Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Cats

This is Franklin.  He's the cat who showed up days after I left the country in 2012, had a name within 24 hours, and has been part of the family for a year and a half.

And this is Duncan.  Duncan was a stray kitten who followed Franklin home during the monsoon season, as a pretty nasty storm was arriving.  Although I dimly understood the risk I was taking, I could not leave a kitten out in the rain like that, so she came in for the night.  And the next morning the kids had named her and well, you know.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Happy birthday, Mr. Scrooge

My relationship with the Deming Headlight is that I write a column once a month as a volunteer.  I enjoy writing, and writing 600 words once a month is really no burden.  The paper appears to operate on no budget, neglected by the corporation that owns it, and generally the editorial page consists of free submissions and clips from around the nation.  Those of us who share the "Desert Sage" column do so because we wish to see more local writing in the, um, local paper.

This month there was a need for a second column, which I gladly wrote.  As posted to the paper's website, it contains errors that were not part of the text I submitted.  This is difficult for me because I care about grammar, and these mistakes make my own work look sloppy.  To begin with, I never write the headlines, and would never have submitted "Dickens' Scrooge..." which is what the Headlight wrote

The correct use of the apostrophe in that context is: Dickens's.  Yes, truly. 

Also, in this piece I state the title of Dickens's novel twice.  When I submitted my piece, the title was italicized as is proper.  For some reason, the italics disappeared when it went to print. I hope it is correct in the print edition and this is just an error on the website. 

Here is the piece as I submitted it. 


It was on today’s date in 1843 that Charles Dickens published his short novel, A Christmas Carol.  It told the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, his long life of heartbreak and bitterness, and his redemption by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. 

This Edwardian tale has been adopted into American folklore, and is far better known through numberless adaptations in children’s storybooks, radio and stage plays, movies, opera, and more, than the original novel itself.  The story and its characters have escaped from Dickens and belong to the ages.

Indeed, the story is so formative that you will hear people speak of the Scrooge of their childhood, the performance of the story that first gripped their imaginations.  For one generation it was Lionel Barrymore.  For the next, it was Alastair Sim, and then George C. Scott.  Sir Michael Caine played a wonderful Scrooge, too -- though his lovely portrayal was sadly upstaged by a cast of muppets. 

Ask most people what this story is about, and the answer comes that it is about greed.  Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser who hates Christmas, whose heart is turned toward generosity by the spirit of the season.  We think of Scrooge buying turkeys for the hungry and giddily donating money for the poor at the end, making up for lost Christmases by giving away as much as possible.  Purses and coins fly, and the actor playing Scrooge goes hoarse from laughing and cheering, maybe even stealing a kiss from Mrs. Cratchit (who has been busy feeding a family of five on pauper’s wages).

It is a lovely fable, but it was originally a work of literature.  Dickens was famously outraged by the social conditions of the Industrial Revolution, its pollution and social conflict, and especially the misery and servitude of the poor and working classes – which included child laborers.  In novel after novel, Dickens vividly recorded the political economics of his time. 

Some of Scrooge’s most famous words (other than “Bah!  Humbug!”) come from his refusal to help the poor:  “Are there no prisons?  And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?  The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?”   Dickens was referring to the “Poor Laws” of his time, when poverty was treated as a moral failure rather than the failure of an economic system; a world of debtors’ prisons and workhouses where conditions were purposefully harsh and inhumane to discourage people from seeking assistance.  When Scrooge refers to the poor as “surplus population,” he is echoing Thomas Robert Malthus and economists of the time who portrayed the poor as sexually profligate moochers, breeding limitlessly and leeching off the “more industrious and more worthy members,” to quote Malthus. 

These views have found their place in American politics and conversation, despite the popularity of A Christmas Carol.  Because so few of us read the actual book, we inherit an Ebenezer Scrooge who is merely a selfish grouch -- a Scrooge without sociology.  We tell the tale of Scrooge yet elect politicians who think like him. 

Dickens did not argue for the overthrow of capitalism, but his Scrooge was a vivid warning of what we might become: walled-up hearts, indifferent to our own suffering as well as the suffering of those around us. 

With Christmas, however, there is renewed hope; new life in the midst of winter.  There is, after all, that other famous story about Christmas.  In that story, God is born as a human being to redeem the whole sorry lot of us.

Merry Christmas, then.  And what story shall we write with our lives in the next year?    

Thursday, December 12, 2013

On Sock Monkeys and Security Theatre

Today's installment of the monthly "Desert Sage" column for the Deming Headlight


His name was Rooster Monkburn, and he entered the security checkpoint at the St. Louis airport with a gun. 

Luckily for all the innocent citizens preparing to board, Monkburn was spotted by an officer of the Transportation Security Administration who disarmed the suspect before he could board his flight to Seattle. 

Perhaps it is most reassuring to hear stories like this during the holiday travel season, as the masses are flying hither and yon to see their families.  Crowded terminals and planes stuffed with passengers are irresistible targets for evildoers.  We have learned to be obedient and not question airport security.  Most people bear these impositions with a shrug.  For the less cooperative, there are guns and tasers.

After Monkburn was intercepted by the TSA agent, it was discovered that his gun was fake, and so we can rest easy that no one was ever really in danger.    There are other factors that de-escalate the situation.  For one, the fake pistol was about the size of a chickpea.  For another, Rooster Monkburn is a sock monkey. 

Rooster’s companion was Phyllis May of Redmond, Washington, who told her story to television station KING.  The TSA agent, upon discovery of Rooster Monkburn’s pistol, reportedly exclaimed, “This is a gun.”  When it was pointed out that it was a part of a monkey doll’s costume and could not be confused with an actual weapon by anyone with an ounce of sense, the agent begged to differ, saying, “If I held it up to your neck, you wouldn’t know if it was real or not.”  Faced with a real possibility of arrest, Ms. May could only acquiesce to the TSA agent’s professional opinion.  Rooster Monkburn, wisely, made no comment whatsoever. 

It is an absurd story, but what is absurd when the absurd has become normal?  Since the September 11 attacks, Americans have patiently suffered the ratcheting impositions of a “security theatre,” something that conveys a feeling of security without actually enhancing it much.  On the rare occasions when the TSA has attempted to relax the rules, politicians have overreacted to sensible adjustments of security policy, crying out against “reduced vigilance.” 

My first lesson in security theatre occurred at LAX, when a TSA agent confiscated a passenger’s bottle of water ostensibly because it could be filled with liquid explosive.  He then disposed of the potential bomb in a nearby waste basket, right next to the line of people waiting, like cattle, to be ‘processed.’  The line, incidentally, extended outside to the curb, where fifty people would have been vulnerable to a well-timed car bomb.

What does security theatre conceal, besides a highly profitable industry?  It has been argued by dispassionate experts that the attacks of September 11 could have been thwarted but for failures by our intelligence agencies.  If that is true, then we already had what we needed to stop that attack - and simply failed.  Rather than admit error, we have built a monolithic and authoritarian maze around our tragedy, deluding ourselves that our safety is in the hands of a system that can’t distinguish a sock monkey from a terrorist.

It is rather sad, what has become of us.   However, here is a tip from the theatrical trade:  sock monkeys can make anything funny.  Consider the gift of a sock monkey at Christmas, and remember to travel with it.  Provide it with a passport.  Give it a little laptop, and remember to open it!   Or dress it in a TSA uniform.

If resistance is truly beyond us, perhaps in the new year we should just smile and join the madness.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Social Security, Compromise, and the Great Boondoggle

Lee H. Hamilton, Director

The Center on Congress
Indiana University
1315 E. Tenth Street, Suite 320
Bloomington, IN 47405

Dear Mr. Hamilton,

Our local paper, the Deming Headlight, frequently runs your editorials and so we benefit from your perspective, as someone who served in Congress for more than three decades and won the respect of both of our dominant political parties; as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission; and as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Today’s editorial concerns the budgeting process and, in particular, the irresponsibility of sequestration as a substitute for a rational budget. It is bad enough to see the routinization of continuing resolutions, for all the reasons you describe, instead of a deliberative and productive budgeting process. It seems to me that we have depressingly low standards, if any, for the performance of our representatives in Congress. You, of course, have the perspective of one who has been there.

 I am moved to respond to two points, both occurring in the ninth paragraph of your editorial calling for a budget agreement. These are nitpicks, I admit, but given the dearth of quality reporting on economic issues in the American news media – a gap filled all too readily with deliberate misinformation – I believe diligence and clarity are very important.

You wrote, “The country needs gradual deficit reduction that avoids disrupting the economy or harming the vulnerable.” While I have no quibble with that statement on the surface, it requires some context. Most people – certainly here in New Mexico’s second Congressional district – do not realize that the current administration established a record of deficit reduction even before sequestration went into effect this year. Indeed, one of the objections to sequestration was that it would increase deficit reduction to a degree that would endanger recovery from the “Great Recession.” Indeed, most readers do not grasp the difference between short- and long-term deficit analysis, which leads to contradictory theses and much confusion.

In the same paragraph, you write, “It [the country] needs reforms to Social Security and Medicare that put them on a solid footing for decades to come.” This sentence, unfortunately, contributes to a misunderstanding about (1) Social Security’s relationship to the budget and (2) its current fiscal health. As I am sure you are aware, misinformation abounds about Social Security (for the moment, I leave Medicare aside), and one of the popular myths (happily repeated by those who would like to see it privatized) is that it is already bankrupt, or on the cusp. It is also widely believed that Social Security contributes to the deficit, because it is so often mentioned in the context of deficit reduction. It needs to be made clear, and repeated more often than the misstatements, that Social Security does not contribute a single dime to the deficit because it is financed separately and cannot – as per the Social Security Act – spend beyond its own revenue stream. It cannot draw from the federal budget, and is therefore irrelevant.

What is also not clear to most is that Social Security is, if we leave it alone, capable of fulfilling its promised benefits for another two decades; and at that point, projections say, it would be able to pay reduced benefits. There is a long-term problem here, but not an eminent crisis.

While I am grateful to you for promoting increased revenue as a desirable solution – via increased contributions by higher-income citizens – I deeply regret that you also include the C.P.I. boondoggle which dresses up benefit cuts in technical language. Those who esteem compromise must understand that the “chained C.P.I.” solution is an austerity policy offering cuts without revenue. It is no compromise, it is a giveaway – by the poor, to the rich.

It is my privilege to write for this same local paper, and more often than not it is all I can do to debunk the myths about Social Security, which serve to obscure the efforts of those whose political purpose is quite simple: to dismantle Social Security as a public institution and appropriate that revenue for the private sector. Let us not play into their hands and call it compromise, for that is capitulation.

You have indulged me thus far, and I will close wishing you wonderful days in this coming new year.

Warm regards,

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Lately, I've had some time to play in the kitchen.  This means I've been chopping and peeling a lot, and that means making stock.

One of my most cherished books is Tassajara Cooking.  Edward Espe Brown, the Soto Zen priest who was head cook and a manager of the Tassajara Zen Center , wrote it.

It is, I believe, a first-edition copy of the book, which was a follow-up to his famous Tassajara Bread Book.  The edition I have is a paperback, dated 1973, given to me in 1998 by Rebecca when I took ten precepts at Providence Zen Center.

It's a lovely thick paperback book that shows signs not only of age, but of being used in kitchens. 

The book has a distinctly home-made feel about it, even including some of Brown's handwriting.  It has a lovely introduction by a young Baker roshi, before all the trouble; a prose poem about cooking, and a beautiful section about caring for kitchen implements entitled "Good Friends."  There is a section on caring for knives, and a guide to good chopping; some words about different cooking methods.  There are no recipes, in the form we recognize from typical cookbooks.  There are very brief sections about various vegetables, fruits, other ingredients, soups, sauces, and so on.  It makes some suggestions but sends the reader on their way to experiment, pay attention, and learn from direct experience.  Like zen practice.  In fact, this is better than a whole lot of beautiful zen books.  There aren't even photographs, except for one lovely hippie picture of the author and his family at Green Gulch farm.  There are hand-wrought illustrations throughout. 

And since I've been making vegetable stock lately, here is a taste of this book, from its advice on making stock.

vegetable scraps: almost anything -- ends, tips, tops, trimmings, roots, skins, parsley stems, outside cabbage leaves, limp vegetables.  Go easy on the green pepper centers.  Some people find a large amount of onion skins or carrot tops makes too strong a flavor.

water to cover

Place all the vegetable scraps, which may be chopped up first, in a saucepan or stockpot and cover with water.  It's important that this brew simmer rather than boil.  Simmering means a few wee bubbles are popping gently to the surface -- a quit, subdued leaching process, while bouiling means that the entire surface is in turmoil, bubbling and frothing.  Vegetables do not endure boiling very well, soon yielding their more rank flavors and aromas, so bring the stock to a simmer and then turn the heat down low enough to keep it there, or you will have a harsh-flavored stock.

Let the stock simmer an hour or more, and then strain out the vegetables, squeezing or mashing out the last juices.  Use in place of water for soups, or for cooking vegetables, grains or beans.  If not using immediately, leave uncovered until cool, then cover and refrigerate. 

To make the most of your vegetable trimmings, make this stock every day.  Start it while you are preparing the meal, adding all the trimmings as you go.  Use a little water from the stock to rinse out each pot.  Simmer through the meal and then strain it afterwards.  This kind of stock will keep indefinitely if it is simmered (with new additions) at least once a week.  To give it a lift add a few onion, garlic or ginger slices.  

The whole book is like that.  This is the kind of book I would give to anybody wanting to try cooking for themselves.  It is written in just the right kind of voice, with just the right amount of information, without leaving any crutches.

Monday, December 02, 2013

On Cyber-Monday, a Letter to Amazon

Last night, and just in time for "Cyber Monday," Amazon CEO Jess Bezos surprised a CBS interviewer by revealing a prototype robot -- an "octocopter" -- that Bezos says he hopes will be able to make deliveries to Amazon customers within a few years.  Today, the media is full of talk about small flying robots delivering products to consumers within a half hour of their online purchase -- a great story with which to open the holiday shopping season!

And, as James Ball argues in The Guardian, it just might be a publicity stunt.  In particular, Ball writes:

Bezos' neat trick has knocked several real stories about Amazon out of the way. Last week's Panorama investigation into Amazon's working and hiring practices, suggesting that the site's employees had an increased risk of mental illness, is the latest in a long line of pieces about the company's working conditions – zero-hour contracts, short breaks, and employees' every move tracked by internal systems. Amazon's drone debacle also moved discussion of its tax bill – another long-running controversy, sparked by the Guardian's revelation last year that the company had UK sales of £7bn but paid no UK corporation tax – to the margins. The technology giants – Amazon, Google, Microsoft et al – have have huge direct reach to audiences and customers, the money to hire swarms of PR and communications staff, and a technology press overwhelmingly happy to incredulously print almost every word, rather than to engage in the much harder task of actually holding them to account.

Whether it's a bunch of hooey or a sincere plan (albeit not yet practical), I thought it was worth a letter.  As you'll see, it's really about people, not robots.

Mr. Jeffrey P. Bezos
410 Terry Avenue
North Seattle, WA 98109

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Last night, in a television interview for the program 60 Minutes, you revealed a research and development project at Amazon. I refer, of course, to your “Prime Air” initiative, in which small, unmanned vehicles (called “octocopters”) would deliver merchandise to consumers within minutes of placing an order.

As your customer, let me say thanks for your interest in making our shopping experience unique, and completing orders quickly using new technology; and having said that, please allow me to share my concern about this initiative and suggest an area of investment that would make me feel much better about shopping on Amazon -- far more than flying robots with cameras showing up at my house.

While “Prime Air” is certainly novel, how necessary is this technology? While Amazon offers a staggering array of goods for sale, I cannot imagine what a consumer would need from Amazon so urgently as to justify aerial delivery within minutes. It’s not as though we will be ordering blood for transfusions. Are you considering a move into pizza delivery? Aren’t “Amazon Prime” and Amazon’s music download service fast enough for non-perishable merchandise? My mailman does a splendid job finding my house and I have no wish to take work away from him, as exciting as it might be for a novel to get dropped on my doorstep by a drone.

The truth is, I have long had concerns about Amazon’s business model, particularly with respect to labor. It concerns me greatly that Amazon’s warehouse workers are not represented by a union, that many if not all are employed indirectly through a staffing agency, and are now facing further automation (to whatever degree “Prime Air” delivery becomes a reality) and reduced employment. You would be reducing your own labor costs at the expense of regional economy and effective demand for the economy as a whole.

Let me proceed to an area of investment that seems, to me, far more necessary and beneficial to Amazon. Instead of sending robots to my house, I would like to see some investment in your human staff. Periodically, I read reports about conditions in Amazon’s “fulfillment centers,” which in straightforward English we call warehouses. Most of us do not see these warehouses, but we know that human beings work very hard in these places, in shifts longer than eight hours, and there are several worthy investments in this area that Amazon might consider.

  • Expedited warehouse security procedures. There are reports that security checkpoints take as long as half an hour or more, which comes at the end of an employee’s shift (which are sometimes as long as 12 hours), and it is not compensated time. Requiring an employee to remain on site for an extra half hour without pay constitutes wage theft. The procedures should either be reorganized so that employees can clear the checkpoint quickly, or the employees should be released from their shifts early to accommodate the process while they are still on the clock. 
  • Lunch facilities for warehouse workers. Although an eating area may be provided, the distance employees must travel on foot to reach the facilities sometimes consumes half their allotted break time, leaving them insufficient time to eat, much less rest during a long shift. It would be humane, and beneficial to morale, to alleviate this problem. If the warehouses cannot be redesigned to bring break areas closer to employees, what about golf carts or shuttles? You win bonus points if the shuttles run on batteries charged from solar power, or a non-petroleum fuel. 
  • Climate control in all warehouses. I am sure you are well aware of what went on at your facility in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania. In that case, Amazon invested $52 million in order to provide appropriate air conditioning. That is a lot of money but it was well spent – in terms of the welfare of your employees as well as your reputation among your customers. Has Amazon conducted a review of climatic conditions at its other facilities, and made improvements as appropriate? 

There are more suggestions I could make, but I think this gives you the gist. Without cynicism, I would also recommend that you publicize these investments so that your customers – and other large companies -- see Amazon making investments in the welfare of its employees. You might even consider deepening your investment in personnel by increasing direct employment at appropriate living wages, and relaxing your objection to union representation. I understand that rapid delivery is part of your brand, and there may be concerns about compromising that service, but I truly believe your keys to maintaining that signature service is not just technology, but also human morale.

Your company has made a point of not commenting on these matters for the press, and I don’t expect a response to this letter either (although one would be welcome), but I hope it is read – if not by you, then by someone with the authority to consider these concerns and bring them up in an appropriate venue. Amazon has ample opportunity to use its considerable capital to set a whole new standard of how large companies operate. I am optimistic that Amazon can lead the way, if it wishes.

 Most sincerely, and with best wishes for your holiday season,

Friday, November 29, 2013

Giroux on 'Zombie Politics' and the need for imagination

The Burning House has been quiet, again.  Your correspondent has been writing in other venues and rehearsing an important acting project (while getting some audition material ready as well), applying for jobs, and more.

It may remain quiet for a little while, but we wanted to share with you this conversation between journalist Bill Moyers and the scholar Henry Giroux, as we found it compelling enough to listen to it multiple times.  It concerns democracy, capitalism, and what is required for true human freedom.

We hope you enjoy it, as we have.  Giroux is an energetic and doggedly optimistic man, who speaks of the importance of imagination to activism, legislation, and citizenship.  Please watch.

And then: cure the zombies. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

They just don't want to work

Here is my monthly "Desert Sage" column for the Deming Headlight.  It appears in the November 14 edition and was posted to the website on the evening of the 13th. 

*     *     *

"They just don't want to work."

That is the enduring reactionary myth about the unemployed, the argument for slashing assistance to those in poverty: these people are leeches who don't want to work. So we punish them, and their children along with them. We see no need to address systemic problems.

At a time of maximum prosperity for major corporations and investors, job growth is slow, poverty has expanded, and it is the working people and small businesses that are squeezed to pay for the ongoing crisis of our economic system.

During a recent visit to Deming, Congressman Steve Pearce proclaimed himself bewildered that record-setting unemployment persists in Luna County. After all, there are job listings. As quoted in this newspaper, Mr. Pearce said, "The hospital says they have 33 jobs waiting to be filled and the schools have 20 positions open. Yet, no one is filling those jobs."

If you visit Mimbres Hospital's website or the New Mexico Workforce Connections site, you will indeed find a number of jobs listed. Like ripe fruit, they hang there waiting to be taken. For instance, there are numerous openings for registered nurses. They are also in need of medical lab technicians, physical therapists, and a phlebotomist. Step right up, Luna County! On the hospital's website, you can click on positions of interest to you and add them to your "job cart." It's just like browsing for books on Amazon.

These are, indeed, good jobs. Yet they require certain qualifications and prerequisites that are not in high supply within our community. I am an able-bodied person willing to work; I have a high level of education and lots of work experience; and yet I would not qualify for a single one of these jobs. Many of these jobs would have to be filled from outside the community.

It is not quite as simple as walking in and saying, "Here I am!"

Now let's check out these school district jobs. Earlier this week, the Deming Public Schools website advertised not 20, but 10 positions. Of these 10, one was a custodial position and nine were for teachers. Teaching jobs, again, require certain qualifications and prerequisites. If qualified for hire, you may have to enroll in graduate teacher training, adding graduate school to your full-time job.
Lots of people do this, and for those with a passion for education it can be a wonderful experience. Even so, it means a lot of work and stress even for people with the skills and education necessary to succeed. Often, these jobs have to be filled from outside the community. (This is, in fact, how your humble correspondent first came to Deming.)

As for that one custodial job: it is part-time, which means no benefits.

Almost without exception, the jobs mentioned by the congressman require a level of education or specialized training unavailable to most people in poverty. It is therefore just a bit disingenuous for him to point to these jobs and profess surprise at our high unemployment rate.

Unemployment is not solved by pointing to job listings and ignoring the realities of poverty, such as a lack of access to education and training; hunger; unsafe housing or homelessness; illness and lack of adequate medical care. Economic growth rewards investors but does not necessarily lead to job growth, as we have seen in this so-called recovery.

These factors can be addressed, but they require a commitment to social investment and public programs, the very things that Congressman Pearce usually opposes. But you know how it is with some of these politicians.

They just don't want to work.

[Image:  I took this photograph on Spruce Street in Deming.]

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In Defense of the Headlight

The Deming Headlight has been around since the 19th century, is currently owned by the MediaNews Group, and is the only newspaper in town.  The rest of the letter is self-explanatory, I think, and I've included some hyperlinks.

*     *     *

13 November 2013

Sylvia Ulloa, Managing Editor
Las Cruces Sun News
256 West Las Cruces Avenue
Las Cruces, NM 88004

Dear Ms. Ulloa,

Congratulations on your new position as managing editor of the Sun News. It is my understanding that you will also be responsible for our Deming paper, the Headlight, and it is about our local paper that I am writing to you today.

The Headlight has no competition, and we depend on our single paper (or its website, though I still prefer newsprint) for our local news. Bill Armendariz, the editor, is well known and loved in our community as a hard-working and sincere man. It seems to me that Billy is doing the best possible job with limited resources.

When I arrived in Deming in 2008, there were a couple of local reporters employed by the paper, writing about local events. One died, one took another job, and since then there are a couple of bylines that turn up occasionally. I don’t know if they are full-time or stringing or what. But what I see very frequently is “For the Headlight.” The school district writes stories about itself, the state police writes stories about itself, and I’ve done it myself in order to boost performing arts events. I have seen editions of the paper where most of the articles have been “for the Headlight.” I have seen pages that consisted entirely of advertising, paid and unpaid.

There is no investigative reporting being done locally, and very little reporting on the activities of local government, government agencies operating in Deming, and matters of interest to our community such as economic matters.

As you know, our city made international news last week with a disturbing story about police activity and an expensive lawsuit. The Headlight has depended on the Las Cruces Sun News for what little coverage it has offered to Deming readers. A remarkable aspect of this story has been the lack of any official response – and this lack of response is, in part, attributable to a lack of local journalism. Last night, I attended a meeting of the Deming City Council – the first since these allegations were revealed, and the first opportunity for the public to comment or ask questions of the city pertaining to this matter. There was not a single reporter present from any media organization. Today’s story, front page and above the fold, was about a local CPA winning an award.

I should disclose that I am a volunteer columnist for the Headlight. Once a month, I submit a 600 word piece for Billy to run on the editorial page. There are a few of us who do this, because we very much want to see local writing, and some debate on local issues. I’ve also sent in photographs, and I’ve been tempted to write up city council meetings and other events in order to help the Headlight do more reporting on local stories. It feels a little strange, however, to consider volunteering on behalf of a private, for-profit corporation – indeed, one of the largest newspaper corporations in the country.

Luna County suffers record-setting unemployment, intensive poverty, and social problems related both to poverty and our proximity to the border. We need editorial voices addressing these subjects, which is why some of us write as volunteers. Otherwise, Billy is left to populate the editorial page with content from outside of the community. Variety is good, but there is not a sufficient balance of locally-oriented editorial writing or critical journalism. Meanwhile, again, the state police and the school district are covering themselves. I’m sure you see the problem.

Newspapers are a business. It’s been that way since the United States were still British colonies. I accept the presence of paid advertising. And I know that this business is getting tougher and tougher, and papers are being squeezed with budget reductions and fewer personnel. Yet the Headlight seems to be neglected, unable to carry on the essential social function of an effective local newspaper. If more resources cannot be distributed to the Headlight, then at the very least we need one or two Las Cruces reporters on a Deming beat. Yet I cannot help feeling that more should be done for this distinguished, old, and local newspaper.

If you wish to question me further about this or respond in any way, I can be conveniently reached via...


Monday, November 11, 2013

A Freedom Budget

It is Armistice Day.  (I much prefer that to Veterans Day, with no offense intended to the men and women who have offered their very lives for a vow of service.)  You are not going to see this before midnight, however, because Blogger seems to be having some trouble publishing the post. 

I have neglected this blog for a while.  A lot is going on, some of which I'll write about, and some of which leaves little to write, being the day-in and day-out of parenting and making ends meet and trying to open doors, or whatever metaphor of making opportunities you prefer to insert here.

Anyway, in the last few minutes of Armistice Day, I am popping in to tell you about a book.  If you only read one non-fiction book this year, I think you should consider making this the one.

A Freedom Budget For All Americans is an outstanding book, surely among the best in history and policy in 2013. It tells several complicated stories in a cohesive and highly readable narrative, making a large contribution to history and offering us tangible ideas for policy in our time.

One of these stories is the historic march on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the social movement preceding and following that event. It documents the involvement of socialists and communists in the movement, with particular attention on the work of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

The organizational work is one story, but there is also a political story, about a moment where differing theories came together brilliantly and were soon dispersed again, in large part because of the Vietnam war's escalation and disagreement about how to proceed with respect to President Johnson, the Democratic party, and to the capitalist system itself. Some, including Dr. King, saw economic justice as the natural culmination of the civil rights struggle -- that racial equality meant little in the context of economic injustice, unemployment, and poverty. This contribution to a coherent history of the U.S. left is invaluable.

There is also the story of a much-forgotten document produced by these civil rights leaders, a shadow budget, a "freedom budget for all Americans" reflecting the budgeting and political economy of a good society, an attempt at a comprehensive policy approach to realizing the dream. This is a story that ends sadly, as the politics of the Vietnam war plays a large role in deflating the movement behind the freedom budget, until it languishes as a footnote and is largely forgotten.

And, finally, one more story: the story of how a new "freedom budget" might be designed for consideration, debate, and implementation in our time.

To achieve all of that in such a slender volume, in a book so enjoyable to read, is quite remarkable. This is one to pass around, friends.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Video: Senators, not a time for congratulations

I had C-Span on so I could watch the progress on this weird crisis, and Senator Collins took the Senate floor and gave a speech congratulating some of her colleagues, and herself as well, for negotiating a resolution that the 11th or 11:30th hour before a default.  And then other senators started getting up to do the same thing.  "This," I thought, "makes very weird optics."  With popular opinion of Congress this low, capitalism in a profound crisis, and our political parties unable to govern, the ability to belatedly fulfill the basic function of government -- and that deal isn't even done yet -- does not seem like a seemly moment for congratulations.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Put your signs down

Amazing, what you can find on the interwebs.

Taking a break from worky things today, I was surfing the web and did a search for anti-war speeches in recent times.  A reference to a peculiar speech by someone with a very unusual (and very familiar) name came up, and one or two clicks later I was confounded to be watching myself -- ten years ago -- on C-Span.

Oh yeah.  That day.

April 13, 2003.  One month after our invasion of Iraq had begun, I was part of a coalition that organized several large anti-war rallies, including this one that closed Hollywood Boulevard and filled it with thousands of people.

Since you can't embed clips from C-Span, I'll share a link below.  But first, let me tell the story of this speech.

The attacks of September 11 took place about three weeks after I arrived in Los Angeles to be abbot of Dharma Zen Center.  In response to attacks on muslims and sikhs and anyone with brown skin, several faith leaders banded together to create safe spaces and promote understanding and dialogue among religions and this turned into Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace.  Reverend Kusala of the International Buddhist Meditation Center involved me along with other Buddhist representatives, although he did not remain active with the group.  As the United States initiated war with Afghanistan and began to threaten Iraq in reaction to September 11, ICUJP began addressing itself to government, criticizing militarism and violence from a multi-faith perspective 

One of the issues I found myself addressing repeatedly while working with ICUJP was activist burnout and anger.  It was something I had seen in the early 1990s when I was active in New York City, and was seeing it again now.  (And I would see it all over again with Occupy Las Cruces.)   I wanted to offer some Buddhist teachings and technique about utilizing the energy behind anger, without being consumed by it.  I set up non-denominational meditation workshops, and incorporated meditation into some of our large rallies.  Someone from the Shambhala Center partnered with me to give meditation instruction to 900 people on Santa Monica Beach before an anti-war rally there.

It was not a message everyone welcomed.  A lot of people wanted to focus on changing the world outside of themselves, and felt that they and their anger and their opinions were just fine, thank you -- even when they got frustrated, began feuding with one another, and many gave up on activism altogether because of their own unexamined suffering.

Leading up to this rally on April 13, the coalition of anti-war groups was beginning to fray.  There was friction with A.N.S.W.E.R.'s leadership and other coalition members.  ICUJP's gentler, more contemplative message clashed with some of the more militant voices.  There was also a generational gap going on that left some of the older and more experienced organizers shaking their heads.  Let's just say the speakers at this rally were a very diverse group.

One of the few ICUJP leaders who really cared for me and my concern for the spiritual health of peace activists was George Regas of the All Saints Church in Pasadena.  He asked me to speak at this rally and from what I understand he negotiated with the organizers to give me a slot.

It is our practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen not to script dharma talks or do much preparation for them.  We like extemporaneous talks.  I treated this like a dharma talk and didn't prepare.  And then I was in front of several thousand people with no speech prepared.  For a moment, I felt like I was in really big trouble.  But I just did what you do for a dharma talk: take a breath, look at people's faces, and just tell the truth as best you can.

Over the next few minutes, I got everybody to put their signs down for a minute and join me in silent meditation, and then I talked about anger and rage, how frustrating our predicament was in the face of the Iraq war, and urged them to practice some silent deep breathing every day so they could keep going and never give up -- and let the process transform them.

Some people loved it.  Some people hated it.  George Regas, for his part, hugged me and said, "That IS the point!" It was a rare moment when zen practice and concern for politics and the affairs of the world came together in a clear and explicit way.  My zen friends, to this day, including some of my closest dharma siblings and teachers, feel I am lost in the worldly weeds, and making karma by concerning myself with political matters; and likewise many of my political friends feel that spiritual contemplation is at best a distraction, and at worst a co-optation of political struggle.

And hey, I got to respond to both those camps.  On national television, no less.

This emptiness is not inaction.  This emptiness is attention and love and compassion that lives inside each and every one of us...
Yeah, 30-year old self, that's not too bad.  I only regret two things as I watch this speech today.  One, I sound like Kermit the Frog.  Two, I forgot to attribute my quotation of Maha Ghosananda.  He's the one who said those words about a peaceful heart leading to a peaceful world.  Blathering on, I forgot to say his name.  Oh well.  Ten years too late.

Here is the speech, if you want to watch.  Click here

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Richard Wolff's lecture for October 2013

Today we would like to share Richard Wolff's most recent monthly lecture at the Brecht Forum in New York City (they recently moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn).

Understandably, a long lecture on economics and current affairs might not sound like an evening's entertainment.  However, as we have submitted previously, Richard Wolff is a highly entertaining lecturer and offers a far-left perspective that is consistently missing in major media.  He puts our current crisis of shutdown and imminent default into an historical perspective as well as recent developments in Europe.

Here it is.  Please have a listen.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Playing some Texans

For the last several weeks, my time has been dominated by my theatre practice, with productions of two plays in three cities.  And the whole phase had a distinctly Texas theme.

The first project was Greater Tuna, a very popular play by three guys inspired by their own Texas upbringing.  There were some previous posts on this blog about our production at the No Strings Theatre Company in Las Cruces with photos and video and stuff -- see here, here, and here.  The show calls on two actors to play 20 characters, and I undertook this challenge along with Las Cruces actor David Reyes. 

After a very successful run in Las Cruces, we brought the show to Deming's outdoor theatre at Voiers Park.  (See here.)  Turnout was not overwhelming, but the folks who came out enjoyed the show very much.  An image from our performance in Deming is above, captured by photographer Dan Gauss.

No decision has been made yet about whether we'll put up the play's sequel, A Tuna Christmas, next year.  It has been requested by numerous NSTC patrons, and I get the feeling David wants to do it.  Personally, I've never seen the play and I haven't read the script yet. 

While we were still performing in Las Cruces and moving the production to Deming, I went into rehearsal with Frontera Rep, a new theatre company based in El Paso.  Frontera opened its season, and El Paso's Tom Lea month, with an original play by Camilla Carr about the artist, Tom Lea, entitled Tom Lea: Grace Note In a Hard World.  Here is an article about the project from the El Paso Times (click here) and there are lots of photographs of the cast in costume here at The Art Avenue.

I played Lea's father, the elder Tom Lea, who was mayor of El Paso at the time of the Mexican Revolution.  In El Paso, the elder Mr. Lea is very much a larger-than-life figure, renowned for toughness.  To believe the local lore, this guy made Clint Eastwood look like a hamster.  I did my best with that assignment. 

With both these shows closed, the Texas plays are done for now, and I begin a long rehearsal process on a personal project.  I have been granted the rights to be the first person to perform Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's play, An Iliad, a piece for one actor and (optionally) one musician.  They have written a wonderful theatrical script based on Homer's epic, and I'll start performing it in Las Cruces in February with hopes of performing it other locations. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dear USPS, why should we pay more while you're hemorrhaging money?

24 September 2013

United States Postal Service Office of the Consumer Advocate
475 L'Enfant Plaza SW, RM 4012
Washington DC 20260-2200

Dear Consumer Advocate,

Today I am reading reports that the USPS will seek a new increase in the price we consumers pay for postage. While I understand and support the need for the USPS to enhance revenue, we consumers have to ask the USPS (and its unresponsive Postmaster General) why the USPS does not call on Congress to repeal or amend the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA)? This law requires the Postal Service to prefund its retirement benefits 75 years in advance, in just ten years. Imagine paying a 30-year mortgage on an expensive home in just two and a half years, or all of your paycheck going into Social Security. The post office must pay a staggering $103.7 billion by 2016 for employees who have not even been hired yet; and this is on top of current pensions. No business could survive such a mandate.

Seeking relief from PAEA by the Congress is not easy or guaranteed success, but as long as consumers are being asked to pay more to buoy the postal service’s revenues, it seems irresponsible not to ask for this reasonable adjustment in policy as well.

Will the Postmaster General act on this?

Warm regards,

[A slightly sharper version of this letter was sent to the Postmaster General, Pat Donahoe, himself, at the same street address.  In that letter, I additionally called him out on calling for the end of Saturday delivery -- which only saves $2 billion, a comparative drop in the bucket -- and cutting union jobs, replacing them with 'permatemps' to save money without addressing the PAEA issue.]

[Image:  Ben Franklin can be heard whispering to Donahoe:  you are doing this wrong.]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Where's my book? I'll tell you where...

Q.  So, where's YOUR Book?

My friends write books, my pop has written books for years.  So sometimes people ask me when I'm writing a book -- in particular, some suggest that a book on the intermingling of acting and zen might come out of me.  Sometimes I've had that thought, too.

So I wrote a chapter.  Put it away for a while, then picked it up and read it. 

It bored me.

Granted, a boring book can still be of value.  Volume I of Capital.  Husserl.  Stanislavsky.  The Lankavatara Sutra.  None of these are exciting reads, but I found them helpful.

My book, I dunno.  Maybe not.

Won't rule out trying another chapter or two and seeing where it goes, but I may be sparing the world a boring and useless book.

You're welcome. We accept donations. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Losing Buddha, finding true Buddha

For the second time ever, today we welcome a guest blogger, Ji Hyang Padma.

When I met her, she was Ji Hyang Sunim, a monastic in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  She was my boss when I worked at Cambridge Zen Center as Director (she was the Abbot) in 2000 and 2001.  We practiced together as dharma siblings there and, later, when we both ended up in California.  When she formally left the monastic order, she maintained a similar commitment to formal practice, a demanding schedule, and she did not even change her appearance much:  a little more variety in her wardrobe these days, but the hairstyle is the same.  And she adopted "Padma" in place of Sunim.  

She's got a book out And she blogs

One of the subjects that interested us both is interfaith work, and that's her topic today.  So I yield the screen to J. Pa!  (She will not like that nickname.)  I added some hyperlinks to her post, hope you enjoy. 


The beginning of my interfaith work: 1993. Working as the office manager of an acupuncture clinic for people with AIDS had intensified my great question.

I had just ordained as a nun in a Zen temple in Korea, and returned to the Boston area, offering pastoral support and meditation classes to AIDS patients through the Boston Living Center. In the course of this work, I met Jeannette Normandin, a Catholic nun who was also working the front lines of the AIDS crisis. She was dividing her time between Boston Living Center and Ruah House, which she’d just founded as a housing option for women with AIDS. With a quick appraisal of that situation, you may have guessed rightly that she was both deeply revered across Boston and courageously risking it all within her community.

She invited me to attend the Boston Clergy and Religious Leaders’ Group, a gathering formed to promote fellowship among downtown congregations. It had originally been an ecumenical Christian group, and was still warming to the presence of people of other faiths. It took me some time to break in, to build connections. People asked me about Swami Prabhupada, the leader of the Hare Krishnas (after all, aren’t all these Eastern religions alike?). They reserved certain social action petitions for those of Judeo-Christian ethics. This ice-breaking period tested my own commitment to the work: like many meditation teachers, I am not extroverted by nature. So, that experience of finding my seat and making connections brought me against the razor's edge of my own practice.

In that same time span, I regularly visited Carlos, an eclectic campy long- time dharma practitioner with AIDS who used art as a way of connecting with Buddha nature. Carlos was ordained in the Jodo Shu Pure Land tradition, but had been a Cambridge Zen Center community member in its early days, and still felt a connection with our sangha. He created large drawings of Amita Buddha, done with incredible precision using magic markers, so that his entire apartment became a Pure Realm. On the door to his apartment he hung a poster of Jean-Claude Van Damme, who served as the temple guardian. All of this served as my perfect teacher, mirroring back the ways in which I had unconsciously equated Zen aesthetic with realization. That taught me something about practice. It wasn’t based upon my aesthetic but upon one pointed try mind—just-do-it— and compassion. Even our ideas of correct practice, the temple Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are gold dust. To quote a great teacher, although gold dust is precious, when it gets in the eyes it hinders the vision.

When we release the quest for perfection we find Buddha nature everywhere. To quote my mentor, Maha Ghosananda, “The heart is our temple.”

Maha Ghosananda served as a member of the Peace Council, a diverse group of religious leaders, well respected in their countries, who came together regularly to support each other’s active work of making peace, wherever this support was most urgently needed. He knew from his own society how necessary it was to step outside the temple gates and practice in the “temples of human experience”. I recognized the opportunity to walk with him as my own initiation into a path of crossing borders.

It is valuable and necessary that those of us practicing meditation do engage with world. While we may not consider ourselves religious, it is a simple truth that people like Sister Jeannette Normandin are integrating realization and upaya in a way that our Buddhist communities can learn from. Also, in past generations, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other great teachers were in their countries, in the deep mountains. This is the era in which the environment and other social crises require a Bodhissatva path of engagement.

To truly attain sangha, we need to extend that sense of intimacy to Muslim women, to let the threads of her hijab be woven into our kesa and see the true breadth of that cloth. We need to bear witness with people “of faith” in a way that is true to our dharma.

When we release our grasp on Buddhism, we discover the Buddha everywhere.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

This boom is a bust

The following is this month's "Desert Sage" column for the Deming Headlight.  The slightly edited version that ran in the paper is here.  Below is the version I submitted. 


Some call this the “age of unconventionals.”

Imagine a very heavy truck is tearing down a road at high speed, and upon learning that the truck is moving towards the edge of a cliff at high speed, the driver shrugs and presses down harder on the accelerator. Point out to that driver that pretty soon it will be too late to stop the truck before going over the cliff, and the driver demands proof, and then more proof, but never slows while you plead for safety and sanity.

Our ecological predicament is something like that. The driver of the vehicle is an industry that is compelled to put profit over human needs, safety, and sustainability. An economic system based on endless expansion and growth at all costs cannot exist in a finite environment. Eventually, the cancer kills its host.

When confronted with the problem of “peak oil” and “peak coal,” the end of cheap and easily accessible oil and the cleanest types of coal, the energy industry had a face-saving opportunity to invest heavily in non-fossil fuels and reduction of carbon emissions that are leading to global warming. Maybe, after all, there was a way to capitalize on humanity’s need for renewable energy.

Instead, it has led to a new energy boom in non-conventional fossil fuels. Dirtier fuels, extracted by dirtier and more dangerous methods. We drill miles below the ocean floor; we explode bombs or use astonishing amounts of highly pressurized water to fracture rock and extract shreds of energy; we use natural gas to cook rock until sludgy oil drips out; we burn tar sands and dirtier, less productive coal. Some promote new nuclear energy facilitates that also consume vast amounts of water. The amount of energy required to produce energy ticks upward, and the energy produced is less efficient and more polluting. Despite the ‘energy boom’ that employs some Americans and makes profits for a few, the era of fossil fuel is still waning, and at the end of this candle there is toxic smoke.

Because fracking has been good for business, state governments tend to celebrate these new technologies for bringing new jobs to their regions. Usually, that line works – workers are vulnerable when unemployment is high, and people are willing to put up with extraordinary evils when politicians shout “jobs jobs jobs” enough. However, much to the chagrin of several states and their corporate patrons, local communities have started to push back.

Leading the way, right here in New Mexico, was Mora County. Mora was the first county in the United States to ban ‘fracking,’ the practice of using water pressure and chemicals to break rock and extract energy. In the case of shale gas, this leads to high methane emissions, some of the worst with respect to trapping heat in our atmosphere and accelerating global warming.

Out of concerns for its water supply, the people of Mora County did the unprecedented and said “no” to the practice, which effectively closed Mora County for business. Since then, 100 municipalities have followed suit, confronting states over who gets to regulate energy exploitation where they and their children live.

This will be a long fight, but local communities are organizing to engage the gas and oil industry, its spokespeople (Marita Noon and Paul Gessing are busy writing, no doubt), and its politicians in a fight over the policies that affect them where they live. The fight will happen in state courts to be sure, and in the political arena as well.

The passengers are revolting. Let’s hope we get control of the van in time.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Where is all this time you are counting on?

Nothing guarantees a single additional moment of this life. 

An old friend from my Providence days, about my age, began experiencing a heart attack but did not know it was a heart attack because the symptoms were not, at first, clearly recognizable as such.  The symptoms were flu-like and he assumed it was something like that until a nurse suggested it might be something else.  Good suggestion.  I'm glad to report Wayne is okay. 

One day many years ago, my teacher (Zen Master Soeng Hyang aka Bobbie Rhodes, or "Bascia" as her Polish students call her, a name she admitted she liked) woke up feeling irritable.  That's all, just irritable.  She went to her job as a hospice nurse and felt "off," literally off-balance, and she was grumbling about it to a co-worker who suggested she get examined.  The doctor did an initial examination of her and said, "I think you're having a stroke."  And she was.  They later found it was probably due to a hole in her heart, no bigger than a quarter, which no one had ever discovered.  Surprise. 

And today, we got an announcement from the Kwan Um School of Zen that one of our senior teachers -- one of Seung Sahn Sunim's old students -- has a serious medical challenge that crept on him, took him by the shoulder, and said, "Hello there." 

About 10 days ago Dae Jin Sunim wasn't feeling well. He went to a hospital to check. They saw something in his blood work and recommended a bone marrow test which was done last Friday. The preliminary results came Saturday. He probably has acute myeloid leukemia (AML), not clear yet what specific type. This is a serious form of leukemia. The specific type (there are at least three) determine the treatment course which in western medicine is chemotherapy. The lab work wont be done until tomorrow, Tuesday when they can say for sure which type he has and what they recommend.
.   .   .   .   .

His condition is quite serious but he is feeling much better since he has gotten a couple transfusions of blood. His immune system is compromised and his red blood cell count is very low. Whole thing came out of nowhere just in the last 10 days. We are getting a lot of information on alternative treatments both in Korea and the US and also combinations of alternative and western medicine together. Please chant.

The chronology of the story is a teaching in itself.   One day, healthy.  Next day, something that could easily be dismissed as flu or something else that is minor.  Or you find a little lump, something easy to miss.  And sometimes, that's the beginning of a chapter you weren't expecting to be part of your story. 

Deming Zen Center will join many zen centers in dedicated special chanting (to Kwan Seum Bosal, also known as Avalokitsvara, the bodhisattva embodying compassion) for Dae Jin Sunim.  But it's also for Wayne.  And for you and me.

Because that's the thing about time -- we order our lives around it, but it really isn't a thing we can spend well or waste; it isn't anything at all.  The time to give ourselves completely to our life is right here, right now. 

And that means I need to go read stories to two young boys who are coping with the disappointing news that it is bedtime. 

Some reading on ecological rift

This won't be a long essay on the topic.  Instead, I'm going to share some links as this matter seems to be ticking upward in various locations.

On Salon, Naomi Klein has a new interview during which she talks about green activism's embrace of corporate-centered solutions:

We now understand it’s about corporate partnerships. It’s not, “sue the bastards;” it’s, “work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.” There is no enemy anymore.

More than that, it’s casting corporations as the solution, as the willing participants and part of this solution. That’s the model that has lasted to this day.

I go back to something even like the fight over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Big Green groups, with very few exceptions, lined up in favor of NAFTA, despite the fact that their memberships were revolting, and sold the deal very aggressively to the public. That’s the model that has been globalized through the World Trade Organization, and that is responsible in many ways for the levels of soaring emissions. We’ve globalized an utterly untenable economic model of hyperconsumerism. It’s now successfully spreading across the world, and it’s killing us.

For more about this problem, I actually recommend the current issue of Monthly Review in its entirety, or at least the two front articles.  MR's editorial perspective is Marxist, and the editor in chief, John Bellamy Foster, has actually written books focusing on Marx's theory of ecological rift under advanced capitalism.  The lead article (now available to read online)  is by Foster, and analyzes the boom in production of non-conventional fossil fuels and their economic as well as political consequences.  Foster is one writer who does not shy away from the grim consequences of continued inaction, the very real risk that we will pass the 2-degree threshold that sets uncontrollable consequences and feedbacks in motion -- the boulder getting away from us and rolling downhill.  While there are still options, governments and industry seem incapable of responding to the reality that confronts us.

That segues nicely into the next article in the current MR, "The Myth of Environmental Catastrophism" by Ian Angus (and also available online).  The truth of what is taking place is a little hard to take, and those who speak about it are experiencing pushback.  Those telling the truth about our predicament, like James Hansen, who recently left NASA's Goddard Institute and is now teaching at Columbia University, and who has been very active about the consequences of carbon emissions and coal production especially.  (See his TED talk here.)  The 'catastrophism' complaint is that if you tell the truth about an emergency, it will turn people off and they will resist doing anything about it.  While on the right, this is about belittling environmental science and positing conspiracy theories, there have also been denialism and conspiracy theories on the left -- either in resistance to the economic reforms that action would require, or in some cases as a proxy fight about Marxist theory which is beside the real point.  Interesting article.

For much denser, policy-oriented reading, the United Nations 2013 Human Development Report is available online (go here for the summary) which notes the ecological cost of global production as it interacts with climate change, and the implications for the near future.

The data are ominous but what really kills us in the end is human inertia.  As Angus writes,

If a runaway train is bearing down on children, simple human solidarity dictates that anyone who sees it should shout a warning, that anyone who can should try to stop it. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with that elementary moral imperative.

And yet some do.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Bloomberg and the Invisible Rules

In a new interview for New York Magazine, New York City's outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg offers a few comments about the election campaigns underway, including the campaign to replace him, where there is a competitive Democratic primary.

The leading candidate in that primary campaign is Bill De Blasio, who has made social stratification in New York a major theme of his campaign, calling it a "tale of two cities" (one for the working class and one for the rich).  He has also made an issue of "stop and frisk" policies that heavily target non-white races for spontaneous police questioning and physical searches.  De Blasio is taking the liberal position of addressing the inequality through taxation and other progressive reforms, and curtailing "stop and frisk."

To start off, Bloomberg bizarrely accuses De Blasio of running a "racist" campaign by making appearances with his family. "It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote," he says.  But surely Bloomberg would not ask a Jewish candidate to hide their Jewishness.  Candidates, of course, are known for campaigning with their spouses and children, but in De Blasio's case it is "racist" because his wife, Chirlane McCray, is black and they have two children.  See what Bloomberg is doing there?  If De Blasio was married to a white woman, his appearances with her would seem normal and pro forma.  But his wife is dark-skinned, and so Bloomberg views these appearances with suspicion.  This is, after all, Mayor "Stop and Frisk."  The man who insists that New York has been made safer by racial profiling.  But he's not racist at all: it's that De Blasio and his afro-sporting son (who made a potent criticism about "stop and frisk" that dramatically embodies the injustice of it).

Moving on, Bloomberg repeats this reversal with respect to class struggle in New York:

...his whole campaign is that there are two different cities here. And I’ve never liked that kind of division. The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people. They are the ones that pay the bills. The people that would get very badly hurt here if you drive out the very wealthy are the people he professes to try to help. Tearing people apart with this “two cities” thing doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a destructive strategy for those you want to help the most. He’s a very populist, very left-wing guy, but this city is not two groups, and if to some extent it is, it’s one group paying for services for the other. 
See what he's doing?  The guy who talks about the reality of class division is accused of causing the division -- by talking about it.  It's like accusing scientists of making up climate change -- oh right, that happened, too.  The taboo against talking about class and power in our society has loosened considerably -- thanks in no small part to the Occupy movements of 2011-2.  (A movement Mayor Bloomberg worked very hard to crush using police brutality.) 

The invisibility of class power was key to suppressing discussion of it.  Instead, the dominant ideology has been just as Bloomberg states it earlier in this interview:

If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.
Who’s paying our taxes? We pay the highest school costs in the country. It comes from the wealthy! We have an $8.5 billion budget for our Police Department. We’re the safest big city in the country—stop me when you get bored with this! Life expectancy is higher here than in the rest of the country—who’s paying for that? We want these people to come here, and it’s not our job to say that they’re over- or underpaid. I might not pay them the same thing if it was my company—maybe I’d pay them more, I don’t know. All I know is from the city’s point of view, we want these people, and why criticize them? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?

There was, not long ago, a time when politicians would disguise this sentiment because the class bias would seem too overt.  But Bloomberg asserts the ideology quite earnestly:  the wealthy minority are the benefactors of society.  If working people continue to work hard all their lives and refrain from demanding higher wages and better working conditions or a more equitable society, then the minority will continue to be successful.

That's the order of things.  The mass of people work extremely hard all their lives, sacrificing financial security and quality of life and even the environment that sustains their life, so that a few 'benefactors' may live in opulence.   It is a curious arrangement, isn't it?  With the concentrated wealth comes political power, social status, and cultural prestige.

In order to preserve this arrangement, reformers who make an issue of class disparity are accused of "class warfare."  In this interview, the first assertion that De Blasio is running "a class-warfare campaign" comes from the interviewer, Chris Smith. The press helps maintain the social order by enforcing certain rules of discourse.

And so the interview continues, with Bloomberg minimizing the inequity or letting it remain invisible.  He claims the number of private sector jobs has gone up, ignoring the issues of falling wages, wage theft, and financial insecurity.  He chastises readers concerned about the working poor and the vanishing middle that compared to the rest of the world, our poor people are doing great.    More apartments have air conditioning now!  But never mind that it is harder than ever to afford the rent.  And he leaves invisible the structure of class power itself.

What is fascinating about this for me (and why I continue to subject readers of this blog to these little essays) is the invisibility of these rules.  When Bloomberg states that he doesn't think he has changed much from when he was a young man cooking his own meals (before he became a billionaire), I believe he believes that.   I believe that on an emotional level, he really does believe the gospel of trickle-down economics -- that society prospers if we all do what we can to make the rich even richer.

Most people still accept this as a natural order of things, not as a state of affairs created by human beings.  Many people don't see these rules or examine them at all.  It is a repressive order, and to a vast extent it is enforced from within our consciousness.  That's fascinating.

And this interview demonstrates how the media participates in maintaining this dream.  Although, on the surface, Smith challenges Bloomberg, he actually doesn't question Bloomberg on an ideological basis.  The basic premises of the ruling structure are maintained.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

On Mission Creep and Strength

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations voted 10-7 to approve a resolution authorizing military action against Syria.  The language was a bit narrower than what the president would have liked, but the resolution (which you can read for yourself here) gives the president wide latitude and also includes amended language insisted upon by Senator McCain that significantly changes the policy from what the public was initially promised.  The president spoke only of sending a message, a "shot across the bow," that would not determine the end of the civil war, target Assad, or aim at regime change.

The resolution coming out of that committee, the resolution the Senate will vote on, says: "It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favourable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria."

In other words, regime change. 

Sure enough, mission creep: a policy that, once in motion, expands beyond the original scope proposed in defense of that policy. In foreign policy, it is all too common.

Just so we're clear:  not only are we unable to calculate the consequences of military action in Syria, we are getting contradictory messages about the scope of the mission itself.

Because it might not be mission creep after all.  Maybe this has really been the point.  In the spirit of "compromise" we get the real policy, in the guise of a representative process.

If this was sincerely about upholding international law, it would be more appropriate for this to be a diplomatic struggle, isolating Russia and China, highlighting the abuse of the Security Council veto, and calling for a multilateral and accountable process.  Wouldn't that be interesting?  

Every poll indicates that the public does not favor unilateral military action in Syria, and things are not looking good in the House of Representatives.  Some of this, no doubt, is craven: there are many in the majority Republican Party who are opposed to anything Barack Obama supports, no matter what.  There also seems to be an inter-party argument between neoconservatives who never see a problem they can't solve with cruise missiles, and those with a more isolationist pose.  (As I suspect it is mostly a pose.)

Is it significant that the policy being debated and voted on is significantly different than what the president proposed to the public?  Is there any point in tearing apart the Secretary of State's ridiculous claim that bombing a country that has not attacked us would not be "war in a classic sense?"  Was Senator Rand Paul basically right when he suggested this debate in Congress was simply theatre?   A lot of us on this side of the power gulf feel like it is theatre, and that the political establishment is just doing what it wants with respect to trade agreements, military action, monetary policy, labor laws, and the general expansion of neoliberal capitalism.

Now we get into popular ideas about weakness and strength.

When asked directly if the president would proceed to launch Tomahawks even if Congress rebukes his policy, and public opinion remains lopsidedly opposed, the Secretary of State does not answer directly, nor does any White House spokesman. Some members are openly calling for the president to act regardless of how Congress votes lest he seem "weak" -- and there are even claims that opening this up to a deliberative process was already a sign of weakness. 

The gulf between our political establishment and the public interest is not news to anyone.  What is the new is the extent to which that establishment openly disparages a deliberative process that involves listening.  Working in cooperation with other countries is weak.  Respecting international law instead of using force at will, is weak.  We are prompted to celebrate certainty and despise contemplation.  We have candidate debates that are not really debates.  We have a president in Russia right now who refuses to meet with the Russian president, the very man preventing a truly international response the president claims to want -- because talking is held to be weak.

Maybe it falls on cultural workers, in whatever part of the media spectrum we can influence, to uphold different ideas about strength.  

This morning, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico -- one of my U.S. senators, as a matter of fact, and a member of that foreign relations committee -- was interviewed on National Public Radio.  Senator Udall voted "no" on the resolution. Asked about non-military options, he stammered a bit, but he also presented a rare contradiction of the rhetoric we're hearing about "America's credibility" and this idea about strength and leadership:

I think we gain credibility when we work with our international allies, when we build international support, when we focus in on Russia and China and shame them and say these two countries are supporting the use of chemical weapons, and we all need to unite and come up with a solution that brings this despicable war criminal to justice and moves us towards a more peaceful region.

History during my lifetime leaves me skeptical that the political establishment is interested in the public interest or "justice" in any accountable sense, but here on our side of the power gulf maybe we can resist -- with letters, tweets, our art, our conversation, and even our industry if and when they start sending our young people off to another unnecessary war -- and consciously uphold a culture that esteems knowledge, debate, and cooperation.

Because in a culture that considers those things "weak" and encourages leaving the difficult choices up for strong and willful leaders, fewer and fewer people can hold the idea that a different kind of power structure is even possible.

And THAT, dear friends, is a sentiment the political establishment hates.

[Image:  "You.....complete me."]

Backstage video: GREATER TUNA costumes

Greater Tuna is a big job for a costume designer, and for the actors it is all about the costume changes.  What goes on backstage is perhaps equally precise and critical to the show's success as what happens onstage.

Danny Wade, our light and sound operator, made a cool "behind the scenes" video lasting about four minutes.  It gives a glimpse of what it's like backstage during our show, with narration by the two actors: David Reyes and yours truly.  Enjoy: