A few years ago, with cancer eating away his face, he had half his left-side jaw removed, and the excised flesh was replaced with tissue from one of his gluteus maximi. He never complained, but afterward when he told people to kiss his ass would point to his left cheek.

Don was a saint, but like most of the illumined, was nobody's fool. When I first met him I thought he was just a nice old guy who didn't know his ass from his elbow. Later I learned that if he thought someone was a threat to the existence or prosperity of the club, he'd fight with his teeth and fingernails if necessary.

Once some of the members took him to a rich people's speaker meeting at some ritzy spot in Palm Springs. He showed up in his gray coveralls (he'd been planting a tree), and the swells were horrified. They thought the unwashed Alanoites had brought some old wet drunk into their midst.

"What's he doing here?" they asked indignantly. Privilege responds to sainthood.

I only knew him a little over a year. He no longer worked around the club -- Providence had seen fit to supply a replacement in the person of Mark R. But he was still around frequently, and one day as I was finishing up my bookkeeping work, thinking I was alone in the building, I walked out to the patio and found him sitting alone, beaming and petting Rufous. He looked like a little kid.

"She's a beautiful cat, isn't she?" he said. "She's got gorgeous markings."

I muttered something about Rufous being pretty much an ordinary old alley cat.

"She's been around here a long time," Don said, undeterred. "She's really like a part of this place. You know, this cat is about ten years old at least."

I left him sitting alone with the cat. The sun was shining and the parking lot was empty. Goldfish drifted idly in the pool under the lemon trees, and the roses swayed gently in the light breeze. He was very quiet and serene.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Willing Victims

I've been accused of harboring out-group bias, that is, of reflexively disliking people because of their political views, of holding them in contempt and being disrespectful.

I have some harsh things to say both to and about cheerleaders for the status quo, but I really don't think it's due to out-group bias.

I have a real problem with people who are too stupid to recognize when they're getting rolled, robbed, mugged, or strongarmed.

First of all, no one except multi-millionaires and billionaires has anything to gain by continuing to endorse the prevailing policies. I'm not even sure how much we have left to lose.

Secondly, the Gini coefficient in the U.S. was .379 in 1950. By 2000 it was .430 and still rising, i.e., moving toward the right-hand side of the page. By now I would estimate that it's .5 or more.

The transfer of wealth toward the poor (left-hand side) and middle classes from the wealthiest Americans was the trend from the time of FD Roosevelt through the last year of the Carter administration. Then the direction of flow reversed and went the other way -- toward the wealthy, especially the wealthiest.

This regressive, retrograde movement was a tide under Reagan, and under Bush II it's become a tsunami.

I dream of Gini, and I suspect that the dictator's dismantling of Social Security, which he has secretly written into this year's budget, will complete the process and impoverish what's left of the elderly middle class.

It's all about money, folks. Money money money money money.

And also about those who inexplicably cheer for the crooks who are robbing them. Maybe some of them think they're going to win the capitalist lottery, and be among the "winners" one day. That's the "something for nothing" philosophy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Social Security Card Sharp

If he can't win a hand with the cards that are on the table, the little dictator will pull an ace out of his sleeve.

After his plans for dismantling social security went over like a lead fart last year, with the public and in Congress, this year he simply followed up by inserting the plan in the current budget without telling anybody who might object.

He did it without fanfare, or in other words, in secret. After all, who reads through the whole budget?

Well, some reporters do.

Newsweek's Allan Sloan has the story.

Let's not waste time. Sit down right now and e-mail your House representative and the two senators from your state, and tell them to reject this budget in no uncertain terms, until such time as the dictator agrees to the removal of this odious, sneaky, nefarious, underhanded, dishonest, larcenous, and low-life provision from the document.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Pot Pourri

This past week Muslims in the Middle East rioted over depictions of their Prophet in cartoons published in a Danish newspaper. The cartoonist depicted the Prophet as a less-than-nice person, which added insult to the injury, in Muslim perceptions, of the crime of portraying him at all.

There is no law anywhere in the world except Muslim religious law -- Sharia -- forbidding the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. The Danish government does not operate under the rules of Sharia.

However, most Danes are or used to be Lutheran, which fact entered into play when the same newspaper declined to publish cartoons of Jesus a couple of years ago, by the same cartoonist. These showed the Christian Savior jumping out of holes and popping out of walls during the process of his bodily resurrection. In one, gnomes were rating his performance and awarding style points.

The newspaper's editor says he turned down the cartoons not because they were sacreligious, but because they were silly. He didn't say whether he was Lutheran, or ever used to be.

In this country, an artist was criticized for portraying Osama bin Laden as Jesus. Personally, I didn't think the picture looked anything like bin Laden or Jesus. He looked a bit like Tuli Kupferberg.

In other news, Senator Barbara Boxer asks, "Why doesn't President Bush want to answer questions about Jack Abramoff?" Answer: "Because he doesn't feel like it."

Monday, February 06, 2006

California Secretary of State Mumbles, Fumbles, and Stumbles over Peace and Freedom Party

California's Secretary of State, Bruce McPherson, after announcing on Tuesday, January 31, that the Peace and Freedom Party was ineligible for all state ballots in 2006, reversed himself the following Friday. Facing certain defeat if he was challenged in court, McPherson declared at a February 3 news conference in front of his office that Peace and Freedom was qualified to field candidates in the 2006 primaries and beyond after all.

McPherson's miscue started as a right-wing power play, but ended up making him look like the biggest fool since Dan Quayle spelled "potatoe."

Asked in a phone interview whether the party was now on or off 2006 state ballots, Peace and Freedom's State Chairperson Kevin Akin replied, "We're on. It's the Secretary of State who's a little bit off."

The reason McPherson gave for taking Peace and Freedom off the ballot was that the party's registered membership is less than one percent of the number of the state's eligible voters.

"That's irrelevant," Akin said. "The law says one-fifteenth of one percent is all that's required for a party to stay on the ballot once it's qualified. The Secretary of State was engaging in a bit of malicious partisanship."

"Monday afternoon," Akin says, "at quarter to five, we got a phone message telling us to call a clerk in the Secretary of State's office, Dierdre Avent. She told me Secretary McPherson was going to issue a press release announcing that we'd been taken off the ballot, and that she'd been forbidden to connect us with anyone else such as someone in the State Department's legal division to discuss the matter.

"However, our lawyer Bob Evans was able to talk to someone in McPherson's legal division, and that person gave one interpretation of the law, while someone else in the very same legal division spoke to the aide of a state senator and give a conflicting version."

McPherson's initial contention was that because Peace and Freedom was not on the state's ballots in 2002, after having been dropped in 1998, their candidates (or maybe, un-candidates) had received less than two percent of the vote, rendering the party ineligible until such time as they re-established themselves by having enough registered members to make up at least one percent of the state's total number of eligible voters.

"It was then," Akin continues, "that we concluded that this was a malicious partisan attack rather than a mere incompetent fumble. We called members of the press on Friday morning notifying them of a press conference in front of McPherson's office at two p.m., and McPherson's office was inundated with calls asking why the rules for ballot qualification had suddenly changed."

Shortly before the press conference, an unidentified aide from McPherson's office called the Peace and Freedom Party's lawyer, Bob Evans, and told him 'You're on the ballot.'"

Asked whether McPherson admitted having made a mistake, Akin replied, "He still insists on a plainly wrong interpretation of law, but says because previous Secretaries of State mistakenly allowed non-qualified party candidates on the state ballot, he is forced by precedent to follow the same practice."

Asked why McPherson has such a strong dislike of the Peace and Freedom Party, Akin said, "He's an extreme right-winger, and was appointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Whatever Already, Take Seven

Who is Murray Waas? There is no profile of him on his blog, "Whatever Already," presumably because his audience -- he calls them "the five to seven regular readers of this blog" -- have no interest in seeing one.

The Huffington Post, another place where Waas's work regularly appears, provides a tiny picture of a somewhat dyspeptic looking individual with a slightly receding Bill Gates haircut managing a pained smile (the individual is smiling, not the haircut). His eyes are so deep set they look like two holes in the snow, and he might be any age between 25 and 45. The accompanying "bio," such as it is, tells us only that "Murray Waas is a sometimes-distempered Washington journalist" who "blogs at whatever already."

An unidentifiable website purported to contain "Murrey (sic) Waas's Resume" promises that this document is "Coming Soon," although judging from the proprietor's mis-spelling of his subject's name, "coming soon" means "Waiting for Godot."

So who is this mysterious "Washington-based" freelance journalist with too many vowels and not enough consonants in his last name? Since his credits include the New Yorker, the L.A. Times, and Salon.com, he's not a "complete unknown," to borrow a Bobism.

To judge from his work, he's an exemplar of the "monasticism," that author Morris Berman in "The Twilight of American Culture" recommends as an antidote to the mass consumer culture of McWorld. Berman's monastic individual is one devoted to an uncompromising search for truth, dedicated to work and study for their own sakes, and careless if not contemptuous of material reward. In other words, this hypothetical monastic person is a hard-core idealist, and as far as I can tell, that's who Murray Waas is.

For example, the thousands upon thousands of carefully documented words he has written on Plamegate and the Bush gang's fictional Saddam-Niger yellowcake uranium connection, which necessitated weeks worth of hours of research (at least), and which appear in several high-profile media such as the National Journal magazine and the aforementioned Huffington Post, have certainly added to his reputation. But he can't be doing this for the money.

And indeed, it takes a special kind of current events wonk just to read through all this stuff. Although well written, Waas's Plamegate and Yellowcakegate articles follow and document the details of these Byzantine affairs with almost painful attention to detail. He is, in short, performing a social service, which must be its own reward, because it also has to be a thankless task in many ways.

But Waas can also be lively and entertaining. He prefaces his complete reprinting of Ted Koppel's first column in the New York Times with the bland observation that he is probably violating copyright restrictions imposed by the "TimesSelect" pay service, whose articles and columns are only available to subscribers, then goes on to say:

"Probably the worst that would happen to me is that I would be ordered to take some remedial courses at night with a bunch of fiteeen year old girls who were caught illegally downloading Napster. And then, a la James Frey, I can tell all my friends that I did 85 days of hard time, and was visited by John Bolton everyday-- and then sell the book rights to Nan 'The Essential Truth' Talese.

"(No emails: I know that the Napster cultural reference is woefully out of date, that Napster is now a legitimate business, in partnership with the record industry... and that some other renegade service has replaced Napster or what-not... but I never claimed that this blog was written by some type of hipster or anything. This blog is very uncool.)"

Koppel's column turns out to be a bitter lament about the current state of television news, whose content, he says, is viewer-driven, resulting in the flood of what media critic David Barsamian calls "nuzak," rather than real news. Koppel is right, of course, and if you want real news you have to consult people like Murray Waas.

And Waas certainly shares Koppel's low opinion of contemporary television news, which tends to be factually deficient and emotionally overheated. In a January 4 blog piece, "America Mourns with Anderson Cooper," Waas details what happened in the wake of the Sago, West Virginia mine disaster when CNN's Cooper suddenly realized that he had just spent three hours erroneously reporting that the victims were still alive:

"Cooper may have been at a loss for words last night, but if his past on-air behavior is a guide, he will not be at a loss for tears tonight.

"America will once again mourn with Anderson Cooper.

"And then America will mourn with Geraldo Rivera.

"Earlier this morning, I watched Geraldo on Fox, already emoting; if he has no news to report, he does have his emotions to share with us all, until he is somewhere else soon emoting about something else. At the end of his brief segment, Fox’s anchor-of-the-moment thanked Geraldo for his 'truly heartbreaking words' before noting that Geraldo was the host of Fox’s own 'Geraldo At Large' program. No opportunity should ever be lost to promote the brand.

"And it will not be long, of course, before Bill O’Reilly screams at someone. Accountability at last!"

Waas is too good to ever get rich.

If you want stupid sentimentality, nuzak, and Hollywood entertainment updates, turn on the t.v. If you want integrity, truth, and the fruits of hard labor, turn off the t.v., go on line, and dial up "Whatever Already." It's one of the best.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

United Farm Workers Union: Major Changes Amid Major Controversy

In a move geared to intensify its organizing potential and influence, the United Farm Workers Union, founded in California's central valley by Cesar Chavez in the mid-1960's, has severed its ties with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and joined a new umbrella group, the Change to Win Federation, which formed in 2005.

The organizational shift comes as the Union finds itself embroiled in a major controversy stemming from a series of articles by investigative reporter Miriam Pawel that ran in the Los Angeles Times in mid-January. The two events are unrelated, however. The Union's board of directors decided to join the Teamsters, the Service Employees International, and several other unions in moving to Change to Win six months ago. UFW's announcement that it was leaving the AFL, which came as the highly critical Times series was running, was coincidental.

Characterizing the current state of the UFW's relationship with farm workers and its organizing capacity as "a broken contract," Pawel's lead article asserted that all that's left of the union today is "the name, the (black) eagle (logo) and the trademark chant of 'Sí se puede' ('Yes, it can be done') — a slogan that rings hollow as UFW leaders make excuses for their failure to organize California farmworkers."

"Chavez's heirs run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farmworkers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money," Pawel asserted, adding that "Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives."

The response from the union was quick and emphatic. In the introduction to his 101-page, point-by-point response to the series, which is posted on the UFW's website, union spokesman Marc Grossman wrote, "Over nearly a year’s period, the Farm Worker Movement spent more time and effort with Miriam Pawel than any reporter in its history. Yet almost none of its side of the story ended up in her articles."

"Everything that was written is dishonest, and the facts are distorted," says Grossman, who also contends that "With these articles, Pawel contradicts 12 years of reporting from other journalists." At the center of Grossman's refutation of Pawel's criticism is a long list of LA Times articles by no fewer than 22 reporters (including Pawel) detailing the UFW's organizing activities since 1994, when the union made a renewed push to sign up farmworkers and win new contracts.

Luke Cole, the director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation's Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, which maintains offices in San Francisco and Delano, and who has worked jointly with the UFW over the years to help improve conditions for migrant farmworkers in the fields, calls Pawel's series "a political hit piece on the UFW."

"The story of any socal movement and any charismatic leader is a complicated one with many facets." Cole said in a telephone interview. "The story told in the LA Times was not telling a multi-faceted story. It was a political hit piece."

Asked specifically about the third article in Pawel's series, which focuses on changes in the organization and direction of the union under Cesar Chavez's leadership in 1977 and 1978, Cole says only that it was "incredibly one-sided and hostile to Cesar."

Pawel maintains that during this time, Chavez "grew intent on keeping control. He crushed dissent, turned against friends, purged staff and sought a new course." She traces much of what she believes is the union's current ineffectiveness to the changes which occurred during this time.

Much of this article, and the fourth installment in the series which immediately follows, features interview material with Eliseo Medina, an organizer who left the UFW in 1978 and today is an executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which has also recently joined the Change to Win Federation, along with the UFW and the Teamsters.

"This change has been in the works for a long time," Grossman says. "The union board decided to join the Change to Win Federation last July. The only recent news is our disaffiliation with the AFL/CIO."

Luke Cole comments that "a number of unions have made the decision that they’ll be more effective in the Change to Win Federation than they were in the AFL," and adds that "These are all very sophisticated union leaders responding to one of the most hostile environments for union organizing in the last century," a reference to "the local, state, and federal governments, and the press."

The United Farm Workers Union has a long and illustrious history. It was organized in Delano in 1965 by Cesar Chavez and his associates. On Mexican Independence Day of that year, Chavez's group consisting of 1,200 member families voted to join a strike against Delano-area grape growers already begun that month by the mostly Filipino-American members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, affiliated at the time with the AFL-CIO. This began the five-year Delano Grape Strike.

The following year Chavez and several thousand of his followers marched 340 miles from Delano to the state Capitol in Sacramento to draw national attention to the plight of farm workers. This was at a time when agricultural wages were below minimum, and working conditions in the fields were so bad that most workers had no access to toilets or drinking water while on the job.

During the march and after a four-month boycott, Schenley Vineyards negotiated an agreement with the new union and this was the first genuine union contract between a grower and farm workers' union in U.S. history.

Between 1967 and 1970, the UFW organized and implemented a continent-wide table grape boycott which drew support from such national figures as Robert Kennedy and Coretta Scott King. As a result, most California table grape growers ended up signing labor contracts with the UFW. A nationwide boycott of lettuce, aimed mainly at Salinas Valley growers followed, and in 1975, after Governor Jerry Brown took office, the lettuce boycott convinced growers to agree to a state law guaranteeing California farm workers the right to organize and bargain with their employers. Chavez's influence was largely instrumental that year in the state legislature's passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

While the role and function of the United Farmworkers in recent years may be a subject of controversy, it's apparent that the history of this union, and of the six others who have associated with them in the Change to Win Federation, is about to take a new turn. The new federation may very well signal a rebirth and reconfiguration of organized labor in the U.S., because its members and member organizations are largely drawn from the service sector which represents large numbers of women, immigrants and people of color, as opposed to the mostly white, male, and native-born manufacturing union membership which formed the basis of labor's strength for many years.