Saturday, December 25, 2010

Warren Haynes' Xmas Jam 2010 Jes Grew Report

"Jes Grew which began in New Orleans....They are calling it a plague when in fact it is an anti-plague."

--Mumbo Jumbo-Ishmael Reed

“ Jes Grew (comes) from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Topsy and James Weldon Johnson's description of Afro-American music's unascribed development, … Jes Grew is a contagion, connected with the improvisational spirit of ragtime and jazz, that begins to spread across America in the Twenties. It is an irrational force that threatens to overwhelm the dominant, repressive traditions of established culture.”

-- Carl Brucker from his essay on Ishmael Reed in the Critical Survey of Long Fiction, (1987)

There's a gig that has been happening every December in Asheville, North Carolina for twenty-two years now. Its purpose is to raise money for Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit that helps people without a home to find shelter. Its mode of operation is getting together a group of great musicians to play with their own bands and with each other for eight or so hours one night every December.

The event is known as the Xmas Jam and the man behind the show is guitarist Warren Haynes, who plays with the Allman Brothers, the Dead, his band Gov't Mule and several other combos. This year's lineup featured Gregg Allman, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Steve Miller Band, members of Widespread Panic, Umphrey's McGee, and Haynes' new band simply called the Warren Haynes Band. The music ranged from the jam-band stylings of Umphrey's McGee to the total New Orleans funk of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; from the soulful songs of The Warren Haynes Band to the rock blues of Steve Miller's group. It was a joyful assembly.

If I were to choose a couple favorite parts of the evening they would be the set delivered by Haynes’ new band and the closing set from The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The former, which was the first public performance of the group, featured five songs and most of the musicians that will appear on the group's upcoming CD release. The band includes the following personnel besides Haynes: Ivan Neville on keys (who played with Keith Richards and is a member of the Neville Brothers and Dumpstaphunk), bassist Ron Johnson, Terrance Higgins on drums, Ron Holloway on sax and blues singer Ruthie Foster. The songs included an original called "River's Gonna' Rise," a heartrending version of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You too Long" and a suitably funky version of Robert Palmer's "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley."

How does one describe Haynes' new ensemble? Soulful would be a good place to start. With Haynes weaving leads and rhythms as intricately as an ancient Chinese weaver of silk cloth for the emperors and Ron Holloway blowing melodies on a sax straight out of Memphis; a bottom provided by bassman Ron Johnson and Terrence Higgins and Neville's keyboards, the word ecstatic comes to mind. Just to make certain that ecstasy is the case, Ruthie Foster's vocals bring it all together like the final stitch on the aforementioned emperors' cloaks. Tight describes their playing while loose describes the way they made the audience feel.

The surprise of the night was Steve Miller and his band. For most people, Miller is probably best known for his multitude of popular hits in the 1970s and 1980s, including songs like "The Joker," "Take the Money and Run," and "Jet Airliner." The truth is that Miller and his band were one of the original San Francisco bands from the mid-1960s. Their first album, titled Children of the Future, is nothing short of a psychedelic classic. The titled song alone stands up there with the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star," and Quicksilver Messenger Service's "Pride of Man" as a tune that not only popularized the freak culture of the era but spoke to the ethos present during the best times of that brief but monumental moment in cultural history.

Unfortunately for those of us in the audience who remember that album, Miller did not play anything from it. He did however, play a couple mean blues tunes: "Further On Up the Road" and "Just Got Back From Texas." Warren Haynes accompanied him on the former. It was the pop songs that surprised me that night. After hearing the band open with a twelve minute version of "Jet Airliner" I will never dismiss that song again. The entire audience was on their feet and dancing like they were worshiping St. Vitus. The worship did not end until Haynes joined Miller and his band for their final song "Fly Like An Eagle."

After a brief acoustic interlude from John Bell of Widespread Panic, Gregg Allman and a special Xmas Jam backing band (which included Warren Haynes, former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed, Wallflowers drummer Fred Eltringham and Ivan Neville along with some members of the Dirty Dozen Brass band) took the stage. Opening with a blistering version of his hit "Midnight Rider," the ensemble played a half-dozen more songs including the early Allman Brothers tune "Dreams," Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman," and the Allman Brothers classic "Melissa." The situation in the auditorium by the end of the set had transcended mere ecstasy. Indeed, it was something much closer to rock and roll heaven. The version of "Dreams" with Ron Holloway's sax solo and Haynes' subsequent slide guitar work was the clincher in the journey to that celestial place.

Then the funksters took the stage. Before they played a note, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band set the tone with the words: "Welcome to Mardi Gras in Asheville, Man!" This group, if you have never heard them, blend New Orleans jazz, Dixieland, funk and blues into an incredible dance mix that is so infectious that even the dead can't help but move their feet when the band gets going. Opening with a tune of theirs called "Ain't Nothing' But a Party," the party got funkier as the set went on. The Temptations "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" (with Haynes joining in), followed by a song once played by Little MIlton called "That's What Love Will Make You Do" to Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" and on through Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." Every ounce of energy remaining in the Asheville Civic Center was squeezed into the funky frenzy created by this outbreak of what writer Ishmael Reed called Jes Grew in his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo.

As the audience left the Civic Center a little after 3:00 AM on December 12th, they found that even the weather gods had succumbed to the Jes Grew. How else would one describe the uncharacteristic snowstorm that greeted them?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tripping Through the American Night


My latest book, titled Tripping Through the American Night, was published in ebook format on October 8, 2010. The format used is known as epub--it is accessible on almost every ebook platform except Kindle (although there is some kind of conversion software out there). I read a sample on my computer by downloading the free Adobe Digital Editions software.

It is a collection of essays mostly about this land we call the United States. Naturally, they are written from a libertarian left perspective. Many of them originally appeared in Counterpunch. From the resignation of Richard Nixon to the knighthood of Mick Jagger; from the war in Vietnam to the election of Barack Obama; and from the campus of University of Maryland to the streets of Berkeley, it's all there. If you are interested in buying (or borrowing)a copy (assuming you have a way to read it), go to
http://search.barnesandnoble.com/books/e/2940011816574/?itm=1&USRI=tripping+through+the+american+night

Thanks. If you are interested in reviewing it, send me an email!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

We Will Not Be Intimidated-The FBI Raids In Context

On September 24, 2010 the FBI raided several houses and a couple offices in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago and North Carolina under the guise of looking for proof that the people living in those houses were involved with organizations that "lent material support to terrorists." Ironically (or perhaps presciently) the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) also released an 88 page document titled The Policing of Political Speech: Constraints on Mass Dissent in the U.S on that day. Not content to criminalize the representation provided by attorneys to those accused of fomenting terrorism as in the case of Lynne Stewart, with these raids the Obama administration has stepped up the repression that became quite commonplace under George Bush.
In short, the government is attempting to criminalize the organizing of antiwar protests. Furthermore, it wants to make opposition to Washington's assistance in repressing struggles for self-determination illegal. Other repressive actions by law enforcement against US citizens, including the sentencing of a videographer to 300 days in jail for trespass after he tried to film an unauthorized talk in Chicago and the acknowledgement by the Pittsburgh FBI office that it had spied on peace activists and used a private agency to help out, makes it clear that the PATRIOT Act and its excesses are alive and well under the Obama administration. Repression is a bipartisan activity, especially when it comes to the repression of the left.
These raids are a clear and vicious attempt to intimidate the antiwar movement. The grand jury is a fishing expedition, as evidenced (for example) by the warrant asking for papers from no determined time. This intimidation is a continuation of the harassment of the Twin Cities left/anarchist community that began before the 2008 Republican National Convention. If one recalls, several organizers had their homes and offices raided prior to the convention. In addition, hundreds of protesters were arrested and many more were beaten by law enforcement. Eight organizers were eventually charged with a variety of charges including conspiracy. As of September 25, 2010, three of those charged had all of their charges dropped and the rest face trial on October 25, 2010.
This is not just about the movement in the Twin Cities, however. The September 24th raids also took place in Chicago and North Carolina. There is a grand jury being convened in October 2010 with the intention of perhaps charging some of the people (and maybe others) subpoenaed on September 24th. These raids are an attempt by the federal government to criminalize antiwar organizing They are also an attempt to make support for the Palestinians and other people fighting for self-determination illegal.

The PATRIOT Act was passed on October 26, 2001. Since that passage, the level of law enforcement intimidation and outright repression increased quite dramatically. From little things like protesters being forced to protest in so-called free speech zones or face arrest to the recent approval of the assassination of US citizens by federal death squads, there has been a clear progression away from any concern for protecting civil liberties. Indeed, the concern for civil liberties is usually dismissed by politicians, judges, and other people in power almost as if they were some worthless costume jewelry from your grandmother's jewelry box. As mentioned earlier, this harassment and repression is not new to US history. In addition to multiple murders of Black liberation activists, illegal surveillance, false imprisonment and other forms of harassment, the use of grand juries was essential to the repression of the antiwar and antiracist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As the NLG document points out, "from 1970-1973, over 100 grand juries in 84 cities subpoenaed over 1,000 activists." However, nowadays there seems to be less resistance to it. Some of this can be attributed to the lack of press coverage, which is quite possible intentional. Much of the lack of concern, however, can be attributed to the state of fear so many US residents live in. This is a testimony to the power of the mainstream media and its willingness to serve as the government's propaganda wing.
To those who argue that the media doesn't always support the government and then cite Fox News' distaste for Obama or a liberal newspaper's distaste for certain policies enacted under George Bush, let me point something out. Like the two mainstream political parties (and the occasional right wing third party movement like the Tea Party), even when different media outlets seem to be opposing each other, the reality is that neither opposes the underlying assumptions demanded by the State. In fact, the only argument seems to be how better to effect the underlying plan of the American empire. The plan itself (or the rightness of the plan) is never seriously questioned.

The September 24, 2010 raids in the Twin Cities, Chicago and North Carolina may not seem like much, even to other antiwar organizers and leftists. The setting up of "free speech zones" may also appear minor. A grand jury fishing for supposed links to "terrorism" by antiwar activists may seem like no big deal. Violations of human rights in cases involving foreign nationals like Aafia Siddiqui (who was sentenced to 86 years after a trial that barely recognized her defense) do not even register on most Americans' radar. Yet, it is the cumulative effect of all of these efforts at repression that we should be aware of. As James Madison wrote: ""I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." If these seemingly minor encroachments on liberties we assume we have go unchallenged, how long might it be before assassinations and torture by the US military and their mercenary cohorts are carried out on US citizens? Oh wait, that's already happening.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Video Gamers and the Future of Labor Rights

Even though I’ve been involved in at least four union organizing efforts at jobs I have had since I began working in 1971, I have never worked at a union job. In addition, many of the various antiwar and antiracist endeavors I have been involved with have included trying to get unions on board. Having this experience with union activists has helped me stay abreast with the issues faced by those who organize labor. Foremost among these issues ever since the explosion of capitalist globalization in the 1990s is how to organize workers across international boundaries.

Besides never having held a union job, I’ve never been a gamer, either. In fact, I have a hard time getting to the third level of the very first Mario Brothers game. My son, on the other hand, like so many of his contemporaries, used to spend hours playing games online. I was certainly not aware of the phenomenon known as gold farming that occurs within the gaming world while bridging the actual world of dollars and yuan. Essentially, gold farmers are game players hired by quasi-legal operators to obtain as much game gold as they can by playing multi player video games. The employers, who are often part of a larger corporate or criminal operation, then sell the virtual gold in exchanges set up for this purpose to other players unwilling or unable to gather the game gold for themselves. Most of the gold farmers make a better living than many of their compatriots in the countries where this practice is located, but are still exploited by the people behind the larger operations.
Given that multi-player games are played by gamers from all over the world who would otherwise have no connections whatsoever, it can be argued that they represent a truly international phenomenon that has destroyed political and economic borders. Indeed, it is exactly this aspect of the game-playing world that is the foundation of author and internet freedom pioneer Cory Doctorow's latest novel, For The Win. Doctorow, whose previous novels include a bestselling adventure titled Little Brother that pits a band of internet savvy teens against the post-911 national security state, has written a novel with For the Win that is part thriller, part economics lesson, and a rallying cry to those in the world who still believe that workers can be a powerful force for social change.
The aforementioned premise that organizing international game workers can be the spark that ignites a prairie fire of social revolution may be a bit far-fetched to many, especially those whose vision of a typical video gamer is of some social misfit who can't relate to the real world. Yet, by the end of Doctorow's novel, even those readers may be convinced that the characters in For The Win might be on to something. Even if this isn't the case, the "beyond-the-borders" aspect of the virtual world of gamers is a very useful metaphor for labor organizers from Shenzhen to Los Angeles and from Hanoi to Buenos Aires trying to figure out a strategy that can keep up (or even move ahead) of capital's constant flight from country to country. Until a strategy that challenges capital on its own terms can be developed, workers around the world are stuck accepting the crumbs left to them by their employers or not having a job at all.

The story begins in an internet cafe in the worst slums of Mumbai where a group of teens work for a shady individual named Mr. Banerjee farming gold. Their leader, a girl named Mala, is more than just a good gameplayer. She is also a leader of the youths in the neighborhood. Meanwhile in Shenzhen, China, a group of young men are introduced. These young people are also gold farmers. Many of them began their working lives in a factory run by an multinational corporation that either fired them or closed down the operation when it became cheaper to move elsewhere. After a strike that is attacked by police, one of the young men named Lu runs into a pirate radio DJ who calls herself Jianda. Jianda is a love advisor and workers' advocate for millions of Chinese factory girls whose lives depend on their employer and whatever supervisor is above them in their shop. Using a sophisticated internet network of proxy servers, unused chatrooms and empty web addresses, her evening program reaches millions of these girls every night. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the son of a modern day shipping magnate who is flunking out of high school because of his gameplaying, runs away from home and puts his gameplaying skills to work for a game corporation as a freelancer. After hearing about the strike that Lu and his friends were involved in, he decides to join the cause. A labor organizer who goes by the name of Big Sister Nor begins to work with these disparate groups of game workers, Jiandi and other sympathizers and organizers.. Eventually, the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW) assumes a shape and gameworkers around the world begin to sign on. In addition, factory girls began to show an interest, as do the authorities, both state and corporate. Violence, negotiations and danger follow.

This story is fiction and describes a world known as "virtual." Yet, the economics discussed in its pages are as real as your laid off friend or the foreclosures up and down the street. In a time when national economies rise and fall on algorithms designed to sell money that never existed and corporate executives go unpunished for stealing thousands of people pensions and livelihoods, the idea that the virtual world may well provide us with clues on how to organize the real one is not far-fetched at all. Perhaps we should listen up.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Rachel Corrie Lives-The Israeli Attack On the Aid Flotilla

Just when you think Israel can not do anything more to anger most of the world, it does. The attack on the aid flotilla of ships that includes the MV Rachel Corrie on May 31, 2010 was beyond the pale of conventionally accepted actions, even by Israel. It was the ship Mavi Marmara that was attacked and several of its passengers killed because they dared to physically challenge the tactics of the Israeli government in its campaign to isolate and eventually eradicate the idea of a Palestinian people. Like Rachel herself, the people on the ship were activists actively opposing the Israeli regime's decades-long crusade to dehumanize and destroy the lives of those who call themselves Palestinian. Realizing that the blockade of goods into Gaza has reached disastrous proportions, these folks worked with thousands of others around the world to gather food, medicines and a multitude of other goods forbidden by Israel to enter Gaza and bring the goods to Gaza.
Israel, seeing this humanitarian act as a threat to its control of events in Gaza and the West Bank, decided that this shipment of goods would not go through. After all, if Tel Aviv had allowed the flotilla carrying the goods to pass through on the flotilla's terms, that would mean that there truly was a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In addition, it would also be a direct challenge to the forces in Israel whose goal is the eradication of Palestine and its assumption into a Zionist state where Palestinians are at best second-class residents. Apparently, it is not enough for Tel Aviv to take Palestinian land and ignore agreements it made with the Palestinians in Oslo--agreements that ensured Israel's dominance in the region despite the allowances they provided to the Palestinians. Like its partner in crime in Washington in the world, Israel insists that it will be the only power in the region to determine what happens to its subjects in occupied Palestine. No one can help them without being painted as a terrorist and anyone who does help them will be treated as such.
Washington's current doctrine (which it calls self-defense) provides it with its motivation to wage preemptive war or attack and occupy a nation where some members of a terror group trained. Tel Aviv's self-defense doctrine provides it with the self-justification to turn Gaza into an open air prison and attack it at will, arrest or kill Palestinians opposed to illegal Zionist settlements on Palestinian land, and divide families in two with a wall designed to keep Palestinians out of the ever-expanding state of Israel. That doctrine has now provided its misguided leaders with an excuse to illegally board a civilian ship in international waters and kill at least ten of its passengers. On the other side of the continent from where Israel undertook its act of mass murder on May 31, 2010 several nations are involved in capturing groups of pirates who attack and board ships carrying goods bound for other places. These pirates are considered international criminals and face the wrath of whatever navy happens to confront them. Their ships are often destroyed and the crews captured. I don't know about you, but it seems to me that the IDF should face a similar justice.
Press releases from the Free Gaza Movement, which helped organize the flotilla, stated "Under darkness of night, Israeli commandoes dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck. They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep." Naturally, Tel Aviv tells a different story. Already, the Israeli media is painting the attack on the flotilla as one that was evenhanded. Left unmentioned in their reports is the fact that Israel attacked the ship in international waters and without any military provocation. Yet, if we are to believe the Israeli media, the best military force in the world--the IDF--was threatened by activists who may have been armed with some slingshots and baseball bats. Of course, this is the same IDF that sees boys with stones as mortal enemies and has killed many hundreds of those boys. There may be those outside of the Israeli power structure who will point to the fact that the activists on the attacked ship were armed with the aforementioned small weapons. Indeed, some Israeli politicians have already pointed to this fact as evidence of the flotilla members' evil intent and their role as members of something these politicians call"global jihad." This portrayal of the situation ignores the fact that Israel attacked the ship, not the other way around. What the activists on board were doing is defending themselves from the much greater weaponry of the IDF. That is the definition of self-defense, not the perversion of the concept used by the Washington and Tel Aviv to defend their crimes. Crimes that would be known as such if they were committed by smaller and weaker nations.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

When the Sunshine Rose and Set On the Brotherhood of Eternal Love

The popular history of the 1960s includes a number of stories that are rife with rumor and unsubstantiated tales. From the possibility of conspiracies that killed two Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to the rumors begun by a college student in 1969 that Beatle Paul McCartney was dead, the period was an amalgamation of truths and exaggerations. Its history is the same even today. One of the groups whose history has been always shrouded in mystery is the Laguna Beach, California-based spiritual and drug operation known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Intimately connected to acid guru Timothy Leary and--through circumstance, LSD and money--the Weather Underground and Grateful Dead, this band of Southern California street toughs took LSD and became proselytizers for a new world based on love and spirituality. Their story was the subject of many a stoned conversation, DEA report, and partially informed newspaper article. Given the fact that the folks involved in the Brotherhood were smuggling, manufacturing and distributing illegal substances, it's easy to understand why no members wanted to talk about the group.
Investigative reporter Nicholas Schou has changed all that. In his recently published book Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World, Mr. Schou provides the most complete history of this 1960s phenomenon to date. Based on numerous interviews, research, and driven by an apparently intense interest in the subject matter, the story told in Orange Sunshine captures the idealistic beginnings of the Brotherhood and its disintegration into just another drug operation with guns, egos and greed. While reading Schou's book, one can feel the genuine desire of the group's founders to change the world through marijuana, LSD, and an alternative way of living outside of the technological suburban nightmare they perceived all around them. The transformation of these founders from pot dealers, addicts, street toughs and surfers who obtained their first acid by robbing a Hollywood personality at gunpoint to a group led by John Griggs-- a man Timothy Leary called the holiest man in the world-- reads like a novel under Schou's pen. So are the story's next chapters as the Brotherhood develops a scheme to smuggle hashish from Afghanistan into the United States and use the profits to set up a utopia in the canyons of southern California, manufacture Orange Sunshine LSD and turn on the world.

About That Orange Sunshine
During its heyday, rumors about Orange Sunshine were as rampant as rumors about Bob Dylan playing at Woodstock. Some were true and some you just hoped were true. The second time I ever ate acid was in 1971 and the source was a friend of mine who had gone to boarding school in New England and then come to Germany to stay with his parents (who worked for some US corporation). It was a summer afternoon in Gruneburg Park in Frankfurt am Main. My friend took out a little leather bag and produced two orange wafer thin tablets and a piece of green blotter paper that had a drawing of the R. Crumb character Mr. Natural on it. The orange tabs, this guy began, are Orange Sunshine made by a guy in California who used to be Owsley's apprentice. You only need half a tab. In what was probably one of the saner decisions I ever made when it came to LSD, I took his advice and only ate half a tab. Then the melting began. My buddy R saw the Grateful Dead in 1971 at the shows that would later be culled into the Skullfuck album and insisted until his death that people on the stage at the Fillmore East were shooting balls of paper with orange sunshine tablets into the audience.
Even the Village Voice got into the Orange Sunshine story circle when it ran a story in the spring of 1971 about a guy who went by the name of Sunshine John. It seems John was somehow connected to the Brotherhood and, as part of its mission to spread Orange Sunshine around the world, was one of its primary distributors on the US east coast. According to the story (and Schou, as well), there was an acid drought in late 1968 because of the arrests of the primary US manufacturers of the drug. Then, along came Orange Sunshine. Tens of thousands of hits began to appear on the streets, at rock concerts and in rural communes. Most of them were given away for free as part of the Brotherhood's mission to spread peace, love, and acid. As the experiences related above make clear, the acid continued to be manufactured and distributed well into 1971 at least.

The Beginning of the End
Naturally, all this LSD drew the attention of the authorities. Until the early 1970s, most of the anti-narcotics work concerning the brotherhood had been carried out by local police in Laguna Beach. One officer in particular, Nicholas Purcell, was behind most of the arrests and harassment of the Brotherhood and those who distributed its acid and hashish. With the intensification of the war on drugs under Richard Nixon's White House, Purcell and his cohorts were able to involve California and federal agencies in their mission to destroy the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continued to smuggle marijuana products and distribute LSD. Simultaneously many of them were moving to Maui after the ranch in the canyons was raided and Timothy Leary was arrested and their leader John Griggs overdosed on synthetic psylocibin. In addition, the mission to spread peace and love via LSD was foundering. Like so many other spiritually inclined endeavors, when the Brotherhood lost their spiritual leader, the mission became confused by the more earthly desires of some of those next in line.
Egos and easy money transformed enough of those involved into just another bunch of drug dealers with guns and cocaine. Drugs, too, had ceased to serve a liberatory function. After those first few years of revelation and communion, they were now often just crutches or, even worse, tools of the oppressor. I knew this when acid and pot dealers I knew began considering guns a necessary tool of the profession. When old-time hippies who had always considered themselves providers of a sacrament began thinking only in terms of dollars, the signs were there. Greed became the watchword for some of its biggest dealers and cynicism replaced the hopes of just a few years earlier. To borrow a phrase popular at the time, like so much of the counterculture, the Brotherhood had become part of the over-the-counterculture. It had succumbed to the all powerful capitalist god of cash.

The story of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love is simultaneously the story of the southern California 1960s counterculture and a metaphor for the phenomenon in its entirety. The story of Orange Sunshine LSD could easily be the story of the later years of the 1960s US counterculture. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that money, ego, and law enforcement trumped everything else in that period known as the Sixties in America, despite the most positive intentions.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's Hard to Run With the Weight of Lead...

The last days of April 1970 seemed relatively uneventful. The first Earth Day occurred on April 22nd that year. For the most part it bore little resemblance to the green corporation festival many of today's Earth Days seem to be. At the same time it was not a radical showdown with police like that which occurred all too often. The most recent such episode had taken place in many US cities following the conviction of the Chicago 7 defendants in February. Apollo 13's failed mission was already over a week old and creating its own share of commentary in the nation's media. I was living overseas in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where I had moved with my family in March. The Beatles song "Let It Be" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" were near the top of the record charts. I was mostly listening to The Band's second album, the Dylan bootleg The Great White Wonder, the Stones' Let It Bleed, the Dead and the Beatles. I remember watching Johnny Winter play a short set on the German television show Beat Club. Major League baseball was just warming up. Being overseas, the best I could do was follow the box scores in the morning Stars and Stripes newspaper. The Stars and Stripes also gave us the news on the Vietnam War which, according to them and Richard Nixon, was moving along just fine. Indeed, there might even be an end in sight. Letters from friends in the States talked about the Grateful Dead new tour with the New Riders of the Purple Sage in a show that featured Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel with the New Riders and three sets of the Dead, one of them acoustic. Over a hundred thousand members of the US radical movement were gathering the last weekend of April in New Haven to protest the trial of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins on charges they were eventually acquitted of. Even that protest was characterized as mostly peaceful.
Then April ended. Not with a whimper but a bang. The night of April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon told the world that US forces were invading Cambodia ostensibly to destroy the warmaking capabilities of the NLF and northern Vietnamese military. The speech was not even over before students and others across the US were in the streets. The protesters in New Haven issued a call for a nationwide student strike. A torrent of protest raged across the nation. So much for the halcyon days of April. In Frankfurt, thousands of protesters marched on the US Army offices known as the IG Farben Building. Besides the German protesters, there were GIs refusing to work and US military dependents walking out of their schools. Black armbands expressing solidarity with the protesters and against the war could be seen on many a young person on base—GIs and dependents alike. The authorities were naturally wary. May was to be the cruelest month this calendar year.

Back to the protests in the US and that Grateful Dead/New Riders tour. The tour had hit the East Coast earlier that spring and was now traveling through the northern climes. In the year 2000 the Dead’s archivist released a CD recording of one of those shows. This show, which took place at Harpur College in Binghamton, NY on May 2, 1970, is considered a classic. Musically, it shines. As an indication of the cultural and political climate of the time, it reveals more than just a good time. I wrote this about it not long after the CD was released.


This show in 1970 took place in between two events that shook America: the US invasion of Cambodia in a war that was supposedly winding down and the National Guard killings of four students during an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio. The Grateful Dead took the stage on May 2, 1970 not only with the knowledge that the audience was restless almost to the point of riot but that their job as a band was to take that potentially negative energy and transform it into one hell of a good time. Like the best Dead performances from any time of their thirty-year traveling medicine show and carnival, they did! The acoustic version of the traditional (and Dead standard)"I Know You Rider" has as much energy as any electric version they ever did. With a crowd eager to burn off their energy via an all-night dance-a-thon, it was up to Jerry Garcia and the boys to provide the music.

The first set is an acoustic marvel. Beginning with a bouncy version of "Don't Ease Me In," the musical trip wanders into the aforementioned "I Know You Rider", where Jerry's licks blend beautifully with the rhythm guitar backing of Bob Weir and the always sound bassman Phil Lesh. Stepping back, the outlaw ballad "Friend of the Devil" is rendered with a conviction felt by many of America's youth in the US of 1970. A bouncy "Dire Wolf" follows as the boys beat it on down the musical line to an evocative "Black Peter" that brings the pain of death to the concert floor. Five more songs--including two from the Dead's masterpiece Workingman's Dead and two traditionals: Deep Elem Blues and the bluegrass gospel piece "Cold Jordan" finish out the set. That's when the fun really kicks in.

The remainder of this three-cd set starts off with a ripping "St. Stephen" and ends an hour and a half later with a quiet take on the folk classic "We Bid You Goodnight." The highlights in between include Pigpen sounding like a male version of Etta James in "It's A Man's World" and a take of the post-apocalypse song "Morning Dew" that acknowledges the pervasive feeling of that week that the end might have been near. The lead guitar work of Garcia on this tune and the version of "Viola Lee Blues" that follows it goes straight to one's spine as the notes do not send chills so much as they become part of the nervous system--it's as if the music and the listener are one: something that happens rarely in any musical performance but, when it does, nothing else compares.

Which is perhaps the best way to describe this recording: nothing else compares.


The next day the tour moved to Wesleyan College. Protests and riots raged across the nation. At the University of Maryland and dozens of other colleges and universities, authorities called in the National Guard. The bands played on, aware of the maelstrom growing all around them. No one, however, except for the perhaps the most apocalyptic members of society, saw what was coming next. On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard murdered four students and wounded more than a dozen others during a protest at Kent State University. The Dead were not playing that day and most likely heard the news when everyone else did. Their next show was scheduled for MIT on May 7th. Organizers working with the Boston-Cambridge anti-imperialist group the November Action Coalition (NAC) were among the many Boston area antiwar organizations organizing a never-ending round of protests. In a conversation with NAC organizer Peter Bohmer many years later, he told me how the Dead became involved in these efforts. It seems that some fans of the band had the ear of the Dead and the band wanted to do something to express their state of mind about the escalation of the war. So they set up on Kresge Plaza on the MIT campus during a May 6th protest and played a nine song set. Bohmer wasn’t a fan, but remarked that Garcia and the other band members seemed like nice guys with their hearts in the right place.
The maelstrom of war, racism, and rebellion unleashed in the wake of Nixon’s words on April 30th took at least eight more stateside victims in the weeks following that Grateful Dead concert in Cambridge, Six blacks protesting racism in Augusta, GA. were gunned down. On May 14, 1970 two more young people were killed by Mississippi state troopers while protesting the war. The forces of law and order were resorting to the one card they could always pull from their sleeve: raw, murderous violence. Black and Brown-hued Americans knew this all too well. White ones were rediscovering it. Neither the war nor the racism of US political and cultural society was near an end. The music could only do so much.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Did Capitalism Destroy China's Democratic Stirrings?

Back in 1989, the world was captivated by media images of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and workers camped out in Tienanmen Square in Beijing. Most were horrified as they watched elements of the Chinese People's Army attack and kill hundreds of these protesters. The series of protests that are now summed up in the words Tienanmen Square were but the most public presentation of the struggle between the Maoist legacy and the move towards capitalism that has been going on in China since the 1970s. For many Chinese, it represented the end of a popular democratic urge for greater political freedom and its replacement with an authoritarian capitalist paradise (for the capitalists and their government facilitators). In other words, the result of the protests and the government reaction was that the only freedom that would be allowed in the post-Mao China was the freedom of global capitalists to exploit the Chinese people and reform its society to their benefit.
Chinese writer and Professor of Chinese Literature Wang Hui was one of those hundreds of thousands in Tienanmen Square in 1989. He is a critical observer of Chinese culture and politics and is a member of what various western media call the Chinese New Left. His newest English release, titled The End of the Revolution is a collection of essays mostly dealing with the effects of China's pugnacious pursuit of an essential role in the global capitalist order on its people and politics. Academic in its approach, Wang Hui's text details the demise of Maoism and its replacement by a political structure and culture that is socialist in name only. He discusses the separation of the democratic impulse from the pursuit of profit, the resulting curtailment of political freedom and an explosion of what passes for personal freedom in the capitalist nations of the West--the freedom to consume.
The End of the Revolution is more than a study of the new China. It is also a captivating study of the effects of global capital on a nation. Many of the situations described by Wang Hui could easily be describing the situation in almost any nation that is part of the neoliberal world of the twenty-first century. In addition, it is a discussion of the meaning of modernity in the world of capitalism and a convincing argument that the world of neoliberal economics is a world whose mechanics thrive best under authoritarian governments. According to Wang Hui, democracy is not a beneficiary of this economic system, but a hindrance that the financial world believes it must undermine to survive. Furthermore, it is Wang 's contention that China is the ultimate laboratory for hypothesis.
What about that protest in Tienanmen Square? Did it represent a true desire for democracy? Wang says yes, it did. However, like so many grassroots popular uprisings around the world, the symbolism of the moment was appropriated by some of the same powers that the original protest opposed for other purposes. The impulse for freedom and democracy mutated into a free market that ends up only freeing the pocketbooks and wallets of the managerial class while relegating the workers on the shop floor to poverty and in some cases a life of near slavery. The peasants, meanwhile, are forced by economic conditions to leave their villages for a life that cycles between low paying wage slavery and unemployment. When the work ends they are left to find their way back home or fend for themselves in urban streets. Tragically, the modern worker's plight often resembles the industrial workplaces of Charles Dickens' England. This is the nightmare of modernity Mr. Wang boldly questions.

Can the phenomenon Wang calls modernity exist together with democracy? What about political freedom and personal freedoms not defined by the marketplace? It is the opinion of the author and millions of others that they can but will require a fight by those opposed to the domination of the market. The global capitalists will tell us that it already does, but the truth contradicts that. In fact, the global capitalists have little taste for democracy when it gets in the way of their profits, which they believe it often does.. In China, this goes so far as censoring the Google search engine and forbidding Bob Dylan from performing. It also means that certain municipalities (Shenzhen being the best known) have become surveillance states on a par with the most fantastic of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's most paranoid tales.
The discussions Wang Hui presents are discussions that all of us should be having. They do not apply only to China. Indeed, it is easy to conceive that the aforementioned Philip K. Dick surveillance states that exist in China are mere test runs for the future US metropolis. The march of corporate capitalism is not a benevolent one. As any observer who has not bought the myths of the capitalist faith can see, those who sit in the boardrooms of finance and industry seem intent on expanding their ever-growing control of the planet, no matter what the cost to human freedom, life or the environment.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Blues Had a Baby and They Named Him Jimi Hendrix-Spirits of the Red House

My friends and I used to fantasize about a life after death in a rock and roll heaven. Although there would be many guitarists present in the heavenly jam, the guy at the front of them all--sharing leads, riffs and chord changes--would be Jimi Hendrix. His clarion strings would stretch notes beyond the elysian boundaries, challenging Orpheus himself. As if to prove me right, a new disc from the master himself was released from beyond the grave on March 9th. Titled Valley of Neptune, the disc contains twelve never-before-released songs or versions of songs. The title song, a version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Crying Blue Rain" were recorded in early 1969 with the best-known lineup of Hendrix's band the Experience (Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass) and percussionist Rocki Dzidzornu (who played percussion on the Stones song "Sympathy For the Devil"). The majority of the other material was recorded later the same year.
For those who don't know much about Hendrix's brief and fiery career, the year 1969 was probably the most chaotic and cataclysmic of them all. His band The Experience was dissolving in front of him due to a number of reasons--personal and business. Indeed, by the time of the April recording sessions where some of the songs on Valley of Neptune were recorded, bass player Noel Redding was gone. In addition, according to some biographers Jimi's drug use was reaching dangerous heights while his management was pushing him harder and harder to tour more and more. This pressure in turn led him to use drugs more, creating a vortex not unfamiliar to the lives of many performers and artists. By the end of 1969, Jimi would be playing with a new band featuring bass player Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. It would be this band-known as the Band of Gypsys-- that played at the Fillmore East on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day of 1969-1970. The album recorded those nights was the only live album by Hendrix ever released while he was still alive. Later that year, a reformed Experience minus Redding toured the US and Europe. This tour included the shows at the Berkeley Community Theatre in Berkeley, CA. that were made famous in the concert film Jimi Plays Berkeley. The portion of this film that has the band playing Hendrix's "Machine Gun" while antiwar protesters fight with police outside is one of those cinematic moments where film captures the zeitgeist of a time. This time happened to be at the end of a month that began with the US invasion of Cambodia and included the murders of four students at Kent State University by National Guard troops, the police murders of two more students at Jackson State University and a national crisis.
Most folks who knew Hendrix's music back then can remember their emotions upon hearing about Hendrix's death on September 18, 1970. I recall being at home in Frankfurt am Main, Germany listening to the radio. The announcement was made during the regular hourly broadcast of the news headlines. Friends of mine who lived and breathed Hendrix were beyond distraught as they smoked pipe after pipe of hashish with fellow mourners--German and American--at an unofficial memorial service in Frankfurt's Gr√ľneburg Park the next day.

As for the CD itself, let me discuss a few of the highlights. After opening with a version of "Stone Free" that opens with a contrapuntal syncopation that resolves itself with a classic Hendrix guitar adventure tailspinning to the song's end. The title song is a psychedelic blues that one can easily imagine dancing to. The lyrics talk about erasing the world's pain ahead of a new world to come. The guitar work carries the lyrics with an understated beauty that hints at that new world. The version of "Red House" is a masterpiece in and of itself. Slower than other recordings of the tune, Hendrix's guitar becomes that lyre invented by Hermes and played to perfection by Orpheus himself. This song has always been one of my favorite Hendrix tunes, from its rendering on Electric Ladyland to the multitude of versions present in the bootlegs and official releases that populate any Hendrix fan's collection. The guitar work here debates and enhances Billy Cox's bass playing without ever giving an inch on either side of the dais. The spirit of every bluesman from Robert Johnson to Charley Patton and Son House are present in the lead put forth here. My other favorite is the reworking of the Cream song "Sunshine Of Your Love." This tune was a fairly big hit in 1968 after its release in December 1967. Written by bass player Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton, its introductory measures are among rock music's best known bars. Hendrix and the Experience played this song quite often in 1968 and 1969 in their concerts, so it's not much of a surprise to find it on this disc.
Now, a cynic might say that it's easy to recycle some old tapes and make a buck off of them. If they were referring to this collection, they would be completely off the mark. This disc enables the listener to hear Hendrix in a brand new way. The members of the Jimi Hendrix Memorial Project that have committed themselves to maintaining and enhancing Hendrix's legacy have certainly done the man right with this release. It is definitely worthy of that rock and roll paradise referred to above.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Of Course Narcs Are Crooked....

We've all seen a television show or a movie about an undercover narcotics cop who become crooked. He loses the trust of his colleagues, then his family. Soon, the only contacts he has are with the world of drug dealers that he originally set out to destroy. Now picture this scenario of the criminal cop on a worldwide scale and condoned by various governments and their agencies, including that of the United States. Let's go a step further and understand that not only are these governments condoning these rogue activities, they consider them valuable to their national security. So, they allow drug dealers to bring huge amounts of heroin and cocaine into the country while at the same time others on the government payroll are arresting drug dealers not favored by US intelligence.
The scenario described above is but one aspect of the so-called war on drugs waged by the United States government. The "war" as it is being fought is, like all wars, much different than originally advertised. Even if there were pure motives ascribed to this war at its inceptions, those motives have long since disintegrated into an abyss of duplicity, denial, and atrocity. Like its progeny the global war on terror, the US war on drugs is a war that its antagonists never want to end since its termination would mean an end to their profit and status. Indeed, an end to the war on drugs would mean an end to the very agencies designed to fight it and the billions of dollars those agencies take from the taxpayers every year. Also like the global war on terror, the war on drugs is against an enemy that does not exist in terms of sovereignty persons, but as a phenomenon impossible to defeat. Therefore, it is an endless pursuit. In addition, it is a pursuit where the individual actors are often on both sides of the battle: where a drug dealer is also an informer and where a terrorist is also a CIA plant. To top it all off, these two wars on phantasms are interlinked. From the poppy fileds and heroin labs of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the coca fields and cocaine labs of Colombia (with many other places in between), the funding of terror and insurgent groups and the funding of forces fighting them is connected to the international drug trade.

The web of individuals, criminal groups, and other organizations involved in the international drug trade is multidimensional and complex. This is also the case with the individuals and agencies enlisted by the US government to fight that trade. The federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are among those who have attempted to catalog the elements involved in the drug trade. Author Douglas Valentine (The Phoenix Program) is one of the few that have attempted to catalog and describe the web woven by the government agencies supposedly fighting that trade. In so doing, he has described a system riddled with corruption and criminality. Sometimes this is the work of individuals enlisted by the agencies; sometimes it is the result of interagency turf battles; and sometimes it is agency policy.
Valentine's first book on the subject is titled The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America's War on Drugs. This book told the history of Henry Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in all of its corrupt detail and racist assumptions. The stories between the book's covers have enough fodder for a dozen Hollywood movies or a multitude of crime novels. His latest on the subject, The Strength of the Pack: The People, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA, covers the period beginning with the dissolution of the FBN, the short tenure of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and the creation and continued existence of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It is a voluminous work with more characters than the proverbial Russian novel. Impeccably researched and documented, The Strength of the Pack details the cowboy attitudes of BNDD and DEA agents and the criminal acts with which they were often involved. It is the story of a bureaucracy constantly at odds with itself and with other agencies, especially the CIA. The conflict with the CIA was directly tied to that agency's use of drug running enterprises in its counterintelligence endeavors. It is the author's contention that this conflict was a product of the CIA's pursuit of its anticommunist agenda no matter what the cost. This contention is supported by the facts presented. There are mafia drug dealers let go and murderers employed by the CIA left to continue their criminal pursuits--all because of the role they played in Washington's war against the Soviet Union.
The US war on drugs begun by Richard Nixon preceded the war on terror by almost twenty years. The destruction of the Bill of Rights Americans currently accept as fact began then. No Knock warrantless searches, torture of suspects, and the assassination of foreign individuals became accepted practice under the DEA. Indeed, some of these became law. Like the war on terror, the war on drugs preys on the fear of the unknown. Likewise, it presents the use of force as the most effective means to fight the war, despite decades of evidence proving that this is not the case. Also, like the war on terror, the war on drugs has created a bureaucracy and a subsidiary industry in the private sector that exists only to perpetuate itself. This is arguably a primary reason why marijuana remains illegal in the United States--because too many people on the supposedly right side of the law make a living from its illegality.
Valentine seeks the truth in his books. In doing so, he uncovers a lot of ugliness regarding the men and women who say they are protecting us. For some readers, his revelations about the US-run assassination program in Vietnam called the Phoenix program or his detailing of the corruption and criminality of those hired by the US government to keep heroin and cocaine away from America's youth might be too much. This in itself is reason enough to read his books. The facade of morality that the DEA hides behind should be torn away if this country is to ever have a sane and humane drug policy. Just as importantly, that facade needs to be destroyed if it is ever to have a sane and humane foreign policy.

As Valentine's books make perfectly clear, there is more than a bit of venality behind almost every bureaucrat and political appointee presented to the populace in any given year. Donald Rumsfeld or Hilary Clinton, Robert McNamara or William Colby, the men and women that run the United States are, after all, human. Some would argue that they define humanity's baser elements.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I See Hawks and Earthworms--Let's Rock

When one travels through the North American continent, one is certain to run into places where the emptiness is overwhelming; where the land is bigger than the sky and the stars at night are the only signs that one is not alone. This emptiness is even greater when one is walking or camping and there are no vehicles even near. Hawks or buzzards flying above. Elk herds far in the distance. Painted canyons that once hosted civilizations. Highway stretching into the unseen distance and the only sound is the blowing wind. Most of this seeming emptiness is found west of the Appalachian mountain range, with its vastness seeming to increase the further west one goes. That is until one reaches the cities of the western coast and the ocean just beyond--a vast emptiness of its own.
One could call this vast emptiness desolation, but this description misses the essence of such space. Desolation implies no life or hope, only an eventual death. Yet, there is a hope there. It is a hope that helped move America westward. There is also an understanding that death is never far and always part of the human equation. Whether it is brought by humanity or mother nature. After every fearful night however, the sun always rises.
These spaces I've described are the essence of the music of the California band I See Hawks In LA. Even when they are singing lyrics about the South--as they occasionally do--the mystery implicit in the open deserts of the west is present. The search for a freedom ever harder to find in the postindustrial wasteland we end up calling home. The rats are everywhere and so are the dead man's bones. Yet, I See Hawks In LA refuses to let hope die. Instead, they compose lyrical tunes including one celebrating a girl raised by hippies in a culture that forgot about peace and love. Another is about a senator who wore Klan robes in his youth only to grow into a champion of civil liberties in his old age when those liberties were curtailed in the name of a younger man's war on terror. Then, there's the one titled "Humboldt" that brings The New Riders of the Purple Sage song about running weed titled "Henry" into the twenty-first century. The finality of certain human undertakings and an understanding of our duality form the heart of their music.
I've mentioned before that this band is the next in a tradition that includes Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, the Byrds (especially the versions after David Crosby left the group), and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Succinctly put, the music of I See Hawks In LA is music of the heart. After having released four discs in the past eight years while constantly touring, the band recently put together a collection of their favorite tunes. Titled Should' Been Gold, the disc contains 17 songs, including six tunes never before released and a live gem to conclude it all. Although I've never caught them live, I've heard it is worth one's time and hope our paths cross sooner rather than later.

In my other life (the one where I'm not writing or organizing), I am a children's specialist at a public library. Besides reading stories to young people and teaching them the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System, I also order the books and other materials for the juvenile and teen sections of the branch I work at. This last endeavor helps me keep abreast of the hundreds of new releases in the world of young people's literature and music. For those readers who have children (still at home or on their own) or work with them in some way, they must know the joy of discovery that flashes across a child's face when they find a book they really like. There is an equivalent joy when they hear a clever tune or other piece of music that strikes their fancy.
Earthworm Ensemble is a hip children's CD featuring rock and roots artists I See Hawks In LA, The Chaplin Sisters, Mike Stimson, David Jackson, Brantley Earns and Sly Stone bassist Jim Awes. The CD features the musicians and some of their children singing clever lyrics urging young and old listeners to think about their place on the planet and how they can insure its survival. There are also just plain fun songs. The cycle of sun, rain, earthworm,soil and plant is the theme of "That's What the Earthworm's For," while the song "Pizza Moon" is a humorous ditty about a dad making pizza with his kids while mom is away.
As any adult who listens to children's music knows, it is always a bonus if the music can entertain adults, too. This is true because it is almost a guarantee that any adult who lives with children will be listening to their music. One such album that comes to my mind is the 199? release by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman titled Not For Kids Only. Musically, every song on this disc does that. This is not necessarily the case lyrically. However, the tune "Walking Boy" stands out as a song that could easily make it into an adult's play list. But, then, this is a CD for children.
The musicians here are masters of their craft. Seasoned performers and songwriters all, they utilize a myriad of genres in this catchy collection. Country-rock a la the Byrd to jaunty hip-hop; folly styling to rock and roll. Like their parent group I See Hawks In LA, the Earthworm Ensemble project describes joyfulness. When the kids aren't singing along, you can be sure they'll be dancing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Just Walk Away From the Democrats

The left needs to organize the unorganized. The working people, the unemployed, the young, and the restless. The right wing has their core group of supporters who organize around fear of the other. The liberals have those who believe in the myth of American equality because they have no class analysis. The Left needs to organize the rest and they need to do so without the Democratic Party. It should be quite clear to almost every left-leaning American by now that the Democrats are nothing more than another wing of the party that works for Wall Street and the Pentagon. To continue to work for and elect their candidates is self-defeating. As the first year of the Obama presidency has clearly shown, not only do the Democrats support the right wing agenda, that support makes it easier for the right wing to put their candidates into power. Why? Because after promising progressive reforms and then failing to deliver, voters tend to either not vote or vote for the right wing candidates out of anger and frustration.
This occurs because the current system provides no alternative. There is no progressive third party or grassroots movement to support such a party. There is not even a grassroots movement that vocalizes the desires of millions for a fair and just society where people's needs come before Wall Street's profits and the Pentagon's wars that help protect and expand those profits. So, the Democrats step in as they have always done and pretend that they are the party that will address these desires. There was a time when such an argument was plausible. From FDR to LBJ, the Democrats were the party that passed many reforms making life better for America's working people. They even passed bills outlawing racial segregation. Of course, this occurred because of immense pressure from the Left--pressure a hundred times greater than the pressure from America's right that the Democrats claim has caused them to compromise on virtually every progressive piece of legislation during the current period. Yes, there was a time when that claim could have been made.

Today's Democratic Party however, is not that party. It is the party of Wall Street as much as its opponents are. It is the party of war as much as the GOP is the party of war. Sure, there are a few congresspeople under the Democratic mantle that oppose the greed and bloodlust of Wall Street and the Pentagon, but they are such a small minority they are irrelevant. Indeed, if they truly wanted to be effective, they would leave the Democrats as soon as possible. Nowadays, when leftists and progressives align themselves with the Democratic Party and its positions, they also align themselves with the reactionaries that run the Republican Party. When leftists and progressives align themselves with the Democrats, they align themselves with those who have sent billions of US dollars into the coffers of the war industry and hundreds of thousands of US men and women into combat for the princes of oil and finance. When leftists and progressives align themselves with the Democrats, they tell the people of the world that they support the transfer of America's wealth to the bankers and insurance industry through bailouts and so-called health care reform. When leftists and progressives align themselves with the Democrats, they tell the American people that they are willing to give lip service to the concerns of America's workers and poor, but when it comes right down to it, those workers and poor will have to figure out on their own how they will get jobs that no longer exist. Jobs that are not being created because the Democrats and the GOP bailed out the banks instead.
The Democratic Party has never been the party of the people. It served the slaveowners of the US South until the Civil War ended that foul practice. Then it served the slaveowners' successors: the cotton and sorghum producers that kept their workers in serflike conditions and never saw a lynching they didn't like. In terms of America's growing industrialization, the Democrats were right there with the GOP pushing through legislation favorable to capital and (at best) ignoring the conditions of American labor. As mentioned before, the Democrats' best years in terms of serving the working and poor people of the United States came during the years between 1936 and 1968, when they passed legislation like Social Security and Medicare and pushed through laws outlawing racial apartheid in the United States. Also, as noted before, this occurred only because of extreme pressure from mass movements of progressive and leftist opponents of the anti-worker and racist policies of the government in Washington. Even then, however, the role the party played was designed more to diminish the strength of those movements. Nonetheless, the reforms occurred because of the movements, not in spite of them. In terms of economics, today's Democrats resemble the Democrats of old more than they do the Democrats of the New Deal and the Great Society. They are in the pay of today's equivalent of the slaveowners--the global capitalists that roam the world searching for labor pools easy to exploit because of their desperation and national governments willing to brutalize workers into submission just like the slavedrivers and field bosses of old. Not only are they in their pay, but they push through legislation like NAFTA designed to make that search for exploitable labor and new markets easier and more profitable than it already is. On the domestic front, it was the Democrats under Bill Clinton that dismantled the system of public assistance for women with children and it is under Barack Obama that a new commission designed to bypass the Congress on the question of possibly dismantling Social Security was recently set up.
As if one needed more convincing, after the recent defeat of the Democratic candidate in the Massachusetts special election, an op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The piece was written by a mainstream Democratic party member who blamed the left wing of the party for the defeat. It was time, said the writer, to move back to the right in order to win the next round of elections. In other words, try and steal the traditional GOP voters away from the GOP instead of going after the traditionally unorganized mentioned at the beginning of this piece. In case I haven't made it clear already, the writer in the Journal is what the Democrats really are. The party is not interested in genuinely addressing the concerns of the poor, the newly unemployed and the rest of America's disenfranchised. That is why most of these voters (many who voted in 2008 for Obama) stayed home in Massachusetts this last time. They understand that the Democrats are for someone other than them and they won't be lied to again. Unless the Left gets it act together, they are willing to let the chips fall where they may--even if that means a resurgence of the GOP.

I can't be emphatic enough, there is no reasonable reason to waste a dollar or a moment of your time campaigning for the Democratic Party. Barack Obama's campaign based on false hope and promises and the subsequent reneging on almost every promise of change should be enough to convince any left-leaning or progressive person in the United States who voted for Obama in 2008 that the time has come to end this relationship for good and forever. Like the cheating and lying spouse that keeps asking for one more chance after you find them in bed with your enemy once again, there comes a time to end the relationship. Not only have the occasional moments of bliss and the crumbs that say I care become fewer and fewer, they are no longer enough. The denial so many left-leaning Americans have lived with in their relationship with the Democrats is causing more harm then it is worth. Walk away, close the door behind you and begin the work required to build a real force for progressive change in the United States.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

War On Terror or War On Disaffected Yemenis?

As if the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were not enough to satiate the Empire's bloodlust, the calls are increasing for an all-out war on the nation of Yemen. The reason given for this intervention is that the man who apparently wanted to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day 2009 spent some time there and may have received his instructions while he was visiting. Like the increasingly bloody occupation of Afghanistan, Washington wants the world to believe that attacking a nation that hosts organizations intent on resisting US domination will somehow end those organizations existence and make everyone safer. Left unsaid in this rather simplistic equation are the obvious facts. Over eight years of war and occupation of Afghanistan has neither stopped the desire of politically nor religiously motivated individuals to blow up airliners and other structures in their war against US cultural and economic imperialism. Nor has it broken the back of the groups in Afghanistan that also oppose the US intervention in their country. In fact, if we are to believe intelligence reports from various US agencies, these groups are not only still in existence, they have mutated politically and are at least as strong as they were before the US invasion in 2001.
In recent months, parts of Yemen have come under attack by Saudi Arabian forces backing the government there. In recent weeks, the Saudis have been supported by the US military. It seems quite likely that there is more to the growing likelihood of deeper US military involvement in Yemen than the visit of the wannabe bomber Mr. Abdulmutallab. Saudi Arabia and North Yemen fought a war in 1934 when a prince formerly aligned with Ibn Saud switched allegiance to the Yemeni Prince King Yahya, Although Riyadh supported the Zaydi monarchist predecessors (Zaydi Imams) to the Houthi rebels in the 1962 republican revolution in North Yemen, it now supports the successors to those it opposed in 1962 (the Saleh regime). This support is religious and geopolitically based, with the Saleh government being primarily Sunni (with Wahabbist leanings) and the opposition being Shia. The fact that the conflict is primarily occurring in a province on Saudi Arabia's borders explains Riyadh's concerns with regard to geography. he victory of the north Yemeni forces began a period that saw increasing repression of forces opposed to Saleh, with human rights groups documenting torture, displacement and extrajudicial killings. Since the defeat of the Zaydi Imams in 1962 by the forerunners of the current Yemeni government, the northwestern province of Sa'adah has been ignored by the Yemeni regime, leaving it to founder economically. Over the years this has naturally caused resentment. By 2004, a full-blown insurgency in Sa'adah shifted the Yemeni military's interest to this historically ignored region. This rebellion is known as the Houthi insurgency because of its leadership by dissident cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (rumored to have been killed in US and Saudi airstrikes in November 2009).
South Yemen was a protectorate and colony of Britain until it achieved independence in 1967 after a struggle led by socialist revolutionaries. After North and South Yemen reunited in 1990, Saleh refused to grant the former members of the Democratic Republic of South Yemen power commensurate with their support. This fact and a desire by the Marxist former leaders of South Yemen for more progressive social policies led to civil war in 1994. Saleh's government was backed militarily by Saudi Arabia. In 2009, renewed resistance against the Yemeni regime began in southern Yemen led by leftist-leaning forces. Yemeni military forces have met this popular uprising with overt and often violent repression.
On to all this, one must add the group that calls itself Al Qaida of Yemen (AQY). While it seems unlikely that this group (if it is truly a terrorist group and not some kind of black op) is carrying out specific orders of Bin Laden or one of the dozens of supposed Al Qaida leaders, it is reasonable to say that its members are inspired by the philosophy and actions of groups nominally known as Al Qaida. However, as far as the Yemeni regime is concerned, its existence in Yemen in the minds of Washington and the rest of the west is quite useful. After all, if the Pentagon is willing to escalate its low-scale conflict to a full fledged war in the name of fighting terrorism, than Saleh and his military can gain an advantage against the two insurgencies currently being waged against his regime. By claiming that the terrorists are either aligned with one or both of the insurgencies or are at least located in territories controlled by them, Saleh's regime can direct US airstrikes at those areas of the country. This will most likely disrupt not only the supposed terror cells, but will also interrupt the insurgencies. If it is the Yemeni air force that conducts the raids, it will be with US weaponry that will soon be on its way. In addition, the likelihood of attacks against the insurgencies increases should the Yemen government convince the US to let them run the show (with US supervision). Naturally, military action on this scale will also kill and wound civilians, thereby increasing the likelihood of alliances between the insurgents and AQY, neatly sewing the three elements together and continuing Saleh's continued rule. I am simultaneously reminded of Israel's use of US weaponry and funds to subdue the Palestinians and Washington's deal with Pakistan's Musharraf after 9-11.
Like Afghanistan, Yemen is a very poor country. It is also somewhat unstable politically, as the above paragraphs describe. Its proximity to Saudi Arabia raises some concerns for Washington primarily because of its fear that the ideas informing the insurgencies might inspire Saudi Arabia's disenfranchised masses and upset the oil teat America depends on. Also, like Afghanistan, it can be argued that its best promise for stability and a decent life for its citizens was when it had a socialist oriented government--a regime subverted with considerable help from the United States.