Friday, May 29, 2009

A world waiting for the synergies

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Let's see... There is North Korea, Israel/Palestine, Iran, Af-Pak... and don't forget Iraq, and this flu thing... that hasn't gone away either... Oh, yes, and the economy... "green shoots", some say, others say we are in for a long haul.

Any of these problems, would be a plateful for any US administration that I can remember, all together they give me the feeling of a chaos that I have often read about in history books, but have never personally experienced before.

For the moment it's a quiet sort of chaos, a bit like the ruinous aftermath of some all night party in a rented room: cigarette burns on the rug, cigarette butts in the half-empty glasses, cigarettes stubbed out in plates of half-eaten food; unfortunately none of them still smokable... all viewed in dawn light with a queasy stomach and a mouth that tastes like the bottom of a parrot's cage. Certain things are better not mixed... if only one could remember what they were. For the moment, basically nothing a good puke and a cup of black coffee wouldn't cure or at least greatly improve.

But, unlike the rented room of metaphor, the world today is dreadfully dangerous.

Just the possible, random, synergies that all these different problems we face might evolve among themselves are staggering: a deadly flu in the Gaza rabbit warren, a war between the Koreas with the US army as a hostage, an Israeli attack on Iran and the Chinese selling their dollars. All of these things are possible and none of them terribly improbable. In fact they might all occur at once.

Changing metaphors, the world situation today reminds me of a forest in a dry, hot, summer after a lush and verdant spring. Everything is beautiful, but bone dry; anything: a campfire, haystack lightning, sunlight through the bottom of a broken bottle, and most certainly the ministrations of a pyromaniac, and soon it could all be black, burned out and smoldering.

Without a doubt, if next year at this time everything has muddled through and shambled along and as they say in Spanish, "the blood hasn't made it to the river yet"; and a chain of tragedies has not transpired, then we will be able to say that, indeed, we are one of the luckiest groups of men and women to ever have inhabited this planet. DS

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trashing the American Dream... a dream at a time

Three Iowa farm boys about the time of the First World War.
(From left to right, the future superintendent of a large school district, a farm dog named, "Cap'n", the future Chief Operating Officer of Illinois Bell Telephone and my dad, "the babe" who went on to run a large chain of sporting goods stores and about twenty rug mills).
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I read the following yesterday:

Here’s a staggering statistic: According to the Education Trust, the U.S. is the only industrialized country in which young people are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school. Bob Herbert - New York Times
I showed the paragraph to my German wife and she said, "that's the classic way of perpetuating a class structure in a traditional society." That, perpetuating a class structure, is, of course, precisely what the United State is not supposed to be about.

What is it supposed to be about?

Let me tell you a story.

With Obama's primary win there and the legalization of gay marriage a number of people may have been surprised to learn that Iowa is a "progressive" state.

It goes a lot farther back.

During the Civil War, a company of Iowa soldiers were captured by the Confederates. With the captured Iowans standing in formation, the rebel officer in charge ordered all the Iowans who knew how to read and write to take a step forward. The entire company took a step forward and the Confederates guarding them nearly panicked and shot them down, thinking that the Iowans were attacking them, because in a group of southern soldiers of that period, only perhaps ten out of a hundred would have stepped forward.

Iowa always has had good public schools. In a state of family farms and small businesses, education has always been seen as essential to prosperity and freedom.

An example from my family lore.

When my grandparents got married, they didn't have enough money saved to buy a farm, so my grandfather got a job running the dynamo at a gold mine in the jungles of Northern California named "The Sunny South".

As soon as they were married, my grandfather and his petite bride headed west. My two uncles were born in the mining camp. When my eldest uncle tried to find the mine in the 1950s, he and a local guide spent two weeks tramping around the dense temperate jungle of Placer County California using military maps and could find no more than some old wooden sluices hanging high in the trees.

Having made very good money for several years and with nowhere to spend it, my grandparents had saved up enough to buy a good farm. So with two baby boys in tow they went back to Iowa and bought the farm where my dad was born a few years later.

Happy ending? Not exactly.

For most Americans the great depression began in 1929, but for American farmers it had been going on for a long time. On my grandfather's farm there was a literal cornucopia of food: pork chops, bacon, corn on the cob, potatoes, tomatoes and gallons of strawberries drenched in fresh cream... but no cash money. My grandfather was lucky enough to stay out of debt, a dreamed of Christmas present for a little farm boy in those days might be a jackknife... with only one broken blade.

My father and my uncles went to a "little red schoolhouse", where they learned to memorize and recite speeches from Shakespeare and poems by Longfellow, to spell correctly and to do arithmetic. Later they went to the town high school and even learned Latin, a dead language, whose possibilities cannot be fully savored until you have heard it pronounced with an Iowa twang.

On graduating from high school they attended university at Iowa State in Ames.

This was all free.

Without going on and on, sufficient to say that my eldest uncle after graduating in electrical engineering was able to go on to be first, the financial vice president of Illinois Bell Telephone (when that was the only telephone company there was) and finally retire as the Chief Operating Officer of "Mother Bell". He also found time to be the president of Cook County Boy Scouts, (he was an Eagle Scout) and to found a small college.

If he had been born in Alabama, he probably would have ended up running a filling station and "speaking in tongues".

This, for me, is what America was supposed to be about.

How did America get where it is today? Spending half the taxes it collects on the military, fighting useless wars, while class divisions are hardening due to lack of education and health care.

During the primary campaign, Hillary Clinton made an interesting point when she said that Martin Luther King needed LBJ to change the face of America. What I don't remember her pointing out was that LBJ needed Martin Luther King just as much as King needed him.

LBJ was probably the only genuine social democrat to ever sit in the White House, but without the charisma of MLK and his struggle, Johnson could never have gotten wide enough support to pass his civil rights legislation, which he passed knowing that it would cost the Democrats the "solid South". We are talking about two men, King and Johnson, that had big, brass, balls. This is how change takes place, better believe it.

Many seem to think that voting for Barack Obama was "one stop shopping", Johnson and King rolled into one. That dog wont hunt.

Just for argument's sake, let us imagine that president Obama is as committed to helping the disadvantaged in America as Johnson was and willing to take the risks to do it that Johnson was: this requires a good imagination when talking about a "pragmatic centrist", but let's take it as given.

OK, so where is Obama's "Martin Luther King" to hold his feet to the fire, to build the public support in the street?

Without effective activism outside the party system, nothing is going to happen and stories like my uncle's will soon be like the tales of Daniel Boone or Johnny Appleseed. DS

Friday, May 22, 2009

Spanish Note on the New York Terrorist plot

David Seaton's News Links
Despite decades of terrorist violence, Spanish police would not have been permitted to do what the FBI has done in New York.

Spain has been suffering terrorism for over thirty years and some of the most violent terrorism occurred while the country was trying to create a democracy after forty years of fascist dictatorship.

Perhaps because of the experience of fascism: torture, beatings, anonymous informers, etc, today's Spanish legal system is very punctilious in guaranteeing the rights of the accused.

In Spain "sting" operations are forbidden. Evidence procured by
agents provocateurs would not be admissible in court.

It looks like the FBI, posing as Pakistani Al Qaeda talked a pitiful group of intellectually challenged petty street criminals into parking what they
thought was a car full of explosives in front of a synagogue. The non-explosives were thoughtfully supplied by the FBI.

After parking the cars full of popcorn in front of the synagogue this gang of idiots was arrested while leaving the scene of the crime and their massive plot foiled. The FBI says these poor fools have no contacts whatsoever with any other terrorist groups anywhere. How could they when the only "terrorists" they ever met in their lives are the FBI agents who gave them the non-explosives?

In short, these men are going to go back to jail for many years
because of their bad intentions, because, at worst, parking a harmless car in front of a synagogue is a parking violation not a felony. This is as if you said to me, "I really hate john over there!", and I handed you a water pistol and said, "Snuff the sunuvabitch!" and you squirted him with water and got sent up for attempted murder.

You could say that the role of the FBI here was literally "satanic", deliberately leading weak minded men "into temptation" and then betraying them. If the FBI hadn't intervened these people would have probably never got beyond mugging old ladies for their social security checks in all their lives. If people can go to jail for their bad thoughts, no wonder the USA has the world's largest prison population.

It would be interesting to know how much it cost the US treasury to set up and entrap this bunch of hopeless turkeys. DS

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who are they trying to kid? Just about everyone I think.

Netanyahu avoided publicly committing himself to accepting an independent Palestinian state as the outcome of peace negotiations. Instead, he spoke of “self-government” for the Palestinians and laid down what sounded like a new precondition: The Palestinians would have to “allow Israel the means to defend itself.”

What Netanyahu apparently means by that is a Palestinian state minus the means to defend itself, or to control its airspace, or its international passageways. Not unreasonable concerns given Israel’s experience with Gaza, but to put forward such requirements at the outset looks more like a well-practiced Netanyahu negotiating tactic: Raise the bar as high as possible and require the United States to lift the Palestinians over it before he has to make any concessions. Martin Indyk - The Daily Beast

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It would seem that the Obama administration's goal is to create a "Palestinian State" that would be a giant Gaza: an Israeli prison camp, where the inmates would run the day to day affairs of the camp. In exchange for this Israel would have friendly relations with the Arab world and all of the mad mullahs of Iran's evil schemes would be forever foiled. We are led to believe that to achieve this wonderland Israel would have to make many of what Ariel Sharon used to call, "painful concessions".

Just as a hypothesis, mind you, let us assume for a minute that all of this is just so much bullshit, a good cop, bad cop pantomime.

I am playing with the possibility that not only is Barack Obama much more intelligent than George W. Bush, he may even be much more cynical than Bill Clinton, if this is possible. If you except that as a hypothesis then everything else falls neatly into place pretty fast.

Because if Barack Obama and Netanyahu had quickly emerged from the White House arm in arm and had announced that they had just agreed to a token settlement freeze, (not a dismantling) followed by the creation of this concentration camp cum Bantustan, without control of its borders or its airspace, then I think people might have noticed what a shafting the Palestinians. were getting. Something even more humiliating than Clinton's Camp David, Teba farce of 2000. If that was painting lipstick on a pig this would be a full porcine rhytidectomy.

Of course now Obama will have to be seen twisting Bibi's arm and Bibi will be pounding the mat in pain... just like the wrestlers on "Friday Night SmackDown".

If this live action has its desired effect, the "international community" will hurry to stiffen the sanctions on Iran and cease the UN investigation of Israeli war crimes in Gaza and put even more pressure on the Palestinians and eliminate further speculation on a "one state solution" and the end of apartheid.

Of course this farce could be dismantled by only one woman wearing an explosive belt in an Israeli supermarket, bus or movie theater... or something worse... and then everyone would understand that Israel doesn't have a "partner for peace," thus letting Israel play for more time and Obama receive full points for trying so hard.

There are no lack of willing young ladies and laddies ready to try this sort of thing, and all it takes for one of them to get through is for someone previously informed to look the other way. Oh and if Iran could be linked to it even better.

My bullshit meter's needle is really pushing off the dial on this one. DS

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Inside Baseball

David Seaton's News Links
More "show and tell".

This time I discovered that making a video during rush hour, when you live on a busy street in the financial district, one that is also being repaired, can lead to a certain degradation of sound quality. I sweated with the editing program to improve the sound, but this was the best I could do. Sorry.

The idea of the video commentary is that the ball is in the court of America's progressives and if they want any results: health care, peace etc, they must put the same pressure on Obama as they tried to put on Bush. Obama being an intelligent "pragmatist" will bend to that pressure unlike Bush, who was a stubborn, ignorant fanatic.

If the left doesn't pressure Obama he, like a good pragmatist, will bend to the pressure of the right. DS

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Obama the "pragmatic conservative"

The last "pragmatic conservative" president of the USA
(whose mother also came from Kansas)

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Thus wrote the Sicilian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in The Leopard. This seems to me the guiding principle of the Obama presidency. To me, he is a pragmatic conservative, albeit one responding to extraordinary times. Martin Wolf - Financial Times
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If you grew up during the Cold War you probably miss its paranoiac stability. Living on the edge of the atomic abyss, in the shadow of Armageddon, our world was simple and prosperous.

Checks appeared magically in American Express offices around the world as we, the young, free and furry hitchhiked fearlessly around countries which are today's "failed states".

AIDS and strange forms of hepatitis hadn't yet come into existence and as Pedro Almodovar once said, "in those days all love could give you was a broken heart". Alas.

Who would have predicted when the wall fell what a dystopia was awaiting us only twenty years later.

What makes our world so difficult to read today is that it is one of transition. We are going from somewhere familiar to somewhere unknown.

Since the late 1980s that stable Cold War world has been slowly falling apart. The left had its world crash around its ears in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall.

Now it's the right's turn.

It is a tribute to the powerful inertia of that era, to its paranoiac stability, that it is only now, with this global economic crisis in full swing, when we are finally fully conscious that the world we knew is all gone, never to return: that all its hoary paradigms are so much un-recyclable mind trash: that Reagan and Thatcher are both as dead as Brezhnev and Gorbachev.

No matter how brilliant Barack Obama is or will be, it will be nearly impossible for him to be as transformational as George W. Bush was. The people who pulled Bush's strings were truly radical, they wanted to transform the world, turn it inside out. They did... just not the way they wanted to... or... who knows?

Obama on the other hand, as the Financial Times' chief economist, Martin Wolf points out, is a not a radical, he is a "pragmatic conservative". He wants to change things so that they "stay the same".

Right now on his performance, s
ince being elected, he reminds me (laugh all you want) of Eisenhower. The same idea of now everything is going to be alright because there is a grown up in charge.

Since Barack Obama is, in fact, very intelligent, (so was Eisenhower for that matter) he may discover that this won't be enough... before it is too late. DS

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stuff happens

Mark Zuber, a parent of a child at Big Sky High School in Missoula, had a stronger reaction when a teacher showed the video to his daughter last year. “There was not one positive thing about capitalism in the whole thing,” Mr. Zuber said. New York Times
David Seaton's News Links
I stumbled onto this film in yesterday's New York Times and was amazed by it's incredible coherence and power of synthesis. Here, take a look at it.

Annie Leonard presents "The Story of Stuff"

Now, what amazes me and, as a child of 1950s America, pleases me even more, is that this film is a viral hit all over the USA... because the parent in Montana that complained that the message of the film is anticapitalist is absolutely right... it certainly is anticapitalist.

In fact this video is one of the shortest, clearest, encapsulated and most brutally lucid devastations of capitalism since Marx and Engels whipped out the "Communist Manifesto" way back in 1848.

Again, let me emphasize that more than its exceptional brilliance of exposition, I am impressed by its wide success and acceptance.
So far, six million people have viewed the film at its site,, and millions more have seen it on YouTube. More than 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a DVD version, and hundreds of teachers have written Ms. Leonard to say they have assigned students to view it on the Web. New York Times
You can see why the right wing is constantly making fun of ecology, global warming and the plight of baby seals and polar bears etc. They can see the writing on the wall. Environmentalism is the wedge that is opening people's consciousness and creating a mass movement of a new and oppressed social class, which I would call "the breathing class". Because, yes, breathing has finally come into contradiction with our economic system.

Now, I have no doubt that there are many among the good and the great that manage our affairs and guide our destinies who would rather make money than breathe and I wonder and shudder to think what mischief they are going to come up with to put a stop to all this nonsense. DS

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Playing show and tell

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My wife and I bought a "HandyCam" the other day to use putting live footage into some animations of her work that we are planning to do.

Anyway, I'm just testing the camera, learning how to work it. So this morning I set it up on a tripod in my wife's studio where the morning light is very beautiful, thinking to film the walls with the paintings hanging there for use as cut away shots later. On impulse, I turned it on and sat down in front of it. I had nothing prepared to talk about, so I began to natter on about the stuff I've been writing about the last few days.

A couple of years ago I did quite a lot of radio, and it turned out pretty well, so I thought "lets see how I look on TV". I'm amazed at how many tics I have: wiping my nose and scratching my ears and so on. Also my lady says that I look fierce and tragic as if somebody had "stolen my Social Security check "(that's a sample of Berliner humor BTW).

I'm happier with it toward the end when I loosened up a bit more. I'm hanging it here in the hopes of getting some (sigh) "constructive" criticism. Oh well. DS

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

This is where I came in

Tony Benn from Michael Moore's film "Sicko"
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When I was a kid I would go to movie theaters where they had these all day double features playing; you could come in any time in the middle of one of the movies and stay as long as you wanted to, see the next feature and then see the beginning of the film that you came into half way through.

It was in these movie theaters where the phrase, "this is where we came in" entered the English language.

One special characteristic of these movie houses was how the ushers would start opening the curtains and exit doors and spraying disinfectant etc in the middle of the most climactic scenes of the film, like when the villain gets killed and the boy gets the girl, because the ushers had seen the movie so many times that they knew when the end was coming: they knew the plot inside out, When you heard them rustling around, you knew the movie was almost over.

Most of what I'm reading lately makes me feel like one of those all day movie ushers.

These days, anyone who grew up with Vietnam gets acid flashbacks observing America's progression in "AfPak", which is the new acronym for "Afghanistan plus Pakistan".

As a general rule of thumb I have observed that when any complex situation, one filled with history and nuances, gets an American acronym such as "AfPak", disaster is not far off.

It is difficult to write about this because it is all so tedious, as the USA stumbles from disaster to disaster. You can imagine the usher coming home from work, kicking off his shoes, pouring himself a drink only to have his wife ask him, "what is this week's film about dear?". Like that.

What holds true for AfPak also holds true for the Middle East, especially trying to put serious pressure on the Israelis in order to create something as inherently unstable as a Palestinian Bantustan, as if imprisoning the Palestinians in some sort of giant Gaza without even a real army or an air force were going to be the "game changer" that would ever disarm Iran and make the Israelis welcome inhabitants of the Muslim world.

Talk about your dèjá vu!

Back in
1964 LBJ won the presidency by a historic landslide against Barry "in your heart you know he's nuts" Goldwater the granddaddy of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Dubya too, of course.

Johnson had ambitious plans for an American version of social democracy, which he called "The Great Society". Because of the Vietnam war's massive expense he was forced to attempt a "guns and butter policy" and try to fight the war and extend social benefits at the same time.

In those days, unlike the present, the USA not only had a lot of guns, it had a lot of butter too. He might have pulled it off but North Vietnam was too tough a nut to crack and the American people, finally sickened of the war and of Johnson too, and he was followed by Richard Nixon who ended the war and also discovered that a majority of southern whites hated black people more than they cared for the health or education of their own children... That ended "The Great Society".

AfPak? Iraq, Iran? Israel?

I'm feeling like one of those movie theater ushers I knew as a kid, opening the doors and spraying the flit... I know how this film ends.

On Sunday I saw Michael Moore's heartrending film "Sicko", which finally got released in Spain.

Living in a country with socialized medicine, the film gave me the same mixture of relief and guilt that the American expats in France and England expressed in Moore's film. How free we are over here from the anxiety that eats at most Americans, especially in times of economic trouble.

What a difference it would make to the quality of American's lives, even to the quality of wealthy people's lives, if no American ever had to worry about himself or a loved one suffering or dying for lack of good medical care!

I think what the American system wants is for Americans to ceaselessly "pursue" happiness, but never to actually "be" happy. As the British Labour Party's grand old man,
Tony Benn points out in Moore's film, "an educated, healthy and confident population is harder to govern". Seen under this light the benefits of America's deteriorating education, precarious health care and "Long War" are obvious.

Both meddling in the internal affairs of Pakistan and crossing swords with America's powerful Jewish lobby can, each, separately or together, quickly derail the Democrats social agenda. Neither stirring the wasp nest of Pakistan or going to war with AIPAC have much or any hope of success, but both have the potential to expend political capital for nothing.

It reminds me of when Bush got (re?) elected and said that he had "political capital" and was going to "spend" it trying to "reform" the Social Security system. Like Israel, Social Security is one of American politics' "third rails"... it was all down hill for Bush from there. That is what happens when political capital is squandered frivolously. In Bush's case it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy and his running out of political capital probably saved America and the world from even more grief.

However, at this moment we are looking at a president with huge political capital who has given a rather clear indication that he wants universal health care on something like the European or Canadian model and to reform the educational system, again on something similar to the European model, where a first class education up through university is denied to no one because of an inability to pay. These are reforms that, if effected would change the face of America and lead to what Tony Benn is talking about when he calls for
an "educated, healthy and confident population".

In two years time, when the Democrat's majority will next be tested, the wars will no longer be Bush's wars, the flagging economy will no longer be Bush' economy, They will by then belong to the Democrats and the way those things are going, they could easily take a drubbing at the polls.

Therefore, the way the wars and the economy are going and will probably go, any social legislation that isn't passed before the midterm elections stands a very good chance of never getting passed. A unique opportunity will have been unforgivably lost. DS