Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Way the Wind Blew Reviews Part Three

two not so positive reviews and one from The Journal of American History
http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/18307

http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/4468/the_way_the_wind_blew/


The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground By Ron Jacobs. (New York: Verso, 1997. viii, 216 pp. Cloth, $50.00, ISBN 1-85984-861-3. Paper, $15.00, ISBN 1- 85984-167-8.)

Ron Jacobs begins his history of the Weather Underground where most analyses of the move- ments of the 1960s leave off, with the splintering of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1968 and the "Days of Rage" in 1969. His focus is solely on Weather, which turns out to be his book's major strength but also accounts for some of its weaknesses. Jacobs's first chapter, "1968: SDS Turns Left,' recounts the disintegration of SDS into factions that included Weather, Progressive Labor (PL), the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), and others. While the reader gains a careful analysis of the ideological differences among these groups, what is lost is the context out of which this all emerged. There is no discussion of the history of SDS or even of the political careers that led members of the Weather Underground to this point. (There are some biographical tidbits in a brief appendix entitled "The Cast.") From this moment on, however, Jacobs re- tells with care the stages of Weather activity coupled with discussions of its developing theoretical positions and growing cognizance of other political issues, including the emerging feminist movement. One virtue of his work is his decision to take Weather seriously and not to indulge in the kind of sensationalistic discussions of their interpersonal, communal, and sexual side, topics that have tainted other analyses. We witness the evolution of Weather's positions from the initial "You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows" (1968) through "New Morning, Changing Weather" (1970) and, finally, Prairie Fire. The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (1974).
On the other hand, some further examination of the connection between their personal and political sides, including a more textured discussion of underground life, would have more fully rounded his portrait. An added value of this work is to remind older readers and inform younger ones of the domestic political events that occurred after 1968 and 1969, events which are too often merely thought of as footnotes to 1960s history, if not altogether forgotten. We learn not only of the explosion in a New York townhouse in 1970, where members were constructing bombs, and of other Weather bombings but also of the May Day demonstrations of 1971 that aimed to shut down Washington, D.C., the various legal struggles of the Black Panthers, and the short-lived media frenzy surrounding the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and its kidnapping and subsequent conversion of the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
What is striking as one reads and remembers the attention paid to the Weather Underground is how small the cadre was, given its importance in both the movement and the media. In part, this is not unusual in the history of the American Left. Numerous well- remembered and oft-studied factions of the Communist and Socialist parties had surprisingly few adherents. Yet we would not be able to find an equivalent amount of mainstream press attention paid to these groups. Through a combination of flamboyant rhetoric, publicity- grabbing activities, and its positioning of itself at the extreme edge of the rebellious impulse of the era, Weather became the most prominent, if not the most representative, group of the last phase of 1960s activism. Jacobs's study, while keeping to a slightly too narrow retelling of their activities, nevertheless provides an accessible, readable, and compelling history of their ideas and their activities.

Alexander Bloom Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Friday, December 2, 2011

Blast From the Past: A Review of My Weather Underground Book from 1998

review published August 1998 in San Francisco Bay Guardian

Guerrilla USA

A philosophical history of the Weather Underground

The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. By Ron Jacobs. Verso, 216 pages, $15.

By Daniel Burton-Rose

IN THE CRUCIBLE of late-'60s white radicalism, a fomenting militancy pushed an element of Students for a Democratic Society toward a more immediate solidarity with the Vietnamese people, one born of shared repression. As the state reacted with dumb authoritarian brutality to questions it knew were too on-point to answer, a small group of middle-class activists took the steps they felt were necessary to end the U.S. regime once and for all. Revolutionary violence was, as Weather member Bernardine Dohrn put it, "The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle...."

Their efforts are the twisting tale that Ron Jacobs tells in his history of the Weather Underground, The Way the Wind Blew. Jacobs -- a worker at the University of Vermont library and avowed New Leftie -- gives a documentary history that includes photos, posters, and underground comix. The Way the Wind Blew transplants you to a time of widespread domestic government repression and foreign aggression. A time in which change was not just an ideal but an imperative.

The history of Weather is the story of radicals for whom nothing could come too fast. Weather needed to immediately end everything it hated about the U.S. government, and it did not have time to waste on tolerating the unconvinced -- those who could have given it the numbers to realize its goals. Weather denounced the U.S. working class as hopelessly blind to its own oppression, supporting imperialist war and racism. In fits of self-righteousness Weather stomped into working-class communities and berated youth as "pigs," often getting an ass-kicking as their payback. With the Days of Rage in Chicago, Weather whipped up efforts to "tear the motherfucker apart" but experienced only low turnout and unfocused street violence.

Jacobs has written a history of ideas rather than personalities. His book is more instructive than either the flat-out denouncements of paramilitary violence or the uncritical celebrations that have thus far constituted the history of late-'60s and '70s guerrilla movements. Jacobs traces Weather's long ambivalent dance with youth counterculture. At times the group saw youth's lack of a stake in contemporary society as the hope for a new nation, but Weather retained a great "distrust of its own potential base of support." Militant feminist analysis by Weather women made the Weather men realize that the men themselves were also capable of counterrevolutionary thoughts. This epiphany made them acknowledge "that individuals were capable of change, whatever their previous prejudices." It was a step from revolutionary purity to real-world maturity.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, Weather's military actions seemed less extreme to New Left folks. A bomb in the Pentagon in May 1972 was well-received in the antiwar community. Conversely, as the war wound down it became clear that there would be no galvanizing force of comparable strength for the next decade. Weather foundered.

So Jacobs goes on to tell of the flip side of the Jerry Rubin and Eldridge Cleaver-style '80s sellouts -- terribly fractured guerrilla cells trying desperately not to drown in the political tide turning away from an open society. Because of Weather's death in a flurry of acronyms, The Way the Wind Blew seems like a book without a conclusion. For that reason it is somewhat unsatisfying. But at closer look, the tapered anticlimax captures the nature of the period and the feeling of the participants. In the end, both they and you want more.

Jacobs admires Weather Underground members for their dedication and strength. Indeed, he dedicates his book to "those who gave their lives and freedom in the struggle against racism and imperial war." The book explores what Weather got right and what it screwed up. To read it is to understand one of the most fascinating attempts to create revolutionary change in modern American history.

(Daniel Burton-Rose is the editor of The Celling of America.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nothing Left To Lose

Back in the mid-1970s a lover and I hitchhiked from Maryland's D.C. suburbs to Orange County, California. We lasted a week in that Republican purgatory, then hitched up to Berkeley. Within a couple weeks, my friend and I were collecting unemployment, living in Oakland and familiarizing ourselves with the street scene along Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue and San Francisco's Haight Street. Although I had been quite involved with various anarchist and communist radicals in the DC area, I was primarily interested in participating in what remained of the counterculture by the time I moved to Berkeley. Politics had both worn me out and disillusioned me.
Yet, politics wouldn't leave me alone. I ran into former Black Panthers, White Panthers and leftover Weather Underground types while I did bong hits. One of my friends was a communist organizer who knew lots of radicals from all over the Bay Area. Soon, several other friends from the suburban tracts we had left behind had joined us. We got an apartment. My lover and I eventually went our own ways while remaining housemates.
A couple close friends of mine who were quite political asked me if I was interested in joining their cell. What, I asked, would this entail? I was told that I would have to share everything with them and be willing to undertake "armed" activities. We had several long and deep discussions. I seriously considered their offer, but declined for political and philosophical reasons. We remained good friends and they decided not to engage in so-called armed actions. I was relieved for a number of reasons.
The people I met and hung out with on Telegraph Ave. were some of the most colorful and free individuals I have ever known. Some paid for their freedom with their lives. Some traded it in for something else. Some lost it to the law. Nonetheless, they did have some freedom to lose. Maybe, because (let me refer to a rock tune) they had nothing else left to lose.
The Co-Conspirator's Tale is motivated partially by these experiences. It is something of a speculation about what might have happened if my friends and I had decided to create that cell and engage in bombings, etc. Simultaneously, it is a contemplation on the nature of a system where (as Mick Jagger sings) "every cop is a criminal," and a sanctioned one at that.
My previous novel Short Order Frame Up examines similar aspects of our society, although it is the racism of the system and the cops who work for it that are called into question. The corruption in The Co-Conspirator's Tale does not even have the tawdry principles of a racist pair of cops to dignify it. In fact, the only motivation is to protect and preserve a system built on lies and maintained by deceit and power.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy--What Next?

What happens next with the Occupy movement? Should every camp fight for its continued existence or should those unable to sustain a livable environment for the campers because of the authorities or lack of logistical support pack it up? We always figured on having to make these decisions sooner or later because of the winter weather that is bound to come. However, the recent deaths in and near the Occupy camps in Salt Lake City, Burlington, VT., and Oakland forces the folks in those areas to think about the next move. Other camps have reported rapes. This movement is bigger than the camps, but the camps have been crucial in expanding the movement by providing a place for supporters to gather, an actual piece of turf to defend and identify with, and, for those warriors that have no other place to live, a home.
Each of the camps mentioned above are different in terms of their demographic makeup, the local politics, the police forces arrayed against them and the level of community support. Oakland has seen the most aggressive police action, while Burlington has probably seen the least. However, as soon as I heard that a shot had been fired in the Burlington camp I knew that the local authorities would manipulate whatever happened into a way to close the camp. That is exactly what they did. After inviting occupiers to meet with the Mayor and other officials inside City Hall (which is adjacent to the Occupy site), the police quickly went into the encampment, threw up a yellow tape and threw folks out. A couple folks were arrested for resisting this attempt (one was released immediately and the other was released a few hours later), but the move had been made. Nobody has been allowed back into the Occupy site except for a few folks who were allowed to retrieve their belongings after the police searched them and the belongings. The city is now calling the camp unsafe and is on record as refusing any more camping. As I write a GA is gathering. The future is uncertain. Just as it is in Oakland where the police forces are considerably less friendly and the big business that runs Oakland tightens the screws on the Mayor and police to clear the camp. Meanwhile, in other cities up and down the West Coast, eviction notices have been served on at least three other camps, with the police itching for a fight in at least two of those towns. (November 14-Both Portland and Oakland were shut down with massive displays of police force that were met with mass resistance.  November 15 New York was cleared).

So, back to the question: what next? Are those camps that have been placed in limbo the most important aspect of the movement? Should we go down swinging to protect them? For those that found the camps to be a safe place to live where they were making a difference, they may well be. At the same time, will the extra police surveillance and harassment certain to accompany any further camping at these sites turn them into places where the presence of (or fear of the presence of) police make political organizing difficult or impossible? I myself would find it hard to discuss the squatting of a foreclosed building with cops in and out of uniform within hearing distance.
Although I am not as big of a fan of Gandhi as many people in the movement, the history of the movement to chase the British out of India that he is identified with is instructive. In terms of the current discussion, the most relevant fact is that he and his fellow organizers were able to recognize when a tactic they were using had failed or at least run its course. When they acknowledged this (with much discussion no doubt) they moved on to another. The same could also be said of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others involved in the movement for black liberation. Both movements never strayed from their goal, but both were quite keen at recognizing what should be the next set of tactics. If I were to express the goal of the Occupy movement, it would be this: redistribute the wealth hoarded by the wealthy few fairly. This simple statement has created space for those who want to effect this change from all walks of life except perhaps from that so-called 1%.
Some camps may (and should) remain the thriving alternative spaces they have become. At the same time, we must ask ourselves what the next set of tactics should be. Getting arrested for defending a piece of land that the cops will take back by any means necessary has to be weighed against the potential of the multitude of possibilities that exist for this movement. At the same time, should an Occupy camp choose to defend its turf, then the rest of the movement must do what it can to support that decision.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Come to the Burlington Book Fest

Stop on by the Fomite table on the third for of the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington,Vt.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Father's Day Baseball Memory

On May 1st, 1991, Nolan Ryan pitched his seventh career no-hitter and Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock's record for stolen bases the same evening. I was ecstatic in a way only baseball makes me.
My son, then a towheaded seven year old who, to this day, is fascinated with statistics, whether they concern the height of mountains on Mars or the earned run average of the entire Red Sox pitching staff, asked me what the big deal was after listening to me extol the virtues of both feats that May Day. It was then that I decided to honor his month old request to buy a baseball glove. Then he could find out for himself. The next evening he, his mother (who lived across town and grew up in a Cape Cod household where the Red Sox were the only baseball team there was), and I, embarked on a mission. With twenty dollars he'd been given for his birthday, my son bought a fielder's mitt inscribed with Cal Ripken Jr.'s signature. The next day he played catch with his mom's male friend at the time (a Reds fan) and he began to understand. He told me on the telephone of all the catches he had made and how the ball hit his nose only once. Mom, he said, even played.
Sports in America, my angry young friends tell me, are just an extension of the corporate system of greed. How can you be interested in them, they ask. I don't know how to answer their charges directly, so instead, I ask if they've ever seen a magnificently executed catch. One where an outfielder pulls the ball from its sure path over the fence, slamming his body against the centerfield wall, falling to the ground from the shock of the impact, and rising triumphantly with the ball in his glove. Or, even better, I query, have you ever made a catch that seemed equally magnificent yourself? Of course, it's not really as spectacular to an onlooker, but to you it's like you're Willie Mays in the first game of the 1954 World Series. They look at me as if I am crazy. Of course, I am -- a little.
There is no magic left in the world, say their expressions. And if there is, it surely isn't in some stupid game.
A week later my son brought his glove and ball to my house on the other side of town. The day before I had purchased a well-worn mitt from Salvation Army just for such an occasion. After a couple of wild throws from his end of the yard, and one well aimed toss from mine (which he failed to catch, anyway), I tossed the ball gently towards his glove once again. The expression of doubt across his face changed to one of joy and surprise as his glove wrapped itself tightly around the ball.
It wasn't Willie Mays, but it could have been. At that moment, I knew the genuine power of the game. It wasn't on the TV, in the papers, or even in organized Little League. It was in a game of catch in the backyard.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tripping Through the American Night Now Available in print

Previously only available as an ebook, my collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print.  That's right--real paper and covers and everything.  You can order it here or at Amazon.com.  It will also be available soon at many other stores and through your local bookseller.  For the first couple of weeks, you can get it at a $4.00 discount if you order through the link that says "here" above.  Just type in the discount code NUJMWMG3 during checkout.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Co-Conspirator's Tale Now Available


1979.  When Peter Somers fell in love with a girl named moonshadow on the Berkeley pier, little did he know that she was a member of a group of wannabe revolutionaries.  After an undercover cop is killed and another friend is falsely charged with the murder, the cell disappears.

2007.  Somers ends up back in Berkeley after receiving a letter describing the arrest of his friend on murder charges.  He joins forces with a lawyer and others in an attempt to clear his friend's name.  The authorities have something else in mind. 

There's a place where love and mistrust are never at peace; where duplicity and deceit are the universal currency. The Co-Conspirator's Tale takes place within this nebulous firmament. Crimes committed by the police in the name of justice. Excess in the name of revolution. The combination leaves death in its wake and the survivors struggling to find justice in a San Francisco Bay Area noir by the author of the underground classic The Way the Wind Blew:A History of the Weather Underground and the novel Short Order Frame Up.

There are no hero cops or private eyes in The Co-Conspirator's Tale, just a couple of folks who don't trust the world as it is to provide justice. The battlefields are the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area and the psyches of the accused, their accomplices and their accusers.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Washington's Internal Security Apparatus-A Long History

US citizens of almost all political stripes tend to live their lives ignorant of what the government that operates in their name is really up to. Some of this is due to the government's obsession with secrecy and some of it is due to the people's political naivete (or ignorance). Perhaps the only exceptions to this statement are those that exist on what are considered the fringes of US political discourse. Thanks in part to this ignorance, most US residents live their lives unaware of the police state author Andrew Kolin describes in his recently published book State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush.
This isn't just another book raging against the excesses of the George Bush administration. In fact, it is a historical survey of the slow but steady journey of the US polity towards an authoritarian regime designed to protect a relative few from the democratic urgings of the people. Kolin begins his book with a brief look at the debates over the writing of the US Constitution and its eventual incarnation as a blueprint for a centralized authority whose intention was to keep government away from the hoi polloi. Adjunct to this endeavor was a desire to expand the nation. This was done by killing the indigenous peoples living on the land to be expanded into. In order to justify this genocide, it was necessary to delineate the natives as something other than human. According to Kolin, the need for such an "other" is essential to the development of an authoritarian state. The Native Americans and the African slaves filled the need quite nicely given their obvious physical and cultural differences.
Another aspect of Kolin's proposition that differentiates it from so many other commentaries that have been written on the police state tactics of the Bush administration is his contention that the US police state is not a future possibility. It already exists. We are living in it. He backs up this contention with an argument that dissects the elements generally considered essential to the definition of a police state and applies them to the present day United States. From torture to propaganda techniques; from the government's ability to eavesdrop on anyone to its ability to wage war at will--these are but a few of the indices Kolin examines in his study. According to Kolin, however, the ultimate indicator of a police state is defined by whether or not the leader of a particular government (in this case, that of the United States) exists above the laws of the nation and the world. In other words, if the leader does something, is it ever illegal? Kolin provides multiple examples of every administration since Abraham Lincoln's operating in a vein suggesting that they all operated in this way at times. However, it was not until the inauguration of George W. Bush and the events of September 11, 2001, that the word of the president became a law onto its own. When George Bush said he was "the decider" he wasn't joking. He and every president to follow him truly have that power. They can decide who to kill, who to spy on, who to lock up, and who to attack without any restriction other than their own morality. Furthermore, they can also determine how such actions are to be done. As far as the presidency is concerned, no laws--not the Bill of Rights nor the Geneva Conventions--apply.
The march towards this police state that Kolin describes is best characterized by the phrase "two steps forward, one step back." Historically, for every presidential administration where excesses occurred, there followed another that saw a relaxation of some of those excesses. The repression of the Palmer Raids was followed by a decade where the Communist Party became legal; the McCarthy Era was followed by a relaxation of the anti-communist hysteria in the 2960s; Nixon's attempts to subvert the democratic process were answered with convictions and a series of laws that were supposed to prevent similar excesses. Yet, the march towards authoritarianism continued its quiet goosestep. Nowhere was this more obvious than in US foreign policy. After the US turmoil around its war against the Vietnamese, Congress passed a War Powers Act that supposedly limited the president’s ability to send US troops to other nations. In answer, every single president afterward pushed the limits of that law so that by the 1980s it was meaningless. Other attempts to limit the White House's ability to make war like the Boland amendment which made arming the Nicaraguan Contras illegal were just ignored. By the time Bill Clinton took power in 1991, the ability of the president to attack whenever and wherever was no longer seriously challenged by Congress, leaving the White House in sole control of the nations' military might.
The nation described in Kolin's book is a fearful one. It is a nation whose agents torture at will and whose military wages war for no apparent reason other than profit and power. It is a nation whose political police forces operate as both judge and jury and often fail to leave their personal prejudices at home. It is a nation whose judicial system rarely interprets a law different than the chief executive and when it does that executive ignores the ruling. It is a nation where so many of its citizens live their lives under the illusion that the authoritarian rule they increasingly live with is somehow protecting them. It is a nation that refuses to prosecute officials including the former president that were involved in torture that violated domestic and international laws. Finally, according to Kolin, it is a nation without redemption that will see the powers of the police state continue to grow unless its people wake up and dismantle it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Making the Robbed Pay for the Robbers' Crimes

"Some men rob you with a six gun/and some with a fountain pen..."-Woody Guthrie
As I write this, Republicans and other right wingers fret and strut about their stage in Madison, WI. calling for the arrest of Democratic legislators refusing to be bullied into destroying public worker unions in Wisconsin. It's not that the Democrats completely oppose the GOP governor's proposal to destroy the unions, but the incredibly powerful and populous protests against the proposal have convinced them that they should disappear for a while. The protests, meanwhile, are growing in size and fury. A similar situation seems to be unfolding in Ohio, Indiana and other US states where similar attempts by anti-union state officials to destroy public employee unions are underway.
The desire to destroy the unions is being presented as a deficit reducing proposal. In reality, the unionbusting proposals would have very little effect on cutting the deficit. In fact, some reporters claim that Wisconsin did not actually face a deficit until the governor pushed through some tax proposals favorable to big business and the wealthy. These very same businesses and wealthy individuals are part of the small number of people that have benefited from the economic crash of 2007. It is their intention to continue benefiting at the expense of the rest of the country. Amazingly, numbers of US voters apparently agree with them despite overwhelming evidence that shows what is good for the super rich is not good for too many others. Despite this, they call for small government while being enslaved to the will of the corporations.

In her 2011 opening address to the North Carolina state legislature, Governor Bev Perdue called for a two percent reduction of the state's corporate income tax. This call from Perdue, a Democrat, is one that has been championed by the Republicans of North Carolina for a long time. Besides being one more bit of proof that there is very little difference between the Democrats and the GOP when it comes to kissing corporate tail, this call flies in the face of logic.
The state of North Carolina is facing millions of dollars in cuts. Libraries are being closed, public employees are being laid off and positions are not being filled. Schools are increasing class sizes, laying off teachers and threatening some districts with closures. Even police and other law enforcement (usually untouchable) are thinking about layoffs. Yet, Perdue and the legislature want to cut corporate taxes. Already, the income tax surcharge on North Carolina's wealthiest taxpayers ended with the 2010 tax cycle. So, what are they thinking?
The rationale behind this call to reduce corporate taxes is as old as the tax system. According to those who champion this nonsensical idea, the reason North Carolina isn't creating jobs is because corporations do not want to pay the 6.99% tax in North Carolina. If that tax is reduced, the tax cut's proponents claim that more businesses will set up shop in the state. Ronald Reagan used a similar argument when he was president. He called it the trickle-down theory. (As far as I can tell, it felt a lot more like getting trickled on). The most recent national politician to make this idea into law is President Obama when he extended the tax cuts for the wealthy.
The big problem with this theory is that it doesn't work. Jobs have been leaving this country by the millions since Reagan instituted his tax cuts and they haven't come back. Corporations don't want a tax cut. They want no taxes at all. Their bottom line is profit and most of them will go where that profit is the greatest. In other words, where labor costs are minimal and taxes are even less. It is the people of North Carolina that work in North Carolina's factories and buy their products, yet the politicians would have us believe that the corporations are doing us a favor by being here, and should therefore have to pay a lower rate of tax than the rest of us.
It should not be the duty of the state government to facilitate a race to the economic bottom for those who live and work in North Carolina. Nor should it be the function of any government entity to enhance the coffers of its corporations at the expense of its citizens. Yet, by lowering the tax rate on corporations, this is exactly what North Carolina is doing. With less tax monies, there will be less money for services like schools. Already corporations come to North Carolina looking to pay lower wages. They should not also benefit from paying a lower rate of taxes than those who work for them.
The scenario described above is one that rightwing forces (with no small amount of acquiescence from liberals) has been putting into place nationwide for decades. The cost of this endeavor has been the safety and health of workers; the impoverishment of entire neighborhoods in the United States and nations around the world; and the impending destruction of the educational system, to name the first that come to mind. If this scenario comes true, it may never reverse.

In a speech I heard Jesse Jackson give in 1984, he stated that workers didn't just want jobs, they wanted jobs that paid a livable wage, offered benefits and, most of all, provided the worker with a sense of dignity. After all, he continued, every slave had a job during slavery. The point being made here is that working people deserve a decent life just as much as those that employ them do. Just working is not enough. The worker uprising in Wisconsin is a recognition of this. As for those who tell private sector workers that it is the public sector workers' fault for the current economic mess--that is, pure and simple, a lie. It is the rapaciousness of Wall Street and the governments that work for it that are to blame. These and other lies pitting workers against each othere are just one more attempt by those in power to divide those who are feeling the pain of neoliberal capitalism's heartless and avaricious greed.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Father Time Wants to Forget--An Essay From the Past

When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, the week between Christmas and New Year's was a week of psychedelic bacchanalia. The Grateful Dead were the house band for this festival and the cops kept their distance while hardcore freaks and more recent converts to the culture danced, smoked and otherwise shuffled, stumbled and tripped their way into the next year. Those who lived in the woods of this land brought their school buses into the parking lot of whatever venue the Dead were based at (usually the Oakland Auditorium, more recently known as Kaiser Auditorium), while the folks with more money booked their hotel rooms around the area well in advance. The latter included dealers of illegal substances, well-heeled scions of America's better off families, and working people who had been saving up for the week since January 2nd of the previous year. Then there were the rest of us--locals and heads from far away. We took the BART home (or to friends we had in the area) after the shows or maybe just wandered around all night in the campground set up in front of the building and patrolled by concert promoter Bill Graham's security forces. Whatever happened outside in the lot was fun, but the real fun was inside. I toked up with Ken Kesey one year on one of the Hog Farm buses, while another year I walked around as part of the force of volunteers whose job was to remind people that drugs were illegal and they shouldn't sell them in front of the police. I got a couple tickets for my efforts. I saw one of my best friends give away his ticket to a lady he fancied one year only to move in with her not more than a couple months later.
Inside was a better story. The Dead played two sets a night for the first four nights. On New Year's Eve they were preceded by at least one other group, usually two. I could list them here but that's not the point of this piece. I do want to mention my favorite additional musicians, however. They didn't open the show, but joined the Dead at midnight. While balloons and confetti showered down on the crowd, Etta James and the Tower of Power horns joined the band in a blistering rendition of the blues standards Turn On Your Love Light, Tell Mama, Baby What You Want Me To Do, Hard To Handle, and In The Midnight Hour. Ms. Etta praised the band after Turn on Your Love Light by saying that she never heard white boys play the blues like the boys with her on that stage that night. I could go on, but I won't. Suffice it to say that I haven't celebrated New Year's Eve like that since I left Oakland.
As far as I'm concerned, they don't make New Year's Eve like they used to. This year I'll be sitting at home with a couple friends, putting back a couple cold ones and thinking about 2005. It's been a year when the antiwar movement has grown and is actually influencing the conversation over the debacle in Iraq, yet the war shows no signs of ending soon. George Bush's administration has its lowest poll numbers ever, but continues on its self-serving quest to profit from the destruction of the world as we know it. Innumerable crimes have been committed by the aforementioned administration and it looks like they'll get away with every single one. The misnomered PATRIOT Act was extended despite the efforts of radical militant librarians and their like. Sure, the extension was only one month, but you can bet that lawmakers' arms are being twisted and perhaps even an event is being planned to convince the lily-livered members of Congress that this law should be made permanent. Integrity has never been a strong point of politicians, and the various indictments of 2005 proved this point once again. More alarming were the seemingly endless "revelations" about journalists who were either on the government's payroll both in the US and Iraq or just planted its lies in their newspapers because they wanted to be on the side of power. To add insult to injury, these so-called journalists then used the US Constitution's freedom of the press clause to defend their refusal to disclose the government official feeding them the lies. Ben Franklin, how many times did you roll over in your grave this year?
Oh yeah, did I mention that 837 US military men and women have been killed in Iraq so far this year (with two days left to go)? God knows how many Iraqis have met the same fate. In that forgotten war over in Afghanistan, there have been fifty GIs killed. Good thing that war is over, huh? As for acknowledged wounded in action, the total number of US WIA hovered near 4000 for the year of 2005. Needless to say, this is not a hopeful picture, but you'd never know that if you listened to George Bush's latest national speech. Then again, you would never know it if you listened to the nonsense coming out of most Democrats' mouths, either. Despite polls showing that more than one-third of the US population wants an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, one would be hard put to find one-tenth of the US Congress to support such a move. As for the military, many of its members keep hoping that the much-talked-about-yet-never-enacted phased withdrawal from Iraq will begin.
Natural disasters trashed a good portion of the earth this past year, as well. Unfortunately for those who lived where those disasters occurred, it was often the official response to the catastrophes that caused the most damage. this was especially the case in the nether regions of Louisiana and Mississippi, where thousands of people were left to live in the waste of a flooded city while the man who was supposed to be helping them emailed his secretary for advice on what tie to wear at his next press conference. From the few accounts that exist in the western media, many Kashmiris faced a comparable lack of official response after their part of the world was hit by devastating earthquakes. Of course, if one listened to the various holy rollers from all of the monotheistic religions, these disasters were just part of "god's" wrath on sinners and infidels. Human indifference and negligence didn't figure in these guys thinking. Why would it? Some of them are the same people who wage wars with (and on) other people's children to keep their profit margins big enough. It takes more than a bunch of pomposity disguised as righteousness to decipher god's will, if there even is such a thing.
Back to those days of yesteryear that I began this piece with. It's not that the times I lived in the San Francisco area were not without their tragedies and disasters. It was still the same country, for chrissake. US-run wars were going on in Central America and Afghanistan and the rich were trashing the US economy for the sake of their bank accounts and greed. The religious right were beginning their power grab on US politics and taking down the nation's moral compass in the process. Maggie Thatcher was doing a tag team attack with Ronnie Reagan on the world. That says a lot right there. Ronald Reagan was the the president of the US! That says even more. To be truthful it wasn't that much better for most of us who couldn't or wouldn't play their game. Perhaps that's why those days of bacchanalian denial were so welcome. They helped us all forget the reality we lived in. Hell, perhaps that's the reason for New Year's celebrations around the world and since the beginning of time, no matter what calendar we're talking about. Erase the miseries of the year just past and start with a clean slate full of hopes for the new one. What I wouldn't give for something like that now. That's the trouble with getting old. It gets harder to forget.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Blasts From the Past-Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott Heron

It's funny how many of us can remember the very first time we heard a particular song. Usually, it's because that song dramatically shifts the idea of what music can be. Other times, it's because that song speaks so accurately to the listener about something happening in the listener's internal or external world. Sometimes, it's both at the same time.
The very first time I heard Stevie Wonder's "Living For the City" I was living in New York. It was a Saturday night in the freshmen men's dormitory at Fordham University in the Bronx. There was one room where us weekenders would gather to drink cheap beer, smoke good Colombian herb, listen to music and bullshit. We were the guys who didn't go back to a home in suburban New York or New Jersey either because we lived further away, had to work or lived in the South Bronx, el Barrio or Bed-Stuy and just didn't feel like dealing with the street that weekend. The albums we played while we modified our moods and rearranged our brain matter usually included (in no particular order) something by the Allman Brothers, Earth, Wind and Fire, Eddie Palmieri, the Grateful Dead, the Stones or Beatles, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Sly and the Family Stone and another soul or salsa group or two.. It's not that there weren't other records in the various record collections of us weekenders. It's just that these bands represented a compromise of what we were all willing to listen too.
Anyhow, I had finished with my day's work at an Italian restaurant near the southern end of Central Park and taken the D Train back up to the Concourse. After eating a couple quick slices of pizza and picking up a couple six packs of Rheingold, I was ready for the evening. The first album to drop on the turntable was a new one by Stevie Wonder called Innervisions. I laughed in a way that only a bong hit can make one laugh as the needle hit the first song: "Too High." Even though Stevie might not have been singing about being too high on weed, it didn't matter. The second tune was a pretty soulful one about inner sight of some kind. Then came Stevie on a sneakily seductive Fender Rhodes playing a series of single notes that turned quickly into chords. "A boy is born/In hard-town Mississippi...." A story of an African-American family that is the story of thousands of African-American families that is the history of African-Americans after the US civil war. Out of the cotton fields of exploitation and degradation into the northern cities where racism disguises itself in terms of class and economics. Where brothers prey on brothers and the law is still a tool of a system that oppresses and not a tool for liberation or even fairness. And all set to a relentless rhythm track put down by Stevie himself.
When the song was finished everyone in the room was still. No matches being lit. No beer cans being opened or tipped. The last song on the album side played through ("Golden Lady", in case you forgot). Whoever was closest to the stereo didn't even have to ask. He played "Living For the City" again and again and again. I don't remember if we ever got to the second side of the album that night. Just enough for the city. Goddam straight.

I moved to Maryland in March 1974. A series of circumstances ended my New York City stay and my Fordham University student status. By August 1974 I was enrolled at the University of Maryland in College Park. Watergate had been on the television most of the summer until Dick Nixon took the (more profitable) coward's way out and resigned the presidency on August 9th of that year. It wasn't more than a month later that his successor pardoned the crook.
Anyhow, a month or so before Nixon took a helicopter out of DC, I heard a song by Gil Scott- Heron and Brian Jackson at a friend's house in suburban Maryland. That song, titled "H20 Gate Blues" starts off with Scott-Heron and his band laughing in the background. From there, it moves on to musing like only Scott-Heron can in that voice that demands your attention and resonates with authority, yet sounds like a brother sitting next to you at a booth in a neighborhood bar. He begins by talking about the blues. From standard blues like "I don't got no woman blues" to "the United States government talkin' bout the "Energy Crisis Blues". From there, the song heads into some serious signifying about what imperial war is all about ("Pepsi-Cola and Phillips 66, Boeing Dow & Lockheed/ Ask them what we're fighting for and they never mention the economics of war") and the hypocrisy of US policy; the apathy of the US populace; the CIA in Chile; and the corruption and racism of US politicians. All of this backed by a bass and keyboard. In fact, I believe it is a Fender Rhodes once again. This song mixes up politics, cultural commentary, and plain old irony. It represented the state of the nation. Presently and presciently. Add a few more decades of names of politicians and nations invaded and it still does. The name of the album that song appeared on is called Winter In America. This was also the title of a song Scott-Heron released a year or so later on the album The First Minute of a New Day. That song is a lament for a United States of America that could have been. Speaking of winter, it's still awfully freakin' cold out there. And I'm not talking about the weather.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is the Game Really Over for Mubarak? -updated January 31, 2011

As I write this on January 31, 2011, Al-Jazeera English is ireporting that six of its reporters have been arrested by the Egyptian military. Meanwhile there has been ongoing speculation as to whether or not the Egyptian military will support the ongoing protests against the Mubarak regime. The live video feed via internet is broadcasting protests across the nation. The protests are growing in front of the camera's eye. The old Mubarak cabinet has been dismissed and a new one is being assembled. A tighter curfew has gone into effect across the nation. Yet everyone is ignoring it. Furthermore, calls for a general strike are growing; the opposition has issued a call for a "mega-protest" on Tuesday and the major Islamist opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood has called for a peaceful transfer of power. Someone who might be among Washington's favorite men in the opposition, Mohammed El-Baradei, is supposedly under house arrest, but has appeared in Tahrir Square and called for Mubarak to step down. Others are calling for a trial of Mubarak and his government. Apparently, no protesters were killed by the security police yesterday, although over 150 have been killed since Friday. Some officers have met with Mubarak, while the military rank and file remain non-committal. Major clerics are reminding their faithful that the shedding of blood is prohibited under Islam. As I watch the video, a noticeable difference between yesterday and today's crowd and protests earlier in the week is the growing presence of women.
According to a report published by Reuters on July 13, 2009, 77 million of the 80 million Egyptians live on less than $ 1 a day. Around 30 % of the workforce is unemployed, 7 % of children miss schools because of poverty. There are over 100,000 homeless youth. Egypt’s official foreign debt is around 12 billion dollars, yet several of Mubarak’s corrupt ruling elites have stolen almost half this amount from Egyptian banks. These facts, along with the record of abuse by police forces defy Washington's statement that it is "not too late" for the Mubarak regime to reform itself and become a democratic government. This statement is comparable to the Carter administration's support of the Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979 while street protests that eventually included close to 10% of the Iranian population rocked the nation.
Although there are a number of major differences between the Iranian revolution and the current situation in Egypt--with the primary one possibly being the national differences--the fact is that popular uprisings are exactly that no matter where they occur. That being said, and with the understanding that all sides in Egypt are aware of history, if the process underway continues, two things to watch out for are the response to the general strike call, the Tuesday protest call and whether or not Mubarak is able to woo any leading elements of the opposition into his sphere. If the response to the general strike and Tuesday protest call is massive, than one can expect to see Mubarak either forcefully crack down on the protests (if he can find any security units to go along with him) or perhaps even invite someone like El-Baradei into his government. Of course, if the latter occurs, El Baradei runs the risk of losing whatever support he has amongst the protesters. If that happens (and using the Iranian experience as a template), then the way for more religious elements opens wider.
If El-Baradei and other more moderate elements refuse to accept any offers of reconciliation from Mubarak, then it would seem the only means that would remain for Mubarak would be resignation or repression. His appointment of the current head of Egyptian intelligence to the vice presidency seems to indicate he may very well choose the latter. While official appointments with little meaning are being made by Mubarak, thugs from his ruling party have been captured by Cairo residents breaking into homes and shops in that city's wealthier sections. In response, Egyptians citizens have begun to set up neighborhood watch committees.
One of the Egyptian movement groups not talked about very much in the west is Kefaya or the Egyptian Movement for Change. This group, which was announced in 2004, is a network of (mostly youthful) opposition groups and individuals from across the ideological spectrum with the primary goal of ending the Mubarak family rule. Its role in the current rebellion is publicly unannounced, but the fact that the protests seems to have begun in the universities and amongst Egyptian youth tends to encourage the supposition that Kefaya was instrumental in organizing them. Given the recent rebellions and revolutions across the Arab world, perhaps the synthesis represented by this movement is the wave of an Arab future.

If so, then the regimes in Yemen, Jordan and other Arab nations would be smart to initiate reforms sooner rather than later. That is, unless it is already too late. As for Palestine, its administrative forces should pay close attention. Not only might they lose whatever authority they have left among the Palestinians, but the fact of an Arab world composed of popular governments has got to be one that Israel fears. After all, it is the US-sponsored regimes like Mubarak's that have been essential to Tel Aviv projecting its expansionist policies across the region. For Mahmoud Abbas to express his support for Mubarak while the streets of Egypt are filled with protesters demanding his resignation is extremely shortsighted. Furthermore, it looks like a political calculation Abbas and the Palestinian Authority can ill afford to make given the recent Wikileaks cable releases revealing the PA's willingness to concede to Israeli demands many Palestinians consider at best anathema to Palestinian national interests.
Ignoring governments for the moment, what do these protests mean for people around the world? As virtually any earthling knows, the past decade has seen an increase in economic disparity and political repression in almost every nation. From New York to Cairo; from Beijing to Buenos Aires, the neoliberal world order (or monopoly capitalism's latest phase) is feeling the effects of its greedy attempts to privatize the very basics of human survival. The legal and illegal corruption these attempts and the poverty they have spawned have been felt the deepest in nations like Tunisia and Egypt. Despotic government officials, their national and international business partners and the security forces that protect them have robbed and brutalized whole societies. All the while, those governments in the global north and west that have backed this phenomenon have in turn removed freedoms and economic security from large swaths of their own populations. Consequently, many nations have seen popular uprisings against these governmental actions, especially from their student and working class elements. But only two populations have reached the point of no return to the past: Tunisia and Egypt. Their example serves as a beacon.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Co-Conspirator's Tale

There's a place where love and mistrust are never at peace; where duplicity and deceit are the universal currency. The Co-Conspirator's Tale takes place within this nebulous firmament. Crimes committed by the police in the name of justice. Excess in the name of revolution. The combination leaves death in its wake and the survivors struggling to find justice in a San Francisco Bay Area noir by the author of the underground classic The Way the Wind Blew:A History of the Weather Underground and the novel Short Order Frame Up.
 
There are no hero cops or private eyes in The Co-Conspirator's Tale, just a couple of folks who don't trust the the world as it is to provide justice. The battlefields are the streets of the San Francisco Bay Area and the psyches of the accused, their accomplices and their accusers.



The Co-Conspirator's Tale will be published by Fomite, Burlington, Vermont in Spring 2011. I will let you know when it becomes available.

Fomite is a literary press whose authors and artists explore the human condition -- political, cultural, personal and historical -- in poetry and prose.